Saturday, March 24, 2007

Flight Safety

This weekend I'm off once more to Livingstone on Thames, or, as we used to call it, London.
Naturally, I shall be travelling by the British national airline, Ryanair.
The flying bit works just fine. It's the preliminaries that I and a good many others find distressing.
It starts at the check-in desk.
"Did you pack your own bag, sir."
"I beg your pardon?"
"I said no, I did not pack my own bag. I'm a rotten packer and I prefer to delegate the matter to butlers, batmen or, if all else fails, wives."
There usually follows a long pause and one day no doubt I shall be carried off and locked up. But the point is that I am telling the truth.
Any self-respecting terrorist who has got up to page four in his manual, knows that the correct answer to the question is "yes," when he will be cheerfully waved on board.
Further down the security assembly line, there will be an octogenarian lady having her handbag rifled. Vials of what look to me like nitro-glycerine - very handy for making bangs - are being tenderly placed in plastic bags for reasons that totally escape me. However, it is a relief to see that they take her nail clippers away. When you have a spare minute, I suggest you take a look at the International Civil Aeronautical Organisation's statistics on the incidence of aircraft hi-jackings in which nail clippers have been used.
At Stansted they exhibit an enthusiasm for shoes that would make Imelda Marcos envious and have set up a separate machine for looking at them. So far they have found none of the exploding variety but I suppose, like archaeologists, they live in hope.
But now, you will be relieved to hear, I come to the nub, crux or the point of all this.
On my forays I use a video camera to record interviews with my clients. This is an expensive piece of kit and I am reluctant to hand it over to the professional baggage-smashers at the airport. Therefore I take on as hand baggage. Since the metal carrying case is a bit bulky I put the camera, battery, charger, cables, microphone etc. in an old laptop case.
On placing it on the scanner belt, the head scannerist enquires: "Laptop. sir?" "No, video camera." "Very good," says he and away we go.
Had I been carrying a laptop, I would have had to unearth it, open it up and switch it on. We would listen to the merry Microsoft jingle and all would be well.
Now my video camera is not only worth about five times the value of a laptop but contains at least as many electronic bits and pieces. Once I caught a glimpse of it going through the scanner. On the screen it looked like the thing they exploded at Los Alamos, wires everywhere. But no one has ever asked to see it. Perhaps it's because it doesn't play a tune.
Puzzled by this, last time I was passing through Stansted, I enquired of the chappie running the machine.
"Don't ask me," he said. "We're just told to look at laptops."


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Budget Day

No nation on this earth makes as much fuss over their budget as do the British. It may be that no other nation's Minister of Finance possesses such a tatty red briefcase. Come to think of it, not many of us do and, if we did, we would have given it to the kids to take their sandwiches to school.
Ever since press photography came to be invented, we have been treated to pictures of the chancellor du jour, outside Number Eleven, holding up this icon of office with an enigmatic smile upon his face. Prior to that, no doubt the artist from the Illustrated London News was there to do a quick sketch. Since it is neither original nor informative, I wonder how it makes the front page every time.
But it seems to be regarded a bit like Derby Day, although the odds of picking a winner are clearly less in your favour.
As for the budget itself, this is such a predictable event in terms of its reception: cheers from the government benches; boos from the other lot followed by reams of analysis by the media, that it's a wonder anybody bothers to watch. Deep down, you know that whatever it looks like superficially, you're not going to come out of it any better off.
Many nations elect Finance Ministers who have some slight grasp of the subject but the British, who love amateurs, seem to pick them out with a pin.
Winston Churchill at one time fulfilled the function and, whatever his other qualities were, adding up was not one of them. His own finances were perpetually in a parlous condition and at one time he had to be bailed out by friends in order to keep his country house.
But Chancellors have a great advantage over the rest of us. If you or I ran our fiscal affairs the way governments do, they would have to re-open the Fleet Prison and probably the Marshalsea as well. But, on finding a huge fiscal hole at the end of the government rainbow, chancellors can always rely on it being filled in by the taxpayer.
But it does seem a little careless to place the financial hopes, fears and dreams of a nation into one old briefcase.
"Mr. Speaker, Honourable Members, Ladies and Gentlemen, I came here today to present my budget to you. Unfortunately, I seem to have left it on the number seventeen bus."


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Olympic Gold

It seems likely that, in The Guinness Book of World Cock-ups, the Millennium Dome will have to yield pride of place to the new Olympic Stadium in London's garden spot, Stratford, E 15.
Tessa Jowell, the Minister of Culture, in announcing with some pride that the project was now vying for a spot as the worst job of quantity surveying the world had ever seen, said that on the opening day we would all be proud of the achievement.
I somehow doubt it.
Predicting a while back that the job would involve further cost overruns, I hate to say I told you so, but, I told you so. And her announcement that this was now the final figure, and I forget for the moment how many billion we're at now, is certain government-speak for "it'll be a lot more before it's over."
Over here, the mayor of Paris, who is viewing the fiasco through a high powered telescope mounted atop Sacre Coeur, must be thanking his lucky etoiles that he didn't get the job.
The French are immensely tolerant of sleaze and backhanding but far less so of sheer incompetence. Ministers here always have a sneaking suspicion that all the tumbrils and guillotines were not dismantled after the revolution, merely tucked away for use in any emergency, such as the government deciding to spend the taxpayers money on an obviously cockamanie scheme - such as an Olympic stadium.
Around the globe are scattered the decaying remnants of many similar schemes, none of which have proved to be of any value to the community after the sweaty athletes have left. Quite what value the structure in the East End's swamp land will have for the benighted citizens whose funds have paid for it, remains to be seen.
The government's patronage of the arts is indisputable. After all, Tony Blair took time off from his busy schedule denying things, to patronise the theatre. He went to see that well known artwork, The Sound of Music. And the Minister for Culture, in the same breath as telling the populace just how much for the new stadium she was going to get into their knickers for by raiding their piggy banks (actually, she didn't say that for fear of alienating the Muslim community), quietly decreased the grant to the British Library by 7%.
But perhaps such misjudgements are to be expected from the Honourable Minister. After all, it was she who failed to understand the mortgage agreement that she signed with her former husband, who is now attempting to explain matters to an Italian court.


Monday, March 19, 2007

First Class

Travelling First Class has always struck me as being an extravagance and to have a touch of the egotistical about it. Mind you, I've hardly ever been able to afford it which might account for my liverish view of the thing. Once in a while, a client has insisted that I travel to them in style and, as one not wishing to give offence, I have given in gracefully and been able to sneer at all those peasants cooped up in cattle class. If it's coming out of my own pocket, however, I have a whole different view.
At one time I used to travel First Class on the TGV express here in France. The price difference was not too great and I figured I would be mixing with a better class of Frenchmen, you know, less Gauloise and garlic. One day, finding there were no seats available in First, I booked among the sans culottes and could barely notice the difference.
As trains in Britain rank in the luxury class for price whatever class you choose, I now go by coach - and National Express doesn't have a First Class section.
I used to make a good many trans-atlantic flights up until the US Immigration and Home Security made it an indictable offence to enter their country, and only on a couple of occasions, travelled there in style. As I refuse to eat airline food, agreeing with the late Sir Freddie Laker that it's tough enough running a restaurant on the ground and that trying to do it at 35,000 feet is ludicrous, I simply slumbered my way across the pond. If you're a six-footer, the extra leg room of First must be welcome but as I was designed on the compact style, it doesn't bother me - and the premium you had to pay was enormous.
But now, British Airways have given their Coach Class a major boost with their policy that, if they happen to have an unfortunate death among their passengers, they prop them up in the First Class section, presumably as a matter of respect.
Recently a passenger on the way to India, awoke to find his travelling companion was a now very dead lady. As he had paid some 3000 smackers for his seat, he protested to the airline that he felt that some discount should be made for his acting as an uninvited pall bearer. British Airways, with their customary charm, told him to get over it!
Dying is an extreme way to get an upgrade, although I suppose that, on checking in, you could mention that you felt like death and see if they took the hint.
But, should you be among those who can afford to travel First on BA, if the passenger in the next seat is a little unresponsive, I suggest you check their pulse.
After all, it might be the captain.


Friday, March 16, 2007

Write Ho!

All of us have this overwhelming desire to get it of our chest, to leap into print with a pithy comment on something that seems, momentarily perhaps, of immense importance. It is why there are "Blogs" such as this. The suppressed author in us revels at the chance of telling the world just what we think of them.
In bygone years, the opportunity was primarily left to retired military men who would compose their letters to the press, usually The Times, in the seclusion of their study over a glass or two of port, signing themselves, "Disgusted, Hove (Col. Retd.)" or "Appalled, A Patriot (former RN)."
The papers were understandably pretty choosy about just which letters they saw fit to publish, an admirably sensible policy. But now discretion has been thrown to the winds and, by courtesy of the dubious blessing of the internet, almost every paper gives the world, and possibly his wife, the opportunity to have their dig at their columnists.
Usually headed "Have Your Say" or some similarly encouraging motto, it offers you the chance of telling the writer just what a load of rubbish he has just written.
Now some of these comments are tolerably well phrased and the arguments effectively presented. But a good many of them are nowhere near the standard we had come to expect from Disgusted, Hove, and are merely boring recitals of a poorly expressed personal opinion.
Sometimes, when the subject has been an especially emotive one of great importance to our society, such as the wedding of a pseudo celebrity, the letters run into boring yards of typespace.
This is a brilliant device on the part of the newspaper magnates, since it enables them to fill up the white space they have left over, after having compiled all the garbage that's fit to print, with even more piffle - and it's all for free.
I suppose it serves as a social safety valve, preventing those who have thus got it off their chest from going out and mugging old ladies or indulging in any other of the national sports that the population beguile themselves with, but it makes for pretty boring reading.
As a precaution, I think I'll remove the little "Comment" function at the bottom of this piece. You can't be too careful.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

A Royal Slight

The English and, to a lesser extent the Scots, Welsh and Irish, have a penchant for trashing their more notable and valuable institutions in a way that leaves the more patriotic nations of the world aghast.
A popular target is now the British Empire, which, in the manner of omelettes, was not made without breaking a few eggs. It was, by any global standards, a magnificent achievement and those nations, now independent from it, might reflect on just where they might be now had the Brits not arrived on their doorstep.
And in the true spirit of denigration, for which Britain would certainly retain the gold, the Channel Four television station, well known for its cerebral programming, saw fit to launch an attack on the heir presumptive to the British throne.
"The Meddling Prince" was the title but "The Meddling Channel" might have been more appropriate. The puerile and fatuous criticisms of an outspoken member of the Royal family must have given much offence, not only to that family, but also, I suspect, to many viewers who still have some patriotic spirit within them.
Like his father, Prince Charles is outspoken and opinionated, a virtue which shines like a beacon when one considers the pusillanimous chunterings of the government.
Here in France, we have a ranting and raving right wing loony, M. Le Pen. But he has made a statement that rings so true with the French. Of France, he says "Love it - or leave it." It's a pity that the disaffected in Britain don't take his advice (including the staff of Channel Four) although I would add a caveat - please don't come here! If you're dissatisfied at home, you'll probably be even worse off somewhere else.
I suspect that Channel Four have inadvertently given the Royal image a considerable boost with their poorly constructed and researched programme which was in execrable taste. Prince Charles has made a far more positive contribution to Britain and the British than have any of the Gang of Three who currently rule.
Anyone who could view the antics at the birthday party of one of those honoured by them with a title, I refer, of course, to that old poofter, Elton John, can see just how far down the slippery slope of standards the nation has fallen. Seeing him cavorting in a pseudo military uniform gave me a queasy feeling and I wondered by what yardstick honours were being dished out by the present government. By any standards of musicology, he is an indifferent and not especially talented performer. But to a star-struck Prime Minister, I suppose his popularity with the public ranks high.
To attack a member of the Royal Family, as did Channel Four, is not only disgraceful, it is cowardly. It's a pity the "Off with his Head Act" has been repealed.
During the abdication crisis in the thirties, the media agreed to a moratorium on news of the affair in order respect the Monarch's privacy.
How things have changed!

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Back on Track?

Those you that have travelled by train in the UK recently will be pleased to hear that the government, whose interest in railroads I though had ended with privatisation, are getting back into the game. Now they are having 1000 new coaches built, presumably out of public funds, which they will then lease back to the multivarious train operators who will then tack these coaches onto the end of their trains so you won't have to stand in the toilet any more.
I can't believe that I'm alone in thinking this is a weird strategy. No doubt the operators in question will receive an enforcement letter :

"Dear Sirs,
Please be advised that you must attach the enclosed carriage (under separate cover as it was too large for the Post Office to handle) on to the 8:35 from Victoria to Bognor Regis.
Hoping this finds you as it leaves me at present,
Patricia Hewitt (If you'll just let me finish, I'm standing in for the Minister of Transport whose train got cancelled this morning)"

Since most of the train companies appear to be making a healthy profit, why they can't buy their own rolling stock is a bit of a moot point. They have been quick enough to remove toilets to allow for more people, thereby boosting sales, since standing passengers pay exactly the same as those smug looking ones who got on ahead of you and grabbed all the seats. A few more coaches would surely not have harmed their bottom line too much.
And train travel is hardly much of a joy now. For a start, finding a timetable is an internet adventure with the demise of Bradshaw. I recently tried to look up the services offered by the websites of two rail companies. Both demanded that I "registered" on their site and selected a password, presumably to prevent any dastard from buying a ticket on their over-priced service for me. I then had to specify details of my journey on their planner. Bradshaw could have given me this information without asking any questions but that's too simple a solution in this age of "information technology."
In desperation, I turned to the government site which mercifully required me neither to register nor to select a password. From them I gleaned all the information I needed, times, fares etc. which enabled me to present myself at the station at the appropriate time to catch my train.
It was cancelled.
Which is exactly the reason that I do most of my travelling in Britain by coach, where I am assured of a seat at a realistic price. So far, they have never failed me.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Pride and Prejudice

The news that the favourite author of the British reading public turns out to be Miss Jane Austen has caused a number of eyebrows to be uplifted, not the least those of Miss Austen herself, had she been around, I suspect.
Polls, other than of the parrot variety, have never struck me as being worth the clipboards they're written on. Never have I been asked 'what is your favourite book?' 'who is your favourite author?' nor 'what part did Prince Philip play in assassinating Princess Di?'
The world has never sought my opinion on these weighty matters, although this may be my fault because, on sighting a clipboard bearing pollster wearing a fixed, evangelical smile, I run away. I will accept that the favourite British meal is now Tikka Masala since the evidence is there on the pavements of British cities late on a Saturday night.
But Jane Austen? I feel that the poll takers are possibly not pursuing their calling with sufficient diligence. On receiving the answer, rather than just ticking the box on the questionnaire (presumably Jane Austen comes above Dan Brown in the alphabet, for instance), there should be more probing questions asked. Have they actually read the books - or did they get the name from the TV series? Somehow, in many cases, I suspect the latter and, although this may have contributed to an upsurge in book sales, I bet not a lot of them were read. I think many are too proud to answer truthfully and too prejudiced by watching the television series.
Publishers lap this up, printing stuff out of copyright has an obvious fiscal advantage over having to pay a measly royalty to the author, and the potted versions on television are very well done. But Austen's books have never managed to seize my imagination and I wonder if any publisher, on receiving one of her MS today, would be tempted to put their money on it? Her first book was self-published but this was in an age when so doing carried no stigma in the book world and was a fairly common practice.
Austen devotees eulogise her wit but, for the life of me, I can't find much of it in her books and the picture she paints of her life and times is a mere pastiche where the characters move as gracefully as in a minuet - and about as excitingly. It's an unreal world she inhabits.
They are, however, undoubtedly very well written and not to be lightly dismissed. It's just that I find it hard to believe that most British readers rush to grab a copy of her work in preference to others.
Maybe I'll dust of the volumes I have and give her another go - I might be missing something. I'm not too proud or too prejudiced.


Friday, March 09, 2007

Another Lot of Hot Air

Just when I thought the publishing world had come to its senses, they go and throw a dollop of cash at a government spin-doctor who, if there were any justice in this world, should have been behind bars for his actions.
Alastair Campbell, whose book, entitled, I believe, The Blair Years, has been given an astronomical advance by his publisher. He can, I am sure, produce a racy volume without the aid of a ghost writer. Since most of his previous work has been fictional, it will be interesting to see on which shelves the booksellers align the volumes of his work.
If Mr. Campbell could be relied upon to tell the truth, it might prove to be of considerably greater interest than the chunterings of Mr. Blunkett and I am sure that his publisher, Random House, will be keeping their fingers crossed in hopes that it will achieve a few more sales than of that boring compendium.
But, with Mr. Campbell's previous record, it seems unlikely that much truth will prevail. Once a spin doctor, always a spin doctor - only this time the spin will be no doubt geared to making his previous actions a little more creditable.
And his options are now more limited. His former paymaster is on the way out and the heir apparent is not too favourably inclined toward him. So what's a guy to do? Grab a cool million for spilling the beans is what you have to do.
And his qualifications are probably as good as you get in this field which no doubt accounts for the interest displayed by Random House. After all, a man whose first essay into the literary world was a bit of pornograhy for Forum magazine is a man to be reckoned with.
Somehow, I feel that Hans Christian Andersen, to say nothing of Enid Blyton, may be in for serious competition here.
What worries me most is that, amongst his other talents, he is an accomplished player of the bagpipes.
Surely an ill-wind that no-one blows good.


Thursday, March 08, 2007

Out with the Old

"You're still using that old thing......?"
"Well, yes, actually, I am. You see it works just fine."
"You need a flat screen."
"I do? Why?"
"Well, it', flat."
"Oh. Does it work any better?"
"Well, no. But it's flat."
"Ah, I see - just flat?"
"You'll have more room on your desk."
"But I don't need any. It gets cluttered up enough as it is."
"Well, everyone has one nowadays."
And that seems to be the prevailing argument of the day - everyone has one.
My monitor is, I admit, a bit on the cumbersome side but it's served me well for many years and it would be churlish to cast it aside for no better reason than that everyone has a flat screen nowadays. It's not a true statement any way - I don't.
With advancing years I suppose one gets a bit touchy about this casting aside of old things simply because some advertising campaign tells you to.
One of my cellphones gets derisive looks when I produce it in London, where mobile phones seem to be a fashion statement. It does appear to be steam driven but it works fine for its intended purpose - that of making phone calls. I had to buy it secondhand to avoid having all the other nonsense foisted upon me but I never anticipated the pitying looks I would receive.
Had I lived a few million years ago I expect it would have been the same story.
"Can you believe it? Old OP riding around on that ancient Diplodocus. Doesn't he know that the Stegosaurus is all the rage now?"
And they would go back to their caves and chuckle over my lack of fashion consciousness.
So, until my monitor goes to that graveyard in the sky, I'll stick with it. Then I'll have to buy a flat screen, I suppose.
Unless anyone has an old monitor they want get rid of. There must be plenty of them about.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Truth or Fiction?

'Information Technology' the computer crowd call it, as though they invented it. But, of course, information technology began when some neolithic artist drew a painting on the wall of his cave or scratched a memo in the dirt outside his abode. Progress continued until we got to the stage of books and encyclopedias where progess virtually ceased. The only advance made thereafter was to make it more instantly available by computer.
And, as with so many things 'instant,' quality has ceased to be a factor.
Apart from mis-information concerning weapons of mass destruction and the probity of various governments disseminated by the media via IT, it now appears that the cornucopia of instant knowledge on the Internet, Wikipedia, is not all that you might think.
Personally, I think that enrolling Joe Blows from around the world to write an encyclopedia is an act of desperation if not insanity. Even that acknowledged authority, Encyclopedia Britannica, whose staff include some of the world's finest academics, has been known to make the odd boo-boo. And that pompous old geezer, Dr. Johnson, got a few things wrong in his first dictionary of English when he strayed into the realms of information rather than orthography.
So it's hardly surprising to find that one of Wikipedia's most prolific correspondents turns out to be, not the Phd. qualified academician that he had claimed, but some young HillBilly from that well known seat of learning, Kentucky.
On occasion, I had turned to Wikipedia for information but became suspicious of many of the entries which, when not superficial and apparently plagiarised from other sources, were occasionally decidedly dubious.
I'm sure that many of the providers to the service are admirably qualified but the presence of a few rogues is sufficient to discredit it as a facility for serious research.
Quite unbelievably, the young man from Kentucky had supplied his material using an assumed name and the compilers of Wikipedia had never bothered to check out his credentials.
But, of course, maybe they had looked him up on Wikipedia where he could have posted his own version of his curriculum vitae.
A set of secondhand encyclopedias might be more expensive - but you stand a better chance of getting the right information. Wikipedia should really carry a government health warning and I'm sure that the Romans would have put a 'Caveat Emptor' pop-up on the website.


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Ghostly Week

It as, I am sure you are all well aware, the Week of the Ghost Writer. Well, it is in the United States of America apparently. What this entails I'm not quite certain but I suppose we can all come out of the closet and bask in an unusual degree of public acclamation for a few days. Frankly, I would have been unaware of this pulse-racing event had it not been for an article in a London newspaper that mentioned the fact. The writer seemed to regard our profession as being just marginally up from that of the oldest, and I can only imagine that he has never been asked to write for anyone else and was therefore suffering from a severe dose of sour grapes.
But he did assume, as do many, that ghost writing only consists of writing books for those who are unable or unwilling to do so for themselves. This is a direct result of so many pseudo celebrities and politicians, pseudo and otherwise, leaping into print without having to do anything more strenuous than cashing the obscenely large advance royalty cheques that publishers like to shower them with. Or did, until recently, when the reading public came to their senses and stopped buying the rubbish.
Time was when politicians were intelligent enough to be able to write their own speeches. Franklin D. Roosevelt was clearly smart enough to be able to but, inexplicably, handed the job over to a team of writers. One of these, the late J.K. Galbraith, an economist and later a fine author in his own right, commented that he and his fellow scribes would listen to FDR's 'Fireside Chats' just to see which of their phrases he had incorporated.
Later politicians seem to lack the assistance of men as gifted as Galbraith and Co., judging from the results to be heard from government spokesmen today.
In my opinion, a true ghost writer should remain wraith-like and preferably anonymous, and should be regarded more as an aid to authorship rather than a substitution. The book, speech or article should mirror the style of the author, not that of the contracted writer, who is merely an intermediary between thought and print, in many ways comparable to the typewriter or word processor, albeit perhaps a little more talented.
This approach, is, I realise, never going to get me anywhere in the literary hall of fame and there will never be a line of people waiting for me to sign a book. It is, however, a very pleasant occupation for one who likes to write.
The correspondent who wrote the article somewhat snidely remarked that all ghost writers have an unfinished novel tucked away somewhere, the inference being that they are insufficiently talented to ever finish it and thus have to prostitute their writing talents to earn a crust of bread.
I think his perception of the business is totally skewed.
So let's all celebrate The Week of the Ghost Writer. It is an American invention, the purpose of which escapes me for the moment, but let's crack open a bottle of bubbly anyway.
Now I've got a book to finish.


Sunday, March 04, 2007

Seaside Fun

If there is a more depressing rail journey in the world other than the one on a wet and miserable day through the outer reaches of East London followed by the mudflats of Essex, I'd like to hear about it. Mind you, I would have to go and see for myself since, frankly, I wouldn't have thought it possible.
My destination was Southend. Leiff Erickson, on finding a piece of land consisting largely of rock, snow and ice, in an attempt to encourage settlers, named it Greenland, thereby perpetrating the first real estate fraud in history.
The good burghers of Southend followed suit by appending "on Sea" to their Victorian town. They were fortunate inasmuch as most of the clientele came by the newly built railway from the East End of London and were thus unlikely to have seen much in the way of sea to be able to draw any unfortunate parallels.
And Southend tried, they really did. They built the longest pier in the world in an attempt to find some sea, without much luck but giving you the unique opportunity to walk a mile over gooey mud without getting your shoes dirty.
Winkles, whelks and cockles love the place and feel right at home here. Not coming in that category, I was expecting the worst and the name of the hotel into which I had been booked did nothing to cheer me. "The Camelia" sounded to me very much in the style of "Bide a Wee," "Dun Roamin" and similar names that the proprietors of the little Bed and Breakfast places like to indulge in.
But the hotel stood out like a diamond in a pile of coke, to paraphrase P.G. Wodehouse. And all at once, Southend took on an altogether different hue. Some dirty looking water came sloshing up over the mud, some seagulls, drafted in to give it the appearance of a seaside town, squawked away, the rain cheesed it and the sun came out.
I attribute this improvement entirely to the management of the hotel and I am happy to be able to say that I am actually looking forward to my next visit.
I was there researching for a book and also to see if it was true what I had heard of Essex girls. The first I accomplished easily enough but for the second I can only say that, from a brief visual and aural assessment, I suspect that all the rumours are true.
The other invaluable piece of information I gathered from my observation during the train ride was that the inhabitants have adopted a uniquely simple way of dealing with their rubbish. They dump it in the railway cutting.
But I do recommend "The Camelia." As the old music hall song went:
"Oh, I do like to be beside the seaside."
Especially when the tide's in.