Wednesday 28 January 2015

The only Burns Night we need in England

I have been totally bemused by the number of my friends providing social media with details of their Burns Night celebrations.

None of them is a Scot, or resident in Scotland, so the only question that springs to mind is: why?

Deep love for the man, with his gift for conveying the blindingly obvious in partially comprehensible dialect doggerel? Definitely not.

Addiction to haggis? Hardly.

A yearning for the skirl of the pipes? Come on.

An excuse to drink lots of whisky? Yes, but you can do that equally well by your own fireside, or in a pub with chums.

So why Burns Night?

Surely only because it is convenient excuse for a booze-up to lift the spirits after the flood of post-Christmas bills and to raise two fingers to the puritan promoters of Dry January.

An opportunity eagerly latched onto by publicans and restaurateurs to drum up business in the lull between New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day.

It is also part of a more general trend to import and enthuse about other people’s festivities, while losing interest in our own.

Yes, I used to wander fruitlessly around Longbenton with a candle in a hollowed-out turnip at Halloween 50 years ago, but the full-blown festival of ghouls, ghosts and trick-or-treating is unmistakably a trans-Atlantic arriviste.

Along with school proms and the lunacy of Black Friday: a retail spending spree that only makes sense in the US because it is the day after their Thanksgiving holiday.

Though only the brave would bet against many British people enthusiastically sitting down to roast turkey and pumpkin pie on the last Thursday of November each year sometime quite soon.

Chinese New Year, St Patrick’s Day, Eid, Diwali – the list of imported celebrations keeps rolling on.

Milad un Nabi, celebrating the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, was a new one on me when The Journal recently announced a parade through Newcastle to celebrate it on February 25. Which is odd, considering that most Islamic calendars suggest that it should be marked this year on January 4 and December 24. Perhaps the urge to keep up the Christmas and Burns Night sequence of doing something celebratory on the 25th of each month simply proved irresistible.

Meanwhile Guy Fawkes’ Night has become a shadow of its former self, not helped by the Elfin Safety killjoys who have also done their best to clamp down on other deranged English pursuits like rolling cheeses down hills.

Personally I shall be marking the feast of King Charles the Martyr on January 30 and Candlemas (“the Christian festival of lights”) on February 2, and looking forward to all the fun of Shrove Tuesday on February 17. Why won’t everyone else?

It would be unfair to claim that we haven’t done our fair share of exporting traditions, when the Queen is head of state in 15 other countries from Antigua to Tuvalu, and there are judges and barristers in Africa sweltering under horsehair wigs.

Nevertheless, I think we could try to do even more to promote the joys of English eccentricity around the world. Who can say what it might do for world peace if only we could persuade more nations to take up morris dancing?

Perhaps UKIP might be persuaded to adopt that as official policy. It would make as much sense as many of their recent pronouncements.

Though the Greens are making excellent progress in collaring the loony vote with a range of far left policy revelations, brilliantly elucidated by their Australian leader. The genius who described them as “the Militant Tendency with better PR” was absolutely spot on, apart from the “better PR” bit.

Who can fail to find it utterly delicious that the polar opposite of UKIP is led by an immigrant? I almost begin to think that the dreaded election campaign won’t be so bad after all.

However, when the dust has settled, I suspect that we will look at the go-ahead foreign import of multi-party democracy and endless coalition, and feel nostalgia for that dull old British tradition of choosing between the Conservatives and Labour.

Just as I hope we will come to recognise that the only Burns Night we need celebrate in England falls on the fifth of November.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 21 January 2015

Give it 500 years and it will all be fine

Be honest: had you ever heard of Charlie Hebdo before the murder of so many of its staff?

No, me neither. Suggesting that those who plotted the massacre paid scant attention to the Streisand effect.

So named in honour of the singer, after her efforts to suppress photographs of her Californian home led to them being viewed by more than 400,000 people, compared with the six who had bothered to look at them before she took legal action.

And two of those six were Streisand’s own lawyers.

The same thing happens nearly every time someone seeks to divert attention from a story or image they do not like. All PR practitioners knows that demanding a correction from a newspaper is the surest way to increase awareness of the claims made in the original, inaccurate article.

Despite the timidity of the British media, the internet has treated me to a reasonably good look at those French cartoons that were apparently so offensive as to justify mass murder.

My main personal objection to them was that I didn’t find them the slightest bit funny. This strikes me as a pretty critical failing in a humorous journal. Satire should surely make us laugh, not cringe.

The boundaries determining what we find acceptable and amusing are individual and mobile. I can remember turning Spitting Image off in disgust the first time I saw it, like a stereotypical angry old buffer, but I gradually came round to it as one of the highlights of my TV viewing week.

If it were on air now, I wonder to what extent militant Islam would feature as the butt of its humour? Not much at all, I suspect. We are all, to use Mrs Thatcher’s word, frit.

Somehow I cannot see adherents to Islamic State or Al-Qaeda coming to see the funny side of anything any time soon, either.

Despite those apologists endlessly parroting on the news that “Islam is a religion of peace”, the historical fact is that it has a pretty dismal record of being spread and imposed by force.

But then so, too, does Christianity. Witness the Crusades and the conquistadors. BBC2’s serialisation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, beginning tonight, should provide a timely reminder that in the 1530s religion in England was literally a matter of life and death.

The difference is that we calmed down and moved on from the horror of beheadings and burnings at the stake some centuries ago – though the notion of “progress” in history is equally old-fashioned and discredited. So let us merely observe as a fact that it is 2015 in the Christian calendar adopted by the secular West, but only 1436 in the Islamic one.

What is completely clear is that there is an unbridgeable “them” and “us” divide between those who regard religion as a decorative incidental and those who truly believe that this life is but a brief diversion on the way to eternal bliss.

The extent to which even our full-time religious practitioners actually believe this was well illustrated by the reaction to Basil Hume’s letter to his clergy advising them of his advanced cancer. This apparently elicited hundreds of letters of sympathy and just one congratulating him on his luck and wishing that he could join him.

As a very occasional churchgoer, the only temptations in religion for me are its associated art, architecture and music, along with the faint hope that it might make me slightly nicer to other people and better able to face the inevitability of death.

While satirical magazines only tempt me to buy them if I think they are likely to make me laugh. 

Humour and religion should both be instruments to make our lives more bearable: to uplift, to bring us joy, to comfort us when we have good reasons for sadness. As Barbra Streisand surely realised quite quickly, it is far better to send in the clowns than the lawyers.

However, the world would be a safer place if the clowns focused on being genuinely funny rather than provocatively offensive, at least until all believers come to adopt the same relaxed perspective most of us in Britain have acquired.

I reckon around 500 years should do it nicely.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday 7 January 2015

Accept reality: there is no Santa Claus

Most of us now view politicians much as my younger son began to regard Santa Claus last month.

Two-year-old Jamie had a series of meetings with Santa at a variety of events. At each he was asked what he wanted for Christmas and replied, unfailingly, “a race car”.

At which Santa asked whether he had been a good boy and then handed over a small package that clearly, from its shape and size, contained either a book or a cuddly toy.

Each time Jamie eagerly unwrapped it and his little face fell as he surveyed the contents.

“Oh,” he said with infinite sadness. “I was hoping for a race car.”

Luckily the real Santa turned up on Christmas Eve with just enough racing cars to restore his faith in superhuman nature.

What, you might ask, has any of this got to do with politicians as we brace ourselves for months of General Election campaigning?

Simply that we too have a wish list – lower immigration, better roads, cheaper rail fares, improved health services, tax increases for the rich, tax cuts for ourselves – that the various Santas of the main parties may promise to deliver.

But then they’ll simply hand over the same old package that they had planned all along, and we will be terribly disappointed.

This is because our expectations, like Jamie’s, are fundamentally unrealistic. The national finances are knackered, to use the technical economists’ jargon, and whoever is in charge is going to struggle to do much for us against that background.

Let us take health as an example, because I happen to have had recent experience of attending Wansbeck Hospital for an NHS scan.

The premises were top notch, the equipment clearly state-of-the-art, the staff charming and my appointments on time. This is exactly what people pay for private health insurance in the hope of achieving.

Now, as it happens, the service at Wansbeck is provided in partnership with a private company: InHealth.

Why should anyone care? It works brilliantly and it remains free to the patient. If this is the sort of “privatisation” that is going to make the NHS “unrecognisable” after another five years of Tory government, I’d vote for more of it.

What’s more, I feel no confidence that Labour in office would do anything radically different, given that they persisted with the Private Finance Initiative and the introduction of private partners to the NHS throughout their 13 years in office.

The key, plain fact of the “NHS crisis” was disarmingly explained on the radio the other morning by a scientist introducing his research findings that two thirds of cancers are caused by random mutations on which neither lifestyle nor heredity has any bearing.

The human body, he said, has a design life of approximately 40 years and after that it will start breaking down, no matter how careful you are.

Trying to keep me, at the age of 60, doing all the things I used to enjoy in my 20s is like trying to do 24,000 miles a year in a 1954 Morris Minor. It’s likely to cover rather a lot of them on the top of a recovery truck.

But we expect the NHS to keep us going in good health until we are 80, 90 and – in ever-increasing numbers – 100.

The potential cost of trying to do this is limitless and ruinous. No political party is ever going to be able to deliver it, so like young Jamie we might as well stop wishing and accept the reality of ongoing disappointment.

Because there isn’t a benevolent Mummy and Daddy to step in and save the day for the NHS, the roads budget, the armed services or anything else.

Accept reality – and bear in mind that the reality of hard times in Britain is infinitely preferable to the condition of most of the rest of the world – and we will undoubtedly face fewer disappointments.

That knowledge may also enhance our lives for the next few months as we reach for the “off” switch at the start of every pointless political debate. After all, we don’t need a doctor to tell us they are very bad indeed for our blood pressure.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.