Sunday, November 23, 2008


Here’s a blog that’s worth reading - Try November 16th‘s entry, entitled “Applying for my Darwin”, you will spend a few really amusing minutes enjoying the near demise of someone whose day job rather worryingly puts him in charge of hundreds of people’s lives flying airliners around North America. Just remember that when you read the alarming sequence of events of the Attack of the Killer Snowblower.

Just for the record, it actually takes a bit of humility to put yourself on the blog-line in such a way Yer Man does here. Too many of us stand on ceremony, and can’t face people thinking we ever do anything even a bit daft. Like, for instance, sticking your hand into a revving hover lawn mower to remove the last handful of grass cuttings. For the record, (this is the “Don’t try this at home” bit) trying to stop the rotor with your fingers doesn’t slow it down even the slightest, but it does make the grass a lovely red colour.

So, on the basis of communal intercontinental self-flagellation, I’ve been overtaken by an attack of something similar, so here goes.

The time is 1995, and the place is Italy. I am a manic photographer, but even I would admit that a holiday watching me wait for the right light, or the composition to gel perfectly could pall a little after a few days. It’s really a very selfish vocation – no-one takes pictures via a committee.

So off I went to Tuscany for a few days on my own, so I could concentrate on picture-taking. Before I left, I’d arranged a marvellous itinery staying one night in each of Verona, Siena, Florence and Portofino. I’d arranged to pick up a hire a car from Milan Airport so I could drive the 150 miles to Verona as soon as I arrived.

With huge anticipation, I arrived at Linate airport in Milan, went to the CarHire desk and presented myself. Passport – OK. Money – OK. Driving Licence – Ah. Yes. I distinctly remember taking that out of my wallet to save a bit of weight, and leaving it neatly on the desk in my study, back at home. Who’s a clever boy?

No Driving Licence, no car. No car, no Verona. Ringing home sets my wife off to try to inveigle an Italian pilot at Birmingham who’s about to take off for Milan to put it in his pocket and pass it on to me when he got there.

No luck. No-one was interested. So she put it on an Express UPS parcel delivery, which was great except it didn’t get to Milan until the next morning. So, instead of wending my way through the Italian countryside to Verona, I found myself on a bus heading for the centre of Milan, having booked a second hotel for that night.

To say I was not a happy bunny, would be a bit of an understatement. Off the bus, I dragged my suitcase and camera gear across the vast square in front of the Cathedral. Halfway across, I was accosted by a couple of young blind girls asking for money, one of them pawing at my arms and body. I was not in the best of moods and in spite of their ministrations, I blew them away.

Having found the hotel, I went through the registration process, and, you’ve probably got there ahead of me, found that I was travelling a little lighter than I wanted – to whit, one wallet.

Now, as a family we’d been to Europe 20 or 30 times over the previous ten years or so. We used to spread our money, all taken in cash, around all of our bodies, in various places in the car, in each of the suitcases and, and, and…... And of course, nothing ever happened to the cash. It was always there, and we never, ever lost a penny.

This time, learning from experience, I decided that you didn’t need to go to all that trouble, so I left everything in my wallet. The two girls, whose blindness I was now suspecting as conceivably being false, would have got home, and, although it was late May, would have thought it was Christmas. They were 4,200,000 lire to the good, and I wasn’t.

What to do? I’d ring home again, and get some money TT’d out to me. Excellent idea, Roger. Have you ever tried to get English coins into an Italian Telephone box? Well, don’t bother, they don’t fit. So I couldn’t ring the local consul either. Nearly 4pm, no money, no credit cards, no anything. Someone had clearly set me an initiative test which I was currently failing rather dismally.

I wandered around for a while, and saw a bank which had the rather magic name of “Abbey Nationale” above it. The meaning of this comes clear when you realise that my bank in England is (or was) “Abbey National”. But it had just shut for the night. It was 4.03pm.

Now, do you remember the bit at the end of “The Graduate” where Dustin Hoffman smashes his fist on the door of the church in the middle of a marriage ceremony to implore the bride, whose name I can’t remember (that’s because I was rabidly fancying her mother Anne Bancroft, by the way) to marry him instead.

Well, that was me. I was either going to break the door down, or they were going to unlock it and let me in. They finally took pity on me (I think it was bursting into tears that swayed the balance) and after a very strange conversation where I had to explain all of this in a language I could hardly speak, I finally got them to ring the Abbey National branch in my home town. Bless them at the home branch, they confirmed they knew me well but they couldn’t contact me because “I was on holiday in Italy”. Mille Grazia. A slug of replacement money flew over the ether instantly and I was back in funds. Yippee!

Too late for Verona, so a night in Milan, which is really nice – the Cathedral is a stunner, with around 2,200 individual statues adorning it. It looks like a stone wedding cake.

Next morning, back to the airport, and a bright red Fiat Punto’s keys were dropped into my grubby little hands. Vroom, vroom, and off to Verona.

What a super place. The walls are covered in frescos, the architecture is terrific, with statues everywhere, and it was simply a beautiful city. The centre piece is a fully working Roman Amphitheatre where, in the open air in front of 20,000 people, they perform opera under the stars, which can’t be bad.

Having settled in to my hotel, out came the new camera and off I went snapping away until the light went down, at which time my stomach called time. I found a simple outdoor restaurant next to the Amphitheatre, ordered a pizza and a bottle of Chianti, and settled down to watch the Italians promenading around. They do fancy themselves, especially the men.

Halfway through the pizza, I heard a kerfuffle going on a few yards behind me. I turned round and there’s a guy with my camera bag in his hand. The last time I’d seen it, it was nestling down just near my feet, but now this guy had £3,000 of my gear in his hand.

I went berserk. I am not a violent man, but over the previous 24 hours I’d had quite enough, thank you very much. So I shot up to him, shouting incoherently like a mad thing, and started to beat him up. I had lost it completely by that time.

Only to find out a few seconds later that this guy had actually seen the fellow who HAD walked past me and who had deftly picked up the bag without me even noticing its removal. He’d then shot off after the thief, recovered it when the guy dropped it and ran off, and was bringing it back to return it to me. Oh dear.

My Italian was strained beyond its limits as I tried to apologise, which, bless him, he accepted with remarkable grace. The bottle of expensive wine I bought him may have helped a bit, but I felt a total clown. I’d only been here 24 hours, and I was within an inch of being £6,000 worse off. And it was all down to my incompetence, as my dear wife inevitably pointed out. “You shouldn’t be let out on your own” seemed to be the gist of the argument.

Thankfully, the rest of the trip went swimmingly. The weather was good, the scenery was great, the food was terrific, and a good time was had by all, or at least me. On the last day, I wended my way back to Milan, to get the plane home, and thought it would be really nice to buy each of the family a really special present.

Milan is the home of really fancy silks and things like that. So I bought a couple of expensive scarves, a huge box of choccies , a silk shirt for myself, and a top drawer bottle of fizzy wine for one of my daughters.

Back to the airport, and off to get checked in – the boring bit. Into the Departure building, and up the stairs to the check-in desk.

Suddenly, a huge explosion went off right next to me, which scared me witless. Shit, what was that? I looked around and down, and there was the bag with all my goodies in it covered in foam and streaming with clear liquid. At the same time as the three Black Sunglassed Carabinieri rushed up to surround me, with their machine guns obviously ready for duty, I twigged that I’d very neatly caught the champagne bottle on the edge of one of the steps and it had exploded in the bag. The police seemed to find it intensely amusing, as I sat on the floor trying to dry the sodden gifts with a packet of tissues.

I didn’t share their sense of humour, as I wandered onto the plane smelling like an alcoholic. At least I got a decent amount of leg-room, with no-one seeming to want to sit near me.

It’s an ill wind etc. ……..

Friday, November 14, 2008


Rather than moan about the way this country's going with the electorate seeming to drag Gordon Brown back from the dead, as the self styled Prince of Financial Recovery, I'm still on a high about Obama. Yes, I know the problems he faces are enormous. But, I have spoken to several friends this week, and they all said the same to me that they felt a huge uplifting feeling on the night of his electoral success. And, ever the optimist, I think that's an attitude and a feeling to nurture and support.

There's too much crap in this world, and once in a while we should rejoice when something like this comes along.

So, I've dug around on the web, and found a dozen images of Yer Man, and his wife, which I think are truly excellent - tons of feeling, and if you want an example of pictures speaking a thousand words, just look at these.

The images are by AFP-Getty Images, Jason Reed, Alex Brandon, Emmanuel Dunard, Jim Young, Pouya Dianat, Bill Bresler and Carrie Shell who took 5 of them.

Now, doesn't that make you feel better?


Wednesday, November 05, 2008

YES, WE CAN ......

Obama doesn’t become US President until January 20th next year. So all he can do right now is talk. And didn’t he do that in his acceptance speech.

You can’t help compare what he said last night in front of 250,000 people in Chicago last night with the words used by George W Bush on his congratulatory telephone conversation to Obama a few minutes before. If you want to see What is past, and compare it to What is to come, read on.

Dubya's phone call - "Mr President-elect, congratulations to you. What an awesome night for you, your family and your supporters. Laura and I called to congratulate you and your good bride," spokeswoman Dana Perino quoted Mr Bush as telling Senator Obama.

"I promise to make this a smooth transition. You are about to go on one of the great journeys of life. Congratulations and go enjoy yourself," Mr Bush told Senator Obama, she said.

Mr Bush also invited Senator Obama and his family "to visit the White House soon, at their convenience," Ms Perino said.

If you listen to Bush, you’d think Obama was taking his family, including his “good bride” on a trip to DisneyWorld, rather than starting out as President-Elect at a time when almost everything is stacked against him. I mean “What an awesome night…”, or “…go enjoy yourself.” Amazing.

As a contrast try listening to Obama’s speech. I’m probably doing what a lot of people are doing right now, and pulling the 17 minute clip off YouTube. But either read the transcript, or better still watch the video.

I just received a very gracious call from Senator McCain. He fought long and hard in this campaign, and he's fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine, and we are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader. I congratulate him and Governor Palin for all they have achieved, and I look forward to working with them to renew this nation's promise in the months ahead.

I want to thank my partner in this journey, a man who campaigned from his heart and spoke for the men and women he grew up with on the streets of Scranton and rode with on that train home to Delaware, the Vice President-elect of the United States, Joe Biden.

I would not be standing here tonight without the unyielding support of my best friend for the last sixteen years, the rock of our family and the love of my life, our nation's next First Lady, Michelle Obama. Sasha and Malia, I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy that's coming with us to the White House. And while she's no longer with us, I know my grandmother is watching, along with the family that made me who I am. I miss them tonight, and know that my debt to them is beyond measure.

To my campaign manager David Plouffe, my chief strategist David Axelrod, and the best campaign team ever assembled in the history of politics – you made this happen, and I am forever grateful for what you've sacrificed to get it done.

But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to – it belongs to you.

I was never the likeliest candidate for this office. We didn't start with much money or many endorsements. Our campaign was not hatched in the halls of Washington – it began in the backyards of Des Moines and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston.

It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generation's apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth.

This is your victory.

I know you didn't do this just to win an election and I know you didn't do it for me. You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime – two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century. Even as we stand here tonight, we know there are brave Americans waking up in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan to risk their lives for us. There are mothers and fathers who will lie awake after their children fall asleep and wonder how they'll make the mortgage, or pay their doctor's bills, or save enough for college. There is new energy to harness and new jobs to be created; new schools to build and threats to meet and alliances to repair.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.

There will be setbacks and false starts. There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it's been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.

What began twenty-one months ago in the depths of winter must not end on this autumn night. This victory alone is not the change we seek – it is only the chance for us to make that change. And that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were. It cannot happen without you.

So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. Let us remember that if this financial crisis taught us anything, it's that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers – in this country, we rise or fall as one nation; as one people.

Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long. Let us remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House – a party founded on the values of self-reliance, individual liberty, and national unity. Those are values we all share, and while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, "We are not enemies, but friends…though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection." And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn – I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too.

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down – we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security – we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.

For that is the true genius of America – that America can change. Our union can be perfected. And what we have already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.

This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations. But one that's on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She's a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election except for one thing – Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons – because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America – the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "We Shall Overcome." Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves – if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made?

This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time – to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American Dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth – that out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people:

Yes We Can. Thank you, God bless you, and may God Bless the United States of America.

In my very humble opinion, we will hear this speech repeated and referred to many times in the future. The world is in a hole at present, and here’s a guy, who 50 years ago wouldn’t be allowed to sit where he wanted on a bus, being voted as President of the United States, standing up and delivering a remarkable message of hope, inspiration and optimism. If it doesn’t stop you in your tracks, there’s something wrong with you.

A few years ago, in Britain we had a Prime Minister named John Major. He wasn’t a bad guy, but he set out his stall as being an “ordinary man”. Someone, and I don’t know who, remarked quite perceptively that he didn’t want to be governed by an “ordinary man”. What he wanted was an “extraordinary one”.

Maybe, just maybe, the US has found one. Like many people, I will watch with rapturous interest. He faces a mesh of seemingly intractable issues, the like of which we haven’t seen for decades, and the danger is we all think he can walk on water. He’s a human being, for Goodness sake, and there will only be so much he can achieve.

I was talking to a colleague today, and we both, almost simultaneously, were reminded of Martin Luther-King and John Kennedy. You really felt good to be alive this morning.

Let’s hope the actions get somewhere close to the oratory. You do get a massive feeling that a fundamental seismic shift is going on in the hearts and minds of the American Nation.

It’s going to be totally fascinating watching it all evolve. God bless him.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


It’s time to get the “West Wing” DVDs out again. Seven Seasons and 156 episodes of, in this author’s eyes at least, the best long drama series I’ve ever watched on TV.

It tells the story of an unlikely, intellectual, admirable, youngish, radical, morally driven, liberal and left leaning Democrat who manages, against the odds to get himself into the White House, and stay for his allotted eight years. Yes I know in reality, it’s really a soap, but it’s a bloody good one. The stories are ones you can believe in, ones which actually happen to politicians in the real world. Often they happen first on the “West Wing”, and then you find them being played out in real life sometime later. How often have I felt that nagging “déja vu” flash of “Which episode did Blair/Brown/Bush look at to get their inspiration and strategy for what to do in the here and now?” It’s no wonder that a poll in the USA once resulted in more people thinking Jed Bartlet was the US President than George Bush. For many people, and not only Americans, the sad thought there was “If only”.

Inevitably, there are differences. Josiah Bartlet was actually a white Martin Sheen playing a very clever New England Nobel Prize winner, who knew how to play chess and knew what a “shibboleth” was without asking one of his advisors. Obama is not quite the same colour, is not from the same background, and has not yet won a Nobel prize, and to be fair, has not yet won the election. But you’ve got to be impressed with his eloquence.

As I write this a few hours before the Mid West polling closes, you can’t help feel that there’s something very important in the air tonight. A feeling of America potentially starting anew, starting afresh. A feeling of throwing off the dragging, dirty cloak of Iraq and Afghanistan, the terrifying corporate greed and seeming lack of concern for the Man on the top of the Minnesota Omnibus - if only they had them.

Of course, the structure of the American Political system is designed to be labyrinthine. The constitution is meant to be cumbersome, with elegantly and intentionally loaded checks and balances. Deliberately set up this way by its founders in the last quarter of the 18th Century, it has remained remarkably stable since that time, often resulting in a very slow system of change in the country. There is the real chance tonight that Democrat majorities will exist, not only in both houses of Congress, but also in the White House, leading to ground breaking changes in social welfare, tax redistribution and more equitable health insurance in the US over the next few years if Obama finally gets there.

Jed Bartlet never had that option – he was always fighting the Republicans on his liberalising agendas. But then, that was designed to create the tension for good television, and this is real life.

Granted whoever wins, they will be facing the grimmest introduction to a Presidency for decades, but it surely offers a once in a lifetime opportunity for great things to happen.

I wonder if they will.