Very Capable

In order to take my mind off the interminable but important tedium of having platelets sucked out of my bloodstream I popped into a discount store in Luton this week and picked up a book. As I looked with some envy at the huge bloke in the bed next to me who only had a mere 56 minutes to deliver his contribution compared to my epic 78, I tried to concentrate on making myself feel better. Incidentally I am very happy to be back donating platelets even if it is a bit uncomfortable, and bless those forced to undergo dialysis, which is pretty much the same machine. Being not the biggest person in the world (despite the middle age paunch) I seem to be resistant to giving up the good stuff in my blood. This not only meant my arm wanted to drop off by the end of it but I was forced to watch ‘Escape to the Country’ and get irritated by the people who say they want X, Y and Z and are presented by X, Y and Z (with a cherry on top) and still decide they don’t like it (maybe it is the cherry come to think of it, I’ve never been a huge fan but my late and wonderful Nana would not have accepted Christmas cake without cherries, and generally she knew her stuff).

I’m digressing again, sorry folks. The book was a Hugh Dennis scribed thing about being English and while I wish it had been funnier I did find myself laughing along to one thing in particular – a fantasy scenario of Capability Brown with his branded white van popping off to do another job in the middle of doing Blenheim Palace (on the grounds he managed to restructure the grounds of about 170 stately homes in the UK he certainly git around). The Lovely Wife and I have a running family joke that Capability Brown was actually a franchise operation of the Eighteenth century, but actually that was probably not far from the truth. For the uninitiated, Capability Brown’s oeuvre was to sweep away formal gardens and replace them with a park landscape that put the house in harmony with the land around it – even if that meant fiddling with that to create something that looked natural but was actually completely artificial with altered topography and water features. And he was pretty damn good at it too, as is clear from the fact that so many of these created landscapes survive today – people were either taken in completely and feel they are actually natural, or maybe his grasp of the aesthetic was really that good in the first place.

I like Capability Brown, which I appreciate is not a usual aspect from a British person (to like someone that was a huge success, normally we like to push people off their Ha Has in to the ditch). He had a good product that was properly attuned to the time, and had a high work ethic. That should always pay dividends in my opinion.

I do find it quite ironic though that when I volunteer at Wrest Park House and Gardens in Bedfordshire, pretty much the only example of a proper period formal garden, Versailles-esque, in the country, not only was Brown employed there , there is even a monument to him on the site. But Jemima, Marchioness Grey, who was in charge at the time, either did not have the money, or, as I prefer to think, liked the gardens so much that she only got Mr Brown to dabble around the edges and to leave the bulk of the garden untouched for us to enjoy. An engaging lady it seems – she was a patron and friend of one of my personal heroes, the brilliant actor and theatre owner David Garrick – I like to think that she and Brown got on well, and that maybe he was happy to do something more subtle and sensitive than the normal product.

Well, the thought helped me through the donation, anyway.

Two appeals – first, if it is possible, do consider being a blood donor (it will cost you time and a little discomfort but it will save someone else’s life, especially if like me you are a rare blood type) and two, and far less important, visit Wrest – and admire one of the more unusual gardens left to us in the country.


Shock Tactics?

Late and long this week but then I was struggling with the topic and trying to be as balanced as possible; and probably I should not have bothered. But I was ranting at myself this week in the care (and had far too much time in the rubbish traffic) so perhaps I can explain this away as being personally cathartic. I’m not an expert on any of this, but a blog is a personal thing anyway, and no one reads it so I do not see what I was worried about.

The new Band Aid single is pretty awful. But then the original was hardly the pinnacle of song writing and largely survives more positively in my memory because of the nostalgia more than anything else (and, as previously blathered, because it was a new idea at the time). I’d have preferred an entirely new record for the ensemble although I suppose with the 30 year anniversary of the original single that was never going to be an option. And it’s marginally better that the last one and on a different artistic plane from the Hit Factory remake in the 1990s.

What has surprised me, and slightly bothered me, is the negativity expressed in some areas of the media. A lot of the ‘backlash’ (and I use the word in inverted comma’s because based on sales the negativity is not something held by most of the buying public, or maybe it is just the 1D fans doing the buying) seems to be based around two main areas – a lack of respect for the African people and shock tactics and suspected ulterior motives of some of those involved. Accusations seem to be that this is just artists promoting their new album and/or their new tour. Or that maybe these same artists maybe are angling/obtaining tax benefits, or assuaging their consciences for not paying money directly into charities from their own funds and forcing us poor public to buy this tosh instead.

Well. This is probably true in some cases.

But does it really matter?

I am not sure it does in my opinion. I think we have kind of forgotten what philanthropy is about. Putting aside that many of these artists probably do give significantly to charity (quietly) anyway and my personal bugbear on how many other people with significant incomes are making no contribution at all (while making tutting noises as they read the newspaper but not thinking for one minute that, just because they are not in the public eye, identical opportunities for giving do not all apply to them) this is money going to a cause that would not be there otherwise. Bluntly, there are thousands of kids who are not going to put 99p into the pot to fight Ebola in the street collecting box but are more than happy to pay that to get a few seconds of Ed Sheeran or Sam Smith.

These people have a talent (well some of them at least) and they are using it to do something good. I do not see what is wrong with that. If it is not entirely altruistic then that does not bother me. When rich Victorians paid for and built hospitals and orphanages it was not entirely altruistic either and mostly was to sooth consciences, put in a good word with the Almighty and/or massage their egos with the name in big letters carved in stone along the top, but it was better to have a hospital then not to have one at all.

I’m not going to hold anyone up to a higher standard than I have to apply to myself, and too often when I give it is out of guilt or some kind of sense of duty – of course I have an ulterior motive. It makes me feel good to give.

And plenty of giving is needed. For example, one good point I have seen made it is while everyone seems terrified of Ebola, TB, malaria and heart disease continue to kill thousands every year globally with no sign yet of a charity record to fight them. Maybe if we can knock this one on the head we can focus on the longer term issues. But sadly these don’t create the same fear factor for many people over here.

Fear and shock is something which has been recently and eloquently criticised in the Guardian ( ) although to be honest the original Band Aid did not invent shock tactics intended to try and shake the cold hearted and self-centred society we live in to part with their cash or push for change. When Charles Dickens wrote Hard Times it was deliberately to shock his Middle Class readership with the state of those working in the Northern mills (interesting how the most forwarded pieces on this topic seem to be from The Guardian and The Telegraph – coincidence? I think not). Pretty much every Humanitarian (and many other) Non-Governmental Organisations use exactly the same shock tactics.

Sorry, but this is advertising plain and simple and while the cause may be different from commercial profit the approach is the same – you have a short period of time to grab the attention and make an impression. If you want people to give you money you need to upset and horrify them and thinking this is ever going to be balanced is hopelessly naive. For better or worse, the current Band Aid is not doing anything different, and with the record sales you can understand why.

The image of Africa and its people is a key point and possibly the most challenging of all the discussions and like Fuse I do not have any answer other than that, to avoid being patronising, a lot of this change of image has to come out of Africa itself. Our role is to be more balanced and have to be ready to listen with open minds.

Here is hoping that whatever the views expressed, the actual situation improves and lives are saved.

Next week I want to go back to being fluffy. I am considering the practical plan for turning into reality a suggestion from Chris Evans on Radio 2 this morning that, after the survey suggesting our engagement with police is increased if they are mounted on horses (who would have guessed?) that all police on the beat should now be armed – with kittens.


I remember that when I was at university there was one evening I was walking back to my digs with a friend. This was not that unusual; late night chat and board games was a common occurrence. But this evening was a bit different. There was a kind of buzz in the air. I would call it an atmosphere of excitement but that would suggest that it was a kind of positive buzz. It wasn’t really like that at all; if anything it was uncertainty, specifically a ‘what happens now?’ kind of uncertainty, the kind of uncertainty that is resolved with an answer you strongly suspect you will not like.

You see we had just heard that we were now at war.

It was the beginning of the 1990s and it was start of what was called Operation Desert Storm, intended, so it was communicated, to push Iraq out of Kuwait after the recent invasion. As students who were not politically motivated (unlike many of our fellows) we were less concerned that evening with the political and financial reasons for this war and more with the sudden thought ‘what if it goes on for a while? Will we be called up?’

It sounds both naïve and certainly selfish but I confess that this was, at least for a short while, a real fear.

We consoled ourselves by playing Super Power, a rather naff Old Games Workshop board game in a tasteless and entirely typical action. Some alcohol may have been consumed.

This is my only real brush with war (unless you count the season of London bombings we steadfastly ignored in the same decade). Before this the last time and active war was on the consciousness of this young man was the Falklands conflict in 1982, and to an 11 year old boy the distant and largely successful campaign was mostly like an extended drama that a real representation of the horror; at least until the tragic events surrounding the Sir Galahad and the Sir Tristram which still leave me cold.

In some ways I felt at least I understood some of the complexities of conflict. I had grown up with the Cold War after all. More importantly, I had a good reminder of at least the Second World War thanks to my late Grandfather. He had served as a gunner crewman on Royal Navy Destroyers all over the world – he was most proud of serving on HMS Warspite – and had plenty of photos and stories to illustrate.

He was very matter of fact about the bad stuff; on one ship during a battle the gun turret he was in suffered a direct hit; the rest of his crew were killed. He was pulled out and suffered – physically at least – only by a blasted eardrum.

There was another time when manning an ant-aircraft gun that he was told to stand down by an officer as a suspicious looking aircraft approached. Apparently, he was told, the incoming plane was friendly. As the bombs rained down on the deck, his side of the story relates that he reported to said officer ‘that’ll be friendly bombs that they’re dropping, I guess sir?’

He preferred to talk about the missions around Norway, where he had been enraptured by the fjords and talk less about the pain, all the friends he lost, and the strain of living with the knowledge that he could be next. I think he was positively nostalgic as the opportunity for travel was something he would never have otherwise had, and certainly never had after the war.

In all the remembrance commemorations this November it is my Grandfather that more closely brings home the whole tragedy of the war to mind for me. I do not understand what it like to be in active service and hopefully I never will. I would make a terrible soldier. But then I know a lot of young people who understand the true scale of the World Wars even less – and it will get worse – as future generations will not have the chance to talk to someone who was there and lived through it and may not have the energy to look up the recording. Even the Cold War is history now; maybe that is why I look at tensions in the Ukraine with such a nervous eye. We don’t want to go back to that either. And that is my biggest concern today once I think about the gratitude I owe for being able to sit and write this – as a human race can we really change our way we interact or will we keep making the same mistakes over and over again?

Excuse me, but…

The Lovely Wife and I have decided we must both have what we call an ‘ask me’ face.

Let me explain what I mean.

When we are out and about, together or on our own, we seem to get asked for directions all the time. Friends of mine should find this very funny as I have the direction sense of a whirligig beetle, but still, they continue to ask. It does not matter which country I am in either; I have been stopped and asked for directions in Brussels and in Canada in recent months, which I find particularly amusing.

We do not know why this is. Possibly it is pure coincidence. Not being restricted by children maybe we are out and about more than many others and therefore might be the only people available to consult on where they can find the Abbey or a certain pub. Perception is something that is notoriously skewed by the individual. We all know when the world is against us and everything keeps going wrong. It isn’t usually and lots of things are going right at the same time but that is not how we perceive it. Our own special perception filter is extremely powerful and we either do not notice it or try and ignore it through denial. We all know that we are not as fat as we think we are but no matter how much we are reassured we will not listen once we have made our own decision and put on the dark glasses of ‘I’m not listening’.

But let us assume this is a real feature and people do find us easy to approach. Why might this be?

I have always aspired to the Douglas Adams classification of ‘Mostly Harmless’ so I take great pleasure of being asked for directions. Maybe I smile a more than I think I do. Maybe because I am not particularly tall and a little chubby I come across as less threatening. I know the Lovely Wife regularly smiles and her expressive hair is particularly distinctive. Maybe that hypnotises people into thinking she is a good person to help.

What makes you more likely to trust a complete stranger is a question I am sure has been studied at some point. As some people will know I recently was approached by a man in the cheap seats on the Eurostar recently asking me if he could use the power socket at my seat as his was not working and he need to recharge his Blackberry. He said he was from a couple of carriages down from me so it would be out of his sight. Sure, he would have it password protected (hopefully) but it still seemed to be putting some level of trust in a complete stranger. I asked him about it as I plugged the thing in, and he quipped that since I was reading The Guardian I must be a good chap. We laughed – but I think he meant it. As part of the image of me he saw was what I was reading as well as how I was dressed etc. and in this case he was partly influenced by his own (in this case positive) views of Guardian readers. He almost certainly reads it himself. So there may have been a tribe thing going on here, which certainly works for male-male interactions (the old chestnut about two men turning up at the same event in identical shirts making them friends for life, a situation that most of the girls I know would find mortifying).

But I wonder if unconsciously we are making ourselves available too. We both like giving directions and helping people, especially in our home town. It is quite possible that as well as walking over to the obviously lost we make body language cues that suggest openness. I hope so. I think a lot of time could be saved if we talked to each other a bit more.

By the way, if you do ask us for directions, the Lovely Wife is the better choice. I have the tendency to overcomplicate my directions, and am always a short sentence away from giving the historical commentary on the route, which when all they want to do is to find out where the nearest Subway sandwich shop is probably not that helpful.