‘I was quick on the draw/As I tidied up the floor/ So they called me the Orinoco kid’

I miss the Wombles, and it is about time they made a comeback (again). The time is right because Bernard Cribbins is still with us to voice them for a start. However, I think that this time they need to be much more active crusaders, because I worry we are in danger of drowning in our own refuse.
For those of my friends outside the UK, the Wombles were a race of creatures of indeterminate heritage that lived under Wimbledon Common on the outskirts of London. Their main function in life was the collection (and apparent recycling) of litter. And occasionally having Mike Batt penned hit records (apparently thirteen of them, including later reissues), although this did not seem to be in the original set up. The BBC TV series (based on the late sixties books of a certain Elizabeth Beresford, trivia fans) was required watching for my childhood self and I completely bought the eco-friendly message. My ‘Keep on Wombling’ LP was a treasured possession and played almost as regularly as ‘Rupert and the Firebird’, especially the second side which comprised the dreams of Orinoco, and increasingly surreal set of episodes where our hero imagines himself collecting litter in a number of different genres, including one with a giant litter eating robot. Possible the best song on that side I recall is the Western themed ‘Orinoco Kid’ – which as well as the title above includes the immortal exchange ‘Well they sent someone to meet me/ Name of Big John Womble Wayne/ He threw his cigar on the ground/ As he stepped down from the train/ I stood up on my tiptoes and I looked him in the chin/ I said please pick that litter up and put it in the bin’. Enjoy at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vepJABO8xVo
Now, here is the problem I have this week. I’m not as bold as Orinoco. No matter how blatant an incident I have yet to find the courage to challenge littering outside the confines of my own disgust and frustration. I’ve lost count of the times I have walked or ran past people just tossing bottles, crisp packets or whatever into the bushes or just onto the floor. And I have said nothing, because I am not that old and cantankerous yet to reach that point where I stop caring what people think and just need to give them a piece of my mind. I know how I’d like to do it. Picks up rubbish, goes up to person and says politely, ‘I’m terribly sorry, you seem to have dropped this,’ is the way it goes in my head, but in the end I just keep silent and fume.
In particular I fume at the adults. The kids I can kind of cope with. When you are young I think that the concept of ‘consequences’ tends to be hazy at best and my rubbish disposal was generally known as ‘mother’. But mum would always put it in the bin or it would vanish into the cavernous space that was her handbag and, I presume, re-emerge some time later into the bin at home. This carrying your litter home is so well ingrained in my psyche that the Lovely Wife takes great amusement from passing me her rubbish knowing that I will automatically take it and dispose of it through the appropriate channels. But when I see a grown woman through her rubbish into the bushes in full sight of her tiny children – and note, not drop, throw – and then I just have to despair for the obvious begetting of future bad behaviour.
St Albans is relative clear in comparison to some places we have been to, but while people have always thrown away stuff unofficially – I suspect there is nothing an archaeologist likes more than a well or ditch, which can be guaranteed to contain all sorts of disposed of goods considered as rubbish and now historic treasures – but we have so much more to through away. We really must get on top of managing and disposing of our waste in a way that preserves our resources and respects each other’s environment. Even my littering lady would be a bit put out if I threw an empty drinks can into her garden, but in some way that is exactly what she did to me when she consigned her chocolate bar wrapper to add to the growing piles of unwanted decoration around where we live.
Unfortunately, the Wombles are fictional. So some of us will have to find some courage, rather than relying on them, I guess!


What’s in a word?

I rarely get into rants (the Lovely Wife may disagree – the current transition under her expert hand of our bedroom wall from red to a more gentle green may be indicative of more than just a need for a style change) but when I do get annoyed sometimes it is over the sillier things. Like the way words are debased and their original meanings forgotten. Yes, I know language change and adapts, and it is quite a fascinating thing. But at the same time it seems a shame to me that when words like ‘sick’ can weirdly become positive (I still don’t really get that one) other words that were incredibly positive in the past suddenly become negative.

If you have being paying attention (although goodness knows I do not know why you should to my inane ramblings) you may know I am talking about ‘patronise’ (and yes, I’m not using the US spelling, whatever my spellchecker thinks). Depending on which dictionary you look at, it is either acting in a condescending manner or giving someone (or something) your patronage (a word you hardly ever use, which is a shame, it has a nice round, strong feel to it, a bit like ‘potentate’ and ‘ineffable’ both of which come from one of my favourite hymns…). The former is the way it is mostly used, but it is the latter that is the older meaning and the one I am going start a one man campaign to reassert.

The Lovely Wife and I patronise (display our patronage towards?) the Mermaid in St Albans because it is a good pub. We do the same for the trattoria around the corner from us. I don’t think either of these establishments mind being patronised by us. I do not think any of the young people we have bought coffees and food for over the years we have been blessed to be friends and mentors mind being patronised either – especially as most of them are brighter and more talented than I have ever been and while the sharing of experience always runs the risk of condescension I’ve always tried to avoid that; the person who thinks he knows everything is severely lacking in insight (I do not know who first coined ‘every day is a school day’ but I have found it to be an accurate mantra). As we have no children we have the opportunity to patronise who we like. We are hardly wealthy philanthropists but to act even in a small way as a semi-patron for someone is a huge honour. We’d like to do it more but in the end there are two major obstacles. Obviously, one is our own resources. But also, there is that pernicious thing that has crept into our society that says ‘if you give me something, you must be after something from me in return’. Maybe that is true, sometimes. But there is also the opportunity to help each other to varying degrees but in meaningful ways.

I hope the Lovely Wife will not mind me sharing, but she taught me something important. If someone buys you lunch, it does not always mean they expect you to buy them lunch, especially when it is obvious to you that they are more than capable of buying their own – and when you clearly might struggle. Instead, at heart they are patronising you in the most positive way… But if I patronise someone it is with an agenda. I would hope at least that if someone buys you lunch when money is short, if at some point things are different and you are flush, you do the same for someone else that is in the position you once found yourself in. Anger breeds anger; kindness does the same, and I know which one I would rather see proliferate exponentially.

It’s good to talk. No really, it is…

I have a confession to make. I am pro-European Union. I honestly believe what the world needs is more cooperation and less conflict, and separatism does not lead to that, it pulls in the opposite direction. For me, what is primarily still an economic union is still a benefit I do not want to use. I like being able to move freely in 28 different countries. I like have easy and cheap access to continental products, of which wine is probably the best but not only example. I like (and here I go down my professional line) having standardised legislation on technical subjects that mean you are getting the same quality everywhere – my primary work is with cosmetics (much wider than just makeup by the way) and the regulations in the EU, there to look after safety and create a consistent market – are literally world leading; large proportion of the world follows developments with considerable interest. This is good for us as consumers, as you should be able to trust a shampoo bought in Greece as much as one bought in your own high street store, and it is good for industry as it keeps the costs down – to them, and to us. In the end, it is very competitive market, and while profit is essential, price it too high and I go off and buy something cheaper. It is not perfect by any means. If it was I would be out of a job. It would be grossly naive to think any kind of arrangement between so many countries would be. Put 28 people in the room and get them to agree? I don’t think even Henry Fonda could manage that – he only had eleven other angry men to manage. So frankly, it is amazing how good the EU structure actually is considering that obstacle.

And the reason it is, and the reason I feel kinship (apart from all the wonderful European friends I have been blessed with over the years) is that Europeans are pretty much the best in world at compromising. Now ‘compromise’ seems like a dirty word sometimes as it usually linked with desertion of principles (poor Nick Clegg). But like ‘patronise’ (a rant for another day) that does disservice to the word and the concept. We cannot have it all our own way (although it amazes me the number of supposedly intelligent people who seem to think they can). We can have principles, and we can stick to them, but if we want to make the world a better place for the next generations to come (and some of us at least do) then we have to try and work out what is important, and what is ego or short term gain. I think a lot of the time we all get confused. We do not live on planet UK. We live on a planet called Earth, which we share with an awful lot of other people who also want to live a happy and successful life. Together we can get some way towards that, apart we just end up pulling in different directions. In that scenario, the people who shout loudest, and have the biggest weapons – metaphorical or literal – win. To be clear, that is not the United Kingdom. As part of the EU we have considerable global influence, and as noted above, it is generally a calming, conciliatory one. On our own, we have some influence on the global music industry. I think that is about it. Oh, and we make really good documentaries (I’m becoming a BBC 4 addict).

I am a compromiser. I hate conflict of any sort. Yes, you have to stand up for what you believe in, and I am happy to express my views. But equally I do not have the hubris to think that I am always right. I do occasionally disagree with the Lovely Wife and obviously that proves the point as in such conflicts she is invariably correct so you kind of learn. So I appreciate the air of compromise that does exist in our modern Europe and I believe that to lose it would be a considerable step backward for the UK, for Europe and for the rest of the world – the coming years will bring increasing tension I believe between the US, Russia and China, with Brazil knocking at the International door, and Africa is coming to the table. Europe, whatever the reasons for it, has the links to be a major mediator, but it needs to be strong internally to do so.

And if you fundamentally disagree, and think that the EU is a Bad Thing, then fine. But I refer you then to the wise Sir Humphrey Appleby (Yes Minister, ‘The Devil you know’)

Hacker: Europe is a community of nations, dedicated towards one goal.

Sir Humphrey: Oh, ha ha ha.

Hacker: May we share the joke, Humphrey?

Sir Humphrey: Oh Minister, let’s look at this objectively. It is a game played for national interests, and always was. Why do you suppose we went into it?

Hacker: To strengthen the brotherhood of free Western nations.

Sir Humphrey: Oh really. We went in to screw the French by splitting them off from the Germans.

Ballot Boredom?

Well it is election time in the UK but thankfully the campaigning is nearly over and for once I’m genuinely interesting in the outcome; not because I am much in the way of political inclination – the last time I got excited about Party Politics in an election year was when I successfully backed the horse of that name to win the 1992 Grand National – but this time round I genuinely have no idea what the final result will be, other than no party is going to have a huge, if any, majority.

I have always made an effort to use my vote in whatever election, as a fundamentally believe that it is important to do so. In my Genghis Khan moments I have felt that it should be compulsory to express your vote, even if it is ‘none of the above’ because while the vote might not change anything, you are certainly not going to change things by not voting. In St Albans, the vote does matter as it is not obvious which way the seat will go. That has probably encouraged a little bit of interest in the process, as for most of my early life the environment I grew up in did not really encourage debate. I grew up in a former mining village in North East England where they Labour party could have put up a ferret as a candidate and it would have won with a massive majority. Maybe they did at one point, just for a laugh, in the same way that every generation of students think that putting up a cat for student common room president is funny (although considering how effective many students can be, the cat would probably do a better job).

So it is almost refreshing to be in an area where the rest is not assured. But, as I say, voting is important, and moaning about a government that you did not vote for – when 60% of eligible people cannot get off their backside to even spoil their papers does not cut much ice with me.

After all, it is not as though we do not like voting per se, or ‘X Factor’, ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ and a host of other awful shows would probably creep back into obscurity. In my Facebook feed the Radio Times seems to run one vote after another on increasingly pointless subjects and clearly get a response by doing so. In the last few weeks I’ve voted for my choice of National Bird of the UK (personally I favoured the Blackbird, but apparently Sweden already has that so maybe that was a wasted vote), and that the marvellous Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford should get the chance to have an art installation (over a bunch of other prestigious institutions). Voting seems a natural tendency in many people, to express choice and to some extent show approval.

All except it seems, in the area of politics, where either we don’t care (‘they’re all the same, those damn politicians!’) or we don’t want to be seen to approve any of them. Well, the reality is we need politics as much as we need teachers and police, other groups of people that do not get the respect their professions deserve. If the people filling those roles on Thursday aren’t the highest quality (and I am not expressing a judgement here, just raising the question) then it is our own fault. We are too quick to criticise and moan about the society we live in and far too slow when it comes to engaging in any activity that might, just, improve it a little. If you do not like the current bunch, go into politics yourself – or if you do not have the skill set (which I do not) encourage those that do. I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to apathy but at least I take the responsibility for which way I will be voting on Thursday and hope others will do the same.