Tuesday, 31 July 2007

What If King Harold Had Won The Battle of Hastings In 1066?

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘On Other Fields: Alternate Outcomes of the Middle Ages’ by Alexander Rooksmoor.  It is available for purchase on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/On-Other-Fields-Alternate-ebook/dp/B008LMT9WO/ref=sr_1_8?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1342436531&sr=1-8

UK readers might prefer to access it through: http://www.amazon.co.uk/On-Other-Fields-Alternate-ebook/dp/B008LMT9WO/ref=sr_1_9?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1342436579&sr=1-9

I Don't Love the 1970s

I have to apologise to non-UK readers as this posting views the 1970s from very much a British perspective. In many other countries I am sure the decade was quite a bit better. As I have noted in previous postings the British public lives in the past and having moved on from the 'good old days' of the 1950s, the 1970s seems to be the focus of nostalgia, in my mind, very wrongly. There were things going on across the world that made the 1970s less than rosy for many people. The Vietnam War did not finish until 1975. The Vietnamese had been fighting the Japanese from 1941-5 then the French until 1954, then the Americans 1965-73 before the Chinese then got a look in by invading in 1979. The Vietnamese in turn invaded Cambodia which had been under the control of Pol Pot since 1975. He carried out the murders of about 2 million Cambodians and an attempt to return the country to 'Year Zero'.

Afghanistan was invaded in 1979 by the USSR and Iran went from a royal dictatorship to a fundamentalist one in the same year. The Middle East which had been plagued by fighting from 1914 onwards saw another round of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1973; the Arab response to this was an oil embargo stronger than that imposed in 1967, then the more effective tool of simply quadrupling oil prices, which led to inflation across the World and the end of what is seen as the post-1945 economic boom. Chile's elected government was overthrown by American backed rebels and the President Allende was assassinated. Peru, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia, Ecuador all faced guerilla wars and dictatorhips, something which alsco came to Brazil and Argentina. South Africa remained under apartheid; a war which ran for more than a decade started in 1975 in Angola and similarly in Mozambique, in Uganda Idi Amin came to power in 1971 and lasted until 1979 instituting a horrific regime and leading to the ejection of Ugandan Asians; in the Central African Republic a similarly insane and brutal dictatorship under 'Emperor' Bokassa I ran 1972-9. In total 20 African states were under military dictatorship in the 1970s.

Once the USA had finally left Vietnam, maybe the 1970s appear reasonable for Americans, in the narrow window of detente in the Cold War and before AIDS began to bite. Even with inflation and even in the UK, in the 1970s there seemed to be some prosperity. Despite the petrol price increase 1975 saw the peak in car sales. Clothes were loose and jeans flared, partly stimulated by a glut in cotton production. Yet, even in the prosperity of which some of the world's citizens were benefiting from, there were concerns. There was the worry that we were going to run out of oil and yet no-one really commited to any other fuel. The French went ahead with nuclear power as did the British and Americans to a lesser extent. The accident at the USA's Three Mile Island nuclear station in 1979 was a foretaste of what would come from Chernobyl in the USSR in 1986.

So globally the World was in a mess. However, everyone these days seems to look through all of this to disco and glam rock. These were brash hedonistic cultures mixing fashion and music and a sexual freedom, if you were lucky. As with the 1960s when only a fraction of the population of any country, even in the West, let alone elsewhere, actually experienced the hippy movement, so in the 1970s. I suppose fashions such as flares, tanktops and platform shoes did penetrate to the high street, but you were hardly going to experience glam rock or disco culture to any meaningful level at a dingy local disco or nightclub. The UK in the 1970s and it had been since the 1830s onwards was dreary, drab and only functioning once in a while.

The closest reflection of this rather bitter side of the 1970s seems not to come in documentaries, but in the series. 'Life on Mars' which is about a 'time-travelling' policeman from 2006 who ends up stuck in 1973. The ugly bedsit where he lives and the threat from IRA bombs sums up the experience of the bulk of the UK population far more than renditions of 'Dancing Queen' or 'Ride a White Swan'. Not only were the 1970s drab, something that the brash acid colours of interior design could not conceal, but they were boring. As an aside, you can see two clear segments of the 1970s, probably pivoting around 1975 when the glam of the first half of the decade slowed down, worn out by its excesses and shaded into the lower key second half, for which the faeces-brown shade of Austin Allegro (I kid you not, see if you can find an image online of this appalling car) seemed to sum up the last five years of the decade and began to prepare us for the comfiness of 1980s domestic styles.

The 1970s were boring as the UK only had 3 television channels. These went off during the middle of the day and rarely stayed on as late as midnight. The viewing figures for popular shows topped 20 millon (i.e. about a third of the entire population) indicating how little there was to do. On Sundays no shops were open bar newsagents that closed at 12.30 and pubs which closed 15.00-19.00 and then again at 22.30. The prime entertainment on Sunday afternoon was to walk around towns of closed shops looking in estate agents' windows before coming home for a dreary serial, religious programmes and if you were lucky a nature programme. People turned up their colour televisions (not a universal luxury, many still watched in black & white) so red that blood looked like strawberry jam when it came out of a seal on one of these nature programmes. There were no home computers, music was on records or cassettes, both prone to damage. Music is a matter of choice, so if you like disco or funk or '70s soul or ska or punk or progressive rock or folk, all popular in the 1970s, fine, but in fact much of the music that the bulk of the population in the UK heard was very naff child stars like The Osmonds or Our Kid or singers like Dana and Gilbert O'Sullivan singing sickly sentimental stuff. Though children were given a freer rein to go to the park and run around and vandalise, they were no safer than they were today. The television schedule was filled with warnings to children about how they could be run over (graphically illustrated by a hammer smashing a peach), electrocuted on electricity pylons, drown in canals, drown in manure even, get run over by tractors, be abducted by strangers and so on.

Life in the 1970s was unhealthy. Now smoking is banned even in pubs in the UK. In the 1970s it happened everywhere: in cinemas, shops, on public transport (including underground trains until the Kings Cross station fire of 1987 which killed 31 people) even in the workplace. Everywhere you went in the 1970s stunk of tobacco smoke; cigarette advertising was everywhere. Dog faeces were not picked up in the way owners have to these days and walking down a suburban street was a real hazard; you were lucky if the dog had had a typical canine diet of the time and had white faeces, these were hard and did not squidge when trodden on - these days they eat better. In the shops nothing was sugar-free or contained bran, there was minimal indication of what it actually contained. Bread was snow white and chewy as rubber; cereals were jam packed with sugar and advertising to children was unregulated, no wonder tooth decay in children was so high. The quality of food and drink was appalling from disgusting UK made sherry to whipped up desserts full or artificial colours you had to put up with food that these days would turn your stomach. Driving was equally a danger. Wearing seatbelts was not compulsory and you could drive at 90mph (144kph) on motorways until 1974 in an era when no car had a crumple zone, ABS or airbags.

I have not mentioned the industrial action in the UK. The attempts by the Conservative government (1970-74) and the Labour government (1974-79) to reduce inflation by limiting pay claims led to rising industrial action. The most notable outcomes were in 1974 with the three-day week and in the so-called 'Winter of Discontent' of 1978/9. 1973 had already seen the reduction of motorway speed limits to 50mph (80kph) to conserve fuel and electricity was only made available for 3 days during the 5-day working week. This bumped up unemployment and left household subsisting on cold food and candles for many nights from January to March of that year and limits on industrial use of electricity for even longer. In December 1978 similar issues over pay arose leading to strikes by lorry drivers and local authority staff meaning that refuse was not collected and people were not buried. The cessation of many deliveries meant panic buying of things like sugar and flour, hiking inflation even more; also many petrol stations closed as they ran out of stocks. Railway workers, nurses also went on strike and the Army had to step in to provide emergency cover. The government did not use the powers under Acts passed in 1964, 1973 and 1976 which would have allowed it counter the strike. Though in 1948-9 the Labour government under Clement Attlee had been happy to declare states of emergency and Conservative Edward Heath did on a number of occasions 1972-4, the Labour prime minister in 1978-9, James Callaghan felt inhibited from doing so. The unrest ended in February 1979 but had wrecked Labour's chances of winning the forthcoming election, a 5% lead in the polls had turned into a 20% lag by February and the election in May 1979 brought the Conservatives to power until 1997. [For more on why I consequently don't love the 1980s, see a future posting].

Unrest was not limited to the industrial scene, though it was not until the early 1980s that the UK saw race riots on a scale not witnessed since the 1950s, the 1970s set out the groundwork with the rise of the National Front (NF) and thousands of incidents of racism (seemingly condoned by television comedies which often raised 'humour' from racial differences, especially the series 'Curry and Chips' [shown in 1969 and cancelled fortunately after only 6 episodes] and 'Love Thy Neighbour' [which shockingly ran 1972-6; 8 series]) affected people across the UK, not least the refugees escaping Idi Amin's horrific regime.

So next time suggests you attend a '70s party and dress up in glam or disco fashions, remember that that style was as much a fantasy for the people of the time as it is for you. Whilst the 2000s are not that wonderful, I am certainly totally unwilling to trade them to experience the 1970s.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Brown Begins To Slip

Well, I suppose expecting Brown and his gang to keep up the good news of decent policies for a whole month was a little much to expect. However, the announcement today of the construction of the two largest aircraft carriers Britain has ever owned and the extension of the right to detain people without charge from 28 days (which was iniquitous anyway) to 56 days, reveals that he is no different from his predecessors and cannot shake off the obsessions with war and authoritarian control of the state. If you cannot find sufficient evidence to charge someone within a week of holding them prisoner let alone a month or two months, what is the point in holding them. This policy smacks of the kind of 'protective custody' the Nazis use, i.e. putting people in concentration camps. I could tolerate arms expenditure on the grounds that it has created secure employment for a few thousand people in Portsmouth until 2016 but authoritarian detention policies which have no impact on crime or terrorism are simply unnecessary and show that, unfortunately, Brown shares much of Blair's perverse view of how we should be ruled.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Drop the Princess Obsession

While I can claim no credit as a child psychologist, I did train as a teacher in my youth and was a volunteer at a primary school in the 2000s (there were no male teachers and boys were seeing reading as something only girls and women did, so a number of men from my company were invited to come and read one lunchtime a week to show that men read) and now I sometimes take my housemate's son to primary school when it is raining, so I can claim some knowledge of schoolchildren. However, my posting today, though starting there spreads out into the adult world too. If you live in the UK you probably have noticed how pink everything is these days. When I was a boy, girls would sometimes wear pink, but also lots of other colours too, especially denim blue. These days they often turn out in pink shoes, dresses, tops, trousers and coats and quite often are dropped off by mothers driving pink cars (I must say shocking pink cars, a couple of which are in my neighbourhood and another passes me on the road each morning are slightly alarming). Okay, so pink is in. However, it is part of wider trend, one you can see emblazoned across the back windows of many cars not only these pink ones: 'little princess on board'. Some even have little tiaras fitted to their seats. The supermarkets are filled with stationery and lunch boxes and drinks holders all echoing this theme. I know parents are now afraid to let their children out of their sight and in the UK we are growing up with a generation who can do very little for themselves and are frightened of the real world, but this princess obsession goes further. By default it is saying that her parents are king and queen. I know people should be proud of themselves, but we also need to be grounded. There is nothing wrong with girls pretending to be princesses, but what we are seeing is overload. Why cannot she sometimes pretend to be an astronaut or a doctor or a warrior? The pricness overload also says to girls, that the only legitimate way for a woman to be is, as my housemate's son calls it 'a girly girl'. This is a very male chauvinist attitude towards women and is not a healthy one for boys to adopt. It is as if the whole feminist campaign going back to the 1900s and certainly since the 1970s has been overturned and the only role model for girls that is presented by the media and retail sectors and collaborated in by parents is as a pampered princess unable to act for herself, having her every whim fulfilled and only valued for her prettiness, no other attribute.

Now, you might say, it is just a phase and girls grow out of it. However, this is where the difficulties creep in. I have seen some of these 'little' princesses grow into women and yet their attitudes remain juvenile. They expected to get whatever they want just as they did when they were 5. They find it difficult to leave home and even when they do, the demand support, both financial and practical, from their families. They run up huge credit card bills and getting into vast debt is a common problem in the UK today. In 2006 over 90,000 people filed for personal bankruptcy and many more are in difficulty, partly because their parents never said 'no' or 'you have to wait until Christmas' or 'save up for it' or 'get a paper-round and earn the money for it'. Instead they say 'yes and do you want the rest of those in the series?' This pandering to every demand does not only have financial implications but physical ones too, 23% of UK women (and 25% of UK men) are now obese. Much of this is motivated by the consumer industry as women given this mindset make far better consumers than slim women who save and analyse what they really want rather than constantly being driven by fashions.

I remember clearly one example of a woman who grew out of all this princess merchandise into being a spoilt adult, sitting in her flat with her family buzzing around her as she commanded them to move items to her new flat. In the hours this took, she contributed absolutely nothing to the effort. Her parents were on hand to praise how skilful she was in selecting which commands to throw out. I had been brought in as a friend of her fiance's and someone with removals experience and I remember abandoning the task after about three hours when she complained that we had not hefted all the expensive furniture fast enough (despite the difficulty of very narrow doorways) and I remembered I was not being paid for this job and insults cost in my book. Having married my friend she decided she also wanted a lover to live in the house and imported him from South America. You might say that my friend should have left but as you know from these posts, getting a house, getting out a mortgage is very difficult in the UK so he is locked into a house with his separated wife and her lover who lives rent free while my friend pays the mortgage. This is where the princess obsession ends up. You might say 'good on her', but I would say she is not a strong woman, she is a parasite.

So before you go out and buy another item of pink clothing or a sign saying 'princess on board' for your daughter, niece or grand-daughter, think twice. Think about doing something that will enable her to be an independent, strong woman of the future who can handle money and know the true value of things both financially and in human terms. Start now and buy her some dungarees or a football or a book on amphibians. Ultimately she might turn her nose at not having her princess-side pandered to still more, but she will lead a better life as a consequence.

Friday, 20 July 2007

'La Mer' by Charles Trenet (1946)

This evening I was thinking about some of my favourite music to comment about on this blog and came to 'La Mer' by Charles Trenet, written by him in 1943 (apparently on train toilet paper) and recorded in 1946. I heard it first in 1995 when watching the movie 'Funny Bones' and, like so many people, was incredibly captivated by it. It certainly seemed so nostalgic and stirred up my memories of driving along the coast road between Calais and Boulogne in northern France, especially with my parents.  Trenet wrote it, however, while travelling along the Mediterranean coast, and the word 'etang' a salty pool or lagoon is particularly applicable in that part of France rather than the North.

The Channel coastline the song reminds me of there is very clean and has views across to England. Some of the towns, such as Le Touquet, seem to be trapped in a 'golden' era of holidaying, perhaps of 1937 when French workers first got the chance to have paid holidays (something Trenet celebrated in song). Looking on Wikipedia you can see that since 1971 'La Mer' has featured in one form or another in 15 movies.

Globally, the English version, 'Beyond the Sea', has been more successful (in English-speaking countries anyway) since Bobby Darin's hit in 1960; apparently over 400 singers have recorded it. The two songs have precisely the same tune but tonight I have read that in fact they are very different songs (though both having a maritime theme).  My French has never been good enough to identify the differences (and similarities) between the two versions, but I have now found both sets of lyrics and a translation of the French; the English translation is next to the French. Below I provide both sets for comparison and the vast differences are immediately visible.  Having the French words written down means I can sing along properly next time I am looking out across the sea from Cap Griz Nez.

This blog posting is very much for my benefit.  The simplicity of the lyrics does not do justice to the wistful then triumphant tune they are set to, well worth a listen when going on holiday or when you need cheering up:

La Mer

La mer (The sea)
a des reflets d'argent. (has silver reflections.)
La mer (The sea)
des reflets changeants (has changing reflections)
sous la pluie. (under the rain.)
La mer (The sea)
au ciel d'été confond (to the summer sky confuses)
ses blancs moutons (her white sheep)
avec les anges si purs (with angels so pure.)
La mer, bergère d'azur infinie. (The sea, shepherdess of infinite blue.)
Voyez! (See!)
Près des étangs (next to the pools)
ces grands roseaux mouillés. (those tall wet reeds.)
Voyez! (See!)
ces oiseaux blancs (those white birds)
et ces maisons rouillées. (and those rusty houses.)
La mer (The sea)
les a bercés (has rocked them)
le long des golfes clairs (along the clear gulfs)
et d'une chanson d'amour (and, with a love song,)
la mer (the sea)
a bercé mon cœur pour la vie. (has rocked my heart for life.)
 Keeping the same touching and stirring tune, these are the lyrics of the English-language version, 'Beyond the Sea' which is much less about nature and more about romance:

Beyond the Sea

Somewhere beyond the sea,
somewhere, waiting for me,
my lover stands on golden sands
and watches the ships that go sailing.
Somewhere beyond the sea,
she's there watching for me.
If I could fly like birds on high,
then straight to her arms I'd go sailing.
it's far beyond a star,
it's near beyond the Moon,
I know beyond a doubt
my heart will lead me there soon.
We'll meet beyond the shore,
we'll kiss just as before.
Happy we'll be, beyond the sea,
and never again I'll go sailing!

Brown & Co: So Far So Good

Well, it is 23 days since Gordon Brown became prime minister of the UK. Maybe it is a little early to talk of reviewing his progress so far, but I am going to start the ball rolling. As readers of this blog will know, I disliked Tony Blair. I had had suspicions of him as soon as he became leader of the Labour Party in 1994 and must say my suspicions and other bad things I had not been wary of, were confirmed by his long time in office. I think that we had the Blair Party, a populist party with a mild personality cult in power. I was cautious that with the departure of Tony Blair with bitter irony to be an envoy to promote peace in the Middle East, that anything would change. However, I must say that I have been very pleasantly surprised by Gordon Brown. He is not the saviour and time will come when he slips up. However, people tend to forget that politicians are people, nothing more. The best we can hope for is that we do not suffer from their policies and if we are lucky will actually have a safer life and prosper. I know there was the emphasis on Brown having to prove himself in his 'hundred days' (which interestingly will take us to 5th November, the anniversary of the attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605), but I have to say he and importantly his ministers have leapt at the task. It really exposes how bankrupt the last days (years?) of the Blair regime had been. All of the policies the Brown government has introduced could have come in under Blair. There have not been great changes in the last few months; the only major change has been a round of heavy flooding in northern England. The flaring up of terrorism was just another burst of something which has been happening regularly in the UK for over 35 years.

What would I point to in terms of good plans from the Brown government (I think we can actually call it a Labour government again as it is embracing values Labour members of the 20th century would recognise)? The indications that the UK will not be blindly beholden to the USA was immediately refreshing. Brown has visited the Chancellor of Germany and the President of France before he has gone to see the President of the USA. In speeches though these have been wrapped around with caveats, it now appears that the relationship with the USA is no longer seen as the one to which all others must bend. As in all diplomacy it has to be give and take. The USA and UK on and off have been on close terms since 1917, but these terms became unhealthily close from the basing of US nuclear cruise missiles in the UK in 1981 and the bombing of Libya by US aircraft from bases in the UK in 1986. The UK being sucked into the war against Iraq in 2003 seemed to cap off a situation in which the UK had to comply with US wishes without question and face the consequences. I doubt there was much ground for such behaviour in the Cold War era, and there certainly is none now. This is not to say we should break with the USA, but recognise that it is both unhealthy for US politics and for the UK's welfare if we obey without question. Brown is signalling that the UK is looking for wider and more diverse connections in the world.

Another area, which to some might smack of Old Labour (and I ask what is the problem with that) as we have had Very Old Conservatism (i.e. pre-Disraeli, pre-1860s) in force since 1979, is the policy to provide more affordable housing in the UK. I am comfortably well-off and yet even I have difficulty affording somewhere to live, so the 80% of the population on the national average salary or below, are finding it harder. Everyone talks about the break up of families and by implication of society as stemming from simply human behaviour, the 'must have it all' culture, without ever considering how many families are jammed into poor housing or are financially crippled by the rent or mortgage they have to pay and live in such uncertainty because landlords/ladies and letting agencies are free to bind them to long contracts and snatch their money and then simply kick them out. Rights for tenants are improving, but there remains a long way to go until the bulk of UK people have accommodation stability and affordable housing. In 1980 the Thatcher government introduced the 'right to buy' scheme which allowed council tenants to buy the houses and flats they occupied at about 50% discount. The idea was to create a lower middle class body of property-owners who would support the Conservative Party. It is estimated that since 1980 1.5 million out of 3.1 million council properties have been sold. Councils have been barred from building any more despite the rise in the population, the increase of people living on their own (to over 6 million) and a 676% increase in the cost of houses (compared to 261% rise for commercial and industrial property). Households have been growing at 200,000 per year and house building has only been 140-160,000 per year; excess demand is estimated to have increased house prices by 60% over what they would otherwise be if it had been met. A lot of people have had an interest in pumping up house prices but now they are out of the reach of most and in turn this has had an impact on rents too. Council houses (which housed up to 60% of the population of towns in Scotland in the 1970s) were a baseline that kept down extortionate rents and house prices and importantly allowed people to get their first home when they left their parents' place. This sector is generally missing. Housing associations are supposed to fill the role but do not have the capacity or scope or money to make sufficient an impact. So, I believe Brown's decision to allow the return of council housing will benefit a large swathe of the British population and help with things such as social break-up and in turn crime reduction (people with a vested interest in their community are less likely to attack it). Blair feared that such a policy would appear to 'Old Labour', but his fear meant he did not move to policies that would actually have ameliorated the issues he professed to wish to tackle.

Another area which I think the Brown government is introducing sensible, sober (if not overly spectacular - this was a problem of Blair his whole regime was about charisma and grabbing headlines) is about changing the laws on young drivers. A third of all road deaths are of people aged under 25. If you think that the other two-thinds are made up of people from 26-100+, you can see the imbalance. The suggestions are that you cannot take your test until you are 18 (rather than 17 as at present), you would have to study to drive for a year, drivers under 25 should not be permitted to have any alcohol in their blood stream (a policy that has worked in Germany; under Blair there was almost an automatic rejection of any approach which had been adopted in another EU state on principle) and they would be banned from carrying passengers at night for the first year after passing. These policies are directed at the most hazardous form of driving which is young people (and the women are as bad as the men) showing off to their friends on the way to a night out. None of these policies are earth-shattering, but they seem to show that issues have been thought about, other examples examined and a range of policies put forward. What was stopping Blair doing any of this? How many lives could have been saved if, say, these policies had been introduced in 2001? Of course, going and killing lots of Arabs was far more important for Blair.

I trust that these three policy areas will just be some among many we can expect by November. I just hope for the sake of the UK that Brown and his team can keep it up. There is certainly a more sober tone about Brown, the show-business glamour approach of Blair and his obsession with 'spinning' any story to show him in best light, seems to have faded very, very quickly. What angers me even more than ever about the wasted years of 1997-2007 is how much could have been done, not with elaborate initiatives or with huge expense, but with measured and tested thought. I think the shine of the Blair years which remains will soon be fading. The 'what if?' of Brown preceding Blair to the premiership in 1997 (as he could have done if internal politics had played out differently) will be a bitter one for many commentators and much of the British population for years to come.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Property in the UK 5c: The Beginning of the End or Just the End of the Beginning?

Well, in my long-running saga of our landlord's representative things become more bizarre. On the plus side we have found a house we like and have found out we can borrow enough money to buy it. However, the other-worldly behaviour of the landlord's representative continues. Now he says that we cannot leave the house we are renting early (because obviously the landlord would lose the rental income and be liable for council tax on the empty property) but we can stay no longer than the day before he exchanges contracts to sell the house. He feels he has been generous in offering us a two-week warning of the sale of the house (I guess rather than being hard on us and just telling us the day before). However, there is no indication of when the house will be sold, so we cannot plan anything.

At least now we can probably move to the house we are buying rather than having to put all our stuff in storage and stay in bed-and-breakfast accommodation while we looked for a house. The fastest we have been able to move in the past is about six weeks. Having to go through all the hoops and checks by letting agents and the various utility companies makes it harder to move faster in the UK, not even factoring in the time it takes to look for a house and apply to live in it.

The landlord's representative has now said he will not speak to us. He has been by-passing our letting agent who is supposed to handle these things and now has cut off communication because he is angry with us. Following the meeting he had with my housemate, we thought he was going to put our proposal (for some payment in return for breaking our contract which runs to January 2008) to the landlord, but apparently he thinks he never said that and is angry as we were supposed to be considering his offer (read threat - obey all my demands or face legal action) and ring two days later to confirm our acceptance of that.

We are actually now looking forward to getting a letter from his lawyers as we expect (maybe wrongly) that they will not be fantasists or work in a schizophrenic way and we can negotiate some deal with them, rather than simply being lectured by them the way the representative does (literally he will go on for 30-60 minutes about how his family is suffering [they own a £350,000 house, have an excellent job in Texas and so on], how his daughter-in-law is useless, how experienced he is, how he wants to treat us like family, but thinks we are behaving illegally and so on). The police say him sitting outside the house in his car and calling us repeatedly on the phone does not constitute harassment and cannot understand why everything is not covered by the contracts (well it is for us, but the representative feels he is not bound by them).

The worst situation for us is if we buy the house and still have to keep paying the rent on our house until January 2008, so we are seeking a deal now in which we can leave when we want and in return will let the representative put the house on the market, have people view it, etc. (even though in the contract we do not have to permit this until the end of December 2007). The representative keeps getting more and more estate agents to market the house so we get even more phonecalls coming in. We have had backing from estate agents and advisors on housing in the town that we are doing the right thing. However, one lawyers' firm we contacted said they never represent tenants only landlords.

The representative now wants to evict us but, of course, not so quickly that he will be liable for council tax. This mad system in which we are being compelled to stay in the house until the precise moment the landlord's representative decides we must leave, with no thought of how disruptive that is to our life, just re-emphasises how powerless we are even when we adhere to the law. In addition, he is going round estate agents and letting agents in the town literally lying that we have always been late with our rent, so making it harder for us to find a place anyway, and defaming us, knowing we lack the funds to challenge him in court (especially now that legal aid is only available for the poorest people). So, we are very much in limbo and with our reputation being hammered.

They wonder why the British labour force is so inflexible, well it is no suprise when you face such hassle and lose so much money just renting a house. My housemate and her son will have lived at 4 addresses in 2 years by the end of 2007 and we are not like Will Smith's character in 'The Pursuit of Happyness', I have a well-paid, established job and she runs her own successful business and yet we lack the power to stop ourselves being kicked from pillar to post as part of landlords' economic whims.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

What If The USA Had Not Entered The First World War?

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘In Other Trenches II: Further Alternate Outcomes of the First World War’ It is available for purchase on Amazon:

UK readers might prefer to access it through:

Australian readers can access it through:

What If, During The First World War, Mutinies In The French And British Armies Had Been More Extensive?

Thursday, 12 July 2007

What If Britain Had Not Entered The First World War?

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘In Other Trenches: Alternate Outcomes of the First World War’ It is available for purchase on Amazon:

UK readers might prefer to access it through:

Australian readers can access it through: http://www.amazon.com.au/In-Other-Trenches-Alternate-Outcomes-ebook/dp/B00ILVJ4C0/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1395342833&sr=1-1

What If The Schlieffen Plan Had Succeeded?

My views on this topic can be found in my e-book ‘Down Other Tracks: Alternate Outcomes of the 19th Century’ by Alexander Rooksmoor.  It is available for purchase on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Down-Other-Tracks-Alternate-ebook/dp/B0087QDK88/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1338820140&sr=8-1

UK readers might prefer to access it through: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Down-Other-Tracks-Alternate-ebook/dp/B0087QDK88/ref=sr_1_5?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1338820087&sr=1-5

Sunday, 8 July 2007

Property in the UK 5b: The Landlord's Representative Turns Up the Heat

Taking a break from the writing on counter-factuals in this post I return to probably what blogs are supposed to be about, day-to-day life. The ongoing saga of the problems with housing for me and mine continues. To recap, we have rented this house since February. We had to leave the previous one after only 16 months as that landlord split with his wife over Christmas 2006. Now, having been in this new house only 5 months we have been told we have to leave despite our 12-month contract.

The landlord has emigrated to the USA so he has appointed his father as his representative. With interest rates reaching 5.75% this month and set to rise further the £1400 (€2040; US$2800) the landlord pays on his mortgage each month is rising quickly. This man told us lots of lies trying in some way to get us to like him. The key one was that he would not put the property on the market until Monday 2nd July when he returned from the USA himself. In fact he put it on the market immediately, Monday 18th June. I was angered by his lie and my housemate who works from home would not accept people coming to view the house and disrupting her life. As she pointed out, in the contract it says we only have to permit this in the final month of our tenancy, i.e. January 2008. She certainly wanted to negotiate some kind of deal so we did not have people turning up at any time with the estate agent simply letting themselves in without warning. Of course to the landlord's representative this house is simply a business and we are an illegal obstacle to his plans whereas to us it is our home and we feel violated to be treated this way.

The landlord's representative has a major problem, his mind is in a fantasy world in which he owns 47 properties and used to be a lawyer and is somehow a nice man. Even the estate agents are irritated by his attitude. He clearly expected the house to be sold by the time he returned from the USA and us to have disappeared from his concerns. Even if we had been willing to leave without complaint, in my experience it takes a minimum of 4-5 weeks to move to a new property (you have to find a place, sign contracts with the new landlord, get credit checks, get a day when removal people can come, get a day off work, etc., etc.) but of course the landlord's representative sees this as none of his concern, we should simply have gone.

Right, so the landlord's representative's fantasy world where tenants disappear in a puff of smoke when they are no longer needed (we pay £1000 (€1460; US$2000) for this house, so have provided the landlord a good income) has run up against the real world. What is his reponse? To call my mobile 'phone eight times in two hours; to ring my housemate at 08.00 when she is trying to leave the house to take her son to school; to park his car outside our home and watch us go about our business. We want to negotiate with him, but he will provide not telephone numbers or contact details and will not keep the letting agent informed. Ourselves and even now people coming to the house, look up and down the street, uneasy to think he is watching them. He will not listen to what we are saying, that we need time to move, we need a reduction in rent or a lump sum to recompense us for being turfed out early and having our lives disrupted by people tramping round our home. He says we are breaking the law, that we have not kept up the house and garden properly (it has rained incessantly for three weeks in the UK, weedkiller is ineffective in such weather and they left the driveway not properly surfaced so weeds keep getting through) and that we have been late with our rent each month. We were tricked one month. My salary comes on different days each month sometimes as early as the 27th sometimes as late as the 31st so paying out on the 28th each month was sometimes hard. We were told that if we paid an additional £100 we could move it to the 1st of each month. We did exactly in line with what we were told and then were told we were late and should pay a £25 per day fine. We have gone back to the 28th but have lost the £100 and the landlord's representative has said we have been late every month, which is a lie, but the landlord's representative's fantasy world can only see as trying to cheat him at every turn, when in fact the landlord has tricked us out of an additional £100. A letter from the lawyer of the landlord has been promised outlining all that we have done wrong in the house and what legal steps are going to be taken against us.

The landlord's representative keeps talking at us and has never listened to what we have said. We are treated as if we have no rights and are even illegal in asking questions. He has said things blatantly like 'I will find a loophole to get you out'; 'I will do what I have to do', that latter one verging on sounding like a threat of violence. Even if we had rolled over to his demands immediately, he would have been dissatisfied as we could never have moved on in 2 weeks as he wants. We now feel under siege with him parked up outside the house and ringing at all times. My housemate has been made ill by the worry of all of this. She has an appointment on Monday on neutral ground with the letting agent as mediator, but given the landlord's representative's fantasies I fear her words will fall on deaf ears. The man is stupid because if he had not lied to us, and had listened to us, he could have avoided all this hassle and cost of lawyers, but clearly he loves to throw his weight around.

For us, the sense of powerlessness that I have been talking about for the last two months is again re-emphasised. We are a well-off household, with intelligence and good networks. If we still suffer such bullying, heaven help people in similar circumstances who are not blessed with these things.

I have just realised the date is 07/07/07, well I hope someone out there has had some luck today, if you have done, have one on me.

Monday, 2 July 2007

Brown's Golden Age?

Well, as regular readers of this blog will know, I have been waiting for the departure of Tony Blair from politics since 1994. His smug, authoritarian attitudes have made politics very unpleasant. I note that commentators from the right, notably Dan Atkinson and Larry Elliott's New Right volume, 'Fantasy Island' and from the left, are now savaging him without restraint. I may not subscribe to either view, but add my condemnation to the pile. The arrogance of the man to leave being an MP to become an envoy to a region where he has caused so many deaths is stunning even for Blair. As someone said of an IT manager at my company, 'he's a man who knows he's God'.

I was angered by David Cameron saying that the change of prime minister needs an election. He seems to forget that of the six times the prime minister has changed mid-term of parliament (1916 Liberals Asquith to Lloyd George; 1940 Conservatives Chamberlain to Churchill (though effectively a new coalition was formed); 1955 Conservatives Churchill to Eden; 1957 Eden to Macmillan; 1976 Labour Wilson to Callaghan; 1990 Conservatives Thatcher to Major) four of these have been Conservative premiers. If such a rule like that existed, heaven help us, we would have probably had both Thatcher and Blair, so alike in many ways, clinging on for another 2 years or so.

Right, that is enough pixels wasted on Blair. Let's turn to Gordon Brown. As you know, I am interested in 'what if?' history and it is curious to think what would have happened if rather than Brown backing Blair as leader of the Labour Party, the situation had been reversed and we would now see Brown stepping down after 10 years in office and Blair coming to the fore. I guess, Brown, unmarried and without children at the time of the 1997 election was seen as unsuitable in the family obsessed British society. He has picked up both along the way and all the better for him, no doubt. However, I hate to think we could never have a single or a gay prime minister in the future and that Blair has scorched the family requirements on the post.

Now, there is a lot of expectation of Brown. Like Blair he has a religious side, but it seems more restrained and he seems more able to separate state and religion in the way it should be in a modern society. For some Old Labourites, who have been clinging on through the years of a Blair party (see my earlier posting about how we have not had the Labour Party in power 1997-2007) see some hope in Brown. He might be the heir of John Smith (Labour leader 1992-4, held a similar position to Neil Kinnock as Labour leader as Brown did to Blair and was also Scottish and like Brown, looked like he could have been a bank manager), he might be the heir of more in the Labour Party's history. I doubt in 2017 I will be sitting here bemoaning the Brownite Party.

What is interesting is the clean sweep (almost) of ministers from the Blair Cabinet. Harriet Harman, the winner of the deputy leadership of the Labour Party has only become Leader of the House of Commons, there is no deputy prime minister to replace Prescott; there does not need to be. Partly that indicates the breadth of Brown's support across the party that he does not need someone from one side of it to be his deputy. I am glad to see Peter Hain and Hilary Benn (Environment) in the Cabinet, but there are some odd compilation roles, nothing of the Churchill 'overlord' or Edward Heath's 'super-ministries', more maybe reminiscent of the Department of the Enviroment, Regions and Transport that Prescott had under Blair. Hain gets Wales (though he was originally South African), Work and Pensions and Innovation, Universities & Skills (John Denham) and Defence & Scotland (Des Browne - at least he is Scottish). The Miliband brothers, (David as Foreign Secretary and Ed as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster) both being in the Cabinet seems somewhere between Victorian Cabinets with family members in them and the Kennedys. Alistair Darling as Chancellor of the Exchequer, from the days when he was Chief Secretary to the Treasury he seems to have been in waiting for the top Treasury post almost as long as Brown was for the leadership. Now we have a Home Office, shorn of its prison role which goes to the new Ministry of Justice under the pretty draconian Jack Straw, it has been felt safe to leave it to a woman, Jacqui Smith and I welcome that change; she of all the newcomers has been put immediately to the test by the terrorist attacks this week (assuming they were not staged by MI5 to emphasise to Brown that he must listen to them).

The one thing that does seem to have been overlooked is Brown effectively ending the SDP's history. He has used a 19th century phrase, 'Cabinet of All Talents' and brought in Lord Lester and Lady Williams, both former members of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) which was the right-wing of the Labour Party which broke away in 1983 arguing that Labour, in the face of the Thatcher government was becoming too left-wing. It worked in the so-called Alliance with the Liberals until 1988 when the parties merged to form the Liberal Democrat Party which we have today. Some see Brown, with his appeal to actual Liberal Democrats like Lord Ashdown (who would not join the government) and Lady Neuberger (who has joined) as seeking to locate Labour in the centre of politics. However, what people forget is that the Liberal Democrats are actually to the left of the current Labour Party, certainly the Blair Party. In addition Shirley Williams and Anthony Lester respectively were part of and advised the Labour government of 1974-9, so actually despite their sojourn into the SDP which was more anti-Thatcherite than Blair, are links to Labour's past. So as not to scare the business and financial sectors, that have been pretty good to Brown he has former head of the Confederation of British Industry, Digby Jones and has set up a Department of Business & Enterprise under John Hutton. Whilst it may appear that Brown is throwing open his arms wide, interestingly, his large tent has people that you would associate with traditional Labour values. Labour was never anti-capitalist, it sought until Blair got rid of Clause 4 in 1994, supported a mixed economy, which we re-nationalisation of parts of the railway system we may be moving back to. It liked to work with enlightened business people. Brown has cleverly 'spun' Old Labour again, and repackaged its traditional views for the 21st century at a time when they are probably most needed in the face of exploitative multi-nationals and the migration of jobs and the suppression of rights and welfare.

I am too cynical to really expect much from Brown. At best we have a prime minister whose manner I can stomach a little more easily. I would love to be surprised and to have the true revolution that 1997 so falsely promised. However, ten years from now, I suspect I will be bemoaning Brown's support of US foreign policy in invading some country and his inability to rein in avaricious utility companies, much as I would have done with Blair.

Computer: Let Me Be!

One irritant that I have not yet tackled is the hassle with computers which seem to think they know what I want better than I do myself. They are not my servant, rather they are like an annoying salesman camped out on my doorstep, who, whenever I happen to open my front door or even look out of my window bombard me with the latest products. Even in my house, they keep changing the channel on my TV and the decor on my walls, with the arrogant attitude that they know better.

Stopping with the analogy. Every time I switch on a computer, and on average, due to my work, I use three different machines in the average week, I have to wait for all the updates from the various companies to load in, plus the ones my own company feels I need. This means it can be 2-3 minutes before I can even start work. I cannot believe that there is that much new stuff every week that they have to take over my machine to load it in. Of course if I was not firewalled then there would be all the spam and the spyware and the adware and so on. In order of priority for access to my machine, I come last. As if this was not enough, when I come to close it down I have to wait sometimes fifteen minutes for it to do all the uploads. With a PC I walk away but with a laptop I have to keep it internet connected otherwise there will be twice as much stuff to wade through. If I happen not to use a computer for a couple of weeks, then it is 30 minutes plus. Why? Surely it is inefficient if each day I am losing 15 minutes' work watching a bar move across the screen.

On my home PC somehow I got an Adobe photo album tester. I have no idea how, but now I cannot rid my machine of it. Every time I log on it asks me if I want to buy it, I say no, but it still proceeds trying to search out photos on my machine and telling me my digital camera battery is low (I do not even have a digital camera) and so on. It tries again later too. For me, no means no, why can it not understand. My house mate's son who is almost 6 and can read a little, gets bewildered when midway through a game of 'Shrek' or 'Finding Nemo' the machine starts binging at him and sending up pop-ups even when he is logged in as his own identity. What is the point of asking him if he wants to upgrade the DVD player, he cannot even understand the words?

It does not stop when you are not even connected to the internet, software is just as bad. I write a lot, and yet even when I have corrected the spelling and grammar checker from US to UK spelling it still keeps interfering, putting in bullet points when I do not need them, telling me effectively that 'which' is not a proper word and you just try typing 'fora' as in the plural of 'forum' (for those of us who use proper plurals)! If I try to write a letter, it says do I need help - no I have been writing letters longer than even Microsoft has been in existence! It tries to put 'yours truly' at the end of the letter, even though in the UK that is a sarcastic phrase and 'yours faithfully' or 'yours sincerely' which it never offers me, are the correct ones. Every machine I have go through disabling all of these interruptions.

I understand that people often need help, but as in the classroom you should be able to ask for it when you need it. I hate my computer patronising me and trying to force words and a culture on me which I do not want. A computer should be about granting you freedom to compose and to explore as you choose, but instead we are driven to behave identically to each other, and coming from a non-US culture, in a way which jars with what I know and is correct for my 'locale'. Give me a computer that treats me like an adult.