Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Enjoy the Jubilee - and try not to think about what comes next

As one of Britain’s more fanatical monarchists, I am greatly looking forward to celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee – one of the very few genuine “once in a lifetime” events.

I have vivid memories of driving to London on an old A-road during the Silver Jubilee celebrations of 1977, passing through village after village hung with bunting that must have been carefully put away after the Coronation, judging by the number of South African and pre-maple leaf Canadian flags on display.

Now that's what I call a street party. Salford, 1977, according to The Guardian.

These may have finally succumbed to moths by the time of the Golden Jubilee in 2002, but the left’s eager predictions that the public would refuse to celebrate half a century of Elizabeth II turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

The Mall in 2002. The Guardian predicted a total lack of public interest.

My hopes are accordingly high for the week ahead, even if the weather forecast sounds dubious and we can no longer afford to turn out the Gold State Coach for a grand procession to St Paul’s.

But will the positive impact on my personal morale be reflected across the nation as a whole? On the one hand, we have Sir Mervyn King warning that the loss of GDP caused by an extra bank holiday may be enough to tip the UK into recession for a further quarter.

On the other, retailers tell us that they are looking forward to an £800 million spending spree that may partially make up for the thoroughly depressing 2012 they have endured so far. True, their other hopes are pinned on the generation of a “feelgood factor” by sustained good weather, a strong showing by England in the Euro 2012 football championships and a series of British triumphs in the Olympics. None of which looks massively more plausible than my decision to base my retirement strategy entirely on a big win in the National Lottery. Though I do at least usually remember to buy a ticket, thus raising my chances by a mathematically insignificant degree.

Above all, I greatly need some happy memories of the Jubilee to banish from my mind the defining image of 2012 in Britain so far: the team of 50 paramedics, firemen and police officers half demolishing a house in South Wales in a £100,000 operation to release a 63 stone teenager from her bedroom.

Image from The Sun

It is hard to imagine the sheer dedication to gluttony that must have been required to achieve a weight gain on this scale. Indeed, the only positive spin I have been able to put on it is seeing some encouraging parallels with the Eurozone, where Greece similarly finds itself trapped in an impossible position as the result of years of overindulgence.

It clearly won’t be easy to extricate it from its dilemma, but given the will and the resources perhaps it may yet be done. If not, who can tell what may await the Greeks and all the rest of us just around the corner?

When Britain last celebrated a Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the country was at the apogee of its imperial power and could look back on 80 years of global pre-eminence, rising if unevenly distributed prosperity, and relative peace.

Note how closely the soldiers stood together in those days ...

You don’t have to be a big Downton Abbey fan to know what happened 17 years later.

Today we may be sadly diminished as a power, but can similarly look back on more than 60 years of increasing wealth and the avoidance of large scale conflict. For the sake of our collective sanity, I suggest that we do not dwell too much on what may happen next, but simply reflect on our good fortune in having a head of state who has undoubtedly given us a much higher international standing than any politician would have managed.

And while enjoying the cakes and ale, remember also the personal moderation for which Her Majesty has always been renowned, lest more of us ironically end up requiring a bulldozer to release us from our homes when this “great summer of sport” finally comes to an end.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The European earthquake that could change our lives forever

How would you feel if you woke up tomorrow and found that Britain had ceased to exist, and become part of another country?

You would be a touch surprised, I imagine. Yet within living memory, on 16 June 1940, just such a development was announced by no less a patriot than Churchill himself: “France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations but one Franco-British Union”.

Desperate times call for desperate measures and this was Britain’s last throw to keep France fighting Germany. It did not work. The French capitulated and the “indissoluble” union was consigned to the footnotes of history.

Why bring this up now? Because we are similarly balanced on the edge of a precipice and might find ourselves rudely shocked by the speed and radicalism of the proposed solutions.

We watch the unfolding catastrophe in Greece in much the same detached way as most people in Britain observed the Czech crisis of 1938, memorably described by Prime Minister Chamberlain as “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”.

Yet what is going on in southern Europe now has the potential to cost us far more financially than the Second World War ever did, and it is not just money that is at stake. If governments default, banks collapse, wages cannot be paid and cash machines stop working, it does not take a particular pessimist to see the potential for civil unrest on a scale that will make last summer’s riots look like a nursery school sports day.

It is particularly galling that all this was deliberately set up by the euro enthusiasts who realised that their dream of a single European state could never be realised through democratic consent. So they decided to build it by creating a monetary union that they knew full well would be inherently unstable, but could advance the cause of political union through “beneficial crises”.

As crazy Bond villain master plans goes, this one has worked an absolute treat – to the extent that we even have traditionally Eurosceptic politicians in the UK urging closer union on the members of the Eurozone as the only way to resolve their problems.

But why should even that work? The smart money at the time of writing seems to be on Greece being ejected from the euro and unimaginably large sums of money being splurged to keep Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Italy within the club. Though it is hard to see what ultimate purpose this will serve, other than saving the faces of the shining-eyed true believers in the European project.

Should they succeed, we would end up with the German-dominated Continent that two world wars were fought to avoid – with the difference that the Germans would not be an all-conquering master race, but the hard-working suckers paying to keep their southern neighbours in the comfortable style to which they have become accustomed. Given the resentments that would be generated on both sides, it is hard to see that as a durable arrangement.

There is absolutely no good outcome to this almighty mess. If you were planning on getting richer any time soon, I would forget it. But the least bad denouement is surely one through which we can see emerging from the dust of the earthquake not more Europe, but less - particularly for those of us in Britain, who are blessed by our geography and history with the ability to explore wider horizons than just looking longingly over the garden fence.

But standing on your own is tough. Even Churchill was tempted to gamble his country’s independence to keep an ally on side. As the crisis across the Channel deepens, we must maintain a hawk-like watch on our current leaders. Otherwise, who knows what we might find ourselves signed up for in a doomed attempt to mitigate the short term pain of change?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Lost causes - from pork pies to Facebook via the dear old C of E

Now, children, for today’s quiz: what do pork pies, the Church of England, Coronation Street and Facebook have in common?

In the last two weeks, I have finally lost faith in all of them.

It all started with a pork pie – in the literal sense, not Westminster rhyming slang. For 20 years, I was principally employed to burnish the reputation of one of Britain’s largest food manufacturers, whose extensive product portfolio included the country’s leading pie brand.

Many times I proudly showed sceptics around the gleaming factory where they were produced, laying particular emphasis on the fact that the principal ingredient was good quality belly pork, and not the various unmentionables so often assumed.

Scanning the rather denuded shelves of a local shop for a quick snack lunch, and finding no sandwiches to my taste, I was pleased to pick up one of those reassuringly branded pies. My first bite contained a large lump of inedible gristle; my second a long auburn human hair. There wasn’t a third, nor will there ever be again.

Then the Sunday before last I was dragged, against my better judgement, to a christening contained within a “family service” at an Anglican parish church. My heart always sinks when I spot some grinning grey-haired loon tuning up his guitar at the front of a church, but this exceeded all my expectations.

First there were two non-hymns that combined no obvious religious sentiments with no recognisable tunes. Then we were enjoined to accompany a non-Bible reading about Samson with a variety of animal noises. After which, the harassed-looking lady vicar made for the front of the church for what I thought might be a sermon but proved to be the unveiling of a blackboard divided into squares and the joyous news that it was time for this week’s quiz.

I cannot say what happened after that as I was sitting in the sun out in the churchyard, feeling infinitely closer to God.

And lest anyone suggest that this hideous, dumbed-down farrago of a “service” was helping the young to appreciate religion, let me assure you that the many children in the congregation seemed to regard it with the same derisive bafflement as a landslide majority of the grown-ups.

The net result was to make me resolve not to bother christening my own second son. Trying to arrange this has in any case brought me close to despair, as various episcopal hurdles have been erected to prevent him from spending ten minutes by a font with a retired vicar friend and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Still, there was always Coronation Street to cheer me up. Until we made the fatal mistake of going to an arena in Manchester for the second (and, one can only hope, last) performance of the new musical based on the show: Street of Dreams. This combined a cringeworthy script that would have embarrassed a small hamlet’s amateur dramatic society with unmemorable songs and stumbling performances that were at least mercifully invisible from our top-priced seats, unless we looked at the projection on the giant screen above the stage – which surely rather defeated the object of putting on a live show.

Again, I fled at the first opportunity, but I find that the TV soap has also suddenly lost its appeal.

I would write about it all on Facebook, but Mr Zuckerberg’s hideous new Timeline has led me to pull the plug on that, too.

I expected my horizons to narrow as I progressed down the slope towards death, but if the things I once held dear keep going at the current rate I will just have to hope that my next church visit is not delayed too long.

And if the priest should diverge from the 1662 burial service to hold a little quiz, I can tell you now exactly where that muffled screaming will be coming from.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Few things give us more cause to rejoice than being left behind

We all surely knew that the non-campaign for elected mayors was running into serious trouble when its supporters started bleating about the dangers of Newcastle being “left behind”.

I have been left behind all my life, from the earliest egg and spoon races at my primary school, and it has never done me any harm. In fact, I rejoice in it.

How many of us wake up in the morning full of regret that we ignored all those powerful politicians and economic gurus who warned us that we would be “left behind” if we did not join the euro? But there the parallel ends.

A lemming: no doubt cursing its luck at being left behind

Elected mayors were a half-baked idea that no one seemed capable of explaining coherently, let alone selling to an electorate that clearly had other issues much closer to its heart.

I await with keen interest a protest march chanting: “What do we want? More highly paid elected politicians! When do we want them? Now!”

The euro, on the other hand, while economically illiterate, is a very well-thought-through cog in that great political project designed to deliver a single European state. And even as the voters of France and Greece reject the parties of austerity, the cheerleaders of the new Europe like Lord Mandelson declare that the only answer to the crisis is – yes, you guessed it – more European integration.

Lord Contra-Indicator of Hartlepool and Foy

As a small-c conservative, I naturally take heart from the great British public’s tendency to reject gratuitous change, whether in the form of a regional assembly, the alternative vote or elected mayors, whenever anyone consults us directly.

I am also conscious, however, that the real victor in last week’s local elections and referenda was the Apathy Party, which kept more than two thirds of potential voters away from the polling stations.

If we don’t like Messrs Cameron and Osborne now, we are surely going to hate them when all the belt-tightening measures they have announced but not enacted actually start to impact on our lives.

It seems implausible that we would turn so soon to the comedy double act of the Two Eds, who were right at the epicentre of the Gordon Brown Fan Club that got us into our current mess in the first place.

Miliband and Balls: Ssshhh, don't mention Gordon

Though memories are remarkably short, as one can judge from the chorus of boos on any discussion programme when Coalition ministers attempt to pin the blame on the huge deficit that Labour ran up.

We cannot register a protest vote with the usual third party, since Nice Nick is enjoying a threesome with those other posh kids, so where does that leave us? With Nigel Farage, Caroline Lucas, George Galloway and Nick Griffin, plus others who would make their policies look like positively mainstream.

In short, pretty much where the Greek people have ended up today. Time will tell whether the net result is to be the collapse of the euro project or the extinction of democracy in Greece and any other country where the electorate has the temerity to challenge the wisdom of the European elite.

My money, I regret to say, is on the latter. But, either way, we face a period of acute economic and political turbulence across the Channel that isn’t going to do any favours for prosperity or stability here.

I would relish a referendum that gave Britain the opportunity to start extricating itself from this European car crash. The result is far from easy to call: our innate conservatism and shortness of memory surely militate against apparently radical action to put the clock back and reclaim our independence.

But when you are perched on the edge of a cliff with a forest fire advancing behind you, there is no easy choice.

Who will give us the chance to vote on something that actually matters? If nothing else, it might help to push the Apathy Party back into the minority where it rightfully belongs.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Striking a blow for liberty with a bar of chocolate

Got a bee in your bonnet? The obvious solution is to write a polite and well-argued letter to “Views of the North” over the page.

That would be an altogether more civilised reaction than hiding behind a risible nickname and posting a lot of hurtful and venomous abuse on the internet, where an inclination to rant and an inability to spell seem to be equally de rigueur.

But if you really feel strongly about something, how about transforming yourself into a pressure group? You could adopt an eye-catching and mildly offensive name like “Pinkstinks”, which opposes “the ‘pinkification’ of girlhood”. A movement that has gained much publicity and already seems to have achieved some success, judging by the famous Hamleys toy store’s decision last year to axe its traditional boys’ and girls’ departments in favour of “gender neutrality”.

Pink: gone

Or you could try making yourself sound frightfully official, like The Food Commission. An organisation any casual observer might well take for an arm of government rather than a pressure group. I always thought the Council for the Preservation of Rural England was barking up the wrong tree when it watered its name down to the current Campaign to Protect Rural England, apparently because they were worried that some halfwits might take “Council” for a local authority and start bothering them about bin collections.

Rural England: gone

You could call yourself something like “The Children’s Food Campaign” and start banging out press releases condemning supermarkets for having the temerity to sell confectionery near their checkouts, instead of lentils and tofu. You will get acres of sympathetic coverage.

An image "chocolate confectionery - going?" has been removed to avoid potential charges (financial, not criminal) from the money-grubbing image copyright police.

This strikes me as ironic, because I could not care less about the rows of sweets lurking passively by food stores’ checkouts. The only thing that really annoys me is the impossibility of buying a newspaper from our best-known national newsagent without fending off their active efforts to sell me a gigantic bar of chocolate at a bargain price.

For clarity, this claims to be a bookshop and newsagent

I am thinking of setting up some pressure groups of my own to promote a few home truths, such as Children Like Sweets and Boys Prefer Cars to Dolls. These are not attitudes that my wife or I have ever encouraged. We were delighted when our elder boy’s reaction to his first taste of chocolate was “Ugh!”

When his kind great aunt presented him with his first tube of Smarties, we happily let him labour under the delusion that it was a rattle for several weeks. But after a while he worked it out and decided all by himself that he liked sweets.

Nor have we ever had any desire or incentive to point him in the direction of traditional boys’ toys. On the whole, we would rather not have every square foot of carpet in our house cluttered with model cars, tractors and farm animals. But that is what nature, not nurture, has determined that he likes.

We regard saying “No, you can’t have those sweets” in the checkout queue as a good lesson for us in the exercise of parental responsibility, and an even better lesson for him that life is chiefly going to consist of a series of setbacks and disappointments.

Maybe Sainsbury’s in Alnwick might like to consider equipping one checkout with a display of miniature farm machinery to help us reinforce this message, though if they do they would be wise to equip the ones on either side with a generous supply of earplugs.

There may not be too many compensations in being a grown-up, but having the freedom to decide what to buy and what to eat, for our children as well as ourselves, is definitely one of them. The last thing we need is more obsessive pressure groups feverishly encouraging the nanny state to tighten its grip on the minutiae of our daily lives.

In fact, just this once I may strike a blow for liberty by saying “yes” to having that massive bar of chocolate with today’s Journal.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.