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I blame the scapegoats, p.13

I blame the scapegoats, page 13


I blame the scapegoats

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  It seems logical that the only way for the royal family to increase its popularity would be to adopt some of the trappings of our national sport. Football has the advantage of constant television exposure, analysis from a panel of experts, post-match interviews - these are all things that Buckingham Palace needs to think about if they want to force themselves back to the centre of the nation's heart. So after a royal tree-planting is replayed for the third time in slow motion, we'll cut straight to the dressing room where John Motson is waiting to talk to a red-faced Prince Charles, as other exuberant royals run behind him, ruffling his sweat-soaked hair.

  'So, Charles - a very successful tree-planting there . . . Congratulations!'

  'Well, yeah, I didn't know much about it to be honest. The mayor picked up the shovel on my left, he passed it to me, inch perfect like, and I suddenly saw the base of the tree at my feet and I just buried it!'

  The Duke of York, as President of the FA, is currently the only royal directly connected with the beautiful game and last week flew out for the opening ceremony. Apparently there was a terrible delay at the airport when Andrew's name came up on the computer as someone who had a history of travelling abroad with other English lads and getting involved in violence. 'Yes, that was the Falklands War, it doesn't count,' he said as he was chucked in the cells with all the tattooed Chelsea fans. Apparently the foul language and obscene singsongs were quite shocking, but the fans soon got used to it.

  Andrew's sister remains the only royal to have represented her country at the highest level on the sports field. In 1972 Princess Anne made the Olympic team for the sport of Poncing Around on a Horse. (The British selectors went on to get the gold medal for sycophantic toadying.) Her Royal Highness jumped all the fences as well as can be expected considering she had a police bodyguard sharing her saddle at all times. Anne's appearance was notable for the bizarre fact that she was the only competitor at the entire games who was not forced to undergo a sex test. The authorities carefully read through Debrett's Etiquette and Modern Manners and there was absolutely no guidance whatsoever as to how one might tackle the tricky subject of whether a royal princess is a geezer or not. 'The thing is, Your Royal Highness, we do need to be one hundred per cent sure that you are not endowed with the old meat and two veg, as it were, so if you could just quickly lower the old jodhpurs for us, Ma'am, we'll be on our way.' A request like this could ruin your chances of being invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace.

  But not until one of the royals actually represents their country in Britain's favourite sport will they be able to claim some sort of stake in their subjects' football-inspired patriotism. Under FIFA rules the Queen could still qualify for this World Cup. Imagine the drama: England in the World Cup Final and Her Majesty in goal for the penalty shoot-out. It's just a shame she'd have to play for the Germans.

  Snakes and property ladders

  8 June 2002

  When a great public building becomes vacant, the planning people must sit around for hours and hours thinking what on earth it could possibly be used for. 'I don't know, maybe this is a bit crazy, and shoot me down if I'm way off beam here, but how about - luxury flats?'

  A stunned silence falls around the room at the incredible originality of this idea, the sheer audacity of such lateral thinking.

  'What, you mean convert an old Victorian building originally intended for public use into small luxury domestic units to sell to young professionals? It couldn't be done, could it?'

  'No, who in their right mind would pay two hundred and fifty K for a two-bedroom converted classroom?'

  The price of property has got so ridiculous that you can't even get a rabbit hutch for under £100,000 these days. When rabbits have dinner parties, it's all they talk about.

  'My owners looked at a two-bedroom hutch in Islington; it was a hundred and fifty K and that was without straw'

  'I know, it's ridiculous; we were hoping to start a family on Wednesday but we're going to have to wait until the weekend at least.'

  Many central London pets are now having to rent one-room hutches way out in the Thames Estuary and then commute in every morning on the District Line. And once those hamsters start running the wrong way up the down escalator you just can't get them off it.

  Figures released this week show the biggest leap in dinner-party conversations about house prices for five years. Discussions about the cost of a three-bedroom semi were up 5 per cent on last year, while smug anecdotes about how little couples paid for their own home a few years back are up a massive 17 per cent.

  'My family only paid a pound for this place and now it's worth a hundred million.'

  'Yes, but you are the Queen, Ma'am.'

  In fact it had all started to go wrong way before that, right back when Homo sapiens started to shelter in caves. The supply of caverns was limited and prices started to rocket. Neanderthal estate agents would show prospective buyers around, trying to talk up the cave's best points.

  'What about heating; what's that like?'

  'I know it feels a little chilly at the moment but that's because we're in the middle of an ice age. But it's not a smoke-free zone or anything, so you'd be able to have a real fire just as soon as man discovers it.'

  'Great! And the current occupier will definitely move out on completion, will he?'

  'What, the sabre-toothed tiger? Um, definitely, yup, no problem there; just tell him you're the new cave-owner and he'll be only too happy to move on, I'm sure . . .'

  Then primitive hunter-gatherers turned to agriculture and built the first farmhouses, soon adding a couple of spare rooms to let out for bed and breakfast. In those days you would work for a week or so and then you'd have your house. Obviously we've come a long way since then, except that now we have to work for twenty-five years before we own our homes outright. The reason that so many first-time buyers are struggling to get into the game of snakes and property ladders is not so much the price of property, but the exorbitant profits made by the mortgage companies. Imagine if a dodgy-looking bloke in a sheepskin coat with two hard men lurking behind him knocked on your door and offered you a loan.

  'I'll lend you a hundred grand. You pay me back one hundred and seventy grand. But don't forget to pay, because we'd hate to see you lose your house, wouldn't we, boys?'

  'Well, it's a big profit, but I suppose you have to cover your expenses.'

  'Ah yes, the survey fee, that's another five hundred pounds you owe us.'

  'Oh well, I suppose you've got all your paperwork . . .' 'Good point, that's another grand for our "arrangement fee".' 'Blimey, well, I suppose you have to think of the risks . . .' 'Which is why you'll also be taking out my insurance policy - tell him, Ron . . .'

  You'd rightly think they were con men. But those are exactly the sort of mortgage figures you'd be quoted by the banks and building societies today. At least when Brazilian bandits drug you and steal one of your kidneys they don't charge you for the operation.

  The spiralling property market is a symptom of the widening gap between rich and poor. With too many people earning more than they can possibly spend, they are buying flats to let out or little weekend cottages in Gloucestershire. Now when it's closing time on Friday night in the pubs of Kensington, the landlord shouts, 'Come on, haven't you got second homes to go to?' We have a property crisis because the rich are too rich. But you can't blame them for wanting to get out of the inner cities at the weekend. I mean, London can be so ghastly sometimes, what with all those homeless people on the streets and everything . . .

  In-flight entertainment

  14 June 2002

  It's no wonder that ITV Digital couldn't get anyone to pay for their various satellite channels. Not when you can watch live footage from US spy planes for free. This week it was revealed that for the past six months it's been possible to watch transmissions from American spy planes with an ordinary satellite dish. What would normally require a secret video link was being broadcast unencrypted across the world via a
commercial TV satellite, with a live connection to the internet just in case one or two terrorists had failed to catch the current US troop movements on their telly.

  This bizarre lapse in security was discovered last year, but the broadcasts have still not been halted. If you failed to spot the wacky adventures of the American army listed in your copy of TV Quick, don't worry, you can still catch the omnibus edition that goes out on Sunday. If the US military wanted to keep the information top secret they could at least have switched transmission to Channel Five. If they'd stuck it between Barney and Friends and Family Affairs then maybe no one would have ever seen it.

  You'd think suspicions would have been raised when the bloke from Dixons was called out to connect up a new satellite TV package for a Mr O. Bin Laden at a secret address in the Tora Bora cave complex in the Afghan mountains.

  'So there's all your movie channels there - you've got Sky Sports, the complete Disney package and then on Channel seventy-one you've got all the latest movements of US peacekeeping forces in the Balkans.'

  'Excellent! Now can you tell me when the Shopping Channel is selling anthrax warheads?'

  For satellite customers bored of watching re-runs of The Good Life, the exciting new US spy plane package includes The Terrorist Channel, featuring all the latest movements of anti-US terror networks; Terrorist Kids, for younger viewers; and USA Style, which is a sort of homes and garden makeover channel. 'Okay, let's just remind ourselves how this Afghan village looked before the bombing, and watch the reaction of the red team when they get to see how the US air force have managed to completely change the layout of their home in just one hour!' Who wants to watch all that familiar footage from the Second World War on the Discovery Channel when you can watch all the preparations for the Third World War being broadcast live twenty-four hours a day? First the BBC do away with the globe and then everyone else has the same idea.*

  The spy plane footage could also provide endless out-takes for other programmes. Between the home-video bloopers of bridesmaids fainting and toddlers getting stuck in their potties, there'll be other endearing human slip-ups, like NATO smart bombs accidentally blowing up the pharmaceuticals factory. Instead of watching CCTV footage of speeding joyriders on Police, Camera, Action! Alastair Stewart can tut about the dangerous driving of these irresponsible suicide bombers. 'Look at this idiot. If he carries on speeding that lorry load of explosives towards that building, someone could get really hurt!' Ever aware of the possibilities of advertising, it must only be a matter of time before the broadcasters find a suitable sponsor. And now back to part two of the War on Terrorism, sponsored by Taco Bell.'

  Product placement will mean that, instead of chasing terrorists in helicopter gunships, US army personnel will be forced to cross

  * The BBC had just done away with its famous globe logo. They were also considering replacing their historic motto, 'Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation', with 'Charlie Dimmock Shall Speak Gardening Tips Unto Several Viewers.'

  mountainous terrain in the latest five-door hatchback from General Motors. American military operations will be organized into eight-minute slots so that the broadcasters can cut to an ad break at just the right time. Each segment will end with a cliff-hanger in case the viewer is tempted to switch channels. 'Oh no! The Al-Qaida are about to escape over the border. And I forgot to ring my mom to say happy birthday!'

  With the BBC, ITV and Sky now all pitching for the licence for ITV Digital, it would seem sensible to include these wonderful new American programmes in any new package on offer. The expertise demonstrated by their World Cup pundits could be employed at half-time in the latest global sport to hit the airwaves:

  'Well, frankly, Gary, the Americans are going to have to work a lot harder to close down this Saudi star, Bin Laden.'

  'I couldn't agree more, Terry; I've not been very impressed with accuracy of these American strikes so far. Here we see the action replay of this attack. Look: he completely misses and blows up the Chinese Embassy - and at this level you've really got to hit the target.'

  With coverage like this it won't be long till we are all filling out our War on Terrorism wall-chart. And when all-out nuclear warfare does finally break out, at least we'll be able to say to our friends down the pub, 'Don't tell me who wins! I'm taping it and watching it later!'


  22 June 2002

  This government is fed up with being accused of an obsession with the media. So they're starting regular briefing sessions to be reported on the telly, on the radio and in the newspapers. 'No more spin!' said the press releases arriving in every newsroom in the country. 'Policy before Presentation!' said the hot-air balloons all over London.

  We're used to seeing this sort of press conference from the White House, in which the President stands behind a lectern and answers really tough questions, such as, 'Just how evil are these Iraqis, Mr President?' Having British government policy announced in the same way as in the United States was the final adjustment required after it was decided we had to have all the same policies and opinions as them as well.

  Tony Blair began his first televised session by announcing that the event was 'the first of what will become regular opportunities for question and answer sessions on anything you want to ask'. This was his first mistake. If you say 'anything' then there are all sorts of problems that people are going to want to know the answers to. Question number one - Andrew Marr, BBC: 'Prime Minister, I've got a new lambswool jumper but it's got chewing gum on it - what's the best way to get this off?' 'Put the jumper in the freezer and the gum will go rock hard; then carefully pick it off with a small kitchen knife.'

  'Yeah, Jon Snow, Channel Four News. In the film Toy Story, if Buzz Lightyear thinks he's a real space ranger and not a toy, then how come he plays dead when the humans walk into the room?'

  Although the PM is now answering questions directly instead of via his official press spokesman, it's a bit much to expect him to be up there completely on his own. That's why he now wears a secret radio earpiece, so that Alastair Campbell can dictate the correct facts and figures from a little radio booth in the room next door.

  'Prime Minister, isn't it true that spending on health is actually falling compared to our European partners?'

  'That's not true, Tony!' dictates Campbell.

  'That's not true, Tony!' says the PM to a surprised-looking Elinor Goodman. And then, as is traditional, the radio signal starts to get interference from the mini-cab office up the road: 'This government has overseen the greatest hospital-building programme in our history,' says the PM resolutely, adding, 'and furthermore, we have always said Car Nine: pick up at Orlando Road, number ninety-seven, ring top bell.'

  The idea of this initiative is to try to get past the cynical and negative press and talk direct to the British people, although it's hard to imagine bosses up and down the country allowing their workers to come in late so that they can watch the Prime Minister's live press broadcast first thing in the morning. If you want the great British public to tune in, then frankly it's no good holding boring old press briefings featuring politicians and journalists; you've got to put a bit more popular appeal in there to compete with all the other shows on TV. Basically, if it hasn't got Pauline Quirke in it, no one's going to be interested. If David Jason isn't playing a lovable maverick, you might as well forget it. What the government needs to do is to inject a bit of Sunday night drama into the proceedings. So the session will start with John Sergeant asking a tricky question about the Euro and then the PM begins explaining about the five economic tests. Suddenly Cherie bursts in and shouts in her strongest scouse accent, 'You said you'd be there for me and the kids, Tone, but since you've got this job it's just been work, work, work! It's not me you're married to - it's that little red box.'

  'Not now, Cherie - I'm busy . . .'

  'What, too busy for your own family?? I'm leaving you, Tony I've met a holistic vet who lives on a canal barge. We're going to start a floating pet rescue centre with R
obson Green and Amanda Burton -it's over, Tony!'

  Ratings for the press briefings would soar. Every week the nation would tune in to watch the Prime Minister trying to cope with the pressures of life at the top as his private life crashes all around him.

  'Prime Minister, what about this threat of all-out nuclear war?'

  'You know, I think there may be another more important problem I need to deal with first. My family' And then he'd push past the astonished hacks before running along the tow-path just in time to save the canal barge from going over the weir and taking Ross Kemp and all the injured animals with it. Rehearsals start on Monday . . .

  No sex please, we're teenage boys

  29 June 2002

  During a recent secondary-school production of The Sound of Music, a teacher stood up in front of the audience and asked if all mothers with babies in the creche could come and check if it was their baby that wouldn't stop crying. Half the cast walked off the stage. 'I am sixteen, going on seventeen,' continued Liesl, with a nine-month bump sticking out of her Mothercare maternity dress.

  The problem of teenage pregnancies is in the news again, with the government announcing that it will be making free condoms available to schoolchildren. In practical terms, it is not very clear how these contraceptives will be handed out. Will each class have a condom monitor? Perhaps these boys will be sent down to the chemist to buy them, only to return shamefaced with thirty combs and a toothbrush. Or will the teachers just hand them out at morning registration? 'Right, take one and pass the rest back. No, don't open them now, Timothy, they are for after school, except for members of sex soc' Or maybe they'll be sold in the school tuck shop (recently wittily renamed by the boys from 4B)? 'Er, yeah, can I have a sherbet dib-dab, 100 grams of lemon bonbons and a super-ribbed fetherlite Durex please.' Seeing who can blow the biggest bubbles will never be the same again. It is important that teenagers know what these things are for. Now that they're to be made more widely available, we can look forward to a

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