Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bring on the snake oil salesmen

AN OFFICIAL-looking envelope drops through the letterbox at Beelzebub Mansions. It is from an American company offering me a “total health scan” covering various cardiac conditions, cancer detection, cholesterol tests etc “from just £139”. (Note that “from”.)

Furthermore, if they detect anything wrong with me they will alert my GP, who they name, and have him speed me towards the nearest consultant. All I need to do is phone up and make an appointment for their next session at the Market Hall next Friday.

For that money, it seems might it might be a sensible investment, but then we get to the small print. That £139 just covers the sort of spit-and-a-lick inspection your mother would give you on the doorstep before your first appearance in court. Anything more complex – like taking your temperature or asking you to cough – incurred further charges. By the time you were into blood tests and ECGs, you may as well have booked yourself into a BUPA hospital for a year.

It is the medical equivalent of the garage mechanic or emergency plumber who sucks his teeth and says, menacingly “Who did that for you then?” at which point you know that you’re trapped in a steepling spiral of expenditure, necessary or not. Once you’ve put a foot in the door, they’ve got you, literally, by the balls.

But that’s not the thing that annoys me the most. What annoys me most is that my doctor has obviously sold my name and address to these travelling snake oil salesmen. Who gave him the right to do that?

And anyway, if he thinks a gentleman of my age and substance requires these checks, why isn’t the NHS offering me the service? What have I paid for all these years? Apart from free nicotine patches for fat scrotes, that is?

THE FRENCH have bought up our nuclear power stations; the Spanish own most of our airports; Russians, oil-rich Sheikhs and opportunist Americans own our football clubs; and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Asian businessmen start buying up our local papers any time soon. So am I right to be worried?

It seems a bit obvious to me that as we approach an economic era where energy will equal power, we should do our best to hang onto control of our own means of supply. The Russians have already got us over an empty barrel when it comes to gas supplies (allowing them to bully any dissident neighbouring state they fancy) and now we entrust our electricity to a nation who, despite the modern entente cordial, remain our oldest enemies? It’s enough to make un chat laugh.

What happens when Europe starts suffering brownouts as supplies run low? Do you really think you’ll be able to watch Strictly Come Property Factor in comfort if a French peasant wants your wattage instead to bake some songbirds in his hovel? Of course not. There’ll be a flick of the switch and Britain will descend into darkness. And the same will happen to all those thousands of admin and office jobs currently in this country. The French unions, used to getting their own way even if it means burning a few sheep, will make sure that those jobs go back across the Channel tout de suite. It’ll be a clear case of “I’m all right Jacques”.

This is what it has come to – a broken, empty shell of a once great nation selling itself to the highest bidder like a street corner harlot. A quick buck instead of a quick … fumble. No wonder Ruth Kelly has jacked it in, especially after what this government did to her father, Dr David Kelly.

I’M NOT at all keen on that Foxy Bingo fellow on those incessant TV adverts. There’s something not right there, something sinister. He’s like a cross between Chucky and Basil Bush. A Pied Piper of the Lambrini-addled obese.

Still, the Hunt is out cubbing at the moment, so once the season proper gets underway there’ll be no hiding place for a six-foot fox in a purple velvet suit who goes round shouting “Clickety-click” at complete strangers.

LONGSTANDING READERS will know that I’m no great fan of the Paralympics – not because I don’t recognise the bravery and achievement of many of the competitors, but because I think the rules are so slack that most of the people you see running in the real thing could qualify if they had a bit of a sniffle. I mean, how can a “blind” athlete run around a 400 oval track without guidance? Yet most seemed to manage it. Footballers were sent home for being too good at football, a German wheelchair basketball player was found to be an amateur ballroom dancer and one of the sprinters was disqualified after testing positive for WD40.

And try it the other way around. One of our cyclists, Sarah Storey, who has a bit of a Beadle thing going on with her left hand, posted times that would have qualified her for the regular team. And, seeing as she uses a specially modified bike to compensate for having a left arm slightly shorter than her right, would in theory have an even bigger advantage on an anti-clockwise track.

LAST FRIDAY was apparently Talk Like A Pirate day – an internet invention - which meant that every geek in our IT department wandered round in eye patches and with stuffed parrots on their shoulders going “Arr, me hearty” and “Yo ho ho”. To enter into the spirit of things, I brought a sword to work and stabbed one of them.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Mea Culpa

I have suddenly realised that since upgrading my PC, I haven't been back to check my Beelzebub email basket.

I upgraded my PC in January, so anyone mailing since then will not have had a reply. This is unforgiveable rudeness, so I shall spend the weekend working my way through the neglected inbox reading your messages.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Beware the Nazis lurking in the privets

IT’S WITH a weary sigh that we read news of plans to fine drivers who fail to turn off their engines while waiting at a level crossing or in a traffic jam. Apparently traffic wardens in West Sussex, where a trial will take place, will be empowered to leap from the bushes and slap a ticket on your windscreen costing you £40, or just £20 if you pay up straightaway without griping.

The justification for this further tax on motorists is, of course, ‘global warming’. As if it would be anything else. Mind you, it comes as no surprise to learn that this ‘problem’ arises in an area governed by a council that has just appointed two Air Quality Managers, salary unknown but probably not shy of £40,000.

Let’s think about this sensibly. Anyone who has driven down a motorway in recent months knows that there is a national obsession with saving on fuel costs. Five mile-long convoys of vehicles trundle along at 55mph in the middle lane many of them, remarkably, driven by people under 70 who aren’t wearing a Trilby. Swerving to avoid them are the rest of us, rolling along at a compromise 75mph. The outside lane is only occupied by white van men and company car drivers, usually reps in cheap shiny suits with Ginsters pasty crumbs all over their laps. They don’t pay for their petrol so they don’t care.

So I think it’s fair to say that most of us would take the opportunity to save a few bob without the interference of the fine-flinging Nanny State.

Now I have no problem with turning off my 3-litre Turbo Nutter 4x4 at a level crossing. I know that I’m going to be there for some time and therefore it makes sense. But how do you judge how long you’ll be delayed in a traffic jam? It could be one minute; it could be 10 minutes. Sometimes traffic crawls; sometimes it stops and starts and then stops again. It’s completely unfair to expect us to second-guess the ticket-happy traffic Nazi lurking in the privets.

And what about this? The AA reckons that running an engine for a minute produces fewer emissions than turning it off and turning it on again, so where’s the gain? Their spokesman, Paul Watters, says: “We hope councils will not adopt a heavy-handed attitude with this. There is a huge difference between running the engine for less than a minute at the traffic lights and idling for a quarter of an hour.”

If Mr Watters expects the Powers That Be to be in any way reasonable, I suspect that he hasn’t been out much lately.

OF COURSE, we’re all getting hysterical about the imposition of stupid law after stupid law. It’s all media over-reaction, isn’t it?

Well let’s whizz down to Whitstable in Kent, where Daniel Cope, 13, put up posters on walls and lampposts near his home appealing for help when his beloved tortoiseshell cat Millie went missing.

The response was immediate. Within three days his mother, Heather, received a visit from a ‘community warden’ who informed her that the posters breached a ban on fly-posting under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act and that she would attract an £80 fixed penalty fine unless they were removed.

Daniel has now taken down the posters. His pet cat is still missing.

Is this the Britain you want to live in? It’s certainly not a country of which I can be proud.

WHICH BRINGS us to Lymm Services on the M6 in Cheshire. Emma Faulkner, a cruise ship waitress, was driving home from London to Lancashire just after midnight when she began to feel tired. Obeying the tiresome and usually useless messages on the overhead displays, she pulled into the services and had a kip. She awoke at 4.30am and continued her journey safely.

Weeks later, she received a letter demanding £50 because she had outstayed the service station’s two-hour parking limit and been photographed by an advanced number plate recognition system and automatically fined.

A spokesman for the car park operators, Parking Eye (and isn’t that a sinister name?) says: “The signage within the motorway service station is very clear, stating that if a motorist wishes to park for longer than two hours there is a fee.”

So that’s all right then. Never mind road safety, never mind the risk of dropping off and piling head-on into a people carrier full of children. As long as the signage is clear, the people who run Lymm Services can wash their hands of any kind of public responsibility with a clear conscience.

Is this the Britain you want to live in? It’s certainly not a country of which I can be proud.

THERE APPEARS to be much outrage in the national press because Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, when quizzed on television about the value of the State pension, said: “I think it’s about thirty quid now, isn't it?”

No, Nick, it isn’t. The basic pension is now £90.70 a week for a single person and £145.45 for a couple.

So what do we deduce from this? Either Mr Clegg thinks that a pensioner can heat and eat on an utter pittance, or that Mr Clegg, ex-public school, ex-Oxbridge, million-pound home-owner, and a man who has never had a proper job, is so removed from reality that he simply doesn’t know that “about thirty quid” is what I spend on fags and booze every day, rather than what we expect the people who have served us all our lives to live on in their final days.

Is this the Britain you want to live in? It’s certainly not a country of which I can be proud.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sticks and stones may break my bones ...

HOWEVER BLASÉ we may be, deep down we all care what people think about us. Forget that ‘sticks and stones’ thing – we all want to be loved, admired and respected, if not necessarily in that order.

The choices we make during our daily lives are influenced by how we think people will perceive us. I wouldn’t be caught dead food shopping in Lidl, wearing a BHS suit or driving a Kia car – not because there is anything wrong with any of that, but because it doesn’t suit the image I have constructed for myself.

But sometimes this image management can go too far. Take NuLabour, for instance. The tactics that finally got them elected was to convince voters that they were no longer a bunch of nasty Trots who would squander the nation’s wealth on meaningless public sector jobs. Of course, once they were in, that’s exactly what they did, but they managed to fool enough of the people for enough of the time.

Since then, the party machine has gone into overdrive, burying bad news, smearing critics and generally lying to all and sundry. It’s not so much style over substance as spin over substance. And the habit has spread to virtually all public sector organisations, from parish councils to billion-pound quangos.

Which brings us to NICE, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (and never has there been a more inappropriate acronym). NICE is the organisation that decides which drugs can be prescribed by GPs and hospital doctors after assessing them for cost and effectiveness. It is regularly criticised for denying life-prolonging treatments to cancer sufferers and is often referred to as the health ‘rationing’ watchdog.

It now transpires that NICE spent £4.5million last year on “communications” … otherwise know as spin. Amazingly, this is £1million more than the organisation actually spent on assessing new drugs, its very reason for being. The figure includes money spent on press officers, marketing executives and consultants and includes £25,000 paid to a public relations company for defending the decision to ban certain Alzheimer’s drugs.

Let’s just say it again: this is a publicly-funded government body that spends 25 per cent more money on challenging criticism of its actions than it does on doing its job in the first place. If such behaviour wasn’t so breathtakingly arrogant, it really would make a cat laugh.

IN A similar vein – or should that be “vain”? – our Foreign Secretary in Short Pants, a little lad called David Miliband, has been caught jetting off around the world using the Queen’s Flight 16 times in the past year … which is more than twice as often as The Queen herself.

More annoyingly, many of the jaunts were to short-haul European destinations like Paris or Berlin, already served by dozens of commercial flights every day. Cabinet rules say that Ministers should use the Queen’s Flight only when there is no scheduled service available.

Let’s take just one example. In July of last year, Master Miliband went to Paris and Berlin, with a two-day trip to Brussels the following week. On each occasion he used Royal jets at the cost of around £2,000 an hour plus the cost of aviation fuel. A cursory internet search shows that there are at least 25 commercial flights a day from London Heathrow to Paris, 20 to Brussels and 15 to Berlin. A business class ticket to Paris would cost just £210 next week.

So what are we to make of this disgraceful profligacy? Is the boy thick? Does he just not care? Or perhaps he’s just the kind of person who wouldn’t be caught dead food shopping in Lidl, wearing a BHS suit or driving a Kia car.

A SALES executive is in line for a payout of more than £200,000 after claiming she was sacked for having two children in just over a year.

Alison Prowse-Piper was a successful double glazing saleswoman. After having her first child, Oliver, in 1999, she returned to work in a matter of weeks. Within five years she was promoted to become the national manager of tele-canvassing on a salary of £72,500 for a three-day week. Nice work if you can get it.

In 2005, Mrs Prowse-Piper told her bosses that she was pregnant again. She claims that one responded: “Oh, my God, you're not, are you? I suppose I should offer you my congratulations.”

To be honest, you can’t blame him. Here was one of the company’s key employees about to disappear again for the best part of a year.

Soon after returning to work, Mrs Prowse-Piper announced that she was pregnant again, and went on to have her third child 14 months after the second. Again, maternity leave kicked in and the company was once more denied the services of its star saleswoman.

When she finally returned to work, the poor woman claims that she was demoted to a job on half of her previous salary, suffered sex discrimination, sexual harassment and constructive dismissal. An industrial tribunal agreed, and now she awaits a lottery win-style compo payment.

I’m not going to mess about here. This woman is clearly taking the piss. I think we’d all just about agree that an employer should support a valuable member of staff through one pregnancy, but one after another, like some kind of human sausage machine, simply isn’t fair.

Yes, a big conglomerate with hundreds of staff might be able to cope with the loss, but what about a small company employing a dozen people or less? How are they supposed to manage?

Meanwhile, I fully expect the tribunal that made this decision to be hiring a PR company as we speak.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Let's start the riot right here

AN ELDERLY couple who live in Barnet are withholding the £33 levy imposed on Londoners in the form of council tax to pay for the 2012 Olympics.

Tom and Rita Glenister say the charge is unfair and have withheld a portion of their £2,320 council tax bill, saying that they’ll go to jail rather than pay it. They argue that all Britons should contributing to the £9.3billion budget, not just Londoners.

They’ve got a point, although I’m sure we’ll all find ourselves coughing up one way or another. But whatever the rights and wrongs of their argument, I’m just glad to see someone putting up a fight against our increasingly authoritarian rulers, even if they are a pair of pensioners in their 70s.

Because what we need is more civil disobedience. We’re being bullied, harried and taxed to death. We’ve got a Home Secretary who thinks it’s OK to give car park attendants and park-keepers the right to hand out spot fines, demand our names and addresses and take our photographs. We’ve got health and safety legislation that says builders can’t use ladders unless they keep three parts of their body in contact with the ladder – so tell me this, Mr Hi-Visibility Jacket: how on earth do you hammer in a nail while keeping one hand on the top rung? Do you bang it in with your forehead in a fit of frustration with officialdom?

If you do, then please don’t make any noise while you do it. Even musicians performing in the Proms have been told to quieten it down a bit in case someone’s ears are offended. Oh, and you can now get fined two grand for deliberately discarding a cigarette end or accidentally dropping a crisp.

It really is getting beyond a joke. The residents of China must look at us and think: “Phew, but for the grace of God …” Or Mao. Or whatever.

It’s time we rose up against this Turkey Army of clipboard-carriers. Remember the Poll Tax Riots? Well, I’m quite looking forward to next year’s Wheelie Bin Riots – the event that will go down in history as the day that the belittled, belaboured, white, middle-aged, middle classes of this country threw off the yoke of Joe Jobsworth and burned traffic wardens outside the town hall – in memory of Joan of Park, perhaps.

AND IF you’re not already angry enough, try getting poorly. Not only will you be denied the life-saving drugs freely available to patients in Scotland and Wales, but you’ll also have to pay through the nose for the privilege of dying a premature death. And that’s because while our Celtic brethren have banished car park charges from their impressively funded hospitals, NHS Trusts in this country continue to leech off the vulnerable and infirm to the tune of £100million a year.

And why can they afford to do this while we poor English must suffer? Well it’s because they receive more central funding per capita than God’s own people. Not only that, they also take more out of the system than we do. I could spend a lot of time getting the figures together, but frankly I can’t be arsed, but trust me: all the Welsh are on the sick and all the Jocks – at least those who have jobs – work in the public sector. And meanwhile you’re getting wheel-clamped while visiting your dying mother. What a disgraceful state of affairs.

OF COURSE, when the Powers That Be aren’t bullying us or fining us, they’re busy losing computers and memory sticks containing our personal financial details which then inevitably end up in the hands of Nigerian internet scammers.

Now it’s a funny thing, but I don’t recall Captain Mainwaring ever losing all the account details of his customers while visiting the tea shop, and he had more to worry about than a supposed credit crunch. For all he knew, Fritz was going to come storming up the beach of Warmington-on-Sea at any minute.

Actually, that analogy holds firm across many other situation comedies. Who amongst us would doubt that our jails wouldn’t be better off if Senior Prison Officer Mackay was in charge? Who doesn’t think that Blakey could run our buses properly? John Alderton, aka Mr Hedges, would make sure that the Fenn Street Gang would at least know how to read and write before leaving school, foot and mouth wouldn’t dare break out on Siegfried Farnon’s patch, and I’m certain the bushy-bearded James Robertson Justice would have little time for MRSA outbreaks or car park charges at hospitals.

In fact, the only point at which this argument breaks down is when we come to the wrongly-sexed Vicar of Dibley. Still, you can’t have everything.

I’M CONFUSED. I bought a DVD from Tesco the other day – the best of Love Your Neighbour, since you ask – and before I could get to the hilarious jokes I had to sit through hours of tedious warnings about video piracy.

Now forgive me if I’m being stupid here, but why am I being menaced by the authorities on a legitimate, paid-for official DVD? They know I’ve paid full whack for it; why do they feel the need to put the frighteners on me? Wouldn’t they be better off insisting that the video pirates stick the warning on the front of their shaky, hand-shot, cinema seat-based productions?