25 October 2005

Irregular fries

On 5th September, in response to an urgent appeal from Louisiana, the Royal Air Force flew out half-a-million high-calorie British Army ration packs to the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Each pack contained 4,000 calories, sufficient for a ravenous young man on active service for a whole day and capable of sustaining anyone else for at least two. Thousands of ingenious little camping stoves were also despatched.

The Ministry of Defence proudly offered some packs to the media and the response was generally highly favourable.

'While the food is a long way from the gumbo, crawfish and Cajun-inspired Louisiana cuisine,' intoned a BBC reporter, 'it could be a lifesaver . . . . the military's backroom boys are more than a little proud of what they're shipping stateside'.

One sample pack featured some 'typically British dishes' such as corned beef hash, Lancashire hotpot and fruit dumplings in custard, as well as some more 'adventurous options' like tikka masala and spicy rigatoni.

On the breakfast menu there was bacon and beans (very British) sealed in a foil pouch, while luncheon was 'a slightly more delicate affair' – a tin of chicken and herb pâté and a packet of crackers.

Snacks included dried-fruit biscuits, boiled sweets and oatmeal blocks plus hot chocolate, orange and vegetable-stock drinks. Authentic Yorkie bars and chewing gum for treats.

The three-course dinner consisted of a starter of French onion soup (en sachet) followed by semi-scrumptious boil-in-the-bag curried lamb with basmati rice enlivened with natural yoghurt, coriander and ginger purée. Hot pepper sauce if you wish. The final course was fruit dumplings in custard.

Appreciation flowed from all over America.

'I just want everyone to know how appreciative I am that there are others in the world helping out all of the people in the devastated US Gulf Coast. My uncle lives on the coast in Mississippi and your gifts will help keep him going while they try to rebuild their community in Long Beach. Thank you.'

So what happened?

The rations arrived by plane in Arkansas and then started on the 355 miles journey to New Orleans.

Somewhere along the way the demon food inspectors enter the story. Flooding prevented them from getting to all the distribution points but they managed to intercept 357,000 of the packs and stopped them going any further. They were declared unfit for human consumption according to US law. An additional 33,000 meals from Germany, Russia, Spain and France suffered the same ignominious fate.

They are all in warehouses waiting for export elsewhere – forget that human consumption bit.

I could perhaps raise a number of issues at this point but I don't know where to start.

Let's just blame it on the British Army who might have had the good sense to send millions of Big Macs – with regular fries.

18 October 2005

Cut and run

In bygone days of yore, to borrow a much-sung phrase, a captain of a sailing ship, if occasion demanded a hasty retreat, might cut the anchor rope and allow the vessel to run with the wind.

Most of the Spanish Armada, anchored off Calais, cut and ran as the English fire ships approached. It was a disastrous move, though necessary in order to avoid even greater disaster.

Is it possible that the Coalition will cut and run from Iraq?

The more President Bush vehemently discounts the slightest possibility of such action – sentiments echoed by Midshipman Tony Blair – the greater its certainty must be. If it wasn't at the back of their minds they wouldn't be going on about it.

While Blair avoids discussing the war if he possibly can, Bush, even after two and a half years, knows it is more important than ever to continue to make a case for it. His speech a fortnight ago exposed less confidence in winning than a frenetic determination not to lose.

Two thousand US servicemen have died. The President warns of greater insurgency to come, so he is on course to sacrifice yet another thousand. Few Americans now believe that the 'cause' – whatever it was in the first place – justifies continued casualties. Note: the huge Iraqi death toll is not part of that particular debate. Even fewer Americans expect an eventual triumph.

If Bush – or his successor – does cut and run it will not be the first time that a President has done so.

During the Vietnam fiasco Richard Nixon promised he would neither abandon an ally nor be the first President to lose a war. He managed both. Cutting and running miraculously became 'peace with honour'.

President Reagan vowed not to withdraw from Lebanon following a massacre of 241 US marines. 'Are we to tell them their sacrifice was wasted?' he asked. Within three months he had changed his mind.

During the Somalia escapade – later heroically dramatised in the film 'Blackhawk Down' ­– President Clinton said: 'We face a choice. . . Do we invite the return of mass suffering or do we leave in a way that gives the Somalis a decent chance to survive?'

US forces returned home. Mass suffering remained.

Where would a Bush speech be without 'evil-doers'? They would appear to be everywhere, intent on building a 'totalitarian empire of global reach'. He reports that there have been ten major terrorist attempts against the West since 9/11. Oddly enough they went virtually unnoticed by the world's most vigilant media.

Bush and Blair probably share the same nightmare of metaphorical fire ships coming at them from all quarters. But they are too submerged in their own rhetoric to cut those anchor ropes.

I've a feeling their successors will do it first thing.

11 October 2005

Hearing is believing

There was this television advert for hearing aids that promised one of 5,000 samples absolutely free. 'Just ring this number . . . .'

I would emphasise that hearing is one of my last remaining faculties in reasonable order. Certain others are in serious decline while some have disappeared, never to return.

But I just happen to know that there's a whole industry out there flogging extremely expensive hearing aids which are no better than the ones supplied by the NHS.

So, in the interest of journalism at its most noble, I felt compelled to ring the said number. Turn up the senility factor I thought ever so gently, and perhaps ask the gentleman at the other end to repeat one or two things in slower motion – to whet the commercial appetite.

May I please have one of your free samples? Well no. That's not apparently how the offer works. How stupid of me to think otherwise.

However, noting my address on his computer, he would send me a brochure and a 'consultant' would then call at my home to advise if I needed one.

Without wishing to jump the gun, I had a feeling the consultant would recommend one that would suit my condition best. But (gosh I nearly forgot) there was that free sample still on offer.

Well actually no. You see it wasn't a sample of a real hearing aid that one could buy and have for keeps, rather the loan of a gadget with a non-renewable battery. With careful use it would last for about a week.

Perhaps I had this free sample offer all wrong. Nevertheless I considered it my duty to compose for you, my faithful readers, a diatribe, a philippic, an exposé, a condemnation, a rant sufficient to rock our entire county.

But then, recovering my composure, I arrived at Plan B, which was to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority.


Complaint upheld! Guilty as charged!

The Authority ruled that the ad breached the TV Advertising Standards Code rule 5.1 (misleading advertising) and even more nice comforting mumbo jumbo.

'The advertisement,' said the Authority, ' . . . was misleading for not making clear the conditions that were attached to requesting and receiving a free sample hearing aid. . . . We were concerned that some viewers, especially those who were elderly and vulnerable, could feel pressured to agree to a home visit they did not want.'

Drinks of steaming hot cocoa all round!

I'm so relieved that the Authority and I share the same sharpness of intellect, the same zeal to defend the weak and protect the innocent.

Tell the truth, I'm feeling rather pleased with myself this week – even more so than usual.

04 October 2005

Let's be happy

Yes, why not? The nice summer weather continued right through to September and, for some unknown reason, there was hardly a wasp in sight. We may have to pay up with some brass-monkey days next spring because most people, except the oil men, now believe there is actually such a thing as climate change.

But we mustn't foist our scientific conclusions on others.

One prominent member of the US Republican Party, Marion Gordon 'Pat' Robertson – who once aspired to be President and who traces his ancestry to the English throne – said that Hurricane Katrina was God’s way of expressing His anger following the selection of a certain lady to host this year’s Emmy Awards.

Ellen Degeneres is 'an avowed lesbian' and a native of New Orleans. 'Is it any surprise,' he said, 'that the Almighty chose to strike at Miss Degeneres' hometown?'

In case proof is required Robertson reminds us that 9/11 followed her last hosting of the event and that her media prominence also explains why insurgents have gained a foothold in Iraq.

Dear Ellen, on behalf of the Down Democrat, may I assure you that we do not hold you entirely responsible for such calamities. Yours sincerely, JH.

But let's be happy. Christmas lights are all set to twinkle and, provided we spend spend spend far beyond our credit card limits, the economic experts will be also be happy and will pronounce that the economy is 'buoyant'.

And then there are the heart-warming promises from the Party Conferences. Speak of buoyancy, they are all preparing themselves for victory at the next election. The common theme is: vote for us and there will be more of everything for everybody. Of course, they had one other thing in common – a leadership crisis – or rather, fervent denials that there were any such things.

It's simply not true that many Lib Dems think Charles Kennedy is a bit lazy. And what's all this nonsense about Tony and Gordon not getting on? It's quite wrong to conclude that Gordon is getting bladder-bursting desperate to move next door in Downing Street.

As I write I can only guess the outcome of the Tory power struggle. The smart money is on Ken Clarke. I think they will go for a real 'bloke' this time. A bloke is simply a man who gets on well with other blokes. Forget his lucrative connections with the carcinogenic tobacco industry. He'll run a blinder of a health service – at a fraction of the cost.

Actually I'm quite overcome by buoyancy myself. Readers of this column may perhaps detect from time to time my slight reservations about the ability of GW Bush to lead the world.

I'm so terribly glad it isn't Pat Robertson.