Sunday, December 28, 2008

So tell me who's the real clown?

TELL ME this. If you were a terrorist intending to hijack or blow up a plane, how would you go about getting through security?

Well, you would probably do your best to fit in, to make yourself look unremarkable and quite normal. What you probably wouldn’t do is wear a flashing police helmet, a red nose and size 48 shoes (unless it was a ridiculously clever double bluff).

That is how Dave Vaughan, also known as children’s entertainer PC Konk, was attired when he turned up at Birmingham International Airport, booked by the Variety Club to perform for disadvantaged children on a one-hour, circular Search for Santa flight. This clearly troubled the appalling jobsworths at security who (obviously suspecting a ridiculously clever double bluff) strip-searched the clown just in case and then confiscated … his plastic handcuffs.

“I couldn’t believe it when they told me to get undressed so they could search me,” said PC Konk. “'I showed them my police clown identity card, which had my picture next to my credentials as a member of the Criminal Insane Department, but I don’t think that really helped.”

No, I bet it didn’t. Sadly, we are rapidly turning into a country where arrogance and ignorance infests every aspect of life and where those with a little bit of power seem to take a perverse delight in routinely bullying the rest of us.

From the checkout assistant who refused to sell crackers to a woman she thought might be under 21, to the council clipboard-wielders who fine people for dropping a peanut, to the internet bank drone who couldn’t see why I might need some cash two days before Christmas … we’re under the heel of an army of unreasonableness. Of course, I blame NuLabour.

WHILE we’re talking about out-of-control tools of the state, I see that the BBC has been fined £95,000 in yet another faked phone-in scandal. The latest offences came in pre-recorded shows featuring Dermot O’Leary and Tony Blackburn, when the programmes were later broadcast “as live” and listeners were encouraged to call in and enter competitions they couldn’t possibly win.

(Never mind calling Ofcom; I’d call the police. That’s blatant fraud, surely?)

This means that the BBC has now paid out over half a million quid in fines in the past 18 months for fiddling competitions and lying to viewers and listeners. Of course, when I say “fined”, no-one at the BBC will actually lose any money. No producers will be sacked and no presenters will have to put their hands in their bulging pockets.

No, remarkably the people who will have to cough up for the fines are you and me – the poor bloody licence fee-payers. What’s the point in that then? It’s enough to make a cat laugh.

I’ll tell you what. Seeing as my dosh – currently in the possession of a hard-faced harridan at an internet bank – is subsidising widespread dishonesty at the Beeb, I want something back in return. How about a seat at the table amongst Nigella’s “friends”, when the well-upholstered, simpering, slobbering cook serves up her creations?

You know the ones I mean: the supercilious, middle-class twit in his M&S knitwear, the pretty, but not-too-pretty women, the trendy, bald North London gay, the actress Maria McErlane, the … yes, the actress Maria McErlane. Because these aren’t really Nigella’s friends at all. They’re from Rent-a-Crowd. And that’s not Nigella’s Kensington kitchen, either. It’s actually a mock-up on an industrial estate in South London.

It’s all a big con, and it’s called ‘television’, stoopid.

I SUPPOSE it’s a faintly festive thought, but more than 2,000 lives could be saved every year by the introduction of bowel cancer testing kits. In simple terms, you poo in a test tube and send it off to a lab, getting the results back two weeks later.

As ever, the Porridge Wogs are taking the other bodily fluid. While the test will only be available in England to those aged 60 to 75, in Scotland it will be freely available to over 50s. So that extra benefit for those north of the border joins free eye tests, free prescriptions (coming shortly), free hospital parking, free nursing care for the elderly and free life-prolonging drugs for Alzheimer’s sufferers and cancer patients.

The reason for this generosity is that the McMafia in Westminster continue to give the Scotch much more money to spend per capita than they do down here. I know all the women up there smell of fish and look like Jimmy Krankies, but this is getting beyond a joke.

DETERMINED TO avoid the nightmare scenario that happens when an over-ripe Christmas Stilton takes over your fridge well into Spring, making the baby mozzarella cry and reducing the Stinking Bishop to a nervous wreck, I battle my way into the Seventh Circle of Hell that is the cheese aisle at Waitrose intent on buying just a small piece this year.

I snatch a handy lump from the claws of a desperate pensioner and I’m about to stick it in my trolley when I notice the price sticker: £6.66 – the number of the beast. This is clearly a sign from old Satan himself, so I repent my recidivist ways and do the decent thing. I buy a big old wheel of Cropwell Bishop, which I swear I can hear purring on the way back to the car. By the time you read this, we’ll be engaged in hand-to-hand battle.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Stow me the way to go home

THIS IS how our legal system works … or doesn’t. Moroccan Rashid Ali (30) turned up in Britain in 2004 claiming to be an Algerian asylum seeker. His application was rejected and he ended up squatting in an abandoned grain warehouse at Avonmouth Docks, near Bristol. (Why he wasn’t sent home at this point is beyond me, as you’ll see.)

Ali then decided that he wanted to go home, with his preferred mode of transport being a ship. He was booted off the first one he stowed away on at Milford Haven in Wales. He then kept on trying and after being caught for the fifth time was hauled before the courts and sentenced to three years in a detention centre … at a cost to the taxpayer of around £250,000.

Two days after his release (and we pause again to ask why he hadn’t then been sent home) he was caught hiding on yet another boat. Back to the courts again where a frustrated Judge finally asks the question as to why a man who so clearly wants to return to his homeland is constantly prevented from doing so by a judicial system that makes the Three Stooges look like potential Cabinet members.

So I had a quick look on t’internet this morning and a flight from Bristol to Marrakech comes in at £83.27. Might I suggest that that’s a cheaper option for HMG than banging the poor bugger up for another three years at a cost of a quarter of a million? Or am I missing something here?

IT’S NOT much to ask for your local supermarket to decorate your three-year-old child’s birthday cake with his name, especially when you’re willing to pay. Unfortunately for Heath Campbell, from New Jersey, USA, his local store for some reason refused to ice the words ‘Adolf Hitler Campbell’ onto a Victoria sponge. Things are also looking a bit grim for the toddler’s two-year-old sister, Joycelynn Aryan Nation Campbell (pictured above).

It’s all entirely innocent, of course. Heath Campbell said he gave his son the name because he liked it and that “no one else in the world would have that name”. On the other hand, he could just be a notorious neo-Nazi who perhaps ought to go to Wal-Mart next time. Because they did the icing, no problem.

BACK IN 2005, we were told that the legacy of hosting the 2012 Olympics would mean millions of Britain’s obese couch potatoes waddling off to shiny new sports facilities where they’d combat the effects of a diet of Findus Crispy Pancakes and Stella. Well now a secret government report has concluded that there will be few long-term benefits in terms of facilities and that while the Olympics is a good excuse for a party, little else will come from it.

When you put that in context of the escalating cost, estimated at £9 billion at the moment (but if it’s quadrupled in the last four years, what will it do in the next four years) and the admission by Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell that we would never have bid for the Games “if we had known what we know now”, then perhaps it’s time to make a strategic withdrawal.

Let’s face it: we can’t afford it and we’re bound to cock it up anyway. I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we just hand the Games back to China? They’ve got the facilities, and they’ve proved they can stage it, and stage it well. Let them have it again. Welcome to Beijing, the new Athens. Only with fewer ruins.

THESE PUBLIC sector workers who’ve been overpaid on their pensions … some from as far back as the 1970s. I read today that Gordon Brown is being urged to “soften the blow” when it comes to reducing their payments.

Well just hang on a minute. Apart from a few former judges, the average reduction in payment is reckoned to be just £220 a year, or £4.20 a week. These people aren’t being asked to pay back anything; is it therefore too much to ask that they might simply swallow this grievous loss, even if they are ex-civil servants? It’s hardly going to put them on the breadline, is it?

WE ARE told that the credit crunch has hit corporate shoot days, with fat bankers in funny trousers notably absent from our woods this season. If my experience of last week is anything to go by, it’s far worse than that.

Invited to what is usually a splendid day’s sport, I turned up to find that the beaters were a bunch of Poles who couldn’t afford the coach fare home, the dogs were two pit bulls off the local council estate and an arthritic poodle, lunch was sell-by-date Aldi sausage rolls accompanied by a fine Lidl port, and the shoot dinner was taken in a nearby Harvester.

The bag was three pheasant, a squirrel and a brace of badgers. Hard times, indeed.

THE HOUSES used as a film set for the soap Brookside have been sold. At first sight they might seem a bargain – 13 houses in the close for just £750,000, but beware. We already know that one has dodgy light fittings that are liable to electrocute the new owner, what lies under the patio of another is best not discussed, and living there is likely to turn your wife into a lesbian. Caveat emptor, indeed.

I BOUGHT an Advent calendar from Woolworths in their sale last week. It was rubbish. All the windows were boarded up and there was nothing inside.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Through a glass, darkly

SO I turn on the television and there’s a middle aged man in sensible shoes standing on his patio saying: “Just remember - an anagram of ‘garden’ is ‘danger’.” He then goes on to demonstrate how plant-supporting canes can be lethal if you are stupid enough to bend down and ram your eye onto one. What a prat.

This was Channel 4’s documentary about the people who work in our burgeoning Health and Safety industry – a special breed who tiptoe through life as if every manhole cover was a land mine. Step on a crack and you lose a leg. As you might imagine, five minutes in and I’m already frothing at the mouth. I was just about to get up to go and run around the kitchen while holding a pair of scissors when ‘pouff’ – the light bulb in the drawing room goes kaput. And that’s another thing.

Rummaging in the boot room cupboard, I can’t find any normal bulbs. All we seem to have is packet after packet of these new-fangled low-energy things, most of them given away free by supermarkets or, for some strange reason, by the Gas Board. So I stick one in, turn it on … and nothing happens. So I turn it off and turn it on again. Nothing happens. After a couple of minutes of this I give up in exasperation and go to walk away when, as if by magic, it comes on. It appears that there is some kind of time lag between you turning it on and the bulb actually illuminating. Well, that’s progress, especially if you’re standing at the top of the stairs half asleep.

And what a grim, grey, mean light it is. I’m immediately transported back to my days in Kruschev’s Soviet Union, or somewhere in Wales on a winter Sunday afternoon. Reading the newspaper is impossible; groping your way around the room is just about possible if you wear one of those head-torches popular with cyclists, pot-holers and midnight gardeners.

The next morning I’m off down to the hardware shop in search of good, old-fashioned, 100 watt bayonet bulbs. And that’s when I come up against the might of the European Union. The man in the brown coat behind the counter informs me that 150w bulbs have long been regarded as worse than crack cocaine while, as from the end of this year, normal 100w light bulbs will also be banned by the EU. We must all now use the energy-saving version, like it or lump it.

He then starts winking at me, in a passable impression of Ronny Barker’s Arkwright. I finally catch on and, 10 minutes later, leave the shop clutching a box of Number 3 self-tapping wood screws, a magnetic device for cleaning one’s outside windows from the inside, four bottles of Cillit Bang and, crucially, a brown paper-wrapped package containing half a dozen illicit 100w clear glass, bayonet-ended light bulbs.

I go home, draw the curtains, replace the idiot bulbs with the proper thing and then flick the switch. I’m like a junkie who’s just hit a vein; happiness floods through me as bright, white, coal-burning, carbon-unfriendly, dolphin-killing, polar bear-murdering light floods the house. I bask like a Page 3 girl on a Barbados beach.

But why should it have to be like this? As far as I can establish, the alleged ‘ban’ on proper light bulbs is merely voluntary. So why have most of our shopkeepers rolled over and given in to the iron fist of Europe?

And don’t be fooled. These environmentally-friendly bulbs are nothing of the sort. They contain mercury for a start. If you break one, you’re supposed to evacuate everyone from your home, seal up all the windows from outside, take out your dedicated ‘light bulb’ brush and dustpan, clean up the mess and then ship it in a nuclear-safe container to the nearest dedicated dump where men in chemical suits will carefully take it from you before sealing it up in a lead-lined rocket and firing it to the moon. Except you won’t. You’ll just chuck it in the bin with everything else.

And what’s the biggest argument against them? Well, they’re so dim that you’ll need twice as many bulbs to yield the same amount of light. And doesn’t that somewhat defeat the object?

AFTER MY comments of a couple of weeks ago about the impact (or non-impact) of a 2.5 per cent cut in VAT on our spending habits, a reader called Charles Courtney writes in the following terms:

“Just a small point on your wine price calculation: the VAT reduction of 2.5 per cent is actually less than a 2.5 per cent reduction in retail prices. It is 2.5/117.5 i.e. 2.13 per cent. Therefore your £6.99 bottle of wine would not drop to £6.81 but would be £6.99/1.175) x 1.15 = £6.84.”
Anyone care to bet that Mr Courtney owns a leather Radio Times binder and wears string-backed driving gloves?

THE LATEST BBC trailer asks where you were when certain newsworthy events happened, like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the death of Elvis Presley, and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison in South Africa.

Well I certainly know where I was in the case of the latter. I was on the phone to the BBC complaining bitterly that they’d gone and cancelled the bloody Antiques Roadshow on a Sunday evening.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Never mind the credit crunch, here's what really matters

IN THE midst of a constitutional crisis, with the police wandering in and out of Parliament willy nilly seeking to stifle Opposition MPs who’ve been embarrassing the government, it’s always good to know that Wee Gordie Broon has got his priorities right. So what’s he been up to (apart from turning a blind eye to the excesses of the Met)? He’s been writing letters to X Factor finalists. No, really.

It turns out that our Prime Minister has found time amongst two major wars and the worst financial meltdown since the 1930s to pen personal notes to all 12 wannabe wasters polluting our Saturday night telly. Why on earth would he want to do that?

We know that Princess Tony would do anything to enhance his image – remember Cool Britannia, anyone? – but I thought the stern Scot was made of tougher stuff than that. And even if he was such a big fan, why would he then allow the news of the correspondence to leak? Is this some pitiful attempt to soften the image? Frankly it beggars belief.

Mr Brown has a reputation for going missing whenever the brown stuff hits the fan. He might well think that placing touchy-feely stories like this in Her Majesty’s Press deflects attention from the fact that the police, clearly at the behest of NuLabour, are now using anti-terrorism legislation to gag their opponents – as they have been doing to some journalists for the past couple of years. Banana Republic, anyone?

THE COPS have clearly been busy elsewhere as well. The organiser of the local bonfire in Elwick, Cleveland, was rather taken aback when police turned up on his doorstep two days after the event, arrested him, held him at the nick for 20 hours, took his fingerprints and DNA and then charged him with arson, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Seems a trifle harsh for co-ordinating sparklers on the village green.

Lorry driver Brett Duxfield, for it is he, had apparently incurred the wrath of the parish council, which had banned the village green bonfire back in 1994 after rowdy behaviour. The fact that it had been held peaceably for the past four years, with organisers even replacing charred turf, doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone.

As ever, the police revert to that jobsworth monotone: “We are duty bound to follow through a complaint,” says Inspector Tony Green of Cleveland Police.

Well, no, you’re not really, are you? You could just say “Go away and don’t be silly” the next time someone makes an entirely facetious and stupid complaint. Instead we end up with a village at war, Mr Duxfield on bail, and the law of the land being portrayed as a complete and utter ass.

I SEE that furniture company DFS – home of the ever-present sale – has been reprimanded by the Advertising Standards Authority for using special effects to enhance the size of its sofas in television adverts. In simple terms, the huge leather monstrosity you saw in the ad was somewhat smaller when you turned up in the store to buy it. Either that or they used midgets to represent those happy cuddly couples who only ever exist in TV Land.

I am assured by an insider that this isn’t the only instance of such malpractice. Rumour has it that the next advertiser in the dock will be a certain hotel chain which is thought to have built an entire set representing a larger than life room to accommodate its larger than life comedian star in relative comfort. Watch this ever-expanding space.

STILL IN these difficult times for the retail market, it’s good to see that our big High Street stores are doing their bit.

Take Habitat, for instance. A friend recently went in to buy a piece of furniture and asked how much it would cost to have it delivered to his home. “£65”, he was told.

“But the table I’ve bought only cost £50. How can it then cost £65 to have it delivered?” he reasonably asked.

The callow youth behind the counter yawned and said those immortal words: “Flat rate charge. Company policy.” End of sale.

IKEA is even worse. For years they didn’t even offer a delivery service, so you’d be stuck there after the checkout with a bed, a wardrobe and several Billy bookcases staring glumly at your Fiat Panda and wishing that Paul Daniels would appear out of nowhere and make it all fit in. I will confess to having abandoned my wife and child in their car park before now while making shuttle runs to home and back.

Then they did offer delivery, but you had to pay up front and if they didn’t turn up – a distressingly common occurrence – then you had to trail back to the shop and claim your money back. (Mind you, you were probably already there trying to get hold of the missing parts.)

ONE CUSTOMER service sector that has been reformed is that of prostitution, with Jacqui Smith’s new laws suggesting that the men who pay for sex from a ‘trafficked’ woman should be liable to prosecution. Now I must say straight away that this will not inconvenience me in any way: I am not a customer, nor a lorry driver.

But the practical problem for those who feel the need to avail themselves of this service is obvious – how do you know if your lady of the night is home-grown or a recent import?

I suggest some kind of kite mark tattooed on their backsides – maybe something like that little tractor they put on British food. What? What? It’s only a suggestion …

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

How to waste £12 billion in the blink of an eye

IT’S THOSE weasel words again folks: “Lessons must be learned.”

This time around the “lessons that must be learned” surround the appalling case of the 56-year-old man from Sheffield who has been jailed for life (aka 19 years) after raping his two daughters over a period of many years. The attacks resulted in 19 pregnancies and nine surviving children, some of who are severely disabled or terminally ill due to the genetic complications. It really does beggar belief.

And by whom must those “lessons be learned”? Why, it’s the usual suspects – the same agencies who must bear the blame and the guilt over the death of Baby P.

Let’s think about this again, however painful it might be. We are told that the attacks began when the children were pre-pubescent, so presumably continued throughout their schooldays. Did no-one at those schools notice anything out of the ordinary? Why not?

Then there were the doctors and the hospital staff who must have come into contact with the girls during their 19 pregnancies. Did no-one think to raise an eyebrow over the repeated miscarriages and stillbirths, or the children born with debilitating conditions? Was that all considered coincidence?

Were the police sniffing around at any stage? And we have to assume that at some point social services got involved – and if they weren’t at any stage, that’s almost as big a scandal than if they were.

We are told that the father avoided suspicion falling upon his family by moving around small rural villages in Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire, and that information that might have alerted the authorities wasn’t shared across county boundaries. Shades of Soham, anyone? And surely your medical records follow you where ever you go?

But never mind. I’m sure “lessons will be learned”.

SO HOW do you waste £12 billion in the blink of an eye? Simple - reduce VAT by 2.5 per cent in the ridiculous belief that it might kick-start the economy.

I’ve never heard of anything so daft. The big stores are already offering 20 per cent and 40 per cent discounts in pre-Christmas sales. Why does the government seem to think that another 2.5 per cent, which might or might not get passed on, is going to make any difference to people’s shopping habits?

When did you last hear someone say: “Ooh, that’s a nice bottle of wine, but it’s a bit expensive at £6.99. If only it was £6.81 I’d snap it up. Probably buy two.”

And then there’s the cost to those stores who do pass on the saving having to re-programme their computers or keep the staff up all night banging away with a price gun, estimated at £20 million.

In fact, the only part of the economy that will benefit from this is the signwriters, who will have to go around the country changing the name of Poundshops to 97.5PenceShops

It’s not all bad news. As the BBC reported this week, 25 JobCentres have been saved from closure and another 6,000 staff are being taken on to deal with the massed ranks of the soon-to-be unemployed. So that’s all right then.

BUT THAT’S no real surprise, is it? The ranks of the Turkey Army have been boosted to such an extent that there are now 5.8 million public sector workers, each enjoying a generous final salary, index-linked pension scheme with a retirement age of 60 or even lower. Mind you, they don’t seem too happy about their gold-plated jobs, spending more than 100 times as many days on strike as private sector workers and being 25 per cent more likely to go on the sick.

There are now estimated to be over 800 people working in local government who earn more than £100,000 a year and the gravy train shows no sign of stopping. The Centre for Economic and Business research is predicting that as redundancy rates rise rapidly in the private sector, the state is going to hire another 50,000 people over the next year.

Clamber on board while you can, folks. And don’t worry about the fare – the rest of us will pay.

I SEE that the Cake Police have been in action again. A hospital in Cumbria has banned the local League of Friends from baking cakes to raise money for equipment the NHS cannot afford, as they have been for years.

A man called Alan Davidson, who holds the magnificent Turkey Army title of Director of Estates and Facilities, insists that the home-made sponge cakes and tea loaves contravene Food Standards Agency guidelines and therefore cannot be sold on hospital premises. He drones on, in the tones of Blakey from On The Buses: “All food should be packaged appropriately, date-stamped and ingredients listed. This is in the interest of maintaining and protecting the health of the public.”

As ever, when you dig a bit deeper on these things, all is not what it seems. The Food Standards Agency, in an astonishing attack of common sense, responds: “There is nothing in our guidelines that prevents the sale of home-made cakes at fund-raising events.” Crumbs.

So it turns out, as so often in these cases, that it isn’t the legislation that’s at fault but the hi-visibility jacket-wearing numptie who chooses to interpret that legislation in a manner that justifies his own existence. And job, salary and pension.

Pass that bottle of £6.81 wine. In fact, pass two.