Friday, 17 February 2012

Top Ten: Costing the Country

Barely a week passes without the media breathlessly reporting a study that reveals how much a particular activity is 'costing the country'.
So for those who may have missed some of these stories, here's a quick run-down of some recent shock revelations, listed in no particular order.
By my calculation, there's over £160 billion being lost on these items alone, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Lord knows how big the British economy could really be.

1. Yob culture costs British business £9.8 billion a year - link

2. Black market tobacco costs Britain £2 billion a year in lost taxes - link

3. Alcohol abuse costs Britain £22 billion a year - link

4. Problem families cost Britain £9 billion a year - link

5. Inadequate aviation links may be costing Britain £1.2 billion a year - link

6. Depression costs the country £11 billion a year - link

7. Scrap metal thefts are costing the country £1 billion a year - link

8. ID fraud is costing Britain £1.7 billion a year - link

9. Post-Christmas blues cost British firms £93 billion a year - link

10. Failure to rehabilitate ex-offenders costs the country £10 billion a year - link

Monday, 13 February 2012

We Need to Talk about Kevin

I don't normally approve of old bands getting together again, let alone of them releasing new material as though we're interested in anything other than nostalgia.

But Dexys Midnight Runners are different. They released so little material - just three albums and a handful of non-album tracks - that anything would be welcome.

I first saw them back in 1980, supporting the Specials at the Lyceum, and saw them most recently a few years back for a reunion gig at the Festival Hall. And they're simply magnificent.

I've never experienced anything quite like that last gig - the sense of trepidation when the lights went down, as if the whole audience had stopped breathing so they could pray for Kevin Rowland, and then the sheer relief, the joy and the love, when he came on stage and was so evidently sane, sharp and on top of his game. And his image, dressed like a Marseilles sailor in the 1930s, was wondrous. Which is important, because this is Kevin Rowland we're talking about.

So I can't keep a huge grin from my face, as I hear the opening couple of minutes of the new Dexys album and realise that they still possess the kind of beauty that no one else gets near:

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Annus Horribilis

I've just signed a contract with Aurum Press for an e-book. Or possibly an e-essay - I'm not sure what the correct terminology is. It's a slightly odd format: a 25,000-word piece, too long for magazine publication, too short for a book, but perhaps just about right for download. In any event, I like the length of it: an hour or so's reading available for a couple of quid.

As the above rambling suggests, I have already pretty much written the piece, though it'll take another month or so before it's available. I'm hoping it'll be published in March to commemorate my fiftieth birthday. Because that's kind of what it's about: the political and cultural story of my generation, hinged on the 1992 general election and the impact that John Major's victory had.

Just to pay proper tribute: this originated in an entry in Dan Atkinson's blog on the Mail Online site last year. He noted the paucity of senior politicians born in the early 1960s, and my piece is an attempt to explain this phenomenon.

So there it will be. Annus Horribilis: The Lost Generation of 1992. Available in all good e-bookstores shortly.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Mr Wonderful Takes a Cruise - a review

Even for those with a passing interest in Westminster politics, John Nott is hardly the most evocative of names.

He's remembered as the defence secretary who resigned after Argentinian troops forcibly occupied the Falkland Islands, and for the interview with Robin Day in which he, quite reasonably, took exception to Day's pompous cynicism and walked out of the studio. And, er, that's about it, isn't it? A vague memory of an ascetic looking Thatcherite, perhaps?

Clearly I should have read his memoirs - Here Today, Gone Tomorrow - but I haven't. So I came to his book Mr Wonderful Takes a Cruise: The Adventures of an Old Age Pensioner (Ebury Press, 2004) with no real preconceptions. And it's an unadulterated joy.

Nott and his wife have decided to go on a cruise around the Norwegian fjords, so he resolves to brush up on his ballroom dancing and his bridge-playing, while simultaneously carrying out a study of the mores of modern Britain. He wanders around Shepherd's Bush Market, enjoys a lap dance in Spearmint Rhino and samples youthful enthusiasm in an evangelical church.

All of which is accompanied by a humane, tolerant commentary shot through with a level of ironic wit that I don't think I've ever encountered from a politician before. It's really very, very funny indeed. I particularly like his shocked response when told that if he takes Viagra and finds he has not reverted to a 'natural state' after four hours, he should go to his doctor: 'My God!' he replies. 'It would be highly embarrassing for a member of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council to walk to the surgery down Sloane Street in an engorged state.'

The cruise itself is something of a disappointment to Nott, but it does allow him to fantasise about his Viking roots (he insists that his surname derives from that of King Cnut) and about his forthcoming reclamation of the British throne. He'd like to stake his claim through peaceful mean, but is aware that force may yet be necessary, which provokes my favourite line in the book: 'With Erik Bloodaxe and Harald Hardrada in my pedigree, I have inherited a concealed talent for violence.'

And his conclusion, after two hundred pages of examining the state of the nation? 'The elderly must not become old Grundys, deploring the modern world, saying that the country is not what it was. It never has been. The world goes on its own way whether the old and critical approve of it or not.'

This is tremendous stuff. As entertaining and wise a book as I've read in a very long time.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Let Us Now Praise... Giles Radice

Since listing my favourite political diarists a couple of weeks ago, I've been reading Giles Radice's Diaries 1980-2001 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004). And they're really very good - certainly they would have featured in my top ten had I read them earlier.

I always had a lot of time for Radice, a Labour MP from the social democratic wing who didn't leave for the SDP, instead staying to fight his corner and to attempt the recapture of the party from the left. It all seems a terribly long time ago now, but Radice was then in his mid-forties and approaching his political prime - his departure would have been a serious blow to Labour.

As it was, he ploughed a very lonely furrow through much of the 1980s, resisting an attempted Militant takeover of his constituency party and holding fast to a set of beliefs that were deeply unfashionable.

Elected as an MP in 1973, he was still in the Commons twenty-one years later when Tony Blair became leader and began to implement many of the changes he had long argued for. His relentless espousal of European integration and his argument, in the Southern Discomfort pamphlets, that Labour had to start addressing affluent and aspirational voters in the south, as well as its core supporters in the north, were hugely - if quietly - influential.

In the Diaries he quotes Tony Blair telling him that he was 'a Blairite before Blair', which is probably about right, so long as one can separate Blairite revisionism from Blair the prime minister.

Radice never served in government, but he did play a significant role in developing the role of parliamentary committees. He also wrote the excellent Friends and Rivals (Little Brown, 2002), a triple biography of Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey, which is one of the great studies of the social democratic tendency within post-war Labour.

He describes himself as being 'uncharismatic', which is probably true. He is, however, something of an unsung hero. And he had a fabulous head of hair.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Quote for the Week 13

'Those who haven't come up with the answers before should stop attacking those who are producing solutions.'
- David Blunkett slaps down Roy Hattersley in 1995