Tuesday 26 June 2007

Looking forward to nothing much

Kelvin MacKenzie, when editor of the Sun, famously sacked the paper’s astrologer in a letter beginning “As you will have foreseen…” Was this cynicism justified? The notion that anyone can provide meaningful predictions for the entire population in twelve short paragraphs each day is patently absurd. Yet whenever anyone recites a list of supposedly classic Gemini characteristics, it does sound uncannily like me.

A gipsy selling clothes pegs door-to-door once seized my mother by the arm and announced that she would live to be 82. As mum was in her 40s at the time, and both of her parents had dropped dead of heart attacks aged 61, this seemed much more of a promise than a threat. She herself adhered strongly to this view until she was 81, when it began to assume an altogether more sinister aspect. I spent hours trying to convince her that the prediction did not exclude the possibility that she would continue to 83 or beyond. But, in fact, she didn’t. A self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps?

Despite occasional successes like that, peering into the future defeats nearly all of us. Every highly-rewarded specialist, whether an investment analyst or a climate change scientist, essentially just maps a past trend and projects it forward. Generals and admirals always plan for a re-run of the last war, so that the challenges of the next one come as a complete surprise.

Every now and then, though, one comes across a decision with unintended consequences that should be obvious to a moderately intelligent three-year-old. When Britain announced in 1981 that it was massively cutting back the Royal Navy, and withdrawing its presence in the South Atlantic, did it really require 20/20 hindsight to know that Argentina would respond by invading the long-coveted Falkland Islands?

If you decree that every NHS patient must be able to see a GP within 48 hours, should it really come as a surprise when many doctors respond by refusing to allow appointments to be made in advance, so that obtaining medical attention becomes a mad lottery when the telephone lines open at 8.30 each morning?

And when you decide to award a knighthood to an author who has lived for many years under an Iranian death sentence, surely a huge wave of Muslim anger around the world is exactly what you would expect?

Is it now our official policy to reward people who cause needless offence? If so, why was there never a peerage for Bernard Manning, who would have cheered the House of Lords up no end? And how much longer am I going to have to wait for mine?

I once pushed Salman Rushdie down the staircase of a top London restaurant. I suppose it must have been after the Ayatollah’s fatwa was formally lifted, as I wasn’t immediately pinned to the ground by gun-toting Special Branch protection officers. And I regret to say that it was an entirely accidental collision, rather than a deliberate act of revenge for reading Midnight’s Children. The only good thing about that was that it inoculated me against any urge to buy his subsequent books.

Unreadable, unbearably smug-looking and equipped with an unfeasibly beautiful fourth wife (I suppose those two last facts might just be connected), what is there not to like about Salman Rushdie? Apart from the fact that we can all think of at least ten English writers more deserving of becoming a knight or dame. Or reflect that Waugh died unhonoured, Kingsley Amis was not knighted until he was nearly 70, or Wodehouse until shortly before his death aged 94.

But why single out Sir Salman for a gripe? Only one honour in the whole of the long Birthday List gave me any pleasure, and that was the MBE awarded to the splendid supervisor of Alnmouth station. Atholl, you were robbed: the knighthood should have been yours. Oh, and can you foresee whether the 08.07 to Edinburgh on Thursday will be running on time?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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