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Saturday Sound-off: Let’s Have Some Perspective on Exploitation.

ap_17119109633539The following is an abbrieviated extract from my novel Transgression. It is set in 1943 but based on an incident I witnessed as a seventeen year old apprentice in a machine shop in 1959. I used it to illustrate the way some men behave towards women. The recent publicity surrounding the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein shows that little has changed in the near six decades since I first witnessed such abuse.

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That said, I question the extent to which Mr Weinstein’s behaviour has dominated the news media in recent days.

Of course such behaviour is unacceptable.

Of course some of the allegations describe criminal acts of a serious nature (which he has denied).

And yes, as so many of those commenting have stated, it illustrates an unacceptable aspect of the relationship between men and women in places of work.

But is it really news that the powerful exploit the vulnerable?

When that exploitation is of a sexual nature, however humiliating, is it really any worse than the many other ways in which we all take advantage of the disadvantaged?

From the slaves of ancient Greece and Rome, through the serfdom of medieval Europe to the exploitation of Africans as slaves in the ‘New World’, to the sweated labour in Asia that produces so many of the things we in the developed world take for granted, the life styles enjoyed by the successful are bought at the expense of those who have no other way of providing the bare necessities of life for themselves and their families.

You, reading this, may see yourself as poor. And you surely are, when compared to the Duke of Westminster or Mark Zuckerberg to name just two of the super-rich 1%. But you are rich enough to be able to own the device on which you are reading, and to pay the subscription to an internet service provider. There is, it seems to me, an irony in the fact that the tax your government levies on the sale of that device is used, among other things, to ensure that no-one in your country is as poor as some of the people involved in its manufacture.

And there is a further irony in the fact that those who support such policies as ‘America First’, or Britain’s exit from the European Union, resent the tiny portion of their taxes that is devoted to the relief of the extreme poverty of the poorest nations.

Whilst Mr Weinstein’s behaviour has been described as evidence of a crisis of masculinity and the continuing inequality of women in the workplace, is it not also true that there have always been, and still are, women who use their sexual wiles to exploit the weakness of men for their own ends, whether career advancement, social climbing or inheritance?

The trauma suffered by a young woman who, upon accepting an invitation to an older man’s hotel room, discovers him naked, cannot be compared to the suffering of thousands driven from their homes for no reason other than their ethnicity or their religion. And yet it is the former that has driven the latter from our television screens this past week.

I know that some of the women who have come forward with such stories donate part of their income both to help, and to highlight, the plight of, people in the most distressed parts of the world, but the truth is that their lives are infinitely more comfortable than those of millions of women experiencing exploitation, both sexual and economic, in parts of Africa and Asia, and in the darker reaches of our own cities.



This is a cruel and evil practice and should not be tolerated in ANY society, certainly not in one that regards itself as ‘civilised’. Resorting to ‘culture’ or ‘religion’ as a justification for ignoring it is not acceptable.


Saturday Sound-off: Who Stole my Country?

A couple of newspaper articles caught my attention yesterday. The first was in the Irish Times: a review of a book about prisoners of war in England during WWII and the way they were treated.

You might expect that, as soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting for Britain’s enemies at the time, they would be shunned, spat at, feared. The reality was rather different. In fact, as the review’s author points out, “it wasn’t uncommon for friendships to be struck up and for POWs to be invited into civilians’ homes for Christmas lunch.”


Prisoner of war camps in the UK: German PoWs somewhere in England bring in the harvest. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Many were permitted to leave the camps in order to work on farms and in forestry projects alongside English (mainly female) workers. It reminded me of my own experience growing up in rural Herefordshire in the 1940s and ’50s. There was a camp in the village which, at different times, held POWs and Polish refugees. One German and one Pole each married local girls and set up homes next door to each other in tied cottages on the farm where both worked.

Their children attended the local school. As a schoolboy I often worked on the same farm and got to know both men.The young woman who married the German POW had a younger brother the same age as me who became my best man at my 1963 wedding.


And then I discovered the other article, in The Guardian, about European citizens, skilled workers resident in Britain for decades, who are returning to the continent, some with their British spouses and all saddened by last year’ Brexit vote and its aftermath in which so many of them were made to feel unwelcome. It made me wonder what has become of the country of which I used to be proud, the country of whose values my father fought and died for.

From being a place that welcomed all comers and extended the hand of friendship to enemy POWs, it has become a place in which many want to shut themselves off from the rest of Europe and embrace the same nationalistic fervour that destroyed Europe in the 1930s and ’40s and which the parents of my generation sacrificed so much to overthrow.

Have the people who voted ‘leave’ not studied history? Do they not realise that, right across Europe, we share more than a thousand years of common history? Admittedly, it was a relationship often characterised by the struggle for domination between the members of the land owning aristocracy. But it seemed for a while, in the 1950s and ’60s, that, having emerged from two terrible world wars, we understood that co-operation was better than conflict. Social liberalism trumped nationalism and the majority of us understood that it was better to share the product of our labours with people like ourselves wherever they were born.


What happened? How did so many ordinary British voters come to believe that the EU, and those of its citizens who chose to make their homes in Britain, were responsible for every symptom of their country’s economic failure? Why did Cameron and the other leaders of the Remain campaign embark on a doomed quest to scare people into voting to remain in the EU? Why did the media not give much greater attention to the words of men like Lord Ashdown who made the arguments that mattered with such passion?

I wrote several posts ahead of the vote pointing out the folly of what was being proposed. Now the case for leaving is beginning to unravel as the real implications of extricating ourselves from 40 years of working together in mutually beneficial endeavours, from aviation safety to radioactive isotopes for medical use, become apparent. If only more attention had been paid to these things in May and June last year perhaps the vote would have been different. They certainly strengthen the case for a second vote once the details of the deal are published.

Saturday Sound-off: Religion and Politics

I had planned to write a piece about austerity. Out of deference to the people affected by the terrible event in Kensington this week I have decided to hold that over to a future date.

There was another event that caught my eye however. Barely noticed among the hours of TV coverage and reams of newspaper reporting and comment about Grenfell Tower, came Tim Farron’s announcement that he was resigning the leadership of the British Liberal Democratic Party.

Mr Farron is a devout Christian who has made it known that he regards homosexuality as sinful. Despite that, on every occasion when laws about sexual behaviour and orientation have been under discussion in the House of Commons he has supported the right of individuals to make their own choices.

And yet, during the recent General Election campaign he was pursued relentlessly by certain elements in the media over his religious beliefs. At times in the past he has been guilty of evading such questions. He has explained this by stating that his Christian beliefs are irrelevant to his role as a legislator. His voting record confirms this.

His resignation statement makes plain his sometimes conflicting belief that, in a nation whose people observe many different religions and none, it is inappropriate for law makers to impose restrictions based on a single interpretation of the holy book of just one of those religions. It also demonstrates the anguish he feels as a consequence of that internal conflict.

I have written before about the suffering caused by religious fervour in the past. And we see it still, almost on a daily basis, in parts of the Middle East.

Across most of the UK in the 21st century we have removed the majority of those laws which were motivated by religious belief. The same is true of most modern democracies, although in some there are people with power and influence who still seek to have ancient explanations granted the same weight as scientific reasoning in schools.

I say “most of the UK” because there is a small part of the Kingdom where a fervently religious political party still insists on imposing restrictions on the rights of its citizens in matters of sexual orientation. Where, I wonder, is the media harassment of the leader of that party? Especially now that she is in a position to influence the governance of the whole Kingdom over the next five years.

You could say that, as an atheist I am seeking to impose my personal beliefs when I insist that religion has no place in politics. But, like Tim Farron, I have no desire to deny anyone the right to live by whatever doctrine he or she chooses to adhere to, so long as their behaviour does not harm others. And that is why I have such great admiration for this decent man who has presided over the re-birth of his party after the disastrous collapse in support following their performance as coalition partners from 2010 to 2015. I may not share his religious beliefs but I have nothing but praise for his honesty and integrity.

Do you agree that religion has no place in politics in a modern democracy or should our laws be determined by ancient beliefs? And, if so, which ancient belief system would you impose?

Saturday Sound-off: Weak, Unstable and Disunited

Once again Britain has shown itself to have become a divided society. Polarised between young and old, between those who see the advantages of being a part of the European Union and those who don’t, between those who believe in the entrepreneurial spirit and those who think the state should provide for all their basic needs. Long gone are the days when Labour and Conservative parties did well to achieve much above 30% of the vote, with the middle-of-the-road Liberal Democrats snapping at their heels with a vote share above 20% and ‘New Labour’ adopting many of their policies.

Mrs May gambled and failed to win. But nor did she lose, still receiving the greatest share of the votes cast and the largest number of seats in the House of Commons. She wanted “strong and stable”, a majority large enough to overcome what she saw as the flakiness of those of her colleagues who were less committed to her vision of post-brexit Britain. She hoped for a resounding endorsement of that vision from those she described as ordinary people “just about managing”. Now it is she who is just about managing to hold onto the vision. She now hopes to continue just abut managing for the next five years. That shows a degree of optimism verging on the arrogant.

Warning Signals

The people she will be relying upon to sustain the vision, the DUP, certainly share some of that vision. But already there are warning signals. Thursday’s result for the Tory’s was achieved in large part because of the success of their campaign in Scotland, masterminded by an openly gay woman, who is engaged to a catholic Irish woman. The fiercely protestant DUP have resolutely fought to maintain Northern Ireland as the only part of the British Islands in which same sex marriage is still not permitted.

It could be argued that the DUP are responsible for the breakdown of the power sharing arrangement under which Northern Ireland has been governed for since December 1999. The refusal of their new leader to step down whilst an enquiry takes place into the failings of an alternative energy project over seen by her when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment was the catalyst for the initial breakdown. Talks aimed at restoring the agreement have failed to reach a conclusion with the two parties to the agreement, the DUP and Sinn Fein, at loggerheads.

What this means for the rest of the UK over the coming months which will inevitably be dominated by the Brexit negotiations is hard to predict. The DUP oppose a so-called hard Brexit. Moreover, if, as seems to be the case, Thursday’s result was driven by an increase in the number of young people taking part when it is also true that young people are more disposed to remain in the EU, then it is reasonable to argue it represented a softening of opinion on membership of the single market. So, too, did the collapse of support for UKIP.

To many outsiders it seems as though May has spent most of her tenure as Prime Minister trying to put off a decision about how to approach the negotiations. She apparently made her decision to call the election whilst climbing a mountain in Wales. She still has a much more important mountain to climb. The election has not made that climb any easier for her.

Saturday Sound-off: More Generational Theft

When I last tackled this subject I was focusing on the narrowing gap between earnings and pensions in the UK. I concluded that it was not something to get over excited about. There are, however, other more serious forms of generational theft, as one of my commenters on that post reminded me. Two of them came to attention this week.

My generation and that of my son have, by our excess consumption, created a world in which our grand children and their children will be faced by enormous difficulties. Resource and commodity shortages are already responsible for wars which will inevitably continue and become more widespread as time goes on. Whilst many of our rivers are less polluted than they were a generation ago, this is largely down to the demise of mining and heavy industries in Western Europe and North America. The imposition of levies on the sale of plastic bags and exhortations to recycle paper, plastic and metal have yet to have a significant impact on the tonnage of such waste cluttering our seas.


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Driving around the Irish countryside over the past few days is to see monster machines engaged in the harvesting of grass for silage and the subsequent spreading of slurry on the fields. The unsavoury odours that greet you as you encounter such activities are evidence of agriculture’s contribution to global warming gases. The potential for pollution of water courses by the application of fertilisers is supposedly limited by strict controls on the timing of such applications. Controls which, incidentally, will no longer apply in the UK once her exit from the EU is achieved, one of many rules and regulations which will need to be re-incorporated into UK laws if the farming lobby can be placated.

Which brings me to Donald Trump’s unsurprising decision to withdraw the USA from the Paris Agreement. This is surely a measure aimed at an older generation of US citizens nostalgic for the return of mining and heavy industry. Of course, those jobs are unlikely to return. But we will see an increase in the highly polluting activity of fracking and a continuation of the long distance transport of oil with the concomitant dangers of pipeline leakage, rail car derailments and sea borne tanker groundings.

Election 2017

The second example of inter-generational conflict was exemplified by a programme on the BBC earlier in the week, in which two groups of people were brought together to discuss issues pertinent to the UK general election. One group consisted of under 30s, the other of over 60s. One contribution in particular caught my attention. An elderly gentleman in the audience pointed out that not only did he have free university tuition but he also received a maintenance grant. Once his education was completed he was able to purchase a house costing around three times his salary. Today’s UK graduates not only leave university burdened with debt, they will be lucky to find a house costing less than ten times what they are able to earn.

It struck me that no-one mentioned the fact that the elderly gent was one of fewer than 10% of youngsters who went to university in those days, whilst the majority learned on the job and studied for a professional qualification in their ‘spare’ time. Now we push close to 50% into academia.

I couldn’t help wondering if policy makers had focused more on building homes and less on university campuses might we be less likely to be facing a housing shortage? If the same policy makers had encouraged practical skills instead of academic achievement might we be less reliant on immigrant labour? And if parents had been left to get on with the business of raising children instead of packing them off to be cared for by people with sociology degrees so that both parents could go out to work, might we have fewer disaffected young people?

I’ve known for a long time that my generation, the one that reached adulthood in the sixties, was the lucky generation. I am now coming to realise that we and our children are guilty of taking far too many of the planet’s resources and putting back little of real value.

Saturday Sound-off: The False God of Nostalgia

I watched something on television earlier in the week about Josef Herman, the Polish born artist who settled in South Wales where he produced iconic paintings depicting the lives of miners. The presenter and his interviewees, who included actor Michael Sheen, were full of nostalgia for the lost communities of the heyday of Welsh industry. I could not help recalling earlier works like “How Green Was My Valley” and “Rape of a Fair Country”, which deplored the destruction of the landscape brought about by industrialisation. It struck me then, how misguided is our love of nostalgia.

“How Green Was My Valley” has been exposed as a fraud, a novel written by an Englishman whilst serving in the British army in India and turned by Hollywood into a sentimental movie that created “a myth, a never-never land of pristine innocence ruined by the discovery of coal. His myth has generated more myths, of pits and singing miners and explosions, but it’s a good yarn.” [Meic Stephens, creative writing lecturer at the University of Glamorgan, quoted in an Observer article in 1999]

Last evening I attended a concert by The Black Family. For those who may be unfamiliar with this group of Irish musicians and singers, it consists of five siblings who achieved considerable success in the 1980s before going their separate ways as solo artists. Few will not have heard of either Mary Black or Frances Black. Once again, we were into the realms of nostalgia doubled; for the audience the songs with which the Black siblings achieved their original fame brought back memories of their own youth, whilst the songs themselves often recalled even earlier periods in Irish history, especially growing up in inner city Dublin in the 1960s and holidays on Rathlin Island, where their father was born.

All this reminded me, too, of that Python sketch in which three men vie with each other with stories of childhood hardship in working class homes.

Our whole political discourse seems to be imbued with this kind of false nostalgia. Britain’s decision to exit from the European Union was driven by it. The appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s rhetoric is in large part because it harks back to an age when the gap between rich and poor was less marked than today. That, too, is something of a myth. It is true that the gap has widened significantly in recent decades but that was after a rare period of narrowing. Compared to, for example, Victorian times, the poor throughout the developed world are immeasurably better off than they were. Much better off in fact than the characters depicted in either of the novels referred to above.

Even terrorism, such as that which erupted in Manchester at the start of the week, seems to be driven by nostalgia; a desire by misguided young men to return to a time when people were cowed into obedience to a god who required them to deny their natures, when women knew their place as the chattels of men and those who dared to resist were subjected to humiliating punishments.

The truth is that you can not turn back the clock. The past was never as rosy as it is sometimes painted and was often a dark place where evil reigned supreme.

Vast numbers of people are far better off than their ancestors. Much of the prosperity we enjoy has been bought by mortgaging our future, by much greater environmental damage than either Richard Llewellyn or Alexander Cordell could ever have imagined. By all means let us learn from the mistakes of the past, but let’s stop looking back and remember that the future belongs to our children.