Back to the Future

This Friday, Pesach, or Passover begins. Jews all over the world celebrate the Exodus with eight days (seven in Israel) of holiday.

This from a simplified version…

As told in the Bible, after many decades of slavery to the Egyptian pharaohs, during which time the Israelites were subjected to backbreaking labor and unbearable horrors, G‑d saw the people’s distress and sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message: “Send forth My people, so that they may serve Me.” But despite numerous warnings, Pharaoh refused to heed G‑d’s command. G‑d then sent upon Egypt ten devastating plagues, afflicting them and destroying everything from their livestock to their crops.

At the stroke of midnight of 15 Nissan in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE), G‑d visited the last of the ten plagues on the Egyptians, killing all their firstborn. While doing so, G‑d spared the children of Israel, “passing over” their homes, recognisable from the blood of a slain lamb smeared on the lintels – hence the name of the holiday. Pharaoh’s resistance was broken, and he virtually chased his former slaves out of the land. The Israelites left in such a hurry, in fact, that the bread they baked as provisions for the way did not have time to rise. Six hundred thousand adult males, plus many more women and children, left Egypt on that day and began the trek to Mount Sinai and their birth as G‑d’s chosen people.

Pesach is deeply symbolic. Eating unleavened bread (matzah) commemorates the speed at which they left, bitter herbs a memorial to their slavery, four cups of wine in celebration. In ancient times the Passover observance included the sacrifice of the paschal lamb, which was roasted and eaten at the Seder or feast on the first night of the holiday. This was the case until the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE. Within the ceremony is the question put by the youngest child in the family. “Why is this night not like all other nights?” It is suggested that the question refocuses attention on what happened to obey a command that successive generations of Jews teach their children about the miraculous deliverance and that the story can thus never be forgotten.

The symbolism to the Christian community is obvious – Christ as Messiah is the paschal lamb who took upon himself the sin of the world. There is much to be said about this but again, every year at Easter, there is a looking back, a revisiting of history, a reminder, a memorial to an unvarnished past in the context of the present.

Much is made about things like revisionist history these days, where the past in terms, for example, of slavery or the treatment of women is reinterpreted in a modern, “woke” context; it is as if we want to shoehorn the present into a past which no longer fits with a rather distasteful triumphalism. How very foolish of us.

A metaphor follows us here. The last 120 or so years have been meteoric in terms of increase of knowledge; the electron – the powerhouse of the world  – having been discovered in 1897. Today, we know so much more about the building blocks and interactions of our Universe called the Standard Model. It’s all here from my science blog; I know at least one person who’ll want to look. This was IT – all nicely packaged, done and dusted. Except for gravity, of course, the thorn in the flesh. The last 124 years have been a breath in our history as a species yet with what hubris we look into the far past and celebrate as yet theoretical discoveries of the future. We send probes to the far reaches of our tiny solar system and use massively expensive colliders to take us further and further towards what Einstein called ‘the secrets of the Old One’. In so doing, we discover, like the layers of an onion, there may be more to come.

The particle physics community trembled with excitement. There might be something new on the horizon – the Beauty Particle, or quark, and, presumably, its antiparticle, optimistically named the Truth Particle, not seen since the creation of the Universe.

And yet, there is so much more that we do not know than what we do. Answers? There are none, except to look back at the past and marvel that we have come this far and accept with humility that greater visions may await us. Indeed, back to the future.

Kissing Glasgow

There’s a famous joke in Glasgow. “Hey, Jimmie, do ye know where the infirmary is? No? Then you’d better find out before ye bleed to death”. This being accompanied by a Glasgow kiss where the recipient receives the full force of the interlocutor’s head, roughly the mass of a bowling ball, on the bridge of the nose. Claret everywhere and whatever slight disagreement, say about green or blue on the football field has been forgotten amidst general hilarity.

I rather like Glasgow, grey-black and forbidding as its massive stones are. This no-mean city, famous for violence, fitba’, art and heroin, plus some fairly decent architecture, has been transformed. No longer are the drunks allowed to hold themselves up, helplessly, from lampposts in George Square, cursing everyone from the polis to the Pakis. Instead they smile behind their tartan masks and touch elbows in the Sturgeon-approved manner. Oh, are we feeling the love yet?

Scotland has become the first country in the world to abolish an emotion. Perhaps, in addition to abolishing blasphemy as well as nastiness about religion, (cognitive dissonance alert) next they will ban happiness, quickly followed by whisky, being, as it is, the root of all evil, from domestic violence to fascism.

All this because in the sunny uplands of woke the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill (Scotland), passed late last week, in which a party that has become incapable of tolerating dissent has outlawed it. The Covenanters are spinning in their graves. A “progressive” parliamentary party has legislated about what Scottish people can say to each other in the privacy of their own homes, and what they are allowed to say when they are outside them. The bill’s author and shepherd is  the Justice Minister, Yousaf Hamza, and  we’re not allowed to criticise him on two levels, first because he’s brown, a second generation Pakistani immigrant, and second because he’s in a permanent love-fest with the poison dwarf who rules the Holyrood roost. ‘Resistance’, as the Vogons memorably remarked, ‘is useless’.

This is what happens when woke gains hegemony. Imagine. You are sitting down to High Tea and Sturgeon’s tartan Stasi come knocking at the door, demanding to know whether you once said something a little bit derogatory about, say, Turkmenistanis, in front of the man who came round to read the meter. Hauled up in front of the sheriff, your excuse was that you’d eaten a bad curry the night before, whereupon a further charge of anti-Pakistani sentiment is laid at your door and you end up rolling Barlinnie skinnies for six months, while wife and family starve in the gutter.

In fairness, Scots are still allowed to hate some people. Women, for example. Not the ones who dress up as women or secrete a fully formed male organ inside their Janet Reger knickers; they are to be lauded and encouraged. No. Women who demonstrate their ability to bring forth children by using – er – tampons (am I still allowed to use the word…) are now to be universally loathed and a species called ‘womxn’ has taken their place. Tangentially and at the risk of causing foaming at the mouth, why were hundreds of members of the female gender, plus or minus the ‘x’, allowed to congregate on Clapham Common, shrieking about ‘reclaiming the street’ in contravention of COVID social distancing regulations? Short answer, they weren’t. Although we all abhor violent crime in general and ladies being abducted and murdered by complete strangers in particular, which is quite obviously worse than appalling, when does outrage trump social responsibility leading to a flouting of the law?

Also, we’re allowed, nay encouraged, to hate straight white men. Can’t stand them with their hairy chests and old-fashioned use of words like ‘responsibility’ and ‘morality’. Ghastliness such as this must now be consigned to the trashcan of history along with deer-stalker hats and shooting sticks. If I have the temerity to meekly suggest in public – or even in private with witnesses present – that it might not always be the best idea for two gentlemen – or even ladies – of the homosexual persuasion to be allowed to adopt a baby, over and above a heterosexual, upright and blameless Methodist couple, I am stoned, pilloried and spat upon in the Royal Court of Woke. I must therefore keep such noxious foul-smelling opinions to myself and may now only even think about them while sitting on the toilet.

Internecine hatred north of the Tweed is as ubiquitous as rain. In this case, perhaps the remainder of what passes for intelligent life up there will stand up, kilts and elbows akimbo, and shout ‘enough’. If not, may our auld enemy find peace in the arms of Brussels and learn about a new currency. With all speed. PS. You can keep the bagpipes.

Travel Hopeful

Palmer and Sam

I haven’t written a film review in a long time, perhaps because there haven’t been too many offerings that have really caught my attention. “JoJo Rabbit”, “The Call of the Wild”, “Little Women”; they were all memorable in their own way, not least because each had a compelling performance from lead actors. These days, I’m far less interested in the Oscars, suffocated as they have become by ego and political correctness, much more by the niche festivals like Toronto, Berlin, Venice and Sundance. From Sundance 2020 I still haven’t found a showing of the achingly tender “Minari” which I very much want to watch. It’s almost autobiographical, the fourth offering from Lee Isaac Chung, who directed, wrote the screenplay and produced it, winning the Grand Jury Prize.

But, for now, two films have caught my attention, both of which explore the interaction between adults and children.  Not since “True Grit” have I seen movies involving a deeply complex, sometimes conflicted performance from an adult paired beautifully with a child actor. Apple TV’s  “Palmer” tells the story of a former high school football star who, after twelve years in prison, returns to his grandmother’s home in small-town Louisiana. A deeply dysfunctional mother and her primary school aged child live in a trailer on the property.  Mother is a heroin addict with a part-time abusive boyfriend and she disappears for long periods, leaving the little boy alone. He is swept up by the grandmother and forms a deep, abiding bond with Justin Timberlake’s Palmer – the taciturn alpha male – with depth and intensity. What is interesting is that the little boy is gender fluid. He unselfconsciously plays with dolls, has little tea parties with a female classmate and dresses up for Hallowe’en in a Little Princess costume. Palmer is totally accepting, even when he takes the little boy to a football game and the child identifies more with the cheerleaders than the players on the field. Themes of fear of the different and responses to it perfuse the trajectory of the film – what is interesting is that the little boy is insouciantly optimistic and seems to accept the fact that he is simply not like the other kids, stoically putting up with the relentless physical and emotional bullying of both adults and his male classmates. With a quite beautiful soundtrack to support the spare, almost skeletal dialogue it all ends happily for everyone, mercifully.

Kidd and Johanna

The second is almost a Western, but not quite. Netflix’ “News of the World” is set five years after the end of the Civil War. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd (Tom Hanks) is a character lost. A veteran of three wars, he now earns a meagre living moving from town to town as a non-fiction storyteller, a newsreader in places where news is hard to come by, reading to the crowds at ten cents a time. On the plains of Texas, he crosses paths with Johanna, a ten-year-old taken in by the Kiowa people six years earlier and raised as one of their own. Helena Zengel’s performance as Johanna is nothing short of masterful. The child is fiercely hostile to a world she’s never experienced and is being returned to her biological aunt and uncle very much against her will. Kidd agrees to deliver the almost feral Johanna where the law says she belongs and his grudging acceptance of responsibility for the child is an echo of Rooster Cogburn. As they travel great distances into the unforgiving wilderness, the two face challenges, both human and natural,  as they search for a place that either can call home. Again, a feel-good happy ending. I think I prefer these; perhaps I am just getting old and (horrors) a little bit sentimental.

Comparing the adult characters, Timberlake’s is much more monochromatic, locked into a straitjacket of conformity to the suffocating strictures of the small-town culture from which he came. Hanks’ character is far more nuanced and subtle but he had a much better script to work with. Both films have a subtext of hopeful travel – a theme to which were all can respond viscerally – since we are all on some kind of journey – few of us just sit down and wait for something to turn up, perhaps because it rarely does. Life is sometimes a game of hazard, a gamble, a courageous throw of the dice. Skill, as J Meade Faulkner put it, can make something of the worst of throws. With a little bit of luck.

Revisiting…

I’d like to republish a post I wrote five years ago. under the squirmingly pretentious heading “Exalting Curiosity”. The original had a lead image of Einstein looking through a magnifying glass. I have changed the image, for obvious reasons. The original post was written pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, pre-Covid, pre pretty much everything that we have to take for granted, endure or otherwise put up with. The gentleman wearing mittens, above, was a serious contender, Donald Trump was still a mere canvasser. In the UK, Jeremy Corbyn was being exalted by the young with almost godlike adulation. Oh, yes, the world has changed, the axis of time rolls forward. The people we talk about have changed, but, have the attitudes? Some have disappeared into a black hole where people forget, others still wave tattered flags on battlefields where the conflict has long since been lost. Has intolerance and bigotry been attenuated, even wiped out, or have ideas become more and more entrenched, their swords sharper? Was the storming of the Capitol by right wing insurrectionists just a social blister that had to be excised or does it presage something much deeper within the Western psyche? Is Antifa with its Neo-Marxist agenda a present reality or a spent force? So many questions, yet without solid, comfortable answers.

People seek answers in unlikely places. I have recently closed my Twitter account since, as Matthew Syed wrote in today’s Sunday Times, there are “platoons of people (who) have been sucked into the vortex of this cesspool — individuals whose rationality has been corrupted by the deep infrastructure of this perilous age… (it is) a digital cancer whose catastrophic influence on our consciousness has yet to be fully grasped. Its algorithms are like acid, silently eating away at the fabric of how we converse, engage and grow in collective wisdom. Its influence has seeped into every medium; by proxy, into every life”. I left because its ‘hedgehoggery’ (beautiful word) was distorting my sense of reality, crushing my sense of well-being and disabling my ability to think rationally. I feel refreshed and liberated in consequence.

It seemed to me that it was worth reviewing how far, if anywhere, we had come, how much we had learned and whether any vestige of information is still relevant, five years later. Five years seems both an awfully long time on the one hand and on the other just a blip, a shrug of the shoulders of the Universe. So, here it is. I wonder how much, if anything, we have learned.

Whatever happens somewhere, happens to us all, sooner or later. Whether it was the near-miss Grexit or the Iranian nuclear deal, their consequences mean that we’re all tied together by threads of different colours and stripes. So, I’m writing this just after the weird and wonderful Donald Trump and the wonderfully weird Bernie Sanders won in New Hampshire. So many opinions. So many words. So much…money. And videos, tweets and everything.

Why am I interested in the presidential race in a country I don’t live in? Because America is a huge rolling axis of influence in the world and what happens there eventually impacts, for good or ill, what happens elsewhere. We wish that this were not the case sometimes, especially when we don’t agree, but, it’s a fact.

In a number of Western democracies, the clamour for ‘change’ has become increasingly more strident. People seem not to fear the consequences of extreme and radical shift in the same way that they used to, perhaps because they don’t understand them. In an age of brevity, complex thinking is reduced to 140 characters, believably brief mantras that people take as their own and rally round.

In the UK, a radical left-wing opposition leader has harnessed the emotional energies and idealistic fervour of the young, pulling many towards what he sees as a more egalitarian form of democracy. I’d be interested to hear him speak. Similarly, in the US, a septuagenarian with a forty year old political agenda has been leading the charge for a new kind of government where Washington’s bureaucrats and Wall Street cannot use their power to determine outcomes and the kids are behind him. On the other side, a billionaire businessman with almost zero political experience has suggested a quite different agenda, the only thing that they have in common is the fact that both of them are advocating radical, seismic change whose consequences are cloudy at best.

An American actor was criticised with undeserved venom the other day for attending a Ted Cruz rally. His critics mistook curiosity for support which is precisely the kind of knee-jerk foolishness that ensures the wrong people end up in positions of power. He said:

If you can’t stand to listen to an idea, it does not prove that you oppose it. Refusing to show interest in a different perspective should not serve as a badge of pride in your own ideas. It actually serves the exact opposite function. It proves that you don’t even understand your own opinion. If you can’t understand the argument you disagree with, then you don’t have the right to disagree with it with any authority, nor do you really have a grasp on what your own idea means in its context.

American university campuses who seek to no-platform speakers might do well to consider this. Ruffling intellectual feathers are what universities are for.

Not all ideas need to be validated, or even respected. There are some beliefs fuelled by bigotry, intolerance and antisemitism for example that simply deserve to be tarred and feathered, thrown under buses or otherwise never given the time of day. But when some ideas are so ubiquitous that they are persuading large numbers of people it’s only an idiot who hums with his fingers in his ears. The world changes when enough people decide that it should.

If we shame curiosity,  we’ll always be afraid of the battle lines we draw to ward off the loony toons on one side or the batshit crazies on the other. Uphold curiosity. Exalt the ability to hold someone else’s belief in your mind for a moment. It’s liberating. Einstein once said ‘Curiosity has its own reason for existing’.

The new administration is calling for unity. As Captain Kirk memorably said: Make it so.

Climb the Hill

Inauguration Day is a celebration of leadership, the nearest thing the Americans get to a coronation. Instead of massed thousands, 200,000 flags were planted to represent them and small socially distanced groups listened and applauded outside the Capitol. Lady Gaga sang the anthem divinely and the astonishing former National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, unfazed by an audience of millions read her poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ – a splendidly articulate presentation, absolutely on point for the occasion. It contained elements of cynghanedd, a Welsh poetic form from the sixth century.

Solemnly, Joe Biden, the so-called caretaker President, was sworn in on a Bible which had been in his family since 1894.  He was impressive, the ‘I’ which so cynically characterised the Trump years was replaced by a resounding ‘we’ and the theme was unity in the face of a national polarisation so savage that five lives were lost when the Capitol building was stormed by right-wing insurrectionists on January 6. He spoke of the legacy he wanted to hand on to his children and grandchildren, an echo which struck a chord with me since it is one that great leaders often invoke. 

Donald Trump, breaking with precedent, in a final display of petulance and narcissism, declined to attend. Instead he used his impromptu farewell speech at Andrews Air Base to trumpet his successes before boarding a final flight to Florida on Air Force One. The ‘I’ had finally departed.

Two very different faces of leadership.

I wondered how I might have spoken in his position, indeed either of their positions. My thoughts turned to another leader, thrust into power in a time of crisis.

With a hat-tip to Jonathan Sacks, z”l, we may imagine ourselves the leader of a people that is enslaved and oppressed, that has suffered exile for more than two centuries. Now, after a series of miracles, it is about to go free. I am their leader. I assemble them and rise to address them. They are waiting expectantly for my words. This is a defining moment they will never forget. What will I speak about?

Some might answer: freedom. That was Abraham Lincoln’s decision in the Gettysburg Address when he invoked the memory of “a new nation, conceived in liberty,” and looked forward to “a new birth of freedom.” Some suggest that it would inspire the people by talking about the destination that lay ahead, the “land flowing with milk and honey.” Yet others say they would warn the people of the dangers and challenges that they would encounter on what Nelson Mandela called “the long walk to freedom.” Churchill did all three at various times.

Moses did none of the above. Collective freedom – the freedom of the ‘we’ had been gained. The next thing to do was to ask not ‘what do we do with it’ but ‘how to enshrine it in perpetuity’. He spoke and repeated three basic themes – children, education and the distant future.

It was one of the most counterintuitive acts in the history of leadership. Moses did not speak about today or tomorrow. He didn’t talk about fixing things up nor did he brag about what had been achieved. He spoke about the distant future and the duty of parents to educate their children in a poetry of remembrance.

We might easily replace ‘freedom’ with ‘democracy’ and an inauguration address is its passover. Its preservation in our day is a sacred duty and its fabric must not be torn apart by polarisation, violence and bloodshed where the ‘I’ seeks ascendancy over the ‘we’.  Those who fail to educate themselves and their children and learn from the mistakes of recent history will be condemned to repeat them and Biden’s call to unite carries with it the so very recent consequences when people did not. He didn’t sugarcoat the effort required to climb the hill and I have a feeling that he is prepared to back up words with action.

Christmas Fear

So. Finally. Brexit is done, the haggling over a few fish being the final hurdle. For some, a new era of opportunity beckons with a fat, joyous finger, to others the bony digits of the grim reapers of want and economic decline crook uninvitingly. Win, lose or draw, the UK is now committed. With a hand that could have gone either way, it took a poker player to go all in. We all live in hope, tempered with anxiety that the negotiators ‘knew when to hold’em’ and didn’t fold too soon. There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done.

In 1949, near the start of the Cold War, E. B. White published in The New Yorker about how tough it was to celebrate during a perilous season. It can be difficult, he wrote, to “hear the incredibly distant sound of Christmas in these times, through the dark, material woods that surround it.” As we come to the end of 2020, it seems equally daunting to find comfort during these extraordinary times. When the future appears precarious, how are we supposed to view the holidays through a lens of hopeful optimism? White articulated the the naked fear of his readers, so recently battered by war and perhaps facing the implacable Russian bear in a new, colder conflict with different rules, reminiscent of the economic conflicts yet to come for the UK in the midst of a pandemic as yet still raging.

Lockdown has turned our collective attention on the struggles and concerns of our friends, family, and neighbours. Yet, as White so keenly observed, it is in the essential simplicity of small seasonal kindnesses and altruism that, even in the bleakest hours, the spirit of the holidays can often be perceived, recognised and rejoiced over. Jonathan Sacks, in his book “Morality” invites us first to examine the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’ as a paradigm for just, morally righteous societies – the well-being of the other taking preference over our own small ambitions. Sacks was one of the intellectual giants of our time, a modern Maimonides, who had a striking, almost preternatural gift of being able to clothe incredibly difficult ideas into simple, straightforward language. He taught that the ‘I’ has a responsibility to the ‘we’. The postmoderns assert the preeminence of ‘rights’ over ‘responsibilities’ – a worldview that is fatally and irremediably flawed. There is a story about two pre-Christian rabbinic sages, Hillel and Shammai, often considered by Jewish tradition to be archetypical opposites: Hillel was the tolerant and liberal “loose constructionist” of the Law, Shammai the exacting and inflexible “strict constructionist”. In one story about them, a gentile comes to both and asks, with the obvious intention of provoking them, to be taught the whole Torah while standing on one leg. Shammai is indeed provoked and gives the man an angry whack with a measuring rod. Hillel replies, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary.”

We are all, I suppose, tempted to return to previous Christmases – the Ghost of Christmas Past being jolly, red-faced with good cheer a little blurred and rosily tinted by the vagaries of imperfect memory. As will this Christmas be many years in the future. The things that will be remembered will not be the sweat and wrestle that was Brexit, or even a virus, but the kindness of strangers and the warm companionship of loved ones, family and friends.

Merry Christmas.

Claw the Walls

….with boughs of holly and what not. Under the inspired leadership of our glorious and well beloved His Righteousness A B deP Johnson, aka Herod, every postcode in the UK has been graded, as we all know into four tears, or is it tiers. Mary and Joseph would not even have been allowed out of Nazareth to pay their taxes, but that’s another story. Looking at these and having a number of friends in London, choking under the octopoid embrace of Tier Four, I thought a bit of clarity might be in order. Those of you who’ve already packed the SUV and disappeared off to the little place in the Cotswolds need read no further. So, for the rest of us, here they all are in all their muddled glory.

For those in Tier 4, the highest and most restrictive category, the following rules – or perhaps guidelines – should be adhered to, otherwise it’s an eye-watering fine plus a spell in the Scrubs and no remission for good conduct.

  • Pubs, bars and restaurants will only be able to serve takeaway. “So, that’s six pints of bitter and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, then. Don’t forget to socially distance, and mind how you go.”
  • Hotels must close their doors. In this weather, they’d be mad to keep them open, wouldn’t they. I suppose this includes stable doors as well.
  • Indoor gyms and leisure centres must close. So, no loafing about on the sofa. Don’t be a pussy. Climb the eighteen floors to your apartment carrying 20kg of shopping. Who needs the gym, anyway? Running for the bus is just like an outdoor gym, so that doesn’t count.
  • Personal care services and non-essential retail must close. Does this mean the girlfriend has to do her own nails and I have to train up Svetlana the au pair as a masseuse?
  • People living in Tier 4 cannot bubble with other households over Christmas. So, no hot tubs with that woman from Number Seven, then.
  • Residents should stay at home as much as possible. Having not had her nails done, she can claw the wallpaper at will and me driving thirty or forty kilometres to make sure my eyes work properly won’t stand up in Court. Oh, yes, you know who you are.
  • Residents should not enter or leave Tier 4 areas unless for essential reasons. Hooray! We get out of going to mad Uncle Charlie’s for cocoa and sausage rolls on Christmas Eve. We can stay at home with a case of Chianti and mince pies instead.
  • Residents from Tier 4 areas should not stay overnight in other areas. Except of course if you miss the last bus from Horsham and have to spend the night in the bus shelter. Alternatively, get yourself lifted and spend it in a nice warm cell.
  • They cannot go abroad apart from “limited exceptions” such as work. I have a job interview as a trainee croupier in Monaco. I suppose I can still go, then?
  • People should work from home if they can. Work? It’s Christmas. The only work I’m going to do is opening bottles and belching. I can quite easily manage that from home.
  • Communal worship may continue as long as people stay six feet apart, wear a mask when singing and not steal the Communion wine. Body searches of both genders may be carried out at the discretion of the priest. 
  • Weddings and civil partnerships can only take place in exceptional circumstances, with a limit of six attendees. I suppose a prospective father-in-law with a shotgun might be considered exceptional. But I’m thinking of ways to get out of it.

The Butterfly

Papillon butterfly

People like order. They like predictability. A decade – turbulent, often violent – is drawing to a close, as long as we start the new one with a one not a zero. The meaninglessness of numbers notwithstanding, all of us would like to start afresh. 2020 could easily be written off as a year to forget – rather than remember that single iconic Titanic night. People expect something new, something different, optimistically using the numbers as milestones of hope for a better future. When 2000 rolled around, everybody was in a flap because it was widely believed that all the computers in the world would just sit down, fold their arms and refuse to play ball. It didn’t happen.

Events taken in isolation are deceptive. Almost exactly ten years ago, a Tunisian street trader, humiliated and belittled by sclerotic officialdom, set light to himself which became a perfect metaphor for what followed. A deep, resonant chord rang out across the Arab world as it burst into flames. Millions had suffered from bureaucracies so labyrinthine that to get anything done required the patience of Job and the determination of Philippides. People camped out in Tahrir Square – I was there – they knew that their governments were mendacious and corrupt and they’d had enough. In Libya the tyrant Muammar Gaddafi still reigned, apparently impregnably, where protests against his regime were met with brutal and savage reprisals. It took the intervention of Western governments to bring him to his knees and topple not only his statues but his reputation. Syria followed suit, plunging the country into never – ending civil war, where the only beneficiaries have been the arms manufacturers and war is still waged by proxy in the entire region. Nature abhors a vacuum and ISIS, filled with zeal, certainty and hubris, swept across northern Iraq and Syria with their own toxic brand of redemption. It took years and countless billions of dollars to dislodge them.

The outcome for the rest of us has been to experience first a trickle, then a steady stream and latterly a flood of the displaced from the Middle East and North Africa trying to find a place of safety and a new life. It is sheer sophistry that these people are fleeing religious persecution as some have suggested, although a small minority may well be. Most are economic migrants and Germany, perhaps smelling cheap labour, accepted a million of them in a single year. Some, burning both their paperwork and fingerprints, made it further, the Shangri-Las of Britain and Sweden, most generous with their payments, were the goals. People smuggling was more lucrative than heroin distribution and just as cold-hearted. France had thousands encircling cities like Paris and towns like Calais, where Dover’s white cliffs were tantalisingly close. Still they poured in,  from the east using Turkey as a staging post to hop to Greece, where camps in Lesvos are to this day filled to bursting and have become squalid refuges, little better than the hellholes the migrants left behind; similarly Lampedusa in Italy for the North Africans. Liberals welcomed the newcomers, the hard-liners did not, realising that a significant number of these people brought nothing with them, no notion of integration, instead an implacable, blinkered weapon of a religion historically committed to domination. Massacres in London, Paris, Manchester and elsewhere left no room for doubt as to their motivations.

Fault lines began to propagate across Europe. Hardline nations like Hungary, under the iron fist of Viktor Orbán, just pulled up the drawbridges, sullenly refusing entry and walking over any flabby EU entreaties to join a quota system; nobody wanted to stay in Bulgaria because it was too poor so the exodus inexorably funnelled north and west.

And the Brits watched. In 2016, the famous ‘red bus’ referendum narrowly won and they were introduced to  a new reality. Brexit. Was it fuelled at least in part by the refugee crisis? Almost certainly. But, as we draw a line underneath EU membership in a few days’ time, some are asking ‘has it been worth it?.

Berlin and Paris are driving hard bargains – I wonder – did the Brits expect it was going to be easy? If they did and all posturing now aside, they have been as the saying goes, ‘led down the garden path’. Some are calling Brexit the biggest act of self-harm for a generation, others are looking forward with Churchillian optimism to breathing the fresh, unfettered air of the opportunities that new and sunny uplands will surely present.

Meanwhile, across the pond, the US chose a rather unlikely candidate for 45th president and gave the world a new Aunt Sally to hurl brickbats at. And yet, he resisted immigration, built half a wall and restored his embassy to Jerusalem. We shall see if the new incumbent does any better as a new year, a new decade begins in the shadow of a pandemic the like of which has not been seen for a century and has shone a searchlight on the fragility of governments and in some cases their monolithic incompetence.

The poor street trader was the butterfly alighting on the flower. Was it, perhaps, this one tiny straw that cracked the earth wide open and resulted in a tsunami of epic proportions? Poor man, he could never have envisaged the consequences of his one simple act of defiance.

Silent Lambs

Over thirty years ago, a decree was pronounced. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to execute author Salman Rushdie over the publication of ‘The Satanic Verses’, along with anyone else involved with the novel. A bounty – at least four million dollars – still hangs over the head of the author. The title refers to a legend of the prophet Mohammed when a few verses were supposedly spoken by him as part of the Qu’ran and then withdrawn on the grounds that Satan sent them to deceive Mohammad into thinking that they came from God. This apparently sends a certain kind of Muslim into an incandescent, homicidal rage.

Charlie Hebdo cartoonists have been murdered for publishing quite a jolly turbaned image of the same man, but, see above. The French judiciary are today calling for very long prison terms for those involved that they have actually caught. It would be just perfect here to reproduce one of the images, but…

If the only people who have permission to complain about being silenced are the ones who are literally silenced, then by definition we will never hear about it except in the context of the collateral damage that has been caused. So, apart from death, what’s the next best thing that the deranged and hate-filled can do? Making unpopular comments on social media if you happen to be something of a celebrity – like Jo Rowling, for example – usually incites a firestorm of outrage of one kind or another. Some are so vicious, death threats, rape threats, the outraged think it’s perfectly OK to say they’re going to rape your wife, kill your family, kidnap your children, blow up your car or any number of fanciful and empty notions a warped mind can devise. Fortunately, most of it is froth and bubble, but faced with such things, it’s is entirely possible for people who try to silence those with whom they disagree are going to meet with at least some small measure of success. They might even be successful at partially silencing them – after all, if one is told online that ‘we know where you live’, Mafia-style, this at least gives pause for thought. Output might be reduced, they might become circumspect, nervous even, looking around and imagining danger at every turn, their voice effectively garrotted. Their language might become more temperate thus robbing it of its muscle. This, however is only one side of the coin. The flip side is when a paradigm shift in cultural expression goes mainstream, black becomes white, if you’ll pardon the pun. I sometimes think about this in the context of the BLM movement, taking the knee and so on, since it illustrates very well what happens if the boot is on the other foot. How dare these racist, misogynistic, homo or transphobic sheep, the silent lambs, not acquiesce to our woke demands? We, an unelected majority, hold the moral high ground, we are the champions of the new orthodoxy, and to those who dare whisper disagreement, even mild disquiet, we say we hate them, we will trample them, humiliate them at every turn, jeer at them on social media…So, the haters have won whichever way the coin falls even if they aren’t able to shut their enemies up entirely. Free speech? Not in this incarnation, I fear. She quietly left for the high pasture a while ago.

Eton Mess

I have a number of friends who went to Eton and surprising as it may appear to some, they are perfectly normal individuals.  In case of offence, do accept my apologies.

Quintin Hogg, subsequently Lord Hailsham once asked his father where he was to be sent to school. His father replied “You are going to the best school in the world.” Hogg went to Eton as a King’s Scholar and in 1925 won the highly competitive Newcastle Scholarship, an honour shared, coincidentally, by William Waldegrave, Eton’s current Provost and later Henry Dimbleby, David D’s son. Eton, having educated nineteen previous British Prime Ministers, Boris Johnson being the 20th, is full of surprises.

Why then should a humble Rugby Foundationer scholar such as myself be at all interested by events in Berkshire? After all, we only produced Neville Chamberlain. Because there’s a bit of disquiet down there. An English teacher of nine years’ standing, apparently popular and well-liked by the boys, produced a video and uploaded it on to his personal YouTube page, a preliminary to using it in a division – that’s a class for the rest of us – called “Perspectives” which is concerned with learning to think critically. I’ve seen it and as a piece of lesson planning it’s really quite good.  Before some fascist takes it down it can be seen here.  It has been called outrageous , misogynistic, patriarchal, un-woke and every other Grauniad-rich insult under the heavens. The views, or better, assertions it discusses have been pilloried for puerility,  bad science, reactionary and outdated opinions, et cetera. Which, of course, is perfectly fine in the interests of free speech and I think worth a few moments of your time to have a look.

When the contents first came to light someone on the staff – a woman, it’s thought – complained. The author was hauled up in front of the Archbeak, known as ‘Trendy Hendy’ to explain himself. His video was not shown to the boys or held on the College intranet and the head asked him repeatedly to take it down from his personal YouTube channel.

The gentleman declined to comply. 

In consequence, he was threatened with having broken the law and the subsequent involvement of lawyers, which probably spooked him. It certainly would have made me feel a bit insecure. The final outcome was that he was dismissed, sacked, effectively making his wife and five children homeless. It’s quite a toxic little brew. The story broke in the Telegraph and as usual, the Times dragged its heels and only jumped in the ring after quite a few days. Comment has been, let’s say, robust and as a polarising argument, the kerfuffle has created a lot of sound and fury; one OE at least has threatened to cut the College out of his will. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Galileo’s trial before the Inquisition, which is rather how I imagine his hearing will go next week.

In case you’ve forgotten, Galileo was hauled up in front of a battalion of learned theologians to explain his preposterous claim that the earth rotated around the sun while Catholic orthodoxy had proclaimed for centuries the ideas advanced by Aristotle and Ptolemy to be immutable and anything else was heresy. Galileo was forced to grovel, on penalty of his own loss of liberty. This is in a sense Galileo in reverse. While Galileo was supported by science – a hell-brew of modern ideas worthy only of the fires of Gehenna, according to the Inquisition, this teacher has suggested a return to more traditional views –  the naturally patriarchal order of things – and has used history and biology to justify the position taken by his video. Perhaps he was playing Devil’s advocate – we will never know. The upshot so far is that there will be some kind of gathering shortly to review his case. The Head has rather boxed himself into a corner. He can’t reinstate him because that would make him look not magnanimous but weak and furthermore, the whole thing drives a coach and horses through the reputation of the College. The involvement of lawyers has escalated the matter disproportionately, something which the Head may have good cause to regret, since it showed a rather spectacular lack of judgment on his part. Amidst all the howling and gibbering including calls for the Head’s resignation from OEs, the press and people like me, the ones who have lost out are the very people for whom the video was prepared and who will not, at least in class, have an opportunity to debate an important issue. As Orwell pointed out ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear’.

What do I think? OK, I think that fourth wave feminism has pushed an already fragile boat out much too far. Intersectionality is a labyrinth I can’t begin to understand. Sex and gender have become so blurred that most people have trouble deciding what they actually understand by some of the more extreme points of view. Me? I think girls are different to boys. So fire me. I dare you.