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This is a blog of liberal stance and independent mind

Wednesday 30 September 2009

A Cautionary Tale – 3

As it’s over a week since I arrived back from the Netherlands to find that the criminally inclined had treated themselves to my LumpCam (tm), I decided to take stock and check on progress. The results column is predictably empty.

The only progress with the Police has been that, as I’m suitably hacked off with their total lack of service, I’ve filed a complaint with the IPCC. You can do it online, and nobody who feels that they’ve had bad service from the cops should feel averse to doing the same.

EasyJet are maintaining radio silence, showing that they are as caring as the cops about the behaviour of their handling agents’ staff. I would phone them, but then, scraping my fingers down the nearest blackboard would be more productive.

The only folks who are enthusiastic about the whole business are those who would very much like me to buy another LumpCam (tm). What a surprise.

Out of the Sun

With admirable candour, the Sun’s Trevor Kavanagh (presentable, pleasant and a complete yes man) conceded that Murdoch the Interfering Foreigner had been involved in the decision: the Super Soaraway Currant Bun has now officially deserted Labour and will cheerlead for the Tories come the next General Election.

So what? Labour have been well behind in the polls for months, and the Tories look to be on course for victory, barring any of Supermac’s “events” overcoming them. And that’s without the Sun supporting them. Does it really matter?

That depends on whose reaction you’re watching. The Beeb’s Nick Robinson has laid out the timeline and has put forward some thoughts on the effect of the switch. Strangely enough, Alastair Campbell, part of the Blair team that worked so hard to get Murdoch on side, doesn’t think it’s such a big deal. But then, he would, wouldn’t he? Big Al was part of a Government that wanted the Murdoch endorsement, just as Major (who said he counted the time that the Sun dropped him as the beginning of the end) and Thatcher did.

Michael White in the Guardian has put it rather more interestingly: he has called the Daily Mail as the country’s most influential paper. The Mail’s legendarily foul mouthed editor, Paul Dacre, is a friend of Pa Broon. And in 1997, the paper told its readers to vote Tory – Dacre detested Tony Blair – to little effect: the number of Daily Mail readers voting Labour then increased in 2001.

Meaning that the Sun is, as Robinson says in his blog, following its readers, and not leading them. Meanwhile, White has picked up on the promise by Young Dave to hobble Ofcom, a Rupe friendly move, which he has called a “down payment”. I’ve noted that the keeping of “family” Andy Coulson, and the new right of centre grouping in the European Parliament, are also sure to please Murdoch. As pundits on Rupe’s Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) like to say, there must have been a quid pro quo.

So, Dave, how about letting the electorate know what it was?

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

One of my very first blog posts was about the eyebrow raising practice of charging extra for your seat – at the time, practiced by BMIBaby. It’s an interesting way of extracting that little bit more from the punters for those locations that yield a little more legroom, and don’t have the possibility of the person in front reclining their seat into your face for the duration of the flight.

But with costs rising and revenues under pressure, one very significant player has decided to join in the seat charge game – British Airways, no less. The sales pitch contains the regulation amount of flannel: it’s all about customers having “choice” and “control”. Ba-lo-nee. It’s about BA squeezing the punters that little bit harder.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

Statler and Waldorf Return

Hardly had Pa Broon finished yet another speech this afternoon than the various hacks were at it with the analysis. It was good, but then, it was fairly good. Or perhaps it was average, or bad, or terrible, or then, perhaps it became better in the retelling.

Sound familiar? Some of the crits came over like the hecklers from the Muppet Show. And, faced with a choice between hack repeats and Muppet repeats, I think I’ll go with the Muppet ones.

At least there’s some humour in those.

Persian Mirage – 3

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has now been – rightly or wrongly – confirmed as President of Iran. There are still some in the UK, and no doubt the USA, who want their respective Governments to protest the recent election results, and who keep urging resistance to the régime in Tehran, apparently oblivious to the inconvenient fact that what happens in Iran is, ultimately, down to the Iranian citizenry.

But, with the discovery of another nuclear facility near Qom, those picturing Iran as some kind of Middle Eastern loose cannon about to obtain a nuclear arsenal are now shouting louder than ever. As ever, the Guardian has gone into some detail about the newly discovered plant. The suggestion appears to be that it would be possible to produce enough enriched uranium there to produce nuclear warheads, but not to sustain a power plant.

So no doubt there will be talk of sanctions. There will also be sabre rattling by the Israelis, and the implicit threat that they will act unilaterally against Iran if they perceive that others are not acting, or not acting as they would wish. But no action has yet been taken by the Government in Jerusalem, as they did against Iraq. This is not a surprise.

For starters, the Iranians might shoot back: they certainly possess missiles with sufficient range to reach Israel. Moreover, the nuclear power that never has to submit to inspection, despite being in the Middle East, is that controlled by Israel: not for nothing was Mordechai Vanunu banged up in solitary for so many years.

Ultimately, the restraining hand on Israel is, as ever, the USA. Washington needs to keep restraining: if the shooting starts, it could get nasty. A peaceful outcome looks to be even more of a mirage.

Monday 28 September 2009

Iberian Leanings

The left, we are told, is in retreat across Europe, as shown by Germany’s elections, with the SPD recording their worst result for over half a century. But the Germans aren’t the only ones doing elections: Portugal has also been to the polls, and the outcome has bucked the supposed trend, with Prime Minister José Sócrates and his Socialists gaining the largest share of the vote.

And he’s not the only left of centre premier in the region: Spain’s José Zapatéro, who came to power after his opponents attempted to call the Madrid train bombings as an ETA attack for political gain, is still in office.

And what has the victorious party promised the Portuguese electorate? More public works, it seems. My own reaction, being an occasional visitor to the country, is that moving Lisbon’s Airport across the Tagus should come later than more basic works, like keeping the trains free of graffiti.

But it’s fascinating to see that the conventional wisdom about left/right politics does not necessarily hold – and no surprise that the inconvenient exception does not get widely reported.

When Irish Ayes?

In case anyone has taken their eye off this particular ball, here’s a reminder: the Irish are voting this coming Friday (for the second time) on the Lisbon Treaty. There is occasional media coverage, but – given the ability of the outcome to make or break the treaty for good – not much. And those in the press and the blogosphere who have complained about this haven’t exactly been banging on about it themselves.

Which is a pity, because it matters – not merely the vote, but some decent analysis of the campaign and the issues as well. I previously noted that Michael O’Leary, the combative CEO of Ryanair, the Millwall of air carriers (everybody hates us and we don’t care), was prepared to put half a million Euro into the Yes campaign, and rightly so, as without the EU opening up the air travel market, he wouldn’t have had his opportunity.

Others have weighed in on the No side, including UKIP, who don’t seem too fussed with involving themselves in another country’s business, and find themselves on the same side of the argument as Sinn Féin. And there have been some dubious polls doing the rounds as a result. Why? Because it matters for the Irish – and it should matter for us, too.

In reality, the Irish have gained assurances on three areas which matter to them: abortion, neutrality and taxation. They have used their leverage to negotiate concessions. Those in the anti-EU corner will keep saying that the Irish are just being told to keep voting until they say yes. But if you can use the exercise to move things in your favour, that’s not being bullied, but boxing clever.

And why not? Successive UK Governments have done the same. It’s what constructive engagement is all about.

Look out for the Side Effects

Sometimes, side effects are suffered by those taking medication. At other times, the side effects may be suffered merely by talking about medication. Yesterday’s raising of the medication issue on the Andy Marr Show during Marr’s set piece interview with Pa Broon is already causing fallout among the latter group.

Leading the chorus of righteous scorn this morning has been Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole, which has been reported across the spectrum, from the Maily Telegraph to the Guardian, to whom Marr has given more information about the interview and his show generally, which includes the significant fact that Downing Street has not made a complaint about the medication question.

I’ll bet they haven’t.

Because one question none of those involved seem to be asking – yet – is that of how the issue will play for Labour. And I suspect that it could play rather well: Brown not too happy about the question, but prepared to answer it, then being portrayed as being unfairly smeared by some in the blogosphere – and one newspaper - who can’t back up their rumours.

And Marr wins too: he’s now being lauded by the Tory leaning blogosphere, instead of being pictured as a rotten leftie. But this could change very quickly if he were to ask Young Dave, as I mentioned yesterday, about the rumours that have been doing the rounds at Westminster – those same rounds that the Brown rumours have been doing.

Were he to do so, Marr would immediately be denounced by his new admirers and there would be calls for the BBC to be purged of those possessing inconvenient thought (not that Tories are against free speech, of course). It would be such a racing certainty that I would put money on it, except for one small problem.

I may have difficulty getting odds.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Stopping the Journey of the Number 88?

So it’s going to be Jack Straw who takes on the odious Nick Griffin, Oberscheissenführer of the BNP, when Griffin gets his chance on the BBC’s Question Time, as the Beeb itself has revealed. I had previously reckoned that Hilary Benn would have been a good choice, but Straw will do nicely.

Why so? Well, if there’s one Cabinet Minister who does the nit picking rebuttal and point reinforcing to a degree that sometimes looks obsessive, it’s Jack Straw. Experienced opposition types are well used to his style – heck, even I’ve become immune, and no longer get the urge to launch the newest portable through the dining room window when he’s in full flow. Griffin may not be up to speed here, though.

There will no doubt be a variety of subjects up for discussion when the prog gets aired – October 22 appears to be the date to watch – but all the main parties’ reps will be waiting to put one over on Nick Griffin. Given the BNP’s appetite for making inroads in traditional Labour areas, Straw will be looking to land the significant blows on the former boxing blue, and that would be just the ticket.

To bring the journey of the Number 88 to a shuddering halt.

Who’s Taking What?

If the telly is to be believed, the weather is most pleasant today in Brighton, which will be one consolation for delegates to the Labour party conference, their last before a General Election that they are widely predicted to lose. But the talking point following this morning’s Andy Marr Show will not be the sunshine outside.

Marr kicked off with the customary review of the papers, memorable only for the fact that the two hacks attending were from the Murdoch Times and the Maily Telegraph, which is hardly the left leaning line-up pictured by Beeb haters. The buffoon from the Maily Telegraph was memorable only for being utterly unfunny, except for his likeness to Alfred E Neuman, face of MAD magazine.

But the main event was a long – perhaps needlessly long – interview of Pa Broon, whose tongue was not hanging out of his mouth, and who did not appear to be losing grip or sanity. There was some perspiration, but in a stint that long, it’s no big deal. Then came the question: there have been rumours about whether he’s on anti depressants, or that his sight may be fading.

So Marr asked him, and he said no. It’s a rather personal angle to take, and even those who knew of Harold Wilson’s brandy habit – or Margaret Thatcher’s increasing use of whisky – wouldn’t have dared put the question in a live interview. So is this a bit naughty?

I take a relaxed view on this: the Beeb are always striving to be even handed (not that the Tory froth brigade would ever concede the point) and so I fully expect Marr to ask Young Dave next weekend to confirm that he no longer has a friend called Charlie.

This might prove difficult, of course, as he’s not owned up to such a friendship, even in the past. Yet.

Saturday 26 September 2009

Sound the Alarum

Yesterday, the kind folks who look after the electricity supply phoned. There was to be an interruption in service – what we used to call a power cut – but it was an urgent event, a need to replace some equipment. Well, it was the middle of the day, the time of best daylight, and at least those whose contact numbers were on record got to find out beforehand.

So it was a good time to get out of the house and do something marginally more useful. I made sure that everything that might reasonably be shut down and switched off was actioned, and as I left the house the supply went off. Being outside the house, how would I know? Ah well. The same reason I knew, still being outside the house, that the service had been restored.

It was the multiple brayings of several household alarm systems, defaulting to sound when their power supply is interrupted, as this might be the act of intruders. The cheaper ones then go berserk once more when the mains comes back. Some neighbours took notice of the racket, but not so much as to make any investigation. And, unless these alarms are tied in to the local Police service, there’s little point in having them, other than the grief they cause the rest of us.

If you’re out of town, any discreet thief will be in, out and away before even your neighbours realise: best make sure you lock up and keep the windows shut. After yesterday’s double dose of alarum sounding, the number of appearances by the local Police was precisely zero.

They don’t know it’s sounding – they don’t know to turn up.

Friday 25 September 2009

And Your Deposit

Recycling. All those plastic bottles you got from the supermarket. Do you feel motivated to put them in the right colour bin – or do you, more or less regularly, find you can’t be bothered with the whole business? So what if you had a tangible – as in monetary – incentive?

This is something you’ll come across in countries like Germany, and it’s been a feature of some retailers in the Netherlands since before I worked out there back in 2000. The concept is pretty straightforward: you get billed for a bottle deposit in addition to the marked price for the product. You want to lose that deposit, fair enough, go ahead and throw it.

But if you want to get the deposit back, it’s simple: you take the empties back to the supermarket, where they have a bottle deposit machine. This identifies each one you insert by size and shape, and credits your deposit. When you’re done, press the green button and out pops your “bon”, a voucher which can be used to pay part of your next bill.

For families that go through serious amounts of such things, that could make a real difference. Who’d be more bothered about recycling then?

Thursday 24 September 2009

A Cautionary Tale – 2

Today I have another helpful leaflet to read through. It’s called “How to make a complaint against the Police”, and it comes from the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC). It’s not at all threatening, and there is even a form available on their website to help the complaints process along. But I do wonder why on earth I should have to do this: after all, had Merseyside Police managed to bother themselves to actually investigate the theft of my best camera, there would be no need for further action.

Moreover, the lack of investigation hasn’t fussed my insurance brokers, who have confirmed that a mere incident log number will satisfy the insurers’ demand for details. The impression is given that it’s not worth bothering, which brings the obvious corollary: at what point does crime become “worth bothering about”? It’s a strange concept that thieving a 275 quid camera is, well, “no big deal”, and also a disturbing one. It suggests that the criminally inclined can get a taste for robbery without action being taken against them.

Now, I’m not in the category of folks wanting to reintroduce capital punishment for “striking Westminster Bridge”, but it does seem odd that some people may become set in the way of criminality before any corrective action is even considered. It’s always more difficult to kick a habit that you’ve already started.

Meanwhile, the box from Amazon that I kept meaning to throw out has proved to be unusually valuable: it has in it the Invoice and Receipt for the now missing camera. After all, despite the theft not bothering the Police, the insurers aren’t about to stump up unless I can demonstrate that the article in question was mine.

[Update: the Travel Insurance – guess what – does not cover anything that has been checked in. Where does it say that? It’s in the list of ingredients, after Monosodium Glutamate (apologies to M. Python)]

Wednesday 23 September 2009

A Cautionary Tale

There has been a gap in my postings, and a good reason for it. Yesterday I said goodbye to the Netherlands and flew back into Liverpool with EasyJet, which was not a problem. Neither were the rail journeys out to Schiphol and back to Crewe. Everything in the garden was moderately weed free. Until I opened my hold bag.

I know, I know, put a camera in the hold luggage – what a silly boy! Ooh, you shouldn’t have done that! Well, thanks in advance for the lashings of hindsight, but that isn’t the point being made: it’s that you might as well get used not only to having the criminally inclined dip into your personal space, but that the people you expect to protect you from this kind of thing won’t lift a finger to help.

First of all, there is the handling agent: this is the company that does the non-flight work for carriers like EasyJet, and at Schiphol it’s a company called Menzies Aviation. And they don’t want to know. Why is this? Well, once you’ve taken your case off the luggage belt at your destination, and walked out of the airport with it, you’re stuffed. You have to check it out before leaving the airport – and how many of you do that? No hands raised? So Menzies Aviation don’t need to bother, and they won’t.

What about the carrier? Ever tried to find an email address for EasyJet? You get to fill in a web based form and hope. So far I’m two automated replies in, and not a sound. But there’s always the police, isn’t there? Brace yourself – for the average punter, here’s the biggest waste of space going.

Merseyside Police at Allerton deal with the Airport. And all they are prepared to do is to allocate an incident log number. Their “policy” is that the investigation has to be done by the cops in the country where the flight originated, and this bit you’ll love: the Police at Schiphol won’t take any action unless the person making the complaint is actually in the Netherlands.

The officer I spoke to at Schiphol was at least honest: when I suggested that this meant unless I headed back to the Netherlands, I was screwed, she admitted simply “Yes”.

So, summing up, the carrier won’t reply, their handling agents have washed their hands of any responsibility, and both countries’ Police forces refuse to do anything about it. Which means that, not only are the cops failing the general public, but more significantly, the criminally inclined of Greater Amsterdam can thieve away, safe in the knowledge that the cops won’t bother them.

And around the globe, police forces wonder why the public get cynical.

Monday 21 September 2009

Good Night, and Good Luck

So ended Edward R Murrow’s special, “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy”. For McCarthy and his “red scare” witchhunt, this was the beginning of the end. His inability to distinguish friends from enemies, and his descent into alcoholism, helped the process. McCarthy was of course the holder of elective office, unlike the deeply unpleasant Rush Limbaugh – who called Susan Sotomayor, Barack Obama’s first nominee for the Supreme Court, a racist, and the equally odious Glenn Beck, who has called Obama himself a racist.

Now, a parallel has been drawn between McCarthy, Limbaugh and Beck, and the video can be viewed here.

And remember: Fox News (fair and balanced my arse) not only employ Beck and have not moved to censure or even quieten him down, but also have among their pundits Ann Coulter, who says that McCarthy is a “Great American Hero”.

Fox is of course run by Murdoch the Interfering Foreigner, whose endorsement Young Dave is seeking in the run up to the General Election (I’ll just throw in the pledge to abolish Ofcom, standing by Andy Coulson, and creating an apparently daft coalition in the European Parliament as examples of Rupe friendly actions).

Tory supporters prepared to say anything about the Fox style, or even prepared to speak out against Cameron’s cosying up to Murdoch? What you are unlikely to see on any news channel this side of the General Election.

Even here there are the Sights

While on the first of my two recent assignments in Bristol, I was forced one day to listen to the thoughts of another team member who was not generally in possession of a volume control. His sermon that particular day was working in the Netherlands, and having done that myself, at first I found his choice reassuring. The reassurance lasted until he gave his opinions of Rotterdam. For this city he had no even moderately good memories, and told emphatically of his relief at leaving. There was, he asserted, nothing there worth seeing.

So before heading out, I did some research, and drew up a list of sights to see. And there are some memorable ones, from the 1930 van Nelle factory, to the cube houses at Blaak, which you just have to see close up – a photo doesn’t do them justice. Along the way there was the city’s first high rise building, which looks modest today, plus the now evergreen Euromast (sponsored by ABN Amro), the Feijenoord stadium (also called de Kuip) and the stunning Erasmusbrug, which was showing off its opening capability when I arrived.

There are more: the Central Business District, as folks call these things nowadays, is where the land had still not been built on back in 1970. Now it tells visitors that the city, the port and the region have recovered and are prospering.

Nothing worth seeing? He was talking, and not looking or listening.

Death of a Gateway

After the fall of Holland in 1940, the centre of Rotterdam was as a wasteland. Little recognisable was left standing: the post war reconstruction had to start literally from scratch. So despite it being cast from concrete, the frontage of Centraal Station was a sign to resident and visitor alike that the city was back in business. It was memorable the first time I visited over forty years ago, and like an old friend when I made a visit while working out here in 2000.

Not any more.

The “redevelopment” of the area has been planned for many years, and began last year with the summary demolition of that frontage. Now all that is left is a gash in the front of the building, which looks ugly and needless. There won’t be any photos of it: it looked so awful. More, one main reason for the exercise, the passenger subway, is still there and still in use. However, a footbridge has been built over the west end of the station, with some platforms having escalators, so perhaps the idea is to copy the recent rebuilding of Leeds City station.

How long the disruption will go on is not clear: it won’t be helped by the extension of the Erasmuslijn Metro north west from under the station, as part of the RandstadRail project. One thing is for sure: a gash in the building and an adjacent jumble of blue portakabins do not make for a memorable welcome. But let’s hope the finished product will do the city justice.

In the meantime, Rotterdam Centraal is dead – long live Rotterdam Centraal.

Sunday 20 September 2009

Riding with the Presidents’ Conference Committee

Summer Sundays in Amsterdam bring the opportunity to take the leisurely ride out to the Amsterdamse Bos, with the chance of a peek at the back gardens of Amstelveen, thanks to the volunteers of the Tramway Museum. They run a service from the Haarlemmermeerstation out to Bovenkerk. Today the journey could have been made on historic trams from Vienna, Amsterdam and Prague, but I rode in some comfort on den Haag 1024.

And there’s one reason that 1024 is as comfortable as any modern tram: she may be 57 years old, but this car is a PCC. What that? Back in the interwar years, the Presidents of many tramway (or streetcar) lines across the USA met to find a way to counter the challenge of bus and car competition. The subsequent Presidents’ Conference Committee gave its initials to the cars built to the standards they laid down.

In mainland Europe, PCCs were built under licence by La Brugeoise in Belgium, for Brussels and also, from 1948 through into the 1970s, for den Haag. The replacements for the den Haag cars used similar bogie trucks – so similar that the second batch of them re-used trucks from withdrawn PCCs. The ride of these trams is still of demonstration standard: indeed, modern trams that don’t use articulation, or trucks at the very ends of the car, for me do not ride nearly as well (Herr Siemens and Monsieur Alstom please note).

The PCCs built in the USA totalled around 1650, and it was a success in at least prolonging the lives of many operations. But the ultimate success of the PCC came far, far away from its home turf: the rights holders sold a licence to CKD Tatra – near Prague – whose iconic T3 tram alone had a build run of over 14,000, but only behind the Iron Curtain. Many of the trams are still in service today.

All this passed the UK by, as by the end of the 30s, most cities had determined to switch to buses. One operation, in Blackpool, ordered modern trams and the heads of other operators were invited to come and sample the product. All were impressed, but one of their number summed up the sad truth:

“There’s only one thing wrong – you’re twenty years too late”.

Flip that Pancake

Many years ago – although I think the place is still there – I occasionally stopped off at a pancake house at the corner of St Peter’s Square in Manchester. Savoury pancakes, apparently, were a Netherlands speciality, and they were served up on large Delft plates to reinforce the message.

Well, I’m pleased to say that those savoury pancakes are indeed a Netherlands speciality, and there are eateries around Amsterdam that will rustle one up for you, along with sweet versions for afters, and equally characteristic starters such as Dutch pea soup, which is very green and very filling in one.

One more ticked off the list.

You Can’t Bring That Car In Here

Today has been Auto Vrije Dag in Amsterdam – the one day a year when cars are not allowed to enter the city. All day, checkpoints at or near the motorway ring have been turning hopeful punters away, while service vehicles and buses have been allowed through, as well, of course, as bicycles.

Think about it for a moment: car parking in the city is eye wateringly expensive, progress is slow even at quiet times, and the whole area is criss-crossed by frequent bus and tram services. So what’s the problem in giving up the car for one day a year, or putting it in one of the P&Rs?

Well, it’s a problem to enough motorists to cause pleading, hectoring, anger and the odd attempt to follow the bus in front. In summary, it’s the car culture writ large. During my work time in the Netherlands, a senior project manager I worked with was always decrying public transport: his constant assertion was that it was so much slower than driving.

The problem with his argument was exposed at early morning project meetings when he would dial in from his hands free, being stuck once more in a traffic jam.

Saturday 19 September 2009

Doing Food Properly

Today it was the turn of the Amsterdam tourist circuit. And an awful lot of it was unfamiliar, but how could that be? After all, I lived here once upon a time. Ah well. There’s a difference between being a resident and being a visiting tourist. Those who live in the city may not be fussed about the Magere Brug, the Koninklijk Paleis, or even, sad to say, the Anne Frankhuis. I used to walk across Dam Square and not even bother with the palace: just avoiding the directionless hordes would do fine.

Thus it was with the local food. Eating out meant either walking over to Leidseplein, if it was a group thing (expats do like to congregate in familiar surroundings), or walking the whole of two shop fronts’ distance to the nearby Eetcafe. So I missed the real Netherlands deal. This evening put that right with a visit to De Blauwe Hollander, not far from the brashness of Leidseplein, on Leidsekruisstraat.

So what’s on offer here? Well, potato and smoked eel soup for starters (tip for those who have a problem with the word “eel” – after being smoked and cut into small pieces, it’s not likely to be doing any slithering). Then a hearty Stamppot with more of those potatoes, sauerkraut and lots of that red meat that I normally avoid. And on a square plate – is it just me, or do a lot of Amsterdam eateries use these? But that’s a mere detail, although a more significant one is that drinks are priced up – but everywhere else does it.

Basically, it’s a good feed. Recommended.

Be Nice When It’s Finished

Back in the 1960s, someone had a brilliant idea: in the future, Amsterdam would have a network of Metro lines, and the tram network would eventually become superfluous (this came after the equally brilliant idea that buses would do instead). And so arrived the first Metro routes, causing such disruption and consuming much money – all for a short underground section from the south side into the city centre. The Metro idea was quietly put to one side, except for the Ringlijn, for which the new construction was above ground.

But some ideas never stay dead for long, and so the Noord-Zuid Metrolijn has arrived, but only in the form of a building site. One good part of the plan is that it brings rapid transit to the north bank of the IJ: the bad part is that the work is proving “difficult”, even in a country familiar with tunnelling through wet ground. Some tram routes are being diverted around the building sites, while some building sites are having to work round tram routes.

And the fallout from the project can be seen at the south end of Vijzelstraat: houses on the west side suffering from the workings beneath, cracked and needing support, rather as one might recall the results of mining subsidence in the UK many years ago. And now the money is running out.

What to do? Either someone has to pay to get it finished, or if it’s to be called off, then someone else has to pay to fill it all in. In Amsterdam, push has most certainly come to shove.

On An Island

The city of Amsterdam has a problem that won’t go away: there is more demand for places to live than there is space in the city to put them. So throughout the post-war period, suburbs were created outside the canal ring. One of these, Osdorp, which lies below sea level, was at another turning point: the realisation that the city could not function without its tram system. It was estimated that the suburb would need a fleet of over fifty buses to serve it, or eighteen trams. The eighteen trams – some of the last built in the Netherlands – won.

Fast forward to the new millennium, and the pressure on space continues. So a new suburb has been created on a series of islands, themselves reclaimed land, in the estuary of the IJ east of the city centre. Not surprisingly, this new town has been named IJburg, and this morning I took a ride on the newly built tram route that connects it with central Amsterdam.

After the tram passes through the long Piet Heintunnel, the first impression is of a bare and deserted landscape: only after some time does the line enter IJburg proper, with the usual range of shops topped and flanked by medium rise apartments. From the end of the line I walked to the “strand”, which looks out over the IJ. But the far shore is so very distant. In fact, everywhere seems a long way away. IJburg gives the impression that, despite its closeness to one of the world’s busiest city centres, it is isolated and lonely.

In the warm September sunshine, it looked a little stark and functional, but when the rain falls and the wind blows, which it does in this part of the world, it will not be a happy place.

I caught the next number 26 back to Centraal Station, hoping that IJburg would grow up happier, and prove me wrong.

Friday 18 September 2009

Easy Rider Blogosphere

Several other blogs – and not just those you can see in my profile – come, more or less occasionally, under my inspection. All shades of opinion are sought out and considered. And one conclusion has been reached regarding the attitude of part of the blogosphere – particularly the Tory supporting one – towards the empire of our old friend Murdoch the Interfering Foreigner.

Put directly, it is that he is being given a free ride.

So what? Well, on first glance, that was my response: after all, a blog is a personal thing answerable only to the leanings of its keeper. But recent events have indicated that Rupe is getting a free ride all round, and there are plenty of those events to consider.

The declaration from Young Dave that he would dismantle Ofcom, the body that had ordered Sky to offer its content to other providers for less, the Andy Coulson connection (other than to scream “non story”), and the Tory alignment with a ragbag of variously less than mainstream parties in the European Parliament – all have received little critical or analytical comment from many Tory blogs.

And, as I observed recently, the disgraceful activities of Rupe’s Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse), which look more over time like an attempt to destabilise the Obama presidency, are being – perhaps conveniently – ignored.

And if I’ve picked up on this, it’s an odds on certainty that others have done so. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Forget the Reserve

We Brits are too nice. Oh yes we are. Too much of that traditional reserve: we don’t complain much – I’d say we don’t complain enough. And when you do decide to make adverse comment on less than ideal service, it can surprise you. It certainly surprised a regular observer of events on Zelo Street.

He’d booked a train journey, and done it via a well known website formerly run by a Train Operating Company which now has only one franchise rather than two (Anyone not figured that one out? Go and stand at the back of the class). So far, so predictable. But then the reason for the travel was postponed. What to do? The Reasonable Man went into Reserved Brit Mode and got on the phone. This proved pointless over a series of calls. Note use of the plural.

So he complained.

And, miracle of miracles, it worked: a full refund was offered – which was the response that should have come very soon after the start of the first phone conversation. Why wasn’t it? Who knows.

As a result of this good fortune, he has signed himself “Enamoured of Tunbridge Wells”. Well, until the next Customer Service Experience (tm).

Not the William Hague

How’s the weather in Crewe? Who knows. But today it’s been cracking where I’ve been, and that is the Netherlands’ seat of Government, den Haag (or, for those who have problems with using the local spelling, The Hague). The Peace Palace was looking resplendent, Binnenhof was in fine fettle, and the obligatory stroll along the prom at Scheveningen was warm and relaxing.

But the most relaxing aspect of today has been the ease with which all the travelling was done. In my last stay over here, the trains provided lots of capacity – but demand was rising relentlessly. So now the double deck Inter-City trains are even longer – ten or twelve coaches instead of seven or eight. The less important trains that make the journey between Amsterdam and den Haag via the “old” route – serving Haarlem – have also been lengthened, from four to six coaches. Local trains have been upgraded to double deck coaches.

New settlements around den Haag have had tram and light rail lines built to serve them, and – I know, at last – the city centre tram tunnel, which became a standing joke for so long, has been completed and is speeding up travel across town. Even at busy times it is unusual to have to stand on a tram, although the notices remind you that they can officially take over 100 standing passengers. But all this does not come at the drop of a hat, or result from the snap of fingers.

Three elements come together to produce the public transport offering in the Netherlands (and, more or less, anywhere else): planning, commitment (political and monetary), and perhaps most importantly the public acceptance that making this provision is A Good Thing. The concept of “public perception” was touched upon in the UK decades ago for rail travel: it must have been a long time back, because the man making the comments was Richard Beeching.

Whether anyone was listening I don’t know, but those three elements come together far too rarely in the UK. I should not need to linger on the consequences.

Thursday 17 September 2009

Common Sense Defence

Before ending his presidency, “Dubya” Bush moved to place a so called missile defence shield around eastern Europe. This was, his administration explained, about “security”, but in reality was coupled to the idea that Iran was building a capability to develop Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). For a régime that believed in the Iraqi WMDs, this was perhaps not too great a leap of faith: for the rest of the world, it smacked of paranoia.

Fortunately, the new administration in Washington has sufficient grip on reality to take a pragmatic view of the world. Barack Obama has announced that the missile shield will now not proceed, and by doing so, has saved the USA a load of needless expense, and a load of needless aggravation from the Russians: Dmitry Medvedev has made welcoming noises, as he might. Thus the USA has Russia likely to be onside when tackling Iran.

However, not all reaction has been positive: “Wiggy” Bolton has suggested that the US should have extracted some kind of concession from Russia, but what? The missile shield was a unilateral gesture in the first place. Bolton’s idea of diplomacy is dead.

And thank goodness for that.

Liberal to a Point

Much is made of the Netherlands’ supposedly liberal attitude to drugs, and if the drug in question is marijuana, then yes, there is a tolerant and relaxed demeanour in that direction. But anything “harder” and the law is brought to bear as in the UK. I was reminded of this when searching for an apartment during my work time back in 2000.

The place I’d come to inspect was at the north end of Zeedijk, not far from Centraal Station, and as I discovered, also not far from the Rosse Buurt (that’s Red Light district in English). Arriving early, I checked out the property from across the street, and noticed a group of blokes gathered on a nearby street corner. Were they waiting for someone, I wondered? Yes they were, and presently he arrived on his bicycle. There were furtive glances all round, and then the transactions took place. After a conversation had got started, the man on the bike got a call on his mobile, following which the gathering broke up very quickly indeed.

Sure enough, around a minute later, the law arrived, also on their bicycles. I made myself look as inconspicuous as possible, in case there was a request to indicate which way they went (as if I’d taken any notice).

Not much different to the UK. And I didn’t bother with the one on Zeedijk, settling soon after on a place in the Jordaan. Eetcafe visible from front window. One has to set priorities.

Reflections in a darkened Canal

Today has involved a return to a city where I briefly lived over nine years ago: the Netherlands capital of Amsterdam. Much of the journey was straightforward, despite EasyJet turning up late, the ridiculous queue for passport inspection at Schiphol, and the ticket machine that spat out my debit card several times before deciding it was a credit card and adding 50 cents to my train fare.

Back in 2000, Schiphol was a big airport, and now it’s bigger. Any thought that the day’s exercise has been missed is erased by the walk from where EasyJet now park up (no airbridge, so it’s cheaper) to the baggage claim. Fortunately the rail journey is as before, in adequately comfortable double deck trains at frequent intervals.

Centraal Station, where I stopped off to visit the GVB information office (there’s a queue, but the surroundings are agreeable, and the service is more than adequate), has a building site out front where the much delayed Noord-Zuid Metrolijn is under construction, and under increasing financial and political pressure.

Ajax are at home tonight, and I know this as trains and metros out to the Arena have been packed early evening. Much Ajax lager (they even have their own brand beer, Brit clubs take note) has been consumed, but it didn’t spark the team: they drew 0-0 with Timisoara in the Europa League.

The hotel has reassuringly familiar features, such as Amsterdam stairs (very steep) and pleasant ones, like Wi-Fi in the rooms. And there’s a Dirk just round the corner, so any shopping is sorted.

Also, there are trams running outside, which means it’s suitably civilised.

Travelling Man

Today – provided all goes well – I’ll be on my travels once again. Next post will hopefully reveal all.

Wednesday 16 September 2009

A Viennese Picture

At last the City Tour! Those wanting to see the sights of Vienna described in some of the posts I sent while on tour can see them here.

There should be something there for everyone, and remember – it’s a free tour. No entrance charge payable for any of the views. Best invest in the city’s public transport, though.

The Republican Wrong - Roundup

A statement of the blindingly obvious has been made by former Prez Jimmy Carter: that there is a racist element in much of the unpleasantness directed at Barack Obama, and that there are folks in the USA who have a problem with someone in the top job who is not white. Carter reminds his audience that he grew up in the South, which, translated for Brits who might not get that in one, means that he’s seen routine, casual and often vicious racism close up.

Various excuses have been deployed to cover up the underlying motivation: the accusations of communist or even Nazi leanings, the idea that Obama was so left wing that Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton couldn’t stay with the ticket (and even that switching to the GOP, with Sarah Palin on the ticket, was somehow more moderate), and the ridiculous notion that Obama was “taking away” the USA, which therefore had to be reclaimed.

Meanwhile, another veneer of “patriotism” covering over the racist underbelly is being peddled by Glenn Beck at Fox News (fair and balanced my arse), who appears increasingly to be turning into a reincarnation of Joe McCarthy. Beck’s rallying call – in between his attempts to smear Obama nominees as communists – is launching the concept of “9/12”, to get folks feeling allegedly as they did the day after the 11 September attacks, which wouldn’t be frightened and increasingly paranoid. This has been explored by Hadley Freeman in the Guardian.

There have been “9/12” events and even a rally in Washington recently: an attendance of between one and one and a half million was claimed. Unfortunately, the photo backing up the claim has been shown to have come from at least five years earlier, and the actual figure has been put at 70,000.

And what of the Tories and their cheerleaders in the press and blogosphere? There’s not been much said – either on the general anti-Obama shouting, or of the rabble rousing activity of Fox, whose proprietor Young Dave would very much like to have on side come the next General Election. So are they all happy to get into bed with Murdoch the interfering foreigner? No problem with being in the same room as “stars” Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly? Comfortable with pundits such as Ann Coulter, Oliver North and “Wiggy” Bolton?

Don’t all shout at once? You jest. They won’t be shouting at all.

Tuesday 15 September 2009

Cuts All Round

Well, he was going to say the C-word someday, and today Pa Broon veritably went overboard at the annual TUC bash in Liverpool. Several times he said “cuts”. So there are to be some cuts, somewhere, but not to “front line services”, which begs the question of how those services are defined: very probably by those specifying the cuts.

But it’s not really news. Rather, it’s an attempt by Brown and his trusty (for now) sidekick Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole to see off the Tory jibes that suggest Pa Broon has some kind of blockage about saying that small word. Well, if there was a blockage, it’s been cleared in the interim.

So now all three main parties are talking cuts. Vince Cable, the World’s Most Agreeable Politician (tm) already has a menu of variously painful measures, including two items I’d put in the bin without prompting: ID cards and Trident replacement. We don’t need to just keep on gathering more information in order to keep the country secure – all that is needed is for the various agencies to work coherently together.

And no way do we need a vanity nuclear deterrent, which is all that Trident replacement is: it’s a delusional remnant of the now bankrupt idea that the UK is still a great power (the idea that we should pull out of the EU and somehow stand gloriously alone is another).

So what of the Tories? The shadow chancellor, Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the seventeenth Baronet, is in typically dismissive mode, but what’s on his hit list? Granted, Cable can more easily afford to play Fantasy Budget Cuts, given that he’s unlikely to be in 11 Downing Street this time next year, but voices in the City are muttering less than total satisfaction with what they know so far about Osborne.

Given the current state of the polls, we’ll find out soon enough what he’s for cutting. As to whether he’s up to the job, well, by the time we find out, it’ll be too late for second thoughts.

Such is politics in the UK.

Hey Pesto!

Simple ideas, easy meals. I’m always on the look out for different meal ideas, and some time ago was rummaging through the products on offer at the local Aldi when I came across pesto. What, I wondered, was this? The instruction list said simply “stir through cooked pasta”. It didn’t sound too demanding, which gave reassurance: it’s not easy to get “cooked pasta” wrong.

And so was added an unpretentious and easy meal to the admittedly short list of lunch alternatives. At the time, Aldi were the only supermarket I knew that sold the little jars of pesto for 99p, and the only one with such a wide variety. Unfortunately, the pistachio and fennel variety has vanished from the shelves, and other retailers have belatedly cottoned on to pesto, but Aldi still gets my custom.

A word of warning, though: don’t eat too much of the stuff at one time, unless you don’t pay any attention to salt and fat limits. They’re not called guilty pleasures for nothing.

The Blog’s not for Turning

UEFA have overturned their ban on Arsenal forward Eduardo for diving. They’re too easily persuaded. Every time I see the dive replayed, the more certain I am that this was a piece of simulation, and no amount of protest from Arsène “Clouseau” Wenger is going to sway me.

So the pronouncement already made on Zelo Street stands. Together with the prediction that Eduardo will be involved in at least one more such controversy before the season’s end.

Monday 14 September 2009

Crikey Readers, It’s Jolly Pricy!

London’s politicians are inquisitive folk: they just keep on asking their mayor, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, to explain his ideas to them. They have latched on to the jolly fine wheeze to build a new bus for London (the so-called New Routemaster) and the costs associated with it, as Dave Hill’s London Blog has noted today.

Bozza has been saying that whoever is chosen to build the new bus will be absorbing the development costs, but in reality that development is already estimated to cost three million quid. And on top of that, the various operators in the capital will have to have their contracts written in a way that instructs them to use it, rather than just buy off the shelf double deckers.

Those operators like “ordinary” buses, as they can be useful assets for a few years after life in London: there are hundreds of former London buses out there, perhaps even thousands. If they didn’t think the new bus would be any use after its time in London, they may want more to run services, and I doubt that has been factored into the mayor’s sums.

And it may make any new bus a less expensive prospect if it could be sold to other operators: the original Routemaster, or RM, only had one customer outside London, and they took just fifty. Why so? Well, AEC, who developed the RM, could offer “ordinary” Regent double deck chassis, for which the customer could specify their own bodywork. The RM came with a London spec Park Royal body, take it or leave it – one drawback of its integral construction.

Moreover, no safety authority in the Western world will sign off on a design that allows passengers to hop on or off via the kind of open platform that the RM had – after all, the number of accidents that could be attributed to that feature was the main reason (well, apart from age) that the RM was phased out of front line service. So why bother with what looks increasingly like a vanity project?

If Bozza wants something different in the double deck arena, he could look at the vehicles used by the BVG in Berlin, which are accessible and satisfy all safety requirements – including a second set of stairs (both front and rear). Visitors to the city find these buses a real bonus for sightseeing and getting around – just like the RM used to be. All the mayor needs is to persuade the builders to shuffle the layout around for the requirements of the UK.

And to specify red rather than yellow.

Sunday 13 September 2009

The Tramway in a Quarry

Fifty years ago, a museum was established in a Derbyshire quarry, well, next door, anyway. High above the valley of the River Derwent – not the first place you might expect – in the village of Crich, the collection was started that has become the National Tramway Museum. This was the time when the UK’s last street tramways were closing: Leeds abandoned trams the same year, Sheffield the year after, and Glasgow in 1962. Liverpool had already said goodbye to its trams in 1957, and London back in 1952. Only Blackpool survived.

Many trams from that time found their way to Crich, including Sheffield’s official Last Tram. Others were painstakingly restored. Some arrived from overseas: one such, from Prague, left the then Czechoslovakia as the Prague Spring was being put down by the Red Army. As the collection grew, so did the archive of memorabilia, documents and photos, and the museum site expanded. Now its period “Tramway Street” centrepiece pulls in visitors in large numbers, despite the location being well off the motorway network.

At first, the adult admission charge of ten and a half quid might seem pricy, but it’s valid for a whole year, so you and your party can make a return visit – or more than one, if you’re really enthusiastic. Yesterday, for example, you could ride open top trams from Southampton and Paisley, or an enclosed car from Sheffield. There is a fully accessible tram also available. It’s a fascinating look into what is now well in the past for many towns and cities – well, those in the UK.

If only we’d not been so hasty.

Jumping The Gun

In politics, the news that an enquiry has been leaked is not usually exceptional: it happens. Now, though, the enquiry leak concept has crossed over into the athletics arena, and it’s made a lot of folks in South Africa very angry. I reckon they’re right to be angry.

They have a new track star, and she’s called Caster Semenya. In Berlin recently, she won the 800 metres not just convincingly, but conclusively. But, so what? Usain Bolt’s been routinely trashing the opposition in the mens’ 100 and 200 metres, and nobody’s complaining – well, nobody except that opposition. He’s just pretty damn good, and so is Ms Semenya.

But there have been mutterings, so Semenya has been subjected to tests to establish her gender, which is humiliating enough for an 18 year old. And now have come the leaks, as the Guardian has reported. Doing the leaking has been the Sydney Daily Telegraph, yet another of the Murdoch stable of tabloid papers. Put directly, the leaks allege that Ms Semenya is a hermaphrodite.

Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa, and a man not known for being backward in coming forward, is angry, and this is not news. I reckon he should be angry, and so should all of that country’s citizens: leaking this report before the athlete and her national federation get to hear, understand and digest the findings is unforgiveable.

Zuma’s sports minister, Makhenkasi Stofile, is considering legal action against the IAAF over human rights violations, and has pointed out that this is not the first time in the Semenya affair that the media has been used as a conduit. He has a point: perhaps the IAAF should conduct an enquiry in to this leak, and establish how the information – if indeed it is genuine – got out, and in particular whether any financial inducement was involved.

Because this goes beyond decent journalism: put simply, it’s bang out of order.

A Return to Academia

Having blogged about my enjoyments in the Austrian capital of Vienna, I have a confession to make: it’s not a cheap place to stay. In fact, Vienna has an awful lot of high spec hotel accommodation, with predictably high prices. So, even with transport costs and eating out coming at a reasonable cost, where to stay and not break the bank?

Fortunately, during the period from July to September, some of the city’s student hostels become Academia hotels. The Academia in Vienna is basic and, it has to be said, has seen better days, but for those of us who just want somewhere for a base during a city break, is ideal. It’s also popular with coach parties, though, so when breakfast gets busy, it really does become a bit of a bunfight. But folks are generally well disposed and the staff keep calm and focused.

Is it just a young person’s place? No. Folks of all ages mingle together, and quite happily too. You have to pay extra for Internet usage, but then, it’s not an expensive place, so that’s not so much of an imposition. You can get as full as you like at the self service breakfast, and at night the obligatory noise curfew means everyone gets the chance of some sleep.

The hotels also serve Salzburg and Graz: getting information and making reservations can be done via their website.

A Stroll Along The Prom

This year’s season of Promenade Concerts ended yesterday evening, with the nowadays obligatory renditions of Rule Britannia, Jerusalem and of course Land of Hope and Glory. The programme in the Royal Albert Hall was accompanied by the recently established “Proms in the Park” events around the UK: tens of thousands of happy punters enjoyed a variety of music in fortunately excellent weather.

And all this was brought to us by the organisation that Murdoch Junior malevolently calls “chilling”. The BBC has been involved in the Proms since 1927, and without its unwavering support, it is hard to see how the public profile of the concerts could be maintained – as well as the broadcasts, which go out to many other countries, especially that from the Last Night.

The concerts are still officially called the “Henry Wood Promenade Concerts”, after the conductor who ruled over the Last Night for more than forty years. Wood championed much modern classical music, as well as giving his audiences a diet of established works: he introduced Edward Elgar’s first Pomp and Circumstance March (which we now know as Land of Hope and Glory) in 1901. The result, as Wood observed, was that the audience “simply rose and yelled”. He was unable to continue without acceding to the demand for an encore.

That encore has endured, as has Wood’s legacy, with the advocacy of the BBC. And it’s interesting to observe an increased level of public support for the Beeb, despite the attacks by Junior and the usual right leading members of the sneerati. I enjoy the Proms season each year, and hope it will be with us for many more.

That’s what I pay my licence fee for.

Friday 11 September 2009

The Wholly Libel?

Eventually it came to pass at the start of this week: Tory MP and Zimbabwe Moment experiencing blogger Nadine Dorries had writs served for libel on Pa Broon’s former hatchet man Damian McBride and all round total prat Derek “Dolly” Draper. She is also, apparently, after Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell.

But what is the alleged libel? What we know is that Draper was sent an email by McBride which made an allegation about Ms Dorries’ personal conduct. Neither party published the email, and publishing is supposed to be what libel is about. The contents of the email were finally published by the News of the World, but the paper is not being sued.

And what O’Donnell has to do with this is a mystery: perhaps, as Cabinet Secretary, there is a suggestion that he is responsible for what political appointees get up to when on-line within Downing Street. The more I look at this one, the more questions I see.

If nothing was published by any of the defendants, then how can there have been a libel? Is this action being pursued on a no-win, no-fee basis (because – and Ms Dorries will find this out if she doesn’t already know, libel actions are expensive – ask Richard Desmond)? Is there an expectation that McBride and Draper will settle quickly in order to avoid the expense of defence?

My feeling is that McBride (who has sensibly kept schtum so far) and Draper (who, not sensibly, hasn’t, though only to assert that nothing was published by him) will sit tight and let Ms Dorries’ lawyers come at them. It could be expensive, it could be messy, and it certainly won’t be the fun that some who have been getting involved in it might imagine.

But for those of us who treat politics as a spectator sport, it will provide capital entertainment.

The Network Rail Conundrum

Network Rail (NR), the organisation that looks after the tracks, signalling, regulation and maintenance of the UK’s rail network, is a not for profit company. It also manages to look in on Zelo Street sufficiently frequently to have been able to manage a chapter and verse rebuttal of a one line comment I made in a recent post.

So, given the ease with which NR can put out information when its folks are so minded, you’d think that volunteering information in response to a specific request would be a doddle.

You’d think wrong.

I’ve been trying for a matter of months now – without success – to get a straight answer out of NR about part of their infrastructure in the Crewe area (as for detail, I’ll leave it at that, not wanting to induce insomnia in anyone). To the last request there has been not a peep.

So, if NR’s Media Persons are in the room, I’d love to hear from them. Comments or email – the address is provided.

Wednesday 9 September 2009

The Tram Did It

Vienna, like any self respecting capital city, has a daily free sheet, and the quality and insight of Heute (Today) means that you can find plenty of discarded copies to read. Yesterday’s edition was available in all parts of the Schnellbahn service en route to the airport.

And the eye catching headline showed that press attitudes to rail borne transport don’t vary much between Austria and the UK. Tram rams lorry. Er, what? Yes, I translated in the right order: the original German started “Bim rammt ... “, a Bim being a tram.

A tram leaving the interchange stop at Schottentor on Line D (in Vienna, despite recent re-jigging of routes, some lines still use letters rather than numbers) was making a left turn off the Ringstrasse to head north towards the suburb of Nussdorf. This would entail crossing the roadway.

The idea that the tram driver, with an articulated tramcar plus a trailer, potentially both filled with punters, would have made the move without the traffic signal showing a clear aspect, is absurd. Most likely is that the lorry driver either misread or missed completely the equivalent traffic light, and thus the contact.

But the hacks’ mindset, as in the UK, states otherwise, so the humble tramcar becomes demonised.

The Voyage Home

Along with all the other punters who had figured out that the “ordinary” trains from central Vienna out to the airport were as frequent and not much slower than the dedicated City Airport Train (CAT), I paid my EUR 3.60 – as against the EUR 9 for the CAT – and still enjoyed a reasonably comfortable and timely journey. This time I was routed via Munich and in the hands of Lufthansa – aided by another “partner” airline called Augsburg Airways.

What the idea of “partner” carriers is I’m not sure – they’re probably a cheaper way of doing business. Augsburg turned out an Embraer 195 for the short hop to Munich (about 45 minutes flying time, but a whole four and a half hours by rail) which was modern and quiet. The Brazilian firm has come a long way since they majored in prop planes like the Bandierante, which a retired ATPL holder in my extended family described from first hand experience as “A bloody awful aircraft”.

Munich’s new build airport – the one where the 1958 crash happened closed some years ago – was built on a green field site well north of the city, with parallel runways either side of the terminal, not unlike Heathrow before T4 opened. It’s still nowhere near capacity, and as an added bonus, transit passengers do not have to suffer yet another security check – Zürich and CDG take note.

And taking me back to Manchester was a familiar sight, an Avro RJ-85, a type that has been doing the route for long enough for me to have flown in one back in 1998. That was for work, someone else picked up the tab, and in those days Lufthansa made the whole plane “City Class”: you got a proper meal in flight. Financial reality now dictates that punters get a cheese sarnie and a fun size Bounty.

But, this being a German carrier, the beer is still taken seriously. It comes in a bottle – none of this pratting about with cans – and the contents conform to Rheinheitsgebot, which means water, malted barley and hops only. You can have another bottle if you want, which makes the flight relaxing and civilised.

But return to the UK brings a variety of reality: after exiting the aircraft, two out of three travelators within Terminal 1 not working, the wait for passport control under the large sign proclaiming “UK Border”, another enforced passage through an alleged tax free shop, having to go outside the terminal building to get to the overhead walkway, and ticket barrier checks at the station. Then on leaving Crewe station the wind blew and it rained.

Welcome home!

Monday 7 September 2009

Homeward Bound

The Vienna trip is coming to a close. Weather is lovely and warm, unlike the misery of last Friday, and today the city has been at work and therefore hectic. Tomorrow is home time, and one thing is certain: it won’t be via Zürich. Such is the wonder of Opodo.

One thing that links so many cities in the EU – from the Vienna Schnellbahn to the Metro do Porto – is the use of English as a de facto second language. So many now speak English to a reasonable standard that, in the city at least, few Brits need more than a few words of the local tongue. The French may be making a half hearted effort to resist the tide of Anglicisation, but they’re in a minority within the EU.

Yet, having got the EU to speak our language – check the EU’s own website and see what is the default for any publication – there are those like Dan, Dan the Oratory Man, who wants us to come out, and stand, presumably, in glorious isolation, with Murdoch the Interfering Foreigner egging him on.

The UK never has been as happy about the EU as many of the other member states: here in Vienna, public buildings fly both the Austrian and EU flags together. Not something we do much in the UK.

Perhaps those who, like me, hold a generally positive attitude to the EU should speak a little louder, have a little more confidence, and not shy away from the debate.

It’s sod all to do with Rupe anyway.

All That Glisters ...

Today started with a quick tour of the Stadtpark. Here, apart from the welcome green space, are memorials to lots of Austria’s great and good from years gone by. The composers include Anton Bruckner, for so many years hardly known outside his home country, and of course the younger Johann Strauss.

The Strauss memorial has a stylised shining golden statue of the composer, and perhaps it’s just me, but it looks like the ultimately tacky tribute. But lots of tourists want to have their photo taken next to it, unlike the smaller and less obvious tribute to Franz Schubert, whose output of songs and chamber music puts the younger Strauss well and truly in the shade.

The standard of Schubert’s legacy is rather higher, too, and had he not been taken too early, at the age of only 31, what he might have achieved is the stuff of dreams. But ordinary folks like their walzes, and so they flock to the golden statue of Strauss.

And even less bother looking at Bruckner. Such is life.

Sunday 6 September 2009

Don’t Mention the War

The tourist itinerary in Vienna has those seminal items that mark the history of ordinary folk: one such is the Hochstrahlbrunnen just south of Schwarzenbergplatz. This spectacular fountain celebrates the opening of the city’s first water supply from the nearby hills – well, no further than 90 km away.

Behind the fountain is a large memorial, which appears to commemorate a war. But it is not in the guidebook. Curious. But a closer look provides the answer: the script around the top of the semi circular colonnade is in Cyrillic. This monument is a Russian one, celebrating their role in the ending of World War 2.

Why the problem? Well, the war ended in 1945, but the Russians did not finally leave Austrian soil until the end of the 1950s. So their monument is there, it’s looked after, but it’s not celebrated too enthusiastically.

Not that I mentioned that.

Up In Smoke

The law in the UK is clear: no smoking inside any enclosed public area. It doesn’t seem so clear in Austria.

While out having eats this evening, at the next table was a young woman with a laptop addiction: it was permanently open, but not distracting or otherwise harming anyone else. Behind her, at the bar, the only taker was joined by two friends. One of them decided to light up, which went down badly with the laptop user: she asked to be moved.

This news was relayed back to those at the bar, and the smoker was not happy at being fingered for another’s complaint. But that addiction – you wouldn’t smoke purely for any kind of pleasure – was affecting anyone around.

My conclusion, as ever, was that I have no problem with anyone who suffers from an addiction to any kind of drug, so long as they keep the side effects to themselves.

Not easy for smokers.

Another Trip on the Number 88

There are an awful lot of TV channels on offer nowadays, and yes, many of them are indeed awful. But in an increasingly crowded field, even the big players have to shout that bit louder to make themselves heard – even the BBC. So it was with little surprise that I read the news that the odious Nick Griffin, Oberscheissenführer of the British National Party (BNP), had been invited to appear on Question Time. He has, by all accounts, accepted. I’ll bet he has.

For Griffin is eager to get publicity for his repulsive views, being so full of himself that he actually believes that an appearance on a programme where adverse comment upon his views is highly likely may increase his popularity. The flip side, which states, roughly, that given sufficient rope, Griffin will string himself up with some style, does not enter. Only after the event will this occur to the BNP, and even then, it will be someone else’s fault.

The problem for Labour, it seems, is whether to put up a senior party figure against Griffin. The Tories have already said they’re up for it, and this I applaud: the BNP are best tackled by their opponents debating with them, and not allowing their views to be aired unchallenged. Big Al agrees that they should put someone up – he says it should be a minister, and that would be appropriate if the Tories are going to send one of the Shadow Cabinet.

Alan Johnson, it seems, has already declined. How about Hilary Benn? Quiet, yet thoughtful, calm, as trusted as any minister, and as incisive on his day as his Dad was.

Just the man to skewer the traveller on the Number 88.

A Message from our Sponsor

Sightseeing is, well, about seeing the sights, not forgetting to take along the camera and record everything for later. My selection from Vienna will appear later on my Fotopic site, which grows like Topsy with each city visit.

Unfortunately, photography now has another dimension: that of avoiding or minimising the sponsor’s message. What do I mean? Well, today when I arrived at the Votivkirche, built to commemorate Franz Josef’s survival of an assassination attempt in 1853, I first wondered if the pattern of the spires had influenced Gaudi in his epic conception of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Then I thought at length how I could get a shot of the place without the stonking great Kia Ceed advert draped down the front of the structure. Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to remove it from view, but by shooting the subject from the south, rather than south east, makes it look less obvious.

Anyhow, don’t let me influence anyone on their choice of new car.

Saturday 5 September 2009

Oh I Wept

Today’s sightseeing was almost bookended by the sad and moving, demonstrating the turbulent history of Vienna and, indeed, much of middle Europe.

Early today, I walked from the Stephansdom north, through quiet and narrow streets, and ultimately to Judenplatz, where a plain, square monument commemorates the 65,000 Jews rounded up, taken away and killed by the Nazis in the latter years of World War 2. There is little decoration, with prominence given to the inscription in Hebrew. Vienna was not the only city where this happened: it was grim routine wherever the Third Reich ruled.

Anti-Semitism was part of life in the early 20th Century, yet the lengths that the Nazis went to were as perverse as they were brutal. At the very beginning of the Century, it was not possible for Jews to even occupy certain jobs, and here my second visit enters. In the quiet of the afternoon, a tram ride took me out to the cemetery of Grinzing, to pay my respects to one of the greatest of musicians, which was Gustav Mahler.

The impending upheaval in Europe was something that Mahler foretold, especially in his unfinished Tenth Symphony: the breakdown of order is spelt out in the opening slow movement. He was born a Jew, but converted to Catholicism in order to become director of the Vienna Opera. He made his career not by composing, but by conducting: Sergei Rachmaninov described him as “the only conductor worthy to be compared to Nikisch”.

When he died, Mahler’s coffin was taken to Grinzing for burial, as a storm raged: then, as the casket was lowered into the ground, the sun shone. Among all the grand looking headstones, his appears plain – you could easily miss it. Only his name is shown – no dates, or other clues as to who he was. This was as he had instructed. Asked why, he answered simply.

“Those that know me will know where to find me, and those that do not will not need to know”

Transport of some Delight

Today the rain had finally stopped, and so it was time to explore Vienna. And this is made easy by use of the city’s excellent public transport system. No doubt some will prefer a hire car, taxi or the horse and trap provided in order to relieve tourists of their money, but the coverage of the transport system, and its ease of use, is persuasive: a 72 hour ticket costs EUR 13.60, which in Sterling works out at less than four quid a day.

The design of the interchanges is one way in which using the system has been made easier: tram routes coming into the city connect on the level with other trams, or via pedestrian subways, and those subways also feed into the U-Bahn (or underground, as we might say). Also connecting seamlessly is the Schnellbahn, a network of what we would term “heavy rail” lines. The “Innere Stadt”, the very heart of the city, is served by hopper buses: no tourist should feel left out.

And, between the transport and the sights, comes walking. Overweight? This is the one for you.

Friday 4 September 2009

Rear Ended in the Aldi

I’m on my travels this weekend: Zelo Street is therefore coming from Vienna for a few days. No-one should feel any envy at this news: arrival this afternoon was after a bumpy hop from Zürich, into a city with the rain coming, as Milligan might have said, in the direction of down.

But life must go on, and shopping is as ever a necessity. So it was that I found myself in the checkout queue at a nearby Aldi – well, here they call them Hofer – in front of a young woman who was balancing a conversation on her mobile with getting the contents of her trolley on to the belt.

Not, sad to say, with total success.

As I waited in line, there was a gasp from behind, then a crack as a bottle of inexpensive (but no doubt serviceable) sparkling wine burst open on the floor. It did at least stop the mobile usage and concentrate one person’s mind.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned for this, and didn’t pack another pair of jeans. So for the rest of the weekend I will be trailing an increasingly stale aroma of cheap vino. I’ll get over it, and who knows? It might be worth a seat on a crowded tram.

World Class – No Chance

Travelling by air starts with an airport, and today’s was Manchester, recently dumped by Ryanair after standing firm on passenger charges. It’s probably the busiest airport outside the South East, so you’d expect it to be fit for purpose. As if.

First signs were promising: the escalators from station to concourse and then up to the overhead walkway were both working, and so apparently were the lifts (not always the case).
Unfortunately, once on the walkway, two out of three travelators were out of service, which is unacceptable. The escalator from the Swiss check-in up to Security was back in use, though.

And Security was also not fit for purpose, with queues of punters having to be held back as the number of staff on scan and search duty couldn’t move the masses quickly enough.

Following this, the arrangement in Terminal 1 whereby everyone is forced to walk through the allegedly duty free shop en route to the gate was still in place. Anyone from the Airport in the room? Cut this out – if you can’t get enough punters in the duty free without coercion, that’s your lookout.

Then, other than there being far too few places to sit without making use of one or other retail outlets, it was off to the gate and away. Eventually.

No doubt there will be more shortcomings to observe on the way back. Ho hum.

Thursday 3 September 2009

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 7

Another day, another exodus of advertisers: over on Fox News (fair and balanced my arse), the number of firms pulling their ads from airing on Glenn Beck’s show has passed sixty. Six zero. And it is not hard to see why.

As an aside, yes, I know that there have been a few Stateside items recently, but if you want to even try and understand the whole health care issue, figure out what politics is about across the pond, and get a handle on what the media is like without all that regulation that Murdoch Junior hates so much, my take is that it’s worth a look.

Beck, whose homespun yet particularly vile brand of presentation is actually taken as fact by some people, has gone beyond calling his President a “racist”. He’s now moved on to the memory of John Rockefeller (an arch capitalist if ever there was one) and has decided that John D was in fact a Communist. This is, apparently, because of the appearance of artwork around the Rockefeller Center. Not only that, Beck also says that Communists and Fascists are, well, pretty similar.

Now, if this weapons grade drivel were being pitched in a local bar, it would be interesting for the odd minute, but then dismissed as the ranting of someone who may have had too many sherbets. But it’s being sent out on prime time TV. View a few segments of Beck and the conclusion for many will be that the bloke is wacko, not dealing from a full deck, and out to lunch all at once. So why is he allowed to carry on?

Well, ultimately the decision is down to one man: Rupe himself. And the lack of any intervention suggests that Murdoch is happy to have Beck continue. It was once said that, if you wanted to know the Murdoch view on anything, you only needed to read a few Sun editorials. Nowadays you need to take in Fox News Channel, Beck included.

And this is the bloke whose endorsement Young Dave is chasing.

It Was Seventy Years Ago Today

Spike Milligan, in his book Adolf HitlerMy Part in his Downfall, remembered the moment well:

... a man called Chamberlain who did Prime Minister impressions spoke on the wireless; he said “As from eleven o’clock we are at war with Germany.” (I loved the WE) “War?” said Mother. “It must have been something we said,” said Father.

Seventy years ago today, we did indeed declare war on Germany, and thus began a conflict that confirmed what Churchill’s disastrous return to the Gold Standard in 1925 had already told us – that Britain was in decline, and we ultimately needed the USA to join in if we were to emerge victorious.

Poor Neville Chamberlain. He got all the stick about “appeasement”, but the only ones who wanted the scrap were the Germans. At least he bought us some time, but even so, our armed forces were not ready for the task of holding back the Wehrmacht, let alone defeating it.

Chamberlain was not alone in trying to keep the peace with the Third Reich: Stalin did a rather more explicitly nasty deal in agreeing to carve up Poland with them. But the Russians, too, weren’t up for a full scale war – not at first, anyhow.

So why were the Germans so keen? Ah well. After the Great War, they got the blame for starting it, simply because they ended up on the losing side. It was their generals who had to undergo the humiliation of surrender, and their leaders who had the “Carthaginian Peace” of Versailles imposed upon them. Not long after, Germany suffered the pain of hyperinflation, and then years of high unemployment. And they were forbidden any significant rearmament.

The Nazis came to power in 1933, and started to spend on public works programs. By 1936, unemployment had almost disappeared, and, being a dictatorship, the Government had no difficulty imposing a wage and price ceiling, thus avoiding any risk of further inflation. Yes, the underlying economy was at times shaky, but the average German family had work, and stable prices.

Then, their armies – Hitler having long ago decided to ignore any sanction against rearmament – trounced the Allies and forced their generals to sign the surrender, in the same railway carriage used after the Great War. Thus was Versailles expunged. Small wonder the German public supported Hitler. He was, after the fall of France, genuinely popular.

Unfortunately for those same German people, they then trusted their leader rather too much.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Don’t Reach for the Sky – 2

You have to hand it to Rupe’s troops, if only for their brass neck. Knowing that the next General Election can’t be more than nine months away, they have invited Pa Broon, Young Dave and Corporal Clegg to take part in a live debate. Here’s the flip side: if it’s Rupe’s troops, that means Sky News (“First for Breaking Wind”). That’s right, the channel that garners all of 0.5% of the average viewing figure. The article by Sky News head man John Ryley, conveniently given full coverage by Murdoch paper The Times, is a magnificent example of blowhard piffle: Ryley comes over as arbiter of public decency, inquisitor and bully at the same time.

The cameras, he says, will be rolling, whoever does or does not turn up. And he pledges that the debate will be offered to other broadcasters as a simultaneous transmission. But then, he would, wouldn’t he? Sky News has such little audience share that Ryley and his pals are sufficiently desperate to get themselves more. But who will chair Sky’s dash for greatness? Well, it could be Adam Boulton, an immodest man with a lot to be modest about – including the coherence of his written English, as I noted previously – and he’s been allegedly blogging about the subject. I say allegedly, as the grammar in the post is almost faultless: I’m realistic enough not to suggest that he saw my critique of his written English, but clearly the message has got through from somewhere – if you’re going to say it, say it properly.

But, and not for the first time, I digress. What if two of the three party leaders fancied the challenge, but not Sky News? There would certainly be alternatives, other broadcasters more than happy to host them, and moderators that all three would be prepared to accept. The most obvious would be the Beeb, where a leaders’ debate could be done as a Question Time special: David Dimbleby would be acceptable to Labour, Lib Dem and Tory. Alternatively, Channel 4 and Jon Snow would also fit the bill. But why might that be acceptable where Sky would not?

A reading of John Ryley’s Times article should explain that: this is in the style of a schoolmaster chivvying three naughty boys. Not even Pax Jeremiah would take such an attitude towards party leaders. I’m sure that Young Dave would jump through Rupe’s hoops, but then, he wants the Murdoch endorsement. Pa Broon knows he isn’t going to get it, and Corporal Clegg wouldn’t dirty his hands, thanks very much. And if the other two didn’t show, Young Dave sitting there on his tod would be pointless.

Ryley could see his cameras roll over more than one empty chair. Serve him right.

Stop Arsène About

Uefa have made their decision, and every viewing of the replay supports them: Arsenal striker Eduardo has been handed a two match ban for the latest incarnation of the Jürgen Klinsmann memorial dive. Gunners supporters will no doubt feel aggrieved, but neutrals will welcome a firm stand against what nice people call simulation, and those of a brutally honest disposition call cheating.

Unfortunately, Arsenal manager Arsène “Clouseau” Wenger is having difficulty admitting that Eduardo’s behaviour is out of order, describing Uefa’s pursuit of his man as a “witch hunt”.

Perhaps someone can get “Clouseau” on the pheune, tell him he has no rheum for argument, and not to meunkey about any further.

Tuesday 1 September 2009

Departure Time?

As the number of British dead in Afghanistan passes 200, support for this war is starting to look wobbly. But, it might be thought, the clincher is that the US are still there, and still for seeing it through. Don’t you believe it.

Because in today’s Washington Post, columnist George F Will has said in forthright and unequivocal terms that the time has come to get out. The Post is a serious and often influential voice from the US’ Mainstream Media. And Will puts it plainly: we’re propping up a corrupt régime, the Taliban aren’t being permanently cleared out of regions like Helmand, the Kabul Government exercises control over no more than a third of the country, and it is estimated that only Somalia has a weaker state.

Also, the USA has the permanent spectre of Vietnam to remind its leaders what happens when an incumbent Government and its armed forces aren’t in control of their own country. It is worth recalling J K Galbraith’s analysis of the prospect faced by the USA in Indo-China:

“The saving of South Vietnam allied the United States with individuals whose moral posture few could defend. The gallery included corrupt and despotic politicians, corrupt and cowardly generals and a vast assortment of independent larcenists”

[The Age of Uncertainty, p249]

Fast forward half a century, substitute Afghanistan for South Vietnam, and there you have it. There will be more voices calling for an end to this involvement, and if the USA goes, we will have to go too.

Will ends by quoting Charles de Gaulle: “Genius ... sometimes consists of knowing when to stop”. Quite.

A Question of Potentially Improved Judgment?

Six weeks’ holiday? Who’s running the country? Even given that these questions are part of the annual silly season, it does seem strange that Pa Broon, nominally workaholic Prime Minister, has managed to put his feet up for a whole six weeks, managing even to keep head below parapet on the al-Megrahi release. Or has he?

Because I don’t buy into this one. Brown doesn’t do “six weeks off”. The idea that someone who regularly puts in eighteen hour days – and every day – can suddenly switch off is not credible. He might not have been visible to the inhabitants of the Westminster Village, but he’s been up to something. And this may have been a good time to work, away from interruption and scrutiny.

Previously, I’ve noted that Brown has exercised questionable judgment on a number of occasions. If he expects to lead Labour into the next General Election – and that must come within the next nine months – then this is an area he has to sort out. If he’s for real on any kind of future, expect there to be differences in presentation, perhaps also personalities (don’t be surprised to see Big Al putting in the odd appearance, for instance) following the holidays.

The first test looks to be PMQs: Young Dave is jolly angry about the al-Megrahi business, and says there are limits to realpolitik (the kind of assertion that could prove as uncomfortable to a future Cameron Government as “ethical foreign policy” was to Tony Blair). How Pa Broon bats that one away will be instructive.

Because if he doesn’t, then that’s one more chance of pulling out the rabbit gone.