Monday, 27 May 2019

Why don't they do what people vote for?

It felt very strange to be witnessing the European Parliament Elections without taking part.

On the day, I was in the Devon village of Hemyock, and there was a steady procession of local people making their way to the Polling Station, a venerable Church School building. How very English it looked. How very remote the European Parliament. And yet the result, I now saw, did matter. There would be fallout from these elections.

I couldn't help thinking that for most people in this country the act of casting a vote was indeed a way of sending one of two stark messages: I want to go; or I want to stay. And as we now know, in England and Wales the map turned Brexit Party-coloured nearly everywhere. (Source: BBC News website)

Geographically, it was almost totally for Brexit. The actual voting figures told a slightly different story; one that gave comfort to those still hoping to stop the process. But I'd say that the voting pattern revealed unarguably that a lot of people, in nearly all parts of the country, were fed up with delay and clamouring for Brexit.

And it must surely be supposed that they had the facts. After three years of non-stop argument and analysis on both sides, the electorate have surely become much better-informed on what Brexit entails? Or have had, at least, three more years to carefully consider the matter. Yet Brexit is still wanted by a clear majority.

Of course two-thirds of the electorate didn't vote at all, myself included. I'm guessing that, like me, they had dismissed these elections as an irritating sideshow; and, like me, had not wanted to take part because that would be to perpetuate a connection with an important EU institution. Even so, I watched those Hemyock locals go into the Polling Station rather wistfully, feeling that I'd disenfranchised myself. Why hadn't I organised a postal vote? I won't let this happen next time. I will want to cast a vote, whatever the choices available.

Now that this days-long election is over, and the results are finally in, it's clear now that (a) the electorate is getting very impatient - Brexit needs to go ahead asap; and (b) it will have to be a no-deal departure.

It will have to be 'no deal' for two reasons.

First: Mrs May's deal is fixed, yet flawed, and deeply unpopular. It has satisfied nobody else at Westminster.

Second: I can't see how a post-election EU can possibly allot any more time for further negotiations. The new set of people in control will want to get on with proving that their election or appointment was well justified. To them, Brexit is 'old business' that will have to be set aside so that fresh matters can be addressed.

These people will say to us, 'It's clear that you are still going. And if your EU Parliamentary members are going to give us a hard time, we'd rather not have you. It's a shame that no deal was actually settled between us, but we must leave it there. Somebody must draw a line, and we are after all the senior organisation. We have the authority. You are just the departing member. So we say: no more negotiations, no more extensions to the exit date. You have to go at the end of October. Let's set in motion what we can - essential border, trade and security procedures, basic health arrangements, and so forth - and do our best, in the short period ahead, to ensure that we are both as ready as we can be for Day One of your independent existence outside the EU.' They might also add, 'You'll be on your own. Goodbye and good luck.' But I am not expecting it.

Will our politicians do what needs to be done, in preparation for this unavoidable October departure? Apparently not. A lot of politicians are still fearful of publicly embracing this as an inevitability. That annoys me. I suppose leadership elections couldn't be ducked, but calls for a 'People's Vote' seem like passing the buck and playing for time.

And yet so much time has already been wasted. It will be a 'chaotic Brexit' if nothing is put in hand.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

An offer she can't refuse

I'm not easily drawn to conspiracy theories, but sometimes you do wonder whether a hidden set of very powerful political, religious or criminal conspirators (or a collusion of all three) have hatched a cunning plot to create chaos, with the cynical aim of making a lot of money from it. For however high-minded powerful people may seem, I am absolutely sure that all of them constantly have temptations and inducements to misbehave thrust in their way, and that many do get seduced to the Dark Side, if I might call it that.

There are very good reasons why sayings like 'power corrupts' and 'money is the root of all evil' have had such a long currency. I would go so far as to say that anybody who achieves a position of power is going to get approached by people of neuter conscience intent on persuading them to relax a rule, or turn a blind eye, or say a good word in the right ear, in return for a reward. The persuasion might be dressed up as an appeal to patriotism, duty, honour, known personal beliefs, or a wish to secure a place in history, and there need not be a frank bribe as such. I am sure that, whatever reward is offered, it is always clear that career destruction or family danger goes with the promise of reputation-enhancement, enrichment, great fame or lasting legacy. And I dare say plenty of men and women are vain enough to think they can handle the risk of being found out. Partly because their positions will surely become unassailable: they can quash any investigations.

Does this scenario seem familiar? I look at President Trump and wonder. Russia is known for its historic tendency to hatch conspiracies, and there might indeed be something in the notion that the Kremlin engineered Mr Trump into the Presidency so that he could throw spanners into the works. It doesn't take much to upset the interconnected world economy, and Mr Trump seems to be following a programme that, step by step, makes life difficult not only for non-US companies, but companies at home, which suggests that it is a two-edged plan concocted by people who would like to see the USA shoot otself in the foot. But the plan might equally well have been hatched by those parts of US Big Business who have a hold on Mr Trump, and want their industries protected for a few decades more, regardless of who goes under (all of us, of course, if global warming makes sea levels rise a lot).

I look also at the more local posiiton in Britain, and wonder at the way votes go in Parliament. What's going on? It's possible to say that entrenched interests and career preservation have stretched out the sorry course of the Brexit Saga, and in the process diverted Parliamentary time away from other matters that urgently need attention - with the bad consequences of unremedied unfairnesses, economic stagnation, and growing social unrest. Perhaps this general paralysis simply means the wrong people are in government. But what if, behind it all, Mrs May is doggedly following someone else's plan to damage the country? I don't believe that myself: I think Mrs May is a clever but stubborn politician who just wants her Premiership to finish on a high note - and not go down in history as a Home Secretary who achieved little, and a Prime Minister who achieved nothing at all. Sadly, she probably won't get her wish. If I am not greatly mistaken, she is about to be made an offer she can't refuse.

Monday, 20 May 2019


Now here's a curious thing. Whistling in advertisements, whether TV ads or radio ads - perhaps especially the latter. I get to hear these ads on LBC and Classic fm, the only two commercial stations I listen to.

It's been going on for some time now. Whistling sounds upbeat, cheerful and carefree. A whistling man is a relaxed man who knows what he's doing: which implies that he's skilful, and that you can trust him. The same for a team working together, all of them whistling their heads off. They'll get the job done, and get a good result.

All this is may explain why there's a lot of whistling going on in the background of ads for claims companies, whether it's compensation for mis-sold PPI (coming to an end soon) or mis-sold investments (the latest thing). They want you to believe that making compensation claims is a sweet and pleasant passtime, and that their cheerful whistling experts can put money your way, effortlessly, simply by texting KER-THUNK to 88866888 or whatever.

At the present time, with cheerful whistling so much in fashion, I'm thinking it could be applied to many useful services, such as cleaning, doorstep deliveries and pet-walking. I haven't actually seen or heard such ads, but it's not hard to imagine them. I am sure whistling could also be used (more dubiously) with things such as radical dental work, cosmetic surgery, and funeral services - anything where a cheerful whistle might instil trust, and reassure you that your money will be wisely spent on work competently undertaken. Well, if you were contemplating a boob job, wouldn't you go for the team that whistles while they work? Rather than the team that treats you to Gregorian chant?

One thing about whistling that bothers me is that it has become almost exclusively a male thing. I don't see why women shouldn't whistle just as well as a man, and yet it's rare thing to hear a woman whistling, at least nowadays: the Calamity Janes and Cat Ballous of Western films in their heyday had no problems whistling for their horses. But in modern times, it has become an all-male skill, and for no very good reason. Surely the notion that whistling is 'unbecoming in a woman' is completely dead? After all, this is - at least when I last looked - the twenty-first century. If you have a normal mouth, you can whistle, and I am surprised that so many women never do it.

Mind you, I don't. I can, but I don't. Offhand, I can't think why not - unless it's the self-knowledge that I'm unmusical, and that the sound I make just isn't tuneful. I don't have any pets to whistle after, either. And for certain, I don't fit exhausts or bathrooms.

To end, I'd like to recommend a short story by William Hope Hodgson called The Whistling Room, which is about a room in an ancient Irish castle haunted by something awful that whistles at night. Utterly creepy.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Remembering 'O'Donnell Investigates ...Old Age' and thoughts on lasting fame

If you read my post about lunching with Dad, then you might like to know what I did next, while I was in Liphook. I decided that I would take a look at the house they lived in for twenty-odd years until 2000, and the park opposite (the scene of many a Sunday afternoon stroll with Mum and Dad).

But before doing either of these things, I would find the Liphook Bowling Club, in which Mum and Dad were prominent members during the 1980s and 1990s. Dad had been one of the top people there; and Mum had contributed much in the catering department. Both had been enthusiastic players, going on bowling holidays to Devon and elsewhere.

Here are some pictures. (Not mine! They were taken with Dad's camera when I wasn't around) Mum is on the right in this one:

Dad is on the left in the next shot, and in the middle in the one following:

One of the bowling holidays was featured in a 1987 or 1988 BBC documentary called O'Donnell investigates...Old Age, and involved a BBC crew following everyone around for a week, recording what they said and did. There were a lot of 'noddy' shots, in which club members were simply asked to talk naturally among themselves over a table full of drinks on a sunny hotel patio, without necessarily capturing the speech. These would be used as background while Michael O'Donnell made some point. But some club members were individually interviewed. Dad was one of them. He was asked to expound on the delights of an active retirement on a good Civil Service pension, and he did so with all the required poise and polish: for Dad had a benignly commanding manner and a good, clear, urbane, speaking voice. Even more so than me, he could speak with clarity, conviction and persuasiveness, providing excellent sound bites.

That interview of Dad's was one of the very few that got more than a few seconds in the final cut. Dad looked fit, relaxed, affluent, every inch the successful retired senior Civil Servant in suntanned good health, blessed with a great social life, and getting the most out of his unlimited leisure. I don't remember his mentioning the cruises that he'd enjoyed with Mum, but he may have done so. The lifestyle he projected, though not of course jet-set, nevertheless looked enviable and aspirational.

What he and other club members didn't know was that the eventual TV programme was to have a Message. It was going to show two very different ways to spend your retirement. One would show how pleasant life can be on a good pension; and the other what a shabby, dreary and grey existence it is on a meagre pension.

I watched the end product with dismay, because the Good Life was made to look selfish and empty, devoid of social concern, and well-described by the phrase 'the chattering classes'. The poor souls surviving on so very little made such a damaging contrast. To make the contrast even more damning, it was clear that they had worse health - which, considering Michael O'Donnell's influential medical background, was of course the underlying point of the programme.

On the plus side, I'm sure that this documentary helped to raise awareness of the plight of old people on inadequate pensions, leading to the State Pension improvements and tax breaks that to some extent alleviated the worst of pensioner poverty. Currently, of course, these are under fire - many believing that all older people are living the dolce vita at the expense of younger citizens. I'm expecting the gravy train to stop in the Chancellor's 2020 Autumn Budget.   

Anyway, I drove into Liphook, parked Fiona, and embarked on an exploratory stroll. I knew pretty well how to get to the Bowling Club, but on the way noticed considerable change. During the 1990s, Liphook was bypassed by a new alignment of the A3 road to Portsmouth, and that seemed to be the signal for a lot of house-building on the edge of town. But the closure and redevelopment of the big Army Ordnance Depot in the town centre had created space for new roads, new facilities, and even more new housing. The Liphook I used to know was still there, but so much more built up.

I turned off the old road to London, and emerged onto a recreational field that looked no different from when I'd last walked here twenty-nine years ago. The Bowling Club wasn't far off, but not visible until I spotted a cut between high wire fencing that I'm pretty sure didn't used to enclose the green. Ah, there was the Clubhouse...

I'd vaguely known Mum and Dad's Liphook bowling friends back in the 1990s, but had never actually been inside the Clubhouse, never being a member myself. I'd never contemplated taking up bowling (and I still wouldn't). It looked slow and unexciting. I didn't like the idea of having to wear whites, and old-fashioned whites at at that. In any case, it wasn't in me to join anything, not wanting to 'belong', not wanting any kind of 'club life', and definitely not the commitment of fixtures to attend.

So the first challenge now was this: could I - should I? - enter that Clubhouse, armed only with my relationship with my parents, and a curiosity to see whether there was still any trace of them there? Would I be met only with blank politeness?

What the hell. In I went. And introduced myself. The reception was friendly. I explained that I was the daughter of Rodney and Dorothy Dommett, who had been mainstays of the Club two or three decades back. Happily, I was speaking to the current Lady President, and (no doubt curious herself) she led me over to the lists of past Club Officers on the wall.

Ah, look! Topping the lists of past club Presidents! R Dommett, in 1990. 'That's Dad,' I said.

This established my own bona fides beyond argument.

Further along, a second discovery. R Dommett as Treasurer in 1985. Actually, I knew he'd been Treasurer at some point. But I'd forgotten he'd ever been President.

Then, on a shield on another wall, Mrs D Dommett as winner of the Midsummer day Cup in 1992. 'That's Mum,' I said.

But there was nothing else. And nobody present could personally recall either Mum or Dad. Actually, I was rather relieved that no-one did, or could wheel in someone who could. I could envisage a rather awkward conversation with a very elderly person, in which I'd have to explain an awful lot about myself. But more especially, I didn't want to rake over Mum and Dad's sad deaths ten years previously.

The people in the Clubhouse were playing another bowling team shortly, so I thanked everyone and made my departure.

Whatever their impact on the Club, or Liphook itself, it didn't seem that Mum and Dad were in people's minds now. Even though they had, I knew, been well regarded and well loved. A younger generation had come along, and they had simply faded from memory.

This is how it goes. It's the natural way. And it ought to be a lesson to anybody who craves fame and public attention of any kind. It's here today, gone tomorrow. Whether you are a top scientist or a reviled tyrant, whether the saviour of the world or its destroyer - even if you only want to be a local hero or string-puller - you will in time be forgotten, or become just a footnote in some dusty record, or a name on a club wall, or on a gravestone.

I think this should in fact be a consolation to those who cannot hope for recognition of any sort. It doesn't matter. Nobody will care, so don't worry about it.

In fact I can't help thinking that anyone who chases fame and recognition must become a slave to the conventional standards of their time, losing personal freedom and integrity in their quest to be well-known and approved. Better to make your own rules, and live on your own terms.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Nice people who helped to make my holiday my best yet

I've been home from my month-long Scottish holiday for almost two weeks. It's about time I did a few posts about it. Actually, it will take quite a lot of posts to do it full justice, and since I have another holiday coming up, I will be writing about what I saw and experienced in Scotland (and Northumberland) well into July.

This post will help to set the scene. It's not about my friends in Scotland (who certainly helped make my holiday the best yet) but the people I met casually, and found so interesting that I asked them whether I could take their photograph as a souvenir, explaining that I especially wanted to remember them. I asked their name too, after giving them mine. And every one willingly said who they were, and let me take that shot. Which is remarkable, their so readily obliging a total stranger from far-distant Sussex!

But it just shows how nice people can be. If they felt I was an unwelcome interruption to their day, they were way too polite to show it.

There were plenty of others that I chatted to, some of them really pleasant people, but the circumstances didn't lend themselves to taking a picture and asking their name. There was, for instance, the head man in the welcome team at the Gleneagles Hotel, whom I encountered on the platform at Gleneagles railway station, awaiting the arrival of a guest. He suggested that I visit the hotel for lunch, and was so chuffed when I turned up there half and hour later, that he personally showed me around the ground floor - no doubt to the astonishment of many a guest and member of staff. You will meet him in a future post about this famous five-star Hotel and its world-class golf courses.

Anyway, here are my holiday heroes, in order of encounter.

This smiling first face is a man named Adi from Eyemouth, who runs the snack bar in the lay-by on the northbound side of the AI road, just inside England. He's been there for years.

This lady is called Carol. I had a laugh with her while ordering coffee and cake for myself and a friend in the CafĂ© Wemyss at Kirkcaldy Galleries.

This is Richard, who was building these wooden bed-boundaries for a new layout in the Walled Garden at the Castle of Mey, between Thurso and John o'Groats. The Castle of Mey used to be the late Queen Mother's summer residence: she actually owned the castle. Nowadays Prince Charles goes there in August. (In April they had to make do with me)

This bashful chap is Graham, who is one of the volunteer RNLI team at Wick harbour, genuine heroes and heroines who set forth to rescue mariners in distress in that lifeboat behind him, whatever the weather. Did he tell me all about it? Did he give me a one-to-one tour of the lifeboat from the lofty bridge to the spotlessly-clean engine room deep in the boat's bowels? You bet he did. I probably looked school-girlishly keen to see. But gosh, it was interesting!

And this is Jenny and her son Stephen, in Argyle Square in Wick. I met Jenny twice. The first time was within minutes of thanking Graham for his tour, and we had a bit of a chat. Then, an hour later, after I'd taken a sunny walk along the cliffs south of Wick harbour and back through Wick's Conservation Area - Pultneytown - I sat down in this green square to devour a scone with a cup of takeaway tea. And along came Jenny, this time with her son. What a coincidence! As you can see, they didn't mind chatting with me a wee bit more.

South-west along the coast from Wick is Whaligoe, famous for its centuries-old stone Steps down to an inlet where fishing boats used to be kept. It's a long way down, and seems an even longer way up! The Steps need regular attention, and the chap in my photo is Charles, a stone mason. The lady is called Norah, and she is a scientist at Wick General Hospital. It was late in the afternoon, and I'd expected to have the Steps to myself. Encountering Charles first, I had a good talk with him about his work and his local connections (there is a stone memorial to his mother at the top of the Steps). Norah arrived as I was saying goodbye, and we all then had another chat. 

A sunny day at Brora. And it's David, a technical teacher at Golspie School, with his wife Rachel. They were working on their garden, their home being one of the shoreline properties here. I was following the footpath, but it seemed to go right across their lawn. David reassured me that I wasn't trespassing: in Scotland there is a right to wander nearly everywhere. I enjoyed talking to them.

Waiting for a train back to Inverness at Lairg railway station was Raschia, a young woman who had been on holiday. I gathered that she'd stayed at both Tain (where her boyfriend was) and Lairg. We agreed that while Tain was a rather nice place, there wasn't an awful lot there to keep a visitor occupied. It lacks buzz. We further agreed that Lairg was even worse. That's a difficulty with these small towns in the far north: if you're used to city life (not that Inverness is especially sophisticated, but it's a teeming and seething metropolis compared to sleepy Lairg) then boredom will intrude. Sorry, Lairg. 

I went to Duff House at Banff, which is in the care of Historic Scotland, and encountered three very pleasant members of staff who were keen to inform me about the beauties of the place, and the exhibits within. Here's Morag, at reception:

And inside the house was this roguish chap. His name was Gerard, and despite a twinkling eye, he knew his stuff. He's on the left edge of the shot just below:

We got chatting, and I persuaded him to demonstrate what it was like to sit inside a curious hooded chair that kept the doorman of Duff House safe from night breezes when - a hundred years ago - the place had been a hotel.

I'm sure he wasn't supposed to do that, but I cajoled him into it, and he could hardly refuse. Besides, it gave me a perfect notion of how such a chair would protect your back from draughts. He was a very nice man indeed.

On the next floor up was Louise, who had been very curious to know what Gerard and myself had been laughing so much about.

She was just as well-informed about the house. Really, I was most impressed at the enthusiasm shown by the staff I spoke with. Duff House functions as a cultural centre for this part of Aberdeenshire. If I lived here, I would have at least one decent place to go to. (The tearoom alone would be a draw)

Now it's Ballater, downriver from Balmoral. I'd decided on The Bothy for a bit of lunch, but it was pretty full, and having ordered I saw that I'd have to share a table. I asked these two ladies, Jean and Joy, who readily agreed. Well, we got on really well. They were both there on a morning outing on the bus from Peterculter, making use of their bus passes. Ballater was a fine choice - plenty of good air; the river Dee; lots of walks in the scenic hills north and south of the town; and a good sprinkling of upmarket shops, which historically supplied the Royal Family at Balmoral Castle but nowadays cater mostly for discerning tourists. (I was surprised not to find a Waitrose)

It's Broughty Ferry (Broughty pronounced 'Brotty'), a well-off coastal suburb of Dundee, and this is Stuart, a retired teacher. A sunset was brewing, and he had a Leica M9 around his neck, which caught my eye and started a conversation.

And this is Gillian, a nurse from Glasgow, who is here showing me the inside of the fridge-freezer fitted to her new caravan. She was pitched nearby at the Caravan and Motorhome Club site in Balbirnie Park, at Markinch in Fife. That's a fridge-freezer to die for, if you are a caravanner. Mine is only half the size. Close study of the photo confirms that Gillian was eating very sensibly, apart from some chocolate gateau for the Easter weekend. Entirely foregiveable.

Finally Paul, an Historic Scotland local manager, here holding the fort at Smailholm Tower in the Borders. Like Stuart, Paul is a passionate photographer, and we discussed photo software at length. He is the only person I mentioned my Flickr site to: I wonder if he will get round to taking a look?

This is just a selection of the people I bumped into every day. It mystifies me how it is possible to be lonely. All you need is some daily contact, however fleeting. I accept that some find it very hard to get out there and start talking. Perhaps I radiate cheerfulness, or just look interested. Or perhaps I am a strange inquisitive pest, who needs to be humoured. Who knows.

Quel relief - I don't have to make a choice

Ah, the European Parliament elections on the 23rd May. I have my polling card. But I won't be voting.

Why not? Two practical reasons. One: I'll be away on holiday again. Two: It's too late to arrange a postal vote.

And there are further reasons. Three: As a Brexiteer, I really do not want to take part in any procedure that would tie the UK to the EU, however temporarily. And four: None of the contending political parties have a track record that I find inspirational, or a message that appeals to me. So even if I could vote, I wouldn't want to.

I'm a natural Conservative voter, but I'm fed up with how this government have dealt with the Brexit issue. It looks so much as if all along there has been a secret Cabinet agenda - spin the thing out until everyone loses interest, then let the whole notion ride for a generation. But the 2016 referendum result was a very important event, and it can't be dismissed and forgotten. Alternatively, the government has been incompetent and unrealistic, and consequently the Brexit negotiations have failed. Mind you, who among the Conservatives could have done much better? There may have been better candidates for the lead role, someone with a better, more flexible notion of how to hold the initiative and escape as a going concern from the EU's federal embrace. But if so, they are keeping a rather low profile.

My hope now is that some of the younger, brighter Conservative MPs get their opportunity. But it's probably too late. The forthcoming Euro elections will change the political landscape, leading to a very different House of Commons when the next General Election comes. I don't see the two main parties surviving unmauled. But then they both deserve to be badly wounded, for not taking up sensible, coherent positions and acting decisively. Labour have fumbled, tripped up by their old-fashioned attitudes; the Conservatives have made mistake after mistake, and have nearly died from self-inflicted injuries; they should be invited now to do the decent thing - take a bullet through the brain - and having at last put themselves out of their misery, make a fresh start. Indeed, both the main parties need a purge to make them relevant again.

Meanwhile others will have a chance.

Their style is too New Age for my taste, and there is no way they will ever get me on a bicycle, but the Greens are likely to get my future allegiance. I do go along with the grave and undeniable facts behind their messages. I would certainly prefer a green and pleasant world to one made uninhabitable through climate change that could have been avoided.

Otherwise it would be the LibDems, except that their 'Bollocks to Brexit' stance is the opposite of what I want to see.

It goes without saying that none of the other parties - mostly small, some with a narrow programme - have any appeal. If voting were compulsory in this country, and the choice in my constituency lay between UKIP and Nigel Farage's Brexit Party - and only those two - then Nige would have my reluctant vote, not because I rate him, but because I wouldn't give my vote to a party like UKIP that has candidates who keep revealing a disturbing, deep-rooted intolerance.

What I'd really like is a party that wants independence from the EU's political and judicial institutions, but won't fling us into the tender embrace of the USA, nor any other major power. And apart from that aim, keeps close and friendly ties - trading and cultural - with European countries and all friendly states around the world. And beyond that, sees an ongoing role for Britain as a world leader in setting wise and humane standards.

Step forward, please, whoever you are.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Lunch with Dad

Yesterday was an important anniversary. The tenth anniversary of my last pub lunch with Dad. He died two weeks later of a cardiac arrest, at home, in the late evening, after a nice meal, after his customary relaxing hot shower, with his books and (medicinal) glass of whisky at hand. The books were Crossfire Trail, a cowboy novel by Louis L'Amour, and The Greatest Enemy, a World War II naval story by Douglas Reeman. I have left them exactly where he put them ten years ago.

The strain of getting out of his chair when it was time for bed proved too much for Dad's heart. He had just enough time to thump the red button on the gadget around his neck, then died. I wasn't there. I was half an hour away at the Cottage in Piddinghoe. The police came to me at 1.00am to tell me the sad news that I was orphaned. And my world changed, five years before I expected it to, for Dad was not quite 88 and I thought he might have another five years left.

My world changed, but it didn't collapse, nor would it have had. I was a self-reliant creature, well organised and resilient. I had quietly taken much already in my life. So I coped well and efficiently with the aftermath, and nobody was surprised that I did. There was the funeral, so very soon after Mum's. Registering Dad's death, so soon after Mum's. And I had to administer two estates now, not just one. I got into gear, and got on with it.

Of course I grieved, but in my own way. I reflected and pondered more than I grieved.

I thought about how things might have been, but now could never be. Dad and I had only just returned from a cruise, and had (with Mum gone) bonded somewhat. I'd been looking forward to finding out how far such bonding might go. Now I would never find out. I'd have to rely on my memories, bolstered by hundreds of photographs taken over the years. Thank goodness I had those.

I'd been very fond of Dad, closer to him than to Mum. And in the ten years that followed, that fondness persisted, even though I gradually perceived more clearly how my parents had tried to control my life, albeit from the best of motives. I was sorry not to miss Mum more, but then we'd always had a wary, careful relationship in which much could not be discussed. Dad was easier to get on with. I was more like him. Equally inclined to judge, he nevertheless said less and I could risk a confidence with him that I couldn't with Mum. I hasten to add that, most of the time, I'd had a genuinely good relationship with both my parents, spiced with good humour and moments of positive sparkle. We'd laughed a lot together through the years. I'd learned to keep certain secrets from them, so that they couldn't thwart me, but their legacy was a good one. And, whatever their opinion of me in later life, they had left me the lifeboat - the survival-capsule at times - of their home. I was so grateful for that.

2019 was to be the year of several important anniversaries connected with my parents. Events had made it impossible to mark Mum's death on 3rd February. The next one was the tenth anniversary of this lunch with Dad on 11th May. It had been an upbeat occasion in 2009, and would be in 2019.

And so I rather looked forward to driving over to Fernhurst, at the far north-western corner of Sussex, where we had had that pub lunch at The Red Lion on 11th May 2009.

The pub was on the village green, away from the main road, and looked very much as I remembered it. I hadn't been back in ten years, not once. Fernhurst was over an hour from home, outside my 'local area', and gradually I'd decided to keep it for this moment.

I didn't feel daft, celebrating a shared meal ten years ago. I felt very happy that was doing this. I hoped, in fact, that I'd be able to discuss my pilgrimage with the pub staff and some fellow-customers. This was, after all, done in memory of Dad. And in a sense, I'd be having lunch with him again.

Inside, the pub looked smarter than I remembered it - a combination of a repaint and new furnishings - although the layout seemed much the same. I spotted where Dad and I had sat, and chose that table for my meal. As I ordered myself a drink and some food, I told the older lady behind the bar why I'd come. She'd been there ten years back. She recalled, as I did, that a reporter had come in, trying to get local views on a local killing - a murder - in the village. He hadn't spoken to Dad and myself, but we had watched him quizzing the bar staff, our ears flapping.

I had decided to drink not wine but a gin and slimline tonic. I ordered a pint of beer for Dad. I couldn't remember exactly what he used to drunk. It had once been Watney's Red Barrel, or Whitbread Tankard. Had Courage Director's ever been his drink? No: in his last years, he'd enjoyed a pint of John Smith's. These beers were either no longer brewed, or were just not available at this bar. But I saw Fuller's London Pride, and got him a pint of that. Too late I recalled that he'd preferred drinking from a tankard, not a straight glass, because with his wrists weakened from arthritis, a tankard was easier to hold two-handed. It was a small detail, though, and didn't matter. I didn't want to remember the pain and inconveniences Dad had endured from his arthritis.

So here we were. I sat where I had sat ten years before. Opposite me, in my mind's eye, sat Dad.

In reality, there was only that pint of London Pride. But it did the job nobly.

And what would Dad have seen, if still around at the ripe old age of nearly-98? This lady, his daughter.

I hoped he would have found pleasure in the thought that I was in his life, keeping an eye on him, and still enjoying a game of cards with him (we used to play cribbage and piquet together), even winning a game or two now and then (he was consistently the better player). 

My main course came: beef sizzler, with sweet peppers, onions and rice. Yum.

Cheers, Dad!

Then dessert. Sticky toffee pudding with ice cream. Not exactly Slimming World compliant, but hey, it was a very special occasion. Dad's pint kept up a great conversation. I was so pleased I'd done this.

By and by the meal was finished, and my gin and tonic all gone. It was time to do something else. I left Dad's untouched pint where it was. The lady behind the bar thought that it could stay there, and she wouldn't take it away until she had to. A family spanning three generations had noticed Dad's pint, and I explained to them what it meant. I showed them that shot above - of Dad about to tuck into a plate of breaded fish goujons, chips and peas. Then I walked out, and got thoughtfully into Fiona.

Good bye till next time, Dad.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

A universal basic income of £48 per week

The concept of the government giving a no-argument, across-the-board income to everyone isn't new. It's been tried before in other countries; and indeed way back in the early 1970s, in this country, under Ted Heath's Conservative government, a Green Paper was issued on the the notion of 'Tax Credits.'

It was to be a kind of 'reverse Income Tax', so that employers would pay their staff extra cash to supplement their taxed wages, if the net-of-tax amount were less than some national standard figure. The employers would get the money needed from the tax taken from their higher-paid employees. Or if the employer might end up out of pocket, then they could apply to the Inland Revenue for instant reimbursement.

In any event, all lower-paid workers got a pay packet of the same size, even though the mix of Tax Credit and taxed wages might vary between individuals. It was certainly a way of having a national minimum wage, if one were in a job.

It came to nothing. Ted Heath's government fell in 1974, and the incoming Labour government didn't take the idea any further.

Fast forward to 2019. A proposal to give £48 a week to every adult, with a little less to children. Paid for by withdrawing a slew of personal tax reliefs.

I wondered where that figure of £48 came from. But not for long.

£48 per week x 52 weeks = £2,496. That's the amount of cash each adult would get as their Universal Basic Income, regardless of their other income.

How paid for? By taking away £2,496-worth of tax relief from each adult who pays tax. At the moment every basic rate taxpayer gets a tax-free personal allowance of £12,500, which covers the first slice of their income before they start to pay tax at 20%. They would otherwise pay 20% tax on the first £12,500 of their income. And 20% of £12,500 = £2,500.

Aha! So the underlying plan must be to take away the tax-free personal allowance worth £2,500, and substitute a cash receipt of £2,496.

Oy! That's £4 less! But maybe the actual UBI will be £48.08.

For taxpayers like me it makes no difference. Presumably I''d get that £48.08 every four weeks - rather like my State Pension - meaning extra income of £192.32 thirteen times a year. Meanwhile I pay £2,500/12 = £208.33 twelve times a year in extra income tax. The one balances the other.

For people on very small incomes it would however make a noticeable difference. They don't get the benefit (or full benefit) of  that tax-free allowance at the moment, because they don't pay Income Tax, or very little. But in future they would get the full benefit, paid in cash.

I dare say there must be a net cost to the government that they would have to cover by eliminating a host of other tax reliefs. Anyone's guess, which reliefs might be for the chop.

What about the point that having a guaranteed UBI of £48 per week would make everyone lazy and work-shy? I think that can be dismissed. It's not quite £7 a day: emergency-level cash, enough to keep a careful person fed and healthy, but too little for anyone with an ordinary home to run and wanting to lead any kind of normal social life. Two adults would share £96 per week; two adults plus two children maybe £150 a week; but it's still not a tempting option, deliberately living on the UBI alone. I'd hate to have to do it.

On the whole I like the idea of a UBI, because it seems socially fair and would be universal and automatic, requiring no means-testing. It would be a whole lot simpler than the current confusing array of different tax reliefs and benefits. And people who, for whatever reason, don't claim their proper entitlements would finally get the money they should have.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

I've never read or seen any Harry Potter

That's not quite true. A colleague at work - back in 2000 - had 'discovered' the Harry Potter books for her little daughter, had enjoyed them herself, and had loaned me Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the first in the series. I never got past the first few pages. It was a personal problem. I hate school stories, or anything to do with schools, and am even averse to discussing educational matters in an adult context.

Academia puts me off. I do think that intelligence - if it exists - is to be encouraged, but I distinguish intelligence very sharply from a knowledge of the ways of the world, good judgement and sound common-sense. Intelligence is a wonderful gift that should not be wasted or stifled, but it doesn't (in my view) deserve uncritical worship, nor should it be a matter for celebrity. No talent, however remarkable, is enough on its own to make me fawn on anyone, or give them special attention, acclaim or privileges. Perhaps I am influenced by self-knowledge of limited mental capacity, and it's just a case of sour envy. I'm certainly influenced by occasional brushes in the past with pompous and ladder-climbing academics, and teachers who assumed a superiority that grated on me.

But there's a deeper reason for not liking stories with a school background. I loathed school from my infancy, and endured it as you would an unjust prison sentence. It was compulsory and coercive. And its house-systems and uniforms, flawed discipline, exhortations to compete, and superimposed standards and expectations, all combined to alienate me and make me a secret rebel.

Secret, because of course I was (as a child) too timid and unsure of myself to be openly non-conforming. I dodged what I could, and kept my head down. I became adept at that.

Occasionally, if pushed too far by other pupils, I showed simmering fires within. I'd take so much, then react, and they'd back off. I only ever had to show that I meant business. I can't remember now what I said when annoyed, but clearly it carried the ring of conviction. 

Very occasionally I'd really snap and convert my annoyance into action that must have made other kids wary. I once used my knee to disable a boy who was goading me over something, and I know that he was hurt. I heard him. The deed done, and done adroitly, I stalked away. He was never disrespectful again. Nor were the witnesses. I felt fully justified, and would have stood up to any official inquest. But there was no comeback.

That incident confirmed my growing realisation that, now and then, standing up to something that's got out of hand is the right thing to do, and gets you noticed and respected. In later life, when at work, and dealing with an indolent (and insolent) colleague not pulling their weight, I called him out and told him what I thought of him. It cleared the air wonderfully. Nobody said anything, but I know that everyone working under me, and the more senior managers too, all took note and gave me a gold star for well-timed forthrightness and effective management. And yet I'm no dragon, not really.

But I have never struck anybody with my hands or fists, even to this day. I still don't know what actually happens when you slap a face really hard, thrust a knuckle into someone's eye, or bring a heel down onto the tender inside of their foot. Something pretty awful, I imagine. Surely they don't just shrug it off. I suspect that violence makes first-time participants feel utterly degraded, perhaps even physically sick and shaken. I don't want to find out.  

You can see, however, that for me school meant suppressed anger and resentment, and a constant but secret battle with oppressive authority and meaningless school customs and traditions. I still feel those were wasted years, though few would have guessed that this placid and amiable pupil, quietly though not brilliantly attending to her studies, was so fed up. And although I came away with three good A-Levels, and could easily have gone to university, I surprised everyone by refusing to apply. It was my long-delayed gesture of defiance. I gave them all the finger and relished the moment. Besides. the adult world beckoned.

So it shouldn't be surprising that I find the Harry Potter books unreadable. Indeed, any school-based saga would be, even if spiced with a fantasy story-line involving magic, strange creatures, and all the paraphernalia of wizardry. Ditto, the Harry Potter films: I've never seen one of them. I simply can't face them. Whatever the cunning plots, whatever the special effects, I've been scarred too much by the concept and personal reality of 'school' to ever enjoy these wildly popular creations.

My loss, I don't doubt it.

But if you had served too much time in a grey prison, or had been kept against your will in an bleak asylum, how could you ever bear to think about those years again, or voluntarily re-enter that world?