Friday, 31 July 2015

Cecil and Venard

It's quite strange being on a non-Dover-Calais cross-Channel ferry (I'm on Portsmouth- Caen) this time of year for me - I'm surrounded by people going on their holidays for a couple of weeks, in their summer clothes and with their happy demeanours (apart from those with young children, who look as stressed and as knackered as usual). I'm sitting here in my 'dressdown Friday' work clothes, reviewing operating models and organisational designs, the joy of which I'll be back to on Monday. It sounds like I'd rather be in their position, but I wouldn't - not only have had plenty of holiday time already this year, but I'm in the very fortunate position of not having a set number of days off work each year that I count down as I take them; I suspect the same isn't true for my fellow sailors.

Anyway, the fact my brain's engaged on work things isn't helping me resolve this week's self-created moral question, viz. animals, and our relationship with them.  The prompt for this of course is the storm of social media outrage - that became mainstream media outrage - over the killing of Cecil the Lion by Walter the Dentist. Now, I hate lynch mob mentality, and the aggressive opprobrium of Facebookdom and Twittersphere, so I almost felt sorry for our Walt. When I learned he'd paid a very large amount of dollars for the privilege of taking part in the hunt - much of which would be ploughed into maintaining the flora, fauna and more practically, the fences that allow Big Game to resist the encroachment of human dwellings and industries - I was even more conflicted; the argument was that Walt's dollars were aiding the conservation of the species he was hunting. Much the same argument as for estates and their shoots in the UK.

So my moral compass started swinging away from the bleeding hearts who cast Walt as an evil unspeakable. However, however...........there are two things countering all that. First, I just can't get my head round the urge, desire, thrill, whatever you want to call it, to hunt and kill animals that aren't threats or pests to human existence - and I include farming in that - and are as downright glamorous as Big Cec. Second, it has no direct bearing at all on the issue, but we lost our lovely French canine friend this week, Venard, after he ate some poison that had been irresponsibly been left somewhere local. Me and the missus have mentioned him elsewhere, so I won't say any more about him here, other than that I genuinely feel like I've lost a bloody good mate. Which, frankly, I have. And that's made me go a bit gooey about animals....

So I've been a bit conflicted. I was brought up in and around agriculture however, and have come back to that upbringing to help me sort this out in my head. I've got a fairly utilitarian attitude to animals generally - they're there to serve a purpose, even if that purpose is decoration and companionship. That said, a cornerstone of British agriculture for the vast majority of British farmers is good animal husbandry. Yes, they're working creatures that will have foreshortened lives, but you treat them properly. Part of that is pragmatic - look after the assets and they'll give you a good return, but having known a fair few farmers over my lifetime, whilst I suspect many wouldn't admit it, I'd say there was a moral side to their good practices too.

All that's quite helpful on reflection, so here are the rules; if you keep it for profit or if it's a companion, treat it well and with respect, but don't forget you're the boss; if it's wild, a nuisance and not endangered, hunting and killing humanely is ok; if it's wild, but doesn't do you or anybody else any harm, the economics are irrelevant - damn well leave it alone at the very least, and nurture it at best. There, no so hard after all was it?

Friday, 24 July 2015

Dear Labour Party (an open letter)...

I've never voted for you, and probably never will; our values, beliefs and views of the human condition are just too far apart. In fact, whilst I respect the traditions from which you emerged, I heartily dislike much of the modern party, and particularly your virtue-signalling, offence-taking members who seem to think anyone who doesn't vote for them must have some kind of moral disease.

My first reaction, therefore, when I see the horrible mess you've got yourself into with this leadership election is to laugh like a drain. It really is tremendously entertaining. However, history teaches us many things, and one of them is that good government needs a good opposition. Weak opposition means governments get lazy, complacent, and do stupid things. And the way you're going at the moment, you couldn't oppose your own thumbs, let alone a cocky Conservative government.

Now, I've spent many hours in the car in the last week, and have had the misfortune to listen to interviews on the radio with the four people who are competing to be your leader. Here's my assessment:

Andy Burnham - chippy northern bloke with a dire track record in government, pretending to be a plucky outsider to the political village, when in reality he's steeped in it. Impossible to work out what he believes in; speaks in indecipherable political cliches

Yvette Cooper - chippy northern woman with a dire track record in government, pretending that the last Labour government did nothing wrong. Impossible to works out what she believes in; speaks in indecipherable political cliches

Liz Kendall - interesting only in the respect that she reminds me of that generic squeaky-voiced well-meaning teacher that you'd meet at a parents evening, and whilst despising her general drippiness you'd think the black nail polish made her seem slightly exotic and attractive. Slightly easier to work out what she believes in, but still speaks in indecipherable political cliches

Jeremy Corbyn - hahahahahahahahahah! You allowed him to go on the ballot paper "to widen the debate", you allowed people to join the party for £3 and have full voting rights, and now he's winning by some assessments. Are you completely insane?! We all know absolutely what he believes in, and believe me, if he's elected, it'll be touch-and-go next time (if he makes it through to 2020 without meeting Peter Mandelson in a dark alley one night) whether you or the SNP have more seats.

So, they're a shower, that much is clear. Chuka Umunna would have added some polish, if not depth, and you really messed up by not putting the brother David in charge five years ago. Either of them would have worried the other side. The current lot? Not so much.

I've read much in the last week about what you should do from a policy point-of-view; should you turn Left, or Right, stay in the middle, come down from the moral high ground etc etc. You don't even know whether to go with the courage of your convictions, or be voter- and pressure-group led.

But here's the thing - none of what I've read or heard actually talks about leadership. The candidates are discussed only as totems for policy, not as actual leaders of a surprisingly still-large group of people, and potentially, a country. If you want to stand a chance of sorting yourself out, forget talking about policy for the foreseeable; most of us aren't interested, and even if we were you're not going to get chance to implement any of if for five years, probably much longer given the strength of the SNP and the forthcoming constituency boundary changes.

Nope, get yourself a proper leader - someone who can lead with conviction rather than via focus groups, but who, unlike JC, has at least the semblance of a grip on reality. They'll sort all that policy guff out; they'll make people believe in him/her; they'll give Cameron a run for his money in Parliament; they'll be someone who the rest of us can picture in a room with Putin without actually dirtying their underwear.

So there you go. Over to you. And one last thing - change your increasingly stupid name. I "labour" just as much and probably more than most of your members, and I ain't coming your way any time soon.

Yours aye,

Amused & Concerned In Equal Measure, Macclesfield

Friday, 17 July 2015

Up close & personal

I think we all have that streak of parochialism in us that means that no matter how much we like to think we're unshockable, urbane polymaths with a healthy world view, stuff still means more when it's close to home or you see it with your own eyes.

Two very contrasting events have brought that home to me this afternoon as I've worked and amused myself on what, for most of the next few weekends, is my rather exotic commute - Trowbridge in Wiltshire to Ploeuc-sur-Lie, via Portsmouth and Brittany Ferries. The first is very sad, and seems to be today's lead news story (at least on the BBC News site) - the explosion at the wood mill at Bosley just outside Macclesfield. Not only is this very close to home, but the dramatic pictures are shot from a tiny back road I've cycled down many times (there's a cracking climb soon after) - it just seems strange to think millions of people are seeing that little road. Even the canal towpath that runs close to the factory, and on which I do much of my running training, has been closed. The first thought, of course, is that things work out as well as possible for the poor buggers involved who are either injured or missing; but that thought is more intense than it would be were the incident in, say, Dundee rather than Macclesfield. Wrong, but natural I think.

The other event was the three days I spent last Friday to Sunday watching the Tour de France with Neil. It was good in many ways that he cam over to watch - first, it's always nice having guests over (though he was one of the several who had already experienced the delights of Le Millet). It's also a pleasure both to show people the joys of cycling in France, and to ride to the race route with somebody. However, having someone across prompted me to go that bit further than I would have done had it just been me (and possibly Mrs M). I certainly wouldn't have driven on my own the 100km to the outskirts of Fougeres last Friday, and then fought my way to within 120m of the finish line - but we were richly rewarded for doing so by seeing a late Cavendish surge to see him take the stage win. I probably wouldn't have left so early to bag my place at the top of Saturday's categorised climb (other than Mur de Bretagne itself), but again, we managed to get a prime spot right under the King of the Mountain banner (which meant I could get excited when we were on the ITV4 highlights). And on Sunday, whilst I'd have gone down to Plumelec for the Team Time Trial, I probably wouldn't have pushed through the crowds to get a cracking shot of Froome and Sky in the last 200m. Nor would I have seen Cavendish high-five-ing the crowds as he rolled in behind his team mates.  So, thanks Neil (he also brought the best housewarming present ever - speakers, amp and ipod dock; how cool's that?!).

Being close to events does two things for me - on the one hand it de-mystifies them (pro cyclists are clearly fine specimens, but neither are they all Adonises). On the other, it can intensify the experience and create more questions than if you watch from afar (how do those same cyclists go up hills so rapidly?).

Actually, mention of Adonises reminds me that I saw Lord Adonis (ex-cabinet minister in the final Blair government) on Monday. He was at Exeter Uni to receive a honorary doctorate, as part of the same ceremony my son Seb picked up his degree in Philosophy. Both were conferred, anointed, whatever the right word is, by Floella Benjamin (who also sits in the House of Lords these days); she insists on giving all participants in the ceremony (of which there were many) a massive hug and headstroke. Seb's not the most tactile person in the world, but he didn't seem too appalled.

So, chuck work into the mix, and it's been a busy and varied week, which will be topped off nicely by the visit of the Macclesfield Lawtons to the France gaff this weekend, assuming the horrors of Calais don't get in their way tonight. Which means I need to be on form for some drinking and barbequeing, which in turn means it's time for a little snooze before we dock....

Tuesday, 7 July 2015


No, not For F**k's Sake; Franz Ferdinand & Sparks. That's what the "supergroup", comprising the two groups, now call themselves. I thought it was a wind-up when I heard the two of them had got together to both record and perform, and the name doesn't do anything to dispel that. After all, one was/is an American, predominantly electronic, group from the '70s, and the other is a British indie-ish, guitar band of the '00s onwards. As it happens, I'm just the right age to know and love both of them independently, but I couldn't quite see how it was going to work with them together. I got chance to find out last Saturday night, when they performed at Bobital Festival near us here in Brittany.

In a nutshell: Gig of the Year, possibly longer. It was brilliant - funny, energetic, quirky, melodic, fun, excellent sound quality, and it went in the blink of an eye. It wasn't a mickey-take, but there was plenty of humour. Track 6 at the gig (which is on their joint album) was Collaborations Don't Work, which tells you all you need to know. I also thought it was hysterical that the last song of the night, sung by an American and a Brit to a mainly French audience, was called Piss Off.

The gig was basically Franz Ferdinand's four biggest hits, Sparks' four biggest (though not Beat The Clock, my only slight disappointment of the night), and eight tracks off their album. The crowd's favourite was undoubtedly Take Me Out. Mine was Number 1 Song in Heaven, which I've loved for 36 years, and never thought I'd see done live. Even less likely was Ron Mael (the mad staring one which a variety of choice moustaches), who normally sits statue-like still at his keyboards, carefully loosening his tie, shuffling to the middle of the stage, and doing a mental Dad-dance at the end of the song. Weird and wonderful. 

Anyway, the two groups apparently got together because they had a mutual admiration. It showed - they all (Ron aside, but you disappointed if he showed any emotion), looked as though they were all thoroughly enjoying themselves, and that fed through to the crowd. If you like or have ever liked either or both of FF or S, go see them together if you get chance: you'll love it.
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