Friday, November 21, 2014


Well, I`ve finished wading my way through Richard Vinen`s 600-page account of National Service.  It`s a serious, entertaining and thought-provoking account of a time which was unique in the social and military history of this country.  It was the first and only time when over two million men born between 1928 and August,1939 (I was born in July 1939) were conscripted to serve during peacetime.   Well, I use the word peacetime advisedly as, during the period, there were serious conflicts in Korea, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and the fiasco of Suez, in each of which national servicemen served, died or were wounded and should perhaps be remembered more than they are.  

Now the contribution of national servicemen to these episodes is acknowledged at some length and rightly so, for the whole raison d`etre of conscription was not to turn the youth of the day into men but rather to ensure that the armed forces had enough manpower to cope not only with conflicts such as those I have mentioned but also the burgeoning threat from the Soviet Union.

Vinen`s book is full of detail about the background, the process and the ending of national service and draws upon a large collection of documents, records and interviews, all of which add to the authenticity of his study.   But it is a study not only of conscription but also of Britain during those times and he concludes that that time is now almost unrecognisable from the perspective of now.   The book is littered with references to all kinds of divisions that existed during the national service years - public school, grammar school;  officer class, non-commissioned officers, `other ranks;` divisions within the army itself - Guards, Cavalry, infantry regiments, Pioneer Corps; between regular soldiers and national service conscripts - but the most telling influence in those times was the preponderance and application of `class` itself.  (I wonder if it has changed all that much.)

Most of Vinen`s `personal` sources are from commissioned national service officers and there is perhaps not enough effort devoted to exploring what national service really meant to the `ordinary` conscript,  plucked from his own domestic environment and pitchforked into a quite alien world where, if he was to survive at all, he had quickly to adopt qualities such as self-reliance, a healthy cynicism and an acceptance of his situation whilst counting the days until his own form of normality could be resumed.

I`ve said before that, for me, the experiences I had left me with mixed feelings;  I would rather not have been called up and yet, having been, I learnt things about life and about myself that I suspect have proved useful, not least the comradeship I discovered from being `all in this together.`  And yes, my cynicism remains untouched, for how else could it be, having proved so hopeless at shooting that my rifle range score was laughably inept so I was posted to a cavalry regiment that had tanks with massive guns;  and when I was demobbed I found myself posted to a reserve regiment that went by the name of Sharpshooters.   Which, of course, aptly demonstrates the eternal contradiction in terms that is military intelligence.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Some months ago now, Prime Minister Dave Cameron said that he expected the long awaited report of the Chilcot Inquiry to be published "before the end of the year." That was in May and now there are only four weeks left of the Parliamentary Year, so the prospect of Cameron`s expectation being fulfilled looks decidedly unlikely.

I think it was in July that letters were sent to the main participants in the Inquiry setting out detailed conclusions and, by law, anyone who faces criticism in a public inquiry must be warned as such and given the opportunity to challenge any negative findings.   Our old friend, Tony Blair, is possibly among those to whom such letters are believed to have been sent.

All of this process leads to yet more delay in the report`s publication and, as well as Parliamentary time running out, some members of the Houses of Parliament are now seriously suggesting that it would not be right for the report to be published before next May`s General Election.  Words like felony and compounded spring to mind.

It`s reported that a spokesman for the Chilcot Inquiry has declined to comment on the current state of affairs;  a spokesman for Tony Blair`s Office has gone on record as saying, "No comment;"  and Jack Straw, another thought to have received a letter from the Inquiry, could not be reached for comment.

It all comes as nothing of a surprise and seems as though too many people have nothing to say about this festering sore, which will only heal once the report is finally published, although I`m beginning to doubt whether that will be in my lifetime.  

Monday, November 17, 2014


God knows I`m the last one to comment on religion, but a couple of things caught my eye this weekend.   The first is that at last it seems the Church of England is going to allow women to become Bishops.  Now I have absolutely no idea why they have not been `allowed` before now but I suspect there might be some deep philosophical reason based on some arcane biblical text...or it might just be because they are just women.  Either way it`s all a bit daft and so for serial doubters like me it`s an encouraging sign that at last the church seem to be dragging themselves into the 21st century.   Good for them.

The other thing that puzzled me was the report that the BBC is revamping its long running programme, "Songs of Praise," which has been televised from churches across the land for decades.  It will drop its traditional format of an Anglican service recorded in a cathedral or parish church and instead will feature a range of churches, locations, congregations and choirs.  The BBC`s head of religion and ethics, Aaquil Ahmed, said, "A different form of Christianity" had emerged in the UK.  Quite so.

Maybe the change of format for this much loved programme should not come as a surprise but what does is the discovery that the BBC`s head of religion is, in fact, a Muslim.  Now it seems Mr. Ahmed has been in post for some time and I have no doubt that he`s a decent man, kind to animals and old people and I mean no disrespect to him personally, but you have to wonder why someone who is not of the faith of the established church in this country is in this job.

On the other hand, like so many other things, it`s all very BBC, of course, so nothing should come as a surprise.  Thank God I don`t pay the compulsory licence fee any more.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Well, it`s Saturday and in football terms all there seems little to look forward to with England playing Slovenia in a Euro Qualifier.  The England captain, Wayne Rooney, complete with stitched on and dyed hair and mumbling his inspirational team talk in his indecipherable Merseyside drawl, makes for a dispiriting figure.   No game for the Saints, who have no less than 17 of their players away on international duty, although to be fair there will be considerable interest in chez Snopper in the exploits of Bristol City, for whom our street`s local hero Scott Wagstaff is rumoured to be starting against Swindon in a top of the table clash at the Wiltshire club`s County Ground - provided the team coach can negotiate the town`s magic roundabout.   

It`s not been a good week for football, especially the nonsense surrounding FIFA`s hilarious attempts to convince the world that their own internal `investigations` have revealed that everything to do with the World Cup bids by Russia and Qatar was fine and dandy, whereas England are heading for the naughty step.   The Chairman of the English Football Association, Greg Dyke, was right in calling FIFA a joke.   And a sick one at that.

And it all makes me wonder whether England should say `enough is enough` and withdraw its membership of that discredited outfit.   Yes I know the implications of such a decision would be `far reaching` and the consequences might well be `damaging` to the game in this country.   But it might be an opportunity to get back to basics, to see football once more for what it is - a game to be played, watched and enjoyed, not a vehicle for corrupt chancers to strip the game of any last vestige of honesty and integrity.

In a way FIFA almost mirrors the European Union.  It`s self-serving, seriously inefficient, immune to significant change and oblivious to the expectations of those who it is supposed to represent.   It`s time to say goodbye to both organisations and if parting is such sweet sorrow then I`m sure we will get over it, do our own thing and know that any `difficulties` that may spring from those decisions will at least be our difficulties which we will undoubtedly be capable of dealing with.  Let`s give it a go.  After all it can`t be any worse than having to put up with the shambles that these two outfits have become.

Friday, November 14, 2014


I see today that MPs are calling for the days on which General Elections are held to be made public holidays so as to increase the number of people who turn up at polling stations.  The Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee said the move could help `restore greater esteem and excitement to the electoral process.`  The Committee is also calling for automatic registration and trials of voting via the internet, `with a view to voters having the choice of voting online at the 2020 General Election.`

Now it`s true, of course, that turnouts ate elections are pretty abysmal, ranging from around 10% for daft elections like those for Police and Crime Commissioners to still only 65% at the last General Election, so maybe something should be done to avoid the situation whereby that 65% meant that 16 million eligible voters failed to cast their ballot last time around.

But I wonder about the beezer wheeze of turning election days into public holidays. General Elections are normally held in May, just as the Spring sunshine, the lighter evenings and the longer days suggest that, rather than use the day to take part in the bureaucratic Victoriana of visiting polling stations, at least 16 million potential voters are more likely to head for the beach.

Now I have a feeling that the answer lies in the antipodes, where Oscar Hammerstein`s assertion that if you become a teacher, by your pupils you`ll be taught, could have its best example.   The right to vote is a freedom fiercely sought by people the world over, but Australians don`t have a choice.  Registering to vote and going to the polls are legal duties in Australia for citizens aged 18 and over and failing to do so can potentially result in a day in court and a fine.

But it seems to have public support and it seems to work - compared with the UK`s 65% voting at the last General Election, no less than 94% of Australian voters cast their votes in the country`s last Federal Election.   There is an ongoing debate in Australia about its voting system but Dr. Peter Chen, who teaches politics and Sydney University, confirms that there is no sign of any serious measures to end compulsory voting.

"Most Australians are quite comfortable with the electoral process," he says, "and would be quite suspicious of efforts to change it.  We trust the electoral system more than we trust our politicians."   Seems to me that, rather than introducing gimmickry such as public holidays, we should instead learn from our friends Down Under. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014


The other evening I recorded some late night viewing on BBC2.  It was Nicholas Roeg`s 1971 masterpiece, Walkabout, with Jenny Agutter and Roeg`s own son, Luc, starring in the tale of two children abandoned by their father to the vagaries of the Australian bush. It`s a classic of its kind, full of breathtaking imagery, exploring the perfect counterpoint between the urban jungle of Sydney and the reality of surviving in the wilderness - although one is left in little doubt as to which of those two environments is the most appealing.

If you get the chance to see it, it`s well worth it for all kinds of reasons, not least being the wonderful score by that most gifted of composers, John Barry, who sadly left us in 2011.   He is perhaps best remembered for scoring the James Bond films and many more besides - notably Dances with Wolves and Out of Africa, for both of which he received an Oscar.

I have been a fan of John Barry and his music for many years and I thought I had heard it all.  But I was captivated by his score for Walkabout which, even back in the late 60s/early 70s when the film was made, gave us a foretaste of those towering melodic string compositions which became Barry`s trademark for his film scores over the next 40 years. I`m not sure that  film music - or indeed music generally - gets any more haunting and emotive than this:-

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


I like Ronald Koeman.  I like the cut of his jib.  And one of his more endearing qualities is the way he conducts himself in media interviews, all done with an engaging Dutch accent and a choice of English that speaks volumes for his grasp of the language.  But here`s a curious thing.  Each day I get the on-line version of the Southampton local newspaper, the Southern Daily Echo, and most days there is a report on what Ron has had to say.  I read them, of course, but I find myself doing so with a Dutch accent.   Is it just me?

A hundred years ago in a former life I found myself part of an official delegation to complete the twinning of a town here in Kent with one in Germany.   After being around Frankfurt for about three days, I was out for a walk with the Mayor from the Kent town and we got chatting.   After a while, we both stopped, looked at each other and realised that we had been chatting away in English of course, but with German accents.

Thank goodness I have no plans to visit South Africa, Birmingham, Liverpool or Newcastle - to name but a few - where the accents are quite beyond parody.