Friday, 30 April 2010

Welcome home

This morning I looked up - as I tend to at this time of year - and saw exactly what I've been looking for the last couple of weeks. A black anchor-shape carving the air. The swifts are back.

Mrs QO was profoundly grateful to hear the news, which of course I texted to her within the minute. She will know I now have a radically lower chance of a car-crash, since I will no longer be scanning the skies while driving, instead of checking out the joker in front braking too hard.

I've always loved these masters of the sky. The swift is, arguably, more perfectly adapted to its medium than any other creature. From the time it first jumps out of the nest through to the first time it mates and nests two or three years later, it won't touch the ground. In level flight, it's the fastest bird [adopting Jeremy Clarkson voice] in the world, having been clocked at just under 70mph - some sources put their top speed when diving considerably over 100mph - and no other bird spends more of its life on the wing. Swifts live a long time - one ringed specimen was over 20 years old when found killed by an accident, though the average is probably quite a bit lower - and they're strongly territorial, so the ones you will be seeing soon over your skies are probably old friends, even if you haven't said hello before.

If you see one perching on a wire, congratulations - you've seen a swallow or a martin. Different families entirely, despite their similar conformation. Swifts don't do perching.

Swifts arrive in England around the beginning of May and, having raised their young, will return to southern Africa by the end of July. For the fledglings, that's quite an L-plate trip - I've flown the 6,000-odd miles to sub-Saharan Africa and I found it tiring, and I had four large jet engines and some very attractive trolly-dollies helping. OK, they don't have to be searched at Heathrow, or go through Customs at Jo'burg, but you take my point.

We don't have these beautiful and perfect creatures for long, and their numbers are sadly diminishing as modern house-building methods don't suit their nesting requirements as well as the old Victorian designs. So I encourage you to cherish them while they're here, and to think of them as British birds rather than just exotic summer visitors - they may fly hundreds of miles a day, but the ones you see looking up from your garden into those high blue skies of summer were probably born in your postcode. Think of them as neighbours.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Media opportunities

I know the political parties and their media wonks have a lot on their mind right now. But Labour's lot really seem to have lost it, just when they need to be at their sharpest. This video is doing the rounds, for example.

Dearie me. Poorly judged in all sorts of ways. And it's not as if Labour wouldn't have to be cutting back hugely themselves if returned to power - see today's analysis from the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Wouldn't it be nice if any of the parties treated us like thinking adults and told us the truth?

And then there's the Elvis impersonator stunt.
Dearie dearie me. This is made particularly delicious for me by the as yet unconfirmed reports that Corby borough council is investigating whether the appearance by Elvis at the Labour event broke the law, since the venue didn't have a licence authorising the performance of music. As a former folk-club organiser, with a dim view of the licensing laws over the last few years, I fervently hope that the organisers of the event (Alistair Campbell and the headmaster of the college concerned) face the full rigours of criminal prosecution as they so richly deserve, either under the licensing laws or the Criminally Bad Judgement Act 2009. But I expect their defence would be that it wasn't 'music' under any generally understood interpretation. Though it certainly was entertainment - perhaps not quite as they'd intended, but there you go.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

'Cheers' for England and St George

It's one of the more depressing signs of our times that celebrating St George's Day has become a bit shady, a bit frowned upon. Without wanting to go all Daily Fail and "it's political correctness gone mad", there is something sad about the way that we now seem to face a polarised choice - either:

(a) get all red-faced and shouty about immigrants taking our workers' jobs, call for Maggie (or Winston) to come back and save us, put a few windows in and end up ticketed for D&D - "£80 and we'll call it quits, sir or madam, no, it won't go on your criminal record but it will show up on CRB checks, but don't you worry about it, just think how much money we've saved by you not having the chance to explain in court";
b) quietly ignore the whole thing, forgetting any sense of fondness for our country and the good things about it, and tutting and muttering about anyone who's so crass as to mention the day or fly a flag or otherwise be so regrettably recidivist. Give 'em a ticket for something. The country could use another £80.

Yes, I exaggerate. My middle name is hyperbole. (Remember Python: "He used...sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and...satire.") Never mind, I've been drinking beer. Let me give you a good reason for that.

Acquire and read this book.

I have no kick-back on this, I just think the book should be widely read. Dan Kieran talks about 'Albion' and wonders where it went; in political terms he's not working the 'left or right' axis so much as the 'libertarian or authoritarian' one. His original intention was to go out and break as many daft laws as he could but things changed during his research as he became increasingly aware of the erosion of civil liberties that has taken place over recent years. A historian friend of his talks about Hogarth's famous picture Gin Lane:

"It's not widely realized that it is part of a pair. Gin Lane is bad but the other one, Beer Street, is good. [...] People think Hogarth was having a go at alcohol in general with Gin Lane, but gin was what was causing all the problems, not beer. Everything in Beer Street is paradise. The only one not having a good time in Beer Street is the pawnbroker, because beer is part of the true English birthright. [...] the rights of the True-Born Englishman are to drink beer and defy authority. To defy tyranny whatever its guise."

And Dan Kieran himself says:

"Being told that being English actually means being part of an inclusive mongrel race that has always thrived on diversity, and that your right and duty as a member of that race is to stand up against tyranny whatever its guise - government, corporations or anyone who tries to exploit you or take away your freedom - and drink large amounts of beer (rather than gin, or its modern equivalents, alcopops, flavoured vodka and those luminous shots you can buy in dodgy nightclubs), was all of great comfort to me. That was an idea of national identity I could get on board with."

Me too. And so can Mrs QO, whom I nagged for ages to read the book until she did, and she even took her hands off her pint to read a bit back to me this afternoon, which I think tells you a lot. We sat in the sunshine, drank beer, and hoped for better things for our country. Sadly, the outcome of the discussion was that as soon as we can manage it, we'll escape either to France or Islay. Probably Islay, as we happen to know there's a couple of English lads brewing great beer there, and it's far enough away from Westminster to be a bit more wholesome.

But to the point. Yes, there was one, originally, though I grant you it's taken a while to emerge. Go out tomorrow and drink beer, resist oppression, embrace diversity and be happy. If that's how we might celebrate St George's Day, I don't see any harm in it.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Bless my soul, whatever next?

These have been installed in the loos round our local, and what a fantastic idea they are. As any male knows (and most females suspect), there's little so much fun as having something to aim for while... er... micturating. To have a little goal, with a little ball that one can try and get back into the goal, turns a duty into a veritable pleasure, and I salute the inventor. And I salute whoever it was that had the cojones to go up to a finance manager and explain that they wanted the dosh to put the production line onto miniature goals for gents' urinals.

I was so taken I had to drink another couple of pints so I could have another go. This may, of course, be the fiendish plan behind them. Well, why not? Pubs need our support. Given the fine weather this weekend, quite a number of the better pubs round here had a significant amount of support from Mrs QO and myself. Modesty forbids me to mention the number of pints consumed (she cracks on a bit, does the wife) but I feel we've done our bit to boost the local hostelry trade for a while. And my goal difference is looking good too.

Friday, 16 April 2010

In loco parentis

Admit it, you’ve done it too. While enjoying the warm, comfortable glow of drink and good company, you casually make a commitment you’d think bloody hard about if sober and alone. Which you are, 24 hours later, when reminded of what you said yesterday and the full implications settle around you like damp fog.

Here’s the story. Our oldest friends, whom we'll call Chris and Rachel to protect the very guilty indeed, were to meet Mrs QO and I in darkest Worcestershire at the home of mutual friends John and Claire, who were going away for a weekend to celebrate their tenth anniversary. Our challenge was to look after their two children – Jess, four, and Alec who’s two. Doubtless all you parents out there are wondering why on earth this should be noteworthy, but from our perspective as childless 40-somethings, the prospect was distinctly challenging.

Mrs QO and I decided years ago that parenthood was not for us. Chris and Rachel were, I think, quite relieved when it became apparent it was not going to be for them either. Neither in my work nor my social life are children a factor. They occupy a similar position in my mind to violent criminals – I’m aware they’re out there, but I meet them seldom and indeed try not to have any contact with them without the backup of experienced people trained in restraint techniques. And I had, in appallingly carefree manner, agreed to spend a whole weekend in charge of two of these strange creatures. It was going to be four adults to two children – we were heavily outnumbered. How would we cope? Yes, we’d all met the kids before – often enough to have earned our honorary titles of ‘Uncle’ and ‘Auntie’ – but always with the parents there. This time, we were on our own.

As Operation Bratwatch drew nearer, Chris and I swapped gloomy e-mails about the ordeal. We drew strength from the fact that our wives are both gifted with the kind of ‘can-do’ practicality that laughs at most problems short of a VCR that needs programming. We were fairly sure that we could rely on them to deal with what seemed the thorniest of all the problems – that of what we’ll delicately call ‘bathroom issues’. It was clear to us that when it came to dealing with an allegedly potty-trained four year old girl, and a two year old boy still in nappies, we men were so far out of our depth that salvage crews would soon be sending down lights and cameras to make History Channel documentaries. “Definitely a job for someone with ovaries,” we concluded.

Come the weekend itself, the dear wife and I packed carefully, each in charge of one area of essential resources. She had acquired most of the free world’s supply of coloured paper and a pack of multi-coloured felt-tip pens. I had a case of beer and two bottles of whisky. (Chris was going to bring the wine. And more beer.) I also had two packets of cigars, a fully-charged flashlight, some distress maroons and an amply-stocked first aid kit. Sorted.

We had what the economists call ‘a soft landing’, since by the time we arrived on the Friday evening, the child-minder had carried out all our duties in admirable fashion and the little ones were fed, cleansed, storied and asleep in bed. The child-minder was a slim, blonde thirty-something with a fetching smile. I was tempted to ask her to stay the weekend for all sorts of reasons, but it seemed she had to get back to her own brood (and I have great respect for Mrs QO's backhand) and so we were left on our own to peruse the six or seven closely-written sheets of notes that John and Claire had left, dealing in great detail with the various plans and routines that we had to adhere to. I glanced over the list of emergency phone numbers: psychotherapist, exorcist, The Samaritans… okay, we were covered. I must admit that if I had spent longer studying this document, I might have been more aware of the crucial importance of the correct coloured towels come bath-time, but I was challenged enough by the prospect of breakfast being required between 7 and 7.30. On a Saturday morning? "Dear God," I croaked weakly.

We tiptoed round the silent house for a while, familiarising ourselves with the position of the baby monitors and the drinks cabinet, according to our individual priorities. We had time for a quick supper before Chris and Rachel arrived. We showed them the baby monitors and drinks cabinet, and I’m sure they were impressed by our competent grasp on the situation. I know I was. In fact, so easy did the whole thing seem at that stage, that it didn’t appear unreasonable to relax over a glass of whisky. To discuss the next day’s schedule over another glass of whisky. To decide, over a glass of whisky, who would go shopping for essentials like food and more whisky. By one in the morning, however, the great weight of responsibility was beginning to tell and we decided to turn in.

The fun started before six a.m. Rachel, being an early riser in any case, reacted admirably quickly to the sounds of children who were awake and waiting less than patiently for some attention. Uncle Chris was, I fear, still weighed down by the responsibility of the previous evening’s whisky, and my wife doesn’t do mornings over well, which left me to go and assist Rachel. After taking as much time as possible over shaving, I joined the fray.

I don’t propose to detail everything that happened over the next two days. Much of it would be familiar to many of you, and in any event, my memory is a little blurry in places. Here, instead, are some unsorted episodes and lessons learned from that strange time.

If they seem a little chaotic and disordered, I assure you that’s entirely appropriate.

My childhood recollection is that adults were a strange, probably alien species whose habits, motivations and methods were manipulative, obscure and arbitrary. I am now convinced that I had this the wrong way round.

Just because a child doesn’t answer sometimes doesn’t mean they haven’t heard. They might be busy with something you don’t understand, silly. And remember that everything is noted down and may be used in evidence against you later.

I quickly learned not to engage Jess in debate. Despite her age, she could put her small pink finger unerringly on any flaw in my argument when it came, for instance, to why we should all stay at table until everybody had finished eating. Possibly if I’d trained as a financial adviser I could have matched her for low cunning, but as it was I left her to Mrs QO who – with the same womanly armament as Jess plus years of experience – proved a more worthy adversary. I admired the cut and thrust, especially when Jess remarked to Mrs QO that "if you didn’t keep answering me back, you’d have finished by now." Mrs QO smiled serenely and said, "Jess, as usual, your logic is impeccable," which earned her at least a breathing space before the next frontal assault.

I found Alec much easier to deal with. Maybe it’s that male bonding thing. Maybe, since I smoke the same brand of cigar as his father, I smelt right. (Cue damnatory chorus from wives, mothers and aunties.) But we got along pretty well, and before the end of the weekend he was "my main man" which seemed to please both of us. And I must admit that we had a lot of fun with the train set, even if the two uncles took disturbing pleasure in building a track layout that would inevitably lead to collisions – but you could argue that seems natural for those used to British public transport. Alec took to the notion with great relish, at any rate.

Not that it was all plain sailing, even with him – at one point I asked Mrs QO if she had her travelling sewing kit, as I felt an urgent need for a vasectomy. And the dear boy threw an ubertantrum after bath time on Saturday night, for reasons still not clear to me, during which he bit me. I adopted the same technique I use for putting drops into a cat’s ear – wrap securely in a towel and hold on grimly until the storm has passed. My offer of a story was abusively and tearfully rejected, and my role instead was to keep Jess more or less in bed (“okay, bouncing counts, but please be careful”) until Rachel had calmed Alec down and got him into bed. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be his friend the next morning, but, bless him, when we next met at some unearthly hour of Sunday morning, he grinned at me hugely and held out his arms for a cuddle. All the previous evening’s frustration was washed away and we had a whole bright new day to play in.

Always investigate items in children’s hands. Jess played happily for a while with a small black thing which she said was “mine, and you can’t play with it.” Whatever keeps you quiet, I thought, and left her to it. Only later did we discover it was the remote control of the garage door, which must have been up and down like a yo-yo all afternoon, doubtless to the bemusement of the neighbours.

Offering a ‘baby’ knife and fork to a grown lady of four is a mortal insult, and a very bad start if you’re hoping for a peaceful mealtime.

Shrek is a great film. It will keep adults entranced for ages, allowing children a blessed opportunity to get on with something restful, like painting the cat.

And so the weekend passed. If not a time of constant peace and harmony, it was at least ‘a slice’, as they say, and I think there was as much laughter and contented play as tears and stifled swearing. The Uncles did manage to slip away to the garage for a discreet beer and smoke from time to time (“just checking the door is closed, dear,”) and the Aunties did Aunty stuff too. When John and Claire returned home on Sunday afternoon, the four temporary substitutes declared with one quavering voice that we’d never, in all our years of friendship, been so glad to see them. The children, too, swarmed all over them and watching the joy and love of the re-united family group, I was almost tempted not to be recovering from minor surgery in the near future. Shortly thereafter, however, I was called upon to play piggy-back with Jess (despite my protest that I did not have the Necessary Dorsal Muscles) and the feeling passed. But it was a near thing. I still don’t long for children, but I must admit it’s quite nice to be an Uncle.

I’m still not doing the nappy thing, though.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

It's a funny old world - episode 488

I make no judgement on this one. I merely Observe. Well, OK, you got me, of course I make a judgement, I'm just not expressing it. I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader.

A little background. The world's population is growing fast. Scarcity of resources will become obvious very soon even in the developed world, and will at the very least lead to severe international tension if not outright conflict. Depending on who you believe, we may have already passed 'peak oil'. Antibiotic resistance grows apace. The developing world is busily trying to join the nuclear club. A long-term future for the human race is likely to involve having some of us off this increasingly threatened planet.

Meanwhile, a young lady called Britney Spears sings lightweight pop music and is photographed a lot.

Compare and contrast, if you will, these two headlines from today's Mail Online, with particular reference to how much public attention is suggested by the number of comments.

1. Neil Armstrong blasts Barack Obama over 'devastating' cuts to Nasa's plan to return to Moon
Comments [12]

2. Britney Spears bravely agrees to release un-airbrushed images of herself next to the digitally-altered versions
Comments [307]

It's a funny old world - episode 487

A small prize may be awarded for anyone who can count all the fetishes being addressed by these inscrutable but rather fetching young ladies.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Politics needs more salt

Admittedly, I have been feeling a little jaded of late. I recently suffered one of the nastiest cases of man-flu on record, though with Mrs QO's saintly ministrations, I just managed to pull through. During my delicate recuperation (the days when I could only face, like, three or four drinks), it became apparent that I would have, at short notice, to research and write an article on a subject of ineffable tedium. This I did, but the effort has shortened my life. However, by way of balancing karma, I intend to spread the misery by boring every single one of my friends and acquaintances to tears with the fruits of my research at the earliest possible opportunity. (You know who you are, and you have been warned. I can be distracted with alcohol, however.)

Thus it is that I find myself deeply, deeply uninterested by all the election malarkey that is now upon us. I know this feeling of political ennui is shared by many, and probably for similar reasons. What difference will it make who gets in? They all turn out much the same after they've been house-trained by the civil service, and after the evangelical zeal wears off to be replaced by the grim determination to hang on to office at all costs.

And the enraged gorilla in the voting booth this time round (what a vivid image that is, eh?) is the gaping chasm in public finances. All this chat about whether or not the Tories could feasibly save six billion is a bit fatuous when one recalls that the national debt is somewhere around £800 billion, even on official figures. Stick in public sector pension promises and 'off-balance-sheet' PFI spending and the total is... well, who knows? Let's just agree that no incoming administration will have much room to do anything creative for years to come.

That, of course, may be one good point. In fact, my hope is that we get a severely hung Parliament which can do sod all for quite some time. That will save billions, right there, and will reduce the amount of stupid legislation that's been coming out of Westminster for years and annoying us. If we got really creative, we'd also tell every senior civil servant (that is to say, all the ones who don't have to face the public or do anything else quite so demeaning) to go home - on three-quarters pay - and only come into the office if we called them. That too would save billions being wasted on pointless bright ideas that the policy wonks come up with to justify their own existence.

Another depressing thought is that whoever we get will most likely have a mandate amounting to 5-10% of the population. There is little zing and life in politics today.

Here in Nottingham we have a fine tradition of quite exciting politics. Who can forget the great Cheese Riots in 1764, when the city folk decided the cheese-makers from out of town were ramping up the prices too much and set about them? Poor old Mr Mayor; I suppose he felt he had to intervene, but being knocked over by a large cheese did little for his street-cred. And his hat was never the same.

A bit later on, in 1831, things got a little more sweaty. News came that the Reform Bill had been voted down in the Lords, and the Duke of Newcastle - who owned Nottingham Castle - had been a leading anti-reformer. The populace, a little prone to being excitable at the best of times, had been making merry since Goose Fair was on and it's conceivable that a toffee apple too many might have been taken. They decided to register their disapproval of the Duke's stance by burning down his bloody castle, and caused quite a bit of collateral damage elsewhere in the town too just to make the point.

In 1958 there was a nasty flare-up; initially caused by racial tension, it turned into a bit of a free-for-all. Something rather similar came along again in the early 80's with good business for local glaziers resulting.

I don't condone violence, I should say - all joking apart. But at least these disturbances were signs that people were alive, reacting and seriously ready to make their point.

I remember the days when you really had a significant choice in politics. When you listened to Maggie Thatcher on the one hand and Michael Foot on the other, there really was blue water (if the Michael Foot fans will pardon the expression) between them, a clear boundary between two ways of thinking, two radical flavours. What can we say about today's lot? The ones with seriously radical ideas are nowhere near getting enough votes for any kind of power. Those with a realistic chance of forming a government have no new thinking. Too many have been caught with their snouts deep in the trough, too many are third-rate functionaries, and too many of them would be dangerous if they only had a brain. It's hardly surprising that so many of us are wishing a plague on all their houses.

All that said, I will vote, as I believe we all should. The burning of the Castle was partly to do with the right to vote, and too many people all over the world have died for the right to have a say in who wields power over them for us to take the privilege lightly.

Jeez, that sounded pompous, didn't it? But I do believe it, and so should you.

Here endeth the lesson, let's go get a bloody beer.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

A moment of weakness

Shortly after my last post I was struck down by a virus and have been weak and feeble ever since. While I regather sufficient strength to post properly, here's something gloriously silly. As a Trekkie and Pythonist, I should be appalled, but it works strangely well, which says something about the two shows. Or about me. Whatever.

Monday, 5 April 2010

A la recherche du temps perdu

It's easy to get nostalgic about the 'good old days', but often they weren't really that good at all, and we should be careful to acknowledge just how much better life has been in recent times. Particularly under the watchful eye of recent Governments, who have carefully legislated away many of the old activities which we may sometimes miss, but which we must acknowledge were iniquitous to modern eyes.

I think a prime example is the sale of grey squirrels. This was, quite rightly, made an offence under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2006). No more would that apple-cheeked old man walk up the village street with a squirming sack over his shoulder, bidding a cheery "Morning, missis!" to the lady of the house before handing over the week's squirrels. I remember, as a lad, going down the pet shop and cautiously knocking on the back door to ask if they'd got any spare squirrels. "They're for me mam!" I would chime in youthful sincerity. "Are you sure, ye young spavin?" "Oh, yes, she'd like three please and here's me tanner."

Ah me. But I think we must all agree that times must change. Squirrels have got rather dangerous of late, as we all know, so it's only right that our trusty Government should step in.

Of course, when that law was brought in by the nice Mr Blair, we then all worried about the nice man who used to come round with the Polish potatoes. Squirrel and chipski was one of our regular Friday night dishes, but it wasn't quite the same with just the potatoes. Fortunately, the Polish Potatoes (Notification) (England) Order (2004) soon brought some sense to that, and banned them. For a while you could get them on the black market, but the Government inspectors soon put a stop to that. When I was a bit older I stopped one of them one evening and asked what his job was like. He said:

"Powers of an inspector
4. - (1) The provisions of this article are without prejudice to the circumstances in which an inspector may by virtue of the principal Order exercise the powers conferred by that Order.

(2) On having reasonable grounds for suspecting a contravention or likely contravention of article 3, an inspector may, for the purpose of this Order, exercise -

(a) the power conferred by article 22(1) of the principal Order as read with article 24(1) to (3) of the principal Order, as if a Polish potato were a plant landed or likely to be landed in contravention of the principal Order; and

(b) the power conferred by article 22(2) of the principal Order as read with article 24(1) to (3) of the principal Order, as if a Polish potato kept on or moved from premises, or likely to be so, were a plant kept on or moved from the premises in contravention of the principal Order."

I threw him over the wall and carried on to the Yob & Asbo where of course I neither smoked, sold squirrels nor attempted to import Polish potatoes, and I'm sure we'd agree that's best. Obviously we didn't do any singing either, what with Abdul not having the Public Entertainment & Enjoyment Licence thingy.

Just between you and me, though - and don't tell anyone else, OK? - I happen to know where we can get a squirrel and some Polish spuds, if you feel like some on the way home. Keep schtum, now, or the bloody inspectors will be in...

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Well, yes

I was just cruising round the blogosphere, as one does towards the end of the evening, sipping my Drambuie (long story), and came across a video where some lady was enunciating her top ten wishes. I gather this is something that well-connected bloggers require each other to do, but hey, why not. Anyway, Mrs QO, busy at the other computer, overheard this lady say "I'd like a car that washed itself."


"It's a lady on a blog. She wants a car that would wash itself."

"Park it in the rain, then, that'll do it."