Friday, September 30, 2005

Wok Star

A long time ago I bought a wok that was on special offer, one of my rare impulse buys. The instructions said it had to be seasoned before use so I reached for the salt and pepper and a few herbs. But closer study of the small print revealed that seasoning involved scouring the wok to within an inch of its life and then swirling hot oil around the surface. This seemed like a lot of hard work so I postponed that until another day and took an oven-ready pizza out the freezer.

I should have realised that if just seasoning the wok seemed too onerous, the chances of me ever cooking something in it were slim. Indeed, because I couldn't find room for it in any kitchen cupboards I put it in the bedroom where it remained for several months.
One night I stirred from my slumbers and was shaken to see its huge steel eye staring and glinting at me in the moonlight. For a few moments I feared that I was about to join the 87% of Americans who claim to have been abducted by aliens (or whatever the figure is) and would spend the rest of the night lying supine in a flying saucer while a dozen giant wok eyes scrutinised me and my immobilised limbs were poked by bakelite arms.

But even this trauma didn't prod me into returning the wok to the kitchen and extending my culinary repertoire. I simply hid it under the bed.
Then The Guardian gave us a selection of Jamie Oliver's new Italian recipes and I spotted one for a basic risotto. According to Jamie, risotto is a simple food because while it's simmering you only need to give it a quick stir. Nothing gets me salivating faster than the words 'basic', simple' and 'quick' in a recipe. The virgin wok was dusted down and baptised in oil before you could say 'pass the soy sauce'.

It was soon after this, however, that Jamie and I fell out big time. Stage 3 of his quick and basic risotto involves slowly ladling spoonfuls of stock into the rice for a full 15 minutes.
Like Eliot's Prufrock, I may have measured out my life in coffee spoons but as I seguy into middle age I'm not prepared to measure out my evenings in ladles of hot stock. Fifteen minutes of greasy Willie keeling the wok would mean missing Channel Four News and possibly the start of Coronation Street.

Jamie Oliver told The Guardian that one of the characteristics of Italian life is that "they're all shagging each other."
Frankly Jamie, I don't know how they find the time if their most basic risotto involves four stages, including 15 minutes of slow motion ladling. If that's a quick supper, then a Turkey Twizzler is the apotheosis of healthy eating.

Anyway, it would be an offence against nature to put a slick and shiny, well-lubricated wok back on the shelf without it ever experiencing the slap and sizzle of meat and two veg. Browsing through Jamie's recipes had got my own juices flowing and I wasn't going to be a wok teaser.
My only misgiving was that wok cookery is done at a very high heat. But the kitchen needed re-decorating anyway so, having put the local Fire Brigade on standby, I put the halogen ring on full power and hurled chopped bacon, Savoy cabbage, mushrooms, red onion and soy sauce into the smoking oil. And within a few minutes I was eating my first delicious and healthy stir fry meal.

Within an hour my stomach was doing an imitation of one of those lorries with a rotating drum that deliver ready-mixed cement. And, true to the cliché about Chinese food, I was ravenously hungry, despite having ingested about a pound of semi-raw vegetables and a packet of streaky bacon.
I was soon munching my way through a bar of chocolate. At least it was Fair Trade chocolate (only because Dark Rough Trade is hard to come by in the village).
But my contribution to Ghanaian Cocoa growers should ensure I don't get a visit from the Guardian's Ethical Eating Division. And today my stomach has settled sufficiently for me to contemplate a lightly boiled egg.


To a run-down café in Odstock
The customers just wouldn't flock
But a new chef from China
Made the food so much finer
That now they can Wok Around The Clock.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Pissing On Bleach (and Free Speech)

If you'd wanted to devise a PR disaster for the Labour Party Conference, you couldn't have created anything more perfect than the ejection of Walter Wolfgang for heckling.
Not only was he a frail 82 year old man but a refugee from Nazi Germany. If he hadn't been a Labour Party member for 50 years I would have suspected that the whole thing had been organised by a tabloid paper.
And then there was the final absurdity of the police briefly detaining him under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

You know it's a PR disaster of epic proportions when the spin doctors' advice is to put your hands up and go in front of the media and apologise. And that not only the Party Chairman must apologise but the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister himself.
The only trouble is that, if you study the various apologies, you realise that they just didn't get it. They understood it was bad PR but they didn't really understand why it caused such outrage.
Blair prefaced all his apologies this morning with 'I wasn't actually in the hall myself at the time', as though that would have made a difference. If he had been, would he have raised his arms and cried 'I say unto you, turn the other cheek'? Or 'I say unto you, let he who is without sin cast the first stone'? And lo, the bouncers would have hung their heads in shame and a heavenly host appeared in the gallery above Mr Wolfgang's head.

Blair also appeared to be saying that it was unacceptable because of Mr Wolfgang's age rather than because supressing a single, democratic heckle goes against the very values he has pledged to protect against terrorism. And I haven't heard any apology to the younger man who was also manhandled out of the hall simply for defending Mr Wolfgang.
The final insult was to say that Mr Wolfgang could return to the Conference but only on condition that he behaved himself.

It's reasonable to ask how the forced and rough removal of a frail old man from his conference seat fits with Blair's 'Respect' crusade, targeted at the young.
And people might wonder how a single cry of 'Rubbish' compares with the bear garden of the House of Commons at Prime Minister's Questions.


In Coronation Street, Liz MacDonald has gone to work in Diggory Compton's bakery shop. On Wednesday, Diggory spent a long time staring lecherously at Liz as she bent over the barm cakes and sent her up a ladder on the pretext of putting poppy seeds on a top shelf. Then, wiping the sweat from his brow, he announced "well, me dough's about ready for kneading" and disappeared into the back room.
A cheeky little script from the improbably named Damon Rochefort that conjured up images of traditional seaside postcards on Blackpool promenade.

Oh dear, something else to worry about. I learn from the pages of the now even worthier and more environmentally-concerned Guardian that if you piss on the bleach that you previously put down the lavatory, toxic chloramine gas is produced.
This is obviously a far greater hazard to men with their forward-facing micturition posture than to the women who usually slosh the Arctic Storm round the bowl with such abandon.
Since I have been pissing on the products of Messrs Domestos in happy ignorance of the dangers for as long as I can remember, it's a miracle that I'm still alive.
But the Guardian article was my Damascene moment - to steal a joke from Peter Kay, it was like St Paul on the road to Domestos.
I've searched in vain for a warning on the bleach bottle that the product is dangerous if it comes into contact with urine. But that omission is understandable given that the product is designed to be poured into lavatories. 'Kills 99% of all known germs plus the male members of the household' isn't going to shift many units.
I am now considering the following options:
1. Flush the toilet before having a slash.
2. Adopt the forward-facing posture of women and drag artists.
3. Buy a gas mask.
4. Stop using bleach and rely on the natural disinfecting properties of golden showers.
5. Stop reading The Guardian.

Fears that Gordon Brown will be the continuation of Blair by other means were reinforced this week when, in a Today interview, he said to John Humphreys "and I say to you....."
However, Gordon's Scottich accent may make it difficult for Gordon to master Tony's sudden lurches into Estuary English.
But if he wants to try, there was a cracking example to emulate when Tony went on the Today programme this morning. I asume the sudden change of accent was because he was talking about crime on 'sink estates' because he said "If ah'm an old person an' ah'm livin' in fear, I wanna be sure....."
Of course, he actually said 'shoo-er' for 'sure' and that at least shouldn't be a problem for Gordon.

In a Newsnight profile of Tory leadership favourite David Davis we again got the story of how the schoolboy Davis bravely intervened in the playground to stop a gay boy being bullied and had his nose broken. It's a useful and edifying tale that shows how hard man Davis can still be the flag-bearer for compassionate Conservatism.
There are just two small problems.
The adult Davis has voted against legislation to give greater equality to gay people.
And the sleuths at Newsnight had tracked down one of the playground bullies. He agreed that the incident had occurred but insisted there had never been any violence. If there had been, he said, he would easily have beaten Davis to a pulp.
The moral of this story is that politicians should avoid schoolday reminiscences. Newsnight's researchers and Friends Reunited are a lethal combination.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Dylan (2): The Real 'Saint Bob'

The second part of the epic documentary on Dylan (last night, BBC2) was much better than the first. Indeed, it was both fascinating and moving.
The first thing to say is that even after watching the three and a half hours of this film, Dylan remains an enigma. If even his friend Joan Baez has to admit that she still hasn't figured him out, what chance do the rest of us have?
But after watching the film, Dylan has risen in my estimation and I'm sure I'm not alone in wanting to revisit his music.

I hadn't realised that Dylan had consistently rejected the label of 'protest singer' or indeed any other label. We saw him at a succession of press conferences where he gave an heroic display of chain smoking that made me look like an occasional smoker. At one of these, pressed to describe himself, he said he was "a song and dance man".
Although he sang at the legendary rally at which Martin Luther King 'had a dream', he mostly refused to attend any protests or rallies or to lend his support to any political movements. That didn't stop both the man and his songs being co-opted by any number of political groups. Some of those songs - or sung poetry as they should perhaps be called - are breathtakingly beautiful and all the more effective for not being overtly political.

The controversy over Dylan moving from folk to rock was also fascinating. It certainly showed an unappealing side to those who worshipped at the Church of Folk who suddenly mislaid all those values of peace, love and tolerance. At one concert Pete Seeger had to be restrained from taking an axe to one of Dylan's electric cables. Somewhere I have an old Pete Seeger 'EP' that I bought in 1965. If I ever find it, I shall stamp on it.

Is there any parallel in musical history of an artist being turned on by his fans and being booed and heckled from the moment he walked on stage?
And is there any more inspirational sight than the footage in this film of Dylan refusing to be cowed, calmly sticking to his guns and being true to himself?
At one UK concert a film camera caught Dylan about to sing Like A Rolling Stone in the face of a cacophony of booing. It was the famous occasion when someone shouted 'Judas!' as he walked on stage. Dylan turns to his band and, unheard by the audience, says: "Play it fucking loud!"

Another glorious piece of film shows Dylan dancing around outside a pet shop like a marionette on speed, re-arranging the words on the shop's signboards into an endless number of different combinations and meanings, laughing as the sentences become more surreal, drunk on the mysterious potency of language.
As someone who has compulsively played with words all my life and who, as a child, used to recite the words of a pet shop advertising hoarding as though they were Shakespeare, this took my identification with Dylan to a new level. But it was also the most telling insight into the character of Dylan as someone who interpreted experience through language as much as, or even more so, than music. And like much else in this film, it also showed Dylan's sense of humour which is not apparent from just listening to his music.

In many ways this film was an antidote to the current obsession with fame and the whole absurd circus of celebrity culture. Dylan refused to dance to the media's tunes or to follow musical or political agendas. He did what he wanted to do and what he had to do.
As one of his producers put it, Bob didn't have much choice in the matter: "God didn't put a hand on his shoulder. He gave him a kick up the ass. You only have to look at Bob to see the Holy Spirit."

I wouldn't put it in those religious terms. And if I were a cynic I might say that Dylan's anti-celebrity stance has been his own calculated and very profitable unique selling point.
But in the absence of any supporting evidence for that view, I'm content to rejoice in the fact that 40 years after I was first moved by Dylan's genius, his words and music are still being celebrated and that a new generation will discover that beyond the ephemeral potency of cheap music and lazy lyrics of much pop and rock music, there are rare people whose words and music inspire and enrich an entire lifetime. And none rarer nor greater than Bob Dylan.

Done Up Like A Kipper

I have recently re-discovered the delights of the humble kipper. I could probably smoke my own if I hung fish from the living room ceiling, bought one more packet of ciggies a day and kept the windows closed.
But there's one small problem. I have an exaggerated fear of choking to death on a fish bone. This means they weren't a sensible choice of supper dish to be eating while watching last night's football since every mouthful had to be held up to a 300 Watt lamp and carefully examined for bones through a powerful magnifying glass. (I exaggerate slightly).

The risk asessment for eating a kipper and getting a bone lodged in your throat makes even gloomier reading if you live alone. This is because there's nobody around to get behind you, put their arms round your stomach, bend you over and thrust vigorously forwards.
There's nobody to do the Heimlich Manoeuvre either.

Like many fears, this one has its origins in childhood. Not that I was ever subjected to the hitherto little-known pnenomenon of kipper abuse. But my parents used to run a restaurant and when I was a very small child one of their customers choked on a fish bone. My mother took me with her to visit this man in hospital. She took him a bunch of black grapes. It was a kind gesture but one that would be unlikely today because it might imply culpability and lead to litigation.
"My client's claim rests on the fact that the menu described the fish as a fillet and there was no warning that, in contradiction of this unequivocal description, the plaice in question might contain bones."

I remember wondering if the man might choke for a second time on a grape pip. Although aged only about six, I had already decided that if Fate had it in for you it would come back for another go.
I also wondered if the grapes were just a smokescreen and that the real reason for the hospital visit was that in the confusion of being rushed to hospital in an ambulance the man had not been able to pay the bill for his plaice and chips. Maybe the bill had been discreetly placed inside the bag containing the grapes and included a service charge that would cover our bus fare to the hospital.

This is not to suggest that my mother had a mercenary mindset. But she did all the book-keeping for the business and a plaice and chips that could not be reconciled in the debit and credit columns would have made a mess of her meticulous accounts.
She would do the accounts on a Saturday evening with a glass of port before sitting down to watch Dixon of Dock Green. This relaxation was ruined by the fact that I mistakenly thought Dixon of Dock Green was a comedy programme and laughed loudly throughout. I was a most irritating child.

Until the Revenge of the Breaded Plaice on that provincial diner, the main food-related fear of my childhood was Strontium 90. Today the imminent threat of a mushroom cloud over Middle England has disappeared, which is odd because at the last count there were still 11,000 deliverable nuclear weapons in the world.
But in the 1950s and 1960s there was also concern about the fall-out from nuclear tests getting into the food chain. And in that 'hard rain' that we now know Dylan wasn't actually singing about, nothing was more scary than Strontium 90.
Actually, the one thing more scary was a Brazil nut. These were said to contain more Strontium 90 than anything else. They practically shelled themselves. You could ram them into candlesticks and they'd flood the room with a warm, atomic glow. So whenever my mother put Brazil nuts on the table I would scream "Aaarrgh, Strontium 90!" and fall lifeless to the floor.
Like I said, I was a very irritating child.

Anyway, I survived last night's kipper supper with my windpipe intact and still managed to keep a watching eye on the Manchester United game.
The only time I almost choked was when I heard the commentator say that Ronaldo had been "taken from both sides". But it turned out to be just a double tackle.
Poor Ronaldo. Tackle to the left of him, tackle to the right of him. It must have felt like Saturday night in Tara Palmer-Tomkinson's bedroom.
I wonder what the Portuguese is for 'done up like a kipper'?

Tuesday, September 27, 2005


I almost lasted the full two hours of the first part of Martin Scorsese's Bob Dylan documentary last night (BBC2). That I did so was due to the shock of seeing Dylan himself actually speaking, even if he said little of great interest, plus the archive concert footage from the Sixties.

There was far too much of the folk and country music that influenced Dylan for my taste. I've never really liked folk music, a feeling reinforced when I went to a folk session in the basement of a pub and was not allowed to enter until there was a break in the singing. Later, when I whispered to my friend that I'd get some more drinks, I was shushed by those nearby. It was like a meeting of some fundamentalist religious sect.
But I never thought of Dylan as a folk singer although at 14 I probably thought of him as a God. It's arguable that he was the first singer from the folk music tradition to cross over into the mainstream. Certainly the first to do that without being a fabricated, emasculated, saccharine act like Peter, Paul and Mary.

The programme included an old interview with Dylan in which he denied that the 'hard rain' in the famous song was atomic rain. It was just....well, hard rain. At the time, anyone who'd denied that the song was a protest against the expected nuclear armageddon would have been laughed at. But, assuming that Dylan wasn't winding up the interviewer, which he seemed prone to doing, the song is even more beautiful when shorn of its political dimension.

Something else that made you sit up was the sight of all those teenagers at his British concerts in the Sixties dressed in suits and ties, many of them furious that electricity had contributed to the music making. They looked like those young Mormons who used to go round knocking on doors but who are mercifully less common today. Although jeans and casual clothes were already common then, I suppose young men would usually don a suit and tie to go the theatre even if it was to see an icon of protest and rebellion.

My own reverence for Dylan pretty much begins and ends with Like A Rolling Stone, which still makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as soon as I hear that opening drum beat. But I wrote about that song here about a year ago so I musn't repeat myself, apart from saying that I still have no idea what makes it the greatest rock song ever.
But Dylan, like most artists, also wrote a great deal of rubbish and some of it was on display last night. The same man who wrote some of the greatest lyrics ever written also wrote lyrics that are impenetrable gibberish. Similarly, Lennon and McCartney wrote Love Me Do and I Want to Hold Your Hand, in my humble opinion two of the worst pop songs ever written, both musically and lyrically.

One other lingering question from last night's documentary is how did Dylan become so thin? It came as a shock to see how chubby he was as both a child and an early teenager. Then suddenly he metamorphosed into a stick insect. Maybe he wasn't eating properly when he was first on the road before he became famous. But the transformation was so dramatic that today he'd have been able to make millions from the 'Bob Dylan Diet'. Or maybe not. A diet that featured heavy smoking and probably other stimulants that you can't buy in WalMart wouldn't play well with corporate America.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sunday Supplement

I've touched on this before: the logorrhoea of some of the upper middle classes, the effusive politesse that topples over into parody.
This morning I stood back to let a woman through a shop door.
"Oh, that is kind of you!" she said. "Thank you so much!"

Now, if I had paid for her Sunday papers, then taken her home and cooked her a full English breakfast, washed and 'valet-ed' her Range Rover while she was eating it, then tied her to my bed with one of my newly-discovered thin Sixties ties and rogered her until lunchtime before sending her home to her husband with a gift-wrapped box of Ferrero Rocher, then an appropriate response might have been: "Oh, that is kind of you! Thank you so much!"

But I only let her through a doorway ahead of me. I would have been quite happy with "Thank you". Or, as the paper boys and girls say to me when I similarly prioritise their egress (women and children first is our family motto: I'm descended from seafarers, you know) "Cheers, mate."

What torrent of words would pour from that woman's mouth if you saved her Labrador from drowning in the village brook? She'd be thanking you from Harvest Festival till Christmas.


Also this morning, I discovered another reason not to lament that I shall never hear that two-tone cry of 'Da-ad!'
The Sunday papers are now so heavy that I saw some paper boys and girls being collected from the newsagent in their parents' cars and chauffeur driven on their paper round.
So after a week of ferrying them to school and back and driving them to and from friends' houses, these poor fathers don't even get the traditional Sunday lie-in any more.
The Victorians were more sensible. When they sent little boys up chimneys their fathers didn't sit on the roof winching them up on ropes with a mobile shower unit on standby in the Squire's garden.

I may have given you the impression that I am not currently in a relationship. I now realise this was not strictly true and must apologise.
I realised my mistake when I read a letter from the Managing Director of British Gas in yesterday's Money Guardian. He said that British Gas were very proud to have 'some 24 million customer relationships'.
Not so long ago he would have simply said that they have 24 million customers.

Having 24 million relationships takes promiscuity to astronomical levels. But I myself have relationships with any number of corporate giants and in many cases it's a bit like a long-term marriage. I stay with them through apathy and laziness, despite the fact that I could find a cheaper partner elsewhere. British Gas come and give me a cursory service once a year, for which I pay them an absurd amount of money. I continue to do so from superstition: the conviction that as soon as I cancel the agreement my boiler will explode.

The one occasion that I demanded more from our relationship, an impertinent youth told me I could repair a radiator myself if I had something called an 'Alan Key'. I replied that I had neither an Alan Key nor a Colin Key. Someone called Graham had once given me his front door key but I had returned it, fearing that things were getting too serious. The teenage gas representative made his excuses and left and the bathroom radiator remained as cold as my erstwhile relationship with Graham.

Perhaps the people in most urgent need of relationship counselling are the water companies. They have again been telling us that huge amounts of water could be saved if we didn't leave the tap running while brushing our teeth. Meanwhile, their own crumbling infrastructure is leaking billions of gallons of water almost as fast as dividends are lining the pockets of their shareholders.
It's a bit like a wife criticising her husband for having a couple of beers in the pub every night whilst she is sitting at home guzzling several litres of Lambrusco.

I mentioned the other day that the new format Guardian is frequently missing some of its sections and that I had telephoned their call centre.
It's only fair to say that the call centre staff were friendly and helpful. They didn't put me on hold or make me listen to the Four Seasons and they didn't call me 'yourself'.
Moreover, when they said they would post me the missing section, it was no idle promise. It was sent First Class and arrived the next morning.
It would have been even more impressive if they hadn't sent me the wrong section.
Why does life have to be like this?

More consumer news: those clever people at Messrs Heinz have launched a new Tomato Ketchup bottle with a 'Stay Clean Cap' that doesn't clog.
I am pleased to report that it works superbly well. The sauce gushed forth in a forceful, uninterrupted flow.
This may be nit-picking on my part, but the sauce issued from my bottle at a right angle, completely missing my chips and covering my shirt in ketchup.
Maybe it was just a rogue bottle, the condiment equivalent of the Jewish man who had been circumcised by a Rabbi with Parkinson's and spent his life pissing over other men's shoes. But of all the ketchup bottles in all the supermarkets, why did I have to buy that one?
I say again, why does life have to be like this?

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Just Like The Old Days

On Thursday evening The Bill, for just the second time in its history, did a special live edition. To emphasise the point they kept showing close-ups of a clock on the office wall. In case anyone still didn't get the message, an actor would say "It's twenty to nine."
All over the country, viewers looked at their watches and said "Bloody hell, it is too! Isn't modern technology amazing, Mavis? They can now broadcast a whole hour of drama live, in real time!"

Of course, in my childhood another police series, Z Cars, was broadcast live, as was just about everything else. Z Cars also had some pre-filmed sections that were slotted into the live studio stuff. But my memory of Z Cars is that the coppers spent most of their time sitting chatting in their patrol cars.

The Bill's live edition was a considerable achievement and included a modest car stunt and someone falling off a staircase. None of the actors dried and there were few things that the viewer could have identified as a cock-up. The only noticeable difference from the recorded episodes was that at the beginning of scenes the actors appeared to be in freeze-frame for a second as they waited for their cue. The most noticeable occasion was when two actors stood in arrested motion as they came through some swing doors.
I don't remember this ever happening in the old days, probably because television techniques were so different and there were far less tracking shots. In The Bill, actors spend a lot of their time walking along corridors in the police station, trying not to look at the camera or walk into a wall.
Right at the end, there was an Acorn Antiques moment when someone stood in front of a camera and there was also a moment when a crew member appeared to run across the back of the shot.

Broadcasting live gave it the excitement and edginess of live theatre and I bet it took the actors a long time to wind down afterwards. Although I only worked backstage in the theatre, when I stepped up to do a cue I got the same adrenalin rush after two years and eight thousand cues as the first time I did one. Knowing there are no second chances concentrates the mind wonderfully.


The Kipper Tie is legendary in the annals of fashion crimes. But do you remember the brief fashion for very thin ties? I've been spring cleaning (don't worry, I always spring clean in the autumn) and found this fine example. It's wool and bears a Carnaby Street label. I used to be very fond of it and wear it with a lurid, red, floral shirt that looked rather like the wallpaper that was common in Indian restaurants.
And if you were in an Indian restaurant at the end of the evening, slurping up a Prawn Biryani, a thin tie had the advantage that it provided a much smaller target area for food stains. You could even tuck it inside your shirt if it wasn't machine washable and there was lots of chilli sauce flying around.

I think thin ties were a feature of 'Mod' fashion but I stand to be corrected on that. Shock, horror! Gay man with limited knowledge of, or interest in, fashion!
But I know what I like. And for me this scrawny piece of neckwear has a definite feelgood factor.
I shall wear it to the supermarket today and dazzle the local chavs with a little bit of Sixties sartorial magic.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Sleepwalking to Segregation and In Bed with Hypocrisy

There's undoubtedly some truth in Trevor Phillips' claim that Britain is 'sleepwalking towards segregation', although the picture is more mixed and complex than that. For example, it is claimed that in Britain you are more likely to marry someone of another race than in any other country in the world.

One of the obstacles to integration is this Government's enthusiasm for segregating children in 'faith schools', having learned nothing from sectarianism in Northern Ireland. David Trimble, no flag-bearer for secularism, has called this madness.
Maybe this was what Trevor Phillips was referring to when he said in an interview today that we were "schooling people to be strangers to each other."
Yet this is the same Trevor Phillips who chose to segregate his own children by sending them to private schools.
How very New Labour.

Trevor Phillips' biography follows a classic New Labour template. Student politics - a mixture of the Black Panthers and socialism was how he described his politics at the time - leading to President of the National Union of Students, like Jack Straw and Charles Clarke. Today, a pillar of the new Establishment, a Tony Crony and an O.B.E.

Good phrase though, Trevor. 'Schooling people to be strangers to each other' neatly sums up the objection that some of us have to a private sector in education.
Just a pity you don't practice what you preach. But you wouldn't, would you? That's not the New Labour way.
Shimmy up the ladder like a rat up a drainpipe, pull it up after you, and then declaim social principles that don't apply to yourself or your family. Even Diane Abbott, a fierce critic of New Labour, couldn't bring herself to send Abbott Junior to the kind of school that most of her London constituents' children go to.
Still, I suppose there's an element of equality in this pattern. White politicians have no monopoly of betrayal and hypocrisy.

Adwatch - No 58

Some commercials are baffling. Some commercials are intensely irritating. To devise one that is both is quite an achievement by the people who live on Planet Creative.
I refer to the Coca Cola™ commercial that features a very short, stout, bald man who swigs from a bottle of Coke on a street corner and then starts not only smiling at strangers but putting his arm round them and hanging off escalators to gurn at them.
In short - and he is exceedingly short with a very large bum - he behaves like a Happy Drunk who has just had six pints of lager and a couple of Bacardi Breezers.

There's only one thing worse than a Happy Drunk and that's a Violent Drunk but I don't wish to be pestered by either when I'm quietly going about my lawful business on the city streets.
But wait. This unpreposessing little barm cake has been drinking nothing stronger than Coke. So what are they putting in the stuff these days? Ecstasy?

The first time I saw it I thought it was a Government commercial about Care in the Community, the message being that most people with mental health problems are perfectly harmless and that if they lunge at you on an escalator you should just smile back.
Then I realised that this commercial is the latest bastard offspring of 'I want to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. I want to buy the world a Coke and keep it company'.
Bear with me. I've just been sick over my keyboard.

Was that song Coke or was it Pepsi?
Coke, schcoke; Pepsi, schpepsi: they're both gut-rotting, tooth-decaying bilge water.

Yes, that song was Coke. I've just checked*. They could make it the new national anthem for the free and democratic republic of Iraq. The Sunni would lie down with the Shia before you could say 'It's the Real Thing'.
Better still, they could send that little bald fellow on to the streets of Basra. With any luck someone would rip his grinning head off.

*When I checked the song on Google I found it featured in a Christmas sermon on a Methodist website, a site that had the audacity to blast hymns through my computer's speakers.
Excuse me, I think I'm going to be sick again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

The Guardian: Even Smaller Than They Claim

Since the launch of The Guardian's new format, I keep finding sections are missing. I've managed to live without the Education and Society supplements but today I had no G2. So I phoned their helpline.
They initially tried to blame the retailer. But my retailer says they are getting incomplete Guardians from the wholesaler. They then admitted it was a widespread problem. Apparently it will be solved in a few weeks' time when the papers are automatically assembled at their new print works.

It seems to me this is a very serious problem for The Guardian. There's been a substantial circulation increase since the relaunch. Whilst people like me are unlikely to desert the paper, new readers who find they are paying 60p and getting only 30p's worth of paper aren't going to stick with it very long.
Why didn't they delay the launch until the printing plants were fully functional and able to assemble the different parts of the paper?

It's Sod's Law that the new Sport supplement is never missing from my copy. But since their advertising is focusing on the new Sport supplement, it will be pretty disastrous if some new readers aren't getting it.
They will post you any parts that are missing but that's not much consolation. Reading old newspapers is like eating the remains of last night's takeway meal.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Something In The Downing Street Water?

It's the 1970s.
The Prime Minister, James Callghan, is having a conversation about homosexuality with his political adviser, Bernard Donoughue. "I don't understand it", says Callaghan, "there are so many beautiful women around."

It's 30 years later.
The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, is talking to one of his spin doctors, Lance Price, who is gay. "I hope you don't mind me asking", says Blair, "but when you see a beautiful woman, doesn't it do anything for you?"

I hope you don't mind me asking, dear readers. But exactly how stupid do you have to be to become Prime Minister?

Sources: The Heat Of The Kitchen by Bernard Donoughue.
Spin Doctor's Diary by Lance Price, not yet published.

Modern Life

Fans of The Catherine Tate Show will know that the waitress in the theme restaurant always addresses customers as 'yourselves/yourself'.
I had my first experience of this usage this week. I had made an enquiry of my bank and the woman who rang me began by saying: "Would it be convenient to talk to yourself at the moment?"
A perfectly reasonable response would have been: "I talk to myself all the time. But if I do it now I won't be talking to myself because you'll be listening to me."

In fact, this woman did far more talking than listening - like Catherine Tate's waitress - and I was half expecting one of her fellow bankers to come on the line and to get a joint rendition of something like 'Money Makes The World Go Around'.
This new usage of 'yourself' by Customer Service Operatives sounds rather Irish to me.
And why say 'yourself' instead of the one syllable 'you'?


Persuading someone that the Earth is flat or that the sun rises in the west or that Elvis is alive and doing a window cleaning round in your village would be easy-peasy compared to persuading them that you use your mobile phone only two or three times a year.

I first had this problem when I bought a mobile in Dixons and the teenager who served me came very close to accusing me of taking the piss.
But that was as nothing compared to my problems this week in convincing people that I hadn't used my mobile for about two years.
The technology itself cannot cope with this perverse behaviour. If you don't use a mobile for six months it effectively ceases to exist and you have to buy a new SIM card with a new phone number.

That's a relatively staightforward procedure but discussing the matter with your network service and transferring credit from the old number produces stunned silences at the other end of the phone.
"Sorry, I think I misheard you. You last topped-up when?"
"About two years ago."
"But that would be 2003!"
"It would indeed."
"Er.....I'm going to have to speak to my manager...."

Work at the Call Centre ground to a halt as an urgent ad hoc Working Party was set up and people shouted across the office "Hey, Mohammed, you won't believe this but Tracey's got this bloke who reckons he hasn't topped-up or made a call for two years!"

It was all resolved eventually but only after they took all my personal details and probably ran them through the Police National Computer.
Of course, my eccentricity has meant I've now forfeited the anonymity of using a Pay-As-You-Go phone. But since I'm not Mr Big - well, not in any criminal sense - I can live with that.

To avoid any repetition of this nightmare I have put a note in my diary to use my mobile to ring the Speaking Clock in five months' time.
The march of progess means the Speaking Clock has gone from a convenient 3-digit number to a stonking 11 digits. But at least she never says "Is it convenient to tell yourself the time at this moment in time" or puts yourself on hold or goes off for ten minutes to check the correct time with her manager.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Mwah, Mwah!

When and why did large swathes of the British population adopt the habit of kissing not just family but friends and acquaintances on meeting and parting?
The only theory I can think of is that it started when people began taking holidays in continental Europe.

If I dislike the habit, it's mainly because I'm very clumsy at it. When that head-bobbing ritual starts I often end up head-butting people. That would be fine if I lived in Glasgow, but I don't.
Even if I avoid knocking someone unconscious, I'm never quite sure who is supposed to be doing the kissing.
I assume that in mixed sex greetings the man kisses the woman but you occasionally find women who do the kissing. I don't know whether this is down to feminism, an assertion of dominance or the fact that they don't get much physical contact and are gagging for it.

Then there's the problem of not knowing whether someone is a one-cheek kisser or a two-cheek kisser. If you do one cheek and they're left proffering the other while you've returned to nibbling a breadstick, it implies either over-eagerness on their part or personal dislike on yours. Or possibly that they have a personal hygeine problem.

Conversely, if they proffer one cheek and you then make a secondary strike on the other one, you feel you're being over-familiar and that's also the scenario where noses and skulls clash together. In this situation, it's customary for you both to give a little laugh and the kissee might say: "Ooh, another one! Gosh! ha, ha, ha, ha."

Some people are only up for an elaborate piece of mime, also known as air-kissing. But you don't usually know this until you've already transferred several grams of powder and foundation from the woman's cheek to your lips.
Unless, that is, she's one of those women who grasps your shoulders firmly at the start of the ritual and moves your head to the regulation six centimetres from her face on either side before thrusting you back into a vertical position, rather as though she were manipulating a ventriloquist's dummy.
Your relationship with such a woman should be terminated at that point or she'll have her hand up your back and you'll hear yourself saying "You can move in at the weekend and I'll get my will changed on Monday."

Sometimes the air-kisser will exclaim 'Mwah, mwah!' in your ears. This might have been funny the first time anyone did it. But now it's your cue to say there's an accountant with a speech impediment on the other side of the room with whom you are eager to discuss the history of diesel-electric locomotives on the former British Railways Western Region.

Why don't we stop the whole silly nonsense? In my view, we don't need an unnecessary and confusing mezzanine floor of body language between the handshake and the full, tongue-on-the-tonsils snog.
Let's keep our lips to ourselves and our hands in our pockets and stick to the admirably succint working class greeting 'All right?'


Another newish habit is putting '...ster' on the end of people's names, so John Briggs becomes 'The Briggster'.
When did that start? What's that all about? What the fuck's going on there? Where did it come from?
Don't tell me. America.

Are people too bloody lazy to think up nicknames any more? I've always been a compulsive bestower of nicknames and some of them have stuck with people for life. Nicknames can be affectionate, sarcastic, witty or vicious - or even a combination of all those. But 'the Briggster' is an attempt to turn someone into a 'character' without any wit or thought and without any reference to any of their personal characteristics. Maybe it's the perfect solution for someone who doesn't have any distinguishing features.

But it doesn't work with all names. I think that ideally the name has to be one syllable and end with a consonant. It doesn't work with 'Willie' and not very well with 'Lupin'. Nor does it work with my real names.
So there's no danger of:
"Hi! I'm the Lupinster!
Mwah, mwah!"
Or the only appropriate response:
"Fuck off, dickhead."

Friday, September 16, 2005

The Terminology Of Terrorism

At 8.10 on yesterday's Today programme we had Prince Harry. Today we had King Tony.
King Tony said that terrorism was very simple to define. It was 'the intentional killing of innocent civilians'.
That also happens to be a pretty good definition of murder.
In addition to the criminal offence of murder, we have the offence of conspiracy to murder. We also have the lesser charge of manslaughter for cases where, although death occurred, it was not necessarily either the inevitable or intended outcome of an action.
This makes you wonder why we need very many additional laws to deal with terrorism. The London bombers were, like many terrorists before them, first and foremost murderers.
Political or religious motives are not a defence against the crime of murder.
If the perpetrator has suffered persistent violence at the hands of their victim, as in some domestic abuse cases, that is not a defence either, although it may sometimes cause juries and judges to take a more lenient line.

The second interesting thing about Tony Blair's definition of terrorism is the meaning of the word 'deliberate'.
Many of us hold Blair and Bush responsible for the thousands of civilian deaths in the Iraq War. Their defence would be that these deaths were not deliberate and that, unlike terrorists, they made every effort to minimise civilian deaths - or 'collateral damage' as they prefer to call them. (Their motivation was, of course, like that of terrorists, political).

The question is whether, either in a court of law or in the mind of an objective observer, this defence stands up. If you drop tons of high explosives on a city like Baghdad in a campaign of 'shock and awe', some civilian deaths are an inevitable consequence. Modern technology, to the extent that it actually works, means that civilian deaths may be less than in carpet bombing of cities in the Second World War. But what is beyond dispute is that civilian deaths will occur and that the political leaders who ordered the bombing knew that civilian deaths would result. I cannot see how that does not amount to 'intentional killing'.

The second line of defence put forward by Blair and Bush is that, regrettable though the deaths of innocent civilians might be, they killed far less people than the man they were deposing, Saddam Hussein.
Staying with the analogy with murder and arguing from the premise that all taking of human life is murder, a crime that has no defence in either law or morality, if you gun down six of your neighbours it won't do you much good in court to point out that you murdered considerably less people than Dr Harold Shipman.

Another line of defence from Tony Blair, although it's more of an evasion of discussion, is to say that whatever views other people may take, he believes he did the right thing and will be answerable for his actions to his God.
Since, so far as we know, he does not lie awake at night tortured by images of the corpses of babies being thrown on to the back of lorries in Baghdad, we must assume he thinks that his God is more likely than not to share his own view that he did the right thing. This is eerily similar to the thought processes of the people who detonated bombs on the London tube.

This links back to the problem of terrorism because you can only effectively condemn the deliberate killing of innocent civilians if your own hands are not stained with blood. Furthermore, Tony Blair is the only person in the country who believes there is no link between the Iraq War and terrorist acts in this country. Actually, it's rather hard to believe that he really believes that. If he does, he must be suffering from some serious mental impairment.

Jack Straw has gone rather further and suggested that the London terrorists used Iraq as an excuse for murder and would use any other excuse but that their real motivation is killing for the sake of killing. This at least recognises that their crime is one of murder and that we might as well call it that and that there is no defence against murder. But it is also supremely silly in suggesting that the perpetrators were simply psychopaths who would have still behaved as they did if the entire planet was living in a utopian state of peace and harmony.

When Tony Blair defines and condemns terrorism as 'the intentional killing of innocent civilians' we must infer that he regards that as a moral absolute. Most of us would agree with that. But that means it applies to you too, Tony. Those who think otherwise, whether for political or religious reasons or from mental derangement, are a danger to the billions of innocent civilians on this planet. We have police forces to protect us from random individuals. We have little to protect us from the leaders of nation states who claim the right to derogate from both law and common morality.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Events, Dear Boy, Events

I referred yesterday to mutual help on the internet. If you ever look at the event log to see what's troubling your computer, here's a useful site that explains what those error codes mean:
The content is user-generated and it doesn't yet cover every single error code. And a problem can have any one of several causes. But I found many useful suggestions for one error that I was getting.
Of course, you can also look on the Microsoft site but I have never found that very helpful. Now there's a surprise.


I am indebted to Mrs Cello (as the late Cyril Fletcher would have said) for this picture of the lizard she found in her garden - this year's must-have shoulder accessory.
You may recall that she referred to it in the Comments Box. I found a frog in my garden but this woman had to go and top it, didn't she?
Cello has sometimes hinted that she has some connection with the advertising industry so some of you may have thought it was just a newt or a twig that looked like a lizard, so here is the evidence.
His name is Wally (though I doubt that he knows that) because he is a Common Wall Lizard (Podarcus muralis). A slight misnomer because in Britain it's quite uncommon to find them in your garden.
Found anything unusual in your garden? Send me a pic. User-generated content again. Every lazy blogger's dream.

Prince Harry is 21 today. Happy Birthday Your Royal Gingerness.
The Today programme on Radio 4 devotes one of its prime slots after the 8 o'clock news to a long interview with the third in line to the throne.
Well, to be fair, it was a quiet day for news. 120 dead in Iraq as that country comes ever closer to civil war. The petrol price problems. The future of the United Nations.
Much of the interview was about Harry having now 'grown up'.
Britain will only have grown up as a country when our leading morning news programme stops giving that kind of prominence to a member of the Royal Family.

While we're on the subject, Harry's father was supposed to have said that if fox hunting was made illegal he would leave the country. Well, the law was passed and he's still here. What's keeping you, Charles? The Duchy of Cornwall revenues could easily be channelled into a Swiss bank account. There'd be more than enough to keep you and Camilla in Toblerones well into your dotage. Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Third Epistle To The Blogosphere

Back to religion, brothers and sisters.
In Monday's Guardian Roy Hattersley argued that atheists like himself have to accept that most believers are better human beings. More specifically, that most acts of altruism (like helping the victims of disasters like Hurricane Katrina) are carried out by believers. "Notable by their absence are teams from rationalist societies, free thinkers' clubs and atheists' associations."

Let's start with that last point. 'Free thinkers' clubs'? Do they still exist? Have they existed since the days of my free-thinking grandfather in the 1930s? Those organisations for non-believers that do exist, like the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society, are very small. Most atheists don't join such organisations. I certainly wouldn't.

Because non-believers are mostly unorganised individuals they are mostly invisible. That contrasts with the very organised churches, the officials of which even adopt a special uniform.
But consider the amount of altruism, charitable work and voluntary work, not to mention individual acts of kindness, that goes on in society and then consider the percentage of the population who attend church regularly. If acts of charity were dependent on religious belief the social fabric would have totally collapsed by now. (It hasn't, despite what the Daily Mail might say).

Look at the internet. A global communications system based on technology rather than belief, whose users reflect the same proportions of believers and non-believers as in their different societies. Not the least remarkable thing about the internet is that it is awash with altruism. From forums for people with Tourette's Syndrome or agoraphobia to the hundreds of sites set up to help other computer users with technical problems without any profit motive, the internet is overflowing not just with spam and pornography but with the milk of human kindness. Since I started this blog I have been the recipient of both kind words and kind deeds (you know who you are). Perhaps some of them were motivated by religious faith but I know that some of them were not.

A relative of mine spent time working with women with Aids in the South African townships and later worked for a mental health charity in this country. I'm fairly certain that this was not religiously-inspired. Just one example that could be multiplied millions of times.

The motivation for doing good is an interesting subject to debate but in practical terms it probably doesn't matter much. Having said that, if an atheist does you a good turn you know that, whilst they may have done it partly to make themselves feel good, they haven't done it because some ancient text told them to or because it will smooth their path through the heavenly gates. And any gay person who has been assured by some sanctimonious believer that they love the sinner but hate the sin is not going to be too impressed by faith-inspired altruism.

Hattersley cites the case of a Salvation Army Captain who tried to convince him that homosexuality is a mortal sin. Yet, says Hattersley, lost in admiration, this same man will be out on the city streets helping young men driven into male prostitution.
I would ask Hattersley to consider that such a man might have a teenage son and that son might be gay and be driven to despair by having to grow up in a family where his natural sexual desires are regarded as sinful. Not quite so admirable, is it?

Hattersley lavishes much praise on the Salvation Army. For some reason, in this country they have always been the teflon-coated religious charity. To criticise them is like condemning maternal love or praising paedophilia. But I've always had a problem with a religious organisation that adopts the structure and titles of an organisation that is dedicated to killing people.
More seriously, a member of my own family has never forgiven them for the demeaning way they treated him when he fell on hard times more than sixty years ago.
There's also the breath-taking hypocrisy of a teetotal, anti-alcohol organisation that marches into pubs near closing time on a Friday night and shakes collecting tins at people they know will, from a combination of drunkenness and the presence of their friends, give generously.
In the past, the Salvation Army has been found to be one of the least cost-effective charities, spending a higher proportion of donations on administration than most others. That may have changed now. But they must still spend a lot on those Victorian uniforms and those bloody trumpets.

Altruism, like its opposite, is hard-wired into us. We are, after all, a social species. And helping others is not a peculiarly human characteristic. Never mind apes, the humble crow is a species that lives in a community and helps each other.

Altruism, charity, call it what you will, serves an evolutionary purpose. Maybe that was what caused that Sky Pilot I quoted in the post before last to see God in evolutionary processes.
Personally, I'd rather leave the Big Fellow out of it and do you a favour simply because you're a fellow human being.

This is my third post today so it's possible I might take a day off tomorrow and help an old lady across the road.
Unless, of course, she's carrying a bible or a Daily Mail.
Typical fucking atheist.

That Was Rubbish, Jenkins

So pleased is The Guardian with its new signing - the columnist, Simon Jenkins - that it runs his name across the breadth of the front page above the title today.
And what does he give us on his first outing? A clichéd encomium on the game of cricket which has been written thousands of times in the past hundred years.

If you're paid megabucks and are supposed to be a cut above the average columnist you should consider carefully the words you choose lest you inadvertently write rubbish:
"Some time between two and three o'clock on Monday afternoon the nation heaved a sigh of relief and delight as Pietersen's bat........"
Now I know I've mentioned this before, but a few million people does not = the nation. On Monday afternoon I was asleep dreaming that I was playing Guy Ball on a Caribbean beach with Beckham and Ronaldo. About 52 million other people were doing a variety of other things and cricket was as far from their minds as endogenous growth theory.
I shall be glued to the World Cup next year. I shall not assume or write that the whole nation is. When I watch England World Cup matches I glance out my window and see people walking their dogs and shopping, including many young men.

Does it matter? Well, if you write then you surely believe that language matters. And if you attempt, however unsuccessfully, to think rationally and logically, then you are aware of the close relationship between precise language and clear thought.
(Feel free to comb through my archive for examples of sloppy thinking and writing. But I do often agonise a long time over the use of words, the more so if I'm writing about a serious subject).

As you'd expect, because it's part of the template for cricket articles, Jenkins compares soccer (that's football to scum like us) unfavourably with cricket.
But the difference between the two sports has nothing to do with class or social background. Oh no! Perish the thought!
Yet Jenkins refers to Rooney and Beckham as "bling-encrusted idols". Soccer (that's football to we great unwashed) is "choking on egotism and vulgarity." Furthermore, "the ritual of a football crowd [don't you mean 'soccer', Simon?] is awesomely vulgar."
Clearly, nothing distresses the sensitive Mr Jenkins more than vulgarity.

It's very puzzling because, according to Jenkins, the supporters of both sports are not dissimilar. I'm bound to say that the irritating mini-twats I saw interviewed on BBC News at the Victory Parade appeared to have been given the afternoon off Prep School. They must have been because if they'd been working class kids they'd have been rounded up by the Government's new Truancy Patrols.

Jenkins referred to Beckham and Rooney in the context of Rooney's tantrum in the recent England v N. Ireland game. Everything about that game was awful, he says. He apparently didn't notice that Captain Beckham, besides playing a blinder of a game, behaved with a dignity and sportsmanship that was world-class, shaking hands afterwards with every player on the other team and remaining on the pitch to applaud the crowd.

Jenkins finds an explanation for football's inferiority in the fact that a result "often turns on one or two incidents, themselves vulnerable to the match-turning decisions of a referee."
I have zero understanding of cricket but I noticed that a few days ago England supporters were praying for rain because that would enable England to win the series. So the weather and umpire decisions are acceptable but referee decisions and 'incidents' (e.g. goals?) are not.

I wouldn't normally get into a discussion about the comparative merits of different sports, all of which are inherently absurd anyway. No more point than having an argument about you liking olives and me hating them.
But if we're going to get this level of poppycock - along with 'God, it's so's so vulgar' - from Simon Jenkins every week, The Guardian might as well have engaged Prince Charles as a columnist.

My Hamster Created Freddie Starr

A week ago a debate was raging in The Guardian about Intelligent Design. No, nothing to do with the paper's new format but the ongoing conflict between Creationists and Darwinists.
But what caught my eye was this from a letter from a Rev. Alec Mitchell:
"......A further moment's theological reflection might suggest that God is not really best conceived of as an "entity" at all, but is possibly much more akin to those evolutionary processes, continuously at work throughout all creation. As Heidegger might have put it, not "a" being, but being itself."

It seems to me that there's no more reason to label the process of evolution 'God' than the process by which beaten eggs and sugar become a meringue.
Of course, if it makes them happy people can choose to label anything 'God' - the 'Life Force', 'Love' or even 'Humour'. I think Peter Berger in his book 'A Rumour of Angels' cited humour as one of the things that differentiates us from animals and is therefore a gateway to spirituality. It isn't strictly true. Dogs have a very primitive sense of humour, just a few points down the scale from people who go to Jim Davidson shows. Yes, canine humour is mostly related to playing games, but millions of people used to laugh at The Generation Game on Saturday night television.

There was once a man on the Jerry Springer Show who regarded his hamster as God. For once, the frustrated cries of relatives "He worships that bloody hamster" were literally true. The hamster proved a disappointing guest because it just shuffled round the set sniffing the carpet and didn't launch itself at its owner screaming "All this time I thought you were a woman, you cheating, fucking white trash bitch."
But from an atheist perspective it was no more extraordinary than a man in a cassock producing a consecrated wafer of unleavened bread from his pocket and assuring Jerry Springer that it was literally the body of Jesus Christ.

The problem I have with labelling a process like evolution or an abstract like love 'God' is that I can't see what possible purpose it serves.
What intrigues me about the Guardian letter is that it's from a clergyman. It is proposing a form of pantheism, whereas Christianity is a deist religion, based on a personal God who is 'worshipped' and who can intervene in human affairs.
Christians who find themselves intellectually unable to accept the idea of a personal, creationist God but who still crave the comfort of religion are surely guilty of dishonesty. Do such clergymen tell their congregations that when they recite the Lord's Prayer they are doing no more than worshipping 'being itself'? Because if that is what they are doing they might as well don long, flowing robes and stand in a circle in the local woods at full moon.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Good For Nothing Tits

When I used the phrase "getting on my tits" in the comment box today it prompted some rather unwelcome post-luncheon reflections.
You see, the male nipple is an erogenous zone. But, owing to a cock-up on the DNA front, my nipples remain resolutely unresponsive to stimulation by either myself or others.
I am somewhat pissed off about this.
Humans have a very limited number of erogenous zones and to discover that they are not all present and correct indicates shoddy work in the supplies department. Pretty poor show, in my view.

Was I at the back of the queue when they were being handed out?
"Sorry, mate. We're right out of nipple zones. Tell you what I'll do: I'll give you extra in the ear department."
That would at least explain why an evening spent with a young man from the Indian sub-continent shouting into my ear above a deafening pub jukebox that he was as straight as the starched hem of his mother's sari, ended with us road testing the Kama Sutra in a four poster bed.
But I cannot be definitive about this. I do not know what the industry benchmark is for aural stimulation. That incident stands out because few, if any, others have taken such a direct route to the appropriate neurotransmitters in my brain. A few large vodkas have usually done the trick, although that's more expensive and with a longer-burning fuse. And there is always the possibility that the Indian's breath was laced with hot chilli and other exotic, aphrodisiac spices, which some might say was cheating.

The only consolation for the failure of my nipples to rise to the occasion would be the discovery of some other erogenous zone unique to myself. After all, when God shuts a door he always leaves a window open. But where to begin to look? I suppose a masseur would be the obvious starting point. I've heard that some of them offer extra services. But we don't have a massage parlour in the village.

I could ask the village barber. He sometimes asks 'Will there be anything else?' and when I say 'no' adds 'Anything planned for the weekend?'
'Be so good as to just thrust the cold steel of that electric trimmer down the nape of my neck again, would you? There was definitely a suspicion of a frisson there although to call it a zone might be premature. But throw that cape back over me just to be on the safe side.'

On second thoughts, I have to live here. Best to stick to 'just a quick tidy up and straight at the back' (bet Toni and Guy don't say that to their clients).
In any case, finding new erogenous zones at my age would be as much use as installing a condom machine in a eunuch colony.
So unless you've any better ideas, I'm going to play a Bollywood soundtrack and stick the hairdryer in my ear. And if I feel a right tit, that will still be a first for me.

First Impressions

The new format Guardian passed its first test. It was much easier to read at the kitchen table without the pages falling into my poached eggs.
The second test is how many smaller Guardians will fit on a square foot of duvet. I read most of the Guardian when I go to bed which, on a strong day for content, can delay going to sleep for an hour.
I have a dreadful habit of then throwing the paper on to the other side of the bed where they sometimes accumulate for several weeks. Eventually I find myself sleeping in a nest of old Guardians like some kind of rodent, probably absorbing those soppy liberal values through the pores of my skin along with a predilection for organic muesli and vegetarianism. The smaller Guardian should take up less room on the other side of the bed which, in a fairer world, would be occupied by someone nibbling my ear and stroking my thigh while I try to concentrate on Polly Toynbee's analysis of Gordon Brown's policies on redistribution.

I delay throwing old papers away because I am only slowly weaning myself from the habit of cutting articles out and filing them, no longer so necessary now there is an archive on the web. And it's slightly quicker to search the Guardian archive than to burrow under the bed or climb into the attic looking for manilla folders of yellowing cuttings.

The new font is easy to read but I mourn the passing of Helvetica and Garamond. At one time I liked them so much that I had a business card designed in those fonts. The new masthead is rather lacking in impact and authority.

I also mourn the passing of Thursday's Life supplement. Introducing a weekly Science section was one of the greatest innovations of Alan Rusbridger, the Editor. In its short life it has done an exemplary job in explaining science to non-scientists. Fortunately, we shall still have Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column, to which this blog once fed a story. And we are promised a daily Science page. But I stopped reading The Editor when it was absorbed into the main paper and still miss that Saturday supplement.

Although I sometimes snipe at The Guardian (sorry, theguardian) here over trivial things, I firmly believe it is the best newspaper in the world. There were several excellent opinion pieces in the first edition, each of which could have prompted a 500 word blog if I had the time.
They ranged from Roy Hattersley's highly contentious argument that the religious are more altruistic than the non-religious to some advertising harpie in the Media Section writing about break bumpers. As it happens, my own humble 'Adwatch' has in its pending tray a piece about Coronation Street break bumpers. You don't know what a break bumper is? Get a life! We talk of little else in the Saloon Bar of the Rod and Mullet.

G2 had a profile of Judi Dench which revealed that she embroidered a cushion for David Hare with the motto: 'Fuck 'em, fuck 'em, fuck 'em, fuck 'em.' Not the kind of story that would make it into a Mail profile of Dame Judi. (I recently found a card belonging to my late mother which was signed by Judi Dench, Michael Williams, Prunella Scales and Timothy West. Those four together would be quite a coup for an autograph collector).

Also in G2 was the first interview with Oona King since she was defeated by George Galloway at the election. And guess what? She's changed her mind about Iraq. Not because of the thousands who were slaughtered. Not because there were no WMD. But because Hurricane Katrina has shown that the Americans are crap at reconstruction. Come on, Oona. Admit it. You're having a laugh, aren't you?

Sport as a separate section is a great idea because it can go straight in the bin. But I do hope they're going to use the sport-free back page for something other than a full-page ad.
Full colour on every page means that today we could start the day with a spring in our step and a song in our heart: page 5 has a full colour pic of Jeremy Clarkson covered in a custard pie. It was famously said that satire died the day that Henry Kissinger got the Nobel Peace Prize. But one has to ask: how many times can satire die? Jeremy Clarkson getting an honorary university degree? And being described by said university as a role model for the young? Is this what people call 'post-modern irony'?

The Guardian deserves credit for having the courage to go for the radical option of the Berliner format, which other papers had looked at and shied away from. Some of them must surely be regretting that now. The proof of the pudding will be in the circulation figures. But they won't tell the full story because the Guardian's enormous global influence is shown in the astonishing number of visitors to its website. This proves that millions of people, not just here but around the world, are to the left of the governments that represent them.
Some of us are considerably to the left of the Guardian. But life without it is unthinkable. I shall no doubt criticise and ridicule the dear old Grauniad again in the future. But this week is a time for congratulations and good wishes. Plus the hope that the ink will no longer stain my favourite navy and burgundy duvet cover (£25.99 from Argos).

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Saturday Succintness

Is this the finest geranium I've ever grown?
Is this the shortest blog I've ever posted?
No, I once posted one sentence.
(The variety is 'Simply Red'. Play it Mick Hucknall records to get multiple blooms).


On second thoughts, just time to mention The Green, Green Grass, John Sullivan's spin-off from Only Fools and Horses, which began on BBC1 last night.
Very promising is the fairest verdict. There's so much cutting edge comedy (which often isn't) around these days that we need some good traditional sitcoms. And if they re-unite us with great characters from an earlier, legendary series that's a bonus.

The opening scene was acted at full volume by the two principals, as though they were trying to project their voices to the back of the Upper Circle. I rather liked that. It might be because both actors have been doing theatre work together recently.
There were some great lines in the opening scenes, as you'd expect from John Sullivan. I'm a little uneasy at getting another 'Vicar of Dibley' stereotypical portrayal of country folk, although I have to admit there are a few people in my own village who are as mad as goats and would be rejected for a sitcom as being too unbelievable.

It was directed by Tony Dow who, as an Assistant Stage Manager, gave me my orders when I first worked in the West End theatre. On my first night I almost killed one of the biggest stars of musical theatre. Tony's reprimand over my headphones was astonishingly mild, amounting to not much more than informing me that he'd noticed what I'd done. ASMs are often hated in the theatre but Tony was so mild-mannered yet so totally professional that I never heard a bad word said about him.
For his tolerance of a terrified, novice stage hand who didn't have a clue what he was doing I still owe him one over 30 years later. So, even if The Green, Green Grass turns out to be a turkey , I shall shout from the rooftops that it was brilliantly directed.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


I see our old friend 'salon shampoo' is back. Not that it ever went away. It's been amusing me for years.
This time it's Messrs TRESemmé® who are running TV commercials for 'salon quality' shampoos.

Now your average hairdresser will use the cheapest shampoo they can get away with. It's called the profit motive. It's called capitalism.
In the town where I grew up there was a plain-fronted shop that could have been a sex shop or massage parlour. In fact, it supplied wholesale products to the hairdressing trade.
The 'Jean-Pierres' and 'Marcos' (aka 'Reg' and 'Trevor') would pull up outside and walk in carrying those plastic petrol containers you keep in the boot for emergencies and emerge with them filled with several litres of 'salon shampoo'. For all I know, the stuff was dispensed from pumps labelled 1-Star, 2-Star and 3-Star.
Call me cynical, but the possibility that the stuff was enriched with vitamins, extracts of hazelnut and sunflower, and prepared by white-coated coves in a Parisian laboratoire seems rather remote.
If you were Messrs TRESemmé or Garnier and credited women with an ounce of common sense, you would surely tell them that it was not 'salon shampoo' but something far superior.

Incidentally, my researches for yesterday's piece (we don't just dash these things off, you know. Sometimes we spend, ooh, all of 30 seconds on Google) revealed that Stelios has a brand called easy4men. I've known people for whom that was their middle name. I wondered if, given that Stelios's fellow airline owner, Richard Branson, owns Heaven nightclub, Stelios had also decided to diversify into some branch of the gay market. But it turned out that easy4men is a brand of male toiletries. In bright orange packaging, naturally. (Surely people would think you'd nicked them from one of his aircraft or cruise ships?).

Nothing gay about the big fellow's toiletries though. They are aimed at "the no-nonsense man" and satisfy "the basic male grooming needs of the man who is happy with who he is."
Now call me cynical yet again, but I would venture that the basic grooming ritual of the no-nonsense male is to pick the toast crumbs out of his pubes and throw some water over his face using his cupped hands. If he's on a promise he might also take what Australians call a 'British shower' - spray a load of deodorant into the air and then run through the ensuing mist wearing only your chuddies.

Would the 'no-nonsense man', even if he's a male scrubber, really use easy4men's 'exfoliating scrub bar'?
Would he really carry in his pocket a packet of very girlie 'deep cleaning wipes'?
And for those nights camped out at Luton Airport because your easyJet flight was cancelled, you can buy several of the products as a Travel Kit in a neat little black toiletry case.

'Oi, Stelios! Are you taking the fucking piss? Do I look like one of your fucking air stewards? You can stick your scrub bar up your easyHole. Dot Co Dot fucking UK.'

PLEASE NOTE: In view of comments received (assuming they are genuine), I am happy to make it clear that nothing in the above post should be construed as making any implications about the sexuality of Mr Stelios Haji-Ioannou.
This was a light-hearted piece based on the likely reaction of a certain type of homophobic male to the concept of male cosmetics. It does not contain any comment or speculation about Mr Haji-Ioannou's own sexuality and I was unaware that this had ever been the subject of speculation or "smears".
Despite not having made any comments about Mr Haji-Ioannou's sexuality, I wish to make it clear that anyone who inferred that I had done so (including Mr Haji-Ioannou) would be mistaken.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Stelios Haji-Ioannou probably doesn't spend much on TV advertising. It's easy. His companies are already all over the schedules as documentaries or reality television.
Airline, about easyJet, is endlessly shown and repeated on ITV1. It has enticing come-ons to the viewer in the listings mags like: 'At Luton a passenger forgets her passport' or 'at Liverpool, Customer Service Assistant Trisha is in a bad mood after stubbing her toe on her desk'. And you ask yourself: 'can I cope with the excitement?'

Stelios, as he is known (not affectionately but because nobody can pronounce or spell his surname), obviously believes there is no such thing as bad publicity and he may well be right. Airline regularly shows his staff making a complete pig's ear of dealing with the public.
If I watch it occasionally, it's because in the past I have worked in front-line, customer-facing environments. Or, to put it another way, I've had to deal with the general fucking public.

So I have much sympathy with the staff featured in Airline. It's not easy to remain composed and polite when confronted by what Americans usually call 'assholes'. But the easyJet staff rarely make any attempt to soothe people with phrases like 'I'm very sorry, but.....', or 'I know it's very frustrating for you, but....' The easyJet approach is: "You're late. Check-in's closed. You've missed your flight. Fuck off." (Well, not the last two words but you can read those in their facial expressions). They also make the fundamental mistake of taking abuse personally which means the situation often escalates.

I was once obliged to walk backwards for about ten yards because a customer was poking me in the chest with his index finger with great force whilst shouting that he would have me sacked. I remained almost transcendentally calm, Christ-like in my turning of the other cheek and Gandhi-like in my restraint from smacking him in the mouth. I don't think I said anything, except perhaps "Please stop poking me". But although backing away to avoid serious nipple damage, I didn't back down on the subject of our disagreement. The only way he'd have had me sacked was if I'd grabbed him by the throat or uttered the words I was calling him in my head. And afterwards you take professional pride in achieving that level of disassociation.

Last night Sky1 began a new series called 'Cruise With Stelios' about his new venture into budget cruise ships, easyCruise. And guess who sponsored the programme? easyMoney.
The spartan cabins are painted bright orange and have no portholes, guaranteeing you'll be sick before it even leaves port. In an odd reversal of traditional cruise ship practice, the crew's cabins all have portholes but the passengers' don't.
Curiously, most of the first batch of passengers reacted as though they'd been shown into a suite at the Ritz. But, since they were British, they were probably just being polite and were already mentally composing a six page letter of complaint.

The idea of cruising with Stelios is deeply unpleasant in any sense of the word 'cruise'. But nausea increased with a script that included the line "As the temperature rises, Stelios's chopper rears up into view."
It really was more like Carry On Cruising. The Cruise Director was a very camp chap who produced boxes of free T shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with 'I'm Cruising' and 'Hello Sailor'. He affected to be shocked by these but I'm convinced he had supplied the artwork himself.

Then there was the Geordie DJ who I'm sure was played by Peter Kay. It was his first time abroad and he was finding the French difficult to understand. He was astonished to find people driving modern Renaults and Citroens. He thought the cars would all be old and clapped out "like in China". He called all the Frenchmen 'Signor', which must have gone down like a request for Turkey Twizzlers in a Michelin starred restaurant.
But his greatest triumph was going to buy a shirt in Nice. He failed in this mission because, despite his limited French, he knew with absolute certainty that 'Ouverte' on a shop door meant 'Closed'. The market and the cafés were thronged with people but every clothes shop had 'Ouverte' on the door.
Lazy bastards, those French tailors.

Today's post was sponsored by easyBlog

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Last Of The Summer Weather

There's an old saying in these parts:
When the Sumac's turned to red
Throw a thicker duvet on thy bed
When the Sumac's turned to brown
Winter bist here, wearing a frown.

No, I mustn't lie to you. I made that up.
But don't be deceived by today's scorching heat. The nights are drawing in. And if you rise early, you can hardly see the mellow fruitfulness for the fucking mists. Rather like myself, the year is in 'the springtime of its senescence.'
[I've been wanting to use that phrase from Gore Vidal for weeks].

But in a climate like ours you should embrace each returning season like an old friend.
[Can't believe I wrote that sentence. I haven't been reading Patience Strong but I ate some cream doughnuts and fell asleep in the sun. Sorry].
Anyway, if I can stop paranthesising [like a fit of sneezing] long enough, here are some things to look forward to this autumn:

The DVD of Green Wing should be released soon. If it isn't, Talkback/Channel 4 will have missed the Christmas market and demonstrated that they don't have enough commercial nous to run a whelk stall.
There will also be a second series in the new year.
One of the things that made Green Wing unusual was that it combined some wonderful visual gags with brilliantly clever verbal humour. You rarely get both genres of comedy together.

The redesigned Guardian will appear in about a week's time. It is adopting the Berliner format, mid-way between tabloid and broadsheet. How like the dear old Guardian to sit on the fence. It was a design change foreseen by JFK when he said "Ich bin ein Berliner."
In the last design change they banished capital letters from almost every proper noun, for which I have never forgiven them. OK, that's a style change rather than a design change. But they argued that using capitals for terms like Prime Minister was confusing to readers and looked like 'alphabet soup'. This made me wonder if they had confused their readership with that of the Daily Sport.
A new font has been designed for this change, which seems extravagant because there are thousands of fonts in existence (most of them using up disk space on my computer) and most of them are as little used as the fonts in the country's churches. Surely they could have adopted a green design policy and saved money and energy by recycling some long unused font?
That said, it's all very exciting for those who don't get out much. There will be much moaning and many letters of protest and people will "instruct my newsagent to cancel my order". ("Yes, m'lady, I'm tugging my forelock even as we speak. If you had called into my humble newsagent to instruct me in person I could have licked your brogues and sent my youngest out with a chamois leather to wash your Range Rover. I take it that, in the absence of intructions to the contrary, Madam still wishes to receive Country Life and Cosmopolitan and Sir his copy of Asian Babes?").
Why do the middle classes always 'instruct' their newsagents?
But in a few weeks we won't even remember what a nightmare it was trying to turn broadsheet pages on the Bakerloo Line. Not least because we never go within a hundred miles of the Bakerloo Line.

The coming weeks will also see the final rounds of The X Factor. [For overseas readers: this is like PopIdol/American Idol but open to people of any age].
It is one of the greatest television entertainment formats ever devised. The tension in the final rounds is similar to a penalty shoot-out in a Cup Final. In the former, one tries to calm oneself by saying 'It's only a game'. With the latter, one says 'It's only a crap TV programme'. In both cases, to no avail.

For political junkies, we have the Tory leadership contest this month.
Since they unfailingly pick the political equivalent of a minger who can't sing, maybe they should adopt the X Factor format this time round.
Ken Clarke would have an advantage with his deep knowledge of jazz. He could put lyrics to 'Take Five', the number of times he's stood for the leadership. David Cameron would probably sing the Eton Boating Song. As for David Davis, well he was raised in a council flat so he might make a play for social inclusiveness by singing 'My Old Man's A Dustman'.

For Corrie fans there will be the build-up to a big Christmas story line.
Will Charlie and Shelley get married? Lots of potential for fisticuffs in the aisle in that one.
Will Mike Baldwin's Altzheimers accelerate to the extent that he hands over the factory to Ken Barlow, believing him to be his son?
Will Kevin Webster discover that Sean was only pretending to be gay and that it was Sean who raped Sally on the Red Rec?*

Finally, one assumes that Jeremy Paxman will return to Newsnight some time soon.
Gavin Esler - blander than a boil-in-the-bag Béchamel sauce served in a Harvester restaurant - can return to News 24.
Kirsty Wark - shriller than an Aberdeen fishwife - can jump on an Easyjet back to BBC Scotland.
Paxo will resume his rightful throne and we can go to bed happy in the knowledge that Ministers have been given a right royal shafting.

* To those of you 6 months behind us, I made that one up.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Radio Ga-Ga

I'm not sure that I should bother taking issue with the witterings of a right-wing buffoon like Simon Heffer.
But, in a discussion on the Tory leadership on Radio Four, he's just said 'if you go to places like Norfolk and Suffolk, people there aren't interested in things like gay rights.....'

This vividly illustrates the different planet that Daily Mail columnists are living on, even though they claim to be 'in touch with what ordinary people are thinking'.

Does Heffer think there are no gay people in Suffolk and Norfolk? For they at least are going to have some interest in gay rights.
Indeed, for gay people living in those counties it may be a more pressing issue than for those whose local pub is in London's Old Compton Street.

Presumably, there are also straight people in those counties who would prefer to live in a society that did not discriminate against people on grounds of their sexuality.

Believe it or not, there are even Labour voters in Norfolk!
The good people of Norwich South managed to rise above the miasma of medieval superstition that usually rules their lives and elect an MP (Charles Clark) who supported a gay age of consent of 16.

If I lived in one of those counties I'd be even angrier at Heffer's prejudiced, patronising comments than I am now.


One of the great things about radio is that you can listen to it anywhere in the house and whilst you are doing other things.
The downside of this is that the noise of running a tap, cleaning your teeth or doing the washing-up can blot out words and phrases leaving you astonished or bewildered by what you think you heard.
This morning I was startled to hear someone say that the painter Lowry used to work as a rent boy during the day.
They had actually said that he worked as a rent collector.
The other day Peter Mandelson appeared to say that the trade negotiations with China were a bitch.
Crikey, I thought, that's rather camp even for you, Mandy.
When I heard the same interview later I found he'd actually said the negotiations had hit a glitch.
Does anyone else have this problem?
'Problem' is perhaps the wrong word. It often takes me into a world of surreal humour which makes Radio Four's Today programme more bearable.

SHORTS UPDATE: you will be relieved to know that the garment referred to in yesterday's descent into trivia fitted reasonably well.
The risk of fall-out was non-existent because not only do they have no fly but they are secured with a cord. This makes them highly unsuitable for anyone who drinks as many cups of tea as I do, leading to long and annoying fumblings in the bathroom.
And no, Mike, they are not actually made of plastic. I believe them to be made of synthetic, imitation acrylic.
But I only wore them for an hour because I found the sight of my white thighs aesthetically offensive.
The solutions are:
To start wearing them early in the summer.
To apply an instant tanning lotion to my legs.
To put them somewhere I'll never find them again.

NEXT WEEK: I find an old floral kipper tie and cause hysteria in the village library.