Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A Short Thought On The Death And Career - The Two Having Been Inextricably Intertwined - Of Margo MacDonald

De Mortua Nil Nisi Bonum, I suppose, the deceased having done a Tony Nicklinson and presumably died in her sleep (if one should ever go out of one's way to try and look for proof of the existence of God, then totting up the number of right-to-death campaigners who, like MacDonald, like Nicklinson, like Ludovic Kennedy, die in their own beds might be a good place to start; never let it be said that God does not possess a sense of humour). 

What we can do is analyse her achievements. She was an MP for 112 days, forty-one years ago. Wow. She was an independent MSP, meaning that she represented a constituency of one. Nice work, if you can get it. The only significant impression I gained from those tributes to her which I saw is that the upper reaches of Scottish public life seem to be claustrophobically small in scope, with everyone knowing everyone else and all of them apparently suspicious of outsiders; a village, in every sense of the word. No matter what else she achieved, what she really was was a consummate insider, as all the best 'independents' always are.

However, speaking subjectively as someone whose hands now tremor not only in different directions but also at different speeds, her most lasting achievement might have been to lodge the idea that Parkinson's Disease is a death sentence into the Scottish public consciousness, in my view undoing the great deal of good work done by the health authorities to normalise the Parkinson's experience with what can only be described as ruthless selfishness.

And during the last years of her life, she might have done irreparable harm to the cause of life rights in Scotland - other people's life rights, mind you, not, as it turned out, her own; and that is one helluva legacy for anyone to leave behind them.

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A Short Thought On The Power Of The Google Algorithm

(Dedicated to the memories of Peaches Geldof, Freddy McConnel, Michael Suchar and Burton Wragg; the bravest, most selfless headmaster of a primary school who ever drew breath).

Given the nature of the terribly sad event which was the lead item on yesterday's news, it came as no surprise that this was my most viewed item today. 

God rest her soul. 


Tuesday, March 04, 2014


I'm sorry if I've written this before - I am becoming more repetitive - but one of the most illuminating aspects of reading Orlando Figes's 'Crimea: The Last Crusade' was seeing what Russian diplomats had to say about their country's security at the time of that terrible and wholly unnecessary war.

They complained about British complaints about them trying to strengthen their position on the Black Sea when the British were ensconced on their southern flank in India (if memory serves they were also being pestered by one of the nuttier, more bloodthirsty Transcaucasian warlords at that time, so they weren't naturally in the best of moods). 

What was fascinating - what made the hair on the back of my neck stand up - was comparing what they said in their despatches and communiques in 1854 with what they said at the UN Security Council in 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. One hundred and eight years later, they were saying precisely the same things, the only difference being that in the nuclear age they were complaining that the USA was preventing them from installing defences in Cuba while itself installing missiles directly to the south of them in Turkey. 

(Two points - firstly, I may be mistaken, but I don't think Professor Figes undertook this exercise in his own book. Secondly, like just about every other right-thinking person I am very grateful that Soviet missiles were removed from Cuba).

To  my mind, the very sinister events which have taken place in Ukraine are cause for the greatest concern. A democratically elected government has been overthrown, and London or Washington are mute in the face of the putsch, indeed endorse it by the laying of flowers; the banal and sentimental act of those with no cogent response to events. This has happened while the local regional power has been otherwise engaged - would this have happened had the Winter Olympics not been taking place in Sochi? I very much doubt it. The timing of these events are the biggest two fingers that anti-Russian elements in Ukraine could have elevated to The Kremlin. This is not a pro-Ukrainian event. It is an anti-Russian event, deeply unpleasant Russophobia currently being sanctified by the words, actions, money and floristry of the British and American governments.

The people who are fronting it seem to include ultranationalists, among whom are some very unsavoury characters whose only distinguishing features are their penchant for carrying weapons and their need to wear distinguishing clothing and regalia - two of the hallmarks of classical fascism, wherever it is found -  and criminals. One of the most disturbing aspects of the reporting we receive from that part of the world is that anyone who opposes Russia within its sphere of influence and who ends up in jail is somehow automatically and unthinkingly elevated to the status of martyr. I don't know why the political loser Yulia Tymoshenko was in jail - for all we know she could have been in there because she's a crook. Is it still OK to say that in this country these days? 

Russian military activity in Crimea seems to be directed solely towards the protection of ethnic Russians who actively want them there (shades of Northern Ireland, at least in 1969). This is not a popular revolution, not by any manner of means. Could it the case that the Russian military presence on the peninsula is actually necessary, in order to protect ethnic Russians? It doesn't seem to be the ethnic Russians who are wearing the SS armbands. Just saying. 

And of course, we have William Hague and Barack Obama and Uncle Tom Cobley and all all talking cobblers at the Russians about the need for them to show restraint, when they seem to have shown and seem to be showing nothing but restraint. The Russians are not the ones who overthrew the government of Ukraine - Ukrainian putschists did that. What has happened in Ukraine has been an assault on democracy everywhere. An unintended consequence of failing to address that might be that public opinion in a country whose recent experiences of dealing with democracies include swapping tyranny for penury starts to lose interest in democracy. 

And that would be a tragedy not just for Russia, but for the world.

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On The Foreign-ness Of An Independent Scotland

"The Scottish first minister is to say that Scotland and England will not be "foreign" to each other even if the political union between the two ends."

This will be an impossible feat to manage, given that for a Glaswegian like me every part of Scotland other than Glasgow already feels foreign (no jokes about lager, sorry laager mentality, please). If he doesn't want to be a foreigner when he goes to England, why is he putting the rest of us through all of this? 

Should he win, God forbid, the first thing he and his disciples will do is redefine acceptable Scottishness according to their own tastes and prejudices, a process they will enjoy with all the ruthless, iconoclastic relish of a De Valera; but does he think he will also be able to redefine 'foreign-ness?' How does he think an English person returning to visit Scotland after separation will feel as they enter a country which has become so fundamentally different to the one they used to know? In which, by the mere fact of their own circumstances, they are now a foreigner? How is he going to do this? 

It's not going to be as a consequence of us all using the same money, that's for sure. That curling stone has unceremoniously stopped before the mark, and no amount of frantic brushing of the ice, nor panicked shouting, is going to make it budge any further. It's not going to be as a result of us all still being in the European Union. That hole's been bogeyed. The degree of foreign-ness that visitors to Scotland will feel after independence will be incredible - one sign of which might just be the presence of very much more aggressive police officers on the streets.

The Tartanissimo's knowledge of famous authors named Hartley might not stretch beyond J. R. to L.P., but the latter wrote 'The past is a foreign country - they do things differently there'. Maybe The Tartanissimo, perhaps animated by the arrogance that possessing an excessive love of nation over nationals tends to breed, thinks that not only is the past a foreign country, but that the present is as well - he is, after all, First Minister in 'The Scottish Government' (come on now, don't laugh - at least, not all at once). He already thinks he's the head of a 'government', even if it's only a small, mean, soi-disant, ersatz one. He's got no chance of combatting a sensation of foreign-ness after independence. He's already got the biggest dose of it going.

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'The First Four Georges'

Although J. H. Plumb did possess the rather stupid habit of describing people who were obviously quite able as being stupid, a habit which does detract from his book a little if only because it might provide an unattractive insight into his own mindset at the time he was writing it, 'The First Four Georges' is nonetheless an enjoyable, if rather brief, tour through the highest reaches of English society from 1713 until 1830. 

However, I didn't really feel I learned very much from it; not the best thing you can say about a work of history. 

Not necessarily a recommend, but certainly a pleasant way of passing the time.


'The Great Siege'

This fascinating book, incredibly well-written by a fascinating man, is one of the most gripping I can recall ever picking up. 

The Great Siege of Malta in 1565 is one of the most important events on the history of the world; and one could hope for no better guide to it than this book. I am no big fan of military history - too much bloody blood, give me a nice, clean, safe monastery, library or throne-room any day - but Ernle Bradford possessed the unique skill of making the reader feel as if they were actually in the middle of the events he was describing; and Malta in the summer of 1565 was by no means a pleasant place to be. This enables the reader to feel grateful that it is only by the Grace of God that they were not.

For sure, you have to wade through a wee bit of Anglocentric propaganda - it is gratifying to know that Good Queen Bess, God bless her, was worried about the consequences of an Ottoman victory; pity she later seemed happy to treat with them in order to cause trouble for the Spanish - but the author was a man of his own time and culture, and cannot be blamed for having picked up some of their barnacling conceits. Bradford is one of those authors whose works should be much more widely-known than they are. On the basis of this book, I don't feel it's going too far to suggest that he should be on every literate person's reading list. 

Must read.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

'The Little Hero'

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Children and Young People (Scotland) Bill

Monitoring and checking and nosey-parkering into loving families...the SNP really are a bunch of natural born narks, snipes and clipes...disgustingly prurient people...

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The Day I Channelled Tony Blair

"The more one touches the pitch that is the phone-hacking scandal, in all its tawdriness, the case for a judicial enquiry, best headed by a Law Lord, into the conduct of News International, with comprehensive powers to compel the attendance of witness, hear evidence on oath and demand documents at leisure becomes compelling. And it cannot be the whitewash the Hutton enquiry (sic) was perceived to be, Lord Hutton having been hamstrung by the parameters within which he had to work; parameters which gave him no option but to find the BBC guilty as libelled"

"Only got ten minutes before I see Charlie for confiscation!

But I had an hour on the phone to Tony Blair.

He said: 

1. Form an independent unit that has a outside junior council, ken macdonald, a great and good type, a serious forensic criminal barrister, internal counsel, proper fact checkers etc in it. Get them to investigate me and others and publish a hutton (sic) style report."

History will deem the greatest victim of the Hutton Inquiry to have been Lord Hutton himself.

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Sunday, February 16, 2014

Comparing The Pursuit Of Womens' Rights In Scotland And Iran - 'Iran Awakening'

When I was a young solicitor in the vicinity of Glasgow Sheriff Court in the early '90's, there were a group of female procurator-fiscals working in that court who, contrary to custom, never rose to their feet when the sheriff came on to the bench.

The first time I saw it, I thought it was rude - everyone stands up, don't they? I once attended a seminar at which a sheriff not known for public gentleness noted very gently that such behaviour was extremely discourteous, and I remember The Big Lad, God rest his soul (and how odd writing that feels) and I having had a laugh about it as well.

Whatever motivated them to behave in that way, whatever point they were trying to make, it now just seems to have been insolent and shrewish. They had full equality in the system they worked in and in the processes in which they were involved, yet for some reason they chose to separate themselves from custom and do their own thing. The ladies in question could do far worse than read 'Iran Awakening', the memoirs of Shirin Ebadi

I will not recite that lady's achievements. Let me merely say that until I picked up 'Iran Awakening', it had been a very long time since I had read a book from cover to cover in one go, but yesterday I did it with that one. As well as recording the events of a life of great distinction, she makes two points worthy of the finest essayist. 

The first arose from having been hectored by an illiterate 18 year old female guardian of morality. The experience made her realise that that girl was in every sense the complete creature of the Islamic Revolution - that if that had not happened, that girl would have still been at home washing the herbs for dinner. Perversely, the Revolution enabled young women like that to get out of the home and into education; and that fact alone might harbour some hope for the development of liberalism, as such young women will eventually insist upon making their own choices. 

The second is Ebadi's extremely humane view of those who crack under torture and name names. She makes the very powerful case, a true lawyer's case, that criticising those who crack does nothing but facilitate the torture of others; that it is not merely inhumane but unethical to criticise those who have not responded as we think they should when they are the ones who have been subjected to unethical tretament. I read that and thought, 'Yes, that's right'. 

The status of women in Iran is obviously far less advanced than in Scotland; yet it interesting to note that while Iran fails to provide women with legal protections, the soi-disant, ersatz, 'Scottish Government' is seeking to abolish the requirement that criminal evidence be corroborated, a requirement that protects all citizens from persecution by the state, and is citing the advance of womens' rights as justification for doing so.

There is something wrong with that picture; for if any state seeks to remove a protection against persecution from all citizens in pursuit of what they say is the rights of one demographic, all citizens will eventually suffer.

Must read. 

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John Swinney Sinks Any Chance Of A Separate Scotland Joining The European Union

If he thinks that describing the president of the European Commission's views on a separate Scotland's ability to join the EU as 'pretty preposterous' is going to win Scotch nationalism any friends in the Eurocracy, he might have another thing coming. 

To debunk Swinney's argument that Scotland will glide into the EU as it has been a member of both it and its predecessor institutions since 1973, it hasn't. The United Kingdom has. Although the Treaties of Union preserved Scotland's legal system, they reserved the conduct of foreign affairs to the Union. The BBC quotes Swinney as saying, 

"The Spanish Foreign Minister said if there is an agreed process within the United Kingdom by which Scotland becomes an independent country then Spain has nothing to say about the whole issue. 

"That indicates to me quite clearly that the Spanish government will have no stance to take on the question of Scottish membership of the European Union."

To my eyes, that merely means that the Spanish would have nothing to say about the outcome of a referendum on the future of Scotland within the United Kingdom - a totally different matter from whether or not they would have anything to say about a separate Scotland being able to walk into the European Union. 

(And any SNP hack who cites the Catalans in support of their cause should be aware that the Spanish constitution states that the territory of Spain is complete and inviolate, and appoints Spain's armed forces as the guardians of its integrity; see John Hooper, 'The New Spaniards'. Catalonia is never going to secede from Spain because, by law, it can't; the only thing that's remarkable about Catalonia's nationalists is that they're even more egregious than Scotland's). 

Game, set and match to Barroso. 

What is on display from Swinney here is less of a bunker mentality than a bothan mentality. No matter how elevated their position, anyone who disagrees with the SNP is apparently wrong. Jose Manuel Barroso is wrong about Scotland's ability to join the EU. The Treasury is wrong about Scotland's continuing ability to use sterling. The Lord Justice General and apparently the Scottish legal professions in their entirety are wrong about the need to preserve corroboration. In all of these fields, Alex Salmond and the SNP are right and everyone else is wrong. 

This displays a degree of self-confidence which can only be described as utterly terrifying.

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Saturday, February 15, 2014

Cardinal-Designate Nichols On Welfare Reform

While His Grace is absolutely correct, it would be very nice to see someone making the case that the coalitions's wilful diminishment of the UK's welfare system is nothing more or less than the same crude Benthamism that gave us the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

As time passes I find myself becoming repetitive, so I'm sorry if I've written this before, but what I found to be one of the most striking aspects of Richard Crossman's diaries was the perception he gained on his first day in charge of the DHSS, on its own first day, that its staff were of the view that it should be difficult for people to claim benefits, and that they would accordingly make it difficult for them to do so. Crossman, a very difficult man, was genuinely angered by the injustice of this, and he was perfectly right to be. The same crude Benthamism which was at work in 1834 grasped the flower power of 1969 by the stem and viciously pruned it; and the same crude Benthamism is at work now, demanding that the poor, the sick and the weak shoulder the burden of public expenses they have had the least degree of responsibility for incurring.

Again, at the risk of being repetitive, it seems clear to me that for the past two centuries the United Kingdom has pursued only one economic policy - that of scrupulous fairness to the needs and concerns of the rich, at all times and under all circumstances. While various ideologies have come and gone, that policy has been the sole constant. In that light, it is quite clearly wrong to say that a 'welfare state' was instituted after the Second World War; what came into being was instead an anti-welfare state, for while more people became legally entitled to more benefits, as Crossman discovered the state remained as mean with public funds as it had ever been. The only difference between 1834 and 1969 was that the beadles now wore bowler hats.

Every expansion of the so-called 'welfare state' since that time has been a reaction to the failure of every attempt by any governing party to pursue an alternative ideology while remaining scrupulously fair to the needs and concerns of the rich. Thus it was that upon the introduction of Incapacity Benefit, tens of thousands of people who had previously been hale and hearty were suddenly deemed to have become incapacitated. Many were not incapacitated, but at least they were not then claiming unemployment benefit. When people do that, you have to go through the motions of trying to create jobs for them, and all that costs money.

It now seems certain that, barring a miracle, this official posture will never change; and so in 2014 we have disabled people being evicted from tenancies which have been adapted for their needs while avoiding tax seems to be perfectly acceptable.

Nichols has his work cut out.

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Friday, February 14, 2014

And Even As Scottish Nationalism Implodes In Front Of The World, The SNP Proclaims Its Desire To Continue Oppressing Scots

This is like the Nazi street tribunals that were passing death sentences when the 101st Airborne were in the next street.

You have to hand it to MacAskill - the determination he has exhibited in his pursuit of corroboration's abolition is a marvel to behold. He was, of course, addressing a sympathetic audience, if not one whose first concern is likely to be the civil liberties of suspects - or perhaps of some suspects, anyway. 

Yet for him to have made this speech while his party, his cause, his ideology is in the greatest degree of public trouble it has ever faced, when it cannot provide answers that the world needs to know, never mind the answers needed at his own very shallow end of the political pool, is deeply unsettling. Like all authoritarians, he cannot ever switch his authoritarianism off. 

If anyone wants to know what any future independent Scotland would really be like, MacAskill has just provided it. It would be one in which the Scottish state would not consider Scots in Scotland to be citizens, but suspects.


Stating The Obvious Is Not Bullying

Having at last broken cover on the currency issue, The Tartanissimo could at least have done better than put on the broken record of anti-Westminster rhetoric.

If he thinks that the Treasury has not factored the cost to business of separate currencies into its advice, he's dumber than he seems. His comments today are bloviation borne of desperation. That Unionists should state the obvious about the currency issue is not 'bullying'. It's only bullying if you're accustomed to everyone around you agreeing with you and to getting your own way. Maybe he's been fortunate enough to live his life in that manner before, but he's playing with the big boys now. His comments about 'the days of Westminster politicians dictating to Scotland are over' are embarrassing, and stem from the same arrogant, dilettanteish approach to his status that led him to declare his minority Scottish Executive to be 'The Scottish Government'. No referendum has yet been held, but he talks like a head of state, even though he's a man in deep political trouble, one whose words will now be listened to with very great interest by the world's money markets. 

I hope he understands that this is not a state of affairs that he will be able to get out of in the classic Scotch nationalist manner - with a wee dram and a folk song.

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Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Sentences That Should Send Scottish Civic Nationalism And The Scottish National Party Into Oblivion

You know, I could almost feel sorry for Nicola Sturgeon. Almost. 

Reports that she has said that any failure by a rump British government to allow a separate Scotland to use sterling would result in a separate Scotland refusing to take its share of British national debt have detonated, obliterated, annihilated any chance that a separate Scotland, using another currency, would ever have had of borrowing money in international markets at any rates other than penal. She has reduced the status of any Scottish currency to junk before it's even been minted.

Before yesterday, there might have been a few bond-trading Bravehearts over on Wall Street, willing to take a punt on the old country. Not today. Scotland's Deputy First Minister spoke to them in their language, the language of money, and said out loud that an independent Scotland would be willing to default on its debts for political reasons. Woof. Not the right thing to say to these people. Not very statesmanlike at all. 

Does she seriously think that Goldman Sachs, or Morgan Stanley, or whoever, are going to be willing to throw money at people who say they might decide not to pay it back if it doesn't suit them? No matter how you dress it up, that's what she said. There is no getting away from it. She said it, it's out there, it's the misfire heard around the world, and it's going to come around again, because those who, as F. Scott Fitzgerald described them, are not like the rest of us have very long memories when it comes to such things. You can mess with governments to your heart's content - the one truly reliable fact about them is that there's always some damnfool out there who wants to lead one. But the one thing you don't do is mess with money. 

Did she have some kind of flashback to 1984, with Scotland in the role of small potential domino to be saved from the Communists by throwing cash at it from all directions? Someone please tell her that history's moved on. The dominoes didn't fall, they just got packed away in their box and the Chinese Communists are now the biggest capitalists on the block. What she said might have made some sense in 1984, but not now. It stopped making sense in Berlin one night in 1989, when we were both at university. It seems that lacking a sense of history makes some folks think that time's stood still.

This is bad for the SNP, very bad indeed. Before yesterday, what happens here didn't really matter to anyone outside Scotland. Today, it all matters enormously to a lot of very wealthy people, and the SNP only have their own Deputy First Minister to thank for it. 

I'll rephrase what I said at the top of this blog. No matter how unattractive Nicola Sturgeon's public persona often is, and it is deeply unattractive sometimes, she's far too aggressive, I do feel sorry for her. She has been badly let down by Alex Salmond over the past two days. He is an economist, she is not, she's a solicitor. This is just his bag, he needs to be out there front and centre, but seems instead to have left her swinging in the wind. There might be some very good reason why he isn't the SNP's public face on this issue, but his absence creates the impression that he is hiding from it; and that isn't just bad public relations, it's very bad for the country. What would be truly horrifying would be Sturgeon being happy at being treated this way.

I've been describing Salmond as 'The Tartanissimo' for years, although I think for longer than I've describing the SNP as his personality cult. This is the second time in six months that Salmond has been posted missing when a public word from him might have been expected - when Melissa Reid was arrested in Peru last August, he was nowhere to be seen. A not unreasonable observer might conclude that a pattern of The Tartanissimo becoming uncharacteristically quiet when something difficult turns up seems to be developing, and they might be right. If true, it indicates the presence of calculation beyond ruthlessness, for this time he has left his apparently very loyal deputy to take what by rights, what his job title might suggest, is his heat.  

(If nothing else, his act of omission has given David Cameron the perfect answer to his challenge to a debate  -why should he debate with someone who won't speak in public on an issue of such importance as the currency that the country he wants to lead should use?). 

Yet it worries me that Sturgeon and the other SNP high-rankers might actually be happy with this treatment - if only because Scottish history might be full of precedents for it; indeed, be so Scottish as to be beyond the comprehension of any other nation. In his book 'Wild Scots', Michael  Fry compared what he described as the 'hopeless fidelity' of the Tartan Army to that of Highland clansmen for their chieftains. Could the SNP's entire political machine be built on the same principle, that of its members' 'hopeless fidelity' to Alex Salmond? That he's not a leader, but a chieftain?

I don't know - but I'm beginning to wonder.

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Child Euthanasia In Belgium

That countries can take the time to pass laws like this usually indicates that they have nothing better to do with themselves, that no other type of activity is taking place there of a type that its parliamentarians could feasibly regulate.

This law may very possibly be the work of some single-issue goombah, somebody with a idea who's finally worn everyone else down. We have many such people here in Scotland, bleeding green ink in public places. Yet if it isn't, if the majority of Belgium's lawmakers really do think this way, it seems to me to be too gross a breach of the natural order of things for nature to possibly ignore.


A Short Thought On Groundwater

Quick question to anyone with any knowledge of geology - would elevated levels of groundwater diminish the efficacy of fracking?


'City Of Fortune'

Roger Crowley's book about the rise and fall of Venice's naval empire is certainly a good read. 

I felt it could have done with a little more background on the rise of Venice itself, but its subtitle is 'How Venice won and lost a naval empire' and such an investigation might have been off-topic. Mr. Crowley's recounting of the Fourth Crusade certainly affirmed my view that the deal Enrico Dandolo struck with the Crusaders should be considered as having been of exactly the same character as all other large scale weapons procurement contracts agreed between governments, even up to the present day. Whenever the news of a deal to supply some hole on the map with guns or jets is announced, the shade of Dandolo smiles; and it shouldn't, because they always go wrong, just like his deal went wrong. Such contracts are all the same, duds massively biased in favour of the vendors. The only differences between them lie in the consequences, which in the case of Dandolo's were extreme.

The conclusion that I drew from Mr. Crowley's book is not one which, if my memory serves, he investigates himself. This is perfectly understandable, because, again, it would be likely to be off-topic. The real reason Venice lost its empire was because the guys at the top were too keen on keeping hold of their own corner, their own margin. Great lip service was paid to everyone being in it together, a virtue which was preached far more enthustiastically by those at the top than it was latterly practiced. 

And I realised that our own country is just the same right now.

Well worth reading. 


'Charles Rennie Mackintosh'

Alan Crawford's fascinating book on the most famous creative person that Glasgow has ever produced (Mackintosh has even been portrayed in a Japanese comic) is by no means of guilty of boosterism. This is Toshie, warts and all.

The span of his creative life was short - if he were a movie director he'd have been Preston Sturges rather than Steven Spielberg. Too visionary to wholly fit into his surroundings yet really too tame, too middle-class, to be a true enfant terrible, he made chairs that were not intended to be sat upon - a complete divorce of design from function, designing for its own sake. 

For all the novelty of his design, some of his furniture was put together with joinery screws rather cabinet-makers' fixings. That revelation made me laugh out loud, if only because it made me realise not how different Mackintosh was from those around him but so completely alike - like everyone else in British industry at that time he could design like nobody's business but couldn't manufacture to help himself, a state of affairs very familiar to those with some knowledge of British industrial history of that period.

He left few papers - we know just about as much as we ever will about what he made but almost nothing of who he was, what he really thought. Although his fame in this city will never die (with a gimlet eye and in perfect truth, Mr. Crawford notes that there's a lot of money at stake), the man himself remains as fleeting and ephemeral as many of his creations.

Yet he built the Glasgow School of Art, which Mr. Crawford describes as being possibly the most original building ever put up in the British Isles. And he might not be the only one to think that - in 'Climbing Great Buildings', his wonderful wee TV series from a few years ago, Jonathan Foyle described the GSA as being his favourite of the lot. 

That such a powerful talent, so creative, so teeming with ideas, so unique, should have burst through for its day in the sun in our town is some cause for communal pride; latterly, Mackintosh and his wife might not have been happy here, but they didn't really seem happy anywhere. Finding yourself being arrested on suspicion of spying for Germany- Mackintosh may be the only person ever to have been guilty of the crime of being Glaswegian in Suffolk - can't have been a positive experience, and if he'd known the degree of regard with which the works of G. A. Henty later came to be held he might not have designed a dust-jacket for him. Yet he built the GSA. It might just be the case that there is no way of knowing him, no way of explaining him - a state of affairs with which Charles Rennie Mackintosh might have been quite happy. 

Well worth reading.



(Contains spoilers and strong language)

I recently watched Steve McQueen's 2008 movie about the death of Bobby Sands on Film Four. Given many of the behaviours it portrayed, it only seems appropriate to say that I have a few things to get out of my system.

McQueen offers glimpses of his high art background throughout - to my eyes, the lighting of Liam Cunningham's face during his 17-minute scene with Michael Fassbender is straight out of Caravaggio's 'The Calling of St. Matthew', while viewers are treated to a whorl of shite on a wall that's suggestive to me of Van Gogh - the whorl, that is, Van Gogh's yellows always having been stronger than his browns. As for the shite, that goes from whorl to whorl to wall to wall, an effective reminder that the people McQueen is portraying were some of the dirtiest and most antisocial who have ever lived, people who set out to live in their own waste in order to make their point; a collective rejection of every advance in human hygiene that science has made over the past two centuries. No matter what cause they claimed to be acting in, that people would set out to live like that when they had access to soap, clean water and clean clothes says more to me about them than any of their rhetoric. 

McQueen approaches his subject matter with admirable even-handedness, his portrayal of a prison warder obviously sickened by his work a very sincere attempt at balance; that such reflective, introspective types might not have lasted long as prison officers in Ulster in the early '80's is quite beside the point. 

The idea of portraying a man who starved himself to death when he had access to food and drink in a movie entitled 'Hunger' seems to me to be disrespectful to the genuinely hungry. I am absolutely sure that this is not intentional; however it does seem casual, and that's on the verge of being just as inexcusable. The very valid point could be made in answer, 'Well, what would you have called it?' Without being glib, a short answer would be 'The Death of Bobby Sands'. However, the selection of the title 'Hunger' suggests to me that McQueen's real interest lay in Sands's choice to starve himself. If that was the case then his choice was a very bad one, if only because the reasons put into Sands's mouth in justification of his actions raises the spectre that he shared a personality type with someone who would most definitely not have been likely to have thought Sands worthy of the consideration he seems to have received from Ulster's prison authorites. 

I am no student of the life and career of the late Bobby Sands, so I have no idea whether or not that 17 minute scene is based on a real event or is a screenwriter's confection, but it's telling. Sands (Fassbender) meets a priest (Cunningham) come to The Maze to talk him out of his plan. The part of the priest is badly written, verging on whiskey-obnoxious, what Barry Fitzgerald might have been like if he'd been cast in 'The Commitments', but Cunningham, ever the good professional, makes a decent fist of it. The conversation turns to why Sands is doing this, and he is indulged with a sentimental monologue based on having killed an animal when young; it had to be done, to put it out of its misery (with metronomic predictability, the priests apparently beat him afterwards), the subtext being that he must starve himself as that must be done to achieve the goal. 

As I watched that, it occurred to me that the personality type being portrayed saw no difference between the death of other living things in what it perceives to be its own causes and its own death in pursuit of its own causes. My mind then reflected on what I had once read of a great general who was apparently so aggressive that when he did not have other men to kill his thoughts turned to killing himself. 

That general was Robert Clive, and the thought occurred to me that Clive of India and Bobby Sands might have had more in common with each other than the latter might have known or cared to admit. That might not have been the case in reality - but it certainly did give me that impression insofar as he was being portrayed, and to my mind it completely destroyed the credibility of McQueen's movie, for if he wanted to make a movie about Bobby Sands's personality type he could equally well have made one about Clive of India; in the long run, nobody would have noticed the difference.

A few weeks after I saw the movie, I saw an interview with McQueen about his career, pending the release of '12 Years A Slave'. McQueen recorded how Fassbender prepared his body to enable him to play the dying Sands. Apparently, he went to California and intensively trained down. I couldn't help but think that an actor, playing a man choosing to die both in pursuit of a cause and in a manner which would seem to eschew vanity, preparing for his role by going to a place synonymous in many minds with personal vanity and kooky causes perhaps, in some ironic way, casts something of an insight into his character's motives. Behind all the talk, was Sands really acting out of a colossal sense of vanity? 

I don't know, but the thought hadn't crossed my mind before. It has now. 


Thursday, February 06, 2014

Dead On Time - 'The History Of Clocks And Watches'

"There is the dogmatic adherence to free trade theory, even in the most sensitive areas of state; there is absolutely no normative difference between the situation that Barnett recorded of the UK having to import technicians from the USA, Sweden and Switzerland in 1914 to manufacture bomb-timers because of light industry's destruction through free trade"

The blogger, 19 March 2008. 

I knew I had that snippet from Correlli Barnett's 'The Collapse Of British Power' tucked away somewhere.

Eric Bruton's 'The History Of Clocks And Watches' is a very interesting book, its subject matter very technical yet absorbing. Clockmaking is clearly a good line of work for obsessives, because if you weren't obsessive before you started you would soon be likely to be so afterwards. 

However, it was Page 176 of the abridged version from 2002 that really caught my attention. On that page, Mr. Bruton notes that the abolition of duties, known as 'McKenna duties', intended to protect the British clockmaking industry in the wake of the Great War enabled the Third Reich to dump clocks which had been manufactured below cost onto the British market. In Mr. Bruton's view, this was an attempt to destroy Britain's ability to build instruments. He also notes that when the Second World War broke out, the shells the British fired at the Luftwaffe did not contain fuses. Any fuses suitable for that purpose were circuitously imported from Switzerland. 

In other words, attachment to free trade caused an avoidable repeat in the Second World War of a fiasco that had bedevilled the war effort in the First. Apart from my oft-stated rider that if there is no such thing as a free lunch there can be no such thing as free trade, I now have nothing for or against free trade personally. It's just another way of doing things, like brushing your teeth horizontally instead of vertically.  

Yet this was the first time I have ever come across reference to any effort having been made by the Third Reich to deliberately undermine British industry before the Second World War, and it was depressing to see that it happened in an area of British industry which, given what had happened in the very recent past, should have been properly guarded. 

Do please read Mr. Bruton's book if you can. He is a great authority on his subject, and you will feel improved by having made the effort to engage with his work.


'Layer Cake'

A very odd movie, that one. I saw it for the first time last night. Although none of the characters had a single redeeming feature, I couldn't work out if it was a crime drama or was actually satirising criminals.


On The Legislation Into Existence Of Gay Marriage In Scotland

People who enter into such arrangements will not be married and will never be married as they cannot be married. It is a proud Parliament that attempts to redefine something which, like marriage, is divinely ordained, and you don't need me to tell what pride comes before.

With that in mind, I wish absolutely no harm to anyone who cares to delude themself into thinking that any arrangement of this class which they might care to enter into constitutes a marriage, and I hope that they're happy. That God wants everyone to be happy is a fact about Christianity that's little-known and thus often overlooked.

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On The Chaos Caused By The Weather

"Neoconservatism has always an ideology dependent on the global projection of national power. What gave it its strength was that after 9/11, Americans were so angry at the assault that they wanted to go overseas and attack those responsible – thus was ‘The War on Terror’ born.

They were lied into thinking that the removal of Saddam Hussein would make the world a safer and more prosperous place. Clearly it hasn’t; if anything, you’re more at risk riding the Tube now than you were three years ago.

The lie has been shown not to stand up; and when that has not only failed but has been shown to have failed, what can an ideology based on the global projection of national power do when confronted with a crisis which shows it to be nationally powerless?"

The blogger, 'Neoconservatism's Berlin Wall', 1st September 2005.

It gives me no pleasure to say it, and one's deepest sympathies are with those whose lives have been and are being turned upside down, but the similarities between the weakness of the official reaction to Hurricane Katrina and the weakness of the official reaction to the recent bad weather in the South West of England are startling.

In our case, as far as our affected neighbours are concerned, it might just be time for prudence, free schools and fracking to take a back seat in our government's list of priorities, and for someone in a position of responsibility to start displaying at least some aptitude for leadership.

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Sunday, February 02, 2014

'To The Ends Of The Earth'

It's too soon after his retirement to offer a retrospective analysis of Professor T. M. Devine's achievements as a popular historian. Predictions are usually best left to bookies and palm-readers, but suffice it to say that I am happy to predict that a century from now Professor Devine's books will still be being read as keenly as they are at the moment, principally because they will be as fresh then as they are now. 

I have to admit I've struggled with his early books - I had to put down 'The Tobacco Lords', published in 1975, as too technical, too full of figures, the perennial pitfall of trying to write economic history for the mass market. He hopefully won't take this the wrong way if I say that it seemed to me to be  the work of a young historian who had undoubtedly been very well-trained but was perhaps still trying to find his own voice. However, 'The Great Highland Famine', published in 1988, is an excellent analysis of that particularly unpleasant episode. Like the rest of us, perhaps he found his own voice as he got older, and the works he published as he neared the end of his academic career (although I suspect he won't put down the pen completely - he seems far too fond of writing for that, and Thank God for it) are some of the most accessible and interesting histories of any nation, by any writer, which are currently available to read. I can say this with some confidence because I read a very great deal of history. Professor Devine's books work because they are history; not ideology, not rose-tinted retrospection, but history, narrated with gimlet-eyed clear-sightedness in a writing style that is completely conversational - the easiest form of study that an interested student of Scottish history can undertake.

If you need just one example of why he's so good, Professor Devine is responsible for the most sweepingly elegant analysis of long-term cultural change I have ever read - in 'The Scottish Nation', he refers to the pacification of rural Scotland having been marked by the switch from the tower-house to the country house. For its combination of insight and brevity, you just can't beat that. It would take another writer, one with less command of his subject, fifty pages to make that point - which is not only why Professor Devine is Scotland's greatest living historian, but should also be regarded as our principal man of letters.

'To The Ends Of The Earth', his analysis of Scottish emigration, does not fail to disappoint. He makes the clear case that emigration from Scotland has not necessarily been the universal blessing to the world that some Scots, and others, seem to believe it to have been. There are a couple of wee things that do niggle - I know I've just complained that he once produced a book with too much data, but it would be interesting to have seen an analysis of how many Scottish emigrants from, say, 1900 onwards might themselves have been of stock that had emigrated to Scotland from Ireland or elsewhere. That exercise might not have been possible, but it would be interesting to know if it could be done, if only to determine whether, over the course of its history, Scotland has been less solid than porous. 

However, that's really nit-picking. It is a wonderful book by a writer of popular history not merely at the top of his field but at the top of his game. Must read stuff.


The Saving Of St. Margaret's

"The great consolation one can draw from such heavy-handed egalitarianism is that just as every other attempt to engineer minds in history has failed, this one will also fail. It's a dead cert" -

And I was right, The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator having booted the forces of militant nothingness into outer darkness. It is very nice to see the forces of light getting a victory, however small, just once in a while; and it's particularly nice to see it happening in Scotland, against the National Secular Society. 

It isn't perhaps very charitable, but it does give one a nice feeling that God always looks after those who place their trust in Him.

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'From Time To Time, The Tree Of Liberty Must Be Refreshed With The Dismissal Of School Inspectors And Labour Peers'

What seems, in my opinion, to be Michael Gove's take on Thomas Jefferson.

Should Gove ever be refreshed out of the House of Commons, I am sure he will be able to turn to Baroness Morgan for consolation.

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

'The Tomorrow People'

When you see a thing of beauty, a thing you love, you anticipate its appearance; when you see that it has been made into something it is not, has been made ugly, been defaced, you feel a little rage. 

It's maybe not the most important thing in life that you could get enraged about, but it's important to me. Last night I watched the recent American attempt to remake 'The Tomorrow People'. I find it hard to articulate just how angry I am with it.

Having been intellectually precocious as a small child (a phenomenon which is not at all uncommon in my type of brain illness), memories of watching the original 'Tomorrow People' are among the happiest ones I have of that time of my life - I was nine when the show was discontinued. It may be coincidental, but that sad day came in 1979, the year Britain considered its future and decided it lay in the past. When its leaders are stale and old and full of old ideas, not necessarily wanting to turn back the clock two hundred years but quite happy to see it happen if it keeps the unions down, a culture might not have much time for a show about a group of clean-cut, intelligent, extremely gifted young people capable of saving the world without adult supervision.

Looking back, it was inevitable that someone would revisit it, try to bring it 'up to date'. Roger Price's original premise was so clever, so original, that an age like ours, in which the quality of the culture has deteriorated so sharply over the forty-one years since Thames TV first screened 'The Tomorrow People', could not resist latching onto it as it latches on to every original idea that anyone has ever had, presumably in the hope of cash and ratings. In the case of 'The Tomorrow People', understandably fond nostalgia might also have played a part in its resurrection - the name of Danny Cannon was writ large across the credits. I have often thought it might get the big screen treatment sometime, which is, in my view, nothing less than what Price's vision deserves; but that was not to be.

Instead, it got the usual troupe of unrealistically chiselled, overly hair-lacquered, unfeasibly attractive and nauseatingly angst-ridden troupe of adolescent characters. I'm sure the actress who plays the character of 'Cara' is a perfectly pleasant young woman in reality; however, her part requires her to depict the same type of stale, barbaric, Barbie-esque, torn-faced concrete cupcake that has littered our television screens for decades. I just don't know what it is about this type of female character that makes American TV producers think that their audiences will find them sympathetic. They're not, they're loathesomely unattractive, and writing parts that require very pretty and talented young actresses to play that sort of character is deeply misogynistic. 

Yet the character of 'Cara' embodies everything that's wrong with this show - and although there are many other aspects of this revisiting that are uncomfortable, it is this character's treatment that shows it as being not merely unworthy but degenerate. 

Those behind the revisiting sure know their 'Tomorrow People' mythology. Homo Superior can't kill? Check. They can teleport (the original's marvellously British 'jaunting' is here replaced with 'jetting' - presumably 'jumping' was avoided for legal reasons), are telepathic and telekinetic? Check (one of them seems to have the same ability to stop time that Hiro had in 'Heroes' - maybe the new show's producers have forgotten that the TP can also induce hallucinations, which was how Andrew Forbes was discovered). They have a subterranean HQ and a computer named TIM? Check. I haven't heard mention of watchdog satellites yet, but maybe they'll get round to it. Yet they have something new, something which certainly wasn't in the original - violence. 

The character of 'Cara' was shown as having 'broken out' (evolved into a Tomorrow Person) while fleeing a boy who was trying to rape her after the prom (ah, the bloody prom - do TV producers think American teenagers have any lives outside the prom, are like some kind of vanishingly rare insect that must live a lifetime in one night?). And if it wasn't the prom, it looked like the prom. The circumstances in which the character of 'Carol', Cara's analog in the original show, broke out were rather different. 

She broke out while playing rounders during a PE lesson (I told you I was a fan; and if you don't believe me, go back to the novels. That's canonical).

Given the original's wholly non-violent content - it was a children's TV show, broadcast between four and five in the afternoon - the degree of violence in the revisiting is atrocious, even disturbing, so wholly at odds with the original's spirit is it. Biographical details for Roger Price are thin, but if memory serves, at the time he created 'The Tomorrow People' he either was or had been a commune-dwelling hippy. Put bluntly, 'The Tomorrow People' is hippy sci-fi. The original Tomorrow People might have been as likely to smoke pot through the barrels of their stun guns as they would have been to actually fire them. If you're a fan of 'The Tomorrow People', you will know that Homo Superior cannot kill. Those responsible for the remake have certainly grasped this part of the original - so why do they show Tomorrow People engaged in chopsocky guff with other Tomorrow People? Violence is precisely not what 'The Tomorrow People' is about - so why was any need felt to show Tomorrow People being violent? To each other? Why? Sure, it'll grab the 'X-Men' demographic, but that's about it. The original Tomorrow People resolved every situation they found themselves in through intelligence and guile, and violence makes a travesty of what the concept is about.

(Regarding the use of violence in televised science fiction, Roger Price was not merely on the same wavelength as Gene Roddenberry, he was in many ways streets ahead of him, an achievement for which he receives little credit.)

What is equally disturbing is its apparent paranoia. The revisiting's core plotline is that the Tomorrow People are being hunted down by other Tomorrow People working for a government agency. This was not the case in the original.  I sometimes wonder whether all those hours that TV producers have spent on analysts' couches have had the effect of actually magnifying any latent paranoia they might suffer from rather than alleviating it. It would be sad to think that the only context that can be provided for a wonderfully original premise like the 'Tomorrow People' on American television is one which involves the different being hunted by agents of their own government. If that's the case, that might be a commentary on American society and culture that I for one am not qualified to make - but if it were, as I say that would really be quite sad, even depressing.

There is one area in which the revisiting exceeds the original - the quality of the special effects. Those who know the original know that its effects weren't very good. So what? The show was still great. Special effects are like any other form of art - they have merit if they are original, well-made, meaningful and enduring (and if you don't think they can be enduring, ask any male over the age of ten to name the colours of lightsaber blades). The gulf in technique between the original and the revisiting is vast, not unlike comparing the works of Giotto with those of Canaletto. That's perfectly understandable, given the passage of time and the development of available technology. Yet by and of themselves they do not add anything - they are still a constant in the show's merits, not a value-adding variable. The new show would be subpar even if the effects made you think you were jaunting, sorry, 'jetting' into the story yourself. 

In that glorious period of creativity from 1963 to 1983, works of science fiction were created for British television that will always endure in the canon - 'Blake's 7', 'The Tomorrow People' and the daddy of them all, 'Doctor Who', still going strong at fifty. They aren't just bubblegum TV science fiction, they are artworks of considerable merit. Ars gratia artis, for sure, and the originals will never be diminished - yet as far as the revisiting of 'The Tomorrow People' is concerned, it says much both about the people who have made it and the market for which it was made that an event which was portrayed as happening during a PE lesson in the original should need an attempted rape in the remake. The original Tomorrow People saved the world many times over, God love them. It's sad to see them entangled in the culture wars. 

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A Lie Put To Bed

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

'Rococo: Travel, Pleasure, Madness'

It was interesting to see how closely the quadricontinental frescoed ceiling Tiepolo painted for the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg resembles that of the Gesu. 


'Wherever The Saltire Flies'

Having seen that it was written by a former Labour First Minister of Scotland and a then future SNP Justice 'Secretary', I picked this book off the library shelf in the belief that it would be a discussion of policy. 

Of my reaction when I finally opened it this morning and actually saw that the chapter headings referred to assorted Caledonian clubs all around the world, I can only say that I have rarely closed a book faster. 

I can firmly say that I have not judged this book by its cover; merely done it the courtesy of judging it by its chapter headings instead.


Monday, January 20, 2014

Extraordinary Rennardition

That's certainly a better title than the first draft's.

This episode highlights one of liberalism's fundamental truths - that the only response that those who believe that you, or more properly they, should be able do what you/they want, where you/they want, when you/they want, how you/they want are capable of when that belief is challenged is knee-jerk authoritarianism. For all their fluffy talk of equality and positive perceptions of womens' body shapes, inside each and every Liberal Democrat is a Napoleon III bursting to get out.

They all thoroughly deserve each other.

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'A Walk-On Part'

Hard to know what to make of 'A Walk-On Part', the 1994-99 section of diaries written by Chris Mullin, the other great Parliamentary diarist to have been played by John Hurt.

Having previously been in awe of what Mullin achieved before he entered Parliament, really for the best part of thirty years, it was with a measure of disquiet that I laid this volume of diaries down. For all his deep self-knowledge, the thought I took away from his book was that at the stage of his career he was recording he still seemed to be driven, almost like a car whose engine is running while the handbrake's still on, and perhaps incredibly ambitious - why else would he note that the new Leader of The Opposition had been born two years after he'd failed his 11-Plus? Did he really feel so left behind by events that he was reduced to comparing his age with that of someone holding an office to which he'd never aspired, the leadership of the Conservative Party? 

Yet at the same time, a man who before he'd turned forty had been heavily involved in correcting a notorious miscarriage of justice, written a novel which was later dramatised for television and been elected to Parliament is quite happy to write less than ten years later that his only remaining ambitions in politics were the chairmanship of a select committee and an office with a window. To my mind, the ambition I detect in the noting of ages does not sit easily with the apparent lack of ambition evident in his quest for a room with a view. What it might suggest is a sense of thwarted ambition; often the parent of frustration, that deadliest of emotional cul-de-sacs.

Always a man of the left, he seemed to be deeply attracted to walled gardens, items not usually within the reach of the poor and marginalised. 

There's no certainly no doubt that he seems to have been a conscientious constituency MP, and deeply committed to the ascendancy of Parliament - yet in my opinion his initial criticisms of the way in which Blair seemed to be freezing out the backbenchers don't really square with his own desire to be a part of the Blair government. It might be unfair to suggest this, but if you're willing to join a government doing that to its own backbenchers you wouldn't seem, in my opinion, to have much of a problem doing that to backbenchers yourself. 

The book is certainly entertaining and well-written, for sure, although the hardback's physical size is flattered by a generously sized  typeface; yet ultimately I just didn't know what to make of it. Perhaps this might have been because its author didn't quite know what to make of himself. Perhaps, like his book, Mr. Mullin might have less to say than first appearances might suggest.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Kevin McKenna Gets It!

The erosion of Scots' civil liberties by the soi-disant, ersatz 'Scottish Government' has been the ultimate proof of their fundamentally authoritarian, De Valerist character - the only acceptable vision for the Scottish nation is their vision, and if you don't comply you'll be pushed to the margins. 

If they win their referendum, the first law they will pass afterwards will demand the carrying of identity cards.


'The Outcast's Outcast'

Having been published in 2003, one of the sadder aspects of reading Peter Stanford's biography of Lord Longford now was realising that he was another one who was taken in by Jimmy Savile, whom he invited to join his commission on pornography. Of all those who were taken in by Savile, it's likely that Longford would have been among those to have felt the greatest degree of personal pain, had he ever found out the truth about him. Thank God he never did.

It's a very interesting book. A Bullingdonian who became a socialist, the only body to which Frank Pakenham was ever directly elected was Oxford City Council. He was discharged from the Army within months of the outbreak of war. His wife and children were better writers than he was - yet Frank Pakenham heard the Gospels' injunction to visit prisoners, and paid heed. If memory serves, I don't think Stanford uses the word 'apostolate' to describe's Pakenham's indefatigable prison visiting, which is a great pity, because that's what it certainly seemed to be. A saint? Above my pay grade to say that, but he certainly followed the Gospels' directions to the letter. 

And as Stanford points out, he was often ahead of his time. The commission on pornography went to Copenhagen, then Europe's porn capital. For all of the libertarian derision thrown at Pakenham in London, itself the consequence of liberal public school education too heavily focussed on the so-called 'classics' and their parade of unfit role models, the Danes were so shocked by Pakenham's findings that they cleaned up their act. 

Why can't we?