Mirror, mirror on the wall: A modern fairy tale


Once upon a time in a small village, called Bethnal Green, a group of people set up a cooperative tea room. The village tea room had been badly run, it was losing money, the owner was not supplying the needs of either the villagers or the many tourists who flocked to the pretty village. Attractive tea rooms were a speciality of the area and everyone felt it would be sad if the pretty village of Bethnal Green lost its tea room. People came together, money was raised and the cooperative tea room was launched. It very soon became profitable and was a source of pride for everyone living in the village.

One person who was particularly proud of the tea room was the local headmaster, a very kind and popular man who wanted to see the villagers recognised for all the hard work they had done. There was an organisation that supported such rural ventures, called the Bucolic Order (BO for short). Unfortunately, it did not confine its activities to these awards. It supported outdoor activities like hiking and cycling. It attempted to encourage bird watching and conservation projects. It was wary about traditional rural pursuits and expressed deep concern about modern farming methods. But the head master didn’t realise this. His only interest was seeing the villagers recognised for their efforts so he decided to recommend the tea room for one of the organisation’s awards.

On the tea room committee were representatives of the farming, hunting, shooting and fishing community who were horrified at the prospect of receiving an award from such an obviously left wing organisation. They felt the tea room should be ‘non-political’ at all costs so they demanded that the head master’s recommendation be turned down. It didn’t matter that most of the villagers, customers and suppliers weren’t aware of the ‘political’ nature of the awards. That most villagers would have been happy to see their efforts rewarded, irrespective of the source. Or that, turning down such an award would be obviously hostile to the hiking, cycling, conservationist and bird watching community. Or that the award would have positive effects like publicising the tea room and encouraging visitors. They also did not appear to be worried that many customers and suppliers were hikers, cyclists and conservationists. What mattered to the hunters, shooters and anglers was that they signalled their virtues to all those who might support them, irrespective of how others might feel. Despite the best efforts of all those who desired the good publicity and recognition that such an award might bring the cooperative tea room committee asked the head master to withdraw his nomination so that, in their judgement at least, the tea room could remain ‘non-political’.

The Sham of British Local Democracy 2


That’s three and a half hours of my life I won’t get back. I’ve written before here about the sham of British local democracy but today it got up close and personal. First some background. In the 1990s a local water company needed a new water treatment works near where we now live. Under threat of compulsory purchase, a local farmer, unwillingly, sold them land to build it on. It is surrounded by his fields, on the edge of a grouse moor half a mile from a single track adopted road and several miles from the nearest public transport.

The plant was in operation for about ten years until the water company decided it was surplus to requirements, closed it down and sold it on, without giving the farmer from whom it had been virtually expropriated the chance to buy it back. Recently, a planning application was submitted wanting to convert the water treatment works to a residence. The original owner would never have sold the land for residential development and he does not want a residential property in the middle of his land. Our local parish council objected in the hope that the unsustainability of the site would be obvious even to the most myopic local government bureaucrat.

However, they did not realise that the government’s National Planning Policy Framework had moved the goal posts. It means any redundant building, just about anywhere except a National Park, can be converted for residential use, even if the original owner had been fleeced, and even if the property was in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The result was the planning officers slavishly followed the NPPF and recommended the application be approved under delegated powers. To their credit, the ward councillors refused to allow the approval to go through on the nod, and insisted it went to the Local Authority Planning Committee.  And that’s why I spent three and a half hours this afternoon, losing the will to live, attending the committee so I could object to this particular planning application.

The first agenda item offered me a smidgeon of hope. An entirely sensible application to build a house was passed despite the committee chairman, and the planning officers saying it contravened the NPPF, which is clearly as sacred to bureaucrats and councillors as if it were brought down from Mount Sinai on tablets of stone by Moses himself. All the other applications were accepted and unquestioningly followed the advice of the council officers, despite in one case, extremely worrying issues about the state of the sewers and flood risks being raised by a parish councillor and objector. Finally, it came to the application I was waiting for. I objected, the ward councillor and one other supported the objection, then the planning solicitor intervened saying that refusal to accept the application contravened the NPPF and that the committee could not go against the sacred text. With the exception of the ward councillor and one other, all the other councillors (representing all parties) caved in. If that is the relationship between local authorities and central government you really have to ask yourself what is the point of local government at all, and is it any wonder hardly anyone votes in local elections. What was worse was I got the distinct impression that the application had only been called to committee by the grown-ups, to quiet the agitated children who councillors needed to vote for them every 4 years. It was insulting and patronising.

Since I was eighteen, I’ve never missed a vote in national, local or (spit) EU elections, but after today, I think I’m going to have a lie in on local election days in future.

“Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.” Captain G. M. Gilbert, US Army psychologist, Nuremberg trials

When I’m feeling down I have two coping strategies, I either watch a feel good film that cheers me up, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is one favourite, Singin in the Rain is another. The other alternative is to watch a film so bleak that it makes me realise how totally bloody lucky I am to be me, and living here and now. Last night I adopted the second strategy and watched Schindler’s List. It worked, but the snag with watching a film like Schindler’s List is, although it makes you realise how fortunate you are, if you’re the slightest bit interested in history or philosophy, it raises hideous questions. How could the holocaust happen? How could apparently normal people become involved in such crimes? This is particularly true when you’ve been agonising the nature of evil because of an issue thrown up in your every day life by an encounter with a ‘normal’ and superficially pleasant person.

Let’s not forget most of the people who perpetrated the holocaust were ‘normal’. Just how normal was shown by the book Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning. It’s an exceptional historical work. The book takes as its basis the detailed records of one squad from the Nazis’ extermination groups, Police Battalion 101, and explores in detail its composition, its actions, and methods. The crucial thing about this and other Police Battalions involved in the Holocaust was that they were all middle aged men too old and unfit to be conscripted into either the Wehrmacht or the Waffen SS. In the book Browning introduces us to cheerful, friendly, ordinary men who were trained to perform acts of genocide on an industrial scale. The first action in which they were involved was the killing of 1,500 Jews from Józefów ghetto, approximately 100 kilometers south of Lublin in southeastern Poland on July 13, 1942. Twelve out of 500 soldiers opted out when allowed to leave freely. Those of them who felt unable to continue the shooting at point-blank range of prisoners begging for mercy, were asked to wait at the marketplace where the trucks were loaded. The action was finished in seventeen hours. Only a dozen Jews are known to have survived the slaughter. The point that comes over clearly in the account Browning gives is that soldiers who did not want to participate were not compelled to, but over 400, most of whom had reached maturity before being exposed to Nazi propaganda, chose to do so. The book shatters all reassuring fantasies that atrocities – on whatever scale – are carried out by drooling sadistic monsters. It shows how ordinary men can gradually lose their humanity and lightly, casually murder men, women and children. It makes very uncomfortable reading.

But another book, by a US Army psychologist attached to the Nuremberg Trials comes even closer to explaining how such events can happen. G.M Gilbert was the prison psychologist responsible for the Nazi prisoners at Nuremberg, in his account of his experiences, Nuremberg Diary, he wrote:

“In my work with the defendants I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men.
Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.”

Unless you want to explore the deeper realms of metaphysics and theology, I think that is as good a working definition of evil as any I’ve come across. But lack of empathy is not just confined to the Holocaust and the past. And this what I’ve been agonising over, a few weeks ago we were with a distant acquaintance in a pub. His marriage is going through a rocky patch, and despite his wife having a potentially terminal illness, he was joking about becoming a rich widower and planning how to spend his inheritance on a large house. What upset me most was that he was referring to the mother of his children. My skin started to crawl and it has been crawling ever since but, although such a sentiment demonstrates a total lack of empathy, both for his wife and perhaps even more importantly for his children, was it really evil? Our acquaintance will kill no one, he will function in society. But does the casual disregard for his wife’s wellbeing and his failure to consider his children’s grief at her possible death demonstrate a callousness that differs only in degree from that displayed by the ordinary men of the Nazi Police battalions?

I’ve been wracking my brains over this question for several weeks. I’m no closer to knowing the answer. I only know that the more distant this particular acquaintance is, the better I’ll be pleased.