Monday, 21 May 2018

My San Francisco Diary

It was the most perfect über echt experience imaginable. There I was, on the campus of Stanford university, just south of San Francisco, waiting for an Uber car to take me to the town of San Mateo, in the heart of Silicon Valley. The car that turned up was an all-electric Tesla Model X, as cutting edge as it gets, with its gull-wing doors and gadgetry galore. As I strapped myself in and we headed up the highway, I remarked to my travelling companions that, Silicon Valley or not, I still wasn’t quite ready to embrace the brave new world of driverless cars.

‘You’re not?’ said our driver over his shoulder. ‘We’re in driverless mode now.’ I gulped. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘That’s cool.’ (I had been trying to learn Californian and welcomed the opportunity to use it.)

And how appropriate, that as I write a diary about my experiences researching a documentary series on the future of the English language, I should reach for words like über and echt.


I was heading to San Mateo to interview the CEO of a Chinese company who have developed a highly successful app to enable Chinese speakers to improve their English. He was in Shanghai, but in these days of online video calls, that was no obstacle. Just six years after it was founded, the company claims to have more than 50 million registered users in 379 Chinese cities and more than a hundred countries around the world.

I tried the app for myself, filling in the missing words in simple English sentences, and trying to improve my pronunciation. I could choose either a British or an American pronunciation model; fortunately, given my background as a professional broadcaster, I scored pretty well at the British version, although I was stupidly proud to be awarded over eighty per cent in American as well. I reckon that makes me virtually bilingual.

But why do so many people still want to learn English in a world that already boasts a dizzying array of machine translation tools to enable anyone to translate anything at the click of a computer mouse? Some of the cleverest minds in Silicon Valley are already developing software that (I quote) 'feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.'

Well, almost. In fact, as you will instantly have recognised if you are a fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, that is Douglas Adams's definition of a babel fish, 'small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe.' It may have seemed odd when he dreamt it up forty years ago,  but in Silicon Valley, it now simply qualifies as work in progress.


San Francisco combines the highest of high tech with the wackiest of low tech. The Teslas share road space with kickboard scooters (some of them equipped with electric motors), skateboards and monowheels, as well as bicycles, bendy buses, trolley buses, trams and cable cars. In the home of one of our interviewees, we were offered Assam tea in pint mugs, heated in a microwave. And at a poetry-reading in a bookshop in the city's Mission district, a sort of Californian Brixton, with a reputation to match, the clientele seemed to have been browsing the shelves ever since those heady, hippie days in Haight Ashbury circa 1966.


The city also hosts a distressingly high number of homeless people, many of whom display signs of mental illness or addiction. They are young and old, black and white, disabled and non-disabled. As a Londoner, I am used to seeing people trying to survive on the streets, but San Francisco’s crisis is on an entirely different scale. Whatever safety net might exist for those made homeless by gentrification, soaring property prices and inadequate health care, it is woefully unable to catch enough people who desperately need help. It is hard to love a city, however scenic and charming, if it fails so many of its own citizens.


Josiah Luis Alderete is not one of those who lost his home, but he did lose his business, a much-loved taco restaurant called Casa Mañana in ultra-liberal Fairfax, Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and the only town in the US where the Green party has a majority on the town council.

Having been forced to shut up shop when his landlord evicted him to redevelop the site, Alderete is now making a name for himself as a self-styled pocho poet (pocho was originally a derogatory term for Americanised Mexicans who had lost sight of their cultural traditions, but it is now increasingly used by Mexican-Americans themselves in the same way as some African-Americans use the N-word). He writes fierce, angry verse in Spanglish, using Spanish and English words often in the same sentence.

He was born in the US to Mexican parents, so why not write in English? ‘Spanglish is the language of resistance,’ he tells me. But does he dream in Spanglish as well? He bursts out laughing. ‘As a matter of fact, I did dream in Spanglish just last night.’


Spanglish and Konglish (a Korean-English hybrid) are both flourishing in California, as is Hinglish (Hindi-English) in India, and Singlish (Singaporean-English) in Singapore. So is the future of English to be a splintering into mutually unintelligible hybrids?  I doubt it, simply because of a continuing global recognition that English in its standard, internationally-recognised form is an invaluable aid to career advancement and prosperity.  In Uganda, for example, I met children whose mothers had insisted on speaking only English to them from the moment of their births. (But that won't stop them lapsing into Uglish once they become teenagers.)

To me, the joy of English is not only its incomparable history, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Milton and Dylan Thomas, but also its glorious variety and adaptability, the way it absorbs words and phrases from around the world and makes them its own. My late father, who learned his English as a schoolboy in Berlin in the 1920s and 30s, insisted to his dying day that the rules he had been taught then should be set in stone for all time. But even he didn't ask: 'With whom were you out last night?'

My four-part documentary series, The Future of English, produced by Julia Johnson and Mohini Patel, will be broadcast on the BBC World Service, starting on Wednesday, 23 May. It will also be available online, on the BBC Radio iPlayer, and to download onto your computer, tablet or smartphone.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Staggering and stumbling towards war

And so it begins.

Donald Trump makes a speech in Washington. Israel and Iran trade missile attacks on and from Syria. The blue touchpaper has been lit. Thank you, Mr President.

Now we watch and wait. And we hope that as future historians look back in years to come, they will not say, as Lloyd George did in 1920, after the First World War, that the world had 'glided, or rather staggered and stumbled' into war.

In Israel and Iran -- and, of course, in Syria and Yemen, and throughout the Middle East -- millions of people live in fear of what will happen next. Their political leaders insist they do not want war, yet everywhere they are preparing for it.

It is important to be clear about exactly what happened this week. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (hereinafter to be called the Iran nuclear deal), which was signed in 2015 by seven nations -- China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the UK, and the United States -- was summarily abrogated by one of them, the US. As a result, it will almost certainly unravel.

Under the agreement, Iran undertook, among other things, to get rid of its entire stock of medium-enriched uranium, to reduce its stock of low-enriched uranium by 98%, and to reduce the number of its gas centrifuges by two-thirds.

Guess what. Iran stuck to the deal. If it had been developing nuclear weapons, which it has always denied, it stopped.

Says who? Says the International Atomic Energy Agency, which under the terms of the deal, has been subjecting Iran to what it calls 'the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime.' In a statement published after President Trump ripped up the agreement on Tuesday, the agency's director-general, Yukiya Amano, said: 'As of today, the IAEA can confirm that the nuclear-related commitments are being implemented by Iran.'

Has Iran been secretly developing a nuclear weapons programme since it signed the deal? No. Has it reneged on a painfully-negotiated, multi-lateral disarmament agreement? No. On the other hand, has it been buttressing the foul regime of President Assad of Syria, torturing its opponents at home, and funding and arming organisations like Hamas and Hizbollah that the West calls terrorist organisations (we can discuss the meaning of 'terrorist' another time)? Yes.

Does Mr Trump's defence secretary, Jim Mattis, agree with his boss that the Iran agreement was 'a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever have been made?' No. Does the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Joseph Dunford? No. Does the chairman of the US army's central command, General Joseph Votel? No again. Do any of the other six signatories to the deal? Another no.

According to the highly-respected US security analyst Fred Kaplan of, the president's decision 'can only be attributed to one or more of three motives: a misunderstanding of the deal’s terms, a need to torpedo yet another one of President Obama’s accomplishments, or a desire to weaken or destroy the government of Iran.'

It is all horribly, scarily reminiscent of President George W Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Ignore the advice of the experts. Press ahead regardless of the warnings. Take it upon yourself to encourage regime change, heedless of the likely consequences.

It is sheer madness. And it's not even as if we don't know what happens next. Look at Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya. That's what happens next.

The hardliners in Iran can't believe their luck. Millions of Iranians had put their faith in the moderate (by Iranian standards) president, Hassan Rouhani, who promised that their living standards would improve once economic sanctions were lifted after he signed the nuclear deal.

Donald Trump has told them they were fools. He has cut the ground from under Rouhani's feet and made it almost impossible for him to hold back his internal critics. If I were an Israeli, living under the hugely increased threat of renewed Iranian missile attacks from Syria, Hizbollah attacks from Lebanon, and Hamas attacks from Gaza, I would not be thinking kindly of Mr Trump.

If as a result of his disastrous decision, Iran resumes its nuclear programme, it won't be long before its main regional rivals -- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey -- are tempted to join in. Great: a Middle East nuclear arms race. Thank you again, Mr President.

The Iran nuclear deal was far from perfect. But back in the days of the Cold War, when the US and the Soviet Union negotiated imperfect, partial arms reduction agreements, they built steadily, year after year, on what had gone before. First came the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, then the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, followed by the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, and then SALT II in 1979.

Washington and Moscow worked together to make the world just a bit less dangerous. Implacable enemies they may have been, but they were not blindly reckless. If Donald Trump knew anything about his own country's history -- or if he had even a modicum of understanding about the world in which we all live -- he could have done the same thing: build on the Iran nuclear deal, strengthen the hand of the moderates, give the people of Iran real hope for a better future.

I wrote in November 2016, just after he was elected: 'There is no point trying to deny it any longer: the election of Donald Trump has made the world a much more dangerous place ... What scares me most ... is not only that he is a deeply unpleasant man with deeply unpleasant views but also that he is grotesquely, frighteningly incompetent and woefully unprepared for the task ahead.'

Fred Kaplan wrote this week: 'Trump has wrecked one of the most successful arms-control deals in modern history, destroyed any possible leverage to negotiate a new one, further disrupted unity with our allies, further damaged U.S. credibility, strengthened hard-line factions in Iran, exacerbated instability in the Middle East, and possibly boosted the chance of war—which some of Trump’s abettors desire. Quite the deal-maker.'

I dread the day, if I live that long, when my grandchildren, learning about these events in their history lessons, will ask me: 'Grandpa, why did no one see what was happening back then? Why did no one stop it?'

I hope the members of the US Congress will have a decent answer for their grandchildren. Because I know I won't.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Don't blame the baby-boomers

I am a baby boomer, and there is something I want you to know.

It's not our fault.

We didn't vote for a low-tax, free market economy in which schools, the NHS, and social services were starved of cash and public utilities were flogged off to foreign-owned corporations.

Nor did we vote to strip trades unions of their powers, so that employees were left without job protection and at the mercy of zero hours contracts.

And we certainly didn't vote for a housing market which has effectively locked out young buyers in favour of buy-to-rent speculators and foreign buyers looking for somewhere to keep their cash.

It is, therefore, grossly unfair that, in the words of Yvonne Roberts writing in The Observer, 'Today, “baby boomer” is a toxic phrase, shorthand for greed and selfishness, for denying the benefits we took for granted to subsequent generations, notably beleaguered millennials.'

Next Tuesday, a major report will be published by the intergenerational commission of the Resolution Foundation, the social policy think-tank headed by former Conservative minister David Willetts. (A few years ago, he published a much-discussed book provocatively called The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future - And Why They Should Give it Back.)

Lord Willetts (born 1956, and therefore a baby boomer himself) did much to encourage the idea that his generation -- and mine -- is largely to blame for the growing intergenerational inequalities that next week's report will address.

I plead not guilty. And I have good evidence -- hard facts -- with which to establish my, and my fellow-boomers', innocence.

Let's start with income inequality. It fell steadily during the forty years until 1979 -- and then rose again, sharply, over the next ten years. In 1979, about twenty per cent of the nation's income paid to individuals went to the richest ten per cent of the population; by 2010, that figure had risen to more than thirty per cent.

Housing costs? In 1985, it took on average three years for a first-time buyer to save enough for a deposit on a home; in 2015, it took on average 22 years.

Do I need to remind you what happened in 1979? It was when the Conservative party led by Margaret Thatcher was elected to government. Over the next decade, it reduced the top rate of income tax from 83% to 40%, encouraged the sale of council houses at discounts of up to 70%, and privatised everything from British Gas to British Airways, British Aerospace, and BP.

Did you know, by the way, that forty per cent of the council homes that were bought under Thatcher's right-to-buy legislation are now owned by private landords? So much for her vision of a property-owning democracy.

In the mid 1980s, the Tories deregulated large swathes of the financial services industry in what became known as the 'big bang', a name that detonated deafeningly in the crash of 2007-8. Margaret Thatcher was born in 1925, so she was definitely not a baby-boomer. Her economic gurus were Friedrich Hayek (born 1899, so not a boomer either), Milton Friedman (born 1912, ditto) and Keith Joseph (born 1918, ditto again).

Ah, you are thinking, but who elected Margaret Thatcher? Not baby-boomers is the answer. In 1979, more than half of voters aged under 35 (ie born between 1944 and 1961) voted either for the Labour party or for the Liberals, as they then were. In 1983, when the Tories consolidated their hold on power, it was the same story: 57% of under 35s voted either Labour or for the SDP-Liberal Alliance, as it had then become.

Conclusion? Thatcherism, which paved the way to greater income inequality, grotesque imbalances in the housing market, and obscene pay levels in the financial services industry, was not the choice of the baby boomers.  

Boomer blaming is too easy. Yes, we have undoubtedly benefited from the profound changes of the past forty years, but they weren't our idea, nor did we vote for them. (Admittedly, however, now that we are retired and have paid off our mortgages, some of my fellow boomers are voting to hang on to what they've got.)

The crisis facing the millennial generation is a direct consequence of a failed ideology, a belief that a low tax economy benefits everyone because private wealth will trickle down from the rich to the poor. As we now know, it doesn't: all that trickles onto the heads of the people sleeping rough on the streets is the water that drips from the railway bridges under which they seek shelter.

Greater private wealth? Perhaps, for the lucky few who bought their homes before the market went berserk. But for the unlucky many, with no prospect of owning their own home, the picture is of greater public squalor: pot-holed roads, under-financed schools, shuttered youth clubs and libraries.

Verdict? Baby boomers not guilty. Ignore those who hope to turn one generation against another. Let's point the finger of blame at those who are truly responsible -- those who, like Boris Johnson, argue that greed is a 'valuable spur to economic activity' -- and let's hope the millennial generation learn the right lesson.

If you want to live in a decent, fairer society, you have to be prepared to pay for it. That's why taxes were invented.