The train now departing

The government seems determined to push through the HS2 high-speed rail line, no matter what.

This bizarre obsession with a grandiose scheme costing £50 billion, that will cause untold misery and inconvenience to thousands of people for the next fifteen years, is defended with extraordinary illogicality.

For instance, it is argued that it will solve problems of capacity on the existing network. How, exactly, will a new railway line built between London and Birmingham increase capacity on the lines to Swansea, Penzance or Norwich? Let alone on the lines where the worst capacity problems are experienced, the cattle-truck commuter services in the Southeast?

Will it not simply deliver more passengers onto trains departing from Birmingham to onward destinations, thus worsening capacity problems in the Midlands?

And how, exactly, will a line that stops at Birmingham create economic growth in the North of England – forgetting that the Southwest and Wales are also among the worst-performing, most underinvested parts of the country? Birmingham is not in the North, although I suspect few London-based politicians know that. But it is already the second wealthiest city, after London.

The aim is to extend the line to Manchester and Leeds sometime in the 2030s, but a lot can change by then. My bet is that the line won’t get beyond Birmingham, the northerly legs will be cancelled owing to rising costs. Would it not make more sense, if Northern regeneration is the aim, to start the new line at Leeds and work southwards?

And is there not in any case an argument that says the line is just as, or even more more likely to deliver additional prosperity to the South as to the North? The money following the money, as it were? Unless, that is, the service is only one-way. But it is hard to see exactly what prosperity is being talked about, and how it will be delivered. The evidence of the worldwide development of railways in the Victorian period is that prosperity may blossom around the railhead, but it is bled from communities not served by the line.

Then there is a simple point to be made about priorities. There are already adequate rail services between the various destinations proposed for HS2. To disparage them as ‘Victorian’ is disingenuous: the routes may have been laid down in the C19th, but the lines, the rolling stock and the stations — the ticket prices — are modern and could, given a fraction of the cost of HS2, be made more so.

Thanks in part to the Beeching cuts, other parts of the country are not connected to the rail network at all. Should these not be served first, and the network upgraded, before the national profit for the next fifteen years is expended on this one project, massively greedy for money and land? Should we not be focussing on high-speed broadband as a deliverer of future prosperity, rather than on wasteful physical travel?

HS2 will doubtless end up as the ‘first-class’ business service and have little to do with transporting ordinary people. It’s easy to envisage a ticket costing £200, great for MPs and business executives, local authority bigwigs and NHS managers rushing between conferences on taxpayer-funded expenses. The ordinary traveller living at either end, hoping to visit relatives or attend job interviews or go Christmas shopping or get to far-flung airports will be shunted onto the existing ‘slow line’, a third-class service for a third-class citizen; a line so starved of funds that non-paying passengers will be carried, clinging to the carriage roofs.

Has anyone supporting this incomprehensibly expensive project tried to imagine actually using the service? Apart, that is, from fantasising about the thrill of hurtling uncontrollably through a blurred green landscape at 250 miles an hour, to a place where you would probably rather not be going, hoping against hope that bored children will not have dumped a concrete block on the line during the night?

Have they, for instance, ever travelled on Eurostar’s dismayingly grotty ‘low-speed’ Channel Tunnel service, HS1, for which you have to book months in advance?

The pricing is unpredictable, fluctuating wildly according to demand, and there is seldom a seat available when you need to travel. Booking on-line is a matter of guesswork: you tell the computer when you need to travel and where from, and to; it tells you to guess again. The return journey is equally an uncertain process, with a completely different price being charged and no guarantee of seat availability at the time of your choosing.

Will this then be the model for HS2? You can’t just turn up and get on a Eurostar TGV train, you have to ‘check-in’ half-an-hour ahead of departure and be searched for contraband. It’s the train that thinks it’s an airline, only with the shabbiest decor and most uncomfortable seating imaginable. Like an airline, in fact.

Only, one that never gets off the ground.

My 250th post

Spoiler Alert

Hi y’all

For my ceremonious 250th Bogl Posting I’d like to explain, or try to explain, why I’m torturing myself like this.

You can take it seriously; or, in the spirit of the Mindbogl itself, not.

First, comes the grammar crusade. I’m the founder President of the Save the Semicolon Society, SSS. I’m a bit conflicted about that, because I’m also trying to Save the Adverbial Form (SAF) at the same time. (Notice how, in the previous sentence, I used an adverb, ‘seriously’, and followed it neatly with a semicolon. Eight points.) In these, my 250 Posts, you will find many semicolons (;) and many words ending in -ly, and other, more subtle adverbial forms, that qualify verbs.

It is deliberate, I assure you.

Both of these handy features have been disappearing late in common English usage, as anyone who has ever replied ‘I’m good’ when asked at the supermarket checkout how they are feeling today will testify. And so I use many more of them than are necessarily necessary; especially nowly.

I’m also hoping hopefully to Save Me (SME).

You may notice that, in my Bogl, I continually refer to myself. ‘I’ do this, ‘I’ do that. Such a thing is ‘mine’. Such a person is ‘me’. It is not a solipsism, it has nothing to do with the ‘Me generation’ and a Californian-style self-regarding narcissism funded by the therapy industry. No, it is because these Posts are highly personal to someone I know only as myself. So I am also the de facto President of the First Personal Pronoun Society, or Me.

I love WordPress and all who sail in her, but there are one or two matters I have to contend with. Apart from the impossibility of single-spacing any text with a hard line-break, as with a poem, it posts your Posts in reverse chronological order. For readers who may be a bit backward, that’s backwards.

So if, like me, you’re attempting to create an entirely new form of literature, the autobiography told as a series of personal reflections on contemporaneous but completely disconnected events, replete with semicolons and adverbs; current affairs linked to past moments in one’s life, not by personal experience but by synchronistic philology (you can tell, I’ve been at the fermented fruit again), then you have to start — where do you have to start, guys?


And, if you respect that, you will see that my life veers wildly between joy and despair, low comedy and high tragedy; vapidity and deep meaning. You will learn, if you have not already, that life is a game; and I know that that is your life too, and the lives of every other bugger on this planet.

So, forget the search for meaning. Find whatever gives you joy and cling to it for dear life.

Unfortunately, I forgot to.

Gute nacht, meine freunde

– Herr Professor Doktor Ernst P. von-und-zu Bogl (By Appointment)

(Emperor and Editor-in-Chief, The Boglington Post.)

Now is the Winter of our Content

Does anyone have an idea for how, without using lethal force, I can dissuade mice from camping in my piano? (See Posts passim, e.g. July).

Yes, they’ve moved back in again, occupying several keys around Middle C. It’s the third time since I first carried out the operations previously described and, frankly, it’s getting to be a chore, dismantling my piano every month and sucking out the nesty stuff and shit. Especially as I don’t even play it.

Some others who have moved back in again recently are the students.

The town where I live has a university of international standing, which the new Pro Vice-Chancellor is seemingly doing her best to level by dint of chucking all the library books in a skip and filling the space instead with beanbags.

With a settled population of around twelve thousand, in August the town swells mightily with holidaymakers heading for the beach, and the roads are choked with caravans. This is as nothing, however, compared with September, when the population doubles with the arrival, in the same week, of twelve thousand students, all heading for the pub.

Friday 20th, last Friday, was studentsallmovebackinagain day. (Shall we hail it ‘Stripy Friday? Objections on a postcard, please.) Having completed his gap year, my son is now one of them, a ‘fresher’. We drove his stuff the half-mile up the road and, with the help of some improbably nice kids in yellow sweatshirts labelled ‘hero’, carted his boxes upstairs to the drab little room smelling of degree despair, with its salutary view of the tax office across the car park, where he will spend the next nine months.

Let’s hope he doesn’t waste them.

That night, the internet slowed to barely a crawl, as twelve thousand students went on-line, all hoping to lose their virginity on the same night.

As a point both of principle and logistics, my TV set isn’t connected to an aerial. We lived on the farm without TV for ten years while we brought the kids up free from malign influences and Simon Cowell. I still congratulate myself as being a non-viewer of television, but, thanks to the miracle of this tiny silver laptop, and the boredom that comes with enforced retirement, I can plug-in to a big TFT screen and downstream improving material on the i-Player: old David Attenborough documentaries, recycling CGI sequences of axolotls taking to the land; Newsnight, with Jeremy Paxolotl; cheesy episodes of Inspector Montalbano (to improve my Italian, you understand), with lashings of catch-up on the side.

All summer I have had no problem doing this; last night, however, my crepuscular attendance on the television industry came to a crashing halt. I spent several hours glugging from a winebox while staring morosely at the Refresh whizzer going around like a washing machine on medium spin, until at length the caption came up: ‘This content doesn’t seem to be working’…..Oh, is that why there was nothing much happening on the screen? I was wondering, it looked like a normal night on BBC-3.

Frankly, it would be more entertaining watching the tax office. So with a heave and a sigh, I set off for the kitchen to investigate who has moved in under the keys around Middle C. I hope it’s mice, and not more students.

Let’s eat cake!

I’m so depressed, I’ve almost given up living. And only three more to go until my 250th Post. A milestone, indeed.

Where are you, my lovely Spammers? I haven’t had any Spam now for a week, and that was only the usual obsessive nerds pushing me to use more H’s to optimise my Ghargle Rhankins. Spammers are my only friends! Nobody else reads my blog.

Over the past 20 months I’ve had only 11 Comments, five of them my own replies to the others, which were all from friends, wives and ex-lovers – no longer! The number has remained the same now for six months. It used to be more. I can’t believe nobody has anything left to say. Even if you hate me, tell me!

And then there are the Followers and the Likers. No-one has Liked anything I’ve written since about last April, although there’s loads of interesting, beautifully crafted, perceptive, humane and humorous stuff here about Syria, and Hunzi my lovely dog, paedo-hunts and punishments, existentialism, secondhand cars, trees…

According to WordPress, the biggest number of weekly hits I’ve had lately is three, all for my Jazz CDs catalog – none for anything I’m writing about the world and its foibles. You guys only ever seem to open-up my tired old Pages and don’t read the latest Posts, which are the whole point. And you don’t seem to Like the Pages anyway!

I used to get about two new Followers a month. I checked back on you, you’re all crazies – religious nutters, Viagra salesmen, self-proclaimed artists from rutted feudal Carpathian demesnes and obscure boroughs of New York, Germanic pixies who make and hope in another life to sell weird craft stuff.

I don’t – can’t – write anything for you, I don’t know you.

Some of you keep doggedly emailing me. One guy takes photos of not very interesting things and mails them to me every day. Another is talking to the hand, I consigned him to my own Spam folder months ago as I don’t believe in multi-level marketing schemes any more than I do in fairies. But he keeps on trying, a double-Spammy.

You Followers never seem to read my stuff after the first experience; never Comment, never Like… Why are you Following me, other than to induce a sense of paranoia?

And the Bank is writing to me again, to tell me I have no money to pay bills. They think I don’t know that? I just wrote off for a job as a salesman!

I’ll be 64 in two weeks. “Will you still read me, will you ever feed me”? As the Beatles almost sang – they were a popular music combo when I was a teenager.

So let’s make my 250th Post an occasion to remember, eh, li’l Spam buddiez?


Panic over

Formerly the world’s most inept reporter, I knew deep down that if I ever did dare to write about the situation in Syria (Post: The Road to Damascus, September), events would immediately take a turn.

Parties on all sides, weary of wars either suffered or imposed, are falling about with relief at the latest Russian proposal, that the Syrian regime should simply hand over its chemical weapons arsenal, you know, the one they haven’t got, to an international team of destructors led by — Russia.

And the Syrians have immediately agreed to the plan, avoiding the punitive rain of cruise missiles threatened by Obama since they nerve-gassed fourteen hundred civilians in Damascus on 21 August. Or not. (The Russians are still claiming the civilians gassed their own children in order to bring America into the war. It’s the sort of thing Russians would do, of course — showing exemplary loyalty to the Motherland.)

Thus at one stroke Obama is off the Congressional hook he has been visibly writhing on, Cameron need no longer feel embarrassed about losing the vote, Hollande can stop pretending to be Jean-Claude van Damme, and Putin can go on smirking in that peculiar way that makes him look like he’s being punched in the jaw in slow-motion by a large man with an invisible fist.

So, that’s all right then. Panic over.


It has occurred to me to ask rhetorically, although I have not seen or heard it mentioned anywhere else, for what purpose Syria appears to have accumulated what is said to be a thousand tonnes of lethal Sarin nerve agent?

Prior to the civil war, Syria had only one putative enemy, Israel. Pop. eight million. By a ghastly statistical and historical irony, six million of those are Jews (figures courtesy of Wikipedia). If 200 litres can kill 1400 people, how many exactly would a thousand tonnes… you do the calculus. I can’t bear to.

Synchronicity? Don’t knock it!

Some months ago, my estate agent called to say they wanted to show my house to a Mr Philips,  a property portfolio owner from London.

I hate speculators of any kind and don’t believe in people owning other people’s homes as a business. My house is really too small to make money from renting it. And I particularly dislike carpetbaggers exploiting the relative economic chasm between the capital and up-and-coming rural areas like this.

But there hadn’t been any interest for a while, so I put aside my principles and agreed to let him come. I said that I would go out and let the agency handle the viewing, in case I said something unpardonable to him.

Just as I was leaving at the appointed time, a smooth-looking bloke in grey slacks and a blazer arrived outside, with a gorilla in tow whom I gathered must have been his estate manager, the guy who extorts the rents. The blazer put on a dazzling smile, and in a condescending tone announced:

“Hello. We’ve come all the way from London to look at your house.”

I think he may have misread my socio-economic indicators.

As a student in London in the late 1960s, I shared a flat with some old school chums above William Hill’s bookmakers’ at Moravian Corner, on Chelsea’s famous King’s Road. Behind us were small streets, some with former stables used as storage premises for the many antique dealers with showrooms on the fashionable main drag.

Every summer, the ex-minor public school, ex-army ruffians and part-time offenders who worked behind the scenes repairing, stripping and faking-up the ‘antiques’ (a light charge of buckshot would give a chair an authentic-looking case of woodworm), would rent trucks and head out into the wilds of the British countryside, particularly Wales, for a fortnight ‘on the knock’.

There, they would set about conning old ladies in dilapidated cottages out of their rustic chairs, clothes chests and Welsh dressers — particularly prized as, the ‘old thing’ they picked up for forty desperately needed quid in Tally-wherever could be stripped, repaired, matched with a new top or drawer-base, have some artificially aged brass handles added and would sell, typically for anything between eight hundred and a couple of thou, to the upwardly mobile urban multitude eager to reconnect with their peasant ancestry; or be shipped-off by the container-load to the US, Germany or Japan.

I could see no difference between the ‘knockers’ and this Philips character. He could sell a two-bed upstairs flat conversion in some nondescript suburb of London and for the same money buy four little garden cottages like mine in the outskirts of a Welsh university town, where students and professionals alike are desperate for temporary accommodation, doubling his rent at a stroke.

Swallowing my tongue, I muttered something like, ‘Well don’t just look, buy it!’, and dragged Hunzi briskly away across the road for our morning walk in the exurban space beyond, a walk he knows in dog-language as ‘Round the Sewage Works’. Later on, I got a message from the agency to say that Mr Philips wanted to send his wife over to look too, and was my studio building insulated?

‘Of course it’s bloody insulated’, I snapped. ‘Does he think I’m so stupid as to keep seven grand’s worth of music equipment, including a four thousand pound guitar, in a fucking garden shed?’

We’re still on the market.

But here’s a curious thing. Way back in 1988, I wrote a comedy play called Subject to Contract, about a firm of small-town estate agents in Thatcher’s Britain. It’s never been performed. I came across it in a box a few days ago, and gave it an approving read-through.

In Act Two, a yuppie couple from London are taken to view an old lady’s country cottage, that they hope to get on the cheap, and Justin, the smooth-talking husband, says to her, condescendingly:

‘Hello, we’ve come all the way from London to look at your house.’

Synchronicity? Don’t knock it!

Transitionalising the bar

I have been losing sleep over the word ‘transit’.

It really worries me that ‘transit’ at some stage in the long history of the world became a verb. It simply doesn’t sound like a verb. ‘Edit’ sounds possibly like a verb, ‘remit’, ‘credit’, ‘inhibit’, cohabit and so on, there’s a good-sized family of -it verb endings in English, but there is something peculiar about ‘transit’.

It’s clumsy to conjugate: ‘I transit, you transit, he/she transits…’

All our verbs ending in ‘-it’ seem to have had their proper endings chopped off. When you think about French, most of the verbs end in -er, -ir or -re, and this is consistent with their Latin derivations. English verbs seem to have arbitrary endings, so that on their own they are not always recognisable as verbs.

‘Transit’ comes from the Latin ‘transire’, meaning to cross, as in the sense of movement from one side to another. The root word is the preposition ‘trans’, meaning ‘across’. ‘Transit’ in Latin is the third person singular of the present tense of the verb, meaning ‘he, she or it crosses… something (there has to be an object to cross!)’. So ‘transit’ is not logically the form we would use as a transitive verb, it is first and foremost an English noun. You couldn’t say in Latin ‘ego transit’, the first person singular of ‘transire’ in the present tense being ‘transeo’.

We speak of a parcel or a passenger being ‘in transit’, or the ‘rapid transit authority’ that transports you from a to b. It is perhaps a special usage in the transportation industry. We hear of ‘the transit of Venus’ as an astronomical phenomenon, when Venus is observed crossing the face of the sun. Less often, we talk of something ‘transiting’ from one side to another across a given space. But we would rarely tell our husbands on the phone: ‘I am just transiting the high street now’, when we have the perfectly sensible ‘crossing’ at our service.

Or wouldn’t we? It sounds absolutely like something a policeman would say!

From ‘transit’ there is also a descendant noun with a slightly devolved meaning, ‘transition’ – the process of being in transit from one state or place to another. The good Dr Jekyll makes a ‘transition’ to the evil Mr Hyde. The actor makes a ‘transition’ from stage to film. A transvestite makes a ‘transition’ between the male image and the female.

The implication of ‘transition’ is more that of an ongoing change of place or state, than of an actual physical movement between two states or places. And it requires an auxiliary verb: you ‘make’ the transition.

More horrifying, therefore, is the new usage of ‘transition’ as an intransitive verb! Our American cousins have started to say things like: ‘He is transitioning to his new job’, or ‘the war is transitioning to a state of highest threat’; meaning, I suppose, that something or someone is changing from one place or state to another.

The idea of ‘crossing’ a space, in the prepositional sense, has become lost; while those similar friends, ‘transport’ and ‘transform’ (even ‘change’ and ‘affect’) are left on the shelf.

I hope then that I never live to see or hear the logical transitive form of ‘transition’: ‘transitionise’, meaning to put someone or something into a state of transition. For, one can easily see the development of this, yet a third-stage verbal development of ‘transit’: ‘I transitionise, you transitionise, he/she transitionises….’  ‘I’m sorry, Miss Jones, but we are transitionising you to another department…’

Worse yet, a verb developed from the adjectival form, ‘transitionalise’ (to imply putting someone or something into an interim state of change): ‘Bashar was completely transitionalised by a radical preacher…’; ‘We are transitionalising the situation….’ ‘This service will halt at New Street to enable passengers to transitionalise to Platform 4…’

It’s ghastly, I know. But there is a precedent. I have in the past been accused and found guilty of…….


The power of fuck

Many years ago, towards the end of my first decade, the local authority in Hillingdon sold off a parcel of land on the other side of the high hedge at the far end of my grandparents’ garden to a developer, to build houses.

Way out near the end of the Piccadilly line, Hillingdon was a Saxon village then in the process of becoming part of the rapidly expanding western fringe of Greater London; and we were its caerls.

That hedge was one of the boundaries of my childhood world. I had never been or seen beyond it, but was vaguely aware that there was a footpath behind, separating us from an area of parkland, on the other side of which was the mysterious place where my grandfather, a career RAF officer who had served through both World Wars, went to work in his pale-blue uniform. Now and then, huge, khaki-coloured military transport planes would roar over at rooftop height, as the house lay right beneath the approach to Bomber Command, Uxbridge.

Only later on did I become aware that we were scheduled to be a primary target for a Soviet nuclear attack; and lay awake night after night, worrying, as the imagined enemy Tupolevs thundered over my bedroom, while downstairs my secretly socialist grandfather chuckled over bold headlines in the Daily Sketch, warning of the imminent conflagration that was about to engulf us all as the result of some new US foreign policy blunder.

I used to play in the school holidays from summer dawn to autumn dusk in the garden with other boys from the village, Chris Hibbert from next door, David Ryder, who lived somewhere nearby, and other less familiar or memorable cronies, a gang straight out of a Just William story. To me, armed with my plastic Bren-gun with recoiling barrel and realistic muzzle-flash, as long as the batteries held out, the garden seemed as big as wherever you wanted to go.

It was in fact about a quarter of an acre in size; with lawns, crazy-paving paths, a fishpond teeming with interesting newts, my grandfather’s lovingly tended dahlia beds, a small orchard with apples, pears, wasp-eaten plums and an ancient mulberry tree, its gnarled branches perfect for building tree-houses in; and beyond that, an area my mother had had them turn into a proper tennis court, shortly before she gave up tennis and ran away on the stage, which every summer became overgrown and was, in fact, the African savannah or the Great Plains; until my grandfather would scythe down the long grass and we put up bamboo poles and string and wove the kind of grass huts where Red Indians and evil Nazis lived, where you crawled inside the dappled gloom and smelled the grass turning drowsily to hay in the summer heat.

One day, we were intrigued to hear fruity swearing coming from the other side of the hedge. Builders had arrived to start putting up the houses the government was resolved to build in their hundreds of thousands, to finally compensate for the destruction wrought by the evil Nazis a decade earlier. These burly rough men, stomping about in the mud in their wellington boots and string vests, were Irish, mostly from the far west, whose impenetrable accents could not conceal the thrilling fact that every second word they spoke was ‘fuck’.

So prolific and creative was one dumpy, red-faced, fierce little navvie’s use of the word, that we christened him ‘Fuck’. This, of course, was a dark secret between us. Uttering the f-word was not merely forbidden in front of the grownups, in the unreal, genteel world of the 1950s it was unthinkable anywhere. Nobody, not even the working class, used the word except among a small, select group of their peers, in the dizzying fume and fug of the pub.

You would never dream of using it to your social superiors. Safely married grownups might whisper it into their pillows, Hell’s Angels on a burn-up in Margate, squaddies on National Service and watery beer in Aldershot might be attracted to its forcefully monosyllabic qualities, but dinner-party conversations then were never sprinkled with this clever little word; you never told a policeman or a teacher to ‘fuck off’. It had never once been uttered in public discourse, on film, on radio or on the newfangled glowing box in the corner of our sitting-room. If it ever appeared in print, as in that bestial novel whose name must never be mentioned in front of the servants, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, there would be a public scandal and a stern prosecution under the obscenity laws.

It was a word, in short, of immense arcane power; and quite enchanting to hear.

The first person known to have used the f-word on TV was the drama critic Kenneth Tynan, in 1965. His little slip led to the satirical current affairs show BBC3 being taken off the air. Henceforth it would be pre-recorded, just in case. Five decades later, ‘fuck’ and ‘fucking’ are in common use by all social classes in most media, and have in most cases lost both their power to shock, and even their fixed place in the dictionary.

‘Fucking’ has become an adverb, as in ‘I don’t fuckin’ care!’, or just a spacing word, added perhaps to give a litle emphasis and a more déclassé image to the user, as in ‘That (insert name of Chelsea player) is completely fuckin’ useless’. ‘Fuckface’ and ‘fuckwit’ are cheery insults. To ‘fuck-up’ means to get something wrong; to be ‘fucked-up’ means to be confused, drug-addled; ‘fuck-over’ is to give someone a grilling; ‘I’m fucked!’ merely means you are tired; ‘fuck me sideways!’ is not a strange anatomical request, but an expression of mild surprise. ‘I’m totally fucked’ usually means you are at a loss to know what to do, since you have no job/money/battery charge left in your Smartphone, etcetera.

The fearsome and profane PR chief, Malcolm Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi) swears magnificently to impose his dubious authority on the inept Minister in BBC TV’s The Thick of It, often substituting ‘fuck’ for syllables in longer words, like ‘fucktastic!’. In Father Ted, the hilarious Irish comedy about three dimwitted Catholic priests, the word has been substituted by the euphemism, ‘feck’ — although we all know what it really means. So popular was the show, however, that people now use ‘feck’ ironically as a substitute for ‘fuck’.

Films starring, typically, American people of colour have, in recent years, featured the language of the inner-city streets; principal among which is the unpleasant ‘motherfucker’. It’s a pejorative usage so common that it has ceased to have much meaning; just a vague, familiar insult divorced from its power to shock and insult with its imputation of maternal incest. Every character in an American film or standup comedy show is now a ‘motherfucker’, just as we might call a thing whose name we have forgotten, every unnamed thing, a ‘mother’, like a ‘thingummy’ or a ‘wossit’, and nobody minds.

A few weeks ago, I fell into one of those disputations you have with a neighbour over some important point of principle about parking on the public highway. He being Welsh, and me being frightfully English, he was never going to let me have the last word. Eventually, in exasperation at his typical Welsh inability to discuss anything rationally, I turned on my heel and marched off, hurling forcefully over my shoulder — forgetting to keep up the lilting cadences in which I normally empathise with the natives in lieu of actually learning to speak their impossible, tongue-twisting ancient language –:  “Oh, well then, fuck off.”

The effect of this crude epithet on someone whose longbow-drawing ancestors actually invented the complementary V-sign to insult the French, was to produce only mocking laughter. In a recent court case, the judge threw out a policeman’s complaint that the defendant had told him to ‘fuck off’, on the grounds that everyone said things like that nowadays.

Yet the word ‘fuck’, ubiquitous throughout all classes of society, has not entirely lost its power to shock and awe. When expressed sufficiently forcefully, ‘fuck off’ still manages to resonate internally to produce a real effect on the hearer; whilst seemingly giving great satisfaction and relief to the user. Viewers and listeners from the Mary Whitehouse memorial front-parlour still write in high dudgeon to the BBC, and to those mainly broadsheet newspapers whose lofty editorial policies now rule-out no words of profanity if used in their proper context, complaining wearily of being offended.

Like the horseless carriage, radio and television programmes containing the f-word still have to be preceded by an announcer and a caption warning of ‘strong language’.

The origins of the word are obscure. It is said to be Anglo-Saxon, although there is scant evidence for that. Another, weirder explanation is that it is an acronym, standing for ‘fornicating un-Christian carnal knowledge’, which C17th Puritans apparently hung on a sign around the neck of an adulterer being punished in the village stocks. It’s suggested, too, that it is just an abbreviated form of ‘fornicate’.

Part of its power to shock clearly lies in the shape of the sound itself: starting off with a soft dental-labial ‘ff’, gathering force rapidly through the uniquely English short ‘u’ vowel (the French know us fondly as ‘les fuke-offes’), to arrive with finite suddenness at the hardest of double-consonants, ‘ck’, it belongs to a family of similar words expressing some violent action: shock; hack; kick; block; flick; smack, etcetera.

So why are those words not equally taboo?  Well, ‘fuck’ is of course the one that has an immediate sexual connotation. While it has the power to physically repel with its sheer verbal ferocity, the word also contains a message that refers directly to the act of copulation, but in the coarsest possible sense; devoid of any romanticism and personal connection, but also of any equivalent connotation of forcible, physical assault, it is the act of penetration itself, pure and simple.

While offered as an expulsive sound, a war-cry that demolishes reasoned argument, destructive ‘fuck’ is also creative ‘fuck’, a metaphor for the act of procreation putting us directly back into the moment of our conception; a sacred moment, supposedly; and, hence, shockingly blasphemous.

We may have lost public respect for, and awe of, religion, and no longer pay heed to its simplified mythology, its superstitious rules and regulations, its hallowed gestures. ‘Fuck it!’, we say. But deep down, I suspect, we are still a God-fearing folk, children in a garden, boldly fearful of the Divine consequences of such a verbal transgression.

The road to Damascus

You may have noticed that I have been trying hard not to write about Syria.

The truth is, there are some things about which there is nothing that can be said.

About two and a half years ago, someone in Syria, we know not who, tired of having their prospects permanently constrained by a regime increasingly out of touch with the aspirations of its people, as most governments of the world now are, stood up peacefully to protest. Others followed suit in other places: Homs, Aleppo, Latakia – Damascus. These ancient names have since become part of the gazetteer of human insanity.

Fearing the Arab Spring movement had arrived in its streets and squares, a progressive force for democratic change that had already led to the downfall of other regimes in the region, the military responded by putting snipers on the rooftops to shoot dead unarmed civilians, claiming that violent agitators were firing on their peaceful soldiers; the oldest excuse. Reformers, students and even the young children of suspected activists began disappearing into secret police torture cells, their mutilated corpses turning up on garbage dumps.

As the dead and disappeared mounted into the tens of thousands, the protesters armed themselves as best they could and began to fight back.

They soon gained the moral and financial support of Saudi Arabia (they were mostly the Sunni muslim majority), but were opposed by the militant Shi’ite state of Iran on the side of the ruling minority Alawite community – which, confusingly, had previously guaranteed freedom of worship, even for the Christians. Demands for freedom and democracy forgotten, a proxy religious war broke out to advance the two sides’ competition for regional hegemony.

No-one came to try to stop it; if only because previous interventions in Arab Spring uprisings and the invasions of Iraq had proved complicated and ultimately unsuccessful; because Middle Eastern crises are notoriously intractable; and because US global power has begun to retrench.

Fighting spread quickly from city to city. At first the regime was forced onto the back foot, until their superior firepower and willingness to inflict the maximum violence indiscriminately on the civilian population began to tell against the rebels, who were now being reinforced by increasingly disturbing. self-interested militias.

Today, an asymmetrical, polygonal civil war is raging in Syria, that threatens to engulf the region.

As once before, so the regime, embodied in the underlying weakness of the Assad dynasty, has been prepared to lay the entire country in ruins and, if necessary, set the Middle East on fire to preserve its minority powerbase. One hundred and twenty thousand people have already died, over half of them non-combatants, to keep one polite, diffident, somewhat colourless, softly spoken, British-trained eye-doctor in power; while his half-British wife continues to shop at Harrods. Questions are being asked, quietly at first, about who is really promoting the war? Suggestions are emerging that it is Assad’s psychotic brother Maher who is really behind the atrocities. Mental illness runs in the family.

Whoever is masterminding the repression, Syria must be counted a failed state. As another brutal winter approaches, up to six million internally displaced persons are pleading for a billion dollars a month in international aid, but not getting it. Giving-fatigue has set in: besides, we do not know who we might be giving to. Smaller neighbouring states are being overwhelmed. A Syrian refugee camp is now the fourth largest city in Jordan. Twenty per cent of the population of Lebanon are Syrian refugees.

Meanwhile, cities are pulverised by heavy artillery and aerial bombardment, civilians trapped like rats in rebel-held suburban ruins gassed with chemical weapons and dying from shortage of medical supplies. People who visited Syria before the war used to comment on what a civilised country it was, how hospitable its people.

But the conflict doesn’t stop at Syria’s gerrymandered colonial borders. Wracked by car bombings, neighbouring Lebanon threatens to splinter into its former internal chaos. Israel’s sworn enemy, Hezbollah is resurgent; intervening paradoxically on the side of Assad, the man who formerly co-guaranteed Arab peace with Israel. Irreparably wounded by violent, half-baked Bush-family interventions over the past two decades, Iraq too is on the verge of disintegration. Hundreds outside Syria are dying daily.

For, the vectors of the war have spread beyond the initial cause to include religious schism, political and criminal factionalism, unresolved issues from Syria’s colonial past. Murderous bands of fighters led by warlords and medieval village mullahs projecting their imagined caliphate across sectarian faultlines and state boundaries are weighing-in from all around the region and from further abroad. Internationally proscribed jihadist groups such as al-Nusra and al-Qaeda are openly competing for prestige and power. In Afghanistan, the Taleban takes comfort in murdering middle-aged Indian lady novelists.

Yet unfortunately for us in the West, with our decent instincts, these appalling militias are mostly on the side of the rebels: the ‘good’ side, as we would love to see it. Ironically, it is the pro-western, religiously tolerant, secular, modernising, consumerist regime that has been shooting, gassing and butchering its own people. It is the disturbingly normal-seeming Assad family which stands against the terrorist groups we most fear, with whom we are distastefully trying to avoid aligning ourselves. We are covertly supporting the ‘good’ rebels in the forlorn hope of toppling a ‘bad’ regime that (like all the others) we first put in power, but which has now become a grave embarrassment to us.

And the baddies on both sides are winning.

Only the innocent victims are on the side of the angels, and they have no voice; no clear leadership. It is no longer possible, in short, to determine what parties there may be in the conflict with whom one could safely map the road of peace, to broker a ceasefire followed by a political settlement — even if there were any parties outside the conflict with the willingness and strength of purpose to do it.

Only an economically resurgent Turkey has tried; but its president Erdogan has his own internal problems, with popular protest growing against his increasingly autocratic imposition of Islamic authority on a state where, as in Egypt, a popular army has traditionally held the balance of power through guaranteeing religious freedoms under a secular establishment. Egypt, too, has come close to the edge of darkness in the aftermath of the Arab Spring — we have seen what ‘popular’ armies can do — but that’s another story.

You see, there are no moral certainties in this tale.

America’s chronic failing is always to choose sides. Vietnam, Colombia, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan – it has become easier to fall into war, always in support of corporatist interests, than to set out in friendship to broker peace. So much for Christianity. The futile calculus of punitive sanctions, limited engagement, surgical strikes has created the misleading impression that all conflicts can be resolved with an expensive display of irresistible might, a lethal PowerPoint presentation, rather than patient diplomacy embarked on in good time. The sword is always mightier than the pen; the stick more persuasive than the carrot.

We know this delusionary interventionist doctrine is not going to work in Syria. In such a muddled-up conflict there are no ‘sides’ to choose between, only a seemingly infinite splintering of poorly defined interest groups. Yet shooting off a few cruise missiles and laser-guided bunker-busters is all anyone can think of either doing, or refraining from doing, ‘until there is better evidence’ of who is carrying out the worst atrocities and thus, a target to shoot at.

Is this possibly the most divisive conflict in history?

For, beyond the rival regional states urging on their proxies in Syria, beyond the jihadi groups, the warring parties are also supported by the old world’s major powers: Russia, China, America, Britain, France, belligerently squaring-up to one another like ageing movie stars in a triangular game of chicken.

Their revanchist postures are designed to impress wavering voters at home, whilst cementing dubious regional economic alliances based mainly on the lucrative trade in ever-more lethal weaponry — and, of course, oil. Vehemently opposing one anothers’ policies on the war, they have stupidly lost all sense of danger. Yet, at the same time, their elected representatives and the voters at home are at odds with the leadership, further layers of division rippling outwards and downwards.

But how are we managing to tell who is killing whom?

Owing to early difficulties for Western journalists obtaining entry visas (and, frankly, the real dangers attending on penetrating the war zones), much of the information coming out of Syria has been generated by citizen-media. Numerous video clips shot on mobile phones give their own desperate impression of what is happening. Some, much or all of this coverage may be, or appears to be, propagandistic in nature; even faked. Much, too, may be genuine: we simply do not know. We are not much interested in finding out.

So there is plentiful seeming evidence of nerve gas attacks being carried out by the regime. The problem is, we just can’t smell it. Actors can twitch and foam at the mouth, just as well as genuine casualties. Blame can logically only be laid at the door of the army, that has the means of delivery and known stockpiles of chemical weapons (sold to them by British companies with legitimate export licences), as Obama has said. It seems unlikely that the rebels would deliberately gas themselves and their own families, just to bring America into the war.

But, as Russia’s Putin has argued, it is not logical either that the regime would use such weapons when they are already winning the war, when they have been threatened with punitive reprisals if they cross the ‘red line’ of international disapproval; and when UN chemical warfare monitors are there on the ground, only minutes away in their city-centre hotel.

There appears then to be no way of knowing exactly what happed to kill 1,029 men, women and 400 children in a rebel-held area of Damascus in August, 2013.

Doctors working with Medecins Sans Frontieres report treating almost 4,000 casualties of what they believe was the nerve agent, Sarin. Do they not know their business? Obama, convinced, has responded by calling for retaliatory strikes against the regime, to demonstrate international disapproval of the use of chemical weapons, the crossing of the so-called ‘red line’. He simply cannot resist the siren call to arms, although he is having a torrid time trying to impress his views on an isolationist Congress minded to oppose anything the president wants; and is vehemently challenged by Putin, for reasons best known to the Russian president.

Everyone apparently but the leaders of the wobbly Western alliance understands that military intervention will merely be throwing gasoline on the fire. Russia has threatened to resupply Assad with S300 ground-to-air missiles, and even send them to Iran. Russian and American warships are circling around one another in the eastern Mediterranean. British and American bases on Cyprus are vulnerable to retaliatory strikes. The recent meeting of the G20 has ended without consensus, with Obama and France’s president Hollande in a minority of two.

  • The voices of moderation are speaking out in Washington, London and Paris, even in St Petersburg – but are they listened to?
  • The UN is powerless to intervene: the Security Council is so deadlocked, it will not even debate the issue. The warring powers are the UN.
  • The situation, in short, is out of control. No-one knows how to stop it, or where it will end.

The war in Syria may burn itself out, or drag on, out of the headlines, for years. History suggests a probable other course of events:

it starts with a global failure of leadership, moral vacuum, the chronic irresolution of institutions in which cynical politicians and their underpaid publics have lost faith, complex treaty alliances, historic territorial claims, a financial crash, recession, a glut of unemployed young men, the inflating economic importance of rival arms industries, a revival of nationalism — peace-weariness.

Those were the primary ingredients from which the two major wars of the twentieth century were fashioned, requiring only a suitable flashpoint.

When Iran and Israel get dragged in to the Syrian conflict, as the situation dictates they soon must, unless Russia and China blink first we shall be irrevocably locked into the first global conflagration of the twenty-first century. Perhaps all that is keeping us from one anothers’ throats is simply that, after seven decades of relative peace, Eurovision and shopping, we are none of us prepared for all-out war.

That can change, literally in a flash.

So, don’t ask me to write anything about Syria. The word ‘insanity’ has been redacted from the lexicon. There is nothing at all to be said.

Bogler’s Law of Repeats

In common with many historic gentlemen of wit and refinement: Peter, Parkinson, Murphy, Sod; as I have progressed through my long life, I have formulated a number of laws experience has taught me hold good.

That last clause seems to defy the laws of grammar, but analysis indicates that it does, in fact, make sense if you look at it in a certain light (dawn helps…). I have merely omitted a lot of extraneous verbiage. Reading it aloud might help too.

Anyway, as I come to the desk to share these thoughts, most of the interesting and informative laws I have formulated, as I say over a long lifetime, seem to have escaped my memory for the moment. Something about this, or that. If you are going to be a famous epigrammatist and law-giver, it is good to have friends at table, who will write things down afterwards.

But I was reminded of one of my laws whilst listening to a radio programme this morning, whose content induced first a sense of déjà vu, then a recognition that it was, indeed, a repeat; although not pre-declared as such by the continuity man. It was not only that the ubiquitous Stephen Fry was the presenter, so that any show he presents gives one a sense of having been here in a previous life: I had actually heard it all before!

It confirmed a principle I have been aware of for many years, Bogler’s Law of Repeats being that:

“however few shows in any given radio or TV series you believe you have previously heard or seen, the repeat you are hearing or seeing is invariably one you heard or saw before.”

I am delighted to comment, therefore, on the present series of repeats of the famous BBC TV comedy series, Dad’s Army, being the unlikely adventures of a hapless platoon of elderly wartime Home Guard volunteers. I have realised that, having been at boarding school, I genuinely had seen none of the shows in the first series, dating from the 1960s – shows that were filmed in black-and-white for a square screen!

It has been a real pleasure catching up with them now. The scripts were a lot edgier than they later became with the introduction of colour and cosy sentimentality. The death of David Frost announced yesterday and the copious tributes to his early career also reminded one that there was indeed something paradigm-shifting about British TV in the mid-1960s.

And I was there the first time round!