Should I stay, or should I go?

“You’ll be making me out a liar in a few minutes, mum, but we’ve been talking recently about maybe it’s time to move into a home, haven’t we?”

“Have we? I’m quite happy where I am.”

My brother looked at me and shrugged. “This is the problem.”

Over the next few minutes it transpired that mum had in fact herself brought up the business of perhaps moving out of her home. In her more lucid moments she knows that things cannot stay as they are for ever. There have been several recent incidents that seem to reinforce the wisdom of her thoughts on the matter. She’s lost a couple of keys lately, but unfortunately after she’d locked herself in for the night. Had there been a fire, the consequences would not bear thinking about. She is also not eating as regularly, or perhaps as well, as she should. In her own mind, it seems, it’s company that she most craves. She talked about the ease with which her friends could still visit her if she went “next door” to the care home that she already knows well. She would have more people to talk to, she mused.

“Oh, I know we have talked about it”, she went on, contradicting her denial of a mere two minutes before. “But I’m quite happy where I am. Although, if you said it was for the best, then I’d obviously go next door. I know you would never give me bad advice.”

As my brother said, this does not really make it any better. In fact, it makes it a great deal worse. Mum flits seamlessly between denial and compliance, as likely to tell us off for talking about her rather than to her as she is to wax eloquent about her wonderful sons that always know, and do, what’s best. As we edge closer to the fateful decision, the last thing we want to hear is that she’ll do whatever we want. Largely because we don’t want. We don’t want her to lose her independence. We don’t want her to burn to death because she’s lost the key. We don’t want her to neglect to eat. We don’t want her to be lonely. And perhaps most of all, if we’re honest, we don’t want it to be our fault. It’s a responsibility we’d rather not have to bear.

But that isn’t the point, and we can’t evade this decision. And we know, eventually, that it will be ours, and not hers. It doesn’t have to be yet. It will, however, have to be soon.

Mum doesn’t know if she should stay, or if she should go. Whether she should trade her home and her identity for a bit of company, and, as I might say to my board, better managed risks. Frankly, nor do we. It’s an unenviable choice.


There’s no right to be offended, but perhaps there’s no right to offend either

Many in the Islamic world are up in arms again. The American video is now followed by cartoons in a French satirical magazine, the BBC reports. France is taking precautions at its embassies and schools in Muslim countries. We’ve been here before, and will doubtless be visiting the same territory in future. In the meantime more innocent people will lose their lives.

The principles at stake are crystal clear. In contrast, the practical way forward is about as opaque as it’s possible to imagine. So let’s start with the easy bit, and establish the principles. I have a right to practise my religion without interference or constraint, other than where such practice abuses the rights of others. So no, I can’t freely practise my religion if that religion leads me to murder (as in the recent cases of “demonic possession”) for example, but if I want to waft incense around the place it’s no business of yours. I have the right to ask that my beliefs are accorded respect, but I have no right to demand that they are. I have no right whatsoever to demand of those who do not share my religious convictions, anything at all. I most certainly do not have the right to kill and maim those who profane my beliefs no matter how hurtful I might find that profanity. Whether the Islamic world likes it or not, it seems to me that these principles are inviolate.

So what should happen in practice? This is much more difficult. It’s tempting to elevate all matters of principle to the same level. The principle of free speech may seem to be so basic that every attempt to constrain it should be fought tooth and nail. But if, in pursuing my right to free expression, I have reason to believe that innocent people may well be brutally killed, should that give me pause? If people die because of the cartoons in that French magazine, notwithstanding that ultimate responsibility must lie with those who kill, and not with those who “provoked” the killing, is it sufficient to say that those deaths are merely an unfortunate collateral damage sustained in the fight for the assertion of freedom of expression?

I am in no doubt that a magazine in a free country should have the untrammelled right to publish any cartoon it bloody well likes, to include images of the Prophet Mohammed notwithstanding the views of those who think such a thing a blasphemy, and the devil take the hindmost. But I’m not at all sure that asserting that right is worth a single drop of other people’s blood. If I want to make a stand, I should make it at my expense. It’s all a bit too easy to make a stand when other people are going to pay the price, and pay it with their lives.

Kate and I make a clean breast of it

Regular readers – if indeed there are any such – will have noticed that my muse has been somewhat muted of late. Whether this has been primarily the result of a decrease in inspiration, or an increase in indolence, I’m not even sure myself. But having cleansed my own breast in this rather public manner, I move smartly on to the altogether more interesting, and substantially more publicly exposed, breast of the Duchess of Cambridge. In this context breast is serving as a collective noun since I am given to understand that both of the Duchess’s breasts have been equally subject to the purview of French magazine readers and, now I gather, Italian ones too.

I have not had the pleasure myself since Kate’s breasts have not proved sufficiently inspiring – unless I am merely too indolent – to prompt me to undertake the web-searching that would by now I am sure have revealed them in all their glory. I would not make a very good tabloid customer because I really can’t be arsed.

So I am not in a position, nor have I the slightest interest so to do, to offer my readers any critical assessment of the mammary glands in question. My interest is piqued not by the accoutrements themselves, but by the surrounding debate about privacy, privilege, the law, and the use of a very long lens. This probably says more about my abnormal arousal processes than I’d care to admit, but so be it.

The key issue of principle here, it seems to me, is whether an individual’s right to privacy is absolute, or relative. If such a right is absolute, then it’s easy enough to conclude that the Duchess of Cambridge’s privacy has been comprehensively traduced. Her breasts are her private property as it were, and if she chooses to expose them in a place that she reasonably presumed to be private, then she should not expect to see them plastered across the French media. This is a simple position to take up, and a seductively attractive one – if I might be permitted to use such a metaphorical expression so close to the literal truth in this particular case.

But is privacy absolute? Clearly it isn’t, since, for example, we would not accept privacy as an argument against exposing someone’s criminal acts. Kate’s decision to dispense with her bra is obviously not a criminal act (even if it seems to have proved an unwise one) but once we have accepted, as indeed we must, that privacy is not an absolute right we are entitled to ask whether there are other circumstances that might override her right to privacy, or at least dilute it.

I suspect that there are. The Duchess and her husband enjoy a very privileged lifestyle that is largely at the expense of the rest of us. It’s ironic that the French beneficiaries (if that is what they are – I reiterate that I am not able to vouch for the quality of their good fortune) have not been paying for the Cambridge’s luxurious holiday arrangements, but I’m not sure that’s a relevant consideration. If my wife were to decide that what her breasts most needed was a little holiday sunshine in our back garden, and a French photographer were to train his 500mm lens on her, then I think no-one would have much difficulty in deciding that her privacy had been breached, and wrongly so. But the Duchess of Cambridge is not my wife – an observation you might think it unnecessary for me to make, but you know what I mean. My wife is a private citizen, and her back garden is not provided out of the civil list. The Duchess of Cambridge is not a private citizen, and her back garden – or holiday arrangements – is indeed paid for by others. Being a public person brings not only benefits, but also risks, in its wake. If you want to luxuriate in the former, perhaps you must also accept the perils of the latter.

So does being a public person benefiting from the public purse make a difference to your right to privacy? I think it probably does. But even if it doesn’t, it certainly makes me, for one, unlikely to lose much sleep over that right’s infringement. Swings and roundabouts, my dear Kate, swings and roundabouts.