I am utterly and totally fed up of the casual racist comments I see every day in my Facebook news feed about muslims. What is it with everyone? What has happened to our common sense and our compassion?
What happened in Paris on Friday was awful. And yet what do we do? We turn on muslims. Has anybody stopped to think that, for the average Syrian, every night is Friday night in Paris? Has everybody forgotten the picture of the toddler washed up on that beach in Greece? Aylan Kurdi was a muslim.
The attack on Paris could have been so much, much worse. The suicide bomber outside the Stade de France was stopped from entering by a security guard, even though he had a valid ticket. The guard’s name was Zouheir. Eighty thousand people were in that stadium. The man who saved them was a muslim.
So many seemingly nice people seem to take comfort from sharing these ridiculous memes calling for women to stop wearing the burqa, and branding refugees, ‘sponging migrants’. How will banning the burqa stop terrorism? The men who carried out the atrocities in Paris didn’t wear burqas. The IRA killed 3,700 people during The Troubles. I don’t recall any of them wearing a burqa. In all the 30 years of attacks on the British mainland and in Ireland nobody blamed the Catholic Church. We didn’t think of the members of the IRA as primarily Catholic. We thought of them as terrorists. The killers in Paris are not muslims. They are terrorists.
And how can we, for the love of God, call people who are fleeing Syria sponging migrants? Spongers do not choose to live in plastic shacks on waste ground in Calais, or wade through mud in Croatia for a slice of bread and a bottle of water. Spongers are MPs who have fiddled their expenses. Spongers are big companies like Starbucks which benefit from our trade and avoid paying tax.
We look back on World War Two with pride when we think of how our country took in Jewish refugees and children on the Kinder Transport. What pride do we have now in the way we treat Syrian refugees? They may be muslims, but we are all human. Don’t let the terrorists split us up.
Today is Armistice Day. It marks the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 when the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front.
I was going to put up a picture of my grandfather who spent four years driving trucks of supplies to the trenches in World War One.
But instead I am going to put up a picture of my father and the men he fought with in World War Two.
The No1 Sikh Engineer Battalion served in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Egypt before being sent to Italy in 1943 to serve with the specialist troops of the British Eighth Army.
It is very hard to find out anything about the Sikhs who served in Italy. They don’t seem to get the attention they deserve. But, according to The Sikh Nugget 5,782 Indian soldiers died in the fighting there. Six out of the 20 Victoria Crosses awarded in that campaign were given to Indian soldiers.
My dad and the soldiers he served with were engineers. The only thing he would ever say about his experience in Italy was that he spent the entire campaign blowing up bridges and then building them again.
So, here’s to you, dad. Capt. David Scott, No 1 Sikh Engineer Battalion. And here are the names of the men you were with, that you so carefully wrote on the back of the picture.
Back row: Jemadar Bishan Singh; Capt. DE Gaye, RE; Jem. Bavant Singh; Lt. GL Nicholson, RE; Jem. Ralla Singh; Capt. J. Harcombe, RE.
Standing: Lt. SR. Bapat, IE; Jem. Gulwar Singh; Lt. David Scott; Jem. Baradur Singh; Lt. Srivastera, IAME; Jem. Amar Singh; Jem. Baradur Singh; Capt. RJ Ryan; Jem. Chayja Singh.
Sitting: Jem. Kishan Singh; Capt. IA Munro, RE; Subadar Mahan Singh; Maj. AE Coults, RE; Sub Maj and Hon Lt Bhagar Singh, OBI; Lt. Col. JP Davidson MCIE; Subadar Jina Singh; Capt. JM Scott (?); Jem. Mula Singh.
Front row: Jem Gian Singh; Jem Udham Singh; Lt. EG Mountford, RE; Jem. Blagwan Singh; Jem Tikla Singh.
Lest we forget.
I have just been to the best job interview ever. Which is good, because I have had some real stinkers.
A job interview is not the kind of thing that makes you want to leap out of bed in the morning. It’s not like you’re going to be having lunch with George Clooney at the Savoy and, if you hit if off over the Poire Belle Helene, he’ll be asking you to write his next movie.
No. Job interviews, generally speaking, are a weekend spent with dentist in-laws, being examined on philosophy and arse-licking, condensed into an hour.
The weirdest job interview I’ve ever had? That would be the one in the advertising department of a local radio station. It didn’t go too badly. At first. I impressed the head of advertising with my choice of music for some processed cheese (Air on a Cheese String), but then he asked me, quite seriously, what famous actor I would choose to play him in a film. And what film it would be. What kind of question is that??? My mind, poor at the best of times in these situations, went completely blank. I stared at the guy, who was small, pinkly balding and perspiring freely, and then, in a splurge of sycophancy, I mumbled, ‘Oh, that would have to be Samuel L Jackson, of course, because he’s the coolest man on the planet.’
‘And the film?’ he pressed, smirking slightly.
‘Er, oh…’ and then I blurted, ‘Babe the sheep pig, because he looks like you.’
Most crushing job interview? That would be one I had in the seventies, when no one had really yet got to grips with equality. It was for the job of junior reporter on a weekly paper, and it all went swimmingly until, at the end, the editor said, ‘Well, it’s a choice between you and a young man. So, of course, I’m going to give him the job.’ Yes, he really said that. Mind you, he also said he’d call me back in six months, and he did. So, fair play. (ish)
Most time-consuming and ridiculous interview? That would be for a multi national bank. Not in the money department, you understand, but as editor of a staff newspaper. When I got notification of the interview, a friend said to me, ‘They’ll ask you what you like doing in your spare time.’
‘Oh, that’s easy,’ I replied. ‘Lying in bed and eating chocolates.’
‘Nooo!’ said friend. ‘You can’t say that.’
‘Why not? They’ll think I’m being friendly and humorous.’
‘Banks don’t have a sense of humour,’ counselled the friend. ‘Say, that whatever time you get home, you like to go out for a run. Otherwise they’ll think you’re sluggish and hopeless.’
And it came to pass that, during the interview, I was given several bizarre tests cunningly designed to reveal the inner me (including building the Forth Road Bridge out of plastic straws). Efficient people with clipboards watched my every move, and would ask at intervals, ‘How do you like to unwind after a day at work?’ (Oh, I have to go for a run. It’s absolutely my favourite thing). Or, ‘What’s your favourite pastime?’ (Running, of course, or possibly going to the gym. You can’t beat an hour or two on the treadmill – I mean, it did wonders for Oscar Wilde); or rank, in order of preference, your ideal method of relaxation: a, watching TV; b, lying in bed; c, eating chocolates; d, going for a five-mile run over muddy terrain in the dark (Yes, you guessed it.)
And, get this: I got offered the job. I didn’t take it though. It was too much like hard work.
Which brings me to my latest interview. This was for a job as an adult education tutor for my local county council. Zero hours contract, mind, and no cast iron guarantee of any work, but it was worth a go. So I jumped through most of the hoops online, and was called to interview last Tuesday at a former stately home in the depths of the lush spring countryside. They (whoever they were) started building the house about 900 years ago out of the glowing local stone, and the Victorians put an end to it with fancy bits of brick. It had gothic doorways, and crumbling turrets and lush untidy lawns with a stand of beehives at a safe distance. It was the kind of place that made you want to take a cup of tea out onto the terrace and conjure up a best selling romance, while the cook and butler got busy with the bacon and eggs. (Enough pointless description, ed).
Anyway, there I was with three other hopefuls, who teach music, drama and relaxation therapy. We all had to give a 15-minute lesson. The music teacher was first. She had all of us, including the county council types, up on our feet singing What shall we do with the drunken sailor and Oh, sinner man. She gave us tambourines and scrapy sticks and divided us up to so we could do part-singing. And it was truly joyful. (And mostly in tune.) Then it was the drama teacher, who emptied a bag full of masks on the table (I got the one labelled ‘confused’) and showed us how to mime. (Move over, Rowan Atkinson). My 15 minutes on how to write natural-sounding dialogue was a bit quiet after all that but, because I’d also had instruction on how to meditate from the other teacher, my nerves had flown away. I was having A Good Time. And guess what? I got the job! (And I’m hoping that the other three were taken on too, because they were really good.)
My classes are being time-tabled, and the leaflets are blowing out over the land. All I have to do now, is get some students. Music and mime, anybody?
Picture of Samuel L Jackson: commons.wikimedia.org
Picture of Babe the Sheep pig: simple.wikipedia.org
Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Back on that bloody bus. We sit at the front this time. The desert looks just the same, like an asphalt car park for some megastore, without the megastore. The slag heaps look just the same, too.
Get on the train to Lanzhou. Can’t get hard sleepers, so we sit up all night. The carriage is packed and everyone thinks we are great curiosities. When we get a pack of cards out, everybody perks up. There’s even somebody in the luggage rack watching us. They’re such great gamblers, the Chinese; I think they are expecting us to play poker or something. Don’t know what they make of Find the Lady. They look very confused, anyway.
Still on the train. Feeling extremely jaded. Two men in very smart blue uniforms get on and sit next to us. They say they’re judges, but they look very young; about 30. One speaks English, so we get the standard grilling. Where do you come from? Where are you going? Are you married? I almost fall off my seat when he asks if Margaret Thatcher is a madam.
He means, of course, is she married, and can’t understand why I am laughing so much. The thought of explaining it is fairly mind-boggling, so I don’t try.
He gets quite paternal; insists on escorting us to the dining car, tries to get us beer (but even he gets mayo la) and tells us we must have a good dinner when we get to Lanzhou.
The Chinese are wonderful with children. There are several four and five-year-olds in the carriage, all running up and down and being petted and spoiled by everyone they go up to. They are all beautiful; great dark eyes in solemn faces, wrapped up in so many layers that their arms stick out from their sides and they walk with a rolling gait, like old sea dogs. One claims the hearts of a group of soldiers, who sit her on their knees in turn while they play cards.
Another walks up to one of the judges and is made a great fuss of. Our judge, in between polishing up his English, is having a conversation with a four-year-old sitting on the seat behind and who keeps popping up to have a good look at what is going on. It’s sometimes difficult to tell which children belong to which adults. The toddlers are so confident of affection from anyone, and the adults don’t let them down.
We cross the Yellow River. It’s raining. I never thought I’d be so glad to see rain. We arrive at Lanzhou, it’s taken 24 hours to get here. The length of the train trips in this country really makes you appreciate how vast this place is.
The judge insists we write him a message in his Chinese/English dictionary – much in use over the past few hours – and he writes one in the back of Cheryl’s paperback.
To my three English friends, wishing them much happiness. I hope you come to China again, from your friend Pei Ping.
He gets off the train with us to make sure we find the right exit. I promise to send him a postcard from London. He’s going to send me a picture of his wife and daughter.
Get on the train for Cheng Du. We ask for hard sleepers and wait an hour, but we get them.
I have three brothers, and there was a point when the middle one was getting irritating beyond belief. He rang all of us at various times, pretending to be a dimwitted salesman (of different products, depending on how he felt). And, to give him credit, he was very good. He took my mother in, oh, for at least 20 minutes with his impersonation of a double glazing rep. This, naturally, we all found very funny. But when he started on the rest of us, we were less than impressed.
Eldest brother in Canada, who is a doctor, rang me up to chew my ear off. ‘How am I supposed to get up all bright eyed to slash at people’s varicose veins, when I get phone calls at midnight to see if I want my drains unblocking? I thought it was one of my patients who’d become unhinged. I tell you, if I have to get a plane to come home and sort him out, things are going to get messy.’
Needless to say, middle brother just laughed. His next call, to me at 5 am, backfired slightly because I had just come home from a late shift, but he kept me talking so long that when I eventually went to bed I couldn’t sleep, and was knackered for my next shift.
However, things came to a head when my youngest brother, who had got more calls than anybody else, told the mysterious caller with the funny accent to fuck off, and then discovered it was one of my mother’s oldest friends, calling from Mauritius.
Something had to be done. And at that moment, believe it or not, I won a Rolls Royce in a competition in the UK Press Gazette. Just for the weekend, mind, but it was enough. I could now exact revenge on middle brother.
This all happened at the time when I lived in a slummy flat in London (see putting on the Ritz) and one of my flatmates was Jochen, a German lad who I’d known since school and who was just starting out in the music business, composing TV theme tunes. Anybody who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour needs to meet him. He enthusiastically hired a 1930s chauffeur’s uniform straight from Lady Chatterley’s lover, complete with breeches and gaiters, while I got my fishtail cocktail dress and pearls out. My then boyfriend (now my husband) Steve came along for the ride. He flatly refused to dress up in formal evening wear, but Jochen pointed out that, since he had a leather jacket, he could easily pass for somebody successful in the music business.
I alerted my sister in law as to what was going on, and a couple of hours later we arrived at the Yorkshire pub where my brother liked to drink on a Friday night. I’m not talking here about a place where you can discuss the merits of a bottle of Chardonnay. I’m talking a spit and sawdust four-ale bar, mostly inhabited by silent men who had (and probably still have) fairly strong, unprintable, views about Margaret Thatcher and the champagne-guzzling Tory elite.
The low level of chat and the click of dominoes trailed to absolute silence when I walked in. My brother, who was standing at the bar, froze with his pint half way to his lips.
‘Darling,’ I trilled. ‘Do give me a kiss. Aren’t you going to buy me pint? I’ve just made a shed load of money in London.’
A rather stunned looking bloke banged into the bar behind me. ‘Somebody’s just parked a fucking great Rolls Royce in’t car park.’
‘Oh that’ll be mine,’ I said. ‘I do hope the chauffeur hasn’t put it in your way.’
The door opened again and Jochen came in, respectfully removing his hat.
‘Everything all right?’ I asked him.
‘Yes, madam,’ he said in his perfect, accentless English. ‘But one of the dogs has been sick on the lambswool rug in the car.’
‘Oh, that’s all right,’ I said generously. ‘You can clean it up in the morning.’
There were some deep mutterings at this. And my brother looked daggers at me. ‘He will not. You can fucking clean it up. Who said you could have servants? Bloody nonsense.’
He turned to Jochen and forced his face into a kindly smile. ‘Now then, lad, would you like a pint?’
Jochen looked at me. ‘Is it permitted, madam?’ (More rumblings of discontent.)
‘Maybe just a half,’ I said magnanimously. ‘And you can have a cigarette, too, if you like.’
Jochen took a tin of tobacco out of his breeches pocket, and at that moment about ten men flicked open their cigarette packets and held them out to him. ‘Here, have a fag, lad. Have a fag on me.’
And so the evening wore on, Jochen was treated with sympathy, Steve was accepted as a normal, but somewhat intriguing person, and the interplay between my brother and myself was the best entertainment ever for the other blokes in the bar.
‘I’m never going to live this down,’ said my brother, gloomily. ‘Never. Why did you have to come dressed like that?’
‘I thought you’d like to see how well I was doing,’ I trilled. ‘And Jochen’s such a treasure, isn’t he? Good staff are so hard to find.’
Jochen and Steve choked on their beer.
What are you laughing at?’ demanded my brother.
‘Tell him,’ pleaded Jochen. ‘I can’t stand it any longer. And besides, my jacket is getting itchy.’
‘What, tell me what?’
‘It’s a joke,’ I said. ‘It’s our revenge on you for your stupid bloody phone calls. Steve is not in the record business, I only have the Rolls Royce for the weekend and Jochen is not a chauffeur. He’s really a German composer.’
My brother looked at me for a long moment and then laughed. ‘A German composer? He’s as German as I am! Pull the other one. You can’t fool me!’
My mother, due to her superhuman powers, was let out of hospital at the weekend. Her health, at 94, was so good, that she was given an epidural, not general anaesthetic, when they pinned her broken hip. (She described the op as ‘like a party’).
She is now at home with a rota of carers in attendance. Being my mother this meant that, on her first morning back, she got out of bed in the morning to make herself some tea and toast (which took her hours, but she’s nothing if not bloody-minded), before hobbling back to bed so that she could graciously wait for the carer to arrive to help her get out of bed.
So she’s on the mend. But this is what fascinates me. Before she was allowed home she had to show the physios that she was capable of making a cup of tea. In fairness, I suppose getting a brew on does combine several skills. But I’m reckoning that nowhere else in the world is your tea-making ability evaluated by health professionals.
I mean, do you get points knocked off for not warming the pot, or putting the milk in last (or first, whatevs, ed) and does your inability to open a biscuit tin count against you? Do they want to see your fine motor skills evidenced by one lump, or two? And what happens, if like my mother, you can’t stand milk and ask for a lemon and a sharp knife (actually I know the answer to that; the aforementioned, and rather fazed health professional then allows my highly amused mother to play ‘lets pretend to make the tea’).
What happens in other countries? Do Italians have to rustle up an espresso? Are the French asked to uncork a bottle of wine? And do the Aussies have to pull open a tinnie?
Picture courtesy of http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cup_of_tea,_Scotland via Creative Commons
A long time ago, probably about the time dinosaurs roamed Hyde Park, way before the evolution of mobile phones and social media, I took my mates to The Ritz for dinner. I was living in a slum at the time; a three-room flat on the first floor of a decaying house in Westbourne Grove. I was sharing it with a budding composer and a medical student. It was the kind of place where you had to go out of the front door to get to the bathroom (which was mostly unspeakable) or the kitchen (ditto).
None of us had any money. So when, one day, I got a large cheque for some work I’d done, I decided to treat my four best friends to the greatest evening ever. These particular people had kept by me through the break up of a long-term relationship. They had listened, without complaining, to my tales of woe; had refrained from giving me any in-depth advice, had let me sleep on their sofas, and had given me free access to their fridges (not that there was ever anything much in them).
I planned therefore, that we would kick the evening off at the Savoy’s American bar, and then go to the Ritz for dinner. For once in our lives we were going to live High on The Hog. With this in mind, I bought myself a white taffeta cocktail dress with a boned bodice and and a fishtail skirt; it made me feel like a million dollars and, after ten minutes struggling with a pair of pliers, I managed to do up the zip.
The night came and off I went to the Savoy. And there were my friends, Beth, Cheryl, Margaret and Tony, all done up like dogs’ dinners too, all of us beaming fit to bust to be in such a place. Okay, so The Dress meant I had trouble sitting down, but I managed it without rupturing anything vital.
We ordered daiquiris because I’d seen them in a film; there was a pianist tinkling away in the background, and everything was all right with the world, when Beth put down her drink and handed me a parcel. ‘Here,’ she said. ‘We’ve bought you a clock. To mark your new life.’ I was slightly nonplussed by this. I don’t know why they thought I needed a clock. Especially a pink china one. But, hey, a present is a present, and I was touched. We ordered another round of daiquiris, and then off we went to the Ritz. That’s such a simple sentence, but to get in a black London cab on The Strand on a rainy evening, and say, ‘The Ritz, please,’ knowing you are going to have dinner there, gives you all kind of fizzy expectations.
The dining room at the Ritz was like something out of Versailles; the walls were lined with mirrors and the ceilings were painted in blue and gold and decorated with gilded knobbly bits, and there were chandeliers like upside down golden trees, and stiff white linen on the tables and crystal winking in the lamplight. If Louis XIV had strolled in at that moment with Mme de Pompadour on his arm he would have felt absolument tout at home. The only bum note for his majesty being us, the giggling serfs, struggling with their menus at a centre table.
We ordered everything that looked expensive, or sounded gorgeous. We confessed frankly to the waiters that we had no idea what to drink with what, and then ordered two of everything they suggested. Other diners were indulging in light chit-chat, and stretching out elegantly to each other as if they were auditioning for a Noel Coward play. I heard one woman say to the man she was with, ‘What he really wants, darling, is for me to divorce him and live with you in New York.’
There was a little band on the dance floor playing show tunes. The four of us grinned at each other, drank more champagne and then put our heads down, and ate. And ate. It was our first decent meal for months. Actually, decent doesn’t begin to describe it. It was heavenly.
None of us had ever experienced anything like it. Waiters didn’t bring the food, they seemed to shimmer in with it. They were like holograms. Silent, helpful,and mostly invisible. You just had to look slightly puzzled, and pffft! there was a bloke in a penguin suit and a cummerbund refilling your wine glass, before dissolving silently away.
The waiters wafted in unending succession to our table with plates loaded with oysters, and then pan-fried steaks (how else do you fry something, except in a pan?) and then sorbets, and poire belle Helene, and coffee and petits fours, and little minty chocolates. They cracked open the bottles of claret and champagne and brandy until we sat back, all of us, flushed, happy and full.
We danced on the little dance floor. We drank more champagne. Everything was mostly perfect, except for my dress. It was now life-threatingly tight, and I began to wonder, if I went for a pee, how I was, a, going to undo it, and then, b, do it up again. I had not brought my pliers with me. If it wasn’t done up all the way, it would fall down. Which was Not An Option.
However, it was now about midnight, and we were the only people left. It was time to go. Relief from the torture dress was in sight. And then I remembered the clock. I had left it at the Savoy. A waiter, sensing a minute disturbance in my neural pathways, materialised by my chair.
‘Madam?’ he murmured.
‘Do you have a telephone I could use? I’ve left my clock at the Savoy.’
Looking at me sympathetically he nodded. ‘I shall telephone to them immediately.’
And with a perfectly serious face, he added, ‘Are you resident at the Savoy?’
‘Not really,’ I said.
And off he went. This is what having servants meant, I realised. They do everything, but everything for you. A few moments later he rematerialised by my side.
‘I am afraid there has been a little difficulty, madam.’ He paused. ‘Was it a pink clock?’
He nodded. ‘Yes, the American bar was evacuated this evening when guests found a bag on the floor. The Scotland Yard bomb squad were called in. They were going to carry out a controlled explosion, I believe. And then they noticed a small pink clock, inside.’
There was silence around the table. ‘My God,’ croaked Beth. ‘We’ll all be arrested.’
But the waiter was unmoved. ‘If you would care to call at the Savoy on your way home, madam, I have instructed them to give you your clock.’
‘What, just like that?’ I asked. ‘And they’re all right about it? I mean, the police don’t want to… interview us, or anything?’ The idea of spending the night in the nick, after an evening at the Ritz, was appalling.
He looked affronted at the idea. ‘Certainly not, madam. I have explained everything to them.’ He paused. ‘Will that be all?’
‘There’s just one more thing, actually,’ I said.
‘You don’t happen to have a pair of pliers, do you?
Pictures via Creative Commons, courtesy of: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2227257
On Saturday my mother fell over in the bathroom and she was not able to get up. Being 94, she has an alarm button on a necklace, that she can press for instant help. Being bloody minded, she doesn’t wear it. So she spent the next hour or so crawling the 20ft to her bedroom to get the necklace.
Bedroom reached and panic button pressed, the rest of the world swung into action. A passing paramedic came by, followed by two others in an ambulance, I was called by the council’s panic people (I’m sure they have a proper name, but it probably doesn’t mean so much), and soon she and I were off to A&E.
I wasn’t very optimistic about what was going to happen to us. We’ve all seen the national news about how hospital A&E departments in England are at breaking point at the moment. Two in the Midlands this week could not accept any more patients and one, in Stoke, according to a paramedic interviewed on TV, got to the point where it locked its doors.
At University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire there were people lining the A&E corridors on trolleys, (perfectly conscious, and not looking in a huge amount of pain, it has to be said, although we weren’t in the George Clooney part of the department) and the staff had that kind of controlled calm that you get in a place that is really, really busy. One of the doctors was gripping her hair, and pulling it up, up, up, as if it would make her think better.
I had expected that mum too would be on a trolley in a corridor, and was astonished when we were met by a nurse who knew all about her, and who had been told to take her to Room 18. (It was the nurse’s third day on the job and she had no idea where Room 18 was, but she was cheerful and bright and kind, and she found the correct little side-room in two ticks). Mum was X-rayed (broken hip); put into a hospital gown by two other nurses, one of them African (I point out his nationality because all nurses should have African accents, it is the kindest and jolliest voice in the world); given pain relief; and seen by an anaesthetist and an orthopaedic surgeon. Okay, so we had to wait around for several hours while this all happened, but it wasn’t much of stretch, especially not for mum, who once the morphine kicked in, started playing Candy Crush with the ceiling tiles. When she was taken up to the orthopaedic ward, I left for home, knowing that she was in kind and good hands.
In the last three days my mum has had her hip fixed, she’s been given a special vibrating bed to stop the build-up of any blood clots, she’s had physio-therapy, nice meals, and a handsome doctor blowing in her ear at 3 am (apparently it’s the standard way to wake someone up) to check her over. And nothing has she had to pay, except the National Insurance payments that she has contributed through her taxes, all through her working life.
The only quibble I have with all this is that she has a phone by her bed. And the company that installed had the bright idea of making all outgoing UK calls free (while charging a fortune to call in, mind). This is not a good idea, NHS people. Not with my mother. She has rung every single person she is related to.
Yesterday, when everybody else was probably unavailable due to ear exhaustion, she rang me and asked me to bring in a pencil. As she was not wearing her hearing aids, you can imagine that the conversation that followed was rather difficult. Something on the lines of,
Her: ‘I’d like a pencil. You’ll find one in a jar on my table.’
Me: ‘But I can bring you a pencil from here.’
Her: ‘Cardboard? I don’t want cardboard. What are you talking about? ’
Her: ‘Pencils, of course I want a pencil. I told you that. You’ll find one in the jar. I want to do the crossword.’
Me: ‘But I’ve got pencils here.’
Her: ‘That’s no good to me, is it, though? I need one here.’
She’s definitely on the mend. Thank you, NHS, you are a marvellous thing, and long may you continue. But, please, hide my mum’s telephone.
Picture via Creative Commons from http://www.geograph.org.uk
There’s one more thing I have to say about Charlie Hebdo, before I shut up. It was at times silly and offensive. It wasn’t that popular; in fact it closed down for a while because of lack of funds. But it is precisely because it was so silly and offensive that the attack on it is so important to think about, while the inevitable debate on press freedom cranks up again.
People talk a lot about the freedom of the press, and we are all led to believe that journalists spend their days toiling after The Truth. Some, maybe. I can think of very honourable examples of these, such as Paul Foot and John Pilger, both of whom had a hard time when they took on the British and Australian Establishment.
Most of us, though, not so much. If some extremist twit with a Kalashnikov had stormed the newsrooms of any of the tabloid newspapers where I worked, he would have been murdering people who were probably just about to press the send button on headlines such as ‘Drink’ll wrinkle your winkle’, or ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster.’
On the face of it, those journalists at Charlie Hebdo weren’t doing anything particularly noble either when they were murdered. They were having a morning meeting, drinking coffee, and probably doodling Francois Hollande doing something unmentionable. To picture them being murdered, is surreal. Did they, in those first few seconds, think it was some kind of a joke? Is it some kind of appalling irony that these satirists were killed by men with no sense of humour?
The difference between Charlie Hebdo and most mainstream newspapers, though, is that it took a shot at every religion going. It published cartoons which some found extremely offensive. But, why not? I read a blog post yesterday in which the blogger stated that he wouldn’t get away with writing about the Queen having oral sex. And yet he demonstrated his liberty to do so, simply by saying that. Has he been arrested? I don’t think so. Has he been torn to shreds by the corgis? No. He was free to say what he damn well pleased. And other people were free not to read it. Same with Charlie Hebdo.
Obviously, we cannot malign people simply because of the way they are (he must be bad because he’s a catholic/protestant/jew/muslim/jedi knight), but if we cannot take pot shots at institutions, if we cannot allow ourselves or others, however outrageously, to question them, then we might as well buy kalashnikovs and shoot ourselves.
Whatever we think of the content of Charlie Hebdo, we have to remember that its office was fire-bombed in 2011, and that the police took the death threats to the editor Stephane Charbonnier seriously enough to give him protection. And yet he and his staff still went on bringing out their mag. If those terrorists hadn’t arrived on Wednesday morning, probably only three men and a dog would have read it.
Not many people like reading offensive material. Charlie Hebdo’s normal print run of about 60,000 (in a country of 66 million people) proved this. In a free society we allow free speech and ignore what we don’t like. But we still make space for it; we respect other people’s opinions, because we want people to respect our own.
Next week Charlie Hebdo is bringing out one million copies. Its cartoons, that the terrorists didn’t like, have now been given much greater coverage than their murdered artists could ever have dreamt of. I didn’t much like some of those cartoons either, but today, Je suis Charlie.
cartoons via Creative Commons available at http://960thepatriot.com/blogs
A year or so ago, after Fusilier Lee Rigby was butchered on a London street, the English Defence League (or bunch of fascist bastards as they are more commonly known) marched on a mosque in York. The muslims met them with tea and biscuits, and they began to chat, and then they had a game of football, and the riot police went home.
I thought of that last night after the news of the killings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris. I thought of all the millions of muslims who are, in effect, our brothers and sisters in this world, who are bracing themselves to pay the price for the atrocities that extremists commit in their name.
Ordinary muslims all over the world are suffering terribly at the hands of extremists at the moment; 200,000 are thought to have died in the civil war in Syria. Thousands more have had to leave their homes. Isis is marching across the Middle East. Young men and women in the west, seduced by the sham ideology of ‘freedom fighting’, are leaving their homes to join the chaos. Some are ending up as suicide bombers, and western governments fear some will come home as terrorists. Maybe that is where yesterday’s killers came from.
We, as the general public, can do nothing, really, to stop these random acts of murder. But we can do everything to show our solidarity as human beings. At the end of some Christian church services, the people in the congregation shake hands with each other. Let’s start going out of our way to shake hands, in reality and metaphorically, with people who don’t share our faith. Let us show that we can stand together. Bugger extremists with guns, let’s show the power of people with pens.
Cup of tea, anyone?
Top picture by Ann Czernik, at http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2013/may/27/york-mosque-protest-tea-biscuits .
Second picture via creative commons, courtesy of http://dpdpksmedan.org/category/download/page/9/