Monday, October 09, 2006

A roundup of 'taking offence' in Britain

It has been a bumpy ride for sensitive souls this past week. There has been so much going on that might possibly have offended them that I hardly know where to begin.

We have had a Somerset vicar offending Japanese visitors to the village of Bishops Lydeard by making feeble jokes about autumnal nips in the air; and numerous doctors offending old people by calling them “crinklies”.

We have had a Bournemouth councillor offending homosexuals by suggesting that Noah (of the Ark fame) would have been legally obliged to take in same-sex animal couples had he been operating in 2006; George Osborne offending autistic people by suggesting they have something in common with Gordon Brown; Boris Johnson offending fatties by using the word at all; Jack Straw upsetting Muslim women at his surgery by asking to see their faces; a publishing company removing all references to the “ British Isles” from its atlases for fear of offending Irish schoolchildren; and, perhaps most ridiculous of all, the Metropolitan police banning the use of the word “yob” in case it offends the hoodie-wearing classes.

With so many wounded feelings and near-misses out there it’s astonishing, really, that the entire country hasn’t ground to a halt.

But it hasn’t, has it. Apart from the usual chorus of auto-complainers, nobody seems to have turned a hair. If the crowded streets of west London are anything to go by, the human race — Muslim, gay, autistic, Japanese — seems to be chugging along together quite smoothly: occasionally, from across our reservoirs of hurt, even managing to smile at each other.

Nobody smiles much at the lawless laddies, it’s true. Thanks in part to so much police sensitive awareness training, lawless laddies seem to have been abandoned to a parallel universe of their own, where hardly anyone dares to establish eye contact with them, let alone risk hurting their feelings with a grin.

Actually, that’s not the point. Does anyone seriously believe a knife-wielding yob gives a flying fig what we call him? Of course he doesn’t. I wish he did.

It’s not just the yobs. On closer inspection it’s hard to see how any of this week’s supposed targets would have had valid cause to complain. We don’t know how many homosexuals were copied in on the Bournemouth councillor’s hated Noah’s Ark e-mail. But it strikes me as faintly preposterous to suggest that they would have been too fragile to take a joke — not against themselves, note, but against the absurdities of equal opportunity law.

It was a Tory councillor who wrote the e-mail, by the way, and a couple of Liberal Democrat councillors who chose to object to it so publicly. A case of genuinely hurt feelings or of political point-scoring? You decide.

Ditto the “row” over Osborne’s autism joke about Brown’s endogenous growth-theory tendencies. The left-leaning author Nick Hornby, who has an autistic child, was quick to cry foul. He made an uncharacteristically po-faced statement about disabilities not being funny.

Yet, oddly enough, he didn’t complain when his brother-in-law Robert Harris made a similar comment about Brown in this newspaper only a few weeks earlier. Why? Might it possibly have been because Hornby spotted an opportunity to make a dig at the Conservatives? I think so.

As for the vicar’s “nip” joke — having spent my childhood two miles from the village of Bishops Lydeard I would be astonished if a Japanese person had ever, in all its dozy history, found himself anywhere near the place, let alone paused there long enough to read the vicar’s newsletter.

As it turns out the loudest complainer, who is calling for the poor vicar to resign, is not a Japanese tourist but David Onamade, head of the Somerset racial equality council. Having made such an unholy fuss, he now finds himself on a marvellous platform from which to justify to council taxpayers his job, his salary and his pension. Perhaps that is coincidental. I’ve no doubt he would say it was.

I don’t know how much Japanese people mind being referred to as “nips”. Not much, I expect. They have a long history and a proud culture, as do we. And I don’t mind in the least being referred to as a “pom” or a “rosbif”. Do you? Does anyone? Of course there might exist, somewhere, a Japanese individual with unreasonably tender sensibilities who finds it painful to be referred to in such a way. In which case Onamade, by drawing national attention to a bad joke in a village newsheet, has succeeded in upsetting them quite unnecessarily. Shame on him. I think he should resign.

We’ve got to a point now where the Auto-Offence Brigade — most of them professional, many of whose salaries you and I are paying — have us so edgy that we dare not question anybody’s “right” to take offence at anything, regardless of truth, humour or logic. They yell so loudly and so brutishly that it’s hard for the rest of us to hear ourselves think.

When footballers "dive" - roll around the grass in paroxysms of affected agony after bumping into an opposing player in the hopes of getting him sent off - it is the diver and not the other man who gets shown the red card. I wonder if we shouldn't instigate a similar system for these blubbering offence-takers who seem to cause nothing but bad blood and who waste so much of our time.

Politicians suspected of taking offence unjustifiably should have their whip removed. Novelists should have their books boycotted. And as for that great army of publicly employed equality officers - whose original purpose must once have been not to stir up trouble but to try to smooth relations between potentially antagonistic factions - I think this country would be a more peaceful, less paranoid and more genuinely tolerant place if we got rid of the lot of them. Might save us a couple of bob [bucks], too.


Britain's streets are full of fear

By India Knight

(The first name "India" tells us that the lady writing is of upper class origin)

In the week when the word “yob” was banned by Scotland Yard because it might “alienate” teenagers and injure their tender feelings (oh boo hoo), Stevens Nyembo-Ya-Muteba, 40, was murdered by a gang of “youths” outside his flat in Hackney, east London.

Stevens, a married father of two little girls, was an émigré from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Britain, where he held down two jobs — delivering food for Tesco during the day, night portering at a restaurant in the evenings — to pay for his education. He was in the third year of a maths and finance degree at the University of Greenwich, having turned down a place at Cambridge so as to stay closer to home. A 17-year-old “youth” has been charged with his murder.

Stevens lost his life because he had had the temerity to ask the gang to keep the noise down after they broke into the communal area of the council estate where he lived. It was about 10pm. “Some of us have work in the morning,” he’d reportedly said which, as rebukes go, is both polite and mild. He was stabbed for his pains and left to bleed to death on a stairwell.

It has since emerged that Stevens and other residents had repeatedly urged the police and the council to do something about the appalling goings-on at the estate. “Prostitutes, smackheads, people having sex on the stairs,” one resident said. Another mentioned gangs of youths congregating in stairwells, taking drugs, urinating and trying to start fires. “The police and the council had been aware of it all for some time,” a relative of Stevens said last week.

I used to live in Hackney opposite two crack houses. The phone box in our road was regularly used as a (rather snug) boudoir by stoned — and not in a benign way — prostitutes. There were needles in the local park and crack-smoking paraphernalia littered the pavements. We were once woken in the night by two dozen armed police who explained that there had been a burglary and that the burglars, who had guns, had taken refuge on our roof.

I took my sons for a walk in the park a couple of days before we moved out of Hackney. It ended abruptly when we saw a young boy being cut down from a tree; he had tried to hang himself.

This in an area, by the way, which was last week described by a London newspaper as up-and-coming and made to sound rather charming and cosmopolitan, with bars and cafes open until 5am (I rather wonder who the paper thinks goes drinking at 5am. Schoolteachers? Yummy mummies? Or — here’s a thought — a feral underclass celebrating the night’s pickings?) It made no mention of the gun crime, the stabbings, the drugs or the desperate, crazed £5 whores.

What is especially depressing about this whole depressing story, which took place in a depressed area full of depressed people doing depressing things, is that I imagine Stevens himself knew a thing or two about deprivation; and that what he knew would put his assailants’ poxy little gripes to shame. Originally from Kinshasa, which is a horrible city in a grim country, I don’t expect the offer of a place at Cambridge exactly fell into his lap. “I believed in myself and got what I wanted,” he once told his college newsletter.

There are unsettling moments when I feel myself turning into a rabid old-school Tory, and this is one of them. What’s with the pathetic, weedy nonsense from Scotland Yard about hurting yobs’ feelings, when stories such as Stevens’s have, shamefully, become commonplace? Who cares about their feelings? I don’t. I couldn’t care less. I don’t care how hard their lives are: I don’t expect Stevens’s life in Kinshasa was much of a picnic either but at least he was doing his best to better himself to make a new life for his family. And I am so tired of the stupid liberal notion (held by me for decades) that gangs of hoodies are all gigantically deprived and thus need our pity, love and support, rather than our approbation. What they need, actually, is to be locked up.

Deprivation is relative: none of them is starving, all of them are clothed and all of them have access to free education. Besides, one of the yobs arrested in connection with Stevens’s murder is, if you please, the son of a social worker for Hackney council, which doesn’t quite constitute the frontline of ghettohood.

The gangs that periodically terrorise my new extremely salubrious, picture-postcard corner of north London aren’t “deprived” in any material sense that I can understand, either — not when they are wearing several hundred pounds’ worth of designer clothing. They are certainly emotionally deprived to which the only solution, short of eugenics, is first-rate education — starting with nursery and, in some cases, psychotherapy from the age of five.

That is a political point. The broader social point is that the killing in Hackney is the merest tip of a deformed, monstrous iceberg. We are all, wherever we live, at the mercy of marauding gangs of underclass yobs, intent on damage, and there seems to be little that anyone can do about it (which is why I’m sounding so cross. I’d have been less cross 10 years ago, and hardly cross at all 20 years ago, but the crossness escalates with every year that passes because the problem gets worse and nothing happens).

I was recently told by a representative from my local Safer Neighbourhood Team that its powers were somewhat limited: it could ask gangs of boys what they were doing lurking in residential areas at 2am, but since it was not legally allowed to make physical contact with them, it could not actually remove them if vocal persuasion failed.

Besides, the representative said mournfully, they’re often on bikes, which means they move too fast. As for Asbos: not terribly helpful when in some circles an Asbo is a badge of honour. I mean, really: someone’s having a laugh and it’s not you or me.

Being frightened in the street and even in our own homes — feeling scared to intervene when yobs are behaving badly for fear of one’s own safety — has become the norm in this country. We moan about it in the same way that we moan about leaves on the line or automated telephone systems: it’s just everyday life.

You have to gird your loins before opening the local newspaper, because its tally of crimes makes you come over all agoraphobic. I used to be absolutely appalled by gated communities — the super-rich making themselves safe because they can afford to. These days I grudgingly see the point. And that feels profoundly demoralising.



Because of negligent failure to isolate at-risk patients and an amazing failure at asepsis

Wounded troops returning from Iraq have been linked by government scientists to outbreaks of a deadly superbug in National Health Service hospitals. Injured soldiers flown back to be treated on the NHS have been infected with a rare strain of Acinetobacter baumannii, a superbug resistant to antibiotics. At one hospital in Birmingham in 2003 the bacteria went on to infect 93 people, 91 of whom were civilians. Thirty-five died, although the hospital has not been able to establish whether the superbug was a contributory factor.

The revelation comes amid growing concerns about the treatment of wounded troops on NHS wards alongside civilian patients. It follows reports that a paratrooper, wounded in Afghanistan and treated at the hospital — Selly Oak in Birmingham — was allegedly threatened by a Muslim visitor.

Acinetobacter baumannii commonly inhabits soil and water and is associated with warmer climates such as the Middle East. It is resistant to most common antibiotics and, if left untreated, can lead to pneumonia, fever and septicemia. The bacterium has become a concern in the US army, where it has been identified in more than 240 military personnel since 2003, killing five.

The first case in a British soldier returning from Iraq has been disclosed by scientists from the government’s Health Protection Agency. In a survey of 30 NHS trusts that had received troops, they discovered a soldier at Selly Oak, which houses the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, had been infected with a strain of the bacterium known as “T”. Another British soldier infected with the superbug was admitted to the hospital in November 2004.

Dr Mark Enright, a reader in epidemiology at London’s Imperial College, said the superbug can spread rapidly in intensive care wards. It can also survive on dry surfaces for up to 20 days. “The problem is that acinetobacter can spread like wildfire between patients. If you’ve got someone who has been evacuated from Iraq with multiple burns and acinetobacter, it would spread to patients in the same unit from the hands of nursing staff and doctors.” [No aseptic procedures?? What an appalling admission!]

The Ministry of Defence said it was negotiating with Selly Oak to create a military-only ward, and added that it had introduced “stringent isolation and infection control measures” that had helped limit infections among military personnel to two soldiers, both of whom survived.


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