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.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Waking up in Andalusia

What a difference a few hundred miles and a change of culture makes. Pristine linen tablecloths, sparkling glassware and cutlery, perfectly cooked food served with attentive courteous service from immaculately dressed, attractive young waitresses. Across the room, three generations of an extended family were celebrating a young girl's first Communion while the beautifully turned-out children played happily around them.

We weren't in England, obviously. This was an average 49euros-a-night hotel restaurant near Granada last Saturday night. No overpriced junk from the microwave. No take-it-or-leave-it table service from fat-arsed spotty birds. No pissed-up shaven-headed yobs and their ugly tart wives. No demented kids writhing on the floor.

I've seen Spain emerge from a dirt-poor donkey-driven Dictatorship to a prosperous democracy where monetary aspirations have been met and exceeded and yet civilised values have, by and large, been kept and nurtured. Along the way, they've overtaken Britain where we've squandered our head start and descended into a place where civility is derided and we're sinking under a slob-centred consumerism.

Onwards to Malaga next day, Sunday, in the neat little Merc I'd rented. An old friend lives near there, in a place on the beachfront line, with an unhindered view over the Med to Africa on one side, and the jungle of thousands of concrete antheaps on the other. We've known each other almost all our lives, and it's a source of some amazement to both of us that we're where we are now, yet still the same as ever. He's been famous, had £millions through his hands and been something of an icon - still is, to those in the know. I've plodded a less glamourous furrow but somehow reached the same place - and that which drew us together in the past still binds us now.

If I'm honest with myself, though, there's something unsettling to me about our irregular contacts - something to do with seeing the ghosts of our old selves. We pushed the nostalgia buttons but the effect soon wears off, like scratching a pleasurable itch. And I found that the comfort zone I've slipped into over the last few years, when I've been forced to limit myself to what's been possible for me, is hard to break out of, so couldn't make the most of being in the company of someone I feel closer to than almost anyone else. His g/f cooked us dinner, and we rocked and rolled till late - him on guitar, me plinking on piano as best as I could.

Anyway, we all went to La Marina restaurant in La Linea for lunch on Monday, where you sit on a sun-drenched terrace with the towering profile of the Rock of Gibraltar as a backdrop, while they bring you dishes, mainly fresh-caught fish, cooked with plenty of Andalusian flair and noise. That night, they returned the favour, taking us to their own favourite restaurant, a place with a lower key ambience catering mostly for Gringo expats.

Tuesday, we were due to fly home in the evening. We'd shook hands and said goodbyes the previous night - he had a business appointment so the day was our own. I was glad, in a way. We found a cafe in the mountains, away from the identical, endlessly-congested urbanisations of the Costa, and lingered over a simple omelette and a couple of beers. Just me and Mme., it was comfortable and familiar after the somewhat rarified feel of the previous two days.

Maybe it's just a loss of confidence, I don't know. Maybe it's just that nothing's ever the same when you revisit it. Maybe (more likely) I've become too set in my ways, too used to assessing things critically. It's given me a bit of a jolt, though - I wasn't expecting to feel like that. Either way, I need to kick myself up the backside and get sparked up again. I've been in the tunnel too long.