Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Peru, the Nazca Lines and Greenpeace

Southern Peru’s cultural and historical legacy includes two items of particular interest, both of which I am privileged to have seen. It is hardly surprising that the first of these, the Nazca Lines, was designated a World Heritage Site in 1994. The plant and animal geoglyphs, including the famous hummingbird, can only be fully appreciated from the air. It will be for evermore debated how an ancient civilisation could have been so ingenious as to create something of such lasting wonder.

Not quite so well known, but just as intriguing, is “Mummy Juanita”, the remnants of a teenage girl now at rest in the Museo Santuarios de Altura in Arequipa, long after her ritual sacrifice on the top of the Ampato mountain 500 years ago. As legend would have it, this was all part of Incan tradition involving the duty to appease their gods. Juanita’s fate was a single blow to the head, in marked contrast to other sacrificial victims who were strangled or buried alive at the top of the peak.

So if we now fast forward to the present day, and read about the act of vandalism that Greenpeace activists inflicted upon the Nazca Lines in their quest for publicity alongside the Lima climate conference, we might ask exactly how much appeasement the Incan gods might be entitled to call for. One or two ideas spring to mind…

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Delilah and the Despots

No, that’s not the name of a new band of X Factor hopefuls, however amusing it would be to see the reaction of the judges’ panel when they turned up for their first audition. And indeed to see the subsequent look on Louis Walsh’s face if they made it through to the judges’ houses round and he was yet again chosen to mentor the groups.

What feelings come to mind, however, when the Tom Jones classic hits the airwaves? They might include “what a singer – these talent show kids aren’t fit to polish his shoes” or “oh God, not that dreary old ballad again”, or even “I prefer the Alex Harvey version.” They certainly wouldn’t include “that song encourages domestic violence, it’s unfit to be used as a Welsh rugby anthem.”

Or maybe, as this Telegraph article reports, they would…..

I wonder if it is now time, in the face of laughable but ever increasing nonsense of this kind, to coin a new phrase to describe the individuals who seem to make it their life’s mission to go around looking for signs of offence in everything they see, hear or read, desperately seeking something new to condemn or to ban? Given the surreptitious growth of what might very reasonably be labelled the Dangerously Earnest Squadron of Professional Offence Takers, how about “DESPOTS”? Well, they do so often appear to be dead set on wielding absolute unlimited power over those whose written and spoken communication is not entirely to their liking…

And if we go one step further, how about a rallying call for the oppressed victims of professional offence taking, otherwise known as the overwhelming majority of the British public? There’s certainly a case for “Stand up to the DESPOTS – you know it makes sense”.

Now, all we need is a brave politician to champion the cause of eradicating DESPOTism. Anyone know one?

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Plebgate: Taking On The Patricians - and a New Insult

So the judge in last week’s Plebgate trial concluded in his judgment that Andrew Mitchell MP did, on the balance of probabilities, use the word ‘pleb’ when he had his Do You Know Who I Am moment with the Downing Street policeman.

In its modern setting, the P-word (no, not policeman) is clearly equated by its users with yob, oik, chav, lout and similar short and punchy terms for the user’s perceived inferiors. Let’s not stray into the scope for adjectival embellishment, which proved to be David Mellor’s undoing when he chose the wrong taxi driver to pick on, and let’s instead take a step back to ancient Rome.
For who stood above the plebeians in the Roman pecking order? The patricians did. Going back to the very origins of Rome, the pleb class included any tribe without advisers to the ultimate leader of the city state, whereas the patrician class had such advisers. Shades of the political class of modern times, it would appear, Or to be really cynical, the governing class in contrast with the governed class.
But all was not lost for the average plebeian. Despite the burden they faced of not being permitted to know the laws by which they were governed – now it’s beginning to sound like the EU, and the manner in which our political class do their best to brush this painful truth under the carpet – they were able to pursue upward mobility. The great military leader Gaius Marius was a pleb, as indeed was the celebrated advocate Cicero. They could be landowners. They had at their disposal the ultimate weapon of the ‘secessio plebis’, a staged withdrawal from the city in the manner of a general strike, and in time the ‘tribunus plebis’ (tribune of the plebs) role developed, whereby their appointed leader could veto acts of the Roman state and could on rare occasions impose a blanket veto over all government functions. Hmm. In modern times, the rallying call ‘Farage for Tribunus Plebis’ might sound rather clunky, but then again…
One further thought. There was a Roman class even lower than the plebeians, the non-landowners described as ‘capite censi’ (tr: chosen by the head – that’s where ‘headcount’ comes from – and both Cs are hard). Gaius Marius brought them into prominence by allowing them to enlist into the army. So is there scope to introduce a new insult from classical times into the English language? “Get out of my way, you horrible little capite census” – note use of singular – might attract blank looks at first but it could be away for the Mitchells and Mellors of this world to portray themselves as even more superior to those on the receiving end of their talking down. Maybe in due course we could just abbreviate it to ‘capcen’. You saw it here first.
Anyone looking for further modern day tales about conflict between patricians and plebeians could always try either of my books Hatred Ridicule & Contempt (especially as that also involves a libel trial) and Infernal Coalition – prologues above, purchase links on the side.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

UK Overseas Aid for.....France?

‘The growing unease over Britain’s continued commitment to overseas aid targets, regardless of the massive ongoing budget deficit, intensified today as news broke of the latest projects underwritten by UK taxpayers. Reports that British cash had been lavished on water standpipes in Toulouse, newly developed vaccines in Lyons, tattoo removal clinics in Cannes and emergency food drops in the Paris banlieues, over and above the irrigation projects bringing new hope to the impoverished French farming community, were badly received, with consternation in the Commons and demonstrations in Whitehall.

Beleaguered Secretary of State Justine Greening, defying calls for her resignation, asserted that there was little difference between the latest donations and those that had gone very recently to emerging superpowers and space programme pioneers India and China. “Charity does not begin at home. Britain is not an island. We all need to dig deep to support the victims of unforeseeable natural disasters. They were stupid enough to elect Francois Hollande in the first place…hang on, I think that should have been edited out.” Austin Mitchell’s interruption of Miss Greening’s statement with “Entente cordiale my arse” earned him expulsion from the Chamber.

Backbencher disquiet was not calmed when it emerged that the distribution of British aid had fallen to the sole discretion of a shadowy non-government organisation known only by the letters EU, its reputation notorious for the administrative expenses regularly offset from funds flowing into its coffers, and for the lifestyle enjoyed by its hierarchy…’
Yes, it’s only satire. But when we read about the EU’s peremptory demand for the UK to pay £1.7 billion into its coffers, in consequence of the British economy having performed better than expected, and the news in parallel that France is set to benefit to the tune of £790 million worth of rebates in the course of the UK surcharge being redistributed, isn’t there an echo of the old saying that today’s satire is tomorrow’s reality?

And tomorrow may be sooner than you think, Mr Cameron. What will you do about it? There’s still time for you to be a nonconformist. But not much.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Lady Gaga: Artrave Birmingham Review

Long ago, hell might have frozen over before I could ever have contemplated attending anything like a Lady Gaga concert. Not any longer. There’s no denying the talent of a genuinely versatile singer, songwriter and pianist whose first three albums speak for themselves and whose ability to capture media interest is legendary. But what about a full on live performance, especially the opening date of her UK tour in Birmingham? What chord would this strike with someone more deserving the label of big dinosaur than little monster?

Not the most promising of starts, regrettably. Two eminently forgettable support acts. The first, well meaning but out of his depth. The second, a painfully thudding and excruciatingly loud synthesised beat accompanied by a crazed performer whose sole contribution appeared to be waving her arms by way of accompaniment. Insider tip: arrive at 8.45 ready for the full two hour Gaga set, or just spend the first hour playing a private game spotting the fan best dressed for the occasion. Plenty of competition.
So what to expect when the curtain dropped and Gaga herself appears through the stage set tunnel, accompanied by a battalion of dancers and dressed in the first of many outrageous costumes, launching straight into a sequence of songs from her latest album Artpop? Thankfully, no diva behaviour and no lip synching. Just raw focused energy, hitting all the right notes. All the more so when the music briefly paused and she gave the first of her mini speeches, proclaiming forcefully that no artist needs managers or record labels. Will this deter Simon Cowell from pulling every string he can to get her on the X Factor live shows this time around? I rather doubt it. She’d be a match for him.

Anyone hoping for a break from the new material after Venus (and the seashell bikini) would soon have been reassured via Just Dance, Poker Face, Telephone and Paparazzi in quick succession. Soon followed by my own choice for song of the night, You and I – Gaga the born again rock chick, as she worked the crowd alongside the guitarists who had followed her to the end of the walkway? Well, any song that begins with ‘Been a long time…’ with a fast lead guitar solo midway through is going to have a certain attraction. If there’s any truth in the suggestion that her next project, hard on the heels of her jazz duet collaboration with Tony Bennett, is going to venture into classic rock, it’s going to be well worth the wait.
Back to the Artrave, with a slow piano version of Born This Way, not forgetting the two gay fans invited up from the audience to sit beside Gaga by way of thanks for their fan mail. Bang Bang was undoubtedly a tribute to Cher, not just the song but the costume and giant black wig, even if Judas might have been a less complementary gesture in Madonna’s direction. No further explanation needed for Bad Romance, before Swine (‘you’re just a pig inside a human body’ – wonder who that one was really meant for?) to end the main set and a final piano solo performance of Gypsy for the encore. Not forgetting the last costume change, the long white flowing number.

The true little monsters will have loved it. The undecided and the curious will have experienced a full blown assault on the senses. But in an undeniably positive way. I’m glad I went. And if Gaga’s next project is going to involve classic rock, there really will be no stopping her.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Happy Golden Wedding Anniversary, Charlie Watts

Cast your mind back to the English music scene in the 60s and 70s. Think for a moment about the aspiring rock bands who wanted nothing to do with the squeaky clean, goody two shoes, boy next door appearance of many of their rivals, and how they set about the task of proving themselves as nonconformists. It might start with a sneering image or a more defiant dress sense. It might then progress to destruction of their instruments on stage at the end of their live shows, and onwards to the use of hotel corridors for Harley Davidson trials, and hotel bedroom windows for the ejection of clunky old style TV sets from high floors. Not to mention the groupies and the opportunities to take advantage.

So how would any of those musicians achieve, in turn, the unlikely accolade of nonconformist within a nonconformist band? Let’s leave aside the fact that some of the present day survivors from old times would go back to their hotels after the show and tidy the rooms. Back to the past we shall go. As legend would have it, one particular member of a ‘bad boy’ group spurned the wild party and the groupies and went to bed at a civilised hour. Upon being rudely awakened by a 3am phone call, he is said to have washed, shaved, and put on a suit, before descending to the ground floor and expressing his displeasure with the antisocial caller. No doubt we can forgive the fact that he did so by punching the miscreant in the face, requesting in rather robust terms not to be described as ‘my drummer’ by ‘my singer’ ever again.

And on that rather contrived note, what better way to congratulate Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones on celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary, a truly rare milestone for any member of one of our long established rock bands?

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Scotland Decides: a Blackadder flashback

With the Scottish Independence Referendum campaign drawing to a close, it is time to resurrect a long forgotten episode of the much underrated Blackadder 1, Born To Be King, and update one of the closing scenes where Prince Edmund has unwisely challenged Lord Dougal McAngus, Duke of Argyll, to a duel.

With Edmund’s feeble weapon having been shattered by one blow from McAngus’ broadsword, leaving Edmund cowering before McAngus’ feet begging for mercy, let us update the characters: -

McAngus/Salmond: Right now, let’s see the Black Adder wriggle out of this one.

Edmund/Cameron: No, wait! I’ll give you everything I own. Everything.

McAngus/Salmond: Uh-huh?

Edmund/Cameron: Yes. I’m hardly a rich man.

(Voice offstage: You’re hardly a man at all.)

Edmund/Cameron: But my horse must be worth a thousand ducats. I can sell my wardrobe, the pride of my life, my swords, my curtains, my socks, and my fighting cocks, my servants I can live without, except perhaps he who oils my rack. And then, my most intimate treasures. My collection of antique codpieces. My wigs for state occasions, my wigs for private occasions, and my wigs for humorous occasions... (ad nauseam)

McAngus/Salmond: Ha ha ha ha ha ha. No, that’s nowhere near enough. (He rises to strike, and then stops.) I’m only kidding. I’m quite interested in the wigs. I hope life doesn’t get too dull for you, not being able to pass laws over Scotland any more. Ha ha!

Edmund/Cameron: Yes. Ha ha ha ha. (To himself.) I wouldn’t pass water over Scotland.

It may, of course, be a step too far to move on to the closing scene, where Edmund/Cameron carries out a cunning plan recommended by Baldrick/Boris some time before the St Leonard’s Day Celebrations/Scottish Independence Referendum, involving the accidental insertion of a certain Scotsman’s head into a loaded cannon, followed by a mighty boom. So I will simply close, in the face of our PM having all but entirely debased himself this week with the offers he has made (regardless of what Parliament might think) in support of a No vote, with an observation that I can see many attractions in Scottish independence. But I will keep them to myself.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Douglas Carswell MP: Courage and Integrity

Amid the party liners, sycophants and time servers that sadly make up far too much of the House of Commons, Douglas Carswell MP has always been a breath of fresh air - never frightened to speak out against the consensus and never short of ground breaking ideas, notably in The Plan and The End Of Politics. I was only too pleased to review the latter here out of gratitude for his choice of my question about Greek bailouts for Prime Ministers' Questions in February 2010 when he called upon his blog readers to make suggestions.

Much has already been said about his decision to leave the Conservatives and join UKIP, and to put this to the test via a by-election. Perhaps I might just add that this may just have involved taking the principles of The End Of Politics to their logical conclusion, given the virtually unbridgeable gulf between the three main parties and those whom they purport to represent when it comes to issues such as the practical downside of EU membership? Just look at the follow up to the vacuum cleaner ban that I covered not long ago - it is now set to be followed up with an attack on high powered hairdryers, kettles, smartphones and lawnmowers, all for the purpose of fighting climate change. Did we vote for this? Will the political class do anything about it other than the square root of damn all? Guess.

One last thought. Many years ago, an eminent political figure who had just very publicly left the Tory ranks spoke of the party being lost at sea. To paraphrase in today's setting: "Until the Conservative Party has worked its passage a very long way it will not be rejoining me. I stand...where it [once] stood on all the major issues. It has got to get back there, and when it gets back there, bless my soul, there will be our old friend Douglas on the shore to welcome them." Well, it might need a Tory-UKIP pact, and the defenestration of David Cameron and George Osborne, but stranger things have happened.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The EU: It Beats as it Sweeps as it Cleans

Thwack! Another lethal product is beaten into oblivion and it’s all for our own good! Swoosh! Petty objections are swept away! Scrub! The devastating effects of climate change are cleaned up in an instant! How grateful we all are…

Now let’s get back to reality. As the EU’s ban on top rated powerful vacuum cleaners comes into force, with less than two weeks to go before companies will be prohibited from manufacturing or importing any vacuums with motors above 1,600 watts, is it likely that we will all be rejoicing at the benevolent paternalism of the likes of Marlene Holzner, the Belgian EU Commissioner named in the Telegraph article, who has already spoken in high praise of the measures that she and her kind have inflicted, evidently to help tackle climate change by cutting Europe’s energy usage?
Or will we curse this latest interference of the overzealous paternalists whose desperation to be seen to be doing something no doubt explains why they overlooked Sybil Fawlty’s specialist Mastermind subject, the Bleeding Obvious – namely that the less powerful machines will be run for longer to do the same job and will use more energy in the process?

If only we could sweep the EU away and clean up what its legislation regularly inflicts, even if giving the Commissioners a beating might be a step too far...

Friday, 8 August 2014

Obesity Epidemic: A Fatuous Phrase

“Is stoutness as big a problem as you’re making out?” “Yeah, it’s huge…”

But is it an epidemic, we may ask?

Yet another example of yesterday’s satire becoming today’s reality can be found in the Not The Nine O’Clock News ‘Stout Life’ sketch, with presenter Janny Shtrait-Pawuh interviewing George Fletcher from Proud To Be Stout, while the organiser of plump discos Reverend Tubs Wiston looked on. Little did they know that thirty years later, health experts would be gravely warning about the ‘obesity epidemic’ and how it threatens all of us…

Let’s go back to first principles. ‘Epidemic’ is one of many medical terms deriving from ancient Greek. ‘Epi’: upon, ‘demos’: people. Quite a sensible illustration of what happens when a contagious disease goes beyond a mere outbreak and descends upon a far greater section of the population than could have been expected. And just to complete the picture, the more serious ‘pandemic’ is reflected in the fact that in Socrates’ times, ‘pan’ meant ‘all’.

Here and now, there is no denying that obesity is a condition. The condition may indeed be widespread (no pun intended). Equally, the unthinking use of body mass index (BMI) formulae may have served to exaggerate its prevalence, by unfairly tarring the naturally large framed with the same brush as may be quite rightly used upon those who treat a KFC Bargain Bucket as a light personal snack between meals.

But how on earth did we ever reach the point where the World Health Organisation formally recognised obesity as a global epidemic? What a gift to those in desperate need of more research funding at the taxpayers’ expense, and to the strident voices of the nanny state calling for more regulation of food consumption and more levies on taboo products. The casual twisting of language is just insult to injury.

With all due irony, Jim from the Royle Family would almost inevitably have reacted with “obesity epidemic my arse”. A more balanced view would perhaps be to file it alongside Christmas shopping, carbon footprint and Labour government as a new entrant to the Top 10 most irritating two word phrases.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Quitting a Profession: Higher Education, Law, Medicine

As the prologue of Infernal Coalition (above) shows, law professor Susie Harris found herself contemplating a career in Conservative politics, thanks to the party leader’s apparently sincere call for more ordinary people untainted by past political involvement to come forward as candidates. It would have involved walking away from academia and taking a leap into the unknown, all for the purpose of becoming involved in something new and different, and promoting the higher goal that had been proclaimed in the first place. (With the real life Infernal Coalition now over 4 years old, we may recall that proclamation and weep, but that’s another story…)

It is easily forgotten that qualifying into and practising in a profession is something distinct from a mere job or career. Professionals spend many years obtaining their unique qualifications, sacrificing potential short term gain in doing so. Upon admission into their professional body they will be expected to put others’ best interests first, even if those interests may conflict with their own. A good lawyer will recommend acceptance of a sensible deal, and deter pursuit of a futile claim, even if it means losing out on fees. A good doctor will similarly resist the temptation to sign a malingerer off work, or to prescribe unnecessary medicine or treatment when the solution is perfectly within the patient’s capability and willpower, resisting the “anything for a quiet life” mantra. And a good teacher will mark incorrect work wrong, and withhold a pass grade from a fail paper, even if targets fall by the wayside and malcontents complain.

And after so many years of keeping to professional principles, how far are they carried over and sensibly applied when an even higher calling beckons? Well, for a lawyer seeking to become a judge, it ought not to be too difficult – assess all the evidence and then decide, rather than simply advise and act. And for a professor seeking to become a politician, there’s every chance for logic, reason and academic freedom to find their practical use in the running of a country, especially when combined with many years’ worth of knowledge of the national education system and how, unknown to the average non-specialist politician, it might be failing. (Yes, of course there’s also every chance for new MPs to abandon their principles, go native and stick their snouts in the trough, but there are many honourable exceptions…)

Which leads me to the medical profession. Consistent with the “we must be seen to be doing something” doctrine that seems to be a key principle of NHS administration, perhaps combined with “especially if it enables the creation of more fake work and more highly paid managers’ roles”, they have in recent years introduced “revalidation” for GPs. The supposed idea, to make them demonstrate that they are up to date and fit to practice. Never mind professional pride and common sense. Ignore existing workloads and work-life balance. Take no notice of the fact that the existence of the occasional bad apple will not mean that every GP must be tarred with the same brush. Just assume Guilty Until Proven Innocent, and devise a time consuming and burdensome system that leaves them having to demonstrate training course attendance and to ask patients and colleagues for testimonials. Is this really the way to treat professionals, and is it really likely to make any NHS stakeholder (excuse the Blairism) feel any better about it? Hardly.

And how does quitting professions come in? No, it’s not simply the wave of early retirements of competent but exasperated GPs in the face of the ever increasing bureaucracy, which may one day sink in with the NHS top brass as a practical illustration of the law of unintended consequences. It’s the curious fact that the full time GP assessors evidently include former practitioners who have chosen a career in regulation in place of one in medicine. And who have adapted to their new role by communicating with their perfectly capable and competent former colleagues about the jumping of hoops and the meeting of deadlines in tones more suited to clipboard wielding local government jobsworths rejoicing in their ability to tell small businesses all about their powers to close them down.

There are clearly meritorious reasons to quit a profession. But do they really include the pursuit of a career like this?

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Robbie Williams ‘Swings Both Ways’ Tour: a review from Birmingham

For anyone accompanying a die hard Robbie Williams fan of many years’ standing to the ‘Swings Both Ways’ tour, there will be different thoughts running through the mind. Curiosity, for instance, about a pop megastar deliberately choosing a different musical style for an album and tour that would be in marked contrast to the previous year’s stadium shows. The overriding hope that the true aficionados (such as my wife) would rate the show a success and not think they had been let down. And, of course, a personal wish to have a good time and not feel guilty about having possibly deprived a true follower of a ticket.

Fear not. Every box was ticked. Despite the man himself admitting to feeling below par, few may ever have noticed or suspected a thing otherwise. Two hours’ worth of solid entertainment. Highlights? The faux operatic ‘No One Likes A Fat Pop Star’, with Stoke on Trent’s finest being suspended from a wire in a fat suit, was suitably hilarious. Maybe ‘New York, New York’ in true Sinatra style edged it for me. Not forgetting the duet with his dad, and the reworking of the odd personal classic in swing style. And an interesting new song ‘Sensational’ to close – could this be his answer to ‘We Are The Champions’, with more emphasis on thanking the audience than Freddie’s self congratulation?

But something else stood out. Not for the better. To my wife’s immediate left, on the upper tier seating about two thirds back from the stage, was a middle aged woman whom I will call Nellie for no particular reason (well…). Nellie proved herself to be one of those modern day concert goers obsessed with capturing the experience on smartphone. Great chunks of the show disappeared into the electronic menace as she leaned everywhere for that all elusive perfect view, regardless of the fact that the distance from lens to stage was fixed without scope to zoom, the sound somewhat less than crystal clear, and the future audience questionable when the multi-angle, perfect audio DVD will be out for Christmas. And what about the treasured memories that ought to flow from the £77 ticket price? “What did you think of ‘High Hopes’, Nellie?” “Duh…can’t remember. Did he sing that?”

There was, of course, a time in the analogue era when bootlegging a concert from a big name band would have been a bit of a dare. In the digital era, it’s a bit of a bore, especially to those trying to enjoy the show without the distraction of a perpetually waving arm with a smartphone on the end. Time to pack your trunk, Nellie.

Before I forget, 4/5 out of 5 for the show. Probably exactly what Robbie himself would have given it.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Hatred Ridicule & Contempt: an extract for King Henry VIII

No, not the monarch - my old alma mater King Henry VIII School, Coventry. Any former pupil from the seventies in particular might just see signs here of a subconscious (or possibly deliberate) tribute to a wonderful character from the teaching staff...

* * * * *

As he approached the converted bothy in a remote area of northern Scotland, a slim tracksuited figure defied his seventy plus years as he ran up his garden path to the front door, quickening his pace at the sound of his phone ringing despite the eight miles already beneath his feet. He seized the receiver as it rang for the sixth time.

“Am I speaking to Sid Parry?” Alex had deliberately not gone into the office at his usual hour, preferring to make the call from home so as to follow it up in complete privacy. Assuming, of course, that the call would prove fruitful.

“You are indeed. Excuse me one moment.” The elderly runner paused for breath. “Nothing quite like bounding through the heather first thing in the morning. Now, who might you be?”

“Do you remember who won the 400 metres in the match against Loughborough Grammar in 1978?” Alex had come up with the unusual icebreaker for the often mercurial figure on the other end of the phone not long after his call to his old school’s heritage secretary late on the previous afternoon, and Serena’s follow up with directory enquiries. He had been hardly surprised to hear that one of life’s eccentrics had chosen retirement in the wilds of Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands.

“Well, I don’t believe it.” In the final contest of an athletics season many years ago, two further unexpected victories and personal bests for the school’s team members in the 1500 metres and the triple jump, over and above the 400 metres, had secured not only an overall win against a long thought invincible rival, but also a regional schools trophy based on performance throughout the season. And it had brought one of the proudest moments of an ageing teacher’s life. “Don’t tell me, let me think now – you must be Harris, Alan Harris?”

“Alex. How’s retirement treating you, Sid?”

“Couldn’t ask for more, my dear chap. Wonderful scenery, peace and tranquillity, and I can run through the glens with my dogs, and then come home and read to my heart’s content.” They reminisced for a few minutes. “So what’s led you to call on an old buffer like me so early in the morning?”

“This is going to surprise you. I need help with some Latin.”

The old schoolmaster roared with laughter. “Latin? You? After all these years?”

“Look on the bright side, Sid. If it hadn’t been for your bellowing, I might never have run a 400 so fast. I just wish I’d brought the Noddy book into my last lesson.” Alex remembered how his ineptitude in one of Parry’s Latin classes had provoked a stentorian rebuke coupled with a sarcastic suggestion about alternative reading matter for the next occasion.

The bellow on this occasion was in mirth rather than anger. Parry finally collected himself again. “OK, fire away.”

“Could you by any chance look something up for me? It’s a missing word in a sequence. The first three are ‘Thybrim multo spumantem’ and I need to know the last one.”

“It’s ‘Tee-brim’, not ‘Thigh-brim’, you silly boy!” For a moment Parry imagined he was standing in front of a classroom once more. “I bet you never knew there’s quite a story behind that verse.”

“Oh, really?” Alex thought it judicious to let his former athletics coach indulge in his other lifelong passion outside of competitive sport, rather than press him for a quick answer…

“You must know of the so-called Rivers of Blood speech, and what it did for the political career of Enoch Powell? Brilliant classical scholar. Well, what happened to him was all a complete travesty, because he never used those words at all. What the poor chap said was ‘Like the Roman I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood’. And it was all based on a direct translation of a piece of prophecy from one of the greatest works that Latin literature ever bestowed upon us.”

“What work was that?” Alex attempted a small prompt to nudge Parry back on track.

“Virgil’s Aeneid, my dear chap. Brilliant work. “

“So you can find the missing word for me?”

“Find it? I’ve been acquainted with that literary feast for over fifty years. It’s in Book 6, where Aeneas is seeking a prophecy from the Cumaean Sibyl.” Alex struggled to stay focused. “The verse runs ‘Et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno’. So your missing word is ‘sanguine’, my dear chap.”

“Did I catch that right – ‘San-Gwyn-Ay’?” Parry gave a confirmatory grunt. “Can you spell that for me?” Parry did so and Alex checked and double checked that he had written it down correctly.

“You’ve been most helpful, Sid.” They reminisced for a while before Parry remembered the impatient terriers at his feet and ended the call.

And as he replaced the receiver, it suddenly dawned on Alex, thanks to his former teacher’s wide ranging knowledge of how that particular item of Latin verse had been used in more recent times, that the potential star witness who was still just out of reach had been safeguarding his electronic secrets with a dual lock code that would be an amusing riddle to a classics graduate...

* * * * *
So what was the story behind the verse? Why did Alex need it translated? And what made him decide to call a former teacher? You could always read Hatred Ridicule & Contempt to find out. Links to Kindle (etc) on the right, prologue above. Still a screaming bargain.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Customer Satisfaction: from aviation to politics

Few would dispute that long haul flights nowadays are an experience to be endured rather than enjoyed. Especially when combined with the international departures ordeal where passengers can be forgiven for feeling that they are despised, envied and looked upon as a tiresome nuisance impeding the efficient running of the airport. So when an airline gives the impression that it will always go that extra mile to make the experience less dreadful, by offering service such as premium economy seating, twilight check in and comfortable lounges – combined throughout with a welcoming and friendly approach towards its customers at all times – it’s hardly surprising that it will win no end of repeat business and recommendations.

That’s you I’m talking about, Virgin Atlantic. Recent Gatwick-Cancun experience well up to your tried and tested standards both ways, and a certain inevitability about our next choice of airline next time around. Keep it up.

One nagging irritation, no fault of the airline of course, was the holiday tax, otherwise known as Air Passenger Duty. Has there ever been a more iniquitous and counterproductive tax, one which makes long haul flights provided by foreign carriers at nearby continental airports all the more attractive to travellers not tied to the UK? Which damages not only the UK aviation and tourist industry, but also Third World economies by imposing higher costs on flights to Caribbean islands? How regrettable that a party in government (albeit in coalition) holding itself out as a supposed champion of lower and more sensible taxation should have only tinkered with this poisonous Blair-Brown legacy rather than abolished it altogether.

Perhaps it’s just one element of a wider disdain for customer satisfaction in the political arena that Douglas Carswell MP admirably describes here. Antagonise your customers, take them for granted and stop selling them what they want to buy, and they’ll take their business elsewhere. Not a million miles from the main theme of Infernal Coalition, but that’s another story…   

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Infernal Coalition

Followers of UK national politics from a partisan viewpoint may have strong feelings about the coalition government that has run the country since 2010.

They may think that the coming together of the two parties for the sake of national unity was the best thing since sliced bread.

Then again, they may be more likely to feel that this has been four wasted years for the Conservatives, who once had an open goal against Gordon Brown but then inexplicably squandered their poll lead, and ended up having to abandon much of their carefully planned programme for government and enter an alliance with a once bitter enemy. On the Lib Dems’ side, it may not be unreasonable to conclude that it would have been better to remain the natural party of protest, with a voice to match, than to enter unimpressively into government amid broken promises and lightweight policies, and find dark threats of annihilation awaiting them.

All in all, a pretty infernal coalition. But one which now gives me a perfect reason to amend the title of my second novel, a legal/political suspense which coincidentally takes place against the background of the 2010 General Election, to Infernal Coalition.
Still a bargain download via Kindle or Smashwords. Especially just ahead of a UK election when many might be looking for an excuse to proclaim how infernal they consider the coalition to be.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Holiday Reading: a clear win for The Rosie Project

Having managed to read five fiction novels over the course of a recent holiday – two 14 hour flights played their part in enabling this – I wondered which one had been the most worthwhile and enjoyable. The conclusion I reached was arguably a touch surprising in view of the competition.

First one completed was Michael Crichton’s “Sphere”, one from the distant back catalogue dating back to 1987, combining science fiction with psychology. Yes, I never lost the urge to keep finding out what happened next. But how frustrating to reach the end of a book of this kind and nurse the feeling that loose ends were not satisfactorily tied up, and that there was scope for something more dramatic. 3 or 4 stars, on balance, but not a patch on Airframe or State Of Fear.

A similar feeling left my overall enjoyment of “The Fear Index” by Robert Harris somewhat tainted. Granted, the amount of high tension that was packed into such a short timescale was masterful, as was the underlying theme of an artificial intelligence algorithm gaining the upper hand over mere humanity in the investment markets. But again not every question was answered by the time the book came to a close. So I’ll say 4 stars.

The only downside to “The Devil Will Come” by Glenn Cooper, whose Library trilogy is definitely a favourite recent discovery of mine, is that any suspense novel focusing on the Vatican and a Papal election is going to come up against Dan Brown’s “Angels & Demons” as a benchmark. The twists and the thematic regressions to ancient history in Cooper’s work were well up to expectation, and it’s only the less compelling plot in comparison with Brown’s that brings this one 4.5 stars rather than top marks.

I will withhold the title and author of the fourth book, a conspiracy theory/political thriller, out of courtesy. Regrettable as it may be to speak ill of an indie work published with the Kindle market very much in mind, especially one where the plot was good, it was littered – I mean, really littered from start to finish - with dreadful grammar, appalling punctuation and incorrect homophones, e.g. “tail” for “tale”, that gave away a cavalier attitude towards editing. Only the plot won it 1 star and saved it from being metaphorically hurled against the wall very early on (the folly of treating a Kindle in that manner is of course a residual argument for actual paperbacks).

So onto the winner. For “The Rosie Project” by Graeme Simsion, a clear 5 stars. Here we find the tale of an eccentric Australian genetics professor – some would say a lonely geek – who decides to solve his lack of a permanent and (here’s the key word) suitable female companion not by internet dating, but by devising a searching questionnaire for potential candidates to complete – The Wife Project. A couple of examples, accompanied by multiple choice points scoring options: “My ethical position and behaviour are based on” and “The strongest argument against evolution is”. So much for the more conventional means of detecting a potential lifelong partner via “describe your perfect evening” or “list your favourite music/pet hates/ideal holidays”.

But it’s not all analysis. There’s a life to lead too, via a rigidly scheduled but entirely logical routine, e.g. lobster every Tuesday. And if a restaurant insists on its male diners wearing a jacket, what is the problem with a state of the art cycling jacket, when it meets the dictionary definition of such a garment in every respect? Then cue Rosie’s entrance, chaos and bedlam in tow…

Perhaps it’s the true nonconformist spirit of Professor Tilman, not fitting into conventional societal norms but rendered oblivious to the fact by his superior intellect – as many hilarious examples illustrate throughout – that made “The Rosie Project” the clear winner on this occasion. The author’s blog is here.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Food Glorious Food - and the nanny state

Last week I found myself on the receiving end of a group sales presentation over lunch. The invitation had proclaimed the restaurant in question to be top class, and the restaurant’s blowing of its own online trumpet was extensive and generous. In marked contrast to its portion sizes. I was left with an abiding impression of “art food” and a sense of being somewhat less than full when leaving.

This happened to be the same day as the Chief Medical Officer for England, one Sally Davies, announced that there “may have to be” a sugar tax introduced “to tackle the nation’s obesity epidemic”.

As ever, these guardians of public health choose to gloss over the fact that it is entirely possible, let us say, to enjoy a single Mars bar without wanting to eat six more in rapid succession, and that it is in turn disproportionately unfair on the less well off to insist that they hand more money over to the government in return for being allowed to indulge in moderation. Just as is the case with any substance deemed sinful despite remaining legal. Perhaps it will not be long before the casual trade in contraband cigarettes is displaced by “Psst. Anyone for duty free Mars bars?”

But back to that restaurant. If the Chief Medical Officer has her way, what better marketing slogan than “Half the food – Twice the price”? Of course I jest. But it would be so easy to picture her glaring at a Mars bar and hoping that one day the slogan would describe exactly what she had achieved.

And so to a brief interlude on drink. At the lunch, I had wanted to recommend a specialist beer outlet in Cheltenham to a fellow participant, and could not remember its name no matter how hard I tried. Back at the office, a quick search brought up the name “Favourite Beers”. But for some inexplicable reason, its website was barricaded behind a “TalkTalk Homesafe” obstacle (how it got there is a mystery in its own right) which had classed it as “Drugs, Tobacco and Alcohol” and thereby evidently unfit for free online access. Really? So two legal substances are being grouped together with an illegal one, all in the cause of the latest nanny state inspired impediment to unfettered internet use?

Yes, political class, I know you like to be seen to be doing something. But perhaps one day it will dawn on you, in the face of gesture initiatives like these, why you are more despised than ever.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Smashwords: 2014 Read An Ebook Week - Count Me In

Those awfully nice people at Smashwords are promoting the joy of reading ebooks, for a week from Sunday 2 March. In their own words: -

"Read an Ebook Week is an international celebration of ebooks in which thousands of authors, publishers and retailers feature free and discounted ebooks to help promote the joys of e-reading to the world's readers.  Each year, Smashwords authors are the most active participants, and our store features the largest selection of participating titles.  It's a fun promotion, because the more the participating authors promote their involvement, the more readers then go on to discover new Smashwords authors.  It's writers-helping-writers at its finest."

It would have been a shame to let this pass by without participating. So for one week only, head on over to Smashwords and you'll be able to download both Hatred Ridicule & Contempt and Sackcloth Ashes & Penance for a pretty sizeable discount.

(Link to follow.)

Saturday, 8 February 2014

More On Surveys (or: Moronic Surveys)

Hard on the heels of the National GP Survey (see post below from 13 January), where a recent reminder that I had not completed and returned the original questionnaire still failed to convince me of the merits of doing so, I found myself looking at another survey. This time the subject matter was diversity. The administrator was the regulatory arm of one of our once great professions, and there was an unspecified sanction for failure to return the collective questionnaire answers on time.

It is arguable that this one, despite its mandatory nature, was futile from the outset. Quite rightly, the answer gatherers were duty bound only to invite the return of completed individual questionnaires, not to compel it. And quite properly, the model questionnaire included a “prefer not to say” option to the many somewhat intrusive questions about sexuality, religion, education level and family care duties, even if some form of “mind your own business” might have more accurately reflected the reaction of the interrogated. And, of course, there was no guarantee of honest answers. Even if an army of national census takers had been put in charge, the results may have been equally meaningless and/or unfit for constructive subsequent use.

But the online process for the mandatory reporting of results recognised none of this. Having asked for an initial headcount of the interrogated, it gave no option to report that all or any of them had declined to return questionnaires at all. It simply launched straight into the answers, where the closest option to record the refuseniks’ stance was (inaccurately) “prefer not to say”. Remember, of course, that this is a compulsory procedure, and the online response template was unyielding.

So if and when anything is reported about the survey results, we may not be reading, hypothetically, that a substantial number of those asked to complete and return questionnaires declined to do so. We may instead be reading that there was an overwhelmingly good questionnaire response, even if a substantial number of the answers comprised “prefer not to say”. And this would no doubt be spun as a positive reaction to the survey, with the next one duly scheduled for 12 months’ time, and so on…

I am reminded of a Soviet era spoof report on a Cold War sporting contest, which ran “In yesterday’s athletics/chess/ice hockey match between America and Russia, our Soviet heroes finished second, and the filthy capitalist swine finished next to last.” It would of course be very unkind to suggest that there may be similar spin from a body of UK professional regulators when they have collated the results of their diversity survey. But for a less frivolous view, an extract from a 60s political speech says it all: -

“Sometimes it is a minor detail which casts a flood of light upon the malaise of a whole society. This incipient perversion of the census machinery derives from the very same general assumption which is pervading and strangling our life and our economy, namely, the conviction that the citizen is perfectly incapable of conducting his own affairs unless he is managed and controlled, planned and organised, with material distilled by experts from elaborate surveys which bureaucrats have conducted into his benighted behaviour…..they are all branches, some tiny, some large, of this same pervasive, poisonous upas tree of contempt for the independence, dignity and competence of the individual.”

- Enoch Powell, Wolverhampton, 19 April 1968, ironically the day before a certain other speech.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Hatred Ridicule & Contempt - on Awesomegang

Thanks to authors' and readers' site Awesomegang for today's publication of a full page ad for my debut novel Hatred Ridicule & Contempt, complete with all the links. Click here for a look. Quite a lot of other promising book ads and links on Awesomegang too.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Coming to Breweries' Websites Now: the Nanny State

Would the outlet at the Banks’ Brewery be open, I wondered, on Saturday mornings in the winter? The need to head in that direction for a small errand had made me think it would be worth finding out. And their website seemed the obvious place to start.

I found myself looking at an Enter Here page. It was illustrated by a promising slogan, “Fresh From the Country – the Black Country”, and a picture of a handpump with a rotating display of their flagship bitter and mild. But that was not all. There was a dropdown menu. And a question: “Are you of legal drinking age for the UK? Please tell us what year you were born in.” The menu asked visitors to select a year, making it implicitly clear that failure to tick one of the choices would preclude entry to the site.

Intrigued, I scrolled down to the bottom of the page, finding some consistent small print. “You must be of legal drinking age to enter and use this site.” Really? “To find out more about responsible consumption, visit Marstons PLC.” Beneath the small print was a link to the website for the charity drinkaware.co.uk.

What sinister invitations could be lurking the other side of the barrier, I wondered, deciding to click on my year of birth and take the plunge? Well, the outlet’s opening hours were there as I had hoped, thankfully including Saturday mornings. A description of each of their beers too. A walk through the process of brewing. The history of the brewery. And an explanation of their brewery tours with the catchline “enjoy 3 half pints on us”, although the tours were seasonal. But nothing more sinister than that. Not even the chance to order a supply of beer online, let alone an invitation to the next secret lock-in at one of their tied houses (joke).

So what’s with the demand for age confirmation? Such a pointless gesture anyway. An underage schoolboy interested in researching local industrial history, or how water, barley, hops, and yeast can be transformed into beer, is hardly going to think twice before clicking on an inaccurate age option. And that’s the kind of prohibited person who might be looking at the site, not someone in search of illicit online refreshment when it’s quicker and easier to go straight to the off licence or supermarket.

Not knowing if some draconian EU based legislation might have been sneaked through on the quiet, I thought of four other favourite ales and checked out their breweries’ sites. Neither Timothy Taylor, nor Theakstons, nor Hook Norton nor Purple Moose asked their website visitors to confirm their age. The latter two were heinously (!) offering beer for sale via online shops. Both Theakstons and Purple Moose had the drinkaware website link. A brief look at the JD Wetherspoon site also sailed through without an age confirmation enquiry.

One impression stood out. Whoever decided to make visitors to the Banks’ website go through that irritating final step could only have been following that equally irritating policy doctrine, namely the need to be seen to be doing something, empty and futile gesture as it was. Will it result in one single drop of beer not finding its way down an underage drinker’s throat? Hardly. Would they have put it up because of a legal threat? Equally hardly (but watch out for the nanny state’s mission creep, now that they have seen off tobacco displays). Might they have been responding to some busybody’s nagging? Maybe, even if common sense would have dictated a reply involving long walks and short planks.

At least the visit to the outlet was worthwhile. Eight top range bottled pints for £10, from a wide variety including the Wychwood and Ringwood ranges alongside Banks, Marstons and Jennings, was an offer that beat the supermarkets hands down. Well done, Banks’ Brewery. But please, take that silly age confirmation requirement off your website.

Monday, 13 January 2014

The GP Patient Survey 2014: a recipient's view

Early in the New Year a bulky envelope found its way through the letterbox. The accompanying letter gleefully told me that I was being asked for feedback “to help improve local healthcare and other services” by answering questions about my experiences of my local GP surgery and other local NHS services.

Wondering if the answers would be truly anonymous and confidential if any recipient chose to cross-check the 10 digit reference on both the letter and the form, I turned the page. I was advised that my name had been selected randomly then and invited to apply for any necessary assistance in 13 different languages, or to request a copy of the questionnaire in Braille via a special phone number. (Yes, I know…..)

I flicked through the questionnaire to assess the task ahead of me, and saw fifty box ticking questions. The first section was about “accessing GP services”, which was fancy talk for making appointments and speaking to staff and doctors. The old cliché about whether other patients can hear what you say to the receptionist was dusted down again, closely followed by a question that appeared to presume that some people make GP appointments by fax or would prefer to do so.

Over to the “making an appointment” section. “Last time you wanted to see or speak to a GP or nurse from your GP surgery, what did you want to do?” One of the six options was “I wasn’t sure what I wanted.” Oh, come on. To order a large cod and chips, perhaps? Or a pint? Or just seek a few kind words? (Maybe this was an option for the Alzheimers’ sufferers.)

Now for the GP and nurse appointment section, all about assessing time given, listening, explaining, involvement and caring, all on a sliding scale from very good to very poor. All options fairly covered, you might think, but how interesting it might be to see the GP completing a parallel patient focused questionnaire on such issues as lateness, paying attention, courtesy (e.g. not interrupting a consultation to answer the mobile) and respect for the opinion of a trained professional who might not be giving the advice the patient wanted to hear?

The focus then switched to the patient’s personal circumstances. Questions were asked about long term medical conditions before moving to mobility, ability to wash and dress, usual activities, pain, discomfort, anxiety and depression. Curiously, none of them carried a “mind your own business” (or should that be “prefer not to say”) option. The questionnaire went on to ask if the patient had a “written care plan” before ending up at question 50 via out of hours services and a brief set of enquiries about NHS dentistry.

Now, it’s perhaps not entirely unreasonable to conclude that out of the brave souls who began to complete the document, a fair few would have given up out of boredom, frustration or annoyance before the last of the 62 questions bore a ticked box. It may be equally accurate to conclude that those who were sufficiently motivated to fill the whole thing in and return it would comprise more than a fair share of the complaining classes, leaving the silent majority to nurse their adjective of choice. So how representative would the answers be, and how sensible or otherwise in turn would it be to allocate resources in order to address perceived shortcomings evidenced only by those answers? Debatable. But it’s hardly likely to bring the questionnaire mania to an end, even if its sole practical purpose is to demonstrate that “garbage in, garbage out” is as true a principle as ever.

Wait a minute. Did I just say 62 questions when I started off with 50? Indeed I did. Well, a government questionnaire would hardly be the same without the usual collection of diversity questions about personal characteristics. The normal range was spiced up on this occasion with a few more covering such topics as how long your work journey takes, your smoking habits, and your time spent giving support for the infirm. Interesting to note that while the “male or female” question did not provide a third option, thereby inexcusably discriminating against the hermaphrodite community, the orientation question included a curious “other” alongside straight, gay, bi and prefer not to say. It would perhaps be wiser not to comment further, save perhaps to note the potential deterrent value of this closing section upon the incentive to return completed questionnaires. Or to decide whether to laugh or cry at the thought of the poor souls in the survey brainstorming session struggling with the duty to report that 26% of the respondents who were both Buddhist and heavy smokers used their written care plans to help manage their health day to day and had trust and confidence in their GP surgery nurse despite not being happy that other patients could overhear what they said to the receptionist, having made their appointment booking by fax.