Saturday, 30 April 2011

Notes on a wedding

Two billion people. By pretty much any standard, that is a lot of folk. Prurience or fleeting interest cannot be the reason that fully two billion viewers tune in to an event. Plainly, the Royal Family is held in very high esteem throughout the world.

As I watched the wedding unfold on television and looked at the Internet before and after the ceremony, I was struck by a realisation: cynicism is no more sophisticated than credulous acceptance. They are both default responses which have little merit. Give me intellectual enquiry and true, gut instinct over cynicism any day.

Intellectually, there is a straightforward case to be made for the Monarchy. It provides continuity (and successive Prime Ministers have relied on the Queen's institutional memory). It works for us to have our nation personified by someone who transcends party politics. It is stable. It bonds us with other countries in the Commonwealth and no longer creates a schism with other nations - consider how Americans delighted in what happened yesterday. Even the French did. It is highly cost-effective, and many royals devote themselves to various forms of hugely worthwhile public service.

But, surely, there is a place for a visceral response too, isn't there? To swell with pride that we do pomp and ceremony better than anyone, to be reminded that the Union Flag could never be the preserve of bigots, to gaze fondly at Prince William as he tries not to giggle, to say that yes, Catherine really is beautiful and to smile quietly at the thought that this rainy little island is admired so widely.

I write this in the knowledge that some of you will have a different gut reaction, perhaps of a nauseous nature. Another advantage that our constitutional monarchy affords us is that it is the backdrop to a political system in which dissent is not merely tolerated but welcomed. That Huw Edwards waxed lyrical in his commentary and there was an attempt (unsuccessful! They'd have definitely been shifted in China) to move on the selfish oafs who have colonised Parliament Square makes no odds. We have freedom of speech in this country.

So much of the infantile rejection of what we saw yesterday was so obviously, as it were, pre-scripted. As such it was no more original or valuable than the incessant flag-waving of the dippiest royalist - and a lot less charming. And, literally, unbelievable. Someone who says the same things over and over again is likely seeking the reassurance of others - and trying to convince themselves.

If you reflexively oppose everything that someone does, then you are defined by them. That's not listening to your own gut, it's being a distorted echo. If you are uniformly counter-cultural, then you are one of the crowd. Happily we saw yesterday that one crowd is infinitesimally larger than the other.

A well-rounded life certainly must make room for vigorous debate and deep rational thought. Marching to the beat of your own drum is important too. Equally, we must allow ourselves to experience communal joy and uncritical pleasure. A wedding between our future king and his adorable girl seemed as good an opportunity as any.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Film review

There's a nice review of I Am a Great Man in Total Politics this month. I feel I should let you know there's a bit of a spoiler in it though!

Monday, 25 April 2011

Charles Foster

Is the word 'polymath' used with excessive abandon these days? I really don't know; but I do know that it applies to my friend Charles Foster. Dive into his work and drink deeply. He writes with great verve, humour and clarity, and his prose is replete with wisdom and learning.

The bastard.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Carpe diem

How old is too old? It's a question that probably vexes us all in myriad circumstances once we hit our mid-30s. I'm not overwhelmed by melancholy just yet and indeed in many ways this is the perfect age - at 35 one is still young but old enough to sense that one has to seize the day. Nevertheless, I find myself looking back (calmly, so far) and considering missed opportunities.
I should have learned the guitar as a boy rather than the violin. I'd love to be able to pluck, pick and strum but I struggle to make any sense of a guitar when I find one in my hands. Still, while it would be great if I had known my way around an axe for years, it's hardly too late to take lessons. The same applies to foreign languages.
Sport is a cause for greater regret. A former professional footballer once offered to coach me and some friends. I was giddy with excitement at the idea, but for reasons that still rather pass my understanding, I failed to act on it. I regret that to this day, not least as I fear it may have seemed like a rejection of a real act of kindness. But I don't delude myself that I would have made the England team if only I'd grabbed that nettle. There aren't many Sunday League teams I would have made.
What I really regret is spending all of my twenties overweight and inactive. I would have benefited in multitudinous ways from playing rugby, say, or throwing the discus. But I was put off rugby by the boorishness and casual athletics doesn't seem to exist.
Then we come to those things which I do now but didn't do when I was younger. Foremost among those is stand-up comedy. I look at comedians my age and they've been performing for a decade-and-a-half. That's a lot of stage time, and stage time matters. (Similarly, although he still looks like a teenager, Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day was 30 when Shenanigans was released the best part of ten years ago. Those guys have been around forever!)
But, and here's the rub, there was a reason that I didn't do stand-up then. I didn't think I'd be any good at it - and at the time I was right. What I have lost in stage time is compensated for by the fact that I didn't lose heart and quit.
We do miss opportunities, and that's a shame. The game isn't over yet though, and achievements and experiences are all the sweeter when you've waited a long time for them.

Sunshine means quite a lot to me

Why should sunshine cheer me up quite so much? Is it an elemental thing? Are we authentically of the sun? Why do some of us find that our happiness depends to such an advanced degree on whether the sun has got his hat on?
These are just some of the questions I will explore in incredibly shallow depth if ever at all. Yet, for whatever reason, the sun makes my spirits soar. It would be preferable, as a proud Englishman and Briton, if I derived as much inspiration from a cold, overcast, typically English / British day. I have friends who adore a cold snap, leaves fallen from trees and a grey hue to the sky. They're lucky.
I try to tell myself that it's better if a sunny day is a rare treat, that it would lose its charm if it was a more frequent occurrence and that we are lucky to experience seasons. But I don't actually believe it.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

You don't get me, I'm part of the union

I'm very grateful to my friend Abigail for getting me back into rugby union. It's a tremendous game. One of its finest qualities is the diversity of talent on display.
Marvel at the kicking skill of the fly-half, whose drop goals and penalties win a match for his team single-handedly. Pay tribute to the wily old prop, who out-scrummages a larger, younger, stronger buck through experience and guile. Wince at the crunching tackles of the head-hunting centre. Admire the handling skills of the full-back. Applaud the determined Number 8, as he sneakily gouges the eye of an opponent. Celebrate the breathtaking speed of the wing, as he dances along the line to score a try.
Did one of those not sound right? I do hope so.
Rugby is, to be sure, a man's game (as well as a woman's game and a children's game). You can expect to be flattened, to be bent into all sort of unnatural shapes, and to be run ragged. Sometimes there may even be a bit of slap and tickle (aka fisticuffs). But rugby played within the rules is a magnificent test of character and of capacity for physical hardship.
Gouging, biting and raking your studs down someone's back are the behaviours of a cad.

Notes on a village, notes on a nation

There is something quite remarkable about the village in north Oxfordshire where I grew up and from where I am typing this post. Near the Cotswolds but not of it, we are something of an undiscovered treasure. The Hornton stone, with its gentle orange hue, is distinctly warmer than and superior to the stone used elsewhere in the county. There is, blessedly, still a great deal of unspoiled greenery.

It is unthinkable when walking though the village not to say hello to anyone who passes. But this is not an insular or gossipy place. It is a community in the best sense. And it has grown organically and proportionately. There are stalwart families who have lived here for generations and provide a backbone. There are also newcomers, perhaps from London or other citites, who have thrown themselves into activities in the village and are part of its very lifeblood.

The concept of social class seems anachronistic here; not because there are no differences in wealth but because there are no differences in status. Everyone mixes unself-consciously and relaxedly.

There is a farm shop which rents out space to holiday-makers in caravans and a lovely pub run by a Cornishman where that uniquely Oxfordshire phenomenon Aunt Sally is played. The village hall stages film nights once a month, a pantomime at Christmas, coffee mornings during the week and various other events.

When the Hardys were living here they flew a union jack alongside the Irish tricolour. Ben, an Ivy League-educated Harley Davidson rider, flew a Ghanaian flag. Each flag was splendid and welcome. Ben and the Hardys loved their countries and loved their village.

This place will always be home for me. It will be home for many more people, including people who are already adults but who don't currently live in the county, or perhaps even the country. And the village will be all the richer for that, just as it is enriched by the collective knowledge, experience, wisdom and love of those families that have been woven into the fabric for generations.

Ronald Reagan compared America to a shining city on a hill. I think we might usefully compare England to a village and seek to emulate what a good village does well.

A village ceases to be a village if it grows exponentially but benefits greatly from a small infusion of new blood and when the newcomers want to embrace village life. Those that don't have the capacity to cause real distress and unhappiness. It's good to live somewhere where, whilst not everyone knows your name, they will greet you with a smile. Trees and grass matter and they are hard if not impossible to replace when they are gone. Privacy and peace are vital, yet so too are human interaction and warmth, drinking and talking and dancing.

If the rest of the country were like the village that raised me, we would be a whole lot happier.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011


Jon Spira has responded to my last post and I in turn have commented on his response. You can read it here.

You're (probably) a hypocrite

I understand why Government Ministers and other Coalition spokespeople are so keen to state that the cuts are "not ideological". One reason is that it's true, in that they merely take us back to the public spending levels of a few years ago. The top rate of income tax remains at 50 per cent and expenditure on healthcare, overseas aid and infrastructure improvements has been ring-fenced. Furthermore, Labour would make cuts of about 80 per cent of overall Coalition plans - which made Ed Miliband's recent call to arms (in which he invoked the spirits of Dr King and Nelson Mandela) both hilarious and offensive. There is in fact a broad consensus.

But, of course, there's more to it than that. Front-line politicians are plainly either disinclined or scared to get into philosophical discussion about the size and scope of the state. I think that it is always a good time to ask such fundamental questions. I also think that as things stand modern political discourse is looking at things myopically and one-dimensionally.

We have talk of devolving central government powers to local government. We have some debate about the top rate of income tax. There is a lot of chatter regarding the empowerment of individuals and community groups. There is voluminous and voluble discussion about spending priorities. But precious few people seem to be articulating the view that there must be a limit on what one human being can demand of another.

I want to make clear that I support the principle of progressive taxation. For one thing, I wouldn't work in this town again if I didn't. And it does make economic sense - the wealthiest often are the biggest beneficiaries of the protection of property and enforcement of contracts. It also seems profoundly unlikely that any government could afford not to tax the rich more heavily than others.

Yet it does not flow from this that government should look at a nation's overall wealth and divvy it up according to need (let alone nakedly political priority). Nor is it right to decide what the government should spend and then determine what taxes need to be raised. Ministers should consider what taxation levels are fair and reasonable at the same time as calculating what they should spend - and what they can afford to spend.

Perhaps you are now on the edge of your seat, waving your fist at the screen and bellowing "As long as there are people starving in the world we should soak the wealthy! I wouldn't give a damn if Sir Richard Branson was reduced to owning one very large home and a modest island - he'd cope!"

He would cope. But before you rush to judgement, go home and have a look around. Consider your nice bed. You could trade it in for a mattress and still sleep soundly. Look at your DVD collection - do you really need them all? They'd raise a few quid at a secondhand merchant's. Do you use your dishwasher much? Washing up by hand doesn't take long and is good for the soul. Do you own your home? You could downsize, you know. Truly poor people live five or six to a room (if they're lucky enough to have one). Do you need to spend all that dosh on booze and going out? If you live in London, you really don't need a car most of the time. Sell it!

So what should you do with the change you've pocketed? Why, you could write a cheque to George Osborne, if you really believe he spends your money with infinite sagacity. Or you could send a donation to a reputable charity that works in poor countries. But you're not going to do that, are you? Because - like me, like your friends, like pretty much everyone - you care a bit about people you don't know, but only a bit. John Lennon wrote Imagine, but he didn't mean it. He still had quite a few possessions when he died.

Next time you rag on Richard Branson and Philip Green, just remember that the Exchequer has far more money than it would have done had they never existed or decided that they couldn't be bothered to start a business. They may not feel the pinch like you do, but they've made more hospital beds available than you have. Oh, and they've also provided products, services and jobs to a great many of us.

It's human nature to put oneself and one's family and loved ones first. That isn't going to change, which is why punitive rates of taxation are self-defeating - the wealth creators WILL move elsewhere or cease to do their thing if we hit them too hard. Maybe, just maybe, their yachts matter to them like your widescreen television matters to you.

There are some things from which all of society benefits, and so all of society should be made to pay for them. There are, of course, moral imperatives too. However, although "First they came for the yacht-owners..." is an even worse rallying cry than Ed Miliband's, it has more than a grain of truth to it.

Monday, 18 April 2011


Against all the odds, and my better judgement perhaps, I am now on Twitter.

If I am not a celebrity within six months this has probably been a mistake.

Commentary on commenting (how meta)

Do you think I should have comments on this blog? Please email me either way on

This decision won't be taken democratically, but if there seems to be any sort of desire among my readership (whose miniscule numbers might grow if I have comments) for me to allow them I will consider it.

It's cranks and the libellous that I fear most. Shortly followed by the unkind.

Another point on AV

This has been explained elsewhere, but please remember that there is no guarantee that the winning candidate will get 50 per cent of the vote under AV.

Firstly, they're not getting worthwhile votes when they get transfers, they are getting sloppy seconds at best. Moreover, as NotoAV has outlined:
When the Yes campaign talk about AV giving MPs ’50%’ of the vote, they mean 50% of the votes still remaining in the count. Because some people’s votes will get eliminated, under AV we’ll still have MPs elected on small shares of the vote – even after cobbling together a mishmash of first, second, third or lower preferences. That’s why academic experts have said that ‘more than four out of ten’ MPs will still be elected with less than 50% support under AV.
There is a lot of drivel being talked about AV. It's not even the case that the winning candidate will necessarily get 50 per cent of the votes cast, as NotoAV also reminds us:
The Electoral Commission’s impartial information booklet also makes this clear, saying: ‘Because voters don’t have to rank all of the candidates, an election can be won under the “alternative vote” system with less than half the total votes cast.’
Maybe you think it's fair to discount the second and subsequent preferences of voters whose first choice candidates come top of the ballot. I think it's a pretty weird, shoddy and unjust way to do business.

More on AV

Further to my post on AV, another brief point.

If you think that an MP should have the broadest support possible among the electorate, and that this matters more than who is first choice for the largest number of people, then you should not support AV.

AV favours the second, third and subsequent preferences of the voters whose first choice is least popular. (Because second and subsequent preferences are transferred from the bottom, and not at all from the top.) Why should those voters be favoured over the others?!

The system you should support would see voters giving candidates a certain number of points, and then the candidate with the highest number of points winning.


The trainers are doing a good job.

There was a moment of panic when they seemed to be too narrow, but I took the laces out and started again and then decided not to loop the laces through the uppermost eyes. In fact if anything they're a bit loose now.

My trousers are also getting loose. I am making steady progress.

In other news, I am listening to Eddi Reader singing Ae Fond Kiss by Rabbie Burns. Eddi has the honour of being the first version I listen to. I am getting very into Burns.

But gi'e me a canny hour at e'en,
My arms about my dearie, O,
An' warl'ly cares an' warl'ly men
May a' gae tapsalteerie, O!

For you sae douce, ye sneer at this,
Ye're nought but senseless asses, O;
The wisest man the warl' e'er saw,
He dearly loved the lasses, O.

Yes OK, I know it's not an esoteric one

Whenever I admit to myself or others - always somewhat sheepishly, always somewhat shamefacedly - that I just don't like classical music, I think of this, which I love.

Any idea, MI6?

There have been several viewings of this blog in Iran.

By whom?!

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Forwards, not backwards

I have just taken receipt of my new trainers. I think you will agree that they are extremely handsome and embody the sort of verve for which I am famous.

If you are interested in the technology behind them (which you are), then you can find out more in this video. They are very comfy and supportive indeed and I simply adore yellow and blue as a combination (as every Oxford fan should). The Jamaican theme is a nice flourish too.

It is also terrifically exciting to realise that by the time these shoes have served with distinction I will have lost all my excess weight. As such they will be taking me on quite a journey.

I should explain that I have not entered into a formal relationship with Puma. Indeed the shoes are named for Usain Bolt, a sprinter whose achievements considerably outstrip my own athletic endeavours. Nevertheless, they are very "me".

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Food for thought

It's good to see people coming out against private sector involvement in healthcare.

Some things are too important, too fundamental to be left to the market. Imagine if food, say, wasn't completely controlled by the state.

Picture, if you can bear it, the scene. Instead of being centrally controlled by Whitehall, food production and distribution is largely undertaken by private enterprise. You get your weekly groceries not from the National Food Service but from a warehouse on the edge of town or a smaller outfit on the corner of your street.

What motivates the people who run and work in such places? Nope, not pure altruism, as one would hope and expect. Dirty, wicked profit, that's what. That's right - even though we're talking about an essential public good like food. It makes me sick (and so does the organic, ethically sourced, extensively tested crap they sell in "supermarkets").

Prices rise through the roof and quality drops through the floor, which is the inevitable consequence of competition. Those of us whose brains don't explode from having to choose between five different kinds of houmous eventually starve to death because staple items such as bread cost £25 per unit.

Mercifully, that's not the reality. Very shrewdly, we are persisting in this country with a food policy that is modelled on the famed and universally celebrated Soviet system.

We just need to do everything we can to ensure that evil capitalists have no involvement in healthcare. The idea of private companies funding ground-breaking research or increasing capacity in the NHS may seem too awful to contemplate, but we cannot afford to let our guard down.

What we need, what we DEMAND, is no reform whatsoever of a system designed six decades ago.
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