Archive for the 'current affairs' Category

On collective amnesia

May 5, 2022

I haven’t posted much lately because I haven’t been reading much. Escaping the current dire state of the world seems to elude me.

I realise, as I get older, that not everyone remembers as much or as far back as I do; it’s like that strange moment when you eventually realise that policemen are now younger than you, and it didn’t use to be like that. You have to be approaching seventy to have any memory of the Cuban missile crisis. Apart from Biden, no current world leaders hit that.

Back then, NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced each other; two hostile alliances. Now NATO faces Russia alone. Back then, the two alliances faced each other in Europe; there was a buffer of “friendly” states between Russia and the West. Now there isn’t. NATO has always had its missiles in the Russian back yard; the closest Russian missiles get to the US back yard is …. Alaska.

In 1961, world leaders were rather wiser than now, I think; they all knew what the horrors of the world war that had ended less than twenty years previously had been. Today all that is history, rather than memory, for our leaders. And I am horrified by their approach. Correct me if I’m wrong, but EU leaders seem mostly to be being calm and measured, even if they’re getting nowhere. Biden is past it, to be honest: should he have a driving licence at his age, let alone leadership of the “free” world? His public messaging is all over the place.

Britain continues to be a joke. Our PM gives away military secrets during a TV interview. His ministers say outrageous things about Putin publicly; they’re entitled to say what they like in private, but name-calling, doubting the man’s sanity, calling for him to be tried for war crimes when we aren’t at war with the Russians (yet) is barking. I wouldn’t trust the cabinet to run a ‘win a goldfish’ game at a funfair.

Putin, whose actions are evil, does look like a physically ill man. Some call his sanity into account: we don’t actually have access to information to verify that. But if that is the case, then threats and abuse are surely more likely to trigger a more outrageous and over the top response: we should be more measured in our response, without being any less determined.

Meanwhile, consider what is actually going on. Russia, left alone, might well have overwhelmed Ukraine in a matter of days. What they see is the West once again fighting a war by proxy: NATO is providing Ukraine with whatever it needs apart from troops on the ground and planes in the air. Ergo, to them, Russia is fighting NATO.

Here we are again with the Irishman’s reply to the lost traveller: “If I were you, I wouldn’t be starting from here.” Western triumphalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union got us here; a more measured approach to Russian needs for security would have been a good start. We are in a serious mess now.

I have no suggestions for a way out. I do know that war is not good for humans and other living things. And, while Putin threatens rapid, fiery destruction, let us not lose sight of the fact that American capitalism is busy, quietly boiling the frog: big business is burning up the planet in the quest for profit, and social media is constantly stirring the cauldron of hatred. Putin has a hell of a lot to answer for; our side does not have clean hands.

Some thoughts on the Ukrainian tragedy

April 14, 2022

Warning: politics ahead

The tragedy of the Ukrainian people is evident, without my needing to say more. Even if the war ended now, several million people have gone into exile, thousands are dead, large parts of the country have been comprehensively trashed, and the economy is in ruins.

Putin has accused Ukrainians of being Nazis. This accusation has been ignored, or simplistically dismissed in the West. And yet, for Putin, there is a kind of truth behind it, for during the Second World War (or the Great Patriotic War, as he would call it) some Ukrainians did collaborate with the Nazis, fight in their armies. Why? Because they naively saw them as liberators from what Stalin had inflicted on them in the previous decade, when millions of them were deliberately starved to death… Ukraine suffered grievously at the hands of both sides, just like another country not so far away.

And yet, there is also a tragedy for the Russians, whose economy is also being gradually wrecked, and whose international reputation cannot go any lower, we think. Their tragedy is having no tradition or experience of anything remotely resembling our flawed Western democracy: they have always – apart from a brief anarchic shakeout after the fall of the Soviet Union – been ruled by “strong” (read brutal) leaders, who have spouted words about the greatness of the nation, a delusion largely propagated by its enormous physical extent. This was true in Tsarist as well as Soviet days. Russian leaders have always done brutal very well, brutal to others, and total lack of care towards their own: what caused the Russian Revolution, after all? And, although again we in the West are inclined to overlook the Soviet effort in defeating Nazism, that effort was at the cost of regarding troops as cannon-fodder and the commanders being prepared to sacrifice however many were necessary to achieve their goal…

So the Russian approach is to wreck anywhere that opposes them: we have been reminded of Chechnya by our own commentators, and the same tactics seem to be being used in Ukraine at the moment. However, our generally ignorant, ill-informed and mouthy commentators manage to overlook the similar achievements of the West, which we are cleverer in allowing to be done by our proxies: look at the brutality being used in the Yemen, or in occupied Palestine, for example. Except it’s not the US or UK that’s doing it…allegedly.

I have been astonished by the drivel, the war-mongering nonsense written by journalists and spouted by Western politicians. If Putin does suffer from some kind of mental disorder, then it’s probably not very sensible to shout about it publicly: who knows what, in extremis, he might feel driven to try? Shut up Joe Biden (and others). And the amateur histrionics of our own government are laughable, dressing themselves up in sub-Churchill cloaks and pontificating from the sidelines as if what we thought or did made any difference. At least Macron has been trying. And then there’s all the financial aid and succour given to Putin and his kleptocrats in the past, which we are trying to sweep under the carpet.

OK so there are my opinions. And what should be done, you may well ask? I don’t know, to be perfectly honest. I do know that war is not good for ordinary people under any circumstances. And I do know that war is very profitable business for some. I do know that the West handled Russia very badly in the years after the collapse of communism, making lots of money but hardly fostering the kind of ‘democracy’ we’re usually so fond of talking about when we start our own wars (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq… I could go on but you get the idea). We have no real understanding of what Russia means by security: their definition may be over the top but we ought to have listened.

Apparently there were moves years ago to rule out Ukrainian membership of NATO, to enshrine some kind of neutrality for that new nation. What happened? We are very good at hindsight over here. And what would we do if that weren’t enough for Putin? The sanctions we have imposed seem to me to be the bare minimum that we can do; if we didn’t let big business get in the way, we might have been far less dependent on Russian energy than we are currently.

To finish, I’ll repeat: war isn’t the answer, and nobody will get what they want; that’s evident already. More mature and longer-term thinking and reflection is needed; our businesses and our leaders are not up to the mark here. We blunder on from crisis to crisis while the planet burns: future generations will not thank us. Meanwhile the innocent suffer.

Rank insanity

February 24, 2022

Today the lunatics are running the asylum.

Trump thinks the US has invaded Ukraine. Biden sounds like a true Cold Warrior. Our Prime Minister is playing at Churchill. Our Foreign Secretary is geographically challenged. And our Defence Secretary hurls insults at the man who started it all – Putin. I’ve read hundreds of column inches of half-informed drivel in the so-called serious press, by commentators who ought to know better, but don’t. I think I’ve read two sensible articles.

Putin is running rings around the West, having had years to practise, and an increasingly clear, and very Russian objective: to rebuild the Empire; whether it’s the Soviet one or the Tsarist one hardly matters. And we don’t understand what’s going on. Western leaders do seem incapable of looking at the situation from the Russian point of view. Kennedy got stroppy very quickly when the Soviets started installing missiles in the US backyard, and we ended up with the Cuban crisis of 1962. And when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the West was ridiculously triumphalist: we won, our system’s better than yours, we are top dogs now.

For a while, there was caution, of a sort, but I don’t see how anyone could have imagined that to allow NATO to move right to the borders of Russia, and then to allow the – no matter how remotely in the future –prospect of Ukraine joining, was not going to have Putin as antsy as Kennedy was way back then. And I hold no cards for Putin, who is a nasty piece of work with all sorts of typically Russian skullduggery to his name, both at home and abroad. But you would have thought there might be a little common-sense somewhere in the Western camp… but no, it’s full of people who weren’t even alive during WW2 likening Putin to Hitler, wanting full-on war and I don’t know what else.

I’m fully in favour of peoples’ right to self-determination and independence if they want it; Ukraine hasn’t had much of a chance, really: thirty years of trying, and what seems like a fair amount of chaos and a hell of a lot of corruption. Many, though not all, of the countries that emerges from the Soviet yoke back in the 90s have had a difficult translation to democracy; several are clearly backsliding rather seriously. And again, Western triumphalism and the urge of businesses to make a killing rather than build real foundations for a peaceful and secure world order, are more than partly to blame.

The lunatics are running the asylum. I’m scared, horrified and appalled. I’ve always been against war, which ultimately solves nothing, but creates more business opportunities for arms manufacturers. And I’m thinking about a former student of mine, who is in Kyiv at the moment.

Dangerous Times

February 11, 2022

Warning: politics ahead

I do have the feeling that we are all living in very dangerous times.

I lived through the Cold War; I have a very vague childhood memory of my parents looking terribly worried one evening after they’d listened to the seven o’clock news on the wireless as I got ready for bed: this was the Cuban missile crisis. I demonstrated several times against Thatcher and Reagan’s cruise missiles in the early 1980s, and supported the Greenham Women’s march on one occasion. I remember being concerned as a school student in the early seventies, when news about how we were polluting and wrecking the environment first hit the headlines. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so alarmed, and for so long, as I am at the moment.

There was – still is – the menace to American democracy and the world that is Trump, and his toddler imitation this side of the Atlantic, our very own PM. And France seems to have vomited up an imitation ready for its presidential election this year. We take democracy for granted at our peril; once we have lost it, it’s only regained at enormous cost. Ask Germans, ask most East Europeans.

There is China, to an extent understandably flexing its muscles after years of humiliation by the West, Russia behaving no differently from the imperialist ways it has espoused for several centuries, and the West unable to think outside its self-righteous, US and NATO-inspired box. What happens if China and Russia decide to work together, I don’t know. Meanwhile, the idiots who own Britain have decided to cut us off from our nearest neighbours, doing enormous and very evident damage to the country and its people.

There is the menace to our planet, to the survival of our own species, brought about by our own actions, our own greed, our own wilful blindness. Most of the indications I read suggest that we are pretty much too late now to be able to do anything about it. We are taught and manipulated to want endless new and shiny stuff, to burn up natural resources that heat the world up, causing disasters that are regularly reported on the news, but… The planet would survive after a fashion without us, yet I can’t help feeling that would be a bit of a shame…

And there is the role and the irresponsibility of social media in all this: profit is its first motive and driving force, and turning people against each other, fostering division and conflict, certainly generates far more ‘engagement’ and thus far more money than any kind of peaceful co-operation. Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon have a hell of a lot to answer for, but first we have to make them…

What is to be done? To be honest, I don’t know, and I’m even more worried when sometimes I find myself thinking, I’m too old to care, let someone else sort it out. That’s, let younger people sort it out, and yet my generation let all this happen, on our watch. Yes, many were deluded, many were uninterested. And many have been part of the problem.

Things only look set to get worse: there are two years left before an election in this country, long enough for enough people to have forgotten the chaos of the last five years and been bribed to vote for more torment; although there are two more years before an election in the US, it’s clear things may seriously worsen after the midterm elections this autumn. And as for the poor old planet: are we actually doing anything to remedy the emergency. How much does my bamboo toothbrush help? My vegetarianism? My not flying? What do we elect governments for?

And this is my final point: there are now forces at work convincing people that democracy does not work, that there is no point voting because the same people always get in… so other choices, other measures are required. If people give up on politics, then there is no hope. Then I look at the electoral systems in the UK and the US, and I do give up…

Dismantling our NHS

January 6, 2022

No apology, politics ahead

If you asked most Brits what one thing we could be proudest of as a nation in the last century, I imagine most would say, the NHS. Healthcare cradle-to-grave, free at the point of use, set up in the aftermath of the Second World War as a response to the poverty and deprivation so many had endured previously. Set up by a Labour government, privately loathed by many Tories, some of whom have sought to undermine and destroy it ever since. And they are now well on their way to that goal.

The NHS never found the running smooth or easy; there was always a conflict between the necessary taxation to fund it and people’s resistance to being taxed. Eventually, charges for prescriptions, dental treatment and optical treatment were introduced. Many people shrug these off nowadays; reading glasses are cheap, you don’t need a prescription that often. But others have had to give up on their teeth completely, and increasingly there are people who ignore a health issue until they find themselves turning up in dire straits at A&E.

If you think about it, your health stays in the background until you have a problem. Then, suddenly, you may need healthcare, and perhaps lots of it. People in the USA spend their life savings, lose their homes sometimes, because healthcare is such a lucrative business there. Because it’s in the background, you don’t think about it. And you easily come to resent increasing taxes, and stories of ‘inefficiency’. But if you need healthcare, it’s not efficiency you want first of all, but accessibility and effectiveness.

Ever since Thatcher’s day, the NHS has been under ever-increasing pressures, deliberately engineered or not. Continued reorganisations in the pursuit of efficiency and cost-savings, because it’s ‘your’ money that’s being ‘wasted’, allegedly. Pressures to be competitive, tendering to outside companies and agencies who are cheaper and more efficient, allegedly, whilst providing profits to shareholders and salaries to directors? We don’t stop to consider how illogical that is. If private companies can get a foot in the door, they are onto a cash cow, because there are always going to be ill people to make money from.

So, for thirty years and more there has been a more or less constant stream of stories about the NHS being in some kind of crisis or another. Now, think carefully about what this implies; think hidden agenda. There are now a couple of generations of voting adults in the UK who have grown up with this constant belittling and undermining of the NHS, who have been taught (by whom?) that it’s inefficient, that it doesn’t work properly, that there might be ‘better’ ways of doing things. Young and mainly healthy, they haven’t had to contemplate the need for healthcare – yet. They are the ones that the current Tory government are looking to get onside as they contemplate further privatisations, which are being pushed forward even as I write.

Younger voters are potentially more open to ‘trying out’ alternatives; the fact is that once the NHS has been terminally broken, it won’t be possible to resurrect it, as all its constituent parts will have been sold off in so many different directions, in so many different ways. And let’s not forget the increasing add-ons offered to many people in their jobs nowadays: little extra private medical, dental, even alternative health insurances that cost companies little, generate considerable profit, and further undermine people’s sense of the NHS being necessary or useful… until you have a serious condition, when the private companies are suddenly not interested in you any more…

This change is being driven by people who do not have to rely on the NHS, who do not have to use it, among others by a chancellor whose family are billionaires and so who is utterly out-of-touch with the needs and worries of ordinary people. And that’s before we think about the rest of the Tory party, many of whom have holdings in private healthcare companies and stand to make fortunes eventually…

Finally, COVID. We’ve all been expected to clap for the NHS. We haven’t been asked to put our hands in our pockets to pay decent salaries to its workers. Other countries have paid bonus salaries to their health workers in recognition of their extra efforts. We have spent (wasted?) eye-watering amounts of (your) money on private purchasing, without competitive tendering, often deliberately excluding the NHS from taking part, often enriching friends of ministers with vested interests in weakening the NHS.

What is to be done, as someone once asked?

People need to wake up, realise what is being done, ask questions, think about themselves and their families and how they intend to manage without the NHS. And if they can’t, then they must shout and complain and do something about it. This obviously includes using one’s vote wisely!

Realise that nothing comes free.

We are one of the wealthiest nations on the planet and should be able to look after our citizens.

Are other sectors expected to be efficient in the ways that are expected of the NHS? The armed forces? The government itself?

What is a reasonable amount of tax to be paying?

Declaration of interest:

My mother trained as a children’s nurse at the very beginning of the NHS. She knew what it had been like before, and the benefits the NHS brought. As children we had all our vaccinations, health checks in school, dental treatment and all the other support young bodies and minds needed, courtesy of the NHS. My sister is a nurse in a children’s burns unit at the moment. Her stories of the pressures she has to work under are often hair-curling. And that was before COVID. And I’m in my late sixties, have made relatively modest use of the NHS so far, paid my taxes willingly, and am hoping that should I need it, the NHS will still be there in my declining years.

COP 26: Cop-Out

November 7, 2021

Warning: politics ahead

It’s clear from the pitiful reactions in what passes for the media in our country that Greta Thunberg is yesterday’s news: all they seem to have been interested in this week is her use of four-letter words when she sang songs with fellow activists. And yet, amid all the posturing of the politicians and the clowning of our prime minister, it is through her and the other protesters that our only hope seems to shine. Why can’t we just get on and sort a few things out?

Given the will, our government could pass laws that would begin to make a real difference to our current over-use of fossil fuels, both as energy and in the production of plastics, and the amount of pollution and waste we produce.

Give food and drink retailers a couple of years, and then all single-use plastic cups, glasses, cutlery and the like are banned. There are alternatives, or we can change our habits.

Give those retailers a couple of years and then all single-trip plastic and glass drinks bottles are banned. Recyclable plastic and glass, as well as aluminium cans, should all carry a deposit. Other countries have been doing this for years: is it so hard for Britain?

Give retailers a couple of years and then all plastic packaging of fruit and vegetables in shops and supermarkets is banned. France has just passed such legislation.

Private jets should be banned. Aircraft should be capable of carrying a minimum number of passengers, or have only cargo space on board.

Internal flights within the UK should be banned. France has passed legislation restricting internal flights where trains are available. We have public transport, and if it needs improving, this must happen. People will need to plan journeys accordingly. There can be exceptions for emergencies if need be. Everyone should be allowed only one return air trip per year, to a destination of their choice. This could be marked on one’s passport, so that it could be regulated fairly. There should not be a market for people to sell the entitlements they choose not to use.

Driving should be charged by the mile. Since MOT certificates record mileage, people could pay the requisite rate based on mileage in the previous year in order to obtain their new certificate. Certificates could be brought in for new cars, without the need for the mechanical testing at 3 years plus. Electric cars could be charged at 50% of the annual rate, petrol vehicles at 100%, diesel at 150%, SUVs or large-engined cars at 200% or higher.

These charges should apply to all commercial vehicles too: this should encourage more efficient use of more polluting vehicles, or even shift some freight away from roads.

Public transport needs to be encouraged and improved. All public transport is free in Luxembourg. Austria is bringing in an annual travel card which costs 3€ per day. Small countries clearly have an advantage, but we already have zoned travel cards in London, and surely this idea could be extended. Germany already has a range of regional travel cards. It may be that government subsidy is needed initially to get such schemes off the ground. What are governments for?

Enormous amounts of energy are wasted because our housing stock is so poorly insulated. Regulations for new buildings need to be much tighter. Much more encouragement to homeowners to improve insulation of existing properties is needed.

The switch from using fossil fuels for heating and cooking is probably the one which will have the biggest financial effect on families, and this is the area where government investment and subsidy should probably be concentrated.

It’s clear that in this country we can generate a large proportion of the energy we need from renewable resources. We need to do more of this, and build more solar and wind farms. We should also develop tidal energy since we are an island, and look to more efficient ways of storing electricity in batteries. The very last thing we need is more nuclear power: the cost of this would be paid by future generations over many years, and people will resent this when they see other countries who did not go down this futile route benefitting from much cheaper power.

I’m sure like-minded readers could easily add a few more suggestions. But we need action; we need governments to take the situation seriously. They can do this by doing what they are elected for: to pass legislation, and to govern. Plenty of people are already doing their bit, but individual effort is not enough.

Why England is screwed (part 2)

May 16, 2021

Warning: more politics ahead

England is a small country (the UK isn’t exactly huge); let’s briefly rewind the clock a few centuries: at the end of the fifteenth century, Spain and Portugal were the European superpowers, and the Pope divided up the unknown world between them. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Holland was a major economic and maritime power. Those three countries are now just ‘ordinary’ countries – no empires, no pretensions to global power status, just getting on with being Spain, Portugal or the Netherlands for their citizens, whether well or badly. And this is England’s trajectory now too, a couple of centuries later: no empire, no great power status (except that we delude ourselves that we are). We are another of those smallish countries of Europe. Our nuclear deterrent is rented from the USA, the weapons built and serviced by the USA, and apparently we may only use them with the consent of the USA. And yet we have a seat on the UN Security Council. The only nation that approaches us in presumptuousness is France, which still hasn’t managed to unpick its colonial past and is enmeshed in various quagmires on the African continent. But at least they own and manage their own nuclear armoury.

Global capitalism has rewritten the rules once again, and neither England, nor our political parties, seem to have fully understood. Power now seems to reside in nations with a very large landmass – the USA, Russia or China, or in the EU, with is a conglomerate equivalent; you don’t need to be reminded that we have just sawn off the branch on which we had been sitting quite comfortably for over forty years.

So where is the necessary realism to come from, where the acceptance that things are different and therefore we need to change, to adopt a constitution and move into the new century? The things which other countries admire us for – the BBC, our NHS, our enormous contribution to the arts – are all under threat from Tory philistines. And yet even as a relatively small country we have the potential to punch above our weight, in co-operation and collaboration with our fellow Europeans.

I am very pessimistic about the future, because I see that it takes much time for the broader sweep of history to become clear and to be taken into account, and therefore I fear that we have a good deal more pain to undergo and a good deal further to sink in status as a nation. I do not want to end my days in a one-party state, and I think our opposition parties have a sense of responsibility to the people, the voters of the nation, whether it’s just England or some version of the UK, to do something about it.

Why England is screwed (part 1)

May 16, 2021

Warning: politics ahead

As I have watched, becoming ever more depressed, the movements of English politics over the last few years, I have become increasingly convinced that this small country where I live is screwed, for the foreseeable future, long past my lifetime. There are quite a few pointers to this gloomy picture.

Scotland wants independence, and appears to be moving pretty relentlessly in that direction. If they want independence, they should have it; if they get it, I can see the Scots wanting to rejoin the EU as soon as they are allowed. I like Scotland; I love whisky; but what they want is their affair, and I don’t feel my country has the right to try and stop them.

Similarly, it is seeming increasingly logical that the two states on the island of Ireland should reunite, and if the memories of the horrors of nearly forty years of civil war keep heads level it may happen, and that reunited nation will obviously be part of the EU.

Wales is a smallish nation; smaller nations exist and prosper. I do not know if the Welsh will aim for greater self-determination, but if they do, again, it is their business. Which leaves England, smallish in size, with a large population, and heading in the direction of becoming a one-party state, with Tory hegemony entrenched forever. This is a prospect which fills me personally with horror, although I think it will be subsequent generations that will suffer most.

Our main opposition party, Labour, is the only party of its kind still standing in Europe, and how much longer it can stand as it is, is debatable. There is no clearly definable working class to appeal to any more, and what remains of that class has moved on. I am not sure what the purpose of the Labour party is any more. And the trade union dinosaurs who fund it and determine its direction do not endear it to an electorate that has moved on. Do not think that I am against trade unions: I was a union member for my entire working life, and I know how much unions protect their members and improve prospects, salaries and working conditions for them. But, sadly, this is not the picture many people have any more, and it’s not the subject of this post either.

There is potential in the Green Party; the Liberal Democrats shot themselves terminally in the foot in 2010 by going into coalition with the Tories. The nationalist parties are just that, and when they have nations of their own again, will presumably no longer figure in our Parliament, which is elected by a grossly unfair and utterly unjustifiable electoral system, that suits the Tories fine, because they can always win at first past the post, and which Labour will not challenge because they hope fondly they can do the same and then build some kind of socialist utopia in the following four years…

Increasingly it’s blindingly obvious that electoral reform, with proportional representation for all elections, is necessary for England to move into the twentieth, let alone the twenty-first century, and the only possible way to achieve that is for all the opposition parties temporarily to lay aside their differences and co-operate to campaign for fairness in politics, standing for a parliament that will only enact reform, then dissolve itself immediately to allow new elections by the new system, accepting whatever the outcome of those election is. The idea must be to show everyone that currently elections are decided by a very small number of people in marginal and swing seats, and that everyone else’s votes are largely irrelevant.

Look at it this way: a parliament has 100 seats, and 10,000 voters in each seat. Under the current system, 5,001 votes will elect an MP. So one party could get 5,001 votes in all 100 seats, a total of 500,100 votes, sweeping the board; the other 499,900 votes count for nothing. Do the sums.

With proportional representation, there will be more parties trying to win votes. You could vote for a ‘More Corbyn’ party, a ‘More Blair’ party, a ‘More Clegg’ party, a ‘Harder Brexit’ party or whatever. The point is that parties would then have to consult, negotiate and co-operate to form a government. Just as they do in the rest of Europe, and Germany, for example, hasn’t done too badly on that kind of system…

I can see that the Tories would be happy with first-past-the-post until the end of time, but they also need to think about other aspects of a country in continuing decline. And all shades of government would need to deal with this.

To be continued…

Philip Pullman: The Secret Commonwealth revisited

April 4, 2021

     It was time to revisit The Secret Commonwealth, which was published a year and a half ago; I’m looking forward to the next and possibly final novel, which may come out in the autumn, if Philip Pullman and his publishers stick to the existing schedule…

This time around, I was struck by just how much this book is about daemons, the relationships between humans and their daemons, and, for those of us living in the world without them – at least without the separate, visible companions – quite deep reflection on what the daemon may symbolise. In Lyra’s world, as she grows older, it becomes apparent/ she learns that quite a number of humans can separate/ be separated, voluntarily and involuntarily, from their daemons: we are a long way from the horrors of Bolvangar in the first volume of His Dark Materials. Lyra and Pan have fallen out; she changes as she grows older, becomes more cautious, less adventurous, and he leaves her, to try and find and bring back her imagination…

Lyra has read a novel set in a world in which humans have no daemons (and yet, curiously, she does not seem to make a clear connection with Will’s – ie our world), and she has read a philosophical work which argues that daemons are a figment of the imagination; in my terms, she’s struggling with the relationship between the material and the spiritual, a struggle which many manage completely to avoid in our world. But the secret commonwealth, a sense of hidden but real connection in mysterious ways between all sorts of beings and creatures, which does not exist on a rational level, keeps impinging on her as she pursues her adventures.

We’re also engaging with Pullman’s view of our own world, as reflected at one remove in Lyra’s. Pullman clearly does not like many things about the ways we live – and I’m happy to agree with him there – and we see characters engaging in that struggle for the Republic of Heaven that was formulated at the end of His Dark Materials, working beneath the surface of society in numerous ways for decency, and a sane and sensible attitude to life for everyone, against superstition and power games. Pullman’s message is a subversive one, especially as he engages with the blurring of the lines between truth and lies which is going on even as I write. For Pullman, the rational approach alone is not sufficient, and furthermore seems to be being used to reassure people that it’s OK to be selfish… which it’s not (within limits).

I’d have expected the cataclysmic events at the end of His Dark Materials to have made more of a difference to Lyra’s world even ten years later, than they actually seem to have done; the Magisterium and its religious fanaticism seem as strong as ever.

I think Pullman is also writing about what happens to us as we grow up, grow older, hopefully mature, certainly as we become adults. Lyra’s journey isn’t an easy one, as she reads and argues, and tries out new ideas for size. Many people do this, and are perhaps radically transformed, or develop along quite unexpected paths; her conflict with her daemon is at one level an obvious externalisation of a process a good number of us experience internally as we grow older. Pullman wants his readers to stop and reflect, I feel: back with Socrates’ idea of the unexamined life not being worth living. And beneath it all are the important values of decency in our own behaviour, and care for the less able or less fortunate than ourselves, very Christian values expounded by an author who at the same time is ferociously challenging the mind-controlling structures of established religion. Subversive, as I said before, and very good stuff.

You may feel I’ve said precious little about the novel itself. True, and I invite you to read what I wrote first time around, here.

Losing the BBC?

April 4, 2021

I’m beginning to feel that it’s a generational thing, and also that it’s inevitable that the BBC as we have known it for many years is withering on the vine and will not survive much longer.

It has many enemies, particularly the Conservative party and media moloch Rupert Murdoch, and between them, they are succeeding in their long-term aim. The BBC has been weakened by political interference and political appointments and is now no longer the voice of the nation, but the voice of the government, and as such, afraid to be critical or even impartial; economically it has been on a government-imposed shoestring for many years, and had recently announced that its flagship BBC4 channel is to become ‘archive-only’ ie no new programming, only repeats.

Murdoch, possibly the most destructive and vindictive media baron ever, has always hated the BBC. His tactic is also working: he has swamped the airwaves with cheap multi-channel programming, encouraging viewers to think in terms of multiplicity of choice, which the BBC cannot match. But once there is sufficient ‘choice’ (we all need to have the choice between 400 different shampoos and conditioners, after all) especially when other companies like Disney, Netflix and Amazon follow suit, pile in and flood the market, then you can argue that people have chosen, and are paying for their TV anyway and so should not have to pay a licence fee for a state-run organisation… then it can be allowed gradually to fall to bits, as may eventually happen to the NHS as well.

Is this any great loss? I’m in my sixties, and would argue that it is. I got a free education in classical music from Radio 3, which has given me lifelong pleasure. I’ve often felt that my annual licence-fee was worth it just for this one radio channel; there was no commercial channel in my younger days to offer classical music and the gobbets of advert-surrounded music clips that is Classic FM just doesn’t bear thinking about. There was a wealth of informative documentary programmes, excellent news coverage and analysis, and my cultural education was furthered by the wealth of international films shown late-night when I was a student – all on the BBC. So yes, I feel a debt of gratitude to the BBC, even as I see it dumbing down, and giving up on what it did so well in the past.

Is it a generational thing? Yes it is: younger generations have grown up with Sky and all the other myriad commercial channels, and consume TV very differently from the way my generation did, channel-hopping and binge-viewing in ways which were just not available way back when. And the concept of programming, ie having to watch a programme at a particular time or miss it, just doesn’t exist for them with streaming providing instant entertainment whenever. And nobody, but nobody, thinks about the environmental cost of streaming. Younger generations have no debt of gratitude to BBC children’s programming when so much cheap trashy pap for youngsters is now part of the entertainment package they pay for. Bundle TV services in with broadband and the BBC is on a hiding to nothing.

In the end, yes, these are the moans of an oldie who liked things the way they were. But, as with a good deal of the things that disappear with the passage of time, it’s the baby that gets thrown out with the bathwater that worries me. Entertainment, diversion, even education via TV should not have to be dependent on selling stuff in order to exist; everything is devalued by being reduced to this level. And in unmeasurable ways, we are all the poorer for it…

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