Monday, 30 June 2008

Good Butterfly News

What with this sunny weather and not being at NigeCorp HQ today, I was out of the house like a shot and down to Ashtead Common to see if the butterfly situation has improved. Reader, it has, and, among much else, I saw half a dozen of these beauties and a round ten of my favourites - including one melanistic form (very exciting, if less handsome) which was feeding on a bramble flower until chased off by a Silver-washed Fritillary. I also had a very close encounter with a Purple Hairstreak, right at the end of my finger... Things, it would seem, are looking up in the butterfly world.

NHS - The Way We Were

As the NHS - still regarded by more than half the population as 'the envy of the world' - approaches its 60th birthday, and Lord Darzi of Desert Island Discs prepares to unveil the most important report in the entire history of the service (hem hem), I pass this on without comment. Enjoy. Reminds me of when I had my tonsils out...

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Supererogation Sunday

Since it is Sunday, here's a word you don't often hear these days - supererogation. It sprang back into my mind, after a long and unremarked absence, as I listened to a radio report on the deliberations of the House of Commons committee on climate change. This committe is pondering the government's Climate Change Bill, which proposes - nay, pledges - a 60 per cent reduction in the UK's carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. You might well think this was quite unrealistic and ludicrous enough to be going on with - but no, not for those fine virtuous MPs assembled in the select committee. Nothing would do but they must raise the figure to an altogether fantastical 80 per cent. What is this if it is not an exercise in competitive virtue, in supererogation? More proof, if any were needed, that belief in climate change has left science - and indeed reason - way behind and is now a matter of quasi/pseudo-religious faith.

No News Is Good News

Less than a week ago, freshly returned from a spell of blissful newslessness in France, I suggested we might all be happier for not following the news. Since then, semi-consciously, I have been almost following my own suggestion. Apart from a quick, dispiriting skim of a single Sunday paper, I have ignored the newspapers altogether - a risky course in my line of business perhaps, but what the hey? I can report that I feel a great deal less miserable about things, a good deal less mentally cluttered, confused and ground down - and I have done more of the things that are worth doing (reading books, listening to music, staring slack-jawed into the middle distance) with the time saved by not ploughing through the depressing, banal, ill-written, self-important, vastly oversized publications that make up our much prized 'national press'.
(On the subject of size, it's always a shock to come across a national newspaper from even 30 years ago - they were tiny! The stranglehold of the printers' unions was in all kinds of ways deplorable - but at least it meant small, easily digestible newspapers - and more time for the population to get on with their lives, doing things more worthwhile than reading the papers.)

Friday, 27 June 2008

Lafcadio's Day

Happy birthday, Lafcadio Hearn, born on this day in 1850. His was surely one of the most extraordinary careers in literature. A lovely island, Lefkada - I spent a holiday there once. I remember taking a long, rock-strewn walk up to a famous waterfall, and finding half a dozen swallowtail butterflies drinking at a rock pool...

The Tuft Sedge of St Helena

I don't know about you, but I always relish stories like this - and, happily, they're surprisingly common. I love the fact that this plant was last seen in precisely 1806, before Napoleon set foot on the island. 'Extinct' or not, it's been there all along. Let's hope it sticks around.

Keep Death Off The Road

This is, of course, good news - but what's striking about it is how dangerous the roads were in 1926, when car ownership was a luxury limited to the relatively prosperous (though the record year for road deaths in the UK remains 1941, when they topped 9,000, presumably owing to the blackout). Back in the deadly 20s, a chap could stroll in to a car showroom, pick a model, have a little chat with the salesman, then drive off - as did my own grandfather, a gentleman of Victorian vintage (long generations on that side of the family) who should never have been allowed behind the wheel (like me, I suspect). When 'driving', he would lounge in his seat, as if enjoying a cigar at the club, his legs negligently crossed over the pedals. Naturally this caused a degree of brake-accelerator confusion and many run-ins with idiot motorists who had foolishly got in his way. After he sailed serenely into the side of a bus, with all his family aboard, my grandmother finally prevailed on him to give up the automobile for ever. For myself, I have never driven

Thursday, 26 June 2008

The Leopard

It's usually a big mistake to re-read books that especially impressed you in your teenage years. Indeed, there are some that can only be read in your teenage years - miss them then and it's too late. Catcher In The Rye and Le Grand Meaulnes are classic examples. For years, therefore, I was reluctant to re-read The Leopard, since it had affected me to a quite extraordinary degree when I first read it (more than once) as a teenager. A couple of weeks ago, though, I plunged in again - and, I'm happy to report, I was not disappointed. What an extraordinary book it is - hard to think of another like it (though it has, I suppose, a Stendhalian feel). There's a kind of monumental inevitability about it - probably owed to the long years of its gestation - and yet an elegant lightness and wit. I was surprised to find that I actually remembered a lot of it too - normally I'm a scandalously forgetful reader. How odd that I should have happened on it in my teenage years, and that, on this occasion, I still seem to be much the same reader. The Leopard surely is what it gives every appearance of being - a classic.

The Lessons of the Cocoa Genome

Good to hear the boffins are busy decoding the cocoa genome. I'm no geneticist (you guessed!), but, by the look of it, cocoa is one fabulously complex substance genetically - as, I believe, is rice - whereas we humans turned out to be disappointingly simple, with a mere 20,000 or so protein-coding genes. This kind of information I find strangely cheering. .. Anyway, if all this effort results in richer cocoa farmers (don't hold your breath out there) and better tasting chocolate, that's fine. But will it - will anything - make Hershey produce a substance resembling chocolate, rather than paraffin-scented brown chalk?

Crazy Name, Lovely Guy

Sad news (though he had a good innings) - Kermit Love has died, aged 91, at Poughskeepie. This was a man who truly spread some cheer and did some good in the world - and his creations will live on (though, for myself, I always found Big Bird a little intimidating). Did Henson borrow his name for the frog? He says not. I love the ending of this obit...

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Public Yarts

Meet The Public - or rather, THEpUBLIC, the jewel in the navel of West Bromwich, which is finally opening to an eager public a mere two years behind schedule. Without having seen it, I make no comment on the architecture (though I fancy Will Alsop was having a laugh) - it's the condescending cynicism of the whole notion that gets me.. Plonk down an 'arts centre' with a meaningless name in a rundown area and not only will it benefit the population culturally - because, as we all know, having 'access' to the arts, sorry the yarts, does you good - but you will also get 'regeneration'. Look at The Sage... Well, wouldn't regeneration be better served by a few more basic facilities - swimming pool, leisure centre, cinema, even theatre, none of which West Bromwich has - rather than this resuscitated white elephant? And as for whether the arts do you good, I suspect it is only good art that might make that claim - and I very much doubt if the public will be seeing much of that in THEpUBLIC.

Siesta? Si!

Woohoo! At last - Siesta Awareness UK sounds like my kind of company (and it's a better title than Nap Awareness, or 40 Winks UK). I wonder what would happen if you rang them in the early afternoon...

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Torturers For A McCain Victory

Things seem to have gone quiet on the US election front - probably because Hillary’s piped down at last - so it’s good to hear that plucky oldster John McCain (GSOH, own teeth) has a new backer. This bird-fancying retiree, amateur ballroom dancer and former torturer clearly likes the cut of McCain’s jib, despite all those shameless lies about people being tortured in his former gaff. How ungrateful to spread such stories about your hosts.

Don't You Know There's A Crusade On?

When Blair was PM, he liked to announce from time to time a ‘national conversation’, about some subject of other that no one but the usual axe-grinders wished to have a conversation about, least of all a one-way one with Blair’s aparatchiks. Brown, being a man of vision and destiny, aims higher: yesterday (and you might have missed this) he launched nothing less than a ‘national crusade’. Apparently, it’s against child poverty and for social mobility - both of which he has often proclaimed to be core elements of his vision and no doubt crucial to his ‘moral compass’. So, having failed to dent child poverty after a decade of flinging money at it and erecting welfare structures of labyrinthine complexity, he proposes to really crack it this time - by, er, flinging more money at it, in this case a £200 incentive for ‘disadvantaged’ parents who toe the line. Why not stop taxing the poor, instead of actually increasing their tax burden? And, when it comes to social mobility - which decades of social engineering have managed to reduce to 1950s levels - why not reintroduce the one proven effective engine of increased social mobility? The grammar school system, that is.
Well, of course, none of that is going to happen. Brown can think only in terms of the state wielding various combinations of carrot and stick, and even now seems convinced that spending taxpayers’ money can solve anything. Some crusade.

International Law in Action

We can all sleep safe in our beds tonight - the boys in blue have Boris's rogue cigar case in custody. In a very real sense, justice has been done.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Concluding Dieppe Postscript

I just came across this piece about Oscar Wilde's spell in Dieppe in 1897. I rather like the sound of Mrs Arthur Stannard, aka John Strange Winter (page 2), but can find little information about her, beyond this stub, and that she wrote about the English colony in Dieppe in regular articles for The Citizen and a novel, A Flirt On The Water's Edge. Nice title...

Disturbing Images, and a Victory for Football

Lord it's a depressing business plunging back into the allegedly 'real' world of news and meejah. In France, I didn't so much as glance at a newspaper, saw barely any TV, and entirely, more than happily, lost touch with the news. Yesterday, dutifully, with many a sigh and groan, I worked my way through a Sunday paper - it seemed remarkably like the one I'd read the previous Sunday - and, later, turned on the television to await a news bulletin. I caught something even more dispiriting - extra time in the Spain-Italy match (at football). The play was so dull, graceless and cynically negative that even the supporters seemed to have lost the will to live by the time the inevitable penalty shootout finally arrived. Spain's win was, a pundit assured us, 'a victory for football'. Goodo.
Then, at length, the News came. Zimbabwe - election stolen, brutality all round, 'African leaders' beginning to get very slightly worried, but only in case the trouble spills over into their fiefdoms. Oil summit - nothing was delivered, statesman Brown talks of 'global solutions', Arabs rub their hands behind his back. Primark scandal - child labour, of course, complete with warning about 'disturbing images' (why not for Zimbabwe? Why not for Brown?). These images were of smiling children happily earning a bit of money for their families - children who will now be out of work and their families that much poorer, thanks to the tender sensibilities of western liberals.
O dear o dear, how much happier we would all be if we gave up following the news and devoted ourselves to more edifying pursuits.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Dieppe Again

Here's how Samuel Beckett saw it. This poem always goes through my head when I'm treading the pebbles of Dieppe beach...


encore le dernier reflux
le galet mort
le demi-tour puis les pas
vers les vieilles lumieres

(So how was your holiday, Mr Beckett?)

Back in Blighty

I am back, and Dieppe was as restorative as ever - though making the journey by rail is a pretty gruelling business. Eurostar is fine, but crossing Paris always grim, whether by Metro - worse signage than the London Underground - or by taxi, through the impossible traffic. On the way out, in fact, things turned positively English when the train for Rouen (to connect for Dieppe) sat endlessly in the station, with occasional announcements hinting at mysterious technical faults. The result was a case of rater la correspondence, and a late, hot and bedraggled arrival in Dieppe. All this to avoid staying overnight in grisly Newhaven and getting up ridiculously early for the only practicable ferry of the day. Oh for the old days, when the ferries were frequent and sailed right into town. To disembark, cross the street and walk straight into a restaurant for lunch is now a long-lost pleasure...
However, Dieppe retains its peculiar charm - the shades of Sickert and Wilde, Ginner and Blanche and all the company of les Anglais from the port's heyday can still be faintly discerned; the air is at once bracing and soporific, in the best seaside manner; and the light is quietly extraordinary - no wonder the place was so popular with painters. And there is enough there to keep the flaneur pleasantly stimulated. The food - especially, of course, sea food - is superb, though I must report that one of the town's best restaurants, La Melie, has gone, and there are worrying signs of others closing down. We Anglais must renew our efforts to keep Dieppe thriving.
Anyway, here I am, back again, and the world seems much as it was when I left it. Funny how we always expect significant things to have happened in our absence - and imagine we've been away for ages when it's only a few days. Time stretches on holiday, the more so for changes of location. And the mind goes fuzzy and disengaged, which is probably the best way for a mind to be. But it won't last. One more day and NigeCorp reclaims me.
Or not. An email in my inbox from a charming gentleman in China called Mr Yao Guoping informs me that he can, with a stroke of the pen, secure me a handsome share in an abandoned sum of US $20 million he's come across. How very kind of him to think of me. I might never need to work again.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Au Revoir, Mes Amis...

I'm off to Dieppe in the morning, where I shall be offline, non-blogging and just, you know, Being There... Normal(?) service will resume next Sunday, DV.

Replacing Humph? Harumph!

As I write, I'm looking forward with a mix of dread and delight to Radio 4's Humph Sunday - mostly delight, the dread being a response to syrupy Stephen Fry's involvement in the project. I posted on Bryan's blog when Humphrey Lyttelton died. The particular, eccentrically shaped hole his death left in Radio 4 and the nation's life seems quite unfillable - yet there is much talk of replacing him as chairman of I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue. For myself, I'm against any such project - but if it has to happen, as I fear it will, who would be best? Ideas, please - and anyone who suggests Stephen Fry will incur my very special wrath...

Saturday, 14 June 2008

New Meaning

To steal a category from Bryan (whom I met yesterday at a secret rendezvous in London's swanky West End, where we mapped out the next step in our total domination of the known blogosphere - be afraid...), here's a New Meaning. 'Perfectly ripe', as in the 'perfectly ripe' fruit you buy in the supermarket. Meaning: Brick hard and in need of a week in the sun - but costing twice as much. I write with feeling, having just drilled my way into a 'perfectly ripe' avocado.

The Euro Ratchet

So, the Irish voted No to the latest version of an EU constitution, just as the French and Dutch did with the earlier version. This might suggest, to the simple minds of non-Eurocrats, that there's something about this constitution business that people don't like and don't want. Not a bit of it - the Irish have simply got it wrong. The thing about 'Europe' is that it's a machine so calibrated that it can only move in one direction - 'forward'. This is what that resonant phrase 'an ever closer union' means. Much of what was in the latest constitutional reject has already been incorporated into Euro law anyway, and the rest will follow, though perhaps more gradually than would have been the case without the tiresome distraction of the Irish No (tr. Oui, Jawohl). This is ratchet motion, and is integral to all EU institutions and procedures - which is precisely why we were fools to be suckered into it in the first place, with lies about it being no more than a loose trading alliance. It's also why - until the whole thing eventually, inevitably collapses - there is no way out. Or, as the Eurocrats would have it, back.

Friday, 13 June 2008

The Real Thing

Yesterday I paid a visit to the British Museum to have a look at the exhibition of American prints 'from Hopper to Pollock'. In fact, the chronology begins with George Bellows and the Ashcan School and, for me, the show dwindled in interest as the printmakers started aping European modernist models and/or getting political. However, there are a few gems, including the Hopper etchings, which struck me as considerably more accomplished and effective than many of his paintings. There are also some haunting drypoints of New York scenes by Martin Lewis - and, at the end, the Pollocks inject a shot of much-needed energy (he is also represented, bizarrely, by an early, rather inept rustic scene). Anyway, this was hardly an exhibition to make a special trip for - so I took myself off to linger among the Elgin Marbles. These, truly, are something to travel halfway round the world to see - as most of those in the Parthenon galleries seemed to have done. There is nothing to say that hasn't been said a thousand times before (including the entirely correct (imho) assertion that the marbles should stay where they are). But there is always Keats... It's easy to forget just how great a poet Keats is - to pay lip service merely - but a sonnet like this is a potent reminder. Keats can be excessively lush (for some tastes anyway), but the ending of this thrills with its sudden, pared-down vividness. This is the real thing.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Menetou-Salon - This Is at Least a Holiday Romance

As your occasional wine correspondent, I follow up my epoch-making posts on Carmenere and Chardonnay by bringing to your attention a splendid white wine (Sauvignon blanc-based) of the Loire Valley - Menetou-Salon. I bought a bottle yesterday on a rare and shaming visit to a branch of Britain's worst supermarket, Morrisons. Most of what they sell is not worth buying, but I was amazed to discover some quite interesting, keenly priced bottles on their wine shelves. And there was Menetou-Salon, winking seductively at me, so I grabbed a bottle. Reader, I did not regret it. This is a cracking white, with the familiar gooseberry and citrus of Sauvignong Blanc, but with a mineral tang and, in my bottle, a note of something like black pepper. A lovely mouthful - and for half the price of the inflated Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume.
As it happens, I shall be in Dieppe next week, where the Loire Valley is prominent on every wine list, so I look forward to pursuing my researches there. Mmmm Menetou-Salon...

Aargh! He's Hired

Never mind 42 Days - yesterday's big event was the final of The Apprentice, and Lee won. For myself, I would as soon drill a hole in my head as give this glottal-stopping razor-dodger a job. He is plainly deranged, among other disqualifications (look at his eyes)- but what do I know? 'Sir Alan' took him on, even after Lee had presided over a totally shambolic pitch of an ultra-naff men's fragrance called Roulette, backed by a video ad that might have been made in the mid-60s and keenly embraced the ethos of gambling (now widely regarded as a pathology) - very zeitgeisty!
Like the rest of them, Lee, I fear, is so entirely absorbed in the psychodrama of self-projection as to be quite unaware of what's going on in the outside, the 'real' world. This became apparent again and again in the course of the series, and hardly seems the best basis for a career in any consumer business. Well, Lee got what he wanted - the rest didn't - good luck to them all. If nothing else, they've confirmed the rest of us in our rock-bottom opinion of the kind of young people being turned out by our 'education' system and trying to power their way to the top, fuelled only by delusional self-belief and invincible ignorance.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

A Day Out in Fulham

Why is it impossible for a jury trial to be conducted these days without the jurors getting a charabanc trip to the scene of the crime, and any other interesting sights in the vicinity? This almost never used to happen, but now it's routine. Yesterday's excursion was especially bizarre, as not only the judge but the defendant ('sweating profusely') also went along for the ride. What on earth was the point? This is a retrial anyway, of which the facts are well known - indeed, the locations visited have been on TV many times. I thought the point of retrials was to re-examine the evidence, not to go along and gawp at the outside of the defendant's home. No wonder trials take so long.


Like, I suspect, most of the country - and unlike the media and the Westminster villagers - I am not exactly consumed with passion about this 42-day business, either pro or con. As I walked the lanes of Surrey yesterday, it never so much as entered my mind. There seem to be good arguments on both sides, but the great Captain B himself can see no compelling reason for 42 days. What's more, that renowned political sage Vivienne Westwood has, I see, come out with a firm No... And so it goes on. But the talk today of £3,000 a day (!) compensation for those wrongly detained beyond 28 days - carefully stirred up by a government that has no intention of enacting any such thing - takes the whole business into the realm of sheer madness. Rather like Ed Balls yesterday defending anti-poverty measures that have simply made people poorer, or threatening to deal firmly with 'failing schools', as if they weren't the product of a failing government. Bug-eyed Balls seems to have gone mad without even getting a sniff of high office. Perhaps that is the way these days. And to think we might have two more years of this...

A Walk

So I did. Walk, that is, on the eastern fringes of Surrey, and a very fine day's walking it was. Grand rolling country, fat land, with plenty of oakwood and wide views, except where the road ran between impressively high, dense and ancient hedgerows. All this subsisting, indeed thriving, as rich farmland and as the dog-walking extended back garden of a string of prosperous commuter settlements - on the railway, with the M25 on the doorstep (but the roads are quiet). Outside the villages, I scarcely saw a human all day. How strange England is...
I began at the isolated and high-up (and High Church, by the look of it) Tandridge church, done over by the much maligned Scott (a local), but retaining its vernacular charm. It was locked, but this was probably no huge loss. In the churchyard are a yew tree of spectacular grandeur and immense age, and the tomb of Lady Scott, G.G.'s widow, a rather beautiful Victorian Gothic job in marble, which could do with a little restoration.
Hghlight of this walk, and my main destination, was Lingfield, a large village of patchy charm, with an ancient oak beside a stone-built Cage - a fine old lock-up for felons, sadly not used since 1882 (I'm sure it could be well filled every Saturday night, even in sedate Lingfield). The jewel of Lingfield - and one of Surrey's finest churches (from a not huge field, admittedly) - is St Peter and St Paul (it seems to be of great interest to the Medieval Combat Society). This is a handsome, spacious (for these parts) Perpendicular job, which appears to have two naves, but one's an aisle. The monuments, obviously, and brasses are the main interest, and they are stunning. The feet of the first Lord (the coloured monument) rest on a mildly resentful-looking reclining Saracen, leaning on his elbow, glum head on hand. The head of Sir Reginald Cobham rests on a beautifully carved, ferocious Saracen's-head helmet. So much for inter-faith dialogue.
The other church on the walk - St George, Crowhurst (Crowhurst, Surrey, that is) - is one of those quiet, peaceful, unshowy little churches that abound in most of England, as soon as you're off the beaten motorway. And it was open (and contains the only example in Surrey of a Wealden cast-iron tomb slab, though half of it is obscured by the altar table). The ancient Crowhurst Yew, which at one time was hollowed out and a room created inside - nothing remains of that but a hangdog remnant of a door - has been certified 4,000 years old (hmmm) and is officially a Great British Tree. Excellent, though, as a tree, I must say I found the Tandridge yew more impressive.
Anyway - much walking, fine country, three churches worth seeing, and some handsome houses, high and low, along the way. But what about the butterflies? Ah well, there, I'm afraid, I have little to report - a few skippers, rather more speckled woods, a meadow brown, almost nothing else. A bad summer so far. Bird life was much more in evidence, with warblers and finches everywhere, linnets, yellowhammers, woodpeckers, a close-up view of a nutchatch... And the wildlife highlights of the walk came when I was making my way along a field margin. A large bird I couldn't see took off in a flap from an oak tree - and I heard a dull thud as something hit the ground. This turned out to be a young rabbit, very dead - and the bird that foolishly dropped it, I discovered on looking up, was a buzzard, which was now circling in a faintly embarrassed manner. I hope it came back for its lunch when I'd gone.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Summer Night

Last night, the house being quiet and world calm - and the blackbirds singing - I sat in the garden and read this poem, and, by reading, enacted it.
Today is sunny again. It will not last. I am off to the Surrey-Kent border to walk.

Monday, 9 June 2008


An interesting piece in the current issue of Butterfly magazine, by Peter Marren, who is working on the eagerly awaited Bugs Britannica. Marren explores the origin of the word 'butterfly' - and it is not as simple as I'd always thought. It seems it's not all down to the butter-yellow, early-flying Brimstone, but rather to do with an association between butterflies and - yes - butter, or more precisely buttermilk. The German schmetterling comes from a root meaning cream or sour milk, and there's a German dialect name for butterfly that means milk thief - which links butterflies to the world of witchcraft, and explains those sinister images of demonic butterflies in Bosch and Breughel. There are reports of clouds of butterflies - attracted by the buttermilk smell - forming when butter is churned in the open air... On the other hand, an alternative theory suggests that the word might go back to a very ancient root and be essentially meaningless.
Anyway, it's a sunny day, I have escaped the clutches of NigeCorp for the time being. I intend to go out and look for butterflies.
(By the way, if you join that excellent organisation Butterfly Conservation, you can get your own Butterfly magazine.)

Opportunity Brown

Our hero Gordon Broon turned up on the radio last night on a rather tiresome programme in which 'comedian' Marcus Brigstocke is having his blanket cynicism about politics tested by exposure to practising politicoes. Showing a positively Blairite nose for a chance to look good with minimal effort, Broon was on him in a trice. He entered politics, he assured Brigstocke, so that 'everyone could have the opportunities I had' (a line not notable for its originality).
Well, the main opportunity young Gordon had was a fast-track, hothousing education at Kircaldy High School. At the age of 16 - by which time he was ready to go up to Edinburgh University - he claimed that he loathed and resented this 'ludicrous' experiment on young lives (though he cheerfully quoted his old school motto in one of his first speeches as PM). Whatever he might have thought of it, back in Gordon's day, Kircaldy High was capable of producing a future Prime Minister. In 2008, it was declared 'one of the worst schools in Scotland'. So much for 'opportunity', so much for socialised state education. There are worse experiments than hothousing, one being to deprive working-class children of the academic ladder that, historically, lifted so many of them out of poverty.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Crime Reduction Website Proves Its Worth

Here's how Government IT systems work. A lovely story, and all too typical. Can anyone name a single Government-commissioned IT project that came in on time and on budget, did the job it was designed to do, and proved secure in operation? The one good thing about the promised/threatened computerisation of NHS records - here's the latest setback - is that it will almost certainly never happen. As well as IT firms pulling out, growing numbers of individuals, GPs' surgeries and clinics are refusing to co-operate in this madness. Yet the Government's already thrown billions of pounds of our money into the crazy project, and will throw much more after it. (Here's how to opt out, if you're interested.)

Women Vote For Man Shock

Sorry about the hiatus. On Friday, NigeCorp technology collapsed under me like a spavined nag (or the horse you put your money on in the Derby) and on Saturday I was not fully in touch with reality, partly as an after-effect of the previous night's leaving party for a lucky colleague who has escaped the sticky corporate web and is heading for a new life in the south of France, where nobody works and everything works (jaloux - moi?).
However, I was dimly aware that Hillary's minders have finally wrestled her to the ground, sedated her and, with a mere three days of intensive deprogramming, convinced her that she is not the President of the United States of America. She rose on her hinder legs and, in terms as ringing as a muffled bell in a thick fog, 'endorsed' Obama, 'praised' him - see Bryan's post 'Hillary As Mark Anthony' (to which, as to everything else, I am currently unable to link) - and 'urged' her supporters to 'back' him (the verbal form of stab in the back?). Well, we'll see what happens next...
Meanwhile, it seems that the Dems' historic first of running a white woman against a black man has unleashed an equally historic level of bitterness and enmity, reigniting precisely the kind of attitudes the Dems most deplore - racism, sexism, class enmity - and throwing them into uncomfortable prominence. This morning, I caught one of Hill's defeated army - a prominent feminist, I gathered - opining that the problem was that the women didn't all vote together. Which is to say that the women should have all voted for Hillary, simply because she is (despite a testosterone level that would be the envy of Sly Stallone) a woman. By the same token, presumably, all the blacks should have voted for Obama - as should, by the crazed logic of identity politics, all the men. And Hill would have lost by a much bigger margin. This kind of talk only makes sense in the context of a wholly outdated - indeed, exploded - version of feminism. No wonder Mrs C's lot have seemed to be living in the past, whereas Barack at least gives an impression of living in the present. Well - if the Dems are going to beat McCain, they're surely going to have to stop thinking like this, and the legions of aggrieved, embittered Clintonistas are going to have to line up behind Obama, whether they like it or not.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Diego and Henry

On a happier note, today is the birthday of a man with a good claim to be
the greatest painter who ever lived - Diego Velazquez - a birthday marked
by a Las Meninas masthead on the Google title page. This purports to be a
virtual reality tour of the painting - needless to say, it's too much for
NigeCorp technology to handle.
Today is also the birthday - the 112th - of dear old Henry Allingham, who attributes his longevity to 'cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women – and a sense of humour'. Here's to him.

Legacy, Schmegacy

They're talking about the Olympic legacy again.
Free swimming is the latest treat we're promised (paid for out of our own
money, of course, like all such 'free' treats), and a nation transformed from
couch potatoes into hyperactive exercise junkies, swarming in our thousands
to all those swanky venues left over from the triumph that was London 2012.
It's hard not to reach for the word ironic at times like this. If ever
there was a festival of couch potato cultivation, it's the Olympics. It only
exists, in its grotequely bloated modern form, because of the huge
worldwide TV audience - and many of the sports represented only exist, to
the outside world, as a once-every-four-years TV spectacle. What sort of
crowd does the average weightlifting event attract? Where, indeed, would
one find such a thing? Yet, come the Olympics, weightlifting's up there
with the rest, suddenly being gawped at by millions of couch potatoes.
Because the Olympics is fundamentally a TV event, it makes very little sense to build special venues for most of the events. That only leaves a legacy of expensive white elephants - the one sure Olympic legacy we can realistically look forward to. The sponsors and the TV companies should knock up temporary structures - sets, as it were - and take them down when it's all over. As it is, the likeliest 'legacy' of the London Olympics will be not only rotting, redundant venues (this is already the case post-Athens) but also decades of debt - remember Montreal...
There was more legacy talk as the farcical 'UN food summit' closed. Malnutrition would be halved worldwide by 2015, we were solemnly assured, in what was described as an 'important pledge'. Why is this stuff reported as news? It is pure, self-serving fantasy - as it all talk of the benign legacy of the London Olympics.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

A Train Is Not a Bathroom

So there I was sitting on the train this morning, minding my own business (which, today, was reading Shirley Hazzard's The Evening of the Holiday - recommended, of course). Opposite me sat a middle-aged lady of respectable appearance and agreeable demeanour, who was apparently applying the finishing touches to her make-up. Why so many women choose to do this on a swaying, juddering train, rattling over bumpy suburban rails, is one of life's minor mysteries, but there we go... Anyway, a little later I became aware that this woman had moved on, as it were, and was now - silence, please - applying a roll-on deodorant to both her underarms.
This was not the first time I've seen this happen on trains, but it still astonishes me. I know people increasingly behave as if they're living in a magic bubble that somehow prevents them being seen or heard - but surely there are elements of the toilette that should stay at home. A train is not a bathroom. I've also seen nail clipping - feet as well as hands - and various attentions to facial blemishes etc. . There must be a line somewhere, but I fear it's already been crossed. Heaven knows what's coming next.
Anyone had similar experiences - or (gulp) worse?

Hillary Agonistes

So, as all the world - apart from Hillary Rodham Clinton - now knows, it's going to be Obama. Poor Hill has yet to speak, suffering as she is from a bad case of cognitive dissonance. You see, the thing is, she was the winner, there was no other scenario - simple really - what part of that did Barack not understand? But now she's faced with an Obama victory. Does not compute, does not compute...
As far as I'm concerned, the gilding is flaking off Barack at an alarming rate now, and I suspect I'll end up, with the great Frank Wilson, among the totally disenchanted. I'm also pretty sure he'll lose against McCain. As for Hillary, she will utter, it seems, on Saturday. Whatever she says, one thing is for sure - if she's offering to be deputy, Obama would be mad to take her on. Buy Hill and you get one free Bill thrown in - imagine what that toxic twosome could do, so near to the centre of power. Let them occupy themselves in planning Hill's 2012 campaign - the one in which she wins the nomination and the Dems lose the election yet again.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Gulls - What Would Hudson Say?

Two score years ago this day, our fathers launched a war that could never be won - the war against seagulls, initiated by the bold burghers of Dover. Forty years on, it is painfully clear their efforts were all in vain. The gulls have bidden farewell to the clifftops and the foam-flecked seas, and spend their entire lives shouting at each other in squalid rooftop shanties and hanging around municipal rubbish tips, when not harassing the human and avian population. And of course they're 'protected' (all but the urban herring gull). What, I wonder, would that great bird man W.H. Hudson make of it? He was strangely fond of the London gulls (there's a picture of him consorting with them in Birds Of London) - but surely he wouldn't care to live with the mobs of shrieking shitehawks that now menace every town in the land. Perhaps they could be enticed away with promises of a better life elsewhere? They are, after all, very (hem hem) gullible.

Sitting on Alma Cogan

Halfway through my alfresco lunch on a sunny bench in Holland Park, I was delighted to discover that I was sitting on Alma Cogan. Well, to be precise, a memorial bench to the fondly remembered Fifties chanteuse. 'In loving memory of Alma Cogan,' the inscription read. 'The songs. The joy. The laughter.' Indeed. When I'm dead, I wouldn't mind being a park bench. 'Nige. The songs. The joy. The laughter'...

It's The Society, Stupid

Returning from Oxfordshire last night (I'd been away on family business - apologies for blog absence), I slumped in front of the TV news, dazed with fatigue, and - well, maybe I was hallucinating, maybe my brain had seized up, but, vaguely watching David Cameron, in his shirtsleeves, on the Cameron Unplugged live tour or whatever it is, I got an impression that he was talking something like sense and that he seemed at last to have some kind of 'vision'. The gist of it is, I think, that it's no longer the economy - that's just a matter of management - it's the society, stupid. This is going to be where politics happens now, and it won't be a matter of the state pumping in money and controlling every thing, to the point where nothing happens, but of those already doing good work being helped, encouraged and left to get on with it. Maybe I'm reading too much into this - it was way down the bulletin, drowned out by a busy news day - and maybe I've taken leave of my senses - but it might just be that the Tories are beginning to 'get it'. On the other hand, they probably won't be able to do anything about it. And my normal blanket cynicism about the whole of British politics will no doubt kick back in, once I get over the journey from Oxfordshire...

Monday, 2 June 2008

Ma, I've Written A Misery Memoir

I was walking down the high street earlier (face to the open sky the passing deluge) when I was brought to a halt by a poster advertising a book called 'Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes'. At first, not unreasonbly, I took this for a marketing spoof -along the lines of Nathan Barley's Wasp T12 Speechtool ('It's well weapon') - but no, it turned out to be entirely authentic and, indeed, on sale and doing well in Sainsburys. It is a 'misery memoir' of a grim Irish childhood by one Martha Long, and has a companion volume, 'Ma, I'm Locked Up in the Madhouse' (I'm not making that up either).
I suppose, as popular literary genres go, these misery memoirs are quite healthy, showing, as they do, that our individual fates are not socially determined and that the most extreme adversity can be overcome. They are, perhaps, a secular equivalent of those religious tracts ('A Brand From the Burning' etc) whose huge popularity in the 19th century now mystifies us. The continuing vogue for 'Ma, He Sold Me...' and the like certainly seems healthier and more easily understandable than the popularity of those ultra-grisly tales of sadistic serial killers and forensic scientists which, to judge by the book display in Sainsburys, are bigger than misery memoirs. Typically written by women, are these, I wonder, the modern equivalent of the whodunits of the golden age (also written mostly by women)? If so, it shows how far popular taste has sunk. Not that we should be surprised at that...

Don't Need A Weatherman...

Regulars will know that weather is one of my obsessions - how could it be otherwise? I'm English. We have an awful lot of weather here, and little else we care to talk about. Yesterday I heard an interesting letter on Radio 4's Feedback, from a man who finds himself increasingly unable to follow the radio weather forecasts. I raised a silent cheer - how often I have done my best to listen intently to the morning forecast, only to emerge from the experience with no clear picture at all of what the weather is going to be like where I live. This correspondent nailed the chief reason - that these forecasts present the weather as an unfolding narrative of what is happening across the country, whereas all most listeners want to know is how the weather's going to be where they live. What he didn't mention was that, partly because of this narrative approach, the forecasts tend to begin with Scotland and Northern Ireland, so, by the time the unfolding drama has reached the places where most people (and overwhelmingly most Radio 4 listeners) live, they'll have completely lost the thread.
Often, though, by missing the weather forecast we're not missing much - indeed we might be positively misled by it. The Met Office claims what looks like a quite impressive level of accuracy. However, these figures are achieved after taking several stabs at getting it right in the course of a day. And 80 percent might look good, but I believe that if every day you issued the forecast 'Tomorrow's weather will be much the same as today's', you'd be right about 70 percent of the time.
I think it'll brighten up yet.

Free At Last

June 2nd this year is also Tax Freedom Day, the day on which we start earning money for ourselves, as against giving it all to that nice Gordon Brown. Surprisingly, it's a day earlier than last year - though, if government borrowing is factored in, the real date is June 14th. In America this year, Tax Freedom Day falls on April 23rd - which is about where it was in the early 60s in the UK. And it would have been earlier still back in 1953 when the Queen was crowned.
As I've remarked before, working nearly half the year for The Man compares very unfavourably with the feudal system. That's progress.

A Flagrant Breach of the Guidelines

June 2nd. In 1953, this was Coronation Day - and the day on which I discovered the delights of alcohol. I was 3 at the time, and we were all at the Coronation Day party next door, where the flash so-and-sos had that precious rarity, a TV set. While no one was looking, I reached up to the table and took a swig of champagne. And it was good.
This would, of course, have been a flagrant breach of Ed Balls's eminently sensible guidelines advising parents on booze for the babbies. Clearly my parents should have been made to sign parenting contracts and attend a re-education course, at the very least. As for me, it's no wonder I went to the dogs and became a persistent possessor of alcohol. I blame the parents.
Sadly, as it turned out, scarcely a drop of alcohol passed my lips for years after that heady introduction. Like many youngsters of the time, I benefited from a widespread parental misconception that cider is non-alcoholic, but, unlike today's yoof, I wasn't far short of legal age before I got going with 'real' drinking.
Now we live in different times, a different world - one in which the epic, religio-magical, millennium-old Coronation ceremony that was enacted on that day in 1953 could surely never be repeated. Heaven knows that they'll come up with if Chazza becomes King...

Sunday, 1 June 2008

News on the Doorstep

It isn't often - especially down in the suburban demi-paradise I call home - that news happens on your doorstep. Least of an appalling story like that which unfolded on Friday night and Saturday morning. The news began trickling in early in the morning, until it became the lead item on the morning bulletins: Two young children stabbed to death, a baby fighting for life, both parents in custody. As the initial shock wore off, one reached for the lazy assumption that this must have happened at the 'rough end' of town - the badlands (not that bad at all, really) to the North - but no, at the newsagents I learned where it had happened. It was within a (very nearly literal) stone's throw of my own house.
Turning the corner at the end of my road, I found all the accessories of a modern news 'incident' - the big vans with tall aerials, the cameras and fuzzed-up mikes, the mooching hacks and technicians with their styrofoam coffees and their professional ennui. And there, just over the road, taped off, guarded by a pair of coppers, was the house where it had happened. An ordinary, unimposing, bow-windowed detached house from, I'd guess, the 1920s - last-gasp Arts & Crafts, the front as bland as any other, with its whitewashed pebbledash and plastic windows, but some quite nice detailing surviving on the side elevations. I must have walked past it thousands of times over the years, and often, in an absent-minded way, registered the tiniest pang of aesthetic pleasure at those details. Now here it was again, this half-noticed building, isolated and starkly transformed into a 'house of horrors'. And horrors, unimaginable horrors, were indeed enacted there, behind those blank net curtains - blank but for, at the upstairs window, on the sill, a row of little plastic flower arrangements in tiny pots...
As the news developed in the course of the day, one reached again for the lazy assumptions - husband discovers wife has strayed, kills her children in his fury - and once again they were wrong. This is the latest. In the end, it appears, this may be another dreadful case of a mother sliding into such a well of unimaginable despair that there seems only one kindness she can do her children. . And, as ever, no one knew.