Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

A Name On A Wall !

One of the greatest joys in life for we old codgers is a good book, be it in hardback, paperback or Kindle format. This morning we have decided to recommend our latest read to you. It is a deeply moving book. A thought-provoking book. A brilliantly researched book. A book that will transport you to the killing fields of Vietnam, and the fate of one ordinary soldier who died there fighting for a cause that few understood and even fewer identified with. It is a masterpiece that illustrates graphically and painfully that behind every name on every memorial stone lies a story of eternal loss and eternal tears. And for what?

‘A Name On A Wall’ was written by Mark Byford, a former Head of BBC Journalism. This is his first book, the painstaking result of something that happened when he one morning paid a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. Suddenly a shaft of light illuminated one of the 58,282 names on The Wall. It was that of Larry Byford, remarkably similar to the name of his father, Lawry Byford, who served in the second World War. At that moment Mark decided to embark on a unique personal journey to discover the story of the name on The Wall.

Travelling more than 30,000 miles, from East Texas to Vietnam, he brought to life the lasting impact of the decision to enlist to “do his duty” of Larry Byford on his siblings, friends and the comrades who were with him on the day that he died in the summer of 1967. A casualty in the most divisive and bloody war of the twentieth century.

Larry Byford grew up in a small, poor community and his immersion into the rigours of army training are portrayed in colourful detail. In a matter of months he was on his way to a strange, hot, dangerous country of which he had never heard. Former comrades remember a cheerful, brave young man. Perhaps too brave. Part of a squad surrounding a cave in which Viet Com troops were hiding he watched as an unarmed officer entered the mouth of the cave to appeal for surrender to avoid pointless slaughter. Shots rang out. The officer fell to the ground. Larry rushed to his rescue and died alongside him.

Forty years after the final American combat troops left Vietnam, and in the light of the more recent controversial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the book asks what lessons, if any, have been learnt through the ultimate sacrifice of so many names on so many walls. It traces the behaviour of politicians of the day, switching regularly to the nightmare of young men battling in appalling conditions against an often unseen enemy, asking all the while just why they were there. In the telling the narrative questions fearlessly the true meaning of “duty” and “heroism”.

The author tracks down the still grieving siblings of Larry Byford, who break down when they remember the brother that went off to war and never returned alive. In the most moving chapter of all the author recalls the hours he spent sitting alone by the simple grave of his namesake. There he read again his research notes. In that quiet country graveyard a young man who died was born again in his mind’s eye. This was no mere name on a wall, it was a dashing, lovable lad who had so much to live for and died a brutal death as his fellow countrymen protested in their millions against the war that claimed him.

Few books move me to tears. Few provoke so many thoughts about the lot of lions led by donkeys or wars fought by poor men at the behest of rich ones. This one did for every name on every wall is but the tag line of a vale of tears.

If you only ever read one more book we urge you to make it this one.
QUOTE FOR TODAY ” We gaze at the names on war memorials and wonder, and now I know the reason why. This book is meticulous in its research, compelling in its structure. A marvellous book!”…Sir Michael Parkinson.

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They shall grow not old for they were betrayed!

We codgers have sympathy in our ancient hearts for the Greeks. We realise that their idea of managing an economy is akin to our allotments treasurer, but they seem to us to be the victims of a delusion. The idea that a nation of just 10 million could ever operate as equal partners to economic giants was a fantasy, and the events of the past 48 hours have shown that when push comes to shove they are always going to suffer both. Yes they appear to have been bailed out again, but the price is a fearful one. They now face austerity far more severe than the regime they so joyously rejected and, worse still, they now face loss of sovereignty as the grey suits from Brussels move in to call the tune on their every move.

Of course it is easy to understand the reluctance of German taxpayers to act as perpetual sugar-daddies. But the truth surely is that the whole eurozone dream is just that – a dream. One for all and all for one is a fine concept, but it is one only feasible in a partnership of equals. National pride is an important commodity, and so long as minnows swim amongst whales they must expect to be gobbled up.

Having blessed Grumpy Gordon for stopping Blair submerging us in the mess our attention, as we cleaned out the hens, drifted on to our own affairs. Defence. It was good to learn of our dear leader’s conversion to the cause and his recognition that in these dangerous times we have to face up to the necessity of spending real money on our armed forces. But our applause was muted, for the track record of our armchair politicians is to say the least a poor one.

As Martin Bell has pointed out in his ‘A Very British Revolution’ they devoted just seven hours to debating the proposal to invade Iraq, yet allocated ten times that to debating fox hunting. They then compounded that lunacy by refusing to listen to pleas for adequate numbers of troops, and turned a similar deaf ear to request for helicopters, bomb-proof vehicles and day-to-day equipment.

In 2006 the then Prime Minister Tony Blair promised the armed forces everything they needed to take on the Taliban. Three years later, in May 2009, Lieutenant Mark Evison of the Welsh Guards died of his wounds in Helmand Province. He had a reputation as an outstanding young officer. He had served as a platoon commander in Afghanistan for less than a month, which was time enough to get to know the shortages. He wrote in his journal: “I have a lack of radios, water, food and medical equipment. This together with manpower is what these missions lack. Injuries will be sustained which we will not be able to treat or evacuate and deaths could occur which could have been stopped. We are walking on a tightrope and from what it seems here are likely to fall”.

It was at this time that General Dannatt briefed a group of MPs that the Army desperately needed 2,000 more troops in Helmand. He was allowed only 700 as a “stop-gap” measure, and the role of the troops became one of simply defending the base against constant attack. The General let his frustration be known and was accused by ministers of “meddling in politics”. For his farewell tour in Helmand he had to borrow an American Black Hawk helicopter – by now the tiny wing of British rescue planes was largely grounded and waiting for repairs.

One of the many to die was Trooper James Munday of the Household Cavalry. He fell on 15 October 2008. After his inquest his mother Caroline said: “I hope our government will stop feathering its nest and provide our guys with the best equipment they can because they deserve it”. But then, as now, the succession of Defence Secretaries had no experience of military conflict. Immersed as several of them were in the expenses scandal a luxury was a plasma TV, an emergency a falling-out with their constituency association; and a fallen comrade an MP of the same party who, having been exposed as a flipper and swindler, had finally been forced to retire.

To a soldier, a luxury was a bucket of water; an emergency an all-arms assault by the Taliban on an undermanned forward operating base; and a fallen comrade a friend who has fought alongside him and saved his life, and whose remains he is trying to extract from the wreck of an inadequately armoured patrol vehicle.

As we gathered in our hut to rest from our less-than-strenuous labours we reflected on all those who died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and those who to this day bear the physical and mental scars of the great betrayal. We are pleased that the Prime Minister has bowed to pressure to halt the dangerous programme of cuts to forces numbers. But we pray that he will oblige his ministers to seek expert advice on equipment. Some time soon our troops will be called upon to face religious zealots prepared to stop at nothing in their race for paradise. Sending ill-equipped troops to confront them will be tantamount to murder.

After the death of his only son John in the Battle of Loos, Kipling wrote his “Epitaph of the War”, and we use it here as our Quote For Today:
“If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied”


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There is only one way to defeat murderous madmen!

Most of us spent the weekend in the Costa del Leeds. It was sunny and as warm as a boundary rider’s buttocks. We were there for a charity event, and the sun truly shone on the supposedly righteous. We had delegated the task of looking after our flock of hens to the younger element of our various families and all appears to be well, although hens can’t talk. We were relieved, yet in true human form felt that pang that comes from evidence that no one is indispensable.

But our spirits were high. The driving force in most of our ancient lives is sport, and this week promises enough action to satisfy our addiction. Wimbledon and the Ashes are here, and the women’s soccer team are in the World Cup semi-finals. We could well emerge triumphant from all three, although there is the gnawing worry that should the haggis-eaters decide that they have had enough of the Old Etonians we could ere long be looking for an English champion to go with the strawberries and cream. And finding such would be as likely as hens-teeth.

But by the time we reached our hut to emulate the example of the great Eric Pickles our mood had darkened. The events in Tunisia have sickened every sane soul. Now there is the inevitable talk about taking holidays elsewhere, and this is understandable. It is also misguided. If the tourist industry upon which Tunisia depends collapses the murderers will have won again. And we have to remember that they can strike anywhere – all they need do is rant about paradise, arm a handful of lunatics and yet another breeding ground for incursion is theirs.

The reach of Isis was hideously demonstrated last week by near simultaneous attacks in Tunisia, France, Kuwait and Kobani in Syria. The first three atrocities received blanket coverage but the fourth, and by far the biggest massacre, was in Kobani, where at least 220 Kurdish citizens were slaughtered last Thursday. The terrible reality is that where they can possible ignore the carnage the major Western powers prefer to say nothing. They are reluctant to highlight their own culpability in failing to weaken Isis. The insane beheaders are like a spreading cancer, and all those governments implicated in the mistaken invasion of Iraq prefer to administer alternative medicine. It simply will not halt the spread of the disease.

This is not a popular view amongst all those who abetted the Bush/Blair lies and madness, but there is only one way to stop what is rapidly becoming a worldwide threat. Bombing is useless – Isis is not a conventional army with conventional arms dumps, and bombing kills more innocents than killers and serves only to alienate the indigenous population. Unpalatable though it may be the truth is that only an overwhelming defeat on the ground in one of its new strongholds will stop the momentum of the so-called Islamic State.

There is no other way forward before it is too late. Having reduced our armed forces to totally inadequate levels we are in no position to act. The United States lacks the will to repeat the legacy of Bush, and the major European powers are more preoccupied with fighting each other as the Euro totters and the populations turn against the concept of a United States of Europe.

That leaves the United Nations. It may be hard to visualise such as Russia and China going along with the concept of a force with blue helmets, but the fact remains that they too are becoming increasingly anxious about the growth of extremism. The fact also remains that the seeming invincibility of the most barbaric mob of recent history would crumble in the face of a well equipped, modern army.

Ridiculous. Impossible. Too many young men and women have already died. We know that the reactions will be hostile. But what is the alternative? Ever more weak countries gobbled up, ever more atrocities. And even here the risk of radicalism will grow, and British citizens will appear in ever more gruesome videos.

Having been principle players in the invasion of Iraq – the undoubted trigger point for the rise of Isis and the rest – the very least we should do is table a motion for the assembly of a UN force. There is no other way.
QUOTE FOR TODAY: ” Say what you like about Genghis Khan but when he was around, old ladies could walk the streets of Mongolia safely at night”…. Jo Brand.

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Quotes to brighten your weekend!

” I have never made but one prayer to God, a very short one: ‘O Lord, make my enemies ridiculous’. And God granted it”…. Voltaire.

” I will refuse any deal with Nicola Sturgeon to prop up a minority Labour government”…. Ed Miliband.

“Labour will never be forgiven if the party lets Tories back into Downing Street”…. Nicola Sturgeon.

” Of all forms of caution, caution in love is perhaps the most fatal to true happiness”…. Bertrand Russell, Nobel prize winner, 1950.

“We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love”…. Mother Teresa, Nobel prize winner, 1979.

” One makes mistakes; that is life. But it is never a mistake to have loved”…. Romain Rolland, Nobel prize winner, 1915.

” Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door”…. Saul Bellow, Nobel prize winner, 1976.

” You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’ “…. George Bernard Shaw, Nobel prize winner, 1925.

” Ninety per cent of politicians give the other ten per cent a bad name”…. Henry Kissinger, Nobel prize winner, 1973.

” It is precisely the stupidest people who are the most sincere in their mistaken beliefs”…. Norman Angell, Nobel prize winner, 1933.

” In every language, every culture, the most difficult words you have to say are: ‘I’m sorry. Forgive me’ “…. Desmond Tutu, Nobel prize winner, 1984.

” All the things I really like to do are either illegal, immoral, or fattening”…. Alexander Woolcott.

” The greatest pleasure I know is to do a good deed by stealth and have it found out by accident”…. Char les Lamb.

” Graham Sutherland’s portrait of me makes me look as if I am having a difficult stool”…. Sir Winston Churchill.

” I think Iraq and Iran should be combined into one country called Irate. All the pissed-off people live in one place and get it over with”…. Denis Leary.

” The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything”…. Oscar Wilde.


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Turning a blind eye to appalling tragedy!

The joy of Spring is that every morning brings fresh discoveries. The dormant primroses are back with us, the tulips are taking over from the daffodils and the birds are gathering straw left lying around near the the hen-runs. In the greenhouses the sweet peas are clambering from the compost, and the geraniums are beginning their journey toward majestic beauty. Most exciting of all we spotted a shoal of tiny fish in the allotments big pond this morning. Now we face our annual challenge of preventing the less-than-proud parents from eating them. Forget the artificial connivances of an election campaign, our allotments refuge is alive again , and we old codgers have spring in our steps. All is well!

But try as we may we cannot avoid the darkening influence of man’s inhumanity to man, and as we gathered in the ‘hut’ for our daily tribute to the patron saint of doughnut eaters, the mighty Eric Pickles we couldn’t dismiss from our minds an appalling spectacle. On Monday, 144 people were rescued by the Italian coastguard when the boat on which they were fleeing Libya capsized in the Mediterranean.  Arriving homeless and without prospects in a strange land, these were – relatively speaking – the lucky ones. As many as 400 are thought to have drowned. Add them to the tally. Thousands of desperate fellow human beings have suffered horrendous deaths trying to get to the West. It has become a phenomenon of our time.

We hear little about life in the supposedly liberated  Libya, but the fact that entire families are willing to risk the treacherous crossing gives a fair idea. Were the survivors being scooped out of the sea by the British coastguard, rather than the Italians, it might focus our minds on just how things have developed since David Cameron stood in Martyr’s Square in Tripoli and declared that Libyans had “no greater friend than the United Kingdom…We will stand with you every step of the way”. But we did nothing of the sort, it was judged to be too expensive. The new government in Tripoli failed to control the insurgent groups that flourished during our joint campaign against Gaddafi and now they are firmly established, waging bloody turf wars. The resulting chaos created the space for the beheading madmen of Isis to grow. One of its recent videos from the region showed 21 Egyptians being decapitated on the shores of the Mediterranean.

As Libya collapses into violence, its great friends in London and Washington have effectively turned a blind eye to the bloody outcome of what they started. As in Iraq, the ultimate victors look like being Islamic fundamentalists – from whom Libyans are now trying to flee in vast numbers. Italy, the closest European country, is taking almost all of the strain.

In many ways, Cameron made the same errors in Libya that Blair made in Iraq. He sent in forces to help remove a hated dictator, and did so on the premise that Britain is a country that shapes the world for the better. He trumpeted the elctions that followed, made a visit to the country he had helped to liberate – and then looked the other way as it slipped into merciless anarchy. As with Blair, initial bravado concealed a woeful lack of planning for the aftermath. The difference with Iraq is that there were no British casualties so the episode is easier to forget. We don’t have to live with the consequences. The Libyans do.

The election campaign has plenty to say about immigration from eastern Europe. Yet none of the parties have said what, if anything, they intend to do to help solve the nightmare of drowning innocents fleeing from the nightmare which we helped to create. Writing large cheques for overseas aid is no substitute for the support offered by a proper military. The Tory-Labour consensus on shrinking the military can only mean more botched jobs. Why is the Royal Navy ( and the navies of France and Spain) not offering to join the Italians in patrolling the waters and helping to save the lives of children? All these countries joined the 2011 bombing campaigns: do they not have a moral duty to deal with what has ensued?

Sadly we no longer have a navy, and these are not easy decisions to make. That David Cameron went in twelve months from proposing air strikes on President Assad of Syria to backing strikes on Assad’s enemies shows just what a quagmire foreign policy has become. But when choosing a leader we have the right to know how they will exert leadership. Cameron was right: Libya deserves friendship. Those who aspire to be Prime Minister should take just one day out from lying about their opponents to spell out just what our friendship is supposed to mean and how without adequate armed forces we propose to honour it.

It would be nice to close our eyes to those pictures of overloaded flimsy boats and the faces of bewildered and terrified children, of tiny bodies drifting in angry seas. But have we really sunk this low? If so we should withdraw from the fantasy of being a world power and stop triggering the living nightmares of others!


QUOTE FOR TODAY:” We have heard about the renewal of Trident,  yet nothing about how the parties would approach a humanitarian problem like Libya. Why not?”…. Spectator,18/4/2105.



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Farewell to arms!

Valentine’s Day. It has to be admitted that there was little evidence of romance in the air as we codgers cleaned out the hens this morning. Even had there been it would have quickly dissipated when Mrs Albert arrived with all guns blazing, her once beloved having forgotten to leave the keys to their love-nest when he headed for the allotments. As the exchange reached Ukraine proportions it was hard to imagine the young misty-eyed kids that once exchanged unsigned cards on that long-gone February 14th.

Omit the squabbling and the same could probably be said for the rest of us. But we all have our memories, and few easily forget the first time we held hands with she whom fate had decided should be our lifetime’s companion. She-who-must-be-obeyed and I were first manacled together some sixty years ago and, since she reads this blog, I hereby record that it doesn’t seem a day too long. Her view may well be different. Either way we both remember our first date – joining the crowds lining the streets to watch the then traditional Valentine parade by the Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry.

Sadly that regiment has long gone and any parade today would have to be staged by G4S, in the event that they turned up and had any arms to slope. It was my mentioning that memorable occasion that triggered this morning’s discussion as we retired to the warm ‘shed’ to mark the day of hearts with our daily tribute to Saint Pickles.

It is no exaggeration to say that we are alarmed at the perilous state of our armed forces. This week Air Chief Marshall Michael Graydon and Vice Admiral Jeremy Blackham have gone into print to bemoan the fact that whilst there has been much talk about “weaponising” the NHS the public service which really needs weapons is being steadily divested. Since 2010, the overall fighting power of the military has been reduced by half.

Britain no longer has any maritime patrol aircraft, we have just three squadrons of Tornados to defend our shores, and the army is suffering a serious manpower shortage. And the cuts go on. Experts believe that within three years UK defence spending could fall as low as 1.7 per cent of GDP – lower than the 2 per cent minimum set by Nato as the qualification for membership.

Politicians of all parties clearly feel that they can get away with cuts to military spending because the public is weary of what it sees as unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet this assumes that the importance of national security is akin to that of fighting wars against insurgents in the Middle East. It is not.

Moreover, the military is being cut back at a time of heightened need for self-defence. On several occasions of late Russian aircraft have been sent to test Western air defences, a display of brinkmanship not seen since the Cold War. Vladimir Putin has already seized Crimea and is sponsoring separatist forces in Ukraine. Cold War-style hostilities are returning, we are slashing our armed forces. Realistically even more threatening is the growth in worldwide terrorism, and the rapidly growing number of British citizens contributing to it.

It is hard to fathom what David Cameron believes about foreign policy and defence. He has spoken of “closing down ungoverned space” in the Sahara yet instead closes down RAF bases. He has responded to each new outrage with sabre rattling whilst continuing to make troops redundant. Most worrying of all he seems content to rely on armed policemen to handle the ever-growing threat of organised terrorism on our streets. Given the ease with which would-be bombers can enter the country the day may well dawn when they cannot cope.

It is not as if he has excelled in exercising soft power. He has been excluded from the crucial Ukraine talks. He has been warned by President Obama about the effect of reducing defence spending on the so-called ‘special relationship’. America’s contribution to Nato is already nudging 70 per cent of the total cost, and US public opinion is questioning its involvement. Britain is rapidly becoming a non-player on the world stage.

If the main parties have an unspoken consensus to turn Britain into Denmark, a country which prides itself on public services, but with little in the way of armed forces or international influence, we should know about it. But even so the prime responsibility of any government is the defence of the realm.

And we increasingly feel a sense of defenceless unease. Maybe we are becoming paranoid, but that doesn’t mean that someone out there isn’t planning our destruction!

You may have noticed the absence of comment on today’s Australia v England clash in the World Cup. It seems that it is not only troops that we now lack!
QUOTE FOR TODAY; ” We are not retreating; we are advancing in another direction”….General Douglas MacArthur.

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Do we really want to lose our libraries?

There was a nip in the air this morning and it was not one for hanging around. But we codgers drew great comfort from the sight of the banks of snowdrops with their promise of warmer times to come. They are not alone for many other bulbs are beginning to signal that it is almost time to prepare the greenhouses for the annual seed propagation. Being a mournful soul, Albert wondered aloud for how much longer we will be able to maintain such a workload but we more stoical creatures prefer to live in the now – today is the only reality.

But it is perhaps a sign of our increasing awareness of the passing years that leads us to increasingly worry about the fate of the NHS. As we cleaned out the hens we mulled over the news that the Ohio-based Cleveland Clinic has hired British consultants to help it explore potential hospital take-overs in the UK following the general election. Oversexed, overpaid and over here – all the usual guff was trotted out but the more rational amongst us reminded ourselves that Cleveland is regularly ranked among the best US hospitals, and has an enviable reputation for treating world leaders and celebrities. Such a move would be very different to the ill-fated acquisition of Hinchingbrooke Hospital by Circle which is now demanding a £10m bailout before pulling out, leaving a huge deficit.

The bulk of the Cleveland hospitals are located in a mile-long campus on the edge of Cleveland, but it also has operations in China, India, Turkey and Canada. It has clear international ambitions, and is opening a 22-storey hospital in Abu Dhabi this Spring. Encouraged by the growth in UK private hospitals earnings from the NHS (10 per cent in 2004 has risen to 26 per cent in 2013) it is said to be keen to make a “game-changing” impact on the UK state-funded healthcare scene.

Significantly the American giant believes that whoever wins the May election will be “open to offers”. We veterans, who tend to regard the NHS as a sort of religious faith, hesitate to immediately leap up and down in horror. Cleveland are not amateurish get-rich-quick merchants and would undoubtedly refuse to dance to the tune of incompetents such as Lansley or Hunt, and could well herald a new era in which healthcare is not treated as a political football. But it is surely time for a grown-up debate for things cannot be allowed to continue to deteriorate.

As we settled around the hut fire for our daily re-enactment of the Feast of St Pickles our thoughts turned to another ‘treasured’ institution – our libraries. Annual numbers of visitors have fallen by 40 million in just 4 years, with particularly sharp drops in deprived areas, as austerity measures force closures across the country. The rapid decline reinforces warnings that the viability of the entire library network could soon be in danger without urgent action to reverse the trend.

According to the House of Commons library 282 million visits were paid to libraries in 2013-14, compared with 322 million four years ago. The biggest fall was in the 16 to 24 age group. Just four years ago 40 per cent made use of the facility, now that has dropped by one-third.

Literacy is very important, but the libraries of today offer far more than books. Most provide regulated internet access and regular talks by local societies which stimulate interest in local social history. Many provide a welcome resting place for harassed Mums who welcome someone else taking on the role of story-teller for an hour or so. All provide a valuable source for those who can’t afford to boost the coffers of Amazon.

Of course there are services more essential than libraries. But at a time when companies such as Amazon pay little corporate tax it is surely time for someone up there to develop a backbone and cry enough is enough. Some parts of our culture must not be destroyed to avoid the challenge of facing up to those who each year rob the national purse of over £25 billion. Perhaps the near one million people who contacted the BBC about the state of Robert Peston’s hair should find something rather more important to complain about.

Sadly we shouldn’t hold our breath. Yesterday the Foreign Secretary castigated Vladimir Putin as a tyrant, claiming that in the 21st century it is “unthinkable to cross the borders of a sovereign state and to invade its territory”. Were he to pop in to his local library he would find that in 2003 we did exactly that and killed about half a million of its citizens in the process.
QUOTES FOR TODAY; ” A man came to my door and said, ‘I’d like to read your gas meter.’ I said, ‘Whatever happened to the classics?’….Emo Philips. ” A classic is a book that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read”…Mark Twain.

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Don’t apologise – swamping was the right word!

We codgers admit to being as scientific as the late president of the Flat Earth Society, so it is less than surprising that we find the latest pronouncements about the effect of global warming beyond our understanding. When the warnings about an ever warming planet first hit the headlines we those of us still possessing choppers took comfort in the thought that the days of their chattering on the allotments would soon be a distant memory. Today a report published in Nature Geoscience reveals that whilst the summers will indeed get hotter, the UK winters will head in the opposite direction.

Apparently the loss of floating Arctic sea ice in the Barents and Kara seas north of Scandinavia can affect the global circulation of air currents and lead to bitterly cold winds blowing for extended periods in winter over Central Asia and Europe, including the UK. Small consolation – the Japanese scientists have added that the cooling effect in unlikely to last “beyond this century”. It is time to buy shares in Long Johns Ltd.

It wasn’t a happy note on which to start another week on the allotments. Being ostrich like by nature we quickly turned our attention to other news, as we cleaned out the hens. Richard Carter, from Anglesey, is out selling poppies again this year and has said that his efforts are aimed at funding the expensive prosthetic limbs required for the lads who have come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Richard is 100 years-old. Perhaps if Mr Blair reads of this inspiring example he will donate the odd million from his fortune.

Even the news that Russell Brand is to seek election as London Mayor once Boris has departed to seek election as Prime Minister couldn’t deflect our attention from the end of the Afghan mission. In addition to all those now dependent on the efforts of such as Richard Carter, many families, both here and in the United States, now mourn the loss of sons and daughters and the death toll in Afghanistan itself is beyond contemplation. As a result we hesitate to join the chorus of those who claim that the whole venture was doomed from its bloody outset. But the signs from both Iraq and Afghanistan are ominous and it is difficult to foresee other than both countries returning to the grips of madmen. Once again we have intervened in cultures that we do not understand, once again politicians seeking self-glory have destroyed the lives of many brave and innocent people.

By the time we reached the allotments hut for our undeserved break my pals had shifted their attention to less weighty issues. And they don’t come less weighty than the new brand of Police Commissioners introduced by the coalition. When the idea was first muted we welcomed the idea of the police being held to account by respected pillars of society, but we predicted that the scheme would be hijacked by politicians. We were right for once. Following the belated resignation of the Labour PCC Shaun Wright in South Yorkshire, the new candidates are seeking votes. It is, the press tells us, a battle royal between Ukip and the Labour Party. Congratulations are due to our dear leader – he has now managed to politicise the police. Expect another farcically low turn-out from an outraged public.

Even news of the latest stage in David Cameron’s divorce from Aunty Merkel could not keep the supposed gaffe by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon from today’s front pages. Speaking to Sky News Mr Fallon said that towns up and down the UK are being “swamped” by immigrant workers. Many communities, he said, feel themselves to be “under siege from EU migrants”. Within hours Downing Street criticised the minister. He should, said the duty spin-doctor, learn to “chose his words better”. Rubbish.

Whatever the politically-correct brigade chose to believe Fallon was reflecting the views of millions. A friend lives in a community in the south of England and tells us that at first incomers were welcomed. Then the trickle turned into a flood and they began to feel like strangers in their own patch. The sheer weight of numbers led to tensions, now the smallest incidents turn into major hostility. Local services have been “swamped” and bigots are drawing attention that they could once only have dreamed of. Migrants pour in but, at a time of widespread funding cuts, services already creaking at the seams are reaching breaking point.

This has nothing to do with racism, everything to do with finite capacity. On last night’s BBC news a Labour shadow minister gleefully pointed out that “Cameron is backing into a corner from which he can only recommend leaving the EU”. True, but does he really believe that such a stance will be a vote-loser?

And now for the day’s biggest headline. The health promotion division of the chattering classes has announced that Cocoa is the secret to a long life. How we codgers have reached our late eighties without consuming the foul stuff remains a mystery!
QUOTE FOR TODAY: ” He’s on the mend, sitting up in bed blowing the froth off his medicine!” …Flann O’Brien.

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Britain sups with the devil!

Thanks Boris! It was pictures of loopy BJ waving a brick about his head that focussed our attention on to the large stack in the corner of the allotments. When some time ago we built our ‘hut’ Albert inadvertently added a naught to our order, and a few days later we arrived to find the equivalent of an Egyptian pyramid. We now learn that the cost of bricks has risen by 30 per cent in the past twelve months and, better still for skint codgers, the waiting time for deliveries has climbed to 40 weeks. Apparently the collapse of the house-building business in 2008 led to manufacturers closing factories and reducing output. Demand is now rocketing but supply is struggling to catch up. The average house is made of 10,000 to 15,000 bricks and we are about to make enough profit to keep us in doughnuts for a year.

The sudden conversion into gold of our hoarded Alderley Mixture bricks made by the Newcastle-based Ibstock company provided good news on a wet morning dominated by absolute anger. All of us have followed the plight of local man Alan Henning, and the dreaded news that this good man has been butchered by scum has left us seething with feelings of impotence and head-bursting frustration. Alan was engaged in aid work aimed at helping suffering innocents in Syria, and we find the sight of a British citizen obscenely ending his life too much to bear. Everyone realises that air strikes will not stop the murderous Isis mobs and for the hundredth time we felt stunned at the inability of the United Nations to muster a task force capable of stopping the ever-increasing carnage wrought by madmen in the name of an imaginary God.

Having cleaned out the hens we codgers gathered in the hut in an atmosphere that was unusually sober. At times such as this one casts around to point an accusing finger. Sadly it doesn’t have far to travel for our own country is culpable in the extreme. The decision to invade Iraq provided fanatical preachers with the opportunity to radicalise young British Muslims, and for too long we failed to move against them in the interests of ‘human rights’. It seems that innocent victims such as Lee Rigby and Alan Henning had no human rights.

And the misguided tolerance goes on. Only yesterday we learned of yet more developments in the so-called Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham. Those who would indoctrinate our small children in hatred are still active and still the authorities quake at the thought of being labelled by the politically incorrect brigade. And to add to the danger growing in every corner of our society the coalition government has reduced the numerical strength of our armed forces to the point where public safety is no longer assured.

But an even bigger threat has been created by the obsession for attracting foreign investment. Qatar, arguably the most corrupt state in the world, has been invited to establish itself in our capital city. It has invested billions of pounds in such projects as The Shard, the tallest building in Europe, the take over of Harrods, the Olympic Village, One Hyde Park, part of Canary Wharf, the US Embassy building in Grosvenor Square and Chelsea Barracks. Its ruler even thinks that his enormous clout entitles him to blag his way into the Queen’s carriage at Ascot. At last there are calls for greater scrutiny of Qatar’s connections to global terrorism and Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of Parliament’s intelligence and security committee, has warned Qatar that it must choose its friends or live with the consequences”. Too late.

Khalifa Muhammad Turki al-Subaiy is a prominent Qatari citizen who is believed to have provided “financial support” for Kahlid Sheikh Mohammed of 9/11 infamy, who was jailed for terrorism offences in 2008 but released after only six months. He is now accused of funding Islamist terrorists in Syria and Iraq. Documents released by the US treasury disclose links between al-Subaiy and a terrorist financier accused of bankrolling the plot to blow up airliners using ‘toothpaste’ tube bombs. The American military thwarted the plot in an air strike on the terrorists headquarters in Syria just over a week ago. There are widespread allegations that Qatar is involved in financing Islamist militant groups in West Africa, helping with weapons and ideological training and with funding the buildings of mosques in Mali and Nigeria that preach highly intolerant versions of Islam. In fact the desks of security agents across the Western world are littered with evidence that Qatar is the main financial source of the creatures that threaten us.

Dr David Weinberg, of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, is right now preparing a report naming 20 Qataris, including al-Subaiy, with links to terror funding. “The scope of Qatar-based terrorist fundraising is astonishing,” he says. “Tiny Qatar has displaced its much bigger neighbour Saudi Arabia as the number one source of private donations to Isis and other violent extremists in Syria and Iraq”. The report will claim that the amount of funding is colossal.

When you visit London it is easy to spot the Shard. Next time you do so spare a thought for Alan Henning and remember that old adage about supping with the devil. We may be almost powerless to tackle Isis in Iraq and Syria, but one would have hoped that their funders and disciples in the UK would be easier targets.
QUOTE FOR TODAY; ” Alan Henning raised money for Syrian-based charities by washing cars and chose to sleep in a van on his journey across the Middle East rather than spend money on accommodation that could go towards those in greater need. He had particular concern for the effect the conflict has had on Syrian children”…..Rachael Pells, Independent.

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The United Ostrich Kingdom!

The autumn leaves scrunched like a creme brulee as we entered the allotments this morning. It was a beautiful morning but all aorund us were the signs of a summer gone with only the asters putting on a colourful last stand. The absence of wind combined with a heavy dew to produce a breathless hush punctuated only by the blackbirds and Albert’s customary prophesies of doom. As we set to on our hen-cleaning we felt inclined to feel that all was well with the world. But of course we were wrong.

The headlines that greeted us when we duly gathered in the hut solemnly announced that Britain is at war. Given the apalling barbarity of the insane hordes of the so-called Islamic State we had imagined that we already were, but it seems that the agreement of MPs to the use of our six remaining war-planes to bomb targets in Iraq makes it official. Having watched extracts of the six hours of Westminster waffle we codgers found ourselves wondering if the title of United Ostrich Kingdom might be a more appropriate one.

Going to war is, at any time, a grave matter – lives will be lost, and even the lives of our enemies are sacred. But when the enemy represents the purest of evils we have seen since the Second World War the decision should be straightforward. And so it has been for France, Australia, Holland, Belgium and the United States. No deference to their respective legislatures, just leadership. For Obama, Abbott, Hollande and the rest the crucifixion, beheading and butchering of Christians and Yazidis was cause enough. Not so the UK. For our current generation of political leaders there is safety in numbers – a bit like a middle manager cc-ing an email to make sure that everyone shares in the decision in case it goes wrong.

And this one already has. The mandate for action only in Iraq is absurd – as if Isil recognises such things as national boundaries. If Isil are to be defeated they must be destroyed wherever they are, and that right now means across the Syrian border. It is an absurdity to limit our forces to engaging an enemy only on one side of a border but not a few yards away on the other side. David Cameron’s hands were shaking as he addressed the Commons yesterday, the result perhaps of his fear at the thought of having sacrificed what he knows to be reality. Even some of the ostriches ventured to ask how our contribution could possibly help if we publicly announce that the beheader’s arsenals and main supply centres are sacrosanct.

The latest opinion polls show that only 17 per cent of the public are opposed to either strikes on Isil’s Syrian strongholds or troops on the ground. So it is clear that there is now general recognition of the fact that the mad jihadis represent a huge threat to our own society, that the murder of Lee Rigby was but a terrible foretaste of things to come. But our leaders lack courage, there is no modern Churchill. Our forces have been significantly hit by cuts, their capability degraded by government design. Their advice will undoubtedly have been that you cannot defeat Isil without overall air strikes backed by troops on the ground – and that the Iraqi army is not up to it. The Kurds are, but they lack equipment.

The ostriches have buried their heads in the desert sand and we can only hope that others will now rectify the murderous mess that we helped to create. Frankly our reluctance will have little military significance since we no longer have armed strength. But it was tempting to laugh when Chris Grayling announced yesterday that Nigel Farage does not have what it takes to be a Prime Minister. Does he really believe that Messrs Cameron and Miliband do?

As if to enhance the public impression of a weak and subservient Britain we read this morning that the EU has instructed us to pay more than £10 million in unemployment benefits to EU citizens who returned to Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic after being made redundant here. It seems that once an EU subject has lived for a short time in Britain we are under obligation to pay benefits until such time as they find work at home. Small wonder that Kenneth Clarke and others are now urging our dear leader to drop his pledge of a referendum in the unlikely event that he survives the 2015 election.

We also learn today that the passport Office is to be taken back under the direct control of the Home Office. Theresa May chose to announce this U-turn of monumental proportions just as the ostriches were assembling yesterday. We also learn that a patient at one of the much-lauded private healthcare providers has been awarded £500,000 in damages after her eyesight was destroyed.

It seems that ostriches are good at burying bad news as they bury their own heads!
QUOTE FOR TODAY; ” I don’t know what effect these men have on the enemy, but by God they frighten me!”…..Duke of Wellington.

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Unlimited holidays? No thanks!

There are times when we codgers feel as dinosaurs must once have felt – too big, out of touch and heading for extinction. That was certainly the case this morning when we mulled over a new survey showing that whilst the UK is no longer a land of culinary ignorance, one in seven of older men can’t cook and baulk at even boiling an egg. As we cleaned out the hens we attempted to assuage our sense of guilt. It is probably an outdated concept but we have always believed in horses for courses. Most of our wives are experts in the art, most of us equally so in household repairs ranging from boilers to guttering. A partnership of equals? Please refrain from comment – we suspect the verdict will be dinosaurs, or in the case of Albert ferrets, for he is certainly not too big.

It was drizzling, and by the time we thankfully escaped into the cosy shed our thoughts had turned from sunken savarins to today’s vote in the House of Commons. It seems certain that use of our few remaining aircraft to bomb Isis in Iraq will be sanctioned. Frankly our contribution will be insignificant by comparison with that of the rest of the new ‘coalition’, and the issue is our willingness to stand up and be counted. We are puzzled by those who have rushed to condemn even token action. Murderous psychopaths such as the so-called Islamic State are a major threat to many nations and they have to be stopped. Air strikes alone will not achieve this but without help from the air the ground forces ranged against them will fail. Anyone born, as we were, in the thirties knows only too well the outcome of appeasement, and these insane religious fanatics are every bit as much a threat to humanity as was Hitler.

It was with some relief that, as we downed umpteen mugs of tea, we turned our thoughts to a more peaceful subject. The ever innovative Richard Branson has announced the equivalent of a corporate honesty box. Virgin plans to grant its employees the right to take unlimited holidays. The policy-that-isn’t will permit all salaried staff to take off whenever they want for as long as they want, and there will be no need to ask for prior permission. It matches the practice of the boss who can slip off to Nicker Island any time he wants. It is the ultimate in equality.

But there is a condition. Staff are free to bunk off, says Richard, provided that: “they feel 100 per cent comfortable that they and their team are up to date on every project and that their absence will not in any way damage the business”. Now that is different to the great man himself who has underlings to take up the slack, and in any case no-one is going to question his right to take a break. For the rest of the Virgin empire what seems on the face of it to be a wonderful innovation will surely create a great deal of uncertainty. It will probably also create the temptation to take less rather than more holidays with a view to being labelled conscientious.

Perhaps our newly established status as dinosaurs is once again in evidence here, but we cannot avoid the conclusion that the option of taking permitted holidays is the better one. Hands up anyone who has ever – ever – felt 100 per cent comfortable that they are completely on top of things before heading off. It seems to us that the new scheme will blur the lines between work and play. Lounging on the sand whilst worrying about condemnation for being away when an unanticipated problem erupts does not sound to us like a restful experience. And human nature being what it is there is always the possibility that a rival in the office will enjoy the opportunity to pass the buck.

We much prefer the initiative launched recently by some French employers. Holidays are authorised and all contact by emails and phones are banned during vacation times. That way, it seems to us, the employee gets his or her holidays and can leave the stress where it was created.

Perhaps we haven’t yet heard the full details of the bearded wonder’s brainwave. Maybe the people taking the least holidays will qualify for a seat aboard his Mars mission. Then again since it is to be a one-way trip perhaps the people taking the most time off will be pushed on board?
QUOTE FOR TODAY: ” Normally when I’m on holiday and I’m asked what I do, I say that I’m a traffic warden. That makes me much more popular”….Steve Pound, MP.

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Mentioning the unmentionable!

We codgers realise that today we are the youngest we will ever be, but the years seem to be slipping by at an ever increasing rate. We often cheer ourselves up by telling one another that we don’t look a day older without mentioning the unmentionable, which is that the reason for that apparent miracle is that we met yesterday. I was reminded of this when yesterday I bumped into a chap I worked with some thirty years ago. After some hesitation he remarked that I had changed almost beyond recognition, and I refrained from replying that he has changed so much that I didn’t recognise him at all.

Nowhere is the ageing process more apparent than with the young. Visitors sometimes recoil with amazement when meeting my grandchildren who they haven’t seen for several years. Because I see them every day I hadn’t noticed their transformation, although it had occurred to me that a subtle change has evolved. It seems but yesterday that I helped to look after them, in recent weeks they have looked after me. They used to delight in visiting the allotments to see the chickens, now they come less enthusiastically to pick the beans which, during my post-operation period, represents a task akin to re-roofing the hen-houses.

I was reminded of all this when, after this morning’s hen-cleaning – which has become for me a sort of spectator sport – Tom referred to unmentionables. There have always been subjects that remain in that category in the hut given the wide variety of views on such matters as religion and politics. The latter is no longer a sensitive issue since, in common with most folk, we no longer respect its practitioners or see ideological differences between the parties. But it was only when Tom pointed it out that we recognised that some subjects are never mentioned as the new age spin-doctors bombard us with sound-bites.

The example Tom had in mind was the colossal national debt. Hardly a day passes but our dear leader and his pals rattle off new evidence of the miraculous economic wonders wrought by Saint Osborne. They rely on the fact that most of us would prefer to watch paint dry to thinking about economics, and confine themselves to talking about the ‘deficit’, the gap between what the treasury rakes in and what the government spends. Householders can relate to that, but they also know that breaking even is not enough if you have mountainous debts incurring mountainous interest payments.

And that is where we as a nation are right now. In fact it is worse than that, the deficit is growing too. It is when you examine the reasons for Gorgeous George’s failure to honour his pledge to balance the national books that you spot the unmentionable. Tax revenues are down by 4.8 per cent on the previous year, and that is due to a further fall in income from corporation tax which has now sunk to £6.56 billion. Why? More and more of our largest companies are practising tax avoidance. In the fiscal year to date the Government has borrowed £37 billion, compared with £35 billion for the same four months of last year.

In effect the misery being imposed by schemes such as the bedroom-tax and disabled benefit cuts is having virtually no effect. Neither will they have so long as the companies that make their profits from sales to UK customers are allowed to avoid tax. And transferring ownership of our railways and energy suppliers to foreign interests, governments even, will only serve to make things worse.

Of course Westminster is not alone in the art of the unmentionable. In a few weeks time people in Scotland have to decide whether to remain part of the UK. We codgers tend to sympathise with the idea but where are the financial projections? The voters are being bombarded with talk of utopia from Alex Salmond and Armageddon from Alastair Darling, but the facts that really matter are clearly regarded as unmentionable. We entirely understand the wish to escape rule by a remote bunch of rich Old Etonians who have just one MP in Scotland. But does it make any sense to base such an important decision on whether the BBC will cut them off from the dubious pleasure of watching the Eurovision Song Contest and Strictly Come Dancing?

Meanwhile the media is understandably preoccupied with the hunt for the British Jihadists who executed an American journalist, and the continuing slaughter of the innocent in Gaza. But study the coverage carefully and you will spot the near-unmentionables. It is reasonable to assume that if both horrors were being committed by, say, Methodists, every editor’s pen would be pouring vitriol over the heads of the followers of Wesley. But Israel and the British Muslim communities are, it seems, unmentionable.

Even the ever-sparkling Alastair Campbell doesn’t seem to have cottoned on to the concept of the unmentionable. He has today called for action to tackle the “mounting crisis in the nation’s mental health”. No chance Alastair, when it comes to the unmentionable mental health services are top of the list.

But be of good cheer! The Bank Holiday weekend is here. Just don’t mention the weather forecast!
QUOTE FOR TODAY; ” Violence is the repartee of the illiterate”….George Bernard Shaw.

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If it ain’t broke don’t mend it!

It feels good to be up and about again, and even better to be able to stand and watch as my fellow chicken-keepers chase the hens and, having failed to grab them correctly, end up with a flurry of wings accompanied by language that would have shocked my Aunty Ethel. As I stood there this morning I felt rather like Professor Sir Mike Richards, who yesterday pontificated about some of the hospitals he has inspected. As plain Dr Richards he was not renowned for his administrative skills, but now that our dear leader has elevated him to judge those of others he is transformed into the nation’s greatest expert. Perhaps we should both remember the old maxim that talks of them that can’t teaching.

We seem to have become a nation of meddlers. Back in the days of Clem-the-clam Attlee there were few government ‘advisers’, let alone an army of highly paid management consultants. Now Whitehall is awash with them and the result is constant tinkering with our institutions and services. The latest example concerns our GP services, which once provided excellent care for every family. Along come Lansley, Hunt and countless supposed experts and the tinkering begins. Now the service is in chaos, the GPs utterly demoralised and waiting times in the legendary London bus category. And today we hear that ‘failing’ practices are to be put into “special measures” with teams of yet more ‘experts’ parachuted in to put things right.

Who are these ‘experts’ in diagnosis who are freely available? When I chaired a Primary Care Trust I met some of them. They comprise doctors who have never run a practice, rather like football coaches who prefer to forget that they were never able to bend it like Beckham. The only way to restore our family doctor services to its previous glory is to stop meddling and to leave the only real experts to run their own show. The vast majority of GPs know when they need help, and would prefer to devote their time to treating their patients and keeping up to date with current research than to spend their days engulfed in bureaucracy and advice from people less expert than themselves.

It is not just in the field of medicine that a bloated top-down system of government is creating havoc. There is now quite rightly a growing sense of panic at the threat of Isis militants. David Cameron yesterday used a newspaper column to talk of the need to counter it both at home and abroad. But it’s one thing to sound like a statesman and another to provide a coherent, consistent and intelligent foreign policy that makes you one. The sad fact is that Western foreign policy, backed by Britain, has contributed to the conditions that have allowed Isis to thrive.

Our opposition to Bashar al-Assad in Syria allowed Isis to grow. While parliament refused to authorise direct intervention we encouraged the flow of money and arms from some of our Gulf allies. In Iraq our reluctance to contain the sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nourial-Maliki created the conditions for Isis to thrive there too. And our silence on Israel’s onslaught on Gaza has created emotional support for Isis throughout the Muslim world. Cameron inherited a foreign policy already in disarray after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but there is substantial evidence that none of these errors of judgement would have occurred when the advice was provided by seasoned on-the-spot civil servants who drafted policy proposals for ministers. Like Blair before him, Cameron has surrounded himself with ‘advisers’ more concerned with political sound-bites than reasoned risk analysis.

So it is with the police. Experienced observers could long since have warned successive Home Secretaries that the leadership of the police was becoming enmeshed with vested interests and delusions of omnipotence. The ultimate shambles manifested itself in the Cliff Richard affair. Trust in the police has all but vanished, and now we are told that officers are to be disciplined. Too little, too late. The regular statements of trust drafted for ministers by political advisers now look what they were – political hogwash.

It occurs to us codgers that what has been lacking for some time is a brake, one that only MPs can provide. Back in the days when ministers were not surrounded by armies of advisers it mattered little that parliament closed for lengthy holidays. Now these increase the extent to which Downing Street becomes an executive hub, one populated almost entirely by political advisers in the Andy Coulson mode.

At the very least what is now needed is a formal standing committee present during holidays and empowered to hold ministers to account. We know several of our regions MPs well and they regularly tell us that they now feel marginalised and no longer able to bring influence to bear. A Labour MP told us that even the leader of the opposition now has a a large office of ‘advisers’, and no ear for his elected colleagues. A Conservative summed the dilemma up perfectly.

He told us that his government is now a London fixated clique of unelected ‘know-alls’. Someone should remind them, he said, that if something ain’t broke the best policy is not to mend it! Perhaps we need an anti-meddling law?
QUOTE FOR TODAY; ” It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it!”….Steven Wright.

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Just a pebble in the ocean!

Like Bovril a daily dose of boredom can change your life. Having been confined to the house for over a week now, I find myself seeking amusement in places that hitherto have passed me by in the manner of an HS2 train. Yesterday I actually read the hundreds of Spam messages that land in the comments box of every blogger. I counted twelve messages urging me to buy cheap jerseys, eight offering escorts not of the Ford variety, the same number introducing drugs that I have never heard of and handbags that sound too exotic for Wigan market. All lead with complimentary remarks about the blog, and I had to remind myself that I was but one of a million recipients. It is a fair bet that the writers of this universal rubbish are equally bored.

I also listened in to, rather than slammed down the phone on, a series of cold calls. Before the salesmen could get into their set patter I asked them why they earn their living working in call-centres. Most rang up on me, but one Indian gentleman told me that he had no other way to earn a crust than to spend his days ringing everyone listed on tabulations purchased from Barclays.

On a more positive note several of my allotments pals called in bearing veggies garnered from my plot. Amongst them was Harold, whose style of conversation always fascinates me in that every subject is accompanied by a detailed description. He told me that last week he drove over the Humber suspension bridge. It was, he told me, opened by the Queen in 1981 and was at that time the longest and most expensive single-span, concrete supported bridge in the world. It is, he added, unique in that it connects Willerby and Barton-upon-Humber, two places that no one wants to go to. And to think that I imagined it to be yet another feature of tedious journeys.

Things brightened up no end when I tuned in to the European athletics. Forty year-old mother of two Jo Pavey produced the performance of her life to win the 10,000m race. No weary acceptance of the ageing factor for Jo, this down-to-earth star has enough determination to achieve anything. But as she performed her lap of honour I did wonder if the sudden introduction to her life of hordes of idiotic autograph hunters and tabloid photographers just might trigger the realisation that fame can be a two-edged sword.

That certainly proved to be so in the tragic case of the much-loved Robin Williams, whose death has shocked us all. I have always wondered if most psychiatrists are barking, and their outpourings in this morning’s papers have reinforced that suspicion. The most eminent amongst them solemnly declares that external factors play no part in depression. I wonder if the grieving relatives of Stephanie Bottrill read that. Yesterday she committed suicide, leaving a note blaming the effect of the “bedroom tax”.

The ministers responsible for that penny-pinching illogical scheme won’t have read it. They, it seems, have other more important things to deal with. Such as supporting the new boss at Serco, the villains of the multimillion-pound offender tagging scandal, which was obliged to pay back £70m to the Government as atonement for over-charging. You would have imagined that, in the much lauded new world of competition, that would have been the end of contracts for Serco. But no, new boss Rupert Soames reports that the Government is “back on side”. Could that mean that the old-boy political network is back in action? Mr Soames is Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson!

But in the feeble minds of codgers such as us the appalling situation in Iraq continues to loom above everything else. One of Britain’s most respected commanders, Col Tim Collins, has compared the massacres in Iraq at the hands of Isis with genocides carried out by Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot, accusing the Government of failing in its “moral obligation” to intervene. Col Collins, famed for his inspirational speech on he eve of the 2003 Iraq war, says that politicians have “left for lunch” and warns that ancient civilisations will be “extinguished” unless Britain gives a lead by joining air strikes and providing arms to Kurdish forces. He also urges that troops be stationed in Iraq to help bring to an end the appalling atrocities being committed by the new so-called Islamic State.

Yesterday the humanitarian situation continued to deteriorate on Mount Sinjar where 30,000 refugees are trapped by the Islamic extremists. The United Nations warned that Iraq will descend into a “mass atrocity and potential genocide” unless “action is taken within hours”. Frankly the chance of the UN taking effective action within weeks let alone hours is minimal. Britain helped to create Iraq in 1920 and we do have a moral responsibility to help. We have used the Kurds as a public convenience for too long, now they represent the only hope of stopping the Islamist murderers, but their lack of weaponry prevents them from resisting as they would wish. Isis has the latest hi-tech weaponry in abundance, most of it supplied by the Americans and us to the Iraqi so-called army.

As you read this whole families are dying in despair, and arguably the greatest threat to world peace is being allowed to advance at will. What we have done so far amounts to what Col Collins describes as a “pebble in the ocean”, and what Cardinal Nichols, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England, has described as “not enough”. The failure to recall parliament is a national disgrace.

I have just been interrupted by an Indian lady inquiring about my vitamin intake. I told her that I lie in bed all day and have no need for such supplements. I added that I am thinking of setting up a call centre in Wigan. She rang up on me.
QUOTE FOR TODAY; ” Life is like opening a tin of sardines. We’re all looking for the key!”….Alan Bennett.

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Deaths, Prison and horse’s arses!

Albert tells me that, when cleaning out the hens this morning, my pals on the allotments could talk of little else but the tragic news of the death of Robin Williams. We have often recalled his brilliant performance in ‘Dead Poet’s Society’, ‘Good Will Hunting’, ‘Mrs Doubtfire and a host of other memorable films. This wonderful actor inspired and entertained millions over many years and had a worldwide fan base.

Early reports from California suggest suicide. It is so hard to understand how someone so universally loved and admired could reach such a situation but, sadly, depression can hit any one of us and the uplifting light of joy can find no way into the dark night of the soul. By coincidence I have just finished reading Sheila Hancock’s book about her life with John Thaw. He died from cancer but also endured a long battle with depression. Many of the best actors are at heart private people and one wonders if the constant pressure of public acclaim eventually overwhelms them, and turns an identity crisis into a living nightmare. We simply don’t know but for us codgers the world is a darker place without two men who so often brightened our mundane existence.

It is, as they say’ a funny old world. People we admired from afar are dying, madmen are slaughtering fellow human beings in the name of their imaginary God, Ministers are resigning because they see £120,000 a year as poverty, and man’s lack of respect for the environment is destroying the balance of the earth’s climate as the ice caps melt. But right now there are armies of ‘experts’ studying such things as the need to widen deckchairs to accommodate the ever increasing size of the human posterior. Perhaps they should advise the government to replace the ones they are rearranging on the decks of the Titanic?

Amongst the rearrangements is the Prison Service. A report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons tells us that the conditions in our prisons are “not acceptable in a civilised country”. Cells are “dangerously overcrowded”, and there is a total lack of rehabilitation. Staff cuts and privatisation have led to a sharp increase in inmate suicides. Inmates are locked up for 23 hours each day and the situation, says Nick Hardwick, is “horrible”.

People who study such things tell us that immigration is a major factor here. But whatever the causes for the rise in the prison population it is surely time for action. The possibility of rehabilitation is crucial, and locking up first-time offenders cheek by jowl with hardened criminals makes that near-impossible. Putting untrained employees of private companies in charge of chaos serves only to create even more chaos and lack of order.

Inevitably the chattering classes have been quick to come up with their solution – stop sending people to jail. What a wonderful message to would-be law breakers that is. The only logical answer is to build more prisons and to house miscreants in humane conditions in which they are no longer a danger to the public, yet still have the opportunity to reform if they are willing to do so. Yes, an expansion programme would cost money but, as with many essential services, cuts eat away at the heart of society.

Has any thought been given to converting the many empty tower blocks and outdated office blocks that we regularly see being demolished? Such sights have become a spectator sport. In our patch a large block built in the seventies has just been bulldozed to make way for up-market houses. Has any thought been given to tax avoidance which creates a huge void in the nation’s piggy-bank?

The answer is undoubtedly no. We live in a political system where the only motivation is to hype up the promises with the next election in mind. Have you ever wondered what society would be like if the only candidates were Independents, free of political dogma and unproductive point-scoring?

Dream on!

The American standard railway gauge (the distance between the rails) is 4’8.5″. Why this very odd number? Because that is how we build them in England, and English ex-pats designed the US railroads.
Why did the English choose the number? Because the people who built the first tramways used the same jigs and tools used for building wagons which used that wheel spacing. Why did the wagons have that spacing? Because had they used any other spacing the wagon wheels would have broken on some of the old long-distance roads in England, because that was the spacing of the wheel ruts
Who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built them for their legions. Roman chariots formed the initial ruts which everyone had to match for fear of wheel damage. Thus today’s American standard railway gauge is derived from the original specifications for a Roman war chariot.
Imperial Rome army chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the rear ends of two war horses.
When you see a Space Shuttle on its launch pad you may notice that there are two big booster rockets attached to the side of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters (SRBs). They are made by Thiokal at their factory in Utah. The design engineers would have preferred larger SRBs but they have to be shipped from the factory by train. The line runs through a tunnel which is only slightly wider than the track width which, as you now know, is about as wide as two horses behinds.
So what is arguably the design of the worlds most sophisticated method of transport was determined over 2,000 years ago by the width of a horse’s backside.
It reminds us that horse’s arses control almost everything!
(With thanks to reader G)

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