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Sunday, 28 February 2010

Falklands – Can’t Pay, Won’t Fight (3)

The level of general cluelessness over the Argentines’ grumbles at oil exploration starting off the Falkland Islands extends beyond the blogosphere, as an article on the Mirror website demonstrates.

The author, one Mark Austin, thinks that the chances of military intervention by Argentina are “slim” and “unlikely”: he could make a more certain definition by taking on board the information that the Government in Buenos Aires has ruled out such action, as I pointed out recently, mainly because they’re skint.

But such details do not detain Austin, who tells of “pressure exerted through the UN”, while forgetting that the Argentines have been trying to get attention via the UN for several years now without success, not least because the UK is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and can therefore veto whatever Argentina or its supporters proposes.

However, more serious, Austin believes, is that the US have taken “no position” on the issue. This could be because, right now, all that is happening is Argentina trying to get attention. Austin’s article is supposed to point out that wars in future may be fought over scarce resources: if it really did come to a shooting war, the USA, with its appetite for oil, would have no trouble at all siding with the UK.

After all, the Reagan Administration was supposed to be neutral when the 1982 conflict kicked off, but they were giving the UK access to intelligence. It would be no different with whoever might be in the White House in the future.

Especially if they wanted the oil.

Tea For You?

On the fringe of the Tories’ so-called Spring Conference has been another in the long line of Stateside imports, but one that Young Dave may wish had stayed “over there”: the Tea Party movement has fetched up in Brighton.

And the supposedly respectable face of Tea Party UK is occasional Tory and committed Europhobe Dan, Dan the Oratory Man, seen recently denouncing the NHS for the benefit of Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity on Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

But the event for some reason has not forced itself onto the news agenda thus far: well, not in the UK, at any rate. Why should that be? Well, the credibility of the concept of slashing the public sector in the way that Hannan and his pals at the so-called Freedom Association are advocating may not be high, for starters.

And Young Dave may want the event to stay off the news: after all, on the council of the Freedom Association along with Hanann is Malcolm Pearson, otherwise known as the leader of UKIP. Anything that even mentions the party that could take precious votes off the Tories will not go down well with Team Cameron.

Bully For You – 2

The attempt to not only stand up Bullygate, but keep the story in the news, continues today in the Mail On Sunday, part of the empire of the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre. And a pretty feeble attempt it is: Pa Broon apparently pushed an aide out of his way with his arm – the kind of thing that tube commuters do to each other every weekday. But the Dacre empire has something the other papers don’t, so it has to be milked aggressively.

And this is where the story came in: Observer journalist Andrew Rawnsley had painstakingly put together a book on the New Labour “Project” which he and his publishers wanted to sell, and his paper was being relaunched, and also wanted to sell. So excerpts from the Rawnsley book have been serialised in the Observer, with the bullying allegations batting first, merely as a commercial imperative for the Guardian Media Group.

This aspect of Bullygate does not appear to have been taken on board by Tory cheerleaders, many of whom have worked themselves up into an advanced state of excitement over the story, believing it to be the bringer of electoral advantage. The idea that the fourth estate may be rallying to Young Dave may also have taken root with those who want to see him in power.

Alas, as Tory groupies should know by now, the print media acts out of commercial realism and occasional expediency: both the original story and the latest “revelation” have been put out there for reasons other than the serving of the Tory Party’s purpose. And the effect on the electorate has been next to negligible.

But the real point has been served: both stories have sold well.

The Lead Narrows – 3

Full disclosure: when I began this series of posts, I wasn’t privy to any opinion poll data, or to the workings of any newspaper. So there was no inside information to inform my decision.

So why focus on this subject? Well, today’s Murdoch Sunday Times has the answer for all to see: Young Dave’s poll lead has narrowed to a mere two points, with Labour showing in the mid 30s, a level that would have been thought impossible towards the end of last year.

There could of course be variations in marginal seats, where Michael Ashcroft’s largesse is being freely sprayed around, but if the poll percentages were evenly distributed, Labour would be the largest party, and by over fifty seats – so Pa Broon would remain in 10 Downing Street, and the suitably disgruntled Men In Suits would be coming to give Young Dave the bad news.

Moreover, the impression is given that some in the media are becoming just that little bit bolder in questioning the Tories: on this morning’s Andy Marr Show, the host gave the Rt Hon Gideon George Oliver Osborne, heir to the Seventeenth Baronet, quite a hard time, and quizzed the thoroughly dislikeable Shadow Chancellor persistently on the Ashcroft Question.

Osborne, for his part, kept on about “Change”, and there may lie the problem for the Tories: many voters know that things are bad, but if they’re in work, and have had the benefit of low mortgage rates, someone coming along wanting to introduce “Change” might not seem so attractive.

But Pa Broon being plodding and reassuring just might.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

The Lead Narrows – 2

Today, the Tories, together with the usual motley convocation of cheerleaders, hacks and other hangers-on, are having a so-called Spring Conference. Fortunately for those of us in Crewe, this jolly is happening some 200 miles away in Brighton. And, while there will no doubt be much mud slung at Pa Broon and Corporal Clegg, there will still be no conclusive answer to the question that many are asking.

And that question has to do with the shrinking opinion poll lead which I mentioned yesterday. Given the amount of money that is being thrown at Tory propaganda – most noticeably the poster campaigns – they should be out of sight by now, especially given the unpopularity of Pa Broon and the less than total discipline displayed by Labour.

Instead, this so-called Conference is considering what to do in the event of a hung parliament. There is even suggestion that infighting has already broken out between the mole-like Steve Hilton and former Screws editor Andy Coulson, the two members of Young Dave’s team who should be working together, not merely to satisfy the obvious need of the Party, but as an example to everyone else.

Well, if they’re preparing for a less than total victory, and the electorate knows that, the result could easily be to make the Tories less popular still. If they haven’t got the confidence in their policies, their message, and their abilities, then why should anyone else? The opportunity for Labour appears more than possible: however, the chance of costly own goals is not the preserve merely of Her Majesty's Opposition.

Not Out Of The Woods Yet

Earlier this month, I considered the background to severe weather events on both sides of the Atlantic, showing that these could be attributed to natural phenomena, and that they could not be credibly used to challenge the established wisdom on climate change.

Since that time, the weather patterns in the UK – well, here in the North West, at least – have brought more snow, although it has melted quickly and hardly caused any disruption. But as of now the harsh night frosts have gone, there has been rain rather than snow (and coming from the South West, too), and even the odd day or two of spring like sunshine.

So is the wintry weather at an end? The short term good news is that conditions look to remain fair in this part of the country for a few days, but the longer term bad news is that winds coming out of the still cold continent, together with some snow and night frost, are entirely possible. And why should this be?

Ah well. As I mentioned before, the Atlantic Jet Stream is behaving unpredictably. As can be seen from this forecast, those high level winds are blowing over the UK at the moment, but over the coming week their effect will die away: check out the forecast for next Friday.

In fact, there may be some high level wind effect encouraging weather system movement out of Scandinavia into North East England by next weekend. But this is too difficult for the Christopher Bookers and James Delingpoles of this world, so expect the usual exaggeration and abuse from them.

Cuts out thinking.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Friday Food – 6

A simple meal accompaniment today, but first off, you have to get something out of sight, mind, smell or whatever: do not even think of takeaway kebabs for a while. It will harm the appreciation of one of the quickest and easiest prepared breads known to humankind.

That is the pitta bread, which exists beyond the world of the greasy, over seasoned, over sauced, late night kebab. This weekend is a curry weekend on Zelo Street, so pittas will feature strongly. They can also feature with any kind of chilli or spicy bean feast, stand in for spag to accompany the bol, and go with a Chinese instead of rice (especially if you’re not feeling brave enough to do the egg fried variety I mentioned the other week).

Also, the pitta does not just come in the plain white so loved by the local takeaway: wholemeal pittas are becoming widely available in many supermarkets, along with the inevitable garlic variety. They can be frozen for use later, but as with other breads, should be put in the freezer as soon as you are back from the shops.

Cooking is quick and easy: heat each side under the grill for a minute or two, just to warm the breads and get the two sides to separate. I usually give them a sloosh under the hot tap beforehand if they’ve been frozen, but a word of warning here: that can lead to hot steam swelling the bread from inside, so care is needed when getting pittas out of the grill and on to the plate.

There are some enthusiasts for putting pittas in the toaster – if you’ve got the thick and thin kind – but I’d do this only as a last resort. Enjoy!

The Lead Narrows

Young Dave’s lead in the opinion polls was well into double figures not long ago. No longer: a poll for the Maily Telegraph by Ipsos Mori puts it at a mere 5%. Moreover, it is suggested that, with these poll numbers, Pa Broon could end up leading the largest party at Westminster, and thus be first to be asked to form a Government following the election.

And that lead is in single figures in polls elsewhere: the Murdoch Sun is doing a “daily poll” that shows a 6% advantage for the Tories. So you might think that the Maily Telegraph would be headlining this story, given that it’s their poll. You would be wrong: the story is only on the front page of their website through being in the “most viewed” list. And the headline stresses the potential greater number of seats for Labour, rather than the lead of only 5%.

Why should that be? Well, despite all the flak thrown at the paper suggesting that it is no longer a reliable Tory supporter, the Maily Telegraph is pretty obviously leaning towards Young Dave. And the Sun makes no secret of its affiliation: its headline avoids mentioning that Cameron’s lead is only six points, and stresses instead the 1% rise in Tory support (while ignoring Labour’s similar advance). Roger Ailes would have approved.

Meanwhile, Young Dave might consider another statistic: he’s expected to come out of the forthcoming leaders’ debates well ahead of the field. If he merely does as well as Pa Broon and Corporal Clegg, that will fuel an inevitable disappointment, and if he does less well than Brown, well, the Tories will be most reluctant to go there.


Thursday, 25 February 2010

Health Of The Nation

Today, a “health care summit” is taking place in Washington DC, specifically in Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue. Here, Barack Obama is hosting both Democrat and Republican Senators in an effort to bring some kind of agreement on what has proved to be a difficult and divisive subject.

Should we in the UK be concerned? I would say that we should. The USA is the world’s de facto sole “superpower”, and will be a significant player for the foreseeable future, whatever the growth rate in China and India. And for such a player to be spending almost twice what the UK does on health, and for generally worse outcomes, potentially blunts that country’s economic edge, especially given the tendency of health care costs to rise over time.

The proceedings are being carried live here. I’ll have another look at the exercise after letting the dust settle.

Murdoch Is Served (12)

Only yesterday I predicted that this blog would be returning to Phonehackgate before long. The only surprise was that the wait was so short. The latest Guardian piece on the report of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport committee into the activities of the press, which I mentioned yesterday, had one man missing from its list of authors: Flat Earth News creator Nick Davies, who had previously carried most of the reporting on the affair.

The reason for this is straightforward: Davies was continuing to get stuck in to the story, and today the paper has published details of developments, including the news that, on the watch of Andy Coulson, the Murdoch News Of The World employed a freelance private detective who was fresh out of jail, having done time for blackmail.

The only barrier to revealing the name of the individual concerned is that he is to be tried for a crime of violence. He is the fourth investigator to work for the Screws known to have used illegal methods to get information.

Former Labour minister Denis MacShane has urged the withdrawal of Coulson’s parliamentary pass, and Lib Dem spokesman Chris Huhne has demanded a judicial enquiry. Young Dave, meanwhile, must be hoping it all goes away: my take is that he’s stuck with Coulson, who is part of the Murdoch “family”.

After all, he wants Rupe’s support. Doesn’t he?

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Murdoch Is Served (11)

As I predicted earlier this month, more has come to light on Phonehackgate, with the House of Commons committee on Culture, Media and Sport producing a damning report into the affair.

What I hadn’t realised earlier is that the twinkle toed yet domestically combative Rebekah Brooks (née Wade), now chief executive of News International, has repeatedly refused to appear before the committee: this would not have impressed them.

The report does not pull punches: the verdict, unanimously given, was that News International had sought to conceal the truth about what really happened. Contradictory testimony is highlighted, along with such phrases as “collective amnesia” and “deliberate obfuscation”.

Moreover, the investigation has vindicated Guardian writer Nick Davies, author of the excellent Flat Earth News, finding evidence to back up his assertions. But the Murdoch press has not been slow in biting back.

News International have asserted that the committee is in some kind of conspiracy with the Guardian – highly unlikely – while managing not to realise that this is a cross party body operating under the chairmanship of a Tory MP.

Where does the process go from here? Well, there are calls for a judicial review circulating. That could be bad for Rupe, and not favourable to Young Dave, who now employs Andy Coulson, the editor of the News Of The World at the time. One thing is sure: this blog will be returning to the subject before long.

Falklands – Can’t Pay, Won’t Fight (2)

It’s not often that other blogs get a mention on Zelo Street, but following yesterday’s observations on the situation in the South Atlantic, I felt the need to comment on a particularly clueless posting on the same subject by someone who is supposed to be a leading blogger.

The intervention was made by one Paul Staines, who blogs under the alias of Guido Fawkes: yesterday, he posted an item titled “Sabre Rattling”, suggesting that the UK may be caught up in another conflict in the Falklands, inferring that Pa Broon has run down the military, and harking back to the deeds of “Maggie”, while conveniently failing to mention that the running down of the military by “Maggie” was what precipitated the conflict in the first place.

The likelihood of Argentina embarking on another military campaign against anyone right now is, as I said yesterday, not unadjacent to zero. If the country cannot afford to settle the bill for surplus railway equipment from Portugal – the kind of amounts are scrap value plus any shipping and overhaul costs – then the idea that they could fund a small war is ridiculous.

Moreover, as the Beeb has noted, Argentina has 13 billion US Dollars’ worth of debt “maturing” - for which read ‘needing to be paid off or restructured’ – this year. No player in the markets is going to award bonus points to a borrower indulging in needless military operations on the side. And in addition to that debt, there is a hole in the country’s budget estimated to be in the range from two to seven billion more US Dollars.

So, if Argentina cannot finance a war over the Falklands, why the rhetoric coming out of Buenos Aires? Well, this again is down to economics, and a desperate need to get a piece of any oil action that might be going: anything that helps pay down that debt will be welcome. But the Argentine Government, as the Beeb has also reported, “has ruled out military action”. So there has been no “sabre rattling” at all: there are no sabres to rattle.

Which brings us back to Paul Staines’ routinely clueless inference – that something the Argentine Government has ruled out will somehow happen anyway. The country cannot fund the most basic of purchases. It has an eye-watering amount of debt falling due, well, right now. And it has ruled out military action. The question for Paul Staines is simply this: just which part of “has ruled out military action” do you not understand?

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Nice Work Mister Scott – 2

Credit where credit’s due: new junior Senator from Massachusetts Scott Brown has cast his vote on the Democrat jobs bill. And he voted in favour of that bill – that means he voted against his party. And he was not the only one: four other GOP Senators voted with the Democrats, taking the total past 60, and therefore beyond the possibility of being filibustered.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is clearly pleased, and as he says, it’s about ordinary citizens. It’s just unfortunate that the Republican leadership keeps making it all about voting everything down. Those who believed that Brown was on the conservative side of the GOP will now have to think again.

How Tired Is Your Pilot? – 7

Fresh onto the list of Bulletin Reports on the AAIB website is that concerning an incident at Manchester Airport on the 5th August 2008, when there was contact between two aircraft: one, an Airbus A320, was stationary at holding point Juliet Alpha 1 waiting clearance to take off using Runway 24 Right, while the other, a Boeing 737-800, was attempting to pass behind the Airbus to then queue for the same runway, but at holding point Juliet 1.

Reading through the report, it is not difficult to deduce the names of the operators concerned. The Airbus was registered in Germany, and was operating a scheduled service to Frankfurt am Main: this was operated by Lufthansa. The Boeing was registered in Ireland, operating a service to Tenerife, and the Commander had flown a whopping 257 hours in the past 90 days, twice the amount of his Lufthansa counterpart: no prizes for identifying Ryanair, the Millwall of air carriers (everybody hates us and we don’t care).

The Airbus had stopped short of the marker bar for Juliet Alpha 1 – the pilot flying exercising caution and making sure that the bar was visible from the flight deck – and the Boeing’s Commander, who was also pilot flying, asked his co-pilot to confirm that there was sufficient clearance to pass. The reply, taken from the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) was initially “Yes, I think there is but ... I don’t know ... perhaps ... yes ... I can’t say”.

There wasn’t, and the right winglet of the Boeing struck the tail of the Airbus. Later, the Commander of the Boeing excused his actions by saying he assumed the other aircraft would move forward for take-off. Of course, he could just have erred on the side of caution and stopped, but that is not the Ryanair style, as I noted when checking out an incident at Stansted: there is too much “working by numbers” and a seemingly wilful desire to keep going and avoid delays.

Those intending to fly from Manchester will be reassured that operating procedures have been revised in the light of this incident, and in any case, there is little chance of Ryanair being involved in future, as they have pulled most of their flights out of this location.

Falklands: Can’t Pay, Won’t Fight

After almost three decades of putting money into keeping the Falkland Islands securely British, the prospect of payback – and then some – has appeared over the horizon. Within the suitably large exclusion zone declared some time ago is the prospect of oil reserves, and potentially significant ones. But the Argentines are not happy – so will it come to another scrap?

Ah well. Due to my proximity to sad rail enthusiast types, and regular visits to Portugal, I can bring an inside track on the economic situation in Argentina. Put directly, it’s not good. The prospect of the kind of conflict that had the Murdoch Sun screaming “Stick It Up Your Junta” (and the all too realistic Private Eye send-up “Kill An Argie And Win A Metro”) is not credible. I will explain.

In the years since the fall of the Galtieri Junta, Argentina has been through the mangle with its economy. One casualty was its rail network, so through sheer necessity, when services were restored, the call went out to other countries for suitable secondhand stock. As the track gauge is the same as that in Spain and Portugal, this was an obvious place to start.

So it was that coaching stock and locomotives were overhauled in Portugal and shipped out to a grateful Argentina. But the shipments have since stopped, even though there is more equipment ready to go. And the problem is simply one of money: the Argentines are having difficulty raising the cash to pay for what has already been shipped.

And if scraping together payment for secondhand railway equipment is proving difficult, then the likelihood of the country sustaining any kind of military adventure is not unadjacent to zero.

Not, that is, unless someone else is paying.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Nice Work Mister Scott

So, now he’s a US Senator, how is Massachusetts special election winner Scott Brown settling in?

Not convincingly, it seems: Brown has joined many of his GOP colleagues in trashing the Stimulus Bill, and has put his foot in it with some style. He declared on February 4 that “The last Stimulus Bill didn’t create one new job”.

Fortunately, the nice folks at Politifact.com have been on the case, and have concluded that, although estimates vary, the Stimulus Bill has been responsible for creating somewhere between a million and a million and a half jobs.

Given the disparity between their numbers and Brown’s, they have awarded the new man the coveted Pants On Fire award. Welcome to the world of scrutiny and accountability, Mr Brown.

Bully For You

For several days now, and with greater intensity since the relaunch issue of the Observer yesterday, the talk in Politics Land has been about suggestions that Pa Broon may have acted towards his staff in a way that verged on bullying. Well, is he or isn’t he – and what if he is?

What indeed. The B-word was bandied about during the Blair years, especially when Big Al was mentioned, and the attribute has also been given to Broon courtier Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole. Young Dave doesn’t escape either: his new bestest friend Andy Coulson was at the heart of a proven bullying culture when at the helm of the Murdoch News Of The World, which came to light following a record payout recently. So when Dave decided to call for an enquiry into the Observer revelations, he was displaying a serious amount of brass neck.

The Cameron intervention was no more than routine mischief making, and I doubt that it will advance Young Dave’s position, far less reveal anything about what goes on within 10 Downing Street. Neither can I have any confidence that the behaviour of Christine Pratt of the National Bullying Helpline (NBH) will shed light rather than heat: Ms Pratt has already drawn fire for apparently breaching confidentiality, and NBH has lost two of its patrons to resignation as a result of her intervention.

So what will happen next? If Brown really has behaved as some have suggested, then it’s down to his party as to whether they want to continue under his leadership. But that’s a big if. And, in any case, as none of this will be news to those who interact with the PM on a regular basis, there may well be a collective shrug of the shoulders, with no more action taken.

As ever, public perception could influence matters, but thus far there have been all manner of negative stories about Brown, and the upshot of all these has been a tightening in the latest opinion poll, showing a Tory lead of just 6%. As I’ve noted before, in 1992 there were two polls before the General Election campaign showing an 8% lead for Labour, and they lost.

Run, Dick, Run

The 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has just finished: the gathering is a broad convocation of the Right from across the USA. A total of 88 bodies was represented, including the National Rifle Association, Catholic Families for America, and the Oath Keepers, who told that “this time we came unarmed”.

Keynote speech for CPAC was that delivered by Glenn Beck, increasingly unhinged “star” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse), and the supporting cast included the usual suspects: Andrew Breitbart, who, as I noted a while back, has on his payroll someone recently subject to felony arrest, guns-and-invasion enthusiast Ann Coulter, and former UN ambassador “Wiggy” Bolton.

Fortunately for anyone involved in the more pragmatic and rational part of US politics, the enthusiasm of those gathered was directed to urging former Veep “Dick” Cheney to run for the White House in 2012. This is the man who left office with an approval rating of 13%.

Barack Obama is reported to be not quaking in his boots.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

After The Mudslide

Earlier this month, I considered the recent behaviour of weather patterns, which has seen cold spells on both sides of the Atlantic. In that post was reference to the Atlantic Jet Stream, and that it was tracking much further south than usual. If any evidence of active weather systems also tracking further south were needed, it was provided by the sudden and violent storms that hit the island of Madeira at the end of last week, these destabilising the island’s soils and triggering mudslides.

The Portuguese army – Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal – have become involved as the death toll passes forty. The weather patterns in the area, which lies off the west coast of north Africa, are normally not unlike those in the Canary Islands further to the south: the breeze, and the rainfall, comes from the north east. The depression that brought the severe weather would normally have tracked far to the north, and brought rain – though much less of it – to the UK, together with relatively mild temperatures.

Whether the shift in the path of the Jet Stream is going to recur, or even become established further south, is not known. The storms in Madeira, however, are yet another example of severe weather events turning up either where they would not normally occur, or more frequently than in the past.

Not That They’re Still Paranoid

Last Thursday, a software engineer with a grudge against the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) – the Stateside equivalent of the Inland Revenue – premeditatedly flew his single engine airplane into an Austin, Texas office building that houses around 200 IRS employees. Joseph Stack had left an online “manifesto” telling of his intentions.

So far, so sad, but the big story the next day on the website of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) was the idea that this was an act of terrorism. There is an attempt to draw a parallel between this and the bombing of the Alfred P Murrah building in Oklahoma City back in 1995, despite the rather different scale of casualties – 168 dead in the latter attack – and the fact that the bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was a member of a local militia.

So what? Well, making the Stack attack into a terrorist act gives those who portray the Democrat administration as “soft on terror” more ammunition. The real story – that there are those in the USA who believe that the 16th Amendment has not been ratified and therefore it is somehow OK not to pay income tax, some of whom are prepared to go to extreme lengths in pursuit of their beliefs – is left behind as this act gets used for other political ends.

Stack wasn’t a terrorist. He was a sad and misguided individual acting alone. Not that Fox will let that get in the way.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

The Inspiration Of Porridge

Yesterday, film and television lost a great character actor and a very personal man: Lionel Jeffries passed away at the age of 83. Many will not remember his performances: after all, his film roles are concentrated into the period from the mid 50s to late 70s. One of my favourites comes from 1960, and was made on the usual small budget, in black and white, and must have been seen more than once by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais when they were creating Porridge.

In Two Way Stretch, Jeffries played Chief Prison Officer Sydney “Sour” Crout – “the most twisted screw who ever walked down a prison corridor” – and was surely the template for the Fulton Mackay character in Porridge. Except that Jeffries’ part was much nastier, a man who believed that prisoners should not be allowed rehabilitation classes, but given hard labour instead. Nor would he take any back chat, memorably barking at one prisoner “Silence when you’re talking to me!”.

Anyone who enjoyed Porridge should check out this film, and see the parallels between the two. Everyone else should see it anyway: it’s one of many fine performances, and shows that it would be wrong to think of Jeffries merely on the basis of his appearance in the later Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which is the extent of so many obituaries today.

Friday Food (delayed) – 5

First off, apologies for the delay – yesterday I was once more out and about, taking a brief rest from the blog. This week’s Friday Food follows on from the recent item on fish – it’s for those who can’t face the idea of taking apart a whole fish and dealing with the bones. With those who find that kind of thing picky, I agree, but my view is that the taste is worth it.

So what if you’re prepared to do more fish, but don’t want the hassle? Here’s two suggestions that shouldn’t prove bank breaking.

Available in tasty fillet form from any local supermarket is Salmon: cooked in the same foil wrap as whole fish, it can benefit from the inclusion of a little herb or garlic butter. You might get the odd bone, but it’s rare: processing nowadays is pretty good at removing anything of significant size.

And available in more and more outlets is Tuna, and not in a tin (useful though that is), but as a steak. You can grill it plain, or do it with a sauce, as in the ubiquitous Algarve style tuna served up across southern Portugal. It’s a great fish alternative for those used to beef or pork steak.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Another Regular Kind Of Guy

There must be a General Election in the offing: Young Dave has been out and about doing interviews, telling how he – like, well, y’know, Tone – is yet another regular kind of guy. In fact, he’s so ordinary that he drinks canned Guinness.

Er, what? Who dreamed that up for him? If Team Cameron had applied themselves a little to the subject, they would have found that most beer drinkers who crack the proverbial tube from time to time go for lager or “smooth” bitter first and foremost. Despite the attentions of the admen, Guinness – particularly the “ordinary” kind – lags well behind (admittedly, the “draught” version is still popular).

Personally, I’d have found Young Dave far more convincing if he said he was more of a red wine kind of bloke, and wasn’t going to pretend to be one of the “lads” just to look cool. The whole exercise looks like something put together merely to tick a number of voter appeal boxes: Dave likes darts, but isn’t any good at it, which lets him out of being challenged to a few 501s down the local pub.

Fortunately, he also says he likes Sky+, which ticks a crucial box: the Murdoch press have more advertorial copy to splash, and Rupe will be pleased with his new friend.

And look on the bright side: only two and a half months to go. Allegedly.

A Man Apart

Cheshire has a number of constituencies that are solidly Tory: apart from Tatton, now back in the hands of the Tories after the indiscretions of one Mostyn Neil Hamilton, there are the adjacent strongholds of Macclesfield and Congleton. Here, although their tenure is to end soon, the Wintertons hold sway: “Sir” Nicholas in Macclesfield, and wife Ann in Congleton.

And Nicholas Winterton is not a fan of the trains that serve his manor: he has gone on at length about Virgin Trains’ new Pendolino fleet, whose carriages are indeed smaller inside than their British Rail designed predecessors. But, over time, he seems to have toned down the criticism, which may have something to do with the faster journey times benefiting the people of Macclesfield, and the complimentary food and drink provided at the seat of every First Class passenger (including alcoholic beverages Monday to Friday).

But the idea that MPs should now consider travelling standard class – we in the UK don’t like to call it “second” class nowadays – has caused Old Nick to froth and rant once again. He appears to be genuinely dreading the idea of having to rub shoulders with a cross section of real people, putting forward a number of not altogether convincing reasons for retaining his seat in the upmarket end of the train.

In standard class, Winterton says there are “a totally different type of people”. Sounds grim. He clearly doesn’t relish the prospect of mixing with them. But then, perhaps the folks in the less pricy seats would rather not entertain him: Winterton is renowned for his ability to drone on endlessly and loudly, rather in the manner of the pantomime Tory candidate for Monty Python’s North Minehead by-election.

Fortunately, this outburst is no problem for Young Dave, as Winterton characterises the so-called “bed blockers” that his younger and more jolly excellent Tory Party wants to sweep away. It is, therefore, no surprise that Tory HQ has dismissed the remarks as “the out of touch views of a soon to retire backbench MP” [my emphasis].

And on this point I agree with the Tories: Winterton has spent an agreeable 39 years at the Club, he’s going to get an equally agreeable pay-off, and would serve the public purpose well by shutting up and shuffling off.

Yes, there goes “Sir” Nicholas ... on his way ... out.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Republican Wrong – In The Crosshairs

I noted recently that MSNBC host Rachel Maddow had looked at the number of GOP politicians who opposed the Democrat stimulus bill, while taking credit for getting their hands on money from that same bill. So it was no surprise at all to see an exchange along those lines on last weekend’s NBC Meet The Press between Maddow and unsuspecting Republican congressman Aaron Schock of Illinois.

Why Schock should have appeared surprised by the attack is unclear: perhaps he hadn’t done his homework. He can hardly have expected an MSNBC host to be playing the part of GOP cheerleader.

Number one on the list of Maddow’s interview targets is former Veep “Dick” Cheney, who thus far has refused to play ball. Looking at the exchange from Meet The Press, it is not difficult to see why.

Sinking Standard

A short break in posting yesterday: I was out and about in London and so took a break from blogging. And so it was that I fetched up at Euston station late afternoon with a little time to kill.

Time was that one might buy a copy of the Evening Standard to pass the time and read on the train journey home. But times change: the paper is now a free sheet, and so getting a copy became a no-brainer – or so I thought.

Because the content of yesterday’s “West End Final” edition was as forgettable as it was shallow. Reading through it within the spare time to hand was so easy that I could have done it twice over. Thus the Standard did not even make it on to the train with me.

The thought entered that you get what you pay for.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

New Travel Rules On The Number 88

Things are, apparently, changing at the British National Party (BNP): following an extraordinary general meeting, they have decided to drop their “whites only” membership criterion. So does this mean a more inclusive approach for Oberscheissenführer Nick Griffin and his fellow Stürmers?

The habit of bears in woods is the kind of sentiment that comes to mind. Griffin himself has conceded that “We had to do it for legal reasons”, which does not look like he and his Waffle SS Abteilung have undergone any substantial character change.

So when Griffin takes the biscuit with characteristic lack of subtlety when he says that “They can’t call us racist any more”, he should remember that it is still Panto season.

Oh yes they can!

The Republican Wrong – Not That They’re Paranoid

Every so often, Zelo Street brings you an item from across the Atlantic, just to underline the vaguely scary way that the right operates. And fortunately there is a fund of scariness waiting to be tapped, courtesy of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse).

Among the gallery of Fox “stars”, one stands out as particularly eccentric, this being Glenn Beck. And this is no walk-on part: Beck’s “show” airs at 1700 hours Eastern Time, a prime slot which straddles the afternoon as it crosses the continent, going out in California at 1400 hours.

Last Friday’s Beck show included this exquisite piece of scaremongering. The preposterous premise is that children are being indoctrinated to turn on their parents, which Beck lays at the door of Barack Obama (no surprise there) and labels “evil” (ditto).

Perhaps parents who teach their children to be of independent thought are equally “evil”.

Failure Among The Cotton Mills

On the fringe of the rail industry is the charter train market: this, unlike many scheduled passenger services, has to pay its way. And there is no better meeting of nostalgic and enthusiast than steam haulage: witness not just the numbers willing to spend many hours on these trains (steam is allowed a maximum of 75mph and needs regular water stops), but the gallery of sightseers and photographers adorning the line of route.

Routinely popular in the North West recently has been the Cotton Mill Express, which winds its way through Manchester, Huddersfield, the Calder Valley, Blackburn and Bolton. Unfortunately, the previous organiser of these tours went bust last year, leaving debts serious enough that locomotive owner Ian Riley, who had provided the traction for the trains, was forced to sell one of his fleet as a result.

Undeterred, the Railway Touring Company stepped into the breech, and the charters started up again last month, with West Coast Railway Company (WCRC) at Carnforth providing both coaches and traction. Unfortunately, the first tour was delayed by an hour and a half following a derailment in WCRC’s yard, then to put the lid on the enterprise, recently restored “Royal Scot” loco Scots Guardsman was declared a failure at Preston with a brake fault.

But WCRC are nothing if not determined, so a further Cotton Mill Express was arranged for 13th February. This time, departure was on time and all was well – until the train set out across Chat Moss on its way into Manchester. It is believed that Scots Guardsman suffered some kind of damage to one of its three cylinders, with the result that the train limped along slowly enough to delay a number of other services, before a very sick sounding locomotive came to a halt in the loop at Eccles, where it was once again declared a failure.

A number of concerned figures looked on, but there was little they could do. One of the observers was from Network Rail (NR), where questions may well be asked about the lack of a test run by Scots Guardsman, to show it was fit for duty, after the first failure. NR will certainly be wanting one before they allow WCRC’s pride and joy out on the main line again.

No Strength in Depth

A confession: on occasion, politicians irritate me. Some of them irritate me a great deal, and on today’s Andy Marr Show one of the greatest irritants has been given his say: Tory schools spokesman Michael Gove.

Gove is proof positive that Team Cameron has very little strength in depth: he lacks the charisma, presence and persuasiveness of his boss. His performance before Marr was less than convincing, being conflated from demonising a series of dog whistle targets.

The gallery of Gove’s villains was boringly predictable: quangos, lack of choice, lack of suitably rigorous teaching, the spectre of “Auguste” Balls, planning laws, and the suggestion that adopting other countries’ models will solve all problems.

The country that Gove wants to emulate is Sweden, but then he also enjoyed bringing up the example of Canada as somewhere that has managed to deal with budget cuts. Unfortunately, he failed to explain that the Canadian Government managed to cut budgets so easily because it pushed much of the responsibility down to individual states.

And, unless the Tories are really about localism, that isn’t about to happen here.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Friday Food – 4

Ever munched your way through a Chinese takeaway and wished that you could figure out how to do Egg Fried Rice for yourself? Well, it’s not such a big ask. This week’s Friday Food is based loosely on the Ken Hom Fried Rice recipe: it requires a large Chinese pan (with suitable stirring implement!), and assumes you’ve already boiled the rice.

All you need now is one egg per portion of rice, and some oil to go in the pan: sesame oil is nice, but olive will do too.

Pour just a little oil into the pan, then warm it up gently and move the oil around as much of the surface as possible. Take a couple of minutes over this, then turn up the heat and get the oil to the point where it’s starting to get smoky.

Now the rice goes into the pan. Give it a good stir, getting it coated with the hot oil, for a minute or so, and then get it all in the middle of the pan and pat down so you have a shallow dish shape in the rice.

Then break the egg(s) into that shallow dish shape. Carefully fold the rice over the egg, over and over. This will distribute the egg throughout the rice, and with the intense heat, the egg will cook quickly: another minute should be enough.

And there it is: Egg Fried Rice done at home, and as good as you get at the restaurant or takeaway.

What A Star! (2)

Back in December, I noted that Eurostar had not exactly covered themselves in glory after several trains failed inside the Channel Tunnel. Thousands of passengers were badly delayed, and on one train, the on-board staff appeared to be so out of their depth that off-duty police officers had to step in to maintain order.

Now, an independent review set up in the wake of the fiasco has reported. And that report will not make comfortable reading for Eurostar management. For starters, the operator’s maintenance procedures seemingly did not pick up on the ingress of snow into the rear power cars of the trains while on their journeys towards the Tunnel from France and Belgium. That snow, once the trains entered the comparatively warm Tunnel, melted and disabled enough of the trains’ electrics to stop them.

Once the trains had failed, the provision of information to passengers was inadequate. The report has stressed that timely provision of information is essential, especially where there are significant delays. And that information has to be consistent: some of that given out by Eurostar staff was contradictory.

Finally, there was apparently no plan in place to extract the failed trains from the Tunnel, or to evacuate the trains and their passengers. Two Eurotunnel locomotives sent to “drag” one of the failed Eurostars out of the Tunnel were then commandeered to take the train on to London, leaving the remainder of the failures in place.

Eurostar management has been making suitably apologetic noises, as well it might, but the thought enters that they, and their operation, came up short and displayed themselves to be not fit for purpose. One more strike and they’re out.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Beware Greeks Bearing Gifts – 2

Earlier this week, the Euro bashers were out in force: the single currency was supposedly about to come to grief, the IMF would have to be summoned to help with the fallout from the Greek crisis, and more Eurozone economies would follow, as in a line of falling dominoes.

It hasn’t happened. Instead, EU leaders have agreed to help Greece with its debt problem, with the detail more than likely to emerge at next Monday’s meeting of finance ministers. But then, if you read the kind of account coming out of the Murdoch Times, you might think that catastrophe was imminent, given the headline “Markets target Euro as doubt swirls over Greek rescue”.

Rupe, bless him, has never loved the EU, and so his media empire wastes no opportunity to put the boot in: the Times article attempts – rather too dramatically – to overstate the movement of the Euro against the US Dollar. In its fourth paragraph, it can be seen that the actual range being discussed is of two-thirds of a percentage point. Even the Maily Telegraph is more measured in its coverage.

Of course, we’ve been here before. When the Euro came into being back at the turn of the Millennium (well before notes and coins started circulating), it was dubbed the “toilet currency” by more avaricious speculators, who proceeded to take short positions in the currency, with the effect that one pound, during Spring that year, would buy around 1.7 Euro.

But the Euro recovered, and has since hit a high of almost 1.6 US Dollars. Even as it is supposedly under pressure, that rate is still around 1.36, well above the 1.18 at which it set out back in January 1999. I suspect that it will still be around for many years to come.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

It’s strange that a mere anniversary should generate not only great emotion, but the widest range of opinion: today marks twenty years since Nelson Mandela walked free from Victor Verster prison. We knew that, for South Africa, things would not remain the same for long.

Mandela’s release was an inevitability, something that the then rulers of the country understood well. Even so, someone had to stand up and be counted, and that was F W de Klerk’s task. He knew that apartheid could not hold down the lid on what was fast becoming an overheated pressure cooker. Moreover, the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) had to be ended.

To de Klerk’s great credit, he took those difficult decisions, and to Mandela’s greater credit, there was a move towards reconciliation. Even so, twenty years later, there is still poverty and widespread unemployment across South Africa, and more than a suggestion of corruption within the ANC led administration.

So the reaction to this anniversary has been varied: the Maily Telegraph is predictably sniffy, while the Murdoch Times has tried to promote a story that Mandela, now a frail 91 years old, had planned to re-enact his walk to freedom. But one thing comes clear: South Africa may not be a place of perfection, but it has made the transition to democratic rule by all the people without major upheaval or bloodshed.

And for that, we should all be thankful.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Republican Wrong – When No Means Yes

Anyone thinking that politics is partisan in the UK hasn’t been watching the antics of the GOP: Republicans have been routinely voting against, well, anything coming out of the Obama Administration. But recently their antics have been rumbled by the Washington Post, where the habit of GOP Reps and Senators voting against the Stimulus Bill while basking in the beneficial effects of stimulus money on their particular patches has been called out.

That’s right: Republicans vote against a bill, then they enjoy benefiting from that same bill. To illustrate the extent of the GOP numbers partaking in that slice of forthright hypocrisy, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has given a roll call of just some of the names. I can’t think of any Westminster politicians – whatever their stripe – who would display such brass neck, far less expect to get away with it.

Only in the USA.

Rough Justice

Tucked away on the Beeb website today is the news that an arrest has been made in connection with the brutal murder 25 years ago of PC Keith Blakelock, hacked to death at the height of rioting on Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm estate. Blakelock was a beat bobby in Muswell Hill, but had been drafted in to provide cover for the London Fire Brigade, who had been called out to tackle a fire on the estate. As the rioting intensified, the firefighters withdrew, followed by the police. Blakelock tripped and fell, and was overtaken by a large mob.

A generation ago, the behaviour of the police, and the methods they employed, were rather different to today: put simply, under pressure to solve the murder of one of their own, the Met fitted up three men for the crime: Mark Braithwaite, Engin Raghip and most notoriously Winston Silcott, who was already on bail for murder. Silcott was effectively convicted on the basis of an unsigned confession, given in the absence of a solicitor.

But what was equally memorable about the trial of the men who became known as the “Tottenham Three” was the behaviour of the tabloid press, most notoriously the Murdoch Sun (then edited by the serially unapologetic Kelvin McKenzie) and the Rothermere Daily Mail, then under the editorship of David English. Both papers have reported the latest arrest, but equally have glossed over their disgraceful demonisation of Silcott during his trial.

The portrayal of Silcott by both Mail and Sun was straightforwardly racist: he was big, and he was black. Therefore he was guilty. No further discussion entered. Neither paper significantly modified its stance when Silcott and his two co-accused were cleared of the murder on appeal four years later: indeed, when Silcott received compensation from the Met, the vilification returned.

But today’s Mail and Sun merely tell that Silcott had been wrongly convicted of the Blakelock murder. Being a leading tabloid means never having to say you’re sorry.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

That’ll Cost You, Sport – 10

One should not gloat at another’s financial misfortune – but I’m going to make an exception in the case of the Murdochs, who bought an almost 18% share in ITV over two years ago, only to have to admit defeat in their efforts to hold on to the shares, resulting in the sale of 10.4% of the broadcaster.

Why sell? Well, the purchase of such a large stake in a rival broadcaster – the company buying the shares was BSkyB – was almost immediately called out for being anti-competitive, and the Murdoch clan had been fighting a decision to force them to sell most of the stake. They finally lost the fight last month.

But, so what? Well, ITV shares are worth a lot less now than when BSkyB bought into the company. Luckily for Rupe and his troops, the share price has recovered from its low of 20p to more than 45p, but BSkyB bought at 135p. That means a loss of around 350 million notes.

To its credit, even the Murdoch Times has covered the sale. And so they should: to record that their owners bought up almost a fifth of a competitor’s shares just to stop ITV merging with NTL (since renamed Virgin Media). After all, that would have been allowing competition, and as we’ve seen with the attempts of Murdoch Junior to have the BBC hobbled, competition is something that the Murdochs favour only when and if it is on their terms.

Flight To Know – 2

The worst outcome from an air accident investigation is the conclusion that “we just don’t know”. Because, if we don’t know, there is no corrective action to be taken, and therefore the accident as investigated may happen again. So it is with the investigation – just published by the Air Accidents Investigations Branch (AAIB) - into the sudden loss of power aboard a British Airways Boeing 777 on approach to London’s Heathrow airport two years ago.

The flight, which had originated in Beijing, had been otherwise uneventful, until both engines failed to respond to an autothrottle command for power just over 700 feet above ground. Having lost power, the aircraft struck the ground 330 metres short of the paved surface of Runway 27 Left, with consequent damage to the aircraft and several minor injuries to passengers. Fortunately the aircraft cleared the airport’s perimeter fence, and, more significantly, the road just outside it.

It seems that the loss of power may have been due to a build up of ice in the fuel system. But that conclusion is not wholly certain, and in any case, thousands of aircraft fly routinely at similarly high altitude, without any apparent problem. Thus it comes down to the type of aircraft: there has been a similar problem affecting another 777, this one operated by US carrier Delta.

Boeing have taken steps to prevent a recurrence, and it is to be hoped that this will be the last we hear of the problem. And it would be reassuring to know that there would be no knock-on effect on the fuel systems of Boeing’s new hope, the 787 “Dreamliner”.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Iraq Watch – 6

For a moment – one of those temporal intervals loved by Jacques Chirac and despised by the neocon rabble of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz – I thought better of dwelling on the Iraq business. But then, Big Al has gone into excuse-o-matic mode following his live car crash on yesterday’s Andy Marr Show, so I’m going to dwell anyway.

Campbell is clearly sore about his coming off second best in what he might have hoped would be a relatively softball session with Marr. And he’s particularly taxed by the figure of 600,000 Iraqi dead pitched by his inquisitor. Big Al points to the vastly improved child mortality figures for the country, but I feel he protests too much.

Behind the arguments deployed by Campbell and former boss Tony Blair to the Chilcot enquiry is the idea that the UK’s involvement in the 2003 invasion had some kind of inevitability to it. It did not. I accept that the Bush administration was hell bent on military action, a course taken alongside widespread and flagrant misinformation put before the American people, falsely connecting the Ba’athist régime to al-Qaeda and to the 11th September attacks on the USA.

However, the idea that we needed to accompany the US into Iraq is fatuous – and there is a significant parallel here, that being the escalation of the war in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson, whose Presidency was brought low by his inability to curb the military, wanted the UK not merely to sound supportive, which they did, but to commit troops, which they did not.

Johnson, a legendarily persuasive man, could not bring Harold Wilson round to his point of view, probably because Wilson could see the growing unpopularity of the war, and Roy Jenkins, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, had made clear that the country could not afford it. On a visit to Washington DC, Johnson invited Wilson to a White House dinner where he instructed the band to play “I got plenty of nothing”. He might as well not have bothered.

Having experienced the less than inspiring leadership on the economy shown by Wilson in the mid 70s, I never thought I would revise his stock upwards so many years later. But for keeping us out of Vietnam, he and Jenkins deserve our gratitude.

And Blair and Campbell should stop flannelling about the inevitability of war. For us it was not so.

Iraq Watch – 5

The forensic nature of the Iraq Enquiry appears to be coming into focus today: Jack Straw had already appeared before the panel, but now he’s back. And today’s questioning revolves around the advice given to the former Foreign Secretary by his senior legal advisor Sir Michael Wood.

Wood had told Straw that without further UN support, military action against Iraq would be a “crime of aggression”, an expression that has a less than equivocal ring to it. Straw appears to be trying to shift some of the heat on to Lord Goldsmith for not delivering his opinion on the legality of any action earlier.

Any attempt to dump or shift blame gives one impression: that there is a less than full disclosure in progress. Also noted is that the French Government confirmed that Jacques Chirac was not ruling out support for a second resolution for good, which I’ve mentioned previously.

It would be interesting to see the response from Straw to any mention of the forthright assessment of the Blair “2010 question” given by Hans Blix. This could deliver a significant increase in the Blackburn MP’s discomfort level. Chilcot and his panel will certainly be putting this to the former PM when he makes his second appearance before them.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

The Cutting Room Factor

Last week, Daily Show host Jon Stewart recorded an interview for The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse). The edited interview was broadcast on O’Reilly’s show over two nights, but much of the 40-plus minutes’ content was edited out.

I saw the first half, and thought that Stewart started some good points, then somehow failed to press them home. Then I saw the whole interview, and it was clear that he had pursued the attack, which had been selectively cut. At least Fox put the uncut footage out there and O’Reilly even signposted it, though the thought enters that most viewers would not put aside the time required to view it.

What Fox did broadcast, however, was a lengthy and uncontested diatribe from O’Reilly telling how Fox was right and Stewart wrong, along with a segment where a body language expert told Bill-O, more or less, how wonderfully he had done.

Try and check out the full interview – it’s worth a look.

Batting For Britain

The first line of Margaret Thatcher’s defence against criticism over the notorious al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia was to stress her commitment to British industry, and therefore British jobs: she was “batting for Britain”. Tony Blair also appears to have been “batting for Britain”, as an investigation into the deal was, on his watch, discontinued due to alleged “security concerns”.

The idea of dropping investigations, however, has not been taken up in the USA, where an indictment has highlighted a number of improper payments to intermediaries (what might be more directly be called bribes). BAe Systems, the main beneficiary of the al-Yamamah deal, has made a plea bargain and will pay a fine of 400 million US Dollars, with revelations now suggesting that BAe’s top brass were implicated in acts of bribery.

This would be bad enough, but for the almost zealous pursuit of arms sales by the Blair Government, even after the brief suggestion that there might be an ethical dimension to their foreign policy. Small by comparison with the Saudi deals was the sale of a military air traffic control system to Tanzania, so the central flaw in this sale might have been missed: Tanzania had no need for such as system, as it had no air force. Moreover, a third of the 28 million pound cost went in bribes and kickbacks.

The deal was opposed by two cabinet ministers: Robin Cook, sadly no longer with us, and Clare Short, who is most certainly still around, and still opposed to what was done. Short has told how Blair “favoured all proposals for arms deals”.

Perhaps this, too, was God’s will. Fortunately the Saudis haven’t used most of their new toys in anger. Yet.


The north eastern part of the USA has experienced heavy snowfalls for the second time this winter, and another colder spell of weather is forecast for the UK – particularly the north and east. This will no doubt be picked up by the climate change denial lobby as evidence against global warming, but some consideration of what are transient weather patterns should prove instructive.

The snowfall in the USA and the looming cold snap in the UK are connected: both are due to an intensifying area of high pressure extending south and east from Greenland, which was also in place during the previous bouts of severe weather experienced by the two countries. This condition can be observed by checking out the synoptic chart made available by the Met Office.

The high pressure area effectively puts a block in the way of weather systems which usually move from west to east across the Atlantic, changing the wind direction across the UK from the milder south-westerly to a north-easterly, the latter being very cold in winter, as it brings air off the cold continental land mass. Moreover, those weather systems coming out of North America get stuck, so a snowfall that may have been a brief event becomes persistent, with the effect as seen.

Why is this happening? Well, one reason is that the Atlantic Jet Stream, which is accepted as a strong influence on the movement of weather systems, is right now tracking much further south than usual. Thus the weather systems are also tracking further south. In other words, this is a natural phenomenon.

Climate change science is not debunked by transient weather patterns.

Iraq Watch – 4

Sunday political television is not normally exceptional: the interviewers routinely get no change out of the players, who are generally immune to even the most forensic interrogation. This tends to make the experience one of wallpaper TV, as other tasks are given higher priority.

And so it was going to be today, until Big Al appeared on the Andy Marr Show. I have never previously seen Campbell stuck for words: his steely discipline before any inquisition is legendary. But this morning was different.

Having given Campbell the opportunity to plug his new novel Maya, Marr cut to the main event, which was the intelligence dossier put before cabinet and then Parliament, and whether Tony Blair – intentionally or otherwise – misled that Parliament. And as the questions were put, there was a strange silence, and the impression given that Campbell was having a car crash moment.

The pause was more, much more, than momentary. Marr, to his great credit, did not repeat his question: no further pressure was applied. Campbell eventually – after a very long silence – clawed his way back into the interview, asserting that all the repeated questioning, with the inference that the dismissal of answers given by himself and Blair was less than helpful – that it was “upsetting”.

If Campbell was play acting, it was a supremely inadvisable time and place to do it. Otherwise, the only conclusion that can be reached is that someone previously thought to be bullet proof before the media finally cracked.

Available, no doubt, on BBC iPlayer, and not good for Labour.

Friday, 5 February 2010

The War After Tomorrow – 2

As I noted the other day, Tony Blair made noises during his evidence before the Iraq Enquiry about the possibility of moving against Iran. He also tossed a superbly crafted red herring into the mix, this being the “2010 question”. This was to assume that Iraq in 2010 would be a yet more serious problem, along with the attempt to link Iran into the discussion.

Truth be told, Iraq after many years of sanctions was in no position to progress or even preserve any major weapons programmes, and the suggestion that moving the counter on by seven years would make things more serious for the international community is therefore tosh.

This has now been reinforced by former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix in an interview recorded for an upcoming edition of the BBC’s HARDTalk programme. Iraq after those years of sanctions, he tells, was “on its back”. This shows that the Blair “2010 question” was indeed no more than a smokescreen.

As for the sabre rattling over Iran – we don’t want to go there. End of story.

Friday Food – 3

Today brings that traditional Friday fare ... yes, it’s fish. But, as the Hitch Hikers’ Guide says, Don’t Panic!

I give the warning because it’s not just fish, but proper fish. That means it comes with head, tail and of course bones. But preparation and cooking is not difficult: no-one should be apprehensive. And what kind of fish are we talking here? Typically Sea Bass, Bream, Rainbow Trout, or even small Salmon.

You may have bought the fish fresh, and in that case are to be commended. But most will have bought frozen, and in that majority of cases, ignore any instruction to cook from frozen. If frozen, the fish(es) should be defrosted overnight in the fridge.

The fish will have been sold in Losing Football Manager Mode, which means Gutted (and that concludes the bad jokes for this post). It may need a dab each side to remove any excess water. You need an oven tray, with foil laid out on it, onto which you place the fish – a few drops of olive oil on the foil to stop it sticking are optional.

Then wrap the foil over the fish. It’s ready for the oven: this should be pre-heated, then the oven tray placed high up and the fish cooked for fifteen to twenty minutes (more if you have something large, or more than one).

Ideally, before serving, you’ll remove the head and tail – nothing more specialist than a sharp knife needed for this. That knife also comes in useful for opening up the fish into two halves, at which point you can remove the large bone – along with many of the smaller ones.

But be warned – there will still be bones. The taste, though, compared to anything processed and coated, is worth it.

What’s good to accompany real fish? Whatever you fancy, though potatoes (not chips) are a good place to start.

If still not sure about real fish, don’t worry – there are more straightforward alternatives. I’ll return to this area later on.

Royal Visit Confidential

Now that all concerned have left the building, I can reveal that HRHs The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall made a brief visit yesterday afternoon to Crewe, although they did not leave the Royal Train.

In the early afternoon, officers of the British Transport Police (BTP) could be observed patrolling in increasing numbers on the west side of Crewe station, and later, under the supervision of an inspector, made the central part of Platform 12 a sterile area. I am not at liberty to reveal the methods and procedures followed, but can say that this involved rather more BTP officers than a Crewe Alex home match, and two sniffer dogs.

A small group of enthusiasts and other interested and curious people, expecting to see the Royal Train along with new build steam locomotive Tornado (despite this information being routinely embargoed), was allowed to gather at the south end of the platform at around 1800 hours. I am not at liberty to disclose the numbers involved, but can reveal that this group included off duty station staff and traincrew, as well as variously dedicated railfans.

The Royal Train passed through the station just after 1800 hours, and then was set back into Platform 12, where Tornado and its support coach were detached before heading south. There was much interest in this magnificent new locomotive, and very little directed at who may or may not have been on board the Royal Train. Among the many photos taken at this time are these views of Tornado.

I am not at liberty to reveal the further progress of Tornado and the Royal Train, as by just after 1900 hours it was time to head home for another fix of a rather excellent Thai Red Curry.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

A regular visitor to Zelo Street has found his morning more than usually exasperating, not least due to this BBC report of proceedings at the Inner London Crown Court.

In the dock was 25 year old Shamso Miah of Redbridge, having broken another man’s jaw in an altercation that started while both were queuing for service in a local bank. So what? Well, Miah was up before Judge Cherie Booth (aka Mrs Tony Blair), who decided that, as Miah was a religious man – he’d been to the mosque before going to the bank – she would suspend his sentence.

The National Secular Society, to no surprise at all, is not happy at this judgment. As my correspondent put it, “2010 and she’s still equating religious observance with virtue”.


Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Why Come To Crewe?

Even though the 2008 by-election was fought under mainly blue skies, the impression was given that Crewe was an uninspiring and even grim town, its shopping centre surrounded by terraced housing, and a place devoid of green spaces.

And I say baloney to that. Crewe is not such a bad place: for starters, it’s an ideal base for commuting to Manchester, Liverpool, Chester, Stoke and even Birmingham. Housing is affordable. The town centre could do with updating, but the shops are fairly typical for a middling size town. And the countryside is close at hand, with lots of walks and cycle paths to try out.

Enough of the pleading: here is a photo collection of the kinds of sights you can see in and around Crewe. It’s not such a grim place.

Broadsheet Watch – 14

Today must be a slightly quieter one for news, as the Murdoch press has decided to make up a thinly sourced attack on the BBC. In the supposedly quality Times, media correspondent Patrick Foster tells that, in the aftermath of a Tory victory in the upcoming General Election, “the Chairman of the BBC will be the first casualty”, thus demonstrating that this once trusted title is no stranger nowadays to sloppy journalism.

Because the figure Foster is talking about is Sir Michael Lyons, who is the chairman of the BBC Trust – which is not the same as the BBC itself. Still, Foster says that the Times “has learnt” that the Trust will be “scrapped”.

So who are the sources for this article? Well, they’re clearly important enough not to need naming: there are “Senior Tory sources”, and “One senior Tory MP” for starters. For the BBC, there are “sources close to the Trust” (Foster inconsistently failed to capitalise the “T” in his quote).

Fortunately the spokesman put up by the BBC Trust has put this froth into context, by commenting “We are not going to comment on speculation”. And that is all it is. No one person speaking on the record, in addition to wrongly labelling Sir Michael Lyons and even making a basic capitalisation error.

Another routine day for Rupe’s supposedly upmarket troops, then.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Iraq Watch – 3

Appearing with the demeanour both of a woman scorned and an avenging angel, today brought Clare Short to the Iraq Enquiry. It was never going to be a meeting of the Tone and George fan club: Short did not disappoint as she laid into Blair’s apparent lack of candour and the “extraordinary” volte face of then Attorney General Lord Goldsmith.

Crucially, Short echoed the testimony yesterday by forces chief Sir Jock Stirrup that there had been insufficient time to prepare for the conflict – and for the inevitable humanitarian deficit in its aftermath. Moreover, she pointed up where Blair had given her advice which proved to be at variance with the facts. And, a point that Blair, who is to be recalled to revisit some of his evidence, will not want to replay, she touched on the crude and unnecessary demonisation of the French.

The dumping on Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin by both UK and US Governments was uncalled for, and need not have happened: Chirac had been prepared to support a second UN resolution and back military action, but not while the weapons inspectors were still at work. Hence his carefully worded use of the phrase “à ce moment” – “at this moment” to qualify his opposition to that resolution.

The inference of Chirac’s wording was clear enough: right now there will be no support, but that doesn’t mean there will not be support in the future. However, rather than maintain the diplomatic language and engage with the French, the US and UK cynically turned on them. This was particularly rich coming from the US, where some commentators accused the French of treachery, while conveniently forgetting that, without the French, the USA would never have come into existence.

Right now, that is “at this moment” once more, it will be interesting to see how the Blair rebuttal machine tackles Clare Short’s accusations. Big Al will not be pleased.

Murdoch Is Served (10)

With timing that might not be entirely coincidental, the Guardian’s Nick Davies has brought Phonehackgate back into view. And the numbers of voicemail accounts hacked looks to comfortably exceed the “handful” previously admitted: Davies’ numbers are pointing to around a hundred from Orange, O2 and Vodafone, with T-Mobile and 3 yet to come (the police, apparently, never asked these latter providers for the information in the first place).

Davies got his information from the phone companies themselves: the numbers used by former News of the World royal correspondent Clive Goodman (recently paid off, as I noted at the time) and private investigator Glenn Mulcaire were each found to have either called or hacked a number of voicemail accounts.

The gallery of those hacked includes the usual slebs and politicians: Jade Goody, George Michael, John Prescott and Kate Middleton. But, disturbingly, it also features “lottery rapist” Iorworth Hoare. And this is work being done in the name of a Murdoch tabloid, where there is frequent reference to the rights and sensitivities of the victims of crime. Whether Young Dave and Andy Coulson are still comfortable about this business is unclear. But one thing is certain: Nick Davies hasn’t done yet.

Expect more on this case in the coming weeks.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Each To Their Own

For the first time since he became Pope, Benedict XVI is to visit the UK. This does not seem such a bad thing: those who adhere to the Roman Catholic communion will be pleased to be so honoured.

However, the pontiff is not happy about our equality law. This is because adoption agencies can no longer discriminate against same sex couples, as the Catholic church would wish, given their interpretation of the scriptures.

Well, Pope Benedict is welcome to his view, and I support unequivocally his freedom to voice it. But the UK is an increasingly secular country, and as for the law, that’s the way it is.

I can imagine that the whole business of equality for all before the law taxes the authorities in the Vatican, especially as ostensibly Catholic countries like Portugal have just legalised gay marriage. Here, the modernisation process has been swift compared to the UK: homosexuality was a crime in Portugal as late as 1982, far later than in the UK.

But this is the way the world now is: that’s for Benedict and his advisors to figure out.

The War After Tomorrow

Buried in the detail of Tony Blair’s testimony to the Iraq Enquiry was yet another detail that may have been overlooked: a small yet significant word called Iran. Blair is not the first to point the finger in this direction – following the release of IT consultant Peter Moore, the head of US Central Command David Petraeus has asserted that Moore was, for a time at least, held captive in Iran.

These first stirrings against Iran do not sound well: it’s easy to see this as the USA wanting payback for the humiliation of the 1979 hostage crisis at their embassy in Tehran, but there is never any move to put one over on Vietnam for the failure of the US-led campaign there. Nor is there any talk of invading other allegedly rogue states like North Korea, as in that case an incursion would result in the same outcome as the drive north during the Korean war: the provocation of the Chinese into replying. And the Chinese have a very, very big army – as well as enough financial muscle to seriously damage the US Dollar.

The only conclusion that can be reached is that it is in the US’ interest to not only extend its area of influence across the Middle East, but also to increase its security of energy supply by having first call on the oil reserves there. The significant problem in moving against Iran would be that the Iranians would be more likely to fire back, and with rather more force, than the Iraqis did. Moreover, Iran could call upon the support of the Government in Moscow. It is to be hoped that Barack Obama resists any attempt by the US military to extend the conflict that has already seen hundreds of thousands dead in Iraq. It is, after all, the same military that wanted JFK to bomb Cuba.

And that could have had much of the world not merely looking into the abyss, but pitched directly into it.