Sunday 28 December 2014

An open letter to Virgin Trains

Dear Virgin Trains

Many thanks for your sweet email last night, in which you asked what I thought of my journey with you yesterday. On a scale of 0-10, you wanted to know how likely I am to recommend your company to my friends, family or colleagues.

I replied 0, and when you asked why, my reply began with the words: "You must be joking …" I thought you might like a fuller explanation, because so far, amid the chaos and recriminations surrounding yesterday's rail fiasco, you've got off undeservedly lightly.

We booked our tickets to Cumbria in October. Then, just a few weeks later, you sent me an ominous-sounding email, entitled, insultingly, I thought, "Don't be a pudding."

You said that because of essential engineering work over the Christmas period (work that you had somehow forgotten to mention when I bought our tickets), you advised me to postpone my return journey. (Question: if I book a rented cottage in the Lake District, why do you think postponing my journey is even an option?)

There was an alternative: you said I could travel back to London via Preston, Manchester and Sheffield. Call me clairvoyant if you like, but that didn't sound to me like such a great idea. But I phoned you anyway, and a very helpful person at your call centre somewhere in India took me through the timetable to see how it might work.

Could I make seat reservations? Ah, that would require four separate phone calls, to four separate train companies. That's when we decided to rent a car instead. Yes, as it turned out, it was the right decision, although 10 hours for a journey of just under 300 miles is not the best testament to the health of the UK's motorway network. (Nothing to do with bad weather, by the way, just the usual lane closures.)

So, Virgin Trains, here's what you should have done. First, you should have warned me when I booked our tickets of the likelihood of major disruption. If Network Rail delayed telling you of their plans (and, by the way, I feel for the thousands of rail engineers who slaved away over Christmas -- I do understand the need for track maintenance and upgrades), you should have said so, threatened to sue them, and offered me a full refund.

Second, you should not -- definitely not -- have sent out that crass, automated email last night. It was plain insulting.

As it happens, I love travelling by train. Earlier this year, I crossed Europe almost entirely by rail, with no trouble at all. The UK's railway system is a disgrace. I know it's not all your fault, but you really shouldn't have sent me that email last night. And yes, I do want that refund.

Friday 19 December 2014

Peshawar: lost for words

Being at a loss for words is never ideal for a journalist, yet the mind-numbing massacre of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar has left me struggling.

I can think of only three occasions during more than four decades as a journalist when I've experienced a similar inability to find the appropriate words: the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989, when 96 people were crushed to death; the Rwanda genocide in 1994, when an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered in a matter of weeks; and the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington, in which nearly 3,000 people lost their lives.

It's not just the numbers that freeze the brain; it's something much more fundamental than that. It's the sense that this simply should not be happening; it is not how the world was meant to be; it is, in all senses, appallingly, horribly wrong.

When children lose their parents, they are called orphans. When a spouse dies, the survivor is called a widow or widower. Yet we have no word to describe a parent who loses a child, because -- at least since the advent of modern medicine -- it is just not meant to happen. 

It's not only the words I've been struggling with. I have also been trying to imagine the mindset of someone who conceives, and orders, such a murderous attack on schoolchildren. And if that's hard enough, how much harder it is to imagine what's in the minds of the men who actually pull the trigger, who see the children cowering, hear them screaming in fear, and shoot nonetheless.

To try to understand is not the same as trying to excuse. No one should ever seek to excuse the cold-blooded, deliberate mass murder of children. But without trying to understand, we have even less chance of finding a way to prevent more such ghastly attacks.

So here, hard as it is, is my attempt to understand. The Pakistani Taliban, or Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP), who said they were responsible for the Peshawar attack, claimed it was in response to Pakistani army attacks on their bases in north Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan. The school, they said, was used mainly by army families and was therefore a legitimate target for a revenge attack.

According to a spokesman, the attackers were under orders to kill only boys over the age of puberty. Even if that is indeed the case, and we have no reason whatsoever to believe it, it would seem the gunmen flagrantly disobeyed their orders.

But suppose some of the gunmen had seen members of their own families killed by army strikes. Suppose some of the casualties had been children (which is almost certainly the case, as tends to be the way with such operations). Would that enable us to understand better the brutality of the counter-attack?

I don't think so, even if -- and again, we have no reason to suppose this is the case -- the gunmen were indeed from the areas where the army has been in action. In fact, some of the survivors are reported to have said that the attackers spoke Arabic or another non-local language -- possibly Uzbek -- which suggests that they were anything but local.

So what about the shadowy figures who conceived and planned the attack, the Taliban leaders thought to be hiding out across the border in Afghanistan? (Incidentally, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the so-called Durand Line, named after Sir Mortimer Durand of the Indian Civil Service, is in many places almost entirely a work of fiction.)

For them, as for their Afghan counterparts, with whom they share an ideology but not a common leadership, the goal is to smash the authority of the central government and carve out an area where they can rule unhindered, in accordance with their own traditions and beliefs.

There's also a well-founded suspicion that some of them are backed, if not sponsored, by elements deep inside Pakistan's military structure, who share at least some of their aims (weakening the civilian government, destabilising Afghanistan, keeping India on its toes). We may assume, I think, that even if that were the case, they would draw the line at slaughtering the children of fellow military personnel.

On Thursday, though, the man accused of being the mastermind behind the attack on the Taj hotel and other targets in Mumbai in 2008, in which 165 people were killed, was freed on bail by a court in Rawalpindi. I'm not at all sure what we're meant to make of that.

This is the region where more than 100 years ago Britain and Russia were engaged in the Great Game, vying for dominance in a strategically crucial area of central Asia. The tragedy is that so little has changed. Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are still caught up in -- and players in -- the 21st century version of the same brutal game.

The 132 children of the Army Public School in Peshawar who died in last Tuesday's attack were its latest victims. They will not be the last.

Does any of this help to explain why they were killed? Not really. I suspect nothing can.

Friday 12 December 2014

Osborne's world: it hasn't fallen in. Perhaps he should get out more

Our text today is taken from the Book According to Osborne: "The chancellor addressed the multitudes and he spake thus. 'Has the world fallen in? No, it has not.' And the multitudes pondered upon his words and were perplexed."

You may remember the occasion. It was the morning after Mr Osborne had delivered his autumn statement in the House of Commons. My esteemed former colleague John Humphrys was giving him a light grilling on the Today programme. Mr Osborne, joined later by David Cameron, took grave exception to what they complained was the BBC's "hyperbolic" coverage of the likely consequences of their plans for further cuts in government spending.

You've been going on about this for four years, was the gist of their complaint -- and look, the world hasn't fallen in, has it?

I choked on my cornflakes. Of course, their world hasn't fallen in. They don't depend on a few extra pounds in benefits to get them through the week, nor do they rely on social services to keep their families functioning. I somehow doubt that they use public libraries, or Sure Start centres, or community youth centres, or drugs rehabilitation units. Nor does anyone they know -- family, friends, neighbours.

In their world, nothing has changed. Executive pay continues to rise at obscene rates, and bonuses continue to be paid as if there's a pot of gold at the end of every rainbow. So looking at the world through their eyes, yes, it's true. Everything's fine and dandy.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the world where the vast majority of voters live, things look a bit different. According to the 2014 British Social Attitudes survey: "The cost of energy bills rose by more than 60 per cent between the start of the economic crisis in 2008 and 2013, and food, water and transport costs all rose by more than 20 per cent … Yet rises in costs have not been matched by rising earnings … the average (median) household is six per cent worse off in real terms in 2013/14 than its pre-crisis peak."

According to a recent report by the UN children's agency UNICEF: "The UK was one of only four countries which experienced an 'unprecedented increase' in severe material deprivation – a measure of whether families can pay the rent, heat their homes and afford reasonable diets for their children. The other three countries affected were Greece, Italy and Spain ... "

And according to a new parliamentary report, average rents in the UK have increased by nearly a third over the past decade, much more than in either France or Germany. Let's not even think about the cost of actually buying somewhere to live.

It seems Mr Osborne has either noticed none of this or thinks it doesn't matter. After all, his world hasn't fallen in. That's why he's so confident that he can carry on hacking away at the already grossly inadequate assistance that's on offer to those in the most desperate need.

Could someone persuade him to read the piece by The Guardian's food writer Jack Monroe, who knows only too well what being in need really means? She gave evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into poverty:

"My head in my hands, choking out words, tears rushing down hot, humiliated cheeks, I raised my head to look at the array of varying expressions looking back from the other side of the room; a Labour MP, two Conservative peers, and a Conservative MP looked back, a mixture of horror and sympathy as I publicly crashed and burned. Fear and humiliation and self-loathing leaping on me like a set of hyenas, as I sobbed: 'I can’t even answer my telephone any more if it’s an unknown number, if it rings early in the morning, or I don’t know who it is. I can’t even open my own front door. It’s not the same front door as the one I sat with my back to, morning and afternoon, cowering as bailiffs battered on the other side of it. It’s not the same phone number. It’s not the same front door. I’m not in debt. There are no more final demands, no more red capital letters, no more threats. But … I can’t even open my own front door.'"

So what does the Labour party say about all this? In a heavily-trailed speech on Thursday, Ed Miliband outlined what he called a "tough and balanced" approach to reducing the government deficit: "We start from believing that this country needs a long-term plan to make the country work for working people again, not just for a privileged few at the top."

Which is all well and good, even if it doesn't make for a snappy chant on an anti-poverty protest march. And I could have done without that mean-minded emphasis on "working people", as if career-break parents, or people with chronic illness or disability, somehow matter less.

There is a problem, though, for left-of-centre politicians who care about building a fairer society: most voters aren't keen on being nice to people on benefits. The British Social Attitudes survey reported that more than half the British public believe that most unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted one, and that current benefits levels are too high. Three-quarters believe that "large numbers of people" falsely claim benefits.

So if Ed Miliband started promising to do more for people living in poverty (the word appeared just once in Thursday's speech), it probably wouldn't do him any good at the ballot box. And if he doesn't win next May, he won't be able to do anything at all.

If Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne win, on the other hand, they will be able to continue to construct a world that works perfectly well for them, their families and friends, even if it causes real hardship for millions of their fellow-citizens.

After all, it hasn't fallen in, has it?

Friday 5 December 2014

Is it time to leave Planet Earth?

I'm wondering if I should start packing my bags. Not for Christmas -- for good. Apparently, we're on course for 2014 to be declared the hottest year ever, both globally and for the UK.

So if we go on like this, at some point Mother Earth will become uninhabitable. True, not in my lifetime, or yours -- but according to one study, it could happen in about 300 years from now. Which, in evolutionary terms, is the twinkling of an eye.

I tend to be a great believer in the power of human ingenuity. I reckon that, on the whole, the human species has shown itself to be remarkably adept at finding solutions to the challenges that threaten us.

For example: when our ancestors realised that raw meat was less easily digested than cooked meat, they started to cook it. When they noticed that babies die in cold temperatures, they swaddled them. When they started to work out how they were infecting each other with life-threatening diseases, they invented drugs. And when they decided they were over-breeding, they came up with contraception.

On the other hand, as the financial investment advertisements always remind us, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Just because we've managed to survive so far doesn't mean we'll survive for ever.

Which brings me to the other news item that caught my eye: NASA's plan to launch a new spacecraft which, one day, could take us to Mars. (A planned launch on Thursday was postponed because of technical problems.) Mars, of course, is the one planet theoretically within reach of Planet Earth that just might somehow be able to support some form of life.

I remember many years ago hosting an international phone-in programme on the BBC World Service when we asked listeners if they thought the billions being spent on research into manned space travel was money well spent. (I've just looked it up -- it was in February 2003, after the loss of the US space shuttle Columbia, and the deaths of all seven astronauts on board.)

You can still read some of the comments online. Typical was this one: "Manned and unmanned space exploration are both extremely important to the future survival of the human species." And that was a view reflected by many of our callers, who said we've got to keep exploring space because one day we'll have to find a new planet to live on.

I have nothing against space travel -- indeed, as a life-long obsessive traveller, I'd happily slip into a space suit and blast off into the bright blue yonder tomorrow if the price was right and I could be guaranteed a safe return.

But I don't share the view that the future of the human race depends on colonising another lump of rock. For me, our future lies right here, on this planet -- and it's up to us to ensure that it remains habitable.

What I find so frustrating is that it really isn't difficult to reduce carbon gas emissions and slow the process of climate change so that we can stay where we are. Retro-fitting of existing buildings, more investment in renewable sources of energy and less carbon-hungry means of transport -- all would be good for the creation of new jobs and exports, and good for the future of the planet as well.

And if, for some reason, you still don't believe that climate change has anything to do with human activity, here's the latest from the UK Met Office. According to Peter Stott, Head of Climate Attribution, their latest research shows that "current global average temperatures are highly unlikely in a world without human influence on the climate. Human influence has also made breaking the current UK temperature record about ten times more likely."

OK, so what if 2014 turns out to be the hottest year on record? One freak result proves nothing. But here's another one of those unfortunate statistics that, in a sane world, should persuade the climate change sceptics finally to admit defeat: 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all occurred since the beginning of this century.

Nothing to do with us? Sorry, the evidence is overwhelming. Fortunately, it seems that governments are coming round to the same view, and the international climate change talks currently under way in Peru may end with an agreement that really could make a difference. At last, China and the US, the world's two biggest carbon polluters, are working together on an emissions reduction formula that could work, while safeguarding the interests of the world's poorest countries who are desperate for economic expansion.

So no, I won't be packing my bags. I like the planet I was born on -- and I remain convinced that we will find a way to ensure that it remains human-friendly.