Saturday, 10 November 2007

Tidal waves and eco-towns

Like many of Suffolk’s native-born sons I was secretly hoping that the apocalyptic tidal wave approaching Norfolk’s east coast last week would perform the same function as the biblical flood, sweeping our rivals to the north into the icy waters of the North Sea as punishment for their many vices. The tsunami approaching the East Anglian coastline we were told, would be a ‘deadly tidal wave’, ‘bring the worst flooding in 50 years’ and cause ‘extreme damage to life and property’. In the event all we were left with were a few small puddles on the landward side of our flood defences, not to mention a chorus of angry voices in the media, demanding to know why East Anglia had not been annihilated as advertised. Perhaps they should adhere to the ‘Michael Fish’ rule, which is that when the media predicts a disaster, it rarely happens. It is only in cases where the onset of disaster is overlooked, such as before hurricane Katrina and the 1987 hurricane that events seem to unfold to their worst potential. Instead of doing this, the worlds press and the public at large adopt the scattergun approach, so that a new disaster is predicted daily in practically every newspaper column and water cooler conversation. The explosion of Yellowstone park, the rupture of the San Andreas fault, the submergence of most of England due to sea level rise and, most chilling of all for the general public, the prediction that house prices might actually fall to fair and realistic levels. Possibly the most entertaining of these predictions was contained in Gary Blevin’s book ‘666 the final warning’ in which he claims that Ronald Reagan was the Anti-Christ and will return to cast us all into the lake of fire, aided in this task by the Aliens, super computers, free masons, and barcodes. Implausible perhaps, but far more entertaining than ‘The Stern Review’ and less self-righteous than the ‘IPCC report on climate change’. At least he got the Ronald Reagan bit right. The scientist’s reaction to last weeks non-catastrophe was to proclaim that we had been extremely lucky and that more of these types of events to come over the next century. If by ‘these types of events’ they mean massive media hype followed by a less than damp quib, then I’m inclined to agree. I won’t be shelling out for a wetsuit just yet, unless of course it’s to protect myself from all the psuedo-scientific dribble in the media.

I believe it was Winston Churchill who said that it was a sad day for humanity when we swapped the horse and cart for the motor car. I can’t help thinking that western civilisation suffered a similar blow when we stopped building things in factories and switched to an economy, which, when you break it down, is based on typing utter gibberish to each one another in the form of memos, meeting minutes, sales proposals and tenders. Certainly we are better off, more prosperous and happier than we were during the days of the industrial revolution, but whilst there was honour and nobility in chipping away at a coalface or spinning cotton, there is little or no nobility in trying to discuss your organisations attitude to ‘change management’ or outlining your ‘Prince 2’ influenced approach to project management in a series of confused and long winded sentences.

So who to blame for the fact that linguistic atrocities are now not only acceptable but crucial if you want to get ahead?. For my part I blame modern philosophy, in particular existentialism, for if you attack the whole concept of meaning you rehabilitate the meaningless and allow it to become acceptable, in fact the very boundaries of acceptability are stretched to breaking point. An ill-conceived Olympic logo that looks like Lisa Simpson performing oral sex on a hoodie becomes “unexpectedly bold, deliberately spirited and unexpectedly dissonant, echoing London's qualities as a modern, diverse and vibrant city….inclusive ... for everyone, regardless of age, culture and language". A repellently ugly disused brutallist car park in Gateshead becomes ‘an incredible sustainable structure…an iconic cultural and architectural landmark’. And then, in one of the 21st centuries great ironies, the previously discredited new town movement returns as ‘eco towns’; ‘family friendly’, ‘carbon neutral’ dwellings, ‘built using timber, solar thermal panels, double glazing, insulation and biomass boilers that do not use fossil fuels’. Of course, reading all this you might have thought that these new settlements the government are planning would be designed to recreate the old settlements of England such as Cavendish, the village I grew up in. Timber framed houses, close knit buildings, shops within walking distance and all designed using the wonderful and varied vernacular architecture of Britain. Wrong. A cursory glance at the website of the firm which is building ‘Northstowe’, the first ‘eco town’ in Cambridgeshire, reveals that these new settlements will have more in common with the dreadfully designed new towns and London overspill estates of the 1960s and 70s than any vision of olde Albion. To add insult to injury, this town will be built in the middle of rolling countryside, since disused airfields seem to count as brownfield sites. What’s more disturbing its that by the looks of the architectural renderings you will have to be a lobotomised cardboard cut-out to actually live there. A look at the planned Cranbrook settlement in Devon reveals similar architectural folly, with the public buildings looking as if they have been designed by an artistically challenged toddler. So if I do have an apocalyptic vision for the future it is this. Future settlements in the UK will look like they came straight out of an Ikea catalogue, they are unlikely to be carbon neutral as people will still have to drive to get into work and the whole thing will be one expensive disaster, a deformed and hideous sacrifice to the New Labour god of ‘eco-sustainability’. Our one hope is that the predicted East Anglian tidal wave finally makes an appearance and washes the whole ghastly mess into the ocean.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

The wonderous animal kingdom

One of the worst features of the modern age, and something I have touched upon in some of my most recent posts, is the relentless rise of scientism. This is the process whereby scientists wearing white coats, and with a long list of impressive sounding letters after their names, periodically emerge from their academic institutions in an attempt to quash the superstitious notions we hold about this world of ours. Of course this is understandable. Spending the majority of your life staring at the reproductive activities of microbes is apt to produce a cynical and materialist attitude in most people, but what gets my blood boiling is the sheer arrogance with which these self-proclaimed know-it-alls come to their conclusions and then issue an incredibly patronising press release. This in turn is treated as gospel by an uncritical media and splattered all over my early morning copy of the Metro.

In 2005, for example, a Mr Steve Morris of the university of Bristol decided to try and quash all rumours that elephants are fond of getting drunk. In the March/April 2005 issue of the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, Morris wrote that there was nothing in the biology of the elephant to support the stories from both Asia and Africa of elephants getting tanked in the wild. "People just want to believe in drunken elephants," Morris concluded. Oh really!. In October 1999 the BBC reported that elephants had run amok in the Indian province of Assan drinking a villages entire store of rice beer and killing four people in the process. A one off perhaps, or perhaps not. Last month, according to officials, a group of delinquent elephants entered a village in Meghalaya, uprooted several huts and drank the locals rice beer. Having got well and truly steaming on the stolen booze, they then electrocuted themselves to death during an inebriated attempt to topple an electricity pylon. One can’t help thinking that perhaps the cause of preventing the Asiatic elephant’s extinction would be better off if they were exposed to the BBC’s new hard-hitting "Alcohol makes you feel invincible when you are most vulnerable" campaign which is currently polluting my television set and disturbing highly-strung individuals the length and breadth of the country. Another inescapable conclusion is that when considering the drinking habits of elephants it is probably better to ask one of the locals in the remote parts of the subcontinent than a stuffy academic from Bristol with a chip on his shoulder.

Of course it is all to easy to anthropromorphise our cousins in the animal kingdom, but its hard to ignore the fact that in a series of bizarre incidents which I intend to document, animals have proved themselves akin to, and even superior to humans. In 2004 a black bear was found in a drunken stupor near a campsite in Washington State surrounded by empty beer cans. He had apparently broken into the camper’s cooler boxes and used his teeth and claws to pry open the beer cans. This in itself is not unusual, what was remarkable about the incident was that the bear had only drunk the local Rainer brand of beer and had rejected the mass market Busch beer, which is, I am reliably informed by my American spouse, a beverage barely fit for consumption, akin to Carling or Fosters. Interesting then that, whilst much of the general population of this country prefers to drink mass produced rubbish than good honest bitter, a bear’s tastes are significantly more refined and they would doubtless be more at home at a Campaign for Real Ale gathering than a piss up on cheap lager at the students union.

Cause for comfort then when observing the bears of the Pacific Northwest. Less so, I’m afraid when considering the recent activities of monkeys, which seem to be more keen on emulating the activities of Liverpudlian yobs than sticking to their normal habits of grooming and tree climbing. "Can the [tourism] minister deploy game rangers ... to deal with the monkey menace?" pleaded local representative Paul Muite in Kenya's national parliament last month, "These creatures have clearly shown that they have no respect for women". In Kenya the harassment of women by Monkeys is becoming so bad that they have been forced to dress like men. Upon seeing women or children the monkeys will habitually approach them and make obscene gestures, pointing at them lewdly and touching their private parts. Thing are no better in Delhi where encroaching development has disturbed the local monkey population to such an extent that they ‘assassinated’ the deputy mayor. In other incidents over the past few years the monkey have run riot in government departments, ripping open files and attacking bureaucrats, even killing people with flowerpots. One can understand their anger, a monkey’s views are rarely taken into account during planning applications. I believe it was Jean Paul Sartre who reprehensively said after Black September that “terrorism is a terrible weapon but the oppressed poor have no others." Presumably then the same principles apply to monkeys as the poor blighters have no weapons besides the occasional hurled stone, the odd flowerpot and the ability to gesticulate offensively at their own member.

In some ways then, animals act better than humans, in some instances worse and in others their experience mirrors ours to an uncanny degree. In early 1999, the combination of a television set and the late arrival of a series of wildlife tapes caused a family breakdown amongst a group of Orang Utangs. The TV was installed in the Leningrad Zoo in Russia so that the apes could learn their native skills. Sadly the tape arrived late, and in the interim the father of the group became addicted to dubbed American soap operas and pop videos. "Before the TV appeared, Rabu never took his eyes off his lady," explained Lena Goroshenkova, a zoologist at the ape house "But then they put up the TV and he's been glued to the screen ever since." The normally raucous feeding time was been transformed into a quiet television dinner and even the frantic swinging around of Rabu's mate Monika did not distract him from the set. It just goes to show, sadly, that with the impressive attributes of intelligence, deep emotions, linguistic ability, and self-awareness also comes the ability to waste the aforementioned attributes in mindless pursuits such as watching reruns of ‘Sex in the City’ and ‘The Fabulous Life of Celebrities’ on TMF. Somewhere in the distance, creation weeps.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

On Wine and Scientific Committees


One of the principle faculties you are expected to possess in order to claim membership of the upper middle class is an ability to pick out a fine wine. Unfortunately, I am decidedly ignorant on the subject, but I do have a better than average grasp of human history. Hence when I am despatched by my spouse to Londis to pick out some red wine for the evening ahead I invariably stick to familiar ground and plump for a bottle from the country with the worst record of human rights abuses. For someone like me who is woefully uninformed when it comes down to understanding the complex soil and climate variations that combine to produce a decent bottle of merlot, this approach has serious merits. Having shifted the logic of purchase, those once incomprehensible rows of bottles arrange themselves into some kind of order. Should I pick out a Chilean red because of the crimes of General Pinochet?, or are these outweighed by the apartheid era embroiled in the South African cape wine or the Aboriginal genocide encapsulated in the fruity Australian red?. Or perhaps I shouldn’t be drinking anything at all seeing as I am already over my recommended weekly limit of 21 units.

Last weeks news that this recommended safe units of alcohol limit was a purely random figure plucked out the air by a pompous scientific committee comes as no surprise. My science teachers at school were some of the most loathsome human beings I have encountered, and their illustrious counterparts in the research labs and universities seem to follow this pattern. So far, in my lifetime, these kill joys have proclaimed the non-existence of God, launched into dire tirades concerning the evils of alcohol, tobacco and obesity and, as the pièce de résistance, demonised us for destroying the world with our gas guzzling motorcars, our resource wasting refrigerators and our callous abuse of our TV’s standby function. They remind me of the 19th century lay preacher who decries his congregation every Sunday for their rampant sinfulness and vice. Strange how, despite our supposedly post-theistic modern perspective, the old Christian concepts continue to re-emerge. The capital vices of lust, gluttony, sloth and greed continue to be denounced -although this time for scientific reasons and for the good of our decaying health service- and the concepts of the carbon footprint and carbon offsetting closely mirror the Calvinist concept of original sin and the pre-reformation practice of paying money to the church in exchange for the forgiveness of sins. The worst of the scientists currently whore-ing themselves out the media is probably the odious Richard Dawkins, Darwin-fundamentalist and the author of ‘The God Delusion’, a man so obnoxious that he makes even a committed atheist like myself want to convert to Catholicism at the next opportunity and spend the rest of my life burning bread in the toaster in an effort to create a visage of the Virgin Mary.

Often it is not the evidence itself that is the problem, it is the way that evidence is assembled into a self serving conclusion and packaged for the media in a series of simplistic sound bites. Take last Friday’s Times for example which led with a huge image of earth and a series of apocalyptic headlines. ‘Humanity's very survival' is at risk, says UN’ read the header although beneath it was the intriguing fact that the ‘the world’s population has grown by 34% to 6.7 billion in 20 years’. In my experience these pronouncements from the UN are usually about as objective and reliable as a North Korean press release. If the iguana population were to surge by 34% we would in all likelihood describe them as thriving and not be suggesting they were on the brink of extinction. This preceded an ‘Earth Audit’ section in which dire facts such as ‘Ten million children under 10 die’ (global infant mortality has actually halved since 1960) sat somewhat uneasily alongside such titbits as ‘Annual income per head has grown by 40% to US$8,162’ and ‘Farmers produce 39% more from their land than in the 1980s’. The overall message however, was of doom and gloom accompanied by, thanks to the new internet enabled feature whereby readers can comment on newspaper articles, the usual displays of panic, outspoken ignorance and unbridled joy from those who don’t particularly like being Homo Sapiens and would prefer it if they, their relatives and the rest of the species faded into extinction. Under the online version of the article a sub-literate commentator, Mr John Hanson of Cairns had written

“Know doubt, Darwin's theory of evolution, is correct, perhaps homo sapiens, if they dont adapt to a very different world, will need to go the way of the Dodo like many other species, that have gone before……when homo sapiens eventually die out , perhaps some new form of life on Earth, will be slightly more cleverer.”

Whatever the state of human evolution, it certainly appears to be lagging in Queensland.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Decline and Fall

As I stood in my front room clutching my Wii remote and throwing punches ineffectually into the air I couldn't help reflecting that while technology liberates us, it ultimately emasculates us. In Victorian times strapping young chaps like me would have manfully strode down to the coal face and spent the day chipping away at it with a giant pick axe. We would have undertaken this task for the vast majority of our lives before suffering an excruciating but dignified death from tuberculosis. This was known as the nobility of labour. Sadly there seems to be little nobility in slumped Internet browsing, deleting penis enlargement emails from your inbox and writing long boring sales proposals.

In old Victorian prints, the man of the house sits at the head of the table, the adoring eyes of his family fixed upon him as he contemplates a letter. When I get home, I stand at the head of the television set and contemplate how best to defeat my e-adversary, the perfidious 'Eric'; a character in Wii boxing who bears more than a passing resemblance to Admiral Tojo. For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, the Wii is the latest games console from Nintendo.

Instead of just pressing buttons on a normal controller you have to actually perform the 'real world' action, swinging the remote like a tennis racket for example, or jabbing with it to throw punches. The trouble with Wii boxing is it is seriously hard work and only a couple of rounds is enough to build up a healthy sweat. Vanquishing virtual opponents takes at least half of the effort of normal boxing but produces none of the street credibility, as I have discovered on those occasions when I have boasted to my colleagues at work. There may come a time when achieving a record breaking time on Super Monkey Ball hurdles is seen as great an achievement as running the London marathon but that time is assuredly not now, unless of course you live in South Korea.

I believe it was Samuel Johnston who said “If you are tired of London, you are tired of life”, a soundbite that has been echoed many times since by the London Tourist board. Of course such quotations must always be seen in their socio-historical context. In the London of Samuel Johnson’s day there were public executions to entertain the masses, barber’s shops doubled up as brothels and the average worker drank eight pints of beer or more during his shift. Nowadays the beer is vastly over priced, the barbers shops have all become trendy salons and the kind of people you used to execute in the olden days are all living off dole money in Hackney. Even if these miscreants were to be rounded up and executed for the public’s viewing pleasure there would no doubt be a hefty entrance fee for the venue, and the organisors would charge extortionate prices for front row seating and glossy programs to cover “budget over-runs“ during the construction of the scaffold.

Katie and I’s recent excursion to the United States roughly coincided with the latest terrorist attacks on the U.K. Whilst this led to lengthy delays at the airport it did at least afford me the opportunity to spout stoic Churchillian rhetoric from a safe distance. I can help thinking that what with Comical Ali, the detonating doctors and the hate preaching mouse of Hamas this country is faced with the most unhinged adversaries since the days of the Mad Mullah.

Of these, Farfour the mouse has proved to be the most entertaining. As someone with an overactive imagination I have often wondered what would happen if Islamic fundamentalists were to take over Cbeebies. Luckily Hamas have set up an experimental TV station called ‘Al-Aqsa’ which broadcasts in the Gaza strip and shows programs such as ‘Tomorrows Pioneers’, a show in which a Micky Mouse lookalike with a squeaky voice preaches hatred of Israel and the America to small children. It’s also true that the BBC news preaches hate against Israel and the US on a regular basis, but at least it is aimed at a more mature audience and doesn’t suggest that resistance with AK-47s and grenades is a wholesome activity for young children. In the past, other Palestinian children's programs have used the Mickey Mouse image to incite radical activities and praise suicide attacks. Unsurprisingly Walt Disney has been too timid to sue for copyright infringement. Having appeared in six episodes of the program, the writers clearly made a creative decision that they had taken the character of Farfour as far as they could and in the last episode he was martyred by a land grabbing Israeli official. Hamas has recently revealed Fafour’s replacement, a six foot tall jihadist bee on string called Nahoul. By the sounds of it, they hired the same voice artist. To me this highlights the problem with fiction; some of the most interesting things in the real world are simply too crazy to make up.

The green contingent has been attempting to bring about the downfall of many things recently, among them my budget flights to the U.S to see the in-laws, my electric kettle and the standby button on my TV. They are now beginning to get their teeth into bottled water, a largely useless product which is sold by spreading paranoia about the domestic supply, rebranding it as a valuable lifestyle accessory with trendy sounding names like ‘Dansai’ and ‘Volvic, and by making unsubstantiated claims of purity. Last month the green party representative in the London Assembly urged the city to give up bottled water saying “Selling water in bottles and burning massive quantities of fossil fuels for its transportation does not make economic or environmental sense.....it's about your mindset and understanding your carbon footprint”. I have been attempting to understand my carbon footprint over the past few weeks and have come to the realisation that whatever steps I take to make my lifestyle carbon neutral, they will always be counter balanced by carbon atrocities such as my wife leaving the iron on for 12 hours yesterday, Live Earth acts taking long haul flights between gigs, or those 10,000 trees which the band Coldplay planted in India to offset the production of their album and which died shortly afterwards turning into carbon emitters.

It came as great amusement therefore to see that the recent flooding in this country and accompanying disruption to the water supply has caused bottled water to fly off supermarket shelves at unprecedented levels. If the recent weather can be attributed to global warming then it seems that this most recent green drive was thwarted by the climate itself. Good to know Gaia has a sense of humor after all.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Various Grumblings


‘If I was going to kill myself why would I need the shampoo?’ I asked the store clerk quizzically. It seemed the obvious question. I was on my daily stroll down to the local shopping mall to buy some painkillers. Having dodged the inevitable hordes of charity muggers, Sky TV salesmen and old ladies armed with shopping carts I had dived into the local Boots to pick up three packs of nurofen and some shampoo. When I reached the checkout I was told that it is now illegal to buy more than two packs of nurofen, presumably as a precautionary measure in case I had had a stressful morning at the office and was planning on topping myself on my lunch break. To me this stinks of hypocrisy. Throughout the average day I am bombarded with pessimistic messages designed to cripple me with self-loathing. I am told that my carbon footprint is too big, that I am destroying the planet, that the world is suffering from overpopulation, and that, in some sort of gross parody of chaos theory, by leaving the TV on standby I have set off a sequence of environmental catastrophes, which will lead to the deaths of countless millions of people on the coastal plains of Bangladesh in the near future. The decent thing to do would be to end my life as soon as feasibly possible but society won’t let me buy enough painkillers to do it successfully.

Another problem with society is its fostering of unrealistic expectations in children. This is most aptly demonstrated by the contestants on X-factor, who usually reveal to the judges that they have craved fame and stardom from an early age and that appearing on the show is the fulfilment of their childhood dream. My childhood dream was to dig a large hole in the ground, cover it with sticks and ensnare someone in it. This fantasy was the product of many a happy hour spent reading a weighty tome entitled ‘Forts and Fortresses’, whose latter pages depicted Vietnamese soldiers busily constructing traps for Americans to fall into. I’m glad to say I was able to construct a system of booby traps in the ground of Melford Hall which the Viet Cong themselves would have been proud of, and that I was able to ensnare one of my friends sisters with one strategically placed hole. Setting your aspirations at this level is advantageous, firstly because they are more likely to be fulfilled and secondly because if this country were ever occupied I would have the experience necessary to take part in a guerrilla insurgency.
Work continues to go extremely well, to such an extent in fact that I need to consider getting on the property ladder. Sadly the property market is such that it doesn’t really represent a ladder anymore. It’s more of a long greasy pole, made all the more impossible to mount because those above you keep greasing the section below them. For example, a revolting mock-Tudor semi in Basingstoke, which twenty years ago would have been a candidate for immediate demolition, is now so ridiculously overvalued that it would set you back a lifetimes income just to enter the bidding. Those who own a property can sit smugly in their repulsive accommodation, safe in the knowledge that their concrete hovel has tripled in value in the last year. Those of us not on the ladder, the modern landless peasantry, stare glumly at the raft of property shows on television as Britain’s new generation of self proclaimed ‘property entrepreneurs’ set about pricing us out of the market. I turn to my history books for comfort and find solace in the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Perhaps the housing market will collapse as some experts predict it will. Imagine the scene. People will be hanging themselves from their loft conversions, jumping from their ‘contemporary’ extensions in despair and gassing themselves in their conservatories. It’s a pleasing vision but one unlikely to be fulfilled.

Movies are often guilty of glorifying their subject matter. A prime example of this is recruitment. In movies like Oceans Eleven it looks so glamorous. The protagonists travel to a series of exotic locations to assemble a crack team of specialists. One by one they win the more reluctant individuals over to their point of view and off they head to plan and orchestrate some grand scheme. Compare and contrast that to the poor buggers who reach me over the company switchboard, attempting to convince me that the woefully untalented administrators on their books are logistical masterminds on a par with Fredrick the Great. Compare it with the tedious process of wading through sub-literate CVs, chasing obnoxious candidates and fending off the ubiquitous employment agencies who home in on your job advertisements like sharks to a bleeding carcass. Makes one long for the days of the press gang when recruitment was a simple matter of heading to the nearest bar in the city, plying the occupants with alcohol and delivering a swift blow to the head.

I note with amusement that the bill for the Olympics continues to escalate rapidly. We seem to have collectively sleepwalked into subsidising the ‘regeneration’ of East London, although this is something of a misnomer. Regeneration in my experience consists of marginalizing the local inhabitants, putting up row after row of identical yuppie housing and obliterating any trace of culture. New Labour is intent on building a London that looks like those blurry architectural drawings you get on the side of new developments; of lobotomised young professionals drifting listlessly through heavily idealised neighbourhoods of yellow brick and glass. Were IKEA contracted to design hell, it would look a lot like this.

Take the example of Oriental City, a magical place down the road from me which acts as a conduit for London’s Chinese community. They flock there to enjoy its reasonably priced shops, its amazing variety of oriental cuisine and its community events. Unsurprising then, that Brent council is intent on knocking it down and replacing it with a B and Q, after all what this borough really needs is another DIY store. When the Olympic bill is criticised, the responsible minister usually stands up and comes out with some rot like ‘before making these cynical accusations you should consider the hopes and dreams of this country’s children who are so looking forward to this wonderful event’. She then returns to her seat in a flurry of self righteous indignation, as if her comment has single-handedly settled the argument. Of course, seasoned observers will recognise this as the ‘For the children’ fallacy. The reasoning goes like this; ‘P is good for children; children are good; therefore, anything related to children is good; therefore, P is good. It can be used to justify a variety of ludicrous measures, including the flushing away of £9 billion on a glorified school sports day at the expense of the National Trust’s lottery funding. Of course it may be true that the children of this fair city are all awash with excitement at the prospect of the 2012 Olympiad and are busily training to become athletes but I can’t see it happening, unless of course shooting, stabbing, looting and smoking crack are Olympic events.

Friday, 12 January 2007

Corporate Personas and Cab drivers


Certain companies adopt the corporate persona of what I like to call ‘the friendly face of capitalism’. My DVD rental service ‘Love Film’ for example, likes to portray itself as an amiable friend; the kind who knocks on your door and asks you if there is anything you need and, by the way, would you like the spare toaster they keep in their apartment?. Love Film is always sending me bubbly emails telling me things like ‘not to be a bad santa’ this Christmas whilst helpfully offering me free vouchers, informing me of DVDs I might like to watch and generously offering me discounts. In contrast, my gas and electricity company ‘Southern Electric’ has clearly modelled itself on the rampaging hordes of Genghis Khan. Much like the peaceful townsfolk of medieval Muscovy one is sitting there quite happily minding your own business when a nasty demand for tribute deposits itself through the letterbox. If it is not paid, reads the notice, my gas and electricity will be ruthlessly cut off, my assets abruptly seized and Barnet County Court will sue my remains for good measure. I wouldn’t mind so much but the impertinent bastards at Southern Electric never send me a bill in the first place, instead they choose the ‘zero tolerance approach’ and send me a final demand notice. I had thought that to be ‘final’ by definition, the demand should be been preceded by other demands, but then I’m a stickler for detail. My life would be so much simpler if I simply blocked up my letterbox with pollyfilla. I wouldn’t be able to receive dvd rentals from Lovefilm but it would be worth it for the peace of mind.

In November I was given an interesting lesson in what happens when you attempt to cut corners and economise. It was the day Katie was due to leave for the U.S and we were preparing to leave the flat for Heathrow airport. Traditionally these occasions are a bit fraught to say the least. We tend to leave packing till its almost too late, pile a bunch of stuff in a suitcase at the last minute and wing our merry way to the tube stop weighed down by our worldly possessions like a couple of Kurdish refugees. We were on our way out the door, about to repeat this onerous process when Katie glanced at the sideboard next to the door and noticed a card advertising a mini cab service to the airport for the unbelievable sum of £20. Mini cabs are something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand they are ridiculously cheap. On the other, if you use one you run the risk of being robbed, sexually slaughtered or forced to wear a tasteless orange jumpsuit and ritually slaughtered in an Islamic Fundamentalist’s home video. We decided to ring the number and sure enough a swarthy looking chap showed up on the doorstep and gestured us over to his vehicle. I tentatively climbed into the back seat and was confronted by a repulsive odour, the kind of smell one can only achieve by getting a dog to bathe in its own manure for a full day and spend the night in the back of your car having ingested large quantities of baked beans and chickpeas.

We climbed in and sure enough as soon as we were sitting comfortably, the chap got out of the car and ran off behind my neighbour’s property. I tensed up for a bit; this kind of thing only happens in assassination thrillers when a bomb is planted in the target’s vehicle and his driver is in on the plot. We sat there bemused for about ten minutes before the mini cab driver returned. He was apologetic, sweating profusely and suspiciously doing up his trousers. To my horror and disgust I realised he must have been caught short and had defecated behind the neighbouring block of flats. There was no mistaking the way he had sprinted off; it was the run of a man who has dined well on curry and beer without being mindful of the consequences. Aside from that, the ride was moderately pleasant, interspersed by the odd moment of terror. The car occasionally gave up in disgust and stalled, leaving us stranded in angry traffic. On the road into Heathrow we were inches away from being hit by a car. The ride was cheap, but as happens so often in life, you get what you pay for (although this maxim is often used as a justification for downright extortion).

And so it was on the ride back from the airport, having been in the States for a while we decided to take a good old-fashioned London Cabby home to Hendon. Sadly good old-fashioned cabs do not charge good old-fashioned prices and we were stung to the tune of 70 quid. So often life only offers you a series of bad options to choose from. Either a cab driver shits all over you neighbour’s property or he shits all over your bank balance; there is no happy medium.