Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Matter of Taste

The news that Tokyo now has more Michelin starred restaurants than Paris has barely raised a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. Perhaps the fact that a good many of the joints boasted French cuisine had something to do with it – but what on earth is “French cuisine?”
Describing a restaurant menu as though it's umbilically attached to some nation or other strikes me as being food snobbery of a high order.
France, for instance, has more regional variations of food than they have cheeses not to mention India and China whose many variations rarely make it into the kitchens of the local eating house in Britain.
Tikka Masala and Balti are purely British dishes and Chop Suey came from San Francisco.
Say Japanese and you immediately think of raw fish – that's if you can bear to think of it at all – but there's much more to their food than one finds in the trendy sushi joints in London. When dragged into one of these, I always emerge looking for a decent fish and chip shop as a matter of some urgency.
And Italian is not only mounds of pasta washed down with Chianti from one of those cute straw covered bottles.
I'm off to London later today and I doubt that I will be eating in a Michelin starred establishment nor, if I can help it, in one owned by some ponced up former cook who prefers spending time in front of the television cameras to sweating away in a kitchen.
And I'm not too bothered about the nationality of the chef as long as he can cook.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Dodgy History

It is to be hoped that the savants of Oxford come to their senses and cancel the proposed debate with Mr. David Irving on free speech.
Undoubtedly this is a subject dear to his heart but it would seem to be an unnecessary opportunity for him to once again inflict his bizarre views on the public.
Although I have never met him, I was at school with his much more sensible older brother, whose views could not be more diametrically opposed and who now disowns him, as does his twin.
But the real tragedy is that David was a jolly good writer. His books are both well researched and highly readable, the fault lying in his twisting of facts and events to promote his own rather unpleasant agenda.
Historians are of necessity bound to be as objective as is humanly possible, not propagandists for their own ends. I doubt that any one of us can truly dissociate ourselves from our opinions, Churchill, for instance, who was in many ways a fine writer of history, was not averse to presenting his side of the case.
And many exhibit a patriotic streak when recounting events, such as the late Stephen Ambrose. But no historian will deliberately distort the facts to provide a basis for their own ideas.
And this is where Irving has come unstuck. His pandering to the former Nazi regime has given him much access to the writings of former members who were no doubt delighted to find that they had a champion in him and thus handed over material that they would have been loth to part with to some other, more objective, researcher.
When dealing with recent history, it is inadvisable for any writer to play fast and loose with the truth, as he has found out in numerous lawsuits, which he has invariably lost.
His research into German archives has been both extensive and fruitful.
It's just such a pity that he did not become a true historian instead of a rabble rouser.
And the Oxford Union would do well to spot the difference.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Fruits of Failure

It's too late now, of course, but I find that over the years I have been completely misled. I blame this on my parents and schoolmasters who drummed it into me that, to be a success in life, one had to be good at your job.
This archaic hangover from the ethos of a Victorian era might have been acceptable for the 20th. Century but for the 21st. it's a non-starter.
Take for instance, the job of managing a football team. It is an acknowledged fact that I am unable to tell one side of a football from another but I am equally assured that I could have done a better job than the late incumbent. And where is he now? Building his villa in Barbados.
And the former boss of a bank, who conclusively proved that he should not have been allowed out unsupervised with a post office savings book, has trousered a handsome sum for his retirement by losing a large chunk of change for his investors.
Let's not get into politics but, as I know nothing of them, I would have been ideal for the post of deputy prime minister. Two jags, a chauffeur and a secretary to bonk at the taxpayer's expense – I don't know how I was overlooked.
Then perhaps there's the job of managing security at a large government department. Provided you are sufficiently incompetent to cock the whole thing up, there's a handsome performance bonus for you at the end of the day.
So you can see that all this striving to become good at your job is a complete waste of time. The government are now coming round to this way of thinking by making the A-level examinations harder. This means that the pass rate will be whittled down a bit from the current near 100% to say 97%.
This 3% are destined for great success, I feel.
And, come to think of it, for two and a half million quid, I could put up with being booed at Wembley and even being referred to as “the wally with the brolly.”
It's just one of the fruits of failure.

Friday, November 23, 2007

A Kindle at Bedtime

Why anyone would want to call their electronic book reading device, Kindle, beats me. But then I never understood why they called themselves Amazon anyway.
For many of us who are destined to spend much of their working day peering at a computer screen, there's not much of an attraction there. The allure of E-Books, like many other things in this life, has eluded me but Amazon clearly think there are plenty out there who will find this useful.
But it's an expensive piece of kit and I would find it worrying that, in the space of not a lot of nanoseconds, something will supersede it.
The landfills of the world are bulging with discarded bits of technology that have, like mayflies, had a brief but cheerful existence. Floppy discs, eight tracks, Betamax, VHS videos and hundreds more spring to mind.
The electronic format does have its uses. If I printed out all the manuscripts that arrive in my inbox there would be a nasty hole in the rainforests of the world and so, initially, I am doomed to read these on screen. But to do any serious editing, proof reading or writing, I have to print out those that seem worthwhile.
And, with the long winter evenings coming upon us, I can't envisage myself curling up on the couch in front of the log fire with a glass of wine and a good kindle.
I'm not sure where the thing is being made but if it's in China, the instructions should be worth reading and provide many hours of innocent amusement.
Then when the darn thing quits, and being electronic and solid state, no doubt, that is written in the stars, I suppose you send it to the aforesaid landfill along with the other junk. You might just as well. There's no point in keeping it for future generations – it won't work for them as something better and more gee-whiz will have come along.
But the technology of Gutenburg, Caxton and all the rest will still be around.
So I will be leaving my library to my children – they won't need a Kindle to read the books in the years to come.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Slipped Disc

It could happen to any of us and so I have a touch of sympathy for Her Majesties Britannic Government when it transpires that they could not keep on eye on the wonderful Information Technology that we all rely upon.
Take my own case, for instance. Now I am the first to admit that my office is a little less extensive than that of the department in question, measuring some 14 by 12, much of which is taken up by a grand piano. And here, if I might digress, I would put in a good word for grand pianos in general as opposed to the more modest upright. You can store a lot more documents and assorted bric a brac on a grand and, if they had had one, that's probably where the missing discs would be. Works for us.
Also my staff, including me but excluding the dogs, amounts to two, making it difficult to put the blame on a junior employee if anything goes missing.
But missing they go. Especially computer discs.
Here the problem is that they all tend to look alike, a bit like some oriental nations.
“Have you seen the XYZ disc?” I ask.
“No, what does it look like?”
“Oh, usual sort of thing. Round, silvery with a hole in the middle.”
“No, I mean what was it called?”
“Well, actually, it didn't have a name. I couldn't find the marker pen.”
And so we go off on a merry chase, checking on drink coasters where they often seem to wind up.
In some ways we are more ahead of the game than the government department in question. Instead of putting any password on a slip of paper inside the package when we send a disc anywhere, we don't bother. Any self respecting geek could crack it anyway.
And this week we had a crisis due to a loss of information, not I suppose strictly comparable to that facing the Prime Minister and Chancellor but domestically serious enough.
The disc containing our Christmas card list has gone walkabout.
Now we are unable to tell whether this is still on the grand piano or has fallen into the hands of international criminals.
So if your Christmas card from us this year comes from somewhere with a funny postmark, alert Interpol.
And, unless the disc shows up, you might not be getting one at all from us.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

An Incredible Talent

A Sunday paper had an article that got my attention this weekend. Apparently, I and a good many others were being unkind to poor old Amy Winehouse. The dear girl needed our support since, so the writer claimed, she had “incredible talent.”
I was embarrassed. I realised that in spite of my remarks about the lady in question, I had never experienced her “incredible talent.” One must always be fair minded I feel and appreciative that one man's ris de veau is another man's offal. For instance, the music of Schoenberg does not appeal to me – but I can appreciate its quality.
So I turned to YouTube so that I could have the experience of a touch of Winehouse.
What I found was a rather unattractive lady, bedecked with tattoos and looking as though a good scrub down might do no harm, who sang some not unpleasant but unremarkable songs in a reedy nasal voice.
I struggled through several of her performances and, failing to find any trace of “incredible talent,” turned to the masterworks of one, P. Doherty. After all, a magistrate had let him off a spot of chokey because she liked his music. I must say, although personally I would have jailed him on the spot, I found his efforts marginally more acceptable and they would have gone down a treat at a local talent contest.
YouTube I find to be an invaluable resource, not only for educating oneself on the taste, or lack of it, of modern popular icons but as a wonderful repository of old newsreels. For instance, researching for a book on Nazi Germany, I had the transcript of a speech by Joseph Goebbels. On YouTube, I found the newsreel of the same speech, bringing it to life for me. For a historian, it's almost as good as having been there.
But after my depressing venture into Winehouse territory, I stumbled upon a clip from an old Morecambe and Wise show. You old age pensioners out there may recall the episode where that most attractive and competent of BBC newsreaders, Angela Rippon, performed a song and dance act with Eric and Ernie.
Now that was an “incredible talent.”
And most remarkably, none of them appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs and, as far as I could see, there wasn't a tattoo amongst them.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

A Royal Blessing

As “Fortress Britain” puts up the shutters and becomes the world's most repressive democracy, it's puzzling to see an island nation that has such porous borders. Surrounded by an inhospitable sea, it should have been a pretty easy matter to keep out undesirables in much the same way as a moat around a castle used to, as Shakespeare mentioned.
Blessings in the now beleaguered isle take a bit of finding to count, but there is one that is the envy of much of the civilised world. Britain has a Royal family of outstanding qualities whose value to the nation can never be overestimated.
In fact, for nearly two hundred years, Britain has been blessed with a succession of heads of state whose intelligence and common sense have proved to be of immense value, particularly now when government appears to be seriously lacking in both qualities.
The one possible exception, King Edward VIII, popular but feckless, was a narrow escape and for this the United States should be thanked for their contribution, a contribution more valuable than the later Lend Lease programme. As schoolchildren carolled that Christmas:

“Hark, the herald angels sing,
Mrs. Simpson's pinched our King.”

Monarchy is a dodgy form of government and early exponents often let matters go to their head – sometimes resulting in their losing them.
But Britain's constitutional monarchy is, by any standards, a roaring success and it is hard to imagine how matters will be following the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
But then, at the end of the 19th. Century, Queen Victoria agonised over how the nation would manage when her playboy son took over. “What will become of the nation?” she wrote in her diary.
She need not have worried. King Edward VII proved to be a monarch of great ability and charm.
There is much talk of finding role models for the youth of Britain. For the virtues of honesty and hard work, it should not be necessary to look further than to the Royal family.
But I suspect that the likes of Pete Docherty and Amy Winehouse will prevail.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Make Mine a Veuve Clicquot

It only goes to show just how mistaken you can be. Just as I was always told that you can't judge a book by its cover, I see now that my impressions of the British binge drinker were totally erroneous.
Wrongly, I had assumed that the hordes of youths vomiting on pavements and the legless ladies in the gutters were symptomatic of the results of 24 hour drinking and sales of lager at 22 pence a can.
But I must apologise for I am told by no less an authority than a Minister of State, the delightfully named Dawn Primarolo (formerly known as Red Dawn until she needed a job with new Labour), that this is just an example of the success of the government plan to convert Britain to a European cafe society.
Apparently, the real threat comes not from gangs of drunken yobs on the streets as you thought but from a much more sinister region.
Behind the drawn curtains and closed doors of suburbia, it seems that every night there are scenes of unbridled alcoholic debauchery as Mr. and Mrs. Everyman get stuck in to the latest two for one offer from Tesco. Zinfandel flows like water, nouveau Beaujolais is delivered by fast truck and decadent games of Scrabble restricted to words to do with bibulous subjects are all the rage. Even Monopoly has made a comeback with railway stations being replaced by well known distilleries.
Miss Primarolo paints a ghastly picture of this closet decadence and, whereas I had vowed to stay off the city streets at night, now I find that I may be in greater danger from a stroll past a load of respectable semis. Who knows, I might be dragged in to join one of the vinous orgies that take place nightly?
Which brings me, by Eurostar naturally, to St. Pancras Station, a magnificent feat of preservation and the newspapers are full of excitement that Britain has entered the High Speed Train era, albeit 25 years too late.
But the item touted most prominently might well be symptomatic of the British attitude to drinking, for they proudly boast that the station has the longest champagne bar in Europe.
I hate to rain on their parade but might I ask why?
Does one start at one end and work your way up the line until you are legless and can then sleep it off on the train?
And, although I have lived much of my life in Europe, I can't recall having seen a champagne bar, long or short, even in Reims.
Miss Primarolo should get down there a bit sharpish I would suggest. Sounds just the sort of hangout for the middle classes that she's talking about.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Truth....and nothing but

In bygone years, governments felt that they had a moral obligation to tell the electorate the truth, promptly and accurately.
Otherwise Neville Chamberlain might well have decided that on September 3rd. 1939, the government were not yet ready to tell the people that they were at war. It might have produced a negative reaction from the media, so to speak, and so they could have hushed it up until after Christmas so as not to upset the shoppers.
How naïve were governments then! They just blundered on, telling the people the truth in their own fuddy duddy way, not even bothering to see if there was a handy spin doctor around or a dodgy mathematician to massage the news and the numbers.
Miss Smith, the Home Secretary, must feel embittered about having been caught out and pilloried over such a triviality as the fact that anyone can wander in and get a job in a government department whether they are legally entitled to work or not..
No doubt, an enquiry will be convened, this being something that the British government are really good at as it is an admirable modern substitute for action.
Surely a good start would have been to deport all those found to be working illegally forthwith? But no doubt, even if they have been relieved of their jobs, they will be in line for social benefits.
In the United States, I was always faintly resentful of being referred to as a “Resident Alien,” visualising myself as a little green man with antennae sprouting from my head, but I had an ID card, with a very unflattering picture of me (all pictures of me are, in my opinion, unflattering) along with my thumbprint and a Social Security number. This entitled me to work and was a simple means for an employer to ensure that I was indeed legal.
It seems the employer is responsible for ensuring the bona fides of an applicant so it is not surprising to find that, in many cases, it was the government who were the employer of these illegal immigrants.
Now I wonder, who will pay any fines that are levied?
Yes, you got it right first time.
You will.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Olympia - Stratford Style

“Ooh, goody, mummy's made uth a lubbly blancmange in the shape of the new Olympic Stadium.”
“Oh, no, darling, it's just that the stadium was designed by the same people that make the jelly moulds.”
“I thee.”
The design for the new stadium has garnered praise from the builders, the designers, and the over-compensated Olympic Committee, who have voted themselves a “performance bonus” on the strength of it. That, together with the five star rating from the Association of Jelly Mould Manufacturers for the most innovative jello pudding of the year, will assure its success and all of you have paid for it can keep your opinions to yourselves, thank you very much! Who asked you?
It so happens that, as part of my research for a book concerning Germany between the wars, I viewed some of the films of Leni Riefenstahl. One of these was her coverage of the Berlin Olympics in 1936, “Olympia,” and even the opening ten minutes where the camera wanders through the ruins of ancient Greece are worth the price of admission. By any stretch of the imagination, it is a marvellous work that conveys the impressive organisation and planning that the Nazis put into this showpiece for the regime.
A. Hitler Esq., was a pretty nasty piece of work but he and his satraps knew how to hold a party!
The stadium itself was something that the Greeks might well have been proud of with much natural stone used in the construction as well as the inevitable concrete. It was a gracious building set in park like surroundings, the stadium alone having seating for 110,000. Werner Mazch was the architect and he managed to avoid some of the excesses that Albert Speer might have been tempted into.
If the British Olympic committee wished to record the proceedings, they would do well to find a latter day Leni Riefenstahl but, given the lack of taste shown so far, they would probably plump for Michael Winner, with an opening sequence of him arriving in his Rolls Royce with a popsie on each arm. This could be followed by shots of him with his arm around a short order chef from one of the food outlets to go with a revue in the Sunday Times.
The Berlin Stadium still stands. When I visited it some years ago it was about to be refurbished. Remarkably, it suffered little damage during the war and only the bell tower is lost, burned down in a later fire.
It is a popular sporting venue and is in constant use.
But of course, they didn't build it in Stratford, E.15.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Fresh Fields.......

......and Pastures new. Having been an immigrant myself on a number of occasions, I have a degree of sympathy for all those who wish to re-locate to another jurisdiction. However, as Britain seems to be in an uproar over those that are arriving on their shores, it occurs to me that when I have needed to do the same to other jurisdictions, there have been hoops I had to jump through.
If I wanted to work, I had to prove that I would not be taking the job away from an indigenous member of the community.
Alternatively, I had to prove that I had sufficient financial resources that I would not become a charge upon the state. Shrewdly, many demanded that I held a return ticket so that I could be shipped back whence I came at no cost to the public should it be deemed necessary.
I always found these conditions, if personally irritating, to be soundly reasoned. The United States were especially fond of the first, when one had to advertise the job you were applying for several times before being assured that you did indeed have some special skill that would benefit the nation and not throw an American out of work.
But it is the second that should surely be applied to those wishing to enter the UK. The attraction for so many (not, I would hasten to add, those that are genuinely seeking work. The standard of service in London bars and restaurants has taken a quantum leap with the arrival of the Eastern Europeans) is that social benefits are easy to obtain, courtesy of the British taxpayer.
On my last visit, I did notice that the authorities have taken a positive step to tighten up on those arriving on their shores. The Immigration Officers now have uniforms! This will clearly be a great deterrent to any undesirable entering the country.
The fall back argument over any stupidity practised by government is that it is the fault of Brussels and the EU. But the Italians, often regarded scornfully by Brits, have shown that this is not so. They have upheld the right of any nation to kick out their undesirables, regardless of EU guidelines. And in this case, they have the support of Brussels. The French have already done so following the riots in Paris and Britain should follow suit.
Talking of Brussels, you may have noticed that this is located in the little, densely populated nation of Belgium.
For the last 150 days or so, they have been without a government and things are running as smoothly as ever, probably more so.
As one Belgian remarked to me, “We seem to be getting along rather nicely without any politicians.”
Now there's a thought!

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Plague of Yellow Jackets

My friends at our local gendarmerie are still wetting their culottes over the news that the Metropolitan Police have been chastised, not for shooting an innocent man, but for breaking Health and Safety Rules.
“Ho,ho,ho,” they say – in French, of course – “Now we know the British are crazy.”
And I can only assume that the same rules are responsible for the serious outbreak of the yellow jacket disease that I have spotted on my recent visits to that “sceptre’d isle… set in a silver sea,” a quotation which proves that Shakespeare had never been to Skegness.
It seems that anybody who is anybody at all in the public sector now has to wear a jacket that makes them look like a ruptured canary.
Whether this is to make them safer or to make them a more easily recognised target, I’m not too sure. But when you wanted to know the time you used to ask a policeman so I’m told. Enquiring from someone wearing a yellow jacket may not prove to be quite as satisfactory since many will simply be jobsworths in some public appeasing task such as a Police Community Officer who clearly will not know the time of day except when it comes to pay day.
It would be interesting to see the statistics, say for instance, of traffic wardens who were killed whilst not wearing the aforesaid jacket compared with those now they do. We would have to leave assaults from enraged motorists out of this since the numbers would be too high, I suspect.
As the Health and Safety campaign shows no signs of abating, it can only be a matter of time before such hazardous occupations such as school teacher, housewife and librarian will be forced to wear the garb.
And, if it’s such a good thing, shouldn’t the government, so over protective of its citizenry, issue them to all and sundry?
British citizens only, of course, which will help to keep the costs down considerably as there aren't many left.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The Lessons of History

In 1945, as the Russian armies were closing in on Berlin, Joseph Goebbels found time to pen a piece entitled “History as a Teacher.” If he proposed showing this to his Fuhrer, one wonders how he would get around his boss's myopia over Napoleon and his precipitate retreat from Moscow.
But, inasmuch as we should learn from history, he was undoubtedly correct. And the British troops now struggling in Afghanistan might reflect that perhaps their leaders would have done well to read up on the history of the North West Frontier.
But unless it is as accurate as possible, history can be valueless. The further we go back in time, of course, the more difficult this becomes. Personally, I've always had my doubts about the legionnaire who jumped ashore during Caesar's invasion of Britain crying allegedly:
“Jump down, comrades, unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy. It shall be told that I at any rate did my duty to my republic and my general.”
It sounds too much to me like the work of a contemporary spin doctor, probably Caesar himself who was an early practitioner of the art.
But with recent events, there should be no such doubt. Unfortunately, popular media has not proved to be too fussy when it comes to facts, patriotic jingoism often being allowed to distort the truth.
Hopefully, a new documentary movie, “In the Shadow of the Moon,” the story of NASA's moon landing, will prove otherwise, although I'm not too optimistic.
To me it was a magnificent achievement, although I must admit to having doubts as to its value to man, but as an example of technical achievement and personal courage, it was of the highest order.
But perhaps NASA, who tend to forget their beginnings, might pay tribute to Wernher von Braun, whose dream it was to put a man on the moon, long before the rest of the world, other than Jules Verne, had even considered it.
Von Braun, captured at war's end and hastily de-nazified pro bono US publico so he could work for them, provided the technological leap into space as he had done with the V2 rocket.
And let us not forget the thousands of slaves who laboured in the Hartz mountains at the Mittelwerke plant, and died producing these early rockets, a fact that must have been known to von Braun, especially as one of the de-nazified colleagues working alongside him at White Sands for the Americans had been the works manager there.
America's success in space has a legacy of blood and horror which should not be forgotten.
Come to think of it, my parent's had the roof blown off their house in 1945 by one of von Braun's missiles.
I suppose that was their contribution to the moon landings.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Financial Freedom - at last!

The last few days I've been a bit lax in putting pen to paper or digit to keyboard. After a week away, I returned to find my E-Mail in-box bursting at the seams. Much of it was the inevitable Spam but there was also a large amount of really good news that I must share with you.
It seems inevitable that I shall become independently wealthy very shortly or, as many websites put it, achieve financial freedom. Hence my reluctance to waste my time writing stuff which until now has been my main source of income.
I have received a confidential mail from HON. CHIEF OJO MADUEKWE, Minister of Foreign Affairs. He doesn't actually say which country he is the foreign affairs minister of but I'm sure he knows. Although he asked me to keep it quiet I'm sure I can rely upon your discretion when I say that he is about to deposit $5 million into my account once I give him the details.
Then there's Mr. Alexandro Benjamino Solarino the Chief Auditor Department of Mineral Resources FALKLAND ISLAND SOUTH ATLANTIC.
He writes: “I will be grateful to have you as my foreign partner to enable us carry out a deal of Eight million two hundred thousand Great Britain Pounds (£8,200,000.00)” and promises me 40 % of the deal.
Mrs. Ing Chuny Liu of the International Lotto writes to tell me that I have won a Toyota Car plus $2,500,000 in cash and I don't even have to produce the ticket which is just as well as I don't recall buying one.
My fame is obviously wide spread since Mr.Tang Chang, Chief accountant and credit officer of the Bank of East Asia, Hong Kong needs me to help him with the account of the late Mrs. Nina Wang, promising me 40% of the $16 million she left rather carelessly in her account when she died.
So you see my days as a struggling writer are over, for this is just a modest selection of the largesse shortly coming my way for minimal effort on my part.
Lest you should think that I don't look to my future, this is equally well provided for since I have been offered the chance to participate in a number of reverse pension plans.
This radical idea means that I don't have to wait years to collect. For a modest $45 or so, the company dishes out $50,000 or so almost immediately. Mind you, none of them have done so yet due to a number of irritating hiccups but I'm sure they mean well.
I feel that P.T. Barnum may have seriously over estimated the intelligence of man.
But meanwhile, I've reserved slip 467 in the La Napoule Marina just outside Cannes and I'll let you know when my yacht is safely moored there.

For those who enjoy baiting the scammers, Brad Christensen has got a lot of mileage by responding to their letters with hilarious results. Read them at http://www.quatloos.com/brad-c/directory01.htm