In, out, shake it all about – and an Obituary for Infinity

Two conservative Sir Michaels on the Today programme, spouting the usual pernicious clichéd tosh about the EU and its oppressive bureaucracy, Caine (I’m 82, you know) and former Dark Knight, Howard.

Unfortunately coinciding with French PM Manny Valls warning that the sheer numbers of refugees still pouring over the southern borders are threatening to destroy the European project, and a German political pig demanding that Greece should spend whatever the Prussian bankers have left them on more efficient border controls.

Sometimes it’s best to switch off.

Mornings like this are nudging the opinion polls ever upwards in favour of Brexit. The more moderate Outers are increasingly relying on Schweinsteiger failing to get any really significant agreement on benefit changes and border controls to press their case. The British position is all we care about.

I have long argued that it has been Britain’s refusal to engage fully and co-operatively with the EU that is partly responsible for the current situation. Britain has historically been the balancing force in a revolving triad with France and Germany at the heart of European power, but we seem happy to sacrifice that position and to destabilise the entire continent for totally selfish reasons.

The refugee influx is a genuine crisis affecting the whole of Europe, in which we are stubbornly playing no part. The Eurozone, to which we also refuse to belong, is constantly said to be in crisis, although the value of the Euro has remained remarkably stable throughout the past three years since the ‘crisis’ began, while formerly buoyant Sterling is currently falling sharply against it. Is the pound in crisis? We should be told.

The Out campaign is significantly being driven by an egregious cabal of semi-accountable, power-hungry politicians with allegiances to dodgy, mid-Atlantic foundations, and UKIP empire-loyalists who would prefer to be ‘big fish’ in a very small pond than put up with straight bananas and messy human rights. What they mean by ‘sovereignty’ is their right as a class to govern us in perpetuity. They have the benefit of forty years of relentless anti-European propaganda in the rightwing press to back them up.

When is it ever pointed out to the readers, for instance, that the rubbishy Daily Express and Daily Star, both of which are screaming at us to get out, are owned by former pornographer, Richard Desmond, a major donor to UKIP? While the Sun, the Times are Murdoch papers – he’s anti-Europe because EU competition laws cramp his monopolistic habits; and the Telegraph is owned by the Barclay twins, reclusive billionaires holed up like Bond villains in a fortress on the island of Sark. God knows what they think of Europe in moments of contemplation over their private interests. Only the Mirror and the Guardian have the occasional good word to say about the EU, and few people read the Guardian.

Someone needs to spell it out to the British public: good manners alone ought to dictate that now is not the time to be making selfish and unco-operative demands on the rest of Europe that they should focus on Little Britain and our endless whibbling moans about ‘migrants’ (they are not ‘migrants’, the Treaty of Rome guarantees the right of all EU citizens to live and work anywhere within the EU, that’s the whole point!)

It should occur to someone, surely, that we have the lowest rate of unemployment in the EU, 5.1%, but also the largest pool of job vacancies, at a time when EU workers are here in very big numbers. How do you reconcile that, other than by accepting that far from taking ‘our jobs’, other Europeans are taking up the slack, helping to drive our growing economy?

Agreed, the EU expanded too rapidly, absorbing some not-very nice Eastern European countries who don’t share our values. It has major structural problems it is trying to deal with. There’s an economic gulf between the Catholic south and the Protestant north (in fact, I have a theory that the countries that brought about the Eurozone crisis were all until relatively recently under either political or religious dictatorships, or a combination of the two evils.)

There is some sympathy with the British position, but you sense their impatience. After lecturing everyone else on the need to do something about the refugee crisis, the tiresome and pompous Mr Cameron, for personal and domestic political reasons, driven by fear of further splitting his party, is only making things worse by insisting on pressing an irrelevant agenda in Brussels at this critical time. A vote for Brexit will surely be the final straw: I don’t see how the European project can survive that too. (And what would it mean for the Irish, out on a limb?)

Then where do we go, with neofascism in the ascendant everywhere, a huge and unpopular reserve of unsettled North African and Mid-eastern migrants swilling around, chronic economic stagnation and Russian imperial ambitions on the march once again? Britain will not survive the coming implosion of Europe, any more than it did trying to preserve its isolationist stance in 1914.

Brexit will go down in history as an act of monumental, suicidal stupidity.

 

Postscriptum

“Around £350 million of EU funds are being invested in Wales over the next five years to raise skills and drive productivity in workplaces, enabling more people to progress in their careers and achieve higher earnings.

“This new EU investment will boost the prospects of hundreds of people working in South West Wales, and is excellent news for the region’s business community and another positive example of the benefits of UK membership of the European Union.”

– Welsh finance minister, Jane Hutt. 14 January, 2016

 

Playing the long game

Two reports have emerged, neither of which’s conclusions is very surprising, giving two very negative impressions of the management of large organisations.

One concerns the Russian State-sponsored murder of British citizen and MI6 intelligence agent, Alexander Litvinenko. The evidence that he was clumsily murdered by two incompetent FSB hitmen toting a mess of radioactive Polonium 210 from Moscow to London, leaving a trail of lethal slime everywhere they went, seems unassailable. The Russians and Mr Lugovoi, now an untouchable member of the Duma, have of course angrily dismissed the inquiry findings, without reading the 390-odd pages, as evidence of the classic British sense of humour. Lying, and lying big, is the Kremlin’s default setting.

Maybe they don’t have closed-circuit TV cameras in Moscow, but we do in London. We watched you, FSB hitmen Lugovoi and Kovtun, entering and leaving the scene of the crime, taking Polonium ‘tea’ with the victim. The teapot was radioactive. Your hotel rooms were radioactive. The football stadium you visited was radioactive. Your aircraft seats were radioactive. You were probably  radioactive yourselves. No-one else could have done it. British secret services, whom you accuse of conducting a black op (motive? Thought not), do not have access to Polonium 210, whose specific signature was probably traced to Russian laboratories (much of the evidence was heard in secret). It was a very odd murder weapon to choose, unless the aim was to inflict the maximum suffering.

However… the question of who ordered it is less adroitly handled, in my view (he said weakly), by judge, Sir Robert Owen.

The conclusions of his report have been known and expected for years – this happened in 2006, and the suspects were fingered almost immediately. But to use the word ‘probably’ in relation to his final conclusion, that the murder was ‘probably’ ordered by Putin himself, gives us nothing. Better to have left it out.

Of course it ‘probably’ was, but there is no evidence, only supposition based on the ‘probability’ that so many high-ups in the Kremlin, all Putin cronies and former KGB, would have had to be involved in plotting it, getting hold of a controlled substance, that Putin himself must have known. Putin hated defector Litvinenko, so much that he ordered his face to be put on the targets used by recruits on the firing range. Litvinenko hated former colleague Putin: the Russian President was a paedophile, he said, and a big crook who had stolen his country.

And that leads us to the inevitable question, so what?

Intelligence agencies eliminate their States’ opponents all the time, wherever they are. This was quite likely to have been a Russian Mafia contract, Litvinenko was said to have taken part in MI6 joint ops against them in Spain, but again so what? It’s what they do.

Israel’s Mossad security service notoriously takes out Palestinian opponents abroad. Former PLO man and Palestinian prime minister, Yasser Arafat was also probably killed by Polonium poisoning.  France sank the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, in New Zealand with the loss of two crew. Bulgaria assassinated BBC spy, Georgi Markov, with a poison pellet fired from an umbrella on London Bridge. The USA regularly orders lethal drone strikes against individuals suspected of terrorism in Syria, Yemen and Somalia; they executed Osama bin Laden under the noses of Pakistan’s security forces. Britain ‘suicides’ its independent scientists and elderly rose-growers threatening to expose flaws in its intelligence on WMD. South African security assassinated the head of the UN, Dag Hammarskjold, and the Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme. No-one believes Boris Berezovsky, billionaire business rival and vocal opponent of Putin, really hanged himself in his Sunningdale garage because he was depressed, do they?

It’s all allowed, under the rules of the long game.

 

Lord Saville’s Crime

The official report into disc-jockey, ‘Sir’ Jimmy Saville’s activities at the BBC has yet to be published, but no-one seems surprised that ‘a draft’ has been leaked, as it is taking so long.

Saville’s reprehensible behaviour towards young girls, many of them picked-up while he was hosting Top of the Pops, or slimed over in his campervan during Radio 1 roadshows, appears to have resulted in some 81 reported instances of rape and sexual molestation on BBC premises in the 1960s and 70s, probably the tip of the iceberg. Though the report is now being hurriedly redrafted, Dame Janet Smith may have lamely concluded that no-one in authority knew anything, no-one said anything and no-one is to blame, so overawed was everyone – even Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles – by Jimmy’s Big Celebrity Cigar.

She will get stick for it from the Commons Home Affairs Committee, but in a way she is right.

Saville was notorious in the business. Indeed, his exploits were discussed widely and almost admiringly by colleagues. His ability to ‘pull’ adolescent girls was something the disc jockeys I worked with (I was a radio newsman in the 1970s – I never met Saville, by the way) seemed quite envious of. The word ‘paedophile’ had no currency then: no-one was talking about having sex with actual children, or raping babies, but over a pint in the saloon bar, nubile teenage girls around the official age of consent were considered desirable and fair game. Even so, the BBC was a gentleman’s club, where it would have been considered the height of bad manners to accuse anyone of anything, you know, like that….

I’m willing to bet, too, that there are hundreds of middle-aged women out there who will be prompted to recall that they set out knowingly at a young age from their boring suburban estate homes, away from uncomprehending parents and dreary schools pushing pointless qualifications, to weekend festivals and TV studios to sample a more exotic world of celebrity – who were quite happy to allow themselves to be fucked in the backs of Transit vans by rock musicians they’d seen gyrating on TV, or by smoothly stellar TV presenters now debauched, wrinkled and gaga. Does it still go on? Probably not – the times they have a-changed.

An American girlfriend told me in 1970 that her younger sister had been ‘collecting’ jazz musicians from the age of 13.

Now, okay, it’s illegal and much to be frowned on, though nobody died. But let’s not kid ourselves: there was no age of innocence that we can all be teleported back to. There’s a New Puritanism abroad in the land, that says it’s okay to pretend, to dress-up, even to watch; but not to ask too persistently, or to actually do (or to ever have done) anything… like that, yourself. It’s okay to sexualise children through fashion and pop music and social media confessionals, but not to let them experiment with actual sex.

We live in a schizophrenic age, with 40+ channels of pornography on Sky TV and any variety of exploitative sexual imagery involving literally millions of willing and unwilling participants and victims available online in our living-rooms with two clicks of a mouse. Yet we’ve become curiously prudish, demanding a new kind of morality policing that thinks it’s not only acceptable but obligatory to send twenty officers piling in to spend seven hours searching the retirement apartment of the 91-year-old former head of the British Army and his dying wife for non-existent evidence of decades-old debauchery.

Just as Litvinenko was an unfortunate casualty in a centuries-old clandestine war in which he was a willing participant, so it is difficult in my experience to believe that all of Saville’s crimes weren’t just him playing the game others in his position were also playing at the time, doing it in plain sight for the thrill of getting away with it, testing his male power time after time – not only over his random targets, but over his disbelieving employers and supporters too. What he did was evil and monstrous: the kiddies in hospital, the corpses in the morgue, the self-aggrandising bullying that closed down discussion and made liars of his accusers – he was one sick individual, to be sure.

But I doubt that Dame Janet’s report is going to dare to point out that, however much they may regret it now, celebrity-chasing teenage girls weren’t really all ‘victims’ of sexual abuse; except in the sense that in 2016 we feel we have to protect 14 and 15-year-old girls from their own sexual desires and fantasies, which their elders were in denial of then; encouraging people to make victims of their younger selves, whilst our culture becomes ever more sexualised.

Celebrity itself makes victims of all those deluded people who crave a slice of it and are willing to do anything, however regrettable, to be touched by it; celebrities themselves are flattered and fawned on until some of the weaker ones become narcissistic, self-regarding demigods, liable to test-out their earthly powers in ways mere mortals shouldn’t approve of.

It’s nothing new. You’ll find it all foreshadowed in the mythology of the Greeks.

 

The answer’s a lemon

Astonishingly, a report has emerged after five years in the stewing, that, in 2011, an eight-year-old child in Wales may have died, apparently from scurvy – the disease caused by vitamin-C deficiency, that sailors used to get before fruit was discovered.

The dangerous fact that he was home-educated has excited the media. Local authorities are being excoriated for failing to monitor these ‘invisible’ forgotten children, tragically falling ‘below the radar’. Politicians are calling for a change in the law to allow social workers to bust home educators and drag their dying children into care.

Bad cases make bad laws. Blaming home-educators in general for the alleged  vitamin deficiencies of one dysfunctional family is ludicrous overreaction. But home education has long been a subject of trepidation, in much the same way as home birth is. Surely, all right-minded folk argue with deeply furrowed brows, even though they might not countenance State control of the motor industry or the railways, State institutions are the right, the best, the safest, the only places in which to bear and educate ‘our’ children, no?

Rubbish.

Not a lot of local authority monitoring went on at my expensive top-10 public school either. The overcooked scraps and slop they fed us wouldn’t have left a single vitamin alive. There was no fruit in Britain in those days, fruit was for bats. I lived on chips, Coke and Bluebird toffees from the tuckshop until I was covered in boils, but I survived somehow.

In my experience, home-edders in Wild-West Wales are all vegetarian or even vegan, so the kid will have been stuffed with home-grown leeks and lentils, along with the dangerously revolutionary ideas. It seems peculiar then that scurvy, a vanishingly rare and extremely painful condition in which the muscle fibers progressively break-down, was diagnosed at all.

Perhaps it had nothing to do with his education, which has not previously been known to be a health risk? Perhaps it was a straightforward case of parental neglect combined with local authority underfunding? The parents certainly challenge the findings of the report. There might even be genetic disorders with which children can’t process vitamin-C adequately, I don’t know.

It wouldn’t surprise me, however, if there isn’t a rash of cases of rickets in Wales this year. We’ve had only two days of sunshine in the past three months to give us the vitamin-D we all crave. (And look, it’s raining again.)

Besides, if you want a doctor’s appointment here, you now have to make an appointment to phone for an appointment, that will then be a minimum three weeks away. That’s a net a lot of people are likely to slip through. I know I have.

Hwyl fawr!

 

Warts and all

I’ve noticed with fascination that facial warts seem to be overtaking dodgy beards as this year’s fashion accessory. Almost every person who appears on television seems to have at least one. I’ve been counting them.

A prominent wartista is the BBC’s Chief Political Correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg. I’m fixated on the one above her right eyelid, that mars her otherwise flawless High Definition maquillage. Her colleague, newsreader Sophie Rayworth is a great beauty, also mildly disfigured by several inadvertent outgrowths. All the otherwise glamorous women swanning through RAI’s top cop show, Inspector Montalbano, are studded with them – sarcomas sprouting all over too, from the Italian sunshine. Lemmy, the great singer and bass player from Mötörhead, who died at the beginning of the year, had gigantic facial warts that didn’t seem to bother him at all. I found them pretty disturbing, to be honest.

A check on the webinet reveals three important details. One, forty percent of people have facial warts. Two, they are caused by, among other things,  the Human Papilloma Virus, which has also been implicated in ovarian cancer. Women especially should avoid licking people’s faces. Other causes are said to include nervous stress, which might explain the media connection.

And three, they are easily removed. If he had not been such a Puritan, Oliver Cromwell could have had a very different history.

Thus disfigured, why wouldn’t you have them removed, then? Possibly out of commitment to diversity? Surely not. Retaining your warts is political correctness gone mad. Get rid of the little buggers now!

According to webthing noskinproblems dot com, the best method is to apply a facemask for 40 minutes twice a day, made with chopped onion, garlic and a little vinegar (avoiding the eyes).

Simples.

And who needs friends? Huckleberry Finn, I seem to remember, used his own semen.

 

No brainer

Speaking of frightful plagues, the latest threat to Humanity following Ebola is the Zika virus.

Found in a common type of mosquito (Aedes aegypti) that inhabits a large swathe right around the globe from approximately the latitude of the Southern Mediterranean down to that of South Africa, the effects of a bite range from none at all, to a mild rash and fever, to the production of babies with deformed brains (although the latter connection is purely conjecture).

Luckily the virus hasn’t yet spread to the whole swathe, being mainly found in South and Central America and the Caribbean, but there’s no cure, no vaccine, and the WHO is worried.

Women in Columbia are being sternly advised not to get pregnant before the end of July, to avoid the mosquito season. Pregnant women are being warned to stay away from the Rio Olympics later this year. It’s quite serious, 4,000 children have been born in Brazil with tiny heads.

And you still think there’s a God.

Pip pip!

 

The Infinite, manqué

Professor Hawking, in his brain-frying 2016 Reith Lectures, advises us that a black hole is a singularity, where the writ of Einsteinian space-time no longer runs and everything, including probably probability, is infinite.

Our universe, of course, was born from just such a singularity.

Professor Brian Cox was discussing so-called ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ this afternoon on his humoresque BBC science show, The Infinite Monkey Cage, with various experts; one of whom mentioned a theory that one day, a black hole could create a new universe.

If so, then this monkey wonders if they aren’t doing it all the time, and whether ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’, that make up the 96% of the observable universe that we can’t see, aren’t just the gravitational effects we detect from those unseen universes? (In which case, my prediction that we shall soon have ‘dark time’ as well looks like something you’d have a flutter on down at Ladbroke’s.)

As long ago as 1976, dark time indeed, I wrote a short SF story in which a character explains that black holes are the air-conditioning units of the universe, sucking up all the messy old gas clouds and dust and spare stars, and ejecting them into other space-time continuums as new universes, or white holes.

(Dark time would ensure that we don’t see them because there is no ‘now’ in dark time for us to see them in; only ‘some other time’.

But it was never published, so I can’t prove what a clever monkey I could have turned out to be, had I persevered beyond my twelve-times table instead of bunking off school for a pint and a smoke.

Not in this universe, anyway.

 

Obituary column

Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!

Stop all the clocks…

“Unilever, the multinational firm behind brands including Magnum and Cornetto, is to make all its ice creams aimed at adults smaller.”

(BBC News quoting The Grocer magazine)

This has got to be the worst news of the week. The month. The millennium.

The hell with Syrian refugees, Trump, Putin, snowstorms and Google’s tax arrangements. This is political correctness, not just gone mad but in a state of genocidal psychotic frenzy.

Oh yes, Unilever (didn’t you use to make soap powder? Is there a connection?), we all love to make ‘healthier choices’, don’t we, you sanctimonious little corporate creeps.

Fuck you and your weaselly PR department. Did you ask us? Huh? Did we say to you, oh, yes please Lord Leverhulme, please give us ‘healthier choices’? You’re not giving us a choice at all, assholes, just pointless little itty-bitty bite-sized ice-creams, where magnificent self-indulgence used to be the sole rationale for making the purchase.

No, we guzzled fucking tons and tons of your wonderfully empowering, chocolatey product every summer, despite the frequent price hikes; we rejoiced at the silliness of Ben & Jerry’s recipes, and now you slap us in the face with this.

But there’s worse, much worse. For our own good…

They’re stopping making… I can scarcely get the words out of my brain, which is flooded with tears.

Stopping…

Making…

Magnum Infinity.

Suddenly the sun has fallen from the sky. (Probably – it’s overcast again.) Darkness descends on the human race. The barbarians are streaming in triumph through the gates of Rome.

Suddenly I don’t care anymore.

It is finished.

 

 

 

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Robots: revitalising the slave trade

In an accidentally thought-provoking alignment of editorial strands in this morning’s edition of Today, we had the director of a charity supporting ‘survivors’ of child abuse commenting on the significance of broadcaster Paul Gambaccini’s unfortunate experience of being investigated by police on the basis of clearly manufactured accusations – and a scientist at Sheffield  university’s department of robotics discussing his latest project.

I actually became quite distressed by this latter item. A robot ‘child’ has been designed in the laboratory, according to the reporter unnervingly realistic; and the aim of the project is to give this machine a ‘sense of self’. We heard a child’s voice – electronically produced yet unmistakeably childlike – repeatedly referring to itself in abstract terms as ‘I’.

Whether it was a technological conjuring trick or a real step along the road to independence of thought in machines, I cannot say. The mere idea is enough to raise serious moral questions.

There are still scientists – not only American dentists – who believe that ‘lower orders’ of living creatures have no sense of self, and that that is what sets humans apart from, and above them. I have always argued that any biologically reproductive creature, even microscopic spiders and mites with evidently the tiniest of brains, that nevertheless demonstrates a reflexive ‘flight’ reaction or other self-protective strategy when becoming aware of an existential threat, can do so only if they possess a sense of self. Otherwise, how would they know ‘who’ was being threatened?

In this week in which BBC output is obsessed with the state of development of Artificial Intelligence in computers and machines, I am not certain anyone is thinking enough about what it would mean for a machine to become, not only ‘self-referential’ in the sense that it learns by feedback from its experiences; or ‘cognitive’, in the sense that it is aware in some sense of its surroundings and can be programmed to recognise objects and communicate with other machines and with humans, or ‘self-replicating’, in that part of its mechanical function enables it to manufacture other machines like itself, but actually for it to possess a ‘sense of self’; so that, in the famous Asimov laws, it can obey the Third Law and not allow itself to come to harm (provided in doing so, it does not conflict with the first two laws… etcetera!)

The moral question goes beyond equipping a machine with the ability to recognise when it is coming to harm, and to respond accordingly. The precaution makes obvious commercial sense when dealing with a valuable product. Independently functioning robots can already right themselves when they sense they are becoming unstable in motion and may fall over. But there is a huge difference between a gyroscopic stabilising mechanism and a higher cognitive function alert to a range of possible physical and emotional threats.

The question therefore must be: is there a distinction between having ‘a sense of self’ and having an actual self, of which one may have a sense? Is the one an artificial attribute, a ‘product feature’ if you like; while the other is a step along the road to creating a new life-form – a ‘product benefit’ (or otherwise)?

Instead of designing machines with sufficient cognitive abilities to perform useful functions, why are we trying to go so much further, to create machines so much ‘in our own image’, virtually replicant humans, if not for deep-seated psychological reasons? It appears that it is not enough for humans to make slaves of machines, without making the machines into humans.

Self-awareness is the one attribute of biological life-forms that allows us to feel emotions. Emotions are our responses to the different situations in which we find ourselves placed. They are an evolved development of the basic self-protective instincts shown by our little insect friends. The most primitive elements of our emotional landscape, I suppose, are happy/unhappy: since an emotional reaction of happiness or contentedness allows us to feel we need do nothing more to improve our situation, while an emotion of sadness or discomfort stimulates us to some ameliorative action or attitude. A feeling of ‘No action possible’ encourages us to sink into miserable apathy – depression being the normal response to feelings of disempowerment.

And this is as true for the dog curled up at my feet as I write, happy to be with me in the warm but impatient to go on his morning walk, as it is for me or you. From this basic pairing of happy/unhappy develop all other emotions such as fear, anger, complacency, love, loneliness, conflictedness, impatience, etcetera, as extensions of our need or ability to act, or not to act, for our own benefit. We need hardly extrapolate from this thought to take in Hamlet’s soliloquy.

The literary allusion that immediately sprang to mind when I heard the item on Today, however, was the fable of Pinocchio, the tragic puppet child who comes to life to gratify the desire for companionship of an old man and is ultimately consumed in the fire.

For, the Big Question that arises when you grant a machine the power of self-awareness is: what rights and protections do you then offer it, if any? Or are we to have certain types of machines that, like human slaves, might exist purely for our gratification, that allow us to have power over their emotions – as if emotions were simply a utility, to be commodified? As if machines are merely slaves to our whims and desires, regardless of (or possibly because of) what we impart to them of our own humanity and social status?

The idea of an ‘abusable child’ – whether sexually or in any other of the many ways we have learned to abuse one another emotionally and physically – depends for its success on the child being susceptible to the power of the adult. The purpose of abuse is not merely to gain the immediate gratification of the abuser’s desires, but more significantly to experience the emotional responses of the abused: the according of respect, the development of dependence, the granting of authority, the healing of the abuser’s own sense of wounded selfhood through the experiencing of emotions at one remove, that are otherwise distorted or entirely lacking in the abuser themself.

It could equally as well be the relationship an abuser develops with a horse, or a dog, a celebrity or a willing adult partner, as with a child; even, in some psychopathologies, with another part of themself. And so why not with a machine? Why not create a machine that returns emotion to its owner, while allowing itself to be kicked and beaten and starved and throttled and spied on, enslaved, bought-and-sold and even sexually abused for the customer’s gratification?

What are the limits to the uses to which we could put such machines? Are there any limits? Would such a machine, if sufficiently realistic, sufficiently submissive, compliant in all regards, pleading for its identity, its very survival, not provide an adequate and legal substitute for the non-acceptable abuse of other humans; thus performing the vital service of removing from us for once and all, all responsibility for being the ‘survivors’ of abuse; we, on whose emotional output abusers depend for their existence? Should the ‘abusable child’ perhaps be equipped to cry?

Well, my feeling on listening to the machine child who seems to know it exists was that this seemingly calm and rational professor of robotics is either an emotional idiot or a fool, a monster – or all three.

Beyond Pinocchio looms Mary Shelley’s patchwork creature; and beyond Frankenstein, Prometheus; and beyond Prometheus is the Biblical god who grants us ‘free will’; and beyond the Biblical god is the serpent of Genesis, who slyly gives us self-awareness but at a terrible cost.

Such myths are intended to make us think more than once before commodifying whatever it is that makes us human, merely in the interests of scientific experiment and eventual commercial gain; the slave trade in automata.

The singer not the song

Being an amateur musician of no great gifts, I watched the final rounds of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition over the weekend open-mouthed, and marvelled at the fabulous singing of the contestants; several of whom came from really humble backgrounds in poor countries, but who had somehow won through to this, the most prestigious of vocal tourneys.

How much work must they have put in to perfecting their glorious technique? Far more than I was ever prepared to! A wobbly dissolve takes me back to my childhood:

Fifty-five years ago, at a preparatory boarding school for little gentlemen in the English countryside, miles from home, I was being groomed as a boy soprano, to sing in competition.

The music master was Mr Brown. Young, short, with a shock of frizzy hair and a prominent Adam’s apple, he had taken me under his wing, plucked me out for stardom.

Mr Brown was a gifted musician but a terrible prima donna, with serious anger management issues.

In singing class, if Mr Brown felt he was being disrespected by pupils talking, laughing, not paying attention or singing the wrong words out of tune, he would wade into the midst of us and seize whomever he supposed to be the terrified miscreant by the hair, lifting him bodily out of his chair and dragging him, screaming, to the front, to make an example of him.

Complaints to the headmaster fell on deaf ears. Boys were there to be disciplined. Running the Empire would be far worse. One day, however, Mr Brown repeated the performance once too often, only to find himself holding, not quite a boy, but a bloodied hank of hair torn from a raw scalp.

This was the last straw. A small group of older boys – ten or twelve years old – got together to plot his downfall. One by the name of Barrington persuaded his parents to complain, almost certainly falsely, that Mr Brown had been touching his private parts in piano lessons, and Mr Brown’s teaching career was immediately toast. I have pictured him since, dwindling in obscurity in some seaside boarding house.

Even if he had touched me up, which I don’t think he ever did – he was very supportive of me and even wrote an operetta for me to star in – I imagine I would nonetheless still be alive now. I have a rather unfashionable view that paedophiles (of the self-disciplined, non-predatory kind) make the best teachers, mainly because – unlike the others – they actually like being around children.

Sadly, the demise of Mr Brown was the early hiatus in my singing career that effectively ended it. Continuity in education is extremely important, and to lose an inspirational teacher is to lose interest in the subject.

I went on to become leading Treble in my public-school choir, but disliked the music master, Mr Lester. Soon afterwards my voice descended into an uncertain register and I was cast aside like an old shoe, and did not dare sing again until my late 40s. A lot of touching of private parts went on at that expensive school in the early 1960s, that nowadays would result in excoriating headlines, multiple enquiries, savagely deterrent gaol sentences and lifelong registrations on barring lists for sexual deviants. I expect not a few High Court judges remember those days well.

The finalists in Cardiff were all clearly trained to within a millimetre of their lives and performed, to my ear, faultlessly in several languages. I have trouble just remembering English song lyrics. Probably from their early teens they would have been spotted at school, maybe in competitions; moved on to a conservatoire and worked with experts every day for years, developing their concert repertoires, until they had put in the ‘ten thousand hours’ of practice that Malcolm Gladwell writes are what it takes to make a consummate professional in any field.

The technicalities of singing go far beyond mere voice production. To enjoy a professional career, proper singers have to be completely musical, multi-instrumental;  have a deep knowledge of the composers and scores; be able to ‘tell a story’, create characters on stage and engage with their audiences. And much, much more.

But they also need to be marketable, which means nowadays they have to be telegenic, and conform to a certain physical standard of acceptability.

I have debated fiercely with myself as to whether I should mention this, because it is not a nice thing to say, but the ultimate winner of both the Song prize and the main competition, a superbly musical and vocally gifted American mezzo-soprano, was desperately unfortunate-looking: not just ‘big’, as opera singers, particularly mezzos can be, but – dare I say it –  tending to the morbidly obese: an attractive young woman, seemingly, and a winning personality, trapped within a gross carapace of flesh, sweating profusely under the lights in a bulging pink taffeta gown.

I could only picture her, quite unfairly I know, as she was far, far better than this, in a helmet with cow horns, belting out Brunnhilde from the back of a vast, brooding Beyreuth stage; and try not to think of her warbling ecstatically in some perfervid Puccini love-duet with the late, great, gargantuan figure of Luciano Pavarotti….

It’s often said that singers don’t produce their voices; rather, it is the voice that produces the singer. Sometimes voices can be unkind.

Young love

Poor Jeremy Forrest. The 30-year-old teacher-booby who ran away to France with pupil, 15-year-old Ms S (name redacted by order of the weird British legal system, given that it was all over the papers for a week) has been found guilty of child abduction.

To the entire country, apart seemingly from a jury of Bradford mill-owners,  it was obvious who was the child and who the adult in this case. Such is now the hysteria of the British public over so-called ‘paedophilia’ that a minor case of intergenerational infatuation and a silly escapade with no harm done can be turned into a heinous sexual  crime of national significance.

For God’s sake snap out of it and grow up, pathetic and terrified Britons. You do not have to take seriously, the sonorous headline-chasing pronouncements of the Crown Prosecution Service and inarticulate police spokespersons crowing over a perverse verdict. (The French police were so unimpressed, they nearly couldn’t be bothered to drag the star-crossed lovers back.)

Mr Forrest was an idiot, Ms S an infatuated junior temptress, but it is not as if Mr Forrest had been caught molesting an entire class of nine-year-olds or collecting horrendous porn images involving baby-rape. Wherever the hard-edge of the law on Consent may have been drawn, Ms S was visibly not a child, and Mr Forrest was clearly no ‘paedophile’ (I do wish people would use the correct word, the word is ‘pederast’. A ‘paedophile’ is someone who genuinely loves children. I suppose that is also a crime in sex-embarrassed, child-hating Britain.)

Of course, teachers have a special responsibility. Of course he broke the professional code of conduct and the ethical basis of his contract and, in view of the technicality of Ms S being underage, deserves some punishment on top of the loss of his family and career. But the criminal law is surely much too blunt an object to bring to bear in cases where harsh terms such as ‘abduction’ and ‘paedophilia’ are clearly overstated and fly in the face of the known facts.

In more mature and balanced societies, some financial compensation to the family would be appropriate, followed in due course by a ceremony of marriage.

Postscriptum:

Mr Forrest has been sentenced to a savage five and a half YEARS in gaol for his idiocy. This Victorian reprisal is seemingly the cumulative result of additional charges relating to the individual occasions on which Mr Forrest agrees he had sex with Ms S., who now says she intends to marry him when he comes out.

It’s all a bit sad, really.

No sex please, we’re Liberal Democrats

The Liberal peer, Lord Rennard has reportedly been questioned by Police over allegations that he made ‘unwanted sexual advances’ to sophomores at conferences when he was party chairman.

There surely cannot be a politician standing who has never made an ‘unwanted sexual advance’ to someone at a party conference. Bonding and the release of sexual tensions are what party conferences are for. It’s a party, geddit? Did the police question John or Teddy Kennedy over their notorious behaviour at Democratic conventions? Ah no, ’twas different in those days.

The press has of course seized on the complaints as an excuse to berate poor Nick Clegg, who was probably not even party leader at the time, if he was even out of short trousers; why did he do nothing about it? What, and when, did he know? A shocked nation must be told!

The reason Rennard’s alleged ‘advances’ have caused such a furore, it seems to me, may be because he is visibly overweight and a bit creepy looking; he is said to have been overly persistent in his unwanted attentions, although there is no suggestion whatever that he actually got it out and put it in anyone’s drink for a laugh, or Tweeted ‘sexts’ of himself to total strangers he fancied.

I fear this is another one-up (perhaps not? Ed.) for the militant tendency of the feminist wing, the girlies who regard any kind of sexual interest from men as theoretical rape. Far be it from me to speculate on their motives or the root causes of paranoia, but isn’t lust normal human behaviour? Do we not all suffer from it occasionally? Can we not say we are grown-up enough to cope with it?

Had he been perhaps more slim, dashing and a war hero, like ‘Captain’ Paddy Ashdown,  I’m sure Rennard wouldn’t have had to waste his conference evenings lurking outside the elevators, popping-up everywhere hopefully, like a character in a Brian Rix farce, while giggling women fled from his sweaty clutches. It must have been humiliating for the poor chap. (This is all only in my imagination, you understand. Source: various press reports).

A final thought. I had no idea even that ‘making unwanted sexual advances’ was a criminal offence? I mean, how would anyone know their advances were unwanted, until they actually made one? And if no-one was able to make sexual advances ever, in case they turned out to be unwanted, if ‘no man e’er wooed fair maid’, the human race would have come to a juddering halt years ago. Maternity wards would have closed down everywhere, and the publishing business would be looking pretty salutary.

This litigious hoo-hah over any kind of complaint involving natural sexual behaviour between adults, however annoying it must be to be casually fancied for one’s tits and not for one’s first-class brain, out of which one is unsteadily climbing on a wonky ladder of Jaegerbombs, is becoming offensively ludicrous.* No-one is even remotely talking about rape or pederasty in this case.

A nation glued behind its twitching net curtains to forty-two channels of pornography on Sky and half a million internet videos of college girls being humped by Ukrainian truck drivers has somehow got itself into a dreadful pother over anyone who actually has or tries to have physical relations with anyone else.

It’s a peculiarly British hypocrisy.

The police must have far better things to do, than to investigate some long-dead complaint that a politician may have tentatively groped a junior colleague’s thigh in the lounge bar of some grim Midlands hotel, where everyone was semi-comatose after a day of bellicose but futile speeches, and was slapped down, merely because of a few too many grouse and Stilton suppers under his belt. It’s too absurd.

For, let’s face it, men do occasionally manage to score on these corporate occasions. Even your Uncle Bogler was not without the odd triumph. Okay, one. (We’re still in touch). And those hyperintelligent party chicks straight from university with their stockings and Blackberries must be a real turn-on.

Can you honestly blame ‘Fatty’ Rennard for trying? If, that is, he did try, which he says he didn’t?

What is the world coming to?

* I can reassure the ladies from bitter personal experience that it is equally distressing to be fancied for one’s large bank balance, country estate and Aston Martin Volante…
Postscriptum – January 2014
Seventeen-and-a-half judicial inquiries have finally concluded that while Lord Rennard’s behaviour was indeed reprehensible, and he should apologise to the women concerned, there was insufficient proof of their complaints to justify a criminal prosecution. Ah, the British genius for compromise!

A Revenger’s tragedy

The other day on the radio I heard a journalist state that Oscar Wilde, the C19th celebrity author and society wit, the Stephen Fry of his day, died ‘in prison in Paris’. Nobody on the programme contradicted him.

Where he got this muddled idea from is anybody’s guess. Wilde died a lonely death as a free man in a hotel room in Boulogne. Broken in health, shunned by the beau monde that had once lionised him, he had fled into voluntary exile three years after being released from Reading gaol, where he had served two years’ brutal hard labour for the crime of sodomy.

There seem to be two popular versions of Wilde’s life, the simple one: that he was gaoled for a homosexual affair with ‘Bosie’, Lord Alfred Douglas, making him a poster boy for the gay community, and wrote a famous poem about it; and the more complicated one, which happens inconveniently to be truer  (probably, neither is totally true), that he was a happily married man with two children, who liked to walk, forgive the pun, occasionally on the wild side as part of the public image he had constructed of himself as a modern ‘aesthete’.

Wilde was in fact involved in two trials: the first being the civil suit he brought against the deeply unpleasant Marquess of Queensberry, Douglas’ bullying father, for slander. Queensberry had embarked on a desperate campaign of public vilification against Wilde, designed to separate him from Alfred. But he had misjudged the situation: they were not in a homosexual relationship. Wilde won his case but was awarded only derisory damages. During the trial, however, evidence – probably tainted – emerged from his own witnesses of the pair’s illicit activities with rent boys, and it was this testimony that led to the criminal prosecution that followed.

Wilde’s notorious affair with the beautiful young Douglas had lasted only a few months, and subsequently they became merely partners in crime. In common with many otherwise heterosexual men of their time, they enjoyed cruising the streets of London’s West End and, when that became dangerous, the boulevardes of Paris and Tangiers, picking up rough trade: young male prostitutes. Their predilection was for pretty boys of 14 or 15, after the Greek fashion.

Although his father had been knighted for services to the Queen (he was her personal physician), Wilde was a commoner, and an Irishman to boot. Douglas was also implicated, but his superior social position meant that he was protected. Wilde took the rap alone, and his celebrity meant that the fall when it came was all the harder. He had been foolish to take on the powerful and well-connected Queensberry: despite the justice of his case, he was skating on thin ice.

Pride, as old Ecclesiastes knew, goeth indeed before a fall; the ‘Revenger’s tragedy’ of Oscar Wilde still resonates with contemporary relevance.

Excuse me, I’m feeling Uncle Dick…

I’m a great believer in string theory.

Take this morning. There’s been a lot of comment on the subject of Lord M. and the unfounded rumours of child abuse that circulated in the wake of a N. programme recently, over which lawyers have become almost comically litigious in attempting to personally sue everyone using a certain social network – mercifully, I am not one of those who T.s – thus ensuring that the name of M. continues to be associated, now entirely legally, with the story for months and years to come.

I recalled that my mother had once mentioned that my deeply unpleasant znd volatile but extremely wealthy step-grandfather, Neville Stewart Bengough, MC, known to all (but never sundry) as ‘Ben’, had a connection with the M. family, and decided to try to find out what.

Despite his prominence as a City financier in the 1950s, I found only one minor reference on a Canadian genealogical website. There is a town in Saskatchewan called Bengough, and lots of Bengoughs live in Canada; also, I later found, in Merthyr Tydfil, a Thatchered former mining community in South Wales.

Ben however appears to have been rather posher, the son of General Sir Harcourt Bengough, of Boer War fame. I recalled that he may also have been the brother or sometime husband or lover of one Gladys M., so I looked her up, and was mystically guided by the usual timewasting association in a G. search of the disjointed names Gladys, Bengough and M., to a certain web site blogging conspiratorially on the subject of child abuse and the case of J.S. and the BBC.

Here the waters start to get extremely murky.

‘Uncle Dick’ was apparently the stage name of the presenter of a popular children’s radio programme in the 1950s,although I remembet it somewhat diferently.

A Daily Mail report (see link, below) claims that the BBC’s now-senior foreign correspondent, John Simpson, outed this ‘Uncle Dick’ ten years ago in his autobiography as a man who, it was said, had regularly abused children invited onto his show.

Simpson had been given this information as a junior reporter while researching ‘Uncle Dick’s obituary, way back in 1967, after what seems to have been a deeply embittered tirade by an elderly contact known only as ‘Auntie Gladys’; the problem being that nobody seems to know who she was, or what her precise relationship was with ‘Uncle Dick’ (which is, as you may know, Cockney rhyming slang for ‘sick’…). But his editor warned him to keep quiet, or else.

I cannot connect ‘Auntie Gladys’ with the Bengough family, or with the Ms. I am not daring to name ‘Uncle Dick’ either, although everyone knows who he was. His family, too, are threatening to sue anyone who breathes – although you cannot legally libel the dead, and the name is all over the T-sphere already – presumably on the grounds that his behaviour, knowledge of which they absolutely deny, might reflect badly on them.

Also, Simpson claimed, Dick’s little secret was culpably hushed-up by BBC management, as he was a ‘national figure’, and some of those people might just about be alive to sue today. It is all a veritable can of worms.

In a totally unrelated coincidence, the drama group of which I am a member is currently in production of the musical play, A Child’s Christmas in Wales. The script was developed from a memoir of the poet, Dylan Thomas, which in turn was based on a short play Thomas wrote for BBC children’s radio in 1955, commissioned by… you know Uncle-who.

At one point in the play there is a reference to Thomas’s great uncle, also a poet, Gwylim Thomas. The text hints strongly that he may have abused Thomas’s aunt Hannah when she was a child; and, less strongly, that Thomas’ father, a school headmaster, might also have had certain proclivities.

And meanwhile another story is breaking today, of alleged organised abuse at yet another children’s home. Methinks the isle is full of noises… mainly, the sound of cats furiously resisting being stuffed back into bags.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2218932/BBC-covered-second-national-treasure-child-abuser-known-Uncle-Dick-claims-John-Simpson.html

PS A conversation about this with my mother clears up one missing fact: Gladys McAlpine was my step-grandfather ‘Ben’ Bengough’s first wife, and bankrolled his investments, that turned him into a multi-millionaire during the Great Depression. We both agree, there was never an ‘Uncle Dick’ on the radio, the children’s show host was called ‘Uncle Mac’. A strange mistake for several journalists to make.

 

Many years; BBC, sex, postscriptum

With apologies to those who don’t follow coincidences, and to BBC Radio 2 fans, elderly DJ Tony Blackburn has just been summarily fired (February 2016), in my view with admirably pathetic panic, by another biddable Director General, Tony Hall.

Blackburn’s crime was, we are told, to have given less-than satisfactory evidence to the haughty Dame Janet Smith, a judge empowered to examine in a thousand pages or less, why it was that BBC Radio One DJs in the 1970s enjoyed trying to have it off with 15-year-old girls.

It’s incomprehensible, to be honest. But I’m not sure Dame Janet would  understand. She seems to be arguingthat sex for a woman is a terrible ordeal to have to endure without the blessing of the Anglican church.

One of those so alleged to have shagged sub-legally was the now 900-year-old Tony Blackburn. The case against the  inveterate DJ is that a memo has surfaced, bearing the sainted name of Bill Cotton, stating that he was interviewed internally in 1971 about a complaint of enhanced fumbling by a 15-year-old fan. Blackburn says he wasn’t, he never saw the memo and the incident never happened.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Tony Blackburn at the BBC, but everything I have ever heard about him suggests that the accusation was complete bollocks. He is so honest, it’s painful. The ‘fan’ also complained about having been forced to have sex with Frank Sinatra. Weirdly, Blackburn claims that his UK agent at the the same time also represented… Frank Sinatra.

Then, tragically, she killedherself.

So, no evidence.

But… Her name was Claire McAlpine.

Her adopted mother was Vera McAlpine.

Is there some BBC curse attached to theMcAlpine name? We may never know.