Thursday, 17 October 2019

Absence…Projects & Distractions

I’ve not posted for some considerable time. There are multiple reasons for this – some dull, some more interesting. Firstly, throughout the spring and summer my house was having renovation work (that’s interesting for me, no doubt quite dull for others). When I did have spare time throughout that period it was invariably spent either decorating or catching up with other things. However, I have also been working on a couple of mini projects…

The first is a set of YouTube videos in a series called Gods and Flannelled Fools, charting the history of English test match cricket. The blog for this is available here:

There are currently ten episodes available (a pilot of the initial pre-test match history of the game and then the first nine actual episodes going from the first test match in 1877 through to the home series against the West Indies in 1963. There are probably another ten or so planned which I will record and produce as and when the time allows.

I’ve also been writing a few things for the first time in a while. Nothing that I necessarily plan to release, but nonetheless it’s interesting and a bit different. Aside from that, it’s all politics really and I cannot be bothered to pollute this blog with pages and pages charting the ineptitude of the political establishment when it comes to the management of Brexit over the past three years. Of course, all that could end in the next couple of weeks (though I suspect not). 

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

The morality of investment in our buildings

Much has been made in recent weeks of the various pledges to re-build and restore the shell of Notre Dame Cathedral following the devastating fire that tore through the building just before Easter. Within hours there were several vocal donations from billionaires to contribute to the restoration work and these were almost immediately castigated by large sections of society (not all of these dissenting voices were from the left, though of course most were) who were of the view that it was morally reprehensible to so quickly commit to sums of this magnitude towards a religious monument when there are so many homeless human beings who would be far worthier recipients of a cash injection. Of course, we do not know how much these wealthy benefactors give to human causes (not all charity bearers are virtue-signallers), so it would seem somewhat premature to condemn them on this charge – but still, one can appreciate the point at hand.

On a more micro level I heard a conversation on a radio station in which Jason Manford (yes I know – it wasn’t me who chose the station) recanted a story of having met a sales rep from a luxury wallpaper company during a recent holiday. In the midst of the chat, he had asked the rep – out of sheer curiosity – how much high end wallpaper cost and was staggered by the response. Apparently an average order for a medium sized lounge would be around fifteen thousand pounds. This prompted a phone-in discussion in which listeners were encouraged to voice their horror at how some people had so much wealth that they could fritter it away on such “mundane items” and how it was disgusting and so on and so forth.

It has always seemed strange to me that the those who criticise the investment in the finer things in life ignore the economic benefit that these products and services bring. After all, the sales rep who provided the basis for Jason Manford’s anecdote met him at the same holiday resort as his family in Portugal and sadly we can’t all make enough to pay for foreign family holidays on the back of radio presenter salaries. For every millionaire who pays for a luxury item, there is someone in a job receiving the money from this, though many conveniently choose to ignore this inconvenient truth. I suspect that they would rather the rich invested their money back into products and services however their personal tastes deem fit, rather than dumping it all in offshore tax havens; but there again that doesn’t generate as much superficial outrage when it comes to the 21st century narrative.

Leaving aside the economic argument, there is the equally – perhaps even greater – argument of the philosophy of things as opposed to people. Mankind has always sought to climb the hierarchy of needs beyond the level of mere hunter-gatherer and it is art and beauty that provides the framework in which this ascent can take place. Survival is all well and good and indeed is the thing that drives us out of bed in the morning but without something greater it is simply that – survival – and one reaches the point where it becomes rather pointless. Of course, in the Middle Ages, cathedrals such as Notre Dame were the cinemas, bowling alleys and nightclubs of the day: a central point of contemporary culture which brought everyone together in a place that no single individual would ever be able to visualize or indeed afford to build. Yes, religious worship was an ingrained part of society and yes, the myriad of modern entertainment did not exist and yes, most other elements of life were rather grim, but nonetheless the point remained: all members of society were drawn to these magnificent works of art for they represented the pinnacle of man’s aspiration to greater through art, craft and ultimately beauty. Nothing like this exists today; the municipal buildings of the 21st Century are constructed with speed and affordability in mind and often design is overshadowed by inclusivity and eco-friendliness. In the rare cases where money is spent, buildings often become white-elephants and this is ultimately because capitalism has won: we have an improved quality of life and the pound in our pocket is better spent in accordance with our own needs rather than via the stewardship of the state. John Smith no longer lives in a mud hut, but a modern home fitted out with all the latest comforts and the concrete-and-cladding paneled municipal buildings in his town centre don’t really float his boat in the same way that the stone wonders of the ancient, medieval and Renaissance ages did.

I am currently having an extension built on my house and this work is being undertaken by a wonderful builder who for the purposes of anonymity we shall call Bob. Bob has done work for us over a period of seven years, ranging from bathrooms refits to more complex home improvement projects. He is a highly (and I mean highly) skilled craftsman who, with the exception of plumbing and electrics, can undertake any area of building to a high level. As chance would have it, a different builder is constructing an orangery extension next door and they often engage in banter over the fence, partly to pass the time and partly out of curiosity and as a result of this ongoing interaction we know what they are constructing (and how) and vice versa. Last week, Bob said the following to me:

“Dan, there are two reasons I do this job. Firstly for the money, as I should have retired a couple of years ago (*this is true) and secondly for the craft and the satisfaction. To those mongrels next door it’s just a job and they’ll use the cheapest materials and bung it up any old how. To me it’s more than that – I’m building this to the standard I have for my own house.”

Let us turn our attention therefore to Bob’s own house. Ostensibly a simple end terrace, he has turned what initially was a ramshackle Victorian property into something that looks like a five star Mediterranean retreat with illuminated lawns, walled gardens, round walls and cutting edge technology. There are underwater cameras in his fish pond, a two-story double garage extension with snooker table, a curved granite patio – you name it, he’s got it. As far as terrace housing is concerned I can’t imagine anything finer. Why has he poured so much of his heart and soul into this building? Quite simply, his wife left him and within months of that he broke his back in a work accident – an incident from which he was lucky to make a full recovery. As a married man he gave everything to his family and was devastated when his wife left him and as a result he has changed his outlook on life. People no longer inspire his trust, but his home is just that, his home. It’s where he can be himself, relax and enjoy the things he has worked on away from the disappointment and mean-spirited society that surrounds him. Through the lens that Bob views the world I can fully understand why buildings mean more to him than people.

This of course is the microcosmic glance at the matter. Returning to the much larger theatre piece of Notre Damn, I reference the old quote, “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” 500 medieval trees were felled to create that wondrous spire and whilst I doubt whether precisely the same approach will be taken with the reconstruction work, it is important to remember that mankind aspires to more than survival. Our soul lies in art and creativity and if we cheapen or remove this then we are mere ants, scurrying around merely to exist and not to live.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Cultural Marxism: It began with the "Celebrity"

There is a growing list of people - in the interest of brevity we can refer to them as blue ticks as you’ll inevitably know what I mean - who I’m finding myself unfollowing on Twitter owing to their ridiculous views. In part, this goes back to last year when I was involved in a spat with an ex sportsman and incurred the wrath of his army of sycophantic followers. Since then, my detector systems have been on high alert and in the interest of maintaining my sanity, not to mention avoiding an inevitable war of words I more often than not choose to mute rather than engage.

Of course, the broader, more curious question, is why are the overwhelming majority of “celebrities” inclined to broadcast views that can be categorised as being leftist, authoritarian, woke, and generally promoting of their virtue at every given opportunity? The origins of this go back to the birth of the concept of celebrity back in the late nineties. Up to that point, anyone famous had (broadly speaking) earned their reputation by succeeding in a particular field. Whether sportspeople, newsreaders, musicians, games show hosts, actors or authors, they were famous for something and we recognised them within this context. Of course, this was pre-internet and social media which meant that, aside from the odd lifestyle magazine interview, autobiography or talk show interview, their private lives (including personal views) were just that - private. Now it’s true that there were some whose political views were known (Richard Burton was open about his socialist views back in the seventies) but they tended to be the exceptions and beyond this the detail remained relatively discrete. All this changed when Tony Blair was handed the keys to No. 10 and immediately dished out invitations to a host of left-leaning (note the clever tactical use of the word “leaning” to distance from the hard left) Brit Pack actors and pop stars to invoke a sense of his having his finger on the zeitgeist. From that moment onwards, famous people were first and foremost famous and we could therefore badge them as celebrities. It didn’t matter whether they had earned the badge of respect via their profession because they had essentially made it into the public eye and could legitimately have free reign to appear on any medium at any point without question. 

To solidify this new movement, extra foot soldiers were recruited via the medium of reality TV shows. Here, a new legion of celebrities were given their badge of endorsement simply by appearing on one of these programs and contributing to some cheap moment of outrage or “shock” in order to join the Beckhams and the Gallaghers in the VIP queue. By the early noughties it didn’t matter HOW you made it but IF you made it. Once you were part of the set you were a celebrity and your future income was guaranteed. Fast forward a decade and one of the perks of being a celebrity is that you have blue tick status on Twitter and Instagram, something that secures a high volume of followers and therefore a significant reach. You are (as cringeworthy as the term is) a genuine influencer and here to stay.

When I look at some of the people I typically follow on social media many are inevitably sports people who, owing to my age and the passing of time, have become ex-sports people. They’ve enjoyed fine careers by excelling at their particular discipline and have called time, ready to start a new chapter. Here, their fame offers up opportunities, more often than not in the media (I can think of a host of examples). They didn’t have to go through a university degree to achieve this or a selective sequence of job interviews - their agent just put them forward and they got a couple of opportunities to write articles, offer punditry or some guest commentary and that was it, they were in. Sometimes this is down to being talented, more often than not talent doesn’t come into it. They essentially have a high paid media job for life. They’ve made it. No longer are they a sportsperson. They are a celebrity: you’ll see them on tv, online, in print - their name is a brand and as we know, brand names can be rubber stamped upon almost anything in the interests of commercial gain. Now, there is one proviso: you can have all the benefits of a career for life in the media – the salary, the expenses, the fortunate, the fame, the commercial opportunities, the freebies, the lot – but you MUST tow the party line. That means NOTHING controversial, NOTHING off message and NOTHING that blocks the advance of the woke narrative. 

Here, it is worth pausing to consider the tactics of the left since the early nineties when, with the dialogue having been established between east and west (Gorbachev and Reagan) and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the economic argument for socialism and communism was well and truly defeated. Capitalism, for all its fault, had dragged up living standards for millions and prosperity had been created by making more people rich instead of more people poor. Having accepted defeat, those on the left turned their attentions to pushing through all the elements associated with the Marxist cause via the ostensible banner of “social justice.” Here, their chances were far greater, after all, the waves of change in the sixties had shown that when it came to things such as race equality and feminism, there was far greater appetite on the side of the big institutions in society to engage than with economics. Gradually then, the “woke agenda” began to find its way into the fabric of society – here in the UK it began with the BBC, where the curation of news and programming meant the phasing out of anything non-progressive and a new wave of “diverse” presenters and faces. The change in government also facilitated this – John Major was in complete favour of an authoritarian stance on government (let us cast our minds back that he refused to offer the British people a vote on the Maastricht Treaty and systematically distanced his government from the libertarian approach of his celebrated predecessor). By the time that Blair stormed to victory, the stage was set for more powers to be given to the European Union and for more laws to enter be passed, helping to fuel the notion that we are all too stupid to govern ourselves – we need lots of law, multiple layers of bureaucracy and far more of a gap between our vote and the end result. All of this contributed to the perfect framework for a torrent of progressive “justice” to flood into the governance of our society.

In the (nearly) three decades since Thatcher left office, the Labour Party cleverly repositioned itself as a “left of centre” party in order to regain economic credibility (and therefore power). The Conservative Party’s response to this was to try and win back the centre ground and by doing so stopped being conservative (thanks Cameron). Now the Labour Party has gone further back to its roots and yet the Conservative Party cannot bring itself to correctly reposition itself – you can blame May and Brandon Lewis with the way they have handled Brexit. As a result, a perfect vacuum has been created in order for the social justice movement to continue to flood through our institutions and drive the narrative accordingly. When Sky News, the BBC and Channel Four lead with these ridiculous stories about “cliff edge no deal Brexit scenarios,” transgender rights, the need to reduce the voting age, white privilege, how we need to give an amnesty to all illegal immigrants or anything else (the list is endless), you will IMEMDIATELY see an endless list of celebrities endorsing the case for these things. After all, most live in either central London in penthouse suites or luxury townhouses or alternatively in gated country pads and are therefore immune to the impact of these things – but more importantly it’s essentially an unwritten part of their contract: be woke and continue to signal your virtues and your career will flourish. You’ve got enough protection on your income to avoid any issues so fill your boots.

And so we naturally see Twitter alliances being created with these people and politicians who continually spout bollocks about prejudice where none exists (David Lammy and Less Phillips spring to mind), broadcasters fueled by Cultural Marxism (James O’Brien and Jon Snow spring to mind) and entertainers who no longer entertain but lecture (David Schneider and Frankie Boyle spring to mind). All of a sudden, the ex-rugby player who you follow because you want some insight on the game is frenetically retweeting all of these people and their timeline has turned into a political broadcast by the Authoritarian Bed Wetting Party. Of course, it’s easy to unfollow if you have some awareness of how this narrative is fueled, but for many who are completely politically na├»ve, it would be easy to forgive them for immediately ordering a subscription to the Economist and New Statesman before wrapping themselves up in Palestinian lanyards and rainbow flags.

The damage has long since been wreaked. It would be almost impossible to turn back the clocks on the celebrity culture. Indeed, when it comes to people entering the media right now, politics has almost become a central benchmark of qualification, with diversity second and talent a mere “nice-to-have” that languishes in the distant background. Look at the “comedians” on the BBC now: we have Dara O’Brien who in mocking the Brexit referendum tells us gleefully that independence isn’t important to the Irish like it is for the English (WTF was the War of Independence for then Mr Potato Head?), Nish Kumar who is desperate for all white people to be racist and pretty much the entire panel on the Last Leg who I get the impression would essentially like to go one step further and control what people actually think.

Their job is not to be funny (after you can’t be funny if so many topics are now off-limits in order to avoid offence) but to spread the message of social justice via “comedy” – i.e. by ridiculing anyone who might stand in the way of left wing, new-age liberalism. If you turn on any of the “entertainment programs” on these channels, the goal of the programmers is to ensure that the viewer is compelled to agree with the content and come to the conclusion that we need big government to control how we think, what we say and what we do to a microcosmic level of detail.

So in hindsight, Thatcher and Reagan’s defeat of socialism was a mere red herring. Had the war not been lost, the millennial generation might have been able to see its tangible failure for themselves and drawn a logical conclusion as to its merits. Instead, Marxyism has crept in through the backdoor and what’s more, the red army of celebrities are doing everything in their power to force this home. Perhaps if some of them stopped to think of the cost of their ego-driven agendas, we might have a chance of reverting the balance. 

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

“Castle Woodstock" – Lego Medieval Castle MOC

Last year I completed my second effort at a Lego Castle MOC and no sooner had I posted the pictures online I began picking away at its many imperfections. Yes it was big and impressive but in trying to make the thing tick the many boxes on my list I had essentially ensured that it didn’t really do anything REALLY well. 

Firstly, the overall engineering was flawed. The base was a single set of plates which were never stable enough with the weight of either of the section and then the hinge connecting the two parts in the rock was insufficient to keep the two parts together. Every time I took it from the shelf it broke apart and I ended up removing the hinge and simply pushing the two sections together. Then there was the overall style. On the one hand it looked like it wanted to be a medieval concentric castle from the front with its gatehouse but then there wasn’t enough room for the adjoining walls which mean it ended up a weird hybrid of a part keep, part Scottish tower house with all sorts of contradictory elements poking out! This in a sense was partly deliberate in order to satisfy my interest in different types of architecture, but in the end just watered down the overall effect. I think the triumph of the castle was the interior with the stable block, courtroom and chapel being really nice additions – though ultimately the exterior dimensions were compromised in order to fit all those bits in. 

“Castle Woodstock" – Lego Medieval Castle MOC

So with that in mind I ended up dismantling the entire thing and going back to the drawing board with a new Lego Castle MOC. I realized that I needed a far larger set of dimensions and in order to achieve this I would build the new castle in three separate parts, focusing initially on the dimensions for these to ensure that I could store them on my shelves separately but that they would piece together to form something that had enough scope to breathe a little more. I then set to work on the base sections and came up with the idea for using a “Lego brick sandwich” which essentially involves using a series of large plates with 2-berth bricks joining them together and then another layer of plates on top. This creates a nice solid base upon which the build can commence – the edges of these sections were then laced with Technic hole bricks to allow them to be connected together using pins (I also used these on the exterior so that future sections could easily be added at a later date). So let’s look at the three sections of Woodstock Castle in turn.

Woodstock Castle Gatehouse and Moat

The gatehouse itself is very similar to my previous Lego build. Having decided I wanted to stock with the medieval theme it made little sense to change a winning formula so I used the same style, but reduced the height for a number a reasons (combination of storage height on my shelves plus trying to create a better balance with the rest of the castle). The main difference in the new build is that I allowed for a proper moat and section of landscape at the forefront to give it a sense of setting and context. The greenery takes the form of a flowery meadow (it SUCKED up flower heads and green plates in the process!) with a winding cobbled path leading to the drawbridge. The moat itself has a blue plate base with clear tiles and round plates on top to give the impression of a babbling stream – this was pinched as an idea from countless browsing through images of Lego water features and I’ll come back to this shortly when discussing the waterfall.

Woodstock Castle Lego Gatehouse

The gatehouse itself is very similar to my previous Lego build. Having decided I wanted to stock with the medieval theme it made little sense to change a winning formula so I used the same style, but reduced the height for a number a reasons (combination of storage height on my shelves plus trying to create a better balance with the rest of the castle). The main difference in the new build is that I allowed for a proper moat and section of landscape at the forefront to give it a sense of setting and context. The greenery takes the form of a flowery meadow (it SUCKED up flower heads and green plates in the process!) with a winding cobbled path leading to the drawbridge. The moat itself has a blue plate base with clear tiles and round plates on top to give the impression of a babbling stream – this was pinched as an idea from countless browsing through images of Lego water features and I’ll come back to this shortly when discussing the waterfall.

Woodstock Castle Lego Gatehouse Rear View

The rear of the gatehouse is very simple as I wanted it to simply fix onto the town square without any fuss so the only feature is an overhanging blue and brown wooden room in the Tudor style which combines nicely with the other jetty-style timber-framed buildings.

Woodstock Castle Side Section and Waterfall

The side section was the first to be completed in its entirety and was also the most fun to build. I was keen to develop the rocky outcrop style on my previous build, but take this to the next level and this combined with the idea for a waterfall that would flow down into the moat. The key to this was planning – everything was about levels and I had to repeatedly disassemble bits to ensure that I could go back to the other two sections and ensure that the whole thing would work from every angle. Once the tiers were established, it was a case of building up the rock using sloped sections until the base of the rear tower was completed and the brickwork that joined the rock was all in place. The waterfall used a combination of the same clear tiles and clear round plates that the moat is built from, with the added extra of some 1x1 clear slopes to form the actually “fall.” I’m quite pleased with the finished effect!

Woodstock Castle Lego MOC Side Section with Waterfall

On the interior there is the clock tower, barrel stores then some steps to the rear tower in which I have once again employed a scribe inside the Lego Library with a chapel above. One feature of this new Lego castle MOC is that I have closed some of the rooms off as it was more or less impossible to open these up without a significant compromise tot eh build quality. That said, both the top of the black sloping clock tower and the top section of the rear tower are both removable to ensure it slid into my shelf! This involved adding flat tiles to the level at which space dictated I could build and then constructing the remaining parts with a protrusion so that they would slot in securely once the section was removed from the shelf. 

Woodstock Castle Lego MOC Side Section with Clockface

Woodstock Castle Main Section and Town Square

And so to the largest section. This in theory should have been the easiest because two sides essentially comprised of a town square (i.e. low-level, no building work required). However, in practice there were a few things that made this the toughest section. Firstly, I started to run out of bricks (thanks Bricklink for being there during times of crisis!). Secondly, the differential between the gatehouse and the entrance to the great hall was such that the levels really had to be manipulated to avoid a single step or unconvincing drop. Thirdly, I discovered that building the timber-framed overhangs was quite difficult whilst maintain the exterior stonework of the walls. 

Woodstock Castle Lego MOC Medieval Town Square with Timbered Buildings

On numerous occasions I had to take bits apart and work things backwards to try and accommodate the slope and the roofline which culminated in reaching the tricky final tower and great hall. The final effect was worthwhile however and I added the finishing touch of the jester entertaining the crowds in the square, overlooked by the Lego Edward of Woodstock (not sure if Edward the Black Prince has been depicted as a Lego minifigure before) and lion soldier standing guard on the steps flanked by two burning torches and an array of shields featuring various coat-of-arms.

Woodstock Castle Lego MOC Medieval Battlements Section

I also managed to get hold of an owl and a rat to add a dash of nature to proceedings (though the blacksmith doesn’t seem too happy about that).

Woodstock Castle Lego MOC Blacksmith and Armoury

Woodstock Castle Lego MOC Mounted Knight on Drawbridge

Woodstock Castle Lego MOC Jester in the Medieval Marketplace

Woodstock Castle Lego MOC Great Hall with Shields & Burning Torches

Woodstock Castle Lego MOC Overhanging Timbered Buildings

Woodstock Castle Lego MOC Edward the Black Prince Minifigure

Woodstock Castle Lego MOC Cobbled path through the meadow

So that’s Castle Woodstock, my Lego Medieval castle MOC for 2019, featuring Edward of Woostock and a garrison of soldiers and medieval marketplace. I think I’m generally happier with this one!

Monday, 11 March 2019

What’s it like begin the audience on BBCs Question Time?

What’s it like begin the audience on BBCs Question Time? Well the other day I found out. It came about via a note on a local Facebook group that my wife forwarded across, suggesting that I apply. Despite having a genuine interest in politics I've never really enjoyed Question Time as invariably it features either insipid politicians spouting platitudes, left-wing journalists or “celebrities” virtue-signaling about austerity, or failing that a partisan audience who are frothing at the chance to clap at the first aggressively-delivered sound bite that comes their way. But fine. It was in Dudley, which is not far from where I live and the application form took about two minutes to complete so I went for it. 

To my slight surprise I received an email from the BBC a couple of days later asking me to ring them to “discuss my two questions.” The program manager, a lady by the name of Alison Fuller, took my call and it quickly transpired that I had been selected to feature in the audience. 

A word then on the application process itself. Essentially you have to provide the usual personal details and then state who you typically vote for, whether or not you belong to a political party and whether you voted leave or remain in the 2016 referendum. When stating my two questions over the phone I was informed that they needed to be short, to the point and designed to fire up passionate debate without any unnecessary preamble. 

So then to the day of the program. I reached Dudley Town Hall at 6, queued in the freezing drizzle for five minutes and then made my way through the security and registration process (you need to ensure you don’t bring weapons in but you do remember your passport or driving license). I was handed two cards, rather like at a polling station, and told to write my two questions down along with my name and occupation. These were then handed in to be reviewed - they select the four or five questions prior to filming. We then had to wait for twenty minutes or so before Fiona Bruce suddenly appeared to give a “prep talk” on the program and what they expected of a Question Time audience. 

I have to say at this point that it was the experience of being part of a television program rather than the program itself that was the interesting thing and to see how someone like Fiona Bruce can just turn up in a new location in front of a hundred or so people she has never met and talk so freely and openly about what is going to happen and what to expect was impressive to say the least. We were informed that we would head down to the studio at around 7.15pm and that filming would start just after 8.30pm.

My mistake at this point was to remain in a seat at the rear of the waiting room and not get up and “hover” as 7.15pm approached because I ended up being stuck towards the rear of the queue as we filed down the stairs and into the studio. They fill up from the front and so by the time I reached the seats I was directed into a position at the far corner, the farthest from the introduction shot and completely out of the main frame of the audience cam. So my advice if you want to be at the forefront of the action is to get to your feet a few minutes before they take you to the studio and ensure you’re somewhere towards the front of the queue!

Once we were seated, the floor manager announced himself and basically took over for the next hour or so, keeping us under instruction but at the same time doing his best to engage and entertain the audience. They chose five volunteers to sit in the panel so that a faux debate could be started in order to warm everyone up and test the sound levels. This was on the one hand rather tedious (listening to five nobodies give their opinion) yet did provide some insight into how these sorts of programs are put together. What did occur to me fairly quickly was that I was surrounded by quick a few people who were unlikely to share my opinions should I get to air my thoughts later in the evening. There was a typical teenager to my right (I suspect his Palestinian lanyard had been hidden in his jeans pocket), some anti-austerity types in front of me and a couple of gobby teachers behind who had a highly irritating habit of clapping loudly and aggressively when they agreed with something as if to hammer home the point that they were undoubted morons. The topic of this “fake” debate was childhood obesity and who was to blame and, though I couldn’t really be bothered to engage at this stage in proceedings, it was alarming to sense just how many people were determined that the government had a responsibility for so much of their decision-making. The one man who suggested that he shouldn’t have to pay more tax just to help out a “load of salad dodgers” was roundly booed and heckled, whilst one woman in front of me came out with the most ludicrous comment possible. She claimed that she had enjoyed the taste of Caramel SomethingOrOther coffees at Starbucks for years but only recently discovered that they contain 11 spoons of sugar and how outrageous that was and that the government should make them put that on the side of the cup as that would have made her think twice. The fact that a forty or perhaps fifty-year-old woman hasn’t managed to sync her taste buds with her brain cells and put two-and-two together in order to figure out that perhaps the “lovely” sweet taste is down to the sugar content and moreover that the inclusion of the word “caramel” might suggest the sort of beverage that top athletes would typically avoid paints rather a bleak picture for the state of our society.

Losing the will to live...

Anyway, after an hour, Fiona Bruce appeared to rescue us from this meandering garbage and continued from where she left off, picking up everyone’s energy and explaining what was about to take place. Four or five people were called out whose questions had been selected (alas not me) and whilst they were taken to one side to be prepped by the floor manager, Fiona explained that Margaret Beckett had been stuck in traffic and would be a few minutes late – in the meantime the four other panelists were introduced and took their seats. These were Owen Jones (left wing media journalist), Iain Martin (centre-right media journalist), Javed Khan (charity leader) and Dominic Raab (Tory MP – ex Brexit Minister). As they settled in, Fiona took the opportunity to quickly film the introduction to the program, before taking a non-broadcast question to get things going (something about the hapless Christ Grayling from memory). A few minutes later the tiny figure of Margaret Beckett arrived and we were ready to go.

At this point, it is fair to say that there were a few nerves and a tentative, collective intake of breath as people realized they were about to be filmed for the next hour on a program that would air within the same evening. I was positioned just behind the lady who would be reading out the very first question and so tried to hold my pose (I don’t even know what a television pose is but it didn’t prevent me from trying) – yet I would later discover that the angle of the camera excluded me from view. This is both a good and bad part of being in a television audience in a debate: whilst you never know when you will be in shot, it does mean that you relax a little, after all it is impossible to stress about being in view for that length of time (unless of course you know you have been chosen to ask a question). The debate began with a question on knife crime before moving inevitably to Brexit (I had submitted questions on both of these topics). As the debate meandered on, all of my typical annoyances with the program came to the fore – for instance Owen Jones is as petulant and child-like off camera as he is on camera, his delivery manner over-exaggerated for effect and his every comment leading inevitably back to his common theme of austerity, Corbyn-worship and socialism. Just as I found myself wanting to throw a brick at his head, he then gave a cheeky little grin to one of the crew members and I’m then overcome with remorse: how dare I allow myself to grow incensed at his gibberish when this is a small boy we’re talking about? He shouldn’t be on a program like this, but at home with his mother. Bless him. Beyond Jones, it is (as it often is) the case that most of the stupidity comes from the audience, typically from certain young woman of the shawl-wearing variety who seem intent on the fact that the police are racist and untrustworthy, Brexit is a bad thing, the government needs to put taxes up and spend way more (in fact they need to fund anything they are asked to fund) etc…etc. As the debate became heated during the Brexit question (specifically on the likelihood that no deal would not growing unlikely) I took the plunge and raised my hand in the air, deciding that the time had come to take Margaret Beckett down a peg or two.

Now, here’s the interesting thing. I typically don’t have a problem speaking in front of an audience. I wouldn’t say I love doing it or that I thrive on it, but I’m okay with it. Here, though, was a mixed audience – many of whom were not necessarily sympathetic to my general philosophy of low-government, small state, libertarian, anti-EU aspirations. Moreover, I had been sat on my now-numb backside for nearly two hours under the heat of studio lights and my mouth was dry. Then there was the small matter of being televised to an audience of millions (whoever missed the airing later that evening would be able to catch up on iPlayer – and perhaps a few thousand clips splashed across Twitter and YouTube over the coming days). As I held my aching arm in the air I then realized with a sudden dash of panic that I hadn’t actually formulated the wording of my question. This is quite an important consideration if you are ever contemplating joining a Question Time audience in the future. In the general course of my existence I ask quite a few questions and certainly make a number of points, but at no point am I ever placed on the spotlight to the extend where I have to mentally prepare then rehearse my actual phrasing. The gist of my point appears in my head and my mouth tends to do a decent job of articulating. Now, I’m no Rumpole of the Bailey and when I have an off-day I’m sure I’m capable of fluffing my lines, but even when garbling, I’m still able to deliver because, let’s face it, I’m hardly ever thrust into the sort of environment where this sort of thing really matters. And yet, here I was stuck to the rear of a crowd of strangers, being recorded by the BBC, about to make a point to one of the most recognised politicians of the past couple of decades.

Shit,” I thought. “What am I actually going to say?”

The gist of it was this – why can’t MPs still realise that had the starting point for negotiations with the EU been no deal (i.e. we’re going to walk away) and we had actually begun to prepare for that scenario then the likelihood of having been offered something way better from the EU would have increased – in the same way that you’ll only get a decent offer on a car if the dealership know you might not buy at all. At this late hour in the day to take it off the table altogether shows a complete lack of competence from so many of our elected representatives.

Instinctively, I had glimpsed a vision of delivering this to rapturous applause, with Margaret Beckett looking furious and Owen Jones looking sullen, then looking forward to days of my triumphant comment being shared across social media (I might even get an invite to go shooting with James Delingpole or perhaps an interview with the Spectator). In reality though, as I switched arms due to cramp, I realized that the greater likelihood lay in my ballsing my delivery up completely and becoming a laughing stock. Perhaps I’d get the deal / no deal wording the wrong way around, develop a spontaneous stammer, lose my voice or generally just mess up spectacularly. Or maybe I’d make my pointy adequately but to no applause, then to be shared online not by joyous Brexiteers but by the sneering remain class, the James O’Brien-loving FBPE po-faced offence-architects who would feast on my failure like a hoard of crazed Dementors.

Let me have a turn you b@stards!

As Fiona Bruce gave each panelist in turn an opportunity to speak, oscillating their voices with contributions from the audience I continued to keep my arm raised, trying to catch her attention, whilst trying to keep tabs on the exchange in case the wind was taken out of my sails, all the while trying to formulate my precise words. Alas, after several more audience points (including a couple of utterly vacuous offerings from another shawl-wearer and her friend the “woke” lefty social-justice warrior in the back row, the topic was moved on and my moment passed, somewhat to my relief.

The hour passed very quickly and when everything was finally wrapped up we simply had to wait in our seats for five minutes or so during which time the crew checked that nothing had to be re-recorded, then we were free to go. It was, as I say, an experience and I would recommend it purely for the insight into how these things are put together. If you are thinking of applying for a future program and want to speak then perhaps my advice will be of use, regardless of your political viewpoint. But I think I might continue to give Question Time a miss for the time being. 

Thursday, 7 February 2019

How to break the closed shop of exotic pursuits

James Delingpole recently wrote a piece in The Spectator magazine concerning his efforts at joining the country set, in which he describes having made some positive inroads in his quest to gain acceptance into the spectrum of countryside pursuits, not to mention the peripheral benefits that this status brings. Whilst Delingpole is much older than me and I suspect started on his journey from a considerably higher platform, I can empathise with his predicament. There is a magical lure to the ways of the countryside and an intoxicating aura about the countryside set, but the main reason for these exotic scents being so potent is because they are so damned inaccessible.

Want a tweed jacket? Easy, you can buy tweed-styled blazers at most formal clothing high street retail stores. Want a proper tweed jacket? I.e. one with a thick woolen density and proper cut? Your options are slashed to a handful of hideously expensive stores, usually located in West London, Bath or Harrogate.

Keen to try a new pastime? Fishing and shooting are not quite as accessible as other sports. You typically need some sort of lead to pursue and even something as relatively straightforward as fishing isn’t as straightforward as joining a club. Whilst you can certainly procure a license and toddle down to your local canal or fishing pool, some degree of coaching is required and this invariably involves knowing someone. 

Shooting game was until recently almost a complete closed shop and even now it costs a fortune for a common pleb to join an organized shoot. Clay pigeon shooting is of course readily accessible as a form of corporate entertainment or stag party; however, if you actually want to pursue it as a hobby, matters are somewhat trickier. A few weeks ago I took an early morning drive one Sunday to a remote farm not far from where I lived from which a dedicated Clay Pigeon shooting station is run. I had discovered that they offered a “have a go” stand so I parked up to find the field packed with cars and vans and an army of shooters making their way up to the building where the chaps runs the thing. I’ve never seen so many people in such an isolated place.

Despite being one of only three novices, I had a coaching session (shot quite a few clays much to my delight) then went for a walk around the stands, ruminating on how exactly all these people made the transition to “having a go” to owning a gun and becoming fully-fledged members of the club. I’m now contemplating going back on a few occasions, ostensibly to improve my skills but mainly to try and fathom how this shift takes place. To own a gun, one needs to obtain a firearms and shotgun licence but to justify the expense of firstly applying for this and then investing in a decent shotgun, one has to have access to a gun club or organized shoot. It’s a Catch 22 situation that genuinely makes me curious – and of course when it comes to shooting game that’s another level removed, something I will come back to in due course (though I still harbor the vague aspiration to one day attend a shooting holiday in the Highlands).

Fishing is next on the list and I have something in the diary in April to try this out. Rather like shooting, the entry-end of the fishing experience (dangling a clothes line and catching an old boot in the cut) is somewhat more accessible than the more aspirational end and I dare say that if I aspire to travelling to an Irish hideaway location for personal salmon fishing coaching with Mike Daunt, I might be waiting slightly longer.

Anything is possible though if you dare to dream. As an optimist, I’m of the view that if I turn up to enough places wearing my flat cap and country-attire then I’ll be in with the landed gentry, drinking single malt whiskey from a custom hamper out the back of an L322 Range Rover in no time. Or at least before I’m fifty.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Peppa Pig and (the elusive) Signor Stag

My children enjoy Peppa Pig and so do I. It is an easy cartoon to watch, there are enough episodes to ensure the same story is not repeated (all parents will vouch for this) and most importantly it seems to have (so far) escaped the tedious tendency for children’s programs to become politically-correct virtue-signaling exercises. If the television must be on and if it must be a children's program, then one can do much worse than Peppa Pig.

By consequence they posses a number of Peppa Pig toys and games, including a variation on the “Guess Who” game in which two players have to choose a character and then be the first to guess the identity of their opponent’s choice by asking a series of questions designed to eliminate the various options. Whenever I have played this game with my daughters I almost always go for one of the less obvious characters – so rather than Peppa, George or Daddy Pig this means Mr Bull or Mr Rhino or, on occasions, Signor Stag.

Here he is on the Guess Who Game:

Signor Stag, Peppa Pig Guess Who Game

Now, we know that Mr Bull is a binman who appears in the odd episode here and there, sometimes making a general racket early in the morning and waking everyone up, sometimes doing some construction work. We also know that Mr Rhino works for him. But Signor Stag? Who is he? There is literally no sign of him anywhere and the more times we have played the game the greater our curiosity becomes.

Emilia always claimed that she had seen Signor Stag during an early episode, but we took that with a pinch of salt because series one was unavailable on Netflix at the time and she couldn’t expand on what he was actually doing or any other detail. All of a sudden last week, however, after months of fruitless searching, she came running out of the playroom, shouting with joy and triumph that she had found him.

“Come and look, I’ve found Signor Stag!!!!”

Naturally I raced in and watched what I hoped would be a long and rewarding section of storyline to finally feature this mysterious character. What I saw however, was a clip of several seconds in which Signor Stag (a slightly hapless Italian with a spivy moustache) loans a car to Peppa Pig’s family. He only had a couple of lines, struggling to comprehend the family's request to hire a car (which is odd given that he runs a car hire shop - what else would they be requesting?), uttering “auto” and then “broom broom, peep peep,” before disappearing. We replayed it several times – Emilia found the whole thing (mainly his accent and odd demeanor) highly amusing.

Signor Stag's only known television appearance:

Signor Stag, only Peppa Pig episode we can find

Signor Stag, only Peppa Pig episode up close

Well, at least we’ve seen him. Once. Briefly.

The weird thing is that he doesn’t appear to be listed on any of the character lists for Peppa Pig, nor on any comprehensive Google searches, nor anywhere. And yet he does appear in an episode and he is a character in the Guess Who game. So why is Signor Stag so elusive?

Naturally, Emilia has sent an email to the Peppa Pig website asking for more information on him and for him to appear in another episode. We are nothing if not persistent, so we shall see…