It casts an interesting sidelight on which are the most hated countries in Europe.
Britain pretty much invented modern pop music – a sweeping claim, it must be admitted, but you might know in what sense I mean it. It was a long time before the rest of Europe caught up and began to churn out stuff that we Brits on our holidays could nod and say, hmmmn, not bad, to. For decades, French pop music was an oxymoron; while it took a technological revolution to make German electronica niche listening.
Today, the Eurovision Song Contest embraces a vast range of cultures, obscure former Soviet and Balkan mini-statelets, rutted feudal demesnes. Even Israel and Australia now join in, but by and large the output has become homogenous. Where maybe only ten years ago you’d still get the odd no-hoper of a nationalistic, costumed folk tableau straight from the Ministry of Tourism, you now get wall-to-wall national takes on Britpop, with all the associated tropes of gyration and grimace. (Please, girls, stop doing that bendy thing with your knees, it’s demeaning.)
Eurovision is a huge, camp riot of a festival, complete with what seem to me to be staggeringly wonderful and expensive laser lighting effects, a CGI-generated audience and breathless, gibbering presenters reading off cue cards. Last night’s jamboree was climaxed in weirdness for me by the inclusion of a bizarre sketch featuring two of our own, most nationally treasured old theatrical queens, Sirs Derek Jacobi and Ian McKellen, sitting companionably on a sofa in front of an invisible TV and grumbling (along with most of us) about how awful and tedious the show was, like the grouchy Muppets, Statler and Waldorf.
(Actually, I may have dreamt that bit.)
Instructively, the show was presented from Stockholm, largely in English. English, of one sort or another, is the common language of the Eurovision Community. And there’s the rub. That’s because it’s the language of pop music too. But the real English never win.
The competition was won by a gravelly-voiced mezzo from wartorn Ukraine, enrobed like a Greek tragedienne – the song a lugubrious dirge with a stirring backbeat about the ethnic cleansing of the Tatar population of Crimea in 1944, under the guns of Stalin’s Red Army. The performance, with its obvious reference to Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, came close to rudeness: one doesn’t talk politics in Eurovisionland. The Russian entry, a firm favourite to win, came only third, behind a South Korean immigrant representing Australia; a tiny, fragile creature with a bellowing voice. Russia, of course, is now complaining bitterly about a political fix: it does not bode well.
Britain’s entry came nowhere, slightly above Germany.
Now, the German entry was probably rightly savaged for its heavy-handed satire on the occasion: a child-woman dressed as a Minnie Mouse doll singing a feebly comic number, pregnant with that selfconscious jocosity the Germans produce whenever they are accused of not having a national sense of humour. But for the first time in years, the British entry wasn’t half bad: a decently well-written song, competently performed if somewhat obscurely presented in front of a montage of national cultural icons (cf. the London Olympics) and without the overblown pyrotechnics of the rest.
Largely obscured by the dramatic lighting and loud instrumentation offstage, the vast bulk of the show’s mid-section consisted of mediocre slush, derivative and unmemorable. It’s been forgotten somewhere along the way that this is a song contest, i.e. a contest of songs – not an ‘X-Factor’-style talent show for febrile popwits or a circus for hyperactive art directors, delirious lighting technicians and cocaine-fuelled r&r men.
Yet all of those Identikit popsters garnered massive supporting votes from the 200 million viewers, that pushed them relentlessly up the board (how I do miss Katie Boyle, the no-nonsense presenter of years gone by. She would take a dim view of the directionless banter and eternitised dramatic hiatuses that predicate the announcement of competition results on TV gameshows and bake-offs nowadays.)
Initially greeted with at least some tepid warmth by the professional judges, the UK’s entry entered its long slide into oblivion as the viewer votes were counted in.
It never occurs to us, or if it does we put it down to our natural superiority, but we are, possibly, the most disliked country in Europe. For that reason alone, while I have long held that Brexit from the European Union will leave us stranded as second-class citizens, queuing for hours at the Aliens’ desks of regional Spanish airports, our cherished institutions at the mercy of power-hungry plotters with curiously shaped heads: Gove, Grayling, Boris Johnson and Duncan Smith, and is to be avoided at any cost, Brexit from the Eurovision Song Contest would at least mark our contempt for the millions of dimly illuminated continentals who don’t recognise real talent when they see and hear it.
After all, we haven’t won in decades; and, as the outreach gets broader – who next, Argentina? North Korea? Kanye West? -, it seems less and less likely that the hated colonialists will ever win again, despite having invented the whole sorry process. Let’s save ourselves the annual ritual humiliation and expense of Eurovision and start again from scratch with our own, home-grown TV contest.
A few kilted folk songs might go down well. Morris dancing. A cake display, possibly.
© Sterling Pound, 2016
Sixty-nine year-old Mr David Shaw owns a business registered in Litchfield, Staffs – near Birmingham. Curiously, he also seems to live there.
Britannia Services Group was founded 22 years ago, since when several internal supply companies within the Group seem to have started and been wound-up. Only the core business ploughs on. It’s principally involved in hiring out cleaning staff to what Mr Shaw describes on his LinkedIn profile as National Blue Chip Companies (like many not very literate businessmen hoping to impress, he’s prolix with his capital letters).
It’s quite a small business, judged by its listed officers – eight of them – and by its accounts, which are commendably up-to-date. Being so small, it’s not really obliged to publish a lot of information about itself, but it has been relatively generous on that score, and I’ve not had to pay to dig deeper.
With £9 million annual turnover and declared assets of £3.4 million, whatever assets an employment agency may be said to have; a desk, a phone, a waste-paper bin, the company is valued at about £4.4 million. Its value seems to have increased markedly over the past year, we are not told why. It could be a sign, given Mr Shaw’s age, that he is looking for a buyer.
And who could blame him?
Britannia has £100,000 in issued share capital, which is jointly owned by… oh, yes, Mr David Shaw, and a Mr ‘D. Shaw’. Mrs David Shaw, having resigned her directorship not long ago, remains as Company Secretary – a typical ‘husband-and-wife’ nominee arrangement. Mr David Shaw is now the sole director; a fact that might give some concern to National Blue Chip Companies, who (and I have had painful personal experience of this) like to deal with ‘business partners’ with rather more visible governance and a fallback plan should Mr Shaw, as it were, fall back.
The rest of the listed shareholders, many of them coincidentally also bearing the name of Shaw, are mostly in for £1. They are basically the named officers and a handful of permanent employees. It all looks pretty ramshackle, but unexceptionable in UK Company law. This ‘Nation of shopkeepers’, as Mareschal Ney dismissed us with Gallic contemptuosity, has over four million such little companies beavering away unsung.
Interestingly, Britannia is sitting on a £2 million cash pile, according to the accounts (making it more solvent than its larger namesake, UK plc), with which it would no doubt be nice for Mr and Mrs Shaw to walk away into a happy retirement, but is otherwise pretty unremarkable.
Except that Britannia claims to have between 1,200 and 2,800 employees.
That being the case – office cleaning is an up-and-down business, migrant workers tend to come and go and the numbers are bound to vary – the turnover-per-employee seems to work out at between £3k and £7k a year; not enough to actually pay them.
For that, of course, does not allow for the overhead running costs: rent and rates, heating and lighting, advertising and recruitment costs, telephones and postage, vehicles, executive salaries and bonuses, shareholder dividends, insurance premiums, pensions and National Insurance contributions, ‘holiday pay’ (ha!), corporation tax, auditors’ fees, bank charges, brushes and wipes and binbags, chemicals and capital-fund accumulation… a profit…..
Deduct those normal business costs, and the average worker contracted to Britannia Services Group is worth, basically, fuck-all.
Recognising that fact could explain Mr Shaw’s astonishing intransigence in the face of polite requests from his workers in the London area to be paid the recommended London Living Wage of £9 an hour, instead of the bare new Minimum (‘Living’) Wage of £7 an hour. (I’m ignoring the pennies, it’s late.)
The building in London next-door to where my old mum is clinging on as a ‘protected’ tenant in the face of efforts to redevelop her bizarre collection of porcelain clown masks was recently torn down and rebuilt as three two-bed flats, two of which carry a price tag of £12 million and the other (with two basements to include a pool and a media room) of £18 million.
From this it may easily be seen that the average migrant worker with one child in London is perfectly capable of living on £14k a year, which would enable them to buy their own flat in only 847 years, provided they ate nothing betweentimes.
Mr Shaw’s response to this modest request was to suspend the two Union representatives, pending charges of destroying his business. And after a ‘committee’ meeting (of one, presumably, with Mrs Company Secretary taking the minutes) he has now sacked one of them, for unspecified reasons.
‘Carolina’ is a single mother from Ecuador. According to Change dot org petitioner Susana Guaman, one of the ‘Top Shop Two’ (I’ll explain in a minute):
“The disciplinary hearing which led to Carolina’s dismissal was held in her absence, without her consent or knowledge, as she was on sick leave suffering from depression and anxiety.
“The allegations against Carolina, on which her dismissal was justified, relate to unspecified conduct and behaviour issues (as is always the case when a company victimises someone) for which not a single piece of evidence was or has been presented to her.”
The women are known as the ‘Top Shop Two’, because one of Mr Shaw’s National Blue Chip Companies is the eponymous retailer, a chain of lower-middle-market, high-street women’s fashionwear retailers. It is Top Shop’s refusal to increase the money they pay to Mr Shaw for the services of his cleaners that, he says, is the reason why he will not tolerate Union interference in his business, upstart third-world single mothers making outrageous demands upon his hard-earned profits.
So, boo to Top Shop, which is a very large, impersonal and – frankly – awful company; and also boo to Mr Shaw, who is clearly a mean, bullying monster who attracts deeply vengeful reviews from former employees.
Except that, I imagine, neither Susana nor Carolina actually understands the precarious state of the game Mr Shaw is playing.
They assume (because I suspect they haven’t looked) that his is a Big Business, that is out to screw them and their colleagues. No more so than most small businesses – I’ve worked for some stinkers. I think I’ve bogled before about Michael L, the agency owner who diverted the entire staff’s annual bonus pool into buying himself a yacht and then palmed us off with a £10 shopping voucher and a Christmas card.
Mr Shaw is trapped in the classic situation of being a minnow swimming in a shark tank, and he very probably wants out. Only by posing behind a magnifying lens can he gain or retain the big account business he desperately needs to keep his company’s valuation up, to attract a lucrative buyer. And he can’t do that if he is being seen to overpay his workers, however much they might deserve better. He cannot afford to lose Top Shop, and he cannot afford to dilute that capital reserve fund, that is buoying up his company’s valuation.
It’s just bad luck that these women (they are mostly women) have signed up in good faith to an employer whose business may not be quite as large and successful as it looks on paper. It’s not something Shaw can admit to them, if he wants to get them on-side. They have no idea, seemingly, what kind of small family business is employing them; in my rapid estimation, it’s probably not what they imagine.
The best thing they could all do is not turn up for work in the morning – fuck him, he’d lose his National Blue Chip Companies in a week. There are plenty of other agencies they can go to.
But office cleaning is a brutal, competitive, bog-standard, low-margin business and for a migrant worker, I guess it’s better the arsehole you know. There are very probably many migrant workers who are being screwed down even harder. They’re not going to be able to rely on references to get better work elsewhere. A Union strike would put David Shaw out of business, scupper his retirement plans – kill the goose, manky and flightless though it is.
£7.20 is surely better than deportation?
So, farewell then Dilma Roussef, President of Brazil.
Ms Roussef joins a long line of politicians who have failed to learn the lesson of history, that in South America spending money that rightfully belongs to the landowners and the business elite on projects to help the working poor and indigenous people spells death to your career ambitions. Being a woman doesn’t help either.
Being as they are totally untainted with the stink of corruption, while they cook-up the standard narrative to discredit the President, Brazil is now safely back in the hands of the rich white guys’ party.
Without the expense and inconvenience of an election.
A great system.
As my many Followers, Likers and Spammers will kno, my sole source of employment – the only work I can get – is as an invigilator of exams at my local university.
It occupies me for five weeks of the year. The rest of the time I’m not sure what I do, to be honest. This, I suppose. And walking Hunzi.
It’s a job for a schizophrenic. Half of you is working as a policeman-cum-security-guard (or ‘Campus Life Manager’, as we must now call them), relentlessly patrolling to detect or preferably forestall cheating, ‘Unacceptable Academic Practice’ as we are learning to call it. Eternally vigilant for suspicious bulges betraying the presence of a mobile phone, we rifle through bags and pencil cases for concealed notes and demand to see what the students’ tattoos are telling them, that they didn’t already know about astrophysics or sports psychology.
Meanwhile the other half is scooting up and down, helpfully fetching pens and rulers and erasers for dimwits who have turned up with no means of taking the exam, providing tissues to snivellers, being sympathetic to candidates in the throes of a nervous breakdown and explaining kindly to students who should never have been admitted in the first place, how to fold over the corner of their answer book and stick the flap down to conceal their identity from the marker. (I was once called over by a student who asked me what degree she was doing?)
And trying to avoid reading what the early leavers have written. It’s immeasurably dispiriting, knowing that one tried and failed in one’s youth despite having A-levels to get into any of half a dozen universities (probably because it was done on interview in them days and I was a miserable, moody, snooty little git who hadn’t read any of the set books), to read answers that have barely progressed in any literary sense from the fourth form, knowing that the candidate will in all likelihood graduate with a 2:1 on the basis of this ungrammatical, childish claptrap.
(Modest proposal: I’d like to see university lecturers drafted to teach for a year in the sixth-forms of schools, at least two hours a week, on how to go about writing essays of a slightly higher intellectual order than ‘What I did on my holidays’.)
As often happens in these dissertations, a faint whooshing! sound and some eerie music take me back to my own days as a rather elderly undergraduate about to sit the theory test, part of a vocational degree I had stupidly signed up for at my local technical college (as it used to be known: we must probably now call it the University of South Watford) in the hope of meeting girls.
I had worked for some years as a radio announcer. The job often involved unsocial hours, getting up at half-past three in the morning to start work at five. If something went wrong, a newsfeed was down, a line had gone dead or a colleague failed to show up, you were on your own. And that pitiless old second-hand was ticking round inexorably to the moment when you had to start talking sensibly, bang-on the hour, and finish bang-on the second after talking for exactly 180 seconds. It can seem like an eternity. And if you’re late into the studio, it can be hard talking with your heart in your mouth.
In those days, I used to dream anxiety dreams, that I soon discovered were common in the business. I would dream that some wag had crept into the studio and set fire to my script, so that I had to remember what was written below while I was still reading the bits above, and it was turning to a pile of ashes in my hand. Or, that I had forgotten to write a script, but grabbed an armful of paper off my desk at the last minute and rushed into the studio just as the DJ was introducing the news, only to find it wasn’t news stories at all but just random letters and bills and supermarket receipts, and I had to start talking NOW…
So there I was, due imminently to turn up for an exam, knowing I was already a complete failure and that I was about to be tested on things I knew nothing about. So I hurriedly whipped through a textbook and scribbled little notes on pieces of paper, odd names and formulae, and secreted them in various places about my person. It wasn’t that I intended to cheat, to rely on notes, to even look at them: the information was of no value. I just needed to be close to some knowledge, to know that I actually had something in case of emergency, to allay my chronic anxiety that something, anything, everything unforeseen must surely go wrong: to guard against the known unknowns.
And even today, on stage and about to sing, despite feeling perfectly confident I judiciously pin the words to a handy music stand, just in case the worst I’ve imagined comes true. And then, of course, I’m looking nervously at the words I would otherwise remember perfectly if they weren’t pinned to the stand and so lose contact with the audience, and sometimes even the pianist. You hear about really famous actors having to secrete their lines all around the set, little prompts to themselves here and there. It’s all down to what Mel Brooks memorably called ‘High Anxiety’, in his parody of Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ mixed somehow with ‘High Society’ – the link being Grace Kelly. (Funnily enough, I also suffer from acrophobia – fear of heights.)
Unacceptable Academic Practice can, at such times, be seen merely as normal prudence. Not, however, to judge by the Rules of Invigilation, which hold rigidly to the notion that even writing one’s girlfriend’s phone number on one’s wrist before wandering into the exam room is a career-defining crime: nothing written extraneously shall be admitted, regardless of purpose or intention. God knows what the Senate makes of tattoos.
As a boy scout, my motto had been: ‘Be prepared!’ It’s not natural to strip oneself naked to go into the exam room, to abandon commonsense under artificial conditions that will never again occur during one’s working lifetime, to let go of the notes we pin everywhere around us, metaphorically and often literally, to remind ourselves of the important little things we really do know but are afraid we might forget.
I can easily understand, too, how a student can genuinely fear being parted from their phone. Phones have become so central to people’s view of themselves in the world, so necessary to their social survival that it seems an act of cruelty to tear them apart in this way. (Again, if you can program your phone with useful data to pull up in an exam, it’s surely proof that you already know the subject but just fear your ability to recall details under the special pressure of an exam, that will never be repeated in your career.)
New data points to a horrific toll taken on students’ mental health, with ambulances called to over a hundred and thirty suicide attempts last year. This exam pressure surely cannot be right, although the robust side of my character protests that maybe university isn’t for everyone. I know I should probably have drunk or smoked myself to death, had I gone to university. Crowds can be lonely places.
Happily, no-one ever found out about my notelets. I did poorly though not disgracefully in the theory test. I didn’t go on to work in the industry anyway, what I wanted was a complete change of career. If I had, no-one would ever have dreamed of asking me what degree I had obtained! My degree was actually won through submitting a ten thousand-word dissertation of such startling magnificence and mature insight, it scored a 92 per-cent mark – a Distinction.
Of course, I wrote it in a single day. The final day…
Starting work at five a.m. can get to be a habit.
Cometh the hour…
My Man of the Month? (Dramatic pause…) Step forward….
Mr A. Hitler!
Not only has the former Reich’s Chancellor supplied a rather dodgy alibi to Mr Ken Livingstone, erstwhile Mayor of London, after his somewhat ill-judged intervention on behalf of Roz Shah MP, who has been unfairly accused (also in my view) of advocating the forcible removal of Jews from Israel to the USA; he now provides the model of governance for the European Union.
Outgone London Mayor Boris Johnson, whose Trump-like tongue-in-cheek campaign to promote Brexit, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, so clearly aligns itself with his vainglorious hankering to lead the Conservative party and occupy No 10, has likened Brussels to Hitler, and, indeed, Napoleon – both ‘little men’ who wanted to unite Europe; of course, he concedes, in different ways.
Various spokes on the Remain side have pointed out that Boris is talking out of his considerable Turkish arse, as usual. Herr Juncker has never, so far as we know, tried to invade Poland. Mr Tusk already lives there. And what’s wrong anyway with uniting Europe?
They’re wrong. Invoking Hitler does in fact have a magical effect: the marketing boys at the history publishers I worked for calculated that you could get an automatic 15 per cent increase in sales just by including his name in the title of any book.
So there’s no truth in the story that Boris is publishing his autobiography: “Hitler’s Machiavelli – The Prince Returns”?