Search This Blog

Friday, 27 December 2013

Improving Seven Dials Brighton

Outside central London, the city of Brighton and Hove has the most lucrative car parking market in the country. High parking charges, applicable seven days a week, and an efficient enforcement regime operated by the city council's private partners, generate a strong income stream. Spending that money - which is ring-fenced for transport improvements - causes more problems.

Today I drove down Dyke Road to Seven Dials and was greeted by a large enamel Council-sponsored sign (cost? £200? £500?) , clumsily placed and reading "Improving Seven Dials". You know there is a problem when they have to tell you that. [See now my Footnote]

Some protracted road works have just been wound up, leaving Seven Dials with a new roundabout to replace the old roundabout. The surrounding area has been titivated - old clutter removed, new clutter installed.

The area definitely looks better and the new very solid roundabout may be safer than the old mini- one. I hope so. Remove the clutter of "Improving Seven Dials" and the roundabout will also look better.

But what should be regarded as routine maintenance and improvement is always got-up by the Council as some kind of major achievement. It isn't. And for anyone to think that it is would simply show how low our expectations of local government have fallen.

Partly, the self-publicity of "Improving Seven Dials" is meant to trigger grateful voting at the next election. Brighton and Hove has no single majority party and they all vie for votes through bigging-up what are really minor works. The Greens think that if they say "Cyclists" often enough then the cyclists will vote for them, Labour says "buses" and the Tories say "cars". They will each try to milk the Seven Dials improvements for their own purposes.

My position is this: we are looking at ordinary work which councils should be doing, day in and day out, routinely, with no great fanfares and certainly no enamel signs. Maybe once a year they can publish a list of everything that's been done, with the costs.

I would have quoted the cost of the Seven Dials work but it doesn't come up on my Google searches. My guess is that whatever the figures they will show that we got not very much for a very great deal.

Footnote 28 April 2014: There are in fact FOUR signs, each attached to the blue arrow direction signs in an aesthetically clumsy way. This is good news for signmakers, not so good for tax payers. More importantly, there is this underlying problem that public services now feel they are entitled to spend public money on what is purely self-congratulation.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Jesus Was Born on the 25th June

The Australians have got it right. Jesus was born in mid-summer. It figures: the family had to stay in the stable rather than the Inn, but they didn't freeze to death. All those Renaissance paintings by people who presumably knew what they were doing make it out to be a pretty cosy place. The Infant Jesus is not kitted out for a snow storm.

To recognise the true facts, Christmas in the Northern Hemisphere should be celebrated on the 25th June. This would increase the chances that family get-togethers could be held without disruption by storms, floods, power cuts, snow, flu and all the other reasons why 25th December is a really dumb choice of date.

That said, for those who have a sentimental attachment to the idea of mid-winter reunions, there is always New Year - currently an orphaned celebration which does not rise much above fireworks and drunkenness.

Celebrations on a beefed-up 31st December and  the new 25th June would also solve the recurring dilemmas of those who have to decide such things as, Do we spend this year with His lot or Her lot? Or shall we resign ourselves to spending many hours camped on a motorway along with all the others who have caved into pressure and decided that there is nothing for it but to attempt to travel to both His and Hers?

(I remember one year attempting to drive from Heathrow to Her lot in Plymouth in a Volkswagen Beetle and a developing snowstorm. Eventually, when the road could no longer be seen, we ditched the car and hitched a lift with the last shepherd out watching his flocks disappear under the snow. We discovered that we were in an area where friends had rented a holiday cottage so ended up in warm beds - we just knocked on the door and Lo! there was room in the Inn.

But that was enough to convince her Lot - when we dug our way into a telephone box the next morning to inform them that we had not died in the blizzard - that we had simply not tried hard enough to perform our Duties.)

Think about it. 25th June. It'a No Brainer. Just get over any Issues you might have with the fact that the Australians got there first.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

From Baths to Showers: 1947 - 2013

A British person who moves to Australia and stays there will probably develop an Australian accent. They don't will it or notice it happening. It's an unintended change occurring below the level of conscious awareness. Most linguistic change is like that.

My day does not really start until I have had my Morning Shower. I look forward to it, enjoy it and afterwards am ready to face the world. But I doubt I had a shower before the age of 11, when going to grammar school involved cold showers after games and swimming lessons, experiences which persuaded only would-be Spartans that showers are a Must Have daily experience

In my first three homes, taking me to the age of 14, there was a bath in the bathroom, supplied with hot water. There wasn't a shower attachment. You had a bath once a week and the proof that you had had it was a scum line - a tidemark - marking the high point reached by the water. You used soap and in my case the soap would have been Lux and sometimes Pears. As a very young child, my mother enhanced the bath experience by allowing me to kick and splash at the end, an indulgence still permitted to small children everywhere.

Having your hair washed and, later, washing your hair, was a separate experience. You did it over the sink, often for convenience the kitchen sink, and it involved using saucepans to pour water. Since they were filled from two taps, there was always a problem in getting the temperature right - not too hot, not too cold. I can't name the shampoos. Maybe they were soaps.

I guess that much of the time we smelt of stale sweat. And we had dandruff.

In my fourth home, taking me to age 18, there was no bathroom and no hot water. Having a bath involved boiling hot water in a gas-fired contraption (word for it, the copper?), releasing it into a galvanised bath placed on the kitchen floor and adding cold water from the tap to get the temperature right. Afterwards, you had to empty the bathwater saucepan by saucepan into the kitchen sink. This was not a formula for encouraging personal hygiene.

I don't know when I replaced taking a bath with taking a shower. But somehow it happened. Probably in my thirties or forties. Nowadays, only an ailment - sciatica, for example - will plunge me into a bath. And as a result of showering, a hair wash is a daily affair. Not much hair to wash now, it's true, but of course no dandruff.

I am sure that most British people of my age have gone through this change from bath to shower. It's a change of interest to the social historian and the historian of private hygiene. But we don't know much about it because we didn't notice it when it was happening to us.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Sash Windows. Some Things Should Be Uninvented.

I am living in temporary accommodation - we will come to that another time - and today I thought I would open a window. Eventually I did, but it was a sash window and it drew blood before yielding to force.

I recalled an incident fifty years ago. I had gone into lodgings on the Iffley Road or the Botley Road or some other Oxford road where students lodged in approved lodgings - houses where there was a Resident Landlord or worse Landlady to police your behaviour. My landlord was an elderly widower in a widowered Victorian terrace house.

My room smelt. I forced open the window and placed my hands on the sill to look out at my View. At which point the rotten rope holding up the sash window broke and the window descended with the speed of a guillotine onto my fingers. I was reduced to calling for help from my fellow lodger, David Thomas, fortunately in his room and who rescued me, exerting the considerable force necessary to lift the guillotine from my hands.

I moved out shortly afterwards.

If sash windows fit their casings then they exclude the draughts but are impossible to open. If they are easy to open, then they rattle and the draughts whistle through them. Though Estate Agents are enthralled by them as a Feature, it requires specialist (i.e, expensive) carpenters to keep them even half functional. They are a nightmare.

I think they are a uniquely British institution - though I have a memory of reading somewhere that they can be found in Madeira, a legacy of the short lived British colonisation of that island.

They are something which should be uninvented.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

The Death Wish of Marks and Spencer

I was reminded of the Menus you are offered in failing Indian restaurants: a choice of 365 dishes inspiring only the thought, How do I avoid making a choice which hasn't been selected for 364 days? Nowadays, the shorter a restaurant's Menu the more likely I am to enter. I think other people are doing the same - it's one of the reasons Thai restaurants have displaced Chinese for cheap eating out.

I was in Marks and Spencer. For reasons which need not detain us but which may become another Blog, I was replacing all my underwear, tee shirts and shirts. It was a big M and S, but the display racks were wedged close together with goods descending to floor level. At one point I did actually kneel to hunt for what I needed. Of course, many of M & S customers are beyond kneeling which is probably why kneeling worked.

I am pretty sure that, once you allow for different sizes, there are 365 choices of socks, 365 of shirts and 365 of underwear. They must employ the Pentagon to do Stock Control. Or not - since the choice is so large, only a few examples of each variety are on display and could easily be exhausted by a single shopper.

The main aim behind these crowded displays of minor variants seems to be to disguise the fact that M & S is no longer the place to go if you want 100% cotton or 100% wool. Instead of proclaiming the quality of their products, M & S distracts you with labels boasting that their things have been treated with  so-called Technologies which will protect you from smelly feet ( an M & S obsession) or from "bobbling" tee-shirts. I don't want Technologies from some Fantasy laboratory; I want cotton or wool.

Products are "Cotton rich" or "Wool rich" or "Easy Care". In the case of men's underpants, "Easy Care" means nylon. Any health professional will tell you that nylon underpants - like nylon shirts - are a 100% No - No. But M & S isn't listening: they are selling Boxers which are majority nylon. Well, it used to be called "Brinylon" in the days of Crimplene, but it's now called "polyamides".

There is lots of other nonsense: it's all made in China or Turkey, the clue to which is that it is labelled "Italian-inspired" or "Savile Row-inspired". It's all bollocks. It's the worst Spin Doctor crap.

How could M & S save itself? It may not - it could go to the wall just like those Indian restaurants which refuse to change. The U-turn would have to be dramatic: the range of choices reduced by at least 50% and probably more. The floor-level racks would have to go: someone should look at how a chain store like Karstadt handles the display problem, using table-top displays with storage of duplicate stock beneath.

And some honesty would have to be shown: this side of the aisle for 100% cotton, the other side of the aisle for 50 - 50 cotton and whatever is the successor euphemism to Brinylon.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Death by a Thousand Air Fresheners: English Seaside Hotels

For reasons which I may well Blog about later, I recently had to spend a week exiled in English seaside hotels - in Worthing as it happens but it could have been anywhere along the English coastline. So I won't name the establishments from which I generated this picture.

Off-season holiday hotels are never going to be much fun, but these hotels just stank. It was the same stink.

I looked around a bit. These are hotels which may have been renovated at some point in the past fifty years, but it's hard to tell when. Violent orange and black nylon carpet suggests the 1960s or 1970s, but dead floral carpet is hard to date. There are no easy to clean surfaces to be found anywhere in these hotels - especially not in the bathrooms - and much textured wallpaper and heavy curtain designed to make cleaning impossible.

Cleaning is impossible so the rooms, the corridors, the staircases are sprayed and have been sprayed on a daily basis for decades. Originally, the enemies would have been cigarette smoke and guests in sweaty nylon shirts. Now the cigarette smokers have gone but the nylon shirts are still worn by staff on work experience in the restaurant. The shirts may once have been white but it's far from certain.

Decades of spraying vaguely or wildly with air fresheners must be the cause of the Smell. If it had a colour it would be Pink or Grey and if it had a texture it would be Goo or Sludge. Pink Goo or Grey Sludge. I  imagine it congealed under the floorboards, seeping out and clinging to your clothes as you walk the corridors trying not to breathe too deeply.

The solution is probably Demolition. Total Refurbishment might work but only if directed by refurbishers obsessed with ventilation, smooth surfaces, natural materials. In turn, the owners of these decomposing hotels would have to sign up to a No Air Fresheners Ever  Code of Conduct.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

In Denial About Inflation. Coinage in the UK.

This Blog returns to a subject of other recent Blogs published here

People tell us that "Being in Denial" is bad for you and me, for our relationships, for our businesses and for our politics. No one has a good word to say about being in denial. But, of course, it flourishes.

Governments and Central Banks in recent decades have crafted a real commitment to holding down price inflation to a couple of percentage points annually. They have also crafted a rhetoric which goes with that policy. In many - maybe most cases - they have succeeded and continue to succeed in controlling inflation.

Despite their success, governments and central banks seem hugely lacking in confidence about their ability to achieve what they have indubitably achieved. Faced with real examples of inflation, they sometimes go into complete Denial.

On the 15 February 1971, the pounds shillings and pence United Kingdom decimalised its currency and largely decimalised its coinage and banknotes. The coinage only became fully decimal in 1984 when the halfpenny coin was demonetised (a half is not a decimal unit). But ignore that anomaly and go back to 1971.

On the day of decimalisation, Royal Mail set the basic (now the First Class)  inland letter tariff  at 3p. Ignore the halfpenny and it is the case that you could not (even if you wanted to be difficult) pay for your 3p stamp with more than three coins.

Fast forward 42 years and you will find that the cost of sending an inland letter is 60p. But the coinage has not changed in those 42 years except for the addition of one higher value coin worth £2. The other coins in circulation remain these:

1p, 2p in "copper"
5p,10p, 20p, 50p in "silver"
£1 in "gold"

So if you wanted to be really difficult, you could now pay for your 60p First Class postage stamp with 60 coins. Coins which - incidentally - each cost more to mint than their 1p face value.

Something is wrong here. Why hasn't the 1p coin been withdrawn from circulation? Why are governments and the Bank of England allowing vast quantities of  expensive-to-produce and virtually worthless small coins to accumulate in jam jars throughout the United Kingdom? Why are they in denial about inflation which in the case I have chosen has seen  a 20-times (2000%) price increase?

If the coinage was tracking that level of inflation, then if you think three coins for a postage stamp (as in 1971) is a reasonable maximum, then the smallest coin should now be the 20p (since 3 x 20p = 60p).

Imagine trying to get that idea past those who guard us from Inflation. Why are they in such total Denial about what has happened over forty years?

There are two main reasons.

First, they don't want a discussion of long-term inflation. They don't want us to think beyond annual rates which have comfortingly low numbers like 2.2%

Second, looking at the total and pathetic failure to introduce the Metric system into the UK they don't want a repeat of those tabloid newspaper stories which held up Metric Martyrs  - sad people who refused to sell their bananas by the kilo - as heroes. From the perspective of the government and the Bank, Penny Martyrs in The Daily Express are too terrifying a prospect to even contemplate.

And so we are condemned to this junk coinage which is just a nuisance in people's purses and pockets. It costs more to produce than it's street value. Tons (or tonnes) and probably hundreds of tons (or tonnes) are stashed in jam jars, unused. Charities are supposed to be grateful if we dump these wretched coins  in their collecting boxes.

A rational approach would link the coinage to long-term inflation and would have a Target which looked something like this:

Specify the Maximum number of coins which a customer trying hard to be difficult could offer to a corner shop keeper for one single everyday commodity: a tabloid newspaper, a pint (or a liter ) of milk, a First Class postage stamp, a currant bun.

Three coins sounds a good number to me but I would compromise on five or six to allow the 10p coin to remain in use for a few more years. But even that compromise would meet a stone wall of resistance.

To be a bit fairer, this is not just a UK problem. In €uroland, they have their tiny 1 cent, 2 cents and 5 cents coins. And you can still see shop assistants struggling with these badly-designed and now virtually worthless coins, a dozen years after the introduction of the €uro.

POSTSCRIPT 13 November 2013 : The  Big Flaw in the Above Argument

I should have thought forward from my argument. If the smallest coin is 20p, then when Royal Mail wants to increase the price of a stamp from 60p it has to jump to 80p - an increase of 33%. If the smallest coin is 10p, it has to jump to 70p - an increase of nearly 17%.

In other words, the smaller the smallest coin, the smaller the minimum price increase which is possible. In principle, you can jump from 60p to 61p with existing coinage, which is under 2%.

Small coins thus serve an anti-inflationary purpose.

Go back to 1971 and you could say that the new decimal coinage was itself a contributor to inflation. Even making use of the 1/2 p coin, Royal Mail would have to jump from 3p to 3 1/2 p at one go - an increase of nearly 17%. Using only the 1p coin as a point of reference, the increase from 3p to 4p is 33%

Doh! (But I did think this up myself, over my £4.39 ready meal)

Big State, Small State? That's not really the Big Issue

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Mr David Cameron, has come out in favour of a smaller state - what he calls a leaner, more efficient state. Of course, not quite a Tea Party state since this is the United Kingdom and we like to think we're not that stupid.

But Mr Cameron is, as usual, floundering. His white tie speech to the Lord Mayor of London's annual banquet was merely meant to make his audience think that if he is re-elected he will cut taxes paid by the rich. So a bit like George Bush. And not to be taken as an argument.

But if you do take it as an argument, then what matters is not how big a state is but what a state does and how well it does it. Faced with the choice between a big state which specialises in repression and a small state which ditto, there may not be much to choose between them. If you are on the receiving end of repression the Big Issue is how to stop it. You are not much interested in what percentage of GDP is absorbed by the state or how big is the fiscal deficit. That's something for those in the repressive state apparatus to have bun-fights about.

Nor is Big State vs Small State a timeless issue. It all depends on where you are. In war time, all states grow - sometimes hugely. They have a tendency not to shrink back to their previous size - too many people (like the whole of the arms industry) may  have acquired too big a stake in a big state. So it may take a deliberate political effort to shrink back the state.

Big State and Small State don't actually split between Left and Right. In France, there are no liberals. Every one thinks along Statist lines, left or right. Voters across the spectrum demand a Nanny State; they just disagree about whose bottoms should be smacked. France is a country of authoritarians - most of France embraced Nazism quite readily - and everyone expects the State to look after them and clamp down on everyone else.

Some states manage to be large  - in terms of the proportion of GDP they absorb - and efficient. This appears to be the case with the small Scandinavian countries. Others are large and grossly inefficient, like the United Kingdom. A recent book by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, The Blunders of Our Governments documents this for the past thirty years. The satirical magazine Private Eye documents it on a continuing basis.

So for the UK and at this time, I  favour  a smaller state. I see no virtue in giving Them money to waste.

There are some very big areas which are easily cut back. We don't need nuclear weapons. They give our politicians ideas above themselves and they are extremely dangerous. Accidents can happen. We don't really need armed forces on the scale we have them. We only end up fighting colonial wars which we lose. Other countries don't seem to feel the need to be engaged in perpetual conflict. Let's join them.

Like France, we have a lot of Imperial pomp surrounding our government of which the House of Lords and the Royal Family are the most obvious parts. They should  be shut down. So should the Church of England. A state church is never going to be a spiritually significant organisation. Ours has far too many assets. They should be confiscated and applied to Good Works in the community.

And so on. Just in case you think I am being very one sided, I don't see any benefits to a Benefits-Culture. But one should remember that the Benefits-Culture is the deliberate creation of the Conservative Party which under Mrs Thatcher found it a convenient alternative to having an industrial policy  or a housing policy or a regeneration policy or indeed any policy other than handing out money.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Dogs or Children. The Choice is Yours

Every time a child is killed by a dog or seriously mauled, there are demands that the Government do something. It is happening again this week. The victim this time was four years old and she is dead from a sudden and unstoppable attack by the family pet in the family home.

The Government is reluctant to act for two reasons. First, it is (apparently) unclear what would be an effective thing to do. Second, it looks at the supermarket aisles stacked with dog food and reminds itself of the voting power of the Dog Lobby. Austerity hasn't bitten into dog keeping and still less into the hopeless sentimentality which surrounds these creatures.

One thing the Government could do is to reflect on how over decades it has tried to improve Road Safety and discourage Smoking. Legislation has been important - the introduction of breathalysers and seat belts, for example - but so too have publicity campaigns.

People should be made to think more carefully before they take in a dog, often free from some re-homing centre for unwanted dogs. The dog may be unwanted for very good reasons and the re-homing centre has very limited obligations to certify that it is not psychotic.

To be effective advertising needs to be blunt:

Dogs or Children. The Choice is Yours
Dogs and Children Don't Mix
Are you sure your dog is safe?

As for legislation, it needs to be better thought-through than the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1990. There should be costs to dog keeping just as there are costs to smoking. Here are some possible measures:

 -  Dogs should be licensed.
-  They should be limited to one per household.
-  When passed from one person to another, or from a re-homing centre to an end-user, they should need an MOT certifying that they are safe to own.
-  There should be an additional tax on dog food to fund the rehabilitation to those who have been mauled and traumatised.
-  There should be a One Strike rule. If a dog bites, it should be destroyed.

It might also be no bad thing to remind people that there are child-friendly alternatives to dogs: mice, hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, goldfish, budgerigars, cats. And that's a short list. Some of those pets have additional advantages: they don't bark and they don't shit on the pavements.

Think about it. Sentimentality often carries a high price.

Monday, 4 November 2013

The Case for Cash

Here in the United Kingdom, the largest bank note in common use is the £20. You would need five of them to pay for a cheap hotel room in central London and ten to pay for a moderately expensive one. A £50 note exists but is not in common use. Present one to pay for goods and both you and the bank note will be subject to very suspicious scrutiny. Normal people don't have £50 notes. In reality, most £50 notes have left the country. They are in Poland where they have been remitted by Polish workers in the UK.

In contrast, the UK groans under the weight of small coins - the 1p, 2p, 5p - which are kept in circulation as if there has been zero price Inflation since they were introduced over 40 years ago. You would need  200 penny coins to take out a coffee from a cheap chain coffee shop. You would need 250 coins to buy the daily newspaper I read (The Financial Times).

In €uroland, the 50€ note is in common use - at today's rate, it's worth £42.30. In the supposedly poor ex- Soviet Bloc Czech Republic, the 1000 Koruna note is in general use. That's £32.70.

So why does the UK not have cash in appropriate denominations, freely available and accepted?

The short answer is: the Banks. They find it cumbersome and expensive to handle cash, to take it in and to hand it out. But they make money when you use their debit cards and credit cards to pay for purchases. So do the credit card companies. As a result, we have a very big Lobby which would like to move us into a "cashless economy".And they want us to pay for it. And they don't care how irritating it is to stand in a queue while someone pays for their cigarettes or their bottle of milk with a card.

Then there are the Retailers. They don't want cash on their premises because it can be stolen. Fair enough. Perhaps more importantly, if you pay by card - and especially if you combine your credit card with their Loyalty card - then they can study your spending habits and target you accordingly.

Retailers are probably more interested in your spending habits than the NSA is in your emails.

Of course, there are other groups interested in your spending habits, notably criminals trying to steal your credit card or, nowadays, just the necessary name and numbers.

So we have two (or three if you count the criminals) powerful Lobbies opposed to what could be a fast and convenient way of paying - which is what Cash is.

If you want to make the Case for Cash, just start using it. Especially the £50 notes. And when they give you 1p, 2p and 5p  coins in your change - well, just hand them back or drop them in the Charity box beside the till. If enough people refused these coins, it would force them out of circulation.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Education: It should be the State versus Parents

Education should be an area of conflict between parents and the state. To favour “parent-led education” is to oppose oneself to the state’s legitimate concern for the future.

States rarely aim to dissolve themselves. They aim to stay in business indefinitely. Without a constant supply of new children, they are doomed. Without a constant supply of talented, well-educated and willing new citizens, they are doomed to decline. It is in the state’s interests to provide the best education it can – and with no regard for the origins of the children for whose education it is responsible. The state needs the best, regardless.

Parents have different ideas. In the United Kingdom their most common aspiration is this: to ensure that their children do not end up at a lower position in the Table of Ranks than they themselves. They reckon that faith schools, free schools and private schools can ensure this outcome. No matter how dull or malevolent their children, if only they are kept away from the riff-raff (the Untouchables at the bottom of the Table of Ranks) then their future is secure. There is always going to be somebody who will employ them at the same level of salary and status as their parents enjoy. Eton does it at the top and your local Faith School does it in the middle.

From the point of view of the state, this is a disastrous way of thinking. Worse, it works. Parents – with a lot of collusion from employers, private and public – ensure that there is almost no “social mobility” in the United Kingdom.

And it will probably remain that way because the state is cursed with a representative democracy where political parties are too weak, too intellectually enfeebled, to take on parents and their vested interests in social immobility - in the existing classte system.

Instead of challenging this immobilism, political parties collude with it. They favour school uniform because it distinguishes children who come from nice homes and go to nice schools from the riff-raff, the underclass. They favour parent-led education knowing that only the sharp-elbowed middling classes will lead (though probably guided by some religious quack).

And so it will continue all through the United Kingdom’s next century of decline.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Waitrose and The Daily Mail: campaigning for the Conservatives

This morning at Waitrose, the check outs are piled with copies of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. They are running a big Promotion. It seems that Waitrose has fired the opening shots in the next General Election campaign. They want the Conservatives to win.

It used to seem a good idea to shop at Waitrose. As part of the John Lewis Partnership, it does not have shareholders but instead employee “Partners” who share in the profits. So it seemed a progressive organisation. But perhaps all the Partners were all along secret Tories.

They are also ardent Monarchists. A Waitrose bag bears the crests of the Queen and the Heir to the Throne, Prince Charles. I guess they are already working to secure the Crests of our future heads of state, Prince William and Prince George. (Britain is peculiar – we already know who our Heads of State are going to be for the next hundred years.)

I avoid the bags - I’m a Republican -  but it’s a bit harder to avoid the Duchy Originals. 

Buy any of Prince Charles’ products and you are automatically taxed for a contribution to one of his charities, all very worthy but not ones you have chosen. And creating Feelgood for Prince Charles.

I guess I should be shopping at Sainsbury’s (Labour) or Tesco (Tory and Zionist but apart from the Kosher food they don’t ram it down your throat).

I don’t think I can take much more Daily Mail patriotism from Waitrose.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Genital Mutilation

If only out of the self-interest of their functionaries, all States have a special interest in children. Without new generations to labour and pay taxes, a State will wither and die. If the new generations are healthy, educated and willing, then States can achieve great things.

Non-democratic states are often better at recognising this than democratic ones. Democracies tend to discount children because they don't vote. Too busy placating needy adult voters, democracies underinvest in education and underprotect children.

That would be all right if parents could always be relied upon to care about their children. They can't.

Children are utterly vulnerable to the adults into whose hands they happen to fall. Those adults can make or break them. Many - probably most - children are lucky and find themselves in the hands of adults who care for them - and profoundly. It helps that these bundles of soft flesh have the power to enchant those around them.

But not always. Faced with that soft flesh, there are parents whose first thought is to mutilate it. Instead of thinking that it is their duty to protect their child from bodily harm at an age when the child cannot always protect itself, they want to inflict bodily harm - painful and bloody. And not for any medical reason.

Parents who have to agree to surgical intervention to protect the health of their child always face a cruel dilemma. On the one hand, they do not want to see their child's body cut and their child in pain. At the same time, they know that on this occasion it is necessary, it is for the best. The Doctor says so.

Genital mutilation of both male and female children is not medically necessary. No doctor mindful of his or her duty  should ever wield the knife.

You bring a child into the world and one of your first preoccupations is to mutilate its body. How can the relationship between child and parent ever recover from that? Genital mutilation is a terrible abuse of trust.

We struggle to see the world from the child's point of view. Democracies are very poor at doing so. They are listening only to adults - and adults are often enough listening to the Voices they hear in their heads which urge them on to perform terrible acts.

The State has a duty of protection towards children and it should say No Way, Never, Boy or Girl.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

A Question to British Politicians, Why Do You Believe in the Special Relationship?

Most British politicians believe in something called The Special Relationship. Some of them believe in it fervently, people like Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Michael Gove and William Hague. These people have taken lifelong Vows.

Basically, it means that they think the United Kingdom exists to roll over and do whatever America asks. So when America asked us to clear Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean of its indigenous population (the Chagos Islanders) to make way for an American base, we did it without hesitation. The islanders had no say in their fate. 

And when President Bush wanted to show his Dad that he was a Real Man and not a Whisky and Cocaine Man, Tony Blair had no hesitation in sending British forces to invade Iraq – and lose badly.

When America told us that it wanted more powers to extradite people (UK citizens) from Britain, we rushed to agree – and, of course, we wouldn’t be asking for any reciprocal right to extradite US citizens to the UK. Oh no! Ditto for intelligence “sharing”.

And so it goes on. It’s deeply puzzling. Are you politicians paid to believe in the Special Relationship or is it just that you have never read a half-way decent book about America?

America is an AWFUL nasty dysfunctional state and has been that way for decades. 

Here is a short list of  20 Good Reasons to get a divorce from the Special Relationship:

1. America is one of the most unequal “Western” societies and is getting more unequal. It pays a price for this in terms, for example of
2. A vast, violent and cruel prison Gulag system which goes almost entirely unreported in the British press as does
3. Child Poverty 
4. Hugely unequal access to overpriced and second-rate medical care, sometimes needed because of
5. Guns
6. Guns ought to be enough to put anyone off the idea of a Special Relationship with these people, but if it isn’t then maybe
7. Nukes will do it from the only country that has ever used them

8. J.Edgar Hoover, heading a long list of powerful but corrupt  
9. Paranoids
10. Ready to attack anything that moves, but preferably poor non-white people in far away lands, targets for chemical and biological warfare experiments using, most famously,
11. Napalm
12. Though not forgetting that over ninety percent of conventional bombs dropped and missiles fired since the end of World War Two have been dropped or fired by America (Correct?)

13. The Republican Party, currently demonstrating that
14. America has a lousy Constitution, treated as if it were Genesis in the Bible, but actually leaving the political process at the mercy of 
15. America’s powerful and unpleasant minorities
16. Who for decades have tirelessly supported the world’s most vicious dictators (Trujillo, Duvalier, Stroessner, Saddam Hussein …) meanwhile
17. Directing decades of hatred towards Cuba as if you can put a country on
18. Death Row

19. America is scary
20. We could do a deal. America gets to have Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Michael Gove and William Hague. We get some space to breath the air of freedom

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Private Time Management, Public Time Mismanagement

We all know what Time Management is. It’s about making the best use of the finite amount of time available to us. It’s not just about work time; it’s about how we live our lives. When a book or a Time Management course – or just our own realisation – alerts us to the fact that it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time, that’s a liberating and empowering moment.
It’s the source of huge satisfaction to get a lot done in a day and, likewise, to complete a demanding work project without sacrificing the time we want to spend on other things.
I don’t need to elaborate. It’s all familiar stuff.

But our personal Time Management takes place in a social and political context. The trouble is this, that there are people and organisations out there determined to waste our time, big time. And I’m not just thinking about Passport Control.

Consider the almost universal institution of Public Holidays. These are days on which governments require or advise employers to lock out their workers.  At a stroke, governments thereby deny employees the possibility of time-managing a part of their (valuable) holiday time – often a significant part, since public holidays may constitute a quarter or more of an individual’s annual holiday entitlement.
The most obvious fact about public holidays is that they lead to overloads – delays - on public transport systems. Instead of enjoying their time off work, people end up in queues of one kind or another. And though the committed Time Manager will find something else to do when in a queue, even if only chewing gum, this is going to be a second-best use of valuable time.

There are other frustrations. Here in the UK, Public Holidays – with the exception of Christmas Day - have never really responded to any popular sense that “This is when we would all like a day off together”. Instead (to take the worst example), Easter is dumped on us – and however much it is moved about by the astrologers, it always seems to coincide with bad weather. Google “Bank Holiday Washout” and you get a downpour of results.
So however good our personal Time Management may be, Public Holidays are pretty much a kick in the teeth. It’s worst in countries where they are compulsory; in the UK, they are  merely advisory – the Department of Business publishes the annual List of Days. The Prime Minister is entitled to interfere with the List, adding Days Off to make us stay at home and watch Royal Weddings and such like. But he never adds days for football matches or February 15th or November 6th.

Public Holidays are the paradigm case of organisational mismanagement of other people’s time.  Other examples are more complicated and vary between countries.

In the UK, the long-term failure of governments to have  housing policies or transport policies has condemned workers, especially in the London hub, to longer Home to Work commuting times than are found in other advanced economies.
Now for sure there are those who will insist that they would resist any reduction in their commuting time below the number of minutes needed to finish the crossword. But in truth, for most workers commuting time is better shorter. You can try to multi-task on the daily commute and many succeed, but it’s always a bit forced. As a result, sixty minutes bad; twenty minutes good.
It would be highly desirable for governments to have as a policy the aim of cutting average Home to Work commuting times. That would really improve Quality of Life for millions of people, because it would free up time for more productive and enjoyable activity.

Of course, the idea of working towards a Commuting Time target sounds either Utopian or silly. It is clearly beyond the wit of the kind of governments the UK is blessed with that housing policies and transport policies should be co-ordinated to get people closer to their place of work (or vice versa). Some people would say that it is beyond the capacity of any government. Policy would require endless tuning and re-tuning and though that’s possible for interest rates, infrastructure can’t be continuously re- configured.

But if London had a regional government rather than a glorified Town Council it might be possible to get the idea on the Agenda. That ain’t going to happen because central government needs London tax revenues to prop up the loss-making subsidiaries of Northern Ireland, Northern England and Wales. A London regional government would almost certainly try to thwart these central government purposes. The Mayor of London has already caused trouble by suggesting that Stamp Duty on London house sales should go to his Town Council.

Central government in the UK is an organisation which camps in London but has no feel for it. That’s why when Parliament opens each year, governments think nothing of closing off London streets for a Ruritanian State Opening. So what if people, on an ordinary working day, are inconvenienced?

Public Holidays, Commuting Time. These are key areas where public policy or the lack of it wastes private time. The reader can no doubt begin to think of others. I will give one final example.

The clocks. It falls to government to synchronise our watches, to set the time. It is government which solves this co-ordination problem. Unfortunately, the UK government chooses a solution which suits the Highlands of Scotland and nowhere else in Britain, setting the clocks one hour behind those of our near neighbours in continental Europe.

There are compelling reasons for thinking that south of the Scottish border the clocks should be aligned with those of Europe (one hour ahead of their current setting). All the evidence is that road accidents would be reduced if Autumn and Winter afternoon darkness was not thrust upon us an hour earlier than necessary. More daylight at the end of the working day would save lives. In addition, more daylight after work and school increases the range of things which people (including children) can do with their time. More light enables people to get more satisfaction from their time.

At the beginning of the present Parliament, a bold Tory MP (Rebecca Harris) introduced a parliamentary bill to put the clocks forward one hour from their present settings. There was a lot of support. But our Prime Minister, David Cameron, blocked it. I am not sure what compelled him, but it was either the fear of upsetting Highland Scottish voters or upsetting Eurosceptics in his party who would reckon sharing clock time with our near neighbours as bad as sharing a currency with them.

And so public policy continues to manage our time inefficiently – sub-optimally, if you like. Time for those who value their time to start protesting.

Added 25 July 2018: See now the chapter on Time Mismanagment in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

Monday, 23 September 2013

Britain's Housing Problem

Small wars often continue for many years because there are stakeholders on all sides with an interest in their continuation. Most often, those stakes are financial: people make money out of wars. So if you want to bring a small war to an end, a good strategy is to look for ways of reducing the financial attractiveness of war making.You put the squeeze on the stake holders. Freezing their bank accounts may be more effective than bombing their bases.

Britain has a chronic housing problem - not enough houses, overpriced, in the wrong places, badly built and badly maintained - because there are a lot of stakeholders in the continuation of the problem.

Most obviously, house owners fund lifestyles on  house values which increase faster than the rate of inflation. It is the foundation of debt-financed consumption.

Then there are house builders who sit on building land because it is increasing in value at such a rate that it is profitable to keep it unused for as long as possible. Why build on it when you could make as much money by simply selling it on at a later date?

If you do build on it, no need to build solid, durable houses or sensible apartment blocks. People will buy anyway. They don't have much choice. There are no builders offering well-built moderately priced homes. They all offer Exclusive Developments and Boutique Collections - in other words, Crap.

And as for maintenance, home owners who have bought as far up the price range as they can possibly afford don't have enough money to repair. They chronically underspend on maintenance.

Landlords who buy to rent are happy to treat their properties as a wasting asset because, actually, they won't waste at all however much they are neglected. They will still increase in value however many generations of university students have trashed them.

Faced with this array of stakeholders, it would be a foolhardy politician who would try to confront the problem. The moment you tried to put the squeeze on any of these stakeholders, you would lose votes.

As a result, Britain is doomed to crap housing and not enough housing indefinitely. There is no way that it can break in to a virtuous circle where building more houses and more good houses (or apartments) turns out to be good for every body - as it is in countries like Germany or the Czech Republic

Sunday, 1 September 2013

The British Parliament and Syria

For the first half of the 20th century, the United Kingdom operated in the Middle East on its own initiative. After the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One, it picked up League of Nations Mandates to run Iraq and Palestine (France got Syria). As is the way with the UK, at times it behaved well and at others badly - notably, during the 1920s, in using Iraqi villages to test new techniques of terror bombing civilian populations from aeroplanes flying free of any risk of retaliation. Iraqi villagers did not possess anti-aircraft missiles.

In the early 1950s, the UK co-operated with the USA to topple an Iranian government intent on nationalising the country's oil reserves. As a result, the Iranian people got the Shah and his secret police, the Savak.

But in 1956, the USA refused to endorse the Franco-British-Israeli invasion of Egypt, designed to stop control of the Suez Canal passing to the country it passes through.

Since then, the UK has only intervened in the Middle East to do America's bidding, however ill-conceived. So it was that we got involved alongside the Americans in the invasion of Iraq, tried to punch above our weight in Basra, and ended up both defeated and humiliated - and at the same time making matters worse for Iraqis.

In the past week, it seemed that President Obama had finally made up his mind to Teach the Assad Government of Syria a Lesson and was going to launch against the country powerful missiles fired into it from a safe distance in the Mediterranean or the skies.

Taking his cue - this is what the Special Relationship is about - Britain's Prime Minister announced that the UK would join in. We would fire some missiles too, at targets chosen by the Americans, thus demonstrating to the world that we still have the capacity to do that sort of thing.

Unfortunately for Mr Cameron, the British Parliament vetoed the plan. This is an important moment in British politics.

For the first time in a century, Parliament has backed away from the idea that the Middle East is part of our backyard - a place where we are entitled to topple rulers we don't like or teach them costly Lessons. In this case, Mr Cameron's plan was to kill some Syrians with very high explosive missiles to show that we disapproved of President Assad killing Syrians with chemical weapons which are Banned.

You can phrase it in such a way that the whole US-UK plan sounds like a tasteless joke.

But Parliament has also backed away from the idea of doing America's bidding. This is the main source of outrage among those members of the Conservative Party who see their role as working to serve the US. Mr Hague and Mr Gove are behaving a bit like teenage girls, who feel that their role in life is to do what their boyfriend wants. They are very upset to have been thwarted.

Finally, Parliament has backed away from the idea that We Know Best - that we can launch our missiles confident that we are going to make things Better for the Syrians. This is perhaps the most important outcome of all. The situation in Syria is awful, of that there is no doubt. But the realisation that we cannot guarantee that using our missiles will improve the situation may, in the long run, serve people in the Middle East better than "humanitarian" missile strikes which fail to achieve what they are supposed to achieve.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Note to the Editor of The Guardian: Politics is Not Just About Lobbying

I get my News from three main sources: The Financial Times (my first choice), The Guardian and The Independent. The latter two both employ numerous columnists to comment on current affairs and to argue for positions. Increasingly, I skip these columns. Too often, they interpret their task as that of advancing some sectional interest.

Recently, I was talking to someone about  the International Workers of the World (the IWW - the Wobblies), the American-based and (historically) anarchist-leaning trades union. In contrast to most unions, which based themselves in one industry or trade - rather as if they were successors to craft guilds - the Wobblies sought to recruit all workers into its organisation. This wasn't megalomania. It was a strategy to avoid sectionalism and factionalism; to avoid the situation in which unions advanced the causes of their own members without too much regard to the legitimate interests and needs of other groups. In other words, they were opposed to people who were only interested in their own backyard. Britain's self-destruct National Union of Mineworkers was a good example of what the Wobblies were against (the Wobblies still exist, but "were" is probably more accurate than "are").

Guardian  and Independent columnists don't advance the backyard interests of miners or typesetters or panel beaters. They concentrate on women or  blacks or Muslims or gays or cyclists or the disabled or dog lovers (the last I include because of a recent Independent piece urging dog owners to use the power of the Hound Pound to force department stores to allow their pooches through the doors). More often than not, columnists focus on sub-sections of sections of society: gay Muslims, female cyclists. Sometimes the backyards are even smaller than that.

From a Wobbly perspective, this is all wrong. It places what differentiates people at the forefront instead of what they have in common. At worst, it is about pushing the case for Jobs for the Girls as a variant on Jobs for the Boys. But what is really needed is a robust sense of equal rights in general, not particular rights for some group or other. Those rights follow on from the general commitment, they don't precede it or create it.

This is not to deny that some people have legitimate grievances and that they need advocates, vigorous and noisy ones. But the danger at present is that if you take your line from The Guardian or The Independent you will end up thinking that politics is only about lobbying, advocacy and backyards. It isn't.

Monday, 5 August 2013

The True History of Gibraltar

The British Government bases its legal claim to Gibraltar on the Treaty of Utrecht 1713 - so this year is the 300th Anniversary of the colony. We won in the War of the Spanish Succession and Gibraltar was part of the Booty.

So here we are in 2013 basing a claim to an enclave across the ocean on having beaten the Spanish in 1713: "We won the War, so Tough". We don't nowadays say that to Germany, so what makes us think that it's a good argument to use with Spain? After all, Spain is also a member of the European Union and allows many thousands of UK citizens to buy homes and live in Spain and many more British citizens to holiday there, unmolested.

We prefer Gibraltar to amicable relations with Spain because it controls the entrance to the Mediterranean. That used to be very useful in war time, especially if Spain was neutral (World Wars One and Two) or potentially on the other side. Actually, whether or not we can now use the Straits in war time depends on the Americans not on Spain. This we have known since 1956 when the US (Eisenhower, Republican - those were the days) pulled the plug on the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt. Straits or no Straits, we can't go to war any more unless the Americans at least tolerate it.

It may be that the Americans prefer us to hang on to Gibraltar - they probably reckon we're a more compliant touch than the Spanish. We will let them land planes, dock ships and install listening posts on the Rock. But if the Americans change their minds and conclude that Gibraltar should go to Spain, then probably it will go to Spain.

That would be tough for the on-line British gambling businesses who have installed themselves there, not to mention the money launderers and the gun-runners and ... well, all those activities which drive up local property prices so that ordinary Gibraltarians find themselves forced to live over the border in, er,Spain - hence the importance of the border crossing.  Gibraltarians commute to work cross that border. So do Spaniards, in quite large numbers: the Gibraltarian economy is bigger than Gibraltar. That's the general idea of such enclaves, as Spain knows from its own African enclaves of Ceuta and Mellila.

The Treaty of Utrecht also ceded Minorca to Britain. We had more difficulty hanging on to this and ceded it back in 1783 by the Treaty of Versailles and back once again in 1802 by the Treaty of Amiens. We weren't doing very well in the fights we were picking at that time. Yes, but if we got it Fairly by the Treaty of Utrecht then it was Unfair that it was taken away from us in 1783. Think of all those poor Minorcans born between 1713 and 1783 who grew up thinking that they were Brits, born to celebrate the birth of royal babies on their postage stamps (if they had had postage stamps then). How cruelly we abandoned them!

Surely, Mr Cameron and Mr Hague, time to demand back Minorca so unfairly wrested from its rightful owner!

Finally, by the Treaty of Utrecht, the British got something much more valuable than Gibraltar or Minorca. They got the Asiento.

The what? They got the right to sell people as slaves to Spain's colonies. They broke the Spanish monopoly on supplying slaves to its own colonies and opened the trade to their own traders and their own ships. That's the kind of Booty you get when you win wars. The Asiento lasted until 1834, the British government assigning its trading rights to our South Sea Company.

Ain't British history glorious?

HSBC and the Vatican: A Lesson to Our Politicians

HSBC has been reviewing the accounts of some of its dodgier London-based clients. This follows on from some rough handling by US authorities, who have fined it heavily for carelessness in monitoring money flows through US and Mexican based accounts.

As a result, HSBC has told the London Embassies and Consulates of  forty countries to take their banking business elsewhere. Not all the names seem to be in the public domain yet, and the British media are unlikely to  pursue the story, but three unwanted countries have already been identified: Benin, Papua New Guinea - and the Vatican. Yes, the Papal Nuncio to the Court of St. James has been told to take his money and clear off. I am sure this will be done with much gathering up of Nuncial skirts.

But it's a fairly obvious account to not want to have. The Vatican's Bank in Rome - the so-called "Institute of Religious Works" is as dodgy as they come, under heavy pressure right now from international regulatory authorities to clean up its act. Basically, it's a bank of choice for criminals - including criminal priests. Cleaning it up is easier said than done - throw out the bathwater and you may discover there never was a baby. This is what the regulators suspect. As a result,  all Vatican accounts come under suspicion.

In contrast to HSBC, British politicians of all parties can't get enough of the Vatican. Prime Minister Tony Blair cosied up to Pope Benedict and begged him to come to Britain. Blair's hapless successor, Gordon Brown, renewed the invitation. Eventually, under David Cameron, Pope Benedict arrived. Politicians - without exception - behaved as if it was the second coming. The Catholic news media - the BBC, The Guardian, The Times, followed by all the rest - worked round the clock to hype the visit. The entire Establishment toadied to Pope Benedict.

The worst of it was the insult to the Republic of Ireland such behaviour implied. There was our near neighbour, its government and people, in the middle of such a bitter struggle to hold the Roman Catholic Church to account for its crimes that Pope Benedict could not have set foot in that country. And there were we treating him like some supernatural celebrity when all we were getting was a reactionary Professor and former member of the Hitler Youth who had no intention or no ability to clean up the Vatican stables.

Well Done, HSBC! But I fear we won't hear very much more of this story.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

What Does An Illegal Immigrant Look Like?

The United Kingdom Borders Agency is in the news for sending its officers to hang around some London underground rail stations to stop people (randomly, but they stop only non-white people) and ask them to prove that they have a right to be in the UK. This is not much of a departure from the traditions of this organisation. A few years ago, UKBA used to send a charabanc of officers to Brighton every summer. Accompanied by police and a tame local news photographer, they would raid restaurants and the side shows on the pier, looking for people working illegally. On one occasion they circled the pier with boats in case any terrified illegals sought to escape by hurling themselves into the sea.

I don't think the results were much to boast about. At best, a few Brazilians with tourist visas who could be deported back to Rio to spread the word about how much fun Brighton is and how awful Britain.

Anyway, What does an illegal immigrant to the UK look like? This is not a topic on which I have any expertise, but I find I have a very large number of beliefs. I will number them and you can shout "True!" or "False!" or anything else you feel like this morning:

1. There are a lot of illegal immigrants in the UK, and "a lot" means "at least 100,000"
2. Some are people who have overstayed their student or tourist Visas and no longer have a right to be here
3. Some entered in the back of a lorry, evading border controls, and never had a right too be here
4. A few could have entered legally but didn't realise that and chose the back-of-a-lorry route
5. Most are working
6. Most are working in cash-in-hand jobs
7. Many are coerced or exploited by those who provide them with work
8. Most are under 40
9. Most are under 30
10. Most are male, though in recent years the proportion of women has increased.
11. Most are non-white, for the simple reason that the biggest countries and the poorest countries have non-white populations, many of whom dream of better lives elsewhere - for which reason, we impose stringent visa requirements on nationals of those countries.
12. A significant minority are white from educated and affluent backgrounds; this includes many Visa overstayers
13. A few are engaged in serious criminal activities
14. Those engaged in serious criminal activities do get caught by the police
15. Most illegal immigrants are in south east England, especially London: this is where there are most jobs available
16. Most illegal immigrants knew someone who was already in the UK, legally or illegally, before they came here

17. If you granted an amnesty to all illegal immigrants who can show that they have been working and supporting themselves, nothing terrible would happen.
18. If you amnestied the group identified in 17, there would be a net gain to the UK Treasury from taxes they would start paying in excess of any benefits they might claim - simply because most of those amnestied would be young, single and fit.
19. An amnesty of the sort just described would reduce the number of people you needed to worry about by at least 90%
20. So why not accept that Boris Johnson got it right and that instead of posting UKBA Trolls at London Underground stations, we should use most of our resources  to set up a fast-track Amnesty Office
21. And, OK, then use resources to tackle problems created by illegal migrants who have other reasons for being here than the desire to work.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Development of a Sense of Humour in Children

I used to read a lot of stuff on child development: the growth of language, stages in children's drawings, counting, singing. Things like that. I don't recall reading anything on the growth of a child's sense of humour. This is odd because humour plays a huge part in the life of babies and young children. Are there stages? Are there cross-cultural universals? Are there cultural differences? Are there humour prodigies?

Babies quickly discover that adults do things to them which are fun: throwing them in the air and catching them, tickling them, blowing raspberries on their stomachs. These are things which make babies laugh. Adults also succeed in making babies laugh by pulling funny faces or doing funny dances - I guess this comes a bit later, these are things which the baby finds funny. Then comes Peep-Bo  and Hide and Seek - it's probably hard to sort out the differences between making jokes and playing other sorts of games since for babies and young children, jokes are very much practical jokes (Peep - Bo is maybe the earliest practical joke you can play. Fooled ya!).

When do babies get the idea that they can  try to make adults laugh? Of course, adults laugh at them - babies do amusing things without meaning them to be amusing. But what does a baby have to realise (what cognitive developmental stage must it have reached) to realise that it can try to be amusing and that it's fun to try to be amusing?

And when a baby realises that, what are the first things they do to try to be funny? I really don't know what comes first other than to repeat that the earliest things are surely practical jokes. Babies don't stand there and say, Have you heard the one about ... (And when they get to school, it's not part of the curriculum to learn how to tell jokes that begin Have you heard the one about  ... Surely something missing there, Mr Gove?)

Anyway, telling jokes comes later than making a joke out of a situation.

And where does a sense of irony come from? Maybe that has its roots in pretending. A young child develops a sense that not only can you be naughty but you can pretend to be naughty. That's maybe the heart of making mischief. So the child makes the gesture they would have to make if they were really going to knock the cornflakes off the table and the parents make the gesture of saying Oh No You Don't. And the child repeats the gesture with a smile. And so it goes on.

There must surely be a very big book on this subject somewhere. I must Google.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Brighton and Hove: The Stench of Decay

We have had a few days of hot weather recently, here in Brighton and Hove. And it hasn't rained. As a result, the pavements stink.

Walking into the city centre this morning, it was impossible not to notice. Sometimes the stench rises to a local crescendo, as if some under-pavement heating system was propelling it upwards.

Look down at the pavements and it's relatively easy to work out the causes.

There is spillage from street food, either accidental or from discarded left-overs. I guess it doesn't take long for cheese or fries, ketchup or mayo to begin to stink. The same is true for spillage from ice creams and fizzy drink cans.

This food waste produces black patches and, at its worst, greasy black slicks and puddles.

Then added to that is urine. Sometimes you can work out from the location whether it's dog piss or human piss - dogs use lamp posts, humans use entrances to buildings. Multi storey car parks are a favourite. But I suspect - and it's only a suspicion - that it's the rat piss which smells the strongest.

There's some shit too - dog, landgull, pigeon.

The pavements are in a terrible state anyway. The city authorities have a large budget for road works, but pavements don't seem to count. If they had an even surface, sloping towards the gutter, it would help. Then when it does rain, that would wash down the pavements, at least superficially. But the pavements aren't like that at all. When it rains, all you get is puddles.

Some cafes and restaurants with outside pavement seating realise that they need to take matters into their own hands, so they do wash their own stretches of pavement. But others can't be bothered. Perhaps they have become insensitive to the smells.

I walked maybe a couple of miles. I gave up the idea of sitting down at a pavement cafe, just did my chores and came home.

When I was a sixth former in the 1960s, I used to read Penguin and Pelican books. One of the first to grab my attention - I knew its main arguments by heart - was J K Galbraith's The Affluent Society (1958). He describes how private affluence and public squalor co-exist side-by-side in America. We thought then that Britain had less of a problem. Today, Brighton's streets show that we are now where America was in the 1950s.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

A Surfeit of Circuses

From a distance, there are things to envy about Britain (that part of the United Kingdom which is not Northern Ireland).. For example, as things go, it's not a very violent society. Very, very few people carry guns and probably very few people carry knives. There aren't many murders or kidnappings or kneecappings or even many armed robberies. Fewer people die in road accidents than in many other countries

But like Italy, it is absurd. Right now, my fellow citizens remind me of French geese, being force-fed to produce liver pâté. The Royal Baby is being stuffed down their throats by our newspapers and (I imagine - I don't go near them) our TV channels and radio stations. The aim is to produce the kind of greasy stupidity which - with any luck - will give Conservative leader David Cameron a majority in the 2015 Elections.

Life in Britain is constantly disrupted by the circuses mounted by the Royal Family and its outreach workers in all the Media. It's a big Family - it calls itself the Firm - big enough to ensure that there is always a death, a marriage, a divorce, a baby, a scandal, not to mention yet another Jubilee to take over from News about the weakness of the economy, poverty, unemployment or the way we prefer dogs and horses to children.

I just want you to know that there is a minority of us - maybe 25% - who are Republicans, people who dream of an elected head of state. Not a Chief Executive - not like the USA or France - but a ceremonial Head and unifying figure. Maybe like the Republic of Ireland. Someone who is just decent, competent, kind - and not trying to maintain the position of hereditary landowners,the hereditary wealthy, the Conservative Party, people on horseback, people who shoot animals for pleasure.

Best of all, without the Royal Family we would not have to fight colonial wars in order to provide photo-ops for young Princelings.

Friday, 19 July 2013

What is Your Crime Excess?

I am moving home and yesterday had to insure my new house - the building itself. I did the job over the phone. Before they could finalise a Quote for me, I had to pick an Excess. That's the amount I will contribute to the cost of any repairs myself before claiming money back from the insurance company. Offered a range between £50 and £1000, I chose £1000. I would rather simply pay for small works to be done than get on the phone, fill in forms, arrange inspections and all the rest you have to go through before you get (maybe get) a pay out from an insurance company which then promptly increases next year's insurance premium.

Yesterday I also read that police numbers in the UK are falling and that at the same time crime is falling. That sounds to me like cause and effect.

Some people will go to the police if they think they have suffered £50 worth of harm; others will only go if the harm exceeds £1000. Make the police less accessible - fewer police, fewer police stations, longer waits in line - and the average harm level at which people will go to the police will rise. So reported crime will fall.

Some people will think that some things are so trivial that they should not bother the police with them. Others will think about the hassle, the waits in line, the low probability of the police doing anything, the even lower probability of anything coming to court .. and they will decide it's not worth going to the police.

In other words, everyone has a  Crime Excess in their head and it's different for different people. Let me give a small example.

Some years ago, I was leaving my office in the city of Brighton & Hove.As I turned round from locking the door I noticed three or four teenage boys on the other side of the road. For some reason they started cat-calling me. I found that odd; I wasn't wearing my funny hat (I sometimes wear funny hats) and I wasn't behaving oddly. I was clearly someone leaving work. Maybe they were a bit drunk. Daytime drunkenness is not unknown in this city. So I simply began my walk home. The boys stayed on the other side of the road and continued to jeer. Then something whizzed across the road and an egg struck the pavement in front of me. I looked across the road and the boys ran away. I walked home thinking, What was that all about?

In those circumstances, someone with a mental £50 Crime Excess would have phoned the police station and reported the incident. Maybe the police would have been interested if it added to a pattern of reports. Maybe they would have asked for a Statement. Maybe not.

But I have a £1000 Excess in my head. I preferred to go home, eat my dinner, and read my book. I had no desire to spend time on the phone to the police, reporting a very small incident. In any case, I could not have given any useful description of the boys.

Had the incident been repeated, then I would no doubt have begun to approach my £1000 Crime Excess and maybe on a third occasion I would have reached it. But the boys never re-appeared. So as far as crime statistics are concerned, nothing ever happened.

If you cut police numbers, close police stations, reduce opening hours, create longer waits on the telephone you just make it more likely that people won't report what they regard as minor crime. It just ain't worth the trouble. And in any case, the newspapers at the moment are telling you that the police are really only interested in crimes committed by celebrities or committed many years ago.

Postscript 10 April 2014:

I have been tested. Last week the building in which I have a small office was burgled. I discovered the burglary when I was first-in on Saturday morning. All seven offices had had their doors smashed in. I phoned the building Manager who came in and reported the forced entry to the building and each of the offices to the police. Over the phone, the Police gave him a Crime reference number. Six or seven hours later Forensics came to investigate. I had told the Manager that uninsured items had been stolen from my office with a value well into four figures. And I told Forensics the same when they came to look at my office (but really to make conversation since I assumed it isn't their job to interest themselves in such things). But I have not mademy own Crime report to the Police and weighing up the relationship between the time and effort that would take and the probability of recovering my lost items, I have no plans to do so. So it looks like my Crime Excess is currently well into four figures. Nor have I turned detective and gone on ebay or round local second-hand shops or whatever you would do if you wanted to be a Do It Yourself sleuth.

Added 25 July 2018: the ideas in the Blog post are now developed in the chapter "Crimes and Punishments" in my book, The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Is Democracy about voting for "people to run the country"?

Well, Yes and No. It's only half the story but it sometimes gets billed as the whole story. And that's one reason why "the country" is often badly run.

The other half of the story is that democracy is about having influence over the legislation under which you live. This is obvious in a country like Switzerland which - much to the embarassment of the rest of Europe - makes frequent use of Referenda. People vote on whether they want to live under such and such a legislative proposal and their votes are binding. Ouch!

In the UK, Parliament which is supposed to be a legislature is pretty unfit for that purpose. One half of the Parliament - the House of Lords - is an unelected fraternity of lobbyists paid to insert clauses into legislation which favour those who have paid for the clauses to be inserted. Let's not beat about the bush. People in the UK would live under better legislation if the House of Lords was simply abolished. It would save money too.

The House of Commons, the popular chamber, conducts its business in such a way as to make it difficult to get any legislation - good or bad - onto the books. It spends a lot of time on holiday. It spends a lot of time in schoolboy debates (sorry, they are schoolboy debates even if some of the boys are girls). It struggles to pass legislation in the time left so that important pieces of legislation often don't make it before they are timed out. It is at the mercy of government whim so that legislation which has been promised can simply be withdrawn and legislation no one had previously thought about can be rushed through. Ordinary members have little scope to introduce legislation themselves - everything depends on the government, "the people elected to run the country".

If someone inspected the House of Commons in terms of its efficiency in passing legislation, it would fail the inspection. It would fail even more if you assessed legislation in terms of its clarity or simplicity - let's say, the ability of a court or a jury to interpret it without too much difficulty.

The media play a very large part in ensuring that we think about democracy in terms of Who Should Run the Country: cuddly Boris or nerdy Ed? A re-balancing of political debate would involve giving much more emphasis to such questions as , What old legislation would you like to see removed from the statute books? What new legislation would make the country a better place in which to live?

Remarkably, these two questions are ones which are rarely asked. Except in Switzerland.

Monday, 8 July 2013

One Parking Permit per Household, One Dog Permit per Household

In crowded urban areas of the UK, you need a Permit to park your car on your local street. No Permit if you have a driveway or garage; one Permit maximum per household. It's not a perfect system - far from it - but in many areas it does mean that residents can usually park near their own homes and it does prevent streets turning into battlefields strewn with badly parked cars.

In those same crowded urban areas, you should need a Permit to keep a dog and there should be a maximum of one Permit per household. Why?

It could be an effective way of discouraging what is basically an anti-social habit. Like smoking, dog keeping is not something which has no effects on others. Here in Brighton, the dog-dependent part of the population has basically taken over the streets, the promenades and the seafront. Instead of being discouraged by the city authorities (ha! I wish) they are indulged. Green areas and beach areas which should be great places for children to play are instead areas for dogs to shit. Noise is not so much a problem, except for the immediate neighbours of barking dogs, but lurking in the background is the knowledge that dogs do attack humans (especially children) and that, even when on a leash, their owners cannot control them.

I get the impression that it has become fashionable to keep more than one dog. Every morning I see people heading to the shitting grounds on the promenade with two or three dogs running around in front or behind. That must be something we should be discouraging. It's hard enough to keep a crowded urban area clean and pleasant. If the bin men go on strike (as they did recently here in Brighton), within a few days the city descends into Neapolitan squalor. The foxes, seagulls, pigeons and rats trash the overflowing bins and spread across the streets the takeaway boxes, the nappies, the broken glass .... and the dog shit.

So there's a very simple proposal from my Eco-Friendly Brighton-based Virtual Think Tank. Permits for Dogs (£95 a year), maximum one Permit (= one Dog)  per household.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Swearing and Expletives: From the Life Class to the Creative Writing Class

My mother (born 1907) did not swear, nor did my father (born 1912). That was partly a generational thing, partly an aspirational thing: by not swearing you distinguished yourself from those of your neighbours who were "common". Interestingly, the fact that he did not swear did not handicap my father when he resorted to verbal abuse. The invective which he hurled at my mother through much of my childhood was meant to be wounding and he usually chose my mother's most vulnerable side, her history of mental illness. He didn't need swear words, just the usual synonyms for "mad".

As a result of that exposure I have no talent for that kind of  invective. If I lose it, as I occasionally do, I do it fairly clumsily. I think of the Bon Mots afterwards.

But as for swearing, it is something I had to learn  in the playground. When I was eleven and it came to choosing a Grammar School for me, my mother rejected the local Dartford Grammar School for Boys since she had heard boys wearing its uniform swearing in the street. So she sent me to Bromley Grammar School for Boys with whose local streets she was unfamiliar.

Parental influence probably explains why I don't  swear very much. And I don't think I am very good at it. That's a pity, because a well-chosen swear word can help one express strong ocurrent emotions effectively: anger, frustration, irritation, exasperation, surprise, shock, amusement .... Sometimes I try my hand at it, more so now that I am older and my children older. And, of course, social attitudes have changed. It is a job qualification for a politician or a politician's spin doctor to be able to swear like a trooper.

Swearing is an art. Some people do it extremely well. I can think of only one occasion where I felt I did it to perfection.

I had set my MA class of Creative Writing students the task of reading Ted Hughes' Birthday Letters and had picked out certain poems on which to focus. We were looking at a page together, around the table in our evening session, and a student asked me what a certain line meant. I looked down at it. I was probably tired. There was an audible sigh:

Fuck knows

They found that very funny (I am sure they had not heard me swear before) and we then had a good discussion of the line and the poem in which it was housed. When I can find the book, I'll post the line here:

But to use expletives well in writing is a different art from the art of swearing. And it's a difficult one. There are two separate branches of the art to be mastered:

(1) Using expletives in dialogue attributed to a character and as part of the characterisation. Here there may be a problem of relying too obviously on stock expletives associated with a particular social group - Cockneys, for example. The problem isn't really specific to expletives: for example, there is a whole vocabulary you can call on to fix a character in the genus, English Public Schoolboy circa whatever date you choose. But after a while spiffing gets tedious.

(2) Using expletives to indicate the emotional state of the speaker or narrator (often, a narrator who is going on at length) or to indicate the attitude the writer takes towards some person or institution or argument - so the problem is not specific to fiction. The problem is this: Swearing occurs - one could say, at its best - in the context of the immediate, unreflected expression of ocurrent emotion. But a writer poised to insert an expletive into a text is not normally undergoing the ocurrent emotion he or she is trying to characterise or express. So the risks of picking the wrong word or putting it in the wrong place are considerable.

The best advice one can give is then identical to that any Creative Writing teacher will give for the use of adjectives in general: Use them sparingly. Or not at all.

Added 25 July 2018: See now the chapter "Obscenities and Profanities" in my book, Silence Is So Accurate (degree zero 2017), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Cultural Exception and Cultural Exclusion

The 18th century Scottish thinker, James Burnett - more often known as Lord Monboddo (1714 - 1799), held both intriguing and eccentric beliefs and is probably best remembered for the idea that orang-utans could speak but chose not to, for fear of being enslaved. That's quite an interesting idea about the power of words.

Until very recently  the French chose not to speak English, for fear of being enslaved.

I once took part in a residential international conference at the Centre Culturel at Cérisy la Salle which had a written policy that all proceedings should be conducted in French. One poorly briefed participant got up and indicated that he would give his talk in English, at which point the French simply walked out. I am sure it still happens.

The exception culturelle is still taken very seriously and the continued protection of the use of French very obvious. It is a double edged policy.

On the one hand, a country of fifty million people can perfectly well sustain a culture in which the language of daily life and culture is French and where foreign books are simply translated and foreign films dubbed  or sub-titled.  In addition, France sustains an Imperial relationship with many of its former colonies around the world and the language of that relationship is French - it was in that language that those colonies were enslaved. No alternatives were permitted (as they were in the Austro Hungarian empire, for instance, and to some degree in the British especially in India).

But protection of the language and culture has its downside even for the metropolitan country. In France, people until recently had to listen to crap pop music because there is a law which said they must. The law is still there but the Internet means it is now less effective - you don't have to listen to rubbish radio stations, you can download the music you want to hear.

And whilst films and novels were done over into French, it didn't happen for academic work - perhaps for the simple reason that there was far too much of it, and all in English. As a result, French universities became  backwaters, lagging behind in both science and humanities, and teaching Franco-centric or simply obsolete material.  French universities simply did not figure on international rankings and still do not.

Computing and the Internet has become a real challenge for the exception culturelle. The common language of the virtual world is English. There is really only one option: Get Over It. (And I say that as someone whose Mouse Mat - courtesy of The London Review of Books - tells me the Alt numbers I need to produce French accents. Eventually, of course, the accents will disappear as they already do in lots of Internet French).

There are, of course, worse examples than France. When right-wing Nationalists got an independent Ireland, they set about trying to make it Irish Gaelic speaking. Combine that policy with that of a Catholic Church which insisted on Latin, and you got a nasty little clerical-fascist "republic" into which it was a misfortune to be born. You were ruled by people who wanted to isolate you from the world - from modernism, democracy, secularism.

Unlike the imposition of Hebrew as the language of Israel, the imposition of Irish Gaelic never really worked - urban areas like Dublin weren't going to give up English so even if the buses were kitted out with signs which gave their routes in Gaelic, everyone with an ounce of sense was talking English - and reading English-language newspapers. And the universities remained English language institutions.

Irish Gaelic is fine as a hobby, and likewise Scottish Gaelic or Welsh, but as a language of a modern society - well, just forget it. You - and this includes the European Union - do people no favours if you encourage them to stick with a very minority language. For those who are native Welsh speakers, there is a very simple and sound educational policy which can be pursued: Welsh as the language of early years schooling and English as the language of  secondary schooling. This is a policy of general applicability. It is one which does not isolate people either from their language of origin or the language they need for adult life. It is very similar to what happens in Scandinavia.