Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Flights of Fancy

For some reason, the media seem to lose whatever collective marbles they possess when it comes to reporting incidents or accidents involving air travel.
Yesterday’s headline in the on-line edition of the Daily Telegraph, now virtually indistinguishable in both layout and content from the Daily Mail (Celebrity Sightings, anyone?) was a fine illustration of journalism at its worst.
Rather than discuss the matter with someone who might know, they chose to interview the self styled explorer and loud mouth, Pen Hadow, whose walk to the North Pole seems to have done little for his ability to read a passenger briefing card.
There must be many retired, experienced airline captains out there (myself, for one) who would be only too pleased to correct the egregious errors of fact perpetrated by reporters and thus foisted on a gullible and innocent public.
Mr. Michael O’Leary, who is not recognised in the industry as bearing much resemblance to Mother Teresa, is perfectly correct in this case, and is rightly concerned that his airline, which performed absolutely correctly in this instance, is being maligned. The crew behaved exactly according to the book.
Mr. Hadow’s claim that “the masks weren’t working” is rubbish. If no oxygen had been flowing, both he and his son would have been in no fit state to make the self-serving statement to the press later.
The lack of passenger announcements is hardly surprising as the Flight Attendants masks have no microphone and, whilst the flight crew do have microphones in their oxygen masks, both crew members are busily occupied and not in much of a position for a chat with the passengers during a precautionary rapid descent.
There is the other factor that it was a Ryanair flight. Whatever its shortcomings, the airline offers a tremendous service with modern aircraft (a more up to date fleet than British Airways) and well trained crews at bargain basement prices. And, horror upon horror, it’s an Irish airline – and a very successful one.
I fly them on a regular basis and have no hesitation in saying that they operate to the highest standards. Once I felt the need to question an approach that I felt had not been performed well. The company not only checked the tapes (all flight parameters are recorded nowadays) but took the trouble to call me back and discuss the procedure.
The public cannot be expected to be conversant with the degree of expertise and professionalism in the industry. It would be a help if the media, instead of attention grabbing headlines, reported soberly, sensibly and factually. It would mean the loss of words such as ‘terror’, ‘plummeting’ and ‘plunging’ along with the stories of hero pilots wrestling with the controls to avoid the school, orphanage or dog’s home, take your pick.
And a few words of praise for the flight crew might not come amiss.
Mr. Hadow advertises himself as a ‘motivational speaker.’
Somehow, I don’t think Mr. O’Leary will be calling on his services in the near future.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hello, Hello.

“Your phone’s ringing.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Aren’t you going to answer it?”
“Well, no. I wasn’t.”
“Why not?”
“I’m busy doing something.”
“It might be important.”
“So is what I’m doing and if it is, they’ll call back. Then, if I’m not busy, I’ll answer it.”
“You’re weird.”
Personally I prefer the term eccentric.
It is, of course, entirely due to my inability to perform that function which is a sine qua non of modern society, to multi-task. You know, doing several things indifferently at the same time as opposed to concentrating on one and making a decent job of it.
No wonder the financial markets get themselves in such a mess. Just look at those traders with a phone in each ear – but I suppose it’s the reason they earn those huge bonuses. Surely they must get it wrong sometimes when their left ear doesn’t know what their right ear is telling them.
Telephones are an intrusion of privacy as far as I’m concerned although here, as so often, I am clearly out of step with society. As witness the proliferation of mobiles and the inconsequential chatter that results.
And as for answering at mealtimes, forget it.
I last received a call on mine in May – and then it was a wrong number so I feel many of my friends have got the message.
Nearly always, at the end of a business call, I wind up saying “Let me have that in writing” so they might just as well have spent the money on a stamp in the first place.
All in all, I feel that when Alexander Graham Bell said, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you,” if Watson had ignored him and got on with whatever it was he was doing, I’d be a lot happier.
I suppose he could always have sent him a text message though.

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Many years ago when I was called upon to perform some trivial service for Her Majesty’s government, I was made to sign a register, much as was Gary Glitter. In my case, it was the Official Secrets Act, a document that Eliza Doolittle might well have described as ‘words, words, words’ and which certainly did nothing to inhibit Kim Philby and a few others from spilling the beans.
In my case, as a confirmed coward, it had the salutary effect of sealing my lips on reading that the penalty for breaching the confidentiality would ensure that I was shot at dawn for three mornings running.
Even now, when some fumbling judge would undoubtedly reduce the penalty to an ASBO, the government can rest assured that their secrets are safe with me. Doubly so, since I can no longer remember what the secrets were.
It seems to me that the difference between spilling the beans and losing them is one of semantics, as is the difference between official secrets and personal data vouchsafed to a government.
As I am certain that ministers are signatories to the Official Secrets Act, surely it is time to invoke the act in this case, preferably with the original penalties in place.
Ministers like to refer to themselves as ‘honourable’ and so, alternatively,
could do the honourable thing and fall on their sword.
But I’m sure that they can quote a Health and Safety regulation that will deprive the British voter of even that minor pleasure.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Not a Glittering Performance

The insalubrious affair of Mr. Paul Gadd has shown firstly that, when it comes to deporting undesirable persons, the Vietnamese government are streets ahead of the British, and that, secondly, Miss Jacqui Smith is a nincompoop. But then you knew that already.
Seeing that an obnoxious glitterati was about to be returned from whence he came, Miss Smith seized the opportunity to burnish her dubious ministerial credentials by making it a cause celebre.
Trumpeting to the world the strong line she was going to take, she assembled a posse of PC plods to meet Mr. Gadd at London’s Heathrow Airport. As he had committed no offence and therefore the aforementioned plods could not arrest him, perhaps their only function might have been to get his autograph. They might have been better employed on the streets of London.
On hearing of the unwelcoming committee that was being prepared for him, Mr. Gadd, whose IQ seems to be a touch ahead of Miss Smith’s, not unreasonably decided to look elsewhere, but without success.
With some justification, Mr. Gadd pleads that he has served his time and is now a free man. He holds a passport issued to him by the British in 2002 after his conviction for a rather unsavoury sort of voyeurism. Now, although he has committed no further offence in the UK, the proposal is that he should now forfeit it. Had he been a murderer, having paid his debt to society, as the saying is, he would be free to come and go as he pleases.
As reprehensible as he appears to be, in the paedophilia stakes he is barely a runner. There are thousands far more dangerous than he still at large and unfazed by Miss Smith’s headline grabbing announcement.
Personally I would not want him in my country but, as a UK passport holder, he has the following inscribed within:
“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”
Miss Jacqui Smith’s name is not mentioned but the document was issued by a government of which she is a minister.
Apparently Mr. Gadd will appear once more on the sex offenders register.
He probably won’t be bothered. They’ll most likely lose the memory stick with his details.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Two Horses

This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of that motoring icon of France, the Citroen Deux Chevaux. Whilst the people of France may have taken it into their hearts, Citroen has been trying to disown it for years as a car that does not fit into their image of today.
But, like so many of my era, I learned to drive on one. And if any car is going to stop Frenchmen in their tracks and lead them to stand and stare, it is the passage of a Deux Chevaux. Old timers mourn that the body of later models no longer appears to have been knocked together out of corrugated iron but rejoice that the gear shift is still an inverted hockey stick.
It is not, of course, a vehicle that will appeal to the Jeremy Clarksons of this world. That particularly obnoxious and over remunerated motoring correspondent, who recently commented on the smelly, obese, unwashed citizens of Britain standing at a bus stop as he swept by in his Rolls Royce, would be unable to find enough of his tasteless ramblings to describe his contempt for such a car.
But it was a car designed with a purpose in mind.
France, then as now, was an agricultural community and the far flung communities of farmers desperately needed a car that could get them to market.
Citroen came up with a specification that demanded that it be able to be driven over ploughed fields without breaking any eggs, hence the remarkable suspension that tended to create severe cases of mal de mer in the early models, which lacked shock absorbers.
Perhaps the only other model that is still viewed with dewy eyed affection is the much later and more advance Renault Four, the ‘Quatrelle.’
Whilst the Deux Chevaux has long been out of production, France has never forgotten that many of its citizens need some form of transport to and from their isolated communities. For these, there is the ‘Sans Permis’ car, a low powered vehicle that can be driven without the need of a drivers licence.
As well as those for whom it was intended, it has become a Godsend to those that have lost their licence.
The Sans Permis is not a great performer, especially on hills.
If there is any justice in this world or the next, it would be that Mr. Clarkson is condemned forever to be stuck behind one in his Rolls Royce.
Perhaps he might then learn some manners.

Friday, August 15, 2008

A Giant Leap for Mankind

Britain has a long and proud history of innovation and invention. From these small islands have come developments that have changed the world.
From Penicillin to the cavity magnetron, now in every micro-wave, to nuclear power to the railway, even if the latter seems to be running on the wrong lines at the moment, Britain has led the way.
And now, after years of trial, error and disappointment, they have achieved yet another breakthrough for man (and, of course, women) with what must be regarded as the Holy Grail of educational achievement.
I refer, of course, to the unfailable exam, the A level.
The potential of this development is almost unlimited, once the idea catches on. Babies can receive their qualification at birth and, instead of taking a miserable gap year in which to goof off, they will be able to spread themselves over four or five. And once the Driver’s Licence people cotton on to the idea, the saving on L plates will be enormous.
The system has not, however, yet attained perfection. Out of sheer wilfullness, obduracy or an unpatriotic desire to sabotage the government, there are still three per cent who succeed in failing.
In addition, regrettably, there are degrees of unfailure. These tend to lie amongst that notorious class of subversives; those who refuse to take government approved subjects such as meeja studies and hairdressing, and perversely insist on attempting the old fashioned topics of science, mathematics, languages and English. I understand a quango is being formed to deal with the matter since the future of government would hang in the balance should such intelligentsia be allowed to flourish.
No doubt the newspapers will be disappointed. There’s not much point in showing pictures of joyful teenagers getting their exam results when they’re pretty much a foregone conclusion.
Perhaps a shot or two of the three per cent who fail might work.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Brought to Book

No doubt there are many fond parents in Britain, who, on learning that their 14 year old offspring have a reading age of 11, are desperately searching around for someone to blame.
Top candidates would be the schools and the teachers, the Minister for Education, Nu Labour and that all time favourite of the British to account for every ill that besets them, Brussels and the EU.
But perhaps they should look closer to home.
On the rare occasions when I venture across the threshold of what, in the good old days before surveillance, was an Englishman’s castle, it’s hard to see where the incentive is for a child to take up reading. Most doctors’ surgeries have a more comprehensive selection of reading matter.
There will be of course, that curse of humanity, a television or two and undoubtedly a brace of expensive computer games. But books? Unlikely.
I was extremely fortunate in my choice of parents. My father had a modest but eclectic library to which, as soon as learned how to care for books, I was allowed untrammelled access. From the age of ten onwards I could drift through the plays of Galsworthy, the burblings of Bernard Shaw, struggle to understand Shakespeare and occasionally come upon a gem that has stayed with me the rest of my life.
One such was P.G. Wodehouse and his recounting of the affairs of the Drones Club, ‘Young Men in Spats.’ At the time I had no idea what a spat was nor, for that matter, a drone but the stories amused and entertained me even at that early age. And, as I re-read them last night, they still do.
Once the basics of reading are mastered, all that is needed is the incentive to want to read.
For the price of a Nintendo or similar piece of electronic mind wasting equipment, a parent could equip their child with an extremely good library.
Then, perhaps, with encouragement, an enthusiasm for reading may result.
Those who can read and write have a whole world open to them that is denied the illiterate.
But the process begins at home, not in the classroom.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Celebrity Who?

It is an accepted fact that I am behind the times, positively antediluvian in many ways. And one facet of modern life that has passed me by is the British cult of the ‘celebrity.’
If you were to ask me to name a celebrity of two I suppose I might mutter “Noel Coward? Maurice Chevalier?” Or even “Jack Hobbs?” so you can visualise the extent of my ignorance on this compelling subject that seems to exercise the minds of so many today.
Eager to attack the steep learning curve required to bring myself up to speed on the matter, I sought in vain for some suitable book of instruction. “Celebrities for Dummies” would have been useful I thought on the grounds that the two were often synonymous.
So when I spotted that the Daily Telegraph had an article that ran:
“Where do the stars go when they need to kick back and relax? Which restaurants, shops, resorts and hotels do they rate above all others? 100 of Britain’s best-known celebrities tell all,” I thought that here was a chance to get a toehold on the mystery.
Why I should have the slightest interest in where this eclectic group ate, holidayed or shopped was beyond me, but the list of 100 names was promising.
One or two I recognised, David Blunkett for example, although I had not realised that he was a ‘celebrity.’ Many had names that were redolent of Easter European soccer teams and there were few that I could recall having done anything to deserve being called a celebrity or even warranting a mention in a newspaper.
The great relief to me was to find that not one of the 100 had any intention of coming to holiday, eat or shop in my part of the world.
So I am afraid that I shall just have to be content with living in the past and recalling genuine celebrities that I feel might have been deserving of the title which, like so many titles and awards today, has been reduced to a meaningless absurdity.
Jack Hobbs sold me my first cricket bat – now there was a celebrity.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Wots It Mater

Perhaps nothing illustrates the laissez faire attitude to education as much as the suggestion that students should not be penalised for not knowing how to spell.
This brilliant notion comes from a professor of criminology, whose services are no doubt in great demand today. I’m not quite sure of the function of a ‘professor of criminology’ unless it’s to train future criminals, a service which has been sorely lacking since the days of Bill Sykes, but I take his point that correct spelling is not a sine qua non for ransom notes etc.
For the rest of us, however, orthography does matter. To say that a misspelling is acceptable is akin to saying that 2 + 2 = 5 – it’s close enough so why penalise the student?
I always felt a bit sorry for the pompous Dr. Johnson, who first compiled a modern English dictionary, as he always had that sycophantic Scot, Boswell, hanging around and recording his conversation.
“Get a life, Boswell,” said Johnson. Boswell, who obviously misheard him, thought he said “write my life” and the rest is history.
Noah Webster used Johnson’s work to write his own patriotic American dictionary, eliminating double consonants, adding a few of his own and changing some endings quite arbitrarily. This led to the popularity of “Spelling Bees” in 19th, century America, nobody really knowing exactly how to spell a word any more.
American children can thank their lucky stars that Benjamin Franklin, normally a bastion of common sense, had his suggestions rejected by Webster. These were to add six new characters and to drop all silent letters.
The notion of simplifying, or ‘dumbing down’ English is not new. Even Bernard Shaw suggested it but thankfully nobody took any notice of him.
The criminology man cites the word ‘fifth’ as an example.
“Where did the ‘f’ come from?” he asks. It is sad to find an ‘academic’ with so little knowledge of the source of his own language.
And his pronunciation could do with a little sharpening up.
The word is not pronounced ‘fith.’
So I shal continew to spel jest the wey I wont – that’s if I nede to pars his crimmenology exam.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

A Risky Business

The inhabitants of Ripley, Derbyshire, can thank their lucky stars this morning.
Thanks to Health and Safety, those well known promoters of fun and frolic, they have been spared the terror of the organ grinder and his stuffed monkey whilst a ‘risk assessment’ is being carried out.
This follows a similar exercise on that insidious example of non-PC thinking, the Punch and Judy Show, leading to both events being cancelled.
So the kids can now go home to their Nintendos and violent video games.
Another crisis averted thanks to the watchful eyes of Big Brother.
Simon Gladwin, head of landscape services, who should know, landscaping being widely recognised as being a risky business, said:
“We always require that anyone organising a public event or entertainment on land managed by the borough council completes a risk assessment.
In cases such as this, where performers are unable to supply a personal risk assessment of their activities, it is the responsibility of the organiser to provide the risk assessment.
These are not required for every performer. We simply require an assessment that takes into account the different activities taking place in each location.”
The organ grinder in question has been performing for fifteen years without complaint or incident which would seem to be a more than adequate endorsement of its lack of risk potential.
The town council's summer entertainments programme has now been suspended until further notice.
What a pity that the electorate of Britain did not conduct a similar ‘risk assessment’ of the Labour government before they voted them into power.
Ripley would then have had its Punch and Judy Show and its Organ Grinder, complete with stuffed monkey.
As it is, they seem to be in Westminster at the moment.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

A Lesson from Toy Town?

It’s not been a good summer so far in our part of France but this morning dawned bright and beautiful.
So delightful was it that Mr. Barclay and I (Barclay is a Labrador, by the way) decided to extend our normal walk to take advantage of it.
As he said “Today is the first day of the rest of our lives.” Not sure where he read that but you know what Labradors are like.
Our peregrinations led us into the nearby village and past the town hall, the Mayor’s office. As you know, in France the Mayor is the arbiter of your destiny in any town, even in the sink estates of Paris, where the job must be akin to the fabled wheeling a barrow load of stones uphill.
If you wish to get married (and no good friend can talk you out of it) you go to the Mayor.
Need to extend your house? Go see the mayor.
When our internet connection was failing repeatedly, we didn’t call France Telecom, we called the Mayor’s office, as it was he who had lobbied for the service to be available in his town for the benefit of his constituents (he’s an elected official).
If your trash does not get picked up, complain to him, as he is the one who has hired the contractors to do the job.
It’s the original one-stop shop, a supermarket of local government services.
Those of you who are old enough may recall a children’s radio programme, ‘Toy Town.’ This was, of course, in the days when the BBC had some taste.
Based on the stories by S.G Hulme-Beaman, it peopled Toy Town with such characters as Dennis the Dachshund, Mr. Grouser and Ernest, the policeman. But the main character was Larry the Lamb who, when in trouble, would always run to the Mayor.
“Please, Mr. Mayor, sir,” he would bleat.
Toy Town was as peaceful and well ordered as are most French towns so perhaps there is something to be said for Mr. Mayor being in charge.
Any Mayor here who had the audacity to fine one of his citizens for overfilling their trash bin would soon find himself out of a job.
I called a friend in England.
“What,” I asked, “is the name of your Mayor?”
“Dunno,” he replied. “Why? Does it matter?”

Monday, August 04, 2008

Gullible's Travails

If I were to tell you that at this very moment, there are over 100,000 people in this world awaiting a return of $55,000 in return for a subscription of $35 or so, I’m sure you would question my sanity.
If, moreover, I were to tell you that, in order to reap this vast return on their ‘investment,’ the aforesaid 100,000 were sending off their personal details including copies of passports, birth certificates and driver’s licences to an anonymous E-Mail address, you would reckon that it’ s high time the men in white coats came to carry me away.
Yet that is exactly what members of the so-called Global Pension Plan are doing.
As Einstein once remarked, he suspected that there was no limit to human stupidity, and GPP, along with a number of copycat scams, are doing much to prove his hypothesis.
It is almost the perfect crime. The amounts lost per individual are low enough to discourage them from taking any further action, the funds are collected by way of one of the on-line money exchangers, effectively disguising the money trail, and the only communication is by way of E-Mail to an entity calling herself (or quite possibly himself) ‘Stella.’
The website promoting this remarkable opportunity is naturally hosted anonymously and contains no address or telephone number.
Members who have stumped up their money console themselves with the thought that, “Well, it’s only a small amount,” but the sum total is not a bad return for the crooks. And, if not used to fund their personal life styles, who knows to what use the funds are being put? Terrorism and drugs are high on the list of possibilities.
And now, with a prospective database of over 100,000 financially gullible persons to work with, even if identity theft is not a problem, the future for the scammers is looking bright.
I forgot to mention that the scheme was supposed to have closed nearly a year ago but ‘administrative problems’ have held up the payout, giving the lucky punters more time in which to buy additional policies which have become mysteriously available.
Law enforcement is not in the business of preventing fools from parting with their money, but much could be done by outlawing the so-called money exchangers and removing the possibility of registering websites anonymously.
Google ‘Global Pension Plan’ for all the gory details.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Say 'Cheese'

The idea was that we took a few publicity pictures in London.
“Uh, uh,” said the photographer, sucking in a breath. “Tricky.”
Apparently, he said, if you want to take pictures in central London you have to apply for a permit at Charing Cross police station, a process that can take up to 28 days. Then, as a part of Photo Safety Identity Checking Observation, no doubt referred to in casual conversation by PC Plods as a PSICO, you are required to wear "a thin fluorescent waistcoat" kitted with radio frequency identification (RFID) tag. The RFID is a cheap and "passive device that needs no batteries" according to the Metropolitan Police, whom I thought should have something better to do than pursuing professional photographers going about their business.
Frankly I was sceptical but saw no point in going all the way to Charing Cross and waiting 28 days or so while they shuffled the paperwork.
So we went to Paris where the pictures were shot in one day, several of them including policemen who were good enough to hold up traffic for us in the process.
I still could not believe that taking a picture in London could be such a bureaucratic nightmare but then I read of an author, Mohammed Hanif, who ran into trouble whilst trying to get some publicity shots for his latest book taken in Covent Garden. A security guard repeatedly foiled him by putting a hand over the lens.
Subsequently they were chased away from other locations before finding sanctuary, rather appropriately, in a church where the verger apparently knew nothing of the latest regulations in force in Bonkers Britain and let them take their shots.
The Metropolitan Police allege that “cameras are potentially more dangerous than guns.”
I suggest that they should take a look at little old ladies wielding umbrellas.
Now there’s a serious menace for you.
Watch out for a ban on these – unless, of course, you apply for a permit to Charing Cross police station.