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Wednesday 30 June 2010

Lies, Damn Lies, And EU Directives – 2

Three days on from the attempt by a variety of Euro-hating newspapers, with the Mail On Sunday in the vanguard, to try and fool the public into believing that the EU was about to ban sales of eggs by the dozen (or half dozen, or whatever number), the record has at last been put straight. The EU’s press office – which needs to sharpen up its act, if this kind of response is typical – has moved to confirm what most folks already knew: the story was totally untrue.

But one question has not been answered: where did the original tall tale originate? The MoS, Screws and Sunday Times all carried the story on June 27. So was anyone pitching it earlier? Well, yes they were: step forward Adam Leyland, editor of the Grocer magazine, who penned an editorial dated June 26, in which he states “The EU wants to outlaw the sale of goods as measured in units”.

Just in case we didn’t get that the first time round, he stresses “A dozen eggs ... set to become illegal”. To reinforce the message, suitably pejorative keywords are also deployed, such as “mad”, “bonkers”, “scary”, “monster”, with the inevitable “You couldn’t make this up” to round things off.

But the giveaway comes in Leyland’s very last sentence, where he muses “The Daily Mail is going to have a field day”.

You don’t say, Adam. Wonder how he’d know?

Five Go Mad On The Ale Trail – 3

Seven and a half miles up the Colne Valley from Huddersfield, the village of Marsden managed to cling on to its train service – just – as closures swept through the network at the end of the 60s. Now, the hourly Manchester bound trains call at a new and accessible platform, from which it’s downhill all the way to the Brewery Tap, a pub overlooking the river in the heart of that village.

There was also the realisation that returning to the station would mean walking back up that same hill, but first came the locally brewed ale, which kept up the day’s impressively high standard. Added to the mood of satisfaction was the presence of a fish and chip shop (with rather good mushy peas, Baron Mandelson please note), fitted in with ease as the trains were by this point only hourly (there are two an hour between Leeds and Huddersfield).

Joining a crowd of several dozen on the platform, we caught the next train through the three dark and damp miles of Standedge Tunnel to Greenfield, where the pub was not only easily identified (The Railway), but just across the road from the station.

A pose of little inhibition, accompanied by the inevitable Ingerlundflag

Yes, the beer was as good as before, a contrast to those times in the early 70s when CAMRA was starting out, and real ale was a hit and miss affair, with the best kept and served tipples in a rather small minority. The present consistency should keep this Ale Trail popular, although the warm and dry weather might also help.

As the afternoon wore on, so the last stop approached. And, when it comes to real ale and railways, all trails lead to Stalybridge. The station bar was at the centre of a long and difficult campaign for its survival in the 80s, from which it has emerged more popular than ever, and deservedly so.

OK, it’s Waterloo, but you get the idea

Thus the trail ended: as with the characters in Brief Encounter, we were constrained by the still punctual arrivals of the trains. I had to get back to Crewe, while three of the other not unwilling participants were headed for Chester. It was a grand day out, recommendable without hesitation, and we just might be up for a re-match sometime.

Managing Expectations

Following the exit of loose tongued Stanley McChrystal (who, it’s confirmed, will be leaving the military for good after the fallout from that interview), command in the Afghan conflict has passed to David Petraeus, creator of the “troop surge” and author of the coalition strategy on counter insurgency.

And Petraeus has started with a grim warning: it’s going to get worse before it gets better, there will be an increase in fighting, and the beginning of troop withdrawals from next year will only be the start of a long process of disengagement.

Why would he do that? Ah well. Here we find an experienced media operator giving his audience as unvarnished a truth as is possible, while all the time managing their expectations of what can realistically be achieved in the near future. He’s coming clean at the outset: thus he is more likely to be trusted as he takes on the US’ most challenging and sensitive command.

But openness, for David Petraeus, will not mean that any of the assembled hackery can expect open access and the odd unguarded comment any time soon. This is a far safer pair of hands – which is why Barack Obama put him there.

Tuesday 29 June 2010

Yikes Chaps, I’ve Been Bendied Again!

Still the bendy buses go: Mayor of London Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson remains convinced that they are inherently bad, that they are responsible for killing and maiming cyclists, and that they can be replaced without any problem by more conventional double and single deck buses.

Except, of course, that more single deckers are needed to replace bendies, and double deckers can’t match the dwell times, so are slower overall. Perhaps Bozza might consider the number of cities in mainland Europe that seem to be able to live happily with the bendy bus? There do seem to be a lot of them.

Here is a bendy bus in the German city of Augsburg. Like the city’s trams, it’s part of a transport system that ensures there is room for punters whenever they need to commute, shop, eat, and drink.

At left is a cyclist: note that no harm is being done to man or machine, despite the proximity of the bendy bus.

Message to Bozza: it’s not too late to have a rethink.

Good Riddance, Terry Tesco – 4

Anyone doubting the determination of the Tesco empire to bring its particular version of choice to a part of the country near you – whether or not the people want it – need look no further than the upmarket Buckinghamshire village of Gerrards Cross.

The population of Gerrards Cross is less than seven and a half thousand, on the face of it not a compelling case for Tesco – or any other supermarket chain – to ride to the rescue. But the area is also uniformly prosperous, and this may have tempted Terry Leahy’s finest to open a store there. Unfortunately, the locals were vehemently opposed to the proposal.

It’s entirely possible that there was a significant element of Nimbyism among the residents, but their objection would be no less valid as a result. However, despite the opposition, permission was given for the store to be built, and in 1999, work began.

In order to provide sufficient space for the store and a car park, much of these would be situated above the railway adjacent to Gerrards Cross station. A “new tunnel” was therefore assembled, and then material used to fill to the sides and top, producing what was hoped would be a nice level surface (the railway runs through the area in a cutting excavated at the time it was built).

So far, so logical, and as the filling over the reinforced concrete tunnel segments progressed, the frame of the supermarket took shape. Although by now some six years had passed, the end was in sight. Except that it wasn’t: on the evening of June 30, 2005, part of the “new tunnel” collapsed. Fortunately, no trains were caught up in the event, but services had to be suspended and did not resume for over a month and a half.

And Tesco now had several more bills to pay: clearing the result of the collapse and making the railway safe, loss of revenue to train operator Chiltern Railways, recovery and reinstatement of the tunnel, reinstatement of the store structure (the original had to be dismantled following the collapse), and the legally complex change of main contractor resulting from the affair.

A less determined company might have wondered. Tesco came through the Gerrards Cross tunnel collapse still determined to give the locals the retail opportunity they had so plainly said they did not want.

Five Go Mad On The Ale Trail – 2

And so we arrived, in a pleasantly mellow state, in Huddersfield, where the magnificent (and listed) station frontage is home to two watering holes. Out front, the car park has been removed, and the traffic much reduced, from the time I lived and worked in the town in the late 80s.

First bar to be sampled was the King’s Head, which used to be called the Station Tavern. In that latter guise, the ale was not “real”, and Thursday evenings were only busy as there was a visiting jazz band. Now, the place is much more rough and ready, but the beer is excellent.

We walked around the square with its life size sculpture of former PM Harold Wilson, who won four General Elections, though two were close calls, and in a third, he failed to get a majority. But he did oversee the establishment of the Open University.

Behind the Wilson statue is a water feature, several spouts making up a fountain which powers itself on and off seemingly at random.

This caught the eye of someone’s pet dog, and that then provided the entertainment for a few minutes, as the dog got very wet, but failed to figure out the water jets.

Then we moved right along to the Head of Steam, which occupies the opposite end of the station building to the King’s Head. The place has a pleasant interior, there are a number of little nooks and crannies, there are comfy sofas to relax on, but the beer was a terrible disappointment. And it wasn’t just one ale: the group sampled two or three.
Maybe the next pub would do better? As the clock ticked round to half past the hour, we boarded the next stopping train for Manchester, eager to find out. By now, there were several others making the same journey. This ale trail thing is catching on.

Monday 28 June 2010

Lies, Damn Lies, And EU Directives

One newspaper was missing from yesterday’s roll call of Europhobics queuing up to relay the “story” of how the EU was intending to “ban” selling eggs by the dozen. That was the Maily Telegraph, but by this morning, they too were faithfully telling how “Shoppers will be banned from buying bread rolls or eggs priced by the dozen”.

The wording of the Telegraph article is interesting: it doesn’t claim that the EU will stop anything being sold by the dozen, half dozen or whatever number. The key word here is priced. The headline, however, still wrongly states “EU to ban selling eggs by the dozen”, so the paper has some way to go before it can be certain which way it is facing.

The actual draft directive, while it specifies the requirement for packaging to show the weight of the contents in metric units, does not exclude (so no “ban”) saying “N eggs”, or even showing the weight in Imperial units, should the packager and retailer wish. So there was no need for all the scare stories ... or was there?

Ah well. There’s mileage for Europhobes in this sort of thing, as witness today’s Maily Telegraph blog by arch Europhobe Dan, Dan the Oratory Man. Hannan doesn’t help his credibility by telling of the “Proposed EU ban on selling eggs by the dozen”, when any fule kno that there is not, has not been, and will not be such a ban.

Dan continues by swaggering “We Old Brussels Hands know how these directives work”, which would be reassuring if he hadn’t just told a blatant porkie about them. But the Hannan logic is straightforward, if routinely perverse: he contends that the Fourth Estate finding out about proposed legislation and kicking up a fuss nips the EU’s worst excesses in the bud.

The inconvenient fact of the matter – that the fuss being kicked up is over wording that does not exist – is not allowed to enter Dan’s world. Here, the press only get to make their fuss very occasionally, because those dastardly EU types somehow manage to keep the Fourth Estate away from all that freely available information on proposed legislation.

And all that information is available, by default, in English. The idea that the Europhobic part of the press misses the quietest fart from the direction of the European Parliament is ridiculous. But for Daniel Hannan, the impression must be given of dragons being slain, and heroic deeds by folks like ... well, himself personally now.

Otherwise, what would he be there for?

Your Fifteen Minutes May Be Up

Yesterday morning, during the paper review on the Andy Marr Show, the front page of the Mail On Sunday was briefly shown to the camera. There, in big, bold capitals, screamed the headline “EU Bans A Dozen Eggs”.

Thus the ideal story for the domain of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre: the rotten EU is going – via unelected bureaucrats, no doubt – to tell our shop keepers that they can no longer sell eggs, or any other produce, by number. It looks too good to be true – because it’s complete drivel.

Undeterred by the obviously questionable appearance of the story, which also featured in yesterday’s Screws (along with the obligatory range of pejorative terms, such as “Cracked”, “Bonkers” and “Nutty”), Iain Dale, a compliant and reliable conduit for Tory Propaganda, decided to go over the top as well.

Among other commenters who tried to point out to Dale that this was an obvious cod story was me. It didn’t make much difference: Dale doesn’t do listening and correcting himself most of the time, although he does give the Murdoch empire occasional plugs (HERE is one for the lamentable Trevor Kavanagh, and HERE is a plug for Sky’s tacky football coverage).

Fortunately, with characteristic directness, my old sparring partner John B has nailed the story on Liberal Conspiracy this morning. As I tried to tell Dale, there is nothing in the proposed legislation that bans the selling of eggs, or anything else, by number. And, of course, it’s only a proposal: nothing has been decided as yet.

Which diminishes the reputation of Iain Dale yet further. Why the clear lack of any objectivity? Why allow himself to be suckered by an obvious scare story? Dale is savvy enough to know what the various parts of the Fourth Estate are about, and he isn’t daft, which suggests that he, like the Rothermere and Murdoch empires, is up for peddling gratuitous Europhobia.

But that puts Dale in the same crowded niche as Fat Dick Littlejohn and Dan, Dan, the Oratory Man, whose Europhobia is much more accomplished. Worse, it takes Dale out of the realm of reliable punditry, with enough wannabes out there to step into any void his declining credibility creates.

Already, a blog ridiculing Iain Dale has been started, and if his credibility becomes tarnished further, broadcasters and editors may decide to look elsewhere for their punditry.

His fifteen minutes may be starting to draw to a close.

Cars For Everything

Yesterday evening, a neighbour had a takeaway delivered by Domino’s Pizza. But, so what? Well, apart from my usual warning against supermarket and takeaway pizza being junk, and a pale imitation of what you get in Naples, it was delivered by car.

That might seem perfectly normal, save for the fact that Domino’s is less than ten minutes’ walk away (on the big traffic lights at the south end of Mill Street). Given that parking at the shop is not easy, it would have taken the delivery bod more than that walking time to get to his car, into the traffic, round the houses, parked up and to his delivery.

Perhaps he had more deliveries to make, and they were yet further away. But then, the idea of those callers getting anything even remotely fresh out of the oven would be daft. In any case, it shows up our default of car usage for every task. It can’t be beyond the wit of retailers to deliver takeaways by foot, can it? Or will we be assailed by tales of pizza thieves lying in wait in every side street off Nantwich Road?

Sunday 27 June 2010

Ingerlundflags! – 5

Oh well. That’s it for another four years: England bundled out of the World Cup by the hated Germans, a wrongly disallowed goal, the likelihood of another managerial vacancy before too long, more soul searching for the Fourth Estate to indulge in for, oh, another year or two, and the realisation that we are no nearer to emulating the Class of ’66.

Allied to this is another realisation, and that is the ineffectiveness of the huge number of Ingerlundflags displayed all over the place, whether from cars, windows, rooftops, or wherever. As I mentioned before, every major England event beings more of these, and every time, they have no beneficial effect. At least the German equivalent seems to be working for their team.

The cricket team are still playing, though. And they’re two-nil up in the ODI series.

Five Go Mad On The Ale Trail – 1

The idea came from a friend and regular visitor to Zelo Street: to follow the Real Ale Trail that has become established between Leeds and Manchester following the televised exploits of Oz Clarke and James May recently. And it’s not a difficult or expensive tour: you can make up your own trail, there are frequent train services to take you from one watering hole to the next, and the beer is very, very good indeed – well, mostly.

So, on a warm and sunny Saturday, we gathered in Leeds and decided to start just outside the station at the Scarborough. In the days when I worked in the city, which admittedly is many, many years ago, this was one of many city centre pubs that were best left well alone, but not any more: a good choice of beers and ciders, with food on offer throughout the day.

Back at the station, we headed for Platform 13 and the first train stopping at Batley. Opposite the station is the Cellar Bar, where the beer was, once again, very good indeed. The barman came out to chat to us, and to take the photo that one of the group wanted at each stop (he’d done a lot of this). As we caught the next train for Dewsbury, a group we had seen in Leeds were alighting. We saw more of them later in the day.

Only three minutes along the line, at Dewsbury station, the West Riding is actually on the platform – no problem finding your way here. We mingled with a rugby club outing and a pre-wedding party, and found that the beers on offer included a “Rail Trail Ale”, which was not half bad. One word on travel validity: you’re OK to break your journey on Off-Peak and Day Return tickets.

Then it was off to Mirfield, where the Navigation was a short walk from the station, in a quiet setting next to a canal. The sun was beating down, and the temptation to linger was significant, but we managed to drag ourselves away and catch the next train. On board, the guard even offered advice on which of the two bars on Huddersfield station was the best. And, as it had been since departing Leeds, the railway was punctual, the trains had plenty of room, and the staff were welcoming and good humoured.

The story of the day, as they say, is to be continued.

Friday 25 June 2010

Crikey Chaps, Competition!

The next election for Mayor of London, the office currently held by Young Dave’s jolly good pal Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, is not until 2012. But the number of column inches the upcoming contest is generating already – and in the national press as well as in the capital – suggests otherwise.

Because the whole campaign has come alive in the past few weeks: first, Labour confirmed that their nomination would be contested (between the inevitable Ken Livingstone, and former MP Oona King), then the news filtered through that Bozza was close to confirming his desire to run for a second term.

And now we have the possibility that the Lib Dems could nominate former Montgomeryshire MP and unlikely stand up man Lembit Opik as their candidate. He would certainly have the recognition factor, something that Susan Kramer and Brian Paddick lacked. And, given that Johnson has shown that electoral credibility is not necessarily a casualty of being subjected to ridicule on Have I Got News For You, Opik can’t be ruled out because of his public profile.

Lembit for London. It’s got a strange and interesting ring to it.

How Tired Is Your Pilot? – 8

Anyone wary of taking up the headline prices advertised by the more aggressive budget airlines will not have had their doubts eased following the news that the police had to attend an aircraft at Prestwick Airport (not in Glasgow) yesterday, after passengers became fractious after a four hour wait for a departure slot.

That the flight was bound for Girona (not in Barcelona) is all you need to know: the operator was, of course, Ryanair, the Millwall of air carriers (everybody hates us and we don’t care). The behaviour of the crew, and the following attempt to offload blame and responsibility, are text book Ryanair, and anyone even considering flying with them should know what they may be letting themselves in for.

Take-off had been delayed, following another bout of industrial action by air traffic controllers in France. However, having closed up the aircraft, the crew refused to let anyone get off: this could potentially have delayed departure, should a window of opportunity arise, and for Ryanair, what is operationally convenient for them trumps any consideration for the punters.

Moreover, the crew also refused to issue drinks to the increasingly unhappy passengers: Ryanair’s excuse was that they were bound by regulation not to “open the bars”. This is utter tosh: they could have got water to the punters without “opening the bars”, but, again, this may have been operationally inconvenient, and would have cost Ryanair money.

Ultimately, it was the police that stumped up for water and snacks, so Ryanair dumped their responsibility on the UK taxpayer. And they kept over 160 passengers on board one of their aircraft for six hours before finally taking off. Predictably the carrier has blamed the French industrial action, but once again it is Ryanair’s behaviour that has fallen short.

That behaviour, together with the inability to own up to their own responsibility, and the appalling dumping on the police, can lead to only one conclusion. And that, Michael O’Leary, is that your attitude, and your airline’s service, are not good enough.

Thursday 24 June 2010

Ingerlundflags! – 4

So England have progressed to the last sixteen of the World Cup. They did, however, only score one goal, which means that the USA, who were bold in their pursuit of a win against Algeria, won the group on goals scored.

Yes, England were runners up to the USA. Had they converted just one more chance, their next opponents would be Ghana, and the US might just fancy getting to the quarter finals right now.

Instead, England get Germany. Again. The tabloids will tell their readers not to mention the war, before doing so with their customary lack of style. At least Piers “Morgan” Moron is no longer editing one of them, so the nadir of 1996 is unlikely to be repeated.

Also, any England fan should look at how the mighty have already fallen: the last World Cup final was between France and Italy, and neither team are still in the current competition.

Not A MacArthur Moment

Following a breathtakingly indiscreet piece in Rolling Stone magazine, the man until recently heading up the campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, has been summoned to Washington by President Barack Obama, and summarily dismissed from his command. Parallels are being drawn with the previous summons to DC of Douglas MacArthur by Harry Truman in 1951, but, apart from the common thread of a commander being sacked, there is little else to connect the events.

Nothing will change – at least, not in the foreseeable future – in the approach to the Afghan campaign. McChrystal’s dismissal, in any case, wasn’t about strategy, as MacArthur’s had been. The latter was moving not only to expand the Korean War into China, but also to threaten the use of nuclear weapons against the Chinese. The United Nations mandate under which the war was being pursued limited aspirations far short of this.

It was ultimately conceded, even by MacArthur’s greatest admirers, that Truman had little choice if escalation of the Korean War was to be avoided. In McChrystal’s case, the problem has been one of disrespect to his President and Vice President (and their team) as well as a general loose tongued and laddish attitude. McChrystal’s lack of judgment in allowing the Fourth Estate to be present when he and his pals were “getting shitfaced” has been jaw-dropping.

It is this comparison which shows the very different character of McChrystal and MacArthur: the latter knew how to cultivate his public image, and showed the press what he wanted them to see. And that was that. The idea of allowing a month’s access to a journalist – and unlimited at that – would not have entered.

Fortunately, McChrystal has not yet said “I shall return”. That’s a good move, because he just might not.

Wednesday 23 June 2010

No Surprise There, Then

So VAT is to go up to 20%. The most predictable part of the first budget delivered by the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, Heir to the Seventeenth Baronet was that the Tories’ favourite tax target was to be hit for the third time.

As I predicted some weeks back, the new and improved two headed donkey has gone for a VAT increase: the only surprise is that there has been no tinkering with the reduced rate – yet. I still believe that this potentially lucrative step is on Osborne’s wish list, together with the ending of zero rating, although the latter may need the electorate and press to be softened up suitably beforehand.

I note that, at around the same time I made my prediction, the routinely clueless Paul Staines, who blogs under the alias of Guido Fawkes, predicted that VAT would not be increased because of its potential effect on inflation. As if Osborne is greatly fussed on that front – he can always dump on Merv the Swerve if things get difficult.

So, wrong again, Paul.

All Aboard The Fayed Flyer

And the best thing for Mo is that he doesn’t need a British passport to ride it ...

Tuesday 22 June 2010


Every so often, there arrives an irrational impulse to do something – or, this evening, to eat a different kind of food. It was on the journey back from Augsburg that I made the decision that this evening would be time for a curry. After all, Munich has dozens of restaurants offering Indian cuisine. All that was needed was to find one.

That was not so easy. I was sure that there were several in the area around Isartor, but at first drew a blank. It could have been because I was trusting a recollection of the city from the last time I visited – that was in early 1998, and things change over such a long time.

So back I went to the S-Bahn station. Standing on the platform, the answer came to me: on the wall opposite was an advert for the Garam Masala, apparently only 300 metres distant. And so it was, just off Tal to the south side. So now I have appropriately spiced fingers, and am completely full up, as a result of the vegetable thali coming with a whole naan bread.

Curry craving averted. And you can avert it in most towns and cities across Germany (that’s proper curry, not the worryingly popular currywurst, which can be had almost everywhere).

A Dry Day

Today was an opportunity to leave Munich behind for a while and visit some more of Bavaria, only a part of the Federal Republic, but a large one. At first the weather was its customary miserable self, but things improved as the day wore on, and there was even some sunshine on offer.

Exploring Bavaria is not an expensive pastime: due to a state sponsored initiative, you can travel around the whole area by rail for just twenty Euro a day, although if you can’t trust the ticket machines to behave themselves, the ticket counter charges two more Euro. The downside is that only Regional trains can be used – so the fastest InterCity and ICE are out – but you get city transport thrown in, as well as all bus services.

First stop, after a fast journey on a well filled Regional Express from Munich, was Nuernberg, which has a magnificent station building and, more of interest to the average tourist, a large walled Old Town. It would merit a whole day’s attention.

Later in the day came a cross country trip to Augsburg, through some almost impossibly well tended countryside (who does it best, Germany, Switzerland or Austria?) and stopping so often that the train may have been Regional, but Express it was not. Augsburg is also worth a longer visit, and notable for the number of its citizens who tend to wander around in front of moving trams.

From Augsburg, it’s a short hop back to Munich. The 20 Euro offer also covered my day out in Salzburg on Saturday, and the number of destinations seems limitless. No point complaining about the exchange rate at this price.

Sunday 20 June 2010

Open Borders

At or near the top of the buzzphrase league for UK rail franchisees is Revenue Protection. What this means is, basically, making sure all your punters pay up. In pursuit of this, many operators are closing off station platforms by putting up ticket barriers. What started with London’s Underground has spread, first to the capital’s suburban rail network, and now to major (and some less major) stations across the country.

But some countries take a much more relaxed view of Revenue Protection, and top of the relaxed league is Germany. Here, stations do not have barriers, and that includes suburban rail, and the S- and U-bahnen in cities like Berlin and Munich. Trams in both cities run without conductors. So what of fare evasion?

Brief and unscientific observations may not give the most accurate picture, but my take is that there is very little of it – except perhaps for the most wilful of tourists, these usually being those same Brits whose behaviour at home has prompted the closing off of rail stations across the country.

But trying to travel for free in Munich has one inevitable consequence: you will get caught. Inspection teams may not come into view for days at a time, but when they do, the 40 Euro fines (just for starters) are not negotiable. They don’t make exceptions, and have heard it all before.

It’s best to buy a ticket.

Be Bold, Be Quick

Today’s forecast for Munich? Another grim one, but early on, at least the rain held off and for a time, the sun even tried to make an appearance. It was better than nothing, and with the promise of rain later, it was time to get on with the sightseeing.

And another good reason to make haste early on a Sunday is that the crowds tend not to turn up until later in the day. The exception to this rule is the Japanese, who make sure you know they are there by standing right in front of whatever your camera has just focused on. They also excel in brandishing some very expensive looking cameras while giving the impression of not having a clue how to use them (but then, so do far too many rail enthusiasts).

Fortunately, I got to most of the intended sights before the Japanese, and before the weather closed in. Top of today’s list was the Olympic Park, and it’s clear that the facilities built for the 1972 Olympiad are mostly well used – there has been much argument over what will happen after London 2012. Other host cities have failed to make the most of their legacy: the sad sight of the disused Barcelona swimming complex, on the edge of Montjuic Park with its view over the city, comes readily to mind.

So what provoked the weather? It may have been mere coincidence, but as on Friday it was at Schloss Nymphenburg that the heavens opened. At least this time I managed to get close up to the castle and fire off a few photos. With no other tourists standing close up, Japanese or otherwise.

Saturday 19 June 2010

It’s Really Not Very Quiet In Here

There’s no point coming to a city like Munich, with its beer and food tradition, without doing both at a city beer hall. So tonight it was time to dive in and sample the loud and characteristic Weisses Brauhaus, home of Weissbier and those white Munich sausages.

It was full, it was loud, the food was filling, and the Weissbier was strong (most similar beers are around 4% strength, but the Schneider Weisse is 5.2%). Many of the happier – and less steady – drinkers looked to have been in a while, but were not for quitting just yet.

A very popular follow up to the Weissbier was a chaser of Haus-Obstler. I failed to yield to temptation, otherwise this post might not have happened – well, not without a little more time and effort. Everyone else around the long table that I propped up briefly is probably still there.

Which made me wonder if there is a German equivalent for the old Glaswegian saying “You’ve had enough”.

What A Grey Day

The weather in southern Germany is still abysmal. But I’d decided to have a day over the border in Salzburg, so boarded the 0848 Regional Express hoping that the gloom might lift for long enough to allow a little sightseeing.

First signs were not good. We had not been more than five minutes into the journey, when the train came to a dead stand somewhere in the southern suburbs. There followed a fifteen minute wait as a failed train was removed from our path.

Around the Chiemsee it was raining hard, but punters alighted hopefully. Finally we reached Salzburg, where the station doubles as a building site right now. It was still raining. I was thankful that I hadn’t gone for a trip up the Untersberg – that would have been yet colder and wetter. But, after a squelch around the old town, and a trip up the funicular to the castle, it stopped.

Thus a minor miracle, at least by today’s standards. The wet conditions were, in any case, the prevailing mode when the cast assembled in the city for the filming of The Sound Of Music, as some of them recalled later, and not very fondly.

Despite the appalling weather, Salzburg was heaving with tourists, these being presented with many ways to part them from their money. Perhaps of most dubious value were trips around the old town in a horse drawn carriage: these command a premium price, and still there is the kind of aroma that inevitably follows horses.

Fortunately, there is also a man on hand to sweep up the by-product, and today he was especially busy.

Friday 18 June 2010

Ingerlundflags! – 3

So some England supporters adorn their motahs with Ingerlundflags. What about the Germans? A very good question, and the answer, predictably, is that they do. On match days, they do it even more.

And what about the conspicuous over consumption of beer on match days? Yes, they do that as well. Chanting? Oh, at least as bad as in England. Vuvuzelas? Most definitely, not that it seems to have done their team much good today.

In fact, there are so many Germany fans blowing their trumpets that it can’t be long before one or more of them incur someone’s displeasure severely enough to end up in a situation rather like Steve Bell’s cartoon of “Shagger” Major calling the Cones Hotline.

Although, given the dietary regime of many fans, that might not stop the noise.

Washout? Nearly

The weather forecast, as best as I could see yesterday evening in the middle of a reassuringly good feed at the Augustinerkeller, was not good. So, when the day dawned with plenty of bright sunshine, I knew to make the most of it before the rain came.

And come it did, cutting short a visit to Schloss Nymphenburg, which was quickly replaced by a dash to the tram stop. Fortunately it hasn’t been total misery, but sightseeing has had to take a break. There have been other entertainments on offer, not least the sight of many locals going into football supporter mode.

On the subject of which, one regular visitor to Zelo Street reckons that several of the German team aren’t really German, although their manager is. England get that the other way round.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Visiting, But Not In, The Cellar

Any pretence of going easy on the red meat went out the window this evening, but it was enjoyable nevertheless. As I mentioned earlier, there are two beer halls close to Munich’s Hauptbahnhof, and one of these is the Augustinerkeller.

Here, there is no chance of playing Billy No Mates and getting away with it: apart from a few tables arranged in small booths, it’s long, communal tables and you just sit among the rest of the punters. It’s enjoyable, the food’s filling, and the beer is just excellent.

The quality of the beer can hardly be otherwise, of course, given that it conforms to Rheinheitsgebot, roughly translated as “pledge of purity”. The original act of 1516 lays down the iron rule for German beer: that it be brewed from malted barley, hops, water, and nothing else (the last two words make difficult reading for those brewing in much of the UK, and, indeed, much of the USA).

One concession to modernity was a large TV screen at the end of the hall, with – what else – football on offer. Otherwise, food, drink, conversation and good humour were the order of the day.

Pity about the weather, mind.

Good Riddance, Barmy Bernard

There is a sort of commentary that the fourth estate calls by the unusually generous title of polemic. What this really means is that the reader is to be treated to a stream of ranting, usually right wing, often incoherent, and factually dubious writing. The national papers have a variety of regulars who indulge in this sort of thing, but for those of us who have lived and worked in Yorkshire, one local and particularly odious exponent of the craft stands out, if only for sheer brass neck.

Retiring in May after spewing out a weekly rant of occasional veracity, the Yorkshire Post’s Bernard Dineen was, back in the 1980s, well known even for the larger part of the population who would not have touched the YP – a solidly, and sometimes even rabidly Conservative publication – with the proverbial barge pole. Whatever the Thatcher Government did, whether good, bad, or indifferent, Barmy Bernard would be unequivocally in favour. Moreover, those who stood against Mrs T instantly incurred his wrath.

This wrath would usually involve being labelled as “hard left” or “Trotskyite”. On one memorable occasion, Dineen denounced Labour members of the soon to be disbanded West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council as the “floorsweepings of Marxist classrooms”, but, alas, was of less than perfect courage, so could not bring himself to name one of them.

More recently, the Dineen ranting has included the kinds of targets that papers like the Daily Mail enjoys bashing: the BBC has been a particular favourite. Any Labour politician putting head above parapet was also fair game, and in a superb example of his craft, Dineen denounced David Miliband when the latter called for a cease fire in the conflict in Sri Lanka: this, he frothed, showed that the former Foreign Secretary was supporting the Tamil Tigers (as was the Beeb).

And the Royals can count on Dineen’s loyalty: he railed against those making adverse comment after Prince Harry had been caught referring to a fellow soldier as a “Paki”. There was, told Dineen, a “nice” way to use the word. There isn’t, of course: that term, like Billy Connolly’s F-word, is loaded, and only someone wilful, stupid, or totally out of touch with the world (I suspect Dineen falls into the third category) would even consider such an argument.

Which may be why Barmy Bernard has finally been put out to grass. It’s not come a moment too soon.

Can’t Wait Till October

Zelo Street is once more on its travels: today brought arrival in the greatest of beer drinking centres, that being Munich. And, while the UK, or at least the north western part of it, basked in warm sunshine this morning, southern Germany is right now looking very, very grey. If the rain arrived within, oh, the next half a minute, that would not surprise anyone.

The visit is a middling length city break, and from the loading of the aircraft out of Manchester, this is a popular idea right now. Unfortunately, some of those aboard were unable to wait until arrival in Munich to start on the revelry, and it required the intervention of the flight deck to tell that either those standing up in the cabin sat down, or the aircraft would not taxi any further.

Not much waiting is required before the city’s watering holes can be tackled, in any case. True, the recently built airport (Flughafen Franz Josef Strauss, a great example of public works, named after a politician who did not favour such projects) is well out of town, but there are six S-Bahnen an hour, and two of the city’s largest beer halls are an easy walk from the Hauptbahnhof.

And, as predicted, over the bell peal of a nearby church, and the sound of trams in the street out front, there are now rumbles of thunder, the odd lightning flash, and the rain is coming down.

Turned out nice again. There’s timing for you.

Wednesday 16 June 2010

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 15

One might have been forgiven for doing a double take at yesterday’s news that Rupe and his troops were looking to take over BSkyB. Hold on a minute – don’t they own it already? Ah well. The Murdoch clan actually have a “mere” 39% of Sky right now, but would very much like the other 61%. Why so?

Well, over the years Rupe has ploughed some considerable amounts of dosh into Sky – at times, it was thought that the then fledgling broadcaster might finish off Murdoch. But, having seen off much of the competition, or in the case of BSB bought them up, and then got High Definition (HD) TV up and running, Sky can look forward to a period where all that investment pays off.

Which is why Rupe would very much like 100% of Sky: he would then get the same amount of what is expected to be a bumper payout. Unfortunately, Sky’s independent directors, whose duties include getting full value for all shareholders, have said that, while they’re prepared to talk takeover, Rupe has to pay the going rate.

But then, he’s paying in US Dollars, and right now Sterling is relatively weak against the Greenback. So it’s a doubly smart move. Will any regulatory hurdle stand in Rupe’s way? Not, I suspect, in the UK. But the EU just might trip him up, so expect plenty of Europhobic rhetoric from Rupe’s troops in the press for a while.

All Alone In The Corner

As part of the fallout from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, representatives from Big Oil have been summoned to the Hill to testify before the House energy and commerce committee. So what did the men from ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Shell have to say on the problems caused on the watch of, and facing, BP?

Two things stand out from the testimonies given: the admission that none of the other players had a clean-up plan any better than BP’s, and that all those other players said they would not have continued drilling if they had faced the same problems experienced on the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon rig.

The lack of credible clean-up plans was noted by the committee, as was the thought that their main concern in such an event was to effectively manage the PR side of things.

Meanwhile, the oil continues to gush out, the rate of “leakage” now having increased to an estimated 50,000 barrels a day – or even more. Evidence, if any was needed, for why BP were drilling there in the first place – there’s a lot of potentially lucrative crude under the ocean floor.

The problem seems to be that there has been indecent haste to get at the stuff, without bearing in mind that the boundaries have been pushed a long way in the process. The result might yet harm BP terminally.

Tuesday 15 June 2010

Brewing The Pickles

The new politics, we are told, is all about coalition and working together. In the world of the new and improved two-headed donkey, there is no more tribal behaviour. Except that there is.

Promoted to ministerial rank and in charge of all things to do with Local Government in Young Dave’s team is arch tribalist, master of the casual smear, and purveyor of significant excess baggage Eric Pickles.

Fat Eric honed his craft in local politics as he rose to lead Bradford Metropolitan District Council at the end of the 1980s: most observers agree that his actions, and those of his immediate colleagues, poisoned relations between the Tories and their Labour and Lib Dem opponents in the city for years afterwards.

This episode in Pickles’ political career – from October 1988 to the Tories’ loss of Bradford in the May 1990 local elections – has not received a great deal of scrutiny recently. This is a pity, as there is a readily available reference: local man Tony Grogan compiled a small book on the so-called “Bradford Revolution” titled The Pickles Papers.

Fat Eric was not best pleased by Grogan’s handiwork, stating that “It is rubbish, inaccurate and defamatory. If any body or organisation reproduces any of it, I shall not hesitate to take litigation”. That’s a bold assertion, and like many of Pickles’ utterances, does not stand serious analysis.

Why so? Well, because The Pickles Papers is available online. You can read it HERE, HERE and even HERE. Given that there are at least three reproductions of it available, the only question has to be this: when is Fat Eric going to “take litigation”?

Here on Zelo Street, The Pickles Papers has been a fascinating diversion. I have encountered several of those involved, if on occasion fleetingly, and will return to the saga of Fat Eric later.

The New Revolving Door

Back in the time of Margaret Thatcher, there was a revolving door in politics: here, business folk and politicians passed through, gaining contacts and directorships as they went. This habit has not gone away. Now, it is lobbyists and advisors that pass through the door, as demonstrated with the release yesterday of a list of Special Advisors (SpADs), together with details of their remuneration packages.

Head SpAD, not surprisingly, is Andy Coulson (and trousering an agreeable 140k with it), but look further down the list to those attached to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and you will see the name Susie Squire. Susie who? Ah well. La Squire is a former staffer at the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance (representing less than one tenth of one per cent of all taxpayers, and still not publishing full accounts).

No actual salary is shown for her, but given the PB2 grading, this will be somewhere between 60k and 70k – not bad for someone whose CV features such highlights as “Identifying Council non jobs”, while filling one herself. La Squire is one of the new users of the latest revolving door: last month part of an Astroturf lobby group, and now on the Government payroll.

That’ll be the payroll that the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance says is too high, and funds too many hangers on. Hey, even its former “campaign director” says so. And who was that “campaign director”? Step forward Susie Squire!

Can you smell a faint whiff of hypocrisy?

Monday 14 June 2010

What The Fox?

Much was made by Young Dave and his jolly good chaps of the tendency of Pa Broon and his clan to make policy announcements to the press, and not, as was previously the case before the New Labour Project, to Parliament. Now that the boot is very much on the other foot, the new and improved two-headed donkey seems to be carrying on the same way.

Typifying this not very new politics is Defence Secretary Liam Fox, reliably right wing although, on occasion, a loose cannon. Fox clearly wants a new Chief of the Defence Staff, but incumbent Jock Stirrup has not yet volunteered his resignation. The solution was clear: Fox went on the Beeb’s Politics Show yesterday lunchtime, told how there had been “amicable” discussions, and that Stirrup, along with Permanent Under Secretary Bill Jeffrey, would be on their way soon.

The two, it now transpires, could be out before the upcoming Defence Review, which may bring a smaller Army – Fox is telling that he cannot rule any option out. Perhaps he will also not rule out bringing his news to Parliament. If Mr Speaker uses this as a means of reasserting the authority of the Commons, of one thing we can be certain: those commentators who applauded his warnings to Pa Broon will find adversely on any perceived upbraiding of Young Dave.

Meanwhile, the last word on Defence has to go to Liam Fox, who has told that nothing is ruled out of the Defence Review, save for the nuclear deterrent, because “ ... the threat is so great that we can’t drop the deterrent”.

Er, hello? If you can’t drop it, why have it?

Sunday 13 June 2010

Summer Days In Cheshire

Today is that flip side of the warm summer day, the showery aftermath. But yesterday was the kind of summer Saturday of fondest memory: high, strong sunshine, a little breeze, and fewer clouds as the afternoon wore on. Maybe the benefit of this interlude was not felt everywhere in the UK, but then, Cheshire does benefit from its position well away from the effect of anything coming off the cold North Sea, while being sheltered from the Atlantic approaches.

The day can be summed up in this photo taken during the afternoon at the wayside station in the village of Mouldsworth, a few miles east of Chester, and on the fringe of the Delamere Forest. Returning to the other side of the Pennines in the stately manner one would expect of times past, a charter train hauled by a steam locomotive rumbles past the trees and hedgerows. The idyllic scene is not from idealised memory, but very much of the present day.

Having the city of Chester as a destination may also have sold the tour to some of the participants. There are some photos of Chester HERE, in case you’re not familiar with the place.

Good Riddance, Terry Tesco – 3

Those looking for a USP that sets Tesco apart from its competitors need look no further than the loyalty scheme that is the Clubcard. It’s a simple and nifty idea: punters get a point for every pound they spend, and those points can be redeemed at a penny a go – but only at Tesco stores.

On the face of it, this looks like a generous act, but it isn’t. Those vouchers that drop through the letter boxes of the Tesco faithful are not some kind of universal money substitute – although you can cash them in (not with Tesco) for less than their face value – but a means of causing those punters to keep choosing one retailer over another.

Clubcard points don’t mean you get a discount of any significance on your shopping: their full “value” is only redeemed if you do yet more shopping. And the information this provides Tesco about your retail preferences is worth it. That information enables the retailer to target new products and services far more effectively. Thus more bang is extracted from each promotional buck: those Clubcard points more than pay for themselves.

And Clubcard points are given entirely at the discretion of Tesco – which means, for instance, that not every forecourt gives them on petrol sales. Generally, you’re more likely to get points on petrol where there is a large enough store nearby – in other words, there is more likelihood that you will be doing enough shopping to make it worthwhile for Tesco to offer a little inducement. As ever, any advantage from this arrangement accrues to them, not to you.

But the facade must be maintained: all those “personalised” letters that accompany Clubcard statements and vouchers help reinforce this. In reality, they are yet another way of targeting punters according to their shopping habits. The idea that Tim Mason, or any of his minions, give any attention to mere individuals is laughable.

And the brains behind Clubcard? Step forward Terry Leahy. This scheme is Leahy in a nutshell: the appearance is given that the customer matters, but the reality is that there is only one beneficiary, and that is Tesco. You’ve signed up to the Clubcard myth? More fool you.

Ingerlundflags! – 2

So the big game finally arrived. And now it has passed into the realms of bad memories. What went wrong?

Those still inclined to follow England should not throw in the towel yet: the team drew its first match in 1966, and didn’t even manage a goal. England came close to going out at the group stage in 1986, before finally being undone by the best and worst of Diego Maradona.

Moreover, the USA can field a side with a very good value goalkeeper: their first choice is Tim Howard, who plays in the Premiership with Everton. Toffees’ manager David Moyes and his squad give that league’s best value for money by the proverbial country mile.

But, when all’s said and done, the effect of all those Ingerlundflags was, more or less, zero. There are an awful lot of cheesy looking motahs running around to no avail.

As ever, it will be down to the team. And the manager.

Friday 11 June 2010

Several Years Missed, Nothing Much Changes

Last night, for the first time in several years, I found myself watching the Beeb’s recently controversial Question Time. And very little seems to have changed over time: Dimbleby Major is still in charge (he’s not a patch on Robin Day), the audience contributions are not unlike panning for gold (you have to sift through a lot of dross), and some of the panel you would not want to get stuck with in the proverbial lift.

The new and improved two-headed donkey put up a real minister for this edition, the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. I had only previously seen still photos of him, and seeing the bloke in the flesh, he appears disturbingly swivel-eyed. This was a reason, back in the 70s and 80s, for much of the Fourth Estate to dump on politicians like Tony Benn, but as Hunt is a Tory, this aspect of his demeanour will probably pass unnoticed.

The right wing credentials of the panel were further bolstered by Toby Young, who as an associate editor of the Spectator and a food critic, qualifies without question as one of those clever people who talk loudly in restaurants. Unfortunately for the TV audience, he was also allowed to talk loudly on Question Time. Young echoed much of the right leaning press and blogosphere in finding adversely upon Barack Obama’s stance on BP, without pausing to consider what we in the UK might have thought of an oil major overseeing the pollution of hundreds of miles of beaches.

Young and those of similar thought would be more credible if mainstream centre right politicians were making the same noises, but other than Mayor of London Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, who has railed against Obama’s judgement in the course of extracting his “chicken feed” from the Maily Telegraph, nobody else of any note wants to know.

Fortunately for the cause of balance, the panel also included Respect leader Salma Yaqoob, who was not phased by Hunt or Young, or indeed token business person Katie Hopkins, whose ability to drone on in a strangely unattractive monotone did not endear her to the audience. Oh, and Ben Bradshaw, now Hunt’s shadow, was also present, but strangely unmemorable, apart from allowing Dimbleby to trip him up over Labour leadership nominations. As, ultimately, was the programme.

Not really worth Andy Coulson having a stampy tantrum over, was it?

Thursday 10 June 2010

Good Riddance, Terry Tesco – 2

As I mentioned the other day, Tesco are not universally acclaimed for good customer service, and nothing throws this into sharper focus than an attempt to obtain refund or replacement for faulty electrical goods.

Many jokes have been made at the expense of catalogue store Argos (one of the best known being Jasper Carrott’s characterisation of the name as “the Greek God of queuing”). But when your electrical product breaks down, you’re entitled to take it back, and you take it back, they then tend to take it back. Not so Tesco.

The experience of retired teacher Peter Ward at the hands of Terry Leahy’s finest, following the breakdown of his television, is not unique. And the hoops he had to jump through in order to get the retailer just to comply with current legislation will be familiar to many. First of these is the helpline.

Why bother with “helplines”? Wouldn’t it be cheaper, and better business, just to concede the point and make a refund? Ah well. That misses two crucial reasons for having the helpline in the first place. First, the helpline charges enough to bring in significant extra revenue, and second, punters are held in the queue long enough not only to make more money, but to put many of them off. You have to be determined to get your money back from Tesco.

Then, as Peter Ward found out, going to the store is not in itself enough. The minimum requirement for any progress is that the duty store manager must be summoned. Even then, there is bound to be a stand-off (I won’t go into my own experiences in any detail, save to say that I recognise Ward’s situation). Only when the customer has dug their heels in and refused to be moved will any kind of service be forthcoming.

This, too, puts punters off. The money generated from helplines that tend not to provide much in the way of help, and the difficulty in getting redress – your entitlement as a consumer – both contribute to the bottom line. This behaviour does not just happen, but is part of a corporate culture. It starts at the top.

Terry Tesco may receive rave reviews from the business correspondents. But the ordinary Joes and Joannes contribute to those headline numbers by getting fobbed off with appalling customer service.

That’s not good enough.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Whoring The Brand

It’s World Cup time. Football. Getting fresh air and exercise. Better health for all those couch potatoes. So you’d think that the kind of product associated with the competition would be in tune with this particular zeitgeist.


The official restaurant of the 2010 FIFA World Cup is, and I’m not in sick joke mode here, McDonald’s.

Er, hello? Just exactly how many of the England squad would go near the place? A very round number, that’s how many. Could FIFA really do no better than to lend their name to the world’s most notorious purveyors of Jumbo Offalfurters?

Maybe the endorsement is looking to appeal to a certain kind of fan. In Crewe, that would mean those who visit the WaddleThru (tm) on Macon Way. Yes, I can picture them now – car adorned with an unfeasibly large number of Ingerlundflags, one or more of the occupants in a state of advanced circumferential challengement, pining for their fix of low grade junk.

It actually makes commercial sense. In a sick and exploitative kind of way.

Good Riddance, Terry Tesco

So, after fourteen years at the top, Terry Leahy is to retire from Tesco. This has prompted the impressionists’ favourite Beeb business correspondent, Robert Peston, to tell how Tel did it, expanding Tesco into the largest supermarket chain in the UK, leaving behind Sainsbury’s and the rest, in a kind of eulogy for the Leahy reign.

Meanwhile, those of us who are merely consumers don’t appear to be getting a hearing. Perhaps Peston and his fellow analysts are more concerned with the market share, share price, and things like the price/earnings ratio to be fussed about the folks who have to suffer the dubious product that underpins them.

When I arrived in Crewe almost six years ago, there was no Tesco presence in the town: the nearest stores were in Kidsgrove and Northwich. But neither was there any sign of any difficulty among the population in locating supermarkets and stocking up, and nor was there any visible movement stirring, ready to agitate for Tesco to come to town.

Then Morrisons took over Safeway – and both had a store in Crewe. The Safeway was placed on a list of stores from which Morrisons had to dispose of a certain number. Therefore they did not have to sell if enough disposals could be made from the rest of the list. Tesco, who took over the Safeway, would therefore have paid a premium.

Thus it was no surprise when the store became Crewe’s first 24 hour supermarket, and since then, Tesco have taken over two fuel stations and turned them into “Express” branded convenience shops. Has the town benefited from this supposed increase in competition? Doubtful. But, as Kwik Save lost its way and shut up shop, one of its two Crewe stores was levelled and turned into a residential development, so the actual amount of retail floor space may well have shrunk.

And, as I’ll consider later, the Crewe Tesco is a by-word for abysmal customer service. Moreover, the car park still isn’t filling up at busy times, unlike the council P&D outside Asda, which is packed Thursday to Sunday. Maybe we’re not up to speed in accepting Tescopoly.

Or maybe Terry Tesco is getting out before his over saturation of the market catches up with him.

The Republican Wrong – More Death Panels

As the health care reform bill has passed into law, it might be thought that the welter of scare stories from the right would die down. But that would be to forget the upcoming mid term elections, and the need for candidates to garner votes by a variety of tactics, including frightening the voters.

One state where the voter frightening has been ratcheted up is Florida: here, there is a larger than average percentage of retirees, and so they have been routinely targeted by hopefuls including retired airline pilot Dan Fanelli, running against a Democrat incumbent in Florida’s 8th district, which includes the city of Orlando.

Fanelli has put together a video with one central thrust: that under “Obamacare”, the elderly will be denied treatment once they have passed the “age limit”. This claim has aroused the interest of the folks at Politifact.com, who have investigated in their customarily rigorous style.

And, sad to say for Orlando’s Republican cheerleaders, they have found Fanelli’s claim to have no basis in fact – at all. So they have been able to award the former pilot their coveted “Pants on Fire” award.

Expect more of the same between now and November.

Monday 7 June 2010


The World Cup approaches. Who should we support? Well, for me this is in the no-brainer category: I support England. And that is as far as it goes. I’ll no doubt watch some of the matches, and hope that I get to watch England at more than just the group stage.

But for some more or less serious fans, merely willing or cheering on the England team is not enough. There has to be a visible sign of their allegiance. And the most obvious sign, available for your car at just about any supermarket, is one or more Ingerlundflags.

Thus your motah will look suitably cheesy, its fuel economy will decrease, but your support will somehow be superior to mere agnostics like me. Well, that’s how I imagine it to be justified. But to my way of thinking, it’s another way of tempting fate.

My first recollection of large numbers of Ingerlundflags being displayed was during the 2004 European Cup. We didn’t win. True, Sol Campbell looked to have scored a perfectly good goal, and the caricatures of the referee with a golden retriever guide dog photoshopped in were great, but we still didn’t win.

Then there were lots of Ingerlundflags on display in 2006 for the World Cup. There was confidence in the air. And we didn’t win again. Portugal and penalties once more. So that’s lots of Ingerlundflags and no tournaments won.

This time round, there are lots and lots of Ingerlundflags appearing on cars all over town. So it doesn’t look good.

Back To Chasing Ambulances

News came through yesterday evening of a passenger train derailment. The initial details were sketchy, but as ever, there were those ready to scream “rail crash”. The boring facts are that the 1820 hours Glasgow to Oban service derailed, and that the front coach of the two-coach unit suffered a rupture to its fuel tank, resulting in a fire. Nobody was seriously injured and all passengers were evacuated safely.

So far, so prosaic, but the Fourth Estate have papers to sell, so a little exaggeration is in order. In the vanguard of horror stories has been the Daily Mail, telling thattwo coaches” were “precariously balanced” over an embankment, as it sounds hairier than “one coach”. But for once the empire of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre is comparatively restrained.

The real overkill has been done by Rupe’s troops over at the Super Soaraway Currant Bun, who tell that60 cheat death in train crash”. The passengers, it asserts, “miraculously survived a horror fireball”, but the article then confirms that the flames were outside the coaches. The journalese extends to stating “Sixty travellers ... also told how they were blown off their feet by the giant blast” before managing to find only one.

Routinely bad journalism, for sure, and not exceptional, but the image it seeks to project is that there is something frightening about rail travel. Unfortunately for the scare merchants, the facts show a different picture: there has been only one passenger fatality in the last five and a half years (in the 2007 Lambrigg derailment). Rail is the safest land travel mode by some distance, but for some, there is a career to be forged from frightening the public.

One voice not yet heard following last night’s derailment is that of solicitor Louise Christian, who – regrettably for her – has had little to complain about of late, given the lack of fatalities. She whinged in a Guardian article back in 2007 that suggestions she was “some kind of ambulance chasing lawyer” were “deeply offensive”. But every time there is any kind of incident on the passenger carrying railway, the impression is given that Christian is not far behind.

Speaking up for her clients is something that Louise Christian is fully entitled to do, and I commend her for so doing. But to sink to the level of the tabloid press, and try to project an image of rail travel far removed from reality, is not credible, not helpful, and will invariably result in more assertions that she finds “deeply offensive”.

Sunday 6 June 2010

Disaster Tourism

It was discovered by espionage author Chapman Pincher that “dead men don’t sue”. This revelation meant that Pincher found it much easier to denounce former head of MI5 Roger Hollis as a KGB agent in 1981, because Hollis was by this time eight years dead. The practice has been perpetuated by the tabloid press in the last few days following the Cumbria shootings, as Derrick Bird, who did the shooting, ultimately took his own life.

Rupe’s troops at the Super Soaraway Currant Bun led the pack with the characterisation of Bird as “Psycho Cabbie”, and the rest have followed suit, in the customary rush to milk the story and put on sales before the public tire of it and the hacks go back to their usual diet of sleb-trashing, football, and frightening their readers using a variety of bogeymen.

To some, the blanket coverage of Bird’s shooting spree may cause revulsion, but to many others there is a macabre fascination with such acts. Just how much was brought home to me by a work colleague some years ago when I was on an assignment near Bristol. At the time when Fred and Rose West had been arrested, but before their house had been flattened, that colleague had just remarried, and with his new wife was doing the rounds of friends and relatives in and around Gloucester.

After starting back for Bristol, they realised that the Wests’ house was not far off their route. But, they both agreed, disaster tourism was something that one shouldn’t really do – and then curiosity got the better of them. The car was parked up and they walked the couple of hundred metres to Cromwell Street. Turning the last corner, they were amazed to find just how many more people had succumbed to that curiosity.

Scores of sightseers were milling around outside the Wests’ now former home. A mobile hot dog and burger van was doing good business, as was another selling ice cream. But the most startling presence was a stall selling souvenirs – mugs, key rings, T-shirts – which the punters were lapping up.

Just as they lap up the tabloid tat. It’s business, but not as we might like to know it.

Saturday 5 June 2010

The Republican Wrong – Blame Gaming

There has been, you will have noticed, an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. Following a fatal platform fire, a ruptured well is spewing out crude at a depth of over 30,000 feet – and it’s making rather a large mess. It could be thought that this would silence the right wing “drill, baby, drill” crowd, but such a thought would be wrong.

First out of the traps, back on May 17, was the odious Rush Limbaugh, who asserted that drilling in deep water areas was the fault of environmentalist “wackos”. Limbaugh’s reasoning was that there was plenty of oil “practically begging” to be extracted closer to shore – except there isn’t. The prospects for lucrative extraction in deeper water are that much better.

Then, this week, the same line has been taken by former Alaska Governor – yes, it’s her again – Sarah Palin, in a Facebook note. Palin baselessly talks, as does Limbaugh, of these drilling areas close to shore, without telling her readers that permits to drill in those areas have also been given recently. It’s just that the opportunities further offshore are more appealing.

Palin bangs on about the USA becoming beholden to “foreign companies” and that this will “outsource jobs”, somehow managing to forget that she is married to a bloke who has more than ten years’ service with, er, BP – the company involved in the spill. She accuses environmentalists of “protests and lawsuits and lies”, although does not feel the need to cite one.

Along with Palin’s assertions have come the usual supporting suspects, notably Rupe’s new troops at the increasingly downmarket Wall Street Journal, and his established body of slanted “journalism” at Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

All of this talk of “locking up” shallow water drilling was then disproved by US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who confirmed in a Washington Post article that there had been “no moratorium” on shallow water drilling.

So it looks rather like the usual right wing suspects are displaying their usual level of veracity: very little.

Thursday 3 June 2010

Dear Old Pink Pancras

Whether he would have approved of the over-supply of retail “opportunities” packed into the station and its undercroft, John Betjeman, whose statue stands at the western side of Barlow’s great trainshed at St Pancras, would be mightily relieved that the station has survived.

Moreover, with the cleaning of the roof, we can see what the structure would have looked like back in 1868, before decades of steam traction left its mark. The glazed panels let the light flood in: it’s only a pity that our border controls forbid anyone bar Eurostar passengers from getting past the security screens.

The recently expanded station is worth a visit. It shows that we can do impressive and worthwhile civil engineering – and it’s a sight better organised than, for instance, Madrid’s Puerta de Atocha terminus, which is a bit of a warren, despite the palm house.

The New Politics?

Yesterday brought Young Dave’s first Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), which, as I was on a day out – in London, as it happened – had to be viewed retrospectively. This meant that much of my information was bound to come second hand, and possibly influenced by post event commentary.

It is into this last category that pundits and bloggers attempt to make their mark, but, sad to say, as the House of Commons record is available online, the opportunity for slipping through the odd porkie is very slender. Nevertheless, blinded by the light shining out of, well, somewhere, Iain Dale, a compliant and reliable conduit for Tory propaganda, tried his best.

Cameron’s debut, he told, was “assured”. He was “in command of his office”. And he “answered the questions put to him”. Er, no he didn’t.

Living in the north west, I take some interest in news from around the region. And that region was represented at yesterday’s PMQs by Labour MP Jim Dobbin, who represents Heywood and Middleton. His question was whether Cameron could confirm that four school building projects in that constituency would be seen through to completion.

Young Dave replied that the schools budget had been protected, that there was a commitment to building new schools, and managed not to answer the question that Dobbin had put to him. No commitment was given in respect of all, or indeed any, of the four projects mentioned.

The exchange is, as ever, recorded in Hansard, and can be viewed HERE (as Dale likes to put it). Specifically, it is recorded as Q4 [000429]. I know that Dale is a Tory supporter, but one might have expected better from someone who parades his ability to take an even handed view.

Or not.

Tuesday 1 June 2010

Calling All Proud Hearted Christians

Ha! Got that confession wrong!

Repent, repent, on pain of being harangued by Doctor Parsley!

Motherly Love

At the end of a particularly fraught journey from Birmingham’s New Street station to Rugby yesterday, a harassed and angry Mum stood on Platform 5, having assembled her offspring, one of which had made the journey less than totally enjoyable.

The child concerned, a less than appealing little boy, had reduced the unfortunate Mum to snapping, cursing, and eventually irrationally crying out to no-one in particular “Why don’t Social Services just come and take him away?”.

Ah, the love that binds those family ties ...

Bad Day For Tel Aviv – 2

The Israeli ability to open mouth and insert boot was highlighted in the most unfortunate fashion yesterday when the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), a body with whom you would be well advised never to mess, botched the interception of a convoy carrying aid to Gaza.

The bad news is that at least ten civilians died in the IDF action, but yet worse news has told of the sheer farce into which the raid descended. The convoy was intercepted in international waters – more than twenty miles from Israel’s own patch – and so the action could have been interpreted as piracy. Then, the part of the IDF carrying out the raid were trained for combat, not for controlling what was effectively a water borne demonstration with attitude.

At first, not enough soldiers were dropped onto the ship which had not stopped in response to Israeli order, so they were outnumbered. Then their first attempt to exercise control was with paintball weapons. Yeah, right. From those, the escalation was not to tear gas and stun grenades, but directly to live ammunition.

And now, most of those on board the ship, the Mavi Marmara, are being interrogated by the IDF with Israel having imposed a news blackout. Into the media void has come Israel’s own account of what happened, telling of a variety of resistance from the Mavi Marmara, but for some reason the video stops just as the IDF switches to live ammunition.

The condemnation has been widespread, but there are inevitably those who will see the affair as justifying Israel’s behaviour. Unfortunately for them, their numbers are dwindling over time as the IDF behave with one consistency – that of heavy handedness and overreaction. As I posted last week, the days of Israel being excused its actions and treated as a special case are over.

So that’ll be more boycotts, more isolation, more dependence on the USA, and of course more ritual carpetings for Israeli ambassadors around the globe.

Mel Brooks On Tour

One might be forgiven not wanting to watch that birdie ...