Friday 31 December 2010

Desktop Meme

Having been tagged by JuliaM I must cheat; I'm travelling in search of England - always - and am camped out on a kitchen table. It looks minimalist and organized, which is a lie. I have therefore included my handbag, which is the back-office. Over the years the bag has got bigger, like my waist. Hmm.

While the rest of the world is wondering about Julian Assange's sex-life and his chances of surviving the fury of half the political world, I just want to know: how does he live out of a suitcase? What is in his wash bag, or does he rely on stocking up on mini-shampoos and disposable razors when someone pays his hotel bill? How many socks and underpants does he carry, what does he use in the way of notebooks and pens and novels - and don't tell me paper is redundant, it obviously isn't, you've only got to look at the meme pictures.

I have stared at the pages of the Rohan catalogue until the images fade. I still can't see how putting packing packs inside suitcases helps, although I have used cheap laundry nets to separate underwear etc, just to stop things tieing themselves in knots when I'm not looking. My favourite part of LOTR is where Galadriel gives the Fellowship of the Ring miraculous travelling cloaks which weigh nothing, wash-up a treat, are warm and waterproof but have superior wicking ability, have protective colouring and roll up to the size of a hanky. I've got a space blanket - the silvered plastic membrane - but it's not the same thing. Looking like a giant oven-ready chicken fillet is going to attract orcs.

I'm not a hiking traveller; I'm the sort of traveller who wears Cuban-heeled shoes and a jaunty hat. My natural habitat is at a tea-table, next to a log fire, looking through the window at the marvellous landscape full of booted fools. I do not approve of stamping all over the landscape, rubbing holes in it. That's my version of conservation and I'm sticking to it.

The leaflet is from Daleside Bungalow, Masham, North Yorkshire. I haven't stayed there - I just scooped up the information. Masham is a town blessed with magical water which is converted in to mysterious beer at the Black Sheep Brewery. There is also the Theakston bewery and some disagreement which we need not go in to. Bygones.

On the corner of Masham market square, huddled next to the church, is the Suncatcher Cafe. In contrast to the frilly tea rooms and restaurants, the Suncatcher is a memory of hippie holidays. The open log fire is hung about with beads, silk bags, masks and modern paintings you may wish to own rather than run screaming from. The coffee and food is good, the music is cool.

Masham distills a working vision of England. It has hardly any national retailers and still has locally run butchers, bakers, greengrocers and general grocery/deli stores. A bigger range of locally-produced goods is available than is normally the case - and it is local rather than just badged products, which are the cuckoos in retailing. They look like local produce but many of them come from the same factory in Leek, Staffordshire. The market square is used for parking when the market is not on; it is paid for by an honesty-box.

It's important not to get carried away with a romantic idea of honest yeomen dancing round a Maypole, tra-la, because mains water, electricity, and emergency services don't happen by magic. They happen because we have put vast energy in to massive engineering projects, then do our best to make that technology invisible. It is far too easy to become confused between the theatre-set and reality. Let the safe treated water stop and we soon see how keen folks really are to go back to the days of a strip-wash in a bowl of tepid pond water and no heat until you've made up the fire.

Having said that, if the world is going to become a difficult place in 2011, there are few places better than Masham to ride it out. Maybe Leyburn or Thirsk, if you want more shops.

I tag The All-Seeing Eye. Happy New Year.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Rock 'n' Stroll

Over in Ishmalia, Mr Smith is musing on the meaning of furniture; its significance beyond the functional which often turns out to be the least of its jobs.

This piece, however, is all about function. It is a rocking shoe box. You keep your gear in it - brushes, polishes, cloth, special magic things for making shoes fit, spare shoe liners - hence no more lost shoe-care frenzy.

Before you go out you step on it, one foot then the other, and give the show a quick once-over. The rocking action immediately demonstrates its superiority over fixed shoe-boxes; it adjusts easily to your stance. It is light but strong. Best not to use it on a highly-polished floor, though, as there is a chance of it skidding away.

The box has the air of a successful woodwork project by somebody - look, it's obviously a male manufacturer, it just is - who wanted to learn how to cut, join and fit wood. It is the next project on from making a simple rocking crib; it has two hinged lids which shut snugly. It is the way it shuts properly, has not warped or split, even after many years of being stepped on, which suggests that it was done with pride. The person wanted to make a really useful thing while learning the craft, and they did.

I don't know who it was made for or what happened to them, but I do know who it was made by because their neat pencil name is still in there. M. Chamberlain.

It's possible "Mike" - that's how I think of him - was a 4th former when he made it, but the number might just be a note to himself for some other purpose, such as assembly order or project number.

Woodwork projects are often given away, usually to mothers, but it is possible M Chamberlain kept his box and used it for his professional footwear. The neatly folded cloths, the sets of shoe laces, one tube of sports white and the parade gloss which were already living in there were huffy when I introduced suede-cleaning blocks, a nu-buck cleaning spray and gel footpads.

Now, after finding it in a charity shop, it is back where it belongs, where it ought to be and where it deserves to be, sitting in front of a mirror so that it can supervise that all-important wardrobe check before facing the paparazzi : Have You Cleaned Your Shoes?

Thank you, M Chamberlain.


The solstice will be on Tuesday 21 December at 23:38.

If the sky remains clear it may be possible to see an eclipse of the moon from Britain. Just in case it clouds over, I took the picture on the early hours of the 21st.

"The eclipse runs for three and a half hours, from 0633 GMT to 1001 GMT, although the stage of total eclipse -- when the Moon heads into the "umbra" cast by the Earth -- lasts from 0741 to 0853 GMT."

Normally sounds wash around here; water, planes, distant traffic, trains, the wind tells a tale it has carried for a while. Once I heard it singing in Russian.

Tonight there were no flights, no cars or lorries moving, no sounds from the rails and the wind is holding its breath. The moonlight was so bright everything was casting sharp moon shadows and the silver trees were full of fairytale forms.

It is about minus 12 degrees Celsius and even sound is frozen.

Monday 13 December 2010

Vote H'uh, What ever is it good for?

FTB has returned to his excellent blog to muse on what has happened to the country since the election and wonders why he has found it so difficult to address urgent matters which need public illumination.

"it might be that I am still in shock that so many people voted for the Labour Party at the General Election in May."

The following observation will not cheer him up.

In the constituency of South East Cambridgeshire the election was unusual in that it wasn't possible to vote Labour at all as the candidate, John Cowan, had the Labour whip withdrawn just before the election. By then the slips had been printed so although his name went forward and was tagged "Labour", he wasn't really.

It might have been more honest to put a black line through the word "Labour" but they don't allow officers to tamper with the voting papers. If he had carried the vote, he would would have been the duly elected.

In practice, in that constituency, Labour fielded an outsider because they were never going to win it anyway. It turned out, however, the candidate was not just an outsider but a liability with whom they did not wish to be associated and about whom they had already been warned.

Asked for quote so close to the election, the Labour party spokesperson said they hoped people would vote Labour. This was despite the fact that they obviously couldn't because there was no Labour candidate on offer.

Still 4,380 citizens either didn't know this or ignored the short statement at the polling station. The results were:

Conservative James Paice 27,629
Liberal Democrat Jonathan Chatfield 21,683
Labour John Cowan 4,380

The numbers would not have swung it for the Lib Dem chaser but if a Labour voter is going to move, it is not going to be all the way to the other end of the political spectrum (not that that is very far these days) but to an intermediate "stop the Tories" point i.e. the Lib Dems. Some of them must have made that move because the Lib Dem vote increased by about 6%, although we cannot know if the vote came from people who had moved from the Conservatives to the Lib Dems either.

The mystery remains: why didn't the Labour vote collapse to about 500 people, in line with the other independent?

Some of it will be down to ignorance and a determination not to read any papers, blogs, listen to the radio or tv, read any election material frantically shoved through the door by the hopeful Lib Dems, or even to bother reading the notice at the polling station, which I'm told was displayed on the desk where the slips were given out.

Perhaps those voters came down determined to register a preference for Labour, despite the fact that our parliamentary system requires you to vote for an individual and exercise your judgment on the basis of what you think of them personally. It is in fact impossible to "hold your nose and vote Anything" because the Anything party does not stand. All you have are individuals and you either like the cut of their jib or you don't.

It is possible that some of those votes were postal and may have been entered before the row broke out, but after all this there is still the ritualistic core vote. They vote Labour because they do and no amount of facts - such as there being no Labour candidate - will shake the belief that it is the right thing to do.

If they are prepared to vote for a non-existent Labour candidate, it is logical to vote for an existing one - even Phil Woolas - as that at least represents an improvement over an imaginary candidate. Arguably.

Thursday 2 December 2010

The "Can't Do" Culture

MPs famously bought goods from the John Lewis list for the same reason the rest of the Waitrose-classes do; they are supposed to make the whole business of buying homewares very simple. You - or we- pay them, they deliver and set up.

Hoping to experience what life is like in the Nomenklatura, I purchased a washing machine and paid the fees accordingly. Could I have got the machine cheaper by going through the warehouses? Yes, and saved at least £84, but the point about John Lewis is they are supposed to make life like their adverts.

The store offered me a delivery 'slot' of 7 hours, somewhere between 7am and 2pm. Fortunately, I don't have anything else to do but wait for deliveries - it's not like I've got a life or anything - and, anyway, the weather is a reasonable excuse for delay.

At just before 12pm - note, five hours in to the delivery 'slot' - they called and so when they arrived the door was open, the old machine had been drained (as far as possible) and disconnected, ready to go. The space was clear and clean, all the little valves were turned off.

The new machine was brought in, unpacked, the hot-fill pipe capped off with a brass screw-cap (it's all cold fill now) and the cold-fill hose offered up to the opening in the side of the sink unit. Due to an anti-flood device on the hose, the hole was approximately 3mm too small and need to be relieved .

"We can't do that, we aren't qualified" said the man. Things went very bad from there on.

It inspires utter contempt when a grown man says he can't file the edge of a hole in chipboard. It's not cabinet making. It's not even woodwork. It doesn't matter that strictly speaking, it's not their job. I could not hold myself out as a man, allegedly the possessor of a gentleman's plumbing, if I were unable to slightly enlarge a hole in a material which is only one-up from cardboard.

I would not expect to seduce women if I could not do even that. Heck, I would not expect to seduce men if I could not do even that. I would expect even the dogs and sheep to run away laughing, spurning my sexual advances when they found out I could not ease a hole in chipboard in a non-visible part of a kitchen.

We aren't talking about 3ml all the way round or making a hole from scratch; we are talking about nibbling at a couple of points on an existing hole so the anti-flood device - roughly the size of large matchbox on the end of the cold-fill hose - goes through.

"We can't do that" repeated the mis-named installer, sticking rigidly to the John Lewis liability line.

Thoroughly bad-tempered words were had with the customer service moppet at John Lewis, who asked if I didn't have somebody who could help me make holes in chipboard? I told her that as I had been waiting for five hours, if they had said they needed a 7.5mm hole, I'd have nibbled it out ready with a junior hacksaw.

We were talking, I repeat, about removing a couple of millimetres of chipboard on the edge of an existing hole. You could probably do it with determination and steak-knife. A century of feminism and 130 years of public education for all, and somehow it strikes an otherwise capable young woman as inconceivable that a mere female could slightly enlarge a hole in chipboard for herself if given due warning of the necessity of access. No, she must perforce throw herself on the mercy of her saw-bearing male relatives.

Miss Customer Service has probably passed all the customer communication courses but still failed to predict that "Haven't you got anyone who can help you?" is a) beside the point and b) tantamount to calling the customer an ugly old bag who can't get a man. This is unlikely to elicit a warm response, especially if true. We aren't here to argue about how well-connected I am to a tribe of obliging hole-enlargers; that is irrelevant. JLP charged a premium for the machine plus an installation fee then, faced with a few millimetres of awkward chipboard with photocopies of wood on top, gave up and ran off for an early lunch, looking for an excuse to not do their job but still get paid.

I then proposed to enlarge the hole myself and wanted to know when they were sending the installers back.
"They've gone to the next job now" said the woman.
"No they haven't. They are having a shufty fag as they've got some spare time now and I can see them over the road".

The young woman then made an offer she obviously thought was supposed to have me grovelling "Well, provided you can do it Right Now, we'll send them back".

I got the saw from the tool box and set about the nibbling. Thirty seconds later the installer appeared at the front door and asked when I'd be finished. I said - and I accept this was inflammatory - "Between 12 and 2" and told him to wait in the van until I called him. For some reason, JLP does not seem to like waiting for the customer, although of course, it's alright if you wait five hours for them. He very well knew it was about a ten minute job. He was scheduled to run a test wash - to make sure nothing was leaking - so all that stuff about having to go immediately was utter bollocks. He was skiving and was narked about being caught out.

"Well, if that's your attitude, I won't try to help you"

At this point I just stared and said "Help?"

Did this man think was doing me a favour, that he had not in fact been paid the agreed price to install a machine but was here as a voluntary washing machine installer. How he was helping? Helping would have been to whip out a Stanley knife such as they use on the van to slit the packaging (not that he thought to bring in a pair of scissors to cut the polythene) and set to relieving the hole that few millimeters, possibly whilst saying 'This is not really my job, but if you don't tell anyone, I won't'.

Or, if feeling very worried about the company line and possible liabilities, then he could have said 'Look, can you cut out that bit quickly? Only I'm not insured. I'll have a sandwich as it is snap time, then do the installation'. A brave man would have done the former, even a lawyer would offered to do the second.

This was waiting for the customer to sort it out and then trying to act like the big man for finally, finally condescending to do one's job, but only under perfect conditions. This is the Can't Do Culture.

I've known fey gay hairdressers to have more guts. 'Pass me the Big Rasp, Julian, the one we normally use for your toenails, I just have to adjust this access port'.

You wouldn't get a Pole talking cobblers about it not being his job; he'd punch a hole with his bare fist and then shrug: 'You want hole bigger, I make hole bigger. In Poland we have hardwood kitchen, not chipboard, not since Soviets.'

You wouldn't get an Afghan tribesman taking nonsense from a kitchen fitment. Admittedly their standard answer is to shoot the hole bigger with a Kalashnikov and then wonder why the cold water is spraying everywhere, but they would hold their manhood cheap if intimidated and defeated by 3mm of compressed sawdust.

Since I refused to give his ego a blow-job and be abjectly grateful for being allowed a few minutes of his valuable time, the installer flounced off. I'm not really sorry; I didn't trust him to do the job at all.

This is the job being done. I nibbed out the unwanted material, cutting it in little triangles. Following the installation instructions I completed the job (the transportation bolts had already been removed but I found I could have managed it as they give you a special spanner) then called a grown-up plumber who stopped by to check I'd done it correctly. It is three connections, four if you count screwing the cap on to the redundant hot water valve. Anyone can plug in the electricity. Screwing in the cold valve is fiddly, but no worse than a bottle-top. Connecting the waste hose is just pushing a hose on to a tapered pipe so that it fits snuggly. A spirit level helps tell if the feet need to be adjusted. You can tell when it is working properly; the clothes get washed and the floor does not flood.

The most difficult part turns out to be the sheer handling of the weight and tomorrow I will get glides to help move the machine in to its housing.

Friday 19 November 2010

Climate of Fear

Kitchen Cabinet review of threats

1) The climate is going to collapse if I drive over to see my mum, so I'd better stay indoors and eat turnips for the rest of my life, except when going out to pay tax.

2) Terrorism. We'd better not say by whom, or how this particular source is a competitor ideology got up in the garments of a religion. Even though it has been documented for the last thirty years at least.

3) Banking Crisis. There's no money and there won't be for at least the next 150 years. That's not a threat - it has already happened.

4) Health scares. Did you know fat is contagious?

So pfft to any measly threat of invasion. Don't I realize that eco-famine, unpredictable violence and the Dreaded Lurgi, plus the country being flat-broke, are going to get me long before the police can suicide me for being insufficiently obsequious or out after curfew without offering them a blow-job?

I was going to suggest knitting something for comfort, but having looked at my last attempt, another suggestion might be better.

One thing restores a sense of control over the immediate threatening chaos. Soup. That is why witches make it in a cauldron. The cauldron represents the world so if you've got control over the cauldron, that's one tiny model of the world back in working order.

However, a freezing river fog has descended and if anybody thinks I'm mucking about trying to light twigs in air as wet as a haddock's handbag, they are very much mistaken. Soup will be indoors and a level of abstraction will be used to liken ordinary pans to ritual vessels.

Vegetable soup is the simplest, according to what you have laying around. I happened to have a butternut squash, four small onions and a lonely cooking apple.

The easiest way is to roast everything before it goes in the soup as this intensifies the flavour. Cut the squash in half, scoop out the seeds, then lay it flat-side down in a little oil on a roasting tray. Surround with roughly-chopped onions. Roast for about 15 minutes on a high heat; remove the onions to the soup cauldron before they frazzle. Check how cooked the squash is. The chances are it will need another ten minutes, turned over on to its round side. Add the peeled apple slices at his point. Apple roasts very quickly.

When the squash and the apple are done, scoop out the soft flesh and add them to the onions, along with any oil which might be hanging around in the roasting pan. To turn them in to soup all that is needed is water, seasonings and spices to your satisfaction. You might want to add vegetable stock, depending on your tastes. (I like it).

Now, as squash can be fibrous it is preferable to liquidize the soup with a stick blender. This matters less with starchy vegetables such as carrots and potatoes which will settle for being mashed. If you use a stick blender it is important to add cold water to the veg because hot soup .... well, I'm sure some clever-clogs already worked out how hot liquid affects plastic-sleeve blenders.

You now also have a pile of squash seeds. You can have a go at planting them next spring or roast them as a snack. Wash them and pat them dry, turn them in oil and roast on a high heat for 15 minutes until about half have popped. They aren't too bad, but I can't see them challenging other snack foods. Too husky.

The purpose of the soup ritual is to provide a breathing space against the onslaught of the times. Perhaps it is an illusion, but often it seems that something, or somebody, is trying to scare us out of our wits in order to gain our acquiescence to any number of repressive measures.

Monday 15 November 2010

Yasmin Ahlbi-Back: Our most precious possession

I was at a Hollywood party with my very good friend Kate Winslet and was expounding the finer points of how to deliver a line from Hardy with the suitable regional accent.

I explained that it is all about imagining one has a mouthful of bumpkin, like a country pumpkin, and all the doors and windows are open so it is a bit chilly.

"Oooh Arrh Mr Frodo"
like that, as if the nipples are standing up, which is what we thespians call the finer points.

This is what a famous professor of linguistics told me, although I already knew it because this was how I did it when I was a drama student, but I turned down the place at RADA in favour of becoming the only non-white columnist in the whole of the British Empire. It is very lucky for everyone I did this as otherwise William Paxton would have wasted his time inventing greenhouses to throw stones in and movable Twitterer.

Unfortunately, like many silly white women who can't keep a husband, Kate has let herself go. I've given her diet tips, a copy of my exercise DVD and some of my tamarind gravy which makes an excellent facial toner. But I've warned my son - he's a barrister you know - against painted Jezebels, even Kate's.

Speaking of barristers I've decided not to mention the subject of gay barristers such as Gareth Compton and stoning any more,

Reluctantly, I have instructed my police force not to take matters any further but a rather thick officer said 'Well, m'arm, that's for the CPS to decide whether there is a realistic prospect of a conviction under ­section 127 (1a) of the Communications Act 2003' as apparently it is not up to me at all! This is ridiculous. We'll have people complaining about being arrested for no reason except being a Tory next, as if that wasn't reason enough.

What a disappointment that the youth of today are unable to stand up to wicked dictators like I was when I bravely ran away from Uganda. Fortunately we respect freedom of speech over at my column, which is why the editor has decided twice now to delete all the comments as their support for me was embarrassingly overwhelming.

Sunday 14 November 2010


The price they paid was very great.

But then look how beautiful their children are.

It is time now that only those who served or are serving can lay wreaths on our behalf. I’d rather be represented by them. For some years there was a justification that the politicians themselves had taken some measure of risk, but that no longer applies.

No more grandstanding for pols; they get to stand at the back quietly while better men and women step forward.

Friday 12 November 2010

Yazzer Ahlbi-Back - A memoir part 1

1972. Standing on the grass airstrip of my farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong hills, my honest native bearer, Moma Akawimbe, knelt with the tears rolling down her good-natured black face. "Massa don't go" she begged, terrified that she would be left without my secret recipe for Spicy Ackee dumplin's.

Alas, I had to leave as I had received a proposal of marriage from the Heir to the Throne and had to tell him personally that it could never be. He was too white, too male, too everything for me to seriously consider it.

He would just have to get over my musky dusky beauty and satisfy himself with some pale neurotic shicksa (so my Jewish best friends told me). But he could never forget me.

Alas, my true love Vincent Cable was, unbeknownst to me, in the arms of my arch-rival, the twinkle-toed Olympia Rebelo. Her with her nursing qualification and PhD in Music (she played the bassoon and it was rumoured all round Kenya that she could hold her breath for three minutes) she had the insubstantial attractions which shallow white men are often overly-impressed by.

Once he saw my advanced qualifications in literature and lapped my coconut dhals I was confident there would be no more talk of all this foxtrotting and the military two-step. But first, I had to fulfil my destiny to become The Only Non-White Columnist in Britain.

And except for all the others, dear reader, I did.

Monday 8 November 2010

Down at the old Bullen Bush: Sloe Gin

This is a bullen bush. You have only a few days left to find one - usually on the edge of a park or wasteland - and harvest the berries. They've had all the sun they are going to get and now have the maximum sweetness a sloe achieves, which isn't very much. The frosts should have encouraged the interior cells to burst, which is quicker than mucking about with a fork. When the berries are perfectly ripe they will slide off the branch between the wicked thorns, which saves having to pick out their little stalks. As the wind has combed the leaves off the bushes now it is easier to see where the knife-thorns are.

Take care when gathering the them; blackthorn is notorious for spikes which easily turn septic. It is not a suitable job for children. Always promise the bush that you'll plant a few of its cherries in a new hedge and wash hands very carefully when you get back. I'm surprised it isn't more widely used as a security plant as it is graceful and doesn't go dropping dead every five minutes. When the leaves are off it is easy to see its Gothic architecture and it would be a simple matter to prune it in to shape. The dry twigs are said to burn with a bright smokeless fire.

Wash the berries, discard any remaining stalks or leaves, and either freeze them in 8-ounce portions or get ready with a lotta bottles. 8oz is approximately the volume of 40cl. It is the interstices between the berries which determines the amount of sugar you can cram in. This is chosen purely because the bottles I'm using happen to be 70cl.

For the next trick you will require two 70cl gin bottles; one full, one empty, and a calibrated jug as this recipe works by volume. As you are going to add berries and sugar the most basic safe supermarket spirit is suitable. A funnel will help enormously with getting the sugar in to the bottles; use a paper cone if someone has run off with yours.

Having either set about the berries with a fork or open-frozen them to burst the cells, post 40cl or 8oz of berries in to the empty bottle, pour over 35cl of gin and top up with sugar, then replace the caps carefully to be quite sure they don't dribble. Visit the bottles every few days to give them a shake and help the sugar dissolve. They'll be ready for the New Year party or can be laid down for a year.

As I had a pair of 75cl jars I made a thicker syrup and buried a cinnamon stick in. This will be suitable as base for other recipes where a fruity spiced syrup is required e.g. punches, pudding sauces, or to sweeten oil and vinegar dressings. The proportions here are 40cl berries, 35cl gin, one cinnamon stick and a great deal of sugar to fill up the space. Some people like other flavourings such as cloves.

The berries should steep until the New Year, but they can be tested at Christmas. It is best used, in my opinion, as a spritzer base as the berries and the sugar are a sure recipe for a terrible headache if drunk to excess. Sloe gin can be laid down for a year and many authorities think it should be, while others think the best thing to do is ignore the sloes and use damsons or make blackberry vodka instead. Maximum keeping time is 3 years.

Approximate proportions:
A shade more than half the volume of the bottle should be filled with berries, then covered by a more precise half-bottle of gin. The amount of sugar is determined by the displaced space between the berries and is roughly one-third of the total volume.

For anyone who has not handled the berries before: do not attempt to eat them as they have a gravelly stone. No matter what you might have heard they are not suitable for eating. Yes, I have done the experiments. If the gin comes out very thick, sieve it through a tea-strainer. If it comes out fairly thin, consider running it through a coffee filter paper to clarify it. The sugar may look like a lot, but it is the sugar which draws out the sloe flavouring in to the gin.

This preparation uses very little time beyond the collecting of the berries, and that counts as exercise. It produces sloe gin at roughly two-thirds the cost of a commerical bottle.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Pillars of.....

For anyone who has not already watched Channel 4's The Pillars of the Earth, may I respectfully suggest they don't bother. You can't get the two hours of your life back (ten in total for the series) and when you die you'll still be kicking yourself that you wasted them on this futile exercise. I know I will.

Have a sleep, read the original Ken Follett novel which earned its popularity (unlike his wife's expenses claims), acquaint yourself with the Bible or go for a creep round a real church - evensong if you can find one - and you'll have one less thing to reproach yourself with on judgment day.

Perhaps it is evidence of the chilling of legitimate criticism that the mainstream reviews suggest a slightly over-blown adaptation of a historical novel. Or maybe they didn't watch it and just skimmed the press-release which came with the freebie. What they should have been gurgling with their chins on the deck, is that it is a turkey which is only of use to monster collectors; the projects where somebody should have torched the lot rather than carry on.

When lead character Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) is chucked over the battlements in an early skirmish he should have pretended to be really hurt; he's an actor, why didn't he try that? Or the pyrotechnicians should have done a more thorough job, burning not just the required set but letting it all get out of hand (clearing the area of personnel first, though).

Instead, it is a giant pile-up of a dramatic disaster for which no one person can be held entirely responsible, although the director SergioMimica-Gezzan has some explaining to do.

You can see how the accident happened, though. The producers, Starz, took $40 million (or was it £40m?) and hoped to repeat an earlier sword and sandals success: "Spartacus". It would also have the satisfying feeling of bopping HBO on the nose, as they think they are so cool after the acclaim given to "Rome".

Starz looked for a winning historical property and The Pillars of the Earth is undoubtedly that; 14 million copies sold says so. It's got a plot in the classic style, intertwining the highest and lowest in the society even if that relies on implausible coincidences. It has sex, violence, political skulduggery, romance, and Follett's own commercial instinct that if he wanted to know more about cathedrals were built, so would everyone else.

Starz were not mean with the sets either. If you want to set fire to a church, go ahead. To this they added a willingness to hire Britain's best-loved character actors, and Donald Sutherland doing a Dumbledore for lovers of craggy old Oirish men with beards. Gandalf? Pah.

OK, so the original author is in the clear. Follett handed them a working intellectual property. John Pielmeier then sculpted out the screenplay.

There's a convention with historical adaptations set anywhere between the Romans leaving Britain and Anne Boleyn; they are allowed wooden dialogue because it emphasizes the fairy-tale quality of the period. It's a balancing act well known to any amateur re-creationist. You have to stay in character and accept that the character can only have access to the knowledge and concerns of its own time. So long as you do that, the character will be convincing. If you import modern idioms or concerns the illusion will usually break down, unless the writer, director and actor have exceptional talents. Hmm.

Rufus Sewell did the best he could with what he was handed; the job of convincing us he was a cathedral builder, but the only real spark of grief was in him bemoaning his uselessness. He clearly knows nothing about building. For a start, he offered to begin work immediately. That's against law and nature with builders, that is. To be really convincing he shouldn't have turned up until episode 3, stayed for a brief scene, then announced he'd forgotten something and would be back in a jiffy, thereafter to appear in episode 5 at the earliest.

Sarah Parish took a spirited run and recreated a lustful mummy role of the sort we used to give to Stephanie Beacham. Parish (playing Regan Hamleigh) was required to do a great deal of the exposition as it is well known that all the male leads must be dolts. That being the case, the only other sensible character to have supported would be Queen Maud, but she doesn't.

Huffily referring to "Rome" the director got Parish to deliver as many scenes as possible while being humped. Except that in "Rome", they understood that this was to show the intertwining of politics and sex. Here, it was so that later they can re-cut it as an advert for crack-repairers. Verily, that ceiling needeth re-painting.

As for Ian McShane, we can only hope they flagellated him for real as that's what he deserves for this pantomime baddie. The role calls for someone who can portray a psychotic priest on the make; they have to be Lovejoy on the surface and a horny little devil underneath. What we got was a tetchy old quean and a hint of s/m, as if the entire film wasn't a form of audience abuse, especially that shot of what appeared to be a naked McShane trying to cram his ample frame in to a cilice. Better get the blacksmith to put a few more links in; that one has shrunk in the wash.

A special raspberry, then, for the casting directors Zsolt Csutak and Priscilla John who got the roles the wrong way round.

Sewell has already shown he can combine charm and ruthlessness when he played Count Adhemar in The Knight's Tale. He has his limits and one of them is pretending to be ordinary. Put him in as the charming manipulative priest who will turn over a kingdom to get to a bishopric and you have half of the motor of the story.

Despite knocking on a bit, McShane has the rumpled and obsessive look of someone who might have been a builder, albeit one of the flashier types. That's handy, because in this story that is exactly what the builder is: flashy and well on the way to architect. Promises you everyfink on parchment, but wait until you try to worship in it. There would have to be some massaging of the story to show why he was advanced in years but had young children, but that was far from unusual in the context of the 12th century with its mortality rates for women in childbirth.

The debacle was summed up close to the end of the second hour when the renegade nun Ellen (Natalia Worner) is accused of being a witch. Instead of saying a few words at her trial she jumps up on a long table, marches down it, squats, lifts her skirt and pisses just in front of the horrified Waleran (Ian McShane). Now, I don't know if you've ever tried this but there is a great risk of slipping off. However, I think the risk was worth it and I'm almost sure they faked the wee, but they probably didn't have to.

Then she stabbed him with a concealed knife and McShane tried to act surprised, but I don't think he was - and not only because he's read the script.

Here, have some Lovejoy to take the nasty smell away.

Thursday 14 October 2010

La Bamba Le Monde

Over at the Pub Curmudgeon's they are compiling the Ultimate Pub Jukebox.

Graphic courtesy of Mark Wadsworth

I've proposed Richie Valens "La Bamba" because it is a universal song with the power to lift the mood. Everyone knows it even though they don't know the words.

This clip is the proof. It is of a La Bamba festival in Japan at the Saitama Super Arena.

The Saitama Super Arena is gorgeous engineering, worth a visit just for its improbable self.

The gigantic structure, weighing 15,000 tons and 41.5m high, moves a distance of 70 meters horizontally, a taking with it with approx. 9,000 seats and numerous facilities to transform the Main Arena into a Stadium accommodating up to 37,000

The innards glide about and re-arrange themselves in the manner of a tethered space ship.

Sunday 10 October 2010

Classic Cars for Low Carbon Day

Butties gone, apple crumble and custard next

Drove to King's Lynn for Saturday's Anglia Car Auctions Classic Car event. They don't let you bid unless you've registered at the office, so there's no danger of finding you've accidentally bought a monster whilst scratching your nose. Hundreds of people come for the spectacle or seeking after that dream on wheels they've always wanted to own. Maybe they will find it; such things exist and here is the proof.

This is not the sale where you buy the sensible work-a-day vehicles for hauling paint or animal feed or ladders or grannies; this is not where you buy a wife. This is where you buy a mistress. The crowd is 95% male. The clothes are Clarkson, but proper bloke jeans and leather bomber jackets. As this is an Event, not just a sale, the jeans and shirts are clean.

There are one or two golfing jumpers with plump wives on their arms; in the Mormon fashion these are men come to buy a second wife and they want the approval of the first wife. A fat lot of good it would be to have the missus at odds with the other missus.

It's £4 on the door to get in, for which you get a catalogue and full access to the cars. Unlike a museum where you aren't allowed to touch the display, here you can open everything and even get in if you wipe your shoes.

The gates open at 10am so there is plenty of time to have early lunch in the cafe, although it is a crush before the auction starts. Then have a good look round the offerings, making notes of the lots you are particularly interested in. Everybody looks very serious; as thoughtful as a farmer leaning on a fence and figuring the price of cattle at a county show.

The fascinating - it means hopelessly expensive and will take all your time - projects are the ones which have been discovered hidden in the back of barns or old buildings. One day a 1954 Sunbeam Talbot 90 Drophead Coupe was parked in a dry but very dusty garage, possibly because it needed some repairs.

Going by the condition of the cars which have been found after twenty years in store, this one might have been parked around 1970 after 16 years on the road. This is not just a car sale; this is industrial archaeology. (For a full picture, see the first link. The car is the first item on the catalogue).

Eventually it is time for the sale proper, so everyone makes their way to the great sheds where the cars will be driven through - it's generally a bad sign if they can't even make that short journey - and either dealt of held in front on the auctioneers dais.

There is a sign on the door showing we are in Kansas:

There is a tang of religion in the air which is full of the incense of hydrocarbons. The auctioneer leads the ceremony from his pulpit and everyone has their catalogue out, marking the price or bids for the cars they would have liked for themselves. A few cars are withdrawn either because they fail at the door or because they never make the reserve price at the block.

Then auctioneer treats them all the same with his manic chant, the glory of which is to make it sound like he is running on a wheel when everyone can see that he's just a man standing with a microphone. From the floor and at his elbow there are phone bids coming in from people who are giving instructions from home.

The car of the show was the surprise star; lot 96, a 1974 Citroen Pallas mechanically sound and exceptionally restored by a body shop specialist. Delta blue with a black leather interior.

The detailing of the original design shows that when the French think about Futurism they are touched by genius. The white stripe down the side, for example, is not merely a visual motif. It is a ridged rubber scuff-strip which fits in to chrome holders and can be renewed to protect the car.

This car looks like a space ship and is as fresh as the day it came off the drawing board. In the end there was only one bidder for it, who got it at the reserve price of £20,000.

Friday 8 October 2010

Woman Overboard - Miss Snuffy

Fans of Miss Snuffleupagus - Miss Snuffy - were sorry to lose the informative blog 'To Miss With Love', reporting from the computer assisted board of modern school life. .

Her technique was straightforward; to describe an incident but not with an identifiable character but an archetype. So an episode might be about a child called "Fizzy" or "Puzzled". She would then show how the current political thinking was affecting the child, often for the worse.

The episodes were often positive, such as when Snuffy managed to get children who really didn't think they could to pass exams to do so, or when they behaved beautifully on the train so that people noticed them and smiled. One or two were deeply touching as Snuffy met pupils from many years earlier or considered the changes in herself since she set out on her road. Many were much darker though, charting the difficulty of helping a child who does not wish to be helped.

However, she was always extremely careful to use the archetypes to make it impossible for someone to recognize themselves.

Often I didn't agree with her political analysis but one thing I'm clear about: she was and is a smashing teacher who does her pupils nothing but good; not just the sense of academic achievement but in the wider pastoral sense. We can't manage with just one Snuffy; we need hundreds of them. My wish is not so much that she stays in teaching but that she opens a Snuffy factory and copies herself.

This week she shut the blog and opened a difficult door; she appeared at the Conservative conference and courageously set about trying to describe her world, because if the muddle is ever going to be sorted it it won't be done by the teaching profession sulking and failing to tell Michael Gove how the world really is; the good, the bad and the downright ugly.

She started by outing herself: she's Katharine Birbalsingh.

Needless to say no good deed ever goes unpunished. Her school has 'sent her home' and is threatening disciplinary action.

Shame on them. St Michael and All Angels, Camberwell, is supposed to be a Church-sponsored School. If there is anything at the heart of Christianity it is the voice of an innocent person speaking truth to power, which is precisely what Snuffy did.

So let's name the ingrates and fools who should be cherishing this rare and unselfish woman.

Dr Irene Bishop - Executive Headteacher (How is this different from Head Teacher?)

Chair of Governors Canon Peter Clark

Vice Chair of Governors Mr Gary Scott


Mr R. Bool

Mr Paul Brightly-Jones

Revd Andrew Dodd

Canon Andrew Grant

Mr Michael Ipgrave

Mr Musa Olaiwon

Mr John Beastall

Mrs Charmaine Odusina

Rev Liz Oglesby

Mr Alastair Wilson


H/T Cranmer, who is a friend of Miss Snuffy's.

Update (1) from Alan Douglas over at Cranmer's:

"Might this be the same Dr Irene Bishop who was head teacher at St Saviour's and St Olave's in 2001 and allowed her school to be used to launch the Labour 2001 general election?
Errr.... yes."

Update (2) Both of Dr Bishop's schools have used the spinners Grebot Donnelly to try to achieve a perception of improvement when what they ought to be doing is educating children. GD also offer a crisis management service, which is presumably going to soak up more money which would have been better spent on education.

Update (3) Having thought about it, the school and Diocese have issued a statement saying they hope to have Ms Birbalsingh back in her job on Monday morning.

Update (4) Yeah, it was spin. They just lied about letting her do the job WE have paid her for in order to try to stop the story running. They forced her to resign, presumably under the mistaken impression that this means they can't be sued for constructive dismissal. Oh yes they can. See Cranmer on the subject.

Update (5) The Times (print copy) reports that as of 18 October, Ms Birbalsingh has been approached with a view to Headship by at least two free schools seeking to set up. They know a good thing when they see one. The best thing for the children of the area is for plenty of free schools which do what the parents want, which is to have heads like Ms Birbalsingh.

Perhaps we should look at switching money away from the privileged secret grammar school St Saviour's and St Olave's, which is already failing to meet five-sixth's of the demand in the area. That means for every place 'Dr' Irene Bishop graciously bestows on some supplicant on the condition they buff-up her ego, another five girls are turned away despite their parents having the wit to express a preference. That's not success in a school; that's a failure to serve the needs of the community.

Update (6) 'Dr' Bishop has been asked repeatedly to explain what her LLD was for. It appears it is an honorary doctorate awarded by the University of Exeter.
An honorary doctorate is a real certificate, which is why the universities award them, but it is not an academic doctorate, not earned by substantial academic endeavour and subject to peer review. An academic doctor is usually keen for you to read their doctoral thesis and will gladly tell you the awarding body and the year.

Often it is the PR divisions of universities which handle the queries rather than the academic registries because the awards are part of the way the university presents itself to a wider public. A holder is technically entitled to style themselves 'Dr' but in practice it isn't done because the holders are well aware that this might tend to misrepresent them to the unwary. Jeremy Clarkson, for instance, has two - a DUniv from Brunel and a HonDEng from Oxford Brookes. You don't get him demanding to be called Dr Clarkson.

The issue of misrepresentation has been in the legal news recently. Employers have taken issue with being given misleading information. For instance, Maxine Carr was convicted of misrepresentation when she lied about her GCSEs to get temporary work as a classroom assistant which allowed her to receive payment which she would not otherwise have been eligible for. This could be serious for 'Dr' Bishop if her award was misunderstood as an adcademic degree and influenced her appointment as the Executive Head of St Michael and All Saints, allowing her to receive a pecuniary advantage which she might not otherwise have been offered.

Monday 4 October 2010

Big in Japan

Kanji fan: Sea Wish

To Brick Lane for the HyperJapan event held in a 1950s warehouse which used to be part of the old Truman brewery.

The show had the patchwork atmosphere which comes from a mix of small businesses rather than the aggressive displays of the global companies. However some of the companies are global brands in birth as they take orders via their websites, manufacture the goods in China, then do the accountancy and marketing from Japan. A few big players such as Panasonic displaying their giant 3D tv systems, came to join the fun. Considering the aim of the show was to sell high-priced goods to Brits, a surprising number of Japanese people came along for a taste of pop culture, just like home.

The glass roof of the old store floor in F block T1 provided the Blade Runnner atmosphere of a re-colonized beer factory. In its painted brick walls it keeps the post-industrial melancholy which modern London has swept away in the past twenty years. Wiping its tears away with an exquistely embroidered silk hanky it charges you a fiver to even look at the shop. The show popped up inside the reclaimed space with its imperfect roof, a cheerful magpie's nest of karaoke, fantasy and riffing on traditional themes, such as making a fortune.

The West lauds Japan for its simplicity and purity of vision; this was nothing like that. This was heretical and steam-punky, growing out of the eclectic tastes of Japanese youth; the ambassadors of cute and the otaku (nerd) subculture. The girls dress like porcelain dolls, the boys hang around glumly and pay too much attention to the pneumatic fantasy heroines in the model kits. Much like youths anywhere, really.

The food court had about half a dozen mobile kitchens where the sushi chefs were working themselves to a sliver for three days running. These were surrounded by grocers selling Japanese brands of store cupboard goods and one or two ceramics shops. There was a distinct lack of obesity. Live on rice, fish, and chicken and you won't pack it on the way wheat, dairy and beef-eaters do.

The stall doing the most business had manga cartoonists turning out portraits within minutes; they were queueing down the hall for that. The Kimono ladies dressed customers and took their photos, as did the man who makes Japanese armour for martial arts and display.

The lady applying eyelash extensions by hand was building a portfolio of regular customers; three days hard work but she should have enough repeat work to keep her busy until Christmas. The wigs and hair pieces were being carted off by the pelt-load in their distinctive Loves Change carrier bags.

The stage ran events with music the audience likes, such as James Bond themes and snippets of opera.

There was a roving live-feed to the equivalent of Japanese Youtube. Wranglers lined up visitors to be interviewed in front of a huge digital screen. Comments from the watchers on the other side of the world drifted across the live image. Hi, very cute, you like udon, you look like man.

It is regarded as rude to take a photograph without permission so taking them requires "May I?" then reciprocal posings and bobbings. Everyone has the idea that the Japanese bow a lot, so they get the custom in first. The Japanese look vaguely baffled, bob back and put a penny in a tin for the knee replacements they are going to need if this keeps up.

The specialized fashion labels shifted more products than even they expected; by the end there were barely a handful of dresses and one or two over-priced handbags left. The inspiration is high Victorian. These are maximalists, harking back to the opulent eye which has its deep-memory in Catholicism. They use a cocktail of words; 'Elegant Gothic Aristocrat Vampire Romance'. I never yet met a Vampire who was not aristocracy. The prices are enough to make you faint but they know what their customers like and it is a level of detail and whimsy which the constipated miserabilists if western fashion cannot understand; the most they can tolerate is the little doggie on a Radley handbag.

Then, on an aisle corner, a picture nothing like anything else in the hall. The calligrapher Koichi Murai of Kanji designs has one, just one, landscape.

Koichi Murai - "Powder" - ink on paper - calligrapher's stamp.

Sapporo-born Mr Murai expresses the energy of skiing down a mountain in Hokkaido.

Friday 1 October 2010

Marriage a la mode - gay

Veteran gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has been chasing the government impishly on the issue of gay marriage.

Tatchell is not stupid; when he claims that there is a ban on gay civil marriage he must know he is talking bunk to make a political splash. First though, a recap of the legal and philosophical situation because to hear Tatchell - and a lot of other people - talk, you'd think it was banned. It isn't. The state doesn't have that power.

The state doesn't 'grant' marriages because that is wizarding, that is, and the state doesn't have a magic wand. All it can do is register them after the fact - and refuse to do so if it believes there is an impediment, such as one party being already married.

Marriage has its metaphysical underpinning in a consenting pledge between individuals, usually two but it can be more. Until recently it didn't make a lot of sense for people of the same sex to do it, but if Jack and John went off and pledged allegiance to each other, then there was nothing anyone could do to prevent that. If they came back and said they were married, then in their eyes, they were.

Of course, everyone would have laughed at them and told they they were not married, but that's a matter of opinion on a philosophical level. Jack and John believe they are cross-vowed, whereas other people believe a condition for the vow to be valid is that they have to be different sexes.

If Jack and John wanted to put some legal stiffening behind that to prevent bossy family and the intestacy law from frustrating their wishes, they had only to go down to the solicitor's and make a number of witnessed declarations, such as a pair of wills, clearly delineated property contracts, and make sure that they named each other as next-of-kin on health records, contacts on each other's passport, power of attorney, attitude to organ donation etc. The blood family may or may not have default rights but these collapse where there is a clear legal document telling administrators that default settings do not apply.

However several things could have been denied to Jack and John. They had no way of entering the relationship on a state-recognized register, short of forming a partnership under commercial law. They did not, until several test cases were brought, have a way of securing benefits from employers which were contingent on marriage which other married employees received. They could not rely on the default laws which normally govern marriage, nor the transfer of assets between the pair without tax. They could not force people in legal terms to recognize their binary relationship, but for all that, in their own eyes they were still married.

Various test cases and subsequent legislation dealt with the issue of partners being eligible for benefits on a non-discriminatory basis. A way to register a partnership and the remaining legal benefits was made, and called civil partnership. The naming was tactful; it was so that legislation could be got through without arguing about the label on the outside of the box for the next squillion years.

Inside the box, it is a civil marriage. Inside the box, all civil marriage is, is a publicly witnessed and registered mutual recognition of wishing to be accorded a particular status which then attracts certain legal rights, such as transfer of assets between partners without taxation.

Thus the benefits of same-sex marriage were secured for the people who wanted it. The paltry price for this was the name. Bargain. Register the civil partnership in the office, then, afterwards, hold what ever kind of celebration you damn well like. Get someone dressed up as Gandalf to muck about with a staff, a book and a ring. You either believe in magic, or you don't.

If you go down to the register office and comply with the requirements such as residency and capacity to consent, not being legally contracted to anyone already, not being within the degrees of family between which marriage or civil partnership are prohibited, etc, then you can have your civil marriage or civil partnership "solemnized" which means it will be contracted in front of witnesses and the presiding official will make sure as far as possible everyone is who they say they are, that they know what they are saying, and that the consent to what they are saying.

Your religious friends may pull faces and say you aren't married in the eyes of God, to which the answer is either "We'll just have to manage " or "She was there, She saw, and She approves".

There is one thing which was prohibited in civil weddings and civil partnerships. Religious symbolism and language. A church is a church and a state office is a state office. The state doesn't have the authority to do God, any god, and for once in the history of state arrogance it refused to be drawn in to this one.

So keen was the state not to blur this distinction that when in 1994 it allowed registration of civil marriages to happen in licenced locations which were not register offices, it maintained the prohibition on religious ceremonies. Section 46B(4)

"No religious service shall be used at a marriage on approved premises in pursuance of section 26(1)(bb) of this Act.

Unfortunately, this sensible distinction was eroded in 2005 by people who were ignorant of the basis of religion and who cared nothing for constitutional arrangements, and who have been squaring up for a long time to try to force religious people to perform ceremonies they are simply not going to do.

As the Telegraph put it:

"readings such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning's How do I Love Thee and popular love songs such as Robbie Williams' Angels and Aretha Franklin's I Say a Little Prayer can be used during civil marriages. Readings from sacred texts, including the Bible, the Koran and the Torah, hymns or religious chants will still be barred."

(Note to the Telegraph: "Angels" is for funerals.)

The point here is was demarcation, an exquisite balance whereby the church accepted that the state could register marriages, while the secular state didn't step on its religious toes by claiming to have any priestly authority. "Blow that" said people who failed to grasp that this opens the door to a return to theocracy.

Technically, the use of self-chosen quasi-religious texts is more like the pagan practice of the contracting parties invoking divine blessings, so the official isn't really claiming to be a priest or shaman or rabbi, but it will have added to the confusion in some people's minds.

The Islington registrar Ms Ladele thought she was doing something religious and 'making' a marriage, like a vicar does, which was bunk from the beginning and the clue was in her job title: "registrar". Her role was to check the details and write down what she was told, and ensure they made the declaration with the approved wording. The case was legally about employment discrimination against her (she is thinking about taking the case to the ECHR), but most of the commentariat got to the nub of it; if your job is registering things for the state, such as civil partnerships and mixed-race babies, it isn't up to you to refuse to do the job just because you disapprove of either. What discrimination? Get on with your job.

As for the civil partners, if the name bothers you, the just describe yourself as 'married'. You can't be prevented from doing so.

In some people's eyes you aren't married but they probably won't accept that you are civilly partnered anyway. The law simply has no traction over that. So What? Nothing follows from this, except if they try to deny you rights to which you are legally entitled, in which case you can take legal action.

Monday 27 September 2010

Flower Festival - Walking in Memphis

The pulse of an older England has been beating all summer through fairs, exhibitions, holidays. It's now the end of Summerland and the distant trumpet of winter comes early in the morning on the mist.

The finale of the Harvest Festival overlays Christian theology on the underlying pagan year marker of the Autumn Equinox where, if you've been lucky and diligent, there will be enough food in store to keep you alive for the next six months.

This is the time of year pensioners put an extra tin of ham in the back of the cupboard. They couldn't tell you why since they prefer to live on tea and biscuits and the tins are a sod to open, but that daft peardrop makes them feel safe, like a huge lucky charm.

The Harvest Festival is enjoyed particularly by the ladies of the parish. They take over the church and build tableaux of of fragile beauty out of materials they know are mortal.

So does their Lord.

Now Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down
To see her
And they asked me if I would --
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
And she said --
"Tell me are you a Christian child?"
And I said
"Ma'am I am tonight"

Ana Free's version because it is the one which would be performed in a church.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Careers advice for would-be terrorists

Terrorism is such hard work. It takes all your money and time and limits the opportunities for a social life whilst simultaneously demanding that you maintain a semblance of normality. Effectively, you have to subsidize the terrorism by holding down a day job. Unlike being a British sports person - Olympic pole-vaulter by day, pole dancer by night - you don't even stand a chance of being invited to open a supermarket and be paid in tinned goods.

It's not much of a career structure, especially in the suicide divisions. In general, the pay sucks. If you look over the century very few have come out of it well. Mandela had to wait 25 years in sub-standard accommodation and gamble on living long enough to collect his retirement bungalow. So what if you end up squatting on a golden commode or having council estates in Peckham named after you? On a personal level, it's not much of a swap for the finite years of youth. Naomi Campbell is swooning over Nelson? Yeah, right. Maybe sixty years ago.

That's if you make it at all. Due to the lack of formal professional qualifications in terrorism and the absence of career structure and contracts, the life of a terrorist could be summed up as "You take a risk for highly uncertain outcomes and nobody ever guarantees to pay you". It is like rock'n'roll in that respect; the big payouts go to a handful of successful performers and the rest of the industry is awash with wannabes who are either culled by time or whose talents are appropriated to shore up the careers of the major artists.

Unlike rock'n'roll, there isn't a constant popular demand for new bogeymen; we manage with half a dozen established brands. This has cleverly been franchised by Al Qaida, whose lead singer hasn't been seen in the flesh recently. Like Elvis, he may be enjoying a posthumous recording career.

In the case of the IRA there have been a couple of winners but for most members the best they can hope for is a decent funeral cortege. The West Ham supporters do as much for each other. Go to Hornchurch crematorium any day of the week and you'll find they are there in dark coats and threateningly neat haircuts, companionably shouldering the coffins of terrace brothers whom they may or may not have known, taking little more than a sausage roll for their trouble if they are invited to the do afterwards. The advantage of spending that time at West Ham being that occasionally Hammers will win, you don't have to keep your hobby a secret (much) and there is no penalty for leaving the club. You don't have to spend the rest of your life looking nervously over your shoulder.

That is a disbenefit which is rarely mentioned when joining up with a terrorist organization. What happens if you want to leave? Dunno - most people don't live long enough for it to become an issue.

Another thing they won't mention is the disciplinary procedure. The modern terrorist organization almost certainly has investigatory panels although they are lighter on the written records than a conventional employer and may have unorthodox fact-finding techniques. Their disciplinary penalties don't use fines, because you haven't got any money, and they don't use loss of pension rights because...see 'leaving the organization' above. All that remains is getting medieval on your ass. Nothing is known of the appeals procedure. Do let me know if you hear of one other than "roll screaming and begging on the floor".

Turning to the skills of the modern terrorist, they expect rather more than they used to. Speaking several languages on top of a science degree is the norm. When they say science they mean real ones: physics, maybe chemistry, computing, very applied maths or at a pinch, biology, is what they have in mind. If you have those qualifications, why would you want to put them at the disposal of somebody who has not the slightest intention of reimbursing your expenses?

If you haven't got those qualifications - let's be realistic, British state education has reduced the chances anyone doing those subjects, which is why universities are closing their physics and chemistry faculties - then make your mind up to the fact that you are going to be the one hoofing round the hairdressing supplies warehouses and the garden centres with the dodgy shopping list, and you'll be paying for it. When you get back to the cell, it's your turn to make the tea - again. You'll wait for a period approaching infinity before the theoretical physicists do it. All that waffle about brothers and equality always collapses in the face of housekeeping duties. And why don't they clean up after themselves? It is always the same old excuse "We aren't planning on being around for long".

So let's just summarize the job so far
1) Dirty
2) Dangerous
3) You get treated like the contents of the hoover bag because you are the junior
4) You don't get paid
5) You have to do all the cleaning up.

Plus, if your aim is terrorism against the West then remember the wisdom of Sun Tzu:
6) When your enemy is destroying itself, get out of the way.

Strictly speaking (6) is a concern for the management rather than the new entrant, but you should take it in to account. There you are scooting about in all weathers with a notebook, having taken a cover-job as a pizza delivery rider, misdirecting pizzas back to your homies who do nothing but complain about the sausage topping, and it should become obvious to you that anybody who is willing to pay over £17 for cheese on toast which is indistinguishable from the box, when you can make three large pizzas for under six quid, is a member of a society which is going to crash soon and in a bloody mess.

Your main problem isn't bringing down the system.
Your main problem is getting out of the way before it crashes on top of you.

Ours too.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Planet of the Apes

Outsider for the Labour leadership is Andy Burnham.

Diane Abbott did not imagine she would face a challenge from either of the Miliband brothers when she showed them how to use the tube system.

Ed Balls said:

We finally, really, did it.