Saturday, 24 December 2011

Merry and bright

Since Mrs QO and I don't have children, and since we're fortunate enough to be close enough to walk to my sister's tomorrow to spend the day with the family, we haven't had too much to do today. Which is nice. There has been time to take the Aggravatingly Fit Elder Parent out for a beery lunch, to fit in an afternoon sleep, and to watch a soppy film tonight. And drink a little brandy.

And in a few days' time we will be heading into the north country to spend a week with Super-disreputable Friend and his appalling wife, with whom we've spent the last 25 New Years. And I fear that once again there will be far too much merriment and alcohol. An awful prospect, I'm sure you'll agree.

And so at two minutes till midnight (here on good old-fashioned Greeenwich Mean Time), I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, be blessed and peaceful, and all good things in the year to come.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Who really runs the world?

This is a question that many are asking in the light of the financial crisis. The 'Comment is Free' part of the Guardian website is particularly rich in speculation at the moment, with what seems to this Observer to be a preponderance of opinion in favour of a cartel of international financiers determined to bleed the ordinary working peasant dry so as to keep the financiers in private jets and yachts and other cool stuff.

My brain works at such a pace that I have to give it a couple of hours cooling-off time after lunch, and while preparing myself today for this inconvenient but necessary hiatus, settling into the old armchair in the study and pulling up the blanket, I dedicated the last 30 seconds or so of mental processing time to considering the question of who really runs the world. I hereby present the results.

In no particular order, let's ponder the chief candidates and award scores for likelihood.

1. God (singular, albeit in various flavours) – the obvious choice for many, but a moment's reflection questions the notion. A Creator capable of bringing into existence the Universe we see around us could not possibly do so bad a job of running just one tiny bit of it. For example, we know from various books written, translated and edited by men a long time ago that the Judeo-Christian God is perfect and omnipotent. However, a brief look at, say, Wolverhampton, suggests powerfully that there's no such divinity on the job. There is, though, an argument (also in the books written, translated and edited by men) that God is testing us through hardship to see what will happen. Wolverhampton is what has happened, so the theory is just barely tenable, and we will therefore, with a certain reluctance, put a positive score on this option: 3/10.

2. Gods (plural, various flavours, sizes and colour schemes) – Greek and Roman myths in particular offer a whole shedload of gods, mostly quarrelsome, arbitrary, illogical and downright unpredictable. They were known to favour some humans, pick on others, have fights with their sibling deities, sometimes even coming down to earth for a bit of trans-species naughty fun. In other words, just like us only more so (even the trans-species bit, but let's not drag the Welsh into it right now). This is indeed a tempting notion, but Occam's Razor says that if something like humans is running the world, the most likely candidate is humans. So despite having a rather rusty and blunt Occam's Razor, to diverse deities we award: 1/10.

3. A secret world organisation – well, as I said above, plenty of these are being suggested as candidates at the moment. Opus Dei, the Illuminati, Freemasons, the Bilderberg Group, SMERSH – take your pick. In every case, the secret organisation in question ('it is said... it is rumoured... some believe that...') meets from time to time, usually in a mountainous, remote region, and the members sit around smoking cigars, sipping expensive liquor, and making their fiendish plans to control all the world's money and keep everyone else working for a pittance to fund their insane plans for world domination. (Some of them are even said to stroke white long-haired cats while doing so, the evil bastards.) Now this idea really has some serious legs, though we do have to ask ourselves: 'If this bunch is running the world to make money which they want for themselves, how come they're doing such a crap job of it?' Presumably such a group would have to include top bankers, as they're the ones with their hands on the money at one point or another; if the world really is run by people like Sir Fred Goodwin, we might as bend over and kiss our arses goodbye, because we're seriously fucked. So I think we can discard this notion... excuse me a moment...

'Waiter! Another glass of the Hennessy Paradis Extra Rare Cognac, a hand-rolled Romeo y Julieta and a dish of caviare for Tiddles here. Oh, and pass the word... Goodwin is to be disposed of quietly by next Thursday. Off you go.'

So, as I was saying, we can put this ridiculous idea right out of our heads, not even worth considering. 0/10.

4. Aliens – well, David Icke thinks so, which is a very strong argument against. Still, it's a big universe, there may be another species out there coveting Wolverhampton and its lovely womenfolk. And I was brought up on Captain Scarlet fighting the Mysterons, and I'm not entirely convinced they've gone away, so let's give this one: 4/10.

5. Our elected representatives – ha ha ha ha! Yes, I know, quite unthinkable, but I wanted an excuse to post that pic, to be honest: 0/10.

6. Happenstance and natural selection – by far my favourite option. Every time we consider a candidate for an agency actually running the world, we bump into the problem of 'well, why is it so crap and random, then?' I suspect what we take for organisation is no more than an emergent property of chaos (much like me trying to tidy my desk every January), and that all our attempts to ascribe purposed direction of the world are no more than a comforting rationalisation in the face of something entirely out of our control (much like my desk for eleven months of the year). We are no more in charge of the world than the prawns are in charge of the Atlantic. We are not rational, logical beings, we do what we do out of ancient instincts, and what seems to work, mostly, at the time, for most people, is what tends to be carried forward. Okay, this doesn't really explain Wolverhampton, and I'm minded to leave that to David Icke, but it's got the rest of it sewn up: 9/10.

So there you have it. No big conspiracy, but no comforting 'well, at least someone's in charge even if I know it's not me' either. Frightening, or liberating? You choose. It won't matter what you choose, but go ahead anyway.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Workplace parking levy

For those who don't live in Nottingham — or those who do live in Nottingham but haven't been paying attention — the good folk at Nottingham City Council are bringing in a 'workplace parking levy'. All businesses within the City administrative boundary must register all the parking places they provide; those providing more than 10 (excluding those for Blue Badge holders) have to cough up an estimated £279 per place as of April Fools Day, 2012. I say 'estimated', as the council don't seem quite sure yet, but they do seem sure that it will rise fairly sharply thereafter. (No surprises there, then.) The proceeds from the levy, say the council, "...must be invested into improving local transport for Nottingham. The WPL will provide funding for NET Phase Two, the extensions to the existing tram system, as well the redevelopment of Nottingham Railway Station (the Hub project) and is also intended to support the popular Link bus network. "

The employer is the one who has to cough up, and there will — of course — be council monitoring and enforcement. The employer also has to decide whether or not to pass the levy on to the employees, in full or in part. That's going to be a tricky decision.

Commuters approaching Trent Bridge from south of the city, followed by a Nottm City Council parking levy enforcement officer

I'm fascinated by how this is going to play out. As I don't live or work within the City boundary, it's not going to cost me diddly-squat, but I'm very far from disinterested. I've blogged before about cities being for people, not cars, and being all for public transport. And we're going to have to face it some time soon — most of us won't be able to afford to run cars for any distance on a regular basis, so we might do well to start rebalancing our economy towards a model in which people tend to live closer to work than they do at the moment, and ensuring that good public transport is available for them. And we know from experience that people won't give up their car unless they're hit in the pocket. So as far as all that goes, the WPL looks like A Good Thing. And, moreover, the plan was clearly laid out before the last council elections, so there's a democratic mandate for it.

And yet... and yet... unemployment in Nottingham is severe, and the last thing the city needs is for businesses to decide to move elsewhere, or for potential new employers to decide not to come after all. A Nottingham business with 50 employees for whom parking is provided is looking at a new tax of £15,000 a year unless they pass it on to the employees; many depressed areas are offering significant financial incentives to employers to move into their areas, and perhaps in some cases the WPL will prove the last straw and provoke a move out of the city. That would not be A Good Thing at all.

I suspect that whether or not the WPL is seen as a success or a failure will depend on two factors. Firstly, the ability of local employers to pass on the levy to their employees. If they can do this in full, or substantially, then it becomes something of an administrative headache, but no more, and probably won't result in many decamping. In these times of high unemployment, with people fearful for their jobs, employers are probably well placed to pass on the levy. If so, all might be well from a business point of view, albeit a pain in the arse for the employees concerned.

The other big factor is what will other local authorities do? If everyone followed Nottingham's lead promptly, there evidently wouldn't be any incentive for employers to move out to escape the levy here. But I bet everyone else is waiting to see what happens with great interest, but will let Nottingham take the initial brunt of complaints, bad publicity, challenges in domestic and European courts, etc.

So to summarise: Nottingham City Council's move is certainly brave. Whether it's wise remains to be seen. Meanwhile, here's a few predictions.

• Businesses currently providing 10 parking spaces, and wanting to employ more people, will be paying far more attention to the 'address' bit on job applications. "Well, Ms Smith hasn't got quite the qualifications, but obviously she could get here on the bus..."

• There will be job opportunities at the Council for those who would enjoy spending their day waving their badges at people and taking photographs of who's parking where.

• The market in forged Blue Badges (which I happen to know is already healthy) is going to explode. It would be nice to think that the job market for genuine Blue Badge holders would improve, but let's not be silly.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Gloomy thoughts on a dark evening

Friday evening isn't the best time to do any sort of analysis of the state of the country. Too tired, one too many glasses of wine. But then this isn't the best blog in the world, so I'm just going to go for it, but don't you be expecting any sharp insights, OK?

It used to be the case that parents would cajole their children into staying with education, and more or less behaving themselves, by way of the promise of a good job if you stayed the course through school, and ideally go on to get your A-levels and perhaps even a degree. Hang on in there, they would say, and the good times will follow. You can get a car, a house, enough income to enjoy a good standard of living and money quietly going away into a pension fund that would grow substantially. A long-term deal which was demonstrably paying off for those parents, who'd followed exactly that course.

I have no idea of the average age of the three regular readers of this blog, but let's all imagine that we're in our teens or early 20s. What prospects do we see? That's right - sod all. While the Observer generation is now hitting a wall of unemployment, at least in most cases the deal paid off pretty well for 30 years, and early retirement is at least partially successful for many. But for the young?

You can, if you wish, take on a debt amounting to several tens of thousands of pounds to get a degree. When you finish, there will be enormous competition for a job, and graduates - complete with huge debt - may get work stacking shelves or training to serve burgers. Even the 'better' jobs will be in sectors very vulnerable to economic ups and downs, and difficult to build into a life-long career. Buying a house will be out of the question. Pension contributions will be terribly difficult to make, and will buy very little even over the long term.

And whose fault is all this? Mum & Dad, that's who. Or your Uncle Observer, or whatever other twat repeatedly voted for the politicians that allowed - encouraged - this country to rack up such enormous debts payable by the next generation.

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do."

I've no idea how this will play out. At the moment we see young people protesting against the establishment by way of pitching tents in public spaces and being touchingly earnest and well behaved. This is of course going to have zero effect on the establishment, other than a few meaningless resignations among the clergy, who don't, let's face it, have much impact on the running of the economy.

I suspect it may be that our young people eventually read up on how young French people did it in 1968, and then things will get a bit sweaty.

Monday, 31 October 2011

A modest proposal

For some time now, I've been looking at the lunacies of the world and thinking about how we might mitigate them somewhat.

You may have heard of the 17th century Witchfinder General? If not, have a quick refresher here.

I propose that we institute a new office of Bollocks-Finder General. A carefully selected body of men and women will be employed by we, the people, to wander round the country investigating anything that catches their eye. I have in mind the sort of people who you'd find as senior NCOs, old-style hospital matrons, experienced construction engineers, passenger liner captains and the like - the sort of people accustomed to taking on huge responsibilities, getting big things done and making life-and-death decisions. (But not, please note, so high in any corporate structure that they get too far up their own arse.) Where appropriate - and it will surely be often - they will cry: "Hang on, this is bollocks!"

Our Bollocks-Finders General will have rather extensive powers, much as you might expect senior military types to have in wartime. (Let's face it, the War against Terror is never going to be won, but we might make headway in the War against Bollocks.) They will be able to issue summary commands to all and sundry, backed up by civil and military authorities where required. They will have administrative and judicial powers, and may well be armed. There will be no appeal, other than by way of an outraged populace stringing them up if they get it wrong too often. I suspect that, on the contrary, they will be well loved by ordinary people, though hated by bureaucrats, corporate bandits, politicians and other lowlives.

Here are some examples of where the Bollocks-Finder General might usefully step in, along with the actions that might well be taken.

Imagine if we'd had a B-FG way back in 2002 when the Government announced the National Programme for IT for the NHS. This was, in theory, going to make patient records centrally available. There would, shortly after the announcement, have been an interview along these lines:

B-FG: "So exactly which doctors and hospitals have asked for this?"
Bureaucrat: "Ah... well, it's more of a government initiative."
B-FG: "So nobody who's looking after patients actually wants it?"
Bureaucrat: "Well, we're sure it will be jolly useful, and it won't cost more than £6.2 billion to have all the patient records in one place, accessible to all doctors and nurses everywhere."
B-FG: "So how often, exactly, would that be better than just picking up the telephone or sending an email? And how will it speed up patient care or save money?"
Bureaucrat: "Oh, well, we haven't looked into that in great detail... but it will be jolly good, we're quite sure..."
B-FG: "No. This is complete bollocks. You're fired. And so is whoever employed you."

See? That would have saved over £11 billion in the end.

Another example - the Millennium Dome.

Tony Blair: "So, we'll have this huge big tent and we'll fill it with all sorts of interesting stuff."
B-FG: "Like what?"
Tony Blair: "Erm... well, really interesting stuff. It'll be iconic."
B-FG: "So in other words you have no idea?"
Tony Blair: "Well, look, I think we should focus on the real point here..."
B-FG: "Bollocks. Not going to happen. Try and focus on not getting us into any more wars, eh?"

If only we'd had B-FGs here in Nottingham in the '60s. Imagine one of them wandering into the town planning meetings:

Town planners: "So, we're agreed. Get rid of the cobbled streets and Georgian buildings, and have a six-lane highway and lots of concrete high-rise buildings. That's what we'll do."
B-FG: "Will you bollocks. You're all fired."
Outraged Councillor: "You can't fire me - I was democratically elected!"
B-FG: "Good point. I'll just have to shoot you, then."

Think of the crass stupidity we could avoid. The Bollocks-Finders General would have plenty to say (and would probably use up a fair bit of ammunition) about such things as The X-Factor, Tescos in everybody's back garden, councils banning conker fights, CCTV on every streetlamp, Harriet Harman, alcopops, PCSOs, merchant bankers, travellers who don't, the European Agricultural Policy (and much else from Brussels), Graham Norton, the railways, wind turbines... the list is long.

You're probably thinking that I'd like to be a Bollocks-Finder General myself. Well, yes, I have to admit, I would, but I lack the self-control required. I'd shoot everyone instead of just firing them. A sense of perspective is required, after all.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Down on Dale Farm

I hesitate to comment on this, as I don't think I can add anything to the debate. But I need practice with this new Blogger system...

I will never take much satisfaction at the sight of riot police forcing people out of their homes. And I have a good deal of sympathy with the lot of the Roma. However, in the case of Dale Farm there has been, frankly, an awful lot of bollocks about "ethnic cleansing" and the like.

Fundamentally, it's quite simple. Even if you own a piece of land, you can't necessarily build on it. In the case of many of the Dale Farm plots now facing action, the land is owned by fairly wealthy absentee landlords from the Irish Travelling community. But it's Green Belt, and no planning permission has been granted for permanent buildings. Basildon Council are therefore entitled - in fact, obliged - to take action to clear illegal structures from the area. Those residents affected have been offered alternative accommodation, with some advantage over many already on the council housing waiting list, but have instead gambled on their media and legal campaign to see them through. That gamble has failed, and it was inevitable that the bailiffs and police would go in. And in my view it was right.

The whole point about a 'common law' is that it treats all people the same: without fear or favour, prejudice or ill-will. As soon as any minority is given special exemptions - because of their own chosen lifestyles - things break down very quickly. I could go on to discuss the distinction that might usefully be made between the Roma and the Irish Travellers, but that's a whole other can of worms which I feel too tired to open. To close, here's something that may reinforce some prejudices, or may cause some reappraisal. Either way, it's one of Ewan MacColl's finest songs, quite beautifully performed.

Monday, 10 October 2011

The challenge of change

Well, looky here. I take a little while out from blogging and come back to find lots of changes. Can't possibly work out what's going on after the red wine with supper, so the blog may look a little strange for a while. It may also look different from one minute to the next as I experiment with the new range of templates. When I say 'experiment' I do of course mean 'click on them at random and see what happens'. I'm sure we'll all settle down before long. In the meantime, here's just a few snapshots of what Mrs QO and I have been doing over the last few weeks.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Time deficit

Life has been very full over the last two or three weeks, and although there have been plenty of Observations, there has been too little time to write them up. Mrs QO and I are currently girding our loins and folding our tents to head to Bromyard Folk Festival - the last of the year for us - and so tonight I will have to content both myself and you with this link and a story about a strong contender for the QO's F***wit of the Year. Do feel free to suggest other candidates.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Lifting the veil

Three stories have caught my eye the last few days, prompting some musing around the theme of privacy, secrecy and freedom of information.

The Guvmint - or perhaps more accurately the Civil Service - are probably already regretting setting up this e-petition thing. The BBC made a Freedom of Information request to the Government asking for Cabinet papers relating to the Hillsborough disaster 20 years ago. Was our Guvmint happy and eager to release these papers? You guessed it. The FoI Commissioner had to step in and rule in the BBC's favour, and the Guvmint were minded to appeal - until the e-petition on the subject soared above the 100,000 signature mark, thus potentially earning the matter a Parliamentary debate, not to mention getting it well onto the media/blogger/Twitter radar.

It seems the resistance to releasing the papers was from the Cabinet Office rather than our elected tools members. Sir Humphrey clearly doesn't like the punters knowing any more than is good for them, which is virtually nothing.

The second story in this little collection was the report of the website on which people post pictures of men they fancy that they've spotted on the London Tube and have surreptitiously photographed. Turns out that there's nothing illegal about this, since the Tube is deemed a public place, and only a tiny number of men have asked to have their pix removed.

The question arises: are we now fairly relaxed about the idea that our picture might be taken and posted without our knowledge or permission on the intertubes, for the whole world to see? Evidently quite a few British men are, and the idea has crossed the big pond and is taking off in the US of A too.

Linked to the BBC story hotlinked above was an older story in which an academic made this interesting comment: "If you look at privacy in law, one important concept is a reasonable expectation of privacy. As more private lives are exported online, reasonable expectations are diminishing."

If he's right, as many of us put more and more information about ourselves online - or permit it to be put there by others - the old norms of an expected degree of privacy and the legal rights to it will diminish.

Thirdly, Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, entered the Big Brother house, prompting a fair old storm of comment. Critics accuse her of being a media junky, demeaning the office that her husband holds and generally making an undignifed prat of herself. Supporters point out that she's giving a large proportion of her fee to charity, and repeat her own comment that she may be the Speaker's wife but she isn't the Speaker and is thus free to do whatever she wants. You will doubtless make up your own mind on this point.

Point of order...

Big Brother is by design and definition an almost total loss of privacy and secrecy, willingly accepted by the participants. While this was once shocking, and made the show a runaway hit, it's lost much of its impact as that loss of privacy doesn't carry the same weight any more.

So what do we Observers weave from these threads?

It seems to me that loss of privacy for the individual is inevitable given the increasing link between life and the internet. What will be interesting is to what extent society will demand a concomitant loss of State secrecy. My generation grew up behind lace curtains and D-notices, in the shadow of the Cold War with memories of the Second World War very much alive. Although automatic deference to authority was waning rapidly, there was still a fairly wide acceptance of the need for authority to have secrets. Times have changed. Young people today seem to be comfortable with less personal security, far more ready to put information about themselves out there online. But with that comes far less ingrained, unthinking respect for 'national security' and a 'need to know' attitude from authority. Given that our political parties are now so closely aligned in much of their thinking, I suspect that a party's willingness to really live and work under 'open government', rather than lip-service to that concept, could make a real difference to their electoral chances. Their biggest challenge may be taking the Civil Service along with them. "Knowledge is power" goes the old adage, so perhaps it's time for mature democracies to share a bit more of it.

I still like to draw the curtains, and I run this blog anonymously, but it could well be that we're moving in a healthy direction. Much of the above could of course apply equally to most of the West, and the Arab Spring suggests that the same could be true over much more of the world. If we hide less from each other, and our governments hide less from us, it might be that we all find we have more in common than we think; and where there are differences, they're better understood. I like to believe so, anyway.

And on that optimistic if alcohol-fuelled note, I bid you goodnight.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Everybody off the outrage bus, please

I wish to register a complaint.

Given the riots, the phone-tapping and the economic crisis, you'd think that our tabloids would have better things to report on than the case of Moira Pearce and her request for charitable donations to help her look after her ten children.

The Sun, the Mirror and the Daily Mail have all, with tedious predictability, made much of the fact that Ms Pearce (34) lives entirely on benefits. Her State-provided income amounts - if the reports can be trusted - to somewhat over £30,000 a year, and her housing is provided free too. They poke fun at the fact that her ten children have been procreated by four different fathers, none of whom appears to be helping financially (or indeed in any other way). They make mockery, too, of the children's names: Kayleigh, Jamie, Chloe, Tyler, Shania, Blade, Shonna, Candice, Chardonnaie and Maxy-Jane (sic). The heartless reporters also point out that Ms Pearce's latest boyfriend is 18.

This all makes me tired. We should be celebrating this fine example of British fecundity, tirelessly turning out new citizens for Gillingham. Only four of them were planned, she said, which makes her achievement even more admirable, and let's give her credit for her modesty. So what if she's called one of her girls 'Chloe'? The lass can always change her name to something more suitable when she's of an age, for heaven's sake.

As for her living entirely on benefits, I can set the record straight by pointing out that she does live entirely on benefits, but that includes her job-seeker's allowance. So she's evidently seeking a job, and if only employers were a little more imaginative they could see how having to look after 10 children and do a day's work wouldn't be that much of a problem.

And what of it, if she has a boyfriend about half her age and only a year older than her eldest child? Many women would like one like that, even if he doesn't have a job. Anyway, I think we can trust Ms Pearce's judgement of men, since she's evidently known a few. The real tragedy is that on medical advice Ms Pearce has had to be sterilised. I think the other women of Gillingham - and indeed the rest of this country - need to step up to the mark now. Ms Pearce has surely done her bit.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Switch off politicians during riots, say social networkers

Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger users were united today in calling for politicians to be switched off during periods of civil unrest.

"These politicians just hamper efforts to restore order on the streets, innit" said Twitter user MizzeeFab17, adding "lol #braindead".

A Facebook poll which promptly went viral asked users to vote on what had been most effective in bringing the London riots to an end, with the following results:

1. David Cameron saying "Let us be absolutely clear on this" = 0.001%
2. 16,000 pissed-off police officers with batons = 99.999%

Media executives backed the call, saying that politicians were of little use during the riots. "Obviously when we're looking for sex and sleaze stories, we need Members of Parliament, as there are only so many professional footballers around. But let's face it, when it comes to a choice between burning buildings and Hazel Blears, it's a no-brainer."

Meanwhile senior police officers complained that politicians consumed valuable oxygen that was badly needed by exhausted officers running after thieving scrotes.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The Big Society

Intending to lighten the doom and gloom, I chose this quintessentially cheerful, hopeful, nay damn it, British picture to introduce the post. In the midst of our broken shop windows and burning buildings, there are some good things...

Ooops. Sorry. Wrong pic.

That's better. As I was saying, there are some good things coming out of the whole riot mess.

Last night here in Nottingham, police stations had petrol bombs thrown at them. Cars were set alight, windows broken, Clarendon College badly damaged. Against that, let's consider the Forest-County match I mentioned yesterday. Before the kick-off, a statement was read to the crowd asking them to go home safely and keep away from any trouble. The crowd stood and applauded. The official police report reads:

"One of the positive highlights of the evening was the impeccably behaved crowd of 23,000 spectators at the Carling Cup football match between Nottingham Forest and Notts County. Not a single incident occurred before, during or after the game off the pitch."

Nottinghamshire police managed the night's incidents extremely well. This, despite the low morale caused by the Government's plans to cut their numbers and reduce their pay and pensions.

Twitter & Facebook campaigns urged people to go out on the streets to clear up this morning. They had little to do: the City Council's teams were out there at 4am, clearing up before dawn. Respect to both groups, and indeed to the similar community clear-up campaigns in all the affected areas. They are being tagged the 'Riot Wombles', which I think we'd all agree is splendid.

All over the blogosphere, Facebook and Twitter, unfiltered by the media, there is huge support for the police and sympathy for those whose homes, businesses and neighbourhoods have been damaged.

And today, something from Nottingham City Council leader Jon Collins (with whom I've had distinct differences of opinion via email) that all here at the Observatory wholeheartedly applaud:

"Nottingham City Council Leader, Jon Collins, and Nottingham City Homes Chief Executive, Chris Langstaff, today announce that they will seek to evict anyone who is directly involved, or whose sons or daughters have been involved in disturbances.

"Cllr Collins added: 'Parents have a responsibility to control the young people living in their home. If young people living in your home have been involved in the violence over the past few days, they are putting your tenancy at risk.

'The perpetrators of these crimes are not only causing a great deal of disturbance and criminal damage, they are also inciting fear into our local communities, and that is totally unacceptable.

'If you or your children are involved, you are putting your family home at risk - don't let that happen.'

Yes. This. Get responsibility back where it belongs.

So, good stuff coming out as the flames die down. And, let us notice, from the grassroots. The Government have done sod-all, frankly, hastily unpacking from holiday and making a few empty speeches. I note that Parliament has been recalled, and that the taxpayer will have to pick up the bill for that. You know what, Members of Parliament? Between the police and ordinary people and local government, we're coping and getting on top of it. Sod off back to Tuscany.

Low expectations

Deirdre Clunge, lecturer in social studies at the University of Watford Gap Services, today said that there was a tragic lack of aspiration among some looters.

"There has clearly been an institutional failure on the part of Government to grasp the fact that there is today a culturally deprived generation of looters whose aspirations rise no further than packets of crisps from Poundland. Their lack of guidance in their formative years means that they don't even have the sense to wear hoodies so that they can't be identified from CCTV. Meanwhile, an unfairly privileged sector of more appropriately dressed and ambitious looters are able to benefit from JD Sports and Richer Sounds. A lavishly funded study is clearly necessary for me and my colleagues to identify the root causes of this terrible disconnect in our society and blame everyone except thieving scrotes out for a quick snack."

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Who'd be a Notts police officer tonight?

Informed rumour reaches the Observatory that the city authorities are ready for tonight. The Forest-County derby would make it a big night for the police in any event, so let's hope that anything that kicks off other than from the centre-spot at the City Ground is jumped on from a great height.

Meanwhile, by way of update to the previous post, Mr Cameron might just as well have stayed on holiday, as far as I can see. His announcement was full of the usual waffle, and Theresa May's been covering waffle pretty thoroughly already. I don't think I'll change the picture immediately above the mention of COBRA below to something more inspiring.

Riot control

The Government emergency planning committee - COBRA - meets this morning, with David Cameron and Theresa May hurriedly back from their holidays. We will have to wait and see what they do before judging whether or not the Government is in control of the country.

You would have thought, having watched the news coverage of wholesale arson, burglary and criminal damage in London and elsewhere, that something more robust than supportive speeches was needed. I mean, when buildings are going up in flames and windows going in and police getting out of their vans to find bullet holes in them, then yet another sentence beginning "Let there be no doubt..." or "Let us be absolutely clear about this..." is only so much use. That is, bugger all use.

The only kind of language that will help now would be a phone call from COBRA to Tim Godwin (acting Commissioner of the Met) along the lines of: "The water cannon, baton rounds and tear gas are on their way. Use them. We take full responsibility and will announce that. If you haven't got the balls to make that order, stand down and put your next in command on the line. Tell the officers on the ground that if they go hands on with their batons, they will have our full support and immunity from prosecution. We will announce that too. We are also telling the CPS to use the highest charges they can to prosecute anyone you arrest. We will announce that too. Now go and take back the streets."

Sunday, 7 August 2011

If only...

... just for once, the post-riot interviews sounded like this:

Community Leader: "I'm shocked and disgusted. I haven't got time to talk to the media as I'm leading the community in telling the lads to put down the petrol-bombs, organising a collection to pay for the broken glass and burned-out homes and businesses, making sure the thieving scrotes round here return every one of the items they stole from local stores, and going round to the law-abiding residents to apologise for the fear and disruption they've been put through. I blame the parents."

If you're going to loot a shop, you really ought to get the iMac...

Police Commander: "We are the police. We are not social services, teachers, parents or therapists. If you want peace and order on the streets, we can achieve that in 30 minutes with water cannon, tear-gas and baton rounds. Politicians don't like that on British streets, and the media moan like buggery if we go in hands-on with our little batons and someone gets hurt. So all we can do is stand here in flammable hi-viz vests, watch the buildings and cars burn and hope that not too many of our men and women burn with them. I blame the parents."

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Oh yeah?

From the Guardian yesterday: "Greek austerity plan will work, says OECD ... A leading economic thinktank has backed the embattled Greek government by predicting that the country's hugely unpopular austerity measures will work."

From Private Eye yesterday: "The financial affairs of Greece seem to be in a state of hopeless bankruptcy ... The expenses of the court and government, the carelessness of officials, and the non-receipt of the taxes, have added to the embarassment of the exchequer... "

Their quote is taken from Chambers Encyclopedia, Vol 5, 1868.

George Santayana, who famously wrote: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it", would have enjoyed that.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Well, that didn't take long...

How the hell do they do that?

Louise Mensch is Prime Minister

Yes, after several hours listening carefully on the phone, the QO can exclusively reveal that as part of a complicated backroom deal involving the 1922 Committee, Angela Merkel, Piers Morgan and several shadowy figures from private equity firms, Louise Mensch has agreed to take over as Prime Minister of Greece.

Outgoing Greek Premier George Papandreou said in a packed press conference: "I believe it's time to stand down in favour of someone who is well aware of the downside of fractional reserve banking and, by the way, is something of a χαριτωμένο κορίτσι, as we say in Greek. Cute, I think is your term."

Mrs Mensch dimpled prettily before launching into an incisive commentary on the limitations of fractional reserve banking, and why Piers Morgan was a waste of skin. She said that she was committed to ensuring that every Greek citizen was able to retire at 48, as she intended to, and further pledged herself to stabilising the Greek economy while continuing to press Rupert Murdoch and News International on their disgraceful behaviour, seeing that Chris Huhne was dealt with according to law, restoring the British armed forces to their former glory, and helping her good friend the Quizzical Observer to bang out the most cynical, half-baked blog post of the week.

The QO was understood to be in hiding, but through his newly appointed media consultant, Andy Coulson, denied that he was just seeing how many Google hits he could work into four paragraphs and a photo ripped off from the Guardian.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Use it or lose it

A recent study by American scientists - and since they're American we can't call them "boffins", much as we'd like to - suggests that the instant availability of facts via Google and other search engines is causing us to remember where to look for facts rather than remembering the facts themselves.

Well, duh. This process has been going on since the Babylonians invented tax 5,000 years ago with their cuneiform records of who owed the priests money (I'm nearly sure that's right, but I haven't checked with Google yet). In my own lifetime, the knowledge of the 'times table' and how to use a slide rule - both thrashed into me as if my life depended on it - became largely irrelevant with the advent of the pocket calculator. I was allowed to have both slide rule and pocket calculator on the desk during my maths O-level, and you won't be surprised to hear which I chose to use.

For the younger readers, I should perhaps say that the slide rule was a strange object consisting of various sliding sections with strange markings on them, with a cursor block that slid up and down as well. By careful and informed manipulation of the various slidy bits, you could perform your calculations and get a very accurate answer. But it didn't tell you the order of magnitude - or in other words, where to put the decimal point - so you had to be able to approximate the calculation by other means. I bet you can see where we took to the pocket calculator like a tabloid to a PIN number. Plus you could do real cool stuff on your calculator like nearly spell 'HELLO' upside down, with a bit of work.

There are in my opinion two great secrets to a successful, productive and happy life. Humans are good at both of them, if they put a little effort in.

First: be adaptable.
Second: minimise your therbligs - that is to say, be efficient.

So, embrace technology. Don't clutter your mind with imperfectly remembered data. Learn to search for it effectively, and leave your mind free for creative thought. Instead of relying for the whole of your life on the one slanted view that your teacher served up as 'facts' during those lessons all those years ago, learn to keep learning as new facts and new interpretations emerge.

And yet... and yet...

That's all very well in theory, but I worry that my generation - that had basic literacy and numeracy hammered in at all costs - has the advantage over those following on, in that if all the electricity fails I can still work out the change I should get at the shop. (Although these days, if the electronic tills stop working, they won't sell you anything, so maybe this is a moot point.) I could still use a slide rule with a bit of squinting. I don't need to use a spell-checker. I don't need Word underlining dubious grammar for me.

I don't know whether we've got the right balance yet. I do know I love the instant gratification of momentary curiosity that Google offers. And I can do far more work in a given day than I could when research involved physical travel to a good library or an awful lot of time on the phone and sending off for hard copy publications. But it's good to know that a lot of basic stuff is up there in the memory and not reliant on Google.

By the way, I know that the phrase "PIN number" contains a redundancy. But it's common usage, and I'm as common as they come.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Latest in the phone-hacking scandal...

At a packed press conference this morning, Max Clifford announced that Ms Katie Price had commenced legal action against News International because her name had not so far been mentioned in the phone-hacking media coverage.

Said Mr Clifford: "It's outrageous in this day and age that the press can just fail to hack somebody as famous as Katie. She's a lovely girl, whom I've known since she was a 34-A, and she's distraught and distressed and will be pressing for punitive damages."

An ex-News of the World editor and current chief executive of News International, who didn't want to give her name, remarked off the official record that of course Katie Price's phone had been hacked, but there were only so many times you could print "yeah, like, right, cool babe", especially when there were dead teenagers, soldiers and terrorist bomb victims available.

Meanwhile a spokesman for the Sunday Times said that the whole notion of hacking a celebrity like Katie Price was deeply offensive. The Sunday Times had standards, and only hacked Prime Ministers and royalty.

The case is ongoing.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Rethinking Rebekah

Rebekah Brooks was awarded an honorary degree last year by the University of the Arts, London, for being inspirational and in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the arts and creative industry.

At the time that must have seemed a good decision. Rebekah's rise at News International has been genuinely remarkable - from being a secretary at the News of the World to its editor in 11 years; and to chief executive of NI nine years later. And this despite her inability to spell her own name. Truly a woman marked by destiny.

Monday's chip wrappers

It's just been announced that the News of the World is to close; Sunday's edition will be the last one. James Murdoch has said that any revenues will be donated to charity.

The media frenzy continues and Twitter, FB and the blogosphere are going into meltdown. Interesting times.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Made of wrong

As a journalist and a cynic, to hear that the News of the World hacked Milly Dowler's voicemail did not leave me as surprised as it should perhaps have done.

The phone-hacking story has been rumbling away for some years, and Private Eye and the Guardian in particular have been following it. It's a dispiriting saga, encapsulating much of what is wrong with our society. Pour yourself a stiff drink and wade through as much of it as you can stomach on the Guardian's round-up page here.

So much about this story is depressing. The press have always been pretty hard-nosed when chasing a story, but this really does stink. What also stinks is the fact that investigations by the Press Complaints Commission, the House of Commons media select committee and the Metropolitan Police have all rather conveniently not gripped this and dealt with it adequately.

It is starting to look very much as if the News of the World have some helpful contacts within the Met. How was Millie's phone number acquired? How come the police investigation turned up so little of what evidently went on?

Isn't it also convenient that successive Governments have acceded to News International's wishes? It's been going on for years. Maggie Thatcher cleared the way for Rupert Murdoch to get into broadcasting as well as the print media just before she left office, and in the last few days Jeremy Hunt trembles on giving the OK for Murdoch to take full charge of BSkyB. David Cameron seems to be on very good terms with Rebekah Brooks, the editor now in the spotlight at the News of the World. That said, he's announced another enquiry today, for all the good that will do. About the only thing that might just seem reassuring would be to task a police force other than the Met to come in afresh and start digging, but don't hold your breath.

On a wider point, it's also depressing that the overall quality of the British press has fallen so low. Let's not pretend that there was ever a 'golden age' when press standards were above reproach; it wasn't really until after World War II that the old habits of rather servile and uncritical respect for the establishment wore off, but sadly it was only a decade or three later that the focus of the tabloids switched away from even a pretence at serious reporting towards celebrity gossip, tits and the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, the newspaper-buying public have encouraged them in this. Murdoch wants to make money, and he knows that sleaze and sport will sell.

If anything good were to come out of this whole mess, it would be if there were a serious mass boycott, much as Liverpool has shunned The Sun since its coverage under Kelvin Mackenzie's editorship of the Hillsborough disaster. There are plenty of campaigns underway online to try and rouse enthusiasm for this, or to put pressure on News International's advertisers. I don't know what effect it will have, but it's worth a try. Since Murdoch doesn't take notice of any moral or qualitative factor, only money, that's likely to be the only way of attracting his attention.

That was the QO's serious post for the month. We return you now to our usual programme of inanity and inattention.

An update: I see that O2 and Mitsubishi have announced they're pulling their advertising from NotW. Well, that's a start.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

On second thoughts...

Despite my earlier meanderings over the public-sector pension protests, I decided this morning that in a spirit of solidarity I would withdraw my labour for the day in protest at how poor my own pension will be.

Being self-employed, the first step was to picket myself from my own home office. Well, actually, the first step was to have the usual cup of coffee and a smoke in the sunshine outside. But straight away after that, I picketed my office and brandished a banner at myself every time I even contemplated going in to do some work.

I've never crossed a picket line in my life, but all the computers in the house were in the office, so I couldn't even get onto Facebook to see how my fellow strikers were spending the day on Facebook. I remonstrated with myself at this outrageous restriction on my own freedom of movement. After heated dialectical debate, I and I took the protest onto the street, where at least I could smoke while shouting slogans at myself. The mood got ugly, and the neighbours became alarmed. It seems the noise I was creating during my entirely legitimate protest was disturbing them from their day off. Thank heavens for community policing, as officers were able to mount a fully proportionate response and calm me down before I nutted myself.

During the afternoon, I'm glad to report that I was able to persuade myself that the sensible, adult way forward was to get round a table with myself to thrash out the issues in a civilised manner. Obviously I and I couldn't agree on a suitable table in my own workplace, so we settled on a table on neutral ground owned by a third party. I believe Greene King own the pub, and I and I thank them for hosting the negotiations at the very reasonable price of £2.30 a pint.

The talks continue, and may do so for some time.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The last rose of someone

Mrs QO and I moved into this Victorian/Edwardian semi 20 years ago - almost to the day. We found out that the next-door house was empty, as the elderly Polish gentleman who'd lived there had recently died.

The gardens in this row of houses are all pretty small, so options are limited, but our Polish not-quite-neighbour evidently loved roses, as there were quite a few running wild as we could see from our side of the boundary. The house was fairly soon bought by an investor and let to students, and the garden is just kept clear and clean by her contracted gardener. But one rose is left.

We never knew the man who lived next door, but the last of his roses is giving us much pleasure two decades on.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Addendum to the previous post

On re-reading my masterly analysis, I do have a little concern that I might be seen as sneering in some way at Greece. Far from it. My Observations suggest that the UK economy is heading in exactly the same direction, and we don't even have the benefit of lots of goats, which can be eaten when famine strikes.

The one thing in our favour, of course, is that Rupert Murdoch is already buying up the country, so we may just escape.

For further and more detailed coverage, see Sky News.

Olympian fail

The financial crisis in Greece has been absorbing me for some time. I blogged about it last year and have been following it in the news since.

For those who haven't been following the drama in depth, we present the QO's 'Dinner party expert' guide to what's gone wrong, Hellenically speaking. Should your fellow diners look at you with admiration, seek your opinion on many other topics you have no real idea about, and propose that you sleep with them forthwith, please mention this blog. Should you find that your fellow diners' considered opinion is that you're a tedious, economically illiterate tit, well, you're on your own. Repeat after me: 'Believe Nothing You Read on the Internet'.

All that said, here are some notions that should at least provoke interesting debate.

The root cause of the Greek economic crisis is twofold: Europe - or more precisely, the Euro - and the Greeks. Joining the eurozone should not have been possible for Greece under EU economic criteria, but of course the EU leaders were gagging for another country's worth of taxpayers to join. Little did they know that the Greeks are notoriously bad at paying tax. Greek companies are also very bad at paying tax. The black economy is rampant in Greece at all levels.

Having put the Greek economy (officially largely based around the public sector, tourism and things to do with goats) into the eurozone, the Greeks can no longer let their own currency float... sink... to an appropriately low level, but must perforce stay where the euro stays for the good of Germany. This sucks, economically.

Governments have virtually no sources of income other than tax revenues and borrowing. Since annual Greek tax revenues amount to around 57 euros and a handful of olives, this means that huge borrowings are required. This money has indeed been forthcoming, in large part from avaricious private banks across Europe and the rest of the world, plus monies from other European states.

The private banks, now realising that the Greek sovereign debt they hold is increasingly worthless (as nobody really wants that many goats or olives), are getting very edgy and don't want to lend any more money. Since huge numbers of Greeks are employed by the Greek state, which doesn't have any money of its own, the monthly salary cheques might be a bit of a problem. More importantly on a global basis, they won't be able to meet the next round of sovereign debt repayments. This is the dreaded sovereign default, which everybody says can never happen and often does. (See Iceland and Argentina for recent examples.)

And so our EU leaders, those wise men of Brussels, are also rather troubled. They have a sneaking suspicion that the private banks not only hold huge amounts of near-worthless Greek debt, but all sorts of other toxic "assets" and are in reality worth no more than your average doner-kebab stall. Should Greece default, some of those banks will come unravelled big-stylee and doubtless come running to national governments to be propped up. With humungous wads of taxpayers' moolah, which is in somewhat short supply at the moment following similar cock-ups over recent years.

Other members of the Euro might join in the game of fiscal dominoes. Ireland and Portugal are looking increasingly bollixed, and Spain's not too good either.

More importantly still, for the evangelical believers in the European project, this scenario could lead to an economic state of affairs known to city traders as "tits-up for the Euro". This would not look good on the CV of the Brussels Gnomes, nor would it help the wider European project, i.e. the United States of Europe, complete with European Government, common currency, common laws, same rules on doner-kebab stalls, care of goats, the lot. This is not going to seem an appealing prospect to member states if they can't even get the dosh sorted.

Most money traders and independent economists say that Greece will default. There's no way it can be avoided. The EU is desperately trying to find a way of pumping enough money in to stop a default, despite the fact that lending more money, at high interest, only makes things worse. The very best that might be achieved will be to postpone the inevitable for a bit, and hope that in the meantime all those banks magically find themselves with so much real money that they don't mind losing a bit on the Greek debt. Frankly, even this will take some doing.

So there you have it. The QO's guide to the Greek crisis. Oh, and I have a solution, too, and it's really quite simple. Sell Greece - lock, stock, barrel and goats - to Rupert Murdoch. He can make money out of any old tat, as his TV stations and newspapers prove. I have every confidence in his ability to make millions out of goats. Sorted.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

So, farewell then...

Brian Haw has died. He set up his tent in Parliament Square ten years ago to protest at Britain's treatment of Iraq and his camp became a focal point for wider protest at the invasion and, more generally, at the erosion of civil liberties in this country. His occupation of Parliament Square survived quite a few legal challenges, though eventually Mayor Boris managed to get him off the grass, so he camped on the pavement instead.

His form of protest rather polarised opinion, and many thought that the peace camp outside Parliament was just an eyesore created by noisy nutters with not enough to do. His supporters point to the fact that his presence in that place meant that the protest stayed alive and in the media far longer than any one march or petition could have done.

I admired his persistence, and take some comfort from the fact that despite enormous effort by The Powers That Be, the justice system in this country allowed him to stay there and continue his protest. Illness, not the law, brought it to an end. My sympathy goes to his family and friends.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Pensive over pensions

While understanding the feelings of public sector workers over the proposed worsening of their pension entitlements, my sympathy is somewhat limited. I'm more than content to pay tax that goes towards employing people to provide services that benefit society, and I'd certainly argue that they should be decently paid for what is often undervalued work. I also accept the argument that taxpayers should fund pensions for public sector workers. In the private sector, employee pensions are funded out of profit, and employers provide them to attract and retain good staff. If we as a country want to attract and retain good people for public services, which don't make a profit as such but benefit society generally, then we'll have to put up the money. But it's far less clear to me why my taxes should pay for pension schemes that are generally accepted to be far better than a private sector worker on similar pay could expect.

I exclude from this the armed services and the emergency services; the hazardous and unsocial nature of their work amply deserves special treatment. But I do often think many in the public sector have no real idea what it's like in the private sector. Virtually nobody in the private sector has a defined benefit pension any more; it's all defined contribution. In other words, no promises what you'll get, you take the risk of how the investments go. And for self-employed people like me, my entire pension contribution is literally cash out of my own pocket. I saw figures from PwC that said that the average private sector worker would have to put nearly a third of their salary away to get a pension of the same level as an equivalent public sector worker with the same years of service.

The public sector also has the advantage that their pension scheme is underwritten by the state, and the management charges are tiny when spread across the number of participants. I bear all the charges on my modest plans. And I don't get paid holidays nor do I get paid to be off sick, nor do I get any kind of pay-off if I lose a contract. That's all part of the territory of being self-employed, of course, and I knew all that before going for it. But I pay tax and NI at the same rate as everyone else, and I look at my pension statements and the news that much of the public sector is threatening to strike over the pensions that even after reduction will be far more generous (partly at my expense) than I can manage for myself, and you'll excuse me if I don't come on the march...

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Our daily bread

The BBC news website has an interesting story marking the 50th anniversary of the 'Chorleywood' breadmaking process. By all means read the full text, but here are some of the salient points:
Soft, springy, white bread - that did not go stale quickly - was what the public wanted. The research bakers at Chorleywood discovered that by adding hard fats, extra yeast and a number of chemicals and then mixing at high speed you got a dough that was ready to bake in a fraction of the time it normally took. It allowed bread to be made easily and economically with low protein British wheat.

But with industrial bakers quickly adopting the process, rather than helping small bakeries, the research at Chorleywood helped put thousands of them out of business.

Evidently 80% of British bread is now made this way. The process requires some ingredients that traditional bakers didn't use: enzymes and oxidants are added.

I think most of us know that the only use for this kind of bread is the bacon butty, in which the bread is only a kind of edible tray and brown sauce dispenser. I use the word 'edible' in a strict sense.

For well over a year, my talented Mrs QO has produced real bread - the sort that's labelled 'artisan' these days. Here are the last two loaves:

Most of her bread is sourdough. This is old-style baking at its best, and involves leaving organic flour mixed with a little water around the place until it's colonised by naturally occurring wild yeasts. These little guys get some of their lactobacillus friends round to party and before long you're getting carbon dioxide and lactic acid into the mix. Add more flour to keep the party going and you're off.

Now I shall have to leave Mrs QO to outline the fine detail of the production process from there, but the end result is a loaf with texture and flavour that is simply startling if all you've ever had is Chorleywood. (I hazard a guess that if you live in Chorleywood you're missing texture and flavour in all sorts of things, but that's by the by.) And because of the slightly acidic nature of the bread it lasts very well indeed. And it's cheap. It means having to do some work at home, of course.

I wouldn't be the first to draw parallels between the kind of bread we like to eat and the kind of lives we lead. I'm sure you can fill that in for yourselves. One last comment from the BBC story:
Almost a third of the bread bought in Britain - 680,000 tonnes a year - is thrown away.
A third is thrown away? Well, I guess that's a start.

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

In the north country

One of the reasons I've been absent from the blog of late is that I've taken on another voluntary role in helping to manage a local nature reserve. You'd think this is mostly a case of being out there doing physical stuff like planting trees, cutting back scrub and so on - and there is a good deal of that to do - but there's a surprising amount of background work to do as well in organising and publicising fund-raising events, staying in touch with the council and the Wildlife Trust, liaising with other organisations using the site for events, communicating with the wider community at meetings and through newsletters... it all adds up. But it's very satisfying and gives a genuine sense of belonging to the neighbourhood.

Dearie me, that was almost emetically worthy, wasn't it? Let me be honest and admit that the main reason I've been absent from the blog of late is sheer laziness.

All that said, it was great to spend the weekend in the far north, a part of the country Mrs QO and I have loved as long as we've been together, which is quite some time now. Many parts of Nottinghamshire are beautiful, many parts are peaceful and unspoiled, but we don't have any landscape like the Cumbrian fells.

Photographs never do justice to the high northern skies, nor can they capture the tumbling music of the curlews crying overhead as I took this shot.

I love my home county, and my roots are here. But from time to time it's good to go to those less tamed places.

What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Monday, 9 May 2011

Voting dust settles

I was very pleased that in the Rushcliffe Borough Council elections, the voters in my ward returned our two Green Party candidates. The People's Verdant Republic of Lady Bay is the only Green ward in the Borough - one very visible sign of what a delightfully individual place it is. The rest of the Borough is predominantly Conservative, of course, though I think it fair to say that Rushcliffe Borough Council (RBC) has never come across as so offensively 'Foaming Nutter Tory' as the Big County Council Brother across the way at County Hall. RBC has quietly got on with being a very well run local council with very little in the way of scandal or fuss over inefficiency. Not much to laugh at all, really.

Turning to the AV vote. Well, the blogosphere was fairly heated over this one, but the country has decisively rejected the offered change. I voted 'No' in the end, despite wavering until the day itself. In the end I came down to the position that change is needed, but this single option wasn't the right change. As David Pannick QC pointed out in The Times on the day of the referendum, a better approach would be to do as Australia did. First, have a referendum on whether we want change at all. If the electorate says 'yes, we do', then have a further referendum on a range of options. Constitutional reform is a serious business, and not one to be entered into via a bodged political compromise. Many of the LibDem supporters of AV were pushing it not because it was the solution they really wanted, but because it would have been a demonstration that they could get something out of the coalition. That's perfectly understandable, but just because something might have been politically advantageous for the LibDem party doesn't mean it's a good thing to do for the country in the long term.

I don't at all go along with the view that no electoral reform will now be possible for a generation. I think there's actually quite an appetite for it, but the electorate is more sophisticated than the political circus at Westminster seems to believe, and will be looking for a properly presented set of proposals - not a back of the envelope quick fix.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Great British Engineering

Whether or not you're a royalist, an ardent republican or a 'couldn't give a toss'-ist, surely you'd have to admit there were some good things about yesterday's marital malarkey.

There's something deeply appealing about a huge crowd of people just having fun, for example, even if part of your brain is a bit appalled that that's their definition of fun. The service itself was beautiful, I thought; lovely music and nice to see trees lining the nave. And I must admit I do get a kick from the precision and pomp with which the military can do their stuff on such ceremonial occasions.

But let's not lose sight of the real triumph of the day - British engineering. Three examples in particular left me breathless and emotional. I think the images will speak for themselves.

Thursday, 21 April 2011


OK, so I said 'sod politics' in the last post, but the forthcoming referendum for AV has been making me think. A painful and unusual sensation.

Nearly a year ago I was able to share with you a startling vision of how the prospect of electoral change formed part of the birth of the Conservative/LibDem coalition. Having moved on, the LibDems are getting the chance of a popular vote for electoral reform, one of their main demands before forming the coalition. They're getting the chance of a fairly minor reform, and one which Nick Clegg is reported to have described as a 'miserable little compromise. A bit like the coalition, yes. But a stepping-stone towards a more profound reform, they hope.

I haven't yet decided which way to vote. On the one hand, I believe that if someone's proposing any significant constitutional reform, it's down to them to make the case, and the default position if you're undecided, or find the case unconvincing, is that you vote that things should stay as they are. And I find the pro-AV case unconvincing. On the other hand, I believe that our current system is unfit for purpose, and perhaps any change is preferable to leaving things as they are, even if we have no clear idea of the consequences of the change.

The real trouble to my mind is that however we elect our politicians, the kind of people who are politicians, and the political system itself, aren't what we need. The main parties are so closely aligned along the middle ground that there isn't a great deal of clear water between them anymore. If you're old enough you can remember a youngish Maggie Thatcher facing off an elderly Michael Foot, with people like Norman Tebbitt and Arthur Scargill chipping in from the sidelines. Plenty of clear water there. Nowadays they're all Euro-Pols, from the same three or four bloody schools and the same two universities... professional politicians from their teens, doing it for a living rather than from conviction. They don't seem to argue about what they'd do so much as how quickly they'd do it. And in any case, it's increasingly clear to me that the politicians make very few decisions, and set very little policy. That stuff's all a bit confusing, so they leave it to the policy advisers in the Ministries. These advisers are of course not elected, and can do their planning of policy without having to worry about popular approval. For example, when Ken Clarke talks about prison versus community punishment, you can bet half a dollar that most of it has come via a nice lady called Julie Taylor, who is Director of Offender Management, Strategy Directorate, Ministry of Justice. I will apologise if wrong but as far as I can find out, she hasn't risen to her current extremely well paid level by being a lawyer, or a prison governor, or a probation worker. Apparently she's a former hospital administrator. I'm sure she's a very able woman. But I'm sure you'll take my point: who is actually in charge? How fitted to the task are they? And on whose authority do they act?

A plague on all their houses, then, say I. (Bet they're worried now, eh?)

The last word on the forthcoming referendum goes to one of my neighbours, overheard outside the pub earlier on:

"Tell you what I'm going to do... I'm going to put a tick in the box marked 'yes', then write underneath 'but alternatively, no'. That's an alternative vote, innit?"

Sunday, 10 April 2011

I needed to get out more

It's been a very fallow spell here on the QO blog. My life is so very ordinary that I've never thought of the blog as an online diary: why disturb all those electrons for something so deeply, deeply tedious from the point of view of the rest of the online world? And often pretty tedious from my point of view, too.

And yet, maybe we can add value in some small way by the recounting of a weekend well spent. If it doesn't add value, well, I don't really mind, and you can always register your protest in the comments. So here we go: the sort of weekend the QO really enjoys.

Friday: finish working mid-afternoon and head into town to RV with Mrs QO at the Canalhouse. Move on with some reluctance to the Trip to Jerusalem to meet other friends. Drink at least one pint too many before returning home for pizza with way too much Tabasco on.

Saturday: spring nimbly out of bed... OK, crawl reluctantly out of bed... and prepare to go out with Father of QO into the urban fringe countryside. Walk some six miles in glorious sunshine, spotting a hare and hearing the first skylark of the year. Arrive with enormous thirst at a real gem of a pub. Connoisseurs of Nottinghamshire pubs may be able to ID the place from this pic. Hint: to the west of the city, and sadly no longer the brewery tap.

Consume excellent beer and steak & ale pie with chips. Return home for a little restorative period of inactivity, then head out onto the local nature reserve for an evening stroll, enjoying some fine dusk music from the song thrushes and blackbirds.

Sunday: up at 05.30, out on another local nature reserve by 06.15 to hear the dawn chorus at full chat. Magnificent. Spend some time stalking a lovely fluid singer and eventually put the binoculars on a blackcap. Home to thaw out with freshly brewed coffee. Brunch of scrambled eggs and crisp bacon. In the afternoon, two hours of volunteer work on the reserve, pulling Himalayan Balsam seedlings out before they can get started, the little buggers. Enjoy not-too-stressful work in the sunshine, then repair to local for well-earned beers.

So, some physical exercise, some nature conservation, enjoyment of the local wildlife, plenty of beer and time with friends and relations. And sunshine. Sod politics, I'm intellectually downsizing, me.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Simple or simplistic?

I'm often droning on to Mrs QO (the only person who has to stay in the house and listen) and anyone else within earshot that one of the biggest problems facing our society is that too few people keep on top of current events and think about them. Vast numbers of our citizens (here we go, sit back and share the rant) sit in hideous sloth every night in front of some braindead nonsense on TV, read only one newspaper, if they can read at all, with no regard to why its content will be slanted and exercising no critical analysis or independent judgement... they will turn out to vote (if they can get off their lardy arses) and painstakingly pencil in a cross against the party they've always voted for, having read neither that party's manifesto nor any other... given a choice between long-term planning and cheap goodies now, they'll always take and consume with no thought for the next generation...

Why do so many people not think? Why do they not read something that might challenge their prejudices? Why don't they ever ponder whether their old tribal allegiance might be out-dated and harmful? Why cannot they get over 'gut instinct' and use their heads, just for a change?

I think I know why. And I may be feeling a little ashamed of myself for the holier-than-thou diatribe. (Not very ashamed, you understand, just a healthy amount.)

The world is a big place, and lots goes on in it. (Yes, the QO brings you the big insights. You heard it here first.) Only a generation ago, it was a real effort to find out any significant amount about what was going on and what other people thought about it. Nowadays, if you're the sort of person that tries to keep abreast of events and informed thinking about them, there's so much input that you can't possibly process it.

Take, as an obvious example, what's going on in Libya. Part of me is right behind the rebels and therefore applauds the multinational action in supporting them. But equally there's a despondent feeling of 'here we go again... post-imperialism... it's all about the oil... nobody has thought about what happens next'.

Another example: the big march in London on Saturday. I'm torn all sorts of ways here. If I went, which group would I join? I believe the State has got way too big, intervenes far too much in the citizen's private life, has eroded our civil liberties to a truly dangerous extent over the last 20 years and has bought votes with borrowed money that our great-great-grandchildren will be struggling to pay off. Offered and forced dependence on the State has brought about a weakness of character in our people, an inability to stand on our own two feet, an inability to admit that sometimes life isn't fair, but nobody owes you a living, you just plain get on with it. So I'd be happy on one level to be with the Census Rebellion in Trafalgar Square.

Against that, I'm desperately sorry for those thousands upon thousands of public-sector workers who are being thrown out of employment with little prospect of alternative work, I think the economic sins of the past are being addressed too quickly and with too little thought for the consequences, and - to be blunt - the collection of pigs now in power don't seem much different from the bunch of pigs that were snouts-down in the troughs of Whitehall before last May.




It's difficult, isn't it? Too many for me, as Huck Finn would say. What is far easier to process is the warmer, brighter weather, the birdsong, the changing of the year. Those things our evolution has prepared us for and we react instinctively. This is where we can trust gut-instinct, and don't have to worry about being rational. Of course these things are good.

Perhaps our society has got so complex that we can't make any useful choices any more and will always lurch from one crisis to another, driven by the tiny few who are sure they know better than we do how we should all live. I give up.

What I think I do know is that I love the sight of spring blossom. That's going to have to do for the time being.

Thursday, 17 March 2011


One of my recent resolutions was to spend less time on the computer and more time reading. You know, good old-fashioned books, preferably from the public library, so as to help establish the demand for keeping them open. And I have indeed been reading. Some of it has been the literary equivalent of a Pot Noodle (trashy but momentarily satisfying) but I have also read some very thought-provoking stuff about American and UK politics, English culture (or lack of), the assault of the Blair administration on civil liberties and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an old friend I've shamefully neglected for many years.

The net result of all that was so many threads for blog posts that I haven't known where to start, even assuming I wasn't reading books rather than at the computer. I suppose a very brief summary would be that, frankly, we can't trust any of our politicians; the country is on a downward spiral of unemployment, social division, and reduced public services; George Bush and Tony Blair should be done for war crimes; our children will inherit a lack of opportunity, a lack of belief in the future, ecological and economic collapse and drastically reduced standards of living; and people sure spoke funny in Mississippi way back in the day.

All this could make even the sunniest Observer feel that things weren't entirely great.

And so it was good to have a quiet evening out in town after work with Mrs QO, doing nothing more extravagant than having a couple of pints then supper at Wagamamas, where we had the added bonus of sitting in the window and watching the peregrine falcons up on the Newton Building. And then walking through the Square on the way for some liquid afters before a bus home. The Town House clock, the big wheel and the moon were all helping illuminate our city centre, and all seemed pretty much OK for the time being.