Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Sir Terry Pratchett

The twice annual circus that is the announcement of honours comes around again today. Amongst them, as usual, are a high humber of civil service and other assorted panjandrums elevated to knighthoods and peerages for doing their jobs, often not particularly well. The thing with such people of course is that they are in close proximity to ministers and prime ministers who often also do not do their jobs particularly well but want to try and prevent the rest of us from finding out. Thus are civil servants elevated.

In particular there are several people, including Nick Macpherson, the Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, who might be considered to have presided over a debacle worthy of censure rather than reward. He is now to be known as Sir Nick. I'm sure those who are going abroad exhanging their Pounds for just one Euro each will be impressed, as will those who will be signing on at their local Jobcentre in increasing numbers. Was Sir Nick responsible for all of this? Of course not. But are these the actions of a caring government or those of a government keen to keep people onside, prevent any embarrassing leaks and keep up the pretence that they are in control and formulating carefully evaluated policy for the good of the nation?

But, on the lighter side, congratulations to Terry Pratchett who becomes a knight and deservedly so. Until a certain JK Rowling came along, Terry was Britain's best selling living author. I have read every one of his books and enjoyed them all. He is one of the most inventive, intelligent and funny authors this country has ever produced. Were it not for the snobbery which surrounds the fantasy genre, he would be acclaimed and prized much more than he is. Now at last that has been recognised. It is just sad that his elevation may have a great deal to do with the fact that he is suffering from a debilitating disease rather than a recognition that he is a truly great British author.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Goodbye 2008

2008 has been an up and down year for me. I have had a decent time professionally, a lousy year romantically and I narrowly escaped being permanently disabled. A few more hours and I might have been looking at permanent enforced celibacy for the rest of my life. So I suppose I should count my blessings. The National Health Service has its failings and is far from perfect but it came through for me. My GP diagnosed me, called an ambulance and I was operated on the next day. Four months on I finally feel like I am getting back to my old self just in time for the new year.

And also just in time for the new year Leah is talking to me again. I e-mailed her over the last few days and, though she didn't respond, she did at least read them. Then today she actually talked to me. She wants me to do something for her. I am happy to oblige. I've always told her that I will do anything and everything in my power for her and now I can show that I mean it. I love her. She means the world to me.

And in the next couple of weeks I shall be able to go and show her how much she means to me in person. I didn't say so today. I wanted to but it's better to wait until I've booked it before making any kind of statement like that. I've learnt my lesson in that regard. I'll wait until my next tranche of money is in my account and then I can go ahead.

2009 is going to be a good year for me. As to what is going to happen to the rest of the world, well I shall come to that tomorrow.

Say Cheese

Given that so many of you are taking a look at my profile, I just tried to take a close-up picture of myself so that you can get a better look at the face behind the words. I just took my camera, held it out in front of myself and snapped away.

The results were not good.

Why is that? I see lots of other people who take pictures of themselves in the same way and they look fine, good even. My pictures somehow contrived to make me look like a criminal on the run or a deranged madman. I tried lifting a quizzical eyebrow and it made me look like an axe murderer. Taken from a certain angle it made me look like I had three chins and huge bags under my eyes.

Leah for instance has sent me lots of pictures of herself, some with her just standing in front of a mirror and snapping away. She looks drop dead gorgeous in every one and it can't just be because I adore her and would think she was beautiful if she was wearing a hessian sack.

What is going on? I'm no film star but I'm not bad looking. Some have even called me handsome. I'm looking quite slim and athletic at the moment too. So why can't I take a decent picture of myself?

It can't be the camera. It's a good and expensive digital SLR camera. It has a timer and a remote control feature on it enabling me to take pictures of myself from a distance. I could, if I were minded to do so, take pictures of myself in a state of undress or in erotic poses. Don't worry I won't. If I look that bad when I take my pictures of just my face think how bad pictures of me naked would look. It could easily make me quite self conscious.

It must be down to technique. It must be about getting the lighting right. Or maybe I just need to get someone to come and take the picture rather than take it myself. That picture of me in Menorca with Mum came out quite well. Maybe my face is better suited to sunnier climes. I've often been told that I look Italian or Spanish. Perhaps that's what it is. In future I shall only pose for pictures taken by professionals or when I'm in the Mediterranean.

Intractable

You may have noticed that thus far I have neglected to opine on the subject of Israel and Gaza. This is deliberate. It is not because I don't care but because frankly I don't know what to think.

It is easy to condemn the Israeli actions and many have taken that course. In many ways I am inclined to agree with them. To react in the way that Israel has seems disproportionate from this safe distance because we do not live in fear of Hamas rockets raining down on us. Whilst jets seem like overkill, they are, lest we forget, in response to rockets fired indiscriminately into Israel intended to kill or maim without worrying where they fall.

But if we're honest we all feel a sense of guilty ennui every time this same story crops up don't we? Each time we get the same entrenched positions, the same intractable problems, the same bitter resentments, the same claims and counter claims, the same piteous pictures of innocents slaughtered, the same propaganda and the same seeds of anger planted in yet another generation to keep the story and the conflict going.

What is the solution? In theory it's easy, the two state solution and the acceptance of Israel that it falls back to its 1967 borders. But that is to ignore all of that anger and resentment and all of those radicalized youths who shake their fists in the air and demand action.

I wrote recently about the travails of Zimbabwe, a subject I feel passionately about. But the situation in Zimbabwe is easily resolved. That is what is so frustrating about it. It is about just one man and the cronies around him. We all know the solution to Zimbabwe and that it could be achieved easily and painlessly in a matter of a couple of weeks. Israel and Palestine has been defeating diplomats and politicians for decades now precisely because nobody really knows what to do next, how to cut through the rhetoric and the anger and get people to compromise.

We all know that Israel's actions this week may in the short term stem the flow of rocket attacks, but in the long term it will just fan the flames of this unending conflict. But how would we feel if we were under daily attack and in continual fear of our lives?

By the same token Palestinian grievances are understandable as they live in their crowded state that is not a state, struggle to earn a living and live in similar fear. The zealots and the fundamentalists prosper in that kind of community just as extremists always do when people fear for their security and livelihoods. Israelis and Palestinians have a more extreme and hardline view of life because of the daily vicissitudes they must face.

Ultimately the only thing that is going to solve this conflict is for one side to say enough is enough and end the violence. Anger and the thirst for revenge is understandable and natural, something we have all felt if in less extreme circumstances. But violence begets violence. As Gandhi said: 'an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind'.

As the UN, politicians and diplomats get involved once more, perhaps they should just say that to both parties. It's a complex problem, a problem with its roots in ancient history. Yet the first step to its resolution will be for one or the other to end the cycle of violence, to turn the other cheek and fail to retaliate. It would be a politically dangerous and incredibly courageous move. Yet it is this piece of inaction and this one alone which can ever succeed in bringing peace.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Simple Economics

When you stop and think about it, the pre and post Christmas period has proven beyond all doubt how utterly useless, pointless and yet fantastically and ruinously expensive was the government's so called fiscal stimulus package.

As many of us pointed out at the time, when shops were having to cut prices by 10, 20, 40 and sometimes 50% in the run up to Christmas when consumers should be paying full price, how much difference was 2.5% going to make? Then, on Boxing Day, we got further proof. The sales were on and the savvy shoppers came out. Now they were bagging real bargains and 2.5% seemed even more laughable.

What went on over the weekend was a perfectly sensible and prudent response to these difficult times. Money is tight and so people waited. Even in recessions people still need to buy certain items. And of course people still want to buy certain things too. It's just that a recession represents an opportunity to buy such items at a drastically reduced price. It may even make previously unaffordable items suddenly affordable for those, thankfully still the majority, who have jobs and a secure income even if money is a little tighter than previously. That tightness caused the recession but then the recession will ease the tightness and give people more spending power again. Who said economics was complicated?

I'm getting paid some money next week or the week after. When I get it I have a fantastic opportunity to buy certain items I need and others that I just want at unbeatable prices. I shall be able to avail myself of a flight to New York and a hotel room at bargain levels. I won't be charged the sort of fuel surcharge I would have had to pay just a few months ago because the price of oil has dropped like a stone despite the Israeli determination to stoke up ever greater resentment amongst their neighbours and further destabilise the region and oil prices. I wonder if Arabs are grateful to them for at least temporarily halting the downward spiral.

I have not gone shopping this weekend partly because I don't yet have the money but mostly because I don't intend to get into a fist fight with anyone over a pair of trousers however cheap. But I will be going shopping next week. I will be booking a holiday. Why will I be doing this? Is it because Mr Darling has cut a paltry 2.5% off the price? No. It is because prices are now at a realistic level again. An opportunity presents itself.

Wouldn't it be nice if the government were to look at the facts and listen to arguments and recognise, just for once, that it made a mistake? Reverse the VAT cut and cut other taxes as the Conservatives have suggested. Make employing people cheaper, shore up lending to small businesses. It is the loss of jobs which damages the economy.

Will it happen? Of course not. Politicians are incapable of admitting they are wrong and Gordon Brown more so than almost any other. Already the borrowing figures revealed in November are looking too low. Growth figures are even more ridiculously optimistic now than they were when Darling read them out. Retailers are failing, businesses are squealing for help and our government is sticking to its claim that it is saving the world. The world will save itself eventually no thanks to any politician. Thanks to Messrs Brown and Darling we will then have a greater and more expensive mess to clear up at the end of it.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

The Upside

This is going to be an unusually gloomy new year. Not for me I hasten to add. I'm feeling quite cheerful and chipper about my own prospects notwithstanding the fact I seem to have caught a cold for the first time this winter. But even then it could be worse. They say that a nasty flu epidemic is heading our way just to add to our economic woes. I don't think I've got that and because I work mostly from home these days I am less likely to get it. I probably caught this cold on the plane.

No this new year is going to be gloomy because it is difficult to feel very optimistic about 2009. We are heading into a recession which is looking more and more like a slump. Twelve months ago we were assured by 'experts' that we were just going to suffer a slight slowdown. Now house prices are plummeting, banks have gone bust, retailers are falling like leaves in autumn, car sales have fallen off a cliff and politicians are running around in a panic spending billions in a forlorn attempt to look dynamic and on top of things.

And yet I see grounds for optimism amongst the gloom. Recessions are part of the business cycle. They are part of what makes capitalism work. We became fat and complacent during the good years and now we are to have a reckoning. It will make us more careful, leaner and more efficient.

We only have to look at what happened on British high streets and shopping malls this weekend. Retailers had a dreadful build up to Christmas. They started their sales early as they panicked. The great British shopping public decided, in the face of their huge energy bills and their growing uncertainty about the future, to stay away, to keep their cash and credit cards in their pockets. Then, when retailers slashed prices on Friday and started their sales, out came the great British bargain hunters. They shopped in their droves, elbowing each other out of the way and saving themselves a small fortune just because they were sensible enough to wait a few days.

For some people a recession will make no difference. Sure the economy overall may shrink but for those in steady work it will be business as usual. They may even be better off because prices will fall and interest rates on mortgages will do the same.

That is why we should be optimistic. Recessions are just a natural correction. Retailers got greedy. They just assumed we would keep shopping and we called their bluff. Power has shifted. Prices have been forced down. That is the way that markets are supposed to work.

Just take a look around the world. What is happening now is actually rather welcome. China, which had congratulated itself on being an economic miracle with record growth year after year, is now learning a few harsh economic lessons. The same is true of Russia which grew fat on oil and gas revenues and an inflated stock market and started throwing its weight around. Now, suddenly, their economic miracle is looking considerably less miraculous.

The risk in any recession like this is that countries, especially autocratic countries like these two behemoths, start going down the protectionist route in order to prop up their economies. Indeed Russia has already started down this path. China too may use devaluation to try and maintain its industries and high growth rate achieved because they can make things so much more cheaply than anywhere else because of low wages and other costs and an authoritarian government which can do what it likes to keep its competive edge. It is to be hoped that our leaders refuse to accept this. We should not go down the path of erecting general trade barriers to protect our industries. But we should definitely protect our industries from countries like China who attempt to tilt the playing field even further in their direction the moment things get a little difficult.

China has built up a massive trade surplus by selling goods cheaply to us. They have accumulated vast foreign reserves and yet their own economy remains underdeveloped and most of their people still desperately poor. A country the size of China should be an economic force greater even than America and yet they are catching cold because America has sneezed. That is an economic imbalance which is simply unsustainable. It is time we said so and forcibly.

China and Russia have enjoyed the good years and their respective leaders have had an extra spring in their steps. Now comes the reckoning. Unrest is growing in both countries and is being stamped on with customary brutality even in supposedly democratic Russia. It is incumbent upon western leaders, particularly the new President Obama, to take a hard line with these autocrats. They have had it their own way for too long. China grandstanded to the world at its Olympics last year showing us how clever and dynamic they were. China has been earning countless billions of our money whilst ignoring protests about Tibet, frustrating attempts to sort out problems in Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe and North Korea and is now attempting to extricate itself from its own economic woes by trying to hold back the self correcting economic tide of currency flows. Why do we let them?

Russia, a country which has huge demographic problems, little industry but vast mineral reserves has been attempting to heal its wounded post Soviet pride and pretend to be a superpower again on the back of record oil prices. Its oligarchs enjoyed their bubble and partied for years on the proceeds as though they were entrepreneurial geniuses. The absurd and hilarious Roman Abramovich being a prize example. Now the bubble has burst.

So you see there are grounds for optimism in 2009. The last few months have seen bankers and hedge fund managers come down to earth from their hubristic highs. The same is also happening for whole countries and not just little Iceland. Democratic countries, countries with dynamic and well rounded economies, will suffer for a while but will bounce back because failed governments with their failed policies will be ousted just as inefficient companies fail (this is why no money should be handed out to failing car manufacturers which are failing for a reason). Countries without these inbuilt escape valves, countries that bully their neighbours, prop up corrupt and evil regimes, protect inefficient industries with tariffs on imports and then expect us to keep shovelling our cash in their direction when we are losing our jobs may well have a rude awakening. This is what recessions do. There is an upside to this downward slide.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

A Change of Climate

When we landed at Luton yesterday the pilot helpfully informed us that it was only 2 degrees above freezing. This came as a shock after the relatively balmy temperatures of Menorca where it was regularly in the high teens with no wind to speak of and the sea was like a lake.

Right now here in the UK it is damned cold once again. I see that half of America and all of Canada was blanketed in snow over Christmas. No doubt this is all due to global warming.

I'm not going to let it all worry me. I am going to defy the eco fascists and go off flying again next month. I really enjoyed my short trip. I think the sun did me good as did those daily walks up all of those hills. I feel healthy, fit and pain free for the first time in months.

I should be getting a lump sum in the next couple of weeks and, after putting a little away for the rainy day which is clearly on its way as the world lurches into a slump, I am going off on another trip. New York may not be sunny and it is even colder than it is here but Leah is there and seeing her will do me more good than a hundred sunny days and a dozen hills could ever do. Although speaking of sunny days and hills I have this yearning to go skiing. I've never been skiing and it seems like something I ought to do now that my back is fully functioning once more. It's supposed to be good exercise too and nearly as good for me as a week or two spent in the company of the love of my life

Friday, 26 December 2008

Christmas in the Sun

I'm back! I have just spent my first Christmas in company in five years. These last few years, since Mom moved to Spain, I have spent Christmas alone with my television and DVD player. Not that I'm complaining. I have never felt sorry for myself as one is traditionally supposed to do on this day. I live alone. I quite like living alone. I like my independence. The corollary of that is that I tend to be alone at Christmas.

But this year was different. It was nice. We didn't do much. We drank a lot, ate a lot, watched TV, socialised with friends. There is something wonderful too about being by the sea and being able to walk down to the beach at Christmas. The sun was shining, the temperature was a springlike 18 degrees at times and so I went for walks in the sunshine up the steep hills all around the area of Binibequer. I could cheerfully do that every year. It even seems to have helped my foot and back and aided my recovery process.

All that was missing was Leah. I wanted Leah with me. I thought about her just as constantly as I always think about her. More news on that subject to follow in the new year.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Christmas Break


I'm off to Menorca for Christmas. The above is a picture of where I shall be, spending time with my Mum who you can see sitting alongside me. Of course it was somewhat warmer there when this picture was taken.

Now in theory I can still post to my blog whilst away from home and on a different computer, but I may not be spending quite so much time on a computer these next few days and will not have such ready access to the news. Anyway, there isn't much news around at this time of year. I make it a rule never to watch the Queen's Christmas Day message on TV, neither do I listen to the annual ramblings of the Pope. So what is there to write about other than my alcohol and food intake?

I may venture on here from time to time if something annoys me or excites one of my characteristically trenchant opinions. But if not normal service will be resumed on Friday 26th December upon my return.

In the meantime have a good Christmas whatever your faith or lack thereof. I am an atheist and still celebrate Christmas. As far as I'm concerned it's just a nice few days at the end of the year when the nights are cold and dark, when we can reflect on the year that is ending and crystallise our hopes for the new one about to start.

Merry Christmas.

Just Say No

It would seem that the government is about to bail out Jaguar/Land Rover. This is ridiculous and yet another example of this government paying too much attention to headlines and short term electoral gain rather than taking proper strategic decisions for the good of the country.

Jaguar/Land Rover was sold by Ford to Tata only a few months ago. It was sold because Ford could not keep pouring money into a company that was struggling and in need of investment to enable it to keep up with German and Japanese competitors. The Ford parent company, as we have seen in recent weeks, has also been struggling and just couldn't find the money. The company, in particular Land Rover, has world leading models and technologies. It has design and engineering centres that Tata wanted as part of its overall strategy to make the company stronger and more competitive. They bought the company and were very well aware of its strengths and weaknesses, of the need for further investment and that the market can be difficult for cars at this end of the market in what is always a very cyclical industry.

For Tata to now come to the government demanding help is absurd. We all knew that we were heading for a slowdown this year even if we may not have predicted that the world economy would fall off a cliff. Tata has been on a spending spree these last few years, buying up western companies and expanding its portfolio. They did so with their eyes open and were presumably very well aware of the pitfalls since they were pitfalls that had forced Ford to sell a company they had only owned for a few years having stalked it for decades. The current market conditions afflicting Jaguar and Land Rover are industry wide. They are not unprecedented even if they are extreme.

The suspicion is that Tata, alongside many companies around the world, is being squeezed by the banks and is being asked to pay more for credit facilities. We can be certain they would be able to get credit however, albeit at a high price. It is simply unacceptable for them to come to the British government effectively holding a gun to its head in the form of widespread redundancies and it is unacceptable that the government, with one eye on an election in which Midland marginals will be key, is even contemplating bailing out this company when public finances are already under strain. There are many motor manufacturers in the UK. They are all foreign owned and they are all struggling in this market. They are all having to make tough decisions to cut costs and find ways through the coming months which are going to be tough.

There may come a time when the taxpayer has to come to the rescue of companies as a lender of last resort. But this is not such a case. The government needs to draw a line in the sand right now before it is inundated.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Hallelujah

This is the time of the year when the X Factor winner releases a single and aims for the Christmas Number One slot. They immediately sell shedloads of records, or these days a digital shedload and think that they are destined for superstardom. With the sole exception of the lovely Leona Lewis they have always proven to be wrong thus far.

This year, however, the winner, Alex Burke has chosen a song with a lot of history behind it. One can see why it was chosen, Hallelujah is a superb song, a classic in every sense of the word. Have a listen to it and listen to the lyrics. I know exactly what he's talking about. Most people do. Perhaps that's why it's a song with so much resonance. It's dark and moody and really clever and about how many songs can you say that? I'm not really sure Ms Burke does justice to it.

Now fans of the late Jeff Buckley are campaigning to make his version of this classic get to number one instead. This is odd to say the least. It isn't as if he wrote the song. He did a fine version but he doesn't have proprietorial rights over it. Those belong, in so much as they exist at all, to Leonard Cohen who wrote the damned thing and I'm sure he doesn't care one way or the other. Just for good measure however his version has been released just to confuse matters. Whatever happens, it will be a nice little earner for Leonard Cohen who probably needs the money since his manager nicked his pension fund.

It all reminds me of Mariah Carey's inferior version of Without You. Few would argue that Harry Nilsson's version is superior in every way, no matter how well Carey can sing. That is the trouble with this latest version of Hallelujah. Alex sings it well, but good singing is about more than being able to hit all of the notes.

Perhaps it is just the haunting nature of Hallelujah which makes people so proprietorial about it. Perhaps it is that Buckley died a few years later and this just adds to its resonance. Or perhaps it is that the king of all things superficial and tacky, he of the ever rising waist band, Simon Cowell, has had the temerity to get another one of his galaxy of short term stars to cover it. I think it's probably the latter. Cowell claims to know all about music but all he really cares about is his bottom line. It was rather ambitious not to say presumptuous to ask an ingenue to record this anthem as her first single. She hasn't really pulled it off. Any objective listener will quickly conclude that Buckley's is the superior version.

But there have been many fine versions of what is a classic. It's the sort of song that serious artists will always want to record. It is the King Lear of music. I like Buckley's version but I also love another that isn't even in contention for the top spot by John Cale as featured in the film Shrek. But you pay your money you take your choice. Those who will be enriching Cowell a little more this Christmas may be doing so more because of the striking looks of Alex Burke rather than her interpretation of Leonard Cohen's stand out song.

New Year's Resolution

This is something of a record even for me. The last three women for whom I have had any feelings and have had any kind of relationship with are now not speaking to me. Lisa, Karen and Leah. Of course the same could be said of various other previous girlfriends too, but in the case of the last three, I know where they are and how to get in touch with them but all three seem to have decided not to.

Now in Leah's case I understand why this is the case. She told me she would never speak to me again if I didn't turn up a few weeks ago and I wasn't able to. I wanted to but, well I just couldn't. My somewhat fragile state at the time prevented it. I have tried to tell her this and propose an alternative time for me to go but she's having none of it. She knows I had an operation in August but doesn't seem to fully appreciate how bad I was and how badly it affected me. Things are still not working properly even now. They may never work properly again. I have had problems of an intensely embarrassing and personal nature which are slowly, very slowly, getting better . It really wouldn't have been a good idea for me to go a few weeks ago.

In Lisa's case I seem to have done something to offend her. I have no idea what this is. My relationship with Lisa however is almost always like this. We have known each other for many years, we have periods of being friends, periods of being lovers, periods of being friends who sometimes are a little more than friends and long periods in between when one of us is mad with the other. She is spectacularly sensitive about anything I say and yet spectacularly insensitive when it comes to the feelings of others. I always end up forgiving her though. I still have a sort of affection for her and I do now, and this time, I can honestly say, there is absolutely no sexual ulterior motive.

As for Karen, I have no idea what is going on with her either. It's a long time since we had that brief fling in a cold and snowy New York when the Pound was strong and I could walk properly. She has since enquired what is going on with Leah and I. She has offered her advice, usually for me to move on and forget about Leah. But she hasn't even done that for months. She is presumably still with her husband, still in the same job. She used to read my old blog and so presumably knew about my back problems but if she did she has never said so or asked about my welfare. Maybe I've said something to offend her too.

There was a time when I would have started talking to Lisa at this sort of phase in my life. When neither of us was in a relationship we tended to start spending time with one another and the inevitable used to happen. Not any more. It's been a long time now. Probably the longest ever since I have known her. That chapter seems to be closed although the test will be when her birthday comes around again. Will I be able to ignore it as I say I will every year? She always ignores mine. Leah remembered it and she is properly mad with me. But then Leah is properly lovely and sweet.

So what about Leah? Well, I don't know what will happen or what I can do to make it happen. This time last year she was also not speaking to me and had ignored my trip to New York, but then out of the blue she suddenly started talking to me and announced she was coming here for a few days. I don't think she did. Infact I know what she did do, she thinks I remain ignorant of what she had planned, but I know. I didn't care about this subterfuge however. I was just glad she was communicating with me again. I wish she would now.

When I went to New York to see Karen it was in January. It was also really cheap. Presumably, given the state of the world and America's plummeting economy it will be even cheaper this year, which ought to compensate for the state of the Pound. I even have free tickets to use this year, courtesy of The Times. My embarrassing problems are now more or less under control and I am feeling fitter and stronger. I'm even quite slim as I haven't been eating much lately. Much as I know I ought to just forget about Leah, I don't think I can. I want to just try and see her and see what happens. I'm off to Menorca on Friday and back the following Friday after Christmas. Then I shall have to make a decision. I may even make it my resolution for the new year.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Lining up the Pieces

Surprise surprise, the inquiry into the Damian Green affair has concluded that his arrest was disproportionate but legal. Disproportionate is a wonderfully diplomatic way of saying that it was a gross overreaction to something which was nothing to do with them. It is not even clear if the civil servant doing the leaking has committed a criminal offence let alone the man who received those leaks. It would have been disproportionate had the police called Mr Green in to informally question him. Arresting him, holding him for hours, searching his home and offices and sending in anti terrorist police in a raid was a great deal more than disproportionate.

The case against Green will now be quietly dropped some time over the next few days. I wonder if he will get an apology. I wonder if we will ever find out what prompted this 'disproportionate' police action and what ministers knew. Probably not.

In a separate issue the government is today getting all hot and bothered with Vince Cable, the Lib Dem MP and Treasury spokesman, who revealed the story of overpayments to pensioners over many years running to over £100 million. Mr Cable agreed to hold off from revealing this until the government had alerted pensioners to the problem but, when this had still not been done for ten days, went ahead anyway. This has incurred the wrath of 'a government spokesman' who criticised Cable for doing his job. They would probably have liked to have him arrested but may well have concluded that was not the best option under the circumstances.

All of this just reinforces my opinion that the government is on an election footing. Some say it may even be as early as February. It's the way they are spinning everything to do with the recession. It's the way they tried last week to spin crime figures only to come unstuck. It's the way they are so sensitive about any bad news and mount an immediate counter spin operation. It's the way they are trying to look tough on benefits but caring to mortgage holders and those in danger of losing their jobs. It's the way that they know things are going to get very bad next year and may want to get an election over with before too many people realise.

Some point out that Labour are currently behind in the polls, although they have narrowed the gap. This, however, is to ignore the fact that the current gap and the way our electoral system and constituencies are configured, would actually, despite the Conservative lead, give a small Labour majority and another five years for Gordon Brown. It would be like John Major in 1992 all over again. And let us not forget that Brown could easily call another election a few months or a year into the next Parliament if he thought he could win a larger majority. That is the absurd way our system works. We have only had one change of government since I have been old enough to vote.

I'm more and more convinced as each day goes by. We will have an election in the next six months. Think of that as my early new year prediction.

Dangerous

You see? I'm still pining after Leah just as I knew I would. She's not speaking to me. She won't read my e-mails. She didn't call me back last week and yet I still can't get her out of my mind.

Why couldn't I have been one of those men who just goes from girl to girl in a series of unsatisfying purely sexual short term relationships which never amount to anything? Okay it might be shallow but I bet I wouldn't be as miserable and depressed as I am now.

Even when I've tried just chatting to girls in order to get into their knickers I end up being friends with them. I even start dispensing relationship advice and tell them to dump the sort of bloke who goes from girl to girl in a series of purely sexual short term relationships which never amount to anything.

I've just been watching Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason with the brilliant Renee Zellwegger. Now you see I like to think of myself as a Mark Darcy type figure. But a part of me would quite like to be Daniel Cleaver, apart from his penchant for Thai ladyboys (although that did nearly happen to me once).

It's easy to understand that women would ultimately go for the Darcy figure to settle down and have kids with. He's a bit boring but reliable, generous and kind. He's the sort of bloke you would want to grow old with. He's the sort of bloke that will look good with grey hair and will naturally gravitate towards carpet slippers and a cardigan when he reaches a certain age.

But they must have a sneaking desire for the Cleaver type. He's dangerous, exciting, edgy and fun. He's good in the sack, gives them a good seeing to and makes them try out certain taboo types of sex which most men want to try and which many women secretly wonder about whilst at the same time professing to be dead set against the idea.

But you see, much as I would like to get out there and play the field, much as I would like to be dangerous and exciting and try taboo sex, I would much rather just be with Leah. She has me dangling on her strings even when she isn't speaking to me. I am and remain a one woman man. My Dad was the same. He only ever loved my Mom til the day he died. It must be genetic.

Mail Impotence

The government, it would seem, worried about the state of the Royal Mail, is looking at radical new plans to privatise parts of it. It's difficult to see what this will accomplish. The company in its present form is loss making and has a vast pension deficit. But then that is only to be expected. Many companies, given the collapse in the stock markets and government tax raids have pension deficits. The extent of the Royal Mail deficit is commensurate with its size and the number of members.

A worrying possibility has been suggested. Are the government eyeing up the billions still in the fund as a short term -this government's default way of thinking at present - way of shoring up their own finances and making our borrowing figures look less horrendous? It's looking quite possible. Of course by doing so they would be adding another huge unfunded pension liability to the millions of other public pensions, many index linked, which the taxpayer must fund and which are routinely left out of the figures when government debt is totted up. This is the kind of sleight of hand of which Gordon Brown is so fond.

It should also be noted that one of the main reasons why the Royal Mail is unprofitable and doomed to stay that way is because of a previous decision to allow competition for parts of what was a monopoly business. Private operators did what private companies always do, they cherry picked what was lucrative and profitable. Thus they grabbed the business bulk mail, took the profits and were still able to use the Royal Mail's posties to deliver all of those letters to individual households. That is the labour intensive, slow, old fashioned and thus expensive part. Then our politicians wonder why the company can't turn a profit.

So we have a postal service which is obliged to employ tens of thousands of postmen and women who deliver daily to every door however distant and remote. They must do this even for letters that are not posted with the Royal Mail. The company is already seeing a falling off of what might be termed domestic mail because we the public prefer using telephones, e-mails and text messages. Much as a romantic letter from me to Leah might have certain aesthetic benefits, if I send her an e-mail she can ignore that much quicker before I send her another one. It's much more efficient than waiting for her to write 'return to sender' on the envelope and post it back to me. When Elvis had a similar problem he didn't sing about an unopened e-mail, but nowadays he would.

So what is now being proposed, as I understand it, is that the government, instead of just accepting that a postal service is expensive but necessary and that monopolies, though undesirable for the most part, are sometimes okay and necessary when in state hands, is going to chop off what parts it can sell and then keep the bits it can't for taxpayers to fund ad infinitum. So that means we get saddled with paying for all of the posties who will be incapable of making a profit and pay for their pensions too.

Privatisation can be a good thing. It has delivered real improvements to many of the services we used to expect to be dreadful by virtue of the fact they were state owned. But mail is still, by its very nature, slow, old fashioned and labour intensive. It can't be anything else. By injecting competition the government has just privatised the profitable parts and made the rest of it a perpetual basket case. Efficiency savings can be made, investment can improve things, but these can only be successful if the lucrative parts of the business are kept alongside the expensive parts to create or recreate a balanced and viable business capable of at least breaking even.

As time goes on and technology improves snail mail is going to gradually disappear. We have to accept that. It is inevitable. Maybe in time daily deliveries will become less necessary. For now though it remains a core service, a service people and businesses still rely on. Competition and private investment can be a source of improvement in a number of services we use. In this case they are at the root of the problem.

Monday, 15 December 2008

No News Today

I am not a big fan of the obsession with celebrity which is increasingly afflicting us all. I genuinely don't understand why people are interested in the private lives of those who happen to have acquired a degree of fame. I particularly don't understand why there is the need to create famous people whose sole purpose in life seems to be to appear in newspapers and other magazines entering and exiting clubs and hotels, talking about their love lives, babies, miscarriages, facial surgery and generally prostituting themselves for fear of having to get a proper job.

Why does anybody care about this crap? Honestly. For the most part the people who are prepared to talk about all of this, to allow this invasion of their lives for cheap publicity and a few grand are the very people who are famous for being famous anyway. Those whose fame is a by product of being writers, directors, actors or singers, with the possible exception of Britney Spears, generally do not feel the need to expose their souls in this way. They might wish to talk about their latest film, TV show, record, book or whatever but find other questions at best uncomfortable and at worst impertinent.

Yet for the talentless variety of celebrity, those who became famous by appearing on Big Brother or because they have big tits, such questioning and relentless pursuit by photographers is what fame is all about, it is a vindication.

Perhaps the ultimate in pointless celebrity however is the British royal family. This useless, uninspiring, dim witted, tonsorially challenged bunch of nonentities are fawned over by our press in a manner that takes the breath away.

I remember a few years ago watching in astonishment a BBC news bulletin. The lead story was an international summit. The second story, and given double the time, was a report that Prince William had cleaned a toilet! I'm not kidding. That was the story. The BBC devoted around ten minutes of airtime on one of its main programmes to a piece about the Prince on a gap year trip to some country in the third world and that he had cleaned his own lavatory. It was reported breathlessly as though he had instituted world peace or found a cure for AIDS. With reporting like that who needs spin doctors? They might as well tell us how marvellous he is because he has regular bowel movements and is courteous to his granny.

Today, however they may have topped even this piece of toadying sycophancy. Today, the press are reporting that Prince William has grown a beard!

Who gives a flying fuck as I may have shouted at my television screen all of those years ago whilst throwing various items. I care even less about the fact that our dimwitted second heir to the throne hasn't shaved as I do that Britney Spears is given to shaving an infinitely more interesting and more photogenic part of her anatomy.

The other week the media largely ignored a story about the same Prince and his recent expensive joyrides in military aircraft which would have got a normal officer court martialled. But he doesn't have a shave for a day or two and he is featured widely as though this is his contribution to the credit crisis.

I know that the circulation of newspapers and magazines used to routinely increase whenever they featured Princess Diana on their front covers. This was understandable. She was a beautiful woman and a soap opera in her own right. But do people really care about the personal grooming habits of our intellectually challenged first family? I seriously doubt it.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Schadenfraude

Schadenfraude is not an attractive state of mind. But, given the events of the last few months and what we are all expecting to happen over the coming months, you would have to have a heart of stone not to take a certain wry pleasure at the embarrassment or blind panic afflicting certain sections of our wealthy elite this weekend as yet another house of cards collapses.

With exquisite timing, the BBC's excellent adaptation of Little Dorrit finished this week too. In that tale, Dickens, that brilliant storyteller with a keen and satirical eye for human folly, created an 18th Century figure of fashion, Mr Merdle, whose bank became all the rage to the point where people begged to be allowed to invest with him. Mr Merdle too had created a house of cards like so many before and especially since.

Now a 21st century Mr Merdle, Bernard Madoff, trader to the wealthy, has apparently confessed that he has been running a scam. His company, in which up to $50 billion was invested, was essentially a pyramid scheme, something that only poor, credulous and unsophisticated people are supposed to fall for. Yet this is a firm in which not only wealthy individuals from the likes of Palm Beach and Long Island invested their millions but even large corporations, banks and investment firms run by highly paid managers fell for it too.

Of course our laughter should very quickly be followed by cold fury.

Those of us who live in the real world, who save money in ordinary bank accounts and invest via pension funds are told that the vast salaries and bonuses earned by the people who are charged with looking after our money are richly deserved because of how savvy, sophisticated and clever they all are. Yet time and time again we have seen these last few weeks and months that they are just like the rest of the herd. Sure they made plenty of money for us and themselves when the market was soaring ever upwards but now it is collapsing all around us, now that millions are facing penury and miserable retirements, suddenly these masters of the universe need reminding that what goes up must come down.

This Madoff scheme, we are now told, kept paying out record returns year after year because the herd kept investing. It even managed to do so when the market had occasional troughs. It did so thanks to his ability to get people to keep pouring in cash, the herd piling in for a share of this easy money. New investors were paying for the returns of old investors in a classic pyramid.

Eventually all such schemes are found out. Yet this one, it would seem, has only come to light due to the once in a generation economic collapse we are now experiencing. New investors dried up, maybe some even asked for their money back as so many are doing from legitimate funds to cover their losses. Suddenly the pyramid began to totter and collapse.

This is an extreme example of the casino capitalism that has created the dire straits we are all suffering from. Money rushed hither and thither in search of the latest fad, the new way of making easy returns. Investment bankers created supposedly sophisticated investment strategies which dressed junk up as gilt edged investments. Hedge funds and other investors speculated on any number of things looking for yet another fast buck.

And it was that which brought everything falling down in the end. Speculators drove up the price of commodities, especially oil, until ordinary people could no longer afford it. Inflation was driven up and so central banks raised interest rates. As money became tighter people began defaulting on their mortgages and so those sophisticated bankers got their comeuppance.

The trouble is of course that it isn't the masters of the universe, the hedge fund managers and the smug elite who will suffer for all of this. It is those of us who are losing our jobs, who are seeing our pension funds decimated, falling into negative equity on houses or receiving little or no interest on our savings.

The danger of this is not that some wealthy people will lose out and have to sell their second homes. The danger is that this will be yet another hammer blow to investor confidence. The danger is that investors will look at hedge funds and even pension funds and wonder if their money is safe. Shares look cheap right now but who knows what might be around the corner? People have been saying this is a good time to buy for weeks. The yield on government bonds is lousy but at least they are a safe haven. Then again will foreign investors want to buy British government bonds given the plummeting Pound? The Euro looks strong and stable at the moment but some of the economies tied into it, like rioting Greece along with Spain and Ireland look vulnerable. Right now it might be sensible to sell everything liquid and buy gold. The worry is that an awful lot of people might take this course, that funds have to keep selling shares to oblige them and that things continue to get worse for weeks or months to come.

We should enjoy our schadenfraude this evening. We may not be laughing when the markets open again tomorrow.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Man in Striped Pyjamas with Banana


The above is a picture I once took, at Leah's request, of me, standing in my pyjamas in my old flat holding a banana. She did specify an orange actually but I rarely buy oranges. I'm more an apples sort of chap. Anyway, bananas are funnier.

If you would like to see me in other poses feel free to send requests. I have some of me in Paris, Menorca and Barcelona. Requests should be within reason obviously. I am not about to fly off anywhere or go out and buy lots of exotic fruit just for the sake of a photo. I feel certain that nobody will be requesting any erotic or pornographic poses because, well I'm not a bad looking guy but I'm no Tom Cruise. The internet is full of many weird and wonderful things but it's definitely not ready for me in a state of undress any greater than you see above.

I did momentarily speak to Leah on her birthday the other day. She asked if she could call me back and I agreed. I did so knowing that she probably wouldn't call me back and so it proved. She didn't sound angry though. She even said thank you for my birthday wishes.

On the one hand I suppose I should take this as confirmation that she doesn't want to speak to me anymore. But of course, having spoken to her, I am just as consumed by passion as ever. If she asked me for a picture holding any type of exotic fruit I would definitely oblige. Unfortunately I get the impression that she might ask me to combine exotic fruit with a semi pornographic, highly uncomfortable and medically inadvisable pose just for revenge.

But maybe I'm wrong.

Oh I don't know what to do. I do have these free tickets to use of course.

The Luxury of What Ifs

Where were you on 9/11 or on 7/7 here in Britain? How did it make you feel?

We would do well to look back on those days and the days immediately afterwards and consider how we felt and what our immediate reactions were thereafter. After 9/11 were we more nervous when we got on a plane? Of course we were. Were we nervous about using public transport in London after 7/7? Undoubtedly.

These are natural and entirely reasonable reactions to horrendous, despicable crimes perpetrated by deluded misfits with a wholly imaginary grudge against the world. We forget this at our peril.

Yet we do forget it.

Yesterday the jury in the inquest to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes returned an open verdict. They did so with the benefit of cool and calm reasoning and 20/20 hindsight. Those that pulled the trigger that day, an event which is, thankfully, still a rare event in the UK, did not have that luxury.

It is easy to condemn the police who killed that young man that day. It is easy to question their decisions, second guess the process that was gone through in the heat of the moment. Yet they were facing a situation unprecedented in Britain. There were people in our midst, people born in this country with British accents who were prepared to blow themselves up and those around them without any warning. They were prepared to do so underground in tube trains thus exacerbating the firepower and the resultant terror for people of all religions and ethnic backgrounds in the melting pot that is London who were just going about their every day business.

We all make mistakes. It is part of being human. For some of us a mistake is meaningless because it has no consequence other than a loss of face. I have had many jobs down the years and have made many mistakes. I once told several million viewers on BBC television that something would be happening the following week which turned out to be incorrect. I did so in all good faith. Nobody got hurt. Alternatively, in another job, I was driving a bus one day and a mother let go of her daughter's hand and the little girl wandered into the road in front of my onrushing 10 ton vehicle. Fortunately I saw her and managed to take avoiding action. Again nobody was hurt but I was a nervous wreck for the rest of the day.

By such fine lines are we all judged. One job was infinitely better paid than the other but in the lesser paid job I could have ended up taking a life.

The policemen who went to work that morning did so in the knowledge that terrorists could well be on the loose. This must have affected their mindset. The nation was on edge, people were nervous and on their guard. When they were confronted by a man they believed to be a terrorist they interpreted his wholly innocent actions through the prism of the previous day's events. They made mistakes but they were understandable mistakes under the circumstances of what had happened and what they thought was happening.

Ultimately Jean Charles de Menezes and the policemen who shot him are all victims of the morons who went out on 7th July 2005 with the intent of causing death and mayhem for no better reason than they were harbouring a wholly imaginary grudge.

When most of us make mistakes it is meaningless. For some of us it can just occasionally mean everything. We have a blame culture these days which means that someone must be accountable when something goes wrong. But this must be tempered by a reasoned analysis, an honest appraisal of what is merely an honest mistake and what is culpable.

The word carelessness is bandied about too often these days and yet it is a remarkably ill chosen word. People who take their eyes off the road for a split second are not being careless, they are being human. Most of the time their actions will have no consequence. Had I done so at the wrong moment when that little girl stepped off that kerb I would have been prosecuted, lost my licence and my job and probably gone to prison. Ironically I later lost the same job because I neglected to sign a piece of paper.

The policemen who descended into that tube station that day were operating on adrenaline. They were given faulty information. They interpreted events in the heat of the moment and will regret it and analyse it over and over again to their dying day. Their worst offence is that they may, foolishly, have tried to embellish that day's events and tried to put a gloss on their actions thus making themselves look dishonest.

The police often do stupid things and make ill judged decisions. The recent Damian Green debacle is a case in point. That day in Stockwell, tragic and terrible though it undoubtedly was, is an example of them endeavouring to do what we daily expect them to do often under the most difficult of circumstances. Those of us who get to watch and judge and reflect and take plenty of time to do so would do well to wonder how we would react if placed in that invidious position.

Friday, 12 December 2008

Planet Politician Part 3

Yesterday, the Home Office, that department that was so up in arms about leaks it called in the police to investigate leading to the arrest of an MP, released figures about crime figures which showed that knife crime was down.

Today, however, we are told that these figures should not have been released yet, that they were 'premature, irregular and selective'. In other words they were spin sent down to Earth from Planet Politician to show what a marvellous job they are doing. Essentially this was a leak since the official statisticians had not finished compiling the data. But this was a leak of the flattering kind and so we shouldn't expect any arrests any time soon.

The government has form on this. The public perception of crime is at variance to what we keep being told about through official channels. Essentially the public does not believe that crime is falling and under control which is what we keep being told. Clearly they are desperate to convince us hence they rush out partial and incomplete figures. It is yet another betrayal of trust by a government which concentrates on spin instead of actually doing what it ought to be doing.

Planet Politician Part 2

Down here on Earth, the people of Manchester have had the good sense to reject plans for congestion charging, another tax dressed up as green to raise funds for this spendthrift government. Nice timing too since Brown is currently in Brussels talking climate change.

Motorists are of course an easy option, as was illustrated when the government cut VAT last month as part of its idiotic stimulus package but immediately put it back on fuel duty, the one area of spending most people have no choice about. Thus it was a stimulus package which only stimulated those with money to spare. We already pay the highest fuel duties in Europe coupled with vehicle excise charges which increase according to how 'green' cars are. If a car is part of a job package they take a chunk in income taxes too, again according to their notion of what is environmentally friendly.

Of course the Manchester scheme, like the one in London, is dressed up as a congestion charge designed to free up the roads and move people on to public transport. On Planet Politician of course they seem to think that people enjoy sitting in traffic jams for hour after hour, that we have a choice about what time of day we go to work. On Planet Politician they seem to think that our expensive, crowded and inefficient public transport system is a decent alternative to a nice warm car in which you can listen to the radio, travel at convenient times and get delivered door to door.

Why is it that politicians always use the stick rather than the carrot? Is it because they are incapable of running public finances and thus carrots are unaffordable? The way to get people on to public transport is to make it cheaper and more efficient. It's basic economics. Public transport is never going to be more convenient than a car and so they need to compensate for that. If buses, trams and trains were much cheaper and much more reliable people would switch. By aggressively cutting prices and providing more services they would encourage more people to use it which would generate greater revenues and get people out of their cars.

This little episode also reveals why politicians hate referendums. In referendums the public has an annoying habit of not doing as they are told. This is why Labour reneged on their promise to hold a referendum on the European Constitution. They made all kinds of excuses about it but we all know what we were promised. The same constitution was rejected in other countries like France too and so when its replacement, the Lisbon Treaty, came along our political elite got together on their private planet and colluded to find a form of words making referendums unnecessary. We even had the obscene sight of Gordon Brown basking in his fellow leaders' acclaim for having pushed the treaty through Parliament nice and quickly ignoring the will of the people who, he knew damned well, would have rejected the treaty if he had asked them.

The Irish were constitutionally obliged to hold a referendum and so, batting for those of us who had been denied our rights, duly rejected the treaty. So now, we were told yesterday, they are to be asked to vote again to give them the chance to give the right answer this time. This is their idea of democracy on Planet Politician.

Congestion charging and road pricing have been put out in the long grass for now but they will be back in some form again and most likely in a way that will not require consultation. And they wonder why turnout in elections is down.

Planet Politician

What must it be like on Planet Politician? As we shiver away during what is turning out to be a freezing cold December; as we line up patiently outside Woolworths to pick up bargains we otherwise cannot afford, notwithstanding government largesse giving us our own money back on a temporary basis before we have to pay it back in a year or so (a unique tax cut from which we can only benefit if we have money to spend - a tax cut mainly for the rich?) as we watch as the redundancies pile up and wonder if we might be next and so put off turning up the heating just in case; as we worry ourselves about such prosaic problems, our leaders, including Gordon 'he's not the Messiah,' Brown are at a summit pondering climate change.

I am that most modern of heretics a sceptic when it comes to climate change, the new name for what used to be called Global Warming. I am not sceptical just because we are shivering away in a very cold December. I am not sceptical because 2008 is set officially to be the coolest year for a long time. I'm not sceptical because temperatures peaked ten years ago. I'm sceptical because of all the hyperbole and hysteria surrounding the subject is drowning out perfectly reasonable questions about assumptions which will profoundly affect us all when the politicians go to there planet and compete to look the most concerned and show the most leadership.

Short of drawing some cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the best way to bring ordure, fury and denunciations on oneself is to express doubts about the truth of man made global warming. That is not the same as climate change. The climate changes all of the time. It's what climates do. Mars, our nearest neighbour, has seen its climate warm up by 0.5 c just as ours has, one more inconvenient truth, to coin a curiously familiar phrase, which tends to be ignored or drowned out by all of that ordure and fury.

Why have politicians and the media accepted all of this so readily? Well in the case of politicians it's easy. Because they are politicians. They inhabit their own little planet, a microcosm all of their own in which speeches and promises mean everything, grandstanding is what they do. Consequences are usually a long way down the line. Being green is perfect for politicians. They can make grandiloquent promises of hefty cuts in 10 or 15 years time when they'll be long gone or giving lucrative speeches on lecture tours.

The media is a little more difficult to understand. Journalists seem to switch off their normal scepticism when it comes to this subject. They seem to have this notion that science is fixed and immutable. Thus, because a certain section of scientists accept a theory, that theory must be fact. This is ridiculous, especially when it comes to something as imperfectly understood as climate and weather. A very good analogy is economics. The current economic storm we are going through was predicted by very few and was being dismissed as implausible by most a matter of a few months ago. Even now nobody really knows what is going to happen. Predictions about the future of the climate should be taken with a similarly large pinch of salt. It is now early on Friday morning and yet, despite satellites and weather buoys and super computers, weathermen cannot with confidence tell us whether the approaching front will bring snow on Saturday. 'We're keeping an eye on it' they tell us.

This is not to say that evidence doesn't exist for anthropogenic global warming. It's just that it tends to be given greater weight than the counter evidence. Last year, around April, we had had a dry and mild autumn and winter. The climate worriers told us in grave terms that we were set to have a hot and dry summer and a drought thanks to all of our awful pollution. We then had a cool and extremely wet summer during which the western half of the country suffered record flooding. They managed to blame this on AGW too until someone did some research and concluded it was just freak weather.

This year too we had a wet, cool and generally lousy summer. We had snow in October. It has been near or below freezing for over a week now and it is only December.

If we have a mild winter and a hot summer this will inevitably be attributed to AGW. Yet this cold weather we are currently experiencing, and it is worldwide with record early snow falls across the major skiing regions, is dismissed as meaningless or due to La Nina. What about the fact that temperatures have curiously failed to rise over the last ten years? That can't be due to La Nina. This is dismissed too. We are seeing a blip we are told and temperatures will start rising again in 2015.

Its convenient that. 2015 is far enough away so that they can't be proven wrong any time soon. It enables them to demand that action be taken now.

Yet on Planet Politician they are even now putting together a package to lead the world which will heap further costs on business and consumers and will mean more and more jobs exported to China and other countries who are not so worried about a future which is uncertain whatever 'science' tells us. On Planet Politician they are proposing a 'solidarity fund' of 7.5 billion Euros for countries still reliant on burning lots of cheap but nasty coal. So they are proposing that not only should we incur massive costs in building new 'clean' sources of generating power but pay others who are not so advanced as us to catch up. This is all so that they can meet some distant target which will be rendered meaningless by China with its dozens of brand new coal burning power stations . It's bad enough that China has a vast supply of cheap workers who are willing to live in Dickensian conditions, can build new plant quickly and cheaply, peg their currency to keep it competitive and fund their economy almost entirely from exports. Now our so called leaders want to give them even more of a competitive edge by saddling us with vast extra costs to make us 'green'.

If we're lucky our current economic travails may make some of our more thoughtful leaders pause for thought. It's unlikely in the case of Gordon Brown because he believes his own spin about saving the world on a daily basis. Sarkozy of France is much the same. But maybe the quiet and undemonstrative Angela Merkel has a little more sense. An environmental campaigner, the sort of person trotted out by the media as though they are environmental experts rather than pseudo politicians, opined that Merkel "is giving the impression that German jobs are more important than climate change."

Let's hope so. It would be nice if one of them came down from Planet Politician and rejoined us here on freezing Planet Earth.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Outnumbered

I feel that there has been far too much politics and economics and other weighty subjects on here lately. Of course I am only reflecting recent events and the world is in dire straits at present with matters set to get worse.

All the more reason then for a bit of levity.

Outnumbered is a series on the BBC at the moment which is utterly wonderful. It is clever, insightful and very very funny. The writers and cast have managed to pull off something extraordinary; it features children, quite young children, who appear natural and at ease and are all the funnier for that. This is achieved, apparently, by just allowing the kids to extemporise around a theme. Clearly the kids need to be bright and precocious to pull this off. They are certainly that. Daniel Roche who plays Ben is like a real life Bart Simpson. Jake played by Tyger Drew-Honey has a wonderful, knowing, world weariness about him since he is on the cusp of adolescence.

But the star is undoubtedly Ramona Marquez as Karen. She is impossibly cute and yet may well have a future as a philosopher. I give you her thoughts on terrorism, talk about from the mouths of babes: "That's silly, why would God tell them to blow up planes? God could do it much easylier (sic) than they could. He can do whatever he wants. He's God!"

My particular favourite however is her funeral service for a mouse that was 'murdered by Mommy', a future classic that will be replayed and replayed:

"Reverends, we are gathered here, in the bosom of Jesus, to say goodbye to this mouse, killed before it's time. We have given it cheese and bread, for its journey to heaven, or at least if it goes to hell it will have cheese on toast."

She clasps a teddy to her who is the Pope.

"Dust to dust, for richer or for poorer, in sickness or in health, may the force be with you, because you're worth it. Amen and out."

The adults in the cast, Claire Skinner and Hugh Dennis as Mom and Dad, are straight men for the most part. This is not to decry their role. Playing deadpan is a skill in itself.

I cannot recommend this series highly enough. It's a once in a decade sitcom. It's original, innovative and laugh out loud, play it over and over again funny. An antidote for our times.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Happy Birthday Leah


24 years ago Leah, the love of my life and woman of my dreams and by far the loveliest and most beautiful woman I have ever known was born. They should make it a public holiday.

Happy birthday, Leah.

I'm trying to leave you alone to get on with your life as I know I must and as I know you want me to but it's not easy. I still care about you and think about you constantly.

Accordingly I am going to try and call you tonight. I have to try just to say happy birthday. You can shout at me if you want to.

But Emily Loved Him


For those of us who grew up in the sixties and seventies in Britain those words evoke wonderful nostalgia for the sort of animated TV programmes that just aren't made anymore except possibly by Nick Park whose latest Wallace and Gromit adventure will grace our screens this Christmas.

Oliver Postgate died yesterday. He was responsible for Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss and The Clangers to name my personal favourites. Unsophisticated they may have been by modern standards but they were imaginative, funny and quintessentially British. I still watched them as an adult, especially The Clangers, those whistle voiced, knitted and impossibly cute extra terrestrials who were having adventures in space years ahead of their time. The Clangers even had a character, The Soup Dragon, who had a rock band named after him.

A few years ago one of those compilation shows ran down a top 100 childrens' shows and Bagpuss came top. Maybe seeing all of those old memories had made me nostalgic and a little sad but I really cried when they showed the old cat and that line which finished every show, with a picture of a little girl hugging Bagpuss: "He was just an old saggy cloth cat, baggy and a bit loose at the seams - but Emily loved him". Indeed its bringing a tear to my eye right now. Thank you Mr Postgate.

An Injection of Reality

Gordon Brown has taken lately to striding around informing anyone who will listen that he and the rest of his fellow leaders around the world are in complete agreement about the need for fiscal stimulae to help us all ride out the recession. This of course is nonsense. At the largely useless recent G20 meeting, there were a number of caveats to that position. Individual countries may choose to take this path but circumstances vary considerably. Many countries do not have our level of debt or a plummeting currency.

The British approach to fiscal stimulus was designed to be quick and easy. That is its chief and probably only benefit. As I have written before it will simply not work. It is too small and is of the wrong type. The amount injected adds up to about 1% of GDP, yet the latest figures from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggest that the economy has shrunk by that figure in just the three months to November. And this shrinking is accelerating.

Cutting a sales tax does not give people any money back in the way that a cut to direct taxation would. Thus they will not see it or feel it in a climate in which prices are falling anyway. With budgets stretched the public is having to rein in spending. That is the natural and sensible response in these straitened times.

Furthermore the reason we are now in a recession is because we went on a long spending splurge with borrowed money funded from a housing market that was out of control. House prices are now falling, credit bills are having to be repaid. How is cutting prices going to help when people are generally short of money and fearful of the coming months and years especially since the government will have to raise taxes once we are recovering?

We are being told that the government is helping 'hard working families' - the current buzz phrase borrowed from America - with the package they announced. How exactly? How does cutting a sales tax help those who are struggling to pay mortgages, fuel bills and debts run up during the good years? How sensible is it for the government to encourage people to spend more money they cannot afford when it is this behaviour which created the problems?

It is debatable to say the least whether a fiscal stimulus works at any point unless it is on a vast and unaffordable scale. The British approach is a nonsense. In America they are taking a different and altogether more sensible approach to stimulating the economy. They are talking about investing in new roads and bridges, new broadband networks and general infrastructure. This will create jobs and will have the end result of making the country more efficient.

If government is going to inject cash that is the approach to take. They need to create or prop up jobs. So, since we have a shortage of housing in this country, build houses. Since building companies are desperate for work they would offer competitive prices. People have been saying we can't afford the 2012 Olympics. Nonsense. This is a ready made project with legislation in place. Bring work forward and get it done early and more cheaply. We also need investment in our railways. How about a new high speed West Coast Mainline to link up with the new fast line to the Channel Tunnel? How about a new Thames estuary airport to replace Heathrow and sort out all of the problems we are facing with that?

There must be dozens of projects that could be started which, though they would cost a lot, would not just be a short term tax cut but would be an investment for the future which would improve the long term efficiency of the country.

Of course all of this takes time to sort out and that is why the government won't do them. They wanted to be seen to be doing something rather than worrying too much about doing the right thing for the long term future of the economy.

But even if they insisted on tax cuts they could have been better targeted. Any stimulus package should be targeted on jobs. It is unemployment that is going to be the biggest cost of this recession. Corporation Tax should be cut to attract or retain companies and the employment they create. We need tax incentives to encourage investment, research and development and entrepreneurs. And far from raising top level taxes we should be cutting them to retain the City of London which has become so vital to our economy.

For all Brown's posturing as being the man of the hour, his response has been political. It makes no sense economically. Ultimately governments are powerless in the situation we find ourselves.They can ease the pain, provide some small support through benefits but that is all. What has been announced is small, piecemeal and more about appearances than a real stimulus at all.

China is of course pumping vast sums into their economy but then they can afford it and they don't have to worry about getting planning permission and enabling legislation for vast public projects.

The only options the government has are cuts in interest rates and intervention in credit markets which remain frozen and threaten widespread bankruptcies. They should stand by for a huge unemployment increase, bring forward whatever capital projects are possible and stand by in case things get really bad and emergency aid for otherwise viable companies is needed.

Then they will just have to break the habit of a lifetime and realise that they are powerless to do anything else. Recessions are part of the business cycle. Gordon Brown once claimed to have abolished it. The claims he is making now are no less ludicrous.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

The Youth of Today

I've just read something fantastic in The Times which I just have to share with you. It comes from David Aaronovitch who has teenage daughters and who fed him this pearl of information about modern youth culture.

Lately a device called a Mosquito has found its way on to the walls of corner shop retailers across the country. It emits a noise which is so high pitched it is intensely annoying. But it can only be heard by children and teenagers because their ears are young and undamaged. Gradually, as we get older, even above the age of 20 it would seem, the tiny hair cells in our ears become less sensitive and thus we can't hear certain high frequencies. Thus it is used to dissipate crowds of loitering teenagers who may or may not be up to no good but worry the sitting duck retailers.

Now apparently one can download this noise as a ringtone. Why would teenagers wish to do this when it is so irritating and potentially painful to their ears? Because it enables them to hear their phone ringing in school but means that their teacher is blissfully unaware.

Now you have to agree that that is very very clever. That is worthy of a John Le Carre novel. It has quite restored my faith in youth. They may sit dumbed down exams (which isn't really their fault), communicate in text speak and deploy glottal stops throughout their speech, they may wear hoodies for no reason and jeans which fall half way down their arses making them walk like penguins. But they are also capable of some brilliant improvisation. I'm impressed.

Of course I've long wondered what the point of all of these ringtones is. Really, are people such fashion victims that they have to have impressive sounding phones?

There are adverts on TV for these ringtones all the time. There is one at the moment for a ventriloquist and his dummy called Ahmed who is a skeleton. This skeleton's catch phrase is 'I'll kill you'. Now I would be the first to admit that he is quite funny. But why in god's name would you want him on your phone? The novelty value of that would be precisely 5 minutes.

But this mosquito tone I can entirely understand. For the first time ever I can see the point of it. Not for me of course because I wouldn't be able to hear it. So that's saved me a couple of quid.

Leah Lite

It's Leah's birthday tomorrow. I'm pining for her. I knew I would. I know that I have to go cold turkey and try to forget about her because this is clearly what she is doing too. She is ignoring me in an attempt to forget about me.

But it's her birthday. And I think, if memory serves, she has taken an exam and I would like to know how she got on. You can't just switch off your feelings for someone. I still care about her. Even when I'm not having romantic and sexual feelings for her, which I am constantly, I want to know how she's doing.

So tomorrow I'm going to try and call her. She will probably ignore me and not answer. But I have to try.

Where to start and where to stop

We are in a deep and nasty recession. This much is obvious. Unemployment is rising fast, particularly in America where last week's figures were horrendous.

The same seems to be happening here in the UK. Each day come announcements of more redundancies or firms going into administration. Last week it was Woolworths and MFI. This week already Wagon, the car parts group, has gone the same way. Banks are reining in lending, cutting overdraft and credit card limits. Retailers are slashing prices in an attempt to entice buyers in but many more may end up going to the wall once the reality of the post Christmas blues sinks in. In a stark illustration of how bad it is, Tesco today cut prices on toys by up to 60%. Toys reduced, at this time of year!

Governments are responding in various ways. There was a meeting at Downing Street today between Brown, Sarkozy and Barroso as they discussed shoving more cash into the European system to try to ease things and make it look a little less like a disastrous slump. Indeed the British people seem to be buying into the Brown medicine; a Times poll today shows that he has narrowed the gap with the Conservatives and is more trusted on the economy. Not everyone is a fan of this expensive interventionism however; Angela Merkel was a notable absentee from this dirigiste love in. The prudent and cautious Germans clearly do not think that splashing the cash is a great idea.

Interestingly the British people do not seem to have been impressed by the Brown giveaway of just a couple of weeks ago and deservedly so. The VAT cut was a nonsense as I said at the time and as the steeper and steeper discounts are proving. Yet the public keep giving Brown credit. Maybe they like the fact that he is at least trying, although of course he is in a position to do so since he is in government and the Tories aren't. Nevertheless the opposition have been remarkably silent about alternatives to Labour policies and Labour has been picking up on this. They even tried the line that the Tories are obsessing over the Damian Green affair because they don't want to talk about the economy. You have to admire the bare faced cheek of that line of attack. Yet in a way it proves the point. The Conservatives should be attacking more and relentlessly as we plunge ever deeper into the mire.

But where will Labour go over the next few months as things get worse? Peter Mandelson was reported over the weekend as saying that British industry will not get a blank cheque. But will they hold that line?

Around the world car companies in particular are squealing in distress as sales plummet. This has happened first and foremost in America. The U. S big three were struggling before the onset of recession with huge pension costs and big gas guzzlers that nobody wanted. Now that the recession is here they are staring into the abyss.

Now in Britain we are starting to hear the first squeals from our manufacturers. The difference is that we don't have an indigenous car company anymore. All of the factories are foreign owned. Do they seriously expect to be bailed out by the British taxpayer? Jaguar and Land Rover were only bought by the Indian firm Tata a few months ago. Should they be bailed out because they failed to see this coming? Remember a few years ago the last remaining British car manufacturer, Rover, was allowed to go bust by this government because they too made cars that nobody wanted and couldn't afford to invest in new models.

The motor industry is very cyclical. They have had a long period of growth however. Now it is time for them to tighten their belts. Companies that can't cope with a period of retrenchment following over a decade of growth are fundamentally weak and need a better strategy than taxpayer bail outs to disguise their past mistakes and product ranges that are no longer competitive.

So far the companies that are suffering are entirely predictable. Here in the UK, Woolworths and MFI have been long term strugglers, Ford, GM and Chrysler in America are the same. Just because such companies are huge does not necessarily mean that they should be bailed out. These are not banks however totemic they may be.

The time to worry will be if formerly healthy companies start to fail for lack of funding thanks to the continuing and unprecedented credit crunch. Then we will know we are in trouble. That will be the time for government to step in.

At the moment that may be happening with smaller companies but no more. The government, rather than bullying the banks who are just rebuilding their capital bases and protecting their profits in an uncertain climate, should look at setting up a national bank, perhaps from the ashes of Northern Rock, to help out those businesses that are being abandoned by the nervous commercial banks. One of the reasons Northern Rock is being run down is because European competition law prevents it from using its secure status as a means of securing an overly large part of the market. Well in these straitened times it is time to ignore that rule. Maybe Gordon's friends who came to see him today will turn a blind eye.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Police Independence?

The government has just about managed to frustrate any attempts to conduct an immediate inquiry into the Damian Green affair thanks to some of their supine backbenchers. To be fair, the best speech of the day was by Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay who neatly skewered the arguments proposed, some of his other colleagues like Frank Field, Frank Dobson and even Keith Vaz generally seemed to accept the need for an immediate inquiry too. But the government managed to scrape through with a majority of 4.

Now the Conservatives and Lib Dems are rightly going to boycott the inquiry which will convene next week and then immediately adjourn to wait for the police inquiry to be completed. Damian Green is currently on police bail until February. The inquiry may well have to wait at least that long. It is extremely unlikely that any charges will be brought though. No crime has been committed certainly by an MP receiving the information and arguably by the civil servant who leaked the documents to him. All that this did today was put this on the back burner to end all further embarrassment.

The government, anxious to take the heat out of this situation, has got itself into the absurd position of arguing that they must never interfere with police operations even to the point of not commenting on them or receiving information about them as the Home Secretary claims. Isn't that what politicians are supposed to be for, to control and be accountable for the actions of public services and public servants? Are they really saying that the police can mount an investigation and that, no matter how incompetent, how badly conducted, how ill conceived, ill thought out and over the top that investigation was, that MPs and the government would be proscribed from commenting on it and putting pressure on the police to think again? Are they really saying that?

Just like any other branch of the state the police can make mistakes, they can overreact, underreact, act capriciously or worse. Are the government seriously arguing that they must not be criticised for so doing, that they are untouchable whilst an investigation is extant and ongoing?

What would happen if another Stephen Lawrence case came along and this became known to our elected representatives before more damage was done? What about another Guildford Four or Birmingham Six?

The case of Damian Green is nothing like as huge as those terrible cases. Nevertheless it represents an abuse of power and a cover up to hide incompetence and possibly worse. Someone leaking documents is not a criminal offence. It is a breach of confidence which could and should have been dealt with by internal disciplinary procedures. It should never have been referred to the police and they should have had the good sense to say no to getting involved. Instead they mounted a hugely expensive inquiry using a piece of obscure common law and then conducted an illegal search. This is never going to get to court. It will be dragged on for weeks and months and then quietly dropped just as the case against Peter Hain was dropped last week.

This is why this case stinks so much. Frustrated by continual leaks the government called in the police. Keen to impress their political masters the police, far from being operationally independent, took leave of their senses and used intimidatory tactics, a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Now potential leakers, however much they would like to see secret and embarrassing information in the public domain, will think twice. Was this the intention all along? Is that what the police are for?

I have been banging on for a while now about the way this country is governed and the way our constitution, such as it is, has been a peculiar hotch potch ad hoc affair. We continually find holes in things we thought were sacrosanct. It turns out that parliamentary privilege is one such mess. We can add to that the role of the civil service, the police and all manner of other agencies that are sometimes given prescriptive rules governing their every move and at other times kept at arms length and 'independent' for reasons of political expediency.

The police should be under the control of elected politicians, locally elected politicians who set their priorities, oversee their operations and are answerable for their failings. That is the basis of democracy. Those who exercise power have to be answerable for it. The police at present are in a half way house. It is a constitutional mess.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Enough is Enough?

What else does Robert Mugabe have to do before the so called 'international community' does more than criticise and condemn his Zimbabwean regime? Steal elections? Brutalise or murder anyone who opposes him? Steal international aid money and food? Allow his people to starve? Throw them out of their homes for having the temerity to vote for the opposition? Steal land from farmers regardless of the rule of law so that a country that used to export food now cannot feed itself? Create conditions for the lowest life expectancy anywhere in the world? Bankrupt the country so that wages cannot be paid and basic hygiene becomes neglected? Print money to such an extent that inflation reaches 230 million per cent? Allow rampant disease and deny its extent until the situation becomes so desperate it flows over the borders into neighbouring countries? Agree a power sharing deal despite having lost elections and then still refuse to properly share power?

He's done the lot and much much more. Zimbabwe is a kleptocracy, a nation run by gangsters who care about nothing except their own enrichment and the continuity of their power.

And yet removing them is not only simple it is now a matter of vital importance to the entire region not just the people of Zimbabwe. As even Desmond Tutu said earlier this week, this regime must be removed, if necessary by military means.

It may not even be necessary to use force. If only the SADC countries would show a bit of gumption and principle, a couple of weeks of cutting off supplies of power and fuel would finish off a regime already becoming increasingly desperate. The army has started to rebel because they're not being paid. The dominoes are lined up and ready to fall. It just requires someone to show a bit of courage and finally do the right thing.

Some of Mugabe's neighbours are reluctant to act against him because of his supposed heroic deeds of 30 years ago in bringing about independence. But look at what he has done with that independence. Refer to my list above. Is this man a hero or a low life crook with delusions of grandeur like so many African dictators before him?

Even if force becomes necessary it isn't as if an invasion on the scale of Iraq is necessary. This is a state that is barely functioning. The only reason it still manages to bully people into submission is because most of them are malnourished and ill. If the bullies keeping Mugabe in power were to be confronted by people willing to fight back they would turn tail and run. It would be a cakewalk. All they would need to do is stroll into Harare, arrest Mugabe and his cohorts and then put Tsvangirai in the position he should have been in these last few months since he won the election.

There is talk of enough is enough from the Prime Minister and others. There is talk of yet more meetings at the useless UN which will be deadlocked as usual thanks to the Chinese and the Russians. Whenever people die in the world the UN convenes, words are issued and precisely nothing happens. We should abolish the place, sell the buildings and spend the money on feeding people and helping to prevent AIDS.

This is not complicated. It is not difficult. So why do we hesitate? International law? Don't make me laugh. Just do it. Have a little courage. Do the right thing. Save lives.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

The End

I was right the other day. It's time to admit defeat and let Leah go. I don't want to, it's not going to be easy but I have to. I could go there this week. I could go and try to see her but I don't think there is anything left to salvage any more. She's been seeing other people by her own admission. She's also planning on a career in law over there. She's not going to abandon everything to be here with me. And ultimately that is the only way we are going to make things work. The distance between us is and always has been the problem. Even if I went there this week and enacted my fantasy I would still have to come home again without her.

And I don't have money to throw around. Christmas is coming up. I haven't been working much.

Ironically I got a letter through the post today confirming that I am eligible for some cheap flights as part of an offer I applied for. I can fly to New York for free in January and only pay the taxes. So I shall probably do that. At least it will be a cheap trip.

I did go to New York in January once. I went to see Karen another woman of my acquaintance I had met on the internet. The difference was that she was married. She met me at the airport, we drove to my hotel and we jumped into bed and spent the next few days doing much the same thing combined with sightseeing and the like. Oh and I arrived the day before a horrendous snow storm too and so that was exciting.

Of course it was just a fling with Karen. It was never going to amount to anything. I was just a bit of excitement in her life, a bit of extra marital sex. She even sent me pictures of herself in various erotic poses. Maybe I was helping her scratch a seven year itch or something.

With Leah I wanted more than that. I wanted us to get together and then stay together. I still want that now. But it just isn't going to happen. I like sex as much as the next man but I don't want a fling even if it is with a beautiful and sexy girl of my dreams.

So that's the end of that. I'm resigned to it now. I have to move on. I was in the supermarket the other day and a woman was making eyes at me. I've still got it. I just have to forget about Leah. I must also resist the temptation of calling Lisa which is what I tend to do in this situation. It happened on another Christmas a few years back when she came to stay with me. Fortunately I seem to have done something to upset her too and so, even if I weaken and try to contact her, she may well ignore me anyway.

I shall endeavour to meet someone new. Maybe I'll hang around in the supermarket.