Do I grow cleverer with age, or does the world grow more stupid? Today, for example, I read what a police spokeswoman said after a man on a motorbike had been shot dead on the M40 motorway. The police, she said, were not treating it as a case of road rage; they were treating it as a case of murder.
So from now on killing someone who annoys you while you are driving — a pedestrian, shall we say, or an old lady puttering along who holds you up on your way to a supremely important meeting — is not really murder, but an understandable and therefore excusable response to frustration, at least in the merciful eyes of the police, who will treat the victim, that is to say the poor sufferer from road rage, with all due consideration.
Of course, senior policemen these days are politicians rather than law-enforcers, whose job is to manipulate public opinion to the satisfaction of their political overlords, which is to say to do as little as possible about crime consistent with the public not taking the law into its own hands. After much complaint about increasing violence in one of the hospitals in which I worked, the local police finally posted notices everywhere to the effect that henceforth those who assaulted staff in the hospital would be automatically charged and prosecuted, rather than merely cautioned. This, of course, was excellent in its way, but did rather imply that assaults outside the hospital would not necessarily be prosecuted, and furthermore that hitherto they had not been prosecuted within the hospital either — precisely what the chief constable had previously denied to me in person, the toad.
Ordinary policemen, of course, are fed up with the equivocations of their bosses. One old timer, about to retire early, said to me, to explain his disillusionment, ‘In the old days, we was nice to the nice people and we was nasty to the nasty people. Nowadays we have to be nice to everyone.’ The result was that there were many more nasty people than there used to be, and the strain of being nice to them had told on him terribly.
But idiocy is not confined to the upper reaches of the police — far from it. A well-wisher from Oxford has passed on to me the Convenor of History’s Development Programme for History at that ancient seat of learning. ‘We are specialists whose duty is to the past but whose vision is for the future,’ he informed his colleagues recently.
What I want to know is whether any thought going through the head of the Convenor actually corresponded to his words, or whether they were simply generated mechanically. It is difficult to decide whether it is worse if they corresponded to a thought or if they did not.
‘Once historians worked alone,’ continued the Convenor, elaborating his philosophy of history. ‘Today history is a more collaborative exercise, and collaboration needs space.’ The image conjured up for me by his words was of a group of historians, beavering away at a history of the Soviet Union (Short Course) somewhere in Vichy France. What he really meant was that the historians need a new building to replace the one that has just opened.
Il faut cultiver notre jardin. Unfortunately, there are goats next door, and they’ve eaten all the irises.