Sunday, 20 December 2015


It's not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand.
Podemos won't win tonight, but they might win tomorrow: so say the polls, officially illegal in Spain during the last week of the campaign, but in fact freely available provided you look at Twitter and understand the less-than-complicated coded language that @Electograph uses.

The display purports to tell us the prices of fruit and vegetables in the market of Andorra la Vella (handily outside Spain, something that has proved most convenient for the large number of Spanish and Catalan companies and political figures who have found the statelet a convenient location for their bank accounts). It also tells us how many stalls are expected to be selling each comestible, the largest number being for blue fish, blue being coincidentally the colour of the Partido Popular, while the purple aubergines stand in for Podemos, standing second, in a campaign which they began a fair way fourth.

I've always liked that circle: it reminds me, though it is not intended to, of the Circle of Life.
"We in Mand are so very far from the Revolution that maybe we are near it," said one of the girls, wistful and smiling: "The Circle of Life!" and she showed the extremes meeting, in the circle of her slender, dark-skinned fingers.
It has been, oh, thirty-three years, or thirty-four, since I first read Le Guin's The Dispossessed, and believed afterwards, for a period of time, that we could change the world and had something better we could change it to.

It wasn't a long period of time: it lasted until the miners lost. Or rather less than that, given that I never really believed that they were going to win. But I remember standing in Trafalgar Square, at the end of February 1985, watching the fighting outside Downing Street as the police piled into the last big march of the strike, and deciding, knowing, that the game was up, not just for the miners but for everything else I was hoping for. I was nineteen.

And here I am, at fifty, and in a few hours the election - in which I do not have a vote - is over, and though Podemos will not win, there might, there almost just possibly maybe might, be the numbers for a government they could head, if they come ahead of PSOE, if a dozen other things go well. And then what? Who knows then what. We have peanuts, beer and wine in for the election show tonight. That's as close as I like to get now.

At some point always comes the disappointment: tonight, tomorrow, some time after that but not long delayed.
"You knew this, Winston," said O'Brien. "Don't deceive yourself. You did know it - you have always known it."

Yes, he saw now - he had always known it
We have always known it. But we keep hoping all the same.

Just over two weeks ago, a touch before the campaign officially began, I was working in a primary school in Valladolid. As many schools do, they played music at the start and end of break, rather than inflict a school bell on kids young enough to be spared its tedium and harshness. Normally a school will play something short, cheerful and bouncy (and even something inappropriate, like the school in Madrid which plays My Shirona) but the music teacher, who got to make the choices, had decided to play Ludovico Einaudi's Nightbook.

The kids didn't seem to mind, or even to notice how intense the Einaudi was. But I felt it. And it was a cold week, snow on our van the first morning, a freezing mist putting hands into warmer gloves and gloves into warmer pockets - and even inside, where the heating was on at least part of the day, it was gloomy, the direction of the sun completely lost to us.

Then Einaudi, reinforcing the gloom, intensifying it, filling me with foreboding. And prompted by that mood, I realised something was bothering me - and that this was that I never got my head round what happened, so quickly, in Greece. As if it was a bad experience that I had registered, set aside for lack of time, but needed to have affect me, even knock me over, some time later. As if I had tried to miss it at the time, and managed, or half-managed. But it had not missed me.

Not just Greece, though, but all the sadnesses and disappointments from thirty years beforehand. And the Circle of Life. And the miners.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Michael X

Michael Gove is very concerned about radicalisation. He used to be concerned about radicalisation in schools and now he's concerned about radicalisation in prisons.
Islamist extremists are attempting to radicalise prisoners by deliberately getting custodial sentences or gaining jobs in jails, according to the Prison Officers Association (POA).

The warning comes as the justice secretary, Michael Gove, has ordered a review of how the prison and probation service tackle the radicalisation of offenders. The review will include an investigation into Muslim preachers radicalising inmates, according to the Sun.
How very odd. Odd, because one thing that everybody knows about Michael Gove is that when he was Education Secretary, he had a portrait of Malcolm X on his wall.

The Guardian last year referred to
the twin pictures of Malcolm X and Margaret Thatcher on Gove's office wall
while the Statesman, month before last, preferred
in his Whitehall office, Gove hung pictures of Lenin and Malcolm X.
In 2011 Channel Four had
He's got a picture of Malcolm X on his secretary of state's office wall to drum the message home.

He's also got a picture of Barack Obama there. And Lenin too
and last year the Financial Times had
Alongside Theodore Roosevelt, Barack Obama and Margaret Thatcher is the unyielding image of Lenin – whom Gove claims invented the phrase “education, education, education” – and the portraits of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.
Why the different accounts, who can say. Maybe some of the writers actually witnessed the portraits and others were just trying to remember what the other ones had said. Or maybe the interviewers were too dazzled by Gove's legendary politeness to check the portraits properly. Still, Malcolm X is common to all the accounts. Everybody knows his portrait was on Michael Gove's wall at Education.

Maybe it still is, now Gove has moved to Justice. You'd kind of like to know.

Because one thing that everybody knows about Malcolm is that he found Islam in prison. He was radicalised, while in prison. He was so radicalised, in prison, that the FBI opened a file on him. He fitted almost every description of the sort of man who Michael Gove is seeking to root out.

But Michael Gove had a picture of Malcolm X on his office wall.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Killing a pig

I think I killed a pig on Friday night. A jabalí, a wild boar, but only a little one, one of three or four crossing the old road just beyond Siétamo. Normally you're lucky if you see a wild boar at all, though there's lots of them about: they keep themselves well hidden in the daylight hours, and if you see them at all it's either alongside the road at dusk or later, or sometimes crossing the road, but at a distance, in the daytime. But these ones were unlucky: they crossed the road long after dark but too close to the car that was coming round the bend and up the hill. I saw them far too late - so late that by the time I realised I had seen them, we'd collided.

It wasn't the bend that did it so much as the hill, which rises unevenly, almost in a set of levels, so that what's in front of you is hidden intermittently. But you're not expecting to see anything, in the lane ahead of you, that you didn't know was there already, assuming nobody is recklessly overtaking in the downhill, opposite direction, in which case you'd have no chance. The road used to be a dangerous one, combining single carriageways with frequent, long and half-blind bends, and then, on top of that, being the main road from Huesca to Barcelona, an ideal combination for the accident waiting to happen, the driver going a long way, in too much of a hurry, and given too many chances to go wrong. But then they built the motorway alongside, taking away ninety per cent of the traffic and leaving just the locals, who know the road and the places that you have to watch. But not the local wild boar, who didn't know. It wasn't any of their fault. But it was them who had no chance.

I had just - just that instant - passed a car coming downhill and the piglets appeared in the beam immediately I switched it back to full. Although there must have been a sequence - light, pigs, collision - and though I spent much of the night trying to separate them, they might as well have been simultaneous for all the difference that it made, or, for that matter, for all that I can separate them in my mind. I spent much of the night that followed trying to remember exactly what had happened. Or that's what I thought that I was doing - more likely I was trying to remember it as one often "remembers" an event that one wishes had not happened, trying to picture it until it comes out differently. The ball that hit the post goes in, instead. The space appears between the pigs and the car goes neatly through it.

But the collision happened, a thud on the nearside front. Had they been full-grown boars it might have been the car which suffered most, or come to that the driver. It was a hard noise, like somebody had kicked the front, and I expected something to be dented. I've had a hare run manically into the headlight before now, killing itself instantly yet doing no apparent damage whatsoever to the car. (I was too surprised, at the time, to even take the dead hare home for somebody without an urban upbringing to skin and eat it.) But this was a bigger noise, a thump rather than a bang, but a thump nevertheless. I drove perhaps another hundred and fifty metres, maybe more than that, turning off the road at the first safe place, the opening to a path to one of the many fields and olive orchards alongside the road, down which the farmers take their tractors. In the old, busy days of the road, their emergence was another of the things you had to look out for. If you knew enough to do so.

 I stopped and took the torch from the glove compartment. I went round to the front of the car and there was no apparent dent, not at the first look. The car is white and any damage should have been easy to see. But I seemed to have got away with it, until I looked further downwards, at the ground, and saw that there was a trickle of liquid from the bottom of the car, running down the path. I know nothing about cars - aside from a few weeks when I had a job out of town, I never drove one at all between the age of twenty-two and forty - but I assumed that this was something serious and I should go no further. I called home and waited for R to arrive in our van. She was there in less than half an hour.

We put out triangles and put on fluorescent jackets, as the Spanish law requires. We called the Guardia Civil and the insurance: the former sent a patrol car and the latter sent a pick-up, which took the car away and back to Huesca ciudad. It's a very long weekend and the garage doesn't open until Wednesday morning. There did, on closer inspection, appear to be a little damage above the wheel. Our insurance isn't going to cover it.

The whole thing was stupid though. I could have got home without difficulty: the flow of liquid was only from the reservoir that holds the fluid for the windscreen wipers, which must have cracked. I didn't need it to get home. I didn't need us to call the police or the pick-up. I didn't even need R to come and pick me up.

But at least I got home all right. Nobody else saw anything of the jabalís. You couldn't hear the noise of braking, or of cars slowing in order to swerve. R turned round beyond the point where the collision happened and said she couldn't see a body. No blood, no evidence of anything.

But I know it must have been more than the pig could stand. I hope it didn't live too long with whatever pain I'd made it suffer. I remembered Inside Llewyn Davis, when he similarly hits the cat on the road, and though he sees it limp into the woods, he knows, and we know too, that it couldn't possibly survive. I know what happened. It was practically a baby, just crossing the road with its family, and had I not been coming it would have made it safely and been home that night as well. Loads of wild boar round here, one of the officers said at one point. No doubt there are. But one less now, and one that I kept thinking about, that night and the next day, trying to imagine it all over again so that I missed it this time, as if the only one who cares about the dead is the man who did the killing.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Syrian Job

I gather you've been in lndia for two years, sir.
Yes, shooting tigers.

You must have shot an awful lot of tigers, sir.
Yes, I used a machine gun.
I often think of The Italian Job when we're driving through the mountains just to the north, between where we live and the border with France. We go there in our VW Transporter van, or our Nissan Micra, rather than a Lamborghini, so we take the bends more slowly and less smoothly than Rossano Brazzi does in the opening credits. But the feeling is much the same, that once you're there, you're up and away, unbothered, on your own apart from the very occasional cars that come past the other way. The snow comes into view and Matt Monro comes with it, smooth as the sweep of Brazzi's Miura.

No harm can come to anybody here, it seems, as long as they stay on the road: and that's what makes the end of the scene so jarring, when the car enters the tunnel and runs into a JCB parked at the exit. I can remember seeing the movie as a kid: I was impressed with the way the broken car rolled right the way down the mountainside and into the river.

The other jarring thing about the sequence, is that however great, it doesn't fit the movie that it opens, a caper movie with comedy Italians outwitted by comedy Brits. It's not so much that Brazzi's ride ends so abruptly: it's that neither the carefree mood of his drive, nor the suddenness of his death, make a proper match with the sudden appearance of a bunch of clowns in black hats standing on alternate ledges while another clown rolls a wreath (why?) into the river. It's as if the opening was a trailer for a film different to the one that was actually shown.

I've not actually seen the film in many years, not all the way through, though I've seen bits and pieces, dubbed into Spanish, a couple of times in hotel rooms on the Paramount Channel. I can't imagine what the Spanish make of it, whether they know who Noël Coward is or care what he's doing in prison, whether they give a monkey's (si les importen un pito) if those three lads in Union Jack helmets driving Minis get away from the police through the Turin sewers, or whether they have any interest in unpicking what is patriotic flagwaving, what is ironic reference to the same and what is both at the same time. Presumably people have the same problem with James Bond.

The subtext of the film is of course that Britain won the war, even though Germans in the movie are thin on the ground (although Rossano Brazzi's character is called Roger Beckermann, and the novelisation of the film featured German as well as Italian gangsters). Still, we beat the Italians as well, and the one thing we all know about our history is that we won the war. We even knew that in the playground - we used to parade round chanting
We won the war!
In nineteen sixty-four!
which especially amuses me, now, given that one thing I do in schools is to give a talk about the first moon landing, which the kids - aged ten to twelve - may place at any point in the last century or even the previous one. The film itself is set in 1969 - the football match portrayed was a friendly that England won 1-0 - and England could still feel they were the best team in the world, even if they had only been third in the previous year's European Championships, also held in Italy. As it turned out, that was the last time England finished ahead of Germany, West or united, in an international tournament until they were third to Germany's fourth in Group A in the European Championships thirty-two years later.

I first watched the film as a child and you have to, really: it's a childish film, but a good one if you watch through eyes that should be old enough to know a little bit better. Troy Kennedy Martin scripted and came up with one of my favourite exchanges in cinema, reproduced  above. It was all childish fun and games back then. Gangsters were only comedy gangsters and if the heroes didn't win in the end they didn't actually fall off the edge of the cliff. But a decade and a half later Kennedy Martin would close Edge of Darkness with a terrorist attack on NATO, and one of which the viewer is expected to approve.

It was much simpler back when it was all about us, and the fact that we'd beaten Hitler. Everybody knows that we beat Hitler, and that as much as anything may explain why it is always Hitler who is invoked whenever we are considering fighting anybody else. Hitler, Hitler, Hitler, whether it is the death cult Hitler or the dictator Hitler fighting them or the other Hitler who is fighting on the same side as the second one.

I imagine we could go in easily enough, if we have to (which they will probably have to, though they say that they will not) and drive the death cult away from the centres of population whose people they have spent the last two years persecuting. And then, there they will be, with Assad and Hezbollah to the west of them, the Russians and the Turks to the north, the Iranians and Iraqis to the east of them and the Saudis to the south, but all of these - and the people they are giving arms to - mixed in together and either allied to or fighting one another. And what will happen then?

What will happen is that David Cameron will turn round and say to us:
Hang on a minute lads. I've got a great idea.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Swimming to the caliphate

No-one could really figure out how something like that could have happened.
I must have seen Swimming to Cambodia pretty much when it came out, in 1987. I think I actually saw it before I saw The Killing Fields, which had come out three years earlier and which you probably need to have seen in order to make Swimming to Cambodia entirely comprehensible. The Killing Fields itself is about destruction and mass murder in Cambodia - which may not be entirely comprehensible at all.

You can try, though. It's an Enlightenment thing: part of the long project of freeing us from the spell of superstition and the yoke of religious authority was, and is, the insistence that all things are subject to rational explanation, that the allied powers of reason and scientific investigation can ultimately provide us with explanations. It's permanently a work in progress: never completed, like Paul Valery's art, but unlike that art, never abandoned unless we choose to do so.

We can abandon it. We can opt for unreason and most people, on one level or another, choose to do so: the number of people who care what is true is nearly always smaller than the number who do not. We mostly fit our facts to our opinions, like we were choosing curtains to suit a room already painted. It doesn't make us killers - much of the mass mechanical killing of the twentieth century, of which the murder of Cambodia was one of the final acts, was carried out by people who thought they knew the truth, and many of the victims were people who had lived happily and harmlessly without concerning themselves too much about it.

You don't have to opt for reason. But you can try.

There's a passage I remember - in the sense of remembering being struck by it, rather than remembering it like a poem that I once learned for recital - in Swimming to Cambodia. It's not the one below, though the one below is striking too.

The passage I remember describes how the Khmer Rouge became the thing it did, paranoid beyond all understanding, industrial in nothing but its means of committing and recording murder. It's recorded thus on IMDB: I'm not sure they have it down completely accurately but I don't have the original, or the text, to check against. It may be close enough. I like it as it is.

It doesn't insist on any single given explanation for the Khmer Rouge. It doesn't shy away from ideology
an education in Paris environs in strict Maoist doctrine with a touch of Rousseau
nor even the role of the apparently inexplicable, of a form of madness we can describe as evil
including perhaps an invisible cloud of evil that circles the Earth and lands at random in places like Iran, Beirut, Germany, Cambodia, America
but nor the element of what happens to people if you subject them, for years, to pitiless and extensive aerial attack.
Five years of bombing.
Five years of bombing. That was the thing that we contributed. That was the thing we did that we didn't need to do. And if we are looking for explanations, and we leave that bit out, we leave behind any chance of arriving at an explanation.

But we don't have to look for explanations. We can talk about the Khmer Rouge simply as a death cult. And we can talk similarly of ISIS. A fascist death cult, if we wish. There's a lot of it about. Here's Chris Riddell, a fine illustrator of children's books if a mediocre political cartoonist, calling ISIS "a murderous death cult" in a cartoon with a headline The plain truth about ISIS. (I feel guilty italicising it. You probably shouldn't italicise anything so plain.)

 I don't know if the headline belongs to the cartoonist, but murderous and death cult and even plain and truth are better terms than the. What is this the? There is no the.

But there's a lot of this particular the about. Its authorship is claimed by Michael Burleigh:
Attacks like these almost always result in the deaths of the perpetrators, for both Al Qaeda and Islamic State are 'death cults' (a term I coined).
I'd want convincing that the claim is valid, though I'd not begrudge it, since previously Professor Burleigh's only contribution to our intellectual life of which I was aware was his role as an arse-kisser to Niall Ferguson. So why not? Give him credit for the term, the main function of which is not to illuminate its subject but to assure us that all the light we need has been shone already. ISIS is a "death cult". More than that we do not need to know.

And hence we do not need to worry that we might be doing the very thing we do not need to do.

At the end of the clip above, Gray says this:
I get very confused. And Roland Joffe came to me and said "Spalding, I hope this film has taught you that morality is not a movable feast".

I get dizzy. Cause I keep seeing it moving all the time.
That's one way of looking at it - if we accept that there are ways, more than one, of looking at it. Or we can opt for certainty and the knowledge that what we're speaking of is beyond all reason, either ours or its own.
Listen, and understand. It's out there. It cannot be bargained with. It cannot be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.

It's true, in a film. And that strategy works, in a film.

So let us therefore hope this is not real life. Let us hope that this is actually a film.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Fighting at a funeral

I had a fight at a funeral once. Not really a fight, just a bit of tugging and pulling. I'm not proud of it.

The funeral was my grandfather's and my antagonist was my father. I'd not seen him, save one occasion, for about thirty years. Not talked to him either, save that same occasion. But this was his father's funeral, or rather, the reception at the Legion afterwards. I was avoiding him, he didn't like it and finally he came up to me and said something that he shouldn't. He walked away, I walked after him and pulled him round and said something back I probably shouldn't have either.

I couldn't tell you exactly what - and it doesn't matter what. I could tell you what I think of him: I could tell you he's a louse, and why. But I can't really do that, having told you I was fighting at a funeral. I'm already in the wrong. I'm a louse.

Because you can't fight at a funeral.

I used to think that what you thought, and what you said, was the most important thing about you. I'm built that way, or I turned out that way. It's a view that probably appeals most to the opinionated - and that's how I am. But it's not a stupid view. Ideas have consequences. What you think about other people, how you think they should be treated, has consequences for those other people. A political opinion is not always a private thing in the sense that a preference for pop rather than classical, for league rather than union, for belt rather than braces is. It needs to be defended. Which is to say, from time to time somebody has to challenge it.

But there are times, and there are challenges, and there are ways and means of making them.

The argument about Paris started as soon as Paris happened. I don't blame anybody in paeticular for that. Nobody started it. The arguments are there in front of us whether we choose to make them personally or not. It's an argument we've been having for the last twelve years or so at any rate, apologists on one side and warmongers on the other. You can't avoid it. You can't go on the internet and avoid it.

But you don't have to raise your voice about it. Because raising your voice is fighting. And you can't be fighting at a funeral.

Now nothing I say about Paris matters. And I don't really have any business liking anything about Paris or anything relating to the massacres in Paris. But in so far as "like" is the proper word - and this is all about words, and whether they are properly expressed - I did like the passage here:
the command to not politicise means to not make someone’s death about something else: it's not about the issue you’ve always cared about; it’s not about you.
You can say things, You can look for contexts and you can disagree with other people's contexts. If you want to say that the meaning of murder isn't simply murder, you have to say so and you have to be allowed to say so. But the meaning of murder is death, and death is a time for proper words, spoken in a proper tone. We understand that. We understand the seriousness and sacredness of death. It's why we have funerals, and why we do not just speak and behave and dress just as we please at a funeral: because it isn't about us. And it's why we do not fight at funerals.

Because death is about the people who have died. It's about the people who have lost them. But it's not about you. It's not about your quarrels. If you make death about your quarrels, you insult the dead, regardless of what those quarrels are and regardless of whether or not you are in the right. It doesn't always matter if you're in the right.

Of course if somebody says something that you think is out of order, you can say so. Once. You can do it once, and then you're on the record. Exchange of views. It involves a certain degree - not too much - of etiquette. You don't have to respect your adversary but you have to respect the people who hear you and the situation in which you are speaking.

After that, it's a fight. After that, what you're trying to do is give someone a chasing. And that's a process that is always about you. You, the righteous one. You, the issuer of condemnations. You, the righter of wrongs. You, the crusader.

So while it's perfectly in order to say that Stop The War sent a stupid, idiotic tweet, you don't go chasing after them, after they've withdrawn it, so you can shout about it. That's just carrying on the fight you were already having. And that's fighting at a funeral. That's making it about you.

And while it's perfectly in order to say that John Rentoul issued a petty, nasty tweet, you don't go chasing after him, after he's apologised, to shout about it. That's just carrying on the fight you were already having. And that, too, is fighting at a funeral.
Dr Borkenau has performed a feat which is very difficult at this stage for anyone who knows what is going on in Spain; he has written a book about the Spanish war without losing his temper.
We have been losing our tempers for a dozen years now. And that has been a dozen years of funerals.

I'm not even-handed, in my outlook, in my opinions, between the people who do not want to pursue war and people who think that it's the best course. One of these sets of people frightens me and the other - usually - does not. I'm definitely on one side of the argument. But I'm even more against having that argument, in the form of an argument, and using the funeral parlour as the background.

We are talking about death. And we're probably talking about much more death. You do not raise your voice where people have died. We've had enough of raised voices in plain sight of death. We've had enough of voices that are always raised. This is an argument that needs to stop being a fight.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The struggle of forgetting against memory

War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense.

- Randolph Bourne
I remember the first time I watched the poppy ceremony. I was still at school, although off sick that day, or reckoning I was, and hence in front of the television in the morning when the ceremony was shown. I'm guessing it was 1982, since that was the year of the Falklands War, which along with the anti-nuclear sentiment of the time had made me a very anti-militarist teenager.

So when petals fell from the ceiling of Westminster Abbey, each single petal of the avalanche representing a life lost in the First World War, what I saw was not just the loss of life it symbolised, but the people on whom the leaves were falling. The great and good, the holders of power, the makers of decisions, the people in whose interests, as I saw it then, were responsible for all the death among which they were seated. I see it much the same way now.

One reads an image in one's own way, not always the way in which it is intended, and I read it as a scene covered in blood. I say the first time but I'm not sure that I've seen the ceremony since. Nor have I been able to wear a poppy. I don't think I've ever worn once since, although I wouldn't sign my name against that claim. But basically, I don't wear a poppy. It's something I don't do.

I've never talked about it much, because I've never been asked about it much. It's not something that I've asked other people not to do: it's something I don't do myself, just as I don't go to McDonald's and I don't send Xmas cards. Matter of fact I've probably had more conversations about Xmas cards than I have had about poppies.

But then again I emigrated nearly ten years ago. I don't know that I've been in Britain, in November, for a decade. I'm glad about this, because I don't want to have arguments about poppies, or be put on the spot because I do not wear one. From this distance - perhaps from the viewpoint of mostly viewing my home country through a screen, it often seems that not wearing a poppy is no longer a private matter. It is a choice that you have to defend, one that you need to justify to others. It is a suspect political act.

Well, the internet magnifies what is often very small, and people are not always such arses to you in person, but the militarism that has overtaken Britain over the course of that last decade isn't such a small thing. Militarism in the sense of an instinctive and perpetual keenness to engage in war and an equal keenness the motives of people whose instinct is the opposite. But the kind of militarism, too, which loves soldiers, which venerates mlitary uniforms and the people wearing them.

My own football team started holding a Military Day. Why? What has that to do with anything? What are uniforms and soldiers to do with watching yellow-shirted players trying to kick a ball into a net? It says
the club fully supports the work that our military personnel do around the world
which is very far from my opinion, but why does it come into it either way? Is this normal, nowadays? Have I been away so long? Did they do this back in the days of the Falklands War? They didn't, of course. But war was not so normal then.

I didn't miss a home game at that club for more than ten years. I think I'd probably miss these ones. Or maybe just stop going altogether.

Still, it's a small thing, to miss a football game, even if I didn't always think so. Worse things happen in war. And I am not there any more, and places, countries and football clubs all change in your absence. I do not have to worry about poppies in November. In Spain I can look at poppies without any associations that I didn't get from Monet. They do not stand for anything. I am not obliged to have an opinion.

Poppies don't stand for remembrance here. Matter of fact, nothing stands for remembrance. In Spain, the rule is not remembrance, but forgetting. More than the rule, the law. And more than to forget, but to be forbidden to find out what you have never known. The location of the bodies of your family, the place they died, the names of the people who ordered they be killed. The denial of funds to find and investigate mass graves. The refusal to discuss the country's recent history. The silence about guilt. In Spain, uniquely in Europe and illegally in international law, crimes against humanity committed in that very country may not be legally redressed.

It is the opposite, but the same. It says, as does the poppy bullying: this is done and settled, this is the account of history that you must accept. For sure, the consequences are different. To be denied the knowledge that you seek is not to be hounded or harrassed, though which is worse depends on what it is you need to know. But either way the effect, the deliberate effect, is to prevent the asking of questions that people need to ask. And either way the beneficiaries are the partisans of war and uniforms and the sort of people who make it their business to hound their fellow-citizens.

There are reasons. Reasons for forgetting what people wish had never happened, as there are reasons for remembering what should never have taken place. But you see things in your own way and you remember them the same. What I remember is seeing the poppy ceremony and hating it. I read the image in my own way. I read the way that it is used. And I hate it.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Preaching of the converted

There is something quite particular about spending the second half of your life taking revenge on the first.1
At one point earlier this year I thought all my epiphanies had come at once.

There was a moment when several people I knew, on various different levels of know, seemed simultaneously to be passing through the phase, particular to middle-aged people with a background on the left, of deciding that the people with whom they'd previously marched were wrong, and wicked, and that the time has come to denounce them.

I'm not so fond of this, although I can imagine doing it too, given the right circumstances. The reasons are always good. As these typically involve examining some act of horror and the refusal of one's comrades to act on it, to see it the same way, to give it the seriousness it merits, they're more than good enough.

There's never any shortage of material for this particular script - so long as one looks at the material in a certain way - and never any shortage of volunteers to play the role, to agonise over their choices, to conclude, regretfully, that the time has come to make their confession.

So yes, I might get round to it myself one day. Until then, what bothers me is not that I think this crowd are wrong. It's not the wrongness or the rightness that's the problem. It's that they're fools.

Who says they're fools? They do. They do by their own account.

By their own account, they're fools. There's nothing wrong with that, since there's no road towards wisdom which doesn't start with understanding that you've been a fool. But you don't stop being a fool like that.

When I say that by their own account, they're fools, of course I'm in the realm of the implied. I'm reading between other people's lines and interpreting them in a way they would not recognise. I'm saying you are not the thing you say you are, which is of course what they do - and I said I didn't like what they do. But let me have this one hypocrisy, to make this single point.

If, by your own account, the people you have been working with are anti-Semites, totalitarians, apologists for racism and modern forms of fascism, antidemocratic, hateful and the rest....

...and for years and years you never noticed this, even though by your own account it had been staring you in the face at every moment...

then I'm afraid you are a fool. An idiot. A person who could not see what was in front of them. A halfwit.

Very much a fool.

Not a particular fool. We're all of us fools, in our own stupid ways. It's just that if I said to a newspaper, that up to now, everything I had done in my specialised field had been wrong, that I had completely misunderstood the nature and reality of everything that I'd been working on, they probably wouldn't offer me a weekly column on the subject.

This is an unfair point, for sure, because it neglects the struggles with conscience, the inner turmoil, the weighing-up of loyalties, the humming and the hawing and all the agonising which may have taken years to resolve - as the accounts, since there are nearly always long and personal accounts, nearly always take trouble to make clear.

The reason I neglect them is that I couldn't care less about them. They're important to the people concerned, but not to me, because they mistake the start of a process for its end. You don't cease to be a fool by saying "I've been such a fool".

Nor do you cease to be a fool by shouting about your conversion from foolishness, less still by shouting the opposite of what you used to shout, in the direction of the people with whom you used to shout it.

Better to learn that it's shouting that's the problem. Better to contemplate, appropriately quietly, that a period of silence on your part would be welcome.

Lord, they have so little self-awareness, for people who are keen on talking about themselves. When every event in politics, domestic or international, becomes a platform on which you place your cannon, to fire off another salvo, you may or may not inflict damage on your enemies. But what you're certainly doing is making too much noise.

There isn't too much to be learned from anyone who sits in a bar every night, pulling every stranger over to their table and telling them for hours all about the wickedness of their ex-wife. There might be much more to be learned from somebody who after their initial turmoil and distress, goes away, thinks over their experience, takes years over the process and then, tentatively and provisionally, thinks they might know more than they once did, both about themselves and about the institution of marriage.

They wouldn't shout about it, that's for sure. But you'd be much more likely to listen to them speak. It wouldn't be particularly what they had to say that made the difference. The key would be their way of speaking.

That's the sign of somebody who's actually learned from their experience: that they change themselves, or just as likely, find that they have changed. They reflect more than they did. They are more generous in their judgements. They come to conclusions with much more reluctance, if they come to them at all. They do things differently now. And they are disinclined to condemn other, younger people, for making the mistakes that they once made, for not learning instantly the lessons that they themselves took half a life to learn.

That's the real point, that there's no wisdom in shouting "what a fool I've been", only in understanding that you'll always be a fool. Nor is there any peace to be found in shouting about the people who have wronged you in the past: no itch like that is ever scratched to satisfaction. No grudge is ever settled, unless it goes away of its own accord. You never are at peace, until you understand the only fault that matters, in the end, lies always with yourself.
Let him be at peace with his own self at least, if the price he has to pay for a phony peace with the world is self-renunciation and self-denunciation.2
Here endeth the lesson. This lesson, but not the lesson you hear from the same pulpits, every week, on each succeeding Sunday. The preaching of the converted, all trying to save us from their former selves.

[1 Edgar]
[2 Deutscher]

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Howard Jacobson: "men who read won't rape"

I've never read Howard Jacobson's novels. It's probably not his fault. I try not to read contemporary novelists: I inadvertently (though fortunately) read Wolf Hall and I can imagine myself reading Money this side of Martin Amis dropping dead, but other than that, I prefer to read the works of the deceased. I basically want to read them without the need to know what side they're on, what stance they took on Syria or Iraq or God or even, if I can help it, Vietnam, and this is a lot easier when they're gone and even their trangressions are by and large forgiven. It's true, I read What A Carve-Up! several times and gave copies as gifts to several people, but that was before I came up with this particular self-denying ordinance. I'm a librarian by profession and I read for the peace and quiet, not the noise.

Howard is, unfortunately, also a columnist of sorts. The Independent publishes his piece - weekly, I think, though I'm not interested enough to check, let alone to know, and besides, the battle of the columnists , what Nick says about what Polly said about that piece by someone else,  is part of the noise I'd rather avoid. But I did catch this, last month. It's Howard Jacobson on Cambridge, the civilising effect of improving literature, and women. His thesis, roughly, is that men who read won't rape. Yes, that's precisely what I wrote. He says that men who read won't rape.

It's worth reading in full, although in another way, it's not worth reading at all, but once started, it has to be finished just to see if he's really saying what you think he's saying. It's a meander rather than an argument, since Jacobson, whatever his skills as a novelist, can't really maintain a linear argument for the length of a two-minute column. Nevertheless, that two minutes is long enough for some startling passages to stand out. Here's one:
because my college was for men only – some joke, calling us “men” – there were no women around for us to abuse, supposing we’d been of a mind to do so.
OK. Now in my experience, humour, even offhand humour, about violence against women isn't usually leading to a good place, but Howard's a proper writer and I am not, so let's follow him awhile before we make our judgements. Where are you going with that thought, Howard?
There’s more than one way of being brutal. But we never raised our hands to women. We could no more have date-raped than scored a try at Twickenham.
All right, Howard, that sounds like self-deluding garbage about the past to me, but both of us are middle-aged men and we can be forgiven our lapses of memory, even when they are to our advantage. But why, since you raise the subject, would you and your contemporaries have been so trustworthy with women, compared to young men generally?
In the case of those of us who studied literature, the books we read turned us inward and kept us civil. It would have been hard to go from reading Jane Eyre to inveigling totty back to our rooms and doing violence on them.
Now at this point, if columnists are still capable of making you angry rather than glaze over, this might be the point at which the anger rises. He is saying what he is saying. He is really saying that. He is saying that because you read English Literature, you would be much less likely to rape.

Jesus. Somebody actually wrote that in a newspaper. Scarcely anybody noticed, as far as I could see - it was a Friday column and the weekend went by without any particular public outrage - but somebody, a Booker Prize winner at that, wrote in a newspaper that rape is much less likely if you read English Literature at Cambridge.

Where to start with such a column? Where to start with such a claim? With my own personal experience of Oxford students, which - twenty years later than Jacobson - was that the men were just as boorish, just as beery, just as hateful towards women when they wanted to be, as any other set of men I've come across? With my recollection that English Literature at my college was in part represented by a chap who despite his doubtless sensitive and life-enhancing knowledge of the English funeral elegy from Spenser to Milton (though he, in fact, had played at Twickenham) had no particular reputation for keeping his hands to himself?

Here's Clive James, who, in comparison to Jacobson, had some idea of what power relationships on campus might entail.
Almost every university department I have ever heard of is haunted by at least one Lothario who sees nothing wrong with trying to screw the prettier students. The concept of academic freedom usually ensures that such conduct goes unpunished, even though it is patently unfair to the screwed and the unscrewed alike.
At least Clive James could see what actually happened among his university contemporaries. Jacobson has, or claims to have, no idea.
Yes, we called them “totty”, but we would have died from embarrassment had the totty looked in our direction.
Jesus. "Yes, we called them 'totty'". But...but nothing. You were afraid of women? Are you under the impression that being afraid of women means men are less likely to rape? Are you insane, Howard Jacobson? What are you thinking of? And what were they thinking of, whoever nominally edited the column and decided it was fit to publish?

Of course, what would probably have happened if James' "Lothario" had raped a female student, or if a young male student (who perhaps spent the rest of the evening reading Sons and Lovers or Jane Eyre) had raped a local girl, would have been that they would have got away with it - and not especially because of "the concept of academic freedom". They would have been believed and the female student, or the local girl, would not, and why? Because one of the people concerned would have been viewed as "totty" and the other would have been a man. And at that, a "refined" man. one who went to King's, who knew nothing of the "obscenities of the uncouth North", who had read DH Lawrence and Charlotte Brontë.

There's much more that could be said about the piece - try, for instance, getting your head round the claim that follows
I don’t say an MA in gangsta rap or business studies will necessarily make you a rapist, but there’s less mental distance to travel before you get there
or the immense, self-pitying, could-not-be-further-wrong stupidity of this
is it even possible that we have given up on the idea of being humanised altogether? Is the very word too fancy? We mistrust whatever isn’t egalitarian and look askance at people who appear to us to live in ivory towers
but to deal with it point-by-point might be to do more justice to it than it merits. It is a hymn to education, the text of which is soaked in ignorance. It is a set of falsehoods about rape, culture and education. It is a lie.

As I say, the lie came and went without a great deal of notice being taken. All right, the weekend after was the one Jeremy Corbyn was elected and nobody was much interested in anything else. The day of its publication was 11 September and there were more important things to pay attention to that day than the crass stupidity and snobbery of a two-minute column. And yet Jacobson's columns do get praised, passed on, embedded in tweets which recommend their contents. They get read. They are looked forward to. How could it be that nobody noticed, that particular day, what this particular column had to say?

I don't know. I don't even think I seek to know. But I do know that whatever Howard Jacobson's experience at Cambridge, and whatever mine at Oxford, although the both of us were silly young men who knew nothing about women, neither of us had to go through anything like the experience of being raped, nor beaten, nor that of not being believed afterwards. Jacobson doesn't think it happened, not back then when
we never raised our hands to women.
I think they did, Howard. I think they did. But I think it was "refined" people that did it.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

An unrelaxing café con leche

In Spain we have something called the Ley Mordaza, or Gag Law. You might have heard of it: or you might have heard about the protests which is is designed to stop, the wave of protests against corruption, evictions and what-have-you that began on a large scale with the movement of 15 May 2011 and which counts among its political consequences the existence of Podemos and the election of Ada Colau.

In response, the Ley Mordaza: a remarkable and clever piece of legislation which prevents protest indirectly, not by bludgeoning protestors off the streets, though the bludgeons are there all right and more than occasionally used, but by emptying their pockets. Some of the fines involved are eyewatering: as listed by The Local, they include, for instance
between €30,000 and €600,000 if the protest takes part near institutions such as the Spanish parliament
and similarly
people trying to stop an eviction from taking place could be fined between €600 and €300,000.
In The Glass Teat, Harlan Ellison, then part of another, older protest movement, writes of his frustration at the surtax charged to Americans in order to pay for the war in Vietnam:
I draw the line. I make my stand here. I deny them the funds to kill. And my CPA shook his head sadly at my naïveté. Boob, he said politely, you won't go to jail: they will empty your bank account. I will empty the bank account, I said, knowing what hassles that would make for myself. Then they'll attach your wages, he responded. Then I'll - I stopped. It was hopeless.

So it is. People might be prepared to go to prison for the right to protest: that way you're achieving something. If all they do is take a chunk of money off you - and a hefty chunk, at that - then what are you achieving? That way the state creates no heroes and no martyrs, unless you're expecting people to march under the slogan Pay Back The The Huesca Three instead of Free The Chicago Seven. They're probably not going to do that. They'd only be fined themselves if they did. And there's a limit to how many fines a movement can pay by crowdfunding.

So we wait until after the election of 20 December to see if our civil rights will be restored to us, my guess being that unlike the Kings they won't be coming our way after Xmas. Meanwhile, since the Law appears in the short term to have achieved its desired effect of preventing protest by deterring it, it's the petty aspects of the legislation that have attracted most attention, the way in which it penalises and persecutes not just the overtly political but the normal and everyday.

Naturally in doing so it makes the everyday political. It intrudes the repressive function of the state into the everyday life of the citizens, the very thing the Transition to democracy, or indeed any liberal democracy in general, is supposed to avoid.

To return to The Local:
Showing a "lack of respect" to those in uniform or failing to assist security forces in the prevention of public disturbances could result in an individual fine of between €600 and €30,000
People will be fined for taking unauthorised photographs of the police
For sure, the first of these is supposed to penalise political louts (like the present writer) with a tendency to speak disrespectfully of people in uniform, while the latter is aimed ostensibly at YouTube videos of police officers, since these videos tend to show them bringing out the bludgeons that I mentioned earlier. But it also makes it impossible for journalists to carry out their normal job. All of a sudden it is potentially punishable to capture and publish images of police officers, the very thing we expect journalists to do, on behalf of the taxpayers who pay for those police and the citizens who the officers are supposed to represent.

More than that, it means that ordinary people, doing ordinary things, suddenly find that they have committed political acts - punishable political acts - and that they face stiff financial penalties for doing so. A man on Tenerife criticises the police on social media: a few hours later he's notified that he'll be fined for it. A woman in Alicante province takes a photo of a car parked in a disabled bay and puts it on Facebook. What could be more normal in 2015 than that? But the car wasn't John Terry's but a police vehicle - and they threaten to fine her eight hundred euros. Suddenly the everyday is illegal.

Then there was the chap in Málaga province who, finding his way blocked by a parked vehicle, and having called the police station and received no reply, went onto Facebook and wrote:
Es la una de la mañana, estoy llamando a la policía y no está operativa, pero sí que toman café en el pueblo de al lado.
Or something like that, since soon afterwards he deleted it. A rough translation:
It's one in the morning, I'm calling the cops and getting no reply. No doubt they're next door having coffee in the village bar.
The reason he deleted the posting was this this was deemed "un falta de respeto", an act of disrespect, and he too has been threatened with a fine.

What's funny about this, funny ha-ha until you realise it can happen to you, is that he was in all probability right. The police are always in the bar drinking coffee. If you go into a bar your chances of seeing a group of police officers are pretty good, so much so that it's a standing joke with the two of us. Either "our friends" are there when we arrive, or they arrive when we're already there: and given that we travel round Spain to make a living, this isn't down to coincidence (I say so because by coincidence, the bar in the village down the road is right next to the Guardia Civil) but down, rather, to the fact that the police in Spain spend a lot of time in bars.

I don't particularly have a problem with this. They drink their coffee, check their smartphones and look at MARCA: I drink my coffee, check my smartphone and look at MARCA. No bother. But it shouldn't cost somebody hundreds of euros if they say so.

In fact, shortly after I came across the story about the bloke in Málaga province - I think I saw it in El País - I was in a hotel bar with half-a-dozen police officers. I was at a table and they were at the bar, as they usually are when we stay at that hotel. By and large it serves commercial travellers, like ourselves, making overnight stops in a convenient place just off the Barcelona-Madrid motorway. So there's traffic police about, and of course they want somewhere to stop, de vez en cuando, and have a rest. Like I say, no problem.

But it amused me that I should see the story, about police officers objecting to the idea that they'd be drinking coffee in the bar, just as I was in a bar, drinking coffee, with a number of police officers. So I reached for my smartphone with the intention of taking a photo or two, just to send to R with some kind of amusing message. Police officers at the bar: who ever would have thought it? Something to that effect.

And then I stopped and said to myself - what on Earth do you think you are doing?

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Nothing out of the ordinary

I went to a comp. Course I did. There's nothing special about it: there's nothing about it that marks you out. Going to a comp was normal. Nearly everybody did.

It was unusual as a comprehensive went: it was a Catholic school, and single-sex, but other than that it was, in intake and admissions policy, the same as everywhere else in Stevenage, much as all the housing estates in Stevenage looked like everywhere else in Stevenage. Buses arrived at the school from further afield, from as far away as Royston where a Catholic junior school provided part of the school's intake and two-thirds of its chess team. But the only thing you'd have thought was different about us, had you visited the school from any other in the town, was that there were no girls among the pupils. Other than that it was normal. It was the normal. It wasn't a kind of secondary school. It was what you understood when you thought of secondary school.

There was nothing particularly proletarian about the school, nothing much that spoke of poverty. There didn't need to be. If you were poor or working-class in Stevenage, you went to a school like ours: if you were middle-class, you went to a school like ours. It was normal. Not bog-standard, just normal - and just as normal if your parents had two cars and lived in a detached. You'd  be aware that there was such a thing as private education and you might even have been in one on one occasion or another. (We played in chess matches against public schools.) But I didn't know anybody who went to one. Saying "I go to a comprehensive school" meant nothing: you might as well have said "I watch the television", were it not that I did know one boy whose parents didn't have a television.

You get the point. If you're trying to say something about your background, you can't say very much just by saying you're from a comprehensive. From Liverpool or Stevenage, it probably says "my folks weren't rich". No more than that. It's not an index of deprivation. It's not an index of anything, save normality. It wasn't till I found myself at Oxford, where only about a quarter of the undergraduates had been to comprehensives, that it seemed to be anything else. Then, it set you apart, or could do, in that insidious way, mattering only if people wanted it to matter, mattering only when you found you didn't fit.

I had a joke, when I was there, that if somebody said they'd been to a state school, it meant they'd been to a grammar school, since if your background was a comp, you said as much. The difference between grammar and comprehensive seemed larger than the difference between public school and grammar. But neither before nor since has it meant anything at all, if I said I'd been to a comprehensive.

So you can't say you went to a comprehensive, as if that conveyed something about you. It does no such thing. It may say something about other people, about the place where you have arrived. But in itself, it just says: I was ordinary. Not "I was poor", but "I was ordinary": and "ordinary" - provided you were from a county without grammars - meaning "in the ninety-odd per cent who didn't go to public school". Which included most of the middle class, the professional classes, whatever you chose to call them - kids with well-off parents, kids whose parents were anything but natural Labour. It also included a lot of poorer people, people who would have seen Labour as their natural ally, at least before Labour, pre-Corbyn, ceased to think the same of them. But both these sets of people went to the same schools. It wasn't education that divided them.

There's a question to be asked, about why people who once identified with Labour cease to do so. It might, though, be that there is nothing unusual about people who have done well for themselves, whose circumstances of life have changed, finding that the feelings in their gut have also changed. To say so is to make no judgement, other than the one made by experience - people become less leftwing as they get older, and all the more so if they move up socially. It's not a bad thing or a good thing, just a thing.

But it's about them, not about the school they went to - and the point of invoking the school is just another origins story, like those attached to US presidents, like almost any invocation of class in an aspirational society. It says "this is where I came from, and this is where I am". It says, implictly, "this is what I have achieved", and no less implicitly, "and so could you". And whether it wants to or not (and Jane Merrick really wants to) it says, also, "look at me".

But it doesn't say anything about comprehensive schools, because of what a comprehensive school is. Or was. Mine was: after I left they closed it down, or rather, closed the site and merged the school with the Catholic girls'. And after that

they burned it to the ground.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

An evening with Peter Hitchens

I had a Twitter ruck with Peter Hitchens on Friday night. Very small ruck. Nobody hurt. Quite peaceful for a Friday night.

He's a boorish guy, Hitchens, which is what surprised me, since he has a reputation for courtesy when expressing differences of opinion. Perhaps he's a nicer guy in a person than he is on the internet: most guys probably are. I'm certainly not.

It was his style of boorishness that interested me. Not abusive, but not quite condescending: just calling me stupid, without actually using the word. A very middle-class way of being obnoxious, quite suitably so for somebody who vests his hopes in the middle classes. Can't you read? says the highly-educated man to the shop assistant who has made a simple error, knowing very well that the shop assistant reads just as well as he does, but taking the opportunity to call him stupid and put him in his place.

There's something substantial to be written about sneering as a habit, about the sneer as a mode of address, though I don't suppose I'll ever be the one who writes it. The sneer's the way in which the educated speak of the uneducated, the insiders of the outsiders, the middle class of the lower ranks, the successful of the unsuccessful. Both of and to, in truth, though only to when the victim is in no position to retaliate. But that's the idea: to stress position. Speaking down to people affirms their status and your own. It expresses and insists on it. Why do I speak to you like this? I speak to you like this to show that you are not my equal.

The sneer loses its effect online. Online abuse is different: it seems to magnify itself in the absence of the physical person. But call somebody stupid online and you just look like you're playing in the playground - which is where the habit originates, in making the other kid feel small for not being one of your gang. (Or, perhaps, in having been made to feel small: the boy who was kicked is father to the man who does the kicking.). But that's not entirely fair, since it's as much an adult absurdity as a childish one: the pompous man losing his dignity, and losing it the more, the more he thinks he's keeping it. The customer calls the shop assistant stupid - but what if then, the shop assistant laughs and shrugs his shoulders?

It's a shame, since I'd have liked to see the conversation go where it was headed, before Peter started getting pinned down by his argument and lashing out to try and free himself. It would have been intriguing, at the very least, to see his argument develop, that gun rampages are best addressed by the death penalty (which the US has, and the UK does not) and can be linked to drug use (which is as common outside the US as it is within it). A hard position, in principle, to defend against reality.

But that's the nature of contrarianism, a combination of genuine insight and wild exaggerations-for-effect, and woe betide you if you point out that the contrarian is exaggerating for effect, since it's then that the screaming teenager reveals itself within. It's an immaturity that goes with the approach, since it's a sixth-form-debating style, getting away with what you can get away with rather than trying to tease out what is true. But if you do it right, and do it for the right people, you never need to change it. Nor do you ever need to change the person underneath.

It's half a farce to cast myself as the shop assistant in that story, though only half, since I have been a shop assistant, which I don't suppose that Peter Hitchens has. But I also have an education, academic and political, a lot like the one the young Peter Hitchens had. And I recognise this habit, the one of trying to look down on other people, of making other people feel small, not just in Peter Hitchens but also in myself. You have to be yourself, we say to one another, but you don't have to like it, and it's when we see ourselves in others that we like ourselves the least.

Well, education is no substitute for knowledge of yourself, and formal education doesn't help you get there. Perhaps the opposite: nothing is less likely to make you look at your own flaws than the knowledge of being successful, of having scored more highly in exams than other people, of having reached a higher status, of having achieved more success. These are things which lead you to compare yourself to other people, to their discredit and your own advantage, not to look within. Not to ask yourself the question - how do I treat other people?

But these are the things we value: not self-knowledge, but exam results, money, success. And money is no mirror to the people who have got it.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Angela's ashes

I went to see Rayo beat Sporting on Wednesday, as I happened to be working in Vallecas in the afternoon. I walked downhill to the ground and bought a ticket for the highest part of the north stand, intending to sit with the home fans but find myself instead in a mixed section with a preponderance of supporters from Gijón. I suppose the bloke in the ticket office thought I talked funny and couldn't be from round those parts. He wouldn't have been wrong.

I'd mostly hoped for a good view of the Fondo down to my right, which on my previous visit had been full of banners, political ones (what with Vallecas being a magnet to squatters, anarchist and radicals - DEMOCRACY, EXPROPRIATION AND EXECUTIONS, demanded one wall-slogan I went past on the way) and supporters bouncing up and down all evening. But this time they mostly sat, and the view in front of them was empty of banners. In one way or another I was disappointed, though not disappointed by the game, and still less disappointed by the view.

On the way to the ticket office I stopped, in a big concrete playground just behind the south stand, to read about Jonestown. I'd not planned the afternoon that way, but wandering the internet during a slow afternoon for sales, I'd come across an article on Vice which mentioned
the audio records made during the Jonestown massacre
and having never previously known that such a record existed, I went looking for a transcript. But just the transcript: I wouldn't have risked a deposit on my motives for reading it in the first place, but as for actually listening, Sean Munger's advice seemed wise at a time when a little bit of wisdom was what was needed.
I strongly suggest you don’t listen to it on a whim or just out of morbid curiosity. It may change you in ways you don't anticipate. It's not like a horror movie or after-the-face evidence of a massacre that took place in the past, like footage of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, horrifying as that is. This is the sound of 900 people dying, many of them children.
Better left for a better day, with a better reason, is what I thought.

I remember Jonestown, though only with vagueness, something that one heard on the radio in childhood and had no context in which to place it except that. I didn't know who Jim Jones was, could not have identified him in a photograph: nor did I know where Guyana was, could not have found it in an atlas without looking at the index.

Until Wednesday night I don't think I'd learned very much more than that, not unless I'd learned it and forgotten. So I hadn't realised, or it hadn't registered, that Jonestown was as much a political community as it was a religious one, that Jones had a long history in civil rights and anti-racist struggle, that he included the likes of Harvey Milk and Jerry Brown among his admirers. And I hadn't realised that they'd received messages of support over the radio from Angela Davis.

We shouldn't feel personal about historical figures, people who we never knew and who took their actions, for good or bad, without the slightest knowledge of us. And their reasons can't be ours: what they saw through their eyes was not what we see through ours. But still, we take a view on those who shape us, and one small thing that shaped me, not very long after Jonestown had happened, was finding If They Come In The Morning on the shelves in Stevenage Central Library, as randomly and serendipitously as, thirty-five years later, I would find the Jonestown transcript.

The theme of the book is, above all, the incarceration and the unjust treatment of America's black citizens by its police, judicial and penal system, published in 1971 and relevant today. It was one of my first introductions to the theme of injustice, just as, one imagines, the casual shooting of black citizens by American police, and their subsequent exoneration by the courts of justice and of white public opinion, could be to a teenager today. So when I was deciding for myself what I should be, what should guide me in my life and views and actions, one of the people who shaped me was Angela Davis. This was not her fault.

If you ask me about the struggle now, I am liable to say that life itself is a losing struggle. I might go on, if I am encouraged, to propose that among the risks any young radical is running is the risk of changing their mind in mid-life - and then spending the second half as a professional bore, making permanent war on one's former comrades and one's former self.

It is of course a first world luxury, to trouble oneself about bores instead of concentration camps, but for all that, may God save us from epiphanies and from the bores who have them. And let the god who watches over middle-aged men and their discontents preserve me, too, from ever having an epiphany - though if I were ever to have one, it might be Jonestown that sets it off, the massacre, the madness, the willing or unwilling suicide of nine hundred leftists with their children.

I wish Angela Davis had not spoken to the members of the temple, offering solidarity to a cause that shouldn't have existed. Or maybe what I really wish is that I didn't know that she had spoken. Either way and every way, I do not think that I will listen to that audio.