Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Book of Blair

Bibliophiles who revel in juicy political memoirs were bracing themselves, and their bookshelves, for the imminent arrival of Alistair Campbell’s 330,000 word volume, The Blair Years. But it seems they may be a might disappointed, both in size and in juiciness.
For Tony “I’m a straight kind of guy” Blair and the delightful Cherie have jibbed at the thought of having their unlaundered nether garments being washed in public by their former PR man.
And, disappointingly, Campbell has agreed to excise what most of us would have thought were the best bits. I suppose he’s got enough words left over to justify his advance from the publishers, but it must be putting a dent in the prospective readership and visions of another Blunkett flop must be dancing in their heads.
Mind you, most of us could have summed up the Blair years in half a dozen well chosen words and Campbell must have used all his skills, honed at Forum magazine and The Daily Mirror to fill the void.
Possibly the Blairs had a justifiable concern. After all, Campbell was a “spin doctor,” someone who is paid to lie on behalf of his employer, and separating truth from fiction might well have been a difficult task for his readers.
Not all famous people have been so reticent concerning their personal lives.
When the eminent biographer, Philip Ziegler, was commissioned to write Lord Louis Mountbatten’s life story, he enquired, delicately, what should he leave out? It was a fair question. Mountbatten had himself declared that he and Edwina had spent their lives “hopping in and out of other people’s beds.”
He instructed Ziegler to put it all in, “warts and all!”
But the Blairs are sensitive about even the slightest pimple appearing on their powdered visage.
Mr. Campbell has shown an unexpectedly generous streak. He agreed not to publish his memoirs until Mr. Blair had left office. True to his word, he waited twelve days.
I suppose this was to give the Blairs time to flee the country and hole up in one of the luxurious resorts of their showbiz friends. This morning, I read that Tony Blair has been made a Paramount Chief of Sierra Leone. Perhaps he’ll be tempted to stay - and let Alastair Campbell put all the best bits back into his book.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Downhill All the Way!

Once in a while I read a piece of news that brings shivers down the spine.
No, this time it’s not the failure to introduce Hips in a timely fashion. Frankly, I don’t believe that prospective house purchasers need the assistance of a government approved inspector to tell them that the property has double glazing.
No, this time it’s a failure on the part of that department whose purpose in life is to turn all Brits into namby pamby, mollycoddled Nintendo players. To whit, the Department of Elf’nSafety.
No doubt, being a wet holiday weekend, the staff were huddled up indoors playing Scrabble, a suitably non-hazardous sport, and one that undoubtedly has their seal of approval. It is, however, facing a serious threat to its future, owing to the inability of many school leavers to be able to spell. No doubt, there will be a text version available shortly.
It seems inconceivable that a well run government department, not headed by Miss Patricia Hewitt, could have failed to have representatives on hand at Cooper’s Hill, Gloucestershire, to prevent the recurrence of that insidious sport, the annual Cheese Rolling.
Incredibly, the government, so enthusiastic at removing all traces of history and tradition from the land, have allowed this hazardous event to continue, unchecked. It’s been here since Roman times and thus, under their mandate, is long past its sell by date.
And, Heavens above, someone might get a scratch or bruise. Unthinkable.
And then, with the campaign to stop children eating cheese, who knows? The event might trigger a run on the Double Gloucester in the school tuck shop.
One can only think that Rugby may be on the list of banned sports in the near future.
Mind you, in view of the English loss to South Africa the other day, that might not be such a bad idea!


Saturday, May 26, 2007

Saving Great Britain

As there appears to be nobody on the bridge of the good ship SS Great Britain at the moment, I though I would step into the breach. I know you will all be grateful for this and, since I have not lived in that sceptr’d isle for a good many years, I have a more objective view of things.
In the London press I read a good deal of unsolicited advice to those of us in Europe on how to arrange matters better in our own country and it is only fair that we in turn should offer our assistance.
I don’t propose moving in to Number Ten Downing Street. It always looked a depressing back alley to me so I shall continue to administer the country from my cottage in rural France. But before you complain that I have not been democratically elected, look what happened the last time you tried it. Talk about a cockup!
Having representation for the people is OK I suppose, but all they do in the House of Commons is argue a lot. It’s not the way to get things done, so they’ll have to go. I doubt whether any of you will notice.
As for the House of Lords, it’s a great tourist gimmick, but W.S. Gilbert got it right when he wrote they “do nothing in particular and do it rather well.
In fact, surveying the whole of the arrangements you have for governing the country, about the only group I can see that has any commonsense is the Royal family. I shall arrange to have a chat with the Queen at the earliest opportunity and, over tea and cucumber sandwiches, I’m sure we can fix the place up for you between us.
Now for the main points of my manifesto.

This can be improved at a stroke by allowing teachers to smack recalcitrant kids around the earhole. This has been proven in years gone by to result in a tremendous improvement in academic performance. Attention deficit will be a thing of the past. Tree climbing will become mandatory. University entrants will be expected to be able to read, write and do simple arithmetic. Degrees in basket weaving etc. will be abolished.
As with education, allowing the Bobby on the beat to take appropriate action on the spot would prove efficacious and save him wasting time filling in forms at the station. They should be equipped with especially heavy boots for maximum effect.
National Service will be re-introduced immediately. This will relieve the police force of a large part of the problem mentioned above and will instill some sort of idea of behaviour and discipline into the youth of the nation. Drill sergeants will be given absolute carte blanche to handle this. Problem solved.
The railways should be re-nationalised immediately and all the steam engines re-commissioned since they don’t break down as often and are unaffected by leaves on the line and miniscule deposits of snow. The British Rail sandwich will be re-introduced in order to counter obesity, since no one will want to eat them.
On the roads, owners of all Chelsea tractors and similar vehicles will have them confiscated and replaced with Reliant Robins. Congestion will thus be avoided since many of them won’t start in the morning. The confiscated vehicles will be sold in Dubai.
Air travel will be organised by a team of consultants from Aeroflot. This will prevent any overcrowding at terminals in the future and contribute to my green policy by reducing the willingness of travellers to subject themselves to even more abuse than they suffer at present from BAA.
There will be none.
The public execution of Patricia Hewitt will take place on Tower Hill as soon as we can get an appointment. Many junior doctors are expected to be in attendance. Things should improve thereafter.
Foreign Policy.
As there has been none for the past ten years, almost anything I do will be an improvement. I don’t like caravan holidays, so there’s a plus for you.
Consumer Affairs.
All Tescos will be demolished.

I think you will agree that this is an outstanding programme that will put the “Great” back into Great Britain. I count upon your support.


Friday, May 25, 2007

Mein Gott, Mein Kampf!

News that a publisher in Poland had been contemplating a re-issue of Mein Kampf, came as something of a surprise. News that the Austrian authorities objected on the grounds that they held the copyright, was even more surprising.
I would have thought that the prospective readership of Polish Neo Nazis was barely into double figures and that the Austrians would have done better to disclaim all knowledge of the book and its author. A. Hitler Esq., hardly ranks among that nation’s favourite sons, one would have thought.
Now when A.H. was the bloke running the rather over-optimistically named 1000 year Reich, it was a runaway best seller. Even the least bookish house would have one on display in case the Gestapo should come a-calling. It was sold rather on the same basis as a Prudential insurance policy.
Keen students of history will no doubt be aware that, on the death of A.H., sales took a bit of a dive and I would have thought that market research should have warned the Polish chap that it was going to be a tough sell.
It was, in any case, a tough read. My father had a copy and, although he could usually manage the most abstruse works, he gave up before the halfway mark. I never got much past the first chapter initially although, years later, I did drag myself through to the end. It was a sovereign remedy for insomnia, I found.
As you know, much of it was dictated to his mate, Rudolph Hess, while they were holed up in the Landsberg slammer and this soul-searing experience might account for Hess’s later touch of madness, culminating in his madcap venture when he flew to England, thereby becoming one of Britain’s most celebrated illegal immigrants. His timing was off. Had he waited fifty years or so, he could have collected a pension, social benefits and probably a nice little council house from the State.
Mein Kampf should have been of great interest to historians if only because few of the Nazi hierarchy put pen to paper, only Joseph Goebbels recording much of any interest. Most of the others were too busy beating up on Jews and Gypsies to pay much attention to literary stuff, until later, when it might come in handy at any War Crimes trial.
Hitler’s only other recorded thoughts, other than his speeches, come from transcripts of his “table talk,” secretly recorded by Bormann, and these are only interesting inasmuch as they demonstrate just what a shallow thinker he was.
But I’m still puzzling why the Austrian authorities should be preserving the copyright. Surely they can’t be expecting a second coming?

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Willam Gets an ASBO

I was delighted to see that the UK’s Minister for Education has had the good commonsense to suggest that boys (and I suppose, he included girls in this) should be encouraged to read by being offered books that actually appeal to them.
Although I’m a bit dubious about the list he suggested, this is only because one man’s Dickens is another man’s Erle Stanley Gardiner and I assume this was his own personal preference. No matter, it’s a jolly sound idea.
Students must have been put off reading for ever by being force fed so-called Classics at an age when they would have meant nothing to them. Force feeding only produces enlarged livers, as a good many French geese will testify, and I know of few geese who have become avid readers as a result.
Shakespeare is a common victim of this early over exposure and the result is usually an antipathy toward any of the bard’s work.
Mr. Johnson came from a home without books and clearly understands the deprivation this can cause. It is a fact that education should begin in the home but nowadays it is all too easy for parents to abrogate their responsibilities to the authorities – and then complain that their children have turned into illiterate, TV loving hooligans.
As a child, I was immensely fortunate that, not only did my father have a library, but that I was also allowed unfettered access to it.
But my own personal collection of books included the marvellous series of “Willam” by Richmal Crompton. Miss Crompton was an unmarried lady who modelled her William on a nephew. She seems to have known more about the workings of a boy’s mind that a host of qualified psychiatrists and her books, and there are dozens of them, are still a delight. It’s a pity that Mr. Johnson didn’t see fit to include them in his list.
I still have a few volumes and had a breeze through a couple. I now understand why they didn’t make the list.
Under the present rules and regulations of the nanny state, William would have collected an ASBO for almost every episode.
And Mr. and Mrs. Brown would undoubtedly have been up in court on some sort of piffling charge connected with his escapades.
But for anyone who wishes to recall the departed days of innocence, before Big Brother saw fit to interfere with the private lives of its citizens, the William books are a breath of fresh air.
Every member of government should be forced to read them.

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Fond Farewells

Writing an obituary is a depressing business. Not so much on account of any regrets you might have over losing the dear departed but more because convention dictates that one should find something nice to say of them.
Not always easy. And truth tends to have to take a back seat in many cases.
My late cousin was a highly respected Harley Street man. Apart from medicine, his principal interests were women and the turf. In pursuit of the latter (not the former) he got into the business of breeding racehorses and successfully cornered the market in slow ones. Had there been a demand for milk carts at the time, no doubt he would have cleaned up.
As it was, his obituary in The Times extolled his many virtues but, with laudable honesty, concluded “and a marginal judge of horseflesh.”
Obituarists of the late Jerry Falwell would have had a particularly tough time, I feel. Unless one happens to be a member of his mis-named “Moral Majority,” mis-named since it was far from being a majority and probably not very moral to boot, it would be hard to find much to praise. Although, by televangelistic standards, he appears to have kept himself scandal free, this may have been on account of his obeying that most relevant of commandments, the eleventh, “Thou shalt not be found out.”
Since he preached hatred of almost every group in the world who disagreed with him, few had much to say in his favour.
Newspapers routinely have pre-scripted obituaries on hand for emergencies, such as the death of a notable (it saves having to drag the sub-editor in of a weekend) and no doubt they have one prepared for Mr. Mugabe, a notorious tyrant, whose antics have been ignored by the major world powers, so keenly supportive of human rights where they impinge on their own affairs. Zimbabwe has no significance, oil or even Muslim interest and thus atrocities perpetrated there are barely mentioned. Britain, whose former colony it once was, seem totally disinterested in the fate of its former colonialists. Thus I wonder, what will the press have to say of Mr. Mugabe.
Writing of the death of a fellow actress, Bette Davis, that goggle-eyed charmer, once said that one should always find something good to say of the deceased.
She said, “So she’s dead. Good.”

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Man's Best Friend

Soccer lovers will no doubt be distressed to hear that, up until this week, I thought Jose Mourinho was a resort on the Costa del Fish’nChips.
But now I find that we have a deal in common, to whit, a Yorkshire terrier and that, most endearingly, he feels that it is important to him. I suspect his is an upper class pedigree sort whilst ours is a cross, probably with a bull-mastiff. This has given him, Joe not Jose, something of an attitude problem familiar to many with short legs and hairy bodies. He behaves somewhere between a canine version of Robert Mugabe and Mike Tyson. None the less, like Mourinho’s pooch (and, in Africa, Mugabe), he remains well loved.
The problem with Jose’s animal seems to be something to do with Britain’s archaic laws relating to doggy travel. For a nation of supposed dog lovers, they seem strangely at odds with the rest of Europe. So what’s new, you ask?
Here in France, where dog matters are of some importance, the passport takes 21 days to obtain, in Britain, six months.
Friends of ours wished to take their two dogs to Britain for a vacation. Both were micro-chipped and had all the paperwork required in Europe. But British rules said they needed to have injections not more than three days prior to travelling. It was the long holiday weekend here and no vets were going to be open so they explained the position to theirs during the week before.
“Ah, oui,” he says, “Bring them in.” “But you don’t understand, it cannot be more than three days before we travel – and you will be closed.”
“I understand perfectly. We give them the injections – and date the certificate the day of your departure. The British rules are nonsense.”
Peter the Great is alleged to have said “Now I know men, I prefer dogs.” I’m always suspicious of these pithy ‘bon mots.’ Who, for instance, was standing around, notebook in hand, to record his better sayings. But Pete the G., along with Mourinho, and myself are all fellow travellers. We all think dogs are good.
Not so a columnist in The Guardian newspaper recently. He wrote a wordy diatribe concerning their, to him, disgusting habits. Like a good many columnists now in what used to be a decent paper, he was on the outer fringe of stupidity. As with children, it’s the owners, or parents, who are responsible for any of their failings. What one sows, one tends to reap.
Which brings me to Labrador retrievers. I’m told, these are one of the most popular breeds. I can only think that 99.9% of owners have never had one before.
I’ve had several and, whilst accepting that they are lovable, safe with children and jolly good swimmers, they are, perhaps, imbued with more anti-social habits than any other breed. They drool, they will eat, or attempt to eat, anything in sight, their tails can clear a coffee table at one swish and they are determined to convert any non dog lover into a fan by paying them extra special attention, drooling jowls and all.
It’s safe to say that, if you own one, only your true friends will come to visit.
We’ve just acquired one. His name is Barclay and we’re looking forward to a drastic reduction in the number of uninvited guests in the future.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Dear John...........

......I, and many others, will regret your absence. No longer will we have the luxury of such an easy target for our jibes.
But the image of you there, in the House of Commons, slumped like a porcine lump of lard alongside your leader, will be for ever with me. I often wondered – what were you thinking about? Was it of candlelit dinners with Tracy followed by a romp in the ministerial bed, or was it the faint click of wood on wood, as the croquet mallets flailed at Donneywood, while the troops were hearing the click of AK 47’s in Iraq?
Or perhaps you were just ruminating on which of the Jaguars you needed to have polished for tomorrow.
A little further along the front bench we find Miss Hewitt, and, if she’ll just let me finish, I must say her teeth are a credit to the National Health Service, which, as you all know, has improved immeasurably under her aegis. You all know that because she has told you so, repeatedly.
The Foreign Secretary is absent, on a visit to China, which will prevent any major cock-ups in foreign policy for the moment. But soon, it is hoped, she will be trundling her caravan down the dusty road of private life, as far away from Westminster as the Foreign Office can arrange.
And so to the leader of this motley band of brothers and sisters. What of the reputation of the Vicar of St. Albions, as Private Eye like to call him? As he spins himself off into private life, how will he be remembered?
Of course, by the war, stupid!
Whatever he may or may not have achieved during his long tenure at the helm, it is this one terrible error of judgement that brought the good ship Great Britain on to the rocks, acerbating terrorism against his own people and frittering away lives and money on an unwinnable conflict being waged at the behest of his mate, George W. Bush, and against the wishes of a large majority of his own people.
It is this that, to me, is the great failing of his premiership. A failure to realise that he was to act for the people of the country and not follow the leadership of another, however much he may personally have believed that he was in the right.
But perhaps the most extraordinary decision was that of appointing Mr. Prescott as his deputy. The position was only created out of necessity during the Second World War, when, in Churchill’s frequent absences, a leader was required back at home. Clement Attlee filled the post admirably. Although Churchill is alleged to have said of him “a sheep in sheep’s clothing” and “ a modest man – with much to be modest about,” they worked extremely well together. Churchill was sometimes waspish, even about his friends, and could rarely resist a neat turn of phrase but, more than anyone, recognised and appreciated Attlee’s strengths.
What can be said of Mr. Prescott?
Well, many of us will regret his departure. The Blair cabinet gave us, in the cynicism and ridicule business, unparalleled opportunities for us to shy our verbal coconuts against some of the easiest Aunt Sallies ever assembled under one roof.
Somehow, I don’t think Gordon Brown’s lot will be half as much fun.

My book, “Grounds for Divorce,” exploding the myth of the Bush-Blair ‘special relationship’ is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble etc.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Eurovision Song Contest

“Ten million tuned in for Eurovision” claimed the BBC. Wow! And they say that the public has no taste.
I must admit that I have rarely caught more than an accidental glimpse of this moronic performance so I suppose that I am ill qualified to carp about it. But the enduring mystery to me is just what has become of the musicians who used to write memorable songs. And equally, of the singers who sang them.
Tony Bennett was in town the other day, demonstrating at Ronnie Scott’s club just how good songs can be and just how well they can be sung by a professional singer. He’s eighty years old, an age at which most would have hung up their tonsils, but is, apparently, as mellifluous as ever.
He sings songs that are both melodically and harmonically in the same vein as Bach, Beethoven and Borodin. And before anybody says “well, they’re old hat,” I should point out that his rendering of “The Long and Winding Road,” an old Beatles song, is as good as any.
I was fortunate enough to see and hear him at a charity concert in a small town in Ohio. I forget the name of the town and also the charity – but not his performance. After a typically rousing warm-up by the local master of ceremonies, he announced, in strident tones “and now, Mr. Tony Bennett!”
The spotlights illuminated a totally empty stage and a totally baffled MC.
And then Tony Bennett started to sing from a corner of the hall, where he had been leaning nonchalantly on the piano.
He needed neither build-ups nor spotlights. He was there to sing. And when one of his accompanying group, who had been with him since the dawn of time, had a solo spot, he stood there, listening attentively.
Tony Bennett was (and apparently, still is) both an outstanding singer of songs and an outstandingly modest man.
A million miles removed from the tuneless chanting and talentless performers at the Eurovision Song Contest.
I wish I had been there to hear him at Ronnie Scott’s. And I’m glad I wasn’t at the Eurovision Song Contest.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Pre-Nuptial Testing

Diligent readers of this column will no doubt have spotted that I’m not into the latest “have to have” technology.
Years ago, when I was one of those superannuated bus drivers known as airline pilots, we would occasionally run across a GPS installed on the flight deck. Ominously, it would be labelled “Not for Navigational Use,” leading one to wonder just what it was there for. Presumably there had been a hole in the panel and they needed to fill it with something.
It did, however, provide hours of amusement for young First Officers, thereby preventing them from irritating the captain and thus contributed greatly to the safety of the flight.
A young man in Carmarthen must be similarly thanking his luck star for GPS.
Assessing the mental acumen of one’s chosen life (or, nowadays, month’s) partner has always been a tricky business. Asking to check his or her IQ before commitment tends to lead to a certain frostiness developing in the relationship.
A membership of Mensa might be a clue, I suppose, but if proven, would be a deterrent to most.
But the problems associated with this young man’s girlfriend in finding the way to his house, using the GPS system in her car, would seem to have solved the problem for him.
Told by the magic device to follow a certain road, she came upon a gate. Opening it and driving through, she found herself athwart a pair of steel rails, spaced at 4 feet 8.5 inches apart.
Getting out of her car, either to open the gate ahead of her or to close the one behind her, it seems that whilst her brain cells were inactive, her hearing was up to par, for she heard the sound of an approaching train.
Now I’m something of an admirer of the Renault Clio, I drive one myself, but I bet they never tested it being shunted down a railroad track by a train. It seems that it failed the test.
I don’t know the make of the GPS in question but I can only think that it included in its advertising spiel “Completely replaces the human brain.”
I think the young man in Carmarthen very fortunate to have received such an early warning.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Jus Right!

Getting the gravy right is tough enough in an owner run restaurant which is why I have grave gravy reservations about those international chains with branches in London, New York, Singapore and Twisselton in the Dale. How on earth can the chef, who is, after all, the reason a restaurant is good or bad, be in all those places at once?
Of course he isn’t, and therefore your overpriced food comes from the sort of formula used by Marks and Spencer or Sainsburys, who probably do it better anyway.
One such chain is that of Mr. Chow, and it seems that the only thing worse than eating in one of his Chinese restaurants is working in one. For Mr. Chow has a technique for handling his staff that makes Sir Alan Sugar look like Mother Teresa. Now being sued by a former employee for this novel technique, it inspired me to take a look at his website, which I can safely assume was authored by Mr. Chow himself.
Now I’m very fond of good Chinese food but at Mr. Chow’s inflated prices, I think I would lose my appetite. Actually, I lost my appetite just reading his self promotional message before I even got to the price bit.
I’m picking on the poor man but, in truth, few of these chains, often with a name chef at their nominal head, produce anything more than ho-hum food, which is, as you know, a traditional Chinese dish.
In our village, we have one restaurant and each day the owner/chef prepares one lunchtime dish. Not much choice you might say, but it is a dish he knows he can do supremely well. If he fails, his clientele, who pack the place at lunchtime, just won’t go back. Unlike a London or New York “celebrity” restaurant, it’s a place to eat well, not to be seen.
Just before midday, the plat du jour is displayed on a chalkboard propped up in the doorway to entice the local workers who still, thank Heaven, take a leisurely two hour lunch.
Mind you, there’s a bit of dearth of stars of stage screen and television on show there but at 12 Euros for four courses, it would be churlish to complain.
And, unlike Mr. Chow, he seems to have few staff problems. This may be because his staff are his wife and family.
It seems to me that this is the way to run a restaurant.


Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Celebrity Justice Rules!

The world will, I’m sure, join with me in protesting at the miscarriage of American justice that is before us. No, I am not referring to Guantanamo Bay nor to the extradition of three British bankers. I am talking of the gross misunderstanding that has led to Paris Hilton, socialite, celebrity no-body and runner-up in the lowest IQ stakes, being sentenced to a brief spell in the slammer.
Surely, to any legal mind it is obvious that “banned from operating a motor vehicle for 36 months” does not apply to those driving Bentleys. Nor to those who have a bit of a hereditary interest in a major hotel chain.
As Miss Hilton cannot read, apparently, she was advised by someone who could that, “banned from operating a motor vehicle for 36 months” only really means “banned from operating a motor vehicle for 36 months.”
So the charge is obviously false.
The extenuating circumstances that she was driving without lights in order not to dazzle oncoming traffic seem to have had no influence on the judge who clearly has no idea of how justice should be served.
More interestingly are the grounds on which Miss Hilton is appealing her sentence.
As she never reads any documents and just signs what she is told to, she is innocent. This interesting concept of law may now replace that old and hoary entry in the law books that “ignorance is no excuse.” It will be named the Paris Hilton Defence. It reinforces the general opinion that her IQ is somewhere below sea-level, but she feels that it is her duty to take the stance for future generations.
The second of the grounds is she is a “celebrity” and that consigning her to the hoosegow will upset millions of fans around the world. On her YouTube site she request that all “sihn” her petition, and has some difficulty in the use of lower and uppercase letters in the appropriate places.
Once more, an interesting new concept in the principles of law.
“M’lud, my client Joseph Hoskins is innocent. Firstly, his PA and consultant failed to make it clear that hitting Mr. Bagworth over the head with a half-brick could in any way be construed as an assault. But most importantly, Mr. Hoskins is a celebrity. His stand-up comedy routines at the Merry Fiddlers in Dagenham on a Saturday night are remembered with affection……….I beg your pardon, M’lud? That was Max Bygraves? Perhaps your Lordship is correct but it was Mr. Hoskins who moved the piano in for him from the bar parlour.”


Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Hard Cheese!

In my innocent youth, now, alas, long gone, I naively assumed that governments were in place to defend and protect its citizens, send the odd gunboat off to settle diplomatic disputes and pass occasional laws at the behest of its people, on whose behalf it was acting.
Seems I was wrong. Now the British government has assumed the mantle formerly worn by dictators and, regardless of the wishes of its people who have rather carelessly elected it, imposed all sorts of piffling regulations that impinge directly on the freedom, health and happiness of its electorate.
Forget, if you can, for a moment, congestion charges, CCTV cameras, taxation by stealth, lack of policemen on the beat and all those other minor irritations.
For now the government has become obsessed with cheese. General de Gaulle once remarked that it was impossible to govern a country with as many different cheeses as France and this is, perhaps, what Westminster had in mind. By reducing the cheese consumption, their performance in government will be better.
Banning the advertising of cheese during children’s programmes must rank right up there with some of the most bizarre regulations imposed by any government. Even Mugabe has not gone that far, and neither did Hitler, Mussolini nor, as far as I know, Franco.
The thought that children, on seeing an advert for Wensleydale, would immediately rush to the larder and consume a wedge or two is so obviously nuts that it hardly bears thinking about.
It could also be compounded, I suppose, by imagining that cheese eating kids might rush out and indulge in that other forbidden practice, unauthorised tree climbing or, heaven forbid, be tempted to play at conkers without face masks and knuckle protection. The potential for harm that a chunk or two of Double Gloucester might do to a child is clearly grounds for alarm and requires immediate government intervention.
But perhaps the most telling indication of a myopic bunch of bureaucrats is that they classify “The Simpsons” as being a children’s programme.
I suppose they’ve never heard of satire.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Media Drivel

“French hospitals are as sick as our own NHS” was the eye-catching by-line on an article in yesterday’s Sunday Times. For a moment I thought it must have been penned by a relative of Patricia Hewitt but no, it was authored by a Times correspondent, Lois Rogers.
Her style would seem to be far better suited to one of the tabloids since her previous efforts include such gems as:
“NHS failed to stop doctor raping scores of women” “Fifty babies a year are alive after abortion” “Conspiracy of silence allowed NHS rape spree” “£50m campaign to combat rise in sex diseases” “Costa expats are swamping our health service, protests Spain” “Health campaigns face axe in cash crisis” “British fertility clinics at foot of IVF league” “NHS set to miss waiting list target” “Latest figures reveal NHS has more bosses than beds” “IVF mothers abort ‘spare’ babies” “Over 200 hurt or killed by botched radiation” “Hospitals botch 300 births a year” “Babies with club feet aborted.”
Miss Rogers, it seems, is not much into good news so it is hardly surprising that, on having to get medical attention in France, disaster was on the cards.
On arriving at the emergency room of a Normandy hospital, she was appalled to find that others had got there first. And French, to boot! This only goes to show that the French are as inefficient as the British in failing to schedule their emergencies.
Things seem to have gone from bad to worse for the unfortunate Miss Rogers, which led her to make the declaration at the head of her article. Hardly a sampling of which Mr. Gallup would have approved.
I am certain that French emergency rooms have as many cock-ups as do the British, but it’s journalistic tosh of this sort that do the doctors and staff of the NHS (and now the French) a terrible disservice. In spite of the efforts of the media and the government, they still provide the people with a generally fine, and free, service.
Hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Brits who have come to France for medical treatment would be prepared to dispute Miss Rogers lofty dismissal, I am sure, but France is a convenient target for the more purple press.
Mr. Sarkozy’s predictable victory was greeted in the British media by being damned with faint praise. Much was made of his description of the rioters in the Paris suburbs. Now, I am not sure how the Brits describe thugs who set fire to cars, throw Molotov cocktails and assault the police, but to me, it seems M. Sarkozy was quite charitable.
The fact that, after being democratically elected, the same thugs resorted once more to violence, just goes to show how right he was.
One thing we can be sure of, he will not campaign to reduce the children’s cheese consumption.
When you get your Home Inspection Package, you’ll probably find a government clause limiting the per capita consumption of cheese in the household. The CCTV camera will, of course, be there to monitor.
George Orwell must be laughing his socks off.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Wedding Memories

“The law is an ass” and “Only fools go to law” are two phrases that spring to mind when reading of the weighty matter that has been exercising the highest judiciary of the land, recently.
That their Lordships should have even contemplated hearing such a matter is a very good question. It should have been thrown out as being a “frivolous case.”
It seems that two rather poor thespians, poor in the sense of talent rather than money, had elected to get married at the Plaza Hotel in New York. No doubt in order to finance this (it is, I recall, a bit expensive there), they sold the rights to the photo coverage of their wedding to one of those moronic peddlers of so-called celebrity gossip, OK magazine.
That Miss Zeta Jones, formerly of Swansea and Mr. Michael Douglas, presumably from Hollywood, were so enamoured with themselves that they thought that pictures of their wedding, normally a pretty short-lived arrangement in their circle, were worth a million pounds sterling is ludicrous enough. That OK magazine thought so too is a testimony to the stupidity of their readers. For most of us, the situation is reversed – we have to pay the man to take pictures. But then you and I aren’t “celebrities.”
Predictably, another magazine on the same cerebral level, Hello, infiltrated a photographer and snapped the happy couple.
Horror upon horror. Apparently the pictures taken by the rogue cameraman were “seedy and voyeuristic.” Miss Zeta-Jones felt “devastated, shocked and appalled” by them but not, seemingly, by those taken by the OK man. Presumably they were OK!
Shots of her being fed wedding cake by her new spouse left her feeling “violated.” This somewhat revolting custom seems peculiar to America and perhaps is not common practice in Swansea. Perhaps it was the fact that he was using a spoon instead of a fork that led her to feel that way.
The happy couple then decided to take this serious matter to the courts. The first judge to hear their ludicrous claim pointed out, quite correctly, that a marriage is public ceremony. This was clearly an affront to two such clearly private persons. Presumably they had selected the Plaza Hotel for the ceremony instead of the Swansea Registry Office in order to keep a low profile.
After some six years of dragging its way through the courts, à la Jarndyce and Jarndyce, at the expense of some £8M, the case has now been decided by their lordships of the House of Lords.
You would think that they would have had something better to do with their time and your money.
Hello magazine might console themselves with the thought that, after six years, divorce time must be coming up.
Perhaps they can get an exclusive on that.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Voting Time

“I’m afraid she has been fooled by Segolene’s promises,” says my neighbour, Jean-Paul, “ but Tombien, now he’s all for Sarkozy, even though it may be hard for a while.”
Tombien stops eating for a moment, the long strands of grass still hanging from his lips. He waggles his ears in agreement.
I should explain that we are standing in the paddock discussing the French election prospects and the two of the electorate that are the subject of this discussion are Jean-Paul’s Llamas. He thinks the female has been swung toward Royale on the grounds of her sex alone. Personally, I believe she is still a swing voter
French voters are so diametrically opposed to their British counterparts that it is difficult for any other than native French correspondents to paint a true picture. The French are less concerned with party politics than with their nation (how terribly unthinkable to be proud of that!) and the preservation of a way of life that seems to be the envy of the British, judging by the numbers that arrive and try and colonise us.
Much of the UK press seems to think that most of the French live in the banlieus of Paris or other major cities where the rioters were dubbed “rabble” by Sarkozy. There are two points to be made. Firstly, the rioters were a minority and secondly, the vast majority of citizens, including many of those in the banlieus, agree with him.
Unchecked immigration is a problem for any nation, as the current state of Britain’s prisons prove, loaded as they are with foreign residents. And the complaint of some of the immigrants in France that they are discriminated against may not be without foundation. But, as in any developed society, if you are any good, you will succeed.
The senior sales manager at the Renault factory from whom I bought my car was from North Africa. The manager of our local supermarket is Moroccan. The producer for a television company that I write for is Armenian and a local building contractor, with a tidy little business, is a Turkish Muslim.
It is, of course, the same in Britain where many of the best and brightest could be dubbed “immigrants.” Most of us were at one time.
Much of French political discussion, even including the potentially explosive Sarko-Segolene TV discussion, is low key and the media are admirably restrained, still having that old-fashioned idea that they are there to report the news.
The French, young and old, do still care about their nation, so often dubbed “proud,” as though that were a terrible fault. And they prove it at the polls
Perhaps pride is something that the British should concentrate on rather than on CCTV cameras and talking lamp posts.
I expect today, Jean-Paul and I will be in the top paddock. He has a lot of donkeys, sheep and goats there and is anxious to see how they will vote this weekend.
But I believe Leo, the oldest donkey, has been drumming up support for Sarkozy so I think it’s a foregone conclusion.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Bill Bryson

That it should need to appoint someone from Des Moines, Iowa, as President of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, is not much of a compliment to the indigenous natives. It is a considerable compliment for the American author, the Anglophile Bill Bryson who, unlike a good many other recipients, richly deserved his OBE for his work, honorary though it may be in view of his American citizenship.
Anyone who has read his books will appreciate that he has the eye of an astute observer but cleaning up Britain’s trash will be a daunting task.
For a nation that delights in imposing piffling and Draconian regulations on almost every aspect of their citizen’s lives, the British government is oddly reluctant to do anything to curb the abandon with which their population foul their nest.
The other weekend I found myself in one of the outer suburbs of London. Formerly it had been a pleasant country market town where farmers would prod princely pigs and contemplate contented cattle in the market square. A rural and bucolic scene.
It being a pleasantly sunny Sunday morning, I took a stroll into the old town to see what sort of a mess the “planners” had made of it. It was now a largely pedestrian area filled with fast food outlets, clubs and bars, dominated by an American style soulless mall. Initially I was surprised to find large numbers of the populace wandering about aimlessly until I realised - they were waiting for the stores to open. As the remaining population appeared to be busy at home washing and polishing their Mercedes or BMW’s, it led me to wonder just what sort of society Britain had now turned into.
But the dominant feature of my walk was the evidence all around me of the previous evenings revelry. It seemed that the fast food places must have done a roaring trade as I kicked my way through the empty containers and wrapping papers that had been discarded on the pavement. Where food had not been consumed, it had merely been dumped, where it had been consumed, it had frequently been thrown up!
Occasionally there was a tinkle of broken glass as I would pass the odd vandalised telephone booth, apparently a popular target for the revellers. The local resident’s association newsletter contained a heartfelt plea to people to report any such instances of broken glass in bus shelters or phone boxes. They would send someone to sweep it up, they said!
I struck up a conversation with a man waiting for one of the mall shops to open. He said he had lived there all his life but would no longer go into the town at night. He was built upon the lines of a rather healthy Mike Tyson so I regarded his advice as being of some value.
Bill Bryson will need all the help he can get to clean up the countryside and I wish him luck. He sees the problem only too clearly - he could not understand how little the British valued their heritage.
Perhaps, when he’s finished, he could take a look at the cities also.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Grosvenor Square

Lovers of London, and here I mean those that love the city of London as opposed to those that love in London (one has to be so careful nowadays not to be misunderstood) should rejoice in the news that the Embassy of the United States is proposing to re-locate its prestigious embassy, at present an excrescence on one of the cities most attractive squares, to more congenial climes.
Apparently, the locals of Mayfair have become rather tired of the Americans acting as if they owned the whole square. Not content with having the ugliest building ever erected there (it was a 1960’s creation, apparently inspired by the Stalinist school of architecture), they have spilled over into the roadway, erecting obscene barricades from behind which steely eyed marksmen view the passing citizens with grave suspicion.
Years ago, in pursuit of a Visa to enter that blessed land, I was admitted to the inner sanctum, only to find that the atmosphere within was about as welcoming as its appearance was on the outside. The lady dealing with my application was clearly distressed that there seemed to be no good reason for denying my request.
An embassy is regarded as being part of a nation’s overseas territory but here it has encroached upon a bit of Mr. Livingstone’s parish, and the appearance of the barricades totally ruins the appearance of what, if one excludes the embassy building, is still a most attractive square. Now administered as one of the Royal parks, it is, after Lincolns Inn Fields, the largest square in London and it is, perhaps, time that it is returned to Londoners in its entirety.
If and when the Embassy moves, its location is still under consideration, no doubt the new residence will be surrounded by the same elaborate security measures that have been constructed in Grosvenor Square.
If you, I or the neighbours next door had erected similar barricades around our property, apparently a needed precaution in Britain today, the authorities would be there in double-quick time to demolish them and serve us with an order of some sort.
They might also ask, “what had we done to make us so afraid?”
America might ask itself the same question.
The present United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James is a former car dealer. Better than an earlier one, I suppose. Joseph P. Kennedy was a bootlegger.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Sail Away.

There’s a chap in Holland who’s just knocked himself up a personal Noah’s Ark. It seems he’s a Creationist. One of those who takes the Bible for Gospel, literally, unlike most of us who tend to take it with a grain and not even a pillar of salt.
But not only has he constructed it as an article of faith but also as an article of personal survival, since he has had a vision that Holland will be the scene of the next flood.
I suppose the incidence of little Dutch boys prepared to stick their thumbs into holes in dykes has diminished in recent years, although the popularity of computer games should have produced a crop of giant thumbs by now.
Anyway, determined to go ahead, he set to work, only to have his wife intercede. “Johan,” says she (in Dutch, I presume), “ If you’re determined to build the thing, let’s get it right.” And she proceeded to draw up the plans for him.
Not wishing to see all the household income washed away, she prudently cut it down to half size but even so, hers was a formidable undertaking. For the good book, although good in many ways, comes up a bit short in the marine architectural department. “Skimpy” is the word that might be applied to God’s instructions here:

“Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.
And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits.
A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it.”

Even Brunel would have struggled with such a specification, I feel.
But the most amazing thing to me is that his wife not only participated but apparently encouraged him in the feat. He is clearly a very lucky Dutchman since I have, for the past couple of years, been trying to build a canoe. The domestic opposition I have received toward this relatively minor project has been long and fierce. And it’s not just a matter of finance. Even the most cash strapped author can afford a couple of sheets of plywood.
And so the plans lie unused on top of the piano.
From time to time I take them out and dream of paddling my way down the River Layon, past the vineyards on either bank that produce some of the regions best wines.
But, unlike lucky Johan, I’m resigned to it being all a dream.
Unless, of course, I dream of a flood. In which case I suppose I’ll have to build two.