Issue 107: 2017 06 01: A new global arms (and hands) race (Neil Tidmarsh)

01 June 2017

A New Global Arms (and Hands) Race

World leaders get a grip.

By Neil Tidmarsh

There’s a new threat to world peace.  The danger grows day by day.  What began as covert international friction has already escalated into overt confrontation.  How long before it explodes into devastating conflict at the very highest level?

We can’t say we haven’t been warned.  All the signs were there, in the recent bruising, bone-crushing encounters between Japan and the USA, between the USA and France, between France and Turkey, and then France and Russia.  All world leaders – not just those involved – have taken note, and now presidential palaces and prime ministerial residences around the world are echoing with the grunts and groans of alpha-males doing press-ups and lifting weights and squeezing those spring-loaded thingies guaranteed to give you an iron grip according to the adverts for them in those “Stick Me Straight In The Recycling Bin” catalogues.

Yes, the international hand-shake between world leaders is becoming weaponised.  It has to stop before it gets out of hand, literally, and destroys us all in a hitherto-unimagined Armageddon (or do I mean Handageddon?).

Already there are worrying reports of this new arms race (sorry, I mean hands race) spiralling out of control.  From power bases in the West, there are rumours that muscle-bound personal trainers are being recruited, working with computer-generated training regimes based on the cutting-edge scientific data which has won gold medal after gold medal in recent Olympics.  From the East, there are accounts of martial arts experts employing ancient techniques and traditional wisdoms to discipline the minds and strengthen the bodies of their leaders; at least one such leader has undergone the full Zen process of plunging his right hand repeatedly into bowls of hot rice, and then into bowls of burning sand, and finally into bowls of boiling water, until it is hard enough to overcome any amount of pain and pressure.

There is even intelligence to suggest that some powers are going as far as choosing the doomsday ‘nuclear’ option of employing the advanced physics of the novelty joke shop; their leaders are willing to risk international condemnation by wearing those trick rings which incorporate a hidden battery and wires in order to inflict an electric shock of variable intensity on your opponent when you shake his hand.

Even more disturbing are the confidential reports which assert that some world leaders are preparing to go beyond the merely mechanical, and develop a bio-chemical arsenal of steroid pills and testosterone injections instead.  Believe it or not, reliable sources are suggesting that some unprincipled leaders are even ready to go to the extremes of biological warfare by sneezing into their hand before an encounter, or by visiting the toilet first and declining to wash their hands.

What can be done about it?  The USA’s First Lady has set an admirable precedent.  She batted away her husband’s hand as he reached for hers on landing in the Middle East last week.  No doubt he was hoping to practice his white-knuckle technique on her prior to his imminent encounters with the silver-backs of the Arab world.  But she was wisely having none of it – the flick of her fingers was enough to show that she wasn’t interested in any of that macho bullshit nonsense.  Presumably Mrs May and Chancellor Merkel can be relied upon to show the same common sense, love of peace and disapproval of aggression.

But that is not enough.  We had SALT (the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) in the 1970’s; now we must have SHALT (Strategic Hands And Arms Limitation Treaty).  No doubt the United Nations is already at work on it, but we must petition them with the following suggestions:

First.     A ban on exercises with weights etc. to strengthen the biceps, forearms and hand-muscles would be impractical and unenforceable, so such exercises must be allowed, however reluctantly.

Second.  Hidden gadgets such as electric-shock rings must be banned.  World leaders must be body-searched before they’re allowed to shake hands with each other, to make sure they have no such gadgets concealed about their person.

Third.     Steroids, testosterone and other performance-enhancing drugs must be banned.  World leaders must submit to dope-testing after shaking hands with each other.

Fourth.   At least one qualified doctor and a team of trained paramedics must be in attendance whenever any two world leaders shake hands.  The orthopaedic surgery department of the local hospital must be put on emergency stand-by.

Fifth.      A neutral referee must accompany a world leader on any visit to the toilet which precedes a handshake with another world leader, to make sure he washes his hands thoroughly.  In addition, world leaders must wash hands in public, side by side, before any hand-shake can take place.

The last word, on this last point, must be left to Sir Winston Churchill, that great man who warned the free world about the arms build-up in Nazi Germany before World War II and about the arms build-up in Soviet Russia after the war.

One day Winston found himself in the Gents at the Houses of Parliament with a fellow minister.  The minister observed that Winston did not wash his hands after using the urinals.  “At Eton” the minister commented witheringly, “we were taught to wash our hands after having a pee.”

“At Harrow” Winston replied, “we were taught not to pee on our hands.”

The world was in safe (if unclean) hands in those days.

 

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Issue 106: 2017 05 25: Contents

25 May 2017: Issue 106

 

The week’s news –

your chance to catch up:

Image of elliptical decal with £$€ and Financial News caption

Comment

The Care Blunder by John Watson

The need for Jekyll and Hyde.

It’s Behind You by J R Thomas

Politicians should watch their back.

“I Don’t Understand Anything Anymore” by Richard Pooley

Where do French voters now stand; to the Right or to the Left?

The Only Way Is Ethics by Frank O’Nomics

Investors with a conscience can reap additional rewards.

It’s My Party by Neil Tidmarsh

I’m the leader, I’m the leader…

Propaganda and Lies by R D Shackleton

How can we combat “Fake News”?

Features

Bath Brouhaha Prompts A Look At Rubbish And Recycling by Lynda Goetz

Global recycling day scheduled for 18 March 2018.

My Nobel Prize by Chin Chin

Thank goodness for the ban on cultural appropriation.

Reviews

The Magic Flute

The Kings Head, Islington.

reviewed by John Watson

Puzzles Cartoons and Calendar

Cartoons by AGGro.

Crossword by Boffles: “Leisure Activities”.

Solution to the last crossword “Opera Festival”.

What’s on in June 2017 by AGGro

Earlier EditionsLarge 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list

Issue 101: 20 April 2017

Issue 102: 27 April 2017

Issue 103: 04 May 2017

Issue 104: 11 May 2017

Issue 105: 18 May 2017

Issue 107: Crossword – Election Special

1 June 2017

Crossword by Boffles

Election Special

 

To see a printable version of this crossword

 

 

 

Issue 107: Crossword by Boffles – Election Special – printable

1 June 2017

Crossword by Boffles

Election Special

Across

    1  Winter fuel payment debate has generated a lot of it (4)

    3  Crazy of the Tories to propose such a tax? (8)

    9  Labour has its knife out for hereditary ones (5)

  10  All parties are likely to …… taxes and some even say they will (5)

  11  More houses for people to ….. in?  Common ground between the parties (5)

  12  According to the polls, either Labour or the Tories may (4,2)

  14  Cry that went up when the Tories promised another vote on hunting? (6)

  16  Manifesto contains each party’s (6)

  19  The Lib Dems and the Greens will continue to ……… Brexit (6)

  21  Embarrassing move performed by Theresa May after failing to take care (1-4)

  24  Some cynics consider all politics this kind of trip (3)

  25  What, in short, the Conservative voter shouted on reading the Labour party manifesto? (3)

  26  The Greens’ Four Day Week will give us all more (4,4)

  27  See 6dn (4)

 

Down

    1  Labour plans for us to enjoy more (8)

    2  More money for education and the NHS? All parties seem to on that (5)

    4  Tories want to …… residents to veto council tax rises (6)

    5  Anyone who …. more than £80K is going to find Labour taxing (5)

6 & 27ac          It is educational that Labour and the Greens propose to abolish them but not the Lib Dems (7)

    7  Section of the population which all parties want to look after (4)

    8  All parties are keen to fight it and other terrorist organisations (4)

  13  Dopey of the Lib Dems to want to legalise it? (8)

  15  Will things afterwards? God knows! (7)

  17  Labour seems to have one against the Few. Surely not those who fought in the Battle of Britain? (6)

  18  All parties want to one thing or another ranging from workers’ rights to the housing market (6)

  20  Quango no longer required under Labour’s plans for water (5)

  22  What we all need to do or Labour’s puppetmaster? (5)

  23  Problem such as the entire SNP has with Trident – not just those in Aberdeen and Angus (4)

 

Issue 107: 2017 06 01: Policies on terrorism (John Watson)

01 June 2017

Policies On Terrorism

A still, small voice of calm.

By John Watson

Election campaigns are dramatic events.  The accusations, self-justification and traducing of the other candidates are the political equivalent of the earthquake, wind and fire which surrounded Elijah on Mount Horeb in chapter 19 of the first book of Kings.  But as the hymn “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind” reminds us, the Lord did not speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, but rather in the “still, small voice of calm” which followed them.

So let’s try to apply the still small voice of calm to what has become one of the major issues of the campaign, Mr Corbyn’s stance on terrorism.  The first step, of course, is to cut through some of the nonsense.

First must be the suggestion that Mr Corbyn had any sympathy whatever for those who carried out the Manchester bombing.  Plainly he had not and he has said that clearly.  Also it isn’t fair to suggest that he has tried to politicise it.  Of course politicians have views as to cause, effect and what needs to be done.  That is what they are there for and if they suppressed those views for fear of giving offence then they would be failing in their duty.  The suppression of views in the name of not giving offence was one of the things which stopped the process of radicalisation being confronted earlier than it was.  Provided that he genuinely believes what he says, and there is no particular reason to doubt that, Mr Corbyn is right to say it.

What then of his past attendance at rallies and meetings with terrorists?  It seems fairly obvious from what has been said by Diane Abbott and Sean O’Callaghan that these meetings took place and the suggestion that terrorists were there in their capacity as politicians is a fairly ragged fig leaf.  Still, people do change and, since the full resources of the press are already focused on the extent of the meetings and on whether or not there is a strand to connect them with Mr Corbyn’s current thinking, there is no point in trying to contribute to that debate here.  Let’s move on.

It is only now that we get to what Mr Corbyn is actually saying, that British foreign policy has helped create lawless areas of the world where jihadis can fester and that this has put the British public at risk.  Change the foreign policy and things will get safer.  More jaw: less war; less damage: more safety.  There are two things to say about that.  One is factual and the other is philosophic.  Because the second is the more interesting, I will get the factual point out of the way first.

It cannot be the case that the exporting of Islamic terrorism to the West is solely the result of British and American foreign policy.  The attack on the Twin Towers, itself the harbinger of Western intervention in Afghanistan, took place in September 2001 and, although that was six months or so after the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was still in place in Iraq and the meltdown of that country, Syria and Libya had not even begun.  No doubt resentment of Western intervention does contribute to the wave of jihadism but there are other important factors, most notably the threat to the Islamic way of life posed by Western values – and particularly values relating to women – now pushed down the throats of young people as a result of the Internet and social media.  As a general rule the key to international relations lies in domestic politics and one can just imagine how pleased deeply religious tribal elders must be when they discover that their children have been looking at porn on the Internet.  It is likely, as one professional commentator has said, that the lawless spaces contribute to the threat of violence British streets but are not the main cause.

Suppose that this is wrong, though.  Suppose that by withdrawing publicly from the Middle East, save to urge the protagonists towards a peace process, we could remove the threat of attacks here overnight.  Would it be right to withdraw and drop our support for our allies? It is here that some of Labour’s thinking seems to have got confused.  Their argument, at least if you accept the approach taken by Mr Corbyn in his interview with Andrew Neil, is that the first duty is to keep the streets safe and that we need to review our foreign policy in order to meet that objective.  That is to see it back to front.

The basis of our foreign policy should be how best to serve our interests, and those of the world at large, at a cost which we can afford.  Part of that cost may be, at least in the short term, an increased exposure to terrorism.  Whether that exposure, and the other costs, are acceptable depends upon what we believe the foreign policy will achieve.

The foreign policy of the West has many strands.   Much of it was originally designed to counter attempts by the Soviet Union to increase its hegemony after the Second World War.  We all thought that that had gone away with the removal of the Berlin Wall, but events in the Ukraine have proved us wrong.  Then there has been the need to secure oil supplies from the Middle East.  That has meant uncomfortable accommodation with a number of regimes whose values are very different from our own, but no government could accept the destruction of our economy that was the alternative.  Then there was the expulsion of the Taliban from Afghanistan to combat the export of terrorism from bases in that country.  It may or may not have worked but we clearly had an interest in it.

There are many other strands besides, some safeguarding our own interests and some more altruistic.  Each of them has a price.  Perhaps we could relax our international presence and rely on the US to cover us for a bit, but if other European nations took the same line we would become more and more at the mercy of the next threat to come along and increasingly unable to help our friends.  Goodbye Ukraine; goodbye Baltic States; one day, goodbye us.  It is to avoid getting into this position that we take our place in the defence of the West, including military intervention in other countries’ affairs.  Sometimes that is well judged and sometimes, as in Libya, it is disastrous, but that is why we do it and that is why we should see an increase in terrorism as part of the price we pay for a wider freedom and for the deployments we believe necessary to support it.  Sometimes that price will be too high for the advantage being pursued, sometimes acceptable.  A balance has to be struck each time.  What cannot be right is that we should regard our short term safety at home as paramount and judge our foreign policy solely by reference to whether it increase or decreases it.  It is a much longer game than that.

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Issue 107: 2017 06 01: Breakfast on the menu (Lynda Goetz)

01 June 2017

Breakfast On The Menu

Is breakfast really the answer?

By Lynda Goetz

The answer to what, you may well ask?  A fair question.  Firstly and most importantly, is it the answer to plugging a hole in the Conservative’s education budget?  Secondly, is a free breakfast for all primary school children a reasonable substitute for Nick Clegg’s universal free lunch for infants (between four and seven)?  Thirdly, and perhaps also topically, is it one of the answers to our obesity epidemic?  The answer to all three questions is almost certainly ‘No’, but this may also depend on how you define breakfast, or more exactly what you expect to eat for breakfast.

Breakfast, as the first meal of a new day, has long been considered a reasonably important meal.  It is, literally, the meal with which we break our fast – not having had anything to eat since the previous evening.  In this country we are famous for the ‘Full English’, although I doubt there are many who start every day with eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, beans and toast or whatever constitutes your idea of the traditional English breakfast.  This is a meal reserved for high days and holidays; for those occasions perhaps when someone else is doing the cooking.  For many, as they rush off to school or work, breakfast may consist of nothing more than a cup of  tea, or maybe a piece of toast, a bowl of cereal of some description or perhaps a yoghurt and a piece of fruit.  In Germany and Portugal, breakfast is often a platter of cold meats and cheese with some bread; in France and Italy, coffee with some sort of sweet bread (brioche) or a pastry; in Spain it may be toast with oil and garlic; in Japan, a traditional breakfast would be miso soup, steamed rice and pickled vegetables (although these days they are just as likely to have toast and coffee).  Some of these options are clearly healthier than others; they may also be more or less expensive.

So what is Mrs May, since she seems to be the Conservative party these days, planning to spend per child on breakfast?  How does this compare with the amount currently spent on providing lunch, and what is the take-up likely to be?  This seems to be where the arguments begin.  According to the Conservative manifesto, the cost of providing breakfast to all primary school children will be only a tenth of the £600 million currently spent on lunches.  (That, for those of you with Diane Abbott’s problems, is £60 million).  According to Schoolsweek.co.uk, critics have calculated that this costing would make the amount spent on breakfast per child no more than 6.8p if all 4.62 million eligible children were to take up the offer.  We must assume therefore that the Conservative’s calculations are based on the fact that they are not expecting 100% take-up.  Even without that, calculations become a little sticky and there has already been some back-tracking on the figures.

As I lay no claim to any sort of mathematical or statistical skills, nor to have any access to teams of analysts such as are available to those on BBC 4’s More or Less (which interestingly did a study in 2013 at the time of the introduction of free lunches), I do not propose to bandy about too many statistics, but it does seem clear that the benefits of both school lunches and/or breakfasts are not only difficult to quantify, but also difficult to cost in the face of unknown take-up.  If there were a 25% take-up, then on the costings quoted in Schoolsweek that would still put the spend per child at less than the 25p cost of a nutritious meal quoted by Aisling Kirwan, the founding director of The Grub Club.  The other problem with breakfast, rather than lunch, is the fact that schools (and kitchens) will need to be opened earlier and of course staffed.  These costs do not seem to have been accounted for.  Magic Breakfast, which provides breakfasts to disadvantaged and vulnerable children across the UK, relies on its charitable status and corporate sponsors/partners.  The government presumably is not anticipating such help.

Apart from the apparent miscalculations, the questions raised by More or Less four years ago still remain unanswered.  Whilst at the poorest end of society, some good may well be achieved by providing children with a nutritious meal which they would not otherwise have had (enabling them to concentrate on lessons), is this really going to make a significant overall difference when all children are taken into account?  Better food may possibly help attainment, but pilot studies on lunches were undertaken in disadvantaged areas and overall ‘results were unclear’.  Apart from breakfast clubs like Magic Breakfast, again focused on disadvantaged children, no pilot studies have been carried out this time around.  So will providing ‘breakfasts for all’ significantly help address academic attainment in primary schools?  This may well depend on what is actually provided and that of course will be dependent on the finances.

It is arguable that it is in fact the job of parents to feed their children before school.  Many parents would agree with this and would not want this aspect of their role to be handed over to schools.  But how important is breakfast really?  Last year a study at the University of Bath suggested that the importance of breakfast had perhaps been overstated and could have been the result of marketing.  Dr James Betts, a senior lecturer in nutrition, was astonished to find that there was very little solid evidence to back up the beliefs.  His research found, for example, that contrary to popular belief (even amongst many GPs), skipping breakfast did not affect fat levels or make people gain more weight.  However, the research was not focused on children, nor on how eating breakfast affected thinking skills.

Jeremy Corbyn’s solution is to extend free school lunches to all primary school children (i.e. up to Key Stage 2) at a cost apparently of £1.5 billion, but his claims that the policy had been proven to boost attainment and tackle obesity were not backed by local councils (who had maybe listened to More or Less or Dr Betts) and it is unclear where he plans to get the money from for such a project were he to get the chance to implement it.  The Lib Dems have tried to brand Mrs May as the ‘lunch snatcher’, attempting to bring back memories of Maggie Thatcher as ‘the milk snatcher’.  This is unlikely to stick, as it has nothing of the playground rhyming that made the original so memorable.  Universal breakfasts for primary school children may not be an answer to obesity, educational attainment or filling a deficit in the education budget, but free lunches for the first three years of primary school is a relatively recent universal benefit and, probably quite rightly, one that with restricted funds available cannot really be justified.  The mistake is to try to both replace and extend in a gesture of socialist expansiveness, rather than spending what money there is on those who need it.  Although they may have an initial appeal, universal benefits are an expensive money pit – rather like the Tar Baby, they frequently have a way of making a sticky situation worse.

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Issue 107: 2017 06 01: Giacometti (William Morton)

01 June 2017

Giacometti

at Tate Modern (10 May – 10 September).

Reviewed by William Morton

Alberto Giacometti Estate

When one thinks of Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), the image most likely to come to mind is one of his attenuated male or female statues.  However, these were produced at quite a late stage in his career when he had been a successful artist for many years.

He was born in Switzerland, the son of a moderately well-known painter, Giovanni Giacometti.  After attending art school in Geneva, he moved to Paris and remained there for the rest of his life, apart from the period from the fall of France until the end of the Second War when he was unable to return after a visit to Switzerland and had to remain in Geneva.

His work reflects many influences including Egyptian and African art, Cubism and the Surrealism movement with which he was deeply involved.  Sometimes, in his early career, he turned to design and a fine example of this in the exhibition is a stylised seagull.  He did not go in for monumental sculptures and some on show are very small.  Giacometti’s brilliance is his ability to convey the essence of something from a virtually featureless sculpture such as a minute one of a man with his hands in his pockets. Another, Man and Woman, gives a clear impression of sex with the merest hint at human bodies.  Many of his sculptures could be grotesque, so far do they stray from reality, yet they are not.

Giacometti tended to use members of his family and a few close friends as models, who were required to endure long sittings.  He had a slightly problematic brother called Diego, who became his studio assistant and an artist in his own right.  Giacometti’s wife Annette and Diego were the subject of a large number of works.  In a film shown in the exhibition, the artist says that he felt no need for a greater range of models as he had difficulty in tying down any person.  One cannot help feeling that he must have had some idea of the characters of his wife and brother.

He was a fine draughtsman and an accomplished painter as well as a sculptor.  In his pictures, he has the same ability to convey an image with a minimum of detail – except, I found, in a number of paintings of Diego, Annette and his mistress, Caroline.  These seemed to me to lack a human spark and to convey little of the sitter.

It is, however, Giacometti’s stylised sculptures such as the Chariot (an example of which was sold in 2014 for 100 million dollars), the Running Man and that of a Hand which are his masterpieces and which stick in the mind.

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Issue 107: 2017 06 01: General elections 2017 – Scottish version (Antoninus)

01 June 2017

General Election 2017 – Scottish Version

A view from north of the border.

By Antoninus

It scarcely seems yesterday (it was 12 January – Ed.) that Antoninus wished his Shaw Sheet readers a ‘Happy Hogmanay’ and offered a forecast for Scottish politics for the year ahead, confidently assuming that the call to contribute again, if it ever came, would not arrive until mid-December.

So the old boy was surprised to receive a request to ‘Do something on the general election in Scotland.’  It seemed a high risk editorial strategy.  You can have too much Scottish politics, you know.

And yet two remarkable things seem to be happening in our version of the general election that are distinct from the rest of the country.  You could be cynical and check back to that January forecast and conclude this is code for ‘stuff he didn’t predict’ (true) but they’re remarkable all the same.

The first is what the election’s all about.

Given (a) that Theresa May called the election to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations to come and (b) Scotland voted to remain in the EU by 63% to 37%, you would surely conclude that the election is being fought on that question.  Put simply, our dominant political party, the SNP, wants to remain in the EU and the other three parties are maintaining the same position in Scotland that they are in the rest of the UK – Tories and Labour accepting the referendum verdict and the Lib Dems promising/threatening another referendum on any final deal negotiated.  So some stark differences to engage voters.

In fact, Brexit has featured hardly at all and our election campaign has focussed on the SNP’s performance in our devolved government (mediocre at best), and on its overarching ambition – independence.  On the first point, the party’s been in power for ten years and like all long-serving governments it is stumbling.  On the second, opinion polls show that a majority of Scots voters prefer to remain in the UK (about 55% – the same as in our 2014 referendum) and Mrs May made it crystal-clear she would not agree to the second referendum the SNP want until Brexit is done and dusted.

The SNP are only too well aware of these facts and Nicola Sturgeon has gone out of her way to say that, for her, the election is not about independence – a position somewhat subverted by some of her senior colleagues, notably Alex Salmond who has said, in effect ‘Oh yes it is.’  And he’s right, of course, because everything the SNP does is about independence; it’s the reason they exist.

The second remarkable thing is that the Scottish Conservatives seem to be talking about little but independence (for the same reason that Mrs Sturgeon’s avoiding it).  ‘We,’ they say, ‘are the one true guarantor of the union,’ a little disingenuous perhaps since Labour and Lib Dems are also dead set against independence.  But in their current enfeebled state they’re hardly heard on the subject and the Tories, under their exceptional and unlikely leader Ruth Davidson (female ex-journalist, gay, educated at a tough state secondary school in Fife), have taken full advantage of the situation.

So much so that the SNP have fallen entirely silent on their previous rallying cry to ‘make Scotland a Tory-free zone’ and, if current polls are to be believed, the Conservatives might even be heading for ten Scottish seats compared to the one they currently hold.  The same polls even suggest that the Lib Dems might gain one or two extra seats (they hold one currently).

Any passing SNP activist would point out that these numbers hardly represent a rout and they’d be right.  In 2015 the SNP, remarkably, won 56 out of 59 seats and even if the polls turn out to be correct, they’ll still hold 43 after 8th June.  But as with many things in politics it’s the trend that is important. Their performance in the 2016 Holyrood elections and our May council elections suggested strongly that we are past ‘peak-SNP’ and the June election will surely confirm that.

Whether any or all of this happens is in the lap of the Gods.  As this is being written, campaigning is suspended because of the Manchester atrocity, and who knows how that dreadful event will affect the tone and content of what campaigning remains.  There are local factors too that may come into play – the poor performance and ill-judged behaviour of a minority of SNP MPs standing for re-election, and the fact that the party’s commitment to the EU would involve continuation of the Common Fisheries Policy, loathed by fishermen in the coastal communities of North East Scotland that have formed the SNP’s heartland.

The number of seats involved in all this and the UK-wide picture may make Scotland seem a side-show in this election.  But remember that any set-back for the SNP is a set-back for their ultimate goal of separation and conversely helps strengthen the continued existence of a United Kingdom.

Yes, the election is different here, after all.

 

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Issue 107: 2017 06 01: Ripples on the surface of the pond (Chin Chin)

01 June 2017

Ripples On The Surface Of The Pond

Reading your own death notice.

By Chin Chin

It is usual to say nice things about people once they are dead but this week’s reminiscences about Sir Roger Moore who played both The Saint and James Bond make it clear that he was quite an exceptionally nice man.  He was certainly not stuck up or pompous, and even though some of his trademark anecdotes about his own lack of acting ability may have been designed to create an image, he was clearly able to laugh at himself.  In these days when actors who believe that they have been traduced by the press try to muzzle it and then explode, lips frothing with impotent rage, when they fail to do so, that is something of a relief.  I hope that Sir Roger would be pleased if he saw what has been said about him, but of course the tragedy is that he never will.  Few people get to see how the world reacts to the news of their death.  As it happens I am one of them.

It all happened because of a mistake in the alumnus office of my college.  Someone of the same name had died in America and they got the two of us muddled up.  The result was a death notice expressing slightly perfunctory regret and giving dates which made it quite clear that I was the one who had died.

I’m not all that good at reading alumnus magazines so the first that I heard of it was when a college friend of mine rang my wife.  We had seen each other a week or so before and he was a little circumspect, understandably as the notice referred to “a long illness”.  He asked rather carefully whether the family was well and waited for a reply.  When my wife said that they were, the story came out, it apparently not occurring to my friend that, had I been dead, the family would still have been well, only smaller.

When my wife told me what had happened, I was a little nervous.  Obviously it is not the sort of thing about which one would want to make a mistake so I checked the “deaths” column of The Times and also that of the Daily Telegraph.  As a family we are punctilious about putting births, deaths and marriages in the newspaper and it hardly seemed likely that everyone in the family had been so careless as to wholly overlook my demise.  No, the more I thought about it the more it seemed likely that, despite the evidence of the college magazine, I had in fact survived.

Well, that was good news in itself but it seemed to be an opportunity as well.  Most of my friends thought I was dead and in due course I would have to undeceive them, but it seemed a shame to do so before the letters of condolence had arrived.  My friends are not normally given to singing my praises but no doubt there would be plaudits aplenty of the sort which, unless I was one day resurrected, rather unlikely on the face of it, I would never get the opportunity to see again.  A little pause before the great undeceiving seemed an acceptable luxury.

When I discovered about the announcement, it was only a day or so old.  It was no surprise then that nobody had yet written.  Obviously they would take a little time to collect their thoughts, and letters of condolence take time to compose properly.  I imagined them ringing each other to chase down some detail.  “Isn’t it true that he was unlucky not to get a first?” would say one.  Actually it isn’t true at all but to those looking through the rosy lens of the condolence writer it would seem true, and into the letter it would go.  Then there might be references to sporting prowess, charm, modesty, manners which put everyone at their ease.  Always a little basis of truth of course but honed and polished like the words on a gravestone.  Actually, some of them might even have ideas for that, a line of poetry, perhaps, or something in Latin.  I believe the words cave canem are on a stone in Pompeii.  I don’t know exactly what they mean but they certainly sound good and the Romans were a fairly heroic lot.  It would be interesting to see what my friends came up with.

Yes, obviously it would take time before the letters started to come in, but no doubt they would begin to arrive shortly.  So I thought for a day or two, but after a few more days, when nothing of the sort happened, I began to find the waiting rather depressing.  Didn’t people write letters of condolence any more?  Did they just wear black instead?  Perhaps I should park my car outside their houses and watch them with binoculars.  It was then that the obvious explanation struck me.  People must have realised that I was still alive and that letters of condolence were unnecessary.  That was how college grapevines worked.  That must be why no condolence letters had arrived.

I held onto this idea until Christmas when the tally of cards received seemed to be lower than usual.  That might be due to a change of fashion or perhaps it was because the post had become erratic.  There were other possibilities too and one of them began to haunt me.  Could it really be the case that when people picked up their pens on hearing of my untimely demise,they did so not to write a condolence letter but to cross me off their Christmas card list?

Well, I would soon find about that as there was a college reunion coming up.  I normally enjoy these events, my bonhomie and backslapping having made me universally popular.  Before long I bumped into somebody who hadn’t sent me a Christmas card that year and asked him why.  “Oh I thought you were dead” he replied.  At this point I lost my presence of mind.

“How did you feel about that?” I asked.

“It disturbed my breakfast” he replied.  For a moment I nearly asked him what he had been eating because one would clearly rather have disturbed a full English than a mere croissant and coffee. Something held me back, however.  Maybe it was better not to know but just to assume that the breakfast had been a magnificent spread with porridge followed by kedgeree and a rack of freshly made toast.  I was beginning to learn the lesson that sometimes it is better to imagine how people will react to your death than to actually know.  Unless, that is, you could arrange it yourself.  The mediaeval custom of getting your estate to pay for masses to be sung in a chantry chapel, preferably with a short homily written by yourself, certainly had its advantages.

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