Friday, August 24, 2012

Dirty Harry

Does Prince Harry's little game of strip billiards with a Vegas 'bachelorette' troupe really matter? His friends in the media have been quick to offer all kinds of bizarre justifications for his behaviour. The most ludicrous of these - which I read quite soon after the news of his escapade first broke - was that His Highness needed some R&R after the Olympics.

Err... excuse me?

Was he actually involved in the competitions? I don't remember his challenging Mo Farah for the tape in the 10,000 metres, do you? In which case, we're talking about the need to recover from a succession of jollies, where he lapped up the sporting action from the best seats in the house. Poor diddums. It must have been tiring.

The next argument is that he's an army officer and about to ship out to Afghanistan shortly. If we had to fight the Taliban like him, so the argument goes, we too would be spending thousands of pounds a night on a luxury suite and inviting an excitable hen party to join us.

What a load of horses**t.

I'm sure that soldiers are inclined to let their hair down between tours. But your average squaddie is downing pints and chasers in a pub in the back streets of Andover. My hunch is he's not jetting half way around the world with minders in tow, picking up a group of hot chicks who like nothing better than discarding their clothes after a game of pool.

Now, one of the Prince's rich pals is trying to put the blame on the girl who took the pictures, describing her behaviour as 'despicable'. Really? If I'm in a position of responsibility and do something irresponsible, can I honestly say it's 'despicable' when someone who lacks my own massive wealth makes a bit of cash out of my behaviour?

What this whole episode reveals is a culture of hedonism among supposedly well-educated and cultured young men, who have a great deal more money than sense. There seems to be no embarrassment about the way in which police bodyguards are compromised by having to tag along for strip billiards. Even their bosses seem to think that the whole thing's ok. But the average British taxpayer is entitled to ask what the hell is going on. And pray that one day a lottery win may take them to their own Vegas hellfire club.

Monday, August 20, 2012

How strange can the Assange story get?

Personally, I feel pretty ambivalent when it comes to the case of Julian Assange and Wikileaks. In principle, it's great that the hypocrisy of world leaders is exposed, but it's a shame the whistle-blowing website has seemingly alienated a number of its erstwhile supporters. And while I have no idea whether any of the personal allegations against its founder hold water, I think the Swedish authorities are unlikely to be part of an international CIA-inspired conspiracy.

What can't be disputed is Assange's capacity for generating headlines and disconcerting his enemies. From his political bid for the Australian Senate through to his grandstanding from the balcony of London's Ecuadorian embassy, the guy is a showman who wants to be remembered as a world figure.

Although pretty much anything could happen in this bizarre, unfolding story, the smart money surely has to be on Assange staying in his embassy bolthole for years. In 2030, he may still be there, long after everyone's forgotten who he is or why he was granted asylum. Perhaps this will prove the ideal time to sneak him out of the country in a large diplomatic bag.

I've been particularly intrigued by his living conditions. From what I've read, it's not quite an Anne Frank scenario, but still rather less luxurious than the posh embassy setting would suggest.

For a while, there was a blow-up bed for the puffed-up Wikileaker and it's only recently that the ambassador has managed to find a mattress. On the other hand, Assange works out on a treadmill (explaining his trim physique) and has a cable connecting him to the Internet (big mistake).

Over time, I wonder if his little room might take on more character. A handful of nick-nacks and mementos perhaps? A signed photo from the Ecuadorian president.

Embassy staff could smuggle in a few luxuries, such as a pot or two of Vegemite. Gradually, his room will take on the character of a prison cell occupied by one of the 'big' lags, who calls the shots on the wing and has the screws at his beck and call. Assange might become Grouty in a South American remake of Porridge.

Visitors welcome. As long as they're not from the tactical firearms unit of the Metropolitan Police.



Saturday, August 18, 2012

Closing an account? It should be child's play...

Mrs W has had a real battle with NS&I - the UK's state-owned investment and savings organisation - over her attempts to close accounts for the two mini-Ws. You'd think that closing an account and getting your money out should be a pretty straightforward affair, but not with this particular arm of government bureaucracy. It involved form filling and phone calls on a scale not seen since Leonid Brezhnev asked the KGB to register all the establishments selling vodka within a 500-mile radius of Moscow.

Anyway, after about three months of going backwards and forwards, the money did emerge and Mrs W was offered some modest compensation. We can forget it all and move on.

As a footnote, however, it's worth flagging up one complete and utter absurdity of the way NS&I handles accounts for children. It seems from Mrs W's correspondence and conversations that any kid over the age of seven, who may nominally be an account holder, is required to give permission for their parent to act on their behalf. Mum or dad phones up the call centre and tries to close down the account they opened for little Johnny, only to find the operative at the other end of the line wanting to speak to the lad himself.

'Is it ok if I talk to your parent about something you've never heard of and don't understand?'

The minis are quite a few years older now, so Mrs W was able to brief them. But if your kid really is seven or eight, the whole procedure is a farce. The youngsters are surely not capable of understanding what it is that they're consenting to. And if they fail to say 'yes' - perhaps because a Lego tower needs completing or Barbie's having her hair done - then their parents are up a well-known creek without paddle.

Now the accounts have been closed, NS&I have written to each of the mini-Ws separately, explaining the outcome of their investigation into mum's complaint. And here's where it starts getting stupid again. The letters are written in an a language that would bewilder any youthful recipient still awaiting formal admission to Mensa.

'As the account holder, I am writing to you directly due to our obligation to customer confidentiality...'

Let's leave aside the grammatical glitch here which suggests it's the writer of the letter who holds the account. Why would they expect any child to understand the notion of 'customer confidentiality'?

They then use phrases such as 'mishandling of correspondence' and 'discrepancy in our records', before going on to explain that the 'warrant' sent in compensation is just like a crossed cheque. My favourite sentence reads as follows: 'Our requirements should have been consolidated into one single letter instead of the multiple requests that were sent.'

Poor kids. They are being compensated for the failure of an organisation to cough up money they probably didn't know they had. And they're being told about it in a way which would leave them none the wiser.

Never mind though. If they're not happy, they are entitled to refer the matter to the Financial Ombudsman.

Twice as Nice

Although Nice Airport is France's second biggest, the facilities beyond passport control are a little on the limited side. In terms of eating and drinking, passengers have a choice between a small convenience store which rejoices in the name of Ouishop and an Irish bar called Murphy's.

The two establishments interconnect through supermarket-style gates that swing open and shut, so perhaps it should have dawned on me that the shop and the pub were, despite very different facades, one-and-the-same business. In fact, this connection only became clear when I looked at my receipt and saw that it was headed Murphy's-Ouishop.

I feel Murphy's-Ouishop is a brand name with real potential for extension across multiple markets. Irish enough for Dublin and French enough for Paris. A place you might expect to find crackers, as well as a healthy serving of craic. To be sure, it has a je ne sais quoi about it.