Monday, May 30, 2011

Well, that’s all right then: Blatter reassures the world ‘it’s just a family tiff’

good news from Zurich where Fifa’s owner (or is that king, I can never remember) has reassured the world that the world football organisation is not in crisis after all. Well, that really is quite some relief, because I was under the impression that dollars, euros, roubles, pounds and Swiss francs were sloshing around with abandon and that Blatter was a crook. Well, apparently not, it seems. In view of his upcoming coronation on Wednesday to renew his kingship (or would that be ownership – please, someone, set me straight on this one), he thought that it might help that the allegations that
Very he and his cronies were stuffing their pockets and those of others with bribes and backhanders simply wasn’t true. On the other hand two chaps called Jack Warner, up until now his deputy king, and Mohamed Bin Hammamm, who was rather hoping he would be crowned on Wednesday, are most definitely wrong ’uns, according to Blatter, and should not be tolerated in polite society. Or not as the case may be. Fifa’s secretary general (or is that Blatter’s accomplice) insists that comments he had previously made about Bin Hammamm – that the man was a complete scoundrel who had bought the 2022 World Cup final for Qatar – had been ‘taken out of context’. What he meant was that Bin Hammamm was a nice chap, but sometimes he didn’t seem to know how to hold a sherry glass. All very innocent, you see. Nothing to worry about. No, sir. The problem is that Fifa’s main sponsors, Coca Cola and Adidas are beginning to get just the teensiest bit worried. And if there is any stuffing of money by some into the back pockets of others going on, at the end of the day it is their money. So, well, you know, let’s not overstate this, but business is business, and Coke and Adidas would, all things being equal, not want to have their brands associated with what is essentially a gang of crooks. Allegedly. Better get that in. I’m not daft, you know.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What’s cooking (Pt 2): a load of bollocks on TV served with hype and desperation. And thank you, Mr Dylan

If you want to make cheap television, go down the ‘reality show’ route. If you want to make cheap television which has the spurious aura of class make a ‘chefs/cooks competition’ show. Time was when we had simple cookery programmes (and boy did the British need them). I can’t actually remember seeing them, but the granny and grandaddy of them all here in the UK were Fanny and Johnny Craddock. Then there was someone called The Galloping Gourmet, but I can’t even be arsed googling the name to find out who he was. More recently we had Delia Smith, whose career followed the usual trajectory of the Press building her up to be the hero of our times, then to take great delight in knocking her down again as old hat. Though Delia (you only have to use her first name because everyone in Britain knows who you’re talking about) ruled the roost, there was competition — that is they all had their own TV series — from Antony Worrall-Thompson, Rick Stein, some fat Italian bloke, Keith Floyd and briefly Ainsley Harriot (who is stilled billed as a ‘celebrity chef’, although I don’t know why. Incidentally, the very term ‘celebrity chef’ indicates how bloody daft it has all become. For some reason it doesn’t actually sound quite as daft as ‘celebrity accountant’, ‘celebrity manager’ or ‘celebrity bus driver’ but it should. But as we also have celebrity gardeners’ — as in ‘my nan used to go out with Alan Titchmarsh’, I suppose celebrity I’m on a sticky wicket).
Of the younger generation there is Jamie Oliver, and then there was a whole raft of chefs who took part in Ready, Steady Cook, who were all working chefs and whose names gained greater currency because of the show, including Nick Nairn, Ross Burden, James Martin, Tony Tobin and Paul Rankin. So given the popularity of these TV shows you might conclude that the standard of food in Britain has risen. Well, don’t. It’s still usually reheated pigswill. It’s one thing watching a cookery programme and ‘gaining tips’, quite another to put them in practice. For example, despite all the good advice, the method of choice for preparing vegetables in Britain is still to boil them for half-an-hour until they show no sign of life whatsoever. And if even that is too challenging for your soap-hungry family, you can get a full meal — meat and two veg — and your local supermarket for less than the price of a pint. Of why not get something ready-prepared and stick it in the microwave for five minutes?
The irony is that meals don’t have to be prepared in under five minutes, that cooking from scratch is not difficult, and that buying fresh ingredients is not only makes for more enjoyable and healthier meals (all that ready-made stuff has to have all kinds of preservatives in it to ensure it stays ‘fresh’ until it is bought, not to mention the vast amount of salt, sugar and fat included to boost ‘taste’) but cheaper. The meal I described a few days ago — breast of lamb, leeks and new potatoes — cost around £4.50 for four.

. . .

The era of the ‘cookery show’ a la Delia and the others came to an end when they all more or less ran out of dishes to show us. I mean there are only so many times you can demonstrate how to prepare choux pastry, so the next move was to send them all abroad or give them some gimmick. Rick Stein buggered off to cook on French canals, Keith Floyd prepared soufflés on a primus stove in the Serengeti and Ainsley Harriot went back to his roots in the West Indies to bake cakes in an oil drum.
The gimmicks with which ever more desperate broadcasters tried to make their show stand out were several and each even dafter than the last: Two Fat Ladies was presented by two fat ladies who used to travel around on a motor bike and only came to and end when one of the fat ladies died. ‘One Fat Lady’ doesn’t have quite the same appeal. That seems to have led to The Hairy Bikers whose sole qualifications for having their own cookery show is that they are both hairy, bearded and fat. But neither is

The Hairy Bikers: redefining cooking for the modern world

a cook or has had any cookery experience at all, although what is in their favour is that they are ‘northern’, which, in the whacky world of TV, spells ‘sincerity’ and ‘lovability’. They also have the common touch (which always goes down well in Britain. It usually means that neither they nor their audience is in the least bit embarrassed when they wipe their noses on their sleeves and fart loudly. In fact, it shows they are ‘down to earth’. ‘My mam always used to say “Better out than in”, pet. Shall I do it again?’ Loud laughs and cheers all round.
Once the broadcasters had run out of countries to visit, and I don’t doubt they will have some pillock preparing a three-course meal on Mars just as soon as it becomes technically feasible to get him or her there, the next move was to introduce the element of competition. So now we have Masterchef, in which amateur cooks engage in a cook-off, with the prize being a job with some well-known chef or other, and, of course, the very, very inevitable celebrity version of the show called Celebrity Masterchef (now there’s a surprise). In Hell’s Kitchen, a chap called Gordon Ramsay makes life a misery for those taking part, the rationale being that there is tremendous pressure on chefs when they are working in anger (so to speak) so they had better get used to it. That show led on to another Gordon Ramsay vehicle called The F-word, because apparently Ramsay says ‘fuck’ a lot and for TV execs that kind of thing is important, darling. Typical of this latest trend is the Great British Menu, which pitches professional chefs from around Britain against each other, with the winner being asked to cook a four-course meal for — in the past — The Queen, the British ambassador to France and the Prince of Wales.
What I find so irritating about these shows is the spurious ‘excitement’ and ‘drama’ they all try to introduce into the format. Everything is against the clock and a collapsed soufflé is a tragedy. Then there’s the hype: every single fucking cook taking part is ‘passionate’ about cooking, ‘passionate’ about using fresh vegetables, ‘passionate’ about making sure they use the right size pan, ‘desperate’ to get it right, ‘unbelievably thrilled’ to have reached the third stage of the preliminary rounds and ‘completely and utterly gutted’ when they don’t. And it’s always, always, always ‘amazing’ when they beat their competitors. Oh for a modest ‘yes, I’m rather pleased I won’, ‘well, I do like to get it right if possible’ and ‘oh, well, I’ll try again next year’.
I can’t deny that were I a broadcaster and was charged with coming up with new ideas for programmes, I would also be clutching at straws, so in a sense my gentle rant is rather unfair, but has no one thought to cut back on quantity and aim for quality?

. . .

Next Tuesday, on May 24, Bob Dylan will be 70 years old, and already a round of the usual brouhaha is being published, with everything adding their usual schtick, so get ready for a welter of nauseating saccharine hagiography - ‘voice of a generation’, ‘he spoke for us all’, ‘protest came of age’, ‘redefined cooking for the modern world’ (no sorry, that’s the Hairy Bikers), ‘an earthquake in modern music’, ‘protestor, poet, propet – all the usual bollocks. The Daily Telegraph here in England, which makes it a condition that readers are over 50 and/or have served in the Armed Forces, ran a piece along the lines of ‘doesn’t matter if you have one foot in the grave – so do Dylan, the Stones, The Who and everyone else you wet your knickers/pants over 170 years ago’. Well, bugger all that. I just think he is a great songwriter, had – has – a – though admittedly unusual – voice and in a world where everyone tries so desperately to be a one-off, he is one without even trying.
To this day I get a chill up my spine whenever I hear the first chord of Like A Rolling Stone. (Another song that does that for me is Aretha Franklin’s version of Say A Little Prayer.) People often say about someone great ‘there’ll never be anyone like him’, but that’s nonsense. Of course there’ll sooner or later be someone of similar, perhaps even greater, stature, but I reckon we’ll be waiting some time.
Below are a few photos of the man himself, taken at different stages of his life are below. Incidentally, I could have written in the title to this blog entry ‘Thank you, Mr Zimmerman’, as that was his real name. But that strikes me as pretentious way beyond the call of duty.
Happy birthday, Mr Dylan.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Sex-mad naked Frenchman chases chambermaid down hotel corridor! And British politician forgets his manners! A comparative analysis of the rationalist and empirical approach to scandal with especial emphasis on the tawdry and the dull

In view of the latest scandal involving a French politician, or in this case, a would-be French politician, no one could claim that life is always far less interesting than art. And it also goes to show that life can be just as outrageously clichéd as art: a naked Frenchman chases a chambermaid down the corridor to give her one. As one of our homegrown male Glenda Slaggs would put it: you couldn’t make it up. Incidentally, foreign readers who are rather baffled by my second reference in as many days to Glenda Slagg can go here to find out who she is.
By comparison with the latest Gallic misdemeanour, our current British scandal is pretty small beer. In fact, I feel honour-bound to describe it as a ‘scandal’ it is so pathetically unexciting: several years ago a leading Lib Dem politician got someone else to take the rap when he was caught speeding so he could avoid being banned from driving for six months. Shocked? No, I didn’t think so, but to be on the safe side, I’d best stick in an ‘allegedly’ – he ‘allegedly’ asked someone else to take the rap – Lord, I think I’m going to sleep. (Slightly off-topic – Q: Why did New York get all the crooks and Washington all the lawyers? A: New York had first choice. Having said that, if I had my time all over again, I think I should have tried for the law. But back to my comparative analysis of scandal and how French rationalist scandals beat our British empirical scandals into a cocked hat.)
Depending on how po-faced you are, the French scandal tends to make you smile and eager for further details, while the British ‘scandal’ simply makes you yawn and turn the page of your newspaper in search of last year’s shipping forecast. Certainly, for the chambermaid involved, who is claiming the randy Frenchman actually tried to rape her, it cannot at all have been amusing, but the rest of us are such salacious beasts who are only too delighted to read of the misfortune’s of others that I’m sure we can square it with our sensitivities when we burst out laughing reading the details.
Both scandals – i.e. the one scandal and the other ‘scandal’ – are shot through with the irony that what did or did not happen is way less important than the implications of possible consequences. For the randy Frenchman, who I gather is described as a chaud lapin
by those pretentious enough to drop in French phrases in an otherwise impeccably English piece of prose, was a chap called Dominique Strauss-Kahn (left) who is – or by now perhaps that should be ‘was’ – the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and who intended throwing his hat into the ring to become the Left’s candidate at the next French presidential election. Well, he can stick that ambition in the file marked ‘if only’. More to the point, the IMF is currently working with the EU to help cough up the readies to haul Greece, Portugal and Ireland out of the financial shit. As we know, Greece is already holding out its hand for a second bite of the cherry and given that, not putting too fine a point on it, the future of the euro and quite possibly the EU itself in its present form are at stake, the EU was rather hoping it would all go very smoothly. Well, the bureaucratic side of it all has every chance of going smoothly – it’s those damn money markets everyone is worried about. For if it doesn’t go smoothly and Greece, as I suspect, decides to hold two fingers up to the EU (on which it has form: it more or less did the same when it told lies about its finances to join the euro in the first place) and revive the drachma, it could certainly meadn the end for the euro and, quite possibly, the EU ‘project’.
A second complication which could also have rather more far-reaching consequences than is at first apparent is the question of who will be Strauss-Kahn’s successor. For Dominique had already handed in his notice and was due to leave the MD’s job at the IMF in four weeks in order to start preparing for the big one. And his deputy is also due to leave. Given the delicate nature of the various bailouts, it would suit Europe if the IMF, which is coughing up some of the money, were led by a European. This one is always a ticklish problem as many non-Europeans get rather shirty about the job invariably going to a white honky. Now those who demand the new MD should not be a European have a far stronger hand. Trouble is, Nicolas Sarkozy, who is due to host the next G45 meeting (or is it G7, no G8? No, of course G20), thinks he will look rather foolish if the IMF doesn’t have a European in charge when everyone gathers for drinks and canapés at the Elysee Palace. And French presidents don’t like looking foolish, especially if they are only 5ft tall and are invariably towered over by everyone else except North Africans.
This blog’s France correspondents haven’t yet been in touch to inform me of the mood in the street, but I think the days are over when a Frenchman who is caught with his trousers down
is awarded treble brownie points. Strauss-Kahn has form on that front, having previously faced an attempted rape claim (though, note, no charge) and another scandal a while ago when he was shagging one of his subordinates. But feminism has quite a foothold in France and I reckon even quite a few guys will read of the man’s latest exploits and tell themselves he’s a bit of a plonker. Things still haven’t reached that stage in Italy where Silvio Berlusconi gets ever better poll ratings among men every time he is caught out servicing one of his many ‘nieces’. Italian women, of course, have long thought of him as just another sad old tart.
Pictured is a chambermaid much like the kind Dominique Strauss-Kahn apparently finds quite irresistible

. . .

There are rather dire implications in our very own ‘scandal’. No one actually gives a flying fuck whether or not the politician involved, a rather oily chap called Christopher Huhne (pictured below with his wife Vicky) did or did not ask someone else to
take the rap for allegedly speeding, especially as the story came from the wife he ditched in favour of his new squeeze, a lesbian pole dancer (or bus conductor, I still haven’t been able to establish which it is). She, quite naturally, can’t be at all happy about being ditched, so no one is surprised she blew the gaff. At first she said Chris had asked ‘someone’ to take the rap but wouldn’t reveal who the ‘someone’ was. Now we know she was the ‘someone’, so Vicky is either telling the truth or a very stupid liar. If Chris did actually do what she claims he did (and, yes, I think I falling asleep again, too), he would be guilty of a criminal offence which can carry a jail term. But none of that is what makes it interesting. What makes it rather juicy – OK, as juicy as these things can get in Old Blighty – is the background of the Coalition government, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s growing unpopularity and the suspicion among Lib Dems that he is a bit of a pushover, and the ambitions of the ballroom dancer and part-time politician Vince Cable as well as our very own Chris Huhne to oust young Nick (who I understand had his first shave two weeks ago) and take over. And they, they promise their disaffected Lib Dems will be a damn sight tougher on the bloody Tories than Nick. Oh yes!
Well, what with this ‘scandal’, that would seem to leave Chris out of the running to oust Cleggy, and I just can’t see the faithful taking tippy-toes Cable seriously as an assassin (who reputedly never get the crown anyway), which would leave Cleggy pretty much still in place.
There is one more Lib Dem troublemaker doing the rounds with both eyes on the leadership, one Simon Hughes, who also long ago had ambitions to head up the party, but nothing ever seemed to go right for him on that score. For one thing, for a while he denied being gay, which didn’t go down well with the Lib Dems who don’t mind a gay one little bit, but then came clean and said that although he wasn’t actually gay, he did bat for both sides if and when. That went down even less well, not because the Lib Dems mind a chap or chappess batting for both sides, but they were rather miffed that he didn’t come clean from the outset. There is also a very horrible story I was told about Simon Hughes, but it is so disgusting that I have decided not to believe it and shan’t recount it here.
I should imagine that the only one laughing his socks off at Chris Huhne’s discomfiture is David Cameron, who really is getting a lucky ride. Things were getting a little hairy for David before the speeding ‘scandal’ blew up in as far as Huhne, a Cabinet minister, was causing all sorts of trouble in Cabinet and generally gaining brownie points with the disaffected Lib Dems who want to see the fucking Tories get a fucking bloody nose. (‘Bloody toff scum! Bastards!) Now, he is utterly neutralised, and it looks as though he will stay that way. So David can stick with young Cleggy who despite promising to ‘get tough’ with the Tories (‘I’m going to bloody well start swearing and banging my fist on the table and that kind of thing! You just wait! I’m not nice, I’m really not!) and put into practice something he calls ‘muscular liberalism’ (which sounds so phoney, I can’t even think of a joke. Well, I can but I’m not going to waste it on crap like that).
The Lib Dems are, of course, a goldmine for the Cameron. Without them, he couldn’t have formed a government and that keeps his right-wing in place for the time being. But it also means that all the crap that’s going down over the cuts can be shared with the Lib Dems. In fact, the Lib Dems can be made to carry more than their fair share in such underhand behaviour — bloody Tory toffs roaming the country snatching the bread from the mouths of babes in arms — is quite naturally only to be expected from the Conservatives but not from theose nice fluffy Lib Dems. So when the Lib Dems are guilty of that kind of behaviour, it is twice as bad. (At this point it is worth repeating a comment overheard by one political commentator at last September’s Lib Dem annual conference six months in to the Coalition government. My Lib Dems were very unhappy indeed about their party jumping into bed with those nasty Tory toffs, and one delegate was heard to complain bitterly: ‘I didn’t vote Liberal Democrat to form the government.’ That says it all, really.) So Cameron doesn’t have to do half of all the things the Tory right want him today, excusing himself by saying the Lib Dems won’t stand for it. And he can more or less dictate to the Lib Dems what he does want to do because they know that this is their first sniff at real power in more than 80 years and they don’t want to blow it. In fact, they already have: at the local government elections two weeks ago they were utterly hammered. So as far as they are concerned let the Coalition continue, because if it collapsed and there were a general election, they would no longer have 50/60 seats as they have been accustomed to, but would be back down into almost single figures as they once were when they were nothing but a joke. Actually, from where I sit, they still are a joke, but that’s another entry. Right, I’m off to chase a chambermaid or two.

. . .

And so it goes on, with the euro lurching from dire straits to outright danger, all brought about because the rescuers can’t agree on the right thing to do. They are all agreed that those feckless Greeks most definitely need another several billions in handouts to ensure the country doesn’t grind to a halt. The problem is that the Germans (and I must declare I find them a rather more practical folk when it comes to economic efficiency than some of the other wallies abroad in Europe) who will be coughin up most of the rescue cash are insisting that the ‘plan’ - the Greeks must pull in their belts, cut wages and generally ensure everyone has a miserable existence while their debt is paid off - must be fine-tuned, or even tuned and not so finely. They are in favour of changing the terms of the debt repayment and allowing the Greeks a greater latitude in how they get the money as long as in time the debt is paid off. No sir! say the hardliners from the European Central Bank: forget about debt restructuring, just pull in your belts even more! This alarms the Germans who believe that it will simply piss off the Greeks who will get to the point where they simply say ‘sod this for a game of soldiers, we’re off’, leave the euro and revive the drachma. And they have a point. For one thing, the Greeks could solve their economic problems at a stroke by devaluing the drachma (which would mean loads of cheap Greek island holidays for the hard-pressed Brits who like nothing better than getting takned up on ouzo and shagging a couple of slags from Nottingham), and relaxing once more. It’s at this point, of course, that the ideal of a universal brotherhood of right-thinking Europeans will be put to the test. And, I am rather certain, fail. Institutions can count themselves to be a success when they weather the bad times. The EU was hunky-dory when times were good (an illusion, we now know, built on excessive consumer borrowing and unrealistic cheap Chinese imports, but now the seas have got considerably rougher, the good ship is leaking like a sieve. Now there’s a surprise.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Wives, or a more personal take on this blog. Time to get in touch with my inner whinger

Bit of slightly dramatic time here at home today (and only an Englishman could diminish drama in that way, but there you go, rather that than try to big everything up as some do and lose touch with reality - © US of A - I’ll keep it low-key). And that got me thinking, yet again, that this blog has rather lost touch with what ‘a personal blog’ of the kind I set out to write – part diary, part commonplace book – could be accepted to be. The trouble is that I’m battling against myself: I have long thought that writing is always rather – if not entirely - pointless if, at some point, what is written is not read by at least one other person. And a corollary of that is the more you are read, the more ‘successful’ your writing. Just ask any novelist or Glenda Slagg (©Private Eye, would-be satirist to this parish).

Yet the more you are read and the more relatives, friends and acquaintances read your ramblings, the more circumspect you are obliged to be, or rather, the more circumspect I have become. I mean, to put it bluntly, no one shits in public however great the temptation to slag people off while they have no means of replying.

A diary is utterly different to this kind of thing, this blog – ‘weblog’ - because, a diary is only read if you become famous and are vain enough to publish it; were once famous and some bloody publishers reckons there are a few pennies to be made from publishing it; your diary is happened upon and secretly read; or you are vain enough to circulate it while it is being written. Incidentally, many people claim they write their diary ‘only for themselves’. Well, perhaps it’s the cynic in me which is inclined to jeer, but: pull the other one, sunshine.

According to the statistics, this blog is being accessed in countries around the world and I am being read by several in the UK, the U.S., Germany, Indonesia, Australia, Russia, Slovenia, Italy and the Lord knows where else. (No one, it seems, in South America has bothered to linger which means that this kind of thing is not really for them or I am not writing enough about salsa, women, inflation drugs and – well, inflation). I am almost quite certain that none of those who does read this and perhaps returns gives a rat’s arse about my life or any of its details because, naturally, they are far more concerned with their own lives and its details. But the more I am read, the more, being an English sort of chap, don’t you know, with at least four ready furled umbrellas just waiting to be hauled out at the first sign of pleasant weather, I get ever more reticent about writing personally and, specifically, my feelings. Yet, as it happens, that is exactly what, on occasion, I want to do.

. . .

The picture below is Harriet Harman, satirised by those on the right who think their comment is funny, as ‘Harriet Harpson’. I don’t know her from Eve, though I did once

bump into her in Westminster as she was pushing her way out of the door of (I think) Portcullis House, a then new block of offices built for MPs in the early Nineties. I have no idea at all what kind of wife sweet Harriet is or whether or not her marriage is happy, but googling for a ‘cartoon harridan’, I came across this, and it will do.

Harriet, the scion of ‘a good family’ (she's the eldest daughter of Earl Moneybags of Gresham - motto No Bribe To Great To Pay) who went to private school and is generally rather well off, fights bitterly to improve the lot of her sisters. I’ve always thought she was something of a pain in the arse so perhaps the photo is apt. Complaints, please, to the usual address.

. . .

When I first started this blog, I mentioned that is was in direct line to a written diary I had kept from around 1980 to 1995. I got the idea for that after reading that the editor of novelist John Steinbeck had come up with an solution after Steinbeck complained of ‘writer’s block’. He bought him an A4 ledger and urged him to write him a letter on the left hand pages of that letter by way of warming up his writing muscles and then, when he felt able to, to write his novels on the right hand pages.

Steinbeck says the ruse worked. So I, who had always been a ‘writer manque’ (see entries passim) but who was ashamedly conscious (and still is) of having written embarrassingly little, thought that might be the solution. I bought an hardback A4 lined ledger and began keeping a ‘diary’ which was also as much a commonplace book. I don’t think it was especially personal until about 1983/4 when I split with a girlfriend called Sian who was the only woman I should ever have married. I can’t for the life of me understand why I split from her except to suggest it might have been some kind of commitment phobia but, more relevantly, a delayed grief ove the death of my mother in 1980. (I thought I had come to turns with that remarkably well, but looking back all I had done was to suppress emotions which, as they always will, will escape in some other way.)

In the years which followed that split I wasn’t short of girlfriends or bedmates, but I always, always, always hankered after Sian and recorded my feelings in that diary. Similarly today I wanted to record my thoughts about marriage in general and my marriage in particular, but, so far, have held back. I shall sleep on it and decide whether I might record my feelings after all. As a possible taster – remember, I might not write a word – any entry will run along the lines of

1) If you are being treated like a piece of shit, isn’t it, in the long run your fault, in as far as you could really put a stop to it? (For the slow-witted): that is a rhetorical question to which the answer is Yes.
2) My suspicion that of all marriages something like one in five is generally rather overall happy, one in five is hell overall and the rest are nothing special at all. One a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is Hell On Earth and 100 is Pure Heaven, I would give mine about a 28. I shan’t go into the background of how it all happened but it certainly wasn’t any of that ‘Moon in June’ stuff. I was 45 when I married and if at the age you still believe in true love, you are either bonkers or dead. A subsidiary blog entry to those thoughts might be to ask how culpable are all those Hollywood (and, I suspose Bollywood) films we all watch while growing up in giving us a wholly, completely and utterly unrealistic notion of what love is? As far as they are concerned you meet ‘the right one’ and after that it’s heaven on earth. Well, bollocks to that, especially if the one you marry is not and never could have been ‘the right one’ and it turns out that she has a personality which might possibly be affected by mild Asperger’s. (Keep up you slowcoaches there in the back: yes, my wife, my first and, so far, only wife.)

Friday, May 13, 2011

What’s cooking? Well, tonight, breast of lamb with leeks and new potatoes and a dash of rebellion, another car crash (my 19th and I’ll soon have the set) and a warning to Old Farts the world over, irrespective of colour, creed, politics or gender

I am not a bad cook. I shan’t be immodest and claim to be a good cook, but I shall claim to be able to produce tasty meals if and when I have to. And I am a better cook than some, perhaps even many. But I have had my fair share of - I won’t call them disasters, but failures, most recently when I tried to prepare a Spanish prawn and chilli dish which is served as tapas in Spain. It is essentially a simple dish which it is virtually impossible to cock up, but, friends, that did not deter me and what I served up to my stepmother and, crucially, my sister, was ‘a failure’. It didn’t taste awful or anything like that, it just wasn’t immediately identifiable as anything much.
There are many ‘recipes’ for this particular prawn dish - that is there are many ways of preparing it - and I followed one which I had seen on BBC TV which involved tomato puree. Not many of the others do, actually. In fact hardly any others do, but this one did, and sadly what I ended up with was more or less a rather thick and spicy tomato soup with prawns. That is, what I ended up with was nothing special at all. Please believe me that it did not taste bad at all (I mention that because some disasters can taste bloody awful), but after the build-up of ‘preparing a meal for you two’ - my stepmother and sister - I did feel very foolish.
But even though I say so myself, as a general rule, I have far more successes than failures. I mention this because although I enjoy cooking and I enjoy eating, I have not been allowed to cook since I was married 15 years ago, and furthermore I haven’t yet enjoyed any of the home-cooked food my wife has produced. Were you to ask her why she doesn’t allow me to cook her at home, she would give you any number of reasons - ‘he makes a mess’, ‘he cooks things the children don’t like’, ‘he takes too long’ - all of which are, I have to say, nonsense. The simple fact is that she want to be in charge most of the time, and especially in charge in the kitchen. Fair enough, and anything for a quite life, but the price I pay is being served up food which is about bad canteen standard in a good day. And having been brought up by a mother who could cook and cook rather well, that is something of a sore point. When I retire, there will be wholesale changes in the household and budgeting for food and cooking will be one of them.
That was all a rather long preamble to the announcement that I am cooking tonight and, for obvious reasons, I hope to bloody God it isn’t ‘a disaster’ of any kind. I happened like this: there are many parts of pigs, lambs and cattle which are just as tasty as the bits we usually eat, but, for one reason of another, are ignored. I like liver and kidney, I like belly pork and I like breast of lamb. Recently I spotted a tray of ready-prepared breast of lamb in the supermarket and bought four. Not only is it tasty, it is also cheap. But my wife didn’t roast them, she braised them and they were pretty much pretty awful, and, as usual, in that obscure way these things happen, I took the blame for a meal no one enjoyed. I didn’t tell her that what she had cooked was awful - I can be  tactful sometimes - but I did tell her that she should not have braised the lamb but roasted it. She insisted that ‘roasting’ and ‘braising’ are the same and it is her habit - her extremely annoying habit - to argue her case until she is blue in the face whether or not she knows she is talking complete bollocks, which in this case she was. I was determined to show her that ‘roasting’ is not the same as ‘braising’ and that breast of lamb can be very tasty indeed. So the lamb is roasting away nicely sprinkled with rosemary, pepper and olive oil, and will be served with roasted onions, new potatoes
and flash-fried leeks. (Right, and still uncooked. I like leeks to be just done, still al dente. I don’t like bits of sad, floppy looking generic vegetable knocking around aimlessly in a stew not knowing what they are supposed to be doing and caring even less.)

. . .

UPDATE: Well, we finished supper about an hour ago (taking just over 15 minutes to do so, another of my gripes - I rather like spending quite some time over a meal, talking, eating, talking, eating, in any order. This mad dash to eat up ‘because Corrie/EastEnders/Britain’s Got Talent/Celebrity Shagging is on in a minute’ pisses me off more than I can say) and the response was as I feared.

I am not talking here about my children’s response as I feel they are still developing (by which I mean they can still be salvaged), but my wife’s. But first things first, and you must accept that I am being entirely truthful. Given that all I had prepared was breast of lamb (ready-rolled and stuffed), new potatoes and leeks braised in butter and given that it isn’t actually haut cuisine, it was 100 per cent successful. No ‘failure’ this time. I had roasted onions with the lamb and they were just right: sweetly carmelised without being at all burnt. The leeks, too, were just right (they have to be done at the last moment as everyone is sitting down - leave it too long and they are just floppy bits of vegetable, nice enough, but not as nice as they can be). The potatoes, well, they were just new boiled new potatoes. I did nothing special with them at all except to wish them God speed and to promise to remember them in my will (one of the easiest compliments to pay anyone. Once you have died, the will is published and you are shown to have lied through your teeth, well, you’re dead. What can they do?) I might also have made a simply gravy, but my wife is a coeliac (‘gluten-intolerant’ for those who aren’t addicted to the newspapers health pages), and apart from possibly using creme fraiche, which I had forgotten to buy today, I was stuck.

The response: well, it seems my children and my wife are far, far too grand for a cut as modest as breast of lamb. My daughter made great play of ‘cutting off the fat’ and apparently discovering that once she had done so, there was no meat. That was odd, because rather than let it be thrown away, I took what she had discarded and found some rather nicely roasted pieces of lamb. My son, on the other hand, finished all his meat (and had commented earlier while the lamb was still roasting that it ‘smelled nice’) but left his potatoes and most of his leeks.
It pains me to say so, but at 11 going on 12 (on May 25) and 14 going on 15 (on August 7), my two glorious children have been rather badly brought up, in this case by my wife. I accept none of the blame. Indulgence is not necessarily a bad thing, but the child being indulged must be made fully aware that he or she is being indulged and must not be allowed to forget the fact or else they are simply spoilt beyond reason. But I suspect as far as that is concerned those who know what I am talking about agree with me completely and those who haven’t a clue are asking themselves ‘who is this ante-deluvian moron?’ So I’ll leave it there. But as I say, I am an optimist and believe that despite, in this respect, an unfortunate start in life, my children, who are both essentially good-hearted and - I’ll put it this way - not completely stupid, can I believe still be salvaged. It might take some hard knocks later on in life, but that, too, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

As for my wife, well what didn’t she criticise? I should count myself lucky that she had nothing to say about a possible inadequate percentage of carbon in the stainless steel cutlery, but apart from that it was a massacre. It is remarkable how much can be conveyed silently, but with the faintest of gestures and facial ticks. You’d think she suspected I was trying to poison her. Still, believe me or don’t, it was a very tasty meal, far, far tastier than anything I have eaten in this household since last I cooked. The secret, I think, is to develop an even thicker skin. That Bin Laden, he doesn’t know how lucky he was. But I am not going to be put off. You bet I’m not. When it comes to eating, I prefer food, not swill. My one mistake tonight, perhaps, was telling my wife as much.

. . .

The most exciting news from yesterday (I am writing this the day after my gala meal featuring breast of lamb, new potatoes and leeks) is that I ran into the back of some idiot on Wentford Bridge while I was on my way to pick up my children from the school bus. The stupid woman suddenly braked to avoid running over a stoat or a weasel (which safely made it to the other side of the road, you’ll be pleased to hear - I saw it scamper away yelling ‘nothing to do with me, nothing to do with me’), I immediately braked, too, but still went into the back of her mini Chelsea tractor. She had the spare tyre stuck to the back of her car, which is the practice with these bloody vehicles and strikes me as nothing more than unashamed showing off, lending the car a spurious ruggedness which screams ‘I’m tough!’ (The Worshipful Company of Car Dealers And Other Assorted Crooks commissioned a survey last year to find out how many of these very popular - very, very popular with people who live in nice, well-ordered, middle-class suburbs - off-road 4x4s were actually driven off-road. The answer was: none at all. Not one. The closest they come to being driven off-road is when they move to the verge to make way for the Queen.) I will grant that her bloody vehicle was tough enough to escape any damage whatsoever, whereas my effete Rover received a right battering.

The police refused point blank to get involved, which was a blow, because I’m sure they could have testified that the whole incident was her bloody fault. Apparently, it is now ‘policy’ not to ‘attend’ ‘road traffic accidents’ unless the road is blocked, there is an injury, or Lord Lucan was spotted on the scene riding Shergar. Bastards.
What is most irritating about it all is that in this instance I was wholly blameless in that I wasn’t speeding, I wasn’t drunk and I wasn’t in a rush and none of this would have happened unless this bloody woman had not braked suddenly. But I am bound to admit that I have something of a reputation in my family for crashing cars, and this episode will do nothing to persuade anyone that that reputation is unwarranted.
The only slight silver lining to all this is that I am taking a week off work next week and so will have enough time to get myself a new set off wheels.

I’m assuming that repairing what has been done - the radiator is also badly damaged - will top the £55 the car cost me in the first place, so strictly speaking she is a right-off. The second silver lining is that I because of the puzzles work I do on the side for the Mail, I have a couple of pounds put by and so won’t have to go into debt getting another car. And the third silver lining is that hereabouts in rural Nowheresville, any middle-class sort of chap with the right accent and who knows how to hold a gin and tonic correctly is invited for drinks with the Lord Lieutenant of the county if he is involved in more than three crashes (‘RTAs’ in police speak) in two years. I’m pleased to say I qualify on all counts and look forward to receiving my invitation.

. . .

The usual refrain of Old Farts here in Britain, but, I should imagine, also the world over – why should black, brown, red or yellow Old Farts be any different to the white variety? – is that ‘ah, they good days are over, they – comedians,/divas/clever politicians/sportsmen and women/actors – just aren’t what they used to be. Well, might this Old Fart (62 in November, can’t get a hard on, and would prefer to go to bed at 8pm than 12pm) register a note of dissent. And if your answer is ‘no, you can’t’, all I can say is ‘fuck you, I’m going to anyway.
I can confidently predict that there is any number of comedians/divas/clever politicians/fabulour sportsmen and women/actors who might well be, at this point in time (that was once a cliché, but in this instance I rather think it isn’t) unborn. They don’t yet exist. The twinkle in their dad’s eye which signals that he might well like to shag their mother and conceive the chap/chappess is not yet apparent.
I write all this as a Manchester United supporter, a club which is managed by a great, great manager called Alex Ferguson. But I also write after having watched just a few hours ago the English FA Cup final between Manchester City and Stoke. From the off, City were the better side, classier, more elegant, more tighter, but as can often be the case their sophisticated game was up to a point neutralised by Stoke’s rough and ready, muscular approach. At half-time the score was 0-0, and it wasn’t until well into the second half that Yaya Toure scored what was to prove the winning goal. But, I hear the clamour around the world, what has this to do with Old Farts and their penchant for dissing everything not at least 30 years old. Well, friends, I shall tell you.
City are and have been for many, many years one of United’s arch-rivals. As a rule United were invariably way in front with City being one of those Premier Leagues/First Division teams which tagged along. Chelsea were once also such a team, as are – are, I’m afraid – Aston Villa, and West Ham.
But given that City beat United in the FA Cup semi-final this year and did United out of a possible second treble United won the League, the Cup and the Champions League all in the same year 12 years ago) and given that City have qualified of the Champions League next year and given that the riches of whoever owns them – some bloody sultan or other with more money than sense and most definitely more money than any love or knowledge of football – football in England is shaping up rather well.
After he game and before setting fingers to keyboard to write this particular instalment of waffle, I googled City’s manager Roberto Mancini to find out more about the chap. And he has some history. After a rather glorious playing career when he also played for Italy, he went into management and did very well, particularly with Inter Milan, but the buggers sacked him after four years, reputedly for not winning the Champions League.

We are now at the end of the season. United, under Sir Alex Ferguson, have won the League (for a record 19th time), and in two weeks take on Barcelona in the Champion’s League final. City, under Roberto Mancini, have now won the silverware they have craved since 1976 (statistic courtesy of whoever was commentating in ITV – don’t ever think I know what I am talking about), have, it would seem, finally escaped their also-ran status and are contenders in a way which is not brave, alcohol-fuelled braggadocio. Spurs didn’t get to the Champion’s League next season, but by no means disgraced themselves this season and are back where they belong. Liverpool also seem to finally have shrugged off all the bad times, will be competing in the Champion’s League next season and are once again realistic contenders for the League title. And Kenny Dalglish is now managing them. Chelsea? Well, Chelsea were always rather fragranted wide-boys – would that be ‘narrow boys with rather nice hips – but have achieve prominence because their owner had the billions necessary to buy good players. Yet despite that they are well managed, and they, too, despite the dubious provenance of their reputation, are contenders. And all that means that next year should be one hell of a season, though given the nature of money, power and ego, perhaps Carlo Ancelloti will not be leading them next year. Shame, and I’m sure he will be crying all the way to the bank to deposit his £6 million pay-off (as in the rest of his contract, though, as of today he hasn’t yet been sacked).

So what has this to do with Old Farts (of whatever colour, creed, race, sexual orientation or, I suppose, gender)? Simpy this: fuck off and go bore someone else. The future is where it will always be.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Admit it: the the dream is over, the euro is on its last legs and so, sooner or later, is the whole EU ‘project’ RIP? I don’t think so. There will be one almighty blame game

The old adage runs that the secret of comedy is timing, and that is surely something the big brains in Brussels will be taking to heart when they contemplate the latest news from Greece. And that is bad. It seems the billions that were lent a while ago to help the Greeks pay the paper and electricity bills and generally sort themselves out was not enough. They now need even more euro moolah. That, of course, is bad enough for politicians Europe-wide who have to square things with the voter. I know we get the impression that politicians exist in a world of their own, making decisions about our lives without apparently a thought about consulting us, but that’s not quite true. Every few years, they are obliged to get the voter to validate their existence, and every few years the voter gives many of them a resounding raspberry.

That could well be the case, for example, in Germany, which has its next federal election in October 2013. And after losing control of the state of North-Rhine Westphalia last year, most probably because its voters were annoyed to be bailing out what the regard as feckless Greeks, Angela Merkel will not want to take any more such risks. The same will be true in other countries as politicians in all member states will balance doing the right thing for our European cousins in Greece with how best not to fuck off the electorate even more. And if push came to shove, guess who would win? But all that is merely the sideshow.

A respected German economics commentator, a chap called Peter Bofinger, has spoken for the first time about the possibility – he regards it as a probability – that the Greeks will abandon the euro and revive the drachma. You can find an account here or, for those of you who prefer to live life with rather fewer subjunctives and subordinate clauses, there is an account here from Der Spiegel which first reported Bofinger’s observation. (Incidentally, we hacks always use that trick, calling the guy or we are about to quote or write about a ‘respected’ or an ‘eminent’ or something along those lines – it is intended to reflect on us, the writer and convey just how well-read, well-informed and well-connected we are. It’s even better if the reader has never, ever heard of the guy or gal being quoted, because it makes them feel the fault is theirs and we, be default, rise even further in their estimation. And, no, I’ve never before heard of Bofinger, either.) Now that has really put the cat among the pigeons. It’s not that it has so far never occurred to anyone that the Greeks would do such a thing, it’s just that everyone believed that if the possibility remained unacknowledged, it would somehow go away.

We’ve all been there, of course. That moment when you know for certain that your girl (or boy) has had enough and is going to jack you in. You just know. But as long as you don’t acknowledge the possibility, all seems to be well. Or the time when your car misbehaves so badly that you just know the problem is just an untidy back seat but something serious. But you manage to persuade yourself, generally by not thinking or, heaven forbid, talking about it, that there isn’t really a problem, or if there is, it will sort itself out sooner or later. And that is what Brussels is doing: in their hears, or rather, in their stomachs, they know the game is up, that the dream is over. First it will be the Greeks, then perhaps the Irish, then there will be a mad dash for the exit – led by the Germans, who aren’t half as daft as many think – as everyone tries to salvage what they can. And then, well, then the dream is over.

But there is another way, although it is a long shot. And this is where timing comes in: if somehow – somehow, though the Lord knows how – the worst elements of the Eurozone could be expelled – OK, call them the Greeks – then there might just be hope for the rest. That’s what the wise ones are considering in Brussels, quietly, privately, streng unter uns, and woe-betide anyone who speaks out of turn.

It’s nonsense, of course. It’s still all going to go pear-shaped. I know it, you know, my sister knows it, my brother-in-law (who has a background in finance) knows it, the Germans know it, the Brits know it, every last significant and insignificant ‘member’ state knows it, the Yanks know it, and the Chinese know it. What we don’t know is the how and when. And that is the crucial information. Some Eurozone members will come out of it all smelling of roses (the Germans, I should think), some will be pauperised for years to come (the Irish, Spanish and Portuguese?) and others still will just be glad that it’s business as usual. The Greeks have long moaned that their tourist industry is lagging far behind that of Turkey because they are tied to the euro and its interest rates and the Turkish aren’t and, moreover, can devalue just when the hell they like. We want some of that, too, please, the Greeks are telling each other. Well, they won’t have to wait too long.

. . .

Another rather ominous development which might indicate all is not well in the EU and that its demise might come rather sooner than it inclusion in Heaven to sit at the right hand side of God the Father was all the fannying about with the Schengen agreement. This allowed the citizens of signatories to the agreement – the United Kingdom and one or two other countries wisely passed on the opportunity to open their borders to all and sundry – free passage to another signatory state with no hindrance or checks of any kind. But things got hairy recently when Italy was inundated with refugees from North Africa and, under the agreement, allowed them to cross into France with no checks at all. (Because of France’s colonial past and former ties, they felt a stronger kinship with France and many also speak French.)

France immediately called foul and said the refugees should be looked after by the first country they come to, in this case Italy. There then came a few days of inter-governmental argy-bargy until it was finally announced that the Schengen agreement would temporarily be suspended. I can see why, of course, but I am obliged to point out that suspending something like that when the going gets tough doesn’t actually inspired much confidence in all the other treaties and agreements in place. Are these also to be ignored by anyone as soon as it suits them to do so?

A further irony is France’s position: they weren’t quite as sensitive to the niceties of refugee protocol when many passed through France on their way to the United Kingdom and hurried them on their way just as soon as they could. That sounds like a reasonably good example of hypocrisy to me.

. . .

When the euro goes, the whole EU ‘project’ will be fatally damaged. The idea was always to build a political union which was so tightly bound together that any thought of going to war would be very quickly abandoned. And the currency union was the cornerstone of what was to become that political union. It all went well, of course, as long as it was just the six, then the 12, members, who were all – more or less – gentlemen and might be expected to play by the rules. When the obituary is written, I think historians will realised that the rot set in when, flushed with the success of how well it had gone so far, the EU pushed for greater integration ever faster. Certainly, there were apparently good reasons for that course of action, and certainly ‘expert’ after ‘expert’ could be wheeled out to provide the necessary hi-falutin’ pseudo-intellectual justification for ever faster expansion. It all became especially important, they convinced themselves at the time, when the Soviet bloc collapsed.

But in order to do what they persuaded themselves was the right thing, they turned a blind eye to so much. And that is all coming back to haunt them. Brussels knew full well that the Greeks were telling porkies and had massaged their figures when the joined the euro. They knew full well that billions were being skimmed off by the various mafias in Italy from all kinds of projects. They knew full well that far from being a fledgling democracy Bulgaria was still run by the same gangsters who had called the shots when, nominally, the Soviets were in charge. But it was the big picture, you see, which they looked to, a European brotherhood of man, a kind of left-liberal nirvana in which the wrong ’uns had to be tolerated because sooner or later they would see the error of their ways, repent and join the fold.

What this means for all those still queuing up to join the EU is anyone’s guess. I should imagine that a large number of Croat farmers will be mightily relieved if the attempt by their government to join the EU fails because by then there will no longer be a viable EU to join. Those farmers have been rubbing along quite nicely and really do not want to be inundated with a welter of regulation with which they had to comply in order to stay in business.

. . .

Incidentally, one of the many facets of euro thinking which borders on the bizarre was the insistence that member states should be fined for various transgressions, especially when those involved them trying to extricate themselves out of some financial mess. So, for example, a while ago, every one in the euro promised that its deficit would be no greater than 3 per cent. If they went over the limit, they were fined. It strikes me as ineffably odd to add to the financial woes of someone by fining them if they find themselves in that kind of situation. Naturally, though, it wasn’t all that straightforward: it is Dick and Dora economics to pretend that any nation’s budget is a straightforward matter of having or owing money. For one thing, many of the figues with which they work are estimates, some are assumptions, many are out of date by the time they are used and often several figures simply do not relate to each other.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

America: a clarification, and one which is, I think, necessary. Plus all the latest from the ‘vote of the century’: Britain rejects out of hand any buggering about with how we do things and give our progressives a flea in their ear (and not before time)

In view of what I wrote about about the death of Bin Laden, the demonstration of triumphalism, how clues as to his whereabouts were indirectly gained by the use of waterboarding at Guantanamo Bay and how the description of Bin Laden’s last moments changed overnight, I think it is only fair that I add a few comments. As usual, they will not be particularly original, but they will still have the virtue of being true.

In many ways, the U.S. can arguably be said to have behaved very badly in the whole of it existence. But in that it is no different to any other country. But where it, and all other ‘Western’ states do score rather well is that they are true democracies. Bush was by no means to everyone’s tastes, but he was eventually voted out of office. Well, strictly speaking he could not have continued in office as he had already served two terms as president, so let me put it another way: when the times came to chose another president after the Republican Bush had served his terms, the U.S. went for the Democrats. That is not possible in, say, Syria, and it is debatable as to just how ‘democratic’ post-Soviet Russia is.

My point is that for all its faults, at the very least the mechanisms are in place in America for the ordinary Joe to get justice and to voice his dissatisfaction with the state. Try doing that in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, increasingly Venezuela, China or many other states around the world. Because of the size of its economy, the U.S. cannot but have a high profile in the world, and not only does it see itself as the country which, because of its resources and principles, is obliged to right what it regards as wrongs around the world, much of the rest of the world sees it in the same role. I am all too aware of a rampant anti-Americanism among those who lean to the left in Western Europe, and I would not want to be included in their number. I find them largely to be a thoroughly dishonest bunch, if only because they refuse to acknowledge that their freedom to dissent is based on the likes of America fighting to defend it. America is by no means flawless, but we have a lot to thank it for.

Similarly, I get rather impatient with many who attack Israel for its behaviour over the Gaza strip and its reactions to Palestinian bombings. I don’t recall anti-Russian demonstrations out side Russian embassies around the world when at Putin’s behest the Russians went into Chechnya and virtually razed Grozny to the ground. Perhaps I am mistaken, but I can’t but help detect an anti-Semitic nature the criticisms of Israel. I must admit that I always respect anyone - an individual, a minority group or a country - which stands up for itself, and that is what Israel does. Furthermore, it, too, has the kind of political system in which the voters can - and do - get rid of a government which is no longer to its liking. I’ll repeat: try doing that in Saudi Arabia, until recently Egypt, Iran or any other the other countries surrounding Israel. And to portray, as some often do, the Israelis as the guys in black hats victimising the poor Palestinians in white hats is laughably naive.

. . .

The big news is, of course, that British voters have rejected changing their voting system. They were asked in a nationwide referendum – Lord, it does sound important – whether they want to change from the the one we now use in which whoever got the most votes in a constituency, even if it was only one, won that constituency’s seat in Parliament to on called the alternative vote system which meant you listed the candidates in the order you liked them and votes were distributed – I think ‘m falling asleep. If you want to know how it worked, please look elsewhere. All I can tell you is that it was the one last hope of the Lib Dems of ever garnering enough votes to form a government in their own right (rather than, as at present, as the junior partner in a coalition) and now they have lost, but a substantial margin, they are cutting up rough.

A nice old codger called Vince Cable, who is once worked as some kind of beancounter for BP and is reckoned to know a little bit about economics (and ballroom dancing, apparently, although he doesn’t brag) is now cutting up rough and describing the Tories as ‘ruthless, calculating and very tribal’ which is a bit rich coming from the bloody Liberals, who are known for playing very dirty indeed come elections time. In fact, nice old codger Vince is, in fact, making a play for the leadership of the Lib Dems which would become vacant if, but more likely when, the current leader, a clean-cut middle-class sort of chap called Nick Clegg is told by the Lib Dems troops to sling his hook. Another codger, though not quite as old, is a chap called Christopher Huhne, who in years gone by might well have been described as a bit of a rum cove, in that he very rich, having made a mint in the City, and recently abandoned his wife for a lesbian pole dancer or bus conductor or something. The Tory Lib Dems will pretend they don’t mind, but actually mind quite a bit, and the Labour Lib Dems will award him double brownie points for doing so.

Huhne, who got some kind of ministerial Cabinet post in the coalition government, has also spent quite a bit of time calling the Tories all kind of nasty names and demanding all the things cherished by the true believers - ensuring that all domestic dogs and cats are on the Pill, shifting the capital of Britain from London to Brussels and generally making damn sure the Lib Dem faithful know that he isn’t at all happy with the present set-up, not one bit. (In political jargon it is called ‘dog whistling’ though I really don’t know why.) The only advantage he has over Vince Cable is that he is younger, and the disadvantage is that he know nothing about ballroom dancing. Huhne is still smarting from the fact that he lost the leadership battle to Nick Clegg and shows no sign of coming to terms with it.

So bugger Libya, bugger Syria, bugger firefights in Bin Laden’s bedroom, bugger whatever is going on in South America, let the world take note: this was the Lib Dems big chance to engineer the voting system more in their favour, but good old Johnny Bull gave them a big, fat and very loud raspberry. Not only that, but they also lost more than two million council seats in the Home Counties alone and bunny rabbits and guinea pigs up and down the land or not happy.

Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party has increased the number of seats it holds in the Scottish Parliament and now has a real majority (as opposed to the last election when it formed a minority government). In Wales, Labour did rather well, but – this being Wales – the result means it is just one seat – make that one damn seat – short of forming the government or whatever it is called in Wales.

NB. I am happy to report that a team of election observers from Zimbabwe, Iraq, Myanmar and the Ukraine report that they were happy with the way the poll was conducted and as far as they could tell there were no irregularities of any kind. Well, there’s a relief.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Only goes to show that a teensy bit of torture isn't that bad, doesn't it? I mean, come on, let's not be namby-pamby, we got him, didn't we?

Let me be unfashionable for a change. There are reports – and I stress that I can only go on what read and hear in the media – that the waterboarding which the U.S. has acknowledged went on in Guantanamo Bay eventually led it to get sufficient information which led them to Osama Bin Laden’s hideaway in Abbottabad. (I supposed in keeping with the rather lurid accounts of the operation I should talk of Bin Laden’a ‘lair’, but what the hell.) So, say some, it was all for the best: we got him, Bin Laden is now dead and so in some circumstances and given that waterboarding is more or less a form of torture, using torture during interrogation might be justified.

Well, up to a point Lord Copper.

Just as you can’t be ‘a little bit pregnant’, nor can there be circumstances in which a principle – in this case the principle that a civilised people does not resort to tortures – can be temporarily abandoned in certain circumstances. At the very least claiming as much is a logical nonsense. A principle is a principle, and a cheese-pared principle is dead in the water almost as soon as you decided to cheese-pare. I suppose it all goes back to that old Dick and Dora philosophical problem, a favourite with earnest sixth-formers throughout the world, as to whether or not the ends justify the means. But I’m not going into that here except to say as far as I am concerned: never.

Then there are the ‘details’ which emerged about how Bin Laden died. Initial reports were that he died a coward’s death, cowering behind his wife while returning fire on the US Navy Seals. Now, just over a day later, we get a different story and a claim that the initial account was given ‘in the confusion of battle’. His wife, it seems, wasn’t even in the room when he was found by the Seals, and the guy was gunned down in cold blood. Executed on the spot. Serves him right, you will say, the bastard was responsible for the deaths of many thousands. But again I demure. I will concede that the logistics of getting him out of Pakistan to face trial made such an exercise very difficult indeed, though, it has to be said, not completely impossible: the Seals got out, I notice, with Bin Laden’s body, so it might have been possible with the chap bound hand and foot rather than as a piece of dead meat. But it comes down to whether or not our principles on which our ‘civilisation’ is based are as important to us as we like to pretend they are.

We say that everyone is entitled to a fair trial, so when did ‘everyone’ stop meaning ‘everyone’ and start meaning ‘those we would like to have a fair trial’? I can’t accept that Bin Laden was so evil that the Nazis we caught, and Milosevic and that guy from Liberia were not quite as evil as him, and thus deserved a trial but he didn’t. That, m’lud, is 24-carat bollocks. As I say, you can’t be ‘a little bit pregnant’. If you espouse a principle, you are obliged to stick with it through thick and thin. In this case I would have preferred a little honesty: a memorandum which stated simply ‘we went out to kill him and that’s what we did’.

. . .

Something else which disturbed me – and several others her in Old Blighty – was the rampant triumphalism of many Americans who took to the streets and chanted ‘USA, USA’ when the news came through that Bin Laden had been killed while defending himself or, as we now know, murdered in cold blood. The surprise was that those celebrating didn’t fire off rifles with abandon, but I assume they rather feared that if they did that kind of thing, the authorities would mistake them for an Afghan wedding party and bomb them to kingdom come.

We Brits don’t like triumphalism. We really don’t. And it rather rankled that we were and are expected to share in our American cousins sorrow over 9/11, but not only did the US of A not seem to share our sorrow when British citizens were murdered by the IRA, but the IRA bombers were partly financially sustained by money raised in America. Look, chaps, that did go down rather badly, don’t you know.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama Bin Laden's death: my two ha'porth worth. And was he celebrating Arsenal's victory over United on Sunday when they shot him?

No self-respecting, self-important blogger can let the assassination of Osama Bin Laden go by without spending even just a minute or two pontificating, but I’m sure if you are interested, you’ll will already know all the relevant stuff, so what is there that I might usefully add? And if you are not interested, you have, by this point already stopped reading and wandered off looking for your porn mag (or knitting patterns, depending upon your gender).

I have only skimmed the papers and listened to just over 30 minutes worth of analysis and prognosis on The World Tonight, so you probably know more than I do, and it should be you pontificating. But there is one detail which I haven’t heard alluded to and one suggestion which was made in passing which, if true, would also prove very interesting.

Bin Laden was living in a ‘mansion’ in a compound surrounded by ‘12ft high walls’, which didn’t have either a telephone line running in or an internet connection. (So how did he manage to keep in touch with his pals on Facebook, I wonder, but that must keep for another time.) One Pakistani speaker on the radio (I think it was a former deputy chief of the Pakistani air force) made the point that describing the house Bin Laden was killed in as a ‘mansion’ over-eggs the pudding rather and that the house was a far more modest affair, and judging by the one photo I have seen of the place, I think he has a point. If that house was a ‘mansion’ with all the comfort and convenience that ‘mansion’ implies, I shan’t be shooting off to Pakistan to buy a mansion at any time soon.

Furthermore, this ‘mansion’ was in Abbottabad, which has been described as the Pakistani West Point or Sandhurst and which was home to more Pakistani army types, both in active service and retired. It would seem pretty obvious, given the city’s importance, that either the Pakistani army or the secret service or both knew he was there. In fact, it is impossible to believe they didn’t. And that means there might be some substance to one of the intriguing claims made on the radio tonight, namely that the Pakistani government had actually got hold of Bin Laden at some point in the past and that he was being held by Pakistan as some kind of bargaining chip in any future dealings with the U.S.

Now obviously I have absolutely no way of knowing just how true that is or not, but the claim does have the virtue of explaining why the man was apparently holed up somewhere right under the noses of both the army and the secret service. If the claim is true, it would also be interesting to know what degree of freedom he had.

The second point is that, given the importance of Abbottabad as Pakistan’s ‘West Point/Sandhurst’ and given the degree of control the army and the secret service have in Pakistan, it strikes me as very odd indeed that the US Navy Seals met apparently met absolutely no resistance whatsoever. The report I read described them as arriving in three helicopters, ordering over loudspeakers everyone to go indoors and stay there and then attacking the compound. Would there have been no reaction whatsoever from Pakistani forces in the city? Would not Pakistan’s air force have detected the three helicopters as they made their way to Abbottabad from a base said to be 30 miles away? You would have thought so, but apparently there was no reaction at all. And that would imply that elements in the army – and, furthermore, elements who had the upper hand in the army – gave their tacit approval to the mission. Yet we are told that the U.S. didn’t inform Pakistan for fear of a leak. So the second explanation would seem to be more likely: that the army and the secret service were, on this occasion, pretty bloody useless. But that doesn’t ring true either.

As always, a clearer picture of what really went on will be revealed over the next few years. The Sunday Times, of course, will pretend to have the whole story by next Sunday and will print it, complete with the kind of lurid Boys’ Own graphics it has made its own. I know the Mail is going to town on the matter, and it, too, has penchant for that kind of illustration. But none of these immediate accounts are worth the paper they are printed on, and we really must wait a long time before we get to know the full story, if we ever do.

UPDATE: The news this morning was full of denials that the Pakistan government knew anything about Bin Laden being a local lad in Abbottabad and very popular in the corner shop (‘He always had a smile and was only too happy to spend a few minutes chatting. Lovely man. He was particularly fond Patak’s samsosas, mind they are good, and we sell quite a few, more than any other brand I should think.’) And I don’t doubt that Gilani and his cronies were kept well out of the loop, being regarded by the army, the secret service and most other people of consequence as worse than useless. But it still defies credulity (©John Humphrys) that the army knew nothing about the his presence locally, not just more or less next door to the army college, but next door to the secret service HQ. (Yes, I know Pakistan, like every other country, has more than one 'secret service', but let's not split hairs, please. It's so unseemly.) I mean surely to goodness they would all bump into each other when they were out getting their morning paper?

The reason given for the US Navy bods being able to fly 30 miles to attack the compound is that they ‘flew below the radar’. Well, I suppose it’s possible. In fact, given the insistence (they say) that no one in the Pakistan military knew, it is more probable than not. Yet, I still find it hard to credit. Would Uncle Sam really have been able to fly in 40 armed men 30 miles without being detected?

. . .

The picture at the top of this page was taken last week when there was glorious weather in Cornwall. It is on the back road leading down to Tresarrett from the A30. I like it a lot. It was taken on my mobile phone, but the quality isn’t half bad. It will remain there all summer, but I have decided to replace it in the autumn with a more autumnal piccy. The colour of the title has been changed to yellow because red didn’t show up very well. Incidentally, I should like to confirm that I cleared all these changes first with the White House, the Pentagon and Langley, and they gave me the go-ahead. It might seem an odd thing to do (to get permission) but, you know, as the raid on Bin Laden’s ‘mansion’ has shown, it does pay to be circumspect.

. . .

I realised that Bin Laden is – was, I suppose, would now be more correct – regarded as a mass murdering terrorist bastard but he wasn’t completely evil. Before he found Allah, he was living a playboy lifestyle here in London, courtesy of his father’s millions. And, would you believe it, he was an avid supporter of Arsenal FC. I know that sounds like the usual bullshit I come out with, but it happens to be true. So the question is: did he hear the score of last Sunday’s match between Arsenal and Manchester United? For a change, Arsenal beat United (1-0) and being an avid fan he would have been very chuffed. He might even have breathed his last with a smile on his face. Unlikely, but possible.