Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Brighter policemen, revolutionary pills, a high-price visit

It’s such a privilege to be able to listen to the news on BBC Radio 4. You learn so much.

Today I discovered that a new report is recommending that the police work on improving intelligence.

That seemed a bit cruel. After all, they're not all that dumb. And in any case even if we consider some of our worthy coppers a bit challenged in the brainpower department, that’s a view we ought to keep to ourselves if only to avoid causing offence and spreading demoralisation.

A few minutes later I heard that ‘sleeping pills widely prescribed in the UK increase the risk of death.’ Now that was truly shocking news. Since the risk of death is 100%, my mind boggles at the idea of increasing it. 

Pills can put you to sleep
and overthrow the laws of probability too
Does that mean one would never have been born? If so, there are several people for whom Id strongly urge the drug to be prescribed.

Finally, it warmed my heart to hear that the English NHS will soon be treating non-resident foreigners for HIV infection, free of charge. A little generosity, always welcome in this harsh world. But there is concern in Conservative circles that this might encourage ‘medical tourism’.

The world view of certain politicians sometimes leaves me completely nonplussed. It’s true that London, the Lake District, the Northumberland Coast, the South West, are well worth a trip. But getting infected with HIV in order to see them? Seems a little over the top. Even if the treatment is free.

P.S. The BBC also announced that this evening's Document programme would consider, if I've got this right, 
the French roll in the Falklands War. I hadn't realised that any bakery product had played role in that conflict.

Monday, 27 February 2012

The hardest words to say in business

Certain companies (not I’m glad to say my present one) find it impossible to walk away from any business opportunity, however tenuous.

Imagine a company selling systems to cook and serve breakfast. It has built many of the modules it needs: to squeeze and pour orange juice, to fry and serve bacon, to toast and butter bread. But it has never got round to a module for boiling an egg.

Now a tender comes in for a an egg-boiling system. Strangely, this is the second such opportunity in a matter of weeks. The last one had demanded the use of wooden egg cups. The company bid for the contract despite not having a system, relying on its general reputation for breakfast-related applications and its commitment to develop egg-boiling functions.

If we can do scrambled and fried,
 said the Chief Executive, just how hard can it be to do boiled?

The order eventually went to a competitor whose trademark was its wooden egg cups.

Now here's the new tender, and it has a peculiarity: bidders have only ten days to prepare and submit offers. The company directors meet to discuss their response.

‘This is a great opportunity,’ says the Chief Executive. ‘I mean, it’ll mean we develop our boiled-egg module — and be paid for it. Win-win.’

‘Exactly,’ says the Sales Director, ‘and this client belongs to a chain. Imagine the follow=up orders that could flow in. Think of the revenue!’

‘Yeees,’ says the Marketing Director, chilling the atmosphere with his obvious scepticism. ‘Problem is the tender asks for a supplier who has successfully delivered a system to two other customers. And we haven’t.’

‘Come on, come on. We’ve delivered lots of systems,’ says the Sales Director.

‘True, but none of them for boiled eggs. And did you notice? The tender asks for wooden egg cups. That’s a bit worrying.’

‘Why? asks the Chief Executive,   ‘theres nothing to stop us offering wooden egg cups too.
Well, it suggests a stitch-up for the same supplier that won the last order. And that would explain the punishing timescale for this tender: they’re discouraging bidders because they’ve already made up their mind.’

A proud trademark...
but a 'keep off' sign too?

‘Oh, come on! That would be practically illegal.’

‘Grey rather than illegal. It would be bloody hard to prove. And did you notice who wrote the tender?’

Their blank looks are answer enough. ‘The author recorded in the document properties. It’s the same as on the last tender.’


‘This lot are basically re-using the same tender. They want the same supplier.’

But he can’t persuade them. The decision is taken to go ahead anyway. He and three other staff spend the next four days preparing a bid document.

The Chief Executive comes up with a brainwave.

‘George makes systems for boiling water. Henry makes system for handling eggs. We already have functions to serve a dish. We’ll put together a collaborative partnership so that we can have a prototype to show the client.

‘How much will all that cost?’ asks the Marketing Director aghast.

‘They’ll do it for free. At risk. For the opportunity.’

‘No — I mean how much will we have to charge the client to cover all those costs?’

‘Don’t worry — we’ll shave everything down to the minimum.’

For the whole of the next day the Chief Executive sits in his office crouched over his computer, building Excel functions, a VLOOKUP here, a NET PRESENT VALUE there. Eventually he emerges exuding the confidence that only a full day without contact with reality can give you.

‘We can keep the price down to £5,000,’ he announces triumphantly. His expression shows that he's been mentally spending the money the order will raise.

Even the Sales Director looks sceptical.

‘The competition are bidding £750.’

The Chief Executive’s draw drops. ‘How can anyone possibly make money at that level?’

The Marketing Director rather too obviously avoids saying ‘I told you so.’

The Chief Executive goes back into his office for another extended Excel session. Next day he comes up with a new figure: £2200. That’s the price that they finally submit.

The prototype isn’t quite ready for the demonstration, but they make a good fist of it all the same. It’s just a pity about the egg that got broken.

‘Overall,’ says the Chief Executive, ‘I thought that went well. I was sat at the back of the room and people were ticking lots of boxes on their evaluation forms. And the Finance Director distinctly smiled at me.’

A few days later they learn they haven't made it to the shortlist. Their offer price was too high and the system demonstrated didn’t seem fully developed yet.

The Marketing Director barely notices, preoccupied as he is with catching up on the work he didn’t do while preparing the bid. But it comes as no surprise to hear later on that the contract eventually went to same supplier as before, with the wooden egg cups.

Soon after he’s fired, nominally as part of a redundancy package, but everyone knows it
s really for being a smartarse.

Making him the latest victim of the sad truth that the hardest words for many businesses are ‘no bid’.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Oxford: rowers and recidivism

Oxford was awash with spring sunshine today. Christchurch meadows was a carpet of fresh green with snowdrops in patches by the waterside. In the background, the dreaming spires formed the skyline; in the foreground were walkers, runners, even picknickers. Then we got to the river and found it covered with racing eights.

Could be a scene from a Hollywood film
Straight out of the story books. So exactly right it was almost as though someone wanted to see how far they could push a stereotype before it turned into a cliché.

All very pleasant though. The only jarring note of the day was the bad news that my old friend Bill had managed to get into trouble with the authorities again.

That poor Bill: will he never learn?
I keep telling him to mend his ways, but he seems to be the man for whom the word ‘recidivism’ was invented. Everywhere I go I see notices announcing that he’s in court again.

Disappointing to find one in Oxford though, on such a perfect day.

P.S. I  know it's an old joke. But with jokes it's like wine: the best just get better with age.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Today's trains - part 2

After the harpist on the train to London today, I was expecting a far less interesting trip home. But to my delight I made a new encounter which, while less musical, was as enchanting as the earlier one.

Enlivening my commute home
Yes. Opposite me was a Pomeranian pup. And judging by the conversation the owner was having with her travelling companion, I think an Arab Pomeranian to boot. 

A curious concept, that, of an Arab Pomeranian, but surely an entirely fitting one in our globalised communities today.

Harping on about the railways

It's easy to criticise the railways in Britain, and many feel free to vent their bile with gusto, and not always without justification.

Despite all that, I remain a committed supporter of the railway system in this country, a loyal user and a relieved spectator of its remarkable improvement over the last ten or fifteen years. 

Even I, however, couldn't have anticipated its latest development in on-board entertainment. First Capital Connect, I felt, was breaking completely new ground in its pursuit of excellence in customer service.

Not a common sight on commuter trains
It would have been even better if I'd been able to persuade her actually to play, but hey, a step at a time, a step at a time. It's great to find a harpist in your carriage at all, let alone getting music out of her.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Monty Python and a curious approach to religious difference

Every now and then I have to travel for work on a Sunday, and that leaves my week completely topsy turvy. I remember that my son Michael became fractious, often even tearful, on a Sunday evening for the first several years of his school education. Such was the dread of the coming Monday morning. 

Well, I don’t feel that bad. In fact I enjoy my work. Even so, I attach great importance to having a full weekend, and it isn’t really complete if I don’t get my Sunday evening sat at home with my wife and doing very little. My son needed that Sunday evening with his mother, I need it with my wife. Though I'm happy to spend it with his mother, since they turn out to be the same person anyway. 

This weekend I was deprived of that Sunday evening calm as a transition to the maelstrom of the week. I was on a train heading towards a Monday morning meeting. That's going to leave me disoriented for the rest of the week, unable to remember what day it is, as I navigate blindly towards the relief of next weekend. 

The train I caught was taking me towards the Pennine town of Bolton, now all but absorbed into Greater Manchester. The name of Bolton always makes me think of ‘Notlob’. For those who perhaps don’t have the Monty Python Dead Parrot Sketch off by heart, here’s the relevant bit:

‘I understand that this is Bolton.’


‘But you told me it was Ipswich!’

‘It was a pun.’

‘A pun?’

‘No, no... not a pun... What's the other thing where it reads the same backwards as forwards?’

A pause.

‘A palindrome?’

‘Yeah, yeah.’

‘It's not a palindrome! The palindrome of "Bolton" would be "Notlob!" It don't work!’

Fortunately there’s more to Bolton than the Parrot sketch. For one thing, right behind the office where we went for our meeting there’s a colossal church. Of near-Cathedral proportions, it’s a silent but eloquent testament to that glorious nineteenth-century tradition of men who made fortunes in Northern towns, from wool or cotton, steel or coal, endowing their towns with monumental buildings, secular or religious: great municipal halls, public libraries or, as in this case, massively over-proportioned churches.

Bolton Parish Church
mighty monument to the industrial glories of the past
The people we were visiting told us they parked their cars in the church grounds. They said it made the walk back to the vehicles interesting on winter nights, as they picked their way through the howling wind, between the gravestones.

Talking about religion makes me think of my travelling companions on the train up. I took them at first for a young couple, of ‘Indian’ origin – the quotation marks because, of course, they were as as English as any, by their attitudes and their accents, even if one of them took a couple of phone calls in Urdu. 

When we got chatting they revealed that they were in fact colleagues travelling to a week’s work at a client’s.

At one point they began to talk about the difficulties the young man was having over what he felt were unnecessarily complex preparations for some religious ceremony or another.

‘Ah, yes, but we’re Sunni,’ said his companion, ‘and we don’t have any of that shit.’

He nodded, dejectedly, recognising the superiority, at least in this respect, of Sunni practice.

But a few minutes later, talking about some other aspect of observance, she told him, apparently completely unconscious of the inconsistency, ‘well, your religion is just so much more attractive than ours.’

Poignant, I felt. A touching moment. When I think of the trouble, the bloodletting, that Sunnis and Shias have inflicted on each other down the ages, the burning of the Catholics by the Protestants and vice versa, the tribulations everyone heaped on the Jews, to overhear that conversation struck me as a powerful illustration of just how trivial those distinctions are.

If only they could always be as easily dealt with as by that blithe young woman.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Speaking out for the rights of Morons

One of my favourite lines, from a film full of them, is spoken by Tom Cruise as a young naval lawyer in A few good men: ‘my client's a moron but that's not against the law.’

Tom Cruise as Lieutenant Kaffee: no moron he
Being a moron certainly isn’t against the law, and never should be, and not just because a lot of lawmakers would be in gaol themselves if it were. The prison population would explode to levels that would make today’s overcrowding seem trivial. And the worst of it: no-one would be immune. I like to think of myself as not a moron, but I wouldn’t be the judge; the thought that someone else could decide whether my ideas were sensible enough to justify my being left in freedom is one I'm not especially comfortable with.

All this came to mind when I saw that Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the ugly Front National ultra-right wing party in France, had lost his appeal against a conviction for denying crimes against humanity. The French Senate recently passed legislation banning denial of Turkish genocide against Armenians. Holocaust denial is a crime in numerous countries, most notably Germany.

Le Pen, on the other hand...
There’s no doubt that few people deserve gaol as much as Le Pen (not that he’s likely ever to go there), but in his cases it would be for demagoguery and the attempt to legitimise racism, not for his dotty opinions. His views on the extent and depth of the holocaust and other Nazi era crimes against humanity strike me as completely the wrong issues on which to attack him.

After all, what is holocaust denial when it comes down to it? I’m certain that Le Pen would accept, say, that several thousand Protestants were massacred in Paris in 1572. And yet the evidence for the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre is far less extensive and detailed than for the Holocaust. If we’re prepared to accept the evidence of the earlier crime, how can one explain the refusal to accept the much greater evidence of the later one? Except, that is, by assuming that the person doing the denying is, to use Tom Cruise’s technical term, a moron.

That, I repeat, shouldn’t be against the law. In fact, the law should get out of our heads. It shouldn’t be pronouncing on what we think but only on what we do. To take a completely different matter, I’m not convinced that the rule of the Umayyad dynasty, for example, would inspire many of us these days to want to bring it back. If others, however, believe in a revival of the Moslem Caliphate, I see no reason why they should not say so, or even debate the use of violence to achieve the aim: it could be argued that a debate on what is or is not legitimate violence is overdue. It might have been useful before Coalition forces invaded Iraq.

If, however, those who seek a new Caliphate decide to take their use of free speech to the point of inciting others to actual violence here and now, of neogiating the purchase of arms for that purpose, or of conspiring with others to wreak violence on the rest of us, then they have stepped beyond what the law should tolerate. Then it should intervene.

In other words, the law should prevent certain actions, even if they are only planned actions. It should not attempt to prohibit thoughts, or the open expression of those thoughts. However bizarre and ill-founded they are. 

Let’s remember: merely being a moron may be offensive, but it should never be regarded as an an offence. 

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Overheard on the bus

It’s not quite clear what the etiquette is when listening to people’s mobile phone calls. Should we shut our ears since listening is no better than reading someone’s mail? Than listening at someone’s door? Than working for a tabloid newspaper?

Well, I suppose we could. But if someone on the upper deck of a London bus is prepared to paint a picture of her intimate life, why shouldn’t I enjoy it as much as I enjoyed Lucian Freud’s painting at the National Portrait Gallery last Friday?

Well, no, not as much, obviously, but with exactly the same sense of entitlement.

The game is to reconstruct the other side of the conversation.

‘I’m doing something first but I’ll try and pop round later,’ said the young woman.

So she doesn’t want to tell a young man interested in her that she’s seeing another.

‘How long will you be going on till? Will you be playing a set yourself?’

A picture formed of a pub somewhere, a modest little stage in one corner cluttered with amps, speakers, a drum kit, a piano. A group of hopeful young men, disappointed by the poor turnout. They get up on the stage and try to make up in enthusiasm for what they lack in talent. They maintain that enthusiasm despite the lack of interest from all but a small number within the sparse audience.

Still, judging by her questions and her cheerful responses, the young woman was being encouraging. Although she did at one point say ‘well, I hope it goes well. Let me know.’

Bad news, I thought. She won’t be able to make it in time so she isn’t going to go at all. What did he have left to hope for from the desert of the evening stretching before him? His insecurity was mounting and her attempt to hang up failed.

‘Oh, what, you mean this evening? Oh, just popping out to dinner.’

Combining the words ‘just’ and ‘dinner’ was disingenuous, wasn’t it? The word he didn’t want to hear was ‘dinner’. Sticking ‘just’ in front of it wasn’t going to make it hurt any less.

‘Oh, you know,’ she continued, ‘with Ali M. A pause. ‘Do you know him?’ ‘Him?’ she was twisting the knife.

But then she turned merciful. Dropping her voice, but far too little to prevent me hearing from several seats away, she added ‘he’s gay.’ Her tone suggested reluctance. Why should she share this confidence? She could go out with whoever she chose. What right did he have to demand she explain herself? 

Not much encouragement for him and yet not completely discouraging either. She had a strong hand and was playing it skillfully. Keep the pike on the fishing line, the man on the phone line, while you make up your mind whether to reel him in or not. Very wise, very prudent.

Meanwhile, she was making another attempt to cut things short.

‘Sorry? Sorry? It’s cutting off...’

But again he relaunched the conversation for a few minutes before she could wrap it up.

‘Well, see you tomorrow.’ Sounds hopeful, but it isn’t really, is it? If they’re not meeting till tomorrow, there’s a whole evening with the supposedly gay friend. A whole night. ‘Yes, yes,’ she ended, ‘so do I.’

So did she? What? Love him? Think it was a good idea to meet up tomorrow? Wish him all the best for the evening?

I don’t know, but why should I? Good narratives often end in ambiguity. This one brought about a neatly constructed symmetry: the man on the line was left unassuaged but so was her audience on the bus. Some things we shall never know or understand. 

Making the experience much more like a Lucian Freud exhibition than one might expect.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Tomorrow's leaders seen by yesterday's target

Ten years as a University of London student are an eloquent testament to my misspent youth. Single-mindedly buckling down to study was not my top priority. Still, I had a lot of fun, and not all of it morally reprehensible. 

But among a lot of good memories one that jars was the low-grade anxiety I felt every time I stepped onto a train, a bus or an underground. It became second-nature to check under seats, in overheard racks, up and down aisles. Was there an abandoned case or a bag? ‘Who,’ someone might ask, ‘does that bag belong to?’

I never saw a bomb explode but twice heard them. And once the police stopped me leaving a Chinatown restaurant for several hours, while they cleared the streets in response to an IRA bomb threat. The restaurant had a plate glass front and, although my colleague and I were sitting at the back, it was quite obvious that if a bomb went off nearby the flying glass would have a distinctly career-limiting effect on us. 

Now, I’m a strong supporter of the Irish Republican cause. It strikes me as indefensible that six out of 32 counties on one island should be run by the island next door. It seems almost obscene that for 25 years and more young Englishmen were sent out there to become targets or, even worse, perpetrators of brutal violence.

Not only do I believe that the Republic should take over Ulster, I often toy with the idea that it could take over the rest of the UK too. The role of the Catholic Church is unattractive, but surely waning, and at least absorption by Dublin would rid us of the monarchy and the House of Lords and perhaps reduce our inclination to get mixed up in further foreign wars.

But my enthusiasm for republicanism stops short of wanting to be cut to shreds in furtherance of its aims. Even in a Chinese restaurant. However good the restaurant. I find it hard to maintain much cordiality to anyone likely to be cut me into little bits.

Nor am I partial to the people who fund actions to spoil my meals in this way. Way up at the top of the list in eighties was a bunch called Noraid, the Irish Northern Aid Committee. This is a US organisation which strenuously denies ever having financed terrorism, which presumably means that it only proves the oppressive nature of the American establishment that the Department of Justice obliged to Noraid to list the Provisiona IRA as its ‘foreign principal.’ 

All this is interesting because all those upstanding gentlemen currently bucking for the Republican presidential nomination are making such mileage out of their commitment to eradicate terrorism. And not just the candidates: a leading light of the Republican Right is Congressman Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who has gone so far as to organise hearings into the radicalisation of American Muslims. 

‘80-85 percent of mosques in this country are controlled by Islamic fundamentalists’,  he declared in 2004, describing this presence as ‘an enemy living amongst us.’ Curiously, this same King was a long-time leading supporter of Noraid. Only last year he declared that ‘if civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the IRA for it.’ 

It’s nice to know that had the IRA blown my restaurant to pieces and taken me out in a storm of glass shards, Congressman King would have found this regrettable. On that point, at least, he and I are in complete agreement.

One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.
But it's all the same if you're at the receiving end

At the risk of seeming a bit picky, though, I’d feel more comfortable if he denounced the terrorism that targeted me back then with the same vehemence he directs at the Islamic variety today. Otherwise one might suspect it isn’t so much terrorism he abhors as Moslems.

Now that's a position it would be nice see Santorum and Gingrich distance themselves from, wouldn’t it? 

But I'm not holding my breath.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Enjoying memories of a certain kind of Jewishness

My childhood gave me a particular view of British Jews.

They tended to be open towards other cultures, which made many of them fine linguists. They were open to the arts, which made some of them great performers: one of my great uncles took particular pride in the setting he published of traditional Yiddish songs. They admired intellectualism or at least education, so they tended to have at least a passing if ironic acquaintance with Marx, and were happy to discuss Sartre or Camus at length even if they knew little about them. Just like me. 

They were almost by definition of the Left. I associate them with corduroy trousers, again a tradition I keep up, though I don’t go for the tweed jackets or thin-rimmed glasses. They thought the Attlee government was the best thing to have happened to Britain. They were Keynesians to a man, a tradition that it would be well to revive today, when we see the destruction the other lot are wreaking around Europe if not the world. 

And they loathed Franco: I remember a colleague who greeted the news of Franco’s death by declaring, ‘I blame his doctors.’ Faced with our astonishment, he went on, ‘had they been worth their pay, they would have kept him alive for another six months of increasing agony.’

Out of this simmering cauldron of ideas built on liberalism and tolerance came an important current of inspiration for the British Left. These days could hardly be more different. Today mainstream British Jews are little more than the UK branch of international Likud. Dull, conservative, conformist, sometimes latently or even blatantly racist. Firmly aligned with the David Camerons of this world.

So it’s particularly gratifying to have the chance to enjoy an evening of nostalgia for those glory days. Yesterday we went for dinner with an old Jewish friend — old only in the sense of the friendship, of course, since she’s as young at heart as ever. 

It was a good evening of the kind of wide-ranging, lively conversation that I associate with the best evenings I remember. And the food was great too — Jewish, of course, so we ended with a wonderful cheese cake of which, inevitably, I ate far too much. The quality of the cooking was all the more remarkable as hour hostess had damaged her foot badly — good luck, Brenda, with the X-ray: I hope it reveals nothing broken — and though I’m not suggesting that Jewish cooks use their feet they do, like anyone else, have to stand on them at the stove. 

But above all it was great reminder of a time I valued in my youth. And of a tradition which did much to enliven and stimulate the British Left. Could do with that coming back again.

Then, come to think of it, just what tradition does Ed Milliband represent?

Saturday, 11 February 2012

The call of the wild: not always irresistible

The great outdoors is a challenging place. Misty, always an outdoor cat, has had particular cause to make that observation recently.

He has, as I’ve pointed out before, become much more affectionate recently, even on a few occasions coming to lie on my legs while I’m watching Boardwalk Empire, for instance, a huge improvement over his earlier inclination to limit all interaction with me to the occasional scratch when he wanted my attention, followed up with a bite if I didn’t respond quickly enough.

He’s even taken to sleeping on our bed at night again, not something he ever used to do, regarding it as a waste of time when he could have been out terrorising — usually briefly and horrifically — the local population of small rodents. But it’s clear that this tendency to curl up with us may not be entirely motivated by affection.

In his new mild-mannered persona, Misty no longer nips my ankles when he wants to go out. These days he just sits quietly and patiently by the back door until we wake up to his needs and slide the door open. The other day, though, when the blast of cold air hit him he started back, took a look at the treacherously gentle white blanket on the ground, turned and fled.

He hadn’t altogether understood the situation though. A few minutes later I found him by the front door. Presumably his thinking was that if leaving by the back door only led him into this unpleasant snow stuff, which had insolently turned up without so much as a by your leave, he’d try a different door in the hope that on that side of the house the world had a more benign aspect. 

Imagine his disappointment when he found this wasn’t the case. He gave me a filthy look, as though to say he’d expected more of me. ‘This is no better than the other side, you poor fool,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘did you think I’d put up with this kind of behaviour at the front of the house having already rejected it at the back?’ Fortunately, in his new mild incarnation he didn’t resort to violence to express his displeasure as he most certainly would have done a few months ago.

Instead, with unwonted gentleness he resigned himself to becoming, temporarily at least, a house cat. 

It's safer indoors. 
Though I’m not sure I'd look for comfort where he does
And I’ve discovered that it wasn’t just a white threat he was avoiding, but a black one too: his nemesis, the black cat that roams this neighbourhood, has been giving him a bad time. Misty is one of the largest cats it has been my pleasure to know, but size isn’t everything, and the black is, sadly, more than a match for him. The other day Misty came back badly clawed and bitten under his jaw. 

Such is his dominance over me that I didn’t even think ‘ha! a touch of your own medicine, my lad. May it be a lesson to you.’ Oh no. I immediately agreed with Danielle that veterinary treatment was a must, and urgent, with no expense spared. The antibiotics and painkillers have done a wonderful job apparently, even causing him twice to vomit on newly changed bedclothes, but hey, that's all part of the delight of cat ownership.

These days he goes outside rarely, sometimes only when we push him out (I don’t know why I saw ‘we’: Danielle’s the only one with the courage to treat him that way, the only one who has inspired enough respect in him that he doesn’t treat her with the highly effective viciousness he would inflict on me if I tried that kind of thing). Or occasionally he goes out with Janka: nothing like a dog, Misty seems to feel, to make good tracks to step in through the snow. 

To say nothing of how effective a large black protector is at at keeping a vile black interloper at bay.

Misty's protector. But she likes the snow

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Kindling my enthusiasm

Years ago, my son David told me that a day would come when people would read books on electronic screens and rather than on paper.

‘Oh, no,’ I assured him, ‘that’s not going to happen. The books is such an attractive object. Look what you can do with it,’ I said riffling through one until I found my page, ‘that’s never going to be possible with some kind of electronic reader.’

Well, I’ve said before that it’s salutary to have your prejudices overthrown, especially when you overthrow them yourself.

My other sons, Michael and Nicky, gave Danielle and me a joint Christmas present this year, of a Kindle. I dug in my heels and resisted the temptation to succumb to this device. Several seconds went by before I gave in to its seduction. 

Of course, I’ve taken it over. Poor Danielle doesn’t get a look in. I’ve even had to buy her one of her own. I’m not going to be separated from mine.

Glory of a bygone age?
It’s brilliant! Why, I even have a subscription to The Guardian on it. I get up in the morning, and there’s the new edition. I don't have to wait for a paper boy or struggle through the cold to the newsagent’s. Why, even when I was getting up in California, there was the new edition without the difficulty of trying to track down the only good newspaper there is, in a nation benighted by its unavailability. 

In fact, because of the bizarre phenomenon I’ve commented on before, whereby it isn’t the same time, at the same time, everywhere in the world, I even got the next day’s edition in California at 4:00 the previous afternoon. 

I still haven’t worked out how they managed to get it to me so early.

What’s more, I couldn't believe how light my suitcase was. I'm never quite sure which books Im going to want to read when I set off on a trip, or how many I can get through, so I always take too many and exceed my baggage allowance or have to leave my boots behind. 

But this time I travelled with 25 books and I could carry them in the inside pocket of my jacket. And then I added two weeks worth of a heavyweight daily newspaper but the Kindle stayed as light as ever.

It even makes me feel virtuous. I mean, in the only comprehensible book I’ve read on economics — The Undercover Economist — Tim Harford argues that as societies become richer, their luxuries tend to get bigger and more resource consuming, until a tipping point is reached, when suddenly people realise that there is kudos in having commodities that actually damage the environment less. It’s happened with cars, except among Americans or Jeremy Clarkson: most people now pursue fuel efficiency at least as much as size and speed.

That’s how it is with the Kindle. I can read my paper without using up any paper. That means fewer trees chopped down, less fuel consumed in highly expensive shipping. Apart from the initial outlay, the Kindle is green. A luxury that makes me full good about myself. What more could I want?

Well, actually, I could want one thing. I wish I could ring the Kindle, like I ring my phone, when I don’t know where I’ve left it. Apart from that, the Kindle leaves nothing to be desired.

So, David: you were perfectly right. I’ve had to overthrow yet another of my prejudices. And the process has given me a lot of enjoyment.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Bannockburn, Murrayfield, Scottish glory and the stirring call for Devo Max

Relations between the English and the Scots are going to provide plentiful entertainment for at least the next two years. 

That's how long it's going to take to get to the proposed referendum on whether Scotland should stay in the United Kingdom or leave it. Or something in between. Because there is an intermediate choice,or ‘Devo Max’ as it is catchily called. 

It offers maximum devolution of control over its own affairs to Scotland, leaving only foreign affairs and the military in the hands of the United Kingdom. My view is that this is the option that Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, is really seeking. There just isn’t enough support for full independence in Scotland, and Salmond is much too canny not to know it. 

As a result, David Cameron, Prime Minister of the threatened United Kingdom, has completely ruled out including Devo Max in the referendum. This uncompromising stance by Cameron almost certainly means that the option will be on the ballot paper. Cameron has a glowing track record for taking strong positions in public and then backing down from them in private: he made a lot of noise telling our European partners they couldn’t use the Union’s institutions to tackle the Eurozone’s problems, but is now much more quietly letting them get on with it.

Similarly, because it is Salmond who wants to hold the referendum in 2014, Cameron has again issued a firm and resolute ‘no’ to that timing. That more or less guarantees that the referendum will take place to Salmond’s schedule. 
Salmond is keen on 2014 because it will be the 700th anniversary of the great Scots victory over the English at Bannockburn. Not, of course, that the referendum is in any way anglophobe.

Personally, I don’t begrudge him celebrating a Scots victory over the English. It's not as though there have been that many of them. In fact, on Saturday I watched them failing to achieve another. On the opening day of the Six Nations rugby championship, Scotland lined up to take on England, on their own iconic turf at Murrayfield, outside Edinburgh. England have a lamentable record of defeats at Murrayfield, particularly in the rain, so I was a little relieved to see that the weather was fine. 

What then followed, however, was an English performance of such stultifying mediocrity as to reduce even me, committed supporter that I am, to despair. I watched the other matches over the weekend and saw some fine games played by France, Ireland and Wales — the last two in the best match of them all, swinging from one side to the other right up to the last whistle. It was clear to me that had England faced any of those teams and played as they did against Scotland, they would have been, to use the technical term, stuffed.

So how come they didn’t lose to Scotland? Because Scotland showed an unerring capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They had much more of the ball, they made some excellent opportunities, they played with great skill — or at least they played with great skill until they got within a few seconds of actually scoring points, when they would inevitably collapse and let England off the hook. Again.

Great run. Going nowhere
What a contrast to the independence campaign! Salmond exudes complete confidence, sure of the rightness of his cause and of his own ability to deliver its goals. He sidesteps and weaves round the sluggish, uninspired and untalented Cameron, always a step ahead, turning to his own advantage every ploy the Englishman launches.

It’s as though Scotland had wisely reserved all its ineptitude for the rugby field. All the skill and competence that would have been necessary to beat the English on Saturday has been sucked out of the rugby team and recycled to the nation’s statesmen. It’s the only way I can explain the cack-handedness of the team and the sure-footedness of the politicians.

So I suspect the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn will be marked by another victory of agile, quick-witted Scots over sluggish and dull-witted English opposition.

Paris is worth a mass, claimed the future King Henry IV of France. And Devo Max must be worth a lost rugby match.

Even if ‘Devo Max’ itself sounds like nothing other than some kind of toilet cleaner.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Luton: winter sports centre

I’ve often quoted that great line from The West Wing about economists having been put on Earth to make astrologists look good. 

My own variation on that theme is that it is the role of weather forecasters to make the economists feel good about themselves.

So when the English meteorologists announced snow for this weekend, I was absolutely confident that the weather would be clear and cold, or wet and muggy; alternatively, we might have snow last Wednesday or next Wednesday, but certainly not at the weekend.

Instead, though, the forecasters gave economists and astrologers renewed cause for optimism. They got it bang on: it snowed on Saturday night and by this morning we had 5 centimetres on the ground, just the depth predicted. 

Why, this won’t just do good to the astrologers, it might even give rapture prophets hope again.

Last year when the snow came we regretted not having our cross-country skis with us, having left them in our cellar in Kehl, less than an hour from the Black Forest slopes. So Danielle brought them over when she went out there a few months ago and, given wed seen no previous snow this season, we went out at once this morning. Skiing through the streets of a town had all the charm of an unfamiliar pleasure, only heightened by the fact that these were Luton streets that we knew well from travelling along them by car or on foot so often in the past.

Our pleasure was shared by the people we met, whose most common comment was a variant of ‘brilliant idea! that’s just what you need to get around in these conditions.’

Cross-country skiing in the lesser-known
Luton end of the Black Forest

Once in the park, the world was transformed. We might have been back in Black Forest: wide expanses of undisturbed snow between trees dripping quietly under their white coats. And then, round the corner, we found the children in their dozens, out on their sleds, making the most of the Bedfordshire winter sports centre. It may not be the world's best known or most frequented, but it was obviously capable of giving as much enjoyment as any of them.

Luton's kids show the way to enjoy the conditions

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Healthcare reform and its victims

From the moment the present British government was formed in May 2010, the Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has been dead set on reforming the National Health Service.

Lansley: minister for caring
In particular, the organisations that control around 80% of the Service’s budgets, Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) are due to go by April 2013. That means that bodies employing some 200,000 people are into a process of closure that will, by the time it’s over, have lasted practically three years.

Many are jumping ship as quickly as opportunities open, conscious that it may be dangerous to cling on to the end: most will probably be reassigned to positions in the new hierarchy, but some will certainly be made redundant. As people leave, few are being replaced, so the remaining staff are facing increasing stress dealing with an undiminished workload. 

And that’s going to go on for another fifteen months: the certainty of growing pressure coupled with nagging uncertainty over the future.

The process is likely to cost around £1.2 billion at a time of pressure to reduce expenditure. 

I’ve been working with the health service for over quarter of a century and I’ve seen repeated reforms of its organisational structure; I have yet to see any that were clearly better than any other. 

I’ve only seen one that was significantly and radically different: the Thatcherite initiative to introduce ‘GP fundholding’. This meant that General Practitioners held the budget to pay for hospital care directly themselves. Many of the reform initiatives, including Lansley’s, have had the proclaimed goal of involving GPs in decisions about hospital care, but fundholding was the only one which got them actively engaged with the process, because it gave them real clout. 

It was, however, fundamentally flawed: as well as ‘commissioning’ (i.e. paying for) care, GPs were also providers of care, meaning that they could buy services from themselves. That made the system open to abuse that came close, on occasions, to outright corruption.

In fact, the only time that I’ve seen real improvement in the service was under the last government, and not because of any of its tinkering with management structures, but because it invested more money. Spend a bit more and the NHS gets a bit better.

Will Lansley’s brave new system be an improvement? The clue is perhaps provided by the recent revelation that it will involve five levels of management in most areas, and more in some. It will pay lip service to the principle of GP involvement but in reality it will be administered, as usual, by professional managers — the ‘bureaucrats’ the media love to hate but which cost only 3% of the NHS budget and mean that clinicians spend as little time as possible on administration.

So the reform will be painfully disruptive and expensive while leading to little or no gain. Since everyone is against it — the vast majority of health service professionals themselves as well as their organisations — there is some optimism around that it may be possible to block the changes. That’s not an optimism I share: a British government with a majority in the House of Commons can ultimately force any measure through that it has set its heart on. This will go through. The government will do it simply because it can.

So spare a thought for the people working in the PCTs. Most of them take pride in jobs they believe make a real difference. In general, they work hard and do their best to deliver a good service to others.

And they will in the end have spent three years watching their organisations slowly dying, colleagues leaving, their workload piling up and their futures being increasingly clouded with uncertainty. 

British Prime Minister David Cameron used to like to claim that he was building a Big Society in which we would all find our place. Imagine what it would be like if he set out to build a small one.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Does reality have to be so confusing?

There are things that I understand completely but which I still find baffling. 

Take the curvature of the Earth. It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? It makes perfect sense — why, a schoolchild can understand it — that the time is different in different parts of the world. At the same time.

Of course I can get my mind round that. My mind’s fine with it. It’s just the rest of me. I mean, somewhere deep inside me, it makes no sense at all to me. I can cope with the fact that the French insist on being an hour later than us. That’s just the French. It’s the kind of thing they do. OK, and the Germans, the Spanish, the Italians, why even Liechtenstein. They all play that game. It’s part of their charm.

I even have colleagues in Ukraine. They claim it’s two hours later. I can manage that too. They just start work early. Fine. That’s their business. Sometimes I can't sleep late either.

But last week I was in California, and it just got silly. People were going to bed when I was getting up. Or was it the other way round? I couldn’t come to terms with it at all.

Take my birthday. I got up and found that people had been sending me birthday greetings for hours. Very kind, very touching. But they really got off the mark ridiculously early. And then, a while later, the greetings were still coming in, but with apologies for being late. Late? They weren’t late. It was early evening. What was their problem?

In the end, it felt as though my birthday had gone on for about 36 hours (OK, OK, 32, but who’s counting?) Now of course, the little voice of rationality was saying to me ‘it’s all about the curvature of the Earth, local time in one place is different from local time somewhere else. That’s why they call it local, for crying out loud.’ But somewhere else, a much more believable voice was saying ‘a 36-hour birthday? Enjoy it! You’re not likely to have a longer one.’

And it occurs to me that maybe I should pay attention to the voice of my instinct. Why should I  have to listen so hard to cold reason?

This stuff all proves that the arrangement of the world is completely bizarre. Mind and instinct in contradiction. Who’d do things that way? What’s the point? When it’s midday, it should be midday everywhere, not two o’clock in the afternoon in one place and four in the morning somewhere else.

Easy to understand and yet completely incomprehensible
It’s the same with the seasons. I mean, I went downstairs yesterday morning pleased as punch that it was light outside. Wonderful. And then I found the car covered in frost and froze my hands scraping it: I didn’t have time to fetch any gloves. 

Now, what’s the sense in that? It’s getting light. It’s a good time (sorry, southern hemisphere people). So why does it suddenly get bitterly cold? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have the cold when it’s dark, so we can got the whole ghastliness over in one go? Why spoil the returning sunlight with a cold snap?

It's the other way round in what we laughingly call summer in Britain. Nice long days but that only gives the rain longer to spoil things. In a properly organised universe, the days would be warmest and driest when they were longest.

That’s why I laugh when people talk to me about intelligent design. You call this intelligent? If it were intelligent, I’d be getting back to my desk after lunch at pretty much the same time as people I might want to speak to in Tokyo, Berlin or San Francisco. The long evenings would be the balmy ones when we could have barbecues that didn’t get drowned out by storms.

And I wouldn’t have to keep calling on reason to explain why things aren’t the way they feel they should be.