Monday, 29 December 2008

'The 39 Steps' (2008)

As anyone who has read this blog over the past couple of years will know despite my liberal politics I am enamoured with adventure novels of the 1910s-1930s. Partly in an age in which the individual has so little power against governments and those of wealth, I like to look back to stories in which a hero can alter things, though I recognise that even then, they probably had less power than the fictional characters wield. Having actually read many of them, I am aware when liberal critics are accurate in referring to the discrimination and misogyny in the stories and when they are lumping together very different authors and stories. One author I have particularly admired is John Buchan. I have read all of his Richard Hannay novels, and have seen all the film versions of the first and best known of the novels, 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' (1915).

The novel is readable online at:

The basic story of 'The Thirty-Nine Steps' is that Richard Hannay, a British mining engineer, brough up in Scotland, has returned to Britain in 1914 and rather bored with life is drawn into a conspiracy when a neighbour in the block of flats he is living in, Scudder, passes him information about an assassination attempt on the life of the Greek premier. Scudder hiding in Hannay's flat is murdered by German agents and Hannay has to flee when accused of the murder. Scudder's information takes him to South-West Scotland where he seeks out the German gang seeking to not only carry out the assassination but also uncover the plans of Britain's naval dispositions in the war the assassination is expected to trigger off. In the novel the thirty-nine steps are particular steps down to the sea at a location on the East coast of Britain where the spies plan to escape after the plot has been carried out.

There have been three film versions of the novel. All of them have a train journey from London to Scotland, a traitorous local professor and a pursuit over the Scottish countryside, plus Hannay having to stand in for a Liberal Party politician at a public meeting. In contrast to the novel, the movies as with the latest television dramatisation, have an element of romantic interest, often with the woman handcuffed or tied to Hannay. In 1935 there was the Alfred Hitchcock version in which Hannay is played by Robert Donat. The story is set in the contemporary period, which is only 21 years after the novel was set and of course with new tension between Britain and Germany. In this story the woman is Annabella Smith, a British spy who reveals German plans to steal the designs of a silent aircraft engine. In this movie 'The 39 Steps' are a group. There are striking features such as the use of an aircraft to chase Hannay (revived by Hitchcock for his 'North by Northwest' (1959)) and the traitor identifiable by his missing fingers which allows a very subtle revelation of what is going on when Hannay thinks he is safe but realises he has walked into the enemy's base in Scotland.

The Ralph Thomas 1959 version is really a remake of the 1935 movie rather than a new version of the novel. It is set in the contemporary period. This time the 'MacGuffin', to use the Hitchcockian phrase, is a ballistic missile called Boomerang. A woman rather than Scudder brings the information and is killed in his flat. In the Hitchcock version the traitor is Professor Jordan and in the Thomas version, Professor Logan. In both versions a stage performer, Mr. Memory plays a role, though in the latter version he is shot before he can reveal what the 39 Steps are. The 1959 version is admired, but I find it very weak, almost comical at times and lacking the suspense of other versions. The featuring of light comedy actors such as Sid James, and Kenneth More playing Hannay struggling to keep up with a cycling club reduce the tension greatly. Having a missile called 'Boomerang' is also comic as boomerangs are famous for coming back! In the 1935 and 1959 versions Hannay is handcuffed to the female lead and they spend a night in hotel together.

The 1978 version directed by Don Sharp returns to the novel. It is set in 1914. Given the increasingly exotic set-ups for Second World War movies that had developed by the 1970s, there was a brief erratic fad for returning to 1900s-1910s settings, such as 'Zeppelin' (1971) and 'The Riddle of the Sands' (1979). Anyway, in the 1978 movie Scudder is present but he is British (played by John Mills) rather than an anti-Semitic American as he is shown in the novel; his full name being Franklin P. Scudder. He is still a freelance agent (this is a necessary plot device, if he had been working for British intelligence directly he could have communicated what he knew immediately and directly) but much more pleasant than the man in the novel. Anyway, the plot in this movie, like the novel is that the Germans are plotting to assassinate the Greek premier Constantine Karolides (the real Greek prime minister October 1910-March 1915 was Eleftherios Kiriakou Venizelos who was the country's prime minister seven times between 1910-33). In the novel it is believed that such an assassination will lead to war between Germany and Russia which would be to the benefit of anarchists backed by Jewish financiers and disaffected members of the German nobility. In the movie, this complexity is left out and it is really seen as a replacement for the actual assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Bosnia in June 1914 which actually helped provoke the war.

The German agents are led by Sir Edmund Appleton who near the end of the movie disguises himself as Sir Walter Bullivant (a character appearing in a number of the Hannay novels but more in a spymaster than cabinet secretary type role) who is taking minutes at a inner Cabinet meeting about the naval dispositions. Of course we know now that Buchan was wrong to see anyone else bar the Kaiser and the German High Command as being keen on a war with Russia. As early as December 1912 between the Kaiser and his military advisors there were discussions about provoking a war following an assassination in the Balkans in the Summer of 1914 when the widening of the Kiel Canal would be completed so allowing Germany's heaviest gunned battleships to sail easily to the North Sea to oppose the British. To this extent, the Sharp movie was closer to the reality even than Buchan had been. While the Germans had hoped the British would stay out of the war, they were conscious from 1898 onwards that either at the time of war with Russia and France or sometime in the future they would have to fight the British at sea.

The Sharp movie has romantic interest in the form of Alex(andra) Mackenzie, an Englishwoman engaged to Scottish landowner David Hamilton on to whose land Hannay runs while being pursued across Scottish moors. Hamilton and Mackenzie help Hannay evade the Germans (well, they are specified as Prussians, though given that Prussia covered two-thirds of Germany at the time that is not overly specific) and Hamilton is killed as a result, leaving Hannay open to woo Mackenzie at the end of the movie. What is interesting is that in these movies it is the working class Scots, the shopkeepers, crofters, landladies, etc. who have Scottish accents and aside from Hamilton, the other upper class Scots shown seem to be English living in Scotland. The Sharp movie ends in London with Appleton seemingly got away with the naval plans and the bomb to blow up Karolides when he addresses the Houses of Lords and Commons concealed in Big Ben tower (Big Ben is the bell, not the clock) over the Houses of Parliament. Hannay ends up hanging off the arm of the clock to stop the bomb detonating and giving a very dramatic scene over London. This, no doubt, was done with an eye to the potential US audience for the movie. The scene is similar to the climax of the black comedy Will Hay movie 'My Learned Friend' (1943). While Hannay prevents the death of Karolides war is not averted, but capturing Appleton who is waiting disguised as a river policeman does stop the naval plans going to the Germans. In this movie the 39 steps are a set of steps in the Big Ben tower.

So, this brings me to the 2008 version which was shown on BBC1 last night, 28th December 2008, showing 20.00-21.30 GMT. There were efforts to shake off the Hitchcock influence. There were some elements such as the use of the aircraft by the treacherous Professor Fisher (very suitably played by Patrick Malahide), the fact that two of the characters, Sir George Sinclair (also a British traitor) and his niece Victoria Sinclair have photographic memories. Rather than missing fingers, one of the key German agents wears a distinctive signet ring on his little finger.

As with the 1935 and 1959 movies there is no assassination attempt just the Germans trying to get hold of intelligence on British naval dispositions, in this case through using Sir George Sinclair who is at the meeting of the National Defence Committee (NDC) which I imagine was based on the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) 1902-14 (permanent from 1904, subsumed by the War Council once war broke out) which co-ordinated the British Empire's defence plans but had no executive powers. Using the acronym CID in the programme would have led to confusion as this is the acronym for the police detective units, Criminal Investigation Department. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28th June 1914 is mentioned so the action takes place in that tense period of pressure being put on Serbia by Austria-Hungary that did not lead to war until the start of August. As with the other adaptations there is love interest, this time in the form of Victoria Sinclair (played by Lydia Leonard). She collars Hannay after he has been thrust on stage at a Liberal Party rally (in 1914 the Liberals had been in power since 1906 and would remain there ending in a coalition which fell in 1922). An election was scheduled for 1914 but did not come about due to the war. There is a similar scene in the 1978 movie. In this story Victoria's brother, Harry, is the local candidate, an Englishman seemingly accepted by the local Scots. Victoria puts herself forward as a suffragette (as opposed to the more numerous suffragists) who were the radicals willing to adopt civil disobedience and even vandalism and suicide as policies to win female votes. This may be because the word 'suffragette' is better known these days despite there being more 'suffragists' in the pre-1914 era.

Hannay and Victoria are handcuffed briefly by Fisher but Victoria releases them with her hairpin and they blast their way out of the oubliette of Fisher's castle. It later turns out that she is an agent of the Secret Service Bureau who has been put on to tailing Hannay when it becomes known he has Scudder's book that the Germans are seeking. Why Victoria was oblivious to the fact that her uncle who she sees regularly was a German traitor and he to the fact that she was a British agent does seem a bit of a weakness in the set up. However, the use of the term Secret Service Bureau is historically accurate. This was formed in March 1909 (or August or October, the reports are conflicting) prompted by the CID and this was what the British Security Service (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) grew. Captain Vernon Kell (known as 'K') who features in the programme (it wrongly had him in naval uniform whereas in fact he had been a staff captain in the South Staffordshire Regiment and fought during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900; he later rose to be a major-general) was in reality a founder of the Bureau along with naval Captain Mansfield Smith-Cumming ('C'). Kell served as Director General of MI5 from its foundation in 1914-42. The reference to 'The Weekly News' offering £10 for German spies that its readers could uncover was also factual. It is unlikely that given that by April 1914 the Bureau only had 14 staff that Victoria would be an agent. However, the Bureau did capture 20 German agents 1909-14. One could imagine with such small forces they would need freelance agents like Scudder. Hannay is said to have been in British intelligence in the Boer War which seems feasible as by the middle of that war the British Field Intelligence Department had 132 officers and employed thousands of agents of different races and women as well as men.

I am rather uncertain that it was as easy to ring up the Secret Service Bureau in 1914 as was shown in the programme. In those days, as shown, all calls went through a local exchange, you could not dial directly, so even accepting that Hannay has worked in intelligence and Victoria is an agent it would have been a challenge to get connected. When MI5's phone number (now 020 930 9000) was released for the first time in March 1998 it was said that it was the first time it had been given out. This number is for people who want to provide information about subversive groups, apparently it is not for people who want to join MI5 (for that write to Inquiries Desk at PO Box 3255, London SW1P 1AE; they are currently especially seeking people from ethnic minorities). When I met the Director General of MI5, Sir Stephen Lander, in the late 1990s he did say that at the time he had had 22,000 calls; in 2000 they started advertising in newspapers for recruits. MI5 does filter out crank calls and also people trying to apply, and so this number effectively works in the way that something like Crimestoppers does that people can ring up with information. I suppose even in 1914 they would not turn away such calls as Hannay and Victoria were trying to make even with the spy hysteria prevalent at the time.

The drama handled the tension of an unmarried man and woman spending the night together in 1914 well and much better than the rather light-hearted approach of the 1935 and 1959 movies. To some degree the revelation of Victoria's role sows doubt in viewer's mind (as for the character) whether any feelings for Hannay are genuine or part of the job. Of course the writer of the drama, Lizzie Mickery (who was a TV actress 1978-2000 and a screenwriter since 1989; she played a suffragette in the 1983 series 'Number 10') has to appeal to a far broader audience than Buchan ever had to. In fact more of her audience may have been female than male whereas in 1915 the bulk of Buchan's readers would have been men (though even he, in 'Mr. Standfast' (1919) has romantic interest in the form of nurse Mary Lymington). There is no climax over the Houses of Parliament, partly because the assassination element has gone. Instead the vital meeting of the 'NCD' is at Stirling Castle in central Scotland, which not only makes a picturesque backdrop but also makes sense if the German operation is being run in Scotland. In the programme the 39 Steps are a staircase leading from Fisher's castle through the rock to a sea loch in which a German U-boat emerges to transport away Fisher, Sinclair and the German agents. This seems to be a logical conclusion to the story and allows a dramatic gunfight, with Victoria blasting away and Hannay plunging in to wrestle Sinclair. The emergence of the submarine even for a modern audience is a moment of suspense. The apparent death of Victoria and then the revelation that she has survived work pretty well, though the scene four months later, i.e. October 1914, when Victoria reappears, with Hannay and Harry Sinclair both at Charing Cross awaiting shipment to the Continent, does seem rather tacked on

You feel that Mickery has been influenced by the movie 'Enigma' (2001). Victoria Sinclair seems like a combination of Kate Winslet's intelligent, sparky, practical Hester and the more glamorous Claire played by Saffron Burrows who in fact is a British counter-spy with her own agenda. At the end of 'Enigma' with the hero Thomas now married to Hester he sees the supposedly dead Claire (she, like Victoria has supposedly drowned) walking through Trafalgar Square (which abuts Charing Cross railway station). The climax of that movie is Thomas trying to prevent the traitor 'Puck' boarding a German submarine in a remote northern location too. I suppose the logistics of the revised story would lead Mickery in this direction and it might be intentional as 'Enigma' was a well known wartime movie set in the UK with similar themes of treachery and weakening the British war effort through revealing secrets. Mickery also seems to have been aware of the 'Hannay' series of 1988-9 which ran to 13 episodes over two seasons and featured Robert Powell reprising the role from the 1978 movie. These stories are set in 1912 (with Gavin Richards probably doing his best TV role as Hannay's German nemesis Count von Schwabing in 4 episodes) and one in the first series sees 'The Fellowship of the Black Stone' (the Black Stone is the spy ring in the original novel) involves Hannay preventing German agents spying on the British fleet at Scarpa Flow and in the second series in 'The Terror of the Earth' Hannay charges around the countryside with a Swedish female scientist, Kirsten Larssen (played by the ever excellent Alex Kingston) who comes over very much like Victoria Sinclair (as do a number of other women in the series, such as Lady Madrigal Fitzjames played by Geraldine Alexander in the episode 'A Point of Honour' in which her and Hannay as in this recent story, have to pretend to be a married couple and share a bed).

I have rather neglected the heroes of the different movies. The worst I feel is Kenneth More (1914-82), not because he was a poor actor but because he was miscast in the role. He does not have that effete manner necessary to play Hannay. The character combines being a 'clubland hero' with a practical side and More seems to have insufficient of either of those characteristics. Donat and Powell are far better cast. Robert Donat (1905-58) is more of the man about town and Robert Powell (born 1944) looks more like the man who has been a mining engineer and a wartime intelligence agent. Their respective ages playing the roles are 30, 45 and 34 (and 44-5 when Powell was in the television series). The latest actor is Rupert Penry-Jones (born 1970), whose actual name sounds like a character from a Buchan novel. He appeared in the drama about MI5, 'Spooks' 2004-8. Though he is now 38 he easily looks ten years younger than that and that is an issue. If he had been an intelligence agent in the Boer War (1899-1902) it is feasible to have a man who would have been 23-26 in that role, but Penry-Jones as Hannay looks like he would have been 16 when the Boer War finished. That is not the actor's fault. It does go to the issue of casting period dramas and why so many British actors appear in US series because they physically look like someone who could have been around in 1914 or 1812 or whenever, whereas American actors look too well fed and samey. He plays the man about town part role well; he was good with the encounters with Victoria and can act the gentleman well enough but somehow lacks the grit when on the moors. However, this may be an issue around interpretation of the Hannay character.

Just to finish off. Casting Eddie Marsan as Scudder is interesting. Mills looked rather like a gentleman painter, but Marsan with his East End background has often played criminal or characters on the margins of society. He seemed well cast for the rather furtive role of a freelance spy. The other thing was the biplane. Penry-Jones wanted to be pursued by one over the moors like Cary Grant in 'North by Northwest', but it did lead to anachronism as he is pursued by a 1916 biplane, acceptable given there were biplanes but twin machine guns firing through the propellor which was introduced to Fokker EI-IIIs in the Summer of 1915 with a synchronising gear. I know the Germans had been working on it since 1914 but anyone having a working model then would have become immediately supreme in the air when war broke out. Perhaps it is Professor Fisher's own invention or a prototype that the Germans were inventing. Having the pilot fire with a pistol (presumably an automatic like the other German agents are shown wielding in wide variety).

Overall, aside from some minor details and the difficulty of killing then resurrecting Victoria Sinclair and the issues of her relationship with her uncle, I enjoyed the programme and liked the efforts to set it in the correct time. It would be nice to see some of the other original Hannay stories made into programmes. They are quite short so easily adaptable for a one-off drama of 90 minutes. Not all are as gripping as 'The Thirty Nine Steps', but 'Greenmantle' with its Middle Eastern setting and the more low key 'The Three Hostages' might be interesting.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Demise of Woolworths

There are some companies in the British high street that seem to have been there forever. If you got swept up in a kind of 'Life on Mars' style experience and found yourself back in 1973 they would be there just as they are today. The damage caused to the British economy in the 1980s purged many established stores from British shopping centres and the fact that the average British company will last no longer than 40 years means there are very few of these companies, but some do remain. The ones that are still there are Boots the Chemists, WH Smith and Marks & Spencer. The supermarket chains Co-op, Tesco and Sainsbury also remain though they have become very different from what they were before, Asda, Morrisons, Somerfield, Waitrose, Lidl, Aldi are all relative or actual newcomers. The one that will be missing from so many streets in the UK after today is Woolworths stores ('Woolies' as it was often affectionately called). To some degree this is unsurprising.

When people are asked to define what it sells they end up giving quite an eclectic mix. WH Smith has faced a very similar difficulty. The average branch of Woolworths in the UK (it was a US company started in 1879; the first branch in the UK opened in 1909 in Liverpool) sells small electrical goods, DVDs, CDs, garden items, some decorating goods, books, children's toys, children's clothes, haberdashery and sweets. The key problem for them is now that supermarkets sell all this kind of stuff whereas once they were much more restricted to food and cleaning items. France never had places like Woolworths because all the things they sold would be available in hypermarkets. Now that British supermarkets often resemble hypermarkets it is unsurprising that the ground has been cut from beneath them.

The other key problem for Woolworths despite their efforts over the years is that despite their efforts over the years, they seem terribly old fashioned. However much they tried to make it look dynamic, the layouts and the products sold never changed radically. In those days of my youth when electrical items were sold without plugs Woolworths was always the place to get a plug. They are the store that sold all those awkward but essential items, and perhaps these days that is insufficient basis for running a store. This reassuring continuity was welcome but it hardly made them appear dynamic.

Woolworths longevity was also partly a problem because they have been around so long and all of us remember them as they were in our youth and all the baggage that brings with us. In contrast there is minimal similarity between the first tiny Tescos I went into and a modern day branch whether a Tesco Extra hypermarket or a Tesco Local convenience store. In contrast there are no out-of-town super-Woolworths. Even WH Smiths has managed to pull this off in some locations having cafes in them and hitching themselves to the kind of lounge-around style common in bookshops these days, though with the advantage of a slightly wider range of products which make them more family- rather than young professional-, friendly. Woolworths are still in the high street and predominantly in working and lower middle class districts, naturally supplying those people who lack the time, money or vehicles to reach out-of-town facilities. In this age when everyone in the UK is supposed to be middle class, that is a difficult demographic to be addressing.

The immediate issue is that 800 stores employing 25,000 will close in the UK. There will be suddenly a boarded-up space in many high streets and a sudden injection into the unemployment figures just before Christmas. In the long-run, I think people will severely miss Woolworths. I thought back over how many items I had bought from my local branch this year and it added up to a whole slew of lego, probably a dozen garden plants and an assortment of garden equipment, a clock, about five DVDs. Now many of these things I could probably buy elsewhere but it will be far harder to get them without getting in a car. For older and poorer people than me it is going to be even harder. Pound shops with their ever changing stock are not going to replace the consistency of Woolworths and many children are going to miss out on being able to buy their first watch or just get some lego to cheer up a dull Saturday now Woolworths is gone.

I mourn the loss of yet more jobs in the UK, but I also acknowledge I mourn too, the passing of something that has been there all my life and a company which I have interacted with on countless occasions. Woolworths is not like the departure of Peter Lord or Freeman Hardy & Willis as there were always other shoe shops, there is nothing else like Woolworths, which is part of its problem, but also means it is irreplaceable and a characteristic of all the towns I have ever lived in will be gone forever.

P.P. 29/12/2008 - I have to confess that I am not a person who regularly reads the financial pages of the newspapers, though perhaps we all need to these days to see how big business is playing with our lives. Over the Christmas period someone pointed out to me that the UK Woolworths did not collapse because of poor sales and in fact in April 2005 when it was taken over it was returning a profit of £109 million. What killed it was the control that was taken by Elliott Associates a hedge fund (one of the oldest, being in existence since 1977) though due to its behaviour known as a 'vulture fund'. Basically it is an asset stripping company that buys up companies or even economies of countries (as it did with Peru in 1996) when people do not want to chase after debt repayments, then sues the company or economy for full repayment, so making a profit. In 1996 it bought the debts of Peru for £6.1 million which were worth $20.7 million (so equivalent to £9.02 million, but the exchange rate has shifted back and forth loads since then) and almost bankrupted the whole company. After a failed takeover bid failed, which would have earned Elliott Associates millions, they tried to get Woolworths to break up and return money to shareholders like them. Woolworths has had various debts piled upon it, leaving it with £129 million debt earlier this year. It has been the plaything of wealthy people since at least 2005. Its largest shareholder Ardeshir Naghshineh, held 10.2% encouraged it to ignore takeover offers until it was too late. Like all of us Woolworths became a football in financiers' games. These are people who never go anywhere near a UK high street and have never had to buy lego from a branch of Woolworths. They do nothing except drain companies to death just to earn millions more as their carcasses are ripped up. They do not have to worry about their jobs or a disused shop in their districts. These people can be seen as evil, but it is not even that sophisticated, they cannot see any further than the vast sums of money they make and how they can achieve that not by making or selling anything but through ripping apart other people's businesses. It is people like this who have smashed the profitability that has been so prevalent over the past two decades and are now condemning millions of us to unemployment and loss of our homes, just to satiate their greed. Woolworths proved to be yet another of their victims. The seven year old in my house today asked when Boots and WH Smith were going to go from our high street and honestly I told him, probably very soon. Greed was never 'good' and its consequences are terrible.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Ranking People's Religious Faith

Britain has a long history of pressuring people to behave in a certain way in terms of religion, from the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 until 1656. Fines were introduced in 1559 for anyone who failed to attend church. Until 1793 Catholics were not allowed to vote in Britain and until 1829 could not become members of parliament; a Catholic still cannot become monarch in Britain. Up until 1689 Nonconformists, i.e. Protestants outside the Church of England, could not worship in their own buildings. In the 1944 Education Act the only compulsory subject in British schools was Religious Education and that did not change until the National Curriculum was introduced in 1988.

Now the main area in which we are seeing the segregation of the population in the UK of the 2000s is in terms of education and this stems from the rapid growth of faith schools since Tony Blair first came to power in 1997. Blair had a personal interest in expanding faith schools and he found support among middle class parents who favour segregation in schooling. In the UK faith schools almost died out in 1904 when they ran out of money and it was only state intervention then that allowed any to survive and from this basis to expand rapidly in the 1990s and 2000s. It is correct that all faiths in the UK have the same rights in this field and that the Church of England (4,646 schools in 2006) and the Catholic Church (2,041) no longer have the ability to create faith alone and that Jewish (37), Muslim (8), Hindu (0) and Sikh (2) schools are appearing. However, there are tensions that the increase of faith schools are provoking. The issue for non-Christian schools has been generally on the curriculum and ensuring that it covers what is now expected to be taught in terms of 'citizenship' in the UK. In terms of the Christian schools the biggest issue is admissions.

It soon became apparent to the Christian churches that with the increase in faith schools they had gained a powerful tool. Middle class parents want schools which have selective admissions and faith schools generally are selective. In theory this is on the basis of faith, but as some religious families with children with special needs have learned, that faith is not always enough. There is also a tendency in the UK for certain classes of people to adhere to certain denominations of church and the Church of England congregation is far more middle class in make-up than say the Baptist congregation. British education since the late 1980s has been increasingly divided, the government website on types of schools lists the following types, just in the state sector: Mainstream state schools, Community schools, Foundation schools, Trust schools, Voluntary-aided schools (which includes some faith schools), Voluntary-controlled schools, Specialist schools, Academies, City Technology Colleges, Faith schools, Grammar schools and Maintained boarding schools. In addition their are privately run schools.

By increasing faith schools you have increased the schools which have selective entrance. All schools with selective entrance achieve higher grades and this is something that all parents want. Thus, we have got into the situation in which parents may emphasise their (or adopt a) religion in order to get their child into a local faith school. This has been stimulated by the neglect of the mainstream state schools which have lost out as funds have flown towards all these other types of schools. If most comprehensive schools were better funded then there would be less pressure on these other schools and all that has followed in its wake.

Given the rise in demand the churches have realised they can pressure parents to behave in a more religious manner. This has led to registers being kept at services to make sure that parents are turning up, the implied threat being that if they fail to do so, their child will be removed from the school. There has been very vocal criticism of parents 'faking' their faith in order to get a child into a school and you see clergymen on the television berating parents who do this. However, this approach shows how debased how much of the Church of England and Catholic Church has become in the UK. Unable to win congregations by their arguments or relevance to the modern world, they are now using selective education as both the carrot and the stick to press people into attending church. In addition it is not just any church, but particular parish churches. This has been going on now for almost twenty years. I witnessed it in the town where my parents live where a particular church which sat next to a mainstream comprehensive school over the years filled the board of governors with its members until the time came when they had a majority to suddenly change the school into a faith school, with the priority not simply given to Church of England members but to the parishoners of the particular church. Anyone not a Christian or not attending that particular church suddenly found their child could no longer attend the school. In my home town there are three Church of England churches within walking distance of each other and yet only one is tied to a school which it is in fact not very close to. This church as yet has not started keeping registers, but if it did, you can imagine the impact on attendance at the other two churches. This is not healthy for the community or the Church of England itself.

I do not usually put much store by what David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, says but I did appreciate it when in January 2008 he said he could entirely appreciate parents wanting their best for their children and so 'faking' their faith if that meant gaining access to a particular school. The thing is, in the light of such behaviour, some churches are going even further. The BBC highlighted this week how they are not simply expecting attendance at church services , but if parents do not arrange the flowers in the church or do a reading or take a Sunday school sessioon they are deemed 'not religious enough' with the penalty of their child being excluded from the school. This is madness. There are not enough jobs in a church to allow all parents to do them anyway. Christianity in the past century has not attempted to measure the level of commitment, generally participation has been sufficient, but clearly church zealots are pushing it further. This leads to terrible intolerance. They will not accept parishoners from other districts so are they any less religious? It is not only 'be an Anglican', but 'be an Anglican who attends St. X Church and who reads every Sunday'.

What about children who have parents who are from different denominations? Under such rules they may have one Anglican and one Catholic parent (just like the Tony and Cherie Blair) and be barred from attending either faith school. In addition, there is an all too easy assumption that the faith and level of faith of the parents will be exactly reflected in the child. In my house the 7-year old is the most strongly Christian person in the house in practice as well as thought.

As the Runnymede Trust report this week highlighted, faith schools and their associated churches are leading the way in breeding intolerance and division in our society. Their policies are getting harsher and they are not addressing the fact that people can even follow their faith but without the exact details being required and so are being shut off from the best school in an area. What does that say about the churches involved? There is no 'suffer little children to come unto me', there is 'suffer little children to come unto me, only if their parents are of the same denomination, come every Sunday to this particular church and are involved in a range of duties'. An elitist system is being created. Like Hitler who said 'I decide who is a Jew' many Anglican and Catholic churches are sifting among even the faithful and deciding who is 'worthy' to be permitted into their schools. This may seem like access into Heaven, but if you consider it it is hardly Christian. This whole issue shows the return of religious intolerance on an amazingly parochial basis unmatched in centuries.

British education is in a ridiculous mess. Comprehensive education has effectively been replaced by selective education which cuts off so many people from achieving all that they can. Selection needs to be challenged. I would ban all faith schools as done in France and say that religion stays in the church/chapel/meeting house/synagogue/mosque/temple and education focuses on bringing out the best in all children with an awareness of how humans should behave. To cajole people into attending church and behaving in a particular way in order to win the prize of a decent (not even an excellent) education for their children is too reminiscent of the churches of the 15th century rather than the 21st century. It causes division within denominations even within single towns and particular districts and that is not healthy for any religion.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Persecuting Students

As I travel around the South of England and elsewhere in the UK I pick up odd local leaflets and I came across one this week which fitted in with attitudes I have been picking up in a number of towns. I noticed it a couple of years ago in Southampton when the council started complaining about the number of streets that had students living in them. With 36,000 students in total at the city's two universities with in a total population of 217,000 people in the city at the last census in 2001, it is not surprising that students are prominent. University student numbers have rocketed since the 1990s with the government aiming to have 50% of 18 year olds in nay year attending university. There are currently 800,000 people who are 18 this year, which means the objective is 400,000 university students each year. Given that most undergraduate courses last 3 years, that means potentially 1.2 million students just doing undergraduate degrees at one time. This level is being reached with 451,000 students starting undergraduate courses in 2008 plus 13,000 student nurses, though of the total number of undergraduate students from outside the EU was 240,000 so possibly 50-60,000 new non-EU students each year as many of them go on to postgraduate courses or research. Anyway, we have hundreds of thousands of students in the UK and the level is likely to increase. After a small dip in 2006-7 recruitment has picked up again. The government policy is to encourage and sustain such levels.

Of course the population in towns seem to want anything different. The only city I have visited that seemed to like the money students bring in is Portsmouth which reckoned their parents visiting alone broung £26 million to the city which only has one university with 19,000 students of whom 3,000 are from overseas. It seems to every other town I visit students are loathed and are seen as mucking up the supposed local community feel of towns. Of course, in fact through stimulating hatred they create a negative integration of the community which ranks up against them. This was clearly expressed in the leaflet I saw. It did not ask if you had 'student problems' it simply stated that you did in this area and that they were reducing the value of your property. It then gave a whole long list of people to telephone in order to harrass students, though it whined that the police were pretty powerless. Clearly the author of the leaflet who gives his name sees all students as bad and needing constant harrassment.

I accept that there are noisy students, but they are the minority. There are also very noisy families, noisy elderly people, noisy single working men and women. Interestingly a lot of the problems the leaflets says are cause by students are: wheely bins on the pavement, overgrown hedges, cars on the pavement and 'To Let' signs are actually problems caused by all sorts of people. Many students do not have cars and in most of the streets I drive down the bulk of vehicles parked on the pavement are company vans and 4 x 4s driven by wealthy men and women, not students. Wheely bins get pulled on to the pavement by dustbin men not the public so in any street you will find them all on the pavement at any one time. Overgrown hedges and 'To Let' signs are not things that students control, these are the responsibility of the landlords/letting agents, who I feel are actually responsible for much of the bad problems in towns by not tending to the properties they rent out and constantly moving people on. When you are being hounded by a landlord you have no pride in the place where you live. In my street eight houses almost in a row, have been emptied even though the tenants have only been there four months, because the letting agency went bankrupt and the properties have been taken over by someone else.

As with all groups in a community there are always some people who cause problems, but students are not over-represented in this group. Should we throw out every family with young children because the children on one family run around stealing things, breaking windows and so on? No, because the other ninety families in the street are fine. What are these anti-student protestors seeking? All students purged from a town? Young people to behave like middle-aged people? They have no rational plan, they simply want to get angry and to turn their hatred and prejudice against someone. People have come down on assaults (verbal and physical) on asylum seekers and immigrants so these angry bigoted people have sought out a new target and see students as an easy one. Within increasing numbers of students coming from abroad it allows racial prejudice to come in through the back door too.

Ironically seeing university students as 'outsiders' is increasingly wrong. A lot of this is due to the cost of study. In Scotland 60% of students go to their local university, in England it is over 33% and on average all students now are likely to travel only 28 miles (45 Km) to attend university if they are from working class background and 63 miles (101 Km) if they come from middle class background. Thus most of the UK students studying at a university these days will come from the same town as the university or the surrounding county (of course not all towns have universities and some have two which will have an impact, by definition though people have to leave rural areas and small towns if they want to go to university, they cannot attend their 'local' one). More university students than ever before live with their parents while they are studying. Half of students have to do paid work to pay for basic living expenses and most students do as much paid work as they do study, adding up to 31-40 hours per week for these things combined. So, in fact, the student of 2008, does not resemble students of 'The Young Ones' (1982), they work a lot and they tend to study in the town where they live or the nearest urban area to their parental home. Students make up a great deal of staff across the service sector from health care and especially care for the elderly, to working in your local pub or shop, without their cheap labour a lot of these places would close down (check out how many students are working in your average high street, they cannot all be replaced by immigrants).

So, persecution of students is as bad as prejudice against any group in society. It is simply being used by ignorant, brutal men and women to let their anger out at something rather really trying to improve themselves rather than looking around trying to find a new target. A lot of the 'student problem' is in fact the more pervasive 'landlord problem' and I see no-one sending out leaflets about their nasty behaviour.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

The Rise of the Indignitaries

The term 'indignitaries' was one that seems to have been coined by 'The Guardian' newspaper a couple of weeks ago. To mean it seemed so perfectly to sum up a trend in British society which relates to things that I have been touching on periodically, namely that British people love getting angry. An indignitary is someone who enjoys venting their anger, to such an extent that they will often go back and get angry about things that did not irritate them at the time and certainly they made no complaint about.

Clearly this term has arisen over the complaints regarding the Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand radio broadcast which involved telephoning the elderly actor Andrew Sachs (born 1930 in Berlin interestingly) and leaving lewd messages about his granddaughter, Georgina Baillie (born 1985). Baillie is a burlesque dancer who performs under the name Voluptua with a troupe called Satanic Sluts, so not the innocent teenager I imagine many complainants envisaged. The Radio 2 programme was recorded on 16th October and broadcast on 18th October. At the time there were only two complaints to the BBC about the programme because of crude language. However, it was only subsequently that complaints came in about the phonecall 'prank'. By 29th October it had risen to 18,000 and the following day 27,000. Now it would be interesting to know how many of those people actually listened to the radio programme. Radio 2 does have 12-13 million listeners over a given week, but given its 'comfy', easy-listening approach I am uncertain how well the Ross-Brand programme sat with the rest of its output anyway.

Baillie herself demanded that both me be sacked and portrayed them as being 'beneath contempt'. Interestingly the focus was on sexual activity with this woman rather than the reference to Sachs killing himself. Partly this is because media coverage of Baillie allows pictures of a burlesque dance in her corset to be included rather than pictures of an elderly male actor. Brand was sacked and Ross was suspended. They apologised for what they said, but Baillie and her father wanted personal apologies and were dissatisfied that they did not receive them. Sachs who has been working in the media for fifty years, made no comment, probably because he has been there and seen it all in his career. Whilst the broadcast was offensive to an old man (I have no sympathy for Baillie who has made herself a lewd spectacle anyway so must expect such responses) the anger was less on what it did to him than allowing an opportunity for people to get angry. This is because, many people in the UK actually like lewd material (notably 'The Sun' newspaper which was very indignant about the broadcast but features lurid pictures of scantily clad women regularly) but also enjoy being indignant. This muddies things and has drowned any debate about how broadcasters should interact with people in the public eye, people who have primarily retired from the public eye and so on. I am sure the bulk of people who complained simply heard 'respected elderly actor', 'granddaughter' and that was enough for them to boil over.

I have been prone to this tendency myself. Reading 'The Devil's Horsemen' by James Chambers (1979) I felt furious that the barbaric behaviour of Mongol invaders of the 13th century went unpunished, in turn I was angered by Mongolia's lionising of Genghis Khan and that easily could have led to racism against Mongolians. This might seem very obscure but it is easy for all of us to fall into that sense of anger often about things over which we have no control. Where it is more dangerous is when our unnecessary anger can have a real impact. Of course someone becoming racist will impact, but there are greater problems when it is more immediate. I think Brand and Ross probably needed to be admonished but I was upset when people then wanted some purge, especially of 'Mock the Week' which has been the only political satire programme showing in the UK (I exclude poor quality US shows) in the past couple of years and political satire is vital for democracy. Some of the humour can be shocking but in a way which actually draws us up short and think about issues which is something very important.

As I have said before, anger is so popular in the UK for two reasons. Most UK people have little future ahead of them and at the moment that future is becoming more bleak with a sharp rise in unemployment and house repossessions. The British also thoroughly enjoy moaning (like complaining but without actually directing it towards anyone who can do anything about it). It is the primary occupation of many people in the UK, especially the elderly and they are probably unique in Europe in loving it so much. Moaning is the outlet which actually lets UK people tolerate how badly they are actually treated by their government, retailers, their employers, etc., in ways that no other nationality would tolerate.

Anger in the UK has stepped up a gear in the past 20 years as the British people have had to face worse and worse service and abuse from service providers such as transport companies, utility companies, etc. These days people know that unless they shout they are going to get nothing. Service providers have choked off this ability by having all this refusal of talking to abusive people and in certain contexts such as airports regularly threatening them with anti-terrorist powers even against mild complaints, such as a pregnant woman needing help with a trolley or complaints about damaged luggage. In the context of the powerlessness that the average person in the UK faces on a daily basis, anger is now the only tool left to get over that sense of futility that so many of us encounter. Of course the outlets for anger themselves are being clamped down. Either they need to leave us some outlet or they will have to start doping us with calming tablets as in 'Brave New World' (1932) which featured the drug 'Soma' with the slogan 'a gram is better than a damn'. One method at the moment to give some feeling of control to the population is all these talent shows for which the public telephone in to select who stays or goes. No wonder there is a plethora of such programmes including 'Big Brother', 'I'm A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here', 'The X Factor', 'Strictly Come Dancing', etc. Of course as politicians know the public are fickle and the judges on these programmes increasingly brindle against the public's choices which are often based on aspects that are unrelated to the format of the programme.

So, being an indignitary is about getting back some of that self-respect, some of that control that we so lack in contemporary Britain. Self-righteousness always makes you feel good and being indignant allows you to demonstrate just how right you are and more than that, that you are a person who is willing to stand out and make a point. Ironically, actually the opposite is the case. Being indignant is about joining the bandwagon, proving that you are equally as good at getting angry, as equally as righteous as your family, neighbours, colleagues, etc. Perhaps this tells us about the decline of religion in Britain. These feelings of being part of a special, right group once came from being in a religious denomination. Now, with church attendance at only 7% of UK people who say they are Christian going to church regularly, compared to 20% in Canada and 43% in the USA (though these figures have been questioned it is clear that attendance in English-speaking North America exceeds UK attendance by many times) where do people turn to get those naturally desired feelings? They unite together to complain to the BBC and demonstrate their righteousness and how they are part of the moral element of British society.

Ultimately I can understand why UK people behave in this way, it comes down to the fact that I dislike what they get indignant about. I have spoken before about my incomprehension of the hatred for speed limits on roads and in particular of safety cameras. I can understand why people dislike immigrants but I loathe the hatred they express of them and would point to how much harm such racist attitudes do to the UK. I can understand why people hate paedophiles, but I see danger too in vigilante attacks especially when aimed at paediatricians. Why do people engage in violence in order to get fox hunting back - it is cruel and unnecessary. There are many things which people should get angry about but they do not. They do not get angry about how we are bullied by landlords, ripped off by utility companies, have our families killed by speeding cars, how education is becoming so segregated, how so many children are in poverty in the UK and have no opportunity to escape, how many old people die each year of cold, how many homeless people there are, how people are bullied at work and have no security in their work, how working parents find it almost impossible to access childcare, how little politicians listen to us, how we need more schools and hospitals, how we need cheap public transport and affordable housing, how our civil liberties are being eroded, how racist political groups are getting more powerful and will wreck our cities, how patchy recycling is, how much litter people dump and how much fly-tipping they do, the use of knives and guns to kill young people, binge drinking, those are just the things I can think of off the top of my head. I am sure you could find many more.

So next time there is some moron of a comedian saying something foolish turn off your radio or your television and go and email the prime minister or your local councillor and get angry about something that is worth getting angry about. For too long we have been encouraged to think we can change nothing, but that is because so many of us have stopped trying. We have a real strength in our fury, but do not fritter it away, direct it into something which can make the UK and the world better. Be proud to be an indignitary, be one with dignity, start combating speeding in your street, not simply whine about Russell Brand.

P.P. - 04/02/2008: I remembered another type of indignitary from may days in the civil service. Back in the early 2000s I wrote a piece about the wartime code-breaking at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire where the British decoded the German Enigma cyphers. I made a special effort to mention the Polish contribution to this achievement. The Polish intelligence agencies were trying to break the cyphers before the war broke out and Pole smuggled out the vital encyphering wheels after Poland had been invaded in 1939 at immense personal risk. Poles also served at Bletchley Park. Less than a day after completing my piece I had an email complaining that no-one writing about breaking Enigma ever mentioned the Polish contribution and that I was no different. I felt terribly offended especially as I had taken effort to feature the full extent of the Polish input. I pointed this out to the complainant and it became clear they had not actually read what I had written but had simply assumed I would leave out the Poles from the story. I can understand that after reading numerous pieces in which that was a case, it was a fair assumption, but it blunts your compaint when you do not pay attention to what is said in a particular piece and in this case complaining at someone who sympathised with your case. So, knee-jerk responses are never healthy.

Another indignatry behaviour I was irritated by is the Israelis being unwilling to accept historical maps that do not show Israel on them even if they show a time when that state did not exist. I do not complain because I do not see the UK on a map of the British Isles period or the USA missing from maps of 18th century North America or Poland missing from a map of Europe of 1890. The world changes and maps should reflect what is happening at the time not what people wish is/was/had been the case. It weakens your case when you respond in this blanket way. Anyway which Israel should be shown? The one of Biblical times (before or during or after Roman occupation?) or the one of 1948? 1967? 1973? 2009? They all look different.

Caveat: I have nothing against Americans, Jews, Israelis or Poles, just individuals who happen to come from those nations and behave in an indignitary manner.