Sunday, March 30, 2008

Al Gore To The Rescue?

I've been watching the Democratic presidential candidate nomination process career ever further off-the-rails with increasing dismay.

Like many in the UK I was astounded when chimp-in-a-suit George W. Bush got in for a second term, and have been thinking surely the Republicans are going to get trounced next time around?

That was until the Democrats shot themselves in the foot with a cannon, by getting into a vicious internal war in which victory could well be Pyrrhic.

If the Democrats can manage to produce a third result - as is being speculated - that would be a real rabbit from the hat.

I bet McCain's campaign team have their Al Gore voodoo dolls out this weekend.

Grumpy Old Paxman - M&S and Me

It may not have escaped the notice of my few regular readers that not only am I becoming even more of a grumpy bastard recently, my political thoughts appear to be making steady progress from fairly left-of-centre towards the point where Norman Tebbit starts to appear over the horizon.

Not a thrilling thought!

Equally disconcertingly, I now find myself in agreement with professional controversist Jeremy Paxman on a subject so gratingly middle-class even Hyacinth Bucket would be ashamed. Namely the declining quality of Marks and Spencer's products.

Paxman had M&S underpants in his sights. The subject of my ire is a relatively new pair of plain black shoes purchased for work purposes.

When buying shoes for work, I'm generally looking for something smart, unobtrusive, and sensible. Gucci loafers are not in my thoughts.

Only once can I recall owning a pair of work shoes I had any real enthusiasm for, and that was an accidental purchase. A pair of Rockports bought on a US holiday at the same price in dollars I'd have paid in pounds back home in rip-off Britain.

On my return they became my work shoes by default.

Having size 10 feet, the lightness of their sole was a thing of beauty to me, and I mourned their demise, but I was fucked if I was going to pay the going rate in the UK for a replacement pair.

As winter descended upon us, I decided my current work shoes were showing their age and another re-heeling didn't seem justified. Given that I'm trying to prioritise time over money at present, the quick and easy solution seemed to be a visit to the M&S store.

Sure enough, they had exactly what I was looking for. Albeit slightly overpriced, I felt, at £50.

I was somewhat surprised to discover that fifty quid doesn't even entitle one to a cardboard box these days, as the shoes were plonked straight into a plastic carrier bag.

At first they performed exactly as expected. Until, that is, the rains came...

I should point out that my daily work commute consists primarily of car and train, with roughly a ten minute walk between office and train station. Therefore in total the exposure to the elements consists of less than half-an-hour each day.

With that in mind, the rapid deterioration of my not-so-cheap shoes pissed me off more than a little.

Within weeks they'd begun to stain white, necessitating frequent resprays with waterproofer, and a nightly polish.

Within a couple of months, I was starting to get a damp feeling in my socks by the end of the journey home.

After three months, as I was already contemplating a replacement purchase, the sole gave out and invisible leaks were replaced by a hole the size of a 5p piece.

I won't be back in M&S for a while.

It seems to me that the ceaseless drive to keep down prices in the face of competition is driving more and more companies into cutting corners to the point where quality is abandoned in pursuit of another 2% saving.

Not just on the high streeet. My work encounters with Indian IT outsourcers could fill a volume or two with tales of anguish, but that's for another day.

My shoe woes have been soothed by a most unlikely source. Amazon are now selling shoes - more specifically a huge range of Rockports at generous discounts - and my sub-standard M&S pair have now been replaced by these Rockport Conors for a mere £4 more.

The sole isn't quite as light as the earlier ones, but it has some sort of patented spring mechanism, which makes the walk to work feel like a rather pleasant trampoline exercise.

More importantly, they don't fucking leak! Take note Stuart Rose and M&S...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Bobby Tait - The Original Mason In The Black

This little article appeared in the local free newspaper that pops through my letterbox each week. It's one of those pieces that leaves you unsure whether to laugh or cry.

Bobby Tait Lodge Pic
The event is a Freemason organised night. The guy in the middle of the photo is ex Scottish football referee Bobby Tait. A man who infamously requested that his last ever game as a Grade 1 referee be at Ibrox, as Rangers played Kilmarnock, in the midst of a historic battle for the title between Celtic and Rangers.

With Rangers desperately needing a win to maintain their chances of winning ten league titles in a row - thus beating Celtic's previously unassailable nine-in-a-row record - the game was of monumental importance. Victory in the title race would hand bragging rights to the dark half of the city for an eternity.

With the game heading for a draw, Tait decided to add an incredible five minutes injury-time at the end of the match.

On top of his previous performances that season - including more timepiece malfunctions that cost Celtic a win at Tynecastle - one could only conclude Bobby Tait valued Rangers wins above his own reputation for honesty and integrity, and would do anything to see them win the title.

Alas for Mr Tait, Kilmarnock had other ideas and scored a last minute winner that crushed Rangers push for a new record.

He must have been devastated. What a way to end your career!

Since retiring, the Celtic rumour mill has been rife with reports of Mr Tait's after dinner speaking. With boasts about never having awarded a penalty against Rangers at Ibrox being the supposed highlight of his act.

Given that he generally speaks at Rangers supporters events, Freemason events, or, allegedly, Orange Order events - in truth almost interchangeable as bastions of Protestantism and Rangers - it's hardly surprising he is a popular guest. Though presumably he focuses on earlier highlights of his career.

There you have it. A supposedly impartial - unimpeachable if the Scottish press are to be believed - figure who openly boasts of his pro-Rangers bias throughout his career. What would Donald McVicar make of it all?

I also wonder what the bookies and fraud squad would make of it. After all, isn't match fixing - which appears to be what that Ibrox penalty boast hints at - a crime?

Articles on the Freemasons and Orange Order are ten-a-penny in the Scottish local press and nobody bats an eyelid.

To be fair they can be a source of great amusement. Check our the 'surprised' eyebrows on the dude middle-back in the above photo. Does make one wonder where Bobby's left hand is!

But there's a more serious point to be made. The Orange Order in particular is a closed club - Protestants only - with an anti-Catholic agenda.

Yet it receives the same polite and sympathetic coverage in the local press that a bowling club might expect.

Imagine visiting Alabama and picking up a local newspaper with similar coverage of a KKK meeting. Or visiting Dagenham and seeing equally sympathetic coverage of a BNP event.

After a fine lamb dinner and some excellent red wine, those present were in full agreement with guest speakers who stated immigration was a blight on the nation, and those annoying blacks should be sent back to where they came from.

£200 was raised for charity.

There would be outrage. Sky News and BBC24 would be on the scene in hours. Questions would be raised in parliament. The tabloids would be foaming with righteous indignation.

Never mind the charity money. Listen to what those loons are actually saying!

Not so in Scotland. Another example of that not-so-secret shame.

Speaking of charity money, am I the only one who wonders how a night that features three 'esteemed' guest speakers only manages to raise two hundred quid? Seems more than a little on the cheap side to me!

I wonder how much was spent at the bar?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Shannon Matthews Safe; Charles Darwin Spinning In Grave

Shannon Matthews the missing 9 year-old from West Yorkshire is safe. Which is obviously great news. I always get the feeling after 48 hours in these cases that if the kid hasn't turned up, the police will be looking at either an accident or murder.

So it's great news she has been found, apparently well after being missing for more than three weeks, and I am genuinely delighted for her family.

Yet it's hard to shake off the horrible feeling that her abduction opened a window into a society that shouldn't exist.

The family life of her mother, Karen Matthews, makes Shameless look like Brideshead Revisited. The statistics are mind blowing.

Age 32. Seven children. Five different fathers. Bloody hell!!

If the average British worker was as productive there would be no recession fears, no deficit worries, no trade gap. We'd be world beaters!

Should Karen fancy her chances as an entrepreneur, I'd suggest she looks into setting up an Internet dating site. She obviously has expertise in the meeting and mating market.

In a way you have to admire her inventiveness and time management skills. How she managed to get time for a social life once she'd got to four or five kids, while still in her twenties, is a puzzle to me.

It must really hurt for couples struggling to have just one kid they'd love unconditionally - marooned on NHS IVF waiting lists that measure in years - to be exposed to an alternative word where kids are produced on a production line, with little apparent regard for their welfare or the likelihood of giving them a stable upbringing.

On a more practical level, it must be galling for families where the parents both work but struggle to make ends meet due to child care costs, to witness a culture where work is a swear word and kids are utilised as a means of enhancing social security benefits.

It seems to me we've reached a point where flawed government policies, allied to a culture that really is shameless, has turned Darwin's Theory of Natural Selection on it's head.

If you are smart, motivated, and hard working, the odds are you won't have the cash, or more crucially the time, to raise a big family. This is especially true where the woman is keen to continue working. There aren't many Nicola Horlicks around!

Conversely, if you can't be bothered working, but think the world owes you a living, having loads of kids seems to be the fastest legal route to boosting your income.

The inevitable consequence of this situation is that survival of the fittest ceases to be the norm.

The smart and hard working will be out bred by the feckless, whilst simultaneously being screwed for an ever higher percentage of their income to fund the offspring of the benefit junkies.

All of which sounds perilously close to a Nazi-esque view of the world. Which makes me very uncomfortable, but I cannot see where else current trends are taking us.

I'm absolutely in favour of protecting the weak; a high standard of comprehensive education; free health services; and Gordon Brown's oft quoted desire to end child poverty.

However it's clear to me that current policies are not going to achieve that aim. There has to be a better way.

I've got some post-budget thoughts on the general economy, but here's a quick hit in the area of Child Benefit.

Currently child one gets a higher weekly allowance and all subsequent kids are paid at a reduced rate. Why not continue the taper so that child three gets less than two, etc? I'd imagine that by child four, condoms or The Pill would be a much more prominent part of the conversation with any prospective partners.

This could be kept revenue neutral by increasing the payments for kids one and two, so no stealth tax here.

I can't claim this as a perfect solution - and it has definite echoes of China - but it's a step ahead of current policy which is a licence to breed without any regard for the consequences.