Identifying the problem

One evening in 1976 my then-wife and I were leaving a movie theatre in west London to walk back to our car parked nearby, when I noticed that a drab-looking fellow in a raincoat appeared to be following us. We took a detour around the block and sure enough, he was still there. Being a belligerent sort, I marched up to him and demanded to know who he was and what he was doing. He didn’t answer, just turned and walked away.

At that time my wife had recently been in hospital, where she made friends with the woman in the next bed, who happened to be married to an officer in the Diplomatic Patrol Group of the Metropolitan Police. Over drinks, we mentioned that we seemed to be being followed everywhere. The next time we met up, the husband confided that we both had a Special Branch file. That was the end of the friendship, but the following seemed to stop.

The only thing we could think of that the surveillance could relate to was an incident earlier that year at my wife’s work. A journalist, London-born of Irish extraction, Trish was Chief Reporter at London’s Capital Radio. One day, the newsroom got a report of a security alert at Heathrow airport, to which for the first time in decades on the UK mainland the army had been called out. Trish was despatched to the airport, where she commandeered a taxi to drive her round the perimeter road.

Finding no army or police presence anywhere, Trish returned to Terminal One to try to get an interview with the BAA’s press office. At that point, armed police arrived on the scene and arrested her, accusing her of having breached a security cordon. Her press pass was taken away, and she was interrogated for two hours before a colleague turned up and rescued her, the editor having pulled strings at Scotland Yard to get her released.

This nasty and unnecessary incident had absolutely nothing to do with me, as I was off working in another part of the country. But I was still clearly suspected of some kind of terrorist link, if the surveillance was not merely heavy-handed police intimidation. (Interestingly, I have recently discovered that my grandfather was a senior officer in British Intelligence before, during and probably after WW11.)

Not long afterwards, I tried to get my old job back at the BBC – I’d gone off to work in the commercial sector – and was told nothing doing – don’t even bother applying. Was there a connection?

Over my rather strange career since, I have often found myself looking for work, and got to the interview stage with positive signals all round, only to find that my application has been quietly buried shortly afterwards.

And while I was until recently listed with no fewer than SEVENTEEN agencies specialising in recruiting people with my specific experience, I was offered only one interview in four years. That too seemed to go well, but I heard nothing afterwards, either from the employer or the agency, who ignored my email. One of the other agencies did arrange an interview for me with a client, but cancelled it the night before with no explanation.

Most recently I was actually offered a job, and accepted it; but shortly afterwards, having briefed a solicitor to draw up a formal contract of employment for me, the employer seemed to change their mind and there was no contract. What contract? What offer? No, no, we must make sure you are a ‘fit and proper person’… Was that some kind of hint? Why wouldn’t I be ‘fit and proper’? I’d just had seven years’ experience in a similar job.

It surely cannot be the case that a dead-end police investigation thirty-seven years ago is still hanging around to haunt me? I have tried asking employers who have turned me down if they would feel able to tell me why, but have never received a reply. It’s like there is something in my background, something they can see when they check on me, that isn’t immediately obvious to me. What?

Of course, it is illegal to tell an applicant, if you have obtained information concerning their criminal past, just what that information is. Only a Chief Constable has the power to do that. Is it why I can’t persuade anyone to tell me why they have quietly dumped me? But I have no criminal past! My only convictions are vaguely Centrist. I must be one of the few people in the country who has had a clean driving licence for over ten years – and I’m not on any banned lists, as far as I know.

So could it be a problem with a credit check?

Nowadays, I don’t carry a load of debt. While the average family debt in Britain is £54,000 (a truly shocking figure amounting to £1.4 TRILLION!), the little that is in my savings account would about cover everything I owe. I own my house outright, so the banks don’t have a headlock on me. But I don’t have a regular job to provide a regular income. And I live a pretty simple life.

So my credit score is only poor to middling: my consumer economy is too far below the radar to earn a triple-A. Would an employer wanting to fill a position of trust back away from someone who repaid a £20k bank loan over six years without defaulting, even though doing it damaged their credit rating for that length of time? Maybe, if they didn’t look closely enough. Easier just to say no.

And who is the other me? I mean, the bloke on Facebook who has my unusual name posted next to the photograph of a younger, darker-looking man who is definitely not me? Are we looking at a possible case of mistaken identity? Is the mistrust a result of the disparity between my account of myself in my CV and the online Profile of someone with my name, who isn’t me?

I believe there can be only one of me, because the spelling of my family name is unique. I know of no relation of mine with the same Christian name. But a casual fly-by check on social media could produce the wrong impression, why not? I once Googled myself, only to find that I’m a black Baptist minister in Georgia, convicted of child abuse….  People need to be careful if they are running checks, to get the right guy – I don’t have a Facebook account, by the way.

Possibly, I am paranoid. A classic symptom of depression is a powerful feeling of guilt, a neurotic foreboding that you have done something terrible in the past that will one day catch up with you, for which you deserve to be punished. (See Larkin, Philip: ‘Your mum and dad, they fuck you up…’)

Whatever the reason, I don’t seem to be getting anywhere in my life at present, and it’s irking me. Wake up, world of work, you’re wasting my talent and my time, sitting here having to write this stuff.

Just sell the house. Retire. Go.

Living the artistic life (la vie artisanale)

“You’ve been blessed with considerable artistic talent. Making your own clothes, creating delicious meals out of table scraps and decorating with salvaged materials will all be worthwhile ways to exercise this gift.”

Now, after the amazing horoscope I had last week from Yahoo!, that I Posted for you, telling me with unswerving accuracy that I was severely depressed and should undertake a project, I’ve reprinted the above quote from my Yahoo! yearly forecast, which still has a month or so to run, for 2013.

It doesn’t sound like much of a life, making clothes out of fish heads and broccoli stalks (Lady Gaga is one of my very oldest friends), lining my sitting-room with shredded car tyres and a skipful of my shoes retrieved from the community recycling centre, as they weren’t being sent to India at all, they were just overflowing into the parking lot.

True, my blessed artistic talent tends to be what has got in the way of a more rewarding career. But at least I can say I have done it! I have lived the artistic life in 2013, that’s for sure. I just wish I had a pair of trousers with a working zip fastener to go out in. Zippers are the very devil to hemstitch.

These men are just asking for it

Highly intelligent people can often do quite stupid things.

We woke up this morning to the news that Professor John Ashton, the country’s most senior scientific adviser in the field of public health, was arguing publicly for a debate on reducing  the legal age of consent to sex, from 16 to 15.

Now, Ashton probably has perfectly good, public-health-type reasons for arguing this, although the fact that so many young people are already having sex before they are 16 ought not to be one of them. Bad cases do not make good laws. And he is probably right: 15 is no longer a child, lowering the age might paradoxically reduce teenage pregnancies because younger girls would seek advice earlier (of course, boys aren’t involved), German frauleins are legally at-it by 14 and it ought to be up to individuals, not the law, to determine what is appropriate behaviour in their own particular circumstances.

One assumes, too, that Prof Ashton’s intention was not to invite a barrage of death threats from the piss-stained-sofa brigade, spurred on by tabloid headlines and even now reaching for their sharpened Tweeters, shouting: “Kill the paedo Prof!” But on past form that’s what is quite likely to happen next.

Nor, I suppose, was he mentally prepared for the instant clouds of Tory steam emanating from the little indignation boiler kept at Number 10, where dwells a young, married Prime Minister blessed with an entire quiverfull of potentially molestable juveniles.

So, what did he expect would happen if he announced what he was merely thinking?

Ashton might have taken a leaf out of the well-publicised book of his fellow eminent scientist, the aptly named Professor David Nutt. The day after it was extensively reported that another young clubber had died from ingesting some industrial quantity of bespoke designer substance, Prof Nutt took to the airwaves to invite prospective investors to fund the manufacture of a new drug he has invented, that mimics all of the happy results of consuming alcohol without any of the harmful side-effects. (Side issue: sounds really boring.)

Prof Nutt is, or was, the country’s leading specialist in Psychopharmacology – the effects of chemicals on the human brain. Unfortunately, the Government committee he led researching into this subject a few years ago recommended the legalisation of ecstacy and cannabis, or at least a downgrading of the categories of certain drugs, maybe even heroin, I don’t really remember. The committee was instantly disbanded, and Prof Nutt sacked, for daring to make this scientifically respectable suggestion which, naturally, flew in the face of all that is holy regarding the War On Drugs, widely thought outside the office of the editor of the Sun to have been lost almost before it began.

It had perhaps not occurred to him that the first stumbling-block he might encounter was the Rt Hon David Blunkett – possibly the most reactionary and headline-averse Home Secretary we have had in living memory.

As a result of the Nutty Prof’s hostage to fortune, providing the Government with a fresh opportunity to restate and reimpose an illiberal policy on the nation’s recreational drug users, the designer-highs industry has flourished as never before. Sinister East Europeans are able to afford houses with three-storey basements in Knightsbridge, and many young Brits have died from the unlicensed psychopharmacological tinkerings of their imported Chinese lab technicians. Collateral damage, apparently.

Prof Ashton, on the other hand, has – pardon the phrase – come up against the strangely puritanical attitude of young Britons to sex. To summarise their arguments, sex is generally to be frowned on. Not a single interviewee under 20 has been found to be in favour of reducing the age of consent; regardless of the fact that, until 100 years ago, we didn’t have an age of consent. Families took responsibility for policing their own children, the overnight ‘sleepover’ at a ‘friend’s house’ had not yet been invented. The working-class would breed like rats, whatever the law said. Perhaps he should have consulted his own children, before risking his reputation.

These eminent men need to take a reality check. They can be as clever and sensible and reasoned and expert as they like. They can even be absolutely bang-on right about stuff.

But they need to leave it to stupid politicians to make the decisions, if they know what’s good for them.

Postscriptum

As I have been writing this, the Attorney General of Northern Ireland has proposed a moratorium on the expanding number of expensive police investigations, coroners’ inquests and lawyer-led inquiries into illegal acts, murders basically, carried on over 15 years ago during the so-called Troubles; pointing out, not without reason, that it is costing £millions and preventing policemen and lawyers from catching-up with today’s backlog of unruliness. He too is now a headless corpse, having been decapitated by the snapping teeth of the Prime Minister and just about every victim support group, who now comprise the majority of the population.

What on earth did he expect? Silly man.

Retrograde developments on the domestic front

Last week, I parted company with my estate agent.

To be more accurate, my estate agent parted company with me. It is true that I have been fired by everyone I ever worked for. I even once fired myself, from my own company. But it is not often that people have fired themselves, who were supposedly working for me and stood to gain by it. That smarts.

As devotees of this, muh bogl, will recall, I have been hoping for more than a year now to sell-up and move to a country that exists as yet only in my mind, Portugal. But try as we might, neither my estate agent nor I have been able to persuade anyone of the obvious benefits of living in the thunderous approaches to a bustling seaside town on the warm and windy-wet, wild west coast of Wales.

I was mildly taken aback, then, when my estate agent emailed me on Monday to tell me that they would be taking down their sign within the next 24 hours BECAUSE THEY HAD FAILED TO SELL MY HOUSE AFTER 12 WEEKS!!!

Given the number of people I know who have been trying to sell their homes here for years, I suspected they might possibly have another reason in mind.

It all started in August, when I got a letter from them telling me my existing estate agent had obviously failed to sell my house, so why not give them a go? They would do much better, thanks to New Technology. There were many buyers even now trampling over one another’s recumbent bodies to get hold of a place like mine. Naturally they would be a little more expensive, because they were the best. But I would not regret switching.

It was a very clever sales letter. I used to write sales letters for a living, for big banks and building societies. So I knew a clever sales letter when I saw one. It was the cleverness of the letter, rather than the actual contents, that sold me; as, of course, I have lived a long time and know that all estate agents are the same, as bad as each other. But not necessarily as clever!

Besides, they were right. My existing agent had clearly lost interest after ten months of trying and failing to sell my house. They had let two offers slip through their fingers in January. The salesgirl ran off to live in Brazil, right at the moment when a bit of expert salesgirlship might have turned things around. I wrote to them, brutally exposing their many failings, and signed a contract with the new agent.

The new agent appeared to have bought a job-lot of brand-new, £3,000 Apple computers, a giant display monitor, a complete design makeover and one of those digital fireplaces you hang on the wall, and was expanding into the building next door. In the ensuing week, I noticed that practically every house there was for sale in the entire county had gone over to the same agent. Everywhere I went, their familiar sign-erector was erecting their newly designed signs in place of their rivals’. It was not a good sign.

Now, if there is one thing I hate, it is being told to shut up and mind my own business, especially by someone who stands to make two thousand pounds or thereabouts, possibly for doing very little, quite badly, at my expense. Especially by someone whom I have contracted to act on my instruction, but who prefers for convenience to believe I am acting on theirs. Especially when I had myself spent years in the business of advising businesses on how best to do business.

Stories about estate agents and how awful they are quickly get boring, so I’ll just tell you quickly: I wrote to the brash young man who was showing people round my house to point out that I did not appreciate some of the things he was telling them. He would bring people in and straightaway tell them, before they had even had a chance to complain about the walls, which walls he would rip out if he bought the house. He was clearly bored by kitchen appliances, and would fail to demonstrate my well-appointed kitchen to the lady viewers. He even threatened to throw out my piano, to make more space (what would become of the mice? I wondered).

In passing, I made one tiny joke about his absurdly shiny, very large and pointy shoes as possibly being a bit intimidating…. You know me, I can’t resist a stab at humour. The estate agent naturally seized on this as the prime example of my abusive behaviour, that was preventing them from selling my house. I was told in no uncertain terms: they were the experts, and if I didn’t like how they were selling my house to the ill-assorted dribble of unwilling buyers they dragged through the door over the next three months, I could go back to my old estate agent.

Am I the only person who still believes a contract is legally binding?

It was a bad relationship from the start. I was not allowed to say anything, even when they failed to produce any printed details of my house the entire time they were under contract. I was banned from staying in my own house while they showed people round. I would take Hunzi for long walks in the rain, but it made no difference in the end. Everyone Liked the house but there was some other factor they weren’t mentioning, preventing them from buying it. Could be the price, could be the location, could be the shoes, who knew? I was never told anything that was not optimistic bullshit.

It has felt like the Invisible Hand of God is preventing me from selling my house. Maybe I am being saved by my Committee of Discarnate Entities from a fate worse even than that of ending my lonely days in the outskirts of a bustling seaside town; Hunzi’s and my mummified remains discovered years later in my offputtingly rhomboidal sitting-room, a Miles Davis CD mouldering in the tray of the long-dead CD-player, gas bills piled high in the doorway, headlines bemoaning the state of social work nowadays.

Moving to Portugal might be worse: I might be fated otherwise to drown in my new swimming pool, or be massacred in an orchestrated attack by angry torch-bearing villagers on the elderly foreign weirdo living alone with the dog with the strange, amber eyes. I’ve reminded myself that it’s been 258 years since the last Great Lisbon Earthquake. I should be grateful that I’m being kept out of harm’s way, even if I do have to be miserable and frustrated and broke and unemployed in the perpetual wind and rain of a dull and depressing seaside town*.

But the old journalist in me could not help noticing that the letter telling me they were taking down my sign the next day because they had not sold my house was sent the same weekend they started expensively marketing an entire development of twenty-one new dwelling units right across the street from my house, where they appear to be deeply embedded with the developer.

It occurs to me, not for the first time, that it is this kampong of human farrowing-crates crammed onto a tiny brownfield site cutting off my view forever of a green hill, far away, the railway line running through their living-rooms; the fear of possibly finding oneself in proximity to feral children, devil dogs, wild-eyed men with spiders tattooed on their heads living in precarious relationships with rebarbative termagents called Charleyne, that could be dampening interest in my little house.

And now it is almost Christmas and no-one buys a house at Christmas, or has any money left after Christmas. So it looks as if I am condemned to remain here at least until the market picks up next Easter, browsing the Internet for a reliable guide to self-mummification.

It is too late in the year to appoint another estate agent, and in any case where will I find one who does not by now know that, when they fire me, they are likely to get upset at being told to go f*** themselves, and I will have to send them flowers? It will be all over town by now.

I am not a deserving person, I know. But it is a very nice little house, honestly.

*Prospective buyers please note: the tenor of this, my bogl, is generally intended to be humorous and not to be taken entirely at face value. That lump in my cheek is my tongue, not a case of the mumps. You need to start reading from the other end.

The fault, dear Brutus, is in our stars,

Horoscopes Yahoo Lifestyle

Libra

23/9-22/10

Channel your creative energy in a positive direction. Lately, you have felt out of sorts, anxiously seeking an outlet for your frustrations. Until you begin work on a project, it will be difficult to enjoy the many blessings you’ve been given. Someone with your wit, imagination and intelligence is meant to contribute great things. Take some time to write a short story*, compose some music or design clothes. It doesn’t matter if you lack previous experience. Invite your inner artist to come out and play.

This is astonishing. How do they KNOW all this stuff about me? I AM witty, imaginative and intelligent! I HAVE felt out of sorts, especially since the annoying bloke in the house behind me, who advertises logs for sale, has started up again sawing logs three hours a day with his giant industrial bandsaw, that you can hear way over on the industrial park a mile from here, and goes on all through the winter months, even on weekends.

But I AM meant to contribute Great Things…. So I’ve been playing him Charlie Mingus, at Volume 11, to let him know what I think of postindustrial Welsh culture, and now I’ve blown my fucking speakers.

I’m also massively depressed.

So I’ll get my Inner Artist started right away on designing some CHEERFUL TROUSERS.

Do that.

*So, I wrote a short story, and entered it for a competition. It didn’t win.

Help, I’m LinkedIn

What do social networks hope to gain by keeping people trapped in them?

The other night I watched a moving documentary on TV, that spoke to my personal experience. The only way I could find to contact the director involved going through LinkedIn, and to email them via LinkedIn required me to register my name and address.

So far, so perfectly understandable. But the mere act of registering meant that I had to accept terms and conditions. I found myself immediately registered as a LinkedIn account-holder, with no possibility of opting-out.

That was when the nightmare began.

What seems to happen is that LinkedIn kidnaps your email Contacts and if they are in the network it sends them nice Hello, I’m here! messages pretending to come from you, and sends you welcoming messages pretending to come from them, as if you are all delighted to hear from one another, it’s a party! and then it puts you on lists to receive service messages sent by Contacts who have not emailed you, and by their Contacts too, mostly people and companies you have never heard of.

Thus, I have found myself welcomed into a virtual network I never asked to join with all kinds of people, some of whom I already know, some I don’t, who do not particularly want to hear from me, just as I don’t need to hear from them.

Some are people with whom I have had bad experiences and I had hoped never to have anything to do with them again, or let them know where they can find me. They have been sent messages that I have not sent, asking for professional references and introductions. I am mostly retired now and have no need of professional references. And I have had genuine messages from friends, pleading with me to stop sending these emails. It’s not me! I can’t stop LinkedIn from sending them.

Far from bringing us closer together in a network, LinkedIn is pissing-off people with whom I have tenuous relationships at best. I am not a very nice or sociable person, and not a natural networker. I am finding this process personally embarrassing. Yesterday I got a message from someone I have never heard of, regarding my professional credentials. I don’t have any; none that are relevant to the modern world. The photograph was of someone who is the spitting image of a good friend who committed suicide 20 years ago. That was pretty distressing too.

The service messages have a link to Unsubscribe, but you can’t really Unsubscribe because when it asks if you really want to Unsubscribe there appears to be no way to say yes. The Help link on the main web site does eventually lead you to the instructions for how to De-activate your account, but again, at the end of the process of De-activation you find you still have an active account. Closing it down automatically Re-activates it. It is like being trapped in some awful club with a third-rate comedian, whose only exit leads directly back to the stage.

I have no intention of ever paying any money to LinkedIn. I never respond to online advertising. I don’t network. There is no useful service they can provide to me. There is nothing I can usefully do for them. I don’t want to have an account with them. I never asked for one. I don’t care to hear from anyone unless the communication is requested by one of us.

Why do they want to keep me locked-in?

Presumably, because they are busily selling my details on to third-party organisations that like to send spam to ‘professional’ people who appear to fit the profile of LinkedIn account holders.

I have news for you, third-party organisations: you are buying a bunch of crap. Don’t waste your money. Don’t waste my time.

I am not someone you want to get to know.

Postscriptum

My son returns to do his laundry every Friday. At least if I have a stroke, I know I will eventually be found. Grasping the problem instantly, with a pass of his magic, no-longer-quite-a-teenager’s hand, he makes my LinkedIn nightmare all go away.

If you do not have one of these, rush out and buy one now.

A consummation devoutly to be wished

“It becomes harder to live by the ‘rules’ of warfare, when the strongest weapon held by the weaker side is a willingness to ignore the rules.”

Morality in war

The Second World War was justified, in every fibre of Winston Churchill’s being, as a Manichean struggle between the civilised values and traditions of the British Empire, and the dark shadow of ruthless German expansionism. It was no longer (as it was in actuality) just another in the long-running series of European wars fought over territory, to establish German ideological and industrial hegemony in the vacuum created by the simultaneous collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, and the perceived weakness of the other great European powers. It was not even a Wagnerian echo of the irresistible movement of pagan Germanic tribes south and westwards in the wake of the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century AD.

While the Nazis themselves tried to evoke memories of a mythical, heroic past, somehow struggling to remain good Catholics and Lutherans, Churchill’s brilliant masterstroke was to brand the war as a contest simply between two ideologies: Good and Evil. But in his mind was only the preservation of Empire. The liberation of France, the rescue of the Poles and Czechs and the lives of European Jews had nothing to do with it, although they should have. This was a war fought above all to keep India British and Europe in the balance.

Resistance to Nazism was successfully presented as a moral necessity – a crusade. This idea gained such traction that it helped to bring the majority of Americans into line with British war aims, just as it sustained the British people through the dark years of 1940 to ’43. Hitler’s single biggest blunder, Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of Soviet Russia – may have been motivated by the necessity to gain control of the Baku oilfields, rather than a desire to outshine Napoleon, having been denied access to Middle Eastern oil to fuel his tanks. But bringing Stalin into the conflict required the other Allied powers to forget for the time being that Soviet Russia was equally a diabolical, expansionist institution of enormous brutality, economic incompetence and State oppression: equally ‘evil’. This quasi-religious view of irreligious post-revolutionary Russia could only be revived after the inconvenience of the war was over, when the continuing struggle for global power became more political, economic.

And yet, who is to say that populist ideologies, the imposition of order through martial law, the gulags, the camps and the general slaughter of Kulaks were wrong? In what sense? We judge history, only from our own liberal, consumerist perspective; often with the benefit of hindsight. Had either of the twin evil ideologies prevailed, we might now be living in a world in which liberal, consumerist values were considered perverse, heretical – dangerous.

Nowadays, the idea of Nazi Germany as having been uniquely evil seems unquestionable. No-one in their right mind doubts that we were the good guys and the Germans (and their evil Japanese mates) the bad guys, the Other. It became, and remains probably for all time, impossible to hear the word ‘Nazi’ without a frisson of horror. Merely to question whether morality had any relevance in that conflict is to give support and approval to the undoubted brutalities of the regime, to the Holocaust of the European Jews. Not even the most counterfactual historical revisionist would dare to ponder on what Europe as ‘Greater Germany’ might look like now, seventy years on, without invoking the memory of intolerable savagery, callous indifference to life and the rights of the individual; the dead hand of trench-coated police bureaucracy.

Yet, as we know, the solution to the German problem adopted after the war was to bring them into the fold of civilised nations; rather than giving them further excuse to cause mayhem by attempting to crush them into submission, to obliterate them culturally and economically, as happened after the First World War. The starving survivors were successfully reprogrammed, detached from their Nazi past; the Allied powers declared themselves ready to show mercy, to finance prosperous decades of German political and economic expansion as a benefit to Europe and the world infinitely preferable to further costly attempts by both sides at military conquest.

Nibbling around the fringes of this colossal theme, it has become possible after so many decades to debate – not how evil were the Nazis, which is taken as read, but how good in fact were the Allied powers? For instance, while on the one hand 55,000 Allied airmen of Bomber Command bravely gave their lives trapped in freezing-cold, Spam-can deathtraps over Occupied Europe to strike at the evil (but highly productive) heart of Nazi Germany, it is relatively safe now to question whether it was an ethically acceptable or even militarily effective policy to deliberately obliterate whole cities, killing by firestorm almost half a million civilians – many of whom would  not have lived long enough to vote for National Socialism. The excuse that: ‘They started it’ does not really stand up in the court of Eternal justice.

For, even amid the brutal struggle between good and evil, through the fog of countless war histories, one might still detect here and there the signs of a military code of conduct operating, bearing echoes of medieval chivalry. Such behaviour was in large part enshrined in the Geneva Conventions governing treatment of enemy combatants, prisoners and civilian populations – who were expressly not to be slaughtered wholesale. It was also encoded in the organisation and bearing of the regiment: the historical traditions attached to individual fighting units on all sides, whose command hierarchies were still largely class-based. And, of course, the higher up the social scale your officer class stood, the more obligatory the concept of Noblesse Oblige became.

Not for nothing was Hitler portrayed in the aristocratic Churchill’s inspired mythology as a jumped-up, lower-class arriviste: a failed house-painter no less! (Both men were competent amateur artists. And while Churchill was a depressive borderline alcoholic and bon viveur, Hitler was an abstemious, fastidious character with a strong moral code.) Especially in Britain, the caste system still had a powerful resonance. Chivalry on the other hand was the preserve of the knightly classes, both in Britain and in Germany; the code of Bushido in Japan had long outlasted the demise of the Samurai. In the mid-twentieth century there were still rules of warfare, even if they weren’t entirely adhered to by any side; courtly behaviour on the battlefield and in the aftermath of engagements was still seen as the ideal, especially between officers. Death came before dishonour, to a Commando.

What has happened to change all that is simply that warfare has become increasingly asymmetrical. The idea of a conflict between equal powers has faded into the historical background. Wars are increasingly policing, or ‘peacekeeping’ actions involving major power commitment to propping-up clients against local insurgencies. With this massive technological disparity between combatants comes a distancing between the rival forces. Their war aims differ; their ideologies and cultures are more alien to one another. It becomes harder to live by the ‘rules’ of warfare, when the strongest weapon held by the weaker side is a willingness to ignore the rules. No system of morality can govern warfare in which one side only possesses the technology to kill at long-range, impersonally and without compassion: guns and bombs versus clubs and swords. Drones versus suicide vests.

Two men battling hand-to-hand, face-to-face, still have what one might term the ‘mother’s son’ option, to recognise one another’s common humanity. The victor has the opportunity to spare the loser’s life, and may calculate that, in doing so, he gains greater power and advantage than by callously terminating his opponent on the spot. There is less of a moral compass when one of the combatants is a starving peasant farmer armed with a bashed-up AK-47, while the other is a well-paid college graduate sitting in a bunker six thousand miles away at a million-dollar computer interface, remotely operating an unmanned drone armed with Hellfire missiles as if it were a game, going home at night. Drones cannot (yet) take prisoners, however useful prisoners may sometimes be. But drones can, and daily do, kill innocent women and children; which, in my book and, amusingly, also under the Geneva Conventions, is murder.

And so we come to the case of ‘Sergeant A’, who has this week been convicted of the crime of murder by a military tribunal in England. It is an extraordinarily difficult situation. On the one hand, the evidence is incontestable: ‘Sergeant A’, a veteran Royal Marines commando who had completed three terms fighting in the front line in Helmand, was filmed on a fellow marine’s helmet camera dispatching with a single pistol shot, a badly wounded Taliban opponent. This happened in the aftermath of a lethal firefight, in which two other British marines had been killed. Crucially, it did not happen during the firefight itself. The view of the tribunal was to agree with ‘Sergeant A”s own words, recorded at the scene, that he had just broken the Geneva Conventions, which propose that an enemy who is hors de combat should be considered a prisoner deserving of capture, rather than summary execution.

On the other side of murder, stands the military code of honour which, I would argue, was indeed observed by both parties.

This soldier of the Taliban – a poorly armed political and religious insurgency opposed to Western intervention in Afghanistan – knew when he signed-up to fight, that there was a very good chance he would be killed. For the Afghan warrior class, by both tradition and religious belief, and for Muslims in general, death on the battlefield while fighting the Infidel is an honour. To portray such young men as ‘terrorists’ is a gross insult, but we do so in order to bolster the belief that our side are the good guys. Whether we like it or not, whether or not it accords with our squeamish, civilised modern values, every armed man, good or bad, fights in the knowledge that he (or she) is being asked possibly to sacrifice themselves; and, perhaps harder, to sacrifice the lives of others.

There is a long and, in some part, honourable tradition of dispatching combatants to their own Valhalla who, for whatever reason, cannot continue making war, if it is not considered feasible, or if it would be prejudicial to the mission, to spare them. Soldiers have performed this service for one another for centuries. The principle is accepted by every combatant, whether a trained soldier or a dirt-farmer’s son, that the enemy has a duty to take your life; but so does your comrade, as a military necessity. It is accepted too by every pet owner and racehorse trainer, that suffering should be ended as quickly and painlessly as possible. Ending suffering may involve medical treatment leading to recovery, or it may involve a kindly bullet in the head. In times of war, normal morality – the biblical injunction: ‘Thou shalt not kill’, the social compact – can become an unaffordable luxury.

And as the ‘good’ guys, our claim to having a greater moral concern than the enemy for the lives of innocent bystanders is not always an honest one, is it? ‘Collateral damage’ is a pretty disgusting euphemism, under the Geneva Conventions, for the State-licensed murder our heroes practise daily in the pursuit of the bad guys. In wartime, ‘the greater good’ takes precedence.

Being thus dispatched by your enemy and fellow combatant, however, does not normally take place – at least, one assumes it does not – to the accompaniment of quotations from Hamlet. As he fired the fatal shot, ‘Sergeant A’ was heard to hastily mutter, in a rather selfconscious way, and somewhat out of context: ‘Shuffle off this mortal coil!’ It seems more like a benediction than an expression of murderous intent.

Whilst deprecating the act of shuffling another human being for any reason at all, I’d prefer to think of our Muslim insurgent – as he would think – as having been martyred honourably on the battlefield, resisting the enemy with his life as he was bound to do, with the witty rejoinder on his lips: ”Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished!’ But then, I don’t suppose Shakespeare gets much of a look-in at your average madrassa.

The marine’s option, of course, would have been to save the prisoner’s life somehow, possibly at the cost of further lives in his own unit, only to see him disappear into some rat-infested Afghan police shithole to have whatever tiny amounts of useful info he might still know tortured out of him. Anal rape and partial drowning or electrocution would, I suppose, be the more moral alternative to saving him from either bleeding to death in pain, or allowing his own comrades to administer the coup de grace, as they undoubtedly would have.

As it is, locking Sgt Blackman up for life for the ‘murder’ of this anonymous insurgent has effectively handed a victory to the enemy.

Perhaps the lesson of this tragic episode is that headcams are not such a good idea in war.