rooting around for grubs in diverse soils

Privacy in the time of Corona

southkorea‘History is bunk’ – so said Henry Ford, allegedly.

He was wrong.

Privacy is not ‘bunk’ either, but its debased currency in public policy debates certainly is.

The current unfolding catastrophe has the rights to privacy and data protection under siege (or in lockdown, if you prefer) because, of course, all problems in the world would be solved if only we could ditch those constraints on the use of others people’s personal data.

It’s now “privacy or combat the corona virus” just like – in our now forgotten world of a few weeks ago – it was “privacy, or AI-driven digital growth” and “privacy, or [insert the thing you want to do]”.

The allure of dualisms is their simplicity, a quality we sorely miss in real life. I got thinking about this when I saw this local parish bulletin by Michele Loi, which is well worth reading, and this excellent twitter thread initiated by Paul-Olivier Dehaye.  We are having these wearying discussions because privacy has become a proxy for digital regulation; because data is collected all the time and we don’t know why or for whose benefit. We do know, however, that there are a small handful of companies and governments with the power to collect and use the data at scale, and that they are scarcely to be trusted.

So now, with a global emergency, we have an opportunity to make the data work for the general good, to use it protect our fellow human beings against a devastating virus.

Noone is seriously questioning whether we should suspend an individual’s right to be left alone and to be treated with dignity. We live in society so that we can look after one another. Such caring can require intruding into someone’s intimate sphere – metaphorically and digitally speaking, and ironically at the same time as physical proximity becomes taboo.  We consent to the intrusions if we believe authorities in charge are democratically accountable for their actions, that certain rights and freedoms can be temporarily limited or even suspended when necessary, but that certain rights – to life and to dignity – are always held inviolable.

I would suggest that those who claim privacy stands in the way of saving human life fall into one of three categories:

a) the mischief-makers (they want to profit from the crisis and in process rid themselves of turbulent regulations),

b) the under-informed (this is no cardinal sin – the laws on digital privacy have become far more complicated than they should be), or

c) the blinkered legalists, who think that reverence for the prolix prescriptions of the GDPR outweighs the need to combat the most serious global emergency since 1945.

Whoever is pushing this proposition, it is a dangerous fallacy.

The way privacy has been written into law may be bunk, but privacy itself never has been, is not and never will be. So stop worrying about privacy. Start worrying about governance, the rule of law and democracy. Those are the key battlegrounds for life and liberty in these surreal times. COVID-19 is democracy’s test run for the true reckoning facing our species in the coming decades: global warming.

The Hours

Her words faded. So a rocket fades. Its sparks, having grazed their way into the night, surrender to it, dark descends, pours over the outlines of houses and towers: bleak hill-sides soften and fall in.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

Virginia Woolf was living in Rodmell, West Sussex when, on an early spring day during Britain’s darkest hour in 1941, she filled her overcoat with stones and threw herself into the nearby River Ouse. She was 59, and it was her third and successful attempt at suicide.

When I was young, I walked the South Downs Way from Winchester to Eastbourne, laden with tent, book and light wallet, an ancient thoroughfare over emerald hills dotted with round barrows and hill forts, a soft quilt laid on clay and chalk. On a sunny day the folds and creases of the Downs separate the variegated patchwork of the Sussex Weald from the twinkling English Channel. The South Downs Way crosses the Ouse at the village of Southease. This is where Woolf’s body washed up a few days after her disappearance. In high summer when I was there the river didn’t seem capacious enough to envelope and extinguish a human life, however despairing.

Last summer I read Woolf’s slim 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway. It rewards a swift reader able to take it in over a few sittings and be swept along in its rare currents – not the way I did: 15 precious minutes per day for several weeks, hunkering down in the toilet to evade mercurial toddlers and dyspeptic responsible adults. Woolf’s prose swoops and soars, the narrative voice a butterfly alighting from one of its multiple subjects to another, holding a microphone to their lonely thoughts.

It is one of the finest novels of the 20th century, and probably the finest to be set in London. ‘Fear no more’, the refrain in Clarissa’s mind echoes the heartbeat and the striking of the hours by Big Ben. (Henri Bergson’s theories of time were then in fashion.) The clocktower serves as the epicentre of the novel whose chimes in 1924 may still have been in earshot of each of its scenes forming an elliptic arc of narrative and geography – Westminster, Regents Park, The Strand.

The inevitable but still shocking climax is the suicide of poor, shellshocked Septimus Warren Smith. Unlike in Ulysses where Joyce eventually joins the paths of the two protagonists in the riotous brothel of the Circe episode, Woolf only once and fleetingly brings Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus together, and even then the one is unaware of the other. When she hears of his suicide she is initially put out that such unpleasantness should intrude on her party (‘with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on’). A short while later Clarissa seems attracted to the notion of oblivion that Septimus has now achieved, the lights going out at last.

I completed my reading while on holiday in Dębki, a Polish seaside resort on the eastern banks of the Piaśnica river as it empties into the Baltic Sea. The river formed the Polish-German border between the wars. A sign declaring ‘GRANICA’ in the severe, sinister font favoured during the period is still there on the northern bank of Lake Żarnowiec as a reminder, from which point the river resumes its course for another 10 kilometres before emptying into the sea. Here, one afternoon, my six-year-old and I rented a kayak adorned with a crocodile face and drifted downriver, weaving between other carefree holidaymakers, skirting the reed-beds in the company of dragonflies, pond skaters (or ‘water spiders’, as she called them) and the occasional swan. Later I returned to the place of embarkation to collect the bicycle. I cycled along an embankment as the sun sunk towards the horizon over hot empty fields. I pictured the uneasy peace in the area precisely 80 years ago, while Hitler and Stalin plotted their horrific double invasion and the Polish regime scrambled despairingly for international support. Within weeks the Nazis would launch their onslaught over that border. Poles undoubtedly had a sense of foreboding but noone could have predicted the scale of barbaric cruelty about to befall them. We kayaked downriver from the site of the first mass executions of Poles by the Nazis. Poland’s allies Britain and France sat on their hands.

Borders of the imagined communities of nations have shifted over the centuries in these parts like the sands along the duney northern European coastline. Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Russians, Belorussians and the neighbours have had their lives upended for centuries according to the vicissitudes of the ruling classes and their wars and marriages.

England knows nothing of this, though its immigrants and asylum seekers – those now ostracised by the xenophobia that at once fuels and is legitimised by Brexit – certainly do. Instead, the society rests on class distinctions that are the accumulation of a millennium of largely stable land ownership, insulation from revolutionary shock or foreign invasion (except for William of Orange’s invasion by invitation in 1688) and absence of population displacement. Such class distinctions explain Clarissa’s fey insouciance towards Septimus’s torment.

By contrast, in Septimus’s wife Rezia, Woolf depicts an unbearable loneliness where her vain words briefly illuminate and fade like sparks at night-time, reminders of the visible world that only proves its continued existence at daybreak: ‘at midnight, when all boundaries are lost, the country reverts to its ancient shape, as the Romans saw it.’

…she feared time itself … the dwindling of life; how year by year her share was sliced; how little the margin that remained was capable any longer of stretching, of absorbing, as in the youthful years, the colours, salts, tones of existence…

Clarissa, by contrast, is nonchalant, airy, too comfortable to be capable of empathy.  (Note Woolf’s sardonic interjection as the character’s recalls to mind an erstwhile kindred spirit: ‘If I ever have a moment (she will never have a moment) I shall go and see Sally at Ealing.’)

Historians are haunted by the spectre of the 1930s. In the novel, there is a chill augury in the scene of a band of boys with their guns marching up Whitehall.  Clarissa’s adolescent devotee, Peter Walsh, imagines them ‘as if one will worked legs and arms uniformly, and life, with its varieties, its irreticences, had been laid under a pavement of monuments and wreathes and drugged into a stiff yet staring corpse by discipline.’ The unspeakable cruelty of the Second World War began on the plains of central Europe while England filed its nails. Clarissa Dalloway, attractive, pampered, earnest and narcissistic, embodied her nation.

There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.


In memoriam to Clive James

On WH Auden’s ‘The Cultural Presupposition’.

‘Happy the hare at morning’ – is a fine beginning to a poem.  And the ‘rampant suffering suffocating jelly’ sounds like the sort of pointless insult Boris Johnson would fling at Jeremy Corbyn.

The poet surveys the inevitable decay and demise of all things. Art is humans flicking the bird at fate. ‘How comely are his places of refuge and the tabernacles of his peace’ – Auden parodies the Psalmist as an unsubtle reminder that religious paraphernalia are attributions of our own necessary comforts to an imagined Being – ‘The new books upon the morning table, the lawns and the afternoon terraces!’ (Yes, that couplet is plainly a Psalmodic pastiche.)

Then the poet takes a darker turn – most of his early poems are dark echoes and premonitions of war and cataclysm: ‘The galleries are full of music, the pianist is storming the/ keys, the great cellist is crucified over his instrument.’ Crucifixion returns us to Scriptures and the New Testaments horrific pivot, more horrifying still for the image of the ritual slaughter of someone on his very device of artistic diversion.

The final evocation of music as serving to drown out the cries of death, ‘that none may hear the ejaculations of the sentinels’ and the ‘sighs’ of the great mass of the expendable poor, ‘the thud of their falling bodies.’

‘Privacy 2030’, Giovanni Buttarelli’s ‘manifesto’

manifMy presentation of ‘Privacy 2030: A vision for Europe’ at IAPP Data Protection Congress, Brussels, 21 November 2019

What would Giovanni have said if he was still with us?

Well, first of all he would have noted that this event has coincided precisely with the
future-fictional setting of Bladerunner.

Now here we are, Brussels, 21 November 2019, and reports of imminent tech dystopia
are greatly exaggerated; at least in Belgium.

Shortly after Giovanni asked me to work for him, I would learn that there were three
moments in the now very congested privacy calendar where he would want to shake
things up, say something new – qualcosa di fico.

Two of these moments were IAPP moments: in springtime Washington DC around time
the cherry blossom briefly adorn the National Mall; and here in grey, soggy, autumnal
Brussels, when the people take refuge in cafes and strong dark beers.

Trevor Hughes and Omer Tene would always offer Giovanni a platform for his insights,
and it spoke to a deep mutual affection between them.

A year ago, he was here and announced his intention to publish a manifesto on the
future of privacy and digital society, looking beyond the GDPR.

So he would be grateful to the IAPP for publishing this week ‘Privacy 2030: A Vision for
Europe’, and to his seven eminent ‘fellow travellers’ – Omer, Maria Farrell, Malavika
Jayaram, Jules Polentsky, Rocco Panetta, Marc Rotenberg and Shoshana Zuboff – for
contributing their own reflections on the big theme.

He would have been moved that the first lecture in his memory would be delivered by
Commissioner – soon to be Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager.

There was a special chemistry between these two great thought leaders, though they
come from very different backgrounds, at opposite ends of Europe. It is clear that much
of what he believed in will be continued by her as she tackles the huge challenges ahead.

Giovanni’s three children Serena, Gianluca and Eleonora are with us today, and in their
charming company you sense their father’s calmness, lucidity and Sphinx-like
inscrutability, in this still traumatic period of coming to terms with such a loss.

Among the myriad Buttarelli awards, foundations and even meeting rooms being
proposed, it is Serena, Gianluca and Eleonora who will be the ultimate custodians of
their father’s legacy. And I want to thank them for their moral support in this project.

The manifesto is a meditation on the big challenges and a call to action.

It talks about the power of big companies and governments to do things with data and
technology. And it talks about the vulnerabilities of children, low paid workers,
migrants who have those things done to them.

It makes the link between digitisation and the environmental crisis. Our insatiable
enthusiasm for throwaway devices and generating more and more data is actually
increasing our carbon and biodiversity footprint precisely at the moment we are
supposed to be urgently reducing it.

It proposes ways the EU can empower people and address genuine social and
environmental problems.

It reflects what you could call ‘late style’ Buttarelli.

‘Late style’ in an artist is when she ‘constructs an alternative universe which somehow
helps us understood the world we live in now.’ If you read his blogposts, speeches and interviews over recent years, you see that
Giovanni wanted to call out things that were wrong.

But, at the same time, he retained a fervent pragmatic optimism for an alternative
future, and especially for the role of Europe in constructing it.
It may be the fate of most manifestos never to be implemented – but the good ones will
at least get people talking.

And indeed, the one instruction he gave me was to be provocative.
He warned that unless it made the cover of Time magazine, I would have failed and
could pack up my belongings and leave the building.
Well, Giovanni, if you’re listening it has not yet made Time magazine, though it has
featured in the latest MLEX data and security daily briefing. Baby steps.

So this is my last ghost-written tribute to Giovanni. And the best tribute I can offer him
is to help keep you talking about him long after he is gone.

I hope his manifesto will do just that.

Reading the ruins, or, Wait until we drop down dead

There are bad times just around the corner,
We can all look forward to despair,
It’s as clear as crystal
From Brooklyn Bridge to Bristol
That we can’t save Democracy
And we don’t much care.

The incessant heat and cloudless skies of this long summer have turned the dank and fickle Low Countries into the parched monotony of the Mezzogiorno. My Italian colleagues call this weather delizioso but it’s now conjuring the bleak prospect of the altered climate of our children’s generation.

The arseholes are in the ascendant, and the longer their arseholeyness prevails, the more inured we all become, a vortex of increasing susceptibility to ever more egregrious assaults on justice and dignity.  Trump brings his vitriolic demonisation of immigration and the free press to the gardens of Buckinghamshire and the British Prime Minister can do nothing but gurn and fawn. White supremacist Steve Bannon is given respectful attention on breakfast TV while an anti-Trump protester isn’t allowed to answer a string of aggressive questions. Essentially a Dickensian fraudster, Jacob Rees-Mogg gets daily airtime for being the living lanky parody of a stereotype. He erroneously cites an obscure chapter of English history to peddle the bullshit narrative of the UK being a ‘vassal’ state of the EU (King John, a French-dialect-speaking descendant of William of Normandy gave homage to the French him at Le Goulet with respect to his French territories – how the hell does that analogy work for a cack-handed Tory Brexit?).  The next journalist forced to interview him to boost ratings should be asking him to explore more the immediate historical precedents of the 1930s.

Trump, Bannon, Farage, Johnson, Rees Mogg, the Roma-baiting Matteo Salvini, and even Corbyn and his cult of followers, are all seemingly characters from a comic strip. But as they debase and further delegitimise politics they bring us closer to something resembling Fascism in the oldest democracies in the world. Fintan O’Toole, one of the best journalists chronicling our deepening malaise, wrote two weeks ago:  ‘Fascism does not need a majority – it typically comes to power with about 40 per cent support and then uses control and intimidation to consolidate that power. So it doesn’t matter if most people hate you, as long as your 40 per cent is fanatically committed.’

I heard this morning for the first time in a long time Noel Coward’s There are Bad Times Just Around the Corner. It made me laugh out loud with lines like

From Colwyn Bay to Kettering
They’re sobbing themselves to sleep
The shrieks and wails
In the Yorkshire dales
Have even depressed the sheep

I assumed it was composed in the 1930s as a flippant and witty presaging of World War II. In fact he first released it in 1952, so two years before the end of rationing and five before Harold Macmillan would say that most people had ‘never had it so good’. In any case, the lyrics reward regular revisiting.  (I will never forget Kenneth Tynan’s account in his memoirs of his chance encounter with Coward at a New York restaurant: ‘”Mr T,” he said crisply, “you are a cunt. Come and have dinner with me.”‘)

Lastly, a tribute to Croatia who dumped England out of the World Cup and now are all that stand between a tedious and cynical French team and la Gloire.   I was sat during Arsenal’s inaugural season at the Emirates Stadium just above the away fans during a Champions League tie with Dinamo Zagreb. The Croatian contingent sustained an apocalyptic din throughout the match, polar opposite to the cafe-latte-imbibers among the home crowd.  The people in my stand were largely silent and brooding, especially when Dinamo took a shock lead in the first half. Eventually when the Arsenal fans managed to muster a song, the travelling zealots turned to face us in unison and chant with admonishing fingers, ‘Ingleesh pussies! Ingleesh pussies’.

Such atavistic spirits could be harnessed to produce a surprising result this evening in Moscow.

Trump’s base base


Source: Barna Group 2013

“…and the driving is like the driving of Jehu the son of Nimshi; for he driveth furiously.” Second Book of Kings 9:20

Every day I wake up to notifications from across the Atlantic of some fresh wickedness perpetuated by the United States Administration, occupying the airwaves as the evening moved west across the plains and prairies of North America. This parade of shocking news has become relentless all because of the festering ego of one orange man of German descent.

History has become more like an almanac, a series of extraordinary headlines forming layer upon layer of quickly forgotten outrage. Today we have abducting children from their parents at the Mexican border, lying about crime in Germany, provoking China into a trade war, and flouncing out of the UN Human Rights Council.

We have forgotten for example the shooting in Parkland Florida and Trump’s weasel offering of “thoughts and prayers”. On the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme following the massacre there was an interview with Patrick Carolan from the Franciscan Action Network. Gun violence is a right to life issue, he said. Trump in fact doesn’t enjoy support of vast majority of Christians. Those who support him are Christian in name only. They are not following the teachings of Jesus. They are obsessed with abortion which is only one ‘right to life’ issue, and one which is clouded by complexity and other compelling rights, notably the right of a woman to be in control of her own body. Trump wins 81% of the white evangelical and most Roman Catholic votes. It is hypocritical for leaders to offer prayers and thoughts without action.

Carolan was echoing the Epistle of James which has become more relevant than ever to the millions of people who espouse Christianity but act like self-interested monads, who make it a tenet of faith to reject the theory of evolution yet subscribe in effect to a brutalist, unforgiving strain of social Darwinism. To say that whatever befalls you is God’s will is no different from saying that evolution, or unbridled ‘markets’, determine the way creatures must be.  The right to have a gun does not supersede the right to live free from fear of violence.   “Stop pretending you’re Christian and start acting Christian. Stop worrying about what Trump says. He has nothing to do with being Christian or person of faith. We are not a moral nation if we allow children to be shot. You are not acting as people of faith if you oppose gun control.”

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. James 2: 14-17.

A Pew Research poll in 2010 found that evangelicals were hardly more familiar than atheists with the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus. “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it,’’ was the conclusion in a 1989 study (The People’s Religion: American Faith in the 90’s, George Gallup, Jr. and Jim Castelli). In 2012, a Christian polling firm (whose chart is pasted above) found evangelicals accepted the attitudes and beliefs of the Pharisees more than those of Jesus.

These are the people who form the base of Trump’s support. Everything he does is calculated to ‘shore up the base’. This is a new alliance of convenience – they deserve one another. These putative Christians have their plenipotentiary in the pasty presence of Mike Pence, adoring and silent at the President’s side. Even if they balk at Trump’s moral decrepitude they lionise him as if he were a modern day Jehu, the psychopath anointed by the prophet Elisha to destroy the House of Ahab. If we are lucky Pence is Saul, before the Road to Damascus, looking on approvingly at the stoning of Christian martyrs.  But these are not lucky times.

What the Church and perhaps the whole world needs now is a new generation of fire-breathing prophets, scruffy, raw and unrelenting like their Old Testament predecessors, acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly before the Lord, to clear the Temple of its hypocrites, thieves and apologists for child abduction.



In the quest for the good life, just over a year ago I took a pledge, an open-ended vow of abstinence, a sabbatical from one of my irrational, unnecessary obsessions. Before then, Arsenal’s vicissitudes would punctuate my days, background noise to my own personal meanderings, successes, failure, pratfalls.

When dad took me occasionally to Highbury on Saturday afternoons London was an enigma. After the clunky slam-door train ride from East Croydon to Victoria, we would then be underground until surfacing at Finsbury Park or Arsenal tube station. Tunnelling through the cylindrical walkways between the lines at Green Park or Kings Cross, I was a chavvy narcissistic youth fascinated by the procession of posters advertising intellectually remote West End plays, films, exhibitions, a complex adult world apart from the mundanities of Croydon, that distillation of suburban anaemia.  Football was the only reason to venture into London’s maelstrom.

We would then retrace our steps, rolled up programme in hand, thinking of junk food, my father pressing the portable ‘wireless’ to his ears for the final scores.

Later, living in Hackney a few years before the beards took over, I would regularly pass road signs indicating places like Finsbury Park, Stoke Newington, Wood Green, Harringay. These formerly theoretical mysteries were now familiar thoroughfares where I would plot the fastest route to the next pint of real ale. A reliable bike and a steady job enabled me to de-mystify the city, a boozy metropolitan wayfarer.

I attained football consciousness just too late to have savoured Arsenal’s ecstatic cup final defeat of Manchester United in 1979. I remember reading in a hardback boys’ annual about the debacle of the 1979/1980 season when Arsenal were in line to win one or all of league, FA Cup (in the final against Second Division West Ham) and Cup Winners Cup (in the final against Valencia), or at the very least to have qualified for the following year’s UEFA competition. Arsenal blew it on every front, most spectacularly by getting smashed 5-nil at Middlesborough on the last day of the season.

‘And they were left with nothing,’ ended the review. That sad peroration has remained with me ever since.

After this failed revival of quondam glory, Arsenal entered the doldrums of mediocrity. Liam Brady, perhaps the club’s only almost-world class player, missed a penalty in the shoot out with Valencia and left the club for Juventus in the summer. That was precisely when I got hooked. Crystal Palace 2 Arsenal 2 was the first match I ever saw in the flesh, on Boxing Day 1980, the season after the multiple debacles. (I had to check the result just now. All these years I thought it had been a dreary 1-1.) Then we went to Highbury for another abject draw with Stoke. (That one was 1-1; I have verified.) I remember how big the players looked. David O’Leary seemed collosal though his stats, which I had memorised via the Panini sticker album, showed him not even 6’. (He measured 5’11’’). I assumed all football was stale and anticlimactic. So began the wilderness years. The cradle of the Boring Boring Arsenal epithet, which was reappropriated with smug irony by the North Bank during the free-scoring years and has been long since forgotten in the interminable era of late Wenger.

The years of trophy-less mediocrity dragged on, shorter but feeling a lot longer than the 10 years between Wengers 2004 ‘Invincibles’ and 2014 FA Cup. I remember the sullenless of the sports pages – losing, no score draws, never reaching the cup final. Time passes so slowly when you are young. Watching the Wrestling on World of Sport on ITV where the latest scores would appear at the bottom of the screen while ‘Giant Haystacks’ molested spindly race-object ‘Kid Chocolate’ until the latter’s tag partner ‘Big Daddy’ stepped in to restore justice. When I stayed with my aunt they only had the Sporting Life which never had any football, not even the scores. Such a cruel joke. It just didn’t make any sense. Then on Sundays the deflation of arriving at the newsagents too late in the day and the empty melamine bottom shelf.  Without football life seemed barren.

Anyway then there was George Graham and the final flowering of title-winning English youth – Adams, Rocastle, Thomas etc. and a whole industry of blokes and some women writing whimsically about Arsenal in the 80s and 90s. I won’t go on. The market is saturated. You don’t want to read another exercise in what EP Thompson, referring to the role of Methodism on industrialising Britain, called ‘psychic masturbation’. I have already had my self-entitled whinge about the interminable ‘lather, rinse, repeat’ cycle of Wenger since 2004. I charitably believe that Arsenal fans owe their collective status as insufferable bellends to this endless loop. True, there are some notable exceptions – Arseblog, Mo Farah, one or two others. The rest of us are 50 shades of embarrassment. Wenger and his philistine corporate sycophants have literally, the theory runs, driven Arsenal fans potty. Potty enough to have Arsenal Fan TV. Potty enough to commandeer aircraft to do flyovers with competing Wenger Out and In Arsene We Trust banners.  Potty enough to attack the infuriating but basically decent veteran Alsatian manager at Stoke railway station with the desperate plea ‘Get out while you can, Joel’ – as if Joel Campbell, one of Wenger’s most underwhelming little purchases, was the only one worth redeeming from the flames of Sodom.

Hence how, a few days after the elation of Arsenal’s unfancied defeat of recently-crowned champions and their recurring nemesis Chelsea, all turned to dust as it became clear that Wenger had no intention of retiring to his wine cellar, nor of buying lots of expensive new players.

To borrow the adage attributed to the Greek physician Galen, all Arsenal fans shortly after achieving orgasm descend into the pit of melancholy. (The quote – post coitum omne animal triste est sive gallus et mulier – excempts women and, spookily, the cock.)

So for the sake of my sanity I don’t bother watching their matches anymore. I am rewarded with a few extra hours of attention per week to devote to other more noble endeavours, like family, the arts or simply scratching my hole. The time dividend is less important however than the improved mental equilibrium that comes from not allowing your moods to be swayed by the antics of 11 men pursuing pig’s bladder across manicured sward.  I still follow the scores in real time, a bit like certain people (the Germans, apparently), enjoy inspecting their own shit and that of others.

Twenty years ago I found solace in a new label to express my religious leanings after my spiritual and social awakening. I called myself a Post-Evangelical, a term coined by David Tomlinson: someone who had come through that suffocating Pharisaic order but not so wounded and embittered as to need to depart altogether from Christianity and its profound spiritual riches.  Likewise I have alighted on a term when it comes to my footballing allegiances. I am now a post-Gooner.

Now with FIFA and Putin’s world cup next year and the next one built by slave labour in Qatar, Ronaldo’s waxed torso, Jose Mourinho, a Middle East autocracy owning a whole football club, and Chelsea in general, I don’t really know what football is for anyway.

Apart from actually playing it of course. One day I will be too old for that too. Now there, truly, madness lies.

On Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time.


Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time. An enduring series of digestible academia for the aspiring polymath too busy with career and kids to spend time in the Varsity.  Alexei Sayle has scoffed at the middle class chatterboxes religiously tuning in to the programme each week, and claiming sudden specialist expertise only for it to evaporate without trace by the time of the next episode.

Bragg, England’s most hyperactive and eclectic public intellectual, is aware of his own limitations, but impatient with those of his interlocutors. Each session indeed begins with a peremptory ‘hello’ followed by a breathless synopsis of the chosen theme. He disdains verbiage and tangents;  ‘I know, I know,’ would be a typical interjection, ‘but before we get to that I really want us to nail this thing down….’ If you listen to the programme as podcast, there is a ‘bonus’ segment where you get a slightly (only slightly) more relaxed review of what they could have but didn’t discuss, and they take a breather, may be have a giggle, talk all at once for a few seconds. But very soon the scholarly jousting resumes.

In one such bookend, the epilogue to the one on Kant’s Categorical Imperative, one of Melvyn’s keen eggheads did the equivalent of continuing a sprint after passing the finishing line. Here was John Callanan of King’s College, University of London going for  Gold:

Kant is attempting a scientific analysis of morality, he thinks he knows what it is to to be scientifically rational, it’s to find universal laws that dictate what must happen. And he thinks he can apply that to the realm of human behaviour and what ought to happen. That very project is one that is controversial in itself. Perhaps  reason is a more diverse phenomenon that what we think. It’s not simply a scientific model that might work for physics but does it work in the same way for human beings? Kant sometimes seems constrained by his appeal to universality – finding universal laws all the time. He tries to bend all the the moral phenomena into an analysis in those terms. And perhaps it points at the end of the day, if that project is impossible then perhaps the very idea of giving a scientific analysis is itself misguided.


Bragg: I think the producer is here.

Enter faintly a new, non-academic voice: Would anyone like tea or coffee?

Thus the heroic cerebral exertions of the Englishman attain their perennial reward.

O Rising Sun

O Oriens,
splendor lucis aeternae, et sol justitiae:
veni, et illumina sedentes in tenebris, et umbra mortis.

There is an enveloping mist on this Winter Solstice.

This morning I heard Leslie Griffiths describe how 21 December marks the fulcrum of Advent. The descent into darkest winter is complete, coldness and silence. We pivot imperceptible from darkness to light, from the minor to the major key, from the yearning Advent hymn of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel to the joyful O Come, Let Us Adore Him.

Light fades over Flanders and the earth begins a fresh renewal.

About Grenfell Tower

On Wednesday probably around one hundred human lives (they still haven’t said how many) were sacrificed on the altar of English extreme inequality. The religious analogy is appropriate: the idea that there is nonatural or moral limit to the potential disparity between decadent wealth and grim poverty is tantamount to a tenet of a faith which, apart perhaps from a brief moment around the end of World War II, has always been held to fast by the British state irrespective of its political colour. The richest council in the country, gluttoned on surplus revenues extracted from global billionaires stashing their mysterious assets in empty real estate in a city facing a perpetual housing crisis, chose to save money by using flammable materials in a Brutalist tower block inhabited by poor people including ethnic minorities and refugees. Theresa May’s Tories provide a convenient proxy for the nation’s collective culpability.

I did a day’s training as a fire warden many years ago. For most of the day we did theory, and the Grenfell Tower disaster has reminded me of the trainer’s sudden interjection, almost as an aside, that sprinklers were the one thing which will almost certainly stop you dying in a fire. After the theory, interspersed with many tea breaks (such is the life of a firefighter in between emergencies) we were rewarded with some controlled fire-dousing using ‘different extinguishing medias’ (see below). He brought us to the empty yard of 1 Queen Anne’s Gate, which had just been vacated by the Home Office pending arrival of builders to transform it into the headquarters of the expanding Department of Constitutional Affairs, the precursor to the Ministry of Justice.

Here are my notes from the day.

Key concepts

‘Backdraft’ – if you introduce oxygen to a room on fire, it becomes ‘entrained’ and combusts

‘Flashover’ – ­this occurs between 650º and 1000º. It’s only 3 minutes to pyrolysis.

‘Small incendiary device’ – a cigarette lighter

‘Different extinguishing medias” – fire extinguishers, blankets etc.

Main cause of fire in the work place

Arson – 46% of all fires. The English are particularly partial to this cause of fire. Culprits range from pyromaniacs, those doing it to make phony insurance claims, disgruntled employees, those suffering from hero-syndrome, to casual fire-setting chavs.

Electrical defects – 40%

‘Heat producing appliances’

Fire prevention tactics

Ensure premises are secure

Good housekeeping: a big pile of paper is an ‘opportunity’


Key quotes

“Is your building sprinklered? There has never been a fire death in a sprinklered building”

“People get over zealous with fire door stickers: they appear stuck on places which aren’t even doors.”

About the trainer

Wizened old fire hand. Nothing in the world of flames could surprise him – he has seen it all before. His North London voice bounces around with ‘facts n’ figures’ to instruct and entertain. To pack out the day’s training, he makes sure there are plenty of tea breaks. He speaks with sincere affection about tools and devices to combat the fiery menace. With a roll of the eyes and a wry smile, he refers to people who ‘helpfully prop open fire doors with extinguishers’


“We’ve just our ‘owse done” said a crumpled eastender from the Courts Service. Then she went into a bit of a coughing fit.

“You alright?”, the trainer, out of amused obligation, inquired.

Recovering, she slapped the shoulder of the hitherto silent young man sitting next to her, apparently a colleague. “That’s your fault!”

“Don’t you start again!” he replied.

“We’ll have to give you an abdominal thrust”, interjected a Liverpuldlian member of the class.

“You what?”

“I bet you can’t wait to get your hands on one of those extinguishers,” added the trainer.

“Shut up you tart.”

Avoiding death by fire, like avoiding human crushes at a football stadium, is not complicated if you can be bothered. After a year of rabid, McCarthyite vengefulness directed at the Other, the pendulum of public opinion is shifting back towards compassion and accountability, but it has come at an appalling cost.