Tuesday, 23 April 2013

World Book Day: Books Wot I Been Reading

It being UNESCO World Book Day, here's a note of the books I've read in the past couple of weeks whilst lounging about in the Mediterranean Springtime include:
Lucky Jim - Kingsley Amis
Amusing and nicely plotted, Amis takes the mickey out of university intelligentsia and other pompous and pretentious arty-farty types. He throws in some excellent farcical episodes and includes an insight into romance. The humour has a lot in common with P G Wodehouse, i.e. a slightly dim chap getting himself into an unnecessary tangle, until he eventually realise he should just be straightforward.
Something Fresh - P G Wodehouse
The Master. This is the first story in the 'Blandings' series. Wodehouse never fails to entertain and like Jane Austen, it is not so much the plot that matters - you can generally figure how things are going to turn out - but the language and the way he gets there is what counts. I find myself re-reading passages because I enjoy them so much. In this book, Lord Emsworth is not the central character but he and his idiosyncratic world of Blandings Castle are what provide the mise-en-scène. Emsworth comes into his own later in the series.
[PS: The recent BBC TV adaptation was OK in its own way, but not a patch on the real thing. Inevitably for a TV series some characters were re-drawn and story lines were conflated but c'est la vie, what?]
The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
Poetic and lyrical in his style of writing, and mysterious at first while you try to figure out what is going on. As the narrative progresses, the characters become less and less likeable as their selfishness, hypocrisy, vanity and fickleness is revealed. The concept of 'The American Dream' is revealed to be a tad hollow and inevitably rooted in corruption, and thus it is most ironic that Gatsby's good qualities i.e. his love and loyalty towards Daisy, are what lead to his demise. Meanwhile, Buchanan's bad qualities are what enable him and Daisy to get away.
The Kraken Wakes - John Wyndham
Apocalyptic alien invasion! An interesting aspect of the narrative is that the aliens are never explained or even described beyond the means by which they induce terror and destruction. And we are never really told what their motivation is beyond speculation by the human protagonists. Meanwhile, in the course of the book, Wyndham takes several well-aimed swipes at the media and at politicians. It's curious when you consider some of the crap films that get made these days that no one has yet adapted this book for the screen.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Thatcher, Saviour of the OU

A letter in today's Independent which argues that no one is ALL bad:

Insofar as comment has been passed on Margaret Thatcher’s time as Education Secretary in the Heath Government of 1970-74, this has usually related to her decisions to abandon free school milk and to shut down large numbers of grammar schools. What has been omitted is that Mrs Thatcher saved the Open University.
When Heath was elected Prime Minister in 1970, Ian Macleod, his Chancellor, was keen to rid the country of what he took to be Wilsonian financial albatrosses. Of all the decisions passed by his government, none was more associated with Harold Wilson than the Open University, and Macleod was keen to do away with it before it came into being, as were other Conservatives, who saw it as a further extension of state provision.
As a junior member of the Cabinet, ambitious and from the right, Thatcher might have been thought likely to support such a view. But after consultation, principally with the Open University’s first Vice-Chancellor, Walter Perry, she was persuaded that it was in fact an inexpensive and effective way of extending opportunity and creating new graduates. Much to Macleod’s chagrin, and with minimal support from her own department, she decided to move forward with the Open University.
John Campbell, in his much-acclaimed two-volume biography of Margaret Thatcher, argues that this was “her most remarkable feat” as Education Secretary, and that while Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee are usually credited with the conception of the OU “Margaret Thatcher deserves equal credit for single-handedly allowing it to be born when her senior colleagues were intent upon aborting it.”

Dr James Carleton Paget
Fellow and Tutor
Peterhouse, Cambridge

Friday, 19 April 2013

Disaster Strikes Backyard!

When El Prez's mother had this place rebuilt in the early Eighties, the old cess pit in the backyard which had been there since time immemorial was filled in and concreted over. Unfortunately for us, however, the material with which it was filled has since dried out causing subsidence under the concrete and leaving a cavity. The backyard is where we park our estimable Nissan March automobile and it's weight caused the concrete to collapse under the car's rear wheel. So, with some caution, we removed the car and had to engage some local artisans in filling in t'hole and concreting it all over again. As it happens, El Prez's cousin's son-in-law Dimitris is in this line of business so he got the job and, things being a tad slack in the construction biz, the job was started next day. Dimitris brought along Ahmed, a Turkish Cypriot from Famagusta, plus a couple of other hefty lads and it was all done in a flash. 1,350 euros all in!
We were most entertained when the wretched dog from downstairs spotted another dog and raced out yelping at it, only to land in the wet concrete.

It's Grim in t'Eastern Mediterranean Island of Cyprus

Well, here we are, members of the Xorg Collective, on a fact-finding tour examining the economic gloom in Cyprus. Everyone remains restricted to withdrawing a maximum of 300 euros per day, and those fortunate enough to have more than 100,000 euros in the bank can't get at it and aren't quite sure whether they will ever be able to and if so, how much of it will be left. The Laiki bank, which is to be closed, can't advise yet on how accounts will be transferred to the Bank of Cyprus, and most traders are only accepting cash. The big supermarkets and international petrol companies, however, still take credit cards. So there's a generalised air of uncertainty, added to a feeling of despondency and not a little anger that the Government and the banks have got them into this mess.There's empty property everywhere and overall unemployment stands at 25%.
El Presidente's cousin's husband Luka retired last year and invested his retirement lump sum in a bond with the Cooperative Bank but this has been frozen, and he has no idea whether he'll get it back. Cousin Spyro, the carpenter, has had no work for six months and now finds that he is not eligible for welfare; he was self-employed and benefits are not being paid to the self-employed. Mixalakhi, El Prez's first cousin once removed's brother in law, has been laid off and has been told no benefits are being paid for the first two months of unemployment. Aki, who rents the shop on the ground floor here, complains that he's going broke and can't get at his money in the bank, so he's refusing to pay his rent - now three months in arrears. Mr Dikaios, the esteemed architect, tells us he has no work at all and that he has had to lay off his long-serving assistant. He too can't access his savings so he's wondering how he's going to pay for his kids' college education.
We're doing our bit to revitalise the economy, though, having shelled out 1,350 euros on fixing the hole in the backyard, 60 euros on clearing the drains, and reducing by 8.5% the rent that The Old Foghorn downstairs pays (i.e. she now gets 12 months for the price of 11).
There is a glimpse of optimism for the future, however, as there are reserves of natural gas in Cyprus' offshore waters and once exploitation gets going, jobs and tax revenues should materialise. But this is four or five years away and the current desperation of the Cyprus government makes it vulnerable to being ripped off by the multi-nationals.
And meanwhile, it's raining today!

Thursday, 18 April 2013


Here we are in the Isle of Aphrodite and, once again, the drains are blocked. Ho hum. The current theory is that the powdered detergent used in the washing machine and dishwasher combines with fats in the water, creating a big lump of yukkiness. Mixalakhi the plumber came to our rescue for the small consideration of 60 euros and unblocked 'em. Liquid detergent from now on!

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Burying Thatcher

Being somewhat of a bolshy individual and ever concerned with the proper use of taxpayers' money, I have written to my MP (who is a Tory and a junior Minister) about wossername's funeral. If you too are wondering where all the money went you may wish to do likewise:
I see that the late Margaret Thatcher is to be accorded what amounts to a State funeral. As a member of the Government you will (or should) have been involved in the decision to do so and I would be grateful if you could let me know the reasons for coming to this decision.

Please could also let me know the cost to the public purse of the funeral. Reports in the Press have put this as high as £10 million - is this correct? I would be grateful for an itemised list of expenditure, detailing things such as Police, transport, security and so forth. Please could you confirm that the Thatcher Estate will at least be paying the undertaker's and the church's fees.

Please could you also let me know the cost to the public purse of recalling Parliament to debate her death, and why this was considered to be necessary.

Thank you.
If I get a reply, I'll post it on t'blog. Meanwhile, here's hoping they remember to put a stake through her heart before they close the coffin lid.

[Addendum: The statistics boffins at The Guardian have calculated the opportunity cost of Thatcher's funeral. i.e. what else could you get for £10 million. Amongst other things, you could buy 72.65 average-priced houses in Warrington (15.48 in Camden, 92.01 in Peterborough). Or 6,079 duck houses for Peter Viggers MP.]

Monday, 15 April 2013


When I was working for Her Majesty’s Government, I was told Margaret Thatcher insisted that briefing had to comprise no more than a single side of A4; otherwise she would not read it. So (and also so as not to bore the pants off you chaps), I will stick to Thatcher’s diktat in summarising my view of The Old Bat.
Thatcher set out to cause division and to destroy consensus and she succeeded. The reaction to her death is testament to that. She remarked that there is no such thing as society - an indication that she did not recognise that outside her world, there were other views that were equally valid, nor did she appreciate the interdependencies between people and within communities. There was only her conviction that she was right. It did not matter if three million people were employed and entire communities had been shattered. As she saw it, there needed to be a shakedown of the industrial sector so Sheffield’s steel-based manufacturing, for example, had to go. She wanted to break the political power of the Unions, and particular of the NUM, so the mines had to be closed. If there is no such thing as society, then there’s nothing for Unions and manufacturing to be part of. Perhaps, unconsciously or not, Thatcher saw society and the concept of consensus as something to do with ‘Socialism’: to her, A Great Evil.
She had the blinkered view that to control inflation the money supply must be limited and did this rather crudely by increasing interest rates. This had the effect of causing businesses to go bust as many often operate on an overdraft to maintain cash flow. There certainly were inefficiencies in the economy, but these were as much due to poor management and lack of investment as they were to Union belligerence. But the Unions took all the blame.
Whether through incompetence or design, Thatcher allowed the Falklands War to happen; a conflict that was entirely avoidable. But she thrived on conflict and used the Falklands to generate a wave of patriotism that she could exploit electorally. She consigned hundreds to their deaths - she was the only beneficiary.
Thatcher did not ‘win’ three elections. Callaghan threw away his chance by delaying until May 1979; Labour shot itself (in the Foot) in 1983; and the SDP split the vote in 1983 and 1987.
Prior to Thatcher, education and health policies inter alia were arrived at by consensus and politicians would listen to professionals. She rejected this and imposed ‘market forces’, for example, school league tables and privatised services. Privatisation of social housing and utilities meanwhile meant that some individuals made short term gains – but society as a whole lost as there is now a shortage of housing and the utilities are making vast profits whilst services have not improved.
Thatcher deregulated the financial markets – the ‘Big Bang’ - ushering in the era of casino banking that produced the ‘credit crunch’ and the necessity for the State to bail out the banks. Society as a whole consequently now has to pay for the recklessness of the Thatcherite few.

[See also Annexes A001 to A194: Hillsborough, Pinochet, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Section 28 homophobia, Peter Wright Spycatcher, Censorship of Irish Republicans, Free School Milk, GCHQ, Mis-spent oil revenues, Poll Tax, Immigration, GLC, and many more. Further diatribes available on request.]

Frank Zappa: Inventionis Mater

A couple of classical dudes, Pierpaolo Romani and Andrea Pennati, calling themselves The Inventionis Mater Duo, have transcribed and arranged some of Frank Zappa's compositions for clarinet and guitar. They do it rather well and the arrangements highlight Zappa's cunning use of dissonance and melody. They have their own YouTube channel: here's a taster.

Rainer Hersch, the Ukes etc.: April Fools' Day Concert

El Presidente and I attended a jolly hilarious concert at the Royal Festival Hall a couple of weeks ago, which was in aid of the Musicians' Benevolent Fund, featuring the musician and comedian Rainer Hersch conducting the Firebird Orchestra. Special guests were Alastair McGown and the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. It was the Ukes' involvement that had prompted our attendance.
Well, it were a right hoot and no mistake. Also appearing were soprano Lindsay Sutherland Boal and pianist Marc Andre Hamelin.
You might have come across Mr Hersch on Radio 4 where he has done  a few series over the years; I recall one he did called 'All Classical Music Explained'. I would summarise his approach to classical music as being an affectionate mickey-take, and they were so many laughs it's difficult to know where to start...but, for example, Ms Boal performed 'The Laughing Song' from Die Fledermaus in German while a translation into English was projected onto a screen behind. The translation was, of course, all wrong and totally hilarious. She went on to perform the third verse, after first finding a bottle of champagne, by gargling the tune. How she did that without cracking up and choking, I don't know. We were in stitches.
Mr Hamelin performed 'The Colonel Bogey March' arranged as a Beethoven piano sonata - what a hoot. He strung it out, pretty much like Beethoven tends to, with several false endings and dramatic contrasts. Fabuloso!
Prior to the interval, Mr Hersch invited the audience to text in suggestions for styles in which to perform Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' from his Ninth Symphony. Thus we got to hear Old Ludwig's tune in reggae, Country & Western, ragtime, and combined with the riff from 'Smoke on the Water'.
Alastair McGowan did a stand up routine, incorporating some of his voice impressions including David Beckham. He also performed a rewritten version of The Mikado, which he contrived to rhyme with shopping with Ocado. McGowan also took the part of the narrator for a bowdlerised version Peter and The Wolf, which featured The Ukes. The main joke here was that the Ukes, rather than the different orchestral instruments, played all of the animals' parts. They also did a solo spot, playing the 'Theme from Shaft', and George did his Donald Duck impersonation. The Ukes were a little subdued but I guess they are not used to playing with an orchestra.
Any road up it were fandabbydozey and if Mr Hersch and Co do it again next year, buy tickets!

Sunday, 14 April 2013

South Bank Real Food

Here's a place that's well worth a visit if you are the kind of person who likes food. Proper food, that is, not McD's etc. 
Sited at The Royal Festival Hall on the south bank of the Thames, the Real Food Market provides an impressive selection of interesting and tasty grub - and reasonably priced too (for London). It is difficult to know what to go for but El Presidente and I eventually opted for lobster and chips from Whitstable, and Polish sausage in a bun with pickle and salad, plus Ethiopian coffee. Spiffing.