Sunday, January 30, 2011

My man Mozart, the egregious Tony Blair, three cheers for Neville Brody and Mandy Rice-Davies (again. Hi, Mandy)

There are times when a beautiful piece of music demands to be pissed about with. This is one of my favourite short pieces. and when I hear it, I think of just one thing - traffic. Some things simply have a companion with which they will forever be associated whatever the weather: strawberries and cream, Russia and corruption, Britain and rain, and, of course, Mozart and traffic.



I am indebted to my good friend Jacques Pernod for all the help and advice he has given me over the years, and he, I’m sure, would also like me to mention his assistants Peter Schnaps & Dieter Esel.

. . .

Few crises survive beyond a few hours without an appearance by the egregious Tony Blair. So with the crisis in Egypt: Blair appeared on Sky TV and did what he always does: state the bloody obvious at great length and with apparent authority as though dispensing a unique wisdom from on high. Here are two quotes from the interview he gave Sky News:
‘What is inevitable is that there’s going to be change and the question is; what change and how do you manage it?’
Then there is this startling insight:
‘Change is inevitable in Egypt and that the country cannot put the “genie back in the bottle”.’
Well, call me a cynical fart, but anyone seeing the images being screened on TV at the moment will have gathered that it isn’t a storm in a teacup. But that’s Blair’s schtick: he says what everyone else knows, but appears to make it sound profound and wise.
I have long, long believed that he suffers from some kind of psychological flaw akin to sociopathy, but without the violence. I have no doubt at all that he really does believe his own bullshit. A few years ago, at a Labour Party conference and when he was still PM, he gave a speech which became increasingly unreal. He seemed to go into a trance. But what he was telling his audience was merely what he knew his audience wanted to hear.
It is always difficult to be objective about someone one dislikes, and I readily admit that I am open to the charge of being biased against him. I also admit that there might still be some who still believe Blair is a man of principle, but I should imagine their number is diminishing by the day. But I do believe that Blair as the man who gives all conmen a bad name, and I am proud to say (although there is no way I could prove as much) that I regarded him as a nine bob note (nine dollar bill, nine kopek piece) long before he was first elected Prime Minister in 1997. As, of course, did a large number of ‘old’ Labour, but who went along with the man because he could apparently deliver an electoral victory. Looking back, and bearing in mind the slow-motion car crash that was the last few years of the Major government, it’s pretty obvious that Sooty and Sweep would also have delivered that victory. The big mystery is how on earth did Neil Kinnock (now Lord Kinnock, natch – nothing seduces an old leftie faster than the smell of ermine) manage to lose against Major in 1992?
I shall not recite the list of Blair’s misdemeanours here as that list will be well-known to those who loathe him and those who still have a soft spot for him (rather as one might have a soft spot for a rogue uncle who you know is purloining any small change he comes across and regularly finishes off the whisky, but who has a raffish charm it is hard to resist). Well, I for one have never found it hard to resist Blair’s raffish charm, his faux sincerity, his ‘man of the people’ act. The only positive thing is that he is now yesterday’s man, and for someone with his ineffable conceit, that will rankle. Good.

. . .

Usual routine on a Monday morning (although later today, as my brother didn’t get up and thereby wake me, but had a lie-in. I assume he had a day off), and I listened to Andrew Marr’s Start The Week in bed, while getting up, and on the way to work. The man himself still irritates me – I cannot rid myself of the suspicion, which seems to be confirmed every time he opens his mouth – that he thinks of himself as rather a bright, well-informed, well-connected and cultured sort of chap, and I have no doubt at all that at some point in the future he will be considered as a suitable candidate to chair the Arts Council and might even land the job. The British Establishment are not daft, and their talent for
survival is without equal. But his guests are usually an interesting bunch, and this morning’s included a Neville Brody (left).
Neville is now about 55 years old, but grew up in the punk era and carried with him that age’s vitality. He first came to prominence as the guy who art designed The Face (which I never read as I was then entering my 30s and really felt it was a magazine for younger people). Many of that magazine’s stylistic devices, often developed because of a lack of money, have been – now there’s a surprise – taken one by mainstream graphic designers working for banks, insurance companies and international conglomerates. But that is not Brody’s fault. He has recently been appointed the head of Department of Communication Art & Design at the Royal College of Art, and started his job on January 1 by promptly renaming the department the Department of Visual Communication. He went on to say that he does not believe in the student/teacher relationship but in ‘collaborative research’. It was at that point that I felt my hackles begin to rise, but I listened on and I’m glad I did. Brody went on to bemoan that for the past 20 odd years, students have been in the grip of a ‘success culture’ where they learnt in order to grab some lucrative employment and make shedloads of money. But the times now being hard, he reckons all that is over and that instead there will be an ‘explosion of ideas’. Well, I bloody well hope he is right. There was nothing quite as disheartening as everyone buckling under to ensure they were fucking rich by the age of 30. And ironically it was the same culture which made the abortion of Brit art and all its ‘conceptual art’ possible. So here’s to far more interesting times. Let’s hope all these new students can somehow shock us without resorting to daubing their work with shit, as those two charlatans Gilbert and George did.
. . .
Part of my daily routine, at some point in between brushing my teeth in the morning and brushing my teeth at night, is
to check how many people have read this blog during the day. I started doing this when I discovered Google’s stats feature, and it tickles me that, for whatever reason, folk as far away as New Zealand, Russia, Canada and Indonesia drop in. How long they stay is another matter, and is not recorded in the stats. And whether it is the same people from those countries is also not indicated, but I do like to think that to a man and woman, they are astonished by the breadth of my learning and interests and do nothing for the rest of the day but tell their friends about ‘this amazing blog I’ve found, man, I mean it’s far out, too much, you gotta, just gotta check it out, I mean, you just gotta, man’. Or something like that. Note that I assume all readers are, like me, raddled sixtysomethings whose best days are long behind them and rooted in the days when we could think of nothing better to do than grow our hair and give each other beads and the clap.
One feature of that facility is to list ‘referring URLs’ and from this something very puzzling has emerged: a disproportionate number of visitors happen upon my blog after tracking down piccies of Many Rice-Davies (above). I can’t even remember in which blog entry she was mentioned, but
I do remember grabbing a picture of her from Google images and using it. And that is the one which leads others to this blog. It has to be said that she is a very attractive woman, although the picture was taken several years ago when she was still a spring chicken. But I like to think she is probably still as attractive, though older. She and Christine Keeler came to prominence in the Profumo affair. Mandy apparently has a head on her shoulders and seems to have thrived. Christine (and I've used the image which is always trotted out on these occasions - sorry, Christine, but it is a nice pic of you) didn’t do so well in life, although for all I know she is happy. Either way, I wish them both well.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Plus ça change . . . (or why dog can rarely resist the temptation to take a large chunk out of other dog)

Now here’s an odd thing: New York’s esteemed Times is undoubtedly a heavyweight and serious newspaper of record. It is unlikely to carry reports about the most recent breast enlargement of whichever TV starlet is elsewhere flavour of the month or, given the number of other newspapers in the world, that one has just sacked an assistant editor. Like vice-presidents in US corporations, assistant editors on British papers are two a penny despite their rather high-falutin’ title. As a rule, when a senior hack is pipped at the post for the deputy editor’s job, he or she is sweetened with the title ‘assistant editor’ and, doubtlessly a pay rise, to ensure they aren’t tempted to jump ship and take with them editorial secrets to a new berth on a rival. But back to the New York Times and its surprising decision to report on a sacking at Britain’s News Of The World. The Screws, as we call it as the mainstay of its content is stories of illicit sex by footballers, soaps stars, politicians and businessmen, is certainly on of Britain’s bigger titles, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the Times should therefore take an interest. But two days ago, it carried the shocking news that one Ian Edmondson, an assistant editor on the Screws had been sacked. It went on to explain that Ian (who might well be fat, paunchy and balding, but I really don’t know, so don’t assume he is) knew about a practice engaged in by Clive Goodman, one of the paper’s reporters, of hacking into the voicemail of celebs’ mobile phones. This practice is now officially frowned upon though when it went on under Edmondson’s indulgent eye, it most certainly wasn’t and proved to be a lucrative source of stories. But times have changed and our Ian now got the chop.
This was not the first time the venerable, oh-so-proper New York Times reported on the phone hacking allegations. Two weeks ago, it reported that an official investigation into the allegations was being reopened by the Crown Prosecution
Service which had earlier decided there was not enough evidence to bring charges against Andy Coulson (pictured and looking far younger than he has any right to do), who was Screws editor at the time the practice was going on. Coulson resigned after Goodman was jailed for his journalistic initiative, although he denied then and has always since denied that he knew what Goodman was up to. He went on to work as prime minister David Cameron’s ‘communications director’ and is credited with sharpening up the Tories’ public performance considerably, but he resigned that post, too, after the story of the hacking allegations and questions as to whether he knew more than he says refused to go away.
Well, you might think, there’s the story the New York Times was interested in: the ‘communications director’ of Britain’s prime minister leaves under a cloud. Not exactly world-shattering news, but certainly something a paper of record can take an interest in. Well, funnily enough, the Times didn’t take an interest in that aspect of it at all. So why is the Times so concerned with a relatively minor, semi-criminal practice engaged in by at least one (though we all suspect far more) more than 3,000 miles away? All becomes obvious when you mention the name ‘Rupert Murdoch’. It is a name which is most probably familiar to many: he owns, or largely owns, a ‘media empire’ which most of the rest of us don’t. It is called News Corp and part of that empire is a company called News International which owns the News Of The World. Oh, and another part of that empire is Dow Jones & Company which owns and publishes the Wall Street Journal which just happens to be one of the New York Times’s arch rivals. Oh, and Murdoch also owns the New York Post, another of the Times’s rivals, although given the Post’s constituency, it would be silly to describe the paper as an arch rival. Rival will do.
So there you might have it: serious ‘paper of record’ not above a little commercial mischief-making. Perhaps. Certainly, the Times has ample wriggle room and could well deny it is up to nothing of the sort, but to that I would respond ‘pull the other one, it’s got bells on it’.

. . .

There is no denying that, whether you love him hate him or – surely the view of the vast majority of people – you are indifferent to him, Rupert Murdoch has achieved a great deal in building up a his media empire. It has to be said that he did not do so from scratch but built it from a comparatively small newspaper group his father had owned. But before he inherited the business, he did spend a little time getting to know what life as a hack was like. I know this because around 1955, the writer and journalist Michael Green (The Art Of Coarse Rugby and The Art Of Coarse Acting, and the Squire Haggard column in the Daily Telegraph) spent some
time as a sub-editor on the Birmingham Post where, for a short time, Murdoch (pictured) was a fellow sub after graduating from Oxford. His time on the Post was quite short because his father died, and Rupe returned to Melbourne to take over the family business. I mention this because 25 years later, I spent two years working as a sub on the Birmingham Evening Mail, the post sister paper. So Rupe and I have a connection. Spooky.
I know Murdoch is the bête noir of loads and loads of people, but there is one comment he made which somehow endeared me to him for life. The Times is now part of News International and, as far as I know, still not making a profit. In fact, the last time it did make a profit, again as far as I know, was in the 19th century when it lease the patent for the then revolutionary roller press and was able to produce, distribute and sell far more copies than its rivals who still had to make do with laborious flatbed press. Eventually, the patent expired and the good times were over for The Times. It slipped into making a loss and even when it was taken over by Lord Norhtcliffe in 1908 (though he was then still Alfred Harmsworth and arguably the Rupert Murdoch of his day), it could not be coaxed into making a profit.
In 1981, two years after the Times was closed because of an 11-month strike, the Thomson Organisation realised it could not carry on and the paper (with its sister title The Sunday Times) was bought by Murdoch. By then it had firmly sunk into the habit of believing its own bullshit and regarded itself (though few others did) as the world’s premier newspaper. Murdoch’s British profits were firmly base on the decidedly downmarket Sun and News Of The World, and the maiden aunts who predominantly staffed The Times were horrified to be associated with such folk. It has long been regarded and had long regarded itself as the Establishment’s newspaper and there were even ‘questions in the House’ as to whether it was advisable that a paper of such a pedigree should be allowed into the soiled hands of some such upstart as Murdock. So its ‘editorial board’ demanded an undertaking from Murdoch that ‘he would not interfere editorially with the paper’. To which Murdoch, now perhaps the holder of a Yankee passport but in spirit forever an Australian, replied: ‘I didn’t spend fucking £5 million pounds buying a newspaper not to interfere editorially’. Even now it makes me smile with pleasure.

Friday, January 28, 2011

I am a man: An apology

I can’t speak for the rest of Europe, the US or the rest of the world, but something very odd has happened in Britain in these past 20 years. Once women were regarded as the skivvies of the world, when a vacuum cleaner and washing machines were seen as a great present for a man to give to the wife to help her ‘do the
housework more efficiently’. So thoughtful. Sadly, a woman’s lot has changed very little in almost every part of the world, and women still get the thin edge of the wedge. The Taliban diktat that women should be locked away from the age of 12 is just a very extreme manifestation of the attitude of many cultures.But here in Britain the boot is, in many ways, very much on the other foot, and we have apparently progressed in leaps and bounds to a situation where women are now equal. In fact, make that ‘more than equal’ Women professionals in the broadcasting media in particular delight in what they regard as a complete reversal of fortune. Well, bugger that because, incredibly, in 2011 many women are still paid less than men for doing exactly the same job, many women. However, that is no barrier to a very British pseudo-feminist triumphalism that the sisters have now finally come out on top. And boy do they like to let you know it. There is not even a pretence that ‘equality’ has been achieved. No, sir, they are now das Damenvolk. Tune into Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour on any day of the week and you won’t have to wait long until you come across the unshakable conviction that all men are pretty useless. And it is a conviction which has also become a mainstay of much radio drama and of the routines of quite a few women stand-up comedians.
Attitudes purveyed in the media, whether in factual or fictional programming or in TV advertising are very rarely a true reflection of real social attitudes. They are more a kind of wishful thinking or something akin to a political manifesto. But given our habit of imitating what we see on the small screen, such highly artificial poses soon gain a broader currency. To put it another way, it is a question of life imitating art.
Without a second thought young and not so young lasses up and down the land will strike attitudes in imitation of what they see in their favourite soaps and sitcoms. And the prevailing attitude in a great many of these is that men are hopeless, hopeless, hopeless, fickle, unreliable and self-centred, and many a cheap laugh can be had from saying so. ‘Typical of a man’ is a refrain one has increasingly heard, and it is one which is repeated so often that anyone querying the observation is liable to have his intelligence as well as his integrity questioned. But beware the man who is foolish enough to say ‘typical woman’ — a shitstorm of biblical proportions is liable to explode and engulf him in such self-righteous anger that a six-month spell in jail would seem far more preferable.
Professional feminists, by which I mean those hacks and TV types for whom being feminist strikes me as being solely a strategy for career development, are still probably in the minority and their numbers are wholly disproportionate to the noise they make. And most certainly they do the real sisters no favours at all. The drive to ensure woman are treated equally has achieved a great deal in these past 40 years, and few women will allow themselves to be condescended to as once they were, and we should always remember that in many areas a woman is paid less than the man she works next to, so there is still quite a lot still to be done. But trying to do so by insisting, and apparently believing, that men are complete and total wankers isn’t doing it.

. . .

Part of the problem is, I think, that we always try to impose our ideas on life rather than accept what life tells us. Years ago, I heard the following short parable: A young boy and a young girl, still children of about seven or eight, are happily playing around a pond stark naked, with the lad strutting around as though he were king of the castle. So the girl asks him what he is so proud of. He points to his willy and tells her: ‘I’ve got one of these.’ So the young girl points to here mary and tells him: ‘My mummy says that because I’ve got one of these, I’ll always have one of those.’ Too true. For unless a man is homosexual and not in the slightest interested in women, they can, in many situations, run rings around a man purely because they have what he wants. Our professional feminists (and I stress that by that somewhat dismissive term I do not mean those many women who have worked very hard to change our thinking and ensure that woman are treated less like skivvies) might not like it and deny that it is true, but they are all too often inclined to deny, if it suits their agenda, that water is wet.
At this point the reader might feel I am being rather crude. Not at all. For when I talk of ‘man’, I mean the male of the species. And the prime purpose in nature for the majority of the male of the species is to reproduce as often as possible to ensure the survival of his genes. The female of the species, on the other hand, is not interested in reproducing with any old male who might be in the mood, but wants to ensure that the male she does choose to mate with has the best possible genes. To put it bluntly, the male is interested in quantity and the female in quality. So she chooses, but he doesn’t. And so, I suggest, there is not, as we seem to suppose, symmetry between the sexes. Each gender has his and her strengths and weaknesses, but in our intellectual arrogance we try to impose our views on life.
So I have always thought it rather ironical that in this ostensible feminist age men are urged to ‘find their feminine side’ and are applauded when they do. But were we similarly to urge women to ‘find their masculine side’, we would, quite rightly, I think, be accused of talking complete cobblers. (I was going to write ‘complete bollocks’, but in context that might not be the most useful phrase to use.) But in many ways that is exactly what has happened. One of the ‘achievements’ of the past 20 years (NB yet again: it still hasn’t been to ensure wage parity between the sexes), all in the name of ‘equality’, means that woman are now allowed to emulate men. And that, ironically, means that it is more or less officially sanctioned that they can behave just as badly as men: they can now, without attracting opprobrium, get just as rat-arsed, use just as much bad language and sleep around just as much. And this is seen as progress, this is regarded as improving the lot of the sisterhood. Give me a break.

. . .

In the interests of quality and assisting women with their choice of mate, I offer the following. I have been made aware that there are doubts that I was ever young. This is a libel which hurts and offends me deeply, so here (pic gone missing, but O shall find it, don't worry) I offer definite proof that I was not always an old, semi-balding fart with grey hair (dear American reader, that’s ‘gray hair’) and a very short beard, but a youngish, reasonably dashing blade about town. It is a photo I came across recently after many years and which I cherish deeply. And you think I’m joking. Think again. My best wishes to old farts and fartesses the world over. I feel your pain. Fan mail and, more pertinently, very welcome invitations to join suitable women in bed to the usual address, please.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

You forgot your long spoon, Andy, Fleet Street in a funk and Blair off the hook (more or less)

I’ve never really known when using a proverb or a saying shades off into using a cliché, so I shall leave it to my reader (how are you, by the way?) to decide whether the following is still a quaint precautionary saying or just a tawdry common or garden cliché: When you sup with the Devil, us a long spoon. Whether or not it is a cliché or still a venerable piece of good advice is, however, pretty irrelevant in the case of Andy Gray, one-time Dundee United, Aston Villa, Wolves and Everton player as well as regularly turning out for Scotland (he was born in Glasgow), who then became the regular football pundit for Sky Sports when he retired. For Gray it is too late to do the wise thing and sit at the far end of the table when breaking bread with Lucifer. Yesterday, Sky sacked Gray over ‘sexist remarks’. Preparing for a touchline
interview at which one of the ‘assistant referees’, once known as linesman, was Sian Massey (right), Gray and made several ‘sexist’ comments about her. These were not broadcast publicly and would not have come to the undoubtedly profoundly horrified public’s attention if Sky had not decided to release the material on which these comments were made. That was rather an odd thing for Sky to do, but I’ll get to that a little later. Sky then discovered two other instances when Gray made ‘sexist’ remarks – one to, Charlotte Jackson, a fellow sports presenter who was a woman – and decided that enough was enough and that Gray had to go. Pretty straightforward, you might think: man makes comments which, in 2011, are too off-colour, and his employer decides they cannot be tolerated. The comments are, it must be said, rather low on the scale of what not to say, and I would be extremely surprised if Ms Jackson was in the slightest discomfited, although I shall be equally extremely surprised if the sisters who belong to our commentariat, many employed on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, don’t make a full and quite substantial meal of this issue. I don’t work in broadcasting and for all I know it is a very different environment, although I doubt it. But here in the wacky world of our female colleagues are not only treated with respect professionally, but they also hear – and dish out in equal measure – appallingly sexist comments every day they turn up for work. (A few years ago, I and two or three colleagues were on our way across the road to The Greyhound (aka The Rottweiler) for a drink before 11pm closing time. I passed a female colleague who had not been there when a visit to the pub was suggested and asked her: ‘Do you fancy a quickie?’ She said she didn’t. So I then said: ‘Well, why don’t you come across to the Rottie with us, then?’ Quite appalling.)
Back to Gray and how this tale of outrage over sexism is a tad murkier than might at first seem. Sky is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation which also owns News International which, in turn owns our very own News Of The Screws. Now, the Screws is in the shit because the saintly Guardian discovered a year or two ago that its reporters had been hacking into the mobile phone message boxes of rather a large number of celebrities and politicians. At the time, a token reporter and private investigator were jailed for doing it, but the story didn’t go away. Surely, everyone asked, the practice was far more widespread among Screws staff? And surely, they asked, the then editor Andy Coulson knew what his reporters were getting up to? Coulson denied it – to universal disbelief and cries of ‘well, he wasn’t much of an editor, then, if, as he claims, he didn’t know’ – but the it all caught up with him this week when, by now chief spokesman to Prime Minister David Cameron, he decided to resign because the story ‘wouldn’t go away’. Next, the heat is on Scotland Yard to reveal exactly what its investigation into the phone hacking revealed; and, more pertinently, rather a lot of celebs are suing News International for apparently allowing the Screws staff to do what they did or, at the very least, not putting an end to the practice. And among those suing News International is one former footballer and, until yesterday, star football pundit Andy Gray. This did not go down well with News Corp. But bear with me, as it might even be murkier than that, although being murky it is not too clear what is going on and just how it relates to Gray’s sacking.
News Corp wants to buy the shares in Sky (or Sky BSB as it officially is) it doesn’t yet own. It wants full control of the satellite television station. But as News Corp ultimately owns The Sun, The News Of The World, The Times and the Sunday Times as well as holding a majority share in Sky, many claim gaining full control of Sky would not be healthy for competition in the media industry and the Government has been asked to take a look at it all. Well, the Government has done so and might well refer the matter to our Competitions Commission. But it has first asked News Corp to take another look at its holdings and perhaps consider getting rid of some. So there is talk the Sky News might be sold (which I think is pretty unlikely, but then I have absolutely no specialist knowledge in these matters) or that Murdoch (OK, News Corp if you want to be pedantic) might rid himself of The Times and the Sunday Times. That, I think, would make more sense, because the The Times makes a loss and circulation is falling, although I think the Sunday Times still turns a profit.
As I say, I can’t for the life of me imagine how the desired complete takeover of Sky by News Corp would fit in with the sacking of one of Sky Sports football pundits, so I offer the above as background. What is, however, rather clearer is that News Corp, which is wholly embarrassed by the continuing phone hacking saga, is none too pleased with having one of its star pundits suing another part of its empire for potential millions. So the next time Murdoch, or more realistically one of his underlings, turns up on your doorstep to join you for supper, do remember the long spoon you would be advised to use.

. . .

You can believe that it was just the one rogue Screws reporter in cahoots with a private investigator who hacked into mobile phones or you can assume, as I think most of us do, that the practice was more widespread. After all, if he got stories that way and didn’t keep it too himself (something which hacks are utterly incapable of doing – if you want to spread a rumour, tell a hack and tell him to keep it secret), every other hack who heard about it will have tried the same schtick. And that is what other newspapers are worried about. Because if not just one Screws hack, but several did it, you can bet your bottom dollar that hacks on the Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, The People and the Daily Star were up to the same. I can’t speak for the Daily Express or the Daily Mail, although yesterday I asked the chap who was news editor at the time the practice was rife whether the Mail got up to it, and he told me, no it hadn’t. Well, as Ms Rice-Davies would have said, he would, wouldn’t he. And it is not at all impossible that the Daily Telegraph would have been tempted to do the same. And if they did, it will all come tumbling out. Which is rather bad news, because any number of MPs still smarting from being discovered with their fingers in the expenses till – claiming for duck islands, antique bookshelves, second homes which turned out to be a kennel in Govan - who are very keen indeed to get their own back for the mauling Fleet Street’s finest handed out. In the long run, with everyone looking like a loser over this one, I should imagine it will be brushed under the carpet, the Guardian will huff and puff and search its cliché dictionary for suitable descriptions of what has happened, the dogs will bark and the caravan will move on.

. . .

Speaking of caravans moving on, that would seem to have been the salvation of Tone Blair, who might perhaps be rather relieved, if not a little peeved, that he is now yesterday’s man and the invasion of Iraq is now yesterday’s news. We have far more modern issues to anguish over. In evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, Lord Turnbull, one of his Cabinet Secretaries, more or less implied Blair was lying through his teeth when he claimed that at all times his Cabinet was kept fully informed of plans to invade Iraq. Not so, said Lord Turnbull, they knew very little about it until three days before the invasion when they were asked to rubber stamp it all. But – apart from the friends and family of the estimated 100,000 Iraqis who have died in post-invasion violence and of the U.S. and British servicemen and women who have been killed – who cares. Most certainly not the public, who after the artificial prosperity of the Labour years now face having to pay the bill for the profligacy. Not being able to buy yet another 48in plasma TV for the kids’ bedroom? The shame of it!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Why we should kill all poor people and save the planet. And Piers Morgan stands in for God as the lad himself goes on extended leave

I’m a rather dull sort and subtlety tends to elude me. So you will understand why I am baffled that, on the one hand, the news this morning is that if population continues to grow at the rate it is, but we continue to waste food at the rate we do, we’re screwed. On the other hand, science (make that ‘science’) is finding ever cleverer ways of prolonging life and ensuring we all live well into our second century, so glory, glory be.
As for food, it seems that as we all grow ever more prosperous (another goal which is apparently sine qua non in the western ‘civilised world’), we can afford ever more arcane food from all corners of the world, which we ship in but don’t always eat. Then there’s our ‘concern’ for our carbon footprint which means we are looking for alternatives to fossil fuels, of which bio-fuels are one. The trouble is that to ensure we have enough bio-fuel in the western world so that we can reduce our ‘carbon footprint’, land so far used for growing food crops is now being increasingly used to grow bio crops to produce bio fuels. Why? Because they sell for more: the western world, concerned as it is to save the planet for future generations is willing to pay more for bio fuels than the poor of the world can afford to pay for food crops. Obvious, really, when you think about it.
Here in Britain (and in other parts of Europe) we have related tomfoolery. While scientists (make that ‘scientists’) beaver away to ensure we live longer, governments (I am inclined to write ‘governments’) are getting increasingly worried that there won’t be enough young working young people around who they can tax in order to pay for the care of an ever larger group of elderly. A short-term solution has been to ‘raise retirement age’, so that people carry on paying their own way for longer. All fine and dandy you would think, except that industry is rather less inclined to employ older folk because they can get away with paying young folk lower wages. Younger folk are also thought to be more adaptable to change.
All in all a fuck-up in the making. So what’s new?
Here’s my solution: kill off everyone over 75 irregardless of material status, and kill off as many ‘Third World’ poor people as we can decently get away with without raising too many eyebrows. It might sound like a drastic solution, but the imperative to ‘save the planet’ surely takes precedence over our somewhat sentimental regard for life.

. . .

There can now be few in the world who have never heard of Piers Morgan and the lad is now well on his way to world domination. From the factory dormitories of Xianxing to the call centres of South Shield the talk is of nothing but how the man’s talents, charisma and ambition have landed him the Top Job: standing in for Larry King on (I should imagine it’s called) The Larry King Show. If, on the other hand, you haven’t yet heard of Piers Morgan (aka the Honourable Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan, 8th Baron Wapping when he’s in his birthday suit) you’re either a Trappist monk or dead.
It seems his first appearance in the hot seat was a complete triumph in which he managed to get one Oprah Winfrey to talk about herself and her new TV channel. Well! That shows
Piers poses with God

the doubters who said it was all stuff and nonsense when young Piers first announced he was in line for the position.
I’ve never met him, although when I worked subbing shifts on the Sun, he was editing the paper’s Bizarre column and he would be around the feature backbench every night, cutting what I always thought was a rather incongruous figure in a Tweed sports jacket. He is said to be insufferably Tiggerish, but to be fair I know three people who have worked with him and two of them speak quite highly off him. The third jointly presented a TV programme with him and she is rather less of a fan. The first two knew him, respectively at the Sun in the early Nineties and when he edited the Mirror (which might still in those days have been called the Daily Mirror).
His rather less enthusiastic acquaintance knew him several years later, after he had been sacked from the Miror, but by which time his ego had apparently grown rather large.
The guy who worked with him on the Sun (and was rather more senior than Piers, although in a different, tho’ related department) now works on the same desk as me, and he told me an anecdote about Piers from when he ran and wrote the Sun’s Bizzare column. In fact, he didn’t write quite large chunks of it — that would have been impossible — and had a deputy and staff writers, but everything appeared under the ‘Piers Morgan’ byline. That is not necessarily an indication of an outrageous ego, it’s just how many such columns operated and operate. At the Sun Piers’ deputy was a chap called Peter Willis, a rather pleasant unassuming chap, and, of course, everything he produced appeared under Piers Morgan’s byline. After few years, Rupert Murdoch, who owns News International, plucked Piers and made him the editor of the News Of The World, which was the lad’s first step to stardom. (From there he went on to edit the Mirror, although as the Mirror was the Sun’s arch-rival, the move across didn’t go down well with Murdoch. But that move came later.)
As editor of the News Of The Screws, Morgan hit pay-dirt and among his perks was a chauffeur-driven car. It seems that one dark and rainy night he was being driven home from the Wapping plant in whatever luxury limo he had been given when he spotted his old deputy Peter Willis leaving the building, his coat wrapped around him to keep out the cold. He had the chauffeur stop car and he offered Willis a lift, which his former deputy accepted gratefully. As the two of them were driving along in the back of the limo, Morgan asked Willis:
‘Peter, do you remember all those stories you found working on Bizarre which you then wrote up and which then appeared under my byline?’
‘Yes,’ said Willis.
‘Well,’ said Morgan, proudly indicating the interior of his plush limo and all its luxuries, ‘look where they got me.’

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Rational debate: thy name does not appear to be James Delingpole. But Talbot Church gets my vote

It is fair to say that in the long run everything is balanced out, although I am obliged to add that, as John Maynard Keynes pointed out, ‘in the long run we are all dead’. In the short run and in politics, the left must put up with government by the right, but, don’t worry, for in time the right will give way and be obliged to put up with government by the left. Were British politics to be viewed over the past 200 years, it would be apparent that, more or less, the awful ‘progressives’ have had their hand on the tiller for about as long as the awful ‘reactionaries’ and neither has had a disproportionate time in office. (I should add, though, that as far as I am concerned both terms are next to meaningless: there are as many reactionaries who regard themselves as ‘progressive’ as there are innovators who are seen as ‘reactionary’.) Naturally, if the perspective is a lot narrower, the balance isn’t always too apparent. So someone born in the mid to late Nineties, such as my two children, will only have known Labour government (I won’t say ‘New Labour’ as that was just so much PR bullshit dreamed up by the essentially red-top mentality of one Alastair Campbell, he of Diana, ‘the people’s princess’.) They will now know that Labour isn’t the be all and end all of politics, by the time they get to be my age, they will also come to realise that politics is not the be all and end all of life.
When I was at college, the lefties all thought of me as a righty and the righties thought of me as a lefty. In fact, I was – and am – neither and have remained, overall, pretty much dead centre all my life. My father once accuse me of being ‘dangerously liberal’ which, at the time – I was still in my salad days – I thought of as being a contradiction in terms. Now I know it isn’t and I fully understand what he meant, but then from his 30s on he was always pretty much ‘on the right’.
I usually do my best to avoid political discussions because they are invariably horribly dull. Either both sides agree with each other completely, or the ‘discussion’ quickly degenerates into a slanging match. Very rarely indeed are both sides prepared to listen to what the other has to say, to consider it and to responded rationally.
All this occurred to me when I visited the Daily Telegraph website for a general mooch around and spotted the name James Delingpole. I’ve twice met him very briefly and on the second occasion decided to take against him when – he was still wearing his hair exceptionally long – he wrote off the band Steely Dan. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and own tastes, of course, but anyone who writes off Steely Dan wholesale, even if they don’t like their music, is either striking a pose or downright stupid. I now suspect that in Delingpole’s case it is the former, because he is now an established youngish journalist who makes his living writing for right-of-centre publications and producing pieces along the lines of ‘how awful the world is/is becoming/will be in the future’. That’s fine and dandy from some hack in his late
50s with a drink problem (I intend calling him George Rant), but Delingpole is not in his 50s (as you can see from the piccy) and, as far as I know, doesn’t have a drink problem (which the piccy cannot establish either way).
The piece I spotted in the Telegraph, which you can read here, is true to form. It is headlined ‘Why we still love Sarah Palin’ and to give you a taste of the kind of reasoned, intelligent polemic it sets out to be, contains the observation that ‘President Obama is a socialist and his administration a crazy house of eco-loons, crypto-Marxists, progressives, collectivists, surrender monkeys and anarcho-lesbian harpies’. I could live with the opinion that Obama ‘is a socialist’, but the rest of that sentence can be taken no more seriously than you would the rantings of your local bar bore. On the face of it, Delingpole does not strike me as the kind of chap who would contribute very much to a rational political debate.
For a taste of something a little more rewarding, I can recommend a distinguished writer and journalist called Talbot Church who is currently employed by The Independent ('The Inday'). You can find his latest piece (or, if you are reading this in the year 2015, a piece he wrote several years ago) here.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Are hedge funds listening to the right Chinese whispers. And who exactly are the experts? And Blair is back in the limelight, the slimy little toad

Mention hedge funds to most people, and you could well have them spitting blood. The conventional – and ill-informed wisdom – is that those nasty hedge funds, in cahoots with the banks, more or less brought the western world to its knees. But that is all rather unfair on hedge funds.
Admittedly, they are, like the law and The Ritz, open to all – i.e. they are open to all who have several million to spare and can afford to take advantage of the expertise they offer, but in principle you and I can do what hedge funds do and if we get it right, we, too, would be quids in. That is, of course, a big if. For the fact is the hedge fund managers put in a hell of a lot of work to spot winners – and losers. And it is the profits they make on spotting the losers which seems to upset everyone.
That is odd, because no one objects to anyone identifying a stock it believes is undervalued and buying up that stock in the belief that in the future it will gain in price. It so happens that hedge funds often do the opposite: they identify stock which they believe is overvalued and then short-sell it. Moralists might claim that such action profits from failure, but I can’t see it at all.
I began to understand a little more of what hedge funds do when I heard an interesting piece on the radio by the guy who made a pile for his hedge fund by spotting that Enron was a wrong ’un.
In the course of his work, he was going through the published financial information of a variety of firms and something about what Enron had published didn’t add up. So he concentrated on Enron and decided – quite rightly as it turned out – that Enron was just another house of cards. So he bet that the house of cards would come tumbling down and that the stock would be worthless. It isn’t, of course, quite that simple, and a fair degree of luck is involved in the timing. But, broadly, that is what hedge funds do (and I suspect a large amount of the hostility towards them is based on the fact that we can’t get a piece of the action.

Naturally, not all hedge funds are a success and that is part of the risk taken by those who agree to lend to hedge funds. There was the famous case a few years ago (so famous, I can’t even remember the name of the fund) which had to be bailed out in order to ensure the whole system didn’t collapse, but I assume that was the exception which proved the rule.
I mention this because I came across and interesting piece in the Telegraph the other day about how a number of hedge funds have done their homework and expect China to come crashing down sooner rather than later. Naturally, there is any number of Cassandras who, some gleefully, predict doom and disaster several times a day at the drop of a hat, but what I feel is significant is that in this case – to use a phrase usually employed elsewhere – this isn’t personal, it’s business. Hedge funds who do think China is going to go tits up sooner rather than later and are prepared to act on their analyses are not interested in making a political point. They are neutral.
It is common knowledge that a massive price bubble exists in the housing market in China’s coastal cities and bubbles always – always, always, always – burst. Always. Every so often some idiot comes out and foolishly pronounces that ‘boom or bust’ has been beaten, and the announcement is always followed pretty soon by the very bust which was never again going to happen.
The problem with China is that it is not playing by the ‘rules’ (if, indeed, there are any rules in the capitalist game of beggar my neighbour.) So its factories are working flat out,
but because the value of the yuan is being kept artificially low, the goods they produce are cheap, cheap, cheap. We buy them cheap and feel prosperous, and China sells shedloads and feels successful (as, I’m sure, does the couple left). But it can’t go on forever.
I also read recently that China has built any number of ‘ghost cities’ just to keep its workforce occupied. They are called ‘ghost cities’ because no one is living in them. What compounds the problem is that with all the money it is making by selling cheap goods to the western world, China has been busy buying up whatever assets it can – from agricultural land in New Zealand to rare mineral mines in Africa and, most pertinently, sovereign debt in Europe. In the past few days, Portugal, which is deep in the shit and issued more government bonds to raise more money, got a pass because good old China came along and bought a great deal.
Of course, anyone – including China – who buys such bonds always runs the risk that the seller will eventually go bust and be unable to honour them, but that’s the name of the game.
But the hedge funds have done their homework and many of them believe the writing is on the wall for the present round of Chinese good times. They could well be right.
The real problem is that the west is banking on a prosperous Chinese middle class buying up the goods and services it produces to help us out of the current slump. If China does go to the wall, it won’t just be the Chinese middle class who suffer.

. . .

A few years ago, the Economist did an experiment: it choose a number of shares in three different ways. First it asked acknowledged ‘stock pickers’ (the kind of guys who choose which stock your investment fund should invest in) to make their choice. Then it simply picked stocks which tracked the FTSE. Finally, it took a pin and, with whoever was wielding the pin suitably blindfolded, stocks were chosen at random. A year later it looked at how those stocks had performed.
Well, you know exactly where this is going: the stocks picked at random did better than those picked by the professional stock pickers, which did more or less as well (or badly) as those which tracked the FTSE. Well, it’s a good anecdote and one which should be taken seriously, but it has to be said that there are several variables here which make the tale rather less shocking than it might seem. (OK, ‘shocking’ is laying it on a little too thick, but you know what I mean.)
First, there is the element of luck, which simply cannot be quantified. Then there is the ‘expertise’ of the stock pickers, which on the face of it rather undermines what I have written above. But still, it does rather put all that hi’falutin City stuff in its place.

. . .

Make a note in your diary: this Friday (January 21), a certain Anthony Charles Lynton Blair has a second date with our very own Chilcot Inquiry, which is looking at why Britain under Blair decided to invade a sovereign country without UN authorisation of any kind and got away with it. It will be his second appearance, and it seems he has been
recalled because of discrepancies in the evidence he gave the first time. This morning’s papers carry report that in previously classified evidence Blair’s Attorney General Peter Goldsmith admitted to the inquiry that he had been ‘uncomfortable’ with Blair’s interpretation of his legal advice on the legality of invading Iraq. Given that we in Britain have made polite euphemism a way of life, for ‘uncomfortable’ read ‘after what I told him, I didn’t know what the bloody hell he was playing at’.
For the record I think, and have always thought (though I admit that is a very easy thing to say now, but – honest, guv’ – it’s true) that Blair was a nine-bob note (a nine dollar bill or a nine euro note – you get the drift). I have also thought that he was and is a sandwich short of a picnic, although quite in what way I couldn’t tell you. No doubt he will try his usual trick of stating the obvious at length and with great authority, thus seeming to say something while, in fact, saying nothing whatsoever. And, of course, the real irony is that even if things were to do against him drastically, it wouldn’t matter. The moment has gone. He is yesterday’s man and of no importance anymore, so what would be the point of pursuing him, as some want to do, in the International Court?
For the record and according to the website Iraqbodycount between 99,374 and 108,492 Iraqi men, women and children have been killed since the invasion in 1983, rather more than were dying when Saddam Hussein was in charge. Blair and others would perhaps claim that they wanted to rid the world of a dictator and bring democracy to Iraq. To which I say, why just this one dictator and just how patronising, not to say neo-imperialistic, to insist that the rest of the world should do as we in the west say and adopt our way of governing. (I like to think in terms of self-determination rather than ‘democracy’ – ‘democratic’ Belgium has been without a government for ten months; and if the majority in a country are in favour of, say, a theocracy, who are we in the west to object?)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Euro: a slow-motion car crash. And are Nicolas Cage and his senses going their separate ways? Quick, more holy water!

The wise old Economist (which I think of as a magazine, but which insists on calling itself a ‘newspaper’) the week leads: The euro crisis: time for Plan B. What I think is so significant is that as a rule the Economist makes Pollyanna look like a manic-depressive. Optimism and looking on the bright side is its stock in trade. I always imagine that the week after Armageddon, some bright spark writing the first leader will begin: ‘Well, the worst is over. What lessons can be learnt.’ So when the Economist, the cheerful Economist, is gloomy about the prognosis for the Eurozone, you just know things are bad.
It writes that all the bailing out hasn’t really worked. The strategy was intended to demonstrate to the money markets (remember them?) that they could huff and puff for all their worth, the Eurozone would stick together and see each and every member through. Well, the huffing and puffing has carried on (with a short break for Christmas, of course, we
can’t begrudge the money markets a break after all that frantic activity), and it seems the strategy isn’t going to work. Which brings the usually cheerful Economist to Plan B: restructuring of sovereign debt, for which read all the countries up to their neck in debt should get in touch with their creditors and work out an easier timetable for repaying all the moollah they borrowed during the eternal summer of the early days of the euro. Doing that a few months ago, the Economist argued, would have caused panic and precipitated a crisis, but things are now so bad that the sooner the ‘restructuring’ is done, the better. Delay will only make the pain worse. This, I should repeat, from the every-so-optimistic Economist for whom the glass is always half full. So, is that it?
What should be remembered is that before the euro was introduced with a glorious fanfare and promises of prosperity for all (and naked contempt for all the siren voices disinclined to join in the jubilation), countries going bust usually went down alone. And they didn’t always go down. They had the opportunity to devalue their currency and put up with a few years of being condescended to by their more frugal neighbours. Now, in the glorious brotherhood that is the Eurozone, they are all in danger of tumbling down together. What might have been, in global terms, a local crisis will not, if it does develop, be a supra-regional crisis, and for that very reason even those who don’t belong to the Eurozone will suffer. And all this was predicted by those very siren voices decried by all the euro fans.
Given that things are already tough in Ireland and Greece and look like getting tough in Portugal, it would be more than unkind to say ‘we told you so’. After all, it is always – always – the ‘little man’, the ‘man in the street’ who suffers, never the fuckwits who caused the mess in the first place. But you do hope that, for once, the decision-makers will heed that line from the Economist and learn a few lessons. Or to put it another way, you do hope that finally pigs will learn to fly.

. . .

It’s the little things which can add those moments of pleasure to life, and one such little thing came my way earlier this morning when I was reading some film reviews online. One review was of the new film Season Of The Witch, which stars Nicolas Cage as a murderous crusaders with an impeccable American accent. Historically, it seems, the film is several miles adrift of what we know of medieval times in that it details the outbreak of the bubonic plague which is said to have claimed the lives of one-third of the population of Europe. That outbreak is blamed on Satanism and witches and Cage the crusader is tasked with escorting the chief satanic culprit to her trial before a church court. It did not bother the producers that the last Crusade had ended 70 years before the plague broke out, nor that the latest scientific research indicates pretty conclusively that the plague was spread by rats carrying infected fleas, not witches casting evil spells. But it wasn’t Hollywood getting up to its inaccurate best which amused me.
The review I read describes Cage’s performance as low-key to non-existent and remarks that he seem very subdued, even depressed throughout the film. It seems he had good
reason to: a castle near Bath he had bought and had renovated has been repossessed as have two homes he owned in New Orleans. His money troubles might also explain why he felt obliged to take the part in Crusader Of The Witch which by all accounts was a pretty low-budget production. (The reviewer remarks that ‘The armour seems made out of cardboard. The swords look ¬plastic. The backdrops resemble stage scenery’ and was none to impressed with the dialogue – characters are reduced to this: ‘Let’s get the hell outa here!’, ‘We’re gonna need more holy water’ and ‘I’ve saved your ass’.)
This is all bad enough – for us all, not just Cage, the actor decidedly on his uppers – but in his review, the writer also added the strange detail that Cage will now only eat flesh from animals who have ‘dignified sex lives’. That’s got to be a wind-up, I thought, that really is a case of an actor turning the tables on the press and sending them up for a change. But apparently it isn’t. Cage announced it in a serious interview with the New York Daily News, but even as I was reading it, I thought the joke was on the paper. Not a bit of it. Mr Cage, it seems, might well already be a sandwich short of a picnic.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Belgium next for the EU chop, strong-arming Croatia and why Hungarian pseudo-Fascists could be Brussel's next headache

Now that the dust has settled on Ireland’s bond crisis and the feelgood sentiment of Christmas and New Year have lulled us all into think the worst was over, those nasty money markets fire another shot across the bow of the good ship Complacency. It is more or less a done deal that Portugal is next in line for a euro bailout, but the surprise comes that Belgium could well be far closer to the brink than we have all thought. Belgium? One of the original Benelux countries? (The clue’s in the name). Boring Belgium, merely known for huge portions and a Flemish right-wing which is as close to being Nazi as makes no odds? Yes, that Belgium. It hasn’t had a government for the past ten months and an emergency budget passed to try to get to grips with the country’s debts is thought to be too wishy-washy by half. So now King Albert II has ‘urged’ the politicians to come up with a rather tougher budget to see the country through to better times. Quite why he thinks they will does as he bids and reach some agreement, given that both sides – the Flemish and the Walloons – are so at daggers drawn that they can’t even agree on forming a government is a mystery. But even the fact that the king – who as far as I know has no constitutional role to speak of – has decided to get involved should reassure as that this is no minor crisis.
The Germans, as brave and steady as the next man until they decide they have had enough and will look after number one with a ruthlessness which always takes one’s breath away (and that, by the way, is not mean as criticism – I rather admire how they have so far remained on the sinking ship), will feel the crisis getting ever closer. And they will not like it, although they might feel easier about bailing out fellow Northern Europeans than they did about rescuing the Greeks. I read or heard (or possibly dreamed) that China is considering buying up euro debt and could thus be part of the lifeline, but at this point, I can’t be arsed trying to source that particular titbit of news. It would, however, make sense: China can produce as much as it likes, but until Africa is ready to buy its goods – which will not be for many more years – it needs a healthy Eurozone and a healthy America to soak up those goods. No buyers could cause an slump in production at home and the result of that would be even more domestic unrest.

. . .


Croatia is on the brink of probably becoming the EU’s newest member, although most polls show markedly lukewarm sentiment among the Croatian in the street towards membership. The government’s in favour (of course), and its polls are rather more positive. But all the independent polls have support in the mid-30s, which is not exactly a ringing form of endorsement. One reason given is that after Bulgaria and Romania were allowed to join on quite favourable terms and have now done nothing to fulfil their promises of cracking down on corruption, the terms of Croatian membership are likely to be tougher. All the accounts I have read spell out harshly that the same criminals who ran Bulgaria before it became an EU member are still running the country. And if similar sums of EU money being syphoned off by the Mafia in Italy are going missing in Romania and Bulgaria, the poor German taxpayer has one more thing to worry about.
The basis logical flaw in the argument for being a member of the EU is that we can’t all be ‘exceptional’. To be an ‘exception’ (i.e. to be economically better off than your neighbours) you must, by definition, be in the minority. But if everyone and his dogs joins up, what’s the point?
What is bothering many in Croatia is that ‘stringent’ EU rules mean that farmers must either drastically improve their operation at great cost or go out of business. In practice, that means the big farmers – for which read those ‘farmers’ who are, in fact, part of some multinational conglomerate, will have the resources to re-tool according to EU rules, but your small to medium-size farmer will not. And so your small to medium-sized farmer is destined to go out of business. And in view of that fate, your small to medium-sized farmer is asking him or herself: why should be join the EU and go out of business if we could not join the EU and stay in business?

. . .

The real trouble, of course – to use a cliché, the elephant in the room – is that Western European countries, which formed the EU until a dozen or so years ago, have, by and large, a history of democratic institutions. On the other hand too many of the new ‘member states’ haven’t. And it is a moot point as to what would happen if things really got out of hand and there was widespread unrest in the streets. We Brits reckon our cops can behave ‘brutally’ but, in truth, they are models of discretion compared to how the police in other countries behave. Then there is the ticklish question of what the EU establishment would do were an outright authoritarian regime to be established in one of its member states? I’ll be blunt: I’m thinking of Hungary where the rather nasty Fidesz Party has just enacted a series of media laws which are more reminiscent of the regime run by the Communists less than 22 years ago. Just how happy is the, avowedly libertal elite, in Brussels with this development, which is even more embarrassing given that Hungary has just taken over the rolling six-month presidency of the EU? If it behaves in the way it has been reacting to all the EU money going missing into the deep, deep pockets of crims Europe-wide, it will simply employ the ostrich strategy, stick its head in the ground and pretend it isn’t happening. The government under Viktor Orban, who founded the Fidesz Party, says it also plans to rewrite the constitution. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but judgment should be withheld until one can read what the new constitution spells out. And it doesn’t look particularly encouraging.

. . .

Incidentally, it is more than just amusing when governments get precious about their prime ministers. It is also rather odd, although quite what this oddness can signify is not easy to tell. After I had written the above part of my entry, I was idly looking through other pieces which have appeared in the Economist recently and came across a recent spat that newspaper had with Hir-TV, Hungary’s state TV. The Economist had printed a picture of Viktor Orban and, in order to make it look neater in its page layout, it had cropped the left and right sides of the picture. I include both (taken from the Economist website to demonstrate what was done.) Hir-TV rang the Economist and accused it of ‘manipulating’ the picture, although, according to the Economist, it would not specify how it believed the picture had been manipulated. After that phone call, it broadcast its claim without pointing out the the newspaper had denied it had done what Hir-TV claimed. This is all very odd. Most politicians are robust and can take gentle ribbing, but here there was not even anything as gentle as that: there was nothing. So what was going on? Here are the pictures: below left is the original supplied by AFP, and right is the same picture cropped by the Economist.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Democracy Russian-style or why bullshit reigns supreme and Putin's indisputably the man. And a picture in Lederhosen

I’m sure we’ll all familiar with the habit of ignoring a bad symptom and hoping it is just a passing glitch and will, in time, right itself. An example might be when your car occasionally, but briefly, cuts out as you are accelerating or the engine takes at least 20 seconds to catch on a fine spring morning. It’s nothing, you tell yourself. Or there’s that persistent ache, a pain almost, at the bottom of your back to the side which you tell yourself ‘is nothing’ and keep telling yourself ‘is nothing’ until an X-ray confirms the worst. Or there’s that patch of damp which you persuade yourself isn’t growing just as you manage quite well to persuade yourself that your bald spot ‘isn’t growing’, that your debts are still manageable, that your partner isn’t losing interest in you, that you’re still regarded well at work, that it’s still light enough to carry on painting the gutter - our ability to bullshit ourselves is infinite and, it has to be said, nine times out of ten quite harmless. But that ability is not just confined to people. Countries and continents suffer from it, too. So we are still persuading ourselves that Russia ‘is now a democracy’, although admittedly ‘a developing democracy’ which has had and is still having its teething troubles, but that’s just the way of things and bit by bit things are improving politically since that bad old days of Soviet dictatorship (‘exploitation of the people by the people’). It has ‘an elected’ parliament, ‘opposition parties’, the one-time president Vladimir Putin stood down at the end of his term of office as the constitution demanded and agreed to serve as a prime minister under the new president Dmitri Medvedev. Furthermore, we persuaded ourselves, it’s not as though Medvedev is Putin’s placeman. Not at all - there’s a rivalry between the two and Dmitri doesn’t just do Putin’s bidding. Oh, no! ‘Look,’ we tell ourselves, ‘Russia has just emerged from 70 years of dictatorship and before that many centuries of autocratic Tsarist rule! So it’s unreasonable to expect everything to work as it should straight off! It’s a gradual process!’ Well, pull the other one, dear hearts.
The trouble is that the West has invested a great deal of money in Russia and the West depends a great deal on Russia for its energy. So we have to be on reasonably good terms with Russia (or so goes the thinking).
Well, from where I sit, Russia is anything but a fledgling
democracy, with teething troubles or otherwise. Most recently Mikhail Khodorkovsky (right), who was already serving an eight-year jail sentence imposed for alleged tax crimes, has been sentenced to a further 14 years for other alleged offences. Many observers claim his misfortune started when he had the gall to oppose Putin in Parliament. A few days ago, Boris Nemtsov was arrested (below) after he addressed a rally supporting the freedom of assembly. Nemtsov, who served as

a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, is regarded as one politician who still has clean hands. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail.
As far as I know, it would be a mistake to regard Khodorkovsky and all of the other oligarchs - Chelsea’s very own Roman Abramovich among them - as supergifted businessmen who deserve every penny they own. Khodorkovsky is said to be something of a bright spark, but those oligarchs made their billions by acquiring, in a variety of ways of which some were not very nice at all, at dirt cheap prices the former Soviet Union’s assets. Khodorkovsky’s mistake was to get involved in politics. Another oligarch who crossed Putin was Boris Berezovski, but he remains free purely because he got the hell out of Russia and now lives in Britain (heavily guarded by his own henchmen).
It would seem that if you play the game in Russia - Putin’s game - and keep your now clean, life can remain sweet. If you choose to oppose Putin, life becomes anything but sweet. In the past I have already alluded to the dangers of working as a serious journalist in Russia, and it would seem the rule of law us just so much fiction. Naturally, that doesn’t stop investors piling in hoping to make a fast buck and when you sit in Western Europe several thousand miles away from where the dirty work is being done, it is quite easy to persuade yourself that what is happening there daily are just symptoms of teething troubles in a developing democracy. If only.


. . .

At the end of the beginning of the Nineties, it will have been about 1990 or 1991 and could not have been any later because my father died in that year, I came across a book at work which caught my eye. Newspaper books departments are sent many books by publishers to review and review less than a tenth, if that (which is why the promises by vanity publishers that they will publish your book and get it reviewed in the national press are just so much bullshit. Anyone, you, me and the dog pissing against the lamppost, can send anything he, she or it likes to a newspaper books department and many, many publishers do. But newspapers will review what they damn well choose, and it is highly unlikely to be some junior civil servant’s badly written memoir.) This means, of course, that all books departments end up with loads of books they don’t want, and these are usually dumped on a desk somewhere with an open invitation to all to take what they like. One glance at the titles will tell you why they weren’t reviewed. Obscure subject matter doesn’t even begin to describe what can be found. And, of course, those who scavenge the pile first will carry off the halfway decent titles. My bookshelves were once jammed with books I looked through on such piles, decided I would thoroughly enjoy reading, took home and never once glanced at again. Biographies of Carl Jung, Hogarth, the psychology of the stock market, cosmology made simple, Lithuanian recipes for the summer months - that kind of thing. (They are now all in ‘Elsie’s House’, the granite-walled playhouse in the garden which was once a pigsty. The plan is ‘to read them’ after I retire. Oh yes.)
One such book I came across - and, unusually did read, was an account by a former KGB officer who had defected to Britain about the dying days of the Soviet regime. What stood out like a sore thumb was that, for some reason, it had been rushed into print. I inferred that because about halfway through it was obvious that proofreading had been completely abandoned. The book was very well printed and the first half was impeccable - not a literal to bee seen. Then they were everywhere.
The thesis of the book was simple: that for several years it had been obvious to the KGB that the Soviet regime was, in its present form, dying on its knees and that the service had set about re-organising itself and Russia to ensure that the country could go through whatever changes were on their way, but that those who held the reins of real power would survive and carry on as before.
I have indicated - well, more than indicated - that my father had some kind of relationship with our British secret services, though I’m buggered if I know what it really was, and I showed him the book and told him what the author was claiming. He pooh-poohed it all, and at the time, him knowing what he did, and me not knowing much at all, I accepted his verdict. I now feel he was wrong. I think that is exactly what happened. Why? Because it’s exactly what any sane, intelligent, functioning secret service would do. What was that line in Lampedusa’s The Leopard? ‘Things must change so that they can stay the same.’ Quite.
We're all the same at heart, I mean we all shit from the same hole. Even Putin.

NB To the lads and lasses from the KGB/FSB: click on the above and Happy New Year.

. . .

There was one memorable consequence of my speedy trip to Hamburg in December to attend the funeral of my aunt (Tante Nanny). After the requiem service and burial, we all adjourned to a nearby cafe for a drink of some kind (my sister and I had wine, the more sober North Germans stuck to coffee), sandwhiches and dessert. ‘Sandwiches’, a word which to my mind conjures up mean triangles of tasteless white bread with cucumber and tuna, does really describe the German version, which is Aufschnitt on a variety of bead, and, again to my mind, a damn sight nicer. While I was there, a man introduced himself to me and told me we hadn’t met in more or less 56 years. It was Hans-Ulrich Mose (Ully), my uncle’s brother. It seems he and a friend visited us in Lower Assendon in - well it must have been about 1955/6. He told me he still had a photography of my in Lederhosen with a rucksack on my back, and promised he would send a copy of the picture. He did. In fact, he sent three pictures, and (below) is one of them. The peopl shown are (from left) my father, then about 33 years old, my German grandmother, who will have been about 65, and my mother who will have been 36. (She was three years older than my father, which rather irritated her, though I get the impression that, given that her marriage was up and down, most things would have irritated her about him given half the chance. I’m afraid I have the same problem with my wife, but there you go, me and, I should imagine, most of the world.) Standing in front of the adult are, to the right with blond hair, my brother Ian, who will have been about seven or eight and then me, a few years younger. We are both wearing Lederhosen and were even sent to school in them, which was quite something barely nine, ten years after the end of the war. There you have it: definite proof that I was once young.

Friday, January 7, 2011

You can never have too many mobile phones or laptops: discuss. And why I dislike bad losers

I am the proud owner of three laptops. In fact, I have a fourth laptop in the house, but that belongs to work and is set up for me to be able to access the feature pages so I can set about slapping the puzzles on their pages. (Incidentally, during the spat I had with all the bright sparks from The Archers, it was suggested that I ‘set the puzzles’ which is why they were so dull. Quite apart from that being rather a lame insult, it’s not true. Not for me the glory of ‘setting’ the puzzles – by which I understand ‘making them up’ – but my role is about as mundane as could be. I call up the pages, and from a store of puzzles which are submitted by their various compilers I simply place the puzzles on the pages. It is quite repetitive work, but I do it on a freelance basis and am paid reasonably well for doing it. So I don’t care. It means that when bills arrive, I don’t fret quite as much as did. But back to laptops and other gadgetry.) Our household also has a total of, I think – I’ve just made a quick tally – 15 mobile phones, several of which are years old and quite inert and of no use to anyone except, perhaps, a design museum desperate for exhibits of any kind. That collection is something of a standing joke at work, but in all honesty there is full set of completely rational explanations as to why we – which should read ‘I’ – have accumulated that many, and furthermore I am quite prepared to outline them. Almost all of them cost less than £10, so it’s not as though I were wasting money. It is, perhaps, ironic that none of us uses our mobile phones very much. My daughter who is off the texting age, does a lot of textin, or rather did, for I’ve noticed her phone has been sitting in the same place in the kitchen for several days. My son, I now owns two of my old phones, doesn’t use either. My wife and I only use them briefly to ring from or to the supermarket with last-minute request. All are pay-as-you-go phones, so it’s not as though £50 is being spent each month for no very good reason. In fact, I am often amazed at how people with spend that amount each month on a phone contract but when you hear them talking to each other, it is invariably such inconsequential crap that it is hardly worth the bother of eavesdropping. I am even tempted to go as far as to say that I regard people who take out such contracts merely to waste money as certifiable idiots, but as I have just admitted to being the owner of 15 mobile phones of which just three are occasionally used, I am on rather thin ice, so on this occasion I shall withhold judgment. There is a similar set of rational explanations for my three laptops. In fact, as I am in confessional mode, I should come clean and tell you that until about three months ago, I actually owned four laptops, but I sold the oldest and least reliable because – well, what was the point. I have been a Mac man all my computing life, which started in March 1998 when I bought a Mac clone. But I am writing this on a Windows 7 laptop, a Samsung, which is my latest acquisition. I still think Windows are horribly round the houses, utterly unintuitive – or better, even more unintuitive than Mac – and I dislike them almost as much as I dislike the ‘Mac community’, that self-regarding bunch of conceited fuckwits who really do think they are a cut above everyone else. I should also admit that Windows 7, visually, is now halfway decent and a 100pc improvement on XP, which was itself a 100pc improvement on whatever abortion Microsoft was flogging before. Buying this particular laptop was almost a mistake. I don’t mean that it’s a bad laptop – it’s rather a nice one. What I mean is that I wasn’t really going to buy one, but . . . What with the extra dosh I had in my pocket every month, my mind had turned to considering buying a Windows laptop for a while, for two reasons. First, I knew from using my brother’s Windows laptop that BBC iPlayer seemed to play more smoothly on Windows than on any of my G4 laptops (at the time I had two iBooks and a Powerbook). Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the iPlayer code is more suited to Windows. And perhaps more recent Intel chip-driven Macs play iPlayer more smoothly. I don’t know. Then there is the small matter of internet backgammon which you can play online courtesy of Microsoft from XP on. And I must admit I do enjoy playing backgammon a great deal. So with the idea of possibly buying yet another laptop became a half idea in my head and I began to haunt eBay with a view to seeing what was there. That was, of course, the kiss of death, because a small, but very dangerous part of me is a shopaholic. So within weeks of adding several possible purchases to my watch list, I spotted a possible bargain. It was a new Samsung 540 with an Intel dual-core chip. What made it particularly attractive was that no one seemed to be taking an interest, but, more important, the auction was set to end at an ‘unfashionable hour’, by which I mean something like 9am when fewer people can be bothered to get their act together to bid online. So courtesy of one of the ‘we bid for you’ website – I shan’t say which one because for some reason or other it still hasn’t charged me a penny for using its service even though I’ve been doing so for almost two years – I put in my, comparatively low bid, being more or less certain that I would be outbid. But, dear reader, I wasn’t. And I bought that brand, spanking new Samsung 540 with a 500gb hard drive for around £120 less than they were commanding elsewhere on eBay. There was, of course, they ticklish task of obliquely acquainting my wife with the fact that our household was now the proud owner of a third laptop (she didn’t know about the fourth, ever) but I did that sooner rather than later just to get it over with.

. . .

I seem to have rambled on rather more than usual, and I began merely to record how odd it is that so many people on the Microsoft internet backgammon site are bad losers. Of so I assume, because more often than not, if, in a best of five games match, the opponent realises he or she – though I should imagine it is invariably he – is going to lose, they simply bow out with even the courtesy of resigning. When you play, you can set your standard as beginner, intermediate or expert. Well, for the past few months I have set myself as expert in the hope I would get some more challenging games, but the only difference I have seen between expert and intermediate status is that more people who class themselves as expert players bow out early without even resigning if it’s pretty certain they are going to lose. I have many, many faults, but I can, at least, honestly claim to be a good loser. I know that cuts no ice in the US, but her in Blighty we good losers are thought of as the salt of the earth.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Synchronicity, or another way of talking bollocks. What, you were just thinking that, too? Spooky!

There are many out there who are in thrall to coincidence and ‘synchronicity’, which is a kind of coincidence for new age freaks. If I have got it right – a big if, as I regard it as just so much claptrap – ‘synchronicity’ is coincidence with a kind of added significance. So someone will say something along the lines of: ‘I was just thinking of my twin sister in Sydney and how I had called her for a while for a chat, when the phone rang – and it was my twin sister in Sydney! Spooky! What do you think of that!’ Well, not a lot, really. In fact, nothing. It’s just a coincidence and there’s no significance at all.

In fact, researchers (who seem to be everywhere – if you want to make a tidy living doing very little, just find yourself a topic to research and sooner or later you’ll find some fool to finance your work) have delved into ‘coincidence’ and concluded that to establish whether there is any significance in ‘coincidence’, one would have to establish on how many occasions no coincidence was involved. So, in the example I give, one would have to compare how often twin one was thinking about twin two and at that moment twin two decides to ring twin one with how often twin one was thinking of twin two but twin two didn’t ring and how often twin two rang but at that point twin one had not been thinking about twin two. If you get my drift. And the conclusion was that that there is no cosmic significance in coincidence.
Coincidence is simply, well, coincidence and chance.

Being an honest sort of chap, I have to admit when I was younger – I am now 112 years old, so that was some time ago – I was a little more prepared to believe in bollocks such as synchronicity. But then something happened which rather sobered my up.

Like many hacks, I suffered a kind of professional mid-life crisis when I was in my 30s. It happens to many, if not all (interestingly never the ones destined for high office). Some fuck off to a Greek island ‘to write my novel’, others ‘retrain’ as something of other. One hack I knew, a half-Polish chap who would get very drunk indeed given half a chance but who was always excellent company, jacked it all in an started an antique stall.

It failed after just a few months - how could it not? - but buggered that he would give in, he soldiered on for a while, getting further and further into debt until he finally saw sense and came back to earning his daily crust working for newspapers. Life was much as it had been before, except that now he owed the banks several thousands pounds, on which, nice chaps that they always have been, they also imposed a swingeing interest rate.

When I was in my early 30s, I had developed an interest in photography, so I eventually left the extremely boring, job subbing on the CEGB staff newspaper I had at the time and started a full-time photography course at West Bromwich College in Wednesbury. We all – I stress all – eventually drift back into a life on a newspaper, slinking back with our tales between our legs, chastened, possibly a little wiser, but most definitely far more jaundiced than we were before.

I am still interested in photography, but started in the days before Photoshop and then digital cameras, when doing it properly involved not just taking pictures and then dropping off the film at Boots, but developing the film and printing the pictures, and a lot of skill was needed for both. It was element of hands-on practicality combining with the more creative side which I enjoyed.

So off I went to college, on the strength of the promise of working regular subbing shifts on the Birmingham Post to see me through and lump sum our father gave all of us. I lasted two terms of a two-year course before I ran out of money and had to leave to find work. I did, as an assistant in an advertising studio in Harborne, Birmingham, one of reasonably big ones outside London, but the truth was I was too old for that kind of existence and left after two months.

My next job was a subbing job in South Wales, but after dropping one too many bollocks (subbing in the provinces it as close to shovelling shit as any job can get and boring just isn’t the word. Subbing on the nationals is far more enjoyable, not least because the standards are far, far higher), I was sacked. That was in September 1989 and I decided that the time had come to try my luck as a ‘freelance photographer’. I also did whatever other jobs I could find, working subbing shifts on the local morning paper and writing feautures. And it didn’t go badly. Then, come the turn of the financial year at the beginning of April 1990, everyone, but everyone battened down the hatches and I simply wasn’t getting enough work to exist. But I am getting ahead of myself.

On November 21 the previous year, I turned 40 and went off to Paris to spend a few days with my then girlfriend. On my way back, via the boat train, there was some sort of storm and I and an elderly couple were told that if we hurried, we could get on the last Hovercraft to be crossing the channel that day. It was either that or wait until the following morning. So the three of us agreed to share a taxi to travel the 10 miles or so to the port where the Hovercraft would be leaving. During the journey, naturally, we chatted, and I discovered that the chap, who was well into his 80s was one of the founder members of the world-famous photography co-operative Magnum Photos. Unfortunately, I can’t remember his name, but he was either David Seymour or George Rodger.

So there was I who intended forging a new career for himself as a photographer in a chance meeting with one of the greats of photography! God, how significant is that! I told myself. Just think how interesting it will be when, as an old man, I come to look back on my career in my memoirs! Or when someone else comes to write my biography tracing my illustrious career as a photographer! Coincidence, synchronicity? Yes, and then some.

Or not, as the case may be. For, as I pointed out about, my illustrious career as a photographer came to an abrupt end five months later, and like all the other hacks, I found myself slinking back to the second oldest profession, in my case working shifts on the nationals in London.
The moral of this story? Stuff significance and synchronicity.

. . .

I have to admit that I don’t think there is any intrinsic significance in life. Or, to put it another way, life is intrinsically meaningless. The God squad will, of course, disagree, but I am inclined to see us humans as just another life-form which evolved into what it is, and that’s the end of the matter. We are a life-form more complex than some, and I don’t know of too many crustaceans who get there knickers in a twist debating the basis of morality (or writing blogs, for that matter), but I do believe it is hubris of the worst kind to think that we humans are in some way marked out as being special. (For one thing, if we were so special, would be really treat each other so badly?)

Having said that, there is much in our lives that does have meaning or which gives our lives meaning. And I hasten to add that, not only because that is what I sincerely believe and because it is the necessary second half to my opening statement, but because otherwise, as a species, we would undoubtedly behave even worse than we do now.

So, for example, my two children, the love I feel for them, their company, the love they show me and the care I am glad to give them until they are old enough to take care of themselves form, as far as I am concerned, the meaning of my life. I am aware of the irony that, just as you and I did when we got older, they will grow apart from me as they become ever more self-aware of their own existence, and that I will probably mean a lot less to them in times to come than they mean to me, but then (to use a cliché) that’s life. Once they have flown the nest I shall have to cast around for other ‘meanings’ with which to sustain my spirit until the time comes for me to pop my clogs.

It doesn’t just have to be family which gives a man or woman meaning. For many, a kind of their life gains a kind of ‘meaning’ from their ability to lord it over others, or their capacity to get ever richer, or, to give a less horrible example, an altruistic capacity they have to spend their lives helping others. But I stick by my central point, that life has no intrinsic meaning or significance.

...

I am writing this while lying in bed with the ‘flu, though whether it is bird flu, swine flu, man flu or common or garden flu, I couldn’t really tell you. All I know is that I feel very grotty indeed and only perk up for an hour or two (in which time I can lie here bending your ear with my inconsequential bullshit) after swallowing doses of Day Nurse (available at all good chemists and many bad ones, too). But the point of this entry is that I should like your prayers for a speedy recovery, or, if you are not the praying kind, at least your best wishes.

Emails from you assuring me that I am constantly in your thoughts during this difficult time (for me) would be more than welcome. And a private message to the chap with the lumpy sofa about whose comfort the police are especially concerned: tell me some of your almost unbelievable stories. I need something to cheer me up.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Ah, the joy of a free Press: which can (apparently) hang, draw and quarter us at will; Estonia goes for broke - it would seem literally

Like most countries, England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland has its own legal system) try to ensure that those who come before its courts get a fair trial. And one way they do so is to enforce an aspect of the ‘contempt of court’legislation: once someone has been charged with a crime, the media can only report that fact and his or her name and address. This rule was once very strictly observed. and anyone straying beyond those bounds was severely bollocked and could even be jailed for contempt of court.
In the U.S., and for all I know other countries, they have a different tradition and even before a trial has started, the public can be assailed from all sides with lurid accounts of why the accused did it, how he did it, when he did it and what sentence he can expect when, as the media fully expect, he is found bang to rights. Furthermore, those same media feel no shame whatsoever when their lurid prognostications are found by a jury to be just so much bollocks. But as I don’t know too much about the legal system in the U.S. and other countries, I shall leave it at that.
I was a reporter for six years and attended a great deal of magistrate and Crown Court hearings, and the one rule we had to observe was that, in the phrase which we all know, the accused, who was only ever ‘the accused’, was ‘innocent until proven guilty’. So we had to be very careful what we wrote. One way of keeping to the straight and narrow was to stick that very useful word ‘alleged’ in front of everything.
That all changed, or rather I personally noticed that that had all changed, when The Yorkshire Ripper was caught. Peter Sutcliffe had murdered more than ten prostitutes in a number of years, and had slipped through the police’s hands more than once after being questioned. When he was finally arrested, the police said – whether informally or not – that ‘they were not looking for anyone else in connection with the murders’.
The message was broadcast loud and clear well before any possible jury would be allowed to consider the evidence: Sutcliffe did it. The irony is that had Sutcliffe chosen to plead not guilty at his subsequent trial, his lawyers might well have been able to claim the publicity ensured he would not get a free trial. In the event, he pleaded guilty. (One conspiracy theory claims the deal he cut with the police was that – as he was going down for life, anyway – he would be ensured to be sent to the far cushier Broadmoor, our hospital for the criminally insane, rather than a common or garden prison if he admitted to murdering several prostitutes he hadn’t actually done in. This, so the conspiracists claim, because the cops wanted to clear a couple of other murders from their books they knew Sutcliffe had not committed. The theory goes on the claim that there was not one but two ‘Rippers’, the second simply copying what Sutcliffe started.)
I was reminded of this by The Sun’s coverage in these past few days of a woman called Jo Yeates, who disappeared a few days before Christmas and whose body was found just over a week later. Jo and her boyfriend rented a flat from a retired English teacher who, it seems, was something of an eccentric. And within a day of telling police that he recalled hearing three people leaving her flat on the day she disappeared, Chris Jefferies, who is 65 and unmarried, was arrested ‘on suspicion of murder’. Crucially, he was only arrested for questioning. He was not charged. The Press, of course went to town: on December 31, The Sun had him bang to rights, not actually claiming he was Jo’s killer, but hinting broadly in that former pupils described him as ‘weird, posh, lewd and creepy’. It didn’t help matters that he ‘blue-rinsed’ his hair. (To be fair, other papers also pushed out the boat. The fact that I am only giving examples form The Sun doesn’t mean all the other papers behaved impeccably in this matter. It was also a stroke of luck that Jefferies had taught English at the nearby public school Clifton Colleger. Red top readers always like a ‘posh’ angle.)
A day later, The Sun produced further proof fingering Jefferies (pictured). It seemed he had ‘followed a woman’
who was a former acquaintance of the murder victim. Well! (was the implication), he’s your man! What sort of murdering weirdo does that! Except that perhaps he isn’t. He might be of course, but the police have now released him and warned that whoever killed Jo is ‘still on the streets’. That could, of course, also included Jefferies, but The Sun was careful not to make that connection. Jefferies, it admitted, had been released without charge, and it went on to quote a police chief superintendent: ‘Jo's killer is still out there somewhere. We will find them and bring them to justice. At the moment we don't know who killed her but we are determined to find out.’ Determined, eh? That’s good news, but it if very unfair to be snide about the cops who are doing their best and don’t give up. It would be far fairer to be snide about The Sun and The Mirror and all the other papers, the ‘serious’ papers included, who are only too prepared to hang, draw and quarter a man because he is odd, unmarried and blue-rinses his hair.
Naturally, I have no idea who killed Jo. It is as likely to be Jefferies as anyone else, and we could see him re-arrested and charged with Jo’s murder. And we could equally see someone entirely different arrested and charged. My point is this: why are the Press being allowed to drive a coach and four through established contempt of court legislation? In a way, the courts only have themselves to blame, in that they didn’t crack down on it sooner. Give them a yard and they will take a mile. I am not at all in favour of any legislation to curtail the Press (as many MPs who have been caught with their pants down or their fingers in the till are), but equally important as Press freedom – in which we take the rough with the smooth – is that our media should not act as judge, jury and hangman when it suits them, for which read when it is likely to boost sales of their rags.

. . .

I, for one, always admire courage, even of the foolhardy kind. There’s something noble about the knight who shoulders his lance, waves farewell to his damsel, then urges on his steed to gallop ever faster into certain death. So, I think we should raise a glass to plucky Estonia which on New Year’s Day ditched its old currency, the kroon, and embraced the future which is the euro. Not for them the safer waters of ‘well, given what’s been going on, wouldn’t it be wiser to slow down and see what happens?’ Apparently not.
I am obliged to be a little fairer, however, and concede that not all of Estonia is happy with the move. Just, it seems, the politicians. Those opposed to ditching the kroon in favour of the euro plastering Tallin with posters proclaiming: ‘Estonia. Welcome to the Titanic. Whether or not the hoi polloi are happy with the move depends on whose survey you read. The Estonian government reckons around half of the population support adopting the euro, while a survey commissioned by opponents claims only 34.3pc favoured the move, while 52.8pc opposed it.
This morning, the news from Estonia was gloomy. Estonians are finding it hard to come to grips with the new currency. Oh, well. You can't say they weren't warned.

. . .

The big news of the week – well, for some perhaps, although not me – is that Agnetha Whatever (the blonde one) would ‘not say no’ to an Abba reunion. To which the only sane response is: don’t do it. If there is one thing I have learnt, it is that one of the few principles worth a candle is: Never Go Back. Don’t go back to girl or boyfriends, don’t go back to an old company, don’t go back to live where you were once glad to get away and, particularly relevant for bands, don’t reform. Certainly, there will be more than enough old fans who will make it worth your while financially, but unless you are on your uppers and the taxman is breathing down your neck, stick to the principle and Don’t Do It. Ever. There is no sadder sight than some bunch of old farts, both men and women, bald, jowly, fat, paunchy, reliving their past glories and making a complete hash of it. Yes, they might be persuaded that ‘the return’ was a triumph, but that is usually by the promoter who makes a tidy bob or two and the manager who has had enough and wants to build up a nest egg.
There is a line in The Who’s song My Generation which runs: ‘Hope I die before I get old’. Well, two of them did – Keith Moon and John Entwhistle, but Daltrey and Townshend are now respected elder statesman and there is no sadder sight. Well, there is: the bloody Rolling Stones, still inexplicably billing themselves as the greatest rock band in the world, parading as though they can still cut it.