Issue 110: 2017 06 22: Remain or Leave (Richard Pooley)

22 June 2017

Remain or Leave?

The dilemma facing one British expatriate couple.

by Richard Pooley

photo Robin Boag

My wife and I moved to south-west France in March 2013, intending to stay for no more than five years before returning to our house in Bath. After living in seven different countries and visiting over fifty others, either on holiday or for work, I was ready for at least one more expatriate experience. My wife had lived in France for three years before we were married, has always loved the country and speaks French so well that many French refuse to believe that she is anglaise (unlike the man with her who speaks French like une vache espagnole. What have they got against Spanish cows?*). Our two children had flown. I had retired from my company but was lucky enough to be able to carry on working on a self-employed basis wherever we lived. We were as free as we will ever be.

British friends and family wished us well and threatened to come and stay with us. Many have. The only person who could not understand why we were temporarily leaving the UK was my step-father in law.  For the first three years, each time we visited my wife’s parents, he would ask me how much I was missing “home”. He always looked dismayed and disbelieving when I said I was not homesick.  We loved our life in France, I assured him. For the past year, the question has changed: “How is Brexit affecting you?” Both my in-laws voted enthusiastically for Leave and still can’t understand why we both voted, just as passionately, to Remain.  They assume that our life in France must have become more difficult.  For those British expats who rely for their income solely on a UK pension, sterling-denominated savings or on the rent of a UK property, it certainly has; the cost of living in France went up by 20% overnight a year ago. Fortunately, my earnings from self-employment are in euros.

Several people have asked if anyone in France has criticised us for the UK’s decision to leave the EU. No, we have replied. Reactions have ranged from puzzlement, to sadness, to a wish that France could do the same. When we told my in-laws this month that we had decided to stay an extra year in France, they were shocked. What we have yet to tell them is that we are considering becoming French citizens (though keeping our UK citizenship). We may even decide to delay our return still longer.

Three weeks ago we were over in the UK for a family event in Maidenhead and then a wedding in London. Almost everyone I met asked me similar questions to those of my in-laws. When are you coming back? As if nothing had changed since we left.

The night of the wedding we returned from the reception in Fulham to our rented apartment and listened to the news of the killings at London Bridge and in Borough Market.

Events since then have only made us more uncertain as to what to do. The contrast in the conduct and outcome of the national elections in France and the UK has been embarrassing to any British person living here. The poor quality of British political debate and the lack of intellectual heft of Britain’s political leaders have been exposed for all to see.  The cover of last week’s issue of the Economist, showing a smiling and relaxed Macron walking on water next to a pair of feet in leopard-spotted shoes poking up out of the water, caused much mirth in the French media.  Le Point had to explain to its readers who the shoes belonged to and how unusual it was for any British newspaper to praise France and the French.  The only praise Britain has received in France of late is for keeping its famous sense of humour in the face of adversity.

And then there was the Grenfell Tower Block fire. Embarrassment turned to shame. The bravery of the firefighters and the speed with which local people volunteered to help, donated vast amounts of food and clothing and opened their doors to take people in has all been reported here extensively and with admiration.  But further proof of the incompetence of Britain’s local and national politicians, the apparent attempt by the rich to save just under five thousand pounds even if it risked burning tens if not hundreds of poor people to death, and the cavalier attitude to building standards and safety regulations, have all shocked French commentators.

Loyal readers may recall an article I wrote in February in which I mentioned that the 22-year old daughter of our village potter was about to move to London. I described Margot’s excitement at the prospect. She managed to both find somewhere to live and a job. But she may not stay in the UK. The Colombian boyfriend of the French friend she is living with was badly injured in a racist attack two months ago and has returned to Bogota to receive the surgery he needs. According to her mother, Margot was already shocked by the xenophobic abuse she was witnessing on the streets of London before this attack happened.

So, if the UK does not seem an attractive place to return to, what might keep us in France? In a word: hope. There is a future here to look forward to.

Yes, huge problems lie ahead for the new government. Barely a day old and it’s already facing its first crisis: the resignation of all three ministers from Macron’s majority party’s allies, Mouvement Démocrate. They have left the government because MoDem has been accused of corruption: siphoning off EU money meant to provide admin support to their MEPs.  I’m sad that François Bayrou, the MoDem leader and, until yesterday, the Justice Minister, has had to step down.  He has fought all his political life and three presidential elections for a clean-up of the French political system. He had finally got himself into place to steer his “moralisation” bill through the National Assembly but now has had to hand over the task to someone else. The French tend to name any new laws after the minister who sponsored it (most recently Le Loi Macron, Le Loi El Khomri). Le Loi Bayrou would have been something for him to have boasted about to visitors to his Pyrennean farm. No-one is accusing him of acting corruptly. He has resigned because it is inappropriate for the leader of a party which is suspected of behaving immorally, if not illegally, to remain as France’s Justice Minister. It’s a sign to all French people that their new President means to do what he has said he will do: fundamentally change the way politics is conducted.

And you don’t need to warn me what will happen once Macron and his government start liberalising the country’s Labour Law.  The extreme conservative forces of the Marxist Left, led by the newly-elected France Insoumise MP, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and the trades union body the CGT (Confédération générale du travail), will be out on the streets burning tyres and smashing windows. There will be strikes aplenty once the summer holidays are over. I will need to check the Cestlagreve app on my phone every day to see whether the trains are running or the air traffic controllers have walked out. It’s going to be nasty. But Macron and his ruling party know that they cannot give in. If they do, the only beneficiary will be Marine Le Pen and the Front National. Who will most French people blame for the strikes and riots? Where will their sympathies lie? Not, I would argue, with the strikers and rioters. Macron has offered many French people, especially the young, the possibility of a better future. I think they will work with him to achieve it.

There was another “How Refreshing!” moment at the breakfast table in our house this week. Macron has insisted that all the first-time MPs of La République en marche – i.e. nearly all of the 308 – attend a 2-day course on how the National Assembly works. And all his ministers will be subject to annual performance reviews. Imagine that happening in the UK.

If there is one thing which might make us flee back to the UK, it is the Heat. British readers have been enduring record June temperatures this week. So have we. But the dog days of summer – canicule in French – have been on and off since April. I understand it was the Ancient Greeks who saw the arrival of the Dog Star in July’s night sky as the precursor of unpleasantly hot days, hence the term “dog days”. Well, apart from our first year here, there have been long caniculaire periods from the spring through to September. We have learned that closed shutters keep the heat out. I am writing this late yesterday afternoon while listening to Mr Bayrou’s press conference. It’s 37 degrees outside. The shutters of my south-facing study window are firmly closed and the light is on. I heard a Parisienne complain on the radio this morning about the impossibility of sleeping in her mansard roof bedroom; the temperature was 40 degrees. We are in the same situation as her; our room was only a degree or two cooler. So we slept downstairs where it is a mere 26 degrees. We got a quote yesterday for installing air conditioning at the top of the house: 5,300€. That’s about £4700 at today’s rate. Sound familiar?

Oh well, I’m off for a swim to cool down and reflect on what Mr Bayrou said. In the Dordogne river, France’s cleanest. Just 5 minutes away. That’s another reason to stay.


*I have been told that the original expression was comme un basque espagnol, although I have also read that vache could once have been basse, i.e. someone lower class, and Spanish to boot.

 

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Issue 110: 2017 06 22: Caravanning in the Ionian (Lynda Goetz)

22 June 2017

Caravanning In The Ionian

Avoiding the car crash at home.

By Lynda Goetz

I have just returned from two weeks holiday.  Oh yes, it was lovely, thank you.  Of course I sent off my postal vote before I left.  I do feel that we all have a responsibility to vote, but I won’t get into that just now.  Arriving back at Gatwick on Sunday afternoon, even though forewarned (the wonders of the internet), it was still a surprise to find that it was hotter than the Ionian and a less welcome surprise to find that during our absence the air-conditioning in the car had packed up.  The journey home was therefore either simply sweltering (windows closed) or noisy and sweltering as we did 70mph (or just a little bit more) down the motorway with the windows open.  I had forgotten how noisy that is.  My daughter told me I was spoilt, as she pointed out that the only ‘air-conditioning’ her car had anyway was open windows.

On a yacht, of course, you close the windows or ‘hatches’ whilst ‘underway’ to avoid any risk of letting in seawater.  Yes, you guessed it; our ‘caravan’ was a boat.  At the risk of irritating those who are keen on towing their ‘shell’ around with them and then parking it next to another person’s shell in a farmer’s field equipped with loos and showers, I have to say I have never really seen the pleasure in this sort of holiday.  I must admit though that with the amount of boats now in the Ionian, or indeed the Mediterranean in general, the parallels are not too difficult to draw: you park up cheek by jowl; you wander off to find the loos and showers; you can ‘mooch’ from place to place or choose to stay put. However, this really is a fun holiday to enjoy with family or friends and can be as active or as lazy as you choose to make it.

The first thing you will need is for one of your party to be able to produce at least the minimum qualification to skipper a boat.  In this country these are obtained from the RYA (Royal Yachting Association) and details can be found on their website www.rya.org.uk.  If you don’t already have them, getting the appropriate qualification will mean doing a course to enable you to understand the theory and deal with the practical issues.  Armed with this you too can join the ‘yachties’; not such an exclusive club these days now that ownership is not a pre-requisite and there are so many holiday companies keen to charter boats.

Even in the easy waters of the Med, there are the ‘Rules of the Road’ to abide by.  Similar to the Highway Code, these are the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea.  There may be no visible roadway, but there do have to be recognised rules for ensuring there are no collisions (well, as few as possible anyway).  So, the Rules of the Road set out who has priority and who should change course to avert disaster.  However, like many rules and regulations, there are exceptions and also occasions when one rule doesn’t apply, but another does.  For example, ‘power gives way to sail’ – except where the vessel under power is very large and unable to manoeuvre quickly, when it becomes your responsibility (if you value your life) to get out of the way.  Rather similar really to deciding not to argue with a ten tonne truck or a bus, even where in theory the right of way is yours.

The winds in the Ionian are supposed to be fairly predictable (unlike the intentions of voters) and it was generally the case that the mornings were very still, with the wind getting up sometime between midday and 2pm.  Thus, actual sailing time, as opposed to motoring-around time is somewhat limited.  With so many ‘floating caravans’ around, you need to get into port before 4pm unless you want to risk not finding anywhere to ‘park’.  Part of the reason for this is the way boats moor up there as opposed to here, where strangely we like to do things differently.  Here mooring is often done ‘alongside’ the quay.  This means that when boats arrive later they can ‘raft up’ alongside the first boat.  On the Continent they tend to moor up ‘stern to’.  This means first lining up with your proposed slot, dropping your anchor the requisite distance out and reversing into said slot.  You then step ashore from the back of the boat.  Easy – in principle.

Should you arrive too late and half a dozen large catamarans have already taken up the last dozen slots (rather annoyingly they take up two slots and there seem to be more and more of them) and their owners for the week are already well into the beer and olives, you are obliged to provide them with their early evening entertainment by mooring up to the rocks (or even anchoring further out in the bay).  Having dropped anchor you send a willing or unwilling member of the crew with or without a dinghy (after all, the water is warm), to attach stern lines to the rocks.  In some places this is made easier by the fact that the Greeks have provided metal rings.  This however does not change the fact that many of the boats do not seem to have the right sort of anchors for the seabed or indeed heavy-enough anchors for the size of the boats.  The entertainment for those already comfortably ensconced is watching the new arrivals repeated attempts to lay their anchors and re-tie their stern lines.

Once all that is out of the way, it is time to find the showers and loos provided by the locals. These, it goes without saying, are not provided out of the kindness of their hearts. Whilst I can see the rationale in charging for showers, I am not so sure about charging €1 to use the loo.  Will there be those tempted to save on costs by simply filling up the tanks on board and discharging them once out of the bay?  Not a great thought.  Already, the mounting issue of waste from the mass of boats in the Med is one that must surely be worrying some authorities?  As for rubbish and all those plastic water bottles, the quayside bins are overflowing.  Recycling does not seem to be a concept the Greeks have yet embraced.  Just outside Lefkada, where we picked up the boat, a giant landfill site towers over the channel.  On the other side, waste which has escaped before being covered bobs in an ugly fashion against the bank – the foreground to your picture of the feeding pelicans in the saltmarsh beyond.

I would like to say that the little fishing villages which now host the yacht and flotilla brigade are many and varied.  In truth, they are all charming and delightful, but very similar.  The local fishing boats have moved off the town quay to make way for the flotillas and multiplicity of yachts from all over Europe.  They, after all, will bring money into the village by eating at one of the several quayside restaurants or buying from the supermarket. Quayside houses, if not turned into restaurants, have become boutiques selling Madagascan baskets, Indian trousers, Greek olive oil soap, ceramics and olive wood bowls, oh and jewellery. However, unless these are on the quay front they appear to stand little chance of selling anything.  The constant refrain seems to be that ‘everybody looks but nobody buys’.  Is this austerity or the move away from ‘stuff’ to experiences?  People may have splashed out for a yacht or a cat for a week or two, but perhaps they really don’t need or want international souvenirs?

The Greeks are as welcoming and friendly as I remember from my last trip, which was a very long time ago.  They seem happy that tourists are returning to their country after a dip in bookings following the migrant crisis.  This did, to be fair, mainly affect those islands closest to Turkey and the large numbers of international tourists this early in the season does suggest that Greece is now benefiting from the security and instability issues in such countries as Egypt and Tunisia as well as Turkey. Hopefully Elena Kountoura, Greece’s tourism minister, was right when she said “Tourism ….. unites people and nations and can be a bridge for cooperation, economic growth, peace and prosperity.” I would suggest that given the car crash of an election that took place whilst we were enjoying our holiday (the front page illustration of Moneyweek Issue 849 says it all, with a bemused- looking Theresa May sitting amongst the wreckage of her vintage car holding on to a detached steering wheel as Jeremy Corbyn wobbles up behind on his bicycle with a smirk on his face), some cooperation, economic growth, peace and prosperity are things we could all do with right now.  Whether or not we can look forward to them is another matter.  In the meantime I have my memories of caravanning in the Ionian to keep me going through what could be something of a miserable winter – even if I will be allowed to keep my fuel allowance.

 

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Issue 110: 2017 06 22: Old Goats (Chin Chin)

22 June 2017

Old Goats

What are they doing in parliament?

by Chin Chin

Cartoon of 2 men in cloth caps make paper from cabbages under a sign "THE GREEN VELLUM PAPER CO"

By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen

It is the goat I felt sorry for.  Okay, the Queen’s Speech had to be changed a bit to accommodate the election result but what about the goat whose skin was used for the original version?

The tradition has long been that the speech is printed on a goatskin held in the gloved hands of the Sovereign and, one way or another, goats seem to have been prepared to live with that sacrifice.  After all, it gives them a role in Constitutional affairs.  More importantly perhaps, it is their contribution to the survival of England’s green and pleasant land and they certainly have an interest in that green and pleasant bit.  They want to eat it.

It is a symbol of the unsatisfactory state of British politics that a perfectly good goatskin can end up covered with crossings out and then being thrown away without the goat community having any sort of say in the matter.  Talk about a sacrifice being rejected.  It is the equivalent of a dragon forgetting itself and spitting out a princess.

Actually I have discovered that my concern was slightly misplaced because it turns out that, although the material on which the speech is written is described as “the goatskin”, in fact it isn’t anything of the sort.  It is just a very superior piece of vellum.  Whew, that’s a relief.  No goat parts are used in relation to the speech. That will certainly remove a problem for the Greens, whose party naturally favours the predominance of vegetables, should they happen to win the next election.

But wait just a minute.  British politics is a thing of twists and turns at the moment and there is another complication to be considered. Just what is “vellum”?

The clue is in the Latin, the derivation from “vitulinum” meaning “made from calf”.  I see. It is a calf then which has sacrificed its skin in vain.  Well, that is worse when you come to think of it. The goat, had there been one, might have enjoyed a long and happy life browsing the countryside before making its contribution to society, whereas a calf has hardly had time for more than a nibble or two. It is like charging students tuition fees.

It isn’t just calves, however, who have to make a sacrifice to assist in the legislative process.  Since the days of Edward III, the speaker of the House of Lords has sat on the Woolsack.  Until 2006, he was also the Lord Chancellor, head of the judiciary so you can see why he felt entitled to lounge about on a giant cushion like a neo-Caesar.  His dignity was a matter of national importance and the country naturally expected its sheep to make a contribution to it.  But did they?  In 1938 the Woolsack was opened and the stuffing was examined.  Actually, it wasn’t wool at all but horsehair and, although the horsehair was then replaced with wool from all over the Commonwealth, you wonder for how long sheep had been getting credit for a contribution being made by their equine brothers and sisters. And there are more material rewards too.  In truth it should be horses which can be driven over London Bridge by Freemen of the City.

Still, today’s issue is the goatskin.  Why should Her Majesty read from it rather than from an ordinary piece of paper? After all Parliament has just given up the practice of recording all acts on vellum.  Isn’t pencil and paper a more practical approach?

The answers to this lie in freedom of information.  Not the Freedom of Information Act, which is a mere subdivision of the more general subject, but the general right of an Englishman or Englishwoman to read the laws by which the country is governed.  Most of us, in our youth, used that immortal falsehood “the dog ate my homework.” The official equivalent is that “those papers no longer exist”.  If something is written on vellum, there can be no nonsense about the paper having rotted and, anyway, there is presumably a dog-free vellum storeroom in which it is carefully maintained.  Alright, no one may be able to work out what an old act of parliament said any more but at least they will able to read the Queen’s Speech.  That will give future generations some idea of what was going on in 2017.

But such certainty comes at a price and it is been suggested that that price is delay.  Some commentators have suggested that one of the things delaying the Queen’s Speech is not indecision by the Government but the time Ink takes to dry on the goatskin.  That sounds like piffle, probably because it clearly is.  Can it really be the case that the speech has to be inscribed in an unalterable form several days before it is delivered? What happens if the government has a change of heart?  In any case it is the ink that has to dry and not the skin and, as one distinguished vellum maker has been quick to point out, different inks dry at different rates.  If you saw Mrs May in Smythsons ordering some especially slow drying ink you should have deduced that her deal with the DUP was still not quite in place.

Ink, you will be relieved to hear, does not come from animals at all. It is mainly made up of berries.  Nonetheless in 21st century Britain all groups must be properly represented.  Whether or not there has been a waste of berries has not been revealed but it is certainly a wicked betrayal of the sacrifice made by the nation’s flora to blame it for delays which are far more likely to be the result of uncertainty by the government about its policy.

 

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Issue 110: 2017 06 22: Diary of a Corbinista (Don Urquhart)

22 June 2017

Election Diary of a Corbynista

Extracts

by Don Urquhart

18 April

Just Good Friends

Theresa May has announced a General Election on June 8th.  I would be delighted to see a united Labour Party in Parliament.  What’s the point of people like Alan Johnson?

19 April

Alan Johnson obviously agrees; he is standing down.

25 April

The media, led by the BBC, are savagely anti-Corbyn.  They and ITV fill the airways with the likes of Liz Kendall.

26 April

BBC News chanced upon a couple of lifelong Labour voters who thought Theresa May was wonderful and Corbyn a no-hoper.  It’s almost as if the populace has been conditioned by the media coverage.

30 April

Theresa May is committing to introduce measures to protect employees from people like Philip Green.  It is a tactical mistake as she is straying away from Brexit and character assassination.  In tackling workers’ rights she is on Corbyn’s home ground and will not see much of the ball.  It is possibly an admission by Lynton Crosby that the stable and strong, coalition of chaos mantras are wearing thin.

1 May

Yesterday Theresa May had a Gillian Duffy moment on Andrew Marr when she commented that nurses attend food banks for many complex reasons.

Labour will address rogue landlords.  Gavin Barwell warns that this will cause rents to go up.  So there you have it – if you want people to have decent, safe housing they will have to pay too much for it.

2 May

Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission visited Theresa May at 10 Downing Street and reported to the Frankfurter Allgemeine that he was very depressed about the coming negotiations.  Theresa May was in a different galaxy.  May dismisses this as Brussels gossip.

3 May

The Tories are attacking Labour on the basis that their promises are not deliverable.  It is the old “who do you trust with the economy?” mantra.  The Tories are likely to lose the argument but win the election.

4 May

Theresa May made an extraordinary attack on the people she is due to negotiate with in the EU.  It looked like a cynical nod to the xenophobic wing of her party and UKIP voters.

6 May

I am astonished that Jeremy Hunt is being allowed on to television.  Lynton Crosby must be very confident in Peston’s docility. Dinner with friends who repeat the mantra of Corbyn’s “weakness”.  I think we have to rely on Theresa May shooting herself in the foot.

8 May

The BBC has been informed that the Tories will put an immigration limit in their manifesto.  So they are pushing on with subsuming the UKIP agenda.

10 May

Labour has pledged huge increases in funding for education.  David Gauke calls the plans nonsensical, but I think that Labour have a reasonable chance of winning this one.

11 May

The Labour manifesto is leaked and it appears that they are going for broke.  The BBC quotes Labour MPs who say that Corbyn will have to take responsibility if it fails.

13 May

WannaCry seems to have caused carnage round the world.  Microsoft tells us that patches were sent out 2 months ago and should have been applied.

14 May

Amber Rudd’s statement that only 4.7% of NHS computers run XP shows a lack of understanding of cyber-attacks.  Any vulnerability of the network will mean the whole network is exposed.  An ex-Chairman of NHS IT tells us there are hundreds of thousands of XP computers in the NHS.  Either he or Amber is offering us fake alternative facts.

16 May

There was a working class woman in Middlesbrough who would vote for Theresa May because she would be strong enough to negotiate Brexit.  What you are up against is an image formed by Theresa May’s statements and persona and the mantra “strong and stable leadership” parroted by her acolytes, the press and broadcasters.  Corbyn is presented as chaotic and unreliable with the BBC never missing an opportunity to depict him as rubbishing NATO or colluding with the IRA and other terrorists back in the day.

17 May

Labour’s manifesto launch which they carried off in a positive manner with Tom Watson as Corbyn’s best mate and ranks of shadow ministers some of whom have impressed greatly.  I had myself thinking “perhaps”.

20 May

On This Week Ed Balls’ unctuousness was nauseating.  May he rot on the Blackpool dance floor.

21 May

Theresa May’s attack on pensioners has opened the door for Labour.  The Conservative Manifesto tells you what wonderful things they have done, indeed what a grand country we live in, then moralises about things like social care and tells a little story about how we have to be bold in making old people pay directly for their medical treatment.

26 May

UKIP presented their manifesto.  They want more police, more soldiers, less foreign aid, and next to no immigration.  I am hoping they will win back some voters who had defected to the Tories.

27 May

Corbyn did quite well under interrogation from Andrew Neil.  The latter chose the IRA, Trident and uncosted manifesto measures as the soft underbelly.  But Jeremy is well practised in dealing with these.

28 May

The Tory campaign has been poor up until now.  It started with Theresa telling us about Brexit and asking who we want fronting up to Brussels: her or Corbyn? We had that solid and stable nonsense which has now collapsed into U-Turns and pathetic claims that nothing has changed.  Surely they will not go again on the IRA, Hezbollah and Hamas.  Many will see it as nasty and off topic.

29 May

Fallon tried the “Corbyn soft on terrorism” mantra on Peston, who ended up banging his head on the desk in frustration.

30 May

Paxman’s rudeness conflicted with the desire of viewers for a sensible question and answer session.  The one bright spot was his characterisation of May as a blowhard who crumbles at the first hint of challenge.

31 May

Tonight there is a 7 way leaders’ debate where Labour have still not announced their participant.

1 June

Corbyn turned up and did a pretty good job.  Amber Rudd led for the Tories although her father had passed away only 2 days earlier.

3 June

Kuenssberg tried to make Question Time look like a pretty even contest.  But Theresa May waffled and issued sound bites.  At one point she told an underpaid nurse there was no magic money tree, Crosby’s current mantra of choice.  Corbyn came under fire for refusing to say he would press the red button.

4 June

When campaigning resumes and we know a little more of the London Bridge murderers’ backgrounds it will be appropriate to raise the issue of community policing and in particular the very specific warnings made by the police to Theresa May when she was Home Secretary.

5 June

Black propaganda will abound with the Tories looking to ram home their “Soft on Terrorism” message.  I suspect that the scope and evil of their output will be breath-taking.

6 June

Corbyn’s line is that May has contributed to the terrorist problem by reducing police numbers while accusing them of crying wolf.  May’s argument is that Corbyn is a friend of terrorists.  Voters will have to decide who to believe.

7 June

Theresa May wants to shred the European Human Rights Convention.  It looks like a cynical attempt to bind in the racist right wing and finally blindside UKIP.  It might work – she might just convince some who had not yet decided to forsake UKIP for the Tories.

8 June

Theresa May looks downcast in a snappy red jacket

Victory at last!

It seems that it all depends on getting the young people out to vote.

9 June

At just after 10 pm the exit poll summary said “HUNG PARLIAMENT”, and so died what was left of Theresa May’s credibility.

 

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Issue 109: 2017 06 15: Metaphorically Speaking (Chin Chin)

15 June 2017

Metaphorically Speaking

An experiment in Sichuan.

By Chin Chin

Everyone has a preference as to manner of speech.  American Indians don’t like white men who speak with forked tongues.  Edward II was only eligible to be Prince of Wales because as a baby he spoke no English.  Now though, we have something different.  Research by the University of Electronic Science and Technology in Chengdu, Sichuan reveals that women find men more attractive if they use metaphors. Apparently this is not just because the women in question like figurative compliments.  They also like metaphors to be used when describing their possessions.  The man who says “your garden is a sea of flowers” does better than the man who says “your garden is well planted”.

It seems likely that the 116 women who took part in the test were all Chinese, but it is hard to see why other women would not share the same view.  Perhaps they always have and found our Neolithic forbear who said “come back with me and be the light of my cave” preferable to his more oafish cousin who said “come back and do the dusting”.  No, there is no reason to think that the preference is modern, exclusively Chinese, or for that matter restricted to women.  Perhaps we all just prefer people who speak in metaphors, generally.

Before you can put this to the test, it is important to understand what a metaphor is.  We all knew once, when we took GCSE English or its equivalent, but it isn’t the sort of knowledge that you need much and, like the entries on the periodic table, it gradually rusts and slips away.  One knows, of course, that there is some sort of analogy involved but to go further than that most of us have to dust down the dictionary or tap a search into the keyboard.  A number of things become clear immediately.  The first is that a metaphor is not the same as a simile.  If you find yourself saying “like” it is probably a simile or you are a teenager with the unfortunate habit of ending every sentence with that word.  There is no evidence of either of these making you more attractive or interesting.

A metaphor seems to be a word used in a non-literal sense, but if you go beyond the dictionary and look at Fowler’s Modern English Usage you find that there is a lot more to it than that.  There are live metaphors and dead metaphors, for example.  That in itself is confusing.  Supposing that someone rather attractive turns off the television, and you (anxious to impress them with your linguistic dexterity) comment “aha, the silence of the grave.”  You might think that you had coined a dead metaphor.  No, you haven’t.  It is a live one.  That is because it is the sort of metaphor people are conscious of rather than a phrase which has become so ingrained in the English language that the imagery has disappeared.  The word “coined” in the last sentence but three is perhaps half dead.  On the other hand the phrase “cockles and mussels, alive, alive oh”, isn’t a metaphor at all because the cockles and mussels actually were alive – or so you hope if you have eaten them.

Then there is the mixed metaphor.  One may sympathise with those who on being dumped by their partners say “I saw my rock sailing away” but it is harder to forgive the English.  That, however, should not be confused with successive metaphors in which different imagery is used in different sentences.  These are perfectly respectable.

As far as I know, there is nothing in the research from Chengdu to tell you which sort of metaphor is be preferred.  Do dead metaphors count at all?  Will the man who uses a half dead metaphor go down as “subtle and sophisticated” or as “half baked and rather wet”?   Will mixed metaphors, so condemned by the grammarians, give your conversation a racey but attractive slant as though you were writing for one of the tabloids?  Could “he uses mixed metaphors, you know” be a badge of sexual attraction equivalent to “he always packs a magnum”?  How do people feel if they were expecting a metaphor and get a simile instead?  Is it like being offered a box of chocolates and discovering that they are all slightly stale?

To answer these questions you have to look at the rationale which lies behind the preference.  According to the academics it arises because people who use metaphors come across as cleverer than those who do not.  Perhaps though it runs deeper than that.  People who use imagery often use it to avoid detail and to cover the faults in a weak argument.  They can please everyone by sounding as if they agree with them.  Of course they come across as charming and sophisticated.  Of course they will let you down later when the reality behind their metaphors is exposed but, after all, relationships are often transient nowadays.

Whatever the basis of the attraction, it is shortly to be augmented.  As we enter the age of robotics, dexterity with metaphors may become one of the features which distinguishes robots from human beings.  That isn’t to say that robots won’t be able to use metaphors.  They can be taught that as they can be taught anything else.  It is just that you suspect that imagery may not be their thing.

“To put it metaphorically you will be connected to an operator when the sands of time have run out”.  Not very attractive perhaps but not too bad as far as obscuring lack of content goes!

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Issue 109: 2017 06 15: On tax avoidance (Penny Hamilton)

15 June 2017

On tax avoidance

A moving of goalposts

by Penny Hamilton

Whenever the phrase “tax avoidance” appears in the media a clock somewhere strikes thirteen.  The meaning of avoidance in the context of tax has, over the past twenty years or so, accumulated shades yet to be acknowledged by any dictionary.  A recent illustration of this “newspeak” is an article in “The Times,” on 9th June headed “Uber avoids £40m VAT bill on British cab fares,” which inspired me to reflect on this linguistic development over the years I have been a tax lawyer.

My career, like Gaul, has been divided into three parts: first in what was then the Office of the Solicitor for HM Customs and Excise, then a partner in a “Big Four” firm of accountants and now at Pump Court Tax Chambers.

I cannot remember any concern about VAT or duty avoidance tax when I was in the Solicitor’s Office.  Our concern was all with evasion.  If something was within the letter of the law we were not interested in what might have been “the spirit of the law,” and any protestation by officer or administrator that “I know they’re at it” met with little sympathy.  Any alleged intention of Parliament had to be derived from the legislation.  In the world of direct tax attempts by the courts to limit the excesses of the tax planning industry had variable success.  The courts felt themselves bound by the words of the statute so that a successful attack on a contrived and artificial arrangement, entered into for the purposes of avoiding tax avoidance, relied on statutory interpretation of the relevant provision (see the review of this trend in Barclays Mercantile Business Finance Limited v Mawson [2004] UKHL 51).  Attacking avoidance was a matter for legislation and, if the Inland Revenue did not like what was going on, it was up to Parliament to do something about it.  That is, of course, what happened with the introduction of the General Anti-Avoidance Rule: of which more below.

VAT had escaped the attentions of the tax-planners until the mid-eighties, when the introduction of penalties and interest brought it to the attention of the accountants, worried about their clients’ exposure.  When I joined the firm which was to become PricewaterhouseCoopers the possibilities for VAT planning had already become apparent to its tax department.  Oddly enough, given that VAT is a transaction tax, it took a while for the legal profession to catch up with the possibilities of legitimate avoidance.  By the end of the eighties planning arrangements which delivered large, but legitimate, VAT savings became commonplace.  As in direct tax, VAT planning had to be legally and commercially robust and, most important of all, firmly rooted in reality.  As I used to remind my clever colleagues who came up with ever more sophisticated structures, a kite can fly only as long as the end of its string is firmly anchored.  Correct implementation on a day to day basis was crucial and the phrase “the devil is in the detail” become a VAT planning cliché.

At first Customs and Excise were relatively relaxed about this but, as the VAT savings increased, what had been accepted, or at least tolerated, as legitimate planning came under attack.  An example was the uses of lease and lease back structures to spread the VAT cost of an asset over a period, commonly the economic life of the asset.  Following the (allegedly exaggerated) claim by Customs and Excise that this was being blatantly abused in a number of cases, the VAT law was amended by the addition of a new Schedule 10 to the VAT Act 1994 which contained a number of anti-avoidance measures.  Ironically enough, so complex was the drafting that (much to the joy of the VAT planners) the new provisions provided as many opportunities for avoidance as they sought to counter.  Try as the tax authorities might seek to limit them, the avoidance schemes became, as the framers of the GAAR would have said, ever more “egregious”.  There was a perception that VAT’s European law roots made a VAT GAAR impossible as a means of curbing what the tax authorities now saw as an untenable state of affairs.  Nevertheless, it was the European Court of Justice which came to the rescue.  In cases such as Halifax and Part Services the Court adopted and developed the concept of “abuse of law,” to counter artificial VAT avoidance schemes which lacked commercial reality.  But that would not be until 2006.  In the meantime something had to be done.

The first hints of an impending campaign against tax avoidance were in Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise releases, which began to refer to the effect of tax avoidance on public funding for schools and hospitals.  War was not formally declared, however, until January 2003.  The then Chairman of the Inland Revenue, Sir Nick Montagu, asked me, then President of the Chartered Institute of Taxation, if he could make a few remarks at the annual President’s Luncheon (usually a “ no speeches” affair) and, in the interests of cooperation, I was happy to give him air-time.  Nevertheless, after he had spoken I had to take him publically to task for his apparent confusion between the criminal evasion of tax and legal avoidance, reminding him that there was no such thing as “avoision”.  I might just as well have saved my breath.  The distinction between what is, and what is not, lawful has continued to be blurred by officials and politicians alike so that the concept of “unacceptable avoidance” has now become so firmly rooted in the public psyche that any tax avoidance is often perceived as unacceptable. There has been an elision of “unacceptable” and “avoidance” worthy of Big Brother.  As if that were not success enough, it has now become professionally impermissible for members, including lawyers, of the CIOT, ICAEW , ICAS or Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners, to “create, encourage or promote” tax planning arrangements or structures that set out to achieve results “that are contrary to the clear intention of Parliament in enacting relevant legislation,” and/or are “highly artificial or highly contrived and seek to exploit shortcomings within the relevant legislation,” (see paragraph 2.29 of the current latest edition of Professional Conduct in Relation to Tax Advice).

I cannot resist a sneaking admiration for what has been a clever campaign.  It has brought us from the acceptance of a person’s freedom to organise his affairs in any lawful way to the current abuse suffered by anyone who might be paying less that the greatest possible amount of tax HMRC might deem due.  It is, in a way, comparable to the anti-smoking campaign, which has transformed an activity quite within the law into something socially unacceptable.  Less admirable is the legally illiterate treatment of the issues by politicians who should know better and, unsurprising but more disappointing,  by the media.

 

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Issue 108:2017 06 08:RoboVicar (Neil Tidmarsh)

08 June 2017

RoboVicar

Move over, Father Brown and Grantchester, there’s a new holy sleuth in town!

by Neil Tidmarsh

Ok, you directors of the BBC, ITV, Chanel 4, Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime, let me pitch this block-busting idea to you.  It’s a perfect mash-up of sci-fi/detective/reality tv – imagine Transformers meets Grantchester meets Made in Chelsea.  Irresistible, huh?

What’s that, you say?  Unlikely?  Far-fetched?  Unbelievable?  Not at all.   Let me explain.  The idea’s firmly based on two stories in the news this week:

First, from Germany, comes the story of BlessU-2, a robot pastor which welcomes worshipers to a protestant church in Wittenberg, birth-place of the Reformation.  It’s supposed to remind us of Martin Luther’s crucial use of new technology (printing), as part of the celebrations for the 500th anniversary of his break with Rome.  BlessU-2 can speak in a male or female voice to bless you in seven languages.  The blessings can also be printed out via a touchscreen on its chest.  Oh, and its hands light up when it raises its arms.

Second, from the United Arab Emirates, comes the story of ‘the world’s first autonomous police robot’.  It’s just gone on duty outside the world’s tallest building – the 828m high Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It can salute, it moves on wheels, it has a camera which sends live footage to an operations base, and citizens can communicate with it – to make enquiries or report crime – via a touchscreen on its chest.  Being autonomous, it’s one step ahead of the remotely-operated Chinese police Anbot which went on airport duty last year (though the Anbot remains the only armed police robot currently in use – it packs a Tazer).

Now, put these two together and what do you get?  A crime-fighting vicar robot!  A new type of hero for a new type of tv series!  Genius!  Guaranteed to work miracles with your Saturday night viewing figures!

But what sort of crimes will this mighty but righteous wonder of futuristic technology fight?  What sort of mysteries will it solve?

Here we come to the third strand of this idea’s Unique Selling Point: real life crimes!  Real life mysteries!  This week’s news is jammed full of just the kind of crimes and mysteries which would get our sanctified but mechanical hero’s antennae twitching.  There’s more than enough to fill every episode of Series One already.  Let me list them:

Episode One – The Case of St John Bosco’s Missing Brain.  Last weekend, a glass case containing a priceless relic – the brain of a nineteenth-century saint – disappeared from a church in Castelnuovo in north Italy.  The police think it was stolen by a thief pretending to be a pilgrim.  It’s feared that the wretch responsible intends to demand a ransom or, even worse, will use it in black magic rituals.  It’s not an isolated incident.  Other recent cases include the theft of a phial of Pope John Paul’s blood in 2014, the reputed theft of Christ’s foreskin by a priest in 1983, and the theft of St Anthony’s chin from a church in Padua by three armed and masked Mafiosi in 1991 (their boss wasn’t happy – they were supposed to steal the saint’s tongue, but they messed up).  The chin was recovered by the police (just as it was about to be sent off to South America) – our robot hero could surely do the same for St John Bosco’s brain.

Episode Two – The Case Of Bishop Nektary’s Toyota Land Cruiser V8.  Rumours and gossip spread through the Orel region of Russia recently when the bishop was seen driving around in a car worth thirteen times Russia’s average salary.  His diocese was quick to explain that it was a gift from an agricultural company to enable him to reach his flock in even the most remote villages of the region.  But other mysteries emerged; this week the regional news website Orlovskiye Novosti claimed that it had received a letter from the bishop demanding the removal of an article about his car and threatening legal action.  But the diocese claims the letter is a fake…  Something for our tech hero to warm his silicon chips on.  And while he’s at it, he can examine a few other mysteries of the Russian Orthodox Church.  In 2012, a priest wrote-off a BMW Z4 roadster in Moscow.  What was he doing in such a car?  Why did it crash?  Why did it have diplomatic licence plates?  And from the same year, the mystery of Patriarch Kirill’s disappearing watch…  Someone, outraged, pointed out that the church’s humble leader seemed to be wearing a £20,000 Breguet watch in a photo.  But there was no watch visible in subsequent editions of the same photo.  Strange!  If you looked carefully, however, a faint reflection of the watch could still be seen on the shiny surface of the table at which the Patriarch was sitting…

Episode Three.  The Case of the Church of Scientology in St Petersburg.  Still in Russia, the security forces this week raided the headquarters of the St Petersburg branch of the Church of Scientology and the homes of various members of this US sect (investigating allegations of hate crimes, illegal business dealings and extremism) and… well, that’s it.  Nothing else to report.  And that’s the mystery!  This is the Church of Scientology, founded by L Ron Hubbard, remember, the master of science fiction and fantasy.  We’re talking about alien interventions and extraterrestrial civilizations here, about initiates endowed with occult psychic powers not of this planet.  And yet we’re supposed to believe that nothing happened when Russian security forces defiled its precincts?  Someone must be hiding something.  Who?  And what?  The truth is out there, and our RoboVicar will find it…

Hang on, where are you going?  You’re leaving?  No, please, sit down!  Don’t go!  You haven’t heard Episode Four yet!  Listen..!  No, wait!  What’s the matter?  You don’t like the idea?  You don’t think there’s an audience for it?  You’re not Scientologists, are you?  Not all of you, surely?  Ok, tell you what, perhaps we could get Tom Cruise in; Tom could be RoboVicar’s bishop, his boss… And just think how cheap RoboVicar would be – you wouldn’t have to pay an actor!  Anyone interested?  No one?  That’s a ‘no’, then?  Not even a maybe?

 

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Issue 108: 2017 06 08: Of The Yard? (Chin Chin)

08 June 2017

Of The Yard?

A career in detection beckons.

By Chin Chin

Thank goodness.  Even in this season of electoral flimflam, someone occasionally has a good idea.  Not one of the political parties; of course not.  In this case it is the police who propose to recruit new detectives direct rather than forcing them to tread the beat.  That makes sense, doesn’t it?  Detectives and beat officers could not be more different.  The latter are sensible straightforward upholders of the law whereas the latter, though brilliant, are all complicated and twisted up, often having difficulties relating to women.  Look at Frost, for example.  Clever chap but what an emotional mess.  Then that Dr Fitzgerald in Cracker.  Even cleverer but as to his relations with women… whew!  Then Sherlock!  But need I go on?  The higher the IQ, the more hung-up.  That’s the general rule.  Luckily, though, there are exceptions.  For example, Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey has a perfectly satisfactory marriage although he had to rescue the lady from the shadow of the noose by way of courtship.  (Strong Poison if you haven’t read it, although Murder Must Advertise is even better, being, in the author’s view, one of the best detective stories ever written).  A touch of St George there, very romantic.  Still, it shows that the general rule is not inviolable and opens up the profession to people like me who fancy a bit of detecting and would like to have a happy home life into the bargain.

The first question of course is which sort of detective to be.  In fiction they come in all shapes and sizes from moody (and very hung up and depressed) Swedes to ladies drinking tea in country villages.  It is important to know which sort to go for or you won’t blend in sufficiently to pick up the clues.  Suppose you were doing a bit of investigating in St Mary Mead, a place where deductions are generally drawn by acute observation through chinz curtains to the rattle of porcelain cups upon a tea trolley.  To look each suspect in the eye and intone “make my day punk” would be regarded as unusual there, quite apart from the difficulties of getting a licence to carry a Magnum.  Then in the violent hellholes of San Francisco the comment that you were going to rely on your “little grey cells” would probably be taken as meaning that you were going to break the suspect down in the oubliettes of Alcatraz.  Neither style would do in Metropolitan London where you need to emulate someone who has done well in that particular parish. Where should we look for our mentor?  Well, that is elementary; 221b Baker Street, of course.

Life has moved on since the days of Sherlock Holmes and one would need to bring his style up-to-date.  A top hat, for example, may have been de rigueur in Victorian London but would draw attention south of the river or even in the cybercrime centres of the East End.  No, the hat would have to be replaced by a more modern emblem of fashion, the hipster beard perhaps.  Other things would have to be updated too but there is one accessory which is still common among the best detectives, a sidekick or assistant.  Someone loyal but stupid.  The clouded mirror in which the brilliance of the great man can best be seen to advantage.

You might think that finding a sidekick was straightforward.  We are often told that British exam results are not what they should be, so there must be plenty of obtuse people around.  Lots of them will presumably be unemployed so the obvious place to search for them is at the job centre.

They look at you rather oddly there if you say that you are trying to recruit someone particularly dense, and not surprisingly they ask why.  Are you a mafiosi, trying to hire some sort of fall guy who will unwittingly take responsibility for your crimes?  No?  Well, at least someone who will get involved in your crooked insurance schemes without asking too many questions?  When you explain that you are about to become a detective and are trying to find someone beside whom your intelligence will shine, they look at you more sceptically still.  Really how ignorant can they be?  Poirot had his Hastings; Holmes his Watson; Morse his Lewis; that is how the system works.  Don’t they teach these people anything when they are training them to be civil servants?  Perhaps, though, they were taught but simply did not take it in.  They heard but did not observe.  Perhaps indeed they are the people you are looking for.  It is when you ask the job centre staff whether they themselves would like the role that their demeanour becomes distinctly unfriendly.

Alright then, the assistant will have to wait.  Maybe the police themselves will be able to find someone appropriate.  Still, the essence of the great detective is not in the accoutrements but rather in the way in which he views the world.  You must have seen it in Sherlock.  A scratched watch: it must have belonged to an alcoholic.  Mud on a boot: that colour is only found on Hampstead Heath.  A dirty shirt and a band of white skin on the finger.  The man has recently been divorced or widowed.  It seems straightforward really and one can practice in the street.  Here comes someone now.  He has a weary look and radiates a suppressed fury.  Easy: a man who has been cheated in a late-night game of cards.  That would explain both the fury and the weariness in one.  He comes closer.  There is something familiar about him.  In fact I think he is trying to speak to me.  Oh no, now I see who it is.  It is the editor of the Shaw Sheet and he is furious because I have not yet posted my article.

 

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Issue 107: 2017 06 01: A new global arms (and hands) race (Neil Tidmarsh)

01 June 2017

A New Global Arms (and Hands) Race

World leaders get a grip.

By Neil Tidmarsh

There’s a new threat to world peace.  The danger grows day by day.  What began as covert international friction has already escalated into overt confrontation.  How long before it explodes into devastating conflict at the very highest level?

We can’t say we haven’t been warned.  All the signs were there, in the recent bruising, bone-crushing encounters between Japan and the USA, between the USA and France, between France and Turkey, and then France and Russia.  All world leaders – not just those involved – have taken note, and now presidential palaces and prime ministerial residences around the world are echoing with the grunts and groans of alpha-males doing press-ups and lifting weights and squeezing those spring-loaded thingies guaranteed to give you an iron grip according to the adverts for them in those “Stick Me Straight In The Recycling Bin” catalogues.

Yes, the international hand-shake between world leaders is becoming weaponised.  It has to stop before it gets out of hand, literally, and destroys us all in a hitherto-unimagined Armageddon (or do I mean Handageddon?).

Already there are worrying reports of this new arms race (sorry, I mean hands race) spiralling out of control.  From power bases in the West, there are rumours that muscle-bound personal trainers are being recruited, working with computer-generated training regimes based on the cutting-edge scientific data which has won gold medal after gold medal in recent Olympics.  From the East, there are accounts of martial arts experts employing ancient techniques and traditional wisdoms to discipline the minds and strengthen the bodies of their leaders; at least one such leader has undergone the full Zen process of plunging his right hand repeatedly into bowls of hot rice, and then into bowls of burning sand, and finally into bowls of boiling water, until it is hard enough to overcome any amount of pain and pressure.

There is even intelligence to suggest that some powers are going as far as choosing the doomsday ‘nuclear’ option of employing the advanced physics of the novelty joke shop; their leaders are willing to risk international condemnation by wearing those trick rings which incorporate a hidden battery and wires in order to inflict an electric shock of variable intensity on your opponent when you shake his hand.

Even more disturbing are the confidential reports which assert that some world leaders are preparing to go beyond the merely mechanical, and develop a bio-chemical arsenal of steroid pills and testosterone injections instead.  Believe it or not, reliable sources are suggesting that some unprincipled leaders are even ready to go to the extremes of biological warfare by sneezing into their hand before an encounter, or by visiting the toilet first and declining to wash their hands.

What can be done about it?  The USA’s First Lady has set an admirable precedent.  She batted away her husband’s hand as he reached for hers on landing in the Middle East last week.  No doubt he was hoping to practice his white-knuckle technique on her prior to his imminent encounters with the silver-backs of the Arab world.  But she was wisely having none of it – the flick of her fingers was enough to show that she wasn’t interested in any of that macho bullshit nonsense.  Presumably Mrs May and Chancellor Merkel can be relied upon to show the same common sense, love of peace and disapproval of aggression.

But that is not enough.  We had SALT (the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) in the 1970’s; now we must have SHALT (Strategic Hands And Arms Limitation Treaty).  No doubt the United Nations is already at work on it, but we must petition them with the following suggestions:

First.     A ban on exercises with weights etc. to strengthen the biceps, forearms and hand-muscles would be impractical and unenforceable, so such exercises must be allowed, however reluctantly.

Second.  Hidden gadgets such as electric-shock rings must be banned.  World leaders must be body-searched before they’re allowed to shake hands with each other, to make sure they have no such gadgets concealed about their person.

Third.     Steroids, testosterone and other performance-enhancing drugs must be banned.  World leaders must submit to dope-testing after shaking hands with each other.

Fourth.   At least one qualified doctor and a team of trained paramedics must be in attendance whenever any two world leaders shake hands.  The orthopaedic surgery department of the local hospital must be put on emergency stand-by.

Fifth.      A neutral referee must accompany a world leader on any visit to the toilet which precedes a handshake with another world leader, to make sure he washes his hands thoroughly.  In addition, world leaders must wash hands in public, side by side, before any hand-shake can take place.

The last word, on this last point, must be left to Sir Winston Churchill, that great man who warned the free world about the arms build-up in Nazi Germany before World War II and about the arms build-up in Soviet Russia after the war.

One day Winston found himself in the Gents at the Houses of Parliament with a fellow minister.  The minister observed that Winston did not wash his hands after using the urinals.  “At Eton” the minister commented witheringly, “we were taught to wash our hands after having a pee.”

“At Harrow” Winston replied, “we were taught not to pee on our hands.”

The world was in safe (if unclean) hands in those days.

 

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Issue 107: 2017 06 01: Ripples on the surface of the pond (Chin Chin)

01 June 2017

Ripples On The Surface Of The Pond

Reading your own death notice.

By Chin Chin

It is usual to say nice things about people once they are dead but this week’s reminiscences about Sir Roger Moore who played both The Saint and James Bond make it clear that he was quite an exceptionally nice man.  He was certainly not stuck up or pompous, and even though some of his trademark anecdotes about his own lack of acting ability may have been designed to create an image, he was clearly able to laugh at himself.  In these days when actors who believe that they have been traduced by the press try to muzzle it and then explode, lips frothing with impotent rage, when they fail to do so, that is something of a relief.  I hope that Sir Roger would be pleased if he saw what has been said about him, but of course the tragedy is that he never will.  Few people get to see how the world reacts to the news of their death.  As it happens I am one of them.

It all happened because of a mistake in the alumnus office of my college.  Someone of the same name had died in America and they got the two of us muddled up.  The result was a death notice expressing slightly perfunctory regret and giving dates which made it quite clear that I was the one who had died.

I’m not all that good at reading alumnus magazines so the first that I heard of it was when a college friend of mine rang my wife.  We had seen each other a week or so before and he was a little circumspect, understandably as the notice referred to “a long illness”.  He asked rather carefully whether the family was well and waited for a reply.  When my wife said that they were, the story came out, it apparently not occurring to my friend that, had I been dead, the family would still have been well, only smaller.

When my wife told me what had happened, I was a little nervous.  Obviously it is not the sort of thing about which one would want to make a mistake so I checked the “deaths” column of The Times and also that of the Daily Telegraph.  As a family we are punctilious about putting births, deaths and marriages in the newspaper and it hardly seemed likely that everyone in the family had been so careless as to wholly overlook my demise.  No, the more I thought about it the more it seemed likely that, despite the evidence of the college magazine, I had in fact survived.

Well, that was good news in itself but it seemed to be an opportunity as well.  Most of my friends thought I was dead and in due course I would have to undeceive them, but it seemed a shame to do so before the letters of condolence had arrived.  My friends are not normally given to singing my praises but no doubt there would be plaudits aplenty of the sort which, unless I was one day resurrected, rather unlikely on the face of it, I would never get the opportunity to see again.  A little pause before the great undeceiving seemed an acceptable luxury.

When I discovered about the announcement, it was only a day or so old.  It was no surprise then that nobody had yet written.  Obviously they would take a little time to collect their thoughts, and letters of condolence take time to compose properly.  I imagined them ringing each other to chase down some detail.  “Isn’t it true that he was unlucky not to get a first?” would say one.  Actually it isn’t true at all but to those looking through the rosy lens of the condolence writer it would seem true, and into the letter it would go.  Then there might be references to sporting prowess, charm, modesty, manners which put everyone at their ease.  Always a little basis of truth of course but honed and polished like the words on a gravestone.  Actually, some of them might even have ideas for that, a line of poetry, perhaps, or something in Latin.  I believe the words cave canem are on a stone in Pompeii.  I don’t know exactly what they mean but they certainly sound good and the Romans were a fairly heroic lot.  It would be interesting to see what my friends came up with.

Yes, obviously it would take time before the letters started to come in, but no doubt they would begin to arrive shortly.  So I thought for a day or two, but after a few more days, when nothing of the sort happened, I began to find the waiting rather depressing.  Didn’t people write letters of condolence any more?  Did they just wear black instead?  Perhaps I should park my car outside their houses and watch them with binoculars.  It was then that the obvious explanation struck me.  People must have realised that I was still alive and that letters of condolence were unnecessary.  That was how college grapevines worked.  That must be why no condolence letters had arrived.

I held onto this idea until Christmas when the tally of cards received seemed to be lower than usual.  That might be due to a change of fashion or perhaps it was because the post had become erratic.  There were other possibilities too and one of them began to haunt me.  Could it really be the case that when people picked up their pens on hearing of my untimely demise,they did so not to write a condolence letter but to cross me off their Christmas card list?

Well, I would soon find about that as there was a college reunion coming up.  I normally enjoy these events, my bonhomie and backslapping having made me universally popular.  Before long I bumped into somebody who hadn’t sent me a Christmas card that year and asked him why.  “Oh I thought you were dead” he replied.  At this point I lost my presence of mind.

“How did you feel about that?” I asked.

“It disturbed my breakfast” he replied.  For a moment I nearly asked him what he had been eating because one would clearly rather have disturbed a full English than a mere croissant and coffee. Something held me back, however.  Maybe it was better not to know but just to assume that the breakfast had been a magnificent spread with porridge followed by kedgeree and a rack of freshly made toast.  I was beginning to learn the lesson that sometimes it is better to imagine how people will react to your death than to actually know.  Unless, that is, you could arrange it yourself.  The mediaeval custom of getting your estate to pay for masses to be sung in a chantry chapel, preferably with a short homily written by yourself, certainly had its advantages.

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