Monthly Archives: February 2006

Testing humanity

We’re very pro-cuddly creatures in our house. Some of our most treasured companions are very realistic fluffy bears, dogs, otters, giraffes, lions and so on and our favourite stories usually feature a talking duck or a hungry caterpillar or something. We’re also generally down on unmotivated cruelty to animals – we don’t support the squashing of bugs or the kicking of dogs, for instance. We do, however, support animal testing.

The animal rights people are wrong. They’re wrong because their description of nature, of our relationship with other species, is infantile and anthropomorphic. It depends on a simplified (Disneyfied) taxonomy that gives all species (usually just the furry ones, actually) an erroneous equivalence. In their version of the top end of the food chain, rights invented in complicated, literate human cultures are arbitrarily extended to parts of the natural world that cannot ever properly own them.

The human species is… well… just that: a species – a small part of nature’s awesome unity. Our relationship with other species is like that of other top predators. We make complicated, highly-evolved use of the species below us in the chain, like those parasitic moths who persuade poisonous ants to feed them through their pupal stage and like the cuckoo whose use of stupider bird species is well known.

Opposing the use of animals in medical and scientific tests suggests a sympathetic relationship to animals. In fact it means quite the reverse: an arbitrary separation of the animals from the humans. In the animal rights campaigners’ world animals are not part of the same, impossibly rich and productive system as humans, they’re something separate and different, deserving only of our pity and protection.

I don’t want to naturalise animal cruelty: morality (another complicated human invention) still applies and so does ecological common sense. Destroying animal species for profit and abusing animals for fun are just wrong but making scientific use of the living world in the pursuit of knowledge is a proper and profoundly natural thing to do.

Not a lot of people know this

The young Julie Burchill by Steve Bowbrick, February 2006
I have a tiny internal Julie Burchill living in my head, against whom I check all my ideas. Yes I do. She’s a tough critic too – I don’t think she’s actually liked an idea yet. She took up residence a long time ago, when I read one of the prickly and brilliant pieces she wrote for the NME about ‘rock’s rich tapestry’, an idea she despised because it summed up all the soft, wooly, wholegrain eclecticism of ‘serious rock’. In the article (I wish I could find it online, or even the date it was published) she famously said: “the only things that matter are the Sex Pistols and Motown.”

This is the kind of sulphurous pop Stalinism that she went on to apply to… well… everything in various top jobs in the grown-up press ever since, of course. We don’t get on at all, me and my tiny internal Julie Burchill. She’s a sort of malign Jiminy Cricket: I’m soft and accepting, she’s tough and intolerant. I think we should treasure variety and strangeness and she thinks that’s evidence of valueless decadence. I like complexity and openness and she likes simple, common-sense solutions. But still, she persists. Intellectually I know she’s wrong (and bitter and cruel too) but emotionally I fear she’s right and that the world really is as bleak and pointless as she says it is. So I go on consulting her and she goes on trashing my mushy relativist bullshit. When will I learn?

Questions questions

Placards at a an Islamic protest against the Danish Mohammed cartoons in London, drawn by Steve Bowbrick
I have many questions about Islam and those cartoons. I wish I could sit down with one of the young, apparently intelligent and obviously articulate spokesmen I see rolled out by the various protesting Islamic groups and ask him a few questions.

I want to know why Islam can’t respond in a grown-up way to these crappy, unimportant drawings. It’s as if Muslims lack (or have lost) the interpretive tools necessary to put them into their proper context. The community’s response seems to be – well – infantile, inchoate, immature. What happened? Has Islam been so bruised by decades of oppression, by systematic disenfranchisement, by loss of land and respect that it can’t, collectively, handle the kind of routine disrespect that other creeds take on the chin? Or is that just patronising?

And those threats, the ones painted on placards in London last week, were they for real? Should I have felt genuinely threatened? Maybe they were rhetorical: the bluster and bravado of a pissed-off community. I’m serious. If those Muslim men and women carrying the placards – kids and pensioners and mums and dads – didn’t actually mean it, I could be persuaded not to worry. Get on with my life. That’s another thing I’d like to ask one of those clever spokesmen. If you’re serious about bringing jihad – a ‘real holocaust’, one of the placards said – to Britain, what should I do? Should I take up arms against you? Hide? Emigrate?

And another thing. Freedom of speech has a history. It’s not a Godless bourgeois fixation or a silly luxury we thought up yesterday. When you and your friends are thinking up your slogans and your nasty invective, do you ever think about the centuries-long struggle that produced liberties like free speech in Britain and elsewhere? About the long line of vicious monarchs, aristocrats, landowners, rentiers and other scumbags who were defied and pushed back and finally overthrown so that we might say… well… anything we like?

Is anybody in the Islamic world bothering to explain the Western peoples’ attachment to the right to say things that might offend? If I picked up a newspaper in Cairo or Damascus or Islamabad today would I find columns (with helpful timelines and graphics – Charles II smashing a printing press, Nazis burning books) informing Muslim readers about the epic struggle of the people of Europe over centuries for the vote, for freedom of assembly and expression, for a living wage, for relief from the nasty clerics and the nastier landowners? Doesn’t look like it, does it?

An open letter (about the Schools White Paper) to grumpy Labour backbenchers

Hello Guys,

I’m pretty sure you won’t argue with me when I say that education is important to national competitiveness but I wonder if you’ll agree with me when I say that Britain’s only real hope in the next twenty, fifty or one hundred years is to be the best educated nation on the planet. A medium-sized, chilly, Northern European country with famously crappy infrastructure and a persistent productivity deficit stands precisely no chance at all in the profoundly altered global marketplace of the next decades without this kind of advantage.

Allow me to repeat myself: the only way to retain anything like our current status against the double-digit growth machines of Asia by the time my kids (7, 6 and 2) enter the workforce is to get started right now on profound reform of our education system with the goal of making it the best in the world. Of course, teachers are like nurses – they can do no wrong. Any attempt, from any ideological direction, to shake the system up, to provide new incentives and to dump wasteful and counterproductive practices will be greeted with horror and most likely fail.

But you, the backbone of Labour’s thin parliamentary majority, have a chance in the coming months to kick off the step change in education improvement that we need to help Britain compete with the new superpowers, to help invent a new model for state education, one that’s so powerful it might begin to bridge the gap with the snooty private schools. Oh… Hold on. Today an excellent private secondary school in Manchester took the plunge and rejoined the state system. I’m stunned. Suddenly we’re presented with the real and exciting prospect of a flow of private schools back into the state system.

Don’t pretend you don’t think that’s a big deal! You now have the power to make the state system so good that the private sector simply caves in and jumps the fence. The white paper (and the bill) presents the very real prospect that the private sector will be reduced to a tiny rump of schools for the super-rich and for the super-weird. Please don’t refuse this opportunity to remake British education and get us on track for the inevitable head-on battle with the Asian superpowers in the twenty-first century’s global marketplace.

Your friend, Steve

Big, stupid cars

A 1970 Hillman Avenger Estate
If you do the school run in a Land Rover Discovery 3 you’re hauling fifty times your own weight with you (maybe twenty times the weight of your whole family). The car weighs nearly three tons. Just getting the thing moving consumes enough expensively-acquired energy (think Russian pipeline) to cook your dinner for a month.

One of these days it’s going to occur to us that obliging mums (usually mums) to haul fifty times their own weight with them everywhere they go, just to provide an illusion of safety and the kind of brutalist road warrior aesthetic that matches the handbag and the shoes represents some kind of apex in the increasingly stupid and decadent recent history of the car.

Cars, almost everywhere, are bigger and more over-specified than they’ve ever been. A decade of continuous, happily-compounding economic growth has reduced our resistance to excess, softened us up for a generation of consumer products – and especially cars – that pay no heed at all to the fate of the planet or of its less fortunate occupants.

When I was a kid my Dad bought, for our A-B pleasure, a Hillman Avenger Estate, a big, ugly red car that charmed no one but worked hard for its keep and wound up, for instance, hauling a huge, twenty year-old half-timbered caravan to and from Ireland many times. The thing is, it had a 1250cc (1.25 litre) engine that produced less than 40 horsepower (absolutely the worst card in the Top Trumps deck). It was a truly dreadful car but it made good use of those horsepower and hauled us (and that stupid caravan) around the country with something approaching grace for many years.

You can’t buy a family car with less than 100 horsepower now and, at the fancy end, engines of four, five and even six litres are now commonplace (there’s a sports car made by Daimler Chrysler subsidiary Dodge with an eight litre engine). At showrooms in Berkeley Square you can buy cars the size of buses (made by Bentley and Rolls Royce, Volkswagen subsidiaries) that cost more than a nice semi-detached house in Reading).

Cars are going to need to get smaller and, possibly, vanish all together. In the meantime they need to get down to Weight Watchers.

The unlikeliest survivor

How can one man be so irrelevant and yet, at the same time, so influential? How does John Prescott, a politician who belongs not to the last generation but to the one before that, manage to get his oar into New Labour policy formation so profoundly as to stall legislation like the planned education bill while he negotiates – we’re told – a compromise on deal breakers like selection? Does he have something on Blair (or Brown? Or Clark?) or is it possible that his links with the old party still protect his custom-made job in the cabinet? Don’t ask me.

Sort of Proustian, really

Germolene ointment. Not pink any more
Germolene used to be pink. It was famously pink. People used to call it ‘pink ointment’. For generations the distinctive colour and thick, putty-like texture defined the whole category. Everybody had a tin. I bet your Mum rubbed Germolene on your various cuts and scrapes when you were a kid. So what happened? It’s not pink any more, that’s for sure. It’s white, just like all the other antiseptic creams (still smells the same, though).

Research, I suppose, showed that people expect their ointment to be white. Not pink. So the manufacturer decided that it would be cheaper to reengineer the product completely than to invest in communicating the idea of… er… pinkness. Cheaper to cave in to fashion and dump the brand’s number one attribute than to make positive use of its uniqueness and its history to produce the association “healing = pink”. So Germolene is now just one of dozens of ointments that all look exactly the same. I think that’s sad.

Update. Oh bollocks. Obviously you can still buy the pink stuff (sort of slightly bitter thanks to AlexS for pointing this out). It’s not thick and treacly like pink Marmite any more, though, and you can’t buy it in handy tins…

Cameron again

Cameron, his audience and assembled media at Demos, 30 January 2006
I schlepped down to Demos at London Bridge to watch David Cameron make an unimpressive speech in which he largely failed to convince his audience that a) Margaret Thatcher believed in social justice and b) he is the true inheritor of Tony Blair’s reformist mission. Assembled media, Great & Good, wonks, waiters and your loyal citizen journalist (that’s me) giggled at the thought.

The speech marked, as well as another stop on Cameron’s gimmicky ‘take back the centre ground’ roadshow, the publication of Demos’ latest pamphlet which is a zeitgeisty open letter to Dave about ‘Fair Conservatism’ (written by a Tory MP) called True Blue.

My favourite Francophile philosopher/historian/guru Theodore Zeldin was there too and he put it nicely: Cameron’s just not ‘beautiful’ enough. He’s dead right. The man has the charisma of a bag of sugar and none of Blair’s almost hypnotic charm.