Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Airport rapacity: an economics lesson. And, by the way, Happy New Year.

Airports: they’re so much more than just the places we go through to get somewhere else.

Socially, they play a key role in our lives. They’re funnels: because huge numbers of us go through them, they’re where coincidental meetings aren’t that much of a coincidence. Our sons belong to the English community in Madrid, and one of them, travelling back to this country just before Christmas, ran into three acquaintances taking the same plane. 

The airport was funnelling the homebound expats.

But they also illustrate key economic principles. They demonstrate, in particular, that prices have nothing to do with costs, and everything to do with demand.

Take airport parking. What’s the cost of a car park? Well, initially a bit of land, but the airport probably already owns that, having acquired rather a lot of the stuff when it first put in terminals and runways. And then, unless you’re going to build something on multiple storeys, all you need for a car park is a bit of asphalt.

Not a lot of cost. And for many years, airport parking was pretty easygoing. You used to be able to drive right up to the terminal and drop people off. You could even stand chatting to them before they headed indoors.

‘See you at Easter, then?’

‘Sure. And if you do find my scarf/glasses/ipad [delete as applicable], just bring it with you.’

Relaxed. Easy. Congenial.

Well, that experience has become a luxury these days. Airport authorities have worked out that demand vastly exceeds supply, and they can start to exploit that imbalance in their (financial) favour.

In Luton, where we live, the pickup/drop off area isn’t even next to the terminal any more. But, as though to compensate for that additional inconvenience, the authorities decided to charge of a pound to stop there for ten minutes. Overstay your welcome, and you’re in for an eye-watering penalty.

You don’t have to pay that fee. There’s a parking area rather further away where you get half an hour free of charge. Brilliant, especially as it has a shuttle bus service. Except that by the time you’ve waited for the bus and reached the terminal, you’ll have used up ten or more minutes, which is about the same time as it takes to walk. If you spend more than another ten minutes tracking down your friends, you won’t be back at the car before the half hour’s up, and then you
’re in for a fee worthy of a far larger airport.

’s the perfect trap.

But the stroke that really won my admiration came a few months ago. The one-pound fee at the pickup area went up to two pounds. A 100% increase. At a time when inflation is under 3%. Now that takes truly outstanding brazenness.

And a market wholly skewed towards the seller.

But Luton is special. Today we dropped off our Madrid delegation, two sons and a daughter-out-law, for their flight back home. But we were at Liverpool not Luton.

The yellow submarine at Liverpool John Lennon Airport
I’ve had a certain fondness for ‘John Lennon’ airport ever since the year Liverpool was European City of Culture. At the time, the terminal sprouted posters announcing that it was the official airport of the culture festival. I loved that. I wondered what the competition had been. Heathrow, maybe, a few hundred miles to the south? Or perhaps Edinburgh, much the same distance in the opposite direction?

Liverpool hasn’t quite caught up with Luton’s financial genius. It still allows a free drop-off period. But for just five minutes. I’ve never said goodbye to anyone so quickly, and I noticed the people in most of the other cars were being just as brief. Nothing’s so painful as a long farewell, so I suppose one might feel that Liverpool Airport was doing us a favour.

Or it hasn’t yet quite caught up with how markets really work.

The boys and the girl got home fine, if an hour or so late, and are now making ready for their New Year’s festivities. As we should. So it only remains for me, after sharing this edifying insight into the working of economic law, to wish the same to you.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Getting knifed for bigger breasts

‘More than a mouthful’s a waste, I was told decades ago, by a woman who had no intention of enhancing the size of her breasts. 

Sadly, not everyone shared that admirable attitude. Huge numbers of women have decided to have breast implants fitted: in Britain alone, the market has grown from an annual value of £750 million in 2005 to £2.3 billion in 2010 and is expected to reach £3.6 billion in 2015.

It’s always struck me that we have far too casual an attitude towards surgery. Let’s face it, in the final analysis it involves someone taking a viciously sharpened instrument and cutting you open with it. 

It’s true that this happens under anaesthetic, in highly controlled surroundings, with strict infection control, careful monitoring of vital functions, and highly trained people around to carry out the procedure itself or to spring to your rescue if anything goes wrong. That’s all very different from what might happen on a street corner outside a club on a Friday night. And there are reasonable grounds to suppose that the person wielding the knife in the operating theatre doesn’t actually intend to do you any harm, whereas the man with the knife on the street corner probably isn’t motivated by the best of intentions towards you.

Despite those differences, from the point of view of your body, there is a fundamental similarity: your skin and the flesh underneath it is supposed to remain unbroken, and someone’s breaking it.

Now I fully appreciate that most of us have to undergo surgery at some time or other and, as I grow older, the likelihood of its happening to me grows all the time. All I’m saying is that I have no intention of letting anyone stick a knife in me unless it’s vital, which means that the alternative is potentially fatal or involves a massive reduction in life quality.

Cosmetic surgery? Forget it. You don’t like the way I look? Talk to someone else. I don’t like the way I look? I’ll avoid the mirror.

The worst aspect of cosmetic surgery, and in particular breast enlargement, is that it doesn’t just involve a knife. It involves leaving something alien inside the wound afterwards. Usually a plastic bag full of some more or less noxious substance.

In the case of French company Poly Implant Prothèse, PIP for short, the content was particularly unpleasant. In order to give the impression that it was using approved materials, about 25% of its breast implants contained the traditional US-certified silicone gel, Nusil. The other 75% contained industrial-grade silicone, less indicated as conducive to human health.

Why the mix? In 2009, Nusil cost 35 Euros a litre, the industrial grade material just five. This represented a 10 euro saving per implant which, on the Company’s annual production of 100,000 at its peak, generated a saving of a million euros a year.

Sadly, the containers weren’t particularly good either, suffering more than twice the rate of ruptures of other brands. Given the contents, a rupture was particularly serious when it happened on a PIP implant.

A ruptured PIP implant. Not so nice to have inside you...
The seriousness of the problem is perhaps best expressed by the fact that Jean-Claude Mas, the founder of PIP, is now serving a four-year gaol sentence, which came with a 75,000 euro fine, and a lifetime ban from activity in any way connected to healthcare.

Sadly, when this all started to emerge in 2010, there was no way of establishing just who in England had a PIP implant in place: France had a registry of all such operations, but in England there was none. So the only way to get to the more than 47,000 women affected – or to describe them more correctly, Mas’s victims – could only be done by advertising and calling on anyone concerned to contact a doctor.

In passing, it cost the NHS £500,000 to treat the women affected, so we’re not talking about a trivial charge for the health service.

At least some of these things are beginning to change. Just as we have had a registry of orthopaedic operations for over ten years now, England is about to set up a registry of breast implants. That way we shall at least have a better idea of just what’s being done, with what, to whom. Other nations (and 400,000 women were affected by PIP around the world) need to make sure they have such a system in place. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in particular might look to follow England
’s lead

Better training standards for surgeons are also being introduced, and action is likely to be taken against aggressive advertising, such as 2 for 1 or so-called mother and daughter deals.

There are probably some morals to draw from this story.

In the first place, these were operations carried out by qualified surgeons. Just because the professionals are in white coats, it’s probably best not to assume that our interests are their top priority – particularly in an industry worth multiple billions of pounds.

Secondly, surgery, however carefully controlled the setting, does involve sticking a knife in you. And implants are things that get left behind at the end of the procedure.

And finally, there's that wise principle that more than a mouthful’s a waste. 
Does anyone really need to be knifed in a sensitive part of the anatomy just to be wasteful?

Friday, 27 December 2013

Britain, resisting the scum of Europe. Again

Immigrants, immigrants. Who wants them? 

Keeping alert, ready to repel the hordes
and with good eye shadow too
They turn up and take space, or even jobs, that our own people would be able to enjoy if they weren’t here. I mean, this is Britain, and we’ve never pretended to be the kind of place that extends a hand to ‘your huddled masses, yearning to be free’. That sentiment sums up the warm welcome the US reserves for those who struggle to its borders, sure of being received with open arms and every possible assistance to launch new American lives.

After all, the US was built by immigrants, with scant concern for the original inhabitants, so it makes sense that the population should welcome new immigration today. It would be unbearable hypocrisy if things were otherwise.

But Britain has a different history. We know this country belongs to us, and we have absolutely no intention of being turned into ‘the dumping ground for the scum of Europe.’

So it’s all very well for people like Lech Walesa, former President of Poland and leader of the Solidarity Trade Union, to criticise us for our hostility to immigrants from his country and others in Central Europe, notably Romania and Bulgaria. We question his right to come up with the kind of statement the Guardian quoted:

‘Poles finished communism and Great Britain profited significantly from this. [Cameron] should not forget this, he should do the maths. He should realise that Poles finished with this system at the cost of 70% of their economy. He should see this and then he will understand that Europe, that countries like Great Britain, are again behaving irrationally and shortsightedly.’

Who does he think he is to admonish our Prime Minister? He’s a mere Nobel Peace Prize winner but David Cameron is the product of a noble career in PR.

And it’s all very well for the Centre for European Business Research to claim, again in the Guardian, that if Britain is set to overtake Germany in size of economy by 2030, it is principally because ‘positive demographics with continuing immigration [and] rather less exposure to the problems of the eurozone than other European economies combine with relatively low taxes by European standards to encourage faster growth than in most western economies.’

Really? They think that we need immigrants to overtake the Boche? Stuff and nonsense.

No, we’re not going to allow ourselves to be invaded. We’re going to have immigration controls to ensure ‘that the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil and rates simultaneously, shall be forbidden to land.’

Actually, hang on. That last quotation, like the one about the ‘scum of Europe’, isn’t recent. In fact, both came from the British press at the time of the first legislation to control immigration, the Aliens Act of 1905. It was directed against Jews, whose population in this country shot up from under 50,000 to some 250,000 in the thirty years from 1880.

The cries of anguish I quote from the press of the time were a reaction to this immigration. As was the Aliens Act itself. Since we’re having exactly the same debate again, about Poles, Bulgarians and Romanians, we can see exactly how effective the legislation proved.

But, hey, lessons from history are so dull to learn. Let’s ratchet up the tone of propaganda against immigration. And let’s have some more legislation. It’ll make everyone feel so much better. And what possible harm can it do?

After all, the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the early twentieth century, and in particular its anti-Semitic variant, never had any especially unpleasant consequences, did it?

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Merry Christmas. And God bless us all, every one

Ah, Christmas and the season of goodwill to all men. Brilliant stuff. You know, Tiny Tim saying ‘God bless us all, every one’ and all that. 

For instance, God bless the half million people in Britain who are dependent on food banks, including 170,000 kids. Or the steadily growing number of Britons who are homeless, including 60,000 kids. God Bless them all because no one in authority’s going to do anything about them, anytime soon.

There were only 40,000 using food banks back in 2010, when the current government took office. It warned us that there would have to be sacrifices to deal with the crisis facing the country. We had to get the deficit down, along with public debt. And whatever needed to be done to make that happen, had to happen.

And it has. Benefits have been cut for people who have a spare room, which helps explain the growing numbers of homeless people, who can’t afford to pay the rent any more.

To reduce the invalidity benefits bill, rules on medical assessments have been tightened to the point where 1300 people found fit to work have died shortly afterwards. More generally, half the total number deemed capable of working and therefore denied benefits, have failed to find jobs.

It’s been tough. But you don’t make omelettes without breaking eggs.

Not that there’s been much of an omelette, really. Debt keeps growing. The deficit’s still not under control and more cuts are on the way. Though growth is back, it’s at a level which would have been regarded as anaemic ten years ago.

Still, there’s been some success. The tax on top incomes has been reduced from 50% to 45%, for instance, guaranteeing that we can hang on to some of the fine people who were in charge when the crisis first broke, and not lose them to some miserable tax haven. And who would want to part with them?

David Cameron in Christmas mood
with a load of balls to back him up
Tough times still lie ahead.But it’s Christmas now, so why think of them? David Cameron and George Osborne are no doubt surrounded by their families and their friends (but are they really their friends? I mean, would they be without the tax breaks?) in their pleasant houses and with their elegant tables. They’re certainly not wasting any thought on anything so unpleasant or discordant as kids without food or a roof over their head.

I mean, their colleague Iain Duncan-Smith, the Minister in charge of benefits, refuses even to meet the people who run the food banks. He may be a champion of denial, but surely he only reflects an attitude that runs through the government? You know – we can’t do anything about poverty, the poor will always be with us, and we’re even making rather a lot more of them, so why spoil the holiday season by thinking about them? 

In what Cameron likes to think of as a basically Christian country, surely mere charity allows our leaders to take a break from painful thoughts of those sad people out there.

Anyway. This is the Christmas season. Our fine Conservative ministers are raising their glasses to each other. So let me raise mine and wish you all a merry Christmas.

As for the poor. Well, we asked God to bless us all. Every one. Surely he can look after them?

Sunday, 22 December 2013

The things we do to Africa...

We used to rape the continent, for gold and slaves, and we still keep kicking Africa around like a football. We dump our worst products on it. We charge it more in loan interest than we give in aid. And every now and then we send in troops to various bits, usually from the former colonial power, to make sure the locals know they’re not really in charge.

Why, we even use it from time to time as a source of photo ops for our failing politicians. Did you see David Cameron, at the Mandela funeral, trying to get in on the Danish PM’s selfie with Barack Obama? The man’s shameless.

Is that Cameron trying to muscle in on Helle Thorning Schmidt's 
selfie with an actual world leader?
Now it’s emerged that ‘Boris Bikes’ are beginning to turn up in the Gambia. For the uninitiated, ‘Boris Bikes’ are bicycles available for hire in various places in London, which can be ridden to other places and dropped off again. They’re called ‘Boris Bikes’ in honour of the modest and self-effacing Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

You get what honour you can, I suppose.

It seems they’re now being stolen in large numbers and shipped off to the Gambia where they’re being spotted in villages. Perhaps we should be grateful that Britain is at last making a little restitution for all the exploitation of the past, even if only unofficially and as a result of criminal action.

Photo from the Daily Telegraph of a Boris bike in the Gambia
My only regret is that they’ve only taken Boris’s bikes, and not Boris himself. Still, the Gambia is run by an unhinged egomaniac convinced he’s God’s gift to mankind, so they really don't have a need for Boris, unlike his bikes.

Someone who does seem to be invading Africa in the near future is former Barclays Bank Chief Executive, Bob Diamond. You may remember that he had to leave Barclays under a bit of a shadow: the bank had just been caught fiddling the rates at which banks lend money to each other.

Diamond provided a striking demonstration of the principle by which senior executives only receive their astronomical remuneration because they take responsibility for what happens in the organisations they lead. On his watch, the bank lost about half its share value, and he claimed not to have known anything about the rate rigging. So he suffered the penalty of giving up some £20 million of bonus, meaning he left with only about £3 million. Practically destitute.

And now he’s back. He and a mate have launched a new company, Atlas Mara Co-Nvest, which is designed to go looking for exciting new prospects in Africa.

Aaah. Doesn't Bob Diamond look like an amiable rogue?
But I'm not sure of the amiability
Things don’t look promising. I mean, the company’s an investment vehicle and they can’t even spell ‘invest’. And it’s likely to focus on Financial Services, the field in which Diamond has won such a reputation. Or do I mean notoriety?

We blessed Africa with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, constant colonial wars, borders that don’t correspond to ethnicity, a white regime in South Africa that gave the world apartheid. 

And now we’re sending them Bob Diamond. Haven’t they suffered enough?

Friday, 20 December 2013

They order these things ... differently in France

Every few months, when our stocks of wine are growing perilously low, Danielle (occasionally with me in tow) heads off for a day trip to Calais to stock up again.

French wines still offer unrivalled variety and impressive quality, and it
’s advantageous to buy them in France. As a mid-week day-return crossing is stupidly cheap, it becomes a bit of a no-brainer, down here in the South East, where the run to the coast is easy (apart from the traffic).

Danielle took the ferry yesterday with our friend Moira. It all went swimmingly (it didn’t involve any swimming) until they came to travel back. There were high winds in the Channel, though for once that had nothing to do with our worthy ConDem ministers whipping up yet another storm of hot air. 

The boat was delayed by an hour.

Now during our ten year residence in France, we were occasionally struck by the slightly different attitude towards service in the country from what’s regarded as the norm (not, by any means, always achieved) in the Anglo-Saxon world. France has a wonderful system of employee protection in place, a system which in principle excites my envy – I’m after all a salaried employee myself – but occasionally it does make things rather more oriented towards producers than consumers.

‘Is there anywhere we can get a bite to eat?’ Danielle and Moira asked, ‘while we wait for the boat?’

It turns out that each of the blocks that contained the toilets also had a coffee vending machine that served quite reasonably priced hot water the colour of mud, and in some cases another that served overcharged crisps.

‘What about a proper meal?’

That was only available from one of the designated cafés, or the restaurant in a building right down at the end of the harbour area. Ten or fifteen minutes walk away. But Danielle and Moira decided it was worth the slog.

‘Hold on, hold on,’ called the official they’d been questioning, ‘don’t forget your tickets and passports. You can’t get back here without them.’

‘It’s a passenger restaurant and it isn’t accessible from the passenger area?’

He gave a Gallic shrug.

‘Certainly it’s accessible. But not without papers.’

They set off. They tried a couple of the cafés which turned out to be just small counters in the usual toilet blocks, without exception shut with their steel shutters firmly, forbiddingly down.

Cafés with a less than inviting aspect
So they kept going to the restaurant.

Which was massive and well-appointed. Probably room for 150 clients. With not a single one present, though several hundred passengers were waiting for their boat. 

A restaurant to kept with pride.
Though presumably hardly at a profit, for customers or owners
It even had a games area, which suffered from none of the problems of noise or overcrowding so common in such facilities. 

Anyone for pool? Apparently not
Amazingly, the place was, however, staffed. By a waitress who was somewhat less than rushed off her feet though she might have been if some of the other waiting passengers had been there.

‘Do you have petits pains au chocolat?’ Danielle asked. That’s pretty much a standard in any café/restaurant associated with travel.

‘We have only cakes,’ they were told.

Some other customers – would-be customers – struggled in. They looked through the menu, deciphering the odd spellings. Corn was shown as ‘mais’ in French, which actually means ‘but’ (the correct word is ‘maïs’), and had been translated into English, with complete though baffling accuracy, as ‘but’. 

'But' on the menu. But nothing the customers wanted to eat
Unsurprisingly, the English clients weren’t particularly attracted to the idea of making a meal of a conjunction (I suppose only astrologers do that sort of thing). None of the other items that caught their fancy was available, so they ordered drinks instead of food.

‘Could we have some ice?’ they asked.

‘No ice,’ they were told.

Put off by their experience, they pulled some food out of their bags and started to eat it.

‘What are you thinking of?’ The waitress came down on them like an avenging angel. ‘You cannot make the picnic here. This is a restaurant.’

They looked at her, astonished. It couldn’t serve them a meal from its menu, or even ice for their drinks, but it was still in some sense of the word, a restaurant? But there was no arguing and the irate waitress marched them off the premises.

She explained to Danielle that it was the Calais Chamber of Commerce that was holding back the development of the port area as a business. Which rather suggests that the word ‘commerce’, like ‘restaurant’, means something different there from what we
’ve come to expect on this side of the Channel.

At least it explains why Napoleon thought that England was a nation of shopkeepers. Certainly, if the port of Calais is anything to go by, the contrast with France is pretty stark.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Not so much toilet humour as toilet philosophy

In my youth, there were certain tasks I simply couldn’t bring myself to do. It wasn’t so much that I regarded them as beneath me, though there was no doubt a bit of that. It was more a matter of revulsion: they had to be done, sure but, please, not by me.

So it never occurred to me that I might some day learn to do something so demeaning as cleaning a toilet. Not that it is demeaning. Or that I even regard it so any more. On the contrary, it has made me really understand that there’s no useful and task so mean that you can’t take pride in doing it well. I thought I might get used to toilet cleaning once a week, but it’s become more frequent than that: the slightest dubious odour, certainly anything like a stain, and I’m on to it like a shot.

But it isn’t just pride in a good job well done that drives me. It’s also the philosophical and political lessons I learn from it.

Just the place for a certain kind of politics
And just the place to reflect on them
For instance, whenever I’m cleaning a toilet, I always think of our present leaders in Britain. David Cameron, our Prime Minister; his sidekick, George Osborne, our Chancellor of the Exchequer; and the man who’s preparing himself to be Cameron’s nemesis, challenging him for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London.

It isn’t just because the place I’m cleaning is where their policies and values belong. Though they do, of course. No, it’s because it occurs to me that none of them would ever do the job I’m doing. Probably never have in their lives.

They naturally float above all that kind of thing. They have people to take on such chores for them. They may well denounce those people, even threatening to deport them – yes, an awful lot of cleaners in Britain are foreigners, and not all of them are legal 
– but they depend on them.

It strikes me that my cleaning duties have revealed one of the great distinctions in our world today.

It isn’t whether you live in a mansion, switch hemispheres in tune with the seasons, or have people to drive your cars for you. None of those things really matter. The two classes are the toilet-cleaning class and the clean-toilet class.

At least I know which side of that divide I’m on. And there’s a great many more of us than there are of them. What I can’t understand is why we don’t all get together and dump those guys from the positions of power they hold over us.

And then flush.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Voices prophesying war

I never tire of quoting Neils Bohr’s acute observation that ‘prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.’

There is, however, one case where prediction is easy – and accurate. That’s when reading novels with a historical setting. The future for the characters is the past for us. We know where they’re heading, because mankind has already been there.

I felt that most starkly recently when I followed the sinuous, even tormented existence of Merton Densher, in Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. It’s not my intention to review the whole novel here – I’ll keep that for Goodreads some time later – just to talk about a particular dread that it evoked in me.

A novel good enough to evoke a dread
its author knew nothing about
The book is set in the opening years of the twentieth century. Merton is in his early or possibly mid-twenties. I feel a sense of grim foreboding in reading about a young man at this period. In a dozen years or so the most calamitous fate would fall on that entire generation, and there’s every chance it would cost him his life in a death of unusual ugliness.

The worst of it is that it’s hard not to feel there is an aptness that this should be so. Densher is a man of great charm, he
’s witty, intelligent, sensitive, the kind of man one can imagine many a woman loving. 

Two of them do. 

One is Kate Croy, of his age and his background, and he wishes for nothing better than to marry her. But in the fag end of the Victorian period, and with its values still infusing everything they do, she cannot reconcile herself to living on the much reduced means either of them could command.

The other is Milly Theale, the dove of the title. Nineteen and an American, an innocent in James’s universe, she
’s afflicted with a mysterious but life-threatening disease. She falls for Merton in the course of a brief acquaintance in New York. 

Kate sees in the young American the key to solving her and Merton’s problems. He has only to marry Milly and, when she dies, they will have the fortune on which they can wed. Dominated by Kate, Merton agrees to go through with the plot but, moved by Milly though never in love with her – touched, perhaps, by the wings of the dove – he finds it increasingly difficult to see it to its end.

It strikes me that Merton is the consummate expression of his time. Attractive, civilised, a man of taste, but somehow void of moral content, unable either to be wholly bad or to stand up entirely for good, still clinging to the values of a Victorian era that had already been overtaken by events, his generation would stumble into the most obscene period of human history, starting with the carnage of the First World War, closed by Second and the associated vileness of the Holocaust.

James knew nothing of what was ahead. For him, prediction was about the future and therefore, as Bohr points out, difficult. But for us it isn’t. We can see where the many thousands of Merton Denshers, in Britain, France, Italy, Austria, Russia, and – as it lost its Jamesian innocence – America were going to take humanity.

The fate awaiting Merton Densher?
Well, if he had actually existed, at least
That imbues The Wings of the Dove with a special poignancy, even though James had no inkling of it.

At least I can console myself with the idea that Merton, like Kate and Milly, were all fictional characters. They ceased to exist as I turned the last page. They were untouched by the reality of the tragedy ahead.

To clear my mood, to put their future comprehensively behind me I just have to switch to something less challenging. Who knows – perhaps an episode of The Good Wife or Grey’s Anatomy. A little escapism soon settles the troubled soul.

Which I rather suspect was just how Merton Densher’s generation felt too.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Pride comes before a fall. Or sometimes just a stumble

It had been a great day. 

The presentation had gone without a hitch, the team’s performance had been exemplary, we’d achieved all our aims. And it didn’t make it any less satisfying that the working day was ending early. I might even be home by 4:00.

I left the hotel which had been the scene of our triumph with perhaps not quite a spring in my step – the intensity of the occasion had left me far too tired for that – but certainly with a gratifying sense of accomplishment. My mood was helped by the clear blue sky and the wintry sun, a pretty afternoon which, though cold, was a welcome change from the grey and fogbound monotony of the morning.

So even crossing the car park was a pleasure.

I opened the car boot, threw my heavy rucksack into the back and slammed the lid. It did make a lightly odd noise, I noted, but at first I thought nothing of it. But then, ‘damn,’ I thought, ‘I need my wallet and it’s in the bag.’ I went to pop open the boot, but it was locked.

I tried one of the passenger doors. Locked too.

‘How on earth can that have happened?’ I wondered as I checked my pockets for my keys. Pocket after pocket. Coat, jacket, trousers. Each as keyless as the one before.

Slowly the terrible truth dawned on me. The exquisite delight of this day was about to be broken. Somehow I’d managed to lock the car, with the keys inside it.

I tried the breakdown service. It was going to take hours and cost a fortune. I tried my few remaining colleagues. No one was going my way. Finally, I tried my wife.

‘Give me a minute,’ she told me.

When she rang back, it was to announce my forthcoming rescue.

‘One of the nurses has lent me her car.’ Danielle works in a hospital. ‘I’m on my way home to pick up the spare key and I’ll be with you in a bit over an hour.’

We’ve made friends with a group of nurses from the hospital. They
’re a joy to know. Traditionally, we call nurses angels, but these are far better: wonderful human beings, much harder to be than an angel, and a lot more real. No one needs to tell us they work for a caring profession: they embody caring. 

We often think of the one who lent us the car as ‘Frankie’, because she reminds us of the eponymous main character of the TV series Frankie, about a district nurse whose patients matter to her much more than her personal life.

Eve Myles as District Nurse Frankie
Our own is just as caring and has the advantage of being real
When we eventually got the car back to our ‘Frankie’, she told us, ‘well, that’s what we’re for, isn’t it? To help each other out.’

Well, it’s a lovely idea and I wish that kind thinking was more common in our daily lives. Still, it’s good news that it continues to flourish in some places at least. That nursing should be one of them seems particularly appropriate.

At any rate, thanks to Frankie I only lost a three hours of my day, hardly an unbearable misfortune. As I sat in the hotel’s lounge, slumped on a sofa and drifting in and out of sleep, I really couldn’t get myself worked up over that minor inconvenience. It may merely have been proof that pleasures don’t come unalloyed; it may even have been the punishment of destiny, nemesis for my earlier hubristic self-satisfaction; either way, it was pretty mild.

The kind of karma which leaves you calmer, I felt.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Badminton reduces the horror of exercise and adds a spark of Schadenfreude

Swimming’s a real super-sport. Exercises every part of you. Doesn’t put particular strain anywhere. But it has one huge intractable problem: it involves covering yourself in cold water.

True, it’s not that cold. However, my benchmark for water into which I might immerse myself is the kind you find in a bath. Swimming pools are a lot less alluring than that. And, in the winter, when it’s quite cold enough outside, the allure is still less marked.

So it was a great relief to opt for badminton this morning instead. You don’t get undressed for it. You quickly get warm. It doesn’t involve water, at least not until the post-game shower. And it’s fun: you even know who’s won, which is difficult with swimming (although in my case, I reckon it’s the pool that wins. Every time).

A joy in itself. And it can even deliver a lesson on life
The place where I played is an informal club, where you just turn up and play with anyone else who’s there. It has a few unwritten rules. If there are too many people for the courts, you take it in turn to sit out a game. If beginners show up, everyone plays with them at some stage or other, to make sure they’re fully involved.

Well, when I say ‘everyone’, I’m exaggerating slightly. There are always a few people who just know they play better than anyone else, and are therefore entitled to rise above the mere rules that govern the rest of us. They never leave the court. And they turn their back, in disdain, on the weaker players on whom it would be a waste of their precious time to squander their talents.

As well as being amusing in itself, this behaviour turns the badminton club into a microcosm of society. We live in a world where a small number of highly privileged people believe that they owe their positions to their superior talents – actually, we owe it to them to ensure they have those positions in recognition of their superior talents – and they know they’re entitled to ignore the rules if it suits them, or even to buy themselves governments that will change them on their behalf.

The sense of entitlement. The bane of modern society.

We had an entitled player this morning. The only time I saw him voluntarily leave the court was when two other men suggested that he make up a four with the three of us; he clearly wasn’t going to lower himself to playing with me so managed to persuade someone else to take his place.

Instead, he moved on to the court next door and started a game with three friends of mine. The one playing with him is an impressively powerful player, though not always as accurate as he’d like. When his strokes come off, they’re often unbeatable, but they don’t always come off. Still, overall he’s a strong player, 
an asset to have on your side and I’m happy to play with when I get the chance.

Now, here’s an interesting aspect of this state of affairs, and again it reflects the nature of society. The people who feel they belong to a self-appointed (perhaps I should say ‘self-anointed
) elite think themselves massively superior to all others, justifying for instance their having incomes 40 or 50 times higher than those at the bottom of the scale. The player this morning who felt himself so far above me, and who was playing with my friend, clearly regards his game as massively better than mine. In reality, it’s little more than marginally better than mine. 

OK, decidedly more than marginally better. But no more than that.

So I was delighted as I left the court and walked past his to hear the score. 14-1. To the other side. Despite the fact that he was playing with a good partner.

I was sorry for my friend but absolutely delighted for his partner. Couldn’t happen to a better guy, I felt.

Pure Schadenfreude, of course, pleasure in another’s misfortune, and therefore reprehensible. But its being reprehensible didn’t make it any less enjoyable. I left the club with a song in my heart and a spring in my step, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Friday, 6 December 2013

South Africa, great memories, anxious times

It was one of the great holidays, the two weeks we spent in South Africa nearly a decade ago. 

It was wonderful pretty much from the beginning. We stopped for lunch an hour or so out from Johannesburg, at what had once been a mission station, and I was absolutely enchanted to see a Vervet monkey swing between two trees just low enough to grab part of my meal. 

Vervets. Cheeky enough to try to nick my meal
But I didn't like it that much, and liked them a lot more
The staff were profusely apologetic, but I was delighted: what else could possibly say so clearly, ‘you’re in Africa’?

That evening we were being fed from a 
‘potjie’, the traditional cast iron pot in which a great stew is cooked over an outdoor fire, in our case being prepared by a congenial hostel owner who liked to feed his guests and tell them stories of the old days of the Transvaal

We were there at the right time of year. May’s the ‘cold season’ when tourists don’t turn up much, even the internal ones. We were able to ring the Kruger Park and get accommodation for the next day, in a glorious hut which, at 4:00 in the morning, had impalas lying outside our door, practically close enough to stroke.

Why were we up at 4:00 in the morning? Because we’d manage to enrol for a bush walk, which you usually needs you to book a year in advance.

These days, when I hardly ever seem to be away from the sounds of traffic, to be in a place of miles of plain rolling to the horizon and hear nothing but an occasional insect and a few birds, was nothing short of bliss. Add to that the herd of Kudu – antelopes with glorious twisted horns – through which we drove on the way back, the leopard we saw eying them up lustfully but without the slightest hope of tackling one, the giraffes, the zebras, the rhino, and the rest, and you can imagine how magical the whole thing was.

Kudu. Simply majestic
We even met a friendly Afrikaner couple who took us a little under their wing. But I was amused by his complaint about the lack of ice for a gin and tonic in the bar. The message was clear: the Blacks running the bar were simply not up to the job and things would not have been like that when... well, when things were run more effectively, by the right people.

Funnily enough, I didn’t even want a gin and tonic.

Danielle had shown the good sense to plan our journey economically, and we stayed not in hotels but in hostels – and what hostels! They were luxurious. And the great thing about a hostel is that you meet the other people staying there.

A few days after the Kruger Park, we met a Canadian woman travelling round the country on her own. She explained to us that she’d been walking back along a country road; a group of young black people had been walking in the same direction; sometimes they would overtake her, sometimes she would overtake them.

But then a middle-aged white couple stopped their SUV and offered her a lift.

‘No, thanks, I feel like walking,’ she told them.

‘I think you should get in,’ they said, casting meaningful glances at the group of black youths.

When she still refused, they shrugged and told her, ‘well, on your head be it,’ before driving off.

The Blacks had heard the exchange.

‘I’m sorry Whites can be so stupid,’ she said to them, apologetically.

‘No,’ they said, ‘we don’t think you’re stupid. We need you. So it doesn’t matter.’

Our own experience was like hers. Black people mostly avoided talking to us, giving Whites their space, but if we spoke first, they
’d stop or even walk out of their way to have a conversation. One father had to break off a chat with me, to race down a country path and catch up with his rapidly receding family.

In Durban, Danielle and I tried to walk to the Indian market. We were stopped by a gloriously rainbow mixture of policemen at a tiny kerbside police station: one White, one Indian, one Black.

‘Stay on the waterfront,’ they said, ‘don’t try to walk to the market.’

By then, we were beginning to realise how near the surface the racism of the place lay. We were soon to discover how near the surface the violence bubbled too.

We met up again, in Johannesburg, the same Afrikaner couple we’d got to know in the Kruger Park. As they were driving us back from an excursion, we came across a screaming woman, bleeding copiously from a terrible gash on her arm. A few metres on, a man was walking away rapidly, carrying a blood stained knife. Both were black, neither was young.

‘What should we do?’ Danielle and I asked.

‘Nothing at all,’ was the simultaneous response, and we drove on.

Two Whites felt so threatened at the idea of even stopping to help a wounded Black, while the man who’d attacked her was still around, that they left an injured woman to sort herself out. They wouldn’t even ring for an ambulance.

It’s a glorious place, South Africa. I’ve been back, for work, on a couple of occasions, and I love the country. But it’s riven, from top to bottom, with shocking, vicious and sometimes blood-soaked tensions. And I’ve seen so many Whites who have retreated into gated communities with walls and barbed wire to keep the Blacks out, that I have little sense of progress towards bridging the divides.

In fact, a great many of the Whites I met were busy finding themselves some kind of link – any kind of link – to a European ancestor who could provide them passports as a get free ticket out of the place.

Nelson Mandela was the man who held the place together. He embodied the ideal of a rainbow nation. And now he’s gone.

I suspect South Africa will survive and will, ultimately, prosper.

But boy, has it got its work cut out for it.

He held the place together
Now South Africa needs to find another way

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

London: just the place for an influx of visitors from abroad

It was a great pleasure to have friends from France with us this weekend. 

One of them had never even been to England before, poor chap, so it was particularly rewarding to be able to put an end at last to his exclusion from the finer side of life.

What most foreign visitors want, when they come to see us, is to be shown London. It’s always enjoyable taking them round. If they’re French, I like to get them as quickly as possible to Trafalgar Square and then down to Waterloo Bridge. It seems to get the tone about right, somehow.

Most of the time it’s familiar to us, of course. St James’s Park, again. The monument on Whitehall to the women who served in the war, once more. The Millennium footbridge, for the nth time. And yet, St James’s remains one of my favourite parks in the world, the Millennium bridge with its near-horizontal suspension cables is extraordinary, and the women’s monument, just coats and overalls hanging on pegs, is strikingly moving. Seeing them with people who are discovering the sights for the first time brings them into sharp new relief.

Monument to the Women of World War 2
Besides, I had only last week listened to a radio programme that examined just what we mean by ‘road’ and ‘street’. I’d always thought of the first as applying to the countryside, the latter to towns, but the programme took that idea a step further: roads are about getting vehicles from place to place but streets make spaces.

Now that’s quite an insight. St James’s Park, which I like so much, is defined by the streets that surround it, helped by the presence of some pretty spectacular buildings along them: the rather ponderous Buckingham Palace, for instance, where our present monarch Elizabeth II lives, opposite Whitehall Palace where her distant ancestor Charles I was executed.

Given how unfortunate that link is, it’s 
perhaps just as well it’s provided by such an enchanting stretch of greenery.
St James: one of the world's great parks
But the thoroughfare which I find particularly attractive, and at the same time powerfully definitive of a space, is the Thames. The river’s long curves give London its shape. And, when it comes to travelling through the capital, it’s unsurpassed: the boat trip down to Greenwich is a delight in itself, and leaves you in a wonderful place, where among other joys you can have such fun jumping across the Prime Meridian, from the Western hemisphere to the Eastern and back again.

It was far from the first time I'd taken the boat down to Greenwich, though that didn’t mean I enjoyed it any the less. What I’d never done was travel on the river by night, as we did on the way back, which was truly magical: it's worth it just for the sight of the the skyline and the bridges lit up in the dark.

The Millennium Bridge is beautiful during the day,
haunting at night
It was a good day. And all down to a visit from France.

These days, the free movement of citizens between EU nations gets a pretty bad press in Britain. Not from me. It’s given me a lot of fun. Bring it on, I say. Let’s have more of it.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Lightweights of the world unite

It was pleasantly nostalgic to hear David Cameron today. He solemnly declared that he was going to throw his full weight behind a proposed free trade deal between China and Europe.

In in the long lost days of my ill-spent youth, back in the seventies and eighties, amongst the generally pretty dismal international news we got (much like today), light relief was occasionally provided by that remarkable statesman, Enver Hoxha, dictator of Albania.

Dodger Hoxha, China's friend yesterday
The surname rhymed with ‘Dodger’ and the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist came to a sticky end. Enver, however, avoided his fate, contriving to die in his bed before his regime fell. 

That regime was Communist in name, but with no ties to either its far larger neighbour, Yugoslavia, or even the more distant Soviet Union, whose baleful power kept most of Eastern Europe whipped into order at that time. Instead, Enver aligned Albania with China. This meant that statements of policy on Albanian Radio would start ‘Albania and the People’s Republic of China have decided...’

China was smaller in those days, of course, at about a billion people, while Albania was rapidly growing towards its peak population of three and a half million. Impressive, for sure, but even so, it was hard to avoid thoughts of pimples and giants, or even dogs and fleas.

All that came back to me this afternoon. Ah, halcyon days, now rapidly receding into the mists of the past. 

Funnily enough, though, it wasn’t Cameron’s mention of China that got me remembering them.

It was the reference to his weight in the world.

Dodger Cameron, China's friend today.
Poised to become a latter-day Hoxha