Saturday, 21 March 2009

Memories of Sables-d'Or

Having had a comment about my Memories of Warwick Avenue posting, I was prompted to do another posting outlining another set of memories from my youth of a particular location. This is the town that I knew as Sables-d'Or (literally 'Sands of Gold') though I have found its full title is Sables-d'Or-les-Pins, on the Côtes d'Armor, as there are others around the coast of France, notably near Biarritz. It lies on the North coast of eastern Brittany in France, due South of the Channel Islands. Travelling from the UK we used to go through the port of Cherbourg, but you could also go via St. Malo these days, which lies some kilometres to the East of the resort. It is a broad sandy bay lying between what are almost two peninsulas to the East and the West, it is served by the D34a road. It seems renowned now for the kiting and surfing that is possible, presumably because it is near the mouth of the English Channel and faces North. Like many French towns along the Channel coast it is also renowned for its golf club. The only other town I remember visiting in the region is Erquy which is to the West of Sables-d'Or and faces West protected by a headland, it has its own sandy bay, but I remember it as a picturesque harbour with old fashioned fishing boats in it.

My memories of Sables-d'Or are now about 36-7 years old, so I imagine that the place has changed beyond recognition since I went there. I can view street plans and aerial shots of the place but cannot get a feel for what it is like on the beach these days. Perhaps it is best that I do not find out too much and spoil the memories I have of the place in the early 1970s. There still only seem to be two hotels in Sables-d'Or and as the Hotel la Voile d'Or is a modern and only two story hotel, I know it must have been the Hôtel de Diane that I stayed in in my youth and looking at the photos the lounge and the dining room look the same, though they now seem to have a conservatory dining area too. The hotel also prides itself on the fact it has been run by three generations of the same family. It is a three-storey place with 47 bedrooms which with its steeply pitched roof looks like it would be more at home in the Bavarian Alps than on the coast of France. The hotel was very much like the kind of place you would imagine Monsieur Hulot going to in the movies of the 1950s. The decor seemed to be of the early 1960s style, sparse but smart and it still seems to have that elegance which reference the past and the modern at the same time. I remember meeting the hotel manager who would receive all guests in his office, which lay beyond the lounge, before they left. He might have been a member of the family that still owns the hotel. He was probably in his fifties when we saw him, but the thing that stuck in my mind was all his teeth were capped with gold. He was a tall, slender man in the standard French office uniform of slim, dark single-breasted suit, white shirt and narrow dark tie. He had a broad circular face and skin covered with large freckles, he smiled a great deal which exposed all these gold teeth which to a small child was quite alarming despite him clearly being very charming.

I have an assortment of memories. I remember coming down the very wide stairs of the hotel in the morning and being stopped by the maids who would be on their knees sweeping the stairs and I would have to count to ten in French before I was allowed to proceed. I had probably only started school (we did not start until 5 years old in those days in the UK) the previous September. My mother has always been keen on languages and I certainly remember the classic BBC French course 'Suivez La Piste' (1965) books and records (the text seems to be available online in a number of locations now) being around the house. I remember there was single swing surrounded by pine trees on a sandy part close to the hotel manager's office. However, there were few other children at the hotel to compete with to use it. In those days no-one had a television in their bedrooms in a hotel so you had to entertain yourself.

The key events were around the meals. In my memory the dining room was huge, but I imagine that is because I was small. In contrast to Britain the French were more than happy to have children at the meals, though they did have a special 'children's tea' at 4pm as well. I disliked the fact that they always boiled the milk for the children to drink. I liked milk but it had to be ice cold. The menu for the children was no different than that for the adults so I remember having to have my father fillet the grilled trout I was served one teatime. The hotel's restaurant still is renowned for its fish and seafood. I cannot remember the general meals we ate, though I do remember my brother, who was a toddler at the time, living on soft boiled eggs and 'soldiers' (bread cut into narrow strips dunked into the egg).

I also remember two incidents in the dining room which I have been reminded of by my parents in the intervening years. One was the Dutch family with two small children who used to sit at the table next to us. I remember the woman bending over one of the children. In the matter of seconds she turned from speaking to my parents in English, to speaking to her child in Dutch to responding to the waiter in French. This is unsurprising coming from a Dutch person, they all seem to be linguists from birth, but was a real example to British people struggling to speak French poorly. The other incident regards a business party at lunch one day. I can call the sight to memory very easily Given the town is small and the hotel's restaurant renowned, it was probably no surprise that the twenty businessmen (and I remember no women being present in the party) had chosen to dine there. They all wore dark suits and white shirts with slim ties which (unsurprisingly) made them look like they had stepped out of 'The Day of the Jackal' (1973) or even 'Ascenseur Pour Le Chafaud' (1958). I remember the boss sitting at the head of the table with a slanting forehead bald up the centre and a prominent nose, plus a paunch. Anyway, dispute broke out at the end of the meal about what flavours of ice cream the different businessmen were going to have and the boss intervened with a De Gaullesque voice and said that everyone would have vanilla. To some degree it indicated why he was boss.

There were foods that were different to the UK. I remember having breakfast in the lounge and having croissants probably for the first time, a food I still love to this day. (In fact it sparks off another memory of staying in a house in France, probably a couple of years later and walking each morning to the bakery and seeing the flames licking up in the old black metal oven as the baker took things out to sell; in the midst of all its modernity history lingers all over France and of course in the 1970s we were as close to the 1930s-40s as we are now to the 1970s). I also remember having coffee-flavoured ice cream in that lounge, which has a bar in the corner. I used to like coffee until I was 10 years old and then drank tea until I started being exhausted every morning in my mid-30s and needed the caffeine to wake me up. In the 1970s there was no decaffeinated coffee or any concern that children would be hyper-active from coffee. Of course the ice cream in France (with its high dairy content) still tastes very different from British ice cream (generally made from vegetable fats).

I cannot remember much about the rooms or even the town of Sables-d'Or. I do remember the beach or the part we went to which was a kind of inlet within the bay. Despite being North facing I remember it being warm. We played a lot there. I had a captain's hat with a blue plastic visor and my brother had more of a bucket hat. We ran around in canvas shorts and striped teeshirts. I remember my brother was bought a large red plastic tractor as long as his chest with a trailer which we filled with sand and drove around. I also remember that 'streams' of water ran through the sand even at low tide and one day I crossed one of these to a wetter area of sand, a tiny island between the streams and constructed my 'adventure path' with various things you had to do, including avoiding the curved pit I had dug and walking in the 'footprints' I had made in the wet sand. It is funny because the seven-year old who lives in my house does just such things with paper-based treasure hunts around our house even today with all the high tech games available. The beach was never very busy, I remember, it is probably different now, certainly with the new sports for beaches like power-kiting and ferries going from the UK to St. Malo which have opened up Brittany much more to British tourists. However, despite that one woman we met on the beach, I remember her being a dark reddish brown and having a black angled hat, came from the town in the UK which lay the other side of the canal from ours, we could have equally have run into her around the shops back home.

The remaining memories are about trips out from Sables-d'Or. One time we walked away from the hotel into a wooded area and in the midst of it was the remains of what we took to be a Roman amphitheatre, though looking back it was probably a Victorian folly version. Oddly it was raised up rather that dipping into the ground, so you could clamber up the steps and do recitations from the top. The curve of the trees gave good acoustics. My parents encouraged me to sing some song I had learnt but I was reluctant to do so. Sometime later on the walk I got the courage to go back and do it but was told it was now too late. I tended to do that a lot when I was a child, I remember being offered a chance to go on a trampoline at a village fete when we first entered and not wanting to until we had circled the whole field and came back to it, by which time it was too busy. Remembering that it sometimes takes a child a while to make such decisions and they can feel terrible when they have missed an opportunity, I remember that with the seven-year old in our house and always make sure he has a second chance. People may argue this encourages prevarication, but I argue it promotes reflection on what we truly want rather than insisting people make snap decisions.

The other trip was to see the castle of Fort La Latte (not 'Alatte' as Christopher Coonce-Ewing has it in his Medieval History Through Film essay on the movie 'The Vikings' ), near Plévenon. This was used for the climax of the movie, 'The Vikings' (1958) starring Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas in which the Vikings attack an English castle. For more on the castle see: Its motto is in Breton 'Me zo ganet e kreiz er mor' or 'I was born in the middle of the sea' as it is constructed on an island at the end of a headland and is reached only by a bridge, once a drawbridge. The first castle was constructed in 931 CE but the stone one dates from the 14th century built by the lords of Goyon and Mantignon and in 1715 was converted to be used as a coastal defence fort when it gained its current name. When we went there even 14 years after the movie had been made, the battering ram used in the closing scenes was still there, abandoned by the path and I remember with a small lizard on it. The view as you walk along the path to the headland is memorable with the castle against the background of the sea, you can see why they chose it over a British location.

Anyway, those are my memories of a couple of holidays in Sables-d'Or that owed something to the 1970s but also to the heritage of French hotels and holiday resorts dating back to earlier in the 20th century. Given how many of my holidays have gone wrong, it is nice to remember ones in which I can remember minimal problem and a lot of pleasant experiences.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

'What If?'s from WorldoHistory

As I was wandering around the internet (something I tend to do rather than surf) I came across an interesting list of counter-factual history questions from the WorldoHistory blog:

The blogger, G.H. Kanowitz, is a physics teacher but with a real interest in history. I assume G.H. is a man and is located in the USA, but I might be wrong about both of those things. Anyway, G.H.'s blog has lots of fascinating quizzes about aspects of history, but naturally my greatest interest was in G.H.'s list of counter-factual history questions. Despite it being posted in February 2007, I was the first person to make any comments, so if you enjoy counter-factual discussions go there and post some of your viewpoints. Some of G.H.'s questions I have covered here on this blog, but others I am keen to tackle in the future. For reference, G.H.'s questions are:

1. What if Alexander the Great had had an heir? What form would his Empire taken?

2. What if Hitler had died from a gas attack in World War I? Would Communism spread much quicker? Would the State of Israel been born?

I think the best view of a world in which Hitler died in 1918 due to war injuries can be seen in Stephen Fry's 'Making History' (1995), because though it envisages Hitler never being born, the outcomes of him being removed before he became politically active in the 1920s is pretty much the same. Fry sees a more effective nationalist leader coming to the fore in Germany and winning the Second World War and eliminating the Jews. Jewish emigration to Palestine, which was controlled by the British from 1919 onwards, was occurring in the 1920s-30s. It depends if Britain had been defeated or remained free to decide its own imperial policy. It is likely that in any world in which the Jews were persecuted by the Nazis (or a similar grouping) they would have permitted a state of Israel. It would have been different if a nationalist but not anti-Semitic government had come to power in Germany and had not embarked on war across Europe. This may have occurred as there were few people with the political and diplomatic skills of Hitler combined with his utter drives to destroy the USSR and the Jews. In this case, Israel would have been less likely.

Hitler's impact was to actually spread Communism further and quicker. Of course he killed many Communists and banned the German Communist Party but his attack on the USSR in 1941 meant that the Communists became some of the most active resisters across Europe, raising Communist Party membership in all occupied and Allied countries (including the UK, there were 2 Communist MPs in parliament 1945-50) and giving them a real standing in the post-war world. Of course the Red Army's occupation of Eastern Europe having pushed the Germans out of those states also forced Communism into those countries. Though Stalin let the Greek Communists be crushed by Anglo-American and Greek Royalist forces in the Greek Civil War. So, without Hitler and his desires for Europe, Communism would not have spread so strongly across Europe and the East European states would probably have instead remained with authoritarian dictatorships post-1945.
My views on the death of Hitler at later dates can be seen at:

3. What if the American Revolution [i.e. the American War of Independence for British readers] had failed? Would the U.S. be part of the Commonwealth today or would it have gained independence later? Would it still be a Superpower today?
My views on this are at:

4. What if Japan had defeated the U.S. in the Second World War’s Pacific Theatre? Would communism still have taken hold in China? Would the Soviet Union have emerged as a Superpower? Would the Cold War involve three parties instead of two?
On this one, I argued that the USSR was really a superpower even before 1939 and we had a Cold War of three superpowers: USA, USSR and China anyway. However, I feel Japanese victory in the Pacific War is certainly worthwhile exploring and whether then Japan rather than China would have become the third superpower.
P.P. 20/03/2009 - I have now tackled these issues at:

5. What if Alaska had never been sold to the U.S. by the Russians? How would this have affected Canada and the U.S.? What type of Cold War situations could have arisen in such a universe?
A discussion of this is in the Russian America section of:

6. What if Paganism had succeeded in halting the advance of Christianity in Europe? Would the Jews still have been persecuted? Would Europe been saved the ravages of religious war? How would Islam have spread with no large scale counter-balancing force?

7. What if the English had not defeated the French in Canada? Would a significantly larger portion of North America have become Francophone? How would this have changed the complexion of the U.S.?

8. What if Britain had been connected to Europe by an isthmus? Would the country have developed the Great Empire it once held? Would English been so universal a language? How dominant would the Royal Navy have been in power politics? Would Napoleon and Hitler have successfully invaded and conquered Britain?
I had a go at this one at:

9. What if the Ancient super-continent of Pangaea had not split apart? How would this have changed Power Politics assuming the development of modern countries?
My views on this can be found at:

10. What if males and females had equal physical strength? Would so many societies have been male-dominated? Would there be more or less strife? Would the population have increased by the large number that it has?

11. What if the Arabs had accepted the 1947 Palestine Partition Plan? Would an Arab state have existed in peaceful harmony with a Jewish state? Would the region be wealthier for it? Would the Arab-Israeli Wars that followed still have taken place?
I think this one is a non-starter. Both the Israelis and the Palestinians believe that they are entitled to this land and have been willing to fight incessantly to regain or keep it. The answer to this can be seen in the current conflicts between Israel and Gaza. Even over this strip of land there is constant fighting and casualties. Neither the Arabs (more widely, not just the Palestinians) nor Israel would have been satisfied with the plan. As was shown in the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, Israel felt it needed more land; the bulk of Arab states would not even consider recognising Israel until the Camp David talks of the late 1970s. I think without the conflict and beyond it, the Cold War, Israel might have been poorer because it would not have received all the aid that the USA piled into the country when the Arab states were being backed by the USSR. In the years 1949-73 Israel received $122 million per year and a total of $277 million in military aid up to 1971 followed by $1 billion in loans for military equipment 1971-3. These are figures from the Jewish Virtual Library so will be sympathetic to Israel's side of the story (they complain the Arab states received three times as much funding and from a range of countries). Since 1974, Israel has received $100 billion in assistance, with packages in 1979, 1985/6 (to help restore the Israeli economy after collapse) and 1996/7. From 1987-98 the country was getting $3 billion per year, then this was scaled down on request of the Israelis and by 2006 was $2.58 billion of which $2.2 billion was military aid. Now a peaceful Middle East would have obviously meant less need for military expenditure and for repair to damaged property, plus the impact of war casualties would have been reduced, but Israel is more likely to have developed simply into a fruit and tourism economy and would rather resemble nearby Cyprus (though its population is ten times larger) rather than the regional, industrial power it has become.
I think that all the wars we have seen would have taken place whatever was done. Even if Britain had decided not to create Israel in 1948 you would have had non-stop terrorist activity in the region from 1945 onwards probably to present day, just look at the experience of the 1930s-40s for the British rulers and the persistence groups wanting an independent state such as the Basque ETA movement. Peace would have been good for Israel (Greece has 3 million more inhabitants than Israel's 7.1 million, but a GDP of $314.6 billion compared to $161 billion for Israel) but it is unlikely ever to have happened.

12. What if the American political and economic experiment was copied in South America after many countries on that continent gained independence in the 19th Century? Would South America be a center of power today? Would the U.S. role in Western Hemisphere politics have been diminished? Would the South American countries eventually have united to form a Federation?

13. What if Genghis Khan’s hordes had reached Paris? How would this have affected European History?
A discussion of a very similar question is at:

14. What if the Magna Carta had never been signed? Would British Liberalism still have evolved? Would the country have been cursed by a greater degree of reactionary tendencies?

15. What if the Roman Empire never existed? Would Western civilization have been so pervasive?

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Be Patriotic: Be Paranoid

Driving through Hampshire this week I heard the Hampshire police announcing the re-launch of an anti-terrorist hotline for members of the public to telephone in and report suspicious behaviour that they feel might be connected with terrorism. Given that the last terrorist attack in Britain (so excluding Northern Ireland which is part of the UK, but not Great Britain) was in July 2005, this seems to be an incredibly tardy response from the county which has the major port and rapidly developing airport of Southampton, the port and naval base of Portsmouth, numerous Army regiments housed across the country and the major Army base at Aldershot.

In 2006 Hampshire Constabulary set up its Special Branch Contact Unit and has been whining recently that no-one is calling its hotline and clearly felt that the public needs a new jolt of warnings about terrorism? Local authorities have been criticised by the Local Government Association and by the House of Lords Constitution Committee for abusing the powers they were granted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) which gave them the ability to put members of the public under surveillance. Not finding any terrorists, local councils have used these powers to keep people under surveillance suspected of applying to schools from outside the catchment area or allowing their dogs to foul the highway or putting out their dustbins on the wrong day for collection. In total 794 bodies including 474 councils as well as health service trusts and fire service can use the powers and apparently across Britain there are over 1000 covert surveillance operations (it is important to note the use of the word covert here, because for example, the used of closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV) is overt surveillance) being mounted each month. The most criticised council is that of the town of Poole in Dorset (a county bordering Hampshire) which used the powers to monitor people for all kinds of suspected things in most cases they were found not to be breaking regulations, e.g. on school applications, let alone the law. Its representative Tim Martin admits that the council has put 50 such covert operations into effect since RIPA was introduced in 2000, though it is clear usage has stepped up in the past couple of years.

So being stymied in its development of our authoritarian society through the means of what previously seemed to be legal covert surveillance but is now being challenged, a new approach has been adopted which is to get people to start reporting their neighbours. The radio advertisement which has followed the announcement says 'if you are suspicious, report it'. It features the sounds of a busy nightclub saying that it is only like this because the bomb that would have been planted here was prevented by someone reporting the theft of chemicals which could have been used to make a bomb, presumably this means fertilisers, so there seems a danger thay any Muslim or Irish people shopping in a garden centre better watch out (though I advise not looking at the CCTV cameras, the reason why you will see below). It then follows with a sound of a busy shopping centres, saying that a bomb was prevented by someone reporting a person looking at the CCTV cameras in the centre. The two locations are probably intended to remind the listeners of real bomb attacks, such as the Bali nightclub bomb of October 2002 and the bombing at the Arndale Centre in Manchester in June 1996. The implication is however, that we are currently under constant threat of bomb explosions across Hampshire's town centres and it is only the hard work of the Hampshire Constabulary and its informants that is preventing carnage. Where is the evidence for this high level of threat?

Informants never need encouragement. I have worked for three branches of the civil service and every day in every office in which I have been employed we received about twenty letters from informants 'shopping' (i.e. reporting them to the authorities) their neighbours who they were sure were committing some offence. The usual accusations are that the person must be committing benefit fraud or not paying their tax. Certainly where I worked the number of genuine cases were less than 1% of the ones reported to us. If I worked for 5 days x 48 weeks per year, that meant that I saw say, on average 2000 informant letters per year and that was at just one office. In one job there were three offices of the same branch of the civil service receiving coming on for 6000 informant letters per year and I imagine the Inland Revenue offices, Social Security offices, Job Centres and the police all received similar volumes of information. These days with email it is probably even easier.

It is interesting to note what the suspicious behaviour Hampshire Constabulary want you to look out for and this comes from their website: observing security procedures and routines (such as the regular marches of regiments through Winchester, home to five regiments which seem constantly on parade?), taking photographs or video (a very unusual activity in historic Winchester and Portsmouth or the New Forest also in Hampshire and basically anywhere someone might be with their family), note taking (I will make sure not to amend my shopping list or do any train spotting in Hampshire and will advise all teachers not to send their children to do projects in town) and repeat visits to a location (so I will buy my newspapers and groceries for a different shop each week and not be a regular at any pub in Hampshire and suggest that people try not to go daily to their workplace if it happens to be in Hampshire). This is utterly ridiculous. What they do not add, but is assumed is that these things are suspicious if done by a man of Middle Eastern appearance or with an Irish accent. The ironic thing is, that in Hampshire the most active terrorists are people like the Real Countryside Alliance campaigning to reinstate fox hunting and Motorists Against Detection which burns speed cameras and are made up of the middle-aged, middle-class white males that both make up the senior ranks of Hampshire police and are presumably immune from such suspicion.

To add to the paranoia that there are terrorists lurking in every shopping centre, the Hampshire police are running a seemingly unrelated poster campaign asking 'Who's walking down your street?'. The poster tells you to keep an eye out for burglars and advises you that they may be of different age, ethnic, social or gender groups to what you might expect. So the implication is to spread the paranoia far and wide and not just suspect what young, white workling class man of being a burglar but also that elderly Asian woman too. How long is it before we have checkpoints at the end of each road where you have to show your identity card and explain why you want to walk down that street before being permitted to do so. Has no-one heard of the block wardens that the Nazis introduced to their residential areas?

Parts of the government has been trying, especially since the Bradford race riots of 2001, to try to bring communities, especially those of mixed ethnicity. Yet in one of Britain's largest counties we seem to have a policy which seems to be encouraging citizens to turn on their neighbours no matter what their background. As it is, British society is incredibly insular with people closing their front doors and only looking out surepticiously to spy on happenings in the street. This is why children get abused and the corpses of elderly people lay undisturbed for weeks. This approach is the wrong one, it will simply encourage vigilanteism and hounding of people who look a little different or are simply new or disliked or are just behaving in one of these ill-defined 'suspicious' ways. This kind of reaction does nothing to make our towns safer in fact it makes them inhospitable and dangerous. Yet, the urging of some, influential in British society, if we are not sufficiently paraniod and not reporting the suspicious people the authorities assume must be active in our towns (even though the police and Security Service cannot find them), we are being unpatriotic and of course it is a short step to lacking patriotism being seen as suspicious itself. I once read a science fiction short story in which everyone in a community reported each other to the authorities and the whole village was taken away, but I will simply return to the Del Amitri song, 'Nothing Ever Happens' (1990), which reached Number 1 in the UK: 'They'll burn down the synagogues at Six o'Clock/ And we'll all go along like before/ We'll all be lonely tonight and lonely tomorrow.'

P.P. 30/03/2009 - I notice from radio advertisements that the Hampshire initiative seems to have spread nationally very quickly. Also interesting to note is that the government has been saying that anti-G20 summit protests this week will be violent and police are saying they will have to use anti-terrorist legislation. This is an unsurprising public behaviour as agents provocateur. Clearly the government wants no protest so they are seeking to provoke a violent response and scare off peaceful protestors. Next time anyone wants to do some peaceful protesting they can say 'no, look what happened last time' and ban it. Despite the shift from Blair to Brown, the step-by-step move towards an authoritarian state in the UK is continuing. These tactics are not new and you can easily find examples from European, African, Asian and American history of the past 80 years of them all being used.

P.P. 23/07/2010 - Being unemployed I currently look through all kinds of vacancies that I would not normally have encountered; this is increased by the fact that I look for work right across the UK not just in my local area.  I was struck when at my local Job Centre Plus by the three separate advertisements on their job search computer, posted by the University of Brighton.  They were seeking recruits who have previously served in the Security Service, i.e. MI5, to work for the university at three locations in southern England, only one of which seemed to be Brighton itself, vetting their students.  Clearly this university alone (or perhaps it is simply more open about the fact than the others) believes it runs the risk of having terrorists among its intake and thinks it needs skilled people to check them out.  The salary seemed pretty desultory for the kind of skills they are seeking, but I guess that is an implication of cutbacks in higher education.  The radio advertisements encouraging paranoia may not be currently running, but the outlook they have fostered seems to be living on in various corners of UK society.

Monday, 16 March 2009

The Cycle Helmet Issue

Helmets for cyclists have been around since at least the 1960s when they used to consisted of padded metal bars across the cyclist's skull and tended to be worn only by racing cyclists. Even then it was well into the 1990s before they became common in long races like the Tour de France and there was resistance to making them compulsory when the rules were changed in 2003. In fact what led to widespread adoption was that teams found it was easier to fit two-way radios into them and keep in contact with their teams to advise them on tactics.

For the general public helmets became increasingly familiar in bicycle shops in the late 1980s particularly focused at children. Also with the increase of mountain biking they seemed to be part of the fashion that went with that sport. There has been much discussion about their effectiveness. The main thing is that people who have never worn one, do not seem to understand the difference between bicycle helmets and those for motorcyclists. Bicycle helmets are made of plastic and foam design to compact like a 'crumple zone' on a car. They tend to sit on the top of the head and give no protection to the back of the neck. They do not contain the head in the way that motorcycle helmets do. Motorcycle helmets are metal or carbon fibre and are far tougher. In an accident they can actually keep a damaged skull in place which is why you should never remove a helmet from an injured motorcyclist and leave it on until they reach hospital. A cyclist wearing a bicycle helmet that had sustained such an injury would be dead. Of course motorcycle helmets were not made compulsory in the UK until 1973 and there were many who protested against this compulsion, I remember one man who was constantly being imprisoned when I was a boy for refusing to wear his and I always wished he would have expended his energy on a better campaign.

Until this week court cases which have implied cyclists are negligent in not wearing cycle helmets have failed. There was an attempt to introduce legislation to make it compulsory in 1998-9 and 2004. One challenge is policing the issue, I suppose we would see police pursuing cyclists not wearing one or more likely neighbours would inform on people not having one. Unlike with cars and motorcycles, the UK has no bicycle licensing system so you cannot take the number of the bicycle and say that a certain person is responsible as you can with motor vehicles. This court case Smith v. Finch 2009 has suggested that a cyclist injured while not wearing a cycle helmet would not be entitled to full compensation and cyclists not wearing one can be seen by the law as negligent even though there is no legal compulsion to wear one. The cyclist Robert Smith brought a claim against Michael Finch who had hit him with his 600cc motorbike. Finch counter-claimed saying that Smith had been responsible for the head injuries he had sustained because he was not wearing a helmet even though he had one.

Medical evidence showed that the helmet would have done nothing to reduce Smith's injuries as the back of his head was hit and he hit the ground at 12mph which was more severe than the helmet could take. The motorcyclist had come very close to the cyclist while speeding and the court put the bulk of liability on Finch. Cycling journals have noted that whilst the judgement does not compel people to wear cycle helmets they can be seen as negligent if claiming compensation and court cases usually see a 25% reduction in compensation if the cyclist is not wearing a helmet. The government claimed that 1,200 children under 16 received a head injury in a year from cycling and crash helmets would reduce this by 85% but they have now withdrawn this claim. Negligence against children is difficult legally anyway. In the UK you are not criminally responsible until you are 10 years old and for children up to the age of 14, in cars, it is the driver who is responsible for whether they are wearing their seatbelt, which is compulsory in the UK. It is hard to get children to wear helmets, in 2004, 29% of adult males; 30% of adult females; 11% of child males and 26% of child female cyclists wore one. Boys are loathe to wear them. Also people in general are less likely to wear them when travelling on minor roads, which is similar to how people used to behave to wearing seatbelts before it became compulsory.

Current cycle helmets are fine for stopping you injuring your head when you fall off, they do not protect you if hit by a motor vehicle. In these cases the helmets generally shatter anyway. A friend of a friend had hers smashed open by something sticking out from a lorry as it drove past.

New Zealand, Canada, the Czech Republic, Iceland and parts of Australia have made cycle helmets compulsory. I would argue that if this is going to be the case then the helmets need to be far more encompassing and far tougher. I am not suggesting that cyclists wear motorcycle helmets but perhaps something more like what mountaineers wear which protects the back of the head as well as the top. In many accidents cyclists are thrown to the side or backwards, and are unlikely to come down on the very top of their head which is the part that bicycle helmets most protect.

Of course the key problem is that drivers in the UK drive so hazardously around cyclists. British drivers drive very dangerously anyway and it seems to be deteriorating. No-one uses indicators any more and a trend I have noticed in recent weeks (I drive over 300 miles per week) is people from side roads forcing their way into the main road without waiting, causing sudden braking on the main road. Fortunately I always leave generous space between me and the next car, but tailgating is so prevalent in the UK that I am sure 'shunts' must be increasing due to this behaviour. In 2006 research found that motorists drove 8.5 cm closer to a cyclist wearing a helmet than a bare-headed one:

For women, wearing a wig is more effective than wearing a helmet because this research showed that it meant drivers gave them an additional 14cm compared to a bare-headed cyclist, which shows how sexist many drivers are that they want to ogle a beautiful blonde whereas they will mow down other cyclists. However, women cyclists are actually more likely to be injured by lorries than male ones, partly, ironically because women cyclists obey traffic signals and signs more than men. Evidence about this was suppressed by the government:

There has been evidence in the past that cyclists with a helmet on also get complacent as they feel protected, though in fact given the kind of injuries they are likely to sustain, they are little better off than if wearing nothing. Cyclist are generally hit first on their limbs, then their body and finally their head as it smashes into the ground. If motorists are going to drive so dangerously, we need to start introducing armour for cyclists.

A lot of this furore has stemmed from motorists and motorcyclists trying to shift blame on to cyclists. This is a very British attitude. In the UK we have this sense that 'an Englishman's car is his (mobile) castle' which leads to very hostile driving towards all other road users as if any delay in a journey is a personal affront to the driver. If you cycle in continental Europe you find drivers give you so much more space, to the extent that you can tell if you are being overtaken by a British car compared to a French/Belgian/Dutch one. In my experience the difference in the space you are left can be up to 45cm more from a non-British driver, depending on the road. I was often hooted by lorries in France and initially assumed they were being as hostile as British lorry drivers who seem to think that cyclists should be banned from the roads. Many car and lorry drivers think this too and shout it out at you; there was a case I heard of while driving through Dorset of a middle-aged man pushed off last year by people driving by in a car. The rage of British motorists at cyclists who are obeying the law, is incredible. Some cyclists do drive dangerously and jump lights, but it is rarely these ones who are abused verbally and physically by drivers. Simply cycling opens you up to a lot of abuse. This helmet controversy will just add more fuel to their anger at cyclists. Ironically in local newspapers you see numerous complaints about cyclists cycling on pavements but given how hazardous the roads are, is this any surprise?

I wear my cycle helmet religiously these days, though perhaps I should put a long wig on instead. The key issue remains, as on a poster that I saw in the 1980s, that cyclists remain a 'soft vehicle'. In 2007, 136 cyclists were killed and 2,428 seriously injured. Even if we armour cyclists and bicycles, this will always be the case. Even with their far tougher crash helmets and leather clothing, 2,493 motorcyclists were killed in the UK last year and there were a total of 6,737 who suffered an accident, making up a quarter of all road casualties. Given these statistics even stronger helmets and protection for cyclists may not reduce the casualties. Cycle helmets will protect you if fall off your bicycle but not if you are hit by a car or lorry. I suggest we begin moving towards the whole head covering design worn by BMX cyclists which protect the neck and face as well as the top of the head. Yet, even this will not keep you alive if rammed by a car.

What needs to change is the attitude to driving in the UK. Drivers of motor vehicles must learn that the road is not just for them and that there are all sorts of other vehicles out there. People must stop taking it as a personal insult that there is a slower or two-wheeled vehicle in front of them (let alone a horse, I could do a whole posting on how badly drivers behave towards equestrians and their mounts). British drivers need to learn from their continental counterparts that roads are not their for their personal use, but that driving a car or lorry means you become part of a complex system which needs everyone to obey the laws that are clear and well established. Speed limits are there for a reason, however much you whine that they are simply to constrain you asserting your machismo/a. Speed cameras are necessary because so many people think they are somehow exempt from the law and need to be reminded that they are not. If you are not speeding then speed cameras are no worry. Cyclists and motorcyclists have as much right to the road as you do. They should not be persecuted just because they select (or can only afford) a different form of transport to you; certainly you should not try to kill them or cause an accident, that is criminal behaviour even if the law is poor at catching up with you. Stop being so juvenile as to always try to shift the blame on to others, blaming pedestrians for trying to cross a road, especially in a residential area or a cyclist just because they have not got their helmet on. You will encourage responsible use of roads if you behave responsibly yourself. Too many drivers break rules so that they make it seem like some arbitrary thing and that I take a great risk in complying with the laws of the road.

Excuses, such as people not wearing helmets which are always going to be no protection against dangerous drivers, will always be found. In fact arrogance is what kills and it is the key issue that needs to be tackled if we are going to reduce road casualties.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Most Contorted Lyrics in a Pop Song

This is one of these postings to which you quite legitimately say 'why did he suddenly start going on about that'. Well, the whole point of this blog was to extract the odd things that had been floating around in my brain and get them out of my system like the tablets of lead with curses or prayers that Romans would throw into sacred pools. Some of these things have been in my head only a short time and some, like today's have been there for many years.

I was driving across southern Hampshire yesterday lunchtime tuned to a local radio station and they had a feature in which they play three songs in a row by the same group or artist. The performers and the tunes selected are picked by listeners. Yesterday someone selected Toto as one member was performing locally this week. Someone once described the band to me as a 'super-group', i.e. not a spectactularly successful band but one that was made up of performers who had established careers of their own or in other groups. Toto was formed in 1977 of session musicians and peaked in success in the 1980s before breaking up in 2008. At various times there were 12 official band members and a further 27 musicians and vocalists performed with them at various times on tour. They performed what has been termed 'adult-orientated rock' and sometimes 'soft rock' or even 'progressive rock' though I imagine if they did the latter that must appear on their albums rather than their successful singles. The three singles selected yesterday were their most successful, certainly in the UK: 'Hold the Line' (1978), 'Rosanna' (1982) and 'Africa' (1982).

Now, it is about that third single, 'Africa' that I want to comment. I was reminded of it recently through working with a white and a mixed-race South African who spoke of their affinity for Africa, when as someone who had been a member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement I found and still do find, it difficult to feel that white people in Africa are at all right, or at best they should feel themselves at best guests and in most cases intruders. I was angered by a white composer of (appalling) Classical music I heard speaking some years ago who talked about how him growing up in Africa had influenced his music. I felt he was stealing from the continent in the way colonists stole people and resources. I was reminded of this too watching the movie 'The Saint' (2003) which is one I enjoy thoroughly, but Val Kilmer playing Simon Templar disguises himself as a white South African (apparently a resident of Cape Town), Thomas More in order to seduce Dr. Emma Russell (played by Elizabeth Shue) he refers to his home in Africa.

Anyway, because of those references and how my odd mind works the song was in my thinking even before I heard it yesterday. It reached Number 1 in the USA in February 1983 but had almost been left off their album imaginatively called 'Toto IV' in 1982 because band members felt it was out of step with other things they were producing. Apparently they were very tired of it by the time it was put on the album. It does seem like an overchewed piece all round. I have now found out that the fact that I cringe every time I hear it is something that I share with other people as it was voted containing the 6th worst set of lyrics in a BBC poll a few years ago.

The music itself is fine. It is a typical rock arrangement with references as the performers have noted, to the kind of music used in documentaries about Africa. The key problem which makes me shudder whenever the tune comes on is the lyrics. What David Paich and Jeff Porcaro were thinking when they wrote the lyrics I am not sure. It was inspired by Paich's reflections on someone who had never visited Africa envisaging it. However, the 'story' with the reference of the young man wandering around seeking inspiration seems to be about someone in Africa, awaiting a woman coming on an aeroplane. Why they had to jam so much into a number of the lines is beyond me, it is almost comical how they try to stretch the words across the music and stunning that such a song could be so successful.
The particularly bad bits are: 'The moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation' which is allowed as long in the song as the preceding line; 'She's coming in: twelve thiry flight'. Further in the same verse you get 'I stopped and old man on the way' which is fine, but the next line is twice the length squeezed painfully into the space: 'Hoping to find some long forgotten words or ancient melodies', something like 'Hoping to some rare melody' would have been more than enough.

In the second verse overlong lyrics ruin the impact of the song which at other times is punchy. 'The wild dogs cry out in the night' that is fine but when followed up by 'As they grow restless longing for some solitary company' it weakens it entirely. Something along the lines of 'Remind me of how I am solitary'. I am not a lyricist, but trying to squeeze the far longer line in is painful. What is 'solitary company' anyway? You did not need the additional two or three syllables of the contradictory word, there is enough in the line already. Then comes the piece de resistance the line which received the high ranking in the BBC poll. 'I know that I must do what's right' - yes, great, nice and forceful, decisive the kind of thing you need in a rock song, but then it is doused by the poll-rated lyric: 'Sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti'. Now why do you need Olympus in there? Below are photos of the two mountains. Yes, they have snow on top and they are mountains, but that is where the similarity ends. I imagine there should be some punctuation in the lyrics otherwise it is entirely wrong as Olympus does not rise above the Serengeti. Using Kilimanjaro was always going to be difficult let alone when you have Serengeti in the line. Keep it simple 'As sure as the Sun rises over Serengeti' would have been more than enough or 'As sure as Kilimajaro rises into the sky'.

I can understand why it needed a lot of production just to stop the song breaking down. Steve Lukather, one of the leading members of Toto, said in 2003 that 'I didn't think it was any good' and he was right, though clearly the record-buying public disagree. I have been accused of paying too much attention to lyrics and it seems that many people pay little attention to anything beyond the chorus of a song. I was told yesterday by someone that they had not known that the song 'All Together Now' (1990) by The Farm contained any references to the First World War. This is despite the lyrics saying: 'Remember boy that your forefathers died/ Lost in millions for a country's pride/ But they never mention the trenches of Belgium/ When they stopped fighting and they were one/ A spirit stronger than war was at work that night/ December 1914 cold, clear and bright/ Countries' borders were right out of sight/ When they joined together and decided not to fight' which cannot be mistaken for anything else.

I suppose Toto's example of the most contorted pop lyrics in existence is more about the force of record companies and an undiscerning consuming public making something that sounds as if it was written by an over-eager 13 year old back from visiting his grandparents in Johannesburg into a best-selling record still being played on prime-time radio 27 years after it was released. It has not got to the stage as it has with some pop songs that I loathe them so much that I will turn them off when they come on, mainly because I wait for some different version to come on with the vocalist going 'I can't sing this, let's try something a bit more rational' and but always painfully stretching the words over the necessary number of bars so that the song does not entirely collapse.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

The Change4Life Console Game Controversy

Like me you probably get random emails coming into your inbox which are not really junk, but you do wonder how they got on your mailing list. For many years I used to receive emails about safety equipment for children's playgrounds and invitations to conferences about such facilities and I could only think that someone had written down my email address at some event by mistake or the company had got the wrong suffix, the whole thing of and and and so on. Anyway, on one of my email accounts I get industry news about computer game design. I think this may stem from me contributing to various message boards about computer games. However, the thing that attracted my attention is the hostility coming from gaming companies to the UK government's Change4Life campaign which is aimed at getting children to eat more healthily and exercise more.

The Change4Life campaign up to now has featured television advertisements of a plasticine family stopping watching television and eating fattening foods and getting out and exercising. The Change4Life campaign is being termed a 'movement' and is receiving widespread support from medical bodies and charities such as the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Diabetes UK who worked with advertising agency The Gate on the project. Many local groups are getting on board and doing initiatives to get people exercising and eating healthier food. With the recession biting, ironically consumption of takeaways and high carbohydrate and fatty foods has risen. In the UK apparently 2 million children aged 2-10 are overweight (25% of girls and 20% of boys in that age group) and 700,000 are clinically obese. Health provision is already having challenges with obesity in adults but clearly if this high level of children is moving in that direction the death rate in the UK will rise in the next few decades. There is also a rise in illnesses associate with overweight, not only heart disease but also Type 2 Diabetes which leads to complications and can result in blindness and amputations as the body decays.

Now we come to the controversy which raises all sorts of questions about how big business seeks to restrict the ability of government to act. The print advert appearing first in women's magazines which has angered games companies the most shows a boy probably about eight or nine years old slumped on a sofa with a games controller in his hand staring blankly at a screen. The slogan says 'Risk an Early Death Just Do Nothing'. I have tried to put a copy of the advertisement on this posting but probably due to copyright sprites it will not upload. You can access it here:

MCV an online gaming publication made an official complaint last week to the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) about the advertisement claiming it was 'unfair and inaccurate'. They say that the advert implies that to stop children playing such games will improve their health and that is not true and simply damages small businesses. Of course it is not the small businesses who have reacted most harshly it is the very big ones.

Sega said it was 'disappointed and frustrated' by the advertisement. They said: 'Television, radio, cinema, listening to music, computing, video gaming and of course, reading all require a high element of passive participation, but of all these media types it is video gaming that provides the most potential interaction and activity. It seems that an advertisement has been put together by a poorly informed advertising agency.' Of course this is rubbish, the government especially since the era of Thatcher and the spin days of Blair has always known precisely what it is doing with its advertising. The government's media image and its use of things like Directgov website are very precise. Other companies have complained including Atari, Konami,Tiga and Sony plus Future a publisher of games-related magazines. Industry body ELSPA demanded an immediate meeting with the government and then went on to pursue the charities. They feel the campaign has gone against their 'responsible' guidance on the Ask About Games website. Of course, ask a child how often they have visited this website and I will be surprised if you can find one.

Richard Wilson head of Tiga began creating wonderful new excuses and whining: 'This advert is absurd and insulting in equal measure. To imply that playing a video game leads to a premature rendezvous with the Grim Reaper is a non-sequitur of colossal proportions. Alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, obesity and involvement in violent crime are forms of behaviour that risk an early death. In contrast, many video games are mentally stimulating, potentially educational and social and some involve physical exercise.' Richard, in the UK far more children and adults will die of obesity than violent crime, I think you are believing some of your gaming scenarios far too much. I think Atari have been more honest when they said: 'At best, the campaign is misleading and at worst, damaging to the industry, its reputation and its potential.' Naturally their profits especially in the recession are what really concern them. These companies only think about children as consumers rather than people who have to live.

Sony has gone one step further and because the child in the picture has a 'Playstation-like controller' they are angered that they were not consulted before the advertisement went ahead. This is just appalling thinking, that a company should be able to stop a government health campaign. Sony are looking into sueing the government over the campaign. I hope they do and I am sure they will lose.

In response the onslaught, the Department of Health has refused to apologise for the campaign, not feeling it was at all misjudged: 'The campaign takes a direct approach, setting out the issue in succinctly and in straightforward language. An unhealthy lifestyle, including poor diet or being inactive, can lead to health problems in later life. If current trends continue, nine in ten people will be overweight or obese by 2050. This can increase your risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers."We are not saying that children shouldn't play computer games or eat treats, but parents and children need to be aware of the benefits of a balanced diet and an active lifestyle. The activities portrayed are examples of poor diet and lack of physical activity.' Diabetes UK has been quoted as being surprised by the harsh reaction of games companies and plans to make legal challenges against the campaign.

I am a big fan of computer games and do not want the industry to suffer, but the time has come for the games industry. They are in the position that MacDonalds and other burger chains were in the 1990s and the cigarette companies were in the 1980s when people realised that what these companies were legitimately promoting were actually doing great harm. Burger chains have responded and the menus especially for children are a world away from what they were twenty years ago. The games companies are looking petulant and bullying. Those complaining are multinationals unused to being challenged. If they react in such a hostile way they are likely to egg the government on to stricter measures such as banning sale of games to anyone under 18. In New Zealand parents face a fine of NZ$10,000 or 3 months' imprisonment if their children play games with a higher rating than their age, notably violent '18' certificate games. I am sure we will see something similar. Keith Vaz, MP, was talking to a select committee about this problem in the UK only recently.

Games companies would be sensible to learn from the MacDonalds approach to health challenges. The Wii physical games can be seen as the first 'healthy option' on the games companies menu but they will have to do more. It is interesting that these days you do not get things as you did on 'Stronghold' (2001) a PC castle building game, had a function that after a certain period of game play your advisor would tell you that you had been playing the game for too long and that you should take a break. City-, business- and castle-building games are very easy to lose track of time with when playing. I think all companies should be compelled to introduce a function in all games which effectively has an 'interval' say after 45 minutes of play the screen freezes just where you have reached and will not release for say 30 minutes compelling you to go off and do something else. This can be introduced first for games which appeal most to children and as with the MacDonalds advertisements they should advise children to go and get some exercise. Of course this will generate hostility for parents many of whom use game consules as a way to keep the child quiet and out of their hair. That change, though, is just what Change4Life is about and it is going to upset people, but it may keep them alive. Evidence this week has shown that even if you do not start exercising until you are over 50 years old, it will lengthen your life.

The games companies no doubt have decided to adopt the 'don't blame us' approach and like many industries in the past especially in the face of a Labour government, will use the full weight of the law and their vast funds to try to stop government policy. They may win, some industries have in the past. However, this is not something like releasing control over copper supplies or not nationalising the sugar industry, this is about the health of children and that is a very emotive subject which parents can be made to feel very guilty about in a way no games company can assuage. In addition, this campaign is perceived as something coming from the government or particular charities but the games companies have missed the fact that it is in line with policies already in place especially in schools and leisure facilities. This is the most prominent bit of the iceberg, but there has been a lot going on in the UK regarding children that they seem to have been oblivious to. If they are sensible games companies will be looking at ways to alter their products. As the Department of Health has noted they are not seeking to ban children playing computer games, but the more hostile the industry is, the more likely they will move in that direction. To get through this the games companies need to be clever not aggressive which does them no favours.

P.P. 24/04/2009 - Online games industry journal MCV is lauding the 'shock U-turn' in the Change4Life advertisements as the latest ones say that exercise got through games such as those used with Wii that make the players move and jump around can contribute to the children's daily fitness. The industry feels that its bullying has paid off. Many games companies tried to censor the campaign last month when it rightly said that if children were simply stuck in front of console and computer games they would have an early death. Of course Change4Life has not done a U-turn, it always said that restricted games playing by children was fine, but of course the games industry had to act in its exaggerated outrage arguing the government was seeking to ban console games. In addition, it is not a U-turn because active games such as those provided through Wii remain a small minority of console and computer game playing. The Wii has sold 50 million units across the world since 2006, Playstation 2 has sold 136 million, but of course many are in use by second and third hand owners now. The Wii has sold 4.9 million in the UK and the Playstation 3 has sold 1.9 million since Marh 2007. So passive-activity games consoles still remain predominant. The console games industry cannot be allowed to bully or censor health campaigns and like the fast food industry has done, need to wake up to the harm their products can cause, especially to children.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Remembering the Bullies

One effect of having a 7-year old child resident in your house is that the things he is experiencing often trigger of memories of events in your own life. I am not entering into the debate around 'false memories' and abuse, but I am going to look at how hearing about bullying of this child has often brought back memories of (unpleasant) things that happened to me, that I had somehow compacted and stored away in a part of my brain where I tend not to go. I was not abused in my childhood, but my father was harsh, sometimes for a few moments violent and certainly often frightening. My mother often humiliated me, but in a way which I think was motivated by what she felt was the right thing to do though it has left scars that have remained for decades. This is partly as I have a real phobia of humiliation not only for myself but for others whether real people or even fictional ones, so I imagine that these things have lingered longer for me than they would for the bulk of the population.

Bullying of school aged children is very common, though it is taken far more seriously than it used to be. The number of children bullied at some time in their school career (ages 4-16) is around 44%. Of course the duration and the severity of the bullying varies and 16 children in the UK kill themselves each year as the result of bullying. Bullying has become far more sophisticated and it is far harder to escape it as bullies use texts and the internet to get at other children. Interestingly 71% of children have said that they have been a bully themselves at some time in their school life. I suppose this is human nature as often the bullied will find an outlet in picking on someone else. Bullying has a wide range and can be psychological and/or physical. None of us likes to be humiliated or teased but it is especially painful when you are growing up and are facing challenges and may lack self-confidence and self-esteem anyway.

With the child in my house being both bullied and a bully, fortunately in what seems like short-lived incidents that as yet do not seem to have had a long-term impact on his life, I have been reminded of things in my life from childhood up into my thirties when I have been bullied. What I have come to realise is that I have segmented each incident and so have not seen it as a long problem, rather a short-term thing. However, now I look back there seem very few years between the ages of 5-19 in which I was not suffering some form of bullying. Bullying was handled very poorly in the 1970s and 1980s (and of course before then), and I am glad that schools pay far more attention to it now in all its forms and have policies and teaching in place rather than simply dismissing it as a natural part (or in many cases in the UK, especially in private schools, as a necessary part) of growing up. My parents' reaction was simply to tell me I acted as 'a natural victim' that my behaviour simply egged on bullies. They offered no solution to this but simply added to the humiliation by saying I walked and spoke like someone with a mental defect which was hardly going to help. Many teenage boys are gangly and their voices are altering, they want to be told that that is part of adolescence not made to feel that they are somehow peculiar because that is often what the bullies try to do anyway; you do not need it from your parents too.

There were lots of bases on which I suffered bullying. I am a white male who grew up in a middle-class area of the UK so you would imagine I would have had a privileged life and little on which to discriminate against me, but bullies will always find something. At primary school I was told by people that they could not associate with me because I came from the wrong side of the town not the exclusive estate. I was told that our house was too small and we did no have the necessary consumer items to be considered worthy friends, namely a brand new car and a colour television. Teachers were often complicit in these sorts of things being very critical of children they did not feel fitted the norm. I was removed from doing a reading in a school assembly because I pronounced the word 'a' as in 'a town' or whatever as 'ay' rather than 'ah' which was apparently the correct way. I wonder what they would have done if someone from northern or western England had come to the school, probably put them into 'remedial' classes as they were called, to give them the 'correct' pronunciation.

There were other biases. I was told that because I had not been Christened people could call me by any name they chose, because my name was odd anyway. I also apparently looked wrong. I did not like football which meant that I was excluded from the bulk of schoolboy activities and discussion and would actually be ordered off the pitch during PE lessons as the team would rather play with 10 players than have me on their side. My friends tended to be the other marginalised people and even girls, which was odd in those days. Once I was old enough I spent my break times in the school library and though I was once assaulted by two boys in a public library at the age of 12, I was generally safe in the school library.

So there was a lot of name calling but there was physical attacks too. I remember when I was eight being pinned to the ground by two older boys for some reason I do not know why. They found a piece of steel that looked like a guillotine blade (the school was very run down and had lots of disused buildings on the site full of debris, these days it would have been closed on health and safety grounds, but this was 1975) which they pressed against my neck and forced gravel into my mouth. At least they were forced to write an apology but they caught me walking home one day (they walked up my street to get to theirs) and the stronger one gripped me by the neck and lifted me off the floor causing immense pain, so the apology letters had been a small, short-lived victory. I remember a particular bully called Ian Johnstone (I imagine he is long dead by now as though he would only have been 41, I first saw him smoking at the age of 7) who simply walked up to me one day and thrust his knee into my genitals and laughed as I writhed in pain telling me I was clearly so weak as not to be able to stand up to such an attack. There was the usual tripping (sometimes in a very sophisticated way I was once caught out by a set of bolas that a boy had made by linking three conkers on string together and deftly throwing them so they caught around my legs sending me sprawling to the floor).

A lot of the bullying was fostered by parents most of whom earned good incomes, had all the latest consumer items, somehow felt they worked hard and were better than those who did now work in offices and that they were tough and their children had to be tough too. Their toughness had nothing about going hiking or being physically fit, it was about being callous. You can certainly see the seeds of Thatcherism in the middle class areas of the mid-1970s. Her nastiness fitted in perfectly with this class that defined success by ownership rather than experience and strength by how selfish you could be. They were the heirs of the mill owners of the 19th century but lacking even the business sense and willingness to put in effort that those ancestors had.

At secondary school things were marginally easier because I spent all my time hidden in the library though I was punched there once. Playgrounds were more crowded so there was no room for football anyway. I was poor at sports but as more of the 'cool' boys smoked increasingly I came in with better results as they began to struggle as we aged. I was fortunate that two of the sports teachers also taught History my best subject so they forgave me a lot and fortunately, but the mid-1980s were aware more of the range of abilities and gave me marks for effort in sport even when I came in last. A bigger school with some pupils who were disabled meant people could not have the narrow criteria they had set at my primary school. Of course it did not stop the teasing and things, but if I went straight from class to the library and back to class I could avoid a lot of it. I was punched once by a girl of my age simply because she felt I had got in her way when coming into a classroom. At 14 I suffered a cosmetic illness and to some extent it got me off the hook as even the thugs of the school appreciated how I had got through it and it stopped them shouting at me in the playground or asking me why my school trousers were so baggy (this was the early 1980s and all trousers had to be tight) or why I had no girlfriend. Other people, however, ironically not the usual thugs, felt they had a green light to slap me round the head and this would happen as I was filing through crowds.

There was still some of the stuff about not having all the consumer items from the very Thatcherite children, but now in a far bigger school (1200 pupils) there was a much wider mix of social class and so they had to tread carefully. It was only years later when talking with a friend who had gone to school in backwater parts of Scotland in the 1980s where she as a English girl faced constant incomprehension from staff and pupils because of her accent, that I realised that even the 'poor' children at my school were far better off than the average. All the parents owned homes, there were no tenants and all had cars. I suppose any microcosm of society sets its own parameters even if these are out of step with the entirety of that society.

I suppose I was quite fortunate, despite my feelings to the contrary at the time, that my illness stopped a lot of the bullying I had experienced. Unpleasant teachers trod more softly with me as well rather than their previous chastising manner. Humiliation seemed stock in trade in those days and I think I have mentioned Mrs. Williams, Mr. Callen and Mr. Salmon in postings before. In particular, Callen moderated his approach; Williams always had new targets to pick on anyway. Once I went to Sixth Form College, what is now Years 12 and 13 (and I in fact did Year 14 too) I was in a neighbouring town with only a few people I knew. You might have thought at that age 16-18, bullying would be left behind as juvenile. I did get misplaced sympathy from people, who, because of my illness thought I was dying and were surprised to meet me again in my twenties. However, some people still indulged in out-and-out bullying, unfortunately one being the boy I was put next to in my History class, a Eurasian called Rishaad who ridicule my clothes incessantly (he came from a wealthy family and always had the latest fashion) and when I did not rise to his bait (by now being well schooled in avoiding bullies' jibes) he would simply punch me as a bit of warming up before the class started. Of course the time I pushed (rather than punched back) he pretended to be very upset and got the teacher involved saying I was discriminating against him. Given all the bullying I had sustained up to now and the ongoing criticism of my parents, I spend these years very unhappy and this led to a vicious circle of low self-esteem and thinking (as I had done in the latter years of secondary school) that any woman asking me out was trying to pull off a trick or was at best mistaken.

University life was not too bad, though I lived in a very strait-laced corridor in my first year and because I was not Christian and because I was anti-Thatcher I was seen as an oddity rather than something to be bullied. At university there is always a huge diversity of people you can usually find someone in the same situation. In the second year, when living in a rented house, the landlord's step-daughter also a student was incredibly bullying. There was unresolved tension between daughter and step-father who seemed to despise her and made her sleep in the house when there was a whole wall missing. She was very arrogant and blamed anything that went wrong on her fellow flatmates, for example the collapse of the 1970s sofa despite the fact that she and her boyfriend used to pet on it one on top of the other whereas the rest of us simply sat there one at a time. She felt she had a right to stand right in front of the television while ironing so blocking the view for everyone else and constantly whining about everything I did. I suppose that was not bullying but it was an unpleasant atmosphere.

I have spoken about the bullying that I experienced while in my last job, a terrible invasive bullying by a colleague. It is interesting that like a number of the bullies he had a real sense of self-righteousness that somehow I was in the wrong and he was behaving precisely normally. He set out to prevent me getting any recognition for any work I did claiming he inspired anything of value that happened in the office. He also expressed amazement when managers trod softly around him, wondering why they thought they might upset him. There was the 'moral' thing too, as a robust Christian he could not tolerate the pattern of life he assumed that I lived, whereas in reality it was boringly sober and asexual. My manager lived in a fantasy world of her own creation and could not tolerate anyone who said anything that did not tally with her perceptions of how the world worked. Despite direct appeals to her she would not accept that bullying was taking place. I only recognised the severity of it when the man in question left for another job, saying incredibly arrogantly that he felt his work there was done. He did, though, come back some years later and it must have been a nightmare when he returned saying something along the lines that he understood the company needed the benefit of his skills.

Having kept a diary every day since 1st January 1978, I know that my memories of bullying are not false, they are real. As I see the boy in my house experience some of the same things, these memories are coming unpacked and each course of bullying has numerous humiliating or painful incidents that made up the whole experience of that bout of harrassment. For a great deal of my life I have experienced bullying and it really retarded my emotional growth and made me feel worthless for so many years. It took some wonderful people to lift me out of that situation and even then I can still be sucked into being bullied by the more sophisticated methods colleagues use. What equated effectively to collaboration between my parents, teachers, colleagues and managers with the bullies made it harder. I have managed to pull out of it, even though it has taken many years. However, for many people, especially children the scarring of bullying often runs deep and can destroy what would otherwise have been a fulfilling life. This stuff is too unpleasant to want to make up.

P.P. 03/01/2010: Having read of a new two-part television drama of 'The Day of the Triffids' shown over the recent Christmas period on BBC1, I was reminded of the last time the BBC produced an adaptation of this story.  It was shown in April 1981 and starred John Duttine.  Like many young people (I was 13 at the time), impressed by the series, which naturally fitted the apocalyptic feel of that time (with the threat of nuclear holocaust a regular topic of discussion on television and even in schools) I went in search of the original novel.  My school had two libraries, one old one which held the non-fiction books and then a paperback library run by one of the younger English teachers which was only open at lunchtimes.  I was a member of both and went to the paperback library and found a 1960s copy of the story which I proceeded to borrow.  A younger girl had also wanted it but by the time she arrived, I was waiting in the queue to check it out, but she insisted that I gave it to her.  I refused so she simply kicked me very forcefully in the small of my back (she had braced herself against a desk, this library being housed in a classroom) throwing me forward against the check out desk.  She had a gruff lightly freckled face, fair hair cut in a common short Eighties style and though a year below me, was little smaller than me.  The teacher did not understand what was happening and assumed I had stumbled.  The girl simply glared at me, expecting me now to give her the book, but I checked it out and left in real pain.  It turned out my father had a copy of the book anyway and I returned the school copy on Monday.  What came back to me so sharply was, however, the girl's assumption, in many ways, twenty years ahead of its time, that she should have anything she wanted, no-one else's interests mattered and that violence was a matter of course if demands were not met.  She did not bully me in the way the others have done, but she was certainly symptomatic of the kind of culture that sees bullying as something of strength and in fact is uncomprehending/intolerant of anything that stands in the way of that particular moment's desire.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Unfeasible 'What If?' of the Miners' Strike 1984-5

This is very much a British focused posting that probably means very little to anyone under the age of 35 unless you grew up in the coal mining and former coal mining areas of the UK. It is twenty-five years since the last (coal) miners' strike in British history broke out. At the time there were around 180,000 miners (working at 170 mines) of whom around 130,000 went on strike, the notable area not going on strike being Nottinghamshire mines which employed 49,000 miners. These days there are about 6,000 coal miners working at 12 mines in the UK. The strike started on 3rd March 1984 and there has been a lot of media coverage of the 25-year anniversary of the strike which ran officially for a year to 3rd March 1985. The divisions it provoked are still felt in many locations across Britain and it is often seen, along with the Falklands Conflict in the foreign field, as defining Thatcherism. The leader of the miners' union, the NUM, Arthur Scargill, is still around and is still incredibly bitter especially towards the Labour Party and other trades unions who he feels betrayed the miners by not giving them sufficient political support and effectively causing a general strike in order to bring down the Thatcher government. Interestingly, in an article in 'The Guardian' today he claims that Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party 1983-92 would have become prime minister in 1992 if he had given stronger support to the miners. I am going to look at this argument.

In some ways I respect Arthur Scargill. What he said about the longevity of coal mining in Britain (the country had 300 years supply of coal remaining at 1980s levels of consumpton) and the fact that the Conservative government was going to destroy the industry for political reasons was all true. However, Scargill has been unable to accept defeat and continues very bitterly to look for scapegoats. People condemn Scargill as having brought misery to thousands of miners and leading a strike which at times became violent (though much less so than the media portrayal of it). Eleven people involved in different sides of the strike were killed and the battles between strikers and police led to the injury of hundreds more. The iconography of events lasts longer than the facts of what happened, so we are left with a legacy of something resembling a medieval conflict, with shield walls of police opening to allow mounted police to ride down strikers with batons as knights would have come down on peasants 600 years earlier and hussars did on strikers of the 19th century. Scargill is also condemned for bringing about a strike which did not have only industrial goals but also political ones, namely to end the Thatcher government, and possibly, bring about some kind of Socialist revolution.

It is clear that Scargill is a Socialist, perhaps a revolutionary too, but the main element of the strike was to protest the systematic accelerated destruction of the UK's basic industries brought about by the Thatcher governments (1979-90). Of course UK coal mining would have faced challenges no matter what government had been in power as the 1970s and 1980s saw a shift in the pattern of industry across the globe. As early as 1974, a year after the USA, the UK first generated more income from service industries than manufacturing. No-one was really in a position to halt that shift. Coal mining alongside steel manufacturing, ship building and many other forms of engineering was facing decline. Scargill, loyal to his followers, was unwilling to consider any coal mine in the UK was 'uneconomical' so closing any was a real challenge to him. Of course many were profitable and very modern and yet Thatcher seemed to be keen to rid the UK of the industry. Thatcher's New Right monetarist policy smashed through so much industry in Britain anyway pushing unemployment up to 4 million (when it is properly counted, not the way the government manipulated the figures) but with coal mining she set out on a path of utter, planned destruction. Scargill says that NUM had negotiated five settlements with the NCB (National Coal Board - the employers) even while the strike was on, the last coming in October 1984, but these were derailed directly by the government.

I think a lot of this stems from how Thatcher saw coal miners as a political challenge just by their very existence. This was on two bases. First that in the 1973-4, 'three-day week' period they had shown how powerful they were in disrupting all kinds of industry by choking off coal supply to power stations. Second coal mining villages had a strong sense of community that (in many areas, not all) the Thatcherite policies of bribery did not seem to penetrate. She also wanted revenge for the miners strikes 1972 (their first strike in almost fifty years) and 1974 which effectively brought down the government of Conservative Edward Heath in 1974. Thatcher had no love for Heath but I think she felt the Conservative Party itself had been humiliated and so she wanted to get revenge by closing down the industry which had been nationalised in 1947. Of course Thatcher hated trades unions anyway, but the NUM was seen as the epitome of what she despised in them, by destroying the coal mining industry she knew she could destroy the union. Norman Tebbit, the very nasty leading light of the Thatcher regime, saw the battle with the NUM as a 'war on democracy', so not only elements of the NUM but clearly the Conservative leadership went into what should have been an industrial dispute with the perspective that it was more widely political.

We know that Thatcher envisaged a final showdown because of the preparations she made. In 1984 the UK had enough stocks of coal to provide sufficient for two years and everyone knew no strike can last that long; even a year meant incredible sacrifice by strikers. The moment this stockpile was secured the miners had lost because however much they striked they could not impinge on anyone outside their own communities. Thatcher was going to closed the bulk of the mines anyway, she had no need to negotiate. The harsh police action, which set many officers up for life with the amount of overtime payments they accrued, also showed other unions that they could expect merciless action if they struck. What always strikes me as curious is why the NUM was not aware of the stockpiling of coal. Even if it was a mix of UK dug coal and certainly of cheap foreign coal, probably from Poland and Australia, why was no-one aware of its build up? Surely there were seamen and dockers who noticed it coming in week after week; surely there were workers at power stations who knew they had big stocks. To put it in context, multinational oil companies such as Shell and BP have long argued that it is almost impossible to stockpile more than 90 days' supply of oil, even during the 1950s and 1960s when consumption was less. The Ministry of Defence used to hold around 5-10 days' worth of oil. So where do you put 2 years' worth of coal without anyone noticing? I accept that it might have been bought and held overseas ready for import, but I doubt Thatcher would have run the risk that seamen and dockers would refuse to ship and unload it once a miners' strike was underway.

Scargill believes he 'had' victory in October 1984 and was undermined by the pit deputies' (the health and safety staff in mines) union NACODS returning to work. This is a delusion on Scargill's part. Even a deal with the NCB would have been insufficient, Thatcher would have found a way to either provoke the strike into continuing or simply to introduce the mine closures she wanted all along. Scargill's harping on the failure of the five settlements, suggests he did not have wider political goals, but simply wanted to save the jobs of miners. However, even if this is true and his focus was purely industrial, there is no dispute that Thatcher was seeking no settlement, she simply want to destroy the mining industry and the NUM in particular. There could be no 'victory' for the strikers, in fact there could have been no compromise even, it was always going to be utter defeat.

The other thing that Thatcher put in place before the miners' strike was legislation, notably on a compulsory ballot before a strike. This was not as radical as it might appear, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle had proposed the same approach at the end of the Labour governments 1964-70, though the penalties such as fining unions and sequestering their funds that Thatcher added on were harsher. Scargill would not call a ballot and simply relied on his charisma to get tens of thousands of miners to strike for him and probably 10,000 or so to be active on picket lines. Thatcher's legislation had been set up to mean immediate hardship for strikers. They could not claim benefits and because of the attempts to sequester the union's funds, the money was moved abroad and so there was no strike pay. Clearly this was what Thatcher had intended and I imagine she was quite stunned by the level of self-sacrifice that the miners were willing to go through to maintain the strike so long.

The lack of a ballot was the most divisive element among the Labour Party and other trades unions. Scargill argues that Neil Kinnock used it as an excuse not to support the strike. The Labour Party was supportive of strikers in need, but were undermined by Scargill's dictatorial approach to calling and sustaining the strike. Scargill claims he has evidence of Kinnock's 'treachery' and the 'class collaboration of union leaders' notably of the EETPU electricians' union and the EMA managers' union. To some extent Scargill was already out-of-date even in 1984. He had not learned the lessons even of 1972-4 let alone of 1926 (the year of the 9-day General Strike), that there has never been strong working class consciousness in the UK, this is a very individualist society and that individualism had been increased by consumerism of the 1970s and the Thatcherite policies of the early 1980s. Scargill tended to think that the whole of the UK was like a mining village, but community and a sense of being part of a class was something that much of the population had turned their backs on in the preceding twenty years. In addition, I imagine many unions and many industries feared they would be next and were not keen to draw attention to themselves. Scargill's cockiness also did not endear him to others in the labour movement.

Seeing footage of Thatcher at the time of the Falklands Conflict, my mother said the prime minister was unsettling as she seemed to revel in the loss of life of British soldiers in the fight. Her appearance at the time was alarming and she certainly seemed energised by a sense of violence. The famous footage of her swathed in cream clothing, riding a tank, also gives that feel. If there had been anything close to a general strike, she would have been literally ecstatic, I have no doubt, to be able to move troops in. She spoke of the miners as the 'enemy within' and clearly would have relished a shift to martial law. I have recounted the events of 1910-11 and it is certain we would have seen something similar, especially as the powers of military intervention without declaring a state of emergency had been so strengthened in the mid-1970s. Thatcher would have held back from declaring a state of emergency as it would have made her look too much like Heath who declared five of the eleven that have been declared in Britain. However, she would not have held back from using military force if the strike had spread beyond the miners and that would have meant at least people crushed below military vehicles if not the gunshot injuries of the type of 1911.

I think Scargill would have won a ballot easily. Given how much support he had for the strike anyway, over such a long period, he could have had the ballot and still had his strike. This would have wrong-footed the Nottinghamshire miners and would have made it harder for the Labour Party and other unions to be lukewarm. Of course we would not have had a general strike along the lines I think Scargill still dreams of, but the NUM could not have been sequestered and there would have been far more funds coming to the strikers. In terms of international support the NUM did very well in attracting funds (though of course not from Libya despite what the newspapers said at the time and have subsequently retracted) and with a ballot, I imagine that would have raised even more funds. This would not have won the NUM the strike but it may have reduced the hardship of tens of thousands of families. Not having a ballot led to the creation of the UDM (Union of Democratic Mineworkers) as a breakaway, collaborationist union. Of course, this step did not spare them from the destruction of the mining industry which was a foregone conclusion and many now regret joining this union which gained them nothing though to those individuals seemed right at the time.

Scargill argues that if Kinnock had been more active in supporting the strike, Thatcher would still have fallen in 1990 (so even on Scargill's scenarion, having won the 1987 election, not brought down by the strike) but Kinnock would have won in 1992 rather than losing closely as he did. This is an entirely flawed counter-factual. Scargill forgets how frightened the electorate was of a Labour government in the 1980s. Again, he needed to get out of miners' villages and travel to working areas elsewhere in the UK. He would have found lifelong Labour supporters hesistant at voting Labour because the Conservatives had successfully convinced them that a Labour government meant higher taxes. If Kinnock had supported the strike more openly, whether with or without a ballot, not only would there have been no Labour government in 1992 there might not have been one in 1997 either, because it would have been so easy for the Conservatives to play on the fears (and fear rather than hope is what wins elections, just ask George Bush and ironically Barack Obama, viz economic fears) of voters that a Labour government would not only mean higher taxes but a government that permitted industrial violence. Even Blair, let alone Smith, would have had difficulty shaking off this image if Labour leaders were seen supporting the miners' strike of 1984-5 especially with the success in associating it with violence and the dictatorships of Libya and the USSR.

The Conservatives use of the media was very skillful. I always think it is ironic that the Conservatives attacked the BBC so much for its apparent bias towards the left-wing, notably Norman Tebbit. In fact as has been revealed careful editing of footage of the Orgreave battle the most renowned conflict of the strike, made it appear that the police was simply responding rather than initiating the attack as was later revealed to be the case. So much of the media saw the labour movemement in all its forms as at best ridiculous and at worst evil and used such terminology. Among many people there was a dichotomy, they drunk down the media bias even though in fact it was referring to people just like themselves. The irony is, of course, is that UK trade unionists have always been conservative and often Conservative. Portraying them as being dangerous revolutionaries or even in Scargill's case, just seeing them as a force for political change, has always been mistaken. By definition someone who joins an organisation, pays their fees, works within often strict rules and has pride in the heritage of their organisation is not reckless nor wishing to bring down the society which allowed the union to prosper.

Travelling around the UK it is stunning today how little evidence of a huge industry now remains and Scargill's fears of 1984 have come true. Some communities are left as wastelands, some have managed to survive and even thrive. Even without Thatcher there would be less coal mining in the UK in 2009 than in 1984, but the harsh crushing of an industry so quickly would not have happened. The miners' strike of 1984-5 is a part of modern British society. For many people it seems so distant, lumped in with events of the decade before. For others it remains painful, almost current. The after-effects for families divided by the strike are akin to the countries coming out of occupation by the Germans 1944-5. People remain hostile to collaborators but that ignores the often immense pressures on individuals to do right by their families. The language of 'treachery' and betrayal just stokes up that hostility that is so current still for thousands of people. Admitting that there was no hope of winning and that individuals did what they felt right, given the limited information that everyone had at the time, should be a basis for reducing hostility. Out of such division only the heirs of Thatcher can benefit.

The coal miners were doomed the moment Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. She was going to destroy them and put in place in the years up to 1984 a structure which gave her more than enough tools to do that. On this basis, really no matter what Scargill, Kinnock, the NUM or the Labour Party did was going to make any difference. Certainly the Labour Party could have been wrecked by greater involvement in the strike the way that the NUM was and we might have Kinnock sitting around today bitterly complaining about what went wrong in 1984. I do think, however much Scargill, squirms, he blundered in not calling a ballot. However, given that he had been defeated by Thatcher before the strike started, that was more about his reputation than any political gains it would have had. However, perhaps we are all looking at the strike the wrong way. Given that the NUM never had any hope of victory, to have caused so much of an upset to the political system, to marked British history with an event it will never forget, to exhibit so much self-sacrifice with so much dignity in the face of overwhelming odds were the 'wins' of the dispute for the workforce.