Some early thoughts on #VWGate

I have two reasons for taking a very close interest in the scandal over Volkswagen’s rigging of its diesel engines to evade regulatory scrutiny. The first is that I have spent my entire career working in regulatory compliance and, while my experience has been confined to the broadcasting industry, I take a keen interest in compliance in other fields. There is so much you can learn about how organisations conduct their risk management and compliance management that you can then apply in other settings. And there is no better learning experience than catastrophic failure – particularly if it’s someone else’s. A great deal comes down to issues of human psychology and corporate culture and these things, in my experience, tend to matter more than any formal compliance mechanisms, systems or processes that might be in place – and that seems to be true whenever there is a major compliance failure.

My second reason for following this story closely is that I am the owner of two Volkswagen cars, one of which – a 2010 diesel engine Golf – now appears very likely to have the ‘defeat device’ that is the cause of all the furore programmed into it.

I wanted to put down some initial thoughts on the VW scandal, to see if my experience of regulation and compliance in an entirely different industry (and much much smaller organisations) can be applied with any value to this situation. I have no knowledge of how cars are designed and built and no knowledge of the organisational structure of Volkswagen (or any car manufacturer). I have no inside knowledge of any aspect of the current scandal, and can only go by what has been published either by parties directly involved or by the media and other commentators.

The story so far

I took some time today to read two key documents – they are, thus far, the only source documents available on this scandal. They are short and worth reading. This is the Notice of Violation from the US federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to Volkswagen, dated 18 September 2015. And this, in similar vein, is the letter to Volkswagen from the California Air Resources Board (CARB). Both are addressed to David Geanocopoulos, who is identified as VW America’s Executive Vice President for Public Affairs and General Counsel (i.e. their senior in-house lawyer and lobbyist) based in Herndon, northern Virginia; and Stuart Johnson, who is identified as VW America’s General Manager in the Engineering and Environmental Office in Auburn Hills, Michigan where VW North America is headquartered. The EPA letter is copied to CARB; to Walter Benjamin Fisherow at the US Department of Justice – described by The Washington Post in 2009 as “a seasoned litigator and environmental warrior”; and Stuart Drake at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis representing VW – who, according to The Guardian, represented BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. According to Kirkland’s own website, Drake specialises in industries “subject to air pollution control” such as by the EPA and CARB, and he has represented General Motors and Toyota. Kirkland quotes one guide to business lawyers as describing Drake as “a fearless advocate for his clients”. The CARB letter to the VW is copied to the federal EPA and the Michigan EPA.

Both letters are filled with highly technical language relating to car engine design as well as environmental protection legislation. They are light on the details of the agencies’ investigations and their findings. We do, however, learn a few key facts.

The basic problem, as has been reported widely and in great detail, is that a large number of VW’s diesel cars – about 500,000 of them in the US, manufactured between 2009 and 2015 and all built with the same diesel engine – included in their electronic systems computer code whose purpose was deliberately to determine when the car was being tested for nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and, only at times when the car was being tested, alter the performance of the engine so as to reduce drastically those emissions. This ensured that any regulatory vehicle test would give a wholly misleading finding as to level of the car’s NOx emissions – giving a figure that, by the EPA’s reckoning, was some 10-40 times lower than could actually be achieved in normal driving conditions.

The two letters sketch out a basic timeline. The possibility of a problem first came to light in May 2014 when West Virginia University’s (WVU) Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions (CAFEE) published a report commissioned by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). CAFEE and ICCT, apparently, would routinely conduct emissions tests on vehicles and their report in May 2014 revealed unusually and unexpectedly high NOx readings from two cars: the 2012 VW Jetta and the 2013 VW Passat. The EPA and CARB began a dialogue with VW. The EPA writes:

“Over the course of the year following the WVU study, VW continued to assert to CARB and the EPA that the increased emissions from these vehicles could be attributed to various technical issues and unexpected in-use conditions.”

CARB gives more (highly technical) detail on these technical issues which, as far as I am able to understand them, appear to relate to software calibration of two particular engine components relating to emissions control.

VW conducted a voluntary recall in December 2014. According to the EPA, “testing showed only a limited benefit to the recall.” CARB observes that “the recall calibration did reduce the emissions to some degree but NOx emissions were still significantly higher than expected.”

CARB conducted more in-depth tests, designed to pin down the problem. They devised a new form of testing which, presumably, hadn’t been anticipated when the ‘defeat device’ had been installed in the engines. These tests found that the engine in question simply wasn’t controlling NOx emissions in the way that was required to bring emissions within regulatory limits. The EPA’s letter gives the clearer explanation of what happened next:

“None of the potential technical issues suggested by VW explained the higher test results consistently confirmed during CARB’s testing. It became clear that CARB and the EPA would not approve certificates of conformity for VW’s 2016 model year diesel vehicles until VW could adequately explain the anomalous emissions and ensure [sic] the agencies that the 2016 model year vehicles would not have similar issues. Only then did VW admit it had designed and installed a defeat device in these vehicles in the form of a sophisticated software algorithm that detected when a vehicle was undergoing emissions testing.”

According to CARB, this admission was made by VW during a meeting between VW, the EPA and CARB on 3 September 2015, fifteen days prior to the two published letters.

A certificate of conformity (COC) is a document issued by both state and federal authorities and a vehicle cannot be sold in the US without a COC. The COC confirms that the vehicle satisfies federal and state environmental protection regulations. According to the EPA, it was only when it became clear that VW’s 2016 diesel models would not obtain their COCs – and so could not enter the US market – that VW revealed the presence of the ‘defeat device’ in the engines.

Since the EPA and CARB letters, VW has made a number of public apologies; it has said that it is investigating the matter internally with great speed; it has revealed that about 11 million cars may be affected worldwide; its share price has dropped, as the estimated potential liability – through regulatory penalties and recalls – runs into the tens of billions of dollars; and its chief executive, Martin Winterkorn, has resigned in the face of a collapse in confidence from VW’s board and major investors.

Conspiracy, not cock-up

Let us assume that VW is sincere in its claim to be investigating the situation thoroughly and equally sincere in its commitment to make public its findings. Let us also assume that the board of directors and at least some of the senior management team at VW (including, quite possibly, the chief executive) were unaware of the defeat device until some time around the meeting of 3 September. At some point either before or very soon after that meeting, whoever attended the meeting on behalf of VW (and we do not know who that was) would, I expect, have notified the senior management team that – pardon my French – the shit was about to hit the fan. I would imagine that the internal investigation would have been launched within a very few hours of that message being sent.

Because I know nothing about car design and manufacture, or about VW’s organisation, I cannot predict what the outcome of VW’s investigation might be. But I can make some educated guesses about what appears to have happened, and about the questions that the investigation is seeking to answer.

For the purposes of this exercise, I’m going to make some guesses as to how car engines are designed. My guess is that a car engine is treated by a car manufacturer as a major project, with its own large dedicated team working on it over several years. I would expect that this large team would be organised into a number of smaller specialised sub-groups, each focusing on different aspects of engine design and performance. I imagine at least one sub-group was dedicated to the engine’s computer control systems; at least one other was perhaps focused on emissions control, although this would probably have been a factor in a multiplicity of aspects of the engine. For the engine to work, no sub-group could work in isolation – there would have been close co-operation between groups and careful co-ordination of the whole team.

The Type EA 189 engine must have been a very significant project for VW. Due to go into 11 million vehicles over 6 years across a number of different models in the VW and Audi range (the EPA lists seven), the engine would have been the keystone of VW’s global product strategy for an important segment of its business. Failure to deliver for the 2009 models an engine that offered both superior performance for drivers and compliance with the full array of environmental standards around the world would have been a huge blow to the group’s global strategy, as well as being highly disruptive to VW’s financial planning. The pressure would be on – but this would probably be usual within the organisation. There’s always going to be a lot of pressure.

From this speculation on the internal working of VW – about which I actually know absolutely nothing – I draw two conclusions about what I imagine any investigation is going to find. Both are almost statements of the glaringly obvious.

The first is that what happened was deliberate, not accidental. Sometimes, compliance failures happen by mistake, often due to working under extreme pressure and doing something that was unintended. This does not appear to be one of those times. The level of complexity of the failure – what the EPA described as “a sophisticated software algorithm”; the level of effort and co-ordination apparently involved in its execution and deployment; and the scale of its deployment (11 million cars over 6 years) all suggest to me deliberate and willful action by someone within Volkswagen. Someone made the decision to implement the defeat device, carried through on that decision by having the device designed, coded and installed, and then additionally made the decision to conceal its existence from regulators and, quite likely, some of their own senior colleagues.

My second conclusion is that this was a conspiracy – in the strict meaning of the term, namely that it involved multiple people, all working together towards the same objective. I consider it unlikely that a lone ‘rogue’ individual created and installed the defeat device. I reach this conclusion for two reasons. The first, again, is the complexity and scale of the defeat device. I imagine it would have taken an array of skills and know-how to accomplish – from coding, to knowledge of all the factors affecting emission levels, to detailed knowledge of vehicle testing conditions. While it is possible that one person might possess all of these skills and knowledge, to the requisite level of expertise and detail, I think it is more likely that this was a team effort involving a number of specialists in the relevant fields. The other reason I think this was a conspiracy is the question of motivation. I think that lone actors tend to be motivated by self-interest, by personal gain. The primary beneficiary of VW’s defeat device was VW itself – the device ensured they could launch a range of apparently compliant vehicles that they could sell to environmentally-conscious consumers and propel themselves to the status of world’s biggest car manufacturer. This strikes me as a strategic decision, designed to increase VW’s global competitiveness. I accept that there might have been an individual who feared losing their job if the team failed to deliver a compliant and marketable engine, and that’s a pretty powerful motivating force. But I’d be surprised if a company like VW would hold an individual personally responsible for that kind of obviously collective failure. I’d equally be surprised if any individual were capable of making such a significant alteration as a defeat device to such an important product as the Type EA 189 without detection by anyone else in the company.

Who knew what and when?

So, the big unanswered question right now is: who knew what and when? Who made the decision to implement the defeat device? Who was put in charge of its execution? Who was in the loop?

What about the people who represented VW at all those meetings with the EPA and CARB? Did they know? Was the December 2014 recall just a ruse – and, therefore, another example of VW deceiving the regulators? Or were those people all kept in the dark, and thus as baffled as the regulators about why their cars were failing these new inspections? Was it only after CARB published its test results in August 2015 that those individuals were brought into the know?

Again, even with no knowledge of how VW is organised or how it operates, some intelligent guesswork is possible. Assuming my suppositions so far are vaguely accurate (not a very safe assumption, I accept) it would seem likely that someone was put in charge of overseeing the implementation of the defeat device. That someone would have had to have the authority – both organisationally and personally – to ensure that their instructions were followed by others, and that any qualms or unease about the compliance questions would be overcome. I would guess that there wouldn’t be too many people who fit that description, and that the key individual(s) were identified by VW’s internal investigation within 48 hours of its launch, probably much less. Someone in Auburn Hills has probably been absent from work for a couple of weeks or more and they’ve been bringing their own lawyer to meetings with their future ex-employer and the lawyer’s job is to shift as much responsibility for the whole affair away from their client and onto VW.

Those who are two or three management layers above that person will also not be enjoying a lot of job security at the moment. If they knew what was going on, they will be held partially culpable for it. If they didn’t, the effectiveness of their management oversight will be called into question. Either way, they will probably take their share of responsibility for the scandal and, if I’m right, be clearing their desks very soon. For similar reasons, expect further heads to roll in the senior management team.

I think you really would need to know about VW’s organisation and about how car engines are designed to know how contained this conspiracy might have been. The question is: what’s the smallest number of people who must have known about the defeat device in order to get it made and deployed, but who could have kept it secret from everyone else, including their own colleagues and bosses?

A word on corporate culture

I don’t doubt that Winterkorn was sincere when he said that “the irregularities with these engines contradict everything for which Volkswagen stands”; or when he said that “we do not and will not tolerate violations of any kind of our internal rules or of the law.” I don’t know what the corporate culture is within Volkwagen nor how it is shaped and influenced. However, I believe, in part from my own experience in regulation and compliance, that conspiracies only survive in cultures that tolerate them; and a culture that has little genuine respect for regulatory compliance is more likely to see a major compliance failure.

Let me elaborate. Successful conspiracies are extremely rare – which is why we regard ‘conspiracy theorists’ are being so potty. They fail because they rely on the absolute co-operation and complicity of everyone involved. Everyone has to be equally motivated and equally in agreement with the objectives of the conspiracy. It only takes one person to choose not to co-operate – or, worse, turn whistle-blower – and the whole thing collapses into failure. What’s remarkable about what happened at VW, assuming that there were multiple people involved, is for how long the conspiracy was effective. That suggests to me a culture that, Winterkorn’s beliefs to the contrary, held regulatory compliance to be of secondary importance.

In a culture of compliance, everyone in the organisation regards regulatory compliance as an essential expectation – a vital aspect of their professionalism. I have seen organisations that lack this culture. They are sometimes organisations with well-resourced compliance departments and extensive compliance processes. Their failure to establish a culture of compliance leads to compliance failures in spite of the effort they believe they have made to avoid them. In these organisations, compliance is seen as separate from the core functions of the business – someone else’s (the compliance department’s) job – rather than integral to it. The compliance team is a frustration to the rest of the business, their elaborate processes seen as bureaucratic, cumbersome, and an insult to the professionalism of everyone that has to work with them.

In organisations that become highly focussed on a very specific objective – usually around volume of sales – employees become unconsciously motivated to cut corners on everything not conducive to that short-term objective. Product quality, customer service, after-sales support, product safety – anything that wasn’t directly helpful to achieving that immediate goal might find itself relegated to secondary importance and vulnerable to compromises and corner-cutting. Compliance – often perceived as an obstacle to achievement – can easily become inimical to reaching that sales goal. If there is no established culture of compliance – and so compliance is not just seen as an obstacle but an unnecessary obstacle – then you have a culture in which you can conduct a conspiracy to deceive your regulators with minimal risk of anyone inside the company sticking their neck out to question you, let alone stop you.

VW was, by some accounts, very focussed on becoming the world’s number one car manufacturer. All the incentives within the company would have been geared around that objective. Successful delivery of the Type EA 189 may well have been a core element of the ‘get to number one’ strategy. Regulatory compliance may have become a nuisance, and one that no one was incentivised to take seriously.

Finally, the question will undoubtedly arise as to how much this cultural attitude, to the extent that it applied in Volkswagen at all, was unique to it. Journalists and regulators are already asking if there might be a broader, industry-wide problem here. Some reporters are even beginning to claim that they have evidence of other manufacturers installing defeat devices similar to VW’s (but, clearly, I’m not going to repeat those claims given the high likelihood that some or all might be libellous).

BBC Newsnight editor Ian Katz tweeted earlier today a report by Technology Editor David Grossman made, interestingly, in December 2014. It’s about how car manufacturers manipulate emissions tests and it includes an industry expert (who, presumably, was named in an on-screen caption when the piece was broadcast but this is missing from the video posted online) who details what you take from the piece to be widespread industry practice. He talks about special tires run at very high pressure, expensive engine lubricants and removing the offside wing mirror to reduce drag. Then he says this:

“The car is actually able to detect that it’s being tested because it’s on a standard test cycle and they can use that to put the car into a mode in which the engine is ultra efficient or to reduce the sort of pollution that’s coming out of the exhaust pipe during the test.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Grossman interrupts in disbelief. “The car will know it’s being test, and will therefore perform in a completely atypical way?”


As for my own car, I will have to see what happens. I have no way of knowing if it has a Type EA 189 engine or what might happen to it if it does. I bought it at a time when we all thought diesel cars were greener than petrol – because of the fuel efficiency and reduced CO2 emissions. Knowing now that diesel cars are not remotely green, and that my VW in particular may be significantly less green than I had been led to believe, I’m feeling increasingly embarrassed to be driving it. I can’t afford to replace but, one day, when I do, I doubt I will feel much enthusiasm for another Volkswagen. It may turn out that the entire company has a defeat device installed.


Dear @David_Cameron: Call on the nation to help. #refugeeswelcome


Kobane, Syria. Photo: Quentin Sommerville, BBC News

Kobane, Syria. Photo: Quentin Sommerville, BBC News

We have all seen the images of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year old boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach after he drowned, trying to reach Greece with his family. His mother and 5-year old brother also drowned. His family’s story is told by the BBC here.

Not included in that story, but tweeted by the BBC World News account, was the image above. It is a photo taken by the BBC’s Quentin Sommerville, showing Alan’s hometown of Kobane in Syria, as it looks now.

Go outside, right now. Look at your house, or the building you live in. Look at your neighbours’ houses. Imagine they were reduced to the state that Kobane is in. What would you do? You’d want to get away, wouldn’t you? You’d want to get you and your family to safety, no matter what the risk. And, having lost everything you own, what are your options now? Other than to throw yourself at the mercy of your fellow human beings – citizens of the supposedly civilised world, who live in cosy security and prosperity and whose towns stand safe and strong – do you have any options?

Mercy is the least we have to offer. We are one of the most prosperous nations on Earth. We like to think we are resourceful and compassionate. It’s time to make those things count for something.

I do not understand what must be missing from a person – a Government minister, a tabloid editor, a UKIP Parliamentary candidate, or anyone else – who sees a refugee in desperate need of help and sees only a problem that must be kept away. What form of morality must you possess when you have the capability to save lives, but you choose not to? If you find it more acceptable for thousands of people to die than to risk any of them reaching Britain and (horror!) possibly claiming welfare, where do you believe lies your claim to moral superiority over people like ISIS?

Yes, David Cameron, you are right that sheltering refugees does not provide a long-term solution to the conflict in Syria. But, if you’re 3 and your home has been destroyed, long-term conflict resolution is probably not your most pressing concern.

I am struck by the inhumanity of all those who see a refugee and whose instinct is to do anything other than ask ‘how can we help?’ I am struck by the apparent lack of shame felt by our politicians, journalists and others who, when confronted by a fellow human being who has nothing left but the hope of our help, has focused instead on finding more effective methods of turning them away. I am struck by the idiocy of anyone – the Prime Minister included – who thinks that, by offering aid, we would only be incentivising more people to seek asylum, as if having your home reduced to rubble by ISIS weren’t incentive enough.

And I am struck especially by Cameron’s moral cowardice. Instead of pandering to the Express-reading, UKIP-voting, narrow-minded, xenophobic monsters who think that our national moral duty is to exacerbate human suffering rather than relieve it, Cameron should have called them out as the heartless, self-absorbed, callous bigots that they are. Instead of arguing with European leaders over how few refugees we would take in, Cameron should have presented the UK as a moral leader on the world stage, first to offer help to as many of those as possible who needed it, and proud to do so.

And he could ask us all to help. In Iceland, where the government has capped the number of refugees they will accept at 50, over 11,000 people have reportedly volunteered to take in a refugee family in need. Why has our government not asked us to do the same? Why have we not been asked to demonstrate that we are not, in fact, a selfish, immoral, hate-filled people, but that we have the generosity, kindness, courage and determination that we imagine of ourselves?

I think that, beneath the tabloid-painted veneer of thoughtlessness and callousness is a nation keen to step up and make a difference. Rather than tweet, and sign futile petitions, we are ready for a massive collective endeavour, to meet the current challenge, to make a huge positive difference in the world, and to make us feel proud of what we can accomplish. We’re just waiting to be asked.

My pledge to David Cameron is simple: if asked, we will provide a home for a Syrian refugee family while you sort out the long-term issues. We don’t have a big house, or a lot of money, but we have a spare room. We can provide food and drink, warmth, safety, fresh air and friendship. We will do what we can to find space for our guests to work, play, study, pray and just live their lives until they are able to return home or find a permanent home. We do this knowing that many thousands of other people in Britain are doing the same and more will follow, if only you would ask. The nation wants to help, to make a difference, to save lives, to change the world, to achieve something enormous and worthwhile.

You just have to ask.



The anti-Farage protest: not in my name

I think I’ve made my contempt for Ukip pretty clear over the years – feel free to browse this blog, or my Twitter feed, if you think I might be a bit ambivalent. In my view, Ukip is a party whose primary appeal is to racist morons. A Ukip-led Britain would be an economically and socially stunted nation in which even their base support of suburban white bigots would find that their politics of isolationism and migrant cleansing are somehow not bringing about the prosperous idyll that they expected.

So you might think I would be delighted – or, at the very least, amused – to see the reports of the protest against Ukip leader and anthropomorphised serpent, Nigel Farage, at his local pub in Downe. You’d be wrong. I’m actually pretty angry about it. And I think that we should all be angry about it. Those of us on the left, who are supposed to want a better way of doing politics, should be angriest of all because those protesters claim to represent us. Instead, I see that some on the left are looking for ways to support, defend or justify the protest – and going through some pretty astonishing moral contortions to do so.

There seem to be several key facts in dispute, of course. Were Farage’s children in the pub with him? Did the protesters enter the pub or not? Were they noisy or calm? Did they chase Farage out of the pub, or did he calmly leave? These all strike me as aggravating or mitigating factors, not actually relevant to the central question of whether or not it’s actually OK to stage this sort of protest in the first place.

This wasn’t a political protest. It wasn’t at a political venue or a political event. It was personal. It targeted an individual at his local pub – his private life, not a political act.

Nigel Farage may be an odious excuse for a human being, but human he is. He may not believe in human rights, but we do. Just as you and I are entitled to spend Sunday lunchtime in our local pub without being harassed, so is he.

The protesters have insisted that there is no reason for Farage to have considered them intimidating. It is odd that they seem incapable of seeing that a group of people turning up unexpectedly, targeting a single individual close to that individual’s home, is inherently intimidating and threatening. Farage has no way of knowing what their intent is, or how it may change over the course of the protest. It’s not actually unreasonable for him to feel threatened, and to be angry at the invasion into his personal life. Anyone else finding themselves in that situation would feel exactly the same way. One of the most idiotically counter-productive aspects of this protest is that, far from generating antipathy towards Farage and Ukip, it will instead provoke legitimate sympathy for him.

In defending the protesters, they and their supporters have pointed to the vileness of Ukip’s policies and attitudes. This is basically saying, ‘it’s OK for us to hassle this guy, because we disagree with his political views.’ Now imagine right-wing protesters doing the same to Ed Miliband, or to Natalie Bennett. We on the left would be screaming bloody blue murder, outraged at such bullying tactics. We’d be demanding arrests and jail time for the protesters. And we’d be demanding that the likes of Farage and David Cameron join us in condemning such disgraceful behaviour.

If we tolerate the personal intimidation of politicians we hate, we will have no moral credibility in attacking those who intimidate politicians we support.

And if we want politics to change, to get better, to involve a more diverse range of people, then we should be especially swift to stand up to protesters like those in Downe yesterday. Anyone going into politics expects to encounter opposition to everything they do, and protest, too. But how many good, thoughtful, conscientious men and women, of all political colours, are going to find a political career appealing if it means dealing with potential personal threats, to them and their families, so close to home? If we think that yesterday’s events are fine, and thus allow them to become routine, how do we expect, for example, to encourage more women to stand for election?

We should protest against Ukip. They are a despicable party, poisoning the political system. Camp outside their party HQ. Make a noise at their rallies. Be a presence at every Farage campaign appearance. But if we want respect for the safety and private lives of ‘our’ politicians, then we have to respect those of others – even Farage.


Faber Academy quickfic prompt, 13/3/15

My @FaberAcademy #QuickFic beginner’s luck

Apologies – a very self-indulgent blogpost follows.

My friend, Nicky Tate, is a writer. I am not, but sometimes imagine myself to be. The main difference between Nicky and me is that she actually writes – actual words on actual pages, lots of them, for actual payment sometimes – whereas I do a lot of thinking about writing, but very little actual writing. I am impressed by actual writers like Nicky, and I probably should do more to try and become one, like actually writing something.

Recently, Nicky blogged about the weekly “QuickFic” competition run by Faber’s creative writing academy. She had just won a runners up prize. The competition works like this: at 9.50am each Friday, the Faber Academy posts online a prompt – usually an image, sometimes a quote. You have until 2.50pm to write a story, of no more than 250 words, inspired by the prompt. The Academy then chooses their favourite and announces the winner at 3.30pm. The prize is a load of Faber books, which is nice but I don’t imagine anyone enters to win books. The accolade is the goal.

I thought this sounded like a fun thing to have a go at, and to get me into the habit of writing regularly. Yesterday was the first Friday when I both had the time to do it, and remembered it was happening early enough in the day. Here was the prompt:

Faber Academy quickfic prompt, 13/3/15

Faber Academy quickfic prompt, 13/3/15

It’s a lovely image, full of fun and humour. If you’ve ever seen Pixar’s ‘Up’, you were probably reminded of the incredibly poignant opening sequence, with Carl and Ellie as children, playing at being explorers. I stared at the image for a few minutes, drawing a blank, and then went to make some lunch. By pure luck, in the ten minutes it took me to make lunch, my story just appeared in my mind, pretty much fully formed and ready for me to write. I think it helped that I have a precocious and curious 6 year old son, with precocious and curious friends. It was relatively easy for me to imagine my characters, and to understand their worldview.

I turned my story over in my head as I ate lunch, polishing it. It probably only took me about five minutes to type it. Initially, I kept it as spare as I could, conscious of the word limit. But I kept an eye on the word count in the corner of the screen, and this allowed me to fill the story out a bit, and add some nice embellishments, as I went along. The final story is, I think, 238 words. I read it a few times and made some small tweaks, but I did no real editing of it. I emailed it in.

I confess that I was pleased with what I had written – and that is almost never true of my writing. Reading it after I had finished it made me smile. But I had no expectation of winning. This was my first attempt at this competition and I hadn’t taken the time to look back at past winners to get a sense of what the judges might be looking for. I doubted my story was particularly original or distinctive. I had taken the prompt very literally – in fact, I imagined my characters to be sitting in their pretend craft, one behind the other, just as the prompt shows. I suspected more imagination, more lateral thinking, was probably required to win.

I was out doing the school run at 3.30 – bringing home my son and two other adventurers who go to his school and live in our village. Their conversation was full of the Roman assassins that populate their current favourite books. When I got home, I checked Twitter first and was unsurprised to see no congratulatory tweets. I wasn’t at all disappointed. I hadn’t expected to win and I felt that just writing and submitting an entry at all was a real achievement for me. I saw on Facebook that Nicky was excited that her friend Olivia Olsson had done well in the competition, and I assumed Olivia had won (she was runner-up; I expect Nicky had thought the winner couldn’t have been me because I hadn’t said anything about it, nor even said that I had entered). It was the email from the Faber Academy that first told me I had won. I had to read it several times to make sure I had understood it correctly. I followed the link to the Academy website with the announcement that I had won, and read that several times as well, just to make sure. I’ve been doing that a lot over the last 24 hours. I’m still not completely certain that I haven’t imagined the whole thing, or just misunderstood. Winning things is an exciting and wholly unfamiliar sensation.

Here’s my story:



“Where are we?” she asked.

“I believe this is the hidden city of Quepetl,” he told her.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I have looked at the map. I’m quite sure.”

They looked around them.

“Maybe we should ask someone,” she suggested.

“We don’t need to ask anyone. We’re not lost.”


They looked around again.

“No one around to ask anyway,” she observed.

A pause.

“Why is it hidden?” she asked.

“It means it’s been lost,” he explained.

“Really?” she asked, doubtfully. “‘Lost’ and ‘hidden’ don’t mean…”

“You said, if I let you come along, you wouldn’t be annoying.”

“But I’m not…”


“Yes. OK.”

“It means it’s been lost to civilisation. We are the first humans to see this place for over six hundred years.”

“Oh.” She thought for a moment. “That’s probably why there’s no one around.”

Another pause.

“Now what?” she asked.

“We are on a quest. We are looking for the lost biscuits of Cadbor.”

“Are they actually lost or just hidden?”

“You said…”

“Yes. OK.”

Another pause.

“Is it those biscuits over there on your bedside table?” she asked.

He sighed. She asked again, louder.


Another pause.


“That’s good. Have we found them, then? Can we eat them now?”

His shoulders slumped forward and he sighed again. He looked around his room at the dense rainforest and the ancient ruins, waiting to be explored.

“Yeah. OK.”

I’ve re-read the story a lot over the last 24 hours, and have found plenty to nit-pick about it. I see a word repeated in consecutive sentences and wince. How did that happen? How could it have won looking like that? I think there might have been a more elegant way to create the pauses that I wrote in, or that they possibly should have been left out altogether. It’s not actually a remotely realistic portrayal of how small children play. It’s too quiet and calm. Young children don’t leave pauses for dramatic or comedic effect. They talk at each other non-stop and with great urgency. They spend a lot of time describing, in great detail, the imagined setting of their play, so that they can be sure that they are all playing the same game by the same rules. They boss each other around a lot. And they don’t leave biscuits sitting around, waiting to be re-discovered. They eat them.

These things don’t really matter, of course. The overall effect is still pleasing, and I still like the story.

I’m grateful to the Faber Academy for liking it, too, and for the books. And I’m grateful to Nicky – for her blogpost that told me about quickfic; for the fact that, whenever we have talked about writing, she has always had encouraging and constructive advice for me; and for setting such a great example as an actual writer, actually writing.

Olympia Traveller typewriter

Olympia Traveller typewriter

I bought myself a treat, to reward myself. My childhood was filled with typewriters, and I love them. The lovely pictures of typewriters on the Faber Academy website tipped me over the edge, and this little beauty – an Olympia Traveller De Luxe, in orange (to match my laptop) – is currently on its way to me from its eBay seller. Happy days.

Photo credit: Ian Betteridge, via Flickr

Lest we forget the true meaning of advertising

Photo credit: Ian Betteridge, via Flickr

Photo credit: Ian Betteridge, via Flickr

Every year I contemplate the meaning of Christmas. I don’t know why I do this. I guess it’s because we make such a huge deal of Christmas every year that I feel it really ought to have some meaning, beyond a couple of days off work and The Wizard of Oz on the telly.

As an atheist, the whole ‘birth of Jesus’ thing doesn’t work for me. I know some atheists like to pretend they’re really celebrating the pagan mid winter festival of Saturnalia, to avoid any Christianity tainting their festive enjoyment. This is clever up to point, namely the point at which you remember that paganism isn’t a variant of atheism but another form of religious belief. Substituting one religious festival for another doesn’t strike me as a very effective expression of one’s atheism.

Traditionalists, Christian and otherwise, might argue that the real meaning of Christmas is something along the lines of ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind’. This is a fine sentiment, as it goes. It is clearly devalued somewhat by being ascribed to St Luke the Evangelist and Apostle rather than, say, Stephen Fry or Russell Brand. And it suffers one other fatal flaw as a representation of the true meaning of Christmas: how do you monetise it? Because what I have learned from the media and Twitter is that the true meaning of the modern British Christmas is very simple: buying stuff. If your Christmas is about anything other than massive levels of over-consumption then you might as well have ‘humbug’ tattooed on your forehead.

I have seen the true heralds of Christmas. You might think that Advent begins on 1 December – perhaps because that’s the day you get to open the first door on your Cadburys advent calendar – but this is an archaic, Victorian notion. There are many signs that Yuletide is upon us, but three currently predominate: the John Lewis TV ad; the Coca-Cola TV ad; and red cups at Starbucks. Only when you understand this can you begin to grasp the true majesty of Christmas. Be gone ye acts of kindness, of community spirit, of family togetherness. This is what Christmas is really about: a penguin-themed face cloth in a star-shaped box and a 400-calorie coffee-influenced hot drink in a red cardboard cup.

What the cynics and curmudgeons who irrationally resist this true meaning of Christmas fail to understand is the sheer genius at work here. People who work in marketing – people who talk about brands as if they are living beings, with social and moral value, and who describe themselves without apparent embarrassment as “passionate about great brands” – like to ‘own’ things. Not in the conventional, legal-title-to-property sense. But in the much more substantial and vital sense of forming such a strong association in your mind between their brand and some positive abstract idea that when you think about the latter you automatically think about the former. What John Lewis, Starbucks and Coca Cola want to do is ‘own’ Christmas. Or, to put it another way, they want to be, for you the consumer, the true meaning of Christmas. And why the hell shouldn’t they? It’s not like anyone owned it before. Did St Luke put his goodwill thing onto face flannels? No, he didn’t. He wasn’t serious about Christmas, and he wasn’t adequately passionate about his apostolic brand.

Not only are we willing to let these companies own Christmas, we’re positively enthusiastic about it.  Over 5,000 people have retweeted Starbucks UK’s announcement of the arrival of red cups. John Lewis Christmas TV ads are treated like major cultural landmarks, with people falling over themselves to demonstrate how emotionally transformed they became by watching them. People declare, with no apparent trace of irony, that they finally feel Christmas has arrived when the Coke ads appear. Clearly, this is the true meaning of Christmas over which I have needlessly agonised each year.

I, for one, welcome our new commercial overlords. I find supermarket Christmas advertising fabulously useful for helping me make food buying decisions that I would obviously be incapable of making unaided. For example, it’s helpful to see families sitting around tables containing about six times more food that they could ever be capable of consuming because it helps me banish the unhappy idea that gluttony and waste are somehow un-Christmassy. And when a TV ad portrays Christmas as some kind of obsessive competition, in which we must all strive to out-do each other to create, every single year, the ‘perfect Christmas’, it’s as if they’ve found a way to gaze deep into my soul. I particularly appreciate the seasonal advice to make sure I have lots of ready-made party food in, for when friends unexpectedly drop by. Every Christmas, all my friends seem to do is make constant random unannounced visits – so much so, that I worry they haven’t left themselves enough time for shopping. And, of course, I do the same to them in return and, frankly, if I’m not immediately greeted with fully-stacked plates of Chinese duck spring rolls and Tuscan charcuterie, along with a brimming glass of Iceland Cava, then I start to wonder if they’re really taking Christmas seriously enough, and then I start to reconsider our friendship.

The Coke ads, meanwhile, are ingenious on two levels. First, they are absolutely right, Christmas is all about Coke. Nothing makes a more impressive centre-piece for your Christmas table than a 2-litre plastic bottle of Coke right there next to the gravy boat.  I’m surprised the Queen doesn’t send someone out to get her a little bottle with ‘Elizabeth’ on the label that she can sip from during her Christmas broadcast. But, secondly, I’m almost certain Coke is available to buy at times other than Christmas, so it’s like having a little bit of Christmas all year round, which is really clever.

There will be those who continue to maintain, in the face of stark reality, that Christmas ought to mean more than raging consumerism and obscene calorie intake. These people are waging a war on Christmas and should clearly be dismissed as the weirdos that they are.

And speaking of wars, I think we should take a moment to salute the fine people of Sainsburys who have produced a double-whammy of a combined Remembrance Day/Christmas ad. It depicts British and German soldiers in the (magically sanitised) trenches of the First World War, sharing a brief period of carol singing and football playing before returning to mindlessly slaughtering each other again. As they part, a British soldier gives his coat to a German soldier and there’s a bar of chocolate in the pocket that the British solder received from home and now the German soldier has it, leaving the British soldier to stare forlornly at his army biscuit ration. It’s a poignant moment because those two soldiers will resume trying to kill each other in a bit, but at least they’ve shared some chocolate. And it’s really clever because there actually is some chocolate that you can buy in Sainsburys where the profits go to the Royal British Legion (RBL). Not since the writers of ‘Allo ‘Allo realised how hilarious it must have been to be in the French Resistance has there been such a perfect combination of the horror of war and the hollowness of television.

Here’s how I imagine it went at the marketing meeting where this idea came up. “Let’s find some way to help the RBL,” someone said. “We could make them a TV ad about the importance of remembering the war dead – it would be like a big donation from us to them. It could be an epic, emotional tale of sacrifice and humanity and, because we made it and paid for it, there could  be a little ‘with thanks to Sainsburys’ thing in the corner at the end.”

I imagine the person who said this was young and idealistic and probably had a fairly short career in marketing ahead of them because someone wiser and more passionate about great brands then spoke up and said: “But what’s in it for us?”

Then this person revealed their genius by coming up with another idea, just off the top of their head. “How about we make it a Sainsburys ad, but it’s still an emotional epic about sacrifice and humanity but it’s also got a food product in it and we can make a product to tie in with the ad that will bring people into our stores where they will buy lots of other things, too. We can give the profits of the sale of this thing to the RBL (just the profits, mind, once we’ve covered our costs; we’re giving them the ad as it is, no reason to pay for the chocolate as well, eh?) so they get something, but mostly we’ll get lots more footfall into our stores just in the run-up to Christmas. It’s a win-win!”

There are those who might find this astonishingly grotesque, the sacred act of remembrance made profane for the sake of fourth-quarter market share, and who might feel disappointed at RBL’s keen involvement. But this is to miss the bravery of Sainsburys. Until now, no one had had the sheer balls to find commercial opportunity in Remembrance. If you’d suggested this idea at any other marketing meeting, someone would have said something unhelpful like, “do you not think this is massively offensive, exploiting for profit people’s desire to honour the soldiers who died defending our country, and cheapening the act of remembrance by reducing it to buying a bar of chocolate?” These people are losers. They lack passion for great brands.

And that is why it is not they, but Sainsburys, who had the audacity to ‘own’ Remembrance. Next November, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see angry Daily Mail headlines about BBC newsreaders who haven’t yet bought their Sainsburys Remembrance Chocolate and who, therefore, must hate the troops. The chocolate bars will become a symbol of the freedom for which people fought and died – the freedom to buy chocolate in a shop (which you couldn’t do in the Kaiser’s Germany, probably).

Others may try and muscle in on this now. I was thinking about those ads that Hellmans do where they try and ‘own’ Boxing Day leftovers. I thought they could do one that picks up from the Sainsburys ad and shows the British soldier in the trenches cheering himself up on Boxing Day by adding Hellmans mayonnaise to his army biscuit ration and then maybe there’s a comedy moment at the end where he tries to eat it but forgets he has a gas mask on and gets mayonnaise on the front of his gas mask. There could be special squeezy mayonnaise bottles with antique-looking labels on them that you could buy and 10p would go to the RBL.

But Sainsburys was there first. They get first-mover advantage. For now, they ‘own’ war remembrance. It’s a proud moment in advertising, I’m sure.

I was going to close by thanking the great men and women of marketing for being passionate about great brands and ‘owning’ things and thereby resolving my quest for the true meaning of Christmas (and, indeed, much else besides). But then I realised that the solution came not from them but from you – you, the people who sob uncontrollably at 30 seconds of emotional manipulation involving penguins and then tweet about how lovely it was. You, the people who excitedly take photos of red cardboard coffee cups and post them online because, oh my God, red cardboard, can you imagine anything more festive? You, the people who get cross when the shops start selling tinsel and mince pies before the Coke truck has made its first appearance on TV, winding along its snowy roads. You, the people who breathlessly announce on Twitter who has won the Christmas advertising contest that exists only in your minds. Of course, we have always spent more money at Christmas so there has always been Christmas advertising chasing that money. But what now makes that advertising intrinsic to Christmas, allows brands to ‘own’ it, and thereby inject themselves into its meaning, is you, the consumer who thinks that it’s simply “wonderful” and “heart-warming” that you’re being sold stuff. Ignore those who carp and criticise. They don’t understand the profound and spiritual festive joy you feel as you look at your red cup and weep at the penguins. They haven’t found what you have found: the true meaning of Christmas.

Credit: Kyoshi Masamune, via Flickr

How the #indyref question will be decided by the ‘excluded’

Credit: Kyoshi Masamune, via Flickr

Credit: Kyoshi Masamune, via Flickr

Perhaps my memory has become hopelessly and romantically deluded but when I think back to a time in the past when I used to pay close attention to US elections, I’m sure I can recall increasing attention being given in the closing stages of a campaign to the proportion of voters who had still to make up their minds.  The undecideds, or the don’t knows.  If the number of them was greater than the margin between the top candidate and the second-placed one, then you still had a wide open race.  If you got close to polling day and there were still a lot of undecideds, that told you a lot about the relative merits of the principal candidates.

Don’t knows count. They matter. A lot. In fact, they are decisive. In Scotland, how they end up voting on Thursday will determine whether or not Scotland declares independence. The fate of the union rests with the don’t knows.

So why is every single opinion poll on the Scottish independence referendum being reported in a way that excludes them?

How significant are the don’t knows?  Remember the weekend before last when everyone suddenly woke up to the possibility that Scotland might vote ‘Yes’ because the first opinion polls were published that said so?  One of those polls, conducted by TNS-BMRB, made the headlines by suggesting Scotland was evenly divided.  Which it was, if you, like every media outlet, excluded don’t knows.  In fact, that poll showed 39% No, 38% Yes and – wait for it – 23% don’t know.

Twenty. Three. Per. Cent.  That’s nearly a quarter of respondents saying they are currently undecided and what that gets them is excluded from the headline findings as if they don’t matter and have no bearing on the outcome of this referendum.

If you assume that an opinion poll, properly conducted with a robust, representative and correctly weighted sample, is intended to provide a prediction of the behaviour of the total population (of the Scottish electorate in this case) then excluding 23% is equivalent to excluding the combined population of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling.

As far as I can tell, every media outlet in the UK is reporting every referendum opinion poll in this way – with don’t knows excluded.  It is stupid and wrong and it really needs to stop.

There are three reasons why:

1. It is inaccurate. It is factually wrong. Here’s a recent tweet from ITV News:

No, it doesn’t.  It’s an ICM poll for The Scotsman and what it actually finds is 45% No, 41% Yes and 14% don’t know.  To report that the poll finds 52% of Scots planning to vote No when, actually, it found 45% of them doing so is bad journalism because journalists shouldn’t knowingly report things that are factually wrong. (Should they? I’m fairly sure of my ground here.)  14%, since you asked, is equivalent to Glasgow and Dundee combined.

2.  It presents a wholly misleading picture of the state of the electorate and of the campaign.  The decisive section of voters in Scotland are simply omitted from consideration and hidden from view.  You cannot make any sensible assessment of the dynamic of the referendum if it is presented as a zero-sum contest in which victory depends on getting people to change their minds, rather than making up their minds in the first place.  You need to know how many people remain unpersuaded to get a sense of the challenge, and opportunity, that remains for both sides.  There is no reason to assume that the don’t knows will divide evenly, or in the same ratio as those currently able to declare for Yes or for No.  The fact that as many as 14% of all Scottish voters might still, two days before voting, be open to persuasion by either side is hugely significant.  They shouldn’t be excluded from the headlines – they ARE the headline.

3.  It assumes don’t knows don’t count.  The don’t knows may not have strong opinions at this stage.  They’re not passionate about being don’t knows.  They’re not campaigning for don’t know, they’re not arguing for indecision.  They don’t hold rallies, or wave placards that say “Scotland Doesn’t Know, Thanks”, or wear badges reading “Better Off Not Deciding”.  But this is not the same as having no opinions.  And it is not the same as refusing to participate.  Today’s don’t knows will be Thursday’s referendum voters – they’ll choose one way or another.  And, if the final vote looks nothing like how today’s opinion polls are showing it, and the journalists are all there scratching their heads wondering why, you can shout at the telly with me: “BECAUSE YOU EXCLUDED THE DON’T KNOWS.”  And then we should all go to bed, because shouting at the telly is a sign you need more sleep.


The scandal of Tuam’s #800children

What image comes to mind when you hear or read the words “mass grave”?

Perhaps a  horrific discovery in a hot, distant war zone. Or an archaeologist’s find from a time of plague. You don’t get mass graves in modern peacetime, here in civilised western Europe, do you?

Except that you do.  In Tuam, a town of about 8,000 people in county Galway in western Ireland, a local historian, Catherine Corless, has found evidence of a mass grave. In a disused septic tank, Corless believes there lie the remains of 796 young children, aged between two days and nine years when they died. They were apparently dumped there (there really is no other word for it) between 1925 and 1961 by the nuns of the Bon Secours Sisterhood who were supposed to be caring for them in the Mother and Baby home for ‘fallen women’ that they ran. So appalled was the Irish Catholic church of the time – and, with it, seemingly much of Irish society – at the idea of children being born out of wedlock that pregnant unmarried women would go to these ‘homes’ to have their babies, which they would then leave to the ‘care’ of the church.

The Sisters of Bon Secours are a Catholic congregation founded in France in 1822 and given official recognition by Pope Pius IX in 1875. They still exist and are active in Britain, Ireland, the US and elsewhere. Their name, of course, means “good help” and their motto is “Good Help to Those in Need”. The evidence suggests that the help they gave to the children in need of it was unusually and inhumanly callous and cruel.  Writing about the Tuam home in the US Irish community website IrishCentral.com a few days ago, Cahir O’Doherty observes:

A local health board inspection report from April 1944 recorded 271 children and 61 single mothers in residence, a total of 333 in a building that had a capacity for 243.

The report described the children as “emaciated,” “pot-bellied,” “fragile” with “flesh hanging loosely on limbs.” The report noted that 31 children in the “sun room and balcony” were “poor, emaciated and not thriving.” The effects of long term neglect and malnutrition were observed repeatedly.

Children died at The Home at the rate of one a fortnight for almost 40 years, one report claims. Another appears to claim that 300 children died between 1943 and 1946, which would mean two deaths a week in the isolated institution.

Your feelings at reading this are probably the same as mine – horror, revulsion, anger, shock (if not surprise). You will find these feelings, and more, expressed on Twitter (follow the #800children hashtag) along with rage at the Irish government, police and church for the inadequacy, so far, of their response.

I don’t really understand how all this could have happened, or been allowed to happen. I’m not Irish and have never lived in Ireland. I’m not and have never been a Catholic. I can claim no knowledge of Irish history or society, of the intricacies of the relationship between church, state and people in Ireland. All I know, and can attempt to understand, is what has been reported. And what concerns me is how badly this is being reported.

The earliest report of this story that I can find is from 25 May – the Irish Mail on Sunday appears to have broken the story on its front page that day. It seems to have been picked up outside Ireland on 3 June, two days ago. But no news organisation seems to have considered it important enough to run prominently. I only found the story myself yesterday (4 June). I don’t see the Irish papers, who I understand are now giving it prominence (front page of the Times, Examiner and Independent, I learn from Twitter), but in the UK this is not a front page story for anyone. Yesterday, you would not have found the story on the front page of the BBC News website until late in the evening, and then as a one-line headline under the ‘Europe’ header, below the Sport, the ‘Also in the News’, the local news and the weather. If editors thought that it was a story that readers just weren’t interested in, there is evidence to the contrary. For much of yesterday, this powerful opinion piece by Emer O’Toole was listed as the “Most Read” article on The Guardian’s website – but neither it nor the news story appeared anywhere on The Guardian’s capacious front web page. It is still at number 4 and still absent from the front page. Similarly, I noticed Terrence McCoy’s report was top of the “top-read stories of the past four hours” on the Washington Post website for long periods yesterday even though it, too, could not then and cannot now be found anywhere on the Post’s front web page.

Why has this story not pushed everything else in the news aside? Why are the world’s media not camped out in Tuam, asking questions and demanding answers? This is a modern mass grave, of children, in a peaceful, developed, western European state. There is evidence here of a large-scale atrocity having been committed by a division of the world’s biggest, most powerful church not in medieval times but the twentieth century – as late as the 1960s. This is not some remote, inaccessible war zone (although I would hope that a mass grave of children would merit our attention wherever it was in the world). And this is not ancient history. What hope is there of the Irish government, police and church to uncover the truth of what happened at Tuam (and the other ‘Mother and Baby homes’ that existed around Ireland) and, as far as might be possible, be held accountable for their actions, if they feel no pressure from the media and public to do so?

I’m looking at the front page of the BBC News website right now and here are some of the stories given more prominence, considered more important, than the discovery of a modern mass grave of children in Ireland: people who got compensation for mis-sold PPI policies didn’t get all the money they should have got; two Cabinet ministers are having a spat; there was smoke in the basement of The Shard in London; some people have been selected for the first time for the England cricket team; someone left their phone on during a Kevin Spacey play. From the front pages of this morning’s British newspapers, you’ll also learn that a page boy fainted; Nigel Farage went to bed late; Justin Bieber is still obnoxious.

Perhaps editors feel these are events too far in the past to be considered newsworthy. Or maybe they think we’ve all become inured to stories of large-scale abuse like this. Or that, like those running The Home, we don’t really care about those children and so we’re not that interested in reading about them – like the 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls that we all weren’t interested in (no, they haven’t been found, released or rescued – the media just got bored of them). Perhaps those editors are right. I’d find that pretty depressing.

Edit: This post has been corrected to show that the Irish Mail on Sunday broke the story on 25 May on its front page, not pp12-13 as originally stated. Apologies for the error.

Edit: In recognition of the fact that many of the dead children were not babies but as old as nine, the Twitter hashtag in use is now #800children, not #800babies. This has been amended in the title and text of this blogpost.

Update: Since this blogpost was first published, BBC News has moved the headline linking to its latest report on the Tuam children to the top half of the front page of its website – hopefully suggesting a growing recognition of the significance of the story. In contrast, The Guardian appears to have stopped covering the story altogether – Emer O’Toole’s column being  its last published item on it.



Why I fear a Ukip victory

I don’t fear a Ukip victory because I’m scared that they will smash the cosy, complacent hegemony of the three major parties – it probably deserves to be smashed (I’m voting Green).  I don’t fear a Ukip victory because it will hasten our exit from the EU – I don’ t think exit is in our best interests but if it happens I’m sure we’ll get by. No, I fear a Ukip victory because of what this YouGov poll, taken just a few weeks ago, says about whose votes will deliver that victory.

Scroll to pages 15-17 for public attitudes to immigration, including a breakdown by intention to vote.

Page 16 has the finding that chills me most.  Respondents were asked if they agree or disagree with the following statement: “The Government should encourage immigrants and their families to leave Britain (including family members who were born in Britain).”  51 per cent of Ukip voters agreed with this statement.

51 per cent.  A majority.  Not some crackpot local councillor dredged up by the media.  51 per cent of all Ukip voters.

That’s a majority of Ukip voters who think that if you were born in this country, but you have an immigrant parent, you’re not British enough to stay.

I’d find that pretty scary in any circumstances but it scares me in particular because that’s me they want thrown out of the country.  I’m the son of an immigrant.  My Indonesian-born mother has been a citizen and resident of this country for about 50 years.  I was born in London and, apart from a year in the US as a student, have never lived in any other country.  I speak no Indonesian language and know shamefully little about the history or culture of my mother’s home country.  I was educated in this country, have a career here, a home and family here.  But a majority of Ukip voters want to send me ‘back’ to Indonesia – a country I have only ever even visited twice in my life.

When I call Ukip a racist party, it’s not a lazy insult because I can’t think of any better way of arguing against Ukip’s views.  It’s because, for years now, Ukip has run a campaign message that basically amounts to ‘fear the foreigner’.  Ukip posters don’t talk about immigration, they talk about immigrants – because thinking about immigration as an abstract, economic issue is less powerful, less easy than thinking about how uncomfortable the immigrants themselves make you feel.  They talk about nationality (Bulgarian, Romanian) because that taps into prejudices about national stereotypes.  You’re right to fear Romanian neighbours, is the subtext – think of the crime gangs!  They portray immigrants exclusively as a threat.  They’re crooks, idlers, scroungers, or they’re after YOUR JOB.  (Never mind that, by seeking to scrap all your employment rights, Ukip is a far bigger threat to your job than any jobseeker, immigrant or otherwise).  And then they lie about how many immigrants there are, so as to exaggerate the threat.  How many million Bulgarians and Romanians were going to flood our shores at the start of this year?  Every one a criminal, a job thief and a dodgy neighbour.

I’ve been lucky enough to receive very little racist abuse in my life, but I’ve had enough to know what it looks like.  And it looks like a Ukip poster.

You might think I’ve gone too far.  That I’m reading too much into an innocuous campaign that merely raises the legitimate issue of immigration and does so in the context of the EU’s policy of free movement of labour.  YouGov’s numbers suggest that, intentionally or not, Ukip’s message resonates with racists.  Or perhaps you don’t think that wanting to see me booted off to the country of my mother’s birth is a racist viewpoint.  Explain to me how it isn’t, please.

There are lots of completely non-racist people in Ukip – people who feel that the main parties have failed, and that Britain will somehow be massively better off if it leaves the EU.  On Thursday night and again on Sunday night, those people will be rejoicing.  The polls suggest that a Ukip ‘victory’ – in the sense of winning the largest share of the popular vote – is on the cards.  They will gloat and they will tell the likes of me that our pathetic attempts to smear their party were futile.  Gloating is the just reward for winning an election.  If the party I supported had won, I’d gloat too.

But know this: elsewhere, all around the country, thousands of triumphal racists will also be rejoicing.  They have found a party they feel welcome in and, more than that, they have delivered an electoral victory for it. They will feel that their views have been validated and vindicated by the ballot box.  They will feel bolder and this will be reinforced by having a major political party at their disposal to pursue their objectives.  They will be fortified further in the coming months as Labour and the Tories quietly decide that ‘the lesson learnt’ from this election is that they need to be more like Ukip, maybe do a bit of immigrant-bashing of their own.

Nigel Farage imagines, rather wishfully, that he will hold the balance of power after next year’s general election.  I imagine he would insist on including in any coalition agreement an immigration policy in line with the demands of the majority of his supporters.  My son will be 6 years old and, I assume, will be allowed to stay.  Perhaps, as they pack me onto a plane to Jakarta with my mother and brother, one of you non-racist Ukip voters will volunteer to explain to him why your party’s hatred of foreigners is so intense, runs so deep, that his dad, uncle and grandmother have to be taken from him.  You can tell him about the danger I so clearly pose to society as the son of an immigrant.  And then maybe you can show him the line in Ukip’s constitution that says it’s a non-racist party.  I’m sure he’ll find that very reassuring.

Photo credit: Michael Kappel, via Flickr

The silent thief of sight – some words about glaucoma

Photo credit: Michael Kappel, via Flickr

Photo credit: Michael Kappel, via Flickr

Next Tuesday I’m going to have eye surgery.  I have glaucoma in both eyes and every other remedy has been tried with only limited effect, so surgery it is.  It is, as surgical procedures go, a swift and low-risk one with a very high success rate.  I’ll be back home the same day.  I’m also lucky enough to have one of the best eye consultants and surgeons in the country right here in sleepy North Devon.  It will all be just fine.  If I am terrified – and I am – it’s because I’ve managed to get through nearly 42 years of life without any surgery at all and I’m squeamish and needle-phobic at the best of times.  But, like I say, this is relatively low-risk and, more importantly, it will save my eyesight.

When is the last time you had an eye test?  If it’s been more than a year, please book one soon.  If you’ve been putting it off because your eyesight seems fine so why bother to find the time and go to the expense of an eye test, please go anyway.  I don’t want to nag.  I’m sorry if I sound like your mother, or some dreary public information message, or like a convert to a cult that’s trying to drag you in for a personality assessment.  It’s just that glaucoma is one of a number of eye conditions that can be detected in a standard eye test so an eye test is more than about whether or not you can read a car number plate from 50 yards, or whatever – it’s about whether or not you might be going blind and not realise it.

Glaucoma is called the silent thief of sight because you could be losing your vision without even being aware of it.  There’s a little pocket of fluid at the front of your eye, in front of the lens. The fluid slowly flows through this chamber, keeping various components of your eye clean and clear. The fluid drains out through a mesh of microscopic channels and is reabsorbed into your bloodstream.  In the most common form of glaucoma, this mesh becomes blocked somehow (it’s not clear how) and so the fluid escapes at a slower rate than it flows in. This causes the pressure inside the whole eyeball to increase and, at the back of the eye, the optic nerve starts to get slowly squished and damaged.

If you have the most common form of glaucoma, you won’t feel a thing.  There are no clues or noticeable symptoms of any kind.  My eyes don’t feel uncomfortable or painful or high-pressure-y at all.  And, because it first affects your peripheral vision, and usually in one eye more than the other, you won’t notice any sight loss until it’s too late.  My glaucoma has given me a blind spot in my right eye, above and to the left of my centre of vision.  If I’m looking at you and I close my left eye and look at your left shoulder, I can make your nose disappear.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t know I was suffering any loss of vision at all.  But the thing about vision loss is that it can’t be reversed.  My surgery will stop any more damage being done, but that blind spot will always be there.  If you let glaucoma go undetected and untreated, you can eventually get tunnel vision and, finally, go blind.

My glaucoma was detected by Specsavers in Barnstaple – but any optician anywhere in the country would have spotted it.  My point is that all it takes is a standard eye test.  That thing they do where a machine blows a little puff of air into the front of your eye is an eye pressure test. It’s not a particularly accurate test, but it’s enough to let the optician know if there’s a potential problem, and they’ll refer you to your nearest eye clinic if they think something needs investigating.

No one really knows what causes glaucoma.  It’s not a bacterial or viral disease.  You are at greater risk if you are older but young people, even children, can have glaucoma.  Men and women are equally at risk.  If you are Asian (I am half-Indonesian) you are at slightly greater risk because our eyes are a slightly different shape to those of white Europeans.  If you are black, you are at greater risk still – I have read that glaucoma is the leading cause of blindness in African-Americans.  There appears to be a genetic component to glaucoma, so you are at greater risk if one of your parents has/had it.  But no one is ‘immune’ to it.  Seriously, you should get your eyes checked.

There is nothing scary about being diagnosed with glaucoma.  Everything that’s been done to me has been easy, quick and painless.  My life hasn’t been turned upside down by it.  There’s nothing I can’t do because of the glaucoma.  I can drive as safely as someone without glaucoma (I had to notify the DVLA of my glaucoma and they asked me to do a quick and simple test at an optician to confirm that I was safe to drive).  I can read as easily.  If I were the kind of person who did active things like sport, I would be as able to do those things as if I didn’t have glaucoma.

Every few months, I’ve had the pressure in my eyes checked.  The consultant at the eye clinic puts anaesthetic drops in my eyes – they don’t sting or hurt and they don’t affect your vision; they wear off after half an hour or so.  Then he sits me down in front of the same kind of contraption that a high street optician has to look into your eyes – that metal frame with a chin rest and a forehead rest to keep your head still.  He puts a glass rod against the front of my eye – but, because of the anaesthetic drops, I literally don’t feel a thing – and I assume there’s a little gauge on there that measures how much the rod can be pushed against the eye in order to determine the internal pressure.  You usually get a figure between 10 and 20 (I have no idea what the unit of measurement is).  Low teens is normal.  Around 17 or 18 is where it starts to be a bit worrying.  I’ve had as high as 24, and as low as 12.  Your eye pressure changes over time – it even fluctuates during the course of the day.

The other thing I have to do every few months is have a ‘field test’ to detect blind spots in my field of vision. You sit in front of what looks like the inside of a large white plastic box. It appears to be blank on the inside, apart from a little white light in the centre which is what you focus on. As you focus on this light, other little points of light will appear, one by one and of varying levels of brightness, all around your peripheral vision. They give you a button and you press this each time you see a light. It takes about five minutes for each eye. The machine then gives a printout of where in your field of vision, if anywhere, it thinks you might be losing your vision. Again, it’s quick, easy and painless.

I’ve had other tests, all of which have been a breeze. (By the way, isn’t it great that we have a National Health Service that can do all this and I haven’t had to worry about whether or not I can afford it?) I’ve had an MRI scan which didn’t bother me at all – the main thing you notice is that it’s a lot noisier than you expect. I had an OCT scan which was so uninvasive that I didn’t even realise I’d had it done – I thought they were just taking photos of my eyes. I had a fluorescein angiogram – where they inject a fluoresecent dye into your arm and take photos of your eye very rapidly to see the progression of the dye through the blood vessels in the eye. I didn’t like this because of my needle phobia but, apart from the needle in my arm, I didn’t feel a thing. (Your wee turns a really bright fluorescent orange for a couple of days afterwards which is alarming at first, but you learn to have fun with it after a while and you start to miss it when it goes back to normal.)

There is no cure for glaucoma, but treatment of it is also nothing to worry about.  For most people with glaucoma, eye drops are all you need – albeit that you have to take them for the rest of your life.  I’ve been through various eye drops, increasing in strength as I went along.  Currently, I take one type of drop twice a day, and another once a day – it’s just part of my routine getting out of bed in the morning and going to bed in the evening, so really easy. One of the drops has no side effects on me at all. The other makes my vision blurry for about thirty seconds; gives me a slightly bitter taste at the back of my tongue for a few minutes (which is a little bit freaky, if you think about it); and can make my eyes feel dry and scratchy sometimes, for which I have a third set of drops for when it gets uncomfortable.

If the drops don’t do the trick – as was the case for me – you can move on to laser treatment. This was a doddle. They put anaesthetic drops in and then held a glass lens against the front of my eye (with an aqueous gel between the lens and my eye to let them move the lens about).  The lens was used to focus and aim the laser. In short, repeated bursts, the laser was fired at different points around the edge of the iris in each eye, to stimulate that drainage mesh that I mentioned earlier into working better. It was uncomfortable, but not painful. I did feel, occasionally, what felt like little pin-pricks on my eye which I was told was because I have dark brown eyes that absorb more of the laser light than paler eyes, so the laser makes itself a bit more powerful to compensate. It was really no big deal, though. It took about twenty minutes and they check you an hour later to make sure it’s all OK before sending you home. I had it done twice, about a month apart – the top half of each iris first time, the bottom half the second time.

My eyes are clearly stubborn things, so I’m now having to go for surgery. I won’t go into the squeamish detail about the procedure – Google ‘trabeculectomy’ if you want to know what it entails. Suffice to say that I will have a general anaesthetic (it can be done under local, but I think I’d freak out if it were). It will take about an hour and I’ll go home that afternoon. I’ll have a bandage over my eye for the night. I will have to go back into hospital to be checked frequently, at first, but then less regularly as it heals and they are satisfied that it’s all gone well. I’ll be out of action for a week or so but, after that, I should be able to go back to life as normal pretty quickly. I’ll have more eye drops to take, a lot more frequently than my current ones, for a few months. In six months’ time, I’ll have the other eye done and go through it all again. But, once that eye has healed, I will effectively have a near-permanent remedy. No more eye drops or lasers. No more vision loss. I will probably have to go back in about 30-40 years to have the procedure done again, but that’s a small price to pay for keeping my sight.

This blogpost probably seems very self-indulgent – why should anyone else care about what’s happening to my eyes? My purpose is partly to reassure anyone who might have glaucoma that it’s a condition that is easy and painless to treat and to live with. A lot of the information you’ll find online about glaucoma is a bit technical and jargon-filled. You don’t get to find out what it really feels like to have glaucoma and be treated for it.  I can only share my own experience – I imagine it’s different for each person depending on the nature of their condition and the treatment they receive.  If you’re being investigated for glaucoma, or you’ve just been diagnosed, you may have a very different experience to mine.  But I think my experience is fairly typical.  I hope this blogpost will, to some extent, set your mind at ease.

More importantly, my purpose is to convey this simple message: get your eyes tested. My journey – through diagnosis, treatment and now surgery – started with an ordinary eye test from an ordinary optician. That little puff of air saved my sight. It could save yours, too.

Photo: nicksarebi via Flickr

Sandbags and bandwagons

Photo: nicksarebi via Flickr

Photo: nicksarebi via Flickr

There’s a lot of water around at the moment and it seems to have washed a lot of political effluent along with it.  This troubles me.

I’ve taken recently to expressing a sort of filial loyalty to my adopted home region of the West country since parts of it started to become submerged.  This is despite the fact that the inland, upland bit of North Devon where I live is largely unaffected by the bad weather, I had to look up Dawlish on a map, and my very slight knowledge of the Somerset Levels comes entirely from seeing them through the window of a train.  None of this has stopped me from tweeting heartfelt pleas for support for stricken Somerset farmers as if they were my own kin.

We should all support the West country, if only because it is gorgeous and filled will lovely people and delicious animals.  Once we’ve finished mopping up, you should come and visit – we’d love to see you.

Today, lots of the country is underwater and in need of help.  And where there’s distress, there’s blame and where there’s blame there’s bullshit.  Whole catchment areas full of it.

I have seen bullshit flowing along two primary channels – let’s call them the River Bullshit and the King’s Bullshit Drain.

Rapidly silting up the River Bullshit is the demand to help the West country by conveniently diverting funding from some other, unconnected, area of public spending such as foreign aid or HS2.

The prime culprit here is Ukip leader and human weasel, Nigel Farage.  Farage has demanded that Britain stop spending money on foreign aid and instead spend that money on helping those underwater in the Somerset Levels, where they have endured serious flooding for several weeks now.

I had a lot more time for Ukip when their paranoia was focused exclusively on the European Union.  I may not agree with them on Europe, but I can see that Euroscpeticism is a coherent viewpoint, widely held.  Now, though, Ukip has decided to move away from being a one-issue party and it has a policy platform that runs the full gamut from xenophobia to sexism, taking in homophobia and Islamophobia along the way.  Basically, all the phobias.  Perhaps they’ll incorporate arachnophobia next and promise every household a new vacuum cleaner.

Ukip describes itself as a “non-racist” party and the fact that they think that this needs spelling out tells you quite a lot about them.  Hatred of foreigners seems to be pretty central to Ukip’s core values – in a way that would seriously piss me off if I were a genuinely non-racist conservative Eurosceptic.  Ukip spent the whole of 2013 raging against the tsunami of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants they predicted would wash up in Dover as soon as the New Year arrived, and generally setting about demonstrating that, whilst it is theoretically possible to discuss immigration without being racist, they haven’t quite worked out how.  Despite the hordes of Romanians and Bulgarians not materialising, the media continues to hang on every bit of populist, evidence-free, narrow-minded bullshit that falls out of Farage’s smug face and Ukip continue to ride high in opinion polls.  I suspect that even some racists have become attracted to Ukip’s brand of non-racism, which must be very confusing for them.

There are serious debates to be had about how the foreign aid budget is spent – whether it is going to the right people in the right places; and how the budget is set – for example, whether fixing it as a percentage of gross national income is sensible.  These debates may even be of interest to Farage.  But he’s not interested in engaging in them now.  His message is simple – the recipients of foreign aid are undeserving, particularly compared with Brits, wading through their own living rooms.  Why are they undeserving?  Because they’re foreign.  That’s it.  It really is no more nuanced than that.  You can see why Ukip have to tell you they’re non-racist.  It can be very hard to work it out on your own.

As an expression of national pride, stopping foreign aid is a curious proposal because it makes the world less safe and the UK less influential in it.  Deployed effectively, foreign aid is about helping countries avoid becoming failed states, easily overrun by extremists.  It’s about helping people find their way out of a life of extreme poverty and despair because – besides being the humanitarian, even human, thing to do – if we don’t offer hope, a fanatical lunatic will.  Foreign aid makes the UK more influential because it is a tool of foreign policy, a mechanism of ‘soft power‘.  Aid makes recipient countries better disposed towards us and helps to give us influence in subsequent international discussions on things like trade, security, human rights – stuff that perhaps Ukip hasn’t got round to thinking about, they’ve been so focused on finding novel ways to be non-racist.  Personally, I support foreign aid because I think that we should help other human beings in need of help and I don’t see why their nationality is relevant.  I always thought that helping those in need was one of Britain’s values as a nation.  Thank goodness Ukip has set me straight on that one by giving voice to all those non-racists who hate the idea of foreigners having our money.

Foreign aid isn’t the only thing that’s been proposed for culling in order to help the South West.  The other prominent target that I’ve seen has been HS2 – the plan to lay a strip of countryside to waste in order to help the nation’s biggest, best connected cities become even bigger by being even better connected.  I have rather more sympathy with the ‘kill HS2 to save the West country’ campaign, partly because there is more of an internal logic to it (mostly, people want the money spent on improving rail links in the South West), but largely because I think HS2 is a daft idea that involves spending colossal sums of money that we keep being told we don’t have in order to help fewer people, and in less helpful ways, than spending just a proportion of that same money on other things.  I also recognise that, whereas Farage is only interested in (1) winning votes and (2) hurting foreign people, some of those aboard the ‘HS2 to West country’ lifeboat actually care about the West country and genuinely want to help the people in it.  If you cancelled the foreign aid budget tomorrow but didn’t give any of the money to the South West, Farage would say ‘thank you very much’ and probably never be seen in Somerset again until election time.  Many of the currently-vocal HS2 crowd are very serious about the difficulty of travelling past Taunton without a hovercraft and will notice if nothing is done about it.

So, why do I object to both these campaigns?  In part because it sets up a false choice that has no connection with how government spending works.  Firstly, there is no evidence that the immediate help needed in flooded areas cannot be provided within existing budgets and contingency funds that will exist precisely for this kind of situation.  To put it slightly more succinctly: helping flooded areas shouldn’t come at the expense of foreign aid because we can do both.  Secondly, even if we do need to divert money from elsewhere to rebuild the West country, there isn’t necessarily any logic in taking it all from a single source, nor in draining that source completely.

Mostly, though, I object because setting up those false choices actually changes the subject, which is counter-productive to your stated aims, i.e. helping flooded areas.  When you say “help the areas in need,” you’re talking about just that, and you can make some progress.  When you say “cancel HS2 to help the areas in need,” you’re now talking about HS2.  You force whoever you’re talking to to defend HS2, rather than finding ways to help areas hit by flooding.  You go from having one objective which you can achieve, to having two and you’ve positioned one of them to obstruct the other.

So that’s Bullshit River.  Let’s splash over to the King’s Bullshit Drain and see what’s blocking the flow of water over there.  Oh, it appears that a dam has been built across the channel by that complete and utter beaver, Eric Pickles.  Pickles really is a perfect Cnut because he thinks that the government could have held back the floodwaters, and he has built his dam out of little sticks of blame which are now getting in the way of anything useful happening.

‘Government’ and ‘politics’ are not the same thing.  In an emergency, you need government.  Pickles, unexpectedly put in charge of the bucket of cobras that apparently now runs the country, decided we needed a dose of politics.  Pickles decided to make the argument that the flooding was all the fault of Chris Smith – the Chair of the Environment Agency and, conveniently, a former Labour Cabinet minister.  Specifically, Pickles responded to the demands of waterlogged Somerset residents for local rivers and channels to be dredged by agreeing with them and apologising for this not happening.

I’m sure that the effectiveness of the Environment Agency, whose budget has already been heavily cut by this government, has been greatly improved by a minister setting out to destroy public confidence in them.  Pickles’ intervention might have been worthwhile if he hadn’t been so totally, completely, utterly, 100 per cent, abjectly, comprehensively wrong about both the causes of the flooding and particularly the role of dredging.

Being pro-dredging is politically easy.  Local residents in the Somerset Levels have been demanding it for months.  The local MP, Ian Liddell-Grainger insists that dredging would have saved the Levels from flooding on the logic that dredging didn’t happen and flooding now has, and there couldn’t possibly be any other explanation for this bizarre coincidence.  I expect Nigel Farage has called for dredging too, at some point, only he probably wants immigrants used to dredge the channels, but in a non-racist way.

The cause of the flooding – in Somerset, the Thames Valley and elsewhere – is not Chris Smith.  We are flooded because an incredible amount of water has fallen – in Somerset, well over double the long-term average – and far more than either the ground or any man-made flood prevention measures can handle.  We are flooded because, for generations, we have buggered up our climate so that extreme weather conditions are more likely more often, and we have buggered up our land so that it can’t cope when humongous amounts of water are dropped all over it.  Far from apologising for not dredging, Pickles should have listened to the actual, genuine experts in and outside the Environment Agency who were trying to tell him that, in fact, dredging would have not have prevented the flooding but made it worse.  (Here’s a bunch of expert opinions for you on this, and here’s a brilliant George Monbiot column explaining why we’re all a lot wetter than we should be.)

There are people who are flooded who need help.  If they get it, I don’t imagine they’re too bothered what budget line it came from, or who they can blame for the rain falling.  Later, we’ll recover and rebuild and, if we’re clever, we’ll start to do something effective to reduce our future flood risk, like plant lots of trees.  Politics, stupidity and bullshit will not help us then, and they’re not helping us now.  If you can’t say anything useful – I’m looking at you, Farage – shut up, and get out of everyone’s way.