April 06, 2009

The Duchess – sacrificed on the altar of political correctness

2 out of 5 stars

I am very fond of the Regency period and looked forward to watching this film. I was aware of the deliberate link to the Diana back story – the tag line ‘there were three people in her marriage’ kind of gave that one away – which I assumed would be some sort of hook to the Diana-philes seeking confirmation of the injustice their Princess experienced. So I settled down to enjoy a bit of a period romp.

What I didn’t expect was for the story to be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness. There is a very interesting story to be told about a woman enjoying Regency life here – especially as women enjoyed substantially greater freedoms in this period than they were to through the Victorian era – but, instead, the story chosen was one of male brutality and sexual repression, which is certainly not my understanding of the Duchess’s life.

She was certainly not the ingenue as portrayed by Keira Knightley. She was one of the most famous – if not the most famous – hostesses of the era as well as being a regular participant in society. She had two, not one, children out of wedlock with Earl Grey which makes a mockery of the denouement of the film and most likely also had an affair with the Prince Regent, amongst other eminent men. She also ran up enormous gambling debts (in today’s money of around £5 million) regularly which her husband happily paid off over and over again.

She was most certainly not the angel that the film made her out to be. As with most upper class women of the age, she provided the heir to the Duke of Devonshire and then proceeded to enjoy herself. In today’s terms, she would have been something of an It girl, though expected not to bare quite so much to the newspapers.

We often view the Regency era in modern terms instead of considering it in its own context. But to butcher it in order to make it conform to modern politically correct sensibilities is, in my view, a heinous crime.

April 01, 2009

Did we just party too much and this is the big hangover?

It was meant to be the end of history…

The West had ‘won’ the Cold War and the term, “New World Order”, was on everyone’s lips. It was a time of unbridled optimism for world peace and resurgent, everlasting prosperity. After all what was there to worry about now?

Did we just take our eye off the ball and celebrate too much?

March 24, 2009

A smallholder's lot is not a happy one…

There was a massacre of the innocents in my garden yesterday at lunchtime. Three of our five chickens became a takeaway lunch for one of the local foxes and its young family. Foxes get brave at this time of year, they have young families to feed so they will wander around the local farms and gardens looking for food that’s easier to come by than digging for worms in the fields.

I lost one of my chickens a year ago to a fox, and that seemed a reasonable price to pay for the pleasure of owning them and the eggs they produce, but losing three in one go is harder. And a difficult lesson for the kids, too.

The chickens were roaming the garden quite freely, but unprotected. It seems cruel to keep them locked up for their entire lives in a box 6 feet by two feet so they were allowed to roam most days. It is a question of balance between giving them a decent quality of life and something approaching a natural life for a ‘wild’ chicken or keeping them alive simply for the eggs they produce for us. The foxes won’t come in the garden when humans are around but the chickens are a walking lunch box for them that they will wait for…

March 10, 2009

Funny? Well, I thought so…

A duck walks into a bar and says to the bar man: Have you got any bread?

The bar man replies: No we don’t serve bread

So the duck asks again;: Have you got any bread?

The bar man replies: I just told you we don’t serve bread

So the duck asks again: Have you got any bread?

The bar man, getting angry now replies: No, and if you ask again I’m going to nail your beak to the table

So the duck asks: Have you got any nails?

The bar man replies: No I don’t have any nails

So the duck asks: Have you got any bread?


A guy went on vacation to the islands. When he got off the boat he heard the drummers playing an island rhythm. He found it fascinating, however, after several hours, the sound became an annoyance, so at dinner he asked the waiter “When do the drums stop?”

The waiter went pale and stammered, “No. No. drums not stop. Very bad when drums stop”.

After tossing and turning through the night, he called the front desk at 2am to ask when the drums would stop.

“No. No. Drums not stop. Very bad when drums stop”.

After a sleepless night he was waiting at the front desk for the manager. He asked once again, “When do the drums stop?”

Again came the reply, “No. No. Drums not stop. Very bad when drums stop”.

Grabbing the manager by his shirt, the man screams, “What happens that’s so bad when the drums stop?”

“Trombone solo” came the reply.

March 06, 2009

Finding the Good Life up a chicken's backside

I’ll bet Richard Briers never found himself having to do this sort of thing on The Good Life. Though they did film something similar in the James Heriot series, It Shouldn’t Happen To A Vet. But, in that case, the prop was somewhat larger.

I keep chickens. Well, bantams. And they lay eggs every now and again. About every 30 hours or so when it’s laying season which is about 8 months of the year. So I have my own supply of eggs though with all the expense of feeding and housing the animals, I think it would be much cheaper to just buy them from the supermarket.

They’re a lot of fun, really. They have their own distinct personality. As long as they are far enough from the house and can’t see the sun, they don’t crow at 5 o’clock in the morning, either. And they normally put themselves to bed when it gets dark, though sometimes that is up a tree…

But one of them recently had a prolapsed cloaca. For the non chicken experts amongst you, that’s the bit the egg comes out of. Well, for a chicken, the plumbing is rather badly arranged so that everything comes out of there which is why you’ll get the occasional egg from a shop with a bit of chicken poo on it.

Right, a prolapsed cloaca looks like a dark brown sac hanging out the back of the chicken. Along with a bit of blood and egg yolk (seeing as this particular chicken thought it was trying to lay an egg that wasn’t ready). And the first aid approach to this particular problem is… to push it back in and hope the animal doesn’t push it out again…. so you use a finger.

I never ever thought I would ever have my finger up the back end of a chicken…

Life is full of surprises…

March 05, 2009

Cutting interest rates was never going to work

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/7925620.stm

The Bank of England has, as expected, cut interest rates again by half of one per cent.

I’m no economics expert but I was never convinced that the repeated cutting of rates was ever going to work. Try it once, by all means, and on a small scale but this repeated chopping in my opinion has done no one any good.

The original idea was to make it cheaper for the main banks to borrow money from each other and on the surface the rate cut would reopen the gates of liquidity. The unintended consequence of this, however, was the swift flight of overseas money to more lucrative havens overseas. The clear indicator of this has been the plummet in the value of sterling as the investors have dumped the currency.

The effect of this has been twofold. First of all, there is less money than ever moving around the City but, secondly, the remaining industrial base of the nation has been hit by the rise in its export prices thus making it less competitive than ever and then to increase the price of oil in this country which had been dropping in recent months and and, well, have at least softened the blow had it not then been made to rise by the falling value of sterling.

The medicine has not gone down well. I wonder whether cutting the rates was ever going to work and whether a small increase of a quarter of a per cent at that point would actually have worked better. While other countries dropped their rates, overseas capital would have flooded in to the UK giving the central banks something to lend, thus increasing the liquidity in the market. And, assuming that Government went ahead with its ideas for forcing the banks to lend to industry and small businesses had still gone ahead, these businesses could still have been kept afloat. Additionally, we probably wouldn’t have seen taxpayers money being used in quite the same amounts had the banks had overseas money instead to invest (more wisely this time around, one hopes) and trade through their losses.

Had my idea not worked, then they could still have tried cutting the rates. In other words, they would have had somewhere to go. As it is, they have to print more money. Give it a fancy name if you want, but that’s basically what it comes too. And losing control of one’s currency has never been a good idea when it comes to stability.

Just ask the Romans. Or, more recently, the Argentinians.

February 10, 2009

Creative writing class – Black Leather Gloves

The man at the bar was wearing black leather gloves. I’d watched him for a half hour while he slowly worked his way through one beer and then started on another. He never took the gloves off. Occasionally he wiped the condensation clinging to the glass away with his glove which he then dried in turn on a large white handkerchief that he took from a pocket beneath the flap of his overcoat. But his hand never touched the glass itself. Sometimes he’d smoked a cigarette, extinguishing it half smoked before it damaged the leather.

When the barman asked him if he wanted a refill, he’d not spoken. He’d nodded, his face shadowed beneath the hat he was wearing. The glove had gone into the pocket again, sorted out some coins and then pushed them onto the bar top for the barman to sort through. In the same way, his change had vanished back into the pocket, unlike so many of the bar’s habitual visitors who would leave a pile of money in front of them while they chatted or watched the television. He either guessed that the barman would sometimes take the coins claiming them as a tip from unwary customers or else he just wanted to break every last contact with the man.

That was what made me watch him. The bar was reasonably busy with its early evening custom. No cigarette smoke yet made its presence felt by creating a low ceiling of haze as it might later. The regulars were stopping off on their way home for a beer and a chat before facing the rigours of domestic life with the stress of dealing with wife or children. They would probably claim disingenuously that they were letting some of the traffic get home ahead of them, but really it was a quiet place in their lives where they could get away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. In a quiet world, the man at the bar was a study of a still pool in a gently flowing stream.

There was a kind of space around him. A fence that no one broke through. A sign that didn’t say “Go Away” but more like “Do Not Disturb”. The barman understood that. Over the nights that I’d used the bar myself, I’d observed that he saw all sorts come and go. The ones that cheerily greeted him every night, got a beer then sat and watched the sports programmes on their own before giving him a friendly wave on the way out having said nothing else to anyone for an hour. Some would chew over the merits of the Dallas Cowboys’ offense with him having had the same conversation the night before, and the night before that. He could quickly see what people wanted or didn’t want just by looking at them. I knew that he watched everyone. Not in a sinister manner but in the way that a good host does. There was never any trouble, at least at this time of day: his customers weren’t drinking to get drunk. They were just bridging the gap between being at work and being at home, two situations with their own kinds of stress for the working man.

But the man with the gloves was different. He wasn’t sinister. Not in a dangerous manner, anyway. Perhaps he looked sinister momentarily as he looked at his beer from beneath the hat, his face shadowed and therefore ill-defined to the casual observer. He was an unknown quantity in the bar. I’d spotted several of the regulars looking at him with a slight degree of unease as they passed. He’d not laid claim to his part of the bar in a territorial kind of way, he was just where he was. Troubling no one else but, even so, unusual, out of the ordinary. I couldn’t tell if he was tanned but the clothes looked tailored, the shoes expensive. I was able to spot a mis-fit straightaway.

I wasn’t in the bar enjoying the brief hiatus from the rain outside or the journey home. My ex-wife probably would have said that the bar (choose any bar) was my second home. Maybe she would have been right but for now it was also my office. I sat in the corner facing the bar, able to watch everything going on while I waited for my client to come in. A new client wanting my help with something. I set out my office on the table in front of me while I waited: pens, pencils (the clients usually took one with them), a pad of paper, my license and a pack of cigarettes. I didn’t smoke but my clients would usually have one of those, too. The man at the bar certainly wasn’t my prospect. A man waiting to meet someone checks everyone moving around, even when they are trying not to, like a man waiting for his own execution. Not the man at the bar: I’d watched him hunched, unmoving for some time. He wasn’t deliberately wasting time, using it up while he waited to be somewhere. He just had nowhere else to be. He was just existing while he waited for something to happen in his life.

Is that how it was with my friend at the bar? Was he the jetsam of a broken marriage? Was there a outraged wife at home or had he been the one to walk away from the anger and distress? What about children? Perhaps there were children wondering if their Daddy was ever going to come back to them, to mend the gaping wound suddenly torn into their lives. Life washed around him. People came and went but he took no interest in them, and they took none in him except to walk around him. No part of him touched the world, the gloves took care of that. And the hat and the over coat ensured that no one could reach into his space.

The phone call by my client to my digs had been brief and unrevealing. We’d agreed a time and a place. Well, I told him where to meet me and he’d accepted. He’d been nervous and unforthcoming. He’d probably never gone to a stranger before to ask for assistance as his life fell apart. That’s when people come to me when it’s almost too late, and sometimes when it already is. I specialise in people: I find people, or I find out secrets about people that they would rather keep hidden. I am a curtain twitcher (a service old ladies will perform for free), a professional stalker. Fifty dollars an hour plus expenses (with two hundred up front) to find out the darkness in people’s lives. A wife who strays because the husband is undemonstrative, yet shoulders the blame for a marriage that ends. Or the daughter who runs away with a boyfriend because parental acceptance is not forthcoming. Or a new employee that the business proprietor thinks may be stealing from the till or just to find out the truth about an unlikely insurance claim. Most of them are people who just want to be happy most of the time but the rules of society get in the way. Or cases so trivial to society at large that the police just won’t be interested in spending any time on them. But I seem to have a skill in disappearing in plain sight while I observe. It is the one thing that I seem to have been good at in my life.

I don’t do this job to judge people. Though people judged me enough in the past. From one job to another. I was just looking for somewhere to get by and pay the bills. But finding people who don’t want to be found – unless they are unexpectedly inheriting a large sum at which point you become their new best friend for the day – well, it isn’t the best paying job. And I can’t meet clients in my room in my boarding house, it’s small and it’s a mess. And it doesn’t satisfy the preconceptions of prospective clients. So I come to the bar, get a drink, meet them and talk over the wreckage of their lives. Which is probably what the man in the gloves is thinking about: why he is there, still sipping his drink, looking at no one.

People are just a job. A way to survive. It is not as I expected it to be. I watched all those old films. And some of the new ones. Women who need my services want someone found. I never had one come onto me like they do all the time to Philip Marlowe or Jim Rockford, let alone find me all consumingly attractive. Not even the ones who think they need to play the femme fatale. And the cases are never as involved as the ones Hercule Poirot faced and solved with a twirl of his Belgian moustache. I have never solved a murder. At least not in a big case like the fictional guys did. Maybe I have found out something and then passed it onto the police after they’d lost interest but allowed to pull the case files out and have another look. I bought a gun once, not long after I got into this. I got one license then the other. I’ve never fired it, not even for practice. It’s in a drawer in my room, locked away. Sometimes I get it out and look at it. Then I clean it and put it away again. I have no interest in facing someone with a gun. Probably the reason I couldn’t have joined the Army like the school recruiter suggested I should have as he’d hunted amongst the not so star pupils trying to make his quota. But the army wasn’t a place to be right then anyway and I couldn’t have lived with that kind of discipline. Or around guns. Someone did once pull a gun on me, someone who wanted to be left alone. What would a handgun have done for me, then? I left him alone, walked away. Maybe Bogart would have shot him without giving it another thought, his cigarette casually hanging from his lip and then delivered some sort of philosophical eulogy over the corpse but I’m not a hero. I just let people live out their lives.

I come into people’s lives and then I leave. Maybe for fifty bucks an hour I’m not really ever in their lives. They ask me to do something and then I go away. I come back later with an answer, and then I leave, melting back into the noise that exists outside of their immediate existence, the blur that we all ignore daily while we are lost in our thoughts or while we interact with one person at a time. Sometimes they argue with the bill but it’s just like someone would argue with the barman here over the price of a sandwich and then they move on with their own life. I’m just happy to get something so I can send it back to help out in caring for my daughter.

I could empathise with the man at the bar with the black gloves. He touched nothing, and nothing touched him. He kept the world away from him by the thickness of the gloves, wiping off the unfortunate detritus that that life brought him. Right then, his life included just that barman who drifted in and out of it just like I do with my clients, while I wipe off what gets left behind myself. My client would want answers, not the kind that are found in the bottom of a glass of questionable beer but something that told him the truths in his life and tie up a loose end in his life. He would want answers, not wise life altering advice like they give in the movies. Usually they want something black and white but all I can show is that life is full of grey and questionable decisions, mostly arrived at by chance rather than logic.

Like the man in the black leather gloves, I drift.

January 20, 2009

Mis–marketing Obama

I’m intrigued by the way that Barack Obama is being heralded as the new John F Kennedy and I wonder if the JFK star is not the one that anyone really would want to be hitched to.

Kennedy won the 1960 election by being better looking and a better orator than his opponent, Richard Nixon. But once in office, it seems that he achieved… well, not a huge amount really. True, he gave some great speeches: the inaugural “ask not what your country…”, “ich bin ein Berliner” and “we go to the moon” but perhaps we should be slapping his speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, on the back instead.

Kennedy wasn’t a great one for domestic legislation. Look at what his successor, Lyndon B Johnson achieved in his term in building his Great Society.

Nor was he a great one for foreign policy achievements. The Bay of Pigs was quietly swept under the carpet and the Cuban crisis could be said to have been resolved by his going public with the information. Kruschev’s fait accompli wasn’t and a quick bit of horse trading over some obsolete missiles in Turkey and the crisis was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. Both superpowers could claim victory and get on with life as before: it wasn’t about nuclear brinkmanship, but managing expectations. And Nixon possibly achieved more in his time as President in terms of foreign policy than Kennedy did.

Maybe JFK’s greatest achievement was in getting America to the moon. Whatever the merits of the manned space program it was a very tangible achievement.

So Kennedy was a great orator and so is Obama. But I, for one, have higher hopes of him achieving more in his time than Kennedy did! Of course, Obama’s party controls both houses of Congress so I imagine it will be easy for him to get busy in the first couple of years, at least!

So, why pick out the name of Ted Sorensen? Well, there is a story that six months after JFK’s inauguration following the incredibly close 1960 election, Richard Nixon ran into Sorensen and the two men got talking. Nixon said, ‘There were things in that speech I wish I’d said.’ Sorensen said, ‘You mean, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?” ’ And Nixon said, ‘No, I was thinking more of, “I hereby solemnly swear. . . ’ ”

January 14, 2009

Should a man assist a woman on her own?

Which man would be willing to give a woman on her own a lift in a rain storm?

A little while back a train service I was using stopped short of its destination and a bus was laid on to get us to its final station. A pregnant woman complained to the coach at large that she had missed her bus connection and so was stranded, not being able to afford a taxi. Now the weather turned nasty and, as I went to pull out of the car park, I saw this woman on her own at the (unsheltered) bus stop looking completely miserable so I asked if she wanted a lift home.

She got in the car and I took her home – well, nearly, she didn’t actually tell me where she lived, just gave me directions, left, right and so on, until suddenly she asked me to pull over and she ran off down a passageway between some houses.

Now, I thought I had behaved correctly, making small talk, following her directions to the letter… you know, just being a fully paid up human. She looked like she thought it was just a matter of time until I jumped on her and raped or killed her. To be honest I was glad to get her out of the car as she was making me feel very uncomfortable. And afterwards, on reflection I wondered if I really shouldn’t have bothered.

Women are always advised these days by caring friends and parents to never get into a car with a man they don’t know. And what good advice that is, too. But how human are we – forget about such niceties as to what constitutes gentlemanly behaviour, these are enlightened times… How human are we if we just abandon people who are in need of assistance that we are able to give because we are afraid of the potential threat our charity carries.

What would you do in such a situation?

October 15, 2008

James Bond and the global economic crisis

Possibly not a title that Ian Fleming remembers…

It occurs to me that there are a number of similarities between what is happening now in the global economy and the plot of Casino Royale…

In the big plot set piece, James Bond has to gamble some money to try to win some from other people. In this, he fails. He therefore goes to his principal backer and asks for some more money. Because he has to get his money back somehow or the plot fails he gets given a lump sum from the government to gamble with again. He wins big, of course, and all is well (despite momentarily considering keeping the money for himself).

Quite apart from the fact that having flushed away the first tranche of money and therefore he would in real life not be given any more, because he’s clearly not as good at cards as he made himself out to be… the film is one of the modern trend of movies in that if we only have faith in someone, it will all come good in the end.

And right now it seems we have to have faith in the banking system that they will, despite (or because of) being the people who said that “past performance does not guarantee future returns” – never a more disingenuous statement was said!!! – we have to have faith that bankers will learn the error of their ways and not be so naughty ever again!

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