Friday, August 31, 2007

The Eagle has Landed - badly!

There is something immensely cheering for us all in the news that Barclays (you know, the bank that used to have an eagle as a symbol) has had to apply for an overdraft. It sort of brings them down to our level I feel and the replacement for the eagle perhaps might be a turkey, just in time for Christmas.
At some time or other, we've nearly all had to go cap in hand to our bank in a desperate attempt to ward off financial disaster, and to hear that one of those sniffy institutions that has humiliated us in the past is getting similar treatment, puts a little sunshine into our lives.
No doubt Barclays went, if not cap in hand, with bowler and umbrella akimbo, to plead their case with the Bank of England.
Normally, we peasants are asked just what brought us to this pitch of fiscal imprudence and here Barclays have come up with the equivalent of “the dog eat my homework” sort of excuse. They said their computer system had failed. Try telling that to your bank when you go into the red.
Mind you, it was only for a trifling £1.6 billion but it was less than a month ago that they had needed a few million from the same source, apparently unable to raise the wind among the other clearing banks.
So now, when you saunter into Barclays and ask to have an overdraft facility, you will be able to do so with an air of casual nonchalance and a nudge and a wink.
After all, you're both in the same boat now.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Tesco versus Sid

It's that time of year that we used to refer to as summer and the newspaper business is in the doldrums. The editors are all off on their hols and have left the running of the business to the tea lady and the office boy. Consequently, there's a bit of a void to be filled and the solution is to ask the readers to provide their comments on a few pertinent matters. This is good for yards of column inches at minimal cost.
A recent topic was that of the Tesco supermarket chain, which is, as you know, shortly to take over the management of the United Kingdom from the government.
Was Tesco a good thing or was Tesco a bad thing was the question and the answers took up about fourteen pages.
Probably to the astonishment of the aforementioned tea lady and office boy, some thought it a good thing and, even more astonishingly, some thought it a bad thing. There were a few wishy washy correspondents who didn't seem to know but these were the ones that would presumably vote Liberal at the next election.
Flicking through the comments, I was intrigued to see that hardly anywhere did the question of the quality of the products arise. Instead there was tremendous emphasis on the fact that Tesco delivered to your door. This was touted rather as though they had invented the wheel or, at the very least, perpetual motion.
I can only think that these commentators were either very young or very forgetful.
It is not so many years since the baker delivered fresh bread to your door daily, the milkman did the same for milk, cream butter and eggs and the butcher's boy would deliver your roast by fast bicycle.
The friendly local grocer would take your order and deliver it weekly and, if their goods were not to your liking, there was always another vendor after your business.
In 1983, attempting to find a quiet place to finish a book, I moved to a country cottage in England. The nearby town had three butchers, a baker and probably a candlestick maker, but as we had electricity, we never sought him out. There was also Sid's general store that supplied the grocery and greengrocery needs of the community. Once a week, Sid would call to take our order, returning the next day with the items often plus a few that he though might come in handy. He also supplied the local gossip as a bonus.
Clearly, Tesco have been watching Sid and his compatriots and envying their success.
Now Sid and his like are going the way of the Dodo, thanks to the supermarkets and their relentless pursuit of profit.
Personally, if I lived in Britain I would pay a premium to have Sid deliver my groceries once more. He never once changed the “sale by” date on his stuff – you knew it was fresh, otherwise he wouldn't sell it to you – and he knew more about customer relations than any supermarket ever will.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Whose Rights?

The British government, who seem to have a knack for this sort of thing, find themselves embroiled in yet another unwinnable conflict. This time it's not in the dusty wastes of Iraq or Afghanistan but a bit closer to home.
For shortly they are going to unleash a convicted murderer into society. Apparently the formula goes something like this: One life taken away equals 12 years of yours forfeited, one sixth of the Biblically allotted span. Of course, you will receive three meals a day plus a roof over your head at the taxpayers expense. And, just in case on your release, there are some who are just a teensy weensy bit upset about you having killed someone, we'll give you a whole new identity and a fresh start in life, once again at the taxpayer's expense.
“Ah, Mr. Luigi, I see from your job application that you've been working for the government for twelve years. Must have started young, eh, ha ha? Well it's good to know that you have some experience with knives since we need someone like you in the meat department. There we've got lots of nice shiny ones and, as I always say, busy hands are happy hands. You and your mum have just moved here I understand. Welcome to the neighbourhood. Nice little house you picked out for her. Funny thing,. though, I could have sworn I'd seen your face somewhere before.”
Governments come down hard on citizens who have deceived them in simple matters such as income tax but it is apparently OK for governments to fob the public off with a convicted killer as a respectable member of society.
The alternative is to ship him back to the land of his birth but this seems a bit tough on Italy. After all, they had little part in his upbringing and one should never forget their invaluable contribution to Allied victory during the war. Siding with Mr. Hitler was an automatic set of bonus points for Britain, Russia and the United States. And, on top of that, they gave us pizza and Gina Lollobrigida as well as giving the Pope somewhere to hang his hat.
Their human rights record was not too good around the time of Nero and his crowd but they make up for it by having strong family ties, just think of the Mafia, and it is here that I feel a strong case could be made.
They could bang the young thug up in the same cell as his father, and, I'm told, two can live as cheaply as one. Families should stick together and no doubt at his trial much was made of the absence of a father figure in his life. That should fix it for him.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Prescott Chronicles

When assessing his generals, Napoleon always asked “Is he lucky?” My mother, who shared a number of characteristics with Napoleon (she too was short and sarcastic), always told me “It's better to be born lucky than rich.”
And, by golly, she was right.
Looking back on my career as a writer of other people's books, it's breathtaking to see just how lucky I have been.
For example, O.J. Simpson never contacted me to help him with his book, “How I Dunnit.” Bill Clinton insisted on doing it his way without my aid, although I think it shows.
And what's his name from Big Brother, Pete someone or other, had Andrew Crofts volunteer for the job of putting his life on paper and, in so doing, found it be infinitely more interesting than the programme..
With Wayne Rooney, my luck peaked out and someone else got the job. Just as well I wasn't asked since I know nothing of soccer.
And now to my great relief I find that, once more, I have dodged the bullet. John Prescott has picked on poor old Hunter Davies to share in his £300,000 advance for his memoirs.
Hunter Davies is a jolly good writer, he did an excellent one on The Beatles, and I wish him well. I could have done with a share of the 300,000 but I'm afraid the temptation to turn it into a comedy book would have been irresistible.
So my luck seems to be holding and the only small cloud, no bigger than a writer's hand, on the horizon is the news that Tony Blair is discussing his forthcoming biography with his publishers next month.
So I'm just going to keep my head down and hope that he hires Alastair Campbell to do the job. That would serve them both right.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Testing Times

There is clearly much wrong with the school examination system in the UK. For Heaven's sake, in spite of being able to pick and choose their subjects, almost ad lib (although, since Latin hardly appears on the curriculum nowadays, I suppose that needs some explanation), there are some who actually fail their GCSE.
This is unthinkable in a politically correct society where everybody has to win.
I do recall that, when I sat for the university entrance examination in England, it was called matriculation in those days, I had little choice in the subjects. By some quirk of the system, as I wished to qualify in three science subjects, Chemistry, Electricity and Magnetism and Heat, Light and Sound (they were three separate subjects then), I had to take a language, French, to a lower standard. As, at the time, this was my first language, I thought it a rather pleasant quirk.
By some failing on the part of the examiners, I passed – but many didn't.
And surely that is the whole point of exams.
When I took mine, it was an examination of my ability to write and understand the English language, to be able to perform elementary mathematical calculations and, in general, to have some sort of a clue as to what made the world go round.
I must confess that, had I been expected to perform in some of the subjects currently available, I might have been stymied. Information and Communication Technology I would probably mistaken for the ability to read and write, Health and Social Care would have left me baffled although I might have related to Leisure and Tourism, school holidays always having been one of my favourites. Media studies, I suppose, would be watching television and a comprehensive analysis of the Daily Mail. Once again, I would have flunked.
But I think that most prospective employers were glad to find someone who, although lacking in some of the more arcane subjects, could read, write and add up.
But as the system is clearly an infringement of human rights inasmuch as it deprives a very small minority of a pass mark, perhaps the GCSE certificate should be issued at the same time as a birth certificate.
And a command of reading and writing English is essential. How else do you think the immigrants fill out their forms for social assistance?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

"Oh, Mr. M-M-M-ayor, Sir...."

Larry the Lamb, S.G. Hulme-Beaman's creation in the wonderful Toytown series, stories that would no doubt be eschewed by today's Nintendo wielding kids, would have felt right at home here in France.
For, as in the stories if there was a problem in Toytown, Larry would run straight to the Mayor. In France we do the same thing.
I asked a number of British visitors if they knew the name of the mayor of their town. None did, but I'm willing to bet there's hardly an adult Frenchman or woman who does not know the name of theirs.
He presides over the affairs of the town, loftily removed from any Parisian decrees and is able to adjudicate on a myriad of the little problems associated with communal life.
You need planning permission for an extension to your house? Go see the mayor.
Your trash is not getting picked up? Go see the mayor.
These and a million other matters come under his aegis and, as an elected official, he will make sure that matters get taken care of.
Mayors take an immense pride in their towns, something which is apparent to the visitors as they drive through.
The French are often criticised for being proud but I fail to see why this is considered to be a demerit.
A good many English villages used to take a similar pride in their appearance but they now seem to be in a minority. In any case, the mayor has little jurisdiction over a good many of the matters that are of concern to his residents. These are all handled by some bureaucrat in Whitehall.
All this was prompted by a problem in a little Devon village where the Women's Institute wish to assert their right, granted by Henry VIII, to hold a street market.
A waffling council say they can't 'cos some 1984 statute says you can't close off a highway.
What a load of rubbish! Here in our town the local cycle club wanted to run a concourse starting from the town square. It's a popular event and the mayor had no hesitation about shutting off all traffic through the town for the day.
It may seem like Toytown to you, although we don't actually have (or need) Ernest the policeman, but even Mr. Grouser would be pleased with the way it's run.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

High Wind in Jamaica

Richard Hughe's novel of that name wasn't concerned with hurricanes but a good many tourists in the region are undoubtedly paying close attention to this meteorological phenomena.
Whilst I have a tinge of sympathy for them, it beats me why anyone would wish to visit the region during hurricane season. I assume that the travel agents, whilst solicitously selling them travel insurance, don't bother to mention the fact that being caught in one is not a lot of fun.
The image of people sitting around, drinking beer, whilst the storm passes, having a jolly sociable time and having a tale to tell when they make it back home, is all very well, but the actual experience is nothing to be laughed at.
I lived through three whilst working in the Caribbean and wouldn't wish the experience on anybody, the images of the grapefruit flying off our tree like cannon balls is still with me.
Mindful of the fact that, whilst the wind does damage enough, it's the storm surge that creates the real havoc, we bought our house a strategic mile from the beach. Having the beach suddenly arrive in your living room is an experience to be avoided.
And our house was a solidly constructed affair of poured concrete with the roof trusses all secured with the aptly named “hurricane hangers.”
But even so, spending hours sheltering in a downstairs toilet, the only room without an outside window, is not a pleasurable experience but probably better than having to share a public shelter, as will be the lot of most of the tourists .
And then there's the aftermath. No power, no air conditioning and often no water.
Having a wonderful time – wish you were here.
And not us!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Brush Up Your Shakespeare............ ran a song in Cole Porter's irreverent but highly entertaining musical, “Kiss Me Kate,” which revolved around a stock theatre group's performance of the Bard's “Taming of the Shrew.” I suspect that Will would have enjoyed it himself, which is more than can be said for one of the more stupid ideas concerning his works that has just been announced.
A cartoon version of his plays, along with the words altered to make them understandable to the mentally challenged youth of a texting world, is about to arrive at a book store near you.
According to the publisher, this is to make Shakespeare's work “more understandable and acceptable” to the young. What it does is to make it totally irrelevant. The whole point of his work lies in the use of words and resonant phrases, many of which have entered into the language, often unrecognised by their user.
No one would claim that the plays are an easy read. They weren't meant to be. They are plays and to read them enjoyably requires a degree of concentration and an imaginative flair that few, brought up on television and computer games, now possess.
The audiences who delighted in his work were hardly sophisticated but it seems they were a good deal more erudite than modern youth, who need to have matters simplified for them, reduced to the lowest common denominator and thereby robbed of all that is valuable in his work.
The one thing Shakespeare had in common with them was a certain laxity in the matter of spelling. He rarely seemed to know how to manage his own name but this was hardly a detriment to the spoken word in his plays.
And therein lies the rub. If you want to enjoy and understand his work, go and see a play.
But no doubt Shakespeare, as depicted in these cartoon books along with words of no more than two syllables, will soon become a subject for a GCSE pass, along with knitting, basket weaving and, my pet hate, media studies i.e. watching television.
Bill Bryson has just published a book on Shakespeare. I haven't read it yet but I suspect that it will be as sensible and intelligent as his usually are.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

City Streets

The really depressing thing about the news from Britain these days is just how depressing it seems to be.
For a nation that once pretty much ruled the world and, by and large, made a fairly decent job of it, the last decade have not been exactly banner years.
But then I suppose a Minister of Culture who believes that allowing untrammelled access to booze, 24 hours per day, will introduce a “European Cafe Culture” into the life style of the average Brit, has not spent a deal of time in a European Cafe, where the usual drink is likely to be coffee – and conversation.
The last time this sort of thing was popular in Britain was when that pompous old lexicographer, Samuel Johnson used to idle his time away drinking chocolate with his buddy, James Boswell. Judging from Boswell's biography of him, I assume Johnson was picking up the tab.
Of course, almost at the same time, Hogarth was busy around the corner, making sketches that would become “Gin Lane.” What a time he could have had on the streets of Britain's towns on a Saturday night these days!
But Tessa Jowell seems to have taken on the baton for stupidity from Patricia (if you'll just let me finish) Hewitt and if she thinks that the hooded louts terrorising the streets are going to sit placidly in cafes, sucking on their Cappuccinos instead, well, I've got a bridge to sell her.
The common plaint is that “there's nothing to do.” I would suggest that in a small French town there is just as little to do but that the parents, who can still thump their kids, as can the Gendarmerie if they feel it warranted, make good and sure that they are behaving themselves.
And therein lies the root of the problem. It's the family that ultimately is responsible but in Britain all responsibility is taken away from them and replaced with Asbos and rubbish about creating role models. The role models of earlier generations were their parents and what you sow, inevitably you reap.
In all fairness, I have to report that crime has finally come to our part of the world. Yesterday, a hooded gunman held up the Treasury of our local town and decamped, rather embarrassingly, on a scooter with a stash of 2000 Euros. Roadblocks are in place and, if and when they catch him, I bet he doesn't get as ASBO. More likely a few broken bones before he makes it into court.
It's maybe why we don't have much trouble around here.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Humphrey Jennings

It is good to see that the British Film Institute are running a series of the work of Humphrey Jennings.
Jennings was as outstanding a maker of films as any and it is regrettable that so few have had a chance to see his work.
Documentaries have never been fashionable with film goers although this is one area where television has come to the fore, if inadvertently, as they are far cheaper to produce than soap operas.
But Jennings was rather more than a simple documentary film maker. Apart from his many other talents which included poetry and design, he re-created, in the best possible sense of the word, unforgettable images.
His one full length film, “Fires Were Started,” the story of one night of the London blitz used real characters to give a picture of the horrors of aerial bombardment in a way that no other medium could. It could be argued that it was a contrived image but, unlike recent TV programmes which were contrived to deceive, Jennings generated a truthful picture by way of artifice, a very different matter.
He came to film by a circuitous route, only joining the Crown Film Unit at the beginning of the war, where his mentor was John Grierson, a champion of the documentary format. One of his most notable efforts was “Listen to Britain,” a commentaryless kaleidoscope of the sounds of a nation at war.
Sadly, he was killed in an accident in Greece in 1950 whilst working on a film there.
Since then, the art form has languished. Television audiences, now the only real outlet for such work, are treated by most channels as being unable to appreciate anything more cerebral than a simplistic approach.
In Europe, the Arte channel, a Franco-German station, frequently screens worthwhile documentaries but regrettably only in French or German.
So, if you would like to view a gem of realism and to get a feeling for the ordeal suffered by the citizens of the cities of Britain and Europe during the war, go to see “Fires Were Started.”
It is also available on DVD, rather stupidly (in my opinion) renamed “I Was a Fireman,” and is included in a collection of the work of Humphrey Jennings.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Doctor's Lunch

Perhaps nothing encapsulates the moronic thinking of the powers that are on the bridge of the good ship Great Britain these days than the edict by the Scottish NHS that doctors should avoid eating their lunch in front of Muslims during Ramadan. Most certainly it would not have been a Muslim who dreamed up such a piece of idiocy, probably a close relative of the Midlands council member who banned pig symbols on coffee mugs and scratch pads in their offices.
These ridiculous, almost laughable, attempts to pander to a minority do no favours to that group.
In Dubai once, I was being shown round a shopping mall (what else?) by a group of locals during the fast. Around lunchtime, I was feeling faint from lack of nourishment and said “ Hey, fellas, I really have to have something to eat.” Laughing, they joined me at my table and we continued our conversation while I stoked up a little.
Later that evening there was a banquet at their house – to which, regrettably, I was unable to do justice.
I hardly feel that a doctor on his rounds will be stopping at the end of a Muslim patient's bed to devour his Big Mac, nor will any Muslim doctors in the staff canteen object to their Christian counterparts behaving normally as is the custom in what is, after all, their nation.
The vast majority of Muslims are tolerant members of the society in which they live and would regard such “rules” of behaviour for those of different beliefs as ineffably stupid, which, of course, they are.
Taken to its logical conclusion, all bars, pubs and restaurants in Britain should close during the daylight hours of Ramadan – just in case a Muslim should be walking by.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Crime on the Streets

It's fair to say that I've lived an interesting and varied life, including a few exploits that some might consider to be hazardous to one's health.
During the days of the Iron Curtain, I trudged the streets of Moscow, loitered outside the walls of the Lubyanka Prison, and chatted with some of the locals. In Warsaw, during a state visit by Kruschev, I and a companion took a short cut across the main square one night, oblivious to the fact that it was ringed by tanks and soldiery. We got away with it.
In Caracas, Venezuela, I was there when they had one of their routine revolutions and our way to the airport was impeded by burning cars and tanks.
And in the Cite de Soleil, Port au Prince, Haiti, I was given a guided tour at dead of night across the city.
All of the above I accomplished with little more than the odd frisson of alarm.
But one thing that I will no longer do is to walk the streets of a British town at night.
This is a terrible indictment of a nation that not long ago could be held up as an example of the rule of law and order.
Almost daily there are instances of law abiding citizens being robbed, bludgeoned and murdered for no reason on the streets. These instances are, of course, often recorded by the CCTV cameras and presumably these records are of solace to the victim and his or her family but since the perpetrators often record the act on their mobile phone, getting it on film would seem to be a badge of honour, rather like the piffling ASBO.
But little else is to be expected of a government who have unleashed 24 hour binge drinking on their citizens when a glance at the behaviour of soccer supporters abroad should have given them an idea of what to expect. And the so-called “Barmy Army” that follow cricket, so they say, are not much better.
And a court system that can throw a little old lady in jail for refusing to pay her local taxes on account of the service she is getting are happy to give a vapid, useless habitual drug user like Pete Docherty yet another chance when by rights they should have locked him up and thrown away the key. But I forget – he's a role model and a celebrity, so all must be forgiven for, as one judge had the audacity to say to him, “I like your music.”
Britain is a wonderful country for the tourist but all the entry ports should carry a Government Health warning.
“Have a good time – but be sure you're safely in bed by early evening. 'Cos we can't guarantee your safety after dark. Where do you think you are?”
This could be followed by a listing of the major world cities where it is safe to walk the streets at night – and this now includes New York.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A Book at Beach Time

An article in this morning's Daily Telegraph by a correspondent, whose name escapes me, advocates the principle that, if the first few chapters of a book don't grab you, throw it away and start another.
At least, I think that's what he meant. It seems an odd philosophy and one that would consign some of the world's greatest books to the literary dustbin if it were to be widely adopted. And would, of course, deprive a good many readers of a fine reading experience.
He was referring to holiday reading matter and has one valid point. That the reading material claimed to be carried off on their jolly hols by members of the government almost certainly remain unread, most of it looking like hard work. It is surely pure PR stuff.
Authors know full well that the first chapters of their masterpiece must be pretty eye catching for agents and publishers to go any further. Specifically, it should be geared to the office boy or girl who will probably be given first shot at it, the RIP (really important people) in the office preferring to be guided by them as a labour saving measure.
This accounts for much of the tosh that clutters up airport bookshelves, I suspect.
The DT columnist cites the example of a Parisian professor of literature who, whilst quoting James Joyce Ulysses, admits he has never read it.
Who's to blame him? I'm still looking for the reader who has finished it.
But all books that start slowly are not to be easily dismissed and a little perseverance can yield wonderful rewards.
The problem may well be that television and film have created an audience conditioned to instant gratification. It's a medium that demands nothing of its audience, an osmotic process that calls for no cerebral processes, just the ability to stay awake. And, even if that fails, you can probably pick up the story from where you nodded off.
I'm not an expert on holidays, let alone holiday reading matter, since I don't take them (holidays, I mean, not reading matter). This is not due to any puritanical streak or inflated work ethic, it's just that I get bored after 36 hours – and being bored on a beach, well, it's enough to make you chuck away the book you brought with you. Which is, perhaps, the point he was trying to make.
I am something of a bibliophile (my wife refers to it as bibliomaniac and she may well be correct) and for years I thought that it was illegal to leave a bookshop without at least three volumes under your arm. I understand that this law has now been repealed but old habits die hard.
In consequence, I have a fine library but would be the first to admit that many are, as yet, unread. It's just a matter of time.
But I can assure you, even if the opening chapters are not immediately riveting, none will be thrown away.
So if you happen to be sitting on a beach this year and find yourself alongside the aforementioned DT correspondent, watch out!
You might get a boring book in your ear as he tosses it away.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Blair Years

Browsing in a London book store the other day, I spotted, high on a shelf in lonely isolation, a copy of 'The Blair Years' by that master of the googly, Alastair Campbell.
It was marked “reduced,” which I assume referred to the price and not its page count since it looked a pretty hefty tome.
“Pray tell me,” I asked the girl at the register, “How many copies of The Blair Years have you sold?”
I gestured at the lonely volume up on high and she squinted at it vaguely.
“Oh, that,” she said. “We only ordered one – and that's it.”
She seemed hopeful that I might put it out of its misery but I merely patted her on the head and complimented their buyer on his perspicacity in only buying one copy.
I'm sure that when the publishers first signed him up to dish the dirt on the Blairs, they envisaged lines of Daily Mail readers stretching for blocks outside their local Waterstones, all eager to delve into the dirty underwear at Number Ten.
And then Alastair let them down. He took all the good bits out, leaving the potential readership somewhere hovering in the same range as that of Hansard, pocketed his advance cheque and scarpered.
In any event, there was bound to be a degree of scepticism concerning his revelations.
Winston Churchill said that in war, truth had to be protected by a bodyguard of lies, and Campbell had brought the philosophy into peacetime politics with a vengeance.
So who would believe him anyway?
Without much chance of it being a true and faithful account, The Blair Years would have about as much relevance to the period as Bridget Jones Diary.
And there are a good many who would prefer not to remember those years.
Political memoirs are tricky, I suspect, if the reader's attention is to be held. One of the best I can recall is the one by Jock Colville, for many years Churchill's private secretary.
His wartime diary, kept secretly and, incidentally, in defiance of the government regulations at the time, is an engaging insight into the follies, foibles and strengths of the wartime leader and should be read by anyone interested in Churchill and his times.
He had, however, the enormous advantage of a subject immeasurably more interesting than the Blairs who will, I suspect, be rapidly consigned to the dustbin of history.
The diaries of Samuel Pepys have provided us with a window into his seventeenth century world by being brutally honest. I suppose the only thing future historians will gain from accounts such as the Blair Years, along with those of David Blunkett, will be what a dreary old corrupt business politics has become.
Pepys spiced up his work by including all the naughty bits, merely writing them in code, and providing scholars with endless fun in decoding them.
Perhaps Campbell should have done the same, thereby providing us with another great mystery of life to puzzle over, along with that other unanswerable question; why so many people bought the Da Vinci Code, yet another fairy tale.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

The Spanish Airports Authority

Those who don't keep a sharp eye on the financial goings on in the world might be tempted to think that the impressively named British Airports Authority was a British institution with some degree of authority concerning airports.
Turns out that it is neither British nor has the foggiest idea about running airports.
In fact, BAA is run by a bunch of castanet clicking and guitar playing clowns whose favourite music is the ka-ching of cash registers in the shopping malls they own. When they have a spare minute, these shopping malls masquerade as rather unsatisfactory air terminals.
Why a government would allow a facility which acts as the virtual gateway to their nation to be handed over to a foreign company beggars belief.
Now there is no such thing as a good airport and some are worse than others, Nassau in The Bahamas springs to mind, and probably the last satisfied passengers were those who left on the last BOAC flying boat from Southampton Water. Since then it has been downhill all the way.
But if you're going to have a national disaster, surely you should be running it yourself and not abrogating the responsibility to a private contractor in another country?
Renaming it Spanish Airports Authority would be a start and painting the slogan “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” over the portals would alert happy holidaymakers to the sort of treatment they would be receiving within.
The tremendous upsurge in passengers is clearly a problem, but why an airport, which in theory is designed to get people on and off airplanes, should devote so much space to retail matters is a question that deserves an answer.
The temptation is obvious.
Here is a captive and very bored audience, just the sort that retailers love. And here is a chance for the airport operators to make a killing.
So let's stuff in more shops and to hell with the original idea of putting people on airplanes. Flying's for the birds.
And let's not miss out on any opportunity to squeeze the last drop out of the benighted traveller – after all, he's got no other option. As I came through the airport on my way home yesterday, I saw that, if I wanted to repackage my toothpaste, shampoo and nitro-glycerine in one of those handy-dandy plastic bags, they were on sale for 20p.
The Spanish company responsible for the major British (sic) airports is disinterested in investing much unless it is in a few more shopping outlets so I feel some sort of national retaliation is necessary.
Tesco should take over a few choice Spanish airports, starting with Madrid.
Now that would serve them right!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Archimedes Principle

Landlords of pubs in Britain have long been aware that, if you try and put more than a pint of beer into a pint pot, it creates a mess. And upsets the local regulars who find their elbows getting soggy as they lean on the bar.
Archimedes had, of course, found out something similar many years before although he favoured bath water as a medium for experiment, finding that a foreign body or bodies, displaces the stuff that was there originally.
“Eureka,” he cried, and I had always assumed that this was a well know phenomena.
Judging by the British government's reaction to almost unchecked immigration into that fair isle, they've never watched a pint pot overflow nor have they heard of Archimedes.
Britain is a small island, land is at a premium and even if the natives aren't especially fecund, it would seem reasonable to allocate what space, work and benefits there are to them.
When the European Union consisted of states whose economic position was basically on a par, the idea of freedom of movement to work was a fine idea.
With the acceptance of less wealthy states, there was bound to be an efflux from the poorer to the richer. And who's to blame them?
But most of the European nations foresaw the consequences and introduced regulations to curb rampant immigration.
Not so the British who welcome all and sundry with open arms and, according to recent reports, often prefer to give jobs to those other than of British ethnicity. Of course, if you can get in illegally, so much the better, since you can avoid all those irritating bureaucratic regulations such as paying tax, and probably can get accommodation and public assistance into the bargain.
All nations require a degree of immigration to survive. London's East Enders are largely descended from Russian, German and other European émigrés who fled to Britain in the 19th. Century (my maternal great great grandfather was one).
But they were a small percentage of those that now arrive in the islands daily by bus, Eurostar or the underside of long distance lorries.
Britain has the least porous of all borders of EU nations yet seems incapable of protecting the interests of its own citizens.
Winston Churchill once warned of the perils of unchecked immigration from Britain's former colonies. He was denounced as being racist – but he wasn't. Just prescient. A glance at the make-up of the population of Britain's gaols should surely prove his point.
But there is good news for those of us who have to visit from time to time. The influx of cheap labour from Eastern Europe has created a distinct improvement in service in bars and restaurants in London. Their English might not be up to speed, but then neither is that of most of the English I hear, but they seem a good deal more cheerful and hard working than many of the ethnic variety.
So by all means let them stay!

Friday, August 03, 2007

It's the Thought that Counts

Mr. Bush's gift of a US bomber jacket to Mr. Gordon Brown may well go unworn, I suspect. It is, unfortunately, embroidered with the embarrassing advertisement of his name, rank and number, which will make it difficult to dispose of, anonymously, on E-Bay.
Mr. Brown might have reciprocated with a gift of a Battle of Britain pilot's jacket but, since the US president, in a speech to the Air Force College in Colorado, just prior to going to Normandy for the D-Day memorial, told them that World War II had begun on December the 7th. 1941, probably felt it would not have been much appreciated.
Also, we all knew that he already had a flight jacket since he wore one when he zoomed onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 to announce, rather prematurely, the victory in Iraq. The banner behind him read “Mission Accomplished.”
Mr. Bush, it is said, was a history student but not, I assume of recent happenings.
Thus his gift from the British Prime Minister was apposite. A biography of Sir Winston Churchill was an excellent choice, although as I believe he goes to bed around nine o'clock, is not much of a book for bedtime reading. All the ones I have read are pretty hefty tomes.
And I wonder just which of the good many biographies of Britain's wartime leader and icon of the nation he chose to take?
My money would be on Roy Jenkins excellent effort, if only because it dwells much upon Churchill's political history. Jenkins must be one of the more erudite of Socialist politicians and his book, given his inside status for much of the time, is fascinating.
But Philip Ziegler's is, I feel, the more compelling. I doubt that Ziegler could write an uninteresting biography of anyone, and his “Churchill – a Life” is compelling reading.
There is a much earlier book, now often neglected, by Henry Pelling, written in 1974.
Whichever one George got as a present, I hope he gets past the introduction.
“Gee, this is heavy stuff, Laura. Turn out the light, will ya. I'll have another go tomorrow after I've read the National Enquirer.”

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Vive le Croissant!

It is seldom that I read any good news about matters French in the London newspapers but this week there was an item that had me, figuratively, tossing my beret in the air.
For, according to the British press, the French are forsaking their love of croissants and coffee for breakfast and coming around to the Anglo-American way of life where one pours a white liquid, only distantly related to the stuff that came originally from cows, over a pile of a product of the cardboard industry, often sugar coated.
Undoubtedly this must be true since it appears in a newspaper.
But why, you ask, am I so delighted? (if by chance you didn't ask, please go to someone else's piece now).
It comes down to what a military man might refer to as logistics. For in our town there is a baker by the name of Monsieur Barenger who makes the best croissants this side of heaven and probably for a good many light years beyond. I certainly wish him no harm but, when I arrive at the pearly gates, it would be nice to know that he is not too far behind. Paradise would not be the same without a couple of his croissants for breakfast and I'm sure the Almighty could rustle up a decent cup of coffee, given instruction.
Now to the problem. Like most bakers, including probably the one that set fire to London a few years back, M. Barenger gets up early. The school bus arrives in the town square and parks opposite his shop at 7.30. By 8, all the croissants have been swiped by the kids, none of whom have read the British news and thus don't realise how terribly un-chic this is and that they should be adopting the mores of more advanced civilisations.
This means that by the time chez nous has got its act together, all of M. Barenger's delicacies have gone. His baguettes and rolls are wonderful but not as wonderful as his croissants.
Our only relief is on Wednesday when the little blighters have a day off, but as they go to school on Saturday, it's not much consolation.
As they used to say on the bottom of menus in the US, before they poured you a glass of California's least distinguished product to disprove the statement, “A day without wine is like a day without sunshine.” I feel much the same about M. Barenger's croissants.
French children all learn English at school so I am considering placing copies of the news from London on the bus seats to try and steer them in the right direction and show them the error of their ways. But M. Barenger does not serve milk or cornflakes (messy to eat on a bus) so I am doubtful whether this ploy will have any effect.
I'm not sure where the writer of the piece got his statistics, or even if he did, but in our part of France, the young generation still seem to hanker after the croissant. Long may they do so – but I do wish they'd leave a couple over for my breakfast.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A Gleam of Hope

Whatever their political allegiance, Britons must have breathed a sigh of relief to have seen the performance of their un-elected Prime Minister at Camp David. Alongside the President of the United States, who, as one commentator put it rather unkindly, appeared to have dressed himself by way of the local charity shop, Mr. Brown wore a respectably tailored suit, in sharp contrast to his elected predecessor who looked more like an ageing pop star than a statesman, on a similar occasion.
If manners maketh man, a decent suit helps a lot as does addressing people correctly.
Mr. Brown was perfectly correct to address George Bush as 'Mr. President' and not as 'Georgie baby.' It's a subtlety that Mr. Bush has failed to spot, as witness his referring to the President of France as 'my friend Jacques,' when, had he taken note, Mrs. Chirac in public always referred to her husband as 'Monsieur Le President.'
If nothing else, the British Prime Minister's performance will have set the stage for a more useful relationship between the two countries, if not between himself and his present counterpart.
Fortunately for the United States and the rest of the world, Bush has little more time in which to inflict his ideology upon them and, it must be hoped, his successor will have been taking notes.
If I had been Brown, which luckily for all you out there I'm not, I would have taken exception to being mistaken for a humourless Scot. This Texas style folksiness has no place in meetings that concern the fate of many in this world and, it is worth noting, Mr. Bush is hardly Texan anyway. His family moved there from Connecticut to avoid the swingeing taxes in that state.
In America, a friend is someone with whom you have exchanged a few words on one occasion. A good friend is someone you have met twice and a true friend is someone who has bummed twenty bucks from you (or vice versa). It's a confusion of terminology that has fooled many, public or politician.
But there can be little doubt about the wording used by Mr. Brown to describe his meetings with President Bush.
'Full and frank,' which is, of course, diplomatic speak for 'we hardly saw eye to eye on a thing.'
When Mr. Blair met President Bush at Camp David and discussed that vital world topic, their brands of toothpaste, it is possible that, due to the tightness of his jeans, some circulation of blood to the brain was impaired.
Mr. Brown does not seem to have been suffering from the same distressing malady.
But if and when an American President comes avisiting, I suggest he meets him at Heathrow in a golf cart and does a 360 spin for the press.
It's what U.S. Presidents do best.

My book on Anglo-US relations, "Grounds for Divorce," is available from Amazon etc.

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