Saturday, December 20, 2014

Pop star goes to toilet shock

Thanks to the BBC for this little nugget, on the main news section of their website today

Yes, I often compose plays whilst ensconsed on the loo so I get exactly what it's like for my fellow creative artists.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Stanley Kramer Joke of the Day

They are remaking the classic film starring Sidney Poitier about a young black doctor who is brought to meet his white girlfriend's parents for the first time; this time it is set in North-West London. Don't miss the explosive and thought-provoking "Guess Who's Coming to Pinner?".

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Raiders of The Lost Weekend, or something

Just as well I had no particular plans for last weekend, other than a vague idea about watching a FA Trophy match against local rivals Hayes. I spent most of it either sneezing, coughing or lying down with dizzy spells and sinus pain. It was rather surreal to be listening to a radio comedy show on my dinky little mp3 player at 3:00am on Sunday, (but the alternative was to stare up at the bedroom ceiling) whilst all the time trying to breathe without bringing on another tiny little tickle at the back of the throat that would without warning force another bout of coughing, with such force as to make my stomach muscles ache all the following day.

All the familiar ingredients came out of the medicine shelf - the lemon and honey drinks, the sticky cough mixtures, the soothing tablets.  I've no idea which of them worked but, after three days of it, it looks as though the worst is over and I can sit at my desk and write these few words without too many sessions of chest-ripping hacks. [I'm keeping my distance: Ed]

So, what was happening in the world while sod all was happening round my way? Top news is that the so-called "Wealdstone Raider", a diminutive middle-aged fan of the football club that I also support, has become famous for two ludicrous reasons:
  1. A YouTube video was made of him some 21 months ago when we played away at Whitehawk [A Ryman Premier League team based in Brighton. So I'm told: Ed]. He had an altercation with some of their supporters and the video consists of him, gripping a pint of beer tightly, informing them that "You've got no fans" (true, although they won the Ryman League that season, and it took us the following season to emulate them, their support was pathetic) and "You've got no ground", which was untrue. When a comment is flung his way he turns on his interlocuters with the immortal phrase "Do yer want some? - I'll give it yer". The genius of the person who uploaded this 33 seconds of movie history was to dub him The Raider and to add "You don't want to mess with this lad"
  2.  This video went viral, as they say, but after a long period of nothing much else, suddenly interest has mushroomed. The man, now with some assistance from the commercial management at Wealdstone FC, is doing nightclub appearances, is selling merchandise with his face emblazoned on it, and has released a recording which his supporters seriously hope will become the no 1 best selling single for Christmas. It is currently nudging into the top ten. It comprises a monotonous drum and bass beat with samples of his diatribe stitched into what I believe the young people call "a rap" [Don't ask me: Ed]. The Raider, bless him, has said that the proceeds will go to charity.
Just in case you think I'm making this up, this is the original video, (warning: offensive language),  here is a link to an even more ludicrous story in The Sun and here some Barnsley supporters "entertain" with their own version of the single. It's a funny old world.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Those Awful Advertising Slogans - 5. "Must End"

Not a swipe at any particular advertiser [Astute readers may be able to draw their own conclusions: Ed] this morning, just a general observation. When someone promotes a "sale" and proclaims that it "must end" on a given date, I suppose they want our reaction to be as follows:

Scene: the household of Mr & Mrs Consumer
Mrs C: Here's the morning paper, our dad
Mr C: Thanks thinks why is she talking all Northern this morning, she's from Exeter
Mrs C: I'm so glad we've finished all our Christmas shopping, today I'm going to put my feet up.
Mr C:  Oh no you're not. Read this! hands over paper folded to a full page ad
Mrs C:  Good heavens. Sparks and Mencer are having a sale, the chocolates that were on sale for a very reasonable £57 per kilo are now a staggeringly good value £28 per kilo.
Mr C:  And the sale MUST END soon so hurry hurry, it says here.
Mrs C:  It must end? I don't believe it.
Mr C:  Says so here. It MUST END.
Mrs C: You mean...
Mr C:  Get your coat, Amanda, we're going shopping!

Unfortunately the reaction in the Commuter household is rather different

Mrs C: Here's the morning paper and why you can't get it yourself you lazy good-for-nothing I'll never know, Mother was right about you.
Mr C: Yeah, whatever. Blimey. Would you look at that!
Mrs C: You mean the incredible sale at Sparks and Mencer which must end soon? Shall I get my coat?
Mr C: £57 a kilo? £57 a kilo??
Mrs C: Well we don't actually need a kilo darling.
Mr C: I can see why that sale must end. Their directors must be going bonkers. How can they possibly pay themselves huge bonuses just for doing the jobs they have contracted to do anyway if the company doesn't make enormous profits, and they can't do that at £28 a kilo. No way. I'm amazed that sale hasn't already ended and the person who thought of holding it been summarily sacked, barred from ever working in retail again and had his private phone spattered all over Twitter by the company's "black ops" department.  We daren't go anywhere near in case we caught up in the grim lines of middle managers marching up the aisles removing all the Sale signs,fending off desperate last minute shoppers with a sneer that says "We told you it must end and this is it" and rechecking their spreadsheets to ensure that all discounts are removed forthwith. It's going to be retail carnage.
Mrs C: quietly Mother was right.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Economics and the myth of the market

Many years ago I took a degree in economics from one of the UK's more prestigious universities. Much of what I learned has long since departed the brain but I can still remember the core of the theory of perfect competition - the idea that the optimal way to manage production and ditribution of scarce resources is to have many competing organisations both buying and selling so that none can gain an advantage over the rest by virtue of its size. This notion is so powerfully ingrained that generations of politicians mouth about "the markets" without having a clue about the unbelievably ludicrous conditions required to make "perfect" competion actually work (one is that everyone has access to the same information about the future at the same time so that nobody can gain an unfair advantage, another is that there is no such thing as intellectual property, a concept treated as trivial by the 19th century economists like Mill and Marshall). I don't have the inclination to go into it all now, and you certainly don't want to read it, but take it from me, the only economy where perfectly competitive markets could exist, and then produce the "optimal" result, is Fairyland.

In the real world, markets do not produce the best results in the sense meant by those economists who founded the theory of markets and relating theories about "economic welfare" (which is nothing to do with the Welfare State). We had a typical confirmation of this with the story that Premier Foods, a giant in the processed foods business, was requiring upfront payments from the myriad of small firms who supply it. Monopsony, we used to call that, meaning a single buyer wielding power over many sellers. It indicates a catastrophic breakdown in the competiveness of the market. Any politician who claims to believe in markets (Mr. Cameron? Mr. Osborne?) should be demanding the immediate breakup of Premier Foods into at least thirty competing firms. But they are not.

You can, of course, believe that unfettered capitalism, which creates huge businesses wielding enormous economic power, is a good thing in itself. You can believe that competitive markets, in the economic sense, are the best way to run the economy. But you cannot believe both. They are different things. As it happens I believe that the first is awful and the second impossible, and we need a third way. But that is another story.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Nuisance Callers' Nuisance Caller

My landline rang. A pleasant English female voice asked me to confirm my name and then said they had a record that I had been receiving large numbers of unwanted calls and could I confirm this.

This displays a rather breathtakingly high volume of chutzpah - easily up to 11 on the conman scale (not to be confused with the conran scale which measures the pretentiousness of design in upmarket shops like Bivouac). Here is a nuisance caller, someone who is calling me despite my registration with the toothless old watchdog known as the Telephone Preference Service not to receive such calls, ringing to pretend that she had the solution. I did not need to hear her sales pitch. I know that she was either about to offer to install a "box" for £89 plus a monthly charge of £1.99 or so and all that said box would do is...well, nothing. Or she would claim to be able to reregister me with the TPS for a fee (for a service which is free). So instead of replying to her question I politely said she obviously hadn't checked that we were registered and maybe she had better get off the line without delay. Off she went.

What next?

Scene: Me peacefully at home. The phone rings
Me:  34567889 (not my number but close enough)
Caller: Mr. Commuter?
Me:  (cautiously) Yes (thinks, can't be the bookies, I paid "Big" Freddy off last week)
Caller: We understand you have been receiving nuisance calls from people trying to sell solutions to receiving nuisance calls and it just so happens we have the solution here. For just £200 plus £10 a week we guarantee to tut very loudly and sympathise every time you call us to say you have had one of these intrusive and timewasting calls,
Me: Absolutely brilliant, I'll take two.


As soon as I can line up Stephen Fry to play the caller, we're off to the West End with this one.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The end of the endless tube upgrade?

Something rather bewildering to report from the commuter front. A poster at the station announced it first and now the calendar of planned engineering works on the TFL website confirms it, at least for the next two months. Barring one weekend there are to be no closures for upgrade work on the Metropolitan.

If this is not your tube line of choice then you may ignore the rest of this column and shrug. But for those for whom this steel road is the transport lifeline that makes living on the edge of London possible, then this is amazing news indeed. We have been living with regular weekend closures for so long it is difficult to grasp that the Met can run all through the week on a regular basis. Fancy that! Come Saturday we can stroll down to the station expecting (oh, joyous word) that normal services will be provided. The dreaded phrase "Darling, the trains aren't running, can you give me a lift to..." will become otiose. Hanging about in the car, in teeming rain, parked on the yellow lines outside a station where the trains are terminating short, with one eye open for traffic wardens and the other on the precious phone app that shows the arrival of the train one hopes is conveying one's loved one, will be one of those quaint memories one dredges up in later life to bore one's great-nephews and nieces when they ask "What was it really like in the bad old days?". They won't believe a word of it, of course. That's the trouble with modern youth. Soft. Given everything on a plate. [We seem to be digressing a bit: Ed].

Anyway, we've had years of it and I'm heartily glad that the current round is completed. Once upon a time the Met trains used to hurtle at speeds of over 60mph on some sections, swaying and jerking sufficient to hurtle luggage off the racks. Well they did away with the racks on the new "S" stock units (sod them) but they have promised a return to faster journey times when the track was improved. I'm looking forward to a bit of adrenaline-pumping action in the new year. [Is this a euphemism?: Ed]

Saturday, November 29, 2014

How was Black Friday for you?

The cultural behemoth of North American practices continues to run amok in Britain. Not content with giving us meaningless cliches like "Out of left field", "touching base" and "ballpark" when "Behind silly mid-off", "making one's ground" and "pitch" are far superior,  and foisting pumpkins and trick-or-treat on us at Halloween when kids should be either doing their homework or slumped in front of the telly but not ringing the bells on their utterly uninterested neighbours' doors [The neighbours are the ones uninterested, their doors are not known to express opinions, right?: Ed] we now have the totally made-up and pretend commercial frenzy known as Black Friday.

We are supposed to believe that on this day, just after Thanksgiving [Whatever that is: Ed] and poised at the start of the Xmas hysteria, the volume of retail sales is such that retailers whose financial years end in December will at last show a net profit for the year to date, hence are now "in the black" as those of us who still use quill pens dipped in different colour inks to record such matters in our ledgers will be well aware. This may or may not be true for some retailers. But this day is now associated with seemingly high discounts and apparent amazing bargains leading to overnight queues, crowded stores, frantic buying, fist-fights over the counters and scenes of weary police hunkered down by their cruisers shaking their heads in despair and radioing in for reinforcements. And that's just at Asda in Wembley (not far from where I used to live).Who knows what is happening in the less refined parts of our country?

It defies belief that at a time when a business is turning a profit it should cut prices and kill its trading margins. Therefore I don't believe it. They simply raise prices during the dead months of the late summer in order then to proclaim fake discounts and sell the stuff at the prices they had planned all along. Indeed, an article in today's Guardian shows exactly this strategy at work at Argos where apparently artificial Xmas trees are at "half-price" compared to the price in August. Who the hell buys a Xmas tree in August? Apart from, obviously, people setting out on expeditions up the Amazon or to the South Pole;  they will have their cabin trunks stuffed full of plum pudding, tins of ginger biscuits, whole wheels of Stilton and bottles of vintage port. And a full range of decorations, crackers, silly hats and board games for we are British, goddammit, and standards must be maintained.  But leaving them aside, which I do with some reluctance, there is surely nobody else who (in August, let me remind you, not the dark days of late November) would flip through the hefty Argos catalogue, stop at the page showing baubles, illuminated angels and tinselly trees and think "Umm, that's nice, just what we need...". If you happen to be one, do let me know and I'll be happy to do a brief interview.

Anyway, Mrs Commuter and I shopped normally yesterday, as we usually do on a Friday, at our local supermarket where all was calm and ordered. A rather sad bin near the door held their "Black Friday" offers - a really cheap and nasty looking radio and some headphones whose sole selling point seemed to be that they distorted the bass. There was no queue. No punch-ups. No pensioners grimly elbowing each other out of the way. We don't do things like that in beautiful Ruislip. Not yet, anyway.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Those awful advertising slogans - 4. Benetton

Good to know that Benetton (a clothing manufacturer) is keen that violence against women should cease. They proclaim as much in their ads. Because, you know, if they had not printed this unexceptional statement with which no right-minded person could possibly find fault, we might have thought they were in favour of it, and boycotted their goods. Or something.

But the trouble is, I don't know what this corporation collectively thinks about child poverty, people trafficking, the drugs trade, the international markets in coffee, bananas and rice, whale-fishing, free movement of people within the EU, what channels should be on Freeview and whether Salisbury City should have been booted out of the Conference South for going bankrupt, thereby making it a bit easier for the team I follow from time to time to stay up this year after a poor start. Until all these matters are clarified, especially the last one, I shall staunchly refuse to buy any Benetton products. The fact that I have never actually done so before, and therefore by extrapolation and careful application of Bayes' Theorem, that I am unlikely to do so anyway, come what may, is recorded here in the interests of fair play but does not, I submit hopefully, weaken the thrust of my argument.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Those awful advertising slogans - 3. Bang and Olufsen

Apparently, if you choose to believe what admen say,  "Everyone deserves the Bang & Olufsen experience". They have even taken the trouble to create a webpage with the address "" so if you wish you can go there yourself and marvel. Or whatever it is you do when you are confronted with yet another slogan that undermines the meaning of language. Vomit perhaps. The choice is yours.

I mean. Obviously the people at B&O think their stuff is good. They are entitled to flog it to us. But why are they misusing the word "deserved", which means worthy of approval in the eyes of another person? They cannot possibly believe their slogan. If they did they would move heaven and earth to give everyone a free hifi. But they sell the stuff at commercial prices. So what they believe I deserve doesn't really come into it. Come on, B&O. You tell me I deserve a new, rather pricey, tele. Hand one over. Pat me on the back and say "Well done, you deserve this, please take it as a token of our esteem and there's more where that came from".  I'm free to come to your offices, oh, just about any time you care you specify, really. Hopefully there'll be a cup of tea and nice choccy digestive as well, because us deserving types get thirsty as we trawl around town collecting a gong here and a merit there. And dragging all that fancy gear back on the tube is going to be a struggle.

Or maybe the editor should make a suitable correction. Everyone deserves should buy the Bang & Olufsen experience product range. Now we know where we stand.

Monday, November 17, 2014

10 Years of Ramblings – a review by The Editor

This is a landmark day. It is the tenth anniversary of the first post to this blog. Moreover, it is the first time that I, until now merely an editor,  have been requested to write my own post, and I am grateful, and not a little humbled, for this scintilla of recognition from the columnist whom I have served for so long. Our roles have been reversed. Sadly, I assume that various snide comments will be inserted in italics by way of puerile revenge for the many essential and invigorating notes that I myself have been required to make over the years, to correct vague or unsupported assertions, to point out contradictions or to raise, in a diplomatic way, the problem of writing about matters of which the reading public could hardly be expected to be cognisant. [Jeepers - and he complains about my long sentences: AG] Behind the scenes I have fought the long struggle on behalf of English grammar and clarity, doing my best to whittle down many a long and rambling (ha, ha) paragraph into manageable and meaningful sentences. I think my little contributions have been appreciated by the readership. [Dream on, brother: AG]

It has not always been easy. Sometimes references to obscure teams playing association football or to icons of popular culture have passed me by [This says a lot more about you than about me: AG].

I find the derogation of certain, perfectly worthy, commercial enterprises, demeaning and unnecessary. If an advertisement offends by its crassness, untruths and grotesque mental images then surely a quiet word with the persons responsible would be so much more productive than emblazoning the offence here for all to see. [But writing about it here is so much more fun, do y'see?: AG]

When the transport authorities of this great city fail to run a normal service, or issue utterly misleading or unhelpful information when problems arise, there again there are certain channels where a disgruntled commuter might, in a civilised and constructive manner, evince his dissatisfaction. There is no need to embroil the general public in such matters.

 I deplore the misuse of the internet space so kindly and generously donated by Messrs. Google for the venting of the personal vendettas and, yes, spleen of an individual. [You just don’t get this whole interweb business, do you?: AG]

Fortunately, there are moments of delight that outweigh the brutish savagery sometimes displayed. Who can be unmoved by descriptions of the beauty of Ruislip and the glimpses of other parts of our metropolis afforded by vantage points on public transport? Each spring our hearts are in our mouths as we wait for the latest bulletin on the frogs in the pond. And the slow-burning but ever-popular feature on trams of all cities is a cascade of wonder. We are the richer for such musings.[Gosh, thanks. I feel warm all over. Or is that the central heating?: AG]

And what of the future? I am assured that the Ramblings will continue, albeit with considerably less
commuterial content than before. I fear this may presage even more attacks on the foundations of our civilisation than we have hitherto been accustomed to digest. Nonetheless, green eye-shade pulled well down and red pencil to hand, I shall continue to review, to annotate and to correct. I give you my pledge.


 [Well, that’s that for another 10 years. Back to normal with the next despatch, folks. Keep the faith: AG]

** News Alert **

Watch for a very special posting tomorrow, to mark the TENTH anniversary of this blog.

To News editors: This is embargoed until now.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Those awful advertising slogans - 2. Boss Hugo Boss

I am a little mystified by a full page colour ad in the papers. A smartly dressed and fashionably (I assume) unshaven bloke stares at us on the left side. On the right, a picture of a bottle of something that looks like a sample your doctor would turn over musingly in his hands whilst he said “I don’t want to alarm you and I’m fairly sure it’s not too advanced but don’t make any plans for this afternoon”. And some text which fails to make it much clearer. A strapline “Man of Today”. The utterly baffling “Gerard Butler for Boss Bottled”. The words Boss Hugo Boss on the bottle. And at the foot, a hashtag and a repeat of “Man of Today”.

I am hampered here by basic ignorance and a staunch refusal to try to identify who Mr Butler might be. Possibly he is the man in the sharp suit. As there is no little arrow pointing to him I don’t know. Maybe he designed the suit. Or the colour of the stuff in the bottle. Or he was the “creative” from the agency who told the model to go away and come back two days later when his beard would be scruffy enough for the photoshoot.

I am hampered further by the phrase linking Butler to Boss Bottled. Is “Bottled” a verb? Should it read “Gerard Butler for Boss, bottled”? We can imagine Butler perhaps about to take a crucial penalty for struggling Ryman League 2 side Boss. He pulls the shot, they lose and the sports reporter for the local rag has his headline. Or is bottled an adjective? A synonym for drunk? Is that what the stuff does to you? Must be powerful, the bottle looks fairly small.

We shall pass over Boss, Hugo Boss, whose name always reminds of one of Douglas Adams’ best jokes and comes from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where the mysterious Slartibartfast is urging the hapless Arthur Dent to follow him;
S: You must come or you will be late
A: Late? What for?
S: What is your name, Earthman?
A: Dent, Arthur Dent.
S: Late as in the late Dent Arthur Dent. It’s a sort of threat, you see.
And that is why I always think of Boss Hugo Boss as if it were one name.

And finally the tagline “Man of Today”, so important that it merits its very own little hashtag as well, ah, bless. I wonder how many people are using it right now on Twitter and similar sites and what on earth for? If you consume a different product from BHB does that make you a man of yesterday, or the month before last?

So in conclusion, m’lud, it is my contention that I have no idea what is being advertised or why it has anything to do with men or today and, as Lord Sugar would say in another context, that’s why I fired it.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Italian return to sense

The decision, two years ago, to prosecute earthquake scientists for "manslaughter" for failing to warn about the deadly shocks in L'Aquila in 2009 has finally been overturned on appeal, I gather from the BBC. Hopefully somebody will now prosecute the prosecution for stupidity, colossal waste of public funds and making a mockery of Italian justice.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Those awful advertising slogans - 1. Oris

I used to write a series concerning advertising on the tube devoted to deconstructing the underlying meanings behind the jarring slogans and images that faced us at stations or on the trains. Now that I commute hardly at all it seems fitting to put magazine ads under the spotlight, notably those featured in the weekend colour magazine that accompanies my Saturday newspaper.

Today’s subject is a watch. But not any old timekeeper. This is the Oris Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter. It is worthy of study because
  • it features an altimeter
  • Anyone can buy one, not just royalty with large heads
  • The slogan is “Real watches for Real People”.
And it will set you back a mere £2,350 or so (Naturally this price is not displayed on the advert but yes, I bothered to check because I know you’d want to know and that’s the level of investigative journalism we go to on Ramblings). Now I can see that some particular users – mountaineers, scientists, balloonists and the like – could find it helpful. You may feel that this is a sensibly priced product suitable for those occasions when you simply must know how high you are (“Darling we’ve been invited to the Harrisons for dinner”. “Oh, no, they live at 200’ and you know that always brings on my nose bleeds”). But I’m not convinced that pilots would have this one on their Christmas letter to Santa. If you fly an aircraft with instruments, which you will if you are a professional pilot and therefore one at whom this watch is ostensibly aimed, then one of them will be an altimeter. It is essential. You don’t, from time to time, remove your arm from the joystick to inspect your wrist so that you can murmur to your co-pilot “We seem to be at 48,000, let’s take her down a bit”. You look at your CAA certified instrument panel.

But you will have guessed that the real target of today’s little packet of invective is the slogan. Naturally, we can examine its meaning by considering how else it might have been phrased.
  • Fake Watches for Fake People: No, I can’t see this as holding any water. If the producers of a film wanted lots of mannequins each sporting a glittering timepiece as the backdrop to a dream sequence where the hero finds himself in a land of frozen time…yup, that’s when the props man says to himself, I need those fake watch people. I shouldn’t think it happens much.
  • Real Watches for Fake People: See above. Why equip your dummies with real watches? Simply a waste of money. Although the cast and crew might want them as souvenirs after the shooting. Could be a useful tax-dodge. Still, this surely remains a highly specialist market and therefore hardly worth building a business around that particular slogan.
  • Fake Watches for Real People: This is the slogan surely used by thousands of Ebay and Car Boot sale entrepreneurs as they offload their wagon-loads of Rulexes and Potek Phillipes.
So what does “Real Watches for Real People” mean? We’ve ruled out the idea of selling fake watches for a legitimate business. We’ve struggled to see how watches might be sold for fake people. It seems that any normal watch business must be selling their legitimate timekeepers to genuine humans. How does Oris’ slogan in any way distinguish it from other manufacturers? And if it doesn’t, why on earth feature it in an ad for a product that hardly anyone reading that magazine is likely to buy?

Or, to put it another way, since I am not going to shell out the price of 4 iphones on a mere watch, I resent with some bitterness being branded, in some sense, as not a real person. Descartes, who didn’t even own a watch [Can we check this please? Researcher?: Ed] stated you were real if you could think, and I think I am thinking, or so it seems anyway. I assert my reality and my non-Oris bearing wrist and thus refute the slogan.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

War, Commemoration and Art

In my last piece, I commented on a visit to see the field of ceramic poppies filling the moat at the Tower of London. This remembrance of the sacrifice of a generation is attracting huge crowds, so much so that yesterday Tower Bridge station was closed to prevent dangerous overcrowding.
The art critic Jonathan Jones has written a piece criticising the installation as inappropriate and as giving a false picture of the terrible cost of war – he prefers realistic depictions of corpses and injured troops. There has been a storm of protest against his views.
There is enormous scope to argue about whether the installation is art (and I explored the concept of what makes good art a long time ago and still stand by those views) and what is the best way to remember the fallen. In this case, although the poppies do constitute what I regard as good art (original, thought-provoking and transcending the medium), this is not the point. They are there to help us focus our thoughts. The blazing field of red is not adorned with flags or banners, photographs weapons or stirring messages. Jones’ dismissal of it as “A UKIP-style message” is wrong. It speaks directly to us of loss. Its message could not be plainer. Whether the dead fell in vain or not, they are remembered.
Jones also deplores the installation on the grounds that “the first world war was not noble”. There is a lazy (but wholly understandable) view that the war was meaningless and achieved nothing. But it did achieve something, although it took the second war to complete the job. It prevented Europe from the domination of absolutist, militaristic states. A war won by Germany would have started the process that Hitler pursued – the subjugation of as much as possible under direct German rule, the uprooting and destruction of any peoples deemed un-Germanic and the glorification of war and monarchy as the ultimate purpose for having a nation state. The writings of the Kaiser, Moltke and others directing the German High Command* during the years before the war make it clear that they despised liberal democracy, popular rule and freedom of expression and believed that history justified the “strong” doing whatever they wished to the “weak”. It was a disaster that these views could not remain confined within Germany and were the driving reason behind Austrian adventurism in the Balkans that in turn provoked the onset of war. But we can be proud that we helped put a stop to it.

*see Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns Of August” and David Fromkin’s “Europe’s Last Summer” if you want some evidence.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Poppies at the Tower

The moat encircling the Tower of London has been filled with poppies to commemorate the British fallen of World War 1 - some 880,000 hand-made ceramics that sweep almost the entire circumference of the Tower and provide a vivid contrast to the ancient grey walls.

Mrs. Commuter and I joined thousands of others at the site this morning. There is no glorification of war or any attempt to justify it or dress it up in patriotic robes. Simply the field of poppies. A gaping hole was cut into the youth of our country and it is numbing to try to grasp that each poppy stands for one of them.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Under the bricks

A book review in the paper I idly perused at the weekend, as one does over a pleasant lunch in the conservatory on a mild Autumn day, suggested that clichés have a useful role to play in conversation. Rather than shun them, they should be embraced as making it easy to mark changes in the direction or tone of a discourse, and provide convenient pauses between the useful content. And having digested this message, I passed on to more important matters, namely the completion of the quick crossword.

This morning, flicking through the weekend colour supplement of that same newspaper, I read an advert for John Lewis featuring a woman’s account of dealing with insomnia [Must have been gripping stuff: Ed] and encountered the phrase – “it hit me like a ton of bricks”. I started, and stopped in my tracks, [Now then, now then: Ed] because that earlier book review was still in my mind and now I could not remove the mental image of someone actually being hit by a ton of bricks.

What on earth would it be like? How would you manage to be in a position where you could be hit, anyway? The most likely scenario I could come up with has to do with being on roller-skates, hurtling down the street and failing to avoid a building site. In that case we are hitting the bricks. This is not helpful. The crucial part of the imagery is that the bricks hit us. We are passive and the bricks are actively hitting. So it must be that the bricks are in motion. Perhaps a pallet, swung high above our heads as we walk blissfully unaware past another building site (or it could be the same as the first one above). But then, should that pallet fall, it would be the pallet that would strike and the bricks merely provide the ballast. I should think being clobbered by a pallet would be bad enough, especially if one hears the cries of the builders (probably in a gentle Irish brogue) advising us to “Look out there for the love of God, why don’t you” or whatever it is that Irish builders (Not really a cliché, there’s loads of them where I live) would shout in such a situation.

How can it be that we are struck by the bricks themselves? I fancy that the builders from the example above, have, in a distracted moment (“Whist, would you look at the legs on that, Michael, that would do me very fine”) lowered a pallet loaded with the afore-mentioned ton of bricks (The average house brick weighs about 4.3 pounds, a man from the interweb informs me, and a British ton being 2240 pounds, then this load comprises about 520 of them) on top of a trolley positioned at the top of a hill that leads down to the street where you are strolling, eyes fixed on the estate agent’s windows. The trolley is unbalanced, it begins to run down the hill, the weight of the bricks keeps them together, it hurtles out of control and strikes a bollard. The bricks fly off the pallet and as one great red mass obliterate us in a storm of dust, with chips splintering off the windows and faint cries from above “Jeez would you look at that, now we’ve got to pick that lot up before the foremen gets back from his tea”.

Yes, that would be how one might be struck by a ton of bricks. As to what it is like, well, pretty rough, I imagine. Being pulped and flattened and generally pulverized must be about one of the worst feelings in the world. Would one survive the smash? I very much doubt it. So the feelings on being hit by a ton of bricks must be (and these happen pretty fast) what’s that noise? Ouch that hurts, Hell there’s loads of them, This looks pretty bad, This is pretty bad, Goodbye world.

So when something is like being struck by a ton of bricks, it is like being crushed to death in a cataclysm of noise and terror. Pretty serious stuff. Hard to see quite how our lady (Remember her? I mentioned her earlier) could really think that her experience was similar to that. Her use of this cliché, far from oiling the wheels of the piece, as it were, puts a spanner in the works [Cough!: Ed]. Being hit by a ton of bricks is not really like anything else at all. Apart from being hit by a ton of flour or potatoes or anything else that might detach from a moving load and strike us. I’d say the odds on it being like anything at all recognisable are like finding a needle in a haystack. That’s a straw-coloured needle, made of straw, and the haystack is 100 metres square and 30 metres high.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Sterling crisis hits England

No, not a run on the pound or desperate defensive measures by the Bank of England. The story gripping the nation this morning concerns a young football player who, on the eve of a European Championship qualifier against Estonia asked to be stood down because "he was a bit tired and had had a late night and eaten too many pies because some of the older players had taken him to a fashionable pie bar in Tallinn and he hadn't wanted to look weedy so he went for the dreaded beef, eel and oberwurst special and anyway his mum has written a note, and it wasn't fair because some of the bigger boys had nicer coloured boots than him and his were new and hurt a bit, and his socks kept falling down because the garter elastic his aunt had sewed was coming loose and he had a headache and the champagne on the flight must have been a bit funny because after two bottles he didn't want any more...".  Ah. Bless. Early night, son and take the rest of the week off. You only get paid a few million a year for playing 90 minutes of football a week. God knows it's not enough and, on behalf of the supporters who watched the game on TV at home and found other things to do after twenty minutes rather than put up with any more tedium, get well soon.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

After the vote, or, the Union saved

In the end it all went horribly wrong for the splitters. Gordon Brown rose from the dead to revitalise the union cause, the waverers wavered toward "No" and Alex Salmond fell on his sword. 55% was not as much as I would have liked but it is sufficient to put this issue to bed for a while. We still live in a United Kingdom.

Mr. Salmond is likely to be replaced by his deputy, Nicola Sturgeon. There seems to be a element of the piscine about the names of the SNP leaders but heaven forfend that anyone should make cheap jokes about it all being a bit fishy.

Mrs. Commuter and I heard the news in our hotel bedroom in Dijon, whither we had repaired on a short holiday to taste (and I mean that literally) the delights of Burgundy, a beautiful rural region of France that is home to many memorable dishes. Our final night's dinner of oeufs meurette, boeuf bourginogne and an assiette of fromages was not the sort of thing you eat every night, if you value your waistline, but we had done a fair bit of walking and felt justified in indulging.

Dijon has no underground system but trams run around (though not through) the historic city centre and though we did not travel on one, I know you'd like to see a picture anyway so here you are.
Sorry about the street sign but I think it adds a certain something to the picture [amateur naffness, perhaps?: Ed]

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Battle of Britain commemoration

The annual remembrance of the contribution of Polish airmen in the RAF was held today at the Polish War Memorial, situated at a junction of the A40 at the edge of RAF Northolt, the wartime fighter station where many Poles were based. After a brief service there was the laying of wreaths, starting with the dignitaries including an Air Vice Marshal, the Polish Ambassador and the Mayor of  Hillingdon,  and representatives from other boroughs including Newark which has a very strong association with the Polish effort. Then one wreath for each of the fighter and bomber squadrons commemorated on the memorial, some laid by survivors and others by relatives. Finally, the highlight was the flypast of a Spitfire and Hurricane. The wonderfully evocative snarl of Merlin aero-engines filled the air, coming just before the planes themselves, tiny compared to the jets on the airstrip, hurtled overhead.

We were fortunate that they made several passes, permitting your correspondent time to get his camera into position and take at least one reasonable picture. 
Polish War Memorial
Bandits at 9, skipper

Friday, September 12, 2014

Herons over Ruislip

I was enjoying a coffee as a well-earned reward for the efforts expended in my earlier post today when I looked up across the back garden to see an unexpected visitor.

My neighbour's shed seems an unlikely haunt

A zoom shot as it admires itself in the glass roof panel
I would rather these birds kept well away. Fortunately, at this time of year, the goldfish in the little pond are well camouflaged under a thick layer of plants but they will be exposed later on. Now I know what sheep farmers must feel when the wolves are circling...

Scotch Mist - Occasional reflections on a referendum. No 7 – SNP and the destruction of the English language

I really was not intending to write any more about the referendum. But it is now the number one topic on current affairs programmes and inevitably one is drawn into the arguments. This morning I was idly listening to Today in bed, as one does when taking a day off. [He's been retired for a while but we don't want to shatter his pathetic illusions that the business world still needs him: Ed] I heard an SNP supporter using the phrase "this failed political union" and once again the blood rushed to my head, my eyes rolled and my writing fingers began to itch.

  • Direct control from Westminster over all matters of Scottish life including allocation of housing, education, the police, investment, control over candidates for Parliament - that might signify a failed union.
  • Scots unable to buy property in the rest of the UK, forbidden to travel, discriminated against when working south of the border, refused entry to pubs and hotels, singled out for stop-and-search by the police, kept waiting for many hours to cross the border - this would indicate a failed union.
  • No democratic elections for many years despite continuous mass demands for them - that would show a failed political union.
  • Arrests of anyone campaigning for independence, bloody suppression of demonstrations, secret police, disappearance of activists, English commissars with arbitrary powers including detention, torture and execution - that would indeed signify a failed political union.

And so on. Now you could say that some of these things did indeed take place following the battle of Culloden when the people of the Highlands were punished for support for the Jacobite cause. And you could counter-argue that even then the majority of Scots supported the union and were not Jacobites and that, within a generation, Scots were serving proudly in the British army, were represented in Government and were enjoying the full fruits of the economic boom accompanying the expansion of the British trading and political empire (as anyone who has wandered through the splendid Georgian streets of the "new town" in Edinburgh can witness).

All that was more than 200 years ago. To describe the current state of the British polity as failed is like a child who has not been picked to star in the class play (where there are only 6 main roles and 25 kids) screaming "It's not fair" and banging her head on the desk. Put it another way - the UK model is widely copied and respected around the world as an example of how to create a peaceful, representative, honest system of government. The very fact that the referendum is taking place and will be legally honoured if the result is for independence is testament to the strength of the system. Yet the SNP says it is failure, and sure the SNP are honourable men and women. [That's enough Shakespeare at this time of the morning, thanks: Ed]. Yugoslavia was a failed union. Pakistan was a failed union. When it all ends in militias, shelling of cities and slaughter of unarmed civilians, that's a failed union. The UK has been an outstanding success, despite the relative domination by the English over the rest, a domination that is acknowledged and is steadily being reduced as devolution increases, and the merits of the UK far outweigh its disadvantages. If this is failure, give me more of it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Scotch Mist - Occasional reflections on a referendum. No 6 – The psychology of Yes

The referendum is reaching its final days. Politicians are scrambling to put over their messages to the undecided, who may amount to 10% of the electorate. Business leaders have made warnings about the penalties should the result be yes, others affirm their faith in Scottish robustness. The opinion polls have shown a sharp narrowing of the gap and there seems to be a new sense of urgency in the No campaign that was not there before.

A psychologist has pointed out the associations of the words Yes and No, one being positive and uplifiting, the other with negative associations. People like to say yes, to be part of something bigger and to feel they are making a contribution. Saying no is akin to isolating oneself and to go against the crowd, and humans are instinctively herd animals always uneasy about being out of the group. So to allow the referendum to be based on Yes or No was a clever tactic by the SNP. A better balance would have been to have two questions, viz:
  • Should Scotland become independent?; or
  • Should Scotland stay within the United Kingdom?
     Select one answer only.
     Write your answer on one side of the paper only.
     Do not use green crayon. Candidates expressing opinions
     about the parentage of the English,or
     the importance of loch-fulls of whisky
     or anyone threatening to play the pipes for non-payment
     of a gratuity will be the subject
     of tut-tutting and averted eyes.

Anyway, too late to change anything now. This column believes in the union. Small may be beautiful but the UK is in many ways fairly small anyway on the world stage. Let's not diminish it any more.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The glorious summers of yore

Unremitting, steady, heavy rain. Thick grey cloud. The cool air of a late autumn day. Welcome to another washout of an August bank holiday.

Radar map courtesy
The rain is heading north so there is plenty more heading for beautiful Ruislip

It wasn't always like this. The late summer holiday used to mean scorching sunshine. Vivid blue skies with just a few fluffy white clouds to cast the occasional shadow. Long queues simply to join a motorway from an access junction. Endless tailbacks on the approaches to a seaside town. That soul-destroying cruise in back streets looking for a parking place. The long boring trudge in the heat to reach the crowded beach. Sand in the sandwiches. That first angry flush down the leg that spells sunburn (and the agony to come of getting into a hot bath). The queue for an ice-cream and the sticky drips down the cornet onto your arms that taste of sunoil when you lick them off. The queue to get back onto the motorway and the endless stop-starting with red brake lights winking up the road as far as one could see. The headaches. The bickering and the arguments.

Ah well, I suppose we always remember only the good times.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

It knocked 'em dead in Brussels

I am indebted to The Guardian for drawing my attention to a theatrical work performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe a while back which I unaccountably seem to have missed, and which from the title alone I am jolly glad so to have done, let alone from the description. It seems that a Belgian group put on, and I am not making this up, really and truly, "Once and for All We're Going to Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up and Listen".  Still with me? The subject of this offensive title was "a blistering, no-holds-barred account of what it was like to be a teenager".

Um. Excuse me. If I may just for one moment not be forced to shut up I'd like to make a comment. Thanks. Erm, it seems to me that pretty well everyone likely to be going to the theatre to see this has actually been, or was at the time, a teenager. Even I, venerable now in years and sitting quietly in the big armchair in the corner, can recall the frustrations, irritations, boredom, yearnings and joys of being a teenager.

Anyway, my point is, if it's no-holds-barred blistering drama you're after, you've come to the right place, chum. How about "Oh God, No, No, I Can't Take any More, Please Let it Stop" my scorching, anything-goes assault-on-the-senses about what was like to follow QPR in 2012. Or, for art lovers, there's "I wouldn't Put that Crap in my Compost Heap so Take it Down and Shove it", a full-blooded kick-em-where-hurts rampage about Miss T. Emin and her laundry. Next year I am hoping to take to the Fringe "I Won't Tell You again, You Put the Bloody Milk in First, now Shut your Face and Drink it", the definitive veruka-forming in-your-face piece-de-resistance about how to make tea. If I can just secure that vital Arts Council grant first.

Stringing along the spam callers

I still get several phone calls a week from these desperate people trying to get leads for dodgy law firms or whatever it is they do.  You know the way it goes, the tell-tale pause after you pick up, the background buzz of a call centre and then a foreign voice asking your name, and how you are, and to confirm the telephone number and address and no, this is not a sales call but would you answer some questions....

I have begun to reply to every question by saying, very courteously, "I'm sorry I am unable to give you any personal information for security reasons".  Today my caller insisted I tell him whether I was employed or not. He got the same reply about four times.  He almost broke down, pleading with me that it was not personal and would I just answer. I stifled my own laughter and kept my voice steady and intoned my magic formula once again.  He became so indistinct that I invited him to phone back on a better line but for some inexplicable reason he declined to do so.

I was really hoping he would ask what the security reasons were; my reply would be that he has to pass my security check and I would then ask him his age, passport number, credit card number and PIN and anything else I could think of. Even better if he had queried why this was needed. My answer would be "It is required by my security officer" and had he asked to speak to that self-same official, (surely even these people cannot be so stupid but you never know), he would have got me again, holding my nose and doing a silly accent. North Yorkshire perhaps.
"Nay lad, sitthee, we canna go giving out to strangers, think on and look sharp".

Any further objections and it will be down to a strict email from my old friend and advisor P.R. Crush and nobody messes with him.

Monday, August 11, 2014

You have been chosen

This morning the postman brought us a Scott’s of Stow catalogue (one to drool over before filing under X for expensive, and anyway we strolled briefly through their enticing shop only a few weeks ago) and a communication from a minor bank inviting me to apply for a credit card. I struggled for a while to make any sense of it. It informed that I have been “pre-selected to apply” for their plastic. Despite my elevation to the exclusive ranks of those in this apparently privileged position, I nevertheless was expected to complete a mass of questions about my financial position.
Now I can understand being asked to apply for a credit card. Anyone may apply. They then decide whether to accept you. Fair enough. Sometimes financial institutions suggest that I have been selected to apply. This doesn’t mean much, unless there is some form of rationing on the supply of their cards and only those invited to apply are able to do so. But to be pre-selected? I’ve been selected in some sense before other people who are also going to be selected? Baffling. And why me? They must think I am a person of worth and standing, yes? Wrong. Their literature talks of their card being suitable for people needing to establish their credit-worthiness. So I have been pre-selected as being the sort of bloke who pawns his watch on a Friday in order to place a quick bet with a bookie’s runner, take a floozy out to the music hall and blow the remains on a pint of porter on the way home. [These ideas may be a bit dated: Ed]. Well, I’m not happy about it. They might as well address their fancy letter to “Dear Loser” and include such snippets as “Say goodbye to the misery of fighting off brokers’ men and bailiffs” and “Impress your friends by not having your TV repossessed”.
So no shiny new credit card with up to £1000 credit (if my pre-selected application were to be accepted, mind you). But I am left wondering about the people who are merely selected to apply for this particular card. What sort of credit limit would this collection of downbeats, persons of no fixed abode and financial outcasts be offered, if a respectable long-time homeowner such as your correspondent only gets a measly grand to kick off?

Friday, August 08, 2014

Scotch Mist - Occasional reflections on a referendum. No 5 –What is best for whom?

The first televised debate between the leaders of the opposing sides took place the other night. As it was on STV I was unable to watch (not that I necessarily would have, what with the build-up to the West Middlesex pro-am hopscotch first round relegation play-offs on Garbage) but gleaned the impression from the press coverage that Alastair Darling, for the “Naes” made a good case for the economic weakness that an independent Scotland would experience.  Predictably Alex Salmond for the “Ayes” continued to bluster that Scotland would remain in the sterling area with the full support of the Bank of England because this would be in the best interest of both countries. This line of argument has irritated me for a long time. The SNP have always campaigned, single-mindedly, that their policies were for Scotland and nothing else mattered. For them to now suggest that everything they do is best for everybody, even though their policies are contested by all of other the main political parties in the UK (yes, UK, there are other parties in Scotland), is confusing. Why should they care what is in my best interest?

Anyway, as I said in my last piece on this particular topic, what matters is the instinct not the endless batting back and forth of numbers. I believe that there is no conflict whatsoever between a healthy patriotism and the choice to join or remain part of a larger polity. Many of the North American states made this choice at a time when most of their residents identified with their state first and the USA second. Increasingly the citizens of Europe are moving this way, at least in part (Try driving from France through Belgium, Netherlands and Germany and see how many times you have to produce your passport). I believe that the UK can produce a better and safer quality of life for all of its citizens than if it breaks apart. The Scots have a flag, an anthem, a football team, a language (if they want it) and huge numbers of them prefer to live and work south of the border. Do they really want to see Prime Minister Salmond taking his place with the minnows at international conferences while Prime Minister Cameron (or should that be Johnson?) sits down at the top table? Do they really want to see their finest businesses relocate to ensure that they remain within the sterling area?

The vote is on 18 September. Five weeks before this business can be put behind us. It matters to me because I am a citizen of the UK and I continue to be frustrated that my views will not be taken into account on that day.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Why, oh why...(no 7 in this surely-it-can't-still-be-running series?) Microsoft (yes them again) think I have the intelligence of a one year old? I have deleted all the messages in my Hotmail account and emptied the Junk folder. "Wow, you have a very clean inbox" says the new pop-up message at the top of the screen. Yes. Yes, I do. Yes, I have a clean inbox. Because I checked each message and clicked on Delete.  It's nothing to "wow" about. It's something I, as the owner of this mailbox, did.

And at the top of my junk folder it says "You don't have junk here (hooray!)".  I kid you not. It actually has the word "hooray" with an exclamation mark perched coyly inside a pair of complementary brackets, entirely free of charge.  Yes, I know there isn't any junk mail. I deleted it all not five seconds hitherto.

If only this worked in reverse and every time I loaded (say) Excel a smug self-congratulatory email popped up on the desktop of the Head of Customer Websites in Redmond which she/he had to read whether he/she wished to or not. It could go something like this:

"Hey!!  (two exclamation marks, it's that important)
We got one of our Office products to open on a customer's PC. Aren't we the best?
Yup, working hard to make products do what they are supposed to to but sometimes don't and you know we feel real bad when that happens, it hurts us here, you know that? We feel the pain. But not today. Today a copy of Excel opened correctly. Hooray!!! (three? yeah, why not, let's push the boat out, they're worth it).

A few million of those and maybe they might design their websites for adults. 

Boris in prospect

Shock-haired Conservative politician and Latin-quoter Boris Johnson (currently employed as Mayor of London) has announced his intention to return to Parliament as an MP at the 2015 General Election. Commentators assume he then intends to position himself as the next leader of the party and will bide his time before knifing D. Cameron in the back in the traditional way.

This cunning plan to spend more time with the Queen requires his selection as candidate for a suitable seat. This in turn needs a seat with an upcoming vacancy. What could be better than the very seat in which your correspondent has the honour to reside, namely Uxbridge and South Ruislip? Safe Tory, lots of golf courses and easy access via the M40 to Oxford and beyond where the current generation of politicos and obscenely wealthy supporters like to live. Sir John Randall, the incumbent, is to stand down. Boris looks likely to be a shoe-in. [I believe the expression employed here is better stated as "shoo-in": Ed]

Representing this area would present a few interesting challenges. Round here we quite like Heathrow Airport, where loads of residents work and we are very unhappy at having HS2 bulldozed through our town and across many beautiful miles of Bucks. Mr Johnson, I believe, does not approve of Heathrow and rather likes HS2. Perhaps he can remind us what Cicero said, when asked to approve the Appian Way extension scheme.

But now a heavier shadow has cast its, er, shadow. A man who is paid to put records on a gramophone and woffle meaninglessly about them by the BBC (and who I will not name because I don't like him and see no reason to give him an iota of publicity), has opined that nobody knows where Uxbridge is.  I can well understand that the aforesaid tosser doesn't know. But anyone familiar with the London Underground surely will, because Uxbridge is one of the termini on the Metropolitan Railway. It was at Uxbridge that crucial negotiations for peace during the English Civil War were attempted.  Here in Uxbridge you can shop at a real old-fashioned department store, Randalls, owned by the very man whose departure from parliamentary service has sparked this whole debate [What debate? Ed]. And anyway, what about South Ruislip, the other half of the partnership? Geographically I actually live in North Ruislip but the vagiaries of the Boundary Commission led to my ward being squeezed south of the border, so to speak. And therefore I can speak for South Ruislip. And that surely is enough to put it securely onto the political map.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sorry, Mr. Beckham, What is it again?

I was surprised when, on opening this morning's paper, (one of the broadsheets), pages 2 and 3 were entirely taken up with a colour advertisement for...well, I don't know what it is, actually. A bottle of something on one page and a full head/body shot of Mr. D Beckham on the other. [Didn't he used to be a footballer, or something?: Ed]. I was bemused to find the same Mr.B and his little bottle together in another full page ad on the back page.

The ad doesn't say what the little bottle contains but the strapline identifies our hero is no uncertain terms. He stares in a menacing way as if defying you to mock his scruffy, unshaven look [Very fashionable, I believe: Ed]. I suppose it is a perfume (or parfum pour homme) or some such.  I struggle with the image because the same bloke is on TV all the time smiling gormlessly and fronting a ludicrous ad on behalf of Sky which features a computer generated audience apparently cheering every time the world's greatest expert on digital communications points his little stick [er, is this a euphemism? Let's keep it clean, eh: Ed].

So which is the real Beckham? Moronic grinner or sickly-smelling hard man? And which of these two products am I going to rush to buy? Would you believe, neither of them? I thought you would. [I can't afford Sky anyway: Ed]

Monday, July 28, 2014

Return of the floods

It's been a terrific summer, at least for the last month or so. Temperatures up in the high 20s for day after day. Last week Mrs. Commuter and I were touring round the wonderful scenery of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, visiting ancient manor houses and well-preserved medieval towns. We came back to a sun-drenched London. But it all changed this morning.

The weather forecasts had been hinting at rain for today but it was always going to be "light showers". Well, what we got this morning was another deluge reminiscent of the scenes at the start of this year and all the lower lying regions of beautiful Ruislip flooded. How much rain exactly? The Evening Standard reported 42mm in Northolt (a mile south), whilst a local website based in Pinner ( a mile east) only reported 4mm. So it was amazingly localised. I therefore estimate that about 25mm (or an inch, in old money) fell around here, in an hour. There are some amazing pictures on the local online newspaper and the BBC. This one says it all - that water-filled gully, looking uncannily like the storm drains in Los Angeles - is the six lane highway we call the A40 - the main road between London and Oxford - and the same route that we took a few days ago on our little westward jaunt.

And whilst the roads were in chaos (our cleaner drove in as usual from Hayes, a 20 minute journey, that took her 2 hours today) it was worse for rail commuters. The Met is in any case running special services for the next couple of weeks, with nothing between Ruislip and Uxbridge while they do maintenance but the section around Eastcote had water above the level of the rails so there was no train service at all in our part of the world during the rush hour commute. Trains are now running, fortunately for Mrs. Commuter who needs to get into inner London later.

As I write the clouds are gathering again and there are some ominous cumulo-nimbuses lining up overhead. Now where did I put my trusty old raincoat...

Friday, July 18, 2014

Summer Lightning

The English summer has arrived with a heatwave, the traditional English batting collapses in Test Matches and a furious thunderstorm that woke up Mrs. Commuter and myself at 2:00 am. Although a centimetre of rain fell (lit by intense electrical discharges that made our darkened bedroom resemble a photographer's studio) today has been hotter still and will probably be the warmest of the year. Once upon a time it would have been my melancholy lot to spend all day in a hot airless office, at the end of the day to trudge up the baking canyons of the London office blocks to a station and wonder if my stifling and sweaty train would arrive on schedule and, when it finally did arrive, whether it would make it all the way or be diverted (due to an "incident" twenty miles away).  But not any more. Today your correspondent was sprawled out at home watching the Tour de France (and reading e-books during the interminable ad breaks). So I am unable to report what it was like at the front line of commuting today. I could easily invent a few lurid details, I suppose, but you only have to browse through some of the back issues of this column and you could do just as well by yourselves.

Written a little later from the above, at 18:30.
You really couldn't make it up.  Here is the TFL service status for right now.
Yup.  On the very route on which I used to travel each day (until that great day in 2006 when my office moved to Waterloo) there is currently no service. Just think, I would have left my office say at 18:10, reached Barons Court and found a seat, with luck, on an Rayners Lane bound service at, say, 18:25 and just after we pulled out of Hammersmith (last chance to switch to another line) our train would have been diverted to Northfields. And there I would be, sweltering and abandoned at Acton and not knowing whether to go back into Central London or hang around on the platform. Happy days, what?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Scenes of terrible devastation in Brazil

In the aftermath of Germany's historic victory over Brazil in the World Cup semi-final (7-1, for the benefit of readers from the distant future who can't be bothered to look it up on the GalactiNet), there have been floods of stories showing heartbroken fans, [Brazilian fans, right? I don't follow sport much: Ed] numb with grief or gripped by tears and much pondering on how this will leave great scars in the national consciousness and perhaps have political consequences for the Presidential election later this year.

But you may have missed the story that surely encapsulates the agony of a football-loving people and which lays open the catastrophe that will forever define a lost generation.  Courtesy of The Guardian's Jonathan Watts  writing from Rio de Janiero, we learn of the sickening consequences in the favela of Rocinha:
 One of their neighbours, Vinicius Patricinio, 14, was so frustrated he ripped up his Panini World Cup sticker album and refused to go to school.
My knees knocked, my tongue clave to the roof of my mouth and the room seemed to grow dim and swim about me as I read that fateful sentence. Fortunately, I managed to conceal this from Mrs. Commuter who was across me at the breakfast table for she is a sensitive lady and might have suffered a fit of the vapours had I revealed but one tenth of the ghastliness unmasked by the intrepid reporter. A boy ripped his sticker book. Surely, oh Great God, surely such things cannot be. The minds of mortal men are not sufficient to encompass such horrors. And missed school as well. Even though it was double Physics with Sr. de Gama, his favourite subject, and there would be pink blancmange for lunch. Even though Augusto Plebius had faithfully sworn to pay back the 2 reals he had borrowed last week to buy iced buns at the tuck shop.  This plucky boy, wise beyond his years, had dared to do what no grown man would do. Hold your heads in shame, Oscar and Fred, Hulk and Julio Cesar. [er, these are real names, aren't they? You're not making them up?: Ed] For it has come to this. Too late to say "If only we had known". The voice of youth has spoken and it has condemned.

Will England learn the lessons of Rocinha (or is that the lessons missed in Rocinha?). For there can be no going back. It is time to take a stand. The next time England lose a game, I vow, following the inspirational example of our leader Vinny (Well, I don't know how to pronounce 'Vinicius' ) to refuse to eat my greens, to stamp my feet when asked to tidy up my room and to be extremely cross. Rooney & Co, you have been warned.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Le Tour visits Epping

All quiet before the Sprint tears up here
The Tour de France completed its third, triumphant, day in England today with the Cambridge to London stage. As the route was to pass through Epping, at the very end of that self-same Central Line that also serves beautiful Ruislip, what could be better than a day in the sun watching the world's largest annual sporting event coupled with a jaunt on the Tube into deepest Essex?

Mrs. Commuter was up for it so we packed lunch, folding chairs and our hopes for good weather and set off.

It was quicker and more comfortable to take the Met to Liverpool Street than to walk three quarters of a mile to the nearest Central Line station. Both lines were on form. You could spot the spectators easily - loads of them with casual clothes and an air of being on holiday contrasting nicely with the few workers going in to town rather late in the morning, but most seemed to leave at Baker Street bound for the finishing sections along the Embankment and the Mall, and the Central Line train was surprisingly quiet. Actually this was an illusion. Our carriage was half full but there were plenty further up the train and a fair number emerged into the bright sunshine at Epping to march up the hill and find a place to watch the race.

In the past two days the stages in Yorkshire have brought out huge crowds, even in the most obscure of villages and we had no idea how far we might have to walk to find a decent spot. The friendly helper with the "Tour Maker" T-shirt who was strolling up with us mentioned that no sooner had the area by the sprint finish (bang in the centre of the town) opened that morning than it was filled up. This seemed a bit ominous even though we were there before 11:30 and the race was not due until 2:30 or later. But the High Street is long and wide and there was plenty of room. We took a prime pitch on the road itself (behind a barrier), well shaded by the huge oaks that line the whole street, and settled down to wait. Gradually the crowd thickened until there was a wall of people as far as one could see in both directions.

When we arrived the local bell-ringers were having a fine time banging away with great gusto but when they concluded, rather bafflingly with two single chimes at exactly 11:41, the only entertainment was cheering the parade of vehicles that preceded the race. Some blared their horns. The British police motor-cyclists waved and, as they roared past, extended gauntleted hands to be slapped by people leaning over the barriers. The French Gendarmarie were grim-faced and stared straight ahead. One or two official cars played what must have been important announcements but as they were in French and as the cars were driving past at high speed, so that we only heard a few distorted words anyway, who knows what they were trying to communicate?

Every cyclists's dream - chips
Around 1pm the official publicity caravan began pouring through. A bewildering succession of cars and floats, some with young ladies prancing around, others tossing the odd freebie into the crowd (We nearly scored a small pack of Tetley's Tea and had a carton of fruit juice sail overhead whilst a red sunhat was scooped up by a lady within arms length) and some giving us a blast of pointlessly loud "music". The photo shows the approach of the McCain Oven Chips platoon. And no, they weren't chucking heavy packs of frozen chips at 40mph into the spectators.

After the caravan we had no real idea how long the racers would take. Someone heard that the race was running late. The clouds gathered, the day cooled and a few drops of rain fell but fortunately nothing more serious. More cars and motorbikes came by, the police continuing to be the noisiest contributors. Things seemed to pick up when a few vans stopped nearby and what have must been a hand-picked team of specialists emerged to spend some time stacking up some traffic cones before driving away to applause.  Everyone was cheered at this stage, the team cars, the official cars and the mysterious interlopers from French institutions. There was a lull. A red official car, the first such, came by. This suggested the race was pretty close. Suddenly there were press motorbikes hurtling by, the helicopter was clattering above and with a burst of cheering from further down the high street two real competitors flashed into view and were gone. A louder cheer and the peleton were with us in a blur of black, green and blue. A long tail of team cars each bearing a rack of spare bikes. More cheers for a couple of stragglers. A few more official cars and a van bearing the legend "Fin de Course".  And that was that.

Now for the journey home. A mob of tired but satisfied spectators trudged back down the hill to the station, found the main entrance cordonened off and had to walk a bit further to go round the back, to be greeted by a waiting, empty train. Everyone was able to get a seat and it left a moment later, with another alongside ready for the next contingent. We had been apprehensive about this bit, fearing a long wait even to gain entry to the station, never mind boarding a train, but the Underground did well today. To arrive at Liverpool Street and wait approximately 30 seconds for an empty Uxbridge that took us home was the icing on the cake.

Congratulations to the organisers, the huge number of smiling volunteers and our good-humoured fellow spectators. Social historians might care to note that nobody was smoking - how's that for a massive change in customs in the space of a generation?

Friday, June 27, 2014

Those England Predictions - Why I Was Right All Along

It has been suggested in some quarters that my detailed forecasts of the results, and certain incidents, in Group D (for Dire) at the World Cup, as exclusively revealed through this column, may have been less than entirely accurate in all respects. [I didn't write all the bits attributed to me, for a start: Ed]

Let us examine the cold facts without emotion or prejudice. We predicted England would fail to qualify from the group and this was indeed the case. We were not totally accurate in predicting the fate of the other members of the group but we did predict, entirely accurately, that the two qualifiers would not include England amongst their number, and who can possibly want more?  It was in any case much hotter / more humid / wetter / windier / balmier / colder / than anyone had a right to expect, the grass doesn't make the ball bounce in the way that we are used to in Europe (according to a Mr. R Podgeson, apparently the manager of one of the sides) and England with all of their physios, nutritionists and psychologists omitted to bring two obvious essentials in the form of a dentist and a lawyer, thus putting themselves at an enormous disadvantage when facing the Uruguyan Chomper.

Yes, I admit that Costa Rica, far from losing all three games, won two and drew the other but you can't expect Johnny Foreigner to play by the rules. England showed how this game should really be played with plenty of back-passes, nice big gaps in the defence and a desire, when going forward, to find the man surrounded by the opposing centre-backs rather than the man running into space. Oh, as as many shots wide or over the bar as possible. I mean, we're English after all. We don't do accurate shooting. We don't want to inconvenience their goalie. We always let the other chaps score first, as a rule, then go for a gentlemanly draw with no hard feelings. It's really jolly beastly of them when they score again and win the match.

So, in conclusion, this column stands proud and unashamed [er, this may need rewording for the oh-so-sensitive American market: Ed]  and to prove it, here is our exclusive you-saw-it-here-first predictions for  the European Championships 2016.
England to do jolly well, up to a point, and then not to.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Exclusive: All you need to know about England's World Cup campaign

Bored with football? Had enough of the World Cup even before the tedious opening ceremony gets under way? Then relax, pour yourself a refreshing cup of tea and settle down with the ground-breaking article that follows - all you need to know in one easy-to-digest Blogger feature.

  • All the scores from England's Group (Group D, for Death, naturally)
  • Match analysis from our guest expert (the Editor)
  • What The Sun headline will be the day after
Match 1 in Manaus: England v Italy.
Result: 0-0. Rooney sent off after twenty minutes for biting the assistant referee.
Our expert says: [In the blistering sun-scorched arena of death that was the Manaus Piranha Stadium, the teams played out a cautious draw, both afraid to commit to anything that might be in any way interesting in the way of scoring. I enjoyed the parrot pies and the local beer "the genuine taste of the rain forest with extra rain": Ed]

Other group match: Uruguay 3 Costa Rica 1

The Sun headline - No-brayne Rooney

Match 2 in Sao Paulo : England v Uruguay
Result: 2-2. Sterling sent off for making a "comment" to the referee
Our expert says: [In the scorching cauldron of emotion that was the Sao Paolo AwfulottaCoffeeinBrazil stadium, both teams committed to kicking the ball a bit and somehow a couple of shots at each end went in. I sampled a "macho honcho" beef sandwich, mainly a chunk of raw meat inside two other chunks of meat served in a meat wrap and missed most of the second half: Ed]

Other group match: Italy 4 Costa Rica 0

The Sun headline (with a picture of the England coach tucking into a sausage roll) - Roy Podgeson


Match 3 in Belo Horizonte: England v Costa Rica
Result: 2-0: Hart sent off for reckless challenge on a ball-boy
Our expert says [In the torrid volcanic maelstrom that was the seething cauldron of dreams in the stadium of destiny that was Belo Horizonte's Station Road Stadium, England won the game they had to win but oh, the bitter cup of victory was theirs to drain for on a night when they were all heroes, the result counted for nothing but the black void of ultimate despair. On the plus side I greatly enjoyed the steak and kidney pie, until they told me where the kidneys came from: Ed]

Other group match: Italy 1 Uruguay1

Final group table

Italy qualify on goal difference. Uruguay go through ahead of England, although with equal goal difference, through having scored more goals.

The Sun headline (with a picture of Ronnie Biggs) - Another bunch of criminals return home to face justice

Monday, June 02, 2014

Winter's hangover

The torrential rain and consequential flooding that blighted the start of 2014 may be fading into memory (at least for those of us who did not undergo the trauma of finding their properties under water) but there are still ample reminders in the countryside. Yesterday I walked a near-circular tour through the Ruislip woods and on to the canal at Harefield before terminating at Uxbridge, nearly 10 miles, and time and again was forced to detour from the main paths or face sinking into ankle deep mud. The day was beautifully sunny and warm but we've had a fair bit of rain in recent days; enough to make parts of this walk quite unpleasant. Part of it is the official "Hillingdon Trail" but woe betide any casual walker who blithely follows the waymarked route. On the parts that are also bridlepaths the horses have chewed up the ground leaving huge ruts and puddles. And one section, where the trail links Mad Bess Wood to Bayhurst Wood was so muddy and wet that I had to plunge through the woodland around it and stamp out my own path up to the road. I have never seen the paths in such a bad state. It's a shame that at this wonderful time of the year, with the woods now dense with greenery and alive with birdsong, one's eyes are always on the ground, finding the safest path between the squelchy and treacherous mudpools. And I had to feel sorry for some of the families that I strode past, with their flip-flops and buggies, struggling on in the hope that just round the next corner the paths would be smooth and dry. I knew that the last part of my walk, along the canal, would be just that (and flat into the bargain) but it was a lot of hard work to get there. Anyway, I reckon that's as least as much effort as going up and down the escalators and platforms of the Tube for a week so I can put my feet up now.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Scotch Mist - Occasional reflections on a referendum. No 4 - The futility of the "cash benefit" debate

The Scottish referendum on independence is now just four months away.  Somewhat overshadowed by the European and local council elections last week, the debate has hotted up with some conflicting claims about the monetary benefits of going it alone, or not.  Some say the Scots will all be worse by off some ludicrous figure - say £2,000 a head; others argue that independence will put an equivalent amount into each sporran.

To reduce the question of independence to a supposed monetary value is stupid. It is an insult to the intelligence of Scots voters, regardless of which way they intend to vote. If a nation truly believes that it is being suppressed or victimised by another and that independence will bring about redemption then the cost (or benefit) is irrelevant. The early settlers of Israel in the 1920s and 30s did not ask how much money they might get if they gave up their relatively settled lives in Europe to live on a kibbutz. I doubt if the Slovakians gave a second thought to breaking up the confederation with the Czechs, nor did the Bosnians and Croats and Slovenes pause to count their potential bank balances when fighting against a perceived dominance by Serbia. They may all be worse off than they would have been had things been difference; they may be doing much better. Who can tell? Who, looking back, could care less?

In any case all such calculations are futile. Economics is a "science" riddled by the need to make untested, and often untestable, assumptions about human behaviour. I should know - I have a degree in the blasted subject from one of the premier universities of this country. Economists may produce wonderfully elegant theories but they rarely produce useful predictions.

There are legitimate subjects for argument - Scotland's place in the European Union, the viability of a sterling currency union, the impact on future investment - but it is pointless to pretend that they can be given monetary values. Far more important is whether the UK can generate a safer and sounder environment for all of its citizens if Scotland remains in than if Scotland leaves. I believe it can, and that to lose the Scottish voice from the UK's privileged seat at the UN and other key institutions such as NATO and the G8 would weaken both parties to the Union. I think British ideas of justice, tolerance and fair play have been of enormous significance in the development of global culture and the Scots have made a massive contribution. And equally that contribution might have counted for little had it not been delivered as a part of the UK.

In the end if the Scots want independence because, well, they just really really want it, then none of the arguments will count for anything. It would just be a shame and a diminution of both parties.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Why UKIP is wrong

UKIP won the highest share of the votes in the European elections this week. Anti-Europe parties did well in other countries.

I am not interested in the interminable debates about how much we pay to "Europe" and how much we get back and how "they" interfere in our laws and so on. I have one overriding concern - I do not wish to die in, nor see my country become embroiled in,  another major European war.

The entire political history of our continent since the fall of the Roman Empire has been about the feuds, the power-struggles and the vicious combats between nation states. British history for the past 500 years has been driven by confrontation with European superpowers - the Hapsburg empire, Spain, France, Russia and Germany. The principal dynamic of European history in the past 250 years has been the fight between France and Germany, expressed in the Seven Years War, the Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars, the Franco-Prussian War and of course in the First and Second World Wars. It is possible to trace the origins of this fatal division in the European family to the defeat of the Roman legions in the Teutoberg Forest 2000 years ago, when the border of the empire became fixed on the Rhine.

Since 1945 the creation of institutions binding France and Germany, built on the foundations of a rejection of extreme nationalism and a hatred of war, have changed this immense sweep of historical deadweight.  No observer in, say 1913, could have dreamt that these countries would work together with open frontiers and a degree of federalism. Britain, enemy of France for over 700 years, is entirely free of the fear of invasion from the countries that we used to watch, fearfully.

How ironic that the leader of UKIP is married to a German.  One hundred years ago that would have been enough to see him denounced as a traitor. Today it is a splendid example of how far we have come.

The EU needs a good kicking to cut its bureacracy and fraud, its ponderous decision-making processes and its remoteness from the people. But the ideas behind it and the achievement in reversing centuries of hostility and violence in favour of debate and voting are far too precious to be jeopardised by a knee-jerk dislike of anything non-British. If UKIP ran on a platform of reforming the EU I might be tempted to support it. Its clumsy attempt to bring us back to the era of competing nation-states is appalling, suggesting an ignorance of history and a lack of courage. The attempt to build a peaceful, all-inclusive version of the Roman Empire is a project that must be encouraged. In this anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War, which despite its name was simply another in the long line of intra-European squabbles about borders, influence and status, the memory of how it came about should be all the reminder we need to support European union and reject petty nationalism.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Lines on the passing of J.S.Magruder

So farewell then Jeb Magruder
In your time there was scarce a cruder
Plot to thwart the Democrats, objects of your hate.
With Mitchell, Liddy, Dean you chewed a
Cunning plan not out of place in Buda-
Pest or similar spy-ridden town of late

Your men broke in; in secret glued a
Phone bug but there was a rude a-
Wakening from the defenders of the State.
The coverup failed and you were sued; a
Searchlight shone o’er all your brood.
Your Waterloo was at the Watergate.


[Jeb Stuart Magruder, implicated in the Watergate affair in his role as Deputy Director of the Campaign to Re-elect the President, died 11 May 2014 aged 79: Ed]

Sunday, May 18, 2014

How not to write a short story

A year ago I amused myself [though nobody else: Ed] by writing a piece based on trying to link together a set of small ads published on a single page in the Guardian weekend colour magazine. It’s a beautiful hot day, the roses are out in our garden and our neighbours appear to be gearing up for a noisy outdoor party; none of which has any bearing at all on my rash decision to repeat the exercise. This time you can see the source material for yourself.  Unlike last time, I have not followed the order of the ads but I have referred to each one. All names are fictional and any resemblance to anything is purely intended.
All for Passion
A Ruislip Commuter

Caroline, Lady Renault, had a sheltered upbringing in the country. She was at her happiest mucking out her horse, Hashtag and it was in the stables that her eyes fell on the lean, sensitive features of Arnold Qashqai whilst he was searching for the person who had stolen his ‘u’s. Unlike the tall, cultured young woman Qashqai was from a poor background and was forced to work in the stables instead of pursuing his great love of art. Despite the differences it was love at first sight.
“Oh but Caroline, I can never keep you in the manner, or indeed manor, to which you are accustomed” stuttered young Arnold “For I have no money and no home.”
“Fear not” she replied stoutly “We can manage somehow”.
“I can just about afford a tent” he said. She took his hand in hers “We will have the best tent that money can buy, my love”.
And so they bought the finest bell tent in the land. There was nowhere suitable to pitch it until with the aid of job lot of plastic lawn edging they could proudly place it on a perfect plastic lawn. And as soon as they could afford it they added some oak-framed garden structures. Now Caroline could feel at home. She retrieved all her CDs from home and copied them all to a collection player yet something seemed to be lacking when she listened to them. A hearing test confirmed that all was not right. Meanwhile Arnold, dismissed from the stables for wasting his time trying write books that nobody wanted to read, and having failed to use Facebook correctly to market them, was spending the last of her inheritance on a private investment, the nature of which he did not disclose. Bolstered by his confidence building course he no longer stuttered and soon was ready to attend a business events conference.
With their love of horses it was obvious that they should set up selling racing gifts and as their business grew they applied for ISO9001 certification. Everything seemed to be going their way but Caroline began to mistrust Arnold. Was he seeing another woman? Or another horse? She tried a lie detection test. He told her the truth – he was doing art classes with a view to selling portraits. “Paint me but make it affordable” she cried.
The pictures were a great success. As the money rolled in, they talked about a holiday home in the Balearics. Blessed with two adorable children they wasted no time in packing them off to boarding school, but assuaged their consciences by teaching them dance, whilst they regaled each other with gifts of gold.
After this happy period, sadly Caroline fell off her horse and was reduced to getting around on a mobility scooter. The bottom fell out of the art market. Arnold sold up and gloomily prepared to end it all, having carefully drawn up a will which ensured that the horse got hay for life, Caroline could keep the bell tent and the kids got the unreadable books.
[Film rights are available: Ed]