Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I was listening to "The News Quiz" on Radio 4 a night or so ago, and the excellent Jeremy Hardy said something which answered a little issue which had been niggling me on and off.

A couple of posts ago, I scribbled down a few Home Thoughts from Abroad about the adequacy or inadequacy of our Prime Minister. The unsaid thing for the Labour Party today is that – if not him, then who?

Enter Stage Left, the Boy Milibrand. In an attempt to out-youth Dave, they’ve come up with somebody who to me seems still to be in the throes of early puberty. How can someone like that possibly have the experience to lead this (or any other) country forward. Now I know that this could sound like a build-up for someone like John McCain, or even, Heaven Help me, Gordon Brown. But you do want somebody whose bike has had the stabilisers removed for more than a few months when he takes office.*

But Milibrand looks so – well, what is it he looks like? That’s what’s been bugging me for a while. He reminds me of someone/thing. I mean, just look at the two pictures which the newspapers took to their hearts last week. The first has Gordo and YerBoy glad-handing each other, which at least makes it more difficult for each of them to launch a pre-emptive stab in the back on each other.


And the second, well it’s a newspaperman’s dream, to be trotted out in perpetuity and ad infinitum. Jeremy Hardy brought it all into focus for me when he said that Milibrand had clearly forgotten one of the main rules of Politics - If you look like a monkey, never get photographed with a banana in your hand.


All together now - A One, A Two, A One, Two, Three, Four –

Now I'm the king of the swingers
Oh, the jungle VIP
I've reached the top and had to stop
And that's what botherin' me
I wanna be a man, mancub
And stroll right into town
And be just like the other men
I'm tired of monkeyin' around!

I’m solid gone!

*Memo to self – check whether Pitt could ride a bike.



“May you live in interesting times” is reputedly an old Chinese proverb, although the pundits don’t seem to be able to decide if it’s meant to be a blessing or a curse. With all the fun and games going on in Wall Street and the financial capitals around the world, I suspect that they’d probably come down on the curse side of things at present.

My opinion of what’s going on and what to do about it is quite worthless, unless the Government asks me to vote. Then I’ll have my say.

I was really struck though by the front page of today’s “Times”. A very moody, dark and threatening picture of Capitol Hill was spread across all 5 columns of the paper, under the headline “The Eye of the Storm”. The image was taken by J Scott Applewhite, and what a super image it is. Talk about a picture speaking a thousand words - well picked Mr Picture Editor.



The way pictures illuminate the news of the day has always fascinated me, and my mind went straight to another picture which ended up having a real effect on the Second World War. It was taken in 1940 by a remarkable photographer named George Rodger. Rodger was an outstanding British War Photographer who, among other things was the first person with a camera into Belsen when it was liberated.

Along with Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and Chim Seymour, he was one of the four founder members of the Magnum Agency, simply the most important Photographic Agency the world has ever known. Just Google them and be impressed at what you see. He was seriously good at what he did, but the effect of what he saw in Belsen overwhelmed him and he changed track completely and went off to take some remarkable images of the tribes in Sudan and other parts of Africa.


His image of St Pauls Cathedral, taken during the Blitz in 1940 is an absolute stunner and one of the true iconic images of the Twentieth Century, not just for what it is, but also for what it represents. The “We will pull through” feeling, the utter simple, resolute, permanance of the dome surrounded by the dark uncertainty which is the rest of the picture summarises perfectly where Britain was at that moment. A visual version of Churchill’s greatest speeches.

I don’t know if the similarity is intentional, but by God, it struck a chord in me this morning.


Monday, September 29, 2008


I’m sitting here in the late September sunshine looking out over the garden drinking a perfect cup of coffee, which is EXACTLY at the right temperature. The dogs are sprawled on the deck and the birds are chasing each other, pulling 7g synchronised turns for my benefit. I’ve just moved on a level in my piano playing. Actually what I mean is I’ve just played something which can now be recognised by someone other than myself – that’s progress in my book. So the world looks a nice place at present.

And I’ve just started to trawl though last week’s newspapers.

Oh Dear, back to Earth.

In this country, it’s the season of Annual Political Conferences, and we’ve suffered the turgid vision of the Rest of the Country’s Prime Minister (he’s not mine) trying to worm his way cravenly back into the public’s mind, and possibly affections. You can say what you like about American Politics, but the President (Dubya excepted) can say that at least the voters voted for him. Here we’ve ended up with someone nobody chose. A dour, ex-Communist, Scottish, Micro Managing, Second Lieutenant, Control Freak whose main virtue, it seems to me, is that he’s the only one in his party who can add up. And how did we all get him – Blair and he tossed a coin across a restaurant table in north London some time in 1993, and Blair won. Is this really the Political system the world envies?

P G Wodehouse could clearly have had Brown in mind when he wrote - "It is never difficult to distinguish between a Scotsman with a grievance and a ray of sunshine." But you can put up with the utter lack of charisma, if the guy gets the job done. But he has to get the job done. And here we have the problem.

We have here a man who preens himself and presents himself as Mr Prudence, the Iron Chancellor, the man who tells us that he pulled the levers and presided so brilliantly over the UK Economy for 10 years. And yet how many of the causes of the current unraveling of the nation’s financial affairs can be laid directly at his door. We now have a higher tax level than Germany, lower disposable income per household than in 1997, rampant and uncontrolled banking deregulation that seems hell bent on bringing us all to our knees, Government borrowing sky-rocketing off on a totally unprecedented scale, lack of control of Personal debt which has been allowed to climb uncontrollably to totally unsustainable levels, the destruction of the Pension system in this country (except, that is, if you are an MP or a Public Servant)…. and…. and … and.

The common factor here is a Chancellor with zero positive vision, who seems incapable of playing business chess, of seeing even one move ahead. If being serially caught out by The Law of Unintended Consequences was an Olympic sport, he’d be the England (or maybe the Scottish) team Manager.

So along comes the Labour Party Conference, with Brown presumably looking to stand up and give us his personal, grand vision for The Great Escape, and what do we get? We moan and pour scorn and derision on David Cameron for using his children in the political image game, and then the good Mrs Brown, who I don’t seem to recall having been elected to Parliament, walks onto the stage to drum up the sympathy vote - is that two or three faces the man has? He then has the utter cheek to claim that, to pilot the Ship of Britain in these rocky times, what the country needs is not a novice (Code for Cameron and the Boy Milibrand), but his Good Self.

Pardon me, but who precisely spent the ten years of his Chancellorship leading us into the state we’re in? You can understand why politicians vie with Used Car Salesmen and Second Class Estate Agents in the Totally Untrustworthy Stakes. And he doesn’t even have the grace to blush.

For reasons I can’t explain, a couple of quotes from Voltaire come to mind –

He shines in the second rank, who is eclipsed in the first.

The best government is a benevolent tyranny tempered by an occasional assassination.

Just a thought.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008



How terribly, terribly sad. Rick Wright, Pink Floyd’s keyboard player, died today.

With all the posturing and ego-massaging that has gone on in (and just outside) the band, he was the quiet one, the one who got on with the music. And what music he wrote.

I’ve waxed lyrical about Dark Side of the Moon before on this site. It’s on one level very simple, and on another a really multi-facetted, rather complex view of our way of life in the latter years of the last century. In some ways, it’s the best summing up there is of many of our fears, worries, hopes and concerns. It gets mine spot on, for one. And the really great bits in it, the highlights which get you thinking that Pop Music can’t get much better than this – he wrote them.

“The Great Gig in the Sky” and “Us and Them”, slow, thoughtful, emotional, simple, beautiful and profound songs are in my all time Top Ten tracks.

God Bless him.

Monday, September 15, 2008


England's coast stretches around 2,800 miles - not a lot by continental standards, but the variation available around it is considerable. My favourite bit is the North Norfolk Coast - a stretch of about 40 miles of gentle, almost unpopulated (for England), flat, undeveloped landscape. It's not the sort of place where huge mountains, and "big" scenery impress you. But, whenever we come here, the calmness and non pushy nature of the people and the place drains all the stress out of me.

There's a series of little villages, some for the boating fraternity, some more working fishing villages, along the coast where the local shops serve whatever seafood has just been caught a few yards away. That's fresh!

Anyway, I like it, and below, I've put together a few pictures of the coastline.










Sometimes people say some really clever things. And because of who they are, you know it’s because they mean to. Like Oscar Wilde, Peter Cook, or Brian Clough. Most of us however, don’t necessarily get the benefit of the doubt. A brilliant witticism from most of us gets the listener wondering if we really knew what we were saying, and I came across an example of this in an excellent book ("Queuing for Beginners" by Joe Moran) I devoured yesterday.

In Britain in the Nineties, there was still a continuing fight by the Unions against Rail Privatisation and also the various Management shenanigans being played out in the London Underground. In LU’s eyes, they had Jimmy Knapp as the arch Union Villain trying to take us back to the Industrial Dark Ages. Around Christmas 1996, London Underground’s maintenance workers (and I am typing this with a straight face) demanded their rights to a cappuccino break. If he’d been alive, Fred Kite might well have turned in his grave.

Previous to this the union had relinquished two twenty minute tea-breaks taken every day by their members in return for the provision of a free drinks vending machine. Later, when they wanted to save some money, LU apparently went on a cost cutting initiative, and removed the most expensive items on offer in the machine – to whit the Hot Chocolate and the Cappuccino.

The Union duly threatened a strike, and the Management duly backed down. After the furore had died down, Knapp, who was the Rail Union’s General Secretary, declared, apparently without a hint of a smile, that “Cappuccino might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but a deal’s a deal.”

I like that.

I’m reminded of a time when I worked in the Austin Morris Car Plant in Birmingham in the mid Seventies. This was then riven by Union activism, and most of the Shop Floor Management energy was spent sorting out union issues rather than building cars. I was then in charge of the Site’s Accounting systems, running the payroll and making sure the financial numbers added up. It was, to be honest, a job I endured rather than enjoyed, but it put a few building blocks in the CV for later, more exciting times.

Looking after the myriad of suppliers we dealt with, I had to control and negotiate some of the larger contracts with these people. Some were One Man bands, some were Multinationals, and others sat in the middle. One such was the mob who ran the Effluent Removal for the site. Without going into too much detail, this was a necessary and vital part of the operation, and used a fleet of lorries which the boss-man of the company had euphemistically called “Sludge Gulpers”, to remove all the detritus produced daily by the site’s 27,000 employees. These contracts were let on an annual basis, and the day came when it was my first time to go through this particular one.

If you didn’t know what the guy did for a living before you met him, it only took a few minutes for your nostrils to start feeding you a few clues. Being British, we never mentioned it, although it is fair to say that having the meeting in an Open Plan part of the office was a bit of unforeseen luck on my part.

There was always a row and a disagrement in these sort of discussions, of the “You can afford it”, “No, I can’t.” “You Can”, “I Can’t.” style - the really sophisticated Closing the Deal chess-playing stuff of Middle Seventies Britain. However, having finally shaken hands on the deal, his parting comment to me when he was bemoaning that he’d lost out big time in the agreement was, “Well, mate, it might be Shit to you, but it’s my Bread and Butter.”

Sunday, September 07, 2008


I was reading the blog of Chris, who resides in an office not far from mine. He is a very clever soul and he wrote something last week which, in a flash, made me realise the true, fundamental purpose of the Internet, immediately raising his CYUIB* by one whole point.

You can forget all the Porno, Rumpy-Pumpy sites – they’re for the birds, or more probably the blokes. My colleague brought to my attention the issue of Unusual Book Titles, and the Diagram Prize. This is given annually for the most Unusual Book Title of the Year. I think it’s one of those events which could only happen in some of the more closely interbred and undeveloped parts of England (London), but thank Goodness for it. The best single word to describe it is Dottiness.

Without www-land, I would never have been able to wander around cyberspace for an hour or so, reading this and that about the strange and weird ways people have found to title a book they’ve written. Quite, quite pointless, but very enjoyable nonetheless.

If I had tried to respond to a question from my wife as to what it was I was doing at the time, I’d have ended up with one of those slightly matronising (is that the female version of patronising?) looks that suggest that I should get a very different life – and rather soon. But, Chacon à son goût, or as the French say, Each to their own.

The Diagram Prize has been going for 30-odd years now, and is voted for by subscribers to the Bookseller magazine. Just Google “Diagram Prize” if you want a few minutes wandering around on this particular Dark Side of the Moon. The point of the thing is that the titles have to exist, and that the authors must be quite serious, and I suspect oblivious, to the possible dottiness of the title. None of this Bulgarian Tractor nonsense.

How about –

- The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification.

- Cheese Problems Solved (lovers of cheese will be thrilled to note that apparently, Cheddar, Blue cheese and Mozzarella all have their own sections in the book

- The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories

- Bombproof Your Horse (my friend Chris’s favourite, for reasons I haven’t pried into - yet)

- People who Mattered in Southend

- Tiles of the Unexpected: A Study of Six Miles of Geometric Tile Patterns on the London Underground - (There’s a Boom-Boom in there somewhere near the beginning)

and the Winner of Winners, over the 30 years was –

Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers

Now that taster may be enough for you, and you can leave it at that if so wish, but we need to delve a little deeper.

The Greek Rural Postmen Book (ISBN No. 0950946133), is published by the Helenic Philatelic Society, and a guy named Joel Ricket was contacted by the author’s son to tell him that his father was still with us at the age of 90, was in excellent health, and remained “the leading authority on the subject”. A comment on his Ricket’s blog from a respondent, runs –

It's so sad I can never experience, what's so wonderful about the title Greek Rural Postmen and their Cancellation Numbers? As a collector of the number cancellations of Finnish rural postmen, I found the title very informative and interesting...

You couldn’t make it up, could you?

Picking another at random, what about “People who mattered in Southend”? Written by Dee Gordon (ISBN 0860255433), it has no Amazonian customer reviews (yet!) and is currently unavailable, although a Southend Library spokesman’s opinion (possibly not unbiased) is that “It’s a great read so hurry along to one of the libraries to get hold of a copy!”. Amazon, as a contrast, rather ominously records - “We don't know when or if this item will be back in stock.”

For those of us actually yet to finish any of the Booker Prize selections they’ve started, I’m heading off down this trail in the future. It sounds much more fun.

* Cumulative, Year to date, Unadjusted level of Indebtedness and Beholdenness



Saturday, September 06, 2008


Pop Music is facile, shallow and of no lasting value. Discuss.

Sounds like a question in an English exam paper I would have really liked to answer. It’s always seen as the sound-bitey, three minute, three chord wonder, music-lite end of the spectrum.

Now I love Classical music as much as I love Pop Music. One's not better than the other -they're just different. I listened to the Berlin Philharmonic at the Proms last night and was absolutely stunned at the quality of what I heard. Brahms 3rd Symphony and a frightening version of Shostakovich 10. The Brahms is a very difficult piece to get right. It’s almost chamber music in some respects, and the light and shade in the way it swirls around is far easier to get wrong than it is to get right. The torture of the Shostakovich is not an easy capture either.

But the Berliners got it dead right. Is there a better orchestra in the world? Virtuosity everywhere that you don’t quite believe possible, a solo horn part played with staggering confidence and a gloriously liquid, seamless tone, and all held together in a riveting performance by Simon Rattle. Quite amazing, and a privilege to hear.

But that was yesterday and this is today. I’m mulling over what piece of music to put behind a slideshow of some photographs I took in April this year of New York, and in particular Ground Zero. Not an easy subject. I decided that all the music needed to have a New York base or heritage, whether it be performer or composer to give it a thread of continuity. Blondie (not for Ground Zero!), Paul Simon and Bob Dylan immediately jumped into my mind.

Now, I’m probably in a minority of one here, but I’ve never got on with Bob Dylan singing his own songs. Too often, for my taste, he throws them away, not seeming to give them the colour, the contrast and the attention I feel they warrant. But just listen to the lyrics. If the man doesn’t end up as a subject to be studied under Modern Poetry in an English Literature course, there’s something not right. I think the imagery he conjures up is remarkable. I’m left wondering what some of the images refer to, but they drill themselves into your mind and I’m sitting here even now mulling some of them over.

Rather than listen to his own versions, I picked a couple up by other performers. His songs are such that they allow other singer’s views to be meaningful. Forty years apart, I put on Joan Baez singing “A Hard Rains a’Gonna fall”, and a relatively new version of “Gates of Eden” by Bryan Ferry. Both knocked me out. But first you have to look at the words. Try this from the Gates of Eden – a random selection of one of the nine verses.

The kingdoms of Experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince
Discuss what's real and what is not
It doesn't matter inside the Gates of Eden

I’ve always liked Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. Laid back, louche, lazy, and bucketloads of attitude. He set out a couple of years ago to record some of Dylan’s songs, and the resultant album Dylanesque is a permanent fixture on my CD player at present. His treatment of “Gates of Eden” is atmospheric, haunting brooding and quite magnetic. A strange, almost atonal guitar riff underpins the background of the song, and an ominous sense of tension and dark drama pervades it all. Sitting behind a set of Ground Zero pictures might work quite well.

The other option I came up with is a million miles, and 40 years different. Joan Baez, with her pure, clear voice but singing Dylan’s “A Hard Rains a’Gonna Fall” took my fancy. She sings it very straight, but there is a haunting guitar base to its inexorable tempo. The contrast between her clean, positive soprano voice, and the dark message in the song creates quite a frisson. The song builds and builds, image by image, with the repetition creating a pressure of its own, to the point when you almost can’t wait for her to release the tension and wrap it all up. I don’t know which of the two I shall choose – they’re both tremendous songs – full of power and class.

It’s what I call a High Class Problem – they’re both so good.


Friday, September 05, 2008


The World is divided into those who love dogs, and those who don't. Personally, and I admit to a smidgin of bias here, the thought of living without a dog doesn't bear thinking about, if that makes sense.

Yes, they are restricting - we won't go away on holiday if it means putting them in kennels, so we don't go, or we go alone. I'm currently looking at a light covering of doghairs on the kitchen floor, which the vacuum cleaner will resolve in about 2 minutes, at least until the next moulting hair-storm, and I've just come in soaking and bedraggled from taking them for a walk in the pouring rain and foul wind. But in the words of the great Mr Billy Connolly, "There's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes".

The simple fact is that, on average, people who own dogs live longer than those who don't. There's something uniquely pleasurable about sprawling on the floor in an evening with a good book, and finding a pooch (or, in my case two) collapsing in a heap down against you. They can be most conducive for forced relaxation and removal of stress. This, together with getting you out and about when otherwise you'd be sitting on the sofa with a bag of Cheesy Wotsits chomping your way through a re-run of The West Wing, is probably why they result in an extra couple of years.

Anyway, I love them, and it's as simple as that. I don't normally put family pictures on this blog, but herewith two shots of self and our two Flat Coat Retreivers. I think they are reminding me that feeding time is approaching.

Please, no comments about the shoes.

Monday, September 01, 2008


A few post ago, I showed some pictures of the unintended first flight of a new Airbus A340 airliner – Look up “Oh Dear” on August 14th.

The frailties of man in an increasingly complex world are always worth a second look – to me at least. We sometimes do the oddest things, particularly when technology is concerned. It's just the juxtaposition of the stupifyingly complicated and the utterly stupid that appeals to me. The humour (black though it may be) is caused by the fact that the result that plays out before you was, never in a Million Years, in the minds of the poor souls involved in it. If it was, it wouldn’t be funny.

There’s nothing remotely funny about someone taking a $200 million aeroplane and trashing it before it ever had the chance to fly – except that I found it hysterical.

Rather depressingly, I had an anonymous comment from a gentleman called Shane who wondered, presumably because I had mentioned that the aircrew were Arabs, whether I was actually setting up a “sinister racist plot” against Arab people.

For the avoidance of any doubt, the answer is -


I like to think of myself as a relatively simple soul – not too many hang-ups, just writing for pleasure about things that fascinate me, excite me, amaze me, irritate me and often just amuse me. I may not be a good writer, I may Bore for Britain, I may have a sense of humour that leaves you cold, I may be a rubbishy photographer, I may just be a dreary old git sitting in front of a computer wasting his time, but I don't think I'm a racist.

If the aircrew had been Norwegian, then the first line of the post would have been “I don’t know the Norwegian equivalent of “Schadenfreude”, but after seeing this, they sure need one.” The same one word change if they’d been Venezuelan, or Hungarian. The only one exception to this rule would have been if the crew had been German.

But they weren’t, so I was alright.

So Shane, just for you, this next photograph is absolutely not meant as any form of racist comment. It’s just a photograph I took the other day at Telford Railway Station which amused me (the photograph that is - Telford Railway Station is not a laughing matter). For those of you who want a clue, the original notice was meant to say “Trains to Shrewsbury”, but clearly someone in the town had just bought a new wallpaper scraper and wanted to get some practice in with it before his train arrived.