Thursday, October 28, 2010

From ward 2 to Cell Block H in five days

We experienced the best and the worst of the NHS during our recent stay in hospital. When they dealt with my wife, the midwives were wonderful. Hard-working, patient, encouraging and thoroughly competent. They were public-sector professionals at their very best.

The problem was how long it took to get anything done. If it wasn't absolutely urgent, there was a lot of waiting around. The three hours between my wife being admitted and them beginning to induce her for the first time was frustrating, but nothing compared to the 12-hour wait between the first and second induction (when it should have been six) or the 12 hours between them saying they would put her on a drip to kick-start labour and it happening.

And then there was the long wait to get sent home. My wife was given the all-clear by the doctor by 4pm on Tuesday. All that was needed was a bag of drugs from the pharmacy and a signature on a release form from a midwife. It took until 8.30pm before we could leave.

The pharmacist took his time, but the main hold-up was because the woman in the bed opposite needed to be processed first so she could be sent to prison. Oh yes. You don't get that sort of company in the Portland.

I don't know whether the soap opera that went on the other side of the curtain was amusing or desperately saddening. The woman (little more than a girl to look at) had given birth on Thursday and needed to attend court on Tuesday. While she was away being sentenced, her ratbag mother and sister alternated care for the baby with frequent cigarette breaks.

I never found out what she had done, but when she returned in the afternoon with two social workers in tow, we heard that she had been sentenced to four months in a secure mother-and-baby unit. Her new-born would start its life behind bars. Sadly, I suspect it won't be the last time it is there.

Her partner wept after an argument because he couldn't spend time with his child, but it was clear that he did not really understand his responsibility towards the family. Meanwhile, the sister expressed relief that her own partner's anger-management problems had gone and that her children "didn't know him when he was ill".

It seemed immoral that a woman could be made to attend court so soon after giving birth and she complained that she had been made to sit for so long in the court-room. Yet it wasn't her personal discomfort that distressed her but the fact that she had been "dying for a fag".

This was a snapshot of London's underclass that we rarely encounter outside of television, a cyclical deprivation that one fears can never be cured no matter how much money is thrown at it. The social workers were helpful - one offering advice on bus routes to the prison and suggesting how much the parents could save if they stopped smoking - but the suspicion was that it was a wasted effort.

Some could wonder if the American woman who was over here recently sterilising drug addicts for money should expand her remit, although regular contraception that is not self-administered would be better and more humane. Kindness and guidance is better than punishment, but how much kind advice sinks in?

The actors in this soap opera rarely develop beyond the childish state in emotional intelligence, so it is no wonder that most struggle to raise their own children.

As they left hospital after all the checks, the mother smiled. "Free at last," she said.

"Well, up to a point," replied her sister. For the underclass, they will never really be free.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Swing low sweet Harriet

Delighted to announce the birth of the future England cricket captain/fly half/polymath and Archbishop of Canterbury - but most importantly, my daughter.

Harriet Elizabeth Nancy, known as Hattie, appeared at 6am on Monday after my wife had spent an Athertonesque 57 hours in hospital waiting for her to arrive.

I'm looking forward to spending the coming sleepless nights with her watching the Ashes. We spent our first night together watching old episodes of Bullseye and a Led Zeppelin concert. It's important to get them started on appreciating culture early, although I was glad that she nodded off before Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You as that could have been traumatic.

She shares a birthday with my good friend Bob Miller, captain of the PG Wodehouse Society cricket team, and also with the Battle of Agincourt and the Charge of the Light Brigade.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Office's Tim to play Bilbo

I'm delighted to read that Martin Freeman will play Bilbo Baggins in the film version of The Hobbit. I think he'll be excellent in the role.

I like the idea of Richard Armitage (Lucas in Spooks) playing Thorin Oakenshield, the head dwarf, too. Presumably he'll be bearded, but he has a suitably grim expression.

Hopefully Sir Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis will take on the roles of Gandalf and Gollum that they played in The Lord of the Rings again.

My only bugbear about a film that I'm now beginning to look forward to hugely is that Peter Jackson, the director, is going to split the story into two films.

I know he has no discipline for cutting his work - the three LotR films would have each benefited from having half an hour chopped - but The Hobbit is not a big book, barely 400 pages. It could easily have fitted a three-hour film.

I guess the first film will do the whole Rivendell/Misty Mountains/Gollum story, maybe ending with the dwarves being rescued by the eagles from the wargs and finding sanctuary at Beorn's house (am I showing a worrying depth of knowledge here?). The second film could then take them through Mirkwood, up the lake and on to the battle with Samug (who really should be voiced by Alan Rickman, I think), but it still could be compressed.

Oh well, all this has got me wanting to go and read the book again. It is one of the great children's books of the 20th century, with arguably the most fabulous cover design, designed by Tolkien himself.

Stay at home, says Ken

According to Iain Dale, Ken Livingstone has called for a tax on people who take more than one holiday a year.

Apart from the difficulty of policing that (I've not had a holiday since we drove to France in March but I have flown abroad at least four times since then on business - does that count?), has Livingstone not heard of air passenger duty, which is due to rise up to £60 depending on travel-class and destination from November 1? Or seen the euro exchange rate? Or heard of how Ryanair rip you off for everything?

And when Livingstone says that travelling abroad is a class issue, has he never visited Marbella or Paphos?

There is a separate argument to be made about whether airline taxes should increase to mitigate for the environmental impact of flying, but pegging that to whether it is your second holiday of the year seems barmy.

And presumably, assuming his philosophy is that what is right for Britain is right for other countries (class envy has no boundaries), then would Livingstone like tourists who come to London for the Olympics in 2012 to pay extra if they have had a holiday earlier that year?

He has a point, though, in saying that we need to spruce up Britain's seaside resorts and make them more attractive holiday destinations and he has a personal reason for saying so.

As I learnt from this interview with the Indy, in which he reveals how classless he is by taking frequent trips to San Francisco, Corfu and Italy's Bay of Poets, Livingstone's parents worked for Butlin's at Skegness.

Redcoats, naturally.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Just a small prick

As Mr Unenlightened Commentary says, when you are an athlete accused of taking drugs, isn't it less embarrassing just to admit to the offence than to claim that you inadvertently took the steroid in an over-the-counter penis-enlargement product?

The schoolboy side of me, which is never fully dormant, loved this quote from the disgraced athlete, LeShawn Merritt:
"To know that I've tested positive as a result of a product that I used for personal reasons is extremely difficult to wrap my hands around."
Guess the penis-enlargement must be working, although won't it get in the way when he runs? Presumably it makes entering the relay race difficult in case his team-mates grab hold of the wrong baton.

Advice to George Osborne

If I could give one piece of advice to George Osborne today it would be: try not to look smug. It will be hard for him - I'm reminded of the quote by Ringo Starr when asked why he always looked so sad and he replied "it's just me face" - but it really might be worth trying.

He has just been shown on BBC News leaving his home for the Cabinet meeting before he delivers his £83bn cuts and, when asked by a reporter if he is going to put 500,000 public service workers out of a job, he smirks - yes, actually smirks - and says "you'll just have to wait and see".

Would it really hurt him if he looked as though this was going to be a difficult day? He may not care about what people think of him, but he has to try and understand that what he announces today will leave many people in pretty dire financial circumstances. I know he feels that this is his moment of destiny and should be relished, but even lions look saddened just before they rip open a wildebeest.

Osborne may be doing the right thing for the economy and he may have inherited a busted economy from Labour, which he should point out calmly and without political point-scoring, but all that matters is that this essential medicine will hurt and he should show some sympathy for those who don't have a family wallpaper empire to fund them.

I'd even suggest that he should end his speech today with an apology. Not an admission of guilt or failure, but an expression of sorrow: "I would like to apologise to the country that we have been put in this position but this is necessary and I promise that everything I announce today is for the good of everyone in the long run."

And then just sit down and try to think of something sad - the end of Bambi, maybe - rather than smirking at the cameras.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Give the French an inch and they take 2.54cm...

Tomorrow, anniversary-spotters, marks 50 years since the French imposed SI units on the world.

Metrication had been about for a while - the French had been dividing things by ten since the late 18th century -  but it wasn't until the 11th General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1960 that the Systeme International d'Unites, or SI system, was introduced, specifying kilograms, metre, second, Kelvin, ampere and candelas.

Within five years, metrication had become the system used in Britain, with a few exceptions such as on road signs and in pubs, where miles and pints still hold sway, but generally these islands are resisting the French vandalism of our measurements.

It is hard to shake off. Even though I was born ten years after metrication, I still think of my height in feet and inches, my weight in stones, my cheese in pounds (half-pounds, my wife would prefer) and my fields, when I get them, in acres. And yet it is hard to think of petrol in anything but litres for some reason.

I know that metrication makes more sense, but it does kill some of the joy of arbitrary measurement, as the image above shows. Leonardo's Vitruvian Man demonstrates different measurements based on the body from the fathom (or six feet) to the cubit (measured from the finger tip to the elbow).

Then there is the chain (66ft, which survives in the length of a cricket pitch), the furlong (originally the distance a team of oxen could plough without resting and about the length of ten chains), the cable (100 fathoms, after the anchor line on most ships), the gill (a third of a pint, from the Old French gille, or an earthenware pot) and the rod (51/2 yards, the length of an ox-goad).

It's delightful and non-specific (like my approach to time-keeping). The world was a happier place when people were less exact.

However, metrication has given us one important thing: the dialogue between Vincent and Jules at the start of Pulp Fiction.

Vincent: you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules: They don't call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?
Vincent: Nah, man, they got the metric system, they wouldn't know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules: What do they call it?
Vincent: They call it a Royale with Cheese
Jules: "Royale with Cheese."
Vincent: That's right.
Jules: What do they call a Big Mac?
Vincent: A Big Mac's a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac
Jules: "Le Big Mac." What do they call a Whopper?
Vincent: I don't know, I didn't go in to Burger King

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Never mind the Nibelungen: it's die Walsungs

Like I imagine every young and trendy buck in London on a Sunday, I've spent the past hour downloading Wagner's Ring Cycle (the Sir Georg Solti version) on to my iPod. Oddly, the iTunes Gracenote software has tried to catalogue Die Walkure under punk.

Rheingold, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung all come up under classical in the genre column, but Die Walkure is regarded as punk. Probably because of all that incest, magic fire and screechy women (the Valkyries and Siouxsie and the Banshees have much in common).

Siegmund calling himself Wehrwalt - "woeful" - has a touch of the Sid Vicious/Johnny Rotten too. Clearly iTunes is very wise... Or it was a cock-up.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Why didn't they just shoot Cardinal Richelieu?

Thought for the day from one of my colleagues: "Why do the Three Musketeers never use their muskets? I mean, all this sword-fighting makes for good drama, but wouldn't it have been easier to just take Cardinal Richelieu out with a rifle?"

Bah humbug at the Palace

Austerity has reached the very top of society. The Queen will not be throwing a Christmas party for the Buckingham Palace staff this year. The grooms and butlers will have to organise their own do in the Coach and Horses if they want to get drunk, bitch about the bosses and attempt to snog the ladies-in-waiting.

Parties don't come cheap at the Palace. According to The Sun, it would cost £50,000 to entertain the 600 members of staff. But that is almost £85 a head. What sort of party do they get for that? Robbie Williams doing the music? Swans' eggs and pickled llamas?

I'm sure that they could keep the party if they just cut down a bit on the extravagance. The Queen could do it for a quarter of the price by putting £10,000 behind the bar (surely enough for booze, especially if they get it wholesale), getting a few trays of M&S sandwiches and mini scotch eggs and then relying on the Duke of Edinburgh to keep the team entertained with his impersonations of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Coincidence of the day

It's Margaret Thatcher's 85th birthday today, which she is celebrating with a visit to Downing Street, and everyone is glued to their TV sets cheering on miners.

Ben Elton's back doing stand-upWall Street is in the cinemas, Phil Collins's latest album is at No 4 in the charts and Australia are crap at cricket.

All we need now is for Argentina to invade the Falklands and Timmy Mallett to go whacking children around the head and the Eighties theme will be complete.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How to pay tuition fees

I have mixed emotions about the proposals today to increase tuition fees to as much as £12,000 a year. On the one hand, it will discourage bright children from poor backgrounds. However, too many people go to university who are unsuited to academic study and this may prompt the Government into looking at ways of encouraging more vocational home-based courses that benefit the students more as well as society.

Getting on for 80 years ago, my grandfather passed the entrance exams to study medicine at Cambridge but was unable to take up the place because his father was a carpenter and could not afford to pay for his upkeep. It was not until 1962 that Local Education Authorities were obliged to pay maintenance grants, an obligation that was abolished in 1997.

While there was a wealthy aunt, she refused to pay for my grandfather to go to university and instead arranged for him to take vocational training in chiropody so that he could work for her business, which made orthopedic instruments, rather than pursue his dream of studying medicine. Perhaps it made financial sense (it certainly benefitted her), but my grandfather missed out on the opportunity.

Sixty years later, I was privileged enough to recive a place at the university, helped by there being no tuition fees and a decent grant. No doubt my parents would have found money to support me if there had been fees, as they did for my little sister, but the assistance of the state meant that there was no question of me following my grandfather's example and turning the place down.

That said, I can see the other side. Universities are underfunded and the state has no more money to give them. It is fair that those who benefit from university pay for some of the cost. It is also fair that those who end up earning higher salaries because of their degrees pay more, although I would suggest that the proposed threshold of £21,000 is far too low.

Perhaps we need an attitude change. Universities cannot be free, but they should be accessible. Instead of a long-term repayment model that keeps the spectre of debt hanging over them, maybe those who cannot afford the fees could be given community work throughout their long vacations to pay back some of the debt while they are students.

Why should students get five months of holidays a year? If they worked full-time for, say, three of those months doing administration, hedge-trimming, hole-filling or whatever for the council, they could be rewarded with a £3,000 reduction in their tuition fees, which would go to their university.

This would be the equivalent of 40 hours a week on minimum wage and while the student wouldn't get cash in their pockets, it would be more beneficial for them in the long run. And they would still have two months left in which to lie around.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Baby can wait

Soppy moment alert: sometimes my wife quite unwittingly says things that remind me why I love her. Such as today when we went for a final scan on our unborn baby, which is due to arrive next week.

The consultant said that if the baby does not arrive on time, we should make an appointment to see her for an assessment on October 20, to which my wife indignantly emailed me: "But that means I'll miss the Comprehensive Spending Review."

I'll have a word with George Osborne's people and see if he can delay it...

Labour get off (almost) Scot free

So the new Shadow Cabinet, as Toby Young points out, is full of white, well-educated, straight and slightly privileged MPs, most of them men. Of the 22 who will now set Labour policy, ten went to private schools and three to grammar schools. Nine went to Oxbridge, six of whom read PPE at Oxford. How very Tory.

There is one member from an ethnic minority background, Sadiq Khan, but other people of colour miss out: Diane Abbott, who is black, and Peter Hain, who is orange, were overlooked. There is one lesbian, Angela Eagle, but the two prominent gay men on the candidates' list, Chris Bryant and Ben Bradshaw, did not get enough votes. There is no one from Wales.

The real controversy is that there are only three members from Scotland, down from the seven who attended Tony Blair's final Cabinet and the eight who were in his first.

Outrageous? Of course not. In modern tolerant Britain, ability - rather than race, sexuality or background - should be the only criterion used for getting ahead. That is unless the Labour Party disapproves of you, in which case selecting the best candidates is elitist.

I'm surprised how many Telegraph readers have missed the point of Young's piece. The commenters seem to think that Young (a white, privileged, hetero, Oxford PPE-er) disapproves of how unrepresentative the Shadow Cabinet is. I suspect his unspoken aim was to make us consider that if this had been a Tory Shadow Cabinet or a school governing body or a local council or anyone else, there would have been uproar because minorities were under-represented.

One assumes that the Labour MPs voted for these people because they thought they would do the best job. Some may prove to be not up to it and other more capable people may have missed out, but in the main this list has been selected because they are the best ones for the job.

More should be done to ensure that people from underprivileged, under-represented backgrounds have a chance in life, but when it comes to selecting a putative Government, ability must be the only requirement.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

If Monet painted Star Wars...

Sometimes you come across sheer brilliance while aimlessly browsing the internet. Mainly you find tripe, but sometimes you discover something wonderful, like Monet's portrait of Darth Vader or Rembrandt's study of Homer. Sadly, the author, Limpfish, appears to have stopped blogging almost as soon as he started. Here are a couple of his greatest hits.

Boxing clever

I learnt a new word yesterday, which should be shared with the wider world. It is trollopsarian. Try and slip it into everyday conversation.

It's meaning: someone whose hobby is spotting post boxes, derived from Anthony Trollope, the Victorian novelist and big cheese in the Post Office in the 1850s, who suggested that collecting mail from the Channel Islands could be done much more easily if a few "letter-receiving pillars" were installed. The first British pillar boxes were installed in Jersey in 1852, with the one pictured here from Guernsey a year later.

Thanks to my friend and Times colleague Robert Cole, who is a trollopsarian, for introducing this word into the English language.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Sayle of the century

Nothing makes me feel more inadequate than reading the obituary pages, particularly the obituaries of fellow journalists who in their day were more adventurers than hacks, artists rather than space-fillers.

As I sit at my desk in Wapping surveying the fruits of yesterday's labours (a full-page graphic, two Question and Answers on golf, a panel on famous Irish golfers, a brief on cricket and a compilation of tweets), I came across this obituary of Murray Sayle, formerly of The Sunday Times. He climbed Everest, sailed across the Atlantic single-handed, tracked Che Guevara to ground in Bolivia and got the only interview of Kim Philby in Moscow post-defection.

Meanwhile, I've been asked to see what celebrities are saying about the Ryder Cup on Twitter. Yes, this is where a Cambridge degree and nine years on a national newspaper can lead.

There is a lovely anecdote about Sayle in the "Lives Remembered" section of today's Times. Arriving at Tel Aviv airport in 1967 as war broke out between Israel and Egypt, he tried to charter a taxi and was told that it would cost £100 a day to be ferried around. Spotting a sand-coloured Mini, Sayle asked the owner what it would cost to buy and was told £600.

"The war is bound to last a lot more than six days, so I will save The Sunday Times some money," Sayle announced and opened his wallet. It was, of course, the Six Day War and the paper just about broke even on his attempt at thrift, but at least the expenses department agreed to let him keep the car.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Henson takes tango over tries

We live in a strange and hyopcritical world. Gavin Henson, a Wales rugby player who owes the limited fame he has to playing sport, has angrily denied that he promised to play in a rugby international for the Barbarians against South Africa, the world champions, in December.

He insists, instead, that he is committed to appearing in a silly Saturday night reality show and accused the organisers of the rugby team of seeking publicity by announcing he would play.

Henson has played only 31 games for Wales since making his international debut in 2001, but at 28 he could still have the best years of his playing career ahead of him. Instead, he would rather be on Strictly Come Dancing.

What he does is his own business, of course, but Henson would never have become a minor celebrity, fathered children with Charlotte Church or drunk Cristal in nightclubs if he had become a Bridgend farmer rather than an Wales rugby player.

Having been out of the Wales team for 18 months, he was given a road back to the elite game - and perhaps a place at next year's World Cup - when he was announced in the Barbarians team to play South Africa on December 4. Alas, he may still be required to be wearing sequins and satin.

"I haven't committed to the Barbarians, I think they've just used my name for a bit of publicity," Henson said today. I can understand why they've decided to use my name to try to sell tickets because at the moment I'm in the public eye a lot. It's a little bit naughty of them but that's just the day and age."

Well you have to admire the boldness of his hyopcrisy. Of course, his complaints about the Barbarians seeking to cash in on his name for their own publicity would have sounded a bit less silly if he had not been speaking at a press conference to publicise the start of the new series of Strictly this evening...

The death Nel

Scandal in South African cricket where Andre Nel, the mercurial fast bowler known for his temper tantrums (which he blames on an alter-ego called Gunther), has been exposed as a love rat. Yesterday, the South African media reported that he had been cheating on his pregnant wife with some Latvian woman while playing county cricket for Surrey this summer. Now, two more women have come out of the woodwork.

"Two more Nels in the coffin" says the South African Times, which calls the cricketer South Africa's answer to Tiger Woods. A few more scandals need to come out before he can claim that title I think.

A female friend of mine who works in cricket PR and knows Nel well has denied any impropriety herself. "When I went round to his flat all I did was defrost his freezer," she told me. Is that what they are calling it these days?