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I blame the scapegoats, p.23

I blame the scapegoats, page 23


I blame the scapegoats

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  It seems a bit unfair that the criminals have been called to put their weapons permanently beyond use with no concessions whatsoever from the other side. Shouldn't the police be made to change their name or something? What about a truncheon amnesty? Or a promise to attempt to recruit more officers from the criminal community (no, on second thoughts there are quite enough already). The reality is, of course, that the weapons handed in were not from gangland killers but from law-abiding citizens who were getting increasingly uneasy about having Granddad's old Second World War revolver rattling around in that kitchen drawer with the garden twine and old Allen keys from Ikea. The idea that Interpol's most wanted villains were going to voluntarily walk into a police station was perhaps a little naive.

  'Excuse me, I was the mystery second gunman in the Kennedy assassination and I've been meaning to get rid of this vital clue for ages, so I thought "Where better than Scotland Yard?"'

  'Right, many thanks, sir, just pop it there next to Abu Nidal's rocket launcher.'

  'Urn, that CCTV camera is definitely switched off, is it?'

  'Oh yes, we're not at all interested in the fact that you happen to be a professional hit-man in the pay of organized crime. As long as we've got this old gun. Mind how you go now . . .'

  Apparently drug dealers and gangsters were struggling to imagine such a scenario.

  That's not to say that the gun amnesty was not worth doing. Every gun taken out of circulation makes this country a safer place. Of all the bills passed by this government, the ban on handguns was surely one of the most sensible and right. Having to choose between the risk of another Dunblane and a few sportsmen losing their pastime - there is simply no argument. And yet former handgun owners are still moaning that their human rights have been infringed. Why don't they just get another hobby? Take up macrame or making amusing novelty paperweights by sticking swivelly eyes on shiny pebbles or something? Gun ownership is simply not worth the risk. Fatal shootings committed by Americans are now higher than ever (particularly when unarmed Iraqi demonstrators happen to be in the vicinity).

  The gun amnesty has been such a success that they are now thinking of repeating the exercise with other dangerous objects. Hospital casualty departments are pressing hard for a 'power tools amnesty'. Middle-class husbands who were given electric saws, high-speed drills and nail guns as Christmas presents and are too scared even to get them out of the packaging will soon be able to hand them in anonymously without risk of embarrassment.

  In the meantime, the government is now left with the problem of what to do with thousands of knackered old revolvers and shotguns, so look out for a Junior Minister of Trade explaining that we only-export such arms to Third World dictatorships who intend to use the weapons for peaceful purposes. Perhaps the firearms should be melted down to make a symbolic statue for the 'Lefty-Council Peace Garden'. When it was discussed in cabinet it transpired that many of the guns are rusted up or jammed.

  'Perfect,' said the Minister of Defence. 'Then why don't we just issue them to Britain's front-line soldiers?'

  Testing, testing.

  9 May 2003

  This week a headteacher was reprimanded for cheating during his pupils' SATS exams. He was made to wait outside the office of the General Teaching Council and when he was finally told to enter, he knew he was in really big trouble because his mum and dad had been called in too.

  'We're not angry with you, David, just disappointed . . .' said the officials. 'You know, you're only cheating yourself, aren't you?'

  And the disgraced headteacher mumbled 'Yes, miss' while staring open-mouthed at the floor.

  This month hundreds of thousands of pupils will be sitting SATS tests, and teachers will have to find more sophisticated ways of improving their school's performance. As their pens hover over the multiple-choice questions, pupils will suddenly hear some carefully timed coughing from the headteacher looking over their shoulder. Despite the fact that the vast majority of teachers are against the national testing of seven-, eleven- and fourteen-year-olds, the government refuses to abolish Standardized Assessment Tests. Because let's face it, without SATS we would have no way of discovering which schools are concentrating on the SATS. Without these tables we'd never know that those middle-class kids at the village school in Surrey were doing much better than children who had English as a second language in that run-down estate in Tower Hamlets.

  This is surely the whole point of academic league tables. Parents of the posh kids got fed up with their kids losing football matches 13-0 to the tough boys from the school on the estate, so another sort of league table was devised where they wouldn't always come last. Of course, more progressive newspapers like the Guardian print the schools in alphabetical order so as not to imply any sort of order of merit, although Aardvark Primary in Abbas Coombe still boasts about being top. (Arsenal have just contacted the sports desk to see if they might adopt the same policy for the Premiership.)

  Apart from the undoubted stress placed on staff and pupils, the tables are misleading because there are so many variables that generally do not get taken into account. For example, in one-class-entry schools each child represents over 3 per cent, so a few low-achieving pupils in a particular year group can make it seem as if the school has slipped back drastically in twelve months. Say just four children in a class of thirty had numeracy problems, then that's four times 3.3 recurring, which makes, um, twelve, no, thirteen point something - er, well, anyway, these numeracy skills are overrated.

  Many liberal middle classes are instinctively against testing children at such a young age: 'Oh, I mean, it's ridiculous, putting children under that much pressure,' they say, as they drive their children round to the private tutors. 'I mean, there's enough pressure on children already. Jennifer's got her grade four cello test, her gymkhana, ballet, Brownies and bridge lessons - frankly, school ought to be the one chance they have to relax a bit.' You see these over-keen parents running behind their children in places like the Science Museum. As their kids are maniacally pressing buttons and pulling levers, Mummy and Daddy are standing behind them desperately attempting to precis the explanatory notes: 'You see, darling, that's called "refraction" and there, you see the light breaking into different colours, that's because um . . .' But it's too late, because little Timothy has already dashed off and is barging his little sister off the plasma lamp. At least if the government introduced tests for neurosis we could guarantee those scores would get higher every year.

  Maybe it would be fairer if children were able to choose the subjects on which they were tested. Ofsted reports would be far more positive: 'Students were stimulated and focused with a majority of them attaining Level Seven or higher in Mortal Kombat on their Nintendo GameBoys. There was also genuine progress amongst the boys in the standard DFES test for seeing who could wee the highest.'

  It seems that the only way to make things fair would be to introduce testing and league tables for government ministers. Critics of this idea might argue that it would only increase stress for our front-benchers, and that ministers' mums and dads might have them tutored in advance. 'It takes no account of the intake,' they'll say. 'How can a working-class kid like John Prescott be expected to do as well at verbal reasoning as a privately educated pupil like Tony Blair?' And what would it do for the morale of ministers, to see themselves near the bottom of the cabinet league table just because they failed a minor numeracy test such as balancing their departmental budget?

  'Okay, we'll have to publish the cabinet league tables in alphabetical order,' says Tony Blair. 'Oh, and tell Hilary Armstrong she's sacked . . .'

  Halal Dolly

  16 May 2002

  It's always the same in every group: there's always one bloody leftie stirring things up and spoiling the atmosphere for everyone else. Take Britain's farms, for example - apparently there's one cow going around claiming that the humans keep animals so they can sell them for slaughter.

  'It's true, I tell you, the farmer gets paid to let other human
s murder us all,' she says, failing to sell a single copy of her radical newspaper as all the other animals wink at each other because the nutter with the conspiracy theories is off again.

  'Don't be ridiculous, Daisy, humans like animals; why would they want to murder us?'

  'Well, um, look, I know it sounds outlandish, but they kill us because, well, they like to eat our flesh . . .'

  At which point the other cows and sheep fall about laughing and shake their heads in pity at this demented individual who has to bring politics into everything. 'Yeah, sure thing, Trotsky. And I suppose they like to rip off our skins and wear them on their own bodies as well?'

  But of course the reality gets worse than that. The biggest growth area in the British meat market is for halal meat; that is, meat from sheep and chickens that have been ritually slaughtered by having their throats cut until they bleed to death. This is not a pleasant sight and a visit to the halal abattoir is not recommended for the infants school trip. But now a government-funded committee is expected to conclude that traditional Islamic methods of slaughter are inhumane. The timing of this judgement could not be better, because clearly Britain's Muslims are nowhere near alienated enough at the moment.

  'Okay, so the UK has supported Israel, bombed Iraq, elected BNP councillors - how about outlawing halal meat as well?'

  'Hmm, yes, that'll go down well at the mosque.'

  This moral conundrum goes right to the heart of what it means to live in a multicultural society. There are many things that British WASPs do not understand about other religious traditions. Like where in the Koran does it state that Muslims must have ornate gold tissue-box holders in the back of the Datsun? Or, when the Jewish scriptures sensibly forbade the eating of pork or prawns, why didn't God add the codicil 'until you invent the fridge'? But this impending report from the Farm Animals Welfare Council looks set to cause well-meaning Guardian readers to implode with liberal angst.

  'So you are against the traditions of Islam, are you?'

  'No, of course not, the kids learn all about Eid at school. . .'

  'Oh, so you're in favour of cruelty to animals then?'

  'Er no, we're against fox hunting . . .'

  'But it's okay if it's done by Muslims?'

  'Urn, yes, I mean no, look I must dash, I promised the kids chicken curry for tea. Free range, obviously . . .'

  Until now I've always wondered who those wet people were that always answered 'Don't know' to every survey. 'Are you part of the twenty per cent of the population that always answers "Don't know" to everything?' 'Er, dunno.' 'Do you think some people are perhaps too lacking in confidence to offer any opinions on current affairs?' 'Er, dunno . . .' Suddenly this seems like rather an attractive camp to be in. Whoever has to make the final decision on this one will cause enormous offence to one group or other. Of all the topics guaranteed to get the British public writing angry letters, the most potent are religion and cruelty to animals; so maybe this is all an elaborate scam designed to save the Post Office.

  There are examples where opposing moralities clash when I would not be so hesitant. If a child was likely to die because its parents were

  Jehovah's Witnesses and were refusing a blood transfusion on religious grounds, I'd argue, as sensitively as possible, that the state should step in and overrule that particular religious doctrine (oh, and tell the parents to get back to the Planet Quargon). But halal meat is more blurred, partly because however the creature is slaughtered we're still talking about the moment of death, when surely it is the farm animal's quality of life up to that point which is the bigger issue. We cannot call ourselves a multi-faith society and then only tolerate the aspects of other religions that match our Western liberal values. Halal slaughter sounds horrible and cruel, and when you think about it almost enough to make you have the vegetable biriyani. But many animals are in fact stunned before the blood is drained away to produce what Muslims maintain is the most hygienic meat available. If we are to be genuinely tolerant and inclusive, we have to be extremely certain before we go dictating our mix-and-match morality to other cultures about what they eat or how they prepare their food. I believe we should let sleeping dogs lie. Even in Korean restaurants.

  Sunday Dads

  20 May 2003

  The problem of fathers who don't spend enough time with their families is an issue throughout the animal kingdom. The worker bee, for example, spends all his time out with his mates supping pollen, while the poor queen bee is stuck inside producing around 100,000 eggs a week. No doubt when she was younger she had all these plans about travelling and starting a career, but then one day she had an egg, and then three seconds later she had another one, and suddenly she found herself trapped in the hive, feeling fat and fed up and stuffing her face with royal jelly all day.

  After billions of years of evolution, however, Homo sapiens has finally reached the stage where the male is occasionally prepared to get more involved in the care of the little ones. Some of the more advanced men relish this opportunity, but for most it is something they do reluctantly and as infrequently as possible. This sub-species is known as the Sunday Dad. He spends time with his kids once a week and, according to my wife, even then he has an ulterior motive. 'Typical male!' she says. 'He's only looking after them to get out of clearing up after lunch.'

  You see these Sunday Dads looking lost in public parks, pushing the baby's buggy with only one hand to give the impression that it's not actually theirs, that they're simply looking after it for someone. Just as less socially aware dog owners pretend not to notice when the Great Dane on the end of their lead leaves a pile of dog mess that can be seen by passing aircraft, the Sunday Dad will try to make out that those noisy children clutching his leg and shouting 'Daddy!' are nothing to do with him. Sometimes his determination to ignore his kids reaches heroic proportions. He may be sitting in a ball pit, with his offspring screaming and throwing brightly coloured plastic balls at his head, but he will still give the impression that this is a perfectly normal place for an adult to go and read the Sunday papers. Wherever he is with his children, his mind is somewhere else.

  Of course what he's really afraid of is embarrassment. His affected detachment is his way of appearing cool. For if he was to throw himself fully into playing with his kids, the rest of the world might see that he's not actually very good at it. When it came to learning how to deal with the children his wife somehow seemed to have a head start on him. This made it easier to take a back seat, and so the gap in their childcare skills grew even wider. At a dinner table he always sat wherever it would be impossible for him to get out when the children needed seeing to. During the night he pretended to be asleep when his wife went to the crying baby for the fourth time. And now he might try to justify all this to himself by imagining that he works very hard; but deep down he knows that it's easier to be rushing about looking important than sitting in a freezing cold playground being bored out of your head pushing a swing for the four thousandth time.

  It is often the case that the more successful a man is at work, the less use he is in the home. He gets so wrapped up in his job, he forgets to give a second thought to what his wife and children are up to. When Neil Armstrong touched down on the moon, he said to Mission Control, 'The Eagle has landed! Oh and Houston, will you call my wife and tell her I won't be home for dinner tonight.' The career highflier who works long hours is also used to getting his own way and having everyone do as he says. But this cuts no ice with his two-year-old and so the Sunday Dad gets a bit of a shock when his toddler lies down on the floor, kicking and screaming and shouting 'No!' to every suggestion or demand. Maybe his secretary should try that sometimes.

  As they get older the kids soon learn that Dad doesn't really have the faintest idea what they're not allowed, and so he'll find himself coming back from the shops and then getting all defensive with his wife: 'Well, how was I to know that the kids aren't allowed flamethrowers?' The only other shopping that the Sunday Dad has to do with the kids is choos
ing a present for Mummy's birthday. Every year he will suddenly realize that he has left it too late and that the only place still open is the petrol station. That's when he can be spotted dragging the kids around the Texaco mini-mart trying to decide if Mummy would prefer a packet of barbecue briquettes, some Castrol GTX or a polythene-wrapped copy of Penthouse.

  Sunday Dads are physically absent six days of the week and mentally absent for all seven. But rather than try to change their worker bee husbands, perhaps their wives ought to look at the example of another insect - the praying mantis. The female of this species has learned to tackle the problem of the absent male head on. She chooses the father of her children, mates with him just the once and then eats him. Apparently this approach goes quite a long way in tempering the resentment than can build up in a marriage. My wife, however, still feels it does not go far enough. 'Typical male,' she said. 'He's not there when it's time to clear up after dinner either.'

  I don't want spam!

  22 May 2003

  Millions of men in Britain are getting private e-mail messages suggesting they might want to have their penises enlarged. 'How did they know?' they are thinking. 'Who told them? Was it Janice in accounts after last year's Christmas party? That's not fair, I was drunk and it was cold on that fire escape . . .' Of course part of them suspects this is just another bit of 'spam', the unsolicited junk e-mail that is swamping the net, but they're not going to shout about it just in case. Perpetrators of these scams must depend on this sort of embarrassment. If the operation went horribly wrong, you're not going to go on BBC's Watchdog and say, 'Okay, it used to be small but at least it worked. But now, Kate, just bok at what a botch job they made of it. . .' And so unscrupulous businesses have continued to bombard our electronic in-boxes with offers of Viagra, free passwords to internet porn sites and the offer of tickets for the new Cliff Richard musical.

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