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The mind of Spike Milligian – and the dysjunction between fantasy and reality

2022 January 29
by Paul Vallely

There are interesting parallels

between laughter and lying.

Both subvert the truth and are

infectious. So how does one

liberate and the other stultify?


The last time I saw Spike Milligan was in a taxi at 2am somewhere in the middle of Birmingham. We had been for a meal in a curry house which ended so late because every time a waiter came to the table Milligan invited them to join us. It had begun when the comedian asked the first member of staff his name and discovered it was Patrick. The restaurant was run by a family from Goa, the one part of the sub-continent where, thanks to Portuguese colonialism, you stood a good chance of meeting Indians who were Catholics. Since Milligan too was a Catholic who had been born in India the opportunity was too good to miss. We ended up with five waiters sitting at the table. Service, as a consequence, was very slow.

After the meal he gave me a lift to my hotel. As I reached the front door a trumpet appear from the taxi window and played a spectacularly ear-shattering fanfare. Then came Spike’s head. “Announcing the arrival of that celebrated journalist Paul Vallely, Esquire,” he bawled into the quiet night air. After a wild cackle of laughter the cab roared off leaving me to face the consequences of the music as the hotel staff opened the door.

Milligan was always like that. On another occasion I was with him at a local radio station. The programme on-air was being piped through the building so staff could keep in touch as they rushed from office to studio. It was even in the lift. Spike, however, got it into his head that this was muzak and therefore an intolerable invasion of his personal space. In the lift Milligan stood directly in front of the station manager, and placing his mouth only an inch or so from the hapless manager’s began to sing, can belto as Harry Secombe used to put it, directly into the poor man’s face. “See how you like it,” Spike said, without further explanation, as we left the lift.

There was a disjunction between reality and fantasy in Spike Milligan’s head. It was what made him a comic genius. The borderlines between truth and fiction, satire and surrealism, blurred in his head, producing the most unlikely juxtapositions – and not always to his advantage as I found when I discovered him in tears after one performance where the audience had laughed at “the serious bit” he tried to do on the seal fur trade in the middle of his otherwise absurdist act. The more he railed that this wasn’t funny, the more they had laughed.

Recalling Milligan at his death this week made me think again about Stephen Byers. For there are interesting parallels between laughter and lying; deception is there in both, or at least a wilful process of jumbling what is true with what is not.

Religion can be very po-faced about this. Let your Yes be Yes, and your No be No, as the Bible has it. And some secular philosophers have taken just as hard a line.  Kant in his Metaphysics of Morals said lying is “the greatest violation of a human being’s duty to himself.” The principle of truthfulness must be upheld whatever is at stake.

Traditional moral theology has been less rigid. We are only obliged to tell the truth when the person we’re addressing has the right to the knowledge. Thus if a newspaper asks about your sex life, you can lie with moral impunity, unless it touches on a matter of the common good as it arguably did with President ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ Clinton.

But what about Stephen Byers? [ a cabinet minister who had to apologise to parliament after being accused of lying in a tv interview]. Even if we give him the benefit of the doubt – and presume that his dissembling when interviewed on television by Jonathan Dimbleby was not for the low motive of saving his own skin but was inspired by the desire to protect the best interests of his troubled department, of his party, of the Government, or even, and this is stretching the point, the travelling public – could his lies ever be justified? Moral theology offers all manner of caveats to excuse lies for a greater good. But none of them seem to apply to a decision to lie to the general public about a matter of common interest. And though telling the truth in the House of Commons after lying on tv may be a political mitigation it is not a moral one.

The bigger problem, as the ethicist Sissela Bok, points out in her seminal Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, is that lying – even when it is done in the name of some greater good, like national security – spreads like a disease and threatens to infect the trust and integrity which are the very foundations of all social exchange. Yet the legal, moral and social sanctions society has traditionally employed against deception –  perjury, libel, sin, guilt, shame and embarrassment – today seem increasingly to have less purchase. In a world where the stress on individualism, on competition, on achieving material success generates intense pressure to cut corners we are, it seems, becoming desensitised to lying.

What both Spike Milligan and Stephen Byers have done this week is draw our attention to the way the accepted order of things can be subverted by being cavalier with the truth. Only with Milligan the result was liberating, exposing our mechanisms of deception and mocking them, while with Byers it was another nail in the coffin of our society’s moral stultification.


written in 2 March 2002 for the Faith & Reason column of The Independent

Interview with the Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia

2004 February 11
Comments Off on Interview with the Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia
by Paul Vallely

Relations between the Roman Catholic and Russia Orthodox churches are worse now than at any time since the Second Vatican Council. Next week the highest-level Vatican delegation for four years goes to Moscow to seek to heal the breach. On the eve of the visit the Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia gives a rare interview to Paul Vallely, Associate Editor of The Independent.



Who, in a Christian country, at any rate, could object to this: a number of children are found living on the streets in sub-zero temperatures, the police pick them up and take them to a Catholic orphanage where they are given physical and emotional care. Who could object? His Holiness Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, that’s who.

Next week Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, will travel to Russia to meet the Patriarch. It will be the highest-level visit by Vatican officials in four years. The aim of the five-day trip visit is to ease the strains between Rome and Moscow which are at their lowest point since before the Second Vatican Council. Two years ago a visit by the cardinal was cancelled by the Moscow Patriarchate outraged by what it called aggressive Catholic missionary activity in Russian Orthodoxy’s “canonical territory” across the former Soviet Union.

The cardinal will face a delicate task in his bridge-building, as was made clear by Patriarch Alexei in a rare interview – his first for two years – on the eve of the cardinal’s visit. In it he forcefully condemns the practice of “children who have been baptised in Orthodoxy being converted to Catholicism”. He says that churches in communion with Rome have turned hundreds of thousands of Orthodox believers in Ukraine into a “humiliated minority” and complains that on a wave of “wild nationalism Orthodox Christians were banished from their churches, clergy were beaten and holy objects of the Orthodox Church were defiled. One could imagine something like that happening in the dark Middle Ages, but when something like this is happening in the late twentieth century in regard to a sister Church something like this is hard and even impossible to understand.” And he makes clear that he faces pressure from his flock to continue blocking a visit by John Paul II to Russia, the only major country which the ailing Pope is said still to crave to visit.

The depth of resentment against Catholicism in Russia is something which takes a Western visitor by surprise. It is a complex phenomenon bound up with the slow process of forming a post-communist identity in which Orthodox plays an ambiguous role. Polls show that the majority of the population call themselves Orthodox. But they also show that more people say they are Orthodox than say they believe in God. The paradox speaks to something deep in the Russian soul. “If you are not Orthodox, you cannot be Russian,” as one priest said, quoting Dostoevsky. The Orthodox Church is usually named third, after President Vladimir Putin and the army, in polls asking “Who do you trust?”

“If we look back to our 1000 years of history everything has an Orthodox foundation,” the Patriarch said. “Russia and the former Soviet Union are in the process of liberation from the trend of state atheism. And today many people are consciously returning to their roots. The mass opening of new parishes is not a top-down development. It’s the demand of the people at the grassroots level. When we were celebrating the millennium of Christianity in Russia in 1988 there were in all of the Soviet Union about 7,000 churches and 21 monasteries. Today there are more than 24,000 churches and 638 monasteries. We used to have three theological seminaries and two theological academies. Today we have five theological academies, 33 theological seminaries, 44 theological colleges, one theological institute, two theological universities and 14 pastoral courses.

“We disagree with the statement we hear in the West sometimes that we live in the post-Christian era. In the former Soviet Union there is a return to Christian values, and in this we are backed by 1,000 years of Christian holy Russia,” he said, adding that it is a mistake for the preamble to the European Union constitution to omit mention of Christianity. “It is wrong to rewrite history today and deny your roots for the sake of contemporary ideology.”

But there is ideology too in the Russian ultra-nationalist myth, embraced by many of the Orthodox clerics that I met in a week in the country, that pre-Soviet Russia was homogeneously Orthodox, with just a few Catholics at its extremities. This is the foundation on which rests the assertion that both Protestants and Catholics are practising “spiritual aggression” against Orthodoxy’s canonical territory.

There is a different intellectual paradigm too; where the West has since the Enlightenment treated religion, like politics and economics, as a laissez-faire business in which individuals make choices. Orthodoxy has a model which is far more centred in a collectivist authoritarian sense of community. There was an illustration of that in the highly indignant Orthodox priest who complained to me about Baptists hiring halls to hold mission evenings which they advertised as ‘Christian’ events. The Orthodox were outraged. ‘Christian’ and ‘Orthodox’ are synonymous, the Russian cleric told me, so the Baptists were perpetrating a deliberate con, tricking people into thinking they were coming to an Orthodox event.

But the animus is strongest against Catholicism. Not that there is much genuine theological disagreement. Progress has been made on the ancient filioque dispute, with the US Catholic-Orthodox commission issuing an agreed statement and the Pope showing readiness to drop the disputed clause from the Creed at celebrations which bring Orthodox and Catholics together. But to the Orthodox the mutual anathemas pronounced by the two Churches in 1054 hold good (even though they have been formally withdrawn by each side), as perhaps does even the division of the Holy Roman Empire made by Constantine in the fourth century. The Pope may have spoken of Christianity breathing with two lungs, East and West. But the Russians fear that Roman imperialism is still at work. The phrase ‘Catholic invasion of holy Russia’ is one I heard more than once.

Many things feed this. For a start more than 80 per cent of Russia’s 200 Catholic parishes are served by foreign priests. Most of them are better educated and equipped with greater pastoral experience than their Orthodox counterparts, huge numbers of whom are only recently ordained. Then there was the decision by Rome in February 2002 to dissolve its four “apostolic administrations” in Russia and replace them with fully fledged dioceses. What particularly incensed Moscow was the Vatican’s decision to turn Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, head of the Catholic bishops’ conference in Russia, from an “apostolic administrator” into a “metropolitan archbishop” thus, according to the Patriarchate, making Russia a province of the Roman Catholic Church.

Rome pleaded that its intentions were innocent; Cardinal Kasper at the time said: “There was no consultation, but they were informed. I must say that I didn’t foresee the extent of the problem, because I thought it was just a changing of names and nothing else.” Patriarch Alexei insists this is disingenuous.

“In a unilateral step four Roman Catholic dioceses were formed in the territory of the Russian Federation. When Russia was declared a metropolitan province – and Archbishop Kondrusiewicz was promoted to Metropolitan in Moscow – these relations cooled down and spoiled,” he said. Rome had given undertakings not to take such steps without consultation but “unfortunately that agreement was on paper only”. “Many missionary orders work in Russia today, especially in the shelters and orphanages for children organised by these orders, where children who have been baptised in Orthodoxy are being converted to Catholicism.”

Could not an invitation for the Pope to visit Russia be the occasion for resolving the dispute? The pontiff had indicated as much at the end of last year at his meeting with President Putin in the Vatican, at which he had brought to his study a celebrated Russian Orthodox icon of Our Lady of Kazan, which he hinted he would like personally to return to Russia in time for the millennium celebrations of the city of Kazan next year. The Patriarch was dismissive.

“This is one of many copies of the icon of Our Lady of Kazan from the end of the eighteenth century,” he said. “It is painted by a provincial iconographer. Neither in its size nor dating is it identical to the wonder-making icon which had been stolen. Almost every church in Russia has an icon of Our Lady of Kazan. I think there is an unhealthy hype around the icon in the Vatican. I do not think it would make sense to make a connection between the return of this icon – which I hope will be returned to Russia at some point – with the visit of Pope John Paul II.

What about a meeting between Pope and Patriach elsewhere? “There was a plan to have such a meeting in 1997 in Austria – but our attempt was to do something more than just to meet in front of TV cameras and demonstrate to the public that there are no problems among us. We do have problems. Relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Church unfortunately are not at their best today because of the proselytising activity of the Roman Catholic Church being carried out in both Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries.”

The depth of resentment of Catholic ‘proselytising’ is far from confined to senior officials of the Moscow Patriarchate. I heard similar views expressed, in far more bitter language, in ordinary parishes. In the interview Patriarch Alexei acknowledged that the strong feelings of ordinary Orthodox believers were a real stumbling block. “I myself also need to justify meeting the Pope. If I simply meet with him in front of TV cameras, then there will be no concrete improvement in our relationship. My flock will not understand me. That is why we are saying that such a meeting must be proceeded by concrete steps to improve the relationship between our Churches.”

But though ‘proselytising’ – which the Catholics insist is just “good pastoral work” – is always the first issue raised, the most dramatic language is always prompted over the issue of the Eastern Catholic Churches in Ukraine which the Orthodox call the ‘Uniates’ and who, to Russians, represent submission to papal authority.

“Until today the wounds inflicted by the Greek Catholics in the western area of Ukraine are not healed,” the Patriarch said. “Today hundreds of thousands are Orthodox believers in Ukraine are a humiliated minority. The Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine was banned by Stalin and during the post-war period, both those who returned to the Orthodox Church and those who remained Uniates, received pastoral care in the Orthodox churches which remained in the western Ukraine. When religious freedom came to Russia, including the republics of the former Soviet Union, I think we should have used the principle proclaimed by Vatican II, which called the Orthodox churches sister Churches. On the wave of wild nationalism Orthodox Christians were banished from their churches, clergy were beaten and holy objects of the Orthodox Church were defiled. One could imagine something like that happening in the dark Middle Ages, but when something like this is happening in the late twentieth century in regard to a sister Church something like this is hard and even impossible to understand. Unfortunately, during the past decade nothing has been done for the Orthodox to receive equal rights with Catholics in the western Ukraine.”

Contrast the vigour of that complaint with the much more emollient tone Patriarch Alexei adopted when speaks of the Anglican Communion, a church with which Orthodoxy has serious theological disagreements. The Patriach faced these squarely. The ordination of women, he said, was a probelm – “ a thousand years of tradition and the word of the Bible should be respected and not changed to satisfy some temporal developments in the views of people”. And he has broken ties with the Episcopalian Church in the United States of America after it consecrated the openly gay Gene Robinson as a bishop – “the ordination of a homosexual bishop makes any communications with him or those who elected him impossible”.

Yet despite that his tone was conciliatory: “I don’t think we should lump together all the bishops of the Anglican Communion and suggest that they all approve these trends”. He spoke admiringly of the views of the Bishop of Gibraltar, who supervises the Anglican parishes in Moscow and St Petersburg, and of the Archbishop of Canterbury with whom “we had a very warm meeting and conversation”. And he concluded: “It’s hard for me to issue recommendations to the Anglican Communion. I think we should continue to meet.”

Continuing to meet has been far from the approach he has adopted in recent years to Rome, with which there seem to be deeper disputes than the merely theological. Patriarch Alexei insists that the problems are not of his making.

“Do not think I am anti-Catholic. We have no prejudice against the Roman Catholic Church and its hierarchy. The Russian Orthodox Church is ready for dialogue and it’s ready for solving the issues which are complicating relations between the two Churches today. But we do not see positive steps on the Vatican’s part. It’s the opposite. We see a very strong trend, and that is something that’s likely to happen, for the see of the Archbishop of Lvov to be transferred to Kiev and the proclamation of a Greek Catholic patriarch ate in the Ukraine.

“It is our profound conviction that there has to be concrete steps. If proselytising in Russia continues and the situation in western Ukraine does not improve – and it’s the other way round, they’re expanding to the east and south of Ukraine – we’ve said that many times and wrote about it many times and we’re waiting. We are waiting for concrete gestures and goodwill steps on the part of the Vatican.”

Was he, perhaps, waiting for a new incumbent on the throne of St Peter? “No, we’re not waiting for a new Pope. I’m sure the current Pope is very well aware of the issues.”

Cardinal Kasper, it seems, will have an uphill struggle in Moscow this week. Whether or not he will offer the concrete steps to reconciliation Moscow requires is not clear. He has, in the past, shown signs of the openness required. “Variety is a sign of richness – not a mistake, failure or weakness,” he has said. “No one has the whole truth; that is only found all together.”

But he has also revealed the extent to which the Vatican is wedded to the Enlightenment value system so alien to Moscow. “The Russian Orthodox have a very vague and expansive understanding of proselytism, which is also a certain fear due to the fact that they feel they are weak. And, therefore, they resent it when we do good pastoral work and sometimes they see it as proselytism, “ he has also said. “But it is very clear that proselytism is not our strategy or politics. This is a question of religious freedom. And this is the main problem: recognising religious freedom. For us it is a fundamental human right.”

How things go in Moscow next week will pretty much turn on which of these two contrasting approaches he makes paramount.


Guess who’s coming to dinner?

2022 December 17
by Paul

Guess who’s coming to dinner

If you give ‘The Good Food Guide’s Restaurant of the Year a stinking review, is it really a sensible idea to ask its chef round for a meal at your place? Paul Vallely thought so. But then he asked his distinguished guest to review his own efforts…

I’m not sure what kind of sauce you’re supposed to serve with humble pie. Only that you have to be careful not to put too much nutmeg in it. I came to that conclusion late last Saturday night, only a matter of hours before my guests arrived for Sunday lunch. One of them was a chef with a Michelin star. Actually it was worse: he is chef at The Good Food Guide‘s new English Restaurant of the Year. Hubris or what?

All week I’d been trying out the different courses each evening. At first my wife thought I was having her on. “You haven’t really invited him. Tell me it’s a joke,” she said each night with increasing desperation, as I shouted at her things like: “Don’t open that wine. I’m saving that for the chef.”

So how exactly did I get into this culinary pickle? Attentive readers may recall that recently I wrote about an unhappy experience I’d had in the Restaurant of the Year. It wasn’t that the food wasn’t good – in my review I described some of it as exquisite, and said that Paul Kitching, the chef at Juniper in Altrincham, was clearly a masterly cook. The problem was that the dishes seemed fussily overdressed, the portions too small, and some of the staff came across as over-reverential or even intimidating. It was quite a broadside.

The day it appeared the chef rang. “Something obviously went terribly wrong that night,” Paul Kitching said. “Please come again. I want to show you that I can cook.” I had never doubted that, but it was a gracious invitation and it would have been churlish not to go.

When I turned up with Robert Cockroft, a friend and also one of the country’s best food critics, Juniper pulled out all the gastronomic stops. It was, said Bob, one of the finest meals he had ever eaten.

First came a waggish drawing of a fish, made from intense smoked-salmon mayonnaise. Then a cappuccino soup of white chicken stock, cream and puréed salsify, all in beautiful balance. Next a succession of plates that assaulted the tastebuds with things like sweet clusters of hazelnuts, and dried pimentos with mayonnaises delicately flavoured with everything from HP sauce to beetroot piped in a pattern like Mickey Mouse’s head.

But the utter triumph was a saddle of hare – mildly gamey and beautifully rare without being bloody. “The best hare I’ve ever tasted,” said Bob. It was served on a round of crisp, sweet, caramelised onions, flavoured – unorthodoxly but masterfully – with chopped dill, and placed in the centre of a plate sprinkled with freshly dried herbs, peppers and vegetables.

But the chef was not finished. Next came an assiette of venison, pigeon and rabbit in a black truffled sauce, garnished with excruciatingly gorgeous rabbit kidneys. Then a plate with tiny slices of 22 cheeses, all at the point of perfection. And finally the glazed lemon tart which, on my original visit, had told me that Paul Kitching is a chef of rare technical accomplishment.

We did not have that much to drink. So it is a bit of a mystery why, when the chef came out to chat afterwards, I invited him to lunch. I had learnt to cook in Paris years ago but knew there was no way I could compete with him. Perhaps I wanted to show him that there was more to a good meal than food. Perhaps it was because when we praised the hare and onions he said that that was the easy bit; it was the dried herbs and odd mayonnaises that were the interesting thing. Perhaps it was just a way of reciprocating his graciousness. Anyway, I invited him, and told him that he could write about my cooking in retaliation.

Which is how I came to the nutmeg problem. I had decided quite quickly what to cook. A timbale of four vegetables with a pea purée sauce would display technical skill. Monkfish with lime and ginger was an interesting flavour combination. Pork with glazed onions, couscous and prune and Marsala sauce, because pork features rarely on Juniper’s menus. Oranges with sticky Seville orange peel in brandysnap baskets would provide something light (even if I did add a novel passion fruit cream studded with stem ginger) and would not overpower the 1970 Fonseca port, with Stilton to finish.

Above all the menu was designed so that I could do most of the work the day before (it took nine hours to make the timbales – what with chopping, cooking and puréeing five veg, and then laboriously rubbing each one through a fine drum-sieve). In between I also made fresh fish and chicken stocks for the sauces, formed the brandysnap baskets, made the caramel and sticky peel, and peeled the tiny onions to glaze in red wine and chicken stock next day. All that was left to do on the Sunday was slice the oranges, dice the stem ginger, juice the passion fruit, whip the cream, trim the fish, zest the limes, julienne the root ginger, bake the meat (75 minutes on gas mark 2), steam the couscous and sauté the fish.

No wonder when the chef arrived and I was sitting insouciantly drinking champagne, he said: “You look more relaxed than I thought you would.” I immediately rushed out to check my timbales.

There was a certain tension in the initial conversation. It was heightened when the chef told the other guests, with what I hoped was a twinkle in his eye, that he was here to do a killer review. And – crisis, crisis – I knew I had overdosed the nutmeg in the timbale’s spinach layer.

“Where’s the recipe from?” he asked as he stuck his spoon in it. I’d learned it at the école de cuisine in Paris, I said, except that I’d changed the cabbage to swede, which I thought was better. “The French don’t like swede,” he said. “But I do.” Phew.

“It’s very Eighties,” he said.

“Outdated is the word you’re after,” said my food critic friend, Bob, mischievously.

“But it’s not bland,” said the chef, “though a child would like it.” (The strong aftertaste of the nutmeg seemed to have been diluted by the flavours of the other purées.)

“Outdated and childish,” said the helpful Bob.

“It’s good,” said the chef. “And it’s very brave, this starter.”

He ate only a quarter of the portion, but I was prepared for that. “You do know he’s the pickiest eater I’ve ever met?” another chef had said when he learnt of my invitation. More alarming was the fact that Paul ventured into the kitchen as I was sautéing the monkfish. “Can I help?” he asked, instinctively giving the leeks a stir and then getting some kitchen towel to wipe away the stray bits of sauce I’d dropped on the edges of the plates.

“Did you blanch the ginger?” asked Bob.

No, why?

“It would have made it more mellow,” said the chef.

“It’s delicious. Life’s too short for blanching ginger,” said Maggie, my actress friend.

“No,” said Kitching. “It’s doing things like that that makes you part of a great tradition. You are in conversation with the chefs of the past,” he said, “Carême, Escoffier, Bocuse, the frères Troisgros… now, here, today in Altrincham.” But he ate only half the fish dish and rather less of the pork.

“You’re not eating much,” Maggie said. “I’d be worried if I was in the kitchen and I got your plate back.”

“I never do,” the chef replied. “The food is fine. I just don’t eat much.” During the week, he said, he just forages in his restaurant kitchen. At the weekend, said his partner Katie, “we either go to a Michelin-starred restaurant or to a Burger King – we’re not much interested in all the stuff in between.” Yikes, I think, since without a doubt what I am serving falls into that category.

There was something very revealing about this. Throughout the meal the conversation ranged widely across history, theatre, books, chefs, films and football – the Juniper couple are manic Newcastle fans. In all of this Paul Kitching participated with charm and amiability. But when it came to food he was transformed.

Some inner force takes over when he talks about new tastes. “I’m working on a leek fudge – why can’t fudge be savoury? And on a beef meringue. I’m trying to dry out meat to work out what it must have tasted like to a caveman.” It is as if his relationship with food is cerebral. It’s about tasting rather than eating. And once he’s tasted something – even if it’s good – that’s enough. The rest of us might lust for satiation, but he eats with his head, not his stomach. It explains why he’s so skinny and why he frequently boasts that he’s never had his cooker at home connected.

“The thing is,” said Malcolm, who’s an actor, “art, like the novel, can succeed with the support of one educated patron. But in cooking, as with the theatre, you have to take the public with you.”

The chef agrees, and then tells a story of how one table recently returned untouched the soup course he served in a demitasse. “They didn’t seem to know what to do with it,” confirmed Katie, “so they left it.” Yet the Juniper team seemed unperturbed by the incident.

I thought about what I had served. The revolution that was nouvelle cuisine threw out the rigid structure of traditional French cooking and paved the way for the high level of creativity we now see in restaurants all round us. That seemed enough for me. But Paul Kitching is clearly on some other plane and sees the need for another revolution. Maybe, I began to think, my initial problem with Juniper had been as much in my presuppositions as in his restaurant’s performance that first night.

What he wants, when you start to see a meal through his eyes, is for people not just to enjoy eating but to enjoy thinking about food. There is something about him of the visionary. He is besotted with food, utterly focused on his total commitment to go somewhere new with it. And because he’s ablaze with passion there’s something inspiring in hearing him talk about it.

It is not an easy task he has set himself. Most of us are stuck in the compromises of what Katie dismissed as “all the stuff in between”. And perhaps we’re happy there. But this high priest of avant-garde cuisine clearly isn’t. He thinks about food in a way other people don’t. And he has the self-certainty which creativity and imagination need in order to flourish. Which is why, I suppose, he’s chef at the Restaurant of the Year and the rest of us lesser mortals need some time and assistance to catch up.

It was late when the party broke up. Paul and Katie were the last to leave. “No one ever invites us to lunch,” she said. “They all just say: ‘How can we cook for someone like you?’ So thanks for inviting us.”

Come again, I said. If they do I might suggest my wife goes away for the week while I prepare.



The chef bites back: Paul Kitching assesses our correspondent’s culinary creations

I have never understood dinner parties. It makes no sense to me: the mess, the aggravation, the host and hostess toiling away. If the food is too cold, too hot, too sweet or too salty, should the guest say something? If the wine is bad, the glasses are cheap, or there is a chip in your soup bowl, what can you do?

In a professional eating establishment you’d instantly bring such things to the attention of the waiting staff. But domestically you go in blind. That is why I hate dinner parties.

When I read Paul Vallely’s account of his unhappy experience at Juniper, I fell through the floor, wanted to die, felt totally useless as my heart sank. So I found the number he had given when he booked and rang him. We spoke, chatted, and eventually chuckled. “You must return. I will cook you a meal you will never forget,” I boasted nervously.

He arrived a week later with his mate Bob, who turned out to be a top food critic. I cooked a red-hot lunch. It was a great meal – “These two have nowhere to go,” I said to myself. Five hours later, as they were about to leave, I said to myself: “Good afternoon, Paul and Bob, thank you for coming, now I’m vindicated, I am a marvellous chef and a very generous super chap to boot.”

But then the skies darkened. Just before he left Paul invited me and my partner Katie (who runs things out front at Juniper) to lunch at his house. Could we make it next Sunday? A dinner party (oh shit). I was tense all week.

Sunday morning I got home about 4am, had a few drinks, off to bed by 6am – couldn’t sleep. Then it was off to Paul’s home. In all there were eight of us: a couple of actors, a lecturer, a food critic, a broadcaster, Paul, Katie and I. The dinner-party dream team. Aargh!

A few days later, I was thinking how many perfect days we are allowed in a lifetime; I’ve had around a dozen and would add that day to them. Everything fell into place. The meal was wonderful, and the starter in particular was perfect. The whole style of cooking reminded me of happier times – Michel Guerard, Roger Vergé and the brothers Troisgros, nouvelle cuisine and the early Eighties. I’ve eaten a lot worse in many a Michelin-starred restaurant.

The greatest thing I took from my visit, and something I’d never realised before – I’m a chef, so why would I? – was that it is the people around the table that make the occasion. Our chosen eight chatted non-stop for six hours. It was for me like taking a drug, one full of kindness and gentle thoughts. We “came down” around 10.30pm, and with lots of hugs, left smiling. I slept very well Sunday night.

Now I know why you lot have dinner parties, you bunch of unprofessional cooks, and, yes, I’m very open to any domestic invitation.

Paul Kitching is head chef at Juniper, 21 The Downs, Altrincham, Cheshire (0161-929 4008)

Food for a hungry family — but at what a price

2021 October 29
by Paul

WHAT is a human life worth? In the case of the baby girl who has just been sold by her mother to raise the money to feed the rest of the family, it is £360. “My other children were dying of hunger; so we had to sell my daughter,” the woman told a BBC reporter this week in rural Afghanistan. Half the money has been paid. It will feed the family for a few months.

Afghanistan was in a parlous state even before the Taliban took over. Living standards were among the lowest in the world. One in four children suffered from stunted growth. Years of drought had caused crops to fail on a gigantic scale. The United Nations warns that one million children could die in a population where more than 20 million are now starving.

All this has been made far worse by the advent of the Taliban regime, which is ill-equipped to cope with managing the country’s fragile economy. Yet the biggest single problem facing the unhappy people of Afghanistan is the fact that foreign money has been withdrawn on a massive scale.

Last year, about 80 per cent of the Afghan state’s $5.5-billion budget was provided by the United States and other international donors. All that was withdrawn when the Taliban took over. The country now faces the world’s biggest humanitarian disaster, the UN says.

What should be done? The international community felt morally justified in withdrawing their cash. The potential for corruption is huge. The Taliban control taxation, customs, and many of Afghanistan’s banks. Extortion has been endemic to Taliban practices for years.

And yet the brutal fact is that poverty is now killing far more than war in this benighted country, where half the people live below the poverty line. The disappearance of foreign aid is a key factor; for, until recently, it accounted for 40 per cent of Afghan national income.

Now, winter is coming to a land notorious for harsh and bitter winters — where more than two million refugees are now living in tents. The West may be feeling bruised after the embarrassingly chaotic withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan. But we have a moral obligation to help the people of a country in whose affairs we chose to intervene for more than two decades.

Last month, the UN launched an appeal to raise $600 billion for the country. So far, only $1 billion has been pledged, and only one third of the money needed to fund UN humanitarian programmes for October and November has so far been delivered. Other agencies continue to work in Afghanistan, including the British agency Islamic Relief, World Vision, the Red Cross, the Norwegian Refugee Council, and Médecins Sans Frontières. It is vital for the British Government to support the work of the UN, and for the British public to do the same with the voluntary agencies.

It is probably too late for the baby girl in Herat. As soon as she can walk, she will be handed over to the buyer, who will pay the balance of the fee. But it is not too late for us to prevent the infliction of a similar fate — or worse — on many, many others.

Emma Raducana – a lesson on immigration

2021 September 14
by Paul Vallely

There was much chortling after Nigel Farage sent a message of congratulation to Emma Raducanu, the first British woman to win a Grand Slam final for 44 years. For, though she learned her tennis in England, she was born in Canada and her mother is Chinese and her father Romanian. Among the many virulent anti-immigration messages previously put out by Mr. Farage was one suggesting that most people wouldn’t want a Rumanian living next door to them. It would surely have been more in character for the great Brexit campaigner to have greeted the teenager’s triumph by complaining about foreigners coming over here and taking all our tennis titles.


Sadly Mr Farage was not alone in attracting accusations of hypocrisy. The Prime Minister, who also sent congratulations, in 2013 complained that the chief contribution of Rumanian immigrants to British life was to boost the numbers of people rough sleeping on the streets of London.


There is a serious point here.  Emma Raducanu’s Twitter biography reads: London – Toronto – Shenyang – Bucharest. She has previously spoken proudly about the importance of her mixed heritage and the particular qualities she inherited from Chinese and Romanian culture.  Her success demonstrates how cultural difference can be a strength, rather than a weakness, to any nation.


The importance of immigrants to the British economy has been underscored by the problems which have arisen for many employers since countless foreign workers left Britain after Brexit. It is a particular irony – in a week in which the government is celebrating official figures showing that a post-COVID economic recovery is underway – that Britain’s bosses have been again lamenting the absence of foreign workers.


General unemployment is now below 5 per cent. Yet there is a record number of employment vacancies, particularly in farming and in the leisure sector. These are jobs previously done largely by immigrants. Yet government ministers seem deaf to employers’ calls for immigration to be relaxed to ease the problem. Ministers apparently expect those vacancies to be filled by unemployed Britons.


This is part of the hardline nationalism which inspires policies such as Priti Patel’s plan to turn back small boats carrying migrants in the middle of the open seas – and her draconian policy on migrant detention which the courts found earlier this year, following several deaths in custody, breached human rights rules.


Farmers this year have been so short of labour for fruit-picking that food has gone to waste in the fields. The problem, say leaders in the agricultural and hotel sectors – is that the skills of the unemployed, and their geographical location, do not overlap with labour shortage needs. Very few former steel or chemical workers in Hartlepool are likely to travel to Somerset to pick apples. Some London hotels wages have been almost doubled yet still can’t find employees.


Previously, one leading apple grower, Ali Capper, said it was a win-win situation in which farmers were supplied with seasonal labour and migrants returned home with the money to build a house and educate their children. But now, she observed “we seem to be running our whole immigration policy on an ideological basis”. Emma Raducanu is living proof that there is a better way.



Is it ethical to mass vaccinate 12-year-olds?

2021 September 8
by Paul Vallely

Should young teenagers be given the Covid vaccine? The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has advised against a mass rollout of the vaccine amongst 12 to 15-year-olds arguing that the benefit to their health is only marginal and the risk of severe Covid illness and death in children is extremely low. There is, however, more to this than science.

The issue is a moral minefield which involves risk-benefit analysis, balancing the benefit to the individual and the community, and negotiating delicate issues of consent.  Should we vaccinate children for the greater good?  If benefit accrues primarily to adults, thanks to improved herd immunity, isn’t there a conflict of interest for parents?

According to John Stuart Mill the sole ground for impinging upon an individual’s rights is when they risk harming others. We make common sense judgments on proportion in such matters. If no one were allowed to drive a car, no one would be killed in road accidents. But banning cars is seen as too extreme on a risk-benefit calculus. What about infecting others with coronavirus?

It has been argued that it is wrong to make public policy on any basis other than what is in the interests of children themselves. But has the JCVI been too scientifically narrow in its definition?  The interests of children are wider than their health – both in terms of the common good and individual good.

The benefits of the vaccine may be marginal, but they outweigh the risks.  Millions of children have been vaccinated in other countries for months without widespread serious side-effects. And teenagers have been shown to be significant vectors of the disease.  A University of Exeter study – admittedly funded by the vaccine manufacturer Moderna – suggests that vaccinating all 12 to 15-year-olds could reduce Covid deaths by 18 per cent by December.

Moreover, vaccinating teenagers this term would reduce the kind of outbreaks in schools which last year saw children sent home on a scale which seriously disrupted their education. Vaccination for the general good would therefore have educational advantages for teenagers as well as being an act of solidarity with their elders.

It is hard to make a scientific estimate of such benefits, though Professor John Edmunds of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has suggested that to date only about half of the child population have been infected. That leaves around six million children.

To allow infection to run through such a large group would risk a lot of disruption to schools in the coming months, especially since social distancing is extremely difficult in the corridor and classroom. With the adult population largely vaccinated, processes of virus mutation operating among such a large pool of children could produce new dangerous variants resistant to current vaccines.

Equally hard to quantify, though no less real, is the impact of Covid on the psychological, social and spiritual well-being of our children. But we certainly know that research emerging from the year of the pandemic suggests that children and adolescents have been at higher risk from anxiety and depression.

All in all,  a holistic evaluation of the good of the child suggests that making the vaccine available to young teenagers may be, on balance, the better option.

Kabul has fallen because of US hubris

2021 August 20
by Paul Vallely

The speed with which the Taliban overran Afghanistan and its capital clearly took president Joe Biden aback.  But he cannot have been surprised at the events themselves for there was a grim inevitability to the way the dominoes fell once the United States announced it was pulling its troops out of the country.

Empathy is one of the political trademarks of the new US president. But if it was on display in his words and actions this week it was distinctly one-sided. “How many more generations of Americans’ daughters and sons would you have me send to fight?” Mr Biden said on US television in his first public comments since the fall of Kabul.  But there was no sympathy for the Afghans who fell to their death while clinging to the outside of departing US aircraft – nor for the countless despairing fellow citizens left behind.

What has been nakedly exposed this week is that the unfolding of events has been more about America than Afghanistan.  The US troop withdrawal was tied to a narrative in domestic politics with a decree that it must be complete by the 20th anniversary of 9/11 rather than being timed to fit with favourable developments on the ground in Afghanistan. When things began to go wrong Mr Biden took to blaming the hapless Afghans.

America first intervened in Afghanistan under George Bush with little strategic thought about what to do after chasing al Qaeda – and its Taliban allies – out of the country. Much the same may be said of Donald Trump who in 2020 signed a “peace deal” with the Taliban in which he committed to a withdrawal date in return for tenuous promises that the Taliban would act responsibly. The fundamentalist insurgents simply bided their time and stubbornly dragged out the peace talks to no fruitful conclusion. Despite that Mr Biden has essentially continued the Trump strategy and then expressed surprise at the outcome.

 Analysis by the Washington Post suggests that the Pentagon fell victim to the conceit that it could build from scratch an enormous Afghan army and police force numbering 350,000 personnel modelled on the centralised command structures and complex bureaucracy of the US army. But there was a cultural incompatibility rooted in a failure to understand Afghan society, the complex nature of its factionalism, the power of its warlords and the structures of corruption associated with the various regional militias.

The generals repeatedly ignored the warnings of the US military trainers that it was impossible to impose American military structures when fewer than 5 per cent of Afghan recruits could read. “Some Afghans also had to learn their colors, or had to be taught how to count,” one despairing military trainer said. A quarter of the army deserted every year.

Small wonder, then, that this army melted away in the face of the pugilistic zeal of the Taliban. Individuals swiftly recalculated where their interests lay and capitulated without violence or switched sides as Taliban leaders used a combination of cash, threats and promises of leniency to speed their progress.

President Biden, in the face of this, tried to sound resolute. But his combination of ignorance, hubris and callous indifference has brought him to the first low point of his presidency.

We must all fly less – the government must stop pandering to the aviation industry

2021 August 6
by Paul Vallely

THERE was a revealing juxtaposition of news on the radio this week. First, the Government announced that it was scrapping the proposal to create an amber watchlist of countries at risk of requiring hotel quarantine — “a victory for common sense”, a spokesman for the air travel industry declared. Next came an admission from the Government, in the run-up to the COP26 climate conference, that the UK must change its carbon-emission output “right now” if the over-heating of the planet was to be curbed. The cognitive dissonance between these two items went unremarked.

Aviation is responsible for more than eight per cent of Britain’s carbon-dioxide emissions. Add in the nitrogen oxides, and other gases produced by aircraft, and their warming effect on the planet is almost double that. A return flight to San Francisco emits twice as much carbon dioxide as a family car does in a whole year. A flight from London to Manchester produces 12 time more greenhouse gases per passenger than a train journey. Aviation represents just one per cent of the global economy, but uses eight times its share of fossil fuel.

Airline companies and their lobbyists have long had strong links to government, which is perhaps why the industry benefits from significant public support. There is no duty on aircraft fuel. There is no VAT on plane tickets. Air travel is, in effect, subsidised. Moreover, aircraft are not constrained by carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act. That is perhaps why, pre-Covid, airline flights were predicted to double over the next 20 years. Is this the “normal” to which we want to return?

Lobbyists insist that aircraft are today 85 per cent more fuel-efficient than they were in 1960. But the benefits of more efficient planes are far outweighed by the unconstrained growth in passenger numbers: aircraft emissions increased by a third between 2013 and 2018. Industry cheerleaders talk of plans to use biofuels, synthetic alternatives, and grander plans to develop hydrogen engines. But all this is decades away.

In the interim, they talk of carbon offsetting. But that is not a long-term solution. It is a temporary fix that means that wealthier individuals can keep contributing to climate change without altering their behaviour. It is, as one eco-wag put it, like compensating for your own adultery by paying others to be faithful for you. If all sectors and all countries need to reduce their emissions to net zero by 2050, offsetting now only postpones the necessary action.

What the Government should be doing is insisting that aviation is included in carbon budgets under the Climate Change Act. It should add VAT to airline tickets and excise duty to aircraft fuel (which would give the Treasury an extra £8 billion a year to develop new green projects and jobs). It should require businesses to account for their air travel in their annual reports.

It could introduce an Air Miles Levy to ensure that everyone gets one tax-free flight a year, and the 15 per cent of the population who take 70 per cent of all flights pay more, with an added tax on the first- and business-class seats that take up more space and weight on the plane. Most of us should fly a lot less. It is time for aviation to become more civil.

In the name of my father

2021 August 1
by Paul Vallely

A version of this article appeared in The Independent magazine in January 1988

This piece is republished here on the occasion of the retrospective exhibition to mark the 80th birthday of the painter and musician John B Vallely

I was, I suppose, looking for my father. The man sitting across the table might have been him. Not in reality. My father had died at the age of 48, when I was still at school, and this man was merely 10 years older than me. But, with the grace of partiality, he looked as I might have imagined my father to look now, given the arrest of ageing which untimely death allows. And this man’s name was Vallely, too.

All this is not why I am here, I thought. And yet it was. I first came across the name John B Vallely in Northern Ireland a decade ago. I was in the office of Sir John Hermon, then the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the province’s senior policeman had a painting by my namesake on the wall. Today, I cannot remember much about it, only that it was strong and vigorous, and that the canny chief of the constabulary was keen to emphasise that he had paid £2,000 for it.

For 10 years I had meant to seek the artist out, even as I also always intended to track down a man called Brian Vallely who was renowned in Ulster as a player of the traditional Irish uilleann pipes. They were firm purposes which I carried with me, ever unfulfilled, throughout the dozens of visits I subsequently made to Northern Ireland.

Now here I was, sitting in his house in Victoria Street, Armagh City, opposite the man. Or the men. For the John who was the painter was also the Brian who has been at the forefront of the revival of the Irish pipes in recent decades.

He was a sturdy man, a personification it seemed of his paintings – robust and rooted. Seamus Heaney said of John B Vallely’s art that he “liked its forthrightness from the beginning”. The same was true of the man. But there was about him, too, the elusiveness of the ethereal pipe music which he teaches every week at the Armagh Piper’s Club he founded 30 years ago. The two art-forms sometimes interact, as when he recently combined a musical tour of Verona, Bologna and Padua with a series of exhibitions in northern Italy. But there are many colleagues in each discipline who are unaware of his expertise in the other. “Indeed, some people think I am two people. It can be,” he says, with words as economic as his brush-strokes, “a convenient deception.”

He got a bit of gentle ribbing when Sir John Hermon’s autobiography was published and revealed that Vallely had been the proximate cause of the police chief’s second marriage. The chief constable, then a 58-year- old widower, was contacted by a 33-year-old law lecturer at Queen’s University, Belfast who rang to upbraid him for some misdemeanour. He agreed to meet her and she went in to tear strips off him, but before she began she noticed the painting. “That’s a Vallely,” she said as she took in its strong composition and heavy impasto. They fell to talking and the painter became a matchmaker.

* * *

Armagh is where Vallelys are from. In idle moments on travels throughout the world, I have opened the phone book in New York, London or even Dublin. Vallelys are everywhere in short supply. But in Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of the island, there are dozens. Armagh is the place from which my great-grandfather – another John – emigrated sometime around 1880 and made his way to the North-east of England to a job in the steel works. He was, my grandmother told me, a puddler – a labourer who heated pig iron in a furnace to transmute it into something more refined. Further back than that the family memory does not go.

But nor did John B Vallely’s. Such is the general limit of the oral tradition. His grandfather had lived in the countryside outside the city where he was born in the townland of Drumcairn in 1858. His great grandfather had moved there from Ardress earlier in the 19th century.  Almost certainly we were related, but there was no documentation to guide us beyond the residual family memories.

We took refuge in coincidence. His father had been a schoolmaster; so was mine. His father had founded the city’s Gaelic verse-speaking competition the Feis Mhor Ard Mhacha; mine had also been a lover of poetry. Both were referees; his for Gaelic football, mine for boxing (I can still remember the sour, leathery smell of the heavy brown gloves which hung, for some reason, inside the pantry door and how, in there, I cried silently in muffled fear the first night I put on them on before he took me down to his boxing club).

But where I had remained resolutely resistant to the sport, Brian, it transpired, has embraced not just the boxing but also weightlifting, cycling, fell-running and athletics. His enthusiasm led him to get deeply involved with the National Athletic and Cycling Association of Ireland of which he had been a member since the age of 14 and which his father and uncle had founded in Armagh in 1934. Indeed he became the Armagh delegate to the General Council in the late 1960s and was elected International Secretary in 1973 – in which role he had an uphill battle as the NACAI had been suspended in the 1930s by the International Amateur Athletic Federation when the Association refused to conform to the Political Boundaries Rule implemented in 1934. (When, in 1937 the Amateur Athletic Association of Eire was formed by six breakaway clubs from the NACAI, the IAAF accepted these six clubs as representing the 26 Counties of Ireland for purposes of international competition. And so the NACAI was suspended from all international contact.)  Brian travelled all over Europe establishing sporting links and arranging exchange visits with teams from both Western Europe and from behind the then Iron Curtain – under the umbrella of the International Workers Sports Federation, the CSIT. Brian, it was clear was a socialist rooted in old-style syndicalism. We were back to coincidence; my grandfather had been one of the founders of the penny-a-week trade union health scheme which was, so we were proudly told as children, one of the fore-runners of the NHS. Brian’s activism had been more confrontational. “For his pains,” said the catalogue notes from his mid-term retrospective at Belfast Castle, “he has had the dubious honour of being a guest of Her Majesty, on an issue of workers’ rights.” He was imprisoned on a charge, on which he protests his innocence, of assaulting a police officer on a picket line.

Until 1972, Brian Vallely was a heavily committed civil-rights activist. “It was meetings seven nights a week.” Then on Bloody Sunday, British paratroopers shot dead 13 civil rights marchers. “After that, you realised you could be leading people down the road to be shot. It stopped all our overt activity.” It was at that point, he says, he realised he had to choose between activism and art. “In the end I decided there were plenty of people who could do that, but not so many who could do this,” he said, waving his arm vaguely around the paintings that lined the walls of the spacious terraced home which was built in Victorian times.

* * *

Suddenly, he seemed uncomfortable at the point the conversation had reached. We rose to inspect the paintings, some of them the work of artists he admires, but many of them his own. Several were of traditional Irish musicians playing fiddles, elbow pipes, concertinas and bodhrans. All around the front room with its spare gallery atmosphere lay instruments – a beautiful harp and heavy tin whistles nearly three feet long. In the hall, a dozen or more violins, guitars and uilleann pipes were piled up in their cases. Later in his studio, housed in an industrial estate known as the Armagh Business Centre, a score of canvases, liberally pigmented with heavy oils which exude an abstracted physicality, all had musicians as their subjects. They were variations as obsessive and as haunting as those of the pipe tunes he plays. And they were charged with the intense melancholy, aching lyricism and dark rhythmic power of this mournful nation’s music.

Once, I had thought it my music. I remember the first time I went to Ireland in my twenties and discovered with the sudden force of revelation that the manners and mores of the place of my birth were those of Ireland. Our rhythms and rituals, customs and cadences, tunes and temperaments, weddings and wakes were those of another place, crudely disguised with a Middlesbrough accent.

For a while I wondered about reconnecting. But it was a rhapsody which mistook romance for reality, a bogus MacStiofainism which could not distinguish between Oirishness and the real thing. And my father’s maternal grandparents, I knew, by contrast, were of Yorkshire farming stock. I knew because I had traced their remains to the barely intact letters “Hannah and Ruben Ludley” on a crumbling sandstone tomb in the overgrown old churchyard at Ampleforth in the fold between Yorkshire’s wolds and the moors to the north.

So when Brian Vallely spoke of how he had visited his mother’s family in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo – a family with whom I thought I could have no connection – to hear them play the fiddle and flute in the rough, rhythmic, huff-and-puff traditional style developed for dances in the home, I knew that he told of a world which was not mine. It was perhaps a glimpse into my history, but it was not who I was. Like Brian Vallely, I had made my decisions, though my choices were not between activism and art. The voyage around my father was not yet complete. But in meeting this singular musician and painter I had travelled a little further.

No-one should be excluded by lack of cash from watching the Olympics

2021 July 30
by Paul Vallely

Already the Olympics have produced some golden moments reminding us of so much that is great about the human condition: application, determination, power, resilience, tenacity and, even, for the silver medallist, grace in the face of disappointment. It is a shared experience which brings peoples together. The last Olympics, in Rio in 2016, were watched on television by more than half the world.

It is all the more sad, then, that this time – though we have shared big moments in the big sports – viewers throughout Europe are being denied the opportunity to experience “never miss a moment”, to borrow the BBC’s 2016 slogan when it live-streamed every individual sport.  This time the European rights have been sold exclusively for €1.3bn by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to the Discovery Channel which wants to use the Games to win audiences from Disney, Apple, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. British TV is allowed only to cover two live events at any given time.

The official motto of the IOC is “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” Perhaps they should also add “Dearer”. Today’s Olympics are increasingly all about money.

Host cities almost always lose vast amounts. Every Olympics since 1960 has run over budget. In 2012 the London Games cost three times what was planned. Japan budgeted $7 billion, has spent $28 billion and is predicted to lose at least $35 billion.  This is why five major cities pulled out of the bidding to host next year’s Winter Olympics.

The organisers at the IOC experience no such jeopardy. Over the years they have evolved an elaborate structure of sub-committees and agencies which consume around 15 percent of Olympic revenues. The huge IOC entourage in Tokyo has been estimated to number 10,000 VIPs.

In theory IOC members do not make anything, though the president receives an annual “indemnity” in excess of €200,000 and lives free of charge in a luxury hotel. Ordinary members, who are treated to lavish hospitality by Olympic would-be hosts, have in the past been embroiled in bribery and corruption as well as opaque processes and questionable decisions.

Nowadays 75% of IOC income comes from television rights. That is perhaps why IOC officials were so adamant that the games this year could not be cancelled – despite rising Covid infections in an unvaccinated Japan, opposition from local residents, and medics’ fears the Games could become the world’s largest super-spreader. 

Had the Games not gone ahead the IOC would have had to repay not just the €1.3bn to Discovery but what NBC has paid for the US rights.  Then there is the 18% of their income from sponsors – many of whom have, like Toyota, already pulled their advertising and brought in marketing consultants to minimise the damage the Games may do to their brands. Had the IOC cancelled it would have had to refund between $3 and $4 billion.

It is time for the world’s governments to take a closer look at the International Olympic Committee. Then, at the very least, at the 2024 Games in Paris, television viewers might be able to engage properly with the full range of activities which make up what ought to be the world’s greatest celebration of human sporting achievement .

Trump’s 24 hours in Tulsa

2020 June 23
by Paul Vallely

Occasionally the mask slips on even the greatest showman. Donald Trump, at the rally to launch his re-election campaign this week, spoke to a half empty auditorium. Afterwards, in the dark, the dispirited President of the United States was seen with his red tie undone and his ‘America First’ baseball cap crumpled in his fist as he arrived home alone.

This was not how it was supposed to be. Mr Trump’s 24 hours in Tulsa were intended to set him on the road to re-election, to put behind him his inept handling of the coronavirus crisis and his wayward responses to the Black Lives Matter protests. He had, he boasted, had a million requests for tickets for the 19,000 seater stadium and had had to build an overflow compound to hold the excess crowds.

It was not needed. Perhaps even his devotees decided they did not fancy attending an indoor rally with thousands of people not required to wear face masks or remain socially distanced in an expression of the President’s contempt for COVID-19. Ironically six Trump staffers contracted the virus while preparing the rally.

More likely the President had been out-smarted by thousands of teenagers who had used their K-pop TikTok accounts to encourage one another to apply for tickets and then not attend the rally which was being indelicately, or provocatively, held in the city which was the site of a horrific massacre of Black Americans by a mob of their white neighbours in 1921. The social media post outlining the plan was viewed two million times before the kids swiftly deleted their messages to keep them from spreading to the mainstream internet.

Whatever the cause Trump staffers stood horrified as the start time approached as they gazed at the banks of empty seats.  The local Fire Department estimated only 6,200 people attended. The president, after yelling at aides backstage went out and gave one of his most rabble-rousing speeches ever – decrying the “Chinese virus”, which he dubbed Kung Flu, and spending 15 minutes lambasting the “fake news” mainstream media for broadcasting an unflattering video clip of him gingerly descending a ramp at West Point or using two hands to drink a glass of water.

Critics often suggest President Trump’s hyper-sensitivity is rooted in some kind of personal narcissism. But in a live-streamed lecture last week the Cambridge academic, Sir Richard Evans, posited a more calculated explanation.

The eminent 19th and 20th century historian was discussing populism, a movement which began among Russian radicals and American farmers in the 1890s and continued among Peronists in Argentina and Poujadists in France in the 1950s. It has resurfaced in our own times on the Left – with Chavez in Venezuela, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and the global Occupy movement – but mostly on the authoritarian Right, with Erdogan in Turkey, Le Pen in France, the Lega Nord in Italy, the Brexit party in the UK and Bolsonaro in Brazil.  There are touches of it in Boris Johnson.

What unites all these, and Donald Trump, is a vision of The People versus The Elite, in which the populists present themselves as the purest expression of the silent majority. They attack the Establishment, ‘the system’ or the ‘deep state’ which they perceive in self-perpetuating elites in politics, business, the media, banks, universities and the judiciary. They insist that referendums are more democratic than parliaments which can frustrate their plans. And they use vulgar language to show they do not belong to the polite elite but are men of the people. They offer simple solutions to complex problems.

They generate a constant sense of crisis – to which they claim to embody the answer. They belittle opponents. They peddle conspiracy theories. They even tell bald lies. “I have done a phenomenal job on it,” says Mr Trump of COVID-19 which has now killed 121,000 Americans. Yet their supporters accept personal corruption as the price which must be paid for getting things done.

Populists seek to undermine alternative sources of authority – parliaments, judges, awkward journalists and academics, and neutral civil services. They disregard or dismiss experts, which is why President Trump has already had four national security advisers, four White House chiefs of staff, three heads of the FBI, and four attorney-generals.  

For populists emotion and instincts trump evidence. That’s why they are better in opposition than actually running things – and why populist leaders have the worst record in handling the pandemic. But eventually in government they run out of road.  Donald Trump appears to have just got an inkling of that fact.


This is a longer version of my Church Times column for 26 June 2020

Why we should prefer history to hysteria

2020 June 11
by Paul Vallely

When a Roman patrician donated a new bathhouse, aqueduct or road to the city he would often have a prominent stone inscribed D.S.P.F or de sua pecuna fecit. It meant ‘paid for with his own money’. In return his fellow citizens often put up a statue to him. When the great man fell from public favour the statue was often torn down – a practice, I learned while researching my forthcoming book on philanthropy*, which became a great symbolic gesture in any revolt or sedition.

The lessons of history go far wider than that, as we have seen this week with the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, once lauded as the city of Bristol’s greatest philanthropist, but now reviled as a slave trader. The event tells us something about the nature of history, the need to remember, the danger of forgetting and the fact that we do not stand detached from history but are part of it.

The need to remember is perhaps the easiest of these lessons to learn. Colston gave the contemporary equivalent of about £25 million to build schools, almshouses, hospitals and churches, though he excluded as beneficiaries the Catholics, Dissenters and Whigs his politics led him to despise. But his fortune was built upon the sale of 84,000 slaves, of whom 19,300 died in the ships he used to transport human beings from Africa to the Caribbean and then bring tobacco, sugar and rum back to Britain. It is hard to argue that such tainted money can ever be fully redeemed by good works.

The danger of forgetting is clear from those who fail, or refuse, to understand that at the time slavery was generally condoned by the educated church-going classes. John Locke, that most celebrated philosopher of liberty, was a shareholder in Colston’s company. The protester who sprayed “Churchill is a racist” on his statue in Parliament Square may remember historians’ revelations that Britain’s wartime leader privately used derogatory anti-black language – but appears to have forgotten that the choice in 1940 was between Churchill’s slang and Hitler’s genocide.

After the fall of the Soviet Union several East European countries took down their statues of infamous Communist dictators but, rather than destroying them, placed them in statue-parks so children could learn something of the context the past gave their present. History is a better option than the hysteria on display in Bristol this week. Liverpool, whose splendid array of Grade 1 listed architecture is a testament to another city whose greatness was built on slavery, has responded to the complexity of its own history with a Slavery Museum in which future generations can learn to comprehend the complexity of their own chequered past.

In such ways do we make our own history in an honest and healthy fashion. Colston died in 1721. The notorious statue was erected only in the era of Victorian imperialism – almost 200 years after his death. Removing the statue to a museum would merely have been another stage in the way city makes its history – and one from which its children could learn far more than this week’s attempts simply to erase the past.

* Philanthropy – from Aristotle to Zuckerberg by Paul Vallely will be published by Bloomsbury in September

Time for action not more words on Black Lives Matter

2020 June 5
by Paul Vallely

A celebration of the five decades of the music of Ella Fitzgerald was shown on television last weekend. It was a glorious uplifting reminder of the incomparable phrasing of the greatest jazz singer of the 20th century. But the shadow of racism fell across the joy.

In one scene, early on, the US police were seen assaulting a group of black people with a powerful water-jet. It was a grim prefiguring of the scenes from the United States today in which heavily-armoured police are brutally dispersing crowds demonstrating at the callous on-camera killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white policeman. Ninety years on, and nothing has changed.

Online, the next day, Pentecost Sunday, our priest gave a sermon which imagined a triptych. In the first panel was the Tower of Babel where language caused confusion and bred suspicion. The second showed how, at Whitsun, language brought unity and insight. The third panel, he suggested, was the one we are painting today of our contemporary world.

The mass was in English but the songs were in Ibo and ki-Swahili. That is one part of our painting. But in another Donald Trump was using tear gas, rubber bullets and baton sticks to clear his path to a church before which he posed holding a Bible as though it were an object to swear on rather than a message to take to heart. It was the kind of scene which made the religious dystopia imagined by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale seem suddenly not so far-fetched.

George Floyd was in Minnesota, where he died, as part of a church work programme in which he hoped to gain a licence to drive a heavy goods vehicle while being, in the American parlance, ‘discipled’. He had been sent there by his pastor at the Resurrection project in Houston where Floyd was “loved, admired, and served as a father figure to guys in this community”.

His death, the Revd Patrick Ngwolo said, was “an inflection point” after which “we either master racism, or allow it to master us”. The blood of an innocent victim cries out for vengeance but also speaks of the possibility of redemption. It is for us to choose which it would be.

An angry protestor on the street echoed that dichotomy more bleakly.  “For half a century we have tried Martin Luther King’s way of peace – and it has not worked,” he raged. “It is time to try the way of Malcolm X”. Violence, as Dr King observed, is the language of the unheard.

We should not make the mistake of reassuring ourselves that the grotesque cartoon politics of the United States do not obtain here. In our own land black people are ten times more likely to be stopped and search than whites. They are three times more likely to be excluded from school. They have the highest unemployment rate of all ethnic groups. They are dying in disproportionately high numbers of COVID-19.

Public Health England this week published a report which confirmed that. Indeed it showed people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had double the risk of dying from the virus, compared to people of white British ethnicity.  The question now is what are the government, and the rest of us, going to do about it?


from the Church Times 5 June 2020