Monday, 1 September 2014

The Ashya King debacle

About twenty years ago our daughter died from a brain tumour, so the story of Ashya King is a sombre reminder of how acutely painful things must be for his parents.

Not only that, but we were faced with much the same dilemma about proton beam therapy. In those days it was being used by an American hospital and at the time of our daughter’s illness a UK girl’s parents raised enough money to try it as their last resort.

Sadly it didn’t work and that little girl died, but no doubt many technical improvements have been made in twenty years. The medical advice we were given suggested proton beam therapy had no real prospect of success for our daughter. The limited researches we were able to carry out tended to confirm that.

So our daughter was given Temozolomide which was then an unlicensed but promising drug. We think it certainly added a few months to her life.

So how do the police become involved in such an impossibly difficult situation? How does it help Ashya’s parents even if the UK medical advice was right and proton beam therapy has no prospect of success? How does it help Ashya?

No doubt the errors of judgment and the nuances will come out soon enough, but it is surely appalling that they have to come out in a Spanish court. As far as I can see his parents merely wanted another roll of the dice, hoping to tilt the odds in Ashya's favour – just a little.

Who can blame them?

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The bureaucrat's prayer

There, with its great red hands on the knees parted beneath a white and flowing robe, sat Power — his deity; and a silent prayer, far too instinctive and inevitable to be expressed in words, rose through the stagnant, dusty atmosphere:

“O great image that put me here, knowing as thou must the failings of my fellow-beings, give me power to see that they do right; let me provide for them the moral and the social diet they require. 

For, since I have been here, I have daily, hourly, humbly felt more certain of what it is they really want; more assured that, through thy help, I am the person who can give it them. 

O great image, before thou didst put me here I was not quite certain about anything, but now, thanks be to thee, everything is daily clearer and more definite; and I am less and less harassed by my spirit. Let this go on, great image, till my spirit is utterly at rest, and I am cold and still and changeless as this marble corridor.”

John Galsworthy - Power (1908)

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Sponsored narratives

Almost all public narratives are sponsored. For centuries life was dominated by narratives sponsored by religious and political elites, although the word sponsored is perhaps a little mild for those rough and ready days.

The only other narratives must have been private local narratives conducted in the home, in the fields or the alehouse away from censorious ears. Mostly forgotten now.

These days the situation is much the same. Virtually every public narrative is politically or commercially sponsored although that particular dividing line has become blurred. Sponsored religious narratives are less common than they were. Sponsored academic narratives may or may not have political or commercial backers, but this is a complex area.

Sponsored narratives aren't necessarily false or even misleading, but sponsorship casts a shadow over their veracity. It corrodes the altruistic possibilities of human discourse, inserts covert sympathies, manipulates emotions and loyalties, inserts the levers of power into the very heart of our language. 

Sponsoring a narrative isn't purely a financial matter though. Money certainly comes into it, because publicity comes into it, but so do the endless subtleties of social caution and that ingrained fear of new ideas we all know too well. Above that we have the advisory phone call, the discreet lunch, the country house party, the raised eyebrow, the nudge, the wink and the old school tie. 

Even Marxism soon became a sponsored narrative after the Russian revolution. Many fell for it and quite a few wormed their way into UK governments. As working conditions improved, socialism morphed into just another sponsored narrative. Sponsored by unions, powerful bureaucracies, charities and well funded pressure groups. Eventually sponsored by government itself - all governments of whichever political hue.

So perhaps we who immerse ourselves in the fascinating possibilities of unsponsored narratives are not likely to achieve much apart from a few pinpricks. The reason is obvious enough – it’s why narratives are sponsored in the first place - to ensure that most people only encounter them.

For example the BBC only broadcasts sponsored narratives. I’m sure this accounts for its servile treatment of the Royal Family and why it still broadcasts shows such as Songs of Praise. In spite of the BBC’s left-leaning political sympathies, vague sympathy for the monarchy and the C of E are still sponsored narratives. On the whole, republicanism and atheism are not.

For the same reason, the BBC was bound to broadcast the orthodox global warming message simply because this is so obviously the sponsored narrative. In comparison with Big Green, climate scepticism is an unsponsored narrative, although there are hints that energy policy debacles may yet change all that.

UKIP too has problems with sponsored narratives. The supposed racism of UKIP voters is clearly a sponsored narrative, as is the fruitcake meme. UKIP will have to do something about that, most likely by avoiding genuinely radical reform. In other words, by avoiding unsponsored narratives and by easing its way towards more sponsored narratives. UKIP will have to become mainstream in order to become mainstream

Sponsored narratives are fact of life. We’ll never get away from them.

Friday, 29 August 2014

The day I met the Queen

Actually, as far as I know I’ve never met the Queen unless she goes around in disguise. In which case she could be the woman with the ugly dog but I don’t think so. Yet what if I did meet her unexpectedly in an informal setting?

Imagine a gentrified provisions shop out in the country somewhere. Instead of driving past we stop for a little smackerel of something. While we’re mulling over a tempting cheese counter, in walks this little old lady in a headscarf. By the way, speaking of cheese, never buy Stinking Bishop – it’s outstandingly unpleasant.

To continue. Something tells me the headscarfed one is Her Royalness, so what do I do? Now as I’ve never met the Queen, I’m not primed with the peasant’s section of the royal protocol manual (73rd edition), such as no high fives and no backslapping bonhomie.

However, even without the manual I’m sure I’d dredge up some kind of appropriate behaviour. I’d be suitably polite and deferential of course - and not just because the big chap next to her might have a machine pistol tucked into the waistband of his trousers.

The point I’m making with this absurdly improbable scenario is that I’d still manage to dredge up certain behaviours I’d never actually used before. So if I’ve never used them before, where did they come from?

Lots of places obviously – TV for example, but maybe the most interesting answer has to do with our repertoire of behaviours. We’re pretty good at adapting to circumstances, even those we’ve never come across before. As we all know, we only need a degree of similarity to something we’ve already encountered and off we jolly well go.

We do exactly the same thing when our beliefs are challenged. It doesn’t matter how good an argument might be. If it challenges our belief we can dredge up something to meet the challenge and send any would-be challenger packing. Always.

We all know this but many folk still seem to assume that belief is somehow a matter of rational choice. Supposedly we weigh our options using reason as our trusty guide. Absolutely ludicrous notion but there we are. Take a look around if you don't believe me. No, belief is a fixed repertoire of behaviours, a standard way responding to certain verbal or written challenges.

I imagine those challenges are mostly blogging or chatting in the pub or office, but the point is the same. Belief is part of our repertoire of behaviours, essentially no different to my repertoire of possible reactions to meeting the Queen.

It’s only when we understand this that we introduce the possibility of scepticism, that strange ability which seems to bring free will within reach. For habitual sceptics, the response to many challenges is not wholly automatic. Beliefs can be challenged. 

Not many and not easily, but the possibility isn’t completely closed.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Pottery Cottage murders

Not far from yesterday's Beeley Moor walk is Eastmoor, where the Pottery Cottage murders took place in 1977.

The Glasgow Herald April 28th 1977

Four shots were fired by police marksmen at an escaped rapist, William Hughes, before he stopped a frenzied axe attack on his hostage Mrs Gill Moran, and collapsed dead an inquest was told yesterday.

The shootings occurred after a car chase through Derbyshire and Cheshire, which ended when Hughes crashed at a police roadblock.

The Chesterfield inquest was on Hughes who escaped while being taken from Leicester Prison to Chesterfield Court. And on Richard Moran aged 36, his daughter, Sarah, and Mrs Moran's parents, Mr Arthur Minton, aged 72, and Mrs Amy Minton, aged 70.

The four members of the family were found by police in their home at Pottery Cottage, Eastmoor, where they had been killed by Hughes...

...Hughes suddenly cried, "Your time is up" and raised an axe above his head. Inspector Pell said he fired at Hughes's heat [sic] but Hughes began to attack Mrs Moran. Two more shots did not stop Hughes. Detective Constable Nicholls then fired one shot and Hughes collapsed. 

The jury returned unanimous verdicts of murder in the case of the Morans and the Mintons, and justifiable homicide in the case of Hughes.

So given the tragic circumstances, as good a result as could have been expected - Billy Hughes shot dead. Had he survived he could still be alive today as capital punishment was long gone.  

Yet Moors murderer Ian Brady is still alive, the man and his grotesque crimes still festering on in the public memory. In my view this is a worse outcome than in the Hughes case. How can that be? 

I think there are cases where certain crimes are so appalling that they must be given a decent burial. I know the arguments, we all know them, but there are cases where the only thing to do is consign them to the past. 

One cannot do that for surviving friends and relatives, but the crime itself can consigned to the dismal history of human wickedness. If that means burying the perpetrator then so be it. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

The road to Sheffield

Had a fine walk across Beeley Moor today. We reached the moor via the adjoining and delightfully named Gibbet Moor above Chatsworth. Imagine trudging across high moorland on a bitter November afternoon only to have a moorland gibbet cheer you on your way.

Beeley moor is like that even though the gibbets are long gone. At least I think they are. The moor is attractive in summer but even then there is something a little grim about the place. An extraordinarily atmospheric area even on a clear day. I love it.

Today the heather was out in force and the views excellent with very good visibility. Not easily captured on a photograph though - the superb expanse of it under a vast sky.

The moor is steeped in history from Hob Hurst's House to a number of old guide stoops such as this one directing travellers towards Sheffield. 

These stone guideposts, or 'stoops', were set at intersections of packhorse routes, were required by an Act of 1697. Beeley Moor is particularly rich in examples. They fell into disuse in the second half of the 18th Century as Turnpike roads superseded the old packhorse routes.

Is that a local hand I wonder - with three fingers?

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Islam and the youth bulge

I suppose by now we’ve all read as much as we choose to read about the beheading of James Foley. Horrible of course and as far as one can tell Mr Foley accepted his appalling fate with a dignity his murderers perhaps did not perceive.

As for the wider message, I’m not sure there is one apart from a certain resigned acceptance that this is something the world has to deal with without itself falling in love with extreme violence.

There is however a strong temptation to condemn Islam as a whole and a corresponding temptation to regret that it ever took root in this country. As an atheist, these are temptations I am less and less inclined to resist.

When I see the faces of those young men sucked in by the insane rhetoric of older men, I’m reminded of the theory of the youth bulge. Certainly the pattern fits. If sound, then we may presume that Muslim violence is something which will decline due to demographic change. An excess of stupidly frustrated testosterone will have drained away. Maybe time will tell.

As for the present, I get no sense of fear in the wider population. No sense that terrorism actually manages to terrorise anyone but those in the direct firing line. Instead I get a sense that traditional Islam is failing to deal with an increasingly materialistic and secular world where women are not chattels and ancient books are merely ancient books. Failing because it has no orthodox response to these trends.

This inevitable failure plus the crazy young men and the evil-minded old men have come together in a particularly ghastly way. So it will continue, but not forever.

In which case, Mr Foley did not die in vain. His death was even heroic because it represents progress. Any failure of naked barbarism is progress. The world is changing and his death reminds us that his murderers belong to the past. A savage past but not frightening – simply because it is the past.

It may well point to a future where, within a couple of generations, the Islamic extremes we see today are gone. The old men have passed away; the crazy young men are now old - those who contrived to survive their own stupidity at least.

If so, there is not much to be gained by accommodation or appeasement. It won’t work and may even delay the slowly grinding wheels of social change.