Monthly Archives: May 2005


Sketchley's in the Fulham Road cleaned this shirt for me in 1989
‘Storage’ is very ‘now’ isn’t it. Everybody seems to be storing something and it’s obviously a boom business. There are all sorts of reasons for storing stuff, I suppose: you married fashionably late and neither of you can bear to throw away your precious stuff. You divorced and now you have to accommodate the crap accumulated over decades as a couple. You move house all the time and with each move you shed another skin of pointless possessions. Those giant sheds at motorway junctions labelled ‘self storage’ are actually melancholy graveyards of memories, of stuff abandoned and forgotten (and, I fantasise, thrillingly packed with contraband, alien artefacts and sacks of used fivers).

Anyway, we just emptied our storage unit in lovely Watford. Quite an exercise. So now we’re busy trying to reabsorb the thousands of inconsequential items we seem to need so badly even though we were able to do without them for years. Here’s a good one: three horrible blue shirts, still in the dry cleaner’s bags they were put in in 1989

Now shut up…

Labour’s Regular (as opposed to XXL) majority is a good thing. Almost everyone agrees (except the Labour leadership and their whips, I suppose) that a Supersized majority of over 150 seats weakens Parliament and produces nasty democratic anomalies – bad laws like the hunting ban, control orders and ID cards, for instance.

Almost everyone also agrees that a third-term Blair operating within the limits set for him by a normal-sized majority and a badly dented political reputation will probably also be a good thing. He (and his team) will have to concentrate properly when drafting new legislation and work harder to convince his various constituencies of its usefulness. I’m looking forward to an interesting and bracing few years of revitalised and combative democracy.

What’s puzzling, though, is the generally bitter and twisted attitude of almost the whole political and media mainstream to the election’s outcome. Seriously, what were our alternatives? Try to be objective for a minute: would you – a person of good will, with an interest in the health and well-being of British democracy – have preferred the chaotic busted flush of the Conservatives or the half-baked political funhouse of the Liberals? Would you have preferred another Labour landslide? Or a hung Parliament?

Put your hand on your heart and tell me May 5th 2005 wasn’t as near to the ideal result as we could have hoped for. Democracy survived, showed its teeth in fact. The electorate, disengaged or otherwise, conspicuously failed to provide the prescribed ‘bloody nose’ for Tony Blair and British political life is healthier than it was a month ago. Now, for my sanity’s sake, can we stop whinging and get on with our lives?

A creature of the Beeb

You know those kids abandoned in the woods and brought up by wolves? Well, I was brought up by the BBC. By Radio 4, to be specific. I mean that about 75% of everything I know and believe was provided for me by an unbroken 8 or 10 hours-per-day Radio 4 habit. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. I think that a largish part of my generation got to be who they are courtesy of the amazing, precious and unusual breadth and intelligence of BBC Radio 4. It’s a liberal education in a little box (labelled ‘Sanyo’ or ‘Roberts’) and nowadays, of course, it’s a liberal education on the Internet (and on your Sky digibox).

Case in point. Last night on Radio 4: a sequence of three programmes – one after the other – so good and so varied as to take the breath away: First Cut, a lovely, illuminating documentary about the ‘cut men’, the magicians in the corner who magically heal boxers’ cuts and often keep them fighting when no one else could. Then, an utterly fascinating doc about animal sex selection. Did you know that, for every 100 human females, 105 males are born? Did you know that, in wartime, more human males than females are born? That birds and mammals produce more males in times of food scarcity, more females in times of plenty? After that, one of Charles Wheeler’s five moving programmes about the end of war, marking the 60th anniversary of VE Day. Essential listening.

Are the Tories history?

Max Hastings thinks so and, on the face of it, the skewed voting system makes a revival look almost impossible, even for a party in good health. For an ageing party in electoral disarray, about to embark on yet another messy leadership contest and without a coherent policy platform, a real Commons majority must look scarily out of reach.

Michael Heseltine, on Today, says The Tories have ‘a mountain to climb’, needing 140 seats to get back to power. It’s remarkable to think that, in four or five years time, after twelve years of Labour power, Gordon Brown will have to do much worse – and be even more unpopular – than Tony Blair this time round to give the Tories even a sniff of power. The New Labour dream of a permanent Tory eclipse looks like it might come true but the culprit won’t be New Labour’s epic reengineering of British politics but the slow and unarguable forces of demography and social change.

Howard’s miserable legacy

Michael Howard is a slick political vandal disguised as a toff. When the histories are written this campaign will be remembered for his cynical ‘mainstreaming’ of a particularly ugly xenophobia. For short-term political gain he ‘normalised’ the language of the casual racist. Terms like ‘swamped’, ‘over-run’ and ‘out of control’ are now quite acceptable even in otherwise respectable papers. The tone of the debate has been sharply degraded. Being an immigrant in the UK will now be measurably harder than it was before Howard stuck his elegant oar in. British politics will be better for his departure.

What I’m going to be doing this evening

My invitation to Mark Thompson's election night party, man!
Your activity for the afternoon: try to use this tiny picture of my invitation to tonight’s BBC election night party to create a duplicate good enough to get you into the party (of course, you’ll also need to copy the shiny bits on the other side too). If you get in, approach me and say: “you are Steve Bowbrick and I claim my five pounds”. If you give up and decide to stay at home, check out my flickr photostream after about 10.30 this evening for photos from my cameraphone (if I can be bothered).

Vote Labour, by the way…

An end to deference

Wars, just and unjust, are always, and by definition, the fault of some leader or other. National leaders enter conflict with others for all sorts of reasons, hardly ever pure. The difference now is that the citizenry feels free to say so. The readiness of grief-stricken parents and widows to ‘blame’ Tony Blair (or Geoff Hoon or Jack Straw…) for the deaths of their boys in Iraq must represent a new low for deference (and that must be a good thing).

For centuries, the very idea of openly blaming the leader class for deaths in wartime would have been inconceivable (and probably treasonous) but now it’s routine. We should take it for granted, I think, that from now on it will no longer be possible to pursue a war in any theatre and for whatever reason without a persistent and difficult-to-manage Greek chorus of incrimination from the bereaved.

This will make it politically more difficult to enter a war, however moral. It’s possible to argue that this is an unalloyed good thing – war is always bad, never truly just – but I worry that it might also put a stop to the kind of intervention in troubled places like Kosovo and Sudan that the people of those places obviously need.

Of course, it’s impossible to argue that the families of dead soldiers should keep their mouths shut. Cringing, grateful war widows, fearful for their meagre pensions, silent in the face of inhuman neglect, are obviously a thing of the past. But this pitiless scrutiny of our leaders’ motives could, in time, produce a more timid and pedestrian political class – a cowering, inward-looking gang, always running scared of the next deputation of widows and orphans.

Jeremy Clarkson’s worst nightmare

Great news. It’s now possible to an fit an automatic speed limiter to your car so that you simply can’t exceed the speed limit. In fact there’s a trial fleet of cars fitted with these helpful devices cruising around Leeds right now (I think I drove home behind one the other day). It’s connected to your Sat Nav system so it’ll always be up-to-date and, presumably, if you snap the GPS antenna off or wrap it in tin foil or something your car will cleverly pootle around at the default 20mph until you fix it.

Some of you (all right, about half of you), will resent this. You will regard it as inimical to the British way, as incompatible with liberty, as an affront to your maturity and autonomy. The rest of you will think this is a perfectly acceptable constraint on liberty, acceptable precisely because it will cut annual road deaths in half – a bit like seat belts or the mobile phone ban. The question is, how could you introduce such a gizmo without provoking a revolution amongst the motoring classes? Well, I reckon it would be quite easy actually.

The trick would be to make it voluntary and to allow the market to take care of the roll-out. To begin with, the gadgets could be distributed free of charge, paid for by the Government out of expected health service savings and by the insurance industry out of their savings on accident pay-outs. So a speed limiter would be a free option on a new car and could be fitted at your annual service for everyone else. The incentive to get one would be straightforward: your car insurance would be cheaper. Over time, more and more people would adopt the devices and, sooner or later, the handful of hot-shoes left without would begin to stand out like crack smokers in a creche. Speeding would become uncool and confined to race tracks and drag strips. Speed limited drivers would wear a window sticker with pride. Ferrari owners would whinge. Jeremy Clarkson would almost certainly emigrate.

The Last Pooh

Listen. You’re going to think I’m a bit stupid for raising this. I mean right now, two days from IMPACT and all that. Anyway, I’m watching the New Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh on Playhouse Disney. Pooh, Piglet and the gang are playing ice hockey (Eeyore is in goal). Why do I find this so annoying? I guess it’s because Pooh is the most perfect, most complete English language children’s book character The 20th Century produced (name a better one, win a tenner). It’s reasonable to assume, though, that he’s now walled up in Disney’s Enchanted Castle of Copyright forever. Disney’s is probably the last Pooh.

No one will ever get to reinterpret Pooh, no one will ever ‘revoice’ him or provide a new look for the bear – he is, forever, Disney’s. A compliant US legislature (and, thus, WIPO and the rest of the global intellectual property establishment) will, presumably, happily extend copyright protection indefinitely and ‘new media’ versions (games, online and so on) of Winnie-the-Pooh won’t even need extra protection because they’ll inherit the automatic protection provided to software products (and don’t get me started on DRM). Free Pooh! (actually, now that I’m thinking about it, it always used to wind me up that there was a gopher in Disney’s Hundred Acre Wood too. A gopher).