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Cyncial critics give cover to mean-spirited politicians over Bob Geldof musical

2024 February 23
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by Paul Vallely

The new Live Aid musical Just for One Day opened this week. It is a celebration of the 1985 concert which drew the world’s biggest audience ever. It raised £150 million to alleviate a famine in Africa so terrible it was dubbed “biblical”. Almost 40 years on we can learn two important lessons from it, one cultural, the other political.

The show’s narrative device sees a young woman, born long after the event, bumping into Bob Geldof and asking the cantankerous singer what it was all about.  Reluctantly, Geldof begins the story of how this oasis of altruism came about in an age of greed and selfishness. By the end of the show he has become intent on passing the torch to a new generation.

The show is a high-energy affair, packed with great songs, interlaced with humour and moments of genuine pathos. But intriguingly many reviewers focussed more on the event, and the man, rather than the musical.

The Independent lampooned the show as “Bob Geldof’s tribute to … himself”. The Guardian condemned its “patronising image of Africa as a continent desperate for, and dependent on, western aid”. It disparagingly declared that the show “encapsulates the apex of the white saviour complex” – a line another reviewer helpfully explained as “white people helping non-white people for self-serving purposes, such as admiration from others”.

Complex is a revealing word. Clinical psychologists define it as a set of emotionally repressed ideas which cause psychic conflict leading to abnormal mental states or behaviour. That’s not something I’ve detected, working with Bob Geldof over four decades. Are only black people allowed to respond to an African famine?

Anyway the musical’s script acknowledges some contradictions in the Live Aid enterprise. Nor does it focus exclusively on Geldof. The unsung heroes – who worked for free to print, pack, distribute and sell the record, and who worked behind the scenes as technicians, first aid workers and admin staff – are all credited on stage.

This cynicism among critics who were barely born at the time of this terrible famine has political repercussions. It is part of a climate which has allowed a massive deterioration in Britain’s aid programme.

The UK played a leadership role on global aid for more than half a century. In 1970 we were key to writing the rules which govern global aid spending. We led the EU on aid. Tony Blair persuaded the G8 into a Gleneagles package which cut child mortality by 18 per cent, placed 21 million more children in school and provided treatment for 5 million people with Aids. David Cameron enshrined in law a pledge to give 70p out of every £10 of our national income to the world’s poor. Extreme poverty declined at its fastest rate in human history.

But a new cynicism has now permitted Rishi Sunak to slash aid by £4bn a year and rebrand domestic forms of expenditure, such as housing refugees, to be taken from the aid budget. Almost a third of Britain’s so-called ‘overseas aid’ never left the country in 2022. Our aid to Africa is at its lowest percentage this century.

Progressive newspapers should be exposing this scandalous reality instead of allowing contemptuous critics to give cover to meanspirited politicians.

Putin’s dangerous myths and the credulous Tucker Carlson

2024 February 16
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by Paul Vallely

I wonder what Vladimir Putin made of Donald Trump’s latest campaign-trail outburst. During a political rally on Saturday in South Carolina, former President Trump said that he would not want to protect NATO members from a future attack by Russia if those countries were spending less than two per cent of their GDP on defence. Indeed Mr Trump said he would “encourage” the Russians “to do whatever the hell they want” with such “delinquent” NATO nations.

The Russian president’s warmongering has recently come under scrutiny by the forensic television documentary-maker Norma Percy whose Putin versus The West examined the two years of fighting in Ukraine. Her two programmes made for disturbing viewing. First they unpacked the tardy initial response of the West to the conflict – with Europe and the US uncertain how far they could back Ukraine without provoking a wider conflict with Russia. Next they chronicled the fragmenting of Western support for the beleaguered nation.

But it was President Putin’s interview with the far-right American television pundit Tucker Carlson which exposed just how grave that fragmentation has become. The interview was an exercise in sycophancy in which Mr Carlson, a leading acolyte of Donald Trump, allowed the Russian leader free rein to peddle a mythological version of Russian history – in a bogus justification of why he was right to send an invading army into Ukraine.

We have heard much of Mr Putin’s nonsense before. He began by lecturing the credulous Mr Carlson on Russian history going back to the 9th century Kyivan Rus, a name coined by historians only in the 19th century, and from which Ukraine could as legitimately claim descent as can Russia – and which also muddles the ideas of state  and nation. Later in the rambling two-hour interview, finally reaching the 20th century, he bizarrely suggested that Poland had forced Hitler to invade it in 1939 – don’t ask – just as Nato had provoked Russia now to invade Ukraine to “deNazify” the Westward-leaning nation.

With Mr Carlson playing the role of what Lenin is supposed to have called a “useful idiot” all this might have come across as merely risible were these times not so dangerous. Ukraine’s counter-offensive against the Russian invaders has stalled. President Zelensky has just sacked his commander-in-chief and called for reset and renewal in the war effort. Meanwhile Ukraine’s allies cannot agree on what military materiel to provide, and when.

Most precariously President Biden’s proposal for a $95 billion defence package, which includes aid for Ukraine, faces an uncertain future. It has been denounced by Donald Trump and now faces Republican opposition in both chambers of Congress. There are plenty in Washington eager to accept Mr Putin’s assurance to Tucker Carlson that all the United States has to do is stop providing weapons to Kyiv and “everything will be finished in a few weeks”.

Indeed it could be. In Moscow a poster urging men to enlist to fight in Ukraine depicts a masked gun-wielding soldier. Behind him is portrayed the frail figure of Jesus. Beneath is a slogan that reads: “Christ triumphed over hell, and Russia will too”.  Perhaps this is the ‘hell’ to which Donald Trump – as detached as he is from theological as geo-political reality –  has referred.

Guess who’s coming to dinner?

2022 December 17
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by Paul Vallely

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)

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

2022 January 29
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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

Food for a hungry family — but at what a price

2021 October 29
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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