Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My appointment with Death: any chance it could be sooner rather than later so that I can save a bit on bills?

I don’t know whether to be happy that I am over 60 and will die a little sooner than many of you and thus avoid must of the bad times on the way, or whether I should adopt the conventional attitude that death is quite simply awful and we should stave it off as long as possible. My English grandparents both died in their 70s, my German grandfather was taken by liver cancer just as the war ended. He was, I think 56. My German grandmother, on the other hand, made it to the ripe old age of 93 or 94. My mother died three months after her 60th birthday (of a heart attack) and my father was 68 when he popped his clogs (also of cancer, which began as prostate cancer and then spread).

It would seem that, my grandmother notwithstanding, we Powell/Hinrichs are not really a long-lived family. However, until just over seven years ago, I was convinced I would take after my German grandmother and annoy the world until I was well into my 90s. I had no very good reason for thinking as much as I had started smoking at more or less 14 and didn’t really stop until I was 50. There were times when I considered myself to be a non-smoker as I had stopped smoking cigarettes, but I carried on with my habit, acquired at university, of enjoying the wacky backy, and looking back it now seems obvious to me that when I thought I would like a toke or two of at any time during the day, in fact I was simply craving the nicotine hit smokers crave. Nevertheless, it was going to be a ripe old age for me, or so I thought until May 2, 2006, when I was carted off to hospital suffering from a heart attack. After that I slightly re-adjusted my plans.

Since then I have always told myself that I want to live long enough to see my children well-established and happily independent of their dad. That might be, say, when they are just short of 30. So that would give me another 18 years (Wesley turned 12 last May) and take me through to 80. But that seems rather unlikely given my grandparents’ fate, so maybe that would be 75 or 76. Who knows.

I am not being morbid – well, perhaps I am, but I don’t mean to be – when I write this. In fact, for some very odd reason I don’t have any ‘fear of death’ as many say they do. In fact, I’m rather curious to find out what happens afterwards, although, naturally, I shall be in no position to tell anyone still alive. But my thoughts turned to wondering how long I shall be around with the overnight news that economically things are going to get very, very bad over the coming ten years of so here in Britain, and that prognosis, cheerless as it is, is based on the assumption the euro will pull through, that the wise men and women who guide the countries which make up the Eurozone will finally – finally – get their act together and save the day and the euro at the last moment. Well, I have never been one to believe that pigs might fly. And that means that things will get far, far worse than the exceptionally awful future our esteemed Chancellor of the Exchequer predicted yesterday in the House of Commons. Great.

To make matters worse, some trigger-happy folk in Tehran decided to revive the old Iranian tradition of looting the British embassy. That is not a good sign. The British bulldog is not one to sit idly by while its dignity is injured and is apt to retaliate. The trouble is: with what will the British bulldog retaliate? At the last count its armoury consisted of two broken peashooters and a converted trawler. With exquisitely good timing, the Government has good rid of all our aircraft carriers, is sacking almost all of our Armed Forces and is in no state whatsoever to pick a fight with anyone. I think we’ll all know the game is finally up when it urges us all to knit for victory.

So that is why I’ve been wondering just how long I’ve got left. Not that I’ve ever been very convinced but the imperative to stay alive at all costs until the bitter end, because a bitter end it usually is. And on that cheery note I wish you all the best and enjoy the rest of your day.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hacks on the rack and how, when our glorious Press does, for once, do a decent thing, it is only to protect its own hide

It would be untrue to claim that at present the United Kingdom is gripped by the ongoing Leveson Inquiry into Press behaviour because the public simply isn’t gripped by it in the slightest. What interest it shows stems from the same nosey-parker tendency which led to the Press behaving badly in the first place: the public has a seemingly unquenchable thirst for witnessing the bad fortune of others, and our newspapers know there is good money to be made from attempting to quench that thirst. But it would be true to say that the Press themselves – the tabloid Press that is, not the saintly broadsheets, which are read by intelligent people don’t you know, the kind who hold a knife properly and don’t call supper ‘dinner’– are gripped by the possible outcome, and very bloody worried they are, too, as to where it will all lead. I don’t think anyone us under any illusion any more that tabloid hacks can sometimes – note ‘sometimes’ not ‘always’ – behave like complete scum, making the lives of those, whether they are ‘celebrities’ or not, a total misery as they pursue ‘the story’.

When the Press is under attack for its methods, it will often trot out that hoary old cliché ‘the public interest’, that it was behaving in ‘the public interest’, but that is, as so much else Press-related, a load of old cack. Years ago, a judge summed it all up rather well when he pointed out that there is a great difference between ‘the public interest’ and ‘what interests the public’. So, for example, the newspaper which published a story that the latest romance of actor Hugh Grant was on the rocks because of his close friendship with a ‘plummy-voiced’ studio executive would be extremely hard-pressed to substantiate any claim that had it not published the story the democracy of Britain was under threat. As a rule the Press tries to justify some of its worst behaviour by claiming – spuriously in my opinion – that any curtailment of its methods, even those used to gather stories which are not directly related to the well-being of the country’s democracy, would, in the long run, curtail its acknowledged role as guardian of democracy. In short, they claim that if we, the public, want a watchdog Press, we are obliged to take the rough with the smooth. And that, dear reader, dear member of the public, is, in my views, 24-carat bollocks. France, for example, not only has quite stringent privacy laws, but its Press is apt to give its politicians a very easy ride indeed when it comes to their private lives. So, for example, it was common knowledge that Francoise Mitterand not only had multiple mistresses, but that he also had a secret parallel family. Not a word of this ever appeared in print, yet would anyone seriously suggest that French democracy is under threat?

In a world of untruths and half-truths, it is wholly true that the public is unforgivably prurient: it has an insatiable appetite for tittle-tattle, and the more shocking that tittle-tattle is, the better. So it is wholly unsurprising that the Press is not disinclined to make good dough by satisfying that demand for the prurient details of the lives of others. And please don’t make the mistake in thinking that such a business model is restricted to the tabloid Press: the broadsheets also get in on the act as they know their readers, too, want to know every scummy detail. The wheeze they use which allows them to print it all yet appear to be above that kind of gutter behaviour is simply to run stories along the lines of: just look how shocking our gutter Press is – this is the kind of thing they are now publishing. They then publish the lot and their readers, too, can get their rocks off.

The trouble is that whereas 20 or 30 the News of the World could, say, splash on ‘The vicar of Little Magna is a homosexual’, in an age when that is no longer shocking – as someone pointed out, the love that dares not speak its name is now shouting it from the rooftops – it keeps having to go the extra mile. And given advances in technology and the new ways we choose to communicate with each other, it is no surprise that it will resort to using that technology to go that extra mile. That’s how this whole investigation into Press methods started: unscrupulous hacks were – er – hacking into the voicemails of celebrities, politicians, businessmen and our Glorious Royals (God bless The Queen and all who sail in her). As the boundaries of what shocked the public were further pushed outwards, the stories intended to shock the public into buying your paper in order to get the latest details had to become ever more outlandish. And if you didn’t have a good story, just make it up. Simple. That is apparently what happened in the case of the abduction of Maddy McCann, with the Press inventing stories they knew Maddy’s parents were in no position to discredit because It might compromise the investigation into their daughter’s disappearance.

. . .

By chance we are today reading a story on which, given the Leveson Inquiry into appalling Press behaviour, the Press cannot progress any further. It is a very sad story: Gary Speed, a well-liked and well-respected former Premier League footballer and the current manager of the Wales international team, hanged himself yesterday. His suicide came out of the blue (long gone are the days when we had to wait for an inquest into a death to rule it was an act of suicide before it could be described as such) and is described as ‘a mystery’ by the papers.

Actually, they all know it is no mystery whatsoever. Last night, I heard in the newsroom what is most likely to be the true explanation (and if I heard it, you can bet your bottom dollar it had already been round Fleet Street twice). Out of the blue Speed, a married man and the father of two young teenage sons, was informed that a tabloid ‘had proof’ that he was a closet gay and was going to publish its story. Speed told his wife, the couple had a blazing row, Speed spent the night sleeping in his car and in the morning took his own life. Normally, in reporting such a suicide, the Press would have no compunction whatsoever in reporting ‘the allegation’ – always a useful word for Fleet Street’s finest – that Speed was, in fact, gay.

Yet in none of the reports this morning is there so much as a hint of that allegation. As far as Fleet Street is concerned, Speed’s suicide is a complete mystery. So why the reticence? Obvious, really: no editor in his or her right mind would print such a tacky story while their highly paid briefs are attending an inquiry into their behaviour and doing their damndest to persuade the world and its inquiry that as a rule the tabloids are as pure as the driven snow and that any bad behaviour was only down to a couple of rogue reporters. That would have been another suicide. So, for once, they are doing the decent thing. But let it not be thought they are sparing the feelings of Mrs Speed and her sons. They are simply so far in the shit, it would be bloody stupid to see whether they might not get even deeper by printing ‘the allegation’ that Gary Speed was gay.

. . .

I’ve been posing as a hack for the past 37 years, five months and 24 days – I started my first job on June 4, 1974, taken on as a reporter by the Lincolnshire Chronicle. The paper was part of the then Lincolnshire Standard Group and had several sister papers. It had vacancies for trainee reporters on the Chronicle based in Lincoln, the Lincolnshire Standard which was based in Boston, and the Louth Standard, based in Louth. It was still a family-controlled group and I was interviewed by one of the family. I can no longer recall his name, but he had a big white beard and a very bad stammer. I was taken on by the Chronicle in Lincoln because I ‘was a graduate and Lincoln was a cathedral city’. To this day I don’t know whether he really was serious.
But this entry is not supposed to be about me. Some readers who have delved into the murky depths of previous entries will have gathered that I have a pretty low opinion of my fellow hacks when they are hacks. I must stress that: personally I like many a great deal, but when they turn up for work, something happens and they get very odd. To a man and woman they seem to believe that the world revolves around them. But I do have a great deal of respect for any number of men and women around the world who risk a great deal in their professional lives as journalists even their lives. To see why these people deserve our respect visit this site for more information. It makes gripping, though sad, reading. You could also try this site

I have never once described myself as ‘a journalist’ when asked what I do for a living. Ever. I’m not one. Being a journalist is not just something they decided to do afer watching Lou Grant on the telly or thinking it must be really amazing to have your own telly show and, like, actually interview Rhianna.

By the way, if you're thinking of taking a ‘media studies’ course at university, don’t bother. Absolutely no one in the industry takes them seriously and you'll only find yourself - if your’re lucky - drudging away writing copy for a local authority tourism website. It'll be that or working in a call centre. Do a proper course, such as history, law, languages, sciences. Don’t believe all the cack colleges tell you. Oh, and don’t bother with a college which is less than 30 years old - The University of Tring, that kind of thing. It is a real scandal how the previous Labour governments have short-changed school-leavers into thinking getting a degree is vital. Now every nurse ‘must be a graduate’ and no longer does much of the hands-on nursing. For all the arse-wiping etc. the NHS employs ‘nursing auxiliaries’ – who don’t have to have a degree. Can no one else spot the intellectual legerdemain in that piece of ‘policymaking’? Get a degree only if it’s a real degree, sweethearts. A BA in Sandwiching-making and Domestic Appliances will only see you making sandwiches and selling kettles for less than the non-graduate who is your manager. And follow your heart as well as your head. Don’t be strongarmed into ‘going to uni’ if what you really want to do is make a career for yourself in retail or become a mechanic or a properly trained plumber/electrician/carpenter. Remember, it’s your life.

. . .

I see the ‘eurozone ministers’ are getting together in Brussels later today to discuss ‘expanding the bailout fund’. With a bit of luck they’ll agree on a tearound order and after several hours of intense discussion we can no doubt expect a jointly agreed communiqué reassuring the world that they are ‘committed to finding a solution’ to the current crisis and ‘have every confidence that the euro will survive’. Bliss is it in this dawn to be alive, but to be young is very heaven! Or something like that. Anyone care to remind me what it is like to be young? I’ve rather forgotten. Oh, yes, now I do: I spend several years in my mid-teens petrified that I would never lose my cherry and that I would die a virgin.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thank the Lord for children. Perhaps they will do better than we did. And I come clean: I might no longer be a cunt, but I was once. Oh, and I plan a racy, though tacky, list of conquests

Every so often, I simply have an itch to write, and I am not particularly fussed about what to write. The trouble is, of course, that any old bollocks will probably bore the pants of most people, so I try to resist the temptation to rattle off at will. Then there is the fact that the euro crisis, the one ongoing story here in Europe which rather preoccupies us and on which I have been giving my two ha’porth ad nauseam for several months, is not necessarily of much interest to folk in Indonesia, Russia, Australia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea or any of the other places in which people who have dropped into this blog live and which are ‘not in Europe’. They, I am obliged to concede, have their own preoccupations. In fact, it is a universal fault that we believe everyone else is fascinated by our every fart: I farted, Lord, I’d better tell the world! And as, I hope, I am not only aware that that is the universal fault but that there is really no reason why I, too, do not suffer from it I try to resist simply blethering on about myself. Usually I succeed. But tonight - well, what the hell. So here goes.

I have two children, Elsie, now 15 years and four months old, and Wesley, 12 years and six months old. They are everything to me as and, it has to be said, that is something only a parent will completely understand. There are, obviously, exceptions, but as a rule having a child changes your life, and it most certainly changed mine. I was middle-aged when Elsie was born, and until I met her mother, now my wife, my life was going nowhere and I was not at all happy. The genesis of our union was not the most romantic, although I suspect it was less unusual than the purveyors of romantic fiction would like. I got her mother pregnant. I had not been going out with her. It was no great love match, although it turns out she had had a crush on me for many years, although I did not know that.

To cut a long story short, when she told me she was pregnant, I asked myself whether I would be happy if she had an abortion. I decided I wouldn’t, although had she wanted one, I would not have opposed her. But she didn’t want one. I then asked myself whether I would be happy being an absent father, the sort of chap who turned up every so often carrying expensive presents in the hope that their extravagant cost would somehow compensate for the fact that he had not relationship with the child at all. I decided didn’t. Then I asked myself whether I felt I would be happy asking the woman to marry me. I decided that although I didn’t love her, I liked her well enough and so I would ask her to marry me. I did. She accepted. A few months later, she miscarried the child she was carrying, and, to put it bluntly, I had a ‘get out’ clause. I was now under no obligation to ‘do the right thing’.

But I was 45, lonely, would loved to have had a family, and - to my shame - also realised that I would very much enjoy living in her 16th-century granite cottage situated in a pleasant spot on the edge of Bodmin Moor a quarter of a mile or so out of the village. So our plans carried on, she became pregnant again, our daughter Elsie was born on August 7, 1996, and our son Wesley was born a year and a half later on May 25, 1999, 110 years to the day on which my German grandmother was born. My - our? - marriage is not the most successful, but without wanting to sound too dramatic, I love my children more than life itself. They are no longer the cuddly babies, then toddlers they once were, but they are still the joy of my life.

. . .

Years ago, when I was 25 years old, I got a young woman pregnant, and when she told me she was pregnant, in one and the same breath she told me she would be having an abortion. She was 18 and due to go to university. She did not ask me whether I wanted her to have an abortion, she simply told me she was going to have one. And when Katie, the 18-year-old involved, told me, I remember two strong feelings: I was relieved that she was going to have an abortion and felt dumb relief that she had not considered asking me whether she should have one or not.

To this day, I firmly believe that whether or not to abort an embryo is essentially the choice of the woman. I don’t believe the father of the embryo has any rights at all. On the other hand, a woman who finds herself pregnant and realises she would prefer not to have the child needs as much support as she can get. Had Katie asked me whether she should abort the child or whether she should bear it, I have no idea what I would have said. For when she told me she intended to abort her foetus, I realised that in many ways I did not much like abortion. Hence, my relief that I was not asked to help make a decision. I’ll repeat: I firmly believe that it should solely be a woman’s choice whether or not she aborts the child she is carrying (and many would argue that the ‘embryo’ is not recognisably a ‘child’ for many months after conception). But I do feel a distaste for what might be described as the British abortion industry: having an abortion seems to have become a means of contraception. The difference is, of course, that there is a huge difference between ensuring that no life is created and terminating a life which is unwanted.

Many years ago, I was trying to flog feature ideas to magazines and I came up with the idea of whether or not a man should have any say in a woman’s intended abortion, the particularly ‘angle’ to the feature being whether or not a man had a right to demanding that a woman did not have an abortion. I interviewed various women in preparation - those ‘pro choice’ and those ‘pro life’ - and neither camp supported the idea that a guy had the right to such a demand. But what I particularly remember was an interview with a Scottish woman who ran a ‘pro life’ group.

First of all, she was no fanatic. We have a tendency to pigeonhole folk, and many ‘pro life’ activists are portrayed as right-wing religious nutters. Perhaps some are, but this woman most certainly wasn’t. She told me that when she was younger, she had had an abortion and subsequently felt a huge loss. She told me that gradually she had become active in counselling women who were considering having an abortion and that although she did not try to change the minds of those who were intent on aborting their child, she did warn them that, like her, they might subsequently regret it. I shall repeat: she did not strike me as a fanatic. Perhaps her ‘pro life’ views were shaped by her upbringing (whatever that was), but then that cannot be regarded as a drawback, for who is to say that it is ‘wrong’ that our upbringing should not influence what principles we espouse. Exactly why should the intellect hold the whip hand when it comes to deciding what we feel is ‘right’ and what ‘wrong’? And who can guarantee that those who espouse more ‘liberal’ and more ‘progressive’ principles aren’t ultimately equally influenced by their upbringing?

When Katie told me she was planning to abort the foetus, I was relieved. For I realised then and there that had she wanted to keep the child, I would have gone along with her wish. Furthermore, being (this is a very, very difficult admission but) inclined to doing the ‘right’ and ‘honourable’ thing (did I really claim that? Yes, I did. Please don’t think me a completely conceited toe-rag. It might well not be true), I would at the very least have acknowledged the child and supported it. But it never got that far. Katie told me that she was going to have an abortion and I was very, very relieved. (She had it on August 29, 1975, a date I remember especially well, as it was also the birthday of Annette, the girl I was going out with who lived near my parents in Oxfordshire. And it is also the day I did what I regard as the most shameful thing I have ever so far done. Katie went off to a clinic in Leamington Spa to have her abortion. I can’t remember whether she went on the Thursday (August 28) and was due to come back on the Friday, or whether it was a day trip. Either way, she asked me whether I would be there in at Lincoln station to meet her off the train. I said I wouldn’t be.

At the time I was working for as a reporter on the Lincolnshire Chronicle and was due to take the Friday off to travel down to Henley-on-Thames where my parents lived to celebrate Annette’s birthday with her. Whether or not I told Katie why I would not be meeting her I don’t know. But it really doesn’t matter. To this day I feel completely and utterly ashamed of my selfishness.

I have never told anyone that before but even writing it down here doesn’t in any way ease my shame. And nor should it. I hope to Christ that if I am ever faced with a similar situation I will have the strength of character to behave rather better. A little earlier, I wrote - and thought myself embarrassed for doing so - that I was the kind of chap who was inclined to the ‘right’ and ‘honourable’ thing. At the end of the day, I was, of course, nothing of the kind.

. . .

This might sound like the tackiest idea possible, but just as a year or two ago I listed and wrote about all the cars I have owned, I intend, here in this blog, doing the same with all the girls I have ‘slept with’. This list will be a little bit longer than a list of all the girls I ‘went out with’. The idea for such a blog entry occurred to me a many months ago, but at the time I rejected it as being far too tacky. So what has changed? Well, nothing really, except that having turned 62 five days ago, I feel in the mood for looking back. Then there is the fact that I have not had sex for more than ten years (not my choice) and, since, my heart attack have, unfortunately, not had a hard-on to speak of. I would dearly, dearly, dearly love to go to bed with a woman again (and I am one of those who insists there is a great deal more to ‘going to bed’ than simply having sex), but must sadly admit to myself that the chances of that happening are growing slimmer by the day. And those who ask: what about your wife? all I can say is to remind them of the most ancient of ancient philosophical conundrums: is there life after marriage?
Check back for a ‘that list’. It will feature not only those women who were all the love of my life, but the black girl who spoke impeccable German I briefly met on a train (I was getting off, she was getting on), the girl from the gym I went to who offered to beat me up (I said, thanks, but no thanks) and my fastest seduction ever (or was it hers? Seven minutes from our the exchange of a few words in the pub to bonking away in bed. It helped that my flat was right next to the pub).

Friday, November 18, 2011

Don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring, don’t panic. And please, please, please lay off the Germans

I thought I might start this entry with a cartoon (UPDATE: picture - couldn't find a useful cartoon) which strikes me as wholly apposite given the latest news on the euro crisis. Years ago when I still used to lie (I came to realise that in the long run lying is actually pretty pointless and self-defeating). I would find myself, as others did and those who are foolish enough to carry on the practive, always will, in an ever more complex, ever more unmanageable tissue of untruths. It was all very easy at first: the first lie would get you out of a fix, and the second lie would tidy up matters. Then came a third lie which became necessary because of an inconsistency between the first and second lies. This was usually swiftly followed by a fourth and fifth to iron out further problems, while the second lie was recalled to base because of a design fault. In no time at all, lies six, seven and eight were launched to give the whole fabrication some kind of cohesion, but they, of course, also brought further confusion as at this point exactly what was said became wholly unclear and the reason for telling that first lie was completely forgotten. You can see why I gave up lying.

I am not suggesting that Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron, Enda Kenny, the two chaps from somewhere or other who have been parachuted in to run Italy and Greece and the rest of the stalwarts intent on saving the world (no, sorry, that’s global warming, on saving Europe) are lying. But what they are doing is fire-firefighting on a grand scale, scurrying here, there and everywhere from one small blaze to another to keep each under control, but don’t seem to see that each measure is simply adding to the overall conflagration and that the overall conflagration is way beyond control. And, yes, I do realise that as a simile ‘fire-fighting’ sits rather uncomfortably with the simile in the cartoon with which I started this entry, but if it really does bother you, you can bugger off and read someone else’s blog.

There is a relevant piece of bad news every morning, and today’s bad news is that those investors and banks in Asia have decided that enough is enough and are selling any bonds they hold issued by European countries. (Incidentally, ‘selling’ would imply that someone is ‘buying’, but in view of the almost total fuck-up this has now become, I should imagine that no one in their right mind is ‘buying’. How someone is able to ‘sell’ when no one wants to ‘buy’ has always baffled me, although I realise it is perfectly possible, and I can only blame my confusion on this particular aspect of ‘the markets’ on the fact that my ‘knowledge’ of economics was gleaned over the years from breakfast cereal packets and suchlike, and what I don’t actually ‘know’, I make up. In my defence, however, I must stress that it doesn’t necessarily make me at all unrelieable: one of the better definitions of ‘an economist’ I’ve come across is that he is someone who can convincingly explain today why what he predicted yesterday didn’t happen.)

There are several entertaining sideshows to the Asian shrugging of shoulders and getting the hell out of it: Germany now sees salvation in speeding up plans for ‘full political and fiscal integration’ of the eurozone area. And, on paper, they have a point. But I stress ‘on paper’. Given that Germany is now pre-eminent in the EU - and given the geography of Europe, that was pretty unavoidable - it is pretty certain that if ‘political and fiscal integration’ did come about, Germany would once again be the loudest voice. And here I must come clean: granted that I think the question is wholly hypothetical, I really don’t think that would be a bad thing. Many might see the Germans as ponderous and unimaginative, and broadly they might have a point. But there’s no denying that they are at heart far better at organising themselves than many other countries and if there is a secret to their prosperity, that is it. If anyone were to run the show, I would be far happier if it were the Germans than, say, the Italians or Greeks. But, of course, that is pure fantasy. It well never get to that point and all talk about it is pie in the sky. Trying to establish ‘political and fiscal integration’ in Europe - or rather the eurozone - would be as futile as trying to herd cats.

Sadly, despite all the original hullabaloo of peace on Earth and goodwill to all men, every European country is reverting to the role ordained for it by history and geography. And that is especially true of what might crassly be seen as The Big Three: Britain, France and Germany. I know we Brits make jokes in poor taste about The Teutons, but when push comes to shove we get on rather better with them than with The Frogs. They in turn have been cosying up for these past 30 years with Les Boches, but that was always only a summer romance and the tiffs are now getting ever more spiteful. And The Frogs, in turn, still can’t - Lord knows why not! - drum up much trust in the treacherous Rostbifs. Time for a cliché? Of course, never one better: Plus ca change, plus la meme chose.

. . .

It might be that although I sprang from the loins of a stout Worcestershire man, I was nurtured in and emerged from the womb of a stout German woman, but I must come clean: in this whole very sorry saga, my sympathies are with the Germans. As far as I am concerned, a sober, not to say cold-blooded analysis of who has done what would be forced to conclude that they haven’t done much wrong. And the worst charge that can be levelled against them is that they are sticking to their guns and insisting on not doing the stupid thing.

From the dust and rubble of World War I and the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic, they emerged to resume a reasonable existence, although one in time blighted by the jumped-up little corporal from Linz (where, bizarrely, he went to the same school at the same time as one Ludwig Wittgenstein), only for it all to got to pot again. Yet once again, they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, re-established themselves and now once again live in peace, comfort and prosperity. And they are utterly paranoid about inflation.

They are also very put out that - well, the only appropriate word here is ‘feckless’ - Med types should threaten it all and all and sundry are now demanding that they should now do what they sincerely regard as utterly, utterly stupid to rescue nations not half as neat and tidy as themselves. What exactly have they done wrong? How exactly is the vilification which is now coming their way justified? Answers, please, on a postcard or even in an email. I should like to be enlightened.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Entschuldigen Sie mir bitte, Frau Riedel. Das habe ich nicht so gemeint

When we lived in Berlin in the early Sixties, my older brother Ian and I had piano lessons with Frau Riedel. I was just 12 and she seemed ancient to me, but could nor really have been more than 60 or 65. She was employed by the ‘British Military Government of Berlin’ as it was known - this was, remember, just 17 years after the end of the war and Berlin, divided into its four sectors, was at the centre of the Cold War - to give free piano lessons to service children or those somehow associated with the Brits in Berlin. My father worked as the BBC’s representative, not the Army, but somehow we got quite a few of the service benefits. For example, we lived in one of the houses especially built for service families (as did those working at the embassy - I think they had simply built too many houses).
Frau Riedel had been a concert pianist when she was younger, and whether she took the job giving piano lessons because she needed the money or whether she just liked to keep her hand in and enjoyed the work, I don’t know. My brother Ian was, as in so many things he turned his hand to, a rather gifted player. He seemed to master it, it seemed to me, effortlessly. I wasn’t. I was then and am now something of a plodder. (It used to bother me for years, but no longer does. In fact, I now think there is a certain virtue in taking your time and getting it right. That, at least, is my take on ‘plodding’, and if you feel I am being too easy on myself, I’m sure you can find it in your hearts to forgive me.) Ian learnt to sight-read, I didn’t. I simply memorised the pieces I was learning, which Frau Riedel didn’t like. I finally gave up my lessons, I think because I wasn’t very good, but I do remember the occasion when I told Frau Riedel, and it embarrasses me to this day. I told her that I ‘wanted to play jazz’. The point is that I had hardly heard any jazz and barely knew what jazz was. I was also rather fed up with upping sticks in the afternoon, getting the tram from where we lived in the Heerstraße down to what was then still known as the Reichskanzlerplatz, where the Brits had the NAAFI and all the other facilities, having an hour-long piano lesson and then coming home. All that took the best part of  two and a half hours, much of which would have been taken up with waiting for a tram.
But telling Frau Riedel that I didn’t want to carry on with lessons also embarrasses me because I recall inadvertently insulting and upsetting her. I wanted to tell her that ‘my piano lessons are a pain’ and meant to say ‘Sie [die Klavierstunde where Stunde = lesson in this case, not hour] ist mir eine Plage.’ But what I recall saying is ‘Sie sind mir eine Plage’ which is not quite the same thing at all. And saying ‘Sie sind’ rather than ‘sie ist’ had me saying ‘you are a pain’/I find you a pain’.
I can’t actually recall whether that is what happened or not. But Frau Riedel was very, very upset, and I can’t think why I would subconsciously invent such an incident. And she was a really nice woman, too. Sorry, Frau Riedel.

. . .

I have since grown to like jazz more and more. In fact, when talk is of ‘modern music’, I always think ‘yes, jazz’ rather than much of the - to me ears - oh-so-contrived ‘modern classical music’ which would-be great composers are churning out. It’s as though these men and women feel obliged to create music which is ever more arcane in order to qualify to be called ‘classical music’. But what the hell.
As for jazz, I am sadly - or not even sadly - not one of those who can reel of names about this pianist, that trumpeter, this drummer, that bassist as though from a list. I just like listening to it. I can understand the enthusiasm of those who do know the name of every man jack who played on this or that recording, but, well, I don’t. And as with ‘classical music’, I am also like Thomas Beecham’s Englishman: I don’t understand it, but I like the noise it makes. (It is quite untrue that British people don't appreciate music. They may not understand it but they absolutely love the noise it makes.) I have just been listening to the latest edition of Kenneth Clarke’ Jazz Greats - this one was about the trumpeter Lee Morgan (who I had never heard of until now, yes, I’m that much of a fan), and at one point his playing was described as ‘accessible first, intellectual second’. Fair enough. But for the life of me I have cloth ears as far as any ‘intellectual’ dimension to either jazz or ‘classical music’ is concerned. I simply haven’t a clue what they are talking about. Sorry. I don’t deny it isn’t there, it’s just that I’ll just settle for the, often quite sublime, noise it makes.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Of mice and men: how Robbie Burns predicted the demise of the EU. Oh, and two silly jokes, just for the craic

I have never read a poem by Robbie Burns and quoting him here might give the impression that I am quite well-read when all along I have been perfectly honest by admitting that given a book, I would need written instructions on what to do with it (and those instructions would, in any case, have to be read out aloud to me slowly). But given the most recent development on the combined euro-crisis/EU endgame/end of the world situation, a line from Burns came to mind. (Incidentally, I was reading up about the latest fuck-up - the Germans are demanding an imminent British surrender or else they will shoot us out of the skies - in the Guardian rather than the Telegraph or the Mail because I was keen to read a sober account of what is going on, whereas the Telegraph and the Mail are so apt to overegg the eurosceptic pudding.)
When I say ‘a line from Burns came to mind’, what I mean is that a saying came to mind, which I then googled and discovered is from Burns’s poem To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough. It begins Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie / O, what a panic's in thy breastie! and in it are the familiar lines The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley. That sums up very neatly indeed the situation the European Union finds itself in. And when considering what looks increasingly like the EU’s undignified slow disintegration, the phrase ‘overreached itself’ comes to mind.

At the heart of it all is the eternal truth that you cannot legislate sentiment. You can’t by law oblige the common man to love his king. Well, you can try but you have as much chance of succeeding as you would have of nailing jelly to the wall (US: gello to the wall). It’s all very well for assorted bien pensant social democrats to wax lyrical about an end to war in Europe and a common purpose through the pan-European institution, but unless you carry the people with you, you’re pissing in the wind. Most certainly the EU was popular in the days of milk and honey, but even at the first squall of trouble - and that was long ago, we now have gales blowing about our heads - national self-interest rules supreme. Funny that.

The EU overreached itself by trying to evolve from what almost everyone was happy with - a common economic community - into a political union, with which rather fewer agreed. In those fabled days of milk and honey, those who were caught dragging their feet were roundly castigated for their lack of enthusiasm and the charge of ‘not being a European’ was sufficiently serious to dragoon most politicians into line. No more. It is only a matter of weeks, if not days, that there is quite open talk of the EU as we know it coming to an end, whereas even two months ago any such suggestion would have been regarded as the raving of a mad man.

I always thought the starry-eyed wouldn’t-it-be-wonderful if we all got together and really, really, really tried awfully hard to find a universal cure for cancer and brought about peace on Earth was a load of cack - and, dear reader, I am only slightly exaggerating - but on the other hand I am

always wholeheartedly for co-operation, pulling together and seeking out the common good. And as I touched upon the central difficulty of the EU - that allegiance must come from the heart - I should add that my inclination to work together with others for the common good does, in my case, come from the heart. But as I have got older, I have also realised that in any decision the head should - must - also be consulted. And that is where the EU went wrong. Too many blind eyes were turned to too many problems.

Not least of these, of course, was that although everyone knew the Italians and Greeks had cooked the books in order to qualify for membership of the precious euro, they chose to ignore it. All for the common good. I mean, we were about to enter Heaven on Earth, so why let an inconvenient detail or two spoil the party?
We’re not there yet, of course. The EU hasn’t collapsed and it will trudge on for a while yet. But I’m certain that the EU those who supported the project knew and loved for these past few years will be a completely different animal in, say, five years time.

. . .

Apropos nothing at all, no not even the euro shambles, Germany’s alleged attempt to take over the universe or the origins of World War III as they are now taking shape in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – pray the Lord I’m wrong – here are two jokes I’ve remembered from way back. They're not original, you might well be familiar with both or either, but what the hell:

An Englishman, a real Major Thompson type, is sitting in a bistro in Paris when he spots a fly in his soup. Appalled, he calls the waiter.
‘Garcon, garcon, ici. Guardez, le mouche dans le soupe,’ he declares in his heavily accented French.
‘Non, monsieur,’ the waiter replies, ‘la mouche.’
‘Good God, man,’ says the Englishman, ‘you’ve got good eyesight!’

Or how about:
Q. Why does President Sarkozy eat only one egg for breakfast?
A. Because one egg is un oef!

Awful, I know, but it’s 6pm on a Wednesday night and I am about to hit the road for my four-hour drive back home.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A sign that I am, indeed, getting older. Oh, and a perfect cliche finds its sneaky way into this blog

I assume I was weaned on vinegar because I don’t think there is a sentimental bone in my body and I loathe anything which is twee (which might account for the fact that as far as I am concerned in inordinate number of Hollywood films are total bollocks). But it has to be said that a certain sentimentality and tweeness is one of the stocks in trade of my industry and most certainly accounts for a substantial number of sales for the newspaper for which I have given the best minutes of my life. It is, for example, for the umpteenth time selling a collection of DVDs which extol Britain’s performance in World War II, and the bravery and courage not only of its enlisted men (mainly, it seems cheerful Cockneys, stoic Scotsman, lovable Scousers, dour Ulstermen and cheeky chappies from Lancashire) but of the ‘Home Front’, the women and children who stayed at home and kept alive by whistling Vera Lynn and George Formby numbers. Or, at least, that is the picture we are asked to accept (while whoever produces these DVDs makes a pile by cashing in on nostalgia).
In fact, as I have grown older, I appreciate ever more the sacrifice of several million servicemen and women who marched into battle in the certain knowledge that they might well be among those who would never come back. And as I have grown older, I get increasingly irritated by those who attack servicemen and women, often physically, as warmongers. No, dear hearts, it is the politicians back home who take the decision to go to war who we should be attacking, creatures such as Tony Blair and George W. Bush, not the poor saps who had enlisted and who had no choice but to to their bidding. But I have lost my thread.
As I say, I do rather loathe all things twee, and that would include four out of the five cartoon strips which appear daily in the paper for whom I work. And one of them is Garfield. But, it would seem, there is an exception to most things, and the cartoon below, which appeared last Monday, did make me laugh, especially the expression on the dog’s face. It is suitably very silly indeed.

© 2011 Paws Inc. All rights reserved

. . .

Years ago, the BBC screened The Great War, an in-depth, not to say interminable, documentary of the origins, causes, course and conclusion of the Great War. I am, perhaps, being a little unfair in calling ‘interminable’, but that was how is seemed to me, a lad of about 13. Oddly, the bit I remember most was footage from, I think Brighton beach (that’s Brighton in Sussex, England, not the Russian mafia hangout in Brooklyn, New York) taken in the late summer of 1914. Folk were out and about enjoying the sun and their free time and the mood was markedly lighthearted. Despite all the sabre-rattling around Europe, they obviously had no idea what they were in for. Well, how could they? And even when the war started, the public in Britain were assured that it ‘would all be over by Christmas’.
I have been thinking of that footage many times over these past few months and if our British summer in 2012 is in any way ‘glorious’, I shall fear the worst. I dislike clichés – I am obliged to deal with too many in my professional life – but were I told to use one under threat of death, I think I would resort to a ‘perfect storm’. Because it all seems to be stacking up to one hell of a ‘perfect storm’.
The news overnight was that Iran ‘could’ be working towards developing a nuclear bomb. But don’t feel heartened by that ‘could’ which optimists will interpret as ‘ ‘could’ or ‘could not’. It is only there because when we are close to leaving the frying pan in the direction of the fire, those responsible for the kind of report which makes the warning like to be as circumspect as possible. Yes, it’s very serious indeed when the threat is consciously played down. And if Iran does produce it’s nuclear bomb, then, the fear is, everyone else in the Middle East with more than two pennies to rub together will decided to get some of its own. That would be great news for no one were it to happen. In the same neighbourhood is Syria which has not only fallen foul of the ‘international community’, but has now fallen foul of its nominal friends in the Arab League, who are not at all happy with what has been going on. Many of them might be a pretty unsavoury bunch, as it happens, but any pressure which can be exerted to stop Syria killing its own people can never be a bad thing.
Then there is, of course, the ongoing farce which is the Eurozone crisis. More bad news overnight is that bond yields on Italian bonds have breached 7 per cent which conventional wisdom claims is the limit beyond which the whole sorry house of cards will slowly implode. And when that happens – not ‘when’ not ‘if’ it will be bad news not only for countries in the Eurozone or for countries in the EU or for countries in Europe, but for any country which does business with Europe. And that is most of the world. Given all that, it would seem to me that one of the best places to live in right now is in one of the South American countries. So I’m off to learn a little Spanish.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Oh, what a piece of work are snobs

One film I am looking forward to seeing is Anonymous. It suggests that Shakespeare did not write the plays which were published under his name but that they were, in fact, written by a member of the English nobility, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. I must immediately stress that not only do I not subscribe to any theory that Shakespeare did not write the plays, I don’t give a tinker’s cuss whether or not he did. At the end of the day it is the plays that matter (not that I have read them all, which is perhaps the impression I am giving, or that I am in any way ‘passionate’ about the plays. I am merely pointing out the obvious: that who wrote them, why, when, where and what he - or, I suppose, she - was drinking at the time are not necessarily relevant). The director of Anonymous is Roland Emmerich, whose film The Day After Tomorrow, was as close to total bollocks as on can get on a rainy afternoon in mid-week with nothing on the telly. So on that score Anonymous is not particularly recommended. It has also been criticised for its thesis - that Oxford was Shakespeare - and for its preposterous ‘plot’, in which Shakespeare is something of a buffoon who is hired by the bashful Earl to masquerade as the plays’ author because he, a noble, can’t be seen indulging in theatrical productions. But all that rather seems to miss the point, so I was pleased to come across a review of the film a few minutes ago in the Daily Telegraph which simply describes the film as hugely enjoyable. It has Rhys Ifans as Oxford and Rafe Spall as Shakespeare, and both are always very good value. It is also said to be very good on using computer generated graphics to recreate Elizabethan London, and I do go for that kind of thing. (In fact, for me the one redeeming feature of The Day After Tomorrow was its special effects, although even those weren’t enough to stop me stopping watching the film halfway through at the point where Dennis Quaid, the ‘scientist’ drops all and is about to set out on a 200-mile journey through winter hell on earth in order to find his son.) Purists have also been getting very angry about the portrayal in the film of the young Good Queen Bess as a right old slapper who is incapable of keeping her legs together. Me? I’m just looking forward to watching an outrageous piece of old-fashioned entertainment.

. . .

For the record, I can’t see what all the fuss is about. Given that it is the existence of the plays that matters, I feel it is irrelevant whether or not they were written by Mr William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon. What I do find rather irritating is some of the evidence put forward for suggesting that he is not the author (as opposed to evidence put forward for others being the author). So, for example, we are asked to scoff at the notion that the son of a mere glovemaker and wool trader who didn’t ‘go to Oxford’ could have been capable of such learning as the plays’ author seems to possess. Some even describe the historical Shakespeare as ‘illiterate’, but that seems particularly wide of the mark. We know that the Stratford in which Shakespeare grew up had a grammar school at which Greek and Latin were taught, and we know that his father, the mere glovemaker and wool trader, was comparatively prosperous and that it is likely he would have wanted the best education for his son, so although there is no direct evidence that Shakespeare attended the grammar school,
it is more likely than not that he did. But what most gets up my nose about the claims that the historical Shakespeare did not write the plays is the snobbery which surrounds them. This could be caricatured as it being impossible that such great works of art could have been produced by a lower to middle middle-class oik such as Shakespeare. The author of the plays has a good knowledge of military matters and would seem to have travelled a great deal in Italy. We don’t know (the critics say carefully) that Shakespeare ever fought in the army or went to Italy. The critics are, however, careful on this matter, because we know little about Shakespeare’s early life and it is not impossible that did acquire military experience and down a pint or ten of wine in Ravioli or wherever it was the young blades of the time used to go to squire the local talent and get their rocks off. The ‘it certainly could not have been that oik Shakespeare wot rote the plays’ gang are also rather put out that the man we know as William Shakespeare was something of a hard-headed businessman who co-owned a theatre and was rather keen to get whatever money he felt he was owed. Such a grubby money-making nature does not square, in their minds and hearts, with the kind of lofty, high-minded, sensitive and exquisitely sensitive type who wrote Hamlet, Coriolanus, The Tempest and the rest. So, dear chaps, sorry, but it could not have been Will Shakespeare from Stratford. To which I simply respond: why not?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Greece comes clean: ‘Fuck off’ (it tells the rest of the EU) ‘we don’t want your money.’ (For which, perhaps, read ‘we want easier conditions’) And war in Europe: how one rag reckons it could come about…

Amid all the hullabaloo of EU summits, eurozone crisis meetings, oh-so-clever ‘leverage’ schemes to turn the four and tuppence nest egg the EFSF has into one trillion euros to save the world (or something), I bet no one, but no one, could have predicted the latest development. It is this: Greece’s socialist government, which has largely been paralysed by a series of strikes by its civil servants, has more or less told the EU and everyone else involved in ensuring the European economy doesn’t go tits-up ‘Fuck off, we don’t want your money’. Not in so many words, of course, and with the sensibilities of my male readers in mind, I have sanitised their message. But that is what it amounts to.
At the moment, all those Greeks not rich enough to afford a spiv accountant and the necessary bribes to avoid paying their taxes (of which there are quite a few, I gather – it’s not as though there is no money in Greece, it’s just that those who have it take the attitude that the government and everyone else can go hang) are facing ruin. Their salaries are being cut, their pensions are being cut, the working week is being extended to four day, a great many, especially young people, have no job and almost everyone has been taking to the streets to riot in protest. But the money the government is saving is still not enough to get on top of the national debt. As it is all those Greece owes money to are being told they will now only get back 50c in the euro, but still that isn’t enough and Greece has been told to double its austerity measure. So far, so bloody stupid. How do you take another drachma of a chap who doesn’t have any? Now – I shall ask you to sit down in case you haven’t heard the shocking news – the socialist prime minister George Papandreou has decided that, given the anger over his government’s austerity measures and given that is told he must make more if he want any more moolah from the EU to bail him out, he will hold a referendum to ask the voters what they think. The question will be simple: do you want to have your wages and pensions cut even more and do you want to pay more taxes? To which I think no one expects a resounding Yes! Pile on the misery, please!
For once that old cliché of shockwaves resounding through the chancelleries of Europe is apt: no one could or can believe the stupidity of it. The stock markets have been plummeting (again – how often are stock markets allowed to plummet before we are obliged to seek out new clichés?) and it seems pretty obvious to everyone that the whole euro project as it now stands is a dead duck. The referendum isn’t likely to be held for another two months, so there is even more time for a disaster to turn into a catastrophe. The only halfway sensible explanation I have heard is that Papandreou is playing one huge – and hugely dangerous – game of bluff. He knows that the Greeks will kick out any more austerity measures. And he also knows that Germany and France are desperate not only to save the euro but, more important, to save face. So the theory goes is that he thinks they will do anything to avoid disaster, including handing over the moolah with far less stringent strings attached. In as far as what is really going on, it might be completer cobblers, but at least it has the virtue of being plausible. And the Greek reputation for producing good businessmen isn’t just hearsay. But it doesn’t say much for the spirit of brotherly and sisterly live which is supposed to underpin the EU.

. . .

I am well aware that all my ramblings about ‘the euro’ and the ‘euro crisis’ is making this blog unfeasibly boring. I suspect that because of the euro shambles conditions for everyone in the West (given that the U.S. has problems of its own), the next 20 to 30 years will be far less comfortable and prosperous for us all, that, as Angela Merkel has warned, we should not take peace for granted, and that for the time being the days plenty are over. China is about to go phutt and given that the some of the people there are living in conditions just as bad as they were before the Communists came to power, that might also get rather hot before it cools down again. But surely that is no reason for boring a reader? Surely not. So if it is all getting to you a little, I suggest a little escapism, some dumb romcom or other which Hollywood is only glad so supply. That should take your mind of it all.
Talking of Merkel’s warning that we shouldn’t take peace for granted, the Mail, bless their cotton socks, subsequently commissioned pop historian Dominic Sandbrook to write an outline of War In Europe. Overall, the piece was utterly
ridiculous, although there were some scenarious which were rather less ridiculous than others. For example, he had Russia’s Putin marching troops into the Baltic states on the pretext of protecting the several million indigenous Russians who live there. Could happen, though it is pretty unlikely. Far, far sillier was the suggestion that the Walloons would go to war with the Flemish, that Nicolas Sarkozy would march troops north to pretect the Walloons, that Britain would honour a promise made to the Flemish to protect them and that thus Britain would once again find itself at war with France. Bollocks or what? You can read it all here. At least the Mail admits Sandbrook has let his imagination run riot. That’s about right.