Monday, September 29, 2008

Palace Coup

Clearly the British government must be disappointed that, owing to the prevailing credit crisis, plans to dismantle the monarchy have had to be put on hold.
In place of the original scheme to turn Buckingham Palace into a super Tesco and to bulldoze Windsor Castle to enable accommodation for the illegal immigrants employed by the Home Office to be built, they have had to content themselves with simply denying Her Majesty the funds to prop up her mouldering palaces.
Yet, in terms of value for money to the taxpayer, Queen Elizabeth the Second must outshine all the muppets in Whitehall, their function, after feathering their own nests, being to dispense the public purse to incompetent bankers and businessmen in return for failing to do their job, and to sink whatever is left into a black hole in Stratford E.15.
The amount required to maintain the royal estate is derisory when put alongside such items as the property portfolio amassed by a former Prime Minister on the backs of his electorate, the bonuses paid by city businessmen to themselves, usually for failing to perform, and the ridiculous salaries earned by soccer players.
When the year 2013 comes around and the taxpayers are remembering the glory of the Olympics and looking at the red ink that resulted, visitors will still be flocking to Buckingham Palace, as A.A. Milne wrote “To press their noses to the rails, and watch from there the changing of the guard.”
I doubt that many will be travelling eastward to view whatever is left of the giant jelly mould that was the Olympic stadium.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Prudent Pierre

“You need a new laptop,” she said. I have to agree. Mine is eight years old and was designed by someone who had an apprenticeship in anchor and anvil design.
Like many old things, it’s a bit slow to start but it handles my mail and word processing stuff well enough.
And a new one is going to set me back 500 euros.
France is not immune to the world financial crisis, it’s tax time (d’habitation and fonciere) and any day now M. Oignon will be showing up with a trailer load of my winter wood and wanting cash.
And unlike the residents of the UK, I can’t just charge it to my credit card and hope to defer the pain, for the French banks have a delightfully old-fashioned approach to money. I have no credit – it’s a debit card and to make it work, the money has to be in the account.
This fiscal backwardness of the French credit industry is one reason that the citizens suffer less at these times than do their counterparts in Britain and America. Food prices are up, there will be some tightening of belts and reduction in embonpoints, but homes are not being repossessed and no more than the usual number of bankruptcies are on the horizon.
Consumerism is as strong here as anywhere but consumer envy is not. Monsieur may buy himself a sporty new car but it will be for his own pleasure, not to impress his neighbour, who will still stick to his trusty ten year old Renault.
And banks do not distribute their largesse without making sure that they are going to get repaid.
As a writer, my income tends to be cyclical. To negotiate a modest overdraft arrangement on my current account, I had to take out a life insurance policy just in case I should hop off the twig and not be in a position to repay it.
And some years ago, a loan of 4000 euros entailed a two hour meeting with my ‘conseiller’ at the bank, who needed to know exactly what the money was to be used for.
Enforced fiscal prudence of this sort may be distasteful to those who are used to living with a free-wheeling economy but it does make for a more contented life.
So the new laptop’s on hold.
And I think I hear M. Oignon’s tractor coming up the driveway.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Why Can't the English.....?

The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, recently made a pledge that every child in the country should have Internet access.
It would have been more to the point had he said that every child in the country should have access to a good education delivered by competent and disciplinarian teachers.
We almost all make use of the internet in some way or another – but it is not an educational or teaching tool. Quite the reverse. Much of the information that might be gleaned from it is erroneous or heavily opinionated and a bit like listening to the speakers in Hyde Park.
The idea of students rushing to Wikipedia, that cornucopia of mis-information, instead of conducting serious research, might appeal to the instant gratification brigade but it’s not going to do much for education.
And, rather than being glued to a computer screen, perhaps something could be done about the speaking of the English language. As Professor Higgins remarked, “Why can’t the English teach their children how to speak?”
Having just returned from a sortie through Britain on public transport, I can honestly say that most of the conversations I overheard might just as well have been in Urdu for all the sense they made to me.
However, on reaching my destination, a charming old English style village pub that would have warmed the heart of John Major, it was an enormous relief to find that I could understand the bartender perfectly.
He was, of course, Polish.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Oh Dear, Auntie!

In days of yore, dear old auntie BBC could be relied upon as a bastion of commonsense and reliable news reportage.
But that very British disease of ‘dumbing down’ has struck.
Even reporting cricket matches on their Internet site has been delegated to some young honchos who apparently watch the matches, rather embarrassingly I feel, on Sky TV. From their comments, I can only assume that they have never played the game.
The other day I saw that they have hired a bus, suitably decorated with BBC logos, which will, wait for it, ‘Cross America!’ Wow! On board will be another incisive reporter who will interview the common man (or, I suppose, woman) on the presidential race.
It was billed, breathlessly, rather as would be a trip up the Amazon in a canoe or Stanley’s expedition to find Livingstone.
Now it may have escaped their attention that every day, Greyhound buses criss cross America with fares at rock bottom prices. If their intrepid reporter really wanted to meet with a cross section of the American public, all he had to do would be to board one and save a vast amount of the licence fee payer’s money.
And yesterday, Andrew Marr, who really should have known better, was there in the bowels of the earth as they fired up the Cern project.
“Phew,” he said, “That was a relief,” when the end of the world did not take place.
Well, it was hardly likely.
It was a test run and it is not until they fire a beam in the reverse direction and make the two collide that there will be any chance of a cataclysmic event taking place.
But for the BBC, who cares nowadays if the story is accurate.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Bully for Him!

Some time ago I read H.W. Brands excellent biography of Theodore Roosevelt,
‘ T.R., The Last Romantic.’
It provides a clue to the fascination that now possesses so many Americans with the McCain/Palin duet.
Roosevelt, who was an accidental president, coming to office after the assassination of President McKinley, was both an American hero and, even better, a ‘good ‘ole boy.’
He became one of the most popular of presidents in American history.
His hero status came, oddly, from the somewhat trumped up Spanish American war when, in spite of having no military experience, he had volunteered for the Cavalry Rough Riders. This ill-disciplined rabble was made up primarily of disgruntled cowboys and Roosevelt managed to be commissioned as a Colonel. The Cuban expedition was almost as disastrous for the Rough Riders as a later Bay of Pigs but, largely due to Roosevelt, they survived and the action culminated with his famous charge up San Juan Hill. Like McCain’s imprisonment in the Hanoi Hilton, the story was retold at every opportunity, with suitable embellishments, so much so that Edith, his wife, well aware of her husband’s proclivity for exaggeration, took a trip to Cuba to “see just how big that hill really was.”
No matter. Roosevelt was a folk hero in spite of being unable to lobby successfully for a medal (they gave him one posthumously in 2001).
But his other appeal was that he was an outdoors man and a hunter. In fact on his frequent expeditions to the west, he managed to shoot so much wildlife that it was a miracle that any were left for later generations.
Like Napoleon’s better generals, he was a lucky president. Nothing terribly untoward happened during his watch to dent his image in the public eye. His greatest achievement was the construction of the Panama Canal, which, in conversation, he tended to imply he had dug himself.
But by today’s standards, he would have been described as being a war-monger. Diplomacy was foreign to him and, at one stage, he advocated the annexation of Canada to remove the last traces of British rule from the Americas, all of which, both north and south, he regarded as potentially United States territory.
But it’s this sort of home spun patriotism that appeals to many Americans – along with the ability to eviscerate animals (it qualifies as the equivalent of a PhD. in many states) - which makes the McCain/Palin ticket so popular.
With all his many faults, Roosevelt was a good and honest man, and his life story, with his achievements over great odds, an inspiring one.
Someone of similar ethical standards would make a refreshing change in the White House.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Stasis are Coming!

The last time I visited a country where neighbour was encouraged to spy on neighbour and where children were prompted to report even their own kin for breaches of the state rule, was East Germany at the height of the Cold War.
But later this month, I shall be visiting another nation that has lost its moral compass, to use a favourite phrase of one of its leaders, to such an extent that I shall be regarding every small boy who looks twice at me with grave suspicion.
Of course, if I look back at him, I may be arrested as a suspected paedophile, so it’s not going to be a happy visit I feel.
The French learned their lesson over denouncing each other during the revolution when they rather lost their heads over the business, which resulted in a good many innocent people losing theirs. Now they keep very much to themselves as a result.
But from the comments I am reading in the media, the vast percentage of the public resent this, along with all the other bureaucratic intrusions into privacy and their daily lives. The only ones in favour are, I suppose, the jobsworths who will make up this sinister underground network of Stasi type spies.
But there seems to be little enthusiasm, other than writing to the press, to take any action against such an affront to democracy.
In France, we take to the streets and vote with our feet, arms and the occasional bottle or half-brick to express resentment against government policies. It seems to work.
But I notice a good many of those that write to complain seem to think that every ill that assails Britain is on account of their quasi-membership of the EU.
If that were the case, how is it my trash gets picked up without fuss weekly?
Blaming the EU for every petty restriction on life in the UK, restrictions which don’t seem to bedevil the other states, must be the reason the Aussies came up with the phrase, “Whingeing Poms.”

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Olympian Tax

In London there are a couple of old age pensioners who will, no doubt, shortly be arrested by a posse of armed policemen, backed-up by some of Ms. Jacqui Smith’s Gestapo of badge carrying jobsworths, who will whisk them off to the nearest hoosegow. Their heinous crime is that they fail to see why they should help pay for the Olympic Stadium, a facility that is hardly a community amenity or service, and that they, along with most of their fellow citizens, will never use.
It seems to me that they have a point. Having to live in London surely counts for a few penalty points to start with and the Olympics, whether they interest you or not, are not London’s, they are Britain’s.
That they should be penalised for someone not getting the arithmetic right does not seem fair.
Of course, if they were terrorists, illegal immigrants or criminals, they could claim that their Human Rights are being breached. But such recourse is not available to honest taxpaying citizens of Great Britain.
Whether or not a stadium is required in Stratford E 15 is another matter. The official line is that it will rejuvenate the area. My mother came from Canning Town and, from what I recall, the place was pretty lively and not in much need of rejuvenating with a feisty and down to earth population.
A friend of mine got his first job selling Caxton Encyclopaedias door-to-door. His sales manager, a man with a sense of humour, assigned him to Stratford E 15.
He sold no encyclopaedias but said that the advice he received from the inhabitants on the various uses to which he could put his books, together with further instructions on just where he could put them, stood him in good stead in later life.
I hope they build the stadium strong enough and allow plenty of space for graffiti. It’s a robust neighbourhood
And what of those who, having contributed, willingly or otherwise, fail to see 2012 in? Are they eligible for a rebate or possibly a voucher towards their funeral expenses?
Surely the people should have been able to have a vote on the matter.
But I suppose the same thing applies to appointing a Prime Minister.

Monday, September 01, 2008

"Yo, Mr. President!"

The normally convoluted gyrations of an American presidential election took a surreal turn the other day with John McCain’s selection of a running mate. Apparently chosen by means of a pin and a copy of the Alaska telephone directory, it was all the more surprising when it was revealed that they had only met once before. McCain’s appeal to red-blooded Americans is that he is an acknowledged hero with, for once, a genuine claim to courage in adversity. Whether his ponderings in the Hanoi Hilton, where he apparently turned to politics, would make him an effective leader of the most powerful nation in the world is another matter.
But for many, including some of his own associates, the problem with his selection of Ms. Palin is that, potentially, there is the frightening prospect that, in the event of anno domini or a reprise of the Lincoln Theatre scenario catching up with McCain, a moose-burger chomping mom would have her finger on the trigger of the most powerful weapons in the world.
Her grasp of foreign affairs might be illustrated by the fact that she only recently applied for a passport.
It might well be a vote catching ploy but for the world in general it is a very disturbing development.
On the other side of the ballot box, Obama has all the charisma and erudite charm that McCain lacks. But, realising his own lack of experience, he wisely opted for Joe Biden to boost his credentials.
The United States sorely needs to rebuild its image with the rest of the world, an image that has been tainted, often unfairly, by years of the Bush administration and Barack Obama is hugely popular outside of America.
But there still runs a deep vein of racial prejudice in the American psyche and even those who see Obama’s undoubted merits will probably shy away from making him their president.
This is not the blatant racism of white supremacists but the quieter conservatism exemplified by organisations such as The Daughters of the American Revolution. This innocuous sounding group, who once vetoed Marion Anderson performing at one of their meetings on grounds of race, were embarrassed some years ago when, having rejected a membership for admission to a black woman, found that her ancestors had indeed fought on the side of the revolution. The rules were hastily amended to state that all were welcome, regardless of race or creed. The bye-laws might have changed but it is unlikely that the thinking has.
When Winston Churchill lost the post war election, his wife remarked that it was a blessing in disguise. He retorted that it seemed particularly well disguised.
Obama may feel the same way should he lose. But any incoming president has a mound of useless baggage left over by the Bush administration to cope with. He might well be better off letting McCain wrestle with it for one term by which time, the public will have a better handle on Barack Obama.
In this case, let’s hope for the longevity of John McCain. An Annie Oakley as president does not bode well for any of us.