Saturday, 30 April 2011

Inescapable celebrations, unavoidable sorrows

The tourist experience is exhausting, isn’t it? I think it’s that slow walk, particularly if it’s on city streets. It leaves you footsore and worn out.

If I’m in that state at the moment, it’s because we’re back in Madrid visiting two sons and two charming daughters-out-law. Our third son, or in a strictly chronological sense, the first, lives near another beautiful city, Edinburgh. He’s the one who only had to put up with my parenting, not my genetic material, while the two here got the whole package, or so Danielle assures me.

Being in Madrid is partly a political statement, a self-exile from that wedding. This was the event that gave the British establishment the opportunity to direct a calculated snub to the two most recent former Prime Ministers, who weren’t invited, though the previous two both were. Blair and Brown, the snubees, represented Labour while Thatcher and Major, proud recipients of their embossed cards, were Tories. Coincidence? I leave it to you to judge.

Not that we really got away from the wedding. Two of our friends came with us and as one of them pointed out, ‘if we came here to get away from all that fuss about the royal family, why do we keep talking about it all the time?’ Somehow it seems to have become the unavoidable subject, and not just among us exiles – the young Spanish woman who served us in a bar yesterday had spent most of the afternoon watching the wedding on TV. She’d been a little surprised.

‘There’s been a bomb in Marrakesh, you know,’ she said, ‘but I couldn’t find out anything about it – they’re talking only about the wedding. So congratulations.’ We smiled, happy to take credit for the very event we had fled.

It’s the presence of our friends that has led to our tramping the streets, though I’m not complaining. Apart from the pleasure of their company, their being here has also provided the opportunity to do some of the touristy things we hadn’t done before. That has included walking not just on pavements but on the sand and beaten earth of the great parkland of the Casa de Campo, inexplicably missed on our previous visits. It’s extraordinary to find quite so much open country in the middle of a city. At one end it’s dominated by the mass of the royal palace, where the Kings lived up until the 1930s, at which time the park was their own private grounds – a backyard the size of a small nature reserve. Come to think of it, enjoying a great popular amenity made available by a reduction in royal privilege gave us a valuable history lesson for this particular weekend.

Today it’s time for the galleries. This morning I’ve ducked out of a trip to the Prado, but this afternoon we’ll be heading for the Reina Sofia. So I’m missing a Velazquez painting of apparent domestic bliss in a royal family, instead admiring Picasso’s evocation of the bombing of civilians in Guernica.

Guernica - may capture the spirit of the times better...

... than Las Meninas and royal bliss – if that's what it shows...
Maybe that won’t be entirely inappropriate, given that despite all the distraction of the latest royal happening, there really has been a bombing in Marrakesh in the last couple of days, and it’s claimed more civilian lives.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Lost little castle at the crossroads

The town of Dunstable in Bedfordshire doesn’t have a huge amount to commend it, at least on the surface. That didn’t stop us living there for ten years, longer than anywhere else, because it had two less visible qualities that mattered to us: it provided me with a job on one of the numerous occasions when an unappreciative employer had made me redundant (in his defence, the company went broke soon after); at least as important it gave us a circle of excellent friends with whom we’ve remained close ever since.

But as a town it doesn’t have a lot going for it. It’s essentially little more than the crossroads of two thoroughfares of substantial historic – in one case pre-historic – interest.

The Icknield Way is one of the great arteries of Stone Age Britain, running from what is now East Anglia down to Cornwall in the South West. Along it, pottery travelled westward, while tin and the blue dye woad travelled eastward.

The historic crossroads don't look that historic.
Inset top left: the Book Castle that couldn't withstand the on-line siege
At Dunstable, it intersects one of the great Roman roads, Watling Street, linking London with Holy Island in North West Wales, where the Druids made their last stand against the Empire. More prosaically, part of that road is Dunstable’s High Street North where I had one of those experiences that stay a long time with parents. I was walking down the street with my son Michael, five or six at the time, prattling away at my side as children do. Unfortunately, he only came to my waist and there’s a great deal of traffic in High Street North which rather drowned him out, so I limited myself to smiling and nodding with the occasional encouraging grunt thrown in.
Eventually, though, Michael grew wise to my act. He gave me a look which I can only describe as ‘quizzical’ – and had you been there you’d have seen a vivid illustration of the meaning of that intriguing word – and said, ‘Daddy, you haven’t been listening to a word I’ve said, have you?’

‘No, Michael,’ I admitted, ‘but I like your voice and it’s provided a pleasant relief from the traffic noise.’

Somehow we both felt perfectly satisfied with this exchange.

Of the few attractive features of Dunstable was its possession of a glorious little bookshop, the Book Castle. I love bookshops, and one of their most strikingly attractive points is the quality of their staff. On one occasion, I mentioned to one to an assistant at the Book Castle that I’d like to find a book that I had known and loved as a child.

 ‘It’s called The Phantom Tollbooth but it may not be in print any more.’

‘Oh, by Norton Juster,’ she replied, leading me over to a particular shelf and putting the book in my hand.

Now I’m a great believer in Amazon and its rivals. It’s wonderful to be able to order a book when you want it and know that within a few days it will turn up – I’ve never been let down by Amazon and its prices are remarkable. Why, the other day they refunded me £1 when they despatched me a DVD I had pre-ordered, since the price had fallen by that amount since I’d placed the order; then three days later, they refunded me a further two pence, to my astonishment, because though the amount was trivial, there had been that further fall in price between despatch and the official release date.

So nothing but praise for Amazon. On the other hand, there’s something immensely valuable about the kind of service that establishments like the Book Castle provided. I guess you can’t have your cake and eat it, you can’t have Amazon and the Book Castle. Dunstable has just lost its book shop, and is a sadder place for it.

We enjoyed our time in Dunstable, even though it had little but two great roads to commend it. Now unhappily it has one fewer of its other precious charms.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Bluebells and recycling

Talking about the weather is as dull as when I last mentioned the subject, so you can imagine that I only raise it now for reasons that go way beyond the merely meteorological.

It’s another extraordinarily glorious day. And yet it’s a bank holiday Monday.

Bank holidays are a peculiarly British institution. The term comes from the fact that even the banks are closed on those days. Of course, they’re not really closed: the work of the banks goes on night and day – after all, when you’re striving to milk the economy for all it’s worth and every twenty-four hour period can add several thousand pounds to your bonus, you resent giving up even a single day to mere recreation.

The key point about bank holidays is that they always occur on Mondays rather than on the day associated with the festival they mark. This is a much better system than in France, where holidays fall on the right date. If that happens to be a weekend, well, bad luck, you lose the holiday. But if it happens on a Tuesday or Thursday, you get a ‘bridge’, the Friday afterwards or the Monday before, to make a long weekend of it. Why, I’ve met people in the public sector who get double bridges when the holiday falls on a Wednesday, or even ‘reverse bridges’: the feast day is a Friday, but they get the Thursday as well, on the basis that had it been on the Thursday, they’d have had the Friday too.

It’s to avoid such terrible abuse, unbearable to the Puritan principles of our Protestant tradition, that we’ve gone for the Bank Holiday Monday. Of course it’s a real problem for certain people: a teacher friend was telling us just the other day how hard it is to complete any courses if the classes fall on a Monday.

But bank holiday Mondays have another, quasi-mystic quality. I’ve probably mentioned before, and if I haven’t I should have, that Britain has no climate, only weather. And despite my utter abhorrence of any kind of superstitious attribution of intention or spirituality to physical phenomena, I have to admit that there is an undeniable tendency of all bank holidays to have bleak, wet weather. ‘You’re taking the day off?’ the weather seems to say to us Brits, ‘well, take that,’ and it flings floods of water at us.

And yet today the weather is fabulous. On a bank holiday Monday. The time, it seems, is out of joint. What does this portend? In earlier days, we might have thought something awful like a war might be about to break out, but we like to get involved in so many wars these days that it’s become pretty banal. ‘Let me see, if it’s April, it must be Libya,’ is the way things have become.

So that leaves me with the disturbed feeling that something must be about to happen though I don’t know what.

Which isn’t to say that the weekend hasn’t been packed already. For example, the bluebells are now out, so when we went to Ashridge Forest on Saturday, it was as though we were wading through carpets of blue.

Ashridge carpet
And this weekend has also marked a personal milestone for me: I’ve mastered the recycling system in Luton. And let me tell you, it’s not that simple. For instance we have a green bin for recycling which among other things takes all plastic, such as bottles, but not plastic tubs, except that you can put in the labels from the plastic tubs, but only if they’re made of cardboard.

Apart from that, the green bin is actually too small for our recycling, so with the agreement of the Borough Council, we’ve reclassified our green bin as grey and our black bin as green. The third bin is brown and is referred to as the ‘green bin’ because it’s for garden waste.

So our green bin’s grey and our black bin’s green and our ‘green’ bin’s brown.

Put the wrong things in the wrong bin, and I’ve been given to understand that the earth falls into the sky and the trees all hang with fishes.

So mastering all that is a pretty remarkable achievement. Which makes me wonder whether perhaps the blue skies and warm temperatures, in spite of the bank holiday, have nothing to do with menacing portents. Maybe they’re just my reward from the gods for coming to terms with a system of such staggering sophistication.

Enough of all this metaphysical speculation. I’m going to stop writing about the weather and take the dog out to enjoy it.

The green bin's grey, the black bin's green
and the brown bin's for green waste

Friday, 22 April 2011

Shalom! It's Easter

Good Friday, the celebration of a supreme sacrifice to save us all from the consequences of our own depravity. Also a break from work and, this year at least, it's coincided with glorious spring weather, making it difficult to maintain quite the solemnity many would feel the occasion merits.

In any case, like Denis Diderot, I’ve always had trouble getting my mind round the idea of God taking human form as his own son and descending to Earth to suffer and die in order to redeem us all from the terrible fate to which he condemned us in the first place. Still, I’m no theologian and probably lack the subtlety of thought to follow these intricacies.

In passing, I can't resist mentioning Diderot’s neatest statement on religion, when he pointed out that God is a father who sets great store by his apples and far less by his children.

My Jewish roots don’t help with coming to grips with this Easter business. Fortunately, a dear friend who happens also to be of Jewish extraction, is joining us tomorrow. I told her that I felt it right for Jews to get together to mark a weekend devoted to the most famous Jew of all.

‘Karl Marx came a good second,’ she replied.

Well, maybe. But wouldn’t the world be a much happier place if we were of a disposition to prefer Groucho to Karl for this relatively honourable position?

Promintent Jews down the ages
This reminds me of an old story appropriate to the season. My apologies to the many people who’ve heard me tell it before. I like to think it bears the repetition, but you can be the judge of that.

A Jew active in the City of London, whom we shall call Moishe (and you don't get more appropriate than that) became the close friend of an Irish colleague whose name was (naturally) Patrick.

They’d worked together for some time when Patrick said to Moishe, ‘you know, most weekends I go back to Ireland. It would be a great pleasure if I could persuade you to join me some time.’

Moishe was only too glad to accept the invitation and shortly afterwards they both travelled out to Patrick’s village.

Patrick was a generous host and ensured that Moishe lacked for nothing. Wonderful dinners, delightful conversations with friends and neighbours, a pleasant game of tennis, a lovely country walk, all was laid on for him. Until Sunday morning.

‘Moishe, my friend,’ said Patrick, ‘when I’m in the village, I’m rather expected to attend Sunday Mass. I hope you don’t mind if I’m out for an hour or so.’

‘Actually, Patrick,’ Moishe replied, ‘I’ve never been to a Catholic service. Would you mind if I joined you?’

Patrick was only too happy with the suggestion, as long as Father O’Connor agreed. At the church door, he immediately approached the priest.

‘Father,’ he said, ‘this is my friend Moishe, who’s not of our persuasion, but would like to attend this morning’s mass, if you have no objection.’

Father O’Connor had none and Patrick showed Moishe to a pew.

The Mass began. Shortly afterwards there was a ring on a bell and the collecting plate came round. Patrick reached into his pocket and put in a ten Euro note. Moishe, naturally, put in ten euros of his own.

A few minutes later there was another ring of the bell and round came the collecting plate again. Once more, Patrick put in ten euros, but Moishe had no ten euro notes left, so he put in twenty.

To his surprise, it wasn’t long before the bell rang once more and the collecting plate made a further appearance. Patrick had a third ten-euro note, but this time Moishe was obliged to put in a fifty.

By this time, he was beginning to find the experience expensively bought, but fortunately the Mass soon came to an end. As they were leaving the church, Patrick asked Moishe how he’d found the service.

‘Very interesting,’ said Moishe, ‘and in fact I’d be pleased to have the opportunity to ask some questions of your priest.’

Moishe got his chance on the way out.

‘Father O’Connor,’ he said, ‘let me get this straight. That Jesus Christ, wasn’t he a Jew?’

‘Why, yes,’ replied the priest, ‘he most certainly was, his whole life long.’

‘And all those disciples, weren’t they Jews too?’

‘Yes, indeed, now you mention it, good God-fearing Jews.’

Moishe shook his head. ‘You mean we started this business, and then let it get out of our control?’

Shabbat Shalom for tonight, and a happy Easter for the whole weekend.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The heavens scowled, the earth trembled, the rating fell

Generally, nothing’s duller than talking about the weather, but if you’re Casca in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar it seems you can inject a certain drama into it.

I have seen tempests when the scolding winds
Have rived the knotty oaks, and I have seen
Th' ambitious ocean swell and rage and foam
To be exalted with the threatening clouds,
But never till tonight, never till now,
Did I go through a tempest dropping fire.
Either there is a civil strife in heaven,
Or else the world, too saucy with the gods,
Incenses them to send destruction.

It has a bit more of a ring to it than ‘a depression in the Rome region is leading to gale force winds, electric storms and heavy precipitation.’ Of course, in Italy the weather forecast may still be delivered in Casca's breathless tones, since the media are dominated by a would-be autocrat just as when Caesar was at the height of his power, but elsewhere we expect something duller.

Casca, behind the throne, prepares to produce a
severe depresson for Caesar
From our 21st-century vantage point we smile a little at the superstitious element in Casca's words despite the glory of the poetry. With the conscious superiority of our oh-so-scientific outlook, we know that the climate has nothing to do with the wrath of the gods. We’ve put that kind of childishness well behind us.

Or have we? On Monday Standard and Poor downgraded the credit rating of the United States and panic broke out on stock and currency markets around the world. ‘A shot across the bows of the US government’ is how commentator after commentator referred to it. Personally, I’d think very carefully about firing a shot across the bows of the US government, or indeed anywhere near it. You might get a hell of a lot more back than you'd bargained for.

In any case, what I found most interesting was the way the event was described. ‘The S&P rating has been reduced’ is the way it’s presented, but what they actually mean is that ‘the crowd of accountants and economists at S&P have reduced the rating.’ This isn’t some objective scientific phenomenon, it’s a company, 8500 strong, that tries to guess the way the financial world is trending. I hope I’m not alone in finding it worrying that their guesses can have such consequences on the real livelihood of 300 million Americans and, quite soon afterwards, on the other five and a half billion of us around the world.

Let’s not forget the immortal words of Leo McGarry in The West Wing: ‘economists were put on Earth to make astrologers look good.’

Let’s also not forget that this was the same Standard and Poor who brilliantly downgraded Lehman Brothers from A+ to A in June of 2008. A-rated Lehman’s went bust in September of the same year.

Let’s finally not forget that they get paid for their ratings by the companies they rate. Might this have an impact on the ratings they produce? I leave it to you to wonder.

Despite all this, we behave as though S&P have the significance of a major force of nature, an earthquake, a tsunami.

Seems to me about as sensible as Casca seeing the rage of the gods in the weather. And much less well expressed.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Bringing up kids - it's a doddle. Part 2

It’s a cliché that real life can be stranger than fiction, but it’s still surprising to find it confirmed by personal experience.

Some weeks ago I wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about how easy it is to adapt to life with children. So it was amusing to overhear a train conversation between a recent parent and a soon-to-be new parent which demonstrated just how easy the arrival of a child could be.

Let me point out in passing that it’s not insignificant that both were men.

If you can conjure up ‘estuary English’, then please read the dialogue below in a pronounced form of that accent. If you don’t know that variety of English, spoken on either side of the Thames Estuary, imagine lots of flattened vowels and glottal stops. Add to the mix the fact that there are connotations to the accent, and the stronger it is, the more powerful they are. For instance, it's probably wiser to get a used car checked out by a reliable third party before buying one from a speaker of advanced Estuarine. Which is ironic, since one part of the dialogue I overheard went like this.

‘Yeah, just keeps conking out and then it takes ages to get it to start again. I’m going to have to buy a new one. I’m thinking of going for a five series this time.’ The BMW is, naturally, the trademark car of this group of people.

‘Oh, it’s a great car. You’re going to be really pleased with it.’

‘But then I have to decide what to do with my current one. I don’t think it can be fixed.’

‘Sell it.’

‘You think so?’

‘Yeah, why not? Sell it cheap. They can get it repaired.’

‘Actually, my sister-in-law wants it. To come and see us. There’d be hell to pay if she broke down on the way.’

But I anticipate. The conversation started when the one I think of as Man 2 flopped down in the seat next to me, opposite Man 1 who was working on his laptop.

‘Hey, how are you?’ said Man 1. ‘Good to see you. How are things going?’

‘It’s mental [think ‘men’al’]... so much to do...’ replied Man 2, ‘I felt I just had to take the time to clear my head...’ From the smell of his breath, clearing his head meant clouding his judgement.

‘I suppose you have to be getting into baby mode.’

‘Oh no, he’ll be asleep by the time I get back... hey you must be getting ready yourself? When’s yours due?’

‘Yeah, the 24th... I’m getting terrified... did it change your life a lot?’

Pause. ‘Naah... people say things will change... but basically you just cope with it, it’s cool...’

‘So – how old is he now?’

‘He’s four months in four days.’

‘Wow – keeping you awake at night is he?

‘I didn’t wake up till 6:30 this morning.’

‘You mean – he’s sleeping through?

‘No, but he’s breastfeeding’

‘Oh, ri-i-ight,’ said Man 1 knowingly. ‘So, you’re off the hook. Now I see why you’re always looking so fresh.’

‘Yeah, it’s good. Bit tough on Roberta, what with all the baby walking classes, baby gymnastics, baby swimming and so on. Still, gets her out of the house. And it’s nice for her to meet the other mums.’

So that’s the answer. What you need is a Roberta at home. Then she can have lots of fun with the other Mums as she looks after baby on her own, you can come back to find baby already asleep after your hard day’s work in the drinks industry (wasn’t it inevitable that they were in that particular branch?) and turn in for a restful night safe in the knowledge that if baby wants feeding, Roberta will be there with her built in milk-delivery equipment.

The essential household appliance to ease
the strain of young fatherhood: a Roberta
See? Like I said, having a baby need barely change your life at all. Really.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Getting rid of tiresome prejudices

We should all question our most deeply-held beliefs from time to time. It’s good mental gymnastics, the intellectual equivalent of a testing session at the gym.

Today I’m going to question not one but two of mine.

The first is the sense I have when I look at someone like Bill Gates or Alan Sugar. My instinct is to believe that it isn't by luck alone that they've achieved such success, or if luck’s involved, it's of their own making and they know how to take advantage of it when it turns up. Their accomplishments reflect exceptional talents.

So, for instance, when Mark Thatcher accompanied his Mummy, then British Prime Minister, to Saudi as part of the delegation working on the record-breaking Al Yamamah arms deal in 1985 , and came back a multi-millionaire (some reports suggest he made £12 million), what was I to think but that he was obviously a gifted businessman, endowed with acute judgement and supreme skills in negotiation?

It’s true that regrettable things have since been said about that deal, with unpleasant allegations of corruption and nasty slurs on the British government for failing to prosecute them. Still, why should that shake my faith in successful businessmen?

The second view that needs challenging suggests that politicians are necessarily dishonest. You know, the mindset that means if someone answers the question ‘what do you do for a living?’ with the words ‘I’m a politician’, you’re inclined to follow up with ‘so are you out on parole?’ This is the kind of thinking that made American comedian Kinky Friedman demand that politicians should be limited to two terms, one in office and one in prison.

Sometimes politicians are completely sincere. I listen carefully to the top people in our current government, for instance. They’re always telling us that the massive cuts they're making in public services are absolutely vital to bring the deficit under control and reduce national indebtedness. The pain they are going to cause, and it will be acute, is necessary. They say it so often, and to so many people in so many contexts, that I'm sure they really mean it. In other words, they’re not lying – they’re telling us what they are genuinely convinced is the truth.

No dishonesty there, then.

So it’s interesting that Fraser Nelson, of the Conservative-supporting Spectator magazine, finds that the actual reduction in public expenditure being produced by the cuts is 'embarrassingly small'. They add up to 3.7% over four years, or little over 0.9% on average in each year.  In other words, they’re barely going to dent the deficit, and debt will continue to grow at an impressive pace.

Why’s this happening? Well, the cuts are leading to huge increases in joblessness, and therefore massive growth in expenditure on social security. As a result spending reductions in healthcare, education, even defence (and we’re now in our third war) are being wiped out by the increased outlays to which they’ve led.

Yet our ministers are sincerely convinced that they're taking significant action on the state of the public finances. Honestly. So it's hard to believe that they're knaves, but terribly easy to accept the alternative conclusion, that they must be fools. There are times when I wonder whether they have the wit to be duplicitous, effectively at least.

Now follow the reasoning carefully, because this single discovery challenges both the prejudices I’m combating: these people are our leaders as well as being politicians. And yet it’s obvious that they’re neither pastmasters in deception nor endowed with the intellectual acumen of, say, a Mark Thatcher He, by the way, is now living in Spain, following his involvement in a failed coup Equatorial Guinea. He's been barred from countries that are more discriminatory, or perhaps more discriminating, including the United States and that haven of probity, Monaco. 

As to manner born, Mark Thatcher stepping into a police car
Conclusion: you don't absolutely need talent to get to the top and you don't have to be dishonest to be a successful politician. Our present government provides a salutary lesson to us all: you can pull off both tricks without either remarkable crookedness or unusual intelligence.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Luton does culcher too

The more we look, the more we find out about Luton. Recently, for instance, we’ve discovered that it does culture too.

On the very same stage which gave us the remarkable theatrical experience of Alison Wonderbra we recently attended a Monday night concert performed by the ‘Symphonia Academica’, billed as resident orchestra of the University of Bedfordshire. Now the stage at the Library Theatre is sumptuous, in the sense that certain pocket handkerchiefs can be sumptuous. So when it came to playing a great symphonic pieces scored for 70-piece orchestra, they ended up playing it fifty-seven pieces short: the musicians were down to thirteen, unlucky for some, though not, on that occasion, for us I'm glad to say.

Symphonia Academica: in greater numbers than when we saw them
and more spacious surroundings
The reduced numbers meant that, where in more conventional performances you might expect banks of violins, woodwinds and so on, what we got was one of each. It must be quite fun for the musicians: each of them is a section leader. Of course, rather like Nick Clegg of the rapidly imploding British Liberal-Democrat party, they’re leaders without followers, but I imagine it’s still quite a buzz. After all, you aren’t just one of the second violins, you’re the second violin, you’re the French horn, you’re the clarinet.

In fact, the only section with more than one player was percussion, but then you can’t play the triangle and the kettle drums at the same time.

The amazing moment was when the cellist did an impressive and moving solo. Curious, isn’t it? She was always the only cellist, and yet there was a bit where she was obviously solo, whereas in all the other bits she was just alone. Interesting, I suppose, if you like that kind of linguistic whimsy.

They started the evening with a much less conventional piece. It was the UK premiere – yes, Luton can be a trend setter too – of a piece first performed at a Music Academy in Bulawayo. Now Zimbabwe, as the composer who introduced the piece told us, is associated with many things in popular imagination but music teaching isn’t perhaps the first to spring to mind. The Bulawayo Academy is however a dynamic institution and 180 singers joined in the first ever performance of Richard Sisson’s The Mukamba Tree.

At the Library Theatre, 180 Bulawayans would have been a bit over the top, so instead we had a dozen students from Luton’s Sixth Form College, backed by the same mini-orchestra. They made up in gusto, and I’m glad to say in talent, for what they lacked in numbers.

I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to the piece. When I hear of a contemporary composition evoking African themes my heart sinks and I dread of something full of dissonance and pretension. But in fact it was jazzy, lively and fun. The whole evening, basically, was a great success.

Which was a bit of a relief after our first venture into classical music locally. Danielle has told me firmly that there’s absolutely no need for me to name the orchestra involved or to say any more than is absolutely necessary about a performance over which it is probably best to draw a veil of discretion. So I’ll just remark that if you go to see a bunch of people performing classical music in public, the least you would probably expect is that the musicians play in tune and in time with each other.

It seems that this is not always a reasonable expectation.

Perhaps it’s best to sum up the evening by saying that they played one of my favourite pieces and I wish they hadn’t.

However, I can at least now proclaim, with pride, that alongside its many other accomplishments, my adopted town also does culture.

And sometimes it does it rather well.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

The saints of the football pitch

Some character called Wayne Rooney has recently been in the news a bit in this country. His is one of those names which, annoyingly, is vaguely familiar, that you feel you ought to recognise, despite the suspicion that its owner doesn't deserve to be hauled out of obscurity – you know, like Sarah Palin or Victoria Beckham, well-known without having done anything useful.

Then it came to me. Rooney is the footballer who gave us his autobiography when he was about twenty. He didn't actually write it all himself, of course, since many of the words had multiple syllables. At that age, getting out of nappies is still a major event, so you can imagine how gripping the 300 odd pages are.

He’s been talked about these last few days because he used foul language to a cameraman from Sky TV. The only surprising thing about this is that anyone's surprised. Sky TV belongs to the international philanthropist, Rupert Murdoch, so even thinking about it without swearing is hard. 

Rooney showing his rigid adherence to the best of good manners
It’s true that Rooney had just scored his third goal in a match between his side, Manchester United, and struggling West Ham (theme tune, ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’. Presumably their fans were blowing raspberries on the night). He’s employed as a striker and, in my limited understanding of football, this means that he’s supposed to score goals, he’s paid to score goals, but perhaps he just hasn’t got that used to doing his job yet so it makes him excitable when he does.

The Football Association is apparently most upset with him and is taking disciplinary action.

Can they be serious? Do they think that swearing at a cameraman is going to bring football into ill-repute? What reputation do they think football already enjoys?

There may be people out there who think that football is run and played by a bunch of saints. That the game is a stranger to bad language or other forms of unsuitable behaviour, including subservience to big money, corrupt practices and self-obsession. That it is played by individuals dedicated to athletic excellence and managed by people exclusively concerned with the entertainment and edification of the public.

But presumably they live on a planet unknown to the rest of us, where the only other inhabitants are the senior exeuctives of the football authorities.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Healthcare reform: confusion heaped on confusion

It's said often enough but that doesn't make it any less true: you really need to be careful what you wish for.
When David Cameron set up his nice new British government nearly a year ago, he equipped it with a Secretary of State for Health who had already spent five years as the opposition spokesman. Just what the doctor ordered, you’d think – someone with real understanding of his brief. Particularly as he’d been married to a GP. The opportunity, you’d think, for some good domestic debriefing.

Lansley: leaving us all bemused. Himself too, perhaps
But a year on, the gloss is coming off that shiny government. In particular, pretty well everyone is against the flagship reforms of the NHS that Lansley has championed. Most people oppose them because, quite frankly, they’re incomprehensible. Nobody, apparently least of all Lansley, has any idea what they’re intended to achieve. They ought to be good, because they’re going to cost about 12 billion pounds, but they’re so confused, it’s hard to judge.
The only people who seem to be in favour are a number of GPs. Of course, if the reforms go through, they may be able to triple their pay packets simply by denying hospital care to the rest of us. It’s a bit like farmers being paid not to grow crops. The differences is that we can all probably live with a bit less alfalfa, but being denied healthcare can have a limiting effect on career prospects. On any kind of prospect, actually.
So unclear are the benefits of the reform, that not just the Labour Opposition but their coalition poodle partners, the Liberal Democrats, are having second thoughts. Most telling of all, it looks as though David Cameron and other senior members of the government itself are seriously concerned. So a three-month moratorium has been imposed.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens next. Most of the people I meet from the health service are beginning to express a glimmer of optimism that the reforms might be dropped altogether and, ideally, Lansley and his team sacked. It seems that the early hopes conjured up by having a minister with experience of the field may have been misplaced.
As for the reforms themselves, we should perhaps have seen a hint of their inherent weakness in a simple linguistic flaw they contain.
The idea is that the bulk of the money spent by the health service would be handled by groupings of GPs. But just to call them ‘groups’ would of course be far too obvious and simple for the swanky lot that form our government. Instead they've gone for the much grander term ‘consortium’.
Unfortunately, ‘consortium’ is Latin and therefore behaves sneakily. What can you expect of words invented by the ancient Romans? These are the people who had gladiatorial combats, crucifixions and the inclination to invade other countries at the drop of hat. Not tolerant and civilised like us.
I spent yesterday with a bunch of NHS people. I heard the word pluralised correctly as ‘consortia’ though, inevitably, also as ‘consortiums’. Then there were those who thought that ‘consortia’ was itself a singular, as in ‘local GPs will have to form a consortia’, which naturally led to the creation of the curious plural ‘consortias’.
When we can't even agree on the words, what hope is there for the substance of the reforms? 

Monday, 4 April 2011

This lady keeps returning

Surrounded by miserable stories, of wars getting nowhere and radioactivity getting everywhere, it’s a relief to come across at least one piece of good news. That was provided by the Lady of the Loch.

She’s a female osprey, apparently also known as a fish eagle, who has made it back to Scotland from her annual migration to the Gambia for a record 21st time. She’s the oldest osprey in Britain and perhaps the oldest in the world. Her nest is now the size of a double bed, she’s laid 58 eggs and has launched 48 fledglings onto the world.

Lady keeps adding to her nest
What I particularly liked about her story is that it reminded me of part of my own family. My son and daughter-in-law live in Scotland too. There they inhabit a pleasant nest significantly larger than a double bed and which, like Lady, they enjoy improving. It's a great place for a fledgling, in this instance our granddaughter Aya.

And in January they joined us for a memorable trip to the Gambia.

Of course, there are differences. They brought the fledgling with them. What’s more we didn’t spend the whole of the autumn and winter there, but just a week – work commitments and budgetary limitations affect us rather more than Ospreys. But like Lady, I felt invigorated by the trip and today, as I walk around London in shirtsleeves enjoying the return of spring, I feel that the brief break in the sun gave me just the strength I needed to get through all the greyness of the winter.

Aya: a fledgling in Lady's wintering place, The Gambia
Now we need the sun to last a while over here. For Lady’s sake as well as our own.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Round Green saga

That’s it. Another house move.

We’re now in an area of Luton called Round Green. In socio-ethnographic terms (and there aren’t many terms to beat ‘socio-ethnographic’) we’ve moved from middle class Indian to working class British. I shall miss the 5-series BMW with the number plate ‘5 51NGH’ but some of the local pubs may make up for it.

A local pub, with a misleading name: it's actually brown and rectangular
The move itself was as painful as usual. We’re still surrounded by boxes to empty, pictures to hang, bits and pieces to sort. A real pain just six months after the last time.

So ‘why did you move?’ I hear you ask. And well you might.

Our landlady at the last place was full of charm, good sense and honest principle. She made it clear that she expected us to be long-term tenants. And yet before long she was having some nasty spats with Danielle, which was odd since in general I’m the one who falls out with people.

For instance, I find it difficult to hide the feeling that the person I’m dealing with is being a complete moron. I’ve got the scars to prove it, above all in the form of three sackings – all dressed up as redundancies, of course, but I’ve never been made redundant by a boss who sensed I had a high opinion of the job he was doing.

Not that I've had that opinion of many bosses, come to think of it.

Danielle’s much more emollient. She doesn't fall out with people. And yet – our landlady simply couldn’t get on with her. Things quickly degenerated to the point that she asked us to move out at the first break point in our lease, after six months.

The Round Green place is bigger and warmer than the last one, and it actually costs less. Its greatest advantage is that it’s on a quiet residential street rather than the main road to Bedford. On the downside, at the last place we could cross the road to parkland whereas here the nearest extensive bit of green land is a few minutes drive away.

But we had no choice, so we gritted our teeth and made the move, wondering all the time why we’d been forced into it. Until yesterday, that is. When we discovered a planning application from our former landlady to extend the place we’d left and convert it into two flats, the latest step in a project she’s been working on for a couple of years or more.

It was quite an eye-opener. Behind the early charm and willingness to be helpful, behind the next phase of increasingly bitter rows, behind the final stage of pushing us out, was a long-term hidden agenda that completely contradicted her spoken assurances.

It’s just as well I realise that a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Otherwise I might be inclined to indulge in a little cynicism about my fellow man. Or fellow woman in this instance.