Monday, 30 April 2012

"Roy Hodgson prove us wrong" - the England fan's prayer

Roy Hodgson
It looks like the Football Association is poised to appoint the wrong man to manage the England football team.
There may be good reasons why the FA has approached Roy Hodgson and not the fans n' pundits' favourite Harry Rednapp - probably because he'll come a lot cheaper being most important.
Hodgson has the international experience which Rednapp lacks and apart from his disastrous stay at Liverpool his League cv stacks up pretty well, although he has nothing to compare with the near-miracle Rednapp has performed at Spurs.
England's football stars have a bad habit of not delivering when representing their country; the ability and application they show week in, week out for their clubs is left in the dressing room.
For whatever reason - perhaps the bolshie Old Guard or club tensions - our stars don't shine  when they have Three Lions on their shirts.
Hodgson will have to convince he has the strength of personality to weld our over-paid, under-achieving prima donnas into a national side to be proud of.
With Harry Rednapp there would be no doubt who was boss - and the likely squad recognised this and were supporting his appointment almost to a man.
Hodgson will have to prove he is equal to the task and his critics - including myself - wrong.
I hope sincerely he succeeds.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

What am I going to do when Homeland ends its run?

It occurred to me that I haven't been late out in central London at the weekend for years now.
On the few occasions which have taken me into the West End in the evening such as a theatre visit, I dine nearby before the show so I can hurry away from the centre as soon as the curtain falls.
I never really enjoyed the crowded streets of Soho and Covent Garden at night when I was young. I did my share of bars, clubs, and late-night eating; but the best times were the ones I can remember who I was with rather than where.
These days I stay local and invariably choose weekdays when going out.
This was brought home to me when I realised my Sunday nights had become linked to watching the US drama/thriller Homeland. What will I do when the series soon ends?
Don't tell me to transfer my loyalties to The Bridge on Saturday nights. The Danish/Swedish cop show has quickly tailed off; dies in fact when sociopath woman detective Saga Noren isn't on-screen.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Ideology Now - a brainstorm in Bloomsbury

I've just returned from a day-long conference Ideology Now held at the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities, which was nothing short of excellent.
For me that means my attention was always engaged and I didn't nod off once during the addresses by five pairs of speakers.
Nick Pearce and Ferdinand Mount from the left and right of politics were the best, especially as they examined the relevance of Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man in the light of current events.
The day has proven the most cerebral since I left college. But hand on heart I couldn't tell you what I've learnt. Certainly no more than the Wikipedia reference on 'Ideology' which I read in preparation.
The conclusion is either a) The conference could have done with a bit more structure, some drawing together of the various threads helpful b) Wikipedia can be very good c) My reasoning faculties are furring up.
I fear it may be the latter.

Friday, 27 April 2012

A good night in Amsterdam long, long ago

The latest step by the Dutch authorities to ban tourists from the country's cannabis-smoking coffee shops reminded me of my own night out in one such establishment in Amsterdam.
It's a good while ago now but I was already the oldest member of an overnight Press trip to Amsterdam. I can't remember the purpose of the visit but I do recall the British hacks didn't behave very well.
An early start was required the next morning so we were wined and dined at our hotel and expected to head for our rooms. Of course, as soon as our gracious hosts departed, we hit the town.
I found myself heading into the night with three other reporters in search of a coffee shop, which took only a few minutes to discover.
I wasn't the instigator of this quest but I felt grateful to have been included in the party - two men and a woman - all considerably younger than myself.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Scrap self-service checkouts - the shoplifter's friend

Self-service checkouts at supermarkets don't bother me because I refuse to use them.
No, I was once shown 'the ropes' by an assistant when purchasing a single item and quickly saw that a full basket would cause me too much aggravation.
In any case why should I get in a sweat just to boost stores' profits, while, at the same time, depriving checkout people of jobs.
Do-it-yourself checkouts are supposed to be quicker - which I doubt given the lengths of queues I've seen build up - but they are nowhere near as convenient as traditional ones. And convenience is the name of the game.
A survey of shoppers by the WatchMyWallet consumer website has found 30 per cent of those using self-service tills cheat in a variety of ways where they wouldn't at a manned checkout. Almost as many said they would but were afraid of getting caught.
The supermarkets have just been forced to put their cigarettes out of sight so as not to tempt shoppers yet are turning the population into a nation of shoplifters by making it too easy to steal other products.
So scrap self-service checkouts and use the savings from reduced pilfering and security surveillance to spend on more staff for manned tills.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Recession, totems, and polls - the Tory dilemma

As far as I can see about the only bright spot in today's news Britain has entered a double-dip recession is that the figures might be wrong.
It's true recently the Bank of England's and Office for Budget Responsibility's forecasters have been woefully over-optimistic; so there's a good chance the Office for National Statistics number-crunchers have been too pessimistic about construction output in their calculation of first quarter GDP.
But even if the figures are revised upwards later, the economy will still be no better than bumping along the bottom.
George Osborne launched his austerity programme in the expectation that significant growth would kick in somewhere along the line. That's not likely before the next General Election in 2015 for a variety of reasons - not least the erosion of our European export markets.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Labour was wrong to select Livingstone to challenge for London

Livingstone v. Johnson
With less than two weeks to go before the election for London's mayor one fact is already clear, Labour was badly mistaken in choosing Ken Livingstone as the party's candidate.
Opinion polls suggest Livingstone is only a shade behind Boris Johnson, so close to be virtually neck-and-neck.
The betting odds tell a different story. Johnson is clear odds-on favourite, currently 1-4; Livingstone is 11-4 against. Betfair comment here explains why punters are backing Johnson.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Some nipples are better than others at MailOnline

Some twisted editorial thinking - OK, it's not the first time - is at large at MailOnline. The other day it ran a story about an Oreo cookie ad showing a cute baby breastfeeding, which though never intended to be made public had gone viral on the internet.
Despite all the campaigns to encourage breastfeeding the website thought it had better protect sensitive readers and pixelated the offending nipple, as below.

But today it has no qualms about displaying a sexy, nude picture of Madonna from 1990 on the basis the photograph is coming up for auction.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Surprise yourself and take Proust's Questionnaire

Marcel Proust
Rummaging through my desk this morning I came across a six-year-old magazine cutting. I had filled in a personal survey headed The Proust Questionnaire.
I can't remember if at the time the Marcel Proust connection had registered with me, as it is explained here in Wikipedia.
I must have answered the survey at speed, because I know if I had given time to my answers the responses would have been less revealing.
Link here for Vanity Fair's list of the full questions. If you decide to print it out and complete it - do so swiftly and you might be surprised at the person it reveals.
Here is a sample of my replies that still gives me cause for thought.
Your favourite virtue...Kindness
Your favourite qualities in a man...Honesty
Your favourite qualities in a woman...Humour
Your biggest flaw...Solitariness
Your favourite occupation...Dining with my children
Your chief characteristic...Seriousness
Your idea of happiness...Dancing with a beautiful woman
Your idea of misery...Illness
Your favourite heroes in real life...Firemen
Your favourite heroines in real life...Nurses
Your favourite heroes in fiction...Sherlock Holmes
Your favourite heroines in fiction...Becky Sharp
Your pet aversion...Noise
What is your present state of mind?...Unsettled
For what fault have you the most toleration?...Failure
Your favourite motto...Ripeness is all
How would you like to die?...Suddenly

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Today's menu - a veggie curry and a Wellcome visit

Drummond Street's defenders
Usually I avoid £6-95 all you can eat buffet restaurants - except for the handful of vegetarian curry houses in Drummond Street, a stone's throw from London's Euston station.
To single one out would be unfair; perhaps it's the competition but each maintain a high standard, which puts ritzier establishments to shame.
You can eat a la carte or dine in the restaurants that cater for meat eaters. Drummond Street is home too for Asian sweets and spices shops.
For the time being that is; the future for Drummond Street is uncertain.
It may be swept away in the plans to build a high-speed rail link from Euston to Birmingham, as this story in the online edition of the excellent Camden New Journal explains.

Friday, 20 April 2012

David Cameron's stand-up routine is comic

I'm all in favour of educating children with a sense of self-discipline but David Cameron misses the point if he thinks Pavlovian responses are the same thing.
In this Daily Telegraph account he welcomes a return to the days when “Children...stand up when their parents or teacher walks in the room."
It's a long time ago now but I was lucky if my children looked up let alone stood up when I came home; and they've grown up to be responsible adults.
Fifty years ago at grammar school we stood up for teachers entering the classroom. The gesture made little difference to us in deciding who deserved our respect and who, behind their backs, our ridicule.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The single best piece of advice I ever received

The single best piece of advice I ever received was from my first editor: "If in doubt, leave it out."
It reflected the fear of any journalist worthy of the name - making a mistake in a story that requires a published correction and raises the prospect of a libel claim.
If the News International newspapers hadn't come to believe they could bend the rules with impunity, the News of the World might still be in business.
"If in doubt, leave it out" is a maxim that holds true too in the uncertain world outside of newspapers. It may be "faint heart never won fair lady" but it's indisputable "fools rush in where angels fear to tread."
Where there is no doubt indeed go for it; seize the day. But if you're losing sleep over a decision then leave it out.
Every now again I missed the boat but the cost has been more than balanced by the caution that stopped me making what hindsight would show were the wrong choices.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Football phone-ins are better value than PMQs

PMQs returned to the Commons for the first time after MPs long Easter break and was the same old yah-boo-sucks pantomime.
Prime Minister's Questions once did what it said on the tin - genuine enquiries were answered by the PM of the day with none of the mudslinging, point-scoring bedlam, which was the dominate feature of today's half-hour.
You will find more intelligent, knowledgeable debate on one radio football phone-in than in a year of PMQs.
Without any condescension, I am often in awe at the erudition in evidence from both callers and presenters on these shows.
The programmes usually follow matches and the callers are fans returning home happy or dejected or else armchair pundits.
The best shows are those where everyone disagrees with each other both fans and presenters. Abuse is rare and quickly dispatched (Mr Speaker, please note) because the uniting force is a love of football. It's a pity MPs don't hold democracy in such high esteem.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Hang on or hang up - the choices when calling HMRC's Helpline

For three days now mornings, afternoons,and evenings I've tried to phone HMRC with a query about my recently received self-assessment tax form. Despite what must now add up to an hour of phone time, I've failed to get through.
I don't ever remember a response time this bad. I don't blame the Helpline staff of HM Revenue & Customs whom in the past I have found very helpful but rather the Government's manpower cuts, which has prompted their union the Public and Commercial Services Union to call for strike action.
It's no use the recorded message, which intersperses the queasy electronic music telling me to go online; my problem originates from an online exchange with the tax office. I need another human being at the end of the phone to sort out the difficulty.
The Coalition having rattled the rich with its tax policies seems determined to alienate the rest of us by undermining HMRC even before George Osborne's dodgy Budget.
There's no sense attacking the civil service body dedicated to collecting the taxes, which go towards the bridging the deficit. Unless the squeeze on HMRC is some cack-handed dodge to introduce privatisation by the backdoor.
The PCS ballot starts on April 24th with the aim of commencing industrial action in early June. I hope for its members' jobs and my nerves some accommodation can be reached before then.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Movie moans - GC complains about the disparity of London cinema pricing

One of my biggest beefs as a cinema fan is the disparity of seat prices in London.
 The Swiss Cottage Odeon was charging £16 for what it calls a club seat to see the Norwegian movie Headhunters yesterday.
Fortunately I'd checked out comparative prices online.
About a mile away in Camden Town, the same cinema chain charged us £10.65 for admittedly a rather scruffy seat.
Neither compared favourably with The Coronet, Notting Hill, which would have welcomed us at £7.50 a seat.
The above are the 'adult' tariff paid by my companion. I expect to pay a few quid less because, rather condescendingly, I don't rate as an 'adult' any more but as a 'senior'.
I don't complain because the seats are cheaper. But if I'm no longer an 'adult' for movie purposes, I think cinema chains should rise to the challenge and provide us 'seniors' with waterproof seats and room to park our teeth.
Back to the film, an 8 out of 10 by my reckoning. It's more very black comedy than the thriller it's being marketed as; helped or hindered by the central character played by Aksel Hennie being a dead spit for Rik Mayall's younger brother.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Is Cameron's Government more incompetent than most?

Is our Government more incompetent than most or does it just seem so?
To add to a succession of policy U-turns, we'll soon see the Coalition backtracking on both the cap on charitable giving by philanthropists and the so-called 'conservatory tax' which bumps up the cost of home improvements.
I can forgive politicians most things* - fiddling their expenses and reneging on manifesto commitments; but only so long as they are good at their job.
This current lot - just like the Labour mob before them - can't hack it. Why?
It may just seem so and every Government - like politicians' careers - are doomed to end in failure. It may be that Coalition government just makes its operations more transparent and easier to see the cracks.
Having to arrive at Coalition consensus seems to have led to half-thought out policies prematurely given an airing.
The central question is has the calibre of MPs deteriorated?

Saturday, 14 April 2012

April with its showers sweet - or pulling the plug

Today my old bones cried out for a hot bath but my new home has only a shower cabinet. It's the first time I've missed having a bath (noun and verb) in my bathroom since I moved at the end of February.
Baths are time consuming and waste water but there's no better place to relax and let the mind wander as tight muscles unwind. In the shower there's no nodding off. Efficiency is all.
I've nearly mastered getting the water temperature just so, pointing the shower head in the right direction, and how to avoid slipping.
I still can't get the hang of getting the shower gel to stay on my body long enough to wash. Problems, problems.
Having to shower has probably saved 20 minutes on my day. I calculate that adds up to an extra five days a year.
This at least I'm spending wisely; I get up 30 minutes later.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Ricky Gervais had the last laugh as Derek - but it was the only one

Gervais as Derek
Ricky Gervais had the last laugh - last night's pilot show Derek confounded his PC critics by playing the simple-minded title character in a manner sympathetic and at times moving.
Unfortunately it was the only one. We have a clearer definition of a Gervais comedy-drama - a sitcom without laughs.
Gervais is at the height of his career and can write his own cheques. No one but he could have got the half-hour aired and likely be commissioned for a full series.
Derek, the odd, gentle old people's home worker shows Gervais is ready to move on as a writer-actor.
The pity is he can't break entirely free of the roots of his success.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Mirror, mirror lie to me about the passing of the years

Chevy now
I confess to blatant ageism. When I meet someone of around my own age, who I haven't seen for a long time - man or woman, I'm invariably shocked by how badly they've worn.
Of course I don't say so - I'm more likely to lie about how great  they look.
In my mirror, on the other hand, I can't see much evidence of the passing of the years.
The reason is simple and brought home to me with the Chevy Chase story which hit the showbiz gossip websites this week.

Chevy then
I don't possess the secret of eternal youth. It's just that the wrinkles, sagging skin, and receding hairline advance so slowly as not to be noticeable. 
The details of the surfacing of Chase's criticism of his NBC show Community is immaterial. It was the current photos of the comedian and film actor that hit home.
I had lost sight of Chase since his 1980s heyday. Back then I won't say I had a man-crush but he struck me as having an enviable combination of humour and good looks that women must find irresistible. Imagine David Duchovny rather than Hugh Grant.
Then Chase slipped off my radar until this week. Oh, dear he looks his 68, as I must do my 67 years.
I must look as decrepit at reunions as others do to me.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Damien Hirst's show - good fun rather than great art

I take it all back; I love the Damien Hirst show at Tate Modern.
Last Thursday I posted here I would probably agree with much of London Evening Standard art critic Brian Sewell's damning "shiny shit" assessment of the exhibition.
But having seen the show for myself at a private view for Tate members (thanks kids for the ideal birthday present) this evening, I must recant.
It's not great art but it is good fun. You can find statements about life and death but being a superficial sort of person I savoured the fairground in Hirst's work.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The longer term damage of the Ken v Boris tax row

The latest polling shows London's Tory mayor Boris Johnson is drawing ahead of Labour's Ken Livingstone in the capital's mayoral race, which will be decided early next month.
Perhaps unfairly Livingstone got the worst of the row between the candidates over the clarity of their tax returns.
I hope they can get back to arguing the issues that really concern Londoners like transport and crime.
I fear, however, we are destined to follow the Americans in the disclosure of politicians' tax affairs. Chancellor George Osborne has already said he sees no objection in principle.
It is a slippery slope; only a short step before the publication of medical records is seen as a necessary part of a politician's suitability for high office.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Memo to Film4 - we're not all night owls

The recent short Kate Winslet season on Film4 was very welcome with quality films like The Reader, Little Children, Holy Smoke, and Quills. Their enjoyment, however, was spoiled by the late start of the majority of the movies. Most didn't end until nearly 3am; we're not all night owls.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Why did Cheryl ever take Ashley's surname?

Cheryl Cole is reported to be dropping her married surname, as the former Girls Aloud singer severs her final tie with her footballer ex-husband Ashley.
I've never understood why any woman would want to take her husband's name on marriage - professionally that is.
This is allowing that her single name wasn't difficult to pronounce or spell compared to her husband's surname.

In her private life I can see why she might want to drop her family name - a signal to the world at large she had now bonded to her husband.
It makes life simpler legally and financially too.
But having worked hard to establish her name in her chosen career, I've always thought it strange that a newly married woman would want to go though the tedious process of educating the world to her new surname.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

A tall tale of Guy the Gorilla

I was told this story about the late Guy the Gorilla - for many year's London Zoo's star attraction - by someone who knew someone.
There was this chap - let's call him John - on visiting the zoo found himself in front of Guy's cage.
My, he thought rubbing his chin, you are a mighty beast. To his amazement Guy looked up at him through the bars and proceeded to rub his own chin.
A coincidence, thought John. But just to make sure he scratched his head - and sure enough Guy copied him. John pulled his ear; Guy likewise. John thumped his chest; Guy did so too.
Just to be sure John tapped his nose with his finger - and Guy went berserk. The gorilla smashed the furniture in his cage and then threw himself at its bars. An astonished John was rooted to the spot.

Friday, 6 April 2012

After cigarettes - ban nut brittle displays

The public display of cigarettes was banned in English supermarkets and large shops from this morning. I doubt if it will have much impact on smokers.
I gave up smoking more than 30 years ago - medical evidence about the damage caused by cigarettes was already conclusive.
If the health threat and expense doesn't deter today's smokers keeping packs out of sight isn't likely to have much effect.
It might even add to the glamour of smoking among impressionable youngsters.
If the Government really wants to help me nut brittle should be sold below-the-counter; perhaps even put on prescription.
I haven't eaten my childhood favourite - a combination of peanuts, corn syrup, and more E's than Sleepeze - since my dentist went private.
Where other appetites have dulled, nut brittle's temptation hasn't passed; I remain an addict.
It doesn't help that bars congregate around store tills. But I daren't challenge my world weary teeth with tackling even a splinter of nut brittle. It would be safer to chomp hardboard.
Throw in the damage to my cholesterol, blood sugar, and weight control and I would do better to take up smoking again.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Brian Sewell v Damien Hirst - or to kill a butterfly

I'm looking forward to my visit next Wednesday evening to the private view of Damien Hirst's new show courtesy of my Tate Modern membership.
In today's London Evening Standard art critic Brian Sewell condemns the exhibition as "shiny shit."
Having seen quite a bit of Hirst's work - including the pieces he assembled for his Sotheby's auction a while ago - I expect to come to the same conclusion.
But unlike Sewell, I would rather smile than frown. I feel the well-polished turd is not always to be sniffed.
Indeed I would rather see the Emperor's new clothes every time rather than his shrivelled crown jewels.
But I do have serious reservations about Hirst's use of live butterflies.
 "Even before the exhibition opened these creatures were fluttering exhausted on the gallery floor, denied anything that resembles their natural habitat," writes Sewell.
He asks, reasonably, for a response from the RSPCA and concludes: "All who care for living things should boycott this exhibition."
I'll make up my own mind on Wednesday.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Why isn't Ed Miliband defending civil liberty more resolutely?

Labour leader Ed Miliband has been noticeably muted on the two important civil liberty issues, which have recently hit the headlines.
It's been left to the LibDems and the libertarian Right to make the case against Tory aims to both increase surveillance of the internet and extend powers to hold sensitive civil court cases and inquests in secret.
Miliband and his Shadow team have made token protests about the Government's "lack of clarity" when a call to man the barricades was needed.
But then as a former New Labour minister his hands are hardly clean if only by association.
Miliband's desire to distance himself from the Blair/Brown years doesn't extend to examining his former masters' dismal record on personal freedom.
The Independent in February 2009 carried a report of an audit which found since its 1997 election victory, New Labour had eroded rights going back to Magna Carta in 60 new powers in 25 Acts of Parliament.
Perhaps he's embarrassed; he should be.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Attack The Block re-visited

I remember reading good things about Attack The Block, the sci-fi teen comedy-horror movie, on its cinema release last year. So its double-DVD set looked a good buy at just £5 at my local Morrisons supermarket the other day.
I wasn't disappointed and I can see why many critics had raved about the film debut of writer-director Joe Cornish.
But also I can understand the objections of amateur reviewers, who were turned off by the movie's first 10 minutes. The eventual teenage heroes, who save their south London housing estate from alien invasion, are introduced as menacing knife wielding hoodies ready to mug a lone woman.
Their leader Moses, well played by John Boyega, brings the revenge attack on the block by enthusiastically stomping to death the first and smallest of the aliens.
But given some willing suspension of disbelief, it is soon possible to root for the gang.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Internet privacy must be defended from State intrusion

The 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' defenders of the Coalition's controversial plans to extend officialdom's powers to monitor email and social network traffic haven't thought through their casual abandonment of the public right to privacy.
It is as though net curtains and garden fences are in place only to hide the misdemeanours of their owners. Whatever happened to "an Englishman's home is his castle"?
The answer, says the Government, is the State must respond to terrorism and serious crime by better oversight of the latest internet technology.
But it is for the Government to make the case for increased legislation. Every inroad into privacy must be hard won and then only allowed under the strictest regulation.
We must be on our guard against ever-creeping intrusion into our private lives. To do otherwise not only erodes our rights to live free of Big Brother snoopers but also gives succour to regimes that wish to curtail the freedom of speech of their own people.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

It's time David Walliams gave camp a rest

I don't get why David Walliams still feels the need to camp it up as he did on  the Jonathan Ross Show recently when Simon Cowell was the target of his gay innuendo.
On his Twitter page today he jokes: "I agree, there wasn't enough campness from me towards Simon (on BGT) last night. I will have to redress that in the live shows!" Why?
It would spoil his contribution to Britain's Got Talent, which since his arrival is the best talent (and family) show on television.