Monday, April 30, 2007

Writer's Block

A common misconception is that “Writer’s Block” is the greatest obstacle to an author’s productivity. It is completely untrue. Whilst it may be used as an excuse for goofing off, I don’t think many really suffer from it. It’s just a psychosomatic pseudo disease and a jolly good reason for knocking off work.
I’ve been writing all my life (well, from the age of seven or so) and can honestly say that the malady has never struck. However, I have suffered agonies from two other literary diseases – to whit, bone idleness and one which, with the advent of global warming is becoming an increasingly serious problem, sunshine.
Now I don’t care who it is, nobody wants to sit hunched over a desk when the sun is shining and, regrettably, this month here in France as in much of Europe we have had days of brilliant sunshine, warm temperatures and absolutely no incentive to stay indoors. Productivity has slumped and the much maligned but revered French 35 hour week has had some serious competition in this establishment recently.
We even appear to be in a storm free zone. Meteo France has regularly predicted all sorts of meteorological disasters but the thunderclouds merely skirt us and unload on our neighbouring towns, occasionally visiting during the night.
This does, of course, encourage the grass and other similar stuff to grow like crazy and therefore much of my time is devoted to supervising the cutting and weeding that’s necessary to keep Chez Nous from disappearing into an embryo Amazonian rain forest.
It’s tiring work this supervision, although the gin and tonic does have a restorative effect with the tinkle of ice and lemon in the glass, but it does give me time to reflect on what I will write when we do get a rainy day.
But now I see that my wife has finished cutting the grass and is putting the mower away. I wonder what’s for dinner?
So you see that it’s not just writer’s block that’s the problem, it’s a more complex issue.
Perhaps it will rain tomorrow.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Legacy of Blair

You can’t blame bloke for trying, I suppose, but the soon-not-to-be Prime Minister of Britain’s self-congratulatory eulogy on his achievements that he produced recently must have stuck in the throat of almost every citizen of that benighted realm.
Had I been eligible, I’m sure that I would have voted for him in his early days. He said and promised all the right things – what was not realised was that they were merely the sugared and considered words of his profession – that of a barrister.
Barristers are professionally required to lie on behalf of their clients and clearly this is a habit that is hard to break once out of the courtroom. Also, their only command experience is likely to be the occasional attention of a judge, advocate or possibly a supermarket trolley, in which case they will undoubtedly be supervised by their spouse. If she also happens to be a barrister, Heaven help us!
The London Daily Telegraph published the main points of his “hymn to him” along with a point-for-specious-point rebuttal.
In the spirit of fair play, they then allowed him to write an article defending himself, but I suppose this was to fill in some blank columns that day.
It is hard for anyone to believe that the average Briton, other than the traders in the city with their obscenely inflated bonuses, can consider themselves better off after ten years of New Labour. Certainly, on my forays to the UK, I have not found a single one. I’m sure the evidence of the CCTV cameras will back me up in this.
Apart from the serious attack of myopia evident in his outlook, it rather appears that he considers the British people, whom he was supposed to serve, to be foolish dupes. Well, he got it a bit wrong over Iraq, he admits, but not all that wrong. And yes, he was a bit adrift on the crime issue, but it’s all better now.
And on the health issue, if you’ll just let him finish (Thank you Patricia), all that money was well spent, or so he’s been told, although he hasn’t had to visit a hospital recently himself.
And it wasn’t his fault that the arts had to cough up something for the Olympic Stadium. He’s a patron, after all, having taken his family to see “The Sound of Music.”
And as for honours, well, that just shows how much he appreciates the arts and Elton John has a knighthood to prove it. Can David Beckham be far behind?
The former great leaders of labour, the Attlees, Bevins et al, men of probity and ideals, must be shaking their heavenly heads
So, as he rides of into what most of us hope is the oblivion of his house in Connaught Square, (how many million?????), just what will his legacy be?
The epitaph on Sir Christopher Wren’s tombstone seems apposite.
Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice ("Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you").
It’s not a pretty sight.


Friday, April 27, 2007

A Load of Old Rubbish

Before the sun finally set on the British Empire, to solve any major problem it was enough to send a gun boat. Now it appears that they can’t even send a garbage truck on a regular basis.
The nation is transfixed, so it seems, by the Draconian ruling that "thy trash shall only be collected every two weeks. During the interim, thou shalt wallow in muck like the beasts of the field." (Book of Blair: Chap.23.)
Of course, much of the problem is acerbated by a life style that is, in almost every respect, a throwaway society. This habit of binning everything even extends to education, health services and, of course, a decent railway system but is most heavily influenced by supermarkets, where, shopping till they’re dropping, patrons are encouraged to buy things they neither want nor need. And these are invariably sealed in impermeable (even by many humans) plastic wrapping that must cost more than the product itself, rarely bio-degradable.
Leftover food is nowadays a no-no for the kitchen recycling that was practised in earlier years. It is just chucked out to fester, awaiting the second coming – of the garbage waggon.
Some bright spark suggested that, to avoid the inconvenience of possibly creating another great stink, it should be kept in the freezer. This glibly, and incorrectly, assumes that everyone has such a device. Personally, I prefer my food to be fresh, not preserved in the manner of a Siberian mammoth. Even less tasteful when you know the garbage has been lovingly preserved alongside.
A sale of plastic carrier bags excited much attention in Britain the other day. These have been in use on the continent for years, a convenient replacement for the wicker baskets that housewives used in days of yore to cart their groceries from the shop. Our throwaway supermarket bags are all bio-degradable and our trash gets picked up on a weekly basis, in our case, organised by the mayor of our town, not by edict from Paris.
But the British, ever resourceful, have found a way. As I pointed out some time ago, if you are lucky enough to live backing on to a railway, you can just chuck your rubbish over the fence on to the embankment.
Of course, it might just be a veiled comment on their opinion of the railway system.


Thursday, April 26, 2007

Talk MUST be Cheap!

Riding atop a big red London omnibus, as I did the other day, gives you a wonderful overview of the life and times of Londoners.
I should explain that, on my visits to the great metrollops (no, auntie, that’s not a typo – just a very old joke), I use public transport as much as I can. It’s part of a game I have with London Transport, a.k.a. Ken Livingstone, who sell me a seven day travel card for £45, giving me unlimited access to all their routes. The object of the competition is to spend in excess of the £45 on travel, in which case I’ve won! It follows, therefore, that I have a tendency to jump on any passing bus in order to accumulate points, so to speak.
On this occasion I had espied a big red thingy placarded “Canning Town.” My mother came from that Elysian area in the East End of London and took a perverse pride in it. Curious as to what had become of the place I hopped aboard.
It was from my eyrie on the top deck that I observed the mysterious and sacred ritual of the Londoner as they climbed the stairs.
In one hand they clutched their votive offering to the God of London Transport, called, obscurely, an Oyster card. This, I noted, they placed lovingly on a little yellow pad alongside the driver, when their donation would be recorded by the almighty.
In their other hand, they clutched a religious icon which, from time to time, they would place to their ear, no doubt to hear messages of inspiration from above. Frequently they would mutter invocations into the thing, apparently speaking in tongues.
Barely one ascended the stairs to the upper deck without performing this religious rite whilst en route, leading me to think that this might be a suitable new sport for the London Olympics. Londoners would win, hands down.
Even whilst seated, they continued to consult the oracle and, from what I could see from my vantage point, most of the pedestrian populace were doing the same thing as they walked along.
My question is – what on earth were they all talking about?
A planet has now been discovered which might support life as we know it. Let’s hope they’re sufficiently advanced to be able to listen in to the conversations. It should effectively prevent them from ever wanting to invade.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Taste of the Sub-Continent

It’s long been a puzzle to me. Just what did the British do for restaurants before the Chinese and Indians arrived? I know there were some top flight places around – Simpsons in the Strand, Delmonicos and Bertorellis spring to mind, but I mean for the average Joe to nosh at. The Italians brought the exotic pastas to the place but not until the aforementioned got into the act was it by any means food for the masses.
And, with a very edible range of menus, they perform brilliantly, adapting their ethnic recipes to the local tastes and serving it at prices which are strangely reasonable, given the excesses of other eateries. Which leads me on to that great misunderstanding concerning Indian food – that it consists of meat slathered with a “curry” sauce and dished up with rice.
The very derivation of the word “curry” is in some doubt but it most certainly is not Indian but a British invention derived from local pronounciations. It is, in any case, only a sauce or gravy and is not applicable to every dish. A glance at the map of the Indian sub-continent makes it plain that there is going to be a vast range of different food on offer from the various regions. Unfortunately, few of the Indian restaurants dare to test the taste buds of their patrons by serving some of their most traditional dishes and, preferring to play safe, they invented the “Balti,” literally “bucket,” a great commercial success perhaps, but not much like Indian food. Neither is the top seller, Tikka Masala.
My father worked for the Indian Government all his life and so I was exposed to the real food from an early age. As befits an area of the size of India, it is of immense variety.
Camellia Panjabi has almost single handedly brought great Indian food to the attention of the general public. Her London restaurants are among the few where one can get the true taste of India but her biggest contribution has been through her book, “Great Curries of India.”
This marvellous book, rather more than a recipe book, should be in the kitchen of everyone who is serious about finding out about this cuisine.
As is the way of the world, she suffered numerous rejections from publishers who said there was no market for it.
Last week, sales topped the million mark.
So who’s for some Jordaloo Boti? It’s lamb with apricots and is delicious. But I bet you won’t find it at your local Balti house.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Happy Birthday, Will.

“This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

Well, it’s Will’s birthday and I thought I could get away with plagiarising him a bit – he’s out of copyright and it’s St. George’s Day.
I believe when he wrote the above he was thinking of Skegness where he had just spent a long weekend with Anne Hathaway and, as you all know, any weekend in Skegness seems like a long one. Bored with scrabble, he wrote the lines that have inspired the British for years. If only they could still be applied to the Britain I visited last week.
Mind you, I felt honoured by the number of times I was photographed by the CCTV cameras, knowing that my every move was being monitored by some faceless operator to ensure that I was behaving myself. Even the bus drivers could watch me closely as I rode on the top deck, courtesy of modern technology. It seems to have been of little avail in the fight against vandalism since the windows of several of those I rode on had been scratched and defaced. I suppose it was unreasonable to have him stop the bus to prevent it and, with the level of violence all around, he was probably wise to ignore it.
But the most surprising thing I noted during my visit was the incredible interest that the media were exhibiting in our French primary elections. I’m not too sure that the man in the street, that well known eponymous character, has quite the same burning curiosity.
It seems that in France we are depressed, despondent and desperate for a change. Our economy is on the skids and the whole nation is sunk in gloom and despondency – or so the papers would like you to believe.
But from talking to the citizens of that sceptr’d or septic isle, it would seem that it is Britain and Britons who are desperate for a change. Like most developed nations, the French have a problem with immigration. For some reason, many immigrants worldwide refuse to adopt the mores of their host country, insist on imposing their own way of life and complain loudly and bitterly that they are being victimised when the indigenous peoples object to seeing their own lifestyle being eroded.
It seems likely that our new president will be M. Sarkozy and it is hard to fault his much criticised description of the rioting Parisian immigrants as “rabble.” He was perfectly correct and it is the sort of stance appreciated by many. Even the not much loved communist, M. Le Pen, was received warmly when he said “France, love it – or leave it.”
And on St. George’s Day, it would seem to me that the British could do with something of the same spirit, the spirit that Shakespeare encapsulated in those lines from Richard II.
As a French commentator pointed out, not many French buy houses in Britain and it’s not only due to the weather.
I suppose the reason the media love to criticise France is that when you have a government as corrupt as the British seem to have got themselves at present, it’s a relief to look elsewhere. But our trains run on time and for a realistic fare, our health system is wonderfully good, law and order still prevails – and the Ryanair flights to France are stuffed full of Brits who have either purchased houses here or are intending to do so.
Happy St. George’s Day.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

How Much?

With a new client for a book, there’s always a bit of preliminary skirmishing before we get to the interesting question of “how much?”
And, unfortunately, there’s no easy answer to this very relevant matter.
Any artistic endeavour is pretty hard to boil down into hard numbers. Take Leonardo da Vinci, for instance.
“Hi Leo, what’s up? Oh, designing a flying machine? Boy, you really crack us up with your nutty ideas. But listen, we’re doing refurb job on the Sistine Chapel and Popy felt that the ceiling could do with a bit of a paint job, you know, a few cherubims and seraphims like. How’re you fixed?
Yeah, yeah, we’ll lay on the scaffolding – and the backache pills, ha, ha. No, that was a joke, I thought you had a sense of humour after that flying machine gag. Too tough to estimate? OK, I’ll give Mike a call and see if he can come up with a number.”
And, as they say, the rest is history and Michelangelo got the job. Leonardo’s problem, apart from not liking to work flat on his back, was that he had no idea how long the job would take.
It’s the same problem a ghost writer has. The writing part is easy – it’s the thinking that takes the time.
There’s no set formula and the best I can come up with is to place an approximate figure as a “not to exceed” price and hope for the best. Looking at the websites of some of my competitors, I think many have an inflated sense of their own abilities judging by the prices they quote.
Much depends upon the amount of research that may be required. The more the subject can input into the project, the lower the price. Writing the life story of a celebrity is one thing, they are probably incoherent and unable or unwilling to contribute very much, and there will probably be ample cash to compensate. But most of those who require professional writing assistance will be on a much more slender budget.
So until there is a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Ghost Writers, I’ll just have to muddle along.
I wonder how much Michelangelo got for doing that ceiling? It took him four years!

Saturday, April 14, 2007

A Gentleman Flyer

Squadron Leader Neville Duke, who died yesterday, surely exemplified all that was best about the British of an earlier era and pointed up all that is wrong with the present one. For he was of much the same age when he first flew a sortie over occupied France in his Spitfire as were the hooligans who aided and abetted Miss Rachael Bell in the trashing of her parent’s house.
Neville went on to become one of the top scoring fighter aces of the war. Subsequently, he went to the Empire Test Pilot’s School at Boscombe Down and flew many sorties investigating the problems of supersonic flight.
Test piloting, in spite of its popularly glamorous image, is exacting and sometimes hazardous work, but work that suited his calm personality perfectly.
Joining Hawker, he flew their Hunter through the sound barrier and claimed the world air speed record for Great Britain. This was soon eclipsed by the US in their rocket propelled Bell X1 and by the North American Sabre, although this was only achieved in a shallow dive.
His cool courage was recognised by Winston Churchill who sent him a message following the tragic loss of his friend, John Derry, whose aircraft had broken up over the crowd at a Farnborough Air Show whilst breaking the sound barrier. As soon as the runway had been cleared of debris, Neville took off in his Hunter and dazzled the crowd with an aerobatic display, culminating in a supersonic run over the airfield. He said later it was a tribute to his friend.
I met him often in later life when our flight paths crossed at Ronalsdway Airport in the Isle of Man. At the time he was flying a De Havilland Dove for the Dowty Rotol Company. In those halcyon days, transient pilots were welcome to climb the stairs to the control tower where the staff would brew up mugs of tea for us, rather as though we were superannuated cabbies.
One day, a light aircraft fluttered in from a local flying club. The young student pilot clumped his way upstairs to have his logbook endorsed, a step toward his Private Pilots Licence. Neville, who was dressed rather in the style of an off-duty gentleman farmer, enquired how his flight had been. The lad eagerly explained all the ins and outs of the aviation business in great detail to which Neville listened attentively, without revealing his identity.
After the embryo pilot had left I asked him why he hadn’t mentioned who he was.
“Well, you can’t, can you? It’s a bit embarrassing,” he said.
Neville Duke was a highly decorated war hero, impeccable test pilot and gentleman, self-effacing and modest. He wrote several books, all of which are unassuming records of his life as a pilot, in sharp contrast to the egotistical auto-biography churned out by his American contemporary, Chuck Yeager.
For his long and dedicated service to his country, he received the OBE. Of course, had he just been a member of a lucky but indifferent cricket team, he could have picked up an MBE with far less effort.
And I wonder how many of those who attended Miss Bell’s “rave” will do as much for their country?
When marines go into action carrying their iPod, it makes you wonder.

There will now be a slight intermission as I’m off to the The London Book Fair next week. Back soon.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Midas Touch

In 1557, an English farmer got into the poetry writing business and published “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry.” It was one of the first self-help books and contained many valuable tips that have since been plagiarized by the home making magazines to fill their pages.
But the one precept of his that most people remember, yet fail to follow, is the oft-quoted “A fool and his money are soon parted.”
I first became aware of this human failing when, as a young man, I had my attention drawn to it in myself by my bank manager, but my youthful indiscretions were as nothing compared to the excesses of some mortals. These I discovered when I spent some years in what is usually referred to as the money management business. Here I found another phrase that was apposite: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” For so many wish to confound the laws of economics by investing, although the word is hardly appropriate, in enterprises that will produce returns far beyond the dreams of avarice and that are most certainly beyond the realms of commonsense.
Often referred to as High Yield Investment Programmes, HYIP’s, these are now heavily promoted by courtesy of the Internet, where the promoters can distance themselves from the rabble behind a pleasing degree of anonymity, ensuring their safety from the baying crowds when the scheme, named after a certain Mr. Ponzi, goes belly up. Mr. Ponzi, whose success was inhibited by lack of computer technology in his day, was able to promise enormous returns by paying off his early contributors with the funds being received from late comers. Inevitably, at some point, demand exceeds supply and, there being no such thing as perpetual motion, the merry-go-round breaks down.
My first encounter with such schemes came when I was researching a book on the fraudulent First International Bank of Grenada. Here the claims were of generating a modest 100% plus return for the lucky subscribers, most of whom lost their entire investment.
But FIBG were too modest, for my next book was on the subject of an investment plan that would produce 2% per trading day – or so the sponsors claimed. Clearly Warren Buffet, whose best years had produced a miserable 35% or so needed to brush up his ideas.
Unfortunately, as it was with Mr. Ponzi’s scheme, the modus operandi was the same – there were no investments and the money came from the other suckers.
Google HYIP and you will come up with a hundred and more similar “opportunities,” some of which will offer more than 2% per day return, tactfully declining to provide any details of their methods and certainly not offering anything in the way of audited accounts. The naivety of thinking that an anonymous creator of a website can miraculously outperform professional investment managers is staggering.
Thomas Tusser was right. And he proved his point, since in his will he was found to be the owner of a reasonably substantial land holding, although probably not bringing him 2% per day.

“One Big Fib,” the story of the fraudulent First International Bank of Grenada and “Just Numbers on a Screen,” the rise and fall of the Pure Investor (PIPS) investment programme, are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble etc.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Dicken's London

Now that the pantomime season has opened in Britain with leading roles played by the Ministry of Defence, the Marines and with Ms. Faye Turney as the Good and rather large Fairy, I thought I might mention another entertainment coming your way shortly.
No, it’s not that old favourite, the Olympic Stadium fiasco, but a brand new “Theme Park” soon to open in the nether reaches of the southern Thames estuary, at Chatham to be precise.
I don’t know about you but whenever I hear the word “theme” coupled with “park,” both perfectly inoffensive words in their own right, I get a queasy feeling.
It’s the feeling you get when you find that your favourite local has been turned overnight into a “theme” pub.
And this is no common or garden type of park since it is to be devoted to the theme of Charles Dickens.
Chatham used to build fine ships for the navy in the days when Britain had a fine navy but has fallen on tough times in recent years. The naval dockyards are a sort of theme park on their own, occasionally doubling as film sets, and the new attraction will be within a bosun whistle’s blow.
“Dicken’s London” is costing a mind blowing 64 million smackeroos, although the figure seems to differ from day to day, and purports to be a reconstruction of the bits of London featured in his work. Naturally, these are more gruesome and sinister bits – Mr. Turveydrop’s academy is unlikely to feature – and can hardly be expected to be a well balanced view of London of the period, or for that matter, Dickens.
Dickens was one of the most imaginative writers of his day, one of his more descriptive pieces being his reason for dumping his wife in favour of his
Mistress, but I can’t see a theme park doing much to encourage the reading of his books. The tour apparently includes what is promoted as the longest boat ride in any such establishment, a little confusing, since the only boat sequence I can recall is in “Our Mutual Friend” where Gaffer Hexham used one to fish bodies from the Thames.
As with all such developments, much play is given to re-invigorating a depressed area. Dickens himself could be pretty depressing at times as it was a popular Victorian notion to include a few maudlin scenes in every book and the locals would probably be far less depressed if the 64 million were to be shared amongst them.
The reason for locating the park in the Chatham and Rochester area is that Dickens once lived there and frequently mentioned both places in his books.
But even the ebullient Mr. Pickwick could find little to please him in the region and Dickens appears to have hated it.
I wonder if he’ll enjoy his park?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Great Stink

The peals, or more likely the gusts of laughter from Teheran must have been echoing in the ears of the denizens of Whitehall this week. Now the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy can join with the Home Office in being demonstrably “not fit for purpose.”
Queen Victoria would hardly have been amused, indeed cross, to hear that there had been a suggestion by some faceless bureaucrat that the Iranian captives were deserving of her coveted medal “For Valour.” Perhaps his heart had been softened by the sound of one of the defenders of the shore sobbing in his Iranian cell.
However, it seems the Revolutionary Guard are not totally fearless. Even they could not face Ms. Turney without her knickers.
Thus it was with some relief this weekend that I turned to a book on a more epic period for Britain. Judith Flanders’ "The Victorian House" does ample justice to the era although her title does not do justice to her book. Although she uses the peg of the rooms of a house on which to hang her voluminous material, she has written a stunning social history of the time. It has always been difficult for historians to encompass Victoriana in one volume. In the early days, Mr. Pickwick and his friends were travelling by stagecoach. Shortly after the end, the Wright Brothers were warming up their engines at Kittyhawk, an impossible time span to cover adequately.
Future historians will have a similar problem when they come to deal with the Second Elizabethan period.
But Ms. Flanders has done wonderfully well and her book is an admirable complement to A.N. Wilson’s “The Victorians” and J.B. Priestley’s “Victoria’s Heyday.”
If she dwells somewhat upon drains and plumbing, it’s because the subject was one of ongoing concern to Victorians. In 1858 a combination of a hot summer and a lack of sewers caused “The Great Stink” to arise from the turgid waters of The Thames. Providentially, the House of Commons sat alongside and the problem was sufficiently apparent that the honourable members got off their collective behinds and did something about it, instituting the modern sewerage system of today. If the House had been located at, say, Highgate, probably nothing would have been done.
Which only goes to show that, if you want to get the British government to do something, you have to get right up their nose.
Which is what the President of Iran seems to have done so successfully.

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Saturday, April 07, 2007


It’s Easter, which in days of yore was celebrated as a religious festival. Now, of course, it is more likely to be regarded as the Feast of the Patron Saint of the Holy Chocolate Egg, St. Cadbury.
Although it’s been many years since I last drove in Britain, I recall that this weekend was also usually regarded as the opening of the ‘Road Works’ and ‘Diversions’ season. Thousands would come to pay homage to the Guild of Road Repairers, sometimes contemplating for hours in exhaust fumed ecstasy, while the authorities added to their joy by installing temporary traffic lights, programmed to spend 90% of their time on red.
The old A 38 road to the West Country was a popular venue for this ceremony and the sighting of a member of the Guild actually at work was an important and memorable event, since most of them were also taking the weekend off.
So this weekend I thought I would join many of the rest of you and have a break from my usual labour and concentrate on my personal project, compiling a book that will illustrate man’s inhumanity to man. Recent additions to the list have included the Big Brother television show, David and Victoria Beckham, CCTV cameras and Patricia Hewitt. Runners up have been the British Rail system and Ken Livingstone. Gordon Brown stumbled at the first fence but may still have a chance although the odds are lengthening. There are a good many other worthy candidates under consideration, of course.
My understanding was that an internet site, YouTube, was the most popular one on the planet and, since no-one has ever gone wrong underestimating the public’s taste, I thought it might prove to be a likely addition to my list of runners.
It was.
It is a generally acknowledged fact in the international community that my mental clockwork is in serious need of winding in order to allow me to appreciate modern trends and fashions. But who on earth could be bothered to waste time looking at YouTube is completely beyond me.
Most of the contributions are both incomprehensible and out of focus. Those that aren’t would appear to be in serious breach of the Copyright Act. The Government of Thailand has banned the site from their internet providers, ostensibly on the grounds that a contribution has insulted their Monarch. I believe that to be an excuse. More likely they banned it as being an insult to the intelligence of their citizens.
Perhaps I missed something worthwhile but it would seem that YouTube can only appeal to those with the attention span of a retarded hamster. Sadly, I suppose, therein lies the secret of its success.
Personally, I would recommend going and looking at some roadworks for more cerebral entertainment.
Or even trying to recall what Easter was originally all about.
Have a great weekend.


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Big Brother is Watching You!

Anyone living in Britain today who has not read George Orwell’s book, 1984, should hurry down to their local library and grab a copy before it is banned by the government. It will give them a chilling insight into their future. No, come to think of it, it will give them an even more chilling insight into their present.
The latest in a long line of cockamamie schemes introduced by the government is that of the talking CCTV camera.
This was accurately forecast by George in his book, written in the 1940’s. How we all laughed at the ludicrous account of the activities of Big Brother (no, auntie, not the TV programme) and how we all laughed, even harder, when 1984 came and went with barely a ripple on our privacy. He was further off with his dates than Nostradamus, we said.
But he was only out by fifty years or so, a mere sound bite in time.
I doubt that there is any nation in the world so accustomed to accepting, without demur, the intrusions of government into their personal lives.
If CCTV were the answer to crime, that would be different. But they can only record the incident, not prevent it. And I’m sure the thug, caught on camera, will respond favourably to a disembodied voice telling him to reconsider his action. It would be nice to know that the camera also has a microphone in order that the thug’s response can be recorded and passed along to Mr. Reid. I doubt that it will be "Sorry, I promise not to do it again."
And exactly what sort of instructions are going to be passed along to the public by way of this innovation? For years the railway companies have tried and failed to make any announcements over their public address system comprehensible. Or are the government going to introduce highly trained professionals, perhaps experienced BBC newsreaders who have been summarily dumped by the corporation, simply because they have passed their arbitrarily imposed sell-by date?
And who will be the personnel who have the power to oversee us as we step off the pavement in spite of the little red man being illuminated? Will our fellow pedestrians shun us as we are publicly chastised for this reprehensible action?
Fortunately, it seems that, for once, commonsense has prevailed and there will not be any cameras concealed in Baked Bean tins to catch the desperado abusing their wheely-bins.
One small step for man and and his freedom, I suppose.
But isn't it about time something more was done to curb this nannying?
How about a good old fashioned revolution.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Lessons of History

You would think that setting up a museum on a subject of recent history would be a bit of a doddle. Right? Well, apparently not.
Doing some research for a book, I stumbled across a website for The National Atomic Museum, located not far from where they first exploded an A-Bomb, in Albuquerque. This is shortly to be re-named, rather grandly, the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.
Unfortunately, they seemed to have forgotten a good deal of the history of the development of nuclear fission. Understandably, national pride leads them to concentrate on the more patriotic aspects of the Manhattan Project but on their website there are some remarkable omissions and downright blatant errors.
Some mention is made of the early German, French and British research into the principles of atomic fission but there is no mention of the UK Tube Alloys programme which was the first stage in the development of a practical weapon. More alarmingly, much space is given to Albert Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt, urging him to take a look at the possibilities of nuclear fission. The museum infers that this was what kicked off the Manhattan Project and the development of the bomb.
In fact, Einstein, who had no knowledge or even much interest in nuclear fission, wrote the letter at the insistence of an émigré scientist working on the British project. Leo Szilard, something of an idealist, felt that the information he and his British and American colleagues had acquired, needed more official weight behind them and Einstein, with his popular image, would be the man to do it.
On having the matter explained to him, Einstein responded “I never thought of that!”
Subsequently, the British handed all their research over to America, where it would not only be safer from enemy action but could also draw upon the greater resources of the United States, still at peace. Initially, the name remained Tube Alloys. Scientists know no national borders and the development had been an international project for many years.
It is a pity that a museum which touts itself as being an educational establishment can’t get it right. An American author, Richard Rhodes, does so in style in his book, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb.” Apparently the curator of the National Atomic Museum hasn’t read it.
Researching history that took place a few hundred years ago is tricky, but is less encumbered by nationalistic spin. But given that we are told that this is the information age, it should not be difficult to provide a balanced picture of the facts concerning developments that have taken place, certainly within living memory.
Then, of course, few realize, as they turn on their micro-waves, that they owe this convenient bit of kit to a little device called a cavity magnetron. This was developed in wartime Britain to generate high frequency radio waves for radar sets. The prototype was shipped across the Atlantic for production in the United States, who were given, free and clear, the rights to develop and later to market it. I wonder if it features in any museums in America?
Had the British not done so (they gave it in partial exchange for the Lease-Lend programme), just imagine what it might have done for the economy!

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Dumb and Dumber

“You use old-fashioned words,” they protested. ‘They’ were a bunch of what passes for intelligentsia at the BBC nowadays. Apparently, on reading one of my pieces, they had had to go to the dictionary to check on a few words. I suppose I should be grateful, (and surprised), that they had a dictionary but perhaps they borrowed one from the cleaning lady.
I’m not really sure what constitutes an old-fashioned word but as long as it doesn’t resemble the new ones that crop up in text messages and E-Mails, I’m happy to be accused of using them.
We had an E-Mail from our teenage daughter at college in America and, once Bletchley Park have run it through one of their machines, I’m sure it will prove to be an interesting missive.
There is a move afoot to remove dead languages from the school curriculum and I suppose they mean Latin and Greek, although on present form they might just as well include English. When I was at school I admit that I wasn’t too keen, reasoning that my chances of bumping into Herodotus or Horace on the street for a chat were slim. Aristophanes might have been interesting, however, – he was the W.S. Gilbert of his time and seems to have been a fun guy. And talking of Gilbert, he’d have had a tough time if he’d stuck to the new-speak of today’s youngsters. It’s difficult to write catchy lyrics in text.
English has, or had until recently, the widest vocabulary of any language and why it should be necessary to allow words which are, to use a phrase that will live in infamy, ‘fit for purpose,’ lapse, simply because the education system can’t spell them, beats me. The subtleties of language are one of the joys of reading good literature but I suppose today’s generation doesn’t do subtle.
And, if you want to see just how dumbed down (a modern term, at last!) the English language has become, just listen to a government speech, in which the paucity of originality will leave you breathless.
But then, of course, Dan Brown seems to have done pretty well out of it.


Sunday, April 01, 2007

The Nelson Touch

In London last week, it was difficult not to get the impression that the British lion is a bit on the mangy side. Contemplating on the success of Mr. Livingstone’s congestion charge as I skipped nimbly between the proliferation of Chelsea Tractors on the streets of the upper reaches of society, the main event on the front pages was the snaffling of a boatload of British marines from under the nose of their ship by the Iranians.
Presumably the captain of their vessel had the telescope to his blind eye and the Dean of St. Pauls did a quick check on the grave of Nelson to make sure it had not turned over. Hopefully, neither he, Drake nor Winston Churchill have heard about it.
The President of Iran is no doubt eyeing the road leading to Teheran with a wary eye lest the British Bulldog, in the shape of Margaret Beckett in her caravan, is espied coming on a rescue mission, AK7 akimbo. He is probably comforted by the fact that, as Minister of Agriculture, she was unable to supervise the distribution of funds to farmers so is probably not losing too much sleep.
There was a lot of boo-hooing on the front pages of the tabloids over the fact that one of the marines was likely to be unable to get home for her three year old daughter’s birthday. Perhaps this might clue some in to the failings of British society. If her mother prefers to be driving a rubber boat filled with marines in preference to taking care of her child, it strikes me that herein lies the root of the family problems that beset the nation. One birthday is not important but a mother’s continuing presence surely is.
And, whilst one can feel sorry for the personnel and their families, they are service men and women on active duty. It seems the shadow of the Health and Safety people looms large over the armed forces.
In that case, what are all those others doing in Iraq?