Monthly Archives: August 2013

Which United should we support?

For many people the answer is simple. It’s Manchester United.

Hungry for an identity that gives them sporting bragging rights, they want to align themselves with what they see as the most successful football club in the world.

Others may choose Newcastle United, Dundee United, or even Sheffield United, in the hope that – like their Manchester counterparts – they, too, will be able to walk tall, knowing their club is supremely successful.

For the politicians and leaders of the Western world, the choice is different. And maybe not so easy.

Just now, with their embroilment in Syria’s affairs – and none can fail to be embroiled, if only at a debating level – it’s either the United Nations or the United States of America.

On the one hand, we have an organisation whose stated purpose is to “maintain international peace and security” and – to that end – to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace”.

On the other we have the most politically and militarily powerful nation in the Western world.

We have an organisation that seems to have been cast as the world’s policeman and a nation that seems to want that role for itself.

We have a choice between what looks like the crippling impotence of the commitee-bound Nations or the terrible potency of the law-enforcement-minded States.

Tough decisions

So pity the politicians.

Unlike us, they cannot make their choice based on the colour or design of a football kit or the skill and athleticism of an individual player.

They must side with someone in the Syrian conflict – the peacemakers or the warmongers – or face the probability of being mere spectators as the situation worsens, the fighting escalates and the number of lives lost increases day-by-day.

In the meantime, the rest of us can only watch and wait, hoping that – in the light of the British Parliament’s brave decision to be guided by both the law and right-minded thinking – none of the principal players scores an own goal.

Were that to happen, we would all be losers. Even the football supporters.

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What’s so special about gas?

The international outrage expressed since Monday’s chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb, which – according to Médecins Sans Frontières – left the Syrians with 355 dead, has been understandable.

The indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, the killing of women, children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is, says US Secretary of State John Kerry, “a moral obscenity”.

And, he adds: “The international norm cannot be violated without consequences”.

And so the US and her allies move inexorably towards another confrontation in the Middle East which, like the one perpetrated against Saddam Hussein, may well be doomed to failure.

Whatever you think of the legality of such a move, one question remains unanswered.

Why has it taken so long?

Why have the US and the UK waited until now to rattle their sabres with such force when, in the three short years since President Assad started his crack-down on the so-called rebels, more than 100,000 people have died in Syria?

What is the difference between a life snuffed out by gas and a life blown to bits by a bomb or a missile?

The other unanswered question is: where will it end?

“The heir to Blair”

Reporting on the British Prime Minister’s return from holiday to recall Parliament, and his determination to destroy the Syrian regime’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, The Independent describes David Cameron as “the heir to Blair”.

They point out that, in echoing Tony Blair’s argument that there was a “moral case” for the war in Iraq even without a UN mandate, Cameron describes Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons as “morally indefensible”.

And yet, despite his moral stance, Blair is still vilified for taking Britain to war in Iraq.

If his experience is anything to go by, Cameron stands in danger of being remembered for taking Britain into a conflict that, according to some sources, would pitch the US and her allies into a proxy war with Iran, which is providing the Syrian government with its weaponry.

And can anyone see an end to a conflict of that kind?

Where is Blair?

The final, unresolved question of the day must be: where is Blair in all this?

He has backed intervention in Syria, which seems bizarre given his track record in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He has said he “understands every impulse to stay clear of the turmoil” and that “we have to understand the consequences of wringing our hands instead of putting them to work”, which all sounds fine until you begin to wonder if it’s all just hot air.

Given that Blair is supposed to be the EU’s advocate for peace in the Middle East, where riot and civil commotion are the norm almost everywhere, I cannot help but think his fine words are those of a gasbag.

I can only hope that, if that’s the case, there is something special about his brand of gas and that further death and destruction – by whatever means – will be averted.

If not, no matter how “proportionate” the West’s actions may be, they will not – as before – be in my name.

And Cameron will have that on his conscience.

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Big it up for Elmore

Jackie Collins has two big things: big hair and big sales.

She’s also revealed that she’s a big fan of the late Elmore Leonard, who died on August 20 2013.

Writing in The Guardian she says: “I am for ever a fan”.

That, at least, is something she and I can share.

What I don’t quite agree with is her response to Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.  Only three of them appeal to her: “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly”; “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things”; and “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”.

Perhaps what Collins is missing is that Leonard’s rules were for him and for people who wanted to either write like him or at least write for his chosen genre.

I don’t think he was suggesting they were universal.

Interestingly, Collins makes no mention of Leonard’s earliest work as an advertising writer. Nor does she say anything about how he believed that – as a writer of fiction – he should be invisible in his work.

These two things are related.

Speaking as an advertising writer, I know how important it is to remain anonymous. If anybody’s going to be identified as the author of an ad, it should be either the client or the product, not the copywriter.

My reckoning is that Leonard carried this through his entire career.

It may not be what makes Collins, me and countless others such big fans.

But it points the way.

He was – and always will be – a big influence on anyone who wants to write originally.

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Silence is not golden

It’s almost the end of the summer now and the silly season is over.

Most of us have been on holiday, had a good time and now it’s back to work.

We have to assume it’s the same for the British Labour Party, so we ought to start hearing something from them.

But where are they? And what have they go to say?

All during the long hot days of July and the occasional downpours of August, their leader’s silence has been either worrying, irritating, maddening or all three.

In that time, the Conservative propaganda machine has hardly missed a beat, with David Cameron telling us what he thinks about almost anything and everything that passes for public concern.

But nothing has been heard from David Milliband or his team.

I believe he must speak up now and tell the British people what he thinks of the great issues of the day – the events in Egypt, the UK’s energy shortfall, our youth unemployment, the housing shortage and much else – and give us an inkling of what he and his party would do if they were to win the next election.

That may not be due until 2015, but many of us want to know his mind now.

While he may need time to fine-tune his ideas and polish his policies, we need time to decide whether or not he’s the right man for the job.

If he doesn’t do something soon, he won’t get a winner’s gold medal and his silence now will be seen for what it is: leaden.

 

 

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For PM read PR

“What is it about George Osborne?”, I asked a few weeks ago.

Now I’m minded to ask: “What is it about David Cameron?”

He seems to be everywhere, sounding off about everything.

Fracking: he thinks we ought to encourage it.

The Human Rights Act: he reckons it should go.

Jesus Christ: he’s in favour of Him.

The internet: it’s full of vile sites that parents – and the rest of us – ought to avoid like the plague.

Sunday mornings: he likes them because they give him time to cook pancakes with his kids.

Bruce Springsteen: he gets off on him when his wife’s not around.

Wayne Rooney: he wants us to know that his mum sat next to the great sulk at Wimbledon.

Badgers: they’ll have to culled, even though it’ll make the government unpopular.

Politics: he seems to have given that a miss.

Government: what’s that?

I know this is the silly season and that, over the years, we’ve learned to expect the media’s usual crop of daft stories in August.

The excuse might be that parliament’s on holiday and the PM and his senior ministers are supposed to be on vacation.

So, each year, we’re subjected to pictures of the Prime Minster of the day either lounging in a seaside deckchair/sunbathing on someone’s private yacht /wandering through a Tuscan village/hanging out with Silvio Berlusconi/eating ice cream on a pier or – in Cameron’s case this year – pointing meaninglessly at fish in a Portuguese market.

And so we foolishly think we can take a break from the great affairs if state and, instead, quietly attend to our own affairs or those of soap stars and celebrities.

Cameron, you’d think, might also want to have a period of similarly private domesticity.

But no. It seems he has to be to constantly in the news and – if not in the papers – trying to make the headlines.

Willing to say almost anything, he has to be noticed.

He’s like an over zealous PR man trying too hard to get his client in the news. Except that – in Cameron’s case – he’s his own client.

When will he learn that “PM” stands for “Prime Minister” and not the daily news and current affairs programme on Radio 4?

And when will he learn that, in his case, “PR” should stand for Public Responsibility not public relations.

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The ties that no longer bind

Rummaging through some stuff the other day, looking for something else, I came across a photograph of myself, taken in 1950 at the first school I ever went to.

Nothing unusual in that, of course. We’re always finding things we didn’t expect when we’re looking for something else.

No. What struck me about the image was that, even at the tender age of nine, I was wearing a tie.

A couple of days later, a friend of mine emailed some pictures he’d turned out while he was rummaging through some of his own stuff.

They were of him and me, and me on my own, and dated back to the early nineteen-fifties. Once again, I was struck by the fact that we were both wearing ties.

What was even more intriguing was that, in the short time it had taken me to graduate from primary school to grammar school, I’d figured out how to look sharp.

I’d even learned how to tie my tie in a Windsor knot!

A dandified stylist

In those days, the Windsor knot was de rigueur for dandies.

And, boy, did I fancy myself as a dandy! I even turned my droopy shirt collars inwards and upwards, to mimic the shape of the sharp, cut-away versions worn by society’s fashionable elite.

All this fancy fiddling came to an end when, at the tender age of thirteen, I went to a pre-sea training school and spent the next three years dressed as a small but nimble able seaman in Her Majesty’s navy.

No ties in that uniform, sadly, but plenty of opportunities for razor-sharp trouser creases, fancy-dan cap-ribbon bows and jaunty-angled cap wearing to keep me happy.

It was much the same when I joined the Merchant Navy.

The only ties that offered much joy were the black bows required for dress uniform. So I quickly learned how to tie my own. There’s class!

In the mid-1960s, I left the Merchant Navy and went to work in the City where, if I thought about it at all, I imagine I’d expected everyone to be dressed the same. And probably in drab.

Not a bit of it. To my great surprise, I discovered an entirely new set of uniforms.

I soon learned to recognise old school and regimental ties, and to distinguish between a discount broker and a stock broker. The former wore a silk top hat, the latter often wore a bowler.

But most intriguing – even exciting – was the joy of personal ties. I encountered striped ones, spotted ones, tartan ones, psychedelic ones and plain ones in slim, wide and even kippered versions.

Good grief, I even bought some Liberty fabric and made some of my own!

I was in tie heaven.

The advent of the trademark

When I left my job in the City and finally found my way into advertising, I soon discovered yet more liberties to take with ties.

I took to wearing bows bearing patterns.

I’d haunt the halls of Harrods at sale time, scouring their displays for ever more outré offerings.

I drew the line at the county set’s dogs and horses, looking instead for ideas born of original thinking.

Eager as I was for examples of creativity, I have to admit some of the patterns didn’t bear much thinking about!

Nevertheless, bows – the ones you have to tie yourself – had become my trademark. And I loved them.

I could even be seen sporting one as I cycled to work.

A passing identity

In the late 1980s, when I left my job as Creative Director of a somewhat sadly and eventually badly managed advertising agency and started working as a freelance writer, I was still wearing bow ties.

Perhaps, in a changing world, I was clinging to the last vestiges of my working identity.

Maybe I was simply still trying to be different.

All I know now is that, when I look around at today’s world, it saddens me to see so few men wearing ties.

And even fewer wearing bows.

I shouldn’t carp for, these days, I seldom wear one myself.

But, when I do, I feel – not trussed or buttoned up as some might think – simply more complete.

Like anyone else wearing any kind of uniform, I feel more composed, more grown-up, more responsible. Even, dare I suggest it, more authoritative.

All of which raises an interesting question for me: does the demise of the tie, and the shedding of so many uniforms we used to respect – doctors’ white coats, teachers’ black gowns, bus drivers’ peaked caps – signify some kind of diminution of societal responsibility?

Are we, in becoming less formal in our dress, becoming less formalised as a society?

As we loosen the knots around our necks, are we casting off the ties that used to bind us together in coherent, organised groups?

Or is it – as has been so often said of late – that society is becoming increasingly divided along its old class lines and – in the choice of wearing or discarding ties – we’re seeing a resurgence of the split between the old boy brigade, who still wear ties and cling to uniform habits, and their counterparts, the hoi polli who, the brigade might say, know no better than to tear about tieless?

A knotty problem

Of course, there’s nothing sinister in being seen tieless. It doesn’t mark a man out as a bad hat.

But it does worry me when I see male journalists on television, standing in some august setting, reporting on a serious subject in an open-necked shirt that doesn’t fit very well.

They seem to lack authority.

I’m not suggesting reporters should be made to wear evening dress – which used to be the case for newsreaders when television was young – but I do think it would be better if they were dis-encouraged from looking as if they’ve just got up from a deck-chair on Brighton beach and wandered into shot.

Perhaps the answer is quite simple.

Those who like ties, or have to wear them, should exercise their choice or play by the rules. Those who don’t shouldn’t or needn’t.

So long as I can wear one when I feel like it, I won’t get into a knot about it!

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