Wednesday, July 27, 2005

We Come In Peace....

Daphne: It makes me glad we don't have so many guns in England
Frasier: You don't need them. You've got steak and kidney pudding.

This is bad. Really, really bad. Bad on the "if this wasn't so really, really, really bad, it would actually be extremely funny" scale. One imagines Mr. Blair sitting down last Thursday and saying "Right, then: what's the worst thing we could possibly do? Well let's go for it! It's last thing anybody will be expecting!"

I'm not even sure if I ought to be writing this. P.C Plod has asked Tony for new powers to "suppress inappropriate internet usage". So of course, I'm checking back over my recent articles. There was that one where the words "Galloway" "Maybe" "Point" and "George" occurred in the same sentence. The one where I said "I can see how Johnny Muslim might be feeling a bit aggrieved, right now." And of course, the one where I said "Haven't we all, at one time or another, got on a train a blown ourselves to smithereens. Youthful high spirits, don't you know." So it's quite likely that, before I finish this piece, a british bobby on the beat will burst into house and shoot me. Through the head. Eight times.

If you come from Foreign, you'll probably find it strange that the English are still surprised when one of our bobbies on the beat shoot at someone. But we are. Our peelers are still generally unarmed. Most people from England have never seen a gun. The first time I went to Abroad when I was a kid, I literally couldn't believe that the French police had guns on their holsters. I couldn't take my eyes off them. I thought that kind of thing only happened in cowboy films. Hence the general sense of shock. This isn't America, where (I understand) primary school teacher carry shotguns and civil litigation is generally settled with pistols on mainstreet at high noon.

(It doesn't help that it happened at Stockwell. I didn't even know that Stockwell was a real place; I thought it was just a conceptual entity which existed in order for me to change branches of the Nothern Line.)

I'm not saying police should never have guns. No-one, apart from the Dali Lama doubts that there are some circumstance where the use of "lethal force" is the least worst option. I made a list of circumstances under which a British bobby on the beat might reasoanbly be expected to splatter someones brains over the platform.

I came up with the following list:

1: Someone presents such a serious and immediate danger to you, your fellow officer, or the public, that they have to be put completely out of action in the next five seconds.

An example of a "serious and immediate danager" might be "They are carrying a bomb, or you have good reason to think they are carrying bomb"

An example of a "good reason" would be "They are running down the street saying 'Look at me, I've got a bomb' ".

An example of "not a very good reason at all" would be "They are wearing an anorak of the sort that you could probably stuff a bomb down if you were the sort of person who went around with bombs stuffed down their anoraks."

Based on literally hours of painstaking research playing computer games, my understanding is that if someone is, say, brandishing a chainsaw or a shotgun, then there are ways of restraining them without being posthumous. Shooting them in the leg or the chest would probably do the trick. It's quite hard for an axe-wielding maniac to carry on wielding his axe if he he's preoccupied with the fact that blood is pouring out of his chest. But if you were planning to blow yourself to the Islamic equivilent of Kingdom-Come the fact that you are severely wounded won't necessarily stop you from lighting the blue touch paper. It might actually act as an insentive. So the English bobby on the beat can't afford to let his suspected suicide bomber so much as twitch. The only foolproof way to stop him detonating himself is to make sure that he is devoting one hundred per cent of his attention to some other activity e.g being dead.

But not everyone sees it like this. On Saturday morning, the tabloids were finding it hard to conceal their glee at the fact that a baddie having been killed. "One down, three to go" explained the "Daily Express", as if we were hunting down and summarily executing some sort of alien rodent. Shoot-to-kill wasn't a tactic in life-or-death situation; it was a declaration of war against terrorists in general. The only good terrorist is a bad terrorist, its easy to talk about the human rights of these scum but what about the human rights of the people who were blown up on the tube do you think if they took you hostage they'd give you a fair trial.

The reason that hanging was finally abolished in the 1950s was that the British public, who could deal with and I imagine quite enjoyed the idea of smalltime gangsters gurgling on the ends of pieces of rope, became squeamish about doing it to innocent people. The abolitionists didn't say "ritual strangulation doesn't seem very Chrisitan, does it, chaps?"; they said "Evans, Hanratty, Ellis, Bentley" as if that settled the argument; which, indeed, it did. It's rather impressive that the first beneficiary of this new fast-track capital punishment system should turn out to be a miscarriage of justice on a similar scale. Let's hope we can proceed directly to abolition, like we did last time.

All may be well, and all manner of things may be well. Maybe the british bobby on the beat had some intelligence...I'll rephrase that: maybe he had a very good reason, which we don't yet know but which will come out at the inquest, to think that the recepient of his target practice was about to let off a bomb. In that case we're in the realm of cock-up, not conspiracy. "Oh, did we say shoot the guy at number 23? We meant the guy at number 24. How incredibly embarassing." Accidents happen.

But the minute someone says "We knew he didn't have a bomb, but we thought he was a terrorist; and if he's a terrorist, then it doesn't matter very much if he has a bomb today – he's going to have one sooner or later, and the best thing to do is to liquidate him" -- the minute we go from "shooting to kill terrorists who are an immediate threat" to "shooting to kill terrorists" then things are really, really bad.

A fortnight ago, we had nothing more to fear than psychotic fundementalists with semtex in their rucksacks, and the web was full of inspirational pictures of chirpy Londoners telling the world that "We are not afraid." Now, the danger is from british bobbies on the beat with automatic pistols, who apparently believe that it is a truth universally accepted that a dark-skinned man in possession of a thick jacket must be in want of bullet through the head.

Speaking for myself, We Are Bloody Terrified.

This is, as I believe I mentioned, really, really bad. But in one respect, it could have been so much worse. If there was a million strong community of radical, militant Brazillians in this country; and if many of them already felt agrreived, alienated or marginalised -- where would we have been on Sunday morning?

Sunday, July 24, 2005

....because they never go all the way

On Saturday, I travelled on a train called "Doctor Who."

No, really: someone at Virgin Trains decided that it would be a wheeze if all their "Voyager" trains were named after famous "voyagers". There's one called "Charles Darwin" and one called "Marco Polo". (The "Voyager" trains are the ones with no space for luggage, toilets that don't work, and a buffet carriage which sells copies of the Da Vinci Code.)

There was even a little plaque in one of vestibules that gave a potted summary of "Doctor Who", taken out of one of the standard guide books. He's been on TV since 1963, has a TARDIS, left Gallifrey with his Grandaughter Susan, etc.

Unfortunatley, they seemed to have left a bit of text off the bottom. Presumably, it should have read:

"His TARDIS continuously breaks down, and he finds it impossible to predict what time he is going to arrive anywhere."

(I looked on the Virgin Website to try to find out the actual text of the plaque. It didn't have it, but it did inform me that they had planned a ceremony at Kennsington Olympia to give locomotive 221122 the name "Docotor Who", but, er, it had to be cancelled because it broke down at Three Bridges.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Fan Club

I balanced all, called all to mind
The years to come seemed waste of breath
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

I remember a Christian Union meeting. The preacher was a talking about miracles. In her church, they had them all the time. On one occasion, she'd been at the ladies prayer group and prayed for all sick folk in the community, and when she got home, she learned that husband's headache had been healed in that very hour.

She looked up from her notes, and admonished us like a very severe piano teacher.

"Do you think it is possible to be too fanatical a follower of Jesus?"

The students at the meeting seemed reluctant to commit themselves on this point.

"I said, do you think it is possible to be too fanatical about Jesus?"

Slightly more affirmative noise from the floor. No. Probably. Depends.

"No? Well I don't. I don't think it's possible to love Jesus too much, do you? Do you?"

I remember a Bible study group, four or five of us sitting on cushions in someone's college room, drinking mugs of nescafe and eating bourbons and reading from the New International Version (only ever the New International Version) a verse at a time. As we tried to distinguish our Elihus from our Bildads, I let slip that I doubted that Job was a real person; that I wondered whether real people would have made such long, erudite speeches; that I thought that what we were reading was pretty obviously a play. I don't think that any one argued with me or tried to refute me; certainly they didn't accuse me of heresy. It was more embarrassed, as if I'd farted in front of the vicar. I'd broken the rules of the game; said something you just don't say.

Weeks later, someone said: "I heard you didn't believe the Old Testament is the word of God?" I guess he must have known that there were crazy people like me in the world, but he seemed quite intrigued to talk to one face to face.

I learned hedge my theological bets; never voice skepticism out loud, never stray too far from the consensus. Don't argue about secondary issues. Theology can grind down your weaker brothers faith. Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down you're rocking the boat.

I remember a prayer meeting. The guitars were swaying more than usual. Someone said "Can I pray for you?" He laid his hands on my head. Several other people joined in. They started to pray inaudibly. The guitarists played another hymn, or more likely, the same hymn for the fifth time. Something was obviously expected of me, but I didn't know what. Some helpful soul tried to prompt me. "Perhaps you are hearing strange words in your head right now?" I wasn't. After the meeting, someone asked me how I felt. I said something involving in the word "blessing" and everyone went away satisfied.

I now understand that they had been trying to induce a shamanistic state called "baptism in the spirit", and that I ought to have either fainted ("slain in the spirit") or vocalised wildly ("speak in tongues"). I am pretty sure that if I had known the rules, I would have improvised some kind of babbling noise and afterwards convinced myself that I had indeed been possessed by the Holy Ghost. In an emotionally charged atmosphere, it's not easy to say "I didn't experience anything, and I don't have the remotest idea what you are talking about."

I remember going to a park, in the spring, with guitars, and sitting in a circle, and singing hymns and reading out of the Bible, and people with kids looking at us with good humored curiosity. I remember thinking about lions and sandals and roman centurions, and hippy Jesus freaks in caftans, and thinking "This feels good. This is the real thing."

And let's be honest, I also remember sitting in a dark room with cheap beer in plastic glasses, watching a bad black and white sci-fi movie and knowing that in some sacramental way, this defined us all us "geeks", and that we would not, for all the world, change places with those "mundanes" who didn't know their DS9 from their B5. All groups do it. You can easily spend all evening at a committee meeting, passing resolutions demanding soft paper in the loos and five minutes more lunch time, and go home believing that your in the vanguard of the proletariat revolution.

I remember visiting the headquarters of some missionary organisation, with tracts and slides shows and copies of the Bible in Chinese. They sent missionaries to live in communities where very obscure languages were spoken, with a view to produce a text of the Bible in the local tongue. Maybe some of you might become the next generation of missionaries, they said. "I don't even speak French", I explained. Oh, but you wouldn't have to. We are talking about languages that practically no-one speaks: you'd have to learn it from the ground up. Two of my friends were very moved by this. For the rest of their time at college, they were going to choose courses that would be useful to them as linguists. When they got their degrees, they were going to become Bible translating missionaries. They felt sure that this was what God was telling them.

Felt sure that this was what God was telling them. And for a second, I pictured myself – sandals, toga, caftan, guitar -- in some exotic village, living in a tent, wrestling alligators and exploring Inca temples by day and translating the Bible by night. A sense of Cosmic Purpose -- well, at any rate, a clear Narrative Structure for my life. What could be more important than bringing God's word to the Lost? But also a sense of escape. Decide today that I will I spend the rest of my life translating the Bible into Oompa-Loompa and I would never again have to worry about the careers center or job applications or revision and finals. A clear Path laid out before me, and one that God approved of.

Honestly, only for a second.

But it makes me wonder. What if we'd been having our Bible studies and prayer meetings and house parties in a some communist state (this was when there was still communism)? Suppose we'd been running the risk of being arrested for our Christian beliefs? Suppose we had had good reason to think of ourselves as outsiders, victim of prejudice, an underclass by virtue of our religion? Keep them yelling their devotion / but add a touch of hate at Rome."

Do you think it is possible to be too fanatical about Jesus? Well, do you?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Parliament was united against a common enemy yesterday, an enemy that will stop at nothing, that has only contempt for our way of life, and is utterly indifferent to our loathing. But as well as attacking George Galloway, MPs also had harsh words for the London bombers
Simon Hoggart

....It may be relevant to remember that only quite recently western foreign policy envisaged thermonuclear destruction of the entire human race rather than risk the spread of communism. Having quite happily countenanced that MAD idea myself - better dead than red - I feel bound in conscience at least to give today's extremists the benefit of the doubt.
Peregrine Worsthorne

Thursday, July 07, 2005

" He drove me to the Tower of London, more huge and terrifying than I'd imagined, like a sprawling medieval Alcatraz. We got there just at ten, so I could watch the guards lock the Tower gates. For all their flashy black-and-scarlet unforms, they are grim and frightening as they lock the gates to that dread prison with darkness closing in. You think of the young Elizabeth sitting somewhere beind the stone walls, wanting to write and ask Bloody Mary to have her beheaded with a sword instead of an axe.

' When the gates were locked the guatds marched back toward the huge iron Tower door. It rose to let them pass through, lowered and clanged shut behind them, and the light voice behind me said: "They haven't missed a night in seven hundred years".

' The mind boggles. Even going back only three hundred years, you think of London during the Great Fire, the Great Plague, the Cromwell Revolution, the Naploleonic Wars, the First World War, the Second World War

' "They locked the tower with this ceremony," I asked him "Every night, even during the Blitz?"

' "Oh yes," he said.

' Put that on Hitler's tombstone tell that to that great American patriot Wernher von Braun whose buzz bombs destryoed every fourth house in London.

' He drove me home and I tried to thank him..."

Helene Hanff "84 Charing Cross Road"
Grey city, stubbornly implanted,
Taken so for granted for a thousand years.
Stay, city; smokily enchanted,
Cradle of our memories and hopes and fears.
Every blitz your resistance toughening,
From the Ritz to the Anchor and Crown,
Nothing ever could override the pride of London Town.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Oh no!

Tony Blair looking smug. More racism than usual in the Sun and the Mail. Tony Blair looking smug. More traffic jams than usual in London. Tony Blair looking smug. Trains more crowded than usual (and they do so smell of shit.) Tony Blair looking smug. And everyone banging on and on about sport.

Think I'll leave the country. For eight years.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Site Admin


I've been in Barcelona for the last five days. The city, not the planet. All the dogs I saw definitely had noses.

I've changed the "settings" of this site to only accept comments from registered uses. It appears to be possible to create a blogger account in 12.5 seconds, and it doesn't generate any spam. (You could always claim that your e-mail accout was " I'll probably reset things back to normal in a week or two.