Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Conway to stand down

So, ultimately he did retire to his study with a bottle of scotch and a revolver after all. This story has been pretty disastrous for the Conservatives, but there is one glimmer of light. Conway has gone, and gone quickly, not just from a ministerial position but from politics altogether. Cameron acted sufficiently promptly in removing the whip - those people who are now accusing him of 'dithering' ought to remember that taking 24 hours to decide whether or not to take a course of action is rather different from taking weeks to do so.
It will, therefore, act as a pretty strong precedent for other politicians who are caught out on financial misconduct. This alone might explain the relative lack of grand-standing over the Conway affair - politicians of all stripes are painfully aware of the beams in their own eyes.

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Unlikely image of the week

There's something about this that really doesn't ring true:
Gordon Brown has got "a skip in his stride" following last year's difficulties, Jack Straw has claimed. Asked if there had really been a skip in Mr Brown's step as Mr Hain was forced to resign last week, Mr Straw said: "Well these things happen and they happen to any party, as we saw yesterday in respect of Derek Conway. But what we're also doing is dealing with the serious business of government."
Can anyone really imagine Gordon Brown skipping anywhere? Especially now, as four members of his cabinet are interviewed by the police, his attempted clever solution to the Northern Rock debacle gets panned by financial commentators everywhere, his attempt to highlight Tory splits on Europe lead to the best Commons speech in years and an unprecedented alliance between Bill Cash and Ken Clarke? I suspect Jack Straw is being a touch flippant...

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What the hell is Ron Paul all about?

He's raised a fortune over the internet by appealing to the libertarian vote - notoriously underrepresented in US politics. He's also got onside with the anti-war vote through his staunch isolationism. I think, when I did one of those 'which candidate should you vote for' questionnaire things, Ron Paul was the candidate suggested to me. He's straight-talking, no-nonsense and on the face of it the ideal candidate for the libertarians amongst us. Two questions - why the hell has he got nowhere in the Republican primaries, and why shouldn't I be supporting him anyway?
The first one is the easier one. Paul isn't really a Republican in the modern sense of the word. He harks back to the Goldwater era of ideological purity that was completely incapable even then of attracting sufficient support to achieve power. The modern Republican party is a coalition of, largely, southern and mid-western social conservatives and northern economic free-marketeers. Paul is neither. The old-fashioned isolationist, economically atavistic (Paul, for instance, supports a partial return to the Gold Standard for the dollar), ultra-minarchist (he calls for the abolition of the Departments of Energy, Education and Homeland Security - for a start) wing is a fringe of a fringe - the Cato Institute is about as left-field as Republicans get, and they think Paul is a nutcase.
Why don't I support Paul? He's a nutcase, basically. He named his second son Rand Paul - after Ayn. The slight whiff of paranoid states-rights bigotry that emanates from the Ron Paul newsletters of the past 30 years is bad enough, but essentially, while I can understand that Paul might appeal to people who either view their libertarianism as the last word in their beliefs - who are not prepared to compromise with the electorate on what they believe to be right, I'm not quite so passionate in my attachment to it. For a start, his actual policies are quite often weird in the extreme (so are Barack Obama's, but there we are) that return to the Gold Standard - really? I'm not convinced by his call to withdraw from the UN, NATO, the WTO and NAFTA either.
I trend towards the libertarian, I believe that money will do more good in the pockets of the people that earned it, than in those of the Government that tax it. I believe that private enterprise is almost always more efficient than the public sector. But there are limits. Ron Paul is just a touch outside mine...

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Really round one to Ken?

Dave Hill seems to think that everything is going swimmingly for Livingstone in London, despite the best efforts of the Evening Standard and Martin Bright. His evidence for this is a poll conducted by YouGov that gives Livingstone a 3 point lead over Boris Johnson. The fact that this relied on a mere 240 voters ought to be enough to warn Hill not to place too much reliance on polls but still...
But is Livingstone really doing as well as all that? I'm not convinced. The way in which he has reacted to the allegations in Dispatches was very revealing - he has called Martin Bright an Islamophobe, a Neo-Con, a right-winger and, in a very Ken touch, "a 40-year-old virgin still living with his parents" - the last because Bright objected to Livingstone drinking whisky at ten in the morning on official business. Ken's support used to come from those who perceived him as the underdog - battling against Thatcher, or Blair, or someone. The eight years in power, and the crudely intimidating manner in which he seeks to prolong it, not to mention to the cosy cronyism that characterises City Hall, are potentially fatally damaging to this line. Livingstone as machine politicians; as a drinker tainted with a whiff of corruption - these are much harder lines to sell than 'cheeky chappy who says what he thinks'.

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Curse of the Reptile

Well the Republican candidates favoured by myself and my fellow contributor have both now taken their final bows - because there really is no way back for Rudy Giuliani after Florida - and I think it's fair to say that, while we were obviously both wrong in our choices, we were equally right in our reasons not to support each other's candidate. Thompson was too lazy and too unformed a candidate ever to be successful. Giuliani was incapable of attracting his party's base as well as independents. What both of them have been, though, is extremely gracious in defeat. Thompson and Giuliani both gave speeches after their hopes had been dashed that displayed none of the bitterness and disappointment that they must have been feeling.
So, the question is, what now for the Republicans? McCain looks like the runaway front-runner after his victories in Florida and South Carolina - barring a miracle he must surely clinch his spot next week on Super-Tuesday. That said, of course, Giuliani was the front-runner until a few weeks ago - things can change pretty smartly. McCain is, however, so much better a candidate than Mitt Romney (let alone Mike Huckabee, who is the sort of American that the British really don't understand) that he will surely get the nomination. As to who his opponent will be? He'll probably be hoping it's Hillary - she looks eminently more beatable.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Brutal but inevitable?

So, Cameron has decided to withdraw the whip from Derek Conway indefinitely, though not necessarily permanently. As I said earlier today, that had to be the right decision in that it both demonstrates the requisite firmness over matters of personal impropriety and it shoots the Labour fox over Conway - as well as setting a possibly uncomfortable precendet for the various Labour members assailed over sleaze. By doing it today, at once, Cameron has also set up a contrast with Brown's 'dithering' over Peter Hain.
The really good news here has been Conway's reaction. Mr Conway told the BBC: "I think the withdrawal of the whip was understandable, if not inevitable and I have no quarrel with that." Highly commendable, though I doubt whether that, or anything, will be enough to save his seat for the next election.

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Conway - what should Cameron do now?

The news that Derek Conway is to be investigated over reports that he misused his staffing allowance for his elder son as well as for his younger should concentrate minds in CCHQ somewhat. The question is, what should they do about it? There are two courses that they could follow - withdraw the Conservative whip, either temporarily or, less likely, permanently, or persuade his local association to deselect him.
What is not in question to my mind is that Cameron must do something. To leave the reaction to the Commons decision to suspend Conway for ten days would look inadequate, and allow Labour MPs like John Mann full rein to play the 'hypocritical' card for all it's worth:
David Cameron is only too quick to condemn others over allegations of scandal but when it comes to his own MPs misusing taxpayers money, he has nothing to say. He should learn that true leadership is about principles and consistency, not just jumping on the next bandwagon for the next news bulletin.
For all the mealy-mouthed hypocrisy evident in that statement, he has a point. Not much of a point admittedly, as with regards to Peter Hain it was the fact that he was a minister that was the problem, no Conservative MP has called for his deselection as far as I am aware. However, there is a neat-ish solution to the Conway problem. When the Commons committee has concluded its investigations and imposed a period of suspension (whether that is the ten days currently ordered or more) the Conservatives should withdraw the whip for an equal number of days following the suspension. Ideally Conway would then retire to his study with a bottle of scotch and a revolver, emerging to declare his retirement at the next election, but that may be pushing the limits of what can reasonably be expected.
A final note on this, MPs on all sides of the House, the oleaginous John Mann included, should be careful before rushing to condemn Conway too whole-heartedly on this. The practice of employing relatives to work as researchers or secretaries is widespread in the House, and no party is immune to it being discovered that the work being done was minimal and the rewards maximal. There is an element of glass house about this that people ought to pay attention to.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Derek Conway

As Guido says, there is absolutely no way that Derek Conway should be let off without having to repay the £40,000 he paid his son out of his staff allowance. The practice of employing family members as 'researchers' and 'secretaries' is so completely open to abuse as it is, that there have to be serious measures taken when someone is caught red-handed like this.
I suspect that there is quite a lot of this going on the Commons - the expense allowances are treated as extra income as it is. Whether this is done perfectly legally, like Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper each claiming their extra housing allowance, or not as is the case here, and as was alleged againt Iain Duncan Smith, there is a rather unhealthy attitude towards them.

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Selling the message

So, Obama wins South Carolina by a massive amount, wins the endorsement of the Kennedy clan and looks as though he might really be able to beat Clinton to the nomination. But what, as I have asked before, are people seeing when they look at Obama - or Hillary Clinton for that matter? The answer seems to be that both Democrat candidates have sold themsleves as abstract candidates. The messages they sell - change, reconciliation, stability, renewal - are inherently meaningless. This is not a battle over conflicting policy commitments or radically different ideas over domestic or foreign policy. Even in those areas where there are squabbles it is not what the candidate plans for the future that is disputed - it is their position in the past.
This is, perhaps, because each candidate is running as a 'who' candidate and not a 'what' candidate. What is important is the image; what is persuasive is the personal. It doesn't matter what the President will do in Iraq - it matters that they are the sort of person who was opposed to the war. It doesn't matter what the minutiae of their healthcare policy is - it matters that they are against people being unable to afford healthcare. In a sense, each of them have grasped firmly the necessity of creating a coherent and attractive narrative, without yet having employed it to explain their policy ideas. So far, then, this is image without the need for substance. It may be that this is what the Primaries are all about - the time to expound on policy will be in the actual Election. But there is now a definite impression that whichever Democrat runs, the story will be just that - the story.
On the Republican side the opposite is true. The differences are largely political, the stories uninspiring. The one candidate who originally tried to run a campaign based mainly on the personal, Rudy Giuliani, this blog's original favourite, has seen his campaign slump drastically, and now faces victory or death in Florida. As far as the others are concerned, a competition less like a beauty contest would be hard to imagine. It may be more interesting in terms of the substance of what is being said, but the glitter and the stardust is elsewhere, and it will be hard for whichever Republican wins the nomination to combat the glittering story provided by his opponent.

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Good luck with that

I've always been irrationally scared of sharks - probably as a result of watching Jaws as a kid - but I will admit that there is something incredibly graceful and impressive about them, and that their over-fishing, usually by wannabe Hemingways, is unnecessary. That said, the new exhibition of action pictures of Great Whites off South Africa might not have quite the effect that seems to be hoped for.

These dramatic pictures, taken near Seal Island, in False Bay, are part of a decade-long campaign to promote positive awareness of great white sharks, which are classed as "endangered" largely due to being hunted by man.

It's a worthy ambition, but one that I think will be hampered by a few small problems.

I might be being pessimistic on this, but who is going to look at this picture and think 'All my negative images of the Great White are clearly irrational. I will now have only a positive image of this 15 foot torpedo with teeth'?


Thursday, January 24, 2008

Dodging a bullet

To get a sense of the storm currently assailing this Government, imagine for a minute that the rogue trader who has cost Soc Gen some £3.5bn had been British, or even working for a British bank. In the aftermath of Northern Rock, as well as the general economic climate, it would have been a disaster - seen as further conclusive evidence that financial management wasn't up to the job and so on. And yet, there is no particular reason why Jérome Kerviel shouldn't have been a trader for a British based bank.
The differences in supervision and the like between Britain and France are irrelevant - this was one of those god awful bolts from the blue that must keep bank's ssenior management awake at night. It isn't Sarkozy's fault, nor his Government's - and they will probably not be blamed at all for it. But if it had happened in Britain a in the current climate, you can bet your bottom dollar that it would have been added to the overall charge sheet against Brown. Bit of an escape really.


Hain resigns

The problem with clinging desperately to office, with the accoutrement of prehensile buttocks, is that if eventually you are compelled to resign, as has happened to Peter Hain today whose travails over undeclared funding have been reported to the Met police, it makes you look extremely rubbish. Even more for the Prime Minister who has given luke-warm but declared support to Hain throughout - this makes Brown look both incredibly indecisive and politically wrong-headed. Bit of a result really, all things considered.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Have England really slumped?

Tim de Lisle writes a fascinating comparison between the current England cricket team and its equivalent in the late 1990s. In pure statistical terms, there is no question that there is an equivalence here. Since 2005, England have played eight series, winning two, losing four and drawing two. In the eight series before Duncan Fletcher took over they played eight series, winning two, losing five and drawing one. But have England really regressed that far?
I watched a lot of cricket in the years 1996-1999. School and university does that to you. What was noticeable, to me at least, was that England consistently underperformed. As de Lisle notes, it wasn't an untalented side. Atherton, Butcher, Hussain, Thorpe, Stewart - these are serious names. The bowling had the names too: Gough, Caddick, Fraser, Tufnell, Cork. What was lacking, and what is now far better, was consistency. The same side hardly ever played twice, and people were dropped for odd, often non-cricketing reasons. Since Fletcher England may occasionally have been too loyal to players - Ashley Giles or Geraint Jones perhaps - but that is preferable to the bizarre revolving-door of Team England in the 90s.
Despite the recent setbacks, England do now have the nucleus of a quality side. Strauss, Cook, Vaughan, Bell and Pietersen are all class players. There is strength in depth in the fast bowling, and even some in the spin department. If the two problems of Flintoff and the wicket-keeper can be settled, England look again like a contender. In a way that wasm't really the case before Fletcher, England look a solid, well-organised team. No need for panic just yet...


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Looking at the wrong things

It's rather depressing that so much more attention is being paid to the Democrat race than the Republican one. It's thoroughly indicative of the priorities of modern journalism too. On the face of it, of course, the Democrat primaries are fascinating - a charismatic young black senator and the first serious female contender for President. But that's all it is. On policy, where they're not completely silent, they're indistinguishable. Clinton has focused so strongly on not frightening the horses over the past eight years that it's almost impossible to say what she is actually in favour of. Obama, on the other hand, has an extremely effective line in rhetoric, but remains dumb on the serious policy front.
Looking across at the Republicans - the five old white men as they have been described - and although the visuals aren't as arresting, nor the backstories so intriguing, the actual politics is far more absorbing. Every wing of the party is represented, from the evangelical populism of Mike Huckabee, through the patrician establishment of Mitt Romney, to the tough practicalities of Giuliani to the maverick outsider of John McCain. All of them have real, thought-out policies and all of them are prepared to argue about them. Look at the flashpoints of the two campaigns. For the Democrats it's Clinton not being sufficiently effusive about Martin Luther King or crying in a bookshop. For the Republicans it's disagreements about immigration policy, about taxation, about Iran - about policy. People who say how dull they find the Republican race are looking at it solely as a beauty pageant - and beautiful it is not.

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Class war

Another day, another slightly unhinged exposition of the British educational system. Today, inevitably, it's George Monbiot in the Guardian swinging wildly from generalisation to calumny as he excoriates the public schools. Since Monbiot went to Stowe, notoriously the safest repository of the thick aside from the backbenches of the Labour party, a degree of latitude should be granted, but there are limits.
But the damage goes far beyond this skimming. British private schools create a class culture of a kind unknown in the rest of Europe. The extreme case is the boarding prep school, which separates children from their parents at the age of eight in order to shape them into members of a detached elite. In his book The Making of Them, the psychotherapist Nick Duffell shows how these artificial orphans survive the loss of their families by dissociating themselves from their feelings of love. Survival involves "an extreme hardening of normal human softness, a severe cutting off from emotions and sensitivity". Unable to attach themselves to people (intimate relationships with other children are discouraged by a morbid fear of homosexuality), they are encouraged instead to invest their natural loyalties in the institution.
I went through this system myself, and I know I will spend the rest of my life fighting its effects. But one of the useful skills it has given me is an ability to recognise it in others. I can spot another early boarder at 200 metres: you can see and smell the damage dripping from them like sweat.
This is, to put it kindly, absolute bollocks. I was an early boarder, and I have proved so thoroughly incapable of forming close emotional attachments with anybody as a result, that I marched up the aisle, damage no doubt dripping off me as I went, and got married. To describe me as 'an artificial orphan' is simply ridiculous. And, candidly, I doubt whether George Monbiot can even recognise people at 200 metres, let alone diagnose their early education - it's rampant bullshit of the first water. But, quite apart from pseudo-scientific diagnosis of all our wonderful psychiatric disabilities, there's some more pseudo-historical analysis as well.
This [emotional stunting] made them extremely effective colonial servants: if their commander ordered it, they could organise a massacre without a moment's hesitation (witness the detachment of the officers who oversaw the suppression of the Mau Mau, as quoted in Caroline Elkins's book, Britain's Gulag). It also meant that the lower orders at home could be put down without the least concern for the results. For many years, Britain has been governed by damaged people.
To describe the suppression of the Mau Mau as a massacre is a grotesque simplification of Caroline Elkins's book, which was itself a grotesque simplification of the Mau Mau uprising. To state, as fact, that 'the officers' in Kenya were all public school educated, unless Monbiot can smell the damage dripping off people at a distance of 50 years as well as 200 metres, is demonstrably untrue into the bargain. And what the hell does he mean by 'putting down' the lower orders? The Peterloo massacre? The miners strike? Is he blaming the playing fields of Eton for these?
The problem of what to do about private schools and the class-bound system they create has been neatly solved by the Guardian columnist Peter Wilby. He proposes that places at the best universities should be awarded to the top pupils in each of the UK's sixth forms, regardless of absolute results. Middle-class parents would have a powerful incentive to send their children to schools with poor results, and then try to ensure that those schools acquired good resources and effective teachers. They would have no interest in sending their children to private schools.
Hurrah! Lets abolish any idea of objective achievement! Lets also abolish the control of universities over their own intakes! If the Government have absolute control over the process of selection for higher education, it can't help but lead to improved standards right? After all, look at the wonders it's done for secondary education.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Mandy Rice Davis moment of the week

There is something particularly wonderful about this story:
After just 14 appearances at Prime Minister's Question Time, Gordon Brown has expressed his growing disillusionment at what he considers the poor quality of the weekly battle of wills across the despatch box. Mr Brown fears the 30-minute sessions have become so noisy and bad-tempered that the public will be increasingly repelled.
Brown has had his backside handed to him on so many occasions at PMQs that it is no wonder he can't find it with both hands and a map. From his shaking hands, to his ludicrous 'sorghum yields are up' lists, to his peculiar habit of insisting that David Cameron answer his questions instead, Brown has proved about as effective at the format as Helen Keller at a karaoke night. Brown's problem is that, for ten years as Chancellor, his experience in the Commons was limited to Treasury questions, where the minister can pick the questions he wants to answer (in ten years, he never answered a question about tax credits, leaving it all to Dawn Primarolo), and the budget speeches, which are heard without interruption in as close to silence as the House ever gets. He quite simply cannot cope with an audience that is anything other than respectful and cowed. Naturally therefore,
Mr Brown is adamant he will not change the current format. In private, however, he has contrasted the heat of the Commons chamber with the more sober but penetrating approach of members of the public. He was impressed by the calibre of debate at the Hay and Cheltenham festivals, where he has spoken to audiences of up to 2,000. He has also addressed several "citizen's juries".
For a man who keeps on having books written for him about courage, he's remarkably short of it himself.

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Independent idiocy

There was never going to be much chance that an article in the Independent about independent schools was going to be much cop, but even so I'm surprised by this one. The stall is set out with the title: The lesson is clear: get rid of private schools, which is hardly a surprise, but what is the reasoning behind the abolition of a market in education and its replacement with a monopoly state provider?
If anyone has ever taught in a state comprehensive school, they will appreciate that we treat somewhat glibly the needs of the non-academic "half" for an education that is in tune with their futures. Do we honestly treat the educational aspirations of the non-academic "half" with the same respect as the academic aspirations of the others?

It would make a very interesting study to draw up a list of some 20 or 30 criteria and compare the findings in a typical state comprehensive and a typical private day school. It would become obvious why people are so keen to get their children into private schools (assuming they can afford it) or into the best state school (as a second best) if all else fails.
So, state schools fail at providing education for the less academic students, and indeed are worse on every level than independent schools. The state has not proved capable of both providing a high quality academic education to the brighter children that would benefit from such, and a more technical education for those that are non-academic in inclination and talent. Worse it has proved incapable of providing either limb. Schools that are privately run and draw their funding from parents, rather than from the tax-payer have proved better at both - indeed the academic accomplishments of the independent sector are all that holds Britain's head above water in international league tables.
To move from this analysis to the conclusion that, in a sector with a competent and, in parts excellent, private sector, and an under performing and unaccomplished state sector, it is the independent sector that needs to be abolished is quite staggeringly counter-intuitive. So Bawtree had better have a compelling argument as to why this is the case.
These parents, by and large, are those in society who hold the best jobs, who are the most eloquent and who have the greatest political clout. So long as they can buy the best, they will rarely, if ever, speak out against the poorer standards that they have side-stepped with the help of their wallets. How long would paying parents tolerate a school designed for 900 pupils trying to educate 1,600?
Oh no! It's the 'eloquent middle classes' argument. With a truly beautiful non-sequitor at the end too. fee-paying parents would, of course, not tolerate such a situation - but then, as consumers they have both the power and the choice. In a monopolistic state provider such as Bawtree envisages parents have no such power. It is also flagrantly not the case that those selfish middle classes "rarely, if ever, speak out" against poor standards in state education - Polly Toynbee sent her children to independent schools - so did Diane Abbot and an awful lot more. It certainly hasn't stopped them speaking out.
Banning independent schools would be an appalling infringement of liberty. To do so for literally no other reason than that they provide a better standard of education than the state is capable of is astonishing. If there is a problem with state education, then fix it. The independent sector should be looked at as a source of inspiration - not as an enemy.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

New signing

Monde Zondeki - best nickname ever

The standard of cricketing nicknames has definitely diminished of late. In the seventies you had greats like Graham 'Zapata' Gooch and Dennis 'Fot' Lillee (Fucking Old Tart apparently). In the eighties it seemed to get more inventive, Graeme 'Picca' Dilley, Alan 'Legga' Lamb, David 'Lubo' Gower (after a Sydney restaurant), and so on. But sadly, led by the Australians who have never been quite so hot at this, the quality of nicknames has steadily diminished into the current Straussy, Belly, Colly abyss.
That being said, it does the heart good to notice a good new nickname, and the possessor of arguably the finest current nick has signed for Warwickshire. Right ar fast bowler, and a useful tail-end batsman, he is Monde Zondeki. Known to friends (possibly) as 'Allhands'. There's the true spirit of invention.


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

More on Hain

Incidentally, isn't it absolutely extraordinary that the Prime Minister 'rallies to the defence' of one of his Ministers by saying that his misdemeanour was caused by incompetence rather than actual criminal practice? What sort of an endorsement is that? Peter Hain: not actually a criminal, just an incompetent!
Further, why the hell is Hain still a minister at all? If blatant incompetence isn't a resigning matter (though Estelle Morris resigned for more or less that reason) it should sure as hell be a firing matter.

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Things fall apart

In a column in the Spectator, Matthew Parris noted that the press have started to do to New Labour what they did to John Major's Tories in the 1990s - conflate seemingly unrelated stories into an overarching narrative (sorry) almost regardless of the individual status of each new story. This is, of course, a desperately bad development as far as Labour is concerned, and may go some way towards explaining why they are so keen for embattled ministers like Peter Hain not to resign for as long as possible. What is certain, however, is that any degree of press latitude towards Labour has gone - any problem from now on, whether serious or minor, will be leapt on to prove that what was a crisis is now a trend and what was a trend is now a feature of the party.
An example of this is in today's Telegraph where Simon Heffer, in such a rage that he forgets even to mention 'Dave' in a suitably derogatory way, sticks it to Peter Hain for his shabby refusal to do the decent thing. Boris Johnson, writing about Stephen Byers a few years ago, correctly identified the evolutionary development that gave to Labour Ministers an entirely new feature - the prehensile buttock. Hain's clinging to office in the face of everything is a perfect demonstration of one in action. For his own sake, Hain should go as quickly and quietly as possible. Whether that would be to the benefit of Labour as a whole is actually more debatable. Setting the precedent that funding irregularities are a resigning matter may have far wider ramifications than an orange Welfare Secretary.
That's the decision Brown has been wrestling with over the last week - stick or twist? Cut Hain loose and win some plaudits for decision and hard-headedness but risk losing other ministers in England and, especially, Scotland? Or whole-heartedly back Hain and retain control over the Government? The problem, inevitably, is that he has done neither - he hasn't acted with decision, he hasn't offered Hain his support and he hasn't projected either loyalty or hard-headedness. Once again, Brown has ducked a decision - and that is a pattern he cannot afford to form.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Narratives and constructs

OK, so it's something of an idee fixe with me, but I have noticed, especially since the aborted Election in the autumn, that the media have started to focus quite hard on the concept of political narrative and its importance in modern politics. This piece, in the Coffee House, touches on an excellent point, and highlights why narrative construction isn't quite as easy and foolproof as some might think.
One of Brown's key tactics is the fake narrative: cherry picking statistics to cast his years in No 11 in the best possible light. But his official version is now becoming so detached from what people experience and read about that it just sounds fake.
It is critical that the narrative created is both plausible and in tune with a more general trend. When William Hague tried to persuade us all that he was an absolutely normal person, with baseball caps and 14 pints of beer, it flopped because it was so incredible. When Brown tried to tell us over the summer that he was relaxed, inclusive and interested in a wide range of views and opinions, the narrative collapsed because it was so palpably not true. When Labour try and spin the present reality (of rising inflation and a rising cost of borrowing) it will fail because it just doesn't fit.

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Simpson in Zimbabwe

Regardless of the Gunga Dan Rather-esque nature of the stunt, it was a pretty brave thing for John Simpson to shuffle off to Zimbabwe for a week. Though when he says that malnutrition is a small problem, and that there are surprisingly large numbers of cars on the roads, I susoect he's falling prey to 'capital city-itis'. If he spent the same amount of time in Rusape or Selukwe I suspect he'd see a rather different picture. If he went up to Gokwe or another of the really rural areas, I think he'd be horrified.
For the kremlinologists among you, there's a nice little mystery as to who this is:
A very senior Zanu-PF figure, a man who sees himself as a king-maker, met me clandestinely in Harare. He hated Mugabe more than any of the others.
If you can bear it, look back to March of last year, when I precised the runners and riders in the forthcoming struggle to replace Mugabe. My money would be on Emmerson Mnangagwa as the anti-Mugabe ZANU-PF figure:
For the last five or so years there have been two groups behind Mugabe, jockeying for position, and subject to seemingly capricious changes in favour. The group currently in favour is that led by Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa is a political operator with a great deal of experience: he was the first Parliamentary Speaker in Zimbabwe in 1980. He is also deeply implicated in the brutality and murder that characterise Mugabe's politics. Appointed Minister for State Security in 1982, Mnangagwa bears a great deal of responsibility for the so-called Gukurahundi in Matabeleland. This (which literally means 'the rains that wash away the chaff') was the campaign against quasi-imaginary Ndebele 'rebels' that led to the end of ZAPU, the other main African nationalist party, amid the slaughter of anything up to 20,000 civilian Ndebele. Mnangagwa, like Mugabe a Shona, remains personally implicated in this. To add to this, Mnangagwa has been named as Zimbabwe's richest politician - no mean feat in a Government as stupendously corrupt as this.
One thing is for sure, however. Poor old Simba Makoni, who is the dupe being set up to run against Mugabe, is no more his own master in this as John Simpson was a master of disguise.

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Sad News

Tim Blair, doyen of Aussie bloggers, has had some bad news. Best wishes and all that for as speedy a recovery as possible.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Charitable education

Something I have noticed being bandied about by columnists in the wake of the new Charities Act has been caught precisely by Ross Clark in today's Times.
I am all in favour of bursaries: but still there is a part of me that wishes one or two schools would call the Charity Commission's bluff and say stuff charitable status. Its benefits are worth only 2.5 per cent of the average private school's turnover, so why not stop subsidising the poor and cut fees so that our middle-class customers can better afford their villas in Tuscany?
The belief is that if independent schools, which are almost all charities under the original 1601 Act, feel that they have more to lose by upholding the new 'public benefit' test in the Charities Act than they gain by being charities, well why not up sticks and give up on the whole charity thing? But there's a very good reason why they don't.
However, the loss of charitable status is a very serious matter.The reason is that, under the current law, charitable assets remain charitable. If a charitable school loses charitable status, the assets remain charitable and will be used for charitable purposes which are the same as, or close to, the charitable objects of the school.
It is believed, or hoped, by some people that loss of charitable status does not involve more than the loss of the (generally small) fiscal benefits of charitable status, and that the school can continue as before, minus these fiscal benefits.That is not the case. Loss of charitable status involves major change.
A scheme will need to be approved by the Charity Commission under which the assets are applied to charitable purposes.Although that could possibly involve the school continuing in something like its former state (because its assets might be applied to another charity which wished to run the school much as before), this is only one of many possibilities, of which closure of the school and loss of its assets is equally likely.
In other words, the loss of charitable status will lead directly to the death of the school. This is the danger with the new Charities Act. The Charities Commission will have the power to close down every independent school in the land, by judicious application of the public benefit test. Worth bearing in mind, that.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

League Tables

Clive Davis indulges in a little 'Four Yorkshireman' one-downmanship with regard to how his old school is faring in the GCSE league tables.
This year, her old school notched up 39 per cent. Mine was on 22, which is one up from last year, but which still defines it as a failing school. I have no idea why the results are so poor - it wasn't that bad a place when I was there, but that was 30 years ago.
I think I can do better than that. My alma mater, which you wouldn't necessarily think of as a sink inner-city slum, has some rather surprising results this year. Apparently, at Winchester College last year, not a single pupil managed to get 5 GCSEs at grades C and above. Presumably standards have rather plummeted since I was there. Given that this nul-acheivement band is populated exclusively by independent schools, one is left with the happy conclusion that state schools are now infinitely superior. Hurrah!
The rock-bottom ratings come because most independent schools have dropped traditional GCSEs and moved towards the tougher International GCSE - an alternative qualification based on the old O-level. About half of private schools in England offer the IGCSE in at least one subject, including English, maths and science. They complain that the mainstream qualification is too reliant on coursework and fails to stretch the brightest students. But IGCSE is not recognised by the Government, which has effectively blocked state schools from offering the more challenging exam.
So in other words it's little more than Government gerry-mandering of the results. No surprise there. But in truth the league tables have always been flawed. A confession: I am not 'registered' as having achieved more than 5 GCSEs at A-C. The reason is that I did my GCSEs in chunks according to how good I was at them. I took French and Latin a year early, the sciences two terms early and English, Maths and Spanish on time. This was interpreted as my having taken first 2 GCSEs, then 3, then 3. In other words, at no time did I achieve 5. So, if you're trying to judge a school by its GCSE results - probably it's best that you don't.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Idle question

An idle, almost certainly ill-informed, question came to me yesterday while watching an adaption of Northanger Abbey (you may guess that I don't always have control over the remote in my household). If you look back over the three great cultural forms, art, music and literature, over the past two hundred years why is it that, of the truly great in art and music (specifically composition), so few are women, when, by contrast, so many of the great novelists are?
Although I've never especially seen the point of Jane Austen, I do recognise that she, along with the Brontes, George Eliot and leser lights like Baroness Orczy and Mary Shelley, is regarded as a first rate novelist - up with Dickens, Hardy and (ugh) Henry James as the great 19th century novelists. But ask me for a truly first rate female artist of the nineteenth century and my mind is a blank. The same applies to composers. Why should this be? In the nineteenth century, for example, art and music were considered eminently appropriate pastimes for young ladies, whereas writing was considered unfeminine and rather declasse. That ought to suggest that there would be more female artists and composers, but the opposite is palpably true. Why?
One answer I have heard (from my wife) is that, whereas 'quality' in music and art is a standard, set by an inherently masculine establishment, that suits male creativity much better, while a feminine style of writing is not only equally as 'good' as a masculine style, but the reading public require less guidance from critics as to what is enjoyable. This is rambling because I don't know the answer, and am, obviously, unsure of my facts. Is there anything at all to this?

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Really don't understand this

So, in reaction to the news that MPs are likely to vote themselves a larger pay rise than the 1.9% that Brown wants them to have, the Government have announced a review into whether MPs should retain the right to set their own pay levels. Without getting into the wrongs and rights of whether a pay rise of 2.8% is merited (RPI inflation is running at 4% after all) there's something about this that just doesn't sound right.
Commons leader Harriet Harman told MPs it could be "possibly the last time" they debate and vote on their own pay. The review is to examine using "objective criteria" to establish MPs' pay, so MPs are not required to vote.
Ms Harman said: "Many members say they find it unacceptable, and we know the public don't accept that MPs decide by voting their own pay and pensions. We therefore intend to review the procedures for setting MPs' pay and pensions in the future, with a view to examining options that find objective criteria for pay determination within a framework that does not require members to vote."

Well, the current system is that Parliament votes to confirm (or not) the recommendation of the independent Senior Salaries Pay Board - which uses objective criteria to determine what the 'correct' level of salary increases should be. Which, it decided, was the 2.8% that Brown and Harman are so upset about.
So, if this review does go ahead, there would be no question about 'showing restraint' or anything like - it would be a case of everybody accepting what the independent recommendation was. Which is what Brown and Harman are opposed to. It just feels like someone's got tight hold of the wrong end of the stick.


Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Lame tales of temper

Not that this will be of much interest to most, but in the New York Daily News there's a gossipy piece on Rudy Giuliani's bad temper. I don't doubt for a second that he has one, but the anecdotes they use to illustrate it are almost unbelievably lame.

Former United Nations Assistant Secretary General Gillian Sorensen remembers being backstage with Giuliani in 1995 when the New York Philharmonic performed a concert marking the UN's 50th anniversary.

"Suddenly, the mayor saw Yasser Arafat in the audience," says Sorensen. "The mayor went ballistic. He totally exploded. He turned red in the face, he started waving his arms, he yelled at his trembling aide [Randy Mastro] as if he were a worm, he yelled at me. … He jumped up and down."

So Giuliani objected to having Yasser Arafat as an invited guest of the city of New York - can't say I blame him. He was a murderous corrupt old dictator, and this story redounds more to the discredit of the UN than it does to Giuliani. Next?

Former Mayor Ed Koch remembers, "I got a call from Giuliani during the gubernatorial election between Pataki and Cuomo. I had been on the radio criticizing [Giuliani's] administration for taking down Pataki's placards [but not those of Giuliani-backed Mario Cuomo's].… Rudy [calls and said]: 'Ed, you're all wrong about the placards. It's against the law' ... I said, 'Rudy, I know it's against the law. I'm the one who initiated that law.' ... He says, 'Don't interrupt me.' I thought, who does he think he is? So I took the phone and I put it in the crook of my arm, and I started to do other things that i needed to do."

So Ed Koch is an arrogant and rude dickhead. Rudy doesn't even lose his temper here, it's just an 'ooh aren't I great' story from Koch. Seriously, I don't doubt that there are loads of stories of Giuliani losing it in unnecessary and major ways - so concentrate on them rather than these. These just look rubbish.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

OK - so what am I not getting?

Over in New Hampshire, Barack Obama looks like he's about to deliver a pretty shattering blow to Hillary Clinton's eight year campaign for the White House. Polls show him leading by 8-10 points in New Hampshire - and he's now leading nationally as well. What I don't get, basically, is why. I haven't heard a specific policy at all from Obama - except the promise to invade Pakistan. I've heard a lot of platitudes about change, hope and all the rest, but precious little else. Why has he suddenly got the big Mo?

Partly, I suppose, this is about narrative again - Clinton was always going to be vulnerable on this given her backstory. Partly it's about race - though I think David Aaronovitch is perhaps being a little harsh when he describes it as a triumph of misogyny over racism - in that it might make people, especially self-defining liberals, feel warm and fuzzy when they say that they support a black man for the Presidency. But when you look closer, what is there to see?

Obama is a one-term senator, with very little to suggest a track record of governance. Perhaps, as Chris Dillow would say, this is irrelevant. The President does not 'run' the country, and there's no reason why he should. But it is at least troubling that the head of the Executive of the most powerful country on Earth should be quite so inexperienced at politics. It may be that all this is nonsense - that Obama really is the offspring of Reagan and Kennedy and that a new Golden Age is approaching. I can't help feeling, though, that if the Republicans keep their heads and select either McCain or Giuliani as candidate the Democrats might just regret the triumph of hope over expectation.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond

It's been a while since I looked over the water at the interminable manoeuverings for the next US Presidential election, but as the race has finally begun, and as it has been a rather surprising beginning, now seemed as good a time as any to do so. Iowa was a total disaster for one candidate, a triumph for two more and a qualified success for another. I've always thought that there are basically only two realistic Democrat contenders and three Republicans. Since I appear to have been wrong on the latter point, I'll quickly look at those two Dems and four Republicans - Mike Huckabee having rather blind-sided me.
Hillary was really badly damaged by Iowa. As David Davis found in the Conservative leadership elections, if you base your campaign on inevitability, the moment that you lose anything, anywhere - even if it's just a debate, let alone a primary, the very foundation of your candidature is called into question. With people suddenly questioning why it has to be Hillary, all her negatives are suddenly coming into sharp focus, while the area she was trying to stake out - that of a change candidate - has been stolen from her. To get an idea of how much trouble she's in, try to imagine what you would do from here in her shoes. Going negative now would be a disaster - Obama already has the sunny, optimistic thing going on. So, restate her positions? But she's triangulated so hard and for so long that she doesn't have any unique positions. Tack to the left? John Edwards has the leftist populist corner taped. With latest polls showing her well behind in New Hampshire as well, Hillary needs to do something fast - or hope that Obama does something incredibly stupid. She does have one hope to cling to. In 1992 Bill Clinton garnered precisely 3% of the vote in Iowa. Another Comeback Clinton?
Which takes us, of course, to the winner in Iowa - the clearest winner on either side - Barack Obama. His is a mood candidature - I defy anyone to explain clearly and simply what his programme would be, or what his core beliefs are on economic policy. He is running as 'change' 'youth' 'reconciliation' and a handful of other greeting-card mottoes. And it's working. The things that ought to be playing against him - his farcical lack of experience, his youth, his rather light-weight style - are all currently being seen as strengths. He has captured the narrative (yes, I know, sorry) and is making it work. How long he can run on hope and optimism must be an open question - but there's a chance at least that he can run it all the way to the White House - he already has one hand on the Democrat nomination.
For the Republicans (and I'm going to ignore the outriders, from Ron Paul to Fred Thompson) it looked like there was one clear winner in Iowa - Mike Huckabee. He's personable, witty, quick on his feet and a very good politician. His defeat of Romney, after Romney spent so much time and money in Iowa, is little short of remarkable. But it also highlights the Republicans' problem. Huckabee is, in lots of ways, a dreadful candidate. Apart from denying the Theory of Evolution (I really cannot believe I'm writing this) he's also whiny. When people go negative on you, the worst thing to do is go whiny. Actually, the worst thing to do is to prepare a negative counter-ad, call a press conference at which you show the ad, then say that you're not going to show the ad across the state because negative politics are bad. Whiny, hypocritical and farcical all in one go is not encouraging. You'd think that Huckabee simply isn't serious enough to go all the way - but if he's winning in Iowa, surely he'll do better down in the South. Not done with Huck just yet I fear.
The man he beat, Mitt Romney, is beginning to look about as popular with his fellow candidates as a horny dog at a Miss Lovely Legs competitions. All the debates have this sub-text that everyone: McCain, Huckabee, Thompson and Giuliani, spend half their time beating up on Romney. I can sort of see why. For all his granite-jawed, granite-haired patrician-ness, he's changed his mind on so much, at such convenient times, that he looks like a rather slimy careerist. This shouldn't make him stand out at a gathering of politicians, but, surrounded by people like McCain - who really has stood by his principles - it sort of does. Losing Iowa was very bad for Romney - if he can be pushes into third place in New Hampshire, that might very well be it for him.
You wouldn't have guessed it from the BBC coverage (on the first bulletin I heard, they didn't even mention the Republican primary) but perhaps the second most significant result was third place for the Republicans. 'Ugly as sin and old as the hills' McCain may be, but he's a sticker and a gut politician. To come third in Iowa when you've spent your career fiercely opposing agricultural subsidies is something of an effort. To do it when you looked dead and buried in the race a few months ago is even more impressive. The Republicans have been thrashing around looking for their dream candidate - Fred Thompson, Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee - all have had their moments when the faithful think they recognise the new Reagan. All so far have flaked except Huckabee, and I think that will come. So they're left with the flawed knowns. And McCain, for all his flaws in the eyes of the party, is probably the best choice they could make now.
What of the final national front-runner? Rudy Giuliani decided not to campaign at all in Iowa - his style of politics is probably not best suited to the country in any event. But his decision has meant that he's dropped out of the public eye and it has left McCain to take over the 'rational, sane candidate who might actually win an election' mantle. If he doesn't pick up soon, Giuliani may have had it. He needs Romney to get knocked out altogether, and for the choice to look like a straight one between him and McCain. His age, vigour and more robust fiscal conservatism might then be enough to win. The risk is that there's a third candidate - like Huckabee - to sweep up the purists. When Ken Clarke stood against Portillo for the Tory leadership he joked that it would make the Tories decide whether they were more Europhobic or homophobic. It didn't - because a more ideologically pure, electorally impossible candidate slipped up the right. Giuliani needs to be sure that won't happen - and he may already have left it too late.
It is, however, the most fascinating race. There haven't been many elections where the candidature for both sides has been so uncertain so late into the campaigning season. And what's almost guaranteed is that there are scandals, revelations and rumours aplenty still to come. It's beginning to look rather like an Obama/McCain fight though. I wonder who the Vice President will be...

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One of the defining characteristics of conservatism (small 'c') is that change for change's sake is unwelcome. Marcel Berlins in the Guardian hits that particular part of me with this, about legal honorifics.
What is the point of the Mr, Mrs, Lord and Lady? Very few people other than lawyers appreciate these niceties. Nor is there any reason why they should. They are neither logical nor necessary. If, centuries ago, there was a valid reason for adding these appendages, it has long disappeared. Today, it serves only to confuse.
There's the 'rich tapestry' argument - that these titles are part of the pageantry and meaningless flummery that goes so far towards explaining the English character. Or you could point to the fact that the rigid formality and hierarchy within a courtroom go towards 'de-humanising' justice, which benefits true justice as it decreases the problem of personalising it. Or you could agree with Tim and say just because something is only historical, neither currently logical nor necessary, isn’t actually a reason to change it.
Personally, I'm with the third Viscount Falkland on this. If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. After all, we know how many conservatives it takes to change a lightbulb...

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Cricket, drinking and bribery

On the subject of tedious, pub bore style reminiscing, there's even nudity in this one - and it's not hairy male Afrikaner nudity either. While I was in Zambia I managed to be almost the opposite of my previous African trip. At 18 on my Gap year I went off to Zimbabwe to teach in a rural mission school for about six months. I was based 70 km out of Mutare in an old Tribal Trust Land (ie: dusty and waterless) called Marange, briefly famous since when they discovered diamonds there (along with thieving Belgians, light-fingered arresting officers and so on). Now's not the time to go into it much, but I was basically what the locals called a TWOG - a Third World Groupie. I had the messy long hair, the copper bracelets, the jade Africa on a leather thong round my neck - I was basically a smelly backpacker with a modicum of local knowledge.

When, 5 years and a degree later I returned to Africa - this time as a research student - I decided that I'd had enough of the backpacker routine, and became an expat instead. I bought a car, went to the British High Commission for drinks and football and even joined a country club - so that I could play cricket. Lusaka South Country Club is (or was) predominantly a polo and polocrosse club. For those of you that don't know, polocrosse is basically lacrosse played on horseback - and is every bit as insanely dangerous as that sounds. It takes an unusual degree of sang-froid to field at long off - next to the polo field, and concentrate on a high catch when you can hear thundering hoof beats charging towards you. Pretty soon I put my hand up for the slip cordon.
The cricket itself was surprisingly good - given that Zambia aren't going to be challenging for a place in Test cricket any time soon. The team I was playing for was made up mostly of white Zambians, exiled Zimbabweans and a few miscellaneous odds and sods, like a Sri Lankan leg spinner, a couple of African kids from the local school (Baobab College - a far cry from Marange High School) and me, the English one. I was played as a middle order batsman and off-spinner, and found the latter considerably easier than the former. Give me a pitch that hasn't been rained on for three months any time - the ball went practically square. The batting was less easy - you don't get that smooth English grass for one thing, for another the ground had been laid out to the same scale as the MCG - meaning an 80 yard straight carry. I didn't have the oomph to clear the boundary.
But there is something very special about playing proper cricket in Africa. You have to start at 9.30 because it gets dark so early. Taking a slip catch at that time in the morning leaves the hands stinging like they've been bitten. Drinks breaks are frequent, but owing to the weather-beaten nature of our lot, it was considered pretty wet to go for anything other than a cold beer.

Drinks Break?

But if the cricket was hard, it was as nothing to the drinking afterwards. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the opposition were Muslim Asian sides, who didn't even eat with us, let alone have a pint after the game. So we were compelled to hold ludicrous numbers of awards and forfeits after the game. 'Acting like Douglas Jardine' was one new award that season, and there was only ever one winner...

Unfortunately, public transport in Africa being what it is, I had to drive home after these sessions. There are no drink-driving laws in Zambia. On the back of whisky bottles it says 'We do not recommend the operation of heavy machinery after excessive consumption of alcohol'. I presume light machinery is fine. The beer, coupled of course with the light-fragmentation/head-out-of-window thing I mentioned earlier, led to some slightly hairy drives home, but I always managed it. This was largely because, the one time I nearly didn't get home (because I was at a party) it only took until 11pm for the hostess to take all her clothes off. If I was going to go to a car key party, I thought I'd better have slightly better keys... Oh, and the girlfriend thing as well of course. This meant that I was the man who 'made his excuses and left' in fine old News of the World style.

But drink driving was a way of life out there - two quick stories illustrate this, one involving me. After another cricket match (we won, I scored 80 odd - these things are important) we all went clubbing in Lusaka, which was almost exactly the same as going clubbing in, say, Oxford. I heard one of the guys shout over.

'Hey Pommie' which was, originally, my usual form of address, 'we're lining up shots - you want one?'

'No thanks mate,' I yelled back, 'just get me a beer, I'm driving.' It's moment like that you realise that you've acclimatised too well.

The other, rather more extreme one happened on my first weekend in Lusaka, at a party at the High Commission. A tall, bald bloke called Kevs was holding forth about the braai he'd been to the day before.

'We got there for 11 man, and by 3 all the fuckin' beer had gone, so we had to go onto shorts. By 10 all there was left was tequila - I tell you man, I was so pissed that when I drove home I had to get someone to drive behind me to make sure I didn't go in a ditch!' I never got that bad - but give me a year...

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The joys of driving

I'm bored, so I'm going to reminisce. There's nothing about politics or current affairs here, so feel free to go and read the paper or do something more constructive instead. There are short-shorts, but I don't want to build them up - it only ever leads to disappointment.

As far as car ownership goes, I was probably something of a late starter. Although I learned to drive at 17, and drove a selection of family cars from Nissan Micras to, gah, a Renault Modus, it wasn't until I lived in Zambia for six months in 2002 that I first owned a car in my own right. And it was beautiful. It was a 1982(ish) white Toyota Corolla, the same model as below, and it had nearly 500,000km on the clock. It had come up, legally I hope, though you're never entirely certain about these things, from South Africa, and had evidently been caught at some point in a traditional African hailstorm, as the bodywork was pitted with tell-tale pockmarks.

What it was though, was more or less unkillable. I'm a history graduate, with about as much mechanical aptitude as the next arts student. If I open the bonnet of a modern car I see two things. An electronic box containing computer chips and other scary things, and a notice from the manufacturers telling me that unless I close the bonnet instantly, and forget I ever opened it, not only will they never repair my car, ever, but they'll send hired goons around to insult my dog. When I first opened the bonnet of the Toyota, I saw an engine that was connected to a battery. Which didn't work.
Until, of course, I put water in it. I'd always assumed that water and electricity were unnatural bedfellows, and was rather surprised at how thirsty my battery turned out to be, but Africa has always been the place where political ideologies and cars come to die, when they have been thoroughly outmoded in the West and I had a lot to learn. Soon, and when I say soon, I mean after a lot of bonnet openings, I knew enough to clean the connections, top up the battery, swear at the engine, change the oil, burn myself on the radiator and all manner of useful and invigorating things. Now I was man: hear me roar - admittedly usually with pain and frustration as I cut myself on something jagged that shouldn't have been, or burnt myself on something hot that, OK, should.
But I loved it. I loved the way that you had to keep the revs up when starting it, I loved the way that occasionally the steering wheel would drift off to the left like a second term Labour Government. I even loved the way the only radio channel it would receive was the World Service. I especially loved the day I got a speeding ticket on the way to play cricket - I made the policeman give me a copy of the ticket that proved I could get over 100kph. At about a fiver it was cheap reassurance.
That's not to say there weren't problems. I wasn't overly happy with the age of the windscreen - it had reached the stage where incoming light fragmented into a million shards of iridescence. Lovely to look at, but unhelpful when facing oncoming traffic. I used to drive home from cricket matches and parties with my head out of the window like an eager dog, and used to have to clean insects off my forehead when I got home. Niggles apart, however, it was a perfect car. Cheap, economical, sturdy and easy to maintain. The fact that I had a gardener helped too. I had told him at first that I didn't have a garden, which was true, but he asked if he could look after my car instead. I've never seen a car washed so often.
When my brother came out to visit me, I thought it was best to take him down to the one undeniable attraction of Zambia - the Victoria Falls. Lusaka has its attractions, but they aren't really designed for the tourist. Livingstone, for all its decay and sleaze, is a party town. So, I picked my brother up at 6am from Lusaka international (welcome to Lusaka, where local time is 1958) and started the trek down south. 500 km, or thereabouts, on roads that vary from surprisingly good to merely surprising. Still, off we bounced and everything was gas and gaiters. Massive baobabs by the side of the road, dusty little towns with one shop and two corrugated iron churches, police checkpoints and so on.
Until, about 120 km out of Livingstone, there came an enormous bang from the exhaust and we rolled to a halt. An ominous cloud of blue-grey smoke billowed out as we came to a rest between two hills. We were about 40 km on from the last garage, and 120 km away from the next. Something of a problem. I let the car settle for a minute then tried the starter. We started, idled and stalled. In neutral. I tried again, giving her plenty of welly with the accelerator. That seemed to work, and we lurched off, sounding about as far from well as a 1 litre engine can.
The problem was that to keep the engine running, I needed to keep the revs incredibly high. If they slipped below about 2,500 she stalled. I stalled at 60kmh, which I didn't even think was possible. However, with the speedo registering a surely fictitious 130kmh and with all stop signs, traffic lights and crossroads being cheerfully ignored we sailed through Livingstone making judicious use of the Zambian air brake, or horn. Fortunately, Livingstone is an easy place to navigate, as it consists of one main street, leading to the Victoria Falls bridge.

Enquiries revealed that there was one mechanic in town who was reliable and cheap. He had only one drawback - he was a big Afrikaner who hated the English. This was a problem, but one I felt that could be overcome. I'd been living in Lusaka for half a year, was tanned deep mahogany and had been playing cricket for a Zimbo/white Zambian cricket team (the options were Indian teams, and they wouldn't let me in). My accent had slipped south to such an extent that my girlfriend didn't recognise me when I rang her. I could handle this.
So, off we drove backfiring and spluttering, to the mechanic's. He came over as I popped the bonnet, and he looked hard at me before jabbing a finger the size and colour of a boerewors sausage into the vitals of the engine. A blue spark about a foot long shot up and earthed in his mullet.
'Man. Your car's fucked,' was his considered verdict.
'Is it hey?' I replied 'the fuck is wrong with the fucker?' I was pleased with how this was going. He looked at me sharply.
'Where you from?' Shit. Here we go, would this work?
'Aww, I've been up in Lusaka a while now hey? But my folks are back in England now.' Smooth. This was working, I could practically see the prices coming down.
My brother got out of the car to have a look. Freshly landed from England he still had the dazzling whiteness that I had never noticed back home. He was wearing a stripy collared shirt, shorts with pockets and long socks. All he lacked was the pith helmet and he could have been the advance party come to recolonise the place. I readjusted the price upwards. Going into the back office to negotiate, the Afrikaner (whose name has completely escaped me) asked the obvious question.
'Who the fuck was that hey?' Obvious dilemma. Family loyalty... Bargain repair...
'Aw he's a relo from back home, first trip over...' Honour just about saved, discount preserved. About £30 and a fistful of new points later we drove out feeling much better. I didn't tell my brother how close I came to disowning him, but he got his revenge anyway. On the drive back to Lusaka I found that he'd promised someone (a girl. Obviously) that he'd bring a package up to Lusaka for her. On closer inspection this turned out to be a bucket of feta cheese. There are some things that never quite leave you. Your first African sunset. Your first kiss. Your first car. But the one that really never leaves you is the smell of a bucket of feta cheese in the back of a Toyota after 500 un-air-conditioned kilometres through an African summer.
UPDATE: I notice I forgot to mention the short-shorts, so I apologise to any of you who slogged through in anticipation. I'm afraid they were being worn by the Afrikaner mechanic, together with a short-sleeved shirt with cigarettes in the arm pocket and a stupendous mullet. On what basis he was making sartorial criticism of my brother is quite unknowable. But sorry, I'll try and remember a story that has girls wearing short-shorts for next time.

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