Saturday, August 13, 2011

Keep the home fires burning

I flew out from wartorn London on Monday to spend a week in Atlanta, Georgia, which as far as I can make out has not been set on fire since Gone with the Wind. It's strange watching riots in your homeland while you are five timezones away. Strange and quite disturbing; you feel so helpless.

My wife reported helicopters circling overhead in Eltham, southeast London, for much of Tuesday night. Apparently, supporters of Millwall and Charlton football clubs had come out to defend the High Street from looters, which could be taken as a heartening sign of unity if there wasn't the slight suspicion that they were looking for a fight.

Eltham is, after all, where Stephen Lawrence was killed in 1993 and while the area is being gentrified by those of us priced out of Greenwich and Blackheath, there remains racial tensions. I walked past a pub on the High St on Saturday where a large group of pissed white louts were shouting "death to the Taleban" at an event to honour a soldier returning from Afghanistan.

(Not that being anti-Taleban is a bad thing, of course, but I fear that some of them would regard anyone with olive skin and non-western clothing as Taleban).

The most depressing thing about the riots as I see it from the other side of the Atlantic is the way in which people have sought to make political capital out of it without trying to look at the real causes. The hard right have gone for the string 'em up and bring-back-conscription policy, while the left have blamed it on cuts and a lack of compassion from the Tories.

Both are wrong. You cannot solve all the problems of deprivation by throwing money at it, nor can you keep the underclass in check through hard discipline and neglect. It is a myth to claim, as some on the Left do, that all people need is encouragement and opportunity and they will soon be shopping in Marks and Spencer and discussing The Hour with the rest of us. But it is also a myth to claim, as some on the Right do, that these people are worthless ratbags who cannot be saved and they would be better off in jail or the Army.

The fact that deprivation is cyclical is depressing and society has failed by allowing it to happen. Damaged people produce damaged children; ill equiped to raise them, inevitably it just means more lives are destroyed.

It is of huge concern that something like an eighth of children leave school with no qualifications and hardly any literacy and numeracy skills, let alone the social skills that will enable them to mix with others and hold down a job. The only interviews these kids are ever given are held under caution in a police cell. Yet how many of them come from backgrounds where education is valued or respected?

They turn to crime as much out of needing something to be good at as for any material reward. I imagine those swept up in the looting last week must have experienced an exhilarating rush of power. It is such a waste that such energy cannot be channelled into self-improvement.

Ultimately, for all the good intentions of the state, there is a bedrock where some people through lack of intelligence, ambition or family history of prosperity are unable and unwilling to be given a leg up. You can create a job for everyone and some will still not want to work. I'm not sure whether there is much we can do for such damaged adults, not if it means we are taking resources away from those who do want to be helped, but we can try to save their children.

Last week, my cricket team played in their fifth annual charity match at Audley End House in northwest Essex. We formed five years ago because a friend of mine wanted to raise money for Kids Company, the charity set up by Camila Batmanghelidjh in South London to support vulnerable children whose parents are unable to care for them properly through what the charity euphemistically calls "their own practical and emotional challenges".

These are the abused children of alcoholics, drug addicts and the violent. No wonder they grow up angry at the world. Many will have been among the rioting hordes last week.

Yet Kids Company tries to save them not with money (not just with money, anyway) but with love and patience. They give them a sanctuary where they can play, learn social skills and gradually, ever so slowly, start to respect themselves, each other and the world. The more work Kids Company does with them, the less chance there is that the cycle of deprivation will roll on in that family.

Kids Company is not state-run, although like other charities it receives government funding (a fairly small grant in the scheme of things of about £4 million a year), but it succeeds because it offers a hand up rather than a hand-out.

Unlike increasing state benefits, the money is targeted at those who can be helped. Unlike raising the education budget, the money goes to those who want to learn. The trick is identifying those who can be saved and getting them away from the deadbeats holding them back.

If money can be found to fund charities like Kids Company - and if the state can resist in meddling by setting them targets and quotas - a few lives can change for the better. It is not the full answer, but it may be as far as we can get. The Left need to acknowledge that not everyone can be saved; the Right need to acknowledge that some should.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Snorting the craic

I am writing this while sitting on a rock beside a lake in southwest Ireland, looking across at the mountains. My day job (I'm in Killarney for the Irish Open golf) takes me to some pretty astounding offices.

The gentle lap-lap of the water is the only sound that disrupts this corner of heaven. That and the slight pounding in my head. Was it really wise, having risen at 4.30am yesterday to fly to Kerry, to stay up to 3am on my first night here? Of course it was, there was singing to be done.

We don't do pub singing very well in England. On the rare occasions when anyone does start to sing in an English pub, it is the boorish, chanty, chavving footballer type of song. The sort that has barely any discernible words and even less of a tune. Why are the Irish more charming drunks than the English?

There are few pubs that put on live music and even fewer that do it well, with the punters encouraged to join in. I know of one glorious place in Marylebone that does old-style roll-out-the-barrel Cockney piano nights, but it is a rarity.

In Killarney, every pub has a sign outside boasting of live music. Purely on a whim, I chose O'Connors.

There was a man with a guitar and a man playing the spoons as percussion. And there was a tap dispensing black liquid and much love in the room. After a couple of glasses of the black liquid, I started to join in as the pub sang along to the guitarman.

I didn't know many of the songs, but I could pick up the refrain. When it came to the ones I did know, like the Fields of Athenry or Streets of London, I belted it out with passion. I suspect at this point my wife, if she is reading, is cringing.

At 11.30pm, the guitarist packed up but the pub was not finished. One by one, the punters took it in turns to start a song and everyone would join in as soon as they knew it. We did County Roads, we did The Gambler, we sang You've Got a Friend. A pubload of pissed men (and a few women) singing Carole King. Beautiful.

One jolly fellow called Fergal, a man with an astounding tenor voice made for the stage, serenaded an American lady with La Vie en Rose before doing a couple of numbers from My Fair Lady. Another guy did the obligatory Danny Boy, although his knowledge of the words extended only to the title. No matter.

And then it was the turn of the Englishman. National pride at stake. What to sing? What could I remember the words to at midnight after several pints? I took a sip, opened my mouth and began: "I'm sitting by the railroad station, got a ticket for my destination..."

At which everyone joined in "ooh-e-oohh. On a tour of one-night stands, my suitcase and guitar in hand..."

Yes, Simon and Garfunkel was a good choice. American Pie followed as an encore. After that, everyone told me how much they loved the Queen coming to visit Ireland.

The evening didn't end there. Fergal dragged me along to another pub where there was a fabulous rock group playing covers of everything from Abba to Hendrix. A bearded Goth with tattoos all over his body and the voice of Robert Plant led the way. More singing. More drinking. At three pints for ten euros it would be rude not to.

I crawled off to bed when the music finished. I'm sure that if I had wanted, Fergal would have found somewhere else doing a gig but by that stage my vocal cords were shot. And I'm a professional, I had work the next day...

Sunday, July 10, 2011

It's the end of the World as we know it (and I feel fine)

Will Twitter kill the blogosphere star? It's been two weeks since I last blogged here and yet I seem to spend more hours than are really necessary or even enjoyable on that silly micro-blogging site bashing out quips at 140 characters a time (you can follow me @patrick_kidd if you like).

Still, it's not as if there has been much to write about in the last fortnight. Apart from the former head of the IMF getting off a rape charge, the final flight of the Space Shuttle, the creation of a new country in Africa, a famine in Africa, the world's first synthetic organ transplant, England winning a one-day cricket series and Betty Ford dying, what else has happened?

Oh yes. A 168-year-old newspaper was closed and 200 journalists put out of work. Any job losses in any industry is a tragedy - and some have fairly pointed out that the News of the World had not done too much blubbing over public-sector redundancies - but the death of the Screws is tremendously sad.

It is not that it was a great newspaper (I guess I'm not its core audience, but I always thought it was pretty dull and awful), but it was a success as the 7.5 million readership attests. Most of the staff and, by reputation, its last editor were honourable, hard-working people who had nothing to do with the phone-hacking scandal. I'm still not really sure why the paper had to go.

Advertisers were pulling out all over the place after the claim that the paper had hacked into Milly Dowler's voicemails, but the paper could still have been saved if those who were seen as responsible for its brand becoming toxic had gone.

Suddenly, Hugh Grant is seen as the voice of morality. Not that he did anything about phone-tapping when he was Prime Minister... Max Mosley, whose porn dungeon escapades attracted the Screws, also tut-tutted. I expect Ryan Giggs and Jeffrey Archer will also soon be seen shaking their heads with faux disapproval.

I don't want to excuse the News of the World's tactics. Hacking into the phones of murder victims and the families of those killed in war or on 7/7 is disgraceful; hacking into those of celebrities a bit tedious (as bad as reading their Twitter, I imagine) but nonetheless illegal.

But how many of those who did it were still working at the paper? And how many other papers have done the same? A study by the Information Commissioner's Office in 2006, highlighted in this week's Spectator, revealed that 139 Mirror Group employees and 91 who worked for the Mail had paid for obtaining private information. At News International, there were 30.

The practice was not that common, but it was universal and it should be the perpetrators - on all papers - who get punished, not the innocent subs, designers, brief-fillers and gardening correspondents. Closing one paper and putting the innocent on the dole queue is like hacking off an arm to cure a nose bleed.

It's the freelancers I most feel sorry for; they won't even get a pay-off and will have to join a very congested marketplace. Perhaps many of them will be rehired to staff the proposed Sun on Sunday, but that also raises the question of why the News of the World had to shut. It was the subject of phone-hacking that was toxic, not the paper.

If we were to close down something and change its name every time there was a scandal, we may as well do away with Parliament and open Congress because of the MPs expenses. It does not allow for redemption.

It was the suddenness of the decision that proved so shocking. Few saw it coming, not even Mystic Meg. I was one of the first to tweet the news on Thursday, not through any great connection that I have but because I was one of the few to wade far enough down the email that was sent to all News International staff by James Murdoch. It was two thirds of the way down before he said "By the way, you're all fired. Release the hounds." I imagine most colleagues had given up reading by then.

There was genuine shock and bemusement in the Times newsroom when rumour spread. The Times editor, who had only been told himself half an hour earlier, came and addressed the troops briefly and with dignity, saying that our paper was not tarnished by allegations and that we should continue to set the standards for professionalism in our trade.

As I left the office that evening, the crowds spilt out on to the plaza from the nearest pub. Wisely, the News of the World staff were taking to drink, joined by colleagues from The Sun. It was claimed by some on Twitter that the Sun staff had gone out on strike in sympathy. They hadn't, but they wanted to down a couple with their friends. It would have been nice if Rebekah Brooks had put her card behind the bar.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Purple power

Hurrah for the Purple Poofters. The front page of today's paper carries the happy news that Colchester Royal Grammar School won the Times Spelling Bee competition yesterday, sealing the title by spelling "chrysalis" correctly. As an Old Colcestrian, I'm delighted and more than a little envious.

No Spelling Bees in my day, not even a Spelling Gnat, but being able to rite propa was drilled into us from the first year with Mad Fred Evans, the Cuban heels-wearing chemistry teacher and first-form master, setting us weekly spelling tests after taking the register. Chrysalis (not to be confused with crystal) was a Fred favourite.

I am always grateful that I had the chance to go to CRGS, a state school in name and funding but a private school in output and ethos that regularly spanks the top fee-paying schools in the exam league tables. It was good in my day, with 13 pupils in my year of 100 going to Oxbridge, but is now jaw-droppingly good. Last year, 41 CRGS pupils were offered places at Oxford or Cambridge.

Opponents of grammar schools hate it because it creams off the brightest children at 11, weakening the quality of the other schools; others argue that it gives a chance purely on the basis of intelligence rather than class or the state of their parents' bank account. It is elitist, but based on potential and ability rather than money. Why is that a bad thing?

Anyway, the pupils suffer in other ways thanks to the distinctive purple blazer, with French mottoes on the breast pocket depending on house. It made you stand out in Colchester; since it is a garrison town that was not necessarily a good thing. "Purple poofter" was a regular shout from the oiks at the comprehensive school. They were probably just jealous. Most of them couldn't even spell poofter.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Ed Balls, the teenage cricket geek

They say that you should never meet your heroes, but it is also wise not to meet your bogeymen in case you find that you quite like them.

So it was when I interviewed Ed Balls in the Lord's pavilion yesterday and discovered that we were both teenage cricket geeks.

I should loathe Balls, the former right-hand man to Gordon Brown. He has a reputation as an arrogant bruiser and a bully and I imagine that there is little in politics on which we would agree.

Except that for a pleasant half an hour, he talked with passion and enthusiasm about boyhood days spent playing dice cricket and impersonating Derek Randall. Guess he has some redeeming features.

I went to interview Balls because he was keeping wicket for the Lords and Commons team against MCC, but the Shadow Chancellor was all over the papers for plots and intrigue yesterday morning so The Times also dispatched Roland Watson, our political editor and a decent cricketer himself, to ask about leaked memos.

We wrote up the interview for a piece in the Times today, but there was a fair bit that didn't get in about Ed Balls's schooldays that I think is worth sharing, if only because it reveals an obsessive and rather sad fascination for cricket and maths. This is the tale of the making of a Treasury wonk.

Like many slightly nerdy teenaged boys, the young Balls loved cricket but could not play it. He never bowled for his school team and batted at No 11, but when it came to playing “dice cricket” in his bedroom, Balls was a master.

“I developed my own version and played games between England and an All Star XI using a scorebook I bought from Trent Bridge,” the Shadow Chancellor said. “My system was quite sophisticated. You rolled dice to see what the weather was like and used grids that attempted to simulate different kinds of play, like if it was a batter's day or a spinner's day.”

He admits that playing the games was “quite a chore” as he rolled the dice over and over to replicate a Test match. What excited him was what happened after the match.

“I would get to the end and recalculate by hand all the averages for the players,” he said. “I would write them out in order and then repick the teams and start again.

“The thing I really loved was doing the averages. I would get through the game as quickly as I could so that I could do them. The only thing is that England tended to do well so I think the dice may not have been rolled completely fairly.” He added that on family holidays he used to hope it would rain so he could stay indoors and play.

It brought back my own memories of playing "calculator cricket" in maths lessons, using the random number generator. Like Balls, I also drew up my own eventualities tables to reflect weather, pitch and momentum in the series. God, I was quite a sad little character.

The first Test match that Balls saw was the great West Indies side in 1976 at Trent Bridge. His hero was Randall, the madcap England batsman who was noted for his eccentric behaviour at the crease and his fielding acrobatics.

“We wanted to be like him at school,” Balls said. “We spent ages practising running, picking up the ball and throwing it at the wicket. We were the most exhibitionist team around and when we batted we would stand at the crease continually fiddling.”

Alas, we had little chance to watch the Balls fiddling yesterday. Only 11 overs were possible in the match, the first time the annual game had been played at Lord's since 1939.

Having been driven off once by a heavy downpour after 40 minutes, they emerged tentatively after lunch but rain started falling as soon as the covers were removed. The match was abandoned at 4pm; the gods had seen enough of Balls's wicketkeeping.

It was just long enough, though, for Danny Alexander, a left-arm medium-pace Cabinet minister who shared the new ball with Jo Johnson, MP for Orpington, to trap one of the MCC opening batsmen leg before wicket.

The Shadow Chancellor was the first man to shake hands with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, all rivalries forgotten in the name of sport. "He told me 'God this is probaly the only time you'll ever be able to congratulate me for something'," Balls recalled as rain teemed down outside. "I said I was slightly worried that it was going too far down the leg side to be given out."

Alexander was lucky that the batsman hadn't edged the ball behind for Balls to catch given his rather feeble efforts at taking the ball in his gloves. "More goalkeeper than wicketkeeper" was his own honest assessment. "I'm just relieved I didn't drop any catches," he added.

Instead of sledging the opposition, Balls and his slip cordon, the Tory MPs Crispin Blunt and Matthew Hancock, made cracks at their team-mate, John Redwood. It is probably the only time Balls and Redwood have found themselves on the same side.

"In 1997, I played for the journalists against the MPs team and hit three fours off Redwood in an over," Balls recalled. "That's the highlight of my cricketing career. I got 25 or so that day. John and I have always got on fine."

The 11-year-old Balls went along eagerly to nets at his secondary school, hoping to impress the master in charge. Afterwards, they gathered round and the teacher told them that one boy had stood out above the rest.

"For a fleeting second I thought it could be me," Balls said. Instead, it was James Morris, the man who captained him yesterday and whose day job is as Tory MP for Halesowen and Rowley Regis. Balls was the token Labour MP in the team.

Balls admits that it was a dream to get changed in the away dressing room where Sri Lanka had prepared for last week's Test match and the name of their captain, Tillekeratne Dilshan, had been freshly painted on the honours board after his century. "We all looked at the honours board in disbelief," Balls said. "Cricket always has more reverence for history than other sports.

"When I watched TV as a boy, they would show classic moments on TV during the rain. To be in the place where it all happened, the sense of history and majesty about it, is different to anywhere else." Except, some may argue, the Houses of Parliament. It is easy to be blase about a place that you visit every day.

[pics by the estimable Graham Morris]

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Tina Fey's Palin impersonation foxes Fox producer

Fox News had a little difficulty this week in telling the difference between fantasy and reality. Well, more difficulty than usual.

An item on Sarah Palin's voyage round America's tourist sites, amending Wikipedia as she goes, featured an image of Tina Fey, the star of 30 Rock, spoofing Palin on Saturday Night Live in 2008.

Apparently the producer who boobed has been disciplined, but probably not in a good way. Palin is not only Fox's poster girl, but since last year she has provided political commentary for the station. It should not be difficult to tell her and Fey apart. For a start, Fey's Palin is rather more foxy than Fox's Palin.

Fey recently reprised her Palin on SNL, having a pop at "the lamestream media who twist my words by repeating them verbatim" and promising to run for office every four years. "This is my Olympics, and I'm gonna win a whole bunch of silvers," she said.

The world will be hoping that Palin does have a crack at the White House next year, if only because it will raise the quality of satire. Sending up Tim "Call me Tim" Pawlenty is not quite the same.

Monday, June 06, 2011

A smug of iPads

Via the Guardian's Mind Your Language blog, I've discovered the wonderful All Sorts website, which exists to catalogue and create collective nouns for objects in modern life.

The Grauniad was seeking a collective noun for iPods and suggested "a rectangulation", which I rather like but not as much as the almost perfect "a smug of iPads".

The most popular suggestion for a group of journalists is "a gutter", although I like whoever suggested "a scoop" and, with a nod to those sadly-now-gone days of legendary lunches, "a bevvy". Sadly, "a redundance of journalists" may be gathering momentum.

I'm also very impressed by the suggestions for a collection of tweets - a failwhale or a boredom being the best - while top marks must go to "a wunch of bankers" (think about it...), "a sneer of critics" and, to quote Brian Sewell, "an arse-fuck-cunt of Tourette's sufferers".

Thursday, June 02, 2011

"That's a Smith & Wesson and you've had your six"

There's a fabulous piece of correspondence on the Letters of Note blog about James Bond's "rather deplorable taste in firearms".

A gun expert, Geoffrey Boothroyd, wrote to Ian Fleming in 1956, praising his books but saying that the .25 Beretta that Fleming had given to Bond was "really a lady's gun, and not a really nice lady at that". Boothroyd went on to suggest other guns that the secret agent could use instead.

Fleming, to his credit, was delighted to take the suggestion and equipped Bond with a Walther PPK in Dr No. He said he would pay Boothroyd for the advice and offered to recommend him to any company who might film the Bond books. How many authors would do that today?

As a final gracious gesture, Fleming gave Bond's armourer, Q, a name for the first time in Dr No: Major Boothroyd. It wasn't the only time he borrowed someone's name: Blofeld and Scaramanga were both named after boys he knew at school.

Friday, May 27, 2011

No DIY this weekend...

Looks like most of the country will be spending this weekend in front of the TV with the curtains drawn. It's arguably the biggest weekend of sport ever scheduled, even if some of us wonder why people care so much about chavball, which as well as the Champions League final between Manchester Superinjuncted and Barcelona at Wembley has play-off finals.

In rugby, there is the Premiership final between Leicester and Saracens and the Magners League final between Munster and Leinster. And then on Sunday England play the Barbarians at Twickenham.

In cricket there is the Test match in Cardiff and the Indian Premier League final, in tennis the French Open (come on Andy), in golf the European Tour's flagship event at Wentworth (Luke Donald aiming to become world No 1) and in vroom-vrooms there is the Monaco Grand Prix. For those who like wheels but not engines, cycling's Giro d'Italia finishes in Milan on Sunday.

Meanwhile, I'm off to Munich in the morning for the final two days of the rowing World Cup regatta, where all of Britain's crews progressed from today's heats, most of them winning them. I'm tipping at least eight golds on Sunday from what is promising to be Britain's most successful Olympic sport in 2012. Trouble is that with all the other sport that is on, will I be given any space to write about it?

The 12-year-old girl who beat me and then the world

Last week, Claire Vigrass completed a career grand slam in the sport of real tennis, adding the world singles and doubles titles to the full house that she already holds in the British, French, US and Australian Opens. In terms of dominance, she is Britain's greatest sportswoman, albeit in a sport with a relatively small base.

I've taken an interest in the growth of Claire's career because seven years ago she and her sister gave me and my father an absolute spanking on the tennis court, beating us 6-0 in a doubles competition. She was 12 years old at the time.

I don't know if you are familiar with the noble sport of real tennis. It's the twisted mother of the version Andy Murray plays, only done indoors with sloping roofs that you can hit the ball along, jutting-out bits of wall that you can aim for a wicked ricochet off and netted windows into which you can win a point by striking the ball.

It's like tennis if imagined by MC Escher. One theory goes that the reason for its bizarreness is because Henry VIII was a keen player and every time he lost a point he just claimed that there was a new rule that meant he had actually won. Only Calvinball is more bonkers.

Anyway, I've been playing this sport for about 15 years (once breaking into the top 1,000 in the world rankings no less) and when eight years ago I entered a doubles tournament with my father, a pretty nifty lawn tennis player in his day, we had some confidence.

Up against us in the first round were a 12-year-old girl and her sister. Mentally, we started making plans for round 2. Bad mistake, they played us off court. I'm not sure we even won a point, let alone a game.

To cap it all, these schoolgirls did not even smile. Every perfect return, every pin-point volley or winning serve was met with the same grim expression. Even when they got a lucky break, the ball clipping the net and flopping over, they did not acknowledge their fortune with a grin. It was ruthless, bloody, win-at-all-costs determination. Now I think of it, I don't think they dropped a set all tournament.

A couple of years ago, I met Claire again while she was training at Lord's. She has become a beautiful, charming woman, but as the results at the world championships show, where she won the final 6-1, 6-4, she clearly still retains that killer determination.

I just hope she has learnt to smile while winning. What is the point of doing sport if you don't enjoy it? Or is that the view of a loser?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Peerless eccentric

The Earl of Onslow died at the weekend, which is a great shame for fans of eccentric members of the aristocracy. Onslow was one of the 92 hereditary peers who were saved the axe that fell on members of the House of Lords in 1999, but he was in favour of an elected Upper Chamber, once saying that he yearned for a House of Lords
"in which there will be no more place for a descendent of someone who got pissed with Pitt the Younger than for a man who once adorned the Cabinet in the useless position of secretary of state for prices and consumer protection".
I agree with the Earl about not giving peerages to useless Cabinet members - see Lord Prescott - but I would far rather have as a legislator someone whose relative once got pissed with Pitt than an elected senator.

The great thing about hereditary peers in my view is that they do the job purely out of a sense of duty and because of the cheap wine on offer in the Palace of Westminster rather than out of any need to campaign for my vote by making promise they won't keep.

I'd have an Upper House made up only of hereditary peers and an assortment of appointed national treasures from politics, the arts and industry (Stanley Johnson, Michael Palin, Floella Benjamin and Paddy Ashdown, say. And perhaps the bloke who used to run M&S.) Leave elections out of it. Look what elections have done for the House of Commons.

Onslow, who was occasionally a popular guest on Have I Got News for You, delightfully always referred to himself as "a disloyal Conservative", which strikes me as the very best politician to be.

He also once hosted a Radio 3 series on a variety of music styles including rap, acid jazz and thrash metal, introducing it each week with "It's time to get tripping with me, Lord Onslow".

We need to be governed by more politicians like this.

Less height, more prestige

Heard a lovely quip from an MCC member at Lord's last night about the England cricket captaincy being divided between Andrew Strauss (centre in this pic and Test captain), Alastair Cook (left and ODI captain) and Stuart Broad (right and Twenty20 captain).
"Does the height of the captain vary in inverse proportion to the importance of the job?"

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Don't say Christmas dinner... we're not the Daily Star"

With the news that the Heffmeister is leaving the Daily Telegraph, will this mean a slackening of standards? Simon Heffer's style notes are required reading for anyone who, like me, gets a bit cross at poor grammar and dodgy spelling.

As a tribute, the Guardian has linked to Heffer's huffiest email to Telegraph staffers. Some of his comments are delicious, including...

There have been so many literals this week that I suspect some of you either never could spell, or have given up trying. Perhaps my favourite was "hocky mom", followed by "plumb compote" (bring on the lead poisoning). While it is good to provide the customers with amusement, it should be intentional.
The style book also reminds us that our readers tend to eat Christmas lunch, not Christmas dinner; this is not the Daily Star. Unless we are referring to a repast that is specifically to be held in the evening, be careful to refer to Christmas lunch in all those mouth-watering articles you are preparing about festive food.
Somebody actually allowed a piece of copy through this week with the adjective "posh" in it (it was not a reference to Mrs Beckham, and nor was it being used satirically). It was lucky this was spotted and removed before a nasty accident occurred. I repeat: we are not the Daily Star.
If we are setting quizzes for our readers, do try to ensure the right answers really are right. A test for would-be immigrants managed to get the voltage figure for this country wrong. It also said that one had to be 16 to enter the lottery which, as several readers pointed out, appeared to be hard on those aged 17 or more. The answer "16 or over" would have been better.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Is Osama bin Laden your neighbour?

As a former property journalist, I'm still on some PRs' mailing lists. Got the following from an estate agent (realtor, sorry) in New York that seems to have a slight sense of proportion failure...
"With the OSAMA BIN LADEN termination, we can celebrate the end of an era where hopefully his death marks some closure for those affected by his monstrous actions, which may indeed be all of us. The cost of this monster’s activities have to be in the Trillions in our estimations. We are somewhat amazed that his neighbors had no idea of who they were living next to, although living in Manhattan this is not an entirely new concept."
They then link to their blog, which has the post titled "Is a Osama Bin Laden your neighbour?" and the following commentary. I particularly like the "on the up side, Bin Laden created lots of jobs in the airline security industry" line.
"He was found in a heavily guarded, large compound in a suburban neighborhood in Pakistan, Abbottabad. Is it just me, or isn’t the world standing in utter disbelief that not ONE of his neighbors knew who lived next door? And if they knew, did they decide to remain silent?

"Are we here in the USA as gullible? Haven’t we heard enough stories about when a mass murderer is caught neighbors interviewed admit to being completely clueless? Do we not want to know who our neighbors are? Does nobody watch ‘Desperate Housewives’?

"So, dear real estate dwellers, I am asking you PLEASE to get to know who your neighbors are. If you see lots of armed guards, this could be a sign of something odd…. try to find out sooner rather than later. As it turns out, sometimes your neighbors can be very, very bad people responsible for the death of thousands.

"While the Abbottabad neighbors may have protected the identity of Osama because he killed a few thousand Americans, maybe they had forgotten how this single indiviual is also responsible for the deaths of HUNDREDS of thousands of Muslims, and how single handedly he was the worst possible public relations for Muslims around the world causing HUNDREDS of millions of innocents needless pain.

"And if none of this is motivating enough, think about the cost of Osama bin Laden to New York City real estate…..the security sign in desks, the airport check-ins, the additional policing, etc, etc. If anything, he helped create thousands of jobs, but the cost to all, especially those who lost their lives, is imeasurable.

"SO PLEASE EVERYBODY AROUND THE WORLD, AND IN NEW YORK CITY ESPECIALLY: find out who your neighbors are, be friendly, be kind, but if there is any suspicion that they may be people causing our society harm, let us know….pretty please?"
Christ. I'm not sure I need to add anything else...

Three in one: Latin, history and cricket

Imperator Anglorum est omnis divisus in partes tres, as Julius Caesar might have written if he was a modern day cricket writer. And I'd like to think that is the path he would have taken, not least because English Twenty20 cricket is sponsored by a drinks manufacturer called Rubicon.

Caesar knew a bit about three men doing one job, which is the situation facing the England cricket captaincy after yesterday's announcement. In 59BC, Caesar, Pompey and Crassus formed a triumvirate or three-man alliance to organise Rome's domestic cricket tournament. The Romans were mad keen on cricket, as this photo of a set of stumps proves.

Pompey was six years older than Caesar, had several notable successes behind him and was undeniably posh. Andrew Strauss, the Test captain in cricket's new triumvirate, is Pompey.

Caesar was also posh but tried to hide it (by going to darts contests at Ally Pally, probably). He had promise but his best victories were ahead of him. He is Alastair Cook.

Which makes Stuart Broad, who will lead the T20 side, our version of Crassus, who was in Caesar's triumvirate because he controlled the money, which sort of sums up Twenty20.

The Roman triumvirate didn't end well. Crassus was bumped off early after a super-over decider against the Parthians and Caesar and Pompey had a massive barney, resulting in both of them losing the confidence of the selectors. Octavian took home the ashes.

It might all be happier for the triumvirate running English cricket. Broad and Cook don't seem to be over-run by a desperate need to topple Strauss and Andy Flower, the England team director, said yesterday that he hoped everyone could be mature about it. It may work.

What is certain is that while Cook takes on the one-day side with a modicum of leadership experience behind him as captain of England Under-19, MCC and the England senior side when Strauss skipped the tour to Bangladesh last year, Broad has been given the reins with no captaincy experience to his name. That does not mean that he will fail - and I wish him well - but he has never had to think about running a side in this way.

As I write in The Times today, Broad may not even have captained a school team. I spoke to Frank Hayes, the former Lancashire and England batsman who is master in charge of cricket at Oakham School, and he could not recall any match. “He may have done in his early years, but not the first XI,” Hayes said.

Paul Cook, a batsman who has played a bit of second XI cricket for Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire and now captains Lincolnshire, was made captain instead. Hayes told me that Cook was simply the more natural leader, although Broad "was always destined to play at a higher level".

Broad was a footsoldier when Oakham played Bedford School in 2003. A young Alastair Cook made a double hundred for Bedford that day, but he had already been marked as a Future England Captain.

Broad had not, but maybe that is something to do with the bias that selectors tend to have in favour of batsmen rather than fast bowlers when picking a captain. Broad will be only the second fast bowler, after Andrew Flintoff, to captain England since Bob Willis in 1984.

That does not mean that the experiment will not work. “Stuart knows the game backwards," Hayes told me. "He’s been a thinking man’s cricketer since about the age of 12. He is a good leader and he loves the game. He has a natural exuberance which is great for English cricket and in my view he is just the man for the job."

We shall see when England play Sri Lanka on June 25 and Broad becomes the 85th England captain whether that hunch pays off.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Bin Laden, twittered

A selection of random thoughts yesterday on the killing of a tall man with a beard, as bashed out on my Twitter account.

* Well that's not a bad way for Barack Obama to kick-start his re-election campaign. Hard to see the Republicans topping the Bin Laden op.

* I hope that in the unlikely event of Henry Cooper and Osama bin Laden being in the same place, Cooper is punching him repeatedly on the nose

* Now that Bin Laden has gone, does Piers Morgan, also guilty of doing awful things in New York, become the most disliked man in the world?

* Apparently Bin Laden compound didn't have a phone. Was he blowing Al Qaeda 's budget by voting too often on Strictly Come Dancing? A Widders fan?

* Apparently he was living 800 yards from Pakistan's equivalent of Sandhurst. Good work, guys. Thanks for handing him over

* Good news for Julian Assange, he moves up one place on the FBI's most wanted list.

* Unless she was 6ft 6in tall or wearing heels, I doubt that Mrs Bin Laden would have made much of a human shield.

* Disappointing how small and uncool Obama's Situation Room is compared to Jed Bartlet's. More like a broom cupboard.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Wedding, twitted

The problem with Twitter, especially on a big news day, is that sometimes you come up with a good gag or bon mot and it gets lost in the morass of other people's twitterings. So, for posterity or those who don't follow my Twitter, @patrick_kidd, here are the pick of my thoughts on the Royal Wedding in 140 characters.

* Less than two hours to go to the unveiling of the dress. My money is on it being white. Possibly with silly frilly bits.

* Very sensible to make Wills Duke of Cambridge. Oxford is a right dump, only fit for Earls

* Huw Edwards interviewing Rowan Williams. All we need is Neil Kinnock and Charlotte Church and there will be a quorum for an Eisteddfod
* John Major surprisingly wearing a pink shirt with his morning dress. Maybe a red sock got mixed in with the wash?

* Lots of people worried about time people have to wait in the Abbey without a toilet break, can't they just do what Jez did in Peep Show?

* "We want wills" the crowd outside Clarence House shout. Probably worried about dying intestate

* I see the police outriders have chosen to wear yellow. Clashes with the Queen's outfit a bit. They should have co-ordinated

* So how long do we give the Daily Mail before they replace the "God bless 'er" stories with "Is Kate anorexic?" columns?

* And they've arrived at the Abbey. Doors to manual and cross-check... Thank you for flying easyRoyal, first-class for the return journey

* Kate enters to "I was Glad" by Hubert Parry. Not, sadly, "I'm so Glad" by Cream. Less waa-waa guitar, more organ

* I *love* Walton's "Crown Imperial", which the couple are walking out to. Almost as good as the Imperial March from Star Wars

* In Britain you need a royal wedding to become a duke or count. In the US, you just have to be a great jazz musician

* CLASSY idea to have William drive Kate away from the Palace in a vintage Aston Martin. Very cool. Wonder if it comes with stinger missiles?

* Radio 4 reporter just said that Prince William will be letting his hair down later. To judge from the hereditary baldness it's too late
* So that's it for Wills and Kate. Everyone back together next year for Harry's wedding in Vegas?

* Still enormous crowds milling around outside Buckingham Palace. At what point is it polite to set the corgis on them?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bureaucratese and gobbledygook

A treat for those who hate PR-speak. The excellent Letters of Note blog reprints a fabulous memo from the former chairman of the US Civil Aeronautics Board, Alfred Kahn, in which he instructs his staff to avoid "the artificial and hyper-legal language that is sometimes known as bureaucratese or gobbledygook".

A few extracts follow but go and read the whole thing on Letters of Note. Apparently when Kahn's memo was published it attracted an offer of marriage and the suggestion that he should be given a Nobel prize. This should be compulsory reading...

"May I ask you, please, to try very hard to write Board orders and, even more so, drafts of letters for my signature, in straightforward, quasi-conversational, humane prose - as though you are communicating with real people. I once asked a young lawyer who wanted us to say "we deem it inappropriate" to try that kind of language out on his children - and if they did not drive him out of the room with their derisive laughter, to disown them.

"I suggest the test is a good one: try reading some of the language you use aloud, and ask yourself how your friends would be likely to react. (And then decide, on the basis of their reactions, whether you still want them as friends.)"
He then goes through his pet peeves, which include...
Every time you are tempted to use "herein," "hereinabove," "hereinunder," or similarly, "therein" and its corresponding variants, try "here" or "there" or "above" or "below" and see if it doesn't make just as much sense.

The passive voice is wildly overused in government writing. Typically, its purpose is to conceal information: one is less likely to be jailed if one says "he was hit by a stone," than "I hit him with a stone." The active voice is far more forthright, direct, and human.

This one is, I recognize, a matter of taste. But unless you feel strongly, would you please try to remember that "data" was for more than two thousand years and is still regarded by most literate people as plural (the singular is "datum"), and that (this one goes back even longer) the singular is "criterion," and "criteria" is plural. Also, that for at least from the 17th through most of the 20th century, "presently" meant "soon" or "immediately" and not "now."
Could you possibly try to make the introduction of letters somewhat less pompous than "this is in reference to your letter dated May 42, 1993, regarding (or concerning, or in regard to, or with reference to)...." That just doesn't sound as though it is coming from a human being.
Why use "regarding" or "concerning" or "with regard to," when the simple word "about" would do just as well? Unless you are trying to impress someone; but are you sure you want to impress anyone who would be impressed by such circumlocutions? There is a similar pompous tendency to use "prior to," when what you really mean is "before."

One of my pet peeves is the rampant misuse of "hopefully." That word is an adverb, and makes sense only as it modifies a verb, and means "with hope." It is possible to walk hopefully into a room, if one is going into the room with the hope of finding something (or not finding something) there. It is not intelligent to say "hopefully the criminal will make his identity known," because the meaning is not that he will do so with hope in his heart, and he is the subject of the verb "make."
Those who want more of the same should read Simon Heffer's Style Notes at the Telegraph

The post-Lent diet

Gosh I haven't blogged in weeks. Sorry about that. Tempus fugit and all that.

Well Easter is over, the tombstone has been rolled back and they've discovered that Christ has done a bunk, which means that I have reached the end of my Lenten fast. Or rather a half-hearted attempt to lose weight that became more half-hearted as the 40 days passed.

The good news is that I lost half a stone. The bad news is that I was aiming for a whole stone. On the plus side, I didn't buy any cheese for the period of Lent, tried to avoid it at work and ate relatively little chocolate. On the minus side, I had two black-tie dinners and a couple of social occasions where I didn't really hold myself back.

I loathe myself for my weakness, but then I did manage to lose one pound a week through only minor changes to my lifestyle. Perhaps that should be a lesson for the rest of the year: small improvements bring gradual rewards. If I carry on losing one pound a week, I can lose more than two stones by Christmas. Perhaps it might be time to do a bit more exercise...

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Please release me

As someone who once wrote copy to promote the Tory Party at the 2001 election (that worked out well), I sympathise with people who work in PR.

No matter how duff the idea, it will be someone's job to try and interest journalists in writing about it. Some are really quite silly, though, such as this press release I received from a vacuum cleaner company:
"Jogging on a hard surface in flat shoes, with no impact absorption, is neither pleasant nor smooth, making the run uncomfortable and clumsy. This insight is what gave the AEG development team an idea for its new and improved UltraOne vacuum cleaner. To create a vacuum that moves smoothly and produces little-to-no sound, its previous small, hard wheels were replaced with larger sports shoe-like wheels that absorb impact."
Thanks for the insight. How much jogging in flat shoes did you have to do to realise that it was hurting? Anyway, many congratulations, you've invented the tyre.

The art of being a good PR is to find a tenuous angle on which to peg your product. Hence this next email that arrived from Santa Cruz, California:

And what is also happening on that day that merits so many capital letters? Well, let the first line of the press release guide you:
"Was Prince William a frog in a past life?"
Clever, clever. The royal wedding is the perfect peg for a piece on saving frogs, who as we all know are just princes waiting to be kissed. Well done Santa Cruz, although given the royal family's background surely Prince Williams is more likely to have been a kraut in a former life?

Still, they got me to write about their campaigns so maybe these PRs do know a thing or two about grabbing the attention.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Occupational hazards

It's the Vole's ambition always to be a week late in discussing the news, so: the Census. How was it for you?

I refused to answer some of the questions this year. I don't think it is any business of the State to ask me what my state of health is at the moment (how do they know someone isn't just being a hypochondirac or a stoic?) and I fail to see the relevance of the question asking to describe what you do in your job, so I left them blank.

One of my colleagues decided it was best to be honest and put the answer: "Wasting time surfing the internet and bitching about my workmates."

Another, a sub-editor, suggested: "Making people better paid than me look as if they can write."

A letter appeared in The Times on Thursday from someone who had been a Census enumerator in 1981 that revealed a wonderfully eccentric and existential answer. Someone had given their occupation as "sculptor of stone lions" and then, when asked to describe his work, wrote: "I chip away all the bits of stone that are not lion."

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

We regret the error

Occasionally, just occasionally, journalists get their facts wrong. Yes, even me. And sometimes that means that newspapers have to print an apology. There's a whole website dedicated to spotting such things.

However, there is getting something wrong and then there is really boobing, as this apology in The Sun reveals:
"In an article published on The Sun website on January 27 under the headline 'Gollum joker killed in live rail horror’ we incorrectly stated that Julian Brooker, 23, of Brighton, was blown 15ft into the air after accidentally touching a live railway line.

"His parents have asked us to make clear he was not turned into a fireball, was not obsessed with the number 23 and didn’t go drinking on that date every month.

"Julian’s mother did not say, during or after the inquest, her son often got on all fours creeping around their house pretending to be Gollum."
Apart from that, the paper got everything spot on.
(yes, I know the cutting is six years old, but I got sent the link today - first with the news, as ever - and thought it worth sharing).

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Jolly fine boating weather

Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, speaks exclusively to the Vole's imagination about today's Boat Race

"This afternoon, our glorious capital on the banks of Old Father Thames will stage one of England's great sporting occasions, an event as ancient and venerable as the river itself, in which the men in dark blue give a damn good thrashing to a bunch of wastrels.

"I'm talking of course about the noble battle between police and protestors.

"I am delighted that in this modern age with so many other possible distractions, like getting your mistress pregnant or upsetting people from Liverpool, people still have a yearning to steal policemen's helmets on Boat Race day.

"In my time, you did it after the race, of course, and were taken straight to jail without passing Go or collecting £200 where you spent a night in chokey before being given a slap on the wrist and a £5 fine.

"Students today are less patient and want to get their protesting out of the way early before they head down to Putney to watch the Boat Race.

"As Mayor of this fine city I am, naturally, neutral. I don't care who wins as long as it isn't Cambridge. I have often wondered, though, why the Marines have yet to win the Boat Race. I know they give the students a head start, but they have an outboard motor for heaven's sake.

"It is good to see an Old Etonian in this year's Oxford crew even if his name - what was it again? Lulu or something? - suggests that he does not come from pure English stock. Not like us De Pfeffels.

"I was a dry bob when I was at the alma mater. Couldn't stomach those early mornings and the obligatory boater played havoc with my hair.

"I did know a few chaps who messed about in boats, though. Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps won the Silly Bugger award at Christ Church after flipping the college ninth VIII by trying to tap a swan on the shoulder with his blade, while Bingo Little is always catching crabs, he tells me, when he goes out punting with the daughter of the Balliol boatman.

"When I mentioned this to Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York, he quipped that it brought a new meaning to my customary greeting of 'what ho!'

"The morning after the Boat Race is always a bit of a stinker for the rowers, I am told. The pounding head, the aching arms, the nagging feeling that you forgot to check whether the cox had bobbed back to the surface after you threw him into the billowing w.

"My advice is to take a glass or two of Mulliner's Buck-u-Uppo, order a hearty round of eggs and b. and sing lustily of the thrashing you have just given the Tabs.

"Unless by some fluke or act of dastardly cheating the Tabs have won (I have long suspected that they take a short cut round the back of the Harrods depository), in which case yah-boo-sucks to them. No one likes a show-off."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Diet update, two pounds lighter

For those who were wondering, my Lenten fast is going reasonably well. I turned down the customary lunchtime pints when I went to the pub with my colleague Nigel last week and I have tried to avoid mid-afternoon snacks at my desk.

I did have a few glasses of wine while out with friends last night but it was counteracted by an hour and a quarter of tennis the day before as the scales, which only lie when they give bad news, show that I have shed two pounds.

Only another three stone or so to go...

Monday, March 14, 2011

Country life

There's not really much more comment that I can make on this article that the headline doesn't cover:
Pervert caught pleasuring himself in slurry for the third time
Those long winter evenings in Cornwall must really drag.

Strangely, in the long list of complaints against this disturbed individual, masturbating in the muck spreader is mentioned first before they move on to tamer pursuits such as setting fire to outbuildings and killing livestock.

We're all doomed

I was interested to read in today's paper that while the International Atomic Energy Agency has declared a state of emergency at the Fukushima nuclear power station in Japan, it is in fact "the lowest on its sliding scale" of warnings. Not that you would know it from some of the headlines...

Here for those without an IAEA handbook are the other marks on their apocalypse scale:
  1. State of emergency
  2. Oh-oh
  3. Cancel that dinner reservation
  4. Holy crap
  5. Lucky I wore brown trousers
  6. Run like the wind
  7. **** *****ing ****ety **** ****
  8. Boom

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Rugby shows its maturity

Halfway through the second half of the rugby match in Cardiff yesterday, Wales were fortunate that an illegal try they had scored was allowed to stand.

Ireland had kicked the ball out of play, it bounced into the crowd and Wales, seizing another ball from a ball boy, threw it in quickly before a lineout had formed and Mike Phillips charged down the left flank to score. According to the rules, the try should not have counted: you can only take a quick throw-in with the ball that was kicked out. The assistant referee, who was asked by the referee if it was the same ball, boobed.

It was a mistake, a bad mistake and one that possibly cost Ireland the match. Consider, then, the sensible and balanced reaction afterwards of the Ireland coach, Declan Kidney:
"We lost by six points, it was a seven-point decision, but look at what's happened in Japan. That's life isn't it."
Compare that with the hysteria, the sense of injustice and, above all, the anger of football managers when a decision goes against their side.

If Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger had been in Kidney's position, they would have gone ballistic, questioning the referee's parentage, competence and eyesight and probably refusing to speak to the media if anyone dared to suggest that the result was in any way caused by the failings of their players or the coach's strategy rather than a gaffe by a man with a whistle.

The Wales coach, Warren Gatland, in his turn acknowledged that his side had been lucky, a touch of graciousness that you never hear in football.

That's not to say that Ireland have taken the decision on the chin. Brian O'Driscoll, the captain, and other players have said that the try cost them and that the referee should be embarrassed by the mistake - although O'Driscoll tempered his comments by saying "everyone's human and mistakes happen all the time" - but by the time they get together tomorrow to prepare for the next match, it will be forgotten.

After all, Ireland really lost the match because they failed to score the points that their possession in Wales's half demanded, because Jonathan Sexton missed a kick in front of the posts immediately after Phillips's try and because Paddy Wallace cut inside rather than making what would have been a certain scoring pass outside him in the last minute. Those errors will be what they concentrate on, not the referee's howler.

It's why I like rugby more than football. The players and fans have passion but they also have respect. A rugby referee may be taunted during the match, but when the final whistle goes all grievances are forgotten. Everyone makes errors and players make more of them than officials.

The spirit of the game is more important than the result. It is a shame football has forgotten that.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

40 days in the slenderness

To church this morning for the daubing of the ashes on the forehead and the start of my annual month and a half of attempted self-improvement and inevitable self-loathing.

Each year, I try to lose weight during Lent by cutting out all those things that are yummy: cheese, curry, beer, Belgian chocolate-coated toffee popcorn from M&S and so on. Normally I last three weeks before, chuffed at losing a couple of pounds, I go on a chocolate bender and put it all back on. Not this year.

I now have more incentive really to make an effort to lose weight and keep it off, not least a four-month-old daughter and a rather snazzy new purple velvet jacket that I bought on a whim but cannot do up. I also went for a medical check-up recently and while my cholesterol level is astoundingly low for someone with the fat content of a pork scratching, I have nudged up to the 19 stone barrier and this clearly has to stop.

I don't like being a fatty. It makes me depressed a lot of the time (a feeling that I soothe by eating, unhelpfully) and I often wonder whether I'd be treated with more professional respect if I were slimmer. People tend to like chubbies but they rarely take them seriously. You are seen as ill-disciplined and slovenly, although I in return don't trust anyone with a micro-waist. They are clearly freaks.

I don't believe Kate Moss when she says that nothing tastes as good as being thin feels. She has clearly never tried Cornish Cruncher with balsamic pickled onions or the Duchy Originals chocolate-coated orange peel. But she has a point. Being thinner would make me more happy.

So, to try and find some discipline where none has previously existed, I intend to open myself up to ridicule and maybe encouragement by posting my diet efforts publicly on this blog. I started this morning at exactly 19st (just over 120kg) and hope by losing 2lb a week to shed a stone by Easter. I'll update readers here every weekend, hopefully without getting too boring about it.

All your support, abuse or tips very welcome.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Telling porkies

I like a bad joke as much as the next person but there is a time and a place for them and perhaps a sombre Commons statement on the crisis in Libya is not the right occasion in which to crack a feeble and mildly offensive gag about sausages.

John Baron, the Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay, rose in Parliament yesterday to ask William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, whether he thought it was ironic that we should send "a British warship [the HMS Cumberland] named after a pork sausage to rescue Brits from a Muslim country"?

Hague replied, witheringly, that "it was important to send the nearest royal naval ship available, irrespective of its name" and that the HMS York had also been there. "I hope he has no difficulty with that," Hague added.

Baron, not to be confused with the actor who played CJ in the original Reggie Perrin, is right that the HMS Cumberland has the nickname "the fighting sausage", although it was of course named after the English county and is the eleventh ship to carry the name, the first being in 1695.

If Baron was hoping to grab the news with his feeble gag then it has worked, on this blog at least, but is it really what he went into politics to achieve?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Never dull when following England

Good old England, singlehandedly keeping the World Cup interesting. First by almost losing to the Dutch, then by almost beating then almost losing then tying with India and then last night by failing to defend 327 against Ireland.

The bad news for South Africa fans is that England very rarely have two bad games in a row these days. I fully expect England to beat the Proteas in Madras on Sunday, then lose to Bangladesh in Chittagong and then beat West Indies, which will probably just squeak them into the quarter-finals.

England's bowling looks terrible, though. All credit to Kevin O'Brien, Ireland's hero last night who made the fastest century ever recorded in a World Cup match, but if you're going to bowl long-hops down the leg side, you are going to get tonked.

Well done Ireland, though. Having agonisingly failed to close out a win over Bangladesh last Friday, they have restored the reputation of the associate nations. If they beat the Dutch and one other side, perhaps West Indies, they could reach the quarter-finals.

The match on Sunday against India was an emotions-shredding rollercoaster. Surely 339 would be too many to chase (until Ireland's exploits yesterday it was 26 more than anyone had ever made batting second at the World Cup) but Strauss and Bell got England going with a stand of 170.

At this point, a few hundred Indians got up to leave. Never understood the point of that. I know that no one wants to see their team blow it but games against England are never over until the final ball. As Zaheer Khan dismissed Strauss and Bell with consecutive balls, the smug expressions on the faces of the English journalists in Bangalore swapped places with the dejected countenances of the Indians.

But in three glorious swipes the match was turned again. Six for Bresnan, six for Swann and then, off the first ball he faced, six for Shahzad. Match tied, honours even, no one wholly satisfied.

That was Sunday and it kept me fairly busy with an 800-word match report, a 400-word quotes piece, 400 words on England's bowlers and three panels of stats. It was 2.30am in Bangalore before I got to bed.

Two hours later the phone rang. Steven Davies is gay, can you write 700 words? Oh well, who needs sleep? Anyway, I had to be up at 6.30am to fly home. When I left, England were still in the World Cup. Blame others if they don't win from here.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Sightseeing in Bangalore

It is rare that I get to see much of the places I visit when abroad with work. Normally it is just hotel, airport, stadium and whatever tarmac lies in between. But I had a spare morning yesterday and asked a taxi driver to take me on a spin of leafy Bangalore, a city that I like very much.

We saw the crimson-brick law courts, the excessively grand state parliament (and the even grander new one being built next door), the park and the Bangalore Palace, a rather splendid and very British-looking stately pile started by a schoolmaster in the 1860s and completed 80 years later.

It was intended to resemble Windsor Castle, with turrets, battlements and ivy growing up the walls, and from the 1880s was the home of the Maharajahs of Mysore. There was only time for a brief wander, but the palace was being prepared for a large party tonight thrown by Vijay Mallya, owner of the Bangalore Royal Challengers and Mr Kingfisher beer. Clearly my invite went missing in the post.

Then it was on to what the driver called "the white palace", an evening retreat for the maharajah and now a retail mall. Clearly this was the scam bit of the tour - indeed, my driver quite merrily admitted that he got paid a commission for bringing tourists there, flashing a watch that he had received for customers rendered - but I enjoyed a wander round, looking at cashmere scarves, marble chess sets and saris.

When I walked into the area of the palace where carpets are sold, I was approached by a very nice shopkeeper who had a similar look and manner of speaking to Sir Alec Guinness in his later years.

"You want to buy something," he said and I almost felt like replying "I want to buy something". Must be an old Jedi mind trick. The price label of $800 for a small, if gorgeous, carpet that measured about 4ft by 2ft shook me out from his spell.

We finished the trip on the Ulsoor Lake, a reservoir where for 100 rupees (about £1.40), I was able to go for a paddle on a pedalo round the wildlife sanctuary in the middle. It only took two minutes for me to realise how tough pedalling one of these things is. No wonder Flintoff needed a few pints before getting in one at the last World Cup.

Today, being a Saturday, the British journalists on daily papers decided to leave the press conference to the Sunday hacks. There is only so much you can listen to Andrew Strauss talking about how positive England feel. Instead, we went tiger hunting.
Well not quite hunting, but we took a drive out of the city and went to a safari reserve where we saw tigers, lions, bears and other wildlife. The tigers, particularly the white tigers with their cold blue eyes, were astounding to see up close, but the bears were not how I imagined they would be. None of them were picking pawpaws or prickly pears, for a start.
Driving in India still remains a mystery for me, a combination of aggression and impatience with every spare piece of tarmac an opportunity to gain two inches. "They don't follow the rules of the road," my taxi driver said yesterday, but it wasn't a criticism. "I don't follow the rules of the road either, otherwise it would take much longer."
Today's taxi driver had his own views on driving in India. "You need three things," he said. "Good brakes, a good horn and good luck." So far, we have survived.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Almost like being there

It is a sad fact of modern journalism that sometimes we report from events that we have not been present at. Television and the internet make it so much easier to get details these days, while the expense of sending too many people to cover an event means that often I am asked to bail out those who are there.

I promise I am really in India at the moment - I have the slightly turbulent stomach to prove it - but have sometimes covered matches off the TV. Sometimes you see far more than you would in person.

On at least two occasions, I have reported on the final day of the US Masters golf from my living room (actually, one year was done from the bedroom when my wife banished me because she wanted to watch Damages). Augusta National only gives out two accreditations per paper and far grander people than me nab those, but the work still needs to be done.

This is no new practice, as I learnt from reading Inside the Box, Peter Baxter's autobiography of life as producer of Test Match Special. Baxter relates a tale of Alan McGilvray, the Australian who was a TMS summariser for many years, being part of a "synthetic coverage" of the 1938 Ashes in England.

Because telecom lines back from the other side of the world were unreliable, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation decided to have a team of commentators based in Sydney with a large photo of each venue and a series of cryptic cables back from their man at Lord's or Trent Bridge. From that, they would concoct a ball-by-ball commentary for Australian audiences within a couple of minutes of it happening.

The sound of bat on ball was provided, McGilvray said, by a sound-affects man hitting a lump of wood with a pencil. By the time of the next Ashes, communications were better and the remote commentary team were disbanded.

Police give crowd a damn good thrashing

In the past week of my World Cup journey we've had congestion, a car crash, pollution and now police brutality. Really, India isn't so different to back home.

The M Chinnaswamy Stadium, where England will play India on Sunday, was the venue today for a remake of the Gourmet Night episode of Fawlty Towers, with the Bangalore police playing the role of Basil and the thousands of spectators who had been unable to get tickets receiving "a damn good thrashing".

Their crime was to be miffed that the 7,000 tickets that went on public sale at 8.30am this morning had all gone within two and a half hours. Believing that more would soon be released, they loitered by the ticket windows, at which point in came the boys in beige wielding their lathi bamboo truncheons and spanked them until they moved on.

"It's not fair," one devastated Indian told me, possibly. "I was really looking forward to seeing Mike Yardy bowl his little darts." Another said that he had queued through the night in the hope of getting a ticket to watch Jonathan Trott scratch around for an ugly fifty.

A third person, this one from Ashford in Kent, was protesting about the British Government increasing tuition fees. With the last three thousand pounds of his trust fund, he had taken a gap year and made his way to southern India to make his point. "I didn't expect to get beaten up here as well," he sniffed.

The British police would do well to watch a video of their Indian counterparts in action and learn how to really bludgeon a protestor. None of your straight back and forwards approach here, it is all wristy dabs and swishes, finding the gaps between shirt tails and trouser waistband.

"We train really hard for days like this," a policeman told me while administering six of the best to the neck of a tobacconist. "You don't just rock up to the ground and expect to find your form. Some of us have been beating up taxi drivers in our spare time just to keep our eye in."

Another copper said with pride that he was planning to be in Mumbai for the final on April 2 and would be available for a bit of freelance violence if the local police needed him. "I don't mind whacking some new faces," he said. "It's good to have a change of scenery."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Going Dutch

Just under an hour from the start of England's first match with the Netherlands in the cricket World Cup here in Nagpur and the omens are not good. For a start, we have just had the first - and I suspect not the last - power cut of the day.

Furthermore, if the scenario that the local scoreboard operators have chosen for their equipment check is right, England are about to make a disastrous start to the tournament. The scoreboard opposite has the Netherlands six without loss, chasing a target of only 52 to win.

I had a surreal experience last night as I sat in a bar between Mike Atherton and Ravi Shastri as they debated, calmly in Athers' case, loudly in Shastri's, how much of a softy Sourav Ganguly is. The Prince of Kolkata has a way of carrying himself that manages to rub his team-mates up the wrong way.

Shastri related an argument he once had with Ganguly, who he felt was unwilling to train as hard as the others. "You should listen to me," Shastri said. "You may be captain of India, but I opened the batting for India."

Speaking of captains, I was surprised to see that Times Now, an Indian TV channel, in an advert introducing its commentators billed Mike Gatting as "England's greatest captain". OK, so he won the Ashes in 1986-87, but they were the only two Tests he won in 23 matches in charge. Surely a Strauss, Vaughan, Hutton, Illingworth or Brearley would have greater claim on the title.

The man from The Sun provided the answer. "It's an Indian channel," he said. "They're still delighted that Gatt stood up to the Pakistanis over the Shakoor Rana affair."

One bleeping thing after another

This post will contain rude language, for which I apologise, but it is impossible not to use naughty words when quoting Alan Bennett. Somehow, the British National Treasure makes even the coarsest profanity sound charming.

I was sitting in my hotel room here in Nagpur, where England start their cricket World Cup journey today (in Nagpur, that is, not in my hotel room where there isn't room to spread the field), and flicking through the 100 channels on my TV discovered that Bennett's The History Boys was on.

The film had not been dubbed but for Indian audiences who might struggle with the Yorkshire accents there were subtitles in English. And I discovered that the subtitles did not always match what was being said. There was a bit of censorship going on, but only for those who could read English but not hear it.

So, "pissed off", though spoken aloud, was changed in the subtitles to "annoyed". "Tits" became "bosoms", "shit" became "crap", "wank" became "self stimulation" and, I particularly admired this, "how's your sex life" became "how is the physical aspect of things".

The F word was definitely a no-no and that was omitted altogether from the subtitles, which rather spoilt the humour of Rudge's line: "history is one fucking thing after another".

Most bizarrely, though, was the decision of the censor to alter one of Francis de la Tour's lines. When Hector tells his fellow teacher that his groping of the schoolboys was "more by way of benediction than gratification", De la Tour says: "That is utter balls."

The subtitles censor changed her line to "That is utter bollocks".

Friday, February 18, 2011

In it to win it

Negativity is a British disease, although some prefer to call it realism. There's the joke about the difference between an optimist and a pessimist in Britain: a pessimist thinks that things can't get any worse and an optimist thinks that they can.

I was rebuked twice yesterday for being negative. At the captains' press conference before the start of the cricket World Cup here in Dhaka, I was sitting next to a Bangladeshi journalist who told me that his country will win the World Cup "or at the very least make the final".

I was too polite to scoff at his confidence, but even though they are playing at home and will have noisy support, it is hard to see the world No 8 side advancing that far. He then asked me what my expectations were for England and seemed shocked when I shrugged and said that we should make the quarter-finals and then would need some luck.

"How can you not believe that your country will win?" he asked. I replied that I had watched them before.

Later that day, as the £20 million opening ceremony, complete with fireworks, a thousand dancers, a giant tiger and Bryan Adams, no less, wound to an end, an Indian journalist asked me for a quote for his Kolkata newspaper.

"Oh, ah, very good, impressive, great fun, certainly much better than anything we could put on in England," I said. To which he again asked in surprise: "Why do you English always put your country down?"

He probably had a fair point, but I was at the opening ceremony for the 2009 World Twenty20 at Lord's. It featured a speech by the Duke of Kent and so much rain that the planned concert by Alesha Dixon was cancelled on health and safety grounds.

That said, that display may have revealed as much of what is at the heart of British culture - royalty, drizzle and petty bureaucracy - as fireworks, dancing and tigers does about Bangladesh.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Servant of the Civil Service

I've been enjoying A View from the Foothills, the first set of political diaries of Chris Mullin, the slightly bookish and befuddled former MP for Sunderland South and extremely reluctant junior minister in the Blair Government. He does a nice line in observation of his colleagues and honest (and honourable) indiscretion and also reveals how depressingly accurate was the view painted of the Civil Service in Yes Minister.

Two entries from 2000 that I have just read reveal this. In one, he was asked to approve a letter from his department (Transport and Environment) to the Foreign Office but is met with a brick wall when he suggests adding a sentence.

"Oh that's not for you," blurted my Private Secretary. "So why are you asking for my approval if I'm not allowed to change anything?" Mullin replies.

The Private Secretary first tells the minister that he will pass the concern on - "I don't want my concern passed on. I want to amend the letter," Mullin says - then, after the minister is very reluctantly allowed to make his change, Mullin reports that he got a call a few hours later in the House of Commons and was told by the Private Secretary that he had discovered the Foreign Secretary had rejected that idea before so he had decided to remove the line after all.

"I hope you don't mind," the civil servant says, adding to stop Mullin's retort that he had been unable to get hold of the Minister, who had been in Parliament all afternoon.

The other anecdote reveals the stupid - and costly - consultation process of which the Civil Service is so proud. Having fought a fruitless battle earlier in the year against night flights over Heathrow, Mullin decides to reject the Civil Service suggestion that they pay to commission more research into the effect of aircraft noise on sleep.

"What's the point?" he asks. "Whatever the conclusions, you are still going to tell me that nothing can be done about night flights." He speculates that the disgruntled civil servants will just wait until he is moved on before putting it under the nose of a new minister.

By rejecting the consultation, Mullin saved £1.5 million of taxpayers' money. I wonder how much more was wasted - and still is wasted - by Government on research that proves nothing or, if it proves something undesirable, is never acted on?

Land of the Duty Free

Bangladeshis don't travel light. Our flight to Dhaka from Dubai was delayed last night, mainly so that the returning passengers could finish emptying Duty Free. They trotted on to the plane clutching half a dozen plastic bags each, which they somehow stowed in the lockers, under the seats and, for all I knew, up their jumpers.

They could have been asked to put their Duty Free in the hold, but that was already bursting to the gills to judge by the volume of baggage that was put on to the carousel. I waited for an hour as more and more bags were added to the pile and was starting to worry that mine hadn't made it, but when it did arrive there was still half a planeload of passengers waiting for their luggage. Most of it seemed to be wrapped up in duvets tied together with string.

I'm out here for the cricket World Cup - "the cup that counts" as the local advertising campaign rather defensively describes it - and the streets have been decked with lights to mark the occasion. Apparently the Government have also taken all unsafe vehicles off the road and we drove past a graveyard of skeletal and burnt-out coaches on our way to Fatullah for England's warm-up match today.

I dread to think what congestion in Dhaka would have been like if they hadn't taken this measure. The taxi ride from the airport to the hotel last night, a ten-mile trip, took over an hour. London can be pretty clogged too, of course, but these roads were jammed five or six vehicles wide.

That doesn't mean that they were five-lane roads, though. Lane discipline is merely a nice idea here and the standard driving procedure is for short accelerations whenever the merest whiff of a gap emerges, followed by sharp breaking and a toot on the horn at whoever stopped your passage.

Nothing so far, however, has quite matched the Indian taxi driver I once had who drove up on to the pavement to get round one bit of gridlock.

It is all part of the impatient approach to life here and it is charming to a point. Our plane had barely landed and was still making its taxi when there was a stampede by the Bangladeshis on board to line up by the exits. Despite the pleas of the stewardesses to sit down, none of them did even though they must have known they would have an enormous wait come baggage reclaim.

There was a swarm of mosquitoes around the carousels and I have spent much of today scratching at bites. I never got round to getting a malaria vaccination but one local told me there is nothing to fear. "Our mosquitoes are very friendly," he said. "No malaria here."

Lucky 13?

The England cricket team's selection policy for opening batsmen is similar to that used by successive British governments for picking transport ministers. Everyone gets a go in the end.

I'm in Dhaka for the start of the World Cup and this morning's big news is that Kevin Pietersen is being given a go as Andrew Strauss's opening partner in their warm-up match with Canada. I'm surprised that Pietersen hasn't been tried in the position before. His natural aggression would seem suited to the powerplay overs at the start of a match where there are more gaps in the field.

Assuming that he is retained for the first proper match of the tournament, against the Netherlands on Tuesday, Pietersen would be Strauss's thirteenth opening partner in one-day matches and they would be the 21st different first-wicket pair tried since the start of the last World Cup, which is remarkable inconsistency even for England.

The previous 12 to open with Strauss are Trescothick, Bell, Loye, Joyce, Vaughan, Wright, Bopara, Davies, Denly, Kieswetter, Trott and Prior.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Death row, Terminal 3

There probably are more hellish places to be on a Monday night than Heathrow Terminal 3. Guantanamo Bay, I suppose. The less safe parts of Helmand. At a dinner party with Julian Assange. But not many.

I fly quite a bit for work, usually once a month, and I have spent a fair chunk of the past decade in airports. I don't like the places, from the petty security checks (that ridiculous belief that toothpaste becomes less explosive if placed in a clear plastic bag) to the mark-up that Starbucks charge on a tuna melt panini.

But the worse thing about airports is other people and nowhere quite brings you into contact with the great unwashed like T3. First you are forced to go through Duty Free after passport control and have to barge your way past people who can't go on holiday without stocking up on eight bottles of Smirnoff and a couple of hundred B&H.

Then you are squeezed through a tiny corridor into a barely bigger waiting room where you are packed in like turkeys on a Bernard Matthews farm. If you want to walk anywhere, you trip over bags and limbs.

You just about find a seat between two large ladies reading what I imagine they call "books" but seem to feature 100 pages of photos of Katie Price and Natalie Portman, and then you realise that you cannot read the status of your flight on the iPads that pass for departure boards and so you have to get up and barge past the masses again. At least most flights seem to be taking off. God knows how desperate conditions were here during the great snow-in last December.

Oh well, such is the glamorous life of a journalist. In about an hour, my flight is due to take off for Dhaka, Bangladesh, via Dubai, where I will be covering the cricket World Cup. The waiter in my local Indian tells me that Dhaka is an overcrowded city but surely compared with Heathrow Terminal 3 it will be like the Scottish Highlands.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Archaeology today

I don't know why this story didn't get a wider airing when it broke nine days ago (maybe it just isn't true) but apparently Donna D'Errico, last seen running and bouncing along the Californian sand in Baywatch, has come over all Indiana Jones and announced that she is joining an expedition to climb Mount Ararat in Turkey in quest of Noah's Ark.

So serious is Ms D'Errico about her new career that she has even turned down a place in Dancing with the Stars to go hunting those long-lost cubits.

"This has been a dream of mine since I was 9 or 10," D'Errico told AOL News, which is surely kosher enough for this not to be some weird hoax. "I went to Catholic school and was fascinated by Noah's ark. I would do class projects based on the ark.

"I've been studying this for years and know where the sightings have been. According to my research, the ark lays broken into at least two, but most likely three, pieces. I believe that one of those pieces is in the uppermost Ahora Gorge area, an extremely dangerous area to climb and explore."

Archaeology was never this glamorous when I did it at university, but shouldn't she serve her apprenticeship by prodding muddy fields in Wiltshire with a trowel for a few years first?

Fruitloops have been seeking the ark for centuries, apparently unable to accept that after such a long time the wood might have just rotted. One question that no one seems to have answered, or even considered, is if the ark really did come to rest on top of a mountain, how did Noah get all the animals down the mountain safely?

Maybe he ripped up the ark to make skis for the elephants?

(Hat-tip to the Retronaut)