New book – order details

Western European Languages – A Reference Guide is now available online in all markets.

My new book, Western European Languages – A Reference Guide, is now available in all major markets online, including in:

UK & Ireland

United States

Canada

Japan

Germany

France

Italy

Spain

However, if you are in the UK, do contact me directly and I can save you the postage costs.

Coronavirus: Northern Ireland updates/advice

I am going to leave this page up with advice on how best to manage through the COVID-19 crisis, aimed particularly at those caring for over-70s or people with underlying conditions in Northern Ireland.

It is best in case of doubt to refer to the official guidance on the current restrictions.

What I would ask, please, is that people leave comments on this page with any thoughts or information they feel may be helpful (I may not see Facebook responses and will definitely not see Twitter responses).

Please rest assured that the Northern Ireland Health Service was well prepared; it had been contingency planning for this for months, on the basis of strategies put in place ten years ago and revised regularly since.

Nevertheless, it has come under the greatest burden it has ever faced in the last few weeks and will now face serious challenges as it returns to “normality”.

Government advice on a range of issues and services appears on NI Direct.

The NI Assembly has links to sources of advice here.

Members of the public must play their part in restricting this burden by adhering to the advice: stay safe, keep your distance, and wash your hands.

In Northern Ireland, you may volunteer here.

Vulnerable groups

COVID-19 is a relatively mild infection for most people who contract it, but there is an increased risk for older people and people with underlying conditions; for safety, this should also be assumed to include pregnant women.

People with rare conditions, particularly those which affect the immune or respiratory system, should assume they are also in this group, unless specifically told otherwise by a qualified medical professional.

D3E94432-ED28-495E-BED8-8A16F6B2E5E4Essentially, people in those vulnerable groups must try to avoid getting the virus and, if they do show symptoms, should immediately dial 111 and seek medical advice and attention immediately. In emergency dial 999 or 112.

People who have underlying conditions which clearly elevate the risk will have received a letter from their GP to tell them to ‘shield’ until 31 July. As restrictions are raised, these people who have a particular clinical vulnerability (whether they were instructed to shield or otherwise) may be advised differently – a little like proceeding along different lanes on a motorway.

People who are not in those groups are tasked primarily with not spreading the virus; in other words, they should live their daily lives assuming they have it. They should self-isolate (as well as booking a test) in case of symptoms, but otherwise their task is to look after and look out for those in vulnerable groups as well as to avoid getting it themselves in the interests of their own health.

Updated health information for everyone in Northern Ireland through the crisis appears here.

Anything wrong here? Anything which should be expanded? Please leave a comment.

Hygiene

The coronavirus causing COVID-19 is spread in sneeze or cough droplets transferred primarily from a close distance (also via things); it can also be transferred via surfaces (most commonly metal).

Note that symptoms, if they occur at all, follow the virus – you are already infectious before you have symptoms.

With regard both to avoiding getting the virus and not spreading it, certain hygiene rules are fundamental:

  • wash hands for 20 seconds in soap and water (or sanitiser) being careful to clean the whole area, including between fingers, finger/thumb tips and wrists;
  • cover the mouth or nose with a tissue or sleeve when coughing or sneezing (and then wash hands);
  • put used tissues in the bin immediately;
  • do not touch any part of the face with unwashed hands; and
  • look after your mental health and, particularly, avoid too much social media.

Anything wrong here? Anything which should be expanded? Please leave a comment.

Social distancing

Given that close contact is a common way of spreading the virus, “social distancing” is required to stop its spread.

CEDE431B-B3BA-4413-B41A-13CA840B135CThe implications of this are that we must spend less time with other people, less time in public spaces, and particularly less time in enclosed public spaces. If, for those in non-vulnerable groups, this is genuinely unavoidable, remember our task is not to spread the virus; so as soon as we detect symptoms in ourselves or anyone close to us, we must withdraw immediately into self-isolation.

Vulnerable people do not need to withdraw completely, but must take extra care (and those known in the UK as “shielding” or in Ireland as “cocooning” must take particular care). They must:

  • avoid any contact with anyone with symptoms (most obviously fever or persistent cough);
  • avoid unnecessary journeys and any travel at all in rush hour or on public transport;
  • work from home;
  • absolutely avoid hospital or health centres/GP surgeries – phone or contact online.

A contingency plan for carers appears here (source: Carers NI).

Anything wrong here? Anything which should be expanded? Please leave a comment.

Symptoms

Remember, if you are in a non-vulnerable group your priority is not to spread the virus and essentially, therefore, to behave at all times as if you may have it. The need for extreme care is heightened if you come into contact with anyone (most obviously a member of the same household) who displays symptoms.

For vulnerable groups, it is important not to get the virus and to act immediately if there are any signs of it. Therefore, if you recognise the symptoms dial 111 immediately (or 112 or 999 in an emergency). The most obvious symptoms are a persistent (typically dry) cough, fever (high temperature), or loss of taste/smell. Other less common symptoms include a (typically dry) sore throat or shortness of breath.

Anything wrong here? Anything which should be expanded? Please leave a comment.

Self-isolation

This is a contagious disease and there is no shame in having it; furthermore, most people will experience only mild symptoms. However, it is important to protect others, particularly those in vulnerable groups.

Anyone displaying any of the three main symptoms above must practise self-isolation even within the home for 10 days from onset; those in vulnerable groups may find it prudent to do so even without symptoms. Everyone else in the household must stay home.

Those who have come into contact with someone who has tested positive or who has entered Northern Ireland from a neighbouring jurisdiction or listed territory should self-isolate for 10 days from the last date of contact (being within one metre for any length of time or within two metres for fifteen minutes or more); other members of the household need not, but should exercise extra caution.

Self-isolation means that the individual displaying symptoms should distance themselves even from the rest of the household. If possible, they should sleep in a separate room and be in the only person in that room; they should use the bathroom last and clean thoroughly afterwards; if they must use the kitchen, it should be alone (and again with thorough cleaning afterwards).

Through self-isolation, it is important if possible to get outside (the garden or yard are safe as long as no one is there) and to stay in touch as widely as possible. Consider talking to family and friends about the best way to do this (Skype, Facetime, Google Hangouts, or whatever) to maximise the potential for keeping in touch safely.

Households can still take deliveries if someone is in self-isolation, but ideally deliveries should not be handed over in person; typically, deliverers now know to offer this option and will offer to deliver to a particular location and phone from a distance to say where the delivery has been left.

See also notes on mental well-being and social security below.

Anything wrong here? Anything which should be expanded? Any other ideas? Please leave a  comment.

Restrictions

The Northern Ireland Executive has reversed many of the openings which had occurred since “lockdown” ended on 24 July 2020.

Broadly, as of 2 January 2021, we are not allowed to gather socially in a private home or in hospitality; however, we are able to gather in groups of up to 15 outdoors and in public places, otherwise six from up to two households in a private garden. Gatherings of any sort are not recommended and ideally should not go on beyond 8pm.

There was never a distinction in law for those who are “shielding”; as of 1 August they are treated as “clinically vulnerable”.

Mental well-being

As above, it is essential you look after your mental health during the disruptive days and months ahead.

Some ideas:

  • get exercise (even if it is just a few stretches or a bit of yoga);
  • read a book (and avoid too much social media fake news and fear-mongering);
  • learn a new skill (a language off YouTube, a course on Coursera, or whatever);
  • think! (Stop panic-buying – no good decisions are made in fear or in a rush);
  • phone (don’t just text);
  • do go out and meet friends.

Be aware no one else has experienced this either. Just because everyone is doing it, doesn’t make it right!

Pets

Dogs and cats cannot contract nor transmit COVID-19.

Dogs may be walked; however, it is good practice for only one person to do the walking, and over a restricted route, maintaining two metres from everyone else at all times.

Additionally, dog walking must take place close to home; it is not recommended to drive somewhere first.

Finance

A useful overview of the “furloughing” options (to end October 2020) for self-employed and employed people across the UK is provided by Martin Lewis here.

A Community Fund is open here.

Updated advice for business here.

All non-essential retail stores (i.e. non-food, pharmacy, transport, dry cleaners) and hospitality must close.

The UK Government will cover 80% of salaries to try to limit lay-offs to August-October 2020, now largely extended to April 2021.

Business rates are now payable, but were not until 20 July.

Grants now available (up to £10k for small businesses, up to £25k for businesses in retail/hospitality) – apply here.

Business loan scheme with six months interest free.

VAT was cancelled for three months to end May; the hospitality sector now has VAT temporarily at 5%.

For tax issues (restructuring, suspending debt collection etc), HMRC helpline is 08000 159 559.

Information for self-employed here.

Insurance depends on level of cover – contact your insurer.

Social Security

Full information on benefits/welfare here.

  • If laid off temporarily, apply for “new-style” Jobseeker’s Allowance on 0800 232 1271.
  • If self-employed and have to self-isolate, apply for Universal Credit here and note if on ESA support is available from day one (not day seven);
  • If employed and have to to self-isolate, apply for immediate sick pay here.

There will be no face-to-face appointments.

AdviceNI hotline: 0808 8020020.

NI Department for Communities Financial Crisis line: 0800 5872750.

207EB4A4-D07D-457C-A00B-C153A5A58F7D

There is a discretionary support fund available from NI Direct.

Practicalities

The best way to shop, and absolutely for vulnerable groups and those in self-isolation, is home delivery.

People “shielding” have priority delivery slots for Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda or Iceland which may be arranged here.

If you must go into a shop, you must wear a face covering. Consider shopping local and absolutely avoid busy periods. Consider also buying a little extra to support a local foodbank. Some shops will have specific hours for older people. Many have added restrictions to the number of people allowed in at any one time.

Prescriptions may (and should) be ordered online.

If hospital visits are essential, you will be checked for temperature, you will need a face covering, and you may have to be tested for the virus. Before procedures, you may have to isolate for seven days.

Non-essential hospital appointments may be cancelled, although some (particularly in cancer and orthpaedics) are proceeding – you do not need to do anything.

Anything wrong here? Anything which should be expanded? Any other ideas? Any other information or updates? Please leave a comment.

Ulster-Scots census – for guid an ill…

One of the most talked about aspects of the census, currently being returned across Northern Ireland, is the availability of an Ulster-Scots version as well as a question about it. There are numerous issues here – the question, the purpose of a version, and the need (for the sake of Ulster Scots itself as well as the humble taxpayer) for professional translators.

Overview

First off, however, we need to distinguish between just ridiculing Ulster Scots for the sake of a few “likes” on one hand, and legitimate criticism of the way it is presented/translated on the other. In that regard, it may be worth checking my post last week and then bearing in mind both that “Swiss German” has no written standard (so developing a written standard need not be part of minority language development), and also that “Luxembourgish” does have a written standard which can be subject to ridicule by those more used to Standard German (so if the process of standardisation is commenced, ridicule will inevitably be part of the bargain, with various degrees of legitimacy – notably, in fact, the first attempt at a written standard for Luxembourgish was abandoned and entirely replaced by the modern standard).

So, to be clear, the story from German-speaking Europe is that Ulster Scots is worthy or respect and study; it does not require a written standard; yet it may decide it wants one in which case ridicule is inevitable; however, the first attempt at one may need to be abandoned. In other words, the ridicule may be illegitimate but actually it may be legitimate, provided it is aimed at what is presented rather than at the overall process of language study.

Question

I should add that I am slightly troubled by the question in the census, and let us go back again to Luxembourgish. The question asks if I “speak, read, understand or write” Irish or Ulster Scots, or if I have “no ability”. With Irish, none of those applies in my case – I cannot claim really to “speak”, “read”, “understand” or “write” it in any way approaching proficiency, yet nor do I have “no ability”; I was forced, reluctantly, to tick the latter option on the basis I really could not claim any of the others. With Ulster Scots, conversely, almost everyone in Ulster (all of it) will “understand” Ulster Scots and most will “read” it; whether they “speak” it is more questionable and whether anyone really “writes” it is unclear – and the census translation demonstrates that. I can legitimately claim all four (I have even written blog posts in it) given that the key to the latter is consistency – as we are about to see – but then noted that in practice I do not do so very often (therein may indeed lie a problem – the focus is so much on developing a written standard that the opportunities for using it in practice are few and far between).

Translation

In this case, criticism of the census translation is largely justified. It is not the worst I have ever seen, but it contains unnecessary complexity, inconsistent spellings and an unawareness of grammar. The obvious immediate issue with this is the continued spending of public money on linguistic development being carried out by people with no qualifications to do it. (I would say we would not do that in any other walk of life, although of course Chris Grayling had other ideas with his boat contracts…)

Let us not bore ourselves with the whole thing (I did it in English, for reference) and instead look at where this one has gone awry.

OO not OU: A minor point here, but writing “oo” in Ulster Scots is in fact to use English spelling to represent a Scots sound – Scots speakers will know to pronounce OU in the way English speakers pronounce OO – so better out, count, about etc.

OAN: As above, OA is not traditionally used this way in Scots writing (“on” will be pronounced as if “oan” naturally by Scots speakers – they don’t need to be reminded by an English spelling convention): also form (no need for foarm).

scrievin: A spelling and a semantic error here. Scots is almost invariably EI (so screivin or screivein but not scrievin); but the semantic error is more troubling, as the verb screive really means “scribble” or “jot”, so it is extending it somewhat to suggest that it can refer to formal writing or form-filling.

WHUT: Again, an English spelling convention to represent (erroneously, in fact) a Scots sound – Scots traditionally has whit here (also later in the census wird ‘word’) which will be pronounced by Scots speakers to rhyme with bit (which no one spells but).

THA: This is not the end of the world but is blatantly just differentiating for its own sake – traditional Scots is happy with the.

onlie/yinst: two slightly strange aspects here. Phonologically, while the -t here is not unknown in Scots (cf. English ‘amongst’, ‘whilst’) it is in fact more associated with Mid Ulster; traditional Scots would in fact be ance (the initial y-glide is automatic to Scots speakers); more relevantly, yinst and onlie are ultimately the same word with a different ending, so ance and anelie are the traditional spellings (cf. ‘once’ and ‘only’; also ‘lonely’, ‘alone’, ‘one’ in English) – this type of error when the writer goes for an ear-spelling rather than considering the etymology, grammatical linkage and actual meaning of the word is too common.

10 yeir: this is actually correct (after numbers the singular form of measurements is used in Scots), but renders thrie *monds later in the census incorrect (thrie mond translates to ‘three months’).

picter: I have not even added the written accent here – it is very odd and there is no reason for it; again, this comes from the sense that you have to dictate to the reader how to pronounce the word, but an actual speaker will know!

axes… this whole sentence is problematic. Firstly, the word here is ask (it is true some speakers invert the consonants but that is up to them); then you cannot ask for speirins; speir is an archaic word (in Ulster at least) essentially carrying the meaning of ‘ask’ in the sense of ‘consult’. As a result, I’m genuinely a little lost what the sentence is supposed to say; also, if tha yin day (the ae dey is more likely in literary Scots) is ‘the same day’ why would it not then be tha yin [ae] speirins?

Sawbith… and then the date is very curious. It is true that some speakers refer to Sindey ‘Sunday’ as the Sabbath Dey but then they do in English too – the formal name of the day, however, is Sindey (not least, ahem, in a secular census); then 21st is retained where traditional Scots would in fact allow a variation here to 21t; but then the weirdest thing in the entire translation is the random insertion of an ‘and’ in the middle of a number. Do we write ‘200and8’ in English? Well, no.

gethert bi: this is really a grammatical “error”, insofar as those can exist in a minority language with no standard form. Broad Scots in fact would have gethert frae – the preposition used with the passive is different (generally frae for willing actors and wi for non-willing ones – e.g. blawed ower wi the wind ‘blown over by the wind’).

uised tae mak: I am unclear how idiomatic this sentence is, really, but it is definitely for tae mak in Broad Scots – where intention is meant, Scots adds for here.

oan: I am unclear why this is preferred to the actually differentiated and undeniably formal, literary Scots anent.

hoo: this is indisputably a lexical “error”; hou in fact carries the meaning of ‘why’ in Scots; better here whit wey.

pye: actually a habitual is probably required here: pyes [peys].

plenish: I do not know what this means here.

lake: this is a random ear-spelling – Scots would allow any of like, lyk or perhaps even liek or lik but definitely not lake.

leir, convoy an halth: these are not the end of the world although really transport would be fine; it is good to see halth here actually, in preference to the often erroneously used poustie (which in fact carries a meaning more like ‘prosperity’).

things: oooh, horrible random umlaut – please take it away!

that irnae: hmmm… not disastrous but more fluent contemporary Scots speakers would be likelier to say at/as (b)isna – with a singular verb form and perhaps a habitual (in fact used earlier as bis).

haetae: this is a typo, essentially – there are two words here (there is also an and later rather than an).

bodie wha: again, as with that irnae, this is not really contemporary speech and represents an Anglicisation which afflicts even the best Scots writers; in most if not all varieties of spoken traditional Scots, wha is exclusively a question word – bodie that or bodie at would be preferred otherwise (and probably even was at the time of Burns, who himself should probably have written Scots at haes…!) – oddly, later in the same paragraph, bodie that indeed appears (but then makes it inconsistent).

ether… I get a bit lost on this line, to be honest.

bes: it was bis above – either is in use, but it is best consistently to use one or the other.

There is a lot more I could have said, but that gives a flavour of the basic issues – ear-spellings, inconsistent spellings and grammatical usage, lack of focus on grammar, and general lack of clarity. This is before we consider whether the whole thing is really written in the right register for a census form, and whether some of the lexical choices (not least heid coont [count]) are really legitimate.

Summary

We need to be careful not to ridicule Ulster Scots itself on the basis of some poor choices in linguistic development.

Nevertheless, it would remain a wise idea for linguistic development in all its various forms actually to involve linguists. That should go without saying, but in the modern world you do wonder…

Coronavirus: Social distancing works – so what about ‘flu?

The clearest evidence that social distancing works comes, in fact, not from the coronavirus numbers (although there is clear evidence there) but from the ‘flu numbers.

Hospitals in Northern Ireland and in many other places around the world have this winter been entirely unaffected by ‘flu. This offers indisputable clarity that, in terms of reducing the number of deaths from a virus, the combination of “social distancing” plus “vaccinating the vulnerable” works to the extent that its effect may not be felt at all.

We have some thinking to do around this.

When it came to restrictions, the social media debate was sadly characterised by the extremes. Because this debate became tribal, good points were intermixed with bad (sadly another characteristic of social media). It is worth emphasising what these points were and where they were valid (which they were on either side).

Essentially, the anti-lockdown argument was characterised by assertions such as: a) lockdowns don’t work anyway in reducing deaths; b) actually they do work but as soon as you ease them then the deaths just happen anyway; c) ethnically lockdowns are an unacceptable breach of civil liberty even if they mean lots of deaths; and d) the deaths do not matter because the people affected were going to die anyway (apologies for the blunt phrasing, but in some cases the argument was, if followed logically, as crude as that). Of these, a) is really untrue (as evidenced from the ‘flu numbers); b) is sort of true except if you have a vaccine (the ‘flu numbers specifically tell us about social distancing plus vaccination); c) is one we need to return to because it is very important; and d) is basically outrageous (although there is an element in how we arrange society which accepts, even if we are rarely overt about it, the basic premise that people with fewer quality years left to live are lower priority – and we will return to this).

Meanwhile the pro-lockdown argument was characterised by assertions such as: e) if we just lock down we can eradicate the virus because it will not transmit; f) staying at home saves lives and it is all about saving lives; g) we need to reduce hospitalisations from the virus to protect the health service at all costs; and h) things like sport or holidays are just luxuries anyway and when it comes to the crunch we don’t really need them. Of these, e) is technically true but only if you absolutely lock down and do not even allow pharma or grocery shopping, which no one actually contended; f) certainly staying at home does save lives but again it runs into the ethnical dilemma above under c) and d) above; g) is basically true (a key error of the more fanatical anti-lockdown campaigners was not to grasp this); and h) is seriously problematic.

Here is the thing. Until this time last year we did not “lock down to eradicate the virus” as per e) above, nor did we “stay home to save lives” as per f), we intentionally managed the health service to allow a winter buffer to enable more hospitalisations with the virus to be managed and render irrelevant g), and no one in their right mind would have suggested h) to counter the virus. By “virus”, I am of course referring to ‘flu – which kills a five-figure number of people in the UK every winter (except this last one). The only protection we put in place is vaccination; but (regardless of our position on the political spectrum) going further and considering non-pharmaceutical interventions would have been considered, as recently as last year, an utterly intolerable and outrageous breach of our civil liberties and human rights.

In other words we all – literally all of us – accepted c) and actually also d). A specific ‘flu pandemic through 1957 killed 20,000 people predominantly of working age in the UK (including my own grandmother aged 47) and over a million worldwide, but no one has ever heard of that; a similar one a decade later raging for three years killed 30,000 of all ages in the UK and again over a million worldwide, but is now largely forgotten; in fact, in 2017/18 a bad winter of ‘flu (caused in part by mutations, which are more common with influenza viruses) killed 22,000 people in the UK, but this barely entered public discourse – essentially, because of c) (obviously) and d) (implicitly) above.

What we are in fact prepared to accept is that using vaccination alone we can keep down the number of ‘flu deaths without severe restrictions on liberties or livelihoods. As a matter of fact, if we were prepared to combine vaccination with social distancing, in many years we could largely eliminate those deaths altogether (and, in fact, “protect the Health Service” to the extent that it would be available for other things).

We might interject at this stage with a trip to a part of the world where they are in fact just heading into winter. In Australia and New Zealand they are now facing a rather interesting challenge. Having used “lockdown” (i.e. social distancing) and closed borders to maintain essentially a “Zero Covid” strategy, they have just begun their vaccination programmes. As those programmes near completion, a question then arises – they cannot remain closed off for ever, so at what stage do they allow the virus into the country? For how long do they close down completely even for one case of community transmission, and when do they switch to relying on immunity and non-susceptibility arising from vaccination? No one yet has an answer, and it is not difficult to see why.

We face effectively the same dilemma in the Northern Hemisphere with ‘flu. In future years, do we just sit back and let it happen? Do we make some effort to restrict its spread through other non-pharmaceutical interventions? How concerted should such an effort be?

This is a profound political and ultimately, more than anything, ethnical question. I have no idea what the answer is. Though I am fairly sure I won’t find it on Twitter…

Psychology of sporting revenge

Arsenal concluded a “Europa League” tie against Benfica last Thursday, the clubs’ first competitive meeting since the last sixteen of the then newly renamed “Champions’ League” in 1991/92 (in fact in late 1991). It also concluded a three-decade wait for revenge that only someone attuned to the irrational psychology of a sports fan could ever really grasp.

Thirty years ago was a different age, of course. The draw which brought Arsenal and Benfica together – weirdly to play two games at a neutral venue given the times we are in – once again re-stated just how different. Yet I remember the last meeting vividly – too vividly!

English clubs had, of course, been banned from European competition after the Heysel disaster in 1985. Shortly after the 1990 World Cup, in which England had won the fair play award, English clubs were slowly let back in. Champions Liverpool were still banned for an extra season, but League runners-up Aston Villa were allowed into the UEFA Cup (the trophy which in those days served as a “Leftover Cup” for teams which had neither won their domestic League nor Cup) and Manchester United were allowed into the Cup Winners’ Cup.

The question arose: how good will English teams now be, having been starved of competition? Pre-Heysel, English clubs had won six of the previous seven “European Cups” (the Champions’ Cup, predecessor of the Champions’ League), so there was legitimate reason to believe that they would still be very good; and also to believe, given their long absence, that they would not be.

That 1990/91 season seemed to give a good answer, however. Aston Villa faced the mighty Internazionale, from the then richest league in the world in Italy and starring three of West Germany’s World Cup winners, and outplayed the visitors in the first leg 2-0 before succumbing narrowly overall 3-2 on aggregate. Given that Villa were in fact an average side in the English League that year whereas Internazionale pushed all the way for the Italian title, this counted indisputably as an impressive start. Better was still to come – Manchester United advanced all the way to the Cup Winners’ Cup Final, where they saw off none other than Barcelona. English clubs, it was fair to assume, were as good as ever.

So when my own club Arsenal qualified as League Champions for the newly renamed Champions’ League (then held as a knock-out tournament for Champions only until the last eight, which were split into two groups of four with the top two progressing to one-off semi-finals), there was genuine reason to believe they might well win it. As English clubs still had no “co-efficient” in European competition encompassing the whole of the past few seasons, they were not seeded, so the last 32 tie and first game back in European competition was against seeded hopefuls Austria Wien. This, surely, would be the moment of truth – in the truly elite competition, how would Arsenal get on?

The outcome was joyous – Arsenal ran rings round their visitors, with Alan Smith’s hat trick the highlight of a thumping 6-1 triumph. The reverse leg was in fact narrowly lost, but of course it was more like a glorified friendly given the tie was already over.

Full of confidence about imminent glory (not least since the truly mighty team of the age, Milan, had in fact missed out on qualification by being edged out for both the previous season’s Italian title and the European Cup, losing on penalties to Red Star in Bari after one of the direst games ever played), Arsenal were then drawn against Benfica. This would be a test indeed – Benfica had themselves been in two of the last four finals, losing on sudden-death penalties to PSV in 1988 and then by the only goal to that all-star Milan team in 1990. Yet in the away game at the Estadio da Luz in front of roughly one million fans (seemingly – it was huge!) Arsenal acquitted themselves well, Kevin Campbell’s away goal cancelling out Isiais’ early strike.

A peculiarity of European ties in those days was that the home team tended to change kit, so in the return leg at Highbury Arsenal, in that truly appalling but somehow now fashionable banana yellow away kit, turned out tipped to progress given that “precious away goal” (the worst cliche ever, as both ties against Benfica thirty years apart demonstrate). Win this, and Arsenal would have beaten one of the finest sides in Europe and would be through to the lucrative new “group phase” where all-comers would be duly swept aside and the trophy returned to its rightful and natural home in England…

Indeed Arsenal bundled home the opening goal, but Benfica’s nippy forward Isiais sneaked through between two defenders on the run shortly before half-time and clipped home an equaliser across Seaman. This is always the problem with “precious away goals” – if you are defending only one in the home game and you concede, there is now only one team which can benefit from them and it is no longer you…

George Graham has in subsequent interviews said that Arsenal had twice the number of chances Benfica had in the second half. To be honest, that is not my recollection; from the moment the equaliser went in, my sense was that the tie was slipping away. However, I have never watched it back.

Being a football fan brings its share of ups and downs and Arsenal is the perfect example. Prime disappointments have included Champions’ League exits when the route to the final seemed clear (Valencia on away goals in 2001; Chelsea in the “Invincibles” season in 2004); real drubbings by rivals (8-2 to Manchester United; 6-0 to Chelsea); ridiculous upsets (York in 1985; Wrexham that same season in 1992) or just niggly defeats or draws late in a season which have proved costly (Leeds in 1999; Bolton in 2003; Birmingham in 2008). Yet none of those was quite the leveller, quite the statement of where you really are, or indeed quite the slap-in-the-face-to-wake-you-up as that Benfica tie.

It went, in fact, to extra time when a second Benfica goal effectively ended the tie; Arsenal played pinball with the woodwork after that to try to get back into it; but a third Benfica goal provided the knock-out blow. On would go Benfica to play off to be kings of Europe in the season Milan was not there to sweep to glory (as it happened it was in fact Barcelona, defeated by Manchester United only the previous May, who would win their first ever European Cup/Champions’ League, edging out Sampdoria in extra-time at Wembley); Arsenal would collapse in a heap, face the further ignominy of a Cup exit at Wrexham, and win precisely nothing. As if Arsenal were going to beat the all stars of Serie A or La Liga – they couldn’t even beat the fourth best team in Wales…

As it happened, there was nearly a chance for revenge very soon. In 1994, George Graham had worked out a little better how to play in Europe and the team advanced to the semi-finals of the Cup Winners’ Cup to play Paris St Germain. Of note to me was that the other semi was between holders Parma and none other than Benfica. Arsenal edged out the Parisians 2-1 on aggregate (this time 1-1 away was followed by holding on to a 1-0 lead at home) only, frustratingly, for Parma to squeeze past Benfica on away goals after drawing 2-2 on aggregate. The Final was a nail biter as it was – had revenge also been on the table, it would have been still worse!

Remarkably, this season’s meeting (a much less important encounter between two comparatively much lesser teams than back then, it must be said) took much the same course for seven eighths of the tie. In the “away” leg Benfica scored first and Arsenal got a deserved equaliser; in the “home” leg (who knew Islington was in Athens?) Arsenal scored first midway through the first half and seemed to be coasting towards victory only for an equaliser to set them back just before half-time. This time Benfica’s second goal – meaning Arsenal needed two because apparently goals in Athens count as “away” goals for Portuguese teams but not English – came in normal time. Thankfully, this time there was a happy ending, as Arsenal came back with a team consisting almost entirely of players who were not even alive when the previous tie was played, and advanced by the skin of their teeth with a winner three minutes from time to win 4-3 on aggregate.

Revenge is a funny thing as a sports fan. I never sought revenge particularly on Real Zaragoza, for example, after “Nayim from the half-way line” because that was just a freak occurrence. Other examples were immediate: from my perspective Arsenal’s embarrassing Europa League Final defeat to Chelsea in 2019 was “corrected” immediately the following season with an unexpected victory against the same team in the 2020 FA Cup Final. Even that 2019 debacle, horrifying though it was, was not quite the same slap in the face. Some defeats are of course just plain idiotic, such as that on away goals to Olympiacos at the same last 32 stage of the competition last season – and would you look at who Arsenal will face in the next round?! Nevertheless, it was the great leveller of having to face up to Arsenal’s true place in the world, delivered by Benfica more than a generation ago, that always stuck with me. Only now, three decades on, I can grin a little about it as it too stands “corrected” – and about the sheer irrationality of it all.

The concerning “footballisation” of public debate

Midway through the first half of yesterday’s Premier League match between Leicester City and Arsenal the doom-mongers were out in force (from the latter’s point of view).

What is interesting is not just the usual tale of certain devastation after only a quarter of the game, but also the detail in many of the complaints – as if a random fan would actually know more about “team selection” than a well respected coach who played the game at the highest level for more than a decade.

Sure enough, it turned out the team selection was not so bad, as Arsenal came back to win the game easily.

With football, a “game of opinions”, this does not matter. Ultimately the opinions of a random poster on social media count for nothing – Messrs Rodgers and Arteta select their teams and the game is played out (over 90 minutes, not just the first 20). Punters randomly declaring the likely result after just a few minutes is standard and, ultimately, sometimes quite amusing – I did it myself on Thursday night. But the certainty with which people who have never managed a team in their lives present their expertise team selection or tactical analysis is, when you think about it, rather odd. What would they, really, know about it?

Although with football we live with the security that this is part of the game, when it comes to the complications of issues such as Brexit or the coronavirus, it begins to matter. There, we are all players in the democratic debate and we all get a vote with which to influence future outcomes – as it should be. The problem arises when people who really know nothing of the subject about which they are typing present their views with such outrageous certainty. In this case, it matters. “Why don’t they just do X?” can become a populist political quest, with the actual experts who know why you cannot in fact do X left flailing because, in the context of instant-reaction-social-media, when you are explaining you are losing.

Yet in fact it pays to reflect that much – indeed perhaps most – of what we read on social media (or hear in radio phone-ins) on such complex subjects as Brexit or the coronavirus is in fact as “expert” as one gentleman’s assessment of Arsenal’s team selection earlier this afternoon. And as ever, if a view is presented with certainty it is no less likely (in fact perhaps more unlikely) to be accurate.

Sadly, more people seek attention than knowledge. We must always be aware of the dangers of that reality. In football it does not really matter – but in real life, the consequences of mistaking outspoken opinions for actual expertise can be dire.

“How many [actual] languages do you speak?”

Five years ago, I wrote this piece on how it is difficult to answer the question “How many languages do you speak?” primarily because it is so difficult to define “speak”.

It is of course also rather difficult to define “language”, and I thought I would re-emphasise the problem in the light of my own new book on Western European languages.

Let us start our journey in Cologne, and even here I am over-simplifying somewhat.

If you go to Cologne and speak to the natives, they will speak Koelsch, the urban dialect of Ripuarian, essentially the group of West Germanic dialects spoken in the area around the northern Rhineland. It is so distinct that there are even pop songs in it which make it into the German charts, but if you ask a speaker of it what language they speak they will probably look at you slightly oddly and say that obviously they speak Deutsch ‘German’.

If you head down to Stuttgart, you will detect a markedly different dialect. This time, rather than “Ripuarian”, the natives (who refer to themselves as Swabians) may tell you that it is part of the Alemannic dialect group of the southwestern Germanic-speaking area. But again, if you ask them ultimately which language they speak, there is no question – Deutsch ‘German’.

If you then head east to Munich, the same thing applies – another clearly distinct dialect, the urban variety of a broad dialect group (in this case Austro-Bavarian) spoken also across the rural area away from the city, will still ultimately be defined by locals as Deutsch ‘German’. At this stage already, people from Cologne and Munich would need to switch to the standard language in order to be understood – the broad form of their local dialects would be difficult to understand at least without some time to “tune in”.

If we then cross the border east and go to Vienna, we find a different dialect but one which is ultimately clearly still “Austro-Bavarian” – so, much more similar to Munich than either is to Stuttgart or Cologne, despite the fact Munich shares a country with those two cities and Vienna does not. Interestingly, if we ask the Viennese which language they speak, there remains no doubt – Deutsch ‘German’.

If we then swing back west and head to Zurich in Switzerland, we now find that the local dialect much more closely resembles Stuttgart than any of the others. Zurich and Stuttgart are, linguistically, roughly equivalent to Munich and Vienna; in both Zurich and Stuttgart the local speech belongs to the Alemmanic dialect group. So if we ask people in Zurich the same question we ask people in Vienna, we might expect the same answer. But, well, not really. In Zurich they will say they speak Schwiitzerduetsch ‘Swiss German’; but, if pushed, they will agree that they write Deutsch ‘German’. Is this “Swiss” German a separate language? There, they will probably shrug, but note that they only speak it with each other – with outsiders they will indeed switch, even in speech, to Standard German.

If we then head up to Luxembourg, just southwest of Cologne, we move to Moselle-Franconian, which is right next to Ripuarian – so linguistically Luxembourg is in some ways to Cologne what Zurich is to Stuttgart and Vienna is to Munich (a slight simplification but broadly the case to the outside observer). So, since they speak similarly to people in Cologne, obviously they speak… well, Letzebuergesch ‘Luxembourgish’. But they speak the same way as in Cologne more or less, surely they write German? No, they write Luxembourgish, which has its own written standard. Recognising that outsiders may not speak Luxembourgish, their national language, natives of Luxembourg also have an official language – but that is actually Standard French, not Standard German.

If we then head northwest to Amsterdam the natives speak a Hollandic dialect – the language this belongs, rather confusingly, is called Nederlands in the Netherlands but ‘Dutch’ in English, a nod to its common origins with ‘German’ (Deutsch). It is a clearly different language, however, and has been for many centuries.

Even there, however, life gets a little trickier if we head to Antwerp in Belgium. Here, the natives sound quite similar to those in Amsterdam although their speech clearly belongs to a different dialect group. What language do they speak? Well, Vlaams ‘Flemish’. Is that the same as Nederlands ‘Dutch’? In standard form, basically, yes. Essentially we have a different dialect of the same standard language, but that language has a different general name on either side of a political border. (In a corner of eastern German we also find a “Moselle-Franconian” dialect of High German being spoken, very similar to Luxembourgish – but its speakers, like those in Vienna, are clear that they are speaking Deutsch ‘German’.)

We can see from the map that we have not travelled very far, and yet we have people speaking the same language across national borders and referring to it by the same name; people speaking the same language across national borders and referring to it by a different name; people speaking a different language across national borders but writing the same one; and people speaking more or less the same dialect across national borders but writing a different language.

By definition, if I can speak German I can understand Swiss German with a bit of “tuning in” – does that count as a different language or the same one? If it is the same one, then why is Luxembourgish a different one? Or is it? And what happens if I can understand Luxembourgish (on the same basis I understand Cologne German) but I can only speak Standard German back? That does not work in Luxembourg but does work in Switzerland, is that what we are saying? And Dutch is clearly a different language but, if I already speak German, it will be easier to learn Dutch than, say, Spanish, even though Spanish has more speakers – so should I go for Dutch because it is “easy” or Spanish because it is “bigger”?

And all of this is before we even consider Yiddish or Afrikaans, for example, which are very closely related to German and Dutch respectively.

This is why a simple question is so extraordinarily difficult to answer. As ever, the best advice is just to be wary of the big claims made by some!

Unionism trapped by its own narrative

In recent years, Unionism has been beset by a tendency to blunder to an almost inconceivable degree. In the latest example, despite warnings that customs and regulatory checks would be necessary if the UK ceased to align with the European Single Market and EU Customs Union and that they would inevitably have to take place for goods in the Irish Sea (with six crossing points and haulage already stopped, rather than by road across a border with over 300 crossings), the DUP went ahead and voted while holding the balance of power in the House of Commons to do just that and thus render inevitable the so-called “Irish Sea Border”. Whether the Protocol is the absolute best way of enforcing that Irish Sea Border is debatable, but the need for one exists precisely because of the strategy chosen by the DUP; it ignored the warnings of the experts (as it frequently does on Covid too, by the way) and is now professing anger at the inevitable consequences of its own actions.

This tendency towards blunder perhaps has a longer term origin, however. The DUP has also spent much of the year so far demanding that we all join in “celebration” of the “creation of Northern Ireland” 100 years ago. It is utterly astonishing that Unionism would wish to “celebrate” this.

What we are in fact marking is the centenary of the partition of Ireland and therefore, specifically, the loss of most of the island from the UK and even ultimately the Commonwealth, while the remaining “British” part was rendered a place apart from Britain itself by the imposition of what would now be called “devolution” and a consequent reduction of its representation in the UK Parliament. It defies belief that Unionists now see this loss of territory, separation from the “mainland” and indeed general failure of statecraft as something to “celebrate” – and this determination to “celebrate” things which are unworthy of “celebration” and to defend things which they should not be seeking to defend contains the seeds of Unionism’s ongoing strategic blunders.

It would be far more sensible for Unionists to mark 1921 as the highly regrettable loss of much of their homeland from the Commonwealth; and to view partition not as something to be “celebrated” as a “good thing”, but rather to be “marked” as a “necessary thing”. Unionists would then be in a position to argue that partition was a regrettable consequence of a failure to create a genuinely shared island in which all groups would feel welcome, and that this failure is what resonates with us still now. This position would not be universally agreed by people across the island by any means, but it would be undeniably challenging and would be widely seen even by those who did not share it as a legitimate historical narrative.

(This remarkable inability to be able to distinguish between something you regard as necessary given the circumstances and something you outright support and celebrate is a huge Unionist blind spot in almost every political debate, and ultimately results in a profound unwillingness simply to deal with reality. Even in November, for example, the DUP used its sectarian veto to force the NI Executive to choose between re-opening everything and re-opening only close-contact services, when the scientific advice was to do neither; when the other parties opted for the latter, the DUP then claimed they had “supported” the re-opening of close-contact services – when in fact they had been entirely clear that their preference would have been to follow the scientific advice and they were left only because of the DUP with a choice between bad and worse. This story also shows the DUP’s unwillingness to deal with reality just because it does not like it very much – a week later it could not deny it had made a monumental blunder and the policy was reversed, but only after cases had been 25% higher for that week than they otherwise would have been.)

If Unionism were to shift its historical narrative to regard partition as a matter of necessity rather than support (and of historical regret rather than celebration), it would immediately find the last 100 years – and probably the next 100 years – easier to navigate. Every kind word about the IRA (in any form), every reluctance to recognise the legitimacy of British identity on the island of Ireland and even every hint of Anglophobia could be presented as an endorsement of the Unionist contention that partition was an unfortunate necessary to protect their identity, rather than a nasty fissure that they brought about and rejoiced in.

This “unfortunate necessity” narrative would open up all sorts of other things. Aspects of “Irish” identity would be more easily embraced rather than feared, because Unionists themselves would be arguing for an “all-encompassing Irishness” rather than for a complete separation from it, and challenging Nationalists on just how “all-encompassing” they were prepared to make it. Implicit to their entire political and social identity would be the underlying notion that it is others causing the division. This would be contentious, of course, but it would be legitimate and inclusive and it would win Unionism friends all over Ireland and beyond (rather than marginalising them in every major capital of relevance).

Unionism at the time did not want the deal of 1921; it did not want to be foist to the periphery and made a place apart by Conservatives in London. Incredibly, exactly the same thing has happened in 2021. The inability to learn from the former has resulted in the latter. A century is a long time not to learn anything or adapt in any way. Given Unionism now finds itself where it is, would it not be a good time just to consider that what it has been doing for a hundred years really doesn’t work?

Is our obsession with America not, well, a bit OTT?

The big political news of course at the moment is the replacement of an unexpected Leader who emerged from nowhere at the head of a major party and became famous across the world, by someone rather more boring, a safe pair of hands (albeit prone to the odd gaffe) with pre-existing executive experience.

I am, of course, referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s replacement as head of Germany’s CDU by North Rhine-Westphalia First Minister Armin Laschet.

What’s that? You’ve never heard of him?

Now, I like a good election and it was hard for electoral nerds not to be captivated by the recent Presidential Election in the United States, given the evident division of the country and, frankly, the sheer entertainment of it as different states’ results came in. Germany’s elections, based on pure proportional representation (and often over as soon as they’ve started as exit polls are generally quite accurate), are nothing like as “exciting”. Also, it was hard to escape the sheer values proposition at stake – the United States is by far the largest country (by population or economy) in the Western World and therefore its head of government has justified claim to the title “Leader of the Free World”; to have someone in that office who mocked disabled people, downplayed sexual assault and engaged in blatant xenophobia was a stain not just on his country’s but on the entire Western World’s claim to be “civilised”. If you do regard yourself as civilised, and you believe that values such as dignity and integrity matter, then it is absolutely legitimate to feel relief no matter where you are in the world that a dark cloud has been cleared.

Nevertheless, is there a risk we are going a bit OTT with it all? The United Kingdom’s obsession with the “Special Relationship” is often seen by Left-Liberals as weird and frankly a little embarrassing. Yet by any measure the same could apply to some of the adulation heaped upon the new President and Vice President of the United States by many who in fact have no connection to the United States. Is our political obsession with the United States in general not just a little, well, weird?

I believe it was Ustinov who warned that the British (and also, I would say, the Irish) are inclined to believe they are closer to Americans than they actually are simply because the share the same language. Indeed, many (surely a large majority) of those heaping adulation on the new incumbents of an Oval Office are the very same people who argue that Brexit is an act of folly and the UK is wasting its time looking at countries which are further away than its European neighbours. So why the obsession with every tiny aspect of American politics, a six-hour flight away (at best)?

The United States is, in fact, a profoundly foreign country. The very way social interactions take place, the purpose of the police or the military, the working day, the concept of a “vacation” or of “welfare”, the very notion of “healthcare” (and the idea you can have “medical debt”), and the sports which predominate and the way in which they are organised are utterly alien. Even its politics, in a presidential federal republic with political “parties” which are in fact vague collectives of individuals, is markedly distinct.

Surely the argument around Brexit is that the UK is a European country whose identity, trade links and security are innately interlinked with those of the countries closest to it? In turn, surely this means that the resignation of the entire Dutch cabinet over a failure in the welfare system or the leadership election of the largest party in Germany (actually, Europe) should gain rather more than a side column in a newspaper? Where were the Instagram posts about Marc Rutte (whether he resigned for genuine reasons or because he thought it would save face ahead of an inevitable election) or the tweets about Armin Laschet seeing off Friedrich Merz (Germany’s “Trump”)? The truth his we had people who have never heard of any of these men nevertheless referring to the new President and Vice President of the United States somehow as “we”…

(Marc Rutte, of course, is the Prime Minister of the Netherlands and has been for the past ten years. Walk down your local high street and see how many people know that. As for Armin Laschet, who is First Minister of a German state which is in fact almost exactly the same size as the Netherlands…)

This does lead to some rather profound questions. How “European” are we, really – even those of us who argued vehemently against Brexit? How caught up are we in America merely because it speaks the same language? How much of this, actually, is really about the razzamatazz and soap opera of politics, where America looks like the “Premier League” and so is the one we become obsessed by? And, if America is the only other country on whose politics we ever focus, is it any surprise that we never learn anything about how to improve health, education or infrastructure from our much nearer neighbours?

Ultimately, the question is how committed are we, really, to change in our own land, given that such change requires more than a tweet or an Instagram post? Do we just want to talk about it, or do we want to do it? Because if it’s the latter, we probably need to realise our obsession with a faraway country whose society and economy are so utterly alien is turning into an unhealthy addiction.

Dad, RIP


My father, Derek Arthur Parsley was born in Plumstead, in south London, on 3 November 1930.

His childhood was difficult; he lost his own father early (to cancer in early 1936), and early attempts at fostering failed leaving him to spend his childhood being shuffled around orphanages separated from an older sister, Vera, and a younger brother, Ian. His only memory of his father was the occasional walk around the park being told stories of his service as an Officer in the Great War: “I remember him saying they were always moving: ‘You know, one day we walked 31 miles one way, and the next day we walked 31 miles back again!’”

Despite passing his 11-plus, he could not complete his schoolwork in the orphanage and was left with little option but to join the Army as a boy soldier immediately after World War II. Much of his childhood was spent in bunkers literally watching the Blitz (“We didn’t really know how serious it was. It was like watching Match of the Day!”) and listening out for doodle bugs: “The noise was awful, but it was when the noise stopped you knew you had a real problem.”

His early adult life saw a period in Egypt, an opportunity to march at the Coronation in 1953 and, perhaps most notably, a long period in then occupied Germany where he contributed to the building of the Bergen-Belsen memorial from 1952. “It is hard to understand now that it was an utterly defeated people”, he said, often adding with a smile that the autobahns meant that never had an occupied country been easier to get around.

This was an era of National Service and this caused some difficulty, as it meant a lot of training and much of the same day in day out. It did, nevertheless, occasion a visit from a certain Field Marshal Montgomery: “A strange little man actually – all he said was ‘I’m here, and you’re there, and that’s a jolly good thing isn’t it?’”

His real obsession, however, was sport – hockey primarily, but really any sport – and he became friends during the national service era with English test bowler Tony Lock: “He was so competitive if you ever got to match point against him at table tennis, he would simply put down his bat and walk off!”

He visited his sister, who was seriously disabled, as often as he could; and he kept in touch with his mother largely by letter. He married Margaret, while still young, but sadly both his sister and mother (who died in a ‘flu pandemic) had died by the time daughter Sue and son Steve were born. Service took him to Borneo, Hong Kong but for the most part to Germany. On the night the Berlin Wall went up in 1961 he was in the city judging a boxing competition, when the urgent alarm came through for immediate return west: “We actually initially thought it was a nuclear strike; the construction of the Wall was completely without warning.”

He and Margaret separated in the 1970s, during which he spent most of his time in Germany, focused as ever largely on sport (notably now on hockey playing for Münster: “I joined really to learn German, but they just used me to practise their English!”)

His first visit to Northern Ireland in 1971 left a mark, as he became committed to community relations as the way to peace: “What chance do young people have when they are so divided?”

He came across problems in mutual understanding also in Hong Kong, where he also worked around that time. When putting up a warning that protestors would be tear-gassed, which in English read “Disperse or we open fire”, he and his colleagues were surprised to see the protestors fall about on the floor laughing. There has been a mistranslation: the Chinese in fact read “Disperse or we set ourselves on fire!”

In 1976 he remarried, as it happened to a woman from Northern Ireland he had met in Germany called Norma. I was born almost exactly nine months later and immediately before a long-booked long-haul holiday – so I was clearly “unexpected”, as my parents kindly put it! In fact, my father missed the birth as he was busy on the 18th green at St George’s. Upon being told he had another child and having inquired whether it was a boy or a girl, he was told simply “Sink that putt first and then I’ll tell you!”

Two years in the Mediterranean and two years back in Germany followed in the 1980s, before his dining out and a ten-year stint in the Civil Service. There was also renewed contact with his brother, Ian, with whom he had lost touch after he moved to Australia in the 1960s – two visits followed, in 1995 and 2005. Never one for leaving any free time, aside from travelling there were also roles on Boards of Governors, in the Samaritans, and as a senior hockey coach. “My parents didn’t live long, so I always thought I had something to make up for.”

Retirement was spent initially in Northern Ireland, where he continued the busy life by joining the Donaghadee Male Voice Choir, fundraising for Barnardo’s, and joining the chorus with Bangor Operatic Society. However, the most inspirational decision was to move to South Africa to spent half of the first decade of the 21st century sitting on the balcony of an apartment ideally located just up the road from the Stellenbosch wine reserves. Oh, and did he tell you he completed the London Marathon aged 71? (He invariably did, more than once…)

Dementia and diabetes settled in after that, and so there followed a full-time return to Northern Ireland and, at last, a well-deserved quiet life. There was still the odd flash of wit or wisdom, but for the most part it was a time for relaxing after a life spent doing anything but. The humour remained, however – having placed a warning note in the dog’s cupboard that what was contained there was “Dog Food – NOT for humans!”, Mum returned home one day to find a note in the fridge: “Human Food – NOT for dogs!”

The last six weeks or so were spent in care, either in the Ulster Hospital or in Ballymaconnell Nursing Home. Unfortunately circumstances dictated visiting was difficult to impossible, but he was consistently reported to be “always smiling”; anyone who knew him would surely always picture him with a cheeky grin on his face.

Nobody is perfect, and my father was no exception. The story is not complete without mentioning that the scale of his drinking was not in truth entirely unproblematic, his temper was short to say the least, and in the early ‘90s the last of a series of driving offences was so ludicrous that it not only earned a five-year ban and a hefty fine but also a place on Radio 4 and the front page of the Mirror.

However, his skills as a daily raconteur, his way of finding a laugh in anything, his capacity for living life to the full and (for me most of all) his truly remarkable ability never ever to hold grudges meant that those who came across him invariably forgave him – and came to love him.

My father, Derek Arthur Parsley, died peacefully in the Ulster Hospital just outside Belfast, on 12 January 2021.

After a life so well lived, he’ll not be getting any change at the Pearly Gates.

“Remember, if you hit a bad shot, just make sure your next one’s a good’n.”

RIP.

Coronavirus – curiosities around reducing risk on transport

I remain firmly of the view that the UK Government and NI Executive (and many other European and North American public health authorities) should focus in their communications on the three ‘C’s – avoid contact, crowds and closed spaces. This guidance is much better than laying out complex Regulations that everyone has to interpret for their own situation.

Another problem this counters is that people are very poor at assessing risk at the best of times, and even less so with a virus even medical researchers do not fully understand. There is also an inevitable tendency to focus on what others should be doing rather than on what we ourselves can do to make things better. (One example here is the endless call for travel restrictions which would, of course, impact on other people but not on us. Travel restrictions are, in fact, only really useful if rates of transmission are notably lower in our jurisdiction than in neighbouring jurisdictions, and even then only if properly applied – the best way to apply them in fact is not to bar entry itself but to make life difficult upon entry so that people think again about bothering, most obviously by requiring and enforcing a period of isolation.)

What we learn from looking at some research from Tokyo (the Japanese public health authority itself) and Berlin (through transport modelling research) is as follows:

  • planes are actually quite low risk because of good ventilation – insisting upon vaccination rather than mask wearing prior to air travel would have the exact same effect (reducing risk by 90%) – insisting on both makes little further practical difference so, until population immunity, it makes sense to ask for either/or;
  • however, there is a specific difficulty with people leaving the jurisdiction (or, at least, a region of the world where restrictions are similar) is there is no way of knowing how they behave when they are away (so no way of knowingly reducing risk or even assessing it);
  • trains, particularly modern trains, are actually extremely low risk (like planes) likewise because of ventilation – again, here, risks are further reduced by 90% (i.e. to a tenth of what they would be otherwise) by wearing of masks (proper wearing of new or regularly washed masks specifically) or vaccination;
  • cycling is extremely low risk and there is a high probability that taking measures to encourage or enable it would also help with the virus;
  • conversely, counter to the usual economic policy, where cars are required consideration needs to be given to recommending single occupancy (so, perhaps, to actions such as temporarily removing car pool lanes);
  • movement from home limits (10 miles is guidance in NI; a similar 15km is being discussed in parts of Germany) are in principle helpful, but probably largely unenforceable;
  • interestingly, risk is reduced by a further 75% if facing passengers sit diagonally rather than straight on (which in fact means it is reduced to very, very close to zero assuming all passengers are wearing masks and the carriage is at low enough capacity to allow this);
  • of course, the best thing we can all do is stay home – remember, if we all just stayed home, the risk of exporting the virus out of the home would be zero…

In terms of public policy, there is not much to be done other than what is being done; for each of us, well, we all have a role.

DUP’s one-dimensional thinking renders it incapable of governing

The stories are remarkably similar.

It has been evident since cases began to rise again in late September that the transfer test – consisting of lots of people coming together in an indoor location where they may spread a virus which is now known for airborne transmission – may not be able to take place. As of now, however, despite a legal delay in November and, in effect, a regulatory delay in January re-emphasising that the test may never take place (and now with many schools themselves opting out of using it), the DUP continues to think one-dimensionally and pretend no contingency is needed. This is such a failure of leadership and basic logic as to be itself mind-boggling; yet the party continues merely to blame others for, er, “social engineering” or something, while refusing itself to present any solutions to an eventuality which has always been possible and is now categorically likely.

Yet it continues to repeat. In November, the DUP also insisted on using a sectarian veto to block a paper recommending that full closure of hospitality remain in place, leaving the options between gradual re-opening and immediate re-opening (as opposed to the actual expert advice for no re-opening). It then accused those who, when faced with those options, voted for “gradual re-opening” of “supporting” the DUP stance, even though they had clearly preferred “no re-opening”. Cases soared (which means, bluntly, people died) and the DUP was forced into a retreat. As with education, the DUP’s one dimensional thinking led it, and Northern Ireland, down a blind alley; yet it continued to argue others had somehow “supported” it when it alone had wielded the veto.

And so it was with Brexit. The DUP opposed membership of the EU, risking a customs frontier; holding the balance of power it then opposed a UK-wide backstop, risking a customs frontier; still holding the balance of power it cast the decisive votes opposing UK alignment with the EU Customs Union, risking a customs frontier; still holding the balance of power it refused a further extension, risking a customs frontier; it then voted for an election risking a majority government which had already said it would implement a customs frontier. With its one-dimensional thinking (albeit towards an entirely unclear objective) its MPs cast five votes, many while holding the balance of power, each and every one of which risked a customs frontier (some specifically a customs frontier between Great Britain and Northern Ireland – that was always, for practical reasons, where it was going and they were warned), they are trying to blame everyone else for the, er, the customs frontier which is in fact an inevitable consequence of the votes they cast.

It is not like this works out for the DUP. The refusal, for example, to contemplate any compromise whatsoever on abortion led to Northern Ireland technically having arguably the most liberal abortion regime in the UK; the terms of Irish language street signs in some areas are now better for the DUP’s opponents than they could ever have dreamed; and now the selection system which Sinn Fein could not remove is unravelling messily under a DUP Minister. Indeed, it was the DUP’s technical withdrawal from the Executive in 2015 for reasons no one can remember which was in part responsible for the RHI debacle, occurring entirely under its Ministers.

This one-dimensional thinking consists of rejecting every viable option for fear of being blamed for the consequences, in the belief that the consequences of that rejection can then be blamed on others; yet it also consists, bizarrely, of thinking that everything in Northern Ireland revolves around the DUP, everything in the UK revolved around Northern Ireland, and everything in Europe revolved around the UK. This beats trying to comprehend the actual multi-dimensional world out there, in which the DUP is a minority party in a small region of a peripheral country.

At one level this inability to work beyond the one-dimensional is comical, but at another it is extremely serious. It leads to a complete disconnect between actions in government and outcomes for the people that government is supposed to serve.

Fundamentally, it leads to lots of houses being left on fire and others having to determine whether to try the extinguisher or call the fire brigade – with the DUP left pathetically to blame them for whatever choice they make in trying to put out the fire rather than accepting responsibility for the fires in the first place.

In other words, the DUP’s one-dimensional thinking means it is utterly incapable of governing properly in a multi-dimensional world. That, for a start, means “mandatory coalition” has to end.