Wednesday 12 July 2023

Will we eventually feel nostalgic about petrol-driven cars, as we do now about steam? Definitely.

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

I spent last Sunday morning at the Sussex Steam Fair.

At Parham House, no less, which is an independent stately home and which is normally the preserve of the West Sussex upper crust.

It was a huge annual event, with a special area for tractors, and areas for small steam engines (past the cage of ferrets), immaculately restored caravans and the massive traction engines, which we had heard rumbling down our high street since Thursday, on their way there.

And all of them belching out steam and fumes, while people of a certain age hurried around with rags and oil cans.

The raft tent had a stall of people selling knitted teddies, and another one selling home-made buns, but otherwise just had old postcards and military junk.

I’m married to a textile designer and natural dyer, so most of my experience of Sussex craft tents has been very different – and involved a completely different clientele.

But if I sound cynical or patronising about it, that isn’t my intention, because it was also rather wonderful.

I had no idea that the southern home counties included such enthusiastic experts – amateurs in the best sense. Almost everyone there seemed to be an expert in something.

It was all a reminder of something peculiar about the human spirit, especially perhaps in England. A kind of individualistic refusal to bow to economic or political pressures. What else can explain the nostalgia for bygone technologies?

It doesn’t matter how much the economy tanks, and only bankers is the profession that can pay us enough to keep our heads above water.

It doesn’t matter if AI takes our jobs away – so that only a couple of roles are still considered ‘marketable’.

It doesn’t matter – at least as far as this is concerned – if the weather changes to make England more like the Sahara…

… People will still be able to specialise in what fascinates them. They will always remain awkwardly themselves, no matter what happens – and in the face of the ferocious opposition of technocratic governments, corporates and IT gods alike.

Because in the end, it is the sheer unpredictability of people that guarantees that we are free to choose.

As E. F. Schumacher wrote in Small is Beautiful exactly 50 years ago this summer: “A great shout of triumph goes up whenever anybody has found some further evidence – in physiology or psychology or sociology or economics or politics – of unfreedom, some further indication that people cannot help being what they are and doing what they are doing, no matter how inhuman their actions might be.”

He was quite right too. Why are the chattering classes so determined that the human spirit should be so limited that IT feels more intelligent?

In fact, I’m quite looking forward to the great nostalgia kick for our grandchildren – in the Petrol-Driven Car Rally, in half a century’s time.

Check out my new book, Oppenheimer: A world destroyed.

Tuesday 30 May 2023

Was there enough space to commit sodomy in a hansom cab?

This post first appeared at the Radix website...

Back in 1884, British law was like the new Ugandan law about homosexuality – it still rewarded proven sodomy with a death sentence.

It had done so back to the days of Henry VIII. Unfortunately for the prosecuting authorities, there was a limit to how you could prove something like that had actually taken place.

During the great and largely forgotten Dublin Scandal that year – when nationalists deliberately inflamed public opinion, trying to identify the ascendancy with homosexuality.

In the subsequent trial, many of those who had been leant on to give evidence – by a disgraced former Metropolitan Police detective employed by the nationalists as a fixer – found that they could not provide enough evidence that sodomy had actually occurred.

Was it possible to commit that kind of activity in a hansom cab? After considerable discussion, and some expert medical evidence, the lawyers decided that there really wasn’t enough space.

All those who had pleaded not guilty were acquitted, but the nationalist campaign had its effects.

The following year, at night, maverick backbench MP Henry Labouch̬re inserted a clause into the new Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, that criminalised al sexual acts between men Рin public or in private Рand in such a way that, over the next eight decades, tens of thousands of young men would be pursued, imprisoned, and harassed.

Many – like Alan Turing (book just 99p on kindle this week!) – would take their own lives after years of threats.

It is worth remembering the Dublin Scandal when we think about Uganda today, now that they have passed a similarly grotesque law, which also lays down that death follows sodomy and life imprisonment for more minor homosexual episodes – and unlike the 1885 Act in the UK – it includes lesbians too.

I don’t know what will happen with the new law in Uganda. I suspect that it will bring with it intense international scrutiny, which – if it doesn’t cause it to be abandoned directly – it will defuse the sharpest edges in the way it is implemented and policed.

I certainly hope so.

Also, it reminds us just what happens in politicised moral panics where everyone is supposed to toe the line – only two Ugandan MPs voted against the new law.

I know about the Dublin Scandal and its role in forcing through the new Criminal Law Amendment Act in the UK because my great-great-grandfather, Richard Boyle – a former chair of the Dublin stock exchange – was one of those accused, and the only one to flee the country, wearing a false nose, in July 1884.

He eventually made his way to Denmark Hill in London where he lived with a young man until his death in the poor London air in the polluted winter of 1900. They are buried together.

It’s all there in my book Scandal (free on Amazon kindle)…

Monday 15 May 2023

Oppenheimer's ordeal shows that Americans can claw back some mainstream sanity

This post first appeared at the Radix blog.

Thanks to the film Oppenheimer, by Christopher Nolan which comes out in July, we will all know the full story of how the USA went a little crazy and turned on its own heroes after World War II.

Robert Oppenheimer was one of those who was hauled before a tribunal which lasted three weeks in 1954 - which decided, two-votes-to-one, to strip him of his security clearance.

He never quite recovered from his ordeal - until that point, he had been a leading advocate of talking to the Russians - even perhaps, under Truman, putting all the nuclear weapons he had developed under international control.

But in the fraught atmosphere in Washington in those days - when the Soviets appeared to be fast catching up with nuclear technology - this kind of talk seemed deeply suspicious.

He had also made an enemy of Lewis Strauss (pronounced ‘Straws’) - a Washington insider and chair of the Atomic Energy Commission. And it was he who, under Eisenhower, worked successfully to end Oppenheimer’s career.

Strauss is played by Robert Downey Jr in  the film - Oppenheimer by Cillian Murphy from Peaky Blinders - so it seemed sensible to me to write about Oppenheimer and to show the parallels between his life and the two men most responsible for his downfall: Strauss and  Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb. you can read about it in my new book.

It was Teller whose evidence at the hearing - not because Oppenheimer was linked to the Soviets - but because of his enlightened and effective work in Washington since 1945:

“If it is a question of wisdom and judgement, as understood by actions since 1945, then I would say one would be wiser not to grant clearance,” he said. “I must say that I am myself a little bit confused on this issue, particularly as it refers to a person of Dr Oppenheimer’s prestige and influence. May I limit myself to these comments?”

The hearing ignored the legal rules of evidence, because it wasn’t a court. So secret documents were not shared with Oppenheimer’s defence team, which had to leave when any of them were discussed. These included an undisclosed transcript of an interview with him from 1943 - when he was directing the Los Alamos research station - by a security man, worried about his visit to California to see a communist ex-lover.

It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like to go through an ordeal like that – the physical strain – without knowing, as we do now, that the world would escape annihilation, anyway for a while, and that the stifling atmosphere of treason and suspicion would lift – slowly, but that sanity was going to prevail again. Harry Dexter White, the US Treasury negotiator at Bretton Woods had, after all, collapsed after giving evidence at his hearing in Congress in 1948, and died two days later.

To some, Oppie seemed his old self afterwards, but occasionally the full horror was clear – his hair had gone white during the hearing. “Much of his previous spirit and liveliness left him,” said the physicist Hans Bethe.

“I think to a certain extent it actually almost killed him, spiritually, yes,” said the nuclear pioneer Isidore Rabi. “It achieved what his opponents wanted to achieve; it destroyed him.”

His security clearance was never given back to him. Yet he had exhausted himself running Los Alamos, the heart of the Manhattan Project. It included physicists from most of the world, and especially most of Europe - who were terrified of the prospects of Hitler getting the Bomb first.

After Hitler died, many of the scientists left - but most of them stayed on for the first test, in July 1945. Whatever happened later, it was an extraordinary achievement.

Now, 70 years after the events of 1954, it is worth remembering that - although the the US political establishment occasionally goes insane - it does recover itself. In the end.

Find out more in my new book, Oppenheimer: A world destroyed.

Monday 24 April 2023

When the Daily Mail starts talking about 'threats to wipe out humanity'...

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

It wasn’t until I suddenly looked at my phone yesterday, and realised it was 3.30pm, that I knew I was not going to get the government’s emergency alert. My phone was working at the time too.

Neither did Sarah.

Now I don’t believe the allegation on Twitter that this means we have been singled out to die by the government. But still, it is a bit of a peculiarity.

But then our children both got theirs. I didn’t hear them – and it spooked my son, though he knew it was coming and knew what it was when it arrived.

I don’t quite know what to make of the whole idea. I note that Jacob Rees-Mogg has said that it was a waste of time and that he was turning off the relevant icon on his phone.

I also read the column by Sarah Vine – formerly Mrs Gove – in the Daily Mail called: ‘why are ministers invading our phones with a tiresome emergency alert – yet ignoring the threat that could wipe out humanity?’

Many countries are now organising emergency alerts – and the right clearly feels differently about the whole idea in the USA. In Ron De Santis’ Florida, they accidentally tested their system at 4.45am!

But Sarah Vine’s question was a good one and it deserves an answer. So is her other one: “Can we – or for that matter, the government – realistically do anything about any of these emergencies they will be ‘warning’ us about.”

I know there are useful elements to these alerts. If there was a nuclear leak or floods, like for example those that hit the east coast on the night of 21 January 1953 – just before the last coronation, in fact.

This was the unprecedented event that sank the British Rail ferry Princess Victoria, which foundered off the Scottish coast, on its way between Stranraer and Larne.

Strangely, for such an overwhelming event, the memories of six decades ago have faded. Very few people would remember the events if it had not been for the fascinating and moving article that the architectural critic Ken Worpole wrote for the Open Democracy website to remember the sixtieth anniversary.

These days, there would be warnings about spectacularly high tides. The Thames Barrier would be raised. The Environment Agency spokespeople would fan out to the TV studios and epeople in danger would have been warned via text message – but not then. Back in 1953, the first that anyone knew of what was about to happen was when the 7.27pm train from Hunstanton to King’s Lynn ran into a wall of water and was hit by “a bungalow floating on the crest of the wave”.

The North Sea tide that night was the highest ever recorded and many of those who died simply awoke trapped in bed by water rising too fast to escape. Worpole paid tribute to the meticulous account published in 1959 by Essex County Council, and hails it as one of the great works of twentieth-century English social history: Hilda Grieve’s narrative, The Great Tide. He wrote:

“So vulnerable to disruption were communications at this time that many were already dead and their communities destroyed further up the coast, whilst along the Thames people slept soundly unaware of what was about to hit them.”

It is extraordinary that there are so few memories of a disaster that involved families and children dying of cold as they clutched onto their roofs.

That is clearly the kind of event when it would be useful to have a means of contacting people nearby.

There are three possible crises that really worry me now, and which the UK government remains silent about.

The first is the climate crisis – which obviously Sarah Vine needs to ignore if she is going to keep her job at the Mail.

And by the way, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Westminster on Friday and Saturday, peacefully and happily, as part of the Extinction Rebellion demonstration, and were rewarded for it by virtually no mention in press or on TV.

There was also absolutely no mention by her or by anyone else of the second scary issue that now faces us – that Putin is now insane enough to be capable of pressing the nuclear button, which would plunge us all into a nightmare of heat and destruction.

He is certainly threatening to single out the UK for that.

Thank goodness we have Sunak, rather than either of his two predecessors as PM, to face this threat. But since nothing is being done about it by anyone, it seems to me – no plans for regional seats of government, no ‘Protect and Survive’ pamphlets, no deep shelters for the population – I am unsure what advantage that is.

We just get a blithe version of Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s “The British people are prepared if necessary to be blown to atomic dust”. So Boris Johnsonian in its establishment enochlophobia.

So I searched in vain for mention of either of these threats in Sarah Vine’s article. Instead, she mentions the third issue – the threat of takeover by AI.

It worried her – as it does me – that the Google AI system Bard has taught itself Bengali apparently on its own initiative.

“Time to wake up and smell the lithium, guys,” she writes. “Before it’s too late.”

It is peculiar for the Mail to use language like this, but – in the end – I reckon that the threat from AI is very much less than the other two.

Thursday 9 March 2023

Why can't I imagine Boris or Liz thinking up the green lane idea?

This post first appeared on the Radix UK site.

There is a line in James Graham's play This House, about the Tory and Labour whips offices from 1974 to 1979. 

Graham puts it into the mouth of David Steel.

Maybe Steel actually said it - i don't know. Nor can I remember it exactly (I've only see the play twice - give me a chance!) But it suggested that Conservative governments collapse because they think they are destined to rule, and with Labour governments, it's the other way around - they collapse because they no longer feel they deserve it.

I keep on thinking about that over recent days when there are signs of the Conservative government unravelling - with two ex-prime ministers putting their heads back above the parapet. But really because they believe they have a divine right to run the nation. 

That is how I understand the complaints from Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries about Sue Gray's agreeing to be chief of staff to a Labour prime minister.

It really is extraordinary that wwe have become so used to the idea that they are somehow members of our only natural party of government.

There are dangers inherent in all this, of course - and especially perhaps for Keir Starmer - that they might delude themselves that, in order to be elected, you had to be very careful to sound like competent Conservatives. 

Or as former members of the SDP used to say in the eraly days of the Lib Dems - they have to be "serious about power".

It is also extraordinary how we have become martyred to the same divisions that have pulled the Tory party apart. it is horribly like the divided Conservative Party in 1905/6 - so cross with each other about 'imperial preference' that one senior minister described himself as "nailing his colours firmly to the fence" - that they let n the reforming Liberal government of Campbell-Bannerman, Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill.

Yet somehow the decision by Rishi Sunak to replace the Northern Ireland protocol with a simple red and green lane was an unusual example of pragmatic common sense and compromise that has become sadly rare from British government recently. I imagine people thinking - why didn't we think of that?

But then, if an idea gets 'owned', it does tend to stop most governments from adopting it - so perhaps it was a good thing that its sprung ready made into the head of Sunak at the right moment. For some reason I can't imagine either Boris or Liz doing anything nearly as sensible.