Notes on December in a Christmas-free zone

It’s striking but sadly predictable the way almost every media commentator on the affair of the ‘prankster’ Australian DJs and the tragically dead nurse have missed the main point:  namely that a hospital, any hospital, housing any patient, should be the very last target of choice for a hoax telephone call (‘hoax’ being a more accurate description than ‘prank’, with its implication of harmlessness).  The DJs can’t reasonably be expected to have known that their hoax would end in tragedy, and their recent television interviews, tearful and obviously wracked with grief and remorse, evoke almost as much sympathy as the family of the deceased.  The vitriolic reactions of sections of the UK press and the Twitterati do our country no credit at all, and the demand that “heads must roll” is sickeningly out of place.  The DJs should be left alone to rebuild their lives — and their careers in radio.

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Each time this website and blog have celebrated the long overdue abolition, principally by a bravely liberal Ken Clarke, of IPPs (the truly vicious system of Indeterminate Sentences, imposed for less than the most serious offences, a toxic blend of preventive detention and undeserved life sentence), the celebration has turned out to be premature.  The Act of Parliament providing for abolition hit the statute book on May Day, 2012, and we celebrated.  The it transpired that the abolition clause of the Act didn’t come into force until a date to be set by the Justice Secretary.  At last the date for that was set: 3 December, 2012.  That day duly came, and we celebrated.  Hang on, wrote a contributor to the blog:  some judge has just handed down two more IPPs, on 5 December!  Hasn’t anyone told him?  Now it turns out that the 3 December cut-off date applies not to the date of sentencing but to the date of the offence!  So there are still probably hundreds — perhaps thousands? — of people charged with a variety of offences allegedly committed before 3 December 2012, for example in connection with the widespread riots in England in August 2011, who have not yet been sentenced (although the reason for such delay is incomprehensible):  so all of these, if convicted of offences for which IPPs were once prescribed by law, are liable to be given Indeterminate Sentences, not just now, a good eight months after IPPs were abolished, but way into the indefinite future.  Clearly this is no time to celebrate after all.  A heavy responsibility consequently rests on the Justice Secretary, now Chris Grayling, to clean up the nightmarish way in which existing IPP prisoners, all 6,000 plus of them, are currently grossly mismanaged and almost never approved for release.  [PS: But now see up-date, below.]

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A warm welcome to this blog to any readers who have come here via that distinguished journal Password (only you will know what I’m talking about).  If you, or anyone else, would care to use the ‘Subscribe’ facility somewhere up near the top left of your screen, you’ll get an automatic notification by email every time there’s a new post here (contrary to appearances it’s free, and you can subscribe under a nom de plume if you wish, so long as you provide a genuine email address — which won’t be made public).  Those who have already subscribed can easily unsubscribe, too, if they wish, although I hope you won’t.  It doesn’t take long to press Delete if the notification of a new post doesn’t look interesting. Meanwhile Zag (retired) sends his best wishes for a happy, er, holiday season.

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I have commented in another place (actually in the aforementioned Password) on the wretched, worn-out, threadbare cliché “fall on one’s sword”, meaning “resign” and adding absolutely nothing to that straightforward word.  Now those misguided hysterics clamouring for the wrecking of the careers of the Australian hoax-calling DJs are demanding that they “walk the plank”.  It’s just about understandable that there should be so many euphemisms for the d-word (“pass away”, “gone to meet his Maker”, “lost”, and so on), but who nowadays has a mental picture of anyone falling on his sword (not an easy thing to set up, one might think) or even walking the plank?  Perhaps the series of films depicting Pirates of the Caribbean is to blame for the latter, and even, who knows?, for the former.

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One of the many tragic victims of the coalition’s illiterate “austerity” programme and its primary attack on the living standards of the poorest and most vulnerable in society seems likely to be the Beveridge principle of universality of benefits, which has hitherto been central to the whole idea of the welfare state.  Beveridge stressed that if all those in society who could afford to do so paid their premiums in taxes and National Insurance contributions to a virtual state insurance scheme which spread the risks of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, ill-health and incapacity, across the entire population, those suffering any of those insured risks would be entitled as of right to the appropriate benefit, just as anyone making a valid insurance claim is entitled to have it settled.  Thus we may all go to our GPs for our flu jabs or to be referred to a specialist, free of charge, whether we are paupers or millionaires;  no-one suggests that those who can afford private medical care have a duty not to use the NHS.  But the government’s increasing stress on need instead of entitlement as the criterion for benefits, and its callous claim to the right to reduce benefits in real terms, year by year, as well as capping some of them and abolishing others, corrupts the Beveridge principle of universality and so undermines the very foundations of the welfare state to which all major parties once subscribed — until Thatcher and Blair came along.  The very idea that Labour might contemplate actually voting in favour of this outrageous programme of indiscriminate cuts to benefits (for which the vast majority of recipients have paid with their taxes and NI contributions), and demonisation of the poor, is beyond parody.  Where is the dilemma?

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It’s not easy to explain the almost universal addiction to the two current television thriller series Homeland and The Killing.  Both are almost incomprehensibly tortuous — even my wife has to turn to the online reviews next day to find out what has happened, and then to explain them to me — and both seem to take place almost entirely in the dark, with only torch beams waving up and down to show that the television set hasn’t broken down.  Both involve wild improbabilities:  in Homeland, the hero (or anti-hero) walks around the streets of Washington DC and other cities unrecognised and unapproached, without any kind of personal security, despite being a Congressman, a candidate for the Vice-Presidency and a supposed “national hero” widely celebrated on national television.  Yet the programme is the very definition of compulsive viewing.  Partly it’s because of the superb acting by everyone involved (in the case of Homeland, including by the large British contingent, all with apparently impeccable American accents); but perhaps more strikingly it’s because of the moral complexity and sophistication of both series, with deeply flawed principal characters, mixed motives everywhere, and no automatic distinction between right and wrong behaviour or between goodies and baddies.  The repeated statements of motivation and almost of justification of terrorism in Homeland, with its savage denunciation of the murder of innocent civilians by bombing from an American drone, are truly astonishing for a popular American television programme.  Full marks to both series for telling it pretty much the way it is in real life.

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Update and correction:  I have just been authoritatively informed that the 3 December cut-off date for IPPs applies not to the date of the offence, as I was previously led to believe, but to the date of the conviction — which would normally, I suppose, be very near to the date of sentencing.  If that’s correct, we should indeed be close to the last IPP to be handed down.  A very tentative but heart-felt ‘hurrah!’, if so.

Please feel free to comment on this blog post, whether applauding, denouncing or correcting it — but please append your comments at the foot of the original article at, not by private email.  For example, please don’t send your comments as a reply to the email you may have received notifying you of a new blog post with the full text of it (but probably no illustrations or comments by others), unless what you want to say is purely personal.  Thanks.


4 Responses

  1. Jonathan Mirsky says:

    Quite. They cdnt have known but they shdnt have done it.



  2. Tim Weakley says:

    These DJ twerps are doubtless suffering but I don’t see what they were trying to achieve anyway.  Hoping to show that staff at a British hospital are sufficiently flusterable to take an exaggerated, over-plummy imitation of the Queen (with fake corgi noises in background) for HM in person?  At 5.30 in the morning, GMT?  Without prior intervention of an equerry or aide?

    Falling on one’s sword: I imagine the occasional Roman did it (when, e.g., defeated in a throw for the Imperial purple)  but are there any authenticated examples in the last 15-1600 years?  Tricky, as you say, to do it neatly (especialy when wearing ceremonial armour over the vital bits).  For some reason there swam into my erratic brain the recollection of Captain Grimes in Decline and Fall, who, you remember, related how he had got into the soup once too often  but failed to do the honorable thing when left by his brother officers alone with his revolver and a bottle of whisky.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tim. I don’t know what the DJs hoped to achieve, either: I think they have said that they fully expected to be rumbled at once and have the phone put down on them. It seems to have been a lack of imagination to pick on a hospital, of all places, in the middle of the night (our time), of all times, with a probably hectically busy nurse on night duty with no-one to turn to for advice, unfamiliar with this kind of hoax tradition and also with Australian accents, not knowing that such a call would have been initiated by a court flunkey and not the Queen herself, quite sensibly deciding in the half-second available that she was more likely to get into trouble if she hung up on the Queen herself than if she put the caller through and she turned out to be a fake. It was just a wretched misjudgement on the DJs’ part. If they had tried it out on one of the Murdoch papers’ newsdesks with a fake news item purporting to be offered by the archbishop of Canterbury, we would all have had a good laugh if they had got away with it. I still wonder, though, whether the unfortunate nurse might have been blamed and shamed after the event by someone — one of her superiors at the hospital? her husband? a friend? — and made to feel that her public shame was unbearable. Meanwhile we still don’t know for sure that her death was a suicide. Murder? An accident? A cry for help that wasn’t meant to result in death? Perhaps we should not jump to conclusions before the inquest result.

    Yes, I remember old Grimes with relish. IIRC, he drank the whisky but failed to use the revolver on himself, showing what a frightful cad he was. But I don’t think a fastidious writer like Waugh would have written about him being made to fall on his sword or walk the plank.

  3. john miles says:

    We’ve been told the nurse in question has made two other attempts to kill herself during the past year.
    It wouldn’t surprise me if that were true. 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, John. Very interesting, if true. Can you tell us more about your source? Given that the story would be extremely welcome to those currently being held responsible for the nurse’s suicide, one’s bound to ask oneself whether the story originates with someone likely to benefit from it, although even if it does, that wouldn’t necessarily make it untrue.

    PS: please now see my response at

  4. john miles says:

    Google “Jacintha Saldanha suicide attempts.”

    Brian writes: Thank you. I wouldn’t regard a single one of these web stories as having come from a reliable source, I’m afraid. Until I see something better than this, I would ignore them all.

    Something may eventually emerge from the inquest, of course.