On Doctors

One of the features of the Radio 4 Today programme, to which I have an entirely masochistic addiction, is the shroud-waving doctor.

The British Medical Association is a highly professional middle class trade union, whose spokesmen are extremely articulate – and after all, NHS staff are all angels, aren’t they? So a programme seldom goes by without someone from the BMA or its equivalent telling us that this or that branch of medicine is facing utter collapse unless large amounts of cash are pumped in, right now.

One of those areas facing devastation from a thousand cuts is the local GP’s practise. I have wondered here before whether, given those hospitals under special measures seem more often to be in affluent suburbs and country towns than in impoverished inner city boroughs, any shortage of resources might have more to do with local councils’ willingness to allow house-building on any available scrap of land without providing the necessary infrastructure to cope with a larger population.

Now we learn that the number of GPs retiring or otherwise leaving in their late 50s has more than doubled over the past decade, leaving surgeries understaffed. Even the ones who make it into their 60s are going early.

Part of this is the Law of Unintended Consequences. Changes to pensions legislation has meant that, for highly paid professionals such as doctors, there is no financial benefit to working on to the normal retirement age.

I use a large suburban health centre which has recently moved to new, rather impressive premises. No complaints there; but the turnover of doctors I see does seem remarkably high. A number are mothers who are working part-time. Their prerogative, but it costs as much to train a female doctor who will work a couple of days a week as a male one who works full time.

And I notice that several seem to have retired of late. They are either a testament to their own medical skills, having managed to remain remarkably well preserved right up to the normal retirement age. Or they are going early.


On Mao’s Little Red Book

The education of John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor, seems to have had some similarities to mine, even if he did not go to a public school. In the early 1970s, hard to credit this, you could write to the Chinese Embassy and they would supply, free of charge, any number of copies of Mao’s Little Red Book.

These became something of a cult item at my alma mater. Some of the most affluent teenagers on the planet would ostentatiously sport copies of the work of a mass murderer who outdid both Stalin and Hitler, a work praising the proletariat and demanding the extermination of the middle classes of which they were privileged members.

His jejeune, ridiculous and at times downright sinister thoughts were common currency among some of my contemporaries at one of the most expensive schools in the land, though to be fair to them, most of them grew out of it. Unlike McDonnell, it seems.

The Shadow Chancellor’s excuse was that he was merely using an excerpt from the Little Red Book because it contained a quotation he thought germane to today’s debate about globalisation. Had the same thought been conveniently available for quotation from Mein Kampf, would that work have been propelled across the chamber towards Osborne? I rather suspect not.

On Gettysburg

“Like my father before me, I’m a working man/And like my brother before me, I took a rebel’s stand.” The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, Robbie Robertson, Canadian-born songwriter.

Yesterday was the anniversary of the delivery of the Gettysburg Address in 1863.

The address by Abraham Lincoln came four months after the actual battle, at the National Cemetery on the site of the battlefield.

(Sorry to American readers, who know all this. Sorry to those, again, without my interest in history.)

Gettysburg was one of those battles that are genuine historical turning points, like Hastings in 1066 or Manzikert five years later. We tend to believe that, given the North’s much greater industrial strength and population, the South could never have won the Civil War, or the War Between the States as it is known there.

True; but the North could easily have lost, and the South been allowed to secede. One such turning point was the first battle, First Bull Run or First Manassas. (The two sides had the confusing habit of often giving each engagement a different name.)

This was a disaster for the Union, whose forces fled – “The Great Skeddadle,” they called it. Had the army of the South advanced to the capital, not far away, the North would probably not have been able to pursue the war. They didn’t.

The South was a more agrarian society, the (white) inhabitants generally trained to shoot and ride at an early age. Most senior officers in the US Army on the outbreak of hostilities were from the South, and took its side. The North was chronically short of good officers and generals.

Gettysburg was a close run thing. The North, under George Meade, one of the better commanders, had the advantage of capturing Robert E Lee’s battle plan by accident beforehand. The climactic charge on Union lines by Maj Gen George Pickett, which failed, is known as the “high water mark of the Confederacy”. Had he succeeded, or it not taken place at all, Meade could have lost.

(See the magnificent Ted Turner-funded “Gettysburg”, one of the great war films of all time, for a coherent account of the battle.)

Had the North lost, it is arguable whether Lincoln could have pursued the war. There was great opposition in the North, and there were vicious riots protesting the draft in New York even after the victory. What would have happened next is one of history’s great counter-factuals.

In the event Lincoln, largely supported by the men in uniform, won the 1864 election. The North’s superior numbers and industry defeated the south.

Had Lincoln been forced to give up, the Confederacy would have been an independent nation. Texas, which had itself been independent with an ambassador in London before joining the union in 1845 and then seceding along with the other Confederate states, could have gone its own way again. California and the north western territories such as Oregon had not long been part of the United States and might also not have stayed with a weakened Union.

Add Mexico and Canada, both of which had engaged in hostilities with parts of the US, and the map of North America would have looked awfully like that of South America. Lots of independent countries, many with good reason to hate each other. The history of the southern half of the continent is of constant bloody wars over arbitrarily drawn lines on the map.

Look up the Great Paraguayan War, just after the US Civil War, Paraguay versus virtually everyone else. Guess who lost? Or the Chaco War of the 1930s, arguably the most pointless war on record. Had Pickett just held back… Had those battle orders not gone missing… A strangely changed world.

On Paris

Take eight madmen happy to die for their twisted death cult, of which we have an inexhaustible supply.

Take eight Kalashnikovs, of which about 100 million have been made. Take a small amount of easily obtainable explosive.

Result: a great city convulsed, and victory to the forces of terrorism again. It’s so easy, isn’t it?

Or take a lone wolf madman, a knife and an off-duty soldier/policeman/whatever.

We had better get used to this, because this is going to happen again and again and again. It’s so easy, far more so than smuggling bombs onto aircraft or trains.

This is a generational struggle. And somewhere, as I type, details of the atrocity still coming in, someone, somewhere is working on that first editorial saying, yes it was a terrible thing, nothing can excuse, etc, etc. But….

It happened after Charlie Hebdo in January. Yes, but they brought it on themselves, they were insensitive, rude, they insulted the faithful… Go and read it again.

If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.

On Public Schools

I am a white, middle class, middle aged male who went to public school and I am in trouble again.

University College London has carried out a survey among 16-year-olds at independent schools and found they have higher levels of self-esteem than their counterparts in the state sector, and they are much more likely to believe they can get a job through their family or social contacts.

Some might find this blindingly obvious, and say, that is why parents send their sons and daughters to public school, to gain an advantage over state pupils. The whole topic is back in the news. My colleague Louise Cooper has written movingly about being humiliated, as a working class female seeking a job, by those same male, middle aged public school types.

The figures have been dragged out again, the number of judges, senior members of the armed forces, newspaper columnists and other influential voices that enjoyed a private education. She mentions them. Plainly, they operate a closed shop designed to keep the oiks away from the plum jobs and the corridors of power.

Might I suggest it is a little more complex than that?

Three points. One, those influential people are more likely to be from public schools because when they were being educated, decades ago, such schools offered a much better education than the state sector. My parents were from a working class background. They spent much of their money ensuring I got a better education than I would have at the comprehensive down the road, which was seriously awful.

It was awful because of the changes made to the education system, and the dumbing down of same, by politicians on the left who, the record shows, were themselves the product of a privileged education. Nothing like pulling the ladder up once you’ve got to the top, is there?

Second, I do not believe that those influential ex-public school types operate a deliberate exclusion policy today. We, and I am one of them even if I do not make such decisions, do not sit around in sniggering cabals saying, no, not that one, too common. Not that one, wrong skin colour. Not that one, a woman. Blimey, this one’s a woman, black and common. No chance.

They may once have done just that. The sort of posh bank where Louise Cooper was humiliated during her job interview (which you can read about here   http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-business/11984171/The-class-ceiling-is-worse-than-the-glass-ceiling-ever-was.html ) probably doesn’t exist any more, though. The City, the media and I suspect the law are much more meritocratic than they were. In the media, as I know, a degree of diversity is actually useful, allowing you to connect with a wider readership.

Third, all this is self-correcting in time. This may come as no comfort to those who think they are now suffering the stigma of a state education, but the independent sector, as a provider of the elite of the future, is withering. Fees are so high that it is no longer affordable for the sort of middle class parents who once sent their offspring there.

I could never afford to send my kids to my old school, and nor could my parents if they were bringing me up now. The headmaster of my school admitted recently that his job was mainly educating the offspring of oligarchs. The public school system looks increasingly like another source of UK invisible earnings.

Instead, the middle classes are having to use the state sector, and are demanding better standards, which can only lead to an improvement all around. And indeed, standards do seem to be improving at many state schools, though whether this is cause and effect it is probably too soon to tell.

Sancte et Sapienter, as my old school used to say. With holiness and wisdom.

On Remembrance

This year I bought a poppy. As I do every year – actually, often several, as the things seem designed to fall off and get lost. Still, it’s for a good cause.

Except that I am increasingly not sure what that cause is. Is it to remember the dead of two world wars and conflicts since, or to register support with the armed forces as they exist today? Those two ideas seem to be increasingly conflated.

I suspect this is because, for younger generations, those world wars seem irretrievably distant. I was born 12 years after the end of the Second World War. There were still bombsites, and rationing was a recent memory. We were brought up on films from the conflict, Ice Cold in Alex, The Battle of Britain, The Longest Day. They ran on a continuous reel on the few TV channels there were.

To young people, the trenches must seem as far away as Agincourt. They know WW2 only from old films and newsreels.

Meanwhile attitudes to the armed services have changed. When I was young, the forces were either a regrettable necessity, something not much talked about or considered given we were living under the threat of nuclear annihilation.

Or, depending on the depth of your stupidity, an arm of the fascist state. There were people at my school who refused to join the Combined Cadet Force, itself a bizarre anachronism today, on ideological grounds.

Today the forces are respected, and rightly so. We are aware that they are all that stand between us and some thoroughly evil, barbaric people. And failure to wear a red poppy is at best bad manners.

I am just not quite sure when, if a gesture becomes mandatory, it ceases to be a gesture.

On The Iberian Pyrite Belt

I found myself writing the other day about the Iberian Pyrite Belt, and a mine in southern Spain. It got me wondering again about one of the great mysteries of the ancient world.

Sorry, one for historical enthusiasts like me, then. The Belt is a huge stretch of mineral-rich deposits that runs some 250 km across the bottom half of the Iberian Peninsula, from the Atlantic coast of Portugal well into southern Spain.

It has been mined for some three millennia and parts are still viable today, though there are plenty of abandoned mines such as the Sao Domingo in Portugal.

In the late Bronze Age, say 1,000 BC or later in Europe, there existed a rich and powerful city state in that region of southern Iberia called Tartessos or Tartessus. It is rather less well known than contemporary civilisations, Minoan Crete or Mycenae, for example, because little of the language survives and its location is debatable.

Some have put it around Huelva, some at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River that flows from Seville to the Atlantic. Tartessos was said by Greek historians to be at the mouth of a great river, and there is even, probably, a mention in the Bible, as “Tarshish”.

This lost civilisation will have owed its riches to the Iberian Pyrite Belt, and have traded in the minerals from there. Those Greek historians say it perished in a great flood, most probably because of a shift in the course of that river.

A great, sea-going lost civilisation out beyond the Pillars of Hercules/Straits of Gibraltar, in the Atlantic, then, that perished in a flood? Raises the odd thought.

(Actually, some historians have firmly identified Tartessos as the source of the legend of Atlantis. Some say not, though they accept it definitely existed. That’s historians for you.)

On The Tube, Again

There was a fight on my Tube train the other day. At 8.30 in the morning. “Stop f-ing pushing me!” “Don’t swear at me!” No actual fisticuffs, though, because the train was too crowded for anyone to raise their hands.

Someone had got on and perforce invaded someone else’s personal space. Happens all the time, except generally without the swearing. Generally. There was a time when Londoners endured the daily commute with a degree of stoicism, even good humour.

My impression is that the mood is getting darker. Hence those unwilling to relinquish their seats to someone less able to stand, as I have written before. People’s patience is running out, because it is getting just too bad to be humorous about.

There was a crush at Stratford station the other week, and some commuters reportedly trampled. In such cases it is hard for the authorities to know what to do – keep the station open and let people leave and enter, or close it and trap them if there are no trains to board.

Stations are increasingly having to be closed because of dangerous overcrowding anyway. At mine, passengers’ entry through the barriers is rigorously rationed to prevent them piling up on the platform.

My fear, and it is a genuine one, is that there will one day soon be some awful Heysel Stadium-type disaster, which will leave the authorities with some difficult decisions.

In the early Noughties, there were a series of overground rail crashes, the latest at Potters Bar, after which it was apparent much of the network was not safe. There was weeks of disruption, but at least the problems could be fixed. Not true on the Tube, because we have been adding passenger numbers by about 3 per cent a year without increasing capacity. Like London’s insane property market, this cannot go on forever.

The only solution is more rigorous control of station entry, which means your journey, in the words of those regular warning announcements, “may take a little longer than usual”. As you queue outside in your hundreds.

All this is down to the belief, on the part of Boris Johnson and others, that every person persuaded to come to London to work is a testament to the capital’s economic vibrancy and growth. To which I would point out that some of the most vibrant, fast-growing cities on earth are known for a dismal quality of life and transport problems beyond even our imagining. Think of the polluted, traffic choked megalopolises of China and India.

I suspect there are plenty of Londoners who would swap a small degree of that vibrancy for a bit more space on the Tube and slightly less insane house prices. I suspect there are plenty of parts of the country that would settle for the same bargain in reverse.

I just don’t see how this can happen.

On Christmas Comes Early

There is a brass band outside my local department store paying Christmas carols.

I keep being reminded by people that Christmas is just eight weeks away. Less than two months to, er, buy the tinsel. Order the presents online. Buy the tree. Replace those ornaments that broke last year.

Choose and order the turkey. Do all those other things that are essential to ensure December 25 and 26 pass with that usual sense of slight disappointment .

Almost two months then. The sense of urgency is overwhelming. Or not. Every year the start of preparations arrives earlier. I rather suspect this year the retailers believe we are in for a bumper season, perhaps the best from their point of view, since the economic crisis began. So start shopping now.

I suspect, too, they are missing one factor needed for those cheery forecasts, that there is a shortage of must-have items this year to spur demand. (With the exception of those motorised skateboards that have a regrettable habit of bursting into flames and that you can’t ride anywhere legally anyway. Might have to do better than that.)

Anyway, we went to our local garden centre to buy plants, for the autumn planting season. The supply was limited and disorganised. Aside from a range of china Santas, each with a plant pot attached containing a succulent of decidedly short life expectancy.

And the most astonishing array, even bigger than usual, of plastic Xmas tat. Including a full-sized nodding reindeer. Where do you put it the rest of the year? Have you ever tried to get a full-sized sodding, nodding reindeer up a loft ladder?

It is going to be a very long two months. Time for the first bah humbug of the season.