Thursday, November 30, 2006

Exploring Denial

One of our Government’s favourite activities is to discover things that have been known for years and then a) turn the received wisdom on its head for no good reason and b) try to sell it to us as something new and exciting. The flurry to reinvent ‘childhood’ is a case in point. Doesn’t anybody in Whitehall watch What the Victorians did for us? Childhood, like the teddy bear, is about a century old. Our misty hope for it has remained largely unchanged since pudding-headed cherubs in matching sailor suits had doily-covered clothes pegs thrust upon them by kindly nannies. Childhood should be idyllic.

The frenzied quest continues and requires an ever-expanding industry of practitioners, advisors and commentators to keep it trundling along. There is even an inquiry into what makes a good childhood currently undergoing ‘consultation’. Researchers have, quite rightly, asked some 11,000 children what they think should be the essential components of a ‘good childhood’. Unsurprisingly, they wanted safe, stable family lives and the freedom to express themselves. The real problem is that it falls to adults to provide this, so, unless we grownups start pulling our socks up, children will not get the childhood they want and deserve.

Just how bad are we then? We may have come a ways since the days when we sent tots up chimneys and down coal pits but, as well off countries go, we are still appalling. The Children’s Society who are leading on the Good Childhood Inquiry say,

‘According to important new comparative research on children’s well-being in the European Union, the UK is faring exceptionally badly in the well-being of its children. In comparison with 25 European states, using more than 50 different indicators, the UK ranked in 21st place, above The Slovak Republic, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.’

Brilliant. We just scraped in higher than four ex-soviet countries where state sanctioned hardship has been enshrined for three generations. The report goes on to note that national wealth has not brought us greater happiness. This has been getting noticed a lot lately,

‘While average incomes in the United Kingdom have doubled in the last 50 years, people are no happier today, on average, than people were fifty years ago. In fact, for young people in particular, there is evidence to suggest that the opposite is true: that improved economic conditions seem to be associated with increasing levels of emotional problems. Depression and anxiety have increased for both boys and girls aged 15-16 since the mid-1980s, as have what re called ‘non-aggressive conduct problems’ such as lying, stealing and disobedience.’

Oh dear. Far from idyllic. Pity some of our practitioners, advisors and researchers hadn’t done a little book learning themselves otherwise they might have understood what ethicists and economists with consciences have been saying for years – that just seeing a rise in gross domestic product doesn’t make anyone except the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Sainsbury and Richard Branson happy. Progressive economists say that there are many contributors to GDP, pollution being a prime example, which have a negative impact on well-being and, unless those negative effects of productivity are factored into the equation, GDP can’t be used as an accurate measure of a society’s prosperity.

There is another, more accurate measure of well-being that progressives like Friends of the Earth and the New Economics Foundation recommend should be used called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). This measure factors in all the aspects of productivity that have a negative impact like bad air quality, reliability of transport, rubbish in the street etc.

There has been a tendency in Government and local authorities to think that the public is just ignorant and ungrateful because they are looking at figures which suggest that we never had it so good and we are standing waiting for trains that don’t come and cleaning up after the bin men every week. The average child has a high dependency on local services – usually far higher than their parents. The fact that they might, in the course of a day, come into contact with a great number of adults having a shitty day does impact hugely on their quality of life.

According to the Children’s Society research, only 17 per cent of young people think ‘my area cares about its young people.’ That is incredibly low and indicates a positive gauntlet of bad temper that kids have to negotiate in everyday life. And they don’t get much of a choice about how that pans out. If they retaliate, against anyone, it is likely to land them in trouble.

The report concludes,

‘Two-thirds (66%) of young people felt that their life had a sense of purpose. Previous research has shown that having a sense of purpose is linked with well-being.’

Well build me a pyramid and call me pharaoh - I think they may have just discovered Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs…

Picture from

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

R.E.S.P.E.C.T. (find out what it means to me)

My hero is Stephen Sondheim, composer of the musicals Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George, to name a few. Some years ago I had the great joy of attending his master class on composing for musicals. It remains the single most inspiring day I have ever had. I doubt that I will ever forget a word that he said.

I particularly remember his generosity of spirit, sharpness of perception and thoughtfulness towards the opera students who were lucky enough to come under his direction that day. They were in complete awe of him, quite rightly. His singular skill in both recognising the esteem in which he was held and using it as a tool of co-operation, as opposed to a blunt instrument of power, is all the more admirable for its rarity. He paid them the greatest compliment they will ever receive from a person of his great stature by treating them as collaborators of equal importance. I am willing to bet that not one of those students who worked with him that day will ever forget just what a lovely man Stephen Sondheim is. He is someone who truly understands the meaning of the word ‘respect’.

Despite ameliorative comments from both Ms Baroque and Fringepoet on yesterday’s post, I feel I bit off more than I was able to chew satisfactorily. So depressed am I becoming about the apparent hopeless of our society to give kids a solid start in life, that it all seemed to become one massive jumble of fools, half-baked concepts and sad futures only relieved by the odd inexplicable miracle. No wonder our kids have the highest incidence of mental health disorders in Europe.

But I don’t want to be yet another idiot contributing only to the confusion so, I have decided to take my own oft repeated advice and separate the problem out into all its component parts and see if I can’t offer a reasoned and sensible perspective to the debate.

Let’s start with ‘respect’. This is a perfectly sane notion that is both a useful emotion and a social construct. A feeling of respect for someone is a recognition of that person’s good qualities. Respectful behaviour is an enabler to social interaction, a set of rules that govern the transactions we have to make every day of our lives. The important thing about respect is that we can feel it and express it quite naturally without any direction from Government.

Now that they have managed to turn it into an ‘agenda’, it has been debased to the level of a marketing technique – a weapon to be deployed when Government wants us to obey its instructions. This makes it less easy to understand because it strips the concept of its consistency. The requirement for ‘respect’ is now being applied randomly and it makes no sense to most people, especially children.

As kids navigate their way through the complexities of trying to understand the adult world, the thing they look for most is regularity. They have a heightened sense of ‘fairness’ and are always looking for inconsistencies. They are not just being a pain in the arse, they are mapping and trying to establish where the boundaries lie. It’s a mistake to think that children who ask apparently rhetorical questions or repeat what they have heard are necessarily seeking approval. Rules need to have tests applied to validate them. Children know instinctively that they must develop their own capacity for analysing what happens to them so that they can distinguish between fair and unfair treatment. When we as an adult society are unable to adequately describe the parameters for a concept as simple as respect, we have failed in our duty to provide a framework to children for negotiating the adult world.

When television shows like The Apprentice establish a figure as base and reprehensible as ‘Sir’ Alan Sugar as someone holding a position of respect – which he maintains by wielding a giant club – we are setting young people a very bad example. To see adults debasing themselves in order to win his favour, just looks wrong. Anyone with self-respect couldn’t work in this kind of environment, surely. Yet Government reveres the likes of Alan Sugar (claim to fame? He made the world’s crappest computers and stereos and rendered Britain a laughing stock in the field of technology for at least a decade).

One of the few coherent points I managed to make yesterday when reviewing the Venezuelan classical music programme was that it doesn’t matter what system you use as a framework for teaching kids about life and giving them the confidence to live it, what matters is that it’s consistent and of high quality and allows them to develop as far as they are able to go.

Stephen Sondheim told a story to the master class I attended about the person who mentored him, librettist Oscar Hammerstein II (Sound of Music, Showboat, Carousel, King and I, Oklahoma!, South Pacific and many others). Sondheim might have fallen into the ‘at risk’ category in his youth if modern standards were applied. The only child of a single parent, he had a lonely time with a vulnerable mother until he had the great fortune to move next door to the Hammersteins. Sondheim told us he loved Hammerstein so much that ‘if Oscar had been a geologist, I would have become a geologist’. I imagine the world of geology is the poorer for the absence of both.

I often wonder, given the obvious resilience of children and the fact that they are wired to develop their own interests, why it is so hard to match them with the opportunities that would allow them to thrive. It can’t keep on being a postcode lottery for ever, can it?

Photo from

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I was too ill
and depressed on Friday to follow up David ‘Dung Cam’ Cameron’s Scarman Lecture speech. I’m breaking with the tradition of referring to him as ‘Web Cam’ partly because inventing horrid names for people is one of my great pleasures and partly because his ‘vision’ appears to be located in the general vicinity of his trouser rear bumper bar, as was pointed out by an astute young person recently who I think may be the son of a friend of mine. Where was I?

Oh yes, the weekend seemed to pass in a haze of despair as I fretted over whether I would ever be able to move to the tropics. So much seems to stand in the way at present. The last thing I want to be thinking about is how close the country is to complete collapse. If you were faced with the possibility of an asteroid hitting the earth, the last person you’d want anywhere near your Plan B is Dung Cam.

So, finally I braced myself this morning, placed a bucket by the bed and plunged in (to the lecture rather than the bucket – that would be silly). Nothing prepares you really. Here’s Dung Cam grappling with the problem that just won’t go away – that of child poverty,

‘In the past we used to think of poverty in absolute terms - meaning straightforward material deprivation. That's not enough. We need to think of poverty in relative terms - the fact that some people lack those things which others in society take for granted. So I want this message to go out loud and clear - the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty.’

He seems very close to inventing the welfare state. Another decade or two and he may have it cracked. After nearly twenty-five years in this country I can say categorically, from my own experience that there is no incentive whatever for the people who have all the power and money to waste one second on diverting some of their attention to giving a kiddy a chance in life. Nothing could be further from their priority list.

The real pull of money and power is that, once you are on the acquisition trajectory, there is no limit to how much you can grab. Our oligarchs have no compunction whatever that their greed alone may be enough to stifle the life chances of an entire class. As if proof were ever needed, last week’s scrap between Richard Branson and Rupert Murdoch over the controlling interest in a television company should have laid all doubts to rest. Here’s where your ASBOs might really have a practical use.

Oh, they’ll give to charity all right, but this is because there are tax incentives and opportunities for self-congratulation, not to mention free publicity and knighthoods. So why pretend? Why not just come out and say – we are a dog eat dog society and have always been that way. I’ve read Jack London and Dickens and I’ve had enough doors slammed in my face to know that there is no leg up out there unless someone can see a very obvious and immediate financial reward for themselves. You step on people to get what you want. A society in which everyone gets to realise their potential is not on the agenda of anyone in a position of influence. Who needs that kind of competition?

When politicians give these speeches you can’t help thinking they’re doing it with sniggering irony. How else do you explain Dung Cam’s assertion that voluntary groups and social enterprises should be taking a greater role in delivering services to the disadvantaged,

‘They are sometimes the ones that do best in tackling homelessness, drug addiction, debt.’

NO! Voluntary organisations have been contracted by central government and local authorities to provide public services for a generation and have nearly always proved rubbish at it. In fact they are largely responsible for the vast variation in quality that now exists because it is so difficult to monitor what they are doing and they have proved masters at deception, if nothing else. They have also been blessed with successive governments too stupid and lazy to apply a firm managerial hand. People do not want charity, just what they've paid for.

Why should the people who end up paying the most for everything to start with, have to deal with an incompetent middleman in order to receive what the well off get automatically? When you live in a deprived area, you quite often end up doing yourself what someone else is paid to do, like pick up the rubbish. Why, when we have universal free health care, do people in Kensington live to be 82 and Glaswegians only make it to 70? Because poor people live in cold, damp houses, work in industries that put their health at risk, wait too long for medical care only to be misdiagnosed and then go out and get bladdered to compensate for how crap life is.

Now I’m just winding myself up. There was one heartening news story in Friday’s Guardian that almost restored my mental health but I had to bat off a torrent of frustration to get there. Shanty town children in Caracas have been lifted out of poverty by a massive programme to teach them classical music! The success of this programme is due to its longevity (30 years), its universality (over 250,000 children participating), the quality of the training and opportunities it leads to (25 year-old Gustavo Dudamel has just become the chief conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra). Now that is what I call ‘sustainability’.

You would never get any of these things in a British initiative for any number of reasons. Firstly, our pattern is to fanfare in a ‘new way of doing things’ and then withdraw it just as the children are beginning to derive some benefit after committing themselves to learning it. After a year or two of hiatus, it is eventually replaced by another system which kids then have to apply themselves to mastering and the cycle starts again. Is it any wonder they are distrustful, disillusioned and bored? Just as they start to like something, it will be whipped away quicker than Charlie Brown’s football.

Secondly, we have cultural cringe in reverse. Anything that is deemed ‘elitist’ like pre rock’n’roll music is felt inappropriate to teach to children in the public sector. As Howard Goodall explains in his excellent series about how modern music evolved (20th Century Greats), classical music offers the most complete palette for a beginner to practically explore what it is possible to achieve musically. Modern music, both pop and orchestral can be either too limited in range or unorthodox in construction to use for basic learning purposes. I know from my own experience that learning to play pop songs is largely a rote routine.

Thirdly, and crucially, adults have decided that childhood is very short and therefore should be packed with tiny taster modules of lots of different activities. Wrong! Admittedly my memory is not what it was but I do recall this - childhood is interminable. It goes on forever, for the same reason that the working day does – you have very little control over what happens in it. And like work, your only hope of getting the day to go faster is to find something that you can totally focus on. For me, that was music. I couldn’t wait to get home and practise. As the children in Caracas have shown, there is more than enough time in childhood to master an entire classical repertoire.

More than ever we seem to be filtering children’s experience through our own revision of what it was like to be a child. I love the Caracas story because it seems evidence of something that I’ve always believed – that it doesn’t matter what learning system you use, what matters is that it's consistent. What’s important is no matter how high you climb, there is someone above who is willing and able to mentor you. When you get to the top, that person is you. This method is even called The System. Sadly, it does have a weakness. It is the brainchild of one determined and inspiring person, Maestro José Antonio Abreu, which means it probably succeeded in forcing its way into the mainstream through sheer momentum of personality – something which can’t be replicated.

In Britain, we seem determined to throw out the baby and keep the bath water, and we just keep chucking new babies into the same dirty water. I’d love it if we could have something like The System but also wish that these perfectly sensible ideas could come about through reasoned discussion and a sincere drive to give children a decent and equal start in life. That’s about as likely as Dung Cam having an original thought, or even one that comes from this millennium…

Max playing the violin from

Monday, November 27, 2006

Pardon My Mensch

Not feeling all that well yesterday, I was languishing on the sofa trying to work out what Frank Sinatra was doing on the X-Factor. After a while it became clear that I had been unconsciously channel surfing and had alighted on a documentary about the blue-eyed one and the mafia taking credit for the election of John F Kennedy as president. They didn’t have blanket reality TV back in the sixties so they needed other means of selecting people to run the country and produce Christmas No. 1s. The ever patriotic mafia stepped into the breach.

Sam Giancana was the Simon Cowell of his day but without the bad hair. They had Brylcreem back then you see. It made for round the clock exemplary follicular behaviour . But it rendered the pillows very greasy indeed. They also had fedoras which acted as an effective camouflage for both baldness and bad hair and protected against sliding off the pillow in the middle of the night. It was difficult to sleep with a fedora on so the chances of sliding out of bed while asleep were significantly reduced. It was generally thought unwise for mafiosi to sleep anyway, especially at night.

Speaking of Brylcreem, X-Factor contender Ray should be the subject of an environmental impact assessment for the amount of product used to achieve his weekly quiff. He looks like Astro Boy. If he doesn’t win X-Factor, someone should make an Astro Boy film and get Ray to play the lead. The diminutive robot (Astro Boy, not Ray), started life as a Japanese comic book hero and was later the star of his own sixties TV show. There were over a hundred English language episodes made which explains how I managed to spend most of the sixties watching them. This could give Ray a lifelong career. He isn’t much of a singer, as the judges are at pains to point out weekly. But that never held Robbie Williams back. Simon Cowell could play the bullying circus owner Hamegg. That would not be much of a stretch.

It seems we like our heroes to grow old disgracefully so Ray could still be playing the titanium tot well into his dotage. The weekend press reports that sequels are planned for a brace of eighties action films starring the original six-packed heroes, Harrison Ford (64), Slyvester Stallone (61) and Bruce Willis, a sprightly but hairless 51. Perhaps our future holds such spangling allures as - Indiana Jones and the New Hearing Aid, Die Hard – Of Natural Causes, The Rocky Haemorrhoid Show and Rambo – Last Rites. It’s a shame there are no plans for Arnie to reprise some of his great roles. Imagine Terminator 4 – Judgement Day – The Appeals, Conan the Lollypop Man and Corneal Damage.

With sixty apparently now the new thirty-five, I finally feel at liberty never to mature, a sentiment seemingly shared by X-Factor front runner Leona who inexplicably chose to refresh the Labelle classic Lady Marmalade. Originally released in 1974 and rising to number one, the explicit lyrics of the song barely raised an eyebrow during the Mary Whitehouse years, yet Leona (21), for reasons best known to herself chose to purify the classic refrain thus,

‘Voulez-vous chanter avec moi ce soir?’

What gives? This is a song about a prostitute, n’est-ce pas? Leona would have it that Lady Marmalade is a choir mistress perhaps? Someone like Sister Sarah in Guys and Dolls – a tambourine rattling evangelist maybe? We go to all this trouble to fight censorship over hundreds of years so that someone on a singing show can re-embrace it of their own volition for no reason whatever? It’s not as if there haven’t been popular songs about prostitutes before. Cole Porter’s Love for Sale back in 1930 springs to mind. And La Bohéme – a whole opera about a prostitute is over a hundred years old. Come on Leona, let’s not be coy now. You’re going to have to get a bit jiggy-jiggy if you hope to compete with the bootylicious one you know.

I wonder why I can’t remember any of the previous series of X-Factor or any of its predecessors and then I remember – I’m not usually here this time of year. I should have packed up the flat and headed for the tropics by now. I will see this show to the bitter end. How depressing it all is. I will not miss the fright that was Eton Road. They looked like a row of scarecrow cut-out dolls all holding hands or, perhaps, wings.

Along with Astro Boy and sex-free Leona, the only X-ers left are the Scottish terrier MacDonald Brothers who would look at home on the parcel shelf of any Ford Anglia and Bryan Adams Meatloaf cross Ben. The MacDonalds should go this week and then we can forget all about the singing and just turn it into a hair flicking competition.

I’m left wondering whatever happened to ole’ blue eyes – I know that he died obviously - now he was old – I’m speaking metaphorically? How the ghosts of Sinatra, Giancana, Martino and Luciano ring. Show business was so much more exciting when there was some separation between gangster and singer. Can we not get the Sopranos in to liven the voting up a bit and maybe move the whole shebang to Vegas? Simon? Sharon? You’d be up for that surely. And Louis, wouldn’t it be easier than commuting from London to San Francisco every week just to play that leprechaun on Charmed?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Contract Killer

We have a government displaying alarming signs of fatigue and frustration and a Prime Minster terrified of losing his grip on the place in posterity he truly believes he deserves. But is the outgoing party leader planning a last ditch offensive against an ungrateful populace or maybe its just pure, unadulterated revenge. The Guardian reported yesterday that Tony Blah Blah Blair, plans to get us to conform through a new ‘social contract’,
‘A new contract between the state and the citizen setting out what individuals must do in return for quality services from hospitals, schools and the police is one of the key proposals emerging from a Downing Street initiated policy review’. The Guardian (24/11/06).
The Guardian goes on to speculate on what this might entail,
‘Examples include an expectation that a local health authority will only offer a hip replacement if the patient undertakes to keep their weight down. Parents might also be asked to sign individually tailored contracts with a school setting out what the parents must do at home to advance their child's publicly-funded education.’
Oooo, I’m so scared. There is no point in getting too worked up about this because the more loony these proposals become, the easier it is to see ways of just ignoring them. There is a good deal of comfort in knowing that most ‘New’ Labour proposals now go straight from press release to office shredder via a day’s media exposure before becoming chip wrapping. See me going in for my hip replacement,
Doctor (sternly) : We will only give you a new hip if you promise to cut down on the Green & Blacks Maya Gold Ms Lee.
Me (sincerely) : Of course Doctor!
Cut to six months later after my hip replacement.
Doctor (very sternly) : Ms Lee, you undertook to keep your weight down.
Me (cheekily) : So I did Doctor. Wanna see me break dance and eat chocolate at the same time?
Conclusion – Doctor is crap at game theory. Besides, even Homer Simpson could mount a credible legal challenge to being denied a statutory service on purely subjective and highly judgemental grounds. Doh!
When Jean-Jacques Rousseau penned his famous treatise ‘The Social Contract’ back in 1762, he began with the universally recognised,
‘Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains’,
If Blah Blah is so intent on nicking his sound bite, he might have done Rousseau the courtesy of reading on to the next sentence which goes,
‘Those who think themselves the masters of others are indeed greater slaves than they.’
In our modern parlance, ‘What goes around comes around.’ Blah Blah’s time will come.
What I wonder is WHY?
Our antecedents went to a lot of trouble to develop logic and linguistics, semiotics and semantics so that we could accurately communicate our desires, intentions, displeasure and concurrence to each other. So why is it that a bunch of Oxbridge educated lawyers can’t muster the collective skill to complete a concept, or even a sentence for that matter? If they really knew what they were doing, they’d get it across to us, wouldn’t they? It’s not as if we’re stupid.
There are so many Blah Blahisms now that someone is probably already preparing a large volume. Here’s one of my favourites. He began his conference speech in 2004 with a kind of mad jumble of desiderata, exercising his usual refusal to confine himself to a standard sentence construct. That was the year he pledged to protect the rights of ‘hard working families’ and came out with this er, vision,
The values require steadfast conviction but the future requires restless courage to know and act upon the coming reality…”
What is he on about? Blah Blah’s premiership is carpeted with these cringing non sequiturs and, usually, an accompanying gloomy visage that screams, why aren’t you people getting this?
Answer – it makes no sense you tosser.
The flurry of intimidating activity intensifies as the retirement party inches ever closer. You feel a Nazi-style scorched earth manoeuvre in the making. If I can’t run the country my way, I’ll burn the blighter down. Arrrgghhh!
Of course it is far too late for this government to build a trust-based relationship with the public now, as its tactics increasingly resemble those of a mobile phone company whose greed is only matched by its incompetence (hello Talk Talk). For the record though, the most basic game theory which has been computer-tested and proved effective is one called tit for tat. It works on the principle that humans are wired to respond in kind. So, if you make a positive gesture, it will be returned with a positive gesture and vice versa. This is why we have elections. A group of people offer us a package of prosperity. We vote them into power so they can give it to us (as opposed, say, to their friends who pretend to live on their motor yachts in Monaco). Then, crucially they give us what we asked for. Or they don’t and we tell them to bugger off. How hard can it be?
Anyway, we can take comfort in the knowledge that all we need to do is ignore Blah Blah. He will go away…

Photograph by Syed Jan Sagawoon published by The Guardian

Saturday, November 25, 2006

These 10 things I will not do

Tagged by Dave Hill to pledge ten things that I will never do, I find myself in something of a dilemma. I haven’t got a hope of completing this task as described for any number of reasons. Prominent among these is my crap memory. I am unlikely to recall tomorrow even one of the things I promised never to do.

Secondly, I am the person for whom the expression, ‘Never Say Never’ was invented for it seems that wherever I take a moral stand, that is the exact location of the next ethical earthquake. I have lost count of the number of times I have determined never again to talk to my best friend for example.

I couldn’t vow, like Dave did, never to vote Tory because I may do it out of sheer spite. I am that vindictive and I do admire the way Boris Johnson writes in whole sentences and can make jokes. In fact, if Boris was Tory leader I would vote for him just for the possibility that there may be light relief at the top for a change. I am done with trying to get by on irony alone and I have long since given up on expecting a government that makes rational, beneficial decisions so I might as well get some joy from politics.

Thirdly, I dislike rules and would rather not make any for myself. The main benefit of being a recluse is that you can live in a chaotic way if you wish. I, for example, have breakfast in bed every single day. I am never allowed to do that if I stay with anyone else. It is bliss and I would not like to give it up, so I won’t be undertaking never to eat breakfast in bed again. That would be stupid. Neither could I guarantee that I would not steal any Opal Fruits from Dave Hill’s son. It would very much depend on the circumstances. You see, I prefer to make considered decisions after all the known knowns, the known unknowns, the unknown knowns and the unknown unknowns have been taken into account and I’ve double checked with Wittgenstein and Donald Rumsfeld.

Finally, I am actually the sort of person who will pretty much try anything once. The only things I probably wouldn’t do would be out of fear like skydiving but it would be pointless to list those. Having said all that, I am no spoil sport so I will undertake to complete the task with a slight variation. I will list ten things that I will try never to do again as bitter experience has rendered me older and wiser, hopefully.

1. Never (again) to get a boyfriend whose mother is still living. I am the type of woman that mothers absolutely hate and no amount of washing up after dinner will change that. This is less likely as time goes on.

2. Never (again) to have a boss twenty years my junior. One of them was OK but basically this is worse than having twelve permanently ingrown toenails. Sadly this is more likely as time goes on.

3. Never (again) to buy wine from Laithwaites because they really think it is OK to leave your expensive wine in the street. As it happens, no one in my street had seen a case of expensive wine before so it was there when I got home.

4. Never (again) to make a promise to my mother. Promises to mothers always end up being the one thing that is keeping them going and inevitably get broken.

5. Never (again) to send a tape of me singing to a celebrity in a coma. I just don’t think I could live with the consequences of another failure.

6. Never (again) to agree to go to a job interview. The downside of this is I will probably never work again but it does diminish the chances of 2.

7. Never (again) to enter into an argument with a psychotherapist, or even have a conversation with one. These people are trained in an advanced form of logic that I have no hope of ever grasping.

8. Never (again) to watch ‘24’ - not that I ever expected it to be plausible because it does posit that Kiefer Sutherland is somehow able to avert disaster. However, even I have to rouse my suspended disbelief when everyone in the emergency services has to resolve their relationship issues before they can turn their attention to seeing if the president of the United States is still alive after Airforce One has crashed into the side of a mountain. It is slightly less realistic than Get Smart.

9. Never (again) to ask our gardener why he is mowing dead grass. I might change my mind about this one if I ever decide to open a Zen school.

10. Never (again) to sing in public when very drunk. This is almost certain to get broken as the more I drink, the more I think I sound like Anita O’Day.

There. I know that what I am supposed to do now is tag ten other people but I have been in touch with mathematicians at MIT and they have assured me that Dave Hill tagged the last ten people who had not been tagged so there is no one else left. It’s to do with permutations, you know, the things that guarantee that you will never win the lottery. There is a Guinness World Record in it for the blogger who managed to tag the highest number of people. Dave Hill is not actually in the running for this but has a very good chance at another record for wasting the most time of serious and earnest people. Good luck with that Dave – a shoo-in for you I would have thought…

Picture from Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss

Friday, November 24, 2006

On the Same Page (Sort of)

I received this comment on Tuesday’s post about the Government’s plans to send seventy-seven supernannies down the chimneys of the nation’s naughtiest families. Ben Page is the Director of opinion pollsters MORI and has been named by The Guardian as one of the 100 most influential people in the country,

‘Hi - Just wanted to respond to your comments about our survey for the Home Office. I am not Blair's "mate", and other research we have done highlights how the press clearly vilifies young people. At the same time, most people in this country do genuinely blame parenting - and a whole range of other things - as a key factor behind crime and anti-social behaviour, and are supportive of sensible measures that do something about it. You can reach your own conclusions about what the government is doing, but public attitudes are fairly clear - they want more facilities for young people, but also tough measures for repeat offenders, including, yes, parenting classes (they might not be their top priority but they are keen on anything that might help - it's the same with ASBOs. Most people in this country support ASBOs, even Guardian readers, not necessarily because they think they are great, or even that they are particularly effective, but because it is a sign that "something is being done". If you email me I'll send you more details of the research etc.

Nice blog
(sorry – vanity made me reproduce that bit)

I feel a bit bad because I’ve obviously hit a raw nerve with the Blair thing. I know what it’s like to fall out with a friend, especially if it wasn’t anything you did but them just being a prat and it sounds like that’s what happened here. Anyway, it was nice of Ben (we’re on first name terms now), to offer to provide further information which I have now had the opportunity to peruse and will get onto in a minute. But first here’s a summary from Ben himself, sent in the accompanying email,

'Highlights massive difference between public perceptions of youth crime and what is actually happening, but also how worried most people are about it - partly because of the media - but also real "fear", even though actual levels of youth crime are pretty static.'

Well, yes. That is sort of my point. Most people may be terribly worried about widespread youth disorder but it's not real. So why this highly publicised initiative to tackle a problem that doesn't actually exist? You see this is what makes me so cross. It rather sounds like we're being patronised doesn't it, or conned even? Try this scenario for size - Whizzbang but ultimately shallow initiative is launched followed by regular blazes of publicity. The public perceives that 'something is being done.' MORI reports public perception to this effect back to Government who crow loudly about it but no one believes them anyway because they can't see any change.
My question would be who, apart from Government ministers and opinion pollsters, thinks that this artificial cycle of activity has any point whatever?

I have worked in local government and on regeneration projects all over London - I know they are pants. I have seen the insides of dozens of poxy youth clubs containing only a couple of lethargic boys playing pool and trying their best to ignore the ex-junky youth worker who is haranguing them about drugs. I have talked to hundreds of kids who don't want to use the youth facilities provided because there's nothing to do in there but play pool or football and be harangued about drugs. I should say that I've also seen one or two great youth clubs and they do make a difference to the quality of a young person's social life, but they are in the minority. There is a huge problem with competency, consistency and quality in youth service provision but not actually the quantity.

It doesn't matter if most of the population think we need more youth facilities because they're wrong about that and they've arrived at that opinion because they've been fed false premises by constant repetition. It is condescending in the extreme, not to mention irresponsible and dishonest, to use ill-informed opinion to direct Government policy. Ben - if you're there - someone needs to tell ministers where and why the mismatch between opinion and reality is occurring and what should be done about it. I'm thinking a person who is considered one of the hundred most influential people in the country might be in pole position. Can you take Tone out for a pint or something?

The information that my new friend Ben so kindly sent was a lovely slide show entitled Latest Findings - what do the public want from 'Respect?' I had some trouble concentrating on it as there was a sudden burst of striped sunlight through the venetians which made me pine for the tropics because I would normally be there by now. The only thing keeping me going is that it's my friend Derek Adams's book launch tonight and I might get a glass of wine and a cube of cheese. Focus, focus.

People surveyed think that 'teenagers hanging around in the street' is a bigger problem in their local area than 'people being attacked because of their skin colour, ethnicity, religion.' It would be easy to draw the conclusion here that our fellow citizens are such swine that they are more worried about a bunch of kids doing nothing but looking untidy than they are about hate crime. But the people surveyed were not being asked to state a moral position. Would anyone in full command of their senses seriously argue that loitering is more threatening than racism or grievous bodily harm? I don't think so. That 'in your local area' is divisive. Ben says in his email 'most people in this country support ASBOs' yet the survey results show only 8% of people 'know a great deal about them'. Says it all really.

As the will to live is rapidly being sapped from me I will close with one enjoyable piece of information. There are eleven types of 'disrespectful behaviour' that people find 'very irritating'. The top pisser-offer is 'urinating/vomiting/spitting in public'. It doesn't say you have to be doing all three at once although if you are vomiting you are probably also spitting quite a bit too. The last person I saw urinating in public was a toddler. The last person I saw vomiting in public was a man in a pin-striped suit. The last person I saw spitting in public was an elderly Asian man. ASBOs all round then? Other irritants on the list include queue-jumping and people barking their exact whereabouts into their mobile phones.

Sneaking in at number eleven as a surprise entry is 'people keeping something they find'. Although it doesn't say anything about putting it in a box and entering it in the Turner Prize, I think an ASBO is due to Rebecca Warren for being so fiendishly talented, if nothing else. Chris Madden, whose cartoons I love without reservation, shall have an ASBO also, on artistic grounds. I will not stand for such audacious talent - it is positively anti-social...

Thursday, November 23, 2006

One's Top Five Gaffes

Tagged by Lesley Cookman to reveal five interesting things about myself, it comes as something of an unpleasant shock to realise that the only things about me that are even vaguely interesting come under the general heading of embarrassing.

1. I should have been used to being confronted by royal personages as I had met both Princess Anne and the Duke of Edinburgh (twice – you wouldn’t think anyone could be that unlucky). Having lived on a rough council estate for eleven years, one got used to seeing members of the aristocracy crowding around paladins over-spilling with raw excrement and speculating on how emergency vehicles such as the Harrods van might negotiate their way through all these burnt out cars.

There is virtually no excuse for the howler that the photograph above represents but I will say in my defence that a) I was not expecting to be introduced to Prince Charles and b) I was doing a lot of aikido at the time. I had no intention whatever of curtseying but there was something about the moment when HRH unexpectedly thrust his hand in my direction that made me want to do something. The result was this absurd bow. I may even have mumbled ‘Onne gai shimasu’, I don’t recall. It’s all a horrible fuzz. In response to his question ‘And what do you do on this project?’ I was unable to recall that I was in fact communications manager. The photo could come in handy if I ever wanted to conduct one of those hilarious caption competitions but I fear the responses would be rather narrow and not entirely savoury.

2) I nearly drowned on the very same day as Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared at sea. At a very tender age and skippering a boat which I believe had once been a saucepan in a stately home, I was in a collision with a much larger vessel, possibly a cauldron, resulting in a severe sinking situation. The boat went to the bottom of Sydney Harbour. I, thankfully, stayed on top.

3) Working as a housemaid in a top Australian hotel, I was presented with an interesting housekeeping problem. A visiting musical ensemble known as The Bay City Rollers took an unwise decision to give their only pairs of tartan duds a shower about three hours before they were all due on stage. An iron was found and, suffice to say, I have seen what is inside The Bay City Rollers’ pants. As a supplementary pants story – I got into a lift in the same hotel to find Frank Zappa retying the rope holding his trousers up. I thought it better not to ask.

4) I once sent a tape of me crooning My Funny Valentine to an actor who was in a coma after I read his tragic story in The Australian Women’s Weekly. He came out of the coma but was left with terrible brain damage. I do not know to what extent my gesture contributed to his present situation.

5) I left a tape of some of the songs from my two unstaged musicals at the box office of the Almeida Theatre for Mandy Patinkin who was performing his fabulous one man show there. Mandy was not in a coma at the time and, as far as I know, did not suffer any permanent ill effects.

I also have a cringey Phil Collins story and one about Howard Goodall too but I ought to stop really as it’s not doing a lot for my state of mind.

Someone whose self-esteem seems to be made of plutonium and cast in lead is the man with whom I shared the first mentioned embarrassing moment. Prince Charles has started a video diary. Witnessing the strangely stilted communications between the increasingly odd royal one and the general public makes me feel very blessed that I got off lightly with my encounter. Since I couldn’t answer even the most basic question about what I did, I would not like to have been in the camouflage Converses of the young people in Birmingham to whom he directed the question,

‘And how are your new uniforms? Do they fit properly? Are they comfortable?’

Where does one put oneself when he starts up with the ‘when I was serving in the navy out in the colonies…’ For someone in whose hands international etiquette is entrusted, he has a surprising resistance to the language of diplomacy. As the day progresses the fire in the hole starts to look more and more unstable. A group of young dancers is informed,

‘I don’t think I’d like to have been Tweedledum and Tweedledee’, perhaps indicating some kind of volcanic inner turmoil brewing.

The suspense is almost unbearable as he hosts a dinner at Highgrove for people from a local hospice. Oh My God – he is going to be talking to people who are going to die - soon! Happily he played it safe and talked about the oldest person he could think of,

‘What amazed me when we attended the ceremony marking the Battle of the Somme was there was this incredible old boy of 110 and he was perfectly compos mentis, even insisted on standing up for God Save the Queen.’

Thank you very much sir. Spending a few minutes tracking your day has gone a long way to restoring my self-esteem. I trust little Charlie is keeping well…

Photo by John Sturrock - although he may not want to be reminded.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Where is Mary Poppins when you really need her? King of the non-sequitur and father of modern British mediocrity Tony ‘Blah Blah’ Blair today chose to reveal his latest foray into inflicting permanent damage on the national psyche in an exclusive statement to The Sun. That would be the august organ of fair play that still has pictures of topless bimbos in this age of respect and equality. Blah Blah is falling over himself to clear the too hard basket before his impending redundancy. He was in Afghanistan yesterday issuing ASBOs to those recalcitrant Taliban and today we’ve all been threatened with the naughty step unless we literally get our houses in order. There’ll be more tears at bedtime. From his own fair hand come these words,

‘Being a parent is hard and most of us have to just get on and do it. But there are some families who can’t cope with it. That’s a fact.

It doesn’t much matter whether it’s their ‘fault’ or not. The fact is when they don’t cope, the children suffer and then we all suffer.

Government can’t solve this problem on its own. But it can provide pressure and support. Pressure in making parents responsible for their child’s anti-social behaviour.'

There’s nothing like a considered, reasoned approach. How has this all come about? Well Blah Blah’s good pal over at the market research giant MORI, Ben Page made a couple of calls and discovered,

It’s why the public believes that better parenting is the main key to reducing crime and disorder in our communities.

Do we? I don’t. ‘The main key?’ There is more than one key required to unlock the mystery of why kids go through a five year phase of doing nothing but grunt and listen to other people grunt over drum and bass? Could we label one of those keys ‘puberty’ perhaps. My, it does all sound complicated. No wonder,

It’s also why the overwhelming majority of parents say they would welcome outside help in dealing with difficulties with their children.’

‘In these circumstances, a bit of nannying, with sticks and carrots, is what the local community needs, let alone the child. The cost to society of a child going off the rails can run into tens of thousands of pounds.

I know loads of people with challenging teenagers and not one of them has ever said to me, ‘I’m having a problem with my Shaquille. I think I’ll ask the Government what to do.’ Why? Because they don’t have the first idea about anything, a fact which they go out of their way to demonstrate at every available opportunity. They need to see that they are actually the problem. They are the ones providing the worst public education in the developed world and the poorest social housing and promoting the shallowest ‘values’.

Having grabbed a free tertiary education for themselves in the days when it was still possible to be reasonably well taught, they then decide to make it virtually impossible for children from low income and single parent families to go to university. They constantly moan at us for being in debt but are quite happy to saddle young professionals with anything up to £35,000 worth of student debt before they’ve even got their first job. So it’s all about to become clear,

'Support in using a range of people to show them it can be better. The ‘nanny state’ argument applied to this is just rubbish. No one’s talking about interfering with normal family life.

Sorry… didn’t you just say you were nannying? Perhaps just not in a stately way? And the ethic that is driving this zealous quest?

This should be no surprise given the huge popularity of television programmes in which experts help parents with their problem kids.

So today we are announcing new help for families with difficulties through a nationwide network of parenting experts.’

OK. Let’s take this calmly, one step at a time. The Government’s thinking is being informed by a television programme. Well, yes. There’s nothing unusual in that. Television is after all, a kind of universal focus group. But, and I’m sorry to nitpick when the Government is trying to help us to live properly, ‘a range of people’ might be stretching it just a tad. I did a little bit of maths because I know this is something the Government doesn’t much like doing.

Four million quid spread over 77 areas will give each area around £52,000. An ‘area’ is actually a local authority. These all have a population of a few hundred thousand people of which anything up to a third might be under 16. So, conservatively 10,000 of those might be teenagers. The £52,000 might pay the salary of ONE experienced social worker for ONE year. In central London they’d be struggling. Remember this is supposed to be a super expert type person and their super expert salary would actually be around £45,000. Last time I looked, you didn’t get much of a super expert for that. But even if this person was the expertiest person in the world, each of those teenagers and/or their parents would get an average of just under 10 minutes of this expert's attention, assuming that our experts spend all of their time with the families which of course they wouldn’t.

Government always seems to forget that workers need workspaces, you know, a desk, chair, telephone, mobile. Say a space can actually be found in a busy and pressured council Social Services Department. So this super expert rides in all pumped up and tells all the crusty old jobsworths that the Government wants them to ‘change the way they do things’. There is no money in the budget for materials or events or publicity or, in fact, anything but them so it’s going to all have to be about methods. Then the crusty old jobsworths find more energy than they’ve been able to muster in years to resist this threat to their comfortable old routine. The super expert quickly gets all frustrated because they just want to do ‘summink for the young yoofs’ and everyone is boohoo standing in their boohoo way.

Next thing they’ll be spending all their time at conferences commiserating with each other that they are being marginalised and not listened to and it’s the young people themselves that are really suffering. They needn’t worry too much about this. Young people are used to Government pratting around on their behalf and have got pretty good at ignoring it. Meanwhile the crusty old jobsworths will just have to bide their time and fight over who gets to inherit the newbie’s brand new computer which finally arrives six weeks before the end of their super experty little contract. Trust me, it will happen exactly like this.

I’m not a parent but even I know that you don’t commence ‘parenting’ when a child is twelve years old and starts to act like an alien. Blah Blah - you need to take your little spoonful of sugar and start doling it out in the form of increased pay packets for the growing underclass. In fact, why don't you act like a proper socialist and get into the sugar redistribution business? And you could think about making tertiary education free again. Now that would be a legacy worth leaving.

Cartoon from The Guardian

Monday, November 20, 2006

Calamity Hain

'Calam' and conscience.

The ancient Egyptians may have had fifty different words for sand and the Inuit over a hundred words for snow but the reason the English language has at least twice as many words as any other language is that we have to keep inventing new words for telling lies. This is to protect the advanced sensitivities and future peerages of our politicians. It would be extremely bad form for a prime minister or a judge say to call a secretary of state a fibber in an official capacity, so there is now a thesaurus full of alternative expressions to get over this hump in etiquette.

The politician with the most raging in-shorts blaze this week is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter ‘Calamity’ Hain or Calam as he is known to his friends and fellow truth or dare club members. According to the Belfast Telegraph, Calam has been accused by a high court judge of ‘failing in his duty of candour to the court’. My goodness that sounds even worse than leaving the toilet seat up in the home of a person suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder.

It seems that there so many pesky rules these days that stand in the way of you appointing your friends to jobs as commissioners. You can’t understand it. The job needs doing and you’ve had a five minute chat with your friend over a seasonal mulled wine or two and they’re fairly sure that their holding of partisan views and/or position as your strip poker partner won’t prevent them from carrying out their duties in a fair and balanced way to the full extent of their admittedly limited abilities.

Last week Calam faced not one but two high court challenges to the ‘process’ he supposedly followed in making some high profile public appointments. Mr Justice Girvan showed himself to be a master of linguistic gymnastics, multifariously describing Calam’s inventive porkies as ruses

‘to divert attention from the true course of events.’


‘misleading and contained false information.’

As well as,

‘a less than full explanation of what actually happened and sought to minimise the political considerations.’

and rounding off,

‘it must be concluded that it was decided that the correct information should not be placed before the court.’

I have a word – perjury.

It must be said at this point that at the Ulster Royal Truth or Dare Club, Calam usually goes for the dare as ‘truth’ is not a concept with which he finds himself entirely comfortable. Therefore it seemed obvious that his joint announcement with Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown for the ‘extraordinary package’ of future funding of Northern Ireland would be stripped of annoying detail so that the papers could concentrate on what a fine prime ministerial team these two would make. The Belfast Telegraph sets the scene,

‘Peter Hain stood proud as punch next to Gordon Brown in Downing Street, announcing their less-than-meets-the-eye cash package for Ulster.’

In the absence of any detail, most commentators think this is mostly money that would have gone to Northern Ireland anyway, with a few extra quid thrown when someone bothered to do a little maths and factored in the RPI. The perfect opportunity to explain to us plebs how this ‘significant’ package works arose in parliament last week and was just as quickly batted away by Scrooge’s stooge Stephen Timms. From the Belfast Telegraph,

‘Conservative spokesman David Lidington asked how the November 1 funding package "differs from announcements previously made by Ministers about future public expenditure in Northern Ireland, and if he will make a statement".

The reply from Mr Brown's deputy Stephen Timms was brief and not to the point.

His one sentence answer stated: "The details of the St Andrew’s Agreement funding package announced on November 1 are set out in the Treasury press notice at: speeches/press/2006/press_82_06.cfm.’

They are so not - I think something just blew in from the Windy City because this pongs...

Picture from

Competitive Shriek

Robert Allen talks like Frank Bruno and sings like Luther Vandross used to before he unfortunately died. Yesterday Robert, or rather his dream, died as he was voted off the X-Factor. At least I know this time I was not responsible because I voted for the former Homerton Hospital porter, soon to be dad and all round fine geezer, twice. The first time I phoned I was so taken by being thanked effusively by Robert in his best Frank Bruno voice that I immediately dialled the number again just to repeat the experience. I have never voted on a reality show before except the time I voted for Tara Palmer-Tomkinson on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. It’s a long story - don't ask.

Everyone says that Britain is racist because we keep voting off the black contestants. If thirteen year old girls can be considered racist for fancying gormless anorexic white boys with faces that aren’t yet properly formed, then I guess we are. I fancied Davy Jones of the Monkees when I was thirteen and he was not much bigger than a clothes peg and probably lived on a diet of celery and cherry coke as well. I got Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones one Christmas and was in teeny bop heaven. I had no idea what the song Randy Scouse Git was all about. Still don’t.

Simon Cowell’s hair looks like it’s been permanently flattened by wearing sunglasses on top of it for thirty years. I don’t know why he voted Robert off since he’s had nothing but praise for him and only vitriol for the pasty-faced scousers, Eton Road. Maybe it’s tactical, although it’s difficult to see the logic. Anyway, history has shown that it’s better not to win these competitions. Winners tend to end up in rehab where all they will get is relationship advice and the name of a crack dealer from Pete Doherty. Or they could end up in panto. I hope Robert doesn’t have to go back to the Homerton. He may end up doing panto, in roles created by Frank Bruno. Good luck to him.

At least the X-Factor is a competition that doesn’t cost us anything except our TV licence fee and 35p every time we vote. The bill for the London Olympics has already skyrocketed from the original guesstimate of £2.5bn to anything up to £8bn and this is before all the contractors have started installing substandard materials at extortionate prices and filed for bankruptcy. Now that we know the calculations were really executed on the back of a fag packet and this wasn’t just a metaphor, we can all spend the next six years speculating on how long it is possible for a piece of string to be. There may even be a Guinness World Record in it. Longest piece of string ever used to work out how much of long-suffering council tax payers’ money to waste on a frivolous folly springs to mind. On Friday the International Construction Review made a rather bald statement of the obvious,

‘Jack Lemley must obviously have been aware of what was on the way in terms of the rising London Olympics budget when he decided to quit his appointment as leader of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA).’

His acting successor, Sir Roy McNulty, under examination by the London Assembly (which has an oversight function for the 2012 Games), refused to disclose the scale of the increases.

Sorry, what was that? Another one of these knighted knaves is refusing to tell us how much of our hard-earned cash he is preparing to sacrifice to protect the vanity of his self-obsessed cronies. His first class ticket to Buenos Aires is presumably in the post. Argentine authorities might want to conduct an environmental impact study. The heavy concentration of regally approved miscreants currently jetting in could well be adversely affecting their air quality. It gets better,

On the reasons for Jack Lemley’s resignation, Sir Roy said that there were ‘serious differences’ between Mr. Lemley and the ODA board.

He also claimed there was a ‘mismatch’ between Mr. Lemley and the political environment in which the delivery authority operates.’

So poor old Jack Lemley couldn’t take the whole cult of secrecy concealing gross incompetence and flagrant nepotism thing then. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the queue for anabolic steroids man. That’s what I say.

Why don’t we just do the whole Olympic thing as a TV reality show? We know that all the big plans for regeneration are just going to be scaled back to the point where we’ll get a couple of tube stations and a school named after Kelly Holmes anyway so why not just start from there? Let’s get people in who we know are guaranteed to squeal if they get a cricket popped into their shorts. There are literally thousands of people in this country who can ride a unicycle backwards, all taught courtesy of previous regeneration projects. Why not concentrate on what we’re good at? Let’s get Bruce Forsythe in to commentate. I can’t wait for the rest of the world to learn how the sentence ‘Nice to see you…’ is conjugated. Wouldn’t it be brilliant to see Simon Cowell tell Ian Thorpe, ‘this is a swimming competition’?

And Robert – keep working on that Mr Bojangles routine, I think I might have a plan…

Photo of Robert Allen from

Sunday, November 19, 2006

A day in the life

I sometimes think I don’t really know what to do with life. It was a beautiful day, the kind that calendars covert and families feel obliged to spend rattling around on bicycles. I just looked at it. Yes, I spent all day, sitting in a chair and looking at it. I have a picturesque outlook so it is quite tempting to use it for outward looking, but I don’t think it’s the kind of outward looking that progressive people have in mind when they suggest you do it. I could have painted it or written a poem about it but I just looked at it, until there was nothing left to look at. Of course a beautiful day is still a beautiful day when night falls, you just can’t see it any more.
I got to thinking about what people do with their lives and how some activities, like ‘looking’ end up taking a disproportionate amount of time. Some people devote themselves fulltime to looking for a perfect partner or a new kitchen. They install themselves in Ikea where you can buy kitchens that have names like Tidaholm or Hallarum. Think of how nice it would be to have a brand new kitchen with its own name that you feel happy to talk to because it doesn’t yet have greasy worktops and chips out of the doors. ‘Good morning Tidaholm’, you might remark as you fill the kettle. If you have a cat called Tiddles it might get confusing because Tiddles could think you have come over a little pretentious and changed his name to something more sophisticated like the phase you went through when you called him Tiddlywinks for four months. Ikea is also a very good place to find a partner. Hang out in the pickle section. Only lonely people eat pickles.
There are people who spend large amounts of time on the internet trying to find people who agree with them. If you hold odd views this can be quite difficult. The best you can hope for usually is people who are willing to say anything to get people to talk to them. It is not advisable to give your credit card number to these people and certainly don’t tell them your home address unless you are looking for a non-contributory flatmate. If they claim to be the foreign minister of Nigeria who is having a little cash flow problem though, pass them on to Tony Blair so they can commiserate with each other.
People in early middle age can use up large chunks of time, not to mention money on marriages and divorces. Marriage is an excellent consumer of time as it can harness lots of other people’s time, and money, as well. If you are looking to carve deep into the quality time of your friends and family, you could consider having your wedding in a foreign country where only George Clooney has a house. It is difficult to find a country these days where George doesn’t have a house so you should not even attempt to factor in inconvenience in his case. You know that you can always count on him to show up so double order on the pickles.
Then there are people who should have spent more time looking for a new agent but instead end up spending several months living on a television show and scratching their way through mountains of bugs to get enough rice to keep them alive. They should have just taken dietary advice from Victoria Beckham who knows down to the milligram how much rice you need to keep yourself alive and they could have stayed looking fetchingly anorexic and not missed any weddings. Victoria gives her wedding pickle allowance to George Clooney. It’s an arrangement they have had for some considerable time.
Many people have spent their day quite fruitfully participating in the Scientology wedding of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (or TomKat as it says on the invitations). In Scientology, you are not allowed to go to sleep until you have resolved an argument. This explains why Tom (pictured) looks so tired all the time. A celebrity wedding of this calibre does take up a lot of people’s time. An entire Italian village is on standby in case anybody needs to have their dress taped to their surgically enhanced chest. John Travolta has promised to personally collect and fly in a trusted stylist from anywhere in the world in his own 747 should any of the guests be afflicted with a hair extension crisis. Even Nicole Kidman has taken time out from her busy schedule of starring in dud films and caring for her own troubled spouse to flip through the Argos catalogue for a suitable wedding gift.
It’s been quite a day, for everyone. I think I need to take a good long rest now and get ready for tomorrow…

Cartoon from

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Techno Spat

Fridays I reserve for worrying about terrorism. Technology and terrorism are becoming inextricably linked, therefore Bill Gates is almost certainly to blame. I sometimes think Bill Gates invented world poverty just so he can get the credit for solving it. In fact, by the simple act of hoovering up a sizable chunk of global income he probably has almost single-handedly created at least a category of poverty. Just as well he isn’t British because he would have already got about fourteen thousand knighthoods by now. Creating problems needing innovative solutions which, hey presto you just happen to have a company that can do that at enormous expense, is one thing the Government likes very much and is bound to reward. Special admiration is reserved for reprobates who fleece people on low incomes and piss off to Argentina with all their money just before Christmas.

Technology is a form of terrorism, certainly the way it operates in my life anyway. I think of it as the enemy within an innocuous looking thin black box. Blogging has tested my patience to its outer limits. Having recently switched to the Beta version after being assured by well-meaning friends (who incidentally have been dropped from this year’s Christmas card list), I still can’t carry out basic operations like put in a list of links which I really want to do as a couple of people have put up a link to this blog. Thank you Temperama and Baroque in Hackney. I will return the favour just as soon as I acquire a level of technical ability comparable to that of a three year old. Or I could adopt a three year old. That may be quicker.

The google box’s insidiousness lies in the fact that it can be benign, and even has the capacity for charity as it sometimes delivers you pleasant news. But equally, it is also capable of tearing up that same good news and setting fire to it before your very eyes. To see the airline tickets that you carefully selected disappear because you didn’t make it through the arduous purchasing process can be dispiriting. You pause very briefly to berate yourself for the stupidity of putting down your first budgie’s name as your security question. No one ever remembers their first budgie’s name.

Meanwhile, ‘the system’, which is an electronic control freak jobsworth, has reserved those tickets for you but abandoned the whole transaction so you can’t get to them. You have to wait five hours before the tickets are released back into the available pool, by which time some anorak whose first budgie’s name was probably Tweetie has logged on and snuffled up your 99p fare to Faro. The modern world is a stressful place.

The Government believes it can defeat terrorism with a dashing combination of technology and bombing the crap out of countries it has previously rendered lawless. We in Britain are extremely proud of our record at creating both diplomatic and technological solutions to problems which make things at least ten times worse than they were. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth totally fucking up. It is therefore heartening to see these two areas in which we excel at incompetence coming together to create a scenario of truly gobsmackingly catastrophic potential.

I’ve been blathering on about the new biometric passports for months now. The Government has already issued three million of these new documents which contain digital information about the holder’s physical features as well as other identifying detail on a microchip. Officials have been crowing about how the Home Office has adopted a data encryption level three times that of the standard for military intelligence. So, how come a Guardian journalist and his techy friend, armed with only a microchip reader which they easily obtained for £250 and a little homemade software, were able to crack this code and download all the information contained on that secure chip?

These two scallywags had previously embarrassed the Home Office by taking a boarding pass they found on the Heathrow Express and using it to obtain a complete identity profile of the man who had wantonly discarded it, including the name of his first budgie (Percy), and buy themselves some more airline tickets using his frequent flyer account. Hopefully that man has learned his lesson about littering.

It seems now that these passports may even be less secure than the little maroon books that we presently wait hours in a line to show someone who is studiously looking the other way, except in Cuba where they take an almost forensic interest. They seem a very thorough people. The Guardian team also discovered that it is possible to fashion a little scanning device out of some old egg cartons, wire coat hangers and sticky back plastic which will read the data on passports from anything up to a foot away.

With the old passports you knew if yours had been stolen - the bump on the head and/or ransacked hotel room were generally an indication. With this new system, your passport could be lifted in a deft virtual pick pocket exercise carried out by the person pressed against you on a crowded Piccadilly Line train, and you would never know. You may then have some explaining to do after the police have informed your family that you are a dead suicide bomber. Now that could be very tricky…

Cartoon from

Friday, November 17, 2006

Off the wall

I sometimes think the life of Michael Jackson should serve as a massive cautionary tale. It has a bleakness that recalls Dickens’s imperilled child heroes Oliver Twist and David Copperfield but without the hope of a happy ending. The deep psychological flaws of a Macbeth or a Lear are as surely etched into his tortured face as the thousand scalpel tracks that signify a life fiercely devoted to delusion, but without the comfort of imminent death. A contemporary Prometheus, except with bits of his brain being eaten away rather than his liver, and not growing back. In short, a tragedy in interminable acts.

You wonder how, with a sizable chunk of the world acting as stewards, team Jackson could have veered so far off course so relentlessly. Is there no one who is prepared to caution against the wisdom of befriending say an Elizabeth Taylor or a Uri Geller much less little boys? Is it any wonder he ended up inhabiting a moral universe with no north? Still the fey one does seem to have been coated with Teflon, perhaps courtesy of one of those numerous vacations in Plasticland. He always manages to ride the sleaze train back to acceptability. Not even dressing his children up as lampshades and threatening to hurl them from thirteenth floor balconies unless a chimp trained in Shiatsu is sent up right now has alienated him from public affection.

But is this stroll along the tightrope of respectability about to get a little bit tricky? Elizabeth Taylor and Uri Geller are one thing but Sir Philip ‘Slime’ Green? Now that is a descent into bad company beyond the imaginings of even a Dickens. Yes, the reprehensible retailer recently rewarded with a knighthood for services to tax evasion, now counts the fey one amongst his err, friends. The two were discovered dining at Japanese eatery Nobu (to be renamed Nobhead in honour of their visit) on Tuesday night.

Following their intimate sushi and sake fest, the long dormant prince of pop was invited to a private viewing of the fine collection of apparel available at Topshop. He heisted a couple of shirts and a jacket when his host whizzed off to have a much needed whiz against the Oxford Street facing window. Sir Slime aimed straight for Marks & Spencer but ended up in a bit of a self fulfilling splash. He blamed it on the sake. Meanwhile his new pal was papped mid shirt grab. He blamed it on the booty. It was all sorted out amicably and the paps got the photo they really came for – the world’s two worst people, ever, together. The Guinness Book of World Records is doing the tally now but it will be close run. Who will be named the World’s Worst Person Ever?

Last night’s appearance on The World Music Awards at Earls Court probably puts Jackson ahead on points. He did pick up a Guinness World Record for sales of his 1982 album Thriller. The Guinness people are known to favour previous winners. This was a timely reminder that there was once a century in which Michael Jackson could sing and dance and even write decent songs, albeit with the aid of a room full of musical genius. Where are you Quincy Jones when we need you most?

Just to be clear, The World Music Awards are not about what all the people in the world like to listen to in terms of music. World Music is the name for all the weird stuff that most people don’t like and you don’t hear anywhere except on wildlife programmes and BBC3 dramas. That Michael Jackson has been invited at all should be an indicator. That he was asked to take a leading role and lots of people even sadder than he and Sir Slime put together paid amounts of money reported to be anything up to £500 to hear him sing, ranks it lower than an X-Factor outtake show.

Ticket holders were lured by the prospect of seeing their hero perform the title song Thriller. Did they honestly think the last twenty-five years would melt away? Well actually that did sort of happen. Apparently the severe stage lights had a corrosive effect on the Jackson facial reconstruction, and that was while he was still ensconced in his dressing room. Not even the charms of Beyoncé could lure the fey one out to perform his 1982 classic. That honour went to R&B star Chris Brown, a person although very much still alive, was not the one fans paid a week’s wages to see.

There is a twilight sphere in which the artist formerly known as Michael Jackson is still visible and that is a stage filled with young children singing a song with only about half a dozen words in it. With the solid stiletto of Beyoncé acting as incentive, the fey one was able to muster himself to mumble the few words he could remember of We Are The World, the charity tune he co-penned with Lionel Ritchie when they both still had some musical credibility. ‘We are the world, we are the children’, he squeaked in compensation before hurling his Topshop jacket into the startled crowd.

According to The Guardian, gallant husband and wife team Peter Andre and Jordan were the only people at Earls Court who put on a decent show. It doesn’t say what they did but presumably it involved amphibious craft and a good deal of slithering. Sir Slime would have enjoyed that. The last word on Jackson’s appearance must therefore go to Jordan,

‘He sounded really out of tune.’

I blame the parents, all of them, everywhere in the world.

Cartoon from