Wednesday, 23 December 2009

BUST A MOVE

You may have noticed I've been taking a long sojourn away from the blogosphere. It wasn't intentional, honest, it's just I've regretfully been without internet access for a while due to the fact I've recently moved house. As a result, blogging hasn't exactly been on top of my to-do list. Instead, I've been extremely busy assembling furniture and unpacking all my shizzle, as Snoop Dogg would say.


Everything seems to be OK with my new home, apart from a temperamental boiler, a faulty letterbox which I've had to cellotape up and stick together with blue tac, and a leaky sink. Oh, and a dodgy plughole in the bathroom. Still, you can't have everything right? I know that moving house at Christmas time can be a rather foolhardy venture, so it was never destined to be easy, was it, eh?

In fact, in the process of moving house, I skirted the borders of disaster last week. I can well and truly say I discovered the depths to which some people sink, a cruel side to human nature which never ceases to surprise me. I mean, I'd love to wholeheartedly embrace the Christmas spirit – the season of goodwill 'n' all that – and I do, to some degree, but after last week, my balloon of festive cheer was well and truly popped and was replaced with a peppermint hard candy sweet. That's right, a humbug.

You see, we loaded up a van we'd borrowed from our relatives with Tescos bags full of CDs, DVDs, Books, PS3 games, wooden furniture (bookshelves, a dinner chair, other bits of assorted furniture), etc. Trouble is, nobody informed us that the boot of the van is faulty, meaning that it doesn't shut very easily. Even when you think it's locked, it isn't, it's just pretending. As car boots go, it's a bona fide confidence trickster. And nobody warned us about this.

Unfortunately, we found that out the hard way. There I was, driving along, when suddenly the boot of the van swung open and all of our belongings clattered along the road with a mighty crash; CD cases smashed to bits, discs scattered loosely along the road, all items strewn messily 20 metres behind us. The glass on our picture frames – including the frame containing the certificates for our university degrees, sniff sniff – was smashed to bits too. I hope that wasn't a metaphor for something.

Needless to say, what ensued was a rushed panic by myself and my fellow passenger to throw all the items back in the van quickly, but holding up the traffic was unavoidable. The drivers behind us didn't have much sympathy either; one obese lady laughed maniacally as she drove past, clearly finding something amusing; and somebody purposefully drove over a bit of our furniture out of clear spite. It's probably not fit for firewood now.

But what of the pedestrians, you ask? They did nothing. Some people stood by and watched, but not one person offered to help us. It was only until we'd finished throwing everything back in the van that a lady told us that somebody had stolen some of our items and ran off with them. At which point, I pretty much lost all faith in humanity.

I've since discovered that the thieving git has made off with a bag full of books. Not exactly the most glittering bounty in the world admittedly, some of the literature contained therein was more sentimental in value than anything else. A Roald Dahl omnibus book was nicked – a gift given to me as a child – and my girlfriend's Enid Blyton book (Faraway Tree Stories) given to her by her grandmother was also half-inched.

Ironically, another missing book just so happens to be The Prince by Machiavelli, so it's probably fair to assume that the thieving git is probably halfway to becoming an evil genius already. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts has also gone AWOL, which just so happens to be about a convicted bank robber and a heroin addict. Hmm, could this end up being the path this filthy tea leaf ends up travelling down? I wouldn't be surprised if that fate awaits him (or her); after all, the incident did happen on the cusp of Northdown Road, a veritable shanty town of drugs, crime, alcohol and debauchery.

Nonetheless, it's appalling that someone just scavenges someone else's goods from under their noses like bloody vermin. I don't why I'm surprised really, but maybe it's because it never occurs to me that other people can be so devoid of morals, so lacking a sense of human decency, that they can't think of nothing but selfishness. They must live pretty hollow lives. If I had been walking along the road and it happened to somebody else, I would have gladly offered to help. And, I can guarantee you, I wouldn't have stooped so low to steal from them and done a bunk.

Call me old-fashioned, but I'd like to think I'm a nice bloke, and I try my best to treat others like I myself would expect to be treated. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the scumbags who either stood by and did nothing, laughed at us, or stole from us. As much as it pains me to say it, those people are beneath my contempt at the moment, if only because the whole incident has made me so angry that I'm beginning to doubt whether anyone has a decent bone in their body at all. Still, I should at least be thankful it was only small (and relatively affordable) items, and not our HD TV, Sony sound system and our laptops, eh? That would've been truly devastating...

I guess if this whole thing teaches me anything, it's that nice people – even at Christmas time – are few and far between. The people I encountered that day appeared to be selfish, primal, despicable creatures (or shrinking violet types who stood by and did nothing) to whom life is comparable to a TV show which they can passively detach themselves from, without thought or consideration for anyone else's wellbeing other than their own. I hope that these people get what's coming to them – what comes around goes around, after all. In conclusion, clearly, some people are scum. Except the people who read this blog, of course. Well, at least I'd hope so anyway.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

DO THE CONGO

Do you remember that old Um Bongo tropical fruit juice advert? "Way down deep in the middle of the Congo, a hippo took an apricot, a guava and a mango." Well, it seems like those Norwegian fruits Tjostolv Moland and former Margate resident Joshua French have got more than their fair share of apricots and mangos thrown at 'em after being sentenced to death by firing squad by the Congolese authorities.

Joshua French was raised in Margate, but emigrated to Norway as a child, so his connection to Thanet is tenuous at best, but that hasn't stopped BBC News launching a big media fanfare and getting other local newspapers into a tizzy about it. We should remind ourselves that Amnesty International announced in a report that most death penalties in the Congo were usually executed in secret so the peculiarly un-secretive and high level of media exposure this story has been getting should ring alarm bells to anyone with a modicum of sense.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights also noted that despite the Congolese government lifting "the moratorium on the death penalty on the 23rd September 2002, it should be noted that in fact, capital executions have not taken place for more than a decade except under the military courts." Therefore, in the end, all we can do is hope that the big media buzz this story is generating will put pressure on the Supreme Court to ensure that Moland and French's plight won't have a grisly ending.

I know it's easy to focus upon the injustice of capital punishment and rightly complain how Moland and French have not received a fair trial, but I can't help but wonder if there's more to this story than meets the eye. I'm going to begin by saying that I have no idea whether Moland and French are innocent or guilty, but the fact is they're both former soldiers for the Norwegian Army and according to The Guardian "military ID cards, counterfeit UN hats and employee ID badges with both correct and false names were found by police at an apartment shared by the two men in Uganda." So the initial thing that springs to my mind is why, oh why, did Moland and French have false identity cards – with the names John Hunt and Mike Callan – in their possession?


Let's face it, not everybody has fake ID under an assumed identity hidden away in their wallets, so that's automatically arousing my suspicions. The second thing is that the 'employee ID' was for a security firm called Special Interventions Group (SIG) and a source for the company commented saying: "We were supposed to have a partnership with these guys a year ago but it didn't happen. They decided to try it for themselves and start their own company. Unfortunately they chose our name and used our ID cards." In other words, they were carrying false ID cards with fake names for a company they didn't even work for.

I recommend that you take a good look at the Free French and Moland website in which Joshua outlines his side of the story. It makes interesting reading, particularly the point where he protests his innocence saying "we were primarily there as tourists, but we were also considering the future possibilities for Tjostolv's company" [a security firm]. This reinforced my suspicions, especially since The Guardian noted that "former soldiers are frequently taken on by private security companies who have stepped up interest in the region due to oil discoveries under Lake Albert, which lies on the border between Congo and Uganda." What makes matters worse is the fact that French and Moland had previously worked as security guards in Africa before, when they worked guarding against Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden.

On the Norwegian blog, Me and My Mouth, the blogger Norwonk wrote that: "I find it difficult to believe that they were really on an innocent vacation. Given the nature of their work, they would have to be pretty naive to think that Congolese authorities would consider them as ordinary tourists. I doubt foreign mercenaries often travel in this area simply for pleasure." Personally, I suspect their trip to the Congo was perhaps more of a misguided business venture by Moland and French than a casual holiday, and I feel they're probably being held up to the Western media as scapegoats to send out a signal to other mercenaries working on the Congo-Uganda border as security guards for oil companies.

Despite the suspicious nature of their visit, this has little relevance to the fact that they may, of course, be innocent, in which case I sincerely hope justice will out. But in any case, it's worth reminding people of other aspects of the case which may have a danger of being drowned out in the media hubbub. It's an appalling miscarriage of justice, perhaps, but we shouldn't lose sight of the more questionable aspects of their presence in the Congo. There needs to be far more room for debate on this subject.

Monday, 23 November 2009

A HARD DAY'S "NEET"

It turns out I'm a "neet" (not in education, employment or training). Thankfully, my girlfriend is no longer in the same boat, since she's very luckily managed to bag herself a trainee job working in a care home. Trouble is, we have no real cause to crack open the bubbly just yet, since those bloody idiots at the Job Centre inadvertently seem to be trying to destroy our very financial stability like the bureaucratic buffoons they so clearly are.

You see, for the past 4 months, my girlfriend and I have been on benefits. It's not something we've been particularly proud of, but judging by all the statistics about poor job prospects for uni graduates and 1 million young people unemployed, it’s been largely unavoidable. Back in July, we made a joint claim for income-assessed Job Seekers Allowance, Council Tax and Housing Benefit. We got enough money from welfare so that we could sustain our flat (paying rent, bills, food, etc.), applied for as many jobs as we possibly could, and despite being pretty damn impoverished, we've managed.
However, now she's got a job, she's notified the Job Centre of her change in circumstances, and they're giving us nothing but jiff. Essentially, what's happened is that my girlfriend's recent employment has re-configured our joint claim to be a single claim for myself via a contribution-based Job Seekers Allowance. This means that as of now, while I’m still unemployed, my benefits are likely to be estimated by my partner’s income. Trouble is, her income isn't very high – about £10,300 annually – so with tax taken into account we ain't gonna have two pennies to rub together.
The other kick in the teeth is that regardless of her low income, since she'll be working more than 24 hours a week, they're automatically revoking my entitlement to Job Seekers Allowance, meaning that all I'll be entitled to is council tax and housing benefit. Of course, none of this would be so bad if my girlfriend could get working tax credits to top-up her low income so that we can be in a better position financially, but since she's under 25, she's ineligible for working tax credits too. Even a lady I spoke to on the Job Centre Plus phone service said that it's "disgusting" that my girlfriend's not entitled to working tax credits, and I couldn't agree more.
Now, I don't mean to run off on a tangent, and I know it's such a typically working class thing to moan about immigrants, especially after all this BNP nonsense we keep hearing on Question Time. But generally, I'm not a 'batten down the hatches’ sort of bloke with a closed door policy on immigration. In fact, I'm pretty sure for most immigrants in this country – particularly the Poles and the other East European workers who work for peanuts – it's nothing but sweat, blood and drudgery. Anyway, I perused through the direct.gov.uk website, and in the Money, Tax and Benefits section I discovered some information about immigrants. It turns out if you’ve come from another country to live and work in the UK, you may be able to get tax credits, pending a few ‘residency rules’. One of these rules mentions "being 16 or over."
Hold on a tick, does this imply that if you're a foreigner aged 16 or over, possess a work visa and have a legal entitlement to work in the UK, then you’d be entitled to working tax credits? Or is that only for foreigners who have children? If it's the former, what about UK citizens like my girlfriend, born and raised in this country, but disallowed working tax credits merely because she's under the age of 25? Am I right in assuming that foreigners on UK soil don't have to face such a ridiculous age restriction? If so, tell me, does that seem fair?
After all, not only is she not entitled to working tax credits, but since our joint claim for income-based JSA has now changed to a single claim for contribution-based JSA (for me), I therefore become somewhat dependent upon the fruits of her hard-earned labour. That, in itself, seems unfair to me. The fact that I myself am unemployed and seeking work appears to become irrelevant, since those drones at the Job Centre have said – as I mentioned earlier – that if my girlfriend is due to be working more than 24 hours a week (which she is) then I will not be entitled to JSA. So, despite my girlfriend working full-time hours, the fact that she'll be on a low income (£10,300 a year before tax) hasn't seemed to matter one jot.
Instead of that, the Job Centre seems more than happy to pull the rug out from under us. In fact, my girlfriend is due to be paid monthly, so when I asked about the possibility of financial help to pay the rent in that month – as is the custom (4 weeks extra housing benefit while you're waiting for your first paycheck) according to the Thanet District Council's website. This would've been ideal because the delay in her receiving wages is likely to make us fall behind in the rent. But oh no, apparently we're not entitled to that either, since neither of us have been unemployed for six months or more. To remedy that situation, they tried to recommend a crisis loan, but since between us my girlfriend and I are already in £43,000 of debt thanks to those pesky things called tuition fees and student loans, all it'll be doing is digging an even deeper financial hole for ourselves.
From what I’ve been told, working tax credits are supposed to be implemented to take the financial sting out of joint claimants if one of them comes off benefits and onto a low income. Therefore, it is slightly understandable that some entitlement to JSA may be lost in these cases, but surely JSA can only be repealed if my girlfriend’s receipt of working tax credits is assured? If she got working tax credits, then losing my JSA would perhaps be feasible, but since she can't (due to age restrictions), then surely we're entitled to something else in its place that would help us out monetarily? As it transpires, she's under the age of 25, can't claim working tax credits, and due to some petty contributions-based loophole, I can't claim JSA. How exactly is that supposed to put us in a financially stable position?
Clearly, it's not all doom and gloom – my entitlement to council tax and housing benefit will remain valid, so if that gets reassessed in accordance with my girlfriend's low income they may give us enough money (or perhaps recommend other entitlements) to accommodate for our ineligibilities so we can subsist. But my point is that none of this senseless rigmarole has made my girlfriend's path into employment any easier. All it does is make us worry whether we're going to fall into arrears.
After all, the biggest argument levied against the welfare system is that it doesn't give enough of an incentive to help people into work, hence the reason why some people wrongly feel it's better to sponge off. From experience, I'd say this incentive-to-work argument is partially true, since if you're under 25 and on benefits, all getting a job seems to do is make things a damn sight harder to guarantee financial stability – especially if some petty rule discounts my girlfriend from receiving working tax credits when some foreigner her age can potentially get one seemingly by snapping their fingers. Needless to say, this is stress that I could do without, but if I can find a job soon I'm hoping things will improve. Getting a job seems to be the only possible way that I can give the Job Centre the middle finger salute and bid farewell to their bureaucratic shenanigans, but considering my e-mail inbox is overflowing with rejections from the likes of Boots and WH Smiths, it seems like a pretty tall order.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

YOU SAW IT HERE FIRST, FOLKS

I've just realized that the headline on the front page of this week's Thanet Times said 'Dreamland Come True' (see picture). Obviously, this refers to the government's whopping £3.7 million cash injection to support the revival of the Dreamland theme park. However, you might remember, I broached this subject in my blog post on Monday, the day before Thanet Times went to press, and I opted to choose a remarkably similar headline. I called it Dreamland Come True?

Apart from the question mark, it looks as though me and Richard Spillett - the journalist covering the Dreamland story at the Thanet Times - are quite clearly on the same page, so to speak. I know it's hardly Sun-esque in its witty punnery (i.e. How Do You Solve a Problem like Korea?, etc.), but it still feels like my intellectual property rights have been violated. I'm jesting really, I don't mind. After all, he is getting paid for it, and I am not, so it's fair game. Touchet, Mr. Spillett.

Just don't forget that you saw it here first, okay? I snagged that damn headline before that crafty blaggard got hold of it. Mwah ha ha. Nah, it's probably just a coincidence if I'm honest. But still, don't be a mug like me and spend 50p buying a Thanet Times from the local corner shop next week. I neglected to remember that since it merged with the Adscene recently it's available for free at some establishments, so don't foolishly waste yer money on the bloody thing like I did. Think of all the pick 'n' mix I could've got with that 50p! Oh wait, hang on a minute, Woolworths is closed isn't it? Oh dear. What a shame.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

TOBACCO AND FORTH

I'm sure Kent County Council's investment strategies have been examined under a fine-tooth comb by other local bloggers, but I've just read an opinion piece in the Kent on Sunday newspaper by Tim Garbutt, local blogger at Sincerity Agency, who raises the issue of Kent County Council being inclined to invest money in U.S.-based tobacco firms. Garbutt claims that £9 million from the KCC's £900 million pension and reserve funds has been invested in "Philip Morris, the home of Marlboro man, plus Japan Tobacco and a cluster of brands such as Camel, Silk Cut and Old Holborn."


What's news to me, however, is Garbutt's additional claims that Kent County Council has also been investing in "not just one booze company, but a whole round of them: Carlsberg, Wetherspoon, Asahai and so on. All the more unusual as there's not a penny for Kent pubs and brewers." Quite right. Then again, nothing much here will be surprising to those of us who noted Stuart Jeffrey's blog posts last year which highlighted similar questionable investments on the part of Kent County Council. I might be wrong, but I'm presupposing that the ball initially got rolling on this tobacco subject courtesy of a Freedom of Information request by Joshua Carroll.

However, I'm not entirely sure whether the figures Garbutt discloses in the KOS newspaper are fully accurate, since I cannot seem to find corroborating info on the Kent County Council's financial publications website. It doesn't help that their PDFs are written in comic sans (oh, the irony). Nonetheless, it's still worthy of note, wouldn't you say? After all, if £9 million of public money really is being invested into cigarette firms, is this really what we want taxpayers cash being spent on?

In his article, Garbutt rightly explores the ethical issues of Kent County Council's investment in tobacco firms by discussing the social cost of smoking, noting that "East Kent has the highest lung cancer rate in South East England and a mortality rate 11 years earlier than the rest of Kent - perhaps partly due to Manston Airport and removal of noise and air monitoring, but also relatively deprived areas and tobacco smoking."

Obviously, I'm anticipating that the Kent County Council's justification for investing in tobacco and booze companies - coupled with investing in public health campaigns to offset the social damage created by binge drinking and smoking - will be that they are representing the contradictory and conflicting wishes and desires of the taxpayer. Therefore, the public purse is inevitably going to be spent in a way which is likely to please some taxpayers more than it will others. Some smokers will probably be nonchalant to the news, possibly even applauding it, whereas non-smokers like myself will probably fail to see how the KCC's decision to invest in creating 'cancer sticks' is in the public's best interest.

What is clear is that (if the figure is accurate) £9 million is a hell of a lot of money, and probably would've been better spent on public services with the taxpayer's health and wellbeing taken into account. Think about how many public toilets we could've kept open for that amount of wonga! I don't discount the right of people to smoke - if I'm honest, I even mildly oppose the smoking ban in pubs - but that doesn't mean I advocate the usage of their taxes by the KCC to actively promote and encourage smoking when all scientific evidence has proven it has a detrimental effect on public health.

How can you clamp down on death rates from lung cancer caused by smoking (or even curb binge drinking), while at the same time you're essentially financially sponsoring an activity which other public services like the NHS and the Kent Police are attempting to admonish? As far as I see it, the KCC's motives for investment in these firms seem very contradictory, somewhat hypocritical and seemingly run counter to the public's benefit.

That's not to say this is always the case, however. Garbutt mentions the fact that KCC provides "full disclosure through FOI and EIR and invests in ethical banks such as Standards Chartered with their innovative work in HIV messaging on cashpoints in Africa and oil-to-renewables firms such as BP." Good on them. It's nice to see that KCC is attempting to make a positive difference where it can; in which case, this whole tobacco issue appears to be an objectionable blot on the KCC's financial track record.

There's probably more to this subject than meets the eye, so I'll be very open to receive further information if you'll care to enlighten me. But for the most part, in my view, investing in tobacco or booze companies while at the same time funding campaigns and initiatives to discourage smoking is a positively schizophrenic act. Maybe we should get KCC sectioned. By doing that, at least we could say we have their best interests at heart, which is possibly more than can be said for us.

Monday, 16 November 2009

DREAMLAND COME TRUE?

I'm sure you're all familiar with The Dreamland Trust. Its chairman, Nick Laister, has been trumpeting his plans to transform Dreamland into a heritage amusement park for quite some time now, mainly proposing to fill it up with vintage thrills 'n' spills to tap into the collective nostalgia for old-fashioned British seaside resorts and hopefully reviving its fortunes. On the whole, I've been an admirer of their plans to date; it's got some fantastic potential. After all, anything's better than being in limbo, like it currently is.


The trouble is, with a burnt-down and (currently) unrepaired Grade II-listed Scenic Railway as its centerpiece and a diminishing supply of metals being pillaged from the site, it's been hard to envisage the Dreamland project getting off the ground. That is until recently, of course, as it turns out the government has just awarded £3.7 million to The Dreamland Trust to make their plans of reviving the seaside attraction a reality. Hurrah to that, I say.

It is expected that the Scenic Railway will be repaired and the Dreamland Cinema (also a listed building) will be given a quick spit 'n' polish to look all shiny and new. I've even heard whisperings that Dreamland Cinema may double up as a music venue. Then again, I've also heard that it might end up being a museum devoted to the history of the Dreamland site, with memorabilia, archives, and artefacts. It could even be both, for all I know. All I do know is that with a little help of their friends at Thanet District Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, it's my fond hope that this will be a runaway success for the Dreamland Trust and I hope it doesn't - ahem - go up in smoke.

In fact, I did apply for a job working for The Dreamland Trust as Audience Development Officer. The job description said they required: "An enthusiastic ambassador with a passion for this special site, and for music and fashion in general; you will have an appropriate degree together with excellent interpersonal skills, a flair for engaging with the public and a true appreciation of the importance of popular culture." Hmm, that sounds like me, I thought; so off I went; submitting an application form in good faith; keeping my fingers crossed.

Trust me, I don't like moaning about failed job applications on this blog, but I honestly felt very disappointed to receive a rejection letter from The Dreamland Trust. I don't doubt that there are people who possess more experience than me at the moment, and that's to be expected considering my age, but it still doesn't make it easier. Especially when I see The Dreamland Trust splashed all over Meridian TV banging about the extra £3.7 million in funding they've just received; and here's me, sitting on my arse, wishing that I could've thrown my hat into the arena and got involved in the project. Shame really.

That being said - and I mean it sincerely - I wish The Dreamland Trust plenty of good vibes and offer them my wholehearted support. It's a real shame that I didn't get the opportunity to work alongside them to be a part of the whole enterprise and help achieve their goals, but there's no point crying over spilt milk (unless it's gone sour). This news of extra funding seems like a big enough vote of confidence for the whole project anyway, so anything I say will probably seem inconsequential, but hopefully it'll be a great success. Best of luck to all those involved.

Friday, 13 November 2009

LIBEL TO KILL

In light of recent events in the Thanet blogosphere (Eastcliff Richard and Adem Djemil), I have decided that I will be moderating all comments made on this blog in the future. From now on, I intend to keep a check on the legitimacy of certain statements made anonymously or otherwise, before opting to publish it (or not). Since I post using my real identity, I simply cannot take the risk that comes along with allowing uncensored commentary to appear on this blog, especially if there's no evidence or factual information to verify whether certain comments are valid or not.


If I'm honest, I don't agree that bloggers should pay the price for something posted anonymously by someone else, but if that's what's defined by UK libel law, then I'm not taking any chances. In an ideal world, I would continue not to moderate comments, largely because I personally feel the Internet should be a place to freely converse and exchange ideas in public debate, preferably being exempt from liability. The reality, of course, is obviously very different.

While I don't think it's fair to treat blogs as if they were newspapers and placing them subject to the same laws and regulations as serious journalism, it must also be acknowledged that from what I understand UK libel law appears to regard a blogger to be the editor of an online publication. Therefore, if somebody contributes to the blog with a defamatory, libelous, slanderous or inaccurate statement, then it's the editor (i.e. the blogger) who faces the chop.

On Michael Child's Thanet Online blog, Adem Djemil posted the following comment:

“The libel laws for the UK and the web need to be clarified that is for sure. As you see from my blog, an anonymous user wrote something and then I am the one getting into trouble for it. It's a very grey area and something needs to be done about it soon.

I would repeat the message that bloggers need to be very careful in what they type or even what strangers type on their blogs because currently as it stands you will be responsible.”

I am in agreement with what he's saying. In fact, I'd like to bring to your attention English PEN and Index on Censorship's report on UK libel law called Free Speech Is Not For Sale. Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, says: “Our libel laws allow people accused of funding terrorism or dumping toxic waste in Africa to silence their critics whilst 'super-injunctions' stop the public from even knowing that such allegations exist. We need to reform our libel laws now, and that's why we're launching a national campaign to persuade our politicians to do so.”

Heawood, of course, loosely references the recent Trafigura toxic waste scandal and the super-injunction put in place by Carter-Ruck to prohibit The Guardian from reporting about the story in parliament. Of course, Carter-Ruck later withdrew the super-injunction, but not without a huge public outcry on the social networking website Twitter, which some have speculated did indeed contribute to successfully bringing the story to light. So, it begs the question, if the Internet didn't exist, would we even know about Trafigura at all? Probably not.

To me, this highlights the power of the Internet: it has great potential to highlight, expose and bring to light stories which might have been swept under the carpet, facilitating great democratic change in the process by mobilizing internet users into action. This is provided, of course, that the evidence is valid and worthy of exposure. Amongst other things, The Libel Reform Campaign concludes that UK libel law does not currently reflect the arrival of the internet and that interactive online services and interactive chat should be exempt from liability, though I'm not quite sure whether that would include blogging.

Naïvely, I must admit, I have long been a champion of blogging as an impregnable bastille of free speech; or an open forum for debate. At university, I learnt about Jürgen Habermas, a social theorist, who claimed that democracy should have a functioning public sphere, or a space where people can debate freely (like the Internet, for instance), without interference or fear of reprisal. Obviously, this doesn't mean I advocate people shouting their mouths off about false or inaccurate information, and I'd sincerely hope that people would have the decency to be sensible and build their opinions upon sufficient evidence and substantiated fact, and not just on irrational hearsay or personal bias.

The Internet, I felt, was very similar to Habermas's theory of the public sphere. As it turns out, I was clearly wrong. I'd like to think this sums up where I'm coming from. Personally, I try my best to write tongue-in-cheek, relatively inoffensive yet occasionally cynical or speculative blog entries. I am not motivated by malice; I don't wish to intentionally destroy other people's reputations; I'm slightly questioning about people's motives perhaps; but overall I tend to base my assertions on fact. Where I don't assert, I speculate, either in a candid manner or in jest, approaching the subject clearly stating that it is my own personal opinion and that I'm open to be corrected wrong by whoever wishes to do so.

For instance, I've said before how I don't like Tracey Emin's art – does that mean I should be living in fear of whether Tracey is gonna sue me for disagreeing with her? Of course not, that'd be absurd. I've even allowed people to comment on this blog who happen to like Tracey's art, and they're entitled to their opinions in much the same manner as I'd hope I'm entitled to mine. That's what free speech is about – the freedom to declare our opinions. If something ceases to be an opinion and veers toward being a statement of fact, in my view, evidence must be presented (i.e. hyperlinks, etc.), so this is why I will be moderating comments in future. I will conclude by saying that UK libel law certainly makes one feel as if bloggers need to be a lot more cautious about what we write than we initially thought, which is a great shame, to say the least.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

BRING THE NOISE

I hate my neighbour. Now, that's quite a strong confession to make, especially since I don't actually know him personally, but trust me, I have my reasons. He's a chav, for a start, he has gold caps on his teeth and he wears a baseball cap (even though if you quizzed him on the rules of baseball and asked what a sacrifice bunt, a squeeze play or a sacrifice fly is, he'd probably be none the wiser).

That's what amuses me about chavs. They love their sportswear more than life itself, it seems. But they are often completely ignorant about sport in general, resorting to a lazy and health-destroying regime of playing Xbox Live, smoking spliffs and scoffing McDonald's, while at the same time acting as urban poster boys for Adidas or Nike by wearing designer trainers and tracksuits. Does anyone not think that it's a bit odd? I certainly do.

What riles me is that this neighbour of mine insists upon smoking, even though it's a non-smoking flat, and I've even caught him leaning out of the window puffing away like a trooper before slinking off indoors pretending like it didn't happen. You can definitely smell cigarette smoke in our hallway, it absolutely reeks, so how he stupidly expects people (or even the landlady) not to notice I'll never know. Now, I don't want to sound like I'm chav-bashing for no reason here, but I do feel like I'm quite within my rights to slag him off, even if it is based upon conjecture and/or ASBO-laden stereotypes. But, from where I'm standing, it's all 100% true, so that's good enough for me.

However, you should never judge a book by its cover, right? Wrong. True to his clichéd nature, my neighbour also aspires to be an Ibiza DJ every other night, frequently cranking up his limited collection of dance music, hip hop and R&B, blasting it out through his ghettoblaster, bass booming through the floor like he's trying to shift a tectonic plate. Now, I'm not prudish, I don't mind people enjoying music (even if it isn't music I happen to like), but here's the real reason for my hatred of him: he likes to play loud music all night long (as Lionel Richie famously sang).

That's right, I have a noisy neighbour. Normally, I wouldn't be troubling you with something so trivial, but since my girlfriend and I are kept awake until 4 o'clock in the morning every two days or so by his stupid Pete Tong antics, I felt compelled to have a rant. Our neighbour has made a habit of doing this, you see, and I'd given him the benefit of the doubt a few times, clinging on to the hope that he was a civilized human being, but this weekend I finally decided in a fit of rage to report him to the police. Needless to say, they did jack shit.

To be fair, it was about 1:30pm. I called Margate Police Station directly, but I was told that noise disturbances are no longer the police's responsibility, and that complaints should be lodged via Thanet District Council. She gave me a phone number. I called it up. Unsurprisingly, the office was closed. I was prompted by an automated machine to call an emergency number and speak to the Environmental Health Officer. Finally, after seemingly being passed from pillar to post, a lady answered the phone.

I told her that I had a noisy neighbour who insisted upon creating a godawful racket like a firecracker in a barrel of farts (although not exactly phrased like that) and that I wished to report it. The lady took my details, quite a lengthy process I must admit, and then she said: “I'm sorry, but the Environmental Health Officer won't be able to sort it out tonight. I advise you keep a log of every incident so that it can be dealt with in the future. Thank you, goodbye.” She didn't bid me farewell as bluntly as that, but she might as bloody well have done.

Let me get this straight: Thanet District Council has removed responsibility from the police for dealing with noise disturbances? I did some research and discovered that since the Environmental Health Protection Act 1990, councils have been obliged to take reasonable steps to investigate complaints of nuisance noise. I'm assuming that over the last twenty years, this Act has enabled the council to pay some chap a handsome wage to visit suspected troublemakers, threatening them with a fine or – worse yet – an ASBO. Ooh, I'm sure they're all quaking in their boots, don't you think? Especially when the Environmental Health Officer isn't bloody there half the time.

This whole thing left me feeling quite powerless. I tried to think of ways I could shut my noisy neighbour up. I toyed with the idea of knocking on his door and beating him round the face with my shoe; or putting on some heavy metal at high volumes to compete with him; or simply wandering out into the hall and switching the electricity off at the mains to spoil their party. I did nothing, in the end. But I did feel empathy with those who take the law into their own hands, going vigilante to tackle anti-social behaviour head on, rather than relying on the authorities to do their dirty work.

In fact, it's quite timely that the film Harry Brown, a Daily Mail-esque epic of paranoia and violence, in which Michael Caine plays a former Royal Marine who seeks revenge for the death of his friend by capturing, accosting and torturing young chavs who are destroying his local community. I believe it'll be swinging by the Vue Cinema at Westwood Cross this week, so if I can rustle up a few pennies, I may go and see it myself. I'll be the one with the extra large box of popcorn, completely engrossed in reverie, secretly imagining our noisy neighbour getting beaten to death by a belligerent OAP.

I can only hope my neighbour doesn't discover this blog, finds out that I've written about him and blows my bloody doors off. But I'm guessing that he can barely read a book, let alone a blog, so I'm not gonna lose sleep over it. Unless he keeps me awake tonight, of course. If he does, I'll be tempted to give Michael Caine a call. I'm sure he'd be able to sort it out.

Friday, 6 November 2009

LOCAL SHOPS (FOR LOCAL PEOPLE)

Are you... local?! Well, it seems like Thanet District Council have resorted to League of Gentlemen-esque measures in order to support local businesses and independent shops by setting up a Shop Local First project. Largely in the form of a discount card scheme, it's been developed by TDC and local traders to encourage people to shop locally, no doubt lending support to the smaller businesses which – in theory at least – can only be a good thing.

Now, I'm not doubting that this is largely positive, but I do have some minor quibbles. You may remember about a fortnight ago I wrote about Thanet District Council's plans to make Westwood Cross our “principal town centre.” Perhaps realizing that such a move is only likely to attract Goliath-sized retail chains and established brands, this discount scheme subsequently seems like the start of a good opportunity for TDC to promote business enterprise at a grassroots level.

However, we must remember, this should only be the first step, as there is still much more to be done. The issue I have with this Shop Local First discount scheme is if TDC are honest about their intentions of favouring Westwood Cross as a “principal town centre,” then since other High Streets in Thanet have clearly fallen down in their to-do lists, then a discount scheme to promote local or independent shops should, ideally, be the tip of the iceberg. I even suggested in my previous post that the Council should acknowledge that Westwood is their top priority by lowering business rates so that independent shop owners can fill the 24.6% gap currently in Margate's High Street.

An anonymous poster acknowledged that: “Reducing business rates would be great, but the standard line from TDC is that business rates are set by central government and cannot be changed. TDC therefore need to challenge this otherwise it will remain economically unviable to open a shop of any variety for a small bespoke trader in Margate High Street, Higher or Lower Ends.” Clearly, all this highlights to me is that a simple discount card scheme is not gonna make a blind bit of difference – above all, what Thanet District Council needs to do is to lobby the government for the right (or the permission) to lower business rates in our High Streets so that independent businesses and local shops can be started up and encouraged to thrive.

I mean, come on, as an idea, it's not exactly hard to grapple with. If Westwood Cross is their top priority, and promoting local business enterprise is their intention (as most MPs and councillors continually spout), then the Council should be creating incentives to set up your own shops or local businesses. Therefore, if our High Streets don't factor into TDC's “vision” of Thanet's future like Westwood Cross does, then they should be putting in place firm measures to remedy the Mary Celeste vibe you get from most of Margate's shops by filling them up, and this isn't gonna be resolved by a simple discount card scheme. All it'll do (quite rightly) is help the businesses that do exist, but ignoring (quite wrongly) the businesses that don't.

Hopefully, you get my point with this. I applaud TDC's attempts to support local businesses through the Shop Local First scheme, but in my view, it's not enough. If anybody knows of any attempts to lobby the government for a change in policy to promote local enterprise (especially by local MPs or councillors of any political stripe), then I'll be more than happy to hear of it. It's just my gut feeling is telling me that a Shop Local First discount scheme is, metaphorically speaking, a bit like slurping soup with a fork, and that it's going to take a far wider and exertive cause of action from the Council to help local entrepreneurs successfully take flight, don't you agree?

Sunday, 1 November 2009

FUNNY MONEY

© Copyright Leigh Hamilton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License
It turns out that on my travels, I've accidentally been given a foreign coin amongst the odd shrapnel in my pockets. It's exactly the same size as a 10p coin in pound sterling, only it has a weird-looking shield on the back with the words 'koztarsasag' and 'magyar' on it. Flipping the coin over, as you can see from the picture, you'll see it says it is 10 forint, whatever the bloody hell that is.


One quick Google search has, in fact, told me that it is a Hungarian coin. I can't quite figure out how much that'd translate into English money. I paid a quick visit to www.xe.com and (I may be wrong) but I think a 10 Hungarian forint coin may translate into being 1 English pound. Nevertheless, I may turn out to be monumentally wrong on that estimation, but feel free to correct me if I've made an enormous cock-up.

Regardless of how much it is, it does beg the question: What the bloody hell is a Hungarian coin doing in Thanet? I know we have Polish workers amongst us, but Hungarians?!?! That's news to me. Since this coin is the exact same size as a 10p piece, I'm reckoning that some lazy cashier has merely given it to me amongst my change thinking it's a 10p coin, without realizing (or checking) that it's actually foreign money.

Needless to say, if it is the equivalent of 1 British pound, then I've quite clearly made a profit, but like I said, I am a bit ignorant of foreign currencies, as I'm sure most of us are. I just thought the fact that I've been given foreign money on U.K. soil is strange enough to deserve a mention on this blog. So, if anybody can tell me exactly what my discovery is worth at the Bureau de Change, then please let me know. I'm secretly hoping it's worth a lot more. After all, I'm not gonna lie, I need all the money I can get.

Friday, 30 October 2009

IRONING OUT THE KINKS


I'm off to see The Kast Off Kinks play at The Westcoast Bar tonight. Needless to say, regardless of the fact that Ray and Dave Davies won't be putting in an appearance, I'm still tremendously excited about it. The lineup consists of former Kinks members Mick Avory (drummer), Jim Rodford (bass), Ian Gibbons (keyboards) and Dave Clarke (lead guitar), so they undoubtedly look set deliver a wholly authentic performance of quintessentially British rock & roll.

Each Kast Off member has earned their chops playing in The Kinks ever-fluctuating lineup during the course of their 31-year tenure, so I'm guessing that it'll be the next best thing to seeing the original lineup (of which drummer Mick Avory will be the only founding member present). However, Ray Davies has been known to drop by to perform with the band on special occasions, so since it's so close to Hallowe'en, I'm secretly hoping he pops by to spook us, though I'm doubtful that'll happen.

I have a big soft spot for '60s British Invasion bands (and the subsequent wave of U.S. garage rock bands inspired by them), and if I had to name my favourite band, The Kinks would be the ones I'd single out. For me, Ray Davies is possibly the best songwriter of his era, vastly underrated in some quarters, capable of occasional flashes of social commentary, cynicism and satire. It's no secret that even Paul McCartney attempted to crib elements of Ray Davies's social observation skills with “Penny Lane” and The Who's Pete Townshend even jokingly called for Ray Davies to be nominated to be Britain's Poet Laureate.

Oh, and lest we forget, they rock. Their initial hard rock hits “You Really Got Me” and “All Day and All of the Night” practically invented the heavy metal riff, so The Kinks do possess a rare mix of hard-rocking energy and intelligent lyricism that makes them without peer. Were it not for the Britpop boom in the 1990s, I doubt somebody my age would've discovered bands like The Kinks, so I'm hoping that this gig is gonna be a chance to get a genuine flavour of what the experience of seeing The Kinks play live is truly like. In fact, if I could be in a tribute band, it would be a Kinks tribute band, without a doubt. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to sip my ice cool beer and have a good ol' knees-up.

Monday, 26 October 2009

BITING THE ORANGE HAND THAT FEEDS

I don't intend to bite the hand that feeds me, especially since I'm not actually paying a penny for it, but I've only just realized how rubbish my Orange internet broadband service is. My girlfriend and I have been using our trusty Orange livebox for quite some time now – it was a free gift from Orange for setting up a mobile contract phone while we were both at university in Leicester. When we moved back to Thanet recently, we decided to bring the Livebox with us to our flat, though I'm not quite sure if we realized exactly what we were letting ourselves in for, if I'm honest.

The thing is, despite our broadband being a freebie, it advertises itself as having speeds of up to 2MB. It's a similar package to Orange's Home Starter kit, albeit with a lower download limit of 2GB, but this didn't strike me as being too much of an issue. The problem is our speed doesn't even come close to 2MB, not one single solitary bit. In fact, a quick analysis of our download speeds indictates that, on a good day, we get 416kbps (download speeds) and 39kbps (upload speeds). So, correct me if I'm wrong, but it looks as though our broadband is actually supplying us with ¼ of its advertised speed of 2MB.

If I were paying for this, needless to say, I'd be outraged. Since I'm not, I'm merely a little bit peeved, at the very least. I honestly can't really afford (or be bothered) to change ISPs, and even if I could, I think the fastest broadband speeds you can get in Thanet are approximately 6MB. That being said, there's no guaranteeing that internet speeds will reach that kind of velocity – after all, I'm supposed to be getting 2MB from Orange, but I'm not. If this experience with Orange is anything to go by, I'd wager that if I were to switch ISPs and set up (and pay for) broadband with advertised speeds of 6MB, I'll probably be lucky to get only half of that.

I only really started noticing how useless my internet speeds were when I started playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare online. The multiplayer game keeps on freezing up, making my character skittish and jittery in the middle of battles, making it virtually impossible to control my actions, often prompting me to quit the game out of sheer frustration and annoyance. Initially, I thought it was other online players (perhaps foreigners) and their crappy internet connections, but then I realized it was actually me who was the culprit.

The argument that ISPs don't always supply its customers with the internet speeds they advertise has begun to surface in the news recently. Ofcom did a research project where they concluded that “on average, the real broadband speed for most consumers is just 45% of that advertised.” Clearly, now I've discovered my own internet speeds mirror Ofcom's findings, I'm mindful that this matter really needs to be resolved. Since I'm not paying for my broadband, I don't hold as much consumer sway as those who pay, but I still think that ISPs should be trying harder to give us speeds which are far closer to (or exactly) the speeds they advertise. In other words, I shouldn't be putting up with 416kbps when Orange have promised me 2MB, even if it is free.

I'm very aware of the fact that broadband speeds also depend on location, so in other words, our local area is seemingly quite crap for decent internet connections at the moment, possibly due to the fact that our phone lines are relatively ancient and in dire need of updating. Or can anybody else recommend an ISP for Thanet locals like myself which is not only cheap, but also accurately delivers the speeds it promises its customers? I suppose my only other option is to pay for a broadband service via cable; say, Virgin Media, for instance, since they appear to have a higher success rate in delivering faster internet speeds. Oh, wait, we can't get cable in this area, can we? Damn and blast. Oh well, I guess I'll just have to put up with it.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

TIME TO MAKE SOME NOISE

It's been brought to my attention that Thanet District Council are offering local people the opportunity to have their say on the future of Thanet. This is a logical progression from TDC's crystal ball-gazing antics last month, where they outlined a vision of what they expect Thanet to be like in 2030, whereas this is perhaps something more tangible. Their hope is that through engaging with the public – hopefully taking into consideration our views – they'll be able to come up with a Core Strategy of preferred options, forming the basis of a Local Development Framework which will possibly culminate in transforming our local area into – dare I say it – a better place.

TDC have re-scaled their vision slightly from their initial predictions, bringing it forward a few years to 2026, but their hopes and aspirations largely remain the same. Something which has caused a considerable stir in the local press is their intention to establish Westwood Cross as the isle's “principal town centre.” I've spoken on this subject before, and though I'm aware that traffic is absolutely choc-a-bloc around Westwood, I still mildly support this idea. Obviously, I think more needs to be done to resolve the issue of commuters to and from Westwood Cross, maybe widening some of the roads, for instance, ensuring that it doesn't continue to be the jam-packed and queue-riddled nightmare it currently is.

However, at the same time, I do feel Margate High Street should not be abandoned completely. It does need more shops, but perhaps if TDC are channelling all their energies into transforming Westwood Cross into a “principal town centre” (i.e. if Westwood is their primary focus on establishing shops, retail outlets and/or businesses), then maybe they should consider setting in place measures which make it easier for local businesses to set up shop in Margate High Street. I'm not 100% up on my facts, so I don't know exactly how much money it is to rent out shops, but if it's currently too expensive then lowering shop rental costs would be a good idea. It'd be a great way to lend support to local and independent businesses, would it not?

Currently, I think all TDC is doing with Margate High Street is converting some of the empty shops into flats. In a way, that's not particularly good news, especially since they've also announced their intention to create 7,500 new homes around Westwood. What about shops in Margate High Street? Has that entered into TDC's vision? What they'd ideally need, in my opinion, is a plan to make Margate appealing to tourists once again; after all, if they hope the Dreamland Heritage Park and the Turner Contemporary will bring in extra visitors, then what's the use of converting empty shops into flats and leaving the rest of Margate High Street to rot?

Then again, I could waffle on for hours on this subject, as I'm sure you could too, which is why I thought I'd tell you that this opportunity to speak up and tell the Council how you feel about their plans is a rare chance to make some noise. So, feel free to visit Thanet Council's official website, register your details, fill out the necessary forms, and make a difference. I'd like to feel as though all your views will be taken into account, but I'm not naïve, I'm aware that you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can't please all the people all of the time. Inevitably, some opinions will be probably be left on the scrapheap. But nonetheless, it's still a great chance to get your voice heard. What do you want for Thanet's future? Now's your chance to tell them. Go on, do it. What have you got to lose?

Saturday, 24 October 2009

SKIFFLE LITTLE FINGERS
























I've already been beaten to the punch by Peter Checksfield's Margate Music Man post on this subject, but I thought I'd take the opportunity to remind you that Lonnie Donegan Jnr is playing in Birchington on November 7th. Tickets, from what I understand, are still available to buy from Framing Plus, 8 Station Approach in Birchington (£10 each) so feel free to call the telephone number on the poster above if you have any further enquiries on attending the gig.

Needless to say, it looks set to be a great night, so I urge you to buy tickets if you have some spare cash. I myself will be putting in an appearance and, in fact, I've even written an article for next week's Thanet Extra which shares a few of my thoughts on the event after I interviewed Lonnie Donegan Jnr last week. He was a great bloke, we had a really interesting conversation about the history of music in general, in particular, how music evolves and develops, appropriating different idioms to accommodate different fashions or whims, and the lasting legacy his father made on the music industry.

His father, Lonnie Donegan, lest we forget, was the self-professed King of Skiffle, arguably the first British pop star of his kind, inspiring a crop of fifties kids already enamoured with rock 'n' roll to pick up guitars and become musicians themselves. The skiffle boom, spearheaded by Lonnie, led to a boom in guitar sales, and it's fair to say that without it, musical legends like Lennon & McCartney and Jimmy Page from Led Zeppelin would probably not even have considered music as a viable career. That kind of influence should not be underestimated, nor forgotten.

I've had an interest in skiffle for quite some time. I'm not an aficionado, I don't dig up old 45's of crackly 1930s records, or meticulously learn the jazz diddlings of Django Reinhardt on my guitar, but I do have a solid appreciation for it. When I first learnt the guitar, I was initially inspired by the DIY ethic of punk, the idea that three chords is all you need, etc. For what it's worth, the first song I learnt was "Sweet Jane" by The Velvet Underground (later covered perhaps more famously in the '70s by Mott the Hoople), which while not punk per se, could be described by some as being proto-punk, with its emphasis on power chords and simple arrangements.

Now, I'm aware that there's a lot of revisionism surrounding punk, in particular attempts by music critics to glamorize it or nostalgically attach too much meaning onto something which I'm certain was rather shambolic, but what appeals to me is the notion that punk inspired lots of young kids to pick up a guitar. It abandoned the restricting idea that you had to be Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton in order to play and create your own music. In its heyday, Sniffin' Glue magazine famously printed an article saying: "Here's one chord, here's another, and another. Now form a band."

Punk eschewed traditional concepts of musicianship, and embraced the idea that amateurism should be no barrier to originality or freedom of expression in music. If you had something to say, regardless of your music ability, you got up and did it, and that's what appealed to me. That's why I learnt the guitar. The other side of punk, of course, is its politically and socially aware lyrics, which possess certain similarities with folk music, so despite its lo-fi, noisy and rough-hewn nature, I don't think it was too much of a radical departure of what came before it really. Punk just gave rock 'n' roll the shot in the arm it needed to reinvigorate itself, much like skiffle spurred people on to go out and buy guitars.

Of course, this has little to do with skiffle in some respects, but in my opinion, what I like about skiffle was it was arguably to the 1950s what punk was to the 1970s. Even the respected film critic Mark Kermode, who plays in a skiffle band called The Dodge Brothers, acknowledged this in an article on The Guardian, stating:

"Crucially, no matter how talented the musicians were, the underlying message [of skiffle] was simple - anyone can play these songs, and you don't need proper training or fancy instruments to do so. It was an ethos which would give birth to British rock 'n' roll, and go on to inform punk's anti-establishment call to arms: 'Here are three chords - now form a band.'"

I suppose what Kermode captures, in essence, is the attraction of skiffle to some fans of punk, myself included. Both musical genres are certainly comparable, although Lonnie Jnr was sure to remind me that his father's band were actually professional jazz musicians, playing three chords, so it was deceptively simple musically, but the musicianship was always very accomplished, so I don't refute that. Punk didn't always have accomplished musicianship, or perhaps even the sense of songcraft like skiffle did (drawing upon folk, blues or country) but I still think comparisons are valid. Skiffle and punk were inspirational for very similar reasons, in my view.

For this reason, I appreciate skiffle. It's joyous, wonderful, inspirational music, and Lonnie Donegan deserves to be venerated for the impact he made on music, not just for the immediate British Invasion generation which followed him, but for the generation of punk kids who came after that, probably little realizing that they inadvertently owe Lonnie a musical debt themselves. So I urge you to buy tickets, especially those who haven't even heard Lonnie's music before, and especially if you're my age, are a fan of punk music (the real stuff, not Blink-182), and wanna see what all the fuss of skiffle is truly about. I'm sure you won't regret it.

In fact, who knows? It might even persuade some people to start a skiffle band yourselves, drumming with cardboard boxes and baked bean tins. After all, according to the newspapers, we are officially still in a recession, so we probably won't even be able to afford musical instruments soon anyway, so I say it's time for a skiffle revival, wouldn't you say? Grab your kazoos, everyone. Our time has come.

Friday, 23 October 2009

GALE FORCE WINDS

I don't want to get into the increasingly fashionable habit of ranting about MPs. It's an easy thing to do – especially in light of the current political climate of expenses scandals – but I thought I'd chime in on something I've read in today's copy of the Isle of Thanet Gazette. It turns out that North Thanet Tory MP, Roger Gale, has been employing his wife, Suzy, to work for him, so I wanted to write about the recent news that the Committee on Standards in Public Life is planning to outlaw MPs from employing relatives.

Needless to say, Gale's wife has threatened legal action if she is banned from working for her husband, but this raises some interesting questions on the ethicality of hiring relatives to work for you, in any capacity, let alone in the public sector or in local government. According to the Isle of Thanet Gazette, about 200 MPs currently employ their relatives (of which South Thanet Labour MP, Stephen Ladyman, is one, since he's hired his wife too), so this news is definitely gonna ruffle some more feathers in the near future, perhaps more so than the expenses scandal.

I've always grown up with the phrase “it ain't what you know, it's who you know” and this rings a bell on this subject. Most jobs fall into your lap merely by knowing somebody in the right place, at the right time. In the private sector, I think it's safe to say employers thrive on this doctrine, and hire whoever the hell they bloody well want, whether they be relatives or not; in fact, I've known some instances where people who've owned local businesses have pushed their relatives to the front of the job queue whenever there's a vacancy without a second thought. There is, after all, a reason why James Murdoch, the son of media baron Rupert Murdoch, is poised to inherit his father's enormous business empire upon his demise.

Let's be honest, if you're in a position of power, it's very easy to use that power to your advantage (i.e. to employ those in your immediate circle at the behest of other outside candidates). This is why MPs have got away with doing it. On the other hand, the advantages of hiring your relatives is a question of trust – you could argue that you can trust your relatives more than you could most employees, so it is justifiable on that count. But the “ain't what you know, it's who you know” mentality arguably belongs to the private sector. In the business world, it's the law of the jungle. Sink or swim. If you snooze, you lose. If you're in a position to be given a job merely because your boss is related to you by blood, then that's just tough luck to everybody else. Hard cheese.

However, in local government, or more specifically in the realm of politics, the rules are considerably more hazy. I suppose what I'm trying to say is, the decision to outlaw MPs from hiring their relatives is slightly understandable, because politics is supposed to be an inclusionary process, and the “ain't what you know, it's who you know” mentality doesn't quite sit right with the participatory nature of democracy. Those working for MPs should arguably be members of the community who wish to help their elected representative to achieve their aims and objectives, not those who are either related to them, or those who conveniently hang onto the coat-tails of their reputation.

But if MPs are outlawed from hiring their relatives, why not expect the same from the private sector? Can you imagine laws being set in place to restrict business owners from favouring their relatives when recruiting new workers? I doubt it. Come on, it's no secret, it happens every day. Somewhere today, there is someone working in a branch of Tescos who has got the job merely because their uncle happens to be the branch manager. It's just the way it goes. But somehow I cannot imagine that business owners are likely to be outlawed from doing so. Why? Because they'll argue it's an affront to free enterprise.

Therefore, I understand MPs who are likely to be outraged from being restricted from hiring their relatives. All this proves is there a clear line being drawn in the sand, separating the “ain't what you know, it's who you know” law of the jungle mentality of the private sector, and the supposedly more democratic, fair, inclusive and accountable nature of the public sector. Whether it's agreeable is another matter together. Some would argue it matters not whether those who work for you are related to you; all that matters is the quality of work that is being done; but I suppose it depends on your perspective.

In my view, politics should reach beyond the private sector for inspiration, and quite rightly, since it is in theory a profession built upon accountability and public interest, but that's no real cause for outlawing the hiring of their relatives. After all, we wouldn't expect businesses to sing from the same hymn sheet, or would we? Nevertheless, all we can hope is that Roger Gale MP isn't hiring his dog, Lollie, to work for him, judging by the flattering picture of him snogging his pooch at a Westminster dog of the year competition. Is that a good enough cause to outlaw MPs from locking lips with canines in public? Feel free to share your thoughts on the subject.