Cummings to grips with reality

The problem is that in Politics, there will always be someone ready to blow a rasperry. That is partly what is happening to Cummings, and it is amazing that he has lasted so long. He is evasive, superior and rude. He is also, I understand, brilliant. None of those qualities would endear him to the Westminster crowd or to the media. Even the Conservative press has its knives out for Cummings – “No 10 svengali who flouted the PM’s own strict lockdown rules” is how the Daily Mail reports his actions.

There is another quality Cummings has- he is indispensable. He masterminded the Leave vote, he has a plan for the exit and a plan to whip the civil service into line. None of this can be done without him.

Boris has gone out of his way to support him.

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That tactic worked in the past. It is astonishing, really, that Priti Patel survived at all a few months’ ago but Boris supported her in the face of the odds, and she is still pottering about, misreading the auto-cue and muddling up basic maths. Of course, her comic highlight almost redeems her and at any other time than in a national crisis would make her a figure of fun-  that during lockdown, with the closure of stops, “shoplifting has gone down”. But otherwise, her performance at briefings has been likened to “a motorway pileup”. I suppose though that being thought a fool is better than being thought a bully.

Priti Patel is useful for the moment: her gaffes take the attention away from the real media headline- the huge number of deaths from COVID 19 in the UK.

The more we complain about her, the less we focus on the real issues. She is a distraction even if she might perhaps be a dunce, or she might be a bully.

There seems to be one thing worse than bullying though and that is deceit. While Boris was busy defending Cummings, the anonymous civil service tweeter wrote, “imagine having to work with these truth twisters”, then that message got speedily deleted. But it did its job.

In this case, it is deceit that is directly linked to COVID 19 and the lockdown. It is relevant deceit.

Cummings is not a maths’ dunce, or a clown.

Because he is so important to the Government project, his activities are not going to be bruished aside lightly. It was foolish, therefore, with hindsight, to ask Grant Sapps to fumble about the details. This is what Grants said to a question put by Sally Ridge and that he had been given in advance,

“I don’t want to disappoint you, I am transport secretary and I am expert in building our infrastructure, but I don’t know all the times and dates for you. I understand that he will have travelled there around the end of March, stayed there for 14 days and didn’t leave the property in isolation as per the rules in the guidance.”

The Government has moral and legal authority. It is entirely undermined by Cummings and, more than that, he has directly put our safety is at risk. Three issues scream for attention: (1) His disdain for the law is one thing and (2) his example that others may follow is another, but (3) he knowingly went out on a lengthy journey with the virus. On that trip, a minimum of 4 hours’ driving, 360 miles from London to Durham, did he never once pause for petrol, for a snack, or for a loo break?

The problem is that neither Cummings nor Boris understand the issue. It is very simple to demonstrate this with the headline over the weekend which claimed Boris thought his advisor had the right “intention”, that it was not as if “he was off to see a lover”. This would put him, of course in the same bracket as Professor Neil Ferguson. Ferguson resigned (such a dramatic fall indeed that the police decided he did not need fining).

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and in this case, the policy is not Kantian but utilitarian in its essence. We do not even need to weigh up different “imperatives”. It is monumentally simple: one person who is infected and breaks the quarantine puts everyone else at risk. It is not about intent but action. Boris has misunderstood the philosophical base for the coronavirus lockdown. He has also misread the mood of the people.

As does Cummings. When asked by the press camped outside his house if he was “considering his position”, he said, “obviously not.”

OBVIOUSLY

Why “obviously”? I am always entertained by anyone who uses this word. I think Cummings has never attended my lectures- if he had, he would know that I believe this is an adverb that should never be used. If something is obvious, it does not need to be stated, and if something is not obvious, the word is misused. It is very simple. It is a word that can only ever be used to establish superiority. It is an arrogant word. It is a put-down. In the interests of developing a kinder English, this is one word that I think should be erased for ever from vocabulary (obviously).

BREXIT

He went on, “you are as right about that as you were about Brexit. Do you remember how right you were about that?.”

BABY

Grant Sapps defended Cummings’ trip with an appeal to his 4 year old baby. This is what Sapps said,

“This is somebody who followed the guidelines by going to lockdown in order to be in the best place to ensure that provision was made for a four-year-old, who would have not been able to look after himself, and as the guidance makes clear, you must do in this situation the thing which would look after children for their welfare in the best possible way.”.

As if to reinforce this image, today, Cummings took the self-same baby out to meet the press. It was not even a “no comment” moment. Cummings had lots to say before making a point about a boom microphone (which was actually quite touching- the man has more heart than I had expected).

PIERS MORGAN

Piers Morgan, the moral heart of tv-land, has therefore banned all Cabinet ministers from his show, unless they “didn’t publicly support Cummings breaching a lockdown that the Govt forced on the rest of us ‘to save lives’”.

The problem is that this appears to be cut and dried. It appears to be very simple.

BUT

Like Priti Patel, Cummings projects a far from favourable image. The rumour-mill is rife. Their big critics are the civil service who are targeted in new reforms. Whoever wrote about “twisted truth” may well be out of a job in a few weeks’ time if Cummings has his way. And it is no secret that Priti Patel had been squabbling with her own civil servants. So, the civil servant who leaked has respect from peers- “this brave heretic has already become something of a civil service legend”.

So far, we have judged Cummings without hearing his side of the story.

So far, he has yet to speak.

 

Priti please

It is a while since I wrote anything about Priti Patel, and I had thought I had drawn her once. I cannot find any record, so here goes.

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Hers is not currently an attractive story. Indeed, it has been brewing for a while with leaks about Ms Patel’s abrasive style coming out quite regularly since the new government took shape and certainly since the Boris’ re-shuffle. Of course, Boris likes her, but that may not be enough…

A week ago, the Metro lead with a story about “An atmosphere of fear”. Apparently, a senior Whitehall official collapsed in a meeting about the deportation of 25 people back to Jamaica (Whether we have got immigration right or wrong is quite another matter and I will return to this, I promise). the unnamed official was taken to hospital with a sodium deficiency. The metro article went a little further and quoted a source specifically saying,

 ‘The Home Office is dysfunctional and the current permanent secretary had presided over a sacking of a home secretary and accidental deportations. ‘If this were any other environment Philip Rutnam would not only be sacked he’d be denied a pension. The lack of accountability in the civil service is deeply troubling and the prime minister will not accept this in the long term.’

This is nasty. It may not even be Priti Patel’s doing, but her behaviour seems to have sparked off the spatt. Further problems were envisaged by the Metro about “the points-based system”

Leaders in agriculture, hospitality and the care system were among those who warned of serious staff shortages proposed by the new rules.

I have my own concerns about a “points’-based system” (my apostrophe). I do not believe, just to start the ball rolling, that there really are 8 million “economically inactive” people in the UK ready to take up the jobs currently being done by low-skilled immigrants, though I concede there may well be 8 million economically inactive individuals for one reason or another -um… students, the sick, unpaid carers.

Not only would we have to find and encourage these 8 million. We would also have to get them to move to the places where the jobs can be done. You cannot do most of the unskilled work from a laptop on a day away from the office at home. These people would need to be on-site, in the hospitals, police-stations, factories and so on. Logistics not mere head-count!

 

It is always a shame when people believe that the best way to look strong is to bully the help. Now, the actual consequences of Priti Patel’s actions seem to be emerging with the resignation on spectacularly nasty terms of her Permanent secretary, Sir Philip Rutnam, who resigns after 33 years as a civil servant, has gone public and writes,

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“In the last 10 days I have been the target of a vicious and orchestrated briefing campaign. It has been alleged that I have briefed the media against the Home Secretary. This along with many other claims is completely false….The Home Secretary categorically denied any involvement in this campaign to the Cabinet Office. I regret I do not believe her….The Home Secretary categorically denied any involvement in this campaign to the Cabinet Office. I regret I do not believe her. She has not made the effort I would expect to dissociate herself from the comments.”

He pulls no punches and makes it quite clear that the buck stops with the Home Secretary herself. He will claim constructive dismissal.

But to put it into perspective: the Home Office has been a dodgy camp for a while now. I had a nasty run-in myself a few years’ ago about student visas, first with Andrea Leadsom and then with Mrs May, both abrasive encounters. The way the HO is led sets the tone for everyone else both in the Ministry and beyond. We should not be surprised, therefore, that telephone exchanges with almost any official, from the tax office to the bank, routinely field our calls by haughtily “explaining” their policies rather than answering a direct question. It is rude, condescending and it is officious (a tricolon and no oxford comma, Mr Pullman). It might even be called bullying, but this is a tone that has routinely been adopted by the Ministers running the HO. All bureaucrats look up to the mother of parliament to see how things are done and this, evidently, is the example they get. This is what they follow.  It is now in print for us all to monitor: but to her credit, and in her defence, Priti Patel seems no better and no worse than Mrs May.

On election night, I ran into Amber Rudd who also gave such a very charming and considered performance that I wrote her a brief note of congratulation. I cannot believe that she would have behaved as Priti Patel is alleged to behave, though she resigned because of the Windrush scandal. So, maybe the HO itself is not to blame.

The problem with Priti Patel’s alleged form of aggressive leadership is that no one is there to protect her back, as Mrs May also found out to her cost, and that cost may get bigger with publication of the investigation into Windrush. If all the staff are busy second-guessing what the Minister might say and how she might bark at them – as Priti is alleged to do at this Ministry, what abusive language she may have in store for them (as rumours have it), then nobody is going to be protecting her from error, nobody is watching out for her – in fact, her staff would probably celebrate her errors. Of course, there is a difference between being demanding and being a bully and Mr Patel has moments of humanity – she has observed, for instance, that under the new proposals her own “Ugandan Asian parents” would not have made it through UK immigration at all.

A good friend suggests one very interesting test- the most efficient leader chairs brief and effective meetings. I have a giggling recollection of the lengthy talks that went on in Chequers over some of Mrs May’s Brexit plans- the length of her meetings was reported as a mark of pride. Whoops! Monumental fail there!

The statements appearing in the press look damaging to Mr Patel, more so even than the allegations against Mr Bercow, though one whistle-blower like Rutnam could lead to a “Metoo” movement across Whitehall and beyond. After all, there is already a popular call to tear up NDAs.

I have seen bullying a few times, sadly. This sort of leader will always be exposed- but often long after the real damage is done, to other people as well as to herself. We need to work in a team to get the job done and for any system to work well; care of each other needs to be built into the work-place not tagged on to HR; we must find support wherever it should be. In the light of this story, I wonder whether Mr Cummins might be heading in the same direction – though his goal appears quite different even if his manner apparently also invites concern.

 

Disturbing news

The last unpublished post of Caroline Flack makes for disturbing news but it raises an important point. Ms Flack’s career was defined by what she said on tv and that platform was taken away dramatically and suddenly. The loss of her voice, on top of everything else, therefore, must have been dreadful for her. She was already demonstrably vulnerable, had taken significant steps to sort things out and her boyfriend had said he did not want to press charges. An emotional breakdown has played out in public and we need to look at the way our society has allowed this to happen.

She writes with great clarity:

I am suddenly on a different kind of stage and everyone is watching it happen.

I have always taken responsibility for what happened that night. Even on the night. But the truth is …. It was an accident.

I’ve been having some sort of emotional breakdown for a very long time.

But I am NOT a domestic abuser. We had an argument and an accident happened. An accident.

The blood that someone SOLD to a newspaper was MY blood and that was something very sad and very personal.

The reason I am talking today is because my family can’t take anymore.

I’ve lost my job. My home. My ability to speak. And the truth has been taken out of my hands and used as entertainment.

I can’t spend every day hidden away being told not to say or speak to anyone.

I’m so sorry to my family for what I have brought upon them and for what my friends have had to go through.

I’m not thinking about ‘how I’m going to get my career back’. I’m thinking about how I’m going to get mine and my family’s life back.

I can’t say anymore than that.

There is now talk of “Caroline’s law” and, certainly, the death of Caroline Flack has been treated with great delicacy by the media. For the most part. One of the hosts of “This morning” may have made a slip of the tongue but it was an unfortunate one when she said on air, “The press are getting a lot of flack”.

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While the media may indeed need to do some self-searching, and while this may be  yet another reality tv tragedy, it is also another instance of the sort of mindless bureaucracy that we are allowing from public services set up to protect us, this time, from the CPS. We need to look better at people and ask what they are capable of, rather than follow a catalogue of events in -what should we call it? um- a “points’-based system”? (the punctuation alone to properly write that term should encourage us to avoid it in future).

We have the capacity to do better but we seem to be doing worse.

In terms of reality tv casualties, I can now think of 4 deaths directly linked to “Love Island”, a show that I managed to watch briefly- it is a very strange spectacle, more like a 1960’s beauty pageant. I can only speculate about the pressures the contestants must be put under every day! However, to that list – specifically, Sophie Gradon and her boyfriend Aaron Armstrong, Mike Thalassitis and now Caroline Flack, I should add Steve Dymond who was on Jeremy Kyle’s former show, but also instance the pressures that led to suicide attempts by Steve Wright, a former Big Brother winner in 2013. Aaron Allard Morgan has gone on record on “the Wright stuff” saying that 4 contestants he knew had attempted suicide following the show in 2011. This is what he said then,

They give you very little preparation for what’s likely to happen. From my year, with the 15 of us, I know that four of them have tried committing suicide after the show just because of the ramifications and impact that it has on your life.

You’re not prepared and you don’t get the aftercare that perhaps you should be getting afterwards. The people that are going in tomorrow, they’re not gonna hear this.

I just hope that if they need help afterwards, if they wanna speak to me, if they need any advice, I’m more than happy to give that.

There are, I understand, many other instances.

Despite having been on a Reality show myself, it is an area of TV that I know little about and the more I look into it, the more I realise there is an important story to be told. Reality TV has changed the dynamic of the medium and I think it will define the way tv moves forward. It has already dictated a number of checks and balances that I have seen in place, but we may need to be even more vigilant if these procedures are to have teeth and not be mere window-dressing, lipservice or a fashionable veneer over what has become a serious money-making machine.

Some years’ ago, I posted something about Robin Williams – It is a great sadness when those who are entertaining us are crushed by the very system that should be there to support them.

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Also in the news today is the statement that Prince Harry and Megan cannot use the term “Sussex Royal”. This is absurd- it is churlish, childish and cheap. It is a response, frankly, that is beneath the Royal family and those who offer them advice. At a time when senior members of that family have brought genuine shame on the Queen and are still held close, this kneejerk (do I need all that word?) reaction to the Queen’s grandson and his wife is astonishing and really should be reversed. Let’s wait for a gracious apology. If anyone can do that well, it is the Queen! She will lead the way out of this mess.

 

Tim the elephant

Today it was announced that the elderly tusker, Tim, has died in a safari park in Kenya. He had evaded the poachers and lived to a relatively ripe old age. He was much studied and drawn. I have drawn him in the past and drew him this morning as an example of how to draw elephants on my Youtube channel!

Here is a moleskine sketch along with comparisons with Disney’s Tarzan (Tantor?) and Warner bros’ Horton, both of whom have moved the eyes to a site slightly above the trunk, which is what made it so difficult to draw a convincing elephant as a child- the only elephants I had seen were in Disney’s version of “Jungle book” and this modest modification made all my efforts look more like dogs than elephants- and that was rather the plan I think by Johns Lounsbery and Ken Anderson and the 9 old men who reworked the elephant anatomy early on and especially for Dumbo. It is also evident, by the way, in the design for “elephacine” in Fantasia-

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and particularly evident in the designs for Madam Mim in “the sword in the stone”. In this instance, it is a Milt Kahl design animated by Lounsbery.DEKew22U0AEXyeu.jpgDEKezCqVoAAknlG.jpg

For the record, here is my drawing:

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National TV Awards

It is very odd to actually find time to watch breakfast tv and to see Piers Morgan taking a swipe at the excellent David Walliams, and – was it also a back-handed swipe at Bradley Walsh as well? I could not be sure. But I was at the event and simply cannot understand where Piers is coming from.

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To be honest, more than that, after I got back to my hotel room late last night, I found myself watching “the Chase” for the first time on tv: what a treat! I couldn’t answer most of the questions, either! And some of those I gamely thought I could answer, I actually got wrong. There was one contestant on screen who plumped for a particular answer and locked it in, only to revise her decision moments later and to confirm what was actually the correct answer. I know how she felt! Oh! And Bradley Walsh is astonishing as the host: it is the kind of performance I enjoy – and warm to. It is a mixture of vulnerability and enthusiasm with also a hint of the dour and playful disdain of Les Dawson at his best – and all in the best possible taste. He is such an engaging personality and his expressions read with an immediacy and openness rarely seen. It is as if we get a first-hand experience of his thought-patterns. He does the same in Dr Who, too! What a treasure he is!

Then there was the “Love Island” contingent. I met Curtis and a few others, but the boys said hello and promptly walked off leaving the girls with me. I liked Maura, but really warmed to Molly Mae Hague – she is a classy, thoughtful girl.

So many other people to think of: Richard and Judy, Michael Palin, Ryan Mark Parsons, John Barrowman (who embarrassingly I did not recognise at all, but that could go for almost everyone there and I am sure they had no idea who I was either!). Ru Paul’s drag Queens were a scream from start to finish, and I had such fun going through the lyrics of “One thrilling combination” and “Mame” with Some Ting Wong. Vivienne is so tall, too!! Oh! and Poor Chris Hughes! Hope he is ok. It has been an education! Many thanks.

 

Philip Pullman is wrong

Today, the great Pullman has hit the news over the proposed new 50p piece. He comes in slightly late because Hughie Grant has already gone on record saying it should be boycotted. But Pullman points to the grammar and the absence of what is called “the Oxford comma”.

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The Guardian has run the story and it should know better.

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However, the “oxford comma” is now in the National curriculum. I cannot tell you how often I have fielded calls about this bit of grammar and how irritated it makes me.

Let’s be frank here: the oxford comma, even admitting examples cited in the King James’ Bible, is a modern invention. The KJV is obsessed with the comma, after all. Here is an example from the first edition with a comma that would never be tolerated today:

Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.

Indeed, the only comma I would permit in that sentence would be AFTER the word “finger”, yet despite this omission, the KJV has two extra commas that, to me, seem unnecessary.

The KJV also, incidentally, has a tendency to use random italics (as instanced). I believe that any appeal to the use of the comma much before the mid-18th Century is an appeal to punctuation chaos. Much of the time, then, the comma was purely decorative, a typographic twirl.

We did not know about the “oxford comma” until 1978 when Peter Sutcliffe drew attention to it in a review of some of the idiosyncracies of the Oxford University Press (OUP). He suggested that its origins lay in the middle of the 1st World war and that it was introduced to suppress ambiguity when lists were being trotted off.

This seems unnecessary.

When we read aloud, I always assumed a comma denoted a potential breath. I always took a breath before I got to the end of a long list- it seemed appropriate and added drama. However, the older grammar-books all insist that there is never a comma before “and”. And with good reason. (Also, of course, they tell us never to begin a sentence with a conjunction- note TW!) Because the “and” simply signifies that the end of the list is coming. A comma before “and” is, therefore, superfluous because the breath before “and” is understood and assumed. The conjunction is signification enough of how the sentence should be read aloud.

I believe the oxford comma is actually the “Harvard comma” and is first promoted in the style guide for the New York Times. Many examples have been posted that are genuinely made less ambiguous by the insertion of the comma, but frankly a bit of re-phrasing would be better. Look at this example-

“By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

It is argued here that the Oxford comma saves Nelson Mandela from the suggestion that he might have been a dildo-collector.  However, with the comma added, he might also yet remain an “800 year old god”, which I think he was not. The only way to salvage this text is, therefore, to re-write it. The text is wrong. It is sloppy writing. The oxford comma, in other words, is about inadequacy and a lame attempt to fix an error. It is a desperate attempt to justify bad english. The Oxford comma is not ours, it is not necessary and the Royal mint is quite right to ignore it.

As for the proposed 50p piece, I certainly never wanted it, but if it promotes debate about perverse and frankly foreign punctuation, then it is a coin I will henceforth treasure.

Bring it on!

 

 

After writing this, I sent a brief letter to the Daily telegraph which they printed. I am reproducing it here-

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Just a final point here:

The text on the 50p piece is a variation on the speech delivered by President Thomas Jefferson in 1801 at his inaugural address. Note that the “Harvard comma” is quite rightly in place as this is an American speech. The word “commerce” is replaced by the more alliterative “prosperity”, so it is a shame, given that the Royal mint was adapting the text fairly freely, that a third word beginning with “p” could not be found to complete a good tricolon (I can appreciate the problem, of course- partiality, predeliction – the greeks might have used “philotimo” – better to have started with another letter: accord, abundance and affection, for example). Tellingly, however, we have lost both the “comma” and the word “honest” in the process of developing and circulating the commemorative coin. No one seems to have remarked on the loss of that word, though. I would have thought that the loss of “honesty” was surely greater than the loss of a comma.

“I will compress them within the narrowest compass they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations. Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none;…”

The US Circle

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Just about to do the final Podcast for the US circle. What a pleasure watching these 12 episodes. The joy of watching Shubham telling us that social media is the bubonic  plague of modern times.  The guy who doesn’t know flirting or emojis. I felt a distinct connection with him and sent him an email immediately!!

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