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Pro Life? Pro Choice? Job for a man, obviously…

Some while ago I saw a man shouting at his daughter in the street. He then bent over and clipped her head, making her cry.

The crowd all around looked away, shook their heads and carried on with their day. Not good, but none of our business. One brave soul stepped forward and told the man he shouldn’t hit the little girl.

As he (unsurprisingly) got an earful back, the little girl clung on to her father’s leg and looked up scared at the other guy. Despite the abuse, she felt a dependency and held on to her damaged protector tightly.

That’s the thing with dependency. It overrides other instincts. Better the devil you know and all that. Invariably it is the various strands and levels of patriarchy that establish, reinforce and maintain this control. And the victims are often left without an alternative champion.

I mention the patriarchy, because the various remaining institutions that have held on against progress (predominantly religious organisations) are run by men. Our great friends and cousins in the United States have rolled back the frontiers for female representation and influence more than most. But unfortunately this doesn’t always run deep.

In New York and LA you can indeed be what you want to be. And the dreams for little girls across the nation and projected to inspire. But the entrenched views and ways in the bits in between remain static in many cases.

I’ve travelled through that heartland. And met some wonderful alpha females and plenty of lovely folk who genuinely believe in equality and fairness. They’re not all hicks, any more than our own rural communities in dear old Blighty.

But the grip that religious organisations hold over some sections of those communities remains mighty. The rules applied by some elements of Islamic societies seem extreme to us, particularly those involving women, but the male-dominated hierarchy of the various Christian groups is not exactly enlightened.

And yet they keep coming back. Despite the slanted table, the loaded dice, the biased rules of the game, generation after generation keep going to church, keep voting for hardliners, keep refusing the rebel against the patriarchy. Why?

If you are taught from a young age that you are a bad person of you don’t follow the rules, that impression can last a lifetime. Formative as any dog bite, burnt finger, cold water shock. And the desire to please of a child reinforces that doctrine.

When religion and politics are interwoven – blimey, I’m covering all the taboos today – then it takes a really strong person to stand aside and stand alone to reject all they’ve known. No matter how old you get. The comfort and reassurance of familiarity in a changing world, an uncertain world is very hard to turn your back on.

We are fortunately more secular than ever here in Britain. A few hundred years ago, we too cowered in the pews, believing we were condemned if we didn’t follow the preacher’s words. We cheered as Catholics and ‘witches’ were burned. Indoctrinated and scared to think any other way – thankfully no longer.

But this patriarchy prevails here too. Window shopping about women’s rights and breaking the glass ceiling makes good copy for organisations. Whilst the majority of female executives are still to be found in HR and Marketing.

Returning to our American cousins, there was renewed focus this week on an article by the Washington Post about Susanna Salter. In 1887, just after women had been granted the vote in Kansas the menfolk decided to let her run for mayor of Argonia as joke.

She won the election with more than 60% of the vote. Far from marking the start of a new era of representation, this gave them a very clear warning of the dangers of underestimating the peasants’ power.

And so to this week, where the patriarchy in the legislature, with full backing and cheerleading from the churches has reasserted itself in Texas. New laws have been passed making abortions completed more than 6 weeks into pregnancy subject to criminal prosecution. Rape, incest, threat to mother’s life – no exceptions.

Now, as a Brit it is not my place to judge or criticise the constitutional set-up of the United States law-making structures. House of Lords discussion coming soon…

But whether it’s DC’s federal instructions or delegated controls out to the individual states, there are matters that are referred all the way to the top and decision are made that apply across the lands. Roe vs Wade has not been overturned by the Supreme Court, so there are (or should be) limits of what the individual states can do on this matter.

Irrespective of the legal niceties, there is something rather grim about a group of men telling women what they can and can’t do with their own bodies. It’s particularly galling when these are the same men who insist that wearing a Covid-preventing mask in public places is a ‘matter of choice’

That controlling attitude, that demand for obedience, that regret of the loss of absolute power has made the debate nastier, the approach more bitter and the divide wider. God help Jesus if he ever does come back and mix it with these ‘Christians’ – he wouldn’t last 5 minutes with those limp, hippy wishy-washy views of his.

And thought I hate to say it – these men have plenty of allies with their comfortably-off, zealous wives and daughters. When the lifelong teachings of patriarchy are engrained – and frankly your lifestyle is pretty comfortable – you can afford to ditch the sisterhood and cling tight to what you know.

So before we criticise the Taliban or any other organisation for its oppressive approach towards women’s rights, let’s just take a look sideways to make sure we are the models of equality. Two wrongs don’t make a right but there are some corners of the West that would make very comfortable seats for those we are all too ready to condemn.

Your servant

MC

Charlie Watts – Ode to the Wembley Whammer

On Saturday 26th June, 1982 I travelled by train to London with friends Paul B and Paul S. We were on our way to Wembley Stadium. We were 16 years old and going to see the Rolling Stones.

A year earlier I had bought – and played to death – my first Stones album, Tattoo You. It was the beginning of a love affair with the band that remain to this day.

Through death, riots, drug busts, leavers and joiners over the almost 60 years, the Stones have been perennial to Great Britain and the world as the Queen.

Always there, still touring, playing those thrillingly familiar songs that have marked the progress of my youth, adolescence, loves, life, hopes fears and dreams. The triumphs and joys had me reaching for a Stones song. Despair and low confidence had a Stones number to pick me up. Uncertainty, crossroads moments and big decisions were taken with a familiar soundtrack.

There is a love of music and the people that produce it, that defines analysis. Why this band? Why this song? Try and touch the magic and it turns to dust or stays one tantalising step out of reach. Of course you can quantify production values, look at chord progressions, call out references within lyrics.

But trying to nail why you love any form of music and why it moves you? Don’t bother. You’ll sound like you are draining the very soul that soars when the music plays.

At the heart of my beloved Stones was Charlie Watts. When news emerged that he had died on Tuesday, everything stopped. It was a moment of genuine grief and loss. Someone who had always been there was now gone. I’d never see him playing live again.

My mind was flooded with sounds, images, the sound of drums and the face of this incredibly talented, yet disarmingly modest man who eschewed the excesses of the rock & roll lifestyle yet contributed more than most to its mountain of memories.

The tributes paid have been wide and effusive. Rightly so. There will not be another Charlie Watts. As there will not be a cohort of bands like the 60s British invaders. As there will not be a generation like the war babies.

Like millions of us fans, I never met Charlie. I hope that my chanting of ‘Charlie, Charlie’ when the band was introduced over the years touched him in some small way.

Interestingly my sister Cheryl did speak with him one day back in the 80s. She was working at the Ritz and took telephone bookings.

On this particular day, an old client called up to request his usual room. She carefully took his name and asked a colleague if they knew this gentleman who said he’d stayed there before. (Oh yes, Mr Watts, he has room number…’)

Charlie asked if she was new there. Cheryl said yes. He asked how she liked it, chatted over the booking and wished her well in her new role. It’s often the small moments that speak volumes of a person’s character.

Like the way Charlie sketched every hotel room he stayed in. When in rare interviews he was asked about life on the road and it was clear he’d like nothing better than to get back home to wife Shirley and his daughter, the horses they bred and the dogs they loved.

His talent for design that had a massive hand in the creation of the Stones live stage sets over the years. From Still Life to A Bigger Bang, the amazing sights that accompanied the sounds were from  Charlie’s ideas with the crew.

I won’t recall the famous punching Mick Jagger incident again – it’s enough to show that whilst modest and self-effacing, Charlie knew his worth. And for that I’m glad. His recommendation that the free Hyde Park concert in 1969 go ahead in tribute to Brian Jones who’d died a few days earlier. His genius idea to play live on the back of a truck through the streets of Manhattan in 1975 to promote the upcoming tour, like the old blues bands used to.

His sense of timing, his deliberate execution of every beat. Knowing what to play and when not to play. More learned scholars will be able to explain his technique better than me. I just loved to see and hear him play. Listening to the Charlie Watts Orchestra on Radio 3 this week and catching up on YouTube with the Charlie Watts Quintet showcased his love of jazz, his impeccable quiet leadership and his diverse gifts as a musician and artist.

His indifference to the celebrity lifestyle made him greater in stature. Especially amid the wilder excesses of the band he found himself in. Some have contested that he was a frustrated jazzman, somehow compromised by the ongoing obligations to the Stones. That misses the point entirely.

Charlie simply loved to play. He loved being on stage, playing in a band. And he loved Mick, Keith, Bill and Ronnie. The silence of Mick and Keith in particular in the days since Charlie died is significant. This is a bigger blow that anyone could imagine; the rock on which the band was built is gone.

The music of the Rolling Stones will be played as long as people love music written and played with passion. They will endure and be heard by generations not yet born.

When you sit and listen – no dammit, get up and jump around listening to Paint It, Black, Street Fighting Man, Gimmie Shelter, Tumbling Dice, Miss You, Start Me Up, Undercover of the Night and whatever else you want, the driving force that keeps the whole gloriously ramshackle, sloppy Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World on the money, is the indefatigable steadiest heartbeat that ever graced the rock & roll stage.

RIP Charlie. We Love You.

61-91-21 – Timeline of triumph and tragedy

Photo: TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP via Getty Images

1961. Berlin. The Soviet forces laid out barbed wire across the road in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Their chiefs later admitted that if the Americans, British or French had steamrollered the wire down, they wouldn’t have replaced it.

But the Allies did nothing. A green light for the construction of the Berlin Wall, the most visible, miserable symbol of the Cold War. One indecisive moment prompting almost three decades of the divided city.

1991. The world. We’d won. The Cold War was over, the Soviet Union collapsed and all the money cut off from the communist states from Cuba to Africa. Russia entered a decade of mishandled misery under Yeltsin, George H Bush coordinated a global, united alliance to kick Saddam out of Kuwait.

Western liberal democracy had emerged as the prevailing power in the world. The UK and US felt confident enough to dispose of the strong-arm leaders Margaret Thatcher and the same George H Bush for moderate, next-generation leaders Clinton and Major.

Unfortunately they forgot the words of President Thomas Jefferson, abridged to “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance”.

A terrible level of complacency set in very quickly. The Russians were now our friends. All the threats came from the Middle East, but we could easily contain them, like we did with Saddam.

British Intelligence defunded the Russian monitoring office. Our agents were no longer required to learn Russian. NATO and the EU stepped up efforts to expand their membership across the former Soviet states, now that Russia was no longer a threat.

At the same time, western liberal democracies’ insatiable appetite for cheap goods and lower energy prices increased the traffic of trade and corporate partnerships with – or rather from – ever-more stirring China. Tiananmen Square had revolted us, but not enough to cancel the Christmas decorations.

As the 90s gave way to the 2000s, our complacency and arrogance was confronted in the most horrific fashion.

9/11 in New York was the first of many attacks across the west. London, Glasgow, Spain, France, Denmark, Germany followed. The response from George W Bush and Tony Blair were not-so skilfully coordinated responses.

They showed themselves to be very good at starting things, but very poor at finishing. Afghanistan (more of that in a moment), Iraq, Libya – the cheering on of the false Arab Spring. The removal of dictators and naïve belief that democracy would fill the void in tribal, feudal lands.

All the while, Russia had never stopped spying, never stopped planning and infiltrating. Developing its cyber capabilities and cleverly leveraging its armed forces. From a position of relative weakness, new leader and former KGB chief Vladimir Putin outfoxed every western leader as his stature and power base grew.

China’s deployment of capital and intelligence meant an equally ‘soft’ progress to inherit the crown of the world’s top dog. Cameron & Osborne’s ‘golden age’ initiative to feather the capitalists nests by doing deals with the faux-communist state must have provided hours of amusement in Beijing. Whilst the unregulated (forget de-regulated) British marketplace, offered not only the family silver of companies, but the controls of infrastructure, transport and energy. Roll up, roll up…

2021. The world. We’ve lost. Western liberal democracy has shown itself to be weak, divided and unwilling or unable to square up to the brutal rival ideologies.

The scenes from Afghanistan  over the last week or so have painted a painful picture for everyone directly associated with the war conducted over the last 20 years. Armed Services from all allied nations are asking, ‘what was the point?’. Once again, the country has proved its reputation as the ‘graveyard of empires’.

Thousands of allied deaths, goodness knowns how many thousands Afghan fatalities, mass displacement of people fleeing the violence. False promises, false hope, no coherent strategy. And a fantasy that we could somehow train and equip a domestic force to police its own state under the guidelines of our ways and values.

The lamentable performance of President Biden and the desperate, embarrassing narrative from the Johnson government show how far we have fallen down and short of what we once cherished. There were of course no easy answers or exit strategy from all this. And President Trump’s Taliban deal didn’t help matters.

But the only conclusion looking at the world as it stands right now is – dictatorship is the winning strategy. With no domestic audience to placate and no elections of substance to face, Russia and China are filling the power vacuum.

The Soviet disaster of the 80s in Afghanistan has been brushed aside as Russia keeps its embassy open and Putin’s team reach out to the Taliban. Masters of realpolitik as ever. While China and Iran weigh up their options either side of the wreckage.

Twenty years of piling up the debt burdens and staying one step ahead in the cyber warfare and manipulation have enabled both Putin and Xi to plant metaphorical bombs under the foundations of our societies.

But real bombs and bullets remain available. And the willingness of the west to fight back has been absent. The chaotic withdrawal from Kabul currently in progress follows Russian aggression in Georgia and Ukraine that went unpunished. Sanctions? The Kremlin refuses to tremble. China’s cancellation of ‘One Nation Two Systems’ in Hong Kong 27 years early has brought no backlash beyond words.

There will be nervousness in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan as American resolve appears wavering. Some will say this is no bad thing. Perhaps we should stop charging around the world, poking our noses in and insensitively imposing our will. Corporate pillaging is often as bad as the Nordic original.

Whatever happens, the west’s rhetoric needs to be matched by its deeds. The Cornwall summit earlier this year declared that ‘America is back’ and that liberal democracies must stand firm for their values and good influence in the world.

We are falling someway short on that. The coming months and years will show what our values truly are.

61 – dictatorship

91 – democracy

21 – dictatorship

51 – ?

Your servant,

MC

The Fraying of the Thin Blue Line

The police are the public and the public are the police. The words of Sir Robert Peel, founder of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. The idea that policing was by consent. Maintenance of law & order through cooperation with the public, on the basis of mutual respect.

And it’s a model that was unique, based on trust and not fear. An unarmed social force for public good. It has survived for the last two centuries largely intact, exported among Commonwealth countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

I think my interest is well-known. My Dad, uncle and several cousins were/are serving officers. I know this side of the thin blue line.

The probity of the police has been questioned before. Often on the basis of enforcing political decisions by the powers that be. Certainly during the miner’s strike of 84/85 there were voices of disapproval for the conduct of some officers – although the provocation was significant too.

One of my favourite memories from that period was one of my cousins who swapped their police uniform with a miner for his coal-digging gear as they both went to New Years Eve parties in fancy dress as each other. Brilliant. That’s how to do it.

Over the last year the challenges have been – yes that word again – unprecedented. Enforcing a gentle form of martial law in a freedom-loving democracy is a fiendishly difficult task. Some over-reaction and under-reaction were inevitable, as the various forces grappled to set the right tone an approach.

Unfortunately this has exposed some of the deeply engrained inconsistencies between forces, teams and individual officers. And both the police and public have been poorly served by the authorities.

Theresa May cut funding, cut numbers of officers and slashed budgets as part of the Conservative government’s austerity since 2010. Most staggeringly of all, half of the nation’s police stations were closed. 667 front-line buildings where the pubic could walk in and talk with real police officers were gone.

Don’t worry – you can email them, text them. Leave a voicemail on the never-answered phone lines. No, no, no.

The link between police and community (growing fractious in some areas for many years) was eroded further. Crimes were counted but not investigated. No resources available. Things have to get really bad before we’ll send someone out.

Many police hated this. It wasn’t what they signed up for. They joined to do their duty, for public service, to make the streets of the nation safe. They weren’t tech wizards or social media hacks. They were there to get out and among them. It’s a tough job. Not everybody can do it. I couldn’t. but the new wave of policing was to be inclusive, modern and socially coherent.

No complaints about any of that. But sometimes you have to face down and handle a vicious mob bent on violence and destruction. Your equality leaflets won’t be much use then.

It’s true that on the other side, some more bad apples got through too. Heavy-handed, judgemental and clearly loving their position of power too much. Rude, arrogant and part of the problem, not the solution.

So, back to the Metropolitan Police, almost 200 years on from Peel’s creation. The scenes last night at Clapham Common were dreadful. Not what we expect from our Bobbies.

The Met Police are paranoid about race. Terrified of causing offence ever since Scarman and the Stephen Lawrence enquiry branded them as “institutionally racist”. In the years since, the pendulum appears to have swung so far the other way, that any sense of equity before the justice in the streets and courts has become a matter of pot luck.

The Black Lives Matters protests in London last year were policed in the most softly, softly manner imaginable. The latter violence, intimidation and damage to property were approached in that same spirit of containment – to avoid escalating matters. I have no problem with that approach. Generally allowing protest to go ahead is a tenet of our democracy.

However, this happened in the middle of Covid restrictions, where people were prevented from travelling outside their area, gathering in numbers, getting too close to each other. The police response? Officers symbolically taking the knee before the crowds. And turning a blind eye to the Covid breaches, in light of the heightened emotional impact.

Now – look at the events this week. A young woman kidnapped and murdered from a walk along the streets of our capital. Thankfully rare in its extreme outcome, sadly common enough for women to live in fear each day of their lives.

The proposed vigil was not permitted by the Met. Nevertheless many women felt strongly enough to go out and make their protest and remembrance anyway.

So – did we see the same softly, softly approach? Containment? Care to avoid escalating matters? Turning  blind eye in response to the heightened emotional impact? No chance. Condemnation of the approach taken has been universal from all sides of the political spectrum. Even tough talking Priti Patel will have trouble defending this.

Whilst Cressida Dick, head of the Met Police has been exposed once again as hopelessly out of her depth, promoted beyond her capabilities – but crucially fulfilling the quota for equality with the ‘service’.

I understand the importance of diversity – particularly the visible diversity (colour, race, gender and/or sexuality) amid and at the top of our institutions. If that’s at the expense of competence and capability – the price is too high. Crusty old establishment figure Lord Scarman pulled no punches in his report on the riots of the early 80s and won the respect of the black community by his engagement and integrity.

Clapham last night exposes the underfunding, muddled thinking, poor leadership, inconsistency of applying the law, and a lack of ground-level common sense management. With outcomes that infuriate all sides.

The police are no longer the public. And the public are no longer the police. And that is bad news for everyone.

Your servant,

MC

Valentine’s Day love from a singleton

Do you remember those phrases coined about the various household types?  

‘Dinks’ were the couples who were Double Income No Kids. ‘Skiers’ were the older ones that were Spending the Kids Inheritance.

Alongside the Dinks were the Sinks – Single Income No Kids. That’s the group of us who tread the path by choice or otherwise, of a single life. This provokes various questions and assumptions as we mingle with our coupled friends, family and workmates.

Firstly – can we ever be really happy? Can a life be content without a significant other? Next, we are top of the list to work the unsociable shift, with no partner/kids to get back for. Also, that sneaking suspicion that we are living the best life, free of commitments – an endless round of carefree days and crazy nights.

To state the blooming obvious – we are not all the same. Some suffer whilst others thrive. Some are permanently on the lookout for a potential partner; others are comfortable with their own company. And some of us can’t quite make our minds up. Do we want to be in a relationship or not?

I’ve known some of the benefits of the single life. This has included dropping out of the mainstream for years at a time, living, working and travelling across the world. Hopping between rented flat & house shares with a myriad of housemates over the years. It’s also meant no fights for the remote control, no compromise on meal choices, holiday destinations or wallpaper dilemmas.

I’ve never had the full-time responsibility for the welfare of a child. I’ve enjoyed being ‘Uncle Mark’ and never regretted not being ‘Dad’. That happy state has the twin effect of prolonging your adolescence (I think I’m on my 4th now) and maintaining that twinkle in the eye that enables a connexion with other generations.

Spiritual ones will recognise the progress of the soul across the astral plane, with individuals from different generations finding empathy. I’ve often felt my mental age to be anywhere between 10 – 70 at any one time. Older bones, young outlook.

My time in Thailand introduced me to their charming philosophy that the middle-aged ones are the learners. Specifically, there are lessons to be learned from the elders’ experience and lessons also (perhaps re-learned) from the young.

Being single does provide opportunities for exploration on your own terms if that’s your thing. You can pursue passions without seeking permission or validation from anyone else. Your time, money and focused energy are all yours to spend as you wish.

There does come a time however when all this freedom can lose its flavour. Whether wholesome or hedonistic, the best of life’s pleasures are usually those shared. Children want their parents to see and applaud their achievements. Some never grow out of that need for parental approval.

Team victories are all the sweeter when the cup is lifted as a group, with hugs and high-fives in celebration. Even the solo athlete or solitary artist enjoys sharing their moment of triumph with those nearest.

But even then – when the music stops, the lights go out and everyone heads for the door, the singleton is going home alone. It’s here where the divide within the group becomes apparent. Some feel relief to get back to their solitude, others wish the evening could go on a little longer and some feel the crushing loneliness enveloping them again.

I’ve felt all of those. Whilst I relish the time alone and the sense of derring-do when travelling solo, there are always those moments. There have been so many times when I’ve been far, far away in some foreign land and turned a corner to see a breath-taking desert, mountain, forest, lake, cityscape, ocean view – and I’ve had nobody to turn to and say, ‘Look at that’. And when a hard day of walking is over, nobody there to share the triumph*

In everyday life – a simple thing makes you laugh – but nobody to laugh with. Listening to a song, watching a movie, eating a meal. All very do-able and enjoyable solo. But when those songs, movies and meals stack up in their thousands alone, they too can lose their flavour.

There is a resilience, built up over the years. And for me, an ebullient will to remain forward looking and optimistic. It doesn’t mean I’m insufferably cheerful or in any way sunny to a fault. Far from it.

I have known the lowest of days and nights. When these dark corners of the mind are familiar to you, it is perhaps part of your destiny to go there again from time to time.

It is ultimately a choice. We may bemoan the fates for conspiring against us, circumstances for wrong-footing us or play the ‘blame game’ on others. A whole chorus of ‘if onlys’ to accompany the sad symphony. But it’s only our own selves that can live our lives. Walking through that door. Making that phone call. Sending that message. Reaching out. It’s hard. It’s risky. And it makes you vulnerable, with no guarantees.

So it’s Valentine’s Day again. I wish joy and happiness to all couples celebrating. Plus a special wish for all my fellow singletons to find happiness, whatever that means to you.

Your servant,

MC

* My recent foreign travels were shared with a friend. From this I can confirm some adventures are indeed better shared (see http://www.MarkandLucas.com)

[A version of this post appeared previously]