Monday, December 10, 2007

Smoke and mirrors

As a regular visitor to Ireland I have been delighted with the no smoking laws that were introduced a few years ago. One can eat and drink in clean air and go home with clean clothes, with the further advantage (yes advantage) that my wife will now come with me to the pub, for she is happy to drive me home, having been put off in the past, and in England, by being even more sensitive to the smell than I am. There was the quaint quirk of being allowed to smoke on the boat only until it entered Irish territorial waters.

Now, from a Sunday morning a few months ago (at 6am to avoid confusing Saturday night owls), the same rules apply in England, the last country in the Union to introduce them. And I find myself with mixed feelings. It comes down to the old problem of the English way of doing things. We seem constitutionally incapable of finding a middle ground, of agreeing to differ, and most of all of trusting anyone to use their common sense. So now every workplace and public building that is deemed an enclosed place must prohibit smoking and eject those who dare to. The definition of enclosed space has been tightly and comprehensively drawn, including company cars (unless a soft top with the roof down), private cars on company business (a workplace), bus shelters that have sides and even the vast expanse of King’s Cross station. I understand that the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff is also covered when the roof is closed, if you follow me. A further twist became apparent the other day when I attended a dinner at which the loyal toast was proposed but without the traditional addendum.

As an aside, the law has led to a new word, smokefree, entering the English language. It will not be going into my personal spell checker additions any more than will its cousin freefrom, that one now sees labelling the aisles of supermarkets.

One might have thought that a universal ban like this would need to be stated once, with a few reminders perhaps at its inception and would then become part of the public’s background knowledge, like driving on the left or not looking for gas leaks with a naked light. Children would learn about it at their mother’s knee (smoking allowed so long as the instruction took place in a private house) and be fully conversant with the rules by the age of five or so. But no, under New Labour you cannot tell people something only once – they would have been useless in occupied France – and every building, even churches, must now have a prominent notice at each entrance and more indoors. One result is a rash of ugly home made signs, run up on an inkjet printer and crudely laminated to protect them from the rain and fixed to doorposts with a drawing pin. Our pub has one such while inside there are no longer ashtrays in which to put one’s empty crisp or nut packets. This pub has few customers and a landlord who smokes heavily, giving me my only laugh in relation to the ban when I passed by and saw him standing outside having a quiet puff safe in the knowledge that he was unlikely to be keeping a customer from his pint.

The new rules are not there to discourage smokers, whatever the do-gooders may say. No smoker, except perhaps a deaf, blind, illiterate hermit, can possibly be in any doubt that smoking is likely to damage his health. Those who want to smoke will, if perhaps to a lesser extent by reason of reduced opportunity. This is easily demonstrated just outside the main entrance to our local hospital, where the in-patients gather in their dressing gowns, some still attached to their drips, for a restorative drag away from the haunt of the superbug. The authorities have had to move them on, like loitering hoodies in the towns, to enable visitors to get inside unpolluted.

The rules are ostensibly to reduce ‘passive’ smoking, a term coined as a handy shorthand for inhaling other people’s smoke, the risks of which have been much debated even if its unpleasantness is accepted. Since non-smokers cannot be in any less doubt than smokers of the dangers of the noxious weed it follows that, at least for adults in pubs, passive smoking is a largely voluntary activity endured as an accepted risk. Am I being inconsistent in being still firmly with those who would like to be able to visit a smoke free pub and fully supporting workers’ desire, now made a right, for a smoke free workplace while objecting to the draconian, clumsy and bossy way it has been implemented? If not, what is different in Ireland? I think the answer is in the bossiness. While waiting for a bus at Heathrow recently I noticed a no smoking sign (not just a reminder sign but an edict, with text) in the bus shelter. This structure had a roof and one side. The other side and both ends were open. Did it really need to be a non smoking area? In a much more sinister example a Virgin flight to the Caribbean recently was returned to Heathrow after an hour and a half in the air because someone had been detected smoking in a lavatory. Who paid for the wasted fuel and extra landing fee? Could the offender not have been left to the mercy of the local authorities on landing? Or simply locked in?

So once again we are being protected from ourselves, a true hallmark of New Labour. No decision too small that it can’t be taken for us and none of us with enough common sense or initiative that we can be spared the how as well as the what and the why.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Bisques to the fore!

Golf is often cited as a game that enables players of widely different abilities to compete realistically and with broadly equal chances of winning. With every player having a personal handicap rating, based on his form and record against the theoretically perfect scratch score, someone playing off 18 could have a meaningful game with the amateur champion, who might be off plus 4, with no adjustment to the rules (illegal in golf anyway), by being in receipt of 22 strokes. The outcome would not be a foregone conclusion. Such a match would be impossible at, for instance, tennis where the good player would win almost every point unless truly handicapped, such as by having to play left handed, or in diving boots.

In everyday club golf a match between two unequal players requires the better player to give the lesser one a number of strokes equal to the difference in handicaps. This is at least an improvement on the arrangement of a few years ago which gave the lesser player only three quarters of the difference. However the strokes have to be taken at the holes specified on the card. Which holes get which stroke index is decided by the committee, under recommendations from the national golf union. Anyone who has played under this system will have noticed that two things happen in most matches: you have a stroke at a certain hole but go out of bounds and lose the hole by two strokes; or your opponent goes out of bounds and you win the hole without needing the stroke. In either case the stroke is wasted and cannot be used elsewhere. The advantage is always with the better player. Why should the committee decide which holes you get your strokes at? There must be a better way.

There is. It is so simple that I cannot understand why it is not used. You simply take your strokes when you need them. They are called bisques. I believe this is originally a device used in croquet but its adaptation to golf has been long recognised, not least by Bernard Darwin who wrote on the tactics of bisques many years ago in Tee Shots and Others. Contrary to the practice at my club on the rare occasions bisques are used, you do not have to announce your intention to claim the stroke on the tee. This would be little different from the arbitrary allocation according to stroke index. The stroke is taken after the result of the hole is known and must be claimed before leaving the green and you can, if the match has reached a critical stage or you have been too mean or too proud in using your bisques thus far, claim more than one at a time.

Clearly a stroke when you need it is a more powerful weapon than one arbitrarily allocated according to where you are on the course, so it can be argued that the higher handicap player does not need so many of them. In medal play you have to finish each hole and may have to use up some of your handicap allowance on an eight or a nine. In match play you would not normally expend bisques on mitigating such disasters. So I would settle for three quarters of the difference in bisques and would happily offer an opponent the choice between that and the usual arrangement, whether I was giving or receiving the strokes.

A mischievous variation on the bisque is the half bisque (also used in croquet, where you may take the free hit but not use it to score a point). A half bisque may be used to claim a hole that has been halved but they may not be added together, so to use half bisques effectively the higher handicap player must be able to halve a good number of holes on level terms. Bernard Darwin enthused over the tactical possibilities of this one but had only vague ideas on how many half bisques to allow. It needs experiment and statistical data and I challenge enterprising golfers to try it and report the results.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

What do we do to deserve these refs?

To the pub in the next village to watch the world cup final. Ours would probably have soccer on and about three people watching. I predicted about a year ago that South Africa would win, thinking then that England would be nowhere and not foreseeing how we would help them by eliminating Australia. That evening, with both Wallabies and All Blacks going out to less fancied sides, will remain one of the sporting godsends of my life.

I have no England shirt so wear a short sleeved red one above a long sleeved white one – the message should be clear. Can’t decide whether to sit in the posh bar with the hooray Henries or the public one with the real people but there is a seat in the posh one so that decides it. Everyone stands for a rousing rendition of the national anthem. I find myself next to a girl in an England shirt with a boyfriend in a South African one. He knows all the rules and evidently has remarkable eyesight – every England infringement instantly spotted and explained. In the interval I ask him where he is from. ‘Pritoria, South Ifrica’, he says. The South Africa part I had guessed.

The first half is close, England trailing because of a couple of silly penalties. At the start of the second we make a super break and score near the left hand corner, a good yard in from touch. A conversion would give us the lead 10-9 and anything could happen. Then the Franco-Irish ref, inappropriately English-French bilingual on this occasion, decides to refer it to the television official. This is an overworked option that should be resisted. It was clearly a try that should have been awarded without hesitation and would have been until the new technology came in. The television official now has the job of trying to find a reason not to award it because either a) he would be out of a job if he gave it or b) the endless replays that would follow and that might suggest he should have denied it would discredit him. There was nothing in the replays that proved Cueto was in touch before the ball was grounded. It was morally a try whatever the technicalities and should never have been referred. This is slavery to the technology. It happens because tacklers seem to have been trained to try to drag the try scorer’s feet into touch as an easier option than tackling him properly. If this goes on wingers will have to be trained to raise their feet as they dive for the line, and if they catch the tackler in the face, so much the better.

I find myself with a depressing sense of déjà vu. In 2003 we had to contend with a ref who kept finding reasons to drag a clearly winning side back with strange calls for scrum infringements against a scrum that were clearly on top. I have heard allegations that he was on a bonus, presumably from the television company, to extend the game into extra time and an even bigger one to take it to a penalty shoot-out. Now we have to contend with a man who had not the moral courage to take a big decision in a close game.

On then to the end and a 15-10 win for South Africa that will go down in the books as 15-6. I have no complaint with the result and am proud that England made it to the final and erased the memory of the 36-0 whitewash. We gave them a good game, lineouts apart, and made them work for it and should be able to go on from there. The team should get the same reception on coming home as they did in 2003, though they will presumably arrive on a French train instead of a BA jumbo. The whole tournament was a huge success, with a side beaten in the pool games reaching the final for the first time and Argentina for me the team of the tournament. The only bad taste is New Zealand apparently trying to renege on the deal to hold a 20 nation tournament in 2011 and reduce it to 16. If they persist with that it should be taken away from them and given to Japan.

So to the presentations and for some reason my evening was most spoiled by the sight of our prime minister in the lineup of dignitaries congratulating the teams. He probably thought it was Britain that had lost.

A quick no-hard-feelings chat with the South African supporter and then I spotted his girlfriend taking off her England shirt to reveal a Springbok one underneath. Ann Boleyn was beheaded for less.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Shower of Scotland

The Scotland vs. New Zealand match last Sunday, part of the rugby world cup, was an occasion to miss by all accounts.

The host nation for the competition is France, a major rugby playing country with ample good stadiums. So why was the match played at Murrayfield? Two pool match were also played in Cardiff, as will be one of the quarter finals. This deal was clearly arrived at as part of ‘negotiation’ to obtain host status for France. This is a disgrace and has been made worse by giving, or selling, the 2011 world cup to New Zealand when it should have gone to Japan. Playing matches outside the host country spoils the homogeneity of the competition and is an unreasonable inconvenience and expense to the teams and fans of the countries that have to go there and play what amounts to a home match for their opponents.

Having arrived at Murrayfield there was the problem of what each team should wear, the dark blue and black of the primary ‘strips’ (stupid word) being too similar. Normally in such cases it is a courtesy to the visiting team to allow them to use their own colours and for the home side to choose some other clearly different colour. This is often white, presumably because it is clearly distinguishable from most others and is readily available – I imagine most teams have a white strip in stock for training purposes. Here I speculate but I bet that the Scots would not wear white because it is England’s colour and did not want to observe the usual courtesies because it was not a home game, being played in ‘virtual France’. So the two sides turned out in outfits that were muddled variations on their standard colours and remarkably similar to each other. Whether this confusion contributed to an unusually large number of handling errors on the part of the less than All Blacks has been debated by several reporters. Maybe that dirge of an anthem got to them.

Finally Scotland put out their second team so as to rest the first team for the crucial match with Italy that was always going to decide the second place in the softest pool in the competition. At least that one is being played in France.

There are at last some signs that rugby is developing outside the tri-nations and the original five nations groups and with England clearly a basket case for the moment I am supporting anyone from outside those groups, with France as the only northern hemisphere country with a hope of winning, as the exception. So away with my natural support for England and Ireland and let’s see Argentina, Tonga, Fiji and Italy in the last eight. For the final, at least Australia and New Zealand can’t both get there, leaving a great opportunity open for South Africa.

The equation of life

I have long seen the only problem with retirement as being able to afford it. All that time to do what you want must not be constrained by lack of money to get on with it. Sadly, in Britain the state treats all retired people as incipient spongers itching to soak up what little tax revenue the NHS has left for other purposes. You are not allowed to cash in your pension pot except in miserable slices dictated by the prevailing annuity rates and when you reach 75 you are compelled to hand it all over to an insurance company in return for an annuity at a rate that in any half way robust economy will pay out little more than the annual return on the capital, thus leaving said insurance company with a handy lump sum for themselves when you die.

For those of modest means, that is excluding people with golden handshakes in seven figures and most public sector employees, this means that a reasonable standard of living can be maintained only by eating into one’s capital. Capital in this context is very much liquid assets and not one’s house, since you still need somewhere to live. First you have to warn your children that you are unlikely to leave them anything of value other than the house and second you have to work out how long you can survive, financially rather than biologically speaking. To quantify this I have drawn up the Equation of Life.

The equation is a simple one. It is

Y = (C + D)/ P

where C is current capital, cash in the bank, ISAs or funds you are free to liquidate (therefore not your pension pot), D is what could be added to C by ‘downsizing’ your house and P is the amount per year by which you overspend your pension and any other income. Y then gives the number of years you can afford to live at your present rate of extravagance. I call this the FLE or Financial Life Expectancy. Of course if your P is zero or trivial you can afford to live for ever and have no problem, to which I would say either get a life and take up some expensive hobby or think about who or what else could benefit from your surplus. The worst possible thing to do would be to leave it to be taxed at 40% and have the government fritter it away on health and safety police and new road signs.

I have just worked it out. I half expected the answer to be 42 but no such luck – a mere 28. Since this would allow me to carry on until I reach 96 it doesn’t sound too bad. But one must beware of the variables. P can change even if your spending doesn’t – either because of inflation (there should be a separate measure of inflation for the retired, reflecting their different necessities and priorities and used to revise the state pension; council tax would feature more heavily than in the standard calculation) or, if you have a drawdown pension, because of the performance of the stock market and changes in annuity rates. D depends on timing, the state of the housing market and how far you are prepared to reduce the amount and quality of space you live in. Then there is the effect of once off capital expenditure, like replacing your car. In this light the new kitchen SWMBO wants has its cost not in cash but in years off our lives.

Here perhaps we have the makings of a new victim class for those whose medical life expectancy exceeds their FLE. We need government recognition of the problem, followed by action - though sinister thoughts creep in when one contemplates which end of the problem action might be taken on.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Life is full of disappointments

I mentioned once before that the Irish have started to show signs of betraying their traditionally admirable attitude to life and its stuffier aspects. One such is the building of a golf course on the spit of land leading up to the Old Head of Kinsale. You used to be able to walk (or drive for that matter, but I preferred to walk) along the path to the lighthouse unhindered, admire the view and reflect on the events of May 1915 when the Cunard liner Luisitania was torpedoed off the head and sank within 18 minutes with the loss of nearly 1200 lives. In 1997 a golf course was built here and despite claims that the planning permission guaranteed continuing public access you can no longer enjoy the walk. A somewhat belligerent notice at the entrance points out that the claim has been tested in court and dismissed. Since the lighthouse is unmanned it seems that the only people to get past the gate now are the golfers, the club staff and the man who goes to change the bulb from time to time. As a golfer I mostly welcome the expansion of the game, but not the modern resort clubs at a thousand euro a group for players arriving by helicopter. And this in Ireland, where there are probably more good courses per head of population even than in Scotland.

Meanwhile in Kinsale itself, known without complete justification as the gourmet capital of the south coast, I have been having a long fantasy ‘relationship’, as they coyly say these days, with the tall, blonde, slender, charming, delightfully Irish patronne of the classiest coffee bar cum bistro in town. On my latest visit I noticed that she was wearing a t-shirt with the logo of the Old Head Golf Club on one sleeve and asked if she played there. No, she said, she walked there. To my surprise that she was able to she revealed the devastating news: ‘my boyfriend is the manager’.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

We are the people of England and we have not spoken yet

I didn’t watch it and I’m glad I didn’t. The TV coverage of Tony Blair’s final Commons appearance and his handover to Gordon Brown was by all accounts nauseating. Boris Johnson’s amusing piece in the Telegraph summed it up, concentrating mainly on the scenes in the House, (full of de mortuis nil rubbishem or whatever it is) but it was the BBC’s report on its website that convinced me I was right to have been mending the phone line to the study instead. It had links like ‘Blair goes to Palace’, ‘Blair with the Queen’, ‘Blair off to Sedgefield’, ‘Brown goes to Palace’, ‘Brown meets Queen’ – you get the drift. A multi-episode sycophantic memorial edition to someone most people were glad to see gone, including many of his own party, as Boris pointed out.

But should we be so glad? Boris himself confessed to a dawning unease, born in his case out of fear that Brown will be dull and will regulate and curtail freedom and debate even more than Blair did. I agreed but was nevertheless left thinking that after ten years of having the answer to everything, of matey familiarity with the voters, of consorting with celebrities and of follies like the millennium dome and the olympics a little dullness in our prime minister might be welcome. It’s a fairly serious job after all.

I think the reason Blair jumped in first at that famous Granita meeting was that, like the boy who sticks his hand up before the teacher has finished the question, he was afraid that Brown knew the answer better than he did and he might never get his chance. He suspected that in the long run Brown would be the more acceptable to the Labour party, who could be relied on to pick Brown after the Blair years but not the other way around. If Brown went first and chose his own ministers and policies, then either Blair’s cover would be blown by the time his turn came or the electoral mood would have swung back to the Tories and it would be too late.

As for renewed new Labour under Brown, he has been upstaged so far by the terrorist plots and arrests of several immigrant doctors in connection with them – and he thought the NHS just needed more money. So far he has appointed a home secretary from England (good move) whose response to the failed bombs - in marked contrast to recent predecessors - has been an almost Thatcher-like message of business as usual (good move again). It seems he also proposes to remove the prime minister’s right to choose Church of England bishops (quite right, now remove them from the House of Lords), to move elections to weekends (fine, but unlikely to improve turnout I suspect), to hold hearings on big public appointments (what – adopt something the Americans do?), perhaps lower the voting age to 16 (why not 12 – or 10?), and to have parliamentary committees for each English region. And here I sense a Blair moment, the promise to make a change only to later enact a mess.

It is distinctly probable that a majority of English people are unaware of the existence of English regions. They were set up sneakily, at dead of night, without publicity and are unelected bodies. They are staffed by people appointed from the various councils of each region, a bit like a mini EU in our midst. Now they will get a formal link with central government, presumably to give them a pseudo legitimacy and as an attempt to answer the West Lothian question, for he has already rejected the idea of allowing only MPs with seats in England to vote on English matters. One can see why, of course, with his own seat (and those of three others in his cabinet) being in Scotland, but it is no answer. Indeed we should welcome this proposal for it will inevitably bring forward the day when the question has to be answered properly and the English have to be given their right to their own say in their own affairs.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Only the grin was left

So now we know: it’s to be June 27.

For certainly more than half of the last ten years I have wished Tony Blair were not prime minister. I cannot pinpoint the moment I turned, for though I voted for him in 1997, I certainly didn’t in 2001 so it must have been in the first half of his tenure. Was it the millennium dome? Was it his failure to stamp down on the fuel protesters? Was it the repayment of £1 million to Bernie Ecclestone? Was it the reinstatement of Peter Mandelson? Or was it that I just couldn’t take that disingenuous, smug, ‘I’ve got a huge majority and there’s nothing you can do to shift me’ grin any longer?

Blair is highly unusual, perhaps unique, among British prime ministers for being in office for over ten years and leaving it at a time (more or less) of his own choosing. On top of that he has (more or less) nominated his successor, though whether that is a considered decision, the keeping of a promise or simply faute de mieux we shall probably never know. Indeed, it is Brown’s accession and its implications that is a far more intriguing question than what immediate history will make of Blair.

For we know what immediate history will make of Blair. It will see him as a huge let-down, a leaking helium balloon that floated high and cheerfully at first, deflated until it could barely support its own weight and finally sagged limply as the elevating gas dispersed into the atmosphere of public disillusionment. A dot-com bubble of a premiership. Northern Ireland apart, his legacy is unfinished business, a vast extension of the nanny state and the surveillance society, and government that is further from being by the people and for the people than ever before. He gave us three different forms of devolution, with involvement of the peoples concerned, while imposing unelected regional assemblies on England without consultation (a referendum in the north-east after they had been set up was hardly democracy) and without answering the West Lothian question. He emasculated the House of Lords but we still don’t know what we will get instead. He ignored valid concerns over council tax while centralising control over local government. He allowed swathes of parliamentary time to be taken up over the harmful and sterile debate on foxhunting, basically as a Pontius Pilate like sop to his backbenchers. He was prepared to employ a director of communications with the qualities of Alastair Campbell and a deputy with the qualities of John Prescott. His relationship with George W Bush has led millions of Britons to a cynical, jaundiced view of our best friend and a country that still has a better grasp of democracy than ours. He wanted to join the euro and adopt the EU constitution (how about one of our own?), was saved from the first by Gordon Brown and from the humiliation of a certain referendum defeat over the second by the French and Dutch but now wants to sneak in a modified form of constitution that he will claim is not enough of a change to need to be put to the vote. He held off honouring the commitment to a Freedom of Information Act for as long as possible and has presided over attempts to emasculate it ever since. He seems prepared to let our electricity generating capacity fall behind demand by prevaricating and dissembling on the nuclear power debate while time runs out. He answers all criticism with a litany of how things have supposedly improved since 1997, delivered with that smug grin that says he knows he can’t be contradicted because he controls the rules under which the data is gathered.

But ten years of this has left the public more cynical and distrustful of politicians and government than for many years. They are coming to realise that there has been no achievement, there is no substance, just the grin.

As to what more distant history will say, that’s easy too. In twenty years time we will simply look back and wonder how we were ever seduced into taking him seriously. At least by then the grin will have gone.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Let us now praise famous men

When you get to my age you start taking an interest in the obituary pages that would have been pointless when you were 25. Politicians one vaguely remembers, probably more for their failures or misdeeds than any lasting achievements, sportsmen from the days when there were still genuine amateurs and footballers were actually underpaid, and lately a fascinating and humbling collection of war veterans who survived exploits that would these days have their commanders court-martialled for inadequate risk assessment. The other day the Times featured one from the near extinct category of British industrial giants who rose from apprentice to senior rank and made a significant contribution to our manufacturing industry.

Harry Webster was technical director of Standard Triumph when it produced its best cars, now nearly all classics. My son has one, a 1974 TR6 that I am sometimes allowed to drive, though the first time he let me go solo he had left the tank empty and it would only go downhill. The cars pioneered all-independent suspension and fuel injection, at least on reasonably priced cars, and are kept going in enthusiasts’ clubs all over the world. His CBE would be given for a lot less today.

Next day it transpired that Webster, whose wife and daughter predeceased him, had been found dead at the foot of the stairs in his own house, where, at the age of 89, he presumably lived alone. I was deeply saddened. I would not go so far as to liken him to an artist who died penniless and whose pictures now fetch millions but it did set me thinking on the modern nature of fame and its relation to worth.

It seems we don’t really have fame nowadays. We have infamy and we have celebrity. Infamy goes with things like murdering a hundred-plus elderly women and issuing false death certificates or being a politician caught once too often with your trousers down. Celebrity can go with almost anything, from running a vicious criminal empire to having large breasts to flaunting a minority sexual preference for public entertainment to mere exhibitionism or even simple rudeness to those not in a position to respond. Those famous for their industrial or commercial careers are respected more for what they have done for themselves or their shareholders than for their customers or posterity. Harry Webster, justly respected in the widespread and lasting affection for and appreciation of his cars, was one of the old sort, a spiritual descendant of Brunel and Telford.

The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will show forth their praise.