Monday, July 30, 2007

Flood Money

“It's been a pretty good year,” says I, “and I've hit a good many of the targets I set myself. So I'm giving myself a 10% bonus.”
“Really?” says my wife. “And who is going to pay for it?”
And, as the bard once said, there's the rub. For I have been remiss inasmuch as I have neglected to form myself into a government department whereby I would have had access to loads of dosh from the taxpayer. And thus made a paltry 10% bonus easily obtainable.
Being merely a poor writer – poor in the sense of monetarily although there are conflicting opinions on this – I rely upon the sweat of my brow to obtain an income. No sweat, no achievement, no money. It's an age old arrangement that has now been superseded by an enlightened government for their employees but one that has yet to be adopted by industry in general.
My father was a civil servant for his whole life. He rose to high office, on the fifth floor actually, but never once received a bonus. His advice to me was that I could take up any trade, profession or calling I wished as long as it wasn't the civil service, but he was not prescient enough to appreciate that the new order would soon be dishing out bonuses just for showing up to work.
And the news that the department responsible for the environment in Britain has just awarded themselves a healthy chunk of cash for hitting their unnamed targets must be cheering news for those taxpayers watching their household goods floating down the street, flood management being one of the targets that was missed, apparently.
But the risibly ennobled Baroness responsible (and if she's entitled to be a Baroness, my cat's a Yarmouth bloater) will hardly be bothered.
After all, if it were her household goods that were awash, 24000 quid would buy her a pretty good new set.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Age of Concern

When I was young, I always felt that I was being discriminated against on account of my youth. Now that I am considerably older, it's my advancing years that seem to be the problem.
I suppose there was a brief interim period in my life when age didn't matter but I can't recall it.
The proposal that drivers in Britain, on reaching the Biblically assigned three score years and ten, should be re-examined, has some merit. A check of the physical attributes such as eyesight might be acceptable. But is is the arbitrary assumption that, on reaching that milestone, all drivers have become drooling incompetents that rankles.
A good many are drooling incompetents long before they reach that age.
Age has very little to do with competency in most things where physical effort is not required. Airline pilots are summarily dismissed at an age when they have just about found out how to do it, regardless of whether or not they are still capable.
Early retirement, which is the goal of so many, is a hideous prospect to those who enjoy their work and as long as all the faculties are retained, they should be allowed to continue.
A shining example was that of the London car cleaner for a transport company. Offered the day off to celebrate his hundredth birthday, he declined, with thanks.
“What would I do?” he asked, plaintively.
So re-testing drivers simply on account of their age is merely another bureaucratic obstacle in the race for life.
However, those of us that have lived in Florida or other retirement states, can remember the frightening sight of apparently driverless Cadillacs and Lincolns steaming down the highways. On closer inspection, you would find some little blue-rinsed old lady peering between the spokes of the steering wheel.
But whether they were any more dangerous than a hyped up seventeen year old at the wheel of his souped up, especially aluminium wheeled vehicle, I very much doubt.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Rejection Slip!

The literary event of the week, in terms of sales, must have been the arrival of the latest Harry Potter book. It's unusual to give a book five stars before having read it, but in this case, I think Miss Rowling deserves a medal for getting the kids away from their video games and televisions. As she is neither a moronic popstar or sports person, no doubt officialdom will overlook her for any honours award but the Royalty cheque will make some amends.
But the real literary news was that an author, fed-up with receiving rejection slips, submitted the opening chapters of some of Jane Austen's works to eighteen publishers. All rejected them as being unsuitable, only one spotting their true provenance.
This leads me to wonder just how many have read her works. I mean, have actually ploughed through them from cover to cover as opposed to having seen the movies and bought the book on the rebound. It seems not many publisher's readers have.
Personally, I can't blame them. Every time I try I feel an unutterable weariness stealing over me by the fifth or sixth paragraph. I'm told that I'm missing something and that Miss Austen is a real laugh, but to me, the characters move like pastel cardboard cutouts on a totally unreal background. Had they been around in the 18th. Century, Mills and Boon would probably have snapped her up.
However, I'm sure a good many other novelists might suffer the same fate at the hands of publisher's readers. They are, after all, looking for a manuscript that will sell in the millions and the opening chapters of Dickens, Thackeray and Dostoevsky hardly bring instant gratification to the reader.
After all, they weren't meant to.
But modern readers, conditioned by the immediacy of film and television, don't have the patience. They want action – or very short chapters that don't strain the brain, as practised by Dan Brown. And not too many long words either, thank you very much.
Which is, I feel, a great pity.
Thus it was heartening to read a minor carp of the Harry Potter book by one critic. They said that some parts of the book dragged, being almost Dickensian in style, apparently trying their patience but saying that avid Potter fans would probably struggle through it.
Well done, Miss Rowling. If you can encourage kids to read even the Dickensian bits, there may be some hope for the future literary taste of the next generation.
And so I'd better have another go at Jane Austen, I suppose.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Alcoholics Unanimous

It's hard to decide whether Her Majesty's Government were naïve or merely stupid when they decided that, by giving almost unfettered access to alcohol, the incidence of drunkenness among the British drinking classes would decrease.
Perhaps Albert Einstein, had he still been around, could have produced the formula to prove that this unlikely theory would work. Empirical principles have now proved conclusively that it hasn't.
The rather lame idea on which unleashing the licensing laws was based was that it would introduce a European “cafe culture” into Britain. Presumably the minister responsible had never seen Hogarth's “Gin Lane,” a scene which is now reproduced nightly in the cities of the nation.
For the British have and always will be a nation of binge drinkers. Leopards apparently don't often change their spots and the likelihood of the beer swilling Brit to forgo his pint for a small glass of wine or an espresso is just about as imaginable.
Even as they turn to wine, the producers have spotted that, rather than taste, it's alcohol the public wants and the strength of a good many cheaper varieties has been cranked up almost to fortified levels.
A common notice displayed in many pubs is, “Buy two glasses and get the rest of the bottle free.” This is the toper's equivalent of that monstrosity so often found in America, the “all you can eat” buffet.
Alcoholism was often decried here in France although the life expectation is, if anything, better than most. But drunkenness, which is socially unacceptable, is rarely seen. And, had the government really taken note of the cafe culture of Europe, they would have spotted that it does not include standing shoulder to shoulder in a crowded bar, juggling pints of beer whilst trying to make oneself heard over a cacophony of talk, wide screen televisions and probably so-called background music as well.
Neither does it involve having to fight your way to the bar in attempt to buy a drink in competition with others, all trying to attract the attention of the bartender who are highly trained to be able to look right through you.
And yes, you have to pay for it at the time as you might scarper without so doing.
How delightful!
A European cafe is a place for quiet relaxation, not a training ground for anti-social behaviour.
Often the client will be there for an espresso or two and some conversation – a feat impossible given the noise level in a modern British pub.
It was not always thus in Britain. Around the turn of last century, my great aunt ran a pub. It was in a pretty rough area of the East End of London but, on spotting a patron who had imbibed his share she would say, “George, you've had enough. Now off home to your wife.” And George would say his adieus and toddle off. In today's world he would have returned and put a brick through the window at the very least.
In London the other day, just off Baker Street, I found an oasis of calm. A pub which had no television, no music and a landlord who, although he had been there for 17 years, was now thinking of giving up as he refused to subscribe to and encourage the yoof of the nation to get themselves snookered every night just because they could. By being firm with perceived drunks, business was dying.
But then I suppose it's understandable that the British wish to drink themselves insensible. After all, it's one of the few facets of their private lives that the government has not sort to regulate in recent years.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Oh Dear, Auntie!

It's always a nasty shock to the system to find that one's favourite auntie, the one you could rely upon to be truthful and who used to tell you bedtime stories, has turned out to be little more than a ten cent hooker in her real life. And a pretty dishonest one at that.
The crisis facing the revered British Broadcasting Corporation cannot be underestimated.
It takes years to build up a reputation for objectivity and integrity and a matter of seconds to lose it.
And it would seem that, judging from the alarming revelations of dishonesty in dealing with the public in recent years, that reputation has been cast to the winds by the actions of the production staff.
If you or I were as dishonest in our dealings with a paying public, we would find ourselves up in court in double quick time, but so far the only sanction has been a fine of £50,000 levied against the corporation for their despicable deception practised on children in the Blue Peter programme.
But wait a moment. Isn't the BBC funded by the licence paying public? If so, whose pocket is the £50,000 to be extracted from?
I think you all know the answer.
It appears that Caveat Emptor, “let the buyer see to it,” is replaced by whatever the Latin phrase is for “To hell with the buyer.” (perhaps better Latin scholars than I can help me out here)
That the Trust that administers the BBC have been so forthright in their condemnation is commendable but it hardly resolves the problem. The integrity has been lost.
The authority that earlier newsreaders could bring to their presentations, a confidence that the listener or viewer had that they were being given facts and not the opinions of some editor on the production team, has been lost – and will not be easily regained.
The root problem seems to have been that the corporation felt that, rather than being a service to the nation in return for their licence fee, they had to become an entertainment channel – and moreover, one that had to pursue ratings, leading it to pander to the lowest common denominator. Some of the appalling dross now on view can only be explained thus.
The British are always keen to ape the actions of America, usually the less desirable ones, but in this case they would do well to take a look at that little gem of broadcasting in the United States.
The Public Broadcasting Service is not only an admirable communication system for the dissemination of real news but is also entertaining. Even the BBC has broadcast the Prairie Home Companion series, a delightful show which is humour at its very best.
As Britain now has an American, Bill Bryson, attempting to clean up the trash left around so liberally by its citizens, perhaps the BBC should call in Garrison Keillor to clean up its own trash.
Continuous repeats of a Prairie Home Companion would be infinitely preferable to most of their current offerings.
And I don't recall them having any fake phone call-ins to Lake Wobegon either.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


As the latest and possibly final round of Pottermania reaches its climax with the publication of J.K. Rowling's newest epic, a rather unseemly dispute has arisen between the publisher, Bloomsbury, and Asda, the supermarket, who would no doubt be looking forward to some pretty good sales from the book.
The nuts and bolts of the dispute are not very clear but seem to revolve around Bloomsbury suggesting that the book should retail for £17.99 and Asda, who propose flogging it in their stores for £8.87.
For those outside of the publishing industry, it must seem incredible that a store could sell for such a low discounted price. But the fact is that distributors and retailers routinely demand a whopping 55% from the publisher for the pleasure of putting it on display on their shelves.
In addition, they often reserve the right to return unsold copies, a pretty unique arrangement for any retail industry.
The publisher shoulders all the costs of production and carries the risk of having a flop on his hands. The retailer simply trousers the profit.
The result of these financial shenanigans is that the amount of cash left over for the author becomes diluted. Not much of a problem if you're a Rowling or a Dan Smith but a bit of a depressing statistic if you're a struggling author whose sales figures are not going to be stratospheric.
Asda can probably afford to earn pennies on the sale, given the volume that they hope to attain. Not so the independent book stores, who rightfully can complain that they cannot possibly compete.
Once again, the bullying power of the supermarkets is aligned to destroy the small businessman.
Bloomsbury would do a great service to the consumer as well as to the whole publishing industry if they would refuse to allow the sale of their book at such a risibly low price.
And, given the success of the earlier Potter books (I haven't read one but my granddaughter, whose judgement I value, says they're jolly good), selling for a sensible price will hardly make a difference – except to the small bookseller.
England was once referred to as a nation of shopkeepers. If the supermarkets have their way, it will soon be no longer.
More's the pity.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Hello Hollywood

In the days when I used to spend time in California, I formed the opinion that the cerebral equanimity of many of the populace there was teetering on the brink. This I ascribed to their living at daily risk of forest fires, mudslides or the opening up of the San Andreas fault.
It's been some years since I used to hang around Hollywood, but I see little has changed.
Brand Beckham has arrived and another five minute wonder enthuses the inhabitants of the City of Angels, well, those of them that can read English.
Most of us would agree that David has a much better figure than Victoria although his voice leaves a bit to be desired. He was once interviewed by Ali G who said, memorably, “Because this is a comedy show, there's no need to talk in that funny voice.”
Celebrities are a dime a dozen in Tinsel Town and joining a team such as the LA Galaxy is about the equivalent of a place in the Twistleton in the Vale seconds, except that they wouldn't have had $250 million to spare, not even after the collection at the Parish fête.
When the hoopla has died down, it's hard to imagine that they will not be submerged in the surfeit of stars that litter the place. Eccentrics are not much welcomed there, unless your name is Orson Welles, so that rules out a singing role for Victoria, and soccer is not close to the hearts of many Americans. Neither Pele nor George Best ever managed to raise more than a polite smidgen of interest in the game.
In fact the major commercial aspect from the Galaxies point of view seems to have been the sale of tee shirts, which they claim has almost paid for the Beckhams. As someone who has never bought a branded tee shirt in his life, this strikes me as a more remarkable statistic than most that are bandied around that hyperbolic city.
They will need all the good luck they can get to make it there, although the money helps. Like Chicago “If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere.”
But with all those tee shirts sold, I would advise Victoria not to enter the wet tee shirt contests that used to be a popular feature on the beaches.
That might be just enough to put Californians finally over the edge.

Friday, July 13, 2007

A Matter of Probity

In the Victorian era there must have been few citizens who would have questioned the honesty of a Disraeli or a Gladstone, however much they may have disagreed with their politics.
Similarly, it would have been safe to assume that whatever The Times or Illustrated London News were to report would be factual.
How times have changed!
No politician seems to be able to open his mouth without the assistance of a spin doctor to ensure that his fibs are presented as facts and even the more squeaky clean looking ones, such as the blonde bombshell, Boris Johnson, may be viewed with suspicion. After all, he rides a bicycle and so, I believe, did Dr. Crippen.
The Daily Mail, formerly for Queen and Commonwealth, is now all for celebrity trivia, scandal and circulation with news running a poor last.
It's always a disappointment to find that our idols, if not having feet of clay, are wobbling on plinths of plasticine and to learn that a former icon of reliability and truth such as the British Broadcasting Corporation, an institution paid for by the taxpayer, seems to be mounted on a base of probity as insubstantial as jelly, is a shock.
Fooling the kids who look up to Blue Peter was heinous enough but doctoring a film of the Queen strikes me as being grounds for “off with their heads.” The pathetic denial by the director was so clearly specious in view of his earlier remarks promoting the programme that any of his future actions become questionable.
And, if the BBC is unable to report such a simple matter without distortion, what of the rest of their broadcasts?
John Reith, that monumentally gloomy piece of granite, who laid the foundations for the respect with which the corporation was viewed up until recent years, was probably right.
They should never have let the news readers get away with not wearing dinner jackets!

Labels: ,

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Eat Your Greens!

So the kiddywinkies don't like the school dinners cooked up for them by that nice man from the telly, Mr. Oliver.
I can't say I blame them. Having a TV celebrity advise on kids meals is just another extension of the 'Celebrity' nonsense that seems to plague our lives. I only knew one celebrity chef and she was my mother.
A correspondent in today's newspapers painted a tear jerking picture of a little boy wandering around the playground, trying to dispose of his unwanted fruit. Seems the modern child is not very innovative – in my day we could have found a very good use for such items.
But of course, then there was no Bill of Rights for Children. We ate what was put in front of us or woe betide. I was sentenced to attend school in England and there they had an innovative programme that you were not allowed to leave the table until you had cleared your plate.
I realise that such cruelty would be unacceptable today – along with playing conkers, climbing trees and similar activities of those bygone years – but the resultant generation turned out to be a good deal more civilised than the specimens I see hanging around street corners in Britain today.
But back to dinner. The British have always had this peripheral relationship with gastronomy which is a pity, since there are so many wonderful regional dishes. Not everyone eats at The Fat Duck, nor do they want to, me included, but surely the dinner ladies are not unable to produce a steak and kidney pie, cottage pie or similar that would be better than burger and chips?
Then again, like charity, good taste in food begins at home. It seems ridiculous to blame the preferences of the children on the government and schools, although it is now considered that all defects in one's offspring should be dealt with by some government department.
In very few cases can conception and production of children be blamed on ministers, unless the tabloid newspapers find out, so why should they be responsible?
One of the most depressing sights in this world is that of a British family on holiday in France, trying to find something on the menu that their offspring will eat, beans on toast and fish fingers being something of a rarity.
So it is hardly Jamie Oliver's fault that he failed to get five Michelin stars for his efforts. Perhaps he was the wrong sort of celebrity and they should have gone for David Beckham.
But then he looks like a beans on toast and burger man to me.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Not the Right Lines

In those far off days when Britannia had a few ships, she ruled the waves and, with a good many miles of track, the railways of the world into the bargain. India alone had over 20,000 miles of imperially run trains.
Visiting the UK last week I was struck by the number of railways companies in operation, some with odd names such as C2C and others whose names defy history, such as First Great Western. The first Great Western was, of course, that of Isambard Kingdom Brunel who must be spinning in his grave at the fate of his magnificent line to the West country. The rejection of his vastly superior seven foot gauge in favour of the four foot eight and a half inches of his contemporaries (because it was the distance between the wheels of m'lord's carriage) was bad enough, but applying the name to the current service is probably actionable.
However, my week in London was pretty uneventful. Nobody tried to blow me up and I was fortunate in that I did not have to attend the concert to save the planet. A good many did and undoubtedly they all walked to Wembley to avoid leaving their carbon hoof prints.
A tube train did fall of the rails due to the maintenance men failing to realise that odd bits of junk left lying about were likely to cause this, and the contractors have now issued a memo to their staff to try and avoid doing this.
The newspapers rejoiced, for they were able to pull out their banner headlines, left in standing type for such occasions, such as 'Rail Horror' and 'Terror on the Tube.' In fact only a few people suffered minor injuries and the driver went home for a cup of tea and a lie down.
My curiosity was aroused on the question of safety on the rail network and so I turned to that handy compendium of pretty useless trivia, Whitaker's Almanack. My edition is for the year 1900 and I'm sure you all have a copy lying around, as would any self respecting household.
The turn of that century marked the end of the railway building frenzy that had improved the fortunes of the robber barons who made their money by investing in such enterprises.
No fewer than 38 separate companies were listed for 1899 and the almanac pointed out that safety was improving. Only 153 passengers had been rubbed out that year in train accidents.
So it is fair to say that the rate of fatalities has declined over the years, although the robber barons are still benefiting themselves at the expense of the traveller, apparently nowadays with the connivance of government.
For those seeking employment in the business, from Whitaker's I see that the dodgiest job is that of the Permanent Way Men who had 122 fatalities but even being a station master was not without risk. Three died on the the job that year.
Perhaps, as happened earlier, in the fullness of time, this present absurd rail system will evolve into a four company affair or, even better, become re-nationalised to provide a service to the taxpayer and not to line the pockets of the directors of the various companies.


Sunday, July 01, 2007

They're Not Muslims!

As, on Monday morning, I am heading across the Channel to spend a week in London, recent events in the Metropolis have naturally got my attention.
In common with most Londoners and indeed most Brits, terrorism or the threat of it is not going to make one iota of difference to the way I conduct my life. It does, however, cause the airport authorities to go into a sort of panic overdrive concerning security and consequently not only will you not be allowed to take a tube of toothpaste on board your flight, but gas canisters are now banned into the bargain.
Somehow, the facts concerning the 9/11 disaster have been overlooked. In that case, the hijackers did not carry anything on board with them, the tools of their trade were already on board the aircraft, thanks to employees at the airport. Since then, not one potential hijacker has been uncovered by the arcane and tedious restrictions placed upon passengers.
But if the recent terrorists had even a smidgen of common-sense, they would realise that, of all the cities in the world, British ones are the least likely to be affected, no matter how much carnage might be produced.
At the height of the IRA bombers efforts, I was in Oxford Street one evening during the Christmas shopping rush. Bombs had been discovered in one large department store and the management had wisely elected to turn everybody out on to the street. The pent up fury of the crowd on the pavement was terrible to behold. But it was directed, not at the IRA, but against the store management. How could they deprive the shoppers of access to their store?
The day after the tube bombings I strolled across London. The Queen emerged from Buckingham Palace and waved to the crowd assembled outside and the only signs of panic and paranoia were outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.
This insouciance perhaps has something to do with the five years of bombing earlier generations were subjected to.
There was a good deal of luck involved in averting disaster this time. But the performance of everyone involved was highly creditable and deserving of the highest honours a nation could bestow. But as no sportsman, pop star or pseudo celebrity was involved, no doubt they will be overlooked at the New Year's Honours list.
The real losers in this are the members of the law abiding Muslim community and perhaps it is time to remove the 'Islamist' label from these perverters of their religion. As so often, they hide behind a shield of religious right in order to justify their actions, actions which are expressly forbidden by their religion. Nowhere does the Koran advocate terrorism.
So these are not Muslims, except by their own distorted definition, merely deranged terrorists totally undeserving of sympathy – especially from the Muslim community.

Labels: ,