Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 20th March 2017

IT makes you long for the return of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells sometimes.

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells was the generic name of outraged letter writers, usually to the Times, back in the day when outrage did not extend to death threats and trolling. When Disgusted penned those first words, Dear Sir or Dear Editor, it was to make a well argued point. People didn’t have to resign, be sacked or have their families, their sexual proclivities and their very lives thrown into question. There was the little matter of free speech which appears to pass most of today’s Internet trolls and interest groups by.

Dame Jenni Murray, a national feminist treasure from Woman’s Hour, was effectively silenced by the BBC after saying transgender women, who have previously lived as men, “with all the privilege that entails”, do not have the shared experience of growing up female.

I suspect that’s a fact. However BBC bosses said she must remain neutral on controversial subjects. So much for public debate. How weak organisations, including the Beeb, have become in the face of certain lobby groups. While the admirable Jenni Murray is branded a “bigot” they cower in the shadows lest they be seen as politically incorrect. Sheer hypocrisy. The BBC encourages Dame Jenni to tackle contentious issues on her program yet orders her silence when right-on activists take umbrage. It’s the box ticking PC culture that pervades all debate nowadays.

A Cumbrian councillor had the police called in over threats to herself and family members after she posted what she admitted afterwards was an ill-judged comment on a computer site asking how many fit people had taken part in an NHS protest march in London. Most reasonable folk would agree she went too far, but not to the point of attracting personal threats. Fiona Robson was targeted by vile abuse. And the inevitable calls for her resignation. “Fatuous, crass and hasty” — her own words — she may have been. But she’s no Katy Hopkins, the vituperative columnist sued over defamatory claims she made in tweets.

We live in a world where almost anything goes on the Internet. Even the bloke who invented the worldwide web is having second thoughts. We’ve got to learn that debate is good, opinion we don’t share is often worth listening to, and that the immediate rush to outrage is stifling freedom. It would not be so bad if it just ended at outrage, but threatening people with violence is the resort of the sick and bereft of the ability to argue a case. Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells went in pretty hard at times, but I am absolutely certain he or she never threatened violence, uttered death threats, or even demanded resignations.

NOT A GHOST OF A CHANCE

REMEMBER how a bunch of battle-hardened Aussie cricketers, playing against Durham, were scared out of their wits by ghostly apparitions while staying at nearby Lumley Castle. The castle is supposedly haunted. But, as I don’t believe in ghosts, there’s the more frightening thought that it could have been Sir Ian Botham stalking the corridors by night, dressing up to unsettle England’s opponents and keep them sleepless before the big game.

Can I, for a brief moment, trouble you with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Not the usual stuff you read in this column over Saturday breakfast I grant you, but Professor Brian Cox, the chatty bloke off the BBC’s Infinite Monkey Cage, reckons there is now proof, courtesy of the Large Hadron Collider, buried deep underground in Switzerland, that ghosts don’t exist. If they did, it would have detected them.

He says there is nowhere in the standard model of physics that would allow a medium or substance able to hold on to our information after we die. Ghosts, if they did exist, would need to be comprised solely of energy as, being ghosts, they could not be made out of matter. Energy would be quickly depleted because that second law says that energy is always lost to heat. My own theory owes little to physics, but whenever I read or hear about ghosts, I always notice that they wander fully clothed. You never see reports of a nudie ghost being spotted, leastways unless presumably someone has been a lifelong naturist prior to their passing. A naturist ghost? Now that would scare me.

Never mind the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Professor Cox’s scientific reasoning, explain this to me. How do the dead somehow manage to take their clothes with them when they become ghosts? Do they nip down to Oxfam after dark to reclaim items handed in by relatives? As a non-believer, I rest my case.

MEMORIES ARE MADE OF THIS

GOOD news for those of us who can never find our keys, remember our passwords, recall whether or not we took our pills this morning. Little annoyances that frustrate and send our blood pressure soaring, especially those of us who are getting on in years. Scientists have found that anyone can develop a memory of world-beating proportions in just six weeks, using a simple technique known as “loci training” which involves visualising a map or journey and assigning things to be memorised as landmarks on your route.

The results of a study published in the journal Neuron were astonishing. Trainees could recall 62 words from a list of 72 within 20 minutes of learning them. Soon they were challenging “memory athletes” who specialise in the use of memory hooks. The loci method uses the logical left side of the brain for navigation and the creative right side to visualise landmarks. Using the whole brain rather than just one side is linked to better memory.

I’ve a feeling there’s nothing particularly new about all this. If you are my vintage you will probably remember a chap called Leslie Welch, the “Memory Man” who made a career out of his extraordinary sporting knowledge on the stage and on radio in the 1950s. A sports addict who spent hours poring over cricketing Wisdens and football annuals, he entertained troops while on army service in the Western Desert. After demob he went on radio programs like In Town Tonight and Variety Playhouse and was a regular at the London Palladium. Welch fielded challenges from the audience, rattling off details and enhancing his answers with more facts and figures. He believed that everyone was born with a perfect memory, but thanks to the invention of the pen and paper, they only used a fifth of it, the other four fifths lying dormant “like a muscle not being used.”

Ah yes, them was t’ days alright. Winter evenings huddled round the good old steam radio. The Memory Man, Professor Stanley Unwin spouting gobbledegook, the Clitheroe Kid, Ron and Eth and Wilfred Pickles embarrassing some poor sop with the inevitable question, “are you courting? Give him the money Mabel.” Leslie Welch was later to become disillusioned with his memory act. In 1963 he turned his back on the stage and became a civil servant living in Ruislip, Middlesex. Knowing every cup winning side and all the players and goalscorers and Test Match curiosities apparently lost its shine.

Meanwhile I’ve planned a delightful route that takes me from Penrith down the Eden Valley, through Culgaith and Temple Sowerby to Warcop and Crosby Ravensworth. And still I can’t remember where I put those blasted car keys.

JUST DEAL

PROMISES, Promises. Remember the sixties musical and the memorable song I’ll Never Fall In Love Again where Fran finally realises that Chuck is the one who truly loves her. Those final words as he declares his love. “Shut up and deal,” she says. There are all sorts of promises. Promises you keep. Promises delivered with fingers crossed behind your back. Convenient promises. Unrealistic promises.

But then there are political promises and they are the worst of all as Chancellor Philip Hammond found out when delivering the budget last week, which was followed by the storm over reforms to National Insurance and the clear breach of a promise made in the Conservative manifesto not to increase VAT, income tax or National Insurance.

Of course Theresa May will say she is not bound by what her predecessor, David Cameron, announced. But it was a firm lesson to the Prime Minister and Chancellor that not all promises in the shifting sands of politics are easily broken. It’s a classic example of the short-termism that afflicts politics. Governments always have an eye on the next election. It could all change in the blink of an eye and the shock over-turning of an opinion poll result. Nothing, including promises, lasts long in politics.

Mr Hammond’s budget speech illustrated how little we should trust political promises, no matter which side they come from. David Cameron? Been and gone. Party manifestos? Just waste paper to the next PM, the next Chancellor, the next lot of ministers.

‘Twas ever thus. So shut up and deal.