Friday, 30 December 2016


He seemed bright, alert and attentive, the young man in front of me.

Part of my mind was less concerned with my reason for being in the supermarket or the information he was failing to give me, but with the voice and accent in which he was failing to give it to me. When I was young, a man of African or Caribbean appearance would be most likely to talk with a strong West Indian accent (which was hardly surprising, since he was highly likely to be from that part of the world).

These days, however, if his accent is foreign, it’s usually Nigerian (also unsurprising since he’s most likely to be from that great West African nation).

This young man spoke with a perfect English accent. Which was equally unsurprising, because he was clearly entirely English.

However, my passing thoughts on the extent of assimilation of the Caribbean community into mainstream British society, satisfying though they were in themselves, had to take second place to my more immediate supermarket needs. He was an employee, though his obvious intelligence led me to suspect on a temporary basis while preparing or pursuing a course of advanced study, but despite his intellectual abilities and the fact that we spoke the same language, at every level both literal and metaphorical, we were manifestly failing to communicate.

“You want pet supplies?” he checked with me.

“Yes. You know. Pet food. And such like.” 

I was slightly irritated at myself for the reticence to state why I was there – to buy some pooper scoopers. It was a pleasant day, full of light and unseasonably mild. It was an upmarket shop. Did I feel that any allusion, however peripheral, to excrement was out of place in those circumstances?

“Pet food?”

Was he being deliberately obtuse? I was beginning to lose patience.

“Yes. Pet food. Perhaps this branch doesn’t stock any?”

He smiled at me. With, I felt, a slight touch of incredulity. Was he making fun of me?

“What kind of pet food are you after?”

He seemed to be slowing his diction, as though I needed to be talked down to, as though I was slow in understanding and had to be patronised. By this stage I was beginning to get seriously irritated. He seemed such a pleasant young man but I could see no justification for this kind of behaviour.

“Any kind of pet food would do,” I replied with what I hoped was a sufficient level of brusque haughtiness. Or possibly haughty brusqueness. But I felt either would do.

He didn’t reply but merely looked at me with what struck me as little short of pity. It was bordering on the offensive.

But then, suddenly, a nasty thought came to me. With some dread, I turned slowly to look behind me. And my fears were confirmed. Stretching each way, as far as the eye could see were shelf after shelf of cat food, dog food, probably hamster and rabbit food, sanitary materials for cats or for dogs, leads, bowls, brushes, whatever you might desire in that line, including, inevitably, pooper scoopers.

Ah, the shame, the shame. The sheer embarrassment
“Ah,” I said, “I see.”

As a reply, it was, I must admit, inadequate. It lacked the verve and wit I like to convince myself I cultivate.

“I’m sorry,” I added, though I didn’t feel it improved my comment particularly.

“No problem,” he assured me, demonstrating that he was as polite as he’d seemed before his incredulity had got the better of him.

“I hadn’t noticed,” I continued, struggling to try to justify myself.

He nodded and smiled again. But he was already moving away to his left, reminding me that he had work to do. I’d wasted quite enough of his time.

In any case, I had no desire to prolong the conversation. I grabbed the packet of pooper scoopers and made for the tills as quickly as I could.

I treasure the lesson, though. Miscommunication can be painful. Even embarrassing. But it isn’t always the fault of the person you may at first think.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

British soaring salaries

Great economic news. At last.

It seems that salaries are soaring in Britain.

Well, OK, not everyone’s salaries. In fact, I might have to go so far as to admit it’s not even most salaries. To be perfectly honest, it’s only the salaries of the top managers of British businesses that have been soaring.

Still, at least it’s good news that someone’s doing well in harsh times. Isn’t it? And it’s spectacularly well, apparently: an 82% increase in eleven years.

Our best and brightest
Or best paid, at least
Sadly, a new report suggests that these senior executives don’t deserve their remuneration. That the performance of their companies doesn’t justify it. Hard to believe, isn’t it? I mean, what sort of company would pay its executives a salary they haven’t earned? After all, top salaries are mostly set by people who know what they’re doing: top executives from other firms. Whose salaries are set by those whose salaries they set.

How could a system that carefully attuned and balanced go wrong?

I don’t move in such rarefied circles. Over a long and colourful career, I’ve had the privilege, or at least the experience, of working for several fine companies in which I’ve reported to execs a couple of rungs down from those outstanding individuals on their seven-figure salaries. These are the men (all have been men) paid in the low to mid six-figure range (in pounds) – so between 5 and 20 times median earnings, as opposed to 40 times and more.

It has been edifying to see how remarkably they perform. I have, for instance, observed the following admirable leadership techniques.

The Excel Predictor This is a method for forecasting changes in earnings. “Changes” in this context, a prediction, always means growth, unlike a review (swiftly followed by a justification and often redundancies) can mean decline.

The method requires locking an executive or three in a room somewhere with a desktop computer and an Excel spreadsheet. This allows them to calculate just what new sales need to be generated to reach the level of growth they wish to achieve.

I was once asked, seriously, whether it wasn’t reasonable to forecast ten sales of a product with four salesmen.

“That’s less than three each in the year. One every half year and a couple extra. That’s hardly a demanding target, is it?”

“How many sales did we have last year?”


“So you’re looking for a 500% increase?”

But that was nit-picking objection. Two and a half sales each was hardly a massive mountain to climb for experienced salesmen, was it?

We forecast ten sales.

And took one.

The Important Meeting Sometimes executives extend their discussions beyond the claustrophobic circle of three or four gathered around a computer. Indeed, there are some for whom the more important the question, the bigger the meeting. And the longer it lasts.

I’ve sat in meetings of 15 people that lasted the entire day – eight hours. Something in the region of £7000 in costs. The question was how to meet the company’s demand for 30% growth in our division.

We debated how we could win more sales of our existing products. We then discussed what new products we could dream up. We discussed what it would take to build them and sell them. We then discussed all those things over again, three or four more times.

To at least twelve of the people present, it was perfectly clear that the target was unachievable. But the other three were the executives who had foregathered around a computer. They eventually put in a plan based on achieving the desired level of growth.

In the event, the division saw revenue shrink instead of growing. But that wasn’t a problem. Several junior staff were made redundant.

The Gifted Individual There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’, I’m told. But there’s a big ‘I’ several times over in the ‘Inspired Individual endowed with unique Insight’.

Have you ever had the privilege of working with one of those? No? You don’t know what you’re missing. Just hope that your career will give you the opportunity yet.

These characters are mostly self-taught, but what they’ve learned by applying their Intuition (another ‘I’, you see) to a couple of textbooks they’ve glanced through, enables them to outperform any mere professional with years of experience on top of solid training.

This means that if they win no sales for a couple of years, and the product they champion is bug-ridden and incapable of performing to specification (a fact not entirely unrelated to the sales success), it is entirely due to the ineptitude or downright indolence of their more junior colleagues.

The answer to the problem? A few redundancies among those low performers.

I’m sure the people who stand even further up the hierarchy than these fine executives, are at least as outstanding in their work. It’s therefore beyond me to understand how anyone can think they fail to earn their colossal salaries. These are the men on the pinnacles of our economy – who are we to doubt them?

On the contrary, shouldn’t we be enthusiastically supporting the moves of our present enlightened British government to hand more of the management of our public services over to them?

Perhaps we could pay them a little more for taking on that responsibility.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Brexit and Malaria and what they have in common

An old friend of mine was an intensive care specialist at a prestigious hospital. He told me of a case he once had to deal with, of a wealthy business man who went hunting in Africa every year. All had gone well for ten years but in the eleventh he’d returned suffering from malaria in an advanced state and spent several weeks in Intensive Care, much of the time close to death.

“But,” my friend asked him, “didn’t you take anti-malaria tablets?”

“Not this time.”

“You mean, you always had before, but just decided that this year you wouldn’t?”

“Yes,” replied the patient, “you see, I never had any trouble in the previous years, so I decided I didn’t need them this time.”

Christmas this year was fun. As well as many English friends and relatives, we also saw people from abroad, mostly from other countries of the EU. We took full advantage of the opportunity to do so since, in two or three years, it may become a great deal harder. 2016 has turned into the year of the wall: Trump won office in the States on a promise to build one, England and Wales voted to retreat behind new barriers to separate them from their nearest neighbours.

So, though fun Christmas was also poignant.

Still, I’m assured by Brexiteers, not least on Twitter, that I’m wrong to see Brexit as anything but an opportunity. It seems that it will give us the chance to strike some exciting new business deals.

Presumably that would be impressive deals, like the one that allows us to trade without customs or other barriers, with the world’s biggest trading block, embracing over 500 million people and three of the world’s top seven economies. That would be the rest of EU. The organisation to which we still belong, for the next two or three years, and which absorbs over half our total trade.

We can get out and strike some new deals with major economic powers. Like Bahrain, recently visited by Theresa May, and worth 0.3% of the EU’s Gross Domestic Product.

Bahrain: ideal post-Brexit partner, worth about 1/300th of the EU
And the labour practices are a great model for the times
when all those pesky EU regulations have been swept away
Still, she also went to India, whose GDP is about 44% of the size of the EU. Per head of population that’s only one-seventh of Germany, but let’s not get pedantic about matters of detail.

Anyway, we’ve been a member the European Union for 43 years, and we’ve barely notice the trade benefits. Why should we need them now?

It’s just like malaria tablets. Take them, and you never get malaria. And if you never get malaria, why bother to take the tablets?

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Labour Pains

The Labour Party’s travails continue. The French call it the ‘parti travailliste’ which seems particularly apt these days. Though the Labouring Party works as well.

The latest blow is the departure from parliament of Jamie Reed, Labour MP for Copeland in Cumbria. It’s a blow not because he’ll be particularly missed – I’m sure I’m not alone in having reacted to hearing his name with the word “who?” No, the damage is that it forces another by-election on the Labour Party, and a difficult race.

The odd thing is that he justifies his decision to leave parliament, for a job in the nuclear industry, by claiming it will allow him to do more for his community than he could as a Labour MP. That feels to me like arguing that burning down a house is the best response to not being able to fix the leak in the roof. But Reed came from the nuclear industry in the first place and he may view it as less toxic than I do.

Sellafield, in Jamie Reed’s county of Cumbria
An easier place to help the Community, apparently, than Parliament
He says it’s not about money. His pay will be higher than as an MP, but only marginally, he claims. Some cynics, however, have suggested that it may be more a matter of job security. The rumours persist of a possible snap election in May and it’s possible Reed is so uncertain of winning his seat back that he prefers to take a job with a better guarantee of tenure.

Others might feel that the people who say that aren’t so much cynics as realists.

There are two reasons to feel a little concerned about a possible snap election.

The first is that, as many commentators have pointed out, it’s likely to be first and foremost a Brexit election. We know where UKIP stands on Brexit: they want Britain out of the EU the hard way – out of the Customs Union and Single Market as well as the European Union itself, bravely forging ahead in a world where foreign nations will applaud British grit, see the far greater opportunities offered by a 70-million strong population over half a billion, and rush to sign new trade deals on terms massively favourable to the UK.

The Tories are far from clear where they stand, except that they’re absolutely resolute that Brexit means Brexit. But since no one know what Brexit means Brexit means, supporters of the hard position can fancy the Tories are on their side, but so can supporters of a softer exit, with Britain staying at least in the Customs Union, possible even in the Single Market. All things to all voters, or at least all Brexit voters, an enviable position.

The Liberal Democrats have also come out for an explicit position. They oppose Brexit altogether. It’s a courageous stance, since it appeals only to the 48% of the electorate who voted to stay in the EU. Still, they’re alone in taking that position, so that trend in the electorate’s all theirs, and when you’re on 8% in the polls, 48% must look highly attractive.

That leaves Labour. Its spokesman on Brexit, Keir Starmer, has taken a highly intelligent position. He accepts the electorate voted to leave and accepts we therefore must. He however feels we can sensibly argue for a soft exit which will damage the economy least.

Unfortunately, his position is not being echoed at the very top of the Party. The leader, Jeremy Corbyn, maintains a Trappist silence. His closest ally, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell, says little though a few weeks ago he did talk about the great opportunities offered by Brexit.

Those cynics we were talking about before, among whom on this occasion I count myself, suspect this is because they are temperamentally inclined to the Leave side, but had to hide the fact since they were at the top of a party committed to remaining in the EU. However, these are people who make it a point of pride to be strictly honest in politics, so the cynics like me must surely be mistaken.

Sadly, though I know that, I can’t free myself of the nasty suspicion.

The result is that the top of Labour Party, which is the bit most voters look at, is firmly glued to the fence. They neither back Brexit nor oppose it. That means they take a symmetrical position to the Tories: rather than all things to all voters, they are no thing to any of them. And it shows.

At this stage of the 1992-1997 parliament, Labour had a lead of 20% in the polls. It went on to win a comprehensive victory at the next election.

At this stage of the 2010-2015 parliament, Labour had a lead of around 2 or 3%, but went on to a depressing defeat.

A few days ago, a fellow Labour Party member took pleasure in pointing out to me that the Conservative lead had fallen to a mere 7%.

There’s a great line in the film Sully about everything being unprecedented until it happens for the first time. All the precedents may be against Labour winning from this position, but the unprecedented can always happen.

Still. Sounds like Jamie Reed doesn’t feel that way. But maybe he’s a rotten old cynic.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Saying goodbye to Lionel Blue

As a young man in my first job, I suffered from the same problem as many my age: I found getting up in the mornings a terrible pain.

I invested in a radio clock. It was tuned to BBC Radio 4 and set to come on at 7:00 if I was feeling virtuous, 7:15 if I was feeling tired, which was more often the case. Either way, I wouldn’t get up but remained in bed, marginally awake, vaguely aware of the Today programme telling more all the latest ghastly happenings around the world. Just as it does still.

It was only at ten to eight that I would finally spring to life. Why? Because that was when ‘Thought for the Day’ came on, the Today programme’s five-minute nod to religion, when someone speaking for one or other of the many faiths, Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, or any other, gave us a snippet of holy thought designed to inspire and uplift. I found the tone sanctimonious and altogether far to forcedly cheery for the time of day, and from complete inertia I would leap into action and across the room to turn off the radio.

It amazes me still that I was somehow able, day after day, to be up, semi-washed, fully shaved, dressed and on the train to work at 8:12, even though the station was ten minutes walk away. Or, as I frequently discovered, a five-minute run.

Many years later, I found myself doing a great deal of driving for work. That meant listening to a lot of radio and, since I couldn’t be bothered to turn it off for five minutes, that included ‘Thought for the Day’. Little by little I came to appreciate it more: even if the speakers were sometimes immensely irritating for their obviously self-conscious wisdom, the wisdom itself was (occasionally) real.

No one, though, was as enlightening and also entertaining as Rabbi Lionel Blue. Every ‘Thought for the Day’ I heard of his was a joy and often insightful.

Lionel Blue, 1930-2016
He'll be missed
The one that sticks in my mind told two contrasting stories.

Blue was a hospital visitor, taking religious consolation to the sick and dying. Visiting one terminally ill man, he was struck by the attractive woman sitting in a waiting room near his ward. Told that his wife was with the patient, Blue took a seat near her. A little while later, the wife appeared and went up to the woman who had impressed him.

“You can go in now,” she said.

Blue later learned that she was the mistress, and the wife was leaving her a moment to say goodbye to her dying lover.

The other story concerned a funeral he attended in Paris. A wealthy middle class family was burying a son who’d died of Aids. There were many mourners in attendance, but one was conspicuous for his absence: the young man’s gay lover, in whose arms he had died, forbidden by the family from attending the burial.

For Blue, the first instance was a clear breach of all conventional morality, but in his view it was infused with love. The second conformed entirely to standard behaviour but, he felt, was untouched by love. He was well-placed to judge, as the first openly gay Rabbi in Britain, and a man who had suffered for his homosexuality as a young man. To my surprise, he once said, my 70s are nicer than my 60s and my 60s than my 50s, and I wouldn't wish my teens and twenties on my enemies.

To Blue, God was present in the first encounter, absent from the second.

That attitude sums up blue. Religion was a matter of love and of consolation, not of blind application of cold, inhumane regulation. It was something human, that spanned religions – he was closely acquainted with Christianity and no stranger to churches – and felt that faith was inherently bound into daily life. As he said:

Praying privately in churches, I began to discover that heaven was my true home and also that it was here and now, woven into this life.

It must be no surprise that a man of such attitudes was as much a friend of laughter as he was of love. He would end every ‘Thought for the Day’ with a joke. 

He died on 19 December, sadly impoverishing the legions of those who favour tolerance and moderation, at a time when we need them more than ever. So, in tribute to him, let me end with a similar joke, though not one I think he told.

A man climbs a hill to commune with God.

“Lord,” he says, “what is a million years to you?”

“A minute,” replies the Lord.

“And how about a million pounds?”

“A penny.”

“Could you give me a penny, Lord?”

“Certainly. In a minute.”

Best wishes to you, Rabbi Blue, and all our gratitude for the gentle kindness you gave us in a life well-lived.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Banning the Muslim veil to protect Western values

On 29 November, the lower house of the Dutch Parliament voted for a partial ban on the burka, the full-face covering veil worn by a minority of Muslim women. If the vote is confirmed by the upper house, the veil will be banned on public transport, in government buildings and in schools.

On 6 December, Angela Merkel, preparing her run for a fourth term as German Chancellor, told the conference of her party, the Christian Democrats, that she too favoured a partial ban.

“The full veil must be banned,” she declared, “wherever legally possible. Showing your face is part of our way of life. Our laws take precedence over honour codes, tribal customs and sharia.”

Angela Merkel at the CDU Conference
Holland used to enjoy a reputation as one of the most liberal countries on earth and, despite the irruption on the scene of a number of hard right-wing parties and individuals – none more so than Geert Wilders, now leading in opinion polls – it retains much of the structure of a highly liberal nation. Merkel has also emerged in the last few years as one of Europe’s most liberal leaders, most notably with her decision to allow a million refugees to enter the country – a decision, incidentally, which she now says will never be repeated.

France and Belgium have already banned the burka and even the niqab, the form of veil which leaves the eyes exposed. Such veils are, it seems, deeply disturbing to Western societies. We are used to seeing faces (part of our way of life, as Merkel says). A covered face is hostile or even sinister, marking the criminal covering his features to avoid identification and capture. During the Northern Ireland troubles, an icon on both sides was the man in the balaclava, the clothing of choice of killers in either camp. 

Faces hidden from sight make us uncomfortable. Discomfort is never easy to bear. It seems that even liberalism finds it difficult to withstand. The developments in Holland and Germany suggest it has a fatal tendency to give way when made uncomfortable. 

That, however, leads to the heart of the Muslim veil conundrum. If liberalism backs down as soon as it’s faced with a perturbing difficulty, what is liberalism worth? Or, putting it another way, it’s easy to tolerate things we’re comfortable with; it’s when we deal with things that make us uncomfortable that our tolerance is truly tested and we have to prove whether it’s genuine or not.

These matters all became personal to me a few weeks ago at a badminton club where we play most weeks. A new, beginner joined. And she came in a niquab.

She’s covered head to foot. Her sleeves are held in place by loops over her thumbs. Her leggings reach down to her shoes. Her only exposed flesh is on her hands and a strip around her eyes. 

Playing badminton with someone dressed that way was certainly a new experience. I suppose it initially felt odd. But it quickly became commonplace. We were all struck by her speed around the court, by her accuracy, by the strength in her wrists. She plays a great deal better than most people who’ve played as little as she has.

When we shake hands at the end of a game, as is the convention, she won’t shake mine or that of any other male player. So what? She smiles (a smile with the eyes is far more telling than one just with the lips). She repeats the usual compliments we all give each other – “good game”, “well played” (the latter always with the subtext, “not quite well enough for us”).

She is, in fact, one of us. If we feel uncomfortable about her dress, what gives us the right to inflict our feelings on her? Her dress codes does us no harm, and it doesn’t hold back her game. What on earth business is it of ours?

I’d go a step further. If we imposed a Muslim veil ban in Britain, she would no longer feel she could come out and join us. She’d be forced to stay at home and give up on a form of exercise which must do her good and which she evidently enjoys. While she’s with us, incidentally, her husband’s looking after the children. That’s a form of equality between the sexes that we, in the West, generally criticise Islam for not displaying enough.

In fact, banning the veil far from integrating our friend more closely into Western society and into an adoption of its values, would hold back her assimilation. In other words, it would produce precisely the opposite effect of what we claim to seek. I fully understand the need, for security reasons, to be able to demand that burka-clad people show their faces to suitably empowered authorities such as the police; I see no reason why Muslims should be forced to abandon the veil generally in public.

One right no constitution in any country guarantees, is the right not to be made uncomfortable. If learning to overcome some slight discomfort in ourselves protects important rights in others, and helps to assimilate different communities better into our society, why shouldn’t we make that effort?

It’s my feeling, and I have personal experience to back it up, that a Muslim veil ban would be a completely unnecessary, illiberal and intolerant measure that would undermine, rather than upholding, Western values.

Friday, 16 December 2016

The good cheer of others

Its ironic, considering how high it takes us, but air travel has become one of the least uplifting experiences of our age, hasn’t it?

There was a time when it was regarded as something of a luxury, but that’s long behind us. Today, planes just cart us around with as much consideration as if they were buses. To be honest, I’ve been on London buses which gave me more of a sense of wellbeing.

All this is particularly true of low-cost airlines. Or should that be lo-cost? It feels like one of those words that just cries for misspelling, like lite, and it communicates precisely the same sense of up-market, high-quality, good living. In fact, I think that lo-cost airlines do more than anything else to illustrate the principle that you get what you pay for and that a service is worth its price.

Still, sometimes the experience is less ghastly than at others. I caught a flight at 7:00 in the morning the other day, a pretty dire thing to do as a general rule. But my gloom was lifted by the atmosphere on the plane: it was full of people going on holiday and obviously pleased to be on their way. There were at least two school trips for kids from different age groups from the same girls’ school – or it may have been a mixed school but there were only girls on the trips – and they seemed to derive delight from being on the plane at all, judging by the way they were laughing and playing the whole way over.

Even their teachers seemed to be caught up in the atmosphere, bantering with the girls. “When we get there, remember to take all your things with you. Leave your phone on the plane and you’ve lost it. I’m not fighting through the authorities to get back on board to find it.” It seems that Tina had done just that on the previous trip.

I also enjoyed the conversation with the hostess who, like me, had seen Sully recently. She’d asked me to sit in an emergency exit row and briefed me on opening the door which had led quite naturally to talking about that gripping film about the plane that had to ditch in New York’s Hudson river. Haven’t seen it? Don’t write it off as a hopelessly trivial thrills-and-spills film. It’s a lot better than that, cleverly structured, tightly directed and excellently acted.

We agreed we’d probably prefer if we didn’t have to land in the Channel or any of the rivers we were likely to encounter on our trip. It was a bit cold (a fact that reminded of us of one of the better lines in the film, from the First Officer who, asked what he would do differently if he had to do it again, replied “I’d do it in July”; the Hudson river landing had taken place on a freezing day in February). 

Still, at least if we had been forced to ditch, I’d have known exactly what to do with the door.

Lo-cost view of the Alps
Definitely not the place for a Sully
There were even some young women behind me who seemed as cheerful as the girls (at 7:00 in the morning. Can you imagine?) 

One of them was on the phone on the ground at Gatwick.

“Mum, Mum, guess where I am?”

This was an unpromising start, I felt, rather like the painfully clichéd “I’m on a train.”

“No, no, it’s me. Just guess where I am.”

Mum was obviously having some trouble focusing. I could picture her, probably still in bed, trying to understand why she was being called at that God-forsaken hour but her soon to be less-than-favourite daughter.

“Guess where I am, guess where I am!”

I can’t imagine what Mum was saying. “You’re standing by a car crash, since I can’t think of any other good reason for ringing me this early?” I know it’s what I’d say. Or at least think.

“No, no, I’m on a plane. Veronica and Alice talked me into going with them. Isn’t that fantastic?”

Fantastic? Not the word I’d have used for being on a lo-cost flight at that time of day. But enthusiasm is infectious and, with the good cheer of the girls, it improved my mood.

Why, I wasn’t even curt when I got off the plane, formal jacket on, laptop bag over one shoulder and cabin-luggage suitcase in the other – the uniform, surely, of the common-or-garden business manager about his common-or-garden business – and a hostess cheerily said, “Enjoy your holiday”.

I just smiled and thanked her. 

Almost warmly.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Toffee's diary: getting settled in

Luci says she won’t write my diary entries any more. Spoilsport. She thinks she’s so superior. But I’m getting my own back. I’m going to write my own.

So there. Nya, nya, nya, nyaaa, nya. I may be a puppy but I'm mature now.

Things are working out pretty well here. There seems to be lots of food, which is my best thing. The humans say I’m like a magnet, whatever that is. It seems to mean that when I get my nose into a bowl they can’t get it out any more. But why should they get it out? Once I’ve started eating, what would be the point in stopping?

There’s another thing I don’t really understand. The humans seem to get terribly upset when I carefully use the carpet as my toilet. I don’t get it. I mean, they always go in afterwards and clean it up, so where’s the problem? They leave it nice and clean-smelling, ready for my next time.

Humans aren’t good at simple logic, are they?

The best thing of all, though, is the cat. He’s called Misty. He’s HUGE! Lots of times bigger than me. But he’s just so interesting. He keeps running away from me, but I chase him, I chase him. After all, he’s a strange grey thing with an interesting smell – I’ve just got to get close to him to find out what he’s all about. I like to curl up to him, which he seems OK with, but I have to admit that when I’m really close, I have to start chewing bits of him. His tail. His ears. His neck. It’s stronger than me. Which is bad, because he’s a lot stronger than me.

Misty: frighteningly huge and strong but so fascinating
I mean, it’s all well-meant. All friendly. Affectionate really, but he doesn’t see things that way. He has a go at me with his claws, and he’s got lots. Well, probably no more than I have, but it feels like lots. And when he bites my neck, it isn’t affectionate at all, I can tell you. You really know about it when he gets those teeth going on you. I yelp and he stops but it still hurts.

I’m not giving up, though. I know some day he’ll learn how loveable I am. So I keep going back and being loveable to him. Even if that does involve me using my teeth just the tiniest bit and him using his back, rather a lot. Some day he’ll see I’m fun to have around.

And then there’s walks. They’re quite fun. We go with Luci. Poor thing, she has to walk the whole way, but I get carried to the park and sometimes part of the way even in the park.

“What’s the point of being carried?” she says. “If you’re out for a walk, you ought to be walking.”

Well, yes, sure. Maybe. But when you can sit nice and warm inside a jacket instead?

Still, I don’t say anything. She’s trying to put a brave face on her bad luck and I don’t want to rub it in or anything.

We chase each other around a bit in the park and that’s fun. It’s just like when we’re back at home in the sitting room, but bigger. And we don’t get humans complaining about paw marks on the sofa and things like that. 

Park walk with Luci: she’s happy to have me along
There’s lots of other people in the park, including some humans. It’s fun following them around. I like pretending I’m going off with them, because it’s fun to see my humans running that fast to catch up.

We usually get food, too, after a walk, which makes it really special. They try to get me out in the garden afterwards, because when you’ve eaten, well, there are certain things you just have to do, aren’t there? Still, if I’m quick enough, I can usually get to the carpet before they grab me.

Oh… oh… oh… I may have to stop writing… Oh, yes, I must go, I must go, I must go… It’s the cat, it’s the cat, it’s the cat.

It’s so exciting.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

A helpful new lexicon for Corbyn times

The shots in the British Labour Party are today being called by our blessed leader Jeremy Corbyn and his fan base, the faction known as Momentum. 

Sorry, not a faction but a movement. Or rather, sorry, not a movement but a loose collection of like-minded individuals who take their support of the Party to a level beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals.

Dedicated as I am to public service, it struck me that it might be useful to provide some insights into the new terms, or old terms with new meanings, now being used within the Party. This should aid understanding between the truly enlightened (the above mentioned Jeremy and his Momentum brethren) and us, the poor benighted, striving to improve ourselves.


A ‘corbyn’ is a dead end, but the term has the implication that those who went down it did so deliberately and were labouring under the belief that it led to a wonderful new land where peace and plenty abound. 

Revered leader or dead end?
  1. In common usage: a supporter of former PM Tony Blair still not reconciled to the notion that several hundred thousand Iraqi lives and a huge increase in international terrorism was rather too high a price for small steps forward in a vaguely social-democratic direction  
  2. In the mouths of people stuck in a corbyn: anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to avoid getting stuck in a corbyn 
Red Tory 
  1. In common usage: a member of the Labour Party who only joined because the Tories wouldn’t give him a safe seat (viz. John Stonehouse) (and if you don’t know who John Stonehouse was, just be grateful)  
  2. At the far end of a corbyn: anyone who thinks that winning is a lot more useful, when it comes to actually getting things done, than hanging out with your mates at the far end of a corbyn. 
  1. In common usage: someone organising an underhand, clandestine and treacherous movement against a much-loved individual to whom we owe a duty of loyalty.  
  2. Bottled up at the bottom of a corbyn: a Labour MP who thinks their first duty is to their voters and, if the leader is going down a dead end inhabited only by his mates, he ought to be moved aside and replaced by someone who knows what she or he is doing

  1. in common usage: someone who leads the way forwards 
  2. for the inhabitants of a corbyn: a revered individual of semi-divine character who takes his acolytes into a comforting dead end where they can full express their admiration of him 

A ‘Mandate’ (always capitalised, sometimes ‘the Mandate’) is the authority granted to a hermetically isolated group backed by a self-selected electorate convinced that, in politics, self-righteousness is an excellent substitute for effectiveness. 


The preservation of a purity that surpasseth mere human understanding, and a self-righteousness that approacheth saintliness, even at the cost of coming fifth in a four-horse race.

Friday, 9 December 2016

The Prerogative of the Harlot

“Power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot through the ages”.

Ringing words from Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin in 1931 (though they were written by his cousin, Rudyard Kipling). He was denouncing the Press Barons, influencers of events answerable to no one for the consequences. However, the denunciation applies with equal force to a great many others.
Baldwin (right) said it
Kipling (his cousin) wrote it
Take, for instance, a former boss of mine.

He’d founded the company I joined, basing himself on one brilliant product idea. It was, indeed, that brilliance which drew me in. It didn’t take long to discover, however, that the brilliance had stopped with the initial idea. There had been a short period of growth of the business, but then the company had stagnated, and now it was well into the inevitable next phase, decline.

That meant that radical change was needed. That’s what I thought I’d been brought in to undertake. Within a year, it became clear I was doomed to fail.

Nothing happened in the company without my boss’s say-so: no modification of the product, no phase of development work, no sales decision, no sales presentation even. Indeed, his domination of every aspect of the company was such that a naïve observer might have supposed any failure was down to him.

Not so. I was assured on the best of authorities, indeed the only authority that mattered at all in that business, that my boss knew exactly what needed to be done and was straining every sinew to make it happen. Sadly, he was surrounded by people of crass incompetence. Worse than incompetence. Some of the errors were so flagrant that they seemed deliberate, positive and treacherous against the business. Software developers who took unforgivable shortcuts or simply made elementary errors. Sales staff who demanded information and shared it with potential customers even though that could only put them off ordering from us. People like me who had the gall to question his every move and prevented him achieving the progress his efforts merited.

In fact, he exercised autocratic authority, but the responsibility for any failure was down to anyone but him. Power without responsibility. It was a harlotry I couldn’t bear and I left. Though, to be fair, had I not jumped I would certainly have been pushed soon after.

This was all petty stuff. A few people were inconvenienced in their careers. An insignificant company faded towards well-deserved oblivion. A man prey to an authoritarian streak was presiding over the collapse of unearned ambitions.

Now, though, consider a much more substantial backdrop for such behaviour.

A by-election in a massively safe Conservative seat, Sleaford and North Hykeham, has just elected another Conservative. No surprise there. What is more concerning is that Labour, which came second in the General Election eighteen months ago, came fourth this time around. Vernon Coaker, a Labour MP, commented that in the by-election, “everything was about Brexit”.

Indeed. In another by-election, in Richmond a week earlier, the Liberal Democrats had overturned a huge Conservative majority by firmly opposing Brexit. It is the issue of the day. But Labour, sadly, has no coherent position on it. At best, it criticises the government’s handling of the Brexit process. But it seems to have no clear position on the substantive issue: are we for or against Brexit? Will we only accept a soft Brexit – in which we stay in the Single Market or at least the Customs Union – or a hard Brexit in which we cut all such ties?

No one knows because no one in the leadership is saying.

So we drift from catastrophe to catastrophe. The Sleaford result was completely in line with national polls, which put the Conservatives well up on their General Election result and Labour well down.

Now it’s possible to be as naïve as I was about my boss. Some of us might conclude that if Labour is unable to develop any kind of leadership over the one great question that is agitating the minds of voters, then that’s down to the leadership. Or, more to the point, its lack of leadership.

Again, though, that view turns out to be wrong. The backers of the present leader, Jeremy Corbyn, never tire of telling us that he’s outstanding. The problem is he’s let down by those, like the Parliamentary Labour Party, or others who have no confidence in him and who are therefore ‘red Tories’ or ‘Blairites’. On their shoulders and their shoulders alone lies the blame for Labour’s parlous position.

Corbyn and his circle of admirers insist that they have a mandate from the membership. That allows them to dictate our way forward while we just have to swallow our objections and get on with helping them achieve a glorious future for the country. If glory escapes them, however, be sure that it isnt down to them. They have power within the Labour Party, you see, but no responsibility.

The prerogative of the harlot through the ages.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The words to say it. Though they sometimes don't

Today I had some grapes that, unlike most of those sold these days, weren’t seedless. I wondered what to call them. Seeded? Hardly. Seedful? I’m not sure there’s such a word. Or ought to be. Seedy? Seems unfair. They were rather good.

Words aren’t always there when you need them. Expressions, too, can be slippery. The elephant in the room? Who has rooms that big? 

OK, some people do have rooms big enough~
but most of them, I suspect, are short of pachyderms
I always love “at the end of the day”. The one thing you can be sure of at the end of the day is that it gets dark. And don’t you admire people who say “if I’m completely honest”? Does that mean anything they tell you without that preface isn’t to be believed?

I once worked with colleagues who used to tell me, when they wanted a report or some other material written, “it doesn’t have to be War and Peace.”

Just as well. I’m not sure if I could bring the Battle of Borodino to life like Tolstoy. And in any case I suspect most of my colleagues would have found one of the films or TV series far more up their street than any War and Peace presentation I could have produced.

Then there’s an expression I use a lot. It helps me get started on jobs that are going to take a long time, and any job that’s tedious is long. I say, sometimes to myself, “I’ll just break the back of it.”

Gratuitously cruel, isn’t it? I mean, breaking a back? It’s a horrible thought.

But just think if the job’s particularly hard. If it’s back-breaking, say. Then I’d be breaking the back of a job’s that’s breaking mine. Where does that get any of us? You remember Gandhi? “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Breaking the back of the back breaking only leaves more of us crippled.

Like I said. Slippery things, words. And expressions.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

An anniversary. With a message for today

Seventy-five years ago today, a powerful military nation made a fatal military error.

Instead of swinging northwards from its conquered territories in China and tackling the Soviet Union, then gripped by a life and death struggle against Nazi Germany, the Empire of Japan chose to go South and attack the Far Eastern possessions of Holland and Britain. If it had done only that, it might have achieved its aims: its forces on both land and sea quickly overcame the British and the Dutch. But they weren’t satisfied with so much and overreached, attacking the United States too.

Had Japan taken on the Soviet Union, the world might have been a profoundly different place. The Soviets might have had to divert forces from the Western Front and weaken the fight against Hitler. The United States might have felt it impossible to join the war at that stage. The outcome might have been a great deal less favourable to the Western powers.

It didn’t happen. Admiral Yamamoto had opposed the Southern strategy but, bowing to the orders he was given, decided the only way to make a success of it was to launch an attack on the US so powerful that it would knock them out in one strike. He combined careful planning with intensive training of both naval and air forces, and finally a brilliantly executed attempt to destroy US naval power in the Pacific with a single blow against Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese embassy in Washington had trouble translating and typing its government's warning to the US, with the result that the attack occurred before the the message was delivered. That led Franklin Roosevelt to describe 7 December 1941 as a day that would “live in infamy”.

More to the point, it was an attack that looked like a victory – it wreaked huge damage on the US Pacific fleet – but it failed to deliver the knockout blow Yamamoto sought. Instead, it led to a war that would ultimately cost Japan as many as three million dead, culminating in the double atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was the end of the expansionist dream of the Japanese Empire. Instead, the United States emerged as the major power in the Pacific.

Pearl Harbor: it looked like a victory for Japan
but it ultimately ensured the Empire's defeat
That’s a position the US has held on to, sometimes grimly, ever since. It’s flexed its military muscle, not always with success – viz. Vietnam – but it has relied above all on its huge economic and commercial strength. The greatest challenge in recent decades has come from a new source, China. That was a threat that Obama spent a great deal of time and effort countering. Notably, he negotiated the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between twelve nations not including China.

The election of Donald Trump, however, killed the deal. He made it clear that he would drop it on his first day in office. That was a piece of news that must have been received with celebrations in Beijing: it marks a withdrawal by the US leaving the field open to China.

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a triumph of wishful thinking over good sense. By overreaching, Japan ensured the victory of its enemy. Ideology led to a reckless military act that rebounded catastrophically on its perpetrator.

It’s a lesson Trump could do with learning. Governed by his ideological concerns, he too has behaved recklessly, in the commercial rather than the military field, and with a withdrawal rather than an advance, but, in all likelihood, with the same drastic effects. A decision his compatriots could well come to regret.

Especially if he persists with his apparent addiction to picking fights with China.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The noir in the next field's darker

Nurtured as we have been for some years on the TV genre known as ‘Nordic Noir’, no Englishman could be blamed for feeling a slight tingle at the idea of visiting one of the Nordic countries. Dangerous places, it would appear. Why, there’s even an apparently pleasant little market town called Ystad down in the south of Sweden where for a long time there was a new serial killer at work every week for a great deal of the year.

You understand that I’m not talking about a mere murder a week. No, I mean a series of murders a week.

Fortunately, they were blessed with a local police detective of almost superhuman ability, Kurt Wallander, who week after week identified the perpetrator and arrested him, often in spectacular fashion. Oddly, for a small seaside town, there always seemed to be a camera crew standing by to record the event. Not that I’m complaining: how would we have been able to enjoy it if they hadn’t been there?

One of the obstacles to Wallander’s success was, as so often in TV views of police work, his own hierarchy which never seemed to believe in him. Of course, I sympathised with him, but I have to admit that I can’t help wondering whether his superiors didn’t have a bit of a case: after all, just how useful is it to solve this week’s serial killings if it doesn’t deter next week’s?

Wallander: gets it solved but can’t stop it happening again
Still, I shouldn’t be too harsh. Swedish detective work is clearly recognised as outstanding even in other nations. Why, the Metropolitan Police in London seems to have appointed a Swede, John River, as a Detective Inspector, and ensured his doings (rather ghostly doings, considering the state of animation of his partner) are faithfully recorded in the aptly named River.

If things were so awful in Ystad, you can imagine how much worse they must be in the capital, Stockholm. It seems that this city is the hunting ground of an absolutely weird woman you really don’t want to cross. She’ll hack your computer and your phone, find out where you are, track you down and exact harsh, not to say bloodthirsty, revenge for any offence you may have caused her.

You can imagine how careful I was in Stockholm when I was there myself last week. I tried to work out whether any woman I saw might have a dragon tattoo on her shoulder but, hey, it was winter time and everyone was wearing coats, so how could I have known? For safety’s sake, I just kept out of the way of any of them.

I didn’t really feel safe until I got to the meeting for which I’d flown to this bleak and forbidding capital (which, to be fair, turned out to be neither). It was with a group of librarians, and it’s hard to imagine a less threatening profession (even if Professor Plum did get scragged in a library with a candlestick).

There’s that moment at the start of a meeting which pretty much decides whether it’s going to be a success or not. It’s when people are taking off their coats and getting out their notepads, deciding whether they want tea or coffee and whether they want a biscuit with it or not, and above all making small talk.

It struck me that I might start by mentioning how keen an admirer I am of the Nordic Noir genre. So I told them that I had enjoyed Broen/Bron, the series whose double name reflects its mixed Swedish/Danish origins. They all looked at me blankly, until the penny dropped with one of them.

“Oh, you mean The Bridge?” she said. It may not have helped that I had called the series ‘Broen’, or possibly ‘Bron’ (my pronunciation is far from reliable), which may have been the wrong language, or possibly neither. Anyway, The Bridge was indeed what I meant. They told me they’d liked it, but without the slightest trace of enthusiasm, like someone drinking your home-made wine who has decided not to offend you.

Warmth improved when one of them said, “I liked The Killing”, which they all seemed to have done. So had I, but I hadn’t mentioned it since it’s Danish rather than Swedish.

Then she added a comment which really surprised me. “I watched the American version too. And it was much better.”

What? The remake was better than the original? What world was I living in?

Finally, the truly astonishing revelation came out.

“I’m watching Line of Duty now,” another one of the librarians told me.

Now they were all enthusiastic.

“Oh, yes,” said another, “that’s a really great programme. We’re on season 3 now. It’s great.”

Line of Duty? That’s an English police series. I enjoyed it too. But it had none of the exotic content, the originality, the innovative viewpoint of Nordic Noir.

But then I suppose Nordic isn’t exotic to Nordics.

Or could it be that my first impression was right? That those Nordic series are only Noir to us? That to people on the ground they’re just a rather pedestrian description of everyday life?

Saturday, 3 December 2016

A triumph for the LibDems. A defeat for the Tories. A warning for Labour

It’s always satisfying to see a Tory government being given a bloody nose. 

It’s even more satisfying when it’s a victory for those who don’t accept the Brexit verdict as irrevocable. 

And it’s best of all when it’s administered to an unpleasant individual of thoroughly toxic views.

All that happened this week.

Zac Goldsmith ran an unpleasant Tory campaign to be Mayor of London last year, calling on racist and Islamophobic notions to try – and, fortunately, fail – to beat Labour’s candidate, Sadiq Khan, whose name is probably enough to explain the racism and Islamophobia. Not to justify them, of course, but certainly to explain why an unprincipled candidate would resort to them. 

This year, he resigned from the Conservative Party and from Parliament to precipitate a by-election in his constituency of Richmond Park, where he ran as an independent against the government’s decision to build a new runway at nearby Heathrow airport.

The Liberal Democratic candidate, Sarah Olney, a strong supporter of continued membership of the EU, chose not to campaign on the airport but to focus on Brexit instead. To widespread surprise (including my own), she snatched the seat from Goldsmith, converting his majority of 23,000 votes into her own of nearly 1900.

An excellent result.

The defeated candidate (for local MP and London Mayor)
and the victorious LibDem
If I have a quibble it’s that we had to depend on the Liberal Democrats to win this victory. The main party in opposition to the Tories is my own, Labour. It should be the one challenging the government, and all the more so since the Liberal Democrats were in coalition with the Tories between 2010 and 2015. That was both a betrayal of principle and counter-productive: it reduced the party’s presence in Parliament from 62 to eight. The Richmond Park result may suggest that things are turning around for the LibDems (though one win doesn’t make a resurrection)but it certainly reflects a Labour failure.

Why do I say that?

If Sarah Olney’s win owed a great deal to the LibDems’ position against Brexit, undoubtedly the biggest question for the vast majority of voters, her party was able to make it their own because Labour’s silence on the subject has been deafening. 

Why is it so quiet? Silence is always hard to interpret, but occasionally it gets broken. John McDonnell, a close ally of the party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn, recently described Brexit as an “enormous opportunity”. This seemed to confirm a suspicion many of us felt that the Labour leadership wasn’t particularly comfortable with the party’s official policy of backing continued EU membership. 

Meanwhile, siren voices on the right of the Labour Party are calling on us to address anxieties over immigration in Labour’s traditional voter base. Again, this provokes suspicion, in this case that we are being urged to move rightwards, to counter the challenge presented by the extreme anti-EU and xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP. As another of Corbyn’s allies, Diane Abbott, recently pointed out – correctly – Labour can’t win by being UKIP-lite. If people want UKIP policies, they’ll vote UKIP. Labour doesn’t beat them by accommodating them, but by explaining that turning against foreigners won’t address any of the real problems affecting our supporters, which are poverty, insecurity and joblessness. Instead, we need to tackle the causes of economic decline – not least of which is the decision to leave the EU.

That’s hard to do if you’re not too sure about the EU yourself. Hence the silence.

The problem is that silence isn’t leadership and leadership is what voters are crying out for. Labour isn’t doing leadership right now. There was recently a Parliamentary vote, on a motion advanced by the Scottish National Party, to investigate Tony Blair’s role over the Iraq War and his possible misleading of Parliament at the time.

There are two positions one can legitimately take on the issue. 

The SNP’s would be that Blair behaved unconscionably and needs to be held to account by Parliament. 

The majority Labour position, with which I agree, isn’t simply one of “hands off our former leader” but rather argues that the problem was that Blair had far too much authority, allowing him to commit the country against its will. So it was an institutional issue, not a personal one, and it needs to be tackled at that level. That ties in, for instance, with the calls for Parliament and not just the present Prime Minister to have the final say over Brexit.

A third position is illegitimate. That’s to have nothing to say on the matter. It’s striking that all three of Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott stayed away from Parliament at the time of the debate.

Silence, like over the EU.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Similarly, voters abhor silence. While it stays quiet and on the fence, refusing to lead, the group that technically controls the Labour leadership leaves the Party vulnerable to attack by those who flow in to fill the political vacuum – whether from UKIP or from the LibDems.

So the Richmond result isn’t just a victory for the LibDems. It isn’t just a black eye for the Tories. It’s also a serious wake-up call to Labour.

The leadership needs to make up its mind: start leading, on the issues that matter to the electorate, or see our support continue to erode. Otherwise – please just stand aside and let someone else take over. 

Someone who has something to say. 

Someone whos prepared to get out in front and lead.