Sam I Ain’t

“We did a whole lot of things that were right, but we tortured some folks,” tweeted the US President in an astonishingly word perfect justification for Jihad. Not even his chummy use of ‘folks’ could limit the despair of the admission which was rather like the Pope saying, and I paraphrase, “We gave a whole lot of young boys a great education, but we f****ed some of them.”

Ask anyone who has found themselves at an ‘anonymous’ self-help group and they’ll say that the first step to recovery from damaging habits is owning up to them. And, though possibly this really is a, “My name is Uncle Sam and I’m a torturer,” hand wringing, mea culpa, past cleansing, new brooming, flush of moral anxiety, I suspect its timing has more to do with the Obama administration taking the very last opportunity to do this before it can be buried by the Republicans when they take over in the senate in the new year. And if they get bogged down in the backlash, hey, it’s win-win for Hillary. You’ve got to admire the political nous of the man who thought to rename the CIA Headquarters, without a hint of irony, the ‘George Bush Center for Intelligence’, meaning his name will now get associated in every ripple of this scandal. That man was, of course, George Bush.

Still, no one can feel comfortable welcoming the US to Officially Morally Bankrupt Anonymous; even if the announcement, though a shock, comes as no surprise. Hints, accusations and court cases have rumbled under for years. No one, except a few redcoats, really thought Guatanamo was a cushier place than the Skegness Butlins and ‘extraordinary rendition’ has become a worn phrase long before anyone admitted it really was a thing. This may well be the moment, while everyone is looking the other way, for Mr Assange to slip smugly out of the Ecuadorian embassy for a quiet drink with Mr Snowden.

The CIA has, of course, known the report on their interrogation tactics was coming for some time and my inner conspiracy theorist is starting to wonder if much of the publicity that the, almost credulity stretching, ISIS brutality has been garnering in the last few months could have been, in fact, orchestrated as ‘first strike’ damage limitation by the CIA. “It’s a brutal world out there friends, and we’re doing, a whole lot of things that are right, oh, but we’re torturing some folks.”

I guess we’ll find out if the ISIS stories start to dry up over the next few months. Unless it is in the interests of pre-electioneering

I can never let my inner conspiracy theorist out for too long or it starts wondering things like whether show-off Jihadi John could by a CIA operative? It’s not like he’s been beheading any US military personnel but pesky journalists and earning ‘maximum baddie’ stars for decapitating aid workers.

Of course we may never know as this 525-page report is merely a summary of a 6,000-page document which remains classified.

The ramifications are clear though. The foot-soldiers in the battle for hearts and minds might as well pack up and go home on indefinite leave. Though Obama may be hoping that the admission of flaws puts the US one step ahead of all the other despots in denial, the message that Western style democracy has the power to spread freedom across the world seems no longer arguable. Give people the right to choose their leaders and still they’ll pick monsters, just monsters who share their prejudices. There’s no moral high ground, freedom is relative, governments are corrupt and Butlins is actually quite fun. It turns out that all you need to cope with any of these things is a strong sense of irony.

How do we know? British pride has taken no end of knocks since the end of Empire. Our perseverance in World Cup humiliations is a testament to this. But then our fine sense of the ironic, the fact that almost everything we say can be placed in inverted commas, is how we’ve learnt to cope with an unjust world. We find a way to laugh, if somewhat bitterly, and if you give us the first few notes of a song we’ll give you an extraordinary rendition.


First published in


Cancel Halloween


Shall we just not bother with Halloween this year? It’s looking, quite frankly, as pale as a ghost, next to the daily glut of terror we’re surrounded with every day. If it isn’t swivel-eyed Jihadi John, coming to behead you, it’s Ebola ready to infect you. Or, if the thought of haemorrhaging out of your eyeballs, and every pore, doesn’t loosen your bowels, there’s always the precarious Ukrainian dominoes neatly being stacked for a nuclear WWIII Armageddon.

Too distant? Like your bogeymen closer to home? May I suggest the Latvian lurking by the canal or the gangs of middle-aged men in towns from Rotherham to Rochdale ready to rape our children or the, apparently inevitable, home-grown explosive response to Syrian air-strikes? I won’t bother with the rising cancer rates and even if you’re still willing to bury your head in the sand, your exposed backside is in for a tanning as climate change will send us all to a boiling hot hell… in a handcart.

Somehow Halloween, the sweet festival of ghosts and ghoulies, witches and pumpkins, seems little more than a faded facsimile of horror, a charming parade of archetypes of the ‘unknown’ that inspired fears in a more innocent age. The ‘unknown’ traditionally considered more frightening than the ‘known’; which is why horror movies only show their monsters in the last reel. Once they’re seen they’re somehow less powerful, they’re quantifiable, within comprehension.

But our modern terrors are all too visible; and visceral. They’re being injected straight into our eyeballs through the media’s non-stop news agenda. How many of us would have spotted any of the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant (ISIL)’s stomach churning LiveLeak decapitation videos, swiftly removed once posted, amongst thousands posted every hour? But even The Times was eager to describe the last moments of Alan Henning with macabre pleasure. A “hooded jihadist covered his mouth and began to cut his throat,” they gleefully recounted on their front page. “A muffled scream of pain was clearly audible…” Right up to the closing shot of, “Mr Henning’s body lying in the desert with his severed head on top.”

Pointless exploitative voyeurism? Or is the media’s need to feed, and sell their ‘product’, being exploited by the political agendas of terrorists and politicians alike? With the titillating Page-3 girls and the News of the World’s naughty vicars retiring, an endless stream of costumed neo-Halloween candidates, from balaclaved Russian troops to maniqāb cloaked Jihadists, are rising to take their place.

It’s win-win for the media. Fear is essential to us and one of the easier ways to catch our attention. It’s one of the defining characteristics in our survival and evolution. It was, after all, those idiot fearless bipeds, strolling into the jaws of the local lions, that failed to breed. Cautious, scared, careful, homo-erectus, with the impulse for ‘fight or flight’, inheritor of the adrenaline rush in dangerous situations, avoided the merciless nature of, well, nature.

Sadly, fear seems to be the one emotion that inspires people to action more than love, hate, greed or even the annoyance of getting your Costa latte with too much froth.

Franklin D. Roosevelt reckoned the only fear was phobaphobia, that the, “only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” A tautological paradox which is about as useful as saying the only thing we have to drink is drink itself; making the cocktail menu very short indeed.

We may not have bombs raining on us (yet), or national conscription into grisly wars (yet), but still, every day, we have to contend with a gamut of fears. As the world becomes more crowded, our sense of belonging and identity feels more precarious. The rise of terrified little UKIP, united in their terror of displacement by alien hordes of immigrants and the distancing of power, seems inevitable. In a world where ‘jobs for life’ are a distant memory, we constantly fear for our livelihoods. We fear being sued, we fear the olive-skinned man on the tube with the wires hanging out of his backpack.

As I write, I’m grappling with my own fear; of being accused of prejudice, just as the Rotherham Police apparently did; allowing the rape of 1400 teenage girls to continue for years. I wrote, then erased, the words, ‘predominantly Asian’ when referring to the convicted paedophile gangs, as if the difference of belief backgrounds between abusers and victims couldn’t, shouldn’t, be scrutinised as to cause. But what terrors do we let in the back door when we guard the front for fear?

From the cold war threat of a nuclear winter, through countless acronymic terrors, AIDS, BSE, SARS, to today’s climate change, citizens of the peacetime West have had innumerable fears to fill the dark corners of their imaginations. None actually reached their promised fruition except, of course, the ‘Zombie Apocalypse’; but I guess we can cope with the victims of iWear, the loping, transfixed, headphone wearing, walking dead, stumbling around. Even with their 5:2 low-carb diets, they’re not about to start eating brains.

So now, with trepidation almost a national pastime shall we cancel Halloween? At least it’ll be a brief respite; a nostalgic look at a time when horror was little more than a pumpkin with a candle. Even if we’ll never again let the little darlings go ‘trick or treating’ alone…


First published in


East Eats West

As we remember World War One and the poppy fields of Flanders this year, the present war zones surrounding Europe, from Libya in the south, around the Mediterranean Levant, to the Ukraine in the north, are keen reminders of the consequences of actions, most of them British, that go back to The Great War itself.

The battles and beheadings, the apparent cheapness of life in these areas seem an horrific anathema to capital-led, secular, quiet, middle-class dominated, shiny iPhone salivating, post-enlightenment Europe. From Islamic State to the balaclavaed Russian forces in the Ukraine, or the terror of returning battle hardened Syrian Jihadists, it appears like the viper at the door spitting at us, ready to strike. It seems to revel in the sorts of inhumanity and rapaciousness that makes us quake; and it’s all happening next door. But like many a great horror story it turns out that the victim is often responsible for making the monster. Not one of these conflicts is without the influence of European political manoeuvring set in motion by WWI.

At the beginning of 1914, the Turkish led Ottoman Empire was the dominant controlling interest in the Middle East. It stretched from Algiers to the Persian Gulf, from Budapest to Somalia. When the Ottomans backed the Germans at the outbreak of WWI, Britain was quick to see opportunities far away from the killing fields of Northern France. Here was a chance to undermine this rival empire and secure, not just the emerging oil fields, but its routes to India and the Far East through the Suez Canal.

On the 9th of November Prime Minister Herbert Asquith announced, ‘It is the Ottoman government, and not we who have rung the death knell of Ottoman dominion not only in Europe but in Asia.’ With British troops already stationed in Egypt, to ‘assist’ keeping order, Britain swiftly severed formal links with the Ottoman Empire, declared a protectorate over the country, deposed the anti-British Khedive Abbas Hilmi II, and installed a successor.

Despite misgivings from High Command, who wanted to focus limited military resources on the western front with Germany, an offensive against the Ottoman Empire was launched on three fronts: the Dardanelles near Gallipoli, in Mesopotamia (now Iran), and on the border between Egypt and Palestine; Russia kept Turkey engaged from the north.

Although faced with some catastrophic defeats on all these fronts, the British remained tenaciousness and found other ways in which to do battle. In June 1916 The British ‘Arab Bureau,’ based in Cairo, set a new precedent that has remained the preferred form for Middle East conflict management ever since: foreign financial sponsorship for internal revolts. Throwing arms and money at insurgents was, after all, much cheaper than tying up your own men in battle and, as long as they remembered just who their paymasters were, a perfect way to sweep in and take control once the dust has settled. Employing one charming T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) they sponsored and financed the revolt of tribesmen in the Arabian Peninsula against their Ottoman overlords.

So successful was British sponsorship, that control of the entire ‘Fertile Crescent’, the lands from the Nile flood plain around the Levant to the lands around the Tigris in Persia (later Iran), fell under British diktat.

After the war, Britain lacked the resources to run the Middle East Empire in the same hands-on way that India was ruled. The method of financing ‘puppet’ princelings and kings in different tribal regions seemed a win win policy.

It was indirect rule through what was called ‘Benevolent Paternalism’ indirect and inexpensive, a limited liability empire that lasted intact right up to the end of WWII. Indeed, in 1942 Colonial Secretary, Lord Cranborne, said, ‘We not only disclaim any intention of establishing direct rule, but also quite sincerely and genuinely do not wish to do so… We must keep steadily in front of us the aim of establishing… a group of efficient Arab authorities who will conduct their own administration under the general guidance and protection of His Majesty’s government.’

That, of course, did not stop British forces eliminating the enemies of ‘British-friendly’ protectorates with a brutality not entirely dissimilar to what we witness ISIS indulging in now – through the lenses of their own iphones of course, the eyes of foreign journalist being considered a particularly delicacy for plucking out by ISIS fighters.

Perhaps the most controversial of British interventions in the period was the 1917 Balfour Declaration which hoped to win over Jewish public opinion to the side of the Allies. Arthur James Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, wrote to leading Jewish advocate Lionel Walter Rothschild, promising the establishment of a homeland for Jewish people in Palestine that would not disturb the present non-Jewish residents in the event of the Allies winning WWI.

After WWII the cost of war for the British proved too much to maintain imperial interests abroad and increasing agitation in Palestine, especially from Zionist Jews, proved that rule and occupation was too difficult to maintain and British interests were gradually removed.

The Ukraine has also faced European interference from WWI on. On 18 December 1918, a month after Armistice, as the Russian Revolution broke, France occupied Odessa with the help of Polish and Greek forces. This intervention in Southern Russia (later Ukraine) brought supplies to the loyalist White Army forces, fighting the Bolsheviks. A year later they withdrew after the White Army’s humiliated march against Moscow and in 1920 helped its vestiges escape on Allied boats.

Ninety-three years later the urge to join Europe re-emerged with a vengence. The Euromaidan protests in November 2013 began after President Viktor Yanukovych shied away from an association agreement with the European Union to establish closer ties with his own foreign sponsor, the Russian Federation. Carnage has resulted even taking out the passengers on flight MH-17, passing by at 33,000 feet.

A hundred years since WWI gave Britain the opportunity to start campaigns of foreign sponsored insurrection (aka terrorism) in Arabic countries, is it any wonder that any number of other nations have done the same?

Britain has managed to retain relatively cordial relations with most of the colonial nations that fell under British ‘direct’ rule. Despite manifold injustices and exploitation, there were at least some benefits from the massive infrastructures put in place: roads, schools, railways, legal structures, irrigation. The ‘Indirect Rule’ manifest in the Middle East, which added little to the development of the region, appears to have been little more than a devastating imposition and interference.

Now Europe is surrounded by conflicts born of our innumerable interferences. As we know from the victims of Rotherham, Savile and countless others, those who have been interfered with, again and again, are often damaged beyond sense and it can come as no surprise when so many end up seeking the solidity and security of fundamentalist religion or the paternalism of a tough masters like Russia. No one can blame them for being angry but, unlike individual victims, these ones are armed.

We can pray that the monster will eat itself or see this threat from the East as the herald to a new world conflict but it cannot be ignored. A word seldom mentioned since the end of the cold war has lately re-emerged: NATO. Poor underfunded neglected little NATO… let’s hope Europe hasn’t lost its phone number after so many years and so many upgrades to ever shinier new iphones.


First published in


Afore ye go!

Scott’s a smart kid; we’ve had him to stay for a while. Like any boy his age he smells a bit but he’s helpful around the house and he’s become part of the family. At his best he’s entertaining with a unique turn of phrase. At his worst, which is more often than not, he whines. Lord, he whines; about everything. It’s not fair! There’s no justice! No one listens to me!

According to Scott, everybody’s getting more than him, he’s fed up storing other people’s junk in his room, he wants his own space, everything would be so much better if he just went home. And, since we started struggling a bit more, financially, his threats to run away have become more visceral.

And this is how smart he is. As soon as he starts packing his bags, despite nobody believing he’ll actually go, everybody in the family starts sucking up to him. And he loves it. We up his pocket money, laugh at all his jokes and promise to move the Trident submarines out of his lochs the moment we can.

Aye he’s a canny player and, on the 18th of September, apparently, he’s going to finally make up his mind whether he’s staying or not. And it’s hard to tell if it’s just more chest thumping, screaming for attention or if he really will carry it out; cutting off his nose to spite his face… at least he’d smell less.

And I’m not convinced he knows either; because this apparently all-grown-up declaration to move out is accompanied by an almost wilful ignorance of any of the logistics that may be involved, never mind the bravado about oil, currency and NHS.

Considering the mammoth complications involved in a separation involving just one child, multiply that by 5.3 million and you can see that, whatever Scott’s decision on the 18th, his actual departure is probably decades away – and involve the legislative advice of an infinite set of monkeys… I mean lawyers, no, wait…

And here’s the rub. If taxpayers from the rest of the UK are going to be funding all the legislation that would follow, shouldn’t our opinion be balloted too? I’m not the only one wondering: How on earth did Scott get all this his own way?

He’s a canny laddie. He’s elicited huge promises if only he won’t go, but on the 18th  we’ll see if it’s bluff or brav(eheart)ado. And if he does? How’s he going to fare when he discovers he really needs to fund himself?

Not to worry. Scotland has given the world some of the smartest and best. The inventor of the television, the telephone, Sherlock Holmes and the Newcomen steam engine, driver of the Industrial Revolution, all came from Scotland. David Tennant, Sean Connery, Calvin Harris and even Lulu, all came from Scotland.

That’s, ‘came from Scotland.’

Unfortunately, not one of them found the foresight and investment needed to make their inventions, and names, in their home country. And it’s not like the potential for investment’s not there; before the crash the Royal Bank of Scotland was the world’s single biggest bank.

Try the game for yourself: name more than five Scots who made their mark on the world based solely in Scotland. I’ll start you off. Charles Rennie Macintosh, Robbie Burns and, er, Greyfriar’s Bobbie? The list soon dissipates. Even the great Scots such as Walter, The Proclaimers, Billy Connelly and The Krankies, simply packaged up Scotland in a tartan bow to sell south of the Tweed.

Rabid hibernaphobe Samuel Johnson famously said that ‘The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!’ By ‘prospect’ he meant ‘view’ but maybe he had a point in its other meaning: ‘chance of success.’ For, where the English may duck and dive, try a punt, and take a risk to innovate, Scotland’s Calvanist past seems to perpetuate and still sees it unwilling to back its own children.

I suppose the best thing to do with attention seeking kids is ignore them. Scott won’t be gone on the 18th even if he ‘decides’ to go. And honestly, by the time he finally decides in what manner to make his exit and flounces out, I’m not sure I’ll miss him.


First published in


Curse of the Green Disk

‘It’s my Waitrose,’ I proudly show the lady at the checkout, tapping my first ever loyalty card. What they don’t know about my dalliances with Sainsbury’s or my stolen moments at Tesco, won’t hurt them I reason. Still, it’s a new departure for me, I think even my wife would think twice before giving me a loyalty card.

Waitrose, it seems, has been widening its customer base. It started with colourful ads bigging-up competitive pricing on brands beloved of less discerning shoppers, baked beans, oven chips and the like. None of your rich, ‘slow roasted with herbs’, Jamie and Delia style campaigns there. But then came their coup de grace: free coffee and a newspaper. They had me at ‘free’ – and like so many, for that paltry opportunity, I signed away my precious data privacy without a by-your-leave from Google who must, by now, own it entirely.

My rapture at joining the club of those ‘comfortably off’ enough to shop at David Cameron’s favourite supermarket was, quickly dampened as, the very day my myWaitrose card arrived, the shopping threshold to qualify for a free newspaper rose from £5 to £10. It was as if they had seen me, or my type, coming.

So now, coffee in one hand, I take my receipt. ‘And this for the boxes’, she puts a small green plastic disk in my hand and gestures towards the doors. There, three transparent Perspex containers brim with green disks. I look back at her. ‘For charity,’ she explains.

‘Right,’ I nod, pretending that I knew that all along and I was merely distracted by a great thought; as we intelligentsia who frequent Waitrose must often do.

I gather my shopping bags and make my way to the boxes. Little, faded, home printed signs tell me that a hospice for children, an inner city youth project for underprivileged kids and a cat sanctuary, are all desperate for my green disk. Dying children, kids imprisoned in poverty and, well, the most adorable cats you’ve ever seen. Which one do I choose? Which one?

I only popped out for a frozen pizza and free latte, now I find myself skewered on the horns of an almost Solomonian ethical dilemma.

At the exit to Asda, your biggest problem is finding the right change for the Pay and Display machine. But try to be a little aspirational, step up a notch in food emporia, and look what happens! You’re suddenly being asked to decide between easing the last moments of a dying child or helping a kid escape a longer life of poverty. How can you make that kind of call? And yes, there’s still those big-eyed, fluffy, unhappy little cats to consider. I don’t care if it’s just one little green disk, I’m still being asked to decide one is more important than the others.

It’s at this point I start to feel a fraud; that perhaps I should have stuck to Lidl and to hell with the free coffee. Maybe, if I was genuinely supposed to be there, if I read the Guardian, if I had no doubts about global warming, if I sponsored an African child or drank Fair-Trade coffee, maybe then I’d be more prepared for this sort of moral quandary. Maybe if I was a regular Waitrose customer, reassured by the price of Duchy Biscuits, instead of a chancer lured by free coffee, I’d find this sort of problem as untaxing as the Cayman Islands.

I had imagined that, just by carrying a myWaitrose card, I too might become one of the elegant, high earning, sun-dried tomato nibbling, natural customers of Waitrose. I never realised that guilt would play such a part in premium shopping that charity was an integral to the commerce. Or that you may have to play Russian Roulette with worthy causes. Is it a bullet for the struggling children or the traumatised cats? The glossy magazine, the coffee, the Waitrose aura, it just seemed as close as one could get to becoming a card carrying member of the middle classes.

I know ‘class’ is one of those unutterable things – like Swiss bank accounts, membership of Fight Club, and haemorrhoids – that you apparently only talk about if you don’t have it but Waitrose has become so iconic to aspiration in Cameron’s Britain it’s hard to avoid the consequences of a card that bestows privilege and status as well as accessibility in the way the myWaitrose card does. It’s there confidently nestled between the gold credit card and the membership to Soho House as a clear statement of values and accomplishment.

But I’m locked in my dilemma. A mother, buggy and torrent of wailing, combo hurriedly passes. She dumps two green disks in different slots without breaking stride or pausing in phone conversation before caterwauling away. So this is the price of a cup of coffee I realise. I gratefully took the slot less travelled by – and that has made all the difference.


First published in


School Reports – Could Do Better

‘This term Marius has shown a great interest in the world, unfortunately it is a world of his own.’

Thus my Geography teacher found some delight in ridiculing my imaginative response to meanders, oxbow lakes and his achingly boring teaching. In fact, if it weren’t for his, and many others’, end of year reports I would have left school believing that teaching was a profession devoid of wit.

As it was, the end of year school report in July used to be seized by teachers as an opportunity to hone their blunt classroom sarcasm, of the, ‘Does your dog survive wholly on a diet of homework McKechnie?’ variety, for a more sophisticated adult audience.

‘Before writing in tests, I recommend boys read questions over twice. Marius might benefit by reading them once,’ wrote witty Mr ‘Fartridge’ Partridge.

For others the simple damnation of faint praise was more than enough. ‘Ping Pong improved.’ was all my PE teacher found to say one year. A man of few words, most of them expletives, he may have been genuinely grasping for something kind to put; but my parents instantly saw an entire and devastating critique of my sporting underachievement.

Even the head joined in the fun. My best  friend was the unfortunate recipient of, ‘… if Chris fails to learn next year’s History, he will be doomed to repeat it.’

Along with the classic phrases like ‘could do better’ and ‘needs to try harder,’ the accusation that was most often levelled at me in reports, throughout my education into University itself, was: ‘fails to see the wood for the trees.’ A statement that bewildered me and, frankly, still does. I knew it was a paradigm concerning overcoming ambiguity with prioritisation and decisiveness but I was always plagued by the ambiguity of the phrase itself. Did it mean I missed seeing the detail of the wood that the trees were made of because I was too busy looking at the bigger collective of trees? Or could I not see the bigger, forest-like, ‘wood’ because I was too busy looking at the detail of the trees that make it up?

Happily my unwillingness, or inability, to prioritise, eventually turned into an asset. For a writer, seeing every angle and argument without bias is a positive quality. Or is it? Maybe it isn’t. I do find it hard to tell.

But, with those snarky, witty, school reports in mind, when my first child when to school, I positively relished the idea of reading the delicious wit that would issue forth at the end of the year.  And, like so many events that come after the age of 30, I was disappointed.

Unfortunately, today’s school reports are a far cry from those Quink Ink, acerbic miniature pen portraits of my youth. Now they’re computer printouts with suspiciously formulaic phrases that oblige teachers to include ‘positive reinforcement’ backed up by ‘performance indicators’:

(Pupil’s Name) has worked [delete as appropriate] (hard / diligently /with mounting despair) this year. (Pupil’s Name) struggled with (difficult subject) but has shown (excellent / valiant / slow) progress in (easy subject). Next year (Pupil’s Name repeated again just to make sure you sound like you know who you’re talking about) will need to focus on their (entirely random goal picked out of the air)…

Gone are the days when a child could learn the fine art of subtle irony and subtext from a school report. Gone is  the carefully chosen velvet phrase packing an iron fist beneath. Finished are the days when the report of a shotgun would be more welcome. Never again will I see the sort of considered critical wit like the one I recieved from my 4th year Maths teacher.

‘In Maths Marius struggles to see the point, which makes working with decimals very challenging.’


First published in


Why Manners Matter

“Get your elbows off the table; put your phone away, don’t talk with your mouth full, don’t eat with your mouth open, have you washed your hands? Don’t use your fingers, hold the cutlery properly, sit up straight, don’t tip your seat, offer it round before you take for yourself, say please, say thank you, say excuse me, don’t slurp, pass the butter, don’t chuck it…careful with that knife it’s shaaaargh!”

good_mannersThis week I have probably uttered every one, except the last, of these phrases; more than once – and it’s only Tuesday. I desperately try to get my children to watch their manners, to observe a code of conduct that they think is pointless, irritating, and generally bananas.  What’s more, I thought exactly the same when my Dad used to lecture me.  I had a theory that what adults called ‘manners’ was just senseless ritual, a way for the head ape to assert his authority, all the more so by demanding pointless actions.

So, like all kids, I resisted and ignored the call to manners, and was berated from high-chair to high school. So why, now, do I find myself demanding the same behaviour from my kids? Is it learnt parenting? Am I desperate to be recognised as head ape? Or is there something more instinctual at play?

There’s no doubt that that the list of manners that we’re brought up to observe is maddening but recent research shows that manners might just be one of the most important evolutionary behaviours we possess.

Human socialisation has been a key to our evolution to uber-species. Yet, through contact, we also threaten each other with hostile microbes, viruses, and potential diseases.

‘You are a walking bag of microbes,’ explains Dr Val Curtis writing in the New Scientist, ‘With every exhalation you might emit millions of influenza viruses, and your handshake might transfer salmonella bacteria or scabies mites… so how can we get close enough to share benefits but avoid sharing our microbes? … Manners dictate that if I want to interact with you I should stay a safe distance; far enough away not to spray you with microbe laden saliva.’

4220141488_9276da3ca7_bAn expert on disease control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Dr Curtis argues that manners make sure we are clean and cover the parts of the body where microbes may lurk. For the same health preserving reasons, manners also dictate that we share food but not food we’ve already bitten and clean our dwellings before inviting others in. Failure to comply may damage your reputation and ostracise you from the benefits of our powerfully social species

Studies have shown that our expressions of disgust are made visually and audibly to shame those who don’t meet our social hygiene expectations. We also make them so we can train our children even before language.

Even manners’ less hygiene focussed faux altruism provides a positive gain. ‘The child who passes a plate of food before serving herself,’ Dr Curtis says, ‘is showing that she can control her selfish tendencies. In effect, she is saying: “Look how well my mother taught me. If I can show such self-control now, how useful a member of this society I will be in the future. In the meantime, you can safely do business with my family.” The child taught restraint with cake now by her mother would be likely to receive a greater total of cooperative cake in her lifetime.’

For Curtis manners are a ‘proto-morality, a set of behaviours that we make “second nature” early in life so that we can avoid disgusting others with our parasites and our antisocial behaviour. ‘

‘We don’t rationally calculate how to avoid inflicting our pathogens on others, nor do we consciously calculate that a small courtesy now might lead us to a big trading opportunity later. Instead, we have vague intuitions that it would be better not to disgust a guest by appearing unkempt or by offering them a dirty towel, and we follow the rules of politeness that were drummed into us as children. When we fail in these civilities, the disgust shown by our interlocutor provokes shame and teaches us not to repeat the offence.’

1528290674_55e8846e48_zSociologists have pointed to manners as possessing symbolic gestures indicating membership of a tribe or class.  People who observe the same manner rituals are more likely to assume a bond and trust each other. But in these more hygienically aware times, and as class barriers are brought down, do manners still have a place?

They have at my bloody table.  Get your elbows off it.

Don’t Look Don’t Touch; The science behind revulsion by Valerie Curtis (Oxford University Press/University of Chicago Press) is available now.


First published in


Are we machine?

Know someone well enough and they can be fairly easy to predict.  I can, for example, predict my wife’s reactions to me forgetting to put the rubbish out, forgetting to scrape my plate before it goes in the dish-washer or forgetting a pair of women’s knickers on the back seat of the car.

Predicting general human behaviour, though, is a lot harder. As a species we have relied on diversity to give evolution the best chance to improve. So whatever a majority of us may predictably do, a minority will almost always exist that defies predictions.  Human reactions can only be anticipated in very generalised percentages. Once our basic survival needs, sustenance and shelter, are satisfied, there’s little that is truly universal about human experience, desires or behaviour[1]. But there are rich rewards for those who can come close to predicting people’s needs. Knowing what a potential customer wants before they want it puts a retailer way ahead of the competition.

A couple of years ago the aptly named ‘Target’ chain store in America was exposed as a master of predictive analytics when a man went in to a Minneapolis branch to complain.[2] He angrily waved a coupon book at the manager.

‘My daughter got this in the mail! She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?’

The mailer did, indeed, contain advertisements for maternity wear, nursery items and photos of gurgling babies. The manager apologized profusely and then, apparently, called a few days later to apologize again.

On the phone though, the father was a bit embarrassed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”

What none of them knew was that Target’s computers crawl through buying data harvested from loyalty cards. They had identified about 25 products that, when analysed together, allowed them to assign a “pregnancy prediction” score to every shopper. What’s more, they could estimate a due date to within a small window and send coupons timed to specific stages of pregnancy.

‘Take a fictional Target shopper named Jenny Ward,’ one Target employee told The New York Times, ‘she’s 23, lives in Atlanta and in March bought cocoa-butter lotion, a purse large enough to double as a diaper bag, zinc and magnesium supplements and a bright blue rug. There’s, say, an 87 percent chance that she’s pregnant and that her delivery date is sometime in late August.’

Now the social media behemoths, Facebook and Twitter, have begun to show off their abilities in this kind of predictive analytics. In a valentines tie-in PR move, Facebook published figures showing that they could predict, from the content and frequency of users’ posts, when a couple would fall in love.[3]

A couple with a lot of friends in common is a prime predictor. Then, when they appear in lots of pictures together, and start checking out each other’s online activity, they’re well on the way. Apparently, there is then a flurry of Facebook ‘interaction’ when two people are about to enter a relationship. But, 12 days before the official ‘In a relationship’ update, everything goes quiet with both posting an average 1.67 updates per day; presumably finding better things to do than sitting on Facebook.

Interestingly for Facebook-stalkers, if you want to know if a breakup is about to occur, a good sign is when couples stop appearing in pictures together or commenting on each other’s updates.

More seriously, Twitter, it was claimed, had the potential to predict post-natal depression.[4] Dr Eric Horvitz, head of Microsoft Research, analysed the tweets of several hundred new mothers over the three months before and after giving birth. He studied the changes in the amount of time they spent on Twitter, the people they were in touch with, and the language used. According to Horvitz, even an increase in the use of ‘I’ can suggest someone is becoming more introspective and self-focused: symptoms linked to the onset of depression. Though what Twitter is all about if it’s not me, me, me oh and, yeah, sometimes you, I’m not sure.

Still, in a market where the social media giants have struggled to meet their full ‘monetized’ potential, there is more to these displays of benign analytics than meets the eye.  Both, no doubt, hope to court more targeted and, therefore, lucrative business from advertisers who are still stuck randomly advertising their ‘Asian Babes’ on the BNP social media pages.

imageSo ubiquitous has social networking become we forget the medium is still a computer. The databanks of our emotional zeitgeist are being filed away as arrays of numbers and there’s nothing computers like doing more than crunching them like bowls of Frosties. Forget the vulnerability of your personal data, it’s the human meaning that they can extract from our massed data that will make us truly defencelessness. Future targeted advertising won’t be about cosying up to you by knowing your name and what pets you have, it’ll be about anticipating why you went to that site, visited that pub, lingered longer on those images, and what that means you absolutely won’t be able to resist buying based on the behaviour of millions of others. The nature of capitalism is to let money lead the way. If it pays to produce machines honed to predict human behaviour, then they will only get better and better at it.

However, is there something more insidious going on?  Are we in our turn making ourselves more predictable? Are we so delighted with our ‘app’y existence that, as nature’s paragon of adaptability, we are changing our behaviour to become more amenable to the devices we use? If Siri needs certain commands to understand us we supply them, we’re ‘calling’ our friends, never ‘ringing’ them. We’re ceding the independence of our information memories, happy to rely on instant access to the opinion of the collective disseminated by Google and Wikipedia. My handwriting is going to pot and slowly our daily lives, our attention, our time, our priorities, are being sucked in by the need to keep our eyes on our screens. It doesn’t take a Deep Blue or HAL to predict what you’ll be doing at, say, 9.30am on a weekday morning.  More than likely you’ll be staring at a computer.  You’re audial interface holes – read ears – are probably plugged-in to a machine whenever you’re in transit and, who knows if it’s true that if you’re a bloke you’re thinking about sex every two minutes, but one thing you’re almost sure to be doing is checking your phone screen every six.[5]

Originally, machines were developed to do tasks more predictably than humans. But, the more predictable we are, the more like machines we become.  We are, like eager monsters of Frankenstein, becoming an amalgamation of technology and tissue. What was Frankenstein after all but the Romantic vision of a logical end of the Industrial Revolution?  Our willingness to envision ourselves as machines is endemic. I cannot remember a secular analogy for how a body functions, or a brain operates, or how life works which wasn’t predicated on mechanical principles or computer systematics; that is despite the evidence of our every waking moment of the –so far – inexplicable, incomputable, mechanical-analogous-resistant human consciousness.  We seem eager to see ourselves as machines.  Even our most sophisticated brain scanning equipment is based on measuring electrical currents. We have had centuries of this mechanistic perspective that challenged the ancient ideas of there being a ‘divine spark’ or a ‘soul’, is it any wonder that far from fearing our convergence with the machine, we’re welcoming it?

In 1958, the mathematician John von Neumann described the ‘Singularity’; the moment when AI would surpass human intelligence, fundamentally changing civilization and human nature for ever.[6]  It all must have seemed a long way off but how could von Neumann have anticipated the apparent willing self-dumbing of humans in the face of technology offering such low hanging fruits as diary reminders, instant access to trivia, infuriated birds and crushed candy?

Perhaps then, the real singularity is, more realistically, the convergence of smarter less predictable machines and dumber more predictable humans. There’s no doubt we feel it’s close. In November Google admitted that they no longer completely understood how their “deep learning” decision-making computer systems have made themselves so good at recognizing things in photos. At the Machine Learning Conference in San Francisco, Google software engineer Quoc V. Le said he couldn’t actually work out why his software was better at telling that an image of a machine was a paper shredder than the humans that he had polled.[7]

It would seem that this is just good old human error. After millennia of making mistakes, we’re particularly good at it.  We make errors – that’s how we learn; indeed evolve. I’d suggest that this simply shows that there are a significant number of humans who are too stupid, or simply not bothered enough, to recognise a paper shredder – or that there are some other humans who have produced some really dumb designs for paper shredders.

Not Google, another giant corporation eager to attract advertisers and never shy of blowing its own trumpet. They appear to be claiming this ostensible failure as a victory.

“We had to rely on data to engineer the features for us, rather than engineer the features ourselves,” Quoc explained.

In other words, Google’s AI is so powerful they have effectively brought us to the borders of the Singularity; the programming seems to think independently from its programmers, and its cognitive processes are so complex they are, apparently, inscrutable. At last – a machine that eludes the essence of a machine: predictability. And it’s got Google branded right across it.

It is far beyond the Artificial Intelligence posited by Alan Turing.[8] He envisioned a computer that could converse with such human-like qualities it could deceive a person into thinking it too was human. Looking at the number of people apparently fooled by the digital come-on show-babes on dating websites, it suggests that this is actually quite a low bar.  Turing’s was a sort of ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ paradigm; not intelligence as such, just apparently so, based on the predictability of most human conversation.  So as we act more predictably, is our own intelligence more artificial?

With all the information, the details of our lives, that we have uploaded into the machines of the social networks, we have become, to their analytics and analytics to come, as predictable as the vanishing of those ‘show-babes’ from the website the moment payment clears.

And yet we seem to love playing out our lives through the eyes of the machine. We’ve instagrammed ourselves, we’ve filtered and recoloured, punched up, lomoized and retroized our memories. It seems such a nicer place to have been than the boring ‘real world’.

And in this have we been coerced, or co-opted? In Google and the social networks’ lust for commercial opportunity, isn’t it time to ask if all the updates and tweets, the stories from our souls that we have invested in them – and their machines – are simply mechanising us? Forget the singularity. Are we machine?

Screw their data, do something surprising today… and don’t tell Facebook.

[1] ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory in psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in Psychological Review.’

[2] How Companies Learn Your Secrets by Charles Duhigg Published: February 16, 2012

[3] Predicting Love And Breakups With Facebook Data by Gregory Ferenstein Feb 14, 2014

[4] Predicting Depression via Social Media by Munmun De Choudhury, Michael Gamon, Scott Counts, Eric Horvitz

[5]Here’s The Cold, Hard Proof That We Can’t Stop Checking Our Phonesby Charlie Warzel October 7, 2013 ‘According to new data, users are unlocking their phones an average of 110 times per day.’

[6] ‘The first use of the term “singularity” in this context was by mathematician John von Neumann. In 1958, regarding a summary of a conversation with von Neumann, Stanislaw Ulam described “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue”’

[7] If this doesn’t terrify you… Google’s computers OUTWIT their humans – ‘Deep learning’ clusters crack coding problems their top engineers can’tby Jack Clark, 15 Nov 2013

[8] ‘The Turing test is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behaviour equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. In the original illustrative example, a human judge engages in natural language conversations with a human and a machine designed to generate performance indistinguishable from that of a human being.’

Are we machine? | openDemocracy.

The Memeing of Life

JAR-meme-drunk-baby‘What’s all this Me-Me-ing business then? Is it, like, ‘cos you writers keep banging on about yourselves and how great you think you are?’

‘Not exactly,’ I try to explain – mentally patting myself on the back for suppressing a patronising tone by unwittingly adopting a condescending one -, ‘it’s pronounced “memeing”, like “dreaming”’.

This is a fan. I’ve actually been stopped by someone who recognises me from the picture on my column and I am very excited – especially as the photo is me on a good day.  I’m not sure my fan has actually read the newspaper; I suspect he might use it to sleep under. He’s sitting on the pavement with a number of copies right outside Waitrose but it’s a sunny day and who am I to ignore an admirer.

‘All right,’ he nods at me, ‘and what’s that then?’

‘Well, “meme” is the name given to an idea that gets passed from one generation to the next, changing by imitation, replicating through culture, and being improved upon by successive generations. It was coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins, to show how ideas could act like genes, he rhymed it with ‘gene’ and it’s based on the Greek mimesis; copying or imitating. The making of fire is an early example of a meme but then so is language, April Fools’ Day and casual racism.’

He squints up at me, ‘No, what’s that then?’ He points at my shirt. I look down.

‘Oh,’ I say with some disappointment, ‘I think it’s some egg from breakfast.’

He smiles up at me. ‘Now breakfast – there’s an idea to pass on,’ and he holds his hand out.

Hubris – that’s another meme.

3332In fact nearly all our traditions, our commonplaces, myths and fables are ideas that have been passed on and shifted and riffed upon for generations. The most immediate and dynamically changing form of meme is the joke. ‘A man walks into a bar…’ for instance, embraces unending possibilities from ‘… and says ouch,’ to the horse that walks in with a long face – taking in the dyslexic who walked into a bra and the two blondes who walked into a bar when you’d think the first would have warned the second…

For a cultural mutation that spreads like a virus, memes seem perfect for the internet. Dawkins laments that the internet has ‘hijacked’ the meme. Internet memes are transfigured on purpose, he says, by ‘human creativity’ rather than by happy accident like genes. But then we also have IVF now shaping our genetic destiny so maybe the analogy still holds.

For the most part the internet meme formalises jokes into fairly constricted formats. Classically there’s a photo of someone, or an animal, displaying some kind of emotion which has some sympathetic bold text at the top and then a one-liner that undermines it at the bottom.  Or it’s a video blooper or a cat doing something hilarious or a looping moving image infinitely repeating some excruciating moment, or a poorly judged line from pop-culture, mocked and revamped a million different ways. They are jokes so instantaneous that, like candyfloss, they seem to lose their substance even as you consume them. One of the most famous was the meme which saw hundreds of versions of Hitler’s mesmeric rant from the film ‘Downfall’ being given hilariously trivial new subtitles: from raving about bad football results to worrying about furniture clashing with curtains.

Life’s real memes though are the cultural flashpoints of our lives that we celebrate, cope with, live through and adapt, often through necessity. They’re our rites of passage which alter as civilization advances. Religions often seem to want to crystallise their ideas, to perpetuate them without adaptation through the ages. Fundamentalists will sing sacrilege the moment an ancient idea becomes adapted to modern knowledge.  History shows us, however, that, like genes, the strongest ideas will adapt to survive, the ones in aspic lose their power to influence; unfortunately, they almost always go down fighting. Got a great idea? Tell someone. Let it be changed, owned and loved by others.  That’s the memeing of life.


Talking Proper Like

I’m not even sure if it’s people with cut-glass accents who still win the human race in this country but certainly the holders of the reins of power are as comfortably public school as ever. In an effort to instil an air of literacy in my children – so that they might, in future, be mistaken for the ‘right’ sort of people and possibly marry into them – I insist at home that we speak a form of Received Pronunciation.

So the city of ‘Glasgow’ is ‘Glarsgo’, no matter what the natives call it and a ‘garage’ is a ‘garaarge’ not a ‘garidge’ – though ‘Farage’, as in ‘Nigel Farage’, is still pronounced ‘prat’. The only H that gets dropped in our house is when saying the letter H or, occasionally, when referring to ‘an Hotel’.

So far, my home-grown social engineering experiment seems to have worked. Now my children come over posh, more compellingly than David Beckham, while my own accent turns out to be less consistent.

You see – ‘dan the Norf En’ Road market’ I come over all Geezerish and, ‘star sanding a bit ows yer farfer.’ Please understand, it’s not full-on, ‘a’ulls’n’pears, sawluv the errf, mockney innit.’ Just a whiff of the Thames estuary. A few glottal stops and a tiny consonantal shift.

So confident are my plummy children in their accents, the moment they hear me utter, ‘Arf a panuv yer strawbs,’ they go pink; wavering between derision and mortification.

‘You can’t do that,’ my daughter Roxana hisses, ‘he’ll think you’re taking the P!’ Oh yes she’s far too elevated to allow that word anything but a first letter.

But it’s not that I do it consciously. When in Rome I try to speak Italian, in the market I get all Geezerish. Some unconscious part of me is willing a compatriotism, a rapport, and trusting that that will make sure my ‘strawbs’ won’t carry the all-over bruising of a personal assistant to Naomi Campbell.


As we leave the stall, Roxana berates me, ‘Daddy, why do you do that? You’re completely unconvincing and you’re not fooling anybody. It’s embarrassing.’

Being embarrassing is automatic status conferred on anybody who would be father to a teenage girl but, ‘I’m not trying to fool anybody,’ I retort, ‘no one has ever called me on it and, look, I’m just trying to make others feel comfortable.’

But is that it? Or is that I’m petrified of being different? Do I want to fit in, Zelig style, because I was brought up by a Jewish father who, traumatized by the holocaust, prioritized assimilation above all else? Fit in, fit in, that’s how you survive. In my teenage punk hair-dying phase, family friend, poet and camp survivor Frederic Samson said to me, ‘only those who could fade away wouldn’t be killed. You. You’d be one of the first.’ Which definitely didn’t give me nightmares for years to come.

But shouldn’t I be demonstrating some backbone? Some sort of pride in my accent? Shouldn’t I, unlike the embarrassed BBC, wear this RP badge of our hard earned middle-classness with honour? But then I remember my bus journey to school and the teasing, the threats and the kicks from the kids from the ‘Comp’, all for talking with, ‘a plum up yer bum.’ And how, only when I learnt the ‘f’ for ‘th’ exchange and a sma’ering of T-glottalization, the bullying moved to some other unsuspecting posho.

Is it through cowardice that the register of my accent changes with the environment? Is it a weakness of conviction or an embarrassment of riches? Or am I just recognising that a common language doesn’t create automatic understanding.

As a child, in a department store in America, I once found myself ‘caught short’ – both physically and linguistically.  In vain I pleaded for, ‘the loo, the toilet, the W.C., the gents, the bog, a urinal, place to pee,’ and twenty other European terms, desperately hopping from one leg to the other. Finally the assistant smiled, ‘You mean the bathroom honey?’ pointing the way to a room which, surprisingly, had no bath.

Right up to the end of the twentieth century, your accent marked out your class, your education, and your prospects; it was a key indicator of status. It inspired contempt, or jealousy, scorn or respect. But now, as ‘class’ seems to dissipate, perhaps we make less assumptions about accent. There’s no accent on social media, Americanisms kinda permeate everywhere, and though the fear of being judged may be withering, I can’t seem to stop a lifetime’s habit of chameleon linguistics.

One day, maybe, accents will be so devoid of meaning, what counts will be what we say not how we say it. But for now, down the market, you know how much a bottle of shampoo costs? Pantene.