The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Vive la France

It’s hard being the UK Foreign Secretary.  In times of crisis, to make life easier, the British normally let the French go first.  This summer, the French déploré the shooting of unarmed civilians in Egypt, then the British did; this week the French blâmé the Syrian government for gassing unarmed civilians, then the British did.

           It wasn’t always like this.  In Libya, the UK tried to get in first, and it was even more embarrassing.  However much Foreign Secretary Hague tried, he didn’t write the script.  From the start, he was coyote and roadrunner was French.  Remember, after the resolution on the no-fly zone, it was their air force, not the UK’s, that saved Benghazi from the armoured column rollicking towards it over the desert, engines backfiring, ammo belts flying like strings of detonating bangers.

          At the same time, the British parliament, that club of gentlemen, was still reassuring us – and Gaddafi – that no action could be taken “until after the Commons debate on Tuesday,” as if what they had in mind was no more urgent than choosing a brand of cigar.  The delay, of course, would have given the rat-catchers from Tripoli enough time to exterminate half of Benghazi.  Mais oui, the French got in first.

           The one time Britain did do something…  I hope you’ve forgotten the botched essay in the sand, the crack troops helicoptered in, only to be rounded up by a few, good-natured camel herders, when all that needed doing in the first place was to make a phone call ahead.  After this, the Foreign Secretary famously admitted that he was fed up with the world, although he perked up again when the war was won (by the US and Qatar), which highlights the common sense of not resigning after your first débâcle.

           Let the French go first, and ideally Mr Hague won’t get tired of Egypt and Syria, even when they kick sand in his face.  How many countries are there in the Middle East?   If he does despair again, let’s hope he doesn’t do so in public.

Monday, 19 August 2013

The power of naming

I know a boy called Ronni.  That’s short for Ronaldinho.  His parents came to the UK from Romania.  You probably don’t know the little fellow, but you may have heard of the famous Brazilian footballer they named him after.  That was in – fans have guessed – about 2005.  What happens when the famous footballer stops playing well, or hangs up his boots?  The kid gets stuck with the name.  Still, if the name happens to be longer than the career, you can always shorten it to something else. 

You’d think that naming your baby boy Messiah (another famous one) was a safe bet in America.  But a judge there wouldn’t allow it.  The parents rightly complained that there were already lots of other Messiahs around.  It would, in fact, be an excellent choice for several reasons.  For a start, the original Messiah is not likely to hang up his sandals any time soon.  And if the name does become a problem – again, unlikely, but you never know – there is Messi for short. 

Of course, the names of children tell us more about their parents’ aspirations than their own natural abilities. We name more than babies, though, and it can be embarrassing.  A TV viewer recently denounced The Railway Children, a film which has been a family favourite in Britain for decades, as it encouraged children to play on railway lines.  It was the first-ever complaint about the suitability of this film.  Whoever named and shamed it was generally derided, but this shows what can come from our zeal to protect.  The official response was no less ridiculous.  We were reassured that nowadays public access to railway lines is much more restricted, so the film is not dangerous.  So it was dangerous when it was made?

Then there’s the British Library user who found his access to a video of Hamlet blocked.  More red faces.  The official response?  New software was filtering out violent material which could harm children.  It just required a ‘tweak’ to fix.  Type that in.  Tweak number # ... allow … Hamlet.  Done. Given the nature of world literature, there’ll be a whole lot of tweaking going on.  (Rock ’n’ roll was dangerous, too, children.) 

Annoying ‘errors’ aren’t the only problem.  During this awkward time for the Library, there was never any opinion expressed or, I am sure, even secretly supposed, that Hamlet should be blocked by the filter.  Everyone assumed, like a fact of life, without the need for discussion, that it would be wrong to filter out this play.  Why?  Who decides what gets through, on what grounds, and what doesn’t?  What do we do about the dangerous works we have always enjoyed and even praised as classics, not to mention the things we aren’t so sure about? 

A British MP launched a career-boosting campaign to outlaw written child pornography.  Then he realised the need to deal with books like Lolita.  Another famous name.  A classic such as this would, he said, be excluded from the ban.  Really?  At one point in the novel, the narrator shares an orgasm with the 12-year-old girl who is sprawling on his testicles.

In the nineteenth century, Mr Thomas Bowdler tweaked the naughty bits out of Shakespeare’s plays to make them ‘suitable’ for women and, naturally, children.  You can now find him under B in the dictionary, a disparaging three-syllable verb, and a noun with –ism after it.  But he might be on the way back.  The Prime Minister has his own, vote-winning scheme for an internet pornography filter.  He’s going to cameronize the web.  Under C, that will be.

We can’t get away from names, can we?  But pay attention to the whole word, not just how it starts.  To boost sales, the now-defunct News of the World once had a crusade to name paedophiles, which led the public to attack the properties of paediatricians and other names that looked the same, as if anyone would advertise their criminal record, and this sort in particular, on a brass plaque on their gate.

Monday, 12 August 2013

New turn, old spin.

The DRS/bat tampering debate has taken an unexpected turn with the discovery that a well-known English batsman has played several Test matches with a large hole in the centre of his bat.  The hole is reported to be about the size and shape of a cricket ball.

The batsman, who has not been named, denied that the hole gave him an unfair advantage.  To begin with, there was no tape or linseed oil around the inside of the hole, so any impact from the ball in this area would not be concealed from Hotspot.  The existence of the hole, he went on, was against neither the rules nor the spirit of the game.  On the contrary, the absence of a large piece of wood from the middle of his bat could arguably assist the bowling side if, for example, the ball passed through the hole and onto the stumps.  No one, he continued, had complained until now.  Why should it suddenly be labelled wrong?  He knew of many other English batsmen who had played with holes in their bats over the last 30 or 40 years, especially in the ‘90s against Australia. 

Analysis has in fact revealed that the hole is scarcely large enough for a cricket ball to pass through.  In controlled experiments, nine times out of ten, a direct hit travelling under 50 mph lodged the ball tightly in the hole.  This news generated a whole new line of discussion on BBC Radio’s Test Match Special.  Would a batsman be out if the ball got stuck in a hole in his bat?  Was it a dead ball, was the batsman obstructing the game, or was it something else?  Would the batsman be caught by his own bat?

It is now clear that the hole offers no real assistance either to the batsman or to the bowler in relation to most types of dismissal, with or without the structural addition of the ball.  However, if a bat with a ball embedded in it struck the wicket, the batsman would technically have played the ball onto his wicket at the same time as he struck the wicket with his bat.  This point launched the commentators into further discussion about the possibility of getting out in more than one way from a single ball – in this case, played-on and hit-wicket.  Surely, one pundit lamented, after centuries of cricketing tradition, they could not suddenly introduce a new way of getting out. 

Via text message, a cricket fan reminded everybody, public and pundit alike, that umpires have been having enough trouble with the system as it is, and that giving not out for more than one reason for a single delivery in Durham produced enough heat on its own – in general discussion, if not on the surface of the bat – without the introduction of a new controversy.  

Monday, 5 August 2013

Welby, Wonga and the Money Factory

The other day, a woman complained to a local newspaper about the decline of the UK High Street.  Superstores and internet shopping have forced out many traditional businesses.  In their place we see rows of other kinds of shops: second-hand, betting, kebab and pawn, half a dozen of each on a short stretch of road.  But the poor still need to be fed and clothed. 

The grandiose old banks, like the grandiose old churches, have been boarded up or put to other use.  More popular, down-market versions – Pentecostal missions and loans-till-payday bureaux – have taken their place, sometimes literally.

Archbishop Welby of Canterbury, with a career in business behind him, not to mention a well-known Biblical precedent, now has it in for these money lenders.  He recently declared financial war in a very public way on a company called Wonga.  Unfortunately for him, it was straightaway discovered that the Church of England has itself been investing indirectly in the same company.  Naming Wonga, the Archbishop not only embarrassed himself beyond all understanding, but also offered to that business the heaven of free publicity.  We assume, rightly or wrongly, that he targeted Wonga before all the other companies because their business is the biggest, and that it is the biggest because it is the most efficient, which means it is the best place to go if we need some quick cash.  The heaven of free publicity.  If I irk the Archbishop, can he give it to me?

Mammon and God have long been twins.  The Virgins Money and Mary.  Not many businesses have property portfolios and multi-national interests as vast as those of the Church.  There have been shops in cathedrals for decades, but now you have to pay just to walk inside these great, stone monuments.  For Canterbury Cathedral, the entrance fee is £9.50.  At Salisbury Cathedral they charge £10 per adult, with a family ticket of £27 for “two adults and one, two, or three children.”  That’s right.  Unplanned charlie number four will have to empty out his piggy bank, or wait outside. 

Presumably, that other heavy monument nearby would not have fallen into ruin if, for the last five thousand years, visitors had been asked to pay the current £8 entrance fee.  Not quite so long ago, in a different temple, Christ overturned the tables of the money changers.  Perhaps someone pulled the same stunt at Stonehenge, but the authorities followed his advice, and things went downhill from there.

Sooner or later we all pass our solstice.  Things shut down.  Post offices now rent space in pharmacies. There is a plan to put police desks in post offices.  They’ll be dispensing more than justice soon.  To combat pay-day loans, the Archbishop is allowing user-friendly credit unions to operate on church premises.  Why not go further and open up branches of the Church inside the money lenders?  It’s true, one day some visionary capitalist might come along and overturn the altars, but companies like Wonga don’t need to put the Church of England out of business.  It’s performing that task very well by itself with a growing canon of controversies which now include the announcements of its leader. 

Meanwhile, let us venerate the miracle of interest.  Receiving it is just like a Virgin birth.