Holiday In Cambodia?

A friend of Daughter has returned from North Korea, which she visited as a tourist. (She has a Russian passport, which apparently makes it easier.)

Tourists are, obviously, carefully monitored. They are taken to see “typical” villages. Apparently, there are stalls set out along the roads offering fresh fruit and vegetables. There are dotted lines along those roads; tourists are not encouraged to cross these to examine those stalls too closely.

This is because those “fruit and vegetables” displays are, self-evidently, plastic, probably mass-produced across the border in China for the Western market. Outside these Potemkin villages, there are precious few fruit and vegetables, plastic or otherwise.

There was also a chocolate fountain, displaying the delights on offer to sweet-toothed inhabitants fortunate enough to live in this hermit kingdom. North Korea is run on the tenet of “Juche” or self-reliance, imposed by its ludicrous, raving mad dynasty of leaders mainly because only other pariah states will trade with it.

The “chocolate” was self-evidently mud.

Strange place to go on holiday. Some years ago there was a well-known song called “Holiday in Cambodia”, mocking the way well-heeled Westerners would go for cheap holidays in places full of human misery. Today, put “holiday in Cambodia” into Google and you get, well, holidays in Cambodia, as it now appears to be called again.

One day, we will go on holiday in North Korea, and the Kim Jongs will be only an unhappy memory, like the Khmer Rouge. History works that way.


Thomas The Sexist Tank Engine

I am not sure how to take this one. A woman has excited some comment for banning her three-year-old son from the complete works of Thomas the Tank Engine. Writing on The Guardian’s Comment Is Free site, where else, she explains that the works of the Reverend Awdry are classist, sexist, anti-environmentalist and bordering on racism.

Never cared for them much either. But it seems the Fat Controller is an example of the bosses’ class. In the real world, most of us are employees but bosses do exist, the UK not yet having accepted the virtues of anarcho-syndicalism. It would be an interesting literary canon that excluded them entirely.

If you take the view that all travel is anti-environmental, then I suppose train travel must be, though it would seem among the more benign forms of transport. (One assumes the writer is not in possession of anything so transgressive as a motor car.)

As to racism, the villains are diesel engines. The good guys are steam engines.The former puff out black smoke, the latter white smoke. “ It’s not hard to make the leap into the race territory.” Actually, it is very hard indeed, unless you are completely barking mad. Diesel engines emit black smoke, steam ones white. It is in their very nature.

“And that’s not even to get started on the female trains…”

Beyond parody, surely, though one has to feel some pity for the poor mite who is a) deprived of his favourite stories and b), has a mother who…

And yet. There is a long and noble tradition of posting arrant, beyond parody PC nonsense on Comment Is Free, just to see if the idiots will fail to spot the joke. The site is mainly inhabited by those who seem to feel The Guardian’s world view is too right wing, too non-PC, too non-inclusive, and the genuine posts often read like parody. “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?” Yes, really.

Look at the comments on the piece, and some wonder if our maternal Awdryphobe might indeed be a wind-up. Others appear genuinely outraged to discover someone so idiotic actually exists. Then again, one believes that the Awdry novels are even worse – “sadistic… verging on sociopathic”.

Truly, all human life is here. I tend to the view the piece is genuine. It would surely be considerably funnier if it were a work of intentional irony.

Ern Malley

Today is the 71st anniversary of the death of the Australian modernist poet Ern Malley. Except it isn’t.

The story of Ern Malley is little known but instructive, and tells us much about modern art, some of which we may not wish to know. In 1944 the publisher of Angry Penguins, an Australian magazine specialising in the literary avant garde, received a letter from one Ethel Malley.

She explained that her brother Ern had died in July the previous year, at the age of 25. Among his effects were 17 short poems, composed over a period of five years. Might they be of interest to the magazine?

The poems were received with huge excitement at Angry Penguins. (The name comes from a poem  written by the founder, himself a surrealist poet.) Living unknown in suburban Australia there had been a genius whose work could be compared to the likes of WH Auden and Ezra Pound, he declared. The magazine devoted an entire edition to Malley.

Then someone smelled a rat, and the true story eventually came out. The “poems” had been written in one afternoon by two poets who despised modernism and the magazine, and set out to humiliate it. They had taken random lines from their own works and words culled equally at random from a dictionary. It was a hoax.

The point about the Malley story, though, is that the poems have an eerie beauty of their own. Some critics have suggested they are unconscious examples of successful surrealist poetry. On reading them, they seem to edge towards a genuine meaning. It is easy to understand how someone, unaware they were a hoax, could be taken in.

It raises obvious questions on the extent that, as avant garde art becomes increasingly meaningless, we are equally being taken in by the fraudulent, the fake and the mountebank. Are Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst et al artists, or a gigantic fraud? Ditto much modern music, which appears without melody, rhythm, recognisable chord sequences or anything else that would allow the listener to evaluate its worth.

(For the best study of how modern art became displaced from any coherent critical judgement and common sense, read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, written in 1975 and staggeringly prescient.)

Back to Malley. This is a piece titled Durer: Innsbruck, 1495:

I had often cowled in the slumbrous heavy air, Closed my inanimate lids to find it real, As I knew it would be, the colourful spires And painted roofs, the high snows glimpsed at the back, All reversed in the quiet reflecting waters – Not knowing then that Durer perceived it too. Now I find that once more I have shrunk To an interloper, robber of dead men’s dream, I had read in books that art is not easy But no one warned that the mind repeats In its ignorance the vision of others. I am still The black swan of trespass on alien waters.

“The black swan of trespass on alien waters.” Eerily beautiful, and almost making sense.

Transport Chaos, Again

There are no buses operating to take me to my railway station in the morning. The service has been suspended for more than a week now to allow for roadworks. Except that the roadworks are nowhere to be seen. There are still no buses.

So I walk to the station and get on the Tube. There are no Tubes. The power has been switched off. So I go to get the train instead. There are no trains. All platforms have been closed, train and Tube, because someone has jumped in front of a train.

And spread themselves across eight or ten platforms?

I ask the uniformed woman who is preventing people getting onto the train platform to confirm that today there are no buses, no trains and no Tube. She starts screaming hysterically at me, it’s not my fault, it’s not my fault.

I decide to leave the scene quickly. You never know what you might be accused of. Safer not to engage.

I manage to get on a bus that is heading to the other tube station. It stays motionless. There is a woman with a buggy who will not pay her fare. “This bus is not leaving until the woman with the buggy pays her fare.”

She is talking on her mobile phone, ignoring requests to pay. The bus finally starts off.

The Tube train goes about three stops and then lurches to a sudden halt. “If people do not stop leaning against the doors, this train will be taken out of service,” the driver warns.

They are leaning against the doors because it is obscenely overcrowded. They have no choice. This is because it is the only form of public transport now operating in south west London.

Everyone shrugs. What can you do? This is a developed, industrialised nation. Billlions and billions have been poured into our transport system in recent years, and still none of it works with the sort of reliability we could reasonably expect for that investment. We put up with it because we are powerless. Another great start to the week.

On Pastafarianism

A member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has managed to persuade the Austrian authorities that he should be allowed to pose for official photos with a colander on his head, in compliance with his religious beliefs.

So you may read elsewhere. Actually he hasn’t; the authorities just shrugged, said if you must pose with a colander on your head, so be it, as long as we can see your face.

If you have never come across the Church of the above, it is one of the more amusing, if semi-serious, Internet memes. It claims to be a genuine religion. I first came across it five or six years ago, a couple of years after it was founded.

It has its roots in the decision by the Kansas education authorities to teach creationism in the classroom, as an alternative to evolution. The Church’s founder was so enraged that he claimed to be an adherent of another belief system, worshipping a supreme being known as the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

This was as valid as creationism, he argued, and should have its own place in the classroom. The meme spread, as did its adherents. The Monster looks like a tangle of spaghetti surrounding two meatballs with eyeballs on stalks. Worshippers also call themselves Pastafarians, and describe conversion as being “touched by His Noodly Appendages”.

They also claim to believe that global warming is caused by the gradual extinction of pirates, the two processes having taken place alongside each other.

This apparent lunacy has an interesting philosophical kernel, demonstrating a couple of serious scientific principles. One is the notion that correlation does not imply causation, that just because two things happen together this does not mean they are cause and effect.

The other is Russell’s teapot, an idea thought up by Bertrand Russell. He said that the burden of proof lies with those who make claims that cannot be proven wrong, rather than on others who must attempt to disprove them. Specifically, Russell said that if he claimed the Sun was orbited somewhere by a teapot, it was up to him to prove the teapot existed, rather than on others to show it didn’t.

Hence, with two competing religious views, neither of them provable, it is on their proponents to provide what proof there is. The existence of a celestial Spaghetti Monster is by definition unprovable. So too is creationism.

Actually, creationism is provable, but only if God were to emerge one day and say, yes, indeed, I did all that. It was me. And no, I’ve no idea what I was doing with the duckbilled platypus, I’d had a few drinks that day…

Pastafarianism has yet to make it into the classroom, in Kansas or elsewhere, but it does seem to have upset the sort of irrational idiots who believe in creationism, so it hasn’t all been a complete waste of time.

On Women Bishops

Even if you do not take your religion terribly seriously, it is hard not to be moved by the sheer joy of those who campaigned successfully to persuade the Church of England to accept women bishops.

For a document that has had such an influence on Western thought and so on the world we live in now, the Bible is a weirdly ramshackle affair. The New Testament comprises those bits that the early Church fathers, note gender, deemed acceptable among a series of often conflicting testaments.

The Israelites had a tradition of what they called midrash, often a sort of eschatological science fiction, depicting what would happen at the end of time or thereafter. The Book of Revelation appears to be an example; I have never understood how that one got in.

The Old Testament is an equally conflicted series of histories and legends. It is worth going back to Exodus, and the Ten Commandments, to understand the sort of society that created those central tenets of Christian thought. No killing, fair enough. No stealing, no lying. One God.  All fairly uncontroversial.  And as a cynical Victorian poet put it, “Do not adultery commit/Advantage seldom comes of it.”

But what about not coveting this and that, your neighbour’s house, wife, beasts of burden? The Israelites, in their early years, were what we call nomadic pastoralists, their assets, no pun intended, mainly being the flocks of animals they led from one pasture to another.

So disputes over who owned this or that beast could fester, and lead over the generations to blood feuds.  Best not to encourage them, then.

You will have noted that among those possessions best not squabbled  over are your neighbour’s wife, because this is exactly what women were, possessions. And still are today in some religions derived from the Abrahamic tradition.

When Jesus assembled his disciples, all were men. Understandably so, given the society he lived in, not much different from that of the early Israelites.

Quite why the Church, in the 21st century, should regard itself as governed by the morals and manners of a tribe of pre-millennial nomadic pastoralists is something one would have to ask the traditionalists.

On Tax, and Greed

Amazing, the things you overhear on public transport. I was sitting listening to a man, I assume an accountant, droning on and on to his companion about how he could help his clients avoid on capital gains tax. On and on. I am not sure which struck me more. Was it the horrifically boring nature of his job, finding technical loopholes that allow rich people to avoid paying the amount of tax they should? It must be soul-destroying to devote your life to anything that dull or unrewarding.

Or was it the fact that he appeared not to possess a shred of moral awareness, or the realisation that the way he had chosen to earn his substantial salary might be deemed wrong and shameful by many right-minded people. Doubtless professional torturers, drug dealers and people who work for tobacco companies feel the same.

I doubt any of the above occurred to him. I have, by the nature of my work, known many very rich people, and a surprising number are extremely mean when it comes to paying their way in society. Many give to charity, often as ostentatiously as possible. They show off at charity auctions; their publicists ensure their generosity does not go unnoticed. The parable of the widow’s mite comes to mind.

Then they employ accountants like my fellow passenger to ensure their contribution towards the way of life they expect in the country they have chosen to live in is as small as possible. If not, in some cases, non-existent.

This week we learnt of a huge tax avoidance scheme benefitting a number of very rich people, many of them show business types. They include a pop group with a studiedly anti-establishment image. There seems to be at least one who genuinely did not know of the benefits the scheme provided, presumably having been enrolled unwittingly by accountants, and who seems to have paid back the tax saved.

We also learnt that, through the incompetence of the tax man, several of the beneficiaries cannot be pursued to repay the tax they avoided. This probably doesn’t square with the experience of ordinary people, certainly not with my own experience, which is that the tax man does not give up, whether right or wrong.

I can’t believe anyone likes paying tax, though oddly enough a small minority, if questioned in an opinion poll, claim to. If I were as rich as some of these people, though, I would feel a deep sense of shame if caught avoiding it, however legally, by employing expensive accountants like our friend above. When is enough really enough? When does greed, and the love of money, more money, more, more, expunge any sense of shame?

On Network Rail

Network Rail, which runs the rail infrastructure in most of Great Britain, the track and the stations but not the actual trains, has been “fined” £53 million because fewer than nine in ten trains over the past five years ran on time.

This might sound like good news, the fat cats getting it in the neck for our appallingly bad transport system. I have suggested before that we are weirdly unconcerned about the poor performance on public transport, in the NHS and in other areas where the state provides basic and essential services.

If more than one in ten items we bought over the counter from a private sector provider was faulty, we would not be so understanding. As it is, by my reckoning about one in five of my peak time journeys on public transport are in some way disrupted, as happened this morning. We just shrug and say, what can you do?

But the Network Rail “fine” is not all it seems. The money is being removed from the subsidy Network Rail, the successor to the unlamented Railtrack which collapsed a decade ago, gets from the state. Network Rail is not a private company. It is a weird concoction of the public and the private sectors, but the eventual owner is the state, because this has to guarantee its debts. There have been arguments over its exact status in the past, but on any sensible view, the state is the owner, that is, you or I. That makes it part of the public sector, as is the NHS or the Revenue and Customs.

So the state is removing part of the funding of an arm of the state. How this is supposed to benefit the consumer is not clear. It is entirely pointless, because the management of Network Rail will not suffer. Nor will its actual owner, unlike if it was a private company. In that case, the fine would impact on the owners, the shareholders, because there would be less money to distribute to them in the form of dividends.

Instead, the state merely fines the state. Theoretically, this would even make Network Rail less efficient, because there would be less to spend on track upgrades, repairs and the like. So making the service worse.

Network Rail has pledged to cut bonuses for its senior staff and make these more aligned to its performance. Nonetheless, its directors received bonuses of about £50,000 each for last year, at a time when we now know the rail system was missing government-set targets for reliability. Hence the fine.

Most people would regard a bonus as something you get if you perform better than expected, not worse. Not in our bloated and inefficient state sector. Which, incidentally, is going on strike later this week, claiming to be hard done by.

On Natural Justice

I have been reading an interview with the former President of the Oxford Union, who was arrested and taken away at dawn over an allegation of rape. No charges were brought. There was a particularly dunderheaded campaign against him by various people who should have known better while the matter was being considered by the authorities. The man in question spent time in a police cell and on bail before hearing after six weeks that the case would go no further.

There is much debate over whether such allegations should attract anonymity, to prevent reputations being wrongly trashed in public, as appears to have happened here. There is an intriguing throwaway line in his account of his ordeal, though. He was “forced to pay £15,000 in legal fees”. This is in keeping with the experiences of those cleared in other recent high profile prosecutions over alleged sex offences.

£15,000? In a mere six weeks? I literally fail to understand how it can be right that someone who is never charged with an offence, or is cleared by a jury, can end up out of pocket – in one case, by several million pounds, if reports of that case are correct. Surely natural justice would require the state to pick up the tab for all expenses, whether run up by the prosecution or the defence, if the individual in question is cleared or charges do not proceed

Yet it seems to be accepted that in such cases that individual is expected to pay his or her costs. It must make it all the more tempting for anyone with a grudge to make spiteful and untrue accusations.

On Obesity

I seem to have got myself into a little trouble on Twitter for a semi-serious suggestion that those who choose eat themselves to obesity and therefore take up more than one seat on public transport should be required to buy more than one ticket.

This was, inevitably, prompted by my own experience this morning. Do I not understand, someone tweets, that chronic obesity is more complex than that, and can be related to depression? We should be more compassionate, not punish people.

Up to a point. Obesity, leading to related conditions such as diabetes, is one of the leading preventable causes of death today, up there with smoking. Some cases are caused by existing psychological conditions. The majority, though, are down to taking in more calories than your body needs and not taking enough exercise to burn these off.

The link is as established, and as incontrovertible, as that between smoking and lung cancer. No medical expert is going to turn around, at some stage in the future, and say, we got this one wrong. It’s all down to car exhausts. Or sunspots. Or excess reading of medical scare stories in the tabloid press.

We are back  to the old argument rehearsed here before – to what extent are people responsible for their actions, and to what extent should they, and everyone else, be compelled from adopting courses of action that medical experts would prefer us to avoid? I am not suggesting fat people – to use the correct, politically incorrect phrase – should be discriminated against. I am suggesting that, except in a few sad cases, they are not victims.

Though if you choose to fly with your cherished cello occupying the seat next to you, you are required to pay for both. The same reasoning could be argued to apply to travelling with your excess avoirdupois in the same location.

This on the day when we learn that the wife of a mega-rich Middle East politician is suing a casino for allowing her to gamble away millions even though, she claims, they knew she was a gambling addict. The staff at the casino made no effect to discourage her from gambling, she claims. Well, they wouldn’t, would they?

 There is such a thing as taking responsibility for your own actions.