Saturday, December 29, 2007

Pride and Prejudice

No, not the Jane Austen classic, which personally I always found to be a bit of a bore but the unreasonable nationalistic pride and ridiculous prejudice that surfaces on the many 'have your say' opportunities in the media today. 'Blogs' in particular.
I reckon there should be a law making all citizens live and work in a number of other countries for a while. This might get rid of the stupid and bigoted ideas many still seem to harbour concerning other races, nationalities and creeds.
National pride is one thing, and very admirable too, but the playground style 'my countries better than yours' sort of arguments only serve to reveal a deep insecurity and in many cases a striking ignorance.
By chance I was lucky enough to have lived and worked in a number of different countries and continents and with colleagues of differing complexions. I would be hard pressed to say any one was better than another or that I preferred one to another.
Thankfully, each has it own strengths and weaknesses rather as we all do.
It is customary around this time of year to make some resolutions concerning your next twelve month's behaviour.
More tolerance and understanding should be on everybody's list for 2008.
A happy and prosperous New Year to you all.

Monday, December 24, 2007

An Ignorant Historian

Mr. David Starkey is an expert on Tudor history. But to be a historian does not mean that one needs to be gratuitously rude, although, of course, gratuitous rudeness is his trademark.
His recent unprovoked attack on his Queen should garner him few friends since it was as foolish as it was unnecessary. But rather like a celebrity chef, he has a television series to promote.
His speciality, rudeness apart, is the Tudor period but, had he been living then, I very much doubt that he would have been quite so outspoken. The axe would have been waiting and it is a pity that the old traditions have been done away with.
Comparing anyone, let alone a monarch, to 'an uneducated "housewife" who has simply been left some wonderful possessions, and seemed more concerned with the late arrival of her gin and Dubonnet than the exhibits' (his comments on her at an exhibition) is certainly a demonstration of the educated Mr. Starkey's ignorance of basic good manners. But then, he has his television show to promote.
He also seems a little shaky on some aspects of history since, in trying, quite incredibly, to compare her with Joseph Goebbels, he attributes a quote to him that actually came from Hermann Goering.
And of course attacking someone whom he knows will not, in fact cannot, answer back is merely moral cowardice. You don't have to be brave to be a historian nor, apparently, have a smidgen of manners or respect.
He was born in 1945, the year that his ignorant housewife monarch-to-be was driving and maintaining an ambulance in wartime Britain.
Since then, his ignorant, gin swilling housewife has demonstrated more intelligence and certainly better manners than either Mr. Starkey or many of the members of her government.
The Queen, (you know, the ignorant, gin-swilling housewife) awarded him a CBE this year.
If I were her, I'd ask for it back!
So a Merry Christmas to all, with the possible exception of Mr. Starkey.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Mob Law

In the United States around the end of the 19th. century, saloon-keepers and their customers in the state of Kansas were kept on the edge of their barstools by the activities of a more than usually aggressive temperance zealot. Six feet tall and weighing in at 175 pounds, Carrie Nation pursued her cause with an exceptional enthusiasm, reducing many a bar to matchwood with her woodsman’s axe. Along with her followers, chanting temperance slogans, she decimated a number of drinking establishments and consequently accumulated repeated fines from the courts for her activities, who felt that this was taking temperance a little too far. She paid the fines by charging for her speaking engagements and, more imaginatively, by auctioning off the hatchets she used in this alcoholic mayhem to her followers.
There was, perhaps, some cause for concern with the drinking habits in general of the population of the country which with good reason had become known as the “Alcoholic Republic.” Not for them was the delicate bouquet of a fine wine sought after, American liquor was normally bottled at a robust 80% proof and designed for immediate and profound effect. Prior to the Civil War, the per capita consumption of what was virtually raw alcohol had been calculated at an astounding 7.1 gallons per year per person. Allowing for the fact that relatively few women and no slaves would have been included in this computation, the whole manhood of the nation must have been staggering around in a state of permanent alcoholic bliss. Rather similar to Britain today.
The country could now seem to be in need of a few Carrie Nations as it becomes a Hogarthian experience for anyone foolish enough to walk the streets of its cities at night.
Nothing can surely point up the depths to which this nation has fallen than the advice from the police to some churches to bring their midnight mass on Christmas Eve forward to “avoid trouble.”
So in the eyes of the law, the mobs now rule.
During prohibition Al Capone may have rubbed out a few associates rather unpleasantly but at any rate the citizens of Chicago could walk the streets at night – and go to Midnight Mass.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Slipped Disc in Iowa

The surprising thing about the UK Drivers Licence people losing their data in Iowa, is not that it got lost, but what on earth was it doing in Iowa in the first place?
Surely there must be enough intelligent Central Europeans in the UK who could have marked these papers for them?
And then take Iowa itself. There are a good many Americans who are probably a bit uncertain as to where it is. About the only real advocate for the place was Meredith Wilson who wrote “The Music Man” as something of a tribute to his home state which included a song “The Iowa Way.” Perhaps it was this that swayed the DVLA to ship the information out there – they must have thought it was a safe place for it, a state where a new set of bib and brace overalls and a pair of Tuf boots is regarded as haute couture.
Most of its famous sons and daughters have taken steps to leave it in their rear view mirror as being the best view and it rarely features on the tourist route.
Bill Bryson was born there in Des Moines, the capital, and I'm not sure that he's even been back.
But the question remains. Why was it necessary to involve a company from outside the UK to do what would appear to be a routine job of marking simple exam papers?
I hope that the discs included a handy glossary for the Americans to explain the difference between a hood and a bonnet to say nothing of a trunk and a boot. British learner drivers should, perhaps, be grateful if the standards being applied are those of the United States.
When I took my test there, the questions were hardly challenging.
“Gee, you did real good,” said the lady, “You done ten out of ten right.”

Monday, December 17, 2007

A Christmas Story

Winston Churchill once requested that the eminent sage and philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, be invited to dine with him. By chance, the equally eminent and not much less philosophical songwriter, Irving Berlin, happened to be in town at the same time. In one of those mix-ups so familiar to the present British government, Irving got the invitation.
Predictably, the meal was not a great success. After receiving a few baffling responses to his questions, Winston asked Berlin what he considered to be his greatest success.
After some consideration he replied, “I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas,” at which the Prime Minister relapsed into a puzzled and moody silence.
On being informed of the confusion later, he found it hilarious, which is probably more than poor old Irving did.
But “White Christmas” became for many years the de facto compulsory viewing for the family at Christmas time in the US.
In 1983 however, a film director by the name of Bob Clark, whose previous cinematic efforts had been marked by a singular lack of good taste, made a movie about a boy's wish to receive a BB gun as a Christmas present and the various ploys he used to get around the standard adult objection, “You'll shoot your eye out.”
Set in the late 1930's, it was about as far removed from a Hollywood epic as could be imagined and was, in fact, shot on a low budget in Cleveland and Toronto.
Poorly received initially, it lingered almost unnoticed until released upon tape and later DVD for home consumption when it achieved cult status.
For my money, “A Christmas Story” is one of the most appealing Christmas films ever made and, when we lived in the US, was a much loved feature of the holiday.
For reasons best known to the movie moguls it was never, as far as I know, released in Europe and the only DVD's available are coded for Region One, the US and Canada. Why this should be, I have no idea, in fact I fail to understand the coding business altogether except that it is a means of adjusting the price for the various markets to maximise profits.
If you are lucky enough to have a DVD player that is an “All Region” model, the movie is available from Amazon etc. and, if you're a geek, it is possible to change the region on many models.
The film is well worth viewing if only to see how much of the wonder of Christmas that used to be such a part of children's lives has now been lost.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The French Gravy Train

It is possible to sympathise with those British expatriates in France who are now being asked to fund their own health care – as opposed to having it paid for by the French taxpayer. But the fact is that the only ones affected are those who have chosen to take early retirement and whom thus, one would have thought, could well have afforded to take out some form of health insurance themselves.
It is a fact that many expatriate Brits are here, not for the beer, but for the excellent health service and the French have never ruled against retirees even though they contribute practically nothing to the economy. The problem would seem to lie more on the northern side of La Manche than with the French.
Few French retire to Britain and if they do, I suspect would be quick to hop on the Eurostar back home if they needed serious medical attention, so arguments of reciprocity are not especially valid. There are a good many young French people working in Britain and paying their taxes, as opposed to the far larger number of Brits retired in France who spend their time looking for Heinz Beans and PG Tips in the shops and who make full use of the free health benefits.
If the National Health Service in Britain were in better shape I doubt that the question would even have arisen. Expats would have been glad to return to their own country for medical treatment.
But having lived with a vastly superior system for a while, it is easy to see why many would be upset.
French doctors work long hours, make house calls and, in the case of our own local GP, are rarely home before late evening. Except for the days when he is on call 24 hours.
And his salary? If he makes 50,000 euros he's had a good year, he tells me. It's hardly surprising that we don't have many English doctors here.
But the sheer accessibility of good medical treatment is a huge attraction. Rarely is there a waiting list for treatments although there is almost always a modest charge made. A visit to the doctor is not free as in Britain, a feature that our Doctor says is frequently overlooked by his expat patients!
Although there seems to be a disproportionate fuss being made over the matter – the numbers involved are small – it's understandable if you happen to be one of that number.
But it's equally understandable that there is no reason for the French taxpayer to be lumbered with the health care of those of working age who have voluntarily elected to leave their own country for what they thought were greener pastures.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Princess Diana Inquest

Some weeks ago Parisians were intrigued at the sight of a coachloads of English visitors taking a tour of Paris which included the Alma Tunnel as one of its highlights.
They were, of course, the jurors from the incredibly expensive and valueless enquiry into the death of Princess Diana and her companion at the time.
Most of those of us who have driven in Paris have had a near death experience in the Alma Tunnel so the affair was puzzling to most French who are not unused to death and mayhem on their roads. Added to that was the fact that on the night of the accident the emergency services had performed well and the conclusions of the subsequent inquest had been accepted without question.
Except by a fantasist, wealthy, immigrant owner of a prestigious London store whose son happened to be one of the unfortunate victims.
His suggestion that the accident was an assassination contrived by the British Secret Service must rank as one of the most laughable accusations in history and should have been treated with the contempt it so richly deserved by the authorities.
Even the CIA, not always highly regarded for their smarts after they tried to kill Castro with an exploding cigar, would appreciate that a road accident is about the least reliable of all attempts to dispose of an unwanted person. The Russians are far better at it.
But as the pantomime evolves at the taxpayers expense, it is interesting to speculate that, had the Princess's companion been Joe Bloggs from a council estate somewhere in Heckmondwyke, would there have been the slightest chance of the matter being re-investigated?
No, I thought as much.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Merry You Know What!

Now that Christmas seems to have been officially abolished in Britain in favour of a celebration of retail mayhem and political correctness, it is pleasing to record that here in France the age old festival is as popular as ever.
In our village, the workers have been swarming up ladders, a hazardous occupation that would make the authorities in Britain weep, in order to string lighted banners across the road proclaiming “Joyeux Noel,” our Mayor has placed 4 foot Christmas trees with dummy presents at the door of every establishment in town and, please note, these are not secured in any way. As far as I know none have been lost in recent years.
The town is en fete and on their delivering my calendars from the volunteer firemen, les sapeurs pompiers, and from our postman, all wish me, not a “merry winterval,” but Joyeux Noel. The French will never let “political correctness” get in the way of a good party. And neither should the British.
But perhaps it was ever thus. During the Hundred Years War (you do remember that, don't you?) Jean Froissart wrote “The English in France enjoy themselves in their usual miserable fashion.” He was something of an Anglophile so it has the ring of truth about it and this view was confirmed for me by an article in a tabloid newspaper today (It had to be true, it was in the Daily ......). This listed the favourite programmes that the Brits would be watching on Christmas , oops, sorry, Winterval Day television. Good grief, they watch TV 364 days in the year – surely to goodness they could give it a miss for one day? Perhaps they might talk amongst themselves, as families used to, instead of watching repeats of hoary old standbys. Better still, the TV stations could close down for the day – some of them perhaps permanently!
Viewing Britain from afar, and this is probably the safest way at present, is like watching an old and valued friend losing their marbles. Seeing the dreary descent of a formerly outstanding nation into a jobsworth and CCTV controlled Stalinist regime (without the same degree of law and order) is a depressing sight.
Even pantomime is not immune to the joylessness of Britain today. The sweets, formerly tossed into the auditorium for children to catch, will now be distributed by ushers moving amongst the audience, no doubt wearing surgical gloves. It is to be hoped that they are distributed correctly according to ethnic groups to avoid upsetting anyone.
And I would caution children against booing too loudly or perhaps in the wrong place. There may be an ASBO awaiting you on your way out.
And it was not always this way. The world of Charles Dickens was an imperfect one but there was no criticism of Tiny Tim when he said:
“God bless us – every one.”
It was the spirit of Christmas – and so it should remain.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Weekend Entertainment

When I was young, I thought that my father was the wisest man in the whole world. And with the passage of the years I found no reason to change my early opinion.
He had a modest but wonderfully eclectic library to which, as a boy, I had unfettered access. One of my favourites was “The Weekend Book.”
This was first published in 1926 and proved extremely popular during what might be referred to as the long weekend between the world wars. Thinking adults during this period must have realised they were living on borrowed time I feel and weekends were a hedonistic outlet for many.
The Weekend Book was a compendium of practically everything one needed for entertainment in those halcyon days when people did things as opposed to supinely watching television or playing computer games.
Tips for country rambling (with appropriate notes on the law of trespass), recipes for cocktails and cures for any subsequent hangovers were intermingled with snatches of Shakespeare, poetry, prose, limericks and clerihews plus innumerable indoor entertainments to while away any wet and windy days.
There was even a Junior Weekend Book with notes on building camp fires and making rafts and boats together with all sorts of dangerous suggestions that would give today's Elfnsafety brigade night terrors.
Many years after my father's death, I was turning the pages idly and came across a section at the back of the book where there was a self assessment form. It listed various qualities and asked that you scored yourself out of ten. My father had completed this with his accustomed modesty, giving himself mediocre scores until the column marked “tolerance” where he wrote “ten out of ten.”
Perhaps this is why I considered him so wise!
After a hiatus of fifty years, The Weekend Book is back. Buy one for Christmas (no, I'm not on commission) and make sure you complete the self assessment form at the back.
“Know thyself” adjured the Oracle of Delphi.
It's not a bad idea.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Teddy Bear's Picnic

Finally, it seems that the British Prime Minister has had something to say of note. Welcoming the release of the British teacher, Miss Gibbons, by the Sudanese authorities he said, “Common sense has prevailed.” It might have been more encouraging had he been able to say the same of his own government but that would be expecting too much, I suppose.
Once again the Muslim community has got an undeserved black eye on account of the actions of a small percentage of their community. Every human faction has more than its fair share of loonies and I doubt that Muslims have any more than most.
But whilst the initial reaction of the government of Sudan was deplorable, nobody seems to have questioned the common sense of Miss Gibbons.
Surely to goodness she was not so unaware of the significance of the name Muhammad that it did not occur to her just how inappropriate naming a stuffed animal would be?
Children are routinely named so as a compliment to the prophet, the same can hardly be said of a stuffed animal modelled on a former president of the United States.
Even the excuse that it was named, not after the prophet but a boy in her class, hardly flies. Surely it would be inequitable to have selected one boy's name over another?
Quite why anyone from Liverpool would want to go and work in the Sudan is another question. In 1885 General Gordon found it extremely inhospitable and, in terms of attractiveness, Liverpool wins by a short head.
I hope that when she returns to teaching in Liverpool and the same subject arises, pupils will vote to call their stuffed animal, Jesus Christ.
“Oh no, dears,” I'm sure she'll say, “that would be most inappropriate.”