Sunday, 1 November 2009

Griffin v Powell

In 1987, I made the headlines of the BBC1 9 o'clock news. The occassion was a speaking visit to the Bristol University Student Union by the famed right winger, Enoch Powell which ended in a near riot as students united from all parts of the country to demonstrate against him.

I wasn't a demonstrator. In fact, the only reason I had gone to the Student Union that day was to play table football. When I got to the Union, at around 1pm, the main entrances had been blocked off so, frustrated and confused, I tried to get into the Union through a little known side door. However, the police intervened and escorted me back to the front of the Union.

By this time, the main entrances were becoming increasingly packed with venomous students who were literally baying for Powell's blood. Soon there were so many students, I was swept into the Union and pushed to the edge of the main staircase. For a few more minutes nothing much more happened as the Union became increasingly more noisy and crowded.

Then, suddenly, the whole atmosphere became very much noiser. I've heard 110,000 fans screaming at the Nou Camp stadium, in Barcelona, but that was nothing compared to the decibel level I now encountered. True, a large number of students were screeching and whistling at the top of their vocal range. However, there was something else that's more difficult to describe. Every single student seemed to project the most intense hatred possible and it appeared to massively magnify the sound. In short, it was terrifying.

Then, in the middle of it all, twenty, maybe thirty police officers forced a path open and Enoch Powell appeared in the centre of the pandemonium. Even though he was in his mid seventies, Powell walked fairly quickly and mounted the staircase. I'll never forget his face, it was a picture of absolute, steely determination. For me, it was very hard to reconcile. How on earth could this man be so convinced that he was correct when, without the strong police presence, the masses would have literally torn him to shreds and probably eaten him too, for good measure?

Later that evening, I watched the BBC coverage with my friends. The BBC commentator advised the audience that minutes before Mr Powell turned up, there had been a concerted effort by students to break into the side entrance of the Union to sabotage the talk. The footage then panned to a close up of my bemused face as I was led away by the police.

In fact, this wasn't my first encounter with Enoch Powell, it wasn't even my second. I had already seen him speak twice at my school, University College School, in 1982 and 1984. For the first visit, there was a huge amount of excitement about the forthcoming speaker and I did my homework.

Brigadier Enoch Powell MBE (1912-1998) was born in Stechford, Birmingham. Before turning to politics, he was an academic, linguist, soldier and poet. He became a Conservative MP between 1950 and 1974 and an Ulster Unionist MP between 1974 and 1987. He was controversial throughout much of his career and his tenure in senior office was brief. He had strong, distinctive views on monetary policy, national identity, immigration and United Kingdom's entry into the European Economic Community which later became the European Union. He was dismissed from the Shadow Cabinet for his controversial and widely remembered 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech in opposition to mass Commonwealth immigration to Britain.

Although I immediately found Powell's views on immigration to be very offensive, I was fascinated by how incredibly clever he was. Whilst at Trinity College, Cambridge University, in one Greek prose examination lasting three hours, he was asked to translate a passage into Greek. Powell walked out after one and a half hours, having produced translations in the styles of Plato and Thucydides. For his efforts, he was awarded a double starred first in Latin and Greek and then become a Professor of Greek at Sydney University, aged only 25.

Watching Enoch Powell speak for the first time was an extraordinary experience. I was only 15 and it became seared in my memory. Powell was famed for his oratorical brilliance and I was hypnotised by him. He spoke without notes, never pausing once and seemed to possess endless knowledge and intelligence. I have subsequently seen many famous politicians and statesmen speak and - apart from Margaret Thatcher - there really was no one in his league.

Interestingly, when he gave his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech, it caused very little reaction among his audience. It was only after the speech was publicised and scrutinised, that it caused such intense outrage. I'm sure the reason was that Powell mesmerised his audience in the same way that he held me as a teenager.

Powell spoke again a couple of years later at my school in a debate with the then headmaster, Giles Slaughter. I thought Mr Slaughter was very brave to take on Enoch Powell and indeed he did credibly well but Powell was once again as brilliant as he was two years ago.

The angry scenes I encountered outside the Bristol University Union in 1987 were repeated a couple of weeks ago outside the BBC Television studio in White City at the notorious Question Time featuring Nick Griffin. Indeed, during the Question Time itself, Jack Straw referred several times to Enoch Powell and the "Rivers of Blood" speech.

To my mind, there are one or two interesting comparisons between Griffin and Powell. Nick Griffin holds shameful and disgusting views but he is also a clever man. He went to Downing College, Cambridge University but - unlike Powell - only succeeded in obtaining a Lower Second in Law. Whilst a student, his affiliation with the National Front was revealed during a Cambridge Union debate and his photograph was published in a student newspaper. Undeterred he later founded the Young National Front Student Organisation.

Both Powell and Griffin were strongly rumoured to have had homosexual encounters. According to John Evans, Chaplain of Trinity and Extra Preacher to the Queen, instructions were left with him to reveal after Powell's death that at least one of the romantic affairs of his life had been homosexual. However, Powell's biographer, Simon Heffner, disputed this and argued that this did not mean Powell was homosexual but rather that he had not yet met any girls.

Meanwhile, Griffin, at the age of 16, was reported to have stayed at the home of National Front organiser, Ian Webster. Webster was openly gay and in a four page leaflet written in 1999 claimed to have had a homosexual relationship with Griffin, then the BNP's publicity director. Griffin has denied any such relationship.

However, there are many more contrasts than comparisons. Powell could have obtained real power had he not so spectacularly blown his chances in 1968 and then left the Conservative Party in 1974. Indeed, he might well have won the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975, instead of Mrs Thatcher. As mentioned, he was an exceptionally clever man and it is a shame that his peculiar views led his career down a darker path.

Meanwhile, as Question Time demonstrated, Griffin is a fairly poor public speaker, a bore and a bigot of the worst sort. His views are significantly more extreme than Powell's ever were, despite his farcical attempts to make the BNP more respectable. For example, Powell was never a Holocaust denier. Indeed, at the age of 70, he learnt Hebrew, his 12th and final language.

Griffin will never remotely attain Powell's achievements. Powell was a prolific writer and an accomplished poet. He had many talents beyond politics and even appeared in the BBC's 2002 100 Greatest Britons of all Time (voted for by the public).

Griffin - for his part - will, hopefully, one day be consigned to the dustbin of anonymity. The sooner, the better, frankly.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009


My dad, Laurance David Jacobs, died on the 25 May 2009, aged 72. The problem with death is that words are inadequate tools to describe the devastation of bereavement and that little phrase, in itself, is a hackneyed old cliche.

Despite saying that, a possible way of conveying the experience is by means of historical anology. At the moment, I'm reading Richard Rhodes' 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning account of the making of the atomic bomb. As everyone knows, the atomic bomb resulted in the tremendous destruction at Hirsohima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Here is the account in Wikipedia of the Japanese realisation of the bombing of Hiroshima:

Military bases repeatedly tried to call the Army Control Station in Hiroshima. The complete silence from that city puzzled the men at headquarters; they knew that no large enemy raid had occurred and that no sizeable store of explosives was in Hiroshima at that time. A young officer of the Japanese General Staff was instructed to fly immediately to Hiroshima, to land, survey the damage, and return to Tokyo with reliable information for the staff. It was generally felt at headquarters that nothing serious had taken place and that the explosion was just a rumor.
The staff officer went to the airport and took off for the southwest. After flying for about three hours, while still nearly one hundred miles (160 km) from Hiroshima, he and his pilot saw a great cloud of smoke from the bomb. In the bright afternoon, the remains of Hiroshima were burning. Their plane soon reached the city, around which they circled in disbelief. A great scar on the land still burning and covered by a heavy cloud of smoke was all that was left.

I remember my dad telling me, when I was a child, that at the end of the World War 2, the Americans dropped a bomb on a Japanese city that was so powerful it immediately killed 60,000 people. I recall struggling with the magnitude of this fact, I just couldn't believe that humans could be so clever and so immensely destructive at the same time.

How did that Japanese staff officer feel when he first realised that a major city had been wiped out in an instant? It was completely without precedent, entirely different from anything experienced before. But that it what the loss of a parent is to you, something that is so outside the bounds of your life experience, that you struggle for days and months to just try and make sense of what has happened. Most often, you can't.

I'm not yet ready to eulogise properly about my father in writing, either in this blog or anywhere else. However, I would like to just share another initial realisation - my first awareness that my dad had a brain that was superior to just about anyone else I've ever met.

I always knew that my dad was incredibly clever. The house was full of unintelligible books and even as a little kid I was dead proud that my dad had come from a very humble background to win scholarships to Cambridge and Harvard and then become - of all things - a nuclear physicist. But it only really struck home the day I decided to test my dad's vocabulary.

Around 1978, when I was 11 years old, my dad bought a slim book called Test Your Wordpower. The book comprised of a prologue followed by 50 tests. In each test, there were 60 words divided into 6 levels of 10 words. Level 1 contained really easy words like dog, cat, house etc. Then the levels increased in difficulty until you got Level 6 which was made up the words which were punted around in a gameshow like Call My Bluff.

The prologue helpfully told you there was a huge correllation between your vocabulary and your IQ. Basically, the smarter you were, the more words you knew. The majority of the adult population ended up in Level 3. If you found yourself in Level 4, you probably had a very decent job. If you landed in Level 5, you were probably a top professional or heading in that direction. Level 6 meant you were very flipping sharp.

I kept taking the tests and usually scraped into Level 3. (Rather irritatingly, I took the test a few months ago and still scraped into Level 3 which shows how little I've learnt in the last 30 years!) My mum comfortably made Level 4 and then, one day, I decided to see what my dad would score. Incredibly, it turned out, that my dad could define every single word in the book.

I was always trying to catch my dad out by hauling in the family's immense English dictionary and checking his definitions but I never tripped him up, ever. He could always define the word thrown at him and it just staggered me. The prologue didn't tell you what kind of person could score full marks on every test but I had a pretty good idea!

Of course my dad was infinitely more than a walking dictionary, he was an absolutely unique and brilliant individual. However, as I said, this blog is not a eulogy just a few random thoughts and memories.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

The Evasive Deal

At the moment, there's a tiresome email doing the rounds inviting you to a barbecue party. You've probably all seen it before. The email attaches a powerpoint presentation. When you click onto it, it supplies details of the party - a vision of paradise complete with a tropical island, beautiful companions and the finest luxuries. At the end of the presentation, you are asked whether you would like to accept the invite. There are two icons, "yes" and "no". Of course, you immediately try to click onto the "yes" icon but - surprise, surprise - it runs away from the cursor! The more your cursor pursues the icon, the faster the icon flees your cursor.

So basically you shake your head. It's just a dumb email, after all - right?

As a god forsaken commercial property solicitor, I am regularly sent details of off market properties which I then forward onto clients and contacts. These deals always promise huge finders fees and massive incentives. For example, last week I was sent information relating to a confidential £140 million development site in Central London promising a 2% finders fee (£2.8 million) if the deal could be successfully placed and completed. According to the details, it wasn't going to be too difficult as the developers were in administration and would take an enormous discount if necessary. The redevelopment value was estimated to be in excess of a billion pounds.

However, as I've found out, there are several problems with these deals and most of these problems reflect the current state of the economy.

1. The deal either doesn't exist or exists in a completely differently form to what is being touted. Frequently, this is because proprietors or their agents leak information into the public domain solely to ascertain what the true market value of their properties are. They usually have no intention of selling the properties and will always insist the properties were put on the market without their authority. However, the reality is quite different.

The best example of this is Northern Rock who at the end of last year knowingly released details of over 1,200 repossessed properties in order to obtain their current market price. The resulting scandal made the headlines of the Mail on Sunday and Northern Rock were extremely quick to maintain that the properties were not for sale and they had no idea the information had been released. The truth was by the time they issued their denial they had received all the information they required about the value and demand for their remortgage portfolio!

2. If the deal does exist, there will be a myriad of ignorant intermediaries and agents to overcome before you can actually get to the proprietor or the genuine controller of the deal. This is because the original information will have been been relayed to numerous agents and solicitors who will ultimately demand their finder's cut should the transaction ever complete. The process inevitably creates hideous chinese whispers so a £1m residential property development in Coventry may become a £12m commercial development in Central London by the time you receive it. If that isn't bad enough, the whole property market is currently swamped by paranoia, distrust, fear and greed. Unless you are dealing directly with original parties, the prevailing commercial atmosphere will drag you down. Supposedly off market and confidential properties have sometimes done the rounds for many months and will be flung around the market like a syphilitic whore.

3. If you can obtain an offer from an interested party, it will nearly always be rejected as being too low. Sellers are still woefully naive, or willfully ignorant, as to the current condition of the market which resembles a hedgehog that has been crushed by a line of several hundred tanks. In contrast, cash rich purchasers (there are no other types for the time being) are rare and highly valued. Unlike oppressed sellers, these purchasers are acutely aware of current market conditions and will have been wooed endlessly. When they make their precious cash offers, they will demand their pound of flesh and sellers will find their ruthless offers exceptionally difficult to stomach.

4. If, miraculously, a deal is agreed, it will inevitably collapse as sellers will become convinced that they have been cheated and purchasers will keep chipping the purchase price as the market continues to sink like a stone.

This is Brown's Britain in 2009 and it shows no signs of improving. It is just as well that our Prime Minister has only one functioning eye. With two eyes, he would behold the true state of the economy and the hideousness of his claim to have abolished boom and bust in 2007.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Peaches beats recession woes

On Saturday evening, I caught sight of the front page of the International Herald Tribune and it struck me again how quickly the world economy is deteriorating. Last month, over 600,000 people lost their jobs in the United States. This equals the carnage suffered by American workers at the height of the Depression in the 1930's. I skimmed through the article which finished with the now obligatory reminder that there was no end in sight to the current problems and they were expected to get much worse.

In fact , it seems that any report that contains a bad set of statistics invariably compounds the unwelcome news with some sort of arbitrary forecast that in a few months or years, the terrible figures are expected to double or treble or whatever negative equation takes your fancy.

I then went out to Golders Green in North London for a meal with my wife. But wherever you go you can't escape the unmistakable signs of the current recession. I quickly noticed that within a few yards of our restaurant, bailiffs had forced the closure of three other restaurants and a bar. Then while we were eating our meal, I couldn't help overhearing a number of people bemoaning the loss of their jobs or businesses. The evidence of deprivation and anxiety appears universal.

Finally, we got home and I checked the BBC News website. The headlines under the Main News (as well as the Entertainment) section was that Bob Geldof's teenage daughter, Peaches, had split up with her husband after six months of marriage. Ranking below this news in importance, were the terrible bush fires in Australia.

I scratched my head and asked the obvious question. Why did the BBC think this bit of worthless gossip was so important? Either they genuinely believed that their world audience gave a rat's buttocks about Geldof's child, or, alternatively, they thought this mindless bit of drivel would somehow distract people from the severity of the global recession.

I have no idea but clearly the BBC moves in mysterious ways.