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.

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’?)

Love and kindness, unkindness and stupidity

6 September 2020

Some interviews with ‘celebrities’ ask “Have you ever said ‘I love you’ and not meant it’?”

Before I answered that, I’d need the questioner to define love because I ‘love’ so many things.  I love my wife, I love my children, I love my friends, I love books, I love pictures, I love the countryside, I love music, I love the smell of lily-of-the-valley, I love swimming, I love the feel of rain in my face, I love the softness of a labrador’s ears.  Put like this, it’s clear that the word ‘love’ covers a whole range of feelings.  Then take into account that all the examples I’ve just given are very subjective and have no objective validity for other people.

There is another, more generalised dimension to love which encompasses our relations with the world outside, like a general love of cats which leads people to feed feral cats in urban wastelands, or a concern for homeless people that involves them in projects to improve their lives.

I’ve given examples of this in previous blogs and called it ‘kindness’ which is perhaps one of the manifestations of love.

The ancient Greek philosophers had quite a lot of words we translate as ‘love’, the best known, at least to people who were ever taught about the Bible, probably coming from the King James English translation of the Greek version of 1 Corinthians 13:13 “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity”, where the Greek word agápe is translated as ‘charity’.  Most subsequent revisions and translations translate it as ‘love’ although the original meaning of the English word ‘charity’ was arguably closer to the mark.

Agápe implies selfless universal love, such as the love for strangers, nature, or a God, an unconditional compassion and empathy that is extended to everyone else in the whole world.

In English – as used in that stupid interview question – ‘love’ tends to imply what the Greeks called éros, which covers intimacy and sexual love and includes the physical pleasure associated with it, while ludus is a sort of eros Lite, covering mutually enjoyable flirting and having a crush on someone, and philia describes the reciprocated friendship, regard and affection between friends and close family members. 

Storge describes the affection and loyalty that accompanies a sense of ‘duty’ felt by parents towards their children or by people towards a country, political creed or football team, xenia covers kindness to strangers and hospitality, giving of yourself to people you don’t know and philautia is basically self-confidence, which can be good when it means being comfortable enough in your own skin to love others, or bad when it’s linked to sociopathy.

All these words can be translated and interpreted as ‘love’ but it’s interesting to see in how many forms ‘love’ appears, and surely kindness is implicit in almost all the Greek words. 

If only more people were kind, and remember this doesn’t mean imagining what you might like if you were in their situation, it’s what you think they might like in their situation.

This is, of course, all getting philosophical and textbookish and, predictably, I have hang-ups about philosophy:  it seems to involve a lot of armchair research that has no practical application in the world we inhabit, but that’s probably just because I’m not clever enough, and don’t get enough time to sit in armchairs.

In the real world, remember Marcus Rashford, a young footballer who forced the government into one if its U-turns back in June?  His latest target is to end child food poverty in Britain and he’s formed a task force, the Child Food Poverty Task Force, working with FairShare, the Food Foundation and many of the country’s best-known food brands.  He’s described the poverty of his own childhood, saying “I know that feeling [of a 9-year old trying to protect their family], that was my reality”.  

Down at our level in the real world, perhaps we should all just try to think less about ourselves and more about other people and if they might welcome any kindness

So many people aren’t kind.  Have you ever, in your wildest dreams, imagined the Gaslighter-in-Chief, Donald Trump, doing something kind, or even laughing?

This blog often highlights unkindnesses and stupidity in the hope that more people will be sufficiently shocked to think how they could do to make life better for others.

Random examples this week include:

  • Heathrow has told its 4,700 staff in the front line that their pay will be cut by 15-20% if they want to avoid losing their jobs;  their announcement omitted to say if the money they give to directors and shareholders would also be cut and the omission gives us the answer.
  • British Airways has furloughed tens of thousands of staff during the pandemic and is now planning to get rid of 10,000 jobs.  Willie Walsh, BA’s boss, agreed in March to reduce his basic pay (£850,000) by 20% but he was given £3.2m last year and, now he’s leaving, will be given another £883,000;  other senior executives will also receive huge bonuses.  Regardless of contractual ‘rights’, surely these should be forgone?
  • Back in the 1970s, Tony Abbott, former prime minister of Australia, was reported by Liz Jackson to have said “I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons” and, in a 2010 TV interview, “I probably feel a bit threatened [by homosexuality], as so many people do. It’s a fact of life.”  (Not mine mate.)  Boris Johnson is now appointing him a special trade adviser.
  • Johnson has officially started the construction of HS2 (now estimated to cost £105bn of your money and mine) which will destroy AONBs, SSSIs, woodlands and the lives of many thousands of people on its route for the benefit of a few people who think they need to save 15 minutes when travelling between Birmingham and London.  (Why not just invite all its supporters to provide the £105bn in return for unlimited free first-class travel on the HS2 trains for themselves and all their descendants for the next three generations, and give the £105bn saved to the NHS and schools?)
  • Lebanon has discovered another 4.3 tonnes of undocumented ammonium nitrate near the port of Beirut.  (Sounds like an opportunity for Ryanair to offer cheap flights to ringside seats in Beirut for 5 November.)
  • At the end of August, Apple’s market value was greater than the combined value of all companies in the FTSE 100 index.
  • Water companies in England discharged raw sewage into rivers more than 200,000 times last year;  in February this year, a permit was issued for the import of 27,500 tonnes of sewage sludge containing human waste from the Netherlands.

Let’s finish with another kindness.

The Home Office has chartered an aeroplane to deport 11 Syrian asylum seekers, many of them without any identity documentation, and has just abandoned them at Madrid airport.  A Guardian reader who lives in Spain has offered to help and she’s now trying to arrange local support for them.

British competence, American ethics, the English language misused and a kindness award

2 February 2020

“An it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly”.

Thus wrote Shakespeare, who wrote at the end of the same soliloquy about “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself.”

Perhaps Bonzo is descended from Macbeth.  It took three and a half years to get here and only now does the real work start.  What a pity that Michel Barnier, who’s a true gentleman, can’t be our prime minister in exchange for Bonzo, who isn’t.  Instead, he’s posturing, making it painfully obvious that he wouldn’t know how to negotiate his way out of a paper bag, let alone create trade deals.

Mind you, Shakespeare could have been wrong – he wasn’t even sure how to spell his own name:  only six of his signatures survive and they’re all spelt differently.

Still, we’ve got our 50p pieces of silver, even if it’s only because the Royal Mint doesn’t do 30p pieces, but remember Judas repented, which Great Britain hasn’t yet.

The aftershocks are already being felt.  On Friday morning, a racist poster appeared on all the fire doors in a block of flats in Norwich;  the rant included the instruction “We are now our own country again and the the (sic) Queens (sic) English is the spoken tongue here.”

The future of HS2 should be known this week and Bonzo revealed his own confusion last week, misquoting The First Law of Holes (popularised by the late Denis Healey) “When you’re in a hole, stop digging”, saying instead “In a hole the size of HS2, the only thing to do is keep digging.”  More proof, if any were needed, that he needs to engage his brain before opening his mouth.

A similar problem was caused recently by the management of West Suffolk Hospital who acted before thinking when it was downgraded by the Care Quality Commission from “outstanding” to “requires improvement”.  Competent management would take steps to improve their services but the hospital hired fingerprint and handwriting experts in an attempt to identify the whistleblower.

Even in America, the self-professed “land of the free”, only two Republican senators, Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine, actually felt free enough to put their principles before their fear of reprisals;  the other 51 Republicans voted to exclude witnesses from Donald Trump’s trial and won the day, natural enough for people who just want to keep their seats and don’t give a stuff about justice or the oaths they’d sworn.

Many Republicans thought their party was more important than their country and a couple voted to exclude witnesses not because they thought Trump was innocent but because they didn’t think his crimes were serious enough to warrant his being fired.  What does he have to do for heaven’s sake?

Trump had even produced evidence just a few days earlier of his total unfitness for office by producing a suggestion of peace between two warring nations in the Middle East after talking only to Israel, which is already illegally occupying Palestinian land, and not to Palestine.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is being indicted on charges of corruption, described Trump as “the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House” as he slipped a brown paper bag into Trump’s tiny hand.  Palestine doesn’t yet seem to have commented on one alleged criminal’s assessment of another.

Further evidence that Trump needs to change his brain surgeon came when reports emerged that he’s planning to reverse yet another of his predecessor’s best decisions and end America’s moratorium on the use of landmines.

A friend pointed out that, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Trump spoke of “the prophets of doom” while Greta Thunberg, in effect, spoke of the profits of doom.

Other abuses of the English language that tripped me up this week included:

  • a headline saying “Ant and Dec win 19th best presenter trophy”; I was almost, but not quite, tempted to ask Mrs Google who’d got the trophy for the best best presenter, and the second best presenter, and so on to the 18th best presenter.
  • Redferns, estate agents in Sidmouth, are advertising a house “within an easy walk of the nearby amenities”.  However they failed to say it’s also within a much longer walk of the amenities that aren’t nearby.
  • the guide book to our new(er) car says “The headlights can be turned to full-beam by using the appropriate stork behind the steering wheel.”   Presumably, if it’s too heavy, you can get a crane to help.
  • discussions continue about the absence of the Oxford comma from the inscription on the new 50p pieces, which actually does make a difference: contrast “He thanked his parents, Boris Johnson, and Anne Widdecombe” and “He thanked his parents, Boris Johnson and Anne Widdecombe”.

This week’s award for kindness goes to Guy Verhofstadt, the chief Brexit representative for the European parliament.  Back in September, after one of Bonzo’s more offensively racist insults, I emailed him a short apology and, some time later, received a charming and apparently personal reply thanking me and saying he will do what he can to limit the damage.  How tragic that Citizen Nobody is embarrassed enough to have to apologise for their prime minister, and how kind that Verhofstadt replied.

Then, last Friday, a film of two World War II veterans lamenting the UK’s departure from the EU, was projected onto the white cliffs of Dover.  As it ended, the stars on the European flag faded until only one was left above the inscription “This is our star. Look after it for us” and Verhofstadt responded by saying the bloc will do this for us.

Huge saving for UK government, impeachment, happiness and more kindness

26 January 2020

The latest figures show that HS2 will cost well over £106 billion, more than three times the original estimate.  £9bn has already been spent and experts reckon it could cost another £2-3bn if it were cancelled.  In other words, the Government could save at least £90bn by cancelling it.

It’s recently been claimed that the rationale for HS2 was increasing capacity, not cutting 20 minutes off the journey, possibly because somebody suddenly realised that travellers from Europe on HS1 arrive at St Pancras while HS2 would leave from Euston, which is a good 20 minutes’ walk away with anybody’s suitcase.

Imagine how that £90bn could be spent on smaller schemes, including in the Midlands where the Tories are worried about losing seats.  Do you think our Government’s got the bottle to accept it was a cock-up, cut their losses and create a new policy?

While we’re waiting to see how courageous they actually are, can anybody explain what’s happening in the American Senate?  The House of Representatives has charged Donald Trump with misconduct and the case is being heard by members of the Senate, each of whom has sworn a solemn oath “that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, now pending, you will do impartial justice according to the constitution and laws: so help you God?”

The Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, has vowed to overcome the cynicism and bitterness that has infected American political life and gravely compromised the Senate’s longstanding claim to be the “greatest deliberative body in the world” which “exists precisely so that we can … put aside animal reflexes and animosities, and coolly consider how to best serve our country.”

Great stuff but, sadly, utterly hypocritical:  only last month, McConnell said “I’m not impartial about this at all”.  The South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham has said in an interview with CNN “I’m not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here.”  The Texas senator Ted Cruz, when interviewed by Fox News, said “We’re going to reach a verdict and the verdict … is going to be not guilty.”  And they’re not alone:  many other Republican senators have prejudged the case and the Senate refuses to hear witnesses who could provide first-hand corroboration of the evidence given in the impeachment documents.

What’s wrong with these people?  Do they know what an oath is?  Do you think they can even spell it?  What sort of god do they think is going to so help them decide the verdict before they’ve even heard the evidence?

And let’s remember we’ve not yet heard the defence case so we should keep open-minded about the lying, pouty-mouthed, narcissistic sociopath in the White House.

As the House Intelligence Committee chair Adam Schiff said at a press conference, “If this was so above board, if this was really about Donald Trump fighting corruption, why did they hide it from Congress? … Why didn’t they tell Congress and the American people what they were doing?”

As the writer Stephen Pile wrote in the Sunday Times in 1986, “Two hundred years ago we sent off a bunch of Puritans to America.  All they have done is come back with tap-dancing, candy floss, Walt Disney, hot dogs, the Lindyhop, the Shimmy, the Charleston and an amazingly large number of bombs.  What happened to these people?  They were supposed to be praying.”  Plus ca change …

So let’s think about happiness.

I recently said (not here) something about there being no point is looking for happiness because it doesn’t exist on its own, it’s a by-product of something else;  then somebody asked how I knew this – an interesting question which deserves better than the flip response “Try it”, so here’s a quick attempt to explain what I meant.

The important thing is that I’m not talking about contentment or serenity which are less dramatic (and longer-lasting) and can be sought and found in meditation, countryside, swimming, music or whatever else works for you.  Happiness is more intense and temporary.  Contentment is a warm smile that stays with you, happiness is crying with laughter for a moment or two.

If we spend time seeking happiness, we lose sight of the world around us as it really is and become blinkered by the search for happiness.  We don’t see things as they are because we’re wondering if they can bring us happiness;  it’s a bit like when we stop listening to somebody who’s talking because we’re thinking about what we’re going to say next.  What we should do is listen to the other person;  we should look around to see what we can see, and who’s there with us, and take them for what they are, not assess them as a possible source of happiness.

I’d settle for contentment every time and, if I could have one super-power, it’d be serenity, but I still enjoy a moment’s happiness when it springs out at me from a well-timed joke, or a smile or a kind word from a stranger.

This week’s kindness involves Julian Richer, who founded the hi-fi and TV retailer ‘Richer Sounds’, made a fortune, then gave control of the company to its staff.  He believes that all employers should provide secure and well-paid jobs for their employees and is now funding a campaign to stamp-out zero-hours contracts in Britain.

And finally, a quotation from the great philosopher Terry Pratchett:  “Kindness is love in disguise”.

HS2, Melbourne Park, Donald Trump x 2, Boris Johnson’s latest triumphs, Prince Andrew’s body language, kindness

17 November 2019

I don’t finish the weekend papers till Monday so it wasn’t until then that, to my chagrin, I found in Sunday’s paper the same crack about paying somebody not to do something that I used last week.  Yes of course I get ideas from other places but, when I can, I credit the actual source and I’d never re-use a joke like that without first giving it time to cool, even one as old as that.

On Tuesday, as I came back from London down the slow line that is single-track for the last 50 miles or so, hiding in sidings, waiting for delayed up trains to pass, I read the headline on an Evening Standard leader:  “HS2 is crucial to our future”.  Not mine, mate.

Then the week got even more surreal.

Margaret Court, a tennis player from the last century who holds the record of 24 major tournaments, is peeved that the court in the Melbourne Park sports venue named after Rod Laver is better than hers.  I wonder what hers is called?  Please say it isn’t the Court Court?

More than a third of income tax collected by the UK government now comes from just 1% of the people.  This means that if the top 1% paid twice as much tax, the government’s annual takings would increase by a third, which the next Chancellor might need.

Donald Trump Junior has written a book claiming the left is over-sensitive but, at a book signing last weekend, he demonstrated what shrinks might call ‘projection’ and scarpered when he was heckled by his own father’s supporters.  Actually, perhaps he’s not over-sensitive, he just suddenly wanted a pee.

Then Daddy Trump had an unscheduled medical.  At his last one, in February, his BMI of 30.4 officially qualified him as obese.  Do you think his therapist gets danger money?

Our erstwhile prime minister said in Birmingham how proud he was to be “where the industrial revolution started”.  The Lancastrian Jenny is now spinning in her grave, but I suppose it’s all north of Watford, which is close enough for Johnson.

Some of us sadists also enjoyed his being completely fazed by a question from Naga Munchetty in an interview on BBC Breakfast.  Most politicians are trained how to deal with ‘whoops questions’ but Johnson twitched and bumbled around for a frighteningly long time before finding something irrelevant to say.  Still, according to the Huffington Post, at least Tommy Robinson is now supporting him.

Remember Johnson is the man who, as Foreign Secretary, went to Iran and his only achievement was to betray Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with an unresearched remark that led to Iran’s extending her prison sentence.  He subsequently apologised to parliament for “the distress and anguish”, which was no comfort to anyone.

Now the Independent Office for Police Conduct has been asked to consider whether he should be investigated for misconduct in public office over his failure to declare his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri while he was mayor of London.  Sadly, they’re not going to do this until after he might have become our prime minister for another 5 years.

(Wouldn’t it be tragic if Uxbridge and South Ruislip chose a different MP at the election.)

Prince Andrew was also interviewed.  In a couple of extracts I saw, he shut his eyes in an extended blink a couple of times – fascinating body language.  In the interview, he categorically denied having sex with a 17-year old, saying he was having a pizza at the time.  It takes all sorts.

Lots of places north (and west) of Watford flooded when rivers overflowed – why do they say “burst their banks” when nothing actually burst?  Imagine having a cocktail of muddy water and sewage covering the ground floor of your house.   Ugh!

All this while California and Eastern Australia are burning to the ground.  What a pity we can’t export our surplus water to America and Australia?

An Observer journalist in her late 30s, Eva Wiseman, wrote a couple of weeks ago about discovering that the vision loss connected with her migraines was the result of a series of mini-strokes.  She wrote movingly about the difficulty of processing such a discovery so, as a regular reader of her column, I wrote her a brief email saying how sorry I was to hear this and wishing her well.  I received a short but kind thank-you note and, in her following week’s column, she wrote “Thank you to everyone who got in touch about last week’s column … I had hundreds of messages, each one more warm and lovely than the last.  I’m relaxing into the sympathy as if a hot bath.”

Surely a good example of how to start building the pyramids of kindness I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Nominative determinism, Crossrail and HS2 delays, loss of trees, a Brexit deal, LightPhones

22 September 2019

In an enchanting example of nominative determinism, Nick Diable and Martin Shields have been accused of tax fraud.  They diverted at least £50bn from several countries’ tax coffers into their own pockets and concealed their actions from their managers, at least until they were caught.

The stunning incompetence of the management of large British companies isn’t limited to the banking and financial sectors but extends right across the spectrum from construction to manufacturing to travel.  (Interestingly, the management of smaller companies tends to be very much more competent, which makes me wonder if human brains can only cope with so much without needing a nice cup of tea.)

An impressive example of this corporate incompetence can be seen in London’s Crossrail project.  Work started in 2009, with a budget of £15bn and a completion date of December 2018.  It’s now likely that it won’t be completed until the winter of 2020/21 and the final cost could be about £18bn.  One of the problems is apparently that it didn’t occur to anybody that the software on the trains and the signals at the lineside would need to talk to each other.

None of this bodes well for HS2 but the Government ordered a special review of HS2 in August because it wanted “clear evidence” before deciding whether to go ahead.  The company has admitted that the proposed £55.7bn first phase to Birmingham, due to be completed by 2026, is likely to be delayed until 2031 and its cost has risen to £88m.  (The prime minister himself recently claimed the total cost would be “north of £100bn”.)

Nevertheless, the Woodland Trust has discovered that contractors will be starting to clear 56 hectares of land on the planned route in the near future, including Sheephouse Wood near Charndon in Bucks (otters) and Decoypond Wood in the Chilterns (great crested newts and black hairstreak butterflies).

When the Trust revealed this, the government asked HS2 to delay the destruction of ancient woodlands but agreed that clearances considered to be “absolutely necessary” could still go ahead.  Unfortunately, the decision lies with HS2 who are, of course, deeply concerned about the effect on the countryside (not) and have disingenuously said they’ll plant four times as many trees as they remove.  It’ll be several future centuries before these newly-planted young trees could begin to replace the highly complex ecological communities that have developed over past centuries in the ancient woodlands that HS2 will destroy, but do we really expect commercial developers to worry about that?

A report earlier this year from the New Economics Foundation, an independent charity, concluded that 40% of the benefits of the controversial project would go to London and that the money would be better spent on upgrading the existing network and smaller-scale local projects such as:

  • full electrification of much of the northern rail network and the Midland and Great Western lines
  • reopening the trans-Pennine line between Manchester and Sheffield
  • linking the two lines that terminate at different stations in Bradford
  • creating more four-track sections on the three core north-south mainlines
  • building bridges to take slower, regional lines over intercity tracks.

I reckon re-dualling the single-track sections of the Waterloo-Exeter line wouldn’t hurt either.

Somebody said that Boris Johnson is apparently still writing his column for the Daily Telegraph – surely this can’t be true?  Mind you, I suppose the Telegraph has never claimed to be impartial or objective or balanced about what it prints.  Its front page headline yesterday said “UK hatches plot to sink Britain’s exit plan”.  Even if we ignore their creative mélange of metaphors, there’s a hint of paranoia – given a choice of conspiracy or cock-up, I’d go for the cock-up explanation every time.

Meanwhile, David Cameron’s memoirs claim Johnson is a congenital liar and only backed Brexit to further his career.  Talk about stating the bleeding obvious.

What are the odds that, to keep his promise to leave the EU on 31 October and turn down a large number of suggestions for suitable ditches to die in, he resurrects Theresa May’s deal, backstop and all, moves a few commas, calls it the Johnson deal, and we leave with that?  I’m not surprised the EU is fed up to the back teeth with our repeatedly messing them around.  If I ever get a chance to go to the continent again, I’m going to say I’m Irish …

After a successful crowdfunding campaign, the new Light Phone has just been launched.  It’s about the size of a credit card and only offers calls, texts and an alarm.  In fact it does exactly what my antique clamshell ThickPhone does with the internet disconnected, except that my ThickPhone has large, friendly buttons that can be seen with the naked eye.