Friday, February 23, 2007

Travelling Broadens the Mind

Those of you (and I’m sure there are lots) who turn to this column for inspiration and knowledge, will, I’m afraid, have to look elsewhere for a week. For I’m off to that “sceptr'd isle, set in a silver sea” on this morning’s flight.
Might I suggest therefore, that whilst you wait impatiently for my return, you entertain yourself by reading some of the more comical excerpts from Hansard? Always good for a laugh, it sometimes has a touch of the Hans Christian Andersens about it. For those who are of a more serious mindset, you can always turn to The Daily Mail or The Beano for shrewd comment on the affairs of the day.
I used to enjoy traveling. But now, when I have to present myself a couple of hours ahead of time at the airport so that they may inspect my underwear, some of the gloss has gone off the idea. By the time I’ve driven and hour or so to get there, the one hour flight has turned into a four hour marathon, added to which is the entertainment at the destination of watching other people’s luggage go round on the carousel whilst yours is on its way to Barcelona.
It’s the farce of the security in place that is irritating, a knee jerk reaction that has been foisted on the world by paranoid governments. As governments love statistics, here’s a few to try over on your pianola. Got a pencil and paper handy? Good, now we can begin.
First jot down the number of passengers who traveled by air in the past year. I suggest you ignore Indian and Chinese here, there’s rather a lot of them and it makes the figures a bit hard to handle.
Then divide this by the number of people discovered to be trying to blow up your aircraft. I’ll give you a little time here since you’re probably out of practice at long division. Oh, you’re using a calculator – saves the brain I suppose.
You should now find that you have a dot (we call it a decimal point in the business) followed by a lot of zeros and terminating in the odd digit. This is the risk factor involved in flying.
If you can be bothered, now find the statistics for getting knocked down crossing the road, being mugged in the more salubrious parts of London or, if you’re still at school, being hurt playing conkers without a face mask and body armour.
You will see that all of the last mentioned are rather more hazardous than jumping on one of Wilbur or Orville’s inventions (fewer zeros in front of the digit for the mathematically challenged.). Conker playing should clearly be preceded by a two hour period during which the child’s shoes can be x-rayed, pocket knives confiscated, sticky toffees placed in transparent plastic bags and the participants made to walk through a metal detector. I can’t imagine what the government’s thinking of allowing such dangers to exist.
For myself, I’ve been riding buses and coaches in Britain just lately. They seemed to have escaped the safety dragnet so far.
Provided you show up before the driver lets in the clutch, they allow you on board. The driver loads your bag for you without a lot of piffling questions as to who packed it. None have ever asked me to open it and, as a bonus, since he put it on board, he takes an interest in it still being there when you arrive. He doesn’t put on a life vest and go through a valueless safety drill and is mercifully brief with his cabin announcements.
All in all, I’ve found it the best way to travel around Britain, even with the congested roads. I suppose it's only a matter of time before they put a stop to such a lax operation.
But if you’ve time to spare – go by air.
Back next week.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Fat of the Land

It's official! The English have made it into the big time - literally. Apparently they are now Numero Uno in the European obesity stakes which I suppose gives them a sporting chance in the Sumo contests at the Olympic games.
Sixty-one per cent are now officially boxing in the heavyweight class or so 'they' say. Now I'm always a bit worried about 'they' since they never seem to reveal themselves. In this case, I assume it's a bunch from the Ministry of Obesity and it's the preciseness of the sixty-one per cent I find troubling. Not 'around sixty' or 'over fifty' but exactly sixty-one. For this sort of accuracy I would have thought that 'they' would have had to measure and weigh every man, woman and child in England to come up with the answer. And I know 'they' haven't - or otherwise I'm sure the Daily Mail would have reported it.
And what about the Welsh, Scots and the Irish (Northern Division)? How come they're not included? Too skinny or what?
There's a lot of fuss being made over this weight problem but the answer is surely as obvious as an embonpoint. Not many get much in the way of exercise, especially those at school, since it might be hazardous to play sports. When I was at my seat of learning, not only did we have gymnasium periods several times a week but on Wednesday afternoons, sport was compulsory. If you didn't aspire to cricket, rugger or soccer, you were sent off on a long cross country run. And to make up for missing an afternoon of lessons, we went back to class on Saturday morning, only to have compulsory sports in the afternoon. I do realise that the word compulsory is not used in polite society any more when referring to the young as it might give them a complex and spoil their Nintendo practice.
I'm pretty sure that if any of us were obese after this regime, it would be regarded as a medical miracle.
Without television, even watching a game of some sort involved some exercise since it was unlikely that your parents would deliver you to the stadium in their 4 x 4 and so you would have to hoof it. No lounging on the couch with a remote at the ready and a supply of crisps and fizzy drinks at hand.
Now there is arising in the magical East End of London, a mighty sports stadium. I can't remember the cost, not that it matters since it will be exceeded by a few billion anyway, but this huge investment is geared, not to provide facilities for the playing of sports, but for watching a select few perform. The money would be far better spent in providing adequate playing fields for the young and shipping the Health and Safety inspectors off to far away places where they can't watch the kids playing their dangerous games.
The Romans got into the business of spectator sports in a big way too, although I suspect their Colosseum will outlast the Stratford E 15 one by a few millennia, but look what happened to their empire.
However, I now have high hopes for the English Sumo team at the upcoming Olympics.
That really is Weight Watching.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Great Reservations

If you’ve ever had that feeling of euphoria, that ‘God’s in His Heaven, all’s right with the world’ sort of mood, when the sun’s shining brightly and the birds are singing your song, yet at the back of your mind you have the sneaking suspicion that you ought to be brought down to earth, well I have a sovereign remedy for you.
Try booking a hotel room in London over the Internet.
Here let me define ‘hotel’ as being one up over a doss-house. Two or three stars as opposed to two or three blots. I mean an establishment where ladies, and if necessary, gentlemen can get their heads down for a night in some comfort without having to take out a second mortgage to pay for the privilege.
‘Ha,’ you say, ‘that’s easy. The Internet is awash with sites offering every conceivable configuration of accommodation at discount prices.’
Well, having found on my last visit a comfortable, if bijou, residence at what passes in London for a reasonable price, I was miffed to find that others had found it also. Even worse, the management had seen fit to give the accommodation to far less deserving cases than mine. In other words, there was no room at the inn.
I turned to that modern cornucopia, the Internet. Sure enough, there were the agencies offering rooms at unbelievably low prices – except, of course, when one went to make the reservation, inexplicably these bargains had all disappeared. It was the Bermuda Triangle of the hotel world, an unresolved phenomena that will occupy the minds of the scientists for years to come.
However, a bed’s a bed fur ‘a that, as Rabbie Burns once said, so wisely, and so I started on the list of runners.
The descriptions of the various hotels are clearly written by estate agents in their spare time, glowing accounts of the wonders therein. But then, rather foolishly in my opinion, there is a link you can click on to read the comments of previous weary travellers who have stayed there. From most of these, it becomes apparent that the composers of the paean of praise to the place had never actually stayed there.
A depressing litany of complaints and problems, mildewed carpets, stained bedding, windows not opening or, as a variation, windows not closing, dirty rooms and bathrooms without much in the way of hot water, all clogged the pages, plus a few quite remarkable occurrences that I would never have thought of. Every now and again, someone would have enjoyed their stay, apparently, but not too often, and they must have been uncritical and inexperienced world travellers.
Bathrooms are, of course, a perpetual problem for small London hotels. ‘En suite,’ they say, since nobody in this day and age will stay anywhere that doesn’t include this line in their description. So these aquatic arrangements are shoe-horned into such a small space that there must be some emergency service on hand to extricate the overweight guests who must inevitably become trapped.
And why do they always put the taps inside the shower so that you get soaked with cold water when trying to adjust the temperature?
I finally settled for a hotel that had received no damning comments from previous guests. It fact it had received no comments at all.
I can only assume that they’ve only just opened

Friday, February 16, 2007

It's Karaoke Time!

It's just as well for most of the world's population that they don't live in South Korea this week. Although undoubtedly a garden spot for some and indubitably a more salubrious clime than that of their northern neighbour, this week it would not be the place for those of a musical bent or ear.
For this week, the nation has celebrated an event rather comparable with the testing of a nuclear device in North Korea. I refer, of course, to the achievement of a lady in breaking the world's record for Karaoke by warbling for sixty hours non-stop.
No doubt this will gain her an entry in that compendium of dubiously useful human achievements, The Guinness Book of World Records. However, I would suggest that those who were subjected to listening to sixty hours of the stuff are equally deserving. Somebody must have been there to ensure that she didn't nip off for a quick gargle between numbers.
I've had a limited exposure to the delights of the karaoke business but from what I've heard, I feel rather as Sir Thomas Beecham felt about the bagpipes. He said he had no real objection to them but felt that they were heard to their best advantage from the far side of a mountain. Karaoke, I feel, should be restricted to places such as camp sites on the Costa del Fish 'n Chips.
But human nature never ceases to amaze me and I am sure that, somewhere, someone is tuning up their tonsils for a go at this world record.
Now, I've always suffered from a laudable lack of ambition and why there should be this desire to come first, beats me.
At school, I never aspired to be top of the class. On the contrary, I set my sights merely on ensuring that I was not at the bottom, thus gaining the comment on every report: "Should try harder."
When serving in the air force I had no desire to rise through the ranks to be Marshal of the Royal Air Force. I simply concentrated on getting out as soon as possible.
And, later on in life, a succession of bank managers would testify to my lack of desire to become independently wealthy, other than at their expense. Indeed, many frequently suggested that we should return to our original arrangement wherein I banked with them - and not the other way around.
Thus I have spared myself from the agony of defeat and the humiliation of coming second. I suppose I've missed out on the ecstasy of coming first but you can't have everything.
It seems to me that there's quite enough strife in this world without my adding to it. There was an epitaph which sums up my attitude. It began:
"I strove with none,
For none were worth my strife."
Now, if you'll excuse me, I must rush off to practise my karaoke.
There's a record waiting to be broken.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

My Funny Valentine............

… wrote songsmiths Rodgers and Hart. Well, the day of love passed off quietly in our household and wasn’t the least bit funny. In fact the only Valentine’s Day greeting I got was an E-Mail from one of my Internet hosting companies who, thriftily and romantically, coupled it with a request that I cough up for another year’s fees.
There’s something touching about these modern communication methods that make the old Victorian card business seem passé.
Mind you, Valentine’s Day is all a bit of a waste of effort. Who wants to spend money sending greetings and expressions of love and affection anonymously? Where’s the pay-off, I ask you? Some clever geezer once figured out that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction but I guess he wasn’t referring to Valentine Cards. You’re not going to get much credit for something no-one knows you did.
About the only beneficiaries of the business are the card companies and the retail industry who, sensing that it can be made into another explosive device in the minefield of life of the average male, use it to crank up sales. And surely we have enough of such days. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, My Sainted Aunt’s Day and all the rest are dedicated to making the cash registers jingle and to making life miserable for those of us with a short attention span for remembering dates.
And February is a miserable month in any case, which is why the good Lord cut it a bit short, only slipping up on the odd leap year. It was just as well for W.S. Gilbert, however, whose plot for “The Pirates of Penzance” would have looked a bit foolish otherwise.
As government is so keen to take a hand in organising our private lives, I feel that much stress could be removed from many of us by perhaps lumping all such days that we are supposed to recall as an anniversary of some sort, into one period of a week or so. This could be designated National Acrimony Week and would include wedding anniversaries, birthdays and like events.
The alternative, which I am considering suggesting to Gordon Brown, is that the first day of each month be set aside for the purpose. Most of us could probably manage to remember that and, to make it absolutely foolproof, the government could collect a donation to provide free drugs for habitual users or some similar worthwhile project, unlike giving medication for cancer sufferers which is considered to be a waste of public funds. It would be necessary to make this payable by standing order, of course, and welfare beneficiaries would naturally be exempt along with any illegal immigrants currently being supported by the government.
It would take the stress out of our overwrought lives and put a jingle in the pocket of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But I suppose it’s just too radical and would not get the support of the retail industry and the high street shops that look forward to another St. Valentine’s Day next year.
St. Valentine was an obscure 3rd. century Roman priest and we’ll never know if he sent a card to anyone on his day – after all, he would have sent it anonymously.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Finally - a Use for Spam!

Spam first came to my notice as a kid when the United States contribution to winning World War II, prior to Pearl Harbour, consisted of bombarding the British Isles with cans of the stuff along with peanut butter. Under the circumstances, it’s a wonder that I turned into an Americanophile.
To me, Spam always tasted funny (peculiar, not ha-ha) and now that my computer is filled up with it on a daily basis, it doesn’t seem quite so funny – just irritating.
Much huffing and puffing over ways to curb this menace seem to have resulted in a tremendous upsurge in the business and, incidentally, in the business of providing software to counter it.
But nothing works. My internet service provider catches most of it and sometimes stuff which isn’t spam at all but a message from some innocent person who has thoughtlessly included a suspect word in the address. Thus I have the weekly chore of riffling through the files of deleted messages to make sure that nothing has gone astray.
I’m a firm believer in looking for the silver lining and here I think I may have found it. For those who write fictional novels are constantly up against finding names for their characters. Dickens had no end of trouble over this, frequently doodling possible variations in his notes.
But all you have to do now is to run through the list of the names of the spammers that have E-Mailed you. The unsung authors of these messages have an imagination that would have enthralled Hans Christian Andersen. Elvira L. Peascombe is constantly trying to sell me a fake Rolex, Ailsa Samberly hopes that I had a great evening and Donald Hanscombe is sure that he has the solution to my problem. They, and hundreds like them, are in touch with me daily and, whilst I do take exception to the ones that address me as “Hey, bro,” I am sure they’re all very nice and well meaning people.
So, novelists, look no further for inspiration for the names of your characters. They are all there, lurking on your computer, and if you can use them for some thoroughly disreputable character in your book, all the better. It would be no more than they deserve.
This morning’s crop include Ta Stone who “misses me”, Gabriela Clay who wishes to speak with me about something, Luann Gilmore who has some soft Cialis for a mere $2, Berchtold Bang who seems to be in competition, having the same thing on offer and Mullen Olin who says “why look anywhere else” although, as I haven’t read his message, I’m not sure what I should be looking elsewhere for.
And to Katrice Kim, who asks “how happy r u?” may I say thank you for your concern, but quite happy never to hear from you again.
Now I must get down to writing that novel – I’ve got the cast of characters.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Common Market?

It’s a common market, right? No problems shipping stuff and trading between all of us lot in the European Union, right? All pals together, no cross-border bureaucratic nonsense like we used to have to put up with, right?

No, wrong.

Yesterday I wanted to buy a simple piece of computer equipment. Now, living in the depths of the French countryside, there’s a bit of a dearth of handy computer stores so the Internet is the method of choice for this sort of thing.

Although the item I wanted was neither exotic nor expensive, it’s not a popular item and I couldn’t find one in France. But there were several companies, UK based, who had it in stock.

I turned to the website of the largest one. It seems that before I could place my trivial order with them, I needed to register as a ‘customer.’ There was one of those elaborate forms to fill out, asking all sorts of questions and, naturally, my address. I worked my way through this, hoping to get a passing grade, until I came to the block, marked with an asterisk as being vital, that read ‘country.’ As you know, this is usually a drop down menu, listing all sorts of exotic nations from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, so I clicked on it. It gave me only one option – England.

Knowing how uptight the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish get over little matters of national pride such as this, I went to the contact page for the company. I felt that they should be alerted before their offices were raided by the Welsh Nationalists. There was a long list of offices in the US, Canada and England – but none in Europe. I telephoned their number in West London.

‘How,’ I asked the lady, ‘could I do business with them, seeing as how they didn’t seem to recognize any nation other than their own?’

She wasn’t sure. Then said that perhaps if I telephoned the sales department they might be able to help. They couldn’t. It was as if I was asking them to dispatch the item to some far distant planet.

‘But don’t you ship to Europe?’ ‘Well, yes, but we wouldn’t be able to tell you what the shipping cost would be. Will you be paying in Sterling?’ ‘ But I’ll be paying by credit card so that’s not a problem.’

‘We don’t accept European cards.’

I hung up and turned back to the Internet.

The next company looked more promising since they featured a gaily coloured array of the flags of all nations.

Once again, I had to fill in the same elaborate form, culminating in the country block. I clicked it. There was only one choice – England.

Then I had a stroke of genius. As I was going to be in England in a week or so, all I would need to do would be to give an address there from which I could pick the thing up. All this went like a breeze until I came to the credit card bit. Then, it told me that my billing address on the credit card did not match the delivery address I was requesting. Sorry, no go.

I gave up on the United Kingdom, or as they seemed to prefer in this case, England and rummaged the continent once more.

I finally located the part in Spain. It will be here on Thursday.

Someone should tell companies in Britain that there is a life beyond the English Channel.

And that it’s no longer as the famous headline in The Times once put it: “Thick fog in Channel – Europe cut off!” But it might just as well be if you want to do business with some companies in that sceptred isle.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Reality Check

I tried, I really did. I swore a mighty oath, in a genteel, refined sort of way, of course, that I would not mention, in this column, the untimely and unfortunate death of a former Playboy centrefold model. It seemed to me to be a sad and unnecessary tale that needed no further comment.

But then, jumping Jehoshaphat!, I turn to the CNN network and find that it has edged the President of Iran, the war in Iraq and the travails of Tony Blair and George Bush, right off the front page. ‘Breaking Story,’ with suitable exclamation marks, runs the banner headline. And not only on CNN but on every front page and television newscast that I could find, the tawdry tale was repeated. Even the respected Ulaanbaatar Evening Yak from Mongolia probably ran it, although my copy does not arrive for a few days.

Anna Nicole Smith, - there, now I’ve said it – otherwise you would never have guessed who I was referring to, - was to be pitied more than pilloried.

With hardly the best start in life, when she was earning a crust of bread by shaking her ‘you know whats’ in a strip joint in Houston, finding one hundred dollar bills being stuffed into her G-String as opposed to the more regular singles, often Canadian, it was not surprising that she should have taken notice.

And, as they say, the rest is history.

But viewing the incredible interest of the media and, presumably, a large percentage of the public, in her unhappy life, leads me to believe that the world has gone off its collective rocker.

CNN ran a series of E-Mails received from adoring fans lamenting her demise. Now I have been fortunate inasmuch as I was never subjected to any of her few movies nor to her TV show, but I am prepared to accept the evidence of those who were, that these were all, without exception, Grade A, gold plated stinkers.

In her favour, it is clear that she was kind to animals and to octogenarian billionaires, but surely this is hardly sufficient to warrant so much interest?

Her pneumatically upholstered frame, which must have caused Hugh Hefner to provide some additional support for the centrefold page, was not much different from any of the many would-be stars that grace the pages of that distinguished publication.

The early death of anyone, in any walk of life, is a sad event but hardly ‘breaking news.’ So now perhaps we can get back to reality.

In the light of this, I have given my children fair warning that, if I should become an octogenarian billionaire, they would do well to keep me away from any strip joints. But surely, they won’t deny me that one last fling?


Saturday, February 10, 2007

School's Out!

‘Oh, to be a schoolboy in England,

Now that winter’s there.’

My apologies to Mr. Browning but how I would have loved being a schoolboy in England today.

‘Look, chaps, it’s snowed. Whoopee, no school for us today.’ And Bunter could go off to the tuck-shop and fill himself up with cream buns whilst Quelchie, the maths master fumed with rage at being denied an opportunity to terrorise us. Head Boy, Harry Wharton, would, of course, be out there shovelling the snow away from the playground.

Well, I seem to recall that when I was at school in England, it snowed every year, sometimes quite heavily, but not for one millisecond did our tormentors allow us a brief respite from our arduous labours.

Playtimes were OK, for we had running snowball fights on the playing fields and I suppose that such an activity would nowadays be banned under the Health and Safety Act. That would be a loss as far as I was concerned. But school ( the academic bit) being closed, I would not have regretted at all.

I can only think that the reason school stayed open during this inclement weather was that the authorities had not been alerted by headlines in the media: ‘Blizzard sweeping the country from the West,’ ‘Frozen points delay commuters,’ ‘Worst snow since records began,’ etc. and our schoolmasters, oblivious of such impending doom, would insist that we went to class as usual.

And then again, they had other things on their mind at the time. There was a war on. Now, fortunately, the Luftwaffe had elected to run the Battle of Britain largely during the school holidays, enabling those of us living in the London region to have a jolly good ringside seat. But during the later winter Blitz, one would have thought that the raids might have persuaded the powers that be to give us a few days off. But no, bombing raids were insufficient excuse for closing a school, it seems as, later on, were Flying Bombs and V2 Rockets. Snow never even got an honourable mention, even the day boys being expected to show up on time whatever the weather.

Once in a while there would be an empty desk or two in class where a fellow pupil had ‘bought it,’ as the casual phrase of the time had it.

So it is good to know that the schools of Britain are doing their level best to keep their charges from the dreadful menace of a slippery playground.

It’s the sort of spirit that, in a previous Elizabethan era, inspired the likes of Raleigh, Drake and Hawkins.

But I bet they went to school when it snowed.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Elementary, My Dear Watson

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport, you know, the outfit that is busily spawning casinos all over Britain to improve the culture of the nation, has just rejected pleas from the Victorian Society and the Sherlock Holmes aficionados to safeguard the future of Undershaw, the house that Conan Doyle built near Hindhead in Surrey. The place is falling apart at the seams and is badly in need of funds to preserve it. It was from here that he wrote the Hound of the Baskervilles, resurrected Sherlock Holmes from the Reichenbach Falls; campaigned for justice for the falsely accused solicitor George Edalji, and apparently attempted to learn the banjo. Whilst I can’t really approve of the latter, I heartily approve of his writing, of which there was much of significance besides Sherlock Holmes.

The rather odd reason for rejecting the request that the house be granted Grade One status and thus earmarked for preservation, is that, unlike Dickens or Jane Austen, he is not considered, by the committee for granting licences to casinos, as being of sufficient literary merit. And, of course, they should know how to hit a jackpot.

‘Literary Merit’ is, of course, very much a matter for individual perception. Personally I love Dickens and am bored to death by Austen. Recently she has been resuscitated by some excellent BBC adaptations of her work but for years, Sir Arthur’s output has required no such aid. His best known character, Holmes, has never been out of favour with readers and I am tempted to think that the museum at 221b Baker Street does a roaring trade compared with the Dickens Museum and Jane Austen’s in far-off Bath, probably exceeding their combined number of visitors.

And from a quality of writing standpoint, it would be hard to find anything to grizzle about with Doyle’s efforts. His handling of the short story in the Holmes genre is an object lesson to any writer, they can be read and re-read with pleasure and are never boring. Austen? Well, yawn……, I suppose so!

Clearly the government can’t go around rebuilding the house of every author, it’s the reason for rejection that struck me as being odd.

But no doubt Geoffrey Archer will be eager to get his name on the list or perhaps David Irving, just in case they get tired of building casinos and turn to writers to get rid of some public money.

I’m a little concerned about Sir Arthur and the banjo playing however. I always thought he was a spiritualist.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Not in my View

A combination of a heavy workload and a dash of ‘flu have kept me from keeping my beady eye upon world events for the past few days. However, I spotted, rather in the manner that an old hunter feels that a tiger is creeping up behind him by the hot breath on the back of his neck, that Microsoft had unveiled its new Vista system to a breathless world. Well, some of it’s breathless, I suppose, but not me.

A feeling of dread and apprehension always strikes me when I hear that William Gates is making another raid on our piggy bank and is about to recruit the world’s largest Research and Development team, i.e. his customers, to turn the inevitable pig’s ear into a technological silk purse.

My worst fears were confirmed when I got an E-Mail from my internet provider, Orange, blithely informing me that, if I was considering going in for this latest and greatest development in computer technology, most my bits and pieces weren’t going to work and that I would need to ‘re-configure’ them. They would assist. I would only have to spend a week or two downloading the new drivers etc.

I’m sure many will be delighted with Vista. Apparently you can do almost everything with it other than laundry and that may be an add-in option for all I know. And if you want to play games, download movies and music plus all those other weird ideas, jolly good luck to you.

But for those of us who use a computer as a business tool, it is a total waste of money. Like those handy ‘all-in-one’ contrivances that do a great many things but none of them particularly well. It’s a dog playing the piano – he doesn’t play very well but you’re just amazed he does it at all.

Out of interest I went through all the junk that came with my Windows XP Professional (!) version and found that I made use of, at best, some 5% of the bundled odds and sods that cluttered it up. It consumes more disc space that you would believe for no return whatsoever. Vista, I guarantee, will take up more.

Microsoft are a wonderful marketing operation and, for those who don’t care but just want the ‘all-in-one’ handy tool for their computer needs, it is the easy option- if your hardware can take the strain, and no doubt computer manufacturers are rubbing their hands at the thought of the sales of new equipment just to handle Vista.

If the operating system is better than XP, well and good, but that’s all I want. But there’s no simple version available.

Some years ago I experimented with Linux, in those days a quirky and challenging operating system. Once I had it configured, it ran brilliantly but there were a limited number of programmes available. But that was then and this is now.

‘Now’ means I have Linux running in parallel with my Windows XP from which I have been able to dump all the useless stuff – just retaining the operating system for the few programmes that require it.

Everything else runs under Linux, faster and more securely, and there are more than enough programmes available to suit any business user.

That’s why the horizons opened up by Vista have no charm for me.

Sorry, Bill.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Luck of the Irish

Every nation has its own special jokes directed at other nations and their perceived foibles or defects. The French have Belgian jokes, the Poles, in the days of the Iron Curtain, had Russian jokes and the Russians had Polish jokes. East Germans had no jokes since they had nothing to laugh about in those days.

And, for many years, a prime target for the British were the Irish, those of the Republic bit of that emerald isle.

The potato eating Paddies were a staple diet for comics, including some of their own, such as the inimitable Dave Allen.

But now it seems that the laugh may be on the British.

For whilst the British government has been fiddling during the conflagration of their citizens freedom and the encroachment of their civil liberties, the government of the Irish Republic has gone about the business for which they were elected, namely, running the country. This revolutionary idea, which does not seem to have occurred to the present incumbents of Westminster, has resulted in Ireland becoming one of the most sort after locations in Europe, both for business and for residence.

For a nation that has suffered so much over the years, this is very much a turn up for the book, in betting parlance.

The popular (amongst the English) image of the Guinness quaffing Irish navvy with mud on his boots has conveniently overlooked the enormous contribution made to English literature by that race. Without the efforts of Elizabeth Ashbridge, George Bernard Shaw, Edmund Burke, Richard Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, James Joyce, Bram Stoker, C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Swift, Frank O’Connor, Oscar Wilde or William Butler Yeats, English literature would have been greatly impoverished, yet many fail to recognise these and many others as being Irish authors.

Now the per capita income of the Irish exceeds that of the British, companies are encouraged by beneficial tax concessions to set up business in the Republic and, whilst these developments may result in some loss of the pleasantly relaxing lifestyle there, it can only result in an upturn in the degree of national pride, something clearly lacking in the day to day affairs of their neighbour.

Becoming a fully fledged member of the European Union has hardly dampened their prospects, as opponents of British membership always claim will be the result of such an alliance, and does indeed seem to be an integral part of their growing success.

It is significant that the most successful short haul airline in Britain today is totally Irish owned and operated.

Fast racehorses have long been one of Ireland’s best known exports.

It seems they may be winning this race by a head.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Selective History

The other day I swore a mighty oath that I would not read the London papers since they were too depressing. Well, it wasn’t really a mighty oath, more one of those every day, run of the mill sort of affairs and, naturally, I soon forgot it.

Another error on my part, since it is impossible to mistake, if the media is to be believed, that the mother country is in free-fall without a safety net in sight, if one excepts the verbal hot air cushion of Mr. John Reid.

I have always believed that the British should campaign to have self-denigration included as an Olympic sport. It would give them every chance of a gold, I’m certain, and an edict by the Minister for Education has reinforced this.

For now, schools have been instructed to teach the history of the British slave trade and its part in the growth of the Empire. Actually, I thought history had been abolished from the school curriculum, but once again it seems I was wrong.

It is, I suppose, part of the ‘multi-cultural’ obsession with the present government. It infers that, as well as inventing the steam engine, the railway, the cavity magnetron and penicillin, Britain invented slavery.

Mr. Johnson, he of the ministerial portfolio in question, might also suggest that students be asked to take a look at Greek, Roman, Egyptian history to say nothing of Portuguese, Spanish and a smattering of Aztec, to get a more rounded view of the history of slavery.

And however reprehensible the subject of the British slave trade might appear, it had nothing to do with government nor with empire building. It was a purely commercial arrangement between the big businessmen of England, who needed a supply of cheap labour for their overseas enterprises, and the big businessman of Africa, who found that by trading their fellow beings, they could make a healthy living out of the business and who did so without scruple.

I lived for many years in the West Indies and count as my friends a good many of the descendants of former slaves. Indeed, my wife is a direct descendant of one such family.

Those who were involved with the slave trade were not building an empire, they were building their personal fortunes, rather in the manner of the present government, it seems.

Mr. Johnson said: "This is about ensuring young people understand what it means to be British today. I want them to think critically about ethnicity, religion and race and assess our modern-day history through the lens of our recent past."

Well, Mr. Johnson, it might be better to concentrate on glancing through the lens of the immediate past, that of the administration of which he is a member and to tell the schools to teach history as a subject, not as a sound bite provided by a spin doctor.

Edward Gibbon took a good many years to write ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.’ A future Gibbon will have a much easier task, since he need concentrate only on the years of the Blair administration to write his ‘Decline and Fall.’

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Hard Labour

Sidney Sheldon, who died yesterday, was one of the most prolific and successful novelists of his time. His books might not have been everyone’s cup of tea (they certainly weren’t mine) but his skill was undeniable.

Translated into 51 languages, he sold a whopping 300,000,000 copies of what were often disparagingly referred to as ‘pot-boilers.’

But he was a diligent craftsman at his trade and well deserved his success. Less well-known were his contributions to the film and television media.

After failing to get a number of his short stories published, he contemplated suicide, a feeling often shared my many as they regard their collection of rejection slips. His father talked him out of it and he got himself a job as an usher in a cinema. Being forced to watch repeatedly some of the offerings, he decided that he could do better and turned his hand to that most difficult of all written media, screenplay writing.

The difficulties don’t become apparent until you try it for yourself. I know, I’ve tried!

The problem is that unlike a book, which is a one man band affair, a movie or television programme are more like a 124 man band affair.

A playwright concerns himself with dialogue, a few stage directions and appeasing the director’s ego.

In film making, dependent at the stage that the writer is involved, it becomes more like the rowdy board meeting of a desperate company trying to stave off bankruptcy. It takes a remarkably determined author to emerge unscathed.

But Sidney did – and some of his work, if hardly in the style of Ibsen – became as well-known as his later novels. His early movies were practically invisible Grade B efforts but latterly he wrote and co-authored some far more substantial efforts, the movie of ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ being one of the more successful. On television, ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ was a lightweight but thoroughly enjoyable series.

But any prospective and aspiring author should take note that his success did not come by sitting around awaiting for inspiration to strike. Even up to the last years of his life he regularly put in a nine hour working day.

It’s perspiration, not inspiration, that turns out best-sellers.