Thursday, September 29, 2016

Tempted by tube chat? Here are my top tips to avoid getting sucked in.

The decision by Transport for London to encourage people to talk to each other on the tube has met with understandable derision from citizens of the Smoke.

The first rule of the UK capital - and the very glue that holds together its social fabric - is that no one makes conversation. Or eye contact preferably.

If you are feeling remotely tempted to wear one of the new badges that signals your willingness to engage in idle banter ('Baby, I'm Bored'), here are some suggestions to help suppress your urges. It's a process a Hampstead psychotherapist would call sublimation and it can come in very useful.

Isn't there another level of Candy Crush you could aim for?

If that's not your type of crush, go back and and re-read Rush Hour Crush in the Metro.

See if you can find a mouse on the platform or tracks. Hold a conversation with them instead.

Ostentatiously do your make-up - a process which can often last quite happily from Theydon Bois to Liverpool Street.

Recite to yourself all the stops on the District Line between Turnham Green and Plaistow.

Practise making general announcements to the carriage about the train being held in the station to regulate the service.

Dial one of your Skype contacts at random using the subterranean wifi network and explain that no one in the carriage is interested in talking to you.

Close your eyes and indulge in a little meditation. We'll wake you up at Morden.

Take physical exercise by swinging on the straps and handrails in the carriage. People will ignore you and carry on playing Candy Crush.

Pull the emergency cord and talk to the British Transport Police at the next stop.

If all else fails, get yourself as far North as possible. Talking there is perfectly acceptable. But I'm talking way beyond Colindale.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Saint Jeremy? We may have to wait a while yet.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta is in the news at the moment, as she’s been elevated by the Vatican to sainthood.

I admit that I’m not fully up to speed with the criteria for canonisation, so I’ve visited the Saints for Dummies web page to check whether Jeremy Corbyn also qualifies. (It’s written by a couple of priests, so it must be kosher.)

My mission has been prompted by the way in which some of Jez’s loyal supporters talk about him online.

Take this example, for instance, of someone writing to the bizarre Corbynista blog Vox Political and comparing the Islington North MP to the author J K Rowling. The Harry Potter author is noted as having the ‘Judas Trait’ about her, which stands in stark contrast to the Labour Leader. 

The correspondent notes that Mr Corbyn is a man ‘who did not let fame go to his head and instead, rather than paying lip service to human suffering, was actually willing to do something to alleviate it’.

It’s certainly a touching portrait of an individual prepared to go the extra mile. To me, it has a saintly quality about it, as God knows I wouldn’t be able to aspire to these standards.

But is it enough for actual, proper canonisation? That’s a whole other question and we’ll come back to it in just a bit.

First, I want travel to Ramsgate in Kent, a place where Jez has apparently just received a rapturous welcome.

Very confusing. 

Was it ram-packed, like traingate? Or was it... err... just Ramsgate?

Anyway, the rally was advertised under the visionary slogan, ‘Another Thanet is possible’. And as the veteran socialist has lived on another Thanet for the past 40 years, that seemed strangely appropriate.

Commenting on the event, one of Jez’s fans on Facebook described him as ‘inspirational’ and she also told us that the sun came out while he spoke.  I wasn’t sure whether there might be some causal connection between the two phenomena. If so, it’s the kind of thing that I reckon a Papal team of enquiry might take into account.

And what about musical tributes? My thinking is that before you become a saint, you’d have people singing your praises. Literally.

There’s plenty of evidence that people do feel strongly enough about Jeremy to burst into song. Some are worthy individual efforts.

In the spirit of communality and camaraderie engendered by Jez, however, the Unison branch of Barnet in north London has created a touching collective foot-tapper– presumably with the blessing of The Specials. 

But enough of my homespun speculation. I am no theologian, after all.

Rev John Tregilio Jr and Rev Kenneth Brighenti are the experts. And they tell us that the first thing to bear in mind, when considering whether someone is eligible for sainthood, is that they don’t have to be ‘sinless’. That’s impossible apparently.

Good news for Jez, as it means that all that stuff about the IRA and Hamas and Hezbollah and so on can be set to one side.

Corbyn is also on strong ground – judging by the testimony of his supporters – for another of the Reverend Fathers’ criteria: ‘evidence of having led an exemplary life of goodness and virtue worthy of imitation’.  Things are looking up.

Here’s an interesting one. You can be considered for sainthood if you have ‘undergone a major conversion of heart where a previous immoral life is abandoned and replaced by one of outstanding holiness’. 

Hmm.  Well, Jez did have a major change of heart on the EU.

He supported it 0 out of 10 in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. But he’d got up to 7 out of 10 during the 2016 Brexit referendum. Does that count?

Fundamentally, however, it seems to come down to miracles. You need a couple of them.

His victory in the 2015 Labour leadership contest was obviously the first, which qualifies him for potential beatification.  He needs another though.  

If he performed the same trick twice, would that be seen as cheating?

Regrettably, we are confronted with what seems to be an insurmountable obstacle.

The miracles are judged post-mortem.

In other words, it’s simply not possible to be elevated to sainthood while you’re still alive and kicking. The fact that your political philosophy may have died in, say, 1986 doesn’t count. You have to physically brown bread yourself.

So those who hope for Saint Jeremy to be recognised may have to wait until long after his second term in office, which would finish in 2030. Then, at the age of 81, he’d possibly have another 15 years of blissful retirement on his allotment, while John McDonnell took over.

No calls to the Vatican until, say, 2045.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The sit-down protest that doesn't stand up

Traingate is the kind of political flashpoint that has all the hallmarks of a peculiarly British farce.  

The Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition camps out on the floor of a Virgin carriage making a propaganda film about nationalising the railways. He claims his predicament is due to overcrowding, but the billionaire entrepreneur who owns the train company (and presumably doesn’t much like the idea of nationalisation) releases CCTV footage to show that there were, in fact, empty seats.

And from that starting point, what’s our ultimate destination? Who the hell knows? But we have all kinds of fantastic station stops to visit along the way.

Perhaps the empty seats were reserved? Maybe they had bags on them? Or young kids?

It may have been that Jez was keen to spend time with Mrs Corbyn III, but couldn’t find a double berth in which to chit-chat about his anti-austerity policies.

The train, according to Mr Corbyn, was ‘ram packed’. But when aides tried to contact him about the media hullabaloo surrounding the journey, he was reportedly unobtainable because he was making jam. So maybe the train was, in fact, jam packed?

The most mysterious thing to me is why – if the sainted JC is leading some mass popular movement, as his supporters claim – no one chose to give up their seat to the aged Islington North MP. Come on now, Virgin passengers. This is a poor show. An elderly man has entered the carriage and seems to have reservations about sitting down. You, on the other hand, have reservations allowing you to sit down. What do you do? Let him go and camp out in the vestibule area? Honestly.

Someone needs to explain the rules of the train world to Jezza.

If a reserved passenger hasn’t turned up, then you can sit down. After all, they’re not suddenly going to appear just south of Doncaster and kick up a fuss, are they? And if they do, you just tell them you have a massive mandate and it’s an impertinence for them to challenge you.

In the future, you can always book in advance. Get a seat for yourself, the Mrs and any friends. Although preferably not the ones from Hamas or Hezbollah.

I have a hunch that #traingate will be remembered long after Chilcot’s 2.6 million words on the Iraq War are forgotten.  On second thoughts, Chilcot’s 2.6 million words had probably been forgotten before #traingate.

With this one, Corbyn is ahead of Ed Miliband. He’s bypassed the bacon sandwich in the buffet and gone straight for the kitchen that wasn’t a kitchen. It’s the sit-down protest that just doesn’t stand up. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

En quête d'authenticité

I remember visiting Gruyères in Switzerland some years ago – home to that rather tasty cheese you can buy in upmarket stores. It was an extraordinarily well-preserved medieval town, crammed with history and atmosphere. But somehow or other, it had managed to transform itself into a theme park, complete with shops selling toy cows that yodelled when you pressed a button.

It would be a little harsh to say that Èze – a heavily-marketed village in southern France – has enveloped itself in Swiss cheese too. But it’s surely just a yodel away.

The tumbling, ramshackled and ancient streets spiral around a hill. It’s a little like a miniature version of the neighbouring Principality of Monaco, as no matter which way you turn, you end up in the same place over and over again. But instead of superyachts, casinos and Russian oligarchs, Èze boasts endless shops and eateries – each catering in one way or another for the tourists that it attracts.

Every nook contains a nick-nack that can be taken back to London or Hamburg or Tokyo. Some of the stuff is actually quite tasteful – artisan necklaces, original art works and individually designed clothes – but it is so overwhelming, it definitely detracts from the history and aesthetic of the place.

Of course, you’d have to be an other-worldly naïf to imagine there wouldn’t be shops, restaurants and tourist offices surrounding a place as attractive as this.  But there is something disconcerting about actually embedding twenty-first century commerce in the fifteenth-century buildings themselves.

The workers who toil in the village are a constant reminder of the twenty-first century. They take communal breaks on the steps among the tourists – reclining to the side of the cobbled walkways, puffing on cigarettes and checking their social media, before returning to hotels that charge €81 for a melon starter and €95 for veal and veg.

The biggest selling point of Èze is its spectacular views of the French Riviera, but you shouldn’t think that these come for free. To sneak a peek, you’re charged €6 to enter an exotic garden of follies and life-sized statues of giraffes. A sign strictly prohibits the use of drones, which rules out a cost-cutting flypast.

It’s difficult to say what Èze really is today. It undoubtedly has a beauty and charm, but its authenticity has been traded in for Japanese Yen and US Dollars. This must surely create an opportunity for other villages in the region who can position themselves as a more genuine slice of history.

If you’re looking for an authentic approach to the preservation of medieval architecture and culture, it’s worth travelling 50km east into Italy. The coastal town of San Remo is a much larger tourism hub than Èze and has all the trappings you’d expect in terms of shops, restaurants and beaches. It also has a spectacular old town, which is remarkably well preserved.

The difference with the Italian resort is that the tourist infrastructure is largely separated from the winding ancient streets. Real people still live in the hills of San Remo and they are pottering around with their shopping and chatting to each other between buildings, as the tourists pass by. In that sense, the feeling is perhaps a little similar to that of the historic Alfama district of Lisbon, Portugal.

While the tourists must be a constant intrusion to the locals, the locals undoubtedly help make the trip more satisfying for the tourists. Particularly those who hope for a modicum of authenticity and a slightly less adulterated view of history.

And the views? San Remo’s are pretty spectacular too. But the only price you pay is in physical exertion.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Who is the real face of Brexit?

The picture painted of the typical Brexit voter is of an angry, disenchanted individual in Labour’s working-class heartlands or a brash right-winger at a market stall in a place like Romford.  

I’m sure many do fall into these categories.

My hunch, however, is that your average ‘Leave’ supporter is someone far more nondescript and anonymous.

They live in a fairly decent house in a little modern development, somewhere a few miles outside a moderate-sized town.

They drive to work along the same stretch of motorway each morning and complain endlessly about the traffic they encounter near Junction 8.

They usually bring a packed lunch, but occasionally nip out to Morrisons at lunchtime. They try not to spend more than £3.99 and like meal deals.

They don’t find their job hugely exciting, but they like the people they work with. There’s a Fantasy Football league and last year half a dozen fellow employees travelled down to London to see a show.

There are one or two people at their office who bring in real filter coffee, but they prefer instant.

They drive back along the motorway listening to Heart. They try to leave just before 5 or else the traffic is a nightmare.

They take the dogs for a quick walk when they get back.

They have dinner and watch a bit of telly.

They talk to their husband about the Euro 2016 football and Jenny and Paul’s wedding. 

They agree that he’ll try to fix the lawnmower, but if he can’t, it’ll have to go in for repair.

They remember that tomorrow it’s the EU referendum.

They’ll vote when they get back from work. Maybe when they take the dogs out.

They quite like Boris and think that Europe interferes too much in decision making.

They are meeting the husband’s sister and her family at the weekend. They may drive to the pub they visited back in October. The food was quite good.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

If you look down, you'll see Barking

Reality TV is a genre that truly has no boundaries. Like the universe, it can only expand endlessly until eventually, one day, it collapses in on itself.

We've seen reality TV shows about animals. And we've seen plenty which challenge people to try things they've never done before. But a show which challenges canine contestants to fly a plane? It was thought to be outside the Hubble bubble. Until now.

This week, I watched the culmination of the Sky TV show Dogs Might Fly, which ended with a pitbull cross managing to execute a figure of eight in UK airspace. The mutts involved in the selection process - who were all rescue animals - went through an arduous training course involving makeshift simulators on the ground.

Lifted up in a harness to prevent them putting too much weight on their front paws, the dogs were taught through Pavlovian-style rewards to turn the steering wheel left and right. The would-be Luftwoofe pilots were then acclimatised to the turbulence of life in the air by going for speedboat ride on the Thames.

The results were impressive. With a trainer behind him and a human pilot beside him (presumably ready to seize control in the event of disaster), the winning pooch actually managed to navigate the skies.

Can you imagine the conversations the producers had with air traffic control? But now the precedent has been established, it can't be long before Ryanair presses these dogs into service as a cost-saving exercise.

Anyone for  southern Europe? Viva Espaniel!

Thursday, April 07, 2016

They would have gotten away with it, if it weren't for those meddling kids...

Two stories from different sides of the Atlantic recently highlighted how crime fighting and investigation really can be child's play.

In the UK, cops in Surrey were astonished when a group of kids formed a human arrow to point a police helicopter in the direction of two alleged criminals. As the suspects in a farm burglary case made their way across fields to escape the arm of the law, the enterprising youngsters laid themselves on the ground to act as a signal. All it took was a quick radio message from the chopper and the fleeing men were apprehended.

As a number of commentators have pointed out, it seems like something straight out of Enid Blyton's Famous Five or Secret Seven stories, to which I was addicted as a kid. 

It's true to say that choppers didn't feature much in Blyton. Her young sleuths were from a bygone era in which the village bobby would have been plodding by on his pushbike. And the arrow kids from Capel were on an Easter egg hunt in the company of their parents, so had some cordon of protection. I don't remember the parents in Blyton's books taking the slightest interest in where their kids were from one week to the next. Certainly not the boys, anyway.

Brave and ingenious though the British children were, they surely must doff their caps to an American counterpart - young Hilde Kate Lysiak of Pennsylvania. The nine-year-old daughter of a former New York Daily News hack, she has established her own local rag called the Orange Street News, reporting on the goings-on in the Snyder County town of Selinsgrove (Pop 5,383). 

Does Hilde restrict herself to yard sales and fashion trends at the local prom? 

No siree bob. 

When she got a tip-off about a possible homicide, she was down at the crime scene - notebook and camera in hand, breaking the story before other more established news outlets. It was a scoop which attracted opprobrium from local residents, who felt she would more appropriately occupied with dolls and crayons, but the youthful newshound has since hit back in an online video.

Before we know it, kids will be running the world. And given the track record of these youngsters, perhaps it would be no bad thing.