Wednesday, 25 February 2015

When cartoons become reality

Two mainstays of newspaper cartoon pages used to be a forlorn bloke stranded on a desert island slightly larger than a postage stamp, and a caveman imaginatively called Ugg.

When he wasn’t busy hilariously inventing the wheel Ugg used to go on the pull by whacking a woman over the head with a large club, then dragging her home by her hair.

Happily it’s been a few decades since we stopped seeing the funny side of violence against women, even in a cartoon Stone Age. But one possibility we surely never considered was that impressionable young women might look at the images and think, “Hmm, that Ugg looks just the guy for me!”

Because, to be honest, I can see little difference between his treatment of women and that awaiting “jihadi brides” in Syria, which is apparently proving such a potent draw for teenagers from Bethnal Green.

Our mistake – and it is one of which I have been guilty myself – is believing in progress. In imagining that we only need to have the one holocaust, because humanity will absorb the lesson and draw a simple line: “Never again.”

How many times?

We only have to look at recent events in Paris and Copenhagen, and the horrors unfolding across the Middle East, to see that this is total rubbish. And there’s no point wringing our hands saying “something must be done” because it was the impulse for outsiders to do something that created much of the mess in the first place.

Interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have all managed to make bad situations worse, as cynical observers warned they would.

Similarly in Ukraine, we thought that the urge to conquer territory to place compatriots under our flag had gone out with Hitler, Sudetenland and the Austrian Anschluss.

Hitler enters the Sudetenland, 1938

We won the Cold War, the Berlin Wall came down, the USSR was dismantled and we could all look forward to a new era of peace, prosperity and liberal democracy.

Talk of “the end of history” looks particularly laughable a quarter century on, as we watch President Putin expertly playing the old, old game.

Still, it could be worse. As of 1991 Ukraine had the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, inherited from the Soviet Union. It gave up that armoury in return for guarantees from Russia, the USA and Britain, in the Budapest Memorandum of December 1994, “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”

That’s worked well for them, hasn’t it? Hands up all those who think that Russia would still have annexed Crimea and be fomenting rebellion elsewhere in Ukraine if there had been the remotest chance of starting a nuclear war.

Disarmament always looks like an easy way to save money, and in the long run turns out to cost a fortune in blood as well as treasure. Anyone tempted to vote for the Green or SNP anti-Trident agendas might like to ponder on the lessons from Ukraine before marking their ballot paper.

It does not matter whether the threat comes from old-style 20th century dictators or the adherents to some twisted religion bursting out of a nightmare version of the Middle Ages. The key to security must be having robust border controls and the resources to defend ourselves if the would-be attackers of shopping centres and synagogues make it onto our streets.

The first duty of any government is to protect its citizens and, in the current climate, it would surely do well to think of that in terms of beefing up the Army, Navy and Air Force rather than fretting about people’s waistlines and smoking habits.

The words of Theodore Roosevelt, “Speak softly, and carry a large stick”, should be engraved on a plaque and screwed to the wall in full view of the Prime Minister’s desk.

Meanwhile, as the General Election campaign descends into bathos, with former Foreign Secretaries falling for a sting that surely even Ugg the caveman would have seen through, it’s hard not feel a yearning for that other cartoon idyll.

That tiny desert island with the solitary palm tree would suit me very nicely, at least until the next round of coalition negotiations is well out of the way.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Don't call me fat, it's a mental condition

When Churchill died 50 years ago, I don’t believe any of his obituaries included the word “fat”.

No one lamented that he had been snatched from us at a mere 90 years of age because of his cavalier disregard for healthy eating.

Instead his gargantuan appetite for food, whisky, Champagne, brandy and cigars was celebrated as a matter of national pride.

It remains so when any distinguished “person of size” hands in his or her XXL dinner pail. We learn that they were gourmets, never gluttons. People who “appreciated the finer things” and were always “larger than life.”

The "larger than life" Clarissa Dickson-Wright

Contrast this with our treatment of the obese working class, characterised as weak-willed, feckless chavs who need to have their benefits withdrawn to get them off their grotesquely oversized backsides, and be cajoled into gastric band surgery to stop them being “a drain on the NHS”.

I deduce from these inconsistent attitudes that it is not so much obesity we don’t like, as the native lower orders. But it is strictly non-PC to say as much, so we pick on certain characteristics – the dreadful names they pick for their children, say, or the sort of fast foods and ready meals they like to eat – and deride those instead.

As a fat person myself I thought I had a certain licence in the use of the word, in the same way as black and gay people are allowed to self-describe in terms that are strictly verboten for everyone else.
Nevertheless I received a stern ticking-off when I casually enquired of my wife “Who’s the fat kid?” when we were picking our son up from primary school the other day. There was only one of them in the playground, and it seemed the most natural way of describing him.

However, I was swiftly re-educated as to why this was as unacceptable as it would have been to highlight his skin colour or a disability.

Our elder son is already conscious of the importance of not getting fat, even though he is as slim as the fan mail folder in Lord Green’s inbox and has no interest in food whatsoever, regarding mealtimes as an inconvenient interruption to his busy schedule.

And, as already noted, he is entirely typical of his peer group.

Nevertheless we must apparently plough on with the crusade to remove sweets from supermarket checkouts, downsize chocolate bars and make drinking a can of fizzy pop as socially unacceptable as lighting up a Capstan Full Strength would be if they were still allowed to make such things.

I can tell you now what will stop this in its tracks, and it will be someone demonstrating a clear linkage between obesity and mental illness: “I eat because I’m depressed.”

I know this to be a fact of life because I’ve been a depressive and a bit on the large size for the last 40-odd years. I also know that I can alleviate my depression by cutting my calorie intake, sleeping less and exercising more, which also tends to reduce my avoirdupois.

But since every time I write on this subject at least one angry reader writes in to complain that you can no more cure yourself of depression than of cancer, I feel sure that my fellow fatties are aiming at an open goal if they can lumber far enough to get a foot on the ball.

As a child, I was always told not to mock the one monumentally fat girl on our street because it was not her fault: “It’s her glands.” And not, as I strongly suspected, too much time in Maynards and not enough on a skipping rope.

Now it will be the state of her mind.

As for the “saving the NHS money” argument, it’s cobblers. Because if the morbidly obese don’t die young of that, they will surely die old of something equally costly to treat.

Ultimately the only way to save real money on the NHS will be for us all to live in good health until we expire suddenly in our sleep. Perhaps helped on our way by a beneficent National Euthanasia Service.

Now there is a truly sinister thought to ponder. Meat pie, anyone?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

"I told you I was ill"

In Iolanthe, W.S. Gilbert’s Westminster sentry ponders the mysterious fact that every child born into the world alive “Is either a little Liberal, or else a little Conservative”.

This was, of course, before the Labour Party, let alone UKIP or the Greens, had been invented.

Conservatives possibly outnumbering Liberals in this scene from Iolanthe

Yet I increasingly think that there is indeed a fundamental two-way division in humanity, between the optimists and the pessimists.

Whether it is determined biologically or by environment I cannot say, but I do know that the pattern is set early. Because my two sons are both under six, and I definitely have one of each.

The elder, like me, approaches every proposal with a mindset of “What could possibly go wrong?” He is likely to spend his life wondering “What’s the catch?” and turning down opportunities that might, through a concatenation of infinitely remote possibilities, lead to disaster.

The younger, like his mother, has an altogether sunnier disposition. For him, the glass will always be half full rather than half empty.

I am not sure that I can do anything to change their respective attitudes. What interests me is which of them is likely to be happier.

It might seem a no-brainer. The pessimist will live his life in a perpetual fog of gloom and shy away from such possible excitements as space travel, cosmetic surgery or voting Labour.

Not one for Charlie Hann, I suspect

Yet I am a pessimist so extreme that I have never yet boarded an aeroplane without a deep conviction that it is much more likely to crash in flames than to reach its destination.

Which, since so far it has always managed the latter, has given me periods of elation that I am sure no normal traveller could hope to match.

Always expect the worse, and life will throw up regular pleasant surprises.

We spend a lot of time wondering about the time and manner of our death, us pessimists, so I naturally pitched up at Wansbeck General Hospital a week ago fully braced for the worst.

My mood had not been lifted by receiving a summons from the Department of Elderly Medicine, even if I could detect the hand of some well-meaning PR looking for a kinder way to express “Geriatric”.

Nor was it helped by seeing a doctor in a room that bore a sign reading “Pre-Surgical Assessment”.

But then, as it turned out, while I have indeed got a long list of things wrong with me, so would most 60-year-olds subjected to the same battery of tests.

In particular, I am no more likely to keel over with a stroke tomorrow than any other comically overweight and inactive non-smoker of my age.

True, this left the doctor with no explanation for the symptoms I have been experiencing, though he did kindly offer to refer me to another specialist for yet more tests.

However, in the week of Groundhog Day, it seemed better simply to draw stumps and add a few more irritating conditions to the long list of things one just has to learn to live with as one gets older.

Receiving this good news should have lifted me onto the sort of high that I normally experience only after stepping off a plane alive and making it through Arrivals without being the subject of a terrorist attack.

However, a new attack of pessimism soon kicked in as I realised that I could no longer put off a long list of important decisions that I had put on hold in the light of my clearly imminent demise.

I resolved to be nicer to everyone if I were to be spared, and I think it lasted about as long as most such resolutions. But I will keep trying.

In the long run, my pessimist son and I will be proved right, and can only hope that we have enough dying breath to utter the magic words “I told you I was ill.”

The humourless Church establishment prevented Spike Milligan’s family from having those words engraved on his tombstone, until they proposed putting them in incomprehensible Irish.

Since I lack Spike’s Irish roots, I wonder whether one of my readers might be able to assist my preparations by supplying a suitable Latin translation?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The consoling power of favourite quotations

It is sad but true, as William Hazlitt famously observed, that “The least pain in our little finger gives us more concern and uneasiness than the destruction of millions of our fellow-beings.”

Given my privileged opportunity to comment on any of the huge issues facing the world today, from climate change to the electability of Ed Miliband, it seems rather pathetic that the only thing of really gripping interest to me is today’s appointment at Wansbeck General Hospital to learn the outcome of some recent tests.

But there comes a tipping point in all our lives when death ceases to be a distant and theoretical concern, mainly affecting others, and comes to command our attention with the same sort of force as an oncoming juggernaut, careering madly towards us on the wrong side on the road.

It seems like yesterday that I was constantly making forward-looking suggestions and being frustrated by an older generation’s shrugging acceptance of the status quo, usually with the words, “It will see me out.”

Now I am firmly in their camp, my short-sighted selfishness tempered only by a sense of duty to my two sons, who could easily still be around in 90 years time. If anyone is.

Although constant awareness of the Grim Reaper’s stealthy approach is unnerving, age does have its compensations over and above the Senior Railcard. Perhaps the greatest of these is a sense of perspective, and the growing realisation that the Tory Prime Minister Arthur Balfour was right when he declared that “Nothing matters very much and few things matter at all.”

A.J. Balfour, nephew of Lord Salisbury: "Bob's your uncle!"

We are just moderately intelligent monkeys clinging to a rock spacecraft as it hurtles around a dying star. Our stay aboard is remarkably short and the best we can do is to make it as enjoyable as possible, both for ourselves and for our fellow travellers.

I have already tuned out the long-running general election campaign as so much white noise. It doesn’t look as though anyone can win it outright and it is hard to see any of the possible permutations of coalition making a material difference to our lives.

Particularly when you consider that many of the things Labour attacks most bitterly, such as the growth of private provision within the NHS, are simply the continuation of policies they themselves pursued when last in power.

We should always beware of anyone who presents us with a big plan to change things for the better. Socialism, communism and fascism all did that, and look how well they went.

The creation of the European Union and the euro were similarly billed as vehicles to prosperity and peace. Those of us who argued that they were likely to create just the opposite were cried down as reactionary fools.

Now that the continent is economically stagnant and mired in debt, with extremist parties on the rise across it, it is interesting to note how little we hear from those who screamed that Britain would be massively disadvantaged if it let the euro train leave the station without us on board.

Though they are the self-same voices issuing dire warnings of the fate that will befall us if we are mad enough to vote to leave the EU in a referendum, if we ever elect a Government so foolish as to hold one.

I’d like to think I might live long enough to vote for my country’s independence but I have to accept that the country I fondly remember has vanished forever, and no vote is going to bring it back.

So I’m off to see my consultant resolved to try and be a bit nicer to my fellow human beings for as long as I am spared; and I will endeavour to stick to that resolution even if what he mainly diagnoses is a bad case of hypochondria.

At the very least I will have had a salutary warning that should inspire me to try harder. For, as Dr Johnson observed, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

While if the worst comes to the worst I can always console myself with another favourite quote from Evelyn Waugh: “All fates are worse than death.”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.