Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Miles Away

Not everyone would base a short break on a distant Ham Festival but this blogger did. And either "Durante el tercer fin de semana de octubre de cada año" on the Aracena Ayuntamiento's website doesn't mean what I thought or one of us got the dates mixed up. Whatever, having driven deep into darkest Extramadura from Malaga Airport, the annual Feria Regional del Jamon y del Cerdo Iberico turned out to be a no-show. So faced with another cold night in the Alcatraz-like hotel I'd booked and minus an attraction to make the experience worthwhile, we checked out hurriedly and blazed south to the warmer and more welcoming climes of Jerez, knowing that there we'd be assured of a perfect stay there thanks to the ubiquitous influence of its Alcaldesa.

OK, I know appearances aren't supposed to mean everything. But doesn't Senora Pilar Sánchez Muñoz (left) look like the kind of Mayor who could be trusted make sure that if it said there was going to be a Ham Fair on the third weekend of Oct., a Ham Fair there would be - or else. And an elegant, sensible, properly-run affair it would be too. Just like Jerez itself, in fact.

If I say that, these days, Jerez looks like the sort of place someone like Senora Pilar would be happy in - I'd mean it as a compliment. Bright clean plazas, great service and food in bars and restaurants from the humblest up, no drunks, no vomit-stained pavements. And
I like her latest innovation - instead of a flashing light that makes you dither nervously about whether to run-walk across junctions to avoid being mowed down by eagerly revving drivers waiting to beat each other to the green light, there's now a second-by-second countdown giving you a fair chance to work out whether you can do the 30 metres in Sub-Olympic standard or die in the attempt.

Bugger policies. I'm going to treat politics as a beauty contest from now on. Otherwise we finish up with horrible old tarts like Jaqui Smith, who looks as if she owes her flopping cleavage to an excessive taste for kebabs and still is clueless. Time to stop being tactful about appearance and go for the lookers. Give me fragrant Alcaldesa Pilar and pistol-packin' VPILF Sarah Palin, every time. At least they improve the scenery.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

It's ever so easy (part 2)

"As the slow-motion train wreck in our financial system continues to unfold, there are going to be plenty of ill-conceived rescue attempts and dubious turnaround plans, as well as propagandizing, dissembling and scheming by banks, regulators and politicians. This is all happening in an effort to try and buy time or to figure out how the losses can be dumped onto the lap of some patsy (e.g., the taxpayer)." Dr Ellen Brown. 11 April 2008

Poker is a zero-sum game. Five players of equal skill, with equal stakes can, with an equal fall of the cards, play until kingdom come and finish up neither richer nor poorer. The only way pros can make money is to introduce a new sucker every now and again, and strip him of his stash.

Banks only exist, like any business, to sell a product - in their case they are selling money. And in an ideal world, banks would take my surplus earnings, lend them to you at a small profit, and pay me a modest interest for my trouble. Of course, this would mean that they were constrained in their lending by the amount of available savings and would effectively be playing 'zero sum'. To become infinitely more profitable, they must produce cash by loaning more of it than they hold in deposits - which, in theory, leads to a limitless supply. All you need is a printing press, and Governments have been more than willing to lend them theirs - the more money there is in circulation, the more there is for hospitals and schools and all the other things politicians love to boast about.

In fact, banks have produced so much of the stuff, that as well as us all having more of it to spend than at any time in history, there's more of it about than the entire earnings of the whole world for the next 5 (10, 50, 100, pick any number) years.

The article quoted at the top explains how the trick has been done far better than I could. And there is more - deregulation of derivatives and futures markets means that nobody cares what the actual price of any commodity is as long as they can bet on it going up or down. Only a few years ago, if you traded in Chicago Pork Bellies, they'd drop on your doorstep one day if you didn't get out of the market soon enough - contract was tied to delivery. This is no longer the case - when oil futures reached $140 in unregulated markets, there were more contracts than real barrels of the stuff. Traders were dealing in only paper, betting against each other on the rising price of a purely notional entity. Now, sure enough, spot prices have collapsed dragging the share prices of oil companies, and the Dow itself, with them. Because of course, when Indices were at their highest a few short months ago, these too were cranked up just like commodities, having no real regard for their underlying values as dividend vehicles.

None of this has ever been a particularly arcane secret from followers of the Markets. But what we outsiders never knew was the scale of the scam - just how shaky the teetering pile had become and, in particular, the tipping point at which the inevitable crash would come. But how conceivable is it that our leaders were out of the loop? Wouldn't the BoE, ECB, Fed, all kinds of regulators like the FSA... mandarins at HM Treasury, US Treasury, World Bank... wouldn't they know about this flimsy mountain of paper that would bring down the world's financial system as soon as the banjo-twangers started to default on their mortgages, sending whole countries into bankruptcy. And wouldn't they have mentioned it to Brown?

Brown knew alright. He must have done. Nobody could spend so much time as Chancellor and be unaware of what was coming down the track. At best he was twiddling his thumbs, hoping for the best. At worst he was paralysed, waiting for the wreck so that he could strut the stage as Dr Ellen predicts, making the grand and hollow gestures we're enduring now. Even if it took him until Northern Rock went under to find out, he's known what was wrong and done absolutely nothing to mend the rotten system which he is as culpable as anyone of enhancing for his short-term ends and the enrichment of his cronies.

Theories abound. It's all a plot by the Bilderbergers/Illuminati/Rockefellers/Shapeshifters/ to bring about the New World Order. Who knows... so mote it be, for all I know. What I do know is that if things get as bad as they could conceivably do - with mass unemployment and shortages of vital supplies caused by a worldwide breakdown of trade, then I hope Brown, the cowardly runt, is among the first targets of the angry mob.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Easy money

Speaking of lovely people running friendly banks.... The Bradford and Bingley is currently putting out an ad fronted by the hottie on the right, where a Dad is swaying contentedly in his garden hammock while two little girls play happily around him. The slogan: Rest Assured with the B & B.

Not if he's seen the share price, he won't. At 18.5p as I write, it's down 20% again today and languishing from a high a year ago of about £3. All due to management gambling on the housing bubble never bursting, of course. If he took the trouble to think about this - and maybe conclude that the bank will survive against the odds - he'd be better off buying the shares and punting on a recovery rather than leaving his cash gathering dust in one of their accounts. Not that he'd relax much if he did. It's about as safe as a Chinese milkshake. Nevertheless, I've invested. Gulp.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

New Improved Labour

Ah, the Halifax in its heyday. When Howard was cheerfully asking us to pop our nest-eggs into his branch to be looked after by his chums, we could relax safe in the knowledge that a nice bloke like him would be careful where he put them. His was the face of a warm cuddly bank made up of solid Northerners - people who invested our savings wisely then went to bed early with a cup of cocoa. How could we have known what was really happening?

Now that the cat's out of the bag, now that we know that it wasn't Howard at all who was looking after our pennies, that it was nasty Southerners in red braces all along, buying up toxic mortgages owed by web-fingered dirt-poor banjo-twangers in Arkansas to make a fast buck - well! It's just not the same. It's no good simply telling us our money is safe - there's no pleasure in it any more. Our illusions are shattered. We don't just want products... we don't want to look at the nuts and bolts, we want them to make us feel good about ourselves. When we buy something, we buy its image, its vibe, its identity, its brand.

Something poor old Gordon knows only too well, or should. I saw some of his speech today... he did his best, some have said it was a great speech, others disagree. It doesn't matter though, because his brand is shot. We've been given a peek into the back office, seen what's really going on, and found that Prudence doesn't work there any more.

Politics, unfortunately, doesn't permit putting up a complete fake in place of the CEO.
The carefully-honed persona of the honest dour Son of the Manse - willing to sit at his desk all night looking for new, safer and better ways to make us wealthier and at the same time more sensitive to the needs of others - can't be separated from the man we see as the boss. As the real man stepped forward, the image evaporated, exposed as a marketing myth.

Even the Halifax had to find its new Howard. It knew the public needed something else to believe in even before the current crisis of confidence happened. Next, it will seek to move away completely from anything that reminds people of its previous incarnation - not an explanation, not an apology, a complete change to restore confidence. Labour needs to do the same.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Only the Lonely

"...what gets me is, where were his critics five years ago, when everything was boom, and the country went schizo with an official inflation rate of 2% while the housing market registered up to 20%? Still, all I saw was beaming all means, get rid of Brown, but who are you going to replace him with?!"
Selena Dreamy

I know what you mean, Dreamy. Everybody was slapping him on the back in the good times, when he was like a drunk buying all the rounds at a bar. They turn on him when his pockets are empty and now he's friendless, bitter and wondering where the next unkind cut is coming from.

They turned on Blair, too, the man who gave them their three terms in a job that half of them could never have dreamed of.

But (see post below) everybody knew there was no real growth - that it was founded on unsustainable consumer credit. And interest rates were down because of the Fed's lead, and inflation low thanks to Chinese imports. The epitome of Brown's hubris ("no more boom and bust") has come back to haunt him as it was always bound to. And he, too, must have known the truth unless he's a complete fool... but while ever the illusion of pumping up public spending and raising living standards on borrowed money could be kept going, the old fraud couldn't give up the high that came with the plaudits.

I don't want to sound tooooo sanguine.. after all, I called the top of the housing market too early myself - thinking it would fall back due to overpricing/affordability rather than implode on credit running out and banks going bust. Maybe if that had happened, he'd have got away with it.

Who'll replace him? These are small people. They probably all think they could do the job. Whether any of them will want it, once they look down the barrel of defeat and semi-permanent opposition, is another matter. Having their name, albeit briefly, on the list of British Prime Ministers, though, might be a tempter they can't resist.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Should I go or should I stay?

Whilst it's sometimes possible to believe that the Labour Cabinet isn't a particularly bright bunch, is it a genuine prospect that one of them would really be reckless enough to oust Brown and stand in his place? Given that whoever replaces him is going to lose the next election - and then face a likely two-term Cameron government - surely none of them will put their neck on the line, will they?

But Brown is looking increasingly unhinged as he faces unceasing criticism from all sides, as well as behind his back, and waking up with that pressure each day can't be a pleasant or healthy prospect. As an outside bet, I'd have a chancy tenner on him losing it altogether, going for the doomsday option, saying, 'bollocks to the lot of them', and calling an election before the year's out.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

It's ever so easy...

  • Britain is running a Trade Deficit
  • The Government is running a Budget Deficit
  • The Banks are lending money that doesn't exist
We're bust:

Who cares? Spending = growth, according to those who know about these things.. those doing the talking, anyway. Well I'm doing my bit. I sold a house at a nice profit and am happily blowing the proceeds as fast as I can. It will take the bloke who bought it the next 30 years of his working life to pay off what 's keeping me in shandies in the here-and-now.. but that's economics for you.

The level of personal debt in the UK is at a record high at about £1.5 trillion - with average income earners on £25K spending £3900 on interest payments. And has this money that's been sucked out of disposable income and into the banks meant lower sales in the shops? Course not... they lent it back to the suckers on credit cards so that 'growth' could carry on regardless.

Nobody can fathom it. There are about 100 houses in this village. Say they were worth £5m ten years ago, in total. And say they're worth £20m now. Where has the extra come from? Is everybody 4 times as well off? Nope. If everyone here tried to realise the asset value of their home, it would be like a run on a bank. Yet we've had banks falling over themselves to lend on this notional sum. Where did they get the money from? There's more cash in the system than can be accounted for by wealth generated from earnings.

Oh dear, it's all unravelling... Well, there are two ways the country can go.

1> Print more money. Pretend nothing is happening (HM Govt.'s preferred option).

2> Cut consumption until it falls somewhere close to earnings, and get the country working harder.

What a coincidence. Option 2 is exactly what the lazy bloated lardarses that so symbolise the Britain of 2008 need to do, and so spectacularly fail at, blaming everything except binge-consuming for their over-inflated girths. Just like them, the flabby British economy will either burst or die if it doesn't find some self-control over its inputs and outputs.

It's unsustainable. There's going to be a reckoning. Unemployment and/or inflation is going to rocket and services will collapse until they hit a value floor. I can't see the government having the guts stomach courage to do the necessary to control it, so the market itself will have to sort things out by forcibly applying the gastric bypass. Nurse! The screens! This is going to be messy!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Shine damn you.. Shine.

My dahlias don't seem to agree with Michael 'What Hurricane?' Fish's assertion that we're having a typical summer. With the show looming this weekend, all I've got is a damp and bedraggled plot with just a few showy heads but barely enough to make a vase of matching blooms. I'd say we're at least a couple of weeks behind schedule and need a week's worth of sunshine in the next three days to get back on track.

There's always next year. But damn it.. I said that last year. Global Warming? Somebody tell Lincolnshire!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Over there, over here.

".... our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds, to believe that together with God's help we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us. And after all, why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans."
Ronald Reagan.

It's impossible to imagine those words spoken by a British statesman, with the word "Americans" swapped for "British". And I'd be willing to bet that the two most frequently used words in this year's Presidential Candidates' speeches were, "America" and "Americans" and that they occur many times more often than "Britain" and "British" fall from our own leaders' lips.

America, as pure concept, exists in the minds of its citizens in a way that we can barely fathom. The notion of a society dedicated to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness is embedded in their consciousness so indelibly that it can be invoked any time and guaranteed to resonate with any audience. To the Right, it signifies self-reliance, independence, opportunity - the Left emphasises the use of the nation's strength to provide prosperity and safety for all. When things go wrong, each will accuse the other of betraying the concept - never suggesting that the concept itself is flawed.

Indeed, there can never have been a time when the opposing tickets have included such conflicting yet representative archetypes of the dream as now - with Palin and Obama standing at each end of the spectrum yet equal in their ability to appeal to deep yearnings in the minds of their constituencies. It's like watching Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan in a run-off for the best vocalist - there's no possibility of one set of fans voting for the other's favourite.

Nor can we over here share in the dynamics of the contest without being somewhat aghast at its level of polarisation. We're almost forced into support for Obama on the grounds that he's the nearest thing to what we're used to seeing as a politician here - someone who's trodden the familiar path from activism to party prominence. But I cannot think of any scenario for a Sarah Palin to emerge, fully formed as right-wing pinup complete with lifestyle, family accoutrements and political background. It's not just that there's no British equivalent of her - neither is there any stereotype I can think of, who could be summoned up from anywhere in the Shires or suburbs, who could similarly embody our own sense of nationhood and destiny.

Because, unfortunately, we no longer possess one. We have no ideals left to which we can be asked to aspire to on an inherently, almost subconscious, level. Our idea of Britishness is rooted in the notion of history and a sense of belonging by birthright to a superior tribe - it's not one which can easily be extended to incomers. Much as we might be uncomfortable with this fact, and wish to reinvent it, Britishness is not like Americanism - not something that exists above the mundane workings of the State, that can be collected on production of a Pass Certificate in a citizenship test.

What we lack, here, is the ability to promote some higher ideal which, by galvanising the whole of society into a true and active aspiration to better itself would, at a stroke, remove much of the effect of the drag-anchor that holds Britain back. Our politics have reached a stage where each of the parties is trying to appeal on almost identical grounds to identical constituencies, with only the most subliminal of nods towards satisfying the conflicting desires of rich and poor, haves and have-nots, workers and shirkers. Yet despite the decline of ideological differences, we don't have a common set of definable goals. We've thrown out our Land of Hope and Glory and can't find its successor.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Art imitates life

Who needs a strong plot and sensible dialogue when there's dazzling colour, pumping music, pounding flamenco, enough gags and tricks to fill a dozen pantos and a sword-flashing hero? Zorro at the Garrick has the lot and after the all-singing, all-dancing, up-on-your-feet, clap-along finale, you just have to stamp and heel-click your way back up Charing Cross Road to the Tube if you've got a fun-bone anywhere in your body. Loved it. Hope it runs a million years.

I'd say much the same thing about pistol-packing VP hopeful, Sarah Palin. Thank heavens for a politician who just makes you want to feel good instead of pretending she can save the world. Who cares whether she knows what she's doing - I'd back her in an arm-wrestle against Putin any day. Forget Obama, I'm done with feeling everyone's pain. And move over McCain, collect your pension and give Sarah the No1 job. Let's at least all go to Hell rocking and rolling.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Compensation Roulette - place your bets

There but for the Grace of God...

Once upon a time, there was an Assistant Director, Alex, and his boss, Bob.
Bob was well-qualified, talented, solid, and in his fifties. Alex was younger, equally qualified, more talented, dynamic, loyal, ambitious but frustrated. He used to come to my office, we'd stay on after hours draining long G&Ts and discussing how to get his ideas put into action. Usually, it was up to me to go and 'suggest' them to Bob and, if necessary, lean on him to get things going.

Well, eventually, Alex had an offer of a better job elsewhere. I was desperate to keep him so I put it to Bob that we could unload him organise a beneficial early retirement package so as to promote Alex. It turned out to be pretty much the worst thing I could have done. It caused resentment with Bob, who felt insulted and wouldn't go. Resentment, too, among other senior managers who saw their comfort zones threatened. And, eventually, resentment from Alex once he realised he'd missed the boat.

My judgement was, I freely admit, subjective. If I'd had to produce written evidence of their different competencies, or Bob's deficiencies, I'd have found it difficult if not almost impossible. Much of the preference I had for Alex was based on compatibility - we sparked off each other in a way that Bob and I didn't and both performed the better for it. To be honest, even his willingness to stay behind and get pished was an asset. But securing his flair and ability for what I saw as the long-term benefit of the organisation was my only real motive for wanting to keep him. Probably in by-the-book HR terms, this was totally unrealistic. But these were all white men, so nobody had grounds for £1m discrimination claims so what the hell.

So I'd screwed up. Maybe I should have handled it better or maybe just done nothing, I still don't know. But either way, I thank my lucky stars that none of the people involved were black or Asian. Because the state of race relations that we've reached now, as the Tarique Ghaffur/Met Police case shows, is making decision-making impossible in situations where a question of equal treatment comes up. How we deal with the issue of racism when it's falling off the invisible end of the spectrum, I just don't know. It's blinding obvious, really... we just aren't all the same. I don't mean better or worse, just "same", irrespective of/and/or/including ethnic differences. That's going to lead, at some level, to making some people harder to work with than others and some of them will be black.

Ghaffur has risen spectacularly through the ranks to his £180,000 job. He may just have reached the limits of his competence. May have been promoted a job too far, indeed. May even be the victim of having a less than compatible personality which could, yes, be rooted in his ethnicity and religion. But does that equate to racism? Nah.. I don't think so. If it's found to be so, we should look at re-writing the rules. Otherwise we're confirming the advantage
over the rest of us that people like Ghaffur are only too willing to exploit... and giving every other loser with a gripe the excuse to turn to the blame game as his excuse.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Ping Pong's Coming Home

I thought our segment of yesterday's Handover Ceremony did a fairly good job of making a virtue out of necessity in its portrayal of what can be expected in London in 2012. In case you missed it, it showed a doubledecker straying off its route to be mobbed by a representatively diverse gang of urban mutants, only for the top deck to open up where an elderly rocker was mutely accompanying an inaudible X Factor winner while David Beckham kicked a football at the crowd. The days are long gone, I suppose, where we'd have seen Cliff Richard driving the bus, singing Summer Holiday with mini-skirted Beefeaters and Pearly Kings and Queens doing the Lambeth Walk whilst eating jellied eels. But still, I do wonder what potential visitors made of it. It was as alien an experience to folks living up here in Lincs as it would be to most people's expectation of a satisfying holiday destination. I also wonder what kind of show Paris would have put on if it had won the right to stage the games because, despite everything, as tourists we do like to hang on to our myths. I think it would have played safe and gone for the traditional scenes of Boulevard life rather than giving away the secret of what you'd see if you got off the RER a couple of stops too early.

On reflection....

I was being too fair. The segment was dire, a terrible advertisement for Britain - or rather it was an advert for a certain vision of Britain held by the type of person who's over-represented in the not-for-profit arts sector, one that is unrecognisable to most people. The Creative Director responsible for it is Stephen Powell, who heads up a touchy-feely Arts Council funded outfit up in Cumbria called Lanternhouse
( Why, when London's West End leads the world in producing popular spectacle that draws in over 13 million paying punters a year, the job was given to someone from the subsidised (i.e. loss-making) sector is beyond me. We could have had colour, effects, properly trained dancers in dazzling costumes and great music played well, sung well and correctly sound-engineered - people would have loved it and recognised it as being what we are best at. Instead we had to cringe at the typically dismal unimaginative and chronically arty-farty fare that only people who are used to being given chunks of public money to spend can get away with. No doubt it's doubles all round back in Cumbria as they pat each other on the back and tell each other the public are too dumb to understand good art. I hope Boris has sense to sack the lot of them for next time.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Blood Brothers

Sometimes, if you ignore something for long enough, it goes away. Not so Blood Brothers. For 20 years, it's been pulling them in at the Phoenix and yesterday my curiosity finally got the better of me on the grounds that there can't be much wrong with a show of such longevity that its only rivals are those other creaking dinosaurs venerable antiques, Phantom and Les Miserables.

I'd almost forgotten what it was that made me give it a miss in the first place and then studiously avoid it ever since. Well it's obvious really - it reeks of Liverpule and all the bleeding-heart stereotypes such as BoJo was forcibly requested to apologise for (with his fingers crossed). Of course its author, Willy Russell, was born on Merseyside so it's OK for him to perpetuate the same thing.

Without changing much of the plot or hardly a word of dialogue, it could have told the story of twin brothers separated at birth... one, Eddie, brought up by a hardworking aspirational couple. The other, Mickey, by a feckless single mother of 7. Despite their social differences, they would share a deep friendship until successful Eddie's loyalty is bitterly repaid by being shot by loser Mickey, whose life of criminality is a culmination of rejecting all opportunities to better himself.

Instead, it's a hard-luck tale of Scouse victimhood. Mickey and his natural family are lovable salt of the earth Scallies. Outsourced Eddie and his folks, whose money comes from exploiting the workers (where else?), are risibly effete toffs. When Thatcher's de-industrialisation throws Mickey out of work, his only recourse is to crime and when he shoots his best friend and unbeknown twin Eddie it's because the capitalist system has driven him mad with rage against its inherent unfairness.

Make of it what you will, it does have the sense of being somewhat of an anachronism. But when written, in the 80s when even Derek Hatton was a credible political force, its message would have been absolutely de rigeur. It hangs together well though, keeps the drama moving along and includes enough good songs to just about keep your mind off the flaws in the narrative.

I'm glad I saw it with Lyn Paul playing Mrs. Johnstone. She's come a long way since being the heart-meltingly gorgeous lead singer for the 'English Abba' - the New Seekers. Still got the presence, though, and most crucially in this role, the crystal clear vocals with that effortlessly rich and sexy vibrato taking her wherever she wants the tune to go. Without her, I think I'd have been on the early train home.

Time to retire it.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


I found a strange thing today, in a place where it shouldn't have been. Laid across a tray of pansies in my greenhouse was a rusty iron spike. How it got there, I have no idea. It's about a foot long, a quarter inch flat, hammered to an ugly point like a dagger and with a curved bracket welded to one end.

It can't have been lost or hidden or dropped - it was placed, carefully enough not to damage the seedlings. Nothing is missing, nothing else is disturbed. So who put it there, and when? How, when at night it's unlit and pitch dark in this village? Is it a tool? A weapon? An omen? A loose piece of a Eurofighter that fly supersonically overhead of us? What? A mystery.

The greenhouse is on land at the side of the house and can't be reached except via the back door or by clambering painfully over a thick hawthorn hedge. Until today, it's been somewhere for nobody but me to be, among the plants and the freshly oxygenated air, able to look as if I'm busy at the first sign of Mme.'s approaching footsteps. Now it holds a secret. Damn.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

What the F?

Annoyed by constantly having to correct students' spelling, Dr Ken Smith, the senior lecturer in criminology at Buckinghamshire New University, is proposing that "University teachers should simply accept as variant spellings those words our students most commonly misspell.''

Yes, it must be a pain having to correct some of the most frequent mistakes such as 'ignor', 'thier', 'speach' and 'truely'. Especially when you're teaching a subject whose graduates are going to be lucky if the nearest they come to using their hard won knowledge is handing out parking tickets. I kind of lose him, though, when he goes on, "there is no reason many commonly misspelt (sic) words are configured the way they are. The word 'twelfth', for example, would make more sense as 'twelth'. How on earth did that "f " get in there? You would not dream of spelling the words "stealth" or "wealth" with a "f" (as in 'stealfth' or "wealfth") so why insist on putting the "f" in twelfth?''. No Ken, and I wouldn't dream of having to read misspelled words based on every conceivable mispronunkciation neiver.

I should think it's fair to assume that most of his students come from the 60odd% of those who were actually deemed to have an acceptable level of English in their SATS tests. This year's intake will come from some of those kids we'll soon be seeing whooping and hugging as they hear of their record-breakingly excellent A-level results - renewed proof that the £millions of extra money being poured into education is delivering new heights of success.

Yet they still can't spell and are going into careers that, a few years ago, would have needed just a couple of moderate O-levels. If that.

This issue sums up the problem of government policies in a nutshell. An assumption has been made, and is being put into practice, that a certain percentage of the population should be of degree level. Who knows.. maybe this can be demonstrated as desirable and perhaps it is. But what's clearly not happening, is that the graduates that are being produced are fit for the requirements of the labour market - neither in the quality of their education, nor in their type of qualification.

So now we merely have a 'policy' of a universal right to full education. In its name, we're churning out generations of semi-literate adults with the scantiest knowledge of their chosen subjects and conniving with the deceit that putting off work for a few years benefits all of us. What's happened, as is so typical as to be inevitable when the State is in charge, is that the reason for the policy has been lost and disregarded as the quest to fulfil its target has been implemented. Again and again we see this with Government and its agencies... it's because the implementers aren't held responsible for the outcomes of their actions. And their bosses in Cabinet never dare admit a failure.

Prof. AllShookUp's Patent Remedy.

First identify your desired aim. Then tackle it by:

Step one: Fire Dr Smith and his ilk.

Step two: Return Buckinghamshire New University and its ilk to being technical colleges.

Step three: Use the money saved to ding a basic education into primary school kids and keep them there till they've got it.

Easy peasy.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Miles away

Back when I lived in Nottingham, I was barely aware of its history. Such fragments as there were; the caves, the Castle, the flimsy connection with Robin Hood.. were no more than irrelevant curiosities compared with its significance as a vehicle for my life and work there. A city thrives on change or dies. Buildings that had been fixtures in my consciousness were almost brand new in my parents' eyes. The same thing happened to me when my daughter talked about bars that I'd known as banks, pubs that used to be shops, shops that had been cinemas, apartments that once were warehouses. Layer upon layer, it reinvents itself to each new generation that moulds it to their own needs. As soon as there is redundancy or obsolescence, something new leaps into its place. Its past is never more than twenty years ago.

I can't say the same for out here. The past is inescapable. Even to get here, you either criss-cross the rectilinear grid laid down as a consequence of the drainage of the Fen, or drive along the medieval road linking the chain of old villages on the imperceptible high ground that was available to be farmed 1000 years ago. Within a half-dozen mile radius of where I write this, there are fifteen ancient churches - fifteen, such was the degree of piety in bygone ages. Although all are nominally open for business, none has a viable congregation - the only signs of vitality are the fresh flowers in the graveyards... funerals being more profitable than weddings it seems. All the Lambeth Conferences in the world won't put life back into them - they just stand looking hurt and rejected, as silent knowing witnesses to these uneasy times when the old certainties are dead. Pubs close down and stay closed down. So too do banks and shops. So would Skegness itself, if it wasn't only for being the best that people with limited choices can afford. The force that re-energises cities doesn't have the necessary critical mass to sustain itself here. A thin modern veneer has been put over it, but the past won't go away.

I'm sensing too much decay... in myself too. How much is due to being here is hard to put a finger on - but all of us to a greater or lesser extent need to feel ourselves affecting the Earth's motion and I feel at a standstill. I've been charmed by Lincolnshire for a while, but on bad days it's not enough. The people happiest here are those most in tune with it. In me, contemplation of it is confirming my detachment and encouraging introspection. I'm blogging for the wrong reasons.... indeed I don't even have a reason. It's not serving whatever purpose I had in mind for it - no, actually I'm failing to make it fulfill its purpose. Oh I dunno... if I ask myself, "Yes, but why are you telling a bunch of strangers anyone this?", I can't come up with a convincing answer. Not one I want to hear, anyway. Why blog? That's the question. Anyone?

Chris and Inky - you can still buzz me on the link to the side (so can anyone else for that matter).

Thanks to everyone who's shown interest, going to be otherwise occupied for a bit.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Cheeky brats.

Walking back to the car yesterday, I had to pass three girls aged 14/15ish, sitting on a churchyard wall. As I approached, one said, "do you want some sex?". The others sniggered and she went on, "have you got a big knob?"

What do you do? What's the correct response? It's not what you're expecting from fresh-faced kids in a picture-perfect village street on a balmy Lincolnshire evening. You're set up already and only going to open yourself to even more adolescent ridicule whatever you say. Well, all I could come up with was, "your mum will be really proud of you. I'll tell her when I see her later on." "Great," she came back, "we'll have a threesome."

It's tempting to put this down to the 'youth of today, videogame generation, no discipline in schools anymore, where are the parents, I blame television'. But no doubt, the same cheeking of strangers has always gone on - just that maybe today it's probably more widespread thanks to a feeling of immunity from sanction. But the content of the taunts.... that's modern, surely?

How knowing was this girl? Was she already trying out the same game that some women enjoy, that exploits, and at the same time mocks, the male vulnerability to auto-response at artificial displays of female sexuality?

I reckon she was, and that's a shame.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Apologise? Yeah, yeah, whatever.

Cripes! Boris has done it again! First it was the whingeing Scousers, then the Headhunters of Borneo, now it's his Stuff Skegness remarks causing furore among the natives. Council Leader Doreen Stephenson was enraged, even breaking off from a fact-finding mission to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party to call for a grovelling apology. Shame she was so humourless, and couldn't have forseen that her shrill and shallow kneejerk howl of distress was exactly the sort of thing that makes backwater resorts items for derision in the first place. Something more in tune with the panache of BJ's article might have had more of the desired effect and brought some much-needed good publicity. Ah well.

Strange photo the Telegraph chose, though. It shows a bloke who appears to have arrived on the beach after tunneling his way in - possibly from HMP North Sea Camp just down the coast, or Butlins a mile the other way. No doubt his chums on the Escape Committee are putting on a Knobbly Knees Contest to distract the Redcoats, while others shuffle round the exercise yard shaking sand out of their trousers.

Just above him, there's another reason for Boris to choose elsewhere for his hols. It's one of the dozens of windmills in Britain's Largest Offshore Windfarm (BLOW), thoughtfully provided right in front of the Front, so that the view out to sea is of a forest of 150ft pylons, each with their propellors which - on a good day - can provide enough electricity to run.. ooh I dunno.. at least a couple of chip-shops, I should think. Course, if he turns and looks the other way, he'll see the ruins of the Grand Parade complex that burned down last summer - still standing like a row of rotten teeth in the heart of Skeg, still waiting for Cllr. Mrs. Stephenson's council to get a grip on the planning applications.

Boris says he's going abroad despite the example set by Brown's patriotic sojourn in Southwold, where the poor bugger will be holed up with nothing to do in the drizzle, except hope Ms Harman screws things up quickly enough for him to make an emergency dash back to Downing Street to show us all how masterful he is in a crisis. No doubt his spin-doctors are working on a disaster for him to solve at this very moment. Plague and floods worked wonders last year. Look out for fire and famine this time!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Global Warnings

Last time I was in London, it peed down all day and, in case we hadn't noticed, National Express kept warning us against slipping on the dangerously wet platforms. This time it was the turn of the Station Announcer at Kings Cross Tube to explain that, as it was a hot day, we should "carry a bottle of water and not attempt emergency medical procedures between stations but wait until the next stop and summon help".

These safety notices haven't penetrated Lincolnshire yet. But I can't imagine it will be long before we have signs saying, "Don't Drink the Sea" and "Remember to Blow on Chips Before Consuming", for our own protection. Anyway, it's bad enough having to steel myself to brave the knife-toting hoodies and gangs of pickpocketing Roma children down south without having to worry about all these other dreadful hazards. So I thought it best to double back to the Spar for an extra couple of litres of Drench before descending into the inferno. Just as well I did. The train arrived half-empty due, I guess, to passengers foolhardy enough to have attempted the journey from Cockfosters having suffered Spontaneous Evaporation en route.

Most of us made it to Piccadilly Circus in one piece, although Russell Square was full of casualties as usual - mostly reckless tourists who hadn't Minded the Gap. It was a relief to get into the fresh air again, but I did give some dossers near Eros a wide berth by detouring down Lower Regent Street - it would have been a shame to have got this far only to lose a lung to passive smoking.

No such problems at Kneehigh Theatre's inventive stage production of the Noel Coward/David Lean classic, Brief Encounter. It superbly picks its way through affectionate pastiche and respect for the dramatic tension of the piece by cleverly mixing film, song and comedy with a faithful reproduction of the core central relationship between the two illicit lovers. Their cut-glass accents and anguished reactions to the implications of their affair would be fertile ground for parody and easy laughs... so it's to the producers' credit that they allowed the plot to stand as its author intended, and the fact that it can still resonate even in today's more licentious atmosphere was proved by the audience's rapt attention to every nuance. A warm and memorable entertainment from a talented ensemble. Special mention must go to Naomi Frederick and Tristan Sturrock for taking on Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard's iconic roles, with such skill in nodding just far enough to the originals. Can't have been easy but they get it spot on.

So if you're on Haymarket with a spare couple of hours, there's nowhere better to spend them than with Kneehigh. Certainly not across the road at the Theatre Royal where Marguerite plays to half-empty houses. Good performances - dud book and music. In fact I can give my new favourite word an outing for that show. It's sententious.

Glad to have got back safe and healthy. Whew. It's a jungle out there.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Famous Yellowbelly

St. Margaret's, Somersby. Charming in its way, a typical little Wolds church, even if not one of Lincolnshire's most impressive. Its claim to fame, though, is in being right across the road from the poet Tennyson's birthplace - his father was Rector here, as well as holding the living at the exotically named Bag Enderby, just half a mile away down a narrow lane. Nowadays it stands closed and dark, in a now-prosperous hamlet hardly big enough to provide it with a congregation, even if the residents were so inclined. His Fan Club, though, hold regular commemorative services and there's a bust inside for them to look at. From the outside, the main clue to its history is the the C15th window, which looks as if it's been bought as a medieval flat-pack, assembled and bodged in by the same local builder who made the porch-arch, roughly hewn from sandstone identical to the main body. Only the standalone cross on the mound, particularly the base, hints at an even more ancient origin.

I don't know whether visits to famous people's birthplaces ever do actually give an insight into their work. Come to think of it, I think they can; considering some of the places I've been. Ferriday and Tupelo spring to mind. More often though, I guess they're kind of a pilgrimage for fans. Poetry though, like opera, is an art-form that generally leaves me cold and wondering what on earth it is I'm missing. Seeing Somersby at first hand, imagining its claustrophobic remoteness 200 years ago, still leaves me guessing as to what it did for Tennyson's muse. The only one of his I could have called to mind goes, 'Tumty tumty rode the six hundred, tumty tumty someone had blundered'. I've looked up his stuff and no wonder that's so famous - his other stuff is impenetrable. Is it just because it's Victorian.. can it still speak to us? Am I dismissing it as old-hat? Here's one I picked out, mainly because it touches on a topic I've been pondering lately:

The sun, the moon, the stars, the seas, the hills and the plains,-
Are not these, O Soul, the Vision of Him who reigns?

Is not the Vision He, tho' He be not that which He seems?
Dreams are true while they last, and do we not live in dreams?

Earth, these solid stars, this weight of body and limb,
Are they not sign and symbol of thy division from Him?

Dark is the world to thee; thyself art the reason why,
For is He not all but thou, that hast power to feel "I am I"?

Glory about thee, without thee; and thou fulfillest thy doom,
Making Him broken gleams and a stifled splendour and gloom.

Speak to Him, thou, for He hears, and Spirit with Spirit can meet-
Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.

God is law, say the wise; O soul, and let us rejoice,
For if He thunder by law the thunder is yet His voice.

Law is God, say some; no God at all, says the fool,
For all we have power to see is a straight staff bent in a pool;

And the ear of man cannot hear, and the eye of man cannot see;
But if we could see and hear, this Vision-were it not He?

Now if he's saying (and I do mean IF) that the expression of God is all about us in the natural and physical world and there is no need to construct our own anthropomorphic version of Him.. well fine. I can go with that... but he's putting up a fairly radical idea, and I'd far rather see it done as an elegant essay which tackled the objections and attempted to persuade me with reason, than what he's done - which is a set of bald assertions, hidebound by the need to find rhymes.

Probably I should get myself a slim volume and, next time I'm passing, leave my world-weariness at the lych-gate, settle down under a yew and prepare to be enlightened. Tennyson was the Dylan of his age, applauded and ennobled for his work. Surely twenty-five million Victorians can't be wrong.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Boulder Blog

I've often passed this boulder, curious about its place in the landscape, but until Saturday I've never looked at why it's there. Turns out it commemorates the Civil War Battle of Winceby, when Parliamentary troops routed a Royalist force on their way to relieve the besieged garrison at nearby Bolingbroke Castle.

English Heritage has a pretty comprehensive write-up of the battle, complete with eye witness accounts. Apparently the two sides were evenly matched - a couple of thousand dragoons and cavalry each. It must have been a hastily arranged affair, for neither infantry had caught up with the mounted advances. Oliver Cromwell himself led the first charge, putting the Royalists into disarray and forcing a retreat that soon turned into a terrible bloodbath. In only half an hour 200 were dead and another 200 captured in what has been known ever since as Slash Hollow.

Well, of course, the Fixer in me couldn't help but work out where it all went wrong. And being on the ground at the battlefield itself makes it painfully obvious. The Earl of Manchester's Roundheads were waiting on the high-ground at the top of the picture - indeed he would probably have concealed his forces just behind the ridge. The Cavaliers' front ranged from just out of shot on the left, down to a boggy hollow on their right (south-west). So they were already vulnerable to a downhill charge - which immediately befell them - and were unable to make a cohesive counter-attack because the lie of the terrain was against almost all of their line. They were stuffed before they started because their commander, Sir William Widdrington, had ceded tactical advantage even before the fight had begun. He engaged at a time when his situation was inferior to the enemy's and from that moment was fighting, literally, an uphill battle. He had options. He could have stayed on higher ground until his infantry caught up, and/or manouvered north-east to put himself on at least equal topographical footing, or simply outflanked the Roundheads by marching to Bolingbroke on a more westerly route. Instead, he seems to have had a rush of blood which, as a consequence, led to the loss of all Lincolnshire for the Crown.

All this is pretty empty (pointless) speculation, coming as it does some 365 years after the event. My only excuse for blogging it is to draw the most tenuous of connections between then and now, because for the last little while I've been buried in things that have taken my mind away from the current affairs that seem to be arousing the nation's disquiet. And the fact is, that it does about as much good concerning myself about most of the newspaper headlines as it does over whether history might have been changed had Sir William not blundered. It's not that I don't care about the bad news - just that I'm unaware of it unless I read about it - a variation of the old 'tree falling in a lonely forest' question. The sense of being led into certain disaster by clueless modern-day Widdringtons like Brown, Balls, Milliband and Harman doesn't help either. The task of leadership is beyond them. They are doomed at the outset.

What point is there in enraging myself over the world's ills, when I can do so little to influence them? Smugly probably, I can claim to have dragged myself far enough up the greasy pole to be immune from much of what gets complained about. So why concern myself with matters that barely touch me? Why propose solutions that will never be taken up by those with the power? Public duty?

When I started this blog, I thought it would amuse me to put a personal slant on some of the things peculiar to living in this area. Somehow, I've been drawn away from the original idea. I need to re-think and get back to the trivia - here or elsewhere.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Open wide.

I've spent the last couple of weeks with an infected salivary gland, which I'm refusing to accept is tooth-related as that would mean a trip to some hyper-expensive private dental cosmetician thanks to HM Govt's refusal to provide NHS dentistry in Lincs, in revenge for us all voting Tory. Instead, I'm on antibiotics and painkillers and talking out of the side of my mouth like a New Joisey gangster, due to my jaw having locked up. It was worst last Wednesday, when I had a morning appointment in London. So bad that the only thing I could think of to eat for lunch were matchstick-thin McDonalds fries. I could just about poke them through the gap between my teeth and managed to suck the burger in by squashing each half of the bun separately. Nobody noticed. Or if they did, they were only Japanese tourists who always look bewildered anyway.

So on the grounds that the surest way of cheering oneself up is to laugh at the suffering, no sorry.. feel the pain of those who are even worse off, I thought I'd spend the afternoon watching death, desolation, persecution, destitution, unrequited love and torment, with a matinee of Les Miserables at the Queen's. Wonderful.

Anyway... this morning, in a rare listen to the Today programme, I heard Humphries and two elderly historians wondering aloud whether Zimbabweans would rise up and shake off the Mugabe yoke much in the way, they said, that the peoples of the Soviet Union did when their own tyrannies were imploding. I can tell them, the answer is 'no'. Africa isn't Europe, it's just not ready or mature enough for it.

Consider this. It's the church in the hamlet of Thorpe St. Peter, near to here. The first word in its name says it would originally have been a Danish settlement - it stands just beyond the foot of the Lincolnshire Wolds, where the predominant place-name suffix is '-by' and which, before becoming part of the Danelaw, was occupied by the Romans. It would have been founded by a french-speaking lord, whose title and lands were granted by William the Conqueror just a few generations earlier and it represents a British Christian tradition that, even then, was 1000 years old. The doorway, evidently, was built in about 1200, the window to the left made about 75 years later and those under the roof a century or more later still.

The resources for its building and upkeep together with the administration of services and ceremonies, the employment of clerks and vicars, regulation from the Diocese, enforcement of Laws and customs, the collection of tithes... all meant that a hierarchy needed to be in place that possessed literacy, numeracy, technical skill and submission to the discipline and authority required to organise its affairs. There needed to be a reliable system of land-tenure, a currency and a means of settling disputes. It couldn't exist in isolation, it was part of an enterprise that exported the goods it produced throughout Europe, as far afield as Northern Italy and could extend its military reach right to the gates of Jerusalem itself, from where ideas and loot flowed back to it.

All these things were in place. The fulfillment of the needs of Thorpe St. Peter were the nursery for our modern State. Those are our folk-memories. At about the time the porch roof was being finished, the Barons of England were at Runnymede forcing King John to sign the Magna Carta. 800 years later, we're a fully fledged democracy - it's taken that long. A thousand years previously, we were near-savages and Roman invaders looking at Britain's rudimentary technological and social infrastructure would have justifiably thought we were born with the IQs of gnats. It takes those sort of timescales to build up a cultural intelligence. Individuals can learn almost overnight - societies, I believe, can't. Or at least, don't.

So, what happens in Zimbabwe when Mugabe goes will most likely be a civil war, of the kind we all know, that bedevils the whole of Africa. Because the historically-rooted tribal rifts that lie at the heart of the current struggle for supremacy will erupt there as surely as they do from top to bottom of that continent. It shouldn't take millennia for African nations to make the same journey as the West, because they have some benefit in being able to see working models of functioning states; but it will take generations, until civil society based on meritocracy fully replaces those based on tribal loyalties and a social infrastructure capable of peaceful transition becomes embedded in consciousness.

I saw no black faces in the audience last Wednesday. Even an afternoon's light entertainment like Les Mis is full of those recognisable historical and cultural references that reinforce an indigenous Westerner's sense of self and place, so maybe that explains the lack. There can be no African equivalent, yet. Except as a drama, it wouldn't resonate, it can't, it's not their personal history. No more than I can put myself in the mind of an African and, except in the intellectual or emotional sense, relate to being on the victim's end of the slave trade or to being a Ndebele on the receiving end of a Shona thug's baton. It's not how people want it to be, or how with good-will it possibly could be... but it does appear to be how it is.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Fall

A kid was getting ready to kill himself on Saturday, standing on a ledge outside the barrier, while I drove over the Humber Bridge. Three police cars, blue lights flashing, were parked in the inside lane. I slowed as I passed. He was thin, no more than 20 years old, wearing a dark hoody, facing inwards, clinging to the rail, head bowed, looking away from the drop. It looked so mundane at the time - no sense of being a dramatic scene, as I might have imagined it. Maybe he was waiting while he thought about changing his mind, scared to look weak in front of the coppers. Maybe he was wondering how the 100 yard freefall would feel, whether he'd hurt himself when he hit the water and what drowning would be like. I'm curious to know what happened next but about every 6 weeks or so, somebody jumps from there. It's such a commonplace occurance that there's no report I can find. I suppose I should feel something more compassionate than curiosity; but I've looked into myself and can't find anything else beyond a general disquiet at a life wasted.

Death itself, apart from the tragedy of loss... just the circumstance of death.. does somehow seem fairly matter of fact when it happens. Must be an inate reaction in us, there to help us cope with the inevitable. Some years ago I was fishing with some friends in a small boat about half a mile off Scotland. There was a commotion, and I turned to see everyone jumping over the stern - the towering bow of a trawler was bearing down on us a few feet away. This tale usually bores everybody shitless - no doubt it loses some of the suspense, knowing I'm still here to tell it. But anyway, here goes. It hit and we filled up and started to sink like a bucket. There was no chance of me swimming to safety and no doubt in my mind that I was as good as dead, but I wasn't fazed by it.. no despondency, no fear of life beyond the watery grave, just a sense of mild amazement that I was going to die here and like this, of all things. But it happened that, luckily, a deckhand spotted the tip of the mast just as it was disappearing under the waves, threw down a line, hauled me in. It was a day or two later before it started to seem like a big deal, when I became scared of the dark.

So now, it's just the loss of immortality that bothers me most about dying... that and hoping it's not too near on the horizon. I'd been to see family at Beverley, the day of the jumper, and toured the Minster while there. It's a gem, started in the early C13 and built almost completely without addition so that the original architect's vision exists as a harmonious whole, with little more than the developing window tracery as proof of the 200 years it took to build. Inside, it's a forest of dizzying geometry - which is the epitome of the balance and harmony that symbolises the pathway to God. The lessons are there for us. Whether we choose to believe the Bible or not, the Universal rules still apply and you can't buck them and expect to succeed. I hope the kid did survive, now that I've given him some thought. All of us looking at suicide as outsiders know that whatever drives (well) people to it is only ever temporary, at worst.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


I fear for Ryanair. For all their faults, for many of us outside the Southeast it wasn't just their low prices we wanted - they gave us destinations we couldn't otherwise have dreamed of accessing. It's only a couple of years since we flew to Jerez and back for 60 odd quid for two. Now I'm looking at going again in October, and even with giveaway fares of £nil going out and a tenner coming back, taxes and extras hike the price up to £180. £45 each/each way is still a good deal, but it's not just a question of affordability. Add another 20% to cover the pound's decline against the euro and a trip that almost everyone could take on a whim is now a subject for consideration against the alternatives. It might still be worthwhile to me, but some people are bound to think the extra isn't worth it which, given Ryanair's pile em high/sell em cheap business model, could be worse for them than most.

Still, at least a weekend of frolics and flamenco is only a discretionary purchase. There won't be the same rioting for the last check-in places as we're seeing for scarce cups of rice in the Far East. There's no spot or futures market in flights. It's unregulated and not subject to the speculation, manipulation and hoarding that pushes commodity prices to misery levels for billions. Any shakeout in the airline industry will hit only those consumers best able to withstand it and, who knows, this customer resistance to $150 a barrel oil may be the trigger that brings prices back to realistic levels. There is no serious oil shortage, there is no serious rice shortage - any more than there is a gold shortage or it was a housing shortage that precipitated the property boom. All are the consequence of an oversupply of money being pumped into safe havens and a means of generating more wealth for those holding the right bits of paper.

We're used to a balance in our transactions. We make a rough judgement as to whether the slice of our income that something costs is worth the benefit to us of the goods. We do much the same when we invest in friendships or relationships - which is why we feel cheated if we believe we've put more in than we're getting out of them. It's a feedback loop - or a kind of karma, indeed. This is what will ultimately govern reactions to worldwide energy and food prices if they get too far out of kilter with people's need for them. In the end, despite some casualties among the weak, suppliers know they can't kill the golden goose.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Britain's Got X-Factor

I'm going to a show tonight. It's going to be three hours of fast-paced music, gags and low-brow fun from an almost unknown cast of musicians singers and comics. It'll take me an hour to get there and park the car, half an hour of hanging around and cost me 20 quid to get in. Then I'll sit craning my neck round the heads of the folks in front from a side-aisle seat. I've seen it before but, man, I'm going to love it. Live entertainment at its best from experienced pros who've honed their talent in fire and make their living from repeat business.

It means, of course, that I'll miss the finals of I'd Do Anything and Britain's Got Talent - those two most supreme examples of style over substance, where millions of hype-prone TV viewers buy into the tawdry dreams of haplessly untalented amateurs hoping for a break.

I saw some of BGT last night. The show lasts an hour and a half - with eight acts doing less than a couple of minutes each. So take away the packaging, the ads, the previews, audience reaction, fireworks, gibberish from Ant and Dec and the feigned angst and anger from the 'judges' and that leaves about a quarter of an hour of actual performance from people who, mostly, you wouldn't give tuppence to watch in person.

The final turn, a string quartet, summed up the whole event. In short tight frocks and stilettos, they somehow 'played' a James Bond theme in an implausible full orchestral arrangement. Maybe they were miming, maybe they weren't - you couldn't tell and nobody seemed to notice or care. Cowell was ecstatic. He stood up to ovate and told them they were fantastic. What he meant was marketable - four glamourous birds strutting and pouting. You could see the £££ signs lighting up in his eyes. Who cares whether they can play when clearly they can sell.

Everybody's a winner. Advertisers know that people who are vulnerable to watching drivel like this will be equally vulnerable to buying the crap advertised to them while it's on. Cowell knows that they'll buy the albums of any artist he can sign up from it, as they did with last year's winner, Paul Potts. ITV makes some much-needed profit by shoving pap from its bloated silicon tit down the gaping gizzards of a gullible public.

And at the end of the show, you can vote for your favourite (no-hoper). You could hardly find a better metaphor for (elections in) Britain.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ann Keen MP - Big in Azerbaijan

It's not often that this blog gets visitors from far-flung outposts such as Baku, Azerbaijan but today it did! And I'm delighted to note that they came in search of news about Ann Keen MP. Little could I have known, when I wrote last October "It used to be granite-jawed Soviets who would whitewash the truth on the other side of the Iron Curtain, now it's our very own home-grown chubby-cheeked New Labour aparatchiks, like her", that she'd prove to be my most popular topic of all - and now, evidently, she's even gained notoriety in the old Evil Empire itself. Probably more to do with insuring her septuagenarian husband for £430K, so that the apartment she's bought with their expenses is all hers when he pops off, than my gripe about her indifference to dentist shortages and toothache in Lincolnshire. Even so, I'm glad if I can add anything to the body of knowledge about this bloody woman.

But still, you'd have thought a wheeze like hers would be small beer in former Soviet republics - hardly worth reporting in a country that ranks among the most corrupt in the world and where nothing much moves without palms being greased. She's obviously struck a chord there. I expect Azeri politicians who have to give hefty bribes to their own officials before they'll wave through big claims, envy Ann Keen -
where all she and her husband need do is put in a non-itemised claim every month asking for £1600 each and it's paid, no questions asked. Maybe it was one of them. Just goes to show how much these emerging democracies still have to learn from countries like us, where we're mature enough to rely on our Members being Honourable and they can use public money to hide behind confidentiality until the truth is dragged from them through the courts.

Currently, they're sitting on an estimated £300,000 capital gain funded entirely by a one-way bet placed with taxpayers' money - it's this that gets people's backs up. I wonder if, now that she's in all the papers, she has the slightest twinge of guilt or shame. I doubt it, I expect she thinks she's worth every penny. Well, at least I console myself with the thought that she bought the new place at almost the peak of the property market. With luck, negative equity looms. And with a majority of 4,400, chances are she'll be slung out at the general election. So her next best bet for paying off the mortgage might well be collecting on her old man's insurance. What a position to be in. To look at your husband and know that if he doesn't wake up one morning, at least you'll have financial salvation.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A man who looks on glass..

Whenever I have to be in London, I try to mix business with pleasure - the place holds so much that makes life worth living. So yesterday, I managed to take in a matinee at the Gielgud, God of Carnage. Enough glowing reviews have been written about this play to make mine superfluous. It's just about as perfect as it can be, an intelligent comedy about two couples making a reconciliation between their sons, over an incident where one of the boys has broken the teeth of the other in a fight.

In the characters, one is affable, one is pragmatic and assertive. Another is simpering, another sees herself as a caring intellectual. These personas are, for as long as they are used in their civilised early discussion, quite enough to achieve agreement and resolve an awkward situation. Only when developments in the plot mean that they are forced to delve deeper, do characteristics emerge that cause them to lose the veneer, to turn on each other - first as couples, then within their own marriages and, finally, to face their own deadly flaws as individuals. The message of the play may be that we all have darker thoughts we'd sooner keep under the surface. It could also be that we shouldn't scratch the surface if we want a quiet life.

So I emerged in a good frame of mind. Outside the theatre, one of Hollywood's finest, Lauren Bacall, wearing trademark black and still looking like a somebody, was stepping into a chauffeur driven limo after seeing the show, unrecognised by the audience spilling out on to Shaftesbury Avenue. With a couple of hours to kill before the train, I sat in Leicester Square enjoying the sunshine, the kids playing, the crowds of tourists and the passers-by while I decided on what I'd like to eat. All I had to do was to work out what I fancied most, for within a few minutes walk just about anything was on offer. The wonders of a free market economy means that every last nook and cranny is taken by somebody competing to satisfy every appetite, in every price-range, with menus recipes and ingredients from everywhere in the world. Once I'd eaten, the choice of Tube or taxi would take me to Kings Cross where the Grantham train would depart on the dot and I'd glide along in First Class while smiling attendants brought me complimentary coffee and a newspaper to help the journey along.

What could possibly be better? When everything works perfectly, designed to make me part with money in exchange for making me happy, why look for the worst aspects in the murky layers beneath the surface - when all is well if I just take things as they are? Why would it be worth delving beneath the surface at unpleasant concepts like food miles, immigrant labour and energy sustainability? The world will collapse and turn on itself if we do, so we don't. Not really we don't anyway. Hope and Change! Hope and Change! Vote Obama!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Owt about Nowt

People stumble across this blog for all sorts of reasons. Some stay and read, most don't. The guy on today's hit-counter who found his way here while googling 'trouser twists in Warrington' would have been among the the disappointed ones I expect. I must say, it had me baffled, especially the Warrington bit. I'd have forgotten I'd ever been there if I hadn't blogged it - all I remember is the spectacular urban blight and a Travelodge that reminded me of what an open prison must be like. But anyway.. trouser twists? Not a gay code-word, or even a traditional dance performed by brawny Lancashire lads and lasses - nope they're for tucking your trousers into to keep them level with the top of combat boots, military style. A snip at only £1.95 a pair if that's what turns you on.

Speaking of which, credit where it's due. This time last year, you could hardly put your foot on my front lawn without tripping over a mole-hill or sinking into a tunnel. I tried everything including firing a shotgun down the holes but the little blighters just laughed and invited their families over. Nothing worked until, in desperation it must be said, I bought an Advanced Solar Mole Repeller from Primrose of London. Blow me, it sent them packing. It just sits there buzzing away and the moles can't bear it. The noise it makes is obviously the rodent equivalent of James Blunt and they just bugger off at the first sound. Brilliant.

5 woefully over-rated things: Saw this on another website. Here's my random choice.

John Lennon
Little Britain
Barack Obama
iPhones and

* * *

Quite a few under-rated things, too. One of them is sardines. Delicious. But not for the squeamish, I cleaned a dozen yesterday, up to the elbows in guts and goo, their innocent little faces looking up at me. Must be the nostalgic association with beaches, barbies, bikinis and shagging in dunes, then. Four more are:
Automatic gearboxes
Ryanair (when they haven't abandoned you at Gdansk) and

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Housing Minister Shocker: It's Official - Now It's Bum and Bust!

Imagine what life held out for you when, as a fresh-faced 22 year old with a backwoods degree in American History and Film Studies, you stepped on to the career ladder as an Equal Ops Officer for Lambeth Council. A modest move follows a few years later when you get a job heading up the Women's Unit at the NUS and then, in your 30s, you progress to the GMB, as its Senior Researcher and Political Officer. Bit of a dead-end? With a useless degree and CV as a right-on Jobsworth that no commercial enterprise would touch with a barge-pole, what's left but to see things out till pension-age, possibly with the occasional Guardian column on the side and a few appearances as an guest-expert on BBC FiveLive to top up the salary? Not much?

Ah, but if you'd joined the Labour Party as a kid, and swum with the political tide as it ebbed from the lunacies of the Michael Foot years to the glossy pragmatism of The New Labour Project... wouldn't a safe constituency beckon? Then, with success in the 1997 landslide, plus a few year's brown-nosing as a PPS, a Cabinet Post must surely follow for one with a telegenic face. Sure enough, our Minister of State for Housing and Planning, Caroline Flint, has made that very journey.

And doesn't she typify the New Political Class? A government stuffed full of people who've never known what it's like for their livelihoods to depend on the value of their contribution to the viability of their employer's business. People who have only ever known the comfort of belonging to organisations which, when faced with rising costs, have the luxury of being able to put up prices to their customers - who must pay the extra or be sent to jail. People whose policies have never been put to practical test so that outputs, not inputs, can be the measure of success. No wonder the briefing note she accidentally revealed yesterday mentioned only the symptoms of the housing slump but gave no clue as the what Ms Flint (Whose hubby is paid the thick end of £40K as her office manager) thinks is the actual problem that needs addressing. No wonder the tired old New Labour mantra, "it is vital that we show that at this time of uncertainty we show that we are on people's side" is the conclusion.

They are people whose whole working lives have been spent, directly or indirectly, serving the Party which is now the Government, their Government. Long to reign over us, if they have anything to do with it. Promoted beyond their abilities, self preservation seems to be their only motive for clinging on to power.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

SEX! (no that was just for Google hits. I meant boring old Carbon Footprint, actually)

Look Eco-Fascists. If your income is higher than mine, you're warming the globe faster than I am, OK?

See, I hopped over to Spain for 3 nights. All told it probably cost about £750 for two, give or take. So somewhere along the line, I've made a direct, albeit infinitesimal, equivalent contribution towards the employment of dozens of airport, airline, hotel, restaurant, bar and retail workers all of whom are burning up the world's resources at a similar rate to me. Then there are my indirect payments towards energy, raw materials, manufacturing and maintenance costs of the facilities I've used all of which, in the end, come down to paying the wages of those providing the service. If I'd spent twice as much, the 'damage' to the environment would have been doubled. Forget offsetting the fuel cost with a donation to a sustainable mangrove swamp in Malawi, only if I hadn't gone at all (and composted the money instead of spending it elsewhere), could I have stayed carbon neutral.

It's not about energy efficiency - it's about the volume of consumption itself.

Just as Western nations consume more resources per head than those in the Third World, so too do affluent people in the UK compared with the worse off - blindingly obvious, yes, but not something any politician is willing to remind us of. Because to do so would make people question just what life is supposed to be going to be like in a few years time when (haha) the Government's carbon reduction targets have been met.

I can't see much happening without a struggle. The reaction to the very modest increase in interest rates recently has shown how petulant the public has become when its addiction to spending is threatened. The neat little spectacle of the Government trying to prop up grossly inflated house prices through lowering the cost of borrowing, whilst at the same time trying to mollify first time buyers being priced out of the same market, is nothing compared to what's going to happen once the wealthy start to realise there's going to be nothing to spend their hard-earned on.

Biofuels have already started to backfire. Renewables are a joke. 'Green' taxes are a fraud - they are simply recycled into equally environmentally-damaging government spending. Same goes for people cutting down on the electricity bill and splashing the savings on live prawns flown in from Bangladesh.
If there was, or is ever going to be, a serious attempt to limit carbon emissions it could only be done, obviously, by restricting the amount of overall consumption. Rationing, in effect. But people will never put up with that without a fight - even now, the Democratic Party hopefuls, the heirs to Al Gore, are promising cheaper petrol if elected. How they'll buck the market, I have no clue.. but I do know that cheaper = more.

History isn't on the side of those who believe that rich nations will yield wealth easily to poorer ones. Or that successful people gladly see their incomes shared among low-achievers. Or indeed that the human animal takes an 'after you Claude' attitude to sharing scarce resources. We've pretty much evolved through a system of competing hierarchies based on a fairly grudging acceptance of 'place' by those furthest down the pecking order. In a sense, those at the bottom have been able to mobilise and demand more in recent times, but I can't see the same degree of tolerance extending to them if things get tougher. If there's to be a scramble, it will get chaotic and every-man-for-himself. Possibly, even, as low-down, dirty and desperate as the scrum at the Ryanair check in. Shudder.