Sunday, 30 January 2011

Good news story

In tough times, it’s a blessing to find an instance of triumph over misfortune from which we can all draw encouragement.

For months, we’ve been wondering whether Britain was going to experience a ‘double-dip recession’ – back into recession a few months after climbing painfully out of the last one – as the opponents of the present government claim, or avoid that fate, as its supporters hope.

The jury’s still out, but the early signs are ominous. Provisional figures for the last quarter of 2010 show that the economy contracted 0.5%, which is massive as these things go. The definitive numbers may not confirm that gloomy picture, but if they do, and if there’s no upturn this quarter, we’ll be back into the textbook definition of a recession: two successive quarters of contraction.

This would be bad news for a lot of people. Jobs will go, those on the edge will be precipitated into poverty, a lot of hopes and ambitions will die.

So let’s take comfort from the uplifting tale of Tony Hayward. Last summer, he was Chief Executive of BP. You may recall that he was involved in some unpleasantness involving oil in the Gulf of Mexico, when the locals became restive and a number expressed views that can only be called intemperate.

Tony Hayward: poster boy for overcoming adversity

In the end, although he’d faced a crisis which manifestly required steady nerves, his particular brand of quiet calm, cruelly interpreted as indifference, led to his being forced out of his position. To console him for his loss, he left with little more than a few millions, and not many of them at that.

Well, it was announced last week that Glencore, the world’s largest commodities trading group, has approached him about the possibility of joining its board. It seems that Tony hasn’t even decided to take the offer if it’s formally made: he’s building a ‘portfolio’ of top jobs from which he’ll choose the one or ones that best suit him.

It’s a tremendous relief, isn’t it? I mean, it’s awful for these people who’ve grown used to living on eight-figure salaries to have to cope without them, and it looks as though Tony won’t be in that position for much longer.

It’s all very well saying that senior executives are highly paid because they have to take responsibility when things go wrong. It’s a good principle, but do we really want to see it ruthlessly applied in practice even to people this likeable? It was, after all, just unfortunate that during that spot of bother in the Gulf he was perceived as the most hated man in America. There comes a time when we have to move on and put all that behind us.

Perhaps Tony could demonstrate his commitment to our government’s bright new idea of an all-inclusive ‘Big Society’ by going on a speaking tour of the unemployment black spots of this country. His theme could be ‘Bouncing back from Adversity: how I showed that losing a job can be the beginning, not the end, of something worthwhile.’

I’m sure his unemployed audiences would derive great comfort from sharing his experience of dealing with difficulties so similar to their own, and overcoming them.

Friday, 28 January 2011

It's all a matter of trust

Danielle’s applied for a couple of jobs which require security clearance – one of the firms was supplying sensitive equipment to the Ministry of Defence, carburettors, I think, or perhaps windscreen wipers – while the other produced barcodes, and obviously we don’t want the Chinese to know just how much we’re prepared to pay for wrapped vegetables in our supermarkets.

It was made clear to her that she was a bit of an outsider for either job, because we tend not to appoint to sensitive positions people who are... how shall I put this? ... is there a way of avoiding an insulting term? ... no, I’m just going to have to bite the bullet and risk causing offence... foreigners. You see, Danielle’s French, and you don’t get much more foreign than that. I mean, we let them ashore in Sussex in 1066, and look what happened.

Anyway, I fully appreciate the concern. You can’t really trust anyone but a Brit, can you? You even need to be careful with the Welsh and the Scots. No, to be really sure of your ground, you have to stick with the English.

We’ve had some striking examples recently. There was that Metropolitan Police agent Mark Kennedy who, under the name Mark Stone, spent years posing as an activist inside the environmental movement. Deep penetration was the name of his game, and he took it rather further with some of the female members of the movement than his lords and masters had originally intended. Or so they claim now. I think the point was to show that, although the police mostly believe in conspiracy, they’re fully prepared to entertain a bit of cock up too.

Since his story came out, it’s emerged there were several more of his colleagues inside the wackier reaches of the green movement. One of them, Jim Boyling, aka Jim Sutton, went so far as to marry one of the activists and have a couple of children by her. That’s a level of devotion to the service of the public that I believe unrivalled since the days of East Germany and their glorious State Security. You can imagine how much more easily I sleep knowing that out there are men capable of scaling the same moral heights as the heroes of the former Stasi, to protect us all from the threat of the tree huggers.

Boyling (left) and Kennedy: two of England's finest and truest
But the best has to be story of Alan Johnson. Until a week ago, he was Labour spokesman on the economy (a subject on which he confessed he knew nothing). He’s been obliged to step down (and make way for Ed Balls, who knows a great deal more). By doing so he brings to an end a career that it would be hard to describe as glittering – he doesn’t do glitter, our Alan: he’s not really gold, but other metals are almost as valuable, you know, among them lead. Though deprived of sheen, his career had been long and successful, taking him to one of the great offices of state, Home Secretary, responsible among other things for the police.

Which is ironic, since if he’s stepped down, it’s because of the behaviour of his police protection agent. These are the bodyguards provided for serving and former politicians, whether they’re gilded like Tony Blair or leaden like Johnson. The copper assigned to Johnson had gone so far in the task of getting close to his protégés as to have an affair with Laura, Alan’s wife.

These are the men and women who have been certified as trustworthy by the state, receiving official security clearance.

With such models, I can’t help wondering how Danielle should feel if she doesn’t get the same level of clearance herself. Disappointed, of course. But shouldn’t she perhaps feel a little bit flattered too? Or at least relieved?

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Led astray by my wife

It’s my birthday, so I suppose it’s by way of celebration that my wife is taking me to see a pornographic pantomime on Friday.

Of course, it doesn’t describe itself as ‘pornographic’ but as ‘adult’. Still, the posters show that it has a certificate restricting access to 18-year olds and above (interesting that ‘above’ really only means ‘older’). Since stage shows don’t usually get such certificates, I can only suppose they awarded it to themselves.

When a show has to tell you that it's raunchy, it probably isn’t that out of the ordinary. It’s just like those people who tell you how hard, or how well, they work: pinches of salt are always in order.

The pantomime's called Alison Wonderbra. That may give a pretty good indication of just how wild it is: a little naughtier than Alison Nightdress, a bit tamer than Alison G-string, perhaps.

We were sold the tickets by a pleasant and most helpful lady. There were only seats one behind the other available at the time we saw her, but we’d not been home long when she rang: ‘I’ve had a cancellation and can seat you next to each other if you prefer. Would you like to pop in and exchange your tickets?’

Just how much better can service get?

Anyway, before we bought the tickets we checked with her just what kind of a show it was.

‘Is it funny?’ we asked.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘very. As long as you’re not easily shocked.’

I felt like telling her that I was indeed shocked by gratuitously obscene acts such as the decision to cut funding to libraries up and down the country. But then I realised that wasn’t what she meant. So we took the tickets.

Come to think of it, since she actually works for Luton Central Library, which houses the theatre that’s putting on the show, she’s probably as horrified as I am by the impending fate of our fine public services.

Equally, given that it is Luton Library that's staging Alison Wonderbra, it’s probably safe to assume that it's more wholesome than the ‘18’ certificate might imply. ‘Adult pantomime’ perhaps, but with the accent firmly on ‘pantomime’.

Still, it's fun to think that in the week of my 58th birthday my wife still wants to take me to a show that's a bit on the wild side.

Getting us in the mood: detail from the poster

Monday, 24 January 2011

The truth is rarely pure and never simple

We all get a bit fed up from time to time. And when that happens, what we need is a quick remedy to put a smile back on our lips. Struggling to work on a dismal Monday morning in January, we need something that will act as a splash of sun to relieve the greyness of the day. 

For me, one of the best tonics is to absorb a flash of wit. It’s even better if the wit is laced with a touch of cynicism. I feel that anchors it more firmly in reality, and if you want a real laugh, have a laugh about something real.

That’s why I’ve developed such affection for the American journalist H. L. Mencken, who died over half a century ago. Five minutes reading some of his quotations, and there are loads on the web, is an excellent antidote for boredom or depression, perhaps brought on because you’re at work when you'd rather be almost anywhere else.

Mencken: deserves to be better remembered
He isn’t always right, of course, by which I mean that I don’t always agree with him. But right or wrong he always gets me smiling. Or at least sneering.

A taster for you:

All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.

The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line.

Some of his comments on politics are particularly striking. Here’s one I’ve found more and more convincing as the years roll by and I realise that, judged by their achievements, the guys in government have absolutely no edge over the rest of us in skill or understanding. Mencken grasped that ages ago:

The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office.

But here’s the sentiment that really bowls me over because it sums up what so many tell us, in churches, in politics, in the press – in business for God’s sake:

There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong

Right now several governments around the world explain our economic problems on the grounds that ‘the nation has maxed out its credit card and has to reduce its debts.’ This is such a simple idea, so close to the experience of individuals, that more or less any voter can grasp it.

All it leaves out of account is that, like a company but unlike an individual, a government can spend money so that it makes more money – for instance, a smart investment can get people out of benefit and into taxes. And unlike either individuals or companies, a government can set its own income – by increasing or reducing taxation.

So how is government like a man with a maxed-out credit card?

Remember Mencken. It’s an easy idea. It’s neat. It’s plausible. And it’s wrong.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

We victims must denounce this violence

Violence against the person seems to be a matter for the inside pages of the newspapers until you’re a victim yourself.

I’m spending this weekend nursing an injured eye, the product of a completely unprovoked act of senseless brutality on my train home on Friday.

I should really stop writing at that point. That’s about as dramatic as this story’s going to get. Certainly, nothing I add is going to conjure up any more sympathy for me, and it might in fact evoke some scorn. However, as a self-appointed chronicler of daily life, I owe it to myself as much as to my readers to record history accurately and in full. The whole truth, not just the truth and nothing but.

Firstly, I have to admit that the offensive weapon used against me was the Guardian newspaper. OK, OK, you can laugh, but have you read the Guardian lately? It’s full of uncomfortable articles, some of them highly pointed. Its conversion into a weapon seems perfectly plausible. In fact, many would argue that in an important sense it’s an effective weapon already.

Semi-lethal weapon
Secondly, I have to confess with even greater reluctance that the paper was being wielded by me. Yes, yes, I was my own assailant. But I assure you that an injury hurts no less for being self-inflicted. It still deserves at least a little sympathy.

I was sitting at the aisle end of a seat, and another passenger wanted to get past. That meant transferring my paper to my left hand (I’m right handed – you can already imagine the dangers inherent in that manoeuvre) and simultaneously move my bag out of the way. President Gerald Ford could famously not walk and chew gum at the same time; it seems I can’t move a newspaper and a bag at the same time. Or at least not safely. So I poked myself in the left eye with a pointy bit of the Guardian.

Which has caused me significant suffering.

And that, I hasten to point out, calls for sympathetic fellow-feeling rather than mocking laughter.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Perfidy knows no boundaries

Mine is a much-maligned nation. ‘Perfidious Albion’ the French like to call the English, and the French never miss an opportunity to run us down. Then again, we like to return the favour.

Perfidy, however, knows no borders and respects no nationalities. The French, in particular, need to be a little circumspect in bandying that epithet around.

Any study of the origins of the French language is likely to make reference to the Strasbourg Oaths of 842. Two of Charlemagne’s grandsons, Louis the German and Charles the Bald, swore an oath of mutual support, each speaking in his brother’s language; their armies echoed the oaths, each in their own language, with the interesting provision that if their master were ever to break the oath and to take up arms against the other brother, they swore not to obey him.

The oaths were duly written down, and the French versions became the oldest known documents in that language. Key documents, then, in the history of France.

The oaths didn’t pledge loyalty in a vacuum, but concretely in support of a struggle against the eldest brother, Lothar. Where Louis and Charles had inherited the West Frankish (French) and East Frankish (German) parts of the empire of Charlemagne, Lothar had inherited the title of Emperor and the kingdom of the Middle Franks. It ran from the Low Countries, through the Rhineland, Western Switzerland and Provence into Northern Italy. A long thin strip between the other two.

Imagine how European history might have been with a nation keeping France and Germany apart.

And what perfidy Charles and Louis engaged in: they formally swore to act against the own brother and ostensible overlord. As an elder brother myself, I particularly resent that behaviour.

Lothar held off the malevolent attentions of his brother and was succeeded by his son, Lothar II, whose wife, alas, bore him no children. He spent most of his reign trying to divorce her in favour of a mistress who had already provided him with several. He was prepared to stoop as low as to accuse his wife of incest with her brother, and a couple of bishops, clearly able to reconcile their consciences to any act as long as it was in the service of power, used techniques worthy of Guantanamo to extract a confession.

The Pope would have none of it. In effect, he told Lothar, ‘Hold on. This is all rubbish. She didn’t sleep with her brother. Let’s have no more talk of all this.’ To which Lothar seems to have replied the equivalent of ‘it’s a fair cop, I made it all up’ and accepted the judgement.

The result was that he died undivorced and heirless, and his wicked uncles had their way, dividing his territories between them. The only trace of his kingdom today is in the name of a province, Lothringen in German, Lorraine in French. The rest, as they say, is history: centuries of increasingly bloody conflicts between the successors of Louis and Charles. Just reward, you might feel, for such perfidy. Sworn perfidy at that.

Charles's heirs evicting Louis's from Strasbourg in November 1944
 And as for the English – they had nothing to do with it.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Iconic Places of the World: Luton Station

Paris has the Eiffel Tower, New York the Empire State Building, Rome the Coliseum. And Luton has its station.

Iconic buildings. They sum up something essential about the places in which they stand. Grace and elegance in Paris, majesty and power in New York, the pride and glory of the ancient world in Rome. And charm wrapped in shabbiness for Luton.

Because Luton has about the ugliest station in England. It’s run down, windswept, bleak. It even has terrible associations. You know those ghastly grainy CCTV pictures you get whenever there’s a major crime? The ones that show the victim just before the murder or the perpetrator just before the act? Well, the only thing that ever made Luton Station famous was the CCTV footage of the 7/7 suicide bombers heading to London to cause the carnage that cost 52 lives in July 2005.

7/7 bombers entering Luton Station
It’s gruesome seeing the pictures. In the background, behind the bombers, is the place where I chain up my bike when I cycle to the station. Chilling.

So far, then, not a lot to commend the place. And yet there is on platform 4 a café and newsagent with the most cheerful barista it has ever been my pleasure to meet. Really. He has a warm and ready smile for every customer, while making each one feel special. ‘Seeing you,’ he seems to be saying, ‘is just the most unexpected and extraordinary pleasure.’

He gets to know your habits within a visit or two: there was a day when I didn’t want a latte but took one anyway because, seeing me in the queue, he’d started preparing mine while he served the other customers. The other morning I missed my train because I couldn’t bear to drag myself away before he’d finished making the coffee (it wasn’t a problem: I was on time anyway and, in any case, I’m changing jobs at the end of this month. It's amazing how knowing I'm not going to be around much longer reduces my stress at the prospect of being late).

It’s reached a point where I'm disappointed if I ever have to catch a train from a different platform.

And that’s why the station represents Luton so well. It may be ugly and flyblown outside, but it has unsuspected charms in the little gems beneath.

So you can keep the London Eye or the Brandenburg Gate. I’ll settle for my fine latte in Luton station, with a nice fresh Guardian to read in the train, all served with a broad smile and a ‘How are you today?’ that suggests it actually matters to find out.

Monday, 17 January 2011

The Gambia: stalker's paradise

There's stalking and stalking, there's pulling a bird on a beach and finding an extraordinary bird on a beach.

I did some stalking of my own during our recent trip to the Gambia. As usual, the victim objected; as usual, I persisted in my stalking.

The setting was a particularly wonderful area of the beach, where the waters of a creek flowed across it into the sea.

The bird in question was a glorious white Egret who liked to hang around this place, taking the sun, enjoying the calm and, presumably, occasionally swallowing the unwary fish (it turns out she was a bit of a stalker too).

Because I liked the place so much I kept going down to this favourite spot of hers and giving her a bad time. I have the photos to prove it.

‘Oh God, not you again… You were here yesterday’
Her body language was clear. ‘Go away,’ she was saying, ‘I don't know what you're after, and whatever it is, I'm not selling it. Leave me in peace.’ But I was persistent.

‘Look, I’m moving away. Don't follow me. Stay where you are.’
But not even the clearest of signals could put me off. I kept right on stalking until she was forced to resort to her last option, flight.

‘That’s it, I’ve had enough, I’m out of here’
To be fair, Danielle too had her infatuations. And of course she takes better photos. So here’s one of a bird that she took a shine to and then forced to take flight, just as I did with mine.

‘Crawl away and die somewhere, why don't you, if you want me to show an interest?’
Good picture, isn’t it? Fine creature, too. But a vulture? Doesn’t quite have the the grace of my Egret, does it? I mean she was special.

If she even was a she.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

It's official: no more beastliness in politics

That new age of civility everyone's talking about these days, seems already to have dawned, over here in England.

The heart-rending events in Tucson show how things can degenerate when an atmosphere of hate prevails. What a relief it is to find that on this side of the Atlantic we live by higher standards.

On Thursday, a by-election was held in the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency, which covers part of Greater Manchester and some glorious countryside up into the Pennine Hills (we don’t do mountains in England). Less enviably, Saddleworth also provided the setting for the notorious Moors Murders.

The moors at Saddleworth: a pretty setting for ugly deeds
 Labour had held the parliamentary seat at the General Election in May, but by a wafer-thin majority of 103 over the Liberal Democrats. This time they extended that majority to 3500 and the Conservatives came a distant third.

It was a bad result for the coalition government of Conservatives and Lib Dems, but all I'm going to say about my sorrow over their discomfiture is that they are most deserving people. For now, what interests me more than the outcome is the reason the election was held at all.

It seems that when Phil Woolas, then the sitting MP, clung on to the seat in May, he did so at least in part by accusing his opponent of being a supporter of Moslem extremism. Or was it being in league with the devil? It doesn’t really matter, because these days the accusations are pretty much interchangeable.

Anyway, a court convened to consider the matter, and decided that Woolas had indeed made the allegation, that it was untrue, and that it may have materially affected the outcome. The court banned him from holding elective office for three years and ordered the election to be re-run. It was the first time for 99 years that a member of parliament had been forced out in this way.

Isn’t it great how the courts have their fingers on the pulse of daily life? Consider the judges (for there were more than one, of course, for so weighty a matter). You can picture them, can't you, spluttering with indignation in the privacy of their chambers?

‘Good Lord,’ says one, ‘this young popinjay has been positively beastly about his opponent.’

‘And what he said wasn’t even true,’ replies the other, scarcely able to contain his consternation.

Perhaps they both made some kind of propitious sign to ward off evil influences.

Because they're right, aren't they? We just can’t have politicians being nasty to other politicians. And getting away with saying things which don’t meet the highest standards of respect for accuracy.

What sort of world would we be living in if they could get away with that kind of behaviour?

Next week: Silvio Berlusconi mounts a campaign to raise moral standards in public life and Vladimir Putin offers a series of lectures on the benefits of democracy.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Africa, land of dreams where even nightmares can be fun

Isn’t it great when things happen just as you’d expect them to? Even if the events themselves are far from pleasurable.

At the back end of the sixties, my parents were living in what had once been the Congo, was the Zaïre then, and today has reverted to being the Congo again (the one wittily referred to as the ‘Democratic Republic’). They took my brother and me for a Christmas holiday in the bush, and as we drove at nightfall into a market town which, it turned out, the President of the Republic was visiting the next day, we were arrested by trigger-happy, drunken soldiers. Or perhaps it was the police. The town had been taken over by detachments from both forces, they were much the worse for drink, they were armed and loathed each other, so they were generating the kind of atmosphere that would make a meeting of Sarah Palin supporters look tame.

The rifles across the bonnet of our Land Rover might have been the start of something classically African with an ugly ending involving bodies in a ditch, although generally that’s the kind of thing that happens to locals rather than to European visitors. In any case, things weren’t quite as nasty in the Congo then as now, and in the end it only took the half bottle of whisky that reduced our sentry to maudlin complaints about the difficulties that beset his life and a few dollars that made them easier to contemplate, to persuade him to turn his back and let us drive away.

Now fast forward over four decades and our recent trip to the Gambia. We decided to visit a game reserve in Senegal, partly to see some impressive animals – and there were a few – partly to tick another box: ‘Senegal – been there’. Unfortunately, although those of us who had British passports had no trouble, three of us were travelling on French papers and for some reason the Gambians have it in for the French. Odd, isn’t it? I mean, the Brits were the colonial power. Why the special aversion towards the colonialists of the country next door?

Anyway, the French passport holders had had to get themselves visas, at the last moment, before we even set out for the Gambia. And at the border, we ran into difficulties again.

‘I’m afraid your visas are for a single visit,’ said the grey-clad corporal behind the desk, ‘if I stamp your passports now to authorise your exit from the Gambia, you’ll have to buy new visas on the way back. At 350 Dalassis.’ Mental calculators went to work, contents of wallets were brought to mind. Yes, three times 350 – we could do that. We’d come this far, we’d go ahead.

The cynical among us thought ‘yep, this is Africa. You can fix anything with a few banknotes.’ For a moment I felt a burst of superiority because we don’t have that kind of corruption in Western Europe, but then it occurred to me that at least African corruption is democratic: we can all practice it, whereas in Britain you can buy the whole government, but only if you own a bank or a major company.

We visited the game park, we returned to the border. Our little corporal in grey had been replaced by a large sergeant in khaki.

‘Ah, yes, my colleague talked about you. He made a mistake. A big mistake. As of January the first, the price for the visa has gone up.’ Why wasn’t I surprised? ‘It’s now a thousand Dalassis.’

Now that wasn’t so funny, even though it’s actually only £25. The problem was that we didn’t have the cash with us. Besides, I don’t mind being bent, but I dislike being chiselled. We all burst into protest.

‘But if we’d known we wouldn’t have gone...’

‘We don’t have the money...’

‘It was your colleague who told us...’

The colleague reappeared. ‘Yes, yes, I know,’ he said, ‘it was my mistake. Just wait here. I’ll go and see my manager.’

He reappeared a few minutes later. He sat and the desk and changed an entry in a hand-written ledger.

‘It was our fault. This time you will pay nothing.’

‘We want you to come back,’ explained the sergeant, ‘so even though it was you Westerners who invented visas and charges, we will waive the payment on this occasion. But next time be more careful.’

‘Next time,’ I said, ‘we’ll come to the Gambia and stay in the Gambia.’ The sergeant liked this idea, and suddenly everyone was laughing and smiling.

‘I want to give you a kiss,’ said Danielle to the corporal.

There was a horrified silence followed by pandemonium. The corporal was trying to back his chair through the wall, giggling hysterically as he tried to keep away from Danielle who had come round to his side of the desk. The sergeant was guffawing; then he issued an urgent instruction:

‘No, no, wait,’ and turning to another policeman, he said, ‘don’t let him go,’ pointing to the corporal.

He positively ran out of the room, showing a surprising turn of speed, as big men sometimes do. He returned with another corporal only slightly smaller than him, and in the same dun-coloured uniform.

‘Now kiss him,’ he announced. The chaos started again, with the sergeant and his corporal applauding loudly. Danielle got behind her target and planted a kiss on the top of his head.

Kissing the corporal: an unusual brush with African bureaucracy
And so our gloriously African brush with authority ended without our having to pay anything, after all, and with laughter all round. Because this was the Gambia, and not Rwanda or Eastern Congo, and Gambians, as they never tire of telling you, think that it’s ‘nice to be nice.’


The Gambia is basically just a strip of land round a river. We had taken the ferry across on the outward journey; on the return, that would have meant a long wait. So we took one of the open, wooden boats that many Gambians use instead.

They often talk about ‘dancing boats’, meaning that they tip alarmingly to one side or the other at the slightest provocation, but ‘never capsize’, or so they claim. We noticed that a great many Gambians were determined to wait for the next ferry, even for an hour or more, rather than entrust their lives to those boats. Since we've returned, Danielle's turned up any number of blogs warning people never, at any cost, to take these boats.

A dancing boat seen from the ferry
It’s true that on the other side, our boat hit the pier and got caught on a sandbank – we had to help get it off by tipping it from one side to the other, and were nearly precipitated into the water for our pains. But hey, the weather was lovely, the water was calm, and the boat did at least provide life jackets. Not enough to go round, and the flotation material had mostly rotted away, and you couldn’t close them anyway, but it was a nice gesture.

And in any case we made it. And enjoyed chatting to the people round us. And having another fine African experience.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Wills' wheels: making the right choice

‘Tube strike to hit Will’s big day’ screamed the headlines in the evening papers the other day.

For those of you who don’t closely follow the doings of minor celebrities in Britain, let me explain that we have a character over here called ‘Prince William’, popularly known as ‘Wills’. That nickname always puts me in mind of a collection of documents concerning a succession. That may not be inappropriate, since nothing he does in his life is going to be more important than what he inherits.

I'm given to understand that this spring he’s due to marry a woman called ‘Kate’. This I suppose is what is meant by his big day.

Interesting that the papers didn’t seem to think it was her big day too. That may be an oversight or it might be evidence of rarely displayed insight. After all, recent experiences of women marrying into the royal family haven’t been been particularly edifying. Perhaps the editors are hedging their bets, just in case for Kate it turns out to be an ominous day to forget, rather than a big day to cherish.

The tube, of course, is the London Underground. Staff on the tube have been taking a series of one-day strikes in recent months in protest at the stringent limitations now being put on pay, as a consequence of the government’s initiative to save the economy through austerity. It is a central plank of the government’s approach that cutbacks are to be applied fairly, and indeed it isn’t only on the Underground that people are complaining: London bankers, for instance, have been much in the news recently for their resistance of equally draconian attempts to rein back their bonuses.

Of course, the difference between the bankers and the tube employees is that the each banker’s bonus would cover the salary of forty or fifty train drivers, and the bankers will lean on the government and get their way, while the tube people will strike and fail.

But what fascinated me was that the planned action was going to have such an impact on poor Wills. I had no idea he was planning to travel by tube on that day. Usually these characters get some kind of funeral cortege together, with dozens of cars full of the self-selected great and good, and cavalry men clip-clopping along with shiny helmets and red tunics. They then proceed to jam up the streets of the capital for several hours. You’ve got to admit that it’s admirable of Wills to have chosen to cram into a heaving carriage on the Central or Piccadilly line along with the rest of us. It’s a nice popular touch, but it must have been a bit of a sacrifice to give up the chauffer-driven limousine.

Perhaps that’s what the Unions were thinking of. By striking on that day, they’ll be giving him every pretext to get out the big car after all, which should be a relief to him.

Wills: displaying the common touch, and an unsuspected talent for funny faces
So I think the papers may have got it wrong: far from hitting Wills' big day, it may be that the strikers are expressing their royal fervour and making sure things will be just as he would wish.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Cold turkey in a warm climate

Addiction is a terrible blight on the lives it affects, isn’t it?

I’ve been a week without internet, and therefore a week without being able to put up any blog posts. Fortunately, this experience of sudden deprivation, this cold turkey treatment as it's known in the business, didn’t reduce me to the status of a gibbering wreck – or at least, not so much as you’d notice if you knew me. I put this down to the compensating features of our surroundings.

Last Tuesday's lunch venue went a long way to compensate for lack of internet access. If only next Tuesday's could be as attractive

High among these were the presence of three generations of our family – Danielle and I representing the oldies, a full complement of sons and partners, and even the lone representative of the next generation, our granddaughter Aya. We had a week's holiday together in the Gambia, enjoying ourselves without any major disputes, which has to be something of a feat in itself.

The place provided blue skies, temperatures of around 30 C, great food, wonderful landscapes. Against that idyllic background, the Gambia provided some of the friendliest people it’s ever been my pleasure to meet. ‘Nice to be nice’ is their motto, and they stick to it, unless you make a big deal of minor irritations such as lifting an i-phone carelessly abandoned without supervision. But then you have to be pretty silly to leave valuable property on the beach while you go for a swim, as was done by one of our party. Please forgive me if I don’t name him, but I want to avoid embarrassing my son Nicky.

Several Gambians also told me that if I smiled at the sunrise, I would turn as black as they were, a statement which they always followed up with a warm-hearted laugh, one of their most endearing characteristics. I put their claim to the test: I had a tendency to wake up early and took advantage of the fact to smile manfully at the sun. I must have looked a complete idiot, and was grateful to have the beach to myself with no-one to witness the event. In any case, it only worked partially, as in the course of the week I merely turned a rather violent shade of pink.

Being up early gave me the opportunity to run along the beach, with the surf splashing around my ankles and the music of Vangelis running through my head. I tried to imagine which of the characters in Chariots of Fire I most resembled. Not, I had to admit, Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams or Nigel Havers as Lord Lindsay, but who knows, perhaps the rather overweight one who didn’t manage to complete the cross-country event. The idea made me positively glow with pleasure, unless that was just a result of smiling at the sunrise.

Anyway, as a break from the sub-zero temperatures of England, it was glorious to bask in sunshine and go into water that lapped at our feet gently and soothingly, rather than being frozen solid enough to support our weights. I like to scoff when Southern Californians tell me of the benefits of summer in the winter months, but I can see now that they might have a point.

As for the internet, the hotel claimed to supply Wi-Fi services. I checked with the reception staff.

‘These days it isn’t working,’ they informed me dolefully, with apparently genuine sorrow at this sad state of things. I don’t know how many ‘these days’ represent, except that it’s certainly more than seven: the WiFi wasn’t working at the beginning of the week, and it still wasn’t when we left at the end. But there’s a Gambian sense that time doesn’t really matter anyway – why should it when every day resembles the next in its perfectly limpid light and warmth? Perhaps I should just learn to enjoy the moment and stop caring so much.

Anyway, I’m going to try to catch up with my missing posts now.