Saturday, December 04, 2004

The publican and the peanuts – a modern parable
Working for that non-profit voluntary organisation I referred to a while back has been giving me some hassle recently. A bunch of us have been trying to sort out its finances, how much to sting the members for which services and so on. Everyone has their favourite aspect of the thing that they think should be supplied to the members at a cost to be subsidised by one of the parts that they don't specially care for. It all brought to mind a story I heard long ago - and not at business school I hasten to add.
Once upon a time there was a publican. He was one of the traditional sort and kept a good pub, with a friendly atmosphere, a choice of cask beers and locally grown food that was cooked without a microwave. He allowed dogs in the pub so long as they didn’t go in the kitchen, made parents keep their children in order and employed barmaids that men would travel miles to see. He also kept a bowl of free peanuts on the bar counter, reasoning that a) this was hospitable and b) the salt encouraged people to drink more beer. He carried on his trade happily and prosperously for many years, his only anxiety being the annual audit visit from his accountant.
His accountant was another of the old school and after they had worked through the books one year he said to the publican: ‘ I notice you keep a bowl of free peanuts on the bar. How do you account for the costs?’
‘Oh, it’s small beer really’, said the publican ‘ I just write it off to overheads’.
‘Quite right. Keep life simple I say’, said the auditor and they passed on to more important things.
The next year a different accountant turned up for the audit. He had a smart suit, expensive shoes and was quick to drop into the conversation that he had just finished his MBA. He spotted the peanuts straight away and made a note on his clipboard. When they sat down to discuss details he came straight to the point. ‘ I notice you keep a bowl of free peanuts on the bar. How do you account for the costs?’
‘Oh, it’s small beer really’, said the publican ‘ I just write it off to overheads’. The accountant looked shocked. ‘I don’t think you should do that’, he said ‘ you’ve an uncosted subsidy there, you need to apportion it to stock, beer sales, marketing . . . and then there’s the labour cost of someone keeping an eye on it to fetch more and refill the bowl when it’s getting empty.’
The publican was troubled. This sounded much too much like hard work for no reward – and what would his customers say if he stopped their little perk?
The accountant had the answer. ‘If I were you’, he said ‘I would just stop giving away the peanuts altogether. Apparently the average bowl of peanuts on a bar counter has traces of at least a dozen different people’s urine in it. If Health and Safety come round and take a sample they’ll close you down. Just blame it on them.’
Moral: the do-gooders and rule-sticklers usually manage to harm more people than they help. If you see them coming set the dog on them.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Casus belli
Last night the Commons allowed the 1949 Parliament Act to be invoked in order to force the Hunting Bill into law.
The trouble with this bill is the misconceived argument on both sides, for it has precious little to do with either vermin control or cruelty to animals. These are simply veneers of logic and reason applied to try to disguise an argument that is largely emotional but also something much more basic and much more sinister (in both English and Latin senses).
A farmer friend once told me that there are seven mammals and four birds officially classed as vermin, which I assume to mean they are neither protected species nor have a close season. Historically they were no doubt unwelcome because they fed on crops, livestock, or young game. The mammals include rats, grey squirrels, rabbits and foxes. The best way of dealing with the last three is by competent shooting; for rats, a pair of good Jack Russells is effective, as is my father in law’s weapon of choice, the pressure hose. A colourful, choreographed pursuit on horseback with a pack of hounds is simply not cost-effective.
But if you think you have a rational approach to animal cruelty go to the supermarket, look at the pre-packed meats and ask yourself how did those tidy, neatly packed, near bloodless, often boneless, oh so reasonably priced pieces of protein get there? Some people are probably only subconsciously aware that the various parts were once a whole with a head, skin, blood and four legs and a tail. They used to eat, drink, defecate, urinate, copulate (if they were lucky and it wasn’t done for them) and give birth. What they almost certainly didn’t do was associate, find or choose their own food, exercise or in some cases even see daylight, smell fresh air or feel the sun or the rain on their backs. It is a monstrous hypocrisy to put the ‘suffering’ of the wild fox, entirely in keeping with its way of life and habitat, above what we do to domestic livestock to satisfy our ultimately unsustainable craving to eat cheap meat while avoiding any knowledge of, let alone respect for, its origin.
So if you want to make war on vermin get a gun; if you want to make war on animal cruelty either go vegetarian, buy meat of known provenance or be as honest as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and be a part of the process with your animals. If you want to make class war join the Labour party and pretend your nimby instinct to stop other people enjoying themselves in ways you don’t like has a moral, logical or ethical justification. For a nimby is what you are – a modern puritan who feels any activity, sport or recreation that he does not personally care for or cannot see the point of or finds ‘elitist’ or condemns because he thinks it expensive (this alone often grounds for scorn), should be banned.
The movement to get hunting made illegal has been widely presented as a blatant act of class war, but the government does not seem to have considered more than the opening skirmishes. This one will most certainly not be over by Christmas because it is not just, or even primarily, a class war, another misconception in the debate. It is about choice, freedom, individuality and tolerance and ultimately about democracy. It has exposed this government for the shameful, weak, unprincipled coalition of small minds, parochial interests and feeble intellects that it is. The government will now try to blame the Lords for the uproar and chaos that will follow, cynically pretending that it has given the upper house every chance to reach a reasonable compromise. That is another hypocrisy that I hope comes back to haunt it. For the Lords, in what will now almost certainly be its last significant stand against prime ministerial patronage and final emasculation, has done what it is there to do, what the constitution requires of it and what the people have a right to expect. It has fought a pernicious piece of ill-conceived, undemocratically motivated legislation to the only final honourable conclusion: the ‘kamikaze’ option. As the campaign of civil disobedience and legal challenges unfolds, peaceably I hope, it is probably too much to hope that New Labour’s puritans will come to realise that there is a difference between a majority and a mandate on a single issue, or that they are put in the Commons to govern not to dictate, but I fervently hope that they will reap the whirlwind of their arrogance from an electorate that is surely wiser and more democratic than they.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

‘If a book is worth reading it’s worth buying’
I have been trying to find a copy of Michael Young’s book The Rise of the Meritocracy. He called it an essay on education and equality and is accepted as the first to use the word, though its currently accepted meaning is far from his. If I remember the synopsis correctly he developed a thesis on the likely consequence of a society operating as a true meritocracy and the book ends in social revolution by the masses because the elite have become too arrogant and detached. Having got to the top on merit they feel justified in treating anyone below them as of no merit and therefore contemptible. In the book this does not happen until 2033: Young evidently did not foresee the rapid acceleration of the effect under a Labour government with an unhealthily large majority. But it is interesting that he did foresee the trend, for he was a member of Atlee’s government and indeed credited with a strong influence on the 1945 manifesto that brought it to power.
I went to my local public library to find a copy. After a fruitless search of the shelves I approached the librarian, who asked when it was published. I guessed about forty years ago.
‘Oh, then it won’t be in stock now’, she said. ‘We only keep books about five years.’
‘What happens to them after that?’
‘They disintegrate.’ I was taken aback. I had thought this only happened to the most heavily thumbed pages of forbidden texts like Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
‘Don’t you replace them?’, I asked hopefully.
‘Not if they’re not popular’. She seemed quite unconcerned at the monstrous non sequitur in this policy, so pausing only to enquire about a complete works of Roger Woddis, also not in stock, perhaps censored, I left for Waterstones, shaken. They didn't have it either.
When I got home I tried Amazon and bought a paperback copy, their last, for £2.49 plus £2.75 for delivery. A very few hardbacks were on offer for fifteen quid or so, so if you have one you don’t want you might get a good price.

I hope it proves worth reading.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Here’s to the last time
There is a neat television ad around just now that asks ‘when was the last time you did something for the first time?’ Somehow (it must be my age) it made me think of doing things for the last time. This is different, apart from the obvious, because when it’s the first time, you know. Last times can be planned and intentional or unconscious and not recognised as such for perhaps years afterwards; breaking off a relationship or quitting a job on the one hand, the final meeting with a friend or the last time you break 90 on the other.
Cecil Lewis was to my mind one of the great airmen and one of the most interesting figures of the twentieth century, though The Daily Telegraph Book of Airmen's Obituaries condemns him of having ‘accomplished rather less than he promised’. Some failure. Aged five when the Wright brother first flew, he was a true pilot, in soul as well as in skill. He flew and fought with the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, having left school at sixteen to join up, won the MC and then went to Peking, as it was, as a flying instructor to the Chinese government. As his contract came to its end he unconsciously made his last flight, in a Vimy bomber of all things, beautifully described in Sagittarius Rising. He landed and went home ‘untrained for any other career’ to become, among other things, an author, notable playwright and one of the first three employees of the BBC. In 1966 he wrote, presciently and sadly, that ‘Computers steer the pioneer . . . Reliability is on the Altar and Risk is in the Crypt’. What would he have made of the Health and Safety Executive, the cotton-wool culture and the modern TV ‘adventurers’ with their backup teams and cameras going on ahead to film their arrival?
I empathise because flying is my passion too and I learned to fly, at nineteen, on gliders. In a glider you never know when you will have to land and in the machines of those days the answer was usually soon. The sport was exciting, cavalier and intellectually testing. We experimented, without formal instruction, in cloud flying and aerobatics and frequently made forced landings away from base. All very character forming but a passion that had its inevitable effect on my exam results. Many years later I bought a share in a powered aircraft and, as befits a responsible husband and father, confined myself to visiting France, Ireland, Belgium and Germany, always in clear air and the right way up. It’s a wonderful way to tour because you see all the scenery and the journey is part of the holiday, indeed the point of it. I could reach the south of France in a day, or cross from Germany to Wiltshire in less than four hours, stress-free.
Now I have had to accept that this freedom and therapy cannot continue into retirement. As free time goes up, so disposable income comes down. My log-book shows that I last flew over nine months ago and my medical and currency have both expired. If I suspected it then I’m forced to recognise it now.

Lewis made his last flight on a perfect autumn day over the Great Wall, the Ming tombs and the royal palaces of Peking. Mine was in January, in haze, confined within a few miles of base by the task in hand, for it was a test flight following renewal of the certificate of airworthiness and in one of those quirks of the Air Navigation Order the aircraft was not oficially airworthy until someone had flown it and found nothing wrong with it. There was a set of tests to do, results to record and no time to admire the scenery. At least I made a decent landing.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Action semi-directe

Noon, Saturday October 2nd 2004, Whitehall Place, London. Be there. We are marching, us oldies, against the iniquities of the council tax and I have decided to go along and see what a protest march is like. I have a mild regret that it is unlikely to turn violent (nothing like a good riot to make you feel horny, they say). The idea of a few thousand pensioners being bombarded with rubber bullets, or beaten up from horseback by the cavalry of the Metropolitan Police, is appealing from the point of view of its publicity value for our cause but not realistic. We are, after all, the mostly silent, law-abiding, soft touch majority who are the fall guys of New Labour politics. We pay our television licences even if we never watch BBC programmes, tax and insure our cars and keep them roadworthy, we accept the lottery of the National Health Service (chance of getting MRSA one in twenty and rising), accept that pensions are linked to prices not earnings, put up with the culture of yoof, accept the rule and ubiquitous influence of the Scots - we will surely pay for their boondoggle new parliament building as well - but we draw the line at paying the wealth tax.
Long ago local taxes were called rates. ‘What do we pay the rates for?’ was the familiar cry from anyone who found that council services did not deliver what they thought they should. Rates were based, for no good reason that anyone could ever discover, on the notional value of your house expressed as what you could let it for, should you for some again unexplained reason not need to live in it. It was clear to everyone that this was a tax on wealth, notional wealth at that, theoretical wealth until you had paid off your mortgage, wealth that was unrealisable unless you sold up and emigrated, and that it bore no relation to ability to pay or to the number of people in a household who might contribute. Given that a Tory government had ruled for most of the time since World War 2, one had to ask: since when did the Conservatives favour a wealth tax?
The only politician who could see sense on the issue was Margaret Thatcher, who introduced the Community Charge, payable by everyone on the electoral roll. You could dodge it only by disenfranchising yourself, so it became known as the poll tax. Sadly, it was the one reform she failed to make stick. Her mistake was to try it out on the Scots, long over-represented at Westminster and subsidised by England, at a time of resurgent Scottish nationalism. The result was some of the most violent riots seen in Britain for many years and the replacement of the poll tax with the council tax. This differs from rates only in name and in the more formal valuation of your house, and it has been going up recently at an average nine percent a year, more in the more profligate councils. Unless something is done the council tax will, within some people’s lifetimes, absorb their entire state pension.
Noon, Saturday October 2nd 2004, Whitehall Place, London. Be there.

Monday, August 30, 2004

The British volunteer

Three posts so far and readers (the few – two to date outside the family) might wonder why ‘reward in heaven’. It’s all to do with expectations – blessed are they that expect nothing and all that.
One of the things that happens when you retire is that you find out what your other half has been up to while you were out at work. You might also discover aspects of her character (it is mostly her for my generation) that you never suspected or didn’t realise were being put to use.
My wife (aka M or SWMBO) is beautiful, intelligent and the best cook in the Three Counties. I have basked in my friends’ envy of these qualities for nearly forty years. I only now find out that she is organised, efficient and ruthless in the conduct of the other interest she took up some years ago, when the boys grew out of needing full time TLC. She became a volunteer with a global, and very worthy, charity I shall call Cuddle Our World. Cash COW it could be called, seeming as it does to absorb a hefty part of my pension in petrol, phone calls and donations to every event it organises. She says she gets the petrol and phone calls back as expenses, which is true, but quietly forgets that the payments go out from my account and the expenses back into hers. Meanwhile the house is full of collecting tins and buckets and of stuff on its way from the public to the COW shop. The charity shop is a feature of the British high street nowadays, almost outnumbering estate agents. Since they pay much reduced business rates I assume the deficit has to be retrieved from somewhere and it doesn’t take many guesses to home in on the overburdened middle class homeowner as the likely sucker who unknowingly obliges. Yet another flaw in that particular system, of which more another time no doubt.
M works in the shop an afternoon a week and has many ideas about improving its effectiveness. Some are adopted (she’s not actually in charge), some ignored and some go through an apparently weekly cycle of adoption, cancellation by one of the regulars working on a different day and reintroduction on M’s next watch. It must be a hive of intrigue, with the window being redressed while someone is taking the money to the bank or the goods being repriced while the miscreant who put the designer-label cardigan out on the rack at £1.50 is occupied at the till, only to have it all reversed when the shift changes.
But the shop is really a hobby compared with the serious work - the politics of the organisation. As with BT, Tesco or Barclays Bank there are departments, sections, areas and regions and of course managers to go with them. Many of these posts are held by paid COW employees. These are reportedly, and unsurprisingly, subject to all the normal human traits, weaknesses and sins of omission and commission that you would expect to find in the managers of BT, Tesco or Barclays Bank. But with a charity it’s worse. A charity has to keep its costs down, its ratio of income to expenses being both a measure of its performance and its defence against criticism for paying anyone. It also needs a widespread network of people to keep plugging the message, staff the shops and collect the five pound notes and small denomination foreign coins in the tins and buckets outside the supermarkets. This mostly unskilled work is unloaded onto volunteers, organised by a smaller band of still volunteer organisers and leaders. These have some characteristics (cheerfulness, persistence, persuasiveness, dedication or high boredom threshold according to which way you look at it) in common with the Gentils Organisateurs of Club Med but are mostly about thirty years older and all fully dressed. These in turn work through the paid district or area managers appointed by the COW hierarchy. Because the volunteer organisers are mostly competent and organised (they would be on the fast track to the funny farm if they weren’t) while the employed ones are subject to the usual operation of the Peter Principle, clashes of ideas, policy and personality are inevitable. M has this taped. When a district manager failed to perform to her standards recently she filled in one of my blank P45s and sent it to the offender’s boss. The boss was not amused but had no redress against a volunteer and could not afford to lose one who was doing good skilled work in a different area. The new district manager is much better. It is such ruthlessness that now dictates my life.
A Christmas present of an A4 filofax a few years ago (lots of room for recipes I thought) has backfired into the schedule that rules my life. COW commitments go straight in, in ink, usually well in advance. The affairs of my relatively casual, disorganised and impromptu life mostly have to be fitted around them, with severe penalties in marital discord if she has to resort to the correcting fluid. I now understand the angst of the suburban housewife, confined to the house to answer the phone (mostly from COW), pay the window cleaner and fend off people wanting to resurface our drive, while the dog paws at the study window demanding to be exercised.
I have to confess here that I’m not immune to this volunteering lark myself, having been heavily involved over a decade or so in the affairs of a national sport association, a not for profit organisation, ruled though not run by volunteers (the difference is critical and can be fatal to the organisation) that I have discovered has many parallels with a charity. I’ll have to come back to this one but it disturbs me that each of us has got ourself into a variation of the same fundamental situation: work disguised as play, for no material reward and precious little of the other sort this side of the pearly gates.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Goodbye, thankyou and RIP

An example of the law of unforeseen consequences. On Saturday I called our newsagent to change our order from The Times to The Daily Telegraph. I am starting to find The Times bland, in particular its wishy-washy offend-nobody editorials and the letters below the fold, as if the ones higher up weren’t bad enough. The best bits are ex-editor Simon Jenkins’s column and the Thunderer, appropriately using the paper’s old nickname for some of the more forthright comment. I hope The Telegraph will at least have an opinion. To my mild surprise SWMBO concurred with the change.
The same day Bernard Levin died. Perhaps, for the first time, he missed a deadline (sorry) and was too late (sorry again) for the early editions of the Sundays but I knew nothing of it. On Monday and again on Tuesday our newsagent failed to make the change in our order and so it was in The Times, for which he wrote for over 25 years, that I read both the announcement and his obituary. I bought The Telegraph at the garage and read theirs too.
Levin has long been one of my heroes – for his clarity, his variety, his choice of targets and most of all for his craftsmanship with the English language. I didn’t know he invented the phrase ‘the nanny state’ but it does not surprise me. When he left the Daily Mail in 1971, perhaps because his 600 word ration was too confining, he had to choose between offers from the Guardian and Times. He had once before worked for the then Manchester Guardian but chose the Times because he preferred to write slightly ‘against the grain’ of his paper. I cancelled my Mail and took up the Times. Levin made the right choice and it is hard to imagine now that someone of his originality, independence and libertarian principles could possibly have had his insistence on his copy never being altered without his express permission accepted by the paper the Guardian has become. He was to acknowledge this himself some years later. If only we had him today, perhaps to update his piece on the futility of euphemisms, in which he took British Rail to task for replacing second class with standard class and thus announcing to the world that henceforth it would operate to second class standards. He demolished both the Walrus and the Carpenter in his time. Teflon Tony would surely have succumbed too.
But I think his best work was his history of Britain in the sixties, The Pendulum Years. In four consecutive chapters, O say have you heard?, A moral issue [sic], Standing room only, and Thoroughly filthy fellow, he gives us the best, most lucid, most comprehensive and most entertaining account you will find anywhere of the Profumo scandal, its origins, unfolding, climax and postscripts from the first naked frolicking of Christine Keeler in the Cliveden swimming pool to the trial and suicide of Stephen Ward. Someone too young to have been around at the time could read it and think how lucky we were to have such a delicious folly unfolding day by day for the price of a newspaper. True, but there is renewed and new delight in Levin’s summary, highlights and analysis, like watching the taped replay of a particularly good sporting event, when knowing the result adds to the pleasure of seeing and reliving the way it all worked out. Another chapter, Wives and servants, does much the same for the Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fanny Hill trials. He covers domestic and foreign politics, the arts, popular music, crime, the strange phenomenon of Malcolm Muggeridge and many other topics, ending with a moving account of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral. Only sport, no surprise this to his fans, is ignored. If you think you remember the sixties, read it and see what you missed.
Someone once expressed surprise when I remarked that I often re-read a book. Why not? At least you know you will enjoy it. I shall rediscover The Pendulum Years.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

If you know a better hole . . .

Off to ZA to see son one and family. Depressed at way England has become uncouth. Will consider emigrating, but where to? New homeland would have to be couth (strictly personal and subjective definition, variable with time and mood), warm and meet basic tests of being civilised – see remarks on couth. Limited choice as all dictatorships, one party states and ones with a state-backed religion ineligible. This makes UK ineligible on grounds of being cold (in winter) and a one party state for foreseeable future. Also object to craven attitude to anything bearing remotest possible risk of injury, mishap or causing offence to innumerable ethnic, religious or cultural minorities. Only people it’s safe to insult are poor, unemployed, undereducated whites (no CRE to defend them); to satirise, just the native, middle class white and educated. Pros: decent beer available, thanks to Camra, cricket still widely played at true amateur level, including on our village green, can still fly (privately that is) with reasonable lack of restrictions, can still laugh at ourselves, great cheeses as even my French friends admit, general decency and sense of humour of vast majority of people, healthy distrust of government. Cons: in fact few, but multiplying under current government (distrusting them does nothing to change their ways) and its policy of simultaneously pushing on with ill thought through, basically Tory policies and pandering to left and fringe groups over e.g. hunting, wind farms, protection of slugs. Mused through a few possibilities.

France. Obvious first choice as a) near, b) I speak the language. This close to essential as anathema to be part of uncouth Brit ex-pat enclave on e.g. Costa Plonka. Pros: civilised attitude to food and language, low population density cf. most of UK, good climate and scenery. Cons: part of EU (though attitude to it is a pro), beer poor, driving standards poor (though again sympathise with attitude). Couth Index, out of five, probably 4 except in Paris.

Belgium. Just to get it out of the way. Close to ineligible on account of being fount of all EU nonsense and therefore nearly a sort of pan-national dictatorship. Couth index 2 urban, higher in the south-east they say. Cons: beer overrated, driving standards abysmal, two languages. Pros: easily bypassed. . .

Netherlands. Pros: civilised attitude to drugs, prostitution, pornography, also to speed cameras. Good trains, endurable airport. Cons: much bureaucracy I’m told, despite pros, impenetrable language, crowded, at risk from global warming as mostly below sea level, rubber cheese. Couth Index 4+ for the good guys.

Germany. Pros: best lager in Europe and therefore by definition in the world, trains run on time one assumes. Cons: language with three genders, not always readily apparent which applies, and strange word order. EU main player with France. Love of bureaucracy.

Ireland. Civilised attitude to food, drink, conversation, rush. Climate better than reputation. Cons: inflation, competition for EU grants increasing, signs of losing sight of principles, e.g. allowing golf course on Old Head of Kinsale. Pros: food, drink, company, generous to pensioners. CI currently 4++, fear on the wane.

Norway. Pros: one of two European countries not in EU and therefore civilised by definition (but see Switzerland), people friendly, girls beautiful and friendly. Don’t panic like UK when it snows. Cons: food, liquor laws, too cold and dark in winter.

Sweden. Much as Norway except is in EU. Betrayed us many years ago when they switched to driving on the right. Switching over at border crossings was a small price to pay and think of the advantage it would bring now as excuse to stop and search every vehicle. CI probably has distinct seasonal variation with relaxation in long summer days but generally good, as exemplified by Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Switzerland. OK, not in EU but outdoes it for petty regulations, e.g. no loo flushing at night, switch off engine at red lights. Even currency not what it used to be. As once described by a friend who lives there, it’s a police state because the inhabitants want it that way. CI unknown, unobservable, like the far side of the moon.

Italy. All that culture and they seem to take it in their stride. Pros: food, wine, scenery, hospitality, art, architecture, climate. Cons: Venice overrated, corruption. Couth index 4+, at least in the North.

Spain. Different from all of above in that I’ve never been there but let that not be a barrier to having strong views about it. Information mainly from one of the brightest clients I worked with, who married a Spanish woman. After he had endured traditional ritual of assessment by her five brothers, mother, grandmother etc., he was accepted and loves it. Pros: climate, food, wine, strength of family unit, general idea that life is to enjoy unhurriedly, that super bridge in Seville. Cons: attitude to animal welfare still a bit dodgy, too many Brits, lack of extradition treaty, or have they sorted that out now? I’m with them on Gibraltar though. Couth index probably close to 5 so long as you are talking about Espana, not Spain as an extension of Essex.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

The longest journey starts with a single step . . .

Have decided to start a blog as an antidote to boredom in retirement. Retirement is the third great watershed in one’s life. The first is graduation (no more sponging off the state), the second is having children (no more disposable income) and then retirement (no more company car). Time to reflect on furrows ploughed and those still fallow. Time to do all those things one never had enough time for, and then find one is too old and supposedly frail for some of them, like bungee jumping, in a world ruled by fear of litigation and craven allegiance to health and safety rules. Don’t they realise the main incentive for staying healthy and sound in wind and limb is the probability of picking up something worse via a visit to the hospital?

I reflect on the watersheds.
Graduation – top university, bottom degree. At the actual ceremony I was the only one in the line whose new BA gown had to be removed before it could be adjusted to the correct setting.
Fatherhood – an improvement. Brought up two sons (my wife did most of the work of course) who are good husbands and fathers, not a burden on the state, treat all people on merit and don’t drink and drive. This should be the prime responsibility of any parent. They will do better than I did through having had the sense to make better choices in early manhood. The only good ones I made were my wife and a small number of true friends. Career a triumph of improvisation over aptitude. Retirement not so much earned as reached, as a river reaches the sea.
Retirement – my true metier. I observe the world, read the papers, watch the TV news (Channel 4 only, the BBC used to do it better on John Craven’s Newsround) and sign up in the army of grumpy old men. I’m worth brigadier at least.