A second opinion

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There are bigger, more globally grave stories in the news, but this one has gnawed away at me over all of them for the past four days: that of Ashya King, the five-year-old with an aggressive brain tumour whose parents, Brett and Naghmeh King, are currently under arrest in Spain after removing him from the Southampton hospital where he was being treated. I’ve attempted to engage in a dialogue about the heartbreaking story as it unfolded via social media, but keep encountering people who I’ll generously describe as fence-sitters.

My reaction to the facts as they keep emerging has generally been a visceral one: that of disbelief, empathy and anger. Anger that when the seemingly well-informed, well-prepared and determined parents of a sick boy remove him from hospital care in order to seek an alternative, less scattershot radiation treatment which is not freely available on the NHS except in very rare circumstances – a treatment they were willing to pay around £100,000 for – are criminalised for taking this step. The parents, and the most tech-savvy of Ashya’s six elder siblings, Naveed, seem entirely fluent in the power of social media, and have been posting regular YouTube videos explaining their position.

Although it’s ten minutes long – and what’s ten minutes compared to the life expectancy of a five-year-old with a tumour on his brain stem? – I have been urging people to view father Brett King’s key testimony, in which Ashya appears, apparently relaxed and well cared for in a hotel in Vélez-Málaga. (They’d taken him to Málaga – not “snatched” him, in the alarmist words of the first media reports – in order to sell a holiday apartment to raise the money to pay for “proton beam” treatment in the Czech Republic.)

Although, as the fence-sitters have been quick to point out, we cannot know the full, transcribed conversations that have taken place between the Kings and the oncologists at University Hospital Southampton, Brett makes a clear and non-hysterical case for why he and Ashya’s mother took the unusual step of removing him from hospital care. They used the Internet to research alternatives and the one they chose was not one based on crystals or cabbage soup but on conventional radiotherapy, which goes against what would have been the media’s preferred narrative: that the Kings were complementary medicine nutters.

That they are Jehovah’s Witnesses – a breakaway millenarian Christian branch that, by strict doctrine, refuses blood transfusion, or so I’ve read – was seized upon initially before the facts were known. It was during this cloudy period of speculation and kneejerk conclusion-jumping – a vacuum into which rolling 24-hours expands to fill – that the facts got away from us. But it seemed to me that reason was to some extent restored and hysteria averted by the first YouTube video.

Naveed subsequently posted this, to reassure those who would condemn his family’s decision that they did not make it lightly or without investing time, effort and money into ensuring Ashya’s normal feeding routine would not be interrupted.

In Madrid, which is 322 miles away from Málaga, where Ashya remains under armed police guard in a foreign hospital, Judge Ismeal Moreno ordered that his parents be held in custody for up to 72 hours while he studied medical reports and documents from the couple’s defence lawyer. Those who insist on blaming the parents will experience a weird sort of melancholic schadenfreude here – if they hadn’t “snatched” Ashya, they’d have been at his bedside in Southampton, instead of staring at the walls of separate cells in Madrid.

Again, although we can only know what we know, the family’s lawyer gave a statement denying that Ashya’s life had been at risk, and that he had been admitted to the hospital in Málaga “in a perfect state of health”. (Ashya’s brother Daniel, 23, was with him in hospital – thank heavens for small mercies in a case where very little has been shown, in my emotionally crazed and ill-informed opinion.)

There is still a chance that common sense will prevail and the family will be reunited after days of stress that none of them asked for. There was no “snatching”, there was “abandonment” (quite the opposite) and there has been no “neglect”, the flimsy basis of the arrest warrant and the threat of extradition. I asked aloud on Twitter when David Cameron would step in: he’s quick to get on the phone to Obama when the US needs our “military prowess” – why not a quick call to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy? Nick Clegg has weighed in today, coincidentally after the Daily Mail made it a campaigning issue, although I fear one needs political and/or moral weight to make “weighing in” count. Cleggs boasts neither.

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I hold no torch for the Mail‘s dirty tricks and grubby Victorian hypocrisy, but when it gets involved, politicians tend to be roused from their slumber. I’m no expert on the law, but isn’t extradition – an outcome that is on the table – basically about co-operation of governments? Though the Kings have refused extradition, surely some co-operation could resolve the matter before – and let’s not be coy – things deteriorate?

Unless Brett King is lying through his teeth, he was “threatened” with a “protection order” by the boy’s oncologist if he continued to push for the proton beam option and thus defy the child’s doctor – which would have meant (ironically) that he and Ashya’s mother would have been denied access to their son’s ward. That prospect seems to have driven them to act. They’d contacted the Prague clinic, but when the clinic contacted Southampton for the requisite X-rays and paperwork, the request was ignored. (Unless, again, Mr King is lying, or dressing up the facts. The fence-sitters will cling to this grey area until the story has been the subject of an independent review, I guess.)

Is it so wrong to air a gut reaction to a news story as it unfolds? I felt so sick about how quickly a child’s parents can be painted as neglectful, irresponsible criminals in a supposedly free society. Even if the hospital felt it was acting in the best interests of Ashya King, did it really have to call in Hampshire police so soon after discovering he had been removed? The first “breaking” media reports were of a “missing boy” who had been “snatched”. He was not missing. He had not been snatched. Assistant chief constable Chris Shead said in the police’s first statement on Friday: “It is vital that we find Ashya today. His health will deteriorate rapidly. Ashya is in a wheelchair and is fed through a tube. The feeding system is battery operated and that battery will run out today.” Clearly, at this stage, the police had no idea how well equipped the King family was, but no wonder the world acted with alarm.

I can totally understand Hampshire’s “damned if we did, damned if we didn’t” defence, but what I personally regard as a heavy-handed, panic-button reaction did not help matters, or contribute to the boy’s health. A European arrest warrant? Could they not have called the family to ascertain how much danger Ashya was in?

I’m not a parent. I will never be in the Kings’ position, thank God. But this didn’t stop me from feeling for them. Commentators have been saying, “It’s what any parent would do if they felt it was the best for their child.” I suspect the unconditional love for a son or daughter would trump all nuanced options, but I think the Kings should be applauded for taking such careful preparation before removing Ashya from care. (Naveed said that their mother was “by Ashya’s side for the whole month that he was in hospital.”)

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I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But since we all hope that Ashya’s health will improve, by whichever treatment his guardians decree and pay for, at least there is some common ground. Without the Internet (and some of us can remember a prehistoric time before it), patients were in thrall to doctors for advice, and took it, without question. The dissemination of information, while wildly unpoliced across a once-super highway full of potholes, means access for all, even we plebs who do not have the luxury of a medical degree.

But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and that works in both directions.

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In with the new

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New Year. Clean Slate. Breath of fresh air. New shirt (thanks). The first Telly Addict of 2014 celebrates … the old. ITV’s revival of Birds Of A Feather after a 15 year gap; the 13th series of Celebrity Big Brothel on Channel 5; the 17th series of Silent Witness on BBC1 (and the tenth for longest-serving principal Emilia Fox); the second series of “Spanish Downton” Gran Hotel on Sky Arts 1; and the third series of Sherlock on BBC1. Something new next week, maybe?

That shirt …

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Homage to Catalonia

I illustrate this blog entry with an awe-inspiring painting by Spanish master Diego Velázquez, because otherwise, I would have to illustrate it with a picture of some bullfighting, and there’s no such thing as an awe-inspiring picture of some bullfighting. As you may have read, the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia staged its last ever legal bullfight over the weekend. The regional ban comes in on January 1, but since that’s the end of the bullfighting season for this year, apparently, it’s adiós to a tradition that stretches back at least three centuries, if not back to Ancient Rome. We have petitioning and lobbying by animal welfare groups to thank for the ban, although some commentators in Spain say that it’s a bid for nationalism by the Catalan parliament, a ban further separating Catalonia from the rest of the country, where bullfighting continues, albeit in a much reduced form as its popularity everywhere shrinks. (At the beginning of the last century, Barcelona had three bullrings; since the 70s, it has had just the one, although its popularity has waned at a faster rate than in the rest of Spain.)

I love Spain, and I love Barcelona, the Catalan capital where the final corrida de toros took place on Sunday before a stadium packed with 20,000 enthusiastic fans of spectacle, colour, tradition, ritual and animal abuse. You may or may not be astonished to learn that I’ve always had a problem with bullfighting. On our first trip to the glorious if touristy city of Barcelona (a picture only spoiled by the dogs in tiny cages on sale on main drag La Rambla), I remember buying the Time Out Guide, which contained a rhapsodic essay in support of bullfighting by none other than Robert Elms, who seemed to have bought into the 1920s-forged Hemingway myth that it represented an “authenticity” that runs counter to more trendy bohemianism and given it the thumbs-up. I have no doubt that the bullring was a vital social and familial hub at its height, and just as I went to the circus as a boy and accepted its rituals – despite the evident displacement, humiliation and confinement of the lions, the elephants and, once, some clearly sedated crocodiles – I’m sure many Spanish kids were brought up on the bullfight, and thought little of the prolonged cruelty involved.

But you formulate your ideals as you grow up. And mine coalesced around a respect for animals that, in my early 20s, drove me to join pro-welfare organisations like the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society and BUAV, and, later, in my 30s, to support the RSPCA, Greenpeace, the WWF, Cats Protection, Blue Cross and the PDSA. (I actually withdrew my support for the RSPCA when they endorsed Freedom Food, a farm assurance and food labelling scheme which, though a move in the right direction, seemed at what was a more militant time for me, to be a dilution of meaningful animal welfare standards in farming. I have calmed down a bit, but still cleave to basic animal welfare principles – and 19 birds per square metre of floor space, as set out by Freedom Food, still seems like a lot to me.) Yes, I used to be a vegetarian, but since the proliferation of organic standards and availability of organic produce in the 90s, especially meat reared to the standards set down by the Soil Association, I find it easier to eat meat with a conscience. Needless to say, vegans have my utmost respect for their more extreme lifestyle choice. (Apparently, the meat of fighting bulls is excellent, as these bulls are, ironically, raised free-range: looked after like prize fighters and then made to dance and suffer before they die.)

Prompted by the last Catalan bullfight, a deliberately inflammatory pro-bullfighting blog was published by a man called Brendan O’Neill in the online Telegraph – which, in the interests of balance, I’ll link to here. To use his phrase, I am one of his “Bambi-influenced animal rights activists.” I have no time to refute the simplistic idiocy of this generalistic smear. I am not an activist, anyway; I just call animal cruelty when I see it. And no amount of bullshit about – to use O’Neill’s imagery – the “ennoblement” of the bull, as it is ritually humiliated, injured and killed to cheering crowds (elevating it “from being a grubby and dumb beast into a performer in a piece of beautiful, arcane theatre”), will convince me otherwise.

I heard an item on the Today programme this morning about the British Horseracing Authority bringing in a new ruling that limits the amount of times a jockey can whip its horse during a race – seven in flat races, eight in ones where the horses have to jump. I don’t follow the sport, and I am prepared to believe those who insist that simply riding a horse is not cruel, and indeed that a horse may love being ridden, but jabbing it or hitting it to make it go faster so that a man can win at a sport is, to my “Bambi-influenced” eyes, cruel. Dog-fighting, bear-baiting and cock-fighting are banned – as now, is fox hunting – so the reduction of officially sanctioned whipping is reduced to eight times a race is surely just one legal sport dragging itself into the 21st century. (To a hand-wringing animal lover like myself, eight times seems like, I don’t know, eight times too many? These owners and riders profess to love their horses. I would not whip my cat. Nor, as a Telegraph website user suggests, would Brendan O’Neill like to see his pet “ennobled” like a bull.) A full ban on horse-whipping seems to be predicted after this latest rule-tightening by BHA, which comes into effect next month, after which nine or more whippings will lead to suspensions and penalties. A jockey called Jason Maguire was suspended for five days for using his whip with “excessive frequency” on a horse called Ballabriggs at this year’s Grand National; his punishment would run to £40,000 if he did it again.

Here’s a quote from the BHA defending the whip: “If you are on a half-tonne of horse going at nearly 40mph over a jump and there are 20 other horses around you, you need a tool to steer, correct its stride, and balance a horse. It’s a very risky sport and we’ve got to look after jockeys’ safety.” The more I read that, the more surreal it becomes as a defence.

Another related item: on Sunday night’s Planet Word with Stephen Fry, he chatted amiably to a reassuringly white-coated man in Munich who experiments on mice in order to find out why humans developed language and, say, chimpanzees never have. Fry basically concludes that the only way we’d ever find out for sure would be to experiment on chimps, but that this would be ethically frowned upon. The implication as I read it was that Fry would be against experimentation on primates, but that mice were fair game. I realise my “Bambi-influenced” views are far too namby-pamby for the likes of Stephen Fry, but I find it hard to draw lines between which animals can be mistreated and which ones cannot, just as I find it hard to draw a line between how many beatings an animal may legally endure before the man dishing out the beatings may be fined for doing so.

So, back to bullfighting. It’s a long time since Ernest Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises and Death In The Afternoon. It’s quite a long time since early British holidaymakers on package tours to Spain in the 60s and 70s came home with their names printed on bullfighting posters, along with figurines of matadors and bulls. (I remember a relative had these, and as a small child failed to see any problem with it, although the souvenir manufacturer hadn’t painted blood on the bull.) I expect a number of my favourite Spaniards, from Velázquez to Almodóvar, approved or approve of bullfighting – the latter made a female matador one of the tragic protagonists in Talk To Her and included a goring scene that was meant to make you sympathetic for the human. But, like fox hunting, some traditions are simply outrun by progress. If a bull really is a “dumb” beast, as O’Neill confidently states, does that remove its rights?

The beguiling painting by Velazquez, by the way, easily his most famous, and one which I was lucky to see up close on a trip to Madrid, is Las Meninas, painted in 1656, and – hey! – it’s got a nice dog in it.

Sorry, I’ll go back to typing out what I think about films and telly programmes for the next entry, I promise.

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Well, it is all over. World Cup 2010 has been both spectacular and dull; surprising and predictable; big-hearted and dirty; colourful and grey. With the drone of people going about the vuvuzelas still ringing in our ears, and Robben Island now full exclusively of guerilla marketeers in orange dresses awaiting trial, Africa may look back upon its first World Cup with pride, despite the dichotomy of all those empty seats and, one assumes, a surfeit of local football fans who might have willingly sat in them if corporate sponsors afraid of a spot of rain and Robbie Earle’s mates couldn’t be bothered to do so. I heard the Telegraph‘s insightful Jim White describing his experiences in South Africa on the Word podcast, and he recalled seeing not one black face on a park-and-ride bus into one particular stadium from a faraway car park, just white South African rugby fans whom Jim described as “event chasers” – football being traditionally an enthusiasm among the black population. Now, of course, all are welcome at a World Cup, but this side of things was not widely reported. (Presumably it was in the Telegraph?)

It’s a shame the African nations didn’t get very far into the competition, and that Ghana were knocked out by a handball that really ought to have been a goal, but the Europeans had it this time, and we knew that a team that had never won the World Cup before would take home the giant gold roll-on deodorant. This is exciting. I hoped it would be Spain, but assumed it would be Holland, with Schneijder and Villa in line for the Golden Boot, and Spain having risen without a trace after that early upset when Switzerland beat them. Now, I am reliably informed that expectation about Torres was whipped artificially up by followers of the Premiership, and that in fact Villa and Pedro were the men to watch, so his underperformance may be less of an issue than I was led to believe. Either way, he failed to live up to his reputation, which was a common theme, with Rooney doing the same, and Messi, and the whole French team, to a degree, who were a shambles on-field and off. (Raymond Domenech provided the lowlight of the entire competition when he refused to shake hands with the South African coach Carlos Parreria in Bloemfontein. I doubt his stars look too good at home.)

As for the final itself, well, after a tough and determined Germany Uruguay third-place play off on Saturday, Spain Holland was a pretty underwhelming affair, but it could have gone either way. It took until extra time for Andres Iniesta to insert the winning goal, in the same instance that British ref Howard Webb earned the ire of the Dutch – probably forever more, as these things work out – for not awarding a corner that might have made all the difference. Webb looked stern and non-negotiable throughout. He had a tough gig, doling out 14 yellow cards and sending off Johnny Heitinga at the 109 minute mark.

Hats off to Spain’s captain Iker Casillas, who kept Holland out of his net and was the first to cry when the final whistle went. The game had been filled with near misses (Sergio Ramos a notable culprit with a disappointing mis-header, something I find difficult to criticise as I’m pretty sure I couldn’t head a professional match ball back if you dropped it on my head from two inches above. But Robben also missed one. They were all at it.)

I have been enjoying watching Iniesta running around like the clappers, and I understand the t-shirt slogan under his shirt, the showing of which earned him one of those 14 yellow cards, was a tribute to Dani Jarque a 26-year old Sevilla player and teammate who’d died suddenly from a heart attack. You had to love him for that.

So Spain won the World Cup having scored the fewest ever number of goals in achieving that – and having lost their first match. That’s eight goals in seven matches. Not a high scoring World Cup. Where would we have been without Germany? Still, at least the final ended well at Soccer City, having started in neutral – so often the case in this tournament. And it was cheering to see former president and current icon Nelson Mandela riding across the pitch in a golf buggy. Not during the game, although it would have livened up the first half to have a vehicle on the pitch. No doubt Webb would have booked Mandela, too. (Although to be fair to Webb, he could have and should have sent off Nigel de Jong after a chest-height kung fu kick on Xabi Alonso. He didn’t.)

What have we learned then? That Uruguay’s national anthem has the longest intro in the world. It almost looks like it’s going to be an instrumental. See you all in two years.*

*When I’ll next be watching football.

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I found myself in conversation about the World Cup with three proper football fans yesterday, courtesy of 6 Music, where I’ve been filling in on Steve Lamacq’s show all week. They’d set up a World Cup Roundtable, which didn’t mean we only reviewed records with Terry Venables or James Corden on them, but all three guests knew their football and their music (not a large squad to pick from). Damien Harris I’ve met on many occasions – Midfield General, founder of the mighty Skint records, sponsor for ten years of Brighton football club – but it was quite a change to have across the desk from me Mark Clemmit, of 5 Live and BBC1’s Football League Show, and Matt Lawrence, former Millwall and Crystal Palace defender, currently “between teams”. (Aged 36, he’s such a 6 Music kind of guy he was down on the new Laura Marling/Mumford & Sons single because he preferred Marling’s stripped-down original recording. And he knows more than me about The Gaslight Anthem’s first album.) I can gas about the World Cup with friends and family, who know my history, but here I was with a BBC football reporter and a professional league footballer. Would could possibly go wrong?

This wasn’t set up as a test, but it was one. Although we were talking mostly music on-air, talk was frequently of football off-air, and I think I held my own fairly well about the World Cup. I’m glad that the question of who I support didn’t come up, as my admission that I don’t have “a team” would have soured the mood. As it was, we chatted merrily about Gareth Southgate’s jumper and Robbie Earlie’s freebies and how disappointing so many of the big star players have been. I don’t watch the World Cup in order that I may conduct myself in a certain way in social situations – I watch it because I love it – but this was one, and I felt comfortable. I didn’t feel like a fraud, or the Jon Thompson “soccer” fan on The Fast Show.

I have watched the bulk of the games, and as the standard inevitably improves (there were some shockers to begin with) I’m more and more enthusiastic. I’ve also started a new policy of not drinking while the football is on. I’m on iced tapwater and coffee. The clear head feels nice. The semi-finals were enjoyable enough, although I expected so much more from Germany, who I’d planned to quietly and non-aggressively support in the final. (I know a couple of people who have Spain in their sweepstakes – hey, one of them is former Millwall captain Matt Lawrence – so I’m right behind them now.)

Despite an early goal from van Bronckhorst (who insulting people have said I look like) and a starburst of big player magic from an equalising Forlan at 25 yards just before half-time, Holland Uruguay was not an exhibition match in the first half, with both sides struggling to break through the other’s defence. But two orange goals within three minutes in the second half by Wesley Sneijder – now the tournament’s joint top goal scorer with Villa – and Arjen Robben, turned all the lights on. Even though that all-European final seemed safely in the bag at this point, Uruguay – lacking red-carded volleyball player Suarez – refused to give up, scoring their second goal in the second minute of extra time. This was a gripping, fizzing, entertaining end to a match that ended up being a high-ish scorer.

I realise Uruguay were the team to support, as they’re the underdogs, but apart from Forlan in his pomp, they’re a pretty ugly team to watch (and I don’t mean their faces), and they didn’t deserve to beat Ghana anyway. Holland haven’t been the second best team in the tournament, but that’s not the way football works, is it? They haven’t played in a World Cup final since the 70s, so let’s hope they are up the job on Sunday in Johannesburg.

After beating Germany in Durban – as predicted by Paul the Oberhausen octopus – Spain are in the World Cup final for the first time. They’ve won all their games since that early upset with Switzerland (which now seems so long ago) and may well be the competition’s quiet victors (Holland have won all theirs), despite suffering from the same blight as Italy, France, Brazil and England: star player not playing like a star. Torres didn’t even start against Germany, and when he came on he might as well not have, muffing his first pass and looking a bit slow. No wonder Villa didn’t even see him. Perhaps he didn’t actually realise he was on the pitch.

As ever, a goal broke the deadlock in the first half, coming late: Puyol off a Xavi corner kick. This should have spurred Germany into well-oiled action. But nothing came. Having scored four against England and Argentina, we expected more. They seemed to be a perfect blend of old and new players, with strikers to spare, and an almost mechanical ability to pass and not lose the ball and stay focussed and disciplined. (I’m not sure if I have observed that Germany are disciplined, in the same way that, say, England and France have not been, or whether I have merely picked it up by osmosis from commentators and pundits. I don’t mind either way.)

Spain did not miss Torres, with Villa and Pedro more than compensating, but if I were to use the phrase “at the end of the day,” I’d say that Germany lost rather than Spain won. (I expect the bierkellers of Hamburg and Berlin and Oberhausen were full of talk about the penalty that never was after Ozil – or Mark Moore of S’Express as I always see him – went down in the box after a challenging challenge from Ramos. This World Cup has been nothing if not a cavalcade of controversial refereeing decisions. I expect the BBC are working on a montage.)

What struck me most was how tall the Germans were compared to the Spaniards. It was like the game had been tampered with using Lord Of The Rings-style CGI. Spain really were the giant killers.

A fabulous weekend awaits. And what kind of a name for an octopus is Paul?

Oh, and here’s that Roundtable World Cup lineup: (from left) Matt Lawrence, Mark Clemmit, Andrew Collins, Damien Harris – they thought it was all over!