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Saturday, November 29, 2008
Do I complain too much?

It occurred to me yesterday that I am being inundated with material, news, and events quite deliberately designed to enrage me. These irritations come from a multitude of sources, so there is quite clearly some sort of conspiracy going on. I hesitate to call it a vendetta but it is a conclusion difficult to escape. Think of it: I am calmness and reason personified, yet I am irresistibly driven to the use of curses and intemperate language, something as far from my normally polite and civil nature as it is possible to get. Consider the following, apparently unrelated, events.

Here is a Grauniad article, titled 'Warning of measles epidemic risk as cases rise sharply'. It then goes on:
Britain is at risk of a serious measles epidemic breaking out in the near future, the Health Protection Agency warned yesterday, after a sharp increase in the number of children infected.
This is indubitably attributable to the reduction in uptake of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, due to the autism scare.

Here's the link. The article doesn't point the finger in the right direction: it was press speculation about an unscientific association, of no statistical significance, which led people to withhold vital vaccines from their children. Of course there is no association between autism and the MMR vaccine. On the other hand, the risks of measles are very real: the disease can be fatal and it sometimes, and significantly, causes chronic bronchial problems. So who do we have to blame for this? Virtually all of our sensation-seeking media, led by the Daily Mail and the Murdoch press.

Then, a few days ago, I was driving through heavy traffic in Oxford when two motorcycle cops appeared and stopped the smooth flow of traffic. Since, at the time, I was near the John Radcliffe Hospital, I automatically assumed that the holdup was for an ambulance carrying some dangerously ill person, an organ for transplant, or some vital equipment for someone critically ill. Not a bit of it! It was HM the Q and Phil de Greek! Over on the wrong side of the road went their entourage. Much chaos ensued, considerable choler was raised, and many approaches to apoplexy doubtless supervened. It makes it even worse to learn subsequently that Her Maj and her esteemed Orientalist hubby were on their way to lunch at Magdalen College.

'Why can't Royalty sit in traffic jams like the rest of us?' I demand to know. And why can't I have a police escort when I'm in a hurry for my lunch? (Actually I thought I was being thus rewarded once but it transpired that the cop only wanted to give me a speeding ticket. Grrr!)

Then, on to Boots for some boots, but I found none. However, I did come across something very useful to the aged: something that purported to be a 'The Sanctuary Overnight Body Renewal Bag'; I kid you not. I was pleased that the bag wasn't claimed to replace bodies – there didn't seem to be anywhere to dump the old ones, and the bag itself was too small, anyway – so I spoke to an assistant about the remarkable claims made for the product. I am, after all, in serious need of having my body renewed. To have it done overnight would be highly desirable and miraculous indeed.

Alas, I think the claims were hyperbolic (nothing to do with conic sections here) and I shall be referring the matter to the Advertising Standards Authority, not that I think anything will be done. So many lies abound in modern advertising. I blame it all on the adulteration of our beautiful language; it has lost precision at the hands of the opinionated, self-proclaimed brainless, the talentless, tasteless, yet well-known, and TV presenters/newsreaders whose ignorance knows no bounds. Why, the other day I heard a Sky newsreader refer to Sydney as the capital of Australia, Grrr!

Recently, driving out of London, I saw an advertisement for Stella Artois. In case you can't read it properly, it says that Stella Artois contains only four ingredients: hops, malted barley, maize, and water. There is a clear implication that these things are nice, pure, and wholesome and that there are no nasty additives in the mix.

Well for a start, that isn't true: there are bound to be trace amounts of yeast and finings (finings, the clarifying agent, used to be made out of ground fish-heads), plus a few other things used during the production process – catalysts perhaps.

Then, seeing that the operative word is 'contains', there are the various fermentation products. The desirable one is ethanol – why not mention that? – but, from memory, there will be measurable amounts of other products ('chemicals'), including methanol, higher alcohol homologues, esters, and benzene; they are all clearly undesirable.

This is such a misleading advertisement that it should be immediately withdrawn. The company should be fined heavily and forced to display 'Sorry' advertisements of the same size and number. These advertisements should now include the same advertisement, suitably modified to mention the twenty odd real ingredients, rather than the 'harmless' four.

It should also be prominently endorsed 'We are lying bastards'.

I asked, at the outset, if I complain too much. Well, since I wrote the Stella piece, deriving it from a draft letter I never sent to the Advertising Standards Authority, I have answered my own question: I didn't send the letter so I don't complain enough.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008
Poetry and children

The position of Poet Laureate becomes vacant in May and, after a moment or two of soul-searching, I have decided not to apply. To those among my reader (sic) who may feel that my serious – if brief - contemplation smacks of excessive earnestness, I can only say 'keep reading'.

In a delightful consideration of several possible candidates, Mark Lawson writes in the Guardian
Sweating slightly under television lights, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Wendy Cope and Pam Ayres perform in turn a new sonnet while wearing T-shirts printed with the phone number we dial to vote for them. Raising with a flourish a card marked with the figure 4, Andrew Motion, the chief judge, has to raise his voice above the booing of the studio audience as he drawls: "Your second sestina last week was magic, Seamus. But though you won the Nobel, your sonnet rang no bells with me!"

This, in an era when senior ministers comment publicly on the results of Strictly Come Dancing, might be the most suitably modern way in which to choose a new poet laureate to follow Motion, who retires in May. The government, however, has made clear that there will be no Strictly Rhyme Scheming or The A-B-A-B Factor on television - though public comments will be welcomed as part of a process of consultation before suggestions go to the Queen.

Another obstacle to the above fantasy is the range of candidates. Cope and Heaney have ruled themselves out, while Walcott, though indicating that he would accept, lives mainly in the Caribbean and would struggle to undertake the educational tasks Motion has made part of the job. Among leading poets who do live here, James Fenton and Tony Harrison have crossed their names off the ballot.

Such refusals are common. Philip Larkin said no before Ted Hughes got it. Larkin had many reasons to dislike the idea of being national bard.
Oh to have someone of Larkin's 'character' among the candidates! I still remember thrilling to hearing one of Larkin's best know poems - 'This be the verse' - for the first time, recited by my son
They f*** you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
You can read the full, unexpurgated version here. En passant, I think it would also be nice to consider the perceptive soul who wrote
An author had an asterisk;
He kept it in his den
Where he wrote tales
That had large sales
Of erring maids, and men.
And when he reached the passages
Where carping censors lurk,
He called upon the asterisk
To do his dirty work.
as a candidate. Mind you, when I think about it, I'm not quite sure how useful an asterisk might be in the bedroom; a bit like toast-crumbs, I'd have thought.

So who might we choose? Given Larkin's non-availability – he's dead - how about Roger McGough? Here's some of his work, very definitely in Larkin's vein. It's called 'Pay-back time'
O Lord, let me be a burden on my children
For long they've been a burden upon me.
May they fetch and carry, clean and scrub
And do so cheerfully.

Let them take it in turns at putting me up
Nice sunny rooms at the top of the stairs
With a walk-in bath and lift installed
At great expense.....Theirs.
The poem concludes
It's been a blessing watching them develop
The parental pride we felt as each one grew.
But Lord, let me be a burden on my children
And on my children's children too.
You can read the full version here, at the bottom of the web page.

I write without apprehension; it's unlikely that my children will read this, so I'll make a point of emailing it to them. I want them to read it. I want to make sure the whippersnappers, and their children, have enough money saved up for when I need my Stannah stairlifts in all their houses - in sixty years or so.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008
National priorities

A few days ago, I awoke and, as is my habit, turned on Radio 4 expecting to hear the usual perceptive and adroit analyses of World events. My ears – how appropriately – were assailed with an expression of birthday greetings to HRH (I'm pretty sure it wasn't 'HMS') Prince of Wales. This was followed by a mellifluous rendering of our dirge-like National Anthem. Americans would, of course, recognise the tune as 'My country 'tis of thee'.

Despite the terrible goings on in the World, the Beeb still has a deep understanding of the relative importance of things. I mean, who wants to hear about the state of the economy or problems in The Congo when we can be reminded of the birthday of the loveable Prince Charles? Who, under the circumstances, (apart from the clinically sane P. Hitchens) can claim that the Beeb displays socialist tendencies or republican sympathies when they can lead with such important news?

But, whoever it's played for, The Airstrip One piece is not of the first water. Nevertheless, it is superb musically compared to many other national tunes. When, occasionally, I watch a Formula One race, I hope against any victory involving anything (Ferrari), or anyone (Trulli, Fisichella), Italian. This is nothing to do with patriotism on my part; it is to do with my musical soul. The Italian anthem is a dreadful piece. To help you understand my point, listen to this melody sung by a talented choir, on a joyous sporting occasion, here.

The music of the Italian National Anthem was composed in 1847 by Michele Novaro, to words by the young poet, Goffredo Mameli. This song, known as L'Inno di Mameli has been the national anthem of the Republic of Italy only since 1948. How on earth can the country of Verdi, Vivaldi, and Rossini live with something so awful? They could easily use the Grand March from Aida, for example. They might have to write new words, but that'd be a small price to pay…

I'd be the first to admit that I haven't chosen an ideal rendering, so compare it with a similarly dire performance of the German National Hymn – composed by Josef Haydn - and the difference in class is immediately apparent, despite the out-of-tune singing.

The ideal (musical) F1 result would be with a German driver in a German car - that way we'd get the German National Anthem once and alone. It isn't clear who'll be driving for whom next year. There used to be some musical consolation when Michael Schumacher won so regularly. But even that couldn't make up for having to listen to Novaro's & Mamelli's ghastly pomp (for Ferrari).

Finally, to give you an opportunity properly to appreciate Haydn's artistry, here's a string quartet version. It's a long way from 'Glorious things of thee are spoken', isn't it? Doesn't it help to have music written by a real composer, though?

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Sunday, November 23, 2008
One man's propaganda…

A few weeks ago, I made one of my biennial trips from Bagshot to the delightful city of Oxford. The purpose of my visit was either to look up some obscure management (management – moi?) reference, to prepare for an audience with The Master, or to have a haircut. And - d'you know - I can't remember which of those it was.

But that is of no matter because, while walking up St Giles, I bumped into a familiar-looking individual whose name I could not immediately place. (You have to understand that, because Oxford is The Centre of The Known Universe, everyone passes through the place several times in a normal lifetime (or - if they have the slightest measure of distinction or discrimination - more frequently)).

It was hardly surprising that I failed to identify him: it was the renowned Peter Perceptive-Person but he and Oxford are not readily associated. Fortuitously, yesterday I listened to Radio 4's The News Quiz and learnt from it that PPP had been running down this amusing programme.

Here's what Peter Perceptive-Person wrote in his blog, in a 'piece' (that's a very flattering description for, what is actually, an ill-structured rant) titled God, schools and television. Here is a small extract - although, what the implied link between 'schools' and 'television' is, PPP fails to tell us - to give you the flavour of one of the better-considered arguments:
Amid the necessary rage over the Ross-Brand affair at the BBC, it is often said that the Corporation still produces a lot of high-quality material alongside the Leftist propaganda and the low-brow dross. I’m not so sure of this.

Radio 4 has some good news and current-affairs programmes, but much of its airtime is stuffed with dire alleged comedy, the appalling, shameless and unchecked Leftist propaganda of ‘The News Quiz’ and an unchanging array of chat shows presented by ancient liberals.
I am pleased to see that The News Quiz team take this absurd generalisation as an endorsement of their programme. In their usual fashion, they poke fun at all and sundry, including those noted right-wing fanatics: Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, and Liam Byrne, the new Cabinet Office Minister. Quite right, Peter Perceptive-Person; such 'appalling, shameless and unchecked Leftist propaganda' ought not to be permitted on the airwaves.

This Peter Perceptive-Person is, in fact, Peter Hitchens of The Mail on Sunday. He needs to learn a thing or two so, while I'm currently inclined towards advice rather than admonition, let me offer some help to PPP to improve the quality of his journalism. (More examples of P. Hitchens object lessons are to be found here.)

Now, Peter: firstly, if you are an alleged journalist and you have a blog, make sure that both the writing and arguments in the blog are as lucid, well-researched, and as detailed as those you include in your 'proper' newspaper articles. (This advice presumes, hopefully, that the two types are, in practice, distinguishable.)

Finally, Peter, I think you ought to consider the possibility that the political axis in this country has moved a long way to the right since the days of Harold 'Socialist' MacMillan, yet you have not noticed. It is a time-honoured habit of people with extremist opinions, particularly those on the right, to accuse almost everybody else of being an extremist, but on the other wing. If you must attempt to promulgate your views to the unthinking, use evidence rather than supposition, argument rather than dogma, and objective statements rather personal assertions. Your work may benefit.

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Friday, November 21, 2008
Do finance and chess mix?

Well, yes, if you get your metaphors correct…

I was reading an article about the forthcoming UK budget, this morning, by the Grauniad's political editor Patrick Wintour. I wasn't so much taken with his arguments about the economy as with his cavalier use of metaphor, tantamount to publicising his own ignorance of sporting terminology. Here's how the article opens
The run-up to any budget, or indeed the lesser pre-budget report, is a game of cat and mouse in which the government tries to massage public expectations, and keep the opposition guessing.

In terms of managing expectations, the government may be struggling, as the planned fiscal stimulus rises from an initial £15bn to estimates of £30bn. But in terms of the chess game with the opposition, the government is claiming checkmate.
Now, if anyone in the government is 'claiming checkmate', then they are wrong to do so, too, but I see no sign of that. 'Checkmate' means that the game is over – it comes from the Persian Shāh māt (the King is defeated) - and that one side has won. Surely that isn't what Wintour means: the game is very far from being over.

I wonder if, before I explain which chess term Wintour should have used, he would be likely, now challenged, to offer, instead, the less final notion that the government has the opposition 'on the back foot'. Here, I must revisit another of my strictures about sporting terminology: the expression is invariably used to mean 'on the defensive', assuming that no attacking strokes are made while 'on the back foot'. This isn't true, as we shall see.

(And in case you're totally nonplussed by the 'foot' expressions, 'on the front foot' means that the stroke is played with the weight on the front foot. Similarly, 'on the back foot' means that the stroke is played with the weight on the back foot. This, of course, excludes the many strokes involving weight transfer.

In cricket, defensive strokes are actually played on either foot. One defends on the front foot to balls that are well pitched up, i.e. that strike the ground close to the batsman. One usually plays on the back foot to short-pitched balls. The ideal ball, from the bowler's point of view, leaves the batsman not knowing whether to play forward or back. I'm glad we've got that straight.)

Just to give you a flavour of the attacking strokes played off the back foot, here are a few from memory: the glance, the square cut, the late cut, the fine cut (nothing to do with marmalade) and leg glances of all descriptions (except those applying to well-turned ankles). Even if we concede that there are relatively few attacking back foot shots, those I have listed surely demolish the notion that 'on the back foot' means defensively. At the very best, the expression should mean 'having reduced options' but I see very little sign of that in the many examples I have looked at.

Here's where I step out to the crease – not 'up to the plate' (aargh!) – and put Wintour right. He should have written: '…the government has the opposition in zugswang.'

Zugswang means that the player to move has no valid option that will not make his position worse. Whether you are right or wrong in your analysis, Wintour, old fruit, please understand terms properly before you use them; I'm not always going to be around to put you straight.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Strictly for elephants

It seems two hundred years since last I attended Dotheboys Hall. Actually it was more like one hundred and sixty. Ah well: how time drags… Among the many useful things I learnt – and here I don't really count formal lessons – were to smoke a cigarette smokelessly, and to spend time in the local pub, during school time, without making pub staff and teachers suspicious.

But I do not rate these 'aping the grown ups' activities highly; in no way did they add to my adult enjoyment. There were, though, three things that stick in my mind as having been worthwhile. The first was to play a reasonable hand of contract bridge, it being one of the few card games requiring skill, that can be enjoyed whether you win or lose. The second was to play a pretty fierce game of chess, and the third was to be able to waltz, quickstep, and foxtrot to a high standard. You see, in my young day, we actually enjoyed holding someone of the opposite sex closely, while moving elegantly together. For the last fifty years, dancing has been carried out in lines, or as far from your partner as possible. This seems a pretty pointless exercise when licensed cuddling was once available. Is romance totally dead?

I have seen occasional snippets of Strictly Come Dancing, a programme, as I understand it, that takes 'celebrities', matches them with professional dancers, and expects them to dance competitively against other, similar couples, on a knock-out basis. Many of the dances hark back to an earlier, more graceful time and there is some elegant and accomplished dancing indeed. A further 'nuance' is that, although the dancing is assessed and marked by a panel of professional dancers, the decision on who stays in and who is eliminated is determined by the vote of the home audience.

One might expect the audience to follow the professional judges, but it doesn't seem to work like that. John Sergeant, an amusing and erudite journalist is not, apparently, built to be a ballroom dancer, yet the audience seems to like him enough to prefer him to people with genuine skill, and aesthetic appeal.
He's been called a "dancing pig" and a "ballroom chancer" whose moves are "like seeing your grandad give a turn every Saturday night", and so far John Sergeant has borne it all with irrepressible good humour and a clodhopping clack of his Cuban heels.

But yesterday the former BBC political editor['s] … baby elephant moves on Strictly Come Dancing … won the adoration of the public and the frustrated irritation of the show's judges.
I wonder why audiences do this sort of thing. Is there an element of encouraging the less talented? One can read more about L'affaire Sergeant here.

Everyone knows that the first Strictly Come Dancing, in 2004, was deservedly won by Natasha Kaplinsky. This win did no harm at all to her career, although it caused other problems… It is less well known that Australian TV immediately copied the format and called it Dancing with the Stars. I confess to watching a few episodes – being Down Under at the time - having been surprised at the inclusion of Pauline Hanson, a right-wing Aussie politician, best summed up as being a rather less graceful, less charming version of the scintillating Sarah Palin. She had once held a parliamentary seat - Oxley - for a short time, and was promptly dubbed, by some erudite Aussie wag, 'The Oxley Moron'. Shortly afterwards, she was jailed for some irregularity. Oh dear! She never recovered.

Anyway, she progressed steadily through the competition, displacing many others with more grace, talent, and charm, until she reached the final. One wondered whether or not she would end up winning, either due to her political appeal, or to the perverse, larrikin, convention-adverse nature of the average Australian. In the event, she lost and (I think) a young man of considerable talent, whose name escapes me, deservedly prevailed.

I do not wish to draw parallels between John Sergeant and Pauline Hanson, but might there be a similar audience belief in supporting the underdog? Everyone, including, I suspect, the audience that voted for the Oxley Moron, could hardly have thought her a good dancer. Did they want to humiliate her, poke fun at the judges, or simply demonstrate their independence?

We shall have to see what happens in the end. Will genuine ability win through or will the engaging charm and wit of John Sergeant overcome the British audience's supposed love of fair play? I can hardly wait to read about it.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008
The tragedy of Baby P

Among all the nonsense that has been talked about the sad case of baby P, here's one article that gets a lot of it right. However Simon Jenkins, writing in the Grauniad dated 14 November, still manages to miss parts of the bigger picture
How we all hate the nanny state - until nanny takes a day off. Then we want nannies galore. We want nannies with whips, nannies with locks, keys and public inquiries. Labour, Liberal or Tory nannies are suddenly the order of the day. The response to the case of 17-month-old Baby P has been a classic of incoherent social comment. The media, which normally excoriates every case of local authority meddling and red tape, has torn into Haringey council for failing to spot a dreadful case of child abuse. Every paper salivated over the most ghoulish photographs.

The leader of the opposition, David Cameron, went berserk at the dispatch box and wrote expressing "outrage that yet another child was left to slip through the safety net to their death". This born-again statist regarded authority as being asleep on the job. A Whitehall taskforce is to be set up, and "a nationwide review of child protection procedures" instituted.
Spot on, so far Simon, but then you have to spoil it by having an irrelevant – and wrong – rant about social workers using computers
Panorama next Monday has surveyed children's departments across Britain. It reaches the grim conclusion that many social workers spend 60% of their time in front of computer screens, time that should be spent with families. Like policemen who sit in cars, it is the surest way to fail a service.

In every walk of life, the computer screen has become a professional comfort blanket. It distances carers from the sensibility of clients. It demotes the value of informal contact with colleagues. Provided the screen has been filled and the boxes ticked, officialdom regards itself as in the clear. Risk is eliminated not by personal application but by process.
This is total nonsense. So that there is a continuous record of contact with the client family, this contact, and the associated comments, have to be documented. Computers provide the best method of compiling a complete record of contact and assessment.

In his final paragraph, Jenkins implicitly acknowledges this, but does not draw the obvious conclusion
In personal services there is never a substitute for a well-trained professional in continuous contact with a problem client. Anything that deflects attention from that central purpose will merely ensure that more children suffer.
Quite right! But hold hard: the only constant point is the child at risk; the reality of social work, as with any occupation, is that staff move, move round, get promoted, or simply give up. The next social worker needs to have a record of 'work in progress', to avoid visiting a client cluelessly. While it is ideal to have 'a well-trained professional in continuous contact with a problem client', that just isn't possible for the reasons given. Further, the standard of training seems to have fallen over the years, 'continuous contact' is impossible given the vast size of an individual social worker's caseload, and investment in local authority social services is totally inadequate. The flight of highly qualified staff, aware that the job has become impossible, exacerbates the problem.

Children 's Departments in 1948 were founded in part in response to a child care scandal. (I.I.r.r., a child was treated like an animal and kept in a chicken coop.) Under the 1948 Children Act, it became the duty of a local authority to 'receive the child into care' in cases of abuse or neglect. Local authorities gained powers to investigate neglect in 1952, and there have been many changes since, including the merging of children's departments with other social services. This resulted in the dilution of the most highly qualified staff - Child Care Officers – with an influx of barely qualified 'social workers' from other disciplines. Social Services never recovered.

Is it, perhaps, time to consider separating out the Child Care function, once more, and this time treating and funding it properly?

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008
The end of an era in the USA

I have followed enough US elections to recognize this one as something quite momentous. Others have commented about the end of the racism era - I'm not sure they're right, though – but there's another massive change, too. If we compare him to much-loved presidents like Nixon (crooked), Carter (disengaged), Reagan (vacuous), Clinton (impractical), George Bush Snr, (patrician), and The Shrub (chump), Obama presents an extraordinary contrast.

Many years ago, I had the good fortune to be in St Paul's Cathedral to hear Martin Luther King give (one of) his 'I have a dream' speeches. I remember wondering if I would live to see his dream come true. Now that it has, I can only welcome the return of American good sense: electing a person for his character, thoughtfulness, and judgement, rather than for his amiableness (by all accounts, The Shrub is an amiable chump). Nevertheless, I wonder why it is that so many Americans are frightened of knowledge and would rather vote for a 'patriot' (McCain) or 'an amiable chump' than someone as clearly able as Kerry or so engaging as Obama.

There were many reasons for Obama's success; some of it, at least, is attributable to humour. Here's an extract from How satire changed the course of history
Then, something truly astonishing occurred. Tina Fey, the lantern-jawed alumnus of Saturday Night Live, and creator of the critically esteemed sitcom 30 Rock, made a return visit to Saturday Night Live and began doing a dead-on impersonation of McCain's gee-whiz, aw-shucks running mate, Sarah Palin. Her send-up of the intellectually anaemic Alaskan was seen by countless millions on YouTube and soon became the No1 topic of conversation in America
One always wondered why Bush and his crew hadn't been laughed out of office long ago. However, the choice of Sarah Palin, in an attempt to appeal to the 'knowledge is a dirty word' crew, may ultimately have backfired. Read this article to get the long list of other, unconventional, and mostly satirical/ironic big guns that brought about the Republican debacle.

I am aware of a few only: several times I watched Obama being interviewed by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show before a very partisan, supportive audience. Obama came across as likeable, amiable, thoughtful, and highly intelligent. He was the first American politician I had heard, during the campaign, refer to the need for good judgement. Remarkable.

To return to the humorous and ironic* nature of recent events, here are some suggestions how The Shrub might now be gainfully employed. Perhaps I'd prefer if the choice were to be appropriately adapted from One Hundred Uses for a Dead Cat, though.

*And may we please hear less about Americans not understanding irony? Here's a brilliant article from The Onion: Struggling Lower-Class Still Unsure How Best To F*** Selves With Vote

If that isn't irony, my name's not Dick Cheney.

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