26 April 2005

Boring boring boring

It’s not easy writing something interesting about a subject as boring as a general election. But next week there will at least be one enchanting evening on the telly when the results pour in and Peter Snow will be playing with his swingometer and offering us more mathematics than we can possibly understand.

Voter apathy will be the big factor this time round.

Why are we so bored? We could I suppose nobly blame ourselves but let’s place it fairly and squarely on the politicians if only because they never accept the blame for anything. The root of the matter is that they have lost much of their credibility. Their bluff has been well and truly called.

Tony Blair showed great promise in his early days – and made great promises – and I am not too scornful that he did not deliver fully on some of them. But by taking us to war with Iraq – a subject skilfully avoided at the hustings – he carried off one of the great deceits of modern times. Since then he has produced weaselled re-interpretations of everything he earlier stated. He is now seen – not to put too fine a point on it – as something of a skilful and manipulative liar.

Yet Labour will get substantial backing from the electorate and may well win by a comfortable margin because, as we cross the floor of the house, we find Michael something-of-the-night Howard and we are not convinced that he has moved from his notorious right-wing positions of yesteryear. Ironically, as Home Secretary, he was largely responsible for the resentment that destroyed his own party. Many now see him as an actor (and not a very good one) rehearsing new lines in order to win back some power at all costs. And can we really believe he can achieve lower taxes while at the same time spending more money on public services?

I haven’t mentioned the Lib Dems. You’re right.

So to shake us out of our apathy, the fear factor is being applied; fear of the hidden terrorist for example, skilfully, and often shamelessly, aligned with non-whites in our midst. Decent hard-working people (that’s you and me) are certain to be mugged by unruly knife-carrying school children only to be picked up by a broken-down ambulance to a dirty hospital ward where we’ll all catch MRSA.

However, I shall toddle round to Crossgar Primary School on the big day and I shall cast my vote for one of my local candidates, glad that I live in a democracy. And sure of two things; that I have done my duty as a good citizen and that my vote will not make the slightest difference to what I have just been writing about.

19 April 2005

Doctor Which

Are you tuned in to the new Dr Who series? Are you captivated and frightened as you were as a child? Perhaps not.

Thanks to a previous incarnation when I rubbed shoulders with sundry celebrities, I knew Dr Who quite well. We met on earth I should emphasise.

I refer to that marvellous character actor (and marvellous character) Tom Baker, perhaps the most famous Dr Who of them all, he of the fedora and the excessively long woollen scarf.

I also met an earlier Dr Who – in fact I rescued him. Is there no end to this name-dropping?

I saw a distressed man thumbing a lift on a London fly-over, his little scooter having collapsed in a heap. I gave him the lift, at some risk to my own safety, only to discover that he was the actor Jon Pertwee.

Then there was the day I came across a storeroom full of Daleks in a film lot at Ealing, looking forlorn like discarded dodgems at a fun-fair. I hope I haven’t destroyed your illusions and ruined the whole new series for you.

Recently the Welsh First Minister Rhodri Morgan walked into a BBC building to do an interview and was mistaken for a Dr Who extra. Insiders allege he was painted green and given pointy ears before he realised that something might have gone wrong with the arrangements.

At least the Welsh actually have a first minister. Of course we have our very own Stormont ‘OFMDM’ – that’s the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister’ for those who haven’t been told. It may be that one of them at least is green all over and has pointy ears because, truth to tell, I don’t know who they are. Are they the two whose jobs were wound up at the last Assembly election or are they the theoretical replacements who, although not on speaking terms, jointly run a vast suite of offices?

And now we have the Really Big Election on 5th May. Nobody will give the Northern Ireland issue a split second of thought – unless they wish to lose. But our local candidates will speak of nothing else. I have a theory that, if any local green (or orange) pointy-eared candidates are seeking your votes, provided they belong to one of the main parties, they should all do very well.

So if you like the unreal world of Dr Who, and don’t mind being ruled by aliens, just stick with the present system and let the office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister remain one of life’s little mysteries.

12 April 2005

Unspeakable unmentionable dinners

In spite of its alleged power only occasionally does television change, or at least very slightly divert, and then perhaps only temporarily, the course of history.

Back in 1966 Cathy Come Home, a one-off television play, certainly put a dent in the authoritarian complacency of the welfare state. Cathy and Reg fall on hard times when Reg is injured at work. They begin a slide into poverty, debt and homelessness, until the authorities forcibly take Cathy's children away. It was only a piece of fiction, only the work of the imagination, but close enough to the real truth to create widespread concern about the horrors of poverty in an otherwise prosperous society.

In the 1980s there was a fly-on-the-wall documentary series based on the Thames Valley Police. One single episode led to sweeping changes in police procedures right across the country because it exposed, albeit unintentionally, the harsh interrogation of rape victims

In 1984 Michael Buerk’s devastating reports from Ethiopia had implications of international proportions and helped to create a new focus on the plight of Africa.

So what about the 27-year-old effervescent, minimally educated, effing and blinding Jamie Oliver – the naked chef?

His current Channel 4 series Jamie’s School Dinners has shamed the Government into promising to inject £280 million into the school meals system with the prospect of raising the disgraceful minimum of 37p per meal to 50p for every primary pupil. Our own South Eastern Education and Library Board is only allowed to spend 37p on primary schools, 40p on special schools and 55p on post-primary.

Jamie’s series would appear to demonstrate, for example, that more nutritious dinners – but not necessarily more expensive – produce noticeably better concentration and better behaviour in the classroom. Hardly firm scientific evidence, but worthy of note in the total absence of any serious research carried out by any authorities. The Secretary of State for Education, Ruth Kelly, admits that the minimal nutrition standards for school meals are out-of-date and inadequate. The new standards will not be introduced until next year at the earliest and there are no firm decisions about curbing junk food advertising directed towards children.

But we cannot simply blame ‘the authorities’. There has to be a huge revolution in the home and it’s hard to know where to start. Fast junk food is often a manifestation of deeper problems related to low incomes and the stress poverty imposes on over-tired, under-skilled, out-of-control mothers. Yet many more affluent homes constantly appease children with platefuls of – well Jamie has an extremely rude word to describe it.

But I wouldn’t wish to spice this article up unduly.

05 April 2005

That wedding

Back in 1953 there was a scramble to buy one of the new-fangled television sets so that a devoted population could see the coronation of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Head of State, Head of the Commonwealth, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Chief of the Armed Forces and Lord of Mann – to name but a few. Even in Ireland there was a mini-boom in retail sales.

Royal weddings have since been television spectaculars but I detect there won’t be quite the same excitement for this coming Friday’s royal event at the Windsor registry office. Mind you, there’s a range of commemorative tat already on the market – a silver coin cover, Charles and Camilla crockery of various kinds, tea towels and key rings; all in the best possible taste.

The scramble this time seems to be for the moral high ground. Two people getting together after two failed marriages (tut tut) brings out the best and the worst in High Church men. Should they publicly apologise for their adultery? To whom? To Andrew Parker-Bowles, long since remarried? To Diana, tragically killed along with her lover?

The real constitutional problem (so they say) is that the sovereign is the boss of the Church of England.

It was chiefly to cover Henry VIII’s adultery, bigamy and divorce that the monarch broke from Rome in 1534 to proclaim himself head of the church. Ironically, in 1521, Pope Leo had created him ‘Defender of the Faith’, grateful for his opposition to the reformer and father of Protestantism Martin Luther. Successive monarchs held on to both titles – unaware of a certain conflict of interest. We have the Latin abbreviation of that ambiguous claim emboldened on our coinage even today – FD (Fidei Defensor).

To remind Charles of his religious responsibility is therefore a bit fatuous. Indeed he stated some years ago that he would prefer to be a defender of all faiths. Good on you Charlie. I wish the religious fanatics would take the same view. Why should the Church of England have special privileges over the competition? Take a leaf out of the Irish constitution – ‘the State guarantees not to endow any religion’.

But forgive me if I shall not be glued to my television set on Friday, or if I don’t purchase any of the commemorative egg cups.

You must be in a minority Charles of about one in a million men who would prefer Camilla’s attractions to Diana’s. But it looks as if your royal marriage may actually work, and, not to put you under too much pressure, the future of the monarchy may depend on it.