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I blame the scapegoats, p.9

I blame the scapegoats, page 9

 

I blame the scapegoats
 


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  At which point one of the lancers had to go home because he'd been hoping to do a little bit of bar-work.

  Today we hope to make assimilation a more peaceful process. But David Blunkett's White Paper (an unfortunate name in the circumstances) has now been upstaged by his comments about arranged marriages. He suggested that it would be better for people to choose their marriage partners from here in Britain rather than Asia, which greatly upset some fat old white men who were looking at a website based in Thailand. Of course, for most Britons it has not been customary for our parents to arrange our marriages. Instead we have both sets of in-laws come to stay at Christmas and there then follows an arranged divorce.

  When politicians talk about race, and indeed religion, every single care must be taken, not just because it is so easy to give offence, but because there are racists in our society who need only the slightest misheard cue to justify racial violence. Which makes it all the more ironic that David Blunkett had to back down when he attempted to outlaw the incitement of religious hatred. Some people tried to claim this would make it illegal to impersonate a vicar, which was clearly-ridiculous. What did they think the Prime Minister had been doing for the last five years?

  Consignia Personnel Pat

  16 February 2002

  You'd think the woman from Scottish Widows would have got over it by now She's been moping around in that black hooded cloak for years and, frankly, it's time she moved on. 'Och, come on, Morag,' her friends are all saying. 'You're still young. Put a nice bright dress on and come down the pub for singles nite.'

  'Och no, it wouldnae be the best use of those wise investments made by my late husband Hamish . . .'

  It won't be long till this particular actress is released from being typecast as a widow from the Highlands, because I expect Scottish Widows will be forced to change their name when the marketing men realize that the label actually gives a vague clue as to the sort of business the company does. The whole point of brand names these days is to disguise your purpose, not to clarify it. British Steel is now Corus, British Gas are Centrica, Tarmac Construction are Carillion, the Conservative Party are New Labour. Cheap gags aside, the stupidest rebranding of the lot has to be Consignia; another meaningless word beginning with the letter 'c' which used to be something we knew as 'the Post Office'.

  This week Consignia's chairman admitted that the expensive rebranding was a failure and that the new name and logo had attracted derision. Derision? Heaven forbid, I certainly wouldn't want to add to that. Well, maybe just a bit. So now that they have spent an absolute fortune changing their name from 'the Post Office', what name does the interim chairman of Consignia think they might try next? Apparently he thinks the name 'the Post Office' has a ring to it. Hmmm, yes, strangely it does sort of put you in mind of red pillar boxes, whistling postmen and queues of pensioners watching the video loop advertising Stannah stair lifts and moaning that there isn't a separate counter just for stamps. Clearly what is required now is some marketing consultants to spend a lot of time and money testing this new name out on carefully monitored focus groups, before finally unveiling the discovery that 'the Post Office' would indeed be the perfect moniker for that office where they handle all the post. In fact, 'Consignia' was not the original first choice of those clever guys from marketing. For a long time their preferred option was (and I kid you not) 'Mailtrack'. It says it all really.

  Unfortunately, quite a lot of name-changing has been going on at the Post Office since it became a PLC. A 2 per cent pay offer is now known as a 'reasonable pay increase'. 'First-class mail' also has a different meaning, with over two million letters a day now being delivered late, and 'second delivery' now means some time later that week. The organization which in the financial year ending April 1999 made a profit of £493 million (its twenty-fourth consecutive annual surplus) is now losing £1 million a day. Some of the lowest postal charges in the world still saw 90 per cent of first-class letters being delivered the next day, but this was before it was made a public limited company. So much for private business acumen being superior to state-run public services. We are told that the Post Office has to change to survive in the globalized economy but there's nothing compulsory about this. The Tasty Plaice Fish Bar doesn't feel the need to diversify into international banking or insurance and rename itself 'Bolloxia'.

  Of course modern global companies can't have names that really reflect their purpose, because the honesty would be too damaging: 'Rip U Off, 'Asset-strip PLC, 'Kwik-Profitz' and 'I Can't Believe We're Not Better'. And so they have quasi-Latin names that are deliberately bland and meaningless in the hope that nobody will take offence at what they actually do. The fashion is spreading fast; the

  Al-Qaida terrorist network are soon to be renamed 'Convexia', Mossad are being relaunched as 'Creatia', and the LA street gang 'the Bloods' will henceforth be known as 'Cruxelsior PLC.

  When so much focus is put on image rather than delivery of service, it's no great surprise that things start to go as badly wrong as they have for what was once Britain's best known brand. And if the Post Office's customers are suffering, imagine what it is like for the ordinary employees. Things just aren't the same down in Greendale. Postman Pat is now 'Consignia Personnel Pat' with his black-and-white feline communications operative.

  'Morning, Mrs Goggins,' says Pat.

  'Any letters for me today, Pat?'

  'No letters, sorry. But Consignia are expanding in a global marketplace, offering financial services, home shopping, utilities and advertising and marketing sectors.'

  'Oh, that's nice,' says Mrs Goggins. 'I would offer you a cup of tea but the rural Post Office is being closed down and converted into luxury second homes.'

  'Oh well,' says Pat, 'at least Bob the Builder will still have a job. The bastard.'

  Britain wins gold medal at Olympics!

  (er, in the ladies' curling)

  23 February 2002

  What a day to have taken off work. For twenty years he had been BBC sport's only curling correspondent; two decades of trying to persuade Grandstand to cover the Strathclyde regional curling play-offs. And then on Thursday night he'd promised to be in the audience for his granddaughter's school recorder recital and the British women went and won the gold medal at the Winter Olympics. Oh well, there'll always be another time. No, on second thoughts, there won't be.

  Britain's success in the women's curling is like the Polish cavalry-winning the award for the best turned-out horses in the Second World War. You can't help feeling it's not the main event. But now we are supposed to look the world's athletes in the eye once more. 'Hey, we're not second rate at sport - we got a gold in the ladies' curling!' At Westminster, congratulations were given by the hastily appointed Minister for Curling. And how petty it was at this moment of national jubilation for cynics to suggest that this represented some sort of a demotion for John Prescott. To read the coverage in the newspapers you'd imagine that the whole world was focused on this one final. At the White House, President Bush cancelled all meetings and pretzels while he watched the thrilling climax to the ladies' final. In the Middle East, hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians ceased as both sides were gripped by the unfolding drama from Salt Lake City. In the BBC's Question Time studio, the programme was delayed by live coverage from the Winter Olympics, but the pundits put aside past differences as they too were consumed by the nail-biting climax. Nicholas Soames put a supportive arm around Harriet Harman as she nervously bit her lower lip. Ian Hislop and Mary Archer held hands under the desk, both secretly praying for the first British winter games gold since Torville and Dean broke both their hearts.

  It's been a long time coming for the sport that now looks set to become as popular as synchronized swimming itself. As everyone knows, curling was invented at a Scottish public school during a game of association football. To the gasps of all around, one of the boys picked up the ball, filled it with cement, stuck a door-handle on top and slid it across a nearby frozen pond, madly brushing t
he ice in front with the school broom. 'What a splendid idea for a new sport!' said the headmaster of Curling School shortly before they were both led away by men in white coats.

  Since then the sport has become almost popular in several cold countries, but despite this the British commentators were still struggling to explain what was going on. 'Urn, and now we come to the bully-off, and the seeker has to get the puck past the quaffle, hang on, that's not right. . .' The women had looked unlikely gold medal winners at the beginning of the winter games. First, the bloke hiring out the boots couldn't find any their size and then when they finally walked out on to the ice, they slid about all over the place and refused to let go of the rail. But as the competition progressed, many of the favourites were knocked out. The American team, consisting mainly of US air force personnel, missed the ice completely as all their stones hit and destroyed a nearby hospital. The Lebanese team were disqualified for getting their curling stones past customs and then chopping them into little lumps and selling them on street corners. And so Great Britain suddenly found themselves in the final. Viewers who tuned in late may have been thrown by the sight of a manic-looking Scottish woman scrubbing the floor with a long broom - at any moment you expected her to look at the screen and say, 'Flash cleans floors without scratching!'

  Then, with the scores at 3-3, the commentator said, 'How much more tense do you want it to be?' Well, quite a lot more tense, actually. Maybe Debbie Knox falling through the ice, where a killer whale is waiting to avenge mankind's ravaging of the planet, while Des Lynam, dagger in mouth, has to inch across the ice, spreadeagled on the cracking surface, holding out the broom for the brave Debbie as she cries out, 'Don't worry about me! Just make sure that last big stone gets inside the little circle!' Actually, even then I still think I'd rather have watched the repeat of Wimbledon's 1994 goalless draw with Leicester over on Sky Sports Sad. Apologizing for the cancellation of the advertised programme, the BBC's continuity announcer said, 'Due to the coverage of the curling final there's no time for Living Dangerously.' Well, quite. But at least this weekend the British can hold their heads up high, knowing that when it comes to sliding lumps of rock across the ice our ladies are the best in the world. Well done, Britain. It's as if in 1912 a survivor was pulled from the sea excitedly saying, 'Guess what happened on the Titanic) I won the deck quoits!'

  Someone explain the Third Way to a fox

  2 March 2002

  'Government acts to stop hunting', say the headlines. Cue a hundred dismal cartoons of a fox with Stephen Byers'* face, running away from lots of dogs that seem to have 'Fleet Street' or 'MPs' written on their sides. In fact, there hasn't actually been a great deal of fox hunting over the past twelve months. All the foxes looked on confused as the humans apparently discovered a new rural hobby which involved piling up thousands of sheep and cow carcasses and then setting fire to them. 'That's even sicker than what they did to us!' said the foxes to each other.

  But now the hounds are busy once more and the hunting enthusiasts are eager to make up for all those lost fixtures in their calendar. If 'country sports' really are a sport, how come the same side always wins? Does this always come as a surprise to the participants? Do the hunters look on excitedly with their fingers crossed to see whether the fox rips the dogs to pieces or vice versa? You don't get the fox being interviewed on Sportsnight beforehand saying, 'Well, Brian, I'm really confident about this one. I've had a couple of fights in the run-up; there was that easy win against Mr Rabbit, but this is the big one I've been training for.'

  * Soon after this Transport Secretary Stephen Byers succumbed to pressure to resign from the cabinet. Bvers had made the fatal political mistake of having a name that rhymed not only with 'liar' but also 'pants on fire'.

  'So you're not worried that the bookies have you at a thousand to one against beating this pack of foxhounds?'

  'What, you mean there's more than one of them? Er, excuse me -I've just got to call my agent.'

  Last month the coalition in the Scottish Parliament managed to impose Labour's promise of a ban, which the House of Commons with its huge Labour majority still has not. And yet there are signs that the government are once more hoping to find some sort of compromise on this issue. This is where I have a problem with the philosophy of the Third Way. The fox either gets ripped to shreds by a pack of hounds, or it doesn't. You can't be a little bit barbaric. It wouldn't be much consolation to the fox that under New Labour's Third Way he at least gets to take part in a full consultation process beforehand and the hounds that kill him have to be fully licensed and registered.

  But confronted with another historic set of seemingly implacable enemies, the Prime Minister cannot resist the chance to broker another historic peace deal. Under his latest proposals, foxes may have to withdraw from their new settlements in many urban areas and promise to stop tipping the KFC cartons out of wheelie bins. The hounds will be allowed to patrol the countryside but only in their new role as peacekeepers. Any dogs that mistakenly savage a fox will risk being told off when the inquiry is completed in twenty years' time.

  In fact, the government is promoting a middle way which would involve fox hunting only being permitted under licence. This would be like solving the problem of burglary by issuing house-breaking permits and requiring the burglars to close the door behind them. Apparently there would be people whose job it was to ensure that fox hunting was not being excessively cruel or drawn out. How the neutral monitoring of fox hunting is going to work I cannot imagine. The supervisors would have to be like the parents of squabbling siblings. 'Stop fighting all of you - you're both as bad as each other.'

  To which the fox says, 'No, we are not as bad as each other: there are dozens of them and one of me, and they are going to rip me to shreds.'

  'Look, I don't want to hear any more! Why can't you just try and get on with one another?'

  If fox hunting is to continue under new regulations, then we should campaign to make these new rules as obstructive as possible. For a start, foxhounds must be kept on leads at all times (thought not those extendable ones that get wrapped around everyone's legs). Harsh fines should be imposed for any hounds fouling the countryside, with the master of the hunt being made responsible for clearing up after his dogs. His little trumpet can be employed to alert everyone that another dog is doing his business - that familiar fanfare will now mean, 'Oh no, there's another one over here - pass us another little polythene bag.' Equal opportunities policy must be invoked to ensure that minority breeds of dogs are not discriminated against, forcing-hunts to employ little shih-tzus and miniature chihuahuas, who may need to be helped over some of the larger clumps of grass.

  But anyone who believes that a compromise is really possible should try explaining the Third Way to a fox. It is not a question of class warfare; hunting should be banned because it is a matter of principle and of democracy. The practice is barbaric, it's opposed by a huge majority of the British people and the people who do it are a bunch of snobby Tories with stupid posh accents. Oh damn, I didn't say that -damn, what a giveaway . . .

  More power to those elbows with the leather patches

  9 March 2002

  At my kids' school a number of parents built a dinky little summer-house for the children to play in. And when it was finished a teacher squatted down inside it and said, 'Well, it's bigger than the flat I'm renting at the moment. . .' This week teachers in the capital voted in favour of strike action in a dispute about local allowances, or 'London weighting'; so called because teachers are still waiting for it. Like so many public sector workers, thousands of teachers simply cannot afford to buy homes in the South-east. So that's why we've been taking all those cereal boxes into the nursery. The teachers need them for building temporary dwellings behind the nature corner. 'Hello, mummy, look what I made today!' say the infants, skipping out into the playground with a brightly painted cardboard box, while their teacher comes running out behind them shouting, 'Oi, come back with my house!'

&nbs
p; Perhaps the kids in Year One could go further towards solving the chronic accommodation problem. Many infant classes have a little teddy bear called Henry or whatever that they take turns to have on a sleepover. Well, instead of taking a soft toy home to stay with them, the five-year-olds could take turns to give their teacher a bed for the night. And as part of this exercise they could each write another page in teacher's sleepover diary: 'On Thursday I went back to Jessica's house, and we had Nutella sandwiches for tea and watched Pingu and I was very naughty because I didn't want to go to bed at seven o'clock and I kept saying I had to do my bloody lesson plan.'

  The last time the teachers took industrial action on this issue was thirty years ago. The then Education Secretary soon regretted confronting the NUT, and was never heard of again. Oh, apart from becoming the Prime Minister for eleven and a half years and nearly destroying the entire trade union movement. But today's teachers have an advantage over their predecessors. Many of the present Labour government have kids in London state schools - the teachers have a direct line of communication to those in power. It would certainly liven up a parents' evening at the London Oratory School.

  'Hello there, and whose parents are you?'

  'We're Euan Blair's mum and dad - I'm Tony, this is my wife Cherie.'

  'Well, I'll do my best to remember that - but I meet so many parents, you know . . . Now, young Euan, yes, well, I think he would do a lot better if his teachers were not burdened with so much administration and bloody bureaucracy'

  'Um, right . . . But what about his maths?'

  'Hmmm, well, I gave him this basic sum this week: "If a teacher gets twenty-five thousand pounds a year and they have to spend twenty-five grand on their mortgage, pension and travel - HOW ON EARTH ARE THEY SUPPOSED TO BLOODY EAT!!!"'

 
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