Archive for October, 2007

England: Losing Is The New Winning

meLet me see if I got this right: the England football team unfairly lost to Russia the week before last because of a penalty that shouldn’t have been given but was; the England rugby team unfairly lost to South Africa because of a try that should have been given but wasn’t and Lewis Hamilton did not win the Formula One title in his rookie year because of a cynical conspiracy, not on the part of his closest rivals, but of two other teams who had nothing to gain or lose. Having thought all three events more or less firmly in the bag, the English media immediately went into overdrive. First of all it was agreed that, although there is a God, He must have been napping. Still that was little consolation: didn’t the Supreme Being realize that His Own Country was in need of a few miracles? There was nothing for it, the English press decided. Losing had to be declared The New Winning. This novel approach didn’t quite work for the footballers, owing to the fact that nobody, but nobody, had a good word to say about the team manager (if that is the right word) Steve McLaren. Never mind the fact that the players screwed up for all the world to see, it was the man in the overcoat sitting in the dugout who done it.

The rugby, though, now that was a different matter altogether. As holders of the World Cup -won in 2003 thanks to the flukiest of dropgoals in extra time, without which Australia would simply have taken the title- the English embarked on a four-year decline that had not yet reached its nadir when the boys flew to Paris in September. The second group match, against South Africa, was lost by a score of 36 to nothing. As luck would have it, though, some of England’s next opponents chose to play their worst rugby ever when they faced the warriors of St. George. Both Tonga and Samoa gave England plenty to do before they lost by margins small enough to send cheers round the Pacific. But then. Australia failed to get revenge for the 2003 fiasco and lost 12-10 (a result happily described in more that one English newspaper as ‘a hammering’). France, after a poor start to the tournament recovered enough to edge past hot favourites New Zealand in the quarter finals, a feat that must have so excited them that their minds, when it came to the semi final against England, had gone walkabout. The rest is too recent for us to need reminding of: the South Africans dominated the final and won deservedly: Rugby Players 15, Bonecrushers 6. The next day the English Sunday newspapers went to town: OK so the Springboks won. But what a plucky England eh? What total commitment, what courage and application! If only that perfectly good English try had not been disallowed, what a different outcome we would have seen! The Sunday Times, quite apart from devoting thirteen full pages of its sports section to the final, firing off headlines like “It’s Over”, “Brave England Go Down With Pride” and “Vintage 2007: A Surprising Red And White”, forensically examined every nanosecond of the game in search of ego-boosting evidence,of which, apart from the result, there was plenty. Winning? That’s for wimps.

But if that left a bit of a strange taste in the non-English mouth, what followed on Sunday was unsporting cynicism of such unvarnished obviousness that it made me feel decidedly queasy. In Brazil, a stormy Formula One season was drawing to a close, with three drivers still in with a chance of the title. Best placed was Lewis Hamilton a 22-year old rookie and protege of the McLaren stable, who took them under their wing when he was only thirteen. A massive talent, everybody will agree. The problem was that Hamilton (an Englishman) joined McLaren (an English constructor) at the same time that Fernando Alonso (a Spaniard and twice World Champion with French constructor Renault) also joined McLaren (an English constructor). Add to the mix an English public so starved of sporting success (see above) that they promoted a young boy to the status of deity and it was obvious: a season of rivalry, conflict and skulduggery lay ahead. Well, we’ve all seen what that can lead to. Unsavoury goings on, not only within the McLaren team but also involving archrivals Ferrari. A low point was the unedifying spying scandal, which led to McLaren being thrown out of the constructors’ championship with 0 points. Other incidents gave the uninvolved observer more to smile about, such as the pit lane kerfuffle between Hamilton and Alonso, and the safety car hijinks in Japan. But these little nagging incidents fade into nothingness when compared with the stunt McLaren boss Ron Dennis pulled on the last day of the season. Yes, he had rather obviously favoured Hamilton over Alonso all year. Yes, his underlings had snaffled secrets from Ferrari, through the good offices of (ex-) Ferrari man Nigel  Stepney (an Englishman). Yes, his team had, at some crucial junctions, made bad mistakes (letting Hamilton drive on with a ruined back tyre in China, illegally using two sets of rain tyres during practice in Brazil are two that spring to mind). But Dennis saved the worst (or the best, depending on your passport) for last. As the race started, a rush of blood to Hamilton’s head saw him off the track and thrown back to eighth place. No bad luck, just Hamilton’s own doing. Bad luck did come for Hamilton later in the race when, on two occasions, his car slowed down letting others whizz past him and throwing him well back in the field. Not one to give up easily he fought his way back to seventh and there he stayed, unable to clinch place 5, which would have won him the title. Hard cheese!  Oddly enough, Lewis took things quite well, limiting himself to vowing that next year will be different…and why not? But there, amidst the cheering throng, was Ron Dennis, the McLaren team boss. Interviewed on the track just after Raikkonen’s win he spoke sadly but gallantly saying, and I quote: “We must be sporting about this.” How sporting he intended to be became clear very soon after, when news broke that McLaren had lodged an official complaint against the Williams and BMW teams, accusing them of using fuel of an illegal low temperature. My first reaction was: ‘how do they know?’ Were there McLaren spies with thermometers standing by as BMW and Williams refueled their cars? My second reaction was: “what a strange coincidence that the teams accused were precisely those that kept Hamilton from advancing to a title-winning position.” For all I know, quite a few minnows in Formula One might have used this heinous trick to gain an extra few horsepower: Spyker certainly could have done with it, or else Super Agurri or Toyota. But no, the only culprits, in the McLaren view, were the cars that stood in Hamilton’s way. Not Ferrari, that would have been too obvious. Unsurprisingly, the race stewards threw the case out. McLaren’s two drivers, Alonso and Hamilton, both came out against their team’s decision, arguing that winning a world title on a trumped-up technicality would devalue the championship. All this was apparently lost on Ron Dennis, whose appeal against the stewards’ decision will be judged on the 15th of November. Sport at its worst…or should I say: at its most English?


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Brainpower: Blacks Missing Out?

meWhat a service the British newspaper The Times has done us by reporting the views on racial equality held by that old DNA-untwister and 1962 Nobel Prize winner James Watson! Fancy choosing the United Kingdom as the place -and the eve of a guest lecture at the Science Museum’s Diana Centre as the time- to suggest that somehow black people must have stood at the back as the Creator handed out the grey cells. After doling out inordinate amounts of the stuff to the white people, fearing that there might not be enough for everybody, He reduced the portions just as the first African came to the front of the queue. In doing so, He condemned the black race to intellectual inferiority for all eternity. Oh really? That’s not what we’ve a right to expect from an all-knowing and all-powerful supreme being, is it?

Of course this is not what James Watson actually argued. He’s a scientist, not a Bible thumper, although the two aren’t always as mutually exclusive as perhaps they should be. Watson based his view on genetics, his particular area of expertise and one in which Man has made huge strides in recent years. Nor is Dr. Watson a politician or someone with a racial axe to grind. In this he differs favourably from my old pal Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882). Remember De Gobineau? He has been known by friend and foe as the “Father of Racism”. His views, developed in the second half of the 19th Century, were happily seized on by the Nazis, who welcomed any ideas that might underpin their own destructive plans for the future. I happen to own a small volume of De Gobineau’s musings on racial inequality and although it seems that, where people of African origin are concerned, he reaches a similar conclusion to that of James Watson, he travelled there by a completely different route. Where Watson’s ideas originate with the petri dish, the microscope and the biochemistry lab, those of De Gobineau are the result of his highly subjective take on Man’s development as a species. Tracing the history of different races and their progress in human civilization -measured by such yardsticks as scientific acumen, cultural and artistic achievement, commercial success and nation building- he concluded (not even unreasonably, given the state of the world at the time) that Western European Man’s intellectual capacity not only far outstripped that of the black race, but to varying degrees of most others as well. What rubbish, we say today.

James Watson had the misfortune of not speaking in 1855, when politically correctness and the blessings of multiculturalism were still largely unknown, but towards the end of 2007, when such things as The Rights of Men (and women), the Equality of Men (and women) and the Great Altogetherness of Men (and women) are not only held aloft as so many Holy Grails but are presented to us as the status quo. In other words: we have rights, we’re all equal and we’re all together and woe betide the man (or woman) who dares question these self-evident truths. In such a world a man, however accomplished and honoured a scientist he may be, who has the temerity to stick his head round the door of his lab and say: “Hey! Get this! Look at the evidence! We’re not all equal!” will end up tarred and feathered.

And so it happened with James Watson. Not long after his views appeared in The Times, the Science Museum cancelled his lecture (arguing, oddly, that his comments “had gone beyond the point of acceptable debate”), racial equality groups fell over themselves to revile him, while some of his fellow scientists also viciously attacked him –nothing to do with professional envy, you understand. As for me, I don’t know. I’m torn between my own genuinely felt desire for a planet populated by a unified, benign human race, a planet where the noxious clouds of prejudice, hatred, envy and violence have been supplanted by a sweet smelling lilac haze of love, goodwill and respect. If I have to stick my neck out I’d say that Man’s world today is still what it has always been: a teeming vipers’ nest in which some fare better than others, where some prosper and others starve, where those who can, do and those who can’t, don’t. We cannot even achieve a semblance of equality within the same race; what chance equality between races? I don’t want James Watson to be right, but what if he is?

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The Diana Inquiry: Truth But Not As We Know It

me I’ve had it with this Diana lark, I can tell you. Sure, she died a horrible death in a horrible car crash in a horrible tunnel in horrible Paris ten years ago and the exact circumstances of her demise have never been made public. For all I know it could have been murder on the instructions of the Duke of Edinburgh, or driver Henri Paul being blinded by  the flash of a paparazzo’s camera, or maybe he was dead drunk at the wheel. Whatever. End result: Diana dead, Dodi Fayed dead, Henri Paul dead.

Not that I’m satisfied with the slick, cut-and-dried accounts of events, as handed to us by French officialdom. Officialdom has a tendency to try and steady ships that shouldn’t be steadied. So many questions have, until now, remained unanswered and so unaddressed have been Diana’s own repeated suspicions that there was dirty work afoot that there seems to be a really good case for doubt. And where there’s doubt there’s a conspiracy theory. The question today is: will the British judicial inquiry that is now in progress, bring us an inch closer to the truth? Don’t you believe it. Largely undertaken because a grief-stricken father, Mohammed Al-Fayed, keeps raking things up, its final verdict is already carved in stone: Diana and her co-victims died in a tragic accident, with no evidence whatsoever of any foul play and that will be the end of the matter.

Not that I’m happy about that. I had a high regard for Diana, many notches higher than my regard for the wimp she married and the family of overpaid Spitting Image puppets she married into. I confess to shedding a tear for this unfortunate girl when Elton John sang ‘Candle in the Wind’ at her funeral and a young Tony Blair called her ‘the people’s princess’, making us all believe -albeit briefly- that he brought a bit more to his job than hypocrisy and naked self-interest. Even today I have to swallow a lump when I see footage of Diana actually touching an AIDS patient or, through some magic that she possessed, drawing uproarious laughter from African children who, judging from their lack of usable limbs, had very little to laugh about. For that I happily forgave her her occasional lapses into self-pity and her use of the media to get across points she would have been better advised to make directly to the people involved, like Charles and Camilla. (Did she ever even consider going up to the current Duchess of Cornwall to call her an adulterous dog-breathed old cow and threaten to scratch her eyes out? I think, in her position, I would have.) In the end, of course, she fought fire with fire and became pretty adulterous herself, but by that time right was so firmly on her side that it hardly seemed to matter.

So now, to give the definitive whitewash a semblance of serious inquiry, eleven jury members have been flown to Paris to view, with their own eyes, the historic sites where it all happened. I assume that the underlying thought is that it will help them form a clearer view of what really took place. Well good luck to them. Ten years on, the Alma underpass look just….well….an underpass. X marks the spot where the Mercedes careered into the wall. Wow. Oh and get a load of this ladies and gentlemen of the jury: this is the exact Ritz Hotel elevator that Diana and Dodi travelled down in on that fateful night. Did she press the button herself? Of course not, she was a bloody princess for Christ’s sake. Call me cynical, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the six women and five men have been served the same Foie Gras d’Oie Avec Sa Gelée de Groseilles et Son Verre de Mombazillac that Diana tucked into on the night of her death, just for some added verisimilitude.

The really funny thing is that whatever verdict the inquiry comes up with will not be the truth of ten years ago or even the truth of today. But -and this is how it usually goes- fifty years into the future it will be the only truth we know and, mark my words, the only truth we have ever known.

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