Sunday, February 22, 2009

Six out of seven dwarfs aren't Happy

THE MARVELLOUS Mr Keith Waterhouse, that distinguished journalist of these parts who has just turned 80 years old, has come up with many wonderful inventions during his time toiling at the typewriter. The fabulous Billy Liar; Sharon and Tracy, the indolent shop assistants; Clogthorpe District Council, where members argue in circles before adjourning to nearby hostelry The Limping Cockroach; and, perhaps the best of all, the Department of Guesswork – now the privatised National Guesswork Authority – where Waterhouse’s brother-in-law Arnold works tirelessly to provide the country with nonsense statistics and meaningless facts.

This government agency – slogan, “Inaccuracy is our Middle Name” – performs a vital function in these simplistic times when the media demands simple ways of explaining simple stories to a stupid public. That’s why every new skyscraper is so many times “the size of Nelson’s Column”, why every new building site would “cover four football pitches”, why anything liquid would be enough to “fill five Olympic swimming pools” and why obscure African countries are “the size of Wales”. (Only a far more attractive place to live.)

This statistical twaddle has now spread to everyday life. Rarely does 24 hours pass without an idiot survey turning up in our newspapers. Only this week we were told that “Children are the main victims of the recession as their parents lose their jobs, pocket money is cut and school trips are deemed too expensive”.

This insight into our modern world came courtesy of research group Nfp Synergy (never trust a company with a lower case letter in its name) which claimed that seven per cent of children between 11 and 16 said one of their parents had lost their job. Fine, so that’s 93 out of a hundred who haven’t. Good news, I would have thought.

More than a quarter of 11 to 13-year-olds said they had had their pocket money cut (so three-quarters haven’t) while 20 per cent said their parents had told them they will not be going on holiday this year (but 80 per cent will).

And one in 12 children said their parents could not afford to send them on school trips. Well boo hoo. That means that 11 out of 12 families can still afford to send their children on school trips.
Most of these so-called surveys are just a marketing exercise, a way to get free editorial space from an over-worked newsroom. Thus a holiday company (whom I refuse to name) announces that the favourite activity of children on holiday is to spend time in the swimming pool, with 92 per cent of them in the water every day. Funnily enough, this company is currently pushing holidays at resorts with super pools, slides, wave machines and all.

A dating website announces that 65 per cent of men think that it’s OK to have sex on a first date while 65 per cent of women think that it makes them look “easy”. I’m not great at maths, but I suspect that based on those figures, 35 per cent of women are very busy indeed.

And then there’s the truly execrable. “People from the South West love to warble while they wash”, according to a shower company … based in the South West. It’s just nonsense.
I do wish they’d stop insulting our intelligence with this gibberish. The only statistic I’ll ever believe is that six out of seven dwarfs are not Happy.

IT IS Shrove Tuesday next week, a time when we’re all supposed to be giving something up for Lent. But surely they’ve got this wrong? January is when we give things up; February is when we start doing them again.

All those people who gave up smoking are back on the fags; the non-drinkers are walloping it down like a squaddie on leave; and the exercise fanatics have long since given up on exercise and are lying on the couch eating oven chips dipped in brown sauce while watching Come Dine With Me along with the rest of us.

Here at Beelzebub Mansions we have invested many pounds in what I call “January equipment”, most of it already redundant. There’s the stepper, a blue bikey-type thing that you walk quickly on. It has been used twice. There is a blue trampoline, which has been used once. There is a blue exercise ball thingy, which has been used less than once, being responsible for an immediate bad back. (I’m noticing a trend here. Why are all these instruments of torture coloured blue?)

Similarly, the gym membership now lapses unused, although the direct debit goes out of the account once a month, the bookshelves groan under the weight of diet tomes and the expensive trainers that make you walk like an African warrior (why would you want to?) have been consigned to the utility room cupboard, never to emerge again.

A QUICK Christmas Stilton update: it’s still there at the back of the fridge, belching Port fumes at the Branston Pickle and trying to get the Dairylea to join it in “roasting” a carton of Philadelphia. I’ll keep you in touch.

THE FORMER head of MI5 has accused the government of exploiting the fear of terrorism to restrict civil liberties. Dame Stella Rimington says people in Britain feel that they’re living under a police state.

Excuse me, but when even the Spooks think that we’re under the cosh, isn’t that time to get really, really worried?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Jake Thackray v Jim Davidson? No contest

THERE’S OFTEN talk of a North/South divide, usually based on some soft Southerner claiming that we all wear flat caps and keep pigeons and whippets. (I’m guilty on only two of the three charges. I don’t like pigeons.)

From my point of view, as a proud Northerner, it’s more about class, or dignity, or self-respect. We have it, they don’t. Remember the glorious Thatcher years? Yes, we might have been out of work and stood around a brazier in a donkey jacket, but they were the ones who turned up at football matches waving their wads of tenners. Who’s the class act there?

They had Watney’s Red Barrel; we had Sammy Smith’s. They had Mike Brearley; we had Sir Geoffrey. They had Jim Davidson; we had Jake Thackray (I suspect that comparison clinches the deal in anyone’s mind. The Bantam Cock versus that hilarious ‘Chalkie’ routine? No contest. Type his name into YouTube and you’ll be there all night. Altogether now, “Yan, tan, tether …” )

And so it goes with public art. We have the Angel of the North; they are soon to have a great big plastic horse wedged between two electricity pylons on a housing development in Kent. And not just Kent, but Ebbsfleet, Kent.

Have you been there? It’s the worst kind of new town horror show. Full of chavs and hoodies with only a Eurostar railway station and a failing football club to put it on the map. And now they’re about to get a White Horse. Not a classy, limestone-carved one like the Yorkshire version at Kilburn, but a 164-foot tall monstrosity designed by an ‘artist’ whose most famous recent work was dressing up in a bear suit and stalking a Berlin gallery at night for 10 days.

The artist’s impressions published in the papers this week were horrendous. It looked like a plastic Brittain’s farmyard model perched in a Blue Peter-produced bog roll and sticky-backed plastic landscape. Perhaps that’s to be expected when the £2 million project is being paid for by property developers.

And the legs looked all wrong. Mind you, as Northerners we must admit a degree of culpability on that score. You see, our most famous Northern artist, L.S. Lowry, couldn’t draw horse’s legs. No, really, trust me on this. Look at any Lowry painting in which there’s a horse and you’ll find that it is conveniently parked behind a low wall, a stack of cotton bales, a gang of tubercular children or a flock of coughing pigeons. He just couldn’t do it. Even Rolf Harris does better horse’s legs than Lowry could do. Oh, the shame.

Anyway, back to the point. There is only one man in this country who can do public art properly and that’s Antony Gormley, the man who sorted the aforementioned Angel and also populated the Merseyside seashore with those wonderful standing figures. But wait, I hear you catcall. Gormley was born in Kent. Yes, he might have been. But where did he go to school?

Ampleforth, Yorkshire, of course. Enough said.

WHILE WE’RE talking about Watney’s Red Barrel, I should alert you to the new drink from India that may very well turn up on the shelves of a Lidl near you any time soon. It’s been developed by the Hindu nationalist movement and it is made from … err ... cow’s urine.

No, really. The bovine brew is in the final stages of development by the Cow Protection Department whose head, Om Prakash, says: “Cow water is undergoing laboratory tests and should be on sale very soon.”

“Don’t worry, it won’t smell like urine and it will be tasty too. Its USP will be that it’s going to be very healthy.”

I just thought I’d let you know, just in case you end up in a London pub, any time soon.

STILL ON the subcontinent, a group of young Indian women are planning to send pink knickers to a radical Hindu organisation that has been threatening to attack unmarried couples celebrating Valentine’s Day.

The 10,000-strong group, formed during a Facebook campaign, defends the right of women to pop down the pub for a swift one and goes by the quite wonderful name of the Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women.

Do let me know where the local branch meets, won’t you?

I WAS watching that Lorraine Kelly on the telly the other morning when she wrapped up a story about Jennifer Aniston hitting a landmark birthday by asserting that “40 is the new 30.”

I bet there was an angry traffic cop on every street corner on her journey home …

WHAT IS going on with our OAPs? We’ve got used to them stomping around the Post Office after collecting their heating allowance, waving wads of notes like Cockney plasterers, but now they seem to be bonking themselves silly as well.

Take Coronation Street, as accurate a snapshot of Northern life as you’ll ever find. We’ve got Ken Barlow getting jiggy with the gorgeous Stephanie Beacham (I’ve reported him to the RSPCA – that poor little dog shouldn’t have so many walks) and Eileen’s Dad inviting himself inside Rita’s boudoir.

And even Norris Cole has been invited to play Hide the Sausage by fellow competition fan Mary. It’s outrageous.

Mind you, I suppose they could just be trying to stay warm …

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Always look on the bright side ...

SO, WE can’t all be suffering bankruptcy and redundancies in this recession, so which businesses aren’t suffering from the economic downturn? Allow me to suggest a few.

Condom manufacturers, for obvious reasons, as people stay in instead of braving the Arctic weather and stupid restaurant prices (and seek to avoid the expensive consequences of their cavorting). Camping sites and camping suppliers, as that holiday villa in Tuscany turns into a holiday field near Torquay.

Accountants and insolvency experts, obviously; JobCentre staff, bailiffs and funeral directors, likewise. Plumbers, because it’s cold; sparkies, because the burst pipe has wrecked the electrics; plasterers, because the burst pipe has brought the ceiling down; mechanics, because we’re all holding onto our cars for longer; divorce lawyers, because there’s nothing more likely to cause a row than money – or, more probably – the lack of it.

Greggs will be doing OK, pasties being the food of the starving masses; pawn shops should be cashing in; Butlin’s bookings will be up and Pontin’s have just announced 2,000 new jobs. Blockbusters and Dominoes will be packed out.

Barbers should be doing all right and retailers of cheap suits, shirts and ties should see sales rise as we all dress up a bit for the office, anxious to look like professionals as the cost-cutting management casts its beady eye over us. Cobblers will be busy re-soling, life coaches will be busy … err … coaching; Christmas clubs will be rolling in cash and tobacco smugglers will be coining it.

And Sky telly will be sitting pretty: it’s almost the last luxury to go, just before quilted toilet paper.

So when you look at it, that’s a fairly significant slice of the service industry economy. Millions of workers bringing in billions of pounds. So where’s the crisis?

Call me a cynic, but I think that far too many companies are taking advantage of the hysteria being whipped up by the media – mainly the BBC – to shaft loyal employees in pursuit of a fast buck and easy profits. And those left behind feel that they have to bow to management’s demands and do the jobs of two people or risk joining the “right-sizing” exercise. Just a thought, like.

I WATCHED a dreadful television programme this week in which 20 boys and girls, aged from 8-12, were left to their own devises in separate houses without any adult supervision.

The boys spent the first day having water fights, the second day drawing up rules about water fights, and the third day crying for their mums because they couldn’t even work out how to put hot water in a Pot Noodle.

The girls, by contrast, decorated their house, cooked themselves some food, and quickly formed themselves into cliques and got involved in the most horrendous kind of psychological bullying you’re ever likely to see. The deadlier of the species, as they say…

IF YOU’RE not a great flier, you wouldn’t have wanted to be on the flight from Moscow to New York that was reported in The Independent this week. Under the headline ‘This is your pilot slurring’ it tells how an Aeroflot pilot made a welcome announcement to passengers that was so garbled that it was impossible to tell what language he was speaking. They became so scared that a group of passengers demanded to see the man at the controls to check whether or not he was drunk.

The pilot refused to leave the cockpit to reassure the passengers, who were told by the crew they should either stop complaining or get off the plane. The Moscow Times, which had a reporter on board the plane, claimed that an Aeroflot representative boarded the aircraft and told the passengers it wasn't a big deal if the pilot was drunk.

“Really, all he has to do is press a button and the plane flies itself,” the representative allegedly said. “The worst that could happen is he'll trip over something in the cockpit.”

So, that’s all right then …

ARE WE returning to the days of the East German Stasi, when children would spy on their own parents and report them to the security services? I only ask because Carol Thatcher has been temporarily banned by the BBC for a throwaway comment she made in a private, off-air, conversation

Now I don’t agree necessarily with her terminology; it was a little insensitive, at the very least. But what has it come to when ordinary citizens – as she was once she was off screen - are hauled up before some kind of judge and jury for conversational remarks?

You may not have noticed, but we are in the teeth of a monumental economic crisis; wildcat strikes caused by the employment of foreign labour are playing straight into the hands of the BNP; Iran has just launched its first satellite, a possible precursor to a nuclear threat; and Ken Barlow is about to jump into bed with Stephanie Beacham. And all we can worry about is a silly comment from a gregarious woman whose background can hardly be described as streetwise? It’s enough to make a golliwog laugh.

I KNEW that Obama bloke was a wrong ‘un. Only two weeks after becoming President, he’s already going on television to admit “I screwed up” after appointing two cabinet members who then turned out to have forgotten to pay their taxes.

I knew he would be disappointing, but I didn't expect him to cock up this early. Bring back that nice George Bush.

SAW Lenny Henry on that Comic Relief programme the other night. I tell you what, he must be so glad that famine and war zones exist otherwise he’d be selling diamante brooches on QVC. Or crappy motels for shiny-suited sales reps who eat Ginsters’ pasties in their Vauxhall Vectras.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Money for nothing and the sack for free

WHAT’S THE difference between a mechanic at the Land Rover plant in Solihull and a woman behind the counter of a Woolworths in Yorkshire? About £2.3 billion, apparently.

That’s the amount of money Baron Mandelson of Hartlepool is going to cough up to ailing car firms in the form of loan guarantees and ‘green research’ grants – but not to rescue struggling retail outlets that have been on our High Streets for 100 years.

It’s nonsense, of course. The car companies are in trouble because no-one is prepared to fork out for a new car in the current climate. The money is safer under the mattress. Cash is king, and we’re all holding onto every penny we’ve got.

Even the 90 per cent of buyers who use some kind of finance deal to buy their car aren’t biting – and that’s if they can actually get a loan. The big banks are causing havoc at the moment, closing the accounts of loyal customers if they stray over their overdraft limit two months running or refusing home improvement loans (where there’s ample equity in the property) because you missed a credit card payment in 2003. And yes, I know people this has happened to.

Like that magnificent VAT reduction of 2.5 per cent (at a time when most shops were offering 30 per cent off everything), it’s a token gesture and money down the drain. People will only start buying new cars again when they feel confident in their economic prospects or when they’re actually encouraged to do so by government aid.

Why aren’t we doing what they do in Germany and France? There you can get a grant of 2,300 Euros if you scrap a car more than nine years old and buy a new one. The scheme is green – new cars being far more environmentally friendly than old ones – and gets the economy moving again. But no, all we get is an inadequate handout to firms that are mostly foreign-owned anyway and no help whatsoever for the poor punter – unless he’s prepared to ride round in a battery-powered go kart. Which is a great idea if you live 800 feet up a hill amidst the snow and fog, as I do.

And why is the government actively campaigning against the use of Land Rovers? Why is diesel so expensive and why is the tax four-wheel-drive owners have to pay so disproportionately punishing? Go on, explain that.

I SUPPOSE that we’re expected to be grateful that the BBC has imposed a bonus ban and a pay freeze on its top 400 senior managers. How nice of them not to pocket even more of our money in these difficult times. But then you do the sums.

The Beeb claims that the bonus and pay freeze, in place until July 2010 (my, that’s tough) will save them £20 million. Okey dokey - £20 million divided by 400 equals £50,000. This suggests that each and every one of those 400 senior managers would have expected to receive £50,000 in salary increases and bonuses in the next 18 months. And given that the average bonus is said to be 10 per cent of salary, that puts most of them on half a million a year.

Can that really be right? Is it really the case that 3,584 of us cough up our £139.50 a year just to pay the salary of ONE senior BBC manager? It’s enough to make a wounded child in Gaza laugh.

STILL, IT’S not all bad news amongst the Guardianistas. ‘Top bosses’ in the NHS collected salary increases of 10 per cent last year, more than four times that paid to nurses.

The average pay of an NHS chief executive is now £146,100, plus a bonus averaging £16,579 and an ‘executive allowance’ covering household expenses of £10,731. Oh, and let’s not forget the car allowance of £9,700.

And while we’re at it, we should note that the number of council workers on an annual salary of more than £50,000 has risen by almost 20 per cent in the past year. There are now 37,000 of them out there, up by 6,000 from a year ago.

As Matthew Elliott, chief exec of the Taxpayers’ Alliance says: “Councils are ignoring economic reality and simply recruiting more managers and handing out more pay rises than taxpayers can afford.”

It does seem perverse that at a time when every other industry is struggling to survive, the public sector seems to sail on regardless, drunk on the heady wine of other people’s money.

A HOAXER has finally owned up to inventing the condition of ‘cello scrotum’, first mentioned in the British Medical Journal back in 1974.

Doctor Elaine Murphy – now Baroness Murphy - has confessed to writing to the journal as a prank after reading of other, real, complaints like guitarist’s nipple and fiddler’s neck. Which gets me thinking.

Which made-up illnesses would you invent? There’s obviously ME of course (“Oh, boo hoo, I can’t get off the sofa because I’m so tired so I can’t go to work”), but the one I fancy is Attention Surplus Disorder.

It’s like the opposite of the imaginary Attention Deficit Disorder, and afflicts children whose parents spoil them rotten rather than imposing a traditional set of disciplinary values. You can see the poor victims, running around like headless chickens, in a Harvester near you every weekend.