On Gatwick, and public accountability

Specialist inspectors from the Civil Aviation Authority have been sent into Gatwick, to see what went wrong on Christmas Eve, when the airport descended into what are described as “Third World” conditions – passengers left up to 12 hours without heating, hot food or drink, and access to just one toilet.

Why the surprise? This country became a Third World country years ago, in terms of basic transport and other infrastructure. You just aren’t allowed to say it. Three years ago a senior Papal advisor was forced to abandon a visit to the UK and apologise after he said after landing at Heathrow “you think at times you have landed in a Third World country”.

True. Cardinal Walter Kasper had to issue a humiliating apology. Now, as it happens, just as he was doing so my family and I arrived at a big airport in the south east. Now, let’s set aside the proceedings at the actual terminal – obviously a 50-something couple and their teenage children flying in from Corfu have to endure all the usual checks to ensure they are not a bunch of terrorists just off the plane from Somalia.

We arrived on a Sunday. We had done the proper thing and relied on the train to get us there and home again. The airport terminal had a lift down to the station platform. The lift didn’t work. The automated message telling us every 45 seconds that we had to use the lift if carrying heavy baggage worked fine. “You must use a lift if you…” We heard it all the way down as we lugged our suitcases down the stairs. If you want an image that sums up Broken Britain, it is the fact that the lift doesn’t work, but the automated message system that shouts incessantly at passengers is in full working order. If that broke down, someone would fix it immediately. Obviously. Sod the lift, though.

 We got to the platform. No trains to our destination. “Routine maintenance”. The subsequent journey was like travelling through a Third World country, quite literally. Grotesquely overcrowded. Dragging our luggage down endless, teeming corridors full of screaming people. Never sure if the next step in the journey would also be the last, because of “routine maintenance”. Does this bit work? Will the next bit work? Will we get home at all?

A Third World country. Just don’t make the mistake of saying that.

And does anyone seriously think that the private equity firm that owns Gatwick will be in any way inconvenienced by the CAA investigation?

These corporates are not accountable. They serve up what they want, or can just about get away with, in terms of a shoddy, Third World service. And there is nothing you can do about it.

Now, in an ideal world, that corporate would be fined several hundreds of millions of pounds and pushed into bankruptcy. Those rich people who invested in it – private equity firms get their money from already rich people, who use them as a way of getting richer – would lose all their money. The people running the fund would lose their jobs, no compensation.

It ain’t gonna happen.


Not So Happy Christmas

It is the day before Christmas, and it is not looking good for the high street. Yesterday was supposed to be the busiest this year for shopping; travelling into town for work, and it didn’t feel like it. The supermarkets are apparently discounting like mad, but the real damage, I suspect, will be done to specialist retailers.

Two of them have already turned up their toes in recent memory, HMV and Game, though they are still trading. Woolworths is a sad memory.

The villain in all this, if I can put it thus, is Amazon. People mourn the loss of HMV et al, then order their DVDs and CDs online there. This is exactly the same process that sees communities uniting against the arrival of a new Tesco superstore, which would kill the butchers and bakers on their high street, and then slinking shame-faced to the supermarket when it finally opens.

This year I have decided not to use Amazon. I don’t particularly appreciate their cavalier attitude to paying tax, and I would prefer to support my local bookshop. And pay more as a consequence. (The exception is Amazon’s outstanding second hand book service, which is made up of independent booksellers.)

The problem is sourcing CDs, because HMV’s stock is so limited and hit-or-miss. Its Fopp chain is excellent, and mind-bogglingly cheap, but there are too few outlets. Tricky. I have my principles, but my taste in music is sufficiently outré that it is almost impossible to find what I want anywhere but Amazon. So Amazon it will have to be in future. But with ill grace.

It never used to be a problem. But Virgin, RIP. (I actually used to visit the original Virgin store, a hippie hellhole above a shoe shop on Oxford Street. There used until recently to be a good store in the City, but it made way for yet another overpriced boutique.) Tower Records, RIP. Even the old Harlequin chain now but a happy memory.

Perhaps Choices Direct? Or “Buy it Now” on eBay?

Nanny Knows Best

Apparently it is going to rain a lot. It often does this time of year, it being winter. There is a danger of flooding, in parts of the country that normally flood. The RAC has jumped in to advise us all to be “extremely careful and consider whether it is essential to travel”.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to wrap up warm, make sure you haven’t left the gas on, and do be careful because rain might make the pavements wet, and wet pavements can be slippery.

Does the RAC, which regularly trots out this “advice”, really believe that anyone travels anywhere, on gridlocked roads or on shoddy public transport, when they don’t have to? Do they believe there exists a strange tribe of people who get up in the morning, look out of the window and say, tell you what, let’s go out for a totally unnecessary journey?

It would plainly be better for the RAC, and for any number of other bodies, local councils, government, whatever, if none of us even ventured from our homes. We could hand over our RAC membership fees, train and bus fares, council rates and whatever, and the bodies responsible for supplying such services need not bother. Most public transport operators already clearly regard the necessity of moving paying customers from one place to another as a tiresome inconvenience.

But most journeys are necessary, and not a matter of choice. Are we really so infantilised that we need this sort of nannying?


By some estimates there are as many as 10,000 slaves working in the UK, and the Government is cracking down on the problem. That number appears to have increased sharply in recent years, having quite possibly doubled.

The exact numbers are, by definition, hard to calculate. They include domestic servants of whose existence the authorities may be entirely unaware. What has not been explained is why this number should be on the increase.

Let’s consider two possibilities. One, that London has become a magnet for some very rich individuals who can afford to buy large, expensive properties here that require servants to run them. Some of these people come from places where, how to put it, our Western ideas of freedom and the rights of employees may not be as developed. Some have plainly taken up residence in London and brought their serfs with them. Occasionally, one manages to free themselves or is otherwise discovered.

Second, there are a number of industries that have become reliant on cheap labour. Agriculture is one example, large chunks of which would not be profitable if employers were required to pay the minimum legal wage. Instead, they rely on cheap imported labour, often living in appalling conditions. If you are a gang master supplying such individuals, the UK’s borders are almost entirely porous.

There is nothing to stop you from bringing in your own captive workforce. If they are here illegally, they are not in much of a position to complain about the conditions they have to endure. They are doing jobs for low pay that indigenous workers would not tolerate. We benefit because it keeps the cost of production down, and so the food in our shops. Most of us know this but choose to turn a blind eye.

There are plenty of other industries that relay on such cheap imported labour, such as hospitality or cleaning. The employers benefit because they do not have to pay a proper living wage, and they don’t ask too many questions. We benefit because we get goods and services more cheaply than they would otherwise be.

Who are the real slave masters, then?

Food, Glorious Food

The UK maker of Mars and Snickers bars has decided to reduce their size, while still charging the same amount, I read in two national newspapers. This is a common tactic in the food industry. Rather than pass on higher costs of ingredients, so it is obvious to consumers that they are paying more, food companies reduce the number of biscuits, say, by shrinking the packaging.

This is a price rise by another means. When challenged, the companies resort to some sort of corporate weasel-speak. One, the other year, said its research suggested that customers wanted to buy smaller products. Yes, and pay the same for them as for larger ones? Of course they do.

The maker of those chocolate bars has found an even more absurd explanation for its behaviour. It is all down to the fight against obesity. Yes, of course. Nothing to do with inflating your margins and profits, then. They only have your best interests at heart.

Banks 2, Regulators nil

This has been another bad week for the reputation of our banking sector. Some may wonder, given the moral cesspit they now occupy, how much further they can fall. Watch this space. There is more to come, I suspect

An industry that was once a by-word for being dull, sometimes pompous, fuddy-duddy but deeply moral – think Captain Mainwaring, or Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” – has been taken over by spivs, get rich quick merchants and hucksters. You have to be a certain age to find this worthy of note.

Royal Bank of Scotland has been fined $100 million for cheating on US sanctions and supporting some pretty evil regimes, like Iran and Libya. For money, pure and simple. Blood money, given some of those regimes’ fondness for killing their own citizens and citizens of other countries of which they disapproved.

Lloyds Banking Group has been fined £28 million, a record, by the UK regulator for a strategy of utter dishonesty whereby staff were rewarded if they sold customers who had placed their trust in the bank, thinking it to have their best interests at heart, policies they did not need. Staff were penalised if they refused to do so. It does not get any worse, except that somehow, somewhere, I suspect it will.

Fining Lloyds £28 million is a bit like thrashing the car, Basil Fawlty-style, for breaking down. It might make you feel better, but it does not punish those at fault.

To put it another way, fining Lloyds £28 million, a miniscule sum given its worth, is a bit like fining you and me a fiver – with the proviso that we can ask our employer to make the sum up. The money will come out of shareholders’ funds or loaded onto customers’ bills. In this case, you and I pick up part of the fine, because we, as the state, are shareholders in Lloyds.

One of the weaknesses of UK law, and the Americans are a bit ahead of us on this one, is that you can hold a corporate responsible for some breach of the law. This applies in cases such as corporate manslaughter, after those accidents on the railways at the turn of the last decade. This is the equivalent, as I said, to beating the furniture.

It is extremely hard to hold to account those who run that corporate. Offences take years to come to light and be investigated. By then, the perpetrators have long gone, and cashed in their bonuses.

It must be possible, and I speak as one with some training in the law, to hold such people to account ex post facto, that is, after the event, and exact an appropriate financial penalty.

Suggest such a thing and the business pressure groups such as the CBI and the Institute of Directors will whine about a “constraint on entrepreneurs’ efforts” or a “tax on business”. So will their lickspittles among the press.

But I rather suspect that any political party that suggest such condign punishment of those actually responsible for such outrages might find itself all of a sudden rather popular with the voting public.

On Drink

“If I had all the money I’d spent on drink… I’d spend it on drink.”

Viv Stanshall, from “Sir Henry At Rawlinson End.

It seems James  Bond was what we would call a functioning alcoholic. He drank an average of 92 units a week, against a suggested total, drawn up entirely at random at the end of the 1970s, with no basis in fact or scientific analysis, but now accepted without argument by health professionals, of 21 units for a grown male.

By that measure, I too am a functioning alcoholic, defined as someone drinking more than that suggested limit but able to continue with a normal life. You too, I expect. And you.

But the fact is that this country has, and has long had, a problem with drink. Admissions to hospital for conditions related to alcohol have been rising, especially among older people. Our relationship with booze is dysfunctional.

I have been trying to work out why. This will be another long post, for which apologies. Bear with me. There are, I think, three factors at play here. Genetics, wine and the global drinks industry.

I will not rehash the arguments over genetics versus upbringing, except to say that the right, politically, favours genetics as the main influence over our lives and the left the environment in which we are brought up. At present, genetics is ahead of the game, and there is a sub-branch, epigenetics, which deals with the influence of our genes on our behaviour.

It is impossible, in a population that has the same genes and the same cultural background, to disentangle their respective influence on how we behave, for example on our drinking habits. There are pointers. There are, statistically, fewer Jewish alcoholics, though again, learnt behaviour may be behind this.

Let’s take an odd historical parallel, though. In the late 10th century the Byzantine emperor Basil II, tiring of having to rely on his nobles’ feudal troops, with their dubious loyalty, decided to create his own regiment. The Varangian Guard were a little like the Roman Praetorians, then. They were drawn initially from the eastern Viking peoples who had moved south down the trade routes from the Baltic and founded the great city states of Smolensk, Novgorod and Kiev.

After the Norman Conquest, they were joined by English exiles. They were, therefore, genetically identical to today’s British. Their cultural background could not have been more different, note. They swiftly acquired a reputation for drinking extraordinary amounts, and picking fights when drunk. The Greeks, as they thought of themselves, were not especially martial, preferring to concentrate on making money and squabbling over icons.

They had a Mediterranean attitude to drink. Wine was watered down. The behaviour of the newcomers they found baffling. The Varangians become known as “the Emperor’s wineskins”.

A thousand years later, another influx of northern barbarians arrived on Greek shores bearing the same genes, in Monarch jets rather than longships, and acquired a reputation among the baffled Greeks for drinking too much and getting into fights. So does history repeat itself.

Next, wine. Watch a Frenchman or a Spaniard in a bar and a glass of wine will last them an hour easily. Us Brits will knock it back in a few minutes. Now, wine is a very strong drink, and easy to get down. It is not difficult for an adult to get through the best part of a bottle at a convivial lunch and a bottle or more in the evening. That is an awful lot of alcohol.

Sociologists say that on the introduction of any new drug into society, that society takes time to accustom itself and build up the cultural norms and practices that allow it to cope. It is culturally unacceptable to start the day with a stiff vodka. We have learnt this.

Wine was almost unknown in my youth. People drank spirits, and fairly seldom, in most cases. Men drank beer. Wine has become omnipresent, a daily drink, at first among the middle classes and eventually elsewhere. We have yet to evolve the social practices that allow us to consume it sensibly, as Mediterranean countries do. Think of Indians or Eskimos or Australian aborigines, introduced to firewater.

Third, the global drinks companies. When I was a teenager, we drank beer. We did not get home stone cold sober, but it is almost impossible to get falling down drunk, insensible, head in the gutter, I think we’d better take this one to the station, Sarge, on beer. Young stomachs can’t tolerate it. It takes time to drink a pint of beer. Too much, and it comes up again.

About twenty years ago those global drinks companies realised there was a market for what are actually viciously spiked nursery drinks. You take lemonade, or fruit juice, or any other palatable drink, and you add industrially produced alcohol. You market it specifically to young people. There is one brand called Wicked, advertising catchline “Have You Got a Wicked Side?” (“Wicked” is teenspeak for “good”, of course, or used to be.) Who is that aimed at?

You can go into a bar or pub at 6 pm, drink nine of these, probably for the price of three, during the “happy hour”, and by 8 pm you have had the best part of a bottle of spirits. Then the serious drinking begins. As most are based on vodka or other spirits, they become a gateway drink for the real thing. At my children’s teenage parties, there was generally an empty bottle of two left over the next morning. When I was a teenager, we hardly saw the stuff.

Now we come to the second part of this strategy. You serve these drinks in bars where the music is deafening – cos the kids want a real bangin’ time, don’t they? – and there are no chairs or tables. The loud music makes them shout, which dries out their throats and makes them drink more. The lack of tables mean they are standing, clutching their drinks, the whole evening. This, too, makes them drink more.

So such places are ergonomically designed to maximise the amount of alcohol that goes down young throats, while the drinks themselves are designed to be easily swallowed by unsophisticated palates.

And you wonder why we have a drink problem.

All Students are Equal…

An item on the Today Programme conflated two recent stories about freedom of speech in our universities. An outfit called Universities UK has decreed that segregated seating, separating men from women, may be permitted if requested by certain orthodox religious speakers.

Meanwhile, at the London School of Economics, two students from the Atheist Society were challenged by the authorities over a harmless T-shirt that depicted Jesus and the Prophet Muhammad. There was no indication who had complained, or whether there had even been complaints.

Neither Universities UK or the LSE took part in the programme. There were, I am glad to say, vociferous protests featured from students concerned about the introduction of gender segregation.

Student life has plainly changed somewhat since I was at college in the 1970s. Then, any suggestion that under any circumstances male and female audiences should be treated in any way differently would have had you torn limb from limb by dungareed Amazons. At the LSE, militant atheism was not so much discouraged as part of the core curriculum.

There was an interesting gap in the BBC’s reporting. One must deduce that a party or parties are putting pressure on academe, or certainly the LSE,  to stamp down on any attack on any religion, however anodyne. Said party, or possibly another party, is keen to introduce segregated audiences at universities when they are addressed by speakers from, and I quote the BBC, “orthodox religious groups”. In both cases, the authorities involved appear to have capitulated to this pressure.

But who are these parties, for whom the Enlightenment was seemingly an irritating distraction? No one has said. The Moonies? The Scientologists? The Flat Earth Society? I have no idea, and it would be entirely contrary to the traditions of objective academic research to speculate with no evidence available. Perhaps the BBC should have dug a little deeper and told us. Or perhaps they chose not to.

We will never know.

Of Gnosticism, and Social Reform

There is a campaigning organisation called Christians Against Poverty. (One wonders what Christians For Poverty might look like. Perhaps one of the original mendicant orders of monks.) The organisation has been active recently in the debate over the ready availability of debt and high interest payday loans.

This is a tricky one. To what extent should the foolish be protected from the consequences of their own folly by the use of legislation to limit their basic human rights? And all of ours at the same time? See also smoking, alcohol abuse, obesity, etc, etc.

It has set me pondering the relationship the Church has had with social reform. This will, I warn you, be a long one, and perhaps not to everyone’s taste. But Christianity is a syncretic religion.

This means it takes its beliefs, traditions and themes from a range of different earlier religions, often pagan. The reassuring celebration when winter is at its darkest, a festival of death and rebirth to mark the spring… This process is ongoing. The use of trees decorated to celebrate Christmas is a Victorian introduction. In my youth, the story of the little donkey who carried Jesus was as yet untold. At my childrens’ nativity services, it was ubiquitous.

One of the basic building blocks of Christianity is Gnosticism, a belief system which came from the East and is related to Manicheanism. The Gnostics believed that the world is the creation of an evil entity or entities and is itself evil, a bad echo of the true world beyond death, the world of light, the Pleuroma.

Many early Christian communities were Gnostic. The belief was extirpated by the early fathers of the Church in favour of something we would find more familiar, but traces remain. The Christian concept of Heaven; the world, the flesh and the devil that were the main sources of temptation; saying that someone “has passed over to a better place.”

It is a belief system that has often reappeared as a heresy in Christian history. The Bogomils of the Balkans in early feudal times, their name in Slavic meaning “lovers of God”. Most famously, the Cathars or Albigensians of southern France, wiped out in a crusade in the early 13thy century, featuring in books such as Kate Mosse’s “Labyrinth”.

(Incidentally, the Albigensian crusade is the source of a story that crops up often, ascribed to various wars over the centuries, even Vietnam. Invading knight to Bishop, at the siege of Besiers in 1209: “How do we know which are the heretics?” Bishop, probably the papal legate: “Kill them all. God will know his own.”)

I always thought the Cathars got an unreasonably good press. It was a highly stratified society, the Pure, who were spiritually more advanced, and the rest, who weren’t. And probably never could be. They were not averse, according to some accounts, to helping the ill and the old on their way to the better world. And I suspect a world today in which the Gnostic tradition had prevailed would be a pretty cruel and unpleasant one.

If you believe that this world is inherently impure and evil, there is not much impetus to make it a better place. Some forms of Christianity, like some eastern religions, are an excellent way of keeping a slave population in its place. Why kick against the wrongs of your society when if you behave yourself, you shuffle off to a better place, or return to the world as a higher being?

It is probably no coincidence that an especially ecstatic form or Christianity, which emphasised the delights of the word to come, developed among the slaves of the Deep South, presumably with the encouragement of the plantation owners.

“The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, And ordered their estate.”

All this runs utterly opposed to that strain of Christianity that has emphasised the need to do good in this world, and to improve the lot of your common man. The actions against the slave trade, indeed. Nonconformism, the early Co-Operative movement that is one of the bedrocks of Labour, the Temperance movement, the work of St-Martin-in-the-Fields and other churches today among the homeless. The present Pope’s concern, apparently genuine, for those at the bottom of the pile.

It is almost as if there have been two religions running in parallel. Curious.

Angry Young Men

There was an enjoyable confrontation between Ros Altman, who campaigns on behalf of pensioners, and a very angry young man indeed on the radio the other day. It was all about whether we should be required to work beyond 65. Ros, whom I know and who is a Jolly Good Thing, was pointing out that the younger generation would most likely spend more time studying than people of her generation, so any extension of their working life would only mean their spending the same amout of time in the workplace.

The Angry Young Man was having none of it. He had written a book about how the Baby Boomers like me and Ros had taken everything, and left his generation with nothing. He has a point, though I am not sure how culpable we are, in terms of deciding to engineer that outcome.

I personally cannot fathom the argument that, given our longer life spans, working beyond 65 is an imposition. That age was chosen, rather arbitrarily, by Bismarck, at a time when the world was a very different place and your chances of getting there were significantly less.

Given the choice between stopping work at 65 and enduring an indigent retirement or working two or three more years and having a fairly comfortable time, I would have thought the sensible course of action was obvious, assuming you are still in a good enough physical state to continue. Office jobs are not exactly taxing. The mathematics of how pensions are calculated are such that those extra few years has a hugely disproportionate effect on what you get at the end of them.

There is a more interesting point that emerges, that of inter-generational strife. I spotted this trend about five years ago, in conversations with several younger colleagues. It is going to get significantly worse. There will be a lot more angry young men and women, and those of my generation can expect the level of hostility and abuse to continue.

I see signs of it already today. On the train the other day, I got to the only available seat just ahead of a young women, who was behind me when we boarded. Her aggression and anger was palpable; she stamped and tutted for several minutes. Perhaps she was just naturally rude. But she was about half my age. When I was in my mid-20s, the idea of trying to compete with someone in their 50s for a seat would have been unthinkable.

I suspect those of my generation can expect to receive rather less of the respect and kindness we have become used to in our dealings with the young. We have the mortgages, the (fairly) secure jobs, the pensions. The price of an average home in London will hit £650,000 in six years’ time, I read from some survey. That is unaffordable to anyone on a normal salary. Where are they going to live?

Meanwhile my generation and those a bit older will keep sticking around, denying those younger than us their inheritances. We, however, are just about to inherit, and the boom in home ownership among the middle classes in the middle of the last century means many of us, absent huge nursing home fees, will probably inherit rather well. Which inheritance many will spend on a second holiday home, so squeezing another young family off the housing ladder.

The young know all this, and some of them are very angry indeed.