Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Stern Warning

According to my recently instituted Worry Timetable, Monday is the day that I have set aside for fretting over climate change. It could not have worked out better as today former World Bank Economic supremo Sir Nicholas ‘Nearly Headless’ Stern released his much anticipated report on climate change. As is the usual way with these things, the contents of the report were pre-announced by the nation’s press yesterday. Whitehall seems to have more leaks than the Thames Water system these days.

No prizes for guessing that we are doomed. What remains to be worked out with the Government’s usual meticulous attention to irrelevant fine detail, is exactly how this doom will be managed and by which quango. According to Nearly Headless, if we continue on our perilous path of global environmental vandalism, the planet could become up to 5%C warmer within a hundred years. The last ice age was triggered by a drop of 5%C, so that sounds quite serious. Up to forty per cent of animal and plant species could become extinct. Unfortunately these would probably not include cockroaches or leylandii though. Around 200 million people might be displaced by floods or droughts or both but these would all be in poor countries so of no real concern.

The argument was quite difficult to follow as all the numbers were very big and it’s a significant departure from the heated debate we were having last week centred on whether or not climate change was caused by people leaving their televisions on standby. It turns out that remote control misuse is just a small part of the problem. In fact, the problems are mostly caused by the USA, China and India who have no intention of doing anything about them. Remembering to turn our televisions off rather than leaving them on standby will not make a jot of difference to global warming but it will secure for us the moral, if not the actual high ground when the great flood starts.

There’s no doubt that the argument is complex. According to Nearly Headless, if we don’t do anything about climate change in the next ten years, it could cost us £3.68 trillion. That does seem a bit academic because if we are not going to do anything about it now, we are certainly not going to get off our arses in ten years time when we’ve got very used to doing nothing and it’s going to cost a silly amount of money that no one could be bothered counting out. He may have been premature when he enthused, ‘we have demolished the last remaining argument for inaction.’ He forgot the one that goes ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’.

Saving the planet for future generations is not much of an incentive, after all, none of us is going to be around in a hundred years to enjoy the benefits of our sacrifices and we have gotten rather used to paying 99p for our international flights. The beauty of the Stern Report is that it doesn’t rely on our national moral compass suddenly waking up and pointing in the right ethical direction. This report was commissioned by the Treasury, so it is designed to show that the planet will be saved by economic policy rather than environmental conservation.

Enter Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown, our most successful treasurer since John of Gaunt. ‘Global warming’, intoned Scrooge, ‘is the world’s biggest market failure’. This led to a rather large hiccup in the FTSE as investors scuttled off to dump their CFC shares. The Government is always very keen for us to adjust our personal behaviour so it’s nice to see Scrooge road testing a variant point of view. He does seem to have picked an odd time to raise a half full glass though. ‘Climate change’, he enthused, ‘is not just a challenge, it’s an opportunity’. People who create enterprise from disaster are usually referred to as looters.

Investors pricked up their ears when Scrooge unveiled his big idea - that London should become an international centre for carbon trading. We are saved! It will be the greatest artificial solution to a terrifying problem since the South Sea Bubble. There’ll be a brand new commission and a framework and partnerships and executive finger buffets, all the useful apparatus we’ve come to expect Government to fetch up with when staring down both barrels of imminent catastrophe.

Carbon trading is already a rip roaring success in the EU where it allows carbon polluters to buy up the carbon emission allowance excess of companies that can’t manage to waste enough energy. There should be a thriving black market in no time and a whole new business stream for ebay. It will be just like the Wild West except with Virgin and Ryanair riding shotgun instead of Pony Express. Lead on McDuck. The blind are forming an orderly queue behind you…

Cartoon from www.ecnt.org

Monday, October 30, 2006

Curb your enthusiasm

When I have nothing constructive to do, which is worryingly often, I amuse myself by considering the concept of ‘acceptable behaviour’. This is a social construct so simple that ants can master it. There is very little misbehaviour in an ant colony. That’s not to say it’s a fair society but ants have yet to discover a need for bringing in ASBOs. Most ants it seems are able to do the right thing without television campaigns fronted by Ray Winstone.

An acceptable behaviour contract (ABC) is an agreement between you and the police that you will refrain from acting like a complete tosser in public. Whatever you choose to do in the privacy of your own home is, at present still up to you, but when out and about, you agree to maintain a standard of demeanour that does not constitute civil disorder. The police make no such reciprocal undertaking. This is only to be expected as they are there to diffuse public affray wherever it occurs and this can require quite a bit of violence in order for them to achieve full job satisfaction.

Some people need to have the boundaries of an ABC quite literally spelled out. There is a man at the moment going around smearing faeces all over the coaches of trains. Police are understandably quite anxious to discuss the parameters of acceptable behaviour with him as the bill for cleaning up his dissidence has already reached £60,000. This adds new meaning to the term ‘shit happens’. It is happening all over southern England. The great mystery of this phenomenon is that the vandal appears to find trains with empty carriages. Not that I would ever want to decorate a carriage with excrement, but I wouldn’t mind finding the occasional seat when I get on a train. British Transport police have described this behaviour as ‘exceptionally anti-social’, and advised, ‘If anyone sees this man travelling on the railway network, they should not approach him.’ Sounds like extremely sound advice to me.

I used to think that this is the sort of behaviour people start to display when they are hideously oppressed. I had the huge misfortune of being caught short in a railway station in Russia back in the days when it was still under soviet rule. The public toilets were like open drains except less hygienic. There were no cubicles and the walls were covered in faeces, all the way up to the top. It seemed like a lot of effort went into it. You'd have needed a ladder. They must have been quite pissed off. I doused my scarf in duty free Chanel No. 5 and tied it across my nose. It worked a treat but it was tricky keeping all that clothing clear of every surface.

I know someone who works in a public library in an upmarket seaside town in Australia. It’s a lovely modern building in a beautiful parkland setting with a high concentration of senior citizens. You would think it would be a doddle escorting irreproachable elderly ladies and gentlemen to the large print section and assisting them to select the latest Patricia Cornwell or John Grisham. Far from it. This week she reports that the cleaners have refused to clean the men’s toilet because patrons have been wanking in there. Yes. They grab themselves a copy of some seemingly innocuous health and fitness journal, retire to a cubicle and let rip. Charming. The cleaners are heartily sick of finding piles of clammy magazines piled up on the floor at the end of the day. It’s not as if you can just wipe it off and pop it back on the shelf now is it?

Hardly a day goes by when there isn’t an incident in this cathedral of genteel learning. If it’s not a punch up over whose turn it is to use the free internet terminals, it’s a brawl in the queue to reserve the latest Dan Brown. Librarians frequently have to break off from checking out books to request that a ragged reprobate cease gurgling from something in a brown paper bag/playing with himself/shooting up heroin on a bean chair adjacent to the children’s games area. Sadly libraries are one of the few places where vulnerable people who are relative strangers in their own headspace are reasonably safe from being tormented by groups of kids or harassed by the police. Libraries are also warm and dry and have nice comfortable chairs and are full of free things so it's not surprising that they've become hubs of anti-social behaviour.

Pubs, on the other hand, couldn’t be quieter these days as they’re now full of people drinking mineral water and double espressos and quietly reading books – by themselves.

Cartoon from www.magazine.concordia.ca

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Arrested Development

Just as Bill Clinton was determined to leave a legacy based on the importance of DNA in identifying wrong doing, Tony Blair seems bent on making sure that DNA is also the thing for which he will be most remembered. Nobody wants to be defined by a war in which he turned out to be the bad guy, or plummeting literacy, or disintegrating public health services. Ooops. It hasn’t gone that well, has it?

From the ministry of Pre-crime comes the news that one in twenty of us already has our biological details registered on the Government’s DNA database. This is five times as many as the next nearest personal information obsessed country that isn’t actually run by a military dictatorship that executes librarians. I have already raged about Blair’s keenness for honing in on foetal criminal intent (3/9/06), fingerprinting five year old library users and scanning the retinas of immigrants (13/9/06). What is it with this guy? Is he planning on becoming a crime novelist or summink? It seems as if he intends to get no sleep until every British citizen’s defining characteristics are etched into his insidious DNA virtual Doomsday Book - in their own blood.

In this endeavour he is enthusiastically assisted by the agreeable factotums at the Forensic Science Service. This is essentially an extension of the police force. The police would, of course, love everyone in Britain to be on the database as it would mean they no longer have to do any detecting which is, as I understand it, the least interesting part of police work. Imagine if all police had to do was collect up a single hair or nail cutting and pop it down to the lab, that would leave them free to walk up and down the high street looking for teenagers to suspect of something. No more crawling around in thickets - for some reason bodies always seem to turn up in thickets – in flimsy paper suits that make you look like an extra on Torchwood. No more of white boards covered with pictures of victims and usual suspects and question marks with confusing criss-crossing lines. No more 5am briefings. The Bill would obviously get cancelled but it could be replaced by a new show called The Dill (DNA Intelligence Linked BioLogik). The actors wouldn’t have any detecting to do which would leave them free to form challenging personal relationships with each other and indulge their tendency towards domestic violence and alcohol abuse.

Head boffin Paul Hackett, DNA Manager for the Forensic Science Service, enthuses, ‘we can get a profile from, say, an ear print against a glass window.’ How useful is that? Obviously eavesdropping should be a crime if it isn’t already. There may be new skills for the police to learn - like how to tell the difference between a genuine eavesdropper and a serial rapist. Updated protocols would be needed to cover the possibility that a Turner Prize contender may have elected to leave his/her ear print on especially designated windows across the country as their entry in the prestigious prize. Brian Sewell may need to be called in as an expert witness to determine whether it is art or a heinous crime. Interestingly, no Turner Prize winner has ever been convicted of a serious crime. Grayson Perry was once charged with indecent exposure but the charges were dropped when the Crown Prosecution Service became aware that the obscenity laws did not cover ceramics. This anomaly has since been rectified.

What’s more’, continues boffin Hackett, ‘when there are mixed samples of DNA, we can increasingly separate them with LCN profiling’. LCN means ‘low copy number’ and, what he is essentially saying is that boffins who are trying to find criminals might get so lazy from the habit of having nothing much to do, that they just might grab one little cell at random and charge the first person that pops up on their computer with gunning down an entire sleepy village and then turning the gun on themselves. If this happens to you, be assured that it was probably your cousin Keith whom you have never liked because he was always trying to put your head in your grandfather’s bench vice. You probably had very similar DNA and, since Keith died with all the other villagers, the Crown Prosecution Service needs someone in the dock for a show trial, and that person is you, sadly.

I admit to being almost swayed by the compelling arguments of boffin Hackett and our outgoing PM with whom I have enormous sympathy for his midlife crisis as I’ve been going through something very similar myself – Tony if you need to talk, I’m only a phone call or limousine ride away. I’ve derived great comfort from the words of both L Ron Hubbard and Dr Phil which I’d be very glad to share with you. You may not be able to change your DNA but you can change your attitude.

However, on close examination, the system seems flawed. Boffin Hackett reveals a fatal inconsistency in LCN profiling –‘… a homeowner’s sample on a vacuum cleaner’, he informs us, ‘can be distinguished from that of the burglar’. Ahha! This would never stand up in court. What would be the motivation for a burglar hoovering your home before stealing your Bang and Olufsen? Although, it might work in a Pinter play…

Cartoon from www.mic.ucdavis.edu

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Cold Comfort

My greatest fear – way beyond being eaten by a crocodile or choking on a ham sandwich - is dying of cold. This is the main reason I’m moving to the tropics. Even then I’m going to insist on living in a place with a pot-bellied stove. They’re very efficient at keeping open-plan dwellings warm. There’s no central heating in the tropics unfortunately. One of the things I’ll really miss about my flat is that it's Bermuda all year round in my little piece of Hackney. I even have seagulls, well actually they’re terns but they’re white and grey and land on the water so they could can easily pass for seagulls.

Usually I spend the darkest, coldest months in my spiritual home Noosa Heads, Queensland. From the beginning of October to the end of February is the worst time to be in England. Usually I come back at the end of January. February is a short month anyway and there’s always lots of socialising to do. I usually have to see everyone in the first three days before my tan disappears. Most of it rubs off on the plane in the dry atmosphere. This is the only time of year when people say to me, ‘you look well’, as if they actually mean it.

Having the heating on is the one area of environmental conservation on which I simply won’t compromise. I am immensely proud of the fact that I have only ever spent one winter in Europe in which I was too cold. After a childhood in Sydney, freezing for three solid months of the year, I promised myself, with Scarlett O’Hara like zeal, that I would never get that cold once I was in charge of the room temperature. It is the only promise I made to my child self that I have ever been able to keep.

I know a lot of people who believe that having a cold house is good for you. You learn to ask, ‘will you have the heating on?’, when they invite you to dinner. They usually sigh, ‘yes’, with grumpy resignation and put the gas fire in the lounge on for half an hour to ‘warm up the room’. They switch it off the minute they hand you your first ice cold gin and tonic. I had to purchase NASA approved thermal underwear so that I don’t expire between courses. I also usually take fingerless gloves too as I’ve noticed it’s difficult to butter bread wearing mittens.

When my hardy friends come to my house, they need to strip down to their underwear and throw open all the windows which makes for an interesting dinner party. Of course they would draw the line at frostbite but they honestly do think that a little cold never hurt anyone. I, on the other hand, believe that you are less inclined to reach the heights of erudition of which you know yourself to be capable if your teeth are chattering. Up until now, the coldies have laughed at my inability to acclimatise but now I feel I’ve finally clambered up the slippery slope and planted my feeble little flag on the moral high ground.

Every year, around 25,000 elderly people die in England and Wales because of being too cold. This always seemed to be a mystery as Britain is actually a very warm cold country if you see what I mean, and therein lies the problem. In Russia, Finland and Canada, elderly people don’t seem to die because they’re too cold. The BBC reported today, ‘the coldest city in the world, Yakutsk in east Siberia, has no excess winter deaths, even though temperatures there can drop to minus 49C.’

Very sensibly, someone has finally done some research into why so many elderly people die of cold when it isn’t actually that cold.Professor Bill Keatinge of London’s Queen Mary University reveals, On the whole, the countries that have the mildest winters tend to have a higher mortality than countries with very cold winters. This is because the deaths in winter are not due to massive cold, with people being overwhelmed in their own houses and dying of extreme cold. It's down to quite minor degrees of cold that people were getting every day.’ I knew it!

It seems that low room temperatures make you prone to heart attacks and strokes. According to Prof Keatinge, if your room temperature is lower than 20C you begin to be at risk of death. In genuinely cold countries they can’t be doing with this bracing fresh air mentality and they keep their home fires well stoked. People who have cruel friends or work in chilly basements should start taking a room thermometer to work or next dinner party and suing the Argyll socks off their tormentors.

Patrick Sachon from the Met Office warned ‘In this country, people don't think about what getting cold will do to them because it doesn't kill them immediately. We don't have well insulated houses and we have a culture that believes having a window open to let in lots of fresh air is good for us, even though it is not. People need to realise that cold can kill and they need to keep warm.’

So, there we have it, definitive evidence if ever it were needed. It’s a bit of a shame that it comes just as the energy companies are about to raise their prices to a level that no pensioner could possibly afford. Perhaps they could all move to Yakutsk or the tropics.

Cartoon from www.crh.noaa.gov

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Fools of Engagement

Some years ago the Government set up stalls in the nation’s supermarkets so that it could reach out and discover what we, the people, really thought about the National Health Service. If only we could have told them but being sued for libel is, apparently, quite unpleasant.

Few things are more disturbing on a Saturday morning when you are straining to remember whether or not Jerusalem artichokes are in season and squinting to read the tiny lists of ingredients in muesli bars than some overgrown boffin in a baggy suit and crooked tortoise-shell spectacles bouncing around you trying to extract ‘your views’.

While struggling to juggle my shopping basket and my senses simultaneously, I found a beefy fist in my face clutching a questionnaire, the title of which was something like What is the purpose of the NHS? The boffin swayed back and forth in a type of strange dance that we in Hackney have come to expect from nervous civil servants who have never been to this dangerous part of the world before. I wonder what they tell them in preparation - that they should expect to be mugged and offer up their BlackBerry to the first person to make eye contact with them perhaps?

‘You don’t have to fill it out now’, he encouraged. Perhaps he thought I might like to take it to my adult literacy class and get help from the tutor.

‘Have you got a pen?’, I enquired.

‘Oh yes!’, boffin enthused, his face morphing into the Churchill’s Insurance dog, ‘you can keep the pen. They’re free!’ Sorry about the use of all these exclamation marks. The boffin himself was a living, breathing exclamation mark. Perhaps he thought I had never seen a pen before. It used to be if you went to Russia or Cuba you’d take pens and soap to give to the poor people because there were shortages of these things. You can’t actually fill out a questionnaire with soap, (although lipstick works quite well), and it may not have been polite to give people in the worst borough in Britain a present of soap.

I took the pen and wrote ‘to fix sick people’ directly underneath the heading ‘What is the purpose of the NHS’, and handed the form back to the boffin who thanked me with profuse disingenuousness.

The Government has an almost mystical talent for making things far more complicated than they need to be. Its rocky romance with ‘community engagement’ lurches towards yet another inevitable cul-de-sac as Ruth ‘Head Girl’ Kelly today announced its umpteenth new direction in its relationship with local Government. She told the BBC this morning,

‘The proposals that we'll set out today will recast the relationship between central and local government, will put in place strong, visible local leadership everywhere so people know who is taking decisions, they are able to take tough decisions, they are able to make long-term strategic decisions about the future of an area.’

All this has come about because of a survey that showed, as similar surveys have done for years now, a declining satisfaction in local authorities. Successive Governments have been fiddling with local authorities and their scope of influence for over twenty years and none more obsessively than this one. Having stripped local authorities of much of their powers, especially over housing and education, in the last few years, the Government now proposes to hand some of these powers back. Unfortunately, most local authorities have been forced to hand over a lot of their housing to criminally inept housing associations and neither the local authorities or the Government seem to be able to exercise any control over them.

Every year local authorities have to undertake a Comprehensive Performance Assessment. This is a massive competitive exercise which preoccupies every council in England for eleven months of the year, leaving them little time for delivering public services. Head Girl seems to have forgotten that it was her Government that instigated this ridiculously onerous system only a couple of years ago as she promised to,

"…slash central government targets. A situation where in some areas you have up to 1,200 different Government performance indicators and targets and so forth will go down to a system that has a bare minimum.’

The thing that Government is most worried about is the total lack of interest that most of us now have in the silly game that politics has become. Only one in five of us are satisfied with the opportunities to participate in local decision-making, according to this survey. As usual, the Government has put two and two together and come up with E=mc2. The survey also found, as these surveys typically do, a link between direct involvement in decision-making and satisfaction levels with the council. Of the people who sit on council committees 68 per cent have a reasonable level of satisfaction with council services compared to only 26 per cent of the rest of us who have to clean up our footpaths after the garbage truck has been.

Here’s the thing. People who sit on council committees are bestowed self-importance by the officers they work with and become sympathetically conditioned. They are also unlikely to diss decisions they have helped to make, no matter how daft. It’s not as if the minute you get elected onto a local committee the streets start to look cleaner to you, unless of course it coincides with your cataract operation. It is crude and cynical to want to raise levels of public involvement just so that people will report higher levels of satisfaction with services that remain doggedly awful.

I have just one question for the Government. Why do people in the poorest areas with the lowest quality services still pay the highest council tax after you’ve been in power for nearly ten years?

Photo from www.atangledweb.typepad.com

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Corpse Pride

I should really set up a system for worrying as I am concerning myself randomly at present and, worse, fretting responsively. I am knee-jerking in time with BBC News 24 which means that I’m living in a state of high anxiety, quite often about things that should not deplete my natural serotonin such as the FTSE and childhood obesity. I am reasonably certain that mental age is not a factor in childhood obesity terms.

I’ve decided to be more organised about my worrying so, from today, I am instituting a Worry Timetable. I will try to stick to this as far as possible so that I don’t spend the entire day traumatised over a multitude of issues that I can do very little about. This system will also minimise the tendency to find spurious connections between individual topics of stress.

Worry Timetable

Monday - Climate change

Tuesday - Identity theft

Wednesday - World poverty

Thursday - The war in Iraq

Friday - Terrorism

Saturday - Crime and the causes of crime

Sunday - Binge drinking

Looking at the list now, Wednesday through Friday seems like a rough seventy-two hours. I might have to consider taking the occasional sabbatical. If there’s a ceasefire or telethon then I can obviously stand the worry beads down temporarily. There will be holidays where I will fret about nothing except whether or not I get a window seat. I’ll only stress about airline carbon emissions if I’m actually travelling on a Monday. You can pay a bounty which will eliminate your personal culpability now anyway. For a mere £3, someone will plant a tree for you which will carbon neutralise your plane journey. That seems very civilised.

So, today is Wednesday and I will concern myself with poverty. One thousand old age pensioners, some dressed as skeletons, are petitioning Parliament today to get the pension raised by about £30 a week. According to the National Pensions Convention (NCP), around 2.5 million pensioners in Britain are living below the poverty line. The Government has promised to restore the link between pensions and the cost of living which was severed in 1980 by the Thatcher Government. The problem is that they have said this will happen in 2012. This date has been set because the Labour Government couldn’t possibly still be in power then and it will be someone else’s job to tell elderly people that they have changed their minds and can’t give them any more money after all.

The NCP says ‘Three million pensioners will die before the link between pensions and earnings is restored in 2012’. Older people do have a tendency to die which is why they make wills and buy burial plots. There is very little incentive to do this if you are just starting out in life. Most young people haven’t reproduced people to leave their money to yet or decided where they want to die as they haven’t seen that much of the world. They don’t want to spend their money on funeral plots as they need it for carbon neutralising trees and a new iPod.

The Government tells us that there are not enough people of working age paying into the tax system to pay a decent pension yet it tries to limit the number of people of working age entering the country. If it does let people of working age in, it puts a great big stamp on their passport which says, Not eligible to work in the UK. These people immediately go off and work for their cousin who is a dodgy builder. Neither of them pays tax and both of them eventually leave the country with their entire earnings and a new iPod.

Like most people, I worry that by the time I get to be a pensioner, there won’t be a pension at all. There are a dozen or so wealthy people in the world who think that it would work much better if they had all the money and they got all the other people, including pensioners, to work in their cola and computer chip factories or as dispensable extras on their disaster movies. In return they would receive basic food, water, shelter and the chance to win an iPod as long as they remained productive. These entrepreneurs are having one of their swimming pools in each country where they have built a mansion converted into a money bin to hold their surplus cash. This philanthropic action on their part will conserve vitally needed water. They are also planting many carbon neutralising trees to shade their money.

On the bright side, the protesting pensioners will have something to wear on Halloween later in the week. The future of the planet seems assured so I will stop worrying now.

Art from xelucha.homestead.com

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

I love Hackney even more than last time

Hackney is the worst place to live in Britain according to a Channel 4 programme to be screened soon. The timing of this news could have been better as I am trying to sell my Hackney flat. I have to say, as much as I like to think I live in the worst place in England, if not the entire world because it suits my fey artistic ego to perceive myself as extremely hard done by, I don’t actually think it can be true. Worse than Grimsby, Grimethorpe or Gravesend? Have these people never been to Grays?

We Hackney residents have a tradition. It’s OK for us to run down our borough but when outsiders presume to do it, then we rally as if we were defending a revolutionary barricade. Our Mayor, Jules ‘Drano’ Pipe had the number of our critics very quickly. ‘This kind of programme panders to the worst sort of middle England snobbery’, he charged.

He has to be a bit careful here though. Having worked in urban regeneration for enough years to qualify as terminally insane, I can attest that most inner London boroughs vie ferociously for the accolade of worst place in Britain in order to get the most money from the Government. But this is just a subterfuge we play so we can get the resources to build lots of landmark facilities that immediately collapse in ruins and then complain bitterly about them. We don’t actually think it’s that bad here. We just like to waste tax payers’ money on our follies and have the opportunity for a good old moan.

The cynic in me questions the motives of Channel 4 for releasing this information in advance of the programme being shown. Channel 4 knows that of its fifteen viewers, eleven of us live in Hackney. It also knows that nine of us only tune in for Charmed. This is a shameless attempt to boost viewing figures, obviously. I have used the skills of my former profession to try and fathom out how the makers of The Best And Worst Places To Live In The UK: 2006 reached their conclusions. Here is their list of worst places.

  • Hackney
  • Tower Hamlets
  • Merthyr Tydfil
  • Newham
  • Islington
  • Middlesbrough
  • Nottingham
  • Strabane
  • Blaenau Gwent
  • Manchester

The programme makers claim to look at five selection criteria used by home-buyers - crime, environment, lifestyle, education and employment. The list bears a remarkable resemblance to the Government’s Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD 2004). There are separate IMDs for England and Wales and, as far as I know, none for Ireland so I’ll have to discount Merthyr Tydfil, Strabane and Blaenau Gwent for the sake of this argument. This is how the remaining seven English places on the ‘worst’ list are ranked in the IMD 2004.

1 Hackney
2 Tower Hamlets
3 Manchester
4 Islington
6 Newham
9 Nottingham
19 Middlesbrough

Our Government is obsessed with collecting information on what people wear, eat, learn, do and buy. They also have no idea how to look at information objectively and they imbue it with all sorts of subjective judgements based on their warped perceptions of what is good for the population. It is entirely possible to have a great life completely under the radar of any Government spy satellite. I wonder how the government might rate a typical week day in my life, which might go something like this:-

9am Have breakfast in bed, read yesterday’s paper, write diary.

10am Get up and write blog.

12pm Go for a run around Hackney Marshes or Victoria Park.

1pm Have lunch and watch BBC News.

2pm Work on book while listening to compilation CDs made by nice friend.

6pm Play piano or make bad art with rubbish collected over years.

8pm Have gin and tonic followed by dinner and glass of wine.

9pm Watch TV or DVD.

11pm Go to bed and read book from library or own collection as can’t afford to buy books at the moment.

Only about two of these things are measurable by Government standards which are based on consumerism that can be tracked. So it knows how many people in Hackney buy Happy Meals and cans of baked beans but it doesn’t know what you eat if you get a vegetable box from Abel & Cole or collect blackberries, plums and elderflowers from the park. It knows how many pointless ring tones you download but not how many sonnets you pen. It can tell if you are doing an Adult Literacy GNVQ in your spare time but it doesn’t know if you are reading Heidegger. The Government is only interested in how far you live from a retail park or if you are virtually resident in your local healthy living centre and community college.

I have a permanent view of a gorgeous canal with narrow boats, fish and water birds of every kind. If I lived in one of the ‘top’ places like Epsom or Esher, I might be living next to a railway line or on top of a chip shop with pigeons nesting in my eves. Hackney is full of artists, actors, writers and students and other people who either don’t care about money or have discovered a higher plane beyond credit card debt. It is the most genuinely cosmopolitan place in the entire land. Did I mention that my flat is for sale? Hackney may be a great place but it doesn’t yet have a beach…

Dude, where's my country?

There is a place in Nova Scotia called Sydney and a few years ago, a British woman ended up there rather than Sydney, Australia because she failed to pay close enough attention to the drop down menu when going through the motions on ebookers. The fact that she needed to alight at Montreal and complete her journey by husky-drawn sledge did not, apparently, set off any alarm bells. It was a costly error as she had packed only half a dozen bikinis and a corked hat.

Nova Scotia must get its fair share of default tourism because there is also a Liverpool, an Inverness, a Yarmouth and a Truro there. With the news today that one in five British children between the ages of six and fourteen could not pick Britain out on a map, perhaps Nova Scotia can expect a windfall in tourism in the next decade. Likewise, Cuba must be priming itself for an invasion of gap year students making their way to the small Cuban town of Central Australia in search of Uluru. Thanks to Peter Weir in 1974 and Wim Wenders ten years later, the world became aware that there are Parises in both Texas and northern New South Wales. Neither of them are approachable by Eurostar however. Knowing your geography can save you a lot of money and spare you the embarrassment of showing up with the wrong wardrobe and currency.

British children attend school for around forty-five minutes a day. Half of it is spent lining up to reject steamed asparagus in béchamel sauce with honey carrots and dauphinoise potatoes especially prepared for them by Jamie Oliver. We know that they are not doing maths, English or history in the remaining time. It now seems clear that they are not doing geography either. One in ten of the thousand children surveyed are unable to name a single continent. It is estimated that around three per cent of London children don’t know they live in the nation’s capital. I suppose if you reside on a sink estate, attend a failing school and have never been further than your high street, it might not feel like much of a capital to you.

About a third couldn’t pick the USA and eighty-six per cent didn’t recognise Iraq. I don’t know that I’d recognise Iraq. Just because it’s in the news all the time, doesn’t mean you could sit down and sew it onto a sampler. Most countries aren’t really a very interesting shape. The USA by itself is not that special. The most distinctive countries by far are Australia, Africa and Italy. All the others are just variations on a square with the odd jutty bit of disputed territory. I couldn’t find out if the survey asked about the more recognisable countries but I’m sure many more kids would have picked them. I always thought that Britain looked a bit like a rabbit. That’s an easy way to remember it, a rabbit nibbling off the choicest chunk of Ireland.

To be fair, this latest evidence of the shrinking knowledge base of the nation’s children comes from National Geographic Magazine’s new kids’ edition and is timed to coincide with its British launch. Could be that they are looking to whip up a demand for their product. Kids don’t feel a need to retain information any more because it is so easily collected again. I would like to retain information but it is no longer physically possible. Unfortunately, I also seem to lack the ability to relocate information I have previously found, even if it was only five minutes ago. Consequently, I always have about thirty web pages open at any given time. This means that I could have completed a Masters in Geography in the time it takes to load a new page.

My childhood memory of National Geographic is that it contained a lot of very beautiful pictures of people with dinosaur bones through their noses, a hundred brass rings around their necks and a bread and butter plate tucked into their lower lip. It didn’t fill me with an immediate desire to see the world. I always did like maps though. There was usally a map of the world on the wall in classrooms. These days the walls are decorated with posters reminding children to refrain from shooting each other if at all possible. There are few opportunities now to see the shape of a country unless you have an atlas or a globe at home. Travel guides and newspaper supplements don’t have maps, only directions for McDonalds and instructions for what to do if the spa bath doesn’t work. Google Earth only shows you how big the houses are and where the CCTV cameras are located. It certainly doesn’t paint all the countries different colours so you can tell where one ends and the next one begins.

Think of how much more difficult it must have been during the days of empire. School children had to remember where all the pink bits were and whether or not they produced hemp, jute, rubber or sugar. British kids are amongst the best-travelled in the world but they mostly go to places that are not big enough to be on a map like Ibiza or Tenerife. It also only takes two hours to get there so there is no sense that they have actually journeyed. They could be in Leeds but for the palm trees.

Children are apparently more interested in whether we are killing the people in Iraq than recognising it as an inkblot on a piece of card. They are more concerned about whether we are destroying the Amazonian rain forest than looking at pictures of people with curiously distorted facial features. Fewer children are taking geography at GCSE and A level now and the government is worried about it in the few brief moments when it can take time out from worrying about what everyone is wearing and whether or not we are eating five portions of fruit and veg a day. A new £2 million scheme has been announced to reignite children's interest in the shapes of countries and locations of borders. According to The Telegraph today, ‘every secondary school in England will receive a copy of Michael Palin's best-selling book Himalaya’, as well. That is excellent news for Michael Palin but a bit of a shame for students as 'Himalaya' is not actually a country. Perhaps Bill Bryson's 'Notes from a Small Island' would have been a better choice.

Cartoon from 'The Age'

Monday, October 23, 2006

The agony and the eccentricity

I’ve just returned from a typically blustery October weekend on the south coast with my fellow ex-pat Aussie cousins. Living in Hackney as I have for most of the last twenty-four years, I tend to forget that I live in a country as well as a city. Sometimes I need reminding that I even live in a city. Hackney seems much more a state of mind than an actual place sometimes. It helps to get away on a regular basis.

Lancing is a small West Sussex town most notable for the grand boys’ college of the same name whose alumni include Tim Rice, Christopher Hampton, David Hare, Jamie Theakston, Tom Driberg, Jan Morris and, most notably, Evelyn Waugh. It’s a part of the country that, if you live in a deprived urban area and believe what politicians tell you about how ‘Britain is changing’, ceased to exist in about 1973. Suffice to say that not all thatchers are redundant.

This weekend I really wanted to see the reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the English Martyrs Church in nearby Goring-by-Sea. Billed as ‘the only known reproduction of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling in the world’, this faithful rendering of the original was executed by local artist Gary Bevans. The only known reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the world? Surely this could not be. Why, I wondered had the famous ceiling not been available at least as a table cloth/tote bag/screen saver, and certainly why has it not been replicated as Sunday morning eye candy in every parish in Christendom for the last half millennium.

The answer is as English as the adornment in the little pebble dash English Martyrs Church in the little pebble dash English village of Goring-by-Sea. Gary Bevans is a signwriter with no formal art training who went on pilgrimage to Rome in 1987 and when he returned home, ‘he was so inspired by what he saw that he returned home with a burning desire to recreate that ceiling in his own Parish Church’, according to the Arundel and Brighton Virtual Diocese. Read the whole story here. It beats sending a post card, even one with Vatican stamps on it.

Bevans had already donated a rendering of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper to the church. It’s still there, hanging over the entrance. The presence of a Maltese Terrier at table is somewhat unexpected but not entirely unwelcome from a visitor’s perspective. Parish Priest Fr Enda Naughton, who led the pilgrimage which sparked Bevans’s vocation, at least had that example of the artist’s work as a point of reference when the request came to reproduce a three quarter scale version of easily the planet’s most celebrated piece of Christian iconography in the modest little seaside church.

The decision to allow Bevans a free hand with his visionary quest was made by presiding Bishop Cormac who must have exercised remarkable faith and considerably more restraint than Pope Julius II who dogged Michelangelo all through his grinding commission. For Bevans, it was a labour of love and he was left largely alone to work lying flat on his scaffolding, in between whipping up shingles for the butcher, baker and candlestick maker. It took him five years to complete.

The results are not displeasing. Meticulously faithful to the original in style and content, it lacks only the emotion of Michelangelo. The figures look more like paintings of pictures of people rather than paintings of people. In that respect they recall Bellini rather than Michelangelo. But I’m nit picking. You don’t have to wait in a long queue with Texans the size of Cuba and be jostled through a dimly lit cave where your only sense that you are in the presence of great art is relayed to you via your audio guide as there is a canopy of Stetsons obscuring your view.

I got to thinking, is there anywhere else but England where such an eccentric audacity would receive a positive response? On Friday night we tuned in to Late Review. My cousin, who had never seen the programme before, eyeballed Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry, resplendent in his usual cupie doll attire. My cousin said, ‘I’m not even going to ask.’ I can’t imagine any other cultural context in which a very large man in a very large bow could sit in a circle of plainly outfitted fellow pundits and discuss the latest in arts and letters without someone’s face cracking.

Normally I hate drag which, to me, is the gender equivalent of black face. I know it’s firmly steeped in British theatrical tradition and is cloaked in respectability by its association with Shakespeare, but this is where my ‘foreigneness’ outs big style I’m afraid. Grayson Perry I love because he doesn’t lampoon or trivialise women’s couture and attitudes and play us for laughs. He just looks like he never outgrew the dressing up box. He has no airs, graces, gratuitous feather boas or aqua eye shadow. I love his sassy pots too, my favourite of which is called ‘I’m killing myself and taking the kids with me you bitch.’

Although the call of my new tropical island home gets louder as the days draw in, there are some things I will always miss about England. I will miss the chutzpah of the Gary Bevanses and Grayson Perrys and Tracey Eminses and Damien Hirsts and all the other mad artists who serve us up our own bad dreams with chips on the side to our ultimate enjoyment. Bless them all and pass the salt please.

Picture: Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve by Gary Bevans, English Martyrs Church, West Sussex

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Owly Cat

There is a theory that you’re either a cat or a dog person. I like most animals. I remember seeing Salvador Dalí interviewed once and he said his favourite animals were rhinoceros and filet of sole. That seemed like a good choice. I’m particularly fond of a family of coots that builds a nest below my bedroom window every spring. I watch them squabble and fuss and get anxious. I watch their nest blow downstream in strong winds and I have even watched in horror as our resident heron has stolen their eggs. I’ve grieved with them, but I have not bestowed upon them names or the responsibility for uplifting my spirits.

I suppose you could say I’m a remote empath when it comes to animals. I like David Attenborough and Big Bear/Big Cat Week. I don’t believe in animal testing. Actually I don’t believe in medicine so testing is kind of superfluous. If you do believe in medical conditions and have one called an allergy, you can buy a hypoallergenic cat. Hypoallergenic used to only apply to jewellery but now it’s got into the domestic pet market, it’s become a serious player.

The Allerca cat is been especially bred by isolating naturally occurring genetic divergences. Allerca Lifestyle Pets goes to great pains to clarify that its cats are not genetically modified. This is a relief because you wouldn’t want to have one that contaminated all your neighbours’ organic cats. You’d never forgive yourself. Still I balked a bit at the idea of having a cat especially designed to suit medical conditions. They do come in various colours so it is entirely possible, and I believe ethically sound, to choose a kitten that blends with your décor. People do that anyway. If you’ve got a white sofa, you want a white cat so the hairs don’t show up on it. I will check with Peter Singer and get an exact fix on the ethical ramifications if anyone’s really interested.

Allerca Lifestyle Pets helpfully offers a number of ‘cat facts’ on its website. I always thought cats were somewhat aloof so I was very surprised to find that ‘both humans and cats have identical regions in the brain responsible for emotion’. That is strange. You don’t see too many cats weeping over an Arsenal defeat. Then again not many Arsenal fans enjoy you winding your finger around their ear in my experience. When it comes to ears, ‘cats have thirty-two muscles that control the outer ear compared to six in humans’, according to Allerca Lifestyle Pets. That explains a lot. Then I read ‘a cat’s brain is more similar to a man’s brain than that of a dog’, and that turned me. I wanted a hypoallergenic cat. It would be just like a man, except clean and toxin-free.

Bad news awaited. An Allerca kitten costs US$4,000! Admittedly there’s a whole package including vaccinations, neutering, microchip identifier implant (to compensate for the, you know, breeding issues), allergy testing devices, a set of nail caps (to protect the nail extensions) and a ‘starter pack’ containing cat food, toys, extra nail caps and ‘other kitten sundries’ plus a one-year guarantee. That’s handy. If you’re paying that much for a cat you don’t want it off the road for any length of time. Still, it’s a lot of money, even for a pet especially tailored to your lifestyle.

I got to thinking. An animal I really like is the owl. Owls don’t make very good pets as they are only interested in being awake when you’re asleep and they might eat your neighbour’s gerbil. So, I phoned up the nice people at Allerca Lifestyle Pets and said, ‘I know you don’t do genetic modifications or anything but would it be possible to have a pet with the body of a cat and the head of an owl? Well, they couldn’t have been nicer. It turns out that owls and cats are even closer in genetic makeup than cats and men!

So, for my US$4,000 I got an owly cat called Barney (pictured). Barney enjoys Arsenal home games and has settled nicely into my loft. I couldn’t be happier.

Picture from cat.mau.ru

Friday, October 20, 2006

Two-faced? Us?

At the rate the Tory party is going it may be a contender for election sometime around mid century. I suspect David ‘Web’ Cameron will need a zimmer frame to access No 10. On the bright side it is always possible that Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown’s famed money bin conversion will be completed in the gutted shell of No 11 ‘Downy’ Street by then. This will be a mixed blessing for shadow Chancellor George ‘Spider’ Osborne if the Tories bring in the tax cuts proposed by Lord Forsyth because there will be no money to pour into the purpose-built money bin and he will have to find something else to put in it. Perhaps he could fill it with thank you notes from grateful CEOs like Philip ‘The Hulk’ Green who doesn’t pay tax anyway but if he did, he would be most glad to pay even less. Maybe he’d even be entitled to a refund.

Retrospectively ‘welcomed’ yesterday after having been accidentally and prematurely posted on the Conservative Party website, the 179 page document of proposed tax cuts offers a ‘menu of options’, according to ‘Spider’. Sounds like a bigger menu than my local Vietnamese takeaway and that’s tough enough to navigate. I am yet to discover how you ‘welcome’ a report. What do you say, ‘Report! hail and well met?’ Why send a lord of the realm off to beaver in a basement for months and then describe the fruits of their toil as ‘a menu of options?’ A mystery. In the absence of any willingness to own or even explain these proposals. I have decided to dig a bit myself and offer the benefit of my analysis.

Firstly, let me say that in a country where even people who don’t pay tax think they pay too much, the very idea of a tax cut is going to sound attractive so if you are vague enough about it, the chances are high that any mention of cutting tax will make you popular. ‘Spider’ and ‘Web’ are in a champions’ league all their own when it comes to vagueness so that puts them in popularity pole position. Secondly, no one in this country understands the relationship between collecting taxes and providing public services. Most people equate tax collection with the Sheriff of Nottingham. As long as that penny doesn’t drop, they are quids in.

I have done my own brief comparison and confirmed that Britain is one of the lowest taxed nations in the world. Our income tax, corporation tax, goods and services tax (VAT) and employer-related social security taxes are all much lower than almost anywhere else in Europe. Taxes on alcohol and cigarettes are higher but that doesn’t ever seem to put anyone off. I don’t know a single person (including myself) who has considered giving up wine because of the high rate of tax applied to it. There is always a justification for paying the asking price for whatever takes your fancy, yet a total reluctance to fund the education of children or the care of the sick. Why is that?

Among the Tory ‘menu of options’ which includes entrepreneurial delicacies to titillate the purses of ‘The Hulk’ and his non tax paying fellow Monte Carlo Marina residents are the suggestion to abolish stamp duty on share trading, reduce corporation tax from 25% to 20% and more gleefully still, cut its higher rate. There are some titbits for the poor and just managing, to be fair. A proposal to scrap the 10% rate and allow married couples with young children to transfer personal allowances will save fourteen people three pence halfpenny per annum but they will then have to spend £20,000 a year sending their children to a boarding school in France because there are no schools in their country. The French pay a whopping 59% higher rate of income tax against our 40%, have a higher GST and employers pay the highest contributory rate to social security in Europe. Yet we envy the French their joie de vive do we not? We all think the French have a much better lifestyle than we do.

There is one item that is extremely worrying – the proposal to abolish inheritance tax on the family home and replace it with a short-term capital gains tax. Maybe it’s my warped mind but I just have visions of elderly people being bullied by their cash obsessed children into sinking all their money into a large, valuable property and not being allowed to go on the cruise they’ve always wanted to take or be able to afford to put on the heating.

It is true that the more you have, the more you want. Look no further than ‘Scrooge McDuck’ if cautionary proof is needed. Does the PM in waiting look like a duck with unruffled feathers? He does not. We have one of the highest rates of personal debt in the world but it’s not because people aren’t earning enough, it’s because our satisfaction is measured by what we want rather than what we have. Contentment doesn’t contribute to economic growth as visibly as consumption. Recycling doesn’t contribute to the economy either so it’s grudgingly and half-heartedly promoted.

As ‘Spider’ and ‘Web’ retire to a corner of their parlour to try to weave ways of getting us to believe them, we could all do ourselves a big favour and stop obsessing about having even more money to fritter on stuff we don’t need and didn’t want until ‘The Hulk’ and friends tried to sell it to us…


Send me a postcard,
drop me a line stating point of view.

Indicate precisely what you mean to say,
yours sincerely wasting away.
Give me your answer,
fill in a form,

mine forever more.
Will you still need me,
will you still feed me,
when I'm sixty four?

When Paul ‘Dunkin’ McCartney jotted down this prophetic verse between acid drops as a youthful mop top, he may not have expected it would serve as a profoundly true-to-life script for his twilight years. ‘Serve’ being the operative word this week as the Daily Mail yesterday published what purports to be a leaked deposition from lawyers for the estranged Lady Heather ‘Macbeth’ Mills McCartney.

Never has the banner across Dunkin’s website proclaiming ‘Make Poverty History’ been so poignant. Although, when he designed his homepage, he perhaps wasn’t staring down his own impending impoverishment. What a hardship it must be to contemplate even the meagrest chipping away of an estimated £825m nest egg. How would one eat? Apparently the cooking rota at Dunkin’ mansions was never formally agreed anyway. This is thought to have been a major cause of the marital breakdown. The deposition insists that sixty-four year old retro hubby Dunkin’ insisted on his bacon butties being prepared nightly by Lady M’s own perfumed hand.

Plainly, Dunkin was spoiled by all those years with Linda and an endless supply of her lovingly microwaved ready meals. What a golden time that must have been with Tex Mex refried bean enchiladas, soy toad in the hole and flame grilled lentil burgers to choose from. If I had that much money I’d have Jamie Oliver make my tea every night. In fact, I’d have a team of Jamie Olivers – a different one for every day of the week. I guess the composer of Penny Lane must know a thing or two about thrift that I don’t.

Remarkably, as the custodians of this prodigious fortune and with such an obvious need for a battalion of carers, the McCartneys Mark II don’t seem to have hired anyone to do anything around the house. In fact, they seem to be living in some kind of hovel in the middle of a forest somewhere, perhaps a yurt. Following recent surgery on her amputated leg, Lady M is reduced to crawling around this yurt like an extra from Freaks. What happened to her crutches? Have they been thrown on the fire in an effort to stave off hypothermia or perhaps borrowed by little Beatrice Milly’s nursery for its seasonal production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol?

Lady M ‘often needs to go to the bathroom during the night, when her prosthetic limb is not fitted and so has to crawl on her hands and knees. This causes calluses and scrapes on her knees. She asked the petitioner [Dunkin’] if she could buy an antique bedpan to keep under the bed and use at night if necessary (whilst he was asleep) so as to avoid her having to struggle’, intones the deposition.

An ‘antique bedpan’? Why yes – an exquisite example was to be auctioned at Sotheby’s that very week. Previously owned by Elizabeth I and kept beneath the bed she secretly shared with her beloved Essex (that would be the Earl of Essex rather than the county cricket team of the same name), what could have been more perfect? It was bound to be a snip with a reserve price of £550,000. But no, cruel Dunkin’ apparently ‘objected vociferously, saying that it would be like being in "an old woman’s home”’. Technically that’s true as Elizabeth I would be nearly 500 years old if she were alive today. It may not have occurred to Lady M that she might have made do with a recycled yoghurt container in the interim. I mean if it was that or crawling to the little girls’ room on your hands and knees … I guess it is not in the nature of a celeb to compromise.

We need no reminders that when a celeb sneezes, the world contracts pneumonia, so potent is their effect on the mortal masses. High profile dating agent and former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan revealed in the Mail that it was he who struck the fatal match.

‘I remember the moment well. It was Macca's first real public appearance since the death of his wife, Linda, and he turned up an hour late after agonising all morning whether to come or not. 'This is not easy for me,' he whispered tearfully in my ear…I genuinely felt for him. But Paul perked up enormously when a feisty buxom lady called Heather Mills marched on stage… I introduced her to Paul after the show, and before I knew it they'd fallen in love’, confessed a distraught Piers in the Daily Mail today.

So there you have the essence of it in a Fabergé egg. Celebs are born with a different internal clock (not to mention moral compass). Nothing to do with time constrains them. In fact, I am working on a theory that celebs reject the very concept of numbers which is why none of them seem to comprehend the obscenity of either their wealth or demands. I’ll work on that some more. Something tells me the evidence base will be wide. Meanwhile we’ll all have a lot of fun seeing how much of that £825m gets hoovered up in lawyer’s fees. Dunkin’ may live to regret all that penny pinching. No more lonely nights? Betfair has decent odds.

Cartoon from www.leonardcohenforum.com

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Post Partum

Our local post office, like many in Britain, is at the back of a shop that sells newspapers, sweets, alcohol, limp vegetables and frozen foods with enough ‘E’ numbers to cause an epidemic of ADHD. I do not collect a pension or child benefit from this post office. Nor do I buy car tax, television licence stamps or pay my utilities bills at this post office. I buy stamps and I post parcels. Usually, I take a book to read while I wait in a long queue of people who have come to do the same thing. Sometimes we compare parcel destinations to pass the time.

Today, a delegation of thousands of sub postmasters (people who run a post office in their shop), delivered a petition to No 10 Downing Street asking the Government not to close down any more of our post offices. With four million signatures, it is the largest petition ever presented to Government. The reason for the petition is that the Government thinks that post offices have very little to do now that people can no longer buy their television licence there and wants to close down the ones where there are only elderly and disabled people who can’t get to the next village willing to use them.

I’m having one of my increasingly regular ‘is it just me?’ days over this because it seems to me that none of the arguments for closing a post office acknowledge the fact that it does one thing that no other service does – it takes items you want to give to someone else but, for any number of reasons, you can’t manage to take yourself and gives them to that person, for a reasonable fee.

It is true that other organisations move parcels about. DHL for example will do this provided you live somewhere they feel like driving to and the recipient of your parcel also lives somewhere they feel like driving to. If not you either don’t get your parcel collected and delivered or you have to pay an extra £12.50 ‘remote area’ fee. This is payable for any destination that is not actually a major city. FedEx will also take parcels to other people for you but charge about ten times as much as the post office for the same sized package.

Follicley and prioritorially confused Trade and Industry Secretary Alistair ‘Dear’ Darling said today, 'We recognise that some offices, maybe, will never be commercially viable but play an important social role. Equally, however, we have to make sure that the network is sustainable'. You have to immediately rule out lack of demand for post office services because there are 28 million visits to post offices per day – that’s almost half of the whole population, visiting every day.

Since I myself only go to the post office about once every two weeks, those figures would suggest that there are people for whom post office visiting is a dependency. Mr ‘Dear’ Darling seemed to suggest as much when he recognised the ‘important social role’ they play. I have noticed that sometimes people in our post office queue are drinking Diamond White and they are very sociable indeed. They are not usually carrying parcels though and since the Government insists that nobody gets their pension paid at the post office anymore and they don’t look like people who are queuing for car tax, they can only be there to forge friendships with fellow queuers.

It is entirely possible that post office closures would severely displace people for whom this is their only social interaction. At our post office they’ve put up high petitions where you’re supposed to queue. This is probably to prevent people from nicking the sweets while they’re waiting but it does recall that wonderful, claustrophobic sensation of being stuck in the hallway of a particularly rambunctious party. It’s doubly eerie if someone offers you a slurp of their Diamond White.

I don’t know what these people would do without the post office queue. People aren’t holding parties in their hallways on a regular enough basis to mop up the displacement anymore. Perhaps they would resort to queuing at bus stops. Nothing causes more consternation in Britain than people who queue at bus stops without any intention whatever of getting on a bus when it finally arrives. Chaos would ensue. Self-help organisations would spring up everywhere, perhaps meeting next to post boxes. Inevitably they would be called POAs (post office anonymous). This would lead to mass congestion at post boxes resulting in a return to those dark days of the 80s when post boxes were regularly closed due to high demand, usually the day before Mother’s Day or the week before Christmas.

It’s easy enough to close a post box – all you have to do is nail a metal plate over the opening but closing down post offices is going to be much more far reaching in its long term ramifications. So, we return to the problem of post office ‘viability’. Since post offices have very little to do other than weigh and stamp parcels, there is obviously a need to boost the social capital aspect of the business, a realisation reached by Mr ‘Dear’ Darling after emergency talks were held with the sub postmasters late today,

'I want to maintain a national network, but I want to do it in a way that will last so we don't keep coming back again and again to the underlying problems we have had in the past few years.'

Former Wimbledon champion and postal delivery operative for Southfields, SW19 ‘Postman’ Pat Cash (pictured) has been engaged to be the face of a new campaign to be called ‘Party with Pat’. The campaign will raise awareness of the post office’s commitment to maintaining its position at the heart of the community by holding a continuous party in the post office queue. It is proposed that regular games of ‘pass the parcel’ take place in order to improve the parcel delivery aspect of the business. Sub postmasters are said to be delighted with the proposals and anticipate an upturn in sales of Diamond White. For every problem there is a solution…

Photo from www.planetark.com

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Veiled Threat

I’m sad today. Why? Because being a woman suddenly seems trivial in a way it hasn’t been since about 1966. I’ve joked about our nation’s obsession with ‘the veil’ for a week. I’ve had a go at Jack ‘Straw Man’ Straw for saying that Muslim women should remove their veils when they come to see him. I pilloried him for missing the point. I lampooned him because he really thought the correct action was to make a unilateral and personal entreaty to individual women because he was suddenly inconvenienced by a practice that has been part of our multicultural landscape for decades. He may have opened the can of worms at the wrong end but it now has to be dealt with.

In this country we value the right to free expression above all other rights, as long as it does not come into conflict with laws that are there to protect individuals and society as a whole. Of course it pains me to see women concealing themselves in the street. Other women died so that they could have the right to walk the streets looking as they please without fear of being stoned to death. We do have laws about public lewdness which protect us from the offence of people disrobing in front of us. I have been to the Middle East. I know that men leer at woman there but in this country it just doesn’t happen like that. It seems pointless to me to protect against it, like chastising someone who has no intention of insulting you.

But dictating to Muslim women that they shouldn’t be concealing themselves in Britain is going to be about as successful as me haranguing my 1950s mother in the 70s about being enslaved by her new Westinghouse fridge freezer and Elizabeth Arden lipstick. That was my perception. Hers was very different and it was informed by her experience. There is no doubt that my mother allows herself to enjoy greater freedom of expression today and not because she was an active participant in feminism, because she was a flexible recipient. There was a time when she wouldn’t answer the phone without her makeup on. Now she wears shorts to the shops.

Tony Blair held a press conference today and ‘the veil’ question was right up there in significance with Iraq and the NHS. Seriously, what five per cent of Muslim women choose to wear in public is currently perceived to be the greatest barrier to racial harmony. He called for ‘honest debate’ (again!). Ok. When? Where? With whom? If the Government is serious about unpacking the conflict between private religious observance and the practice of equalities in public life, it might try talking to the men who are enforcing this display of modesty rather than picking on the women who have to comply with it.

It’s easy to hide behind the excuse that choosing to wear full body concealment is, in itself, an expression of personal freedom. Does anyone really believe that a woman wearing the niqab can be guaranteed to give her unguarded personal views to the media about why she is doing so? I would no more presume to judge that a woman wearing a niqab is not exercising free choice than I would to assume that a woman who stays with a violent partner is not exercising free choice.

The fact remains that some women are beaten and sometimes killed by male family members for not complying with strict cultural traditions in the Muslim community. This must be considered a deterrent to acting independently. That means, in this country, they have fewer equal rights than the rest of us and that entitles them to the protection of the law. Of course I understand that some young women take the veil as a rebellion against a liberal upbringing or as an emblem of political activism. It is complex but surely not unfathomable.

I agree that there are some fundamental issues to be sorted out about where the lines are to be drawn legally and personally before everyone is going to be happy but there have been two employment-related cases involving women and dress dominating the news in the last week. The suspension of British Airways employee Nadia Eweida for wearing a visible cross the size of a five pence piece is ludicrous and indefensible and should never have happened. A discreet item of jewellery whether a religious symbol or not is unlikely to offend anyone or be a threat to health and safety or the delivery of an efficient service.

The other case in point, that of Dewsbury teaching assistant Ashab Azmi who was suspended for wearing a niqab in the classroom because a male teacher was present, is serious. The fight against the forced stereotyping of images of both men and women in education took a generation to win. Children are impressionable and should not, in a secular environment like school, be subject to a message that women should conceal themselves to protect their modesty or indeed that a higher degree of modesty is expected of them. Equally, male teachers should not be subject to the insinuation that they are predatory in any and all situations. With the nation’s paedophilia monitor already on permanent high alert, the last thing the education system needs is to provide another disincentive for men to enter teaching.

There are a lot of other things I don’t like about this. Ashab Azmi looks suspiciously like a pawn to me. The head teacher says she wasn’t wearing a niqab when interviewed for the job. Azmi says no one talked to her about whether or not it would be appropriate – she was just suspended. Really, I’m not surprised it hadn’t come up in conversation. I don’t suppose a head teacher of any secular school would expect to be confronted with a veiled teaching assistant. It’s more likely they’d have to rule on facial piercings. The big difference in the two cases is the question of whose interests are ultimately most important and best served. In the case of Eweida, her wearing of a small crucifix would be neither here nor there to anyone but herself. In a school, the children’s interests override every individual consideration.

No one can free someone else from oppression. What we can do is provide a safe environment for any woman who wants to challenge it. We provide shelter and support for women victims of domestic violence. We need to be there if a woman needs help in reconciling her own desire for freedom of expression with family or community expectations. The Government should provide this support under its equalities commitment. The Government should not be allowing its senior MPs to make haphazard, decontextualised, personal pronouncements about what would make them as individuals feel more comfortable and putting pressure on women to influence a situation over which they have little or no control. Now will someone please pin the ‘bigger picture’ up on the wall and we can start having our ‘honest debate’. Thank you.

My apologies to regular readers who were expecting my usual buffoonery. Please accept this as a small compensation. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow. http://www.spikedhumor.com/Article.aspx?id=53873. Thanks to my uncle Wayne Crawford of the Hobart Mercury for the link.

Cartoon from www.got.net

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Second Thoughts

This morning I thought I might join Second Life, the internet world where you make up an identity and an age (a very attractive thought that), and start afresh as it were. My reasons were as usual many, incoherent and quite unconnected. I got a bit pissed off with my First Life last week because of the tedium of having to engage with what women are and are not allowed to wear at work. I thought for a while I might try to get a job as a Roman Catholic archbishop and insist on wearing a bikini and a purple wig at the pulpit but flatly refuse to wear a crucifix of any kind.

Another justification was that I am getting so frightened of identity fraud I thought I better have a backup plan. You don’t want to be left without any identity because your career options are very limited. You could get a job as an amnesiac in a trashy American soap opera where you have to have a name like Cholera or Timpani. The only other thing you can do is wash up on a beach, stumble to the nearest piano and start playing some Chopin Preludes.

The upside is that while your identity is unknown, the entire world is preoccupied with finding it out and you get much more attention than you would normally. Once everyone finds out who you actually are, most people return to their sudoku puzzles. Some will set about trying to steal your newly returned identity and the Inland Revenue will investigate to see if you’ve accrued any back taxes while someone else was you and you weren’t anyone.

Finally, I was intrigued to learn that Reuters has set up a news bureau in Second Life to report on the comings and goings of the virtual community’s million or so inhabitants. Bureau chief Adam Reuters (pictured) hasn’t reported much yet. The stories on the website www.reuterssecondlife.com so far mostly relate to the twilight zone between the two worlds. The US government is interested in whether or not it can tax the transactions that take place between avatar residents. That’s a bit like setting up a newspaper on Mars and then only reporting on what is happening in Hackney.

There was a story about one of the Second Life banks, Ginko, that already has the equivalent of $US220,000 in real money on deposit and is paying investors interest. Questions are being asked about whether it’s a Ponzi scheme – like pyramid investing. Maybe it was my fantasy but I imagined that Second Life would be free of avatars trying to rip other avatars off. Why start another world if it’s only going to be as crap as this one? Have these people never seen Star Trek or heard of Project Genesis? Perhaps they’ll have television advertising campaigns like they do in First Life to inform you that just because it is called a ‘women’s empowerment scheme’ it does not mean that it’s ok to rip off £8,000 from each of your six best friends.

When you move to Second Life, you can choose any first name you like but there are only two hundred or so second names. Many of them are beat generation writers – Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Kesey, Levertov, Brautigan, Rexroth. None of them are Great Train or Brinks Matt robbers. In the words of Duke Ellington, ‘I got as far as the door’ or maybe that should be ‘window’. I got all excited about being twenty years younger and called something exotic like Elektra Electricteeth or Imelda Immelman and then realised that the ‘free’ membership needs to be supported by a credit card. I don’t really do giving out my credit card number for no good reason. So I’m stuck with my First Life and my own very real, real estate transaction which is going about as well as English sport and my transfer to the tropics scheduled for sometime during the 2012 Olympics at this rate.

I don’t like to think too much about the Olympics. It’s going to be happening just across the canal from me. Hopefully, I’ll be long gone. There seem to be frequent meetings about it in which local residents are invited to ‘participate’. I thought of offering myself for the egg and spoon race but I don’t know if I would pass the drugs test as I took an Evening Primrose tablet this morning. I’d hate to get a life ban from something I’m not even interested in. Think of what that would do for one’s self esteem.

I don’t really know what residents are expected to contribute to these meetings. I think they’ve already decided what sports they’re going to have and who they’re going to invite. Maybe they just want to see if anyone wants to run a stall. I could do a tombola with whatever’s left in my cupboard and that bottle of blue Curacao I foolishly bought on the way back from Cyprus in 1992. Excellent plan. I consider my emotional housekeeping done for today. Come to think of it, having one life is probably just about as much as I can deal with right now…