Wednesday 31 July 2013

Walking the Thames

The following piece appears in the latest edition of Radio Times to coincide with the broadcast of some of my Thames Walk audio diaries on The World at One on Radio 4 on August 9th, 16th, 23rd and 30th.

Why did I do it? I still don't really know -- probably because it was the sort of challenge I could set myself with a reasonable chance of not flunking it half way through. It wasn't climbing Mount Everest, or hacking my way through the jungle to find the source of the Amazon, but for a sixty-something anti-athlete, it was, in its own little way, an achievement.

It's 184 miles from the source of the River Thames in a remote Cotswolds meadow to those vast stainless steel shell-like structures of the Woolwich Barrier at the head of the estuary. I've walked every step of the way, 15 days at an average of 12 miles a day, and all of it, as the guide book so encouragingly points out, gently downhill.

So, reason number one to walk along the Thames from start to finish: no steep hills, and no dangerous climbs. Reason number two: you will pass through some of the most glorious countryside that England has to offer: open meadows, ancient woodlands, historic towns and villages.

It was gently drizzling as I set off to find the source in late May -- striding off the train at Kemble station, not far from Swindon, and soon up to my ankles in mud as I followed the signs. I felt grimly determined: whatever the weather, I would not be deterred. Little did I know that I was about to hit the longest heat-wave we've had for seven years.

It's best to be honest: there's nothing to see at the source of the Thames. No burbling spring, no babbling brook. Just a lump of stone saying, in effect: "Guess what, this is the source of the River Thames." And a sign, helpfully pointing vaguely across the field: London Barrier 184 miles.

They say the Thames is like a silver ribbon, threading its way through middle England and much of England's history. Take Shifford, in Oxfordshire, for example, where legend has it that King Alfred summoned a sort of proto-parliament in 890 AD (legend may not be wholly accurate, it has to be said). And of course there's Windsor Castle, Runnymede, the great palace of Hampton Court, Westminster, the Tower of London -- I've walked past them all and marvelled at the richness of what the Thames has seen over the centuries.

I've also stood in flower-rich meadows, mesmerised by thousands of electric-blue dragon flies; I've tried in vain to identify the songs of countless birds; and I've given a wide berth to herds of cows munching their way to happiness. For a townie like me, who's spent much of his professional life obsessed with the big global picture, it was good for the soul to be re-acquainted with the things that make life worth living.

I stumbled, by chance, across the first day of this year's Henley Royal Regatta -- I've never seen so many striped blazers in my life -- and I've gawped, open-mouthed, at some of the opulent river-side residences, with their perfectly manicured lawns and gleaming motor launches.

I've discovered, surprise, surprise, that walking is the speed at which we were designed to move. It's slow enough to be able to take in all the joys of the journey, and there's none of that messing about waiting at locks that you get when you potter about in boats. You can run or cycle if you insist, but you'll miss the delights along the way. I'll stroll, thank you, in tune with the stillness and tranquillity of a river that knows exactly where it's going, and when it'll get there.

So many places stick in the mind: Lechlade, the furthest upstream it's possible to go by boat, with its Halfpenny Bridge and lovely market square; Marlow, with its elegant suspension bridge, used as a model for the one across the Danube linking Buda and Pest in Hungary; and Boulter's Lock in Maidenhead, the place-to-be-seen for Victorian high society.

But when I eventually reached London, I had a decision to make: north bank or south bank? I'm a north Londoner born and bred, so, always the adventurer, I chose south, and found myself skirting endless construction sites in Bermondsey, Rotherhithe and Deptford. And then, on the hottest day of the year so far, I slogged my way round the O2 and the Greenwich Peninsula, past the cement works, and on to journey's end, the Barrier at Woolwich, the squawking of the gulls and the smell of the sea. I bade the river a fond farewell, and headed home -- by boat.

Friday 19 July 2013

Why are Brits behaving well overseas?

Hey, guess what, it seems we Brits are learning how to behave ourselves when we go abroad. So, as you start stocking up on sun screen, flip-flops and deeply inappropriate shorts, and prepare to join the rest of the lemmings at the airport, just don't let the side down. OK?

Titter ye not, as Frankie Howerd used to say. (Note to younger readers: Howerd was a comic actor and comedian who died more than 20 years ago.) No less an authority than the Foreign Office solemnly reported this week: "Overall arrests of Brits abroad for drug offences [in the past year] dropped to their lowest level for four years, with a decrease of 34 per cent since 2009-10 and general arrests and detentions showed a 21 per cent drop in the same period."

And by the way, if the Foreign Office can refer to us as "Brits" in its own official publications, I hope you'll stop complaining when I do the same. It's not derogatory, it's colloquial  -- there's a difference.

It's not all good news, though, because, and again I quote: "Reported rape and sexual assault cases increased by 10 per cent compared to 2011-12. The three countries in which the largest number of cases were reported were Spain, Turkey and Greece."

Why those three countries in particular? Well, the deliciously po-faced Foreign Office does come up with its own explanation: they are, it suggests, "destinations popular with young Brits for their busy nightlife." So are you more likely to be raped or assaulted in a country with a "busy" nightlife? The statistics suggest unequivocally Yes, which somehow does not surprise me.

Overall, though, the numbers really are quite encouraging. Drug arrests of Brits overseas in 2008-9: 991. In 2012-13, the number was down to 653. Total arrests in 2008-9: 6,919. In 2012-13, down to 5,435. We really do seem to be getting better at staying out of trouble.

Now, why might this be? Perhaps, in these difficult economic times, fewer of us are venturing overseas? But crime rates in the UK have been dropping sharply as well, so maybe we are turning into a genuinely more law-abiding nation. (New figures out today show the crime rate is now at its lowest level for more than 30 years.)

It's not that there are fewer teenage males than before -- they're the main offenders usually, and there are more of them now than a decade ago. So could it be, as some criminologists suggest, that they're spending more time on their smartphones and video consoles, and less time glugging super-strength cider, so the idea of going out for a bit of burglarising seems somehow less attractive?

Security systems on cars, car radios and sat navs are better than ever before, and the police are getting better at what they call "smart policing", in other words concentrating their resources on where they can be used to greatest effect.

Homes and shops have much better security systems than they used to have -- and it's even possible that banning the use of lead additives in petrol has ended the negative effects on children's brain development by sharply reducing lead pollution in the air in inner cities.

And if all that is true in this country, maybe it's true overseas as well. What's certainly true in England and Wales is that the prison population has doubled over the past 20 years, so could it be, as former home secretary Michael ("Prison works") Howard suggested back in 1993, that locking up more criminals really does mean that fewer crimes are committed? (Note, however, that in countries where prison populations have decreased, like Canada and the Netherlands, crime rates are also falling.)

Whatever the explanation, it must surely be cause for at least mild celebration that fewer of us are making a criminal nuisance of ourselves when we venture beyond our own shores. And it's something to remember, as you tut-tut over the pictures you'll see in the newspapers over the next few weeks of Brits behaving disgracefully in the clubs and pubs of Spain, Greece and Cyprus. Oh yes, they'll be there, baring their bums and more, pewking in the streets and falling over in a drunken stupor -- but there'll be fewer of them.

By the way,  I finished my walk along the length of the River Thames this week, and the last of my audio slideshows will be online over the weekend. You'll find them here, and there will also be versions of them broadcast on The World at One on BBC Radio 4 on 9, 16, 23 and 30 August.

Friday 12 July 2013

Britain's human rights shame

Did you know, outrageous though it may sound, that a bunch of foreign judges have the right to order British judges not to sentence convicted criminals to being hanged, drawn and quartered, and then to have their corpses dragged through the streets, entrails spilling out, for the public to gawk at?

Did you also know that British judges can't even sentence the most heinous murderers of innocent children to be publicly beheaded, and then to have their heads displayed on Westminster Bridge till they rot? No, not even if both houses of parliament approve laws that say they should.

The reason is Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which says: "No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." And that, we learned this week, includes locking people up behind bars, throwing away the key, and telling them: "Sorry, chum, that's it. You're there till the day you die."

Ministers were shocked, I tell you, shocked. Mr Cameron said he "profoundly disagrees" with the ruling from Strasbourg. The justice secretary Chris Grayling said: "The British public will find this ruling intensely frustrating and hard to understand."

Here's what I find hard to understand: that a country that supposedly prides itself on its sense of justice is ruled by a government that has so little comprehension of what basic human rights involve that they are now talking, in all seriousness, of ripping up the UK's adherence to the European convention and going back to … well, who knows what they want to go back to?

Let's be absolutely clear about what those pesky foreign judges actually said: they didn't rule that murderers can't be sentenced to spend the rest of their life in jail, merely that there must, at some point, be an opportunity for a "whole-life" sentence to be reviewed, to give a prisoner just the tiniest of chances, just a smidgeon of hope, that one day he may regain his freedom.

That's how things stood until 2003, when the then home secretary (take a bow, David Blunkett) decided to scrap it. "It is the right of the British Parliament to determine the sentence of those who have committed [the most heinous] crimes," he said after this week's ruling. Including, presumably, if parliament so desires, the sort of sentences outlined above.

Nearly 30 years ago (August 1984), The Observer wrote in an editorial: "Which country has been found to be in contravention of the European convention on human rights more often than any other signatory? The shameful answer is the United Kingdom, which last week stood in the dock with head bowed for the eleventh time to hear the judges pronounce a verdict of guilty ... In the past decade, we have established ourselves as the worst protectors of human rights in western Europe."

I remember the words well, perhaps because I wrote them. But it's worth digging them out of the cuttings book just to remind ourselves that our abysmal record has nothing to do with the threat of jihadi terrorism or post-9/11 paranoia.

We just aren't very good at protecting human rights. And, to me at least, that's deeply shaming. All the more so, given that the man who played a leading role in drafting the European human rights convention was a British Conservative politician, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, who served as home secretary, attorney-general, and Lord Chancellor, as well as being a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

So we're going backwards. Where once a leading British jurist was instrumental in drawing up a code of basic human rights, now his successors blithely talk of tearing it up. They think nothing of lambasting foreign dictators for locking up their opponents without putting them on trial (Abu Qatada, anyone?); they condemn regimes that use torture and extra-judicial detention to silence "enemies of the state" (extraordinary rendition, anyone?), and they happily lecture all and sundry on the importance of an independent judiciary and open justice.

I can't help wondering what they see when they look in the mirror every morning.

Incidentally, I'll be completing my 184-mile walk along the length of the River Thames within the next few days, so the last of my audio slideshows should be on YouTube by this time next week. You'll find them here.

Friday 5 July 2013

Egypt: a very messy revolution

Like sharks that have tasted blood, the vast crowds that gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square this week wanted another victim -- and on Wednesday night, they got one. For the second time in less than 30 months, they forced a president from power -- and just like in February 2011, it was the army that wielded the fatal blow.

Democrats don't usually approve when the generals arrest democratically-elected presidents, nor when they suspend constitutions. And there was something almost comically surreal about the crowds who only recently were demanding that the army should keep its nose out of politics now letting off fireworks in celebration. But I suppose political coherence is not a quality one most readily associates with mob rule.

I've said this before, but I'll say it again: revolutions are messy. They rarely deliver what they promise, and they tend to create as many problems as they solve.

Back in December 2011, I quoted the words of Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard university: “If the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process.” Just two examples: the French revolution of 1789 was followed by a full decade of turmoil and terror; the Russian revolution of 1917 led to several years of brutal civil war. All too often, what immediately follows a revolution is even worse than what went before.

Too many Western governments seem to have fooled themselves into believing that by surfing on the back of a wave of popular unrest, they could wish away a whole generation of nasty Arab autocrats and replace them with nice liberal democrats (small l, small d) instead. The trouble is, as the New York Times neatly put it this week, that in Egypt "politics are dominated by democrats who are not liberals and liberals who are not democrats." The Muslim Brotherhood, who would hate to be thought of as liberals, fought an election and won; but the secularists complained bitterly about the way the Brotherhood have been governing, so they took to the streets rather than the ballot box and now they're cheering on the generals.

There's no shortage of good reasons to be deeply critical of President Morsi's record in office. Undistinguished would be putting it kindly. The economy is on the ropes; law and order have broken down; there has been no attempt to forge a consensus over what kind of future is best for Egypt.

But the faults haven't all been on the Islamists' side. The secular liberals have forgotten one of the most important lessons of revolutionary theory: it isn't enough to mobilise the masses; they must also be organised. No organisation equals no power. You can destroy, but you can't create. And it's not good enough saying: "Look at all those people out on the streets" if you can't weld them into a coherent group with coherent demands. It's a lesson the Muslim Brotherhood learned well during their decades in the wilderness.

Perhaps the days of the party cadres and top-down edicts have long gone. But if the social media now offer new opportunities to spread ideas, then surely it should be possible to use those same opportunities to draw up manifestos and a list of principles on which the Tahrir Square revolutionaries can try to agree. It won't be as much fun, but without it -- or something like it -- they can hope for little more than prolonged chaos and disappointment.

As for Western governments, is expressing "concern" and appealing for "restraint" really the best they can do? How about some useful grass roots stuff, like training and funding civil society organisations: women's groups, human rights campaigners, yes, even lawyers and journalists. Building a democracy needs a lot more than a handful of election observers and a bucketful of platitudes.

Do the organising first, then hold the elections. In the interim, forge a unity government that represents as many strands of opinion as possible. It'll be messy, imperfect, and guaranteed to satisfy no one. But at least it might keep the traffic moving round Tahrir Square and offer the people of Egypt a chance of a better, more stable future.

By the way, I've just posted the fifth of my series of audio slideshows about my walk along the entire length of the River Thames; do take a look if you haven't already done so -- they're on YouTube here