‘Oh, no it isn’t!’ Tackling the villains

You’d think we could do something about the growing business of deniability.

It really isn’t good enough for those who regard their duty as to speak truth unto power and take fat salaries for it, to meekly accept that a flat-out denial of wrongdoing or incompetence from some ministerial shit constitutes due ‘balance’.

It’s like the pantomime villain declaiming: ‘Oh, no it isn’t!’ Every kid in the audience knows it is.

The problem of ‘balance’ in news reporting is well illustrated by one story I recall from a couple of years back. Interviewed on the Today programme, the head of the Royal College of Nursing claimed the NHS was suffering from a shortfall of twenty thousand nurses. Should he not know his stuff? No-one from the Health department was willing to go on the show, but ‘a spokesman’ for the Secretary of State had replied by some backdoor means that in fact, the Government was creating 3,500 extra nursing posts.

Both sides of the story were reported separately and uncritically. They could not both have been true. But that was where the BBC left it, in a state of perfect ‘balance’.

Can anyone explain to me – and I used to be a radio news editor – what, if anything, the taxpayer funding the NHS was supposed to make of the story? Was a disastrous depletion of the NHS’ proper nursing complement threatening the nation’s health, reflecting on the incompetence of those in power, or were our hospital wards awash with surplus nurses?

We were never told. The point is, it surely ought to have been easy enough to find out.

Now, I’ve got a personal stake in this. As you know, because you Follow this, muh bogl, I can’t sell my lovely little house. It’s been on the market for two years and nine months. Not unusual, for this part of the country. Frustrating, nevertheless. Only three people have even been to look at it since October, 2013; although it’s had over five thousand hits on the interweb thing.

There’s a perfectly good explanation as to why property is not selling faster where I live. It’s called ‘April McMahon’.

Dr McMahon was appointed about five years ago as Chancellor of the local university. Whether due to her influence directly or to the factionalism of the administrative body exploiting her inexperience, maleficence compounded by tuition fees, the university has been sliding rapidly down the charts to stand at number 110 in the UK, where formerly it was popular, healthy and well-regarded. For details, I refer you to a BBC Wales report from last March, ‘Staff morale low at A* University’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-mid-wales-31946666)

Now, this report accurately reflects everything I have been hearing from friends and colleagues who work at the university – as I sometimes do. Morale is at rock-bottom: ancillary staff pension funds are being clawed back, contracts re-let at lower rates of pay, formerly highly regarded departments wound-down and valuable book collections destroyed (Quote: “No-one reads books anymore”) to make way for more beanbags and coffee machines. In only three years, undergraduate applications have fallen from a high of twelve and a half thousand, to just eight and a half thousand.

From my own experience, I have observed that the number of foreign students especially has been falling, year on year. There are reasons for this – China for one is sending fewer funded students to Britain because of the expense and visa restrictions. Higher tuitiion fees have played a part – the A-level entry requirements have been so downgraded as to be laughable; many overseas students I encounter could not conceivably have passed the IACS test for knowledge of the English language.

To add injury to insult, the hourly rate for the job I do has remained almost unchanged since the year 2007 – I believe there has been an increase of 67 pence in that time. Yet the university is courting disaster by proposing to reduce it again in January, while our responsibilities have increased. Mutiny is brewing.

Surely, the widely rumoured vandalism of trendy administrators in the national universities sector and the wholesale switching of budgets away from academic departments to exciting but useless student ‘facilities’ ought to be exposed, investigated, corrected by someone, before Britain entirely loses its international reputation for academic excellence?

So how does the BBC treat this worrying story, that has been put out on the airwaves by ‘a whistleblower’? Why, it obtains a ‘balancing’ quote from one of the Pro Vice Chancellors, a Dr Morgan, who flatly denies everything.  Not true! Look, we are spending £100 million on facilities! Everyone is happy! Everything is fine.

And with that authoritative denial, and another whopping annual payrise for Dr McMahon, there the story lies. No attempt is seemingly made to stand the allegation up, or to disprove it: it is enough that the BBC has maintained its vaunted ‘balanced’ editorial stance, regardless of the damage and confusion such inconclusiveness will inevitably cause in the long run. The truth, however unbalanced, needs to come out before anything can be done to halt the descent into oblivion.

One obvious casualty of the damage is the local housing market.

With fewer staff appointments, wage cuts and ‘zero-hours’ contracts, smaller ‘executive’ homes of the kind that would attract young academics are standing empty. Prices are static, falling. With so many fewer students, the university’s wasteful and shortsighted accommodation building programme has completely flattened the lettings market in the town. The knock-on effect is to create a glut of properties as landlords jostle to unload empty housing onto the market; most of it in fairly shocking condition, but hey, it’s only students.

And my nice little house is one of the casualties.

The principle of outright denial has to be challenged. Where there is clear evidence of wrongdoing, incompetence, waste and stupidity, it is simply not good enough for the media and opposition politicians to go silent in the face of bombastic official obstruction and obtuseness in the interests of ‘balance’. Any good journalist would be sure of their facts and stand their ground, until the story is out there and something is being done about it.

But we all fear for our careers. And nothing ever is.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

Phone Aug 15 029No-one takes me seriously.

I have tried explaining to various people. They smile and nod and carry on with their conversations.

This year, there has been an effusion of vegetative matter, the like of which I have never seen before. Does that sound so far-fetched?

Although the winter was not cold, and April saw the usual sunny spells, everything was late. Even by June, the Ash trees were only coming into leaf. One usually notices the road verges dotted with wildflowers by the end of May, beginning of June. This year, there was nothing but the acid yellow flowers of the gorse.

Then, in July, it all went berserk. You’d expect the flowers to have faded by August, but here we are, the 18th, and the valley is filled with Pennyroyal, Rose Bay Willow, Purple Loosestrife, escaped garden Crocosmia lily, thistle and much, much more.

It is the sheer exuberance, the density of the tree canopy, the impenetrability of the ground-cover; the sheer height of things – the invasive but pretty Himalayan Balsam, surely never more than four feet high, everywhere towering over my head. Spreading bramble thickets you can barely see over, choking under great mats of cleavers and trumpet vine ; yellow masses of ragwort, vast clumps of reed grass in the dried-out bogland; the proliferation of Goat Willow, of ripening sloes and acorns, of hazelnuts littering the valley floor, already their nut cases emptied for the squirrels’ larders.

What on earth are we to attribute this astonishing outpouring of green stuff to? I’m in my sixties and I’ve worked as a gardener for almost 20 years and I can honestly say I’ve never witnessed anything like this in my life. Is it just a freak year, unusually favourable weather? Is it to do with last year’s early winter storms and long hot Autumn? Global warming, record levels of atmospheric CO2? A one-off, or a significant annual event in years to come?

It  might be a sign: Nature’s desperate last gasp.

Wake up!

Phone Aug 15 025

So make a decision

“You’re cautious when it comes to spending money on practical things. Before you buy an appliance, you do lots of research to see which model will best serve your needs. This seems strange to your loved ones, who think you’re a spendthrift. While it’s true you have no trouble buying expensive artwork, clothes and furniture, you don’t like paying more than necessary for utilitarian items. That’s why you take pains to find well made merchandise that will stand the test of time.”

This uncanny prognostication from Yahoo! horoscopes this morning describes me to a tee.

How does Mr Russell Grant see so clearly into the grimy window of my soul?

I do indeed spend hours on the interweb thing, looking at everyday practical stuff, toggling between suppliers, carefully evaluating this and that, inured to the sneers of my loved ones. Then I make an executive decision to click and buy the biggest load of junk imaginable, or so it seems.

The ‘Canterbury’ solar light, for instance.

Last year, it seemed blindingly obvious that the solution to my dark garden at night problem was to go green and install solar lighting. As a working gardener, I had frequently dug up the remains of my clients’ cheap solar garden lights, especially the plastic pointy ends that snap off when you run over them with the lawnmower, probably acquired from pound shops; and dismissed them as complete rubbish, lasting barely a season and giving out wan illumination, at best equivalent to that emitted by a mildly intoxicated firefly.

The obvious answer appeared to be to source proper, more expensive architectural units, that would generate a decent current and withstand the rigours of the elements. So, Googling various solar lighting stores to compare units and prices, after several days online I stumbled across the ‘Canterbury’ and – bored with searching and having found several favourable reviews – took an executive decision to order three, at close to twenty pounds each.

What arrived was an unexpectedly large unit about fifteen inches high, featuring a circular mounting bracket, to which one bolted a hollow brushed aluminium base cylinder, fitted with a hollow frosted plastic tube for the light to shine out of; and, the operational part, a shallow ‘top’ (or as I would call it, a head) containing two rechargeable batteries, some circuitry and a switch. The actual light source was a tiny chip, almost invisible to the naked eye. Could this work?

The instructions were to screw the brackets to the wall and put the tops out in the open for three days, to fully charge the batteries before switching the lights on. After that, provided they received enough daylight, you could safely leave them on and they would continue all night to illuminate your path, deter intruders, and switch themselves off by day.

I have to concede, they looked very impressive, and I could scarcely contain my impatience to have them lit up and be able to move around safely by night (there are lots of steps) and entertain my friends on the patio, if I had any.

Sure enough, on the third night the lights shone brightly within their plastic cylinders. But not much further. The area beyond a foot or so outside the plastic cylinders remained pretty much in fustian obscurity. After a couple of months, one by one the lights stopped shining altogether, and inspection revealed that the switches and contacts had rusted; while a thick bloom of opaque discolouration had formed like a cataract over the tops, reducing the transmission of light to the cell.

I wrote to the Solar Centre to complain of this, and within minutes some extra ‘tops’ arrived by post. Bravo, I thought. Service.

The following spring, two of the three new ‘tops’ were no longer working, but I went ahead anyway and ordered three more ‘spares’ at nearly ten pounds apiece, and a fourth base unit together with its top, because they just looked so damned smart mounted on my studio and garden walls, even if they were pretty ineffectual. The fourth light was to illuminate the steps I feared falling down, as the nearest Canterbury light left the stairwell in Stygian darkness.

I noticed that there had been design changes in the meantime. The clear resin in which the solar cells were embedded now covered the entire surface area and was slightly domed, so rainwater could not pool or leak in. The metal switches had been replaced with non-rusting plastic, and a plastic inner shield had been designed to help maintain the waterproofing. The switch, too, now had three positions – High, Low and Off.

After leaving them out in the sunshine for the required three days, that night after dark I switched on all four head units for the first time. One would not come on at all, however much I jiggled the switch. Another worked only on the High setting. Fortunately one of the previous year’s batch was still working intermittently, so I still had three lights in the garden, except when it wasn’t working.

I’m sure Solar Centre would give me more top units, or my money back, if I complain. I am cautious not to spend any more, throwing good money after bad. But it seems a pretty hopeless undertaking. Then, what to do with four large, architectural-looking base units, uselessly bolted to the walls?

It’s an extraordinary problem, mitigated only by my having spent three thousand pounds last month on a gorgeous little Gibson guitar….

Sigh. You’re right, Russell. I had absolutely no trouble making that decision.


Your average Tory cunt

CUNT: Conservative and Unionist National Treasure

(Sudden flash of anger alert)

Popping to the kitchen, wondering about dessert after disgusting dinner of burnt/undercooked breaded supermarket codsteaks.

Nothing, of course. Cheese on a cracker? yum. Have to do.

On the radio, broadcasting aimlessly through the house (where I am not), Question Time. An irritatingly smug and inconclusive BBC panel show in front of a ‘live’ audience of politically vaguely aware, tittering middle-class Radio 4 listeners. Selected, predictably boring ‘topical’ questions, put to a panel consisting of Dr Germaine Greer and some third-rate politicians, rightwing journos and empty suits.

Should we kill all the migrants at Calais before they steal our jobs and rape our women? Asks one, sort-of. Nope, says Germaine, reasonably; we need concerted international action. Flap, flap.

Yes, argues Matthew Hancock, average Tory cunt and current Paymaster General, age 14 3/4.

According to the invaluable Wikipedia (somewhat dated entry):

He has attracted controversy in his role as Minister of State for Energy for hiring a private jet to fly back from a climate conference and accepting money from climate change denial organization Global Warming Policy Foundation.

That’s pretty much all we need to know about Matt Hancock: he comes across as yet another vapid Westminster bubble-blower dependent on taxpayer handouts, who has risen without trace from the intern pool to occupy serial offices of state, like his predecessor, John Major. One who, bizarrely, lists both Oxford and Cambridge as his alma maters. Oh, also that he shares an identity with another famous  nobody, ‘Matt Hancock’, from the creaking Aussie soap opera, Neighbours. As if we needed reminding. Clearly, he is marked for greatness.

‘What you need to understand’, he replies soapily, ‘is that thanks to the media, television and suchlike, these poor foreign people have suddenly seen for themselves how much better life is in the North and are swarming here like fruit-flies, determined to sponge off our benefits.’ Okay, that’s a paraphrase, but you get the idea. The idea is to relentlessly reinforce the Tory stereotype of the ‘economic migrant’ illegally hoping to suck our nation’s lifeblood in order to enrich himself at the expense of hardworking British families, out of his £5 a day asylum-claimant’s allowance.

Hancock is far too young and Oxbridge-educated to remember certain facts about Britain, namely that our wondrous current state of being as an Eldorado for economic migrants has been bought entirely at the expense of these fruit-flies clamouring at our gates. We fucked their countries over for four hundred years and made ourselves intolerably fat, rich and greedy – and them intolerably poor, thin and hungry – in the process. We replaced slavery as the motive power of Western industry with coal and oil and gas, much of it stolen from them, slowly rendering the air of high-minded hypocrisy unbreathable, and their countries uninhabitable.

Now we are pulling up the drawbridge; commandeering the best seats in the lifeboat; grabbing at the oxygen-masks and stomping on their fingers.

We are the spongers, Mr Hancock, in case you hadn’t realised. We are the scroungers. We are the economic migrants, the benefit cheats, the health tourists, the people traffickers and the gangmasters historically of the world. And, if they didn’t like how we treated them, we were the ISIS too, in our day. We’ve lopped our share of heads.

These people are our children. But now they are growing-up, we don’t want them in the house.

Please, Cameron, send the innocent Mr Wancock to Bangkok, so that he can imagine for a week or two his own two lovely children trafficked into prostitution for the pleasure of Western sex tourists. Or maybe Darfur, for a few years. He’d make a great ambassador, sweating in a UN tent. Libya – but which one? Or, maybe Damascus? A whiff of chlorine is so bracing. Seventeen years’ basic conscription in the Eritrean armed forces would do young Matthew no end of good. Some time on the frontline in Iraq, possibly – Kobani’s a great spot for sunbathing at this time of year. If like a good Tory he’s looking for an agreeable third home, property in Gaza’s going cheap – or maybe just a weekend hostage break in Raqqa?

Character-forming, dontcha know. Assuming he can swim…

Sick-making. Or was that the fish? We should be told.



Je suis Legend

What a nightmare (quel cauchemar).

Because of the hordes of disease-ridden insect-scroungers swarming at Calais like fruit-flies for a mass attack on the sacred White Cliffs of Douvres, I decided at the last minute to change my travel plans.

The thing was, I had only 40 minutes to get across Paris to make my connecting train. It seemed not impossible in the heat of the moment – and let’s remember, 1st August sees the regular outbreak of mass holidaying in France known as la fermeture annuelle – that there might be some delay getting through the Chunnel. Even a half-hour holdup would mean becoming stranded in Paris for a week, wandering around an empty and closed city on the lookout for zombies: Je suis Legend

So, with an eye on the newscasts, I nervously cancelled my train tickets, writing-off the two hundred pounds, and (after some internet nonsense in which it appears I had also booked a second ticket for use in December, when I was not intending to fly to France) just managed to secure the last seat on the 06.25 Ryanair flight out of Bristol, to where I uncertainly drove, arriving shortly before one a.m on the Friday night – I always believe in allowing plenty of time to check-in; while the Park and Ride turned out to be about ten miles away through the backstreets.

Hordes of tourists swarmed all night through the Departure lounge, with its many acres of shopping, each loudly trundling a suitcase with rumbling, squeaky wheels. Sleep was impossible. I could see no-one else with any luggage resembling my own, unfashionably strappy and behandled, expensive overnight bag in Burgundy-coloured Italian leather, that I had purchased for the occasion via Bagsonlinedotcom.

I don’t know, it’s like you go to an airport nowadays only to shop, and out the back where the changing rooms used to be you’re goaded onto a seemingly endless walkway and down a ramp into a cigar-tube with wings, where exhausted but still-smiling salesladies plastered in layers of makeup ply you with more opp0rtunities to shop, only to land two hours later at another department store somewhere warmer and muggier, but essentially identical.

A process not unakin to an abattoir, as I remarked to a fellow traveller, a total stranger, who didn’t seem to find it funny. He’s probably never kept a pig.

A week of similarly sleep-deprived nights followed, as we partied until dawn. Which explains why, on the last morning, I woke up on the bed fully clothed, and disbelievingly checked my watch, and gradually realised that, having merely gone to my room to collect my stuff, I had keeled over and missed the transport that must have left an hour earlier to take some of us to the airport, forty kilometres away.

There was still, however, an hour-and-a-half to spare to get to the airport before the boarding gate closed.

I could still make it!

The only human being I could find to explain my plight to was one of the hotel waiters, whose grasp of English was tenuous at the best of times. He too was crapulous with wine and lack of sleep after our last-night party. The French have an annoying habit, one no doubt among many, of considerately striving to muster their few words of English while you are conversing as fluently as you know how in your best French, thus ensuring there is no possible meeting of minds on the matter at hand. If only we could agree to stick to one language or the other, communication might be restored and a thousand years of history reversed.

Anyway, my urgent request that he telephone for a taxi met with the explanation that it would be very expensive, I would need to be a millionaire; and so, no, he or another would be honoured to drive me. Excusing himself, he disappeared off upstairs. Twenty minutes later he returned, to explain sheepishly that he could not find any car keys, or anyone at all, and anyway, he was still well over the legal limit to drive. Again, I pleaded with him to just call a taxi. ‘Per’aps feefty Euro!’ he expostulated, with a Gallic lift of both eyebrows. Increasingly agitated, I explained carefully that I did not give a fig how much it cost, I just needed to be there before nine o’clock.

He disappeared again. Another twenty minutes passed, before he returned with the news that the nearest taxi was in Marmande, 15 km away, and the lady owner did not think there was now time to drive to where I was to collect me and bear me thence to the airport by nine o’clock. My mind was racing: what possible alternatives could be plucked from the increasingly humid atmosphere?

By now, helpful English people were trickling in to breakfast, thus starting a fresh train of time-consuming red herrings and wild goose-chases. Ancient Mariner-like, I pathetically described my plight to all and sundry. Clever phones were produced and prodded, to no avail. We traipsed hither and yon, searching vainly for a reliable signal bearing possible news of timetables and suchlike; while in my brain, irreparably clogged with proteinaceous gunge, Time itself seemed both to contract and expand simultaneously. Internet connection at the place was, the proprietor shrugged, a trifle patchy, owing to it’s being ‘la campagne‘ – the countryside, a place of profound tedium and despair in the French mind, especially for those condemned to live there.

At last, the time for the aircraft’s scheduled departure came and went; all hope evaporated. With no means of contacting the airline, since their absurd website is designed specifically to prevent such a thing, I pictured the flight crew anxiously hovering by the aircraft door, checking their watches and the manifest for any sign of the missing passenger; my name being broadcast with increasing urgency over the airport tannoy; frustration and impatience written on the faces of my fellow low-cost passengers as the minutes tick by, anxious to depart; the eventual abandonment of expectation as the pilot finally makes an executive decision and revs-up the motor for takeoff.

French computers are not as English ones are. They are not called computers, but ordinateurs. The Qwerty keyboard layout is not just subtly different. The ubiquitous @ character required for the at-least four compulsory entries of your email address on all travel documents is one of three on its key, leaving you to work out that you need to press Ctrl. Alt. first, in order to separate it from the others. The full-stop, or point symbol, is hidden among the numeric keys, as far as possible from the other punctuation. The navigation is all in French, which by and large I comprehend but obviously not all the technical stuff.

Then, of course, although it is a situation by no means unique to my hosts (it happens every day to me at home), the printer has run out of paper, toner; and, since you printed out the wrong page first and then left it to time-out for five minutes, the driver has defaulted to a different (non-existent) printer, and you have left your passport in your suitcase in the other building, just when you come to the bit about printing-out your own boarding pass or face having to pay an extra 45 Euro to have one issued at the check-in desk; while EasyJet has already forgotten you said you were a ‘Mr’, necessitating a re-entry of all your other data.

But with the help of a kind Dutch guest and some interventions from the proprietor, whose ordinateur it was, I did eventually manage to make the booking, securing once again the last seat on the plane; and set off for Bordeaux, driven in a cute menthol-green hire car by a bluff and sailorly Englishman; a horn-player who, luckily for me, happened also to be booked on the 16.30 to Bristol, and happened to require a lift at the other end as, by chance, his own Byzantine travel arrangements had meant having to leave his own car at home; and who happened to live only an hour away from where I am sitting now, recounting my adventures.

Of such happenstances is life made, fortunately. I finally got in around midnight, to find my young dog-sitter packed and waiting anxiously, surrounded by mess and muddle after a week of holidaying in my little house, and my lovely Hunzi alive and well; which is all, frankly, that really matters.

It was certainly worth writing-off a third tranche of two hundred pounds just to see his little sweet furry face again, his reproachful eyes and his sweeping great plume of a tail threatening to send everything flying in his excitement. Hopefully we shan’t have to go through this torture again for another year, if then. I may just move permanently to France, it would be easier and cheaper.

Oh, sure, it was a great week, as always, but the travelling takes its toll every time on my sanity and my fragile bank balance. I am, I freely admit, administratively challenged. No, I will say: incompetent. A total booby, in dire need of a good PA – or a third wife, whichever comes first. I have read a review of a book by the estimable Alain de Botton, a public philosopher, in which he argues the case for accepting travel as an integral part of life. (I think at the time he was on a year-long grant from the British Airports Authority as the official sage of Heathrow.) I am not of his mind: travel is Purgatory, pure and simple – an uncertain and menacing space between worlds.

This is the fourth time I have made this pilgrimage to one of the great Continental temples of jazz, and the fourth time my journeying there and back, a distance totalling only 1800 miles, has turned to farcical disaster, bungled experiments, needless delay and expense (see Posts passim); all as a result of my inchoate attempts to find the quickest, the safest, the most reliable, the most direct – and the cheapest – way to travel, without losing my tickets on the way.

As for the possible ‘delay’ causing me to miss my train in Paris, there is an epilogue to my story.

It seems a fellow guest had chosen to travel by the same original route I had abandoned at the last minute, involving many trains. He told me, they experienced no delay in the tunnel and he safely made the transition to catch his onward connection in Paris – the one I had most feared missing. Luckily, he had decided to travel with his bicycle, to do a bit of sightseeing; because, when they arrived at the town where he was to make the final connection with the cross-country local service towards our destination, from where it was still a forty-minute car journey to the place, he found that the French railway workers were staging one of their perennial wildcat strikes and there was no train.

He was thus faced with a 65-kilometre bike ride through the night, and arrived at dawn the next day. Happily, his instrument was small enough to carry in his pocket: he is a harmonica-player, who, since the legendary Toots Thielemans retired last year at the age of 93, may be one of the few jazz harmonica-players currently practising, which is a shame but there you are. They say it is better to travel in hope, than to arrive.

I say, bollocks to that.

And now, blessed sleep…


04.00 hours: Oh, hello Cat, pleased to see me back, are we?