Ten days ago, shivering in the snow, I was heartened to see pictures of the Mayor of London feeding a couple of desperate souls whose foolhardiness and failure to prepare for the worst had left them stuck and hapless. However, on closer inspection, the two turned out to be David Cameron and George Osborne, enjoying a pizza with Boris in Davos.
Meanwhile, the PM and the leader of the opposition (Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband, depending on the issue of the day) continue to hurl figures and statistics at each other like schoolboys throwing snowballs. As 2012 fades even further into the distance, and the strains of Michael Bublé singing “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” give way to the strains of Mervyn King singing “it’s beginning to look a lot like a triple-dip recession”, the ice on which the coalition is standing is looking dangerously thin. As the glacier melts around them, Osborne and Cameron are now clinging to one of the few remaining floes, the relatively positive employment figures: unemployment continued to fall, reaching 7.7 per cent in the three months to November last year, and the number of people in work is at a record level.
Yet here, too, the ice is cracking. Already at the end of last year there were signs that the welcome fall in unemployment wasn’t sustainable. It’s only logical: how long can employment rates improve if there’s no growth? Like the price of petrol and Boris Johnson’s popularity, it simply defies gravity. Even more sobering, a report released by the Work Foundation on Tuesday showed that youth unemployment in Britain has increased at a faster rate than any country in the G8, with only Greece and Spain experiencing higher levels. This is a truly worrying statistic. Youth unemployment is the worst of all: it scars and blights a generation, and those trapped in it for any length of time have demonstrably lower life expectancy.
Having just depressed you (and myself), I feel bound to lift your spirits by telling you of an extraordinary project in Sierra Leone. Fifteen years ago, the youth there were far from unemployed. Thousands of them, many of them still shy of their 10th birthday, were caught up in the country’s bloody civil war. They witnessed unimaginable horrors: parents shot, mothers mutilated, sisters raped; one five-year-old boy was given the nickname “Killer” and assigned the job of cutting the throats of captured prisoners.
Yet amid the brutality, a pastor and local man called Richard Cole set up a boys’ home in Freetown. Like a west African Schindler, he begged, bartered and persuaded the militias to hand over the children to him and rescued scores more from the desperate streets. At one stage his five-bedroom house was home to more than 100 children. The children came from both sides of the war: two in particular fought constantly. Richard’s solution was to tell them to fight but on the strict condition that they had to continue until one completely surrendered to the other.
After several hours, the boys were drained and exhausted. Eventually, they had an idea. “What if we both give up at the same time?” Richard accepted their final truce, before taking them off to be punished. For fighting. The boys protested. “But you told us to!” Richard smiled. “Yes, I did. But just because someone tells you to do something, doesn’t mean you should do it, if you know it to be wrong.”
Richard died some years ago. But his orphanage, Nehemiah, lives on, and those child soldiers are now leaders, graduates, nation builders. This week I met Richard’s son and, with him, presented the story of a remarkable man and the imaginative plans to build on his legacy in partnership with businesses and film-makers. It’s called social entrepreneurship. I call it inspirational.
This weekend sees the start of the spring rugby internationals, with RBS announcing that the bank is once again sponsoring the Six Nations. (I think you’ll find that’s the other way round, guys.) Among my earliest memories are as a schoolboy close to the touchline at Murrayfield, watching Andy Irvine jink through the entire All Black pack on his debut, or wondering what the weather was like on the top of Peter Stagg's head (he was 6ft 10in). My ears still ring with the late commentator Bill McLaren's glorious turns of phrase: describing forwards with “hands like dinner plates”, darting scrum-halves “away like a trout up a burn”, or poor drop-kicks “dobbling along the ground like one of ma’ four woods”.
This weekend the English are playing Scotland at Twickenham, and will at least be spared the away dressing room at Murrayfield (always referred to as “the English dressing room”). Its key feature is a concrete pillar right in the middle, making it almost impossible for a coach to address the whole team. Not that this stopped one England captain, who finished his pre-match team talk with a rousing: “Come on, let’s get 'em! It’ll be like MEN against BOYS!!!” At which point the referee knocked on the door and shouted “Come on, boys!” They lost.
Still in sporting mode, I’m concerned to hear that Fijian golfer Vijay Singh is under investigation by the Professional Golfers’ Association over his use of a banned substance – in this case, a hormone spray made from deer antlers.
I know very little about drugs – as far as I’m concerned a “non-steroidal anti-inflammatory” could be another term for a fire extinguisher – so I find it hard to imagine what Singh hoped to gain from using a hormone taken from antlers (though it may explain why his career recently has been stuck in a rut). Male deer are as a rule fairly poor communicators, given to guttural grunts and posturing. They also habitually mate with a harem of up to 20 females. All of which is more the kind of behaviour we associate with Tiger Woods.
Now that Singh has admitted to taking the banned substance – albeit unintentionally – it is important he takes on board Lance Armstrong’s recent experience and uses words that both admit guilt and take responsibility. Something like: “The buck stops with me.”