Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Trashure Island

Never in the field of garbage collection has one nation got its knickers in such a twist over the simple, if smelly, task of picking up its trash.
It seems that Britons are the world leaders in producing the stuff, which is not surprising when you visit a supermarket. Nothing, apparently, can be presented au naturel. It has to be shrink wrapped in some clear plastic and seated on a bed of rather less clear plastic, none of which is edible (this sometimes includes the contents) and thus has to be thrown away.
And the throwing away part is no easy matter, since those employed to cart it are highly skilled professionals. An overfilled bin is an insult to their craft as is one where the alignment of the wheelie on the pavement does not conform to the council’s specification.
The shock and horror that faced some sanitary operatives who returned to work after having been on strike for a week can only be imagined. There was a plethora of bins, up to their microchips and overflowing with the additional garbage that had accumulated.
Naturally, in the face of such moral turpitude on the part of the householder, they refused to empty them.
I spent a good many years in a country that was as close to Third World as I care to get. Not much worked in the area of public services with one notable exception.
Our trash was collected with impressive regularity each week – and moreover in any container that we liked to dump it in.
If our trash can was not outside the house on collection day, they would come into the yard to look for it. Mind you, there was a bit of a downside to this as it meant we had to chain down anything moveable lest it be mistakenly identified as trash in their eyes.
But we never had a problem with their collecting the stuff.
In Paris last week, as I was walking to catch the Metro, they were picking up the garbage. It was a sight that would bring tears to the eyes of any British Council Sanitary Worker (aka Dustmen)
For these Gallic traitors to their profession were picking up bins without testing to ensure that they could be moved with two fingers, throwing in bags that were clearly not of the specified colour and quality demanded by British councils and, horror upon horror, actually collecting stuff left out in all manner of cardboard boxes.
And some of the items were so heavy that any self respecting British operative would be able to claim his disability allowance just on the strength of it.
Clearly we have much to learn in Europe on the subject.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Square Bashing

One of the solutions often advocated to the problem of Britain’s yobbish youth is the bringing back of National Service. And certainly, on the face of it, it seems a sound idea.
Due to an accident of birth, I found myself the proud possessor of a British passport, one of the unlisted benefits of which was that I was entitled, absolutely free of charge, to a minimum sojourn of two years as a member of the armed forces of the United Kingdom.
In this respect I was luckier than a friend of mine from Newcastle. On the strength of having a German mother he had opted to take German nationality. Much to his horror, he found himself drafted into the Wehrmacht, despite not speaking a word of German.
The location for my indoctrination into the ways of the military was RAF West Kirby, on the Wirral peninsula. As I had already been the beneficiary of several years at an English boarding school, I was rather better placed to survive than many of my fellows.
Out of curiosity, the other day I Googled ‘West Kirby’ and there was an aerial view of the camp. I had never realised how big it was, but then, during my time there, we were too busy polishing things to do much sightseeing.
Then I found a fascinating article by Don Adams who had been a recruit there.
In it he described all the horrors I remembered only too well, as well as a few that had mercifully been erased by the mists of time.
I could smell the brasso, the blanco and the boot polish along with that strange odour, redolent of dead bodies, that emanated from the cookhouse, just like it was yesterday.
Those of us that survived those ten weeks emerged as far, far better beings than when we first passed through the gates of West Kirby, I am sure.
But how could this happen in today’s state of supreme nannydom?
For a start, it seems that every day I was there, my human rights were violated at least ten times.
Then there was the racial and ethnic abuse:
“Oi, ‘op to it, you ‘orrible little frog!” to say nothing of the homophobia: “Yer marching like a bunch of effing poofters.”
No, no Nanny. It would never do. The Drill Instructors need serious counselling.
And this is before we get to the Health and Safety issues. There are not enough clipboards in that department to record the daily breaches that occurred during my stay there.
Those of you that experienced the joys of National Service and wish to recapitulate the delights of ‘square bashing’ will appreciate Don Adams very accurate article. And for the rest of you, I am sure you will agree that nothing else will be sufficient to drum some sense and discipline into the yoof of today.
Don’s website is at:

Friday, July 18, 2008

In Vino with Difficulty

Surrounded as we are by vineyards, a sight that would bring a flutter to the heart of any oenophile, you would expect that buying the stuff would be a walk in the park, or at least a vineyard.
In Britain, you can wander into any plonk-selling establishment, pick up a few bottles, check on any BOGOF offers and depart in the flutter of a credit card.
But here, in the heart of the wine country, it’s not that easy unless, of course, you go to a supermarket.
Almost every vigneron sells direct to the public. But the first challenge for the public is to catch your vigneron, for most are one or two man or woman operations and, just when you want to place your order, there they, a few hectares away, pruning their vines and out of earshot.
The other day, we needed to re-stock our wine racks and sallied forth to our neighbour, Jacques, from whom we buy all our drinking plonk. He produces a complete range from a sparkling Saumur to a sweet, dessert wine, the Coteaux du Layon, all of excellent quality, from his 14 hectares of vines.
It’s only a hundred metres to his establishment and we are in luck. There he is, fiddling with one of the giant machines that now are involved in wine making. No more happy peasants dancing barefoot in barrels.
“You are busy, Jacques?”
“Ah, oui.”
“Can we buy some wine?”
“But of course.”
We are equipped with our order, duly filled out, and a bundle of Euro notes in the other hand.
“You will taste, yes?”
“No, Jacques, not necessary. You are busy and we drink enough of your stuff.”
He looks downcast, surveys our order glumly – and reaches for a bottle.
An hour or so later, and having sampled his entire range, we stumble home, 50 litres of good wine better off and 100 euros poorer.
Thinking about it, it’s much more delightful than buying from a supermarket even if it does take longer.
And sometimes there’s even a BOGOF offer or, more accurately, an AUOUL.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

French Lesson

Apart from a few notorious hotspots, the sort that occur in any major city worldwide, France is a peaceful and well ordered country.
Crime is the exception rather than the rule which is why it is currently so attractive to British expatriates.
And yet, unlike the UK which is, as Shakespeare pointed out, surrounded by a moat which should keep the bad people out, France has a long and scarcely patrolled border with the rest of Europe.
The reason for this disparity has now been revealed in a damning report.
It seems that UK police make just 20 requests to Interpol each day for details about non-EU criminals, compared with more than 20,000 a day by the French.
Only seven requests a day were made by forces looking for conviction information about a foreigner.
An 11,000-strong list of terror suspects, held by Interpol, was hardly used, while the UK Border Agency did not have a link to Interpol's lost and stolen documents database. France makes over seven million checks a year.
Naturally the Home Secretary, Jacqui ‘U-Turn’ Smith, had a standard government-speak response.
She said: "We will be producing a full response and action plan in the autumn.
We will immediately press ahead with work to improve access to overseas criminal history information to help deport foreign nationals who break our laws."
It might not be a bad idea if she got in touch with the French Minister of Justice, Mme. Rahida Dati, and asked for a few tips on how to manage matters or even how to brush up one’s appearance.
But don’t worry. She’ll have a “full response and action plan” for you by the autumn.
Meanwhile, all you international criminals out there who want to get into the UK, now’s your chance.
You don’t want to be caught by Ms. Smith’s ‘full response and action plan’ do you?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Revolution, anyone?

It was Bastille Day yesterdayand, in spite of the British media telling us that we’re the most miserable lot in Europe, I saw no sign of incipient revolution amongst my neighbours.
There was a festival with fireworks, music and dancing, you know, the sort of thing that really miserable nations get up to in order to take their mind off current woes - and with not a Health and Safety numpty in sight to spoil the fun.
But it seems to me that if any nation should be contemplating revolution, it should be the British.
Matters there must be akin to those in Paris on the 13th. of July, 1789 and Downing Street can surely hear the rumble of the tumbrils.
But no doubt Miss Jacqui Smith will have an initiative in hand to stave off the inevitable, such as showing a few severed heads in hospital emergency rooms to discourage les autres.
But unlike the French, who stormed The Bastille, rather unnecessarily as it turned out as it only held seven prisoners - but it’s the thought that counts –
the British can save themselves the trouble.
The government have already released most of the really dangerous ones back into society.
In the spirit of entente cordiale, I’m sure we can rustle up a few guillotines for you.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Law and Order

The Romans were very fond of snappy catchphrases, many of which have survived through the centuries, unlike the witticisms of a Harriet Harman or Gordon Brown which fortunately die on the spot.
‘Cave Canem,’ ‘Cui Bono,’ and, very appropriately for government statements, ‘Cum Grano Salis,’ are all as fresh and relevant today as ever they were in ancient Rome.
One rather verbose contribution was: si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more; si fueris alibi, vivito sicut ibi: “if you are in Rome, live in the Roman way; if you are elsewhere, live as they do there.” This would probably not have caught on had not an alert sub-editor on the Forum Times seen its potential and condensed it into a rather more manageable “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” which, in popular parlance was even further truncated into “When in Rome” followed by a series of dots. Quite how this was represented in Latin I know not, but you get the idea.
The phrase, in Churchillian terms, set Europe ablaze and, by and large, with a few nasty exceptions, most accepted that it was a civilised matter to behave according to the mores and customs of one’s host.
The phrase crossed the Channel to Britain but it seems that the message did not.
Even during the Hundred Years War, when British soldiery were rampaging through France, Froissart, himself something of an Anglophile, remarked, “The British in France enjoy themselves in their own miserable fashion.”
Thus it should come as no surprise to find that many British abroad see no reason to feel obliged to act in compliance with the laws and customs of the land they are visiting.
Dubai has one of the most tolerant and far-sighted regimes in the Arab world, making it an almost crime free and secure nation for both residents and guests.
No doubt it comes as a surprise to some British that, in return, they enforce the laws of their nation. This is rather the reverse of standards in the United Kingdom where grandmothers are hauled into court for protecting war memorials against the depredation of mindless vandals and citizens are not allowed to protect their own property from state coddled yobbery.
A land of Topsy Turveydom.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


“Why,” said my intelligent and well organised friend, “Don’t you have the books in your library catalogued and arranged in some sort of order? I have noticed,” he continued, “that you frequently waste much time searching for a book and then come away with some totally irrelevant volume, having forgotten what you were looking for in the first place.”
I could not deny the accusation.
Once upon a time, I had invested in a computer programme to catalogue my books and my wife had spent many hours entering the data. The file remains on the hard drive of her computer, unmolested. For the designers of the programme had omitted to take account of human frailty i.e. that a book taken from a shelf is rarely replaced in the same slot.
My friend is of the sort that buys his books from Waterstones or Barnes and Noble where the philosophy is a place for everything and everything in its place.
Not for him the excitement of prowling the dusty and uncategorised shelves in a decrepit bookshop on Charing Cross Road or rummaging through one of the ‘boites’ on the banks of the Seine, hoping to unearth a gem.
Yesterday I needed to look up some information on the exploits of the US 8th. Air Force and the disastrous raid upon Schweinfurt. Vaguely I recalled having a couple of books on the subject tucked away and, sure enough, I found them both within minutes.
Then my gaze wandered and lit upon my 1887 copy of A Textbook on the Steam Engine. For the next thirty minutes I was enthralled by the hiss of steam and the evocative smell of hot oil.
Reluctantly, I replaced the book, naturally in a different spot, and there, alongside, was a copy of the best book ever written on the Schweinfurt raid.
Elmer Bendigo had been a navigator on the operation and his book, ‘Fall of Fortresses,’ is the most evocative account of the disaster that befell the 8th.
Elmer had been a reporter in civilian life and brought a keen eye and a poet’s pen to the affair.
His is the only book I know that paints a true picture of the courage of the men of the 8th.
Now I know that you will say that, had my library been better arranged, I would have found the book earlier.
But then I would have learned nothing about Murdock’s slide valve, patented in 1799, nor of the surface condensers patented by Mr. W.S. Hall in 1831 for his locomotive ‘Wilberforce.’

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Dastardly French

Those of you who have ever watched the French Gendarmerie Nationale at work, taking care of business, will not be surprised to learn that France has one of the best records of anti-terrorist activities. There is a certain ‘joie de vivre’ and disregard for political correctness in their actions that warms the heart of any law-abiding citizen.
It will, therefore, be equally unsurprising that an outfit calling themselves Human Rights Watch are protesting at the somewhat Draconian tactics being employed so successfully.
They feel that terrorists and potential terrorists will become upset that the dastardly French bang up some of their number without so much as a ‘may we’ or a ‘by your leave’ from any bleeding heart groups. Even worse, they frequently ship these poor innocents, whose only crime is a desire to kill or maim their fellows, back from whence they came with barely a second thought.
It is, of course, a flagrant breach of their Human Rights which in other countries, no names mentioned, would entitle them to free accommodation, public assistance and free health care for them and their families plus headlines in the tabloid newspapers to advertise their mission.
The good news for the French is that, not only will they be completely unfazed by the pontifications of the Human Rights Watch group, but that any intelligent terrorist will hot foot it across the Channel to a more welcoming environment.
You can hardly blame him.