Foreign Bodies

I’m confused. What exactly is Britain up to?
We’re paying all these millions out in foreign aid to countries that have better economies than us, and all the while trying to convince people that austerity is the way forward. Forget the illegal actions of the bankers. No, the pensioners, unemployed and soon to be unemployed should make sacrifices while we fill the coffers of other governments to waste.
When the bungling Department for Works and Pensions falsely claimed it had paid me too much Jobseekers’ Allowance it threatened action. No opportunity in court for me to prove I was in the right, just a move to take the money back from earnings, bank account or presumably force me to sell my liver.
And I still clung to the hope of being innocent until found guilty. (On a side note, they admitted I owed nothing and last week I had a letter stating they owed me!)
But politicians who have cheated and lied in fiddling their expenses have come to a gentleman’s agreement over repaying and still have their cushy jobs in Parliament. How many other ‘workers’ would have that chance?
In other parts of the world, the politicians are often called ‘law-makers’ because they, with the help of the civil service, agree to and vote in laws. In Britain, as elsewhere, they also break the laws on a regular basis. And they still keep their jobs.
As I said, I’m confused.
So to America. Where a president can be killed in public view, a nation can mourn but little be done to catch the perpetrators. Oh, yes, sorry, my mistake. Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. And then, in what should have been the tightest security surrounding an investigation of that importance, was shot soon after by a nightclub owner who just happened to penetrate a police cordon.
Why exactly do we allow the USA to continue having military and intelligence bases on British soil? The Cold War is over. World War Two ended years ago. Don’t forget, we’re paying towards the operation of these bases. Not bad in an austerity drive, eh? Paying some of the bills of the self-styled most powerful country in the world.
We know that the Yanks have been listening in on Angela Merkel’s telephone conversations. And despite earlier denials, we know that Barack Obama personally knew of this. We know that the US National Security Agency, also hacked into Princess Diana’s phone on account of her campaign against landmines.
Who else?
Let’s not forget this is illegal. As soon as evidence is shown to link Fleet Street newspapers to phone hacking, there’s a government inquiry, massive legal investigation and prompt action to arrest those concerned.
A muzzling of the press law is rushed through and public outcry is readily apparent. Quite right, too.
Except, the US is doing this, on British soil. And people neither know nor care.
The US screwed Britain over in World War Two, wringing out the best deal from a desperate Churchill in terms of cash for obsolete ships and weapons. That Lend Lease agreement was used to apply pressure on Westminster in the 1950s and 1960s when Britain, leading the way in aviation and with its own nuclear weapons programme was forced to abandon numerous projects to the benefit of America.
Today, Britain has little in the way of an aviation industry, compared to its post-war potential. Rolls Royce remains a significant force, but the plane-building industry is a mere shadow of its former self.
Concorde, the most advanced passenger jet of the post-war years, was a commercial failure largely down to American opposition and financial muscle.
In my youth, Vickers Viscounts, BAC 111s, De Havilland Comets, Tridents and VC10s were common sights. Today, my last 16 civilian flights have been aboard Boeings.
The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (yes, it’s still going) argues that the ultra-secretive listening base at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire has been used for commercial spying to give US companies a critical advantage.
It claims that the UK government has been constantly misled over the activities of the base and that an inquiry should decide whether or not the activities carried out there are illegal.
Sounds good to me, especially given all the claptrap about Obama being leader of the ‘free world’ and the biggest ‘democracy’ on our little planet.
The UK government argues that the economic impact of Menwith Hill is significant and its loss would severely damage the national and local economy. Great argument. So why has it closed down so many of its own military installations in recent years? Or do those impacts on local and national economy only go for certain bases?
I’m confused.
And in these days of austerity, where profit-making conglomerates are able to save money by freezing pay or laying off workers, and councils and council services are bearing a terrible brunt of Whitehall saving, just remember that the foreign aid bill is soaring by 35 per cent during the term of this Condem coalition.
According to the UK’s Institute for Financial Studies, aid for India, one of the richest countries in the world, will hit £280 million in 2014/15. Aid to Pakistan will more than double next year, from £215 million to £446 million.
The Democratic Republic of Congo will enjoy an increase in funding that must have shareholders of the utility companies licking their lips in anticipation. From £133 million this year to £258 million next. Get ready for more hikes in energy bills, because obviously we’re stupid enough to cough up that kind of cash as taxpayers. Remember, it’s our money.
And while the UK has stopped, in recent years, aid to China, our cash is used by Brussels to send aid to, yes, you’ve guessed it, China.
What can we do about it?
Answers on a postcard to…

The Middle Ages

Something rather depressing happened this week.
I suddenly got old.
It was a jolt after a year or so of ‘rebuilding’ my life, from rock bottom to almost interesting.
I quit journalism, got fit from fat, losing 20 odd inches round the waist and more than seven stone, found work, then gained a full time job. In between I fought off the incompetent bureaucracy of the Department of Work and Pensions, who now admit I am also due a refund, and got to spend quality time with my son in North Cyprus.
Further good news was the knowledge I will fly out for Christmas and New Year to spend three weeks with the seven year old. Magic.
I’ve felt younger, fitter, healthier and above all, happier. In a fortnight’s time I will notch up my first year of Parkruns, the free and very popular five kilometre runs organised each Saturday by volunteers up and down the country. My time has dropped from 30.05 to 23.25, with more personal bests to come.
In my new job as a dustbin man, I’m walking great distances and wrestling with heavy bins that has done more good than gym membership and for free – well actually, I get paid for it.
And I’ve forged a reputation as grafter, a worker, a decent senior crewman, who some of the older hands reckon is one of the fittest and fastest around.
Women who’ve never met me before suggest I might be in my 30s.
Good times, eh?
Except…
I went out on Friday. To busy pubs in the Earlsdon area of Coventry to say goodbye to a good friend. Well, more like au revoir as she heads for a new life in Cornwall.
Fish out of water? Absolutely.
In a previous life I used to go out regularly and never minded the heaving mass of morons that seemed to populate the plastic pubs. I was one of them, alcohol-fuelled and ready for anything and everything.
Circumstances dictated that I wasn’t getting drunk on Friday and the shy, nervous, socially inept side of my character surfaced and wouldn’t disappear.
Yes, it was meeting new people, but I’ve done that all my life. I’ve been told I’m charming, pleasant, good to get on with and, at very odd times, mesmerising.
No chance when I’m distant, mentally and physically.
Why Friday night? Well, I’d spent a bit of the afternoon helping a friend and getting threatened. I was a bit on edge. Yet it was the awful music, make that muzak, being pumped out so that you couldn’t hear yourself think or talk. It was the constant pushing of people who couldn’t hold their drink. It was the rustle of bullshit in the air as people unwound after their weeks at work.
It was the crashing of waves as dolled up girls, pretty in dresses and make-up, met grunged down boys, ugly in designer stubble, silly haircuts and trousers round their knees.
Where mutton dressed as lamb met Old Steptoe trying to look like David Beckham circa 1998.
It was a world of limbo, a hell in which I’d been cast adrift. A crossroads in life.
By nature, I’m an introvert. By reputation I was a party-goer, but times change and lives change. I know I haven’t grown up, because I still consider myself 17 inside. This mid-40s guy wants to do things he did 20-odd years ago, because I’m fit and able to. Play rugby, play cricket, play drums in bands. Have a night out and feel comfortable and part of the scene.
I doubt I’ve grown up. Physically, I may have fought back. Mentally, I surrendered. I got old.

Corruption Time Again

It’s no surprise that the police lied over the ‘Plebgate’ incident.
I’m on the side of law and order, but the Serious Crime Squad in the West Midlands was disbanded because of corrupt investigations – ‘fitting people up’.
The celebrated Sweeney had a similar reputation and was subject of a number of purges throughout the 1970s while its onscreen equivalent showed the thin blue line in a largely positive light.
Most recently we’ve had admissions that the police version of the Hillsborough tragedy wasn’t true.
Now Plebgate.
But it sticks in my throat that Andrew Mitchell, who fits the role as pantomime villain so well, has continued to shout foul. He’s admitted swearing at police officers outside Number 10. The action of a senior government figure? Not in my book.
He was voted in by the public to act on our behalf. Swearing at police officers trying to enforce the rules? Stand down, Andrew. Stand down.
After all, these are rules – laws – that MPs introduce. Is he suggesting that we should all break the law when it suits us? Because we can do away with MPs for a start.
These are men and women who have lied, taken the coin of big business, stolen from the public purse and claimed money for everything from Tippex to huge mortgage interest payments on their second homes. MPs have promised us plenty and given us sod all. Conservative, Lib Dem and Labour. They try to fool us with magical manifestos that they then conveniently ignore when in power.
Andrew Mitchell is a bully boy who got caught out when he swore at an innocent boy in blue. The connivance of the national media in whipping an incident that, in my book, should have still seen him lose his role as Chief Whip, has played as much a part as the ‘corrupt’ police.
We’ve seen investigations in these last two years that have proved coppers have accepted money from the media. Disgraceful actions on behalf of both parties, but I feel the media has had its agenda. Largely influenced by politicians. Not content with slashing police numbers and fobbing us off with plastic coppers (police community support officers), the politicians have also come down hard on the police breaking the law.
It’s a magic trick. Point the figure of blame at everyone else, including the media, and avoid much of the disgrace and anger due to you.

Digital Downturn

I am shocked and saddened by the declining standards and quality of the British regional press.
It’s reflected in readership figures that are in a downward spiral, like an out of control aircraft spinning towards terra firma.
The bosses will tell you that it’s because people access their news differently – and to a large extent they’re right. Because those same bosses were so busy cutting costs, mainly staff, that they forced people to access their news differently.
Pared to the bone newsrooms, with experience always the first to be pruned, has meant most titles I’ve seen recently were tomorrow’s fish and chip paper of rewritten press releases and awful reader content.
This is also the case for their digital presence. It’s woeful. Editors and news editors taking the easy option, and reporters simply taking their cue from them.
They talk about the intense competition that’s affecting sales. Yet their own digital output is basically a pale shadow of their print output for the most part.
And what competition? Yes, advertising revenues have tumbled because companies have found their own routes to the customer. But what about competition for news? If the local newspaper isn’t doing local news, I can’t find anyone else doing it.
I can tell you that I don’t get news about the area I live in anymore unless anything big and controversial and subject of press releases happens. It used to be the case that journalists were out and about, forging relationships with everyone – chairman of companies, shop floor officials, pub landlords (definitely pub landlords), community leaders, schools, clubs, traders…everyone.
In the pre-internet age the interface with the public, and thus readers, was immense. On the telephone or face to face. Now a reporter often writes a story without talking to anyone. And more’s the pity, because they could ask relevant questions rather than just accept the facts.
I was a journalist for 25 years. On big, quality regional titles. The emphasis was on quality and, I guess, the editors and news desk teams could be accused of ‘bullying’ in their relentless pursuit of excellence in story-gathering and writing.
I’m out of the game now. To be honest, I’m glad in many ways. I don’t think I could stand to work for some third-rate rag.
One former editor of mine told me he was against ‘exclusive’ tags on stories, ‘because I expect every page lead to be an exclusive’. But there aren’t enough reporters to go out and unearth the real gems. And the quality of writing suggests they wouldn’t recognise an exclusive. It’s a desk-bound industry compared to the glory days, which I caught the tail-end of.
I went for a job on a digital platform of a flagship regional title at the start of the year. They wanted someone to sit at a desk and rewrite press releases. I talked of exclusives and getting out there to find them, building relationships and making a positive difference. I couldn’t have been a squarer peg for that perfectly round hole.
It’s the easy route. Except with a lot of round pegs for square holes. I went for a job at a small local daily last year and the interview consisted of questions about how I would cope if a reporter refused to go out on a job. I came away with the distinct feeling that newspaper had a number of journalists who would never have survived a decade or so ago.
And the grasp of social media is dreadful. Twitter is a stream of stories that would never have made it on the billboards of yesteryear. ‘See who’s been in the courts’ is one, although from time to time it’s ‘see whose been in the courts’!
At least one land-locked Midlands daily delights in tweeting national or international news, too. Often an hour after it’s been tweeted by the national and international news organisations.
Technology has been a way of slashing staff and budgets for the newspaper moguls, intent on profit-making for the shareholders and to pay back the banks rather than readers.
Advertisers might run the rule over newspapers these days, a reverse of when print was king, but they’d be foolish to ignore a pool of would-be customers. If a paper increased its online readership, advertisers would have to take note.
Technology has not been kind.
Believe it or not, in the ‘good old days’ of multi-edition print deadlines we were more immediate.
I remember bashing out paragraphs on a typewriter, each one taken to the news editor, on a story that was breaking about rail closures. A bomb had been found at London Euston during the IRA terror campaign and it affected services up and down the West Coast Main Line and elsewhere. It took five or six minutes to type the 250 words. The edition was in my hands within the half hour.
Another time, in the days pre-mobile, the M1 had been closed off. Another suspected bomb. Out in the country with a photographer to get an amazing picture of the motorway with no car or lorry in sight. We hit deadline and got the news out. A mad dash, but we made it. Quicker than it would happen today. There aren’t the photographers working for the regionals, for one thing.
And it was a picture taken by a professional. Not a reader. Not on a mobile phone with ‘camera shake’.
Today, that story would probably have a picture taken by a ‘reader’ and messaged or emailed across. Or taken from someone’s Facebook or Twitter account. Pixelated rubbish. But cheap, mostly free, and manna from heaven to the newsroom teams.
I’m not bitter about being out of the game. Just immensely sad at the lack of quality, effort and care taken by an industry I still love dearly.

Running On Empty

Isn’t the body a remarkable piece of engineering?
It seems like only yesterday that I was struggling to break 25 minutes for the Coventry Parkrun – an average of five minutes per kilometre. Or, to put it into context, five minutes for every 1,000 metres, or a minute to cover 200 metres. Not that quick is it?
Actually, it was early May. For me, 13 Parkruns ago. Since then, I’ve broken my record a further four times, edging towards sub-23 minutes.
But when I first broke the 25 minute barrier, I was a heaving, sweaty mess, struggling for breath and fighting the urge to be sick. Today, I took a relaxing bimble around the course. I was part of the pack at the back, with no way through for the first kilometre or so.
My official time has yet to come through, but it was about 24 minutes, 23 seconds by my watch. About a minute slower than my best time yet.
When I crossed the finish line, without the usual sprint or increase in pace that I usually aim for, I was happy just to notch up another Parkrun. I was able to hold a conversation, although brief, with a volunteer and fellow runner and felt good. Good enough for another lap or two. And quicker runs, with that sprint down the final 200 or so metres, have been pretty much the same.
So, down the weeks since that first sub-25 minute finish, my body has adapted so it believes I can go faster. If my body thinks that, my mind will continue to do so.
While I’ll never be a good runner, I do enjoy the great spirit of Coventry Parkrun. People want you to do well, to achieve, but above all, to take part. It’s like a ‘family’ of sorts.
I’ve said in previous blogs that running has quite literally saved my life. And it continues to instil confidence that this 40-something isn’t quite over the hill. Not yet anyway.
I can’t help my nature. I’m competitive. Mostly with myself, always looking for improvement. Yet I marvel and admire the runners who turn up, week in, week out, just to be part of it. Who won’t be chasing a personal best, but will be content to be part of a great movement.
And I’m sure their bodies have felt the benefits, too.
Me? I’ve on my first anniversary as a Parkrunner in November. And another personal best.

Job Lot

At school I was lazy. But since leaving I’ve worked hard. Bloody hard.
These last 15 months have been difficult since I quit my role as a news editor for a paper abroad.
I became unemployed for the first time in my life. It was a bitter pill to swallow, especially the treatment I got at the hands of some JobCentre Plus jobsworths in Coventry and behind a computer.
Then I was lucky enough to get a zero hours job as a bin man. Some would argue it was a bit of a ‘come down’, but for me it was an opportunity to earn. An opportunity no-one else was offering me.
Nearly 12 months on that zero hours job, for all its pitfalls, has seen money in my pocket, an ability to pay towards my son’s upkeep, go and see him in North Cyprus and give me a sense of purpose.
Tomorrow, Friday, October 18, is my last day on zero hours.
From Tuesday, I am in full-time employment as a senior crew member. I’m delighted and humbled.
Except, some argue I deserve it.
There were six jobs for carriers, and one for senior crew. I did best in the interview -now there’s a first.
But since I started, my work ethic has shone through. I’ve had that confirmed by colleagues and requests for me to work on rounds by regular crews. There was a lot of temptation to ‘take it easy’ and drag out the working day to make more money. On task and finish, you rarely work a full day and therefore, rarely get a full day’s pay.
Any money was better than the £51 Jobcentre Plus staff said I should receive – despite paying taxes and National Insurance for more than 20 years.
I knuckled down and, just like in journalism and the army, never took shortcuts.
I feel that has paid dividends.
I’m still quite shocked, but delighted and humbled. The journey of those past 15 months, since I returned to the UK, has been interesting. Huge weight loss – from 18 and a half stone to 11 and a half; from a 52 inch waist to a 32. My running times in the local Parkrun have continued to improve, with 12 personal bests in 32 runs. The last PB in my last Parkrun.
I’m happier, healthier, fitter.
But I miss my son, who remains back in North Cyprus with his mum. They love it there and, although he was born in this country and is English, like his parents, knows precious little of the ‘old country’.
I’m fortunate to have enjoyed so many positive steps, however small at the time, but that is the biggest negative.
Except, I will be seeing him over Christmas. I’ve booked a three week holiday – and while I was still on zero hours and not hopeful of landing a full-time job.
Last Christmas, I struggled to pay for a train ticket to Norfolk to see him as he and his mum returned to the UK on family duties. I went hungry to ensure he had presents and also there were presents for him to give his mum. I got to see him for a day and a half.
This year, while I’m not flush, or rich, or anything like that, I won’t have to go hungry.
What a difference a year makes.

Cycle Of Life – And Death

I was, and hope to be again, a keen cyclist. Not like Sir Chris Hoy, or Chris Froome, or Sir Bradley Wiggins.
I cycled to and from work, to and from jobs and for getting from A to B more than leisure pursuits. At one point I was covering an average of 200 miles a week. Of course, at the same time I kept fit, so the benefits were considerable.
Yet I am starting to dislike other cyclists. This is purely based on what I’m seeing on a day to day basis.
I leave for work in the dark and there are cyclists pootling about in dark clothing and without lights on their bikes. Some of them on the road, some of them on the pavements. And among their number are those idiots who think it’s okay to run a red light at a busy junction.
That’s a regular problem with a lot of two-wheelers these days. They are impatient and seem to think they have a right to continue along a road when the lights have turned red – even for pedestrians crossing. Then there are those who will mount the pavement and cycle along the path to go round a red light. Woe betide any pedestrians in their way.
I know it’s dangerous cycling on the roads. I used to do it regularly and for a number of years. I’ll deal with motorists in a future blog, but the stupid antics of the self-propelled brigade are getting to me.
Here’s a couple of shocking examples:-

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cambridgeshire-24473905

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-24518094

And you’ll no doubt witness something similar in your town or city. I witnessed a cyclist racing the wrong way along a one-way street today. And two young men pedalling furiously along a pavement, seemingly oblivious to the young mum pushing a pram with a baby while her toddler tip-toed beside her.
When I were a lad, it was against the law to cycle on the pavement. Kids might get away with it, but adults? Not a chance. I know examples of police stopping cyclists and ordering them to ride on the road. I also witnessed police pull over cyclists who were riding in the dark without lights.
As with so many things in Britain today, change has not been for the best.
Apparently, I’m told, some clever lawyer challenged the rules of the road – pavement in this case – and now it is no longer an offence. Another example of sensible laws for all chipped away for the rights of the individual.
I’m not impressed by the standards of driving in Britain at the moment, but at least there is a test for most to sit before they drive or ride a motorbike or scooter. There’s no such test for cyclists. Maybe there ought to be. A minority of the current crop are getting the majority a bad name.