Saturday, August 30, 2008

God bless you, Major Abacha Tunde

AS WITH everything in life, from frozen peas to rampant sex, there comes a point where perfection is reached and from then on it’s all downhill. Depressing, I know, but true.

In football, it was watching George Best. In clothing, it was buying your first Cromby coat. In seafood, it’s eating pan-fried scallops (although what else you’d fry them in I don’t know.)

And now we have the ultimate con trick – the day the Nigerian email scammers jumped the shark.

Now I’m sure we’ve all been targeted by these ever-optimistic entrepreneurs. Usually you find a message in your inbox informing you that you’ve won $35 million in an internet lottery that you hadn’t even entered. Either that or your assistance is required in extracting £637 million from the bank account of a deceased businessman and whose complicated legacy can only be resolved with your help.

Either way, you’ll find at some point that you’ll be asked to send off your bank details, usually with an ‘administration payment’ of anything up to several thousands of pounds, at which point ‘the lottery’ will cease to exist and the ‘deceased businessman’ will rise, Lazarus-like, from the grave, and run off to buy a new goat or a BMW with the contents of your savings account.

Amazingly, some people still fall for this sort of thing, mostly old ladies who live alone and for whom the postman’s visit is a reason for pleasure, not penury, and for whom a hand-written letter still carries more weight than a misspelt email. So eager are some of these mad old bats to empty their bank accounts that they often have several scammers bleeding them dry at any one time, and are consequently doomed to a life of huddling in front of a one-bar electric fire and eating cat food.

Other people, tired of the constant appeals for assistance from Mrs Celestina Tombola (still my favourite scammer name) actually engage with the enemy with the intent of having them perform increasingly stupid acts. Have a look at the hilarious website and you’ll see what I mean.

But all good things must come to an end. This week I received the scam email to end all scam emails. In abbreviated and uncorrected form, it read as follows:“I am Dr. Bakare Tunde, cousin of Nigerian Astronaut, Air Force Major Abacha Tunde. He was the first African in space when he made a secret flight to the Salyut 6 space station in 1979. He was on a later Soviet spaceflight to the secret Soviet military space station Salyut 8T in 1989. He was stranded there in 1990 when the Soviet Union was dissolved. His other Soviet crew members returned to earth on the Soyuz T-16Z, but his place was taken up by return cargo.“There have been occasional supply flights to keep him going since that time. He is in good humor, but wants to come home.“In the 14-years since he has been on the station, he has accumulated flight pay and interest amounting to almost $15,000,000 American Dollars. This is held in a trust at the Lagos National Savings and Trust Association. If we can obtain access to this money, we can place a down payment with the Russian Space Authorities for a Soyuz return flight to bring him back to Earth.“I am told this will cost $3,000,000 American Dollars. In order to access the trust fund we need your assistance …”

I think you know where it goes from here.

So there we have it – a top secret African astronaut, stranded in space, condemned to circle the Earth for ever unless I stump up three grand (in exchange for 20 per cent of the trust fund, of course). I have to admit that I laughed until I cried.

So God bless you, Abacha Tunde. You will be forever in my thoughts. Altogether now: “Ground Control to Major Con …”

I HAVEN’T indulged in mind-altering drugs for … ooh … at least two decades. But when I suddenly woke up from a post-lunch snooze in front of the television on Sunday I thought I’d been back on the LSD.

All I could see was that London bus blown up by terrorists only with privet hedge replacing mangled bodies, dancing scrotes, a punk in a wheelchair, lots of umbrellas and bowler hats, all performed to a jazzed-up soundtrack of Greensleeves and Jerusalem - it was like watching Mary Poppins on acid.

And then a reality TV show winner and a wrinkly, pony-tailed rocker appeared from nowhere and David bloody Beckham knocked a Korean pole-vaulter over by kicking a football at him. I tell you what - if anti-drugs campaigners made impressionable teenagers sit watching that on a loop, they’d never touch anything stronger than Lemsip for the rest of their lives.

It was only when Boris came on, bumbling for Britain, hands in his pockets and his shirt tail no doubt flapping beneath his unbuttoned jacket, that I realised I was watching the Beijing 2008 closing ceremony. I suppose at least he didn’t have anyone’s eye out when he was waving the flag.

So was our embarrassing eight-minute slot a welcome antidote to the relentlessly and ruthlessly organised Chinese? Or a forewarning of the further humiliation to come? I’m hoping for the best, but I’m fearing the worst.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

And what are the foreigners good at? Running away ...

SO I’M sitting in the snug of The Shivering Whippet and there are two blokes perched on stools at the bar. They’re your usual lower middle class geezers – car boot sales and barbecues, caravan holidays and Cotton Traders polo shirts. And they’re discussing, in some detail, the art of the épée.

Now the épée, for those who don’t know, is one of the three Olympic fencing disciplines, the others being foil and sabre. And it’s fair to say that such a subtle, delicate sport wouldn’t normally be required viewing for men who owned their own power tools.

“Of course,” says one, “The épée might be similar to the foil, but it has a stiffer blade that is V-shaped in cross-section, a larger bell guard, and is heavier.”

“Yes,” said the other, taking the top off his Carlsberg, “and the technique is somewhat different, as there are no rules regarding priority and right-of-way. In addition, the entire body area is a valid target area.”

And that’s what I love about the Olympics – everyone is suddenly an expert. In the past fortnight I’ve heard tea-ladies discussing the need for pommel horse performers to keep their hands parallel at all times and listened to a kebab shop owner holding forth on the finer points of dressage. It’s brilliant. And with chilli sauce as well.

AND IT’S hard to be churlish about many aspects of these Games. Yes, the IOC has proved more slippery than a bar of soap when it comes to dodging difficult questions from Her Majesty’s Press. And yes, someone blundered big-time by sending out a highly-rated boxer who had the services of sports scientists, trainers and nutritionists and still turned up too fat to fight.

But that opening ceremony, although the lavish product of a free-spending totalitarian state, was still a bit special. I have to ask, is there anything the Chinese aren’t good at? Apart from cockle-picking, of course.

There’s also been a reassuring sniff of the Empire in Britain’s outstanding performance. Ask yourself, which sports do we usually excel at? Shooting, riding, cycling, sailing … all skills required to take civilisation to those parts of the world not already coloured pink, and mostly involving sitting down. And what do the foreigners do well? Running away, that’s what.

IF I WAS one of Gordon Brown’s spin doctors, I’d be desperately trying to find ways of shoring up his plummeting reputation by linking him with our unexpected success, much the way Harold Wilson exploited our 1966 World Cup win. Unfortunately, when you trace back the reasons for this record medal haul, you end up with the much-vilified figure of former Prime Minister John Major. For it was Major who launched the National Lottery back in 1994, and it is the Lottery which has pumped huge funding into British sport, resulting in those star performances from our cyclists and swimmers.

One small point: the fact that we’re now paying a whole plethora of athletes £12,000 a year just to play games means that these people are now civil servants, accountable to the public for their performance. That’s why the only bum note in a brilliant fortnight has been the presence of too many plucky losers.

“I’m just so glad to be here,” they bleat. “Whatever happens now doesn’t matter.”

Well excuse me, but it does. I am now paying for you so I expect a bit of effort for my money. This is not a free holiday or a publicly-funded gap year. This is serious stuff.

I would therefore propose that any Olympic athlete who’s pocketed Lottery cash for several years should have to pay back a proportion of that money if they fail to deliver a personal best performance. It’s not much to ask, is it? They’ve had at least four years to prepare. Barring injury or mishap, then I want value for money. They don’t have to win, or even ‘medal’ (and what a hateful abuse of a beautiful language that expression is); they just have to perform better than they ever have done before.

What I don’t want to see is big pussies like boxer Bradley Saunders whining that he was happy to be eliminated from the competition because he was homesick. No, really. The light-welterweight, a supposed medal contender, was beaten by a Frenchman and then said he was relieved to be leaving Peking because “It’s a weight off my shoulders now I know I haven't got a medal. Now I can live a normal boy’s life for a while.”

Well yes, and hopefully that means getting a job, you lardy-arsed waster. You’ve trousered £140,000 of our money in the past few years. The least you could do was go and have a proper go. And as for being homesick, wasn’t that your mum and dad and several members of your family I could see at ringside? Thought so.

LOVED THE uncomplicated post-race interviews with Dame Rebecca Adlington of Mansfield, a simple girl who just wanted to celebrate with a pair of new shoes. The only problem was, I kept thinking I’d tuned into a Victoria Wood sketch by mistake.

FINALLY, WHAT are we going to do about ‘Brave’ Paula Radcliffe? The mad, old, mdeal-free hag embodies selfishness in the extreme. Her self-serving decision to ‘run’ in the Marathon, even though she had no chance of ‘medalling’ and not much hope of finishing, denied a place in the race to a keen, young understudy.

In the light of her 23rd place, perhaps the woman who’s made herself a millionaire out of the sport might consider paying for some of the Lottery-funded assistance that she’s been receiving? Oh yes, you didn’t know that, did you?

Monday, August 18, 2008

Juggling ironmongery like Crackerjack cabbages

I RECENTLY acquired a whippet puppy to keep the rescue lurcher company. On Tuesday night I took him outside for a pee in the driving rain. He lifted his leg, and was promptly blown over by the gale-force wind.

When I’d finished laughing and rescued him from the ditch, my mood was darkened by the thought that this was an August evening at the height of the English summer. And yet the supposedly gentle breeze is sufficient to blow a whippet over. It’s outrageous.

At this point the glib columnist writes something like: “Whatever happened to global warming? I nearly started building an ark …” And to be honest, you can’t really blame them.

The Met Office might be insisting that there is nothing abnormal about this summer’s weather (even though three weeks worth of rain fell in just 24 hours on Tuesday) and that our expectations have been raised by the scorcher of 2006, but on rolls the global warming bandwagon, manifesting itself in hundreds of ways, all of which seem to cost us money.

It’s plastic carrier bags that have been winding me up of late – or rather, the lack of them.

In B&Q last week I was queuing at the checkout behind a bloke who had dozens of small packets – nails, screws, hinges, drill bits and so on. He asked for a bag and was abruptly told that they didn’t do them anymore. He was left to juggle his way across the car park shedding ironmongery like a cabbage-laden Crackerjack contestant. (Kids, ask your parents.)

The National Trust this week proudly announced that sales of bags were down 95 per cent in the first 100 days since they started charging five pence for them. Whoopee! What a cause for celebration, but who is the winner in this situation? Certainly not the customer, who has to stagger back out into the force nine summer gales clutching two jars of pickle, seven postcards, a tea cosy, a large tin of butterscotch travel sweets and an Emily Bronte tea towel.

And then there’s Marks and Spencer, now charging 5p for a bag that might cost … ooh … 0.1p. How altruistic is that? Not only are they saving untold hundreds of thousands on having to provide free bags but they’re now also making an obscene profit on those they do sell.

If they sorted out their unnecessary plastic packaging first, I might be more impressed. (Let us not forget, this was the store that recently offered up individually plastic-wrapped apples to lunchtime snackers.)

Since we’ve been under the jackboot heel of a council obsessed with recycling, it’s the amount of packaging we assemble that has surprised me: a bag full of cardboard, a bag full of tin cans, a huge amount of unrecyclable plastic in various forms. Most of this stuff is unnecessary; why, for instance, do vegetables that have to be washed and peeled need a plastic coating?

Am I such an idiot that I have to be force fed a ready-packed kilo of carrots when I could just as easily pick up the three loose ones I need? No, but then I’d only pay for the three and not for the kilo. As ever, profit comes before good practice.

I do believe that the Women’s Institute are campaigning along the same lines. I may have to join.

IT’S OFFICIAL – according to a right-wing think tank, northern cities like Liverpool, Bradford and Sunderland are “beyond revival” and should be abandoned to the benefits-claiming scrotes while inhabitants seeking a normal life should head south to places like Oxford and Cambridge.

(I’m not sure what the current residents of those host cities must be thinking about this plan. If thousands of Scousers are going to be heading for Oxford, the council might be wise to resurrect Inspector Morse as a matter of urgency.)

The reason those three cities have been singled out (can you single out three?) is because they’re ‘piggy-backing’ neighbouring, bigger conurbations and, by leeching off investment and grants, are holding them back. It’s an extreme argument, but one with more than a kernel of sense about it.

What could Manchester do with the millions of pounds being poured down the drain in the so-called City of Culture down the East Lancs Road? What could Leeds build with the millions wasted on silly schemes in Bradford? How many more bridges could Newcastle erect if Sunderland wasn’t a drain on the regional economy?

And it’s not as if it’s not already happened on a smaller scale. Let’s face it, The Beatles, Cilla Black, Jimmy Tarbuck and Anne Robinson didn’t hang around their hometown for long once they’d made a few bob, did they?

CONSUMER GROUPS have identified a trend of manufacturers reducing food and drink products in size while still charging the same for them. Strongbow cider now comes in cases of 15 cans, not 18. Cadbury’s chocolate bars are down from 250g to 230g and Waitrose mince is now sold in 500g packs instead of the previous 550g. And, in perhaps the unkindest cut of all, there are now only 10 Rolos in a packet, not 11. Would you give anyone your last Rolo? Not any more, pal.

This isn’t new. Wagon Wheels have been shrinking for years. The ones I used to buy along with my cup of scalding hot Bovril at the football were the size of manhole covers. Nowadays they’re little bigger than a digestive biscuit. And size matters …

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Pass the henbane, mother, and some more of those spotty mushrooms

NATURAL SELECTION is a wonderful thing. Thanks to the forces of nature, the strong survive and the weak don’t, and right always triumphs over wrong.

Which brings us to celebrity chef Anthony Worrall Thompson. Writing in something called Healthy and Organic Living magazine, a top-shelf title if ever I’ve seen one, the little bearded gimp recommended a weed called henbane as “a great addition to salads”.

One small problem: henbane, which is related to deadly nightshade, is a classified poison that can cause hallucinations, convulsions and a rapid heart rate. Indeed, dear old Dr Crippen used henbane to make the poison with which to kill his wife.

Poor Anthony has since been reviled in the national press for his homicidal carelessness. I, however, regard him as a hero. For all we know, AWT could be a double agent: a man devoted to the cause of allowing the yoghurt-knitting bunny-huggers who read dangerous propaganda like Healthy and Organic Living magazine to exterminate themselves by eating such delicious dishes as ragwort trifle and red-and-white spotted mushroom risotto. And that’s natural selection.

Want more evidence? Scientists have announced that vegetarian men who eat even a small amount of soya-based products (e.g. Linda McCartney’s sausages) have a lower sperm count than that of meat-eating men.

There is only one possible outcome to this – nutters will be less successful at breeding than normal people and will eventually, inevitably, die out, like the dodo and the dinosaur. Truly, God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform.

I’LL TELL you another group heading for the great Mausoleum in the Sky – men with beards. (I was going to write ‘people with beards’ there but I didn’t want to upset the non-shaving, sensible shoe-wearers in dungarees who worship at the shrine of K.D. Lang.)

Think about it: what do Radovan Karadzic, Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro and Peter Sutcliffe have in common? Yep, they all have or have had beards.

The aforementioned, wife-murdering Dr Crippen? Growing a beard on a transAtlantic liner when he was apprehended. The pensioner-topping, public services-saving Dr Harold Shipman? Reassuring, leave-me-your-money, whiskers. Dr Rowan Williams, advocate of homosexual priests, female bishops, and the introduction of Sharia law to our legal system? A full set that would put W. G. Grace to shame. Evil, the lot of them.

(Actually, I’ve just noticed another link there. They’re all doctors, of one sort or another. Although you wouldn’t really want any of them to make a house call. Especially the God-botherer.)

LORD NELSON performed many duties for his country, not least putting the fear of Dr Rowan Williams up the Frogs and the fuzzy-wuzzies, therefore keeping the sea lanes clear for our prosperous slave trade. And he never grew a beard.

But now it appears that he might have done us the greatest service ever, fully 200 years after his death. Scientists (presumably the same men who have pointed out the scrotal deficiencies of vegetarians) have been studying the ships’ logs of Nelson and Captain Cook and can now reveal that global warming is not so unusual after all.

The Met Office, an organisation so normally so timid that it forecasts “sunshine and showers with spells of heavy rain and sleet … and hail … and snow” on a daily basis (and then gets blamed for no-one choosing to take their summer hols in the still-smouldering Weston-super-Mare), has stuck its metaphorical head into the hornet’s nest of political correctness and announced that after studying the weather conditions recorded in more than 6,000 naval logs dating back to 1600, we actually went through a similar period of global warming during the 1730s as to that which we’re experiencing today.

Now forgive my historical ignorance, but I think I’m on safe ground when I say that 4x4 vehicles were thin on the ground in the 1730s. So were coal-fired or nuclear power stations, cheap flights to the continent, plasma televisions and Marks and Spencer carrier bags. Yet still polar bears were chucking themselves off crumbling glaciers and a mad Prince, heir to the throne, wibbled on about the impact of carthorse emissions on the environment to any plant in his garden prepared to listen.

(Excuse me a moment … I’ve just realised that I’ve learnt more about history from four series of Blackadder than I have from 13 years of assorted schoolteachers.)

So, as I keep telling you, we’re being conned. Your car isn’t being taxed to extinction and your bins aren’t being emptied to stop global warming. It’s always happened and it always will. These things go in cycles, and our own influence on our own environment is tiny and ineffectual in the grander scale of things.

Still, as long as it gives the EU the chance to bully us and our own government an excuse to tax us to the hilt, then no-one in authority is going to let the real story have any credence. Think about that the next time you’re stood in front of a Dalek-like row of multi-coloured recycling bins trying to decide if a cornflakes packet is ‘waxed cardboard’, ‘treated cardboard’, or just plain ‘cardboard cardboard’, knowing that a £110 fine will be winging your way if you get it wrong.

SOME HOSPITALS have had to call in pest controllers over 50 times in the past year to combat infestations of rats, fleas and cockroaches.

Forgive me, but I would have been more worried if they HADN’T called in pest controllers …

Saturday, August 02, 2008

How the smoking Nazis have killed our pub culture

SOME PEOPLE think that the traditional English pub was doomed the day they let women through the door; others put it down to the demise of the snug, where at least The Wife could sit and gossip over her milk stout with Minnie Caldwell and Ena Sharples. The buxom barmaid behind the bar, the bikini-clad totty on the card behind the peanuts, and the Sunday lunchtime stripper who came round with a pint pot before her ‘special encore’ were tolerated, but that was it.

For me, the rot set in after the lunatic idea to let children onto licensed premises. What was wrong with them sitting in the car park with a bag of crisps (with salt in a twist of blue paper) and a bottle of dandelion and burdock with a straw? Because once kids invaded the boozer, food wouldn’t be far behind. And once a pub starts doing food (proper food; not just ham rolls and pickled eggs) then its days as a venue for drinkers are over.

The pub in my village is a case in point. It’s a bog standard local – or should be. But in a fit of the Gordon Ramsays, the nutter behind the bar has decided to lay cutlery out on 90 per cent of his tables. It matters not that diners never arrive in those numbers; he serves food and therefore must always be ready for an unexpected rush. The consequence is that we bar-room drinkers are corralled into an area the size of a garden shed to one side of the lounge. Frankly, you just don’t feel comfortable in there.

I wouldn’t mind so much if the food was actually any good, but it’s not. The menu is suspiciously long; far too long for a pub of this standing. That means that the slow-cooked lamb shanks are actually fast-cooked boil in the bag fare. If you turned the awful piped music off, your pint of flat bitter would be accompanied by the hum of the freezer and the ping of the microwave.

The only time the place turns a shilling is on Sunday lunchtime, when a £3.99 carvery brings in the Big Plate merchants in people carriers and elasticated trousers from neighbouring estates. I don’t go in there any more, having been revolted by these obese benefits thieves loading their platters with Blackpool Towers of food in an Irish Sea of gravy. And God only knows what “free range meat” they serve at that price. Badger, probably.

And then there was the smoking ban. An utter disaster, particularly in poor urban areas where people, well, smoke. In a bid to duck responsibility for the 40 pubs a week going out of business, the health Nazis now point to the availability of cheap supermarket beer as the reason. Well, it’s chicken and egg, my friend.

Because more people are staying at home rather than spending a damp evening smoking on a pub doorstep, the supermarkets have responded by selling them vast quantities of cheap tinned lager. Let’s face it, no-one in their right mind would stay at home with the aforementioned Wife instead of having a laugh with their mates in a convivial atmosphere if they could light up while they relaxed. The cost of booze isn’t the cause of the crisis in our pubs; it’s a consequence.

So now our pubs are selling 1.6 million fewer pints a day than they were a year ago. Many are heading inexorably for extinction. All that will be left will be the monstrous high street, happy hour, thong and tattoo-filled alcopop warehouses and the odd country pub with a passing golfing clientele, hunting scenes on the placemats and a risqué picture of a 1920s pin-up girl in the gents.

Cheers. Mine’s a double.

WHILE WE’RE on the subject of drink, I can’t resist bringing you the story of our local alcoholic, who turns up at the village shop at 8am every morning without fail to buy his two-litre bottle of cheap cider. He then goes and sits on the bench on the green and enjoys his breakfast. He’s a harmless chap, and has earned himself the nickname of ‘The Bishop of Southwark’.

Well last Saturday he must have come into some money, because instead of cider he’d bought himself a bottle of Chilean chardonnay and was clearly as happy as a happy thing. The only problem was, he couldn’t get the bottle open, even though it was a screw-top.

Now he’d mithered a few passing pensioners without luck, and I was just about to wander over and help him myself, when a white pick-up truck pulled up outside the shop. The Bishop tapped on the driver’s window, the window was wound down, a hand reached out, grabbed the bottle and whoosh … the pick-up accelerated away in a cloud of dust.

The Bishop looked stunned for a moment, then sat down on the kerb and started crying. And that’s why, dear friends, at 8.10 on Saturday morning, I could be spotted in the village shop buying a two-litre bottle of cheap cider …

I’LL TELL you the other thing that confuses me. This government, which is wailing and moaning about the vomit-flecked binge-drinking culture that infests our society, appears to be the same government that did away with licensing restrictions and created the 24-hour pub. So how does that work then?