Saturday, 23 September 2017

Did I tell you about when... I went to a party half-cocked

12.30, I’d just finished work and I was on a mission. Word had reached me of a major party at the hotel where I had stayed when I first arrived and It wasn't going to happen without me. I had borrowed a 50 Vespa and I was on my way. Gerakina beach was some fifty kilometres away and with a top speed of about sixty, I would have to be patient. Very patient.


The road stretched out ahead of me and at sixty kilometres an hour it stretches a lot. I went through a village set on the main road which was still bustling with tourists and locals alike but after that I knew I had a lot of road that went through nowhere in particular so I settled in.
Vespas have a distinctive buzz, you know vespa means wasp in Italian, of course you did, well after twenty minutes that can become quite hypnotic. I've ridden the length and breadth of the UK on a Vespa, Exmouth, Skegness, Isle of Wight but always with a lot of company and always at more than 60kph.
Twitshot
The road ahead stretched and stretched and faded.
The handlebars were snapped out of my hands and my legs flung in the air. I awoke with rocks and a dense patch of nature ahead. No time for coffee! I grabbed control and pulled the levers hard. I was only a couple of metres from the road but only a couple of metres from the edge that would have had me swimming home or worse. Fortunately, both wheels were pointing at the ground and my feet planted firmly in the dust.
I dismounted, sat on one of the boulders I had so nearly painted with my face and sucked the calm from a camel cigarette. Ok, I know smoking isn't good for my health but it tended to hover so low on my list of activities that I lit another with the first.
The second leg of my journey was filled with singing and wide open eye exercises to ensure my family would not have to fork out for one of those little shrines by the road and a mangled 50 Vespa.
It was around two when I indicated the right into the Gerakina resort and it did cross my mind that the party may have begun to wane by my arrival. No chance. The bar was heaving. I rolled in, hugging, cheek-kissing and high-fiving to the bar and got straight down to business. There was Michaili who I’d rented my first scooter from and who had given me my first left-hacker to drive, Tina the lovely barmaid and Tim. Tim had arrived in Greece the same day as me but he was working for Thomson holidays as a rep. He spoke in a northern tainted RP accent and clearly hadn't got out much before getting here, I had taken him under my wing which probably wasn't a good thing, I was fully expecting his parents’ lawyers to be contacting mine when he got back to Lincolnshire in the autumn.
I’ll tell you some day how I came to be in Greece and while love has a lot to do with it, it’s not how most think it is. For now, me and life were having a torrid affair.
Now, among the throng was Pasqual, Tim’s boss and head rep for the area. He had been working in the industry for years and had seen most of the world, in little blue shorts and a logo’d polo shirt but he’d been around and had tales to tell. We had a laugh and joke until he asked me what my plans were for the night, I obviously wouldn't be taking the Vespa the fifty kilometres home, not anytime soon. I told him that I didn't have any plans but I was sure Tim could put me up. Tim kicked me in the ankle.
“He most certainly will not!” was Pasqual’s curt answer. Whereupon he went into a diatribe about going off half-cocked and without making appropriate arrangements. Damn! I never did anything half-cocked! As for the arrangements, he had a good point. I think he was still going on when I left him to revisit the bar. Tim came and scalded me for getting him in shit. I told him not to worry and his boss would never know. Tim was making significant progress but was still decidedly risk-averse.
So, I had nowhere to stay. This bombshell had me upended so I danced to Happy Mondays on a table with Amanda, the new kiddies rep who had transferred from Corfu, or some such island.
By the time the sun began to yawn over the horizon there were just a few of us sitting in the bar. Tim had slipped off, possibly to avoid having to say no to me. Pasqual had waited for Tim to leave but was now gone, Michaili was still as chilled as always but still in full effect. Tina the lovely barmaid had been relieved by the owner, much to my disappointment so I was sitting with Amanda, who was just as lovely. She asked me where I was staying. She wasn't familiar with my village so I explained where it was and how far.
“How did you get here?” she asked.
I pointed at the diminutive scooter sitting outside.
“You came on that? Yor mental!”
“Chicken oriental!” I replied.
She asked when I was going back and if I would be sticking around for a while.
I shook my head, “Gotta get back tomorrow, today. At some point.”
She reached her hand across the table and I took it, I'm nothing if not polite. “You could stay with me but I share.” I concealed my disappointment. “But, but I might have something.” She stood suddenly. “Come on!”
The hotel was quiet, apart from some Germans laying their towels on the sunloungers. She smiled at the guy on reception and led me by the hand. Eventually we reached a door and she tried the handle, it opened. She raised a finger to her lips. She didn’t give me much time to survey my surrounding but I got the impression that it was some kind of store room. It had no windows so I went to turn on the light. She stopped me, whispering ‘no’ into my ear.
We bounced around the room, bumping into furniture. There was a big soft pile of something that was probably towels in plastic bags which suited our needs for a while then another stack of something harder. As my eyes became accustomed to the dark I spotted a pile of mattresses. I told her breathlessly to wait while I pulled one down onto the floor. We continued. I thought we were being quite quiet but to be honest I couldn’t be sure.
Finally, we were finished and laid out on the single mattress when she leapt to her feet swearing in a loud whisper.
“Oh shit! Oh my god!”
“What’s up?” I knew she had work but surely we hadn’t lost complete sense of time. She continued swearing and pulling her clothes from around the room pulling on my t-shirt in her panic. I asked again. She said it was nothing.
Not to be dissuaded. “You late for work?”
“I got my period! Satisfied?” Then slipped out of the door.
I grabbed half an hour sleep then slipped out myself, looking both ways before exiting.
In a cafe across the road I had two strong coffees, a spinach pie and the rest of the camels in my box before kicking the Vespa into life.
As I left the resort I nearly had a head-on with a police car that was in a hurry for something. I looked over my shoulder to check that he didn't turn. I wasn't wearing a helmet and although they rarely pulled anyone for such transgressions in those days, it did happen if they were in a bad mood.
I broke the return journey into manageable legs punctuated by coffee and camels. I laughed at myself, I had a couple of spots of blood on my trousers and even my t-shirt. Poor girl, she must have been mortified. I resolved to call her when I got back to reassure her that it was no biggy.
I didn't call, we had no mobiles then and I didn't know her surname. I could have sent a message through Natasha, the Thompson girl in my village but I got distracted and forgot.
A few weeks later Tim was transferred to my village. We went out for drinks which he insisted on paying for in lieu of letting me down that night. I told him it was fine but he felt in my debt. I had been helping him with some of the apartment owners, his Greek had not progressed as fast as mine. He had exhausted his tales of difficult holidaymakers when his eyes lit up.
“You know, the police made us give them all our lists!”
“When?” I asked.
“Must have been after the party.”
“Why?”
“There was a murder at the hotel! One of the rooms was covered in blood.”
“My round,” I offered…


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Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Did I tell you about when... I was late for work

It was a beautiful summer morning as usual, well this is Greece and if there is one thing reliable in this country, it's the weather. Come to think of it, it IS the one and only thing. I awoke strangely refreshed. I say strangely because I had got to bed around four the previous night but this was a comparatively early night. It must have been mid-July and I had been partying since May, burning the candle at both ends was too benign an idiom for it. I was burning a Molotov at both ends and that nothing had exploded yet was outrageous fortune.


late for workI took a cold shower to rinse off the night and headed down through the village to work. Work was the nice restaurant where I waited tables for Fat Yianni, the classiest place in town. Although my work ethic was thoroughly Anglican, my play ethic was even more dedicated. I slept no more than two hours a night and lived the other twenty two like tomorrow was just a vicious rumour. Of course, I would get forty winks on the beach in the afternoon but most of those winks were to just about anything in a bikini.
Twitshot
I sauntered through the village well aware of the fact that I would be ten or fifteen minutes late but me and Fat Yianni had an understanding, he knew I was awesome and I knew he wasn't paying me what I deserved. He had confessed one drunken night that he had never seen anyone extract tips or sell ‘specials’ like me. I had no fears about my job yet I executed my obligations with diligence and aplomb.
Hangover was a pretty standard state but I had the constitution of Keith Richards and when it was showtime, I performed.
Nearing the village centre, I passed the first taverna and the owner was standing outside watching the world go by and swinging his worry-beads. I smiled and waved a kalimera. He grimaced and swung his hand in a chopping motion, this meant that you were in trouble, the cutting motion was a certain part of one’s anatomy that were for the chop. Christ! I was quarter of an hour late, tops!
I passed the souvenir shop and offered a warm morning greeting, she swung her head and tutted. When the same thing happened at the next taverna, I realised that Fat Yianni was in a foul mood and I would be getting it for some reason when I got in. I could handle the old bastard and our rows were legendary in the village but he would not do without me and he knew that I knew that as well as he.
When I arrived, maybe twenty minutes late, the restaurant was empty and I made quick work of readying it for brunch service. The girls were busy in the kitchen and I did my best to jolly them up. I'm a great believer in investing in a convivial work atmosphere. If you work in a miserable place, maybe you are the reason for it. I worked in a wonderful environment. The girls were reluctant to talk to me and no amount of horseplay would loosen them up.
Fat Yianni arrived in a tempest and I resolved to give him space to get his first frappe coffee with Bailys instead of milk down him before I engaged him. He planted himself behind the bar and followed me with his black gaze. His fat head was swinging, punctuated by swear words. I had already played out the game in my head. He would start griping, I would placate him until I reposted vehemently enough to provoke a full-on altercation, storm out and join some friends who had said they were going water-skiing. Whereupon I would return for evening service sell all the specials and leftovers and harvest a wad of tips then go down to the strip where I would party myself spastic and all would be forgotten.
“Where you yesterday, koufala?”
Game on. I ignored him.
“Malaka! Where you yesterday?”
“I was on the strip, mostly Bubbles bar. You?”
“I am here, doing yourself work, hamoura!”
“You couldn't do my work if your life depended on it, you muppet! I do the business, you collect the money!” I was readying myself for water-skiing.
“We banged your door. We shout you. You no answer!”
“Yianni, what are you on? Go back to your frappe, I got work to do!”
“WHERE YOU WERE, STUPID ENGLISH! WE GO YOUR HOUSE… MANY TIMES”
“Listen, you stupider Greek, I was here until that table of Greeks left at, what was it, 12.30? Then I went down Bubbles. And, now I'm here!” The villagers were right, he was worse than usual. I may have to forgo my evening tips to win out this time. He was like Mussolini on his period!
His big moon face cracked a smile. “David. What day it is?”
“Listen Yianni, I'm off!”
“DAVID. WHAT DAY IT IS?”
“You fuckin' muppet! It’s Tue—”
I snatched the rip-a-day calender to shove in his fat face. It read Wednesday 18th July…


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Thursday, 14 September 2017

Did I tell you about when... I went hitch-hiking II

Hitch-hiking
Anyone who thinks buses are an unreliable form of transport should try thumbing their way through the mountains between the port of Patras and just about anywhere. It was getting late and the sun was sipping cocoa. Many hitchers stay in one place where they are most likely to get a lift, often with a cardboard sign. I like to walk, while I'm heading in the right direction, I'm making progress. Even if I'm in the wrong place, I 'spose that speaks volumes about me but maybe I'm just stupid and impatient.

Twitshot

  A car passed and lit its indicators and my heart did a little dance. I ran to the waiting car just for it to speed off. Ha fucking ha.
I was starting to climb into the mountains, into the worst possible place to get a lift when Pasquale eased his huge truck into the side of the road. I knew he was called Pasquale because he said the word with a tombstone smile several times. The truck wore Italian plates and Pasquale spoke neither English nor Greek, I remembered a few words of Italian but they were of no use. I patted my chest and said David. Pasquale was carrying steel rods. I don’t know where and I didn't know that they wouldn't get there, not then. All I knew was that I had a lift.
Pasquale was working the gears hard but I was surprised at how nimble the huge vehicle was climbing the up into the wooded mountain.
Behind him was a cupboard full of snacks. He offered me some crisps and fizzy pop. Inflight meal. I was blessed.
So, we were winding through the narrow pass. I watched the sheer drops from my window, reassuring myself that Pasquale, a professional driver knew exactly what he was doing.
His hand had moved from the gearstick as the road levelled and was now working his shrivelled knob which he had stealthily slipped from his trousers. Fuck! It was dark outside, god knows how far from anywhere. I made the concerted decision to ignore it and hope it went back where it belonged.
“Wanky, wanky!” So, Pasquale had been a little coy about his mastery of English. But what he didn't understand was that when one is being ignored, one should stop playing with one’s cock to avoid any unnecessary faux pas or transgressions of etiquette.
Being British, I was well schooled in how to politely diffuse such situations. “Put it away.” I said in an even tone.
“Wanky, wanky!” Pasquale was Italian and never had the privilege of an education in the country whose main export is manners and civility. Plus, he was the driver and I was the passenger in the middle of the mountains where the headlights were doing their best to penetrate the blackness.
I galvanised my tone and repeated, “Put it away!”
The cock was now back safely behind his fly and I clenched praying for the next town to arrive.
I watched the tyres skim the edge of the road sprinkling stones down the sheer face.
Now, while London cabbies have famously enlarged hippocampi, the same cannot be said for Italian lorry drivers and it wasn't long before he had forgotten my request. Pasquale’s cock was out again.
“Wanky, wanky?”
Now, I failed to mention that while British to the core, I was raised in Essex, where a subculture of English restraint exists. I sung my fist across the cab and it landed square in his right eye.
“PUT YOUR FUCKING COCK AWAY!” Shit! I would drive this thing if I had to. My fist was now a grip on his collar and I had twisted to bring my right into play if circumstances demanded.
His cock disappeared in a nervous shuffle. I hoped it got stuck in his fly!
Now, the atmosphere in the cab was a little terse with Pasquale’s romantic advances rebuked. We've all faced rejection from time to time and it’s no fun.
I watched the edge of the road swing back and forth, the tyres kicking more stones over. He was clearly impatient to get me home, his expectations of a kiss at the door and a nightcap dashed.
A sweeping left leaned the cab over so that the tyres were momentarily out of sight. I caught my breath. The next right brought them back into view. I watched the cliff edge drop to an abyss then replaced by the door of the truck as the cab swung from side to side. I could clearly make out the letters of the livery. Then the wheels disappeared again.
They did not reappear.
The wheels had gone under and stayed under. The side of the mountain was coming but it was taking its time. Salt and vinegar crisps, Fanta, dust and moans filled the cab as we slid down. Down into the forest.
We hit the trees hard and the windscreen cracked.
It took a moment to confirm that I was still alive but I was. Pasquale was moaning his own name. He hadn't fallen on me, maybe his seatbelt, I wasn't wearing mine. I couldn't tell you.
My kitbag was between my legs but the footwell had compressed so I had to remove my shoe to retrieve my foot. I put my shoes back on and braced myself against my seat and kicked out the windscreen. It fell and I heard it tumble down into the trees. I pulled myself out and stood on the side pillar of the truck’s windscreen. The cab had snagged on some trees, pines I think but the trailer was hanging.
Pasquale reached out a hand. “Pasquale urrrgh!” The same hand that had been teasing his cock. The same cock that had got me in this situation in the first place. I braced against the window frame and threw a front-kick into his head.
I grabbed my kitbag and started to scramble up the steep slope. I could make out a car and two figures at the road.
“YOU OK?”
My right ankle was getting heavy and blood was coming from a deep cut on my right forearm but all things considered, I was good.
“Yeah. I'm fine!”
When I got to the top I found I had more blood over my left cheek but it wiped off easily, it was only Pasquale’s.
The police turned up followed by an ambulance. An officer took me aside and asked me what had happened.
Now my Greek was not great but I knew the word for masturbation, don’t ask me how. Trouble is that it gets used for everything in this country. I explained that the driver was, well, pulling his pud and this may have explained his lack of due care and attention but that translates as he was fucking about. I tried to rephrase with added gestures. The officer nodded in false comprehension, “Yeah, he’s a wanker!” I finally gave up.
Pasquale was sitting in the ambulance, chianti pouring from his head. I was ushered to join him. Pasquale freaked, waving his arms about. His black eye and busted nose were indirectly related to the accident but related nonetheless. I went in the squad car.
I was taken to the hospital first where my examination consisted of being asked to pull down my trousers and left in an empty room for half an hour. The doctor returned, asked me if I was OK and told me to hoist them back up. The irony of ending my evening with my trousers round my ankles despite my efforts was not lost on me, oh well.
The police were waiting outside. They took me for coffee down at the station and asked me to tell my story, tell my story! How were they to know? About two hours, four cups of coffee, a packet of the officers fags and a couple of ouzos later (I drank, the officers being on duty) they had written a vastly abridged version in Greek and asked me to sign it.
So now it’s about midnight and they want me out of town nearly as much as Pasquale. They take me down to the bus stop but the bus had left some ten minutes earlier. The officer waves wildly and we jump back in the car. He hits the road hard and we speed down the windy roads at a cracking pace. But, being professional drivers, I trusted in his experience…
         
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Sunday, 10 September 2017

Did I tell you about when... I went hitch-hiking

the hitcher
I think Rutger Hauer put the final nail in the coffin for hitch-hiking in the English speaking world. Anyone who saw The Hitcher would think more than twice about picking up any stranger from the roadside and most of us were already reluctant to stick out a thumb on the highway. In Greece in the 90s it was still fairly common practice. Young men on leave from their national service would wear uniform to garner sympathy. I would regularly village hop by thumb. So, when someone suggested hitching the six-hundred kilometres down to Zakynthos to see my grandparents, it struck me as a perfectly reasonable idea.
Twitshot
I loaded a kitbag, which was actually my kick-bag with the stuffing taken out and hit the highway south. A friend from the village gave me my first leg and dropped me at the toll gates out of the Thessaloniki. It was midsummer and the Greek sun takes no prisoners. My thumb was exhausted and I was nearly at the point of jumping the first bus back when a rickety Zestava pulled over. He was a middle-aged guy in a similar condition to his car but he was going my way and could take me some two-hundred kilometres down the line. Result!
My Greek at that time was pretty rudimentary at the time and he spoke with an impenetrable accent so conversation did not flow. What I did gather was that he was a policeman heading down to arrest a pretty heinous criminal. Dialogue soon dried up after him asking me to repeat everything twice and me trying to guess what he was saying through the clatter of the old car and his accent. I got the impression that he wasn’t the most amiable companion in any language so I decided instead to settle in for the remaining hour and a half trying not to nark him too much. The car was too small for any more friction.
The sun was high and piercing the windscreen so I opened the window. Clunk! It wound down a few inches then fell into the door. So much for not narking him. He was leaning across me trying to pull it back up, swerving across the lanes and snorting like a bull when he finally gave up. His destination would take me nearly half of my way and as it was a fairly big city, it would be a good place to get another lift.
My sunglasses were not enough to stop my retinas burning so I reached for the sunshade and flipped it down. A bunch of papers took flight like a flock of seagull through a jet engine and shot straight out of the window. Screeetch! My driver hit the brakes so hard I hit the windscreen. I barely had a chance to ask if they were important when he leapt from the car. He was dancing around in the breeze trying to grab the airborne pages. I watched as the slipstream from a passing truck flung them over a hedge into a field. He had stopped dancing for the paper and was now just dancing mad. His impenetrable accent was now simple expletives and they were aimed at me, my mother and my whole nation. He wanted to hurt me. Fortunately I stood a whole head taller than him and broad enough to deter any physical attack. But, he really wanted to hurt me.
In his ranting he told me what the papers were and I went back to make a more concerted effort to retrieve them. He went back to the car and drove off then stopped. I thought he had reconsidered his impetuousness, leaving me stranded on the side of the highway. He opened the passenger door so I ran toward it. My kitbag fell out onto the verge and he spun dust in my face allowing the acceleration to close the door.
Now flying across the neighbouring fields was the arrest warrant for a very heinous criminal.


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Friday, 8 September 2017

Did I tell you about when... I got run over

Off to the beach, Yay! This is Greece, so nothing odd there except that we were in the grip of capital controls. Mr. Schauble and his Eurogroup were rapping naughty Mr. Varoufakis’ knuckles by shutting down our banks. My adopted home was in a state of panic. The cash machines would allow only €40 to be withdrawn each day and everybody wanted their money out. There was a slow but persistent run on the banks and queueing at the ATM had begun to dominate everybody’s day. So we went to splash in the sea and top up our tans.

Twitshot
It was a bright and pleasant morning, bollocks it was! Greek summer had kicked in and we felt like spicy KFC wings. People often say that I must have gotten used to the heat but I ask you this, do chickens get used to roasting? We loaded the car with inflatable toys and umbrellas like a bargain bucket for kids and headed for the coast.
We dived and splashed and drank frappe until finally, we were baked and ready to head home for austerity pie. On route we passed through a busy high street so I decided to stop and empty my accounts some more. I had four accounts at different banks and flip-flopped around the various machines, waiting in line to add to the trot on the banks. Eventually, I had taken my daily allowance from each of the machines and as I was wearing beach shorts, I had the cash and cards in my hand and a fog in my head, how much longer could we stand living in this teenager’s bedroom of a country? Surely we could earn enough back in my native Britain to not have to go through this and still be able to visit her beaches frequently enough. And, what about the kids, shouldn’t we take them somewhere where they would have a future. I swung my head checking the traffic, my cards and cash gripped firmly in my fist. I stepped off the curb. I heard the screech of brakes. The cracking of plastic and glass. I saw a car pass me. The horror in the passenger’s eyes. I spun. The tyres stopped squealing. I was sat on my arse in the middle of the road with one flip-flop. My wife ran across the road her mouth making wide vowels. I told her to take the cash and cards still firmly in my grasp. Yes, I really am that tight!
The passenger ran over in a sea of apologies, the driver still clinging to the wheel probably fearing the next few years in a Greek jail. He asked if I was alright and I told him to pull me to my feet. I limped to the other side of the street and started pacing. The driver joined us and by the look on his face he had already imagined dropping the soap. My foot was heavy but in no great pain, the pain in my left arm that had been holding the cash was seeping through the adrenaline. My wife checked me over for damage. Nothing apart from my elbow and foot. The car had gone over my right foot, my elbow had struck the windscreen, breaking it, my body had shattered the door mirror. My mind was racing over every frame of the scene. I continued pacing, ignoring the pleas to sit down. My foot was getting heavier, I didn’t want it to seize.
We exchanged contact details with the driver and he promised to take care of any expenses, a promise he held. Then we went home, my wife asking me over and over if I wanted to go to the hospital.
Later she and my mate convinced me to go. Say what you like about Greek hospitals but they keep the sick off the streets. I had Vangelis’ Midnight Express theme ringing in my ears. Vangelis is Greek, I wondered if he’d visited many hospitals.
The doctors were more concerned about me reporting the incident. I told them the car was Italian and I was British, no contest really. Fortunately, I had no breaks just a swollen foot. Same foot, incidentally as in the truck accident. My football career was over before it had even started. But, hey, I only have two so I guess it would always be 50/50.
As I left the hospital, I bumped into my youngest’s godmother. She was on crutches, she had broken her fibula tripping up a curb.
I prefer not to think about what could have happened. What did happen was that I got hit by a car and came off better. What did happen was that I was reminded of the tightrope we walk, one slip and the planet will hit you hard. Down will come up and bitch slap you out of existence.
But this was not my time.


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Thursday, 10 August 2017

Bring back national service

bring back national service
If you’re British, you would have to speak to your grandfather to have any chance of learning anything about National Service. The last healthy young men received their call-up papers in 1960. National Service was introduced in many countries after the wars as a legacy of conscription. It was a simple solution to keeping the borders safe and protecting the democracy of the nation. The bonus was that it also instilled discipline and obedience into many who, as impressionable young men, had been through the military process. Another bonus is that many who served together developed the bonds and camaraderie only possible with people who have had a difficult and defining experience together. Some European nations still have a mandatory period of national service although its number has reduced significantly. Greece, for example, still has 9 months, reduced from 2 years over the last fifteen years. However, the only threats to Greece’s democracy has come from within, civil wars and a coup d’etat. The biggest threat to most western nations’ democracy comes from ignorance and complacency, again from within. Now, it strikes me that National Service should be reintroduced but this time not military but governmental.

Twitshot
In my previous article ARE YOU QUALIFIED FOR DEMOCRACY I discussed the idea that the nation gets the government it deserves. However, we cannot hope to get any better without informed decision and democratic engagement. This cannot happen unless the government invests in the people. Many would, quite rightly, argue that this would not serve the agenda of the political classes and that the persistent dumbing-down to a point where people vote more fervently for x-factor than the nation’s government is part of the plan. I think that in order for any country to be truly democratic, the people need to have some idea about the choices they are making and the effects that they have. Just having the right to put your cross on a ballot does not constitute democracy. To that end, I think that the secondary school curriculum should include a government and politics course and all 18-22 year-olds (I feel the 15-17 year old age group of the ‘National Citizen Service’ scheme would is too young and could have the opposite effect if mandatory) should do a period of no less than 6 months in the service of the country taking roles in local and national government as well as political parties. I am not talking about community service, I do not suggest that the nation’s young be put to work in parks and maintenance departments (something that has been suggested before with great support), what I suggest is putting them into the places (in something like an intern role) where budgets are balanced, decisions made, policies pondered. This would give everyone an insight into how the country is run and motivate the young to take more interest in why it doesn't run as well as it could do.

Party politics
Now, who wouldn’t want to spend 6 months hanging out with Jacob Rees-Mogg, taking notes for Boris Johnson, mucking in with Jeremy Corbyn or working with any up-and-coming candidate or back-bencher. Maybe not, but working with political parties in fund raising, campaigning and administration would help conscripts to understand how the system works, its machinations and manoeuvres. They may choose which party they wish to work with. I think the parties would vie to be chosen as it would be an opportunity to convert young voters, also if any party tried to avoid taking conscripts, they would be seen in a very bad light by the electorate. It may be a good idea to get a balance of working with different ends of the political spectrum in order to obtain a more balanced impression but this may prove complicated. That said, the overall effect across the nation should provide this balance. Of course, working with the parties may strengthen the affiliations of some who had a tendency to their beliefs to begin with, while seeing behind the curtain may cause others to change their opinions. I also believe that having a steady stream of civilians going through the offices would cause them to change their ways. In a way it would be like Big Brother in reverse, the people would be watching, and no doubt tweeting, about the things they saw. This would keep them on their toes, maybe even keep them in touch with the people they are supposed to serve.
Some may become so disillusioned by the state of party politics that they begin to set up their own. Lets face it, some of the parties are so focused on their own survival and internal bickering that they really do deserve to be allowed to be put out of our misery. If it cannot be fixed or is so resistant to change, they should be just allowed to die.

National government
Whitehall may not be able to accommodate many conscripts but spending time in the house of commons and its backrooms would definitely show the young how the country is run. Of course, it would be a pain in the arse for many MPs and civil servants but they have chosen to serve the country and serve they should. Having daily contact with real people may help to keep them grounded to the issues they have sworn and campaigned and been elected to do. Putting TV cameras in parliament was supposed to reign in the carnival of government and it did to a certain extent, I’m sure having voters in their midst would keep them on track. Of course, let’s not be naive, politics and government is not as simple as having a good idea, a compelling argument and a just cause. There are thousands of those and only limited resources. Conscripts will learn negotiation and compromise, skills that would benefit them in all careers and benefit many industries, just imagine having a huge pool of experienced, talented political negotiators to call on during issues within the EU, maybe Brexit would never have been necessary.

Local government
From local MP through town councillors to the people on the front line, seeing how their town is run would give the conscripts an insight into the difficulties of the community. It is easy to throw stones at the council for not patching roads, fixing fences or maintaining schools that the pupils work so hard to destroy but compromises need to be made, even with best of intentions of the best of public servants. Solutions may be offered that have not yet been explored. And, maybe, just maybe more young would learn that working together for what they would like (a better place to live) is better than destructive protest. I’m sure that a more proactive input from the young could solve many of the problems communities face everyday.

Difficulties
Now, of course there will be some huge problems to overcome. First and foremost is the little fact that the UK has over four million people between the ages of 18 and 22, most countries would have similar proportions of the population to deal with. Places would need to be found to occupy the conscripts. We could not have them running around in the House of commons tagging the walls of Westminster but each conscript would serve maybe six months so once the initiative got rolling it would be around four-hundred thousand for each session, eight-hundred thousand per twelve months, considerably less than the number of unemployed. Another issue would be getting appropriate people into the right departments, not everyone is suited to academic administration while others lack the practicality to assist in other departments. I am not talking IQ or schooling but some kind of assessment would be necessary, that said I think most would be surprised at how capable many kids who the school system has written off could be. Now the BIG one, cost. This would be a new financial burden on the national economy and no doubt costly but it seems to me that so much money is spent on patching up problems caused by the breakdown in communities, so much money wasted dealing with the ramifications of a despondent society that this would be a proactive investment, hopefully stopping some problems before they become problems.

Disclaimer
This is an embryonic idea, an idealistic proposal and not to be taken as a blue print but what I do know for certain is that something needs to be done. Not more patching up, not more dumbing down. A nation’s most valuable resource is its people and none more valuable than its young. Governments are elected by little more than half of the electorate in most countries and of those who do vote the majority are 40plus and their choices driven by unreliable media campaigns (also discussed in ARE YOU QUALIFIED FOR DEMOCRACY). In the Brexit referendum, which attracted a significantly larger turnout than general elections, constituencies with proportionally larger young populations faired the worst, with Oxford and Cambridge notable exceptions (draw your own conclusions there). We could just make voting mandatory but that would not address the matter of engagement, people would vote ‘whatever’ or spoil their ballot. This is not democracy.

A YouTube video I watched recently said, “Harley Davidson, as American as low voter turnout…” funny until you see what those who did turnout chose and what the only viable opposition was. Time for change, I feel, before it is way too late!

… I await your comments below

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Satirists Protest Politicians' comedic genius

No Joke
London’s police were overwhelmed yesterday by the biggest demonstration the capital has seen in decades as the NUSSaGPT (National Union of satirists, spoofers and General Piss Takers) protested against their loss of livelihood in the present political climate for what a spokesman said “It is high time politicians went back to their jobs and left the comedy to us!”
Twitshot
Charlie Brooker who had flown in especially for the march from silicon valley, home of Netflix, addressed a rally in Trafalgar square. He smugly reminded the crowd, on three separate occasions, that he had preempted Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘Cock in pig’ episode but lamented that for lesser satirists “Times are lean” going on to groan that “Things have got so dire, I’ve had to go and take the piss out of Americans for a living”.
A packet of Hobnobs, yesterday
Frankie Boyle and Johnny Vegas delivered the petition to 10 Downing street which was brusquely accepted by Prime Minister Teresa May. Fortunately, foreign secretary, Boris Johnson was on hand and popped his head out to offer tea and hobnobs. Boyle told him to fuck off but he and Vegas agreed to split the Hobnobs.
Erudite chairman, Armando Ianucci in an interview with our own roving reporter opined, “We satirists endeavour to eek out a living in a political environment so burgeoning with comedic genius like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg that we don’t stand a chance. We all thought things would die down after Cameron but they are going from strength to strength, even Jeremy Corbyn, an eccentric chemistry teacher from Chippenham is playing the straight man. Enough is enough!” He went on to say that after ‘The thick of it’ was cancelled he too had to cross the Atlantic for work adding, “Even Stewart Lee was reduced to doing material about going to Tescos Extra for a Twix.”
Ian Hislop and Paul Merton were unavailable for comment but insiders tell us that the next ten episodes of ‘Have I Got News For You’ have been filmed already with a string of back-benchers and that German bloke who can’t speak English.
The metropolitan police chief said the demonstration went unhindered by comedic incident adding that his police dog had no nose.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Are you qualified for Democracy

Keeping your head in politics
Every nation gets the government it deserves (Toute nation a le gouvernement qu'elle mérite), so said Joseph de Maistre after the French revolution. Plato (see, I always get him in) argued that not all of the populace are qualified to participate in democracy, in fact to include all people in democracy was degenerative. Of course, he had seen his mentor, Socrates condemned to death by a four-hundred-strong democratic court of peers. Then, Thomas Jefferson added that (When a people fear their government, there is tyranny,) when a government fears their people there is liberty. So, who had it right and what is the future of democracy, if any.
Twitshot
Now, as far as de Maistre is concerned, I think he got it right but we must first define a couple of words in the translation. When we talk about the nation we must assume that he meant the country as a nation, it is far too convenient to interpret this as the people. I cannot agree that the people get what they deserve unless we agree that they have free will and informed decision. Now, informed decision has never been an abundant resource in any nation. I would argue that informed decision of the masses prior to the education initiatives of the 20th century was at best limited and after Edward Bernays (Sigmund Freud’s nephew) revolutionised public relations and advertising using his uncle’s discoveries to drive people’s choices, it was completely thwarted. In order for the electorate to make informed decisions and thus elect a government they deserve, they must first objectively understand the bigger picture and secondly be able to count on the manifesto promises of the candidates, neither of which are tenable. I am not being derisive of the abilities of the people, effectively understanding the mechanisms of government and economics takes a lot of time and most are just too busy getting through their lives. Instead candidates campaign on emotive issues that people can feel rather than contemplate. This is a very general statement but if we can agree that democracy is the decision of the masses, it is also a very general decision. So, while many cast their votes based on social class affiliations (I am working class, therefore I vote left), personal gains based on the manifesto promises of the party or on an overall feeling about the character of the candidate, few are making a truly informed decision. So, the people getting what they want or deserve is a highly dubious proposition. However, as far as the nation is concerned, there is a different perspective. The nation administers education, it also regulates the democratic process, party funding, media exposure etc. So if government and politics is not taught in schools, manifesto promises are as ephemeral as marketing slogans and funding is accepted from sources with vested interests in less than democratic decisions, then it will get a pimped administration that whores itself to anyone with enough dollar to pay to ride the people of the nation. Of course, ‘deserves’ could also have positive connotations but seeing as the race to the bottom is invariably the faster and easier direction, it tends to win the day. Creating an upward spiral would necessitate investment in education, security and integrity, something that most nations don’t have the stamina for. So finally what they deserve is what they get, a self-serving bunch of politicians that bleed the nation of its resources in order to maintain their power, status and standard of living.
Be careful what you wish for...
Jefferson was bang on with the tyranny part, no people should fear their leaders. Just as children should not fear their parents, pupils their teachers or workers their bosses. When we get onto good wholesome god-fearing Christians things get decidedly muddy and unpalatable so we’ll leave that one well alone for the time being. As for the liberty part, here I must differ. Governments have the job of managing the biggest and most complex operations, nations. Like any any management team, they must often make decisions that will not be popular, many of you will know this all too well, but for the prosperity of the company and the many, some will need to put up with some results of hard decisions that were deemed to be ‘the least bad’ option. However, if the government fears the people, they will endeavour to appease them as much and often possible, often at the detriment of long-term plans and strategies. But according to Jefferson, liberty will be achieved. Bull! Liberty ends where another’s begins (a paraphrase from a quote originated by Voltaire If memory serves. Although I like another version: my right to swing my arm ends at your nose). So for each citizen there is a revision of the definition of liberty. This, however does not inhibit candidates from promising it and the electorate from demanding it, along with a number of other things such as higher wages yet lower prices and lower taxes yet better public facilities. When candidates and governments fear the people, popularism proliferates which creates demagogues and Trump. In order to have functional liberty, there must be respect from all parts and respect is tough to earn and harder to maintain. The recent wave of popularist candidates trade on, at best promising the electorate what they want and at worst distracting them on emotive polices from what they need. And while they may not fear the electorate, they do fear their disapproval. Children will prefer the adult that promises no school and ice cream for dinner everyday and the adult will revel in their popularity. Ayn Rand in her book Atlas Shrugged painted the picture of a nation that pandered to the needs of the people to the point where people realised that developing their needs was more lucrative than being productive and creative. Ms. Rand’s philosophies have a hugely devoted following among industrialists and while I personally find them a little too extreme, there is some merit to them. Especially when you consider that consecutive Greek governments have created public positions for the voting faithful to the point where it has one of the most bloated and bureaucratic civil services in the western world and is twice the OECD average in the Worldbank’s ‘ease of doing business’ ranking, where higher is more difficult. In order to curry favour with the electorate, it has scuppered the private sector’s ability to do business successfully and often legally. Governments should treat the interests of the people as priority but fear is never good counsel.
So, as for Plato, he argued that if you need a captain for a ship, you should choose someone well experienced in navigation. He gave a number of other examples but you get the idea. He said that the people in a democracy would make poorly guided, self-serving choices that would devolve into demagoguery, not dissimilar to Ms. Rand. But, what is the alternative. Businessmen have great insight into the workings of large-scale organisations but ultimately will make choices based on the needs of their business, profits and stock value. Academics have a deep understanding of the theories of government but often fail to appreciate the human condition. John Maynard Keynes, eminent economist, once tried his hand at the stock market (no-brainer, right?) but lost fortunes before realising that stock trading is not an exact science but driven by emotive decisions. So, a plutocracy and a scholarly aristocracy are as flawed as the system we have. Should we then do away with democracy all together. Entrust our nation to philosopher kings who work tirelessly for the greater good, unencumbered by petty desires and emotions. I fear that this Utopian dream is untenable and we could end up relinquishing authority to an AI system once we discover that such citizens could only be created in a lab.
The best alternative then must be to improve the existing one. To educate and inform the populace better and give them real choices. Force candidates to consider and realise their manifesto pledges better, control their funding better. Maybe even force voters to qualify to vote. This could not be achieved in a climate of fear, one way or the other. A nation is similar to a family, when the parents provide a secure, nurturing environment, the children will rest easy and get on with their job of developing into healthy well-adjusted adults. If the parents do a very good job, they will instill ambitions to improve on their own upbringing. If, on the other hand, the parents are weak and flakey, the kids will become insecure and rebel. They will become frightened, nothing scares a kid more than to look up at he people who should have everything in hand to realise that they are more clueless than them. And as I have already stated, fear is never good counsel.
Getting it right
So, how to make such improvements. In order to maintain a democracy, you need to invest in the people. Not just giving them good education and security but also encouraging them to take part in the whole democratic process. Many countries still have national military service, why could this not be adapted to national political service whereby everyone of voting age should in some way serve on local or national government for a mandatory period of time. The recent Brexit referendum in the UK illustrated the results of complacency. The young did not vote because they either did not engage with the issues or felt that as usual nothing would change for them. They were wrong. Many did not make that mistake twice and the recent general elections brought out record numbers of those who would inherit the results. This, I hope, was a turning point. If as many young voters were to make the same effort to vote for their government as they do for X-Factor we may see some change. If education was afforded the same investment as seducing high-tech companies that desperately need higher educated employees. If the health service were to get the same support as misbehaving financial institutions. If the parties were forced to concede that the electorate could no longer be bought with promises of less foreigners and lower taxes while hanging out with rock stars and comedians. This may result in a nation getting the government it deserves, finally.

From Under Dark Clouds

The Century of DIY