Wednesday, 29 January 2014

UKIP If You Want To

As Walter Mitty characters go, no-one lives the dream quite like Nigel Farage. 

His party has never won a Westminster parliamentary seat and he’s personally never polled higher than third place, yet he’s goaded squeaky-bum Tories into UKIP tribute band mode, cranking up the xenophobia.  On TV, his atrocious grasp of detail allows even Andrew Neil to use him as a chew toy, but it’s still news editors, not comedy producers, who have him on speed-dial.  When barracked by an irascible Edinburgh mob, he’s able to summon his uncanny powers of pub detection to escape them, and the polis even give him a taxi ride home.  Burping contentedly, no doubt, at his charmed life.

Still, when a jammy fourth place in the Cowdenbeath by-election is comfortably the high point of the party’s week, it’s time to wonder whether the Farage carriage is reverting to a pumpkin.  UKIP’s lately been encountering increasingly stormy weather, which is what happens when you disobey God by being a bunch of hateful bigots.

Hang on, fair-minded readers will protest, surely there’s more to UKIP than simply yelling about the EU, foreigners and whatever sub-section of the population has disgusted them this week?  Sorry, folks, we’ve just discovered there isn’t.  It turns out Nigel can’t remember a word of what was in their 2010 manifesto, although he does recall it was written by an “idiot”. But that’s OK, because he’s completely disowned it anyway.  (Bet Nick Clegg wishes he’d thought of that one.)

Amnesia is an essential defence mechanism for Nigel.  How else could he witness his colleagues’ constant horrendous gaffes without waking up in a cold sweat to find he’s eaten half his pillow?  But, even if he’s truly blanked out the manifesto’s contents, it’s a teensy bit weird that he managed to put his name to its foreword without spotting at the time that the whole document was drivel.  Surely he’d have noticed little clues here and there, such as the cover being decorated with glitter and a picture of a pony, or the N and S of “MANIFESTO” being written the wrong way round.

Could it be that Nigel – and, mind, I’m not implying this was after a few pints - just scribbled down whatever popped into his head for the foreword, without actually reading the manifesto?    It’s a daring time-saving strategy, to be sure, but it does lead to dodgy results.  Can you imagine if it were standard practice?  “Jeffrey Archer’s elaborate word-pictures sparkle with literary virtuosity.”  “Oedipus Rex:  the perfect Mother’s Day gift.”  “The New Testament is packed with handy tips on carpentry and wine-making.”

Nigel may not have known what was in the 2010 manifesto, but he certainly knew where to find it, since no sooner had he confessed his ignorance than it was deleted from the UKIP web site.  That’s a shame, for it contained some charming ideas, such as painting trains in jolly colours.  Wouldn’t that be a huge tonic for jaded commuters?  Who’d give a monkey’s about overcrowding, tardiness or outrageous fares if the front carriage were done up to look like Thomas the Tank Engine?  Let’s stick to primary colours, though.  Once you begin mixing shades, you never know what sort of beastliness will follow.

The 2015 UKIP manifesto isn’t yet written, folks, so it’s up for grabs.  There’s a lifetime subscription to the Daily Mail to be won.  Stop barking at the moon, put on your tinfoil hat, dig out a felt pen and stick your suggestions on a postcard!  (Please keep polysyllables to a minimum. Use nuance only when making snarky comments about homosexuals. Entries postmarked “Bongo Bongo Land” will be disqualified.)

There’s still time for UKIP to get their ideas sorted out.  They don’t need coherent policies for the coming Euro elections, since all UKIP MEPs ever do is pick up their humungous expenses and hurl abuse at Herman van Rompuy.  Most MEPs manage only the first part, so that’s pretty impressive productivity.  Sadly, however, the plooks erupting on UKIP’s puss go beyond lack of policies.

The party’s Scottish branch, which once startled everyone merely by existing, is now providing a rollicking adjunct to the pantomime season by hilariously falling apart.  One senior figure’s been sacked by e-mail, another’s flounced off in sympathy and a third is currently dynamiting himself through Twitter misbehaviour.  Six Euro election candidates have already jumped ship, and it’s rumoured that the other three are waving at passing UFOs to see if they can hitch a lift with the aliens.

Of course, Scotland is expendable for Nigel, since UKIP is about as popular here as anthrax, and its name may well make no sense after 18 September.  But there’s also plenty to fret about in England, where Godfrey Bloom’s potty mouth eternally lurks, and you have to keep watch for councillors talking to the hatstand, thinking it’s God.  Of professionalism and “good, solid people” there is not a sign.  Is UKIP attracting the wrong sort of candidate, wonders Nigel?  

No, Nigel, it isn’t.  It’s attracting exactly the right sort of candidate.  If we’re going to have deranged numpties entering politics, it’s far better for them to join an unelectable shower of half-wits than winkle their way into one of the mainstream parties and accidentally get near the levers of power.  Our existing political classes give us enough bother as it is without an extra layer of homophobia, bigotry and racism shovelled on top.  I could go into more detail, but you’d probably forget it, so I’ll keep it broad-brush.

Sorry if that seems a bit harsh.  As an olive branch, remember you’re always welcome to make your home in the new flourishing Scotland once you’re a busted flush in politics.  We’d need to avoid disturbances on the streets, obviously, but we have plenty of uninhabited islands where we’d be quite happy for you to be king. 

In your Walter Mitty dreams, anyway.   

Saturday, 25 January 2014

To A Grouse (Epistle to Alistair Darling)

Happy birthday, Robert Burns, 255 years young!

(On Him Turning Up In Newspapers Everywhere, Whining)

Wee, sleekit, glowerin’, troublous Darling,
O what a panic’s set thee snarling!
Thy bare-faced claims we can’t use sterling
Dinna convince.
The imprecations thou keep’st hurling
Are full o’ mince.

I ken wherefore thou art sae crabbit,
Thy fizzog like a startled rabbit,
Thy point of view sae parched and scabbit,
Thine aspect grim.
Faith! Thou maun earn a handsome habit
Wi’ ermine trim.

I doubt na but thy denigration
O’ Scotia’s self-determination
Is based on wild imagination,
Or pauchlin’ lies!
Such mischief bears its indication
In blinkin’ eyes.

Thy Project Fear has fallen tae ruin!
The Cybernats gave it a doin’,
Noo all deride its idle spewin’
O’ stories strange,
And bold September’s wind’s ensuin’:
The wind o’ change!

Thou saw Carmichael, bare and wast,
And moothy Sarwar, speakin’ fast,
And Michael Moore, in ancient past,
For mercy plead,
By Nicola’s scything wit outclassed
And left for deid.

O Grand Panjandrum o’ Finance,
Wha reads White Papers at a glance,
Whose style o’ banking governance
Was fair found wantin’,
It’s nae surprise we look askance
At a’ thy rantin’!

Gowk, thou maun learn the lesson plain:
Thy negativity is vain,
Awa’ back hame and think again,
Thy scheme’s agley.
An’ nought remains but grief and pain
On voting day!

How drab thy lot, compared wi’ me!
Westminster only toucheth thee,
And, as I backward cast my e’e,
It turns tae dust,
While forward, though I canna see,
I hope and trust!


Author's Note:  

In the spirit of "I am Spartacus", I hereby embrace the term "Cybernat" in the neutral sense of "supporter of Independence who comments and debates online". 

Recent use of it by politicians and the Daily Mail to tar ordinary Independence supporters with the same brush as online abusers and bullies is outrageous, and can't be allowed to stand unchallenged. Online abuse and bullying is to be unreservedly condemned and must be stamped out - but it exists on both sides of this debate and, alas, many others.  

If you're abused, that's dreadful, but there are laws to protect you and you should report it to the police. Don't attempt to hijack the moral high ground;  it's not clever, it's not pretty and it's very, very tedious.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

So the door of the windowless room is firmly locked from the outside, the water level is inexorably rising and a couple of sharks are circling ominously.  How will the Lib Dems get out of this one?  It’s a sad, sad situation, and it’s getting more and more absurd, but this time a Nick Clegg style charity single ain’t gonna cut it.  Especially when half of the potential performers are trying to throttle the other half in an argument over who should be saying “Sorry”.

With just one MP sent to jail and one sex scandal during this Parliament, you could say it’s been a tame few years for the Lib Dems.  But the absence of lurid headlines isn’t much consolation when your collective soul’s gone AWOL.  It speaks volumes that what’s sparking fireworks amongst Lib Dems isn’t their gutless complicity in a merciless onslaught on the poor by a pitiless elite.  Nor is it the fact that the only way to make an honest document of their 2010 manifesto is by rewriting each sentence to mean its precise opposite.  No, they’re fine with all of that, but when it comes to arguing about what level of serial sexual harassment is appropriate for a party big-wig, they’re like ferrets in a sack.

The House of Lords doesn’t do High Noon, because these expenses-claim lunches won’t eat themselves.  So Monday’s showdown was scheduled for 2.30 pm.  That was when, to the background accompaniment of his charity single “The Oldest Swinger In Town”, the triumphantly returning Lord Rennard was due to be winched into his appointed bench, with half of his colleagues strewing rose petals underneath him while the other half sat with steam whistling out of their ears. 

Then, at 2.29 pm, pandemonium!  A press release, cobbled together by a Lib Dem committee none of us knew existed, came whizzing across cyberspace.  Lord Rennard’s party membership, it announced, had been suspended while he was investigated for not apologising for the wrongdoing their previous investigation hadn’t been able to prove.  They wanted his party badge back, but he could keep the coloured pencils and bumper stickers.  (This last concession was largely drowned out by lawyers across London popping champagne corks.)

Lord Rennard could still have come to the House if he’d wanted, although he might have had to bring his own folding chair if he intended to sit.  But there was a crowd of photographers at his door, all set to re-enact a chase sequence on the Benny Hill Show, which would raise the alarming prospect of becoming the first life peer to go viral on YouTube.  Anyway, he was indisposed, having barely the strength to compose a 2,256-word self-exculpatory press release of his own.  So we were denied our promised coup de théâtre, although, on the positive side, the bricks that would otherwise have been hurled through TV screens can now be used to build affordable housing.

Seriously, though, why can’t the Lib Dems just get a grip?  In the real world, disciplinary procedures don’t faff around with “beyond reasonable doubt”, or hastily-arranged investigations to buy time before the next embarrassment engulfs you.  

We don’t know exactly what this guy did, because the behaviour of which he’s accused happens in secret, rather than with a tannoy blaring “Uninvited frottage taking place in Room 94”.  And you do have to tread carefully just in case an accusation is malicious.  But when you’ve got several women independently affirming they don’t feel comfortable sharing a working space with him without having a can of Mace handy, it should be game over.  He doesn’t need sympathy for being misunderstood;  he needs a bin bag for his personal effects and a tersely-worded instruction to go and lurk at the Job Centre.

But he’s such a brilliant election strategist, bleat his apologists, launching into a note-perfect rendition of their charity single “Nothing Compares 2U”.  Look, chaps, I know you have village idiot competitions to enter, so I’ll keep this brief.  

Firstly, are you really saying that, therefore, his victims should just “take one for the team”?  Secondly, there are 2.39 million on the unemployment register, of whom I reckon quite a few could con votes out of a gullible electorate just as readily as Chrissy-boy, without fondling someone’s patella.  Thirdly, no election strategy on the planet is going  to save the Lib Dems in 2015, unless all 57 of their MPs are discovered trussed up in a warehouse in Newport Pagnell, and it turns out they were impersonated after the last election by malevolent shape-shifters.  The Lib Dems don’t need a strategist;  they need a taxidermist.

On that argument, maybe there’s no time like the present for the Lib Dems to destroy themselves in an eruption of mutual loathing.  It can’t make their next election result any worse, and perhaps, like a forest fire, it will clear space for fresh growth.  New thinkers, bright ideas, a gleaming vision about a middle way for society.  Those of us who used to consider them their second-favourite political party, because that was an important component of British life, like saving milk bottle tops for the Blue Peter appeal, might once again be able to smile.

And if they knock on the door asking us to vote for them?  No problem, we’ll just whistle a few bars of our new charity single: “Won’t Get Fooled Again”.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Curry At The Balti Shop

Trawling the depths of my back catalogue and coming up mostly with silt. This one comes with apologies to Oscar Hammerstein II, and amateur vocalists can belt it out in the shower to the tune of "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top" from "Oklahoma!"  OK?

When I take you out tonight with me
Swanky joints and greasy spoons let’s flee
No pub meals or lecherous Italian waiters
There’s just one hot spot I wanna see.

Your GP had best start to worry
When I take you out for a curry
When I take you out for a curry at the Balti shop.

Shovel in that Madras-style chicken
Hear them Geiger counters a-tickin’
Grab your throat and yell “What the dickens?”
As your eyes go pop.

The rice is yeller, the sauces are brown
The recipe book’s Bengali
Here’s a pint of lager to wash it all down
And make you tremendously jolly.

One last item each dish to embellish
Silver trays of luminous relish
Even though the taste may be hellish
You won’t want to stop
Damping down that little curry from the Balti shop.

Burger King’s relentless bonhomie
Masks ingredients you'd be shocked to see
Chinese food is sickly sweet and insubstantial
And the plum sauce makes me want to pee.

If you’re lookin’ weak-kneed and scrawny
Soupe du jour is Mulligatawny
Builds you up till you’re beefy and brawny
When you start to flop.

Pappadums piled up to the ceiling
Vindaloos discreetly congealing
Give your heart that warm kinda feeling
That it’s hard to top.

The waiter glides round as if on wheels
Indulging in question and answer
“Can I light your candle?” “Enjoying your meal?”
“Would you like some Peshwari Nan, sir?”

Sag Aloo gets caught interdental
Wield that toothpick – mind and be gentle
One more pleasure subcontinental
That you’d never swap
Is the stickiness of curry from the Balti shop.

We’ll eschew the haute cuisine of France
It pales into insignificance
This cuisine is haute enough to melt the icecaps
And to make a statue wanna dance.

Pubs all shut and in spill the drinkers
They are not the world’s greatest thinkers
But as multiple lager sinkers
They just cream the crop.

Three pints down and they’re raucously singing
Fights break out and samosas they’re flinging
Soon the polis the building are ringing
It’s a fair old cop.

Even now the delights are not complete
And the atmosphere still lingers
There’s a cup of coffee and a chocolate sweet
That melts all over your fingers.

When you’ve had that rich chicken korma
You’ll jig about like a circus performa
And tonight it’ll be nessun dorma
Though your eyelids drop
You’ll recall that little curry from the Balti shop.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

All Together Now

One of the striking things about the “Better Together” campaign whose positive message over the last few months has so galvanised the Scottish independence debate is how excitingly inclusive it is.  It doesn’t matter how ridiculous you are, how anti-democratic, how irrelevant to the debate or how tainted by past failure; you’re still welcome to point out to the Scottish people that we’re uniquely incapable of making our own decisions, and that if we try to do so the entire planet will be torn from its axis and hurled into the void.

Take the grey, cobwebbed figure in a deserted corner of the pavilion at Lord’s that startlingly came to life shortly before Christmas and revealed itself as Sir John Major.  Sir John’s affinity with Scotland is such that at the 1997 election he became the only Tory leader in history to preside over the complete obliteration of his party’s representation here.  But he did leave sterling out in the rain on Black Wednesday for speculators to rip apart, so currency is kind of his specialist subject.  As long as he keeps his clothes on, anyway.

It’s often hard to be sure of what Sir John is saying, because you’re so busy stabbing yourself with a pencil to stay awake.  But the gist of his remarks seemed to be that after voting Yes we could forget about negotiating a sterling currency union with the remainder of the UK.  Any of that malarkey and a gang of Phil Mitchell lookalikes would show us off the premises faster than we could say, “Mmm, aren't these knuckledusters delicious?”  Thereafter, we’d have to rely on bawbees, pibrochs or Irn Bru bottle tops until being grudgingly permitted to join the Euro in 2099, twenty years after Ruritania. 

We had little opportunity to consider what George Soros and his fellow vampires might think of a sterling zone shorn of oil revenues, for within seconds a weedy, knackered-sounding trumpet voluntary announced the arrival of the next uninvited guest.  Why, if it wasn’t Mariano Rajoy, Prime Minister of Spain!

When we’d last seen Mariano, he and David Cameron had been engaged in a red-faced, middle-aged shoving match at the head of a seven-mile traffic queue outside Gibraltar.  But with a tiny sprinkling of “Better Together” fairy dust, they were now best buddies, standing shoulder to shoulder against slippery secessionists.  It’s unclear whether they were in some sort of bromance-related clinch, or simply using each other as glove puppets. 

When Mariano said that a region splitting off from a larger country would “remain outside the EU”, it’s a pretty solid bet he was talking about Catalonia, Spain’s own little pocket of troublemakers.  Naturally, having the politician’s usual allergy to unambiguous statements, he didn’t come out with it explicitly, but merely left his words hanging there like a fart in a lift. 

Of course, he didn’t have a scooby what would actually happen, since the EU has no mechanism for chucking out entire populations for unacceptable voting choices, but who cares?  Better Together simply slapped clothes pegs on their noses and got their pet journalists to disgorge some tripe spinning his statement as a dire warning from the EU to Scotland.  One suspects that shortly Dave will issue a reciprocal weasel-worded threat, expertly timed to banjax Barcelona.

Since Scotland’s untimely removal from the EU would result in Spain’s fishermen being kicked out of Scottish waters and his paella having to be made from tofu, I rather think Mariano would be amongst the first to summon us back down from the naughty step.  But never mind, it’s great to see that ignorance and guardianship of a tottering economy mired in scandal aren’t barriers to inclusion in the grand Unionist charm offensive.

As 2014 has dawned it’s become apparent that Better Together have significantly ramped up their game.  Perhaps they’ve been spending the NoTunes vouchers they got for Christmas.  We’re promised that, just as soon as they can identify candidates with the right combination of shamelessness, cashflow problems and fake sincerity, “English celebrities” will be all over the airwaves, telling us how much they adore us and can’t live without us.  

What toe-curling telly might we expect?  Luvvies in “I Heart Scotland” T-shirts getting the words to Auld Lang Syne wrong?  Jeremy Paxman introducing Newsnight wearing a Jimmy wig?  The cast of Strictly doing a White Heather Club tribute?  OR MAYBE THE BBC COULD JUST PRODUCE A WEATHER MAP WITH SCOTLAND THE CORRECT FLAMING SIZE?

This technique is known as “love bombing”, a vaguely pornographic-sounding term often associated with religious brainwashing cults.  It worked a treat with the Quebec independence referendum in 1995, something Better Together think we’re too stupid to have noticed.  The current retread will also feature “ordinary folk” cold-calling Scottish voters in an initiative called “Blether Together”.  (That isn’t satire, folks.)  If I were a candid friend, I’d advise against recruiting too many callers from the North of England, in case discussions take an unexpected turn and we end up with the border at Sheffield.

However, the “marquee signing” of the whole BT campaign is surely the one just announced… oh, all right then, denied by official sources, so obviously true.  Step forward Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, President of Russia, tough-talking tiger-tranquillising macho man, the world’s first authentic super-hero!   Yes, he’s a repressive, homophobic thug steeped in the ways of the KGB who doesn’t give a monkey’s about democracy, but protocol demands that we listen politely to him this year, because Russia has the presidency of the G8.  What better time to call upon him to stem the shock waves of self-determination currently buggering up the world for bankers and oligarchs?

It’s easy to imagine Putin striding topless through the heather, the midges bouncing off his leathery skin as he pauses occasionally to wrestle a lion rampant into submission.  With him around there’d be no more dissent from musicians:  Eddi Reader’s behaviour on Question Time would have to be peh-eh-eh-eh-eh-erfect and the Proclaimers’ proclamations would be limited to weather forecasts for Leith.  He’d win appeal, too, as the sort of guy with whom you’d happily share a pint.  I mean a single pint;  damned if I'd drink anything he offered unless he were drinking it too.

Still, this could all rebound on Better Together if Putin were to stumble across the nuclear base at Faslane and realise that independence will stop the warheads pointing at Moscow.  Of course, the missiles are useless and Putin could personally punch each one out of the sky as they fell, but it’s the principle of the thing.  And Putin’s probably drunk more toasts to St Andrew and Robert Burns than the whole UK Cabinet put together, so who can be sure he doesn’t harbour a soft spot for Scotland under that adamantine exterior?

But that’s Better Together for you:  devil-may-care risk-takers in their anxiety to ensure everyone gets a proper chance to rubbish independence from their all-encompassing tent.  It’s a pity they can’t attract the one figure whom voters are actually clamouring to see directly involved in the cut-and-thrust.  But Mr Cameron remains forever in the background, steadfastly maintaining his unimpeachable neutrality.  On what grounds?  Why, that the independence debate is just “for Scots”.

Aye, right.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Benefits Street

On Benefits Street it’s freak show time,
Observe and salivate
As indolence, drugs and petty crime
Besmirch the Welfare State!

We don’t cover those who scrimp and save
And play it by the rules;
It’s glittering BAFTAs that we crave,
D’you think we’re bloody fools?

No mention for working poor who earn
A pittance answering phones;
You only make headlines if you learn
To piss off Owen Jones.

Our cameras shun disabled folk
Beneath the ATOS heel;
We’d rather see Twitter up in smoke,
And hear the lynch mobs squeal.

So caricatures we’ve put on screen,
Condemned by their own lips
As feckless, corrupt, weak-willed, unclean,
With great shoplifting tips.

“Community spirit” we profess
As central to our tale;
Our cast even boasts a shared address
When they’re hauled off to jail.

Though poverty comes in many forms,
It’s sexier on TV
To indicate that the welfare norm’s

When residents whine to Channel Four,
Our answer’s short and sweet:
Collateral damage we abhor,
But our CVs look neat!

On Benefits Street they’re well pissed off,
But we’re cool with the flak,
Protected by rules that let you scoff
At those who can’t hit back.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

All Quiet On The Westminster Front

As the members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery sat sharpening their stilettoes yesterday for the first Prime Minister’s Questions of 2014, they must have been acutely aware of the end of an era.  Simon Hoggart, prince of Parliamentary sketch writers, passed away last Sunday at the ridiculously young age of 67.

I’m a huge admirer of Hoggart’s style.  I’ve frequently attempted to ape it, typically in my dreams, but even my very best shots have all the flavour of a thrice-used tea-bag.  These days, with access to live pictures, news blogs and the Twittersphere, we’ve no excuse for missing a syllable of any debate, but we’ll never appreciate its underlying truths as we did when laughing out loud at his witty, expertly-crafted vignettes.

Hoggart’s House of Commons was stuffed with fascinating characters who lodged themselves in your memory like Tenniel’s Alice In Wonderland illustrations.  There was the grandiloquent Sir Peter Tapsell, Father of the House, whose every utterance was handed down amidst awed silence;  Michael Fabricant, whose hair defied all attempts to take it seriously;  Nicholas Soames, lampooned in a single paragraph as a bouncy castle and a barrage balloon;  and, of course, John Major, of whom Hoggart wrote that seeing him govern was “like watching Edward Scissorhands try to make balloon animals”.

His humour was rarely, if ever, vicious, probably the first test most of us wannabes fail.  Its targets were usually happy to be part of the joke, in the classic tradition of Morecambe and Wise’s Christmas victims.  Not always, though:  John Prescott, never with a chip on his shoulder when a plank is available, may have felt ill-equipped to respond to his verbal shafts, and irritated that their source was a bloke educated in his beloved Hull who’d gone over to the posh side. And there did seem to be lasting antipathy with Tony Benn, whom Hoggart appeared to regard as a national treasure, but of the sort best kept hidden.

So what would Hoggart have made of yesterday’s PMQs?  As a fantasy escapade it didn’t quite measure up to Alice In Wonderland.  Instead, it had all the rip-roaring excitement of Alice Goes To The Shops For Some Milk

Of course, no-one was expecting fisticuffs.  News had broken of the death of Paul Goggins, a colleague clearly highly regarded on all sides, and MPs’ genuine shock and sadness had put them on their best behaviour.  Even so, exchanges were remarkably civilised.  If this was the Punch and Judy Show, it was an ‘elf-n-safety approved version played out by sedated nuns, featuring feather dusters for weapons, vegetarian sausages and a crocodile who’d forgotten to put in his false teeth.  Had the Speaker gone into the dressing room beforehand to lecture the team captains on playing nice for the cameras?

Ed Miliband’s opening question, on power distributors’ slow response to storm-related blackouts, certainly prompted high-fives from those of us who had “Lessons To Learn” on their “Cameron Buzz-Phrase Bingo” card.  But surely Ed would now fillet Dave by bringing up Environment Agency spending cuts?  On the Tory front bench, Owen Paterson nervously shuffled his Post-It notes.  But no!  Instead we got some old mince about asking DEFRA to report on future flood defence capability, which the PM effortlessly rendered harmless by declaring it a jolly good idea.

It took Diane Abbott, summoning her super-power of annoying the hell out of people, to inject some verve into proceedings. What, she enquired, about landlords evicting, or refusing as tenants, housing benefit claimants who were in work?  What did the Prime Minister have to say to these hard-working families?

“We’re cutting your taxes!” roared Dave triumphantly.  (Well, I’m sure extra disposable income is always welcome if you want to provide your own blankets at the night shelter.)  Then, suddenly, the spirit of the Daily Mail, which hovers eternally over the Tory benches, swooped down and took possession of him.  “Housing benefit bill far too high!  Payments of sixty thousand!  Seventy thousand! Housing benefit used to buy yachts!  Alabaster bathroom furnishings!”  Concerned colleagues dabbed at the corners of his mouth with a Wet Wipe.

But, just as quickly as it had arisen, the passion subsided.  Ed returned to his feet and with a confident flourish tore off his velvet glove, only to reveal a tissue-paper fist.  He brought up the spread of fixed-odds betting terminals, which Dave pointed out had begun when Labour relaxed gambling laws in 2001.  “Our reforms in 2005 limited them to four per betting shop,” bleated Ed, trying desperately to dig in his heels.  But he was too close to the edge.  “They didn’t go far enough…..”  Off he hurtled into the abyss.

The session continued to pootle along in predictable vein.  Each time a Labour MP complained about some dreadful state of affairs, the PM referred to his spreadsheet of “Crap that happened between 1997 and 2010”, and told us it was all Labour’s fault.  And each time a Tory MP mentioned a local business that hadn’t yet been driven to its knees, the PM endorsed this as evidence that the Government should stick to its plan of making everyone’s life miserable.

We did make some discoveries.  Despite spending cuts forcing the local police to use public transport, crime in Bassetlaw is down by 27%, presumably because the yobs can’t nick panda cars any more.  Dave seems to believe in climate change, possibly heralding a permanent drop in the temperature of his relationship with the Environment Secretary.  And it seems that Samantha Cameron’s late step-grandmother was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park. Wonder what she would have made of Dave’s current pet phrase “difficult decisions”?

As we checked our watches and looked around for the lady with the choc ices, Scottish Independence came trundling into view, with the SNP’s Angus Robertson inviting Dave to debate with Alex Salmond.  A simple “No” would have sufficed, but I’m sure we’re all grateful to Dave for advising us, “It’s all over, the Yes campaign is toast, how can you haggis-munching separatists even get up in the morning, looooo-zers.”  I suspect SamCam Gran and her Bletchley Park colleagues would have pretty rapidly decoded that. “I’m feart.”

And so Dave departed, his expensively coiffed hair barely ruffled.  We all know what happens to New Year resolutions, so no doubt next week the two party leaders will return to hitting each other with giant frying pans in a febrile atmosphere.  The non-combative approach certainly doesn’t work to Labour’s advantage, since it seems to involve Ed using up all his questions on topics such as flower-arranging, but still gives Dave free rein to lambast Labour for all the ills of the world.  It might be smart to stop scoring own-goals, too.

As for Simon Hoggart, even during yesterday’s phony war I’m sure he’d have identified several quirky moments to fashion into an entertaining narrative.  If you have imagination of that calibre, you can count on it when it matters.  Then he’d have padded off to a familiar restaurant for an agreeable lunch.  Not quite the same as me slouching off to the kitchen for a Cup-a-Soup and Heinz Ravioli on toast.  Still, it gives me something to aspire to, doesn’t it? 

Monday, 6 January 2014

Back To The Grind

Isn’t the end of the festive season dismal? 

“Wipe that smile off your face, sonny,” says the calendar, as you gloomily unhook the baubles, stuff the lights into their box in a hideous tangle and prepare for another joust with the loft ladder.  The logic of getting an artificial tree becomes unanswerable as your natural one, humiliatingly stripped and already anticipating the touch of the bad burny fire, reacts by chucking its needles all over your carpet and inviting your Hoover to have a go if it thinks it’s hard enough.

If you’ve had guests, the laundry basket is full to the brim with sheets and towels, and your smalls are having to slum it in a bin bag.  Cupboards and fridge, seemingly at random, contain none at all of some foods and massive quantities of others.  (In our case we have a tremendous surfeit of Weetabix, although if this filthy weather continues it may come in useful as an alternative to sandbags.)

You watch Sherlock, recalling its captivating brilliance on New Year’s Day, only to find that while sober you can’t understand what the hell is going on.  At Tesco, the “seasonal goods” shelves, lately so alluring, now stand idle pending the arrival of Cadbury’s Creme Eggs and World Cup 2014 merchandise.  Your true love stops sending you things, and even the five gold rings you liked so much turn out to have been bought at Poundland.

To add another spoonful of salt to your cuppa, it’s time to go back to work. And you’d better arrive at the station early, to grab a seat before they’re all taken by the 69 million extra Romanians and Bulgarians.  And watch out for passengers with brand new iPads who haven’t yet perfected simultaneously juggling them and a hot grande latte.  And stand close to a defibrillator when it dawns on you what the new fares are going to be.

Politicians also enjoy their holidays, although it’s invariably a shock to them to have to pay for their own meals for a few days.  But the siren call of duty, or trough, or mistress, affects them just as the threat of penury does normal people, so it’s back to the office for them too.  This is for the best.  A temporary sojourn in the real world is good for MPs, especially Lib Dems who will be searching for a job in 2015, but be honest:  wouldn’t you rather have them all in one place where you can keep an eye on them?

First to set the start-of-year agenda was David Cameron, with his appearance on Sunday’s Andrew Marr Show.  Marr’s questions were topical, in the sense that they were as challenging as the easy-to-hit rubbish the news had shown England’s bowlers serving up against Australia.  Dave protected his wicket with an assortment of platitudinous drivel, then thwacked the ball to the boundary with an outrageous bribe to pensioners.  He said nowt about what would happen to bus passes, or free TV licences, or the winter fuel allowance, or pensionable age, but hey, the Tories have never shafted people in the past, so why would they start now?

Dave made one other pledge amongst the general dross: not to debate with Alex Salmond about Scottish independence.  Well, Alex and Dave are hardly comparable as leaders, are they?  One of them gets things done via a clear working majority in his Parliament, and the other has to exploit the grotesque spinelessness of his coalition partners.  Anyway, Dave’s personal improvement plan for 2014 doesn’t involve having his arse handed to him, especially when there are so many Labour and Lib Dem politicians available to scapegoat if Scotland votes Yes.

It wasn’t long before George Osborne was also manifesting himself all over the place, like the remnants of a paper hanky in a dark wash.  Apparently Austerity is not only a consequence of “the mess Labour left” - although obviously it is, with knobs on - but it’s also a bloody good scam, and that’s the hard truth of it!   So, after George has cut some more tax for the rich, he’ll begin slashing away at the welfare budget. “George, would that be the welfare budget Dave is going to use for those increased pensions?” we might have asked, had George not been occupied showing off the la-la-can’t-hear-you ear muffs he'd got from Santa.

As we trudge back to our desks, we should remember those who have to work all the way through Christmas – this year, thanks to the weather, in unusually large numbers.  If the wind hadn’t already blown off my cap, I’d doff it to each and every one.  But it’s all very well giving people practical help.  What about bland assurances? 

Fortunately, our political elite were on top of that too, with Dave taking a photo-opportunity in the Kent village of Yalding during a flood and power outage, and being “ambushed” with complaints by a member of the public. “We must learn lessons”, he declared.  In this case, presumably, the lesson foremost in his mind was, “Sack the special adviser who allowed me to be cornered by that stroppy local.”

Other Cabinet members also deserve mention for providing Christmas cover.  Owen Paterson, for example, brilliantly timed his announcement of 1,550 redundancies at the Environment Agency to coincide with staff working tirelessly round the clock to deal with the various floods.  As if that weren’t enough, he followed up 24 hours later with a cunning plan to solve the housing crisis by bulldozing ancient woodland.  This latter gaffe had the Woodland Trust spitting rivets, or possibly splinters.  You can see how the badgers were able to outwit him. 

Meanwhile, Michael Gove, on his own initiative, single-handedly rewrote the history curriculum and the story of broadcasting in one go.  Now, we realise, the First World War was a fantastic idea, and we should definitely celebrate it with ubiquitous Union Jacks a month before Scotland votes in its referendum.  Oh, and Blackadder wasn’t a documentary, though the presence of Stephen Fry and Tony Robinson might have fooled you on that score.  A gold star and prefect’s badge to Michael!

It’s fine hearing about politicians getting back to the grindstone, but not so great to realise that we’re the ones receiving the grinding.  Still, if this thought adds to your post-Yuletide despondency, remember that things could be worse.  In fact, give it a couple of weeks and they will be.  Monday 20 January is officially “Blue Monday”, when, experts assure us, it will still be raining, the Christmas shopping credit card debts will fall due and the accumulated stresses of living cheek by jowl throughout the festive period will result in the break-up of your relationship.

You’ll probably be needing a treat at that time.  Maybe you could save some of your Christmas chocolate, so that you can scoff a chunk or two to boost your blood sugar.  Or perhaps I could interest you in a tasty, nutritious 96-pack of Weetabix?

Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Builders (A Cautionary Tale)

So what's your New Year resolution?  Maybe it's time you finally got round to building that extension you've been contemplating for years? If so, here's a word of warning you might want to read first.  If you're of musical bent, it can be sung to a rather well-known tune by the name of "Those Were the Days".

Once upon a time we had a kitchen,
Functional but cluttered to extremes,
So we planned a glorious extension
And wallowed in idealistic dreams.
We got the builders in,
Cement began to spin,
They turned the house a dirty shade of grey,
The garden’s full of skips,
We’re out of PG Tips,
And you should hear the music that they play.
We got the builders in,
That was our greatest sin,
For once they came, they never went away.

We retreated to an upstairs bedroom,
Hoping for some respite from it all,
Till with one blow from his mighty mallet
Pat demolished our supporting wall.
We got more builders in,
They all had double chins
And ample flesh on permanent display,
They caused a real to-do
By bricking up the loo,
Then burst a pipe and washed the cat away.
We got more builders in,
Our nerves are growing thin,
The population’s growing every day.

We got settled in a downstairs cupboard,
Hoovers and gas meters all around,
Then we got a visit from the council
Telling us they’d judged the place unsound.
We got contractors in
Our house to underpin
And weigh it down when it began to sway,
So back and forth they passed
Soon treading down the grass
And now we own a public right of way.
We’ve got contractors in,
So pour another gin
And please don’t ask us why we’ve come to stay.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

A New Scotland Is Born

As a special New Year treat, here’s an advance extract from my blog dated 1 January 2064!

(Yes, it’s quite a leap to suggest that in 50 years’ time I’ll still be gabbing on like this, or even that blogging and the Internet will exist in their current form.  But, hey, the Institute for Fiscal Studies can predict a black hole for Scotland’s finances 50 years hence without being universally derided as a bunch of scaremongering charlatans, so how’s about cutting me a bit of slack?)

As Scotland basks in the glow of last summer’s International Peace Summit in Glasgow, when the nations of the world agreed to lay down arms for ever and cement their friendship by going out to get pished together, our thoughts now turn to the independence 50th anniversary celebrations coming up in September.

Although I’m now just a brain kept artificially alive in a jar, I well remember the excitement and trepidation we all felt as the bells rang for New Year 2014.  Little did we suspect how momentous the events of that year would turn out to be!

The first unusual turn came during a Newsnight Scotland broadcast late in January.  Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael was sounding off about a General Medical Council prediction that, sadly, the population of an independent Scotland would fall victim to a plague of boils.  Suddenly, breaking off with an anguished cry of “God help me, I can’t go on spouting this guff a second longer!”, he ripped off his microphone, leapt to his feet, bounded over to the studio window and leapt out.  Fortunately, his fall was broken by a large pile of manure, which had just been delivered to the BBC to form the basis of the following day’s news bulletins.

Carmichael’s career might have ended there, except that no potential candidate to replace him could stand the prospect of being duffed up in a debate with Nicola Sturgeon.  So he was packed off to Harley Street for repairs.  Following his return, he was invariably flanked at public appearances by engineers carrying screwdrivers and WD40, and his voice took on a raspy tone best described as “Dalek”.  The Scottish press complimented him on his new robust approach, and declared his frequent outbursts of “Exterminate!” to be a neat sound-bite summing up the positive case for the Union.

It was at about this time that Alex Salmond discovered the cure for cancer.  This was a low point for the “Yes” campaign, as their opponents made hay with potential job losses in NHS oncology departments and the pensions black hole created by people living longer.  Anyway, scoffed the Scotsman, what use was a cancer cure when the real threat was obviously a plague of boils?

The 16 weeks leading up to the referendum constituted a formal campaign period, when the BBC was bound to observe strict impartiality.  As the subsequent public enquiry established, they did try ever so hard, but staff shortages over the summer holidays contributed to a number of regrettable errors.  These included the addition of a laughter track to “Yes” campaign broadcasts, a keynote speech by Nicola Sturgeon being interrupted by extended live coverage of Prince George’s first birthday party, and the broadcast of a previously unseen edition of Balamory, where the village bank is held up by a robber in a Salmond mask.

Four weeks before the vote, the “No” camp finally came up with its killer campaign document, fully setting out its position.  It was a tarpaulin draped over the Forth Rail Bridge, spray-painted with the words “WE CANNAE DAE IT”.  The Herald called it “a masterstroke” and the Telegraph described it as “a comprehensive rebuttal of Alex Salmond’s vanity project.”

One week before polling day came the campaign’s most sensational development.  Alistair Darling, who’d been going steadily downhill since the launch of the White Paper, when he’d blown a fuse by attempting to speed-read all 670 pages in 30 seconds before giving his reaction on TV, finally snapped.  When a punter at a public meeting asked him about the consequences of a “No” vote, the accumulated cognitive dissonance of several months spilled out of his head and randomly formed itself into an honest answer.  “The bagpipes, kilts and the Saltire will be banned and the Duke of Cumberland will be installed as viceroy of Scotland in perpetuity.”

The press blamed a “mole” amongst Darling’s special advisers for providing a fake briefing, but the game was up.  He was blackballed from gentleman’s clubs in London and Edinburgh, the House of Lords seat reserved for him was destroyed in a controlled explosion and he had to flee the country dressed in a burqa.  As we all know, he subsequently rebuilt his life and found fame in Hollywood, where his facial tics and paranoia were put to good use in Pink Panther remakes, as Clouseau’s tortured boss Inspector Dreyfus.

Apart from voters streaming in steadily,  referendum day itself was unexceptional until five minutes before polls closed, when a fleet of Royal Mail vans suddenly appeared, carrying half a million postal votes, all mysteriously postmarked “Brigadoon” and voting No.  All, it transpired, except for the very last, where the voter had unaccountably failed to tick the “No” box but had instead scrawled beside it, somewhat mechanically, the single word “Exterminate”.  The ballot paper was declared void and - yikes! - that made the referendum a dead heat.

The UK Establishment always knows the right thing to do at such times.  A civil servant produced some Tipp-Ex and drafted an amendment to the Edinburgh Agreement, stating that in the event of a draw Her Majesty the Queen would have the casting vote.  Immediately David Cameron, accompanied by as many lickspittles and poltroons as he could find, set off in a motorcade for Buckingham Palace.  “Cameron’s midnight dash to save civilisation,” cooed the Dundee Courier.

There followed the scene that appears in every child’s history book.  Cameron and his parcel of rogues strode into the Palace, gold-edged ballot parchment in hand, only to find Salmond and Sturgeon already there, sipping tea with Her Majesty.  It turned out that Nicola had cornered HMQ several weeks previously at one of her garden parties and swung her round to the idea of independence.  She’d even helped her choose how she’d like to appear on the new stamps.  Quite a charmer, that Nicola.  Cheeky wee besom, of course.

And so Scotland began to write its own history.  And, though we were still unaware of it, so much excitement was still to come. 

London declaring its own independence in 2017, commencing its journey to the military dictatorship we know today, ruled over by a dynasty of increasingly loopy Johnsons.

The smooth absorption of Britain’s entire land mass outside the M25 into Greater Scotland, and the establishment of the Scottish Pound as the world’s reserve currency following the collapse of sterling and the US Dollar. 

The discovery that a combination of midge bites, gale force winds and drizzle is the perfect tonic for the human immune system, leading to the Scottish tourism boom of the 2030s and the Ardnamurchan Lido becoming the world’s prime holiday destination.

Catalonia achieving its own independence in 2016 and its football team winning every World Cup since then.  Of course, to commemorate our respective independence struggles, they insist on playing Scotland in a friendly every year and handing out the most embarrassing gubbing.

What a future, eh, folks?  Of course, it’s only one of a number of alternative timelines, so the precise facts may diverge ever so slightly.  But if you hear that Carmichael is being lined up to talk a load of boils on Newsnight, it will be well worth watching.  However, if you can't watch it live, I’d set the video if I were you.  I doubt if the BBC will put it on iPlayer.