Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Rhymes and Routes Christmas Message, 2014

This is yet another scoop for Rhymes and Routes! At short notice, and at some inconvenience to himself, President Vladimir Putin of Russia has agreed to write the Rhymes and Routes Christmas message this year. Comments in brackets are by me – signed “B” for Blogmeister – otherwise, no changes have been made to President Putin’s text, even when he is critical of Rhymes and Routes.

Zdrastvootye! I am very glad to be writing Rhymes and Routes Christmas message, as the British newspapers never publish anything I send them, despite my articles being so brilliant and perceptive. As you can see, I am wearing my party hat, as I am very busy getting ready for the Kremlin Staff Christmas Party (That’s a party never banned in Russia!-B), and I think it show the lighter side of my nature.

I wish to extend Christmas greetings from all the people of Russia to the whole of Great Britain. Relations between us have been strained in recent times, but I wish to assure the British people that I bear no animosity towards them, despite their leaders and their interference in the Ukraine. I have been much misrepresented as an aggressor in this matter, but it is not fair. As that outstanding Angliski politician, Nigel Farage, a man who admires me greatly, has said, it was the Ukrainian fascists, with western support, who overturned a democratically elected Prime Minister, and replaced him with a nationalist puppet. Mr Farage is a man with whom I could do business; I hope he becomes UK Prime Minister.

There is lot of nonsense talked about me and my country in Western media. One of our many detractors, the Guardian journalist, Luke Harding, has written a scurrilous book called “Mafia State”, where he makes many unfounded accusations. I only wish he would back to Russia for visit, as I need a new judo partner. Even Mr Harding, though, praises me for presenting a positive image of my country to the world. As he rightly say, I spend more on the “Russia Today” channel than I do on social welfare programmes (er, well, Mr President…B).

My critics point to the fact that 56 journalists have been murdered in Russia since the early 90s – as is it were my fault! Anyone (especially Georgians, Chechens and Ukrainians – B) knowing me will tell you that I am far too busy to go round liquidating a bunch of pen pushers. If I did that sort of thing, would Luke Harding have left Russia alive? (I bet he locks his doors at night! – B) No, Russia is now a democracy, which allows legitimate protest. As an example – did we not release those anarchist harridans, Pussy Riot, from jail? Even after they blasphemously disrupted an Orthodox Church service, they were released from incarceration. I myself am a devout Orthodox believer, but I believe in free

speech. In the old days, in USSR, the Pussy Riot protest would not have happened, as there were no churches and no protests. I have to admit that I sometimes stand at the window of my office in the Kremlin, listening to Barbra Streisand singing “The Way We Were” on my iPod, and a little tear comes to my eye when I think back to those far-gone, happy times (What a touching image! – B).

To conclude this Christmas message, I would like to address the two contributors to this blog: Rednev and Blogmeister. My Friendly Security Boys – FSB  (It really means Federal Security Bureau - B)– have checked out both men carefully, and so I invite Rednev to come and sing at the Kremlin Folk Club Christmas Party. I offer him a 20 minute slot between Igor, the Whistling Tractor Driver from Tobolsk and the Under-21 Moscow Folk Dance Society. Please get in touch, Neville. As for Blogmeister, the FSB say he think of himself as a songwriter and poet – I offer him example of VladimirMayakovsky (He shot himself in 1930 – thanks, Mr President. B) and from what I see of his prose writing ability, he, too can come to the party – to write the menu. Anyway, I must return to work on Staff Party – I need to parcel up my presents. To the British people from the Russian people: с рождеством! – Merry Christmas!

Many thanks, Mr President, on behalf of the people of Britain. I don’t know if Neville will take up your offer, but I’ll pass it on. I must decline your offer to write the menu for the Folk Club Party, as, examining your message in detail, you are perfectly capable of writing badly yourself. Anyway, I can’t write in Russian. As for what you say in your message, readers must draw their own conclusions!

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Christmas, Christians, and a Season to be Wary

I was hoping never to return to this subject. Last year, I compared and contrasted the persecution worldwide of three groupings: Christians, Atheists/Agnostics and the Bahais. I was so dismayed by what I learned about their sufferings, usually in Islamic countries, that I decided not to discuss it again. Yesterday, however, I was in Central London with my wife, where I picked up a copy of the London Evening Standard. Glancing through casually, I saw an article by Rupert Shortt on the issue of religious persecution. Although Mr Shortt  writes only about the treatment of Christians in non-Christian countries, this extract from his article shocked me into action:
"Last month in the Pakistani province of Punjab... a Christian couple were tortured and burned alive in a kiln by a mob who falsely accused them of desecrating the Koran."
Mr Shortt's article covers a good deal of ground that I examined in my blog items. Christians (and others) face persecution and discrimination in countries from Morocco to Pakistan. In some countries, such as Nigeria, they face horrific violence. Shortt comments about Iraq:
"Even under Saddam Hussein, Christians enjoyed a relatively quiet (if not wholly untroubled) life. Before the ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were 1.4 million Christians in the country. Now the figure has fallen below 300,000."
Such is the price of liberation. We can be sure that the so-called Islamic State will do nothing to reverse this trend.
I was interested enough to buy Shortt's book "Christianophobia: A Faith Under Attack", which deals in greater detail with the repressive treatment of Christians in Middle Eastern countries, and North Africa. Of particular interest, given the season, was the treatment of Christians in the Holy Land, which is home to some of the most sacred places in Christianity. It was depressing to learn that local Christians face harassment and hostility from local Jews and Muslims. There have been attacks on Christians and their churches by ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel itself. "The Christian Post" comments:
"While most persecution against Christians in the Holy Land is at the hands of radical Muslims, believers are also persecuted by anti-missionary Jewish activists. The activists sometimes spray graffiti on Christian churches in what are called "price tag attacks" (exacting a price on anything that seems to threaten Jewish sovereignty). A few months ago, they painted "Jesus is a monkey" on a church that is a major pilgrimage site for Christians."
This harassment pales into insignificance, however, when we compare it to the treatment dished out to local Christians by radical Muslims. Consider this extract from a Wall Street Journal article in 2009:
"Meet Mr. Ibrahim (a pseudonym to protect him from reprisals), a 23-year old Palestinian refugee living in the West Bank. Unlike those descendants of refugees born in United Nations camps, Mr. Ibrahim fled his birthplace just two years ago. And he wasn't running away from Israelis, but from his Palestinian brethren in Gaza.
Mr. Ibrahim's crime in that Hamas-ruled territory was to be a Christian, a transgression he compounded in the Islamists' eyes by writing love poems.
"Muslims tied to Hamas tried to take me twice," says Mr. Ibrahim, and he didn't want to find out what they'd do to him if they ever kidnapped him. He hasn't seen his family since Christmas 2007 and is afraid even to talk to them on the phone."
The pressure continues. In an article from "The Arab Daily News" (click on link to see in full) printed in May this year, Roy Hanania says:
"Under Hamas, the population of Christian Palestinians has dwindled as fast as it has under Israeli oppression. In 1997, there were more than 5,000 Christian Orthodox Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. Today that number barely surpasses 1,500. Hamas fanatics have persecuted Christians not only in Gaza but also in the Palestinian West Bank."
Supporters of the Palestinian cause against Israel never mention this; during the recent Gaza conflict, the ugly side of Hamas was quietly ignored. This is monstrously unjust, because Palestinian Christian leaders have been among the most vocal advocates of the Palestinian cause.
So, as the season of goodwill and the Nativity of the Saviour of Mankind approaches, many of the followers of Jesus will be cautious in celebrating their faith.
Deus misereatur!

Monday, 27 October 2014

Nationalism Reconsidered

I meant to write this post just after the Scottish Referendum vote. I didn't, and am glad I didn't, because nationalism, Scottish, Welsh or otherwise, is a big issue, and needs to be discussed seriously. It is not simply an issue that applies to Wales or Scotland, but a force that has had a major impact on modern history across the world, and especially in Europe.
To begin with, then, what exactly is nationalism? The answer appears to be simple, but, as so often in political thought, it is not. The dictionary makes it sound straightforward:
"Nationalism is a belief, creed or political ideology that involves an individual identifying with, or becoming attached to, one's nation".
All quite tidy, seemingly, but this is wrong. Far Right extremists consider themselves nationalists. Hitler spoke of his desire to aggrandise the power of Germany, expressing his nationalist sentiments in numerous vituperative speeches and acts of murderous evil. Compare this type of nationalism to the anti-racist, anti-war, ecologically minded individuals to be found in the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru (PC), and you are entitled to be confused. For a fuller understanding of the differing explanations of nationalism, you can do no better than read the relevant Wikipedia article.
For ourselves, however, I think we should focus upon what nationalism in its Scottish and Welsh varieties means for us in Britain today.
I shall start by saying that I was glad when Scotland voted "No" in the referendum, even though I said nothing at the time. I have several reasons for this, and think they apply as legitimate causes for criticism to be levelled at both the SNP and PC, should they ever achieve their goal of independence.
My first area of concern is that an independent Scotland and/or Wales would divide the labour movement, and make it difficult for English, Welsh and Scottish workers to support each other. If, say, teachers in England strike for higher pay, there might be all kinds of legal barriers stopping Scottish and Welsh teachers supporting them. If anything, SNP and PC might take an ultra-nationalist line, telling their teachers not to get involved in another country's affairs. And there would be the vexed issue of pay. How would a nurse in, say, Rhyl, feel, if a nurse doing the same job in Chester, less than 50 miles away, was getting a higher salary? And what effect would it have upon people who have to cross borders to work every day? Producing your passport twice a day at a customs post to make a journey that is now uninterrupted would be time-consuming and irritating.
The other major issue lies in the nationalist parties themselves - SNP and PC. The problem with single issue parties is that they have only one unifying factor - one raison d'etre. Essentially, they are alliances. Once they achieve their objective -in this case, independence for Wales or Scotland- internal tensions are sure to appear. Nationalist parties in western Europe have left-leaning and right wing-leaning factions; I can't imagine that SNP/PC are any different. Without their unifying factor, the drive for independence, division and discord would follow.
One issue that I have some sympathy with is the language issue. PC are right when they talk about how the Welsh Language has been treated unsympathetically in the past. Welsh-speaking children in the late 19th/early 20th century were harshly punished for speaking their mother tongue in school. One of these punishments was the wearing of "the Welsh Not", or simply being made to stand on one leg for half an hour, or caning. All due credit is due to PC - or would it be more accurate to say the Welsh Language Society? - for campaigning on this vital issue. (It has to be said, however, that there have been complaints by parents of their English-speaking children being victimised in Welsh-speaking schools). I would now argue that the Welsh language issue has been resolved, without the need for a Welsh parliament. Visitors to Wales find bilingual roadsigns, notices and instruction manuals, as well as a Welsh TV Channel - Scottish Gaelic speakers are well served by television as well. To be frank, I do not believe that any more can be done for the Welsh language, or Scottish Gaelic. Perhaps other national grievances can be resolved in the same way?
In sum, I was glad at the result of the Scottish referendum; let's hope there are no more.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

"The Ruling Class" to "The Riot Club" - Plus ca Change

It comes as a relief, after looking at murder, war and education, to write a review of an old film. I was asked to write this review by a friend in Southport, who was pleased with my previous review of "If". It is gratifying to be appreciated, and I hope that I do a good job here. The film under review is "The Ruling Class", a satirical comedy from 1972. I borrowed the dvd for this review, but anyone interested can see the whole film on YouTube. It stars Peter O'Toole, Coral Browne (Vincent Price's wife), the splendid Alistair Sim, Arthur Lowe and many other stars of the period. I choose the word "period" with care, as this film is very much a period piece, although it has acquired a devoted cult following.
1972 was a turbulent year, which saw the Bloody Sunday shootings in Londonderry, a miners' strike in January, Idi Amin expel thousands of Asians from Uganda, the Duke of Windsor (Edward VIII) die and Geri Halliwell born. It is important to place this film in a historical context, in order to assess its relevance and impact at the time.
I expected to dislike the film, but found, happily, that I rather enjoyed it, despite the poor sound quality and the instamatic colour photography. Reading the plot beforehand, I thought it artificial, but it works when you realise you are watching a satire, not a story.
Basically, the plot runs like this: A member of the House of Lords dies, leaving his estate to his son. Unfortunately, his son (Jack Gurney - played by O'Toole) is insane. Jack thinks he is Jesus Christ, spending much of his time hanging on  a cross. The other, apparently more respectable, members of this family plot to steal the estate from him. Their attempts to have him committed to an asylum fail when an independent psychiatrist, meant to section Jack, finds that they are both old Etonians and passes him as sane. For some reason, Jack then becomes convinced that he is Jack the Ripper and murders two women. In between murders, he makes his maiden speech in the House of Lords, in which he calls for the return of capital and corporal punishment.
As a story, this film is bewildering and tiresome, but as a satire, it makes sense. The screenplay was written by Peter Barnes, and based on his own stage play. I have not seen the play, but my guess is that it was more pointed and political when produced for the stage. This type of theatre is usually described as "agitprop", found in its most explicit form by travelling radical theatre companies such as "Red Ladder". The film, though less didactic, is clearly an attack on the British aristocratic Establishment. The characters, apart from O'Toole's character and Arthur Lowe's marvellous communist butler, are shown as scheming, effete and hypocritical. One criticism of O'Toole that I have is that his rants, as Jack, are so histrionic (and, to me, tedious) that you miss some of the biting  satirical dialogue. For example:
Lady Claire Gurney: How do you know you're God?
Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney: Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.
And again:
Dr. Herder: He can't forget being rejected by his mother and father at the age of 11. They sent him away, alone, into a primitive community of licensed bullies and pederasts.
Sir Charles: You mean he went to public school.
Dr. Herder: Exactly.
But the core issue raised by the film is the portrayal of a lunatic's acceptance into the House of Lords, which Barnes clearly infers is a lunatic institution in need of reform. The latter part of the film is heavy (some might say laboriously so) with symbolism, in which we see alternating shots of the peers of the realm as dozy old men, then robed skeletons. In sum, then, the film's message is that Britain is being ruled by a bunch of degenerate dotards who preside over an antiquated system. Whether Barnes is calling for reform or revolution is not made clear.
I know that some movie buffs will be unhappy with this kind of analysis, but, as George Orwell pointed out: "All art is propaganda", and to ignore the political message of this film is impossible. A "Time Out" review of the film says: "This (ie, the film's message) is buried beneath a load of old jokes, song'n'dance routines, bad jokes, physical obsessions, random send-ups", but goes on to say:"the latent and overt ideas are fleshed out all too obviously."
Yes, but that is the point of the play. Beneath the bad jokes and song and dance routines which some critics have compared to classic Ealing Comedy (Alistair Sim - the archbishop - was a star of this genre), there is a definite similarity to the works of the great German Marxist playwright, Bertolt Brecht, whose influence on 20th century dramatists was immense. Like those of Brecht, Barnes' characters are not meant to be real people but representations of political and social attitudes in human form. Again, anyone who has seen radical theatre productions will recognise the method. Brecht called this "alienation", where the actor is seen as an actor, not as a character in what is called a "naturalist" type of play. Perhaps it is a tribute to Peter O'Toole that his character does seem "naturalistic" - even if he is as mad as a hatter.
Unlike the theatre companies, Barnes does not prescribe a remedy to the problem. Like Brecht, he leaves that up to the audience - to us. Well, in the 42 years since this film came out, the House of Lords has been reformed to some people's satisfaction. Thanks to Mrs Thatcher, "money men" now have moved into positions of power and influence, replacing what was left of the old aristocratic privileged clique, so things have changed since 1972. Or have they really? Britain's richest 1% of the population own as much as the poorest 55%, and, as "The Guardian" said recently:
 "Despite the fact that around only 7% of British children are privately educated, 34% of MPs went to fee-paying schools, and the figure for Tory members of parliament is 54% (the Labour figure, to put that in perspective, is a mere 12%). People who have had expensive educations dominate journalism, law, finance – and, of late, even the supposedly meritocratic powerhouse that is British pop music (witness Mumford and Sons, Florence Welch, Lily Allen, Laura Marling et al). "It is remarkable how many positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in our society are held by individuals who were privately educated," said the education secretary, Michael Gove, in May last year."
And if Michael Gove, the ex-education secretary said that, things have not really changed that much since 1972. Today's ruling class may be younger, livelier and more fashionably dressed, but they are still in charge.
It is ironic, really, that this review is written when a new film about our present day ruling class goes on general release. Even more ironic is the fact that the author of "The Riot Club", Laura Wade, like Peter Barnes, adapted the screenplay from her own stage play, "Posh". Even more of a coincidence is the fact that, according to some reviews, the play was said to be more "agitprop", like I suspect Barnes' play to have been. Despite Wade's denials, the film is about a bunch of rich young hell raisers at Oxford University who belong to a drinking club, rather like the Bullingdon Club, to which David Cameron, Boris Johnson and George Osborne belonged. I have not seen the film yet, but it shows that our ruling class is still worthy of satire. Like I said in the title, plus ca change.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Oscar Pistorius and a Lesson for Abusive Partners

Some years ago, a serving police officer was talking to me about the difficulties of bringing charges in an assault case when there were no witnesses. Essentially, what he said was this:
 "If A attacks B and someone witnesses the attack, then we charge A for assault. If A attacks B and there are no witnesses, we don't know who started it, so we charge the person with the lesser injuries."
There are a number of concerns with this method, but there are some similarities (and some very obvious differences) with the Oscar Pistorius case. The similarity lies, not in who is to blame for the killing of Reeva Steenkamp, but in the Prosecution's difficulty in proving that Pistorius intended murder. In other words, without witnesses, justice might not be done in either case, because there is insufficient evidence to prove otherwise. The person with the lesser injuries might have simply been defending him or herself; Pistorius might well have intended murder, but there is no conclusive evidence.
A few months back, I wrote a blog post about the Pistorius case, in which I set out my doubts about Pistorius' explanation of how he came to kill his partner. I have similar doubts about the verdict delivered by Judge Masipa yesterday, which, as we all know, found Oscar not guilty on the charge of premeditated murder. I am not alone in having doubts, of course. Reeva Steenkamp's distraught mother has said:
"It doesn't add up," said Mrs Steenkamp, composed but evidently bitterly disappointed.
Holding her husband's hand in a hotel room hours after the not guilty verdict was read out, she told American channel NBC: "She died a horrible death. A horrible, painful, terrible death. And she suffered, you know? "
Mrs Steenkamp is right - it does not add up. I find myself puzzled by Judge Masipa's thought processes and am dubious about her conclusions. She accepted, albeit with reservations, that Pistorius did not intend to kill Reeva Steenkamp, and could conceivably have mistaken her in the darkness for an intruder. 
She accepted Pistorius' story that he was terrified for his life, and thought Steenkamp was safe in the bedroom when he fired four bullets through the wooden toilet door.
The only possible verdict, according to Judge Masipa,  was culpable homicide - in Britain, we call it manslaughter. This verdict carries a sentence of up to 15 years in South Africa, although it could lead to Pistorius doing nothing more than community service.
Now, in expressing my opinion, I am well aware that I am thousands of miles away, and perhaps do not fully appreciate the situation in South Africa. A South African lady explained to me that, living in a violent society such as South Africa, when an intruder enters your home, you panic. It might explain Pistorius' behaviour that night.
It might, but I don't think it does. As Owen Bowcott says in today's Guardian, South African legal experts are gravely concerned at the verdict:
"As state prosecutors announced they were considering appealing judge Thokozile Masipa's decision, legal experts suggested she may have focused too closely on the relationship between Reeva Steenkamp and Pistorius.
Had there been an intruder behind the toilet door, as Pistorius told the court he believed, then firing four shots into such a confined space would probably have been considered murder by other courts, some lawyers argued."
This is quite correct - even if Oscar did not intend to kill Reeva Steenkamp, he certainly intended to kill somebody. This is quite clear from his actions. If he had been as frightened as he said he was - why did he not stay in the bedroom? If he was in sufficient control of himself to confront an intruder, why did he not fire a warning shot above head height, or call out a warning? Once that hypothetical intruder had locked himself in the toilet, he was effectively trapped and, practically and legally, at Pistorius' mercy (such as it was).To me the conclusive evidence of a desire to kill is the fact that his shots were angled to hit a seated person in the toilet. The photographs of the toilet door clearly indicate this. Not only this, Pistorius fired four times, with reasonable accuracy. One shot could have been fired in panic, but I do not accept that he was out of control when firing four. No, I am convinced that Oscar Pistorius was out to kill that night, and deserves a long sentence. The best that can be said for him is that he was criminally irresponsible. At worst, he is a wilful murderer.
To conclude, I have to say that the defence lawyers in this case have been very skilful in a number of ways, not least by using the world's media as a theatrical means of presenting their client to the world as a heartbroken man - despite the evidence of his darker side.
Lastly, I return to the point at which we started - the possibility of injustice arising from lack of witnesses. As Deborah Orr says in today's Guardian:
 "Many people feared a failure of justice comparable to OJ Simpson’s acquittal for the murder of Nicole Brown, his former wife, and Ronald Goldman, who had been visiting Brown’s house on an errand. They are relieved that Oscar Pistorius has been found guilty of culpable homicide. I’m not. I’m troubled by the fact that all over the world, people now know exactly what to say when they shoot their partner dead, at home, without witnesses."
In other words, this case has set a precedent for abusive partners everywhere. The guilt of Oscar Pistorius runs wide and deep.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Israel, Gaza and a Hamas Victory

In today's Guardian, there is an interesting article about the possibility of the different Palestinian organisations indicting Israel for war crimes. Hamas is apparently in agreement with this, although the article raises the point that Hamas itself could be arraigned by a war crimes court. As the article says: "After the last major round of Israel-Hamas fighting more than five years ago, a UN fact-finding team said both Israel and Hamas violated the rules of war by targeting civilians."
To me, this goes to the neglected heart of the matter in the Gaza conflict - the fact that both sides have been prepared to inflict civilian casualties. Personally, I find the conduct of both sides in the Gaza conflict deplorable, but there is an issue of realpolitik here that is being overlooked. It is the fact that Hamas has been prepared to accept civilian casualties, which has enabled them to win a propaganda victory.
Now, as I have noted before, the Gaza conflict, and the wider Israel/Palestine issue of which it is a part, arouses intense emotions. This is understandable, but we should not let our feelings for the deaths of innocents in Gaza or Israel cloud our judgement or analysis of the underlying strategic achievements and blunders of both parties. It is very difficult to do this, I find, as any criticism of either side brings accusations of favouring the other side. The BBC has been accused, in the past, of being pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian by partisans of both opposing camps. Nevertheless, I shall try.
At the risk of repeating myself, I have noted before that provocation is a standard tactic by what can loosely be described as "guerrillas". History, and especially modern history, provides many examples (9/11, of course, is the most outstanding "provocation" of recent times). Spanish partisans used it against Napoleon; the Irish rebels who rose up against British rule at Easter, 1916, were clearly seeking, and got, a heavy-handed (and counter-productive) reaction from the British authorities; Soviet partisans in "quiet areas" behind German lines in World War Two employed the same tactic; Zionist partisans used it against British forces during the British mandate in Palestine (Now, there's an irony!) after the Second World War; the Viet Cong exploited the My Lai massacre; the IRA exploited Bloody Sunday in 1972. A more recent example occurred during the fighting in Iraq, when a group of US soldiers massacred some Iraqi civilians in the city of Haditha, providing invaluable propaganda for the Iraqi insurgents. It is debatable whether or not provocation was employed at My Lai, or on Bloody Sunday, but the result was the same.
All these events discredited the more powerful occupying powers and gave propaganda victories to the weaker, "guerrilla" sides.  Besides the publicity value of such actions, they provided a boost in recruitment to the guerrilla movements. After Bloody Sunday, for example, it is said that the IRA were turning away recruits.
Perhaps the most glaring example of this tactic came during the war for Algerian Independence, when, in 1955, the FLN resistance slaughtered over a hundred French civilians in the town of Philippeville. This provoked a ferocious French reaction during which, as the historian Alistair Horne noted in "A Savage War of Peace", up to 12 000 Algerians were killed. These reprisals took the lives of mostly innocent Algerian civilians, and discredited France in the eyes of the world. It also created even wider hatred of the French among Algerians, and led to more recruits for the FLN.
Now, if my analysis of resistance movements is correct, Hamas have learned the lessons of such previous conflicts very well. The present war (which is what it is) began when three young Israelis were abducted and murdered - provocation. Israel reacted with predictable heavy- handed anger and force leading to what we have seen happen in Gaza - reprisal. Hamas fought back with ambush and rocketing - heroic David/Goliath resistance (yet another irony). The brunt of death, destruction and suffering has fallen on innocent Gazan civilians, leading to widespread condemnation and opprobrium of Israel around the world. Result - an important propaganda victory for Hamas. Israel's stature with her friends has been eroded, and will doubtless erode further as long as the war goes on. The fact that Hamas has deliberately sited military posts near civilian targets - a tactic that would do credit to any previous guerrilla movement - has been ignored, as have Hamas atrocities against Israeli civilians and Palestinian "collaborators". The Hamas political leadership has cause for great satisfaction.
I am not taking sides here; I am simply trying to provide an analysis that I think is missing from the discussion about Gaza. The UN is right -any future war crimes trial should see both Israelis and Hamas in the dock.
How sad it is that Hamas and Israelis worship the same God, to whom they both pray for victory.
Hamas fighters pray.

Israeli soldiers pray.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Trojan Horse, OFSTED and the Faith Schools Issue

Now that a suitable lapse of time has gone by, it's worth re-examining the Birmingham "Trojan Horse" schools issue, and the seemingly related issue of faith schools.
We are all familiar with the "Trojan Horse" story, and the divisions it has created, in Birmingham and beyond. Some say that it is a genuine issue, while others deny it. Wikipedia sets out the issue in simple terms:
"Operation Trojan Horse was an organised attempt by Islamists to covertly co-opt schools in England.[1][2] The name, based on the Ancient Greek legend, came from a leaked letter of questionable authenticity discovered in March 2014, alleged to be from Islamists in Birmingham, detailing how to wrest control of a school and speculating about expanding the scheme to other cities."
A subsequent investigation by my old friends at OFSTED found that there was some evidence of an attempt by Muslim extremists to take over schools, and several schools were placed in special measures (no easy option, as I know well). Birmingham City Council was accused by Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw of a "serious failure" in supporting schools in protecting children from extremism.
Peter Clarke, former counter-terrorism chief for the Metropolitan police, wrote, in a report for the Ministry of Education, that there had indeed been an organised attempt to introduce an "intolerant and aggressive Islamic ethos" into some Birmingham schools. The Daily Mirror set up a "sting operation" against Shahid Akmal, a governor of one of these schools, by sending an undercover reporter to interview him on a business matter. During the interview , Mr Akmal reportedly said that white women were lazy and that both gays and adulterers should be sent into exile.  - but he did not admit to conspiring to radicalise any schools.
This was one side of the case. The other side was led by The Muslim Council for Great Britain, who described the report as a "witch-hunt". The former leader of Respect, Salma Yaqoob, an ex- Birmingham city councillor, organised a pressure group to challenge the findings of the report, and condemned the authors of the report as being carried away by "a climate of political and media hysteria." George Galloway, the MP who has appeared on this blog before, dismissed the report as "Trojan horse-shit", and "a dog whistle response to UKIP".
Now, I am no admirer of either OFSTED or George Galloway, and it pains me to be  seeming to side with either. Instead, I will say that there appears to be no "smoking gun" evidence of a conspiracy, despite all the evidence presented. It seems to me that we will never know the whole truth of this matter - which perhaps is the best conclusion for both sides.
Instead, I think it worth examining what, to me (but not everyone!), is another issue completely - that of faith schools. I honestly do not know why the two topics became linked in the media, but it happened somehow. I remember an atheist commenting on the Jeremy Vine programme on BBC Radio Two, that he found all religious practices in schools to be "extremism" , and that all religious dogma should be banned from schools. I vaguely recall an article in The Guardian on this topic which said the same thing: that all  British schools should be secular, in line with the rest of Europe, and faith schools should be abolished. To be fair, the proponents of this view do not wish to ban religion altogether. They simply object to paying taxes to fund schools which have a religious ethos they do not share. Religion, they say, should be a private matter. Perhaps the best exposition of this view is made by the British Humanist Association (BHA), whose views can be read HERE.
As a teacher with a special interest in Religious Education, and having taught it in both faith and non-faith schools, I think that it needs to be taught as a subject in order for different faith groups to learn about, and understand each other. Eliminating the study of religion as an academic subject will deprive British children of not only knowledge of each other, but also an understanding of our history - for good or bad.
As far as faith schools are concerned, I am prepared to admit that the BHA and others have a case, but that some secular criticisms are way over the top. I have taught in a number of Christian faith schools and have never encountered anything that a reasonable person might class as "extremism". One typical misplaced criticism is that of the atheist on the Jeremy Vine programme who I mentioned above. How anyone can equate the saying of prayers at the end of the school day to telling children that wives who do not have sex with their husbands will be punished by angels is beyond me. I also know that religion does not dominate the curriculum, and that other faiths are represented in RE lessons. I myself have taught about other faiths in faith schools.  As a supply teacher, I often teach in a Roman Catholic Primary School not far from where I live. I know how important the school is to parents. Any attempt to close down faith schools will be fiercely resisted.
George Galloway
George's ex-comrade, Salma Yaqoob

Friday, 25 July 2014

Gaza, Israel, and Multiplying Demons

Yesterday, I was chatting on the phone to a driving instructor friend. He told me that he has a number of Israeli pupils, one of whom told him that he hoped my friend wasn't surprised to find that he, the Israeli, didn't have a horn and a tail. I was not going to write a blog item about the Gaza tragedy, but the thought that someone might feel as this Israeli felt has jolted me into action.
I am only too well aware that, for some people, the slightest hint of what they see as pro-Israeli bias provokes them into litanies of condemnation of Israeli war crimes. I myself have encountered this on Facebook, and find it an interesting example of how one subject - the recent anti-Semitic attacks in France and Germany - can be perceived as another subject entirely (Gaza) by some concerned individuals. To be fair, I was not accused of being in the pay of Mossad (I congratulate my critics on their restraint), but I might be after this.
There really is a need for calming down and taking a more detached view of what is happening in Gaza. That does not mean we should ignore what is happening, or show indifference to the suffering of the people there. I simply mean that there are other issues surrounding this horrible situation that we should take into account. I am also aware that, for those being shelled, rocketed and bereaved on both sides, detachment is not an option. That should not preclude the rest of us from having a reasoned debate, whatever views we may hold.
My first area of concern is that Israelis and Jews everywhere really are being demonised. Professor Robert Wistrich has said:
"A recent survey has revealed a troubling rise in anti-Jewish prejudice in Britain. One in five believes the Holocaust was "exaggerated". A similar number believe Jews have too much influence and say they do not want a Jewish Prime Minister. In the last two years, assaults against Jews have increased by 75 per cent and the number of synagogue desecrations by 400 per cent."
Again, the recent violent "Pro-Palestinian" riots in France and Germany have seen openly anti-Semitic language being used by some demonstrators, although it is not clear yet whether these are people from the Middle East, local fascists, or both. Nothing that Israel may be doing in Gaza, or anywhere else, justifies this.
It needs to be said here, though some may say it is "obvious", that the people who campaign against Israeli action in Gaza encompass a wide range of opinions. There will be those who are genuinely concerned about the suffering of the Palestinians; there are people who want to change Israeli policy towards Gaza to being more lenient; the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC), who want to abolish the state of Israel altogether and, of course, the neo-nazis who want to continue the Holocaust where Hitler left off. The recent demonstration on July 19th in London shows there to be growing concern about the Gaza situation - although there were no outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence that day - and I fully support the right of Palestinian supporters to peacefully demonstrate. I would, however, question the PSC's claim that the BBC is biased in favour of Israel; I find the BBC reports from both sides fairly. But that's just my opinion.
What no-one is saying, however, is that Hamas, with whom Israel is engaged in conflict, is not exactly an organisation devoted to love and peace. The Hamas Charter specifically states:
"Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement."
Well, that raises hope for the future of a settlement in Gaza. Hamas is an Islamist organisation, and, as readers of this blog know by now, that does not make them particularly tolerant of different opinions - religious or secular. Palestinian Christians know this well:
"Since Hamas took power in Gaza in 2007, the Christian population has shrunk to about 1,500, less than half it was a decade ago... the most telling commentary on the fate of Christians is their disappearance from Bethlehem. Since 1995, the city has been under Palestinian civil control, which has altered the demographics by changing boundaries, and its present population includes 20,000 Christians, one third of the population. Two decades ago, Christians accounted for 75 percent of the city's population."
Strangely, the PSC and others never mention this. Mention is never made, either, of the fact that Hamas, like the neo-nazis, deny the Holocaust. This does not reassure Israelis (or me) that Hamas is simply a resistance movement to Zionist aggression. The author of the Hamas Charter has clearly read the anti- Semitic forgery "The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion", beloved by Hitler and the Nazis. Article 22 states clearly:
"They (ie, the Jews) stood behind the French and the Communist Revolutions and behind most of the revolutions we hear about here and there. They also used the money to establish clandestine organizations which are spreading around the world, in order to destroy societies and carry out Zionist interests".
Now, of course, this does not mean that Israel should refuse to negotiate with Hamas, and, though I find Hamas to be a detestable organisation, they do have a point in demanding an end to the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Perhaps negotiations and peace will lead to a relaxing of the Hamas stand on Israel - if not their treatment of Christians. Still, you can't have everything.
What I do hope happens is that those of us not directly involved can discuss this issue without undue emotionalism. I often wonder why so many people get worked up into a near-frenzy over several hundred Palestinian deaths, tragic though that is, while 45 000 people are killed every month in internecine warfare in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and no-one says anything (perhaps I should?).
As for Gaza itself, as the great classical conductor, Daniel Barenboim, a man with dual Israeli and Palestinian citizenship has said:
"Both Israelis and Palestinians are losers in this conflict".
Alas, while both sides seek to demonise each other, that seems unlikely to change. As Martin Luther King said:
"Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows".

Sunday, 20 July 2014

MPs snub autism debate

£66,000 annual salary for each of the
639 absentees - money well spent
On 17 July, just 11 Members of Parliament turned up for a parliamentary debate on the provision of education for children with autism. The debate was opened by the MP for Burnley, Gordon Birtwistle, who raised the issue of the difficulties faced by parents when trying to get a diagnosis for their child, and the problems this can cause for that child's education.

"Children with statements of special educational needs are eight times more likely to be excluded than their peers, and children with no statement are 11 times more likely to be excluded," he said.

11 MPs out of a total of 650 represent a 1.69% turnout, a disgraceful showing for a debate of such importance to many parents. They do not seem to have a problem showing up for the pantomime of Prime Minister’s Question Time just to howl and bray at their opponents. As the quorum for the House of Commons is 40, which represents an eye watering 6.15% of MPs, the debate on autism could have no effect anyway, other than worthy rhetoric.

If MPs imposed upon themselves the turn outs they are proposing for trade union ballots, perhaps some of them might discover what a hard day’s work really means.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Today's Industrial Action and an Ideal Strike.

At the moment, I am listening to the Jeremy Vine programme on Radio Two. As might be expected, the responses from listeners calling in are divided about today's industrial action by public sector workers.
The reasons for strike action are easily ascertained.
Unison boss Dave Prentis speaks for many when he says workers have been left frustrated by pay freezes, adding that "enough is enough".

"When Cameron brought in the two-year pay freeze, our local government workers, our members, had already had a one-year pay freeze.
"So they've had a three-year pay freeze and then a 1% increase when inflation has gone up by something like 20%," he said.

For some lower paid public sector workers, the pressure is becoming unbearable, with many taking a second job and even using food banks. All unions involved today have legitimate grievances, and I do not intend to repeat them here.
What I would like to focus upon is the reaction from Conservative politicians and some elements of the press. As might be expected, they are not - apparently - very pleased. Education Secretary Michael Gove says:
"It's an ideologically motivated minority who are intent on confrontation" - a remark I shall return to later.
The Daily Mail trumpets:
"Treasury figures suggest the strike could cost the economy up to £250 million!"
Francis Maude, the Tory minister, says, writing in the Mail:
"Today public sector union leaders are pushing strike action which is totally unnecessary and will benefit no one. 
Across Britain, millions of people could face disruption. Parents could be hit by school closures, while some day centres for the elderly may be affected along with other local council services such as libraries and refuse collection".
He forgets to mention that his government has closed down many day care centres for the elderly by cutting the welfare budget.
There is much more of this kind of stuff, should you care to look for it, on the Tory Party website and in the Daily Telegraph. The Prime Minister, significantly, is muttering darkly about anti-strike legislation.
What amazes me is the ferocity of the condemnation expressed by those who oppose the strike. Anyone would think that the unions had called an all-out, indefinite strike under revolutionary Marxist leadership. This is simply not true - it is a one day strike by six unions, whose members will be back at work tomorrow. It is also worth remembering that the money lost to the economy is compensated by the loss of wages to today's strikers, who are paid out of the public purse.
We can only wonder what Conservative politicians would consider an ideal, acceptable, strike. I suggest it would be a lunchtime walkout by unpaid volunteers in charity shops in support of reduced wages for trade union officials. It would happen on a wet Tuesday, when there are fewer people about - but only when the present recession is over, and under a Labour government.
Yes, that's ridiculous, but there is, I think, a sinister angle to the Tory reaction to today's strike. The arch-humbug, Michael Gove, speaks of an ideologically motivated minority. What he is not saying is that a similar minority appears to be at work in the Conservative Party.
Norman Smith, the BBC political correspondent says:" Conservative ministers hope popular annoyance will buttress support for their plans for further action to curb the power of unions.
  In particular, Prime Minister David Cameron is keen to include plans for a strike ballot threshold in his party's next manifesto.
Today's strikes enable ministers to turn up the heat on Labour by pressing them to condemn the industrial action being carried out by their big union supporters."

This, I believe, is a serious -if hidden- threat to the trade union rights of all workers. Already, we have heard Tory politicians talking about curtailing the right to strike for teachers. I believe that they are serious about this, but if they succeed, it will not be enough for them. The arguments they employ at present against teachers striking can be used against all public sector workers, from firemen to dinner ladies. I extend my support to all fellow trade unionists on strike today (I'm not on strike, because my union did not direct it), but I advise vigilance. If teachers are prevented by law from striking, it could be you next.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Iraq: the Tragedy and the Farce

It's strange how Iraq has faded from our media horizon. Since the end of "Operation Telic", which was the name given to British combat operations in Iraq, lasting from 19 March 2003, ending on 22 May 2011, and which cost 179 British lives, the media coverage has been somewhat subdued. The USA lost 4,487 military casualties,  many other" coalition" countries lost men (Italy, for example, lost 33) and, of course, there were far more Iraqi casualties. One full set of casualty figures from all sides can be found HERE.
Some people might have thought that things had quietened down since the Iraqi Army took over security duties in their own country. Events this week have shaken that belief. Michael Moore, a persistent critic of the invasion of Iraq (see his film "Fahrenheit 9/11"), posted on Facebook today:
"So today, Mosul fell. Mosul is the second largest city in Iraq. The Iraqi government we "installed", has now lost Fallujah, Ramadi, Mosul and other large swaths of the country we invaded at the cost of thousands of American lives, tens of thousands of Iraqi lives and a couple trillion dollars. (What could your school district do with a trillion dollars?)."
What, indeed! Future historians will struggle to explain why Iraq was invaded in the first place. Of course, it was post-9/11 when the invasion happened. Afghanistan was invaded with just about universal approval. But even at the time, people questioned the declared intention of George Bush and his supporter, Tony Blair, to invade Iraq. Rightly, it seemed to many that there was little sense in it. Iraq had never supported Al-Qaeda or harboured Osama Bin Laden, so what was the point? On 16 February, 2003, one million people (some say more) marched through London against the projected invasion. Worldwide, there were protests and influential voices raised against the war, and Blair and Bush were forced to defend their intended actions. What seemed remarkable to me (and still does) was the fact that Blair, in particular, did not seem to able to hear objections to the attack, even though he faced audiences that were highly critical of the planned incursion. This might be expressed in jargon as "Cognitive Unresponsiveness" (I made that up), ie, there's none as deaf as those that don't want to hear.
This last paragraph, I know, reads like so much written against the Iraq war; it might almost have been written by a member of the "Stop the War Coalition", which I am not. The fact that so many people were opposed to the invasion before it happened begs another question: what happened to the anti-war lobby? In Britain, at least, it ought to have been possible to build on that million strong turnout in 2003 and launch a massive movement to stop UK involvement in this whole sorry affair. Instead, the anti-war movement in the UK has dwindled, despite the length and ferocity of the war, to what one commentator has called a "left-wing rump". Future historians, again, will find that a taxing issue to resolve.
Yet, as Michael Moore points out, the present situation in Iraq is spiralling towards disaster. A country which never had any connection with Islamic terrorism eleven years ago, is now threatened by Islamic extremism. The US-led attempt at "nation building" has led to the destruction of a nation. And it need never have happened. That, I contend, is the tragedy and farce of Iraq.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Biting the Helping Hand - Assaults on Public Sector Workers

The recent horrific murder of Anne Maguire has shocked a lot of people in Britain - including me. I knew that teaching was becoming more hazardous in many ways, but I never thought that there would be any lethal attacks. Perhaps I was just being too naïve. My own limited research shows that the killing of Anne Maguire is symptomatic of a wave of violence against public sector workers.In fact, it is a miracle that there have not been more deaths and serious injuries. In presenting my case, I have looked (albeit too briefly) at education, NHS staff (hospital and paramedic), the police and the Civil Service. It is not a happy picture, but it must not be ignored or swept under the carpet.
In education, assaults and abuse of teaching staff have been on the rise for years. In 2013, Anna Davis of the London Evening Standard quoted recent figures for assaults on staff in 2011:
"Latest national figures show there were 8,030 assaults on school staff in England by pupils aged between four and 11 in 2011". As the Standard is a London paper, she goes on to say:
"Information obtained by the Evening Standard exposes the shocking scale of violence in the classroom, including the case of a woman teacher in Kingston who was knocked unconscious after being headbutted by a pupil of 15."
In London alone there were over 4000 attacks on teachers in the period 2009 - 2013, including one case of rape. In 2012, the BBC reported:
"The number of attacks against teachers in Bristol has risen by more than 40% in three years."
Figures do not convey the horror of these attacks. Teachers can claim compensation, but no amount of money compensates for ruined health. As Helene Mulholland said in The Guardian in 2012:
 "Among the highest compensation payouts secured by the NUT was £222,215 for a teacher working in a school for pupils with learning and behavioural problems who suffered a brain injury after being hit on the head with a bus door by a pupil. Another was handed almost £175,000 after being punched in the head by a parent."
There are more incidents such as these, which I do not have space for here.
I have insufficient space also for describing attacks on NHS staff. Rebecca Smith, in 2012, spelt out the scale of the problem:
"Overall assaults on NHS staff in England reached almost 60,000 last year, an increase of more than three per cent on the previous year." This incredible figure of attacks on people who only have the best interests of ill and injured patients at heart shows no sign of decreasing.
NHS Protect has released the 2012-13 figures for reported physical assaults against NHS staff in England.
The statistics were collated from 341 health bodies across the country.
The number of criminal sanctions following reported assaults has risen by 201, from 1,257 to 1,458 – a rise of 15.9 per cent.
Overall, there was a rise of 5.8 per cent in total reported assaults from 59,744 in 2011/12 to 63,199 in 2012/13. Some of the most vicious attacks happen on paramedics trying to do their vital jobs in emergency situations. In Sussex alone, "The Argus" reports:
"Crews have reported being punched and kicked as they try to do their job, leaving them with cuts, bruises and concussion.
Others have found themselves subjected to verbal abuse, aggression and intimidating behaviour from patients, relatives and sometimes passers-by.
Unions said they were aware of the increase in cases and believe the real number could be higher because not every incident is reported."
In Southern England, there have been cases of paramedics being shot at in the course of their duty.
As for the police, one is left wondering why anyone does the job, when assault figures are taken into account. Recently released figures show that 54 police officers in Britain are attacked every day. The Daily Express quoted the figures:

"A Freedom of Information request to all police forces found that last year a total of 19,670 officers were assaulted on duty, one every 27 minutes.
The Met had the largest number of officer assaults in the past year with 1,493. Greater Manchester Police suffered 802 attacks and Thames Valley 560."
As for the Civil Service, the brunt of attacks tends to fall upon Department of Works and Pensions (DWP)staff, who deal with the public in Job Centres and Benefit Claims. Here also, there is a worrying increase in violence against DWP staff.
The DWP's own stats showed staff reported 476 assaults in 2012/13 - up from 228 in 2009/10, before the coalition took power and began changing the benefits system.
PCS union leader Mark Serwotka has said: "Alongside a wider assault on public services and those who provide them, the government has launched the most disgusting campaign of vilification against the sick, disabled and unemployed in a bid to justify cutting the benefits to which they are entitled.
It is shocking but unsurprising that we are seeing an increase in attacks on jobcentre staff in the wake of this".
Of the 476 assaults reported last year, 80 resulted in cuts and bruises and 23 in an injury greater than a cut or a bruise.
In the first six months of this financial year, 248 assaults were recorded at a rate of more than one a day.
Why is this happening? I do not have a comprehensive answer to that question, as the violence I have discussed here is different in kind in different cases. Mark Serwotka is surely right in blaming economic factors for the increase in aggression shown against DWP staff, who are only implementing this government's punitive benefits policies, but it does not explain why children attack teachers, or why people shoot at paramedics. It is simply too complacent to say that "only a minority" are involved in the violence. The inescapable fact is that there is a growing wave of hostility towards the caring agencies, and I hope I have demonstrated the fact. I have not included attacks on fire crews, who frequently come under attack from yobs when attending fires in our towns and cities. Nor have I had space to talk of shop and catering workers, bus and train employees and many others who face abuse from members of the public. In conclusion, I would say that if you bite the hand that tries to help you, it might not be there when you want it one day.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Anne Maguire and a Rubicon Crossed

Although retired from full-time teaching, I work regularly as a supply teacher. This morning, after leaving the house, I was suddenly struck by the cold realisation that this was what the late Anne Maguire, murdered by one of her pupils yesterday, must have been doing 24 hours before. Just another teacher on her way to school, totally unaware of what fate was waiting for her... I tried to blank it out at that point. Like the vast majority of teachers, I have had to face "difficult" pupils and violent school situations; like all teachers this morning, I had to face the fact that it could have been me.
I do not propose to dwell upon the details of this horrific murder; the press will be doing that for weeks to come. All I will say is that the news of this sickening crime brought tears to my eyes when I first learned of it - that has not happened for decades.
Instead, I would like to preempt some of the media coverage that is bound to surround this incident. It will not be long before the "blame game" starts. The Right will see this murder as symptomatic of what David Cameron has called "broken Britain"; the Left will probably try to link it to public spending cuts. Or some such things. We have already heard the usual soothing noises made by the Yorkshire Police and others, reassuring us that such attacks are very rare. Quite how that is supposed to help Anne Maguire's relatives, colleagues, pupils and ex-pupils is beyond me. After all, plane crashes are very rare, but that does not lessen the impact upon bereaved relatives.
There will, hopefully, be some fruitful discussion about measures that can be taken to protect pupils and staff from "awkward" pupils. It is slowly dawning upon the public at large that children can be violent. In the last two decades, we have seen some appalling crimes committed by children - the murders of James Bulger and Rhys Jones in Liverpool are extreme examples, but the instances of reported violence against teachers are numerous. Many incidents are not reported or are dealt with "in-house", as Heads fear adverse public and OFSTED reaction if too many (or any) violent pupils are excluded. Special Education Units, condemned as "dumping grounds" by Leftie academics in the 1980s, were gleefully axed by Right-Wing Tories, anxious to cut back on public spending. Not many such units remain today, despite their usefulness in withdrawing "difficult" pupils.
Not that this would have made much difference in the Anne Maguire case - no school can anticipate the actions of the brooding, alienated loner, such as the murderous 15 year old arrested for her stabbing. The boys who carried out the lethal Columbine High School massacre in the USA, in 1999. were of a similar type.
Whatever is discussed, proposed or recommended, whatever sorrow, condemnation or horror is expressed, a British teacher has been murdered by a pupil for the first time ever. A "Rubicon" has been crossed, and there is no going back.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Oscar Pistorius Case - a South African Tragedy

Thokozile Masipa, the chief judge in the trial of Oscar Pistorius recently rebuked the prosecuting attorney, Gerrie Nel, for laughing in court during his cross-examination of Pistorius. She also told spectators in the public gallery that the trial was not entertainment. Indeed so. A young woman (Reeva Steenkamp) has lost her life and a young man (Pistorius) is on trial for his life. We are a long way from South Africa, yet I find the case intriguing. From the beginning of this ongoing tragedy, I have been troubled by certain aspects of the case, and I would like to discuss them here.
First, it needs to be understood that South Africa is a dangerous place to live. Statistics show an average murder rate of 35 to 50 people a day, and in 2012 there were 65 000 sex crimes. Those who can afford to live in gated communities (like Pistorius) reside behind the protection of fences and armed guards. Those who can not, live in fear.
Burglary is rife, also, and is frequently accompanied by violence. Even a simple car ride can be fraught with danger, as carjacking is another common crime. I once asked a lady who lives in South Africa what happens if your car breaks down. "Oh", she replied grimly," you don't want to do that". It is understandable, then, that there is widespread gun ownership for self and property defence and it is against this menacing background that we need to look at the Pistorius case.
Which leads to my first question - since Pistorius lived in a secure compound with armed guards not far away, why did he not simply phone for help when he heard the noise in the bathroom? Incredibly, he did not even put the light on in the bedroom - which would have shown Steenkamp to be missing. Besides this, there is the seemingly minor point that Pistorius says quite specifically that he thought the sound was caused by "an intruder" - but how did he know there was only one? There could easily have been two, or even three, and they, also, could have been armed. What follows next requires an explanatory diagram and can be found HERE.
What he did next is difficult to comprehend. Home Defence experts in the USA train people to go for the safe option if you have intruders in your home. This involves moving yourself and your family to a place of safety with only one entrance, eg, upstairs, where you can cover the means of access ( ie, the staircase) with your firearm (legal in the USA), while waiting for the police to arrive. You are specifically warned against sallying forth to engage your intruder, who could be waiting  to ambush you. Pistorius lived in a flat with no stairs, but could have stayed in the bedroom covering the entrance to the bathroom with his pistol until help arrived. If he had been as frightened as he said he was, that would have been the sensible thing to do.
Instead, assuming he is telling the truth, he foolishly proceeds into a dark bathroom where at least one intruder could be waiting, hears a noise which puts him in fear of his life (!!! - dangerous noises?) and shoots into the darkness in a blind panic.
Now, for me, these claims just do not add up. As he was armed, the obvious course of action (if not as sensible as staying in the bedroom) would have been to shout out a warning, or even fire a warning shot above head height. That should have been enough to deter an intruder - even the toughest burglar respects a gun - and  would certainly have given Reeva Steenkamp a chance to identify herself. More puzzling - if he was firing wildly into the darkness, how did he manage to hit the toilet door four times? If he saw enough to hit his target, he should have been able to see that he was facing no danger.
Undisciplined, "panic" shooting, such as Pistorius says he did that night, would be understandable from someone with no firearms experience - but Pitorius had extensive firearms experience, which has been well documented and includes, allegedly, shooting through a car roof.
Anyone who learns to shoot is taught to fire only aimed shots to try and roughly hit in the same area. This is called "grouping". Allowing for panic, stress (or anger?), Pistorius' shots were all aimed well enough. They all hit the toilet door with two rounds hitting close together. Had he been firing wildly, bullets would have been  found all over the bathroom wall, as well as the toilet door.
Pistorius appears to have fired in what are known as "double taps", i.e. fire two shots in rapid succession - pause to adjust aim - fire two more shots. If so, this shows Pistorius to be a well-trained shootist who knew what he was doing.
I know that a defence lawyer could refute all I have said here as conjecture and wisdom after the event. When all is said and done, there are no witnesses to the shooting and no conclusive proof that Pistorius committed murder. He may well walk free to try and rebuild a shattered life. Even if he is convicted, he will be released one day; the family of Reeva Steenkamp face a life sentence. This is one more tragedy in a country that has already endured far too many tragedies.

Monday, 3 March 2014

The Great War, a Common Meadow, and the Ukraine

There is a Spanish proverb that says: "History is a common meadow in which everyone can make hay". In this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War (WW1), we are seeing just how true that is, with two leading historians, Max Hastings and Niall Ferguson, presenting two separate BBC programmes giving opposing views on whether or not Britain should have gone to war in 1914. Interestingly, both these pundits are men of the Right, which gives the lie to Michael Gove's recent claim that all opponents of WW1, past and present, were people of the Left. Personally, I watched both programmes with great interest, although I do not wish to express my own opinion here.
Instead, I would like to give some guidance, for those interested, through the plethora of information that is coming our way in the next four years. It will come as a surprise to many friends and acquaintances of mine to learn that I take an interest in WW1, and have quite a good selection of books that give insight into various aspects of this huge disaster that claimed so many lives and shaped the modern world.
A good general history of the conflict that I have is "The First World War" by Sir Martin Gilbert, and there is another book with the same title by John Keegan. Gilbert's book is the better narrative, and provides some fascinating snippets of information. I gave the Keegan book to a charity shop.
Anyone who wishes to learn more about the beginning of the war can do no better than read two new books on the subject: "Catastrophe" by Max Hastings, in which he lays the blame for the war on German militarism and there is "The Sleepwalkers", by Christopher Clark, which is an exhaustive (and exhausting!) account of the events leading up to the war. For Clark, the statesmen of 1914 were: "sleepwalkers...blind to the horror they were about to bring into the world". Whatever we think of Hastings' politics (Private Eye calls him "Hitler"), he writes interestingly; I am still wading through Clark's book.
Most people already have a view of WW1 as a futile exercise, in which young men were sacrificed in their thousands by callous, bungling generals safely ensconced behind the lines in luxurious chateaus. To reinforce this view, there is the well-known "Blackadder Goes Forth" series and the lesser known book by John Laffin : "British Butchers and Bunglers of World War One". Added to this, of course, is the incomparable war poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Rupert Brooke and many others. "The Penguin Book of First World War Verse" provides a good selection of their poems, but there are many such selections. It needs to be said, though, that not all WW1 poems were anti-war in the modern sense. For me, the most distressing book - although not meant as polemic by the author - is "The First Day on the Somme", by Martin Middlebrook, which describes, in harrowing detail, the destruction of Lord Kitchener's "New Armies" on July 1st, 1916. I first read it nearly 20 years ago, and found it so upsetting that I have not been able to bring myself to read it again. I still have it, and intend to reread it in July, 2016. The individual general usually targeted for opprobrium by holders of this viewpoint is Earl Douglas Haig, who commanded the British troops in France from 1915 to 1918. As the Liverpool poet, the late Adrian Henri, puts it:
"Don't be vague - blame General Haig".
For those interested in a different point of view, there is Hasting's "Catastrophe", in which he refutes what he calls the "poets' war" perspective by arguing that Britain was right to go to war to prevent German domination of Europe. Hastings also mounts a defence of WW1 generals, which may be of interest. Niall Ferguson, opposed to the view that Britain should have entered WW1, provides a cold, critical analysis of British generals in his book "The Pity of War". Ferguson is no proponent of the "Poets' War" theory, however. One of his conclusions in the book, and the recent TV programme of the same name, is that British generals were less professional than the Germans, who were better at killing their enemies. I leave readers to form their own conclusions on that view. For those interested in the strictly military side of WW1, there are the books of John Terraine, who, incidentally, was a staunch defender of Earl Haig.
For the human interest angle on the war, there is Middlebrook's book on the Somme, mentioned above. There is also "Death's Men", by Denis Winter, which depicts the ordinary Tommies as just that - passive, fatalistic, cannon fodder. More positive, and much more moving, are the books of Lyn Macdonald, all marvellously told, largely in words of veterans of the conflict, most of whom Macdonald interviewed personally. Another outstanding writer who uses first hand accounts from veterans is Max Arthur. His "Forgotten Voices of the Great War" is essential reading for anyone seeking eyewitness statements of the conflict. For books on the Home Front, there is "Blighty", by Gerard J. DeGroot and, though much less detailed, "Great Britain's Great War", by Jeremy Paxman. Both these authors refute the "Lost Generation" view of the (British) casualties of WW1, although acknowledging the impact upon British life by the conflict - especially the change in the role of women in society. They both play down the importance of British conscientious objectors in WW1. Paxman caused controversy recently by describing the "conchies" as cranks.
I am the first to admit that my selection is not comprehensive and heavily slanted to the British experience of WW1. There are many authors on this massive subject that I have not read, but I hope I have given a good account of those I have read, and that my insights may prove useful. As for the British angle, I recognise that WW1 was a disaster for the whole of mankind, in which ten million died. Other nations lost far more men than Britain. Germany lost 2, 037 000, while Britain lost 723 000 (Ferguson, p295, "The Pity of War").
I know that some people will dismiss an interest in WW1 altogether. After all, it was a long time ago, and what does it matter now? So runs the "argument". Hopefully, most of us will dismiss that view. The world we know arose from the aftermath of WW1. From the ashes of destroyed empires, other quarrels grew, leading to WW2 and many other post-war, post-imperial conflicts. And WW1 taught some very hard lessons, one of which is being remembered now.
The assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, July 28, 1914, happened in a so-called "backwater" of Europe. 37 days later, Europe was plunged into war. The grave situation in Ukraine at present has the potential to escalate into something more serious. Wisely, our politicians are not reacting like the politicians and potentates of 1914, and are seeking to bring about a peaceful solution. We can only hope they succeed.
Remembrance Day - Today- 11th November

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Michael Gove, OFSTED, and Present Realities

There is currently (as everybody knows) a good deal of controversy around the recent public statements made by the Education Minister, Michael Gove. While cronyism in politics is a serious matter, I do not wish to comment upon Mr Gove's replacement (aka sacking) of the Chief of OFSTED, Baroness Sally Morgan of Huyton. Like many teachers, retired teachers and Fascinating Aida, I have little sympathy for OFSTED employees; as far as I (and many others) am concerned, Gove can abolish OFSTED altogether.
Instead, I wish to comment upon Mr Gove's proposals to lengthen the school day, and improve school discipline by re-introducing good old-fashioned punishments, such as lines, detentions and picking up litter in the playground.
I have no real objection to lengthening the school day, provided it does not make the workload of teachers and teaching assistants even more onerous than it is now. If extra staff are to be recruited in order to provide children with more extra-curricular activities, then that is no bad thing. What is questionable is the fact that Mr Gove appears to want to make the extra hours compulsory. Understandably, many pupils have spoken of their disapproval of this measure - especially older pupils, who have lives of their own to lead after school. I don't think that all parents will be in agreement, either, especially if they feel that they see little enough of their children. Besides this, many schools already have voluntary after-school clubs (and I should know - I've run a few), and even provide after-school snacks. The clubs which presently supply food - breakfast or evening meal - have to be paid for by parents. If staying on after school is to be compulsory, these meals should be free.
As for Mr Gove's disciplinary measures, I do not believe that Gove is aware of present realities. It is all very well to talk of turning the clock back to what are, essentially, 1950s punishments. The trouble is, we are not dealing with 1950s children or parents. I foresee problems with older children, who might simply refuse to abide by these punitive measures, which they will regard as demeaning. Not only this, but weekend detentions could very well cause problems with angry parents, who will not accept that their children have to give up part of their weekends. On "This Morning" today, Mr Gove said that violent pupils should be excluded from schools. In this matter, Gove shows his ignorance of OFSTED procedures. Schools which exclude too many troublesome pupils face being commented upon adversely by OFSTED, which helps to make Heads of schools unwilling to exclude if they can avoid it.
All in all, then, Mr Gove's proposals are not as original as he seems to think, nor are they as wide-ranging enough to deal with classroom indiscipline as his admirers in the press seem to believe. He is not even providing teachers with extra powers to implement these unoriginal sanctions of his. As so often on previous occasions, Mr Gove "could do better".
Besides all this, there is the question of funding, which has been raised by no-one, least of all Mr Gove.
 The funding needs to be quantified and a matter of public record in school budgets this year by Easter, for use in September. As budgets have already been set for 2014 - 2015 this will need at least a year before any school can make proposals. For implementation in Sept 2015, this would have to be sorted and in the school budgets by Easter 2015. Schools will not even consider  employing additional staff for 2015 -2016 unless the cash is there.
Government funding will have to be approved and - very important - there is an election approaching. Unless the Conservative Party wins an outright majority at the next election, I predict that Mr Gove's ideas will go down as yet another failed initiative in education.