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?

Trump’s killing spree, free speech, bats and abused women, thrilling fireball, the poor and needy and ‘His Dark Materials’

13 December 2020

Iran hanged a journalist last Saturday for encouraging anti-government demonstrations and spreading embarrassing information about officials.  I’m proud to say I was one of some two million people on the anti-war march in 2003 and nobody knows how many children Boris Johnson has, probably not even the man himself.  You know where to find me – bring handcuffs and make a note on my charge sheet that I prefer China tea to Indian.

In America, a Louisiana lorry-driver with an IQ his lawyers believe was so low he qualified as “intellectually disabled”, and therefore ineligible for execution, was killed by injection during the ‘pro-life’ president’s killing spree.  This was the tenth federal death-row execution since Trump approved the reintroduction of federal executions in July, 17 years after a moratorium was introduced, and three more executions are planned in January before Joe Biden takes over and spoils his fun.

People subject to federal death sentences are those judged guilty of a limited number (about 60) of defined crimes.  At state level, about 2,500 additional people have been sentenced to death for ‘lesser’ crimes by the 25 states whose legislators never got past the “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” bit of the Bible, probably because they find reading longer words difficult.

Since 1927, there have been 37 federal executions and the last federal killing ordered by an outgoing president in limbo, waiting for the new president to take over, was 130 years ago.

Well, 300,000 Americans have died this year alone because of Trump’s failure to tackle Covid-19 so what’s a few more?

I wonder if Trump would have been as happy if he was required to spend time with the victim to explain why he’d decided to kill them, and then to insert the needle himself?  Actually, Trump’s so sociopathic, he probably would, except he’s also a coward.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted on 10 December 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations and expressly forbids torture and capital punishment but it’s not legally binding and America hasn’t yet signed up to it, believing America knows better than the UN.  It’s a bit like Johnson believing that the EU needs the United Kingdom.

When I heard that Trump had been signing death warrants in somebody else’s blood, I remembered Tom Paxton’s song from the 1960s ‘What did you learn in school today?’, especially the lines

“I learned that murderers die for their crimes
Even if we make a mistake sometimes.”

At a local level, I’ve been forcing a man who writes incomprehensible letters to the local paper to reveal himself as being on the far right and somebody else wrote in last week to defend his right to free speech.  When I read this, I realised that, in principle, I’m in favour of free speech but, in practice, I believe there are limits, which reveals more about my personal beliefs than it does about the acceptability of free speech.

I think people should be free to stand on soap boxes and say that everybody of a particular persuasion should be banished from society but I do have a problem with people saying some god will love them better if the hack off their heads.  It’s something to do with the difference between saying publicly what I personally believe, and encouraging others to commit crimes.  Perhaps I really mean freedom of opinion rather than freedom of speech – voicing my opinion is OK but gaslighting others into acting on my opinion is something else.  

I need to think about this so let’s look at some happy things.

At the two (virtual) trustees’ meetings I attended this week, it was apparent that the people who had thought Johnson was the only person who could hold The Party together – which was most of the other trustees – were on the defensive, realising they’d been wrong about this and have changed horses and now say that Jeremy Corbyn would have been even worse. 

This could easily be true but we’ll never know and I’m not convinced anybody could actually have done worse than Johnson.  (To put this in context, I have no party loyalty, I’ve only ever once voted for the party that ended up in power and, in the last three general elections, I’ve voted for our wonderful Independent;  she didn’t get elected but she frightened the sitting MP so much he didn’t stand at the next election, and we haven’t missed him.)

More good news on the commercial front:  some property developers called Bellway plc who demolished a bat roost and/or breeding site in Artillery Place, Greenwich, in 2018 have been fined £600,000 plus costs of £30,000 and have agreed to give another £20,000 to the Bat Conservation Trust. 

In 2019/20, the Bellway directors trousered a total of £2,250,000 so, if the directors – the people ultimately responsible for the company – had together given up less than 30% (actually a maximum of 18% after tax) of their ill-gotten gains that year, it wouldn’t have cost the company anything.

Further proof, if any were needed, that even the most stupid people get onto the boards of public companies.  Even I know that bats are much better protected than abused women and children, the poor and the needy.

We know that people who kill in the name of some religious faith have missed the point, but so have the people who are motivated by money.  Just look at the holy writ of your choice.  For example:

“If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven” (the Christian Bible, Matthew 19:21)

One of the Five Pillars of Islam is Zakat, which requires Muslims to give away money that is more than they need for their essential needs and those of their family, and supporting the poor and the needy is a religious obligation (the Islamic Qu’ran, 9:60)

“Give charity to poor as today you are rich and tomorrow you may be poor” (the Hindu Rig Veda, Book 10, hymn 117, V 5)

On Wednesday, SpaceX’s Starship self-guided rocket prototype roared up, aiming to reach 41,000 feet – that’s one Everest plus one Mt Teide, or somewhere below the altitude Concorde used to fly at.  Then it made a controlled descent, landed at some speed and promptly exploded in a ball of fire.

Elon Musk said he was “thrilled” with the test but the rocket’s “fuel header tank pressure was low” during descent “causing touchdown velocity to be high”;  (in English, “it didn’t have enough fuel to slow it down so it crashed”).  Musk then tweeted “Mars, here we come!!”  Not me, mate, I’m buggered if I’m going anywhere in anything that’s not been fuelled properly.

My own escape and relaxation is an hour each week spent watching a recording of last week’s episode of ‘His Dark Materials’.  I’m finding it much more accessible than the books and the actor playing Lyra, the central figure, is brilliant. 

In last week’s episode, she and the next character shown in the cast list shared a surname so, naturally, I checked and the second one is her father, who is playing Magisterium Cardinal McPhail, one of the nastier characters.  Her mother is also on set as her coach so the chaperone problem is solved, and apparently makes up for the extra costs of transporting them from Spain where they all live.   There’s positive thinking, killing one bird with two stones.

And Caroline Criado Perez, author of ‘Invisible Women’, was pictured this week wearing a T-shirt saying “HALF of all T.Rexes were GIRLS”.  I tend not to wear T-shirts but if they had a car window sticker saying that, I’d buy it.

Blades, Catch 22, gin, bad companies, investments and artificial meat

6 December 2020

I was recently buying a gardening tool for pruning from a website I’m not going to name and it was delivered with a ‘magazine’ that I found very disturbing. 

The front cover showed a knife being held point upwards towards the camera by a hand wearing at least three chunky rings.  The ‘model’, out of focus in the background, was a sombre, chunky man in a leather jacket with dark glasses, a scruffy beard and what appeared to be a shaven head – not one of the smiley, bearded young men who model cardigans for Lands End.

Inside were pictures of various blades, a lanyard, a torch and a sheath to help carry them around and a backpack with a “long zipper in the front that enables you to easily reach your gear” – no sign of any shears though there was a selection of axes and meat cleavers.  They say of one knife that it can “legally be carried in many locations” or, in other words, it can’t be legally carried it in other locations.

The centre spread showed the word “Thrill” writ large under – yes, you guessed it, a knife –and, on another page, a knife that includes folding scissors and is so small “no one will be spooked when you pull it out to file your nails or cut off a loose thread”.  I’ve never “pulled out” a nail file in my life, I normally have to scruffle around in a drawer to find it, though I did once have one confiscated in the 1970s when flights were getting hi-jacked;  I still wonder if “Take this plane to Paris or I’ll file your nails” would have worked.

After I wrote recently about a couple of times when I’d dreamt of somebody and been inspired to ring them only to find one of them had just died, a friend said this sounded “spooky”.  There’s still so much we don’t know about things like this that it hadn’t spooked me at all. 

We know that trees and plants communicate, albeit at quite a basic level, and sometimes involve what are considered to be an entirely different species (e.g.  oak trees and mycorrhizal fungi);  what’s so strange about forms of human to human communication we don’t yet understand and can’t control or explain?

But I do find myself quite seriously spooked by a catalogue full of creepy blades.

As I’m sure you’ll have anticipated, my next move was to wonder what you can get on the dark web if clumsily disguised street-knives can be bought on the ‘light’ web so I naturally googled ‘dark web dope’.  A wide selection is available but it looks as if you have to download Tor and set up a Bitcoin ‘wallet’, which looked far too complicated for a direct descendant of the mythical Ned Ludd.  I wonder if they give Nectar points.

Living without Bitcoin, I make do with a Sainsbury Bank account and have just come across an absolutely brilliant Catch 22 created by some geek in their back office.  For some reason, the site wouldn’t let me log in even though I’d reset the password and online PIN several times and it then announced that “Your online access has been suspended … just choose ‘Reset your details’ to get back into online banking”.  So I did.  Several times.  Guess what message kept reappearing. 

Then I tried the ‘contact us’ options, which also has another clever little system that takes you in circles back to where you started.

Since they gave a phone number for online banking support, I rang it and explained the problem to The Geek and asked him to unsuspend my access.  “I can’t do that” he said (yes, it was of course a man) “You have to do that yourself.  Just log in and follow the instructions.”

In an attempt to make things clear, I said “You can’t unsuspend my account and only I can do this by logging in, which I can’t do because my access is suspended?”  “That’s right” he said so I had a cup of tea instead.

I saw a much more wholesome advertisement in the paper with a picture of a car and the legend “It’s OK to stare.  The new Audi Q5.  With OLED rear light technology.”  Imagine you see one in a friend’s drive and ask what its performance is like;  you’ll probably get the answer “Dunno, I only bought it for the rear lights”.

Then, while shopping online, I came across an ad for Sipsmith gin, which says it’s “Hand crafted in London”.   I always thought it was distilled, not crafted, but they obviously have rooms full of people hunched over juniper berries, carving them into irresistible patterns;  not that juniper is mentioned in the list of ingredients unless it’s included in “a classic ten botanical recipe” (I quote exactly, don’t complain to me about the grammar).  Perhaps that was where The Geek used to work.

Perhaps all supermarket managers are geeks.  On Wednesday, two of the largest supermarket chains gave up and agreed to repay more than £850m in business rates relief they had accepted from the UK government and, on Thursday, three more supermarkets were shamed into following suit, taking the total refund to more than £1.8bn.  Then yesterday, two more big companies doing the same.  How sad that they had to be embarrassed into returning government subsidies they didn’t need;  and how stupid that the government hadn’t linked the subsidies to an embargo on dividend payments and a limit to executive pay.

But it’s not just supermarkets:  the Arcadia boss, Philip Green, has come under pressure from MPs and unions to sell assets to make good the huge shortfall in his retail empire’s pension scheme ahead of the company’s collapse into administration.  Do we think he will? Is the Pope a Muslim?

Other charmers include Philip Heath, a “senior executive” at Kingspan, the company which made the inflammable cladding that killed 72 people in the Grenfell Tower inferno after safety test results had been falsified.  The public enquiry was told he invited a builder who’d queried the panels’ safety to “go fuck themselves”.  It’s also claimed he told friends the builders were mistaking him for “someone who gives a dam [sic]”.

Elsewhere, what a not-surprise that the EU negotiators have failed to reached an agreement and have passed it up the line to their guvnors, a classic negotiation ploy which I’ve used myself in the past.  However, for this to work, you need to have a competent guvnor to take over and all we’ve got is Boris Johnson.

Nevertheless, the FTSE 100 has recorded its best month since 1989 in the belief that the discovery of a working coronavirus vaccine will immediately put everything to rights.  Isn’t it fascinating how thick investment managers are.  The second lockdown took them completely by surprise and markets plummeted and now the apparent success of a single vaccine still to be introduced showed that everything’s OK again.

The third surge that celebrates our Christmas freedom to share germs with friends and relations will no doubt amaze them and markets will fall again, and this is before they realise that a few small uncertainties still remain, like whether Brexit will actually benefit the British economy, how to find the money borrowed by the government to help us survive the pandemic, if Ireland will survive, whether Joe Biden’s presidency will be able to repair the damage Trump’s done, and so on, and on.

While some scientists are working on vaccines, others are culturing meat that can be grown in laboratories so animals don’t have to be killed to produce it and the Singapore Food Agency has recently approved ‘chicken bites’ produced by a US company.  I don’t eat (or like) meat so I’m not the best person to comment but I don’t find the idea of eating something “made from biopsies on animals … using bovine serum extracted from foetal blood” entirely irresistible.

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.

Floods, cleaners, dogs, the weirdness of Covid-19, food banks and more kindnesses

17 May 2020

The devastating floods in east Africa which have killed almost 200 people and displaced some 40,000 more would, in normal times, have made the front pages but the western world has become tunnel-visioned about Covid-19 and the huge risks being taken by various states in America which are re-opening while the death curve continues to hurtle upwards and the president no longer has the bottle even to hold press conferences.

Mexico has been suffering from thunderstorms and tornadoes and snow fell in New York last week, the latest snowfall there since 1977 but at least they pass quite quickly.  Other things taking a back seat include the Brexit negotiations which seem to be getting nowhere, and exactly what last week’s easing of the lockdown actually means.

My initial reaction, having heard the prime minister’s broadcast as I was finishing last week’s blog, was one of relief, that he hadn’t opened the door any further.  As we awaited more detail of how this would affect our lives, incomplete guidance was slowly released, some of it self-contradictory, the rest of it confusing, leaving polls showing that (for the first time since the pandemic started) a majority of people think any easing is dangerous and the government is handling it badly.

Luckily, Boris Johnson’s sense of humour remained intact as he reintroduced us to an old warning, which I first became aware of in the 1970s when bombs were going off in places like Welwyn Garden City.  “Stay Alert”, he said, allowing us all the opportunity to resurrect suffixes like “Britain Needs Lerts”.

The new rules say it’s now OK for domestic cleaners to return to work;  it seems daft that they’re allowed to go from house to house, some of whose occupants could be unwittingly infected and infectious, but we took up his offer and have unfurloughed our cleaner.  (She said that only one other customer has continued to pay her during the lockdown, the rest just laid her off;  I guess some people just don’t think what the lockdown might be doing to people like her.)

I have been hoovering and cleaning things, honestly, but it is the Labrador Shedding Season.  I’m convinced that, yesterday, I left more dog in the wood than came back home with me.  (Commercial break:  Furminators are wonderful inventions and get out much more hair than normal dog-combs.)

We all know that dogs can be trained to do all sorts of amazing things like judging the height of a branch to ensure their visually impaired companion doesn’t bang their head on it, and loading washing machines, and sniffing out everything from drugs and bombs and guns and fugitives and cancers and blood-sugar levels, but they’re now being tested to see if they can identify Covid-19.  Can anyone help me train ours to stop identifying fox poo and rolling in it?

Johnson (who was described this week by Marine Hyde as “a prime minister who has never entered a bedroom without first checking if there’s a wardrobe”) is encouraging people to go back to work where possible and Jacob Rees-Mogg* has said parliament should be setting an example by crowding back into the House and sod physical distancing (isn’t ‘social’ completely the wrong word when describing distancing?).

Jacob, if you really believe people should go back to work, volunteer for one of your local food banks that you’ve previously said are such a brilliant idea, thereby completely misunderstanding why they exist and why they’re now more essential than ever;  you might even just start to see a little more of the real world.

Actually, of course, the reason Rees-Mogg wants parliament to reconvene is that, without the braying of his supporters, it’s all too obvious that Johnson hasn’t read his briefing papers, is completely unprepared for PMQs and hasn’t yet realised his blustering doesn’t work against a meticulously prepared and unflappable opponent.

It’s also becoming clear that Covid-19 is unlike any other coronavirus we’ve encountered with different people suffering different symptoms and taking differing times to recover.  It even seems that it doesn’t automatically produce a cough and a fever, which means that temperature checks at places like airports don’t pick up all those affected.  Nobody even knows whether having had it provides immunity against being infected again.

Professor Paul Garner of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine developed an unusual form which gave him a variety of unpleasant symptoms that came and went over a period of weeks and it’s now believed that about 5% of patients suffer from long-term “on-off” symptoms for months.  It also leaves some people feeling fine while their blood-oxygen levels are so low that established medical science would have expected them to be severely incapacitated or dead.

On an even more sombre note, yesterday produced an impressive example of what a difference a word makes.  A headline said “Body found in suitcase” while the article below said “Gloucestershire Police have found a body in two suitcases”.  Doesn’t that ‘two’ conjure up a whole new, gruesome picture.

One of the symptoms of a nationwide tendency to kindness is that in March, when it was becoming obvious even to government that the Pandemic was going to be serious, the NHS asked for 250,000 volunteers to help people who were self-isolating or older, and NHS staff and other care providers needing deliveries.  750,000 people offered to help.

This week is Mental Health Awareness week and its theme this year is kindness.  We know that the lockdown is causing more people to suffer from mental health problems, particularly those who are concerned about the virus itself, so let’s show them our non-judgemental understanding and, rather than telling them what to do, let’s just let them talk while we listen.


*          The Rees-Moggs called their latest, sixth child Sextus.  I reckon the next three will be called Septum, Octavo and Eneuf.

The genius of Boris Johnson

29 February 2020

As a courtesy to a very wonderful man, I’ve decided I should no longer refer to our outstandingly competent and selfless prime minister as ‘Bonzo’ and future references in this blog will be much more respectful.  For the benefit of cynics, I should explain this decision is based solely on my realisation of the sheer genius of the Rt Hon Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and is not in any way influenced by the fact that so many of his decisions are intended to concentrate power in his hands so that he will ultimately become He Who Must Be Obeyed.

His unassailable majority in parliament, his appointment of a cabinet of sycophants, his attempts to transfer power from the judiciary to the government, his ejection of civil servants who actually know what they’re doing, his trust in an adviser who’s a walking advertisement for charity-shop clothes, and his emasculation of the BBC, one of the few British products that is still respected worldwide, are obviously all planned to make it easier for our dear prime minister to assume personal control of everything.  The help he’s getting from the self-destruction of the royal family is fortuitous but no self-respecting prime minister would take unfair advantage of this, would they?

His disappearance from public view (apart from a brief visit to a hospital to patronise the staff) and his refusal to carry out the duties that former, lesser prime ministers have done, such as visiting flooded areas and talking to their victims, are just further proof of his natural leadership qualities and, when he does declare himself Dear Leader and assume complete power over everything, I’ll be in the front row cheering him on because I want food on my plate in the weeks that follow.

I’m glad the Court of Appeal has ruled plans for a third runway at Heathrow illegal (on the grounds that they didn’t match the government’s plans to tackle the environmental crisis) so our nice Mr Johnson won’t have to prostrate himself in front of the first bulldozer and risk getting his clothes dirty.

I’m also absolutely confident in his ability to get a brilliant Brexit deal out of the EU in the 10 months that remain and, at the same time, do the deal of the century with America.  He’s already described the EU’s concerns about chlorinated chicken as “hysteria” and “mumbo jumbo” and I’m sure he won’t let the EU’s more stringent food safety controls stand in the way of importing contaminated chicken as part of a deal with America.  Come on, Mr Johnson, you don’t need to worry about the idiots in the NFU who said “To sign up to a trade deal which results in opening our ports, shelves and fridges to food which would be illegal to produce here would not only be morally bankrupt. It would be the work of the insane.”

But, Mr President-To-Be, you stick to your guns.  It doesn’t matter what you’ve promised in the past, or what experts advise (that almost-as-nice Mr Gove has already written-off all experts), it’s what you want for yourself that matters.

Forget the independent Pitt review carried out after the serious floods in the summer of 2007 during which 55,000 properties were flooded, 7,000 people had to be rescued and 13 people died, costing insurance companies an estimated £3 billion.  The report made 92 recommendations covering “prediction and warning of flooding, prevention, emergency management, resilience and recovery”, many of which were “far-reaching and called for a radical reshaping of our flood risk management practice”.  (One key point was that flood defences pay for themselves many times over.)

The 2007 report said “The country must adapt to increasing flood risk” but I’ve been unable to find any recommendation in the report to build more than 11,000 new homes, which are now planned, on land at the highest risk of flooding in the regions suffering the worst winter storms in a generation, or to the estimated 10% of new homes that have already been built on high-risk flood sites since 2013.

The (Labour) government in power in 2007 responded to the report’s recommendations by increasing spending on flood defences by 10%, but we then had George Osborne and the cuts he made in the name of austerity so hard-working and dedicated company directors’ bonuses could increase astronomically every year.

I’m also thrilled to hear that you’re now about to have your sixth child (at least) and am deeply impressed that, at your age, you still have the energy to devote to managing the staff who will look after the baby.

I’m ending here, your greatness, because I don’t know how long I can keep this up.

PS – Since I published this yesterday, I’ve learnt that the ever-modest Mr Johnson owns socks depicting the Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, who called himself “king of the world”, an ambition also expressed by Mr Johnson who, when he was a child, announced that he planned to be “world king”.  When I was a child, I wanted to be an engine driver.  I didn’t make it.

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.