Vote for me at your peril – again!

Half-way through the election campaign and I still can’t make up my mind where to place my important vote. I need to qualify the word important in this context; my vote is very important to me but, regrettably, the constituency that I live in is considered a ‘safe seat’ for the Conservative Party so my individual voice is unlikely to be important to our incumbent, Sir Alan Hazelhurst. His majority at the last election was 13008 so we would need to see a significant swing to oust him. The dilemma I labour with, therefore, is would my vote for another candidate be wasted or is there a significant group of people like me out there trusting that their equally important vote might bring change?

I’ve held the view for some time that politicians are, for the most part, morally bankrupt, self-serving and fast to avoid the responsibility that goes with the job. It’s frequently difficult to give them a collective benefit of the doubt when survival is deniability and they demonstrate that survival comes higher up the list of their priorities than serving the electorate. Today we saw Gordon Brown provide a perfect example in practice. In a ‘stop and greet’ street interview a typical and perfectly normal voter raised a series of quite reasonable concerns. After delivering some patronising responses with suitable gravitas and reassuring smiles he was caught off-camera describing her as a ‘bigoted woman that said she used to be Labour’ when something nearer humility would have been more appropriate. It’s another example of the arrogance and duplicity of power that has been shown, to one degree or another, by senior politicians in this run-up. The recent televised Leaders’ Debates exposed this; platitudes and non-binding promises were handed-out like party favours, real commitments were avoided, technique was honed but important issues, like how the economy will be managed or what will form the heart of government policy on environment, energy, education, health and so on were avoided. We all believe that the VAT rate will increase and we all believe that spending cuts will result in job losses but why won’t any of the leaders say it?

In the first televised debate, a relaxed Clegg, with nothing to lose and less to defend, was the success of the night. Unencumbered by a fear of losing either his job as Prime Minister or his title of Pretender to the crown, he was able to say what people wanted to hear and appeared to offer the option for change that is allegedly the answer to our ills. He had huge if unbelievable ratings and whilst the dust had settled by the second debate a proportion was restored that was more to do with a subtle shift on the part of the others, not a real improvement in what is on offer. With the consequent ascendance of the Liberal Democrats, we are now forced to focus on the lack of proportional representation [PR] in our system and the implications of a hung parliament. So the real choices available to us at the ballot box are very limited if they exist at all. The situation is invidious and breeds widespread apathy.

Coalition governments can and do work; Sweden, Germany and particularly Switzerland, for example, make a clear success of it although Israel is a poor performer and Italy seems incapable of managing a chimpanzee’s tea party. But I suspect that it might work here and I think it might be the way to go if only for what it throws up in the process.

If we do end up with a hung parliament and the likely Conservative/Liberal Democrat alliance manifests itself then we certainly need better accountability and more transparency. The Liberal Democrats say they want to impose that on any partners as a condition for wearing the harness of coalition. The Conservatives are running a scare campaign so that the electorate will take the safest route when we cast our votes.

So now I’ve come full-circle – a vote for the man who’s already in place will probably be a vote wasted; a vote for someone else might be a vote wasted, but then again, might not. What will my fellow constituents do? They’ve told me in the pub that they want to see changes but does apathy rule or will democracy and courage walk hand-in-hand? Seems to me that casting a vote into the unknown might not be any worse than wasting it on the guy with the manicured garden. And even if it doesn’t achieve the changes we want, then at least we will have tried.

I’m not feeling very optimistic about this at all.

Copenhagen – wondeful but eye-watering

Finally braving the expected chaos at Stansted we were pleased to find it looking like normal and, in fact, less crowded than expected. The helpful easyJet agent that we’d met earlier in the week told us that a lot of people were still not checking-in for booked flights and that our original flight, which left ahead of schedule on Wednesday, was only one-third full. This one had a few spare seats, too. Had our fellow-travellers just given up, spent too much on emergency accommodation while the ash cloud dispersed and run out of money or, as I suspect, died while waiting for easyJet to answer their helpline?

Anyway, a good flight on a consistently OK airline got us to Copenhagen in time to see the opening concert of the Kings Singers Scandinavian Tour at Tivoli.

Spring is coming slowly to Denmark; there was snow on the ground three days ago and, despite the bright sunshine and blue skies, it was perishing out of the sun. Good, then, that Lars and Ann had set us up for a proper brunch of eggs, bacon and sausage – with lashings of eye-watering, mouth-burning and heart-stopping chilli sauce – after a good lay-in. A cold beer in the sun on the terrace after was just the job and then round to Kit and Anders for tea at their new apartment in Hellerup. More on Anders later; he’s a DJ with a fan club in the States and music available in iTunes.

A long and pleasant stopover but it was good to get to Sweden in time for a sundown glass of wine on the deck.

The crisis is over – or is it?

So the airports are open again and the freedom of the skies beckons. For some time we’ve been booked to fly to Sweden tomorrow but after days of monitoring the news channels, the weather, the predictions of experts and the ranting of Sky interviewees I’ve just about had it. I’ve lost the will to travel and don’t have the stamina to spend what might be six or seven hours with easyJet’s handling agents or the hoi polloi at Stansted Airport. It’s a depressing experience at the best of times and the security staff there is about as surly as you can get without appearing on Britain’s Toughest Gangs. After several days of will we/won’t we be able to get away we’d more or less accepted that tomorrow would be the day when we saw the beginning of the end of the crisis. Then last evening the news from Iceland grew graver; Eyjafjallajökull was sending out another ash cloud and it was heading our way. That meant that our flight would certainly be cancelled, that we’d get money refunded or be rebooked and we’d get to spend a few more days here. Packing was put off, insurers spoken to. 

Now this evening it’s all change. We can fly. The ash cloud – no worse than yesterday – is suddenly safe to fly through. So our flight that wasn’t quite cancelled is operating again but we’re not quite sure when. Coaches are shipping stranded compatriots from Madrid to the Channel coast and hitherto angry middle-Englanders are being philosophical about being better safe than sorry. People are arriving back to hugs and tearful greetings with loved-ones after being trapped in Mallorca [yes, Mallorca] and the live coverage of the first flights to arrive at Heathrow for six days is being replayed on the news. The crisis is over and we move smoothly on to the post-match analysis and, of course, the recriminations.

We’re told this evening that the danger has diminished although it looks to me as if the danger was redefined. Gordon Brown was happy being filmed telling potential voters this morning that a hundred coaches were in Madrid ready to ship our people back. This evening he seemed a little more camera-shy about explaining the vacillation in Downing Street; it was left to a hapless Lord Adonis to take the heat. It seems that the danger posed by the airborne ash is its density in parts per million and only today our National Air Traffic Services [NATS] has been informed that the density is, well, not dense enough to worry about. A lot of people said as much last week, when I was out trying to photograph the ‘spectacular’ sunset that never happened. 

Nothing quite focuses us Brits as a crisis. And nothing defines a leader better than the way he [or she – remember Margaret Thatcher?] responds to it. Gordon Brown is probably not the chap you want in the big chair when invaders from Mars demand to be taken to our leader. But then again, who is? After sitting through the leaders’ debate last week and seeing the paucity of statesmanship on offer I am at a complete loss.

I’ve tried to find out if we’ve consumed more cups of tea over the past few days – you know, to get us through the crisis – but there seems to be a conspiracy to keep that information confidential. I bet that’s what kept Gordon’s mind off the ash cloud density.

Same place same time, gents…

What turns an acquaintance, I wonder, into a good friend. Is it the gradual discovery that you have something in common or that you share an interest? Perhaps it’s having a similar sense of humour or hearing political views that don’t leave you shaking your head in despair and amazement. Maybe it’s finding that you don’t disagree enough to get dyspeptic or bang your head against a wall. Whatever it is or wherever it comes from, it’s a jewel to be treasured in a world that is too-often superficial and where life-enriching values are increasingly transient.

Yesterday I spent the day in London with two guys that I’ve known since the late 1960s. And I’ve been doing that with them, more or less, every year since we met. Sometimes our group was larger – fondly-remembered interlopers have fallen by the wayside over the years – but the three of us, the core, stay in touch and spend time together year after year. It’s survived bombings, economic downturns, overseas postings, changes at home, changes at work and, of course, the passage of years. For each of us our meeting has become something of a marker for the years that have passed and, for me in particular, punctuation in a life that started as a junior in a design office through being a partner in my own practice to the wizened consultant [and blogger] of today.

Back at the time we met our coming together was precipitated by frequent lunchtime outings to a country pub called The White Lion, in Walkern, Hertfordshire.  Conversation between games of darts, lubricated by several pints of Greene King’s Abbot Ale and a certain amount of often less than charitable leg-pulling, was always fast, witty and wide-ranging. They were blokey lunches and very non-PC by today’s standards; quite different from the work ethic that I encouraged in my own offices in later years. But they were enjoyable, intellectual and, I guess with the benefit of hindsight, a little exclusive. It was clear that fate had brought together a group of people with not dissimilar backgrounds; all three of us are from London, possess a resonating sense of humour and are singularly opinionated. Moreover, whilst each was strongly individual and had his own specific interests, there was a commonality that we enjoyed and wanted to share; culture, art and a love of music. We all read and indulged ourselves in the richness and idiosyncrasies of life. Trouble was, work got in the way and there never seemed to be enough time to work through the points that increasing intoxication and decreasing articulation demanded.

A heaven-sent opportunity to address this presented itself when British Rail announced in 1972 that it would withdraw the Brighton Belle. This famous train had journeyed from Brighton to London Victoria and back as a first-class service since 1875, although it was only named Brighton Belle in 1934. Its breakfast kippers were famous and Sir Lawrence Olivier was foremost in protesting its demise. It was a perfect and very public-spirited excuse for us to travel to Brighton in solidarity with the protest at the train’s withdrawal and spend a day at the seaside. Our hitherto lunchtime session extended to a full day so that we had the time that lunch at The White Lion denied us. It was a magnificent day and we agreed on the return to London that a tradition should be born of it and so it was; we undertook the pilgrimage annually for more than two decades. The group sometimes took on a different complexion as some of us worked abroad, new colleagues were seduced by our enthusiasm or friends joined the periphery. Tales of what went on in the streets of Brighton, on the seafront, the pier, in restaurants and all those pubs [as well as other public facilities so generously provided by the burghers of Brighton] have passed into legend, to be raked over, reminisced about and enjoyed over and over.

We tend to meet now in London – yesterday it was Soho, last time Marylebone – or somewhere less central but on each occasion it’s the same; a few beers, maybe an exhibition, a good lunch and important, erudite discussion of art, music, literature, motor cars, people, politics [well, sometimes] and the rich tapestry of life. Just like it’s always been, there’s never enough time. As I sit writing this thoughts occur about something we didn’t finish, a subject that wasn’t exhausted or a point that I meant to bring up. And, despite what I said at the top, we don’t always agree with each other, we don’t always accept each other’s point of view and we exercise friendly sarcasm in a way that you only can with someone who has laughed with you and at you for all those years.

Now, with a lot more experience and a lot less hair between us, we look forward to meeting later in the year with the same enthusiasm as we did the next game of darts at Walkern all those years ago.

Nice one, Tommy

When you spend a life travelling, like I have, you get to cross paths with many different people. My experiences have been mixed and interesting, to say the least, such that they will form the basis of some short stories that are to be aired here in the future. In Dubai I’ve been lucky to get to know Tommy and Maja Pedersen. Good people, great company and now lifelong friends.

Tommy is the travelling birder I aspire to be but being a B777 Captain for Emirates Airlines presents him with more opportunities to visit exotic places than the points I get on my B&Q card do. Be that as it may, take a look at some of his excellent photos. Mightily impressive, especially if you are studying Latin at evening classes. You can see them by clicking here.

Vote for me at your peril!

A general election has been called so the news is filled with reports of daily updates, initiatives, changes and betterments that each of the parties, when elected, will introduce. The election will be a chance for us to give a mandate for the party that will improve our lives and cast aside the effects of the policy failures and deprivations that we have had to endure recently. After all, shouldn’t the politicians have kept the bankers in check? Some of the ideas are radical; most are rhetoric but very few of them were raised by the incumbent administration or the principal opposition parties, who practised accusation and not remedy. Today, during the last Prime Minister’s Questions of this parliament, it was more of the same.

So now we have a choice to make on 6 May; do we vote for the tired, washed-out and ineffective Labour party, the untried Conservatives who appear to have few genuinely workable policies but who do represent a much-needed change or the Liberal Democrats, who advocate common sense but are frighteningly naïve?

It seems that the more secure a party becomes in its mandate the less it is concerned about the electorate that put it there. It always seems to happen and there is no reason at all to believe it isn’t going to happen again. Parliamentarians become more arrogant in the abuse of the power we’ve given them the longer they are in government so change is not only good, it is also necessary. Do we let them get away with this because we are merely complacent or has the comfort in which we mostly live our lives made us apathetic? Either way, our response to all the airtime is largely a dull lack of interest tinged with anger at having heard it all before. It’s tedious and I’m fed up with it already, two days into the run-in. It shouldn’t be that way; the winners will be in power for perhaps another four years, if we don’t have a hung parliament, so they will affect every aspect of my life for the foreseeable future. I need to take an interest and I need to feel that the guys I vote for will deliver for me. Trouble is I have no enthusiasm on either count.

We are still working through the expenses scandal and I am still waiting for my elected official, who holds high office at Westminster, to explain to me why, if he thought it prudent to voluntarily return £12000 because of the public anger which the expenses revelations have understandably generated’ he took the money in the first place. He apparently spent it on gardening costs – can anyone explain why an elected official in public office thought that was OK in the first place regardless of whether or not contrition now prevails?

It might be time for a real change, even if that proves such a disaster that it shocks us – and them – into putting an accountable government in place. But what is the alternative? And should they get my vote?

I’ve looked up the options for political parties that are registered and there are at least 25 in England, which excludes those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is certainly a lot of choice; in fact, you’re spoilt for it. Some are fairly well-known – the Communist Party, the British National Party and the UK Independence Party get a seat on Question Time on the BBC now and then but what could some of the others do for me? I don’t smoke so the Legalise Cannabis Party wouldn’t get my important vote, even though I don’t necessarily take issue with their cause. Nor am I a pensioner so the Pensioners Party will have to wait. I’m also a little nervous that the opening words on their home page are Be warned, people have short memories…’. Er, isn’t that a sign of getting old? But what about the Social Equality Party, the Natural Partnership of Great Britain or the old favourite, the Monster Raving Loony Party? One of them must have something to offer and, after all, couldn’t be worse than the pompous, arrogant, self-serving crew that we have to suffer now.

What exactly is on offer? The Monster Raving Loony Party has clearly set out its manifesto and advocates that all politicians be made to swear a “hippocratic oath”, preventing them by law from being Hypocrites. All politicians should be made to stand by their policies, or or at least admit that they were wrong’, which I’m for. I also like the proposal to Ban all terrorists from having beards as they look scary’ but they won’t get my vote as they also propose removing the three lions from the English symbol and replacing them with badgers. Hmmm. What about the Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain? No, I’ve spent too long in my career stabbing colleagues in the back and I’m not going to vote for people who want me to be a worker again. The Green Party says it is launching its biggest campaign ever, believing it has a real chance of having Green MPs at Westminster. Its members do seem to have very strong views on transport and would divert money currently being wasted on huge road projects (about £30bn) and put more of the UK’s transport budget into public transport, especially local schemes for walking, cycling and bus-travel’. I’m thinking traffic jams, cycling in English winter, people in anoraks telling me that it’s good for me. They also want to stop ‘top bankers’ from continuing to ‘to pocket your money in the form of unearned bonuses, while factories, firms and farms are forced to lay off more and more workers by the day, week and month’. Question is, would my vote reduce banker’s bonuses, which might be a good thing, while keeping jobs on farms? I don’t quite see the connection and I’m not at all happy about all the chemicals the farm workers spray on the fields around here. That doesn’t warrant a mention in the manifesto. The Prolife Party seems obsessed with babies – what about the economy? The Third Way has a sophisticated, convincing website and some erudite words about how we might all get safely through this century – ‘Third Way is designing a moderate economic agenda and narrative for the 21st century. We are advancing progressive pro-growth ideas to promote American economic vitality and ensure that this country embraces its role in the global economy in ways that benefit all Americans’. Hold it a minute; Americans? Something odd here, especially as their founding President and Vice President for Public Affairs look like they’ve knocked at my door on a Sunday morning and asked if I’d heard the Good News.

This suggests that the alternatives to the main parties are, to say the least, not that special. So, as so often, it comes down to voting for the lesser of the evils. I’m not certain I can do that but voting is important, a right that was hard-fought for. And if you don’t vote then perhaps you shouldn’t put rants like this on your blog. It’s going to be a long few weeks until 6 May…

Take off your sunglasses, Willi

I think the world is getting crazier but I love eccentricities, especially when the people displaying them are just dumb. So today it’s been eye-watering to read about the two women who tried to walk a dead guy onto an aircraft at Liverpool. The women – the step-daughter and wife of the corpse – are German but living in a town called Oldham, which is several miles from Liverpool. They claim that he was alive when they left for the airport in a specially rented limousine [yeah, I believe that was necessary] but asleep when they tried to check in. The guys at the car-hire firm are saying nothing as it was apparently a big sale; I wonder if they helped the sleeping Willi into the back seat?

Willi, who was 91 when he started his journey, had sunglasses on while they propped him up between them and apparently didn’t answer any questions from the check-in staff because he was a German national and didn’t speak English. Don’t you love this? Suspicions were aroused when he ignored requests to remove his sunglasses.

The police were called and arrested the live members of the party, who protested that they hadn’t killed anyone as they were hauled off to jail. I guess Willi went to the morgue, still looking pale and still in his sunglasses.

Who needs Comedy Central when you have this?