Saturday, September 30, 2006

Suffragette City

Earlier in the week I passed a few idle moments in Borders while waiting for it to be exactly the right time to meet friends in Oxford Circus. I am fanatically punctual which, in London, places me firmly in a category of one. Happily, I could not choose between four books with 3 for 2 stickers on them. This is a small mercy as it’s been so long since I’ve been paid any actual money that even buying books seems like an extravagance.

The nice people at Borders know all about the people who come in and thumb through their books while waiting for their perennially tardy friends so they have very conveniently laid out a number of lovely thumbable books for this specific purpose. Andy Warhol Giant Size is so big that it needs its own pedestal. This makes it possible to spend twelve minutes and forty-two seconds ambling through it without requiring physiotherapy afterwards.

The book contains reports of Warhol’s 1968 shooting by the radical feminist Valerie Solanas. As a leading member of SCUM (the Society for Cutting Up Men), Solanas had authored the SCUM Manifesto which claimed,

‘Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.’

If she thought 1968 was boring it’s probably just as well she popped her clogs in the eighties before global tedium really kicked in. Civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females these days are more likely to be found trying to buy houses near secondary schools with literacy rates in the double figures than hatching gunpowder plots.

Solanas may have been the last in a long tradition of radical feminists with double-barrelled ambitions that weren’t to do with names. The Home Office today released documents from 1909 revealing that two members of the Women’s Freedom League planned to shoot Prime Minster and self-confessed male chauvinist pig, Herbert Asquith. Suffragettes had been picketing parliament continuously to demand voting rights for women. The two women were thought to have been practising with Browning pistols on mini shooting ranges in Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road.

The plans came to light when a certain Mrs Moore, also a member of the Women’s Freedom League and friend of Asquith’s sister-in-law, tipped off Scotland Yard. The would-be assassins, whose names were not recorded, had planned to follow Asquith on his way to parliament and engage him in argument before dispatching him. It is not known whether they would still have shot him if he’d been persuaded to their point of view.

The gentlemen detectives of Scotland Yard circa 1909 showed a restraint unimaginable today and chose to suppress the news of the plot. They were wary of interfering with citizens’ right to protest outside the houses of parliament and feared that publicising the assassins’ intentions might spark the very event they sought to prevent.

If Valerie Solanas had only realised just how dull the early days of the twenty-first century would be, largely because of automation, she may have taken a leaf out of Stanley Kubrick’s book and shot at Coca Cola machines instead of one of the most interesting people ever. Or, she might have shot Nixon – he certainly deserved it.

I am often nostalgic for the old days of seventies feminism. It would have given me something useful to do in old age. I am not much enamoured with the idea of standing in shopping malls and selling tickets for luxury cars, even if it will help end cruelty to animals. Although not up for taking pot shots at politicians, except by way of this blog, I think I would like consuming red wine out of tumblers, having my consciousness raised and my purple velvet floppy hat covered in candle wax. Not much chance of a feminist revival at the moment. Most people now think women’s suffrage is something that happens after you’ve incautiously slept with a guy after five too many vodka and cranberry juices and he hasn’t called you… and… it’s been like three weeks. Agony.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Driza bone

Every so often, when I have nothing better to do, I idle over one of those old proverbs that Victorian ladies used to embroider onto samplers which they hung on walls next to flying ducks. I’d look at one and think, Oh right, a stitch in time saves nine. It’s something to do with cricket and ball tampering. Like a lot of things in life, they don’t make much sense on the face of it.

Following the conviction of Brazilian cleaner Rosalene Driza (37) for her own special brand of ball tampering, the meaning of ‘you shouldn’t hang out your dirty linen in public’, has become crystal clear to me. It means it’s a bad idea to have lots of sex with an illegal immigrant married to an Albanian mafia hit man, in your best M&S lounge suit and send her post-coital emails extolling her real chilli hot stuffedness and lovely shagginess if you are an immigration judge. It is further a very bad idea to keep videos of previous sexual romps with fellow judges prominent on the shelf of your living room when you have hired said illegal immigrant to dust it on a daily basis.

Poor old Judge Mohammed Ilyas Khan, the witness formerly known as Judge I until an order protecting his identity was lifted yesterday, did not heed. Sixty year old Khan had had a five year relationship with another Judge, known as Judge J and they’d hired Driza as their cleaner, knowing she was an illegal immigrant. Presumably they felt this to be a good thing because they could threaten her with deportation if she missed a bit while mopping the floor and five quid an hour in the hand certainly beats extortionate agency fees. Being immigration judges you know that you will end up with an illegal immigrant anyway but you’ll be paying twelve quid an hour instead.

Everything bounced along fine until Judge J split with Khan and acquired yet another immigration judge as her new lover, Judge N. There can’t be too many immigration judges left who are not involved in this story. No wonder there is such a big backlog down at Somerset House. The proverb ‘two is company and three is a party’ was overlooked by Judge J as she promptly fired Driza for interfering with her personal life. This is the person who looks for streaks in your undies, cleans your toilet with your electric toothbrush and eats all your gherkins. After five years, it suddenly dawns on you that they know all there is to know about you.

Khan, who had taken Driza on as his cleaner in his new flat, promptly fired her too, presumably for not interfering enough in his private life because she soon moved in as his lover. This was a good deal for Khan as he still got his cleaning done and saved the fiver an hour. It all went horribly wrong when J discovered the pair together and Driza swiftly found herself relieved of her feather duster. This is when she conceived of the cunning plan to steal the videotapes which supposedly show Khan and J having sex and snorting cocaine. Twenty thousand quid seems like a fair price for getting these back to me. If she’d shown them at Cannes she could have gotten twice that.

At the trial it came out that Driza had married an Albanian named Mane who is being sought in Britain for killing a Kosovan called Mone and is now serving twenty years in prison in Italy for killing someone else. I am reminded of the ongoing ‘Barbie’ case in South Africa where two advocates (barristers) are accused of multiple sex and exploitation crimes. ‘Advocate Barbie’, real name Cezanne Visser, is so known because she participated in a talent contest where she flashed her newly enhanced 34DD chest. Presumably Pamela Anderson didn’t enter because she had not yet passed her bar exams.

‘Barbie, for me, represents an aspiration to outer perfection in a feminine, sexy and sensual way,’ Visser explained as a point of clarification.

The cases are eerily similar in so many ways, not least of all the shocking involvement of a trio of French Impressionist painters, none of whom had previously been in any trouble with the law.

Now the blackmail case is out of the way, it is rumoured the BBC intend to offer Driza a reality cleaning show called, How Clean Is Your Character? Former FIFA secretary Faria Alam is set to co-star. The raven-haired temptresses will sweep through the houses of the rich and famous in search of soiled moral fibre and jars of gherkins. A BBC insider said today, ‘this show will be bigger than Customs & Excise Undercover. Celebrities with out-of-date gherkins will be named and shamed.’ I don’t think this is actually an old proverb but it makes a lot of sense to me - Where there is pâté, you will find gherkins.

Photo from The Scotsman

eBay blamed for toddler debt toll

Three-year-old Jack Neal has become the youngest debtor in Britain and earned himself a place in the Guinness Book of World Records and a special under fives ASBO. These do not come with a mandatory prison sentence as yet. Jack, a self-confessed petrol-head and occasional Top Gear presenter had exhausted the entire range of available Tonkas so decided to trade himself up. While mum Rachel slipped out to microwave some baked beans for his lunch, Jack got onto eBay and bought himself a Barbie pink Nissan Figaro worth £9,000.

‘I had just come off the computer and I thought I had logged off’, Rachel explained to a startled BBC reporter who has three-year-old triplets and wi-fi access. ‘Jack jumped on the chair … straight in, found the page and bought the car’. Although he can’t yet read, Jack has watched Rachel click on the ‘buy it now’ button when she has used the site to buy him toy cars. He has absorbed that this is an important life skill to have. When you see something that you want, you click on it and Parcel Force delivers it within ten days. It is more reliable than any other service in the country and therefore to be utilised as much as possible.

Young Jack denied culpability, immediately laying the blame at the Barbie roller skated feet of Letitia, his imaginary best friend and fellow Top Gear presenter. A team of stony faced, breathtakingly judgemental and not to be messed with family liaison officers from Worcestershire Social Services were not having any of it, however. They know it is not yet legal to issue ASBOs to imaginary friends and have recently signed a petition to lobby Parliament to have this archaic and draconian law changed as this would certainly help with meeting targets.

While family liaison officers were quizzing Rachel about her personal life and checking whether she had been overpaid on her Working Families Tax Credit account, Letitia slipped out and made off with the car which had not yet been taxed and insured. It transpires that Letitia could not drive - this is a mandatory requirement for Top Gear presenters - and she slammed the car into a Polly Pocket disco bus causing widespread damage. Pieces of mirror ball were located as far away as three miles from the crash site.

Emergency workers were quickly on the scene and described the crash as ‘horrific’ and ‘the worst case involving an imaginary friend and an eBay purchase we have ever had to deal with.’ Family liaison officers immediately arrived and began to counsel passers-by who had not witnessed the accident and who don’t shop on eBay. ‘The effects of this kind of trauma can take a while to surface’, a team member told the BBC, ‘people feel as if they must suppress their feelings and carry on, but one day they will find themselves logging onto eBay, unable to control their impulse to click on ‘buy it now’ and the whole vicious cycle starts again. By then it will be too late.’ Family liaison officers declined to give their names to the BBC as this has in the past led to attempts on their lives.

A spokesperson for the British Nostalgia Council, today warned that ‘young people risk being consumed by a spiral of debt before they even reach school age and face a bleak future of having to mortgage their iPods to pay for even the most basic rocket salad in the canteen’. The BNC campaigns for the reintroduction of Green Shield Stamps as a way of halting the devastation caused by the ‘must have it now’ culture. ‘You appreciate a product much more if you have to wait until it is several years out of date before you get it’, the spokesperson explained.

Worcestershire police were shocked to find that imaginary friends could not be prosecuted posthumously for dangerous driving or not using a booster seat. ‘This driver was clearly under the regulation height of four feet five inches and should have been using a Barbie booster seat available from Mothercare and Halfords for £39.95’, a police spokesperson explained. ‘Anyone who is considering a fatal crash should make sure they are fully compliant with the law.’

Jack is now under house arrest for breaking his ASBO. He was caught visiting the crash site to ascertain if there were any useable spare parts from either the car or Letitia that he could sell on eBay. He explained this was to pay off his debt (which has now grown to £450,000 with interest because he took out a consolidating loan and the bank foreclosed on his iPod). He understands that he has done wrong but is optimistic about the future as eBay has offered him a job as a highly paid consultant to help them make it easier for children to access their services. Every Barbie pink Nissan Figaro has an animal print fake fur lining.

Photo by

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Ma Cherie da mouth

It never occurred to Sharon Osbourne-a-like Cherie Blair that the spouse of a Prime Minister of an even vaguely credible country does not open the door on the morning after an election in a greyed nylon nightie and Bugs Bunny slippers and with hair that has narrowly survived a tornado. Nor does she buy second hand shoes on eBay or indeed properties on the advice of snake oil vendors; unless of course she wishes to keep Richard Curtis supplied with material for all eternity.

Perhaps she has modelled her wifely self on the late Princess Diana, seeking to acquire the ‘common touch’ as a foil to her husband’s transparent distaste for the general public. Princess Diana was never the sharpest rhinestone in the tiara and none of her fawning acolytes was ever game enough to explain to her that the word ‘common’ was interchangeable with ‘vulgar’.

But Cherie has proved much more effective than the departed Princess at discrediting the institution that keeps her in Prada. Whereas Princess Diana needed to smother her doe eyes in charcoal and spend the evening confessing her tawdry secrets to Martin Bashir, Cherie needs only to make an off the cuff remark to no one in particular to consign Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown’s ‘please pick me’ speech to the also today bins of the national media. That is power.

Bloomberg journalist Carolin Letter reported yesterday that she heard Cherie say, ‘Well, that's a lie’, following Scrooge’s declaration, ‘It has been a privilege for me to work with and for the most successful ever Labour leader and Prime Minister’. Routine denials have been issued. Anyone who has ever dissed a supposed ally in that ‘you know, it just slipped out’ way will know you have to deny it. If you insist you didn’t say it, there is nothing anyone can do about it. But everyone knows that you did say it so, mission accomplished. As a decoy, Cherie has certainly proved worth her weight in duck feathers.

Poor old Scrooge must be wondering what he needs do to become Prime Minister although firing his speech writer and hiring Cherie’s unmuzzled mouth as a substitute must have occurred. A few weeks ago it was reported that Scrooge had ordered new curtains for No. 10 and had them delivered to the outrage of Cherie. Some insiders reported that she was more incensed by the choice of Marimekko’s discontinued ‘pound sign’ design than anything else. He had previously claimed to her that he was in favour of Britain switching to the Euro. Still, it may be wise on his part to put the sign writers making up the new Downy Street signs on hold.

The nation’s media has its work cut out for it unpacking the full Louis Vuitton range of motives for Cherie’s behaviour. Anyone who has plunged these inky depths looking for the reason Cherie allowed herself to be photographed sitting on the Prime Ministerial bed with her ‘lifestyle guru’ Carol Caplin, (who was refreshing her lipstick at the time), will know this.

It is never easy to move house and decide what to do with your life next, especially if your main claim to fame is that you are in the Guinness Book of Records for the most bad hair days. Her career as a judge seems stalled after it became apparent that she lacked the one quality a judge actually needs, err, good judgement. That is a shame because the wig certainly solved the bad hair problem. This, along with when would be the right time to have the garage sale, must be weighing heavily on her mind.

Cherie should consider a career as a comedian. Just being herself is obviously out as Sharon Osbourne has got that one gagged and bagged already. Still she does show some signs of talent at joke writing if this one about John Prescott’s affair with his secretary is anything to go by,

‘The cabinet is like an Ikea cabinet - one dodgy screw and it falls apart’.

As the gazumping manoeuvres and sea change discussions continue in Downing/Downy Street, one thing is certain – continue the tartan wars will.

Photo from

Monday, September 25, 2006

I before we except after celebrity

David Hasselhoff with shaving companions
Famous people always say ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ when describing anything they happen to be doing. David Hasselhoff seems to do this more than any other famous person. ‘We made a movie and then we went out to Rwanda to cheer up all the sad people out there and then we made another movie and then we had a devastating shaving accident which made us miss an important media event..’ You know the sort of thing. I do understand that it takes more than one person to make a movie but surely even David Hasselhoff can manage a shaving accident without assistance. He seems unable to discern where he ends and his entourage begins.

Of course when he refers to his newly published autobiography Making Waves (neat pun!), and he says, ‘when we wrote the book’, he is probably referring to the input of a ghost writer or two. Maybe they are even the ‘we’ of all other activity. If you have a ‘larger than life’ life maybe you do need a lot of people under the one skin to make it work and be in so many places at the same time. David Hasselhoff always looked constructed rather than grown. Perhaps Michael Knight, the reconstructed hero of his first hit television show Knight Rider (another neat pun!), is actually the David Hasselhoff we see before us today and, like all movie furniture, you need several of them in case one gets accidentally blown up or killed in a shaving accident.

John Travolta always claimed to be a Qantas pilot but that can’t be true because he’s not gay. It is much more likely that he is a set of identical quintuplets and those aerial shots of his home with several jumbo jets parked outside are, in fact, of the abandoned film set used in the 1976 television movie Victory at Entebbe. One of the stars of that film, Elizabeth Taylor, was always a ‘we’ person but that is probably because she has always needed large numbers of people to carry her anywhere she needed to go so any destination was, by definition, a ‘we’ activity.

Tony Blair is new to we-dom. Throughout his prime ministerial career he has always said ‘I’ whenever referring to anything the government intended to do. It lent itself to his stream of consciousness style quite nicely. ‘I am going to issue ASBO’s to, you know, all those anti-social foetuses and send their, you know, mothers to work in logistics which is an area of you know, growth in our vibrant economy and one in which they are not allowed to, you know, smoke cigarettes which are destroying our nation’s health and putting, you know, huge pressure on the health service which we are, incidentally you know, in the process of dismantling for its own good'.

Blair’s sudden switch to ‘we’ may be indicative of his future career intentions. It cannot be a policy shift because the public knows that even if he says things like ‘we are, you know, going to make sure children eat a healthy, you know, lunch’, he has done so immediately after watching a television show in which a celebrity cook clearly on something other than organic rocket has tried to force feed five year olds with asparagus in Hollandaise sauce. To conclude this is a good idea cannot possibly be the result of any discussion with anyone, least of all children. That would be like asking turkey twizzlers to vote for Christmas.

His conversion to a ‘we’ identity could be modelled on the Bill Clinton post-presidential persona. When you are making very grand claims like ‘we will make poverty history’, or ‘we will end global warming’, you need to sound like there are a lot of you before people will listen to you over dinner rather than watch EastEnders.

Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck' Brown is not really a ‘we’ man. He is rather a wee man with grandiose notions of his own importance. His speech remains resolutely ‘I’ focused as he has no intention whatever of discussing anything with anyone ever again once he becomes prime minister. When he and the money bin are finally installed in numbers 10 and 11 Downy Street respectively, he intends to put an end to all political debate and have Jeremy Paxman declared illegal. All television stations will have Knight Rider and Baywatch on permanent rotation and ‘The Hoff’ will be installed as the nation's 'moral compass', given a lifetime supply of safety razors and a non-slip bathroom carpet.

Image from

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Y Factor

Why do people subject themselves to ritual humiliation year after year, appearing on shows like the X Factor when they plainly have never, ever sung before? Have they all had common sense bypass surgery? Would it not have been more prudent to take those first faltering steps towards tunefulness in the privacy of their steam-filled bathroom where the combination of condensation and porcelain creates an echo that makes you sound quite good?

X Factor contestants fall into two categories. The first is gorgeous, talented people who can make Robbie Williams’s Angels or that Celine Dion song from Titanic actually sound half decent. These are people the public should engage in collective flagellation over for ignoring for so long and ITV should be congratulated for bringing them to our attention. There are usually two of these and they are eliminated in the second round after initial wild enthusiasm from the judges because they are discovered to be Tony Hadley or Sonia trying to get much needed media attention.

The other category takes in the vast majority of people who pin on the little cloth number and should probably be running the London Marathon dressed as a chicken instead of butchering Kylie’s Can’t get you out of my head. There is a vast menu of sub-categories. Most notably and this is on the way to being classified as a bona fide medical condition, is the sub-set of grotesque, overweight girls who appear to have been colonised by Britney Spears. Mind you Britney Spears is no advertisement for natural beauty these days herself. Showing up with their Primark sweats clinging to their midriff muffins, they hack their way through Baby one more time in a combination of keys that aren’t actually in the alphabet.

These deluded souls invariably claim they have been told they can sing. They might want to get their irony gauges checked or, at the very least review the numbers they have on ‘friends and family’. Having set themselves up for inevitable failure, they stand before three people, paralysed by stage fright, completely incapable of exercising control over their bottom lip and whimper out an a cappella version of a song that is normally accompanied by a thousand sampled rhythm, strings and bass tracks and the entire Welsh National Choir.

To compound the humiliation, they are encouraged to pump themselves up with self-belief and declare to a horrified nation, ‘I have the X Factor and I’m going all the way to the top’. Some lucky viewers at home will get to say, ‘hang on, isn’t that Darren from the IT help desk? What a dork.’ The rest of us wait in morbid fascination as they are frog-marched out weeping by Tony the DMC-shaped bouncer or have Louis throw a glass of water over them. One Britney-possessed reject, tears emerging in floods from underneath her bottle-bottomed spectacles sobbed this week, ‘they’re smashing dreams in there’.

There is a major dilemma here though. Everyone knows you have to have an ego the size of Hawaii backed up by megalomaniacal self-confidence in order to succeed in the cut and thrust of the music industry. Marilyn Monroe was once asked what she would have done if fifty per cent of critics thought she was rubbish. She replied that it wouldn’t have mattered to her if a hundred per cent thought she was rubbish, all a hundred per cent would have been wrong. Self-delusion is mandatory. You genuinely need to think that just because you can sing a bit, people will want to buy any piece of you that you can manage to commodify and Amazon can package and post. Every time you get off a plane, rather than think, ‘I hope no one notices my horribly swollen ankles’, you need to be thinking, ‘I’m going to phone up RandomHouse as soon as I am allowed to switch on my phone and get a book deal because I had a really interesting dream that would make a great, block-busting best seller’.

The auditions are finally over for this year and we move into a different phase where contestants discover that learning to sing properly can be quite hard when it’s just you and a piano. If you are thinking of entering next year’s competition and have based your entire self-assessment of your talent on the fact that you sound quite good singing along with Mariah Carey, be advised that it is Mariah that sounds good rather than you and go from there.

Big green litigation machine

It is so like Britain to wait until the planet is almost irreversibly imperilled to discover recycling. Whilst the rest of the world has been writing with pencils that used to be plastic cups for a generation, we have blithely gone on filling in the gaps between hills with our used bottles, tins and milk cartons. Now that councils have finally gone green and introduced household recycling, what is the first thing they do? Overreact of course.

Fellow Hackney blogger Struggling Author recently reported that she had been threatened with a £1,000 fine for not recycling by Hackney Council even though she hadn’t been given a recycling box and had requested one three times. How can you prove someone hasn’t recycled? Isn’t it a bit like trying to demonstrate that they haven’t had enough kind thoughts or read with interest all the library books they borrowed?

It is entirely possible to live a life without newspapers, bottles or cans – the only items that are presently being collected in Hackney. What if you haven’t put out your recycle box because you are presently at the North Pole with a team of environmentalists measuring how much of the solar ice cap has melted or enjoying a ballooning holiday in the company of Richard Branson?

We have had a whole generation of being conditioned to throw food cartons and soft drink containers onto the floors of buses and leave our already read free newspapers complete with sticky splodges on the seat so that the next passenger can sit down on the remains of our bacon and egg Mcmuffin and ruin their white jeans.

In the 1970s all the rubbish bins were removed from central London when the IRA’s bombing campaign was at its height. By the time these were finally returned a few years ago, no one could even remember what the letters IRA had stood for. When the new bins appeared on the streets everyone assumed this was a new type of post box as the post office had recently changed its name to Consignia. Many people were annoyed that the letters they’d popped into these boxes didn’t reach their destinations. The post office would have received more complaints but no one could remember its new name.

Different countries have different ways of recycling. I once went on a week long full board holiday to Lake Garda in Italy. The beautiful four star hotel we stayed at provided you with half a dozen big white fluffy towels and there was a very sweet little card in the bathroom which said something like,

‘every hotel in the whole world dumps squillions of dangerous chemicals into the water system every day in order to provide you with a huge pile of clean towels that don’t have anyone else’s toothpaste on them. If you care about the environment, please hang the towels up so we know you want to use them again. However, if you are the kind of selfish sod that doesn’t give an organic fig about the planet, chuck them on the floor.’

It doesn’t matter how neatly you replace the towels on the racks, they always take them away and give you new ones. This hotel not only replaced all the towels every day whether you had used them or not, but changed the bed linen every other day. On the other hand, they gave you one cloth napkin and an envelope with your name on it. You were expected to wipe your mouth with this napkin after eating a big plate of sloppy pasta and replace it in the envelope for the next meal. You got one of these tiny squares for the whole week.

It is not going to be easy to go from a lifetime of wanton environmental vandalism to remembering that you must fill up a green box with bottles and cans that you have carefully washed and put it outside your front door every other Tuesday. You may have to resort to stealing from other people’s recycling boxes on your way home from the pub if you haven’t remembered to eat enough baked beans for the previous fortnight. You could always take home your copy of the Metro and put that in rather than leaving it on the seat for the next person to read. If you have already done the sudoku, it would be the neighbourly thing to do.

Another wonderful cartoon by Chris Madden

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Over bright and over here

Adora Svitak is an American child prodigy who has just arrived on our shores to teach the children of Britain how to read and write. Not before time either as serious numbers of British children complete school without a basic standard of literacy. Where no government has succeeded before, the Oprah approved ‘tiny literary giant’, ‘hopes to use her own success to inspire other kids to take more of an interest in reading and writing’, according to her website

‘Nowadays children are lacking in reading and writing skills, and they are saying things like ‘I don't like to read' or ‘ I don't want to write.' That hurts me very much’, pines the diminutive guru.

At age eight, Adora is the author of over three hundred stories and a hundred poems and has just published her first book. At a whopping three hundred pages Flying Fingers claims to be ‘an innovative mix of fiction and instruction’, that ‘gives parents and educators access to the strategies that have been so successful with Adora’. These ‘strategies’ which her mother Joyce is so keen to promote appear to involve giving her books to read and a Dell lap-top to type on. I don’t know whether the fact that it’s a Dell is material.

Joyce has her own blog called The Wonder of Great Minds. She has two posts on it for 19th and 20th May 2006, both about the weather so perhaps Adora’s verbosity comes from her father, a blogging geek.

Flying Fingers is a collection of adventure stories, historical fiction, poetry, writing tips and a cornucopia of Adora’s learned opinions on religion, politics, media and education. Mum Joyce also contributes advice for parents on how to ‘bring out the best in their children.’ No mention of whether or not she gets a commission from Dell. The book is out this month and as the print run is only 1,000, I don’t believe J K Rowling has anything to fear in the immediate future.

As cloyingly earnest as Adora may be, she is not in the same stratosphere as her humility challenged first best friend, eleven year old Artakiane Kramarik, ( Like those other self-styled deities in human form that preceded her, Madonna and Prince, Artikiane goes by just her first name. Her website intones sagely,

‘I teach and they run away.

I listen and they come.

My strength is my silence.’

This is odd because Artakiane seems anything but silent. She seems to spend most of her time schlepping between television studios and silence is the one thing that television doesn’t peddle. She is claimed to be ‘the only child binary genius in both realist painting and poetry’, and has been 'selected as 1 of 20 most accomplished visual artists in the world by Tribute Entertainment (London) and ABI (United States.)' I wonder who the other nineteen are.

Artikane has been inducted into The Kids Hall of Fame. Seriously, it’s terrifyingly real. Mozart, who at aged three is lumped in with precocious acting brats and toddlers obsessed with jigsaw puzzles is sadly not available for comment.

Despite Adora’s fame as a ‘writer, poet and humanitarian’, she is yet to be inducted into The Kids Hall of Fame. As she travels the world dispensing scholarly wisdom and churning out stories through the night with her ‘furious fingers’, perhaps she needs to ponder how many more humanitarian acts she needs to perform to gain her place in this coveted institution. It is sad to see a child falling short of her full potential. Adora – try harder

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Da Vinci Mode

Looking at the small selection of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum I am reminded of myself. Not that I have a long white beard or like drawing pictures of men with four arms and four legs, but that I, too, like to put down all my thoughts on paper. I have always been a diary keeper. There are some surprises there for a few people if I go before they do.

Earlier this year I started an inventory of all my possessions where I write a short description of every object I own, how I came by it, how much it cost etc. For some things I’ve done a little drawing. It took me about three weeks to complete the living room. There are 110 objects in there alone. Admittedly most of them are DVDs but that is a lot.

Before I started on the bedroom, I took five bin bags of clothes I didn’t remember I owned to the charity shop. The count is up to 156 and I haven’t even started on the wardrobe. I wonder what will become of this list and all the other lists and notes I’ve made over the years. When I move to the tropics, hopefully within the year, I might dig a hole in the sand and bury them all in a time capsule. It would need to be a big hole though because this body of work is now occupying one large filing cabinet, thirty box files and eight large plastic boxes.

Leonardo’s drawings were distributed to his friends and acquaintances after his death. The Queen ended up with about six hundred of them. I hadn’t realised they were so close. I don’t know that anyone will want my doodlings. I can imagine friends being offered a drawing and saying, ‘can I not have that pink top with the lacy collar instead please?’

If you google Leonardo da Vinci you get 3,800,000 entries. That’s more than Tony Blair or even Princess Diana. If you google me you get one and that’s for this blog. I fear my only hope of immortality rests with future generations. I will either have to cull a little or save up for a large lead-lined box.

It is fascinating to look at some of Leonardo’s inventions in the context of five hundred years of technology. His design for a tank was visionary, although having it made of wood may have been self defeating. It would be a bit like a jelly submarine or a chocolate fire engine. I wonder how some of these inventions would go down on Dragon’s Den. Would they say, ‘well the idea seems sound but I can’t read backwards Latin. You need to work on your presentation. Come back when you’ve mastered PowerPoint.’

I have had a crack at most things but not inventions. It does my head in just thinking about how sound waves work. Anyway anything I’ve ever considered needed inventing has usually been done already by either Gyro Gearloose or Inspector Gadget.

To be in the presence of the spirit of a great genius is humbling and it makes you a bit sad that there is so little of it around these days. There’s Stephen Hawking obviously but I’m pretty certain he can’t draw. It would be nice if more people did put their thoughts down on paper. Last year I saw the Diane Arbus exhibition at the V&A. In addition to the photographs there were many of her notebooks. Looking at them was like being on a really scary ghost train. We could do without the musings of a Madonna or Robbie Williams but I wouldn’t mind sifting through the dust mites that inhabit the dark recesses of the mind of say a Salman Rushdie or Jeanette Winterson.

I may spend a little time on the inventory this afternoon. I have just thought of something that needs inventing – a virtual time capsule. It’s true, genius does spawn genius. Now all I have to do is find a geek to partner me up as I don’t know the first thing about programming – one can’t know everything.

Clever cartoon by Chris Madden

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

I love Hackney

I love to participate in peace and its inseparable companion quiet so I was very sad that I missed out on celebrating ‘One Love Hackney’, ‘a week of peace’ that ended on Sunday. I suppose in a way I was participating as I didn’t start any wars at all. I was tempted to mind, with my neighbours across the hall who think our foyer is a shoe locker. Either that or they are planning to stage Nabucco out there and are in a permanent state of dress rehearsal. I would like to also place on record that I did not carry a gun or knife for the entire week, although I did chop the odd onion.

While poking around the internet seeing if I could find out more about the mysterious ‘One Love Hackney’ movement I came across one of its supporters, Team Hackney. This is not, as you might assume our borough beach volleyball team, but the new name for our Local Strategic Partnership. The reason for rebranding is fully explained on its website,,

‘The name changed to show how we all need to be part of the same team for a better Hackney’.

If that makes any sense to you, there are half a dozen reasonably well paid positions being advertised on the website but you need to be quick because applications close on Monday.

Many may be baffled by this term Local Strategic Partnership. This is a collection of people of a certain age decorated with bits of braid, Bart Simpson ties and lizards running up their lapels who get together once a month to tackle the thorny problem of how to make your life better. Never mind that you are all over that one yourself and are busy planning your next trip to Tenerife to accomplish just that aim.

The principle of a Local Strategic Partnership is that all the top people from all the organisations who work out how to remove your garbage most effectively get together to decide how best to provide you with services in exchange for your council tax. Because they are all so fiendishly clever and knowledgeable, the problem ends up far more complex than you would have imagined possible.

They also know how important it is to be flexible in this fast moving, ever changing environment so no decisions are actually taken. It would be wrong to be prescriptive. A half day out of the life of a busy chief executive of something called a primary care trust is a major undertaking and completing ‘problem walls’ and ‘solution trees’ easily as taxing as solving Fermat’s last theorem so the mounting cost of providing executive finger buffets and luxury fruit platters is money well spent.

One of the things they have been able to agree on and commit to is the need for ‘new ways of working’. This is a great improvement because it stops them from playing Free Cell all day. Unfortunately these revolutionary ideas have not yet filtered down to front line staff who are all on game 28,927. The last person to successfully complete the game will be buying the drinks. Thank goodness for Wetherspoons as the Embracing our Diversity and Maximum Respect Unit is now around fourteen thousand strong. This has added a whole new dimension to ‘hot desking’ as three people are now allocated to each chair and are required to ‘stack’ during the core hours of work, unless they are on long term sick leave.

There is one serious draw-back to achieving new ways of working. Whilst Ad-4-u have been remarkably innovative in meeting the prodigious challenge of creating new names for everything, they are less gifted in the cut and thrust of putting together a robust job description. Whereas the job you are going for might have the attractive title of Team Leader for Maximising Respect and Building on the Chill (PO4), your job description will be cut and pasted from that of a Senior Clerical Officer (PO4), circa 1972.

All Local Strategic Partnerships are required to have a Community Strategy. This is a master plan, if you will, for how this group of dedicated professionals will achieve the betterment of your life on your behalf. Before you start to celebrate, you should note that Team Hackney’s strategy, is called Mind the Gap. I was reminded on reading it of the great philosophical axiom, ‘as you go through life, keep your eye on the donut and not the hole.’ If you would like to read about nothing, it is much shorter than anything by JP Sartre.

If you live in Hackney and would like to discuss this further I will be the person sitting next to you on the plane to Tenerife.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Fake phallus fails

Surgeons in China have had to remove the world’s first transplanted penis after just two weeks in situ. The recipient, a 44 year old accident victim, showed no signs of physically rejecting the new organ. His wife, however, had other ideas.

‘Because of a severe psychological problem of the recipient and his wife, the transplanted penis regretfully had to be cut off’, pioneering and not best pleased surgeon Dr Hu said following the successful reversal.

The penis, from the body of a man half Mr New Dick’s age was said to be only four inches long. This may have been a factor. It is also believed that Mrs New Dick attended an Ann Summers party last week and may have purchased a novelty dildo.

Professor Jean-Michel Dubernard, the surgeon who grafted a donor face onto a woman who’d been mauled by a dog earlier this year explores the rejection in the journal European Urology, due out next month. He suggests sanguinely,

Psychological consequences of hand and face allografts show that it is not so easy to use and see permanently a dead person's hands, nor is it easy to look in a mirror to see a dead person's face.’

In the 1935 film Mad Love based on Maurice Renard's classic book Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac), a concert pianist receives the transplanted hands of a murderer and suddenly takes up knife throwing instead of practising his arpeggios. It is customary in China to use the organs of executed criminals for transplants. Perhaps the new penis exhibited low moral fibre or had a tattoo bearing the legend, ‘I’m hard, I am.’

Prof Dubernard has been up close and personal with this unfortunate turn of events himself. The hand he grafted onto 50 year old New Zealander Chris Hallam in 2001 had to be amputated. Hallam asked for the ‘hideous and withered’ appendage to be removed because he had become ‘mentally detached’ from it, bringing new meaning to the term, ‘being dealt a bad hand’. Maybe it’s like trying on a frock that doesn’t fit properly. You need it. You like the idea of it but it’s just not you.

A hand is one thing but a man’s relationship with his penis is much more sensitive. Heterosexual men are uncomfortable about looking at other men’s penises and only do so to satisfy themselves that theirs is better. Poor old Mr New Dick must have found that very confusing. A trip to the public urinal must have filled him with unprecedented dread. Maybe he felt a bit gay. Maybe Mrs New Dick felt unfaithful or unfulfilled, or both.

‘Clearly, in the Chinese case the failure at a very early stage was first psychological. It involved the recipient's wife and raised many questions’, concludes Prof Dubernard. Questions were raised if nothing else was. It will be interesting to see just what those questions are and who is going to be game enough to ask them.

Men will go to any lengths to be reunited with their own members and their fellows will do anything to help. Police officers searched all night to recover John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis in 1993 after his disgruntled wife Lorena severed it and chucked it into the woods from the window of her speeding car. Clearly they remain indifferent to the welfare of anyone else’s, even if it is acting as their stand-in.

I wonder why Mr New Dick didn’t just get a prosthetic job. If he is in any doubt about potential suppliers I can forward on the contents of my inbox.

Cartoon originally published on

Monday, September 18, 2006

Cherie in slap flap

Swapped at birth: Sharon Osbourne, Cherie Blair
Well, wrap me up in tissue paper and call me Barbie – it is possible to get swift action if you have the right connections and know which heart strings to pluck.

Today, the Children’s Society launches its Good Childhood Inquiry a mere six days after one hundred leading ‘experts’ pushed the moral panic button and told the nation that childhood has morphed into a disastrous hybrid of Taxi Driver and Oliver Twist.

‘Today’s children are expected to cope with an ever-earlier start to formal schoolwork and an overly academic test-driven primary curriculum. They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past’, they shrieked in an open letter published in The Telegraph on Tuesday.

The term ‘moral panic’ was first coined in the early seventies to explain the Mods and Rockers phenomenon, an early form of youth disorder involving motor vehicles and conflicting fashion which had nearly ruined the country, or at the very least, Brighton back in the sixties. What happened there was that groups of young people appropriated accoutrements from a limited selection and used them as an expression of a tribal self.

Now we face the peril of confused and distressed children having so much trash culture pushed at them that they couldn’t extract a preferred identity if it leapt out of their iPod and whisked them off to Top Shop. Tragic. The obvious occurs to no one. Why don’t the people who are peddling corrupting product to children simply stop doing it if it’s causing all this grief?

Not that simple. The signatories to the Telegraph letter included such ‘experts’ as authors Penelope Leach, Jacqueline Wilson, Philip Pullman and Michael Morpugo.

‘It's gradually soaking like a poison into the culture’, sobbed Morpugo. There is less room for reading, for dreaming, for music, for drama, for art, and simply for playing.’

No time for reading, mmm, that can’t be good for sales.

Strangely the news of this moral vacuum that is engulfing the early years has not reached the children in my street who seem always out happily kicking balls about and riding their bikes up and down the towpath, not a fishnet stocking or spliff to be seen. And this is Hackney – one of the dodgy bits. Maybe they’re all on Prozac.

‘We are talking about one in ten young people with measurable mental health problems, including depression and self harm. That is a very worrying statistic’, intoned the Inquiry’s spokesperson Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.

As we mourn the demise of innocence, we may pause to wonder where imagination went. Could it have been colonised by social workers whose self-serving agenda of perceived child endangerment is on the way to reaching the epic outlandishness that was achieved in the late eighties and early nineties when every parent suddenly became a potential child murderer? In the most famous cases, Cleveland in 1987 and Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands in 1991, children as young as five were snatched from their beds in the early hours of the morning and kept in foster homes for months. Nearly all cases were found to be complete fabrications.

The sad repercussion of these high profile social services fuck-ups was that the sensitive new age dads who had ventured into showing affection to their kids immediately backed off, living in fear of even being left alone with them. Hysteria peaked in 1996 when ITN newsreader Julia Somerville was arrested after popping some family snaps of her child in the bath into Boots for processing.

Every accusing finger will naturally be pointed at the poorer families, the Chav single mothers in council hell holes whose idea of reciting poetry is to reel off the Happy Meals menu. But what about the wealthy and powerful neglecters of children? The Sharon Osbournes of this world whose kids have had every emotional disorder known to psychology by the age of six. What about the children of actors and rock stars who commit suicide in high numbers or set up permanent homes in rehab clinics? What about the poor mites shuttled across the Atlantic between estranged parents or hidden away in boarding schools?

At least one celebrity child molester has been fingered this week. Sharon Osbourne look-a-like Cherie Blair was under police investigation after she took a playful swipe at a seventeen year old at a sporting event for making ‘rabbit ears’ behind her. UK Schools Games' organisers complained to police after discussing the incident with officials from the Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU), an organisation established to protect children from child abusers working in sport. Oh to have been a fly on the wall in that conversation…

How do you solve a problem like Lloyd Webber?

My bottom drawer contains two musicals. One is an epic concerning the valiant struggle between Saladin and Richard the Lionheart for Jerusalem. Although tame and scrupulously fair-minded, it would probably earn me a fatwah today. The other is a charming adaptation of a story by Charles Dickens. I wrote them a long time ago. Every now and then I drag them out and congratulate myself on how clever I am really and wonder why I could never get anyone interested. These thoughts inevitably lead to contemplating the mystery of why Andrew Lloyd Webber remains the only known British composer of musical theatre.

I know two really good Andrew Lloyd Webber jokes only one of which I can remember. Perhaps the other will occur to me in the next half hour while I’m writing this. The first is not actually a joke. (This isn’t going very well). It’s one of Graham Rawle’s Lost Consonant series of cartoons entitled ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber writing another hit musical.’

Last night I watched the final of How do you solve a problem like Maria, yet another reality concoction, this time to locate a newcomer to play Maria Von Trapp in the West End after Scarlett Johansson pulled out. She may have had a reality moment herself recalling a similar epiphany that blessed Roger Moore a few years ago. Taking a comfort break from her entourage of sycophants, she may have had a glance over her CV and discovered that singing wasn’t actually on it.

Although no way as painful as peering through splayed fingers at the deluded campers over on the X Factor there is still something quite pitiful about the voting culture that has come to dominate the world of entertainment. Musicals require serious skills. At least most of the women who made it through to the televised sing-offs had musical theatre training.

One time Lloyd Webber producer Trevor Nunn was equally unimpressed and had a pop at the tactic in The Times last month,

‘I think that what these reality programmes more or less rely on is the viewing public being witness to distress.’

Television talent shows are not new. They seemed to dominate Saturday schedules a couple of decades ago and were much, much worse then because they included ventriloquists (who often won), plate spinners and toothless spoon players dressed in pearly king costumes.

Is there no other way for people who can act, sing and dance to be matched to vacancies on the London stage? Why is it necessary to involve the entire country in the search for someone to play a part in a theatre production? What are agents all doing, playing golf with each other?

Andrew Lloyd Webber is the greatest single argument for bringing back Spitting Image. They wouldn’t even need a puppet. He could play his own puppet. His legs look like they are loosely filled with kapok. Has anyone seen him standing up lately? And that face with its unashamed googly eyes for anything in a skirt, looking like it’s been slashed with a knife and repaired with Sellotape. The show’s eventual winner, call centre drone Connie Fisher, quipped ‘I hope I don’t have to marry Andrew Lloyd Webber if I win.’ Sorry dear, did you not read the small print?

As much as he may himself believe he actually wrote The Sound of Music, Lloyd Webber is merely the producer of this revival. It is the last musical written by Rodgers and Hammerstein whose unmatched repertoire set the gold standard for musical theatre. There is no reference to R&H on the official BBC How do you solve a problem like Maria website. None.

The other Lloyd Webber joke escapes me which is a pity because it was really funny. Maybe this should end on a sour note because, after a century of sophisticated musical theatre, this event brings us unceremoniously back to doh.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Papal Reign

In this day and age, surely we could have a gay, black Pope. It was hardly worth waking up this morning as the news was dominated by the dreary tedium of ‘Benny the Dull’ causing controversy in the Muslim world – that is so not difficult to do.

Anyone who has read Benny’s entire speech can easily see why newshounds seized on the insult to Islam which came mercifully early in the speech but followed such contemplative gems as,

‘We would meet before and after lessons in the rooms of the teaching staff. There was a lively exchange with historians, philosophers, philologists and, naturally, between the two theological faculties’.

One can dream but the grim reality is he probably wasn’t referring to fluid exchange, not even a spoonful of sherry, I’m afraid. Journalists must have thought all their Ramadans had come at once when they were tossed their exit quote from 14th Century Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus,

‘Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’

A brief pause was presumably necessary as foreign correspondents fiddled in their pockets for their Ryanair tickets while simultaneously attempting to file copy via their Blackberrys. Benny the Dull continued,

Once a semester there was a dies academicus, when professors from every faculty appeared before the students of the entire university, making possible a genuine experience of universitas - something that you too, Magnificent Rector, just mentioned - the experience, in other words, of the fact that despite our specializations which at times make it difficult to communicate with each other, we made up a whole, working in everything on the basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason - this reality became a lived experience.

I know it’s been translated from the German so the fact that it doesn’t seem to make any sense at all may not be entirely err … germane. I don’t speak German myself but I have watched German films with English subtitles and what seems to happen is you get five minutes of dialogue and then the subtitles appear,

‘You’re such a shit,’

‘I’m going out for cigarettes.’

‘Auf wiedersehn, arsehole.’

There’s not even any real need to translate the last line. Everybody knows what it means because of an eighties television show called Auf Wiedersehn Pet which was about Geordie builders going over to Germany and arsehole seems to sound the same in every language and it was also in the show rather a lot. In the world of theological academe however, the pace is even slower than gritty eighties drama.

By the time Benny the Dull was mid-speech, foreign correspondents were safely tucked into their beds, perhaps gleefully anticipating the inevitable storm of protests. Sadly, not a single journalist was left in the auditorium to collect the scoop of the day – that Benny the Dull seemed to be calling for the abolition of hell. Not before time either. Surely it is not acceptable to go on threatening children with what is clearly a negative life choice,

‘The thesis that the critically purified Greek heritage forms an integral part of Christian faith has been countered by the call for a dehellenization of Christianity - a call which has more and more dominated theological discussions since the beginning of the modern age.’

Only the staunchest defenders of the faith could have still been awake as Benny the Dull rounded off,

‘And so I come to my conclusion. This attempt, painted with broad strokes, at a critique of modern reason from within has nothing to do with putting the clock back to the time before the Enlightenment and rejecting the insights of the modern age.’

Now, can we have that gay, black Pope please, and soon. I don' t know that Prince is doing that much right now. Not that he's necessarily gay but he could play gay, he's an artiste right?

Cartoon from

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Short of a barbie

Election to government is really just the first step in a slow march to the self-destruct button. Labour has survived quite a few suicide bombers within its ranks over the years but none more determined than Clare Short. First it was her dramatic resignation as International Development Secretary at the start of the war on Iraq and then the accusations that M15 were bugging the UN. Of course they were Clare. It’s what they do. Have you not seen Spooks then?

Now she’s determined to go out with the mother of all barbies, announcing that she will campaign for a hung parliament. Perhaps she will offer the use of one of her lovely scarves for the lynching. In her present incendiary mood who knows what she might be capable of. Think back to the dying days of the Tory government and the human sacrifice that went on there. Car crash politics with sex scandals (David Mellor and Tim Yeo), money scandals (Neil Hamilton and Tim Smith) and the nightmare of Jeffrey Archer – the original raw prawn - whose list of transgressions is longer than the London phone book.

It’s true that Labour can’t quite muster a cast of this calibre, well they could but all the parts would have to be played by John Prescott. For a government to be sunk by just being crap would appear unsporting. We should be grateful to Clare Short for at least attempting to make a stab at drama. I am unclear however, how exactly to vote for a hung parliament. Would I perhaps pop a little piece of rope in with my ballot paper?

Short always seemed like a solid, salt of the earth kind of woman to me, the type who’d wear an emerald green gabardine blazer with a large gold lizard running up the lapel. She now finds herself ‘profoundly ashamed’ of the government she has represented for nearly ten years accusing it of incompetence, arrogance and lack of principle. Presumably she includes herself in this conspiracy to defraud the public of decent government.

Immanuel Kant said, ‘An intelligent child who is brought up with a mad child can go mad.’ Is the pressure of being in government so intense that everyone goes balmy eventually, even the ones who started out with impeccable ideals? Think of Charles ‘Grizzly’ Clarke and his mauling of Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown last week. Why are these rebels just waking up now to what has been obvious to the rest of us for at least five years? This Labour government is a big, big disappointment.

So let us consider just for moment what the Short solution would involve. She’s proposing a three party system with no overall control and concludes,

‘British politics would change profoundly. Parliament, and in turn the people, would have to be listened to, cabinet government would return, the error-prone arrogance of Number 10 would end, and we would have a chance of creating a new politics, a more civilised country and a more honourable role in the world.’

And suckling pigs might fly off the spit Clare. In actuality what we’d be looking at is a time share in Downing Street and a rota for cleaning the barbeque. Anyone who’s ever lived in a share house will know that this is a formula for salmonella.

When you reach the stage of thinking that your own party could do with a spell in opposition to sharpen up its political utensils, you need to hang up your long-handled fork. Meanwhile the guests at New Labour’s ten year anniversary barbeque seem to be forming an orderly queue to self grill. As one by one, senior Labourites launch themselves onto skewers all we can do is say ‘chuck another shrimp on the barbie and pass the jerk sauce please mate.’

Wonderful art by Dan Levin

Friday, September 15, 2006

Oil acquaintance

It’s a cold day in September when the Tories start making sense and the Lib Dems are in the same ballpark as a valid point. This is how low the bar has descended I’m afraid. I guess Ken thought that Tony Blair was having too much fun messing around with Texas oil billionaires and wanted a little of it for himself. He reminds me a bit of Cliff Barnes in Dallas. Always on the outer, Cliff was forever making business with dodgy partners and embarrassing himself at the Oil Barons’ Club.

Ken has made himself a little deal with Hugo Chávez of Venezuela to supply the best of British expertise in housing policy and environmental management in exchange for cheap diesel to fuel London’s buses. This is about as fair an exchange as the Victorians swapping British missionaries for Chinese opium.

‘I'm sure the Venezuelans who struggle below the poverty line, many of them critically so, would be shocked at the cynical siphoning off of their main asset to provide one of the world's most prosperous cities with cheap oil’, said Angie Bray, Tory leader of the GLA. Ooo, sounds very sensible to me.

Even Mike Tuffrey, leader of the Lib Dem group made a credible grab for the green agenda, ‘This reduces us to the status of a third-world barter economy. We should be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, not trying to get them at subsidised prices from Venezuela.’

You can see where this is all coming from. You’ve got people who share ideologies but not necessarily practices and maybe can’t distinguish between the two very well. It may be torture to work in Ken’s ‘hedgehog’, with its lack of shelf space and glass walls that give the impression of closing in on you like the compactor in Star Wars, but it’s not actual torture. Travelling on the tube may feel like being in a cattle truck but it’s not an actual cattle truck. So when they have conversations they may be talking about entirely different things.

When Chávez for example says things like it was the Americans who blew up the twin towers, maybe Ken thinks he is speaking metaphorically. Chávez means he thinks the Americans laid actual dynamite in the buildings and detonated it. Ken maybe thinks he means the Americans were playing with political dynamite poking their unwelcome noises into the Middle East and trying to steal its oil.

It is a bit of a shame that it’s all come out so muddled. In a way, you wouldn’t mind these men who champion the poor giving one in the eye to oil oligarchs. They’re a bit like the Seven Samurai, except there are only two of them and they’re not Japanese.

Chávez has managed to make similar deals with Boston and New York with the insistence that cost savings go directly to the most deprived. It has proved extremely difficult to establish how this might work in London. We are not very good at getting money to the poor in the easiest of circumstances. We frequently can’t manage it even when they know how much they’re entitled to and where they need to go to get it. Imagine queues of people in Tesco waiting to redeem their petrodollar points or trying to swap them for Computers in Schools vouchers.

The proposed solution is to offer subsidised Oyster cards. This does seem like a good idea but will it require the kind of odious and degrading assessment system that repels potential beneficiaries and will recipients have to make a declaration and find their benefits stopped for months while someone investigates? Will there be a need for inspectors in every tube station to ensure that the system is not being abused? Ho hum. Ken – there is slick and there is oil slick.

Picture Scanpix/AFP

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Scan Scam

OK people now it’s all getting just a little bit too scary. Yesterday Tony Blair made his last ever TUC speech against a backdrop of tediously anticipated hostility. The RMT didn’t disappoint, staging a walkout.

Others stayed and held up banners against the war in Iraq. All fine, enjoying our democratic right to protest blah, blah. Juggling the usual array of smoke and mirrors, Tony trotted through his typically turgid menu of challenges, achievements followed by more challenges, even more achievements. I admit I nodded off once or twice. I am on a detox diet at the moment and nettle tea doesn’t have quite the kick of coffee.

Then, somewhere between justifying war and explaining how pensioners will have to live off scraps they find in garbage bins, a smart bomb that no one seems to have picked up on, thudded down. We knew earlier this year that we were stuck with ID cards but at least they weren’t going to cost £300 and you’d only need to get one if you wanted to get or renew a passport. But now it seems that fingerprinting, retina scanning and digital facial measurements are coming. Wah!

‘The sophistication of document forgery means we can only be confident of people's identities if we have their biometrics: their fingerprints, irises and digital measures of their face.’ (Tony Blair TUC speech 12/9/06)

Somebody needs to explain to me why this news is less important than the PM leaking the latest unemployment figures (which are pants anyway) a day early.

This data-basing of individuals will initially apply only to immigrants,

By April 2008, all visa applicants will have their fingerprints taken. All visa nationals will need biometrics to get through border control. By April 2009 people here for work or study will have biometric identity cards, and biometric travel documents will be issued to refugees by the middle of 2007. The first ID cards will be issued by 2009. (Tony Blair TUC speech 12/9/06).

Children are already conditioned to accept pinpoint surveillance. I know people who call their kids every hour and instead of saying, ‘hello darling, are you basking in inner peace’, they bark, ‘where are you?’ There then follows some hard negotiation along the lines of ‘seven… no way, alright, no later than nine… I mean it. Nine!’

Children are already routinely fingerprinted. Yes, you heard that right. An innocuous sounding government sponsored scheme called Junior Librarian uses children’s fingerprints instead of library cards, always without the consent of parents according to the campaigning website Around 700,000 pre-teens have already been fingerprinted under this scheme.

Some secondary schools are introducing a fingerprinting machine outside the school gates to monitor attendance. Even more creepy, if such a thing is possible, they find children to sanction their own surveillance, ‘it’s an easier way of keeping track of where we are and what we do’, one kid at Holland Park Comprehensive told the BBC. From the mouths of babes. That’s the worst part, it seems children are so used to being tracked they actually feel comforted by the thought that adults are perving at them 24/7.

It’s no great leap to see where this is leading. They’ve spent all this money and the system is only partially effective because not everyone’s on it and wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could be sure the person standing in front of you in the airport queue was a bone fide human and not a lizard…

What a sad, sad thing that young people are going to miss out on one of the greatest contemplative opportunities there is – to be sitting by yourself, in the middle of a mass of people and thinking, ‘no one knows I’m here’. It’s one of the few benefits of living in an overcrowded city. The cult of celebrity is to blame for encouraging people to believe they should aim to be recognised wherever they go. Far better to be part of the furniture.

Cartoon by Chris Slane

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Just blew it

One Sunday in 1997 my routine stumble around Hackney Marshes suddenly got interesting, theoretically. The normally spectatorless raggle-taggle games of football suddenly had a few people milling around. I asked a fellow stumbler what was occurring and he said that Ian Wright and Eric Cantona were playing. What kind of an idiot would believe that? Needless to say I didn’t stay to watch the filming of Nike’s iconic Parklife commercial.

There are a lot of great things about living next door to Hackney Marshes – picking out your house from a plane, being on the Eastenders map, gathering blackberries and sometimes mushrooms, watching swans, ducks, geese and the always entertaining coots. A couple of years ago there was another strange occurrence involving a football and the marshes and maybe Nike, I can’t really remember now except it was all a big misunderstanding, apparently.

Cut to the present day and a third and hopefully final incident involving Nike and Hackney Marshes (football optional) has concluded. Yesterday Hackney Council won an out of court settlement of £300,000 against the sports giant for unauthorised use of its logo. While shopping in the Oxford Street Nike Town, one of Hackney’s legal retainers was confronted with a row of tee-shirts bearing the Hackney Council logo. Momentarily dazed, he wondered if he had fallen asleep and woken up in the council’s basement. Happily he remembered who and where he was and swung into action firing off a formal complaint to Nike central.

There was obviously the kind of creative melt-down at Ad-4-u that results in a back-to-basics brainstorm. Nike, it seemed had not forgotten its wonderful day having a kick about with the down home, salt of the earth, real people of Hackney and environs. Borrowing from the all too familiar language of public speak, Nike’s Head of Corporate Communications said,

'Nike created a range of products that was designed to celebrate the amateur football heritage and culture of Hackney Marshes. In doing so, we inadvertently used imagery that included the council's logo.’ Whatever happened to ignorance of the law is no defence? ‘Celebrating’ is a polite way of saying stealing in the same way that ‘borrowing’ used to be until banks introduced ‘unauthorised borrowing’. Perhaps ‘unauthorised celebrating’ should be enshrined in law.

Many are going to be disappointed by this as it would seem Hackney missed a trick in not going for the giant’s jugular but weird things can happen in courts of law and Hackney doesn’t have a great record at winning airtight cases. Besides, anyone with a heart could forgive Hackney mayor, Jules Pipe for not being able to pass on the opportunity to make the following statement,

‘We are very glad that Nike agreed to play ball without going to court’.

Accidental theft in the corporate world is very common and getting away with it is virtually mandatory. Monsanto seemed to forget that they hadn’t invented basmati rice. Coca Cola believes to this day that it initiated world peace. Richard Branson is always trying to sue young women who haven’t had sex. Hackney Council did well to enter this swamp and come out with £300,000 which it intends to spend on sporting activities for young people. Nike – consider yourself ticked off and don’t do it again.

War on War

Five years ago today I was ensconced deep in the bowels of Islington Town Hall putting together a vast batch of publicity material for a project I was working on. I came out mid afternoon and colleagues were gathered around a computer.

‘What’s happening?’

‘The World Trade Centre’s on fire.’

‘Oh right.’

My brain liquidised by sitting in a darkened room for almost a whole day with only Kiss Smooth Grooves 2000 for company, I thought they were tugging at my femur. I didn’t even go over to look, just walked out of the building and mounted the Number 30 bus. Everything seemed normal. No one on the bus said anything about it. I concluded it must not have happened. A triumph of rational thought. But it wasn’t. As soon as I got home I turned on the TV and didn’t turn it off again for about ten hours. It wasn’t something you thought could happen, except in movies.

I don’t know why I thought that day everything in the world would be different because something truly horrific had happened. There were no grounds whatever for thinking such a thing. To be more upset about the loss of 3,000 innocent people in America than you would 20,000 killed in an earthquake in Mexico, Turkey or China would be unseemly. Since that day over 50,000 have been killed in Iraq and 17,000 more in Afghanistan. Despite the inflated profile of ‘the war on terror’ life goes on as it always has, because it has to.

The movie Dam Busters consistently rates in top 100 lists of favourite films in this country. The real Operation Chastise in 1943 saw the destruction of two German dams and caused widespread flooding of the Ruhr Valley. Nearly 1,300 people were killed, many of them civilians and at least 500 of them slave workers from the Ukraine. It was an audacious and daring raid with very little chance of success – over a third of the crews were lost. A grateful nation, besieged on a nightly basis by German bombs, was thrilled at the time of this mission and remains enthralled by it to this day.

I find it possible to see the success of the 9/11 suicide mission from the perspective of the Mujahideen as something to be celebrated in the same way British people have always celebrated the achievement of the Dam Busters. I don’t find the ferocious nationalism of Iraqis or Afghanis surprising. When you are involved in a war, patriotism is as important an ingredient of survival as food, water and ammunition.

Nothing is to be gained by dehumanising these people and pretending suicide bombers are programmed robots. They are people who believe in something so strongly, they are prepared to face certain death. Is this so very different from World War II bomber pilots whose chances of survival plummeted to zero after their sixteenth mission? We are talking about two different groups of people who didn’t feel they had a choice. Simone de Beauvoir said, ‘It took a war to make me realise I lived in the world.’ I believe her and very much hope that knowledge remains a priori. We have got to stop doing this shit to each other.

This is way too serious for me, but it’s been one of those days when a little bit of context points to why you may be feeling somewhat reflective. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

Detail from Guernica Pablo Picasso