Friday, April 30, 2010

Pot the yellow

I thought Nick Clegg's appearance at the World Snooker Championships today was quite disgraceful.

He walked through the famous curtain at the Crucible Theatre where the likes of Steve Davis, Stephen Hendry and Cliff Thorburn have passed before and wasn't wearing a black bow tie.

In fact, he wasn't wearing a tie at all. Do the Lib Dems know nothing about tradition?

Mind you, David Cameron didn't wear morning dress to his own sister's wedding last weekend - presumably because he didn't want any photos of him looking like a toff - and Gordon Brown always used to refuse to wear the traditional white tie when making the Chancellor's address at the annual Lord Mayor's dinner in London, so perhaps our party leaders are all a bit clueless about dress codes.

The Vole will stick to his own dress code of "crumpled casual" and "scruffy social"

That's a bit blunt

Just been watching last night's debate on the BBC iPlayer and was surprised to hear Gordon Brown say in his closing statement that David Cameron would give tax cuts "to the richest c***s in the country".

If you don't believe me, listen to it yourself. It's just before the 1hr 30min mark. I assume he just stumbled over the words cuts and country in close proximity, but even so it is a bit blunt.

That said, he has a point. Hmm. Calling the working class bigots and the banker Etonians c***s... maybe I ought to vote for Brown just for speaking his mind.

Why do they wear clothes with writing on it?

I thought this brilliant scene from The Thick of It was satire, but now it looks more like a documentary of daily life on the campaign trail.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

How the debate should have gone

Immigration, yeah yeah; the economy, zzzz; education, NHS, defence, nyah nyah nyah.

What I really wanted to hear, as in the political debate below, was for David Dimbleby to begin by saying: "The first question is for you Nick Clegg: the Hammers...."

The final debate

My wife gets straight to the point in summing up the closing statements by the three party leaders in tonight's TV debate. "So it's 'fear', 'fuck off Gordon' or 'why the fuck not?'," she said. Maybe they should get those slogans printed on a T-shirt.

I thought David Cameron stormed it tonight, while Gordon Brown just looked tired and Nick Clegg is beginning to get boring. There is too much of the geography teacher or trendy vicar about him. And stop going on about "let's stop political points-scoring": it is precisely that heartfelt argument that we need. Tonight was a proper debate with candidates attacking each other and it was great because of it.

That "I'm just a guy standing in front of a girl asking her to vote for me" routine of Clegg may sound good in a Richard Curtis movie but I don't want a normal Joe running the country. Or a geography teacher.

And what was he on about saying that he wants to get the Chancellor together with the Vice Chancellors to sort out the economy? Don't they have universities to run? OK, we know what he meant but still...

Brown, to his credit, showed the gravitas that he also demonstrated in the first two debates, but he is an empty vessel now, waiting for the final act. Cameron laid out his case for becoming PM cogently and with passion. If people don't agree with him, that is fine but at least we know what he stands for.

I would have just liked a little more anger at the end from Cameron. Maybe he should have quoted Leo Amery's attack in the Norway Debates in 1940 that brought down Nevile Chamberlain:
"You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!"
Now that was a classy "fuck off".

Labour MP appears to break electoral law

This is very serious news. A Labour MP is being investigated by the police after revealing the results of a sample of opened postal ballots in her constituency on Twitter. The BBC calls this a gaffe, but it is not. A gaffe is thumping a voter or calling someone a bigot or getting a fact wrong in a debate. What Kerry McCarthy appears to have done is break the law.

"It was a thoughtless thing to do," she said, and no doubt it was but so is answering the phone while driving or walking out of a shop without paying for something you have taken and none of us would expect leniency for that.

The Bracknell Blog goes into great detail about what McCarthy has done and why it is wrong. Section 66A of the 2000 Representation of the People's Act says:
No person shall, in the case of an election to which this section applies, publish before the poll is closed: (a) any statement relating to the way in which voters have voted at the election where that statement is (or might reasonably be taken to be) based on information given by voters after they have voted...
By revealing how a sample of 300 voters have cost their ballot paper in her constituency, she has clearly broken that regulation. The punishment is a fine of up to £5,000 or a maximum of six months in prison. Send her down.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The issue is fear not bigotry

I think an important issue has been missed in the hoo-hah surrounding Gordon Brown calling a voter "bigoted". I don't really care what derogatory complaints he makes about people in private, but I am worried by this quote:
"That was a disaster. Should never have put me with that woman ... whose idea was that?"
Politicians should not be afraid of meeting the voters, even if they don't like them. If Brown doesn't think that he can face people who disagree with them and argue his case strongly, even if he cannot convince them, then what on earth is he doing in politics? I also don't like Brown looking for someone to blame.

It is one of the strengths of David Cameron, who can take on hecklers and dissenters and rationally stick to his guns, regardless of whether it wins them over. He may mutter or think "morons" as he walks away, but I bet he would never ask why he was put in front of those who disagree.


Looks like Gordon Brown has landed in the soup after calling a woman voter who accosted him about immigration (and other things) "bigoted".

The media are rightly enjoying themselves. The other parties, wrongly, are being sanctimonious. George Osborne says that in the pressure of a campaign people's true characteristics will come out, as if no Tory candidate has ever said anything embarrassing in private to another Tory. (And yes, I know he is the prime minister and should know better but it was clearly meant to be a private remark.)

Poor Brown. Which of us hasn't had similar thoughts about the intelligence of some of the electorate after watching Question Time or reading any newspaper messageboard?

As if to prove that point, one reader of Nick Robinson's blog on the BBC website left this comment:
"I trust the BBC will give equal air-time to 'private' recordings of the other leadership candidates. Otherwise, I call bias."
Richard Haselgrove could be joking, of course, although there are other commenters who have spotted a conspiracy that this off-camera remark was actually picked up by a Sky News microphone. Proof that the Cameron-supporting Rupert Murdoch will do anything to rig the election, naturally. Sigh...

I don't mind if politicians feel contempt for the average voter actually. The average voter tends to feel contempt for politicians and quite unfairly smears the whole lot with the greed and incompetence of the few. Surely it can go both ways. Or is it only acceptable to call people like Nick Griffin a bigot?

What made it worse for Brown, though, was that the wronged woman was pretty pleased with her chat with him and told reporters that she was thinking about voting Labour. Guess that message will get lost now.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Making a pig's ear out of endorsements

So a dead rockstar who was addicted to deep-fried squrrel will endorse the Labour Party but a surrealist pig has decided to withdraw her backing?

This election becomes odder and odder, although an Elvis impersonator and Ms Peppa Pig are rather more attractive celebrities for Labour to employ than the likes of Jim Davidson and that bloke from Coronation Street that the Tories used to roll out election after election.

The makers of Peppa Pig were quite right to withdraw their animated sow's endorsement of any party. There is nothing wrong with a popular cartoon character being used to explain government policy to the dim - it could hardly do worse than Ed Balls - but to be seen as partisan during an election campaign is wrong, even if Ms Pig appears on Five rather than the taxpayer-funder BBC.

This is not the first political row Peppa Pig has landed herself in. Three months ago, the makers of the cartoon had to apologise after some pillock of a parent with child-control issues complained that Peppa never wore a seatbelt while in her car.

If Labour had leapt to Peppa's defence then - perhaps issuing a press release saying "For God's sake, she's a pig. And not even real." - they might have got a bit more loyalty from the swine now.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Human torpedoes

Now here's a story that turns out to be far less exciting than the headline:
South Korean ship sunk by crack squad of "human torpedoes"
Human torpedoes, eh? I had a vision of kamikazi divers with pointy helmets being fired out of a tube at 200mph at the steel hull of their target. And I wondered how on earth a fairly soft human, even with a very pointy helmet, could penetrate, let alone sink, a ship.

Surely all that would happen if you fired human torpedoes at a battleship would be a series of soft underwater thuds and some interesting cleaning work needed next time the ship comes into dry dock.

But it turns out that these torpedoes were small submarines that North Korea manoeuvered close to the target and then detonated. And then it also seems that while these submarines were manned with 13 North Korean commandoes, they may actually have evacuated the submarines before they blew them up.

Pah, reeled in by another overspun headline.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Second debate, first thoughts

Like last week, I thought all three leaders performed fairly creditably in tonight's debate although this time I watched them rather than listening to the radio. First things first, I'm loving these debates and am grateful that Gordon Brown became the first Prime Minister to agree to them.

I thought Adam Boulton handled the debate better than Alastair Stewart did on ITV last week, letting the talk run more without constant interruption, but it was terrible that in an event billed as a foreign policy debate, only half the time should be taken up with foreign affairs. The EU was debated but not the euro; Afghanistan was brought up briefly, Iraq barely; there was very little on our relationship with America.

Nick Clegg's opening statement was the best and he remains a tough proposition in debate who has earned the right to be taken seriously, although the novelty has gone; Gordon Brown has a certain air of the statesman about him when talking about hard facts but still looks shifty and sounds dodgy when making pledges.

I felt David Cameron had a strong night, particularly when he got angry with Brown over Labour's claims that the Tories would cut various benefits for pensioners. He needs to get angry more, angry on the behalf of voters not just for himself. There are plenty of us who want to tell Labour in fairly violent terms where to go, Cameron needs to be that mouthpiece.

Two observations immediately come to mind. The first is how Cameron at several points was using Conservative slogans used when I worked for the party ten years ago. "In Europe, not run by Europe" (1999 European elections); "You've paid the tax, what have you got" (2001 general election) and "People feel they are punished for doing the right thing" (not used, I think, but definitely proposed by Ann Widdecombe at a Shadow Cabinet meeting I attended).

The problem in 2001 was that no one wanted to listen to the Tories. I wonder whether those lines have better resonance now.

The other thing I observed was the very awkward smile that Brown gives when he has thought up a joke. Twice, I saw this strange shifting of his jowls, a flash of teeth, a slight flaring of the nostrils, shortly followed by a quip: the first about how Cameron and Clegg squabbling reminded him of his two sons at bathtime, the second comparing Cameron's Big Society with his Little Britain views.

They were decent, not brilliant, jokes but completely undone by Brown's smirk, either because he had just thought of them or, worse, because he had spotted a gap where a pre-prepared joke could be slotted in. Never trust a man who laughs at his own jokes.

Brown was right when he began the debate by saying that his substance should count more than a beauty parade. "If it's all about style and PR, count me out," he said. And that is the danger of these debates, as the polls have proved where people like Nick Clegg but not his policies if they don't know whose they are, but if it gets people interested in politics and listening to politicians, it is a Very Good Thing.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The yolk's on Cameron

David Cameron had an egg thrown at him by a student while campaigning in Devon today. It's become that sort of dirty election.

The Tory leader was pretty nonplussed and simply changed his shirt and cracked a gag. After the Daily Mirror tried to confront him with a reporter dressed as a chicken yesterday, Cameron remarked that now he knew which came first: the chicken beat the egg.

That's all well and good and very dignified, but surely there would have been a stack of votes in it if Cameron had made the same response that John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, did when pelted with an egg in 2001. This video is always worth rewatching...

Boom bang-a-bang

I don't doubt that many of the hundreds of thousands of people stranded by the unpronounceable volcano ash have had a miserable and expensive time of it. Shockingly - and I find this hard to believe given the coverage - some of them are not even British.

We all know people who have not been able to get back. My parents have been delayed in Cyprus for a week, my boss hasn't made it back from Tenerife and I've just had a lunch cancelled today with our features editor on the spurious grounds of her still being in South Africa. Oh yes, we've all suffered. It's a sandwich for me today.

But aren't all these tales of trauma a bit wimpy? Eyjafjallajokull is a mouthful of an opportunity, a chance of adventure, not just an inconvenience. When the snows grounded planes in January, I was meant to be travelling to Spain and France on a story. Instead, I went by train and it was fabulous fun, not least because I could introduce my Telegraph colleague to Bridge.

Sure, people are being fleeced for car hire and train fares, but there are always ways round it. Hitch-hike, steal a horse, buy a car (cheaper, surely, than paying £2,000 for a taxi), or just stay put and do some sight-seeing. Be adventurous.

If the Eyjafjallajokull stranded think they have it tough, be glad that this was only a baby volcano. The excellent Iconic Photos blog had this rare snap of Krakatoa (east of Java, southewestish of Borneo) exploding in 1883. Now that was a real blast.

The volcano erupted for four months, with four particular big bangs being heard as far away as western Australia (2,000 miles off), with a force 13,000 times the bomb that landed on Hiroshima. Ships a dozen miles away reported 10cm chunks of pumice falling on their decks.

Tsunamis from the sinking island spread ten miles inland and killed 36,000 people. Higher waves than normal were even detected in the English Channel. A thousand died under a cascade of hot ash. Global temperatures cooled by 1.2C for the next five years. We had some really cool sunsets.

Now that is a proper volcanic eruption. A bit of floating ash and a week extra on the beach is not quite the same ball park.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Living in Cleggoland

I suppose I should have had something to write by now about the first TV debate last week and the astounding bounce that the Lib Dems have had from it over the weekend. In fact, baffled by the strength of public opinion (not for the first time - it's like Princess Di all over again), I've been lacking inspiration about what to say.

To take the lead in one opinion poll might be regarded as a freak, but to do it in three polls starts to look like a trend. We are a long way from living in Cleggoland - the Lib Dems will need to poll almost 41% to get an overall majority in the election and 37% just to get the most seats, while the Tories need 38% for a majority and Labour need only about 33% - but the party with the logo that looks like a worm on fire are the topic of hot conversation, even if few can really name any of their policies. They just make people feel warm and fuzzy at the moment.

I didn't watch the debate because I was driving back from an event, but I listened to it on the radio and felt that all three party leaders did reasonably well. If anyone was boosted in my estimation, it was Gordon Brown but only because I had a fairly low expectation of how he would do.

It irritated me how often both Clegg and Cameron felt the need to boast of sending their children to state schools (I wanted to shout: "You can afford to go private and you are denying parents with less money from having a place at what is no doubt a decent state school just so that you can be smug about it while you hire a private tutor.") The format, with the constant interruptions, annoyed me too. As did Clegg's need to keep on naming the people who had asked him questions, although it was a good way to win love.

But in the main I thought they all made a decent fist of it, so when I got home and heard the pundits proclaiming it as substantial a Nick Clegg triumph as Lord of the Rings at the Oscars, I was surprised. Maybe he came across much better visually.

Famously, the 1960 presidential debate between John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon was regarded in different ways depending on how you received it. Those who watched on TV thought that Kennedy (young, handsome, white teeth) was more impressive than Nixon (sweating, stubbly). Those who listened to the radio thought that Nixon (experienced, gravitas) was better than Kennedy (sound-bitey, insubstantial). Looks matters.

A TV audience of almost 10 million is impressive, but I wonder how many of those who have been polled recently watched (or listened to) the debate. And if they didn't, but now say they will vote Lib Dem, is it just because of the media frenzy of the past few days?

We are becoming a nation that acts like a herd. People think and vote the way they think everyone else will and the media, which shapes opinion, like nothing better than a change of story that gains momentum. Reporting the same old stories becomes dull, so when there is an opportunity for a new narrative, the media leaps at it. This worked to David Cameron's advantage when he was running for Tory leader, of course.

Now Clegg and the Libs Dems are the hot topic but has he timed the run too early? With two and a half weeks to go to election day, will we get bored of the men in yellow and look for something more interesting? There is only so long anyone can spend in Cleggoland before the novelty starts to pall.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Doing our damnedest

There are times when I feel so proud to be British. Such as on reading this quote from the pilot of a BA plane that had all four engines shut down after sucking in volcanic ash, just after the oxygen masks had descended in the cabin:

"Good evening ladies and gentlemen. This is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are all doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress."

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

In a stable condition

As if a story headlined "Man admits having sex with horse and donkey" isn't going to catch the eye...

But what is really interesting about the story in The Independent is a quote from the bestial one's defence lawyer. His client admitted buggering a horse and a donkey (on four separate occasions) but the lawyer applied for bail, saying:
"The defendant does not have a stable address."
I really hope that he doesn't realise the joke.

(Hat-tip to the excellent Rantings of a Sub-editor blog)

Breaking barriers

On the subject of bad language (see previous post), my friend Jarrod is delighted that he has got the F word into the latest Wisden Cricketers' Almanack. He wrote a piece for cricket's Bible on players who use Twitter and mentioned Tim Bresnan, the England all-rounder, getting into trouble for swearing at a reader.

While most newspapers who reported the story a few months ago asterisked out Bresnan's swear word, Jarrod inserted it unedited when he filed his piece to Wisden. He swears a lot on his blog, Cricket With Balls, but mainly, as he says, because that is what he does when he talks. He didn't expect Wisden to let it through without the asterisk treatment, but somehow that is what has happened.

So there, on page 1,628, is what the Telegraph claims is the first ever obscenity to appear in Wisden. An historical moment, indeed, and one that Jarrod should be proud of.

Or is it? I've not actually bothered to do any research on this, but I'm pretty convinced that Wisden has featured swearing lots of times. Such as in 1961 when a report on Fred Trueman taking 175 wickets in the previous county summer ended with the quote: "Fuck me, I'm bloody knackered."

Eight years later, an article by John Arlott on the apartheid situation in South Africa referred to John Vorster, the Prime Minister, as "an utter shit".

Then there was the 1934 Wisden, which looked back on the Bodyline Ashes and included an article by Douglas Jardine entitled "That Twat Bradman".

Throughout the 1970s, Wisden had an annual column called Tosser of the Year, which focused on the prowess of various county captains at calling heads or tails before their games. Geoff Boycott won most years, of course, even in 1979 when he no longer captained Yorkshire.

And of course who can forget the infamous 1985 edition, written on a typewriter that had a malfunctioning 'o' key, which repeatedly referred to the Cunty Champinship?

Finally, and this one is true, there was a cock on page 657 of the 2000 Wisden. A real one. Matthew Brimson, an undistinguished Leicestershire cricketer, decided to let his modesty hang out of his trousers during the team photo and it appeared in print.

Matthew Engel, the editor at the time, was unimpressed although got revenge beautifully, saying: "If you are going to pull this kind of stunt, you need to be a more competent professional sportsman than Matthew Brimson - and, frankly, more impressively arrayed."

A star is porn

As a Times writer, I am used to being starstruck. By which I mean that I am used to any rude words I use being struck out by the sub-editors and replaced with stars.

There is always a chance that our readers could be offended by an unasterisked fuck (I hope none of this blog's readers are so timid) and so out of respect for them - and to avoid having to deal with their letters of complaint - we bowdlerise the rudeness.

This is a practice that we can blame on the hyper-sensitive Victorians, whose less-than-literal but purer-than-pure translations of the naughty bits in classical literature perplexed me as a student.

For instance, our school library version of Catullus translated the first line of Poem XVI as "Nuts to you, boys, nuts and go to Hell". It was a couple of years before I realised that "pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo" is more to do with promising anal and oral sex.

Even so, I was surprised to read a comment piece by Alice Thomson today that had the word "tossers" censored. I think it was tossers, anyway. The word, in a quote, appeared as t****rs.

This seemed unnecessarily cautious. Not least because the final word of her piece is "buggers", printed without any expurgation. I don't understand why tossers needs asterisking but buggers doesn't.

[Another classical digression: whenever I see the word "tosser", I think back to a Greek lesson at school where we were translating Herodotus's history of the Persian Wars. Referring to a parent of Xerxes, our teacher read out: "The queen-mother was Atossa..." The class soon disintegrated into uncontrollable teenaged giggling.]

On a related matter, I was confused when our paper last week asterisked "t****", with four stars. I tried to think what word could be concealed. Was it, perhaps, "twunt", an all-too-rarely-used portmanteau of two words that definitely would need the stars treatment on their own.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Manifesto mumblings

Manifesto time in the general election. Yesterday, Labour released their promise book with a cover showing a politically diverse red mother, blue father and two purple children (the last two Ukip supporters, probably) looking out over the fields at the fallout spreading from a distant city that has been eradicated by a nuclear explosion.

"Let's nuke Paris" appears to be the key message. And it is a compelling one. Although I'm not sure I agree with the promise of a free funfair for every voter. There's only so much shying at coconuts and spanking the rat that I can take.

Today we have the Conservative manifesto and this is much more sombre. Hardback, no less, and free of illustrations on the cover. All it says, in grey type on a blue background, is "Invitation to join the Government of Britain". This is a serious manifesto for a serious party. Or a dull manifesto for a dull party.

Still, it is kind of them to invite me to join the Government. No mention of what ministerial brief Cameron wants to give me. I'm hoping for Fish. But if he is inviting lots of people, will the brief be much slimmer than that? I could be the minister in charge of anchovies, for instance. Or the secretary of state for gills.

And Cameron doesn't mention what perks come with the job. Do we each get a Jag or do we have to share? What sort of expenses can I claim? Is there a peerage? Can I duck out of doing GMTV?

The Tories launched this serious ideas book at Battersea Power Station and had teased the voters by beaming an image overnight on to the side of the building that said "Who is the new member of David Cameron's team?"

This got me excited. Would it be Wogan? Perhaps Rolf Harris? Or maybe Tony Blair was going to appear and say "screw you Gordie, Dave's my boy now".

No. It was all a clever game. Apparently the new member of his team is You. And Me. And We. Everyone in the country is a member of his team. We're all in this together, as his new saying goes.

Which is all well and good and very inclusive, but has anyone ordered enough biscuits for the first team meeting?

This blog believes in giving every party fair air-time, so it is only right to point out that other parties are launching their manifesti today.

Ukip want to withdraw from the European Union (well there's a surprise), the Scottish Nats promise "an alternative to the doom and gloom of mainstream parties" (presumably by replacing it with a very Scottish type of doom and gloom) and Plaid Cymru want subsidies for choral singing and rugby players, probably. And a leek inquiry.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

£3 a week to get married

The new Tory incentive of less than £3 a week to be married does not sounds like much, although my wife observed that the annual benefit of £150 is the equivalent of a case of good bordeaux. Personally, I'd call it half a case of good stuff, but I probably have more picky taste in claret than she does.

It is not about the money, the defenders of the policy say, but the message that it sends. It may be a trifling amount but it shows the Tories think marriage is good. I support this.

But... isn't it a rather sexist policy? You will only be able to claim the money if one partner (which in most circumstances will be the wife) earns less than the tax-free allowance of just under £6,500. So effectively the message the Tories want to send is that marriage is good but only if the woman stays at home to raise children and keep the house tidy rather than having her own career.

Furthermore, how will you claim your £3 a week? If it involves filling out forms and proving your salary, I wonder how many people will think it is really worth it.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The lying king

The US Masters golf tournament is more nature programme than sport. While most plant life in this country is still trying to work out whether the warmth of the past two days is the start of spring and an invitation to bloom or just a cruel hoax before another cold snap, switch on the BBC this weekend and you will see Augusta National in all its beautiful glory.

Nothing in the whole creation is as green as the greens at Augusta (as green as priests' socks are black for those who know their Father Ted) and the array of azaleas and camellias and pink dogwoods is as much a reason to watch as the strokeplay of the Phil Mickelsons and Lee Westwoods of this world.

Of course, the main nature activity at Augusta this week is Tiger-hunting, as Tiger Woods, the four-times Masters champion, returned from his four-month exile after being caught cheating on his wife with 14 or so other women, an activity that he was keen to emphasis in a confessional press conference on Monday was "not fun at all". Yeah, right.

Playing around, as opposed to playing a round, is believed to have cost Woods £25 million in assorted lost sponsorships, but one company that stayed loyal to him was Nike and they are making good on their investment this year with one of the most nauseating adverts ever broadcast.

It shows a pentinent Woods listening to the voice of his dead father, chastising him for his wrongs. It is supposed to suggest a new beginning for the fallen champ, but it is all too reminiscent of Obi Wan Kenobi speaking to Luke Skywalker or Simba being comforted by the shade of his father in The Lion King.

Woods has been inspired by his father in the past, of couse. Famously, he won the 2006 Open and US PGA in dominating fashion a few months after the death of his father, finishing one stroke off the record lowest score in the first and tying the record in the second.

I'm sure he will draw upon the example of his father and the strong Buddhist faith of his mother as he recovers from the set-back. But to exploit it in order to sell a few more golf shirts? That's almost as tacky as sleeping with a Nevada cocktail waitress.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

No excuse for rudeness

The first high-profile heckle of the election campaign came in south London yesterday when one Ben Butterworth had a pop at the PM because his children can't get into his choice of state school.

Now I'm all in favour of the public arguing with their elected representatives in public. They can even wing a few eggs their way, as long as they don't mind a Prescott-style fightback, but I do wish Mr Butterworth hadn't presumed to address Gordon Brown by his first name repeatedly. It's rude.

You may think that Brown is an evil man, but he should be addressed as Prime Minister, or Mr Brown at the very least. The office demands that respect even if the man doesn't.

I blame his predecessor with all that "call me Tony" rubbish.

Helmets off, ready for action

I've been grappling to find a reason to vote Tory at this election. Instinctively I lean that way - and indeed worked for them ten years ago - but the party has given few reasons to come charging to their corner.

The whole strategy seems to be based on how useless Gordon Brown is rather than promoting any Conservative policies. One of the few memorable stances they have taken in the past couple of years is being against grammar schools, which I would fight to defend. I'd also rather Ken Clarke was Chancellor than George Osborne.

But yesterday morning David Cameron won my heart when he was photographed cycling into Parliament without a helmet. He ruined the effect a little by wearing a reflective sash, but otherwise the message was clear: I am a free man, responsible for my own actions and their consequences and I will not follow any of society's silly conventions. It is, of course, not illegal to ride without a helmet. Nor should it be.

The lefties are upset and Will Straw, son of, tweeted that Cameron wasn't setting the right example. This is the same Straw who was caught selling drugs as a teenager, but that was in his past and he should be allowed his youthful indiscretions (although tell that to his Labour friends still sniffing around for any evidence of Cameron's own druggie youth).

I hope Cameron carries on defying the healthy and safety vultures during this campaign. Walk under a few ladders, cross the road between lights, eat pork scratchings, drink more than 21 units of alcohol in a week, drive while using a mobile phone, smoke in your office. OK, so the last two are illegal but I want a leader who thumbs his nose at silly attacks on liberty.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Let's Go To It

An odd choice of rallying words from the PM, whom to his credit I thought looked more statesmanlike than usual outside Downing Street today.

"Our cause is your cause," he said. "Let's go to it."

Well oratory was never his strong suit. But "let's go to it"? Go to what? It sounds odd, almost American. Was he trying a Reservoir Dogs-style "Let's go to work"? Having Googled the phrase, "let's go to it" barely shows up.

The most likely source for his quote was from the words of a song by that noted political commentator, Dizzee Rascal. In his 2008 No 1 hit Dance Wiv Me (not yet available on the Vole's gramophone), Mr Rascal sings: "I feel like a wally if I don’t pursue it. And I can’t go through it so let’s go to it."

Yes, that is almost certainly what Brown was thinking. Lucky he didn't move on to the chorus and sing "she ain't no hoe" while patting Harriet Harman on the rump.

Sir Humphrey's in charge

The final bits of legislation are being tidied up and from next Monday the country will be without a Parliament. The country will be in the hands of civil servants. Somehow, I think we will get by.

One snippet of interest on the Channel 4 News just now is that Parliament will not be recalled until May 18, 12 days after the election, rather than on May 12 as would be usual. This is because the Civil Service is worried that the election will produce a hung Parliament and it will take an extra week for party leaders to haggle and horsetrade and generally fudge a deal.

So, for six weeks and one day there will be no one by mandarins in charge. No legislation, no debates, no decisions. Barring France declaring war on us, when I guess Gordon Brown will step in, the business of running the country will just potter along. Bliss.

And they're off

Oh goody, an election.

The TV cameras have shown Gordon Brown getting into his car and being driven from Downing Street to Buckingham Palace, where he will ask the Queen for her permission to dissolve Parliament. Wonder what she will say? Perhaps she should raise his hopes for a bit, toy with him, suggest that he have another year or two in the job.

Interesting to see that Brown is being driven in quite an old, if rather lovely, Jaguar. 51 reg, almost ten years old. You would have thought the state coffers could have run to something more modern, or is this a deliberate attempt to show that the PM is scrimping by like the rest of us?

Apparently, once he has seen Her Majesty, Brown will formally announce the start of the election from outside Downing Street, flanked by his entire Cabinet. Makes a nice change from those ghastly campaign launches at primary schools and hospitals, surrounded by bored children and the dying, that Blair went in for. Looks a bit more dignified and it is sporting for the Cabinet to line up against a wall ready for the shots that will be taken at them.

This one could be interesting. Polls have wobbled between a near dead-heat and a ten-point lead for the Tories, but of course national polls do not reflect where close elections are really won and lost, which is in the 200 or so swing seats. For those of us in the other 450, our vote doesn't really matter.

Still, it will be fun watching other people exert democracy. Pop back from time to time for the Vole's view of the whole business over the next few weeks.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Messing about in boats

I've not posted for a little while because I have spent the past week on the Thames watching the crews prepare for Saturday's 156th Boat Race. You can read the match report here. It was a thrilling race, with Oxford almost pulling a length ahead of Cambridge by halfway before they were gradually reeled in and Cambridge pushed past to win by four seconds.

The Boat Race is one of the year's great sporting events and yet it is the one time of the year when I really regret having gone to Cambridge. The race always brings idiots out of the woodwork who want to run it down ("same two teams in the final again, ho ho") and it would be far easier to fight back against them without the reply that I'm just biased.

The most ridiculous charge is that it is "irrelevant" or, as one moron said last year, "a non-event". That can be easily countered. According to the BBC, the race was watched by 5.5 million in the UK this year (and many more around the world).

Looking at the banks from my launch in the middle of the river, there were spectators all along the four-mile course, sometimes standing ten deep. It has been estimated that 250,000 people watch the race live - which is about four times the number who watched Chelsea play Manchester United earlier in the day.

I'd say that those figures prove that whatever else you think, it is not a non-event. And they are not all ghastly Oxbridge types, either. In any year, there are about 7,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students at each university. If those who watched the race in person were just Oxbridge alumni, then you would have almost 18 full years of students in attendance. I'd say there is a fair amount of impartial support.

The main reason they come is to get drunk in the sunshine in a vaguely pleasant environment, of course, but the sport also draws them, even if they only catch a flashing glimpse of two crews passing by before dashing to watch the rest on TV.

There are few more draining athletic contests. The race is four and a quarter miles long, three times the length of an Olympic rowing final, on a course that bends, with the added attraction of waves and wind and freezing cold. There hasn't been a sinking since 1978, but that always remains a possibility and is another part of the attraction.

Those who reach the end in second place are shattered, physically and emotionally. They train for six months, six hours a day, every day, for this one shot at a place in history. And there is no money at stake, only fame (which is fairly fleeting) and the more tangible sense of personal satisfaction. There is no greater sign of what sport means to an athlete than to see a losing Boat Race rower at the finish, vomiting, crying and feeling totally empty.

But then the naysayers point to the lack of British undergraduates in the race. "It's no longer a pure student contest," they say, although the presence of world-class international rowers surely adds validity to this being top-flight sport. Anyway, the spread of nationalities and ages only reflects the make-up of the student bodies at these universities. And both Oxford and Cambridge say that rowers still need to deserve their place on academic grounds.

As for the young Brits argument, well look at the number of rowers who have gone on from this race to win Olympic medals for Britain. Three of the gold medal-winning four in Beijing had competed in the race in the previous four years. A couple of possible stars for the future were in Cambridge's winning crew this weekend. Remember the names Fred Gill and George Nash.

"Disgracefully elitist" is another argument, as if elitism is a bad thing. Of course, you would not create a competition now that excludes all but two clubs, but in the 19th century Oxbridge was pretty much all you had. I think it is wonderful that we cling to 180-year-old traditions like this. As long as the rowers continue to meet the academic standards, this is the very best sort of elitism.

Anyway, this is one of those arguments where people fall into prejudiced camps. If you believe it is a good thing, you'll agree with me. If you were opposed to it before, I doubt I will have persuaded you. But if you have never given this wonderful, shattering contest a look before, have a squizz next year.

As well as this year's result being personally satisfying as a Cambridge old boy, it was a rewarding afternoon because I took £70 off the bookmakers who had made Oxford strong favourites.

Quite what they were basing it on, I don't know. Oxford were a smidgin more powerful, but those who followed their preparations could tell it was always going to be a tight race. As the bookies never phoned to ask what I thought, I guess they set their odds based on who was betting, which just proves that Oxford alumni have done better out of the recession than their Cambridge counterparts.