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Saboteur

27 December 2009

Nicola Barker

Picture of Nicola Barker
I'm going to alienate some of my few readers again, by letting literature creep into this blog, diluting the normal diet of football and anticatholicism (which sounds like I must be a Rangers supporter, which is unfortunate.) But once again I'm girlishly excited at the prospect of a new book by one of my favourite novelists. This time, it's one of my favourite living English novelists, Nicola Barker.

Among the forgettable predictions in the Observer's Hot List 2010 (it puts the trite into detritus), there's notice of her new novel, Burley Cross Postbox Theft, and the publisher's website says it's coming out in April.

It's an epistolary novel, which I don't think she's ever done before, and I wonder if that will mean some loss to the quirky (I say quirky, you say irritating) style that she has been using with increasing intensity. The last novel, Darkmans, was a baffling, entrancing work. I still don't really know what happened at the end, but the sheer brilliance of the writing kept me hooked for the 800+ pages. It's the opposite of transparency, of course: writing that refuses to be ignored.

Here's a partial summary from the publisher:
From complaints about dog shit to horse-trodden turkeys, from Biblical amateur dramatics and a failing novelist's fan mail, a chicken that turns out to be a duck and an Auction of Promises that goes staggeringly, horribly wrong a dozen times and more, Nicola Barker's epistolary novel is one of immense comic range, her characteristic ambition, her shrewd humanity but, above all, about how we laugh at ourselves and fail to see the funny side.

If that was about a more mainstream novelist, I'd be worried. But I trust Nicola Barker, and so will be pre-ordering the book as soon as Amazon feature it.

20 December 2009

Charlton 4 Millwall 4

A fantastic game warmed everyone up on a freezing cold day, in a vibrant, proper derby, atmosphere. Before kickoff the parents of Jimmy Mizen, a Millwall fan, and Robert Knox, a Charlton fan, were presented to the players and the crowd. Both lost their sons to street violence and the game was dedicated to the campaign against it. It was hugely symbolic, of course, to use this game. It's 13 years, I think, since Charlton last played Millwall, and back then I'd have been quite worried about my safety on the way to and from the match. Millwall have changed - not entirely, but noticeably. I remembered during the game that fans used to chant to each other "You're going to get your fucking heads kicked in" and "You're going home in an ambulance", and that just doesn't seem to happen anymore. Of course improved police intelligence and tactics have made a difference, but when the revolution in fans' behaviour has even reached Millwall, it looks like it's here to stay.

And so to the game. Wow. Millwall started by far the more enterprising team, and in the seasonal spririt they'd show all afternoon, Charlton's defence gave them an opening goal. The referee joined in, giving them a corner no-one else had seen, from which they scored the second. It was quite depressing at this point. Losing the home unbeaten record to Millwall, of all teams! But all those years when no referee would give Charlton a penalty were repaid when the referee gave two. One of them resulted in a Millwall sending off, so at half time, it was level and Charlton had a numerical advantage.

The second half could not have started better - a super goal from Nicky Bailey inside 35 seconds. Surely it would be simple from here? You would only say that if you've never watched Charlton. They went off the boil, as so often inviting the opposition to come forward, and another defensive mix-up let Millwall equalise. Charlton retook the lead near the end of normal time but five added minutes was plenty of time for Millwall to get another equaliser. Their fans celebrated as if they'd won, while it did feel a bit like a defeat for Charlton. But a draw was as much as we deserved, and Millwall absolutely earned their point so no complaints.

Both sets of fans cheered the news that Fulham have beaten United 3-0. An unusual show of London unity, and although I may be the only person to see it this way, a fitting reminder of the display of unity against violence before the match.

12 December 2009

Less than three months


I went to two Christmas dinners this week with former colleagues. The first, on Monday, was with the investigative team I used to work with. The second, yesterday, was some people from corporate services. What's astonishing, in less than three months, is how things have moved on already. The pace of change always seemed continental drift-like while I worked there. Now it seems merely glacial. They are recruiting mainstream investigators - the post from which I was made redundant - to fill the gaps left by secondment of existing investigators to the new work areas. This is stoopid, evidently, but I'm happy to have benefited from it.

There's a new knowledge management manager, and the intranet really is, after all this time, just about to get updated. Meanwhile, computer systems are being tightened up, and made more corporately uniform. I don't think I'd like that. My desktop had a picture of St Mary in the Marsh in Kent, which I found more attractive than an intranet home page is likely to be. (But I was always astonished by the number of people who hadn't changed the desktop background, and still had the windows default "teletubbies hill" picture. Presumably they won't mind.)

It's all overdue and inevitable, I suppose, but some things don't change. It was really nice to see Rita again. She's an HR person, and with two very young children she's been on maternity leave for a very long time, it seems. I can't deny I've a bit of a crush on her; she's very attractive, and has an infectious laugh a lot like Alesha Dixon's - only louder and dirtier. Her husband (curse him!) is a lecturer, and his job has taken them to Birmingham. So she asked the management if she could return to work but based at the Coventry office. With apparently not a moment's thought, the answer was no, so she's leaving. Such a waste.

08 December 2009

Pets after the Rapture

I love the Christian fundamentalist belief in the Rapture. The idea is that soon, very soon, the holy people will be raptured away to heaven, leaving the rest of us behind to suffer the painful, drawn-out end of the world. Armageddon, and all that. See the Book of Revelation for more details. Apparently in America some Christians have bumper stickers warning that in the event of Rapture, the car will suddenly be driverless.

Sadly the belief's not widely spread this side of the Atlantic. Sadly, because a bright atheist spark in America has shown it's a money-making opportunity. For a fee of $110 Bart Centre (that's the name of a man, not a public building) guarantees to look after the pets that are left behind. And being an atheist, he's able to guarantee that he'll still be here. He says "a handful" of people have bought the service.

More details here: and thanks to the Atheist Revolution blog for mentioning this.

05 December 2009

Charlton 1 Southend 0

After recent performances, I went to this game with guarded optimism. There could be another big win in prospect against a mid-table team. But Semedo would be missing, and his presence in front of the defence is an often overlooked factor in Charlton's best performances. On the other hand, Frazer Richardson was back, and his developing partnership with Lloyd Sam could prove decisive.

It was a bright game throughout, with Southend looking lively and positive - playing better than their position in the table would suggest. It took a while for Charlton to get into the game but after 25 minutes Deon Burton scored the only goal. The game continued open and even until half-time, with both goalkeepers making impressive saves.

After the interval, Richardson was replaced by Omozusi. He presumably wasn't fully fit, and his linking with Sam wasn't working. In fact Charlton had played more attacks down the left than the right. Charlton's play became much more defensive. I've seen it suggested this was because of uncertainty about the referee, and he was - all so typically of the division - inconsistent, so the Charlton players may have feared yellow cards. Semedo should be an important part of such play, and the defence were called upon to make some desperate blocks and clearances. But they did it. It's one of the big differences this season that even when things aren't going well, the defence holds out. I think Racon also benefits personally from Semedo's presence; he had a noticeably poor game. (And was booked. He must be close to a suspension.)

So, for various reasons most of the second half was worrying, but the win was achieved without any real scares. The last ten minutes or so saw Charlton comfortable again, as Southend appeared to lose breath and conviction.

Other results went well. Leeds dropped two points so we closed the gap on them. Millwall and Palace both lost 3-0. And Chelsea lost.

The next home game is Millwall. In recent games the North Stand's favourite chant has been "We hate Millwall". They're building up for it. It's going to be a bit intense.

27 November 2009

The Church in Ireland (2)

Back in May I posted an article about the Ryan report, which had uncovered a huge history of abuse in church-run children's homes and orphanages in Ireland. Now there's another report, giving details of abuse perpetrated by priests in the Archdiocese of Dublin. Here's an opinion article from the Irish Times - but be warned that it includes graphic description of an act of abuse. For those who can't take it, a named priest has admitted sexually abusing dozens of children. Some years after the first complaints, he was moved and appointed as chaplain to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire (where children were among the patients). The hospital wasn't told of the suspicions against him.

Throughout, it's the same story of bishops and archbishops failing to investigate reports of abuse, much less take action to bring the perpetrators to justice.

The columnist, Mary Raftery, comments:
What emerges most clearly from the report is that priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals had the greatest difficulty in telling right from wrong, and crucially that their determination of what constituted wrongdoing was vastly different from that of the population at large.

These are priests, who are supposed to have higher moral standards than the rest of us, who are supposed to tell us what's right and wrong. I don't see how the people of Ireland - or anywhere - can continue to have any kind of respect for a Church that went so far from any acceptable standard of morality.

The report also shows the Irish police taking no action - treating it as an internal Church matter. This isn't covered in Mary Raftery's comments, but there is more in this editorial. It points to "the fundamentally rotten nature of relations between the Catholic Church and the State" in which the Church was effectively outside the law.

Atheists like me aren't keen on using the word "evil" - that's something religious people do. But what else can you call the Church in Ireland in the 20th century? A significant number of its members abused children on what seems to be a massive scale. A much higher number colluded to ensure that the abuse went unpunished and so continued. In the process they corrupted the system of civil justice.

I'm a fairly gentle atheist, and I try to recognise that religions can have positive effects, can be a force for good. Harder atheists will say that it is the nature of religions to oppress, to make rules for themselves, and to provide an unquestionable authority for anything they do. Looking at what's happened in Ireland, it's hard to disagree.

24 November 2009

Charlton 4 Bristol Rovers 2

A bizarre game on a blustery night. Charlton started off in absolute control. First goal within four minutes, and the second, from a rare penalty after 15 minutes. It looked like another big win was on the cards but then Kelly Youga, playing at right back and linking very effectively with Lloyd Sam, had to go off injured. The play really changed from then. Elliot Omozusi, his replacement, is very inexperienced and it showed. After less than 10 minutes on the pitch he was booked for pulling back a Rovers player who'd outwitted and outpaced him. Near half-time Rovers pulled one back, after (apparently) one of them had been pulled back in the penalty area.

The second half saw Rovers completely in control and it was no surprise when they equalised after 11 minutes. Last year's Charlton would have collapsed after this, but although they didn't take control, at least they kept fairly composed, and against the run of play Nicky Bailey scored - snapping up a chance after Mooney's header had hit the bar.

It turned the game around. Rovers then lost their confidence and Akpo Sodje scored the goal that settled it.

The officials were once again dreadful (but not quite as dreadful as they appeared, when it seemed that one player had been booked twice). There was an element of cynicism in Rovers' play and they fell for it. The away fans were more numerous than you might expect on a Tuesday evening and made a lot of noise. They ought to feel disappointed with the result. For Charlton fans, I suppose the key point is that despite not playing well for a lot of the game, the team was still able to hold on, and ride the crest of an unexpected goal.

22 November 2009

An apology

Back in August I shared my expert knowledge of underperforming first division football teams, suggesting that a bet on Spurs to be relegated might be tradeable - surely it was impossible that they could start strongly and stay near the top. With their 9-1 defeat of Wigan today, it's time to accept I was wrong, and that my stake is lost forever. I am sorry about this, because although I kinda supported Spurs when I was a kid, I'd love to see their manager get what's due to him.

On the other hand, if you paid heed to my tip and have lost money as a result, that really is your own fault.

Cheryl Cole and a racist

One of the conservative councillors in Bromley has turned out to be a racist. No surprise there. You can read about it in Anton Vowl's typically infuriated blog entry. Like me, he's not surprised at what the councillor said, or at the conservative party's condemnation, or even at the way the Daily Mail presented it. It's the reaction of commenting readers that gets him, but again, no surprises there. At least you know where you are with Daily Mail readers. I left a comment of my own, something like
So he is against prospective candidates simply because they have foreign-sounding names. That's simply racist.
I daren't go back to see the response. Loads of red arrows, no doubt. I think it is important to add comments on stories like this, and to recommend sensible (ie non-racist) views. But maybe the response of people judging comments is even less worth worrying about than the comments themselves.

It's a rainy sunday, and while looking for something else I found a story in the Times about Cheryl Cole's hair product adverts. Some people with even more time on their hands than me have complained that Cheryl's lovely hair is probably more to do with the extensions she has had fitted (if that's the word) than the conditioner she advertises. I've searched my heart and soul and find I can't give a toss about this. But someone has commented (and this is the full extent of his view):
Ceramides in conditioners are isolated from pig brains
Pointless and mad, probably, but considerably saner than the eleven people who have clicked to recommend this comment.

20 November 2009

José Saramago


José Saramago is possibly my favourite living novelist. So imagine how thrilled I am to see that he has a new novel out, called Caim (Cain). It's not yet been translated into English, but I am sure his regular translator, Margaret Jull Costa, is on the job already. The novel, as far as I can understand from coverage in Portuguese and Spanish websites, is the story of the Old Testament, retold by Cain after he murders Abel and is banished to spend a life wandering. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't give a very positive picture of God, and even less surprisingly, this has not gone down too well in Saramago's land of birth (Portugal) or his land of residence (Spain).
The Spanish newspaper Vanguardia has an interview with the great man. Obviously it's in Spanish but even I can understand the sense of mischief and humour in some of his replies. Of his attitude to the Bible, he says:
This has to do with my position that if we don't understand the other side of things, we don't understand them at all. [...] Even a book considered holy, like the Bible, permits - and demands - that we try to read it from the other side. And this other side always puts right some ideas we had, while it confirms some others.
It's very easy to condemn Cain for fratricide, and I don't absolve him. Of course not. What I do do is to put some of the blame on God: He, everyone should know, could have avoided this. His responsibility is that, when the two brothers offered him the products of their work, Cain, the arable farmer offered vegetables, while Abel, the grazier, offered him meat. God was delighted by the meat roasting on the hearth ... and deprecated Cain's offerings. What kind of God is this, who can only value one person by putting another down in such a provocative way? Cain is humiliated by God, and kills his brother because he can't kill God, which is what he wants.
To the comment that there is a lot of violence in the book,
Yes, but I didn't need to add anything to the violence that is in the original biblical texts.
In the retelling of the Babel story, it seems that the two original languages are Basque and Portuguese:
this will make my Basque readers happy, as it is an extraordinary proof of the antiquity of their language.
Asked if the message of the novel is about the destructive nature of belief, he says:
I never like talking about a message in literature. The message is whatever each reader takes from it, very different in each case. I am an atheist and I feel it impossible, even with mental effort, to believe in God or to get close to this sensation. And, for me I have never had any doubt of the enormously negative and harmful consequences of the existence of religions, which always set people against each other. Killing, killing, killing - it's what they have done throughout history ...
I'm putting this post into my regular blog, not the literary one, because no-one reads that. (Hardly anyone reads this.) Saramago's books aren't easy, but they aren't as difficult as they first look. The sentences are long, but have a rhythm derived from dialogue that soon becomes easy to read. Sometimes, as in Blindness, the subject-matter is almost unbearably hard to take, and you have to learn to trust Saramago as a guide through terrors. So, don't start with that one. I'd recommend The Double as a start, or maybe a more recent novel, Death at Intervals as good starting points. Both have a story that's fascinating (in fact, Death at Intervals has two; being structurally a bit lumpy, it's virtually two novels joined at the middle), and are a fairly smooth way into his unusual but addictive style. Do try.


(Shocking, certainly, but the question is - should we interpret it literally?)

16 November 2009

Bloomer


I can't help feeling unreasonably proud of today's bread. This is a bloomer, characterised by the diagonal slashes across the loaf, which are decorative (and would be more so if I'd got the distance between them uniform) and help the dough rise tidily.

At Blackheath Farmers Market one of the bread stalls serves something called a London Bloomer, with six slashes. They claim this was introduced during the war, and the slashes divided the loaf into seven portions, to see you through the week. This must be nonsense. Without preservatives etc this bread will be rock hard by Wednesday.

Bread-making can become an obsession, as the number of blogs about it shows. I don't think I'm becoming obsessive, but I will just note that this loaf is stone-baked, with steam, using Allinsons Seed and Grain flour.

14 November 2009

Charlton 5 MK Dons 1

Some things are hard to explain. Why do they bother fitting indicators to black taxis? How can one size ever fit all? Who keeps giving Piers Morgan work?

But how, I ask you, can the team that plumbed the depths of ineptness last week, causing Charlton fans to almost use up the world's supply of words ending in -less (gut, feck, hope, clue, guile, spine, feck, feck, feck), turn on a performance like today's, when in the second half they simply tore apart a decent MK Dons team, lying just one place below them in the table?

It's obviously why we love football: for every 90 minutes of utter misery, there's maybe 45 minutes of bliss.

It was a windy day at the Valley. The ball was swirling around among the leaves and plastic bags all over the pitch, and it seemed like the horror was continuing when MK Dons - actually, I can't continue to call them that - when Franchise FC took an early lead - a well-taken lob over the Charlton 'keeper. But Charlton equalised almost immediately, and the rest of the first half was a great game to watch, with both teams committed to attack, and the uncertainty caused by the wind just adding to the fun. Charlton took the lead on 21 minutes with a fine header by Nicky Bailey, and the score at half-time could easily have been much higher.

Paul Ince escorted the referee off the pitch, moaning about penalties he thought his side should have been given. Pointless, of course. He'd have been better off exploiting the sense of grievance within the team to bring out a stronger performance. But the second half was all Charlton's. Commitment and confidence grew and 12 minutes in the middle of the half saw Charlton take an unassailable lead. Bailey took increasing control of the game, and was undoubtedly man of the match.

Franchise FC are probably everyone's second most hated team, so it was especially good that this return to form should come against them.

03 November 2009

Coming soon, to a constituency near you

Just finishing Roy Porter's Flesh in the Age of Reason and found this nugget.

Thomas Love Peacock's novel Melincourt (1817) features a character called Sir Oran Haut-Ton (say it out loud).
This higher primate has been taught to dress in human clothes, and despite - or rather precisely because of - being utterly silent, Sir Oran makes an impeccable backbench Tory MP.
But, seriously, just imagine the quality of some of the Tory MPs who'll make it into parliament next year. All the useless second sons and brothers-in-law, who've been given seats presumed unwinnable to keep them quiet or return a favour, will just have to turn up in a blue rosette to get elected.  They'll make Jim Dowd look like Abraham Lincoln.

02 November 2009

Simply racist

I was talking to a friend on Friday night and was astonished to find that she thought the BNP's definition of British is the same as hers. She considers herself British, and so does everyone else apart from the far right. The BNP has clearly failed to get its message across, so I have to do it for them.

Here's what the BNP's website says:

(a) The British National Party is a party of British Nationalism committed to the principle of national sovereignty in all British affairs. It is pledged to the restoration of the unity and integrity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It believes that the indigenous peoples of the entire British Isles, and their descendants overseas, form a single brotherhood of peoples, and is pledged therefore to adapt or create political, cultural, economic and military institutions with the aim of fostering the closest possible partnership between these peoples.
(b) The British National Party stands for the preservation of the national and ethnic character of the British people and is wholly opposed to any form of racial integration between British and non-European peoples. It is therefore committed to stemming and reversing the tide of non-white immigration and to restoring, by legal changes, negotiation and consent, the overwhelmingly white make up of the British population that existed prior to 1948.

It's hardly hidden away. There it is, in the statement of principles. The BNP wants to restore the overwhelmingly white make up of the British population, by 'legal changes, negotiation and consent'. That means, of course, that a lot of non-white people will have to stop living in Britain.

Someone always says, at this point, that if the government was willing to pay for them to go and live in the West Indies, they'd do it. But we would be talking about millions of people being paid to leave. And where would they go? My friend has no obvious place to go: her background is complicated, and her home is here. The cost of facilitating such a mass migration would be crippling - not just in the funding of the programme but in the consequences for the depopulated country left behind.

And what about mixed-race children? Presumably, they'll have to go too, as products of some 'form of racial integration between British and non-European peoples".

Basically, the aim of restoring the overwhelmingly white make up of the population by negotiation and consent is not a serious political proposal. It's an outright expression of racism.

And what happens when people don't agree to leave: when 'negotiation and consent' fail, what are the 'legal changes' that could be introduced? How can you possibly reduce the number of unwanted people in a country if they don't want to leave or there's nowhere for them to go? The answer's too horrible to consider. The BNP's constitution only offers protection to 'British people'. And that doesn't include my friend.

The BNP is founded on this simple racist principle: that white people are better and non-white people should have no rights in this country. We need to remember that. Beneath the sweaty, gross, slightly ridiculous public image, there's something much much worse.

28 October 2009

Circulation of Blood

Who discovered the circulation of the blood? If you're British, you probably think it was William Harvey (in 1616, you might add, if you're feeling show-offy). If you're Swiss or Spanish, though, you may not need telling it was Miguel Serveto (Michael Servetus), in 1553. I'm grateful to Samia Hurst (the French-speaking bio-ethicist whose blog I follow with bewildered fascination) for her post yesterday, marking the anniversary of his death by fire at the command of John Calvin. If you can read French, go and have a look, but in any case, check out his wikipedia entry. What a life! And what a wonderful advert for atheism. Obviously one of the smartest men of his age, he ended up sentenced to death by both protestants and catholics. And in the middle of it he made the discovery of pulmonary circulation, but because it was published in a book full of heresy (excellent firewood!) all but three copies were lost.

So we can continue to feel some patriotic pride in Harvey's discovery.

24 October 2009

Dreaming of work

This is a post about a dream I had last night. I state this as fair warning. Look away now, is the best advice.

Simply, the dream was that I was back at work, and that my desk was piled up with all the work I left behind three weeks ago, as if they were expecting me to come back and finish it. I felt really anxious about this.

OK. That's it. As dreams go, not very interesting for me, the dreamer, or for you, the tellee. But not very embarassing either. Quite obvious in its meaning: I'm just about coming to the end of the time a holiday might last; I need to decide inside if I'm going back to that job or not. It still feels as if I could turn up on Monday and say, hi, I'm back, how've you been? Obv, that's not going to happen, and dreams like this are part of interiorising that.

Also, I suppose, there's a statement that I believe they won't be able to manage without me. A wish that someone will say how indispensable I was. In reality, of course, they're more likely to shout at me for all the shit I left behind. That's the main reason I don't plan to go to the office anytime soon.

17 October 2009

Charlton 2 Huddersfield 1

The first chilly day of the season, and a cracking game. Huddersfield were a delight to watch - totally committed to going forward, even before they went behind (to a headed goal by Sam Sodje from a really badly defended corner) after 7 minutes. It looked like it might be a high-scoring game, but although that didn't really happen, it could have. Huddersfield were always keen to try a speculative shot, and both sides had chances. They equalised (with a brilliantly taken freekick) shortly before half-time, and the second half saw Semedo on to strengthen midfield. Almost instant result, with Macleod scoring within five minutes. After that it was a flowing, open game, certainly the best this season.

Despite the referee. He was really hopeless. Huddersfield's goal - although they deserved it - came from a completely invisible foul, while other fouls were completely missed.

No home league game now for a month.

12 October 2009

Brain of Britain


I've just seen that the new series of BoB starts on R4 this afternoon, and it's being chaired by Russell Davies. That's bad news because it must mean Robert Robinson is even more indisposed than he was last year, when he seemed immobile and frail, like an elderly Davros.

It's just over a year since my first, and probably only appearance on BoB. Robinson was in position before we went into the theatre, and we were told he would go straight home in a taxi after the audience had left. He was just like he's always been, prone to erudite rambling. In the heat before mine a blind contestant mumbled his answer, and Robinson cupped his hand to his ear to encourage him to speak up.

I decided BoB was not for me after a string of questions I neither knew nor cared about. Who's Westminster Abbey dedicated to? Name one interesting fact about golf. And the killer was to give the name of the tidal current in Japan, which literally means 'black tide'. I thought those cunning Japanese might have given it a French name - marée noire - to fox their enemies. The fact that it's the only translation of black tide I can think of also played a part.

I'm glad Robert Robinson did host it, though. His style is part of a disappearing world. And I hope that, however unwell he may be, he's still in fine pedantic form.

11 October 2009

Charlton 0 Oldham 0

One thing I've rarely discussed in these post-relegation football posts is the quality of refereeing outside the premiership. First the good: there's a healthy absence of ego. Few games are ruined by a referee wishing to be the star of the show. The worst-refereed game I've seen since relegation from the Prem was two years ago, when a prem referee - slumming it, and obviously not liking it - managed to give out 10 yellow cards in a far from dirty game, but completely missed the foul that put Todorov out for the rest of the season. We won't forget that, Rob Styles, should we ever meet again.

But the bad is that sometimes some absolute howlers are made. Even if they don't affect the outcome, even if they are balanced out, they destroy your faith in the officials. Yesterday's referee, G Horwood, and his officials were in that category. Some utterly capricious refereeing means that no-one quite knows what rules apply.

It wouldn't have made a difference. Oldham were appallingly negative, playing for the draw from the start. They just decided to soak up Charlton's possession play, which they did very well, helped by the weakness of Charlton's front line. Shelvey really seems to have lost the plot at present, playing much too deep rather than keeping on a fairly tight radius off Burton. Also, for some reason he's still the principal dead ball player, although Nick Bailey seems much more dangerous. Izale Macleod came on in the second half, to miss two fairly straightforward chances.

Definitely two points dropped rather than one gained, but it shows that Charlton need to have a strategy for this kind of game: when you're totally on top in midfield but can't convert it into goals, what you gonna do? Clearly, what's needed is to put more players forward, but if even Shelvey isn't getting in dangerous positions, the goals aren't going to come.

06 October 2009

Charlton 4 Barnet 1

Charlton's PR team did their best, selling this as a historic match, the first time Charlton have played in the Johnstones Paint Trophy, but it didn't really work. Less than 5000 turned up, including a small but noisy band of Barnet brothers, who kept singing till the end, to their enormous credit. And their team wasn't bad. They took the lead after 12 minutes and it seemed that Charlton's inability to do anything in any cup was present again. The team was quite experimental, and you could see there wasn't the understanding between players that was so marked in the early games of the season. Anyway, we prevailed, and while the scoreline is flattering, the win was well-deserved. As always, other blogs will give a more detailed report of the game.

I specialise in mood and atmosphere, and I found the game hard to follow simply because I was sitting in a different position from usual - still in the West Stand but close to the south end. The PA is barely audible there, there was really bad internet reception on my phone, and a group of North Stand refugees behind us were chanting throughout the match with their usual lack of wit (but with admirable stamina).

But the benefits of a small crowd became apparent after the match. I'd driven, for the first time in ages, and parked easily reasonably close to the ground. And lack of traffic meant I was home half an hour after the final whistle. Let's not get promoted, huh?

Bread


Just look at this: fresh bread from my oven. It's ages since I've made my own bread, but being at home all day, it's an easy thing to do, and I have to say, it's tasty. This is baked using Allinson's Seed & Grain Bread Flour so it's chewy and probably fairly healthy.

I'm having a lazy day today - and why not, after the stress of yesterday. Training a group of 25 second-tier council officers, most of whom seemed to be reluctant victims. I could sympathise; the course isn't for them, and they ought to know most of it already, being in the positions they are. 

So, what have I done today? A few emails etc, the bread of course, and I've been reading Briggflatts, Basil Bunting's verse "autobiography". He's difficult, but worthwhile, I think. It will take a few more readings before I'm really at home. Here's the second stanza:

A mason times his mallet
to a lark's twitter,
listening while the marble rests,
lays his rule
at a letter's edge,
fingertips checking,
till the stone spells a name
naming none,
a man abolished.
Painful lark, labouring to rise!
The solemn mallet says:
In the grave's slot
he lies. We rot.
Actually, I could have chosen a more cheerful extract, but I think that is typical of the simplicity of the language but the complexity of the allusions. The themes in this stanza repeat throughout the poem. It's good to be able to read something slowly, without any pressure to respond.


And I've now got very clean fingernails. (Anyone who's ever made bread will know what I mean.)


01 October 2009

Hangover

I'm currently ambling through the best-deserved hangover in my life. Last night we celebrated the early retirement of the four of us, with an absolutely brilliant party at St George's Tavern in Victoria. The place was packed and rocking, and it was good to see so many people who'd come back - often many miles. People had turned up from Ludlow, Corby, Newcastle and even Normandy! It was the best leaving party I've ever been to, and not just because it was mine. It was so great to see so many old faces and to see them having such a good time. I can't remember feeling happier - I was beaming all evening like an idiot.

Thanks to everyone who came along - I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Photos, by the way, are viewable on my facebook page.

26 September 2009

Charlton 2 Exeter 1

The kind of game that makes fans say "A win's a win", and managers say"It's sometimes important to win even if you're not playing well". By which you'll understand it wasn't pretty.

Charlton were completely dominant in the first half, but didn't really look threatening. So much possession, so many well-placed crosses, but very few clear chances. The goal, about 4 minutes before the break, was messy but at least, you thought, it means the nerves will be calmed.

And so they should have been, but in the second half, for some reason, Charlton decided to sit deep, rather than build a convincing win. It handed the initiative over to Exeter and gradually they took control, while Charlton grew disjointed. But a goal about five minutes from time seemed to have settled it: a gift from Exeter's keeper to Izale Macleod. Very near the end, Exeter scored the consolation they deserved.

Charlton will play better and lose, I'm sure of that, but they did enough to get through. Two very tough games coming up: Colchester then Leeds away, and the result of those games may be crucial for the outcome of the season.

24 September 2009

London Liter

Poster at Charing CrossSince The London Paper closed down, it's noticeable that London Lite isn't distributed any more around Charing Cross station in the evenings, presumably to encourage people to buy the Standard instead. As there's more chance of me spending the homeward journey sticking pins in my eyes, I find I now have time to read, and at present I'm reading Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth and I've written some initial thoughts on the other blog.

Meanwhile, someone at Charing Cross has come over all passive-aggressive. It really is the kind of notice you'd expect to find in a shared student kitchen, and that use of the phrase 'high proportion of persons' entirely gives away the character of the designer of the poster. I've nothing against stopping smoking in the station, but this is ugly and mean.

21 September 2009

Thank you, colleagues. Can I go now?

Today saw the official speeches and presentation to mark my leaving (I still find it impossible to call it retirement). Never mind that I've got a week to go, it happened today because J, my fellow leaver, won't be back. I'm in denial about that because I really will miss her. She's one of the first people I met when I started this job, and she's been the ideal example of a good worker and a good colleague. She's the kind of person who ought to get a speech of thanks by management every year. I hope she wasn't surprised by the warmth and respect that was shown to her today. I can't think of anyone I've ever worked with who is so loved by her colleagues.

As for me, I've got a big card full of warm wishes and a new camera. It's tiny but lovely, a Canon Ixus 95. Well done, Tom, taking the hint that my Amazon wishlist might be a good place to look! According to the specification, this camera is cleverer than me. It can recognise faces. Good, maybe it can tell me who the person on the train tomorrow is, the one I will be sure I've met before. It can eliminate shake, detect blinking, and focus automatically. That's more than I can do most days.

17 September 2009

Ramada

Training yesterday in the Ramada Hotel, near Maidstone. Effective complaint handling for a group of children's services managers from Kent County Council. It's not a course I've done very often, and the case study is still really unfamiliar to me, and horribly complicated. I always feel a bit inadequate, since the participants all know much more about the subject than I do. So I end up flattering them shamelessly. Which works. I had brilliant feedback, maybe the best ever, and a fantastic quote for our publicity: something like "Not over-theoretical but grounded in reality and experience". Which is exactly our USP.

I'll really miss the training sessions, probably more than any other part of the job. To my surprise, it turns out I really love being the centre of attention, having a room full of people looking at me, hanging on my every word, occasionally laughing when I want them to. It makes it easy to understand the addiction and madness of stand-up comics: the buzz of it is like a drug but it can disappear so quickly that there's always a huge vulnerability. It also makes me annoyed with people who think it's easy to engage an audience. It isn't - it takes practice and "reality and experience". I remember the destruction of Johnny Vaughan's comic talent on The Big Breakfast where he was furnished with an audience of runners and technicians who laughed at everything he said as if their jobs depended on it. It ruined a real talent. He never developed connection and timing. The comparison is stretched, but comedians can't improve if they never face a hostile audience. I've been training for about three years, and I'm still learning how to do it.

I've one more session booked, the first of the ones I'm intending to do as free-lance. It's on 5 October, and it's in Slough. How can I possibly get through that day without mentioning David Brent? I won't take my guitar.

16 September 2009

How to react?

Just talked to an elderly neighbour who I haven't seen for a few years. She used to talk incessantly about cats. But today this:
"My husband died on the first of the month ..."
"Oh I'm sorry ..."
"He wasn't ill. No. He had high blood pressure inside his heart and it crumbled his heart from inside and he had a cardiac arrest. I took him in his coffee on Tuesday and there he was. Funeral on Friday. Two and a half grand."
And she walked away.

12 September 2009

Charlton 1 Southampton 1

A hot day, and a hot reception for Alan Pardew on his first appearance at the Valley since that dreadful 5-2 defeat. It's still not clear exactly what the inside story of his reign was, and why it went so bad. The obvious explanation is that he simply used too many players, never allowing any coherence to develop, but you can't help wondering if there was some touch of madness about him, which prevented him developing good relationships with some of the players. Best chant of the day was "Alan Pardew, Alan Pardew, you're not super any more!".

And his team were so dirty! Lloyd Sam was announced this morning as the player of the month in league one. Which is justified, but it makes other teams pay more attention to him. Obviously Pardew knows Sam's style of play very well, and his tactic seemed to be to foul him whenever necessary. The match was badly controlled by the referee. He did nothing to stamp on this persistent foul play, and the game got quite nasty in the second half, with five bookings.

Charlton started nervily, perhaps picking up the crowd's sense of the importance of the game. In the first half they failed to impose their midfield control and it wasn't that surprising when Southampton took the lead shortly before halftime.

The second half was entirely different. Charlton drew level with a flukey goal soon after the restart, and the confidence to keep the ball down and pass it around came back. Should have won. Two goals were ruled offside. I think the first may well have been offside, but the second looked ok to me. Hope I'll be able to see it later. And there was a reasonable appeal for a penalty.

So the 100% record has gone. OK, it had to go sometime, but I wish it hadn't been against Pardew's shower of filth. We're still top of the league, and it was encouraging that the team recovered from the setback, and was able to find its shape.

09 September 2009

The ugliness of evil

Don't ask why, but this evening I've been looking at the website of the National Front. As a result, this post includes swearing.

I didn't think the NF still existed, but it does. Its main raison d'etre these days seems to be to criticise the BNP for being a bit namby-pamby bleeding-heart libby-wibby.

The racism, the sexism, the homophobia, etc aren't surprising. Depressing, yes, but what you'd expect. And they're honest:
the National Front would halt all non-white immigration into Britain and introduce a policy of phased and humane repatriation of all coloured people currently resident here
well, honest apart from that word 'humane'. And of course that unproblematic use of the word 'coloured'. And, unsurprisingly,
The NF would repeal the laws permitting homosexuality and its promotion.
There's a policy both inhumane and unrealistic. Any incidence of homosexuality will not be permitted. So half of Shakespeare's sonnets would have to be banned. But then, he fancied a 'dark lady', so what would you expect? Probably best to ban him entirely. And Oscar Wilde, obviously. Tennyson's suspect. And Dickens - have you ever pondered the subtext of David Copperfield's infatuation for Steerforth? Ban it!

What gives me most comfort, though, is not the sheer lunacy of the policies and the mindset behind them, but the total shit of the website design. Look at it! Just look at it! (Actually, don't look at it if you're at work!) Images squeezed into distorted boxes, text that you basically can't read because of the choice of colours and background, and animated images that take you back to the 1990s. Is the NF's membership so small that it can't even recruit a half-competent designer? Well, yes.

I remember the NF march through Lewisham in 1977. The NF site says:
[The march] was violently attacked by a large mob, possibly 10,000 strong, of Red rabble. Bricks, bottles, iron railings and other missiles were hurled at the patriots marching through Lewisham but the attempt to halt the Front failed - as it always does. Over 300 Marxists were arrested but not one NF member. Again the NF smashed its way into the national headlines!
You misunderstand, dear nazis. 10,000 people turned out to oppose you because you were evil and seen as a threat. The police arrested your opponents and protected you because that's what the police were like those days. These days you're no less evil, but no-one cares. You're history. And your website, like you, is really fucking ugly.

05 September 2009

Charlton 2 Brentford 0

A lovely sunny day again, with the early kick-off bathing the West Stand in unwonted sunshine, and although this was more of a challenge than the two previous home games, it still felt comfortable and Charlton sit at the top of the league with six wins out of six. Unless Leeds win by five or more, that's where they'll be this evening.

Brentford are the best team we've seen come to the Valley this season, with a number 7, Sam Saunders, who could probably do really well in a higher division, but at times Charlton played beautiful, unstoppable football, particularly in the build up to the second goal. It was thrilling to watch the ball being passed around so fluently in the midfield, and I was already on my feet when Lloyd Sam got the ball in space and made a cool job of finishing it. He got a well-deserved standing ovation when substituted. He's in the best form of his life.

The first goal had come from Deon Burton, it was less pretty but maybe more important as it may give him more of the striker's main need - confidence. He again played well throughout as a holding forward, but needed more help from someone running off him - I mean Jonjo Shelvey, who once again was disappointing. The buzz around him can't have helped his game, but he needs to forget about it and start making a nuisance of himself around opposition defences. Too often today he gave up too early. He was replaced by Izale Macleod with 15 minutes to go, who looked very lively, causing problems by running at the defence with the ball. It's the obvious thing to do, but too rarely happens.

Robert Elliot still doesn't look quite the finished product - his control of the area at dead balls sometimes looks uncertain - but he pulled off a wonderful save shortly before the end of the match.

So, on we go. The next game is Southampton at home, which we should win. So we'll have 21 points in mid-September, and kids will be asking where's their Easter egg.

02 September 2009

Dear David Howarth, MP for Cambridge

You will shortly be approached by a loud-voiced woman who dresses a lot like Hyacinth Bucket on a visit to the John Lewis soft furnishing department. Her name is Gillian and she probably comes from Beckenham or the Hayes area. She will doubtless mention her friendship with Bill Bryson, and ask if you can help find a car-park, possibly in Wolverhampton in two weeks time. She is likely to mention that she is a life member of the National Liberal Club. That's why she is counting on your help. Thought you should know this, because, thanks to a phone call and her loud voice, the rest of the bloody train carriage she was in this morning does. Thank you.

01 September 2009

Counting down

This is not an interesting post, tbh, just one of those people write to fill in the gaps.

The countdown really has begun now: in a month's time, I'll be retired. Retired! It hardly seems possible, I hear you gasp. At last, I've started running down the workload, but there's going to be lots left over. I've got yet another complaint about what qualifies a child to be a Catholic. I am becoming an expert. So I'll tell the story of why Pope John Paul II was not a Catholic.

There's a Catholic boys' school in London that is very popular. So it gives preference to Catholic boys, and defines catholicism quite stricly according to canon law. This says that a child should take First Communion as soon as possible after they reach the Age of Reason, and that the Age of Reason is 7. So for a boy to be Catholic, he has to take First Communion before he's 8. But in Poland, they do things differently. Children don't take Communion until they are 9 or 10. The school turned down an application from a Polish boy because of this. I found out that Pope John Paul II, educated in Poland of course, had not taken Communion until he was 9 or 10. At this, the school changed its mind.

But they were right. Canon Law seems really clear on this, and it's universal: local Churches really shouldn't change it. So the Pope was not a Catholic. Most of Poland - which you'd assume to be the most Catholic country in Europe - isn't.

Second reason for celebration is Charlton's successful passage through the transfer window. No important players going and a little bit of back-up coming in. Since my last post, the winning streak has gone up to five games - Charlton's best ever start to a season. (Last season, they didn't record their fifth win until January!) And the next two games (home to Brentford and Southampton) look entirely winnable. It's utterly bizarre and intoxicating.

22 August 2009

Charlton 2 Walsall 0

Another comfortable win. In fact it got a bit boring towards the end. Am I supporting the same club who caused me such misery last year? Shouldn't complain, of course, and it was a lovely warm - even hot - afternoon, with the heat affecting some of the players. Is the whole division as bad as Wycombe and Walsall? There really seems to be a huge gap in quality between the standard in this league and the Championship. Or maybe it's that Charlton still have some players of more or less premiership standard. Again, Charlton should have won by more, but it was a delight to watch a lot of the midfield play today. Jose Semedo was outstanding. Apparently Ray Wilkins was at the game scouting Jonjo Shelvey, but he had a quiet game, with a couple of moments of simple misjudgement.

The away support was the sparsest I've seen at the Valley - maybe 150 made the journey.

The goals were scored by Lleira (a messy scramble after a free kick) and Scott Wagstaff, about a minute after coming on as a sub for a clearly peeved Lloyd Sam, who had once again looked like he was enjoying himself.

And to top the day off, on the DLR from Greenwich to Lewisham I got the driver's seat. It was a day when nothing went wrong.

17 August 2009

Misogyny watch

Back to Victoria Coren again. And, before it's deleted, a reader's response to her column in Sunday's Observer. The column was about women's propensity to cry and how to deal with this positively. Funny and well-written as always, but as one commenter pointed out, it could almost be a trap set for misogynists. It took him a while but at 7:38pm - nearly a whole day after publication - someone called YCC1953 offered this:
I realize this whole article was an exercise in clever writing. More form then content. (I'll bet MS. Coren chuckled to herself all the while typing away at her oh so superior non-goldfish intelect) However, comparing someones intelligence to a goldfish isn't the same as comparing their memory to that of a goldfish........one is funny, the other is insulting and if a man had said it would be outrageous, ......you have a memory like a goldfish because you have a lot of other things going on in there and not because you don't have the smarts.
Damn you and your clever writing, Coren! And how dare you insult goldfish? (I think that's what he's trying to say). How does one type away at one's intellect, by the way?

And then this:
why do you even bother to get boob jobs and wear tight clothes? you want to attract men only to belittle them and tell them how useless they are.....
Quite moving, really. There's a lot of pain there. Part of me wants to give him a manly hug, call him 'mate' and say 'Mate. Mate. It'll pass. You will love again.' But most of me just wants to point and laugh.

I was going to include a quote from Jake Thackray. In researching it, I found he died nearly seven years ago. How did I miss that? Anyway, here's the quote, mixing a misogyny that was probably partly real with a wit and brilliance that buys a lot of forgiveness:
Please understand I respect and admire the frailer sex
And I honour them every bit as much as the next
misogynist

08 August 2009

Charlton 3 Wycombe Wanderers 2

The new season started with many of the features of last. The first half was a bit like a training game, Charlton playing the ball around nicely, and totally dominating, but lacking that final killer element. Had a two goal lead after 35 minutes but then Llera went off with a head injury and Charlton began to play a defensive game, trying to hold the position until halftime. OH FOR GOD'S SAKE CHARLTON CAN'T DEFEND DON'T EXPECT THEM TO DO THIS FOR TEN WHOLE MINUTES WITH A PLAYER MISSING. Thirty seconds before bandaged Llera came back, Wycombe scored the goal that got them back into the game, when they should have been buried.

The second half started well with the two goal advantage restored after 4 minutes. With half an hour to go, Parkinson made two substitutions: Andy Gray and Izale Macleod on for Lloyd Sam and Deon Burton, who'd both been playing pretty well. After that the team just seemed to lose any pattern, and it was desperate defending by Charlton most of the time, during which Wycombe got a second goal - gleefully running through a disappearing defence. The referee sent himself off for the last ten minutes or so. Someone suggested he'd realised this probably wasn't the job for him, but he pretended to have cramp or a pull, and strapped ice to his thigh.

So what should have been a routine win - against what surely will be one of the worst sides in the Division - turned out to be nailbitingly tense.

First impressions of this year's team are that we've held on to more of the good players than I feared, and some of them - Bailey, Shelvey, Sam, Semedo - should really be looking forward to enjoying themselves at this level. Lleira is big but slow. Richardson, the new right back, looked generally OK. The most annoying player was Kelly Youga. He's enormously gifted but has terrible lapses in concentration. The substitutions look like a mistake; but how can changing two attackers for two attackers make your defence turn into toddlers?

The materials are there for a promotion challenge, mostly - the biggest lack is cover in the centre of defence - but Parkinson still needs to do work on the basics, like concentration.

As for Wycombe. They looked fairly clueless in the first half, but Charlton specialise in making bad teams look dangerous. Their support was disappointing: they didn't fill the south end, and you'd think that their first game at this level in a ground that's not so far away would be a bigger draw than it turned out to be. But then, it's only Wycombe ... probably half the population of the town was at the Valley today.

07 August 2009

Fair's fair

Christina Martin has name-checked me in her blog today. That's nice of her, but that's not the best reason for looking at the blog. She's now officially one of this blog's funny people - and has replaced The Onion in the list over there --> The Onion's stopped being funny again (I think) but Christina hasn't. She casts a strangely loving eye over the absurdities of fairly low-rent media - shopping channels on tv, cheap magazines, trash tv - and has a smart way of captioning them: "the potential jealousy of a dead mouse" is possibly something you never considered before. She's equally aware of the absurdities of various religious beliefs and practices, perhaps slightly less lovingly. Anyway - take a look.

05 August 2009

A Mug's Game

With the new football season close, it's time to start thinking about betting. So I'll be recording my progress here.

First thing to say is I'm not betting on Charlton's prospects in Division 3. There's too much I don't know, about the opposition (where is Hartlepool anyway?) and even more so about Charlton (who are those people on the pitch? where's Jonathan bloody Fortune? who owns us this week?).

So my first bet is sticking with what I know: underperforming First Division teams. And I've seen that on Betfair I can get 89/1 against Tottenham being relegated. That's mad. Of course, they won't get relegated, but there's sure to be a bad patch in their season when those odds will shrink like a scrotum on a frosty rugby pitch. So I've put on £6 at those odds. I just have to wait till the odds come in to something like 30/1 and I can lay them for a guaranteed profit.

Of course, it's possible that Spurs will have a blistering start to the season and be ten points clear by the end of November. It's possible but ... ha ha ha. And even if that happens, the most I can lose is an ailing calamari.

27 July 2009

Quiz night

Monday night is quiz night for the BBC, radio and television. After Eggheads at 6, there was the first programme of a new quiz, Knowitalls. A weird format, which I don't think I like. Two teams have to parade their knowledge of specialist subjects in front of a third panel of experts, who give them points, on what seems to be a largely subjective basis. So, someone had to talk about the Battle of Hastings. They got points for mentioning the Bayeux tapestry, because it was on the secret list, but also got points for other facts that their expert found interesting. Also got points in the last second for saying 'the Conqueror' but had not got them when simply saying William I. Apart from the subjectivity of the scoring, the big problem with the concept seems to be the limited opportunities for joining in at home. In one round, contestants have to produce a 'killer fact' about a given subject. This about electricity was quite rightly given nothing: electricity can be produced by magnetism, just as magnetism can produce electricity. The panel members are given hilarious things to say, seemingly written by the people who write the gags for the Strictly Come Dancing panel. Eg, after a round on Darwin, someone (I'll name names, it was Gyles Brandreth) quipped "Were those answers fit for purpose?" There also seems to be a studio audience. Poor sods.

Then on Radio 7, a repeat of Who Goes There? an understandably forgotten offering from Radio 4's 6:30 slot. Hosted by Martin Young - who I've a feeling I was at school with - it makes Quote Unquote look effortlessly witty and humble. And it features Fred Housego. I used to sympathise with him: the patronising he had to endure when he dared to win Mastermind would have unhinged anyone - but he soon became a caricature of the can't-shut-him-up cabbie.

Now University Challenge, with Clare Cambridge v Jesus Oxford. Clare's a lovely college, so I'm supporting them (and they're losing, because they are hopeless but quite sweet). Which will be followed by the best quiz on TV, Only Connect. Have I mentioned I was on it once? We were that close to getting through to the second round (where we'd have been hammered, but still).

22 July 2009

Surprisingly close

From March to June, time moved so slowly. It seemed like my leaving would never arrive. And at that time the amount of work coming in was so reduced, it was almost too quiet. But now, here I am, just over two months away from my early retirement, my self-inflicted poverty. Things are moving. I've got too much work. I won't be able to finish it. My colleague, J, frets about this. She's nicer than me, and worries about what she'll leave behind. Me, I'll just be happy to leave it.

We've arranged the leaving party - a room in a pub on 30 September, the exact and obvious date to choose. And I've booked virtually every Monday until then as leave, to use it up, but also to give me a taste of not-working.

On Friday I'm going to a pre-retirement course. Organised by some people called Laterlife, which sounds like the provisional wing of Senilitas. I'm dreading/hoping that everyone else will be much older than me, and talking about their plan to move to Spain, to get away from all the foreigners. Me saying, no actually I want more time to appreciate the innacity life, innit.

The course, funnily enough, is at UCL, so I've been provok'd to look again at the MA syllabus in Comparative Literature. It's got me wishing I'd gone for it this year. The best, most exciting, bit is the course on translation studies. I was talking about this to someone at work who clearly didn't see how translation could be contentious - for him, it was straightforward, a matter of knowledge and skill. Just reading the syllabus, I can see how it's much more than that, even beyond the concerns I have as a reader. This part of the course is the one where education is valuable for showing you what you don't know.

And also, I noticed in the marking scheme that this gets a pass mark:

The piece of work is relevant, shows signs of understanding, but nevertheless a rather thin or incomplete grasp of the material. There is little independent thought, ideas are not always well expressed, and the structure is deficient at some levels. The bibliography is rather thin, or inconsistent, or incomplete.

I think I can aspire to that.

Someone asked me today if I had had any second thoughts. I can honestly say, and I honestly said, that I really haven't. Given my genetic inheritance, I need to get my retirement done before I'm 65, and even if, by happy mischance, I live longer than that I can do it. Even if, eventually, my house is all tied up in equity release schemes. Sorry, nieces and nephew.

18 July 2009

Phèdre at the National Theatre

Mixed feelings about this. I was really keen to see a production of Racine - any play, any language - but this seemed like neither one thing nor the other. It had the simplicity of staging you'd expect: some generic palace imagery, set against a cliff face and the suggestion of rough sandy beach and sea, furnished with a few chairs of a design that suggests classical simplicity combined with wealth. Similarly the costumes were a bit generic - avoiding any specific period, but allowing, for example, the concept of "army warrior" to be easily connoted. Nothing wrong with the physical action, either, although I thought the public displays of affection between Aricia and Hippolytus went too far. I mean that they made her character too readable, in a way that the text doesn't entirely support, and that they certainly would not have happened on the stage in Racine's time (that's not so serious a concern).

The main problem was that this largely immaculately faithfully racinian staging was allied to a script, and a performance of the script, that was (inevitably) very shakespearian in its imagery and rhythm. It would be foolish to expect a translation to use alexandrines, but some equivalent of the formality and legacy present in alexandrines would be appropriate. At times, there seemed to be echoes of alliterative verse, but mainly the words were sadly lacking in any music. Actually, shakespearian is wrong. It was much more formless than that. I'll be commenting further on translation issues in the other blog.

So my general feeling is let down. Add to that the fact that the amount of coughing in the theatre made it feel like a swine flu party for the literati, and I'm sorry to say it was an underwhelming night out.

11 July 2009

Transparency

Maybe I'm turning into the kind of old git I hate but I'm not going to let this go. It's about MPs and their expenses again. They are pretending, eventually, to be transparent but Jim Dowd is only transparent in the sense that he's invisible. Both his and Bridget Prentice's website now have a heading for "MPs' expenses". Inevitable, I suppose, but still rubbish. As before, Bridget is slightly less rubbish than Jim. Click on Jim's page, here's what you get. A link to the index on the Parliament website, not even to Jim's own expenses. Meanwhile Bridget offers this. Again, it's better than Jim, but to describe this as "details" is stretching it, and she also includes a link to the Parliament site.

Neither of them has bothered to offer any kind of comment on the recent controversy. So we can assume that both of them don't care that the reputation of MPs is now so low that estate agents feel like human beings in comparison.

It's a variation of the Mandelson paradox (if he's such a wiz at PR, why does everyone hate him?). If New Labour is really all about presentation over content, why are these two consummately New Labour MPs so bad at presenting themselves?

04 July 2009

Married to Tmob

I posted earlier about a phantom order of a Blackberry Curve and you'd have assumed it was all sorted. But it wasn't. Soon after that, the charge for the new line appeared on my bill. So I wrote to tmob pointing this out and asking them to remove it. Got the reply saying we'lll answer in five days, but they didn't and the line was on the next bill too, so I emailed again and got the same acknowledgement. But no reply. Until Wednesday, when I noticed tmob had tried to call me while I was training the good folk of Ashford in complaint handling. And then yesterday, I got the substantive reply. Although the Curve was apparently despatched, and the Post Office have a signature for it - but not mine, I muttered - they have cancelled everything and will refund the payments. Good. It's almost an exemplary response to a complaint, including an apology and recognition of me as a "valued customer", which may be autotext, but is true. The only problem is the delay, so in my reply, accepting the resolution, I couldn't help advising them to change the wording of the "five days" acknowledgment. I didn't even charge them a consultancy fee for doing this.

I've now got my share of the quiz booty. The prizes were two £50 theatre vouchers, four free Picturehouse cinema entries, and five books on film published (and presumably donated) by the BFI. I've taken the books, leaving the other four to share the vouchers among themselves. The books are:
In the Realm of the Senses a film guide by Joan Mellen
The Films of Nicholas Ray by Geoff Andrew
Hollywood Abroad: Audiences and Cultural Exchange
Fashioning Film Stars: Dress, Culture, Identity
Luchino Visconti by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith

A good evening's work!

01 July 2009

Age and guile

Age and guile, said P J O'Rourke, stealing and perverting an Indian proverb, beat youth, innocence, and a bad haircut. How true, especially on Tuesday night, when the star-studded Ombudsman team triumphed in the Suzy Lamplugh Trust summer quiz. The quiz was held in the students' bar of Chelsea College of Art and Design, and the majority of the teams seemed to be of student age. So we felt really old and probably looked, to the kids around us, even older. It was a bit of a trouncing tbh. First up, we won the spot prize for listing the 20 best-selling singles artists in Britain up to 2004. We got 14, which was more than anyone else, and so won a bottle of House of Commons whisky (which will presumably turn up on some MP's expense claim). Then James got second prize in the raffle - a load of West Wing DVDs. And then we won the quiz itself, and the prizes were astonishing, I think. But Keith took them away for safe-keeping and I haven't seen him or them since. A very well organised quiz, and it was good to be in a student bar, where a bottle of decent white wine was just £7.50. Celebrated in the White Swan afterwards, so home just after midnight.

Then an early start today, to get to Ashford for training. Went by train, for all the usual reasons, but as it's in Kent, it's a two-hour journey (I could easily do it in one hour by car, but couldn't use the laptop.) The course wasn't great, but nowhere near the horror of the Luton experience. A really difficult start when, in the "tell us about your complaint making experience" a delegate gave such a moving and inspiring personal story, that no-one dared follow it with a whinge about a mobile phone company. But as usual the case study got everyone going after lunch. But so hot! By the end of the day I had almost forgotten how to talk, and the fact that no-one fell asleep was a major achievement.

I must have travelled on the Catford-Sevenoaks line many times. It offers a fantastic view of the Darenth Valley, one of the most underrated bits of England. But today for the first time, I noticed an obelisk on the railway cutting just this side of Swanley. Turns out it's a coal tax post, a relic of the City of London's system of taxing coal imported into the city. It had the same function as the more mundane looking road posts (a near example being in Leaves Green, near Biggin Hill). Actually the real explanation is quite a disappointment, but one could speculate as to why the railway coal tax posts were given this mysterious and evocative form. Second speculation of the day: why are there five railway tracks through Headcorn station? But that's not really very interesting.

Anyway it's now Wednesday evening. The air is cooling but still sticky. I am tired, as usual after a day trying to get people to feel enthusiastic about complaints. And I have the day off tomorrow!

Jerry Springer moment: Please support the Suzy Lamplugh Trust in any way you can: it's still doing important work. And if you ever work on your own, make sure you follow basic safety rules. And always remember that your life is more important than your job.

19 June 2009

Look at my lovely laptop

Last year I poured thousands of bathroom pounds into the local economy, but it still didn't prevent the recession. So I shouldn't claim that my purchase yesterday of a new laptop is going to turn things around. But it may make me happier. Here's a review of it; it's an Acer Aspire Timeline 3810T. It has two amazing features. First it's less than 2.5cm thick when folded. That's thinner than most books! Second, it has a claimed battery life of up to 8 hours. And I've read reviews that say this is true.

So that's long enough for any sensible train journey, or even a flight, if I did that sort of thing. At the moment I'm in Catford library using the free wifi to download OpenOffice. That's one of the weak points of the deal - it comes with very little software.

And I have rejoined the library - in preparation for my life as an old git. The wifi is slower than I hoped, possibly it's very heavily contended, so it's predicting 30 minutes still to go of the huge download. Opposite me a young black woman is studying accountancy and occasionally slumping into sleep, unsurprisingly. She's pretty, and on top of the heap of books is a copy of The Pink Paper, which I'm guessing is there to fend off unwanted attention. If only it was a copy of Which Older Man?.

It has struck me how little time I spend in Catford other than in my house. I never shop here, for example, or go to one of the many inviting pubs. And just down the road in Lewisham, there's been a rare example of wit from a W H Smith employee.

18 June 2009

Jim Dowd and Petty Cash

A pretty good name for a country and western duo, don't you think?

Now that Parliament has "published" "details" of MPs' "expenses", we can have a better look at what Jim Dowd's been up to. Sorry, Jim, but it still is very boring. The main itemised expenditure is on his mobile phone (because clearly he would not have had a mobile phone if he had not been an MP) his ISP (Madasafish, as it happens, because, as we've seen, he's on the cutting edge of tinternet), and a large amount of expenditure on printer toner. (Actually, his mobile phone bills are really low. Does he have no friends?)

But every month without fail he spent £250 on "petty cash". Is it a coincidence that this is exactly the amount an MP can claim without evidence? There's absolutely no clue what this petty cash was spent on. And Jim might argue that he's followed the rules. He may even argue that he probably spent more than £250 a month on petty cashy things, whatever they are. But I don't suppose he knows.

To a cynic - and I wasn't always a cynic, honest - it looks as if he's basically added £3,000 a year (after tax) to his salary. Nice one, Jim.

Do they all do this? Bridget Prentice, my other non-existent MP, hasn't made a regular claim for petty cash. She also (as far as I remember) hasn't claimed for her mobile phone or internet connection.

At the last election, I broke the habit of a lifetime and didn't vote labour, because of Iraq and the assaults on civil liberties, etc, and because Jim had done nothing nothing nothing to object to these things. I'm increasingly glad I did that.

Even when he's (possibly) abusing the system, he does it with a complete lack of flair and style. He'll probably slip under the radar, get elected again next year, and carry on doing the nodding dog act, only this time in opposition.

14 June 2009

True confessions

Some throwback of religious feeling in me must be at work. It's Sunday morning, so time to confess two shameful secrets.
Picture of Caroline Flint

1. In spite of, well, everything I still find Caroline Flint very attractive. Look at that lovely face, that faraway look, that beautiful shiny shiny hair. Mmm.

2. A decent interval has passed, so I think I can get away without being lynched when I say that I couldn't stand Clement Freud on Just a Minute. I'm sure what he did was clever, but it wasn't funny. An example of someone persisting in rubbish so long they earned national treasure status. (See also, not that far away, Nicholas Parsons.)

Now, to act out an even older ritual, I'm going to have a bath.

10 June 2009

All's Well That Ends Well

It must be summer because I've been to the theatre. As previewed at the weekend, it was to see All's Well That Ends Well at the National Theatre.

Some very positive comments to make. First, the design and the staging were great. Rhoda Koenig in the Independent curiously attacked these as if they were some kind of dressing-up, to disguise the difficulties of the play. In fact the use of costumes and imagery from different eras, and the pervasive use of fairy-tale motifs is inherent to the reading of the play: you can't take it as realist in any sense. Helena, the central character, is sometimes Cinderella, sometimes Red Riding-hood, sometimes Patient Griselda. The play, in this production, can be seen as a meditation on the various roles women can take in the world.

Other positives: a lot of the jokes worked. The character of Parolles really fitted in well, despite some over-playing, as a foil to the story of Bertram. His character reminded me of Lucio in Measure for Measure - clearly immoral but with important lessons to impart, and a joie de vivre to be envied. Some very good acting in some minor roles. Good music.

Any negatives, I think, stem from the fact that the play can't really work these days. The main reason, as I suggested earlier, is the character of Bertram. In this production his callowness is emphasised, but that only adds to the mystery of why Helena should fancy him. The Parolles subplot fatally undermines any moral standing he has. Even in the final scene, he lies and lies and lies until he can't get away with it any more. The King forgives him. As in a lot of late Shakespeare there's a clear longing for reconciliation, but it isn't worked through. The text doesn't provide any justification for it, and this production can't. In earlier times, perhaps Bertram's reported military achievements would earn respect. But that doesn't work nowadays. Instead, as Billington says, the closing tableaux reflect an air of perplexity: what the hell's just happened? That may be the only reaction we can have to this play these days.

09 June 2009

My new MP does not exist

Picture of Bridget Prentice
It was probably a waste of time to have a go at Jim Dowd the way I did. Because of boundary changes he's only my MP until the next general election, when my address becomes part of Lewisham East. I doubt if this will boost the value of my property.

So, what of the sitting MP in Lewisham East, Bridget Prentice? She's got a website but doesn't know how to use it, it seems. The main story on the home page says that "on Friday night I informed a packed meeting of Labour Party members of my decision to stand down at the next election" but there's no hint of when this particular Friday night was.

If you dig around, you find that she has a column called "Letter from Lewisham", which is nice. But the most recent entry is dated 1 December 2008 (and ironically headed "Fresh Hope"). Actually, the story itself is encouraging: she helped get the Forced Marriage Act through parliament, and it's clear it means a lot to her. She's rightly proud of her part in it. But nothing since then.

There's an odd page called "Have your say" where three people have left questions - the most recent in May this year - but no-one has provided an answer.

The biography page's most recent information is that on 9 May - what year? it doesn't say, but it was 2007 - she was "appointed as Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the department for Constitutional Affairs (now The Ministry of Justice)".

The latest press release is an interview with the Mercury from 24 October 2007.

A really random photo gallery includes a picture of someone called Josh Beasley in his vest for no apparent reason.

The "Publications and Speeches" page also seems to have run out of steam in 2007, as does the Video page.

So, not quite as bad as Jim, but similarly one is left with the impression that she really doesn't care any more. I suppose, to her credit, she did seem to care once, unlike Jim. And apparently she is still Parliamentary Under-Secretary, so she's got some reward for her Jim-like devotion to the party line.

I'm writing this the day after Labour backbenchers missed the chance to strike at Gordon Brown's leadership. Some have called them cowardly. From my experience, I think they're just not interested any more. Jim might get re-elected next time - he probably will - but it won't really make any difference to him if he doesn't. Bridget's already packed her bags. If the election's a year off, she just picks up another year's salary, and, it seems, doesn't have to do that much to get it.

This has been quite a depressing exercise, but I think it demonstrates that the Blair generation of Labour MPs is completely spent now.

07 June 2009

Hooray for Saturday night telly!

My twitter bio reads "part snob, part thug: snug" and last night the snob won. Christ, saturday night telly is rubbish, innit? A new show, hosted by Graham Norton, might revive the variety format, but with guests like Lionel Richie and Boyzone, it's hardly cutting-edge. So, telly off, I read All's Well That Ends Well, which I'm going to see on Tuesday at the Nash.

It's a very rarely performed play, and I'm not sure I've ever read it before. Now that I have, I can understand why it's rarely put on. First, the language is strange: very dense and repetitive. Then there's an unfortunate amount of clowning, with the usual jokes about venereal diseases. Above all, though, when I finished the play, my first thought was "Well, that was morally repugnant."

The central character, Helena, cures the King of France's illness. In return, he gives her the young Count Bertram in marriage. He snobbishly rejects her, going through the ceremony but refusing to have sex with her. Later, she gets the chance to trick him into her bed, and at the end of the play, reveals the deception to him and he accepts her.

According to wikipedia "Victorian objections centred on the character of Helena, who was variously deemed predatory, immodest and both 'really despicable' and a 'doormat'". To get all valley girl on their ass, HELLO? Helena strikes me as a brilliant character, out to get what's due to her. And obviously far too good for Bertram, who is, to get all cockney boy on his arse, a total dickwad. So the ending, with its implied "so that's all right then", is shocking.

I'm impatient, now, to find out how the Nash production covers this. Michael Billington in the Guardian gives four stars but hardly covers this reversal. He says:
even though hero and heroine are finally united, there is a look of aghast bewilderment as they pose for the cameras.


The Times review by John Peter gives five big stars and says:
The ending, like a court scene, presided over by Oliver Ford Davies’s wise, grumpy King, leaves you with a magisterial and cunning ambiguity, a sense of the brooding openness of life, of which Shakespeare is such a master.


Which is really O Level standard analysis.
(Rhoda Koenig in the Independent, by the way, hated the production so much she barely comments on the interpretation.)

So, an evening to look forward to. And staying in snob mode, I then watched BBC2's Arena programme on T S Eliot. And realised that as snobs go, I am not fit to wipe his monocle.

[MP3 file of this post]

22 May 2009

Atheism and morality

A big title for a blog post, and you could write several books on the subject. I've been functionally an atheist for all my adult life, for the reason that unless someone can prove the existence of God - or even the logical possibility that something that can be called God exists - there's no reason to believe it. I assume most of my friends are this kind of atheist, and I'm always surprised if one of them turns out to be a believer. But if they are good people and don't try to impose their views on me or other people, I won't try to change their views.

Recently I've been mixing (on the internet) with a lot of more polemical atheists. Part of their claim is that belief and religions are not only wrong but that they have bad effects on the world. I've always thought that the world would be better if we all accepted that the quality of our existence is our responsibility: no other being is going to sort it out for us. But the better believers act as if they accepted that. Instead of praying for relief of famine and the end of nuclear weapons, they organise and campaign for those things, ready to make joint cause with those of other faiths and no faith. Would they do that if they had no faith? Probably, because, I suspect, their actions are a result of their own moral and ethical beliefs, which don't have to be founded on any religion.

When I look at the moral pronouncements of religions, though, that's when I start to worry about the evil effects of religions. I don't know of any religion that doesn't impose duties and restrictions on its adherents. Sometimes these strike me as bizarre and bizarrely trivial, such as the dietary and clothing rules of the Old Testament, which have been richly ridiculed throughout history. Apparently trivial they may be but in Judaism have been the basis for a huge industry of interpretation. To me, these merely discredit the God who is supposedly so upset by these trivialities. A god who worries if you're wearing wool and cotton together isn't a god, because that gives you the power to upset god. (I'm over-simplifying, of course.)

But then there are the bigger pronouncements that significantly affect the lives of followers. It seems to be in the nature of religion to ban homosexuality. I'm sure not all do - the liberal branch of the Church of England is at least ambivalent, for example - but even the beautiful, otherwise tolerant Bahai faith outlaws gay sex.

Of course, opinions on morality can vary. I would find it hard to share any ground with someone who wanted to ban homosexuality, but I have sympathy for advocates of veganism, for example, although not agreeing. To me they are matters of opinion. To the religious they are matters of interpretation of God's will, and so the conclusion is absolute. Adherence to the rules is a sign of belief. Discussion of the rules is only possible within the terms of the debate. So a Muslim or a Christian would always have to reconcile their position with the sacred text.

Science advanced once scientists adopted an empirical method - trusting the results of research rather than established orthodoxy. The codes of morality of the major religions have generally worked well, I'll accept that, but they restrict full and open inquiry into how we should live, just as the cosmology of Catholicism restricted and resisted the understanding of the universe.

I am naive in theology, and no doubt there are holes in this argument. But I have been prompted to write it by the revelations that have just come out of Ireland, where the religious establishment has been shown to preside over an appalling, sickening regime of abuse of children, far worse than even the strongest opponents of the Church could have imagined. The scale of the abuse is shocking enough. What's worse, what must make anyone doubt whether the Church is a benign institution, is the covering-up that went on at the time, and which continues. People who had been known to have abused children were moved from one parish to another. The institutions of the Church only agreed to cooperate with the investigation on an agreement that no individual would be named or prosecuted. The Church did a deal with the Irish government limiting its liability for paying victims compensation to 127 million euros, about a tenth of the compensation that is now considered likely to be paid. The rest will be paid by the Irish government, which means of course it will be paid by the Irish people. Is the Church now rushing forward to admit that this deal is morally wrong? Of course not.

From this side of the Irish Sea, it looks like the Irish Catholic Church is a thoroughly immoral institution.

(I recommend the reporting of this scandal in the Irish Times, a fine newspaper, and this link to a summary of the report. But be warned, it's hard to read even the summary without anger and tears.)

[Hear me read this article]