A few years ago, my friend Jorn and I made a pact. I don’t remember how we arrived at it, but the deal was this: when either of us begins telling a story we’ve told before, instead of saying ‘I’ve heard that one’, we just raise a finger, a modest gesture, a single digit in the air, as if to say ‘my turn’. It works well. It feels friendly, even if, to my surprise, Jorn’s finger is in the air rather more often than mine.
Although our sign language causes a lull in the conversation, I find it’s habit-forming. And recently, I’ve added another speechless signal. I raise my whole hand, as if I’m about to swear an oath. This gesture means that, despite my deep and genuine (call it liberal) love of humanity, I’m about to say something which is not so loving or humane. My raised hand is shorthand for ‘I’m having a right-wing moment’. It means ‘God forgive me for what I’m about to say but…’.
Sometimes, these feelings come out of the sea of sadness. After days of watching the suffering in Haiti, I raised my hand. ‘The tragedy is that UN workers died when their building collapsed, but the prisoners survived. If only the prisoners who have traumatised the country for so long had perished in the earthquake.’ I wanted to go further: the UN peace-keeper troops should have a shoot-to-kill policy towards the gangs looting the camps.
I know, I know. I worry that I’m beginning to sound like Melanie Phillips, who famously describes herself as ‘a liberal mugged by reality’. Last night, I whooped a high-five when the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge changed Munir Hussain’s jail sentence to a suspended term. For weeks, I’ve dwelt on images of Mr Hussain, his wife and children returning from their local mosque and finding intruders in balaclavas, carrying knives and wire. I knew every detail: how they tied up the family and threatened their lives. And the miracle: the teenage son escaped, ran to his uncle’s house nearby for help, help that disrupted the burglary.
I felt the anger that led the two brothers to chase the thieves. I shared the rage that led to the whacks with the cricket bat. I fumed over the outrage that the ‘victim’ was permanently brain-damaged, but had the wit to carry out subsequent crimes, but was free while the Hussain brothers were jailed. Lord Judge is now my hero.
This yearning for ‘Common Sense Rules’ goes deeper. I want large sweeps-along the lines of the UN peacekeeping forces to clear estates of illegal dog breeds, knives and guns. I’m not interested in ‘amnesties’; I’m not interested in poster campaigns. I’m not even interested in ‘human rights’, because I don’t believe it’s a human right to have a vicious dog, an automatic pistol on top of the fridge.
While I’m on my dictatorial binge, I also want to shut things down. This week, I’d start with Buckfast Abbey, the Benedictine monastery in Devon where monks brew a fortified wine called Buckfast. Sounds medieval and nice, monks making wine, but what they’re making is 15% proof, has more caffeine than three espressos, and, at £5.49 a bottle, is fuel for a cheap and violent drunk. Sales have reached £37 million a year (what are those monks spending it on?), but the damage to and by those who drink it exceeds any estimate.
Yesterday, a reader who believes in my better nature sent me an email in which he quoted the writer Willie Morris, who said that writing should reflect ‘hope for belonging, for belief in people’s better nature, for steadfastness against all that is hollow or crass or rootless or destructive’.
Each time I raise my hand, I know it’s a signal for ‘this may sound crass’ and I may be repeating myself, but the older I get, the stronger my urge to be steadfast against the destructive.
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