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I blame the scapegoats, p.3

I blame the scapegoats, page 3


I blame the scapegoats

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  And yet it seems likely that at some point next year the first ever human clone will be born. All the visitors will gather around the hospital bed and say, Aaaah - he looks just like his dad.'

  'Yes, that's because he is his dad.'

  And the poor woman who has just given birth to a baby version of her husband will say, 'What about the eyes? They're a bit like mine, aren't they?'

  'Er - not really - I'd say he had his dad's eyes, ears, nose - well, everything really.'

  It was earlier this year that an Italian couple announced they planned to have a baby that was a clone of the 'father', and this week the maverick doctor Severino Antinori confirmed the first human clone was only months away. It has always been part of the human experience to gradually realize that you are turning into your parents, but this poor child will never stand a chance. Every time he slurps his drink his mother will say, 'Well, you get that from your father. And mixing your peas up with your mash, you get that from him as well. And picking your nose and hunching your shoulders and, of course, you'll never buy your wife flowers or take her on a luxury cruise like she always wanted.'

  And Dad'll say, 'Leave him alone, he's a good lad. He just never got the breaks in life.'

  'Well, he's only five.'

  Then when the child becomes a teenager the problems will really start. The boy will look at his dad, and filled with anger and disgust will shout, 'I'm never going to be like you,' and the parents will glance at each other and say, 'Do you want to tell him or shall I?' Then he'll learn that one day he too will wear cardigans and want to look inside churches on holiday. And the poor boy will explode and shout, 'I hate you!'

  'No, darling, you can't hate me because I love you, and since I am you, you must love you too, so in fact you love me, don't I?' That should keep him quiet for a while.

  The imminence of a human clone this week prompted the French health minister to say that we cannot permit 'the photocopying of human beings'. It is indeed a terrifying thought. Just imagine it -you'd be queuing up at the cloning machine all ready to make a hundred copies and the girl behind you would say, 'Do you mind if I just pop in front of you, I'm only doing one clone.'

  So you let her in, and isn't it always the way - the machine jams.

  'Oh dear, what's happened? The fault code is flashing "J8" - does anybody know what "J8" means?'

  'Is that "Stem cells jammed in copier"?'

  'Er - "Copier out of DNA"?'

  'It can't be - I put in a new amino proteins cartridge this morning.'

  'Oh no - I've got a hundred clones to do before lunch. Now I'm going to have to pop down to Pronto-clone to do them.'

  The advances in stem cell technology have until now been rightly justified on the grounds that they are helping prevent diseases. Similarly, everything should be done to help childless couples have babies. But to create a human being who was already someone else is an abuse of the human rights of that newborn individual. It is one thing to clone a sheep, because the life choices facing sheep are pretty limited. Most lambs come out of their careers interview at school and say to their anxious parents, 'Brilliant news! He thinks he might be able to get me into the wool business!' And mum and dad jump up and down with delight that all the hopes they had for their clever offspring will be realized: she's going to stand around in a wet field for a few years and then be served up as Mutton Pasanda with pilau rice.

  But how is any person supposed to live a normal life with the knowledge that they are a duplicate of someone, possibly a 'parent'? How are they supposed to become an individual in their own right? It must be hard enough joining the family business without having 'Johnson and Clone' on the side of the van. World leaders should act now to prevent human cloning. I cannot understand why they are dragging their feet. Do they imagine they could use this power and clone themselves so that they can govern for ever and ever? George Bush is doing little to prevent it, as did his father George Bush. Oh no, I've just had a terrifying realization . . .

  The scientists are making it all up

  18 August 2001

  As news stories go, this item has taken slightly longer to reach the front pages than most, but the scientific journal Nature has just published an exclusive that four million years ago the Earth was involved in an enormous interplanetary collision. The story was immediately picked up by all the papers, who each put their own particular spin on it. The Daily Mail: 'Earth in cosmic collision; Blair failed to heed warnings.' The Sun: 'Planets collide to create Earth, Moon and Helen from Big Brother.' The Maidenhead Advertiser: 'Interplanetary crash created solar system. No one from Maidenhead involved.'

  The revelation that a proto-planet the size of Mars crashed into the Earth, tilting the Earth's polar axis and accelerating our orbit, has caused great excitement in the scientific world and given insurance companies another excuse to put up their premiums. It turns out that before the collision, Earth had a day that was only five hours long. So you'd stay up for two days and two nights and then sleep straight through for a couple of days - it was like being on holiday in Ibiza. The collision sent billions of tonnes of molten rock into the atmosphere, which typically the weather forecasters of the time failed to spot: 'A lady rang in to say that molten gravel and flaming rocks will be raining down for the next million years - don't worry, they won't be; though do look out for a little light drizzle over East Anglia over the weekend,' said Ian McCaskill's predecessor, as lumps of molten lava landed all around him. Some of the debris from the collision flew up into space and eventually coalesced to form the satellite we know as the moon, later joined by other satellites sent into orbit by a powerful force known as Rupert Murdoch.

  It was previously believed that the moon was created by a white-haired man called God on a Tuesday, but as cosmology has become more advanced, this theory has failed to withstand rigorous scientific scrutiny. The collision theory is not an entirely new one, but now there are detailed computations which have apparently proved it. On page 709 of this week's Nature, the scientists explain how they made their calculations: 'We use a beta spine kernel,' they say. Oh yeah, right, a beta spine kernel. Pull the other one. There are then two full pages of mathematical calculations and equations involving lots of Greek letters and squiggly symbols which they knew the sub-editor would take one look at and say, 'Er, yup, that all looks fine!'

  Clearly what has happened is that the scientists are making this all up. They have spent the last two years sending each other silly e-mails and playing Minesweeper, and when their deadline suddenly came along they were forced to throw together a scientific theory and some calculations so they didn't get into trouble.

  'Okay, quick, quick; when shall we say this happened?'

  'I dunno - five hundred million years ago?'

  'No, no - bigger numbers are more impressive. Say four and a half billion.'

  'Okay, and say it was really, really hot - that always sounds good.' 'Yeah, and make sure we use the words "atoms", "gravity", "unstable" and, er, "beta spine kernel".' 'What's beta spine kernel?'

  'Three random words from the dictionary. Don't worry - no one will question it.'

  Making things up about space has been a huge industry ever since Richard Nixon decided that the moon landings were a complete waste of money and that the same images could be produced far more cheaply in a Hollywood back lot. The account of what really happened back in 1969 is only just coming out, but it was not much different to any other film set.

  'Okay, Neil darling, you step off your ladder and you say your line about the giant leap for mankind . . . and action!'

  'But what's my motivation for going down the ladder? What's the back-story here?'

  'Cut! Oh no, not this again. Neil, love, you're playing an astronaut. You're landing on the moon. It's a big day for your character.'

  'Maybe I should drive around the moon in a big car?'

  'No, darling - that's in the sequel, Apollo 12:

  'Or lose radio contact and nearly die.'

pollo 13’

  And the guys from NASA were sulking in the wings saying, 'It can't be that difficult to do this for real. After all, we've put a man on the moon.'

  'No we haven't.'

  'Well, no, but it's not rocket science.' 'Yes it is.'

  Before science accounted for the creation of the Earth and the moon, it was explained in the first chapter of the Bible. It didn't sound very believable but their get-out clause was that you had to have faith. Now religion has been replaced with science and we just have to take someone else's word for it instead. The comforting thing is that at least we no longer live in fear of flaming thunderbolts coming out of the sky if we question the word of the Almighty. Well, not until they've got the Star Wars project up and running anyway.

  What's so bloody great about the private sector?

  31 August 2001

  In twenty-first-century Britain there is a new super-hero that will apparently come dashing to the rescue in any crisis. 'Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's private sector finance! Hurrah, we're all saved!' 'Look over there, a hospital is collapsing; send for private sector finance man! And a tube train is hurtling off the rails; only he can bring it under control. Thank you, private sector finance man! And the best thing is that all you want in return is to know that people are safe and well.' Apart from a generous dividend on your investment, obviously, and a cut-price stake in a new market, and a guarantee to be bailed out by the Treasury should profits dip slightly . . . but apart from that you only think of serving others.

  Since the dark days when British Leyland gave nationalized industries a bad name by losing money, having strikes and producing the Austin Allegro, it has been the generally shared presumption that the private sector does most things better than the public. But this is a simplistic fallacy that has no right to be accepted as fact. Do we blame the entire concept of private enterprise when the garage mechanic shakes his head and says it's hardly worth his while? Imagine if the banks were a nationalized industry; we'd blame state ownership every time we were overcharged, patronized by our manager or made to wait on the phone listening to a tinny version of the Four Seasons. When the holiday company dumps families at Majorca airport knowing their flights are delayed for fourteen hours, are there calls for this private company to be taken into the public sector? When privatized water companies pump raw sewage into the sea, do we hear news reports of the unacceptable faeces of capitalism?

  And yet despite all our experience, we are blithely assuming that the private sector will definitely improve the delivery of our public services. How will this work in the Health Service, for example? To start with you'd find that Al mini-cabs were now handling the ambulance calls.

  'Hello - I've think I've had a heart attack!! I've called three times in twenty minutes and they just keep saying the ambulance is on its way'

  'Oh yeah - well he pulled up outside and tooted his horn but you never came out.'

  'But please, I'm desperate - get me to St Thomas's Hospital.'

  'Nah - we're not going south of the river this time of night. . .'

  If this patient survives and gets a heart transplant, his problems don't end there. Because the job of delivering organs for transplant has been contracted out to the pizza delivery drivers. 'If we don't deliver your new body part in thirty minutes, you get a free bottle of Coca-Cola.' The trouble is that the little organ delivery moped spends two hours buzzing up and down the road trying to find the hospital and when it finally does arrive the surgeon discovers they've brought the wrong order by mistake.

  'Urn . . . Mr Jenkins, I know you wanted a heart transplant and everything, but they've brought us a pancreas - would you mind having a pancreas in there instead?'

  'Yes I would!'

  'Okay, what about a bit of garlic bread?'

  I call him a surgeon; in fact, he was until recently working in the private sector as well, in the building trade to be precise - another famous bastion of excellent service and efficiency.

  'Oooh, well, I can do you a new heart if that's what you really want, but you see, for a job like that, well, oooh, you'd need an anaesthetist an' all and my one's on another job this week . . .'

  'But if you don't put a heart in soon I'll die.'

  'Tell you what, I can tie up the ventricles in the short term, stick in a central heating pump I've got in the van, that should keep you alive until October. It's just that I'm going out to Spain tomorrow to do up my new villa and this afternoon I'm finishing off a kidney transplant that I've been promising to stitch up since Christmas . . .'

  What you don't get in the private sector is goodwill, but no one ever includes this in the equation when they're working out how much money they think can be saved by bringing in British American Tobacco to run the local infant school. In fact, the amount of cash being saved is relatively tiny - and it's simply not worth the demoralization that it is causing to workers in the public sector. There really ought to be a public inquiry about the whole issue; the trouble is, you couldn't have a public inquiry any more - it would have to be a public-private inquiry, and the first two years would be spent finding a suitable sponsor from the business community. Finally they would announce that, with private investment from Foto-Kwik, 'the happy snaps people', the public-private inquiry has at last been delivered.

  'What does it say? What does it say?'

  'Oh no, this isn't our inquiry - they've sent us someone else's by mistake.'

  Welcome to England: smacking area - 200 yards

  8 September 2001

  Under proposals unveiled this week, Scotland is set to make the smacking of young children illegal for the first time in the UK. Dinner time in East Lothian will never be the same.

  'I'm not eating my vegetables - they've got black bits on.'


  They'll have to build a special lay-by on the outskirts of Berwick-upon-Tweed with a sign saying 'Welcome to England: smacking area - 200 yards'. Little stalls will spring up selling Brussels sprouts and broccoli and stationery for writing thank-you letters for Auntie's birthday present.

  The plan is to ban the smacking of children under three, so now instead of saying, 'Wait till your father gets home,' toddlers will be told, 'Just you wait until your third birthday.' But the proposals have received a surprisingly positive response in the tough estates of Glasgow. In response to the question, 'Do you think parents should be allowed to give their kids a little smack?' most people answered, 'No, maybe just a bit of crack cocaine every now and then.'

  Of course smacking has only been the symptom of a historical problem - this ruling will do nothing to prevent the recurrent breakdown of negotiations between adults and their offspring. If the

  Scottish government is ruling out the use of force, then clearly more efforts will have to be made on the diplomatic front. The first step should be sporting sanctions. Parents will continue to play football with their children but they will no longer be prepared to let their kids always win. 'And the final score here from Jamie's back garden: Dad twenty-seven, little Jamie nil! And the six-year-old must surely be wishing now that he hadn't been rude to grandma back when he was four.' Games of hide and seek will be much quicker as parents find their children in under three seconds. 'It's no good crying, Ellie; you've hidden behind that curtain four times in a row - of course I was going to look there first.' Because if punishment is not to be physical then it will have to be psychological. 'Night night, Rosie. And darling, you know you were scared that there was a great big bear that lived behind the cupboard on the landing? Well, you're right, there is: a huge fierce one with big sharp teeth and long claws! Anyway, sweet dreams, darling.' Other sanctions will include seizure of all comfort blankets and being honest about how crap their drawings are.

  Eventually the civilized example of Scotland will spread to the rest of the country, if only because government ministers find it impossible to negotiate with children's representatives. 'At Downing Street toda
y, talks have broken down between the pre-school children and the government. A draft proposal was put before the toddlers, but they reacted by scribbling on it and then putting it in and out of the water jug. When ministers objected, the two-year-olds lay on the floor kicking and screaming and then fell asleep on the rug.'

  Before Westminster is prepared to follow the Scottish example, more concessions must be made by young children. If no violence is to be used against toddlers, then they must undertake not to climb into bed at two in the morning and kick their dads in the bollocks. And it is no good them merely promising not to strike their little sisters with the plastic sword; their arms must be put permanently beyond use. Super-soakers, spud guns, sharp bits of Lego left beside the bed - all these weapons must be decommissioned before the peace process can really proceed. But eventually it will be illegal to give a child a light slap on the back of the hand (unless they are Iraqi kids of course; you'll still be allowed to drop bombs on them).

  In the meantime, if you are tempted to strike a child in anger, they say you should make yourself count to ten first. This either prevents you from using violence or results in your child growing up into a neurotic adult with an irrational fear of double figures. All parents will know that there are times when it feels as if smacking your child is the only possible response - like when your seven-year-old son announces that he supports Manchester United. But even if a quick slap seems to work in the short term, there has to be a better way of punishing them. Wait till they're teenagers and meet them at school in purple checked golfing trousers. Visit them at university wearing a fur coat and a tiara. Wait till they have kids of their own and give your grandchildren a slush-puppy and a king-size Mars bar before they go on the big dipper. And keep endlessly telling your kids, 'We never smacked you as a child, and that's why you're not a violent person.' And then our grown-up children will say, 'I know I shouldn't really hit my parents, but sometimes it's the only thing that works.'

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