Hurrah For Weekly Bin Collections

Eric Pickles is Coalition marmite.  His bluff northern manner oozes the kind of ‘tell it like it is’, ‘no-nonsense’, ‘wont suffer fools gladly’ demeanour that the traditional Tory faithful love.  Those who don’t love him will instead perceive him as arrogant, aloof and missing any emotional intelligence.   He is the John Prescott of the right.  I’m sure both men will be aghast at the comparison but there it is.

Being a ‘character’ in a political landscape devoid of them can be a real advantage climbing the greasy pole.  The flipside is the rod for your own back when you’ve made it and it’s time to start delivering stuff.   Eric has a twin curse.  His lovers all have unrealistic expectations that he can and will ‘just wade through the crap and get stuff done’.  His haters meanwhile will leap on his every effort with extra venom to ensure anything he comes up with will fail.

The announcement by Pickles on the weekly bin collection underlines his personal challenge.  You can feel tangible disappointment from his supporters in Manchester that he had to go down a very costly incentive route.  The old guard can’t understand why ‘no-nonsense Eric’ couldn’t just impose it as a ‘must-do’ for councils.   Aside the legislative challenge of making such a requirement there would also be the glaring contradiction between being champions of localism and any top-down dictat.  It had to be an incentive route.  The trouble is that this requires the money to be seen, and this is an absolute gift for his detractors to yell ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ and point out all the other things that a Government could spend a quarter of a billion pounds on in a time of financial crisis.  He’s been on a hiding to nothing.

For all the reality of the politics I really believe he’s done the right thing.  Refuse collection is the most basic core service for a council to deliver.  Yes, you absolutely can just about get by leaving your rubbish fortnightly but the reality for many of us nowadays with shift work or working away from home in the week is that it is often impossible to get your rubbish out every time on the specific due day.  On a fortnightly cycle if you miss one collection you’ll go a full month.  Never mind the stench – that is a public health issue.  The biggest winners from fortnightly collections are rats and foxes.  Public sanitation gains have been hard won over the last century, the national drift to fortnightly collections has risked surrendering them.

And yes, I know there are many out there who take huge pride in their recycling efforts and somehow manage to get their rubbish so that they only actually have to leave black bags out once a year or whatever.  Hey – all power to your elbow.  Well done.  I salute you.  You’re great, and I’m sure you feel it.  But for the rest of us flawed lot, who honestly recycle with best endeavour rather than fervour, who have kids with disposable nappies, and who shamefully do buy convenience food and takeaways and other modern stuff that generates waste – and carry our share of liberal guilt for doing so – we nevertheless don’t want that (or our equally guilty neighbours share) festering in our neighbourhood.  So hurrah for the weekly bin collection, and hurrah for Eric for doing whatever he realistically can to preserve it.


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The Best & Worse of America


Watching the local TV here in Boston, I caught part of a trashy TV show that serves as the perfect vignette for the best and worst of America.

The show was ‘Minute to Win It’.  The premise isn’t that important, but in a nutshell two strangers are paired up to complete 10 one minute challenges to win a million dollars.  Think ‘Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Take-away’ meets ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.  To emotionally connect with the contestants they throw in ‘X-Factor’ style interviews with their families explaining how the Million Dollar prize would transform their lives.

A particularly enthusiastic soul on the episode I watched explained in a matter-of-fact fashion how she used to work as an insurance agent, ‘a good job with an excellent healthcare plan’, but when the recession came along was made redundant.  They could make the mortgage payments on one salary but her younger son was on specialist treatment for Asthma, they didn’t want to stop it, without the health-plan the medical bills rolled in. They lost their house.

Just wow.  It hammered home to me that our society’s consensus that we treat our population free at the point of the delivery on the basis of need is golden.  I have no issue whatever with innovative plans put forward to meet that consensus more efficiently, nor any particular truck with whether the actual health delivery is by private, public or third sector (and so have no philosophical objection to anything Lansley proposes, only concerns about the detail) – but if ever there was a proposal that threatened that core ideal – and could result in stories like the above – well, you could find me at the front row of the protests, entirely up for subjection to a good ‘ol kettling.

But if that story was the downside of America – the upside was there to be seen in the same lady.  Behind the whooping and high-fiving, which continued even after she lost –  and all the other hoopla nonsense that makes our European toes curl – there was still that relentless optimism.  She had a belief to her core that with hard work, personal sacrifice, and just one little break it would all be OK.  Now, faith alone aint going to solve her problems.  But I have little doubt that the ‘can-do’ attitude that seeped from her every pore massively increases her chances of making herself that ‘one little break’.

That optimism seems hard-wired in the US DNA.  Yes, the recession has dulled it, but even now at the pit of the downturn the level of self-belief in ordinary hard-up Americans and that innate sense that they themselves have a stake in digging themselves out of it is something I find inspiring. On a macro level, those tens of millions of souls applying that attitude will be the real driver that picks the country up by its bootstraps and gets it back on-track.  If we could only somehow bottle that optimism and transfer it over here to the UK – we’d be a better nation for it.  Without it, we must count the blessings we have – and I’ll start that count with the NHS.

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Earthquakes, Hurricanes & Hyperbole

You will have clocked that the East Coast US was hit by both an Earthquake and Hurricane in the last fortnight.  You probably thought the international media made a meal with their coverage.  Let me assure you, whatever undue focus these things got in Europe it was as nothing compared  to the certifiable overdose by  local US press.

The earthquake was, if you forgive the pun, no great shakes.  Truth be told if you are going to be caught up in an earthquake then 5.8  is about the right size.  Big enough that you are going to feel it, small enough that you never feel in mortal danger.  I was on a sunlounger on a Cape May beach.   It lasted 30 seconds and there was no doubting what it was. Just for a moment, with a flashback to the Japanese Tsunami, I had a mild anxiety that a beach would not be the smartest place to hang-out.  A quick look at Twitter and the news confirmed that the epicentre was inland.  Relax.  Recline.  Back to the book.

The earthquake headlines were a giggle.   Reporters led the news with “…and look at these  CCTV pictures of some tins of beans falling right off a shelf in a supermarket in West Virginia”.   The footage was as unremarkable as it sounds, but the news presenters believed if you add a sensational  enough narrative,  or just shout,  then the footage will magically become dramatic.  The anchors hit a full ten on the hype scale.

Then came Irene.  And they turned it up to eleven.

We were hunkering in  a friend’s house just outside Philadelphia.  I swear the local news ran film of a provincial official demanding that everybody “get a piece of a paper, write on it your name, your social security number and the cell phone number of a loved one.  Place that piece of paper in your left shoe.  That will help aid us with body identification”. Flipping heck. His next line “only do this in proper shoes, not flip flops” marginally detracted from the gravity of his statement.  My friend looked at me gravely, at last he seemed to have a flicker of concern:  “We should go out now and get beer and wine in.  Oh, and some batteries”.

We couldn’t find batteries anywhere.  It was quite something to see every bottle of water and every battery shelf in every store bare.  Thankfully, both the beer and wine shops (which amazingly, by law, are separate stores in Pennsylvania) had not had a run of panic buying.  We may have no light, but we had booze.  Bring it on Irene.

We had a bit of wind.  We had a lot of rain.  I am talking cats and dogs.  Rain you would have to punch your way through.  The local news had every junior reporter  placed in locations where if it was half as bad as forecast death would be near certain.  You felt kind of sorry for them, but it did make good TV.  Then they really got to me again:  “Tornado Warning!  We have a tornado warning!”  The map they showed put the tornado likely impact on top of us.  The news anchor knew the drill, full fear factor:  “If you are in any of those counties, get your family away from windows, off the top floor and into the cellar.  Stay there till this has passed”.   Just as he said this my host came in looking panicked and announced the cellar was flooding.  Shit.

The rational part of me, said this was nuts.  Pure hype to keep you glued to the news.  But the bit of me that loves my family told me I would rather laugh at taking over-the-top action in the morning, than regret not taking any action forever.    Mattresses were moved from the top floor to a downstairs spare room. We slept in our makeshift bunker.

I got up at 5:45am at what was supposed to be the peak of the storm.  In all honesty, at that point it had died right down, it was no worse than we seem to get most Monday mornings in the UK.    We did laugh at ‘our over-reaction’.

When we went out the next day though, it was clear the storm really had brought some kick.  Across the road a large tree had blown-over taking with it a wrought- iron gate.  Had anyone been in its path they would not have stood a chance.  A quick drive around the neighbourhood showed similar damage was widespread.   A listen to the news and it seems that tens of people did lose their lives nationwide.
So it is quite easy for me to chuck rocks at the US news for overhyping all this.   However, I consider myself pretty cynical and yet they altered my behaviour and kept me indoors out of harm’s way.  Multiply that change of behaviour by millions of people and statistically at least some will be alive today who would otherwise have fallen victim.  The media will think they did a great job on that calculus.  The counterpoint  is that bad as the storm was there was still quite a big gap between the Armageddon forecasts they pushed at us and the reality.   They have a tricky balance to strike.   You can only get away with a few strikes of overhyping  before you get into the territory of the little boy who cried wolf.  The earthquake and hurricane are strikes one and two.

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Those Tiresome Attempts to Justify the Tottenham Riots

The riots in Tottenham are hooliganism pure and simple.

For the British commentariat that is far too simple an analysis to be allowed to stand. Cue, thousands of column inches attempting to frame last night as an inevitable expression of the ‘class-war’ stoked by this Government. Please spare me that bullshit.

I’m sure that the Chinese whisper ‘on the street’ will be “cops kill family man, Mark Duggan, in cold blood”.  That will have been enough for bored youths, who are no doubt suffering crappy prospects with a combination of the recession and poor education to go out and have ‘a good old fashioned riot and loot’. To some small extent they will also be emboldened by pictures of ‘Arab Spring’ that bombard our news, and to an even lesser extent be more against the Met than ever after the hackgate coverage.

Pseuds will over-analyse all the above ‘reasons’ and offer them as ‘excuses’. There will be more than a hint they are on the rioters side. In this over-analysis they will ignore the role played by the local gang leaders in stirring this up and the opportunistic criminality they engage in whilst it is kicking off.

We don’t know the circumstances of Duggan’s death – and it may well be that the police could have handled the operation far better. Someone has lost their life, he is a father, and no matter what he was up to that is a cause of sadness. Nevertheless, the fact the chap was carrying a gun and if reports are to be believed shot at a police officer, suggests the police were right to be moving in on him. Whatever, it will be far more constructive to wait for the outcome of the IPCC investigation before rushing out and burning down the local branch of Aldi.

The real damage the pseuds cause in their post-event rationalisation and politicisation of events is to foster a sense of justification amongst the riotors. There is no justification, there should only be shame.

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Amy Winehouse: We shouldn’t celebrate. We should mourn.

Is ‘iconicise’ a word? I can imagine the Collins concise grandly defining “a post-mortem process whereby the image of the deceased undergoes the transition from sustained tabloid ridicule into a figure of deep popular cultural import.”  Don’t look it up.    It won’t say that.   It just should.

It’s a sorry national boast that nobody else can’ iconicise’ like us Brits.  Think Diana.  Think Jade.  Pity Amy.

The script wrote itself and all the actors compliantly played their roles:  This time it was a rock-and-roll star – talented, but tortured by her demons. The press – well, at least the redtops and glossy mags – first shifted years of copy by trading on her tragic real-life soap opera.  When the inevitable end came, as always, there has to be one last frenzied orgy of schadenfreude.  None of the tragic final details will be too insignificant to be passed up by Fleet Street’s ‘finest’ for our eager consumption.  It’s been ever thus,  “all the papers had to say was that Marilyn was found in the nude” even back when Elton was a lad.

The fans know their role too.  That need for the spontaneous vigil.  The teddy bears on railings, the flowers, the candles, heartfelt messages scrawled on tear-stained cards.  Oh, and bottles of Malibu and packets of fags, obviously.

This ‘impromptu shrine’ stage then kick-starts the metamorphosis.  In a blink, the recent object of ridicule is romanticised, often by the biggest pushers of the earlier ridicule.  With premature death the good become ‘saints’, the talented elevate to ‘genius’.  There will be tribute records or back-catalogue rereleases and they will fly in the charts.  T-shirts will be worn by A-level students in 20 years time, just as this year’s crop of sixth-formers can be seen occasionally sporting a Cobain top.   And people will bang on about the immortal ’27’ club.   The iconicising will be complete.

I have a theory that our media ‘iconicise’ to assuage their guilt.  We let them, and buy into it, to assuage ours.  Let’s be frank, for the tabloids and glossies the tragic demise of Winehouse over the last few years has been a source of popular entertainment.  The coverage of her recent gig in Serbia was pitched in most news outlets much as Victorians may have reported on the curious bearded lady at the touring circus.   Yes, there was the mock hint of sympathy – but not quite enough sympathy to choose not to fill column inches giving her the focus.

I know I sound like a cold cynic.   I’m not.   I never met her, nor knew her.  I know only from the limited bits of her work  I have heard she had genuine talent, but as to whether she was smart, or without the make-up attractive, or funny, or bitchy or whatever else from the human condition pick-and-mix I have no idea.   What I do know is that the pictures of her father Mitch with that raw, almost hopeless, emptiness in his eyes will resonate with anyone who has ever had ‘the phonecall’ or ‘the knock-on-the-door’ .  I know from those photos that Amy was a human being who was loved.  I know that when the family release a statement describing themselves as ‘bereft’  it isn’t spin or an easy  soundbite.   It is just the gut-wrenching way it is.

And I hate that that as we let icons become cemented through this media theatre, we almost celebrate the flaws ahead of the talent.  We reinforce the idea that drink,  drugs and addiction are just an inevitable part of rock-and-roll.  They are not.   This is a tragic loss of life.  There is nothing to celebrate.  Nothing to glamourize.   We shouldn’t iconicise Amy.   Instead, we should mourn for her.


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What was this ‘Wilful Blindness’ Stuff?

Midway through their mammoth testimony, long before the custard pie, James Murdoch was asked if he had ever heard of ‘Wilful Blindness’?  He gave an out-of-place smirk and shrugged.  His father chipped-in that whilst he’d heard of it “we’ve never been guilty of it”.   Hold that thought.

Later, during Rebekah Brooks testimony, she was asked how payments to private detectives were authorised.  The gist of her reply was that News International set an overall budget for a newspaper,   the editor would then allocate budgets downward to ‘managing editors’, they would fund individual reporters and so long as everyone stayed within their authorised threshold they were accountable for their own spend.  Underlings were trusted.  If you were within your limits it seems no questions would be asked.  None of the witnesses had any idea as to the actual transactional mechanisms -cash, invoices or whatever – that allowed their reporters to pay private detectives (or actual detectives come to that).

Now, I’m no lawyer.  I’m not clear on the line that has to be crossed in corporate governance or financial control arrangements before executives fall legally foul of neglecting their duties.  However, I’m pretty sure the MPs were trying to establish if the delegated payment authorities were so piss poor as to appear manufactured to ensure there wasn’t visibility of how junior staff were spending the company’s money.  Our inquisitive MPs danced around this.  The questions, though never framed in such direct terms, were steering them to infer they had therefore allowed ‘plausible deniability’ to become institutionalised at the News of the World.  No wonder they  introduced James Murdoch to the phrase ‘wilful blindness’.  In the US folk go to jail for that sort of thing.   If the committee smelt blood on this point they chose not to go for the kill.  For now.

Regardless, the testimony painted a picture of executives who simply didn’t grasp whole chunks of the detail you might expect. I’m happy that they wouldn’t have been in the micro-detail at the time, but troubled that given the magnitude of what has happened they still didn’t seem to have really drilled in on it since. The more mundane narrative to explain this  is that the Murdochs and Brooks had a lax grip on the internal controls in their company, they delegated to the wrong people (you can delegate responsibility, you can’t delegate accountability) and they failed to assure a culture of ethics, audit and active management on a high profile part of their stable.   If it isn’t conspiracy (and to be honest, on balance I don’t think it is) then there is still a measure of old fashioned incompetence.  Either way,  it is no wonder Rupert feels humbled.

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Filed under Center right, Indulgent, UK, UK Politics

A Glimpse Inside the Red Head of Rebekah Brooks

My first post for Dale & Co:  link here to the original.  Posted here for archive purposes.

There’s one doing the rounds on Twitter that recalls David Brent gathering his staff for the good news and bad news.  ” The bad news is a lot of you are going to be redundant.  The good news is I still have a great job”.  Flash forward a decade, swap Gervais for Brooks, shift to the NOTW newsroom and you’ve got the gist of what went on yesterday.

Anyone reasonably bright who has followed the UK media for any length of time will have grown a little radar that just knows when the tipping point has been reached and there’s no way back  for someone in the press’s sights.  This little radar has been bleeping solidly for at least three days.  There will be no other outcome than Brooks being toast.  It isn’t ‘if’, it is ‘when’.

And yet again, we see this strange paradox where one of the very people trumpeted as the most media savvy in the land seems to be lacking this basic radar and hangs on too long.   Think Mandelson, Campbell and Coulson by way of examples.  Now add Brooks.

I can only think that in all these cases they are so drunk on fancying themselves as Masters-of-the-Universe they believe they are somehow immune to the dark powers they made their living unleashing.  Like the lion-master at the circus who gets cocky with his own beast before a gory end.

Spare me this ‘she has offered her resignation and we refused’ nonsense.  Her delay has already dragged a whole staff of blameless people down with her.  If she cares about News International she should know that it is in their best remaining interests for her to walk regardless of anything James Murdoch should say.

Even if her drivers are entirely boxed around her own self-interest another lesson obvious to the rest of us mortals is that the quicker you jump the quicker the way back.   The best example on her career path that there can be a life, of sorts, after this would be Piers Morgan.

Hang on, Piers Morgan?  ….  no wonder she isn’t shifting.





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