Britain


SparkI have no desire to comment on the specific processes by which Adebolajo and Adebowale came to be inspired to commit murder on the streets of Woolwich. There is much that is being speculated or that has yet to be said, and one’s conclusions would be necessarily presumptuous. This, of course, has never held back 99% of opinion commentators, and it sometimes does not restrain me, but for now I will observe and attempt to learn.

Still, the commentary is interesting. Jonathan Freedland argues that we should not consider the motives of terrorists as this “cede[s] [them], and violence itself, too much power”. Discussing the motives of particular terrorists may lend them a perverted glamour, yes, but I am all for the study of trends of violence. My general rule is that if people who would otherwise have been expected to be peaceful are blowing themselves or others up, something must have occurred that has provoked such a collective fever, and if it has the potential to cause so much desensitisation it may well have been a regrettable occurrence. Breivik, then, who Freedland mentions, seems to have been a vicious narcissist who found an outlet for his vicious narcissism. The fact that tens of thousands of Iraqis suddenly felt that causing violence was a sensible life plan, however, suggests that something had happened to their nation that should not have taken place.

Terry Eagleton is right, then, to say that we should not confuse explaining the motivations of criminals with excusing them. Still, one’s interpretations of their motives can lend them too much nobility. If, as some people have argued or implied, the crimes of terrorists were the results of their being blinded by humanitarian outrage over Western foreign policies one might retain more sympathy for them than if they had, say, been inspired by the wish to defend and further the supremacy of Islam. While I have no doubt that Western invasions  incline people towards jihadist beliefs, the fact that terrorism is prevalent in Pakistan, Nigeria, Thailand and the Philippines, none of which are known for their imperial atrocities, lead me to think that Islamic supremacism is a hefty factor.

Speaking of Islamic supremacism: Omar Ali, the President of FOSIS, claims that what he calls “the mainstream British Muslim community”, including the Islamic societies that he represents, are “the barrier to extremism”. (His bolding.) He cites “the great work they do”, from donating gifts to children’s hospitals to raising funds for charities. That is great work. Had he mentioned some other acts of Islamic societies, though, a more complicated picture would have emerged. I speak of…

  • Circulating quotes and videos of notorious jihadist ideologues.
  • Holding sermons in which students were told of the virtues of murdering people for changing their religious beliefs and committing violence in order to spread one’s religion.
  • Joining the intimidation of young Muslims held to have been overly licentious.

Mr. Ali is not functioning as a barrier to extremism but as a wall between us and extremism; thus to obscure it.

BenSix’s one-sentence summary of terrorism, then? Don’t be so aggressive as to lead people towards terrorism in their own countries or so tolerant as to allow them to become terrorists in yours.

HedgehogAccording to a report by a coalition of British wildlife organisations, more than half of the animal species of our lands are in decline, and almost a third are strongly declining. Patrick Barkham writes engagingly inside the Guardian of the threat posed to hedgehogs – those redoubtable features of our landscapes – for whom the urbanisation of everything has given rise to homelessness and obsolescence. Our country is not alone in observing the downfall of its wildlife. Today’s Washington Post carries news that frogs, toads and salamanders have been vanishing from across America. It is an exciting time in many children’s lives when, delving through the undergrowth, they meet a frog. Fewer of the next generation, it seems, will have that privilege.

For someone who cares a lot about animal welfare, I am not a big animal lover. We do not, to be quite frank, have a great deal in common and while I wish them well I tend to leave them be. I do think the creatures of our wildlife are important, though, and should be valued. This is partly because they are often sentient beings, and it is cruel to obstruct their path to food and shelter. It is partly due to their effect on us, though.

When I lived in London, a nice feature of my urban life was watching the foxes scurry across the green outside my home. They are not my favourite creatures, and nor are they yours, and their shrieks were alarming for the few moments that I assumed a baby was dying outside, but their presence was oddly soothing. It was not a happy period in my life, yet something about these busy, preoccupied animals helped to give me perspective. Beyond the passing concerns and moods of the day, the world was driving forwards, in all of its blithe boldness and grand animation. If our imperialism drives other creatures out of our societies we risk losing our proportion; that sense of being in a long time and a big place. And, relatedly, we risk starving our imaginations. I am by no means a staunch foe of civilisation: one can track its achievements for our health and comfort and culture in charts and on graphs. Yet we are losing a great deal, and some of it can’t be quantified. We are losing our poetry.

Woolwich car22nd May. No, I do not blame the Muslims. Muslims are our colleagues; our schoolmates; our taxi drivers; our takeaway restaurateurs and our favourite footballers. They tend to have no more of a desire for bloodshed than the Christians, atheists and Jews of our acquaintance, and want nothing more than to work and live in peace.

It is important to say this. As I write, a mosque in Essex has been assaulted by a man bearing a knife and an incendiary weapon, and another in Kent has had a window smashed. Masked nationalists are hurling rocks through Woolwich, which is an odd way to make English people feel safe. The Internet is thick with comments expressing such sentiments such as that Muslims should be killed; British people should arm themselves and Hitler should have targeted members of the Islamic faith. What could be more stupid, and more ugly, and more ironic given that the perpetrators of the atrocity appear to have been motivated at least in part by a deranged perception of collective responsibility.

23rd May. No, I do not blame the Muslims. Yet this does not mean I have no blame for Muslims. I cannot know where these particular men learned their trade. They have, like so many other men of violence, been associated with Anjem Choudary, and how he and his gang have managed to operate in Britain will make for an interesting story when it has all been revealed. As we are told that we live in “harmony” and “unity”, however, I must dissent. When we have numerous well-respected clerics within our borders who pay homage to people who kill British soldiers we are not united. When they defend the imposition of Islamic law we are not together. When they say that non-Muslims deserve “enmity and hatred”, to such an extent that we should not be so much as greeted, there is no fellowship. While such ideas are at large we will not be safe, and while hundreds of Muslim leaders are happy to stand alongside men like this there is no harmony. If people want to help build to an open society, I am all for uniting with them. Unless supremacist and totalistic ideas and ideologues are excluded, though, such efforts will be crippled. For that, one can blame ideologues and their enablers.

24th May. I am sorry that we are forgetting you, Mr. Rigby. For the victim of the most notorious murder in years, you have received little attention yourself. Your death, I think, has been a spark for the powder of the resentment and fears of a confused and conflicted people. I hope your son can grow up in a time where we are more stable, more secure and more sympathetic.

GriffithsKevin Williamson, a writer for the National Review, went to the theatre recently. A woman next to him was tapping at her mobile phone. He asked her to stop, twice, but she continued to nonetheless.

She suggested that I should mind my own business.So I minded my own business by utilizing my famously feline agility to deftly snatch the phone out of her hand and toss it across the room, where it would do no more damage. She slapped me and stormed away to seek managerial succor. Eventually, I was visited by a black-suited agent of order, who asked whether he might have a word.

Throwing the phone was petulant and disruptive in itself but the sympathy that Mr. Williamson has inspired is evidence of how widespread poor behaviour in theatres has become.

My amateur exploits on Britain’s smaller stages have exposed me to frequent choruses of ringtones and conversation. The former almost inevitably go off before punchlines or during emotional climaxes, and tend to be the loudest, shrillest and most repetitious ringtones imaginable. It has not been Clocks by Coldplay yet but I suspect that it is just a matter of time.

We are often conflicted as to how to respond. One can ignore it – plunging onwards as if ignorant of the existence of viewers. One can shame the troublemaker, as the late, lamented Richard Griffiths did in magnificent style. I am tempted to incorporate the annoyance into the production; to break off from the dialogue, for example, to comment on a passing circus troupe or the sound of rats in the skirting boards.

What makes this an interesting phenomenon is its unmasking of anti-social behaviour in the middle-class. (Not everyone who goes to the theatre is middle-class, of course, but the prices alone put them in a majority.) This is not to demonise disrupters. Most of them, having grasped that it is their mobile phone that has been burbling, scrabble for it as if it is a grenade that must be hurled before it goes off in their pocket. Their failure to respect a law that is followed by schoolchildren under the threat of severe punishments, however, is reflective of a broad indifference to the individual obligations that our sharing public spaces imposes upon us.

One can see this in more dramatic cases, such of those of people who speed or use their mobile phones while driving, or in apparently innocuous acts that nonetheless make our society more unpleasant, such as the ignoring of the homeless or the hectoring of public transport employees. Many people, across classes, are more sensitive to their rights than responsibilities; cognisant of what represents their business and nonchalant towards their effects upon other people. As long as they are not being actively malicious, then, they can feel that they are good citizens. All of us, I think, can be prey to this temptation and would do well o remember that it is an individualism that worsens our collective experiences.

Old WomanLike you, I read the Mail Online. It is a sewer, of course, but so much of it appeals to my morbid curiosity that I delve in regardless. It was there that I learned of a 71-year-old woman who strode out onto the stage of Britain’s Got Talent and bellowed a tuneless number titled Kiss My Ass. The clip is available on YouTube, and features thousands of young to middle-aged people shrieking with laughter as the grey-haired songstress yells out Bart Simpson’s favourite noun.

The rude old person has become a feature of the cultural landscape. Agnes Brown, the matriarch of Mrs. Brown’s Boys, curses her way through episodes of Britain’s most-watched sitcom. The Catherine Tate Show featured an old woman who did nothing except swear. Little Britain offered a sketch devoted to a young man having a sexual relationship with a grandmother. It was a recurring sketch. Did Father Jack start this? I hope not. I liked Father Jack. But perhaps he was a bad influence.

I have no wish to tell old people to conform to special standards of propriety. If they are going to warble on about pecking posteriors I am not going to bully them. Yet it would be great if younger people stopped cackling like idiots at such behaviour.

The septuagenarian singer was described as an “inspiration” by the botox businessman. Some might claim that this was for having the guts to perform, except that he had looked disgusted as she walked onstage; perhaps fearing that she was going to have the shameless audacity to try and show musical talent. Some might hold that it was because of her energy and spirit, but if singing R&B was enough to defy his preconceptions of the powers of the aged he cannot be acquainted with many old people. The reason he and the audience loved her was because she was being coarse, and, thus, defying those staid old values we associate with age. Reserve, politesse and prudence are disdained by our exhibitionistic culture, and old people are only welcome in the public eye if they are members of the royal family or behaving like young people. It is our world now and they are only welcome if they are trying to match our standards.

Of course, in many ways I think it would be great for us to encourage old people to regain their youthfulness. Few could match Elizabeth Jane Howard, writing novels at 90, or Robert Marchand, breaking cycling records after he has broken triple figures, but when the aged make use of the knowledge and resources available to us they can often retain and regain mental and physical abilities that allow them to live more pleasant and productive lives. What they need inspiration to do, though, apparently, is to say “ass” and mention oral sex. We don’t have enough references to the backside nowadays.

My favourite of the places we visited in Cumbria was a small church, nestled within Newlands Valley. (The picture is Wikipedia user Mick Knapton’s.)

Newlands Church

On the wall of the church, a notice informs visitors that the church made an appearance in Wordsworth’s To May

How delicate the leafy veil
Through which yon house of God
Gleams, mid the peace of this deep dale
By few but shepherds trod!

The typical sunniness of the Cumberland bard reflects its georgic charm, but visiting such places tends to be sobering for me. There is the graveyard, in which relatives are buried alongside one another. There is the memorial to the soldiers who fought and died in the world wars. There is the list of priests who served parishioners, stretching back to the days of the House of Hanover. There is the sense not merely of these people’s deaths but of their lives; of their communities; of their struggles. I admire the preservation of the memories of these lives. Their stories enrich the landscapes that they once inhabited.

We were holidaying with my grandparents, and mealtimes were enlivened by discussions of my ancestors, many of whom I had known little of and some of whom were secretive enough that little is known of them. These were not unanimously cheerful tales: indeed, my forebears could be dreadful to themselves and to other people. Together, though, they fascinated and, yes, humbled me as an insight into the struggles and synchronisms that allowed me and my family to live, and that determined the conditions of much our lives.

To think of the past of one’s family and neighbourhood is to give oneself a perspective of one’s fortune in being, and in being at such a time, and the values, ambitions and efforts that have allowed for it. One can choose one’s own route after gazing back along the path that led to one’s existence, of course, but one does it with a fuller appreciation of the significance of the trip. History, then, can begin at home.

Here is one anecdote that I picked up from my grandparents: both of them, by their own apparently immediate admission, almost decided not to turn up to their first date. People who know me can be thankful or bitter that they chose to forgo an evening before the television or dartboard.

JigI am somewhat bemused by the fact that David Goodhart writes on migration as if he is a recent convert to the nationalistic cause. He has been defined as “that guy who is kinda liberal but dislikes mass migration” for almost a decade now. Whatever. He is promoting a book on the subject and I suppose it makes for a better narrative.

Goodhart’s target is the post-nationalism of political elites. The concepts of nations and peoples has, indeed, been assailed by a perfect storm of ideas and desires. The far left, to quote Owen Jones, believes it represents “working people, regardless of their national affiliations”, and holds that borders are means of dividing a single class with a common goal. Liberals abhor discrimination and maintain that to prioritise the interests of some people over others is, in the apparently pejorative phrase of Oliver Kamm, “fellow citizen favouritism”. Jet-setting capitalists, meanwhile, want cheap labour and do not mind where it comes from. The more ideological of them even praise immigration as a destabilising force. Bryan Caplan states that it “undermines solidarity” and rhapsodises that it thus “makes the eventual abolition of the welfare state imaginable”.

I suspect that cheap labour has been more important to politicians than some kind of universalist humanitarianism. They were happy to ship Iraqi refugees back to the conflict zones, for example, and dragged their feet over letting in the interpreters who had served our army and found themselves targeted by death squads. There has been a prevailing culture of disdain for the nation and its communities, though. The academia offered ideas like those of Alex Callinicos, Marxist philosopher and dead ringer of Mole in The Wind and the Willows, who quoted Daniel Bensaid’s opinion that the desireable form of a society was one of a “mosaic of cultures and peoples” and insisted that “building it will require…a vigorous and sustained effort to break with the national traditions that hold us all back”. Deeper within the mainstream there was, according to Andrew Neather, a New Labour flunkie, an undercurrent of thought that saw migration as a way “to make the UK truly multicultural” and “rub the Right’s nose in diversity”.

No one told ordinary Britons this, of course, which helps to explain the force of opposition to mass migration. They tended to be hostile to the opening of borders and are especially averse to being treated like kids. Such is their anger with regards to this issue that after about 326 years of obscurity Nigel Farage has been made relevant. Humans tend to be more tribalistic than liberals would like: they do regard national allegiances; they do want to keep their traditions and they hope to live in stable communities that reflect them. This applies to natives and newcomers, which helps to explain their segregation in urban landscapes across Britain and the conflicts that arise when their values diverge and loyalties clash. There have been extraordinary steps taken towards the unification of peoples but one point of mutual accord that highlights growing tensions is the fact that large numbers of Britain’s ethnic minorities are also anti-immigration.

My affection for England is growing as I age, and took root in everything from Wasdale to Withnail…. My affection for nations, though, stems from their functionality. They have tended to make large numbers of a parochial and hot-tempered species live and work together in relative peace and satisfaction. It was beautifully anomalous, for example, that after thousands of years of living in tribes that fought whenever they encroached upon each other’s territories, or under fiefdoms that were so pronounced that they could go to war, we reached a state where tens of millions of us did not just get along but kind of enjoyed each other’s company. Large-scale multiculturalism, meanwhile, is untried, hazardous and displaying its potential for obnoxious consequences. I hope it is being realised that the least that can be done is to avoid proceeding as if the experiment has proved to be successful.

HikeAs someone who has never learned to direct a small metal box at terrifying speeds across the tarmac scratches of our nation I am forced to walk to my engagements. I say “forced” but it is also a pleasure. I often walk when there is no engagement to be respected. The sharpness of their air, the freedom of forward momentum and, of course, the extraction of oneself from the informational bog of one’s electronics bring a fresh clarity to the mind. The engagement with one’s local and, indeed, broader environment gives one that sense of place that some lives must be rooted in. And, of course, one sees and hears a lot of interesting things.

Different walks appeal to different tastes, and different times also contribute to the variety of sights and sounds. If I leave the house for an afternoon stroll, for example, I have to contend with an onrush of schoolchildren, emerging from their day’s work like a herd of baby buffalo sweeping across an open plain. When I worked nights I would walk home through streets whose only other occupants were abandoned drunks, stumbling like zombies along pavements and into drains.

It is a privilege to live in a nice area, where lone walkers are not at great risk of having their heads kicked in. It is, indeed, an underappreciated privilege. I watched a programme on Los Angeles gangs a few months ago, and one man observed that if he were to stroll beyond the confines of his own block he would be liable to return in an ambulance or hearse. The thought of life as if inside a bunker is among the more disturbing I can contemplate.

This is especially true in the spring, and I write largely to remind myself, and to urge all of you, to appreciate the beauties of the lighter months while we have them. The sun has been a more frequent visitor to our skies over the past few weeks and I have tried to make the most of its company.

The English spring and summer have an elegance to them. Our landscapes rarely inspire the sharp intakes of breath that such awesome environments as Meteora or the Serengheti would inspire but they are almost unmatched in their elegance; in the subtle harmony of colours up our hills, on our fields, in our parks and by our rivers. Our cities are growing uglier by the year as developers throw up alien erections of concrete and glass, and new hoardings and signs compete for our attention, but they’ll soon be at their best. The smells emerging from the shops and eateries; the sights displayed in windows and on stalls and the smiles that can brighten winter-weary faces can bear a warmth that one hopes will be matched by the weather. (That, of course, is where even my annual optimism falters.)

I am not one for giving detailed policy prescriptions but I would encourage you, once your tasks are done and your game of stick cricket has been lost, to consider the merits of going outside.

George BellPeter Hitchens has re-published a remarkable speech by George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, who addressed the House of Lords in 1944 on the grim subject of the bombing of German cities. Here is a short extract…

The sufferings of Europe, brought about by the demoniac cruelty of Hitler and his Nazis, and hardly imaginable to those in this country who for the last five years have not been out of this island or had intimate association with Hitler’s victims, are not to be healed by the use of power only, power exclusive and unlimited. The Allies stand for something greater than power. The chief name inscribed on our banner is “Law.” It is of supreme importance that we who, with our Allies, are the liberators of Europe should so use power that it is always under the control of law.

I have spent the day exploring the life of this splendid cleric, of whom I had been entirely ignorant. He was an object of derision for his sympathy for German citizens, inspiring Noël Coward’s song “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans”. His insistence on a clear distinction between “the Hitler state and the German people” was reflective of an overly optimistic perception of the natives of the country. One need not be Daniel Goldhagen to acknowledge that there was a profound sickness at the heart of the society, infecting the populace: thousand upon thousand of civilians had bullied Jews, informed on dissentients and smiled as millions were carried off  into the East. These were not combatants though; still less were their cowed and unhappy neighbours and still less were the innocent children and aged relatives of these people. Blockbuster bombs, of course, did not discriminate between them.

Nor were the library of Hamburg or galleries of Berlin tools of war. Bell was right to say that Germany was not inextricable from Nazism but had to be saved from it. He was also correct to plead that the Allies temper their force with moral restraint. The callousness that was in evidence during the bombings was rampant in the post-war displacement of millions of Germans from Eastern Europe, who were forced to leave their homes and often herded into camps where, as R.M. Douglas has written in his recent book, “beatings, rapes of female inmates, gruelling forced labour and starvation diets of 500-800 calories [were] the order of the day”. Bishop Bell was a rare critic of the expulsions, addressing the House of Lords to denounce “a root-and-branch removal of immense populations for racial reasons to clear the ground for the new occupiers”.

Bell had long been a man whose compassionate heart was allied to an incisive mind. He had, indeed, been one of the first opponents of the Nazis. He had observed their takeover of Germany while working in Berlin and by 1934, when the Daily Mail carried an article titled “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”, he had befriended Dietrich Bonhoeffer and was publicising his reports on the descent of Germany into the moral abyss of fascism. “There can be little question,” claims Eric Metaxas in his Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, “[That] Bell and Bonhoeffer were vital to galvanizing British sentiment against Hitler and the Third Reich”. “Before 1939,observes Victoria Barnett, Bell and others received letters “castigating them for being too hard on the Germans and too swayed by “Zionist propaganda””. “Once the war began,” she wryly continues,  “They were accused of undermining the war effort”.

He was not merely courageous in his rhetoric. Throughout the 1930s, as many Britons griped about Jewish refugees, he helped dozens of emigrants escape from Germany, even allowing exiles to find shelter within his home. His establishment of the Famine Relief Committee was a brave if doomed attempt to oppose the Allied blockades that had inspired the Nazis to loot their occupied territories and leave their peoples, most notably the Greeks, to starve. Mr. Hitchens claims that he even succeeded in coaxing Brightonians out of a house that they had been stunned to discover they were sharing with unexploded bombs.

We do not like to recall either the fact that our collective opposition to the Nazis was at least somewhat delayed or that our treatment of German civilians was brutal. Bishop Bell, who was such a formidable exception to these phenomena, has thus been neglected by history. He may have expected this. The former Archbishop of Canterbury observed that he…

…knew that cultural or political cosiness was a temptation to be strenuously resisted as the most insidious temptation for an ‘insider’ in the British establishment; and he knew that if the insider failed to use his patronage and leverage for the voices that the establishment as not eager to hear, then there was a serious moral issue about that established status.

As he is too little known, though, this is an attempt to do something towards the righting of this wrong. All societies must have people who will speak for something more than personal and tribal interests; people for whom the compulsion to express the truth exists regardless of how convenient circumstances have made it. The least that we can do is salvage them from history.

Mid StaffordYou have doubtless heard of the inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, where neglect was so blatant that food and drink was left out of the reach of patients; hygiene was so poor that the smell of urine was pervasive and between four hundred and a thousand two hundred people died needlessly.

The authors of this week’s report inform us that…

During the course of both the first inquiry and the present there has been a constant refrain from those charged with managing, leading, overseeing or regulating the Trust’s provision of services that no cause for concern was drawn to their attention, or that no one spoke up about concerns.

There were, of course, numerous warning signs that a predictable combination of incompetence and disorganisation allowed to go unheeded. Their protestations, despite this fact, are illustrative of the sad truth that authorities often feel no compulsion to investigate and act upon unpleasant trends unless you get up in their faces and scream about them.

We are not without responsibility here. The affairs that we discuss tend to be those that able-bodied, well-connected people have succeeded in publicising. Our attention is drawn to things rather than isolating them. The phone hacking scandal, for example, rightly caused uproar. That it did this, however, and other scandals have not, was less because of the egregious behaviour it exposed than because people like Hugh Grant, J.K. Rowling and Charlotte Church came forward to speak about it. Controversies such as that inspired by a cartoon that a lot of influential people happened to dislike while reading the papers of a Sunday are less defensible as they do not actually matter.

Where the victims of unpleasant societal and institutional phenomena are incapable of speaking out on their own behalf, or are irrelevant to fashionable concerns of the intelligentsia, they are liable to be ignored. Consider these examples…

  • The victims of care home abuse, being old and disabled, are in no position to campaign for better treatment. Thus, tens of thousands of them have been bullied and neglected while the public and the media have been looking elsewhere and politicians have been busily depriving them of funds.
  • Thousands of British girls are likely to be facing genital mutilation with every year that passes yet that have been no convictions of the perpetrators. Being children, they are in no position to object and as their parents tend to have organised the abuse they are not going to draw attention to it. Others of us seem to be ignorant or uninterested. They aren’t our kids.
  • Thousands of the young men who are sheltering from gunfire in Afghanistan are predicted to return traumatised but the funds that have been allocated to help them are meager and the interest in their plight is minimal. We all know to support the troops, you see, but only when they march through Wootton Bassett in spiffy uniforms. When they are on the field or in the streets they are generally forgotten.

It is inevitable, of course, that some problems will receive less attention than they deserve. There is no way to perfect our priorities. Yet I think the phenomena I have mentioned are evidence of a callous incuriosity that informs our public debate and pervades our institutions.

The report into the NHS Foundation Trust called for a “relentless focus” on the people whom the service exists to benefit. This is right, and the advice could be applied to other institutions. It is also relevant to those of us who argue about politics but are liable to forget the point of such a curious activity.

Gloria Foster, an 81 year-old woman, has died of dehydration. The council-contracted agency that had been aiding her collapsed after being investigated by UKBA. No one seems to have thought to replace them.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 184 other followers