THE LONG WEEKEND

In terms of exploiting the inherent avarice of children and subjecting the nation to a relentless retail bombardment, Easter has always been the poor relation of Christmas – the high-street boutique to Yuletide’s designer catwalk. Every child receives the same present at Easter, with the only difference being the brand of egg; unlike Christmas and its great divide between the have’s and have-not’s, every child is therefore uniquely equal, as though Easter had been hatched by a Soviet committee. Festivities span a handful of days and then it’s as you were again. If only December’s month-long consumerist tsunami could be over and done with as quickly. Easter is short, sweet and largely unobtrusive. In essence, the perfect break from the norm.

Although there must have been wet ones, childhood memories of Easter are inevitably soaked in sunshine. Sometimes, this meant the dreaded car journey to a caravan park or camp site, with the latter location very much dependent on the unreliable British climate as to whether or not the holiday was remembered for healthy outdoor activities or indoor boredom, re-reading the same issue of ‘Shiver and Shake’ over and over again whilst parents played cards. The height of spring that Easter represented would also usher in the summer sports like cricket, and the football season was winding down with the imminent Cup Final (as the FA Cup Final simply used to be referred to then) bringing the curtain down on the beautiful game until August.

In contrast to Christmas, TV schedules weren’t unduly drenched in seasonal-themed fare. Yes, there’d be the traditional morning repeats of children’s classics on BBC1, and there would tend to be a ‘Jesus movie’ airing at some point whilst news bulletins would be cut short to accommodate Billy Smart’s Circus; but there was no real genre of ‘Easter specials’ when it came to regular programmes. Sure, there’d be the obligatory ‘Disney Time’, a clips programme linked by a famous name of the day, back when you had to go to the cinema to see a Disney animated classic because they were never screened on the telly; but mostly, TV carried on as usual and there wouldn’t be the kind of disruption that comes with Christmas.

The religious elements of Easter were naturally present, but as my upbringing outside of school was essentially secular, it didn’t impinge much on me beyond the aforementioned ‘Jesus movies’ or the portrait of Christ on the front cover of the Radio Times. As was often the case as a kid, whether illness, a General Election or a religious festival, any time off school was welcome, whatever the reason.

At this moment in time, people are taking a break whilst the media is doing its best to convince them there might not be many more to come. Fresh tensions between the US and North Korea, not to mention the ongoing crisis in Syria and all its terrorist-related offshoots that have recently been remodelled so that any four-wheeled vehicle can now be viewed in the same light as a bomb or machine-gun, could lead some to believe the end of the world is nigh. Yes, there have been better times, though there have been many worse.

When one thinks of, say, the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s indisputable that the original Cold War certainly posed more of a threat than the current frosty face-off between Russia and the West; the mushroom-shaped shadow of ‘The Bomb’ may never have gone away (and it probably won’t when in the hands of Kim Jong Un), but the fear of nuclear war that hung over my 80s adolescence doesn’t seem to exert the same kind of ever-present paranoia in this century. It’s hard to imagine a government department producing those eerie ‘Protect and Survive’ public information films now; or maybe the powers-that-be simply want us to believe things can only get better.

Each generation that comes of age absorbs the stream of information from media sources (one that is now more abundant than ever before) and naturally comes to the conclusion they are living through dark days; you don’t notice so much as a kid because you think the news is ‘boring’ and parents often shield their offspring from the darkest events that defy an easy explanation – I remember the 1972 Munich Olympics, for example, but only for Olga Korbut and Mary Peters; I was unaware of the Israeli hostages and the whole Black September tragedy until years later; my parents obviously kept me away from all that when it was happening.

Therefore, once you do start to take notice as a teenager or young adult, the world suddenly seems a very scary place indeed. However, if you’ve lived through your fair share of crises on the world stage, you don’t necessarily become blasé, though you do tend to cultivate a more measured response to the latest one. The glut of millennial posts on social media at the end of last year that claimed 2016 to be the worst twelve months ever was received with a pinch of salt by anyone over 35, though from the perspective of an eighteen-year-old, the conclusion ‘Generation Snowflake’ came to was probably accurate. As a member of Spinal Tap once presciently put it, ‘Too mach fakkin’ perspective.’

Anyway, like you (possibly), I’m taking a couple of days off – though I’m not heading for a fall-out shelter; I don’t anticipate an upsurge of views on here for this long weekend, not because none of us will be around come next Tuesday, but because it’s bloody Easter! Enjoy your egg.

© The Editor

DEATH BY FACEBOOK

Anyone reading this who happens to have a Facebook account will be familiar with the fact that some members of one’s ‘friends’ list are prone to issuing an endless stream of posts on a daily basis that clog-up the newsfeed section of the medium; indeed, some are so relentless that it often requires several minutes of scrolling down before other posts can be sighted. In many cases, I’ve been forced to ‘un-follow’ a few FB friends in order that I can see what those who don’t post dozens of items a day are up to. For a small minority, it seems Facebook is an addiction they can’t refrain from. At one time, in my early FB days, I used to comment a lot because I wasn’t on any other social media forum; today, I tend to reserve it for posting links to my own work, whether from here or YouTube, though there is something of an unspoken conservatism on Facebook that confronts any challenge to the preconceived norm with silence and an absence of ‘likes’, so I am consciously selective.

A lot of my FB friends are what I suppose the Sun would refer to as ‘old-school lefties’, which is perfectly fine; there’s room for all of us online. I’m therefore exposed to an abundance of shots from the constant post-Brexit marches protesting against this or that, certain PC pieces characteristic of the worst humourless aspects of the left, links to Billy Bragg tweets or ‘I’m backing Jezza’-type declarations and so forth. It’s everyone’s right to post whatever the hell they like on their own Facebook wall, so even if I don’t agree wholeheartedly with every post of this nature, there are nevertheless valid critiques of Government policies re the homeless or welfare reform that I access and do indeed find myself agreeing with.

Depending how varied one’s FB friends list is, however, there can be an echo-chamber aspect to it that occasionally provokes the mischief-maker in me; the temptation to post something along the lines of ‘I think Theresa May is doing a really good job’ merely to shit-stir can be irresistible, though I tend not to bother. Life’s too short for a shower of vitriol and a mass ‘un-friending’ assault. However, the glut of celebratory posts when Margaret Thatcher died, for example – whilst demonstrating that socialist elephants never forget – invited anyone daring not to enter into the party spirit to risk becoming a social media pariah.

Not that, say, Twitter is any different; express an opinion that contradicts the consensus of the right (which appears to dominate Twitter) and the reaction is equally hostile. Anyone looking for a balanced middle-ground along the lines of the Independent at its print version best should generally avoid cyberspace.

The ‘anything goes’ partisan elements of social media have received a severe test today, though. Mark Sands, a 51-year-old anxiety-sufferer and prescribed anti-depressant user from Eastbourne, has been gaoled for four months for the crime of making alleged death threats against his local MP, Tory backbencher Caroline Ansell. Responding to Government cuts on disability benefits – a relevant complaint considering Mr Sands himself stood to lose out as a result – he posted the following on Facebook: ‘If you vote to take £30 off my money, I will personally come round to your house…and stab you to death.’

Mr Sands added to this outburst with such catchy slogans as ‘End poverty, kill a Tory now’ and ‘Kill your local MP.’ It’s not exactly a seditionist manifesto guaranteed to provoke a revolution, and to be honest it’s not really that different from some of the things I’ve seen on social media, particularly Facebook; but did it really warrant a prison sentence, let alone a trial in a court of law? Way back at the peak of his early 80s pop star status, Gary Numan once received a live bullet through the post. That’s what I’d regard as a pretty serious death-threat; but anti-Tory sentiments – even if admittedly crude ones – on Facebook?

Not everyone is gifted with an eloquent means of articulating their anger at a particular Government policy that either personally affects them or their social demographic, and many resort to basic insults to get their point across. Was Mark Sands’ outburst worse than your average ‘Evil Tory f**kers’ rant familiar to many on FB? Brighton Magistrates’ Court obviously believed so, as did the target of his ire, Caroline Ansell.

Not that Mr Sands was especially subtle in his anger; posting a photo of Jo Cox alongside the words ‘sawn-off 2.2’ won’t win you many recruits to your cause in the current climate. The police charged him with a crime they said was a ‘credible threat’, though whenever a policeman uses the word ‘credible’, I find it hard not to cynically add the suffix ‘…and true’ to it.

When Tony Blair was at the peak of his powers, social media was still effectively in its infancy, with the first visible backlash from those who had supported him in 1997 coming via the NME’s famous front cover recycling Johnny Rotten’s ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ quote around a year after the first New Labour Election victory. Had Facebook or Twitter existed back then, one imagines the level of fury on social media would have been comparable to what the current administration receives today.

Caroline Ansell may have been unnerved by what she perceived as a genuine threat to her life, but if she was well-versed enough in social media she would have known those who reserve their incandescence for Facebook tend to exhaust it on Facebook.

© The Editor

WHO CARES?

The stats came as no surprise to me. Over 338,000 adult care-workers quit their jobs in 2015-16, which translates as roughly 900 people resigning a day – and of those 900, 60% left the sector altogether; the industry has a staff turnover of 27%, which is almost twice the average of other professions; an adult care-worker earns an average of £14,800 a year, whereas the average UK wage is £27,600. Adult care-work is arguably one of the hardest and most stressful professions in the country, yet is also one of the poorest-paid. It’s no wonder there are perhaps more vacancies in it than any other industry, with one in every 20 care-worker posts unfilled.

The main focus of these new statistics re the media has been on elderly care, yet the care sector for what used to be called the mentally handicapped is in an arguably bigger crisis; it often seems this is the forgotten branch of the social care industry, yet its service users (the official name for residents/inmates of such homes) are in need of care virtually all their lives, not just when they qualify for a bus-pass. The ‘decommissioning’ of the old asylums that had such an unsavoury reputation was supposed to usher in a new, more enlightened age of care for these individuals, but some might argue the situation is worse now than back in the era so graphically portrayed in the unforgettable early 80s drama starring Ian McKellern, ‘Walter’.

A close friend with a CV of past care-work recently returned to full-time work after a child-rearing decade away from the job market; she decided it made sense to use her experience in the mental health care sector and applied for one of the plentiful positions available in it. She figured she’d maybe stick it out for a year or so; she lasted three weeks before realising she couldn’t take anymore. And, believe me, she is not someone who walks away from anything at the drop of a hat. If the system could leave her so dispirited and dejected that she was only able to last three weeks in it, the system could do the same to anybody with a heart.

She quickly realised her past experience in the sector, which she imagined would stand her in good stead when it came to the more difficult aspects of the job, was little use in the box-ticking culture that had colonised the industry since she was last part of it. Unlike virtually every other profession, the pay had actually dropped during her extended stint out of the loop, though she was prepared to overlook this as long as she could apply her know-how. Some hope. Firstly, she had to wait over two months to actually start the job after getting it in order for the Met to clear her CRB/DBS check, an unnecessary delay that hardly boded well. Who in need of work would contemplate taking a job in an industry where one has to wait so long before beginning it, especially when one of the country’s most untrustworthy institutions has the final say?

Anyway, once there she discovered the rigid rules and regulations regarding the inmates completely overrode common sense and precluded any notion of kindness and decency shown towards them. Cups of tea, breakfast and dinner (which sounded particularly disgusting) all had to be served at a strict set time, even if being denied a cuppa a mere ten minutes before the officially designated hour for one could inspire a distressed outburst from an inmate; these outbursts could involve self-harm or harm to others, leaving several members of staff to physically restrain them when a kind cuppa would have prevented any disruption altogether. Responding to the service users should they require help at an ‘inconvenient moment’ was discouraged; any member of staff bending this rule would be severely admonished as a consequence.

There were virtually no organised activities to occupy the service users; sticking the telly on whilst they vegetated in their chairs was deemed sufficient stimulation. Whilst some of the inmates were allowed to go shopping some days a week with a staff member, the budget for this excursion would often amount to a measly £1. What the hell can anyone purchase with a quid in 2017? My friend accompanied an inmate on one such outing and added a mere 50p to the budget in order that he could buy a newspaper; she was reprimanded for this gesture. On another occasion, the same service user was given a generous rise in spending money of an entire pound, but the pens he spent his £2 were ones he couldn’t immediately use upon his return; when asking for paper, he was told he should have bought some whilst shopping. The poor guy doesn’t ask for much and the mean bastards wouldn’t even comply with such a modest request as that. And that’s ‘care’ for you.

The members of staff were 95% immigrant workers with a poor grasp of English and a quite mercenary attitude to the profession, working ridiculously long hours for a few months before buggering off back home. How can a high standard of care be achieved when the sector only attracts here today/gone tomorrow employees, whose disinterest in (and thinly-veiled contempt for) inmates merely exacerbates those unfortunate individuals’ insecurities? Their ineptitude was also remarkable. One service user hadn’t been able to have a simple shower for several weeks and had to endure an undignified body wash because the shower unit apparently wasn’t working; my friend looked at it, flicked a switch and the shower was magically in operation again. Underlining the foreign employees’ absence of practical abilities didn’t exactly make her popular with that clique, which also included the manager of the home.

My friend left work every day depressed and browbeaten by what she was seeing, with her anger at being incapable of changing such a heartless system staying in her exhausted head for the rest of the day. It’s to her credit she hung on as long as she did because she felt warm towards many of the inmates and experienced immense guilt at the thought of leaving them; once gone, she was even prepared to visit a couple and take them out shopping on a weekly basis. But this would never be allowed. She walked out after three weeks, but admitted she could just as easily have walked out after three days.

The Government claims it will be investing £2bn in social care, though throwing money at it won’t alter a culture that is so engrained in homes such as the one my friend worked at that a genuinely radical approach is the only way forward. If money is to be spent wisely, it needs to be used to give the system the comprehensive overhaul it so desperately requires; but, of course, it won’t be. There’ll be no ‘Tsar’ for care-work.

© The Editor

ACID DROPS

Depending on where one stands re conspiracy theories, the fact that many man-made chemicals were usually in the hands of the military and secret services as experimental mind-controlling weapons before filtering down to civilians as recreational drugs could be seen as confirmation that ‘The Man’ knew all along that it would be far easier to let the people destroy themselves by allowing them to believe they were getting one over the authorities. The permanently illegal status of the most popular recreational drugs definitely imbues a cavalier sense of flouting the law in those who purchase and use them, after all; and what better way to bestow ‘cool’ upon something than to ban it, knowing it will do your dirty work for you in the process?

I once heard the opinion aired that heroin didn’t flood into the most socially deprived and politically militant urban areas of Scotland until opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s Government was recognised as a potential problem; suddenly, an entire generation of possible agent-provocateurs was neutered by smack, thus negating the likelihood of any mass civil unrest. Hey, it’s a theory. One could also point to the way in which gin saturated the ghettos of Georgian England at a moment when the governing class’s fear of the Mob and anarchy provoked by the poor was at its height. Gin certainly subdued that, as Hogarth knew only too well.

Whether or not the infiltration of substances whose consumers instinctively exceed moderate dosages of into society is indeed a conscious ploy of subversive control by The Man is fact or fiction, the official line that Drugs are Bad seems destined to remain intact; and in some respects, this system upholds an equilibrium that leaves the user feeling he’s some social desperado living on the edge while the authorities continue to appeal to Daily Mail Man as the balance of power is maintained and both parties are happy. Bring peace to the War on Drugs by making all drugs legal and there’s no fun in it anymore for either side.

One of the problems with any drug that produces effects the user enjoys is curbing the user’s natural desire to prolong those effects by ingesting more. Why stop at a couple of glasses of wine when there’s a whole bottle in front of you that can make you feel even better if you drink it all? At one time, I used to occasionally have a spliff, but it was always in a social situation and social situations for me – even when I’ve been at my most sociable – have tended to be separated by weeks. I’ve had friends for whom rolling a spliff has been something they’ve indulged in upwards of half-a-dozen times a day; as a consequence, they’d spend the majority of that day stoned. That to me is diluting the pleasurable impact a drug can have if it attains the same level of a treat as a bar of chocolate had when I was a child. If it’s there on tap, it’s no treat at all, and trying to recapture the initial impact as one’s bloodstream becomes accustomed to the sensation through overuse means increasing the dosage.

With many drugs classed as ‘A’, the addiction of the user tends to arise from this futile recapturing of the original impact it had, like the heavy drinker who doesn’t know when to stop. The only real way to ensure such an impact hits every time is to use the drug in moderation, but that’s easier said than done, especially when the effects of the drug may be the only effects life offers that make life worth living. The pot of gold that constitutes the must-have accessories we are taught from an early age to aim for is for some a poor alternative to the ecstatic rush of a Class A drug, especially now that so many of that pot’s contents are far more unattainable – not to say unaffordable.

Outside of recreational use, the occasional calls for giving a drug like cannabis special medicinal dispensation on the grounds of its proven positive effects on sufferers of diseases such as MS tend to face the same response. The belief perpetuated by the powers-that-be and their media mouthpieces that cannabis, like all drugs, is evil always seems to override any intelligent discussion or sensible progress. We are taught to believe if we smoke a spliff it’ll be the first step on the stairway to crack, as though anyone who samples the apothecary’s forbidden fruit is incapable of not succumbing to chemical obesity. Granted, that can happen (as I’ve already pointed out), but that doesn’t have to be the case for everyone.

The news that a small minority of people in the UK who experience mental health difficulties have been self-medicating psychedelic drugs in tiny daily doses – so-called ‘micro-dosing’ – appears to have taken LSD full circle. Not long after it was synthesised by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman in 1944, the US military and the CIA tested the drug on mostly unknowing guinea pigs before abandoning it as too erratic a method of mind control; psychiatric hospitals came to similar conclusions.

However, as soon as LSD slipped into the hands of artists and writers, who viewed it in a different light altogether, the blue touch-paper for the 60s counter-culture had been lit and the predictable outlawing of Acid in the US and UK fuelled its mystique further. Unfortunately, the over-indulgence of its guitar-strumming salesmen followed a familiar pattern and any talk of LSD as a beneficial substance for medical complaints was abandoned.

Considering the racket that is the pharmaceutical industry, perhaps it’s no wonder people have turned once again to the possibilities inherent in the drugs no drugs corporation will touch. A London-based psychiatrist named James Rucker has recently overseen a trial at Imperial College that treated clinical depression with magic mushrooms, reversing decades of aversion by the profession to psychedelics. He doesn’t endorse self-medicating micro-dosing, but perhaps only because he hasn’t yet tested the process under trial conditions. Amidst the usual fears aired as to the dangers of ‘taking too much’, it would seem some have discovered a means of administering a drug that works for them by trusting their adult ability to practice restraint rather than being society’s naughty child incapable of resisting addiction.

© The Editor

THE RISE OF THE CYBERMEN (AND WOMEN)

‘The Simpsons’ has always had an uncanny knack of predicting the near-future, usually doing so by making deliberately ridiculous predictions that few could imagine actually coming to pass. Such is the way of the world today, though, that the sublime has regularly been superseded by the ridiculous; there was famously a President Trump in an episode from 2000, after all. I recall another episode in which Homer is forced to take a job in a supermarket warehouse; finding it too much like hard work after being accustomed to putting his feet up at Mr Burns’ power station, he attempts to walk out, only to be prevented from doing so by the microchip his new employers have implanted in his neck to guarantee subservience to the company.

Lo and behold, it was reported this week that a Swedish company called Epicenter is already there in the non-animated world. Yes, microchip implantation is an option for Epicenter’s lucky employees; these embedded pieces of technology essentially act as a swipe card for the 150 out of 2,000 employees to have opted for the process – opening doors or paying for goods on-site with a wave of the hand. Epicenter pioneered turning its workforce into cyborgs two years ago, with the company’s CEO claiming the biggest benefit of the scheme is ‘convenience’.

A company in Belgium is apparently contemplating the same ‘convenience’ for its employees, for where some countries lead, others invariably follow. The relative reluctance of Epicenter employees to embrace the practice in great numbers speaks volumes; although the technology is no doubt in its infancy, there have been ethical concerns aired regarding the potential security risks. Ben Libberton, a microbiologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, claims hackers could access innumerable amounts of private information from implanted microchips, a worrying prospect that could increase as the technology inevitably becomes more sophisticated. Hackers accessing something inside us?

If all of this sounds like an episode of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian ‘Black Mirror’ series, it’s no wonder; ‘Black Mirror’ specialises in taking contemporary technology one step into the future and capitalising on current fears on how it has already become something so many are dependent on and implicitly place their trust in.

The revealing of personal details that are now a prerequisite for the majority of online transactions is unavoidable if outlets such as Facebook, Amazon and eBay are to be entered into, resulting in the collation of information that forms a cyber profile advertisers and manufacturers can then target. The whole ‘If you like that, you might like this’ or ‘suggested post’ syndrome is a direct side-effect of the info we surrender when we log on and sign in.

In many respects, so many are now so attached to their Smartphones that the object has more or less become an extension of their physical being as it is, provoking withdrawal symptoms akin to those of a toddler deprived of its dummy should their mobile be misplaced. But if a company can inject microchips into its employees on the grounds of ‘convenience’, how long before one of the leading tech corporations proposes developing the principle re the mobile phone? The way avid subscribers to such technology are willing to submit to its demands without a second thought suggests that this possibility would not necessarily be widely opposed.

While the approach of the Epicenter company is embryonic in terms of what could eventually happen and how it could be misused, more advanced experiments have been carried out on surgical grounds, and there are a small number of volunteers who have had electronic implants seemingly on the grounds of vanity and an apparent desire to be viewed as ‘interesting’. In a way, this is not dissimilar to those addicted to cosmetic surgery when they don’t really need it. The British artist Neil Harbisson is the first person to be officially recognised as a ‘cyborg’, having had an antenna embedded in his head, enabling him to receive what he calls ‘an extra sense’ since the interior soft-wear merged with his brain, giving him the ability to perceive colours outside of the usual human spectrum.

The British scientist Kevin Warwick and his wife chose to be cybernetic guinea pigs, with the former having 100 electrodes added to his nervous system in order that he could connect it to the internet. If all of this sounds scary to many, these individuals have at least volunteered, as have those employees of Epicenter; and were these implants to provide the bionic strength we were all led to believe they would via ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’, I suspect we’d all be queuing up to have them fitted; that was pre-cyberspace days, however. Today, Steve Austin would be an exemplary tool of the surveillance state rather than a superman. As so often happens, such technological developments don’t always fall into the hands of those whose means are benign.

© The Editor

STRIKE ZONE

Well, after all the endless gossip of a mutual admiration society between The Donald and Vlad, not to mention persistent accusations of Russian interference in last year’s US Presidential Election – both of which have been recycled by Trump’s opponents at home for months – one wonders what Mr Putin’s opinion of the President is now. American-led coalition airstrikes against Jihadists in Syria have been an under-reported element of the Syrian Civil War since 2014, but the deliberate targeting of one of Assad’s airfields by US missiles in the early hours of this morning is the first time the Americans have attacked government forces. Where this leaves opinion on western involvement in the Syrian conflict, not to mention US-Russian relations, is probably too early to speculate; but it’s fair to say the Kremlin isn’t happy.

Russia has called the American strike that struck Shayrat airbase at 1.40 GMT ‘an act of aggression against a sovereign nation’ – unlike annexing Crimea, then? All the doom-laden predictions that Moscow would be pulling the strings of a puppet President in the White House appear a tad premature now. The Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said: ‘Instead of the previously touted idea of a joint fight against the main enemy – the Islamic State – the Trump Administration has shown that it will carry out a fierce battle against the lawful government of Syria’. Russia has also suspended a joint air safety agreement between it and the US in Syria as a result.

It would seem the appalling nature of events in Khan Shiekhoun on Tuesday has prompted a change to American foreign policy re Syria, certainly where Trump is concerned. From the off, he has repeatedly stressed domestic issues were at the top of his agenda, and his suspected softness towards Putin suggested he’d steer clear of Syria. But a President with such a swaggering personality and combative approach to governance was clearly presented with the kind of challenge to flex his muscles on the world stage that he couldn’t resist.

Not that this familiar Trump persona was the one on display in the press conference he gave following confirmation of the attack. Unusually – though not unexpectedly, considering the circumstances – subdued, the President didn’t mince his words and seemed to suggest America was acting on behalf of all nations who attributed the nerve gas bombing to Assad. Most nations were rightly appalled by what happened in Khan Shiekhoun, but even when Trump called on ‘all civilised nations’ to contribute towards ending the conflict, everybody knew only one would be prepared to react to Tuesday’s incident with force.

Caution has characterised the western powers’ attitude towards Syria, as though everyone was holding their tongues, waiting for America to make the first move; Obama preferred the sneaky drone game, essentially military involvement through the back door, but his successor has now stated his case in a far more decisive manner. If today’s target was indeed the same airbase from which Tuesday’s chemical attack was launched, then Trump has certainly laid down the gauntlet. What next, though? Rather worryingly, a Oklahoma Senator who praised the President’s actions hinted the attack should herald the rebuilding of the US military after Obama’s budget cuts in order that America can achieve ‘peace through strength’, the old Republican call-to-arms catchphrase.

In 2017, Vietnam is now probably too distant a memory for many to recall with the shudder it provoked for decades, but the shadow of Iraq is still a potent influence on the Commander in Chief’s decision when it comes to where US forces are deployed today. I doubt Trump would want to commit ‘boots-on-the-ground’ in Syria any more than his predecessor wanted to, but airstrikes don’t send body-bags back to American airfields. Launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from two US Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean is a shrewder option when there remains such reluctance to send in the troops.

Every western country that dispatched soldiers to Iraq has subsequently shied away from repeating the same mistake in Syria, though some would argue this has enabled Assad (with the invaluable assistance of Russia) to continue getting away with murder. There was a proposal put forward two or three years back, particularly where British recruits to the fight against Assad were concerned, that the situation was comparable to the Spanish Civil War, when the International Brigades recruited multinational volunteers to the anti-fascist cause as many western powers preferred inactive neutrality. Perhaps the memory of the First World War was still strong in the minds of western leaders back then, just as Iraq is today.

Not all parallels with the Spanish Civil War stand up to scrutiny, but I suppose one could say that in that conflict, Nazi Germany effectively played the Russia to Franco’s Assad, with the Luftwaffe’s role in the bombing of Guernica a barbaric test-run for the horrors to come. However, what did follow in the same year the Spanish Civil War ended is hardly the most optimistic comparison one can make with what might follow Syria. We can only hope history’s habit of repeating itself takes a break for once.

© The Editor

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION HEROES

1966 was a landmark year in the history of the American comic book; it saw the introduction of the first regular black superhero to the roll-call of hip Pop Art icons. It’s worth bearing in mind that The Black Panther debuted in the pages of Marvel’s ‘The Fantastic Four’ several months before the formation of the actual Black Panther militant civil rights group, so there can be no accusations of cashing-in on the part of the character’s creators, legendary double act Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Further additions to the ‘ethnic minority’ league of superheroes came in the early 1970s, with the likes of The Falcon and Luke Cage, Power Man; the latter was a blatant attempt to capitalise on Hollywood’s ‘Blaxploitation’ era, though as a 70s child randomly picking up imported US Marvel comics, the skin colour of said superheroes wasn’t an issue; all that mattered to me then was whether or not the stories and (especially) the artwork were worth shelling out 6p for.

A lot has changed in forty years. Ever since the Marvel Corporation was purchased by the Disney Corporation, Marvel is not so much seen by the general public as a comic book business than as the source material for an ongoing motion picture franchise. The need to appeal to the movie industry’s imposed diversity agenda has seen Marvel’s line-up undergo the kind of severe PC surgery in recent months that smacks of pure tokenism rather than a natural reflection of the changing American idea of what constitutes a ‘hero’.

Not so long ago, Spider-Man’s secret identity was redesigned as that of a mixed-race adolescent; Ms Marvel – one of Marvel’s second division characters – was remodelled as a Pakistani immigrant for no reason other than a presumed need to tick a few politically-correct boxes; Norse God Thor received a sex-change during the same period, as did Iron Man, when millionaire playboy-cum-scientist Tony Stark made way for (in the words of Bonnie Greer) an African-American woman. The comic branch of Marvel seems to have bowed to external pressures and thrust the ‘ethnic’ members of its universe into the limelight whilst its movies continue to boast a largely white cast appealing to a largely white audience. No wonder its sales have plummeted.

In 2014, 9 out of 10 of the best-selling comic book titles were produced by Marvel; last year, following the aforementioned revamps, it could only claim 3 out of 10. Between 2015 and the beginning of this year, Marvel launched a ridiculous 104 new titles, with a quarter of them being resounding flops. It would appear the department upon which the entire Marvel industry was built is currently being run by right-on headless chickens responding to a perceived need for a narrow definition of diversity, without any real clue as to what it is that makes the superhero genre work. Even a Senior Marvel Executive, David Gabriel, has admitted as much, though was predictably forced to retract his honest observation when it received the usual howling accusations of racism.

From its 1930s beginnings, the superhero as a character was a square-jawed strongman clad in the skin-tight costume then more commonly associated with circus entertainers. He was a one-dimensional figure without any trace of an internal life because he had one simple function that didn’t require much in the way of existential analysis – to fight crime. All the superheroes that sprang from what comic book historians refer to as ‘The Golden Age’ – Superman, Batman, Captain America, Captain Marvel et al – adhered to this successful formula. Wonder Woman was a novel deviation from the norm, but what essentially made her different was her sex; other than that, she was cut from the same cloth as her male counterparts.

It was only when Marvel rebranded itself as a major challenger to the dominance of DC via the launch of ‘The Fantastic Four’ in 1961 that the superhero acquired a level of realism he had never previously possessed. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put together their crime-fighting team with unique human failings at a point when the superhero medium was emerging from a lull in which it had been superseded by romance, crime and horror genres. The latter had sparked a moral panic on both sides of the Atlantic akin to the ‘Video Nasty’ scare of the early 80s; the violence in comics was also linked to juvenile delinquency, leading to the introduction of the censorious Comics Code Authority. Superheroes suddenly seemed a safe option again.

Marvel’s revolutionary redrawing of the boundaries of the genre included giving the bespectacled target of high-school bullies the ability to climb walls and spin webs. Poor Peter Parker always lost the girls to the jocks – probably like the majority of the Marvel readers – and this relatable factor was crucial; who could relate to Bruce Wayne, after all? But Parker’s new identity as Spider-Man came at a price; initially a TV star showing off his superpowers, he declines to intervene in a robbery, only for the criminal in question to then kill his uncle. This twist, which saddles Parker with intense guilt, provokes him into fighting crime thereafter. There had never been that kind of mature storytelling in superhero comics before.

Marvel’s phenomenal success in the 60s – and its extensive college-age readership – gave DC a kick up the arse, leading them to exploit the latent dark side of Bat Man and making him a far more interesting character in the process. The introduction of The Black Panther was a natural progression; Marvel were already reflecting the culture of the times, so a black superhero was an inevitable development rather than the knee-jerk response to a demand for diversity. By comparison, the recent rush to cobble together a line-up of PC-friendly superheroes feels like the decision of a focus group, characters created by committee; and the readership know this, which is why they’ve rejected them. Once again, the few are dictating their agenda to the many, and the end result is a disaster.

© The Editor

CHEMICAL WORLD

The use of chemicals in warfare is almost as old as warfare itself; centuries before scientific advancement was able to produce man-made chemicals on an industrial scale, the Ancient civilisations of China, India and Greece were experimenting with ‘organic gases’ derived from toxic vegetables with a view to them being weapons. One of the earliest recorded uses of chemical weapons dates from the third century (AD) siege of Dura Europos, when bitumen and sulphur crystals were lit to create lethal sulphur dioxide smoke deployed against the invading Roman army. There’s a sad irony to the location of this landmark event – modern-day Syria.

Yesterday’s chemical incident in Khan Shiekhoun in the Indlib province of Northern Syria so far has a body count of 52 adults and 20 children; it is the first widely reported example of chemical warfare in Syria since the appalling 2013 massacre in Ghouta, which left hundreds dead. Once again, President Assad denies responsibility; his invaluable ally Russia admitted that Syrian aircraft bombed areas of Khan Shiekhoun, but attributes the deaths to the unintended striking of a rebel chemical weapons factory. Few are buying this story, with one chemical weapons expert rubbishing the idea a nerve gas could have spread in the way it did via an airstrike on a factory producing it.

News footage of those fleeing the attack shows symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve agents, choking and foaming at the mouth; some witnesses also claim the hospitals where the victims were being treated were then targeted by government airstrikes. There’s nothing quite like kicking somebody when they’re down, is there? The evidence of chemical weapons being used once more in the Syrian conflict is undeniable, though nobody wants to claim responsibility, least of all Assad.

The chemical in question is suspected to be sarin, production and stockpiling of which was outlawed twenty years ago. As a substance, it’s so nasty that even a small dose can kill; it’s estimated that sarin in its purest form is 26 times more lethal than bloody cyanide. The time it takes to do the business depends on the extent of inhalation, but the average is stated as being between one and ten minutes. Even a non-lethal dose can inflict potentially permanent neurological damage, whereas death by sarin is especially gruesome. After the runny nose, tight chest, inability to breathe, nausea and drooling come vomiting and involuntary defecation and urination, followed by the final comatose condition which ends with suffocation via convulsive spasms – and all within the space of ten minutes. As far as a way to go goes, it’s fair to say there are less horrible endings one could endure.

We have the development of modern chemistry in the nineteenth century to thank for chemical warfare as we recognise it today, though it was inevitable any scientific breakthrough would be utilised by man for malignant means. During the Crimean War, the Secretary of the Science and Art Department (yes, there really was one), the wonderfully-named Lyon Playfair, proposed the manufacture of cyanide artillery shells because he seemingly thought it a more humane way of killing the enemy. His proposal was rejected, though the horrific potential of chemical weaponry caused such concern that the Hague Declaration of 1899 attempted to outlaw the use of projectiles ‘the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases’. All the major powers ratified the declaration except the US.

However, neither the Hague Declaration of 1899 nor the Hague Convention of 1907 prevented the use of chemical weaponry in the First World War. The French initiated the practice, swiftly followed by the Germans; by the end of the Great War, it’s estimated around 1.3 million casualties could be attributed to chemical warfare. Between the wars, and despite the damage done by chemical weapons, gas was used to suppress native rebellions in European colonies as well as during the Russian Civil War, though the 1925 Geneva Protocol pledged to never use gas in warfare again. The Western allies upheld this during the Second World War and even Nazi Germany refrained from it, though the Japanese had used it against Chinese forces before 1939.

The fear of gas being used in WWII led to the widespread distribution of gasmasks and it has subsequently been revealed that mustard gas was stockpiled in the event of a German invasion of Britain. It was also intended to be used by RAF Bomber Command should the Germans have resorted to it to repel the D-Day Landings. Thankfully, none of these scenarios arose, though post-war uses of chemical weapons were said to have occurred in the likes of North Yemen, Rhodesia, Vietnam and Angola before its resurgence during the Iran-Iraq War.

The return of chemical warfare in such a high-profile conflict as Syria has shocked the world, though in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Assad was clearly so desperate to cling onto power that it appeared he would stoop to anything. The support of Russia in this clinging onto power has enabled Assad to stay put; and when he again resorts to tactics that are below the belt even in such a bloody warzone as Syria, Assad knows Putin’s backseat driving is his greatest asset.

Russia has the power to veto any resolution on the issue by the UN Security Council, claiming a draft resolution already proposed would pre-empt the results of any investigation into the incident and automatically lay the blame at the door of its Syrian sidekick. Heaven forbid! If, as most outside of Russia believe, Assad is capable of using chemical weapons on his own people, he’s hardly unique amongst dictators; a certain sadistic despot in Iraq did likewise a few years ago, after all. But when the world’s attention seems permanently focused on Syria, it does seem remarkable that Assad (if indeed he is guilty) can get away with such a crime again; but he got away with it before.

© The Editor

THE CURRY HOUSE

With this country’s housing currently in the kind of crisis it hasn’t reached since the aftermath of the Blitz, the lack of urgency and action on the part of government often beggars belief. One would imagine ensuring everyone has a roof over their head should be at the top of any administration’s agenda, but what is actually being done? A chronic absence of affordable homes; a pitifully low amount of new houses being built; purpose-built social housing virtually abolished; soaring rents also pricing people out of that market; mean-minded schemes such as depriving unemployed 18-21 year-olds of Housing Benefit – all paint a portrait of remarkable ineptitude and uncaring indifference on the part of our elected representatives.

And into this troubled arena returns the ominous, unwelcome spectre of the kind of landlord who gives landlords a bad name – not quite a throwback to either infamous property tycoon gangster Nicholas van Hoogstraten or the notorious slum tyrant of 50s Notting Hill, Peter Rachman; but certainly one bearing all the old ‘No Irish/No Dogs/No Blacks’ prejudices prevalent prior to the Rent Act of 1965.

Millionaire Fergus Wilson, often referred to as ‘Britain’s biggest landlord’ (having owned over a thousand properties at one point), has hit the headlines due to his attitudes towards certain types of potential tenants via a leaked list of his letting criteria supplied to the letting agents Evolution. This illuminating document reveals he and his company do not want tenants with children under 18, no single mums or single fathers, no tenants on Housing Benefits, no low-income workers and no single adults. That does narrow it down quite a bit; few with little choice but to seek rented accommodation don’t fall into any of those categories, after all. But Mr Wilson obviously has standards to maintain. He won’t accept victims of domestic abuse as tenants either; ‘battered wives’ are apparently more trouble than they’re worth.

As biased and bigoted as that list reveals Fergus Wilson to be, it is his antiquated racism that has made him a target for online abuse. According to this list, one of his other specifications regarding tenants is that he won’t let to – in his own words – ‘coloured people’ because of ‘the curry smell at the end of the tenancy’. Firstly, the assumption that what has long been the country’s No.1 dish of choice is only consumed by ‘coloured people’ is remarkably ill-informed; secondly, to attribute that particular dish as a main cause of damage to his properties when tenants move out suggests his judgement is severely impaired by his prejudices.

A friend of mine who rented out his former home when he couldn’t sell it experienced the unpleasant reality of trouble tenants, who left the property a tip when they did a runner, though they were neither ‘coloured’ nor used curry to reinforce their contempt for the tenancy agreement.

Fergus Wilson has reported the abuse he’s received to Kent Police, but has also been airing his opinions in the Sun, which make him sound like an even bigger idiot than the leaked list did. ‘It is a problem with certain types of coloured people – those who consume curry,’ he says. ‘It sticks to the carpet. You have to get some chemical thing that takes the smell out. In extreme cases you have to replace the carpet.’ He goes on to deny that which he has been accused of by saying: ‘My stance is that it is neither racist nor discrimination to refuse to take people from any ethnic background on the basis that there is a heightened risk of injury to the house.’

His denials are then contradicted by further statements such as: ‘To be honest, we’re getting overloaded with coloured people’ and ‘In a predominantly white English area, almost all landlords will not let to Indian or Pakistani tenants because of the smell of curry.’ He clearly has a problem with curry, that famed foodstuff favoured by those bloody ‘coloured people’. If only they stuck to fish and chips, how much easier Fergus Wilson’s life would be.

Evolution, recipients of Mr Wilson’s specifications, has distanced itself from his comments and has made it clear they do not endorse his attitudes. Other organisations dedicating to helping the homeless or representing the renting sector from both sides have followed suit. The online attacks he’s been subjected to since his criteria was made public are of an ilk that many who are nowhere near as bigoted, though have a habit of expressing unfashionable opinions, have suffered from recently; however, to hold up Fergus Wilson as some heroic beacon of anti-PC free speech misses the point.

As a landlord – and an extremely wealthy one – Mr Wilson is in a position where some of society’s most vulnerable citizens are forced to approach him for assistance. For him to discriminate on the grounds of social or racial status, rather than exclude the worst kind of tenants due to their lack of respect for the property, is lamentable at a time when so many are in such dire need, whether or not they have an appetite for curry. Desperation for a roof over one’s head doesn’t distinguish on any grounds. The tenancy agreement between landlord and tenant is a contract of mutual understanding; if both adhere to the terms, there’s no reason why the relationship cannot be a harmonious one.

Having lived in rented accommodation for over twenty years, I’ve experienced both bad landlords and good ones; I may have kept pets when I wasn’t supposed to, but I’ve always paid my rent on time and I’ve always left the properties as I found them when the time has come to move on. I even left a fridge freezer and a mattress behind at my last address, neither of which was there when I arrived, so I hope my successor made the most of them. Maybe it’s time Fergus Wilson retired to his inevitable yacht in Monaco and left his business in the hands of those who recognise that when so many in this country are so desperate for somewhere to live, landlords are uniquely qualified to do what government is so spectacularly failing to.

© The Editor

CARRY ON UPGRADING

The success of the advertising industry in persuading people to buy what they don’t need has been crucial to the accumulation of household ‘stuff’ over the past century. How many toasted sandwich makers were unveiled in the 80s, providing a string of snacks for all the family for about a week until the inevitable banishment to the cupboard under the sink, whereupon the seven-day wonder was condemned to be a greasy legacy of the same decade that gave us the Sinclair C5 and the CD mini-disc? Every home has a similar story to tell, and one suspects the number of items that fall into the toasted sandwich maker landfill site has increased the more that newfangled gadgets have their imminent obsolescence built into them.

At the moment, my washing machine is on its last legs; the delay in writing and publishing this post was due to my emergency intervention as water began gushing all over the kitchen floor. It’s been leaking for months now, but this was my domestic equivalent of the Red Sea returning to drown Moses’ pursuers. The machine is now officially off-limits, as I can’t risk using it again for fear of flooding the downstairs flat. The problem for me, as I live on the top floor of a house, is getting the old machine out and getting a new one in (and installed). At the moment, that bloody washing machine to me is the car that Basil Fawlty attacked with a branch.

Mind you, the washing machine has served me well. I bought it around 2003/4, so to have got a good 13-14 years out of it is pretty good going these days. No longer are such household appliances ‘built to last’, as the old expression went. Our television set was rented throughout my childhood, and not until adolescence did our home acquire a telly of its own – and with a remote control as well! That set was purchased around 1981 and I had it passed down to me when I left home; it didn’t finally conk-out until about 2001. How many TV sets manufactured today could boast such longevity? Very few, I would imagine. Since ‘old faithful’ gave up the ghost, I reckon I’ve probably been through maybe four or five different tellies, though compared to some I think I’ve been quite frugal.

The once-luxury items that constituted a dream home, things such as a washing machine, a fridge/freezer, a TV set, a gas cooker, a stereo ‘music unit’ – predating later must-haves like a microwave, a VCR, a CD player and a DVD player – were highly expensive and often bought via a system of Hire Purchase, paid off over a period of months or even years. With this in mind, the need for them to be durable was essential; an article at least had to be in working order during the period it was being paid for. Other items such as a vacuum cleaner or an iron were more within the household budget, but these too were made of strong stuff. My mother used the same Hoover and the same iron she’d had during my childhood well into the 80s for the simple reason that they were still doing the job they’d been designed for in the 60s.

Outside of the home, cars too were once designed with a long life in mind. Putting aside the company vehicle that came with a career, the family car was also a pricey machine in which both money and optimism were invested, its proud owner confident it would put in several loyal years of service, almost viewing it as an employee. Their confidence was well-founded. It seemed that half of the cars on the road in the 1970s had been built in previous decades, something that’s difficult to envisage now. Yes, those old motors faced a severe test when the initial absence of a speed limit on the new motorways led to overheated engines for vehicles not designed for Grand Prix conditions; but most were patched-up and sent back on the road with a clean bill of health; and some spanned the entire driving lifetime of their owners.

Again, not a scenario today’s motorist could really relate to. If cars today were so superior to their predecessors, mechanics would be a dying breed and the production line for new models would move at a snails’ pace; but there’s more to it than shoddy, corner-cutting manufacturing.

There have always been those for whom any possession has been a simple, straightforward status symbol for either keeping up with or getting one over the Jones’s; but these were once in the minority; most had to make do with what they could afford and required those items to last as long as possible. Back in the days of valves and the cathode ray tube, a TV set was prone to going wrong, but these design faults facilitated the career of what is now a virtually defunct profession, the TV repair man. If a TV set goes wrong today, the owner replaces it; sets are so cheap now in comparison to forty years ago that there’s no real need for a faulty one to be fixed. The concept that they were once so expensive that the majority of viewers rented them from specialist shops is inconceivable to a generation accustomed to HD TV ‘walls’ in their living rooms.

Upgrading has become both an unnecessary fad and an unavoidable necessity. Some upgrade because it’s ‘the done thing’ and they have to be seen to have the latest model; others upgrade because the mobile or laptop or DVD player they only bought a couple of years before has already ceased to function. Upgrading is thrust upon us by the manufacturers; it’s not a customer choice. The widespread practice of buying goods via credit cards has altered the relationship between consumer and manufacturer so that even if the consumer doesn’t have the ready cash to upgrade, they can still do so at the same time as the person who does have the ready cash. This relatively recent development has probably enabled manufacturers to get away with churning out items at a faster pace and with a shorter lifespan than ever before; they know they can, so they do.

Oh, well. A silly lightweight post on another day of another bombing and so on and so on. It doesn’t hurt to have a day off from it. And on the subject of old tellies…

© The Editor