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The World – Brought to you by…..


According to my daughter, who’s just come back from a holiday in Portugal, Easyjet pilots are now selling scratch cards. Well, not in person, but she tells me the pilot took time off flying the plane to announce that the cabin crew would be going down the aisle offering passengers the infernal things.

We are truly in the age of cross-selling. Taxis with ads for perfume, Apple Macs and Rolex watches not very subtly inserted into movies. Football shirt sponsorship, ads in urinals. Branded this, logo’d that. Where will it end?

I have news for you. It’s hardly even started. There are opportunities everywhere, especially in this age of public-private partnerships, in which virtually everything that can be outsourced has been – an age when it’s hard to tell who actually works for whom, let alone understand who has ultimate responsibility for anything.

Before long we will surely see coppers selling Panadol to “customers” locked in drunk tanks. Doctors will be plugging undertakers and old people’s homes. Hospitals will take a cut from “preferred” taxi firms. And no doubt good old Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, will sell books on anger management on his flights.

People will be paid to name their babies after brands. There will be sponsored voicemail  – “welcome to Steve’s voicemail, brought to you by Cafe Rouge…”. You’ll be paid for running ads at the end of your email. There’ll be incentives for mentioning product names via the social media – “Went shopping in Tesco today…..” – mention Tesco 100 times a year and you get a free turkey for Christmas.

And before long, perhaps, sponsored parliamentary constituencies. Your local elected representative will become the honourable member for Guildford Waitrose, or Bracknell Microsoft. In the USA, states will be branded  – “California – the Oracle State” And product names in banking – the Rolex Account, for example. No name will be complete without a product associated with it. We’ll have the Timex Big Ben, the Lloyds Bank Church of England, the Unilever Parliament.

And when we die, our hearses will be emblazoned with ads for law firms, life assurance providers and florists. Even the crematoria will proudly bear the name of British Gas.

Not that we’ll care. By that time we will have arrived at a gate with a shiny sign that says “Welcome to the Afterlife – Gold Partners: Vatican Enterprises, the Torah Foundation, Buddha Unlimited, Mecca Holdings and the Krishna Group of Companies.

You’ll be pleased to know that this post is sponsored by Prozac, without which I’d be jumping out of a Ryanair flight without a parachute.


Once Upon A Time in England


Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, believes that the UK Independence Party (UKIP) will win a majority of British seats in the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament.

The sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned. For who better to save us from the testicle-eating fish that have managed to make the leap from the Amazon to France? Even now they are steadily snapping their way down the Seine, ready to emasculate any skinny-dippers unfortunate enough to get in their way. Incidentally, why they should find the two vegetables so attractive, and not the meat in between, is beyond me.

To add to our troubles, here in Acquitaine, the lovely (former English) part of southern France, where I’m currently on holiday, the locals have been plagued by swarms of Asian hornets that delight in devouring local wasps and honey bees, not to mention inflicting savage and unprovoked attacks on humans. Now, we are told by the BBC, the hornets are massing on the northern French coast with the intention of succeeding where Napoleon and Hitler failed, and invading the UK.

Where are the Home Guard when we need them most, ready to protect our beer gardens and tea shops from the ruthless invaders? Too busy playing the lottery, hacking their way around the golf course and building patios, I fear. As well as making predatory raids across the Channel for cheap booze.

They were not there to protect us from Japanese knotweed, American crayfish, killer shrimps and all the other beastly alien species that are destroying our British way of life.

So I for one will be cheering when the UKIP builds our rampart against the encroaching Europeans in Brussels, that den of un-British iniquity. And the day when Nigel Farage, the party’s bombastic leader addresses parliament from the dispatch box in Westminster as Prime Minister can’t come soon enough.

To help him get there, I offer him some simple measures to be included in the UKIP manifesto for the next British general election. Scotland is already lost, it seems, and anyway they’ve always been far too cosy with the French for my liking, so good riddance. Northern Ireland will be lost to the Republic of Ireland once the Catholic population realises that that it has the majority of voters and can defeat the troublesome Protestants at the ballot box. So let’s concentrate on dear old England, and its crabby outpost, Wales, a province that will never be strong enough to stand on its own feet despite its pretensions on the rugby field.

Even if the battle against invasive species is lost, UKIP must immediately promise to curb the more insidious invasive cultural influences that have taken a grip on our native land. So here’s my list of things to be banned in our green and pleasant land:

Albanian Gangsters: our own criminal classes are being crowded out by a fearsome new species of gangster from Albania. These guys are charmless. They have unpronounceable names. We need to act to preserve our native turf for characters like the Krays, Ronnie Biggs and all those other great criminals who at least had the good sense to celebrate their achievements in the pub with a pint of English bitter, rather than with the cup of muddy Turkish coffee beloved of Balkan interlopers. No longer will our fine detectives have to consult their Albanian phreasbooks to discover that “Kjo është një e drejtë, polic guvernator”  means “it’s a fair cop, guv”. Send them to Glasgow, I say – plenty of room for gangsters up there, and they’ll blend in nicely with the equally unintelligible natives.

Romanian Beggars: we have more than enough welfare scroungers of our own. Why do we need the Romanians? There is a grand tradition of English begging that we need to preserve and protect. It’s maintained today by our children, who are constantly on the scrounge for I-Phones, designer clothes and orgies masquerading as holidays in Aya Napia. And if you have to beg, at least you should have the courtesy to do so in English. Deport them to Brussels, where there are plenty of Romanian translators and they can join all the other beggars attempting to screw the European Union out of its diminishing funds.

White Van Man: it’s true that white vans can’t be classified as foreign imports, though all vans these days are of foreign origin. But the behaviour of those who drive them is truly alien. Bald and bullying, white van man refuses to recognise that anyone is a better driver than him. He’s happy to hurl insults at other motorists, believes that traffic regulations don’t apply to him and is a general menace on the road. It’s hard not to believe that there isn’t a training centre in France, Italy or even Egypt where white van man learns his craft. How otherwise does he manage to attain such a consistent level of offensiveness? The only answer is to ban all males between 18 and 60 from driving vans, and give our cash-strapped pensioners a new source of much-needed income. That way at least the average speed of white vans will immediately reduce to 30mph, safely confined to the inner lanes of our motorways.

Thule Roof Boxes: those horrible Swedish devices that bolt on to the top of cars – usually Volvos – are a blight on the sleek aesthetics of modern cars. Why do people need all that stuff? For a long journey, a couple of bags, a blanket and a thermos flask should more than suffice. These days, thanks to the Thule, we Brits take our entire wardrobes abroad. What has become of British modesty and restraint? The remedy? Turn them into coffins, or fill them with rubble from HS2, and bury them in the sea to create artificial reefs around our devastated coastline.

Investment Banks: what became of the high street bank, where the pin-striped manager dispensed avuncular wisdom to the financially naïve, and rapped us over the knuckles when we strayed from the path of thrift and prudence? Gone. Replaced by foreign call centres and account managers whose job is to sell us “products” we don’t want and don’t need. Since when did you need to be a mathematician or computer scientist to become a banker? We need to return to a world where laundering was something you did to clothes, not banknotes. Where you don’t need to repeat your mother’s maiden name twelve times before you can speak to a bank to whom you have lent money. Where derivatives, sub-prime and LIBOR are no longer part of our vocabulary. And where multimillionaires are people lucky enough to have won the football pools, not feckless nonentities gambling unimaginable sums with tax-payer’s money. Send them all to Dubai, or perhaps to Monte Carlo, where they can alternate between roulette and wrecking someone else’s economy.

Sushi: a diabolical Japanese invention. Tasteless rice with a little seafood wrapped in seafood? What’s wrong with fish and chips, for goodness sake? A few “accidental” puffer fish poisonings should put paid to this culinary knotweed once and for all.

Pole dancing: posh girls writhing around a stainless steel pole, risking friction burns and leaving bits of clothing in their wake. Drunken men, driven crazy by lust, stuffing bank notes into what underwear remains on the dancers. Another pernicious import from the United States. Force the girls to donate their banknotes towards the paying off of the national debt, and they would soon lose their enthusiasm for slithering up and down poles in a disgraceful state of undress.

Lager: this spitting, fizzing, piss-coloured apology for a drink that reached our shores from Scandinavia a few decades ago has colonised our pubs and off-licences and marginalised every other species of beer. What happened to mild, porter and pale ale? Drinks that don’t make you hiccup when you down them too fast, that don’t give you brain freeze because they’re refrigerated near to absolute zero. Go to the continent and “une biere” is by default a glass of that frothy effluent. But at least it’s better than what you find in the US, where most beers are little more than flavoured water pumped up with C02. Ban it, and if you can’t find a decent beer, drink gin instead. London gin, of course.

Foreign footballers: football today is dominated by overpaid, diving, ear-biting, spitting foreigners. There’s no space for traditional English centre forwards like Jeff Astle and Tony Hateley, clubbing their brains to extinction heading soggy balls with the consistency of concrete. No place for traditional English violence, the like of which defenders like Chopper Harris inflicted on forwards in stadiums where the weapon of choice among fans was the bicycle chain. Not for nothing are strikers so named – so many of them choose to withhold their labour in a well-publicised huff when their employers refuse to let them move to Real Madrid for a 100% pay rise. And referees, what a bunch of prancing, metrosexual wimps! Real men like Chopper and Nobby Stiles would weep in frustration as modern refs red card perfectly legitimate sliding two-footed tackles designed to break the opponent’s legs or deprive him of his manhood. Get rid of all those foreign influences! Bring back terraces, Bovril, and footballers who ride to match days on the underground. And as for women’s football, back to the kitchen, ladies.

Huf Houses: A relatively new invasive species. Gigantic lego kits built in Germany and assembled in the home counties on plots previously enjoyed by gardeners, ponies and peeping toms. Structures designed to enable all the doings in an Englishman’s castle to be performed in full view of the world through massive glass walls. Houses that force the inhabitants to live in pristine, anti-septic environments for fear that the neighbours notice the clumps of dog hair drifting around like brushwood, and the dishes from last night’s dinner party still strewn unwashed all over the kitchen while the hosts recover under IKEA duvets from their feats of public bacchanalia. Strategically placed CCTV connected to the internet that enable us all to leer at what they absurdly call their “lifestyles” will soon send the shutters down on their rampant exhibitionism.

Body piercing: Do we really need to see pieces of metal glistening from every available protruding body part? There was a time when the only visible metal was to be seen on women’s earlobes and pirates in story books. As for the more intimate piercings, the German prince who gave his name to the Prince Albert kept his adornment to himself (and presumably his wife), whereas in recent times even our dear Queen had to suffer the indignity of watching her grand-daughter flash her metal every time she stuck her tongue out. Full body scanners at the entrance to every public building would surely shame the covert narcissists out of their degenerate apparel.

Baseball Caps: Not only did the Americans pervert cricket, our national game, and turn it into baseball, a sport ideally suited to their limited attention spans, but they invented the baseball cap. It’s now standard attire for every white van man and tattooed bruiser, for golfers, politicians on holiday and cricketers – horror of horrors. Even Princess Diana wore one from time to time. Do we really want to look like Americans? Impose an immediate and massive tax on them, and bring back the flat cap.

20:20 Cricket: The rot started when we bowed to the wishes of American-inspired TV programmers who demanded that we truncate our national game into a one-day format. Nowadays, 20:20 cricket has taken a hold on us like leprosy, all because of the mistaken notion that the game is all about entertainment. Cricket is not entertainment. It’s an open-air meditation. It was designed to be slow, to unfold rather than explode. In the villages, it was a social leveller. It gave the yokels the opportunity to knock the heads off the landed gentry without being disembowelled for murder and insurrection. Not so now, as we take our cue from our former colonies in introducing ever more trivial versions of the sacred game. 20:20 should be confined to our prisons, as a more creative alternative to the walk in the courtyard. Who knows? Some of our criminals might emerge as decent batsmen.

Last but not least, IKEA. Not since the Vikings rampaged through the country have the Scandinavians made such a determined effort to overlay their bizarre cultural values on our blessed land. Not a home in the country is without some product from that blue and yellow Swedish hell-house. Where once the elegant curves of Chippendale adorned our houses, today we make do with squat chipboard bookcases, plain pine tables and kitchenware for foodies, once bought, never used. Visit an IKEA store and you are force-marched past a myriad of gaudy gadgets, primary colours and machines beating chairs to death to demonstrate the makers’ rigorous quality control. You are encouraged to eat Swedish meatballs, and forced to pronounce unpronounceable product names as you attempt to navigate their incomprehensible catalogues. You are exposed to the full panoply of the store’s ghastly products as you struggle to find the equipment your children require to live on spaghetti bolognaise in their dingy first-year university accommodation. In an IKEA store, the system rules, not the customer. You are merely an accessory in a buying treadmill dreamed up by a posse of demented Swedish store designers. If we must have IKEA, let’s create a number of massive artificial islands off the North Sea, paid for by the Swedes, where shoppers can take in scenic views of wind farms and oil rigs while enjoying their schnapps and meat balls.

So my message to UKIP is that they should campaign for a return to the England that once was. Where the dark satanic mills once jostled against the green hills. Where men were men and women knew their place. To the land of linoleum, Bakelite and crystal radios, of cucumber sandwiches, typing pools and forelock tugging. Where we invented things, like Spitfires, jet engines and television. Where we built battleships and steam engines. Where morris dancers slaked their thirst with warm beer, and staggered home to beat their wives. Where an Englishman’s word was his bond, and the schoolmaster, vicar and country squire were the arbiters of our values. And where LSD was the coinage in our pockets.

Failing that, hire Danny Boyle to build a series of gigantic theme parks where we can all act out our fantasies of England past. Stocked with kindly bank managers, Dr Findlay clones, black and white TV, bearded cricketers, endless re-runs of Monty Python, Austin 7s, nailmakers from the black country and the odd belted earl barking bonhomie at his kow-towing retainers.

On reflection, the thought of Nigel Farage lecturing us like a pub bore on primetime TV would be too much to bear. So maybe I’ll take off to Southern Spain, where the retired gangsters run free, where the fish and chip shops do a roaring trade and where the true spirit of England still flourishes.


Doors to Manual, Phones to Self-Destruct


According to the BBC, British Airways has just decided to allow us passengers to turn on our mobile devices after their planes have landed.

This will be news to all the punters who for the past decade or more have been chattering away as soon as the wheels touch down. Not to mention those allegedly endangering our safety by leaving their phones on during the flight – as evidenced by the beep beep of text messages chirping from all areas of the plane once we get below ten thousand feet.

Of all the airline regulations, the no-phones rule must be the most widely broken, whoever you fly with.

Other rules are policed with an iron fist. Seatbelts? Patrolled with the enthusiasm of a traffic warden. Smoking in the toilets? A death sentence. Drunken exuberance? Handcuffs, straight jacket and a court appearance once you’re on home soil. And making a joke about bombs and terrorists? A sky marshal with a gun up your nose and a pair of friendly jet fighters waving at you from just above the wing.

But phones – how on earth can anyone tell if you’ve stashed a live handset into your baggage, or failed to put your iPad into airplane mode?

I’m not sure why BA was afraid of letting us use our phones once we we’re on the ground. Were they worried that the aircraft would suddenly take off again of its own accord? Or perhaps lurch into a Formula 1 chicane and crash into the terminal. Or maybe trigger the oxygen masks so that we can have an invigorating lungful before we endure the ordeal of arrivals.

Be that as it may, I’m totally opposed to BA’s concession to the mobile addicts. It’s bad enough being trampled by the rush into the aisles and risking being brained by whisky bottles cascading out of the overhead lockers. Worst of all is having to listen to a cacophony of Nokia jingles, Samsung text whistles and all the other horrific ring tones conjured up by idiots who want their phones to sound like ghettoblasters. Not to mention the ceaseless calls to tell waiting chauffeurs that “I’m here, I should be out in about twenty minutes”.

Twenty minutes? You’re joking, mate! What makes you think that you’ll even be off the plane in 20 minutes, let alone through immigration? What make you so confident that your airline has even bothered to put your bags on the flight? Or that customs doesn’t decide to give you the third degree?

No, in my opinion, phones should be banned until you wander out, dazed and confused, into the waiting hordes at arrivals. At least that way, if you have to wait a few minutes for the pick-up, you can inject some money into the local economy by buying a cup of coffee and soaking up the joyful atmosphere – in the process sparing your driver the anxiety of waiting for an eternity in a prohibited area until you deign to appear.

What’s more, there would be less chance of your being sent flying in a collision with some jerk not looking where they’re going while they unleash a barrage of texts or update their Facebook status. And you wouldn’t have to be a witness to some horrendously complex conversation about a business deal, or a passionate discussion with a significant other about what they’re going to do to each other in an hour’s time. Airport arrivals are bad enough without having an unwanted window into someone else’s love life.

Far preferable that the arriving hordes leave their phones in their bags, and  – like me – march  towards the exit in grumpy silence, keeping ears pricked only for the nanny messages broadcast at every turn by the electronic sheepdogs that herd us this way and the next.

For what better way than silence to contemplate having survived yet another ghastly foray into the skies in an oxygen-starved tube filled with people who ordinarily wouldn’t come within a mile of each other?

Cockroaches and me – skipping through the brain functions



Cockroaches are beautiful, elegant and resourceful creatures. I just don’t like sharing my home with them. And they mess with my brain.

I’ve lived in the same apartment block in Bahrain more or less for the past four years, and until a few months ago, the little darlings had never graced me with their presence.

Why now? Because of a swift degradation in my kitchen hygiene standards? I don’t think so. I’m not aware of having turned into a food slob, leaving bits all over the kitchen counters, piles of unwashed dishes and tasty titbits on the floor for my eager new companions to hoover up.

No, my kitchen practice is much the same as it always was. I use the dishwasher every day, I sweep up stuff from the floor, and I have a cleaner come in every week to reach the parts I’m unable or disinclined to. My apartment is modern, well-built and well maintained.  There have been three attempts by the janitorial staff to get rid of them. Yet still they come.

They’re not particularly big ones, and there aren’t that many of them. But not a day goes by without a sighting or two. It doesn’t help that the kitchen surfaces are black marble, so it’s not easy to spot them scurrying for cover. They seem to have a special liking for the dishwasher. Is that because they creep out from the dishwasher drain after the cycle’s over and go foraging?

Anyway, it’s not particularly pleasant to open the door and find a little team crawling around the top near the controls. Maybe their genetic memory leads them to dishwashers not only because they’re nice and warm, but because they know we’re not likely to launch a brutal assault on our cups and plates, and chemical weapons necessitate a second cycle to get rid of the nerve agent coating our cutlery.

My reaction to them is an interesting illustration of the different thinking levels of the brain.

Being a bit of a wishy-washy liberal type, I don’t particularly enjoy killing things – especially when they’re much smaller than me. Yet when I spot a cockroach, the reptile brain kicks in – fight or flight, instant reaction. If I can splat them with something – a kitchen towel or a spatula, I go for it. Failing that, a lightening attack with a finger or a foot does the job, but usually fails to take them all out. The nuclear option in a decision-making process that takes less than a second is to reach for the Raid, which sends clouds of sweet-smelling but deadly nerve agent around the kitchen with a half-life of several hours to remind me that I am in the presence of death. After all, if it’s sending my little housemates belly-up and twitching, what’s it doing to me?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves in terms of brain function.

Once I’ve reduced them to a squishy yellow smear on the floor, the limbic bit takes over – emotion and judgement. Damn, blast – or words far worse – little bastards! Have I not sent a clear enough message? I think of Will Smith in the finale of Men in Black. Can they not see the example of their dead friends and scuttle off to some other apartment? How many more do I have to kill? And what’s the next step? Bring in the exterminators and evacuate the apartment for a couple of days?

Finally the neo-cortex – the so-called higher brain function that deals with culture, learning and vision – comes along and reminds me that I’m part of a species that kills things every day without thought or compunction. I didn’t choose cockroaches for companions, and anyway at my hands they get a quick and hopefully painless death. And what’s death to a cockroach anyway? Simply an altered molecular arrangement that they wouldn’t notice because they aren’t aware of the original state in the first place? And do they have souls? Have I just wiped out a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler? And if some of us come back as cockroaches, how do we crawl back to a higher state next time round? Is it possible for a cockroach to lead a good life as opposed to a bad one? Could it be that by zapping them I’m creating martyrs who enter a state of cockroach grace?

Beyond that point madness beckons, so I step back from the philosophical brink, clear up the bodies and make a mental note to remind the landlord that the bugs are still there and what is he going to do about it?

And not to write a blog post about it in case people think I live in dirt and squalor.

But this can’t go on. In the end it’ll be them or me. In the long run I suspect that these resilient little buggers will be patrolling the nooks and crannies long after I’ve gone.

And who’s to say that they deserve to inherit the earth any less than we do? Well, learning to kill as efficiently as we do might be a factor in their favour.

Degrees make great teachers? Ask the kids…


The Education Industry strikes again! Ever keen to promote the degree as the educational gold standard, a leading research institution has a pop at teachers who dare to teach subjects without having what it considers to be a relevant qualification.

Yesterday’s London Times ran an article entitled “Thousands of teachers lacking degrees in their own subjects”:

Almost a quarter of secondary school maths teachers (about 7,500) and more than a third of physics teachers (approximately 2,000) do not have a relevant degree-level qualification.

About 7,300 secondary school English teachers (a fifth) do not have a relevant degree-level qualification, according to statistics published yesterday by the Department for Education.

In addition, half of those teaching Spanish (about 3,400), more than half of information technology teachers (about 9,200) and more than two in five religious education teachers (6,500) do not hold a relevant qualification higher than an A level.

Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, said that the figures were “worrying”.

“It is essential that teachers have expertise in the subject that they are teaching,” he said. “The most reliable indicator of that is holding a university degree in the subject.

“It is very worrying that so many of our physics and maths teachers appear to be under-qualified. We know that not enough young people are being turned on to these subjects for us to have all the people graduating in them that we would want.”

So according to Professor Smithers, having a degree in the subject they teach is also a reliable indicator that teachers will “turn on” their students.

Sorry, Professor, but you’re dead wrong.  Having a degree in the subject you teach matters FAR, FAR less than that you are a good teacher.

I was privately educated in the UK. From the age of eight, I went to a boarding school. My parents went to great lengths to make sure that the schools they sent me to were the best available. Even though there were some fairly mediocre private schools in those days, as there are today, you don’t pay a small fortune for crap education unless you think it’s more important that your offspring excels at rugby or learns to ape the table manners of the elite.

The good professor is particularly worried by under-qualified maths and physics teachers. Well, at my very expensive schools I was taught by Oxford graduates with first degrees in the relevant subject. I was put off both subjects at an early age by awful teaching.

At the age of ten, I would be regularly dragged out of bed by the teacher at 9pm (we went to bed at 7.30), and told to repeat my prep work (the equivalent of homework in state schools). I would not be allowed to go back to bed until I’d finished it. In one end-of term report, the said teacher informed my parents that “Royston gives a passable imitation of a fool”. I hated him and his bloody subject ever since – not because he lampooned me (which I was actually quite proud of), but because he was such a lousy teacher and callous human being. I’m being grossly unfair no doubt. After all he was an Old Etonian, and we all know what supremely talented people they are. He was probably poisoned by a deep sense of resentment that he ended up having to teach an idiot like me when his classmates were running – or ruining – the country.

When I went to senior school, I was taught physics by an elderly teacher who was also the deputy head. He was much revered by generations of my peers. Not by me. Looking back, I would say that he was probably fairly high on the autism scale. Either that or washed out and terminally cynical. Totally lacking in empathy, and totally incapable of inspiring the slightest excitement in what I now know is an endlessly fascinating subject. Yet here was a highly qualified teacher.

Fortunately my maths, when I needed it most, was rescued by the advent of the calculator and the spreadsheet. Physics I dropped as early as possible, but not before the same teacher delivered a hefty kick up my backside in front of the whole class for not concentrating during an exam revision session. Divine retribution followed however, much to my delight, when he was seen to limping heavily after the event.

So my experience – and that of my children by the way – is that the ability and desire in a teacher to communicate, inspire, encourage and  support counts for far more than their possession of “degrees considered to be relevant. Especially since by the time they’ve been teaching for a few years the chances are that they will have forgotten 80% of what they learned at university, and have retained only what they need to teach the curriculum to their students.

Yes, there are lots of great, caring teachers out there. But the good professor should spend more time figuring out why there are so many crap ones as well, instead of using the Education Industry’s fallacious benchmark – the degree – as an indicator of quality.

And I wonder how many teachers a hundred years ago who helped their students through exams that were fiendishly difficult compared to what today’s kids have to sit could boast of the “relevant qualifications”. But in those days education was a vocation, not an industry.

The Psychotic’s Guide to Packing


Sad person that I am, for me one of the more interesting aspects of travel is the packing habits of others. Over years of travelling I’ve watched people pack, or watched the results of their packing from afar.

Packing is an art. There are whole cultures around this seemingly mundane activity that sometimes provide a window into deep psychosis. How you pack depends not only on what you want to pack, but where you’re going, why you’re going, and what sort of weird person you are.

Here are some of those cultures:

The Reasonable Packer

The Reasonable Packer is someone who doesn’t pack the entire wardrobe, takes a reasonable amount of stuff with them – enough to give them a modicum of choice of what to wear while away. If it’s a four-day  business trip: two suits three ties five shirts and a couple of tee shirts. Plus underwear of course. The Reasonable Packer always take into account at least one accident – soup on the suit, coffee on the tie or ripping argument with a protruding door handle, for example. Or perhaps something more spectacular, like the time I ended up face down in an atrium pond after mistaking it for a glass floor. Reasonable is boring and sensible, which I guess describes many of us most of the time.

The Expansive Packer

The Expansive Packer wants to cover all the options. You’re going somewhere you’ve never been before. What do you pack? If you’re a guy, everything from a tuxedo to your scraggiest back-packer stuff. If you’re a girl, everything from the slinky black dress to bum-clinging shorts and at least six bikinis – after all you want a different outfit for every day, no? Almost inevitably, Expansive Packers end up wearing a tenth of what they bring with them, and eventually realise what idiots they are for packing so much. They vow never to do it again – until the next trip.

The Defensive Packer

Defensive Packers are at best cautious, and at worst downright paranoid. Think of everything that can go wrong, and prepare for the worst conceivable disaster short of death. At least two mobile phones. A whole medicine chest for everything nasty you could conceivably encounter. Three different sprays for bites. Tamiflu for bird flu. Snake venom antidote. Drugs to bung you up and drugs to get you going again. Pills for every kind of headache. Mosquito nets for use in a five-star hotel. If they could get away with it, the Defensive Packer would bring pepper spray, tasers, a nice selection of kitchen knives and an Uzi submachine with enough rounds to handle a 30-minute fire fight. Every journey is a venture into the terrifying unknown. And they will be prepared.

The Anal Packer

The Anal Packer  – as in anally retentive – starts with a list prepared at least three weeks before going anywhere. By D-day minus three, they’re packed and ready to go. Everything immaculately folded. Everything in its place. Shirts in one place, trousers in another. Shoes pre-cleaned and wrapped to prevent anything nasty rubbing off on the clothes. The worst thing you can do if you have an anal packer as a partner is demand that they shove something of yours in their bag at the last moment – it could possibly mean the end of a beautiful relationship. The Anal Packer with Defensive tendencies is the scariest traveller known to man. Avoid their bags like the plague.

The Chaotic Packer

The Chaotic Packer is the opposite of the Anal Packer. This one wanders around over several hours scrunching up anything that comes to mind into the bag in no particular order. The kind of person who’s pleased that there seems to be plenty of space left at the end of the process, and then thinks oh shit, I forgot to pack any shoes – or worse, underwear. Inevitably it becomes necessary for a large friend to sit on the bag while Chaotic uses the strength of Hercules to pull the zip. And of course what emerges at arrivals is a burst bag with naughty bits hanging from the fissures for all to see. Do not approach Chaotic Packers while they are about their business. The randomness is terrifying to behold.

The Diva Packer

The Diva Packer never does the job for herself. She has flunkies to assemble enough bags for at least ten consecutive Oscar ceremonies. She’s the one who strides through departures with leaving a line of struggling assistants in her wake. You and I don’t see the Diva Packer too often because she travels first class. But wannabe DPs are often to be found among us plebs exiting through the normal channels. Recognise them by their immaculate matching bags, elegant hats and sour faces.

The Furtive Packer

The Furtive Packer is someone with something to hide. It could be that extra carton of cigarettes, or some expensive purchases that take them way over the duty free limit. It could be stuff that is banned in the country they’re travelling to. I remember someone who travelled regularly to a Middle East country known for its wide range of prohibited goods. Anything from alcohol to women’s magazines with scantily clad models was and still is strictly verboten. Even Christmas puddings with a hint of brandy would not escape the eagle eyes and probing hands of the customs officials. Her tactic was dirty underwear – lots of it. The Furtive Packer derives a serious thrill out of getting away with it – you can usually recognise them by the smirk on their faces as they stride out through arrivals.

The Caravanserai Packer

The Caravanserai Packer is often to be seen at Middle East airports, where there are many foreign workers coming or going. Their hallmark is big bundles of stuff wrapped in cloth and held together by string, and electronics in the original boxes – TVs, microwaves, samovars – you name it. You see them queuing  up at check in with tens of bags, and wonder how they avoid paying at least the price of the original ticket in excess baggage – until you see their entourage of wives and children lurking nearby. Getting caught behind a Caravanserai Packer at check-in is a nightmare. The whole process can take up to half an hour, and there always seems to be some complication that results in the check-in agent having to disappear for a ten-minute consultation with his superior. Take your place behind them at your peril.

My packing culture? Something between Reasonable and Expansive. I have a thing about books – I always overestimate what I will have time to read and end up packing a whole library. No Kindle for me, I’m afraid. And I also have a Defensive streak. I’m paranoid about failing laptops and disappearing phones. So wherever I go I bring two laptops, two phones and an external hard disk.

My wife? She’ll probably kill me for saying this, but she talks Reasonable and ends up somewhere between Expansive and Chaotic. She also has an annoying habit of commenting on stuff I pack – “what do you need that for?”, and “why don’t you bring those lovely shorts?” – the lovely shorts I bought fifteen years ago and kept in the hope of regaining my former sylph-like figure, but can now barely pull over my backside. Not forgetting those things of hers that mysteriously find their way into my suitcase, only to be discovered at the other end. I always take a deep breath when asked those ritual questions at the airport about “have you personally packed the contents of your bag?”. Come to think of it, not a bad way to be rid of your spouse – just sneak in a little canister of some noxious chemical that’s bound to be picked up on the X-ray and they’ve gone for thirty years. Not that my wife is in the habit of adding anything more lethal than a pair of spiky heels or a hair-straightener.

As for my daughters, their packing is a mystery known only unto themselves. Why would you need six bottles of shampoo and conditioner for a two-week holiday? They pack enough make-up to paint the entire cast of Hollywood movie. Stringy things of dubious provenance and purpose. Multiple sunglasses, creams, potions, and enough electronic devices to keep them in a digital bubble of Facebook, Instagram and instant messaging for the duration of their holiday. My policy with them is don’t look, don’t ask.

If there’s one invention that can’t come too soon, it’s teleportation. Failing that, I’d live with a miraculous transformation into the ranks of the billionaires. After all, they don’t need therapy every time they go on holiday.

Creative Flying Solutions – Coffin Class


I do a lot of flying – usually economy. The experience is never better than OK, often horrible, depending on how many cattle are in the class. The only flights I look forward to are in business, which happens only when someone else is paying or when I’m cashing in my air miles.

Yes, I know, I’m a spoilt git. But part of the problem is that I’m a big spoilt git. Not of the obese kind that pours itself, wobbling and sweating, into the seat and spills over into half of the precious space either side. While being tall is OK under most circumstances, it’s not OK in economy. Air stewardesses seem to have a mission to destroy my already-shattered knees by aiming their trollies at me with laser-guided precision.

I heave with malevolent envy whenever I see a short-legged passenger actually crossing her legs. How dare you have enough space to cross your legs, I think, when the passenger in front of me is lucky not to suffer an indent in their back every time I try and force my restless legs into more comfortable position.

When I was young, every flight was an adventure. These days a “good flight” is the absence of pain.

Whenever I sit in an aisle seat, I need to make a decision. Depending on which knee was last crashed into by a trolley, do I want to be totally crippled, or just equally damaged in both knees?

Then there are babies. Full-on, yowling babies. The days when our own babies flew with us are buried deep in the mental archives. But I don’t remember them being half as loud or half as objectionable as the squalling infants of today.

Not to mention falling luggage. Actually, I nearly killed an unfortunate Chinese lady when my laptop fell out of its bag, dealt her a glancing blow and gouged a hole in itself against an armrest before crashing the floor. I was lucky. She just rubbed her head with a bewildered expression and accepted my profuse apologies. If she’d been from my country, I would have been at least a million dollars lighter. All those witnesses. A slam dunk. The miracle was that the laptop continued to work.

And bugs. Zillions of them. Expelled from hacking coughers. Coating every surface. I’m surprised the little buggers don’t eat each other as they’re waiting to attack us. Apart from flu, the king of the aircraft bugs is the norovirus. This is the one that causes you to project your lunch at anything within a ten foot radius, and leak from orifices too unpleasant to discuss in polite company – all at a moment’s notice. It’s also the scourge of the cruise liners. Not for nothing will you find more alcohol gel than alcohol on the love boats these days. Days of diarrhoea and vomiting on the high seas are no fun. So why do you suppose the airlines don’t do the same thing with their passengers? Quite simply because by the time you start throwing up, you’re already off the plane, and it could have come from anywhere, couldn’t it?

I could go on. Announcements that cut across the inflight movie at a critical moment. Drunken passengers who lurch down the aisle colliding with people on the way. Unusual fragrances emanating from people who haven’t changed their clothes for a week. Food that crumbles and slops all over you no matter how hard to try to keep your dinner to yourself against the best efforts of other people’s elbows, so that when you get up, bits shower off you as they would from a baby being lifted out of its high chair. Queues for the loos, assuming you can overcome the impenetrable barrier of trolleys crawling from your end to the malodorous “conveniences” 50 rows down the aircraft.

A couple of days ago I flew from Doha to London on a packed flight and was treated to the full symphony. Stereophonic babies. A trolley blow to the knee that I swear was delivered on purpose to discourage me from allowing any part of my anatomy to protrude into the aisle for the remainder of the flight. An officious steward who berated me for trespassing into the sacred space of business class to use the loo when the aisles in economy were blocked. Apparently one of the passengers complained. Quite right – let the starving eat cake. (Note to Qatar Airways: why do you display signs visible in economy directing you to vacant loos if you don’t want people to use them?)

Roll on the day when an airline – probably Ryanair, given their record of creative travel solutions – introduces Coffin Class. You give your passengers a near-fatal dose of tramadol, wrap them in sleeping bags, load them into converted coffins and forklift them into the hold along with the cats, dogs and reptiles. At the other end give them a shot of adrenaline and send them staggering into immigration.

Surely a better option than long hours on a packed cattle class flight. Spoilt – moi?

Life ain’t worth living with no nits to pick


One of the less pleasant aspects of my personality is what my wife calls my tendency to “nit-pick”.

If someone swears that something is a fact, and I know it’s not, I don’t hesitate to correct them. Provided, that is, that they are close enough not to take offense, or perhaps because I know they will take offense. An exception of course is my wife. If I correct her I’m met with a firestorm of scorn. Not so with my daughters, who shrug their shoulders with a muttered “whatever”.

My elder daughter, however, is acquiring my talent for nit-picking. And she had the nerve to turn it on me not so long ago.

It happened like this. Do you ever spend your life using an incorrect expression until someone politely puts you right? Well, daughters leave out the polite bit. I have spent decades referring to the clever optical illusions often painted on walls to give the impression of another space as “tromp d’oeil”

One day I used the phrase in a family conversation while we were in the car. Said daughter popped up from the back seat and said Dad, it’s “tromp l’oeil”. Of course it’s not, I said, outraged at her presumption. What are you talking about? There followed a heated conversation over about ten minutes. When we got home, I checked on Google. And you guessed it – she was right, to my acute mortification and her smug satisfaction.

It was a moment that crystallised the transition from Respected Dad to Opinionated Old Fool. The passing of the knowledge torch to the younger generation.

Another horrendous faux pas happened years ago when a colleague and I went to a restaurant in Paris for lunch. He spoke very little French, so I happily took the role of guide and menu interpreter.

Let’s try the langue de boeuf, I suggested – it’s a kind of beef casserole. He went along with that. When the dish came to the table he went green. Instead of a nice bourguignon-style casserole, sitting on our plates were two tongues that looked as though they had just been ripped out of the mouth of the unfortunate cow. Not cut – ripped. And all the knobbly taste buds were scattered across the top of the tongue like pebbles sticking out of mud.

Needless to say my colleague’s organ was sent back to be re-connected to the cow. His appetite remained suppressed for several hours. I struggled to get it down me, and gave up after eating a few mouthfuls. Actually it tasted fine, but the sight of the taste buds, or whatever they were, made me think of the slaughterhouse.

So I have form.

Tainted nit-picker and manifest hypocrite though I may be, nothing gets my goat like pretentious company names, especially when they are gene-spliced derivatives from Latin or Greek.  Here I confess that I also have form. I once co-owned a company called Kudos, whose derivation is an ancient Greek word. However my excuse is that the word is fully-assimilated into the English language in its meaning as acclaim for a thing of value.

Not so most of the pompous derivatives. They’re everywhere. Cognos, Novartis, Amadeus, Atos, Infineon, Codix, Praxis. Names signifying much but meaning nothing.

But nothing is more guaranteed to set the green monster of my inner pedant bursting out with rage than when these guys take the time on their websites to explain their stupid names, and then betray their linguistic ignorance (I told you I was a hypocrite).

Yesterday, for example, someone sent me a link to a company called Neovartis, so I looked at the website and happened on their “About Neovartis” tab. There you will find the typical mission, vision values bumf that causes me to be deeply suspicious of any company from the start. Come on guys, you’re there to make money – the rest is bullshit. You know it, everyone else knows it.

Anyway, there was a little exposition called “Our Identity”:

“Neovartis is derived from the Latin word “neo”, which means new and “vartis” that indicates varieties in services. Giving the promise of offering new varieties of business development services.

Our logo creates the effect of connecting circles which in definition, connecting people with business development and growth.”

Now in my opinion any company that spends valuable time telling the world about the significance of their logo is wasting their time and everyone else’s. Who cares about the bloody logo, except possibly the designer who created it and the executive who spent thousands on the designer?

But worse, much worse, is the claim that “neo” is derived from the Latin. It’s from the Greek, dummies! And it means young, not new. As for “vartis”, go check on Google and see if you can find any Latin derivation for the word. You will find nothing but a host of people – mostly of Greek extraction – by that name.

No matter that the name hints more at flatulence rather than the Doric columns of excellence. The point is that if you’re going to rabbit on about your fine-sounding name, you need to get your facts right. Otherwise nitpickers like me will expose you as what Private Eye – a British satirical magazine – describes as pseuds. In fact they have a whole section  – Pseuds Corner – for stuff like this, and a variant called Pseuds Corporate, in which the words I quoted would be outstandingly worthy of inclusion.

Sadly, the corporate world is full of self-indulgent, self-referencing slop that’s not worth the electricity spent storing it on a thousand servers and certainly of no use to you and me.

Yes I know I’m being unkind, and for all I know Neovartis are an outstanding company.

But at least now you know why my wife is a saint for putting up with me.

Morrissey – Heaven Knows I’m Important Now


There are self-important politicians, self-important journalists, businesspeople, sportspeople and pop stars. Then there’s Morrissey.

Someone posted a link to a “statement” today on Facebook by the master of misery. It was a blatherous outpouring about Margaret Thatcher – the second “statement” of its kind.

In the first one he said:

“Every move she made was charged by negativity; she destroyed the British manufacturing industry, she hated the miners, she hated the arts, she hated the Irish Freedom Fighters and allowed them to die, she hated the English poor and did nothing at all to help them, she hated Greenpeace and environmental protectionists, she was the only European political leader who opposed a ban on the Ivory Trade, she had no wit and no warmth and even her own Cabinet booted her out.”

She gave the order to blow up the Belgrano even though it was outside of the Malvinas Exclusion Zone – and was sailing away from the islands. “When the young Argentinian boys aboard The Belgrano had suffered a most appalling and unjust death, Thatcher gave the thumbs up sign for the British press. Iron? No. Barbaric? Yes.”

In the second, he said:

“The difficulty with giving a comment on Margaret Thatcher’s death to the British tabloids is that, no matter how calmly and measured you speak, the comment must be reported as an “outburst” or an ”explosive attack” if your view is not pro-establishment.”

Followed later by:

“The fact that Thatcher ignited the British public into street-riots, violent demonstrations and a social disorder previously unseen in British history is completely ignored by David Cameron in 2013. In truth, of course, no British politician has ever been more despised by the British people than Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher’s funeral on Wednesday will be heavily policed for fear that the British tax-payer will want to finally express their view of Thatcher. They are certain to be tear-gassed out of sight by the police.

United Kingdom? Syria? China? What’s the difference?”

Oh boy. I do like the bit about “calmly and measured”. Morrissey is entitled to his opinions like everyone else. He can even release “statements”, since clearly there are enough media outlets who take his pot-pourri of cheap shots seriously.

But he should be mindful when he compares the UK with Syria and China that if he made such statements as a citizen of those countries he would either be in jail or dead by now. Clearly he has never lived in a country where expressing opinions about leaders can have consequences beyond a cascade of online likes.

He should try popping into Damascus and denouncing Bashar Al-Assad. Or living somewhere, as I do, where tear gassing is almost a nightly event.

Oh, and clearly despite his encyclopaedic knowledge of British history, he has never heard of the Gordon Riots of 1780.

I must stop there before I get really cross. I was never a fan of Margaret Thatcher, but I am a fan of critical thinking. And anyway, he’s had enough “oxygen of publicity”, as the object of his hate would put it, to sell a few more albums or concert tickets without my having to waste more oxygen on him.

What a boring man.

A Fruity Feeding Frenzy


Here’s the latest food scare. According to today’s London Times (no point linking because The Times is a pay site) fruit juice is ruining kids’ teeth:

“The Government’s healthy eating campaign promotes unsweetened juice as one of five recommended portions of fruit and vegetables a day for children over five. But officials concede that sugars released by crushing make juice worse for the teeth than whole fruit, and say children should have no more than one 150ml portion a day.

Nigel Carter, chief executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, said parents could be doing harm while thinking they were doing good because they were unaware of the downsides of juice.”

Reminds me of my favourite nursery rhyme:

The grand old duke of York
He had ten thousand men
He marched them up to the top of the hill
And he marched them down again.

The problem, my friends, is that we have too much respect for experts. Advice bombards us from multiple sources. We get so confused that we turn into gibbering neurotics.

I wonder how many well-intentioned but guilt-plagued parents will breathe a sigh of relief when they learn of the dentists’ advice.  Especially those who are putting their kids off broccoli, spinach and kiwi fruit for life by trying and failing to stuff “five a day” down their reluctant gullets. Off the hook, except that the experts will now say that to compensate for the lower proportion of fruit, we should force-feed our reluctant young four portions of vegetables.

Horror! After all, who has the time to produce an artistic tableau of celery, brussels sprouts and okra every day to persuade the infant that vegetables are “fun”? And how many infants buy into the con?

From little dilettantes grow food psychotics who as adults embrace with religious fervour every new dietary fad. Atkins, Scarsdale, Dukan – you name it. Actually, a better analogy is romance. People fall in love with diets, and fall out of love when the next one seduces them.

I am convinced that however many years are added to your life by scratching around supermarkets to check for additives, sugar content, transfats, organic status, political regime in the country of origin and all those other things that the well-fed masses agonise over, you will lose those years through constant worrying, violent switches in diet and gorging on raw celery.

I’m not suggesting that we should allow ourselves to become fifty-stone monsters with rotting stumps for teeth. But I do believe that we should take the contradictory yet   “authoritative”  guidance that zaps us on a daily basis with a pinch of salt (low sodium of course).

After all, are we not educated to think for ourselves?