With a shop and a skip

And while we are on the subject of charity, I’ve just been invited to sign a petition demanding MPs force supermarkets to donate their excess food that is still fit for consumption to the poor.

I signed it, because something has to be done, but I really didn’t want to. I felt the organiser – Lizzie Swarf via Campaigns For You – whoever, simply hasn’t understood the slightly more nuanced nature of the problem.

There is something Victorian and condescending about poor people – whoever they are – I’m poor, a pensioner, I live on half the average wage and can’t get a job – being handed-out free food from the back door of the supermarket, that the rest of us have to pay to take out the front. Couldn’t they just let all the people have all the food a lot cheaper?

It isn’t a simple equation: x waste handed out, not incinerated = x more poor people fed. It is in fact two entirely  separate problems: waste, and poor people.

The first part of the problem is waste. Supermarkets throw out tonnes of food every night, that they haven’t sold. It’s obscene. Why did they order it in the first place?

Supermarkets have to have fully stocked shelves. It’s an image thing. They have to give an impression of infinite abundance.

Supermarkets know exactly how much and what consumers buy. Their EPOS systems can predict with perfect accuracy, how much we will buy tomorrow, and what. But to maximise what we buy they have to order more. They could order just enough to replace the stuff they’ve sold. But they also have to feed the shelves, knowing shoppers will not buy it all. The more food they have on display, the more consumers will be persuaded to buy. But we can’t buy it all.

Food safety regulations require manufacturers and supermarkets to determine what is a safe date by which perishable food has to be consumed. They play too safe – most food is said to be unfit for consumption long before it really is. So they have to throw it out. They’re not allowed to give it away to poor people at that point, it’s illegal. That’s something MPs would have to fix. But they can’t on their own, because it’s an EU regulation to prevent hardworking families from getting poisoned. They’d need to find another way.

This sort of thing is why I signed the petition only with reluctance. It sounds like an easy problem to fix but it’s not.

Of course, consumers throw away just as much as supermarkets do. They buy a multipack, they can’t eat it all. They buy a whole chicken and roast it and eat the good bits and chuck the rest away. They buy unripened fruit and avocados that won’t ripen on the windowsill before it rots, they throw it away. They scrape the uneaten leftovers into the binbag because they can’t imagine a better use for them tomorrow. The milk goes off, down the plughole it goes.

MPs need to do something about the throwaway waste society. We already enjoy spectacularly cheap and abundant food, but if we wasted less we could spend even less on it. Food prices would come down so the poor could start to buy food again and regain their dignity, not to have use-by-now food shovelled over them indiscriminately out the back door by some sneering operative. Food could become healthier and not be bulked-out with poisons – wheat, and sugar.

The poor are not some kind of social dumpster (UK: skip), they have their dignity.

And they are the other problem – remember, it is not an equation.

MPs need to get rid of the poor.

Who are the poor? You? Me? Why are we in this situation? There are a million job vacancies currently in the UK, that are speedily filling with immigrant labour. I have nothing against immigrant labour. People should be allowed to live and work and pursue whatever happiness they can find, anywhere in the world they think they can find it. I don’t believe in borders, controls – countries.

The point is, UK government policy is to clawback jobs from where they were exported to the Far East after the 1980s. That means making them a lot cheaper. It means allowing employers once again to shit all over their workforce, like they did in the C19th. That’s what we want to ‘renegotiate’ in our contract with the European Union, the right to shit over people again.

I work part-time in a university. I have friends who are desperate to build or sustain academic careers, high-powered people with research and teaching skills, publications to their name, PhDs with cutting-edge knowledge, who are working zero-hours contracts with no job security and taking whatever temporary hours they can get. Meanwhile the money is shrinking as student numbers are falling off a cliff.

If it is like this for the nation’s brightest and best minds, what is it like for the poor cunts in the call-centres and the salt-free environments of the fast food outlets where they flip shit that is killing poor people 16 hours a day? What is it like for people in social work and the health services and in clearing up everyone’s mess? What is it like to live in a place where there is no work? It seems I can answer that one.

To get rid of poor people we only need not to make them poorer. Tory politicians cannot be expected to understand that there a comes a point where you are too poor to work, but it is a no-brainer. Modern work contracts require employees to be able to sustain themselves even when they are not being paid enough, or at all. How is that miracle to be performed?

The modern jobs market requires employees to travel around to find work. Public transport is more expensive  and lousier than ever. The cost of constantly moving home is exorbitant: poor people cannot afford to pay a firm £2000 to move their unpaid-for furniture somewhere else. Rents are at an all-time high: there is insufficient housing, and what there is is being snapped up by exploitative buy-to-let Tory landlords at virtually zero interest.

MPs know how to get rid of poor people: they will only allow themselves to take the easy option of allowing them to go to the wall, or whipping them into pointless low-paid jobs that don’t pay for food or spare bedrooms, because that is what produces the most satisfied braying noises from the ‘squeezed middle’ class, some of the most selfish and self-satisfied, undereducated and overprivileged donkeys on the planet.

The way to get rid of poor people is to allow them to have more money. To buy their own food. To not be a dumpster for charity food handouts. That’s why I’m reluctant to sign, Lizzie pet. Because you’re asking for the wrong thing.

(But I signed it anyway, I always do. Only, just don’t expect me to go on Facebook and tell all my invisible friends about your petition. I’m not on there.)

A time of gifts

A former partner of mine died from breast cancer in 2014. She’d been an ex- for a while, and had only a few months earlier had a miracle baby with her new partner, at the age of 41, making the whole affair that much more poignant.

A multi-talented musician, for years she had led local choirs, and taught piano and singing to a string of grateful and adoring private pupils, me included. As a sonic artist, she created deeply meaningful and delightfully obscure ‘events’ and ‘interventions’ under the unsuspecting auspices of the local Arts Council. Consequently there is a large community of people in the area for whom she was an inspirational figure.

Since she died, there have been some more-or-less successful attempts to stage one-off choir reunions in tribute to her memory. But there has been no attempt so far as I know to build a coherent and lasting posthumous tribute. So I was not surprised to receive an email from one ‘fan’ who is proposing to put her name on a T-shirt and go on a 10-kilometre charity run to raise funds for cancer research.

Why am I mildly irritated by this proposal?

When someone has died from cancer at a young age, you might feel that if they had lived in a big city with big teaching hospitals and research facilities, where they try new stuff on you, and not had to rely on the skills of a visiting oncology team at the small district hospital, they might have made it through.

It seems to me not an unreasonable, nor an unworthy thought, under the circumstances, that her death was arbitrary and unnecessary and cruel – part of that ‘postcode lottery’ politicians grumble about, but do nothing to resolve, in our health service; enough to turn an agnostic off religion entirely.

It’s probably unworthy to think that thought, because my first wife died from cancer, and she had a public persona in the media, connections, a good income, and all the resources of a large London hospital at her disposal to make her well, and they too failed in the task – well, it was twenty years ago. Cancer is still not easily cured. Too many people still die from it, when they quite properly oughtn’t to. Yet we seem on the verge of a breathrough. Tough on you if you went yesterday.

The woman who is proposing this fundraiser was briefly one of my ex-‘s nursing team at the hospital. She barely knew her otherwise. Certainly not as I did, to the extent of knowing her capricious and complex ‘offstage’ character as well as her teaching face, her patient face. This person came along to the choir maybe half-a-dozen times. Yet she hopes to create a brand and to exploit it – for what? How does this gesture help to make a difference?

It seems so glib, such a sad modern cliché, to exploit a dead person’s name without asking anyone who was actually close to them, the family, just to raise a few pounds on a fun-run, a few hugs and high-fives and tears, and then give it away to one of those endlessly demanding, faceless ‘research’ charities. It’s a meaningless gesture, frankly. But I should be charitable. Perhaps she was genuinely moved by my friend’s plight and can’t think of a better way to help. After all, what have I done since?

How much better, more imaginative, more in the spirit of my former-partner, more socially useful would it be to raise money for musical education for children, at a time of cutbacks in schools; for a music prize, offered through the county’s structured music development system, to promote live music in the community, or music therapy in hospitals? Maybe to find a composer, commission a piece.

Then what about the baby, the father? They have expenses and little money to cover them. There was no insurance. There is not much income, I believe. What about an endowment for the child, to help give him a future? Would it seem too patronising to offer them some needed help? Surely, even to make a donation to one of our local hospices, or to a specialist cancer nursing charity, would have some more appropriate and useful purpose of which my former-partner could approve?

But not to some general ‘research’ fund, one of those vague promissory outfits with a well-padded boardroom full of silver-haired medicos in Savile Row suits, fundraising monkeys and PR practitioners, that has produced almost no progress in the field for fifty years – and why would they? It’s in their own interest not to be too successful.

I’m sure this woman means well, but I’m not going to sponsor her on those terms. Does that sound churlish? I’ve had to consult another recent ‘love interest’ on the ethics of all this, because she’s an expert on ethics and I don’t know if I should say something, but it seems that whatever I say is only going to make things worse and create discomfort all round.

Is there a way of putting this campaign on the right rails?

My recent ‘interest’ tells me, basically, to calm down dear, let the poor woman get on with whatever she wants to do. She’s not doing actual harm. It’s perfectly easy just to ignore what she’s proposing, and if I’ve got a better idea for commemorating my former-partner in a more appropriate way, then maybe I should get on and do something about it myself?

I would love to, but I haven’t an organising bone in my body.

And now, there’s Nepal.

What can one say? They’re in a desperate state, but one has the suspicion that money won’t really help. They seem unable to work very constructively with the international aid community.

The thing with the three RAF Chinooks, that we sent them plus crews all the way from the UK and they said they didn’t want them because the downdraft from the rotors might damage the temple roofs, was instructive. It was bullshit.

Why in a land prone to frequent tectonic movements that trigger landslides that cut off roads were all the emergency gear and medical supplies and rations and ‘dozers bottled up in Kathmandu, when the obvious strategy all along was to regionalise stores so as to get emergency aid quicker to outlying villages in the event of a perfectly predictable calamity?

My first thought was that, as soon as my money arrives, I should send them £100. But then I thought, they don’t need more money, they need competent government, with joined-up thinking, directed towards serving their people. How is my £100 going to produce that? The aid agencies have money, they just have a problem using it in a chaotically governed state.

So now I feel guilty, because there are clearly deserving families shivering in tents, but I’m going to stick to the rational line: my £100 isn’t going to help anyone directly. It’s going to be pissed away flying out more aid ‘experts’ who won’t be able to achieve much more than the stricken people will in time achieve for themselves, because that’s how resilient they’ve always been.

Only now, I’ve had an email from Dirk. Dirk runs a brilliant website from Belgium, teaching jazz guitar. And according to Dirk, there’s a school for jazz players in Kathmandu! Who knew? And they’re running an appeal!

So my £100 isn’t going to the Disasters Relief Committee or to Save the Children, or to buy and fly-in some inappropriate Western stuff the Nepalis won’t have a use for. It’s going to help keep real music alive in the rubble.

Somehow that makes me feel a lot better.

Watching the Defectives #4

Two detectives. Edgy buddies. A detective and a possible witness. Junior/female colleague. The detective and his ex-wife – rebellious teenage son/daughter (led astray by drug dealers from the squat or other bad influences who might become suspects), who may or may not themselves be a witness but might know/be under the influence of, the robber/murderer. The flagging middle-aged detective and the faded nurse/schoolteacher he’s taken a fancy to and is hoping to get at least dinner with if not a tit-job off.

These characters get in the car and drive to the police station. To search a house. To a house where the killer lurks but unsuspected. Where the body is lying on the floor. To the teenager’s home where his mother will express contempt/hatred/residual tired love for the detective. To a very dark place (do they ever switch on the lights?). To the hospital. To the intended’s home. To follow the suspect. To find the deserted country cottage on the beach no-one previously knew about, that was on the location manager’s same list three episodes ago. To the place they’re going to search but don’t have a warrant. To the abandoned factory. To the scene of the crime.

They arrive at their destination and stop the car. Switch off the engine.

And at that point, they start to have a relevant conversation about the murder. The accident. Their lives. Their knowledge of the victim, the murderer, the murderer’s relatives, wives, colleagues and friends, the crime scene, the time of the murder, their significant past, the building, the likelihood of success/being killed, their mission…. Calling for back-up (‘No time! I’m going in! Cover me!’)

And meantime anyone else who might be an important source of information but who wouldn’t tell anyone what the problem was, or who has previously been fingered as a suspect, or whose character the audience has been wilfully lied-to about by the writers, is probably being slaughtered in the cutaways.

The question I have is simply this:

If they didn’t have a plan, hadn’t exchanged important information, didn’t know what was going on, who they were dealing with, called for back-up, counted the shots left in the ammo clip, then what the fuck have they been talking about all the time they’ve been driving in the car?

Stirring the jam back out of the pudding #2

Historians regard the Mongol raids and invasions as some of the deadliest conflicts in human history. Brian Landers has offered that, “One empire in particular exceeded any that had gone before, and crossed from Asia into Europe in an orgy of violence and destruction. The Mongols brought terror to Europe on a scale not seen again until the twentieth century.” Diana Lary contends that the Mongol invasions induced population displacement “on a scale never seen before,” particularly in Central Asia and eastern Europe.

– Wikipedia: ‘Mongol Invasions and Conquests’

According to the UN, there are currently some fifty million refugees – persons displaced by conflict, climate change and economic deprivation – wandering about the world looking for a home.

Each day, the news reports on boat people – men, women and children – drowning in their hundreds in the Mediterranean, or stranded, fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, in their thousands aboard leaky vessels off the coasts of Malaysia and Indonesia without food, fresh water or hope of official rescue; migrants being trafficked and left to die in the Sahara or the Texas panhandle; British voters bitching on about ‘too many foreigners’ being let in to the country, the rise of narrow nationalism.

We sometimes hear too, when there is no tiresome British ‘election news’ to divert the news editors from their obsession with celebrity trivia, of the ten million displaced persons in the expanding Syrian civil war; of refugees streaming away from conflict in eastern Ukraine; of the ebb and flow of the creation of the new ‘caliphate’ state known as ISIL and its attendant massacres, mass expulsions and slave trafficking; of the displacement of tens of thousands in Darfur, Eritrea, Mali, northern Nigeria and even Libya, owing to continued ethnic and religious violence.

Most of these 21st-century enforced migrants are Muslims, as would have been the case during the Mongol expansion into the Islamic empire. Where would they have gone? Many westward, to North Africa and Spain. Most, it seems, were massacred where they lived: a typical Mongol ‘horde’ consisted of ten thousand highly disciplined soldiers, each of whom was personally required on pain of death during one campaign alone to execute a quota of 24 captives…. The slaughter at the seige of Baghdad, for instance, was on a scale imaginable only with the invention of modern weapons of mass destruction.

Today’s crisis is largely being brought on by violence between, not against, rival Muslim sects and, frankly, tribal or criminal gang warfare. Behind it, however, lie opportunities for the strong to seize power, that have been created in a number of states in the wake of failed wars and ‘investment’ strategies involving largely American and Russian interests, together with the economic disadvantages caused by corrupt regional government, chronic under-development, overpopulation and climate change – examples of which include the relentless onward march of the Sahel and the salination of agricultural lands.

Historically, too, oil has been a key factor in attempts by Western governments and corporate interests to engineer ultimately unstable polities in the region.

A quick check on Wikipedia produces a fascinating comparison with the massive displacements and depopulations that occurred throughout most of the 13th century as a result of the murderous expansion of the Mongol empire, which was eventually turned back by Charles Martel at the gates of Vienna (although, fascinating ‘fact’, its expansion in the Middle East was curtailed as a result of there being not enough grass for their horses – the same reason, lack of fuel for their tanks, that halted the German counter-offensive in the Ardennes in 1944. ‘Plus ça change…‘ indeed!).

The Mongols have even been accused of biological warfare, deliberately spreading plague. After 1347, it is estimated, one third of the population of Europe was wiped out in the space of two years, owing to ‘the Black Death’. That number, about thirty million, compares with a reduction identified by Lary, of about forty-two million in the Chinese population as a result of massacres and flight during the previous century. Set against a human population of now, over seven BILLION, however, even these terrifyingly large numbers of casualties would represent less than half a percentage point of the total and would be made up again within two years.

The moral is that the human world is in a constant state of flux, and that from time to time, irresistible forces of population growth combined with the rise of ambitious and ruthless leaders will create major perturbations in the patterns of settlement that bring about nation states. We may be experiencing the beginnings of just such a radical transformation in our lifetimes.

Things may indeed get a great deal worse, if the century of Mongol expansion is to be reflected in many years of chaos as a result of the re-emergence of a radical Islam committed to a strategy of conquest through ultra-violence, set against the trend to a warming world of resource shortages and the too-visible weakening of the Western military and cultural counterbalances.

British and other European-nation voter concerns about an unacceptable excess of ‘foreigners’ – people of alien appearance and culture – hurling themselves in desperation against our gates are both a becoming irrelevance, given three factrs: the porosity of our modern borders; the need for cheaper labour to outcompete the Eastward drain of manufacturing and IT jobs (and to support our ageing native populations), and the seeming lack of concern and will in our governments to find cogent policy solutions – yet at the same time, they are a more serious portent of things to come.

But what are the options? To arm ourselves and gun these unfortunate people down, or hope to incarcerate them conspiracy by perceived conspiracy, eroding wider human rights with ever-more oppressive and futile legislative measures; before, as is our fear, their growing communities with their restless ideology and relative social disadvantage irrupt in hostility against us?

To try somehow to tackle the triple threat of violent jihadism, international criminality and economic chaos at its roots (throwing money at a problem is always a good strategy, but it doesn’t work for long)?

Or to bend to the force of History and accept that the nation-states model of ‘civilization’ we have mostly known for the past five hundred years, based on ethnic, political and religious cohesiveness, is finished; and that many, possibly millions of us, will die violently or hungrily before a new historical paradigm emerges?

You cannot stir the jam back out of the semolina.

Spare a thought, and a dime, for the editors

A Production Editor, Examination Preparation, manages the preparation of a diverse allocation of the Diploma Programme (DP) examinations, markschemes and associated materials in various languages. The Production Editor is responsible for the quality assurance of the examination preparation process for their allocation of subjects, ensuring the quality, timelines (? ‘timeliness’ – Ed.) and cost effectiveness of confidential, high profile examination material. The Production Editor also manages the secure, on-line SharePoint system for their allocation of subjects.
Job Duties:
• Manage the preparation of examinations, markschemes and associated materials for allocated subjects
• Ensure the quality assurance of the examination preparation process for allocated subjects
• Prepare budget costs for paper editing meetings and paper preparation fees for allocated subjects and monitor actual expenditure
• Organize and provide support for paper editing meetings for allocated subjects
• Develop and maintain a knowledge of assessment requirements and house style for allocated subjects so that examinations and markschemes, in a variety of languages, are proofread and checked for sense, consistency and accuracy
• Accurately format and amend examinations and markschemes for allocated subjects
• Undertake project based tasks, as required, to contribute to the continuous improvement of examination preparation processes
Job Requirements:
• A degree or equivalent experience in a relevant subject or language
• Relevant publishing or administrative work experience
• An exceptional eye for detail and meticulous accuracy
• An excellent command of the English language
• Excellent communication, time management and interpersonal skills with the ability to negotiate internally and externally in a range of situations
• Experience of using Microsoft Office software
• Capacity to work under pressure and respond to changing priorities and deadlines
• Initiative to make own decisions and the ability to justify them to others
Other special requirements:
Flexibility to work the occasional weekend as required

So, ladies and gentlemen, how much would you pay to employ this highly skilled, multilingual and degree-qualified individual to work the occasional weekend, with no eventual job security?

Would you like to know that the rate on offer for this temporary contract job until December pays just 38 pence more than my elderly mother’s not terribly efficient but willing African CLEANER expects to get paid per hour?

£10.38. (How much of that goes to the cleaning agency, I hate to ask.)

And that’s the way with the academic publishing business, I’m afraid, in Conservative 2015 Britain. The word, frankly, is ‘disgusting’.

I’m currently making a little less than £10.38 an hour myself, invigilating exams. The job involves few real skills: reliably turning up to a room containing 300 workstations; putting out the right question papers on the right tables; settling the candidates in front of the right papers; collecting the attendance slips and cross-checking them with the lists; strolling up and back portentously checking for contraband, being a policeman and a security guard; nipping around being a stationery assistant and a nanny – then pushing the candidates out, yelling at them loudly to be more quiet on the stairs, collecting the answer books in and counting everything so that it all adds up and bagging them for the individual departments, without making any mistakes.

It’s dull, painstaking work, the principal skill required being the ability to keep yourself awake for up to three hours doing nothing much in a stuffy room where all there is to look at are rows of tousled heads containing overheated or insentient grey matter, students smelling, as my student son so effortlessly put it, of ‘death and pizza’, furiously scribbling mostly dismal, poorly-spelled rubbish. But it’s not entirely disagreeable.

You get twenty minutes’ paid time before an exam, and a flexible fifteen minutes after (the trick is to miscount by one, or lose a book. That can get you maybe an hour’s overtime!) The job is nothing like as difficult as the one I started this bitch over. It is also for only five weeks in the year. It doesn’t add up to much on an annualised basis, but it pays better by the hour than editing and proofreading books, or making up the news pages of the local paper, which I used to do for barely more than minimum wage.

My digression into the exam room is, of course, as a result of seeing the advertisement with which I started this Post, for an editor of public exam papers. My experience of exam papers, as a former editor and subeditor (of books and newspaper pages), is of keen frustration that the setters can’t make their instruction rubrics clearer and that there are almost invariably mistakes, especially in the Maths and Accountancy papers.

Next time you pick up a hardback in Waterstones and wince at the £20 price ticket, spare a thought for the degree-educated man or woman who has put six months of their lives into turning that shit into gold, often under a hail of abuse from some demented would-be best-selling author because you moved a comma (‘page rage’), or battling to get the plates processed through Scanning in under a fortnight, for about the same hourly rate as your busfare home.

Spare a thought then for the ‘harmless drudge’, as Dr Johnson defined us, the editors who, like himself (he had scrofula, a disfiguring skin disease, so his publisher sat him at a desk hidden behind a curtain), make other people’s words communicate ideas, not gibberish, and design them beautifully into cardboard sandwiches for your delectation.

We are a dying race. Not surprisingly: we are not paid to live.

Another epic fail to tell my grandchildren about

Have you ever been so perfectly qualified to do a job that you almost expect not to get it?

I’ve just had a ‘better luck next time’ email from the BBC, who were not looking for a replacement anchor for Newsnight, or a new Director General.

They were looking for someone to be one of three people on-call with a key to open-up their local remote radio studio in the town where I live. How hard can that be?

Such a person would get a call a few hours in advance, whenever the programme producers needed to interview a long-distance guest on the news; greet the guest, provide hospitality and security, persuade them to switch off their phone, switch the microphone on, sit them in front of the mic, check they were hearing the right programme feed, make sure there was a line open to the control room 100 miles away, etc. (There was also a very occasional need to sit them instead in front of a TV camera, for which you needed to understand tricky terms like pan and tilt.) Full training was to be provided.

So, you had to live nearby, be available at odd times, be comfortable around not very technical broadcast equipment, have a hospitable manner even at six o’clock in the morning, be tactful and not let them smoke in the building – know when to call out the fire service – understand things about health and safety, maybe speak a bit of their strange language and be good in an emergency.

I sent them selected highlights from my CV.

Now semi-retired and looking for part-time work to keep me busy, but not too busy, I had spent nine years back-when, working in UK radio as an announcer, news writer, senior editor and producer – including nine months with a BBC local radio station on the breakfast shift, before I foolishly went off to a senior job in the commercial sector – often using self-operated technology.  I had interviewd politicians, authors, business leaders and showbiz personalities. I have a degree-level qualification in Film & TV, plus a few more years’ offline production experience, so I am, or used to be, thoroughly familiar with the milieu, as they say.  Apart from writing this and walking little Hunzi I have little else to occupy me for most of the year. And I live six minutes from the studio.

What then makes me possibly uniquely qualified among candidates to open a studio and greet guests, is that I have also spent seven years recently as a licensee, managing a £100-a-night guest house: booking, receiving and looking after guests, feeding and watering them, giving tours (it was an important historic house), hosting large wedding parties, business meetings and WI teas, maintaining a legal ‘duty of care’ obligation, writing management reports and being profit-responsible. And a while before, I’d owned my own small media business employing ten people (including women and even two French citizens) and was a member of the Institute of Directors, and the CBI, demonstrating massive levels of responsibility, inclusivity and acumen all -round.

All this was on my CV. Nowadays, I am semi-retired, but still fit and active. The questions I was asked at the interview, which seemed relaxed and informal, were all of the: ‘Can you think of any situations in which you have had to make decisions?’ variety, which are actually quite difficult to answer when you’ve done all the things I’ve done over 40 years. You’re tempted to answer, well, duh, what do you think? I’ve anchored election programmes… (Actually I started with, ‘well, I’ve been driving a car since I was 17…’)

‘Describe your attitude to diversity’ – so you’re going to confess to a prejudice against UKIP, black people generally and Muslims worst of all? I already have a part-time job at the University, where I work among people of all ages from all over the world. I’ve worked as the only man in all-women business environments. Of course I’m bloody diverse! But are they? I didn’t dare ask the question, how prejudiced were they going to be against the idea of an upper-middle-class, late-middle-aged, English-born, public-school educated, ex-BBC, able-bodied, heterosexual, white male agnostic holding a position of such power in the Welsh broadcast media? Surely, we are in the minority?

‘We are obviously looking for someone reliable. Can you give examples of how you might previously have demonstrated reliability?’ was the real doozer. Were these questions thought-up by a primary-school administrator? Sure, I had reliably delivered news bulletins on the hour for nine years! I’d managed a news operation with six journalists reporting to me, outputting 18 hours of news and current affairs shows a week! I’d been an exam invigilator for six years and never missed an exam. I’ve worked with a local drama group for the past five years and never missed a rehearsal. I last took a day off sick to undergo surgery in 2006…  I used to reliably forget to pick up my kids from the nursery after work…

As glib answer followed seemingly spurious question, I began to imagine I was missing the point somewhere. These people were professionals, in the business themselves. They knew I knew the job, it’s not rocket-science, they must have known the answers to all their scripted questions lay self-evidently in my CV and that the only point in asking them was to hear me answer them. Was I perhaps being a tad overconfident?

Then they sprang the trap.

I was led into the airless, windowless corner-cupboard that was the remote studio, and an A4-sized card of instructions was thrust into my hand. The test was to take the studio for a drive through a procedure I had not gone through for more than 30 years, in a strange environment. I had gotten less than halfway through reading how to set up the studio and which buttons I needed to press, and when to press them, before my interrogators came in and told me to start.

Everything went fine at first, despite the fact that the labelling on the buttons had worn off, forcing me to peer at them myopically, phoning Andrew in Master Control, getting the code to fire-up the line, until the stage where I had to dial-up the ISDN line itself, and one of the digits would not punch in.

Without having time to see properly how to clear the system, I tried three or four times, hoping not to show I was getting flustered. I could not see the LED display properly and had no idea why it would not connect. My brain was telling me, basically, that the system had been designed in the 1970s, which is typical of BBC Engineering policy where stuff trickles down to the regions; and could be a lot simplified with a little technology.

Why was a ‘9’ prefix necessary, for instance, when it could just be incorporated into the number? All the numbers had an obligatory ‘9’ prefix. Where else would you want to dial out to, other than a ‘9’? Why were there 25 different lines, when one would do, maybe with a couple spare? Why were we still even using ISDN when there was 100Mb fiber Broadband network available locally? Why hadn’t they shown me first, where the directory was, that you referred to when the engineer in the control room gave you the code to tell you which line to dial? Why did you need a code anyway? Why could the line not simply be activated from the control room at the other end, rather than from here?

‘Here’, said my interrogator, ‘let me have a go…’ It was basically game over, and I had lost. You try being 65, I thought, furiously, with the wrong reading glasses, and not see a better way of doing things while you’re fumbling with, basically, an antiquated system you’re going to be trained to use anyway. Had I been shown what to do even once, I would have known forever. I’m not stupid. But this was about your reaction to dealing with an emergency, and I’ve slowed down over the years, and I think too much.

Instead, hoping they’d understand sympathetically that people learn through their mistakes, I stupidly told them the story of how, many years ago, I’d once screwed-up a news opt-out doing just this exact same operation while working at the BBC in London….

So many stories. So many screw-ups.

So reliable.

The big switcheroo

Interestingly, my early-morning reverie today focussed on my wavering sexual orientation.

I’ve been told my prostate gland is the size of an orange, when it ought to be more like a walnut – very Christmassy, but cycling is definitely off the cards. On Friday I have to get a CAT scan, and I’m hoping it’s not my lovely radiographer friend D. who’s doing it, I can think of better social circumstances under which I’d prefer to pull my pants down a bit further.

The options include a dice-n’-slice operation to reduce it, or removing it altogether – a prostectomy. It certainly avoids the possibility of it turning cancerous. And without sexual function we might as well get rid of the balls too, flobbering around, always getting in the way. I lay awake, having awoken from a dream in which I made myself up as a woman and was not displeased.

I decided that I have never been entirely what you would call manly, always preferring the company of women, baking cakes and not going to football matches. Despite the little white pills, the honourable member doesn’t stand up to scrutiny anymore. I began wondering whether 65 was a good time, given that without his prostate a man ain’t a real man and I’ve had my kids, to get a gender reassignment?

It might be fun to enjoy a long life in which you could experience being alternately male and female, like Orlando in the Virginia Woolf novel, although I should have to be a lesbian. The thought of sex beneath some sweating, grunting, balding, potbellied, hairy-shouldered man thrusting bluntly at my expensively constructed vagina is a total turnoff, even if he has promised to take me to Paris.

I thought about the many gender reassigned males I have known. You could get over the big hands and muscular shoulders, and being six feet tall already without the kitten heels, I guess. You could stop walking like John Wayne and think Darcy Bussell instead – although, come to think of it, she walks like she’s just had a vasectomy. But all of them seem to have been driven slightly mad by the oestrogen therapy – I assume it’s that, I can be grumpy myself.

Maybe I’ll just end up as one of those self-effacing,  smooth-faced, crop-haired, secretive little chaps in elasticated slacks and pierced-leather shoes, with hoarse voices and a string-bag, you’re never quite sure what they are. I’ll be sad to lose my magnificent basso profundo, as will the ladies of the Soprano section – then, I can always buy a campervan.



The above produces an offer of counselling from muh gudfriend, Sir Roger de Boyle, for a ‘small consideration’. Precisely…

Polly Wolly Doodle and the Pundits

A two-day deluge of summer rain after a dry spell, and the river rises six feet in the night. But the water was only six inches deep to begin with. Result: no flooding. The water is six feet deep to begin with, rises another six feet, result: major flooding. That’s what happens with our ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system. If you’re coming from way behind, chances are you’re not going to win a seat. Come second with a 15% swing, and at the next election with the same swing you’re odds-on favourite to win.

People are going around after the election muttering that UKIP, with 3.9 million votes and a 15% swing, has won only one seat in Parliament; the Conservatives, with 7 million votes on a 4% swing, have won 331 seats. Unfair! No, it’s because the Conservatives had more first and second-place candidates from the last time, while UKIP started with none or with those who previously came near the bottom.

At the next election, UKIP’s new second- and third-place candidates could well win their seats. It will depend on the leadership, their policies, the prevailing political and economic conditions and the presence of a more persuasive alternative, whether they win more seats or not to burst that riverbank. It will not be because of the unfair electoral system, but because it takes years for any party to build a commanding lead – a valuable ‘test of time’ before the deluge.


We are such short-term thinkers nowadays, we can see matters only in terms of the last and the next elections. That is why it was so easy for the Conservatives to portray the last Labour government as reckless and economically inept. How quickly we have been persuaded to forget Gordon Brown’s towering reputation for economic prudence and his world leadership in resolving the global crisis that threatened to bring down the entire banking system of the West.

How easily we ignore the fact that while he may have saved the system, it’s the Conservatives who have saved the bankers. Productivity was always higher under the last governent than this.  And, while under Brown the economy was growing healthily at over 2%, under Osborne it has barely moved at all.

Meanwhile, the Bank of England has been printing money like it’s going out of style, simply to keep the interest rate at a record low of 0.5% – not that struggling consumers would notice – enabling the Tory Chancellor to quietly borrow £billions more than his annual target, without extra cost either to the coffers or his reputation.


I’m fed-up with being vilified in the press as a ‘wealthy pensioner’, simply because other sectors of the economy have been worse-hit by austerity and crazy property prices.

In fact, the property prices where I live are not crazy at all. My modest two-bedroomed terraced cottage has just been valued at the same price I paid for it, ignoring the cost of improvements I have made, four years ago! If the house were somehow magically transported to Central London it would no doubt be left empty by its new Russian owners, and worth £millions. But it would have a new basement… Here in the country, I cannot sell it for £150 thousand, basement or not (just a pretty garden).

As for we ‘wealthy pensioners’ getting special treatment because we all vote Conservative (I never have), it may be the case that the State pension has been ringfenced and has continued to rise with inflation at a rate ahead of that of public-sector workers. However, inflation is at a record low, and while a rising tide may lift all boats, some boats are already lower in the water than others.

My State pension, plus two tiny annuities and some investment interest, puts me in the £13,000-a-year bracket – and makes me a taxpayer. I’ve got a few hundred pounds in savings. Wealthy?

But, you know, I can live on it – just.


Pollsters and pundits were telling us for months that we were in for another hung Parliament – no party with an overall majority – only this time it would be more complicated to form a governing coalition because of increasing support for minority parties: the Scottish Nationalists, UKIP and the Greens. In the event they were all wrong – as I predicted! – David Cameron’s party secured a slim majority.

Now the prevailing media wisdom is that without coalition partners, Cameron is nakedly exposed to his own Eurosceptic backbenchers and might be bounced into bringing forward a national referendum on whether or not to remain a member of the European Union.

Should that happen, it looks like the country would narrowly vote to stay in. But even that could prove to be wildly optimistic, given the Farage factor. And the prognosis then is that the dominant Nationalists in Scotland would bring forward their own referendum and the Scottish voters, who are thought overwhelmingly to want to remain in the EU, would vote to leave the Union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Patriotic English voters would then row Britannia out into the Atlantic and sink her beneath the waves they think we still rule.

It’s an interesting thesis, but it takes no account of where the EU itself might be in two years’ time, following ‘Grexit’ – Athens’ massive debt default looming a few days from now, the inevitable exit from the Euro under German pressure and expulsion from the EU that would probably follow.

Why would Scotland want to leave the United Kingdom to join a fragmenting, bickering, economically unstable Europe, in which all the old, failed centrist governments have gone and only weird and frightening Eurosceptic extremist parties are in power? (Because it’s better than being stuck with the English? Don’t answer that!)

The elephant in the room, hopefully to see that wearisome cliche for the last time, is France. What if Marine le Pen and her eminently reasonable but Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant, anti-German, Islamophobic Front Nationale party were to be occupying the Elysée Palace by then? On recent showings, it’s not out of the question.


To save my sanity, I stopped taking The Guardian newspaper three years ago, but yesterday I had to be somewhere where I might have had to sit around for a while, doing nothing, so I  just thought I’d buy one and check. Post-election analysis, new editor…

But no, all the same leader-writers and well-padded columnists are writing all the same right-on, liberal-lefty things from the safety of their Hampstead eyries, the music never changes.

No-one pays me to write this blog, sadly, but The Scott Trust, owners of The Guardian, seem perfectly happy to let lovely old Polly Toynbee draw a pretty reasonable whack for turning out the same column, over and over again.

Only this time, I let some of my famous anger slurp over the top of my cup. How does a journalist with, what, 40 years’ experience as a frontline columnist for a major national newspaper get away with writing crap like:

“Should we have known the way the wind was blowing? By the pricking of our thumbs, many of us Guardian commentators (sic) felt in our travels that we didn’t see Labour leaping over its gigantic obstacles…. thundering unanimity of the polls… drumbeat so loud…

“After the raw agony, a long dark night of the soul awaits Labour – and that began before the chimes at midnight… Who will lead them down which fork in the road? The field is wide open… Labour must not rush to any wrong judgments. Let dust settle…. way out of this abyss. Take the pulse of a new government… regroup… hold the fort… blather, blather…”

We all have our off days, but just how many leaden cliches, GCSE-level literary quotes and excruciatingly mixed metaphors can one highly respected social commentator wring from the damp hankie of electoral loss, I wonder?

Time to go, Pol. Gizza job.

The Battle of Britain

As of this morning, the political landscape of Britain is strewn with dead politicians. Yesterday’s election was a rerun of the Wars of the Roses, the Civil War, the Jacobite rebellion, the Easter Uprising, the Troubles and an episode of East Enders all rolled into one. Brutal, barbaric, no-holds-barred internecine strife, huge casualties, obscure motives.

Who says we don’t still do bloody revolutions in Britain?

Today, the capitalists and stockjobbers and hedge-fund managers and yuppie bankers, financial fraudsters, Russian oligarchs, non-domiciled tax evaders and the obscenely profitable London estate agents are dancing a  gavotte together in the streets. Wild euphoria reigns in the markets. The pound is up. The stock exchange is up. Bonuses are up. Prices are up. Food banks are up. The Health Service is busily privatising itself. Disabled workshy plebs with spare bedrooms are being herded into camps as I write. Champagne corks are popping in Cannon Street.  Château Petrus flows in the gutters.

As late counting continues, the Conservative and Unionist party is within one still possibly gettable seat of a bare working majority in Parliament. They may actually have won an election, for the first time in decades. (Note to clueless foreigners: under our ‘first-past-the-post’ system, virtually every elected representative has a minority share of the overall vote in their constituency.)

No-one (except me) thought it would end like this. Once famous men (and the odd bit of Parliamentary tottie) have lost their well-padded seats, the length and breadth of the isles. The massive beast, Labour’s shadow Chancellor, a spluttering, chubby, pop-eyed individual called Balls, which he often spoke, has lost his.

Former ministers and shadow ministers: Lib-Dem treasury man Danny Alexander, someone else called Alexander, Jo someone, Ed someone else – the frequently misspoken Industry Minister Dr Cable; poor, sweet, softly-spoken Jim Thing, the former Defence Ministry man who stepped in bravely five months ago to lead the disintegrating Labour party in Scotland to victory, and many, many more Knights of Westministereth lie broken and bleeding on the field, the tattered camp-following harridans of the media picking over their corpses, ripping out their gold teeth and relieving them of their armour.

The Liberal-Democrat party has been decimated, punished for their unprotected adultery with the Conservatives. How life has changed for them in the five years since the tryst in the Number Ten rose garden. Now, they can once again all fit in a taxi, which is how they’ve always preferred it. Poor Nick Clegg, deputy Prime Minister, once the darling of the voters, who failed to prevent his doctrinaire Tory bedfellows from putting up fees in universities, something he foolishly promised would never happen, has resigned. Poor Nigel Farage (see Posts passim) has quit as UKIP stand-up, after failing to gain a seat.

Labour, too, has failed to capture enough key marginals, whatever, to look like a credible left-leaning government, the curse of the were-Blair has struck again. Poor Ed Miliband, 14¾, the surely never-electable Prime Minister and plasticine-figure Hampstead supergeek, who stabbed his better-looking and more grownup-sounding brother in the front to gain, however improbably, the leadership of the Labour party, has been told he’s resigned too. Make no mistake, this is a massive quake in the political landscape, bigger than Nepal.

In Scotland, the once-mighty Labour party has been utterly vanquished, and may never get up again. The Scottish Nationalist Party has wiped the board with them. In Wales, perversely, the once-mighty Labour party has secured a majority of the seats. The Welsh Nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, has managed to hang on to only three, the Lib-Dems one. In Northern Ireland, the sectarian DUP holds sway, offering to blackmail their Conservative allies into handing them more mainland taxpayer cash to bolster their rotting economy, in exchange for some helpful lobby support.

The United Kingdom is united no more. It’s all like some kind of fucking disaster movie, only no-one knows how it will end. It can only get worse. Cameron, the shiny-faced, ex-PR agency gopher and Old Etonian mini-millionaire, faces a major split in his party. He now has to embark urgently on many rounds of negotiations with foreigners, to deliver changes to our EU membership terms more favourable to the bankers and the anti-immigration loonies.

If he succeeds, okay, but if he can’t bring back a blank piece of paper from Brussels promising peace in our time, he’s a dead duck too – the English will vote in 2017 to leave the EU, the Scots Nats will be forced to hold another independence referendum to keep their mini-state in Europe, the whole postwar European project and the Union of British principalities forged in 1707 will fall apart.

In the meantime, we await Grexit – the destabilising exit of Greece from the Eurozone, and possibly thereafter from the EU – followed probably by the expulsion of the neofascist dictatorship currently emerging in Hungary – and the subsequent invasion of the Baltic states by a newly resurgent, militaristic Russia – with bated breath.

May you live in interesting times, indeed.

A Parliament well hung

(Girlfriend, do not read. Irritating Horoscopy alert.)

Overhauling your living environment will be a wonderful creative challenge. This is a great time to paint a drab room a different colour. If a space is dark and cold, add bright lights and wild patterns. When a place seems frenetic, soft carpets and tactile upholstery can help. Are you thoroughly fed up with your living situation? Think about relocating. You can get a generous loan from a lending institution. Apply for a loan. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

– Yahoo! Lifestyle Horoscope, today.

Now this is faintly astonishing, even by the predictive standards of the heavily beringed haruspex, Russell Grant.

I have in my hand, or somewhere near it on the table, a colour chart. I have been thinking lately of painting my little bedroom a different colour than Magnolia. It has been looking drab, but I had been planning in terms of a kind of gentle, shimmery pearlized effect and have just found a paint firm that promises one.

I am still strongly considering relocating, however, as I am fed up with being mown down by heavy lorries whenever I leave the house, and with wading through dogshit on the cinder path to the exurban space that passes for our local park. I looked at a place only last night, on the interweb, and sighed. My house is on the market – has been for over two and a half years.

But after all that time I am also wondering if I should not just put up with the lorries, the shit, the sheer convenience of staying put. It wouldn’t be such a bad place, with a spot of redecorating. And so I have lately been negotiating a remortgage, to provide capital to make repairs, pay bills, take a break, go singing. And the lending institution has generously offered me £7k more than I asked for!

Indeed, I just heard from my solicitor last night that she needs only one more document to be signed, that will give me the creative freedom I seek. (And allow me to pay my tax bill.) And she requires my final go-ahead to proceed. I have nothing to lose! (Except that she has now gone away ‘for a few days’.)

Rationalists would argue that five million Librans cannot all be in the same situation, merely because we were all born when the scales of the purely notional constellation of Libra were rising in the East. I say, bully for them! The world is dark and frenetic by turns. Who knew? And tomorrow is Election Day, when the world turns upside-down and darkness and freneticism reign for a time. It is all coming together nicely. We are in for a hung Parliament, my boys – and that’s just the way politicians should be.

Well hung. Like new wallpaper…

Postscriptum Electorum

So, it is the morning after. I wish I were a betting man. I could have got 10 to 1 on the Conservatives winning a majority. I told people beforehand I thought they would. I said I didn’t believe all the polls, and the pundits, that for weeks were predicting another hung Parliament. It seemed too good to be true. So the voters panicked at the last minute, and voted en masse for the devil they knew.

(Actually, it is probably more that they did not know or care who they were voting for – most people vox popped in the constituencies didn’t have the faintest idea who the Prime Minister was.)

Despite the voters eviscerating the Lib-Dems, down from 56 MPs to only eight, my local Lib-Dem man squeaked back in. I voted for him. Now I can bully him into doing something about the heavy lorries. And the dogshit.

Also, huzzah! The ubiquitous jokester, Nigel Farage has quit as party frontmouth after failing to win a seat in right-wing Thanet South, against the disturbing run of generally dimwitted citizens voting Tea Party… sorry, UKIP.

We shall miss him, the cheeky chappie with the pint of warm British beer in hand, popping up everywhere in his ghastly brown 1950s spiv’s Crombie coat with the moleskin tab collar, purporting not just to understand, but to actually be the Common Man. Now he can put on a decent bit of Savile Row and get back to making money.

Feminism Corner

And on the wireless this Tory morning (dull and raining), women with PhDs complained about there being no women involved in the TV election coverage.

I counted dozens, myself, including many reporting from outlying polling stations, several with ethnic minority status, and poor Rita Chakrabarti, stuck on the newsdesk overnight, reading out dreary election ‘news’ we had just heard; all of them apparently not women at all, but middle-aged white men disguised as women. (It’s the Andrew Neil effect – any talkshow he anchors appears to consist entirely of a middle-aged white man.)

Not only that, but quite a few of the politicians and even some party leaders, and most of the Returning Officers and hundreds of winning and losing candidates appeared to be women wearing dresses – although not the wee Scots lassie who’s just become at 20, the youngest MP since Pitt the Infant. She was wearing a disturbing iron-grey, Rosa Klebb dyke suit.

But hey, gals, let’s not spoil a good agenda.