The PM’s week, late-stage capitalism, executing teenagers in America, and wasps

2 May 2021

When you’re in the wrong, you should never lose your temper;  when you’re in the right, you don’t need to.

This old saw was proved all too clearly by Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday when Sir Keir Starmer asked some simple questions that Johnson was too embarrassed to answer and he got visibly angrier till he humiliated himself by losing his temper.  Even the pictures of him jabbing a finger at Starmer show clearly that Boris was stuck:  he daren’t give truthful answers to the questions and he daren’t lie to parliament.

Later the same day, Matt Hancock refused to answer questions about whether ministers who break electoral law should resign and volunteered that it doesn’t matter if Johnson resigns.  His actual words were “It is important that there are questions, and there were endless questions in the House of Commons earlier on some of the issues that you raised … but you’ve also got to concentrate on the big things that really matter.”

Johnson had a busy week:

  • he refused to set up a public enquiry into his handling of the pandemic, despite pressure from the Institute for Government (the leading independent think tank on the effectiveness of government) and the King’s Fund (an independent health and care charity) who, for some reason, seem to believe it should be done now so we can learn lessons from it, rather than when it’s too late and even more people have died;  and the Lord Speaker, who spent 11 years in Conservative cabinets and is a former chair of the Conservative Party, is calling for a public enquiry to be set up “as soon as possible”.
  • he inadvertently gave his reasons for refusing the enquiry when a small number of people near his office heard him shouting “no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands”.  He has naturally denied saying this, knowing that ‘the science’ has estimated his delays in March and September last year have already increased the number of Covid-related deaths by 10,000-20,000 ‘bodies’.
  • he now seems likely to be subject to an investigation by parliament’s sleaze watchdog for having reputedly spent £200,000 to stop his flat looking like “a John Lewis nightmare” (sounds good to me) according to a friend of his fiancée* or “a skip” according to Sarah Vine, a right-wing columnist who is also Michael Gove’s wife and, apparently, an expert on skips;  all he’s said is that he paid for it himself and refuses to deny rumours the Conservative party lent him £58,000.  By a strange coincidence, much of the paperwork which would show who originally paid for the stuff has gone missing. 
  • he briefed various media that Dominic Cummings was behind the leaks and Cummings responded with a blog making new allegations about Johnson’s improprieties.
  • his closest allies were accused of awarding government contracts worth millions to their friends and relations and we learnt that his predecessor had lobbied for funding for Greensill Capital, a company that then went belly-up.
  • he said the government “would be working very hard” to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe after she was sentenced to a further year in prison in Iran this week and he added “I don’t think it is right that Nazanin should be sentenced to any more time in jail.  I think it is wrong she is there in the first place, and we will be working very hard to secure her release from Iran … The government will not stop, we will redouble our efforts and we are working with our American friends on the issue as well.”.  What he forgot to say was that the secondary reason she’s already served 5 years (for a different ‘crime’) was because he told a parliamentary select committee in 2017 (when he was Foreign Secretary) that “she was simply teaching people journalism”, which the Iranians quoted in evidence against her, and Johnson had to apologise for the “distress and anguish” his comments had caused the family.  The first reason is that Britain is still refusing to pay the money it has owed Iran for decades.

So, not a good week for Johnson (in a good week, he just gets the skitters) without even mentioning all his earlier lies and deceits.  And he’s the man who was elected by his party members to ‘lead’ their party into a time of peace and harmony in the post-Brexit world.

In the world of late-stage capitalism, the case against two former executives at Serco collapsed because the Senior Fraud Office failed to disclose some evidence to the defendants and the judge didn’t allow the SFO’s request for the case to be adjourned to a retrial.  One of the accused, Simon Marshall, subsequently said “The allegations against me were entirely without substance, as is now clear”, which seems a rather over-optimistic interpretation of a case that failed because of a judicial technicality rather than his having been judged ‘not guilty’.

Serco had previously had to pay £12.8m to the Ministry of Justice as part of a £70m civil settlement in 2013 and £22.9m in fines and costs in 2019 after admitting three offences of fraud and two of false accounting on electronic monitoring contracts.

This week also saw publication of a report by human rights experts from 11 countries that describes the systematic killing of unarmed African Americans as a crime against humanity and holds the US accountable for a long history of violations of international law.

America’s approach is exemplified by the fact that capital punishment is still legal in more than half the states and only 40% of the people on death row are white while 72% of the population identify themselves as white.  The death penalty itself is not prohibited by international law but how it’s used gives a measure of the decency of the country itself and, in America, what are considered as “cruel and unusual punishments” proscribed by the Eighth Amendment.

It also allows reflection on the ages of those allowed to be executed.  In 1944, the 14-year old George Stinney was electrocuted in South Carolina after being found guilty of the murder of two children.  The case was based on circumstantial evidence, he maintained his innocence throughout and the verdict was subsequently overturned and he was pardoned.  Posthumously.  Better never than late.

It wasn’t until 1989 that a Kentucky case said there was a general consensus that people under 16 shouldn’t be executed and this has since been confirmed by the US Supreme Court.

However, many states under Republican control are still buying drugs used in executions from illicit dealers (pharmaceutical companies are not allowed to sell their products to be used in executions).  Arizona has, for example, ordered $1.5m worth of such drugs and said they must be shipped in “unmarked jars and boxes”.

And so to this week’s good news:  according to a report in Biological Reviews, there are about 100,000 wasp species worldwide but only a third of them sting, and they are all valuable plant pollinators.

*          I wonder why Carrie Symonds** is still his fiancée and not his wife.  She doesn’t look like someone I’d want to upset so perhaps it’s in case he discovers he’s inadvertently spawned yet another child with somebody else and wants to be able to walk away again.

**        Did you know her paternal grandfather was a former Labour MP, now probably spinning in his grave?

Kindness and laughter, gambling, billionaires, insurance, escaping abuse and worries about heaven

11 April 2021

At times like these, the world needs kindness more than ever.

Suffering is all around us while autocrats and plutocrats live increasingly remote and unreal existences, never seeming to recognise that they actually depend on the rest of us.

In China, the Uighurs are being ‘re-educated’ to destroy their cultural history and independence;  in Myanmar, the Rohingya are being annihilated and demonstrators are being shot;  in the middle east, Israel is killing Palestinians and disenfranchising all Israelis who aren’t Jewish;  Muslims are divided between Sunnis and Shi’ites (basically the left and right hands of the Prophet fighting over who gets to cut the other one off);  Americans are buying guns and, having got them, reckon they might as well use them to kill other people;  Northern Ireland is descending into chaos again, this time over the Brexit agreement rather than religion, but the burning buses look the same;  the ‘authorities’ in Hong Kong are killing anyone who disagrees with them;  nobody likes Iran (like Britain, another failed state that used to control a huge empire);  and Russia is headed by a humourless despot who thinks it’s cool to be photographed topless on a horse.

What happened to laughter?  Can you imagine Vlad the Poisoner helpless with laughter?  Why are so many leaders so self-important?  What makes powerful people think pomposity and arrogance are essential to their trade?  Can you imagine Donald Trump saying “I don’t know, tell me what you think”?

We are all but waves on the limitless oceans of spacetime, and waves don’t go anywhere, they’re just water going up and down in the same place, and are gone in the blink of an eye.

I sometimes wonder if we all – including me – try to see too far with short-sighted eyes and we should just accept that other people see things differently without necessarily being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.  We can perhaps concentrate just on thinking about what will make other people happier and ignore what might make them like, or fear, us more.

Being kind to people can make them happier, even if only briefly, and doesn’t have to take time, perhaps messaging them asking how they are, or remembering their birthday, or sending them a book you saw in a charity shop and thought they might like.  It’s often the little things that make the most impact and, just for a moment, the other person will wonder if the world isn’t all bad. 

If I could have one superpower, it’d be to make people feel better about being themselves, warts and all.  For me, silliness and laughter are essential parts of this so I get great pleasure from small things, like the official sign in the District of North Vancouver which reads:

Attention dog guardians
Please pick up after your dogs.  Thank you.  
Attention dogs
Grrrrr, bark, woof.  Good dog.

(I’ll send a photograph of the sign to anybody who thinks I make these things up.)

Incidentally, did you see that Betfred, a gambling company, had refused to pay out a £1.7m jackpot won by Andy Green playing blackjack on their site in 2018.  Their excuse?  Their system had a glitch that failed to stop people winning multiple jackpots.  This is a classic example of what Bugs Bunny once described as “a pronoun problem”, a definition I’ve cherished ever since I heard it.  In a summarised form it goes “I’ve got a problem and you’re going to put it right”.

The punter concerned was understandably upset and took them right up to the High Court where it was decided that the problem was Betfred’s not the winner’s and they should pay him what he’d won.  After this judgement, Betfred said “we will abide by the court’s decision and not appeal. We would like to apologise to Mr Green for the delay in receiving his money.”

(An incidental benefit arising from this is that we now know that, because the software’s been sorted, if we do win a jackpot, we should stop playing because the updated software isn’t going to let us win another.)

I always used to suspect it was more productive to place a bet that certain events would happen than to insure against them happening because bookmakers were more likely to pay out than insurance companies but I’m now beginning to doubt this.  (I once damaged the trousers of a suit and was offered half the cost of the suit because only half of it was damaged;  obviously, I did the only thing possible and posted them the jacket and saying here’s the other half of the suit’s value, it’s yours to keep,  please send a cheque for the full cost of a replacement suit, and they did.)

Gambling firms have profited hugely from the Covid-19 pandemic, as have billionaires generally with 493 new billionaires, 205 of them in China, being added to the Forbes annual poll which now lists 2,755 billionaires with a combined wealth of $13.1tn (up from $8tn in 2020).  Trump was one of the few losers and finished almost 300 places further down the list.

Another much more worrying effect of the lockdown has been the surge in domestic violence but an 18-year old Polish woman, Krysia Paszko, who’d heard of the Spanish system which the French had adopted that uses codewords to tell pharmacists they were being abused.  (In France, asking for a “Mask 19”, alerts the staff to abuse.)

In Poland, Paszko set up a website Rumianki i Bratki (camomiles and pansies) in April last year.  It looks like a normal cosmetics shop with pictures of lavender soap and cleansing sage face masks but, instead of salespeople, you reach a volunteer team of psychologists from the Centre for Women’s Rights and, if someone places an order and gives their address, it means a police response is needed;  in the last year, it’s helped 350 people with free legal advice and action plans.

Her inspiration won Paszko the EU’s Civil Solidarity Prize, a 10,000-euro ($12,000) award for Covid initiatives. 

And, of course, the Duke of Edinburgh died this week.  I hope people will respect the Queen’s request that they give money to charity instead of dumping bouquets that rapidly turn into a mixture of compostable material contaminated with cellophane, plastic and rubber bands.  Let’s also spare a thought for how she must be feeling at the end of a partnership of 73 years. 

Philip himself is now in the big kennel in the sky with our dowager dog who died a few weeks ago.  I hope he’ll visit her – she loved everybody, especially if they brought her celery.

Actually, I’ve always wondered, if there is a heaven, do animals go there?  Are your old pets waiting to greet you?  Do they still eat … inappropriate things?  Are poo bags issued to dog-lovers?  I’m reminded of Androcles saying in G B Shaw’s play ‘Androcles and the Lion’ that he wouldn’t want to go to heaven if there weren’t any animals there.

Would a friend of mine who died of Motor Neurone Disease when we were both 43 recognise me now I’m no longer 43?  What about babies who die very young – what sort of spirit would they have?

Even more importantly (for me) is whether there’s laughter in heaven and whether one’s allowed to be silly, like in the card in the shop window that said:

FOUND

Tabby cat, white chest and paws,

answers to the name of Bugger Off.

Silliness and self-importance are mutually incompatible and I know which I prefer.

I wonder about these things not out of any disrespect to other people’s beliefs but because, here on earth, friends, animals and silliness are important to me, and I fully accept that what I now think of as ‘me’ is so rooted in the life I’ve had so far that my spirit may exist far above such petty limitations.

Stopped clocks, inexplicable reports, increasing tax and failures such as Brexit and shrinking willies

4 April 2021

After his husband David died, the Revd broadcaster Richard Coles’ clock stopped.  This wasn’t due to any magical connection, or even coincidence, it was just an old grandfather clock with an intricate winding mechanism that only David knew how to operate.

However, there have been cases when clocks stopped when somebody died, not all of them linked to the song that was popular on the radio in the 1950s but was written in 1876 by Henry Clay Work (and is, incidentally, believed to be why longcase clocks became known as ‘grandfather clocks’).

During World War II, my wife’s father commanded one of the destroyers that accompanied and protected convoys of merchant ships across the Atlantic (Nicholas Montsarrat’s 1951 novel ‘The Cruel Sea’ is supposed to portray a horribly accurate idea of what conditions were like on these convoys).  When he was off watch one night and sleeping, he woke suddenly for no obvious reason and, at the end of the watch, he found his clock had stopped at the time he woke.  He later heard that his brother, who was in the RAF, had been killed at that exact time on a flight over Germany.

While the link between a clockwork mechanism and a human life seems rather unlikely, I still side with Hamlet when he chided Horatio for doubting that he’d seen his father’s ghost and I have no problems with telepathy, or at least some currently inexplicable link between two different minds in different places.

Thinking of mind-expanding experiences, I noticed New York has legalised marijuana for recreational use “to end the racially disparate enforcement of marijuana prohibition” (as one American lawmaker said).  Legalising dope could also, quite coincidentally of course, be worth an estimated $4bn to the state, some $350m of which would go into state funds.  It would also, one hopes, reduce the need for stoners to find street dealers and perhaps drug gangleaders will lose some power as a result.  It would be interesting to know how the weedmeisters’ activities have been affected in, say, Colorado where it’s been legal since 2014.

This was a week of inexplicable reports, not all published on 1 April, one of which claimed that somebody’s trying to set up a charity to raise £1m for a Brexit museum.  Why do we need one?  We’ve already got the London Dungeon.

Another was that Denise Coates, the CEO of Bet365 paid herself almost half a billion pounds last year in salary and dividends.  Bet365 is a company that spends money trying to encourage people to get addicted to a potentially lethal habit.  If other addictive and potentially lethal recreational habits such as nicotine can’t be advertised on television, why can betting?

Abigail Disney (a granddaughter) is a member of The Patriotic Millionaires, set up in 2010 by a group of the super-rich who believe that they should pay higher taxes to fund public services and welfare and to tackle growing inequality.  It has since grown to an international organisation with more than 200 members who are proud to describe themselves as “traitors to their class” and share a concern about the “destabilising concentration of wealth and power”.

In Britain, six billionaires have signed up so far and have expressed their shock that, according to the Office for National Statistics, the richest 1% of Brits hold almost a quarter of the nation’s wealth while 2.5 million Londoners are classified as living in poverty.  One of the members of this club is Gemma McGough who made millions from the sale of a wireless technology start-up.  She thinks the top rate of tax should be as high as 75% to help contribute to the costs of the Covid-19 pandemic incurred by the government and says she’s happy to pay her share.  “If you’re earning £200,000, paying a higher rate of tax on earnings above that is not going to make you poor, is it?”

(What odds do you think Bet365 would give me on Coates not being a member of the club?)

US Senator Elizabeth Warren was proposing an annual wealth tax of just 2% on people with more than $50m, which would have raised $4tn, but has now added a higher rate of 3% on those with more than $1bn, targeting people who have been made richer by the pandemic and pointing out that the top 0.1% (that’s one in every thousand people) pay a lower effective tax rate than the bottom 99% (that’s 990 in every thousand people).  I wonder if it will become law …

Since the rabid chickens of Brexit are already coming home to roost, let’s have a UK referendum on higher taxes for the very wealthy so that no government or party has to take the blame.

In June, it’ll be 5 years since the UK voted to leave the EU and, on 29 March this year (!), the Government’s Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy wrote to all UK companies to say (inter alia) “the Government’s decision to delay the implementation of full border control processes by six months … will provide time to prepare for changes at the border and minimise trade disruption”.  It also admits “Completing a customs declaration can take time, so do consider using a customs intermediary to deal with importing and exporting on your behalf” but I couldn’t find the bit where it says the government will provide the services of such intermediaries free as an admission of its culpability for failing to negotiate a deal four years earlier that would have allowed everyone to prepare for the change.

And two updates on other failures:

  • On 7 March, I mentioned the unfortunate test flights of Elon Musk’s SpaceX prototypes.  This week, Starship SN11 followed the precedent set by the previous three launches when it “experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly” or, in English, it exploded in mid-air.  Musk still anticipates launching the Dragon capsule with people on board in the autumn.
  • You may also remember that, in mid-2019, the investment fund manager Neil Woodford’s luck ran out and more than 300,000 investors in his funds lost most of their money while he kept the £63m he’d trousered as he ran the funds into the ground.  Well, he’s trying to crawl back into the market, announcing last month that he was planning to set up a new business based in Jersey.  What a pity he hadn’t mentioned this to Jersey’s financial regulator who seemed rather less than enthusiastic about the idea.

The good news is that some 2017 research by Professor Shanna Swan of the Mount Sinai school of medicine in New York City showed that, as a result of chemicals used in plastics affecting sex hormones, the average sperm count of an Alt-Right male has more than halved in the previous 40 years, their dangly bits have shrunk, Alt-Right females libidos have decreased and their risk of premature ovarian failure, miscarriage and premature birth have increased in the same period.

Actually of course, as you will have guessed, Swan’s findings applied to all western men and women, not just Alt-Right people, but let’s look on the bright side.

Covid vaccinations, HS2, KGB assets, Proud Boys, verbising, nice people and a royal double bind

31 January 2021

We had our first Covid vaccinations yesterday with our second booked for 19 April, which gives us plenty of time to catch Covid with the 50% that isn’t protected.  Then, this morning I had Jerome K Jerome’s problem:  I’d read the list of possible side-effects and woke up with a headache and feeling fluey.  Bit better now though thank you for asking and a friend has just said she too had a bad reaction but it only lasted a day. 

Problems crossing the new “frictionless” and “tariff-free” borders with the EU continue to appear and Boris Johnson is busy rushing round the stables shutting doors while, in the distance, there’s a field full of equine escapees.  However, for a change, this week’s problem wasn’t of his making and came from the EU which was forced to do a U-turn over trying to control vaccines travelling to the UK through Ireland but, even though they had the grace to recognise their mistake and apologise, they’ve thrown a lighted match into a political powder barrel.

Protestors against HS2 have dug tunnels under Euston Square Gardens to delay the work.  They’ve stocked up with food and drink but my first thought was to hope they’ve got a loo down there.  Sadly, they’re apparently already running short of oxygen and rain is causing leaks of mud and collapses in the tunnel.  Great idea to draw attention to the futility of HS2 but why is there never a civil engineer around when you want one?

With the demographic changes wrought by the pandemic, some of which are certain to be permanent, it’s obvious that whole UK transport system needs to be thought again from scratch and HS2 is a white elephant.  The problem is that a vast amount of money and reputations have already been sunk into it and it would be politically difficult to cancel it and make a fresh start on a UK-wide plan.

The government seems to be full of people who will hold onto an investment whose value has plummeted and wait for its value to come back to what they paid for it.  This can feel emotionally comforting but is nonsense.  It’s generally much better to cut your losses and buy another investment with better prospects.

On Tuesday, Johnson said he was “deeply sorry” for the world-beating 100,000 deaths from Covid in the UK and, as prime minister, he took “full responsibility for everything that the government has done”.  When he asked if he now wished he’d done more sooner, he refused to answer the question and waffled “What I can tell you is that we truly did everything we could, and continue to do everything that we can, to minimise loss of life and to minimise suffering in what has been a very, very difficult stage, and a very, very difficult crisis for our country, and we will continue to do that.”

Perhaps the Tories should cut their losses.

Of course it’s not all down to the government’s feeble reaction to the pandemic because other factors, such as the increasing incidence of morbid obesity and diabetes, increased the number of deaths caused by the virus.   And the UK’s progress in developing a vaccine and sticking it into people’s arms might genuinely have been ‘world-beating’!

A former KGB major, Yuri Shvets has revealed that Donald Trump was one of hundreds of young people the KGB recruited as ‘assets’ in the 1980s.  They had identified he was very vulnerable intellectually and psychologically and was susceptible to flattery, and was too thick to realise they were using him, so they cultivated him for the next 40 years, feeding him soundbites he could use.  Tragically, the rest is history.

One of the far-right groups in America is (or was, they keep changing their names) called Proud Boys.  Why does this conjure up in my mind a crowd of very camp men in rainbow-coloured leotards dancing to Abba songs on a trailer at a LGBT+ street parade?

On Tuesday’s BBC 1200 news, a reporter said “it is worth caveating that …”, which stopped me dead.  Turning nouns into verbs, and vice versa, has become much more prevalent over the last few decades, in some cases making the original usage redundant and, ultimately, archaic. 

The first I remember was the use of ‘invite’ instead of ‘invitation’;  how many people now send out invitations?  Another is the misuse of ‘leverage’, often in a business context.  Using it as a noun (and even pronouncing it in American with a short E) is understandable but bankers and fund managers who’d never learnt the word ‘lever’ created a new verb from it and now ‘leverage’ deals.

Incidentally, wasn’t it encouraging to see the biters bit this week!  After a discussion thread started on Reddit, small investors started buying lots of shares in Gamestop using the amateur share trading platform Robinhood and the share price rocketed from $40 on 19 January to $400 within a week.

Wall Street institutions and hedge fund managers were outraged because they’d expected the price to fall so they’d sold Gamestop short* and now had to find enough cash to buy the shares they had to deliver at a much higher price. 

Wasn’t the crocheted Bernie Sanders doll that Tobey King from Kansas made and sold on the internet, raising $20,300 for Meals on Wheels America, wonderful!  After the image of Sanders huddled up in a warm coat and mittens at Joe Biden’s inauguration went viral, his own campaign has been selling sweatshirts and T-shirt with the image and has raised a further $1.8m for charities combating food insecurity.  Nice woman, nice man.

There was an advertisement on TV this week inviting applications to take part in a new series called Celebrity Home Cooking, or something like that, and my wife suggested I apply.  I said that, sadly, I couldn’t because I’m not a celebrity.  I’m not even a ‘celebrity’.  Not even in the street where we live.  And anyway, my knowledge of cooking is limited to pre-heating an oven, removing all outer packaging and putting the tray on the middle shelf for 45 minutes.

I also saw part of a programme on Wallis Simpson being manipulated by Edward VIII (previously known as David) who said he’d slit his throat if she didn’t marry him, and he abdicated, leaving the throne to his reluctant younger brother George VI (previously known as Bertie).  A classic double-bind!

*          ‘Selling short’ basically involves selling shares you haven’t got in the hope that the price will go down and you can buy them at a lower price before you have to deliver them.  It’s a form of gambling.

New hope, coronavirus, Brexit problems, 24/7(?) and kindness

24 January 2021

Here beginneth new hope.  Joe Biden’s got a lot to do but he started well by making his inauguration bipartisan, reversing some of his predecessor’s more stupid actions and appointing some good people.  Let’s breathe lightly for a bit and see how things settle down.

Covid is still on the rampage but Boris Johnson actually said something sensible this week when he warned that tight restrictions could last well into the spring and it was too early to guess when they might be lifted.  Gone is the “all over by Easter” bluster.

The injectors are moving closer and, being nearer 60 than 40 (it’s true!), we hope to get our first vaccination within the next couple of weeks.

The scientists at Friday’s government briefing provided some key answers.  The first vaccination provides about 50% immunity 2-3 weeks after the jab;  the second increases this to 70-95% depending on the vaccine.  The second top-up dose should be given a couple of weeks after the first but they’re delaying this to about 12 weeks so as many people as possible are 50% protected.

People who have been vaccinated don’t get any more freedom because, even if they’ve had both jabs, they can still carry and spread the virus to others, as can those who have had it and are thought to be immune to reinfection for 3-4 months.

In the longer-term, Covid 19 is likely to be with us forever, rather like flu, and we’ll get an annual injection to reduce the likelihood of our being (re)infected seriously.

It’s a pleasure to hear experts giving information and actually answering questions;  and that they know ‘data’ is plural.  Incidentally, have you noticed how many times Johnson says “er” when he’s bumbling?

Another genius was fined £200 this week when he was stopped in Devizes, having driven the 100 miles from Luton for a Macdonalds takeaway, even though Devizes doesn’t have a Macdonalds.  Even more brilliantly, he didn’t insure his car so it triggered police alarms every time it passed an ANPR camera and the police seized his car;  he presumably had to walk home.

We hear that much of the UK is flooded and/or snow-covered but down here, we’ve had some rain and it’s been getting colder but Friday and yesterday saw sunshine and blue skies.  There was a little snow last night and this morning the roads were covered in black ice and treacherous.  Incidentally, has anybody seen any gritters yet?  They haven’t done our bus route yet.

The floods are of course likely to add to the woes of businesses that are beginning to reap the Brexit harvest and are unable to import goods due to EU couriers’ refusal to cross the Channel because of the delays, tariffs, taxes, couriers’ surcharges and the extra paperwork now required by the UK, as well as the advance deposit of huge amounts of VAT to HMRC (HMRC has estimated that British companies will have to complete an extra 215m documents a year, with their counterparts in the EU having to do the same.  Private imports and exports are also subject to surcharges of up to 50% and the UK Department for International Trade is advising businesses to set up new companies in the EU.  You couldn’t make it up.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs now has £23m to compensate fisheries exporting fish to the EU if they can show they suffered “genuine loss” (by filling in yet more forms).

Not quite the deal revealed on Christmas Eve when Johnson also said “there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade” with the EU; and, of course, the NHS is still waiting for his original promise of an extra £350m a week.  How proud we all are to have broken free from EU bureaucracy.

The French and UK governments are also putting money into Eurostar to make sure it survives the pandemic as passenger numbers have fallen by 95%.  France still owns 55% of Eurostar and Belgium still owns 5% but the British government flogged off its 40% to private pension funds in 2015.  I’m glad my pension isn’t with one of them.

I’ve a 10p bet with a friend that Johnson won’t see the year out as prime minister (and he’s bet the same amount that Kier Starmer won’t as Labour leader).  I was therefore relieved by Theresa May’s support in her Daily Mail article this week which was very critical of Johnson, saying that his threat to break international law and his backing out of the foreign aid target had not “raised our credibility in the eyes of the world”. 

Back at the ranch, I discovered a new meaning of 24/7 last week. 

On Sunday evening, my wife’s chairlift crawled up four stairs before it stopped, saying its battery was low.  Luckily it came down again so she was back at ground level instead of suspended half way up, but it refused to up again.  I suggested she spend the night strapped in it while I got a good night’s sleep but she declined the offer so I rang the firm that last serviced it and had left a sticker on it saying “24/7 service” (Hanover Lifts if you’re interested).  The précis of an only slightly longer conversation was “You won’t get anybody out tonight”.

Rather than debate the definition of 24/7, I rang our wonderful neighbours who came over and together we lifted my wife backwards up the stairs and onto a chair from which I could then get her changed and into bed*.  (The next day, she rejected my offer to bump her downstairs so I rang Hanover again and she had to stay in bed till 2 pm when an engineer replaced a battery and she could get downstairs again.)

Aren’t people kind?  Three local families have offered to help us with things like this and we feel able to call on any of them, a comfort beyond words.  The world needs need more people like them.

*    I should explain that I couldn’t lift my wife on my own not because she’s too heavy but because I’m just feak and weeble.

UK quarantine, Trump’s legacy, capital punishment, Wikipedia, another Moggery, UFOs, and more Dolly Parton

17 January 2021

The UK’s border controls have at long last been tightened and passengers arriving on international flights will have to go into quarantine as well as proving that they tested negative for Covid shortly before the flight.  I wonder if this includes the flight and cabin crews who breathe the same air that’s circulated round the entire aircraft during the flight?  And if not, why not?

After last week’s attack on the Capitol and the subsequent impeachment of Donald Trump for inciting it, federal prosecutors have claimed that the protestors’ aim was “to capture and assassinate elected officials”, which makes them more than just vandals.  Republican senators who supported the Democrats in the impeachment vote are now reported to be buying body armour and hiring armed security because they fear some of the Trumpites might try to kill them.

I have two (British) friends in America, one in Connecticut and one in North Carolina, and both of them and their families are very nervous about what might happen next, either before, at or after Joe Biden’s inauguration.  The police at a Capitol checkpoint have already arrested one man in a pick-up truck who was carrying faked inaugural credentials, a handgun and a lot of ammunition. 

Trump is expected to leave on Wednesday morning for Mar a Lago in Florida on Air Force One (one last freebie flight) and will live there, despite local residents having pointed out that this will be in breach of an agreement he signed when his complex was being developed. 

Meanwhile, Trump is apparently spending his last few days in the White House increasingly isolated as staff leave and others go out of their way to avoid the Oval Office.  Would it be awful to admit that, even though he’s a horrible man and he’s done some terrible things, and so many people have died, I almost begin to feel a little sorry for him?

Some of the deaths he’s been responsible for were, of course, deliberate and, for the first time, the federal government has executed more people than all the states combined (only five states executed anybody:  Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas – and only Texas killed more than one person).

Technically, it’s the Attorney General William Barr who signed the federal death warrants but in no case did Trump exercise his presidential power of clemency so he has executed more people than the last 10 presidents combined, and more than any president since Franklin D Roosevelt who was president for 12 years, and they’ve all been in the last 6 months.

It was also Barr who authorised the use of a new lethal injection drug bought from a secret pharmacy that is reported to have failed a quality test, though I have some difficulty imagining how one tests the quality of a drug intended to kill humans.  The executioners were hired privately and paid in cash.

Many of the latest executions were carried out in the middle of the night.  One prisoner was left strapped to the gurney while his lawyers tried to reverse the decision.  A second was executed while an appeal was still outstanding.

Two recent cases involve people who were found guilty of having committed horrific murders but had severe mental health problems.

One of them, Alfred Bourgeois, was judged to have an IQ of 70-75 and his lawyers argued he was intellectually disabled and could not be held responsible for his actions.  Nevertheless, he was strapped to a gurney in the middle of a green-tiled room and a public radio reporter who was one of the witnesses reported that, as the pentobarbital entered his system, his stomach heaved and he appeared to be gasping for breath, a symptom consistent with the sensation of drowning that the drug is believed to cause.  Bourgeois took 28 minutes to die.

The second, Lisa Montgomery, had been abused physically and sexually as a child and brain scans and extensive testing showed brain damage and mental illness diagnosed as depression, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.  She also had delusions that God was talking to her through connect-the-dots puzzles.

On Tuesday evening night, the Supreme Court considered an appeal to delay her execution.  In the previous court, the judge had said “The record before the court contains ample evidence that Ms Montgomery’s current mental state is so divorced from reality that she cannot rationally understand the government’s rationale for her execution”. 

At around midnight, the Supreme Court over-ruled the lower court and approved her execution.  She was pronounced dead at 1.31 am on Wednesday morning, one and a half hours later.

Even if you believe in capital punishment, how do you feel about the way America executes prisoners compared with how you die if you commit suicide in Switzerland with the help of Dignitas, or how you euthanise an animal?  A veterinary euthanasia solution will probably contain two main ingredients which cause humane, painless and rapid death, with consciousness being lost before the heart stops.

However, Biden seems to be making a good start on various fronts, including the appointment of some good people to his cabinet and the announcement of a huge financial boost to the economy;  the biggest obstacle he has to overcome seems to be Mitch McConnell but helping to dismantle the legacy of America’s worst-ever president will take a long time.

We’ve been gifted another Moggery this week, almost as good as his praise of foodbanks.  The government is being widely criticised for the inadequacy of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal on fishing that has threatened the livelihoods of many British fishermen but Jacob Rees-Mogg offered them the consolation that “They’re British fish and they are better and happier fish for it”, even if the crustacea die before they can reach markets in France.  Next week, he will probably tell people that if they are hungry, they should just send Nanny to the shops to buy more food.

Last week, the CIA released thousands of papers on UFOs, all their files on the subject they say.  According to some who’ve seen them they read rather like a sci-fi novel but others think the records have been deliberately obfuscated.  And it’s not just UFOlogists who are interested, the US Congress recently told the director of national intelligence to prepare a report on UFOs within six months.

They could, of course, just ask Shirley Maclaine.

Wikipedia celebrated its 20th birthday on Friday.  It was created by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger and continues to be run on an entirely non-profit basis (well done, you two).  It started as an English (well, American) language encyclopaedia but now has more than 55 million articles across 300 different languages and, in January, The Economist reported it was the “13th-most-visited place on the web”, with 1.7 billion unique visitors a month.

Wales has said its success is due to its insistence on being an encyclopaedia and not a free-speech forum and the vast majority of its voluntary writers and editors respect that so, with the algorithms that aim to avoid abuse and inaccuracies, it attempts to be as accurate as possible. 

I once made a tiny addition to an entry (can’t remember what) which was still there when I checked a month or so later but some ‘celebrities’ have been quoted as saying they didn’t recognise themselves from their entry.

However, provided one checks information in it before relying on what it says, it’s an invaluable source of information.

Most restauranteurs big up their dishes but Feigang Fei, a former IT engineer who moved to Canada 14 years ago, now runs the Aunt Dai Chinese restaurant in Montreal and takes the opposite approach.  The menu’s comment on their “Mouth-watering Chicken” is “We are not 100% satisfied with the flavor now and it will get better really soon. PS: I am surprised that some customers still order this plate.”

I recently praised Dolly Parton’s philanthropy and have always been interested in the contrast between the cheerful blowsy blonde image she projects to the public and the person inside who appears to be very acute, intelligent, generous and self-effacing – the kind of person who comes over as a genuinely nice person who would be good company in private.

Despite being a committed Christian, she’s always accepted her status as an LGBTQ+ icon and once entered one of their Dolly Parton lookalike contests.  She lost.

Covid-19 questions, free at last, Yugoslavia, the 28th Amendment? and more kindness

3 January 2021

A new year, which surely can’t be worse than 2020.  Can it?  Well, 2021 started with yet another U-turn but it will see Donald Trump’s departure and the worst of the Covid pandemic could be under control by 2022.

In an interview this morning, Boris Johnson (described recently by Frankie Boyle as “a sort of semi-sentient candyfloss”) admitted more restrictions might be necessary in the spring and said “I’m fully reconciled to that”, a revealing choice of words that implies he’s ready to accept tighter restrictions rather than admitting it’s his decision. 

Q:  Why didn’t they impose another long lockdown in November with no Christmas release? 

A:  Johnson’s ego.

As Bob Dylan once said, “How many deaths will it take till he knows / that too many people have died”.

But we’re finally free of the shackles of the EU, and we’re a sovereign nation once again.  Like – a random sample of other monarchies – Monaco, Tonga, the Netherlands and Spain (where the king has exiled himself and, in 2012, his grandson Froilán, then 13 years old, shot himself in the foot by – er – shooting himself in the foot).

Friday’s papers headlines showed the range of reactions over here with what I thought was the best one in the Independent:

“Off the hook – or cut adrift?”

I’m looking for one of those inflatable lifejackets with the little whistle that’s so invaluable when you’ve crashed in the mid-Channel.

In his new year address to the country, the prime minister made minimal reference to his Brexit triumph and majored on the amazing success he’d had with a coronavirus vaccine which was apparently done without any financial input or technical expertise from anybody whose roots don’t go directly back to William the Conker (when we were ruled by the French anyway). 

Across the Channel, reactions were more of regret than triumphalism, or even relief, though Germany is still shocked that Johnson’s internal market bill attempted to “violate an international treaty that [he’d] negotiated and signed barely eight months previously … That whole episode really damaged Britain’s credibility”.  

A lot of us Brits think that too, mein Freund.

In future history books, 2021 seems likely to be seen as the year the UK started to crumble.   As from last Friday, the borders of the Schengen zone, within which people and goods can move freely, and the EU are no longer the same because both Northern Ireland and Gibraltar will effectively remain within the Schengen zone but not the EU.

Scotland could vote for independence and rejoin the EU, Northern Ireland could also become an independent state, followed by Wales and Cornwall until, in due course, King Charles of Wessex could be burning cakes in Highgrove Palace.  Think Yugoslavia.

What we do know is that financial services face a lot of regulatory problems with the EU and there will be a barrage of new bureaucracy and paperwork, though nothing’s yet ready so nobody yet knows what they should have done yesterday.  Also, lorries will need a special permit to get into Kent (a ‘Kent access permit’, or ‘Kermit’ for short – Miss Piggy would be proud).

Johnson has actually admitted his deal “perhaps does not go as far as we would like” but didn’t mention his abject failure to support the fishing industry.  He originally demanded that EU boats’ fishing rights in UK waters must be reduced by 65% while the EU proposed 25%.  After years of hard bargaining, Johnson finally compromised with the EU’s 25%.  He should have got one of the Goan boys who sell shirts on beaches to have negotiated for him.

There are also worries about how the exchange of security information will continue, if at all, despite Theresa May’s assurance in 2018 that “Europe’s security is our security, and the United Kingdom is unconditionally committed to maintaining it.”  But that was before Johnson sacrificed everything she’d stood up for.

Still, as Johnson pointed out, the UK is now “free to do things differently, and if necessary better, than our friends in the EU” (I wondered if he meant to say “if possible” rather than “if necessary”) and we will of course be able to make new deals with individual European countries as well as with north America, the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific regions and Senegal.

The second Covid-19 ‘spike’ is continuing to grow, and that’s before the Christmas exchange of infections increases the numbers even more, when we may need to build another Nightingale hospital on the Manston airfield / lorry park / open-air urinal in Ramsgate (and issue all occupants with kermits).

However, it’s difficult for us normal people to judge the actual severity of the epidemic.  We’re given R numbers and told how many people have tested positive, been admitted to hospital and died but there’s so much we don’t know.  For example, how does the number of positive results relate to the number of tests done and the population in that area?  How many people have, knowingly or unknowingly, had it already?  How many tests are being done to judge the full impact of the virus so far by testing everybody to see how many people had it without knowing it? 

And, more practical for most of us, what’s its gestation period – how long is it between when you first become infectious to when you show symptoms that lead you to getting a test?  If you test positive, how long are you infectious for – for as long as the symptoms last, or do you stop being infectious while you’re still recovering?  If you’ve had it, does it protect against reinfection by the original virus or any of its mutations?  If so, how long does the immunity last?

We now have some vaccines whose testing and approval have been rushed through with limited testing on comparatively small samples so we don’t really know anything about them except that they seem to increase immunity in a majority of those given it, and experts still disagree about the timing of the booster shot.

As for the ever-changing tier system, why won’t somebody just admit they only exist because Johnson refuses to introduce another complete lockdown.  They haven’t thought the tier system through anyway.  It’s all very well saying people take their original tier with them but, if they go into a higher tier, shouldn’t they have to accept the restrictions of the higher tier forever?  I know someone from tier 3 who was allowed to visit family in tier 4 for Christmas;  surely, having been exposed to the risks of tier 4, they should act from that point on as if they were subject to tier 4 rules, even when they were back home in tier 3?

At the moment, nobody seems to know and those who capable of making the best guesses are medical experts with years of study and clinical experience, not self-important politicians with no relevant qualifications.

Meanwhile, Trump is now quite obviously off his rocker, signing death warrants and pardons but not the Covid-19 relief and spending bill which had bi-partisan approval.  He was also humiliated on Thursday when more than 100 Republicans helped the Democrats override his veto of a $74bn defence bill.  It’s going to be interesting to see, when he reverts to being a nobody, how many Trumpettes suddenly discover other loyalties.

Shouldn’t the new regime pass a new (28th) amendment to the Constitution to prevent any future Dead President Walking from signing executive orders or vetoing approved legislation or making any major decisions (such as presidential pardons) which haven’t also been approved by the incoming president?

This week’s kindness is that Paul Heaton of Beautiful South (formerly the Housemartins), who lives in a terraced house in Withington, Manchester, has admitted to secretly giving away large sums of money over many years.  He even offered to give his back catalogue to the Treasury, but former business secretary Greg Clark turned him down. He’s now trying to get his council tax increased. What a lovely man.

Christmas meditations, kindness, Gabriel, forgiveness, tolerance, the sanctity of law and coathangers

27 December 2020

In many countries, many people celebrated Christmas last week and, in many countries, many people didn’t.

December 25th (although the calendar was different back then) was chosen at random as the birthday of a baby about whom much has since been written and in whose name many kindnesses have been done and many people killed.

When I was young, Christmas started in our house with Kings College’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve.  My mother loved it, especially ‘Once in Royal’, and there was a special place in her heart for the chorister who read the first lesson one year, who probably got the Brian Blessed Award for over-acting later in life, as he read with well-practised shock and horror:  “Who told thee that thou wast naked?”

As an adult, I’ve always tried to listen to ‘Once in Royal’ each year and it still makes me think of my mother almost 50 years after her death.

It’s also made me wonder about the oral transmission of the stories from ageing priests to younger ears, and the various languages in which it was later written down and copied and translated.  Even in my lifetime, the words have changed as more translations, retellings and theses have appeared but I’m still waiting for a simplified version of the middle section of the first chapter of the Luke’s Gospel that will say:

“An angel yclept* Gabriel sailed down a sunbeam on shining white wings, and bowed down before Mary, a young woman who was married to Joseph but still a virgin because he was much older.  “You’re pregnant, milady” said the angel “and Jehovah** has said that your son will inherit his forefather David’s throne” – and Mary said “OK then.  Will you have a cup of tea?” but Gabriel said he had to go and rose up as silently as an owl.”

I also wonder about the omissions from Jesus’s story, like what he did during the first 30 or so years of his life, apart from sharpening chisels, sweeping up sawdust, debating theology with priests in the temple and building a bridge of rainbows for his friends to play on.  Did he ever laugh? 

Many of Jesus’s teachings included Aesop’s conclusion 600 years earlier that “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted”, a sentiment that was qualified slightly more than a century after Jesus’s death in Marcus Aurelius’s ‘Meditations’ in which he said “kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere”.

Another word for which we remember him is ‘forgiveness’.  Remember that (again according to Luke) some his last words were “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do”;  he didn’t say “I forgive you”, he asked God to forgive them.  The interesting thing is that, much as we think we ought to, we can’t (well, I can’t anyway) forgive anybody who hasn’t first shown some sort of regret or repentance for what they did or said, but Jesus didn’t need that.

And, above all, we remember him for ‘love’ and his instruction “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. (He obviously hadn’t met our neighbour.)

Of course none of this is exclusive to Christianity and most the world’s major religions have similar foundations. 

Having praised the UK’s Chief Rabbi last week for his tolerance of Islam, I was encouraged to see that somebody from Israel had visited this site and I was flattered that David Bogomolny, who posts as ‘ben Alexander’, had offered his own kindness by ‘liking’ my offering. 

New Zealand’s wonderfully human prime minister, Jacinda Arden, who was re-elected by a landslide in the autumn has admitted to suffering from “imposter syndrome” despite her successes.

If only our own prime minister suffered from it.  He has just, exactly as Polly Toynbee predicted about a month ago, given up almost everything at the last moment to agree a Brexit deal with the EU.  The opposition parties now have no choice but to support it because there isn’t time to do anything else and, if it’s not approved, the UK will crash out next week without any deal, which would arguably be even worse than the deal he accepted.

What I’m not yet clear about is what will happen in Ireland.  Will I be able to go to Belfast, nip across the soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic to buy stuff that’s cheaper in the EU, then avoid any border controls on my return from NI because I’m returning from the UK?

Anyway, Boris Johnson is now jumping up and down in his cot and praising his negotiating skills while the fishing industry, and other businesses, 7,000 lorry drivers and a lot of the rest of us feel betrayed and will have to pick up the pieces.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is pardoning all his criminal buddies while executing more people given a federal death penalty.  Even though his pardon doesn’t reverse the guilty verdicts and they’re still criminals, I do wonder if muddled the paperwork and meant to pardon those under a federal death sentence …

Amy Coney Barrett’s not having a good time either.  People with controversial cases they think would appeal to her personal social and religious prejudices (same sex parents, abortion, gun control etc) are now trying to present them in such a way that they’ll end up in the supreme court where her hang-ups will override her legal duty and she’ll decide in their favour.

So much for an independent judiciary that leaves the judges’ political views out of the courtroom and just considers the law.

Rather than end up in front of Coney Barrett, Ghislaine Maxwell will probably make a plea bargain in a lower court.  Having been hiding for 9 months, Maxwell was finally arrested in the summer and her exact whereabouts are now known at all times – she’s inmate 02879-509 at the Metropolitan Detention Centre, Brooklyn.

Cynics believe she’s pessimistic about her future because she recently married and transferred assets to her new husband but, of course, it could just be love and/or coincidence.

In 2021, I’ll be working on a theory about the first known form of mineral life:  metal coat hangers.  If you leave them in a cupboard, they huddle up together and, when you try to take one, all the others rush after it and fall to the floor.  Some of them have also perfected the art of clinging together to form chains. 

Even two left together on a bed can metamorphose into one of those Christmas cracker puzzles that take 10 minutes to separate two twisted bits of metal;  and they can teleport:  they disappear into wormholes in hotel wardrobes and reappear in your wardrobe as if they’d never been anywhere else, and a bagful of the things taken to a charity shop will be back within the week.

Their reproductive processes are unclear but two coat hangers will turn into three if you shut them in a dark cupboard and at least one will fledge when you next open the door, falling to the floor and attempting to bounce out of the house before you can catch it, often holding hands with another fledgling that jumped at the same time.

I have to admit I’ve not yet proved any intelligence or motives behind their movements but their actions are indisputable and, of course, I might be wrong.  In any event, with some wire-cutters and a couple of used biro tubes, they make wonderful dowsing rods.

*     Well, OK, it’s anachronistic but it’s such a lovely word I couldn’t resist it

**   Remember everybody there was Jewish at the time.

Trump documentary, share your Covid-19 with loved ones, post-Covid planning, stealth tax, pension fund losses and Uranus

29 November 2020

Ivanka Trump still hasn’t answered my email but she does seem to have responded to my pointing out that her father was looking “childish, petulant and vindictive” because he now seems to be more willing to hand over the details.  (It can’t have been anybody else’s influence can it?)

Since he is handing over, isn’t this a de facto secession so it doesn’t matter what he says from now on and he can tell people he didn’t give up just because a mere 7 million more people wanted Joe Biden?

Other countries are hoping to take advantage of Trump’s weakness and, surely a coincidence, the head of Iran’s nuclear programme was assassinated this week.  Without wishing to belittle the seriousness of this murder, an adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threatened retaliation in a curiously worded statement:  “We will strike as thunder at the killers of this oppressed martyr …” (so far, so good – frightening) “… and will make them regret their action” (which rather lets it down – he should have stopped after the first bit shouldn’t he?)

Biden’s been setting up his cabinet anyway and, when Barack Obama was asked by a journalist whether he’d consider a cabinet position if it were offered to him, he said “There are some things I would not be doing because Michelle would leave me. She’d be like, what? You’re doing what?”

There’s a rumour that a documentary about Trump’s disastrous presidency will be directed by Banksy and called ‘Exit through the Grift Shop’.

We’re now – here anyway – in tier 2, whose restrictions we take with us even if we visit tier 1.  What happens if we want to go from, say, London to York?  Both are in tier 2 but you have to go through some tier 3 areas to do it.  Do trains not stop in tier 3?  Are cars not allowed to stop in tier 3?  What if you’re cycling?

All of this because Boris Johnson doesn’t want to be blamed for a second national lockdown.  And his generous heart is letting small groups of people from all tiers meet for Christmas, so the tier 3 people can share the virus they’re incubating, or is symptomless, with their nearest and dearest.  This year, Christmas is for sharing death.

And our own Government Graft Shop is still open, with friends and relations of government MPs being given huge contracts so they too can become rich at the expense of our overseas aid funding.  Well, I mean, would you rather give all that money to some snotty-nosed starving child from sub-Saharan Africa or to an old school chum who’s down to his last million?

It’s hard to believe but when I first started emailing these rambles through the back alleys of my mind back in 2015, before the blog was created, I wasn’t really interested in politics or politicians and generally wrote about ephemera but since David Cameron’s arrogance led us into Brexit and Trump got elected, and we had to suffer Theresa May and then Johnson, the political world has become irresistibly fascinating in the same way it’s fascinating to keep poking your tongue into the hole left by a filling that got mixed up with your breakfast muesli.

Then we had Covid-19, with Boris Johnson successfully delaying unpopular decisions so that the UK could top the European death charts and America ignoring the whole thing and allowing more than 270,000 people (and counting) to die and 13.5m people to get infected.

Having given away so much money recently, our government has to find it somewhere so why not start unobtrusively?  The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, now appears to have been less than entirely open about his own financial interests and forgot to mention that his wife, Akshata Murty, is richer than the Queen (see last week’s comment about the legal duties of charity trustees to reveal personal interests) – perhaps they could spare a billion or two.

I was somewhat cheered to hear that there’s going to be a parliamentary inquiry into the UK’s post-Covid-19 public transport priorities, including HS2.  I’m old enough to remember when Maggie Thatcher didn’t realise this end of HS1 would run through England and made no provision for it so the trains would zip through France and Belgium, then cross the Channel and crawl up old main and branch lines through Kent and south-east London to a new terminal that had to be built specially beside Waterloo station (and is now no longer used by any trains) until new lines and a brand spanking new terminal at St Pancras station had been built many years later.

(Interesting too that a majority stake in HS1 is now owned by France, the other owners being a Canadian pension fund, an investment fund based in Pennsylvania, and Belgium – our share went with so much else of the family silver.)

However, I was even more disappointed that the inquiry will be so tunnel-visioned.  Surely we should be planning strategically for a whole new post-Covid-19 world and looking at everything from the NHS and Education and the police and HMP to how businesses will operate in future, to where new housing will be needed as more people work from home and relocate, rendering the City of London’s tower blocks redundant, and how centres of population will change, affecting property prices over the whole country, all of which will impact on public transport services including roads and trains such as HS2 …

Then factor in the post-Brexit trade barriers and the climate emergency which will convert all new transport to electric by 2030, if they can agree whether VHS charging points are better than Betamax, and how to build enough in time, and societal changes such as nervousness about sitting next to a stranger on a train or a plane.  Perhaps they might even suggest how to pay for it.

While they’re at it, they could also plan for the next pandemic, apart from just changing prime ministers.

Talking of con-artists, National Savings & Investments has always tended to offer fair interest rates on savings and not fiddled around with them too much.  However, in order to save the government money, they’ve just reduced the interest they pay on the money we lend them.  In the case of NS&I Income Bonds, the rate has been reduced from 1.16% to 0.01%.

This means that, if you invested £100 in an Income Bond, you were being paid interest of 9½p a month;  from now on, they’ll give you nothing every month and 1p every year.  Or, if you’ve invested £10,000, you’ll have been receiving £9.67 a month and you will in future get almost 10p a month.  Clever stealth tax eh? 

Take your money out of NS&I and find a better account – some building societies and sharia banks are offering good interest / profit rates and your savings are guaranteed up to a total of £85,000.

Even worse, the retail empire owned by Philip Green is about to go bust, making 13,000 people unemployed, if he can’t raise £30m.  In an earlier incarnation, he underfunded his staff’s pension schemes and he’s now doing it again.

Green hasn’t yet offered to top up the pensions funds from the billions he took from the company when it was profitable and he’ll keep ‘his’ £100m ocean-going yacht.  His yacht is called Lionheart.  I wonder if Skunksarse mightn’t be more accurate.

I’m not going to mention the Austrian village that’s changing its name but I was charmed in the 1960s to stay in a village to the south of Innsbruck called Mutters, whose neighbouring village is called Natters.

(Uranus already has its own problems with rude words, depending whether you wear tartan or plaid:  should it be pronounced ‘your-anus’ or ‘urine-us’?)

US election threats, Labour acts, starving children, magic and ignorance

1 November 2020

America’s election takes place this week though the results – and their aftermath – may not be known for some time.  I daren’t even hope …

Encouraged by Donald Trump’s urging his supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully”, heavily armed conservative groups, some wearing ‘security’ uniforms, have been standing outside polling stations, presumably with the intention of intimidating the wrong sorts of voters. Jocelyn Benson, the Michigan secretary of state, banned guns within 100’ of polling stations but was over-ruled by a state court judge and the result of an appeal is awaited.

The gangsters’ explanation is that they have to prepare for left-wing groups who might try to incite violence. Yes, really! They expect us to believe this – how thick are they? Let’s hope there are at least two unarmed ‘left-wingers’ and/or journalists with cameras watching every such group. If I were there, I’d wait outside my nearest polling station and offer to accompany anybody who looked nervous as far in as the authorities (not the thickos) allowed me to.

Islamic State eat your heart out – the most dangerous terrorist threats to the United States now come from extremist white supremacist groups.

Last week, Trump walked out of an interview with CBS (who have released the footage). After a question about whether his use of social media and name-calling was “turning people off”, the president brought the recording to an end and criticised Lesley Stahl, the interviewer, for raising “a lot of subjects that were inappropriately brought up.”

Stahl got some stick for not having asked about his finances, separating immigrant children from their families and how many people on his staff had subsequently been subject to criminal charges but maybe she was going to ask them in the second half of the interview.

Mary Trump, who is a psychologist, has described her uncle as “a terrified little boy” and has said the “fear he’s feeling now has got to be unhinging him”.

In the UK, the Equality & Human Rights Commission has just issued a report damning the Labour Party for anti-semitism and harrassment. Sir Keir Starmer has apologised and promised to act swiftly on all the report’s conclusions. Let’s hope he clarifies the difference between anti-semitism and anti-zionism.

At least the shadow cabinet reacted fast and suspended Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party after he had claimed that the anti-semitism problem was “dramatically overstated for political reasons” or, in other words, he knew it existed but didn’t think it was that important.

Nobody yet knows if this is fair but it seems reasonable for him to accept responsibility for not having dealt with the problem himself while he was Labour’s leader.  Pity really – he was a very good constituency MP for the cheaper end of Islington, but he was never a party leader.

Boris Johnson was last seen jumping up and down on the sofa shouting “Yessss!  No more coronavirus, no more Brexit, no more starving children, no more U-turns, it’s all about Labour self-destructing from now on so let’s hide the bad news and start the lockdown I should have put in place a month ago and nobody will even notice.”

He clearly hasn’t heard yet that Marcus Rashford’s petition now has more than a million signatures while the Treasury says Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, never asked for more money to buy school meals over half-term and the chancellor is irritated that people are blaming him.  Meanwhile, Michael Gove seems to be the only person who’s realised the Brexit still needs some attention but has said that ‘no deal’ will be better for the UK;  with his reputation for intelligence, integrity and honesty, who could possibly doubt him.

And so, after last week’s venture into conjuring, here are some thoughts about ‘real’ magic for light relief, starting with the simplest definition of ‘magic’ I can think of, which is something that doesn’t fit in with what we’ve discovered so far.

At the ‘macro’ end of the scale, scientists know much less about the universe than they theorise about it.  For example, they think only about 5% of the universe is made up of (unscientific term coming up) ‘stuff’ so they introduce impressive-sounding descriptions like ‘dark matter’ (which they reckon accounts for 27% of the universe) and dark energy (the other 68%) to account for the rest of it, but nobody actually knows what they are or how they work or whether they’re just a footprint from the sixth dimension which we, limited to three spatial dimensions, cannot possibly be aware of.

At the other end of the scale, we don’t even know how our brains work or how insect hives and nests are ‘managed’ or how to cure the common cold or why women will leave lavatory seats down*.

Our ignorance of so much is wholly at odds with a belief that we know a lot about everything.  If we scale the existence of the universe down to a single year, all our scientific ‘knowledge’ has been gained in the last zillionth of a second before midnight.  Plus the universe is unimaginably vast and we can’t even picture the tiny ‘big’ things on earth.  For example, we can’t even imagine the scale of Mount Tambura’s eruption in 1815 which blasted 12-24 cubic miles** (different estimates from different volcanologists) of gases, dust and rock into the atmosphere.

Or think of our bodies.  The medical profession is good at repairing physical damage like broken bones and even internal organs but they’re not as good at curing the more aggressive illnesses, or even understanding how they work, and they’re only in the very earliest stages of understanding neurological and mental health problems that are thought to originate in the brain.  (Suppose we really do have souls or spirits:  could they actually originate there?)  So we fiddle around and discover that some things work, like pills or electronic implants or talking therapies or ‘complementary’ treatments or placebos.

I’ve mentioned healing before, and that I believe, despite the absence of any ‘scientific’ explanation, everybody has the power to do it if they can stay open-minded enough to accept the possibility. Too many people say it’s magic and therefore imaginary and can’t possibly work.

My view is if it works, even just for some, don’t knock it.

Surely what humans have learnt so far is equivalent to someone in Japan setting off to swim (downhill) across the Pacific to California – we’re just wading through the surf and there’s a long way still to go.  So I’m unrepentant about believing in magic.

If I were asked what era I would like to have lived in, I’d say the 23rd century so I could see how far the swimmer had got in 200 years; no further into the future because I wouldn’t understand enough – imagine somebody from 1820 trying to come to terms with electric lights, cars, aeroplanes, penicillin, heart transplants, telephones, computers, gay marriage, the disappearance of ‘street life’ and the support it offered, the unavailability of legal cocaine, BLM, and Donald Trump.

And I’ve just learnt that the Regent Theatre in Ontario is selling $25 tickets for a raffle that will allow the winner to become the theatre’s first official ghost, but only after they’re dead and can’t sue. 

* Yes, yes, I know, it’s so men can sit down to use it, much more thoughtful than men leaving it up.

** 20 cubic miles looks like a 20-mile square piece of London from Edgware or Chingford in the north to Kingston or Bromley in the south and from Wembley or Richmond in the west to Ilford or Woolwich in the east, raised 20 miles up into the air – that’s 3½ times the height of Everest. You couldn’t even breathe up there, let alone find an espresso.