Wednesday, January 31, 2007

All Bets are Off

Well, I admit it. I was wrong, terribly wrong in my yesterday’s column. For, to the astonishment of all and most certainly that of Mr. Prescott and Mr. Anschutz, the glittering prize of the first super casino in Britain went to that well-known jewel of the north, Manchester.

The implications are alarming. Mr. Prescott may well have to return his cowboy boots and belt and the Millennium Dome will remain a sort of indoor Petticoat Lane.

But a distressed area in Manchester will be the beneficiary of home for 1250 slot machines, not for nothing known as ‘one-arm bandits,’ where the already indebted of that city will be able to foregather in order to contribute their remaining cash to the government cause. And thereby become even more personally distressed.

This brilliant idea will be spreading, in a rather less grandiose form, to other towns around the land, an unofficial tax gathering service that even William of Normandy would be proud of.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this endeavour is that it is presided over, and enthusiastically endorsed, by the Minister of Culture, whose concept of the remit of her office pays little heed to the definition of ‘culture.’ Culture is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement,’ so please can someone enlighten me as to the ‘art’ or ‘intellectual achievement’ resulting from the jangling of 1250 fruit machines?

There is, I suppose, a pleasing sort of sound akin to a cash register being rung that no doubt has some influence on the treasury.

But in view of the disastrous social results of encouraging gambling of this nature, one must pre-suppose that no one in government, and the Culture Minister in particular, has ever wandered the sleazy back streets of Las Vegas or Atlantic City. This might give them pause for thought.

And for Manchester, a city that has done much to outlive its previously rather grimy and unattractive reputation, it can only be a retrograde step.

It would be more to the point if the Minister of Culture were to be as enthusiastic over encouraging ‘The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement,’ as she is over pandering to the most moronic of human weaknesses.

And then there’s Mr. Anschutz, who wasted all that time sucking up to J.P.

Just goes to show, you can’t trust anyone in this government any more.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Bit of a Flutter

The news that Britain is to have a new super casino or two must have brought tears of joy to the eyes of the crime syndicates of the world.

I quite understand the desire to get rid of that hideous white (or rather, grey) elephant now lying in the less savoury reaches of East London, but turning it into a destination of choice for the obsessive gamblers of Britain strikes me as being an even more bonkers decision than the one to build it in the first place. Demolition would have seemed to be a better option – at any rate time might heal the pain inflicted on the tax payer.

The second exciting locale being considered is Blackpool. I have been there. It is hard to see the attraction unless you live in somewhere like Wigan or Preston since the cost of the train fare there will get you a flight to the south of France and the sunnier climes of Monte Carlo, where they’ve been doing this business for quite a number of years.

During the Kennedy administration in the USA, Meyer Lansky, the Mafioso master mind behind Las Vegas (he had bankrolled Bugsy Siegel) came to Britain to bring his own criminal enterprise to London. The notorious Kray brothers claimed that he was paying them for ‘protection’ but in truth they were probably being paid to stay away from the operation.

George Raft, a fading Hollywood star, was promoted as the visible face of the casino, an odd choice, since he had invariably played sinister criminal types.

Eventually, a government wiser than the present incumbents, realised what was going on and shipped Raft and his cohorts back from whence they came.

In a final TV interview he was heard to complain that he failed to understand what it was the British had against Lansky. “It’s not like these guys are Communists,” he pleaded.

Lansky and his like are merely replaced by updated versions and, inevitably, the proposed casinos will provide fruitful opportunities for them.

Gambling is not the oldest profession although it does bear some similarities. I would describe myself as a compulsive non-gambler – I hate to lose and cry easily – but I see no reason why others should not enjoy themselves. A day at the races I can well understand but the attraction in the monotonous task of pulling the handle of a slot machine, escapes me. It’s the sort of labour the Factory Act did away with years ago.

My cousin was a compulsive gambler – he would bet on anything – but he never visited a casino. His biggest gamble was when he decided to breed race horses. He cornered the market in the slowest in the business.

Las Vegas is wonderful, the food and beds are cheap, since they are subsidised by the losers. The pawn shops in the surrounding streets do a roaring trade advancing money on goods that are never reclaimed and the place is a hooker heaven. Just what East London (or Blackpool) needs.

I understand that most Britons are up to their eyes in debt. This is one sure way for many to increase the depth of their plight to way over their heads.

But of course the government will benefit. And so will organised crime.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Wool Over My Eyes

Diligent students of this column will recall that I’m a collector. Not of objets d’art, old coins, bone china or stamps. I’ve tried collecting money although that that never worked out, but I have succeeded, over the years, in amassing a fine assortment of eccentrics. Not the disagreeable kind, you’ll understand, but the amiably dotty sort that, as far as I’m concerned, make the world spin more smoothly upon its axis – the WD 40 of human life, one might say.

Just think what a miserable and depressing world it would be if we all worked from 9 to 5, slaving away for some government cause, our every movement watched over by an Orwellian state that surrounded us with petty rules and regulations impinging on our every thought and deed and depriving us of every initiative and trace of imagination. Oh, wait a minute, apart from the 9 to 5 bit, I’ve just described Tony Blair’s Britain.

Anyway, there is some magical lodestone in my being that attracts eccentrics toward me as does a moth steer so unerringly toward a candle flame. And my neighbour, Jean-Paul, is one of the many such lepidoptera that brighten my life.

Jean-Paul is an intermittent neighbour. He shows up mainly to look after his animals from time to time. He is working on completing his derelict cottage but putting up houses for his donkeys takes precedence and he’s quite a way to go before he will be in permanent residence. Apart from his herd (I don’t know the collective term) of donkeys, he has branched out into black sheep, goats and geese, but it would be fair to say that he’s a donkey man deep down in his Gallic heart.

So when he arrived on my doorstep on Saturday afternoon, I assumed the subject would be donkeys.

Jean-Paul arrives with several possible expressions on his expressive face. There’s the sad, desolé, look when one of his congregation has kicked the bucket, there’s a slightly different desolé look when his latest girl friend has kicked his bucket and there’s the small boy, wheedling look when he wants to borrow something. Understanding French depends very much on interpreting these sort of expressions correctly, the words being just a handy add-on.

This time he’s exuding an air of joyful bonhomie.

“Come and meet your new neighbours,” he says, beaming.

Now I’m not altogether chuffed at the idea of having new neighbours, I’m very satisfied with the one’s we’ve got and didn’t know there was any prospect of a change in personnel in our tightly closed community.

However, he’s not going to say any more and so I follow him into the paddock adjoining our garden.

And there, standing like a couple of woolly statues on a Peruvian mountainside are my new neighbours, two Llamas. I would hasten to add that these are of the South American alpaca variety, not the sort that Dalai around in Tibet.

We regard each other, me with some interest, them with a rather lofty disdain. I think they’re going to take some time to strike up a genuine rapport with me but it’s going to be a lot better than having to deal with humans.

They make a rather comforting sort of noise, somewhere between a humming sound and that of frying bacon and seem extremely amiable. Jean-Paul tells me only the badly brought up ones spit and that it’s strictly a llama to llama affair so, unless you happen to look like Neville Chamberlain (who always looked like a startled one), you should be OK.

They make an attractive addition to our landscape and there should be a couple of good sweaters in them, I’m sure.

Now my only worry is with Jean-Paul. He has that gleam in his eye one sees in a collector when the bug has got into his underwear.

I just hope he knows that there’s to be no f in elephant – not if he wants to stay on my list of lovable eccentrics – and I thought I heard him mutter something about ‘kangaroo’ as he left.

But he and others like him do make my day.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Pride and Prejudice

I’ve been depressed of late and have come to the conclusion that it stems from reading the London newspapers. Surely there must be something cheerful to report from that formerly sceptred isle, set in a silver sea?

Pride, they say, comes before a fall and it does seem that national pride has become subservient to prejudice, perhaps to be followed by a fall, as the Romans found out to their cost.

It’s a well known fact that the British have long regarded their self-denigration as a rather loveable characteristic of their race, but now the self-criticism, formerly a subject for jokes, has become rather more serious.

National pride is at its lowest ever ebb – and pride stems from leadership. This was brought home to me as I was reading an excellent book entitled ‘Blitz’ by M.J. Gaskin. The title is a bit misleading for the story deals with one night in the Luftwaffe blitz upon London, that of the heaviest and most damaging raid of Sunday, the 29th. December 1940. Rather as people can remember where they were when JFK was assassinated, I know exactly where I was on that winter’s evening. I was sheltering under the porch of our house to the east of London, watching the holocaust and occasionally taking cover when it came uncomfortably close.

Mr. Gaskin’s book is admirable in that he not only recounts the details of that night but expands it to include large chunks of the history that are so often neglected by lesser historians. But most importantly, he manages to convey the atmosphere of pride, that often repressed emotion, that Londoners felt by being subjected to their ordeal.

And much of their pride stemmed from their belief in the leadership of one man. A difficult, opinionated, magnificently flawed writer and politician who had been pitch forked into leadership after his warnings had been discounted for so many years but who was now there, leading from the front.

It was a people’s war, not a politicians. And it could be summed up by an incident quoted in the book.

The police are remonstrating with a couple of East End ragamuffins, telling them to take cover. “It’s not your bloody war,” shouts one of them, refusing to go.

A leader depends for support, not so much on the decisions he makes, Churchill made some epic blunders, but on the probity of his actions.

Comparisons are odious, but particularly odious would be the comparison between the present incumbents in government office in the UK and some previous administrations. Make that any previous administration.

When Churchill sent men off to fight for his and their country (in those days, ownership of the country was shared between politician and people), he did so knowing full well the hazards, having taken part in the last cavalry charge in British history.

His successor, Clement Attlee, once described rather unfairly by Churchill as ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’ had not only seen action during the war but had been wounded for his pains.

And, until the present group of mafia took over, few would have doubted the integrity of any government of any party.

Now, it seems, we cannot be too sure. Politicians are, by nature, a slippery bunch but not often have they turned out to be so self-interested and blatantly deceitful.

And it’s this lack of moral compass that leads to crime and such unedifying spectacles as that of the looters on Branscombe Beach. If government can do it, why not the people?

But I have the cure for my depression. I’m going to read for the umpteenth time, ‘Three Men in a Boat,’ Jerome K. Jerome’s wonderful saga of a trip up the Thames written in 1888 and as fresh now as it was the day the ink was still wet.

As Churchill once said to his staff at a low ebb during the war when he had been savagely attacked by Clement Attlee over some matter, “Well, let’s cast care aside and not bother about Atler or Hitlee, ” before going off to watch a movie.

I suggest you forget A. Blair and Co. and read ‘Three Men in a Boat.’

For my part, I think I’ll stop reading the papers.

Friday, January 26, 2007

a nu nvl fr u

Did you all have a good Burn’s night? Lots of haggis, neaps and a few drams, I trust. I never could understand why Rabbie Burns had a party night all to himself. Milton, Chaucer, Keats, Shelley, Browning and none of the others seem to have latched on to the idea. I suppose he was just a good old boy for a party. But then I never could understand him anyway. A few drams too many before putting pen to paper, I thought, and it always seemed to me he could have done with a spell checker on his machine. And, I suppose, so could Will Shakespeare, come to think of it.

But all this spelling nonsense is a bit academic now and only some old fogeys, such as myself, Dr. Johnson and a few others, worry about it. Noah Webster is probably still a bit touchy on the subject, I understand and I believe the subject is verboten in schools now in case it should give the kiddiwinkies some sort of an inferiority complex.

It’s a bit dreary in Finland at this time of the year, so to enliven the winter hours in the sauna, some nut in Helsinki has just published his novel written in txt. You know, that illegible shorthand used by kids twiddling their thumbs over their mobile telephones.

Mercifully I have neglected to memorise the title so I can at least spare you that but somehow I don’t think I’ll be adding it to my library.

The article didn’t mention whether or not he’d written it on his mobile or had cheated a bit and done it on his keyboard. If the former, I bet his thumbs were sore and if the latter, well, the man’s a fraud!

It seems to have been a totally pointless exercise and not going to add much to the beauty of the language, even Finnish, which is not high on the list of the world’s most graceful. Perhaps it is fortunate that there aren’t too many speakers (or readers) of that tongue, even in Finland, where a good many of the citizens prefer to gabble away in Swedish, to the horror of the nationalists there.

Sooner or later, I suppose, someone will translate it into English txt so that teenagers will be able to start reading books again. It is, I think, the only chance of bringing any degree of literacy to the up and coming generation and making the subject more appealing to them than video games and television. In a few decades, no doubt my library will be regarded in much the same manner as we at present think of ancient papyrus and they will be scouring the world for a Rosetta stone so that the mysteries can be unravelled. What was the secret this old geezer was guarding in these ancient tomes?

But hopefully, a few of us will struggle on for a few years, attempting to preserve the old language from disappearing in the way that Cornish has.

And for those speakers of txt who may be visiting Finland, I can offer a hint.

Once I was staying Vaasa and needed to get a cab to the airport. Now it would be fair to say that my command of Finnish is less than perfect. As you know, the word for airport is pretty much standard throughout the world. Airport, aeroport, aeroporto and even flughafen usually work. But not in Finland. In despair I drew a picture of an aircraft taking off.

“Ah,” cries the cabby, “Lentoaseema!”

So when texting for a taxi, give lntsma a shot. You never know what you might get.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

On the Wrong Lines

It snowed here yesterday. So what? I hear you say. Well, it’s an increasingly common phenomenon in this part of the world in recent years and enables Meteo France to use up some of their orange markers to indicate ‘vigilance.’ And, although we are not fully equipped for the stuff, it poses only a minor inconvenience. It came as something of a surprise to the daffodils that had unwisely stuck their heads out of the ground in anticipation of an early spring, obviously they had been reading all about this global warming stuff, but they were not nearly as surprised as were the staff of the British Rail system who expressed shock and horror that it had actually snowed in the British Isles.

I can only assume that these staff members had recently arrived from some sub-tropical region since, although it’s been many years since I spent time in the UK, if my memory serves me correctly, it snows every year.

Perhaps they should be given a quick course in the meteorological history of the British Isles, to include that other hazard to rail services there, the regrettable fact that trees in the autumn thoughtlessly chuck their leaves all over the tracks.

A spokesman for the company that is supposed to take care of the lines, explained that, not only was it the wrong sort of snow for them, but that it was ‘extreme weather conditions’ that were causing the problems. Well I thought that ‘extreme weather conditions’ were what caused the system to grind to a halt when I was there last week so I suppose there are all sorts of ‘extreme weather conditions’ that are a hazard to rail travel.

It seems that yesterday’s included a whopping 2 cms. of snow, a statistic that nearly made the station master of Nizhnevartovsk die laughing, as the trans-Siberian express went through his station at full speed. And Isambard Kingdom Brunel just rolled over in his grave.

The description of the Home Office as not being fit for the purpose seems an apt description for the management of the rail system in the UK. Of course, it might help if the one’s that ran the railways had some control over the rails they have to run on – giving them, so to speak, a vested interest in the business. As it is, the blame can be shuffled endlessly between those with the wheels and those with the tracks, the sort of game beloved of governments who could now get rid of a lot of public money by instituting an enquiry into the business, which, by 2009 or so, could then issue a report to say that the problems were due to ‘extreme weather conditions.’

This morning the English newspapers were full of the problem and asked that perennial question, why can’t the railways cope? (they may as well leave this in standing type as it gets repeated every year).

As I said, snow in my part of the world is a recent and fairly novel event – but it does not seem to have had any effect on our rail system. The TGV from Nantes to Paris ran on time and at its usual 180 m.p.h. Of course, this is largely a government body and I have a sneaking suspicion that, in the event of a failure such as an inability to cope with ‘extreme weather conditions,’ the staff are always mindful of the fact that the French are likely to take matters into their own hands, à la une révolution, resuscitate the odd guillotine and get things moving. It does act as a sort of spur, I imagine.

But it was encouraging to see that passengers on Britain’s South West railways showed some spirit the other day by printing their own fake tickets and demanding free travel on an obviously ‘not fit for the purpose’ railway.

It is a tragedy that Britain, the nation that invented the railway, seems to have gone off the rails.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Bounty of the Sea

For centuries the peoples of the south west of England have benefited from the bounty of the seas. For many, this consisted of fish, but for others the incidence of nasty seas and sharp rocks was something of a boon.

The more innovative amongst them, finding that on occasion the elements were not cooperating, resorted to luring ships their way by using false lights to bemuse the mariner who was not keeping his eye on the ball or possibly the compass.

Wrecking was a way of life, as readers of du Maurier’s ‘Jamaica Inn’ will recall.

The Vicar of Morwenstow, the eccentric Reverend Hawker, made a bit of a name for himself by collecting the bodies of drowned sailors and burying them in his churchyard just north of Bude, Cornwall. Some have been churlish enough to suggest that he was not entirely altruistic in his actions and tended not to hand over any valuables to the Keeper of Wrecks or H.M. Customs and Excise as he should have. He was a poet and, if he didn’t write the following prayer for mariners, I’m very surprised.

“Oh Lord, we pray thee - not that wrecks should happen but that if they do happen Thou wilt guide them to the coast of Cornwall for the benefit of the poor inhabitants.”

The natives of Devon seemed to have been doing a bit of praying recently since the arrival of a freighter on one of their beaches has brought out the wrecking instinct in full force. What used to be a local sport has now become rather more widespread, apparently, as vehicles from the northern cities such as Manchester, hitherto a town without much of a history of beachcombing, were spotted carting away the goods from the wreck.

In days of yore, most of the stuff was consumables but now BMW motorbikes are the flotsam du jour.

Thanks to the global reach of television, a family in Sweden had the distressing experience of watching looters seizing their personal effects which were being shipped on board. As someone who lost many of their personal effects when our Bahamian agent decided it was more cost effective to sell the goods and keep the cash rather than to ship them, I can testify that it is a traumatic experience. Insurance has no bearing in such cases – personal items are irreplaceable.

The feeding frenzy of the looters (for that’s what they were) has been captured on television and disseminated world-wide, giving a highly distasteful image of the British public and their attitude toward other people’s property.

In fact, there is nothing illegal in beachcombing. But what is illegal is failing to report any such discovery to the Receiver of Wrecks or similar authority with 28 days. Those that were gleefully departing the beach, watched by apparently complacent police officers, may well find themselves getting a knock on their door in the near future.

“Good morning, sir. That’s a nice shiny BMW bike you’ve got there! Low mileage, I see. Used by one little old lady to go shopping, I presume? Perhaps you’d like to explain where you got it? Care to see yourself carting it off the beach. sir? We’ve got the video.”

And a jolly good job, too. The Fagins of Britain should be ashamed of themselves. But I doubt that they are. Old habits die hard.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mother Tongue

There’s a great hoohah in England and, I suppose, Britain, concerning what used to be referred to as foreigners but who are now classified as immigrants – people from strange lands – well, it’s better than calling them aliens as do the Americans. Visiting London, as I did last week, I found them easy to identify, since they were the ones speaking understandable English.

Allan Jay Lerner wrote in My Fair Lady “Why don’t the English teach their children how to speak?” and Professor Higgins had no satisfactory answer back in 1900 or so when Eliza first came on the scene. George Bernard Shaw, who created her, and thus posed the question first, would be appalled to find just how things have gone downhill in the interim.

Now I’m not referring to regional accents, which I have always thought of as being well worth preserving, but to simple coherence. In bygone days, the British Broadcasting Corporation could be relied upon to impose some sort of standard upon their presenters but from my brief exposure to their programming, not much notice is taken of it now. Particularly disturbing are the presenters of programmes for the youth (yoof) and youngsters of the nation. It does not seem much to ask that they enunciate their words and, Heaven help us, stop shouting!

This may stem from the problem of making oneself heard in the hostelries of the city. I had arranged to meet someone at a rendezvous he picked out named The Auberge, close by Waterloo station. Now, to me an Auberge is a quiet French country inn, an ideal place for a civilised chat. I arrived a little ahead of time at around six in the evening and found myself in something closely resembling a cross between Dante’s Inferno and Hogarth’s Gin Lane. Quite what pleasure any of the beer swilling customer’s were getting from the situation escaped me. Realising that it was not the place for a discussion we moved to a pub around the corner which proved to be almost as bad. The chatter around me was incomprehensible but after standing pinned up in a corner for some time, we managed to find an empty, if dirty, table on which to place our drinks (the English can stand for hours balancing their beer – a talent that they should have an Olympic category for).

At the adjoining table were two young men and I was delighted to find that I could understand them. They were, of course, Brazilian.

On my way back to my hotel, on emerging from the South Kensington tube station, I was momentarily non-plussed as to which way to go. I asked a passer-by who not only didn’t know but spoke in a language that might just as well have been Mongolian but was actually his version of his mother tongue, English.

Just then a pleasantly accented voice asked if he could be of any assistance. He gave me precise directions and, intrigued, I asked where he was from.

Baghdad,” he responded, with a smile.

Back at the hotel, I chatted with the bartender, who was from the Czech Republic.

“I’m here to learn English,” he said, quite clearly and understandably.

One of my meetings that week was with a Romanian who, in addition to speaking fluent and understandable English, could also manage French, Italian and some Greek in addition to his own tongue.

Now it is a known fact the Englishmen are not, by nature, good linguists. They are taught that to communicate with a foreigner, all you have to do is raise your voice and speak in English, since all foreigners are deaf.

But it would help if they would learn to speak English first!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Churchill Slept Here

For the past week, I have been sleeping in a rather expensive broom-closet that the hotel management, with that loveable sense of humour of their calling, jocularly refer to as “my room.” As broom-closets go, it was certainly at the top of its class. Equipped with every modern convenience, save acreage, I’m sure that it rated five stars in the International Guide of Broom Closets, that invaluable compendium that should be part of every world traveller’s luggage. And the world travellers amongst you will by now have deduced that last week I was staying in London, a city that has cornered the market in providing such accommodation. You might, of course, have guessed Tokyo, but no, it was London. Nice try though. As I had not planned to throw any parties nor to practise ball-room dancing, the room was, unlike the Home Office, fit for my purpose.

Whilst there I understand there were several world conflicts, a few typhoons, plagues and other trivial matters but these were driven from the pages and screens of the British media by the verbal punch-up that broke out in that national institution of erudition, Big Brother.

Now I have long been a vocal critic of this television programme and have always been slightly embarrassed by the fact that I was fortunate enough never to have watched it. I appreciate that modern critics aren’t expected to have seen any performance that they damn, but to me, old-fashioned as I am, it does seem slightly unethical not to have done so. Not any more. I was bombarded, swamped, drowned and intoxicated with Big Brother from the front pages of the newspapers to the television screen in the lobby of my hotel. There was no escape and whichever way I turned, the jelly-fish like image of the principal “celebrity” was mouthing at me.

If one were charitably inclined, it would be fair to describe Miss Jade Goody as an ugly, pig-ignorant, foul-mouthed bitch but that would be doing something of a disservice to the animal kingdom. It seems equally unfair to blame her fully for the mere existence of such a programme such as Big Brother. Surely the management that saw fit to foist such an abomination on the public are equally at fault, to say nothing of the millions that, in their own pit of ignorance, watch it.

Having been subjected to an unwilling examination of this nadir of British taste and intelligence, it was with some relief that I realised that, just around the corner from my temporary abode, had dwelt a man who represented all that was best about the British. Winston Churchill had his home at Hyde Park Gate and, strangely enough, Churchilliophile that I am (I’m sure he would have liked that word had he thought of it) it had never occurred to me to go and see where he had lived. I had always had it in my mind that he would have resided in one of those be-pillared, be-porticoed and be-stuccoed palatial houses that front on to Hyde Park. I visualised him, pacing up and down as he dictated, occasionally glancing out over the park for inspiration and sometimes being brought up short by catching a glimpse of the Albert Memorial out of a corner of his eye.

But I was wrong, for number 28 was tucked away down the cul de sac that is also part of Hyde Park Gate.

On my way, I passed the former home of Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the scout movement and also of Enid Bagnold, who must have done pretty well out of “National Velvet” to have been able to afford a home here. Virginia Woolf grew up in the same street but only her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, compiler of the “Dictionary of National Biography,” seems to have merited one of those blue, biscuit-tin lid type of plaques that they stick on the houses of the rich and famous here.

Churchill, far from having an expansive view across the park as I had imagined, just had one of the houses opposite. And his house looks as though it came from the same architectural stable that designed the millions of low cost accommodations that blight the suburbs of England. Slab fronted and of dark red brick. Perhaps his love of bricklaying had endeared him to the place.

However, now I had seen the home of the great man and I reflected the unlikelihood of my paying a similar pilgrimage to Sedgefield. Not even if Tony Blair paid my first-class fare both ways and threw in a fish and chip meal at the local pub, as he had done for his pal, George W.

And when Sir Winston was gravely ill, crowds flocked to gather outside of his house to pay homage.

Somehow I doubt that a later Prime Minister will merit such devotion. Or even one of those blue, biscuit-tin lid type of plaques.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Suitably Clobbered

“Which one do you prefer?” says my wife. It’s the sort of question that any experienced campaigner in the battle for life which is matrimony will know to tackle warily. The government, otherwise so solicitous of our welfare, should give free lessons to those about to marry, on how to handle this sort of situation. Of course, there was always George Bernard Shaw’s invaluable hint to those about to take the plunge – don’t, but once you’re in, you’re in. Anyway, on this occasion, as it was a question of which suit was I proposing to take for my trip to London, I thought the ball was pretty much in my court.

“The grey wool with that faint stripe,” says I, firmly. The mistress of my wardrobe, who is busy sorting out the clobber for my mission, wrinkles her nose as though something has gone seriously wrong with the drains.

“It’s very old.”

“Yes, and so am I. But I like it.”

I must agree, it has seen a few anniversaries, but it is a nice suit. It might not be what the well dressed lout about town is wearing this year, but it’s what I intend to be wearing this week. For a start, it’s made from real cloth, the sort of thing that comes from yaks, llamas or well-bred sheep, and it was put together by a little man sitting cross legged and wielding his needle and thread somewhere in the depths of the East End of London. He must have known what he was up to since it has worn well and it wasn’t constructed of synthetic plastic, welded together by a computer controlled laser.

I must have scored a point since we moved on to the next item, albeit a little tetchily.

“Now, which shoes will you be wearing.”

“The black lace-up Oxfords.”

“They’re very………..,” she started but this time I was ready for it.

“I know, they’re very old. But they’re the most comfortable ones I’ve got.” In fact, they are the best shoes I’ve had in years, made by a real cobbler from real hide, not a glued together compressed cardboard product from a pasta factory in the environs of Naples. And they are not only comfortable but waterproof. I bought them in London many years ago from the same shoemaker who had made my father’s shoes and, in all probability, his father’s shoes before him. They were made to fit and carry a stamped last number so that, if one day I could scrape up enough money for a replacement, all I have to do is to call them up, give them the last number and, voila, a new pair of shoes that fit will be mine. Of course, no doubt it will be the son, or possibly the grandson, of the man who made my pair who will do the job but that’s the passage of time for you.

“Which tie?” she asks.

“Ties are out.”

“Tony Blair wears one.”

“My point, exactly.”

I like to go to town in a decent suit – you never know when you might get a call to tea at Buck House. The fact that I’m wearing an elderly suit would be appreciated there. King Edward the VIII always recycled his father’s wardrobe, a habit that sometimes made him look slightly out of place, and it wasn’t helped much by his habit of getting his trousers pressed with the creases at the side. Unlike the Windsor knot for ties, it was a fashion that never caught on. Probably Wallis Simpson started to do his packing for him.

The rest of the ceremony of the packing of my suitcase proceeded on similarly predictable lines and I do feel that life would be easier if wives could be trained, rather in the way that an officer’s batman is, to lay out the appropriate bits and pieces according to the manual without asking too many questions. Sometimes one can see the advantage of joining a religious order and entering a monastery. Not only is there usually an absence of wives but the inmates also know exactly what they’re going to be wearing the next day and there’s none of this: “Are you wearing the plaid socks or the ones with the stripes?” And even on a trip to London they’re always in style.

So if you happen to be in town next week, I’m sure you’ll spot me in the crowd by my faintly faded sartorial elegance, rearguard of fashion though it may be.

Rather as when the two old friends met up on the street one day: “It must be years, old boy. How did you know me?”

“I recognised the suit.”

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Adios, D.B. (and V.)

The news that George Dubya Bush was shipping 20,000 American troops to Iraq was rather overshadowed in the press by the more exciting news that Real Madrid were shipping one, a Mr. Beckham, from their sunny shores to the equally sunny shores of Los Angeles (equally sunny when it can break through the murk, that is).

It seems to be something of a quid pro quo between the Old World and the New since Mr. Beckham will be getting much the same sort of remuneration as the 20,000 American soldiers. I am pretty well inured to the obscene amounts of cash earned by professional game players but I will never understand it, when there are so many more deserving professionals, such as ghost writers, for instance, whose talents go unappreciated.

Soccer must have taken a bit of an upturn since I lived in the United States when it was virtually unnoticeable. George Best had a brief flurry there with a team in Ft. Lauderdale, I think, but in general it does not appear to appeal to the American male psyche. Equally, it does not appeal to the television stations. As you know, television there consists of a series of commercials interspersed with occasional bits of programmes, a feature which the originators American football in the 1890’s were prescient enough to spot. Hence they created a game ideally suited to the medium, a game consisting mainly of stoppages interspersed with occasional bits of play. Television and American football were a marriage made in commercial Heaven.

Not so with soccer. One of the first attempts to televise the game led to a fiasco when the station cut away for a commercial and missed the only goal that was scored in the entire match. And soccer doesn’t require the players to dress like action men on steroids, a feature which seems attractive to young Americans.

But viewing Mr. Beckham’s salary, there must be a growing popularity for the game nowadays.

Equally newsworthy is the fact that Mrs. Beckham will be also exported, no doubt much to the delight of the storekeepers in L.A. who can now expect an upturn in their profits. Less explicable is the news that Hugh Hefner, he of former Playboy fame, has offered her a job modelling for his magazine. Clearly, senility is taking its toll, despite having two nubile beauties as live-in companions and a lifetime supply of Viagra, for it is reasonable to say that Mrs. Beckham’s beauty is about on a par with her singing talents, a correspondent in an English newspaper comparing her figure unfavourably with that of an ironing board.

Once the excitement generated by this epoch making double event has died down, we may hear a bit more about the 20,000 American troops, whose lives are marginally in more danger than Mr. and Mrs. Beckham’s in L.A.

Friday, January 12, 2007


The gales of laughter following my admission that I didn’t know what an iPod was, had barely subsided into snide giggles when the Apple corporation announced their latest addition to the world of “must-have” technological garbage to confuse me.

With iPod they had me understandably flummoxed for I knew full well what a pod was. It’s a thing peas come in, many of which are, apparently, much alike. But with their newest device they are not able to fool me so easily. I know that the iPhone MUST be a telephone and presumably a portable one at that. Those that consider me to be a technophobe should be aware that I was one of the first users of a mobile phone. It was about the shape, size and weight of a concrete building block and with similar characteristics as far as communication went, but I was a pioneer of what I still consider to be a very valuable piece of equipment.

In fact I still use one, a latest and greatest model that retains, buried somewhere in its mysterious and arcane depths, the ability to communicate. No longer can I just dial a number and be in communication but before then, it gives me a bewildering list of options, none of which I either want nor need. WAP, SMS. MMS and a host of other things that would have baffled ET when he wanted just to call home. Thus if you call me and I don’t answer at once, it’s because I’m still trying to figure out how to.

The iPhone, apparently, will also have, somewhere, the ability to make phone calls if you can only find it amongst the options.

I believe that it is much the same as an iPod, whose function has now been explained to me but without any explanation as to why someone would want to listen to music whilst walking down the street. This concept escapes me totally. Beethoven’s Ninth can hardly sound the same when squirted into one’s left lughole whilst waiting for the little green man to tell you that it’s OK to cross the road. But I do believe you will be able to take a photo, get the latest weather and send an E-Mail whilst listening, all stuff that every successful technocrat needs to do whilst walkabout.

I do appreciate that this all due to my inability to adjust to the demands of everyday life where so-called multi-tasking is now essential. In fact, it would be fair to say that I’ve always had difficulty mono-tasking.

I listen to music when at a concert or in the peace and quiet of my own home. I make business phone calls when I am in my office. I take photographs using an old fashioned camera. I send E-Mails from my desk. I still write letters and mail them (how old-fashioned can you get?).

And, when walking down the street I don’t very often bump into people because I am trying to listen to my iPod or, in the future, to use all the functions of my iPhone. I think that I am less likely to get run over this way.

Call me irresponsible and behind the times if you like, and I realise that not having one of these devices will render me a social pariah. I am prepared to wear this badge with pride.

But of course, there’s always the advantage that I’m less likely to be mugged and robbed of one of these things, which seems to be the national sport at present. And I’ll also be a good deal better off financially.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Spaced Out

The problem I have with modern science fiction is that there seems to be altogether too much fiction and not much science involved. Jonathan Swift, in “Gulliver’s Travels,” I could handle, since his was essentially a satirical comment on his times, although I imagine most readers may have missed that point. Jules Verne, apart from “A Voyage to the Moon,” kept his feet on the ground or under it, as in “A Voyage to the Centre of the Earth.” It seems to have been left to H.G. Wells to lurch into space with “The War of the Worlds,” Orson Welles subsequently discovering just how gullible mankind was when he broadcast it to a panicking New York population.

Later writers of the stuff seem to overlook the physical problems involved and it would be refreshing if some author could come up with something that involved believable science, not unbelievable fantasy, along with a good story.

I am reliably informed by those in the know, that in several billion years, the exact figure escapes me but I know it’s a lot, the sun will engulf the earth, an event which puts global warming into true perspective. Personally I don’t think this is something you should worry about since mankind will have launched itself into the self-destruct mode long beforehand.

Having rendered our planet both uninhabitable and undesirable by our own efforts, there are those who suggest that we should look around for a sort of weekend retreat in space, and NASA is busily preparing for a campsite on the moon. Personally I prefer the South of France where the beaches and climate are better and, when the sun does swallow us up, I reckon it’s going to be more comfortable there than sitting on Mars or the Moon, both of which look undeniably unwelcoming, without decent bars or restaurants. The sun’s going to swallow them too, so what’s the point?

I view the activities of NASA with grave suspicion. Major nations in general and the United States in particular, rarely do anything pro bono publico. I suspect they may have struck oil there.

The visionaries of science fiction have us shuttling off to far away planets, presumably well out of reach of an expanding sun. The problem here is that man’s longevity puts a bit of a damper on things. Even with modern drugs, one hundred years seems to be about tops and you don’t get far in the universe in a hundred light years. And who wants to spend a lifetime in a glorified airliner. The only things that live much longer are the Galapagos tortoise and the occasional elephant, neither of whom have evinced much interest in space travel.

So there it is, folks. I’m afraid it’s all over (well, in a few billion years – I’ll get back to you with a more accurate estimate). But before then we’ll all be long gone. It will be left to the cockroaches of the world to experience the final death throes. As they have neither religion nor world wars to concern them, I’m sure they’ll survive until then, much as they have done for millions of years in the kitchen cabinets of mankind.

Now they might be a good subject for a science fiction book.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Out of Africa

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance,” you will recall that the bold buccaneers, all of them orphans, found their piratical activities seriously inhibited on finding that every ship they captured was crewed by orphans, and thus not fair game.

Something similar must be happening in Africa, since flights to that continent are loaded with so-called celebrities, all eager to scoop up an orphan or two, and return home to demonstrate their charitable side to their press agents and thence to their public.

Any self respecting kid in Africa would do well to get himself on the orphan register to enable him to participate in this bonanza before the supply of celebrities runs out, although, as the talent requirements for such a status are nowadays at a low ebb, this could be some time in the future.

Aside from the fact that most of these do-gooders are not the sort I would wish to park my dog with for a long weekend, there is the distasteful fact that their actions do nothing for the long term problem, merely providing a short term impetus to their public image. If any have snook off to Africa and adopted a child on the quiet without any fanfare, I’d be surprised.

Snatching a single child from poverty and injecting them into the super wealthy artificial environment that surrounds these people, is both unfair and unwise. If the money that will no doubt be lavished on the lucky (perhaps) child were to be spread over a hundred others, it would be a far more valuable contribution to charity – but of less publicity value.

If these celebrities were to put their weight and influence behind the unpublicised activities of the many organisations that are attempting to make a difference, not to one child, but to many, then they will have achieved something. And, if they contrive to keep their name off the register of donors, they will really have proved their charitable instinct.

Meanwhile, although Africa seems to be the destination of choice for the publicity minded at the moment, it is worth recalling that there is more than enough poverty in this world to go around.

What a pity that the funds lavished by Britain and America on valueless conflicts cannot be channelled into something worthwhile.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Perfect Host

About this time of year it seems to be customary to invite friends around for the occasional nosh-up, a function that used to be referred to as a dinner party. As one with long experience of these events, I thought it would be appropriate for me to pass along a tip or two on how to survive such functions whilst preserving both your sanity and your wallet.

The first rule is not to panic. However dire the food turns out to be, it takes a very strong minded guest to complain openly – and if you find subsequently that he or she has, you don’t have to invite them again.

It is important to establish your position at the event. A good start is to tell your invitees that it’s just an informal gathering. Undoubtedly they will have been misled in the past by this sort of thing and will therefore show up, booted and spurred as though for the hunt ball. You, on the other hand, will greet them in a food spattered tee shirt, jeans and carpet slippers. You will have instantly asserted your superiority.

The British tend to arrive clutching a bottle as a sort of peace offering. This gives you yet another opportunity to score. If, by chance, they have brought something worth having in the hope that they might get a swig of it, you can thank them profusely, adding that you will put it aside for a special occasion. This implies that the evening is rather less than a special occasion and garners you a bottle of good wine into the bargain – known as a win-win situation.

If, as is more likely, they have contributed something from the dregs of the Australian outback, inspect the label critically before placing it ostentatiously alongside the cooking sherry in the kitchen.

The food itself is unimportant. After all, it’s not as though you’re cooking for yourself when it would really matter. The supermarket freezer section and the micro-wave are formidable weapons here, but be sure to point out that the recipe is an old family one of your maternal grandmother’s or, if an exotic dish, an idea you picked up during your travels in the Far East. A dollop of soy sauce gives a touch of verisimilitude to the story. And it’s worth bearing in mind that even Gordon Ramsey has his off days. Apparently the lobster ravioli in his New York restaurant has all the qualities of high grade synthetic rubber.

If your guests number amongst them someone who knows something about wine, it is as well to proceed cautiously in the drink department, but the percentage of those who do actually know anything of the subject as opposed to merely being snobbish about it, is infinitesimal. So unless you relish casting pearls before swine, as the saying is, I suggest you preserve the empty bottles of the good stuff you’ve been drinking privately and reload them with common or garden plonk. When pouring, make sure your guests see the label – they’ll never know the difference and, if they have the temerity to question why you don’t uncork the stuff before their eyes, tell them that you opened it early in order to allow it to breathe.

By following these simple instructions you can develop the reputation of being a fine host with the minimum of trouble and expense.

It is possible that your guests may demand a return engagement to seek revenge. Bearing in mind the above strategy, you should now be in a position to outwit them.

Bon appetit!

Monday, January 08, 2007

A Good Book

And I don’t necessarily mean the Bible. In a world that is groaning under the weight of paperbacks and computer generated books, whilst it may be, rather as was once said of wine: “I like a bad wine occasionally – one gets so tired of good,” the immense and tactile pleasure of handling a well produced volume cannot be overstated. Well, not by me, anyway.

Thus one of my few (repeat, few) indulgences is to splurge occasionally on some good books. My principle Nemesis here is The Folio Society, and over the years I have consistently failed to resist their blandishments that arrive in my mail box annually. They are cunning devils, even their catalogue (they refer to it as a “prospectus”) has an air of decadent luxury about it, and I defy anyone who has ever lusted after a voluptuous volume to deny themselves.

Mind you, they’re not exactly the sort of thing one can stuff in the back pocket to read on the flight and I’m sure that the security people would look askance at anyone trying to smuggle such a book on board. They are books for enjoying in your most comfortable chair in front of the fire with a glass of wine to hand. And, of course, the television either off or in another room - preferably in another house. Neither are they books for reading in bed unless you can do it sitting up, since even the slimmest of their volumes comes in at a pretty good weight.

But what wonderful books they are. And what wonderful value when compared with the price of a paperback. To console myself for the money I spend each year with them, buying the four mandatory volumes, I totted up how much I spent on other, less worthy, products of the publishing industry. My conclusion was that it wasn’t much of an extravagance after all – a conclusion that was not met with complete unanimity in my household, I must admit.

The demands of the paperback have reduced to art of typography and design to its lowest common denominator. The principle requirement is to squash as many words onto a page as possible in order to reduce the print cost. Chapters usually run on, with little separation, and the old idea that all chapters should start on an odd numbered page has to be dispensed with on grounds of economy. It becomes the equivalent of a microwaveable food as opposed to eating in a good restaurant. Very adequate on occasion, but not totally fulfilling.

Since I live in a region where the number of genuine bookstores is pretty much a minus quantity and it’s only on my ventures into London that I am able to browse the bookshops of Charing Cross Road, I have to resort to mail order. Apart from The Folio Society, there is another source of fine books from a company calling themselves Bibliophile. These are a selection of all sorts, many of them publisher’s remainders, and whilst the larger part are paperbacks, they also have some fine bargains in quality books. A reprint of the Joan Blaeu Atlas Major of 1665 came at a laughable price compared to its original reprint price and there is a wide range of subjects to choose from.

The temptations are endless. My daughter says that when their monthly catalogue arrives, she has to dispose of it unopened on occasion when the domestic budget won’t run to any extravagance.

Unfortunately, I’m not that strong willed – I just have to conceal the packages when they arrive from my comptroller of the exchequer. I suggest you could do the same.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Off the Rails

Britain pioneered the railway. But you’d hardly think, so looking at the mess it’s turned into now.

George Stephenson’s Rocket was not the first locomotive but, in 1829, it did show the way for designs of steam locomotives that used many of its features up until the 1960’s, when Diesel and Electric power took over.

The first disaster was the abandonment of Brunel’s broad gauge, the 7 foot wide system that allowed for heavier loads, higher speeds and greater stability. The prime reason was the financial interests of the railway companies who preferred the cheaper option of the standard gauge. Profits came before efficiency, still the mantra of the modern day companies as the passengers will have noticed. Toilets are now being removed from some trains in order to provide more standing room!

Those who now sit in their exorbitantly expensive seats ( if they’re lucky) as their train creeps across the countryside might reflect that in 1904, a mail train pulled by the City of Truro, ran from Plymouth to London, at times reaching 100 m.p.h. and, in spite of setting out some 30 minutes late, contrived to arrive on time.

In the 1930’s, the London to Newcastle service took four hours at an average speed of over 67 m.p.h.

But the rot had set in before the Second World War. Lack of investment in both locomotives and rolling stock was acerbated by the conflict and, when peace came, under the aegis of British Rail, little was done to remedy this. And everything since has been a Band-Aid on a terminal wound.

The long suffering British public now pay three times as much for the pleasure of their train journey in less comfort and at a slower pace than anywhere else, other than in a third world country.

It’s been twenty five years since the French introduced their high speed train, the Train Grand Vitesse, TGV, and its service has revolutionised travel in a country that is four times the size of Britain. With guaranteed seating, spotlessly clean trains and a service that for punctuality rivals the vaunted Swiss rail system, it comes at a fraction of the cost of the equivalent journey in Britain. And is, of course, immeasurably faster.

The key was investment. And the French government, who have immense pride in their country in spite of its defects, must be congratulated on seeing the value of putting the taxpayer’s money into the system. The taxpayer for once got his money’s worth from a government.

And the service is matched, if not in speed, in comfort and cost almost everywhere on the Continent

I can remember fondly the days of steam in England and did much travelling on the oft maligned British Railways. Perhaps time has dimmed these memories but I feel that the whole business worked far better then than the present arcanely complex and expensive system. I recall that the worst aspect was the dreaded British Rail sandwich.

With the demise of steam, a friend of mine purchased an express locomotive, “The Bahamas,” for a local railway museum. As he had paid for it, he felt that he was entitled to drive it from the engine sheds at Bury to its final home. And he did, on the footplate complete with engineer’s cap and his hand on the throttle. As he was also a director of a large textile corporation, it so happened that that afternoon he also had to attend a board meeting.

He reported: “I sat down and looked around at my stuffy colleagues grouped around the table. All so intent upon the tedious business at hand. And I reflected to myself, not one of these has had the glorious experience that I had this morning of being at the controls of such a magnificent piece of machinery.” I’m happy to report that this locomotive still exists in the Keighley and Worth Valley museum – Geoffrey Potter, the man in question, would be pleased to know that “Bahamas” is still around, although in need of an overhaul, I believe.

And now to add insult to injury, whilst British trains rumble uncertainly over the tracks at a pace that is barely in excess of the stagecoaches of a bygone era, in Taiwan there is now a high speed train, comparable to the TGV, which whisks their citizens from one end of the country to the other at 190 m.p.h.

For a nation that invented the business, it’s all rather sad. It’s just as well Brunel is not here to see it.

Friday, January 05, 2007

A Touch of Nelson

Yesterday morning, I nearly choked on my morning croissant when I read that a 14 year old English boy, a mere beardless stripling, had sailed across the Atlantic single-handedly. Great Heavens, thought I, where on earth were the authorities? It just goes to show what happens when you leave Prescott in charge for five minutes. Anarchy breaks loose and, if the authorities care to look, around every corner you will see kids playing conkers or similar life threatening sports next. This sort of reckless activity might spread. Nintendos and Gameboys will languish in closets and children will be taking up all sorts of unsuitable activities, such as tree-climbing.

The threat to the nanny state is clear. Something will have to be done and the Health and Safety people called in at once to prosecute the boy’s parents and certainly his headmaster who had the temerity to condone, nay, to encourage, such recklessness. No doubt on his return to England, the young criminal in question will be placed in a suitable foster home for his own protection lest he should be tempted to go boating on The Serpentine without a life jacket and suitable safety equipment.

I note that he set sail from Gibraltar. Probably a wise move. If he had left from Plymouth or any other port in the UK, he would have undoubtedly been pursued by the Royal Navy, if they could find a spare ship which now seems to be unlikely, and dragged back home to face the consequences of this affront to nannydom.

Although I failed to appreciate it at the time, I was fortunate enough to be sent to one of those institutions that were called, rather oddly, Public Schools. I’m sure that the sort of malpractice they got up to in my day would have resulted in fines and convictions all round for the staff. Cricket was played without helmets, we were taught boxing and, even more alarmingly, shown how to handle firearms. Conkering was rife in season and the gymnasium was full of potentially hazardous bits of equipment that we were encouraged to use without safety nets. In the Air Training Corps, I was launched off the side of a hill for my first solo flight in a totally inadequate glider (a Slingsby product, as I recall it) not only without any protective gear but without even a note from my parents.

Compulsory National Service was the making of many young men when it was in force but now, of course, since every teenager knows his rights, would be totally unworkable. The idea of deference to one’s elders or to authority of any kind flies in the face of present day thinking. Just imagine the law suits that anxious parents could file at the NCO’s in charge of their loved ones during square bashing. As I remember it, these worthies had scant regard for political correctness. But the end product was infinitely superior to today’s laissez faire youth, I’m sure.

The young navigator made landfall rather appropriately in Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua.

Nelson was a genuine British hero even if his treatment of Lady Hamilton left something to be desired. I’m sure he would have approved of the young man’s escapade.

But I can’t help feeling that it would have far more wonderful if he had contrived to make his landfall at the home of Mr. Gibb of BeeGee’s fame, in Miami. It might have discommoded Mr. Blair’s lunchtime cocktail session around the swimming pool but would, perhaps, have given him an inkling that there are still people in Britain who have some spirit and guts and don’t need a nanny state to take care of them.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Gullible's Travails

Albert Einstein, who is generally considered to have been a pretty smart cookie, once remarked that only two things were infinite – the universe and human stupidity. He added that he was not totally sure about the universe, however.

I feel that he may have a point. The gullibility of the general public appears to be unlimited. A year ago I wrote a book, “Just Numbers on a Screen,” exposing a major offshore investment swindle. Some 80,000 optimists had plonked their hard earned cash into a project that was guaranteed by the promoters to return them 600% per annum. Now it is generally accepted that one of best of current financial money managers is Warren Buffet who has failed to exceed returns of more than 35% or so over the past few years. Obviously he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

An earlier book of mine was “One Big Fib,” the story of a fraudulent offshore bank. However, although a total swindle that ruined many lives, their promised rate of return was a measly 100%, so clearly we are making progress in this business.

Now both of these operations, although differing in detail, relied upon the tried and true efforts of a Mr. Ponzi who, years before, had conceived the happy notion of attracting depositors by paying ludicrously high returns from the funds being received from new investors. It saved all that tedious business of having to invest funds, enabled wonderfully impossible rates of return to be advertised and, provided you were slippy enough on your feet, you could always scarper when the mugs stopped sending you money. Mr. Ponzi himself neglected to pay attention to this last requirement and spent the rest of his life in jail, but many of his students have profited subsequently from the plan.

With the advent of the internet, things looked up in the industry. Websites are cheap and easy to set up, giving a semblance of status and stability, ownership is easily concealed and the offshore International Business Company (IBC) with its inbuilt secrecy, provided a wonderful cover for nefarious operations.

Having researched two of these interesting and totally fraudulent schemes, I’ve been interested ever since in this bizarre underbelly of the investment world. A quick search of the internet reveals an appallingly large number of similar “pie in the sky” schemes, offering returns which are not only beyond the dreams of avarice but are also beyond the realms of commonsense. Significantly, although many of the promoters claim to have large investors, their offerings are always pitched to the small and naïve punter, who, even though he or she may know deep down inside that it’s all a fraud, knows that, under the rules of the game, if you get in early you might be able to get out with a substantial profit. That this profit will come at the expense of the later suckers rarely impinges on their conscience. A basic rule is that, due to confidentiality requirements, no accounts are available to prospective clients. A particularly reprehensible aspect of many of these programmes is that emphasis is laid upon charitable donations or religious connotations, giving many the fuzzy feeling of “doing good” by investing their money. Rarely do charities benefit very much from this and, of course, it is in effect “dirty money,” obtained by means which are illegal in most jurisdictions.

And when the house of cards, which are all such pyramid schemes, collapses, as all such programmes will, courtesy of the internet and the International Business Company Act, the victims will have nowhere to turn to for redress.

The internet is awash with discussion forums on these so-called High Yield Investment Programmes and whilst the high yield part might be valid for a time, there is rarely any investment component. And once the mugs stop sending cash, the music stops.

But what has struck me as I riffle through these forums is that, once disappointed by the failure of one incredible opportunity, many just move on to the next, presumably in the hopes of cashing out early next time. It is, of course, a form of larceny that law enforcement has a hard time catching up with.

But the recent restrictions placed upon the international banking industry, coupled with the much wider use of the term “money laundering” to describe almost any illicit handling of funds, will do much to put a crimp in the activities of those who would wish to trade on the misery produced by their activities. And under these rules, the agents often used to bring in new business will be as culpable as the promoters, and the reach of law and order now expands worldwide.

The “get rich quick” mentality that provides the promoters with their fodder is as destructive to people as are drugs in the community.

Einstein was right – but he should also have added greed and gullibility.

If you know of anyone considering putting their money into such schemes, I suggest you tell them to read my books, which are available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble etc. You may save them a lot of money.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Not So Bleak

My problem, and I admit that it is a personal one, with television lies in the matter of choice. If I feel like reading a book, I can go and browse the bookshelves, select the volume I fancy and sit and read it in my own time and at my own pace. But the television, that hideous cyclops that invades every home, offers no such choice. It dictates the time and, even worse, the content that you view. Aside from the fact that the content seems, for the most part, to have been assembled by a sub-moronic committee striving to find a topic that will appeal to the most intellectually challenged members of the population, the idea that one must organise life to the calendar and clock of a television station is ludicrous. In many homes, mealtimes had to be re-arranged and I well remember the first insult to gastronomy that resulted, the TV dinner, the legacy of which still lingers unpleasantly on the taste buds and in the micro-waves of many homes.

However, all is not dross, and it was with great pleasure that I found that Santa Claus, in his infinite wisdom, had contrived to leave a few DVD’s under our tree this year. Since this handy device, and its predecessor, the VHS tape, negate most of my objections listed above, I spent much of the holiday happily viewing the BBC’s adaptation of Charles Dicken’s “Bleak House.”

Adaptations of books are tricky at the best of times and much of my interest lay in seeing just how well Andrew Davies had contrived to wedge this unwieldy and complex book onto the cramped confines of a television screen. He succeeded brilliantly in my opinion.

The first time I tried to read Bleak House was many years ago and I recall finding myself struggling through the complex and convoluted plot. It took several readings before I came to appreciate the work and I found the solution was to read it as it had been written – by instalments. The magic of the BBC production to me is that the storyline has been clarified and that characters are depicted almost exactly as Dickens had painted them in my mind. The casting was undoubtedly helped by the minuteness of the author’s observations.

Clearly much has been lost, but the essential spirit (and mystery) of the book has been maintained with the dialogue remaining totally Dickensian. You just can’t improve on it.

My hope is that many who may have been put off by the title in the past, will now turn to the book and enjoy all the subtleties that had to be omitted from the film. Dickens, to my mind, never was one for a snappy title; Hard Times and Bleak House being two of the least appealing but, as a character says “It’s not a Bleak House at all.”

And then they will find the added delights of details of the Jellyby household and of that model of deportment, Mr. Turveydrop, details of which, plus many others, that have, of necessity, had to be omitted.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Less Dear Diary

By now you should all have got over the euphoria of the new year and have it fixed firmly in your minds that you must put 2007 on any cheques you were getting ready to send to me. In which case, Happy New Year!

In days of yore, this time of year would be signalled by a deluge of company calendars and diaries, falling like autumn leaves upon us, but since the advent of the personal computer the supply has withered away. Nowadays people keep their appointment records, addresses and personal data electronically, an immense improvement, as my wife found out when all of her Christmas card list disappeared down a black hole in the back of her computer monitor. We never got it back, and now you understand why you didn’t get a card from us this year, but it did save us quite a bit of money.

We get two calendars per year now, both of which are in exchange for a Christmas box of €10 apiece, making them an expensive but worthwhile investment. One from the French Postal Service, a usefully utilitarian piece of work, and one from our gallant volunteer firemen, Les Sapeurs et Pompiers, containing a group portrait of the crew. I notice that one of them is our local baker, inspired in his volunteer work, no doubt, by thoughts of Pudding Lane and the Great Fire of London.

Free diaries are practically non-existent and it is only due to the good offices of my doctor that I get one at all. This is a rather handsome desk diary, published by a medical supplier, Temerit, who are plugging their drug, “le B-Bloquant,” in it. What B-Bloquant does I have no idea but it’s a jolly good diary and I hope the company does well and that they never find out that their expensive publicity gift has wound up on my desk. It does contain a lot of information on their products which is undoubtedly of value to the medical profession but not of much use to a struggling author. No doubt my doctor will call if he needs any advice. There are, however, some handsome maps and a good deal of useless trivia. For instance, I bet you didn’t know that Papouasie Nouvelle Guinee had an area of 461,691 hectares, that they spoke pidgin English and Police Motu and that the currency of the country is the Kina. If you didn’t I suggest you should see you doctor, since that’s the only way I found that useful piece of data.

In fact I was looking for the dialling code for some obscure country, useful information which last year’s diary had had but that was omitted from this year’s offering. I found out an awful lot about cardiology though.

In the years I was in advertising, I always doubted (although never publicly) the value of these promotional gifts. I never thought that the recipient of a diary from Birtinwhistle’s Sprogget Making and Cogwheel Company would, when suddenly finding himself in need of a few sproggetts or cogwheels, be inspired to contact them in preference to the firm of Diddlebury and Splike, who offered a much better price for their sproggets on account of the fact that they had not spent a fortune on diaries.

Now that these sort of gifts have largely died out, no doubt competition in the sprogget business is a good deal fiercer.

But the old-fashioned diary does have its uses. It is unlikely to disappear down the little hole in the back of the monitor and, unless seriously mislaid, will still be there for us in twelve months time.

So if you get a Christmas Card from us next year, you can thank our doctor for it.