Category Archives: Morality

Going, going nearly gone

It’s nearly gone. The sky can be seen, and clear light is in the area. The views are changed. Way over in Hammersmith, the Novotel is visible from West Brompton station.

Earls Court is almost down, and with it our hopes of ever seeing this part of London look as it does are down, too.

With them, all of them, goes part of our identity. It’ll soon be the case that it won’t be enough to say to anyone from abroad that one lives in or near Earls Court, to explain whereabouts one comes from in London – ‘in London’ meaning anywhere from Harrow to Hayes or from Woodford to Weybridge. Too many times one will have to answer something other than simply “London” when one is asked where one’s from. Before too much longer, the understood rider of “Earls Court” will mean nothing at all.

Of course, the developers will be glad to see the back of the unsightly old lady. But will those of us who have lived in its shadow for years be as glad? Would we be as comfortable if we were living with the ‘deconstruction’ of Whitehall or the Houses of Parliament? And yet, people live in their shadow, just they do here, in the shadow of Earls Court.

For now, the illusion lives on. Even on the trains – overground as well as underground – the announcer still advises travellers to ‘alight here for the Earls Court Exhibition Centre’, when there hasn’t been an exhibition at the centre for ages. Indeed, the ‘centre’ hasn’t been there for ages. It’s being ‘deconstructed’.

The developers will be glad to see a a new ‘district’ emerge. But how long will that take? And how many of us want to live in its shadow? The old Earls Court was good enough to entertain many of today’s, and yesterday’s, most popular acts. How many will flock to see who perform at what in the new ‘district’?

Earls Court was a good place to be, years ago. Now it’s becoming the same as anywhere else in London. It never had much of an identity, but now it has even less.

The sky may be clear, but the future – at least round here – is somewhat murky.

 

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He’s at it again

It’s hard to believe, but last week he put his foot in his mouth again.

For one who supposedly wants to be leader of his party, George Osborne is making a pretty poor go of it. And it gets worse and worse.

His Budget last week was, in itself, a bit of a mishmash of old ideas muddled with new thinking. He had trailed some of it already. Not much of it came as a surprise. He continued to favour the better-off in British society and failed to help those less able to help themselves.

As result, the present Cabinet has lost one member – Ian Duncan-Smith, for whatever reason – and may lose more before his Master, it’s chair, David Cameron, decides enough is enough and retreats to whatever ‘retirement’ he choses.

Meanwhile, George seems to think that all he has to do is grin and we’ll like him.

Personally, I’ve always been a little circumspect about people who grin too much. They seem to be hiding something else behind the façade of friendliness.

Sometimes it’s no more than politesse. At others it’s malice; it could be idiocy.

In George’s case, it seems to be a combination of the last two. He looks like a malicious idiot.

And he did it it again last week.

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Did you make your mark? And how?

I haven’t had much to say of late, but I have been listening.
That’s partly because I’ve been ill.
I was listening and trying to make sense of the cacophony of ideas and comment that filled cyberspace, the radio waves, television and our newspapers as we approached the UK’s general election.Big Ben
Believe me, it was hard. So much noise and so little clarity. With only a week or so to go, no one seemed to be able to predict the outcome.
Too close for comfort
Now it’s all over bar the shouting, at least until September, when The Labour Party has its conference and there’ll be plenty of noise about then.
That’s not so surprising when you think that, for years, it’s been nigh-on impossible to slip a cigarette paper between the two major parties’ policies or their leaders, whoever they may be.
Both leaders banged on before the election about reducing the budget deficit, blaming each other for its existence and the way it was handled. Yet neither seemed to have a credible solution.
Each one swore blind the NHS was safe in their hands while acknowledging it needs reform. But who knows where they might take it? Less than a month later it was deemed to be in trouble again.
And they both had our ageing population’s welfare and our children’s education right at the heart of their programmes. Where is it now?
“Vote for us from cradle to grave”, but what would we get?
Even if you turned to the minority parties, there wasn’t much on offer.
The Greens’ ideas seemed attractive, until you recalled their leader’s February “brain fade” and asked yourself if they’d be able to keep a grip on their day-to-day thinking, let alone the economy.
UKIP didn’t fare too well, unless you were a rabid anti-immigrationist or a simple-minded little Englander.
As for the Liberal Democrats, they seem to have completely lost their way since they were blinded by the bright lights of so-called power sharing as they went into coalition with the Conservatives. Their leader quit almost before he’d lost his seat.
Damaged goods
Aside from their policies, there was also the question of morality or, to be kinder, the whether of whether or not any of our currently serving MPs are fit for purpose.
Even now it’s hard to forget, and even harder to forgive, the business of MPs’ expenses. The infamous duck house enjoys legendary status. The second homes are an indelible memory.
More recently and nearer the election, we had accusations levelled at both Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw that they were willing to accept cash in hand in exchange for a word in various MPs’ ears.
Even the church, which delivered such a well-reasoned critique on the state of British politics early in the year, was accused of hypocrisy for demanding an increase in the minimum wage when it currently paid some of its people less than that.
And then there was the government’s relationship with big business. What were we to make of the half-Nelson administered – and still administered – by some of the huge corporations whose influence paralyses the politicians’ ability to effect change in almost any walk of life?
Could we, in short, have confidence in anyone or any party that entreated us for our vote?
The radical alternative
I don’t profess to have an absolute answer to any of your questions, but I do have a suggestion.
Between now and the next general election let’s try to get something on the ballot paper that allows us to express ourselves properly, rather than having to vote in a way that leaves us uncomfortable just because we’re trying to keep someone out, rather than vote as we feel.
I didn’t vote (because I was stuck in the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, too late to register for a postal vote, and too ill to be allowed out to the polling station).
But had I been able to vote I probably would have spoiled my paper by writing something like NONE OF THE ABOVE ARE SUITABLE across it.
It would then have gone into the pile marked “Spoiled papers” and been forgotten.
Let’s, next time, have a place where you can put a tick next to NO CONFIDENCE.
That way we all be able to vote as we feel, not as we’re expected to.

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The boy who grew too big

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He was always at the centre of things. He always had more hair, his parents owned the biggest yard. He always rode the smartest bike.
Hell, he even had the best girls. He knew how to catch them.
But that wasn’t always the way.
When he was small he was scrawny. Like a little chick hatched out without any feathers.
In those days, the older boys used to run a little wild in the street and he’d want to run with them. But they just left him behind.
It didn’t take him long to fill out, get taller, learn how to run faster.
Then came trouble. Just little things to begin with. Stealing candy bars. Smoking cigarettes, then taking dope.
There was one time he stole a car, just to go joy-riding.
Before long, he had a reputation. Most of the rest of us learned to steer clear of him.
He got in with a bad crowd. People the rest of us didn’t know. People we didn’t even want to know.
Sad to think of it now, but the last I heard he was doing time. Caught in a net of petty crime and drug dealing, he’d been busted by the NYPD and found guilty.
Such an innocent child, just like the rest of us. But grown too fast, too wild and – the law thought – too big for his boots.
He never did let me borrow his fishing net.

One of a series of very short stories you’ll find at Pictures Love Words on the Creative Ampersand website: http://www.creativeampersand.co.uk

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Living with legends

The tall, black hoardings have gone up. The great displays boasting of “creating legends since 1937” are shrouded. The few lights left on look like candles that someone forgot to blow out.

It is the beginning of the end. Earls Court has closed for good. The deconstruction process has begun.

A shedload of memories

For over three-quarters of a century this vast shed and its more recent sister building, Earls Court 2, have played host to the great, the good, the sometimes bad and the occasionally nonsensical acts and activities that have been part of our lives over that span of time. Earls Court

For many of us who’ve lived with this venue as our neighbour, Earls Court was always the home of the Motor Show, the Boat Show and the Ideal Home Exhibition.

We were used to seeing the annual procession of expensive limousines on low loaders, the incongruous sight of luxury yachts being towed through our streets and whole houses being shoehorned into the cavernous interior of a building which, on many occasions, became a kind of three-ring circus full of raucous folk hawking their wares and hoping we’d buy their sometimes outrageous offerings.

There was, too, the Royal Tournament, an event marked for locals by the early morning sight of the Household Cavalry exercising their horses along Lillie Road, past the Brompton Cemetery and up Warwick Road.

And then, of course, there were the bands.

Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Queen, George Michael, David Bowie and a host of other big names; they all played Earls Court. It was, after all, the only venue in town big enough to hold their vast, adoring audiences.

And there was the trade.

For many local businesses – particularly those in Earl’s Court’s lively hotel and restaurant trade – the exhibition centre was a hugely important source of income. The manager of the long-since-closed L’Artiste Affamé once told me that visitors to the Boat Show brought in almost enough revenue to keep him going for eight or nine months.

A new community

Now we are faced with a different prospect; the creation of new “villages” featuring high-end residential properties whose doubtful value to the community is to be offset by new doctors’ surgeries and – it’s said – a new school.

The proof of this particular pudding will, of course, be in the eating.

In the meantime, life goes on and – thankfully – some things haven’t changed. Bob Dylan

The Troubadour, for example, is now a double-fronted establishment with an associated wine shop. Yet – in the basement where a young Bob Dylan and Paul Simon both performed – there is still live music several nights a week.

Response, the community project founded in the late 1970s by Neil Barnett and James Evans, still functions, albeit with a changed role reflecting Earl’s Court’s fluctuating population and fluid character.

The pubs are still busy. One – until recently a branch of O’Neil’s – has been refurbished and reverted to its original name: The Bolton.

Lost opportunities

While we may legitimately mourn London’s loss of an internationally recognised entertainment venue within an Olympian stone’s throw of Harrods, we can at least hope that this cosmopolitan part of the capital will not lose its identity along with its memories.

Who knows but that another legend may be born in the basement of the Troubadour. Or that a busker will appear at the entrance to the station and, catching the eye of a passing stranger, once more turn Earl’s Court into a place where small dreams become big realities.

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Defiance and deaf ears

Watching the news last night and hearing again this morning that upwards of one-and-a-half million people were on the streets of Paris yesterday reminds me that, in 2003, a similar number of outraged folk marched through London to protest their rejection of the war on Iraq.
Back then we carried placards declaring “Not in my name”, yet no one listened and the perpetrators of that invasion, who remained in office for some time yet still didn’t listen, have since been branded war criminals.
Yesterday, in a similar expression of solidarity, the placards declared “Je suis Charlie”.
Now I wonder if those who have already been described as criminals, and those they’re associated with, will listen.
My hope is they will. My expectation is they won’t.
Does this mean I despair of ever seeing peace and tolerance being accepted as two of the basic planks in the structure of any civilised society?
No, it doesn’t.
What I fervently hope for is a world in which open minds – and wide-open ears – are generally accepted as virtues and signs of strength rather than vacillation and signs of weakness.
Until then, like millions of other, I remain defiant and wholly on the side of liberty, freedom of expression and the truth.

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A tale of two Gs

A couple of weeks ago I spent an evening in the company of Ken Clarke, one of British politics’ big beasts.
That night, recounting his achievements and countering his critics, Clarke seemed like a man at the end of his political tether; a misunderstood old-school patrician slightly confused by the antics of his upstart public school successors.
Today comes the news that Gordon Brown – another big beast of British politics – is to retire from Parliament at next year’s general election.
Both men have been in pubic service – and in the public eye – for decades. So it’s little wonder they both feel it’s time to take a back seat somewhere; or, more likely, a front seat in some international institution or another.
For both men, the questions are “What next?” and “How will they be remembered?”.
In Clarke’s case, he may always be recalled in the same breath as Margaret Thatcher.
In Brown’s case, he may never be disassociated from his erstwhile political friend and adversary, Tony Blair.
But there is another comparison to be made.
Two G forces
Gordon Brown was Britain’s longest-serving peacetime Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In that role, he oversaw extraordinary levels of economic growth and (admittedly debt-fuelled) prosperity for the UK.
As Prime Minister, he was responsible for saving – not ‘the world’ as he mistakenly put it in Parliament – but the world’s banking system as we knew it – and, to a great a extent, still know it today – when it was brought to its knees by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Throughout his political life, he has believed in the idea of politics as public service.
His is a record of devotion to Britain, to the betterment of society and to the selfless notion that working to improve the lives of others is a laudable activity.
There seems little doubt that, once he leaves Parliament for the last time next May, he is destined for some new role in public service.
But what of the other G?
A chancer on the make
George Osborne, Britain’s current Chancellor, is a man for whom the ‘chance’ in his job description seems more closely allied to ‘risk’ and ‘luck’ than to the serious business of managing Britain’s economy.
Tomorrow he will deliver his much-trailed Autumn Statement, in which he will outline spendings and savings that he’ll no doubt describe as being good for the British economy.
He may well, as always, blame the last administration for the “mess” he inherited in 2010.
He may even quote Liam Byrne who, as outgoing chief secretary to the Treasury, reportedly left a note saying: “There is no money.” And there is still none.
He may claim to have righted what he saw as a sinking ship.
But he will still be presiding over levels of near-unstainable debt and continuing austerity that can be seen in the UK’s fragile economic growth, the collapse of our manufactured exports, the general state of dereliction in parts of the country and the increasing numbers of people relying on food banks for survival.
Unlike Brown, Osborne, one suspects, will quietly slide into some well remunerated, superannuated business slot when he retires.
A truly big beast
Not for him any notion of ongoing public service.
He is, after all, of the generation that, as Brown puts it, sees politics as, “at best, a branch of the entertainment industry”.
Indeed, it’s hard to believe that Osborne shares anything with Brown who, speaking in Kirkcaldy yesterday, said: “I still hold to the belief in something bigger than ourselves. I still hold to a belief in the moral purpose of public service … which I hope to inspire in my children.”
It’s my belief that, when the tales of these two Gs come to be told, Brown’s will have the greater heft.
For all his failings, he was a good politician and a great public servant.
I cannot see Osborne bettering him on either count.

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How much horror can the world cope with?

The news of the execution of photojournalist James Foley was shocking in the extreme.

To learn that someone had tweeted links to the horrific footage of his death was breathtakingly appalling.

How could anyone do that?

And how could anyone be so obsessed with being allowed to say just what they like – whenever they feel like it – that they take to the web and criticise Twitter for removing all links to these gruesome images?

Yet James Ball has done just that in the Guardian.

Claiming that Twitter – once lauded as “the free speech wing of the free speech party” – has gone too far, he berates it for making an editorial decision that’s out of line with its role as “a platform” with no curatorial powers over its users’ messages and thus its content.

What nonsense!

If no one exercises any control over what appears on Twitter, Facebook, Google or any other “free speech” platform, who knows what we could see next.

In any event, the tweeting of these grotesque images has done nothing for any sensitive being. All is has done is fuel the publicity surrounding the evil acts perpetrated by the Islamic State’s jihadists.

Which is, no doubt, what they wanted.

But is it what the rest of the world wants, or can cope with?

I don’t think so.

 

 

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Beware the jerking knee

A week or so ago I was all set to sound off about Prime Minister David Cameron’s apparently foolish opposition to the choice of Jean-Claude Juncker as boss of the European Commission.

Cameron’s argument was that the appointment was flawed in principle – Juncker had not been elected by the people’s representatives – and he was the wrong man for the job. He’s too much of a federalist for Cameron.

Now that Juncker’s been given the nod it seems that Cameron might’ve been right and that the new President’s powers might be curbed.

Which leaves me feeling relieved that I didn’t respond to my own knee-jerk reaction to what I now see is a more complex situation than I’d thought.

I wish the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would also be wary of his jerking knee.

His claim that “Hamas is responsible and Hamas will pay” for the deaths of three hitch-hicking Israeli teenagers seems rash in the extreme, especially when there is no proof of who killed the boys.

In much the same way that Cameron’s fire-brand denunciation of Juncker’s appointment – “This is a bad day for Europe” – may be proved ill-judged, Netanyahu’s violent condemnation of Hamas may also turn out to be the wrong reaction.

In both cases, I hope sense prevails; that Britain stays in the European Union and that peace comes to Palestine.

 

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Is there a thief in your telephone?

They used to say: “Watch out, there’s a thief about!”

Nowadays, a better slogan might be: “Watch out, there’s a thief in your phone!”

Why do I say this? Here’s why.

A few weeks ago I received a telephone call from a man claiming to be DCI Paul Graham, who said he worked for the National Fraud Department of the Metropolitan Police.

He wanted me to know that one or both of my bank debit cards had been compromised that morning.

According to Graham, someone had used one of my cards to make a £699.00 purchase in the Apple store in London’s Covent Garden, and had then used either the same card or the other card to make a substantial withdrawal from the cash machine at Sainsbury’s in nearby Holborn.

When I asked him for some more detailed identification, he repeated that he worked at the National Fraud Department of the Metropolitan Police, that he was based at Holborn police station, that his badge number was EK350 and that I could dial 101 and someone at the Met would confirm that he was a regular policeman.

What would you do, under the circumstances?

I dialled 101 and someone did, indeed, confirm that DCI Paul Graham, badge number EK350, worked in the National Fraud Department.

Still suspicious

I was nevertheless still suspicious, so Graham suggested I call the number on the back of my debit card and ask my bank to confirm that he, Graham, was a bona fide policeman working for the Fraud Department. They would know, he said.

I dialled the number and was told that Graham was bona fide. I was asked if I had given him any of my personal details and, when I said no, was told that was a good thing.

I remember that, in the course of this call, I wasn’t asked any security questions. Doh!

As soon as I hung up, Graham was on the phone again, this time telling me I shouldn’t be so suspicious; that it had been confirmed by two people that he was a genuine policeman; and that I should believe he was only trying to help me.

Although his plausibility was doubtful, I remember thinking he might be OK when he gave me what he called a Crime Reference Number – CE030917085826 – and a package reference number, PK350.

He also asked me to turn off my computer’s router, which I did.

He then asked me to check to see if either of the chips on my bank cards looked in any way damaged.

I told him they didn’t, at which point he said both of them would still have to be analysed by someone on his team and that, in order for this to be done, both would have to be collected and taken to Holborn police station for examination.

“Only trying to help”

I had, by now, started to get much more suspicious and somewhat distraught, especially when Graham kept repeating that he was only trying to help me, which I had begun to doubt, and constantly prevented me from saying anything to him by talking across me.

“Bear with me,” he kept saying. “Bear with me. I’m only trying to help you.”

Believe me, if this ever happens to you, you’ll know how cleverly persuasive these guys can be.

Graham’s next ploy was to tell me that, if his team were to succeed in their examination of my cards, they would have to know the PINs and, please, would I put them into my telephone keypad.

I initially refused, as any sane person would. But, when he repeated, persuasively, that he was only trying to help me, and only trying to prevent any further fraudulent use of my cards, I reluctantly agreed and punched the PINs into my phone.

At this stage I’d become so distraught and malleable that, had he told me to shoot myself in the foot, I’d have asked him to wait while I went and bought a gun.

Instead, he told me to put the two cards into an unmarked envelope, seal it and a courier would come to my house and collect it.

I asked him how long that would take. He said it would be about fifteen or twenty minutes.

“Have a cup of tea”

By this time I was beginning to get very distressed by the whole experience, so he suggested I put my phone onto speaker mode so that I could – as he suggested – go and get myself a cup of tea and “relax”. With the phone on speaker mode, he said, he would still be able to keep in touch with me.

I didn’t make a cup of tea, but I did hear Graham saying the courier was now only six miles away.

Then he said he was only two minutes away.

When I asked how I was supposed to recognise him, Graham said he would be from Express Couriers and that he would ask for package 242. I was not, under any circumstances, to hand over the envelope unless the courier asked for package 242.

A few minutes later the courier arrived at the house. I live on the ground floor of a converted terrace house, so I let him into the common hallway.

The ‘courier’ was probably no more than 18 or 19 years old, about 5’ 6” tall, of Indian or Pakistani origin, with black hair and a young man’s beard. He was wearing black clothes and carrying a black backpack. This much I remember.

When I asked him for some form of identity, he simply said he was from Express Couriers and that he had come to collect package 242.

I asked him again for some identity and again he said no more than that he was from Express Couriers.

I said something along the lines of “No identity, no package” and he again said only that he was from Express Couriers.

“Give him the envelope”

Graham was still on the phone, so I told him the ‘courier’ was here and he said it was OK, I should give him the envelope.

Foolishly, I did, and the ‘courier’ immediately left the house.

When I picked up the phone, I could hear Graham laughing like a maniac, saying something like “That was a good fraud, eh? Now I’m going to take fifty grand off you! A good fraud, eh!”

At this point I completely lost my self-control and, because yet again he was talking across me, I screamed at him to shut up.

He just went on laughing at me.

In my rage, I told him he was nothing more than a common criminal and that, if he was ever caught, I would personally make sure he was thrown into hell where I would light – and stoke – the fires myself, forever.

After a few moments, he hung up.

As soon as I could, I rang my bank and, after answering the necessary security questions, reported the whole incident, including the fact that I had re-started my computer and could see on the screen that, by using the stolen bank cards at 11:58 and again at 11:59, someone had accessed the cash dispenser at the Earls Court branch of Sainsbury’s and withdrawn £300 from each of my bank accounts.

The bank promptly cancelled both my bank cards and then transferred me to a member of their fraud team, who took the details of the whole incident, as best I could remember them.

A complete fiction

I subsequently reported the incident to the Metropolitan Police. After confirming that Graham was not a bona fide policeman, and that his badge number EK350 was entirely fictitious, they arranged for a couple of uniformed policemen to visit me.

When the policemen arrived, I was so unsure of everything I said them: “How do I know you’re policemen? You could have picked up those uniforms in a fancy dress shop.”

It was a relief when one of them showed me his Metropolitan Police badge.

Later that day, about four hours after I’d been the victim of what I now recall as a terrifying fraud, I received three calls on my mobile phone, all from an unknown number.

I rejected the first two but answered the third.

To my horror, it was – or at least sounded very like – Paul Graham, who seemed to be saying he was sorry for conning me but, after all, he had only taken £600 not the £50,000 he had boasted of, so I should be glad to have gotten off lightly.

This time I didn’t say a word, other than hello, but just let him prattle on until the line went dead.

Hang up

Next time you receive a call from an unknown stranger claiming to be either a policeman or someone working for your bank or credit card company, simply hang up.

If the caller’s genuine, they’ll ring again and you can decide whether or not to speak to them.

If you’re still unsure, hang up again.

Remember: even though you think you might have friends in your phone, you might just as easily have a thief.

Beware. What happened to me could happen to you.

 

 

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