Monday, 28 April 2014

What Ails Thee?



I was born  in 1947, my mother in 1907 and her mother in 1867. There lies one reason why I have difficulty managing my relationship to my body.

In the bad old days, people looked upon ailments, complaints, illnesses and diseases as accidents that happened to you. You couldn’t prevent them and you had to put up with them when they arrived and wait until they went away. Or didn’t. True, there were doctors and if you were in a lot of pain or if things were going from bad to worse, then you might pay to see one. Meanwhile, you might buy something over the counter.

I don’t think my parents or any of my aunts and uncles “took exercise”. Still less did they have an Exercise Target. Such things did not exist. True, most of them did manual jobs.

Nor did they Watch Their Diet. This is one reason why all the men on my mother’s side died in their fifties and sixties – strokes, heart attacks. Fat and salt. And maybe smoking, though I don’t recall any of them being heavy smokers - except for my mother's father who died over 20 years before I was born from what was clearly a tobacco-related cancer (of the throat).

As a child in the 1950s, my mother dosed me, my father and herself on Sundays with Andrews’ Liver Salts, thus setting up an association in my mind between Godliness and regular bowel movements.

But that was about it. She did project some of her own anxieties onto me and did take me to the Doctor to raise concerns she had about me, and that’s a further complication: I’m never quite sure myself what I should be concerned about. 

I try to be sensible. Last year, I took myself to the doctor and presented a symptom.

Diagnosed with A I was prescribed X, which seemed to work until I completed the course and A promptly returned.

So I presented myself again, to another doctor (you never get to see the same one, do you?), who diagnosed B – a thoroughly nasty condition with aggressive tendencies for which I was prescribed Y, a course of treatment designed to match aggression with aggression. It seemed to work for a bit but then stopped working even before the course of treatment was over. They tried a bit more Y on me, but to no avail.

When I presented myself for a third time, my new doctor was decisive. It’s not B,  it’s C – frankly not much to worry about and to be treated with Z. Phew! What a relief – I didn’t like the idea of having B or treating it with Y one little bit. I am very happy to settle for C. 

In due course, we shall see if I am now All Clear from wrongdiagnosis.com or whether I am going to have to Blog again.

[ Added 22 July 2015: It wasn't C ... I got referred to a Consultant. It's D. It's age related. You can do nothing or have a nasty operation. I am doing nothing ]

I don’t give the medical details because I’m not trying to join a Community of fellow sufferers today. I am just thinking about a price I have paid for trying to behave sensibly when my body goes wrong.

Probably one of my uncles would have done nothing, would have put up with it and would now be in exactly the same position as I am – the ailment is there and it hasn’t gone away or got noticeably worse. I don’t seem to be dying any more rapidly than I was before. It’s an inconvenience and I would like it to go away, that’s all.

But there is a temptation to give up, avoid the doctor (like I avoid the police) until it’s absolutely necessary. From past experience, when it is absolutely necessary it is also often absolutely clear what the problem is and what will cure it. Antibiotics remain great things for acute bacterial infections.

There is also a temptation to give up on Checks and Reviews, which at my age are regular dates in the diary.

Recently, I moved house and so had to move doctor – they make you do that. Efficiently, my new doctor decided it was time for five blood tests. I failed three of them. He did his two finger typing into the computer to confirm that he had discussed my Failures with me and then advised me to come back in a year to be re-tested.  A  year?  One of the Failures was a matter for Life Style advice (Lower your Fat intake) and troubled me not a bit, but the other two were not so simple and one was a bit disturbing. So I suggested I come back for a re-test in six months. He happily agreed and typed that in.

But why is six months any more useful than a year? Presumably, it is to see if I fail so badly next time that questions arise about whether  Something Should Be Done.

But do I want anything done? On past experience of myself, I will try to wriggle out of having Something Done and if that’s the case then maybe I shouldn’t be having these Tests in the first place. Maybe I should just get on with my life until one day (this is the only sensible hope) I drop dead. Suddenly, without warning. A shock for others, but almost hassle free for me.

Just like my Uncles.








Monday, 21 April 2014

The Legacy of My Generation


Mr Cameron does not stand a chance at the next Election without the over 50s; that’s why Sir George Osborne Bt.’s last budget was so indulgent towards them. At a pinch, the over 60s on their own could swing it

What will we bequeath to our children and grandchildren?

On the credit side, perhaps the most important thing is that English society – I don’t presume to speak for the others – is not viscerally unpleasant. It’s not America or Russia or even France. People get on with their own lives, let others get on with theirs, and for the most part don’t use a lot of energy hating their neighbours. This is a state of affairs worth having.

On the debit side, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Some would begin with “The Environment” and I am fairly typical of my generation in not knowing very much about that. But I am also just a bit sceptical – not of climate change, but of “The Environment” used as a NIMBY [Not in My Back Yard] excuse for opposition to any change which threatens – er - House Prices.

My generation has fought hard to ensure that housing remains scarce and expensive and – as a side consequence – of inferior quality. We will bequeath an irremediable housing shortage to the next generations. Too many people have stakes in shortages and the consequent high prices. They will fight in the last ditch to stop things changing - and when they inherit, so will their children.

We have already chosen our Heads of State for the next century, chaps who can be relied upon to support the existing  Order : first Charles, then William, then George.

For these chaps, the material inequalities of the existing order are very much something they will want to defend. They are, after all, themselves among the very privileged few. That’s true of most Heads of State; it’s only people like the President of Uruguay who spoil the Club. Well, he’s not going to get invited to Prince Harry’s wedding, of that you can be sure. But there will probably be room for the Crown Prince of Yugoslavia and the Crown Princess, even though the Kingdom of Yugoslavia doesn’t exist. They were invited to William and Kate’s wedding, with their Mum, and the fact that Yugoslavia does not exist made no difference. They are still in line for the Throne of their fictional Kingdom.

We will bequeath large and growing material inequalities. And we will bequeath Debt. Oh yes, we’ve piled up quite a bit of that and we have no intention of paying it off. Sir George Osborne Bt. pretends that he is paying it down, but he isn’t. If he was serious about it, my generation would be looking at all-round tax increases of the order of 30%. Sorry, children and grandchildren, that’s not on. The Debt is one for you to sort out.

There is a whole department of clever people employed at The Treasury to stop the inquisitive from working out just how much Debt there is to be paid off. They use all the techniques of dodgy accountancy. Basically, it’s about keeping things off the Balance Sheet even though they have to be paid for from things credited to the same Balance Sheet.  It will be the next generations who will pay the interest and the capital on all those loans made to government under the Private Finance Initiatives and Public-Private Partnerships which enthused New Labour – very much for the same reasons that feckless Greek governments  borrowed on the international money market to pay for the recurrent costs of feel-good Benefits. No concern that no income was being generated to cover any of the costs.

Housing shortages, growing inequality, Debt. These are major things. I will choose one lesser thing to conclude.

Governments have done remarkably little to improve Quality of Life. It’s something which happens only once in a generation – The Clean Air Act which made Smogs a thing of the past; the Smoking Ban which made pubs and restaurants and cafes and buses tolerable places to be.


Meanwhile, my generation will bequeath a horrible sentimentality about dogs which has, among many other consequences, the effect of making all beaches, promenades, parks, open spaces, country paths, public pavements – all of them places which dog owners feel righteous entitlement to use as dog shitteries. All of them places where dog owners feel entitled to remove the leash and declare “It’s all right; he’s friendly” when their uncontrolled, stinking, slavering pet jumps all over some child whose parents have had the temerity to bring into places which are Dogs First and Humans Second.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Another Bank Holiday Washout?

Dear English Reader,

It's raining here in Worthing, heavily. What about where you are?

You could blame Mr Vince Cable. Or you could blame yourself.

Mr Vince Cable, our Minister for Business, Innovation [ha!] and Skills, is the man who draws up the list of dates on which employers are advised to shut out their workers - days which for some reason are known as "Public Holidays" but which would be better described nowadays as "Public Sector Holidays". Anyway, Mr Cable fixes the dates -though in the case of Easter it's true that he kow-tows to the advice of the Church of England's astrologers, who are very good at picking rainy days. After all, Easter is not meant to be a happy time, is it?

I did write a long Memo to Mr Cable about his appalling record picking Public Holiday dates - go to my Blog for 05 February 2011 to read it - but, of course, to no effect.

Or you could blame yourself, especially if you are a public sector worker. Why do you so stupidly go on insisting that we should stick with this nonsense of Public Holidays? Why not grow up and demand that you work out your own holiday dates, in conjunction with your employer, so that they suit you rather better? Or do you prefer cold wet rainy days and sitting in traffic jams?

If you want to read the full argument against "Public Holidays" try my Blog on Time Management from 25 September 2013.

If you want to go deeper into the subject, try 28 May 2011, 3 January 2012 and 6 April 2012. Something to do on a wet day.

And in case you think I am making it up, try Googling "Bank Holiday Washout"


Thursday, 10 April 2014

Causing Offence and Criminal Offences

England's public prosecutor (the Crown Prosecution Service) is currently having a hard time getting any convictions in a string of high-profile cases in which elderly celebrities and not-so-elderly politicians have been indicted for sexual offences. This is a dangerous situation. The temptation will be to fit someone up and get them convicted just to prove that bringing the failed cases was also justified.

Ms Alison Saunders, the new Director of Public Prosecutions, has indicated that she intends to keep going with the fat file of cases she inherited from her predecessor, Keir Starmer. In the case of Dave Lee Travis, the CPS responded to his acquittal on twelve out of fourteen charges by insisting that the two on which the Jury could not agree should be re-tried. In addition, they have found a new case to pin on him. I think many people would have felt that if you have just failed in twelve out of fourteen cases against one person  and got no success on the two others, the decent and sensible thing is to call it a day. Otherwise, it looks like a case of Vexatious Prosecution.

The core problem is that Juries are unwilling to convict in these cases and, in my view, they are unwilling  for three reasons.

First, the alleged offences occurred many years ago - thirty or forty in some cases - and I think it is unclear to everyone except the CPS why it is important to punish someone now for something they might have done that long ago.

Second, there is no Forensic evidence and these cases are entirely about one person's word against another's. Even witnesses coached by the Prosecution have ended up in the witness box confessing that they don't actually remember important details. That is understandable when things happened so long ago, but it is not reassuring when you are being asked to send someone to Jail now.

Third, there is a difference in many people's minds between causing offence and committing a criminal offence. This is a distinction which a politically-correct CPS and its allies in the Anti-Sex League want to blur.

A criminal offence is something which justifies the full Majesty of the Law being brought to bear against someone. They are questioned, arrested, charged, made to wait about a great deal, forced to spend very large sums of money on lawyers, obliged to sit through Court hearings which are often about humiliating them, and eventually - if the Prosecutors get their way - sent to prison. It's not a very nice ordeal and it ought to be reserved for people who in all probability have done some pretty nasty things.

But what we see is people being prosecuted for things which, if they happened,  have caused offence, possibly some distress, but no long-term trauma or damage. The behaviour alleged is often immature, uncouth, aggressive, predatory, tasteless and toe-curlingly inept  - but it ain't the stuff of Criminal Offences that should put you behind bars.

There are cultures where you can indeed have nasty things done to you if you wink at someone, ogle someone, make a pass at someone. Here we think that you must at least touch them for an offence to be committed. But maybe that is still too weak to justify the Police on your doorstep. Maybe that is the kind of thing which should lead to a summons to a mediator's office and, if the facts are not disputed, an apology. But it shouldn't lead to an appearance in front of a bewigged Judge where on-the-make Barristers and police officers seem really to be addressing themselves to the insatiable appetite of the Press for what are called (in a well-established Tradition) Lurid Details.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Dear Mr McLoughlin, I want to tell you about driving in Germany ....

Dear Mr McLoughlin

Since you are Secretary of State for Transport in Her Majesty's Government, I thought you might like to read about my recent motoring trip to Germany.

I left Worthing early on a bright Sunday morning only to be quickly slowed to 40 mph (64 kmph) by Average Speed Check cameras on the A23 / M23 where rather indeterminate minor road improvements are being undertaken. The lanes remain wide and it is unclear why a 40 mph limit is necessary, over a stretch extending to several miles.

They do have road works in Germany, usually involving road building, but they don't use Average Speed Check cameras - ever. Instead of cameras the Germans slow traffic by narrowing the lanes and erecting low temporary barriers at the sides. This has the wonderful consequence of making you want to slow down, quite voluntarily. Normally, the reduced speed limit in these zones is 80 kmph (50 mph).

Of course, your cameras have the incidental advantage of producing a revenue stream from fines. The Germans don't seem to be into such things.

Onto the M25 as I head towards the Channel Tunnel. Here you have created major delays with 50 mph Average Speed Check cameras. You don't seem to be involved with road building. Instead, you are erecting giant electronic noticeboards at remarkably frequent intervals. These are being built to withstand a nuclear blast and must be very expensive to erect and maintain. Someone is onto a good thing.

As you know, their alleged purpose is to broadcast false and fatuous messages which irritate motorists: Queue Ahead, M 987 closed between Junctions 56 and 57, Animals in Road - and when all else fails, Don't Drink and Drive.

They don't have these signs on German motorways. Occasionally, they have advertising billboards which display pointed and effective Road Safety messages. These do make your expensive electronic efforts, limited to a few words and no pictures, look rather amateurish.

But then as I looked closer, I realised that these giant overhanging gantries along the M25 are festooned with cameras. Everywhere, cameras. I was puzzled. Why do you need so many? Are you working for GCHQ? Are you gathering intelligence on me as I progress towards the Channel Tunnel (and later, return home on the same route)? Should some other Department be paying for all this work which doesn't seem to have much to do with improving traffic flow or road safety?

It was such a relief to get onto the German motorway sytem. I drove from Aachen in the West to Nürnberg in the East. Open roads, relatively light traffic, evidence of more roads being built, no speed cameras - maybe one or two but not enough to cause the state of anxiety which driving in England causes - drivers behaving well unlike the angry English motorists, higher though variable speed limits (and, of course, no upper limit on some sections)

It's the No Upper Speed Limit which probably freaks out people in your Department. But the context for it is a motorway system where there is not a single limit like our 70 mph, applied everywhere day and night. Instead, in Germany the speed limits are variable - 100, 120, 130 kmph and then unlimited. Around busy junctions and interchanges, it drops to 100 kmph. On open roads outside urban areas, unlimited. Some limits apply only at night.

A few cars do drive very fast on the unlimited sections and you have to use your rear mirror to spot them coming. But on a motorway, you should be using your rear mirror anyway. Most motorists settle down to what seems appropriate to a stretch of modern motorway - 80, 90 or 100 mph. As a foreigner (and 66 years old) I limit myself now to a maximum 100 mph, which does not raise my stress level whereas crawling along your motorways does.

I think frustrated or angry drivers are dangerous. You seem determined to produce them.








Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Coffee- coloured Languages

In terms of their grammars – their syntax and phonology - Languages do not form a continuum. There are structural discontinuities which mean that when you learn a foreign language, often enough you have to learn more than a new vocabulary. Sometimes the structures are radically different: Finnish is not a bit like the other Scandinavian languages. In fact, from a structural point of view, it is most like Hungarian. (So in language typologies, these two monstrously difficult languages are grouped together as Finno-Ugric).

But the Scandinavian languages (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish) are more different now than they once were. There is still a high level of mutual inter-intelligibility – a Swedish speaker can understand a Danish speaker, even though they cannot speak Danish, and the Danish speaker can understand the Swedish speaker.

But as part of nation-building efforts, the three languages have been developed away from their common core. This has both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, standardisation - achieved through control over what is taught in schools and then through such things as sub-editorial policies in publishing houses -  does result in more efficient communication. It takes less time to understand what someone else is saying, or make sense of what someone else has written , the closer they are to you in terms of syntax, phonology, vocabulary and spelling. And there is less chance of misunderstanding.

The disadvantage is that as you move a language away from its core or from another language, you eventually reach a point where you can’t understand your near neighbours and vice versa, they can’t understand you. To communicate, at least one of you has to learn what has now become a Foreign Language. Doh!

Nation-building and nationalism more generally have positive features. If you think of yourself as Czech and are proud of that fact, then that provides quite a good basis for simple forms of civic consciousness. You’re Czech and proud of it and that’s one reason you don’t drop litter in the street.

But nationalisms generally lead to excesses of one kind or another. Some are distinctly unpleasant, such as hatred of foreigners.  Others are more simply tiresome. Language policies are often in this category.

Everyone knows that the French, who maintain a very strong sense of national identity, have an absurd relation to their language. They don’t want it to change. When I was first in France in 1971, I had a conversation with a couple who admired de Gaulle not least because he knew how to use the pluperfect of the subjunctive in his speeches. But to demand that a language does not change is an impossible demand, a King Canute kind of demand.

And the French don’t want Foreign Words contaminating their language. So they want you to say site-web and not website because it’s more French (just like Pages Jaunes for Yellow Pages). The French don’t want a coffee - coloured language.

Nor do the Russians and Ukrainians who insist on quite minor differences when, from the point of view of communication, it would be very useful to go with the flow of language mixing and what linguists call Free Variation – which means, roughly, that one form is reckoned as good as another (think of Hallo and Hello in written English).

Rather than tolerate Free Variation, Russians and Ukrainians are very insistent on staking their claims to difference. In Cyrillic, the spelling is the same, but the town which Russians would call Gomel has to be transliterated for a Ukrainian as Homel . Likewise, for Russians it’s Sevastopol but for Ukrainians it’s Sevastopil. The sensible thing might be to accept free variation between the two, as one does for Hallo / Hello. (For the Tatars, who also live there, it’s Aqmescid , so they can’t get in on this particular bit of mixing).

Sevastopol / Sevastopil feels a bit like the differences between the Russian Orthodox Church and Old Believers, which focus on ritual – Is the thumb involved in making the sign of the Cross? and so on (go to Wikipedia on “Old Believers” if you enjoy this kind of thing).

Coffee-coloured languages mean that more people can join in a game – business, sport, tourism – whereas linguistic nationalism is designed to exclude. Where absolute precision is required, then it’s often necessary to use a special language which might be Latin (think of the development of theology or medicine) or nowadays is more likely to be English (think of air traffic control). 

But most of the time, we should accept and enjoy coffee-coloured languages.

Well, after all that, I need an espresso or at least a latte.