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The Public are cautioned not to feed the Sharks by Hand


Scandals pepper our history.  Those in public life daily run a gauntlet of falsely conceived accusations of impropriety, as well as some genuine ones.   The media, or hitherto the gutter press, has feasted eagerly on the carcasses of the luckless and the guilty, while those most adroit in the art of escapology survive.

Bad news, people.  We are all ‘The Media’ now.  Escapology is a science of the past.

A couple of centuries ago, the old lady who made the blacksmith ill by concocting the wrong herbal remedy would once have been able to start afresh in another village;  now she faces a lynch mob of millions.

There is nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.  The internet has given the vultures wings, and no crevasse, no shield of politics or faith can hide you from the rip and tear of their beaks.

Lynch mob?   Witch hunters?  Whatever soubriquet you give to those who get ghoulish pleasure from seeing their quarry squirm, they are very much among us.  And the severity of the crime or the reliability of the evidence is of no concern to them, when it is set against the warped satisfaction of bringing their victim to ruin, without ever really questioning either the morality or the dire consequences of what they do.

I think the trouble started when it was deemed appropriate to include certain offences under the law that do not need corroboration.  I am not saying this is wrong, although it is a very difficult area and one which should be applied with extreme care.  The problem, though, is compounded by the inadequacy of the law in dealing with libel, still less with slander.  Accusations that fall within that category, the more lurid the better, can be offered up to the hanging jury of Facebook without fear of redress.  Are you a journalist in search of your Big Story? Have you an old score to settle?  Do you personally dislike someone in the public eye, or are you simply hoping to make some money?  Then start a rumour, begin the daisy chain of innuendo that will bring the object of your jealousy down.

I have always been uneasy with this situation because there is no proportionality.  By aligning a minor transgression, a naïve or foolish misunderstanding with a real crime, some angry or lascivious act which inspires real fear or creates a scar, we demean those who are true victims – even discourage them from coming forward, because genuine people are naturally shy of administering such blatant excoriation.  It is an erosion of free speech, and it is a breakdown in the rule of law.

This week a senior politician resigned from his position as Minister of Defence because he had to admit to patting a journalist’s knee ten years ago.  To the tuneless thunder of other journalists’ feet as they jumped on the bandwagon, allusions to ‘other offences’ have been made, though lacking proof.  Notwithstanding my personal view that any accusation made by a journalist should be discounted, or at least subjected to very close examination, there can be no doubt the man has shown fallibility.  He has been, at the least, clumsy.  But where once there might have been an acceptance that the ‘rules’ have changed in the last decade or so, an apology made and admonition given (even the journalist herself commented that she did not feel threatened and she thought the resignation ‘absurd’), that will no longer satisfy the ravening horde.  Now it must be ostracism and ruin for a very talented man in fields where sexual ineptitude are irrelevant, and who might have had much to contribute.   And now, of course, the pack is loose.

Any politician in the UK Parliament now has to walk in fear, lest a friendly pat or a playful remark made a generation since is brought from its closet and shaken out in the light of this burgeoning set of new ‘rules’ which the feminist movement is writing down as fast as it can think them up.  Many are being accused who haven’t transgressed but that doesn’t matter.  This thinly clothed hatred of the male sex is glaring out from under every stone and it does not care who it hurts, or how.  Our political balance is at a very crucial point.   When this kind of hysteria infects the slow-witted and the fast-persuaded it can have consequences that are extreme.

Meanwhile, the BBC played host on national television this week to a senior female politician from Her Majesty’s Opposition – a party aggressively seeking power – who told a very insensitive anti-Semitic joke.

I have always admired the Jewish community’s sense of humour, especially when they happily direct jokes against themselves; but I do not think any Jewish person I have known would have enjoyed this particular example (and no, I won’t repeat it, although ‘Harriet Harman’ on YouTube will produce what you need, if you must witness it).  Yet there has been no further coverage of the incident on the BBC or, as far as I know, any other channel, despite concerns over the growth of anti-Semitism on the ‘Left’ of Ms. Harman’s political party.  Ample grounds, certainly, to fuel another witch hunt if you have the taste for it – strangely though, no-one has.

So, where are we?   Has the state of the world so altered that a few injudicious sexist remarks or examples of the latest regime of ‘inappropriate touching’ can bring down a government, altering the future for us all, and promoting to power a zealous party of neo-Marxists with an unhealthy hotbed of racism seething beneath?  Is that really where we are?

Look, there are genuine cases – of course there are.  I have been lied about – we all of us experience that from time to time.  I have also been assaulted, compromised, victimised, and so on.  But I am not scarred, not by any of these things.  My scars have more to do with the viciousness of the mob, and its constant attacks on my freedom.  I was once proud of my nation.  Now?  I’m not so sure.

I am beginning to wonder; if I were young and unattached again, how would I set about forging a relationship with the opposite sex?

The answer is, I think, only in the presence of witnesses.

Horror on the Trans-Pennine Express


Last weekend fate decreed I take a journey on a railway train.  I have an ambivalent relationship with railway trains.Gresley

On the one hand, I cannot be unmoved by the sight of a rushing beast as it pounds across an open landscape; a silver streak, as determined as a serpent in pursuit of unseen prey.   Although never one of that sad, damp cluster of youths who gathered for hours of waiting on platforms with notebooks and pencils numbly clutched for a glimpse of the ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’, I admit steam locomotives inspired awe in me.  And the power that moved so many to anorak-dom is, to some extent, with me still.   Gone are the smoking demons with their cannonades of fiery breath, but the size is still there, the speed burgeons; and we are all, in some degree, impressed by speed, aren’t we?

There is another hand, though.  I am rarely a passenger now.  Those platforms and the icy blast of a north-westerly in the first light of morning or the last tick of the midnight clock have lost their charm.  So has the companionship that comes with a shared cause, the excitement of spotting a roaring, steam-belching Standard Class 9F hauling wagons in an endless caravan through Exeter St. David’s or a Princess Class breathlessly trundling the more usual 12 carriages into position on platform 5.  Gone are the days.  The loudest sound this morning is the scream of protest from my credit card as I pay my fare.  Trains all look alike these days – or they do, at least, to me.

The ruthless efficiency of modern rail travel should be anathema to one whose roots are so firmly planted in the steam age:  should be, but not.   There is something astounding about the 12:14 to Plymouth which actually arrives at 12:14; something even more profoundly impressive about the smooth, quiet comfort of the journey – mobile phones and tablets notwithstanding.   I enjoy the efficiency, but equally I am quietly gratified when something goes just a little bit wrong.

Oh yes, it still happens!

Back to the weekend and myself, settling down to a comfortable transition from York to Manchester Piccadilly on a train that calls itself royally the ‘Trans-Pennine Express’, which is really a collection of carriage units fused together – a sort of multi-bendy-bus on rails.  With everything so linked, there is an element of shared experience that can surprise.  And surprise it did.

Our departure was a little delayed.  The train’s announcer was extremely apologetic and very precise.  “As those passengers who have ridden with us from Scarborough will be aware, a passenger was taken ill, requiring the train’s toilets (note the plural) to be cleaned.”

Amusement, at first.   Sardonic smiles induced by excess detail.  Did we really need to know?

Well, yes.

“Because of this, passengers who need our facilities are requested to only use the toilet in Carriage B.  We apologise once again for this inconvenience.”

So the train waited a little longer at York, while I watched earnest staff with cleaning apparatus (no, no full body suits) bustling back and forth.  I also wondered, assuming the train would have at least five or six (let’s use gentle language) rest rooms, just how peripatetic our erstwhile sickly passenger had managed to be?  In the throes of a dose of the trots, just how much trotting can actually be involved?

Finally the train moved.  The engines gave their initial burst of energy.  The air conditioning kicked in.  Remember my observation about closely linked carriage units?   If we needed any more immediate reminder of this poor passenger’s misfortune it was delivered to us, pungently, by courtesy of the aircon.   It was an aroma swift to spread, intense, and slow to disperse.  I shall remember it for a while yet.  So will everyone who rode that train.  We arrived at my destination on time, whereupon the announcer advised everybody who wanted to travel on to change to another train that was lined up and waiting for them because “This unit really has to be taken to the depot for maintenance.”  The only entertainment that remained was in relaying that message to a very friendly but equally resolute family of travellers from overseas who wanted to stay with the train they assumed would take them on to Manchester Airport.  The problem was one of communication.  No-one could work out what language they spoke.

So I reached my journey’s end, reflecting that no matter how effective the tools, the railway system of now is as vulnerable, in its way, to disruption as ever it was.   Where the mass transportation of people is concerned, it always will be.   Technology may provide the key to infallibility, but someone, somewhere will always be available to tap the wrong key.

The attraction – yes the attraction – of railway travel in the past may have been lent the rose tinted lens of time, but I recall it with some pleasure.  Despite the absence of ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’ whenever I was around, smoky old carriages pushed by a sad tank engine , as far from the big blue A4 as the mutt chewing chicken bones from our dustbin is removed from Crufts’ triumphant West Highland Terrier, held romance for me.

The British temperament, you see, is not equipped to deal with the open-plan nature of modern transport.  Our railway history was writ in conveyances made up of compartments – partitions and doors to defend us from the public gaze.  We might be forced to share our seating space with six or seven fellow travellers, but we would never be required to speak to them.  We would be content to sit on seats stuffed with horsehair by smoky windows that opened wide enough to wave a brolly at a reticent porter, as long as we could complete the Times crossword before we reached Waterloo.   There would be no inconvenient air-conditioning smells, nor would passengers be confined to only one rest room.   There was no air conditioning, and if there was a communication corridor (which there was, sometimes) each carriage would have facilities – and sometimes they worked.

Arrival?   The timetables were always elaborate and often comprehensible; but they were more inclined to wishful prognosis than achievable goal.   12:14?   Possible, but unlikely.   This afternoon?

Yes, very probably.

Have I finished this piece?

Yes.  Very probably…