Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Best Shop Name Ever?

Seen tonight in Chelsea:

OK, the pic's not very good (I was trying to avoid getting mown down by assorted taxis and scooters). However, if you hadn't guessed, they sell shoes...

Out Of The Frying Pan?

Good to see that the Fopp name will live on in at least 6 stores. However, even if new owners HMV do manage to "preserve Fopp's unique identity and trading culture", given their current financial travails, might this not be a case of leaping straight into the fire?

I've always had a soft spot for Fopp, even as an adult, although that might be down to guilt from my early teenage years, having flicked and thumbed my way through various displays (usu. the extensive Iron Maiden back catalogue), without ever actually buying anything. It's a proud tradition which the minigoths hanging around the top of Cockburn Street continue to this day.

Ah well... even if it does all go Pete Tong for the reincarnated Fopp, at least there'll still be Avalanche, Vinyl Villains and Ripping Records to choose from on trips home.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Linguistic Double Standards

There's some sage advice for 'Squealer', aka Lord George Foulkes, in this morning's SoS editorial when it advises that:

"George Foulkes, for one, needs to take care that his instinctive hatred of nationalism does not blind him to the need for a mature debate on constitutional evolution. He should tone down his vitriol accordingly".

In full Westminster braying mode, that sentiment gains a hearty 'hyeah, hyeah, hyeah' from me. However, without wishing to single out SoS for any particular criticism, isn't there a double standard at work here in our public discourse, in that while a professed 'hatred' of (Scottish) nationalism (the more atavistic and unanalytical the hatred the better) can garner in certain quarters a veneer of intellectual credibility and an impression of implacable principle, any reciprocation of the sentiment would instantly mark one out as a lunatic nationalist, a barker, a racist, an obsessive and a fruitloop?

For what it's worth, in my book anyone who professes a hatred of any kind of idea, has probably managed to disqualify themselves for all time from taking part in any kind of intelligent discussion on the subject. Nonetheless, this dislike of the other seems to be another one of those irregular verbs which the English language throws up from time to time: 'I am principled; you are misguided; he is a nutcase'. Maybe a return to Westminster for Lord Foulkes would be best, both for the standard of discourse in Scotland and his own personal equilibrium.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Camden Jocks

I had what is commonly known as a 'good dinner' last night. This morning's furred tongue, though, brought to mind the Hamish Imlach line about how he discovered he had an allergy to leather - every time he woke up in bed with his shoes on, he had a splitting headache.

Anyway, I'm having a quiet night tonight, in preparation for a ceilidh tomorrow night in Camden. I know a few folk who are going, so hopefully it'll be a good night out, as well as chance to meet some more people who don't have anything to do with either work or politics. Not sure about walking through London in a kilt, though... I'll need to have a think about that one!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

For Whom The Bridge Tolls

Is it just me, or does it sound like the master of the Forth Road Bridge might have his priorities a wee bit skewed here?

TAXPAYERS are set to get a £2million bill for removing the toll booths on the Forth Road Bridge - just a year after £5million of public cash was spent upgrading them.

Bosses are preparing to get rid of the booths after the SNP Executive scrapped tolls on the bridge.

And they are gutted at having to knock down their state-of-the-art "toll booth plaza", the most sophisticated of its kind in Britain.

The Forth Road Bridge's bridge-master, Alastair Andrew, said yesterday: "From a professional point of view, we have been focusing on delivering the most up-to-date tolling system in the UK.

"Having focused the team's efforts on that for the past two years, there is terrific disappointment that we have now been told to remove it before it can be used to its full capacity.

"But we just have to accept the will of parliament."

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Valuable Lessons

That's me back flathunting again, having learned 2 extremely valuable lessons:

1. Never move in without meeting your flatmates first, and:
2. Never move in with someone whose parents are also the landlords.

That latter point is crucial. I received a letter from my landlord on Thursday night (written Tuesday) to the effect that it had been a mistake to allow me in with a cat; which took exception to my even asking whether it might be possible to allow someone in to feed the cat if we were both away; and which declared that their daughter and I were incompatible as flatmates.

The latter point is probably true - even from the (fewer than) 5 hours we've spent in eachother's company this and last week, I knew I'd be getting out of there at the first opportunity. However, after ploughing through all this verbiage, the nub of the matter quickly became apparent: the desire of their daughter to live closer to her work in Croydon and their need to sell up in order to buy another place for her.

I don't mind admitting to being a bit disconcerted at finding house schedules scattered over the floor on day 2, and having the house valuation explained away early in the week by their daughter on the grounds that 'it hadn't been done for a while', was frankly comical. However, to have this point justified on the grounds of 'your cat smells and our daughter doesn't like you', is more than a little insulting, and not only to the intelligence. To take in a tenant while considering selling up may not be against any code, but it doesn't strike me as straight dealing.

Anyway, on the upside, I'm back in Edinburgh today, having taken 10 1/2 hours to drive up yesterday through the worst rain I've ever experienced in my life. The cat is now staying with my old Stirling Uni mate Richard (of earlier co-driver fame), and no doubt will be spoiled rotten while she's there. I'd like to think it's only till I find somewhere else, but realistically, I think she's going to be there for good now. If the flat had worked out as planned it would have been fine, but it's not fair to risk having to keep shunting her about. It's a shame, but it's also probably for the best.

I'm also having a nice, relaxing day at my parents' house, with plenty of home cooking. My flat in Portobello is ready for my new tenant to move in the week after next (don't worry, Pat - you won't be getting kicked out so I can sell it!). So I'll be back for work on Monday morning, having to worry only about myself and finding a more suitable place to stay. And I also found out today that I passed my Accountancy exam resit. Things are getting better already :-)

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Alexander Litvinenko

Yesterday, the British Government announced its response to the refusal of the Russian Government to extradite former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi, the man whom police suspect was guilty of poisoning prominent dissident Alexander Litvinenko in November last year. In my view, there's five questions with which you can approach situations, where you are considering taking action against a third party who has transgressed against you:

1. Is your planned response proportionate?

2. Does it demonstrate adequately your distaste/resolve?

3. Might it be effective in changing the third party's behaviour?

4. Is it still worth doing, even if it turns out to be ineffective?

5. Is it wise?

Announcing a review of the extent of UK cooperation with Russia over a range of issues, Foreign Secretary David Milliband stated that as an initial step, he would suspend visa facilitation negotiations with Russia, including discussions to speed up existing application procedures. So far, so good - such actions will impact directly on every Russian official travelling to the UK. Visa restrictions would also hurt the new Russian super-rich, who increasingly see London as their playground. In all, it would represent a mildly humiliating loss of status, which would over time begin to chafe on the Russian government and the upwardly mobile business elite.

By making a declaration that the UK authorities would continue to pursue Mr Lugovoi by seeking his extradition if he travels outside Russia, Milliband has also managed to place a severe restriction on his movements. On my ad-hoc 5 tests, Milliband's responses discussed thus far merit a 'yes' on each count. Which makes it all the more inexplicable that he would then throw away all the benefits of such a calibrated response by seeking to expel 4 Russian diplomats, thereby opening the door to a response in kind from Moscow.

The tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions of the Cold War always carried with them an element of theatre, and this is no exception. However, Milliband has now given the Russian government the opportunity to play to the domestic gallery, and made some sort of retaliation inevitable. Already, comparisons are being made in Russia with the refusal of the UK to extradite Boris Berezovsky. Despite the strong suspicion of Kremlin involvement in the murder, President Putin is now well on his way to claiming the domestic moral high ground.

As others have noted in this morning's press, this isn't the start of another Cold War. However, there is a range of issues, looming both already large and over the horizon - Iran, North Korea, energy supplies, the future of Kosovo, the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty - where the cooperation of Russia is going to be vital to the interests of the Western powers.

That's not an argument for diplomatic capitulation, or to forget the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Just as the West has an interest in cooperating with Russia over these matters, the Russian government also has an interest in becoming better integrated into Western economic and military structures, as it seeks to re-establish its position in the world. It is only by linking Russian interests and objectives with those of Europe and the US that any kind of mutually satisfactory outcomes can be agreed on these issues.

Anyway, we watch and wait for the Kremlin's response. As we do, for me, It's hard to avoid the conclusion that in its desire to be seen as tough, Gordon Brown's government has risked sacrificing long-term influence, without gaining anything compensatory in the short term to set against that risk.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Game's A Bogey

Via Doctorvee, here's a story I'd missed about the DVLA refusing to issue number plates beginning SN07, on the grounds that it looked like it spelled out the word 'snot'.

Makes you wonder how they can be so sensitive to 'good taste' here, yet still manage to let something like this slip past:

On Your Marks, Get Set...

Is Gordon Brown preparing for a general election next spring? I ask because of 3 particular straws in the wind:

  1. The latest opinion polls seem to be indicating, in England at least, that there's been something of a 'Brown Bounce'.

  2. Chancellor Alastair Darling is reported to be considering combining the annual Pre-Budget Report (usually published in December) with the bi/tri annual Comprehensive Spending Review (July), and publishing in October.

  3. Ed Milliband has reportedly started work on the next Labour manifesto.

I still don't really see the logic, but stranger things have happened. However, it will most likely depend on how the by-election goes in Ealing Southall on 19 July (sorry, Sedgefield voters, but on past evidence you'll just be taken for granted). It will also, I suspect, depend on whether this apparent lead can be sustained into the new year.

It's worth pointing out that he doesn't actually need to go to the country again until c. May 2010. Are those self-serving Tory jibes about Brown having no mandate (John Major pre-1992, anyone?) starting to get under his skin?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Blending In

I might go and visit this exhibition at the Imperial War Museum over the weekend.

Question is, if the exhibitition is really good, will I be able to find it?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Opposable Glums

BBC Scotland held a reception in Westminster last night for Scottish MPs and their hangers-on, to herald the publication of their Annual Review. BBC Governor Jeremy Peat gave an interesting and thoughtful speech, in which he touched on the BBC’s obligation to better reflect Scotland, not just to the Scots, but to the rest of the UK as well. While sidestepping the issue of a ‘Scottish Six’, he did dwell on the now compulsory course for BBC news staff, designed to raise awareness throughout the network of the impact of devolution.

It was impeccably unionist, yet there was still enough in there to please nationalists too. A well judged and diplomatic contribution, you might think. Well, not everyone agreed. I’ll spare some blushes and preserve the anonymity of the Labour MP who flounced out half way through the speech, ranting about how Peat was ‘sounding like a bloody SNP member’. If the MP’s colleagues agreed with him, which judging by the positive outward reactions of two Government Ministers to the speech they did not, the rest at least had the good manners to keep their counsel.

As our friend from last night managed to illustrate with uncharacteristic eloquence, Labour still doesn’t seem to have any collective idea how to respond to the fact that they’re out of power in Scotland. In manoeuvring to take over from Jack McConnell, Andy Kerr has made a series of overblown and misjudged attacks on Alex Salmond. Meanwhile, Record columnist and Gordon Brown mouthpiece Tom Brown, had an ad-hominem rant in last weekend’s Scotland on Sunday, the main purpose of which seemed to be to indulge in whinging self-catharsis about the SNP having made an assured start to their period in office.

At Scottish Questions yesterday, in defending the constitution unreformed, Des Browne drew a distinction between himself and his Lib Dem questioner, by announcing proudly that he was an ‘unevolving devolver’. He might do well to remember that it tends to be the species which fail to evolve and adapt that are the ones which usually end up extinct. Certainly, on the evidence of the last few weeks, there doesn’t seem to be much indication yet of any post-election evolution in Scottish Labour.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Scottish Questions, Devine Interventions And Lib Dem Intrigue

It was Scottish Questions today at Westminster, not that you would have noticed from reading the BBC website. If Scottish Questions was a waste of time before devolution - being largely clogged up with home counties Tories asking puffball questions designed to extoll the virtues of the Union - it has even less relevance today, what with there being an SNP government sitting in Edinburgh.

A few MPs were enjoying their first outings following last week's party reshuffles. Des Browne and David Cairns have been promoted to Scottish Secretary and Minister of State respectively. Ben Wallace also popped up on the Tory benches as the new sidekick to fellow ex-MSP David Mundell. But to show that some things never change, Livingstone MP Jim Devine again made a fool of himself, slating the SNP for imposing single status agreements at West Lothian Council, when they were actually set in train by Devine's council colleagues from the outgoing Labour administration. Oops...

However, perhaps the most surprising and least remarked upon change, was the Lib Dems' replacement of Jo Swinson with Orkney and Shetland MP Alasdair Carmichael. For all that I've said some pretty harsh things about the Lib Dems in the past, I genuinely don't have a bad thing to say about either Jo Swinson or Alasdair Carmichael. Sure, some of Ms Swinson's contributions could be a bit earnest and predictable at times, but I can't think of anything she's either done or not done over the period she held the post to merit her demotion.

That said, Alasdair Carmichael has an easy, fluent manner, and comes across very well indeed. He is clearly head and shoulders above many of his Scottish Lib Dem colleagues, including at this point in time Jo Swinson. However, that was also the case at the time Jo Swinson was appointed, so why change things round now?

Trouble behind the scenes, or further evidence that Menzies Campbell just doesn't really have the stragegic and managerial skills needed to build a decent team? Any Lib Dems prepared to have a go at explaining this one are cordially invited to the comments section for a discussion :-)

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Doing A Lambeth Walk

Made it. We set off at half-four this morning and were past Stafford by 9am. Everything was going really well until 2 sets of events conspired to spoil our time:

1. Cat trouble - I let the cat out of her box inside the van whenever we stopped, so she could move about for a bit. However, after getting back in her box good as gold at the first time of asking (Johnstonebridge), on the second occasion (Knutsford), she took it as her cue to disappear off underneath the driver's seat and then not come back out for half an hour...

2. The fact that Wimbledon, Live Earth at Wembley and the opening time trial of the Tour de France were all happening today in London. The latter event meant that Park Lane and lots of other roads in central London were shut, which made navigating the one-way systems of Mayfair, St James and eventually Chelsea, a total nightmare for a tourist like me. Satnav beckons, I fear.

Anyway, since it's such a nice night, I'm about to go out to explore some of Lambeth and hopefully unwind a bit. Maybe I'll even find a pleasant 'local' pub while I'm out. Here's hoping!

UPDATE: It seems that Richard #2 made it back to Edinburgh tonight after all. The mind boggles...

Friday, July 06, 2007

2-4-6-8 Motorway

The van's just about loaded up, the last minute errands have been run - all I need now is my co-driver, also Richard, and we're ready to go.

Plan is to have a couple of beers tonight, get to bed early, then set off about 4am tomorrow, with the aim of getting to London by lunchtime, and allowing Richard #2 to get back to Leith in time for last orders. It's a great idea on paper, but there's a very fine line sometimes between heroism and stupidity - I really can't see this one happening somehow. 'Smokey and The Bandit' or 'Max and Paddy'? You decide... :-)

But returning firmly to the side of heroism, I'll leave you with this question: should we be lobbying to get 'Smeat' added to the dictionary as an alternative spelling for 'smite'? ("And lo! Verily, didst not the Weegies smeat the terrorists?")

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

All Clean Fun

My folks are round just now helping me clear my flat out in anticipation of this weekend's big move south. My mother has, bravely, decided to tackle the big kitchen cupboard, the main function of which has been to store all the crap that wouldn't fit anywhere else over the past 3 years.

Anyway, she's just found a bottle of 'Fork Oil' - a legacy from my days as a motorcyclist - and asked what it was. After a quick explanation, she replied 'Oh, so it's fork oil use, then?'

It made me laugh, anyway...

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Making The Grade?

There was a thought-provoking feature in the Business section of today’s Sunday Herald. Reporting on the Ofcom conference on public service broadcasting in the ‘nations and regions’, the paper carried some rather incendiary comments from ITV Chief Exec Michael Grade, to the effect that the reason Scottish TV producers did not get more network commissions was because ‘they were not talented enough’.

Responding to suggestions that Ofcom should impose a quota system to increase commissions from outside London, Grade described supporters of the proposal as “living in dreamland”. In reply to criticisms that metrocentric TV executives ignore Scottish producers, he responded with a blunt “I’m sorry to say that the money will follow the talent”. And asked by STV’s Bobby Hain to confirm if his comments meant he thought there was a lack of talent in Scotland, Grade replied “Yes. It’s your problem, not my problem. You can’t expect us to dish out money like sweeties because it’s your turn”.

Ouch. But before we join the posse to lynch him, let’s quickly take a look at the case for the prosecution. On the surface, the charge that Scotland gets less than its fair share of the goodies is cut and dried. With 9% of licence fee payers (and therefore you assume a similar 9% of viewers, Scottish based producers received just 3% of all commissions from the 4 main UK networks this year, down from a still measly 6% in 2006.

It’s long been recognised that, just like anywhere else, Scotland goes through cycles in terms of the quality of her televisual output. However, it’s exacerbated by the sporadic nature of the funding available. Partly because of the centralised nature of UK broadcasting, people quickly hit a ceiling in the Scottish industry, and find themselves having to move away to get the access, the funding, the facilities, the nurturing and the expertise needed to progress talent and ideas. All of which makes it harder to build up and sustain a critical mass of creative talent.

This makes it far harder to ensure a consistent stream of quality output, and contributes to a skewed sense of place as people struggle to see and hear people living like themselves on the small screen. This phenomenon is recognised, at least in part, by some of the obligations placed on our public service broadcasters to better reflect the diversity of the UK. As Stuart Cosgrove of Channel 4 points out sagely, if it weren’t for his station’s contractual requirement to make 30% of programmes outside London, it’s unlikely that a series such as ‘Shameless’, set in Manchester, would ever have been made.

So do Scottish producers have a point? Almost certainly. I don’t think there’s any doubt that despite the BBC’s planned part relocation to Manchester, London remains the key centre in the UK for mainstream broadcasting. Simple proximity to the movers and shakers who control the budgets makes it far easier to get a commission. And since success breeds success, it’s easier to maintain this momentum in the metropolis than it is outside the M25.

Case closed, then? Well, I’m not so sure. Uncomfortable as it may be to recognise, and however bluntly he may have put it, doesn’t Michael Grade actually have a point? He may have declined to soft-soap the Scottish delegates, but he didn’t claim that there was any intrinsic lack of talent in Scotland. Nor did he say that there wasn’t interest in commissioning content produced in Scotland. On the contrary, he was quick to say that ITV was “open for business”, and further, that “we are not so rich in ideas that we can afford to turn down anything that we think has got half a chance of working”.

We should recognise here that there are big financial pressures in TV-land just now. Advertising revenues are down, while the BBC is having to cut its cloth in anticipation of a lower than hoped for increase in the licence fee. In this context, it’s going to be tougher for everyone to get their programmes made. And with limited budgets to play with, should we really be surprised if commissioners become more conservative and risk-averse?

Then there’s the question of whether we are actually coming up with the sort of ideas that people will want to see. As Stewart Cosgrove points out, Scottish companies seem to restrict the marketability of their ideas by being ‘too focused’ on single documentaries and ‘turning their noses up at high volume returning formats’.

Our greatest strength in Scotland is that there’s a huge potential market for our output right across the Anglosphere, providing we make the sort of programmes that people actually want to see. There is, after all, a limited market for things just because they are Scottish. We might be rich in artistic talent, but the interest we understandably have in ourselves isn’t always shared by the rest of the world. To succeed, we need to be making more programmes which also have a resonance elsewhere.

It shouldn’t be difficult. We’re no-more self-obsessed as a nation than any other on the face of the earth, but we do often lack confidence in our own abilities. Series like ‘Taggart’ and ‘Rebus’ are shown throughout the world, and if the suburban Australian sagas of Ramsay Street can hold a worldwide audience, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to do likewise.

And so we return to the issue of how we can secure a bigger share of what looks like a shrinking cake. I’ve no doubt that the Scottish industry needs a fairer and more consistent share of resources if it’s to start reaching its full potential. But creativity and imagination cost nothing. As Grade points out, maybe we shouldn’t be asking what people like him are going to do about it. We should instead be asking what we are going to do about it for ourselves.