Friday, July 27, 2007

Rachel Crosses The Line

Last night I came in from the pub and picked up Rachel North's book 'Out of the Tunnel'. It had been sitting next to the bed for a couple of weeks while I read some other rubbish (see other posts below). In point of fact, I had been putting off reading it because the subject matter seemed so dark in prospect.

But once I started reading it I found it impossible to stop and carried on into the wee hours. This morning I woke up and finished it. It is a trip to hell and back.

On the Seventh of July 1995 Rachel North got on a tube train to work. In a sense she's been trying to get home ever since. Horrifically raped by a passing stranger some years prior, she'd decided to tell her story to a magazine. She was reading her account of the attack when a bomb went off just down the carriage. This book is about her experiences and her recovery. It's also about the emergence of a radically different person, her attitudes changed and in possession of talents she hadn't known she possessed.

Here is the bombing in all its horror. The sudden darkness, the heat and the smoke. The foul taste, the blood and the filth. Here too the heroism of the ordinary people who rise above the carnage in the tunnel and reach out to help and support one another. There's the raw courage of emergency workers - the policeman who ran into the tunnel not knowing what had happened, telling his younger colleague to 'seal the station and report him missing' if he did not return.

And here is the crass and exploitative nature of some of my colleagues in journalism, whose behaviour I would not have completely believed had Rachel not written about it.

In this book Rachel crosses the line from normal life, where we kid ourselves we're in control, into the other place where it is more than clear that we are not the master of our destinies at all.
Here, extraordinary events shape your life in dire and unlooked for ways. On this side of the line you are not in charge. Loss and injury occur, often in a random way. What had seemed concrete will be disturbingly fragile, and your peace of mind, which you'd previously assumed was secure, will suddenly be lost. You will be angry. You will mourn fiercely. In this place you may not sleep. Horrific and powerful memories return, unbidden and unwanted.

In this book Rachel describes life on the other side, and her return to the rest of us. It's a book about gumption and backbone - she's a strong willed individual whose passion for life cannot be snuffed out. She's a different woman at the end, just as loving, but politically articulate and struggling for other people's rights as passionately as she struggled for survival in the darkness. She fights too for an official inquiry into the events of that morning; with the change of administration and the ending of the British presence in Iraq, she may get it.

Out of the Tunnel is an important book for everyone in my business to read. We have to understand that our unpopularity is sometimes well earned. Everyone else, and particularly those of us in dark tunnels of our own, will be able to read it and take heart from it.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

How 'Reality' Television Works

If you like those property shows on Channel Four (and I'm addicted to them), then you need to head over to Adrian Monck's blog and read this.

The Spin Doctor's Diary

Just to make sure I wasn't missing any kind of perspective on the lobby during Tony Blair's era I also got this more lightweight effort by Lance Price, a former colleague at the BBC who was headhunted by Labour just before their landslide win in 1997.

Lance is a nice bloke, but that place and time was no place for that breed of individual. Recruited by Campbell he has a little desk in a corridor outside Tony and Alastair's office. He is, to put it frankly, their bag man. If, in the days of the Spanish Inquisition Torquemada had appointed a cheery vicar to keep the pokers warm and carry the braziers, then this is the kind of diary he might have penned afterwards.

At first suffused by mission and purpose he slips all to easily into the trench warfare of rebuttal and counterspin. Each little story has to be dealt with by 'briefing' some partial truth or another to a matey hack, each day a 'trivial' headline which somehow Number 10 has to get the better of.
A serious man with real intelligence, Lance spends some of the book lambasting the media for their obsession with personality and trivia, then finds himself worrying about the presentation of a Prime Ministerial photo op with Westlife. Eventually the powers-that-be move him to the Labour HQ at Millbank to work with a virtually bankrupt party split down the middle between the friends of Gordon and everyone else.

Important decisions involving billions of pounds and people's lives are being taken, yet somehow this journal of an eyewitness close to events comes perilously close to Brian Rix farce. Prescott 'in a dreadful moment' is suprised without his trousers by our hero. Other ministers are stripped of their auras - Mo Mowlem, for example, is revealed as playing a weak hand badly in her dealings with Blair.

To be honest it's not bad, and Amazon are offering a good deal on it. But Campbell's memoir, for all its omissions and obvious rewriting after the fact, must now be ahead of the pack. Until Tony does his book, that is.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

When Did You Last See Your Father?

It's a painting by William Frederick Yeames (which hangs in Liverpools Walker Art Gallery), but currently it's also the title of a discussion thread running on Urban 75. It's evoked a lot of debate, and I was suprised at the number of people who simply don't speak to their parents, or have at best strained relationships with months going by without contact or communication.

I've never met my genetic father; he's just a blank space on a birth certificate. I've never traced him, or my genetic mother, since two loving parents are quite enough for anyone in my opinion.

My adoptive Dad and I get on very well and I last saw him two weeks ago when I took him to hospital for a cataract op.

He lives in Manchester, and is very ancient. Indeed he can remember when most of East Didsbury was fields, when his Dad had a farm there! Now it's a sprawling suburb.

I was driving him through it the other week and he said:
"I remember hoses snaking all over here"
We were just at a busy junction, and I'm like: "Wha..??"
"I got a weekend off and a lorry driver gave me a lift up from London to see my parents, but the Germans had been bombing."
He did in no way consider it alarming, merely memorable.

These days it's a national crisis when someone manages to set a jeep on fire and drive it into an airport arrivals building. It sounds like a massive cliche, but frankly, we don't know we're born, etc etc, wheel me off now please nurse it's time for my meds.

More Floods

The misery goes on - and now there IS a death toll. Three people have been killed, according to The Sun newspaper. The BBC has issued this guide to sorting out your property after its been underwater, which serves to bring home the extent of the misery.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Tragedy of Small Things

We've not been flooded (yet) but I know a bit about what people affected this week are experiencing. There's the smell, the ruination of carpets, decoration and furniture. The damp hangs around and the dirt constitites a potent health risk; it can take weeks for a house to be fit for inhabiting after it's been flooded.
But people I've met who've been through this are filled with a sense of loss for little things. Gifts from their closest relatives, photo albums, books.
Our possessions don't define us - we are not our sofas - but some kinds of belongings are rightly closer to our hearts than others, and losing them costs so much more.
Flooding is temporarily replacing crime as the middle class worry of choice. I was offered 'flood gates' by my friend the other day - she was costing them for her basement flat. Am I alone in going home at the end of the day and breathing a sigh of relief that no freak inundation has wiped out my ground floor?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Alastair's Diary

I only ever met him the once, while I was producing items for ITN's News at Ten. It was in Basildon during the election campaign in 1997, and he'd arrived prior to the Blairs to walk the course.
The electioneering event was being held in a theatre crammed with Labour activists and fans. It was a few days before the vote and everyone knew the Tories were finished; Major had just done a ridiculous press conference on Europe in which he'd plaintively asked his fellow Conservatives not to 'bind my hands'.

But the country was ready for a change and everyone in Basildon knew it that afternoon. There was intense excitement. Campbell was this tall figure with piercing eyes who came over to us as we sat there, and I was treated to an early dose of New Labour suspicion about media they didn't totally grip - a twenty questions routine of who we were and what we were doing, and all this time a slightly sneering tone and on my part an awareness that this guy let NOTHING past him whatever and even now, on the eve of an enormous victory, absolutely zero was being left to chance.

Here are, we're told, his diaries and if you're keen on politics at any level they're a great read. Blair spends most of his time tense and anxious. Campbell stalks around, sits in cabinet, and moans about how hard he's having to work and how little his wife appreciates his absences.
He doesn't get on with Cherie at first, then better as she realises how crucial he is. There's lots of colour about Cook, who gets a decent press, Mandelson who at one points attacks him physically.

Ironically it was spun that Gordon Brown was an absentee from this book, but he's here all along and while clearly much has been omitted about the rows and general fireworks, its more than clear that he was a trucculent conductor on the New Labour Government Bus.

Lots here about Northern Ireland, which is fascinating, and about how much help Clinton was in obtaining peace. Then the Two Towers fall and Campbell witnesses at first hand how quickly the world changes into a different place.

His mistake, candidly explored here, is to give in to anger and hate - even he appreciates he goes 'over the top' sometimes, and his attitude to the media is shocking; he literally hates the press en masse and eventually finds he can no longer brief them.

Gordon Brown has already signalled a move away from the media tactics of the Blair era but we'll see if it sticks. Whatever the flaws, it worked for Tony.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Beefy Barbecue

The Meat and Livestock Commission is being done away with, its duties being absorbed by some other quango. Farmers and others in their industry will miss it, and so will parliamentarians for whom the MLC barbecue is a massive highlight. I was invited by a great friend from the glamorous world of Public Affairs and so was able to sample some of the best sausages and steak in the UK, while admiring the beautiful Westminster surroundings.

I was also able to witness a speech by the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Hilary Benn, who shamelessly told the audience of hard core red meat producers that he was a vegetarian. He can't know what he's missing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

It's Still A Good Idea to Buy Your Home

I love Topcat's analysis on the excellent Urban 75 discussion board of the housing market which posits a 60% drop in prices followed by the rise of a right wing demagogue. We're in for a period of stagnant house prices and some misery in the job market, but there are factors working strongly against the boom + bust = fascist outlook for the UK.

Interest rates are now running at 5.75% and the Bank of England will jack them up in the autumn to 6%. But inflation has already begun to fall, and while this is a dishonest statistic which excludes housing costs, it is nevertheless the get-out the authorities need to stop increasing the pain and inducing a nasty slowdown.

Will we have a housing bust and terrifying recession as we had under Major in the early nineties? The situations are not equivalent, even though the country seems addicted to debt of all kinds, and is terribly exposed.

The eighties saw a housing boom as tax cuts and a half decent economy left people feeling cash rich and borrowing to buy their homes, which spiralled upwards in price as we're seeing today. And the decision by Nigel Lawson, Thatcher's key chancellor, to end double mortgage interest tax relief saw thousands climb on to the property ladder while they still had a chance before the measure came in. But a few months later interest rates were heading into the stratosphere - rising from 7% to 15%.

Thousands of people lost their jobs and then their homes (I met some of them and it makes me angry still), and many more faced negative equity - which in practice means being stuck where you are until inflation and economic recovery means you can move on.

So why not this time?

The decision by Gordon Brown - on Day 1 of the Labour government - to hand interest rate control to the Bank means sharp jerks on the economic steering wheel can't be made by politicians in response to falling poll numbers. It remains the best thing he's ever done. 6% will be as high as it gets. I remember a day when rates took off , rising several percent - people walked around the office I was working in saying: That's it, I've got to sell the house.

We won't be going there.

Except. As a country we've had a massive credit splurge, borrowing on masses of plastic to finance HDTVs, conservatories and the like. The saving to spend ratio is at its lowest since 1960. The BofE has to tread really carefully here it's true.

But Buy to Let people won't be throwing in the towel because something else has happened since the 1980's which means they can't. Those flats are the middle class replacement for pensions, the destruction of which is one of the less clever things Gordon Brown has presided over. They won't sell up - it would be suicidal - so no crash.

Sorry Topcat.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

More Bad News

Everything is bad for you, including life itself which as some sage remarked, kills you in the end.
But I choked on my museli this morning when I read that sausages give you cancer.
What's left?
Fortunately I've already accepted my invite to the Meat Marketing Board's barbie this week.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

A brush with the NHS

My dad is 88.

It is a great age and marvellous for us both that he's reached it, particularly since he's compus mentis, independent of mind and establishment, and enjoys a rather good quality of life on the quiet.

They took his driving licence away a couple of years ago on the grounds that his vision wasn't as it should be. He was furious - I was quietly relieved - although I admit I posted his protest letters to consultants and government ministers.

Recently though his vision was well off the mark, he was missing a bit when he poured the claret at dinner, and the time had come to get his cataracts done.

I drove up to Manchester to be with him this week, but I needn't have worried. He refused to allow me to park the car and come in to the city's eye hospital outpatients with him. I rang the ward a bit later and was told to come and retrieve him.

I parked the car in a big underground multi storey next to the ward and walked in unchallenged until I got to the ward entrance where I was told to wash my hands in gel - clearly big efforts being made to stamp out MRSA and the rest of the nasty bed bugs.

Inside I found my dad tucking into a large dinner and a cup of tea. A nurse appeared with a big plastic bag of eye drops and cotton wool and I had him home by the close of play. He reports his vision much improved.

Why is this remarkable? I have a feeling this is entirely unremarkable because the NHS, while clearly plagued with all sorts of problems, has nonethless had a great deal of money spent on it and is now in better shape than it was under the Tories. My hunch is that there are lots of unremarkable little stories like this, and one day they might add up to some sort of feel good factor for Labour. But if they do, it will be after they leave office.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Terror, an Iraqi perspective

Disturbing and fearsome though events here in the UK are, spare a thought for the denizens of Baghdad. Some 8000 Iraqi civilians have died so far this year according to the latest figures issued by the government; the figures are apparently dropping as a result of the US military surge.

The following is a translation of an email doing the rounds in Baghdad, which I've borrowed from the excellent Iraqslogger site. It's a satirical analysis of where's safe and where's dangerous. The writer apologises at the end 'for racing the electricity supply'. According to the author, the safest neighborhoods are the ones where the odds of staying alive are 50%:

The situation in different areas of Baghdad in regard to takfiri gangs of the new age: Al-Qaeda, the Mahdi Army, and their spiritual leaders – the forces of liberation.

fall into four different categories: safe, relatively safe, dangerous, and relatively dangerous. They are classified as follows:

- A safe area: where the probability of you staying alive is 50%.
- A relatively safe area: where the probability of you staying alive is 40%.
- A relatively dangerous area: where the probability of you staying alive is 30%.
- A dangerous area: where the probability of you staying alive is 20 to 10%.

Here we go:
- The Bayya’ garage, the periphery of Bayya’: No one can ever reach them because the Mahdi Army is randomly abducting people and killing them for what they say is in retaliation for the husseiniya bombing a week ago.
- Shu’la: No one can reach it.
- Thawra (Sadr City): No one can reach it.
- Sha’ab: No one can reach it.
- Amil: No one can reach it.
- Jami’a and Khadhraa’: No one can reach them because Al-Qaeda fled Amiriya and Yarmouk and took refuge there.
- Mishahda north of Baghdad: No one can reach it because of the presence of gangs that collectively burn people alive.
- Jadiriya is relatively safe.
- Karrada is relatively safe.
- Mansour is relatively safe.
- Harthiya is safe (because of the presence of Kurdish militias).
- Yarmouk is relatively safe.
- Amiriya is dangerous.
- Adhamiya is relatively dangerous (in some parts of it) but there are constant clashes.
- Kadhimiya is safe.
- Grai’at is relatively dangerous.
- Utaifiya is safe.
- Haifa Street is relatively dangerous.
- The highway that connects Amiriya with the Baghdad gate is relatively dangerous.
- Ghazaliya is relatively dangerous because of clashes.
- Iskan is safe.
- Alawi is relatively dangerous.
- The Suq Al-Arabi area is relatively safe.
- Dora is not under the authority of the Republic of Iraq. It is currently an Islamic emirate complete with its own Islamic departments and ministers. Islamic CDs have been distributed to residents to explain the laws of the emirate.
- Saidiya is dangerous.
- Camp is relatively safe.
- Baladiyyat is safe.
- Jisr Diyala is dangerous.
- Arasat is safe.
- Masbah is safe.
- Baghdad Al-Jedida is relatively safe.
- Jezirat Baghdad is dangerous.
- Abu Ghraib is relatively dangerous.
- Mashtal is relatively safe.
- Qadisiya is safe.
- Hurriya is dangerous.
- Dola’i is dangerous.
- Adil is dangerous.
- Zayouna is safe.
- Washash is relatively dangerous.
- Bab Al-Sharji is relatively dangerous.
- Sa’doun Street is relatively dangerous.
- Waziriya is relatively safe.
- The Mohammed Al-Qassim highway is relatively safe.
- Bab Al-Mu’adham is dangerous.
- Fadhl is dangerous.
- The Baghdad International Airport highway is relatively safe.
- Hutteen or Qudhat is relatively safe.
- Ma’moun is relatively safe.
- The Dora intersection is dangerous.
- Abu Nuwas Street is safe.
- The Baghdad-Ba’quba road is bloody dangerous.
- The Green Zone is safe, and sometimes it is dangerous.

I apologize if I left out any areas of our beloved Baghdad but I’m writing and racing with electricity at the same time.

As to Iraqi governorates:
- The north of Iraq is safe, except the Ninewa governorate, which is dangerous.
- The northern center governorates are relatively dangerous.
- The southern center governorates are relatively dangerous.
- The governorates of the south are safe, except for Diwaniya and Basrah, which are relatively dangerous.
- The west is relatively safe, except for the western highway , which is dangerous sometimes.
- The governorates of the east are all dangerous.