Monday, 23 May 2011

Am I getting too old??

I turned 54 recently (well not that recently I’m racing to 55 now!) and for the first time that feeling of old age hit me. I’m not old of course and I could live many more years – my mother just made 87 – but I did feel down and decided to research some elder statesmen who are a little older than me.

The oldest complete skeleton found in Britain is called the Cheddar Man (he was found in the Cheddar Gorge, he’s not made of cheese – you were mistakenly thinking of the moon there). He dates from around 7150BC: about 4,500 years before the first stones were erected at Stonehenge. Older parts of humans have been found, but the Cheddar man, who now resides in the Natural History Museum, is the oldest complete true Brit.

Mr Cheddar has butchery marks on his boles, as if he’s been professionally sliced up in some way. Naturally this being pre-history, this is contested: he may, for example, just have over enthusiastically scratched an itch. (if you’re turned off history cos it’s a bit argumentative don’t even bother going anywhere near pre-history. The guys in this field are animals). Turn away if you’re of a nervous disposition, but basically, he was probably eaten.

The Lindow Man meanwhile is the naturally preserved body of an Iron Age man discovered in a peat bog at Lindow Moss, Cheshire. He lives in the British Museum and looks like a deflated football. Lindow man dates from between 2BC and 119AD the time of the Celts and the Druids and the good news is he wasn’t eaten. On the downside he was probably a human sacrifice. Of course all the sources saying the Druids/Celts sacrificed humans are Roman and therefore possibly fabricated, as they were unlikely to give good reviews of a population they were ruthlessly suppressing. The Roman writer Tacitus wrote of ‘religious groves dedicated to superstition and barbarous rites’; Lucian of ‘trees sprinkled with human blood’. But the archaeological evidence indicates that they may well have liked a touch of human sacrificing, probably usually criminals or slaves, possibly burnt alive in huge baskets made of wicker.

Human butchery in these isles. It’s a shocker. That’s your roots for you. You watch programmes on the tele like Tribe and you see a world where everyone is close to nature and to each other and no one is ever ignored for long and it all seems quite inspiring. Then some elder wise man strats beating the crap out of the kids with sticks (to ward off evil spirits) and you think: balls to that for a game of soldiers and move to Swindon instead.

I actually popped in to see Cheddar Man on my 54th birthday. I was on my way somewhere else but thought I was feeling very old and he would cheer me up – unfortunately he was out. Now I don’t mean  he was REALLY out, on the town, doing the clubs, I mean he wasn’t on display. The books all say he’s in the Natural History Museum, he’s on their website. He’s the oldest complete skeleton found in Britain – of course he’s going to be on display in the country’s foremost repository of things historic – why would anybody need to check! And how would you check anyway; ring the museum and ask “is the Cheddar Man in?”

It’s all dinosaurs now of course. Old Cheddar man is upstairs in a cupboard somewhere. I’m sure they’ll put him out again one day – well if they haven’t chucked him in a skip or something. I came looking for solace that my old age feelings were nothing – I left with foreboding for my ignored future however limited that was.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The People we Brits love to hate


THE DANES: You wouldn’t think it to look at them now, but they were once huge bastards

THE FRENCH: In the 18th Century Britishness was built on four mainstays according to top Britishness academic Linda Colley: Protestantism, war, the pursuit of profit, and hating the French. Nelson prescribed: “you must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil”

THE ROMANS: Slaughtered Boudica and subjugated the noble, woad-spattered Britons. On the plus side introduced under floor heating which cuts radiator clutter

THE NORMANS: Prototype French. Cunningly also Danish

THE SPANISH: No gripe for ages on this front, but at the opening of Parliament in 1656, Cromwell declared: “Why, truly, your great enemy is the Spaniard. He is a natural enemy, he is naturally so”. You don’t get speeches like that at the opening of Parliament anymore – more’s the pity.

THE ARGIES: All smoothed over now, so it’s OK to eat corned beef again – except it’s disgusting. Here’s an idea: let’s have  war with whichever nation is responsible for luncheon meat (I do hope it’s the French)

IRAQ: Seems they posed a considerable threat – but well, they won’t be bothering us for a while

THE DUTCH: Attempted to rival Britain for naval supremacy before giving up to become pot sodden whore monsters

THE GERMANS: Number One all time top enemy. The wave of anti German feeling during WW1 even saw angry mobs attacking Dachshunds. We have it on the strictest authority of my gran that the Boche will rise again – Achtung! Achtung!

THE YANKS: And after all we’d done for them! At the time of the War of Independence it was feared defeat would mean the dismemberment of the Empire. But the Empire went on to be the largest the world had even seen. So who’s laughing now eh?

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The ugly truth about the kilt (not really)

With a head nod to Steve Lowe

When Scotsmen proudly don their kilt for another wedding or to claim supremacy at a Burns night, they are expressing a rich tradition – a rich tradition that was invented way back in the mists of time: in 1822. But then, 1822 was quite a long time ago...

This was the year that Scots literary giant Sir Walter Ivanhoe Scott and military man David Stewart of Garth prepared a massive pageant for the fat, drunken monarch George IV (the first visit north of the border by a reigning monarch since Charles II). Basically wanting to show off a bit, the Lowland Scots suddenly stopped thinking of their moor-dwelling neighbours as dangerous lowlife and instead got well highland themselves: out came the kilts and the tartan, and the immortal pipes – all nearly as novel for the Lowlanders as for the fat King himself.

George’s visit – one and twenty daft days according to one observer – included balls (oh, the balls), walkabouts (oh, the walkabouts) and general ‘huzzas’ from adoring crowds (this was quite a turn-up, because most people thought he was a complete arsehole). Now finally, all the Scots looked Scottish.

Ironically, this festival of kitsch Highlandism was just after the first and before the second load of Highland Clearances, which saw hired thugs brutally expunging the Highlands of your actual Highlanders. These Clearances were not really post Culloden English revenge on rebel clans, more the Lowland Scots Lords developing a brutal eye for sheep related anyone wearing a Scottish sweater is basically a bastard.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Tory Lies and Damned Statistics

All praise to Zoe Williams

Here is the problem with the economy, and the coalition's stewardship of it, from an observer's point of view: they say "the huge burden of debt the last government left us with", and although I smell a rat, I cannot smell how large this rat is. Ed Balls or – more audibly, actually – Gordon Brown before him, can say this deficit reduction policy is lunacy, but it's hard within a context of adversarial politics to tell how much danger we're really in.

A Tory MP might say on Any Questions, "We have to do this or we'll end up like Ireland", and we might know instinctively that we're not Ireland yet not know exactly how unlike Ireland we are. It's straightforward to disagree with specific cuts – but maybe, because it's simpler, we're arguing about which tree to cut down when we should be arguing about the whole programme of deforestation.

Michael Mendelson is now an academic at the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, but his relevance for these purposes is his work in government: he was at the centre of fiscal policy during the great Canadian "bloodbath budget", the massive-scale deficit reduction undertaken by Jean Chr├ętien's liberal command in the mid-90s.

Canada's success was the ideal held up in Tory electioneering: it is rare to effect successful consolidation – to the extent that it's only happened six times among OECD nations since 1970, and one of those was Greece (in other words, it didn't happen but looked as if it had). Apparently Tories did solicit advice from key players of the Chr├ętien experiment prior to Britain's 2010 election, but only about the mechanics of deficit reduction. Nobody asked whether conditions were right. Nobody asked if it was a good idea to try this at home.

The first problem is that the UK is nothing like Canada. They succeeded because they had vigorous growth, their exports were strong (oil and manufacturing, both to the US, which was also booming) and private-sector demand for labour was outstripping the public sector cuts from the minute they started.

Mendelson explains: "You can't just choose when you're going to cut your debt, any more than you can say 'I'm going to sell my house now and get the same price as I got three years ago'. There's a market. And it's odd that the people who are the most defensive of the market don't seem to understand that fiscal management is also part of the market. You can't just decide that you're going to free up resources that are currently being used by government unless you're sure there's somebody else who's going to buy them."

To edge back a step, our deficit was nothing like Canada's either. Theirs had been rising steadily since 1974, and debt had got to 70% of GDP. Ours was 30% before the financial crash, a figure that is manageable, almost respectable. Mendelson observes: "You're an extremist country, it's odd. You don't think of yourselves that way. But you are. There is no crisis in Britain. Even if you're not a Keynesian, at the very least you'd admit that it is incredibly risky to implement a massive one- or two-year cutback in public-sector spending in the midst of what everybody recognises as the most dangerous period of economic turbulence since the Great Depression. Why would you do that now?"

The totem of the huge New Labour overspending that has brought us all to our knees is fiction. This might explain why the opposition never complained about it at the time. There was an upturn in national debt after the financial crisis and the bailouts, and "you couldn't have carried on like that indefinitely", says Mendelson. "But with some moderate constraint, washing out the transient effects of the crisis, the rate of increase of the debt would have been moderated."

But that is just the beginning of how phoney the coalition's war against debt really is. If we're nothing like Canada we're nowhere near Ireland either. "Ireland didn't have a debt crisis. Ireland had a balanced budget, it had a very low debt-to-GDP ratio. Ireland's problem started because they decided to guarantee all the bank debt. So if you want to look at the Irish problem and say 'we don't want to end up like that', the first thing to ask is 'what's the structure of the UK bank debt?'"

Nobody's asking that because to accuse the banks of anything is taken as the last resort of the deficit denier. It's time to own up to that, instead of backing away. It's time to start denying this deficit properly. Imagining for a second that even with this misinformation and mismanagement the economy pulls through, what's the best-case scenario?

"If the world continues to recover economically you'd probably be looking at continued slow rise in unemployment for another couple of years, a stagnant GDP, you'll probably miss the deficit targets, unless they have been purposefully understated. And then, four or five years hence, you will begin to recover, much more slowly than the rest of the world. Your debt-to-GDP ratio won't be that much better because your GDP won't have grown that much and your debt remains your debt. But sure, you'll be into a period of renewed growth four or five years hence, after a significant amount of pain."

And that growth would have happened anyway?

"Well, it would have happened a lot sooner."

The good news is that I'm out of space to pass on the worst-case scenario.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Elected Coppers - No Thanks?

With thanks to Ed West

I hate to use the phrase “liberal elite”, I really do. It should be on a Right-wing banned list along with “metropolitan liberals”, “Hampstead/Islington liberals” and “political correctness”, whether the mad or sane variety (and I’m sure I’ve used all of them). But looking into the reasoning of those who opposed Government plans for elected police chiefs last night it’s hard not to.

The proposal was killed off with a Lords amendment, voted out by, among others, former Metropolitan Police commissioner Lord Blair. Sally Hamwee, the Liberal Democrat rebel whose amendment it was, told peers it would lead to “the politicisation of the police”. She said: “I fear that what is populist may sometimes be dangerous, and may not reflect the needs of those who can shout less loudly.”

She’s not the only one. One legal society has warned that “a significant reason for resisting this reform is the irrefutable tenet that the police must not be swayed by public opinion”, because this might encourage miscarriages of justice. Liberty oppose it because “the proposals threaten the centuries old pillar of police independence”, while the Local Government Association says it could “fragment local partnerships” with councils.
Populism? Public opinion? Didn’t we just have a referendum last week based on the principle that, ultimately, the public does the right thing, one which the liberal elite lost? Damn, there I go again.

There might be problems with the model proposed by the government, but isn’t the idea that the public has more control over government officials a good thing? Not to everyone.
Blair has been bitterly opposed to reform of the police ever since Mayor Boris Johnson removed him in 2008. Last year he wrote in the Guardian: “And then there is the announcement of the introduction of elected police commissioners, apparently drawn from the US model of elected sheriffs, without any intellectual underpinning or historical understanding of the kind of national compact between the UK police and its public.”

But that is exactly the point; there is no national compact right now. Many of the police’s natural supporters feel completely alienated by the service’s hierarchy, and its priorities; they cannot understand police decision-making, the ludicrous overkill when investigating some petty crimes, the failure to put foot patrols out, the lack of interest in dealing with burglary, street robbery and what is now euphemistically called “anti-social behaviour”, the mentality that crime is a “social problem”, the proliferation of “thieves operate here” signs which basically say “we don’t”.

A few years back Sir Ian, as he was then, complacently declared that people in Haringey could leave their doors unlocked; as a taxpayer in Haringey, and one who lives in the London postcode with the highest burglary rate in the capital, I can assure him that is not true. Yet there seems to be no redress, because the people with power wish to impress those who appoint them, government officials; that’s why police chiefs seem more interested in winning over Guardian readers, by ticking the right ideological boxes, than Mail or Express readers.
It was also reported today that there would be tougher penalties for burglars, but that large numbers would still escape jail. To many people the idea that anyone who commits burglary – an incredibly serious crime which causes huge emotional damage to the victim, and fear in their neighbours – should escape jail is baffling. But many people do not have a say, because presumably to ask ordinary people would be populist. This has to change.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

The best Tuna Pasta Bake you'll ever taste

This is one of the cheapest meals in the book. There might look like a lot of ingredients but the extra touches are what turn a rather bland meal into something special. I can promise you that if you have eaten tuna pasta bake before (or your family have) then this will blow your mind.

Ingredients (Serves 8)

2 Large tins of Tuna Chunks in Brine
Pasta of Choice (I use Fusilli for the authentic look) – about 21oz (600g)
I standard 8oz (250g) pack of unsalted butter
Plain Flour (same weight as butter)
Medium sized tin of Sweetcorn (if you want to make the true Italian version use frozen peas)
21oz (600g) of strong cheddar cheese
1 Pint of milk (semi-skimmed preferably)
A shot of cream
3 slices of old bread

From your kit box:

Lime Juice (from a squeezer), paprika, cumin, tarragon, oregano, 2 cloves of garlic (I like to finely chop this but you can push it through a garlic press if you like but if you do, DO NOT take the skin off – you are sacrificing taste), extra virgin olive oil
The kit box items here turn this standard meal into something special and will give you a real taste of Italy.

1.      In a large pan filled with water add a glug of oil and bring to the boil. As its reaching the boil throw in the pasta and leave for the time required to cook on the pack LESS one minute. When you think its ready get a piece out and try it. It should be a little chewy as it’s going to get a second cooking. When ready turn off the heat and leave.

2.      In a saucepan over a middling heat melt the butter till its a clear liquid. Cut it up into pieces to make this happen quicker and avoid burning the butter. Patience is everything with the sauce and it’s all about stirring constantly. When the butter is melted take the pan off the heat and leave it to cool for a minute or so, then add the flour slowly in batches. You should end up with a thick light brown paste.

3.      Put the saucepan back on a middle heat, keep stirring. Add a glug of cream and mix it through, then add the milk again in batches making sure the sauce stays lump free. I can’t stress enough that care in the stirring gives fabulous results. Add a good squeeze of lime juice.

4.      When the sauce is runny and clear of lumps add a tablespoonful of tarragon and the same amount of oregano, then a teaspoonful of paprika. Again stir to make sure this spreads throughout the sauce. Now add the garlic and stir.

5.      Grate all of the cheese. Take two thirds of the amount and SLOWLY place into the warm sauce in batches. DO NOT stir too vigorously, nice a gentle gets the best results letting each batch of cheese melt fully into the sauce before adding more. Yet again keep stirring! You will find that the sauce thickens as you add the cheese. This is ok but the sauce must be pourable so if it goes beyond that stage add a small amount of water to bring it back. When it’s ready add another squeeze of lime juice.

6.      Drain the pasta and place in an oven proof dish. A good heavy caste iron dish is the best as it spreads the heat well but any dish will do that you are happy to serve at the table. Whether it’s one dish or two doesn’t matter. There is a lot of produce here (this serves 8 with very generous portions). Turn on the oven at 180 degrees so it can warm up.

7.      Open your tins of tuna and flake on top of the pasta, then with a broad spoon mix it into the pasta evenly. Now open the tin of sweetcorn and do the same. You should have en even spread of pasta, tuna and sweetcorn before you go any further.

8.      Now pour the sauce over the top. Again do it in batches and mix the sauce right through the other ingredients.

9.      Now for the topping! Turn the bread into breadcrumbs using whatever you have to do this. A food processor, a cheese grater (watch your hands!) or just your fingers (this is how Italians do it, rubbing the bread in their fingers). Put a good glug of olive oil in a dish, then the breadcrumbs and the rest of the grated cheese. Get your hands in and mix it all together, don’t squeeze too hard as you don’t want to compress it too much, adding a bit more oil till the mass binds together loosely.

10.  Spread this mix on the top, trying to cover the whole dish with a light topping. Add another squeeze of lime juice over the topping (not too much just a drizzle evenly spread) and place in the oven for 20 minutes.

11.  Serve straight out of the dish at the table with a ladle. Sit back and enjoy all the comments as your dinners say “this is the best pasta bake I’ve ever tasted”

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Real Politics?

with thanks to Peter Watt

When you are involved in politics in an active way it can be quite easy to forget what really matters.  The fight becomes more important than the victory. Scoring points and getting one over on your opponents become what really matters. Of course losing is tough – but it is all too often actually losing, rather than the consequences of losing, that hurts the most. It is easy to see why this happens; politics can be an emotionally bruising affair. Getting on involves hours of leafleting, meetings and door knocking. You take to the stump armed only with your credibility and after all those hours spent on a single endeavour – winning – the outcome is obviously going to be felt pretty personally. All in all, politics can be a pretty nasty addiction if you get seriously hooked.

The AV referendum campaign has been a particularly classic case of a campaign fought between addicts. It has felt exclusive, otherworldly and somehow just not important. The key campaign messages seemed to be more point scoring between people in an elite club. There was a certainly a lot of shouting and calculation of the most tribally beneficial outcome. Yah-boo politics of the worst kind. As a result, the campaign has passed most non-politicos by. In fact, it has passed many politicos by as well.

It certainly hasn’t been the celebration of democratic renewal that I suspect the Yes campaign hoped for – whatever the result.

Monday, 2 May 2011

What would Charles Kennedy have been doing now?

It’s three days until we have our much vaunted referendum; but in my mind we are having two referenda for the price of one that day and they are both about the same thing.
We SHOULD be voting on whether we want to change the voting system from a strangely  adversarial process known as ‘winner takes all’ (or ‘life’ if you want a shorter phrase) to a much more cuddly system known as AV (or ‘ the least unpopular person wins’ if you want a cynical phrase for it) – that’s what we should be voting about but it won’t be.
The YestoAV folk seem to have just about accepted defeat. Despite the clear appetite that the UK has for proportional representation (and that shows in all the polls done over the last 10 years) this time the British voters will say “no thanks” and stick with what they have already. That may seem very odd – the majority of people when asked about PR in May 2009, in a survey funded by the Labour Party, said they were in favour; in fact we know that the majority of people in this country are in favour and it is, in effect, only Tories who oppose what is a fairer system.
Yet we will get a clear NO vote this week.
At the same time we will all be voting for our local councillors and here the protest vote will be seen in the shattering of the Liberal Democrat stronghold on Councils across the country. It is suggested that many LibDem candidates could come last in their local vote, even the allocation voting system won’t save them, and they could lose every council where enough seats are up for grabs to allow that. Many seats around the country won’t even have a LibDem candidate fighting in it – such is the lack of willingness to be humiliated by grass roots supporters.
And here is where the LibDems have truly let us all down. They have stayed out of the way during the AV debate as much as they can but we all know it’s the cornerstone of their coalition deal. Many people believe they went into an untenable relationship with the Tories PURELY to get AV. So the problem is that many voters see voting YestoAV as voting Liberal Democrat! Of course it isn’t it’s a vote for a system that certainly works for them in General Elections, but at the end of the day we should be voting on whether we want a different system of not.
But we won’t be doing that.
So the referendum vote and the votes cast in the local elections will all be about the same thing. The universal discontent felt by the majority of Labour AND LibDem voters at the last election, for what Clegg & Co have allowed to happen. The AV system, for 50 years something the LibDems have campaigned for, is going to be rejected by a public desperate to show Nick Clegg what they think of him.
Ironic really that Mr Clegg, the man who was supposed to transform the Liberal Democrats, could destroy their most important principle and policy - there is no doubt it will be another 50 years at least before we have this referendum again – and one has to ask...........
Would Charles Kennedy have made the fantastical mistake that Clegg’s naivety led him to make? Kennedy was a statesman (albeit a drunk statesman) who could see the bigger picture – as a result he didn’t need to listen to fools like Paddy Ashdown – he read the political and economic ramifications of things and made his own decisions. Kennedy was a s savvy as Clegg is naive. I wonder where we would be now.............
And I wonder if Kennedy would be about to win the AV vote – or maybe even a PR referendum!