Monday, August 29, 2011


Long ago, when the world and I were both young, I used (in a phrase employed in the gay community) to “cruise both sides of the street”. How I came to settle on the one side is a story for another day but, as it turned out, the road I didn’t take was the one that leads to parenthood. The line from me all the way back to the primeval swamp finally expires when I pass.

During my bisexual phrase, I embarked upon one particular relationship with a woman in which she handled the contraception matters, choosing a so-called Dutch cap. This turned out not be foolproof, however, and she fell pregnant. I did what a chap was expected to do back in those days and proposed that we marry but she determined that she would seek an abortion. I was not offered a vote.

It was a tumultuous time in my life. I was just beginning a new and demanding job, upon which quite a lot rode. Our relationship had had its fractious side, including some unresolved issues. Nonetheless, I felt no sense of relief at her decision, nor at her absolving me from any part in it. It did seem, though, to signal that the relationship had no sustainable future. So we went our separate ways. In time – perhaps a surprisingly short time, in the circumstances – we re-engaged in what has proved to be a lasting friendship. I am happy to relate that she subsequently bore a child.

The aborted foetus remains a small shadow on my psyche, an area of scar tissue that perhaps will never disappear. That foetus (had no further misfortune of a fatal nature befallen it) would now be a person nearer in age to forty than thirty. My life would have panned out unimaginably differently had the pregnancy gone to term, even had I still eventually settled for life as a gay man. And I cannot pretend that I contemplate that sliver of history with a wholly dispassionate eye. It is not something that I have placed in any sort of public forum before – I have disclosed it to vanishingly few friends – but I do so now because I want to say that, whatever my emotions concerning my own experience, I support and defend to the hilt my one-time lover’s right to make that choice, without pressure from anyone else.

The lobby that presently appears to be prevailing in the matter of rewriting the laws that govern the procurement of and the administration of abortions pretends that it is not a pressure group. But that is exactly what it is. Inevitably, the motor behind this lobby is our old friend religious bigotry. People who subscribe to the view that everyone else must bow to their irrational prejudices have hijacked the argument so thoroughly that the government – hereby revealed as repressive and anti-progressive – is minded to bow to their organisational clout and vim.

The lobby’s argument -– a slanderous one, you might think – is that such impeccable professional organisations as the Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Marie Stopes Clinic have some vested interest in talking women into terminations. What is certainly true is that these Christian propagandists have a vested interest in talking women out of terminations. Their proposal, which the Department of Health appears to have accepted, is that the PAS and the Stopes should be denied any advisory or counselling role and that women should be able to avail themselves of “independent advice”; for which, read religious interference.

Don’t let’s be naïve about what the bigot lobby wants: the wholesale abolition of the right to abortion. Many of its members go so far as to add “in any circumstances”. In their world, the impregnated victim of a gang rape by crackheads should be obliged to carry the foetus to term, whatever the possibility that the woman would harbour complex feelings towards the child who would, from its own point of view, be born already the victim of withdrawal symptoms from the crack in its system. In their world, the woman whose own life is threatened by the foetus should be impelled to accept the sacrifice of her own life rather than that of the unborn child.

These people describe themselves as “pro-life” as though anyone who takes issue with them is, by definition, pro-death. What they really are is pro-imposition of their own supposed value system, born of irrationality, on everyone else. The nightmare logic of their position leads to the murder of medical practitioners in the cause, they would have you believe, of pro-life. Praise Gandhi and pass the nuclear button.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011


In separate emails to me and to my partner the other week, an old friend strongly recommended a new movie she had seen. My heart sank and I think I may not misrepresent David if I venture that his did a little too. Does this reaction seem as inappropriate as it does ungracious? Permit me to explain.

I haven’t set foot in a cinema for many months, David for many years. I certainly used to do so. When we lived in London, I went into town at least twice a week and caught two or even three movies during the daytime and then a piece of theatre in the evening. I considered myself au fait with developments in film. But those days are gone. My visits to London have dwindled to one per year and movie-going plays no part in them. There is no cinema in our nearest town and further afield is ruled out for me because I do not drive. David certainly wouldn’t come too and anyway we don’t like to leave the dogs so long unattended. Buses in our area, as is typical of rural services, do not run late enough to get home from an evening trip. And seeing a movie in daylight now seems an unattractive proposition, as if you might be served weak tea and stale biscuits at the intermission.

I gave up my subscription to Time Out after noticing that it went unopened week after week. Then I realised that I no longer read the movie reviews in the papers. So now I have no purchase on a film world that, whenever I bump into it, appears to be largely peopled by directors and actors whose names mean nothing to me.

It doesn’t feel like a savage loss. The latest releases turn up on Sky Movies so quickly – usually within eighteen months – and I was never the sort of person who felt obscurely naked if he hadn’t read the latest novel before it was reviewed or hadn’t already seen an exhibition in Paris ahead of its London visit. It’s partly a function of age – patience is a mature virtue – but perhaps more that my range of interests is broad, so there is always plenty of all manner of subjects with which to catch up and/or to keep up. In any case, I dutifully videotape (yes, videotape) promising movies off the telly and then never get around to watching them.

Apocalypse Now – Brando, Sheen

The realisation that one cannot possibly live long enough to encompass it all is curiously liberating. Jonathan Franzen – whose The Connections I have read but whose Freedom I will certainly not acquire before it is in reasonably-priced paperback (due September 1st in the UK) and then will not hurry to devour – once said that he had calculated both his life expectancy and the number of books he read in a year and that he discovered that (then in his 40s) he could never read all the books he already owned. I intuited this in my 30s but it never stopped me buying more. It still doesn’t.

So I suppose that was the primary element in the reaction to our pal’s recommendation, that it was rather wasted on us; and also that … um … she might be expected to know as much, having been our houseguest several times. Not that I grumble at that. Clearly her instinct was wholly generous and kind. But I think there is a subtext, a more subtle resistance to anybody’s recommendations.

With whom does one share one’s taste? You can stand next to someone at a gig and be equally crazed with excitement at seeing (oh, it might be) Arctic Monkeys, and then go to your respective homes, where one settles down with a Clive Barker and the other with an Iris Murdoch; and neither of you would ever dream of entertaining the other’s notion of pleasing fiction.

My partner and I have a vast amount of overlapping taste, much of it shaped by decades of influencing each other. Each of us could write the book about what the other will like – though of course there are always surprising lacunæ – but there are also distinct no-go areas for one of us but not the other. I think our taste in contemporary cinema is an area where there are divergences, dramatised from the outset when our first date-movie (at my instigation) was Apocalypse Now. Not only was David irrevocably seared by the movie but he had to endure it from the middle of the front row where he sweetly indulged my self-important movie-buffery by agreeing (with unexpressed misgivings) to sit and, in the same interest, staying through forty-or-so minutes of end credits.

I no longer recall whether he at any level appreciated – or affected to appreciate – the Coppola. We were still in the first flush back then. Now, he would assuredly stomp out after twenty minutes. No, rather, he would never have gone with me to see it in the first place.

Recommendations can be the devil. Some years ago, another old chum presented us with a CD of a new band. Now this friend has a fine track record in spotting music that will break big. He was even ahead of the curve on Bob Dylan and, while many claim as much, he genuinely did turn up with the first LP when none of our circle had even heard of this new young razorwire-voiced genius.

The CD in question was by Antony and the Johnsons. I own at once that here is someone whose stock has risen very high among discriminating listeners. What can I say but that David and I both cordially disliked the CD? But we certainly said thank you.

Master Antony of the Johnsons

Some time later, I made an ill-considered jibe about young Antony in an email to our pal. He had made some disobliging comment about art-school pop stars in general and I suggested – jovially, as I thought – that Antony might be of their number. Back came a quite ferocious ticking off. He had introduced us to this new music out of the kindness of his heart and I had flung it back in his face. I’m paraphrasing. I don’t mind saying that I was quite mortified.

Is there actually a moral obligation not only to act upon but to profess to concur with someone else’s taste? It seems so. I have on never-forgotten occasion been fiercely upbraided by friends both for responding positively to and for expressing indifference to some cultural artefact about which the friend in question entertained contrary sentiments. I was made mysteriously to feel that I had in some crass and hostile manner questioned the whole basis for the friendship. Not so: I just disagree. Is that not allowed?

All of us have long-term and deep friendships that have triumphantly survived the friend’s unfathomable commitment to a partner whose acquaintance we would never otherwise have chosen. We may privately think – even ask of our own partner – “what ever did she see in her?” or “can’t she tell that he is an absolute no-good?” or “can that really be the sort of guy that turns him on?” But we would never, even under the pressure of close questioning, tell the friend. No one wants to hear, after the break-up of a significant relationship, all one’s old friends say “well, of course, I always disliked her, but I could never tell you that”.

Relationships are a minefield, and friendships and indeed family bonds are routinely fractured when disapproval of partnership choice is not withheld. The even-worse stage in a parental relationship than one’s precious child settling on a partner who, the parent knows, will only bring that child grief is the child feeling obliged to choose between the parent and the partner.

But it surely needn’t come to this over a television programme or a pop song. It ought to be readily acceptable that other people – even those with whom one feels in close accord on almost everything else – will be mystified by the enthusiasms with which one fills one’s days and the blind spots to which one happily admits. I would be bored to tears by cricket or line-dancing or Celebrity Big Brother or the novels of Howard Jacobson or the singing of Katherine Jenkins, but I do not rule out a trusting friendship with someone who gladly embraces any – all? let’s not go too far – of these things.

Of course, I cannot avoid a certain irritation when my own finely discriminating recommendations go unheeded by others. A few years ago, I spent an evening in New York with what struck me as one of the most thrilling and unexpected pieces of theatre I had ever seen. It was a one-man show, something I usually cross the road to avoid, being evidently enough of my father’s son to want full value for my buck. But what I had read intrigued me and I could not get a ticket for anything else on my list that night.

The monologue was called I Am My Own Wife, it was written by Doug Wright (whose play Quills that was subsequently filmed is perhaps his most widely known piece) and acted by a man I had not encountered before and have not since, Jefferson Mays. It and he enthralled me for the duration. The play went on to be awarded a hatful of awards, crowned by the Pulitzer Prize, though that never influences my opinion. It merely confirms that I was not alone.

Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own Wife

Later, it came to London with the same actor. I urgently alerted every friend to whom I thought it might have any appeal. Not a single one of them acted on my advice. Initially vexed, I modulated my view to “well, sod ’em, then. It’s their loss”. If memory serves, the London critics were surprisingly lukewarm and the run was brief.

Maybe it just didn’t travel well. Theatre, after all, is the most fugitive and ticklish of the arts, inspired in one performance, lame the next. I once had a play put on at the late lamented Soho Poly Theatre. The two previews went like a rocket and the director then told everyone that, as an inevitable consequence of this happy experience, the press night would be a damp squib. This madness became a self-fulfilling prophesy – the only inevitability that I could discern – and so the reviews were indifferent, save for that of John Peter in The Sunday Times who attended a subsequent performance. In my more paranoid moments, I muse that said director killed my budding career as a dramatist.

Rather a large proportion of my friends never attended the play or, if they did, they kept shtum about it. But that’s a whole other issue, not one of simple taste. I suppose the aspect of recommendation that causes the most trouble is the presumption – the arrogance of which is cheerfully overlooked – that the finely-honed instrument of one’s taste will lead others to dance to its tune. This presumption can induce quite staggering levels of misplaced self-confidence.

One of the more tiresome aspects of following people on Twitter is that so many of them make daily recommendations. It might be merely an illustration that they want you to look at – readily accessible via a link given in the tweet – or an article they agree with or a pop song they love – similarly linked – or, more long-term, a ballet/movie/comedian/book-reading/play/gig/opera they think you should attend. I wonder if they give a thought to how big a commitment of time and indeed sometimes cash they are casually proposing that unknown readers should invest. As a tweeter, I do it myself a little but not, I think, more challengingly than to suggest nipping to a clip on YouTube or sampling a Guardian column.

Some – and they are apt to be the compulsive tweeters who never seem to be off the damned thing – practically hit you over the head with their insistence that you (whoever you are) must experience this latest thing that the tweeter loved. The humorist and actor Chris Addison is one such member of what I think of as the I-Guarantee-You-Will-Love-This school. Well, Mr Addison doesn’t know me and hence he doesn’t know my taste. I am not even sure that something I’ve yet to encounter by Alan Bennett or Mozart could be absolutely guaranteed to please me, and Mr Addison has not, I fancy, included these artists among his tips. He seems only very recently to have discovered Victoria Wood’s blithe sitcom Dinnerladies, despite that it has been playing on one satellite channel or another every day at any time of the day or night for at least the past ten years. So how reliable can he be?

Wood's Dinnerladies

The film director Joe Wright, interviewed in today’s Guardian, laments a comment that he read about his own work on the internet and parrots the age-old plaint “everyone’s a fucking critic these days”. No indeed, criticism is something else entirely, or it should be. Joe Soap’s arbitrary taste is his own affair and doesn’t need to be defended against anybody, even if his taste seems arbitrary and unfair to Joe Wright or even to Joe Always-Right.

But proper critics – career critics – have an historic role to play, that of building a consensus about the works in their field, a consensus that aspires to (even if never truly achieving) a state of objectivity. That at any rate was the proper function of classical critics, and everyone from Walter Pater to Frank Kermode recognised it. Reviewing – that is to say, the run-of-the-mill instant responses in the newspapers – only ever contributed to the grave task of building a consensus in the hands of particularly gifted, erudite, experienced and thoughtful critics, of which there are now precious few examples (Philip French, Robert Hughes, Michael Billington, John Fordham).

I expect a serious critic to place a new work in the grand order of things and to inform me accurately that I ought to seek out and recognise its significance, if indeed it bears significance, whether the critic personally cares for the work or not. Twitter recommendations – and indeed those of civilian friends – are about those works in face of which this particular consumer (and not necessarily any other) rolls on her back and purrs with delight. A critical assessment of the time-honoured kind is about enduring achievement (or, of course, the lack of it).

Sunday, August 14, 2011

WHAT’s to be DONE?

Over the last ten days, Britain has taken leave of its senses. I do not refer to the urban riots that have scarred the social fabric, or rather I do not only refer to them. I am thinking more seriously and worryingly about the mooted mood – the “clear public mood” as BBC reporter Chris Buckler called it – of anger, blame, vengeance. When he was leader of the opposition, David Cameron sought to do the then government a piece of no-good by coining the phrase “broken Britain”. After barely fifteen months of his premiership, Britain looks to be in pieces, psychologically as well as physically.

No doubt stung by accusations of lolling in Tuscany (happily not at the Castello del Nero) while Britain burned – encapsulated by John Prescott’s #wheresthegovernment campaign on Twitter – Cameron rushed home to reassert his tottering authority. Given this perception, it was inevitable that the key to his reaction would be that useful machismo concept, cojones. Paradoxically, it fell to a woman – the Home Secretary, Theresa May – to give the most consistent running commentary exhibiting this notion and as a consequence no single sentence that fell publicly from her lips last Wednesday failed to include the word “tough”.

Well, tough is a pretty blunt instrument. Tough has a great appeal to Tory backbenchers of the string-’em-up/send-a-gunboat school and so far politicians imagine that it hasn’t played badly among the reeling public, those completely unaffected (directly) by the riots even more than those who survey an urban landscape that resembles Kabul, Baghdad and Beirut.

Mrs Tough, Theresa May

Some of us – thoughtful people, I like to think – would prefer a reaction erring more on the side of thoughtfulness. Politicians often warn against so-called knee-jerk reactions but they love to indulge such easy stuff themselves. I venture that any fool can deplore, condemn and fulminate. It doesn’t require much in the way of brainpower, let alone a university degree and a lifetime in the subtle arts of politicking. But we need our leaders to be a bit bigger than that. We need solutions more than condemnations. I offer the following constructive proposals for mending Broken Britain. Do not hold your breath for any of them to be implemented.

1: Dozens of rioters and looters are being handed jail sentences in an extraordinary panic of court activity, with magistrates and officials being required to sit through the night and at other unusual times. Anecdotal – and, more importantly, systematically analysed – evidence emerging from this process shows that a great many of those found guilty are being detained for petty offences that in the ordinary course of things would be dealt with far less punitively, especially when committed by a first-time offender or a teenager. If the courts are taking the view that the circumstances render these misdemeanours more serious than usual, they should also consider the commensurate special factors that mitigate: excitement, peer-pressure, opportunism, copycat behaviour, a climate of anarchy. Is the spur-of-the-moment grabbing of an item lying in a broken shop window really a greater felony than a planned and carefully executed act of shoplifting?

Punitive sentences that smack of politically encouraged vengeance contribute nothing to the aim of bringing society back together. The jails were already groaning at the seams and the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, had been commendably seeking ways of reducing Britain’s disproportionately high jail population. Worse, there is plenty of evidence that the most far-reaching effect that jail has on the inmates is to teach them a great deal more than they already knew about the criminal life. Politicians who insist that jail is always the answer ignore that, in most of our jails, drugs are epidemic, gang culture and pecking orders determined by menace are entrenched, and many of the warders are complicit and indeed, in some cases, downright corrupt. When the opportunistic miscreants are disgorged from these crime colleges after several months’ exposure to a criminal hierarchy much more effective and organized than any in their home neighbourhoods, some of them will inevitably return to those neighbourhoods thoroughly criminalised and resentful, rather than quelled and regretful. And all this banging-up just adds to the taxpayers' burden.

David Cameron gets down with the kids

I have long argued that only those deemed by the courts (after careful consideration of all the evidence and background reports) to constitute an actual danger to the public should be incarcerated and that those so detained should be taken off the streets for many years. The argument for short jail terms for minor offences is bankrupt and its only point is to satisfy those who seek vengeful punishment largely for its own sake.

The answer to crime that does not imperil members of the public – and most of those being jailed as I write did not imperil any member of the public – is to impose hefty community service orders. In the present circumstances, those who looted their neighbourhoods would by this means be seen by their neighbours to be making good, and some of them might even gain a sense of what both community and service mean. Perhaps even those who want the rioters and looters to bloody suffer might be mollified by the argument that the estimated cost of each inmate of a British prison exceeds £40,000 per year [Kevin Marsh, The Guardian, July 28th 2008; it must be higher now]. Throwing people in jail is a cripplingly expensive method of dealing with a social problem. To coin a phrase, the Prime Minister should have thought of that before he demanded that the courts favour the jail option.

2: David Cameron has suggested that the families of convicted rioters and looters should lose their entitlement to social housing. This is an astonishing remark for a political leader to make. To begin with, it cuts across the administration of law. There is no provision under statutory law in this country for a person who has not committed a crime to be penalised for the commission of a crime by another person, even if the additionally penalised person is the parent or guardian or in loco parentis. If Cameron wants to change the law, that is his prerogative, but he will need to be mindful of all those past and present ministers whose children have broken the law, not least his hero Tony Blair whose teenaged son was once found drunk and incapable in Leicester Square. Perhaps the then Tory leadership missed a trick by failing to demand that the Blairs be evicted from no 10 for bad parenting and a largely absent pater familias.

Euan Blair, now doing well but surely no thanks to connections

How can exacerbating the problem – turfing a whole family onto the street – possibly help to mend a broken society? Don’t vindictive responses simply raise the ante? And how will it look if the courts (usually wiser than politicians in the implementation of law) overturn the eviction notices handed out by local authorities? When the first case comes to court brought by progressive lawyers on behalf of, say, a six year-old girl who has been thrown onto the street with the rest of her family because her teenaged brother stole a mobile phone, Cameron might even have the grace to be discomfited.

3: The government has settled on the line that the problem is, in Cameron’s words, “criminality pure and simple” and specifically that a supposed gang culture is at the root of this unrest. It seems obvious to me that this is a rationalisation and that it represents handy code for suggesting to the public that ministers are on top of this rather than embarking on any hard work. Muddying the water further is an apparent lack of understanding by ministers – Cameron and May in particular – about the separation of powers. Although Cameron appears to subscribe to a traditional Tory stance of less rather than more government (and, by extension, ministerial interference), a foolish power struggle has developed between the government and the police, concentrated on the Home Office and the Met.

In her interview on The World This Weekend today, May harped continually on gang culture and what she presents as “the public mood”. I wish Shaun Ley – who was otherwise commendably determined – had pressed her to explain where she got her evidence of the public mood. She certainly didn’t ask me and nothing she says represents my mood. In particular, the constantly iterated trendy trope – “let me be clear/we are absolutely clear” – was continually undermined by her refusal to answer candidly and clearly any question about who is (or thinks they are) in charge.

For myself, I am perfectly clear, and capable (I believe) of expressing it in clear, candid language. It is for the police and only the police to identify, to attempt to contain and, insofar as is possible, to break up any gangs that may operate in our cities. It is for government to attempt to determine why gangs should spring up, if they do, and to address the socio-economic conditions that their existence indicates. Ministers are not chief constables, nor are they magistrates. It may well fall to them to articulate what may be perceived as the public mood, but more important is that they lead and, where necessary, educate that public mood. Blame is for columnists on the Daily Mail. Government’s role is governance and leadership.

Miss Selfridge, Manchester after the attention of an arsonist

In any case, the public mood, even if it genuinely exists, is not always a practical help. The latest bromide of e-petitions to Downing Street seems likely to reveal a strong groundswell among the public in favour of the restoration of capital punishment. You can bet your boots that parliament will not soon satisfy such a sentiment. The notion of the public mood is only cited when it may be presented as chiming with government policy.

4: Politicians and commentators bang on incessantly about rioters and especially looters. There is a third group – a relatively small one – within those who were on the streets in the last few days and who made considerably more of an impact than all the others put together, yet they are rarely mentioned. I do not mean anarchists or professional agitators or gangsters. I mean a particular kind of highly dangerous individual who occurs in all age groups, classes and cultures. I am talking about arsonists.

There is a special fascination about starting fires that needs to be teased out and addressed. In the last few months, there have been wildfires in many parts of the world, fires that destroyed vast acres of valuable and productive land, thousands of defenceless wild and farm creatures, homes and possessions; and indeed in some cases took human lives. Some of these started by accident, greatly assisted by bone-dry conditions and high winds. But most began through criminal carelessness or deliberate mischief. The cost of the damage done by such fires hugely outstrips that of rioting and looting. Ministers need to isolate this particular phenomenon, to seek help in understanding the psychology behind it and to initiate some sort of education programme to ensure that parents and children understand both that arson is a crime quite as serious as murder and that it will be punished accordingly. We need to get ourselves into a position where claimed ignorance of the possible consequences of starting a fire cannot possibly be ameliorating.

An unhugged hoodie enacts shooting the PM

5: The government is under pressure from all sides to halt the cuts it proposes to impose on the police. Cameron, May and George Osborne have decided that they will not accede to this pressure. They are taking a line already tried out in relation to local authority cuts and funding of the BBC: that others must implement the cuts that the government imposes and that there is no such response as “can’t”, however much councils or the BBC or, in their turn, the police warn that there is an optimal operational cost below which the fabric of the service inevitably must suffer. The government will have none of it. We seem required to accept that, if necessary, these services can be provided by volunteers who take no pay and therefore that the savings that may be made are almost infinite. The happy outcome for the government, so it believes, is that the electorate will blame the councils, the BBC and the police when it perceives that the services hitherto taken for granted are no longer forthcoming. Do not doubt that the NHS is being subjected to the same disingenuous policy.

So far, the police are disputing the government’s strategy robustly if not consistently. Theresa May’s refrain that “visible policing” will not be reduced cuts little ice with shrewd chief constables. The police are already wholly invisible to the public, save at national and local set pieces. And imposing swingeing cuts on back office expenses cannot possibly be achieved without the efficacy of the operation being affected adversely. The much-vaunted paperwork and Labour-imposed targets, while not quite a myth, are not so bureaucratic and onerous that they and the staff who are responsible for executing them can simply be chopped away with impunity.

6: Clearly, too much is asked of the police. If government will not fund the force properly, the force itself must seek extra funding. I have argued before that service charges could and should be imposed by the officers who are required to deal with incidents accountable to drunkenness in town centres. My argument then arose from the need to tackle alcoholism. Now I offer it as a means of contributing to police costs. In the breathalyser, officers already possess a gadget that will objectively determine alcohol consumption. The courts do not need to be troubled. A night in the cells and/or the attention of police (and indeed of paramedics) can attract a fixed or sliding scale of call-out charges. Let the drunks take legal action if they feel hard done by.

In another part of the forest, we are regularly told that the English Premier League is the richest football hierarchy in the world. So let the clubs stand the full cost of policing matches. ACPO, the Association of Chief Police Officers, have been seeking this change for years. Last season, the policing of just the local derbies between the two Glasgow teams (Celtic and Rangers) cost £2.4million, of which the clubs themselves tipped up rather less than 20 percent. Let them pay 100 percent. Otherwise, the police should refuse to enter the football grounds, which are, after all, private property. I don’t think ACPO need wait for legislation or a government directive. They should give the Football League an ultimatum and a deadline – October 1st, say. The government ought to be pleased that the police are standing on their own feet in such a way.

The Home Secretary gives the Met their orders for the day

7: Something else that the police should do is to reopen the matter of MPs defrauding the public purse. Cameron and other leaders talked grandly about this matter when it first came to light two years ago: “no excuses”, “criminality pure and simple”, familiar phrases. Yet only a handful of members went to jail: exemplary cases but not even necessarily the most flagrant ones, which made those so punished feel rather understandably indignant.

MPs who stole amounts running into four figures were permitted to repay (part of) their ill-gotten gains but to fight the next election as if nothing untoward had transpired. Some were pressed to stand down but none of them suffered any further penalty. These are not deprived kids living in urban squalor and without proverbial fathers. These are handsomely-rewarded legislators expected to set an example of probity to the rest of society. Some of them have legal qualifications as well as the responsibility of making the law. How can they still show their faces in public? Yet some of them have been voluble about the “disgrace” of the “criminality” shown in the last ten days.

Here are some of those who embezzled more than £1,000 through their illicit expenses claims: Hazel Blears, Sir Menzies Campbell, Ronnie Campbell, Quentin Davies, Alan Duncan, Julia Goldsworthy, Michael Gove, Douglas Hogg, Phil Hope, Stewart Jackson, Sir Gerald Kaufman, Andrew Lansley, Oliver Letwin, Shahid Malik, Margaret Moran, Richard Younger-Ross. If David Cameron – himself obliged to pay back a wrongly claimed sum – is serious about the broken society, he needs to look at the chimneys and the sunroof as well as the drains.

Cameron, cruel victim of satire

8: Ministers need to sit down and talk with those who manage and direct the culture, in particular the culture of broadcasting. Our television is a showcase for the acquisitive society. It is not merely the advertisements that have been pumped into our homes for nearly sixty years at a greater and greater rate, the appeal of which is ever more to a subconscious sense of insecurity and misplaced duty – you must have this, that and the other product or you will be out of the loop/sexually unattractive/failing as a mother. The programmes themselves grow more and more like the advertisements that fund them, with acquisitiveness the most apparent of all the medium’s moral messages. I caught a trail on the Biography Channel this afternoon for a programme in which “six of Miami’s elite ladies flash their cash and reveal everything about their enviable lifestyles”. The key words, you will have noticed, are “flash” and “enviable”. Is it any wonder that viewers spend most of their viewing time unconsciously wanting things that they can never acquire by legitimate means?

The bosses of advertising and television – and of radio and the print media, which are no better – must be compelled to address the values that they casually inculcate in their consumers. This is a real issue, not a gestural concern. It is a problem that grows more acute by the day and if ministers do not make them confront it, who will?

9: Allied to the above is the responsibility of the various national bodies that administer sports. All sports have been transformed over the last half-century by the injection of big money: investment for a return by advertisers and broadcasting but also ownership by speculators, many of them with little grasp of the traditions and histories of the sports in which they have taken such large stakes.

With the possible exceptions of golf, sailing, swimming, diving and darts, all sports are now widely sullied by cheating, drug-taking, performance enhancement, results fixing, bribery, psychological pressure on officials and other manifestations of corruption. As sports people have a more significant impact as role models than anyone, including pop singers and movie stars, the requirement for them to be beyond reproach is all the greater. Ministers need to sit down and talk to the sports administrators about unprecedented levels of sanctions against cheats of all kinds. If “no excuses” applies to moments of madness indulged by kids who anyway have little consolation for the deprived lives that they lead, it must apply big time to cosseted, overpaid stars who have no need of any extra boost given by backhanders and steroid dealers.

Martin Rowson's take on blame culture

10: And then there’s the big political picture. The contradiction between politicians finger-wagging about violence on the nearby streets who yet glory in sending jets, bombers and tanks into the neighbourhoods of innocent people who seemingly count for nothing because they live a long way away. The contradiction between politicians who pretend that bankers’ bonuses are essential because these people need to be millionaires in order to have an incentive to stay in London and speculate against the pound and against British businesses, yet who simultaneously discount the aspirations of people unfortunate enough not to have gained posts as asset-strippers and arbitrageurs and who imagine that volunteering to shoulder half a lifetime of further-education-imposed debt is sufficient motivation to contribute to a society that values city failure higher than academic study and social service. The contradiction between politicians who blink at massive evasion of taxes by those wealthy enough to live in tax havens and to hire clever accountants yet who pounce angrily on supposed benefit cheats whose peccadilloes pale by comparison and who have no compunction about withdrawing support from the most vulnerable members of society: the disabled, the mentally incapacitated, the unemployable.

Over the decades since World War II, the gap between rich and poor has only widened. Tragically for the electorate, Labour has during the same period offered no alternative to Tory refusal of any notion of the redistribution of wealth. In an arresting phrase when preparing to be Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1970s, Denis Healey threatened to “squeeze the rich until the pips squeak” but in his long five years in the post he never actually did that. George Osborne has yet to rule out the abolition of the 50 percent rate of income tax and, given the government’s usual cavalier treatment of any notion of “the public mood”, we should expect this to come to pass in the fullness of time.

Frankly, there is little to hope for from the politicians, One might as well riot.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


Scene: A Council Flat, North London
Time: Evening, Friday August 5th 2011

Chav Jr: See you later, Mum.
Mrs Chav: Where are you off to at 7:00 o’clock at night?
CJ: Going to see my mates.
Mrs C: Oh no you’re not. And put that hood down.
CJ: Aww, why, Mum?
Mrs C: Because I say so. And you don't want to risk being hugged by David Cameron. Sit down here with me.
CJ: It’s not fair.
Mrs C: I dare say. But you’re not going out now. I heard it rumoured that a man has been shot dead by the police. There might be trouble.
CJ: I was only going to sit in the precinct with my mates.
Mrs C: Sit in the precinct? Why can’t you join a youth club or something like that?
CJ: The council just closed down the youth club.
Mrs C: Why, wasn’t anyone going there any more?
CJ: No, lots of kids did but they said the funding was cut.
Mrs C: Well, never you mind. I don’t want you getting into trouble. There might be looting. You have to think about that in case it happens.
CJ: What’s wrong with looting? The Secretary of State for Education looted £7,000 from the public purse, part of it paid to his mother-in-law, plus he claimed £500 each night for hotel expenses when he was moving between his various homes trying to decide which one to flip.
Mrs C: Didn’t you learn anything at school? There’s one rule for the rich and one rule for the poor. That’s Lesson One in life. Anyway, Mr Michael Gove admitted he shouldn’t have claimed for a cot mattress and promptly surrendered the cost of that, so he’s repaid his debt to society.
CJ: So if I get into trouble, will I get a second chance?
Mrs C: of course not. That only applies to media people like Mr Andy Coulson. And parliamentarians like Mr Peter (now Lord) Mandelson and Mr David Blunkett and Mr David Laws. Don’t you know anything?
CJ: It’s not fair.
Mrs C: No, it’s not. But you can always change it by voting for the Labour Party at the next general election. Now, come and sit here and we’ll watch Celebrity Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
CJ: Aww, Mum. Do I have to?
Mrs C: Don’t you want to see whether Katie Price and Lord Sugar can become millionaires? You are an ungrateful child.
CJ: Aww, Mum.
Mrs C: Oh dash it. I’ve run out of Evian. Here’s some money. Run to the corner shop and get me a bottle. Come straight back.

The same. 6:00 hrs Wednesday August 10th 2011

The front door is smashed in and two dozen armed police in full riot gear swarm into the flat, followed by camera crews from the BBC, ITV, Sky News, Al Jazeera and IRIB Tehran, followed at a safe distance by the Chairman of the Local Council who carries an aerosol.

Mrs C emerges from her bedroom in her dressing gown.

Mrs C: May I help you, gentlemen?
Cop: It’s Ms to you, scum.
Mrs C: I’m so sorry, Ms. Your face is masked, so I am unable to determine your sex. Also, your identity number is covered, as it was in the case of the policeman who pushed over Ian Tomlinson. There’s no need for anonymity here. We did not install CCTV because Tory MPs feel that there is too much intrusion into people’s lives.
Cop: Where’s the terrorist?
Mrs C: I am so sorry, I fail to understand you.
Cop: Shut the fuck up, scum. Bring out the kid or we torch the place.

CJ enters in his pyjamas. Ten cops wrestle him to the ground and handcuff him. The Council Chairman steps forward, giving the room a quick spritz with his aerosol.

CC: Mrs Chav, I am here to serve upon you this eviction notice. You have three minutes to evacuate the premises.
Mrs C: I confess I am a little surprised at this turn of events. I believe our rental is fully paid up.
CC: Mrs Chav, this feral rat that the police have so bravely apprehended looted the neighbourhood on Friday night. His image is reproduced on a poster twelve feet high in city centres across the globe. He’s looking at a minimum of twenty years without remission.
Mrs C: Is this true, son?
CJ: I picked up a bottle of water lying on the street. It was sealed and no one seemed to want it. I brought it home to you. I was back in time to see Joey Barton win a million pounds on the television.
Mrs C: It’s true, he was gone barely twenty minutes.
CC: Society needs to be protected from scum like yours. And it requires blood.
Mrs C: I’ve just remembered. Son, you never gave back the cash I gave you for the water. What did you do with it?
CJ: I sent it to the DES appeal for the starving in East Africa.
Mrs C: Fiend! Do with him what you must, officers. He may be only nine years old but he knows right from wrong.
CC: What a pity that he forgot on this occasion.

The cops leave, dragging CJ with them.

CC: Incidentally, the door to this flat is a disgrace. It doesn’t even shut properly. You’ll have to pay for that before you depart to seek a position on the street.
Mrs C: Thank you, sir, for pointing out the error of our ways.
CC: That, my dear lady, is what public service is all about.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011


The presidential palace, Damascus, August 2011. An aide approaches the President.

Aide: “Majesty, there is a person-to-person call on the private line”.

Assad: “Who is it?”

Aide: “His Excellency the Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution of Libya”.

Assad: “Put him through”.

The aide steps out again. Immediately there is a ping on the desk phone. The President picks up.

Assad: “Muammar! Wha’ happenin’?”

Gaddafi: “I’m good, man. Another thousand loyal citizens of Tripoli killed by NATO bombs last night, but otherwise like cool”.

Assad: “Good guy”.

Gaddafi: “Enjoying the satellite pix from London. You too, bro’?”

Assad: “Omigod. Awesome”.

London in flames

Gaddafi: “One in the eye for Gordon Brown, innit”.

Assad: “No, he’s toast, bro’. It’s this Cameroon dude now”.

Gaddafi: “Whoever”.

Assad: “See, it’s a civil insurrection led by criminal elements, just like we got, no?”

Gaddafi: “Tha’s right”.

Assad: “Tha’s what the Cameroon dude say, any road up”.

Gaddafi: “He’s a flake, no?”

Assad: “Too right. He lost the country, bro’. Hey, at least there ain’t no lootin’ an’ stuff in Acton, praise be to Allah”.

Gaddafi: “Acton? Wha’s that, man?”

Assad: “Ma bitch Asma, tha’s where she come from”.

Gaddafi: “Oh, right”.

Assad: “Good Syrian peeps roun’ Acton way. No lootin’.”

Gaddafi: “That’s good, man, ‘bout Acton, know wha’ I mean? But from where I sit, y’know, the world goin’ to bits and like soon”.

Assad: “Too right, bro’. We gonna boycott the London Olympics. Can’t guarantee team safety, you dig?”

Gaddafi: “Yeah, good call, Bashar. Well, you take care now”.

Assad; “You too, guy. Don’ let the bastards grind you down, yeah?”

A much-loved Tottenham landmark, the Allied Carpets store with flats above, fired by rioters

“Criminality pure and simple,” David Cameron calls this week’s riots, and it “has to be confronted and defeated”. There’s nothing pure or simple about the events of this week. You wonder why he bothered to fly home from his Tuscan holiday if that’s all he learned from his urgently convened Cobra meeting. And if the assembled parliamentarians are going to spend their recalled session on Thursday wringing their hands and deploring and vowing to punish the bad, nothing will have been achieved.

Wiser old heads might remind the shocked ministers and would-be ministers that you can’t make people good by threatening, hectoring or even legislating. People will be good if they care to be and if it seems worth their while. It can help if you treat them in the first place as if they might have a capacity to be good. But since it came to office, the coalition government has appeared to have no good word for the most disadvantaged members of society. Denounced as spongers, shirkers and benefit cheats, they have seen their meagre support systems whittled away by cuts that seem targeted to do the most damage to the most damaged.

Unemployment is inevitably created by the systematic starvation of support for public services, and youth unemployment in particular is epidemic. Local authorities have been obliged to close youth and other amenities. The government has abolished the Education Maintenance Allowance that supported poorer students and others in work-based learning schemes (what used to be called apprenticeships) and is imposing a high level of indebtedness on future recipients of higher education. At the same time, levels of unemployment benefit are being cut and tests of eligibility have been tightened to the point where, to many recipients, being given any state support or none seems to be a lottery.

Allied Carpets, the morning after

Meanwhile, the media that the public depend upon for information and diversion are full of multimillionaire pop stars, actors and sports people flaunting themselves, not to mention stories of the eye-watering bonuses paid to those who work in banking and the city, many of whom seem to be over-rewarded whether they fail or succeed, whether they contribute to the general good or leech off it.

This infotainment is brought to the consumer courtesy of an increasingly ferocious campaign of advertising and promotion that instructs those consumers hundreds of times a day that they are somehow mysteriously out of the loop if they don’t acquire this, that or the other product. If you don’t have the money to buy these things, the notion naturally grows that you may as well steal them or, in the opportunist field day granted by an urban riot, loot them. After all, the culture that the various media promote carries a wholly dehumanised, grasping, competitive, uncaring, devil-take-the-hindmost message. Loot and steal is what everybody does, however exalted. Why should any kid with no income and no prospects respect a society run by people who live in tax havens and ruthlessly destroy the planet for short-term gain? If that kid lived in east Africa, she’d be starving to death.

Looters in Ealing

Many have asserted that the key to this week’s riots in London and elsewhere is the use among rioters of social networks and other internet devices. If so, society deserves it. The web can help in all sorts of way. A blithe discovery was an interview given by Nick Clegg to Sky News back in the run-up to the general election, in which he forecast that the policies that the Tories were proposing to implement in order to “clear up the economic mess” would cause rioting in the streets, just the policies that he now helps to implement. The piece can be found here

and, before Labour crows about it too much, that well-known, finger-on-the-pulse Labour frontbencher Tessa Jowell is seen pooh-poohing Clegg’s doom-predicting quite as disdainfully as David Cameron does. This is not a story from which any politician is going to be able to draw any comfort.

Burnt-out police car in Tottenham

Nor will the police, who find themselves in a classic bind, damned if they hold fire, damned if they go in all guns blazing. On the first three nights, they were soon cast as the villains of the piece, the citizenry – especially those burned out of their homes and businesses -– demanding to know where the help was hiding. It’s widely suggested that the tactic of staying out of it – if that indeed is what it was – was a gesture to persuade the government to stop slashing police budgets. Tonight, with 16,000 head of cops on the streets of London alone and dozens of cities and towns cancelling police leave, the danger is that civilian heads will be broken and well-founded cries of over-kill will ensue and – worse – over-kill on the wrong night. Meanwhile, the cost of police and firefighters’ overtime will have to be added to the cost of the clear-up, insurance pay-outs and eventual rebuild: more that the public purse can ill afford.

And it’s unarguable that there is still an issue over police and race relations, especially in the capital. Afro-Caribbean, Asian and mixed-race youth still feel vulnerable to unfounded police suspicion and it’s not all paranoia. As a gay white man, I cannot say hand on heart that I feel completely relaxed and accepted around police officers and I’m sure ethnic minority people sense similar subtexts of – at best – indifference. There is still a Neanderthal culture in the police – white, straight, right-wing, god-fearing, angry, blokeish – and anyone who doesn’t fit in there feels it. With the best will in the world, there is still a great deal to be changed. Watch the currently repeating fly-on-the-wall Channel 4 series Coppers for evidence.

Car windscreen in Nottingham

So this was the summer that the cities exploded. Truly, it’s been an eye-popping year, every week bringing fresh and unlooked-for astonishments. Much of that turmoil arises from a government feeling its way, with no clear grasp on how it wants Britain to be. Certainly, among the edifices going up in flames on Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights was Cameron’s vaunted Big Society. In opposition, he used to deploy the PR-speak phrase that Britain was “a broken society”. What is it now?

Friday, August 05, 2011


Ponds are environments of mystery. What dramas are enacted beneath their tranquil surfaces or even at the surface when one is elsewhere? By definition, they possess something intense, complex, profound: namely, depth. They are separate, contained worlds, by far the greatest part of which we are unable to observe. Yet we are instinctively drawn to them.

When we moved to our present home in the dying years of last century, we inherited a pond. Between us, we mustered pretty limited experience of managing such facilities. How much is there to know? We bought books and read websites. Mostly, we learned hands-on.

The pond was near the house, just across the drive from the conservatory. It was around forty feet long, up to fifteen feet wide and shaped like a peanut shell. It was pretty shallow – if you waded in, the water didn’t reach your knees. And it was choked with weed, notably so-called fish weed (elodea crispa) that I characterised as like soft Christmas tree. We needed to drag out huge clumps at regular intervals, leaving it for some hours at the pond edge so that any aquatic creatures had the chance to slither back to the water.

Blue orfe

Halfway across the narrow middle protruded a rickety wooden jetty from which, on his first day in residence, our second puppy launched himself to his great shock and surprise. Apart from its shape, its shallowness, the jetty and the fish, the other notable feature of the pond was a net stretched across the whole area and supported on slowly rotting wooden posts. This was meant to protect the residents from marauding herons. The previous owner told us that he had had to restock after every fish had been taken.

The pond soon became a source of great pleasure. I affected that watching the fish was more satisfying than watching the telly (and often it was). But it was too near the house, it was too shallow and it was approaching the end of its useful life. We persevered for a few years, never sure how heavily stocked it might be. Occasionally, a fish carcass appeared at the surface. We introduced a few newcomers – shubunkins, comets, ghost koi.

David’s sister gave us a large common carp, grown too big for their own pond. As he had hatching marks on his back, the girls had called him Chubby Checker. Another carp came from a friend’s pond in London, David transporting it all the way by car (it proved a reliable navigator). He was our biggest fish and we called him Big Bill Broonzy. The distinctive members of our aquatic community did, we felt, merit names. We didn’t know how to sex fish and so, with no discriminatory intent, we referred to any fish generically as “him”. But these big guys seemed very hemmed in, sometimes swimming proud of the water.

As essentially a “wild” pond with no filtration, it played host to many creatures aside from fish, especially frogs and newts. For a few nights in the early spring, we would suddenly find the drive and surrounding areas swarming with frogs looking for mates. We had to step carefully then, keeping the dogs on leads and guiding them through the vulnerable amphibians.

The characteristic blue and orange markings of a shubunkin

Already in residence in the pond when we arrived were seven orfe that I liked very much, five golden and two blue, but one summer all but one of each colour died in quick succession. We tried to monitor the water condition but it was tricky. What’s more, herons still visited. I once saw one striding across the pond, flattening the net as it went. The heron is a fine sight, a huge, ungainly bird that seems utterly out of place in an English garden. We once had one perching on the roof, like a Hitchcockian threat. We referred to successive visiting herons generically as Ron. Whether any Ron managed to hoik any fish under or – horrid thought – through the net was hard to tell, as we never had a stock inventory. But occasionally frogs or birds would get fatally entangled in the net and it became much holed. The pond was clearly unsatisfactory.

So, four or five years ago, we decided to relocate our water feature. As we have two acres of meadow-ish field, there were plenty of options. We settled on a partly shaded corner that was already backed by a long mound, the basis of which was the spoil from the old pond. We took some professional advice from a pond specialist, Mark. And we hauled in our builder, the late Micky the Brickie, to dig a hole.

I had read that water doesn’t freeze if it’s at least eight feet deep so we decided to go down eight feet. Using a succession of increasingly hefty JCBs, Micky went at it with a will, clearly having a whale of a time. The spoil started to form a croissant-shaped mound protecting the pond. When he got to eight feet, we all decided he should push on. At twelve feet, Micky reached the bedrock. It was now a mighty excavation, some fifty feet long, thirty feet across at its widest point (it was pear-shaped) and deep enough for me to stand on David’s head and know that I’d barely break the surface (we didn’t actually test this notion). Fargo the Great Dane gazed mournfully into the hole, picturing all the bones he could bury there. But he and Tati, his fellow dog, and the rest of us could walk down from the staggered shallow end and stand in the pit and marvel at its dimensions. It was going to be a serious pond.

Mark the pond advisor secured us the appropriate size of liner and he and his assistant spent the best part of a day draping it so that no unnecessary folds would create pockets of problem. We ordered ten tons of rocks from a local quarry and enjoyed the relish with which the truck-driver lowered them around the pond with his crane. The protective bank was very barren but we knew the bare look wouldn’t last long.

The next thing to do was to turn a hose into the hole. The water ran at full power without cease, 24 hours each day, and it took a week to fill. Fargo thought we’d taken leave of our senses. We knew we needed to let the water mature so we left it for a year, October to October. During the winter, we learned that water freezes even when it’s twelve feet deep. In the spring, I ferried countless netloads of tadpoles from the old pond to the new – there must easily have been a thousand. I figured there would be enough microscopic life for them all to feed on by then. An undisturbed body of water out in the open develops a vast culture within a very short span. Certainly there was already evidence of countless newts well dug in.

In the second October, we transferred the fish. Mark and his mate came over to catch them all for us and identify each one by type. The last golden orfe had died so there was just the blue left of the original shoal. We decided to call him Orpheus. He was the first of the fish that I put into the new pond with my own hands so I felt a special bond. All told, there were almost a hundred. And jeepers, they were excited by their new home. All that first evening, they swam round and round in a single shoal close to the surface, a fabulous sight. We were so entranced by them that we neglected to take a picture.

The gorgeous kingfisher

In the morning, it was quite different. They had swum down, found the bottom, rootled in the accumulated sludge on the pond floor and clouded the water. They no longer swam together but explored confidently and alone, luxuriating in the colossal amount of space. The water was now the colour of the mint tea you get served in the countries of north Africa and it has remained so ever since.

Before we introduced the fish, we had installed a pump, lowered to the bottom and used to keep a certain amount of circulation constant in the water. It returned as a water course, tumbling over rocks into the shallow end. In its path we planted watercress to help cleanse the water. But, as before, there was no filtration. Only hardy fish would survive our conditions: no koi, only the stalwart ghost variety.

We introduced a few other fish, including some sterlets and a couple of tench to graze the lower water (we never see them but we know they’re there) and a few more eye-catching comets. The pond has been a great success and little trouble. The number of residents has grown hugely with successive generations of fry and plenty of space in which to hide and survive. There have been very few casualties that we know of – no visible deaths for at least two seasons – though most springs have been marked by many frog bodies in the pond. These appear to be the result of over-active fornication on the part of the frogs rather than any systemic issue in the pond. This year, unexpectedly, there were barely any such calamities but David has still noticed dozens of tiny froglets in the grass while working around the pond.

But predators are still a problem. We have seen rats in the pond and there are plenty of places for rats to hide and even live among the woodpiles and other havens we have provided. I don’t know whether rats take fish. Two summers ago, I happened upon a fish lying on the bank. It was quite a substantial specimen – a mirror carp, I think. I assumed it was dead – its head was bloodied – but then it twitched a bit. I hurried off to get a bucket so that I could scoop up some pond water and transfer it to a place of safety. The first bucket I found turned out to be holed. With a better pail, I ran back to the pond. The fish had gone. Then I found it a foot or two away in the grass. I lifted it carefully into the bucket. Needless to say, it died during the night.

A majestic heron in flight

I felt sure that the mirror carp was too weak to have flapped itself so far. A heron would never have returned so soon if it had been disturbed. I figured that the predator must have been a rat. They are strong hunters, especially if hungry. But would a rat dive into the water, fasten onto the head of a fish as large as itself and haul it onto the bank? I have consulted the internet where, as on any other topic, there are as many opinions as there are commentators. But the balance of finding is that rats only take small fish, if at all. The great danger of rats is that they introduce Weil’s Disease into the water, harmless to fish but potentially deadly to humans if the bacterium enters through a cut on the skin. Fifty people die of this in Britain every year.

We have seen a kingfisher at the pond. He sits on one of the rocks and bides his time. He’s a rare sighting because such an alert bird is aware of you before you are of him unless he’s very preoccupied. And he’s a truly beautiful sighting, as exquisite and exotic as any species you might see in Asia, Africa or the Caribbean. If he makes off with the odd small fish – ones without names – we can’t begrudge him.

But what of Ron? Well, generations of herons, young as well as full-grown, have visited the pond. David grows a lot of bamboo and the canes he discards are handy for creating barriers at the water’s edge that ought to baffle and deter the heron, either from trying to land or from trying to walk into the water. We aim to surprise them so that we can see where they were standing and increase the defences accordingly. And the pond is little help to Ron’s cause. The shallow end is limited and slopes away abruptly and fast. There are few vantage points at the water’s edge and all of those are barricaded. There are few large plants established in the water and certainly none that could bear a big bird’s weight. The rocks must be too high for the heron to spear fish from without overbalancing.

A common carp. Big Bill was not as big as this

For the first few years of the pond, I felt sure we had made it Ron-proof. There was no evidence of fish loss. All the named specimen were present and correct. There was never physical evidence of any kind of struggle. We decided that Ron would satisfy himself with finding frogs in the grass.

But I fear I have been complacent. For weeks and indeed now for months, I have seen neither Big Bill Broonzy nor Orpheus. Nor have I spotted a single shubunkin – we must have had eight or ten when the pond was still new. Chubby Checker is still reporting at feed times and the ghost koi, aggressive and splashy feeders, seem all to be present and correct. I had thought both Big Bill and the orfe were pretty safe, although each had his vulnerable behaviour pattern. Orpheus was comparatively conspicuous, being so white (blue-white) and for the first year or two he seemed happiest in the shallows. But while he was often the first up for food, he was always very fast, both in reaction and in flight. But a heron evidently does strike with lightning speed. And it is prepared to wait patiently for hours, standing absolutely rigid, its eye fixed on the water. Orpheus has been apparently absent for long periods before – weeks, even – but I hardly think he can be expected to resurface now, after what may well be three or four months. I am sad. He had lived here longer than have we. He must have been at least fifteen years old.

A heron can handle a damned big fish

Big Bill the carp was a substantial specimen, a good eighteen inches long and heavy-set. He had quite a lot of orange coloration on his back and a swirl of blue behind his head, like a striking birthmark. Maybe we should have dubbed him Gorbachev. His vulnerable habit was to cruise lazily just below the surface and close to the edges of the pond. That would make him of great interest of Ron, I can see, but I always assumed he would be too much of a challenge. However, looking at Google Images, I came across a photograph of a heron brandishing a full-grown rabbit by the ears (too distressing to post here). I fear I have badly underestimated Ron.

We shall go on monitoring Ron’s visits and bolstering the barricades. I read that the favourite hunting time for herons is first light. He would be undisturbed at our pond for a good long time then. I also read that they are highly intuitive and resourceful birds, adept at learning how to bypass hazards. I think we can only be sure that we have outfoxed him when a whole hunting season has passed without a sighting of him.

Meanwhile, our pond is a glorious haven. There is nothing more restorative than to sit in one of our Adirondack chairs with a glass of chilled white wine or a vodka tonic and a stimulating book or a sparkling conversation while the sun sinks over the willows and the insects start to stir, ready for the bats to fly in at dusk. The encircling mound, full of grasses and wildflowers, shields the view of us from the lane and deadens any traffic sound from the distant main road. All we hear is the gurgle of the watercourse, the occasional splash of a fish and the extensive and complex dialogue of the many birds that frequent our field.

At the centre of it is the mystery – dare I say, the miracle – of our wondrous pond.