Thursday, December 28, 2006

After Christmas..............

I was "obliged" to visit the Christmas sales. This was the grim scene of consumerism yesterday at Bluewater shopping centre in Kent England.

There was also barely a spare seat at the Bluewater sushi bar. There has obviously not been a polonium-related dip in this line........................

I guess I was relatively easy to spot- the unenthusiastic shopper taking photos of all the others :-)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Watching (bad?) television across the world

Christmas and New Year seem to bring a significant deterioration in the standard of television. Aside from the statutory James Bond and the occassional film that I would like to watch, there is little else of interest. Aging TV stars are wheeled out to perform with a less talented but generally better looking recent addition.

The aim is obviously "family entertainment" but the result is a brainless pastiche of light entertainment quiz shows, pantomine-like drivel and of course the now mandatory "reality" formats.

Not that things appear much better elsewhere in the world. I have spent the last two Christmas's in Russia and Ukraine respectively. While not all readers will agree with this (!), there the diet is similar if not worse. A plastic surgeon's dream of singing and dancing "mature" stars perform a mind-numbing endless series of plays, sketches and songs culminating in a 12 hour marathon of ignorance on New Year's Eve going into New Year's Day. The stars of yesteryear are lead by an exhausting 57-year old Russian diva, one Alla Pugacheva I suspect being deficient in the language probably improves matters from a viewing perspective.

Anyway, enough moaning about the standard of Christmas and New Year TV.

I hope to improve my language abilities in New Year and I have discovered a great website that gives "streaming links" to live TV from accross the world. Hopefully being able to watch live TV will both stimulate and encourage my language learning.

My focus is on Russia and Russian at the moment but last evening I was browsing and saw the following:

- A documentary about group of Swedes on a fishing boat
-A Thai sing song
- A Japanese business news summary
- A Ukrainian feature film
- An Iraqi drama where the plot line appeared to involve a member of the family performing a suicide mission.

It is an amazing insight into what people are watching in their living rooms accross the world. With the Iraqi offering particularly, perhaps I should be more grateful for the singing and dancing airheads we get treated to in the UK, Russia and elsewhere.

See for links to live TV from across the world. Depending on broadband connection, it may not be possible to access them all.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Merry Christmas everyone !

I just wanted to wish everyone who reads this blog, either regularly or for the first time, a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year !

Friday, December 22, 2006

Repression in Chinese Shadows

Last weekend when I was in staying in Hong Kong, I decided to visit nearby Macao. This involved one hour spent in a "fast ferry" that would not be for everyone after a large breakfast.

Nonetheless I made it to Macao, stomach intact, for a day's sightseeing.

I had no real expectations of Macao except that it was a former Portuguese colony and is now home to many casinos. So I supposed a vaguely Portuguese version of Las Vegas ? In many ways that is about right, not forgetting that it is also Chinese controlled.

I found it more Chinese than international Hong Kong. A few elderly Portuguese men could be seen walking to the shops. Occassional wealthy looking young Portuguese zipped past in Mercedes but it was 99 % Chinese.

The casinos old and new were largely ugly and dominating from the outside. Vast new casinos were in the process of being built. This seemed more overtly industrial gambling than Las Vegas. There was little attempt at making the casinos pretty. This was large scale gambling for the serious gambler. I imagine that in time Macao will take more care in its development and future casinos will be less intimidating.

In contrast, the old heart of Macao was a delight. Narrow streets filled with local shoppers and occasional tourists, criss-crossed. Numerous Catholic Churches and a seminary were also to be seen.

I headed for the ruins of Sao Paulo church (photographed in an earlier post) to see if there was any good reason why this was the most photographed sight in Macao holiday literature.

I came to the conclusion that the impressive facade and the open space around it made it one of the few impressive and old sights that was easy to photograph in Macao.

I noticed a small table near to the church and walked over. On the table was a collection of literature, mainly in Chinese, on the alleged abuses of the Chinese Communist Party. An old woman gave me an English language newspaper. She didn't seem to speak any English but gestured as if to say "take it and read". A handful of other locals of various ages spoke to the small group that came up to the stall.

I wondered off into a nearby park and read the paper which made gruesome reading about the millions killed in the Cultural Revolution to the forced organ donations in modern China.

I then became aware of police in the area. They did not appear all at once in a big group but in twos and threes appearing on corners and around the Sao Paulo site.

Then a Chinese man in plain clothes (light suit and black polo neck) stepped out of a minivan with a walkie-talkie. Next I was aware of a young woman wearing an earpiece standing quite close to me in the park. I realised the traffic had stopped on the nearby roads and I saw a police motorcycle blocking the end of a road.

I did not know what all this meant but there was an eerie feeling and people seemed to be leaving the area voluntarily. The woman with the earpiece fiddled with a bulge under her coat. Was she going to pull out a gun, I wondered ?

I gave up my attempt at postcard writing and walked back to the Sao Paulo site to see if I could see the stall. My way was blocked by a uniformed policeman who said "Not allowed here now".

I glanced over to where the stall had been. Nothing was there now. I will never know if they were simply moved on or if they were "taken away" for questioning or worse.

However it is clear that under the surface there is much discontent in places such as Macao and probably China itself. As China becomes more visited and visible the attempts to stifle dissent are becoming more subtle. Potential witnesses are "excluded", roads shut until undesirables have been moved on. This is dictatorship in the age of global media. However the effort to deal with a small stall on a Saturday morning in Macao demonstrates that the Chinese government remains deadly serious about preventing rebellion.

I can only admire the bravery of a small group who came out to distribute literature on a Saturday morning. In the scramble for the Chinese market place, the vast repression in recent Chinese history seems to be forgotten. However until China acknowledges its past, surely its future is ultimately built on sand ?

Clear night from the Peak

Last photo for a bit. Hong Kong in winter is generally free from the smog and pollution that plagues it for much of the rest of the year.
Locals say quietly that technologically orientated Hong Kong is not really responsible for much of the pollution. True, it does have a lot of cars but as an island should be able to clear this quite easily. The real cause is the dirty industry in the Pearl River delta in mainland China. The pollution crosses Hong Kong on the way out to sea. However this is not politically adviseable to repeat too often.

Still, in winter, there is not too much pollution from any source. This allows some great views of the city in day and night.

Memories of the Sun

View of the skyline on Hong Kong island last Sunday afternoon. All seems a world away from the fog of London.

The Fog of London

Street lights pierce the fog, forming halos in the air of outer London tonight.
I returned to London yesterday morning and it seems winter has truly arrived since I left.

Most of the country is covered by thick fog. The main airport in London, Heathrow, is running reduced services with no domestic flights and delays on other routes.

My flight back from Hong Kong was totally unaffected but 747 technology is more than up to dealing with a bit of fog. However the sunny 20 C (68F) of Hong Kong's "winter" was swapped for fog and -2 C (28 F) at Heathrow (at least at 5 am in the morning).

It is a bit of a shock but it is good to be home for Christmas.

Back with more Hong Kong related posts shortly.

Monday, December 18, 2006


Another photo ! I don't seem to have much time or inclination for "proper" writing on this trip.

However at the weekend I took the ferry from Hong Kong to Macao. Most readers will know that Macao is a former Portuguese colony, now controlled by China but like Hong Kong still operating with its own system and currency.

Much Catholic influence remains in Macao and it has a number of churches, many still functioning. This is the ruins of Sao Paulo church, burnt down in 1835. The bones of Japanese Christians martyred at Nagasaki in the 17th century remain on the site.

This is now one of the focal points for tourism in Macao.

I had an interesting experience which I feel highlights the current state (or lack) of freedom in modern China. That probably merits more telling than I can manage tonight, so I will save that for another day.

Anyway, I have two more days in Hong Kong before returning home to my wife in London.

Back soon !

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Hong Kong tinted spectacles...............

Two views of Hong Kong Island from the Kowloon Penninsular, this evening.

And 5 things that are better in Hong Kong than London:
1) Trains. Sheer luxury in the train from the airport to the City Centre. Also a metro service that is air conditioned and seems to work.
2) No "hoodies". Very little evidence of delinquent youths in general !
3) Better security and absence of crime. Although this is always easier to achieve in "less democratic" situations !
4) Prices. A high standard of living but much cheaper than London e.g. metro fares, electrical goods, restaurants.
5) Weather. Enough said !
Anyway its not all rosey so back soon (or when I'm back in London !) with some areas where London beats Hong Kong !

View from the Peak

As seen this evening from "the Peak" on Hong Kong Island. My photo doesn't really do it justice but I hope it conveys an impression of the marvellous night time scene.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Jobs for the boys

I went to work in Hong Kong today.

The firm I work for has nice offices in featureless skyscraper.After being introduced to the staff and sitting down to work, I went in seach of the loo. I found a male, female and "executive" toilet but all three were locked.

I then returned to reception where they directed me to alternative "facilities". However I was told that in future I could gain access to the nearer toilets by asking "the boy" for the key.

Confused by this I enquired with other colleagues. Apparently the office has 12 boys, one of whom is female but gets upset if not also referred to as a boy.

"Boys" in Hong Kong are doing a variety of messenger and practical jobs in Hong Kong. They are mainly young hence the description.Later on I saw the female boy who had suitably short hair combined with severe glasses. I can see why she might be offended to be called a girl !

Then later I saw another female looking "boy" so I am confused as there is only supposed to be one female boy !

Towards the end of the day the boys all sit in the stationary office playing cards on the computers. It is a sign that the end of the day is coming when there are no longer any jobs for the boys..........

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The positive legacy of empire ?

It is a little thing, but when you are 6,000 miles away from home and the electric plugs are the same, it all feels a little less alien !

I am in Hong Kong for the first time and it is hardly alien at all. In fact in some districts it is familiar to the point of nearly being dull. Plump blonde english girls wearing "bunny ears" leave their Christmas parties along with their Hong Kong Chinese friends as "Gingle Bells" plays past the Pizza Express restaurant Christmas tree. All this in a territory officially part of the People's Republic of China for 9 years.

Here in this vibrant outpost on the edge of China, the British Empire, whatever its many other faults, has left a legacy that is positive. Depsite now being under the control of communist China, this territory excudes a cheery and (reasonably) free spirit. There are a few examples of the British idiosyncrocity like driving on the left, pelican crossings, double decker buses and of course the plugs. For the rest the people seem hard working but happy.

Within walking distance of my hotel there is a mosque, a synagogue and a Catholic cathedral. A sikh manager was minding his 7-11 store as I walked past. It is strange to be so far away and see sights so familar.

I really feel that Empire did have its benefits (as well as its many documented problems). The legacy in this city is a metropolis of sky scrapers with churches, a mosque and a synaogue nestling beneath them and a multinational community more worried about making money than political ideology.

Back with further thoughts from a lost corner of Empire shortly..........

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A strange new hobby,,,,,,,,,,,,

Very few posts this week as regular readers will have noticed.

The reason is quite strange for me- I have been busy at work !

In addition to a Christmas Party, there's been interviews to hold, reports to write and plans to make.

Now barely two weeks from Christmas, I am Hong Kong bound for 10 days. A 12 hour flight awaits me tonight. Somehow I got busy at the wrong time of year, after quite a calm year.

Hopefully there will be some opportunity for blog updates from an Eastern perspective.

For now, ciao.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Why I like the man with the cushiest career in Television...........

John Craven- as he was in Newsround Days up until 1989

Maybe there are a few other candidates for the title of having the cushiest career in Television but JOHN CRAVEN has to be up there somewhere.

I feel like I have "known" John Craven all my life, in that strange way we sometimes feel we know celebrities we have never even met. "Celebrity" is probably not the obvious title for John Craven but I am sure he is known to millions of Britons.

To the unitiated he presented the BBC's "Newsround" for 17 years. At home we always called it "Lightweight's Newsround" as my Father complained the news coverage was "too lightweight". Somehow he overlooked that it was supposed to be news for 10 year olds !

Then JC caused sadness amongst all news loving children by moving on in 1989. Horrors have followed since with newreaders standing up or leaning against the desk. JC, in contrast, was always reliably seated and modelling a pullover that could have come from C & A or BHS.

However JC moved on to a career presenting "Countryfile" a BBC TV programme on rural affairs that goes out on Sunday morning. As far as I know he has presented it continuously til this day. My Mother recently mentioned watching him.

JC has made this programme his own. Somehow he does not seem to work. He just drives up to a farm in a Landrover, gets out wearing a jumper or wax jacket and chats with the farmer over a cup of hot tea, on some rural or agricultural issue.

And that is it ! That's a career in television. Reading news for children for 10 minutes a day over 17 years and then driving round in a Land Rover stopping for tea with farmers for a further 17.

However despite this slight jealousy at the ease of your career, I salute you as one of the most decent men in Television. Your amiability in front of the camera, calmness, politeness and sheer enduring presence on our TV screens have endeared you to millions in a subtle but unique way.

Let's hear it for John Craven !

John Craven, as he is now- Countryfile Presenter

Monday, December 04, 2006

Frothing at the mouth

An incredibly exciting start to the week.

One of my colleagues offered to make coffee this morning. My other colleague, the frothy coffee lover mentioned last week sent it back for being "flat". Well he didn't actually send it back but took it back and quite demonstrably made himself a frothy one ! The offending coffee maker has vowed not to offer his services in future. Both men are in their late forties !

Then this evening, in order to improve my professional education, I went to a lecture on "auditing". Those present were looking incredibly bored but we did get a few tips on what the "best sellers" were in terms of books on auditing !

Wine and nibbles followed the lecture but a surprising number, including myself, made for the door and the train home !

Anyway Christmas will be here soon and I shortly go to Hong Kong for a work related visit.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Remembering the 1970s

I went to a 1970s theme birthday party at the weekend. The birthday girl was born in that decade (in the latter half) hence the theme.

I naively thought a stripey shirt and possibly flairs would suffice.

Imagine my feelings then when I was met by the birthday girl's husband in a John Travolta outfit and a friend in a large afro wig !

A procession of almost clown like suits, sequinned shirts and mirror sunglasses followed !

I felt suitably humbled standing there in my shirt and trousers. I tried to forget my "conservative" appearance drawing occassional comfort from a small band of fellow "70s realists" who hadn't appreciated the full sterotype of what that decade was really about.

Anyway suffice to say I didn't let my clothes bother me and had a good time all the same.

However it did raise the question of exactly where did the stereotype of afro wigs, multicoloured suits and outrageous flairs come from ? I guess they all happened somewhere at some time but certainly not in the town I was born. I can hardly remember the 70s but the family photos from middle England do not reveal anything too exotic from the 1970s.

Makes me wonder how the next generation will be stereotyping the "noughties" in 30 years time. It all seems so "normal" right now, that I fail to see how anyone could make a theme out of 2006. However maybe that's what they thought in 1976 ! "Normal" is a relative concept I guess- at least when it comes to clothes and fashion.

RIP Allen Carr

Sad news about the death of Allen Carr after succumbing to lung cancer.

The man who helped thousands quit smoking through his courses, eventually fell to the ultimate danger from smoking.

At one time he was an accountant smoking 100 cigarettes a day.

It is likely either that or his many courses in smoking environments lead to his disease.

However he was noble enough to say that the fact he had helped so many to give up was a "price worth paying" for his own lung cancer.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The joy of ......... coffee froth

A cautionary tale against working too long in an office.

A colleague of mine, in his late forties- balding, mustachioed and a bit portly offered to get me a coffee. I am still attempting a healthier life style, albeit significantly relaxed from the original position of a fruit diet two weeks ago ! So I asked for de-caf coffee.

This caused a momentary confusion.

Colleague: Do you want powder out of the jar ?
Me: Or the machine is fine if that does decaf. Whichever is easier.
Colleague: I am not sure if the machine does it. Let me go and look.

Colleague (returning from Kitchen) Yes it does.
Me: Good, I'll have that one then.
Colleague: I think I might go for one too.
Me: Right
Colleague: I am one for froth on my coffee. I really enjoy it. That's why I always go for the machine.

Me: Right

Colleague: In fact I get very disappointed if I take a coffee and by the time I get back to my desk, the froth has gone.

Me: -


Office life can be exceptionally dull
Colleagues can be exceptionally dull
The UK has very limited ability coffee machines

Monday, November 27, 2006

Polonium Lights anyone ?

I have a rocking headache today. Maybe it is just an unseasonably mild November Monday in the office to blame. Our office heating feels more appropriate for Northern Finland at the moment.

Anyway my ability to write is suffering as a result.

Hence I will leave you with this thought. What is an accessible way to start poisoning someone with Polonium 210 ? Start giving them cigarettes...........................

As Jennifer Aniston loves to say, "here comes the science bit":

For over 40 years, researchers and tobacco corporations have known that cigarettes contain radionuclides.

The contamination is sourced in naturally occurring radioactive radon gas which is absorbed and trapped in apatite rock. Apatite, or phosphate rock, is mined for the purpose of formulating the phosphate portion of most chemical fertilizers. Polonium releases ionizing alpha radiation which is 20 times more harmful than either beta or gamma radiation when exposed to internal organs.

Lung cancer rates increased significantly during most of the 1900's. It's no coincidence that between 1938 and 1960, the level of polonium 210 in American tobacco tripled commensurate with the increased use of chemical fertilizers and Persistant Organic Pollutant (POP) accumulation. In 1982, tobacco researchers DiFranza and Winters concluded that smoking a pack and a half of cigarettes per day exposed a person to the same radiation as 300 chest x-rays per year. Due to improvements in X-ray technology and increasing levels of radionuclides in tobacco, the Institute of Medicine now estimates that a heavy smoker is exposed to the equivalent radiation as up to 2,000 chest X-rays every year.

The National Institutes of Health state that tobacco is by far the largest source of radiation for the American public. Polonium is also present in chewing tobacco, benignly referred to as smokeless tobacco, and may contribute to the development of oral cancers.

Recently released tobacco corporation internal memos and reports indicate that they were well aware of radiation contamination as early as 1964, and discussed methods to remove polonium from tobacco in 1975. In 1977, Phillip Morris confirmed that superphosphate fertilizer was a source of polonium.

Maybe Scotland Yard will start cordoning off newagents and tobacconists as other areas of London contaminated by Polonium 210.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Russia: A "Lord of the Flies" interpretation of Capitalist Democracy

Amongst the green fields of Gloucestershire, near to the Stroud Valley nestles a school where I spent a couple of years around the age of 13. Part of that time I spent as a relatively unhappy boarder dreading the daily rugby matches and counting down the days to the next holiday. However in those rural days, I learnt quite a lot and one of the memories that is strongest is of reading the novel "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding.

I seem to remember that our school copies had white covers with a sketched drawing of a pig's head skewered on a stick. I found this faintly horrific and the story in the book while enthralling was also unsettling due to the familiarity of the characters and the brutality they descended to.

While I have not read the book since I was the thirteen,I remember the basic story is about a group of school boys whose plane is shot down in the war and they crash land on a deserted island. The pilot, crew and teachers are all killed in the crash leaving the surviving boys to fend for themselves. In a way, it is like a WWII child version of "Lost".

The principal characters are the older boys who are all around twelve. When the boys realise their situation they agree to band together under the leadership of Ralph, one of the older boys who has many positive qualities. Another boy, Jack who was in the school choir takes his fellow choir boys to lead hunting expeditions.

Gradually splits develop in the groups. Jack's hunters form their own rituals and Ralph and Jack argue about the direction of the group. A fat asthmatic boy, Piggy, tries to act as a peacemaker in the group. Another boy, Simon, is the most positive and caring of the group and encourages the others never to give up hope of being rescued. Gradually barbarity emerges within the group and Simon is killed in a ritual savage dance. Eventually Piggy, the peacemaker and most intellectual boy, is himself killed by a bolder to the head.

The story ends when, after many months, rescue comes to the boys on the island. It is not clear what happens after that but the assumption is that the boys return to relative normality. The savagery and brutality of some is presumably once again suppressed. The book's key theme is that without the influence of society, order and democracy everyone has the potential to descend to savagery.

I found the book both enthralling and quite believable. I was reading about boys not dissimilar in their characteristics and variety to those at my own school.

When the heart of Alexander Litvinenko stopped beating in a London hospital last evening (,,13509-2469917,00.html),,13509-2469176,00.html, another Russian Simon was killed by the savagery that has marked that country's experiment with freedom, capitalism and democracy.

The cause of his death is unclear. Doctors no longer say he was poisoned by Thallium and the Kremlin looks unlikely to have directly sponsored the death of a relatively small time dissident. More probable is the involvement of some rogue element in the security services or an underworld associate.

Whatever the cause, it seems certain to be foul play and marks the end of an unpleasant and tortured three week struggle for life by one man's body.

My observation of Russia has been at two levels. Firstly as distant observer through the media, as one who was caught up in the general enthusiasm following the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of Soviet communism. At that level, this seemed a most positive development to spread freedom to other parts of Europe and reduce the risk of conflict to the rest of the world.

Then more recently my observation of Russia has been at a more personal level. My wife comes from Russia and although I met her when already established in London, I have had several visits and a chance to understand a little more about Russia and its people. While the Russian people (and their famous soul) are generally very warm, welcoming and caring, it is clear that the Russian nation has not moved from communist society to capitalist democracy as successfully and painlessly as some of its smaller satellites.

To my foreign eyes there have been three distinct phases in Russian post-soviet history:

1) Freedom: The Party- for the great majority this was a positive time when freedom was to be celebrated. The past was another country and there was suddenly a myriad of opportunities to be taken and experienced. Small businesses could be started, travel was open and available and there was a sense of hope.

2) Capitalism: The Looting. In this phase a few entrepreneurs became very rich while the great majority of people stayed where they were or in many cases went down.
State Enterprises were sold off for knock-down prices. The strong, clever and scheming picked up vast wealth for very little work. Billions of dollars were made in a short space of time. As the most extreme Las Vegas form of capitalism became established, real estate pirates used thugs to force innocent people from their family communal apartments and millions were made in dubious property deals.
Disillusionment at new system grew amongst the masses. The pirates flaunted their wealth in vulgar opulence normally limited to Essex millionaires or Las Vegas casinos. It is probably no accident that there are so many casinos in the new Russia.

3) Democracy: The Illusion. A jovial alcoholic leader was replaced by a sober tough guy who appealed to the masses telling them what they wanted to hear about those who had won (or stolen) the billions in state assets or property.
However some of the pirates aligned themselves to freedom, meaning that the tough guy had to attack freedom in order to get the pirates.

Right now freedom is suffering for certain. The party is but a distant memory. There is a struggle between wealthy pirates and the powerful tough guys. The reason for the start of the struggle is largely forgotten but the struggle continues between rival factions. Ralph and Jack are fighting and everyone else is suffering.

Unlike Lord of the Flies, the arrival of a rescue boat for Russia is not going to happen. The solution has to come from within the island.

The solution is not obvious but will start when it is realised and acknowledged that capitalism and democracy are both imperfect but also the "least worst systems" available.

Capitalism was initially interpreted in quite a peculiar extreme way in Russia, hence "Capitalism: The Looting". However, to understand capitalism it is necessary to see its limitations as well as it's strengths. Adam Smith, the Scottish father of free-market capitalism states that "self interest" is the motivation of people that makes capitalism a success. However "self interest" is to be distinguished from "selfishness" which Smith saw as inappropriate, if not immoral. In "The Theory of Moral Sentiments", Smith expands on his views from "Wealth of Nations" and concludes that the self interest of any one person includes the interest of the rest of society.

It is this refinement that was missing, in the "Capitalism: The Looting" phase. Las Vegas may be great for those who enjoy gambling but should not be viewed as the business model for a large country that includes many poor.

Russia's capitalism was and is a crude imitation of the more mature versions in Britain and even America. This has lead to resentment of the masses against the few pirates. This resentment has, in turn, been exploited by the strong men. Russia will be rescued from itself when it learns that the answers come neither from Marx nor Las Vegas. No more Simons will die on the day when a Mercedes is no longer mistaken for good character, Louis Vuitton no longer mistaken for sincerity and Armani no longer mistaken for decency.

Capitalism at its most basic and crude has brought a moral cancer to the Russian soul. Now the treatment being administered is killing more than it is curing.

Russians are a great and caring people. I hope this is one day again reflected in the character of their nation.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

RIP Nick Clarke

I was sorry to read of the sad loss of a great British broadcaster, Nick Clarke. Anyone who has listened to Radio 4 regularly will remember his distinctive voice and great style. His battle against cancer was an inspiration. He will certainly be missed by this listener and I am certain many many more besides.

The City 2006

By the time the lorry started to turn the corner into the narrow lane in the centre of the city, it's driver was already a marked man. He was observed by a member of a group operating throughout the city. Loitering behind a nearby bus stop the hidden observer knew all too well that the driver had to stop and make his delivery at a restaurant in the lane. Once he was stopped and unloading his lorry he would be powerless to avoid the attack.

Sure enough the red brake lights of the lorry signalled its halt outside the restaurant. Silently and still unseen the stealthy observer made his way up the narrow street between the high buildings. He lingered a minute while the driver got out of his cab and opened the back of the truck up. He took some boxes of fruit and a sack of onions and walked into the deserted restaurant.

The malign observer watched the delivery driver at his daily work and as he walked into the restaurant door, he pounced. Out of his bulky coat he pulled a state of the art.........................

.....................ticket printing machine, quickly punched in the vehicle's details against the location details he had already entered and slapped a £80 ticket on the windscreen of the lorry. By the time the driver emerged from the restaurant exchanging a quick joke with the owner, the ticketing terrorist had disappeared up another street to seek another target elsewhere in the city.

The helpless driver could only curse the moment for he knew that his employers would expect him to settle any parking fines he incurred in his delivery.

This is not a work of fiction but sadly a common occurrence that I see almost daily in the narrow streets of the City of London. To those unfamiliar with the City, it is a square mile home to many financial institutions who employ tens of thousands of people. Undoubtedly it is one of the wealthiest areas of London. Few people live in the City but many work there. To service the City workers there are numerous shops, bakers, barbers, pubs, cafes and restaurants. The City has at least 3 characteristics: i) Grand old institutional buildings like the Mansion House and Bank of England; ii) Mega towers like the Gherkin and Tower 42; and iii) a dwindling number of narrow lanes left untouched by German bombs in the 40s, Irish terrorists in the 90s and the super-developers of the millennium.

It is in the narrow lanes that many of the most interesting sights of the City can be found. Ancient taverns or gardens can surprise the visitor only a stone's throw from a modern financial tower. It is in these areas that delivery drivers are most prone to attack from the traffic wardens. They have no option but to block the road for a few moments while the delivery is made.

What is so depressing is that the modern traffic warden takes full advantage of those doing their work and penalises some of the least wealthy who work in London.

Traffic wardens have long been held in the same esteem by the British public as estate agents, politicians, serial killers and tabloid journalists.

However I feel that up until recently their inclusion in this group was a little unfair. After all how many people would really want to a traffic warden ? Ask the average 8 year old what they would want to do and I doubt there would be too many traffic wardens amongst the prospective astronauts, firemen and doctors. A traffic warden is doing an unpopular and unrewarding job. Don't they deserve some sympathy ?

In the provincial towns that I grew up in there was always a bit of give and take with traffic wardens.

My father would agree an extra five minutes while a quick visit was made to a shop or something collected. In that time a traffic warden wasn't popular but they still sometimes acted with a little humanity.

However the modern traffic warden is completely uninterested in dialogue. They are interested in issuing tickets to get commission. The tickets can be issued by fair means or foul but they must be issued.

This is a pity as it adds further to the stress and lack of humanity seen in our cities. To the traffic wardens of London, I say we sympathise with your boring and tough job but occasionally give us a break especially the delivery drivers who are only trying to earn a living. If not , surely it is only a matter of time before someone takes revenge on one of these ticketing terrorists......................

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I'm not being racist but.........................

This is a favourite phrase up and down Britain when someone wants to say something vaguely racist, while hoping not to offend.

Typical examples could include "I'm not being racist but don't you think there are too many Poles here now" or "I'm not being racist but I wouldn't fancy flying Air India".

It is as if people have evolved their conversation style into one suitable for a politically correct climate, whilst in actual fact carrying on much as before.It is hopelessly misguided to think all racism disappeared in England just because we got rid of a few biggoted comedians off BBC1 that were popular in the 1970s.

I have always been of the opinion that a bit of race or nationality related banter is far healthier than pretending race doesn't exist. This may partly stem from the fact that for one year I went to a boarding school that included Germans, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Kuwaitis and a very large contingent of Hong Kong Chinese in addition to some more homegrown boarders. At around 16 years of age there is little room for politeness and political correctness. Occasionally offensive comments were made but in the main it was good natured and I felt I actually learned more about different nationalities and races than I would have if the atmosphere had been more constrained.

The UK (and for that matter the US) seem very constrained in their references to race these days. A friend of mine actually once renamed the family cat from "blackie" to something else in response to a black in-law visiting. All went well until the grandmother of the family loudly told "blackie" off for misbehaving. There was embarrassed silence all round and bafflement from the visitor why the cat was being called something different in his honour.

Good race relations come out of mutual respect and tolerance, rather than silence and insincere politeness.

I feel inclined to give Michael Richards (or Kramer out of Seinfeld) the benefit of the doubt for his much reported outburst in Los Angeles. He didn't use language you'd want to hear at a wedding party but in a raucous comedy club, I think he can be forgiven one outburst on what sounded a difficult night. Such words are not to be encouraged but should be forgiven particularly where the underlying character of the man is known to be good.

I think when we are told never to mention race, the potential for an explosive outburst of frustration increases. Laughter is a great uniter and far more so than pious political correctness.

I was occasional called "white this" and "white that" by fellow international pupils at boarding school and it hasn't left me scarred. Look to a man's actions, not just his words. Seinfeld was never the home of Nazis, although maybe the odd "Soup Nazi".......

PS Maybe I'm a little biased because Seinfeld is one of my very favourite comedies of all time :-)

This post had to be reposted due to an inappropriate comment being made. I did not have comment moderation set up which I now do. While I am fully in favour of free speech there is no need for offensive language.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Police on the Trains

There was quite a novel excuse for the delayed train this morning. Police had to search the train at one of the earlier stations.

That was the only explanation given. This could have been anything from escaped priosoner, fare dodger ( a bit over the top if it was) to suspected bombs.My train starts in quite a sleepy outer London suburb. It is an unglamorous and largely unknown part of the city. However that does not stop it being on the track to the centre (Victoria, Charing Cross, London Bridge and Cannon Street are all on direct lines). So maybe in this time of terrorism, it is a real possibility that terrorists could start their morning at the sleepy extremities of the capital. This was certainly the model that Al Quaeda operatives adopted to deadly effect in the Atocha bombings in Madrid, March 2004. Nearly 200 died in that attack.

Of course, I hope this never happens and there was some other explanation for the Police search of the train this morning.
However in this time and especially after the tube bombings of last year, anything seems possible on the journey to work.

Monday, November 20, 2006

New Russian Sushi Restaurant opens in London

Bad taste but funny

Theo Spark: Mad Vlad opens restaurant...

Animal Farm

The late Desert Orchid

I've been thinking quite a lot about animals recently and our overall relationship with them.

My thoughts have been prompted by cows in a barn, chimpanzees, a dead race horse, foxes, suicidal rats and "fraudulent" eggs.

First foxes. Where we live in the outer suburbs of London we have a vibrant "community" of foxes. It is possible to see one any evening you want. Sometimes they are so relaxed they sleep on top of the garden shed in daylight. They come to the patio doors at night peering in from their world to ours. Apart from rather unpleasant yelping and occasional climbing on the car with muddy paws they cause us no problems. They are accepted part of suburban London life.

Also on the fox subject, The Independent is reporting that fox hunting is largely unaffected by the recent ban. There is a combination of factors at work here. Local communities are largely against the law seeing it as the big city interfering in rural ways. Police have more urgent things to do than patrolling fields. The anti-hunt campaigners in a lot of cases seem satisfied with their bit of paper saying it is against the law to hunt foxes with hounds and have moved onto other things. On the ground and in reality these factors conspire to allow hunting to carry on largely unchanged.

I have always felt in two minds about fox hunting. Maybe that is because I grew up in both the country and the town. On the one hand I sympathise with the hunters. They live in the country, they understand rural ways and can do without do-gooding City "liberals" telling them how to live.

On the other hand fox hunting seems savage and anachronistic. It is true it is a tradition but there is no need for bad traditions to continue. Traditions must have some merit if they are to be supported.

All things being equal I would see the end of fox hunting as a good thing. However then along come the urban hypocrites to annoy me so much that I feel like changing sides. "Those toffs" they say while stuffing their face with an electrocuted chicken (obviously since cut up and cooked !) "they really need to start living in the twenty-first century " "Anyway" they conclude as they walk to their Golf to take their dog to the vets to be castrated, "I'm just against animal cruelty". On the way to the vet they stop to buy a cake that contains the eggs from chickens that never see the light of day. It is mind-boggling that they see no contradiction between their words and deeds.

As a society our views on animal cruelty are deeply confused. However while it is a complex picture, I believe we are often wilfully lazy in understanding the facts and most of us can deservedly be called hypocrites.

Last week the death of one horse, a race horse called Desert Orchid (who I remember betting on in a schoolboy-organised bookies in 1990) made national headlines. Race horses are the pinnacle of the animal community and at the top end live out their retirement as treasured national icons to be mourned when they die.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited an open farm in the Lea Valley in Hertfordshire. This is obviously a well run farm as it is open to the public. The cows, bulls and calves at various stages of the "cycle" sat docilely in sheds. They were peaceful animals, even in this well run environment grateful for a handful of fresh grass in contrast to their dull diet of processed food. Yet one could not help feeling a sense of sadness that quite soon some of these animals would be for the "chop". Yet the people who work on a farm and care for the animals seem to be far more sincere than the blind consumers who eat meat but would be horrified to step into an agricultural environment.

For the average urbanite their dealings with "wild animals" are limited to the pest control element. A while back a rat made an unwelcome appearance in our garden. Although isolated, I bought a box of rat poison as a precaution. Yesterday I was in my garage and noticed the box had been torn open and 5 of the 6 sachets of rat poison were missing. A search found 2 open ones behind boxes with poison powder spread all over the floor. Despite not choosing to put down poison some rats had obviously adopted a "self-service" approach. The fate of those eager rats is unknown. I found no bodies so maybe they survived or slunk off to die somewhere else.

Then of course there is the ongoing reference to Chimpanzees and how they are around 99% genetically identical to humans. Yet officially and to all intents and purposes they are no "better" than a rat who you can choose to buy poison for in the supermarket.
If someone throws a stone at a domestic moggy they commit a criminal offence of Animal Cruelty yet if they prepare a poison meal, worthy of the KGB, for a rat, that is pest control. Race horses are to be mourned while chimpanzees are recognised for their intelligence.
The "ethical shopper" assuages their conscience by buying free range eggs but last week we learned that there is widespread "egg fraud" with battery farm eggs being passed off as free range. Clearly this needs sorting out.

All in all our relationship with animals seems a hypocritical mess. I think the country does on balance have much to teach us about animals. Whether they fox hunt or not, they know how to treat animals humanely while still eating them ?! City dwellers usually descend into the sentimental and hypocritical. Tiddles the cat, is treated as a child while he is fed on tuna that was caught on "steel wall" nets in the Pacific Ocean that also kill dolphins which are arguably more intelligent and feeling than the average feline.

The only way to steer clear of this altogether is to become vegetarian and wear plastic shoes. My half-brother did just that following a visit to a slaughter house. He is often viewed as eccentric but I think he is at least sincere.

For the rest of us, including yours truly, who choose to continue eating animals, lets try to be a bit more alert to animal issues. I'm not advocating we all become vegans and that chimpanzees should get the vote (at least no more than already do! ) However, to borrow a phrase from the heady days of New Labour, lets worry about the many and not just the few. Try to be a little less sentimental about the few foxes, cats and race horses and a little more caring about the many cows, chickens, sheep and pigs.

Confused ? I certainly am.

"Four legs good, two legs bad" I think the phrase was.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Congratulations Tom and Katie !

I should start by reminding readers how much I dislike the cult of celebrity, how suspicious I am of the Hollywood agenda and how sceptical I am about Scientology.

Nonetheless, this blogger at least would at least like to offer congratulations to Tom and Katie on their wedding. Maybe for obvious reasons there is a lot of scepticism about Tom Cruise these days. However some of the commentary on his wedding is nothing but cruel and unpleasant.

They are a couple getting married who already have a baby to bring up. They deserve some happiness on their wedding day.

So Tom and Katie, in the very unlikely event you ever read this, just to wish you every happiness together. For those who pour scorn on you at the time of your wedding, may it just rebound on them.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Work in Progress

I have resolved to try and improve the appearance of my blog from the impersonal "Minima" design from before (though thank you whoever designed that because without that people like me would never get started).

I am trying to make it a bit more colourful, use friendly and relevant to the city where I live.

A quick thank you/suck up to Blogger- they are to be thanked for making life easier for techo-dunces like me for this "Layout" based blogged template which I find far easier than fiddling about with Html.

Hope to be back with "proper posts" shortly !


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Living in the Lap of Luxury...............

Thought for tonight !

I was talking with my brother yesterday and he mentioned how the top floor of a building in a Kent town was being converted into "Luxury flats".

We then discussed why everything had to be "luxury" these days. Don't estate agents ever try to sell "no frills" houses, houses that keep you warm and dry but not too much else ? Kitchens and bathrooms are often a particular area of luxury.

I even observed some luxury toilet rolls in the supermarket this evening !

Clothes are luxury as are holidays.

Surely "luxury" is hardly luxurious anymore as it is so common. If everything is "luxury" how do we distinguish what is out of the ordinary in its quality and comfort ?

Further examples of this luxurious life we all lead will be gratefully received.

Anyway I'm off to my luxury bed.

Good night.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Wear your poppy with pride ?

I saw this letter in thelondonpaper this evening:

" I was disgusted by the behaviour of some people during the two minutes of Remembrance. I was in Sainsbury's (a big UK supermarket) in Vauxhall. When the store announced the two minutes' slisence everyone fell silent. This lasted for about ten seconds when a fellow bawled at his wife "What ? I'm not not stopping, I weren't in the war". People looked in disbelief. An elderly gentleman walked towards the toothpaste and said loudly "I've done my bit, and I ain't standing around now" And then a girl in a tracksuit walked past talking on her mobile "Everyone's glaring at me 'coz I'm talkling to you on the phone during the two minute's silence. Who cares 'bout that?" Shame on you all. Your lack of self respect, your selfishness and insensitivity are truly repellent on an important day of remembrance. If you're reading this, be aware that many Britons gave up their lives so you could live in harmony today" Nicholas Havers, Vauxhall

Sadly, this account is all too believable. This year a bit of a divide has opened up between those who wear poppies (the symbol of remembrance Britain adopted from the flower that grew so widely on the battle fields of France and Flanders in WW1) and those who don't. Some have argued the poppy is a white establishment symbol.

This is sad and misguided. The Poppy is for everyone and it is to remember all those who paid the ultimate sacrifice whether from Britain, its former colonies or for that matter anyone who died in battle.

Battles of the past were fought to give us the freedom of today. Sometimes it seems doubtful if such sacrifice could be made by today's generation coming from a society that is both more divided and more selfish than in the past. I hope this point does not need to be proved.

When a few selfish or maybe just ignorant shoppers were creating noise during the national 2 minutes silence in Vauxhall yesterday, 4 British soldiers were killed in Iraq.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of that conflict they did not start it. They were sent there by our leaders and daily strive to bring some order to that land. For doing such a brave job in such difficult circumstances they deserve our support. For those who perished yesterday and in earlier, more clear cut conflicts we should remember them.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.


My experiment with a fruit diet has met with mixed success.

Maybe the experts would just put it down to a "transition phase" but I did not feel entirely well for all of the time.

I think the problem is that in theory you can get a great deal of essential nutrients from fruit and vegetables but to get the right variety you would need to almost live in a greengrocers. Certainly just eating bananas wasn't that successful on Friday !

The other factor that makes it difficult is "other people" ! It sounds bad but it is true. It is difficult to go out to dinner with friends and just eat fruit ! People are liable to get offended.

We went to dinner with friends yesterday so I had an "everything diet" to avoid controversey and confusion.

However I have learnt a couple of things from this brief experience so far. There are benefits to be had from just eating fruit for a short period (e.g. a couple of days). You can feel fresher and more alert. Changing diets suddenly is not without health consquences so you need to be prepared and cautious. It certainly feels more healthy to be "caffeine free" for a while. Caffeine is an acceptable addiction for most people so it doesn't get too much attention. However in working environment in particular it is easy to overlook how dependent you can get on coffee.

Also, in a few days and in combination with a bit of jogging at the weekend I have lost 6 pounds. Nothing too dramatic but certainly better than a couple more gained.

So what next ? I have already given up attempting to live solely on fruit. Maybe that would be possible on a tropical island but not in London in November.

I am however trying to be more healthy, staying away from the Caffeine wagon and avoiding bread and other carbohydrates. If I continue to loose weight and feel healthy I will know I am doing something right.

Back with a new post and a change in subject shortly....................................................

Friday, November 10, 2006

High on Bananas

I went shopping for a new suit yesterday. We have to keep up appearances working in "the City" and my current collection is ranging from the threadbare to the torn.

I thought that going to our local uber-shopping centre, Bluewater, would be easier than going to the centre of London which seemed potentially too stressful. It turned out to be ok and the big shops there had a suit that fitted me. However a brief visit to an "Italian Designer" shopped showed I am no longer the slim lad I once was.

Italian clothes no longer "suit" me. These clothes are made for a people who live on diet full of olive oil. I live on a City diet with too many coffees, sandwiches for lunch and then a proper meal cooked by Mrs. Donatella in the evening. My main exercise is walking to and from the station.

This lifestyle has come at a cost and yesterday I realised that I am now "portly". Not fat, probably not obese but a good stone above what is a healthy weight. In fact I know I have put on a stone and half in just over 2 years.

I have therefore decided to "diet". It sounds rather feminine so I am aiming for a "manly diet". Not in a half-hearted way but in a radical way that will loose a stone in a month or so. Then I can go back to normal ?:-)

There are health considerations here. I won't starve so I am trying to go on a fruit diet- the basic rules- you can eat as much fruit (or vegetables) as you want. You cut out "stimulants" (tea, coffee etc) and animal products. This is supposed to detoxify you and help you return to your ideal weight.

I will try it for a week and see if it has any effect. There are warnings that at the start that you might not feel good- as the body starts eating up all that unhealthy fat the process may make you feel ill. However if you stick with it you are supposed to feel fit and clean.

So far I have a mandarin for breakfast and 5 bananas together with some pumpkin seeds for lunch. I feel a bit light headed and my stomach is rumbling but hopefully some of my fat reserves are starting to be used !

Imagine if it was possible to live on just fruit and vegetables. How different things would look. I think we'd solve the recycling issue as everything would be biodegradable. I am not quite sure what would become of restaurants or even family meals ?

Still I am not aiming to change the world just yet. Hopefully a time without meat, potatoes and white sugar will leave me a little healthier than before. I may even be able to wear an Italian suit.................................

Thursday, November 09, 2006

A discussion at the station

I was surprised upon arrival at my favourite London station this morning by the announcement "Managers are available on the concourse for discussion and to answer any questions from customers".

I had a job to get to and in any case I was caught so by surprise that I didn't have any questions. Later I wondered if I should have asked about the empty trains that race past the platform in the morning when the ones that carry passengers are often late and always crowded.

I guess it was just too early for me to have a discussion. I did however go and see what the managers looked like.

In the main they looked quite normal- much like the average passenger but wearing a sort of uniform. They had a stall and were milling around it. Surprisingly a number of passengers had stopped to "discuss" matters- presumably relating to train travel.

I couldn't work out the expression on the managers faces but they seemed to be smiling and open. I suspected that inside they were thinking "some of these passengers are really sad to think that it is worthwhile coming for a discussion".

That is my cynicism but it all seems very un-British to have a discussion at the end of the platform with railway managers.

There did seem an awful lot of managers-about 20 I would say. Despite the enthusiasm of some passengers, managers still outnumbered passengers in the discussion area. They only thing that was missing was refreshments- maybe there will "sherry and nibbles" on the way home this evening ?!

The trains are still frequently late but I suppose we should be very grateful that there are a smiling group of managers available for a chat every so often. Maybe they will next be offering therapy for passengers traumatised by the morning commute into London !

For now, I nerdily record delays to my trains on this website. I doubt it does much good but I am keen for my train company to appear bad in the league table against other train companies.............

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Disgusted...not of Tunbridge Wells.....

Despite making great profits yesterday, Marks and Spencer disappointed me.

I wanted to buy stamps at lunchtime and assumed such a "great" store would sell them. I was told "we don't sell stamps anymore".

Too busy selling "hot food to go" and other horrors that middle England has been seduced into buying.

A sign of old age- complaining about Marks and Sparks :-(

Babylon the Second ? Well almost........

I recently dusted down a book by one of my favourite authors- Thomas Hardy. I felt it time to try something a little more challenging than my recent diet of Scandinavian crime fiction. In his novel of 1872, "A Pair of Blue Eyes" he describes a character Stephen Smith coming from London, "Babylon the Second".

I tend to assume that prior to World War II, London was a truly English city but just on a big scale- rather like a huge Exeter. But this reference by Thomas Hardy is a reminder that London has long been seen as distinct from England (or indeed Britain !) There is something separate about London that means anyone visiting from the English provinces feels in many ways like a visitor to a foreign country. I remember this was how I felt when I was young and visited from the Midlands. Living in or near London for well over a decade I have forgotten this and guess I feel like an émigré to London.

However London is different from and more than an English city. It is the capital of the UK as well as of England but it is undeniably a world city that in some ways is beyond nationality.

In recent times, immigration has greatly increased this feeling but Hardy's words remind us that London has always been a kind of Babylon. In the Nineteenth century Chinese opium dens abounded in the East End. Visitors from around the Empire came and refugees from more the more revolution orientated Continent came regularly.

These days London is more like Babylon than ever. Over 300 languages are said to be spoken in London. A survey back in 1998 showed the top 40 languages spoken by London school children. These are shown below.

However London differs from Babylon is one important way. When the Tower of Babel was constructed and the Babylonians became more interested in their own achievement than worshipping God, God sent languages so that they couldn't understand each other and the building of the tower stopped.

In London today there are many different languages but so far nearly everyone understands English and therefore understands each other. If the days comes when we no longer understand each other then maybe our City will stop much like the Tower of Babel.

Languages spoken by London School Children in 1999:

English 608,500
Bengali & Sylheti 40,400
Panjabi 29,800
Gujarati 28,600
Hindi/Urdu 26,000
Turkish 15,600
Arabic 11,000
English-based Creoles 10,700
Yoruba (Nigeria) 10,400
Somali 8,300
Cantonese 6,900
Greek 6,300
Akan (Ashanti) 6,000
Portuguese 6,000
French 5,600
Spanish 5,500
Tamil (Sri Lanka) 3,700
Farsi (Persian) 3,300
Italian 2,500
Vietnamese 2,400
Igbo (Nigeria) 1,900
French-based Creoles 1,800
Tagalog (Filipino) 1,600
Kurdish 1,400
Polish 1,500* I suspect this will be significantly higher today.
Swahili 1,000
Lingala (Congo) 1,000
Albanian 900
Luganda (Uganda) 800
Ga (Ghana) 800
Tigrinya (Sudan) 800
German 800
Japanese 800
Serbian/Croatian 700
Russian 700
Hebrew 650
Korean 550
Pashto (Afghanistan) 450
Amharic (Ethiopia) 450
Sinhala (Sri Lanka) 450

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Minor Techy Problems.....

Just to explain that the "clock" on my computer seems to have stopped so the last 4 posts all look like they were all made on Friday 3 November. This may give a slightly unbalanced impression on my recent output but I seem to have sorted the problem now so hopefully future posts will appear on the correct date.

As I have received (welcome ) comments on all the posts I will not attempt to repost- but the Planet 1988 post was made on Monday 6 November and the Most Unorthodox Rabbi post made today- Tuesday 7 November.

Friday, November 03, 2006

A most unorthodox Rabbi.......

Growing up in the middle of "Middle England" I was exposed at an early age to the broadcasts of Radio 4. Foremost amongst these broadcasts was the "Today" programme first thing in the morning. At breakfast time I was always aware of the "news" probably starting with weak memories of the Falklands War, through Miners Strike, Fall of Communism, Gulf War (1), Collapse of Yugoslavia, Rwandan Genocide, IRA ceasefire and many other events that have shaped "modern history".

Brief flirtations with "Breakfast News" or horrors.. TV-am occurred but for my Father these ultimately lacked the breadth and character of "Today". "Today" was not, and is not without its faults. Allegations of political bias, self-referential stories and an element of self-satisfied smugness have always been part and parcel of Today. In a sense this adds to the "enjoyment" of regular listeners. Like a close friend or relative its faults are obvious and known but almost add to the affection it is held in. I never chose to follow my Father's listening habits but I have found myself becoming a regular "Today" listener just like he was.

Somehow a professional "pacy" news bulletin on Five Live just doesn't have the charm of the comprehensive but often stumbling coverage of Today. The World Service is available on 648 MW for international news junkies but inevitably lacks the homely quality of Today.

Today is littered with anachronisms that few broadcasters would dare to begin today but are protected within the tradition of Today. Foremost amongst these are the "Racing Tips"- hopelessly unreliable betting predictions for the day's horse-racing and "Thought for the Day"- moral thoughts from a variety of religious and sometimes non-religious commentators.

I was not around at the start but I suspect it was mainly Bishops with the occasional Catholic or Methodist thrown in for "balance". Today, inevitably, the commentators range from Muslim to Atheist, Buddhist to Christian and for 25 years have included one Rabbi Lionel Blue.

Rabbi Lionel Blue (RLB) is probably the most unorthodox Jewish Rabbi around. Not only is he a 76 year old gay Jew but he refers lovingly to his long-term partner Jim and makes jokes on subjects ranging from death to the holocaust. In recent years he has battled ill health- everything from Epilepsy to Cancer- but still retains a positive outlook on like.

Thought for the Day ranges from 2 to 4 minutes in length around 7.50am each morning. They are not always that inspiring but I am always cheered to hear RLB come on. His broadcasts are irregular in frequency so it never certain when he will come on next. However I am pleased to say he was on yesterday and still seems in good form.

I have copied his words below, but his "Thought" can also be heard on the BBC website. Maybe you have to be brought up listening to Today to fully "get" this but I think it is charming and eccentric as well as positive and strangely uplifting. I have been aware of RLB since the 1980s- longer than I have known most of my friends. In a way, it is one of the miracles of broadcasting that you can feel affinity to a person you have never met.

Here is yesterday's Thought from Rabbi Lionel Blue.

Thought for the Day, 6 November 2006
Rabbi Lionel Blue

If they'd blown up Parliament yesterday I'd have devoted this Thought to it. Also being against the Iraq war from the beginning I can't comment on its consequences. So instead I'll concentrate on my own exhaustion. I feel I'd overdone it and forgotten I was no longer a sprightly 67 but a 76 coming to bits. So I lose my balance, tumble down stairs and crash into a cupboard. My partner, an athletic 80, can't raise my fifteen stone, rushes out and returns with an ambulance.

Then our multi ethnic and much under appreciated NHS swings into action because I've got a soaring temperature. And I doze. Comfortably secured by a drip, ear plugged to my transistor, half listening to the familiar news. There's the reformers who can't reform themselves, terrorists covering their own inner violence under a fig leaf of faith, spiritual teachers for instant drugged enlightenment, and our old acquaintances the charismatic revolutionaries shouting Power to the People but the corruption remains. We fool ourselves like the people between the two world wars.

But then my godly inner voice whispers 'It's too easy Lionel exposing other people's hypocricies. What about your ego games, your hidden agendas and mixed motives. Where's your self honesty?'

'But I'm sick and growing old' I answer querulously. 'You're not dead yet' says my inner voice brightly. 'Whether you're growing up, growing fat or growing old, you're still growing. Seventy six is a good age to be honest to God and make a new start in life. But this kind of knowledge doesn't come easy and you'll need the courage from prayer to face it and humour to puncture your false pride.' Wise words. We humans are too tricky clever to be wise which might prove our undoing. Ponder this cautionary tale for broad indeed is the way which leads to self deception and cloud cuckooland. A man marches into a wine bar. 'Five glasses of bubbly' he orders and drinks them one by one. The following week he does the same. The curious waiter asks him why. 'I used to come here' said the man 'with my four brothers and sisters and we each had a glass to celebrate the weekend. But now I'm the only one left hereabouts and this is how I remember our happy family. 'Thanks for telling me' said the waiter much moved. So he's shocked when the man returns a week later and asks for only four glasses of bubbly. 'Has anything happened to one of your brothers or sisters?' he asks fearfully. 'Oh no' said the man. 'They're doing fine. I've just stopped drinking that's all.'

O Lord have mercy on us, for as you know we're more mad than bad.

copyright 2006 BBC

Blue Thoughts from the Rabbi........"I don't believe death is the end. This world is like a corridor, like a departure lounge in an airport. You make yourself comfortable and get to know people - then your number comes up and you're called."

Planet 1988- another world !

Glenn Madeiros- all the rage in Britain in 1988 !

Yesterday I found myself browsing the internet in response to a few random thoughts. One thought that seemed to come out of nowhere was "What happened to Glenn Madeiros?".

As far as I know Glenn Madeiros had only one significant hit (at least in the UK). I remember it clearly- it was the ultimate cheesy ballard- "Nothing's Gonna Change my Love For You". Coming from a US release in 1987, this made it to the UK charts in 1988. The video shows Glenn walking along a windy beach holding the hand of his "love"- a "common or garden" attractive blonde girl. There is not too much imagination in the video by the standards of today but it conveys a universal message that was popular enough to make Glenn Madeiros No 1 in the UK charts for 4 weeks around July 1988.

Seeing Glenn walking down a beach (courtesy of hosting on Youtube before my domestic "IT supervisor" banned me on the grounds of virus threats.... and probably good taste !) brought it home just how much has changed since the days when a love song about a girl with big hair made it to No 1 in our charts.

Not only does it look different but the world is so completely different- and what is more shocking is this is not 100 years ago but a mere 18 years ago.

18 years ago was a time when Margaret Thatcher was still going strong as British Prime Minister, and no Bush or Clinton had yet made it to the White House. Saddam Hussein while not exactly a good guy was still a "preferable" Middle East leader as the Iran-Iraq war still had a month to go when Glen was No 1.

For everyday people there was no internet and mobile phones existed with huge batteries for the City elite but no more.

There was no Euro. The Soviets were reforming but still occupied Afghanistan while Osama bin Laden was a fighter in the "freedom struggle".

The UK terrorist problem was Irish Catholic rather than Islamic but you could drive in the centre of London for free.

The Berlin Wall would stand for another year and dictators such as Ceausescu still struck fear in Eastern Europe. South Africa was still governed as an Aparteid state.

All this was only 18 years ago. As well as all the changes, it is worth noting that some things haven't changed. We still have the same Queen, Kylie was still in the charts and people complained about the NHS !

So in the time it takes a baby to grow up to have the right to vote, whole empires have died, new countries emerged, allies become enemies and enemies become allies. Technologies we didn't really dream of are now the centre of our lives. Glenn Maderios was a one hit wonder but Kylie Minogue doing the Locomotion in 1988 is back on tour this year.

If so much has changed in the last 18 years, how much more will change in the next 18 ? In 2024 will Chinese take vacations in their holiday homes in Africa that they bought while working out there ? Will the US be a dual Spanish-English nation in the way Canada is now French-English ? Will retired PM Cameron congratulate former US president Barack Obama as a further reduction in CO2 emissions is agreed at an international environment conference in Tehran ? Will former insurgents in Iraq go on book signing tours as they muse on the madness of their youth and why they turned to peace ? Will our homes be solar powered ? Maybe the future will be darker, not brighter ? However whatever the future I suspect the world in 18 years time will look as strange as 1988 looks now.

Welcome to Englandski !

A sign of the times in London. The cinema guide now lists films with Polish subtitles.

Borat - Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan (Polish Subtitles)

It is well known that since May 2004 well over 500,000 (and probably nearer 1 million) Poles have come to Britain due to the granting of full employment rights under EU membership by Poland.

This is significant movement indeed when considering Poland only has a population of 40 million and Britain around 60 million. So it is probably fair to say that around 1 in 40 Polish passport holders are currently in Britain and around 1 in 60 people in Britain are currently Polish.

Britain has historical links with Poland- most recently WW2 when many Poles fought bravely as part of British forces on behalf of the Allied war effort. There is a big Polish war memorial to the west of London.

However the scale of recent Polish arrivals has been unprecedented. Whole suburbs of London are now significantly Polish with shops selling Polish food and advertisements in Polish. Large towns such as Southampton have concentrations of Poles- around 1 in 8 people are now Polish.

Polish registered cars are common sights and Polish coaches drive up to London from the Channel ports daily. The budget airline network has expanded hugely and it is possible to get bargain flights to and from Poland for a low as £30 ($50).

"The non-threatening face of mass-migration"

This huge level of immigration is of course entirely legal under EU law. There is no border hopping needed as between Mexico and the US or for non-EU passport holders between France and Britain. In theory it is quite legal for all 40 million Poles to come to Britain at once. It would be interesting to see when the Government reacted !

Poles mainly seem hard-working and civilised. In fact they are a welcome variation from many British born "citizens". No danger of Catholic Poles sneaking onto planes with liquid explosives hidden in shampoo bottles like some of our "British" cousins. You won't find anyone from Wroclaw taking rucksacks full of explosives and broken glass onto the Tube. Equally you don't (yet?) see Polish youths hanging around in "hoodies" intimidating the elderly. If only the same could be said for all ethnic English youths.

Poles (in the main) are genuinely here to work and behave.

If people were truly honest they would admit that the fact the Poles are often blonde and certainly white means they create less of a threat. If 1 million Somalis had come to Britain in the last 2 years, I am certain reaction would be different.

Even their more Latin looking cousins from Bulgaria and Romania will not get such an easy ride with restrictions recently being announced to prevent similar numbers of Bulgarians and Romanians coming to Britain in 2007.

Poles of course are doing good jobs and jobs that there aren't enough British people to do. We seem to need them.

But one thing is certain London is changing and quite quickly turning Polish. Today I bought my lunch from our Polish cook in the office. Her Lithuanian colleague was arranging the sandwiches. I queued up behind a Polish girl in the Post Office (I noticed she had a well typed job application to be posted). The Poles are everywhere in London.

Welcome to Englandski !

Merry Christmas Shoppers !

The weather has just changed in London. We have had a long warm summer and autumn. However in the last week the nights have turned frosty, ice has been left on car windscreens and we have a taste of winter.

At the same time Christmas (in its commercial sense) is being aggressively pushed by the shops. Horrific adverts for Woolworths fill our TV screens. The agenda is the same as ever. We should all buy from the shops to show we care for our family and friends.

We can buy with cash, card or on credit but this one day now becomes the focus of all commerce. The aim of all advertising is to extract as much money as possible from us. The consequences can wait until New Year (a mere 8 weeks away).

This of course is a long way from the real meaning of Christmas which is to celebrate the birth of the Messiah. Christmas has of course become a festival that has meaning in family life, the life of friends and our working lives. Everyone attaches their own meanings to Christmas time.

However it is worth sometimes remembering why we started celebrating Christmas. If that means nothing to you, then why not party at a cheaper time of year- Yon Kippur, Eid or Diwali for instance. The prices will be lower and you will look more original !

If Christmas really does mean something, then remember that God's only son was born as man and maybe remind yourself of some more details to this story. There is however no need to go into debt at Woolworths or Harrods.

Christmas Day is normally a blur of late rising, an enormous meal and bad television. Boxing Day often comes as a relief but perhaps I am Ebeneezer Scrooge. I have found some relief from spending the last two Christmas's in the Orthodox World so 25 December is just another day there with the focus on January 6. The date does not seem to matter too much but the over-powering commercial build-up to December 25 seems to get grosser every year.

Somewhere along the way, the Christmas mask slipped for me. I saw the crude commercialism, the contradiction between Christmas Past and Christmas Present and realised I didn't really like what I saw.

Of course I am still obliged to "show willing" by buying a few presents for nearest and dearest. But this normally waits until at least 23 December.

When it comes in 7 or so weeks, I wish you all a happy Christmas. However I hope that Christmas Future will be less commercial and not send us all into debt. There is no point in paying for one day of excess until the middle of the next year.

I fear that my Christmas Future may just be a dream !

Friday, October 27, 2006


We are off for a weekend of (hopefully) peace and tranquility in the Lake District.

I will try and leave on a positive note, sharing these simple words interpreting the Sanskrit word "Namaste". Here is the interpretation given by the late inspirational writer Leo Buscaglia.

"I honour the place in you where the entire universe resides. I honour the place in you, where lies your love, your light, your truth and your beauty. I honour the place in you, where...if you are in that place in you ... and I am in that place in me...then there is only one of us".

Leo Buscaglia

At its simplest Namaste means "I bow to the divine in you". If practiced world peace would surely be the result............You don't have to be a buddhist or Hindu to understand that. I am neither but find these words quite moving.

Good weekend all.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

This Man thinks we can all live for 1,000 years !!!

Aubrey de Grey- he has a lot of brains as well as beard :-)
(Photo credit-Kevin Perrott )

So, back to the 1,000 year life expectancy question… Good thing or bad thing?

The question was raised when I recently watched an episode of "Time", a series covering a range of issues around that overall subject and presented by the engaging Japanese American Michio Kaku.

This particular episode focused on our own mortality and how this affected our lives. In past ages the rich and famous would sometimes be painted holding a skull to remind them of their own transience and maybe keep their egos in check. These days the approach is a little different- plastic surgery, botox and if this all proves too much- therapy.

This was more philosophical. However, "here comes the science bit", as Jennifer Aniston used to say in shampoo ads. There is apparently no genetic reason why we have to die. Contrary to some earlier theories there is no "program" inside us that says we have to die at 60, 70 or 100. While mice only live a couple of years, parrots can live longer than humans and tortoises can live up to a couple of centuries.

Apart from accidents, war and disease the thing that gets most people in the end is simple "corrosion" or aging. Humans are very good at repairing themselves but this is not effective forever. Hence skin thickens, hair greys, bones thin etc etc.

The "good news" for the future is that need not be inevitable. The "corrosion" is all the effect of free radicals- damaging "bits" that escape from us reducing the effectiveness of our cells, both slowing them down or killing them. The effect of this ranges from the mild (wrinkled skin), the profoundly disabling (Alzheimer's), to the terminal (cancer).

However "a prophet" in the field of studying aging (bio gerontology) is a 43-year old Cambridge scientist called Aubrey de Grey. Mr. de Grey is nothing if unconventional (enormous beard, older wife, fond of a pint) but is also undoubtedly highly intelligent and knowledgeable in his field.

His basic premise is that aging is not inevitable. There is no overriding program that determines we will age and die. Rather there are a range of processes that our bodies suffer that result in corrosion and degeneration. These processes (Mr. de Grey summarises these under 7 distinct problems- see below) could all be either prevented or reversed.

De Grey also feels right is on his side as "aging" broadly kills two thirds of people or 100,000 people a day. So to cure aging would "save" 100,000 people a day.
Of course his theories are not without controversy. While no one alleges de Grey is in this for money, many simply believe that what he suggests cannot be done. All his opponents broadly see aging as bad but inevitable. Others have argued that even if he did succeed de Grey "would surely destroy us in attempting to preserve us" because living for such long periods would undermine what it means to be human.

Not being a scientist it was this argument that had most interest to me. I lack the knowledge to be able to comment on reversing damage to cells but I can take issue with the belief that to be human is to die at 70 or even 100.

I find such a belief patronising and analogous to "well-travelled" middle Englanders who take delight in pronouncing how long is appropriate in a particular holiday destination. Tell one of these "know-it-alls" you are going to Paris and they will say "Oh how lovely. Mind you, you wouldn't want more than a week there. You will have seen everything in a week". ("See everything in Paris in a week " I silently cry incredulously) These people will also advise on 2 week limits for a beach holiday (obviously Robinson Crusoe went wrong here) or a minimum period in relation to more far flung destinations like Australia ("Oh you must go for 3 weeks to make it worth while"). Such statements that come out as ex cathedra pronouncements rather than personal preferences put my back up and I snobbily tell them I once went to Chile for a 4 day visit.

Anyway, to return to life, I find statements that human life is limited to 100 years similar to a suburban philosopher saying "Life as a human being. 70 years is nice but you wouldn't want more than a 100. 110 is too much. Whatever next you'll be spending a fortnight in Rome!"

Aubery de Grey's science may be unproven but if he can do it, I would be up for it. To live 1,000 years would be a gift. Of course it would require flexible attitudes. Assuming you were born a 1,000 years ago you couldn't have got to 500 and say, "I'm afraid I will never be able to get on with anything except the quill pen and the scroll". Equally while you could keep your principles you would have to be tolerant of changing social attitudes. In one lifetime you would deal with the dark ages in your youth, Puritanism, enlightenment, Victorian values to our current relative pool.

Reskilling and education would also be an issue too. If you started as a sword-maker in your 20s, in your 980s you might have to earn your crust in a call centre (ghastly thought!).

All this brings home how mentally programmed we are to dying around "three score years and ten". If we were to live to 1,000 we would want our friends to live for similar lengths (well most of them anyway !) or it would prove difficult to make new batches of friends every 50 years or so.

Maybe the biggest obstacle to a successful 1,000 year life is our attitudes. By our 20s many of us think we know it all. In our current age especially there is a world weary cynicism, "we've seen it all before" attitude. It's not cool to be surprised, even amazed.

Well if Mr. de Grey is right I would like to think I would be happy to learn something completely new on my 383 rd birthday. When we fear age now, we think of decline and illness but if aging could be "cured" we would be as healthy at 650 as at 35.

The only thing that would scare me would be the thought of a few hundred years commuting on the train to Cannon Street Station, London. In fact isn't that a contradiction? If I can "only" hope to live for 70 years shouldn't I be doing something far more interesting as I'm nearly half way through already? Whereas if I was going to live for 1,000 years a mere 40 years on South Eastern trains wouldn't be such a big deal !

Maybe our expectations are too low. We expect our lives to be short (if not "nasty, short and brutish" as Hobbes wrote) so don't make enough effort. Whereas if we had 1000 years, we would surely plan to do something amazing?

Aubrey de Grey has created a vision which may or may not come to being. He married in his twenties a woman who was 20 years old than him. They are still together so maybe he has a vested interest in this theory. He hopes that this generation can "outrun death". By our 50's or 60's the damage to our cells can be reversed to enable us to live to 150. By then science should have advanced further to enable us to reach 300 and so on.

However for many of us maybe the biggest problem is not the coming of death but the loss of dreams and the lack of desire for new thoughts or new insights. If you think you know it all by 25 then of course the prospect of 975 further years may be a little dull. However if your attitude is open and you are interested in life then no period is really too long.

We don't know it all by 25. In fact I am certain I will never know it all. Until my last day, I hope I learn something new every day. For that reason, I would like all the time I can get. Healthy time of course rather than years ill in bed. However as Mr. de Grey's photo shows, no one is yet immune from aging ! So perhaps I had better not count on more than 70 years for now- until some clear evidence to the contrary. In which case time is running out..........


Below are Aubrey de Grey's 7 steps to curing aging:

1. The problem: Cell loss or atrophy
Mr. de Grey's solution: Develop stem cells to replace lost cells. Or use chemicals that stimulate the division of cells to produce new ones.

2. The problem: Cancer
Mr. de Grey's solution: Aggressive gene therapy will make it impossible for cancer cells to reproduce. Stem-cell therapy will prevent side effects.

3. The problem: Mitochondrial mutations
Mr. de Grey's solution: Mitochondria are the cell's power plants, and they house separate genes that are prone to harmful mutations that cause diseases. To prevent those problems, copy the critical mitochondrial genes and insert the copies in the cell's nucleus, where they will be better protected.

4. The problem: Unwanted cells (such as fat cells)
Mr. de Grey's solution: Possibly stimulate the immune system to kill unwanted cells.

5. The problem: Stiffening of proteins outside the cell
Mr. de Grey's solution: Proteins outside cells help support tissues, making arteries elastic and ligaments strong. But chemical reactions throughout life link those proteins and make them less mobile. Specific chemicals could break those links and allow the proteins to move more easily. One chemical is already in clinical trials, says Mr. de Grey.

6. The problem: "Junk" outside the cell
Mr. de Grey's solution: Plaques accumulate outside the cell and may lead to diseases such as Alzheimer's. Small molecules called beta-breakers may break these plaques down.

7. The problem: "Junk" inside the cell
Mr. de Grey's solution: As cells age, molecules can change in ways that make them stop working. Those structures can accumulate in cells and and eventually overwhelm them. Extra enzymes from bacteria could be given to cells to degrade the unwanted material.

More details can be found on his Web site: