Saturday, March 27, 2010

Standing in line

Among many gems in The End of the Party, the new Andrew Rawnsley book on the dying years of New Labour, is this quip from the American economist Irwin Stelzer as Northern Rock collapsed in 2007, forcing hundreds of savers in the North of England to queue up to withdraw their money:
"It was stunning to see these lines of people waiting to get their money out. There were two reactions in America. One was: 'My God, they've got a bank run.' The other was: 'Look how nice and orderly the Brits are when they queue up.'"
Makes me feel very proud of our nation.

Friday, March 26, 2010

An inconvenient name

Back from my week in France to find two messages from friends - ones who don't know each other and are different sexes and ages - pointing out that an article on the sexual abuse of choristers in Vienna in today's Times is written by one Roger Boyes.

"Is this some inappropriate joke by a sub-editor?" one asked. The other just found it very funny. And strangely it was the older woman rather than my oldest male friend who has the disturbing sense of humour.

No, it was not a joke. Yes, Roger Boyes is a real person. He has been the Times's man in Berlin for ever (well, longer than the nine years I've worked for the paper) and no doubt he has heard this many many times. I don't imagine that sex abuse stories are that rare, sadly. Even in Germany.

Those with names that can make others snigger have it tough. Sometimes people who disagree with views on my cricket blog note my surname and leave comments saying: "Surely you are KIDDing". Yes, they use capital letters in case people don't get the joke. I live in peril of an editor thinking it would be a good idea to give me a column called Just Kidding.

I had a teacher called Dick Paine (he genuinely preferred to be called Dick rather than Richard), which sounded uncomfortable, and my mother tells me that she was taught by one Ivor Herring, which would seem unnecessarily boastful in certain fishing communities. Being a music teacher, perhaps he could have moonlighted (moonlit?) as a piano tuna.

On opening my post just now, I found an advert for a dentist called Mr Stab, which reminded me of a sign I once saw at university advertising the services of an optician called Mr Death (well, De'Ath, but who was he kidding?).

Perhaps the least appropriate name I have come across, though, was when I worked on The Times's public-sector supplement a few years ago and had to write something about two health experts giving advice to a Parliament committee on tackling obesity.

Their names? Mr Crisp and Mr Podger. Seriously.

Fasting slowly

Having passed several road signs in France warning me of "vehicules lents" this week, it raised the question why the French use the word lent to mean slow when we use Lent to mean fast?

Lent, in the Easter sense, has been on my mind this week because I have well and truly fallen off the wagon as far as my Lenten pledge to give up cheese goes. But how could I resist the odd smidgin of Livarot or Pont L'Eveque in this country? It would be rude.

The problem is that one reason for giving up cheese was to try and lose weight and after the first 30 days I had managed to shed half a stone. I imagine when I return to England tonight that good work will have all been undone. But it was worth it. I will just have to extend Lent by an extra week or two.

As for the linguistic question, the period before Easter gets its name from the German "lenz", meaning long because that is the period when the days lengthen. Catholics still call the period quadragesima, or 40 days. Lent, as in the French adjective for slow, comes from the Latin "lentus", meaning the same although there is another "lentus" that means "supple", which I certainly don't feel after too much Livarot.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Cigarettes and alcohol

Spent yesterday afternoon here in Honfleur stocking up on cider to take back to England after hearing that the Chancellor has stuck a 10 per cent tax rise on it. I guess Labour have written off the West Country vote at the next election, as well as the vote of 18-year-old first-timers whose idea of a fun night out is knocking back Diamond White behind the bus station.

The lamentable exchange rate means that petrol in Britain looks cheap even after a 3p tax rise compared with what it costs here in France. A litre of unleaded here is about 1.40 euros, which was only 95p a year or two ago but is now more or less £1.40 give or take.

Yet, the sharp rise in petrol in Britain from £1.10 a litre about six months ago to £1.20 now and upwards has not attracted the anger it should. Strange to think that ten years ago there were protests and petrol shortages after the refineries went on strike because petrol in the UK had gone past 80p a litre. Now it is 50 per cent more expensive (has any other commodity gone up by 50 per cent in ten years?) and people shrug it off.

My biggest annoyance with yesterday's Budget, though, is the decision to put the tax on cigarettes up by only 1 per cent - and a capped increase of 2 per cent a year from 2011-2014. This fairly gentle rise seems out of kilter with the Government's war on smokers. Surely it isn't because they don't wish to upset working-class voters?

I don't smoke myself but bear no ill will towards smokers and have often got annoyed by the measures brought in by the Government to clamp down on those who do like a puff. Banned from smoking while they have a drink, to the detriment of rural pubs, there are now proposals to ban people from smoking while driving and other impositions could be on the way (in Australia smokers are banned from receiving state aid for IVF, for instance).

Yet despite this clear message that smoking is wrong, the Government does not have the courage to hit smokers where it really hurts: in the wallet. Why not take advantage of their addiction and add 5 per cent tax on. Heck, why not make it 10 per cent? On a packet of 20 ciggies, a 10 per cent tax rise would be another 60p on the price and smokers would still pay it.

Smokers cost the NHS £5 billion a year, according to a survey last year. It is only fair that they should pay for that. And in return for their generous contribution to state coffers - what Sir Humphrey Appleby memorably described as "voluntarily laying down their lives for their friends" - these "national benefactors" should be given the freedom to puff wherever they choose.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Les petits francais

I'm in France for a week, so posting may be even more sporadic than usual (or it may be more frequent without work to get in the way). I was at the Stade de France on Saturday to watch England generously donate a rugby game - and the Six Nations grand slam, en passant - to a French team who had so sportingly given us several chances to win the match ourselves. You can read what I think about that on my Times blog.

Then, on our way to the delightful Normandy fishing village of Honfleur, my wife and I spent yesterday at the Palace of Versailles. We were out of season so the gardens were not quite at their best - the fountains were all turned off, for a start - but it also meant that the state rooms were less packed than in summer.

This was welcome as there is something insufferably pushy about the French in confined - or even in not particularly confined - spaces. They seem to have the same lack of awareness of other people as children, taking the direct line towards what they want to look at, even if it means pushing through or over others. When there is clear room for them to manouevre round, it gets a bit wearing.

I've developed the knack, helped by playing rugby at school, of sensing when someone is about to come up on the blind side and sticking out an elbow to catch them amidships, but my wife found the constant sudden appearance of a Frenchman avec femme underneath her nostrils annoying.

On a related matter, why were they all so small? I'm no giant at dead on 6ft, but I was looking down on everyone around me, literally as well as with the English superiority complex that other nations somehow find insufferable.

Obviously, not all Frenchmen are midgets. Their rugby players are lofty enough and according to this website the average Frenchman is only half an inch shorter than the average Englishman (the Dutch and Scandinavians come out on top).

Yet so many of their great achievers are tiny (Napoleon, Sarkozy, Asterix...), as well as apparently all those who go to art galleries. Is this evolution in process? French art-lovers will never walk round other people so are they gradually being genetically adapted to walk through people's legs instead?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Taking the class out of classics

Sir Kenneth Dover died last week. His name might not mean something to everyone, but he was one of the great classicists of the 20th century, who attracted a certain notoriety for admitting in his autobiography that he once contemplated murdering one of his colleagues who was disgracing the college before deciding just to let the fellow effectively commit suicide by drinking himself to death.

By all accounts, when he wasn't trying to bump off those he disliked, Dover was a superb teacher and academic. His work, on the Greek comedian Aristophanes especially, was fun and accessible as well as scholarly. To use a horrid phrase popular today, he brought the past to life.

I thought of Dover when I heard the pronouncement a few days later by Ed Balls, the Education Secretary, that Latin should not be taught in schools because businesses didn't demand it and children found it uninspiring, a view that has been kebabed with typical aplomb by Boris Johnson.

Johnson appears to be loved and loathed in equal measure, with people either finding him a toffish buffoon or an unspun idiot savant who talks a lot of sense behind his quipping. But there is far less disagreement about the aptly named Balls. Even ardent socialists seem to think him a numpty.

I don't have a problem with people not "getting" the importance of Latin, even though they are wrong. Churchill, after all, famously detested the subject after finding it ridiculous that he had to learn the vocative of mensa at school. "Why should I need to learn how to say 'O, table' in Latin?" he asked. And Churchill worked out OK in the end.

I do find it strange when Latin is attacked by economists (as it was on BBC Breakfast today) for being dull, though. As if economics is a bundle of laughs. Only those with dull imaginations find Latin dull.

For some people, Latin is a difficult subject that, especially in our instant reward society, is not worth grappling with. For others, studying the classics is the key to a better life, offering a facility with modern languages, an appreciation of law, history and politics, and a grounding in literature and rhetoric. It teaches you to think logically and at the same time titillates your emotions.

All that is by the by, though. What I find so infuriating about Balls and his ilk is the belief that everything we study has to be identifiably relevant (in fact, studying anything is relevant if it gets your brain working) and of use in the modern economy. Balls sees education as an equation: x money plus y results = z workers we can tax. Intellectual gain by the individual is only of use if society gains more. It doesn't matter if we are a nation of dullards as long as we are profitable dullards.

Some in New Labour don't like Latin because they see it as elitist. Toffs do it so it must be bad. Their view of equality is that if some people can't do something then it should be banned for all. My view of equality is that as many people as possible should be given opportunities and if a few can't do well then that is bad luck. Politicians should take the class out of the classics.

Despite Labour's best efforts and the constraints of the curriculum, Latin is making a comeback. A survey in 2008 revealed that it was being taught in 471 comprehensive schools. It is growing so fast that there is a problem providing enough teachers to meet the demand. 72 classics teachers left the profession in 2008, replaced by 27 new graduates. If Balls wants to deal in economics, that is one equation that needs balancing.

And this comes back to my real bugbear: his claim that Latin teachers are uninspiring. We can only go on what we have experienced, of course, and perhaps at Nottingham High, the school where Balls was (oh what a surprise) privately educated, Latin was taught by Mr Grey and Mr Bland who sucked the life out of the subject.

Maybe I was more lucky. The Latin and Greek teachers at my school were the most popular with the boys, even with those who didn't take the subjects beyond the compulsory couple of years. They were eccentric, witty, off-the-wall... but above all passionate. Perhaps because they were in a minority nationally, they chose to teach the subjects because they really matter to them and conveyed that passion to their pupils.

Unlike some teachers, they were never going through the motions. Lessons were to be looked forwards to, not dreaded. The biennial field trip to Italy or Greece was always over-subscribed. These teachers brought their subjects to life. And surely getting children interested is the key aim of any teacher? Otherwise, life is just a load of Balls.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Muck and brass

For some reason, I've always had a love of brass bands, the oldest of which (outside the military) marked its bicentenary last year. They summon memories of sunny days and ice cream and lying in the park without a care in the world.

They are Wagner-lite, encouraging the same swell of emotion you get from a good Gotterdamerung without the subsequent urge to invade Poland.

They are also a truly classless pursuit. I imagine one of the few perks of being a coal miner was having an industrialist sponsoring your horn, although I don't know how any of them could puff and toot for long with their lungs riddled with pneumoconiosis.

After colliery bands, brass also plays an integral at the other end of the social spectrum: the Stewards' Enclosure at Henley Royal Regatta, where the afternoon parping from the bandstand drowns out the drone from bankers concerned about their hedge funds.

And yet while brass bands seem primarily to be the sound of summer, I most adore them for the ceremony of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in November and the sombre, dignified salute that the nation gives to those who have fallen in battle, another classless association.

Like many journalists, I have a constant existential angst that my day job is far too frivolous and trifling. If I have one ambition, it would be to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph as the band plays Beethoven's Funeral March, which is more stirring than the rather dreary and plodding piano sonato from which it is derived.

But how? Assuming that becoming a member of the Royal Family is out, the main routes into wreath-laying lie with becoming the leader of a political party (Plaid Cymru may be an option), leading a religion, heading up one of the Armed Forces or being a diplomatic representative from one of the Commonwealth countries.

I wonder how one goes about becoming the High Commissioner from Antigua and Barbuda?

Friday, March 12, 2010

As seen on TV

Karl Rove, the political adviser to the last US president who was often called "Bush's Brain", was happy to defend old friends on Newsnight last night against the charge from Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5, that George Bush's White House had been influenced by the TV series 24.

Bush, he told us, only ever watched sport on television - he neglected to mention that Bush struggled even with that if rogue pretzels were involved - and that while Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were big 24 fans it was laughable to suggest that waterboarding and rendition and all that was dreamt up after a marathon session of Jack Bauer.

"Dick Cheney is fully capable of distinguishing between fact and fiction," Rove said, although that didn't stop a Republican group led by Cheney's daughter, Liz, from recently recording a 24-style attack ad on Barack Obama's limpness in the face of terrorism, complete with ticking clock, multiple images on one screen and other items designed to make people think that 24 was very much a reality.

With delightfully shameless hypocrisy, the Cheney ad mocks Obama for playing golf in the aftermath of the foiled terrorist attack last Christmas. Yet it was Bush in 2002 who addressed a press conference from the first tee of a Maine golf course after suicide bombers had struck in Israel, ending by saying: "I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive."

Although that was quite funny.

The Rove interview came hard on the heels of news yesterday that, one year into Obama's presidency, Fox has decided to cancel 24, which had started with a bang (several bangs, in fact) in 2001 but rapidly became rather dull and samey, not to mention expensive. Perhaps it was just not zeitgeisty enough any more. Terrorism is not a subject for the Noughties.

Perhaps Fox will replace it with a more relevant series in which people sit around worrying about their credit card debt levels or switching off the lights in a vain hope that it might save the planet.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dung roaming

One of the purposes of this blog, as well as an outlet for bad jokes and half-formed thoughts, is to add to the general sum of human knowledge, so I hope that the odd reader who stumbles across this post will find it enlightening. Today I am talking crap, for a change.

To be specific, animal crap and how we should describe it. Did you know that there are different words for animal faeces depending on which animal made the deposit? My grandmother always used to just call it "doings", as in "Oh dear, the spaniel's left his doings all over my Jeffrey Archer book", but there is a vast variety of words that could be used, according to The Straight Dope website.

For a start, "fewmet" is the proper word you should use when describing the doings of a deer, as in "the hunter slipped on a freshly laid fewmet and blew his friend's right ear off". Cattle's doings can be called "tath", which suits me much better than "pat". Then there is "guano" (seabirds), "crotiles" (hares), "lesses" (boars), "billitting" (foxes), "spraints" (otters) and "mutes" (hawks - do other birds of prey use a different word?)

The website also lists the very important words "jumentous", which means "pertaining to the smell of horse urine", and "spatilomancy", which is telling someone's fortune by looking at dung. It's a crap job, but someone's got to do it.

Then (and I've cut this list down a lot), there is: "gleet" (phlegm from the stomach of a hawk), "dowcet" (a deer's testicle), "blissom" (to copulate with a ewe) and "caponise" (to castrate a chicken).

Should any of you readers be a bestselling historical novelist (ahem, Angus), I expect those words to be used in your next book, if not even in the title.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Once bitten...

A lovely line from Roy Hattersley in his comment piece in The Times today about Alan Johnson wanting Britain's six million dog-owners to take out insurance in case their mutt bites someone:
"Perhaps the nation of dog lovers is paying the price for having a Home Secretary who was once a postman."
Hattersley is quite right, too, to make the point that heavy drinkers and careless cyclists, who cause more injuries than the odd Cujo, are not being told to take out compulsory insurance, so why should the owners of well-behaved pooches? This never would have been suggested in Barbara Woodhouse's day.

It is a typical over-reaction by this Government to scare stories in the media. I would rather they left dog-owners alone until and unless the law is broken in which case castration is a fair penalty. And the dog should get punished too ...

YouTube shutdown

This, found on Mr Eugenides' site, is wonderful:

Those Google searches are: "celebrity Toby jugs", "recipes leftover polecat meat", "lady gaga Greggs", "alistair darling naked pictures", "google", "stasi appreciation society", "james murdoch suicide" and then some puffs for the creators of this very witty skit.

Ah, it brings back warm, fuzzy nostalgia feelings when TV wasn't on for 24 hours and our information was fed to us on slow-changing text-only pages accompanied by music so easy you could be ordering breakfast for two within ten seconds of shaking hands at a cocktail party.

The big question is what has happened to all those composers of easy music who were so ubiquitous in the 1980s? Now they don't have the Teletext gig, where have they gone? Even supermarkets don't seem to pipe easy music in-store these days.

Perhaps there is a documentary to be made out there on these maestros of the synthesizer and Andean reed-pipes. Sounds like a job for BBC Four.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Tramp, 96, dies

Tributes have rightly been paid to Michael Foot, the former Labour Party leader, who died on Wednesday aged 96. He would have been a disaster as Prime Minister and was not much better as party leader, but he had principles, passion, learning and dignity. Even his political enemies have praised his manners and graciousness. They are lost virtues in politics these days.

But what has also been lost in politics is Foot's scruffiness. The obituaries have all mentioned the Cenotaph incident, when he was criticised for wearing what was described as a "donkey jacket" for the ceremony of remembrance.

Foot always protested, saying that it was actually a very nice green coat that the Queen Mother herself had praised.

Perhaps worse was the fact he was wearing a tartan tie rather than the regulation black. Wearing tartan at any occasion outside of a Highland fling is pretty awful, even in the early 1980s.

Foot was as unspun as they come. So what if he looked a bit like a tramp? Appearance mattered little to him, it was what you said and what you thought that should be important. As a tribute to this admirable philosophy, and to nick an old Two Ronnies joke, Foot's body should be allowed to lie in a state for a few days.

Alas, the days of the scruff in politics are long gone. Ken Clarke, with his cigars, Hush Puppies and crumpled jackets, is one of the few remaining scruffs. Even Boris Johnson, with that unruly hair, manages to wear a sharp suit. David Cameron has barely a hair out of place. The worst thing about those allegedly air-brushed posters is that they may not have been air-brushed.

This is a great shame. A man who takes too much time over his appearance is wasting time that could be spent thinking or doing other things. The best thing that Gordon Brown could do if he wants my vote (a slim chance, but it has to be worth a shot) is to take off his tie, pull on a slightly faded and holey jumper and not comb his hair for a few weeks. Grab this election by the scruff, as they say.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

There is another Winston...

The death yesterday of Winston Churchill, a rather less high-achieving MP than his grandfather, reminds me of the story about yet another Winston Churchill - the world is full of them - who was an American novelist born around the same time as the Winston Churchill.

The American Churchill tasted success in his career much earlier than the British (well, half-American through his mother) Churchill, with a series of historical novels, the most famous being The Celebrity and Richard Carvel, which you can read online at Project Gutenberg.

He did so well that our Churchill wrote to their Churchill in the 1890s and offered to publish all his writings under the name Winston S. Churchill so as not to avoid confusion.
WSC also suggested to the plain WC that they should both go into politics. "I intend to be Prime Minister one day and it would be a splendid lark if you were President of the United States at the same time," he wrote. Alas, his American namesake got no further than being elected to the New Hampshire state legislature, although he did have a couple of unsuccessful runs for governor.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The knight with the Midas touch

How fast a week flies past, so my apologies to either or both of this blog's regular readers who may have visited and wondered why there were no updates. Day job intervened. Back to business.

And the important, yet underplayed, news that Sir Ian McKellen is to play Goldfinger in a BBC radio adaptation of the James Bond novel, to be broadcast on April 3. Toby Stephens will play Bond, reprising the role he played when the BBC did Dr No (with David Suchet as the villain) two years ago and Rosamund Pike, who like Stephens has played a Bond baddie on screen in Die Another Day, will be Pussy Galore.

McKellen is a wonderful actor and I'm looking forward to hearing the play. I wondered at first whether he might be too much of a luvvie to play a villain, although he has done plenty of villains before in films, notably Richard III, the ex-Nazi in Apt Pupil and Magneto in X-Men. Even so, though, I wondered if the dialogue might go thus:
"Do you expect me to talk?"
"Oh, good heavens no, my dear old thing, I expect you to die."
Then again the best villains - and certainly Bond baddies - need to have a touch of camp luvvieness about them. It is their preciousness and easy charm that make them so dangerous. How about Christopher Biggins playing Blofeld or Sir Derek Jacobi as Scaramanga next year?

Incidentally, Stephens was the second actor to play Bond in a mainstream radio production. The first, in a South African adaptation of Moonraker back in 1956, was Bob "Can I have a P, please" Holness, better known as the host of Blockbusters.