"Good God!" boomed Manton, as I handed my coat to Henry, "Look who the cat's dragged in."
"Hello chaps." I said, shaking Travis's hand, "long time no see."
"I should say so. Where the devil have you been?" Without waiting for an answer, Manton switched his attention to the empty glass in his hand, "HENRY - another round of drinks, if you please."
I turned to the smartly dressed man who was sitting next to Manton.
"Hello there, Treworthy. Is Abrahams not here?"
"No, he seems to be running a little late today. He and Manton have been..."
The rest of his sentence was drowned out by Manton.
"Never mind about Abrahams, old man, where have you been hiding yourself for the past 3 months?"
"All over the place. I'm not sure where to start." I leaned back in my chair, gratefully accepted the drink offered to me by Henry, and tried to organise my thoughts.
"Well, the first thing was that I've had to find myself new digs - spent most of March looking for a property and April trying to get the money side sorted out. Seemed to take forever - and then all of a sudden I found that I had to move in a bit of a hurry."
"Why so?" asked Treworthy.
"Well, Travis tipped me off - he said that the credit crunch was going to really start to hit home soon, so if I was going to move, I needed to get on and do it, as soon as possible. I had wondered if it was worth waiting for prices to fall, but he pointed out that there wasn't much point in prices falling if no one was going to be able to get a mortgage for the next couple of years, so I decided to take the plunge."
"Along with the housing market and possibly the global economy - although you can still get a mortgage if you can afford a crippling interest rate and a 25% deposit." added Travis, helpfully.
"Which I can't - so I appreciated the warning."
"Think nothing of it old chap - I shall accept payment in the form of a small measure of pure malt, later on in the evening."
"It will be my pleasure. And then, just after I had got all that settled, I had to make a short trip abroad - mainly business."
"When you say mainly...?" enquired Treworthy.
"Well, Prentiss did ask me to also have a discreet look at a few places while I was out there. A bit of prep for a forthcoming expedition, by all accounts."
"You were spying, in other words." said Treworthy, who did not try to hide his disapproval. He had a slightly puritanical streak to his character, and disliked what he called 'sneakiness'.
"My dear Treworthy," interrupted Manton, "if a chap asks another chap if he would mind taking a few snaps during an entirely legitimate business trip to another country, and if the other chap does so, and gives copies of his snaps to the first chap when he gets back, and if the first chap should coincidently have some minor position at the Foreign Office, I fail to see how you could construe it to be anything more than one chap helping out another chap."
"I suppose it would be indelicate of me to ask which country it was." asked Treworthy.
"Almost certainly, although I don't particularly mind. Let's just say that the back streets of Ulan Bator no longer hold any mysteries for me." I lifted my glass to my mouth again, trying to think of some way to get them off the subject before they started asking too many questions.
"Anyway, what have I missed - what great topics have occupied the most incisive minds that the Diogenes club can boast?"
Manton was about to answer when I saw his attention shift to the doorway. Abrahams entered the library, shrugging off his overcoat into Henry's waiting hands.
"Thank you Henry. My usual drink if you please."
"At once sir."
"Ah, Abrahams, at last." said Manton "I was starting to think that you had lost your nerve."
"Most certainly not, Manton, most certainly not. If you will wait until I have my drink, we can continue."
"Of course, my dear fellow."
I leaned over to Travis. "What's going on? What's all this about?"
"Oh, it's Identity Cards. Abrahams has been trying to convince Manton that they are a good idea. Without much success so far, it has to be said, but for the last month or so he's been coming in every week with a new argument."
"To continue where we left off, Manton," started Abrahams, in his best lecture-theatre voice, "are you saying that the Government has no right to know who is living in this country?"
"The Government is always, without fail, a corrupt crowd of vain, egotistical, self-serving fools who are incapable of seeing past the next election - and it doesn't matter which side of the house they sit on."
"Alright, let's say the state. Do the state not have a right to know who is making use of their services?"
"Of course, and there are already an ample number of ways for them to find those things out. Driving licences, credit cards, bank statements, birth certificates, store membership cards ... do you want me to go on?"
"But think how much easier it would be for them to check up on suspected criminals and terrorists, if everyone was required to carry around an identity card."
"It may well be easier for them, but the state should be here to make our lives easier, not the other way round. Besides which, checking up on someone's identity should not be easy, and it should not be made easy. It should be difficult."
"Abrahams, you are an academic. When I was a research student, we were told, over and over again, never to trust a single source. You should always try to find several sources and use them to verify each other. That way you can increase the likelihood that you haven't made some soft of awful mistake. The same thing applies here. If a policeman thinks that all he has to do, to identify someone, is check their ID card, he will start to trust it too much. Which means that if I have an ID card which identifies me as Richard Nixon, and everyone has come to rely on ID cards too much, that is who I will be, to all intents and purposes."
"Manton, the card will contain biometric information...."
"It doesn't matter what biometric information is on the card. I am not criticising the technology on the card, I am criticising the human beings who will be using the card as an excuse not to think. That is the danger. If I am carrying a card with my name on it, all it proves is that I have a card with my name on it."
"I am sure that adequate safeguards will be put in place."
"For goodness sake Manton.."
"What makes you so sure? Look, last year, I read a story about the website of Oklahoma Department of Corrections, which was so badly designed, that it was possible to access any data that was stored in the database from any website in the world. Which is worrying anyway, but the database contained the state's sexual and violent offender registry, as well as details of any offender that had been sentenced to probation or incarceration in the Oklahoma state prison system. There were even worries that it may have been possible to not just see information, but also insert, delete or alter existing records. Even if I trusted the technology, I most certainly do not trust the people that are setting up or using it. How may CD's or laptops have been lost? How may reports have been written lamenting the way that data is handled by large corporations or government departments?"
"There are plenty of competent security experts out there, Manton."
"Agreed. Perhaps the Government should consider employing them, instead of the cack-handed cowboys that they currently seem to favour."
"You know as well as I do that if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear..."
"Abrahams...." Manton tripped over his words, and then seemed to have trouble breathing as he struggled to bring his fury under control. "I cannot have a serious conversation with someone who talks like a Daily Mail editorial. Even you cannot be naive enough......God, give me strength...."
I leaned over to Travis: "Look at Manton's face....what would you call that colour.......crimson?"
"Hmmm...interesting. Possibly vermillion?"
"Yes, vermillion - I think that might be it."
"I hope he's not having a seizure."
"Abraham's isn't doing this on purpose is he, just to wind him up?"
"No, no, impossible." He took a thoughtful sip of his whisky. "If it was either of us I'd say almost certainly yes, but Abrahams isn't capable of that sort of sarcasm. Everything with him comes down to logic. Reminds me of a maths master at my prep school. He worked out the statistical likelihood of being knocked off his pushbike by a car, and injuring his head, and as a result wore a motorcyclist's crash helmet every time he rode to work. This was a long time before bike riders started wearing those helmet things, and so we all thought this was hilarious - made fun of him at every opportunity. But he didn't care, because it was the logical thing to do. Everyone else just thought he was wildly eccentric. Abrahams is the same - he really believes what he is saying is true."
"Abrahams," spluttered Manton, who had almost recovered, "have you ever seen the film 'Brazil'? Due to a computer malfunction, the wrong person is carted off for interrogation and executed. The state is very apologetic but explains to his wife that she will still have to pay the state for his interrogation. I used to think it was a comedy...."
"There will be obviously be safeguards - biometric information, encryption...."
"Anything that one man can invent to prevent unauthorised access, another man will be able to crack, given sufficient time and resources. Call it Manton's first law."
"That statement is highly...."
"But let's say that the data on the card is secure, and it can't be copied or altered, and nobody loses their card, and a massive black market in stolen or forged cards doesn't develop, and everyone only carries around their own card and no one elses. Just for the sake of argument."
"Well, an ID card scheme is only as good as the database that supports it, and the Government's track record with databases is, and I'm being charitable here, a complete and utter BLOODY SHAMBLES!"
I decided to interrupt, if only to give Manton's blood pressure time to go down.
"Yes, come on Abrahams, you must admit that they don't seem too good at looking after data."
Manton had taken some deep breaths and gulped down another huge mouthful of whisky.
"Just explain one thing to me, Abrahams. How exactly does this identity card prevent terrorism? For most of my teenage years we lived under the threat of a mainland bombing campaign by the IRA, but we seemed to manage without identity cards. What is different this time? I can see how they might make civil servant's lives easier, but I'm astonished that any politicians think that it is a good idea - even Jim Hacker could see the warning flags a mile off. I really would like to know. I haven't heard one politician or civil servant or police officer answer that question. What do they enable the state to do, that the state can't do already?"
Before Abrahams could answer, Henry appeared at the door, and announced "Dinner is served, Gentlemen."
"What do you think Henry?" asked Treworthy. "Would it make your job easier if every member of the Diogenes Club had to produce an identity card in order to prove their identity?"
The merest hint of a frown flitted across Henry's normally imperturbable features.
"There would be no need for such a system, sir. I am able to address each of the 2,459 members by name and can tell you what their preferences are with regard to drink, food and newspapers, without recourse to any artificial aide-memoires."
"Well said, Henry" said Manton.
"Thank you, sir."
"There, you see, Abrahams? What we need is more chaps like Henry. Much better than some bloody identity card scheme. Allow me to buy you a drink."
"Ah well, I can't argue with that, Manton old chap." said Abrahams, wincing slightly as Manton slapped him on the shoulder and guided him towards the bar.