Friday, 28 November 2008

The Arrest of Damien Green; Government Lies and Politicisation of the Met

The Mugabe-esque arrest and detention of shadow Immigration Minister Damien Green for exposing information embarrassing to the government should send shivers down our spines. Downing Street asserts that the neither the Prime Minister nor any other minister had prior knowledge of the arrest. This is laughable and patently a lie - especially as the leader of the opposition and the mayor of London were told.

It seems more than coincidence that the arrest, which included at least nine counter-terrorism officers, occurred on Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair's last day in office. It is also interesting that the raid took place after news of the Mumbai atrocity had emerged, effectively filling the headlines (remember September 11 and 'This would be a good day to bury news").

There has been mounting concern about the politicisation of the Metropolitan Police. While in his parting speech today Blair rants about the influence of the mayor, it is worth remembering that while the Chief Constables of every other force are local, not government appointments, it is the Home Secretary that appoints the Chief Commissioner. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's concern at the Commissioner's resignation may well have reflected the impact on government influence over the Met.

In November 2005 Blair was involved in allegations of the police being politicised, when he and other senior police officers lobbied MPs to support Government proposals to hold terrorist suspects for 90 days' . He received further criticism when 78 police officers were involved in a £7,200 night operation to confiscate placards displayed by lone Parliament Square anti-war protester Brian Haw.

I had first hand experience of the politicisation of the Met on 15 September 2004, when I took a day's leave to visit Parliament Square with other country folk.

Usually friendly, it soon became clear that the 1,300 armed police attending the peaceful demonstration had 'zero tolerance' instructions and were in a mean mood. A 'Wapping Box' barrier system was erected around the Square, ranks of police vehicles were drawn up, and the Mounted Division were in reserve. We could see what we took to be police surveillance cameras on the roof of the Houses of Parliament, and a helicopter circled and filmed overhead. Some people had arrived at the rally on bicycles, and had left them chained to the railings. An early indication of the police mood was that they were removing these not by cutting the chains or padlocks, but by maliciously cutting through the bicycle frames.

The day began quietly enough, as we sat in the sunshine eating sandwiches and listening to the speakers. The subsequent farcical Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation noted blandly that, "at 3.23 pm a police officer was captured on CCTV using his baton to strike a demonstrator". What followed was an explosion of gratuitous violence against the most lawful of crowds, who were inevitably roused to anger and self-defence.

The IPCC report was an institutional cover-up in every sense, but the IPCC knew that the events had been seen live around the world, and it had to admit that police officers used their batons to strike demonstrators on the head, causing injuries; that there were examples of 'considerable force' being used from the police lines towards the demonstrators (one member of the public received a baton injury which required 12 stitches); that the police had injured demonstrators who had clearly not been involved in any disorder and had been unable to escape due to the volume of the crowd; and that an examination of the CCTV and still photographs showed that members of the press were caught up in the conflict and at least two photographers received head injuries.

Attempts to deploy the Mounted Division only served to inflame the crowd who didn't like to see horses used in that way, and failed because they did not fear close contact with horses. The IPCC admitted that 'a number' of police officers had removed the epaulettes bearing their identification numbers, and that police batons were cleaned up before forensic evidence could be taken.

The violence, which I have absolutely no doubt was an inevitable outcome of police aggression, lasted for two hours. Within a matter of days complaints ranging from common assault, to unlawful wounding, and assault occasioning actual bodily harm had been lodged by 54 people who attended the demonstration who claimed to have been injured by police officers and also from 119 people who attended the demonstration but were not injured. The Metropolitan Police alleged that there had been over 60 injuries to officers, but after they had examined the extensive video footage, no members of the public were charged with any assault offences.

The IPCC heard evidence from a range of police officers at various levels, who described how officers had been specifically instructed in prior briefings to be really awfully nice to the demonstrators, and particularly to be sure to wear their identification numbers. In a move unlikely to encourage witnesses, the Senior Investigator of the IPCC decided it would be appropriate to pass on details of anyone making complaints against the police to the 'Operation Ashcombe' investigation of assaults on police officers. The IPCC was also told not to investigate common assault complaints against the police because there would potentially be too many of them and they would be difficult to investigate because the victims would be unlikely to have forensic evidence of the assaults.

Even given the difficulty of identifying officers in riot gear who had removed their ID numbers, and after deciding not to investigate allegations of common assault, 31 officers were the subject of complaint. 17 files went to the Crown Prosecution Service. After a number of trials and disciplinary hearings, one officer was referred back to the Met for discipline, consisting of 'words of advice'. That's it. Two years of prevarication, hundreds of complaints, scores of injuries, and one officer received 'words of advice'.

Three months later Ian Blair, who was Deputy Commissioner at the time of the rally, was appointed Chief Commissioner. Eight months after that Parliament passed the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, banning unauthorised demonstrations within a one kilometre radius of Parliament Square, and placing the power to authorise demonstrations in the hands of the Chief Commissioner.

On the Today programme this morning Gordon Brown's immigration minister Liam Byrne repeatedly stressed that his shadow opposite number had been charged with conspiracy - something he seemed anxious to make political capital of, until it was pointed out to him that no charge had been made. Be nervous; this government is trying to stifle opposition and free speech, and truth and open government have been the first casualties.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Dream Lover

Dream Lover
I want to baste you and taste you,
Make a cocktail laced with you;
Trace the lips and the dips of you
The tips and the tricks of you;
Test the turns and the tapers
And the subtle twists of you:
The flanges and the rims,
The dimples and the whims;
The ins and the outs of you
The pleats and the pouts of you.

I’d like to tease you, please you,
Bring you to the knees of you;
The breath and the beat of you,
The sweat and the heat of you;
Bisect you, inspect you,
Parse you and dissect you
Conjugate the pieces,
The components and the creases,
The perfection and the puzzle,
The silence and the hustle.

I want to ream you, unseam you
Desiccate and wean you;
The please and the pardon
The secret scented garden
The nectar and the wine
The undulating line
The fruit that is forbidden
The thoroughbred that’s ridden
The incubus’s wedding
A twist of tangled bedding...

Dawn beyond the pane;
The waking and the shame,
The telltale dream-tossed quilt,
Oh, the wonder and the guilt.

BT
October 2008

Monday, 24 November 2008

P8RS0N4L1S3D N0 PL4TE8

Back in April I had a little rant about personalised number plates. Your comments at the time seemed to share my view about them. However, I've just had a contrary comment from Cinnamon Girl. This surprised me until I realised her business is selling personalised number plates. It's probably a lucrative occupation, or was before the credit crunch, bearing in mind the current record is £440,000 (for 'F1'), and that single numeral plates sell for upwards of £10,000.

In her promotional blog Cinnamon Girl conjectures that it is over-contrived registration plates which encourage criticism. But it isn't only that. It's the 'look at me' element which irritates. Nobody loves a show-off. And that image should matter so much to the owners that they are prepared to fork out thousands of pounds for such an ostentatious and not terribly classy statement.

However, to her great credit, besides linking to my less than supportive post, Cinnamon Girl linked to this clip from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's ' The Chaser's War on Everything'. I have subsequently wasted much too long on other clips from the same team.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Old Joy, Into the Wild and Vampire Weekend



I've watched two movies lately which share some lost, yearning, other worldly quality. Both of them stick in the mind long after the credits have rolled. Both are perfectly scored.

They are Into the Wild and Old Joy.

Old Joy in particular is an understated masterpiece; a one course meal of bread and water which becomes a thought-provoking, wine-rich banquet for the soul.

Finally, here's a band.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

How to Get Rid of Sparrows

The shooters were out again on Wednesday. My study looks out across the field to the release pen in the wood, where the captive bred birds are introduced to 'the wild'. The Dutch banned the rearing of birds so that they can be shot down for pleasure in 2002, regarding it as morally and environmentally insupportable. I have sympathy with their view.

A couple of years ago I found a sparrowhawk which used to perch on a drainpipe at the end of the house lying dead on the ground, and I have little doubt it ate poisoned bait (as probably did the pet dogs and cats which regularly go missing in the woods).

In 2006 The Times drew attention to the fact that 'Shooting Times' had published a list of the countryside's 'most wanted pests' - a list which included eagles, ospreys, red kite, buzzards, falcons, harriers and goshawks, together with otters and badgers.

I was reminded of this by the report about paving and decking being responsible for the fall in urban sparrow populations. It's not a new suggestion. Authoritative studies have also shown the fall to be due to aggressive magpies, cats, disease, climate change, pollution, unleaded fuel and mobile phone masts. I'm not convinced of the paving and decking argument, because numbers have also fallen massively in rural areas. Our sparrows all but disappeared some time in the 1990s. They reached a clamorous peak one year, in which we could barely hear ourselves think for the clamour of them in the eaves, then the following year, Bam! Not a sparrow to be seen. It was so sudden that I can only put it down to disease or a bird of prey.

Anyway, while we mourn the endangered sparrow and are urged to remove our decking and put up nesting boxes, a host of commercial pest companies are offering to rid our gardens of the pesky sparrow. For example Safeguard, 'The Pest Control People for London and the South East', advise that there are several methods available for controlling sparrow populations including use of pesticides. Countrywide Falconry And Pest Control Services Ltd offer "humane, fast, effective removal' of sparrows across London and the South East of England. The Pest Control UK Directory regards all birds as a source of disease, and says that keeping birds away from your lawns and gardens is not 'anti-environment'. They suggest use of spikes, nets, holographic and iridescent foil, sonic and ultrasonic devices, and
elimination of food sources for wild birds, such as spreading methyl anthranilate on the lawn to make it taste bad. These are the sort of people who don't like trees because leaves make the patio untidy.

Yesterday there was a quail with a damaged leg huddling by the garage, presumably injured the day before. But don't feel sad; fresh batches of fee-paying urban 'sportsmen' waddle out of the shoot trailer twice a week, so perhaps it'll provide gratification for one of them today.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Organ Donation: Opt In or Opt Out?

I wonder how you feel about the current transplant debate? Gordon Brown supports a change in the law to give the State the right to remove and reuse organs from deceased individuals, unless they have specifically opted out.

There are, of course, good arguments in favour of increasing the number of organs available for transplant. If availability of an organ might save my life or that of someone dear to me, I imagine that I might feel the gift of life outweighed any personal sensibilities.

But I find the idea of the State awarding itself ownership of our bodies altogether too reminiscent of 'Brave New World' and 'The Handmaid's Tale'. The conscious choice of an individual to gift his remains so as to give a chance of life or health to another is generous and altruistic, but I am not sure the 'right' to life is such that the State should be empowered to seize cadavers for dissection and the removal of body parts under the noses of grieving children, parents and partners.

I can see other difficulties too. Not so much the fear that hospitals, keen to get their hands on organs in best useable condition, would 'give up' on patients earlier than might otherwise be the case - although there would always be that risk. What I suspect would be inevitable though, would be strong institutional pressure against death at home, so that organs could be 'harvested' in the freshest possible condition - just as for years hospitals made it very difficult for mothers to choose a home birth. The prospect of a duty to report deaths of loved ones immediately to the local hospital, so that 'organ snatch squads' could tear up one's stairs to the master bedroom, scalpels twinkling, is equally unthinkable.

Deemed consent would inevitably bring a shift in attitudes. From the present position in which a donor's family are welcomed as benefactors by the medical establishment and organ recipients - bringing them pride and solace - there would be the sense that organs were taken by right, and perhaps vexation with the relatives of anyone who'd opted out. In any case the chances are that, with the burden of proof on next of kin, by the time they had discovered and were able to demonstrate that their loved one had opted out, any organs would have been long gone.

So I come down emphatically on the side of sticking with an 'opt in' approach, albeit with better publicity and encouragement.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

It's a Bloke Thing

In his mother's recent absence the neighbour's son experienced a domestic crisis; the cat shat on the mat. Or on his bedroom carpet, to be exact.

He cleaned up with male ingenuity. Using a craft knife he cut out a square patch of carpet around the offending offering, and then frisbee'd it out of the window.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

The Horror

I've been thinking about the way Great War veterans never talked about their experiences. It's puzzling. Like a conspiracy, except that with conspiracies there are always rebels. Then I remembered how at boarding school no one ever told their families about bad stuff that happened.

If this seems like a really crass comparison, it's not intended. The vicissitudes
of the boys' preparatory schools of those days bear no similarity to life in the trenches. Or very little, and not in the same degree. But the discipline, restrictions, discomfort, injustice and fear was so alien to our home lives that we seemed to inhabit two different worlds. Heaven and Hell, if you like. And some instinct made us want to protect our mothers and sisters from the unconscionable realities; from the loneliness, the bullying, the beatings, the perverted fumblings of damaged staff, the cold, the food. Our fathers had been through the same system and must have known; their silence was manly and complicit, like veterans of earlier wars.

Our weekly letters home were vetted and censored, but even if they had not been, we would not have told. Instead we wrote of the cheerful and mundane; of cricket matches and half-holidays, of the weather and...well, that was about it. At the end of term, in the car on the way home after twelve weeks away, they would ask, 'How was the term?', and we would reply, 'All right'. Locking it all away in a dark vault of our minds; looking forward instead to the sunlit uplands of the holidays.

We were fully aware of the parallels between boarding school and POW camps - German ones, anyway. In fact, any prisoners of war who had attended an English boarding school would have been well-prepared. From time to time unhappy boys even planned and executed escapes, although they were almost always caught, turned in by a stationmaster or picked up by police as they tramped along a road verge (we weren't allowed money, and our uniform of herringbone tweed shorts and jackets, besides giving us chapped legs, screamed 'escapee!'). If we could have, we'd have lined the drive and cheered as they were escorted back, except the drive was out of bounds. And we'd have been shot.

I was only 8 when I left home. Some were younger. I no longer feel resentment about being sent away, although I did at the time. It was just the way things were. Parents made sacrifices to do it and it hurt them too. No doubt the education was good; no doubt it made us self-reliant. And these things were the exception rather than the rule; I'm sure such schools are very different now. But we were unworldly children from sheltered homes, and the cold, curtainless, carpetless, draconian life of bells and rules and dormitories was not a comforting one. Even if we could have afforded the fees, I didn't need much persuasion to send our children to day schools. They've never complained.

Anyway, I believe the men who had experienced the horrors of that war concealed them not only from convention and because they wanted to forget them, but also because they felt that resurrecting those experiences would pollute and corrupt the sacred home life they had lost and then, against all odds, regained.


Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Daniel Takes A Train


Nice cousin-in-law Paul plays sax in the 80s band, 'Daniel Takes A Train'. The band, which in its day played venues such as the Astoria, Ronnie Scotts, the Empire Leicester Square, Hammersmith Palais and The Limelight Club and famously gate-crashed the 1987 Brit Awards, reformed this year. They are releasing a new single, 'One Last Dream,' in a couple of week's time, and will therefore challenge Simon Cowell's X factor finalist for this year's Christmas single.

If you love Simon Cowell, please don't visit the band's website here.

If you really love him, don't whatever you do explore the widget to the right, because you can listen to the various mixes and even order copies by clicking on its bottom. The song should carry a health warning, because it grows on you, and at just 77p it's perfect for those family stocking fillers...

Monday, 10 November 2008

Select Committee Calls for Ban

An influential Parliamentary Committee has called for introduction of a minimum price for books and other literary products. Citing research that showed that the real price of literature has fallen dramatically in the last 30 years, the Home Affairs Select Committee wants to ban special promotions and prohibit supermarkets and other outlets from selling books at a loss to attract customers. Chairman Keith Vase said that popular titles were 69% more affordable now than they had been in 1980. "Police are spending too much time dealing with reading-fuelled social unrest, and the easy availability of reading material is contributing to the problem. More working time is lost through reading than through accidents in the bath, and there is increasing evidence of older people stocking up and reading at home, often solitarily. They may be unaware of the dangers of excessive reading, which can damage eyesight and contribute to obesity and heart disease. We are asking for a ban.

"We are particularly concerned at products intended to entice younger people to read. Brands such as Harry Potter may seem innocuous, but they can quickly become habit-forming. Studies suggest that early reading increases the risk of developing a lifelong reading habit."

Besides seeking to legislate against the sale of cut-price literature, the committee wants to revoke the licences of some outlets currently authorised to sell reading matter; introduce prominent health warnings drawing attention to the physical and mental health consequences of reading; and outlaw reading in public places. When it was suggested to Mr Vaj that some people enjoyed reading and that moves to restrict it might be unpopular, he replied, "Happy readers lead to unhappy communities. The Government needs to act decisively in the public interest."

[For any non-UK readers, a Select Committee has today called for restrictions on the sale of alcohol]

Saturday, 8 November 2008

WWII in Colour

The Telegraph is doing a free DVD offer all this week of the extraordinarily good series 'The Second World War in Colour'. This was made in 1999 by Carlton Television. One of the diarists they drew on was my mother, so the Social Secretary and I got to represent her at the launch at BAFTA in Piccadilly. As simple country cousins we were rather excited about going, associating BAFTA with glitzy awards ceremonies. And as luck would have it, when we got to the front of the queue for taxis at Victoria, along came a head-turning reproduction vintage cab, all headlamps and mudguards and cream livery, so we felt appropriately important as we arrived at the doors.

Carlton followed this in 2000 with a second series, 'Britain at War in Colour', which also drew on her diaries. A small team travelled up to Skye and spent a long day interviewing and recording my mother at home, which she enjoyed, although she was far from well at the time.

The SS and I again went to the launch, this time in the main hall of the Imperial War Museum. While I chatted to a liveried Chelsea pensioner (who invited us to tea at his gaff at the Royal Hospital) and wolfed the delicious canap├ęs and champagne being handed round by (it seemed) increasingly pretty girls, the SS got to meet Ian Lavender of 'Dad's Army' fame, who she said was charming. For the screening we sat behind Dame Vera Lynn (I would love to have told her that at school at the turn of the 1970s, as rock blared from out other studies, being too broke to buy a stereo it was her voice that crackled out from mine via old 78s and a wind-up gramophone). Next to us was a pleasant fellow named Bob Hanna, who very kindly gave me a copy of his father's memoir. Sam Hanna was a teacher from Burnley who spent his spare time recording local trades and tradesmen, making very early use of colour film.

Although the available wartime colour footage is limited, the immediacy it brings helps to shrink the years between and put us in closer contact with that world.

Friday, 7 November 2008

1,000 mph: Bloodhound SSC

I am unreasonably proud that in the limited edition of 'Thrust' by Richard Noble, my name appears in the appendix as a member of the supporters' club. In the absence of a dominant major sponsor, the club became the project's biggest single sponsor, providing 20% of the cost of the project. At times it was this support that kept the whole, mad scheme afloat - support from ordinary enthusiasts with ordinary incomes, who probably didn't even tell their friends for fear of being seen as nutcases.

Now a new British land speed record attempt is planned. Richard Noble, who took the record in Thrust 2 in 1983, and managed the Thrust SSC project which took it in 1997, will manage the project. The current land speed record holder, Andy Green, will drive the car. Weighing in at six and a half tons, Bloodhound SSC will be powered by a Typhoon Eurofighter jet engine and a rocket. Its fuel pump will be an 800 hp V12 racing car engine. It is designed to accelerate from 0-60 in one second and to reach 1000 mph within 40 seconds - a speed of 4 seconds a mile, faster than most jet fighters. The attempt is scheduled for 2011 (although, on past experience and any possible funding difficulties, I would be inclined to add at least a couple of years to that).

The Thrust SSC project was in progress as we emerged from a recession. Bloodhound SSC has been launched just as we enter one. People will say that it is grossly inappropriate to spend large amounts of money on such an apparently pointless project, when it could be better spent on health, or job creation, or foreign aid. Of course they will - and on the face of it they would be right. But I believe we need dreams. We need inspiration. We need to fire the imaginations of the children who could become the scientists and engineers of the next generation. We need role-models who are willing to risk all for an idea. It could be cheap at the price.

The Bloodhound SSC project's website is here.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Packed

The Social Secretary sent off for some free promotional glucosomine tablets. This label was on the Jiffy bag. Now there's an odd packing technique.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Manners and Insults

Alison Hairdesser arrived upset. On her way she had pulled over to let a Landrover through. They both had their windows open, and the driver had shouted "wanker" at her as he passed. It seemed undeserved, and I suggested that perhaps he had said, "Thank yer," or even that he might have been German and said "Danke," but she said he had a leering expression on his face that made his meaning unambiguous. As it happens many 4x4 drivers around here have a leering expression. It may be inbreeding or a side effect of squinting down gun-sights at barely flight-worthy corn-fed pheasants, so the jury is still out in my book.

I told her a friend of mine had been driving along a lane, minding his own business, when a driver coming the other way leaned out of his window and yelled "Pig" at him. Puzzling at what he had done to deserve the insult, he rounded the next bend and ran one over. (Alison said she didn't understand. Was I suggesting that her Landrover driver had been trying to warn her of an approaching hazard?)

Undeserved, gratuitous insults have a disproportionately unsettling effect. I've never forgotten an exchange in the entrance to the Victorian Shopping Arcade in Inverness. A stranger and I did that avoidance dance in which you each move in the same direction, and when we'd sorted ourselves out I said "Sorry" unnecessarily in the way that politeness dictates, and he replied, "You will be". If you read this, Inverness person, or even if you don't, may your cloutie dumplings shrivel.

Manners can be a burden. I seem to have spent a significant proportion of my life holding the door open at Woolworth's while an endless stream of people walk through without even looking at me, let alone thanking me. And elderly ladies, assuming me to be a shop employee, regularly ask where the rubber gloves are. I've given up explaining that I don't work there, because they don't believe me. It's easier just to show them. Unless they ask rudely, in which case I send them next door to Ann Summers.

Monday, 3 November 2008

I'm It

Can Bass 1 has tagged me for six random facts. He is too nice a chap for me to sense a hint of malice, but if it were anyone other than he, speculation might be my middle name. Here are mine - and I have been as honest as I can.

1 Standing on a biscuit tin.

2 Probably Sigourney Weaver, although Monty Don might be fun.

3 It depends on several things, including what I've eaten and the weather.

4 Only once - and we both wound up in hospital.

5 A petrol strimmer.

6 Alas yes. I put it down to single-sex schooling.

Since the tag has transmogrified into something altogether more profound, I tag Lucy back because she started it. And also Steve.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

The Joys of Life

The car has been playing up for the last couple of weeks, refusing to start in the cold mornings. We're a good couple of miles from the nearest bus route, shop or station, so it's kind of essential. Replaced the glow plugs (£40), then the battery (£60); still no good. So it's been bicycles, battery on charge every night, and faffing about in dressing gowns in the frost putting heaters under the block and ether up the air intake (which one really shouldn't do with a diesel, as it can blow the manifold off). Yesterday we finally sorted it with a new starter motor (£££s).

So what happens? To add to the bitter cold, it starts to rain like you've never seen. French rain, from France. And they've spread pig muck on the hill, directly upwind. And then - as we prepared dinner for eight - the loos start backing up, and I find that the lowest drain is overflowing over the terrace. So Bob and I were out in the freezing monsoon, in the gathering dark, inhaling pig poo, rodding the sodding drains, swathed in our oldest macs and hats in case of collateral splashback. When the blockage finally cleared with a great audible glop, the plunger nearly got dragged in by the suction, with the two of us on the end of it.

Talk about it never rains but what it pours. Sometimes I think there must be a divine hand in all this. With a warped sense of humour.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Magic Rattle Pooh

If the TV ad I overheard is any indication, the must-have toy for toddlers this Christmas is 'Magic Rattle Pooh'. Call me alarmist, but I shudder to think what confusion this may cause in tiny minds.