Saturday, January 31, 2009

fight the good fight: Rocky Balboa

BEWARE - CONTAINS SPOILERS!

Rocky Balboa is one of my favourite films, and one of the most inspirational pieces of cinema art I have ever seen.

It is more than merely fiction: it is an allegory of the impact of Gospel values on us and those around us when we try to live those values. There are many themes running through this film, so many that every time I watch it something I hadn’t noticed before becomes apparent. There is the pain of compassion; how others are built up when we exercise respect towards them; a certain dignity conferred by work that is not totally fixed to wages, but also the temptation to use work as a camouflage to hide our humanity; and the assertion – controversial amid the presumptions of many modern film-makers – that a man and a woman can love each other chastely.

Sylvester Stallone wrote, directed and played the leading role in Rocky Balboa, because he felt that Rocky V, which shows Rocky having lost almost everything and regaining his dignity by winning a street fight, did not leave viewers with the fullness of the message that he felt the Rocky character still held for the world.

Although Rocky Balboa is technically “Rocky VI”, it is if anything a sequel to the original Rocky film of 1976, as Stallone admits that Rocky fell prey to the "time of excess" that some sectors of society experienced in the 1980’s. Even so, all the films are about a boxer called Rocky – the "Italian Stallion" – and the people around him. They are mainly from a run-down area of Philadelphia and do not always have the skills to verbalise the complexities of their dreams, hopes and fears for themselves and each other, but show how they feel through the way that they live. When Rocky decides to engage with life in the way that he knows best – by fighting – everybody involved comes through the process changed: lover, managers, friends, opponents and not least Rocky himself.

Sylvester Stallone dictated the first script of Rocky to his wife then had the poor woman help him revise it no less than 19 times until it said what he wanted it to say. Rocky was made on a shoestring budget, but even so Stallone and his producer John G Avildsen remortgaged their homes to finish it, such was their faith in the power of the message that Rocky’s character has for the world.

Rocky is presented to us in the first film as an individual who is passionate about boxing, but who never got the breaks to turn professional. We learn that as a teenager he asked for help from the now-septuagenarian manager of the local gym, Mickey (played by Burgess Meredith). Mickey had many problems resulting from years of severe beatings in poorly-refereed boxing matches, one of which was a hearing deficit. He never heard Rocky’s cry. Rocky ended up as an enforcer for a loanshark. But his compassionate nature is revealed early on when he refuses to carry out his orders to break a defaulting labourer’s thumb, justifying this to the shark by explaining that the man wouldn’t be able to do his job with a broken thumb and would be unable to repay anything at all.

Rocky is persistent in his pursuit of Adrian, an assistant in a pet-shop who was told repeatedly by her mother that she’d have to develop her brain because her body was ugly. She lives with her abusive, alcoholic brother Paulie, whom she only finds the strength to leave once she understands that somebody – Rocky – loves her. As the first film progresses, the inner woman breaks through the carapace accrued over three decades of discouragement, put-downs and emotional abuse. As she realises she is loved, she allows herself to become beautiful. A tender, hesitant love-story runs through the film, but it is only in the final scene, when Rocky stands battered and bleeding in the ring after lasting 15 rounds with the reigning World Heavyweight Champion, that they feel confident enough to say “I love you” to each other.



As Rocky Balboa opens, we find Rocky, now in his 50’s, doing the "anniversary tour" of places associated with Adrian, who died of cancer some years previously. His brother-in-law is increasingly uncomfortable with this due to problems with his guilt regarding how he treated his sister, and eventually accuses Rocky of "living life backwards", adding that "yesterday wasn’t so good." Choked, Rocky replies "it was to me!"

Rocky’s life is, if not lived backwards, then certainly anchored firmly in his past – he now owns a restaurant, called Adrian’s, where he entertains regulars with stories of his victories that they know by heart and even finish for him. However, tonight, on his anniversary tour, he drops into a bar he used to frequent and finds that the barmaid is somebody he first met when she was 13 and he was still a loanshark’s thug. He warned the girl – "little Marie" – that she risked getting a name as a "whore". She was not appreciative of his solicitousness.

As Rocky’s relationship with the now-grown "little Marie" (played by the Irish actress Geraldine Hughes speaking in a flawless Philly accent), as he still calls her, flowers, they find themselves drawn into each other’s worlds. Marie, abandoned, is lonely, and Rocky is a passionate advocate of engaging life by punching above one’s weight. At one point, when Rocky replaces a long-broken light outside Marie’s door, she questions his motives by stating that he doesn’t owe her and her teenage son anything; Rocky replies, in a neat rephrasing of Jesus’ instruction that "Freely you have received, freely give" – "Why you gotta owe somethin’ to get somethin’?" He later taunts Marie over her pessimism about her abilities when she declines a front-of-house job at his restaurant, feeling she’s not good enough – "Who put this stuff in your head? ‘Cos it didn’t get in there by itself!"

There is only minimal physical contact between Rocky and Marie, but one is left with their impression that their relationship is a loving one, that does not in any sense abrogate Rocky’s relationship with Adrian who, although painfully absent physically, is nevertheless present to Rocky every moment of his life. We cannot see the contents of somebody’s heart or mind on the screen, so the change within Marie is again represented by her physical change – hair becomes washed and brushed, clothes are fresh, there is more eye-contact. It should be noted, however, that these changes may indeed be visible when somebody goes through the process of realising that they are valued and loved. As Donne says, "no man is an island" – we are relational creatures, building up or knocking down others as we have experienced being built up or knocked down. Rocky is a builder.

Robert Jr is Rocky’s son. He has got a good job because of his father’s name, but finds himself unable to move forward because the strict hierarchical structure of his company offends his nature. He wants to make his own mark in the world, but feels held down by his colleagues’ expectations that he, weedy as he is, should have the heart of a fighter like his father. When Rocky starts hankering to re-enter the ring, Robert is mortified, telling his father that he’d just started to make his own way in the world when suddenly Rocky was overshadowing him again. Rocky tells his son that he’ll love him whatever happens, but that he is disappointed in him. He says to Robert, comparing life to boxing, in the key speech of the film:
It’s not about how hard you can hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep goin’. How hard you can get hit, and keep movin’ forward. That’s how winnin’ is done!
Robert eventually approaches Rocky in his daily activity of visiting Adrian’s grave and leaving red roses. He has left his job, and now the road is clear for Rocky to do what he does best – as Marie says to him, "fighters fight".



Rocky takes a mighty beating during the subsequent match against Mason "the Line" Dixon, played by real-life light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver. During a delirious period he sees Mickey, and also Adrian. He is floored, and it looks like that’s that. But he replays his speech to Robert in his head, applying it to himself and slowly, painfully, hauls himself up; his pain is mirrored in Marie’s expression as she calls his name with the crowd, having presented him with a picture of his wife the night before to wish him luck and shared a chaste kiss.

Although Rocky receives a sound beating, the fight is a close call, so much so that he loses not on his performance but on a split judge’s decision. As he leaves the arena, the crowd indicates that the moral victory is his. Whereas before he pointed to his trainer as the source of his inspiration, he now indicates its true source by pointing upwards.



The film ends with Rocky placing roses on Adrian’s grave, telling her "we did it". He walks away, turns to wave and, in classic cinematic fashion, disappears from view. I am reminded of 2 Timothy 4:6-7: "the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith."

Friday, January 30, 2009

homosexism: suffer the little children

Edinburgh - not all castle and lights
I remember a gay friend of mine who was also an expert on equal rights legislation. He testified to the Scottish Parliament that there's more to equality than prioritising jobs for gay people - and was roundly ignored, by the same radical homosexual lobby which seeks to present heterosexuality as one lifestyle choice among several as opposed to the norm.

Liberalisation of laws regarding homosexuality has been followed through by an agressive gay rights lobby to the point where homosexuals are seen as not only infallible but impeccable. Case in point - in 2002, LifesiteNews reported that "hate crime" against homosexuals was to be a "high priority" for the UK Crown Prosecution Service. Fair enough, it's not on to conduct a campaign of harrassment upon somebody because of who or what they are, but the CPS lays out in its leaflet "Policy for Prosecuting Cases with a homophobic element" a definition of "homophobic" classifying it as a thought crime, ie a disposition as opposed to an act:
A fear of or a dislike directed towards lesbian, gay or bisexual people, or a fear of or dislike directed towards their perceived lifestyle, culture or characteristics, whether or not any specific LG or B [lesbian, gay or bisexual] person has that lifestyle or characteristic.
For examGeorge Rawlinson and his Mum in 2007 - thanks to thisislondon.co.ukple, some years ago, a chap in the north of England wrote a letter to a local newspaper saying that in his opinion homosexuality was not a morally justifiable lifestyle - two policemen came to his house and interrogated him on what his morals were. (An acquaintance of mine with a gay son agreed that this was egregious.) Compare the case of George Rawlinson - in 2007, two policemen turned up unannounced at the (then) eleven-year-old's house because he had called a classmate "gay" in an email. Perhaps they thought his crime was theft - just as the homosexual lobby stole the word "gay", young people have taken it from them, and it now means strange, stubborn, uncooperative or unexpected. Minora regularly calls the computer I'm writing this on gay because it won't do the ten jobs she wants done yesterday.

Young people and homosexuality are on my mind right now because of news from the old country that, in Edinburgh, the two young children - aged four and five - of a recovering drug addict have been removed from their Christian grandparents and are to be given to a gay couple to be adopted (interpret "gay" as you wish); the grandparents didn't wish to relinquish the infants, but have exhausted their savings fighting the case in court. As the Telegraph's Lucy Cockcroft writes, "The case raises fears about state interference in family arrangements, and concerns about the practice of adoption by same-sex couples."

The grandparents were very brave to speak out, as they were allegedly told that if they objected to their grandchildren given to two gay people, they would lose any right of access to them. This aggressive emotional blackmail is an old social-work trick - for example, when sixteen children were removed from a housing estate in Rochester during the industry's period of satanic ritual abuse hysteria, they were gagged from speaking to the press, their councillors and MP, even after a year-long investigation found no basis to the claims (other than a competition among the workers to find the first cases of satanic ritual abuse in Great Britain).

It seems that the problem with the grandparents is twofold: firstly, that at 59 and 46 they are considered "too old" to care for the children, and secondly, one has diabetes and the other angina.

Given that my Mum was 42 when I was born I don't have much truck with the ageism, which is bizarre given that in the UK, the average age of social workers is 49. The issue with the diabetes and the angina seems to be that state adoption agencies don't want children to be adopted by couples where at least one has a statistical chance of dying earlier than is the national average, which raises worrying questions about how long the state will suffer children to stay in birth-families where parents are afflicted by similar ailments. What's strange, though, is that social-workers haven't seen that if the grandparents can survive a two-year legal battle against them in court, they're pretty robust.
click to read an example of John Hemming's crusade of children's rights when taken into 'care'
At the root of this is targets: in 2000, the Labour government decided that the number of children being adopted out by local authorities was to rise by 50% by 2006; these targets were scrapped in 2008, largely due to campaigning by Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, but it is not difficult to imagine a culture of removing children so that managers could tick the relevant boxes - something Mr Hemming has alleged was happening.

In Edinburgh, the picture is muddied by the aftermath of multiple failures of statutory bodies to prevent the death of Caleb Ness, son of a drug-using couple, in the city in 2004. Having been a drug-worker, the executive summary of the subsequent report makes depressingly familiar reading:
No one attending the CPCC really knew the couple...The people attending the CPCC [Child Protection Care Conference] appear to have had too little knowledge of the roles expected of them. No one was clear about the exact decisions which could and should have been taken at the meeting, including the need to refer such a case to the Reporter. Although the CPCC correctly decided to place Caleb on the Child Protection Register, no detailed Child Protection plan was agreed, and he was therefore left at risk.
As a result, City of Edinburgh Council decided to split responsibilities for child care, with social care issues remaining within the social work department, but child protection services becoming the responsibility of the director of education. One union steward at the time warned, "You are going to end up with specialist children and families support staff not answerable to the head of children and families." It seems to be a case of legislation being brought in specifically to prevent the right hand from knowing what the left is doing.

I feel sorry for this family which faces being torn apart, and, given that the City of Edinburgh Council's own leaflet on "new guidelines on protecting children living in families with drug and alcohol problems" states that "they will attempt to keep families together as long as possible", I can see no other rationale for it than an experiment in removing children from a heterosexual environment and giving them to a gay couple to see what orientation will "take". Perhaps the fact that the heterosexual household is a Christian one is the cherry on the cake.

It seems we are looking at homosexism, a phenomenon whose effect Pamela V UriarPamela V Uriartete describes as "the marginalization of heterosexual men and women within a commonplace that has led to stigmatization... and persecution" - the Edinburgh branch of UNISON, the trade union representing council-employed social workers, has reserved seats for, among other interest groups, "bisexual and transgender members" - there doesn't seem to be much room for people to speak for poorly grandparents of troubled children: blatant homosexism. Or maybe there's a new target for gay adoption?
click to see Jeremy Balfour's webpage
Conservative Councillor Jeremy Balfour is reported to be considering pressing for an investigation into this decision. I hope that investigation stops this madness, because once the children are in the hands of a gay adoptive couple, then on the off-chance that social workers feel the need to voice concerns about potential abuse by gay adopters they may not find management so willing to lsiten, as happened in the case of Ian Wathey and Craig Faunch in Wakefield. Then we'll see a depressing but increasingly common situation: the state as abuser-by-proxy.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Congestion Charging: coming to your place soon

Richard Normington - click to go to his homepageThere's a problem with traffic, at times, in Cambridge. When I take the bus to work because my bike's in the shop, it can take up to fifteen minutes to get from one side of the Hills Road railway bridge to the other - half the time it takes to cycle to work in the first place.

I picked up the Cambridge News today to see that Richard Normington, Cambridge's parliamentary spokesman for the Conservatives, speaking on a local issue which may be replayed widely over Great Britain and spread to other countries like the US. He's claimed that an investigation into whether Cambridge should have a congestion charge (like London) will be a "stitch-up", on the grounds that the Cambridgeshire Transport Commission's chairman, Sir Brian Briscoe, had previously come down in favour of a congestion charge for Reading, a town to the west of London.

Part of Richard's statement, reported in the News, was:
Sir Brian has a credibility problem. As part of a transport commission looking into the future of Reading, he proposed introducing a congestion charge and signing up to the Government's Transport Innovation Fund - which makes charging compulsory for local authorities. His previous support for Labour's flagship policy puts his neutrality on the subject into question...now, more than ever, is not the time to impose greater financial burdens on Cambridge businesses and residents.
Sir Brian has responded that what he suggested was "a package of measures...with the possibility of a congestion charge in the long term". However, what the Independent Transport Commission Report for Reading Borough Council, co-authored by him, says is,
We think the Council should, with its sub-regional neighbours, urgently examine the case for managing demand by road pricing to influence driver behaviour...We are satisfied that the technical means exist to introduce more sophisticated charging regimes and we recommend that the Council examine how it might devise a scheme with the object of maximising economic use of road space [italics and bold in the original]
Another member of Reading's Transport Commission, Professor Tony Travers, published an essay in 2004 in the left-wing New Statesman in which he breathlessly and rather embarrassingly pours praise on the then Mayor of London Ken Livingstone (known as "Red Ken") for putting Congestion Charging in place.

I don'Alok Sharma, with thanks to getreading.co.uk - click to go to Reading West Conservativest know whether Travers still believes in socialism or not - obviously people change and we have to allow them to. But the fact remains that transport charging is highly politicised, as it is in effect a form of taxation on a group of people - drivers - who are already taxed up to the hilt with road tax and duty on petrol. For example, back in Reading, prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate Alok Sharma has been accused of "lying" by opining that town dwellers would have to pay the charge (this has always been on the table in Cambridge); and the present Mayor of London, Boris Johnston, has been accused of "turning his back on carbon emission reductions and turning 'petrol blue'" (blue being the colour of the Conservative Party in the UK) by announcing that he would scrap an extension to the capital's Congestion Charge.

But to be tough on congestion requires us to be tough fancy building a house here?on the causes of congestion. A study commissioned by Cambridgeshire County Council states that 56,000 new dwellings will be required in this largely rural county by 2016. We just don't have the roads to support this, no more than the market towns and villages who are being pressured to accept new housing have the facilities and infrastructure. Not to mention that most rural areas are rural for a reason - the fens are very low-lying, and floods are common.

Travers makes a very interesting point in his essay: "no other city in Britain has anything like London's extensive public transport system. Less than 15 per cent of people working in central London commute by car. The political and economic risk would be far greater in a city where 65 or 75 per cent of workers travel by car." Stagecoach, which has a virtual monopoly on providing buses in and around Cambridge, must be congratulated for bringing in more and better stock. But to drive them they're hiring a lot of drivers for whom English is not a first language. If a prospective passenger doesn't speak good English either, it's a sight to behold.

If you live in or around Cambridge, please give your views online on this vital issue.

If you're from elsewhere, watch this space, because there's a very good chance that Congestion Charging and its ideological fellow-travellers are coming to a town near you soon.

Monday, January 26, 2009

have I got bad language for you?

Billy by Pamela Stephenson
In Pamela Stephenson's biography of her husband, Billy, Stephenson reflects towards the end that in Connolly's earlier days he would come out with a strong swearword maybe once in a live performance (for adults), towards the end, and the effect would be all the more hilarious for the shock-value, whereas in his present shows his routines are littered with four-lettered words, which has rendered them pedestrian and unfunny.

Mary WhiMary Whitehouse - formed the Viewers and Listeners Association, which is now called Mediawatch UKtehouse, I think, realised the same thing when she complained bitterly about an episode of Johnny Speight's hit 1960's comedy Till Death do us part (remade in the US as All in the Family and Archie Bunker's Place) which contained 66 instances of the word "bloody" voiced by the chief character, Alf Garnett.

As a matter of fact, being not only human but Glaswegian, sometimes stress or shock causes an adjective to emerge without my having wanted it to. I'm somewhat unhappier with myself if that word is bloody than if it is the f-word - the latter appears to have passed from German to English via Anglo-Saxon and had various scatological definitions attached to it. But the former, which my Chambers dictionary describes as "almost meaningless", is descended from a Shakespearean interjection meaning "by Our Lady" and is, arguably, worse.

However, if I was round at your place, I would endeavour to say neither, becauMichael Gradese it would be conduct unbecoming of a guest. The same point was made by Sir Michael Grade, Executive Chairman of ITV and former Chairman of the Board of Governors of the BBC. Apparently having recovered from his stint as pornographer-in-chief of Channel Four he is finding, as head of Great Britain's most family-oriented terrestrial channel, that families don't like it when swearing comes unbidden from the idiot-box, and that while in everyday life he "swears like a trooper", he realises that people on the telly are guests in our houses.

Grade was speaking to comedian Frank Skinner on BBC's Have I got Bad Language for You, in which he presents an insider's view on the turmoil the TV industry finds itself in over the public outcry about obscene messages left on an actor's answerphone by Jonathan Ross about his having had sex with his granddaughter.

SkinnFrank Skinnerer, who is experimenting with reducing the swearing on his stand-up show and finding that people appreciate the comedy just as much, was investigating the terrestrial British channels' attitude to swearing. It came across as a worthy effort, but the one thing Skinner didn't seem to realise was that "the industry" doesn't have a problem with swearing and general sociopathic behaviour. The BBC does.

The problem lies in what BBC propaganda (it doesn't have advertising) refers to as the unique way in which it is funded. This boils down to the TV Licence, a sum of £139.50 ($192) payable yearly. If I see something I don't like on commercial TV I can turn over, as I can do if I see or hear something objectionable on the BBC; but while a commercial station will haemorrhage advertising revenue should it betray its standards, the BBC has no such guage - indeed, British people must by law pay through the nose for the privelege of being offended.

I wasn't too bothered initially about the Ross affair because I assumed the BBC would play fairly and kick him out - but, on reflection, perhaps his lawyers pointed out to the Corporation that in acting like a middle-aged playground bully he was doing nothing other than honouring his contract. The BBC then compounded its error by mounting a smear campaign upon the people who pay its wages by saying that the many listeners who complained about the show did so without having heard the messages (it removed the offending parts from the listen-again feature) and therefore were going on hearsay, despite the relevant parts of the broadcast being widely spread on Youtube.

Al Murray, who intermittently plays The Pub Landlord, a sort of modern Alf Garnett/Archie Bunker character, reflected on a note that he was given to "make the show a bit edgier" that he said "came from the very top" of the Corporation; this was denied, in what I reckoned to be a rehabilitation exercise for the BBC, in trying to posit a "crisis" existing outside its own walls.

Jonathan Ross returned from his twelve-week unpaid suspension on Friday 23 January for his pre-recorded TV show. The next morning, he was allowed to broadcast a show live on BBC Radio 2, and, eight minutes into the broadcast (starting at 10am) advised his producer about an elderly woman who would kiss and cuddle him in his house in Spain that he should "give her one last night...before the grave". Her son, José Maria Moreno, has complained to the BBC that his mother's Alzheimer's disease (manifested in the familiar behaviour) shouldn't be a topic for comedy.

In a sense the BBC and Ross reflect each other: they are macrocosm and microcosm. Both are capable of great broadcasting, but cannot escape from the compulsion to attract attention through controversy; they try to hold themselves back, but when that pressure can no longer be contained, they explode in obscenity.

Witness the situation regarding the BBC's refusal to air the Disaster Emergency Committee's appeal for funds to help suffering Palestinian children in the Gaza conflict. The video is touching but histrionic, and in its refusal to broadcast it the BBC has gathered more Israel-demonizing attention than the terrorist organisation of your choice has the money to pay for.

Neither the latest Ross elder-abuse episode nor the spurious pretence to impartiality are quite illegal. But both will break the law again - just as the answerphone messages, even if nobody was arrested, were illegally obscene - and when that happens Maxima and I will stop paying the licence fee. Meanwhile, both the BBC and Jonathan Ross are, ironically, in a situation that any broadcaster would envy, in that people all over the world are saying: we are watching you.

who's big brother now?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

home schooling - next in the crosshairs

I was surprised to read recently that there are up to 55,000 children being homeschooled in Great Britain. Statistically it's a half of one percent of all British children (11,000,000), but it's still a sizeable amount, although smaller than the 2% or so of American children being homeschooled.

The reason I was reading about homeschooling is an article by the Telegraph's Education Editor, Graeme Paton, reporting remarks by the Children's Minister, Baroness Morgan, that "home teaching could be a 'cover for abuse' in extreme cases". The department for children, schools and families elucidates, stating that an Elective Home Education Review will investigate


WhethBaroness Morgan, with thanks to the Telegrapher local authorities and other public agencies are able to effectively discharge their duties and responsibilities for safeguarding and ensuring a suitable education for all children [and] consider what evidence there is to support claims that home education could be used as a 'cover' for child abuse such as neglect, forced marriage, sexual exploitation or domestic servitude.
Anne Taverner of the Government Policy Group of Education Otherwise (motto: school is not compulsory - education is) responded that "No other community would be expected to sclick to read about Education Otherwiseuffer the prejudice and discrimination which our community has to endure".

Homeschoolers in the US have been here before us. In 2003, according to the LifeWay site, CBS ran a story on homeschooling which was advertised thus on its site:


Home schooling is becoming an educational option for more and more families across the country, but is it also keeping abused and neglected children away from the eyes of authorities? Our Vince Gonzales will take a look in tonight's Eye on America, and he'll bring us the story of a household in North Carolina where kids hidden from public sight met a tragic end.
In the same year, back over here, home educator Julius Bloomfeld predicted that the phenomenon would be put under the microscope in ten years, because it impacted upon too many vested interests:


The pressure will come from the teaching unions (whose monopoly it threatens). It will come from the Department of Education (always on the lookout for a new "initiative"). It will come from the Press (all it will take is one scare story about a home educated ten year old who hasn't yet learned to read). And it will come from Brussels (home education is illegal in many European countries so why should it be legal here?).
Blumfeld was right, if overoptimistic to the tune of two years. But it's significant that he refers to the illegality of home education in some European countries - for example, Germany, the Netherlands and Cyprus.

Left-wing governments are notorious for wanting to nationalise great swathes oMelissa Busekros - click to read her story on Netzwerk Bildungsfreiheit (in English)f the business landscape, and to plan much of the lives of their countries' inhabitants. One of the most pathologically left-wing of governments in living memory was that of Germany from 1933-1945. Adolf Hitler's Nazi party - a crypto-Marxist outfit hiding behind a veneer of nationalism - banned homeschooling because it wanted, indeed needed, to control the contents of its citizens' heads from the start. The ban still stands - in 2007, when it came to Bavarian authorities' attention that Melissa Busekros, then 15, was being homeschooled, she was forcibly removed from her family by police and sectioned (certified) in a psychiatric institution. She was later freed but not allowed to return home to Erlangen, but returned under her own steam.

Families who want to educate their own children are being squeezed worldwide, as governments remove freedoms from families even as they increase the priveleges the state enjoys. Homeschooling has been banned by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's Worker's Party in Brazil and is being eyed balefully by Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy's extreme-left ruling coalition in Belgium; although the French government was planning to ban it, but had to hold back after a massive domestic and international outcry, in Canada in 2006 it was labelled as a form of child abuse in a precursor to Lady Morgan's position.
congratulations to Evan O' Corney, homeschooled winner of the 2007 Scripps National Spelling Bee
In the US, homeschooling has been effectively banned in California, even though homeschooled Evan O' Dorney from San Francisco has won a National Spelling Bee (competition). During the 2008 presidential election, presenter Joy Behar exemplified a sinister predisposition on the part of the liberal-socialist axis to question the sanity of people with whom they disagree when she remarked that "A lot of them are demented when they're homeschooled", and the Lifesitenews site has pointed out that the Democratic Party, one of whose major funders is the national teachers' union, "has an official position of supporting public education [as opposed to homeschooling]".

Getting back on the boat to Blighty, I would agree with Julius Blumfeld's view, quoted above, that all the government will need to engineer a national outcry about home education will be a ten-year-old homeschooled child who can't write - even though four out of 10 children are virtually illiterate and innumerate when they leave primary school at the age of 11 - barely better than Morocco.

ButI believe the government, in their Elective Home Education Review, will be looking for much worse abuse than an illiterate ten-year-old kid and, unfortunately, they will find it, because of the prevalence of that evil phenomenon. But this will not negate the value of homeschooling for the vast majority of young people who are educated this way. But do the government have doubts about the education system as it exists in Britain under them arising from, for example, the following well-publicised three cases that happened under their watch?

  • The "British Fritzl made his two daughters pregnant nineteen times, resulting in nine children, with five miscarriages and five abortions. Schools repeatedly missed chances to pick the abuse up.

  • After complaints of physical abuse by 86 pupils at a special school resulting in 14 suspensions, conditions came to light after a child suffered a broken arm resulting from having been restrained by three members of staff.

  • In Wales, there have been convictions among 92 staff referred to an independent watchdog on various charges, including "emotional, physical and sexual abuse".

I hope these are isolated cases. But I'm worried that if any form of abuse - and remember, Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum has said that "allowing" children to become obese is a form of abuse and that fat kids should be taken into care - will be presented as being standard in children who are a product of homeschooling - click to go to St Peter's Catholic Homeschool at the Walk for Life in Washington, D.C.homeschooled.


PS - did you spot the deliberate mistake? Don't worry if you didn't, because there isn't one. I link to the department for children, schools and families in the second paragraph - that's how they capitalize it (or fail to do so) on their website. I wouldn't be surprised if none of the people who chose the design for the logo were homeschooled - while parental involvement creates creative individuals who are unafraid to think freely (as in the involvement of homeschooling families in the March for Life in Washington, D.C.), it takes a socialist government a lot of hard work to create this level of ignorance.


click to go the a website linked to the department for education offering a book about grammar

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Night Fighters

Night Fighters - Luftwaffe and RAF Air Combat over Europe 1939-1945
Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis
Naval Institute Press 2008
pp 188


click to see 'Night Fighters' on the Borders site

Some wars are with us for a long time - campaigns by Julius Caesar and Constantine set the structure of modern Western Europe, the Third Battle of Lepanto consolidated it, and the American Revolutionary War saw the birth of a country which continues to challenge and change the world.

Others are with us still in less benign ways. The Battle of Kosovo Field erupts intermittently, and the Crusades leave a bad taste in many mouths.

Machinations started in the first half of the seventeenth century by Cardinal Richelieu to keep the Germanic principalities from uniting, which would threaten France's influence in Europe, came to an end after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 when, on 18 January 1871, the Hohenzollerns proclaimed a German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. The rest, as they say, is history, and Night Fighters is the story of a fiercely-fought episode in that history, where "over a million men fought in the hostile skies from the British Isles to the steppes of Russia, and from the Arctic Circle to the Sahara", which gave us many advances in military and civilian technology, in a war whose conclusion bequeathed us the United Nations, the European Union, the Space Programme and the Cold War.

click to go to the Celebrate Freedom FoundationNight Fighters deals with combat between the Luftwaffe and the RAF (Nachtkrieg - "night war" - in German), principally Bomber Command, over German-occupied Europe. Each of the authors brings a special gift to its writing: Colin Heaton's accounts of battle and its outcome are all the more chilling for his matter-of-fact manner borne of combat experience, and meticulously-transcribed interviews with German, British and American officers and airmen, many unavailable elsewhere, add valuable insights; Anne-Marie Lewis is a researcher and co-ordinator of veterans' foundations, including the Celebrate Freedom Foundation. In the light of the traumas suffered by airmen involved in nocturnal aerial combat in WWII, it is nothing short of amazing that these two have managed to bring British, German and American airmen from the conflict together for reunions.

The authors point out that Bomber Command as an organisation was virtuclick to go to the website of RAF Bomber Command, formerly the Bomber Command Associationally synonymous with Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, the controversial figure blamed by many for bombing German cities indiscriminately, whose memory is proudly guarded by the veterans of RAF Bomber Command (formerly the Bomber Command Association).

Myths about Harris explode like ack-ack from the start - referring to successes by the neonatal RAF in bombing German airfields in France in 1918, Stanley Baldwin enunciated the doctrine that "the bomber will always get through". This was in 1932, a rather confused period of British political history: he was at the head of the Conservative Party, which was then in a coalition "national" government with Labour, in response to the international financial crisis. Labour had expelled Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald from the party for consenting to the coalition in the first place, which meant that Baldwin effectively ran the country. He continued: "The only defence is an offence which means you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy."

Chruchill's first choice to head Bomber Command was a founder member of the RAF and its first chief of staff, Air Vice Marshall Sir Hugh Montague Viscount Trenchard, who had envisaged "round-the-clock" bombing of enemy manufacturing centres in January 1918, with the caveat that there would be losses of British aircraft and crew from the outset.

Dr Frederick Lindemann, 1st Viscount CherwellThe last piece of the puzzle would fall into place in the aftermath of the Coventry raids of November 1940, when ordnance meant for factories landed on residential areas and power and sanitation facilities. Hitler was not the only one to look at the result with interest. Oxford physics professor Dr Frederick Lindeman (1st Viscount Cherwell) interviewed survivors and found that losing one's home was more debilitating than losing friends and relatives. The die was cast: Churchill presented Harris with orders to "de-house" German factory workers.

There has been much discussion over these raids over the decades, and indeed on British TV there was a televised debate on the eve of the First Gulf War on how to prosecute the air campaign, which referred back to the bombing campaigns on Germany - the daytime "precision-bombing" raids by American bombers, certainly, but principally Harris' nocturnal campaign.

At the time there was vigorous debate on the night-bombing campaign in the US -having joined the war after the attacks on Pearl Harbour - whose polar opposites were represented by General James H. Doolittle, who wished to maintain the moral upper hand, and General Curtis E. LeMay, who differentiated between the moral high ground and the military-industrial lowlands. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed with Churchill that alternating American daytime raids with British night-time ones would be the most effective option.

The British were up against formidable opponents. I sometimes wonder if people who disapprove of Harris' tactics are aware of the situation as it existed. In the first part of his memoirs of the Second World War, The Gathering Storm, Winston Churchill talks of preparations for a German invasion, which would constitute mass distribution of bayonets with a grim poster campaign on the theme "you can always take one with you". Until the US entered the War, an Allied victory - in essence a British one - was unlikely. The authors' meditations on how the war might have proceeded had the Luftwaffe defeated a lone Britain's RAF are both counterintuitive and compelling.

The German genius for organisation was represented in the air-war by the Kammhuber Line, an "intricate array of defensive relay and observation systems" which stretched over much of occupied Europe and was, in part, manned by two million schoolboys, who had been conscripted under Article 1 of the Law concerning the Hitler Youth of December 1, 1936: "The entire German youth within the borders of the Reich is organised in the Hitler Youth" (one - unwilling - member was Josef Ratzinger, who would spend time in an American Prisoner of War camp with Günther Grass, and later rise through the Roman Catholic Church to become Pope Benedict XVI). There would follow airborne co-ordinators, and "Dark Night Trains" where a team of radar-operators who were experienced as pilots would guide night-fighters within squadrons.

The Nachtjagdfliegern - Night Fighters - were headed by Wolfgang Falck, who immediately saw that the problem with research and development was that innovations were being created by engineers who had no flying experience. Many of the pilots he inherited had been blooded in the Spanish Civil War, while Harris' crews had to gain experience and confidence bombing "softer" targets such as Luebeck and Rostock, and the Renault factory at Billancourt.

Falck fought with those he commanded, through a desperate game of technological catch-up which saw each side improve its navigation and detection systems, only to see the other improve them more. One of Falck's innovations was Schraege Muzik (Jazz Music) - arrays of guns mounted at 60 or 70 degrees, enabling German fighters to come up on the bombers from below and fire along the weak-points of their wing-roots.

Another was the Wilde Sau (Wild Boar), which would attack bombers as they approached their target. With the addition of the Zahme Sau (Tame Boar), British aircrews would constantly be under threat from either flak or fighters virtually from the moment that they were picked up by the Kammhuber Line, and sometimes find that they had been followed home covertly by night-fighters, who would start firing as the crew started to relax in anticipation of a landing which might not happen.

The authors explore the resulting crises suffered by crews exposed to prolonged stress and sometimes repeated trauma with an admirable even-handedness, weighing the physical and mental attrition suffered by aircrew against what was at stake, but also taking into account the sometimes unrealistic demands put upon them by a hierarchy who might have minimal flying experience, and the power medics with none had over their lives. Heaton and Lewis tell of a man who was seriously injured three times and was awarded the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) and DSO (Distinguished Service Order), who after an especially heroic feat confided to his commanding officer that he didn't feel able to fly again, and found himself transferred to a job as a janitor. The authors quote Scottish Victoria Cross recipient Bill Reid speaking to Heaton in 1999:
F/O Bill Reid VC - click to see his mention in Dispatches in the London Gazette re which he was awarded the Victoria Cross[Our superiors in London] should have [held] their conferences on board a Lancaster flying through flak, searchlights and dodging German fighters, all the while being rocked and bumped by the concussions from the flak and the shrapnel flying through the thin aluminium fuselage; men screaming and others dead or dying. This is the forum in which I think more lucid planning would have been developed.
However, once it became obvious in Westminster that things were going badly wrong, the neuropsychiatrist became part of the airfield medical team: not only had occupational health as we know it been born, but, in the military realm, this would eventually lead not only to improved healthcare but to ways of identifying individuals suitable for advanced and even élite training.

As a former mental health worker, what I found interesting was that serious study of psychiatric presentation moved the RAF forward from a one-size-fits-all kneejerk judgement to identify two sorts of risks: not only people who were severely mentally fatigued and didn't want to go back into a game of chance with loaded dice, but others who were too eager to volunteer for duty, who refused to take leave and took unnecessary risks. This was a vital step in identifying the objective effects of different personality-types and looking for different modes of treatment, which would eventually supercede the career-ending diagnosis of "Lack of Moral Fibre", but unfortunately too late for the many men who left the RAF under a cloud and whose records are still sealed.

As the war progressed the German night-fighter pilots found themselves suffering also - from the long-range and hard-to-detect Mosquito, from knowledge that their country was turning into an inferno - and often at the hands of the two individuals who were also Britain's enemies. In Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger gives a nineteenth-century diplomat's assessment of Tsar Alexander I's absolute power - "What he dreams of at night he can carry out in the morning". However, one can predicate of Hitler a deeper pathology even than that inflicted by absolute power. Kissinger again:

Hitler always seemed strangely unfulfilled by his victories...Psychologists may find therein one explanation for his conduct in the war in a manner that seemed to lack a strategic or political rationale until Germany's resources had been squandered and Hitler could finally, and still unyieldingly, fulfil himself by defying the world in a bomb shelter in the encircled capital of his almost completely occupied country.
If Der Fuehrer was determined to tear down the structures of his own making, Heaton and Lewis show that Goering proved himself a willing helpmate. A lord of misrule like his master, he was happy to see his subordinates divided among themselves so that he would remain unassailable. He would lie to senior Luftwaffe officers that he had passed their reports on to Hitler, and helped spread Kammhuber's anti-aircraft guns and Falck's night-fighters too wide to work efficiently, in accordance with Hitler's "delusional" fantasies, which survived even D-Day, that Germany was winning. Falck's, (Generalleutnant) Adolf Galland's and Hans-Joachim (Hajo) Herrmann's interviews with Heaton provide invaluable insights into how a mighty military machine was dragged down into the madness of the last months of the Reich.

Nothing succeeds like success, though - No. 617 Squadron of Bomber Command earned its nickname "the Dambusters" because of the famous night-time raid of 16/17 May 1943 on the Moehne, Eder, Sorpe and Schwelme Dams in the Ruhr Valley, with the intention of killing and "de-housing" workers who, according to Harris' argument, were contributing to Germany's war effort. Squadron Leader Guy Gibson was given a Victoria Cross for this, just as Harris was given a Knighthood for his strategy, which included "Operation Millenium" on Cologne in 1942, carried out by over a thousand bombers. Given that Heaton has been honoured for his work on the role of ununiformed combatants in war, his analysis of Harris' methods is eye-opening. And neither do the authors run away from the question of why concentration camps and the railway lines supplying them weren't bombed - their conclusion, even 60-plus years after the fact, is shocking and controversial, and demands a re-examination of the extent to which the political masters of Allied commanders considered the end to justify the means.

One thing Churchill and Hitler agreed on was that the British would not tolerate a death rate of much more than ten percent in Bomber Command. This figure was not passed many times (although on one early raid it reached 22%), but cumulatively, by the end of the war a staggering 51% of active Bomber Command crews were dead - 46,268 men killed on operations, with a further 8,090 killed on non-operational and training missions. (Only 2,500 out of a total of 25,000 German fighter-pilots - of which 400 were night-fighters - survived.) While not doubting the bravery of the German pilots, I support the campaigns by the Daily Express and the Daily Telegraph to have a Bomber Command medal minted.

There's also a growing head of steam for the campaign to have a statue of Sir Arthur Harris erected on the empty fourth plinth in London's Trafalgar Square. After reading Night Fighters' delineation of decision-making processes in the night-war over Europe, I think that would be nice too.

click to go to the Daily Express campaign to have a Bomber Command medal mintedSir Michael Beetham, Marshall of the Royal Air Force, as a Flight Lieutenant in WWII; click to read an article by him on why we must honour the men of Bomber Command

Thursday, January 15, 2009

colleges, closures and golf clubs

closures in Cambridge, thanks to Cambridge NewsThe economic downturn is making itself felt in the Draughty Old Fen, with people who have never been unemployed in their lives finding themselves without a job, some of these even looking abroad for jobs. Speaking as somebody who got on his bike and got a job in a different country, I have sympathy for them - but in my case it turned out to be the best move we ever made.

The Cambridge News carried an article today saying that "dozens of shops" in Cambridge are standing empty, at a time when Cambridge University colleges, who own commercial properties in the city, are considering raising rents.

It's a heartrending situation. The more shops go out of business, the more shops will follow them, as shoppers migrate to streets and even towns where there are less voids, especially when nights are dark.

On the other hand, I can see the Uni's need to establish a "fighting fund" in the face of government targets to place 50% of school-leavers in higher education. In order to facilitate this, central government is placing unrelenting pressure on universities to lower their academic standars, so that they are now offering what were lambasted by Labour's own Margaret (now Lady) Hodge as "Mickey Mouse degrees", such as studies in cosmetics or golf course management. Particulary in the ideologues' targets are the universities of Cambridge and Oxford, which are under fire for not forcing students onto dumbed-down courses which they are ill-equipped to finish and, dropping out, end up with their self-confidence around their ankles.

The chocolate fireguard degrees are a part of a plan which will see students in England forced to stay on in school or other education until the age of 18. The government will be able to point to some successes from this, but it occurs to me that these will be people who would have stayed on in education anyway. I suppose, however, that in line with plans for more employees to be given work by the state to ride out the recession, there will be an explosion in posts for truancy officers.

Instead of flooding the fast-food industry with golf graduates, what's wrong with lowering the school leaving age so that, say, a kid who likes golf can try to get a job as a caddy, graduate to the clubhouse, so that by the time his more academically able peers are graduating from college or university, he knows the golf trade like the back of his hand and is ready to start off in junior management, including further education on a sandwich basis?

I've said it before and I'll say it again: if schools were genuinely allowed to prepare pupils for the world of work, either directly or through higher education, universities would not be the only beneficiaries: we'd have shop-assistants who could count, administrators who could write letters, and everybody could come home and enjoy a good book.

None of this helps shopkeepers in Cambridge who find they have to shut up shop forever. But I think pointing to the colleges as the baddies is like blaming pubs for the downturn in their business because they've banned smoking. Let's take the blindfold off before we pin the tail on the donkey.

Monday, January 12, 2009

epithets and officers

There's been a big debate in Great Britain right now about a three-year-old video made by Prince Harry (the Queen's younger grandson) in which he refers to a colleague from Pakistan, Ahmed Raza Khan, as "our little Paki friend".

Things are getting out of hand. For example, one agitated caller to today's Jeremy Vine Show, who said he was a Pakistani living in the UK, said that the term "Paki" was charged with much more negative emotion than the term "Brit" or "Yank".

That's where the fellow lost my sympathy. I suspect he's never been in a quondam Glasgow to watch columns of IRA supporters marching down the street shouting "Brits out!" and, British citizens (mostly) themselves, baying for the blood of "Brits" in the Army stationed in Northern Ireland. As for the term "Yank", if he addressed this to somebody from the Southern States of the US - as I once did out of ignorance many years ago - he might not get the response he expected.

When "Paki" and other terms based on unalterable characteristics are used aggressively as insults or abuse, there's no excuse. But having watched the News of the World video embedded in the Telegraph report linked to in the first paragraph, the term doesn't come across as Greg Dyke - pot calling the kettle blackinsulting or abusive. Certainly the reaction in this country to a friendly gibe made in an Army environment doesn't bear any resemblance to the "British tolerance" which Gordon Brown assured the Indian people of when he visited to the sound of riots over the prolonged racist treatment of Shilpa Shetty in Celebrity Big Brother; and I certainly don't recall any Pakistani voice raised in protest when Greg Dyke, former Director General of the BBC, called the corporation "hideously white". I wouldn't be surprised if much of the present furore is coming from Brits who are as hideous and as white as the IRA supporters.

The then-cadet, who received the élite award of the Sword of Honour from the Queen at his passing-out parade and is now a Captain in the Pakistani army, has not made any complaint in the three years since the home-video was made. But his father, also an officer in the Pakistani army, has complained bitterly.

I rather think the father is more culturally Pakistani than the son, in the sense of being closer to the concept of Pakistan as an ethnocentric theocracy. One of Pakistan's founding fathers was Mawlana Abul A'la Mawdudi (1903-1979), who stated that Islam is

a revolutionary concept and ideology which seeks to change and revolutionise the world social order and reshape it according to its own concept and ideals.
I qReverend Mahboob Masih - victim of Islamic ethnocentricity (with thanks to the Telegraph and epicscotland)uote the above because of another story involving somebody born in Pakistan that broke on Sunday - and in my home town - showing that people from that country can definitely be genuine victims of discrimination. Reverend Mahboob Masih of Awaz FM, which serves the Asian communities of Glasgow, was debating the views of Zakir Naik, who states that Jesus is not the only person who is the "way, the truth and the life".

This may be a fair comment for a Muslim to make in the context of Islam, but Naik, who has been criticized by Muslims in his native India for issuing fatwas (sharia rulings) with no authority to do so, demands that Christians recognise Mohammed with the equal reverence that they afford to Jesus. Rev'd Masih defended Christianity, and found himself sacked by Awaz FM, which claims in its mission statement to be "the voice of Glasgow’s ethnic communities and their respective faiths" (my italics). The Telegraph's Andrew Alderson reports that the minister has "reluctantly" apologised in order to calm things down, but has refused the station's demands that he apologise in person at the city's Central Mosque, on the reasonable grounds of fears for his safety.

I don't think those fears are overstated. The Pakistani caller to Jeremy Vine's show atrequiescat in pace - Shabana (with thanks to the Telegraph)tempted to show how downtrodden Muslims were in Britain by stating that it was unacceptable to insult Georgina Bailley, but not to insult a Pakistani. I think he said more than he realised - namely, that in Islam, women are viewed as being worth something less than men. Case in point: today's Telegraph reports the murder of one of Pakistan's famous dancing girls called Shabana by the Taliban because the terrorist organisation considered her dance too erotic. Given that Georgina Baillie is a burlesque dancer, I hope the remark wasn't meant to be as sinister as it sounded.

I hope also that Prince Harry gets what he deserves - a bollocking directed at stopping him from putting daft remarks on tape, especially when that tape might fall into the hands of papers owned by the anti-monarchist Rupert Murdoch.

You can take that as the authentic ethnic view of an honest Jock. (I changed a washer today...does that make me Jock the Plumber?)

jock the plumber?

The Jeremy Vine show referred to in the second paragraph can be accessed until Sunday 18 January 2009 - click here

Saturday, January 10, 2009

what choice really means


In the Telegraph today, Richard Savill reports on something that has happened since time immemorial, and, I imagine, will continue to do so until Kingdom Come: two (then) sixteen-year-olds fell in love, and the girl became pregnant.

I'm not condoning it, but neither am I condemning it - I believe that one of the many things Christianity is about is dealing with the situation we have on our hands right now, and not getting lost in the if's, could's and should's.

Not that getting lost doesn't happen - I remember a family where the daughter became pregnant before she married her fiancé: they subjected her to an extended guilt trip at a very vulnerable part of her life, and the repercussions of this have rolled out for more than a decade to the extent that the family is effectively split.

Anyway, the two were boarders at an independent co-educational school, which has a policy that there should be no sexual contact between pupils. It appears that the pair were given condoms from the school's medical centre, which is independently run. Is anybody starting to see an inconsistency here? The girl's Mum, a practicing Christian, puts it in a nutshell: "If you hand out condoms, you’re saying, ‘Go for it’".

When the school's medical officer says “It is not the policy of the medical centre to offer unsolicited contraception”, he is saying nothing else than contraception will be given when solicited - ie you ask for it, you get it. This puts in context something the National Children's Bureau (NCB) said last November in context, and it's a frightening context:
Every 11 to 18-year-old in England should be able to receive advice on contraception, pregnancy tests and screening for sexually transmitted diseases between lessons, according to [the NCB]."
In the US, the American Cancer Society has recommended that the HPV vaccine be given to girls as young as nine years old, dangerous in the light that some boys might try to persuade girls that this makes sex "safe", whatever they think that means. (And HPV transmission can be prevented just as effectively by circumcision - why do girls have to pay for selfish sexual behaviours which arise predominantly from boys with and in their bodies?)

Back over here, we learnt last October from Jim Knight, then schools minister, that pupils will get basic classes in identifying body parts in the first few years of primary school - potentially from the age of five. A teacher sitting with children just out of infancy and teaching them the proper names of the genitalia using pictures is something that could have landed said teacher in prison in the not too distant past, and might still end in prosecutions.

Anyway, something miraculous is happening with our couple. They have since split up, but she has chosen to keep the baby, and he wants to be involved. Both sets of parents are supportive. Deep in Westminster, I'm sure a eugenicist is in a hellish rage, and a social engineer is cursing traditional families for not being as broken as he feels his efforts merit.

She's been excluded from school, but is being allowed to study for her exams at home. That's good, but I wonder if allowing her to attend classes as she becomes ever more heavily pregnant might not be a more valuable piece of sex education for all concerned than showing infants dodgy pictures.

I hope things go well for them, especially for her and the baby. I pray that God will turn His countenance towards them and give them peace. On that subject, I haven't given as many links as I might have for a reason.

And finally: what do seventeen-year-olds know about responsibility that many of our political masters have forgotten?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Claire Sweeney's big fat...

I remember a relative of mine who once had anorexia nervosa. She thought she was really ugly. Coming from a branch of the family where all of us are a bit pudgy, I once remarked to her that she must think I was ugly, at which she explained, stumbling somewhat, that she thought the ugliness pertained to her alone.

So, bearing in mind that body-image is a hall of mirrors within a forest of uncertainties, I took a call from a friend of mine with some trepidation. He has a daughter who has a fascination with serial dieting punctuated with overeating that, he fears, is teetering along the edge of becoming an obsession. He doesn't have a computer, so asked Maxima and me to have a look at a documentary about a starlet who goes on an extended eating binge to see what the effects on her body might be.

Claire Sweeney starred in the British soap opera Brookside and later in Celebrity Big Brother (pre-racism), after which she got roles in acting, presenting, and in musicals. The documentary I was contacted about was aired on ITV on Tuesday, 7 January, and was called Claire Sweeney's Big Fat Diet.

Sweeney, who was briefly bulimic after a crash diet as a teenage dancing student, spent six weeks eating what she wanted while also ceasing her punishing exercise regime. During the six-week period she woould go into restaurants and look at the menu, something she would never have done beforehand in order "to avoid temptation".

Coming from Scotland I'm an expert in chips, which Sweeney ate in spades, using more tomato ketchup than even a Scot could shake a stick at, drank more alcohol, and at one point complained that she couldn't see her feet. I know an easy way to see your feet: sit down and stick your legs out.

A doctor who monitored her health at some points through the experiment remarked that at the end of the six weeks her blood-pressure had rocketed up, which would put her at an increased risk of heart-attack and stroke should it remain high for a prolonged period. This obviously sounds concerning, but, despite the programme's good intentions, it seemed to be far more about appearance than health.

For example, Sweeney went to Los Angeles, "a city where thin is in". She visited a plastic surgeon's office, who possible said more than she meant to when she admitted that "here in California we [in the film industry] like a little more boyish bodies...it's a commentary on society".

I don't blame the surgeon for this, nor do I totally blame the film industry, although the latter certainly plays its part in deconstructing traditional Western values and society. I blame the international fashion industry, whose svengalis, for their own questionable reasons, like to take girls in their late teens and make them look barely-pubescent - which erupted in the recent heroin-chic controversy; fitness trainer David Kirsch has remarked that he's met models who are "struggling with a serious eating disorder". Indeed, Sweeney visited former Hollywood casting director Pamela Shae, from whom she discovered that not only that her new curvy body would qualify her for a "comedy" role, but also that were she to take on a role in a series looking thin but then gain weight, she would be reprimanded.

In the end, we are informed that Sweeney went back to her training regime and lost the weiMarylin - a real womanght, but at least she gained two pieces of wisdom: firstly, that the urge to slim down is more due to peer-pressure than to any desire to become attractive in any sense, and secondly - a stunning insight into the male psyche - "men seem to like curves". She's not wrong - a dress of the most famous female sex symbol ever, Marylin Monroe, was auctioned and found to be a size 16.

So I won't be recommending this documentary to my friend, because Sweeney's obsession with her appearance, as opposed to her health, appears liable to trigger girls (and boys) who may be on the verge of developing an eating disorder.

OLouise Redknapp: click to read about the dieting experiment that nearly killed herf much more merit, I thought, was a documentary made somewhat earlier by British singing star and presenter Louise Redknapp (née Nurding), in which she endeavoured to diet until she reached size zero (which I believe is UK size 4). During the course of this she became depressed and lachrymose, and seemed herself to border on developing an eating disorder as the control she experienced over her body became more valuable than just about any other consideration. Catwalk Queen comments:
It really is impossible to get the message through to the fashion industry that size zero is NOT attractive. Stella McCartney and John Lewis might be trying to change things by using larger models, but we have a long road ahead of us. Though I can't imagine fashionistas taking advice from a woman who used to be in a girl band, hopefully Louise's documentary will make impressionable young girls think twice about crash-dieting to get down to skeletal proportions. Is being super-skinny really worth losing the light in your eyes and alienating your loved ones?
While Redknapp's documentary was a valuable piece of research on dieting and its results with close medical control throughout - and included visiting a unit for girls with anorexia, the youngest of whom was twelve - Sweeney's was an opportunistic piece of awareness-raising about Sweeney, which was funded by Weightwatchers. I don't wish to take this outfit to task too robustly, as I believe it has a responsible attitude to prospective clients with body-image problems and donates to the British Heart Foundation, but I am worried about a documentary, to which girls with body-image issues will be attracted like barnacles to the hull of a ship, being effectively sponsored by an organisation which exists to help people lose weight in return for money.

Besides the documentary, Sweeney has just made a fitness DVD with Weightwatchers, featuring Click to go to Harvey Walden's webpageher personal trainer, Caroline Sandry, who also appears in Sweeney's documentary. Do I detect a covert selling campaign dressed up as concern for people's health?

There is, fortunately, some good sense out there. While Sweeney's plastic surgeon said that cosmetic procedures were not so much drastic actions as routine maintenance, former US Marines Drill Instructor and fitness instructor Harvey Walden calls it "lazy and invasive". One of my favourite politicians, Anne Widdecombe, investigated diets and expressed concerns over "who it is that decides what this perfect image is".

As the Greeks said, everything in moderation; and in the world of food, that includes moderation.

Related posts:
Abigail Blackburn and the truth about pregorexia

Body image isn't all it looks like

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

a hero is honoured

Detective Constable Stephen Oake RIP Detective Constable Stephen Oake was a brave man. On an operation to arrest a relatively lowly Al-Qaeda associate, he was faced instead with failed asylum-seeker Kamel Bourgass, whom the Telegraph's Nigel Bunyan describes as "a trained assassin and one of Osama bin Laden's most ruthless followers". Protecting his colleagues, he received eight knife wounds, three of which were enough to kill him individually.

Shortly after his death in January 2003, he was nominated for the Queen's Gallantry Medal. And he got it - in January 2009.

So what happened? Basically the George Cross Committee, composed largely of senior civil servants, decided that DC Oake didn't meet the "extremely high" criteria for this award. Basically they were saying that, in taking on a senior member of the organisation which was happy to fly aircraft into the Twin Towers of New York and bomb public transport in London, he wasn't brave enough - directly the opposite of what was written by former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair when he closed the online petition, signed by 8000 people, to have the medal awarded.

It seems twho cries for Israel? Click and have a readhat liberal-socialist control of means of communication is an attempt to cut a democracy off from the very stuff of its life - access to the truth. Case in point - in Cambridge, Liberal Democrat MP David Howarth attended a rally to highlight the "siege on Gaza for the last 18 months", without any mention of the approximately 5,000 rockets which former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind states have been fired at civilian targets in Israel from Gaza over the last 3 years, many smuggled from Egypt. (Backspin is currently liveblogging the ferocious media war surrounding the Gaza campaign.)

DC Oake died a martyr to the cause of preserving our democratic heritage against many-faced dark forces who hate tolerance, peace and, above all, freedom. The fact that the campaign to honour him has not only pierced the most politicised civil service ever but troubled Government at the highest levels shows that his sacrifice was not in vain. But the question remains, how many terrorists are still living illegally in the UK as failed asylum seekers, waiting to create more martyrs?

read the eulogy from Stephen Oake's funeral service

Thursday, January 1, 2009

happy new year

the one and only source of home-made curried beansBoth Maxima and I are hoarders. She's not as bad as me - my hoarding habit is attributable to Adolf Hitler. During much of the Second World War, my Mum was bedridden with an illness, and, I suppose, was spoilt somewhat, with many of her family's ration-coupons for sweets making their way to her. Unfortunately, when she recovered somewhat, peacetime rationing was still in place, and she learnt the widespread habit of hoarding which she eventually passed on to me. The inconveniences my hoarding has caused our family would never have occurred if the Bavarian Farmers' League had carried the vote in 1933.

To be more specific, we were searching yesterday for a set of elephants'-feet to raise a chair for Professor Calculus, who we'd invited over for Hogmanay. Maxima and I searched the house from top to bottom with a heavy heart, and when we failed to locate them we had to face the awful truth: they were in the cupboard under the stairs.

With trepidation we opened the small door, and some nice boxes fell out. There was nothing in them, they were just nice boxes. Then we had to tease out the curved tubular thingy that was going to give me killer abs in five minutes, but failed dismally. Maybe I should have given it a full five minutes...Anyway, we pulled out this, that and the other until, with the elephants'-feet in sight, I came across my old stamp collection. I opened the case and pulled out some of the little books from the Brignorth Stamp Club, some with pages that still had stamps attached. I looked at Maxima to remark on what a fortuitous find this was, but when I saw her face I quickly put it all away and helped her get the elephants'-feet out. Then we had all the stuff to put back in - but that's another story.

We just had a small gathering of people, but it must have been a good party because it didn't just end up in the kitchen, it never made it out of there. Constanter and Honorata attended as well as Calculus, and to keep everybody happy we alternated Mozart, Dvorak and Saint-Saens with Bread, the Beatles and Fredericks, Goldman & Jones.

Somehow the conversation drifted to my culinary abilities, which for some reason the gathered assembly estimated to be about nil. I objected, saying that I could open tins and heat the contents as well as the next person. I was challenged to make a curry, and solemnly informed those present that I would make them curried beans. Midnight came, and with Calculus encouraging Constanter we joined hands and sang Auld Lang Syne. We talked for a while, then gradually a good night broke up, never to happen again, but leaving a lifelong memory and stronger friendships.

So now we have to get the elephants'-feet back into the cupboard under the stairs.

A guid new year tae yin and a', and many may ye' see.