Sunday, 29 December 2013

2013 Review In Verse

January started mild, but halfway through got chilly,
The Fiscal Cliff was body-swerved and HMV went bust,
Supermarkets stocked new flavours: Stallion and Filly,
Rail fares beat inflation as hard-pressed commuters cussed,
The PM prayed an EU in-out vote would have appeal,
And Michael Winner scoffed, alas, his final rhyming meal.

February brought a sliding UK credit rating,
A fatal shot saw Oscar spot-lit in the media glare,
The Pope defied the history books and quit Pontificating,
A court decided working free for Poundland wasn’t fair,
A hump-backed king was disinterred, they waived his parking fees,
And Richard Briers’ Good Life slipped away into the breeze.

March maintained an icy grip, and Spring could not get started,
Nervous Cypriot savers eyed the bailout plans with gloom,
Huhne and Pryce, each other’s eyes scratched out, to jail departed,
HS2, now green-lit, threatened many a Bucks front room,
The new Pope went home on the bus, as passengers just stared,
And Hugo Chavez met his end, not that the US cared.

April was the cruellest month, with grimness that surpasses,
A Dhaka sweat-shop fell, with hundreds killed – did we feel shame?
The Boston bomber manhunt was a thrill-fest for the masses,
Unlike Kim Jong Un’s shrill, pathetic sabre-rattling game,
The Bedroom Tax unleashed its blight on those of slender means,
As images of Lady Thatcher filled our TV screens.

May saw murderers in Woolwich, cowardly and callous,
Some useless bomb detectors put a fraudster in the clink,
Fergie left a vacancy that’s now a poisoned chalice,
UKIP snatched some council seats, so Nigel had a drink,
Sally Bercow’s Twitter blooper cost her £15K,
And Mick McManus, wrestling’s panto villain, passed away.

June gave us a gentle hint Big Brother’s on our cases,
As Edward Snowden skipped to Russia with a memory stick,
US drones kept killing people of less favoured races,
Nigella’s husband – who’d have guessed? – turned out to be a prick,
The G8 was a waste of time, to no-one’s great surprise,
And Iain Banks was torn from us, with no time for goodbyes.

July, by George! A Royal hoo-hah! The third-in-line delivered!
Gooey Windsor-watchers hardly noticed Morsi’s fall,
Same-sex marriage passed at Westminster, as bigots shivered,
But Murray’s win at Wimbledon was what inspired us all.
Salmond waved a cheeky Saltire, photo-bombing Dave,
And Alan Whicker went to travel worlds beyond the grave.

In August sarin gas in Syria set the war drums booming,
Dave said “We’re with you, Barack”, but MPs said “Like hell!”
A half-arsed badger cull soon brought humiliation looming,
Chelsea (once called Bradley) got acquainted with her cell,
Two silly weans were caught red-handed smuggling in Peru,
And David Frost, who’d subtly skewered Nixon, slipped from view.

September bore the hallmarks of the party conference season,
Ed declared “We’ll freeze your bills” and copped a lot of flak,
A Tory blogger scuffled with an old man for no reason,
Godfrey Bloom called UKIP women “sluts”, then got the sack,
While, in the real world, terrorists attacked a shopping mall,
And David Jacobs, Juke Box Jury’s voice, got Heaven’s call.

October featured Grangemouth under threat, a prospect chilling,
“Big Business 1, The Unions 0” was how they framed the deal.
Postman Pat was parcelled out and traders made a killing,
The US seized up for a while, but finally got real,
The Nobel Prize Committee garlanded Professor Higgs,
And Paradise became the brand new stage for Lou Reed’s gigs.

November saw the Philippines face Haiyan’s devastation,
Portsmouth got the chop, with Govan (just for now?) preferred,
The SNP’s White Paper launched, the blueprint for a nation,
The “No” camp slagged it off before they’d even read a word,
A helicopter crash in Glasgow left us horrified,
And John Cole, former scourge of slimy truth-avoiders, died.

December cooked up tempests, floods and Christmas without lighting
The “Nephew of the Year” award eluded Kim Jong Un,
A falling ceiling made a theatre trip just too exciting
 Nigella’s court appearance wasn’t altogether fun,
And some who once yelled “Hang him high!” now queued up in a rush
To eulogise Mandela, and they didn’t even blush.

Now 2014’s in the wings, about to show its face,
It promises a raft of thrills and spills – just watch this space!

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Charity Begins 500 Miles Down The Road

“May the wind be always at your back,” say the Irish, usually after they’ve poured you enough pints of Guinness for you to need it, because you can’t feel your legs any more. It’s a generous thought, but as I sped up the East Coast Main Line yesterday, hoping that I’d snuck on to a sufficiently early train, I could have done with the wind being a few hundred miles further back. This filthy sky, horizontal rain and howling gale business is getting to be a habit. Just as well I don’t believe in climate change, or I’d be getting worried.*

My four-day trip to London at the weekend wasn’t a nostalgia-fest, although it was good to see old friends and discover that they were getting on fine, thanks, without my captivating wit and sloshed bonhomie. Nor was it a Christmas shopping trip, although a cock-up on the organisational front did necessitate one excursion to Ealing Broadway, where in a fiendish squall and a heaving crowd my high point was dropping some cheese in a puddle while trying to avoid trampling a child. (By the way, memo to W H Smith: (1) I do not want any flaming Dairy Milk, (2) Turn on the lights in your stores, they’re like funeral parlours, and (3) Get rid of that infernal Strauss waltz tape-loop constantly repeating next to the e-reader display, before I snap and REDACTED ON LEGAL ADVICE with a chainsaw.)

No, I came down to London for the carol singing in Trafalgar Square. Each year, when the big spruce tree goes up, the Greater London Authority offers 50 hour-long slots, first come first served, to bands of singers keen to wow an admiring crowd with their unique spin on the Christmas classics and pass the hat round in support of their chosen charity. The group with which I’m involved comes from the two London-based Churches of Scotland, Crown Court and St Columba’s, and skates enticingly on the edge of musicality in support of Christian Aid. Other charities and causes are available, and they all do fantastic work; this particular set-up just happens to be the one that floats my boat.

I’ve been part of the Trafalgar Square gig for about 20 years now, the last 15 or so as front man. This means that I don’t sing, itself a huge positive on humanitarian grounds, but I do get to chat up the audience between numbers and persuade them to part with their hard or soft cash. I’ve been drowned out by police sirens, had rubbish collectors empty bins right in front of me as I rabbited on, been repeatedly mistaken for a “vicar” and of course built up a tremendous library of responses to hecklers. Some of which I’ve been able to think up as little as five hours after the actual heckle.

Even the increasingly duff British weather has smiled on us over the years. Rain and wind have had as much impact as a North Korean defence lawyer. It’s always cold, but we merely smile rigidly and look forward to the post-event party, when we can chisel the ice off our body parts straight into our gins. The only outright “abort” was last year, and that wasn’t down to the elements. It was a flash-mob of Santas taking part in “Santacon”, which if you Google it you’ll find is a highly informal red-costumed festival of goodwill and drinking, theoretically in that order. Trafalgar Square was their rendezvous, arranged online at the last minute, and they weren’t budging.

When we arrived in the Square it was a mass of bobbing red. There were Santas everywhere, like confetti in a newly-wed’s undies: frolicking in and on the fountains, dough-nutting Nelson, planning a mountaineering attempt on the fourth plinth and - of course - boogying energetically around the Christmas tree, exactly where we were supposed to sing. They were boisterous and far from nasty. Several of them offered me a drink, presumably because I looked so glum. So there was no doubt they were invoking the spirit of Christmas, but unfortunately it was the 40% proof type, and not the bit marked “Hey guys, let’s sing about Jesus now.”

It was bleedin’ obvious this red sea would not be parted, either by divine intervention or by the Met Police. The sole representative of that organisation radioed for reinforcements and was advised, in broad terms, that they might consider popping along when they’d finished their tea and buns. The GLA’s sound and lighting man, who’d provided his own personal equipment, and whose face had gone a vaguely spearmint hue as if he’d consumed an iffy prawn, opined that maybe we should call the whole thing off to prevent damage. I pretended to hum and haw, putting off the actual admission of defeat for as long as possible.

It was at this moment that one of our slower-on the-uptake members prodded me and asked for a carol sheet. He owes his life to the presence of that Met officer. She may have been the short arm of the law when it came to riot control, but she could have taken me out in a flash if she’d spotted me doing a Saatchi throat-shake.

Anyhow, we regarded our return to Trafalgar Square this year as coming under the heading of “unfinished business”. The GLA, for their part, had decided that this year it would be “back to basics”: no stage, no lighting, no amplification provided. Was this a reaction to last year’s Little Saint Nick invasion? Had the sound engineer taken his toys home? Or was it the latest manifestation of Austerity Britain? Who cares? It didn’t matter. Someone stuck a rinky-dink little megaphone in my hand, I waffled, the singers warbled, the crowd gathered round, and it was like moving from a concert in a stadium to “Unplugged” in a wee room. The punters were generous, and our arms became unfeasibly stretched as we returned the groaning buckets to base afterwards.

That’s what I want to highlight here: it’s getting harder and harder to raise money for charity. The rules and regulations get tougher, the co-operation of the authorities slackens off, you’re constantly having to do more with less, you’re wiped off stage by an impromptu piss-up. Sometimes you feel it would be simpler and smarter just to support your valued cause through organised crime.

But, whatever the obstacles - despite the obstacles - many, many people still do whatever it takes to raise money for all manner of causes, and, even though they’re feeling the pinch, the great British public still come through with the dosh. This is something truly worth celebrating.

Hardened cynic that I am, I feel that the bastards currently running the planet are only too aware of this widespread altruism, and quite delighted to exploit it. For example, there’s a rant about food banks just waiting to be projectile-vomited all over a future blog post. At this stage, let me simply say that I applaud the people who volunteer to help in them, those who organise, and those who provide. They see a need and, between them, they work flat out to fill it. They’d rather this didn’t have to happen, but they hold their noses and get on with it.

But what of politicians who see food banks as a policy option, who visit them in pursuit of smiley photo-opportunities, who squeal with indignation (guess who?) when an authoritative source points out in a witty but depressing poster that “Britain Isn’t Eating”? They are beyond words. They deserve to occupy the very lowest circle of Hell, and after this brief break for festivities I trust that all right-thinking people will pursue them without mercy.

On which joyous and uplifting note, may I wish all of my readers, old and new, the very happiest of Christmases. I’m off for a wee glass of Irn Bru now, but will return at the weekend with whatever pops into my addled brain between now and then.


*If you think I meant it about climate change, please note that irony meters are now available to order online from Russia’s trendiest e-retailer, a reputable business and not in any way a front for identity theft, You’re one click away from having a whole new perspective on humour!

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Why Not Buy An Extra Turkey?

Anyone who’s done time in - I’m sorry, I mean “been actively and enthusiastically involved in” - church choirs over the last 30 years will probably have come across the heartwarming Christmas carol ”Why Not Buy An Extra Present?” with music by Mike Sammes and words by Peter Westmore.

This isn’t it. However, completely coincidentally of course, and with huge apologies to Mr Westmore in particular, it can be sung to the same tune. But it works on its own, without music, as a piece of verse. Well, kind of.

Why not buy an extra turkey
When you’re planning dinner?
Lob it through your neighbours’ window
So they get no thinner.
Be a lovely person -
Help old ladies cross the street,
Tip your local dustmen,
Give young children lots of sweets.
Why not be incredibly pleasant
To everybody?

Why not welcome carol singers
When they serenade you,
Even though their tuneless wailing’s
Totally dismayed you?
Be a lovely person -
Clear your path of snow and ice,
Smile at sales assistants,
Buy their trash at any price.
Why not be incredibly pleasant
To everybody?

Why not greet your long lost cousins
With a glad expression?
Don’t admit their conversation
Leaves you with depression!
Be a lovely person -
Say their ugly child is cute,
Let them smash your teacups,
Join in Trivial Pursuit.
Why not be incredibly pleasant
To everybody?

Why not be a Secret Santa
At the office party?
Give a box of Belgian chocolates,
Get a tube of Smarties.
Be a lovely person -
Send a card to Uncle Fred,
Swear this year you’ll visit,
Quite forgetting that he’s dead.
Why not be obsessively pleasant
To everybody?

Friday, 20 December 2013

The White-Crested Buffoon

To the American lady who asked, yes, we do have television in Scotland. Angus the postie has one in his living room and invites the rest of the village round once a week to watch Strictly over porridge and bannocks. We sometimes have to thump the set a few times, and when it’s blowing a gale wee Jamie has to shin up the drainpipe and hug the dish, but we usually arrive at a tolerable black and white picture.

Occasionally, when Angus is feeling generous because he’s come across a postal order in the mail, he passes round the Famous Grouse and conversations break out. If it doesn’t all deteriorate into a big punch-up, the TV often stays on until the evening news, and we’re treated to a grainy glimpse of events in the small south eastern enclave where what happens actually matters a damn. It’s here that, surprisingly often, a white-crested buffoon comes galumphing across the screen, typically on a bike creaking under his weight, invariably trailing in his wake the debris of another public relations disaster. Why, look, it’s Boris.

Boris. Choreography by Nellie the Elephant, witticisms by Cicero, personality by Teflon, coiffure by Salon Ken Dodd. There aren’t many political figures who can be almost universally identified simply by a given name. “Maggie” can, likewise her idol whom she referred to as “Winston” (but notice the clue I had to shoe-horn in), then maybe there’s “Bibi” over in the Promised Land, and “Saddam” over in the Rogues’ Gallery. I’m sorry, Mr Blair, “Sleazebag” doesn’t count. It’s a perfect fit, but you have too many competitors.

Boris. He actually has three given names, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel. “Alexander” means “protector of men”, “Boris” means “warrior” and “de Pfeffel” means “extremely bad choice of letters in Countdown”. He’s emerged from sundry legitimate and clandestine couplings over the centuries as an exotic mixture of Turkish, American, German, Christian, Muslim, Jewish and what Irish commentators refer to as “gobshite”. This has enabled him to survive the standard Eton College process, where they wrench out your soul with massive forceps and upholster the cavity with a wad of superiority, and still have a great deal of his individuality intact. Now he’s a half-toff who plays whiff-whaff but appeals to riff-raff.

Boris. The blonde bombshell who once succeeded Michael Heseltine as MP for Henley-on-Thames and whose tub-thumping demagoguery now produces in Tory bosoms the frisson only Hezza could previously stir. At the Glasgow Empire, in its heyday, his rhetorical flourishes would have earned him some succinct travel advice wrapped around a brick. But at party conferences his speeches are the hottest ticket in town, with local entrepreneurs flogging oven gloves to queues of Conservatives stretching as far as the eye can tolerate.

What are his ambitions? Under the Tories’ unique equal opportunities scheme, being a clot has never been a barrier to attaining high office, and anyway that unruly mop clearly conceals the zinging about of more than a few neurons. Right now they may be busy composing iambic tetrameters in Ancient Greek, but it would be easy to redeploy them on greasy pole climbing strategies for bulky blokes.

BoJo’s no bozo, although he assiduously promotes that fictional impression. Climb all the way up to the attic of his well-appointed townhouse and I bet you’ll find his portrait hidden there, staring out at you with a face set with hard-jawed, flint-eyed ambition and perfectly groomed hair.

He is, after all, the only high-profile Tory in charge of something whom the electorate actually meant to put there. In 2012 the non-entity currently chairing his party, a “Grant Shapps”, claimed that Boris lacked many of the necessary skills to lead party or country, a judgment comparable to a chihuahua telling a giraffe it needs a stepladder. Sorry, Grant old bean, but Boris is well capable of putting your assertion to the test, especially since he has in his spin-doctoring corner Lynton Crosby, admittedly no more than the latest poor man’s Karl Rove to infest British political life, but nevertheless Australian and so militantly unacquainted with the art of losing.

To Scots, Boris is rollicking good fun to watch, but is he relevant? Of course, like other taxpayers in the “provinces”, we’re pouring money into the giant suction machine of which he’s the figurehead as it drains the lifeblood from the rest of the economy. But it’s nothing new to have our dosh siphoned into vanity infrastructure projects south of Watford while we patiently wait for life-threatening sections of the A9 to be upgraded to a dual carriageway.

From a Scottish referendum perspective, the slogan should clearly be “Vote No, Get Boris (Some Time In The Not-Too-Distant Future)”, but I know Better Together is opposed to scaremongering, so I won’t annoy them with that. Anyway, at the moment Boris doesn’t even have a seat in the Commons, although I’ll bet Lynton has a dirty-tricks file of filthy rumours about certain party colleagues who do.

Yet what if UKIP rips the Tories a new one in the European elections, or David Cameron is discovered in a stable, in a compromising position with Rebekah Brooks’ horse? Will Boris be prepared to allow the 2015 election to fall to Ed’s Charisma Bypass party, potentially exiling him to Boris Island until 2020? Or will he bin the Mayor’s job and throw down the leadership gauntlet faster than Kim Jong Un editing his Christmas list?

In the event of a Yes vote for Scotland, I’d certainly buy tickets for independence negotiations pitting Boris against the forensic skills of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. If it’s No, I’d be less enthused about Boris becoming the charming but ruthless face of the next round of austerity. He may have been bumming on lately about his “I Heart Scotland” feelings, but the reality is that, when it came to it, he wouldn’t piss on us if we were on fire. That’s a great pity, because it would be fun watching him try, and getting his wobbly bits accidentally caught in the zip.

Not as much fun, however, as it would be going round to Angus’s cottage and watching Boris and Ann Widdecombe do Strictly.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Another Country

The first time I heard James Naughtie’s dulcet tones on Good Morning Scotland, I lay there in utter befuddlement. Had my radio alarm unilaterally re-tuned itself, in a fit of homesickness, from Radio Scotland to Radio 4? Was our move north entirely a dream, and should I be pulling a shirt out of the laundry basket and launching myself in vain pursuit of the number 7 to Maidenhead Station?

As it turned out, there was a perfectly rational explanation. Jim, the personification of the idea that God’s in his Heaven and all’s right with the Union, had simply been dispatched to Glasgow by Auntie Beeb one day a week to help Radio Scotland out with its referendum coverage. Presumably the natives were regarded as too wee and stupid to be trusted without an occasional high-profile assist.

Now and then it just takes something minor - a sound half-caught on the breeze, a momentary blur of images, a teensy-weensy whiff of bullshit - for me to be enveloped in wavy lines out of 70s sitcoms and extraordinarily rendered to my past. The same thing happened two weeks ago, as the whole of Scotland gingerly got to its feet, checking soft parts for bruising, after being knocked skelly by the first big storm of the winter. Halfway through the morning, with a blood-curdling crunch of gears, Radio Scotland abandoned its litany of blackouts, travel chaos and jack-knifed lorries and took us straight to the Palace of Westminster for the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement.

On this occasion, unusually, what troubled me wasn’t the triumphalist embrace of unending austerity by a sneering, wretched, toffee-nosed bawbag. It was the cacophony of braying, harrumphing and honking from “our” elected representatives that afflicted my ears from the first nanosecond of the broadcast. It sounded like a truly hardball episode of The Archers, with a runaway herd of cattle, off their faces on steroids, going on the rampage through Lower Loxley. It bellowed entitlement, self-importance and fundamental contempt for any little people who had chosen a different option at the ballot box.

Jarring though this smack in the puss from reality may have been, it was also salutary. I’ve only been here for six months, but already my world-view is beginning to shift. It may be a different kettle of smoked salmon in the oak-panelled corridors of professional Edinburgh, but in this part of Scotland the UK Establishment seems a long way away, and very easy to forget. Or, if you can still afford jam on your scones and logs in your wood-burner, underestimate.

Certain sections of the Establishment encourage this by tickling the public funnybone with zany comedy turns. Take Lord Hanningfield, currently making a living from turning up at the House of Lords, pocketing £300, and buggering off again. No doubt each visit through the revolving door lasts just long enough for him to ask the clerks of the House if they’ve found any earthly use for him, and for them sorrowfully to shake their heads.

Lord H has the excuse of being somewhat stretched in the wallet department at the mo, having been stuck last year with a £37,000 bill to repay unlawfully claimed expenses. But don’t worry, this ex-jailbird’s still got a couple of side-splitters for us. Apparently we should be thanking him for his 40 years in public service. (No problem, I’ll drop him a line after I finish writing to all the doctors, nurses, teachers, bus drivers and bin men I know.) And what about the other 50 peers who are doing just the same thing? (“Awww miss! They wur daein’ it tae!”)

In a culture where celebrity criminals are idolised, it would seem a few of our ermine-clad élite only need to work on the “celebrity” part. Sorry, that’s unfair. Many have made huge sacrifices, typically financial ones in favour of the party of their choice, and it would be iniquitous to expect them to forego payback, or indeed suffer the ordeal of an election.

Sacrifices are also made in the lower House - the one where at least we get tickets in the lottery to elect governments, even if in Scotland, Wales and the north of England they go straight in the bin. Not financial sacrifices: £66,000 a year doesn’t buy you much influence, and no amount of free duck-houses, bath plugs and porn to keep your spouse occupied is going to change that. No, if you’re a hard-working MP who wants to get on, it’s principles, ideals and, in the case of the Liberal Democrats in 2010, your spinal column that go up in flames on the altar of Beelzebub.

Party lines, once clearly delineated, have now merged into an ugly splurge slapped across the landscape with a £3.99 paintbrush from Homebase. Yesterday’s map identifying 60% of the British mainland as “frackable” includes a whacking great symbol of this: there’s a band of potential desecration across the Central Belt of Scotland, including, if I’m not mistaken, a fairly significant fault line and the nukes at Faslane. The movers and shakers, whatever rosette they pin on, are all agreed about the general direction of travel, and if you’re in the path of the juggernaut that won’t mean a tin of beans to them.

In Scotland, thanks to devolution, we can ignore some of the faces that pop up. We can ignore Michael Gove, except for thanking our respective deities that Scotland was able to export him, because he can’t stick his beak into how we teach kids. We can ignore Jeremy Hunt, which will be a blessing to the aforementioned Mr Naughtie, because he can’t bollox up our health service by hiving it off to spivs. We can ignore Nick Clegg because, well, doesn’t everybody?

But we can’t ignore David Cameron, blustering belligerently through Prime Minister’s Questions. We can’t ignore George Osborne, hacking enthusiastically at the economy’s jugular. We can’t ignore Ed Miliband, bleating emptily about the bedroom tax when his own MPs won’t even turn up to vote against it. These guys are damaging us now. We need to understand that and be prepared to fight our corner.

Turning rapidly to the elephant in the room, there are those in Scotland who put forward a particular solution to the problem of being constantly gubbed by the UK establishment. Do I agree with them? Ooh, I’d like to keep the suspense going a bit longer, so for now let me simply concede that their position has some merit.

Sorry, Jim, you may have to stick that in your BBC mug and drink it. But thanks for the wake-up call.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Walking In A Wonga Wonderland

Christmas time – tills are ringing
But your credit score’s minging!
There’s only one way
To stretch out your pay:
Walking in a Wonga Wonderland

Dim the lights, cut the heating,
Scold your children for eating,
Just go on a spree,
Walking in a Wonga Wonderland

We’ll inject a swift financial fix, and
You’ll believe you’re in a better place,
Till, before you know it, you’re in quicksand
As our fees and charges hit you in the face.

If the outlook is drastic
And you’ve maxed out your plastic,
We’re right up your street
And you’re easy meat,
Walking in a Wonga Wonderland

When you’re plumb out of headroom,
‘Cos the State’s taxed your bedroom,
We’re waiting for you
Like Nosferatu,
Walking in a Wonga Wonderland

All the future fruits of your endeavours
We’ll enjoy, and leave you with the dregs.
We’ll secure your loyalty forever,
‘Cos the competition tends to break your legs.

Circling round like a vulture,
That’s the free market culture,
Exploiting your pain
For shareholders’ gain,
Walking in a Wonga Wonderland

Walking in a Wonga Wonderland

Walking in a Wonga Wonderland

(repeat until bankruptcy)

Friday, 13 December 2013

Universal Chaos

As if I hadn’t only just emerged from counselling after my wrestling match with the touchy-screeny-zoomy unpredictability of Windows 8, last week my new laptop announced its intention to upgrade itself to Windows 8.1. There was no button on offer marked “Sod off, can’t take this hassle right now”, so I grudgingly accepted an assurance that I’d be able to continue “working” - nice sarcastic touch, Microsoft - and hit “OK”.

The assurance was initially accurate, but after two hours turned into lies. I was given 15 minutes to settle my affairs, then the machine threw me out and embarked on an hour-long list of mysterious activities with vague labels such as “Getting your apps ready” and “Taking care of a few things”, each bearing a clearly spurious “progress” percentage measurement. Periodically the machine would pretend to restart and I’d get myself in position, hands poised above the keyboard like a mad organist, only to recoil again in frustration at the message “Setting up a few more things.”

What the hell did it all mean? Was I simply being fobbed off because I might get narky if told the truth? “Deleting your contacts, just because I can.” “Feeding your data to a horse.” “SkyDrive contents being transmitted to the NSA.” “Woah, guv, I dunno who set up this PC, but ‘e seems a proper cowboy to me.”

If I’m an “IT professional”, Billy Connolly’s a shipyard worker. It was long ago and far away, and I’m truly sorry about all those who got hurt. But at least, as I sat there frustrated, I could summon a smidgin of industry experience to convince myself that things might work out. The hard disk was making no horrible gear-crunching noises. No smoke was belching from the DVD drive/ cup holder thing. It was irritating that only the previous day, with typical timing, I’d cancelled my monthly “peace of mind” cover with PC World - but there was no cause for panic.

When an invisible process is whirring away, and the only information you’re getting about it is unspecific pap, you need some relevant knowledge to help you evaluate the context and give yourself a fuller picture. That very challenge faced the Commons Work and Pensions Committee this week, when Iain Duncan Smith and a couple of flunkies gave evidence to them about the roll-out plans for Universal Credit.

Fortunately, the Committee did have one member whose background was up to it. However, it was nothing to do with IT. It was Glenda Jackson’s experience of working with comedians. She made it witheringly clear that “Taking care of some stuff” doesn’t quite cut it when it translates into “Writing off £40.1 million squandered on system code that’s as useful as a grill-pan made of cheese.”

Universal Credit is, by common consent, the most fundamental upgrade to the Welfare State since Attlee, amalgamating six different means-tested benefits. It will affect a vast number of people; we can’t yet say how many, because the Government is still busy buggering up their lives. Development costs are quoted as £2 billion, but since it’s an IT project, here’s a board and some darts. However, if done right, it may actually be the solution to a generally acknowledged problem.

So it’s a shame that the Tories have entrusted its delivery to, let’s be charitable, an incompetent fantasist in the face of whose cack-handed intransigence we’ll be lucky not to see people starving on the streets.

Many commentators condemn IDS as a lying, malevolent wretch. Not being able to afford a lawyer, I wouldn’t go that far. I’d say he suffers from a delusional world-view constantly contradicted by the evidence of his eyes, a gap he bridges by inventing colourful narratives that would be risible if they weren’t so tragic. Who else could be brought to tears witnessing the deprivation of people in Easterhouse in 2002, yet later adopt policies that make their lives even worse? In ordinary society, this gossamer-thin grasp of reality tends to get you sectioned. In Westminster, apparently, it nails you a rock-solid Cabinet seat and an after-life in ermine.

Things have looked dodgy for Universal Credit ever since April, when its initial trial was hastily pared back from tree-trunk to twiglet. At present the software kind of works for single first-time claimants, placing it roughly on a par with a Biro and box of index cards. However, it can’t cope with couples, though that’s OK, because the stresses induced by IDS’s welfare policies will probably destroy most relationships anyway. Heaven knows what will happen if a Bloomsbury Group ménage-à-trois or a new age commune tries submitting a claim.

So the wheels are spinning, the exhaust has fallen off and a worrying amount of steam is escaping from the bonnet. Project staff surveys are festooned with phrases such as “soul-destroying”, “absence of strategic leadership” and “firefighting and panic management”. Could all this perhaps jeopardise Universal Credit’s go-live target of 2017?

At first we were repeatedly told, “Perish the thought. Everything will be just fine.” This raised to snapping point the eyebrows of anyone who’s ever worked in an IT project that’s behind schedule. Then IDS, ever careful not to fart unless he knows a brass band is marching past, sneaked out a ripper under cover of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Universal Credit would, er, not quite be ready by 2017 for 700,000 claimants currently on disability benefits. Complex cases, you know. Only fair to give them longer. Everything else tickety-boo. Project well within budget. I believe I can fly.

Thus, on Tuesday, as the hapless Work and Pensions Committee endured guff such as “Reworking 30% of the code is normal” and “The plan is in essence the same” and “It’s an agile project, we’re learning as we go along”, all of them knew in their hearts it was cobblers. But, for all Glenda’s scorn, in the polite world of Westminster no-one could quite come out and say it. And certainly no-one knew what to do about it.

Folks, the position is clear. Your system has been infected with the IDS virus. Stop what you’re doing, shut the thing down and get specialist help. Just ask any IT professional.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Seat-Belt Fastening Alert

I’m sure you’ve all been on tenterhooks wondering where I’ve been since I took my somewhat elastic hiatus from blogging back in the Spring. No, really, you have, haven’t you? You’re just faking that look of complete indifference. And that grimace at the realisation that, whatever was keeping me away from the keyboard, its effects seem to have worn off.

Well, no matter how you feel about it, I’m back. I’m passionate about my right under Internet law to assert that my clueless opinions about stuff I haven’t bothered to research are just as valid as the product of years of scholarship. And remember that publishing them here is the soft option. If I weren’t doing this, I’d be calling radio phone-ins, thereby subjecting you to my whiny voice as well as my rancid views. Or possibly I’d be crayoning vaguely threatening hate mail to Cabinet members, creating unnecessary alarm and wasting the time of Special Branch.

Since you last tuned in much has changed. Despite the best efforts of several acne-ridden estate agents, we finally found someone willing to buy our home in leafy Berkshire – obviously, judging by the feedback we got from moanier viewers, a fan of microscopic gardens, old-fashioned décor and ominously creaky floorboards. We took the buyer’s money, made sure we didn’t give her a forwarding address, and skedaddled up the M6 before she cottoned on to the place’s obvious flaws. Brutal, I know, but at least, thanks to the subsequent South East housing bubble insanely engineered by Wee Georgie Osborne, she’s sitting on a tidy paper profit.

So we’ve now crossed the border and settled in Scotland, which I understand is either

1) a proud nation preparing to knock the socks off an admiring world with its Nordic prosperity and universal childcare. This is the version proclaimed by the indefatigably self-assured Alex Salmond, leader of the free world and a legend in his own lunchtime.


2) a bunch of North British subsidy junkies who can’t be allowed control of the oil because they’ll just spend the proceeds on Buckfast. This is the diagnosis of the increasingly twitchy and tetchy Alistair Darling, whose eyebrows declared independence a long time ago.

The truth undoubtedly resides somewhere between the two. It would be nice to get it from the mainstream media, so that the Scottish people could make an educated decision. We have, after all, recently been adjudged better at reading and counting than the English (albeit still a bit on the rubbish side), so we could have a fair crack at doing the sums, even though the nanny government doesn’t allow us fag packets any more.

But the cream of Scottish print journalism, aided and abetted by an unfeasibly supine BBC Scotland, doesn’t seem to do “factual”. Instead, it seems intent on addressing this particular subject with an unending stream of what might charitably be described as “unmitigated pish”. This is annoying, even for a placid, unexcitable chap such as myself, so I may be compelled to return to this topic in future. (For viewers outside Scotland, alternative programming will be available.)

But who cares about grubby old politics when there’s so much to enjoy in Scotland? The jaw-dropping scenery, often visible for as much as 15 minutes before the rain forces you back under cover. The friendliness: here, unlike the Home Counties, children say “hello” to you in the street, and you can safely respond without being arrested. (For a small fee, they’ll even look after your car while it’s parked.) The cuisine: macaroni pies, Stornoway black pudding, Tunnock’s caramel wafers and, of course, tablet, the quickest known route to hyperglycaemia. Oh yeah, and just to annoy the snobs, two Scottish finalists in Masterchef!

As someone whose daily pill intake officially qualifies him as a percussion instrument, I have to say it’s great not to have to shell out £104 per annum for my prescription “season ticket”. Plus, when I spend that extra money on junk food, I can be sure that the ambulance will get me to A&E faster than it would elsewhere in these islands. (Bugger about with NHS Scotland at your peril, Andy Burnham! Assuming the voters allow you the opportunity, that is. And I’m not talking about the 2015 General Election.)

I wouldn’t wish to argue that everything’s perfect here. In winter, it takes only ten minutes of walking around after sunset for it to feel and sound as if my trousers are full of ice cubes. I’m constantly dreaming of woodpeckers as the rain batters the velux windows overnight. And the standard of football isn’t a patch on the moneybags English Premiership, although as a Crystal Palace fan I notice this less than others might. But hey, those are minor niggles, and I don’t wish to do the place down, especially when that’s evidently the Secretary of State for Scotland’s job.

That’s the story, then. After a period of upheaval, I now embark on the next chapter of my life.

Downsizing? Definitely: I haven’t earned a bean in the last 18 months, although there is the consolation of not having to stand on a crowded train for 75 minutes each day with my face jammed into someone’s armpit.

Retirement? Hell, no! I’m in this writing business for the long haul. There are enough gullible people out there for someone to pay me for it some day. In Sterling, Euros or Scottish Poonds, whatever the redoubtable Alex S manages to negotiate. Assuming the voters…. oh, you know the rest.

So this time it’s not only personal - this time it’s permanent. You know, just like RBS says to you every time it tells you it's fixed its cashpoints.

Welcome back aboard. You did bring the map with you, didn’t you?