Thursday, August 27, 2009


Had I met any of the Kennedy boys, I suspect I would not have found them to my taste. Surpassingly arrogant – a self-confidence based upon eye-watering wealth, parental expectation, unrivalled connections, continuous celebrity, legendary sexual magnetism and a very useful lack of moral compass (useful in fixing day-to-day problems) – they would not, you would be bound to feel, be remotely interested in you, save insofar as you might be placed to do them some sort of favour.

I remember Jack Kennedy’s administration vividly. After the Eisenhower years – “cosy but crass” as Stephen Sondheim succinctly despatched them – JFK seemed almost superhumanly glamorous, young, creative and enlightened. His administration could be said to have been a triumph of style over substance even (perhaps especially) in the Bay of Pigs crisis during which the world really did appear for a few days to teeter on the brink of World War III.

Jack’s early and shattering death sealed his legend. It was simultaneously as public as any in the twentieth century and yet enduringly inexplicable. The theories will never die. My favourite – infrequently aired -– goes like this. Kennedy didn’t die but was left by the bullets in a vegetative state. This accounts for the succession of visits allegedly paid to the Parkland Hospital in Dallas by Jackie after the President was formally pronounced dead.

Meanwhile, Mama Rose, mindful of the need to avoid any repetition of the family’s disastrous attempt to bury the embarrassment of their lobotomised daughter Rosemary, determined that Jack would be officially dead, a much more manageable outcome. Once a weighted coffin had been laid to rest before the eyes of the world in Arlington, there was just the little matter of “burying” the uncomprehending Jack. They needed a secure refuge, somewhere like a well-fortified island. Now, who owned such an island? Well, Aristotle Onassis for one. The rest you know.

Of course, Jack’s reputation was bound to decline. Anyone so incapable of keeping his pants on (even, it was said, within the Oval Office) was bound to generate stories sooner or later. In the late 1970s, a feature of Bette Midler’s seductively raucous stage act was her claim to have “slept with Jack Kennedy. And you know what?” – and here she’d rake the audience with a blood-red fingernail – “They slept with Jack Kennedy”.

The instinct to fix things was deep-grained in the Kennedy clan long before Ted was born. Irish-American political chicanery in Boston is as endemic as the more widely known history of Irish-American political chicanery in Chicago (Mayor Daley and all that) and the Kennedys were up to their necks in it for decades before Joe covered up Teddy’s rustication from Harvard for cheating and then fixed it for him to take over Jack’s Senate seat when Jack became President. Political favours were called in repeatedly to smother Kennedy scandals, misdemeanours and crimes. The least controllable of Ted’s disasters was the Chappaquiddick affair, least controllable in the sense that even Kennedy money and influence couldn’t prevent it killing any expectation he still entertained of succeeding to the White House. But anyone other than a Kennedy would have gone to jail and, never formally required to explain his actions on the night a young woman died while in his company, he rode it out and the full truth of the matter dies with him.

caricature by Steve Nyman from

It’s hard to imagine socialising with people who sincerely imagine that the law does not apply to them. I imagine the Kennedys must have been much like the Krays, only with ‘class’ in its American meaning. Add to this the Catholicism they inherited from Joe and Rose, a religious subject indeed for it was clearly an ingredient that would not brook mockery or even discussion. How devout Catholic men square their conviction with the addiction to adultery that ran rampant among all the Kennedy men in every generation is hard for rationalists to figure. Did they think they were redeemed every time they went to confession and hence were cleared to sin again just as soon as possible?

I don’t know how the women put up with it but the Kennedy girls seemed inured. In the English-born actor Peter Lawford, Pat Kennedy found a husband quite as devoted to booze, recreational drugs and sleeping around as any of her brothers. Kathleen Kennedy was never forgiven by Rose for marrying outside the faith, even though it was into the English aristocracy, but she had adulterous affairs of her own. Alone of the family, Joe attended her funeral after she and her lover perished in a plane crash, the same fate that befell Joe Jr (in World War II), Jack and Jackie’s only son John and indeed Teddy, who survived with a broken back and lumbar pain for the rest of his life. Only Eunice, who died a fortnight before Teddy, seems to have led a pretty blameless life (if you can forgive her being the mother-in-law of Arnold Schwarzenegger).

And yet … and yet … There is always an “and yet” with people of real talent. I was in the States one election year and turned on the C-Span channel in my hotel room just in time to watch from the start a speech by Ted Kennedy. It was no great occasion, just a routine stump speech in the marathon that is the American democratic process. The Democrats didn’t even win that year. But it was magnificent. I hung on his every word, because it was all so beautifully crafted, cogently argued, magically lacking in spin or patronising or political trimming. It was proper, old-fashioned oratory of the kind we used to get from Nye Bevan, Michael Foot, indeed Winston Churchill. It was just enthralling.

Kennedy was a politician to his fingertips if not in that part of the cerebrum that weighs appetite against consequence. I wouldn’t have trusted him with a boiled sweet – I certainly wouldn’t have left him alone for two minutes with either of my partner’s nieces – but I would have trusted him to know how the system works and to get things done. And getting things done, that’s what politicians are for, isn’t it? Kennedy got things done in Massachusetts, thereby ensuring that he had a thumping majority every time his senate seat was contested and becoming the third longest-serving senator in US history. And he got things done in the Senate, keeping the often flickering flame of liberalism alive there through screeds of legislation.

Of course, the Kennedys were progressive only as and when it suited. Like Richard Nixon, Bobby Kennedy spent part of his youth working for the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, the most anti-progressive force in the most anti-progressive period of modern American history. Unlike Nixon, the Kennedy clan was real close to Joe McCarthy, who was godfather to Bobby’s eldest child. This was the Irish Catholic mafia taking precedence over fine judgments of politico-moral stances. Nonetheless, however much that kind of connection tarnishes the Kennedy legend, it is still the progressive liberal image that tops all others when we contemplate Teddy and Bobby and Jack.

In reality, Teddy achieved more in the public arena than Jack or Bobby ever did, not just by being granted comparative longevity but because he lived to attain the maturity to see that real legislation on the statute books achieves more than any amount of glamour, fame and snatched sexual gratification. For that alone, he deserves to be hailed as an American hero. I’m just grateful that I never had to meet him.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


I listened to the extremely judicious and statesmanlike statement by the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, this lunchtime. As he averred, the decision as to whether to release Ali al-Megrahi was his and his alone. He was – no doubt painfully – aware that whichever way he jumped he would attract intense, even vituperative criticism.

The vituperation has come almost entirely from the United States. There seems no sentiment anywhere in that nation on behalf of release. One bereaved mother declared that MacAskill’s decision was not compassion but weakness. This is hard to compute. The most pressure was coming from the US and the US is used to getting its way. Buckling to that pressure might well have been characterised as weakness.

Nobody on the American side of the Atlantic appears to take into account the very real concern over whether al-Megrahi was justly convicted. The evidence was wholly circumstantial. The court at the time alluded to “others” who were not arraigned but those others have never been tracked down or even named. Among those asking for further investigation of the case are bereaved people from this side of the Atlantic. That they do not subscribe to what inevitably comes over from the Americans as a naked desire for vengeance and punishment is as eloquent as it is moving.

David Cameron, ever looking for a bandwagon, has joined the condemnation of Obama, Clinton and the American families. His statement sounds like that of a self-confident but naïve Vth former: “I think this is wrong and it’s the product of some completely nonsensical thinking in my view … This man was convicted of murdering 270 people. He showed no compassion to them”. Cameron is in the same tit-for-tat mindset as the Americans. He’s probably getting his head ready for switching to an American-style attack on the NHS.

By all means should there be a fresh investigation of the evidence that remains of what is somewhat misleadingly known as the Lockerbie bombing. The debris of the exploded aircraft still exists. It is obviously a disadvantage that 21 years have elapsed since the atrocity. All this time, the conviction has looked unsound and al-Megrahi has been protesting his innocence and trying to effect an appeal. If his name comes to be cleared posthumously, it will be instructive to see what the Americans have to say about it then.

Monday, August 17, 2009


Here are ten sets of important and urgent questions for right wing Americans.

1: What do you understand by the term ‘Socialism’? Do you imagine it is simply a synonym for ‘European’? In what ways do you believe President Obama – or any previous American president or indeed any current world leader – is or was a Socialist? (Write on one side of the paper only).

2: The party of Adolf Hitler called itself the National Socialist Party (hence Nazi). Was Hitler actually a Socialist as you understand the term, though? Could (for instance) Hitler, Trotsky, Gorbachev, Castro, Mitterand and Blair all be deemed Socialists? Is it possible for Obama simultaneously to be Socialist and Hitler-like? Discuss with illustrations.

Images like these are all over the net and the current health debate in the US

3: According to a Facebook entry by Mrs Sarah Palin (the former governor of Alaska and apparently thought to be a significant political commentator in the United States), the President intends to introduce a new health care system whereby senior citizens and the disabled “will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society’, whether they are worthy of health care”. Never mind the carelessness with which Mrs Palin describes the disabled as “standing”; what do you imagine would in practice be the function of these death panels? What kind of public servants would agree to serve on a death panel? (“Hello, darling, how was your day?” “Oh, I had such a long afternoon on the death panel. Do you know we condemned 127 seniors and six autistic children to the electric chair”. “Poor darling, you must be quite exhausted”).

4: What do the letters NHS stand for? What does the NHS do? How many death panels does it fund? Do you really and truly know anything at all about the NHS? Have you seen any English people with teeth lately?

5: What do you think is the domestic political status of Daniel Hannan MEP? As he is a member of the European parliament, doesn’t that make him a European and hence a Hitler Socialist? Does the fact that his views were immediately repudiated by the leadership of his party mean that they are in some way unrepresentative? In any case, if he works in continental Europe, how much contact does he actually have with the NHS in Britain?

6: Does it trouble you at all that as many as 45 million American citizens have no health insurance and therefore cannot afford to seek treatment when they are ill or injured? Have you ever heard the pathetic appeals for help that are routinely broadcast on some public service radio stations? Isn’t there quite an embarrassing dislocation between the fact that the USA is the richest and, you don’t tire of telling us, the greatest nation on earth and the lack of a health system that tends to people who need it. Would you want a fire department that only came out to douse fires at premises that could show up-to-date fire cover, a police department that looked the other way if your policy protecting you against muggers wasn’t fully comprehensive?

Of course if you went through all the pix of any public figure – Ann Widdicombe, say – you could always find one that seems to mirror some gesture of somebody else's

7: How much cash has the health insurance industry put into your campaign? Does it ever occur to you that insurance is the most corrupt, self-serving industry in the whole capitalist system, little more than a form of sophisticated casino operation in which, as everyone knows, the house always wins? What do you say to this proposition: that the president wants to establish a public health system because he believes that Americans will benefit from it and that it is the right thing to do, whereas the insurance companies want to preserve their businesses because they make a vast amount of profit? Does that really sound like a fantasy to you?

8: Don’t you know that there is already a huge public sector in the American health system, just as in many other services you take for granted? Do you think that, unless you were a multi-millionaire, you would survive in a totally free market that had no public provision and no public regulation?

9: Isn’t it a little bit anti-American to attack your own president and government in the terms that you have been employing lately? Anyone being so extreme about Ronald Reagan or either of the Bushes would have been denounced as unpatriotic. Isn’t it time someone did a comprehensive exposé of the shock-jock fascists, the Fox News bigots and all the other detritus of the American commentariat who have no compunction about spreading the wildest of lies about anyone with a decent thought in their heads?

10: And finally, are you fucking insane? (You may need health care).

You can play this game with anybody

(PS: This posting is a little late; my server has lately been experiencing difficulty both contacting and maintaining contact with I don’t know why – no other internet address presents such a problem).

Sunday, August 09, 2009


I have been reading – and much relishing – The Return of the Native. I should prefer to say that I have been re-reading The Return of the Native but, to my shame, it was a Hardy that I had never read, though (I hasten to add) I galloped through most of his great masterpieces when I was young.

Why do I say “to my shame”? Some three years ago, a friend alluded to the book in an email. He didn’t, I think, actually use that phrase that writers (critics especially) are wont to use when making reference to some aspect of a celebrated work of art: “you remember how [as it would be in this case] in The Return of the Native Eustacia … etc” but he may well have written something of the sort. The assumption – assuredly a polite and generous one – is that you of course know the work in question. In replying, I certainly confessed that I had not read the book, “to my shame”. And I determined so to do, though, as you see, I had to get through three years’ worth of other books before I achieved it.

Who of us does not – even if only without revealing it – quietly look down upon someone who has failed to do those things that we consider essential? It might be watching a particular television series or listening to a certain pop group or visiting some well-known venue or event: “Really? You’ve never been to Glastonbury/Wimbledon/The Met/The Yorkshire Moors/The Louvre … ?” After all, it’s only a short step from the disdain that we are apt to feel about any display of what we consider to be ignorance, particularly that kind of ignorance that appears to be the product of prejudice or being a dimwit or just not trying.

This is a curious area of sensibility. I don’t think I would be alone in claiming – or at least affecting – a sense of “shame” about some cultural gap. But it implies that there is almost a moral imperative involved in keeping one’s knowledge of the world and its output in good repair. We’ve all been told that we should read so-and-so or that we ought to hear such-and-such or that this or that is a must-see. The implication is that it is “for our own good”, that we are somehow deprived without this particular cultural input.

Who draws up the prescribed lists of works with which one ought to be familiar? Or rather, whence is the consensus about this derived? I doubt that many of us would feel the need to “confess” that we had never read a particular novel by, say, Bernard Cornwell or Joanna Trollope “to our shame”. Indeed, I wear the fact that I have never seen an episode of Big Brother or I’m a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here as a badge of honour. Not all knowledge – as I am sure I would find myself pointing out to Anne Robinson if I were ever ill-advised enough to go on The Weakest Link – is equally worth having. (And mention of that particular telly quiz reminds me that it furnishes much material for the regular ‘Dumb Britain’ column in Private Eye, precisely because it is perceived that you don’t have to boast much of a cultural education to go on the programme. It is noticeable that foolish answers on University Challenge or The Book Quiz do not find themselves twitted in this column).

Keeping the focus on books, I think those volumes that attract the notion that they ought to have been read by anyone pretending to the status of well-rounded person would be those considered to have what we might call – mindful of the minefield that lurks hereabouts – “literary merit”. Since the notion of elitism went into everyday use some two or three decades ago, it has become difficult to talk about merit, quality, value and other elevated notions without being roundly barracked, with the term ‘snob’ frequently called up as an unanswerable nuclear device. We are no longer allowed to propose – certainly not in a manner that suggests that such an argument is not worth having – that, say, JS Bach might have a bit more to him than does Dizzee Rascal. If on no other count, elevating Bach above Mr Rascal is fraught with suggestions of patriarchy and racism.

Nonetheless, the cultivated know what they know and they are not about to surrender their conviction that a thoughtful, sensitive and knowledgeable person would be more likely to be familiar with Bach or Hardy than with, say, the autobiography of Paul O’Grady, not that the latter lacks for anything in the ability to divert. Diversion is a rather lower aim than erudition, after all.

A week or two ago, we were at a social event – a book launch, as it happens. A woman of our acquaintance also attended with, in tow, both her husband and her mother, neither of whom we had met before. The kind of desultory chat ensued that characterises these events. On our way home, we found that we had each remarked the woman’s declaration that, on a recent holiday in Italy, she and her husband had tasted snails for the first time. (Whether her mother had accompanied them and partaken of this unfamiliar delicacy or whether they had had a consignment of the crustaceans shipped back for her to try in the safety of home we did not register). More to the point, neither of us could fathom the precise spirit in which this intelligence was vouchsafed. Were we to marvel at the couple’s brave leap into an unknown that they imagined we must necessarily share? Or should we smile indulgently upon what they were ruefully offering as their innocent parochiality?

It seems quite plausible that they thought they were being – and that by association we would also find that they were being – pretty outlandish in tucking into snails: so unnatural, so foreign. In their circle, we were tempted to surmise, anything off the beaten track of meat and two veg in front of BBC1 or ITV would be thought to be rather raffish and liable to frighten the horses. To us, however – unbridled citizens of the world that we are, drawing from every well that we encounter with no fear of the consequence – snails were old news in our teens because nothing yet untried stayed untried very long.

So of course a well-rounded person ought to have quaffed snails just as she ought to have read Hardy. Nobody ever got a reputation as a conversationalist or as one who habitually set the dinner table on a roar by running round admitting to the things he has never done. On the other hand, there is very little satisfaction to be had if one only ever encounters people to whom mention of Hardy puts them in mind of “Kiss me, Hardy” or Laurel and Hardy or Jim Hardy of Wells Fargo or Hardy Amies or Jeff Hardy (who, I believe, is an American wrestler). And as a cultivated class of person is as endangered a species as the white rhino, the need for any of us to “keep up” is in any case beginning to be wholly academic.

Next time I read a great novel that I have hitherto unaccountably neglected, I shall almost certainly shut up about it.

Saturday, August 01, 2009


When I was a boy, my maternal grandfather lived with us. Long a widower, he had done so as soon as my parents married and set up home together. It was the accepted thing in those days - my parents married in 1940. Essentially a positive person, his last years were certainly much enlivened by having an enquiring grandson to whom he could devote all his attention. He taught me to read (rather younger than the average) and fired my interest in history, geography, fiction and, in general terms, the world around me.

Grandpa had two old friends, contemporaries who each lived in a town not far away, and we would visit them once or twice a year. My dad never came with us. He found the notion of such visits a trial and anyway, as I’m sure he would emphasise, they weren’t his friends. As a little boy, I didn’t much relish these visits either but I wasn’t permitted to cry off. In particular, I dreaded calling on Mr Bruce and Alice. JS Bruce was a rather fearsome Victorian with a bristling white moustache, a bald dome and a quantity of lurking nose and ear hair. He was a widower with several daughters – at least three – and the plain, dim one remained a spinster and lived with him as timid, fussing housekeeper.

I don’t think my memory is playing tricks if I report that, as late as the mid-1950s, his semi-detached house was still lit only by gas. My grandfather, my mother and I would sit in the gloom, drinking the tea and eating the dismal sandwiches that Alice provided. Mr Bruce – I never knew his first name and their Christmas cards were always signed “JS Bruce and Alice”, even though their primary recipient was his good friend for more than half a century – presided, and we all took our cue from him. This meant frequent long pauses – interminable to a boy of seven or eight – while Mr Bruce slowly masticated his dry sponge cake and found nothing of import to remark. The grandfather clock ticked laboriously and seemingly deafeningly through these hiatuses.

Less of a trial were the trips to see May Allman. She was a charming old dame who always made a fuss of me and usually had some little gift to bestow. She had never married and had a younger woman living with her as paid companion, another one called Alice who was a plain spinster but certainly not dim. May and Alice seemed to get by on pretty much equal terms; whether there was anything more to it, it didn’t at that age occur to me to wonder. Then a calamity occurred. Alice died. Left alone and with no prospect of replacing her helpmeet, May struggled gamely on. The last time I saw her was, I think, after my grandfather had died just before my 14th birthday. He had enjoyed a long and happy life and had been in robust health and high spirits until the day he died. May, on the other hand, was now frail and apt to lose track. On the way home, my mother told me that May had drawn her aside and confided that all she wanted was to die.

May duly got her wish, as did JS Bruce and Alice, and indeed my mother and father; as we all shall. I have no idea what were the circumstances of May’s passing. As a teenager, I had much more pressing concerns. But the purposelessness of her lingering stayed with me. It seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, that a settled wish to hasten what is anyway inevitable is a perfectly reasonable position to take. If suicide were simple, as a practical proposition, there would be no need for the courts or the law lords to take a view. But it, like the issue, is not simple.

When I was in my middle 30s, a number of my friends killed themselves. One was my flat mate Phil, ten years younger than me and a sweet boy. He threw himself off the cliffs at Dover. Such was the damage done to his head on the rocks below that he was buried unidentified. It was six months before a dental match was made and then the Dover authorities refused to allow his bewildered parents to exhume the body and re-bury it where they wished. In the meantime, we had not known what had become of him or indeed whether he was alive. Some weeks after the identification was confirmed, I received a small jiffy bag. The postmark indicated that it came from the Dover police but there was nothing in the bag save a door key. It of course was Phil’s and examining it I now knew for sure that he was dead. The key was green. It had been in his pocket in the sea.

Like any thoughtful young man, I mused on suicide myself once or twice. But the means are the taskmaster that asks all the questions. Phil’s desperate leap demands a certainty about what you want to achieve and perhaps an innocence about the ramifications: I doubt that he would have intended his family, friends and lovers to pass six months in painful speculation about his disappearance. If there were a pleasant-tasting draft available at any supermarket that you could drink and that would then carry you into a painless sleep from which you would never awaken, millions of us would have gulped it down before we turned 40, many of us on the merest whim. But of course millions more would have fed it to someone else. That rather rules it out as a permissible, let alone a marketable product.

But this is exactly the problem with the notion of assisted suicide. At what point does assistance become coercion and who decides whether a line has been crossed and on what basis? Let’s first exclude the busybodies from the equation. These are the ones who have a fixed view of the world, characteristically one based on supernatural delusion, and who want to impose that view upon everyone else. Prominent among these are the groups who scandalously characterise themselves as “pro-life”, as if somehow everyone else is “anti-life”. Given that so-called pro-lifers are almost invariably subscribers to the full ticket of right-wing views, they tend also to advocate capital punishment, pre-emptive military strikes and armed responses, which makes them rather more comprehensively anti-life than I am.

Then there are some, to whom one is certainly obliged to pay attention, who are severely disabled or suffering from terminal illness and who want to protect themselves from officious assistance to suicide, because they fear on the one hand self-interest on the part of the putative assistants and on the other hand temporary weakness or suggestibility on their own part.

These are genuine fears and must be addressed. There are grey areas here in which, for instance, psychological pressure might be put on an elderly person about “being a burden”. At the same time, of course, not wanting to be a burden can be a genuine matter of concern and distress for a dependent. It is argued that a relaxation of the rules that protect the elderly from being put under undue pressure might lead to a climate in which the elderly are widely seen as constituting a burden on society. As one only three years away from the time when he will be defined as a pensioner, I do nothing to encourage such a prospect.

But like all matters of private morality, each case needs to be considered on its own merits and not according to some ordained blueprint of action, behaviour and prejudice. It ought to be possible for medical and other professionals to determine whether or how far an elderly dependent is being manipulated by someone who stands to gain financially or in other ways from that dependent’s hastened demise. One of the Any Questions? panellists this weekend made some play of the charges that Dignitas, the Swiss body that offers an assisted suicide service, makes for that service and the fact that the further expense of travelling renders the whole exercise a privilege of being comfortably off. I was unclear what he was arguing: does he suggest that assisted suicide ought to be available on the NHS? Perhaps Dignitas ought to offer a means-tested sliding scale.

Neither this nor any other is sufficient reason to disallow the proper support required from family members and other close parties in cases where someone severely disabled or terminally ill has no doubt that a willed end is necessary before physical and/or mental deterioration makes it impossible.

What is required is a climate and a system within which everybody is capable of being satisfied for their own circumstances, not according to some methodology or supposed morality advocated by others. Indeed, that is rather what obtains now, in practice if not in law. Dignitas has come about because there is a demand for it. Technically, those spouses, partners and other family members who have accompanied those wishing to die have breached the law. The law has compassionately winked. Debbie Purdy’s wholly understandable – indeed wholly admirable – attempt to “seek clarity” in order to ensure that her husband would not be penalised for taking her to Switzerland has forced the law lords’ hand. They have been obliged to make a ruling and they have ruled, rather unexpectedly but very properly, in favour of compassion and liberality. But of course they have united the opposition behind a cause. We cannot know how this will end. It ought not to end badly for Omar Puente, Purdy’s husband. But the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, now has to draft a policy. As Peter Hain said on Any Questions?, “I hope he’s not forced to clarify things in a rigid way”. On this as on so many matters of private morality, rigidity is the enemy of both compassion and good law. All the more reason to exclude the rigid god-botherers from playing any part in the process.