Here’s some unexpectedly positive news about cuts for a change – instead of the expected shroud waving, Scotland’s Health Boards have cheerfully admitted to Holyrood’s Health and Sport Committee that staff numbers can be ‘cheaply and painlessly reduced’.
The boards told the committee they could cut job numbers with ease. One board was already close to its target of reducing staffing levels in all corporate departments by 10 per cent; according to the Committee, “the impression given is that this is all very straightforward and achieved with a minimum of fuss or bother”.
Not unreasonably, the report then went on to ask, “Why were these staff needed in the first place if they can be dispensed with painlessly?”
It’s all a bit embarrassing for Nicola Sturgeon, who has previously boasted that the number of NHS staff has increased by 10,000 since the SNP came to power in 2007. So, as the report describes “substantial unaddressed inefficiencies” and little increase in productivity, what are all these extra people doing?
Well, I’ve never been to a really top-notch restaurant, but I’m told that, when you arrive, a flunkey escorts you from the car to the door, another meets you and takes you over to the Maitre d’ and he then summons the waiter to show you to your table.
That’s pretty much what you get these days at the ------ General, with the added refinement of several people filling in a form at each stage. Then there are the myriad receptionists who phone you to tell you something completely irrelevant and call again five minutes later to tell you to ignore the last call.
I’ve detailed all this bureaucratic inefficiency elsewhere (10 ways the NHS is killing people) so I shan’t go through it again. It’s refreshing to hear that the dead wood will be trimmed away, not to say reassuring for those who have already experienced these "inefficiencies".
Not everyone’s convinced though: Nicola Sturgeon said the number of operations carried out annually by NHS Scotland had increased by 40,000 since 2006-07, the equivalent of four per extra staff member*. But she may have some questions to answer herself: as the report says, “If this is the case, it begs the question as to why the staff were appointed in the first place.”
*An odd way to put it if you ask me: “Kirsty, put the tea-urn down – you’ll be doing your four operations today!”.
Today I have been truly blessed. Repeatedly. By all and sundry. Thanks to a bad bout of hay fever, I can’t stop sneezing, and every time, some kind soul says, “Bless you!” (which is frankly rather galling for an atheist).
Still, there’s no reason to take offence, although personally I favour, “Gesundheit!” instead. They mean well, even if they then put me in that dilemma of whether or not to thank them (that does upset some people, unaccountably).
There’s been a lot of speculation recently about the rapid increase in hay fever among adults. People who have previously never suffered so much as a sniffle in June are suddenly breaking out with the full eyes/nose/throat package. Sales of anti-histamines have gone through the roof, and those lucky people at Kleenex are rubbing their hands with glee, thanks to the mystery proliferation of the allergy.
My money’s on conifer hedges; newly fashionable back in the 70’s, in imitation of West Coast America, small saplings of newly-created hybrid varieties were merrily taken home by thousands of new owners to form hedges in newly-built housing estates.
And when they finally reached reproductive maturity, the genie was out of the bottle. They produce dense clouds of pollen designed to float for miles on the breeze and, as the years go by, increasing numbers in built-up areas get to an age to reproduce.
Something familiar about this? An artificial hybrid plant cultivated on a massive scale that, on maturity, unleashes an attack on its human creators? We’re straying worrying close to Triffid territory here.
These hybrid conifers may be merely a nuisance at present, but when next year’s predicted spectacular meteor shower arrives, I, for one, will be keeping my eyes firmly shut.
'Harriet Harman's green elephant' is the nickname Whitehall insiders have given the two-storey green glass 'meeting pods' erected in the atrium shared by the Dept. for Communities and Local Government and the Equalities Office, according to the Sunday Times*.
It's all part of a £2.4million refit for the departments, including a number of designer sofas at £4,120 a pop. The aim of the 'soothing green' glass rooms is to reduce stress for the civil servants meeting there.
The permanent secretary at the Communities dept. (who really ought to know better) told their in-house magazine it was "a space of quality, air and light where we can work, relax and refuel in a natural ebb and flow...For me, the reworking of the atrium is an expression of how much we value each other".
It appears, then, that they value each other to the tune of exactly £72,614 - the amount we taxpayers forked out for their 'serene green tranquility rooms'.
I feel this calls for a song...
There's a pod here in Whitehall
Where we can meet and all agree
And the walls are eight yards high
Made of glass of soothing green.
Harriet Harman gave the nod
To build a place where we could feel serene;
Seventy grand’s not much to pay
For our tranquil pod of green.
We all sit in a peace pod coloured green, Peace pod coloured green, peace pod coloured green, We all sit in a peace pod coloured green, Peace pod coloured green, peace pod coloured green.
And the pods are on two floors
Designer sofas go next door
Isn’t it grand? The taxes pay!
We all sit in a peace pod coloured green, Peace pod coloured green, peace pod coloured green, We all sit in a peace pod coloured green, Peace pod coloured green, peace pod coloured green.
[Recession ahead, Ms Harman, recession ahead!
Spend the money quickly!
Action station! Action station!
Aye, aye, sir, fire!
‘And we live a life of ease’,
Says our in-house magazine,
‘We refuel and feel serene
In our pod of soothing green’.
We all sit in a peace pod coloured green, Peace pod coloured green, peace pod coloured green, We all sit in a peace pod coloured green, Peace pod coloured green, peace pod coloured green. *Thanks to the new paywall, I can't link to the article - sorry!
Picture via Guido Fawkes - note the helpful way the upper level is marked 'upper' and the lower one 'lower' to avoid any possible confusion.
To continue the paradox theme, here's an interesting little vignette from the world of local government. Our heroes are a couple of retired teachers from Holmfirth. In 2007 they were given planning permission by Kirklees Council to build a driveway outside the house where they had lived for 30 years.
Four months later, the Council announced that it was putting a puffin crossing (actually a Pedestrian User-Friendly Intelligent Crossing, but I think the acronym may have been deemed slightly unfortunate and prone to ill-mannered graffiti) right in front of their their house.
Then came the coup de grace. Ina novel variation of the time-traveller paradox, the Council issued a stopping-up order denying the Wrays use of their own driveway because it was too close to the crossing.
Part of the problem here is that local authorities act on a timescale which makes continental drift look indecently hasty: it's possible for projects to spend so long in the planning stage that by construction time, everything else has evolved beyond recognition and the original planners have long since retired.
The Tavern's own Pa Peachum, physicist and philosopher, could not bear to read Noddy books and loathed Dr Seuss; instead he regaled his sleepy offspring with stories he found interesting, including the less gruesome Greek myths.
And when he had exhausted the potential of Icarus, Theseus and Bellerophon, he started on philosophy. Thus it was that Xeno's paradoxes formed part of my earliest education.
For anyone who missed out on this one, the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise states that if Achilles races against a tortoise and gives it a head start, he will never catch up with it; in the time he takes to move to a point on the track occupied by the tortoise, the tortoise will have moved from that point to another further on, and so on.
There's more than a touch of this asymptotic relationship in today's news that the pension age is to be increased; for those of us in our forties, this is something we may see again and again, racing like Achilles to catch something that is constantly slipping further into the future.
Perhaps Pa Peachum's choice of bedtime story was good preparation for what lies ahead.
A novel take on the music of the spheres can be found at CERN this week. Some ingenious boffin - well, actually, a Dr Lily Asquith, which doesn't sound boffin-ish at all - is about to start converting data from the Large Hadron Collider into sound, in the hope of hearing the 'God Particle', the elusive Higgs Boson.
It gets better - Dr Asquith explains to the New Scientist's CultureLab, "I was sitting in on a rehearsal with some musician friends in an improvisational electronic/brass band called WORM under a railway arch in Brixton. I was talking about particle physics to my long-suffering friend Eddie Real, a percussionist.
I was actually doing impersonations of different particles and trying to get him to develop them on his electronic drum kit. Another band member, Ed, got very excited and asked if it would be possible to do this properly- - extract sounds directly from the data. "
The LHC people have helpfully provided samples of initial simulations, which sound uncannily like the sort of avant-garde orchestral pieces that leave you wondering what time the tune's going to start and why you paid good money for this.
It's too early to tell what the results will be, but wouldn't it be wonderful if, when the Higgs Boson finally puts in an appearance, it actually sounds something like this.... ?
More like WTF, as in 'WTF is a purveyor of new-age psychobabble through a company of that name* doing in 10, Downing Street?' It's like a frightening throwback to the days of Carole Caplin - any minute now Cameron's rubber mask will slip and we'll see that he was really Tony Blair in disguise all along.
Here in the Tavern, we normally try to moderate our language but even we are reduced to Anglo-Saxon profanity in the case of Cameron's newest recruit. According to the Times, Australian psychologist Kris Murrin (as seen on TV) is to be 'in charge of ensuring the Prime Minister's policies are delivered and that staff work effectively'.
So far, so reasonable. But Ms Murrin's methods are somewhat unorthodox - when she's not confronting weeping parents with grotesque images of their obese, diseased children half a century hence ('Honey, We're Killing the Kids' - BBC) - she's showing office workers how to "build a personal bravery plan" and "fill their minds with freshness".
Her methods have included shamanic rituals, African drumming, fortune-telling and temporary tattoos. And the benefits are as tangible as the Emperor's new clothes; according to her (inevitable) self-help book, "Nobody tries to explain what we get out of it directly - it's understood. It's our freshness store cupboard".
Her book describes a role-playing exercise with employees of a food retailer in which she "made a wok out of beanbags and asked them to act out being a stir fry". Participants were "a bit uncomfortable at first" - surely not! - but "soon overcame their shyness and were throwing themselves into the wok".
Since this kind of exercise is likely to be the first casualty of projected cuts, its creators are looking for another source of income. Turns out Ms Murrin's a bit of a canny political operator, working on a school food quango and as an 'associate of Tony Blair's delivery unit', whatever that may be (White vans? Babies?) while acting as a consultant to the Conservatives.
Well, some of them, at any rate - when she proposed psychometric testing for the shadow cabinet, one Conservative MP said he was not prepared to be subjected to a "mumbo-jumbo psychobabble experiment". Well said, that man!
So here's a bit of free advice for David Cameron. Firstly, if you're cutting the public sector to the bone, people won't take kindly to "stimulus sessions" and "freshness store cupboards" at Number 10. And secondly, if you're looking for sensible people for Cabinet posts, be very, very wary of anyone who actually wants to be a beansprout.
*As their website has it, 'The focus here is on the systematic design of addictive customer experiences'. Sample case study: 'Helping Boots' Medicine Customers Buy Better, and Buy More' .
Yep, folks, that's what we really need - more medicine!
'I doubt if history can show, in any country at any time, a more greedy form of government than democracy as practised in Great Britain in the last fifty years. The common man has held the voting power, and the common man has voted consistently to increase his own standard of living, regardless of the long-term interests of his children, regardless of the wider interests of his country. No despot, no autocratic monarch in his pride and greed has injured England so much as the common man. Every penny that could be wrung out of the nation has been devoted to raising the standard of living of the least competent elements in the country, who have held the voting power.'
Not my words, but those of a character in Nevil Shute’s speculative 1953 novel ‘In the Wet’. Like George Orwell five years earlier, Shute uses a narrative set in a dystopian 1980s Britain to make his political points. He presents a radical solution; in his book, other commonwealth countries are adopting a system of multiple votes to reduce the impact of ill-educated and self-interested voters*.
An Australian explains the system to English friends: “I’m a three-vote man – basic, education and foreign travel” Everyone, he says, has a basic vote, university graduates get a second one and the third is for working abroad for at least two years.
Another vote is for raising two children to the age of fourteen – though only for couples who stay married. There’s an extra vote for significant business achievement and another for holding a paid position in the church. And finally there’s the Royal Charter – an extra vote to reward exceptional military service.
Shute’s novel has fallen into disfavour – hardly surprising, when the mixed race hero is known to his friends as ‘Nigger'; the book contains enough casual racism and sexism to keep the EHRC frothing at the mouth for weeks – but it would be interesting to hear his ideas debated at large.
After all, there’s something horribly prescient in some of the opinions he wrote nearly sixty years ago.
*As have certain British inner city areas today - unofficially.
Blog posts and articles continue to proliferate on the abomination that is the vuvuzela but we're not exactly in unknown territory here. If you're considering a device to make as much noise as possible in the stadium with the maximum of annoyance, look no further than the once-popular football rattle. The Spouse once owned the sixth Blue Peter Book, which gave clear instructions for making your very own wooden football rattle (in the days before 'elf'n'safety took away the hammers and saws). It's hard to imagine Peter, Valerie and John waving the things around, I admit, but it's a testament to the rattle's ubiquity at the time.
So where did they go? Où sont les cliquetis d'antan? Banned on safety grounds from the stadium; if you diligently followed Blue Peter's instructions, you ended up with a swinging sharp-edged block of wood weighing about half a pound, putting a whole new slant on 'You'll have someone's eye out with that!'
But even outside the grounds, they lost their appeal, went out of fashion. They're still freely available but, to the modern eye, they're back there with the Dansette and black and white television, part of ancient history.
So if the Vuvuzela is getting you down, don't give up hope. Even if it invades the UK, this too will pass. After all, when was the last time you saw anyone with a football rattle?
Some of us learned a new word this week. Vuvuzela. Sounds delightful, doesn't it? But though it trips off the tongue so euphoniously, the reality is somewhat different.
If you haven't already experienced it, imagine an angry wasps' nest amplified hundreds of times and you have some approximation of the sound of thousands of these things being blown continuously in unison. In an impressive display of lungpower, fans manage to keep up the racket for the duration of the match and, according to a sleep-deprived BBC reporter, for hours afterwards.
Unfortunately, for the next few weeks the Tavern too will reverberate to the sound of trumpets (one begins to feel sympathy for the inhabitants of Jericho) as the Spouse and the Urchin merrily tune in. I'm looking forward to getting a lot of reading done, if I can only shut out the noise of these migraine-inducing infernal instruments.
So I hereby announce that I'm officially adopting 'Vuvuzelas!' as my expletive of choice for the duration of the World Cup. And I may even accompany it with a brief rendition of the Scummy Gnome Song, as seen in Simon Barnes' Times column today; the one that goes:
Scummy football, scummy gnome!
(repeat ad nauseam)
Which is, I suppose, an improvement on the Earwig Song: Earwig-O, Earwig-O, Earwig-O - (H/T Witterings from Witney at Mrs Rigby's excellent post on the subject).
Update: there's no escape - even the Badgers are getting in the World Cup spirit (H/T John Ward)
The prime minister has told troops in Afghanistan he wants the British public to "revere and support" them for the "incredible work" they do.
David Cameron, who spent the night in Camp Bastion, said they could go home with "heads held high" once Afghans could manage their own security. The PM said he wanted to give troops "proper support" by doubling their operational allowance, which currently stands at £2,380 for a six-month tour.
And then, the coup de grace:
Mr Cameron delivered a message from the England football team, who said the troops were "the real heroes".
Translation: a bunch of overpaid athletes, some of whom won't get out of bed for less than £120,000 a week, pay tribute to British soldiers in the front line risking their lives on a daily basis for what a top-flight footballer would regard as loose change.
Of course, football is symbolic warfare, complete with banners and tribal chants; it has even been claimed that the black markings on the old-fashioned balls were a subliminal attempt to recreate the eye and nose sockets of an enemy skull. The language is partisan, the sentiments uncompromising.
But unlike real warfare, football comes packaged in handy 45-minute segments with television coverage and plenty of post-match analysis. It's a bit like the distinction between a joust and the medieval battlefield; one a riot of colour and spectacle with refreshments on offer, the other, a bloody mess.
With one difference; the tournament was also a training-ground for war and the knights who took part might find themselves fighting for real at any time. England's World Cup hopefuls are far more precious - no chance of them risking serious injury, let alone death. Let someone else do that, another young man at the peak of fitness with trained reflexes and a desire to serve his country.
There's not much difference between England's footballers and the soldiers in Afghanistan - except that, unaccountably, some of them are paid 200 times more.
Update: I'm not the only one struck by this ugly contrast today - this is from NickM at Counting Cats in Zanzibar, in a post containing the excellent phrase 'Bread and Roonies'.
Your target is to save £45million over the next three years. You employ six 'strategic directors' at a salary of £100,000 each - total salary bill £600,000. What should you do?
Well, if you're Brighton and Hove Council, you promptly make them all redundant and replace them with four people doing the same job at £125,000 each - total salary bill £500,000. At a stroke, you've saved £100,000 - well done you!
Of course, spending thousands on a flashy recruitment website - based round the gimmick that 'Status Quo fans need not apply*' - to attract the right people is entirely justified. OK, there will be redundancy packages and pensions and all that sort of thing for the six people you're sacking, but hey! That's not your problem, is it? Look at you, saving the Council all that money! Bet there'll be a bonus in there for you somewhere.
For once, I find myself sympathising with a Unison spokesman: "There are five very talented directors, plus one acting director, already doing a good job. But now the council are spending a load of money to replace them with new people from outside, offering even bigger salaries".
Unless, of course, they aren't new people; just the existing six fighting over four places. Perhaps they should make them really fight for it, on the seafront, maybe. Then they could raise a bit of extra cash for the Council by selling tickets - hey, they could even get hold of some mud. Now that's rock and roll!
*Could that be breaching Council guidelines on discrimination?
It's been a while since Bernie Madoff made an appearance here, but, if you were wondering what he's been up to recently, the New York Magazine has obligingly published a long feature describing his current life behind bars.
Attributed celebrity status among inmates - thanks to repeated TV appearances and the vast scale of his crimes - and even asked by them for investment advice (so far beyond irony there isn't a word for it), his moral standards seem to fit right in.
'One day, Shannon Hay, a drug dealer who lived in the same unit in Butner as Madoff, asked about his crimes. “He told me his side. He took money off of people who were rich and greedy and wanted more,” says Hay, who was released in December. People, in other words, who deserved it.'
Another convict describes him as "A hero. He's arguably the greatest con of all time". Madoff himself maintains that he was constantly besieged by people throwing money at him, insisting he invest it on their behalf. He found the stress of his situation hard to bear; "It was a nightmare for me", he told investigators.
Madoff has obviously mastered that first essential for the modern criminal - victimhood. It's always someone else's fault. Just think - had all those elderly would-be investors not run after him in East Coast country clubs and restaurants, cheque books at the ready, he might be a free man today. Or to put it his way:
“F--- my victims. I carried them for twenty years, and now I’m doing 150 years.”
Worried about your waistline while you watch the football? Concerned you might be piling on extra pounds as the tension mounts? Fear not, help is at hand!
The Food Standards Agency is justifying its existence (and annual budget of £135million) with advice to help you stay healthy through the World Cup, inviting you to 'check out our tips on how to make some healthier choices about what you’re going to eat and drink while you’re feasting on the footie'.
First target is having friends round to watch the match - 'there are lots of tasty and healthy options you can tuck into as you cheer your team on. Why not serve a vegetable curry with boiled rice or a tasty chilli with plenty of kidney beans?'
Or if it's snacks you're after, you could try fruit, low-fat crisps (remember to compare those labels!) or 'low-fat dips (less than 3g fat per 100g) with vegetable sticks for dipping'. Come on, you know it's good for you!
Perhaps you're off to watch the match in the pub instead - 'You could walk to the pub instead of taking the bus [because you'd never drive there in a nasty polluting car, oh no no no!] or use half-time for a brisk walk and some fresh air'.
And watch out for all that dangerous alcohol: 'with many hours of football to watch, it can be easy to over-indulge. It's recommended that men drink no more than 3 to 4 units, and women no more that 2 to 3, a day.
Don’t feel pressured by those around you to drink more than you want to. Skip a round or opt for a soft drink – how about try [sic] a sparkling water with a slice of lemon or lime?'
Pubs, it turns out, are full of hazards: 'Enjoying the match at your local pub can be great fun, but the snack and meal choices tend to be limited. Bar snacks are often high in salt and fat, particularly saturated fat.' You don't say!
And the same demons are lurking round every corner on the way home: 'You can still make a healthier choice if you opt for a takeaway — but remember not to eat them too often as they can be high in calories, fat, saturated fat and salt'. Thank goodness Nanny is there to save you from your own ignorance!
So as England kick off their quest for World Cup glory, you and your friends can happily sip your mineral water and nibble on low-fat-humus-dipped carrot sticks, secure in the knowledge that the Food Standards Agency is leading you by the hand to the sunlit uplands of glorious state-sponsored health.
As those living in England - sorry, Eng-er-land! - cannot but be aware, there is some sort of football competition in the offing. Shops abound with retail opportunities - World Cup tie-in beer, crisps, flags and all you need to ensure a fun-filled four weeks on the sofa.
And the sofa itself, of course - retailers are falling over themselves to persuade us to buy new furniture and state-of-the-art television sets in time for the sporting extravaganza, together with England shirts to wear as we watch. There's even a handy viewing timetable complete with pull-out red and yellow cards courtesy of a local estate agent.
But one of the most bizarre tie-ins appeared in my mailbox this week, inviting me to
Kick off the World Cup
So what are they trying to sell me this time? Drinks? Pizza? A reclining leather armchair with built-in beer cooler? No, the advert is for dry-cleaning - three items for the price of two.
I have to admit, this one's got me puzzled. I mean, even allowing for the combination of high excitement and abundant comestibles, there's surely a limit to how much dry-cleaning a televised football tournament can generate. And in any case, there's a celebratory air to the advert that is, I feel, hardly justified by a visit to the local dry cleaner.
It's sad to think that retailers are prepared to stake money on a Pavlovian reflex - put the words 'World Cup' on it and it will sell, no matter how mundane, boring and unconnected with football it is.
Tomorrow morning, 3rd June 2010, six aspiring cosmonauts will say goodbye to their loved ones and the sunshine of Earth and embark on a 520-day mission to Mars.
Or rather, 520 days in a sealed spaceship in a warehouse on the edge of Moscow's metropolis - seems we're not ready as a species to risk fragile personnel in the alien vastness of interplanetary space. In an experiment to explore the psychological deep impact of a journey to Mars, the crew will experience conditions as close to a real trip as possible.
Communications between the crew and mission control will be subject to 20-minute delay to simulate the time it would take for signals to reach Earth and air and water will be recycled. Meanwhile, cameras will monitor them 24 hours a day with staff ready to intervene should an inmate reach his own event horizon.
Sound familiar? 2005 saw the genesis of what Channel 4 described as 'the most elaborate hoax perpetrated in television history' when they convinced would-be reality showcontestants that they were training for and completing a mission to an orbiting space station.
With the help of three fake contestants and two pilots - all actors - the deception was kept up for the duration, helped, perhaps, by the fact that the contestants had been subject to minute psychological profiling; according to Wikipedia, 'The intention was to obtain a group who were highly gullible, conformist, and ignorant about the show's subject matter.'
In an interesting twist, it was suggested by cynics that the whole thing had been an elaborate double bluff practised on the viewers and that the contestants were all actors - a theory based, in part, on the fact that they failed to spot the hoax despite several telling details, including the the presence of full Earth gravity throughout.
Of course, the selection process weeded out any who expressed an interest in science fiction. One imagines our intrepid cosmonauts are rather better informed; even so, it would be interesting to know how many of the classic sci-fi films* have made it into their video library - and whether, for example, they will be allowed a ship's cat.
*Some of which may have found their way into this post...
As a coda to the commemoration of Dunkirk, a letter in yesterday's Telegraph pays tribute to the men of the 51st Highland Division who held the defensive perimeter during the evacuation.
Following their capture and incarceration in Laufen POW camp, officers of the regiments kept up morale with a weekly dancing class and from this emerged the Reel of the 51st Division, now one of the most popular of the Highland reels.
Flushed with pride at their impressive creation, the officers decided to send details of the dance to their fellows back home. Tradition has it that the German camp censors believed the complicated instructions to be some kind of fiendish code and, to the delight of the Scots, spent many futile hours trying to decipher them.
Purists say it should be danced by men only, in honour of its creators, and would doubtless shudder at the way mixed sets would fill the dancefloor at parties in my youth (often as not incongruously sandwiched between 'Oliver's Army' and 'Tainted Love'), but there is much to be said in favour of a tradition being kept alive by the young -I hope it's still going on.
This amateur rendition of the more complicated double version should give some idea of what the German codebreakers were up against!
Macheath, the notorious highwayman, has retired from a life of crime and can now be found behind the bar of Peachum's Tavern, favourite haunt of the rakes, rogues and vagabonds of 18th century Newgate and setting of 'The Beggars' Opera'. Visitors are always welcome; help yourself to a virtual tankard of ale and read on...