Sunday, 27 December 2009

For the want of a handful of grit….

Last weekend it snowed, not a surprise at the tail end of December but the whole country was still thrown into chaos. Empires rise and fall, fashions change and yet Britain’s inability to cope with a handful of snowflakes remains the one fixed point in an ever changing world.

It isn’t that we struggle to cope with ‘extreme’ weather such as the floods that swept through Cumbria last month or the six inches of snow we had last weekend, we seem incapable of coping with any kind of weather at all, in a country where the sad souls who read out the forecast on television are minor celebrities that is utterly inexplicable.

The problem, I suspect, has a lot to do with out treasured pose of amateurism, not for us the swift response to far heavier snowfalls made on mainland Europe and in parts of America; that simply isn’t cricket old chap. We’d much prefer to muddle through whilst talking about the Dunkirk spirit, which is fine apart from all the times when it isn’t and muddling through just turns into a muddle.

The best example of muddling through gone bad presented by the great, six whole inches as one wide eyed forecaster exclaimed live on air last week, snows of December 2009 was the abject failure of Euro Star to run its trains through the channel tunnel. They hadn’t, as a parade of Euro suits informed the nation’s media, considered the prospect that it might be a good idea to buy some trains capable of coping with the fact that it gets cold in the winter. Blue sky thinking of that sort, or, I suspect thinking of any sort doesn’t really happen in Euro boardrooms.

You could be rather facetious about the wrong sort of cold weather or snow on the lines, at least you could it you hadn’t watched the news footage of the despairing little huddles of stranded travellers gathered on the freezing platform of London’s St Pancras station looking like nothing so much as troops waiting to be evacuated at the start of a war the Euro suits of their time had told them wouldn’t happen this year or next.

Every missed connection on the day the trains didn’t run through the channel tunnel and the motorway network turned into a frosty car park was a miniature nightmare. Filled with the last words of elderly relatives or the first steps of grandchildren missed because a medium sized nuclear power can’t get its governmental head around the notion that it often snows in December and so it might be a good idea to make some preparations beforehand, for the want of a handful of grit and a little common sense thousands of lives were needlessly disrupted for which however sincerely they might have been made the apologies given by the Euro suits can never compensate.

Not that they were sincerely made, it doesn’t work like that, to make a sincere apology the person doing the apologising has to have something to lose, like a large salary and an equally generous pension, but the Euro suits haven’t got anything to lose. The worst that will happen, if anything happens at all, is that a few of them will get to draw that generous pension a little sooner.

In a dictatorship, so the saying goes, the trains always run on time because if they don’t somebody gets shot, in a democracy that’s no way to run a railroad, but if we genuinely want our trains to run on time we need to create a situation where it they don’t somebody gets fired. I’d set my cross hairs on somebody wearing a Euro suit.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Heroically ordinary.

Last Sunday footballer Ryan Giggs was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year, weather conditions in the teacup have returned to normal now but for a while you could have been forgiven for thinking he had been implicated in the murder of the first born.

Within hours of the announcement being made the radio phone ins were abuzz with people calling in to say he was too successful, eleven Premiership medals and two European Cup winners medals and counting, played for the wrong team and anyway footballers shouldn’t win awards because they’re all millionaires. The only exception to this rule is when they’re called George best, who, by the way never won the BBC’s endorsement as a sports personality because they gave the award to Princess Anne instead, another injustice to make people who call radio talk shows hot under the collar.

George Best seemed to be a sort of totem for the people who had decided to use part of their Monday morning bemoaning who won a sporting popularity contest live on air. As one unusually articulate, by the admittedly low standards set by his contemporaries, caller put it Giggs wasn’t ‘fit to lace the drinks of good old Bestie.’

Maybe not, and for me that’s why he deserved to win the prize. Listen to a certain type of football supporter and sooner or later and he will tell you there are two types of footballer, the ones who are ‘characters’ and all the rest. By this standard Best was a character and Ryan Giggs belongs to the amorphous category of ‘all the rest.’

They haven’t, I suppose read Gordon Burn’s ‘Best and Edwards’, perhaps one of the cleverest books written about football in recent years in which he tells the contrasting life stories of Duncan Edwards and George Best. Both of men played for Manchester United and could create something close to art with a ball at their feet. Edwards died young in the Munich air crash, Best lived long enough to drink himself to death, and by doing so became a ‘character’ in the minds of people who don’t think about football or anything else any more than they have to.

They make, in the case of Best and the many other footballers who have followed the same sad route since, of seeing a man in the grip of an addiction that would ultimately kill him for the life and soul of the party. Giggs, by happy contrast, seems at ease with his prodigious talent and the fame and fortune that go with it.

I don’t usually subscribe to the notion that success on the stage or the sports field is a qualification for being a role model, but in the case of Ryan Giggs I am willing to make an exception. He seems to see playing football as a lucky break for an ordinary, in the best sense of the word, young man rather than a free pass to tabloid notoriety.

Best died a drink sodden wreck who failed to do justice to his remarkable talents, Duncan Edwards died too young in a plane crash on a snowbound German runway, if you want to take a guess at how he might have turned out and how he might have carried his talents in an age when footballers are tabloid clowns, you should look at a quiet hero called Ryan Giggs.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Taming the black dog.

There is a picture of Gordon Brown that has been pretty much a regular feature in one newspaper or another since he began his ill fated tenure in Downing Street. It’s the one where the photographer has caught him in the act of brushing a hank of limp hair away from his forehead with what looks like a full set of luggage under his lack of sleep reddened eyes. If the punishing pressures of high office combined with the ravages of unspecified personal demons had a poster boy, this is what he would look like.

I wonder if Health Secretary Andy Burnham had this picture in mind, and not just as a momento mori of the likely outcome of his own reported leadership ambitions, when he announced the government’s plans to use the NHS, Job Centre Plus and other agencies to identify and support people at risk of suffering mental health problems.

Speaking to the BBC he said that mental health issues are still ‘all too often shrouded in mystery, stigma or simply ignored.’

The ‘elephant in the drawing room’ is a lazy shorthand for our very British habit of trying to pretend those things that make us feel uncomfortable will disappear if we ignore them. In truth we don’t so much have one elephant in the drawing room as a herd of the darned things, most of which in recent years we have managed to acknowledge, where one we feared talking openly about sex or money now both subjects are the common currency of the dialogue between the tabloid press and an ever more salacious public.

The one exception to the rule is anything connected to mental health and in particular the depression that is an ever more prevalent feature of modern life. If such issues are raised at all it is either in an embarrassed whisper or through the protective prism of the sort of blunt humour used by an emotionally awkward people whenever it doesn’t want to talk about its feelings.

This is more than a little strange since some of the most prominent figures in our history have had to overcome significant problems with their mental health.

The ‘madness’ of King George III is more discussed than his long and successful reign, the long widowhood of Queen Victoria added to the age to which she lent her name its distinctive sombre tone. Winston Churchill was afflicted throughout his long career by a depressive streak he referred to as his ‘black dog’, Anthony Eden buckled under the pressures of the Suez crisis and these days almost the only thing anyone remembers about Harold Wilson is the extent of his paranoia.

The mental health of politicians is, of course, primarily put under pressure by the toxic collision between the immovable object of their ambition and the irresistible force of what Harold McMillan called ‘events dear boy, events’. They are lucky enough to be cushioned from the worst consequences of experiencing mental health problems by the innate ability of the political class to look after its own, the majority of the one in six Britons likely to suffer from mental health problems during their lifetime are not. Put in the most blunt terms mental health problems can break up families and destroy lives.

However good its intentions, and more often than not they are good, the government led by Gordon Brown has been criticized for being needlessly interventionist, maybe the source of his own mental problems, or one of them at least, is the intolerable stress imposed by attempting to micro-manage every last detail of running the country. In this case the government are right to intervene because nobody else has the money or the muscle to do so.

To date the plans have received a cautious welcome from groups that campaign on mental health issues, Peter Farmer Chief Executive of Mind praised the government for setting out a new ‘vision’ for tackling mental health issues, but warned that what was needed now was an ‘action plan for how that vision can be turned into a reality.’

And there lies the real problem, the biggest of all the elephants lumbering around our national drawing room if you like, addressing the problems caused by mental illness will take time and money; and the current government doesn’t have much of either. It can though, and it must, get the process started with a willingness to continue it if returned to office next year or failing that to put pressure on an incoming Tory government not to abandon some of this country’s most vulnerable people.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Johnson’s weakness proves he’s not the man to save Labour from disaster.

Once upon a time there was a political party that had tried hard, too hard perhaps, to make the public like it. Just as it looked like the party was heading for disaster, a stranger came riding into town who looked like he could save the day because he was the first politician ever to be born without a trace of ambition.

Until recently, until last Friday to be precise, a significant number of members of the Labour Party used to tell themselves a version of the fairytale written above with Home Secretary Alan Johnson cast as the hero. Surely a man so nice he behaved like he really didn’t want to be Home Secretary let alone PM would make an ideal leader, no more spin, no more expenses scandals; with Captain Alan at the wheel everything would work out fine.

Anyone with a passing interest in the subject will know, of course, that in politics everything very seldom works out fine, in fact the moment when things look like they’re going well is usually when they start to go wrong.

Things went wrong for the nice Mr Johnson because, ironically in a year when politicians have been regularly tarred and feathered for the things they’ve done, usually on expenses, of something he didn’t do. What he didn’t do was stand up to America over the extradition of Gary McKinnon.

He, you will recall because his case has been taken up by several newspapers, proof positive that sometimes even cynics can be on the side of the angels, is the computer hacker who embarrassed the land of the free by breaking into its supposedly impregnable computer system in search of information about UFO’s. Yes it was wrong for him to have done so, but the fact that he has Asperger’s Syndrome and so has only a sketchy understanding of the link between actions and consequences means his case should be judged in a way that takes his mental health into consideration.

That isn’t something that is likely to happen amidst the bear pit of the US prison system, which is why his family have lodged a last ditch appeal for him to serve any sentence he is given in a British prison, an opportunity that has been denied him by the Home Office.

A little earlier I said that Gary McKinnon has only a sketchy understanding of the link between actions and consequences, it seems the people advising our affable Home Secretary have the same problem. Nothing else could be to blame for their being deaf to his mother’s statement that her son had been living in a ‘heightened state of terror’ for eight years at the thought of being thrown into prison on the other side of the world.

Mr Johnson, however, was not obliged to take the faulty advice offered by his civil servants; he could have said that compassion carries more weight than the wounded ego of a superpower or the finer points of the law. He could have done, but he didn’t, he turned down the appeal on the grounds of having ‘sought and received assurances’ from the US authorities that Gary Mc Kinnon’s ‘needs will be met.’ As displays of cynical hand washing go that has a place alongside the best work of Pontius Pilate.

It seems we were all wrong about Alan Johnson, the media who have given him an easy ride, the party members who thought he was ‘one of us’, all of us; we were all taken in. He is an example of everything that is wrong with politics in this country, a timid unimaginative bureaucrat.

Politicians, whatever their party have one duty that overrides all others, particularly if they manage to attain high office, and that is to protect the vulnerable, there are few people more vulnerable than Gary Mc Kinnon and in failing to prevent his extradition to the US Alan Johnson has dodged that duty and in doing so shamed his party and his country; he should not expect to be forgiven by either.