Saturday, 26 October 2013

RIP Tom Clancy

How sad to hear of the shockingly early death of one of my all time favourite authors. How ironic too that the news of his passing broke when I was just over half way through Locked On (Jack Ryan Jr 3), a novel that arguably stands alongside some of Clancy’s all time military and political classics from his pre-collaboration era – think Clear & Present Danger, The Sum Of All Fears – with Threat Vector (Jack Ryan Jr 4) waiting in the Kindle for back to back reading. Both of them stand out as a welcome return to old times, following some years of drift after Executive Orders. Here’s hoping that Command Authority, with the promised return of Jack Ryan Sr to centre stage, will be a worthy posthumous memory.

So what led me to follow Clancy in the first place, thinking back to The Hunt For Red October over 20 years ago? Not just the action and suspense. There was always a sharp sense of moral right and shrewd insight lurking beneath the surface. Along with telling portrayals of many a real villain, whether a terrorist, drug baron or ayatollah. Or indeed a home grown politician or bureaucrat. The awful Ed Kealty, with all too recognisable traits here in the UK as well as the US, is one shining example.
So let’s turn to a passage from Executive Orders, when President Ryan is faced with the need to rebuild the US government from scratch (no spoilers): -
“Therefore to you and the fifty governors, I have a request. Please do not send me politicians. We do not have the time to do the things that must be done through that process. I need people who do real things in the real world. I need people who will not try to work the system. I need people who will come here at great personal sacrifice to do an important job, and then return home to their normal lives. I want people who know they’re working for you and not themselves. That’s what I want. That’s what I need. I think that’s what a lot of you want too…..These are the people who decide how much of your money the government takes, and then how it’s spent. It’s your money, not mine. It’s your country. We all work for you.” And a later gem: “The idea the Founding Fathers had was for citizen legislators, not for a permanent ruling class.”
In the context of what has now been inflicted upon the UK by politicians for the last 16 years or so, and their apparent desire merely to manage decline until they have seen their time out, further comment is probably superfluous.

Friday, 18 October 2013

West Sussex CC v Pierce: robust common sense from the Court of Appeal

Not far behind the long awaited reserved judgment in Coppage & Anor v SafetyNet Security [2013] EWCA Civ 1176, one little victory of my own in my first trip there in 20 years, we see another outbreak of robust common sense in West Sussex CC v Pierce [2013] EWCA Civ 1230.

The decision at trial involved an award of just over £3,000 to a 12 year old boy, after he had hurt his thumb by punching a stainless steel drinking fountain in a school playground while trying to punch his brother who was hiding beneath. The incident evidently happened on 9 June 2010 and the litigation against the school, alleging breach of duty of care, only began in 2012. Infer what you will...

We must, of course, focus above all on the legal analysis of Sharp LJ and her view that the law "would part company with common sense" if schools had to take steps to safeguard children against harm under all circumstances involving edges, corners or surfaces. As she concluded: "It is of course unfortunate that this little boy hurt his thumb in what might be described as a freak accident, but such things happen..."

But one particularly heartwarming passage elsewhere was her explanation of why the trial judge's reasoning was flawed. His legal error was to find that once there was a possibility that an accident might occur because the underside of the fountain was sharp, the school would be liable unless they had conducted "a properly considered risk assessment".

How joyful to see this reasoning slapped down. "Risk assessment" - one more bane of our lives. Over and above the sheer irritation of the term itself, ranking closely alongside Christmas shopping, carbon footprint and Labour government as one of the most irritating and soul destroying two word phrases in the English language, it reminds us at once of the nanny state, cowardly insurers, greedy chancers, compensation lawyers chanting their mantra "where there's blame, there's a claim", and the need to be seen to be doing something regardless of the futile waste of time and resources involved. 

There is many a tale of how the insistence upon risk assessment has blighted school trips. Far better to deprive the pupils of a museum visit than spend time filling in a needless, pointless form with every instance of what could go wrong and how to avoid it. Well, in the light of the Pierce judgment there might be scope to hit back with ridicule. 

The museum might of course be struck by an asteroid while the group is busily examining an ancient relic. Or there might be a paedophile lurking behind a display cabinet. So of course the teacher should fill in the appropriate box with a risk avoidance suggestion to the effect that the pupils are issued with mandatory Hi-Viz fluorescent jackets, red flags and whistles, and instructed to jump up and down, wave their flags vigorously and shout "Paedo!", in the event that someone who looks like a dirty old man is spotted at a distance... Endless scope. Hopefully reason will overwhelmingly prevail one day.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The USA government shutdown: a foreign tourist's view

In the second week of our recent USA trip, the Government shut down. Difficult to notice the difference, really, save on one occasion when turning up at a minor National Monument (Ocmulgee) near Macon, Georgia and finding it barred by a solid locked gate. Lucky not to have been pursuing a Parks based trip. Still, with many of the main parks having lodges right in the centre, there would not have been a problem gaining access to them for prebooked accommodation…

Or so I thought. If the contents of these two links about Yellowstone are to be believed, from the Eagle Tribune and the Daily Caller, the Park Service not only barred out anyone with prearranged reservations, but also sought to stop anyone already in the Park from “recreating” – not only preventing a group of seniors from taking pictures of a bison herd, but also putting barricades round Old Faithful and locking the group in the hotel until they could be escorted out. With all due allowance for exaggeration and the existence of two sides to the story, there is a certain ring of truth in the thought that petty officialdom chose box ticking compliance and control freakery rather than humanity and common sense.

Which reminds me of the experience in entering the country at Washington Dulles airport. With touchdown scheduled for 14.30, a connecting flight at 16.55 ought to have posed no problems after the international flight landed on time. Think again. After the transfer from gate to arrivals hall, a winding queue ten rows deep that penned non-US arrivals in like cattle. Movement through the queue at a snail’s pace, with only the decency of fellow passengers to thank for allowing us through to the immigration desks. In marked contrast with three airport officials whose attitude to the threat of missing the connecting flight was bovine indifference at best and sadistic obstruction at worst. Thankfully we made it, but only just.

It pains me to say this as a regular holiday visitor to the USA, but what happened on that day would have shamed a third world dictatorship. President Obama, this is no way to treat people who have chosen to visit your country and to boost your economy by spending their time and money there.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Snollygoster: a word due for revival?

Not long back from the USA, and time to reflect on a few issues.

The Government shutdown, the sad death of author Tom Clancy and the essential elements of country music can wait for now. Let’s start with a long forgotten American English noun, flagged up in a newspaper quiz with three alternative meanings: “snollygoster”.

OK, suspend your disbelief. Evidently derived from “schnell” (quick) and “geeschter” (spirit), and originally a description of a mythical beast said to prey on poultry and children – no, let’s not go down that route - “snollygoster” was used as recently as 1952 by President Harry Truman in describing politicians making a show of public prayer: “I wish some of these snollygosters would read the New Testament and perform accordingly.”

Which no doubt explains its more modern definitions: “one, especially a politician, who is guided by personal advantage rather than by consistent, respectable principles”; and “someone who will go to any lengths to achieve public office, regardless of party affiliation or platform”.

What scope would there be to promote use of the word here in the UK? Cue General Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth, with a slight amendment. “And Darling, take a note of the word snollygoster. I like it. I want to use it more often in conversation.” Fat chance, sadly. Just look at the definitions again. We don’t have anyone of that kind in British politics, do we?

(Martin Darby, an aspiring Parliamentary candidate in my political/legal suspense Sackcloth Ashes and Penance, might just fit the definition, but that’s another story…)