Sunday, December 13, 2009

On Blogging

I blog for work, I blog for play; I really don't have anything to say.

Please someone, somewhere, inspire me.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Get On My Horse

There's something very funny about this....

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Have We Really Sunk So Low?

Here in the UK we have a TV show called The X Factor - find the link yourself, frankly I can't be arsed to do it even this small favour. I'm sure there are similar variants of the same thing on TV all over the world. It purports to give aspiring young talent a chance to make it in the big time by giving them an audition with influential people in the music industry. In reality, it's just a chance for deluded wannabes to be humiliated on national television. It's only a matter of time before this results in some heartbroken youngster committing suicide over the disappointment and embarrassment of being made to look stupid on national TV. Hilarious eh!

The initial audition requires that the young hopeful sing live in front of the judges, unaccompanied by any musical backing. If anything is going to show up a less than perfect singing voice, it's this. But they keep on coming up, and they keep on getting knocked down. It's voyeuristic, manipulative and degrading.

Last week, one of the judges, Cheryl Cole, actually performed herself on the show. This was a performance of her first solo single. As she was a judge, already a very successful singer in a group, and now in the fortunate position of being able to pass judgement on other aspiring young talent, you'd expect her to make an effort and put on a show., What did she do? She mimed along to a backing track of course. The outcome? You'd have thought she'd have been roundly booed for an act of risible hypocrisy. Anything but. Her fellow judges lauded her performance, her bravery and whatever other egregious waffle they could heap upon her.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Vorsprung Durch Technik

Round about this time of year I get a small frisson of excitement mixed with mild trepidation. My car has its annual test (we call it the MoT which stand for Ministry of Transport).

My car is 13 years old, it's done 230,000 miles (that's 370,000 km). It has a few dents and scrapes but I've had this car from new and I know each and every scratch. I didn't personally inflict all the damage - it's been bumped anonymously in various supermarket car parks over the years, or somebody has kindly just inflicted a scratch on it just for fun but the car still runs and carries its scars with pride.

Last Thursday, it passed the test. I once thought of getting rid of it. 100,000 miles seemed a good point but it burst through the 100K barrier without so much as a squeak.

Let's see how far it'll actually go I thought, fully expecting some major problem to inevitably appear. 150,000 miles ticked over and still it kept running. Maybe I can get 200,000 out of it I thought and kept on going. My next target is 250,000. That'll mean it's gone round the world ten times. Watch this space - 250K will roll over sometime in the Spring of 2011.

All hail Herman, the mighty Audi A4. All this time and I don't actually have a nice photo to show you.

Sunday, October 04, 2009


Trying to fix your own plumbing is one of the dumbest ideas I’ve ever heard. In the history of dumb ideas, it’s right up there with trying to cut your own hair. The other evening I tried to fix my own plumbing.

It all began when I had friends over on Sunday night. One of them came back from the bathroom and asked me if I realised one of my radiators was leaking. I checked and they were right. A very slow, but nonetheless visible drip.........drip…........drip from the pipe going into the bathroom radiator. Bollocks! I wedged a few sheets of toilet paper underneath it and left it like that. The next morning the toilet paper had absorbed the night's drippage. It was a tiny leak. No real drama.

But things like this torment me. I imagine I can hear it, like a ticking clock in a silent room can seem almost deafening, I was thinking about this drip….....drip….....drip. By the middle of the week I could bear it no more.

That evening, I stopped off at the DIY store and bought a nice big new adjustable spanner as the one I had was just not quite big enough. This is cool because I like buying tools. Rather cleverly, I also bought a roll of PTFE tape which you wind around the threads of a joint and it helps to make a watertight seal. Clever eh! I was pretty sure I would only need a little turn on the nut with my shiny new spanner and I would tighten the joint and fix the leak but I bought the tape as an added precaution.

First I turned off the boiler and turned off the water supply. I then ran all the taps to take any water out of the system. Then, with my sexy new tool I tightened the lower nut connecting the copper pipe to the radiator valve. No longer was there a drip……….drip………drip. Now I had a drip drip drip drip drip drip. Bollocks again.

I would have to undo the joint, put some PTFE tape around the thread and reconnect the pipe and that would fix the leak. I closed off the radiator valve and undid the nut and pushed the pipe down to move it clear. A jet of water came straight out the pipe and went a full half metre into the air…..FFFFUUUUUUCCCCCCKKKKKK. I shoved the spurting pipe back into position. It was not leaking any more. It was now gently pouring out of the loosened joint. I ran to the kitchen, grabbed any receptacle I could find (a few old pans), ran to the cupboard and grabbed some big towels and went back to my slowly filling bathroom to mop us some of the water. By repeatedly lifting the pipe out of position and catching the spurting water in the pan I managed to perform an improvised draining of my heating system. When each pan was full I put my thumb over the pipe to stop the flow. As the edges of the pipe were razor sharp, I managed to cut my thumb quite impressively.

Finally it was empty. I put some tape around the joint, reconnected it and tightened the nut. Drip drip drip drip drip. On closer inspection it now also appeared to be leaking from the joint above the valve. I would have to fix this as well. With my shiny new spanner, I now undid the upper joint as well. As this was above the radiator valve I had earlier shut off, as soon as I undid this new nut all the water in the radiator also came out. More pans. More improvised draining. I put some more tape around this joint and reconnected it. The drip had stopped. No surprise really because there was no longer any bloody water in the system to drip out.

I tuned on the water supply, turned on the boiler and turned on the taps. I still had water. Phew. I then bled the air out of the radiators to check my handiwork. Drip drip drip drip drip. I checked the boiler and now the digital display was flashing to indicate there was no pressure in the system. Oh for God’s sake! I carefully (yeah right) read the boiler manual which may as well have been written in Chinese for all that I understood in it. So, having started with a small manageable leak, I now had a much less manageable leak, a busted boiler and a gashed thumb. It was also 10pm.

I will continue this later……after I've given myself a cool new haircut.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


I think I’ve worked out where the British capacity for mental arithmetic met it’s demise. It wasn't, as you might think, when the pocket calculator came along. Nor was it when they stopped teaching real maths in school because it was too hard. No, the rot set in back in 1971 when we converted our currency to decimal.

Before then we had a wonderful system based on pounds, shillings, pennies and ha'pennies. There were two ha'pennies in a penny. Twelve pennies in a shilling. Twenty shillings in a pound. Or, if you wish, two hundred and forty pennies in a pound. Oh, and you also had a guinea which was twenty one shillings. Expensive items like cars and fridges and fancy clothes were often priced in guineas. Some places still use guineas today but it's somehow lost its romanticism now as it's £1.05. You also had weird coins like the half crown which was two shillings and sixpence and a thrupenny bit which was three pence. I'm too young to remember farthings which were worth a quarter of a penny.

To work in this currency, you had to be able to add up in base 12 and base 20. If you bought two items, one costing seven shillings and sixpence and the other costing four shillings and eightpence it would add up to twelve shillings and two pence (or tuppence). This was expressed in writing as 7/6 + 4/8 = 12/2. Verbally, 7/6 was expressed simply as "seven and six".

When you reached twenty shillings (20/-), you got a pound. But that didn't neccesarily mean that you expressed the pound in notation. Some people just kept adding up the shillings so one pound seventeen shillings and sixpence would often be written as 37/6 but could also be £1/17/6.

Added to this, certain denominations had nicknames, so a shilling was usually called a bob. A two shilling coin was called a florin. A sixpence coin was called a tanner. A quid was, and still is, a pound.

I was eight years old when they got rid of this system yet I can remember being able to easily add up sums of money using this system. It came completely naturally to me as it was ingrained in the culture, like language. Lots of people of my generation and of course my parent's generation can do the same but present this system to a teenager today and they're bewildered.

When we converted to a decimal currency, all the old coins were retained and new ones introduced alongside. So an old sixpence was now worth 2.5 new pence. An old shilling was worth 5 new pence. A half crown was worth 12.5 new pence. Working with two sets of coins in my small pockets was easy as well. This was money - it was important you didn't make mistakes so you learnt it fast!

Mental arithmetic was and still is easy. It was at least another five years before even the simplest pocket calculator was available and these were too expensive for most people to afford anyway. I remember the anger expressed by many people who said that introducing a decimal system would be too confusing. It would simply be a way for shopkeepers and the government to put up prices without people noticing.

If you want a numerate society, I suggest reintroducing the above system. A fiendishly complex currency is a great way of learning how to add up quickly in your head.

Happy days.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Hitler and the Bunnies


At his living room table, 92-year-old Rochus Misch shows me some of his old photo albums. Private pictures he had taken more than 60 years ago. There are colour images of Mr Misch in an SS uniform at Adolf Hitler's home in the Alps, snapshots of Hitler staring at rabbits, and photos of Hitler's mistress and future wife Eva Braun.

"....snapshots of Hitler staring at rabbits" ?????

Having read this, I see Hitler is a completely different light.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Wasted Potential

Gordon Brown's talents are wasted. Here we have a man with undoubted potential. A man who has a singular but great skill. A skill and ability that he has so terribly failed to exploit. At a press conference today he exhorted the young people before him to make the most of their lives. And yet Gordon Brown has failed to do that single act for himself.

Somewhere, on an industrial estate, perhaps in a quiet corner of northern England, or maybe even in his own beloved Scotland, there is a goods warehouse, and down at the back of that warehouse is a little office, and in that little office is a small, but functional computer (no internet connection). This computer handles the stock control for the warehouse. It makes sure everything that comes in and goes out of the warehouse is recorded. Right now, this neglected but functionally perfect little machine needs someone to enter important information.

Someone, with the essential backroom skills ideally suited to a mundane job in a micro-society of one. It requires no interpersonal skills, marginal real intelligence but a rudimentary and single-minded application. This person needs little or no understanding of what is going on around him. Someone who, cannot be distracted by, or susceptible to changing events around him. Someone perhaps who is so embedded in his own little world he cannot really understand or analyse anything beyond him and his beloved computer. Somebody who just hunches over that computer for eight hours a day obsessively and diligently recording the comings and goings of this little world. Someone so lacking the tiniest iota of imagination that most of the time he is simply unaware of anyone or anything around him. Gordon Brown is that man.

The fact that he has been cruelly thrust into running one of the major world economies is a terrible waste of his potential. Daily he is required to understand and deal with major events in a fast-moving and politically turbulent world and daily he shows us how ill-equipped he is, on almost every level, to carry out this task. A great and possibly tragic loss to a small warehouse somewhere in the north of England (or possibly Scotland).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Joke of the Week

From the mighty P J O'Rourke, a humourous anecdote about the old USSR....

An old guy's wife tells him to go to the butcher shop and get some meat. He goes to the butcher shop and stands in line for hours.
Finally the butcher says, "We're out of meat."
The old guy blows his top. He yells, "I am a worker! I am a proletarian! I am a veteran of the Great Patriotic War! I have fought for socialism all my life, and now you tell me you're out of meat! What kind of a system is this?! You are fools! You are thieves! . . . "
A big man in a trench coat comes up to the old guy and says, "Comrade, Comrade, not so loud. In the old days you know what they would do if you said such things." The big man in the trench coat makes a pistol motion with his hand.
He says to the old guy, "Calm down and go home." The old guy shrugs and leaves.
He comes back empty-handed, and his wife says, "What's the matter, are they out of meat?"
"Worse than that," says the old guy, "they're out of bullets."

I thank you.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Emasculation of the British Male

Let's face it. The average British male is fast becoming a pretty poor example of the species.

Two news items today illustrate this. The first is the number of men who choose to stay at home with mum. A remarkable 29% of British men aged between 20 and 34 still live at home. Presumably so they can get their dinner every night and their underwear ironed. BRITISH MEN!!!! These are men (and I use the word with its loosest interpretation) bred from the same stock of fearless nutcases that colonised the world a few centuries back. Members of the same gene pool who stuck it to Hitler for six long years (like my Grandad). Men who thought nothing of jumping on a ship and trying to sail off the edge of the world, and failing that, seeing what they could rob and plunder along the way.

Nobbut a few generations ago, young men were turfed out of the house the day they turned 18 and sent to live in some windswept military barracks in some of the most godforsaken spots of this tiny island we inhabit. The weak stock were ritually humiliated by the military personnel during the day and then buggered senseless by their comrades at night. If that didn't make a man of you then nothing would. It was called National Service. If that particular lifestyle wasn't to your liking and you found yourself the object of affection or disapprobriation of whoever you met, you chose one of the many nights when the weather was truly filthy, went outside, took a walk and died miserably in a ditch from hypothermia. Thus the strong survived and we continued to produce generations of sexually confused but hard-as-nails menfolk.

The other news item is the relentlessly falling intellect of the current crop of male students. Don't be misled by the headline. These numbskulls are only showing an improvement in exams compared to the girls because of the elimination of coursework from their studies. Coursework is of course simply a cipher which actually means "copying it from the internet". In the past they were obviously too thick to carry out even this simple task. This was thus removed from the syllabus in order that they stood a statistically equal chance as the girls of randomly guessing which boxes to tick in what constitutes examinations these days.

I despair.

NB: I did not do National Service and left home shortly after my 17th birthday.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Feral Parents

I've just spent the weekend at my Mum's. An unplanned weekend. She phoned me earlier in the week and I said I'd cancel whatever I had on and be there by Friday. Sounds bad doesn't it? It wasn't - don't worry.

I had to go up there (it's a 500 mile round trip so 8 hours of driving) to help her find a new car. She's 71 and needs a car to get around. A nice little hatchback runabout you might think so she can get down the shops a couple of days a week and go see the granddaughter now and again. No, it's not quite as simple as that.

This is the second time in two years I've had to rush up there at short notice and perform this particular duty. What had actually happened was she had written off ("totalled" to use the American terminology) her current car. She did exactly the same thing last time. So, in the last two years my Mum has demolished two cars in quite spectacular accidents. This is the kind of driving record your average teenager would be proud of. The kind of thing that would drive parents to distraction. Except I now find it happening to me in reverse.

These are no ordinary cars. For the last 30 years she has driven only Saabs. Big, sturdy, high-performance Swedish cars that the advertising campaigns would have us believe are designed by the same people who make a particularly intimidating and supersonic fighter jet for the Swedish Air Force. My mum likes this. She seems to fancy that driving a car modelled on a fighter aircraft lends her a certain quirky kudos amongst her increasingly elderly chums. It makes her feel she's not quite ready for the scrapheap. This is OK by me - keeps her young at heart and all that.

But two write-offs in two years? It's time she calmed it down a bit you would think. I was relieved to find when I got there she had been given a seven year old diesel powered Ford Mondeo. The kind of car it's difficult to tell is moving even when it's going flat out in top gear. This would reign here in I thought. She would be suitably contrite after managing to destroy two substantial Saabs in the last two years. Not a bit of it. She hated it. Despite it's practical attributes, she could not see past the fact it would not do 90mph (approaching 150 kph) down the motorway and blast everything else off the road as she screamed "Eat my dust losers!". She's 71 - did I mention that?

She'd already been perusing the car ads in the papers and was eyeing up locally available Saabs. She'd also been wondering whether a 4x4 would make a change. She lives in the North of England and a 4x4 is handy in the winter sometimes. Various other high performance cars were on her prospective shopping list. Audis, Mercs, get the idea. Of course, her budget wasn't quite up to her desires (isn't that always the case) and I had to point out with her budget, any car she could find on her list at that price would be likely to have had a long and probably interesting history. So it was down to me to find her something that ticked all her boxes on her wish list, but that would allow me to also sleep at night.

To cut a long story short, I had to show her the kind of car she wanted, for the money she had, to finally make here realise she couldn't afford one with anything appproaching decent provenance. I then had to find her something she would consider an acceptable compromise. Her specification was roughly as follows:-

  • acceleration of a scalded cat
  • build characteristics of a chieftan tank
  • fuel economy of a Vespa scooter
  • carrying capacity of an Antonov cargo plane
  • reliability but simplicity of an AK47
  • cheap
  • cool

A pretty unachievable wish list. We went round the local dealers. She sat in various cars, test drove a few of them. All failed to reach her demanding specification. They were all either too small, too large, too slow, too expensive, the wrong colour, too noisy, too quiet, too old, too boring, You name it - they failed the test.

I finally found her a car. It doesn't fit her spec. but it's close. It's quick, roomy, reliable, and almost within budget. It probably won't impress her friends and it won't be much good in the snow but despite her mumblings about a 4x4, she's never actually had one so I knew that wasn't her top priority. Two litre engine, six speed gearbox (she refuses to drive automatics), lots of gadgets (it's the top spec. in the 2.0) should do 90mph with ease. One of these - hope she likes it. Bloody parents.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Pig Flu - The Truth

100,000 people my arse!

30,000 will be the usual rampant hypochondriacs who latch on to every passing ailment and decide they've got it.

30,000 are people who fancy a few days off work so have called in sick cos they "....feel a bit under the weather and, best be safe, what with all this swine flu going around eh."

30,000 want the drugs, so have found out the symptoms and called in to pretend they've got it so they can get the drugs before anyone else.

10,000 might actually have something wrong with them.

Of course, the government is delighted to have a crisis on their hands that is not actually of their own making so will be desperate to make things look as dreadful as possible so they can be seen to be trying to do something about it. The problem with this exponential rate of apparent cases is, with the government in full-on exaggeration mode the whole population of the country could be dead in a couple of weeks and then what will they do?

As usual, The Daily Mash absolutely nails it.

Come to think of it, I don't feel too good myself.....what's that hotline number?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Five Minutes Thirty Four Seconds

I've got 5,953 songs occupying 31.72GB of disk space in my iTunes player. If I was so inclined, it would take me 16 days, 7 hours and 12 minutes to listen to them all.....but I would probably die of sleep deprivation before I finished. As a sort of random exercise, here are all the songs that are exactly five minutes and thirty four seconds in duration:

Aztec Camera - Stray
Lisa Knapp - Blacksmith
Black Grape - Little Bob
Terri Naomi - Flesh for Bones
Aretha Franklin - Bridge Over Troubled Water
King Creosote - My Favourite Girl
The Sensational Alex Harvey Band - Give My Compliments to the Chef
Hootie and the Blowfish - When I'm Lonely
Myrrhman - Talk Talk

Go on, if you're out there, give me a duration and I'll give you another list. Or send me yours.



Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Football and God

It may be apocryphal but David Beckham, legendary English footballer and all round nice guy was once credited with making the following statement about his son Brooklyn "I definitely want Brooklyn to be christened, but I don't know into what religion yet."

Cue jokes about footballers not being terribly bright etc. but frankly I don't particularly care if they're smart or not. We don't expect our academics to be good footballers so why should we expect our footballers to be intellectuals? "Jeez, that Stephen Fry's a clever bugger but have you ever seen him take a penalty?" My point exactly. So, on the whole, I think we should leave our footballers to concentrate on putting the ball in the onion bag and we should leave the reciprocation of pi and the quantum physics to the people who are so inclined to such matters. We, the punters, are only really interested in the end result - plenty of goals and the answer to the meaning of life - and we don't much care how our footballers and boffins get there, simply that they do.

But I think Mr. Beckham raises an interesting point. People are not born religious. Religion is a man-made concept. It is now, in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Beckham, apparently simply something of a lifestyle choice. A person may live in a society that is pre-disposed to affiliate itself with one particular religion and it may be somewhat inevitable that in the absence of any other belief system, that is the religion a person gets drawn into, but if that same person, before gaining an understanding of their local predominant religion is taken elsewhere, they may adopt an entirely different set of beliefs from a different society. We're not born and naturally inclined to adopt a particular religion, any more than we are born intuitively French and with an appreciation of good coffee just because we were born in France.

Religion was initially a means of getting a naïve population into believing that, for example, if nobody could reasonably explain where the sun and the stars came from, then the only logical explanation was that someone must have put them there and they had better be careful not to upset that person. Diss the big man up there and he'll be looking for vengeance. This suited religious leaders who could claim they had a hotline to the Gods and could ease your passage through life if you showed them enough respect. A cosy existence if you could get enough people to buy into it.

Nowadays we can pretty much explain why the sun comes over the hill every day and that leaves religion in a tight spot. Every day it seems, one of their core values is explained away by the scientists as simply an inevitability of the passage of time and a lot of atoms pinging around in interesting but pretty random ways. It also means that some of the more new-age, out-there religions have to come up with new ideas to draw in the customers. Cue the Scientologists and Kabbalah crowd, eager to fill the vacuum created by an increasingly cynical congregation. Better still if you can get a few celebrities on board because celebrities are now the new icons. If you can get a few of them to buy into your ideas then, with luck, they'll bring their fanbase with them. The whole Hare Krishna movement was famously given a huge kickstart in the sixties through the patronage of The Beatles.

Where am I going with this piece? I don't really know. You may have gathered that I'm not a religious person but I'm vexed by the idea that,although I know we're not born and naturally inclined to a particular religion, we may be somehow genetically wired to want something like religion in our lives. Not because the alternative of nothing is unbearable but, hopefully perhaps, because we like abstract ideas. Let's face it, we're all a little bit superstitious about something, even if we declare absolute atheism.

Faith is, by definition, belief in something for which you have no proof. I'm happy to say I'm not interested in any of it and don't have that genetic wiring (if it in fact exists) but I'm frankly amazed by the number of people that are.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Gravy Suckers

As our government steadily but inevitably implodes upon itself the whole scandal about MP's expenses prompts a few questions.

The thing that has irked the population more than anything I suspect is that not a single MP has managed to come up with a decent defence of their expense claims. There have been two common defences. The first is to claim it was a simple oversight or accounting error. This would be plausible in a few cases but when this lack of attention to detail is exhibited by just about every MP, you start to think this is simply a collective excuse that they're all trotting out. If we were to believe they all made the same simple accounting errors then this displays a collective incompetence on a grand scale that simply illustrates they're incapable of the most simple of tasks and don't deserve to be employed in any position of authority.

The second defence/excuse is to say that it was "within the rules." This is patently untrue because the rules states that expenses should be incurred as part of being an MP. Having your garden landscaped which has been a frequent expense claim is not an occupational expense of being an MP however lax you make the rules.

The other excuse is to claim they're terribly overworked and equally terribly underpaid as they only take a annual salary of about £64,000. Based on average salaries, this places them in the top 9% of earners in the UK. This argument simply doesn't stand up to even the simplest of analysis. If I were an MP and felt as woefully underpaid, overworked and unappreciated as this lot do then I'd probably give it up and go and find another job where my brilliance was appreciated but this lot, despite claiming that they lead such a financially perilous existence seem strangely determined to hang on to their jobs. The reality is a great many of them could not hope to draw a wage like this (plus expenses) in the private sector as most of them have precious little experience of working in the real world.

None of them have been prepared to admit that being an MP is a pretty cushy existence. You get to run a small business with a turnover of around £250,000 per year that is pretty much immune from the scrutiny of the taxman. You can employ members of your own family in nominal jobs. You have various ways of collecting large sums of money from the public purse without having to provide any proof of actually how that money is spent. There is an extremely generous pension scheme that is unheard of in the private sector and if you do lose your job (effectively sacked because your electorate don't think you're up to it) there is a generous redundancy package.

MPs also like to proselytise about how much work they do and how essential their duties are. The reality is that over the last month, while Parliament has been mired in this scandal, precious little real work has been done. Most MPs are avoiding their constituents and the media like the plague for fear of being asked awkward questions. Party leaders have spent all their time defending the actions of their MPs or in the case of Gordon Brown, feigning interest in the health of reality show contestants in a desperate attempt to appear in touch with the public.

It's been a gravy train for too long and MPs have the gravy boat wedged firmly in their mouths and they'll keep sucking it for as long as they can get away with it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


So far this year I have been to Romania three times. I have been to Luxembourg twice (including excursions to Germany and Belgium). Next weekend I'm going to Paris and I will be back in Luxembourg again before the end of the month.

Isn't it nice to have someone in your life. Killer on the cash flow situation though.

This is Bran in Romania.

And this is me looking quite relaxed in a photo for the first time in years.

And this is Luxembourg city.....yes, the middle of the city does look like this.


There's something uniquely insensitive about a government that decides to deliberately fly a very large passenger jet at low level around the New York skyline for half an hour.

It becomes increasingly hard to understand the individual who came up with this idea thought it would also be a good idea to have the jet tailed by a fighter plane.

Let's add stupidity to insensitivity by mentioning that they failed to tell anyone (not even the Mayor of New York) that they planned to do this.

I've yet to decide if Barack Obama will be the saviour of the western world, but if he has people beneath him who come up with ideas like this then that's going to make his job a helluva lot more difficult.

Apparently they thought it would be a nice idea to get pictures of Air Force One flying past the Statue of Liberty.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Putting on a Show

Here in London we have the G20 Summit going on. Whilst the mob in the street bays for the blood of bankers and politicians, inside the champagne is quaffed and behind closed doors, the dirty deals are done. Queenie has been wheeled out to gladhand the politicians and Prince Phillip will be kept at arm's length so he doesn't commit any of his usual gaffes. Gordon will trot out a selection of hoary old speeches, riddled with meaningless cliches carefully designed to express nothing and hopefully give the impression he likes everyone. Not true of course; Gordon hates everyone because they fail to recognise his genius, but that's another story.

London is determined to put on a show. We like to think we can do this sort of thing. But amidst the royalty and the pageantry there's one thing that is particularly in evidence as I watch the news tonight - the ultimate expression of extravagance and opulence. You see it everywhere, it will be at every reception, every meeting and at every photo-op and the people who organise these sort of things would consider themselves lesser mortals, perhaps even failures, if it were not included, for it is height of decadence. No top-dollar event is complete without it yet I've always thought it faintly risible.

Yes, it the The Red Carpet. If you really want to impress someone and show them how much effort you've gone to, nothing works better than carpeting a bit of the street. This lets people know you have serious cash to flash. TV reporters will always point it out when they report on these occasions. "The red carpet has been rolled out...." they mutter ominously in order to signify the great import of the event being played out. An appropriately dressed maid will be seen earlier in the day diligently vacuuming aforementioned length of cheap nylon carpet that has been laid carefully to lead from the doorway to the kerb. Forget about the millions you've wasted on fancy venues, menus, flunkies and all the other paraphernalia. What's really important is that visiting nobs will be able to step from their car and not sully their footwear by inadvertently having to, God forbid, tread on an uncovered piece of street.

Putting on this event will have cost millions but people will consider it incomplete without a $50 swatch of cheap red rug in the street.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


It's nice to visit a country where flowers are loved and enjoyed. India is one such country. Flowers are everywhere. Even in the poorest marketplace in the poorest part of town, someone will be selling flowers, garlands, or something to tie in your hair. Romania is another such society. Having been there during Valentine's weekend I saw lots of women of all ages carrying flowers. How nice that this isn't just a young lover's thing. I was in Romania again last weekend. This time it was the tail end of celebrating Mărţişor - on the first of March women (usually young and single women I believe) receive a small gift of a jewel or a flower tied to a red and white string. Also that week was March 8th - International Women's Day - again more flowers are given. So that's three out of four weekends where women will receive some sort of floral based gift. Nice!

But here's the unusual thing. Women in Romania carry their flowers upside-down, that is, with the heads of the flowers facing down, and I mean right down, by their sides, arms straight down so the heads of the flowers are often barely above ground level. If you haven't seen this before, your initial thought is that perhaps the woman is somewhat nonplussed by the floral gift she has received and is therefore just looking for a convenient bin in which to chuck the bouquet. I asked about this and was told that it's actually considered a better way to carry flowers. Carrying them pointing upwards would run the risk of damaging the flowers, the heads may break off, or they could be crushed in a crowd. Held straight down, the flowers run the least risk of being damaged. On consideration, this seemed a perfectly reasonable explanation but it is still somewhat disconcerting (to a Western European like me) to see flowers being carried in what seems a rather contemptuous way.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Custard Probes

It's always interesting to go abroad for a short break and detach yourself from your home country because you tend to miss out on the minutiae of events. On your return you usually find relatively little has happened in your absence but there's always something that catches your eye on returning and this particular weekend was no exception.

I've been back to Romania for another fantastic weekend. No chance to log on to the internet and check the BBC website. No email and no home news. I'm not a news fiend but I do try and keep up with current events and like to know what's gong on, if only at a mostly superficial level.

Here in the UK we have a politician called Peter Mandelson with, one suspects, a mildly colourful lifestyle. Sacked/resigned from a senior position in government on at least two occasions for extremely dubious financial dealings, he was shipped off to Europe where most of our least successful politicians are sent, to see out their days in disgraceful luxury but away from the glare of public opprobrium at their mendacity. Mandelson actually came back and was again given another senior job in government - one suspect this was only to placate some disillusioned faction of Gordon Brown's party (there are quite a few of these I imagine so he has to make a lot of peace offerings to keep his party on a barely even keel and maintain the semblance of organised government). Mandelson was almost immediately undone and up to his usual tricks again by being caught accepting the hospitality of a Russian billionaire on his yacht in the Mediterranean. He survived this particular spat but has continued to rarely be out of the news for some reason or another.

This time, as I stepped off the plane at Heathrow I saw a TV screen with such an eye-catching headline I could barely imagine what he'd been up to this time....Mandelson Custard Probe was quite an anticlimax when I finally read the actual story.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Why I Love Romania

I've just spent an extremely enjoyable weekend in the city of Brasov in Romania. There are many things I could discuss about the weeked but I'll just talk about one at the moment. It's not something that's particularly Brasovian, simply a feature of Romania that I've come to notice in my many visits to the country.

Romania can get cold in the winter. Very cold. This seems to have had an effect on retailing in the country. Shopkeepers don't want a stready stream of punters opening and closing their door, coming in to the shop, and perusing goods they may well decide not to purchase and thereby letting valuable heat escape from the premises. The solution? You run a kiosk instead.

As far as I can tell, about half of what you buy in Romania is from kiosks. Confectionery, soft drinks, coffees, tobacco, bread, bus tickets, admission tickets are all sold from kiosks. The idea is that you, the "shopkeeper", sit inside a nice warm box with a glass/perspex front. Your customers are stuck outside coping with whatever weather is being launched at you that day by the Romanian climate.You, the shopkeeper, array all the goods you wish to sell inside your box against the glass/perspex front so that shoppers can see what you wish to sell. The only opening in the kiosk is an implausibly small hole about one metre from the ground.

To purchase from a kiosk you find what you need in the window. As an average sized human being, you are then required to bend over double and attempt to make eye contact with the individual secreted in the gloomy interior of the kiosk. In winter of course, it is usually bitterly cold your nose is perhaps running, and you are not usually well-disposed to contorting yourself like this just to buy a cup of coffee to stave off the chill in your bones. If you can see a person in there, and you very often cannot, you just optimistically speak through the hole and ask for what you need. It is obtained by the troglodyte within, money is exchanged and the goods are passed through the hole. The hole is generally sized to match the goods being sold at the particular kiosk so, if the kiosk sells only bus tickets or admission tickets to a venue, the hole is likely to be only big enough to accommodate the passing through of tickets and the money required to purchase said tickets. The hole will never be any bigger than is absolutely necessary. It often feels more like you're indulging in some sort of weird street-based Catholic confessional than actually conducting a transaction to buy goods as you often cannot see the person you're dealing with and they rarely speak, usually only to tell you that they're unable to give you any change even though you have proffered a note of reasonably small denomination.

Of course this also limits the range of goods the "shopkeeper" can sell you as they can only retail good that will fit through a very small hole. It's a system that most native Romanians appear to accept as normal, yet is somewhat unusual to the vistor.

I hope the people at don't mind that I've borrowed a few of their jpgs by way of illustration.

Sunday, February 01, 2009


There are few things in life more agreeable than putting on a new pair of socks.