28 March 2017

Getting over it

I've decided to take the advice of the winners. Brexit means Brexit. It's the will of the people. We lost and we need to get over it. Pull together and make a success of Brexit. Forget the old ways, it's time to get behind Britain and push for those sunlit uplands. I've decided to take this on board and really take the advice of those wiser than me who know what's best and Make A Success Of It.

Armed with my new attitude, I went to the swimming pool on Saturday. A baptism, a fresh beginning. With purpose I approached the cashier - "one free swim, for a free Briton" I confidently demanded.

"Pool is closed to adult swimmers - swimming classes until noon on Saturdays" came the mealy-mouthed reply. Clearly a hide-bound thinker, afraid to look beyond the safety of the rules. So I tried a different approach.

"How do you expect to open up new economic opportunities if you're not prepared to accept new thinking?" I challenged. "It's this lack of imagination that means remoaners like you are holding back our potential. Think differently. This is a new opportunity. Brexit means Brexit, and you're standing in the way of destiny".

Half an hour later, I finished a rather challenging, but enjoyable, swim in the showers, and was getting changed, reflecting on how my new approach was really opening up new possibilities.

I went to Tesco to buy some champagne to celebrate the triggering of Article 50. British Champagne, of course. In a rather backward-looking move, it turns out Tesco don't sell British Champagne. Thanks to Brussels' red tape and rules only France can produce Champagne. This nonsense clearly had to stop.

"We're leaving the EU - get over it!" I helpfully advised the store manager. "If I want to drink British Champagne, I will, and I refuse to bend to the ridiculous rules and regulations of unelected gnomes of Belgium" I cried. "Now will you sell me some British Champagne, or do I have to find somewhere that will?"

He relented, of course. And that evening I savoured my victory, toasting our brave new future with a glass of finest Strongbow Champagne, a new marque in the world of fizzy wine that is sure to give the Veuve Cliquots of this world a run for their money, once we are finally free from tyranny, able to sell our own champagne to whom we like, not at the whim of pettifogging Eurocrats.

09 December 2016

The year of giving up

I’ve never been one for New Year’s Resolutions. Anything I’ve given up, I’ve done on the spur of the moment because I wanted to, not according to an arbitrary convention of the calendar. And 2016 was to be no different, yet I’m ending the year having given up three things without meaning to.

The first decision I made was to stop drinking, but at the time I didn’t realise that’s what I was doing. On 22nd August I weighed myself and found that, after a week of beer and ice-cream, I had gained about 5lbs. I’d broken the 15st barrier for the first time, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. Having been as thin as a whip for most of my life, I had no sense of self-control when it comes to eating – and I had no desire to take up the sort of diet where you need a calculator to decide what to eat. I felt the easiest way to lose weight was to cut out the crap – including booze. At 180 calories for a pint of lager, I realised a few drinks and a pack of peanuts was the equivalent of eating an extra meal.

So I stopped, and haven’t had a drop since. Moreover, I’ve absolutely no desire to have a drink either, which is quite weird, having been a bit of a beer nerd for most of my adult life. I’ve lost 17lbs so far, and with another 13 or so to go, I can see a time when I’ll have ‘permission’ to slip back onto the sauce. But I don’t want to, and I can’t see a point when I will want to. I genuinely think I’ve moved from being someone who’s not drinking to being someone who’s stopped drinking. I like the clarity it creates in my mind – I don’t have to decide if I’m driving or not, I don’t have to think if I need to get up early. I never have need of the life-saving McDonald’s en route to a day at my desk praying for death or 5.30pm, whichever comes sooner.

This can create some social awkwardness that’s only partially disguised by the excuse of a diet. Mainly because I’ve spent nearly as long as I’ve been not drinking trying to work out why I no longer want to. Because it’s not as if I had a problem. A shared bottle of wine at weekends, rarely going out in the week. I certainly hadn’t had a Moment Of Clarity after waking up in a puddle of my own piss on a golf course at 5am. Surely it couldn’t be just because it made things simple. Surely I’m too old to be indulging in personal development?

Another thing I hadn’t expected to give up this year was supporting the England football team, though at least this time I know the root cause. Until now I’ve been fairly comfortable in my England fandom, despite the less-than-savoury reputation of its fans over the years. I no more felt collective affinity or responsibility for idiots throwing chairs at foreign police than a Muslim should feel for 9/11. I was reclaiming the shirt for a different England – tolerant, multicultural, coolly ironic and nicely understated. Comfortable about its new place in the world and interested in its neighbours.

In the middle of Euro 2016 I watched thousands of England fans in France chanting for Brexit, in between running battles with the police. And when the coup de grace came on June 23rd, it suddenly seemed the wrong side to be on. I could handle being thought of as an England fan, because most foreigners would know it was only a tiny proportion who were idiotically violent. But it was harder to wave away 52% who may not have been as combative, but were definitely as stupid.

And you know how it feels? It feels WONDERFUL! Honestly, if I’d known sooner what a weight off your shoulders it is, I would have tried it years ago. No more nervous anxiety as we labour to a 1-0 win against the Pitcairn Islands, no more agony as we fail in yet another tournament that was, apparently, well within our grasp. The barbs of friendly rivalry from our Celtic neighbours no longer prickle. I’ve freed up so much space in my brain, I might take up learning another language. And losing to Iceland in front of all those neighbours we’d stuck up two fingers at not three days prior? No longer traumatic, but hilarious.

I’ve been wondering whether there is a connection between these two – even though on the surface there seemed none. Clearly, watching football and drinking beer go hand in glove, regardless of the result. And one came before the other, but both came after June 23rd. And it’s this that is the crux of it all, the third giving up. Until June 23rd I naively thought the UK had done pretty well, all in all. Sure the occasional inner-city racial tension could still erupt, but despite the bile being pumped by the tabloid press, we’d absorbed a lot of new people in the usual British way: stoically, adapting to new tongues and newer shops, taking it in our stride, even in places where immigration was a comparatively new phenomenon. We’d share a joke, make an ironic comment, have a beer and get on with it, looking with pity across the channel at France, and the war zones created in the Banlieues by intransigent government and implacable policing. In short, we were coping. We were all right.

Except we weren’t. Suddenly a needle’s width majority became the catalyst for an outpouring of the most depressing attitudes long suppressed. Uncharacteristically bellicose and brutal behaviour became a new normal at frightening speed. And it became clear that this was how it had really been all the time, behind closed doors and net curtains. Petty nastiness was given permission to finally speak its name, to hector dissenters and demand loyalty as the price of participation in public life. Those privileged with the best education were suddenly announcing a cult of anti-intellectualism, the mill owners were smashing up the looms, determined to return us to the feudal poverty of a new Dark Age.

This is why we can’t have nice things. And why I don’t drink. Because there’s nothing left worth toasting.

23 December 2013

Beware the march of IDS

This winter, the Red Cross is handing out food parcels in the UK for the first time since World War II.

I'm just going to leave that out there for a moment for you to take in. If this fact doesn't embarrass or amaze you, you should probably stop reading now, because the rest of this post works on the premise that a society that cannot feed its own citizens is not one worthy of the name. The UK is the only G8 country to receive this unwanted attention, and as stigmas go, it puts us right up there with Zimbabwe and Syria, albeit on a less dramatic scale. Around half a million people in the UK used food banks in 2013, an increase of 170% since this time last year.

Someone who isn't embarrassed by this is Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, though the government of which he is a member has a somewhat schizophrenic attitude to the situation. On the one hand, his fellow ministers with less self-awareness than fungi are pictured grinning as they open food banks in the apparent belief this is something to be proud of. And on the other, Mr Duncan Smith has condemned those who run food banks for encouraging a culture of dependency. That's the problem with food of course - it's very more-ish. The poor should learn to get by without it instead of allowing themselves to become the victims of nutrition.

This week, Mr Duncan Smith had two chances to do something to at least pretend to take it seriously as a political issue. But a debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday turned into an even less edifying spectacle than usual, with backbench MPs on the government benches openly laughing at stories of food bank users' hardships, and Duncan Smith himself walked out early, after refusing to answer questions. Later on in the week, he also refused to meet the UK's largest food bank charity, accusing them of "scaremongering" about the size of the problem.

So what can we do to provoke a political reaction, and maybe get some media traction, now celebrity chefs taking cocaine is becoming yesterday's news?

Next year is the 20th anniversary of Band Aid's single Do They Know It's Christmas. How about a commemorative re-release next Christmas, but this time all the proceeds to go to food banks in the UK?  For the 'Band Aid generation', which includes most of the members of the present government, there can surely be no more stinging a rebuke than the symbol of generosity of their youth boomeranging back to remind them of the moral failings of their middle age? For politicians who equate being 'in touch with public opinion' with 'keeping up with celebrity gossip', to be forced to comment on that single being the Christmas number one, would be a beautifully ironic way to hoist them by their own petard. And the proceeds would also help half a million families know that it's Christmas time at all.

01 September 2013

For whom the road tolls

Road congestion, as my father was fond of remarking when he worked for the AA, has been one of Britain's most successful growth industries of the last 100 years. The supply of facilities to enable people to get from one part of the country to the other in a reasonable time has been consistently outstripped by demand, and numerous studies have shown how this negatively impacts both our quality of life and our economic output. Official government estimates put the opportunity cost of sitting in one's car instead of sitting in a meeting to UK plc at £8bn per year.

I was considering these costs sitting in my own car, as we crawled towards the Dartford Crossing today on the M25, shuffling forwards to pay our £2 toll. The Dartford Crossing, with its levy for users, is a somewhat singular type of highway in the UK, a country that has traditionally abhorred the idea of road taxes paid at the point of consumption. But when Parliament created the holding company to build the final phase of this river crossing - the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge, opened in 1991 - they granted them a 20 year licence to collect revenue. It was naively expected that the government of the day would scrap the toll once the debt had been repaid and a suitable maintenance fund had been accumulated, which was deemed to have occurred on 31 March 2002. 

But here's the cunning bit. They were allowed to carry on charging the toll, because they stopped calling it a toll. Under an unnoticed clause of the 2000 Transport Act, they could create the catchily-titled "A282 Trunk Road (Dartford-Thurrock Crossing charging scheme) Order 2002" that allowed the continuation of the crossing fee, because it officially became a charge and not a toll, as of 1 April 2003. The underlying reasoning here being, like a dog barking in a neighbour's yard, once people get used to something, eventually they stop noticing it. So more than 2 years after the expiry of the original toll concession period, they continue to pocket a toll. I mean a charge. Plus ca change, plus c'est la exact change please...

From a productivity point of view this creates a dilemma for the government. The Dartford Crossing is very much a part of the £8bn problem of economic inefficiency - and one that is deliberately created in order to raise revenue. There is nothing accidental or random about the travel delays caused to some 50 million journeys every year; in effect, the £100m or so raised is an indirect subsidy by motorists to the cost of economic underperformance. How much money would be injected into the UK economy by removing the tollgates and letting the traffic run freely? Sir Rod Eddington, in a 2006 report for the DfT, estimated a total closure of a single junction of the M25 cost the economy about £64,000 per hour. What's the opportunity cost of that congestion vs the value of the tolls to the Exchequer?

A similar problem dogs the controversial HS2 rail link, which came under further attack last week when a report by the Institute of Economic Affairs claimed the actual cost could reach £80bn. Even if we accept the government's assurances that costs will rise no higher than £42bn, their own calculations have promised a mere £48.2bn of economic gain over an unspecified period of time. A highly likely slip of a mere 15% to the budget will wipe out any overall profit.

Maybe, as a backstop measure, the government can look to the example of Dartford to recoup some of the costs, by installing toll booths across the HS2 tracks south of Birmingham, and passengers can file through the train to pop a £1 coin into the coin buckets each time they pass through? This would obviously reduce some of the economic benefits to the country, but would provide some much-needed revenue to fill the government's coffers. In fact, it would probably negate any economic gains to be made, once the construction itself had stopped, but, as they found at Dartford, no matter how inconsistent it may be to levy a random tax, after a while people don't really notice that sort of thing when you have no choice in whether to pay.

25 July 2013

Rule of dumb

Outside my house, there is a bus stop. This is not in itself unusual, except this bus stop is a little out of the ordinary. It was erected by my local council at considerable expense, but has never been used as a bus stop. It sits there with a plastic bag over the offending sign, like a gallows prisoner awaiting the drop, to prevent people from making the quite reasonable assumption that where there is a bus stop, there will also be a bus. Like a piece of surrealist art, ceci n'est pas une bus stop, and no public transport will stop there. Because, having planned a route and erected the stops, the council made the unfortunate discovery that our road is too bendy for buses to navigate without the real possibility of striking a pedestrian on the pavement, as they lurch, Italian job-style, around the curves of Gavin Way (the buses, not the pedestrians).

To continue the dual themes of buses and official incompetence, if you drive along Colchester High Street, you may anxiously look for traffic wardens, because it appears you are, unavoidably, driving in a bus lane - the only through route available. Happily you won't get a ticket, despite the road markings, because this is another example of the council putting on its trousers before its underpants, as they decided to ban private vehicles from driving through town, in a half-baked notion this would transform the place into Las Ramblas. Sadly the street cafe lifestyle failed to materialise when it was pointed out the ban would also extend to lorries delivering to the very shops the scheme was supposed to promote. So instead, the landscape has been enhanced with temporary road signs urging drivers to ignore the road markings. Ceci n'est pas un Bus Lane.

Two local examples that, I am sure, could easily be topped by other authorities all over the world. The sort of thing that makes good copy for local journalists, and conversation starters in pubs across the town. But I prefer see these things as positives. For where there are unnecessary bus stops and road markings that need making, so there are jobs for people making unnecessary signs, and mixing vats of unnecessary paint. Incompetence (or maybe, more kindly, jumping the gun), when applied across strategic sectors of the economy, might be just the catalyst we need to kick on the sluggish recovery. I have a feeling that, in 2029, when HS2 is finally completed, late and over budget, and obsolete after the successful launch of the personal jet pack in 2023, a similarly self-serving excuse about economic stimulus is the sort of thing a government minister will grasp at, when pressed as to why his predecessor thought getting to Birmingham quicker for £32bn was a good idea.

And it seems that others have also picked up on the idea of incompetence as a business strategy: Chipotle, an American Mexican food restaurant chain - the thinking man's Taco Bell - this week garnered a heap of publicity, after its twitter account was apparently hacked:



The apparent inability of Chipotle to use twitter went viral, and these tweets earned over 12,000 retweets (against a usual weekly RT number of about 75). Many people who had never heard of Chipotle were caught up in the apparent hamfisted attempts to grasp social media, and spread the story. Today, the restaurant admitted this was actually a deliberate strategy to spread awareness of the brand ahead of more formal publicity promoting its 20th anniversary celebrations (story here). Chipotle had managed to cut through the competing media noise not by being slicker than everyone else, but by being deliberately rubbish.

They may have been inspired by MP and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, who achieved similar, perhaps less wanted, attention after he accidentally tweeted his own name, on 29 April 2011 (he was trying to search for what twitter was saying about him). This inspired an Internet meme of people tweeting the hashtag #EdBalls, culminating in "Ed Balls day", two years after the event, a mass retweeting of the original posting (story here). Once again, idiocy and incompetence had gain traction with the wandering attentions of the world wide web.

From economic recovery through to business and media strategies, random acts of stupidity might be the way forward. Forget planning, forecasting, careful analysis and competence, it seems what the world actually needs is a greater number of idiots in charge of everything. To that end, when I look at the current crop of pinheads with their hands upon the levers, maybe things will turn out okay after all.