Friends and family at a memorial mass for James Foley in Rochester, New Hampshire. Photo: Getty
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An ally’s brutality, the “thought crimes” of the Cardiff Two, and how fat became the new normal

Inhumane executions are not unique to the Islamist fanatics in Iraq and Syria.

The beheading of the US journalist James Foley by the group calling itself Islamic State (previously Isis) was a monstrous crime. To listen to western politicians and read British newspapers, however, you would think such atrocities were unprecedented. Yet our ally Saudi Arabia beheads people publicly in what is known as “Chop-Chop Square” in Riyadh. Victims include foreign workers. In the past month, at least 19 people have been executed in this way. The offences punishable by death include blasphemy, drug smuggling, sedition and “sorcery”.

Beheading causes particular revulsion, perhaps because it is thought to be a peculiarly agonising way to die, since, even with a skilled executioner (which the man who killed Foley almost certainly wasn’t), consciousness may remain for a few seconds after the head is severed. Again, such inhumane executions are not unique to the Islamist fanatics in Iraq and Syria. In January, it took the state of Ohio 26 minutes to kill a man sentenced to die by lethal injection.

All this, without lessening our outrage at Foley’s murder, should remind us that our friends can sometimes be as savage as those we see as our enemies. We should also remind ourselves that many civilian victims of western bombing and drone attacks must experience deaths no less prolonged and horrible than Foley’s.

 

Closing ranks

According to Alexis Jay, a former chief inspector of social work, police and social care staff failed to protect 1,400 sexually abused children in Rotherham. This was clearly gross dereliction of duty. But Jay found no evidence of anyone being “influenced by concerns about the ethnic origins of suspected perpetrators” when dealing with individual cases. Rather, their attitude seemed to be that girls from poor and often broken homes were unreliable witnesses and not worth protecting anyway. So why do newspapers – and, to some degree, Jay herself – think it so important that the racial aspect of the abuse, which involved mainly Asian men and white girls, should have been highlighted? Why is it so important to “discuss” ethnicity and the “culture” of “the Pakistani-heritage community”? Wouldn’t racialising the issue make the community more likely to close ranks? Most abusers nationwide are white men. Moreover, apparently, most of the Rotherham abusers were taxi drivers. Should we not consider the “culture” of the taxi-driving community?

 

Text offences

Normally, I support “political correctness”, which seems to me just a matter of obser­ving good manners in public discourse – particularly towards groups that, at least in the past, have suffered disadvantage and discrimination. But as I understand it, the alleged exchange of racist, sexist and homophobic text messages between two colleagues who formerly worked at Cardiff City was intended only for each other’s consumption. It was a private conversation in the same way as if they had talked on the phone or chatted together at home. So why is it any business of ours and why should it be the subject of an FA investigation?

Using such language within hearing of those who might be offended would be unforgivable. So would examples of either man discriminating against women, gay people or non-whites. But denouncing the two of them for texts alone comes perilously close to denouncing them for thought crime.

 

Watching the nation grow

Almost every week, a new example of the effects of the nation’s increased weight emerges. Deckchairs are being made an inch wider. Shops are stocking school uniform trousers with 46-inch waists. The other day, the Daily Mail featured a 29-year-old man who complained that the post-operative hospital meals he received wouldn’t be big enough for his two-year-old daughter. The pictures showed meals that, though not generous, seemed perfectly adequate to me, while a mugshot of the patient strongly suggested that he was rather on the porky side.

Fat is the new normal. It is estimated that nearly two-thirds of Britons are overweight and a quarter obese. When I travel outside London, particularly to seaside towns, observation suggests far higher numbers. It is sometimes impossible to walk down the street without being obstructed by people who seem to have expanded to the front, side and rear in a re-engineering of the human body. Although I drink wine and beer, eat vast quantities of cheese and love cream teas, my weight is what would have been thought normal 50, even 20, years ago. I now often receive anxious inquiries about whether I am “quite well”.

It used to be said that the planet’s entire population could stand on the Isle of Wight (or was it Zanzibar?). On present trends, soon even Australia won’t be big enough. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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