The Curmudgeon


Thursday, May 31, 2007

George and Tony Do the Environment

The world's most anti-social government has graciously consented to write its own ASBOs. The Vicar of Downing Street's very favourite ally proposes that "by the end of next year", when he is due to leave the White House, "America and other nations will set a long-term global goal for reducing greenhouse gases", which can be cheerfully ignored if his successor chooses to follow Bush's precedent on global deals, or tied up in endless wranglings if not.

"To develop this goal, the United States", as the world's acknowledged honest broker, "will convene a series of meetings of nations that produce the most greenhouse gases, including nations with rapidly growing economies like India and China", which can be given appropriate marching orders. "Each country would establish midterm management targets", which I take it translates into Oldspeak as Each country would postpone taking action until half the time had elapsed for the "global goal" to fall due. This would result in an environmentally unconstructive but managerially near-optimal Achilles-and-the-tortoise situation whereby the time before the deadline could be divided into ever-smaller halves with no action being taken in any of them. Once the deadline was actually reached, India and China could be blamed for failing to heed the warnings of the international community.

Anyway, according to Bush's speechwriters, the countries would establish "programs that reflect their own mix of energy sources and future energy needs" - more call centres for India, an end to China's evil space programme, and for the United States continued reliance on God's mercy and enhanced exploration of the possibilitude of putting some big mirrors in orbit around the Earth.

In response, the Vicar of Downing Street has been quivering orgasmically from Africa. "For the first time America's saying it wants to be part of a global deal," drooled the doggie, as though America had ever had any objection to being part of a global deal that involves America doing as it pleases.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Real People Detained

In a shocking development over at the Freedom Quagmire, five real people have been indefinitely detained at an unknown location by the forces of evil. The Minister for Lesser Breeds, Margaret Beckett, said that officials are "offering help and assistance to the next of kin" and that we, the liberators, are "doing all we can to secure their swift and safe release", as one would expect in cases where Tony's greatest and strongest ally is not involved. The foreign minister for the sovereign, independent Iraqi government said that "the interior ministry police, security units and forces are corrupt, are penetrated", doubtless because so many Iraqis are happy that we have deposed Saddam Hussein and given them the chance to vote in democratic elections. The real people detained include four "security guards" employed by GardaWorld, a Canadian organisation which is "changing the definition of what a traditional 'security company' can offer to the market". Services provided by GardaWorld include "uniformed protection, in-store loss prevention, airport preboard screening services, executive and asset protection, patrols and alarm response, consulting" and, my favourite, "labor unrest protection". The other real person detained is a financial expert employed by BearingPoint, the company which has been doing such a bang-up job of rebuilding the sovereign, independent Iraqi financial system.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Getting the Memoirs In Early

With the risk of "re-education" temporarily in abeyance as the Beloved Leader prepares to lay down his burden, it appears the apparatchiks are starting to feel safe enough to aim a few farewell shafts at his back. Lord Butler, who was cabinet secretary until eight months into the Vicar of Downing Street's ministry, has revealed the not altogether astonishing news that his reverence treated the tradition of cabinet government with approximately the same respect as he treats parliamentary scrutiny and democratic accountability. According to Lord Butler, during the eight months after the 1997 election, the sole decision taken by the cabinet was about the Millennium Dome: "And the only way they could get that decision was Tony Blair left the room to go to a memorial service and John Prescott was left chairing the meeting. There were in fact more people against than for it and the one thing that John Prescott could get agreement to was that they should leave it to Tony. That was the one decision."

Lord Butler contrasts his reverence with Margaret Thatcher, who "felt she had to get the cabinet's agreement" - a difficult job, no doubt, given the way she used to pack her cabinets with worshipful thugs like Norman Tebbit and Nicholas Ridley and complaisant batrachians like Leon Brittan and Kenneth Baker. Thatcher's successor, whose name escapes me at the moment, "used the cabinet less and less as his government was riven by divisions and indiscipline", which might have been a shrewd move if it had meant he made any decisions himself. His reverence, by contrast, began by treating the cabinet more or less as his personal public-relations team: "What are the issues of the week and what is our message about them? Not discussions or decisions about policy." Later, of course, once he had history, God and George W Bush to back him up, his reverence was able to show us what British democracy can really mean when it is placed in the hands of someone who believes, hand on heart, what he believes.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Suspect Business

Another guest at the Guantánomaly, Jamil el-Banna, has been cleared for release by Britain's greatest ally after only four years. Although no actual date has been set for his release, this is obviously much better treatment than he could hope to expect in his native Jordan, whence he fled to Britain in 1994, alleging ill-treatment in an obvious attempt to manipulate his way to the top of the housing list. By some oversight or other, Banna was granted "refugee status"; but in 2002 the CIA capturised him on the strength of information from MI5 that a travelling companion on a business trip to Gambia was carrying bomb parts. Doubtless owing to the activities of courts, civil liberties groups and the House of Lords, this information turned out to be untrue; but then again, who is to say that, if circumstances had been different, something completely other might in fact have been the case? Anyway, a solicitor claims that it would be illegal to refuse Banna entry into Britain because "his children are British nationals with a right to family life under article eight [of the European Convention on Human Rights]", so it looks as though we might have to derogate from that one as well. We cannot, after all, put the family values of ex-suspected terrorists above the instant and utter necessities of national security enhancement in the face of the greatest threat to our country since Hitler and immigration. It just wouldn't make any sense.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Makes It All Worth While

A puppy (named, of course, Hero) has been renditioned from Iraq to New Hampshire to be adopted by the family of Justin Rollins, one of the real people killed in the Quagmire for Freedom. The animal appeared in a photograph with the soldier a day before he was detrimented by an Iran war drumbeat possibilitisation device. US Central Command ordered Rollins' regiment to find the pup and send him to Rollins' girlfriend. Somebody told Associated Press, and the Observer just had to pass it on, presumably in case there were any poor fools left out there who still thought nothing good could come out of the war.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Nine Days' Wonder

The world-saving component of the Vicar of Downing Street's legacy appears to have run into problems. Last Thursday, his reverence was positively, confidently, sunnily, toothily certain that the United States would condescend to commit itself to "at least the beginnings" of a deal to begin thinking about the possibility of instituting some sort of non-compulsory action that might eventually do something about carbon emissions. This, along with ending poverty, bringing peace to the Middle East and removing the shame from the word Socialism, would be Tony's bequeathmentisation as world statesman and person of destiny, and he would then be able to tender his resignation with a clear conscience and go on about the business of reconciling the world's great religious faiths from the hospitable homes of the extremely rich.

Well, who would have thought it? Almost before Cherie can get started on sewing the "Legacy Accomplished" banner, the United States has once more fulfilled its role as Tony's oldest and greatest ally by rejecting the whole idea in red ink. The proposed G8 deal "runs counter to our overall position" that climate change is not harmful, not happening and best dealt with by mirrors in space, "and crosses multiple 'red lines' in terms of what we simply cannot agree to ... This document is called FINAL but we never agreed to any of the climate language present in the document". It would be cynical and uncharitable in the extreme to imagine that climate language has the slightest reference to the Vicar's yap-yapping upon the subject, and I hope we can all put the thought firmly from our minds. "We have tried to 'tread lightly'," the red ink continues, "but there is only so far we can go", i.e. nowhere, "given our fundamental opposition to the German position."

The tone, according to the Guardian's article (with a Shell advert tactfully placed in the middle of it) is "blunt, with whole pages of the draft crossed out and even the mildest statements about confirming previous agreements rejected". No doubt Tony will soon be persuaded to see the flaws in those previous agreements, not to mention the sheer insanity of allowing the forces of conservatism to confirm them. "The proposals within the sections titled 'Fighting Climate Change' and 'Carbon Markets' are fundamentally incompatible with the President's approach to climate change," points out the red ink, to those who didn't already suspect it. But at least Saddam Hussein has been removed.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Panic at Lack of Threat from Terror Suspects

Three men whom the Minister of Unfitness for Purpose had placed under control orders "to prevent them travelling to Iraq to kill British and US troops" absconded on Monday night. "It was a deliberate attempt to disappear," said an anonymous counter-terrorism source; "you have to ask why. They disappeared in a coordinated way." Muslims being evidently neither as clannish nor as hidebound by tradition as has traditionally been thought, the fact that two of the men were brothers is clearly not enough to explain this sinister co-operation.

Accordingly, the Minister has had the customary hissy-fit and, in the best New Labour style, has declared that, in any conflict between his whims and the rule of law, the duty of the law is to do as he tells it, otherwise he will overrule the insubordinate beast. Members of Parliament are afraid that "the control order regime is in danger of becoming a public laughing stock" because people keep escaping from it. It is possible that there were members of the Supreme Soviet who objected to the Gulags on similar grounds.

The three men have not been charged or prosecuted for terrorist offences, and the Minister does not consider them "'at this time' to represent a direct threat to the UK public". The instant and utter Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, said that "nobody can be perfectly satisfied that they are not a risk to the public here, but the intelligence is pointing in another direction"; which appears to be the same statement as the Minister's, but with free additional levels of confused pomposity.

Nevertheless, despite the lack of threat, "there is a very serious threat", according to the Minister; a threat which, thanks to the courts not knowing their place, "we are fighting with one arm tied behind our backs". So the Minister hopes that when he attempts yet again to "strengthen Britain's anti-terror laws", everyone will stand shoulder to shoulder and "we will have a little less party politics and a little more support for national security". Otherwise, the Minister might be forced to use the "nuclear option" of derogating from the article of the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees the right to liberty. It's all to protect our way of life, after all.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Certain Exhausted Majesty

The estimable Scruggs, over where the flying saucers get their waffles, has written a brief but very generous review of my novella The Little Doctor, the longest of the three stories collected in Radical Therapies. I'm particularly pleased that he finds "a comparison to other authors is difficult", since I doubt I would be flattered at being esteemed The New Whoever; and that my narrative technique "suggests and elides more than it defines, which is a nice touch", rather than a product of laziness and ignorance, as it occasionally appears from where I am sitting.

The rest of you animals could learn a lot from Scruggs. He is squared away.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Existential Threats

That well-known hotbed of anti-semitism, Amnesty International, has published a report criticising the Righteous State for acting "within the confines of the law to exercise its right to defend itself, its sovereign territory, and civilians against terror organizations". In the course of so doing, the Righteous State detrimented more than six hundred and fifty Palestinians, half of them unarmed civilians. Of the unarmed civilians, a hundred and twenty were children. The Righteous Army said that it "does its utmost to avoid harming innocent people ... in contrast to terror organizations that do their utmost to harm innocent civilians", which presumably explains why the number of Palestinians killed by Israelis increased threefold last year, while the number of Israelis killed by Palestinians dropped by half. The report also criticises the Righteous State for withholding "hundreds of millions of dollars in tax duties", causing conditions in the West Bank and Gaza concentration camps to deteriorate to "crisis levels". The tax duties were withheld after the Palestinians were foolish enough to elect the wrong government, namely that of Hamas, which "refuses to renounce violence or recognize Israel's right to exist". The Righteous State's renunciation of violence and its recognition of Palestine's right to exist are apparently not mentioned in the Amnesty report.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

An Effective Opposition

You can't please all of the Conservative party all of the time, but a bit of a war now and then is the next best thing. Daveybloke, having caused a bit of a stir with whatever he meant to say about grammar schools, is seeking to regain the faith of his followers by leading from the front. Accordingly, the question must be asked: given the circumstances, what would Tony do?

Fortunately, the Guardian has provided rather a broad hint by printing the results of a dictation exercise given to sometime World Briefer Simon Tisdall by some obliging US officials. Given that US officials are saying things, the answer to the question What would Tony do? becomes almost laughably easy: Tony, of course, would agree with them. Hence, Daveybloke has become deeply concerned about the nuclear threat from Iran: "Make no mistake, the threat is growing. The scale and urgency of our response needs to match it". With the ruthless, implacable statesmanship of the noncombatant, Daveybloke calls for somebody to do something about it.

Daveybloke, like the Americans, is in favour of negotiations as long as Iran does as it is told: "Mr Cameron said talks between Tehran and the US should be encouraged if they complied with the demands of the international community" of the United States, Britain and Israel. "Our aim should be clear: to persuade Iran to suspend its nuclear programme ... and return to negotiations", Iran's nuclear programme being merely the point at issue and hence not negotiable.

Daveybloke criticised Jack Straw, the former Secretary of State for Lesser Breeds, for ruling out military action against Iran. Daveybloke does not think that is sensible in international affairs. Daveybloke would not take that path. "It would be a calamity if they get a nuclear weapon, but military action would be calamitous". This at least should be a comfort to the Conservatives; Daveybloke is not one to rule out an option simply because it would be calamitous.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Life's Little Ironies

Irony is a useful quality in a journalist, particularly in America. Irony has often been a noticeable characteristic of America's relations with its inferiors, and even sometimes with Britain. For example, during the Vietnam War, which America fought in order to liberate the peasants of the democratic South from invasion by the communist North, many of the most devastating air raids were actually carried out on the peasants of the democratic South. This was somewhat ironic. Even more ironic was the fact that America started bombing the South before the North invaded. Obviously, no one planned it that way. In the face of such ironies as these, it is little wonder that the American government of the time expressed a certain displeasure at the lack of British participation in the Vietnam War.

Ironically, despite the non-lackingness of British participation in the Iraq war, America's bumbling efforts to democratise those who prefer to wear veils and chop off hands have resulted in numerous further ironies. Having geared up to invade so as to pre-empt Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, it was then discovered, ironically enough, that no such weapons existed. Then, after several months of justifying the invasion on the grounds that Iraq was better off without Saddam Hussein (a former ally, by a strange irony), it began to appear that, ironically, conditions under the occupation were worse in some respects than conditions under Saddam Hussein. Even more ironically, the resources which had been liberated for the Iraqi people to utilise in peace and freedom were quickly appropriated by American companies. Obviously, no one planned it that way.

It now transpires that the Americans are building a new embassy in Baghdad. Originally conceived as "a statement of President Bush's intent to expand democracy through the Middle East", according to Guardian journalist Ed Pilkington, the embassy will be approximately the size of the Vatican. Irony is a useful quality in a journalist, particularly in America. Ironically, since the building is, after all, an embassy and not a barracks, the building will be bomb-proof and the accommodation "simple, if not quite monastic". Embassy staff thus far have had to make do with one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, which has been criticised as giving the regrettable if ironic impression "that the Americans merely replaced Saddam's authoritarian rule with their own".

A further irony, according to Ed Pilkington, is that "the embassy is one of the few major projects the administration has undertaken in Iraq that is on schedule and within budget". Obviously, no one planned it that way. Irony has often been a noticeable characteristic of America's relations with its inferiors, and even sometimes with Britain.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

If You Don't Like It, Go Back Home

There is in Britain a profit-making business among whose beneficiaries more than a hundred women have gone on hunger strike; at whose establishments self-harm is endemic, with medical treatment required every other day; where assaults are apparently commonplace, racism acceptable, information on basic legal rights withheld, vital documentation lost, and food literally filthy; where nearly half the women have been detained for more than ninety days, a period which is still considered by some to be too long for suspected terrorists; where more than half the women have no legal representation; where seventy per cent of the women have reported rape. The Observer's word to describe this business is "overstretched"; self-evidently, these derelictions are the result of a sheer overabundance of good intentions.

The business, of course, is asylum seeker disposal. One establishment is Harmondsworth, which is run by Kalyx, who apparently cannot afford to muster a spokesbeing. Kalyx is "part of a very large, stable and growing international family, whose primary aim is to improve the quality of daily life of all those we serve", just like Tony.

Another establishment is Yarl's Wood, which is run by Serco. Serco regards central government as "a rapidly evolving market" and is committed to "helping local and national governments balance the need for improved public services with voters’ demands for lower taxes". One of Serco's non-executive directors is Margaret, Baroness Ford of Cunninghame, a recently-created Labour peer who has "worked extensively in regeneration and is a specialist in public-sector reform and leadership development". Fancy that.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Planning Coherence, Progressing Change

The situation in Iraq shows "real signs of change and progress". Tony says it, so it must be true. His reverence was giving a special surprise sermon in the course of a special surprise visit, which may perhaps be the reason why there are no reports of his being pelted with flowers. There was a mortar, but a spokesbeing gave a reassuring statement: "No information suggests that this was other than usual business". In other words, the mortar was not intended as a threat to Tony. The health and welfare of Tony were unimpaired by the mortar. Tony did not suffer, and Tony was not unduly inconvenienced. So that's all right.

The Observer's report does its best to keep a balanced view of Tony's career, noting "the success of military intervention in Kosovo" in turning a bloody mess into a bigger, bloodier mess, and lamenting that, for reason or reasons unknown, "the perception among the public is that the prime minister took Britain to war over a lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction". According to a poll for the Observer, fifty-eight per cent of Britons consider Iraq to be Tony's biggest failure. It is sad what perceptions among the public can do; but then, that's why we have newspapers.

Anyway, it appears that Tony believes there have been "positive political developments" and wishes to discuss with Nuri al-Maliki - a fellow US satrap, but one with a little more pride - the virtues of a coherent plan to see faster progress. "We need to take advantage of the possible momentum in Iraqi politics to create the space for long-term security," a spokesbeing said. "The key to that is reconciliation ensuring the needs of Iraqis of different communities are properly taken into account and a lasting political accommodation is reached between them." Gosh. Well, I bet old Nuri never thought of that.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Did You Maclean Your Disclosures Today?

The lower chamber of that paragon of representative democracy, the Mother of Parliaments, has voted through a private bill by the former Conservative chief whip, David Maclean, to protect the sacred bond of confidentiality between MPs and their constituents, which apparently is in danger of horrendous violation by the forces of something or other. To concerns that the bill would prevent "embarrassing disclosures about MPs' expenses and allowances", Maclean responded that the Speaker had made it "absolutely clear" that such information could still be published; so MPs will still be permitted to be as embarrassed as they like provided the Speaker thinks it's all right. Nevertheless, David Winnick, a Labour opponent of the bill, warned that "we are in danger of bringing ourselves into disrepute" and that "The House of Commons should set an example to the country of honesty and integrity, not find some squalid little way in order to get out of the law." For a man who has been in politics since 1959, and has held his present seat of Walsall North since 1979, Winnick has some very strange ideas about the present reputation of the House of Commons, not to mention its purpose.

Maclean's bill "now passes to the Lords for consideration, where it is likely to face a further mauling", unless the Lords can be appropriately modernised for upgraded honesty and integrity in accordance with the purposes of the House of Commons.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Won't Somebody Lock Up the Children?

A report by some of the forces of conservatism suggests that we might do well to raise the age at which people can be imprisoned. It even has the temerity to infer that Britain's children would be better off outside the chain of taxpayer-funded luxury hotels which constitutes our prison system. The report, which pullulates with words from the kind of unregenerate human resource that New Labour has tried so hard to modernise into oblivion ("campaigners" and "activists" and such), is a product of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, whose values include the strikingly non-British principles that "criminal justice policy should address the crimes of the powerful (both individual and corporate) as well as those associated with the least powerful sections of society", and that "criminal justice policy and practice should treat victims and offenders, suspects and witnesses, with dignity and respect".

The report performs the usual sleight of hand with statistics, claiming that just because Britain has greater numbers of under-eighteens in custody than some European countries this means Britain imprisons more children. A spokesbeing for the Ministry of Having Been Split in Two attempted to perspective the situationality of the matter, saying that "there are no current plans to raise the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales" because "we are concerned about 10 and 11-year-olds becoming drawn into offending behaviour", something that could never happen to them in prison. Imprisoning people from the age of ten and upwards allows the Ministry of Having Been Split in Two "to intervene early to prevent further offending", which is why our jails are overflowing, "and to help young people develop a sense of personal responsibility for their misbehaviour", unlike some. "The early teenage years", i.e. those prior to the age of thirteen, "are an important, high risk period when timely intervention can make a real difference" whether it's effective or not.

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies is a charity, which makes its attitude all the more depressing since, as we know, the voluntary sector along with private corporations has an increasingly important role in removing the burden of social care from the shoulders of those government departments which were actually set up to carry it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Tony Saves the World Again

The Guardian's David Adam and Patrick Wintour report that the Vicar of Downing Street "believes he is close to persuading George Bush to accept an ambitious plan to bring the world's greatest polluters into international partnership to fight climate change for the first time". His reverence "wants an agreement before President Bush leaves the White House", which raises the unhappy possibility that the Vicar will continue to obtrude himself upon the international scene, a gambolling peripatetic puppy in a little green jacket (perhaps emblazoned with the corporate logos of Shell, Exxon Mobil, Halliburton and all those other splendid people), humping George W Bush's leg until next November while yapping at India and China. His reverence apparently believes that "by placing a premium price on carbon ... business has a greater incentive to invest in carbon-free energy", rather than in propaganda by climate-change sceptics. The Vicar of Downing Street's rigorously realistic habits of thought have not, it would seem, been undermined by his recent decision to ascend to a higher calling than politics.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Another Canter Across the Bleeding Obvious

Obviously, there is a need to understand why we make poorer choices when we don't get enough sleep; not only "because there exist today unprecedented opportunities to incur damaging losses by means such as online gambling", in the words of one researcher, but because healthy stress and sleep deprivation are natural and well-documented results of market forces, labour flexibility, globalisation, the War on the Abstract Noun and all those other wonderful features of life as it is today. Hence, a team of researchers at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina has discovered that "sleep deprivation causes areas of the brain to malfunction, making people blunder". Being mere academics, they evidently couldn't afford a trip to Guantánamo Bay; so they scanned the brains of volunteers who were playing a computer card game, presumably far into the night, and "discovered that the sleep-deprived show increased signs of rash risk-taking". Apparently sleep deprivation causes changes in those parts of the brain which are "responsible for appreciating reward and understanding the significance of heavy debt" and which shut down automatically when we vote, use a credit card or otherwise make economic fools of ourselves. Whether the same brain parts, appropriately altered, might result in asymmetrical tendencies is apparently not a matter of consuming academic interest in Durham, North Carolina.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Cohesive Integrativity, Integrative Cohesionality

According to The Thousand and One Nights, the Caliph Haroun al-Raschid used to walk among his subjects, dressed as a commoner, the better to hear their genuine opinions on the state of the realm. Daveybloke, prince of the Tory faithful, has tried to emulate this example by taking up residence for a couple of days with a Muslim family in Birmingham; but, whereas the Caliph took his tours among the populace in a questioning spirit, Daveybloke has, rather amazingly, had his previously-soundbitten conclusions resoundingly confirmed.

Daveybloke believes in cohesion and integration. He believes that Britain should be more cohesive. He believes that we must "be careful about the language we use", because many Muslims are "deeply offended by the use of the word 'Islamic' or 'Islamist' to describe the terrorist threat we face today". In fact, by referring to Muslim terrorists as "Islamists", we "actually help do the terrorist ideologues' work for them, confirming to many impressionable young Muslim men that to be a 'good Muslim', you have to support their evil campaign". Daveybloke admits that "there's no easy answer", but seems to think somebody at the BBC ought to do something about it.

Daveybloke believes in integration and cohesion. He believes that Britain should be more integrated. Besides cohesifying through integration, he believes that we should integrate through cohesion: "people from different backgrounds sharing public services, neighbourhoods, social networks". Faith schools will help people from different backgrounds in this laudable ambition; "those who say that faith-based schools hinder integration are wrong" because Daveybloke has met some Muslims who send their children to a Jewish school. Well, that settles that.

Daveybloke also believes in values. Values are things that help cohesion and integration to help people integrate cohesively into a cohesive, integrated community. Integration is a two-way street. The British values of "hospitality, tolerance and generosity" are apparently more prominent in the "British Asian way of life" than they are in "mainstream Britain". This is because "Asian families and communities are incredibly strong and cohesive, and have a sense of civic responsibility which puts the rest of us to shame". Daveybloke presumably thinks somebody ought to do something about this, too; but he does not make clear whether he thinks it should be the BBC.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Fiasco Shared is a Fiasco Re-Focused

The Minister of Unfitness for Purpose is going to enlighten our partners in Europe about dealing with terrorism. It appears that the five other largest EU countries will suffer terrorist blowback from the Special Relationship's various adventures in the Muslim world unless they emulate our approach here on the mainland. The Minister will recommend "constant political oversight", something a Ministry of Unfitness for Purpose ought to be good for, if nothing else.

"The re-focused Home Office draws on British conditions but it also addresses global changes and challenges in today's world," the Minister will say. What changes and challenges? Well: "Our considered view, which is based on hard analysis" of something or other, "is that we face a seamless challenge", whatever that may mean; still it sounds jolly challenging, "with a threat that crosses defence, foreign and domestic affairs." Of course, IRA terrorism also involved defence, foreign and domestic affairs; but the IRA challenge had seams, it seems.

Anyway, the solution is "to integrate our counter-terrorism effort at a strategic, operational and tactical level", which will be achieved by "re-focusing" the Home Office, much as a grapefruit is "re-focused" when sliced down the middle. If only everything in life were so simple.

The result is "not a US homeland security ministry and nor is it Continental European ministry of justice and ministry of interior split", neither of which would have drawn sufficiently on British conditions. After all, a US homeland security ministry might well involve giving up the right of habeas corpus, while a Continental European approach could mean a lot of nonsense like identity cards. "Neither of these approaches fit our British historical legacy, but nor are they sufficient for the 21st century security challenges as we see them," the Minister will expostulate helpfully.

He will also inform his cultural inferiors that, in case they hadn't realised it, "the fight against terror is about security and liberty rather than a choice between the two".

Friday, May 11, 2007

Getting the Message Across

A spokesbeing for the Ministry of Splitting in Two has quashed all qualms about the Surveillance Makes You Free project with characteristic New Labour pith: "The national identity scheme will be a crucial part of key national infrastructure, allowing individuals, business, and the state to prove identity more securely, conveniently and efficiently," he said. "Quite simply, failing to begin implementation now will put the UK at a serious disadvantage in the future." So who cares what it costs?

Meanwhile, the Independent notes a few more announcements which the Government appears to have saved for days on which the public would be able to keep an appropriate perspective on them. The Insolvency Service released figures showing a record number of bankruptcies for the first quarter of the year; but it released them on the morning of Friday 4 May, when local election results helped to prevent the possibility of excessive and potentially harmful public attention.

The Government's response to the possibility of a debt crisis was characteristically decisive, sincere and shoulder to shoulder: namely to close three debt centres in Leeds, Edinburgh and Greater Manchester with the loss of nearly four hundred jobs. Like the good news about ID cards, this information was released yesterday.

Also released yesterday, while the Vicar of Downing Street was paying humble homage to the greatest country in the world and reminding us all of his achievements regarding the NHS and his genuine personal belief in his personal beliefs, was the announcement by Patsy Hackitt, the Nurses' Friend, that the Government has failed to honour its 1997 manifesto commitment to eliminate mixed-sex wards. Hackitt claimed last year that 99% of trusts provided single-sex accommodation in general wards, but apparently this was based on a "misunderstanding, in some trusts, of the definition of single-sex accommodation".

Also, the Minister of Unfitness for Purpose announced that the number of children whose genetic information has been added to the national DNA database now exceeds half a million. The database is described by the Ministry of Splitting in Two as "a key police intelligence tool that helps to quickly identify offenders, make earlier arrests, secure more convictions" and "provide critical investigative leads for police investigations". Yet, once more, the news was announced yesterday, when the front pages were predictably occupied with the Vicar of Downing Street's farewell sermon.

Let's hope the Prince in Waiting can manage his press releases better than this. Anyone would think the Ministry had something to be ashamed of.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Freedom Isn't Free

The Ministry of Splitting in Two has published its six-monthly update of the estimated costs for the Surveillance Makes You Free Scheme more than a month late and on the same day as somebody or other announced his resignation.

The estimate has risen a bit since the last estimate - a small matter of four hundred million pounds or so or, to perspective things a bit, a mere £6.67 for every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom. The total cost of the scheme is now estimated at £531,000 million over the next ten years, or a mere £885 per year for every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom. That doesn't seem so bad, considering the many and varied miracles which the Surveillance Makes You Free Scheme is supposed to achieve - cutting through red tape, preventing identity fraud, battling terror and illegal immigrants wherever they may be found, and no doubt fostering an atmosphere of respect and social responsibility and combating climate change into the bargain.

According to a spokesbeing from the Ministry of Splitting in Two, the increase and/or the delay is the result of "extra staff carrying out vetting, as well as extra anti-fraud measures". So they're taking on more bureaucrats in order to cut through the red tape, and they've just discovered that their much-vaunted anti-fraud scheme isn't quite anti-fraud enough.

Nevertheless, a few nasty, suspicious people have accused the government - the Vicar of Downing Street's government, of all things - of breaking the law in order to bury bad news.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Education, Education, Education

It is comforting to observe that the Vicar of Downing Street has as little regard for his own family's privacy as for ours, at least provided that the harsh, intrusive light of a free press can help add a little extra glow to that slightly tarnished halo. It "emerged today", which I take to be journalese for "a press release is hereby transcribed to the effect", that his reverence's second son is to train as a teacher after graduating from Oxford in the summer. Clearly, noble self-sacrifice is a hereditary trait. He will join a programme called Teach First, which "was set up in the UK by private business five years ago to attract high flyers", though evidently not necessarily those who have reached their present heights under their own power. Teach First "recruits high-calibre students and trains them intensively to become teachers in challenging secondary schools in London, greater Manchester and the Midlands", according to its salestalk while confirming that Tony's Nicky has been accepted onto the programme. The programme's aim is "to address educational disadvantage" by putting participants through, among other things, "a leadership programme which has been developed by Teach First's business sponsors", doubtless with the intention of manufacturing well-rounded, cultured and civilised human resources. This healthy sense of priority is perhaps best indicated by the fact that about half of this year's graduates have given up teaching at the first opportunity and "have opted for alternative careers in the civil service and posts with top City firms such as KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers".

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Keeping Those War Widows Off Your Tax Money

It appears that there can be difficulties in obtaining insurance cover for first-time buyers when "applicants have already been placed under readiness for operational deployments", as a plain-speaking spokesbeing at the Association of British Insurers hath it. In Standard English, this means roughly that people in the armed forces, particularly the children Tony likes to use, may have trouble providing for their dependents in the event of something happening to them that Tony would find regrettable but deeply, deeply necessary. During the time when almost everyone who mattered knew for certain that we were all forty-five minutes from doom, for example, many public-spirited insurance companies refused new applicants, bumped up their premiums or refused to cover for terrorist attack. Of course, nothing could be done about this; it is a matter of natural law that every swing of the scythe by the Grim Reaper must have an equal and opposite commercial reaction.

Accordingly, the Ministry of Defence has come to the rescue by offering armed forces personnel the opportunity to buy protection for their families, presumably at a reasonable profit for Insurer Sterling Life. Dashed decent of them.

Monday, May 07, 2007

A Private Message

From: "jreid"
Date: Saturday May 5, 2007 1:00pm Europe/London
To: undisclosed-recipients:;
Subject: FAO tony and press relations

Your Revverence

i am Dr JJohn Reid (Doctor). I am Hmome Sectary. You mmay remememember me from your Recent cabinnet metings I the Sectatary inchargge of idcards asylum skeekers prison overcwowrding plolice raids and shooting of poeople to Prottect our way of life. youh were ocne nice enogh to epxress your asbolute confindence in me sometimes ovr theppppast 100yrs.

however affter many weeks of sole sreaching with My inner Circle I inntend to wwrite this here now hwihch is intennded to infrom you off my intnention to Resighn as Doctor joh nreid att he same Time as you. In the intrest of New Labour Mobillity i have hled 9 jobs in 010yrs and fleel a need to recharge my battarys by relaxnig and claiming my expnenses on the Back Bench and susstaining the New Labour govermnent and Newlabour prim eminster. idettect no eagreness in the Praty for leadreship Competition as we all know Competition does not always mean Efficiency we are socialists after all.

Your suck cessor (Ha! Ha! joke) hass made plain to me thtat i wlil allways be wlecome in his GOvt. but he undnderstands and accccepts my Decsision as Dr Johhn ried (Dr.). this will give him Maxi,mmum flexibilitlity to Rejuvennate in terms of inrotuducing new idaes, new Adgenda and going in the Same direction wthith Raddicaly diferent Policies perhaps in pursiut of cretinainly new Poeople a fresh strat bunging in yyuonger pople in many cases.

i am Docttor joohr nerd. (dr). Iam a Big experenced Figure and storng Comunication. mmy decision to quit wil be a graet Loss to Praty adn Country. My politicl Courge, My abliliyty to Anal yse adn gety to the herat of an isssue and my understadning of pople there hops and concerns has bean Outstanding. I am DOCCtor Reid (john).

Yrs sic nearly

JOHN (DocTOR reied) (Dr.)

Sunday, May 06, 2007

No-one Gets Well in Hospital

Karl Edward Wagner and the Horrors of Medicine

The mad doctor - hubristic, power-crazed, unscrupulous or just plain murderous - is a recurring figure in weird fiction. The intimidating attributes of medical personnel - highly specialised knowledge, arcane jargon, a professional interest in the miseries of others, and literal powers of life and death over lesser mortals - have helped to make their less creditable representatives a fruitful source of literary paranoia from Mary Shelley through to Thomas Harris. Karl Edward Wagner, who completed a medical degree and practised psychiatry before deciding on a literary career, wrote several stories involving the medical profession, none of them particularly flattering.

Two of Wagner's finest long tales, "The River of Night's Dreaming" (1981) and "Beyond Any Measure" (1982), touch on the horrors of psychiatry: in the former, a mental patient's memories of injections, operations and electro-convulsive therapy are intermingled with perverse fantasies of rape; while in the latter, Dr Magnus' ambitions cause him to abuse a patient's trust by giving her a post-hypnotic command without her knowledge. Later, in "An Awareness of Angels" (1988), the psychiatrist Dr Nathan Hodgson turns out to be one of a hidden race of inimical non-human parasites. But this kind of thing is hardly more than one would expect from psychiatrists in the horror genre; and the medical profession, while contributing important details, is not the central focus of the stories.

Institutional callousness rather than personal corruption is the subject of "But You'll Never Follow Me" (1990), the story of Michael Marsden's painful setting free of his aged parents from the Brookcrest Health Care Centre. Just as Marsden's siblings have placed the old people in the institution to avoid disruption to the smooth running of their jobs and families, so the cruelty and neglect of the nursing staff is part and parcel of the smooth running of the hospital: Marsden finds that "They'd removed [his mother's] dinner tray but they hadn't cleaned her up" and that his father has been tied into his wheelchair with a knotted towel to prevent his getting up and falling.

Similarly, in "Final Cut" (published posthumously in 1996), Dr Kirby Meredith (another psychiatrist, but a decent one this time) witnesses the pointless death of his cousin after a successful operation: "The intern had only just arrived at the medical centre, saw the postop incisions and fresh bleeding, obvious severe pain - and ordered a liberal injection of morphine to quell pain and agitation. He hadn't thought to check the charts for liver function, but he had been told that the patient in 221 was a hopeless drunk. Whatever. Who cares." In fact, although the cousin did drink heavily, his liver problems derive from a course of anti-TB drugs, taken over ten years at the "lawful command" of intrusive public health workers. "Final Cut", which reads rather like a staff-room anecdote for the edification of idealistic newcomers, begins with the words, "No one gets well in a hospital" and ends with the repetition of this maxim and the determination of Dr Meredith - guilt-ridden at having recommended the operation and horrified at the thought of "a thousand Cousin Bobs slowly, painfully killed by the best efforts of modern unfeeling medicine" - to quit the profession as soon as possible.

In "Passages" (1994), another anecdotal tale, the focus is on the callous doctor rather than on the victimised patient, and the heartlessness is thrown into sharp relief through the perspective of a sympathetic onlooker. Three high-school friends meet at a reunion and start exchanging anecdotes about phobias. Grant McDade, now a noted surgeon (a heart surgeon, in fact - a fine ironic touch), relates a traumatic incident in his childhood when a hypodermic needle accidentally broke off in his arm, and says he became a physician because of "the old identification with the aggressor thing, I suppose". McDade goes on to relate several of the less pleasant aspects of a medical education, including children dying of leukaemia on the paediatric ward. Marcia Meadows, who has been nursing mild hopes of finally consummating her teenage crush on McDade, asks him how he conquered his fear of needles. He replies that he learned it in medical school:

"After that, it was easy to slide a scalpel through living flesh, to crack open a chest. It's the most important part of learning to be a doctor."
Grant McDade removed his dark glasses and gazed earnestly into Marcia's eyes.
"You see, you have to learn that no matter what you're doing to another person, it doesn't hurt you."
The blue eyes that had once laughed were as dead and dispassionate as a shark's eyes as it begins its tearing roll.
Marcia let go of Grant's hand and excused herself.
She never saw him after that night, but she forever mourned his ghost.

For medicine to save lives, its practitioners must die inside; but, as "Final Cut" makes clear, the doctors' inhuman adjustment to their own inhuman conditions is itself a cause of unnecessary suffering and death.

Wagner stated in his afterword to his collection In a Lonely Place that "many of the conversations and political sentiments expressed by the characters" in "The Fourth Seal" (1975) are factual. He wrote himself into "The Fourth Seal" as a certain Kirk Walker whose speculations about the existence of a "select brotherhood" during the early history of medicine are recalled by the protagonist at the beginning of the story. Walker, we then learn, "ran afoul of the administration" at a medical school "of notable reputation" and died not long after. The story's title is a reference to the release of Death over a quarter of the earth in chapter six of Revelation, and the story itself is a paranoid tale about a secret society of physicians dedicated to the development and promulgation of disease, accident and drug addiction.

"The Fourth Seal" is an effective conspiracy thriller, and a blistering evocation of the backbiting and political feuding which inevitably arise when practitioners of a supposedly "caring" profession are forced to compete for funds; but it largely lacks the psychological dimension which makes such tales as "Passages" and "But You'll Never Follow Me" so chilling. Here the callousness of doctors is neither occupational hazard nor psychological defence mechanism, but an attitude deliberately fostered in the exercise of power for its own sake; accordingly, the members of the secret brotherhood are merely self-seeking politicians who grumble about "fools who would destroy the medical profession with Communistic laws and regulations" and offer Realpolitik arguments that "to have significant power, a physician must have an essential role ... If there were no diseases, there would be no need for physicians." The protagonist's response to the conspirators' overtures is also presented simply; there is, for instance, little or no implication that his eventual decision to "pretend to acquiesce" might be the first stage in accepting the conspirators' arguments.

Wagner's masterpiece among his medical horror stories, and one of his best stories overall, is "Into Whose Hands" (1983). It depicts in convincing detail the exhausting and depressing routine of Marlowe, the duty physician at a psychiatric hospital:

It was Friday night. Until 8:00 Monday morning he would be the only doctor on the grounds at Graceland. In that time he might have twenty to thirty admissions, on an average, in addition to the task of overseeing the well-being of some five hundred patients within the state hospital complex. A demanding situation under the best of circumstances, and impossible without a capable staff. Marlowe often wished for a capable staff.

Between dealing with admissions ("It was a pleasant day, and families liked to carry their senile grandmothers and Valium-addicted aunts to the hospital on weekends"), overseeing regular patients ("At three in the morning, Willy Winslow on South Unit smashed the salt shaker he had stolen earlier and sawed at his wrists with the jagged glass"), correcting the errors of juniors ("the Pakistani resident had been eight weeks in the US and six weeks on South Unit, and still hadn't discovered the distinction between q.i.d., q.d., and q.o.d. when writing medication orders"), Marlowe keeps himself going with coffee and frozen meals which his beeper won't permit him to finish, snatches occasional catnaps, and wanders the hospital's seven miles of corridor. Into this nightmare Wagner injects two patients - one violent and involuntary, the other depressed and voluntary - on whom Marlowe checks at intervals during the weekend. When the depressed patient is treated as an involuntary (i.e. dangerous) admission, it seems at first that "Into Whose Hands" is, like "Final Cut", simply a tale of institutional confusion and carelessness; but the ending makes clear that the situation in this story is, if anything, worse. Indeed, although it can be read as a non-supernatural tale of insanity, there are hints at various stages (Marlowe's first name is Chris, or so he claims; the hospital is known to some as "Camp Underhill"; asked by a patient what kind of God would curse the elderly with loss of sphincter control, Marlowe bitterly replies "An angry god. And vengeful") that the Graceland State Psychiatric Hospital is a literal Hell.

In his afterword to Wagner's posthumous collection Exorcisms and Ecstasies, C Bruce Hunter notes that Wagner's disillusionment with the medical profession was such that it "kept him from seeking the medical attention he needed at the end of his life". Certainly, his feelings were strong enough for him to return consistently to the horrors of medicine from the beginning of his career in the 1970s until his death in 1994. Wagner's doctors are not irresponsible vivisectionists like Shelley's Frankenstein or Wells' Moreau; still less are they murderous geniuses like Hannibal Lecter. In an appreciation of In a Lonely Place, Ramsey Campbell described the conspirators in "The Fourth Seal" as "professionals who have sold their souls to the job"; an apt description of all those characters in Wagner's tales who epitomise "modern unfeeling medicine".

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Why Would a Soldier Want to Harm Anyone?

The Pentagon has discovered that some of its employees are capable of unauthorised democratisation measures and that, as a result of prolonged exposure to violence and danger, "the mental health of soldiers and marines deteriorated significantly".

Soldiers with high levels of anger, or who have experienced high levels of combat, or who "screened positive for a mental health problem" are nearly twice as likely to inflict harm on non-combatants in a non-interrogative situation as those who have low levels of anger, have not experienced high levels of combat, or who screened negative for mental health problems. It is not clear how many of the soldiers being utilised in Afghanistan and Iraq did, in fact, screen positive for mental health problems.

Ewan MacAskill's report displays the Guardian's usual flexible response to the facts by claiming in its first line that the Pentagon's survey finds that "one in 10 of the US soldiers in Iraq mistreats civilians or damages their property". In fact, one in ten is the number of soldiers interviewed who are prepared to admit to mistreating civilians or damaging their property.

Given the general level of intelligence in Washington these days, I suppose it is possible that these tidings came as a surprise.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Declining Britishness

The crying need for enhanced Britishness, which aside from continued Blairishness is the only known policy of the Prince in Waiting, Gordon Brown, was highlighted today as the National Centre for Social Research found that "pride in Britain has fallen sharply over a generation, with younger people less likely to have their elders' strong attachment to Britain". There appears to be "a gradual long-term process of declining British identity". In 1981, the year the future People's Bulimic embarked upon her career amid sickening pageantry, fifty-five per cent of people declared themselves "very proud" of Britain; at present the figure has fallen to forty-five per cent. Perhaps we have all been watching too much cricket.

The loss of pride in Britishness has been most rapid among the benighted Celts in Scotland and Wales. "In Wales, and even more so in Scotland, substantial minorities did not feel British at all," the researchers said; while "senses of British identity and pride in Britain were strongest in England", possibly because the distinction between English and British is too subtle for the kind of idiot who is capable of feeling pride in an artificial agglomeration of constitutional disorders whose foreign policy is determined by the United States and whose domestic policy is determined by Rupert Murdoch.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Scoffing at Immortality

Scientists have discovered evidence which suggests that reducing one's intake of calories can slow the ageing process and extend lifespan. According to a professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California, "Dietary restriction is one of the universal forms of increasing longevity and this has been shown in everything ranging from yeast all the way up to dogs"; which may perhaps help to explain how the likes of Ronald Reagan and the Queen Mother managed to hang around so long. Still, there are positive aspects to the matter. If it turns out that long life and extended youth do indeed result from restricting one's diet to sixty or seventy per cent of the "normal" recommended food intake, it is possible that some people, even in California, might feel they have an incentive to consume less. Fortunately, the scientists have thought of this: they are also experimenting with genetically modified nematode worms so that people can "eat their normal diets but really ... enjoy the benefits of dietary restriction without having to go through the whole regimen".

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Frankly Hoon

Someone has apparently taken it into their head to interview Bomber Hoon, the hapless Minister of Liberation turned hapless Minister for Frogs and Huns. Giving what the Press Association considers "the most frank assessment of the post-war planning" (I wonder when the Press Association thinks the war ended), Hoon claims that the British and American governments "failed to agree on key decisions in the months following the invasion", at least until the British rolled over. The dismissal of Saddam Hussein's army and police force, which has put up to 350,000 highly qualified, disciplined and possibly somewhat irritated persons at the disposal of the insurgency, was "one of those judgement calls". Possibly with the benefit of hindsight, Hoon said he "would have called it the other way"; but Donald Rumsfeld thought that "large elements of Saddam's people" would be better working for the resistance than working, as in the past, for the government of the United States, so the British rolled over.

On the subject of the resistance, Hoon is characteristically observant: "Maybe we were too optimistic about the idea of the streets being lined with cheering people," he ruminated. He also admitted the possibility that "we perhaps didn't do enough to see it through the Sunni perspective", and put forward a daring solution to the problem: "Perhaps we should have done more to understand their position", especially since the whole insurgency is now one monolithic and ruthless conspiracy: we have, it appears, inadvertently allowed "'Saddam's people to link up with al Qaida and to link up ultimately with Sunni insurgents' in fomenting suicide attacks and sectarian violence". Nevertheless, as regards seeing it through the Sunni perspective, Hoon noted comfortingly that "I have reconciled it in my own mind". This is certainly helpful.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

That Good Old Cold War Feeling

The Czech and Polish governments are showing an endearing mix of hard-headedness and Ruritanian naïvety in their dealings with the World Cop over the Great Missile Defence Shield boondoggle. The Poles want supplies of Patriot missiles to protect themselves against the Russians (although the Great Missile Defence Shield will be stationed on Russia's doorstep, it will, according to the Pentagon, be aimed harmlessly at Iran, a few miles of Russian airspace away - and Russia has the temerity to feel provoked), while the Czechs want more information about "how a US radar base south of Prague would be safeguarded and what's in it for the Czechs". A Czech official said, with a certain amount of understatement, that "the Americans could have done more to engage the Russians over the past year"; but both the Czech and the Polish governments betray their lack of sophistication by being "frustrated at being taken for granted" (we can imagine what Tony might say to that); by claiming that "it will be difficult to get the agreement of their parliaments" (what's a president for if he can't do the veto thing?); by perceiving Washington's approach as "high-handed" (say it isn't so) and, most amusingly of all, by asking for "legal guarantees". Well, really.