Should I become an arrestable?

“The Christians are over there washing feet,” I’m told by the woman distributing leaflets at the Extinction Rebellion camp at Marble Arch. She’s illustrating the diversity of groups protesting to make the government to give climate catastrophe the attention it deserves, attention like that needed when country goes to war.

I’m pushing my bike. I’m cycling home from a tasty, interesting lunch at the Ivy in St John’s Wood discussing among other things laryngeal transplantation. I regularly cycle round this roundabout to reach the relative peace of the cycle track in Hyde Park. Usually the roundabout is busy, noisy, polluted, and dangerous. Today the traffic is stopped. It’s peaceful with music playing, and a group about to start drumming. There are exhibitions, art, tents, conversations, and children playing.

Is it, I wonder, an example of the life we could all have after stopping this crazy consumerism represented by the nearby Oxford Street?


“I full support what you are doing.” I say to the woman with the leaflets.

“Thank you.”

“Have you been arrested?”

“No, I’m not an arrestable.” There, I think, is a new word; perhaps it will be the word of the year. Are you a Remainer or a Leaver, an arrestable or a non-arrestable? Arrestable Remainers are the top of my hierarchy.


“Perhaps I should become an arrestable.”

“Please do. You sign up there. You get an induction and training.”

“Maybe I will. I suppose that I might be arrested but not charged.”

“Most arrestables want to be charged. They want their day in court to make the case for government action. Many of them are grandparents fearful for their grandchildren.”

“I’m a grandfather.” I have a vision of Alexander and Betty saying to me from a heated, increasingly uninhabitable planet “What did you do, Grandad, to stop climate change?”


I can tell them that I joined the Ecology Party in about 1980 and collected wastepaper on the streets of Wandsworth; as editor of the BMJ I commissioned a series on the environment; I launched a journal, Medicine and Global Survival, in 1993 that dealt with the interconnected problems of poverty, inequality, overpopulation, overconsumption, and militarism; in 1994 I wrote an editorial on doctors and climatic change where I wrote “Action is needed because of the high probability of serious harm to health”  (note the word “probability,” although it was more than a probability even then); and in 1997 I wrote a stirring piece  entitled “Climate change: decision time in Kyoto” with the subtitle “Doctors must lead from the front in the fight against global warning”

“Mankind faces a crucial test in Kyoto next month, and we look set to fail. The test will come at the third meeting of governments trying to commit to reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases to counter global warming. Virtually all scientists agree that global warming is happening, and most think that the consequences will be dire. Some small island states will disappear, food shortages in Africa will be worsened, and vector borne diseases will spread. To counter the problem those in the rich world must reduce their energy consumption, and doctors can lead from the front—just as we did when we came to understand the evidence of the harmful effects of smoking.

But this time it’s harder. The rich, particularly the Americans, have hugely higher energy consumption than the poor, and the energy consumption of some of the poor will have to increase for them to move out of absolute poverty. If the rich cannot reduce their energy consumption appreciably then nothing will happen to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. It is hard for political leaders to agree to make the reductions because many vested interests oppose reductions, because we find it hard to make short term sacrifices for long term benefit, and because many people do not grasp the scale of the problem (some in Britain are attracted by “southern England becoming like Provence”). But doctors can understand. And we can change the world by speaking up and acting—together and individually—internationally, nationally, and locally and by changing our own lifestyles. Because that is what it means. We must use our cars less or not at all, insulate our houses, forego air conditioning, and make a hundred minor changes in our lives. None of this will be easy because we are addicted to energy, individually and as communities and nations. But if we can’t find a way to change then our descendants will pay an awful price.”

“But,” say Alexander and Betty, “we are paying an awful price. What you tell us is just words. What did you do? What actions did you take?”

I’ve consciously eaten less meat and been assiduous in recycling, and now I’ve stopped flying (after a life time of flying too much)—and I haven’t driven since before Christmas. But then I never drove much anyway: I always cycle or go by train unless it’s impossible.

“But that’s trivial stuff, Grandad.”

So the next step might be to become an arrestable. I notice that the media record arrests to measure the scale of the protests as they use deaths to scale disaster. I don’t really have anything to lose by being arrested. I don’t have an employer to fire me. I could afford to pay a fine. I’m unlikely to do anything that would get me sent to prison. And far from being ashamed I would be proud.

But still something stops me, but my next step is to join an Extinction Rebellion cycle from Waterloo Bridge at 6pm tonight.



How many close-up photographs of dying babies and tortured soldiers make an art exhibition?

I went to the exhibition of Don McCullin’s photographs of 60 years of war, famine, and tragedy and thought the pictures powerful. I was disturbed, as McCullin intended, by some of his photographs—for example, of starving children—but it didn’t feel wrong to me to have such pictures in an art gallery. My friend, Jamie Stevenson, thought differently, and with his permission, here is his opinion.


The outstanding quality of Don McCullin’s photographs in his current retrospective exhibition at Tate Britain fully lives up to the high expectations created by the admiring reviews. So why did I emerge in total disagreement with the conclusion of the Financial Times reviewer that “… this exhibition asks us to (care passionately about the lives of others and) as that is more than can be said of much contemporary art, Tate Britain should be thanked for hosting this remarkable display”? Indeed, I go further and accuse this exhibition of taking the modern obsession with misery art to new levels of self-indulgence which weaken our claims to be a thoughtful, genuinely caring society.

McCullin has been the greatest as well as the most prolific war photographer of the past fifty years. Not just war but covering a wider range of human observation from Africa, the Middle East and Asia to his own childhood stamping ground in east London.  His ability to maintain compositional perspective under extreme pressure and danger is beyond comprehension for us stay-at-home mere mortals.  Even allowing for the other 99% of less striking pictures which will have been filtered out in advance of this exhibition, the 600 or so on display in Tate’s dozen rooms are ample testament to the man’s supreme craft – and arguably genius if that term can be applied to photo-reportage.

I was thus in no way disappointed by the quality of composition, lens angles and grainy black-and-white developing on display here from McCullin’s long lifetime of devotion to the camera’s sharp eye. If the measure of art is its impact upon the audience, then this exhibition hit the highest spot for me. But not perhaps the spot intended. Sure, there is nothing original in questioning the ethics behind photo-reportage on extreme events. Indeed, the Tate curators will have expected – and even welcomed – some debate being triggered along these lines by the exhibition.

But my own reaction went well beyond civilised debate. It started as mild shock in the third room introducing us to McCullin’s first brush in the early 1960s with the human fallout from civil wars in Cyprus, Congo and Nigeria. Before that, the curators had led us in gradually to the main theme via two opening rooms of the 1950s Berlin and London photos which had secured the young McCullin’s breakthrough with The Observer. The compositional skill and eye for original detail were already evident then. It was hardly a bold move for The Observer to take him on. He was clearly a master craftsman.

Walking into that third room should not have given me such a shock. You know, as they say, what you are going to get with McCullin. My fault, I admit, for not thinking through in advance just what wall-to-wall  photographs of dead bodies, bloody wounds, bones masquerading as children and dry, wrinkled, sagging skin masquerading as a young mother’s breasts would look like.  After all, I have read enough newspaper features over the years on the world’s darker places to be familiar with that feeling of voyeuristic guilt.  But not in such a concentrated avalanche of “curated” exhibition photographs.  A dozen rooms of it, although the curators have wisely bookended the exhibition with those two opening rooms and a couple at the end tracing McCullin’s return to the peace of his Somerset countryside as well as capturing the architectural ravages of ISIS in Palmyra.

Brilliant as these more peaceful scenes may be, the striking and abiding impression comes from room after room of Cyprus, Biafra, Congo, Beirut, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Iraq and other world hot spots of violence, poverty and misery. These were the images which turned my shock into total repulsion as I walked through the rest of the exhibition. The role of the war photographer is –just like that of the foreign affairs reporter – a courageous, noble and necessary one. No-one in my privileged place of peaceful security has the right to raise a word against those who risk their own security and life to alert us to the inhumanities of war, famine and pestilence. And perhaps trigger us to attempt to do something about them. I have no beef at all with McCullin himself and his fellow professionals. There is, however, a fundamental difference between reading a foreign report in 1968 made vivid by photographs of the cruelties heaped upon Biafrans and walking fifty years later round an artistic exhibition displaying these and other photographs from a dozen civil wars and famines since then.

One particular triptych of photographs from the Congo epitomised for me the absence of a moral compass in this exhibition. All three showed a group of pro-Lumumba “rebels” being taunted at gun-point by pro-Tschombe solders shortly before their inevitable execution.  Where is the art in looking at a close-up of those faces of terror awaiting imminent death? How does this differ ethically from watching an IS beheading video? The lack of a moving image does not make the photograph any less hideous in what it depicts. At least seeing it in a report at the time might have stirred the reader into protesting about western connivance in the overthrow and murder of the Lumumba and the persecution of his supporters. Today it holds no such political significance and is just a study in human depravity and terror. And stacked up, room upon room, war upon war, famine upon famine, it becomes one-dimensional misery porn.

After a while, I started examining the Tate visitors pouring through the rooms rather than the photographs themselves. Who were they and what did they think they were getting from this exhibition? Not surprisingly for midweek, I saw myself reflected in many of those faces. Silver haired baby boomers with the time and the pension pound to embrace a wide late-life cultural diet. Gentle, peaceful faces for the large part, quietly and methodically moving their gaze from one photograph to the next. Not much reaction, at least to my naked eye, and no obvious signs of awe and wonder. Nor much discussion between couples and the occasional family. What do you say, after all, about the sky or the light flooding on to a tiled floor stained with the blood of a slain Turkish Cypriot father whose shattered head is being cradled in the lap of his distraught wife?

Was their tour from room to room asking them “to care passionately about the lives of others”? Looks deceive, of course, and may mask the inner turmoil but I saw little evidence of a compassion attack on those mostly blank, comfortable middle-aged faces shifting from horror to horror.



How climate catastrophe should bring the world together but may be having the opposite effect

After months of interminable wrangling in Britain over Brexit we have a pause, and out attention has been turned by the protests of Extinction Rebellion to something much more important–climate catastrophe.

I am reading my way through David Wallace-Wells’s forensic and lyrical book on climate catastrophe, The Uninhabitable Earth, and I was taken by this quote that makes the point that climate catastrophe might have been a big enough threat to bring the world together–like an invasion by Martians. But it may be having the opposite effect, rather as John Lanchester describes in his dystopian novel The Wall.

“If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it—the threat everywhere, and overwhelming, and total. And yet now, just as the need for that kind of cooperation is paramount, indeed necessary for anything like the world we know to survive, we are only unbuilding those alliances—recoiling into nationalistic corners and retreating from collective responsibility and from each other. That collapse of trust is a cascade, too.”

Uninhabitable Earth

Sentenced by the court to reading

Five teenagers in the US have been sentenced by a judge to reading as “punishment” for writing racial slurs on a wall. I heard this story on the radio while washing up and thought it a marvellous idea.

The BBC World at One radio show interviewed the judge who came up with the idea. (If you want, you’ll be able to find the 16 April broadcast on the web.) She reflected back on what had made her understand about other racial groups and decided that the most important source was reading. So she had the idea of sentencing the five teenagers to read twelve books, including Exodus, The Colour Purple, and To Kill a Mockingbird. They also had to write essays on each and write a 2500- word essay on racial hatred. They also had to visit the Holocaust Museum.

How, the reporter asked, did the community react? The judge, who came across as level-headed, practical, warm and straightforward, said that she received more positive than negative responses. Some people, particularly people of colour, thought that such a lenient sentence would not have been given to teenagers of colour, but, the judge said, three of the children were children of colour.

The judge also explained that the sentence she had given was “ten times harsher” than the usual sentence, which, as none of the teenagers had offended before, would have been a monthly visit from a probation officer and possibly 25 hours community service. I could well imagine that many teenagers would prefer that to having to read 12 books and write 13 essays.

The crucial question: did the sentence work in that the teenagers would not commit such offences again? The judge thought yes and as evidence read out one of the teenager’s essays that clearly showed considerable growth of insight into race relations.

As a manic reader, I love the idea of people, not just teenagers, being sentenced to reading. The idea opens up a whole line of thought on which books should be prescribed for which crimes: The Second Sex for sexual harassment? Crime and Punishment for murder would seem like a bad idea, possibly encouraging more murders. The Wolf of Wall Street for insider trading? The Godfather for racketeering? The Naked Lunch for drug dealing? The Sellout for slave-trading? I do fear that the complexity and nuance of great books could make them inadmissible.


Is to fail to be militant on climate catastrophe a crime?

Today Extinction Rebellion have been taking direct non-violent action calling for governments to commit to making their countries net carbon negative by 2025. They have blocked streets in London and other cities and glued themselves to buildings—in London the headquarters of Shell, the giant oil company. I admire what they are doing and feel that I should join them.

Ironically I spent some of the day writing another editorial for the BMJ calling on doctors to support and learn from the schoolchildren striking every Friday and calling for urgent action on climate change. But isn’t it pathetic to be a man of words, which I enjoy, rather than a man of action, which scares me?

The obvious comparison is with the Suffragettes, who went further than  Extinction Rebellion in advocating violent action, and the most remembered act of the Suffragettes was Emily Wilding Davison throwing herself under the horses racing in the Derby and dying.

Here is a letter, which I read a few day ago,  from Emily Pankhurst, a leader of the Suffragettes, calling on them to take direct action. She is strong in her words: “To be militant in some way or other is…a moral obligation. It is a duty which every woman will owe to her own conscience and self-respect.” To fail to be militant is itself a crime.

A woman of action and organisational power, Pankhurst asks each woman to tell her what she will do: “Will you therefore tell me (by letter, if it is not possible to do so by word of mouth), that you are ready to take your share in manifesting in a practical manner your indignation at the betrayal of our cause.”



10 January 1913

Private and Confidential Dear Friend,

The Prime Minister has announced that in the week beginning January 20th, the Women’s Amendments to the Manhood Suffrage Bill will be discussed and voted upon. This means that within a few short days the fate of these Amendments will be finally decided.

The W.S.P.U. has from the first declined to call any truce on the strength of the Prime Minister’s so-called pledge, and has refused to depend upon the Amendments in question, because the Government have not accepted the responsibility of getting them carried.

There are, however, some Suffragists – and there may be some even in the ranks of the W.S.P.U. – who hope against hope that in spite of the Government’s intrigues an unofficial Amendment may be carried. Feeling as they do, these Suffragists are tempted to hold their hand as far as militancy is concerned, until after the fate of the Amendments is known. But every member of the W.S.P.U. recognises that the defeat of the Amendments will make militancy more a moral duty and more a political necessity than it has ever been before.

We must prepare beforehand to deal with that situation! There are degrees of militancy. Some women are able to go further than others in militant action and each woman is the judge of her own duty so far as that is concerned.

To be militant in some way or other is, however, a moral obligation. It is a duty which every woman will owe to her own conscience and self-respect, to other women who are less fortunate than she herself is, and to all those who are to come after her. If any woman refrains from militant protest against the injury done by the Government and the House of Commons to women and to the race, she will share the responsibility for the crime. Submission under such circumstances will be itself a crime.

I know that the defeat of the Amendments will prove to thousands of women that to rely only on peaceful, patient methods, is to court failure, and that militancy is inevitable. We must, as I have said, prepare to meet the crisis before it arises.

Will you therefore tell me (by letter, if it is not possible to do so by word of mouth), that you are ready to take your share in manifesting in a practical manner your indignation at the betrayal of our cause.

Yours sincerely,

E. Pankhurst

Extinction rebellion


Can the love you can have for a dog surpass the love you can have for a human?

I’m shaving one morning, listening desultorily to Woman’s Hour, when I hear something that arrests me. I hear a woman arguing with great clarity that you can love a dog with a love that surpasses any love for a human. Can this possibly be true?

I know at once that it isn’t true for me. I loved our dog Henry, and I still do. I don’t hesitate to use the word love, but my love for him didn’t have the intensity and meaning that my love for several humans has had and still has.

Who is this woman who argues for the surpassing love for a dog?

I find the recording a few days later and discover that the woman is called Kate Spicer, who has written a book called Lost Dog: A Love Story. The book has featured in the Sunday Times top ten of bestsellers and scores 4.48 (out of a possible 5) on Goodreads, a score that is far higher than many great books. Clearly there are many people who agree with her about the surpassing love possible for a dog, or perhaps it’s just a brilliant book that can be appreciated by people who have little interest in dogs, or perhaps it’s both.

From what I heard on the radio and from reading the blurb on the book I know that the book is the story of when Spicer’s dog Wolfy went missing for several days and she searched for him constantly. She described how she went “mad with grief” and how illogically when he came back everything in the world was all right.

Her relationship with Wolfy, a rescue dog, was, she insisted, a love affair. Love affairs, she acknowledged, usually involve sex, but this was nothing sexual—it was something more. At least that’s the way I heard it.

Now I’ve copied out here exact words:

“[A love affair with a dog is] “A very complete love for a dog that you cannot have with any other human. They stand next to you, they’re living, they’re warm, their heart beats, they clearly have feelings. There’s a very deep, soulful connection with a dog that I don’t think you can compare to any relationship with any human.”

On reading this I conclude that she is not quite arguing that a love for a dog can surpass the love for a human; rather you can love a dog in a remarkably intense way that is different from loving a human and not available in love between humans.

In reflecting on this I have used the word “surpass,” which is not a word I often use—indeed, I doubt that I have used it in decades. And, of course, the word has come into my mind because of the words in the Bible.

“And to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God… and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

I’m nervous about love that surpasses knowledge as it potentially licenses all kinds of craziness, but I’m not surprised that love of God can surpass human love. Perhaps I should not have been surprised that for some love of a dog can surpass human love.

God is love.

Dog is love.

Dog ove

A Short History of Europe: War with brief intermissions

“To be ignorant of history is to be always a child,” said Cicero, and Simon Jenkins, author of A Short History of Europe, agrees with him. But he also quotes Bismarck, a strong candidate for the greatest European as saying “What we learn from history is that nobody learns from history.” These quotes are not, of course, incompatible, and it’s hard not to be fascinated by the contortions, duplicities, adventures, dreams, and surprises of history.

Jenkins believes that it is more important to know something of the full sweep of history rather than to know a lot about a particular period, which is why he took on the impossible challenge of writing a history of Europe is 85 000 words. The book rips along at a tremendous rate, as it has to, and I did have a feel—until perhaps the last few pages when Jenkins becomes almost sentimental—that he wrote the book as an easy way for a journalist to make money and live at a higher standard than journalists might expect.

Here is how Jenkins defines his task: “The art of history is not just of remembering but also of knowing what to forget. It is about giving past time a plot and a narrative. That is the task that a short history should undertake.” He justifies as well writing a history that is a political not an economic, philosophical, or social history: “I can only repeat that this book is about the wielding and distribution of power in the narrative of one continent. It must stand as the beginning of all other narratives.” Does it stand as the “beginning of all other narratives?” Marx would not agree.

The history of Europe can be told in four words: war with brief intermissions. “The continent’s DNA seems to allow people to live calmly with each other only as long as the memory of the last bout of bloodletting survives.”

We are now reaching a time when that memory is almost gone.

The history can also be told in slightly more words but one sentence. The base of European history is the genius of Ancient Greece followed by the Roman Empire keeping a kind of peace through war for 500 years, the dominance of the Catholic Church (which combines Jewish stories with Greek thinking and Roman organisation), the rediscovery of classical civilisations, rebellion against the Catholic Church, invasions of other continents and the establishment of empires, the moving of power from kings to the people, the rise of reason and the invention of science, the ascension of states, and industrialisation.

Jenkins identifies another central theme beyond war in Europe’s history: “Finding a balance between unity and diversity remains what it has always been, the defining challenge of European politics.”

And yet another one is inquiry and expansion:

“Herodotus, is said to have remarked, ‘Every year we send ships at great cost and danger as far as Africa, to ask “Who are you? What are your laws? What is your language?” ’ Why is it, he asked, ‘they never send ships to ask us’? It was a question that holds within it a defining quality of later European civilization.”

Here are other quotes I took from the book that tell the history of Europe with huge gaps.

The Greeks

“Socrates championed reason against superstition, inquiry against authority. Above all, he said, humans owed it to their nature to be curious, to inquire without inhibition.

“The root of Athens’ genius lay in tolerance. Its laws ‘afford equal justice to all in their private differences … If a man can serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life … We do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbour for doing what he likes.’ The phrases of Pericles/Thucydides have echoed down the ages, to be quoted by generations of politicians and scholars and to underpin the values that later Europeans liked to think they brought to the world.

Athens allowed history to glimpse the practice of democracy, but not the means of sustaining it. That is the true art of politics, and it has eluded much of Europe, even to the present day.”

The Romans

The supposed balance of power between the senate, consuls and tribunes eventually collapsed when one man could control each in turn through public acclaim. There is no force so potent as populism.

War, revolution, and tyranny

The French chronicler Froissart wrote that ‘the English will never love and honour their king unless he be victorious and a lover of arms and war against their neighbours’.

The committee, under Robespierre, now formally instigated ‘the Terror’, a specific policy, not a later description of anarchy. Robespierre said, ‘The foundations of popular government in a revolution are virtue and terror; terror without virtue is disastrous; virtue without terror is powerless. The Government of the Revolution is the despotism of liberty over tyranny.’ The phraseology became the thinking of dictators down the ages.

The zenith of Europe

As the twentieth century dawned, Europe held half the world’s population under its sway and controlled eighty-five per cent of world trade. London’s six and a half million people made it by far the biggest city on Earth. No other continent or group of peoples had ever claimed such mastery over the planet. This supremacy gave rise to a sense that Europeans were a superior race, with a right – and perhaps a duty – to conquer others, to rule them and convert them to Christianity. This power represented a Europe that had reached an evolutionary climax, and was tempted to define the word civilization in its own terms. It was the moment when it flew too close to the sun.

The First World War

Europe seemed psychologically and institutionally incapable of peace. War seemed the nobler option, as if nothing had changed since the Middle Ages.

Churchill wrote to his wife, ‘Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy. Is it not horrible to be built like that?’

Aftermath of two world wars

Europe in 1945 confronted a bald fact. A continent that fifty years earlier had confidently ruled a third of the world’s population had torn itself to pieces. It had killed forty million of its own people, mutilated its historic towns and submerged half its population in famine and destitution. The economies of the combatant countries reverted to where they were in 1900, wiping out half a century of progress. Nothing so damaging to Europe’s prosperity and culture had been seen since the religious wars of the seventeenth century. Hubris had led to nemesis.

Trying (again and again) to come together

In 1951 West Germany, France and the Low Countries formed a European coal and steel cartel or ‘community’ (ECSC), initiated by the French foreign minister Robert Schuman, in part as a way to ‘make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible’.

Never forget Russia, which is at the same time Europe and not-Europe

Misjudging Moscow had long been the occupational disease of European diplomacy. It cursed alike Swedes, Poles, Napoleon and Hitler. It now blighted a western alliance divided on how to respond to this newly aggressive Russia.

A sentimental epilogue

Most obvious to historians is the part tribal and later communal differences have played in the violent conflicts that have been Europe’s default setting.

Both classicism and Christianity can claim parenthood over the values so often ascribed to European civilization. They are values of tolerance, equality before the law, freedom of speech, human and civil rights and consent to rule. The application of these values was often partial and hypocritical, as in autocracy, slavery and the craving for empire. But both the US constitution and the Charter of the United Nations were based on ideals adumbrated by Plato and Aristotle, reflected in Magna Carta and disseminated by the Enlightenment.

The continent is home to ten per cent of the world’s population, yet it consumes half the world’s spending on welfare.

Europe’s universities are celebrated, its museums crowded, its artistic legacy honoured. When I enter a concert hall in Los Angeles, Tokyo, Shanghai or Dubai, it is the music of Mozart and Beethoven that floats in the air. The English language is that of global communication. Europe’s battered cities remain the most magnetic to tourists. Their cultural legacy is such that what Burke said at the turn of the nineteenth century is even truer of the twenty-first, that ‘no European can be a complete exile in any part of Europe’.

Europe war