White Christmas

It began with shouting from somewhere above the small bedsit where Jeff Blake lived.

Not the floor above certainly, where the ancient Misses Clayton sang hymns on Sunday afternoons to the accompaniment of their brother Michael’s squeeze box, but from some greater altitude, most likely the flat under the eaves which was always a trouble for the landlord to let, because of the endemic damp, according to those residents who concerned themselves with these things.

The arrival and departure of several tenants over recent months left Jeff at a loss to identify the present occupant. Probably the thin man in the shabby dark coat who had passed him on the stairs recently, a man only seen that once, his “Wotcha cock” as he hurried by being the only words the two had shared.

Whoever was involved, the noise, principally raised voices, was getting louder. There was finally a scream, then a crash.

The house was not often the scene of domestic wrangling, if that was indeed the problem, but this disturbance seemed more serious, so much worse in fact that Jeff felt moved to open the door to the dark stairway and look up.

Another crash, and this time accompanied by a gasp of pain from someone, left Jeff in a quandary.

He heard locks and bolts being screwed home by the Misses Clayton, but just as he somewhat timidly put an exploratory foot on the staircase, the door of the attic banged to, and amidst some shouting, the man he had seen in the dark coat ran down, pausing only for a moment as he passed to thrust something at Jeff.

The man, bereft of his coat now though instantly recognisable from his greased hair, winked quickly at Jeff, said something like, “I’ll be back,” and sprinted down the stairs, taking them two and three at a time. He was followed closely by two other men, both hindered by large boots, young enough to have been policemen, shouting at him to stop. The greased hair man showed no inclination to do anything of the sort and the door to the street banged shut, only for it to open and bang shut again as his pursuers followed.

Jeff looked at the small parcel in his hands. “Well,” he thought, “it’s none of my business,” and he retreated once more behind his door, tossing the thick envelope onto a shelf. He went to the small window that fronted the street. There indeed was a police car, its doors still wide open as though others within had also joined the chase. But of the man and his pursuers, there was no sign.

As though to close the matter definitively, a van with a loudspeaker on its roof progressed slowly down the street playing Christmas carols at a loud volume to all and sundry, whether they had a will to listen or not. A squad of muffled individuals followed, rattling collecting tins at shoppers and others, ringing doorbells. Jeff closed his curtains. No one responded to the ringing of the doorbells to the flats, not even the Misses Clayton.

Within a few minutes, all was quiet once more and Jeff resumed his seat at his desk, sucking his pen while giving his full attention now to the death of Mr Coyle, the softly-spoken gang boss who had promised he would mete out suitable revenge on Inspector Backton, the hero of Jeff’s unfinished novel, whose lovely, and icily efficient secretary had not returned to her post after lunch.

Jeff typed on, oblivious to the fact that it was Christmas Eve, impervious too to the fact that his own girlfriend, the lovely but not at all icy or efficient Molly, would be arriving on his doorstep not long from now, expecting some sort of seasonal festivity, and would probably be disappointed by that which either Jeff or the local pub were prepared to offer.

“Come off it, Fingers,” Jeff typed, “I know you were in on the warehouse job, even if your brother is prepared to swear you were at the dogs.”

He looked up at the clock. “Cripes,” he said, knowing that, while it was too late to do much about it, the wrath of Molly would soon likely descend about his ears. Somehow, though, the problem of Mrs Pendleton and what she had seen of the jewel heist invaded his mind once more, and it was only after much ripping and scrunching of paper that he came upon the answer. Of course, it wasn’t Mrs Pendleton who had seen the knife that later would be found adjacent to the body of Mr Coyle. No. It was her suddenly created autistic son, as unreliable a witness as could be found and a further complication for Inspector Backton, who loved growing runner beans and the sound of Purcell. He was, in Jeff’s book, to be tested to the limit, and in the flood of words that followed, Jeff once more became oblivious to the passing of time. He was indeed, oblivious to everything until growing darkness and the incessant ringing of his doorbell forced him from the keyboard.

It was Molly, and as he buzzed her in from the street, he thought how selfish he had been to forget everything, to be carried along in the torrent of words that had come streaming from him as he invented the small, intricate and slowly ticking world of crime that he hoped would bring some sort of relief from the financial pressure of being a teaching assistant in a local school.

He opened the door of the flat preparing excuses, most of which he had over-used by now, with Molly at least.

“Molly…” he began, but she was carrying many bags and had a small parcel in her mouth, which she gestured he should take from her as a matter of urgency.

“Thanks. Phew. Found that on the stairs. As you can see, I’ve been shopping.” She pouted at him for a kiss.

Molly was small and lissom, with dark hair and eyes, and bright teeth which showed evenly as she smiled. Jeff who was guiltily remembering that he hadn’t shaved that day, smiled back.

“I thought the good Inspector might have been taking up your day, and I thought we could do with some festive cheer.” The bags she had carried were overflowing onto the threadbare sofa. “Come and see what I’ve bought.” She threw her beret onto the shelf, where, as though by design, it completely obscured the mysterious envelope.

“But where on earth did you get the money?” Jeff asked, staring at the pile of groceries that would almost not have been out of place in the display windows of Messrs Fortnum and Mason.

“I blew the redundancy money – well, some of it,” Molly said, smiling. “Well, most of it actually. Don’t be cross, Jeff.”

Molly had lost her admin assistant job a couple of weeks ago and with Christmas approaching, had so far found it difficult to replace.

“This lot makes the place look a bit like Aladdin’s cave. What have we got here? Marrons glacés? Apricots in Cognac? Preserved lemons? Blimey, Moll, you’ve not held back, have you?” Jeff said, looking a bit concerned that whatever success Inspector Backton had in solving the mysteries that confronted him, the pressure on Jeff to deliver was piling up too.

“I sent a big parcel to Mum, too,“ Molly said proudly.

Molly’s ancient mother, not quite as ancient as the Misses Clayton, though no less Christian in her instincts, languished in a bungalow in a northern seaside town, a town too far distant for Molly and Jeff to visit this Christmas, though they had agreed to make this pilgrimage in the New Year when their fortunes might look up.

Just then, the doorbell rang, not the street door, but the door to the bedsit from the stairs, an unusual occurrence.

Jeff went to answer it. Molly sat in state amongst her purchases, enjoying the luxury of reading some of the labels. Jeff returned with another young man, taller than him and wearing large boots.

“Molly, this is Detective Constable Morgan. He wants to ask us some questions about this afternoon. Oh, I haven’t even told you yet, there was a bit of a to-do earlier, upstairs, though I’ve no idea what was going on myself yet.”

“Not that strange, greasy-haired bloke from the attic? Tell all, Constable Morgan. I’ll put the kettle on,” Molly said, getting up.

Constable Morgan looked at the sofa. “Looks like you’ve been splashing out Miss.”

“I have. And I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. It’s not often you get the opportunity.”

“Certainly not Miss, but there’s some money missing from the flat upstairs actually. It’s what I wanted to talk to you and this gentleman about.” He paused, thinking whether he should go further.

Jeff looked at Molly. Molly looked hurt.

“Much as I’d love all this to have come from the proceeds of crime, it was actually what was left of my redundancy money. You can check if you like. A firm called Blinkers. They do PR. I was their office admin until they lost their big perfume account. Look. Why don’t we all have a drink? I bought enough and it is Christmas.”

“Not while I’m on duty thanks.”

“Just like Jeff’s crime novel. I never thought anyone actually said that. Tell you what, I could put some brandy in the coffee, if you like, might make it a bit more acceptable, and no one would know.”

“Go on then. Just a drop. I’m going to be clocking off soon anyway.” The constable sat, and so did Jeff.

Jeff said, “So tell us about the row upstairs earlier? Is the greasy-haired man Mr Big? Was he plotting the theft of the Crown Jewels or something?”

“It was a bit more mundane than that. We suspect… we have reason to believe, in the jargon, that he was buying and selling stolen goods. Nothing too dramatic, some silver, a few bits of jewellery, the odd small antique. We wanted to catch him with the stuff on him as it were. So we went up to his flat this afternoon to confront him. We hadn’t realised how slippery he would be. Made a bit of a fool of us really.”

“It would be all that hair oil,” said Molly, returning with a tray and mugs of coffee on which cream floated luxuriously. “So, what happened? He escaped?”

“Yes. He shoved his way past me and ran off. I believe I saw you on the stairs, Sir, as we ran by?”

“You did. I was just wondering whether to go up to the flat, what with all the noise. The Misses Clayton have probably barricaded themselves in by now by the way. They are the old ladies in the flat above.”

“I’ll slip a note under their door before I go. Tell them there’s nothing to worry about. This is very good, Miss, and as I am now officially off duty, I’ll have another,” he said, smiling like a sheepdog that had just successfully completed a round up.

“But what if he comes back? Is he likely to be dangerous?” Jeff asked.

“We could all be murdered in our beds,” Molly added dramatically, her dark eyes flashing as she poured more coffee and brandy.

“I don’t think he’ll be back. We’re bound to find him sooner or later, in one of his old haunts probably. And then he’d taken goods from a lot of the shadier characters hereabout, and hadn’t, so far as we know, delivered the cash he owed. We only found some of the valuables upstairs. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d be in some danger if he showed his face around here again.”

“But you said there was money missing?”

“We think so. We’re pretty sure he had the money to pay his suppliers. He must have hidden it somewhere.”

Molly said, “Where did you put that package Jeff? The one I had in my mouth when I came through the door?”

Jeff said, “What package? Oh, that envelope?”

“Yes,” Molly said, “It may have been something to do with the commotion.”

Jeff got up and went over to bookcase, where he retrieved the small parcel.

Molly said, handing it to Constable Morgan, “I found this on the stairs. It was tucked in behind the frame of that old print in the hall. I thought it was funny when I saw it.”

“Thank you,” said the Constable, unwrapping whatever it was from layers of clingfilm inside the envelope. Finally, he held it up.

“A key,” he said, “But what to?”

“I think I can help you there,“ Molly said. “Unless I’m mistaken, it’s a key to a locker at the Sports Centre in Blair Street round the corner. I go swimming there sometimes. There are pink tags and green tags to show the bank of lockers they come from. This one is for the pink ones by the door, and here’s the number.”

“Looks like you may have come upon something significant, Miss,” the constable said smiling. “You may just have given me an early Christmas present. And of course, if this does turn out to be significant, there may even be a reward. Don’t get your hopes up though. We’ll check this out now.” He tipped back his coffee. “Blimey. That had a bit of a kick to it. Very festive, and if you should remember anything else, please do get in touch. Here’s the number. Well, Happy Christmas to you both.” He looked significantly at Molly, and then he left.

“This coffee is nice,” Jeff said, and then he told Molly about Mrs Pendleton, the knife and her newly-created autistic son, but even they were forgotten as he and Molly set about making as lavish a supper as could be managed with the bedsitting room’s Baby Belling, a compact electric cooker with two plates and a tiny oven. They washed down their feast with claret, and finished with fruit from tins and port and more brandy-enhanced coffee.

The mess was terrifying, but they agreed that, for once, they would leave it till the morning.

They slept in the small bed, wrapped around each other like kittens.

It was nearly three in the morning when they heard the clatter and swearing.
Jeff turned on the small bedside light. “What the…” he began but didn’t finish.

It was a man trying to escape from a tangle of plates – they had left them on the floor – and a scarf, Molly’s present to Jeff, knitted with her own hands.

Molly said sleepily, “I suppose that’s Father Christmas unloading his sack. Tell him to leave the reindeer outside.”

“No,” Jeff said. “It’s our neighbourhood Bill Sykes.”

The man with the greasy hair had by now disentangled himself and was cursing as he perched on the sofa.

“Never mind Bill wotsit. I wants me money.”

“What?” Jeff said.

“Me money. That packet I shoved in your face as I went by you on the stairs.”

“Oh that. And if I said we’d handed it over to the police?”

“I think I’d have to press you on that point. Perhaps inflict some pain? Don’t tell me you bloody well spent it on this lot?” He indicated the debris. “That would indeed be unfortunate.” He narrowed his eyes.

He looked quite menacing in the shadows cast upward by the small lamp. Jeff looked at Molly. Molly, clutching the duvet tightly to her, looked at Jeff.

“Don’t ask me. I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Molly said.

“It’s over there on the shelf, under the hat. We haven’t touched it. This lot came from Molly’s redundancy money.”

“Molly being..?” he asked.

Jeff pointed at Molly’s head, just in view below his elbow.

“Very nice to meetcha. Very nice… Well, I’ll just make sure it’s all there if you don’t mind. And then I’ll be off. I don’t suppose you’d know anything about another item. I left it behind that picture downstairs.”

“Police nabbed it,” Jeff said, “Too obvious.”

“Don’t effing obvious me,” the man said ripping open the envelope and looking inside.

“Right, I’m off. And don’t bloody well try and call the police. I have friends who might take that badly. And now Father Christmas is returning to Lapland. I’ll take this for me reindeer.” He took a mince pie from a plate, tucked his envelope away and was off.

They didn’t move until they heard the front door to the street shut, then Jeff and Molly watched him from the window slinking down the street like an old fox.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were concealing the proceeds of crime?” Molly asked. “I’m going to make some tea.”

“I forgot,” Jeff said, “I was worried about why Inspector Backton could have missed the most obvious clue of all. I simply couldn’t think how he could have overlooked it.” Molly looked blank, but then there was the most resounding crash from the street. Cars had collided. With noise that loud, there might well have been injuries.

Jeff shouted to Molly to bring his white shirt from the wardrobe for bandages, and the scissors from the kitchen drawer, and to follow him down to the road. “And bring a phone. We might have to call an ambulance.”

Just down the street, Jeff saw a police car, on its side, crushed between a parked car and a lamppost. What was really weird was that it seemed to have been driven by two snowmen. The car was steaming gently in the orange light from the streetlights. But then, all at once, the strangeness of Jeff’s view was broken. The driver’s door creaked open, and from behind one of the snowmen – an airbag actually – Detective Constable Morgan heaved himself out.

“Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow,” he said pulling at his left arm that didn’t seem to be able to move itself. He straightened himself up with difficulty, then he staggered. Jeff held him up.

“You are a very lucky man. You are a very lucky… That girl, that Molly. She’s…”

But what Detective Constable Morgan thought about Molly was never revealed, as she arrived breathless to the scene. “What’s happened?”

Jeff reeled back from the stricken policeman, though still holding him upright. Constable Morgan was breathing like a steam engine, but exhaling fumes that could have come from a still.

“Carolina Moon keeps shining…” he began in a key much too flat. Jeff put his hand over his mouth.

“Constable Morgan appears to be pissed. Pissed backwards,” Jeff said. “If I get him to the seat at the bus stop, could you run back to the flat and get some brandy?”

“I don’t think he’ll want any more,” Molly said, and then, “Oh, I see. Course,” as she realised that Jeff was trying to save trouble.

“I’m for it now. I’m for it now,” DC Morgan kept repeating, before breaking into Carolina Moon once more and saying something incomprehensible about Molly. Then Molly arrived with the brandy.

“Just take a sip. I’ve called an ambulance.”

“I sat in that pub for bloody hours, waiting for him, that greasy haired bloke. I thought I had him, but someone must have been spiking my drinks. Shouldn’t have tried to follow him really. As I’m off duty,” he said, almost proudly. “Oh well.”

The ambulance arrived. Molly said, “We’ve given him some tea with a brandy in it. Just so that you know,” to the paramedic.

“Can’t do too much harm, I suppose,” she replied as they put him on a stretcher.

A police car turned up with a constable and someone else wearing gold braid on his uniform.

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “He was a slippery customer.”

What he was not surprised at could have been the police car, the fact of an accident, DC Morgan’s unfulfilled chase. The question didn’t seem to concern him greatly.

“We should breath test him of course, but…”

“We gave him some brandy to drink,” said Molly desperately.

“It seemed the only thing to do,” Jeff said.

The man with the braid took no notice.

“We caught the villain two streets away. About to be sorted out by some people he owed money to. He was quite pleased to see us really. Said he’d been back to the flats too. In search of that key, I suppose.”

DC Morgan smiled wanly from the stretcher. “This is the lovely lady who found it,” he said as they shuffled him off. “Molly!” It was more of a scream than an introduction.

“Thank you, miss,” the man in the significant uniform said. “There might be a bit of reward money coming your way from that. Chummy said he broke into your place too.”

Jeff said, “He did. Gave us quite a shock.”

“Didn’t take anything though?”

“Well, some damage to the presents and…”

The man with the braid wasn’t really listening.

“Well, there was no end to his remorse when we got him. He said he’d taken money off you to make good his escape, and wanted to make restitution so to speak. I was just on the way to yours now.”

He placed a small roll of fifty pound notes in Molly’s hand. She gasped quietly.
“Keeps it tidy,” he said. “We’ll be round in a couple of days for a statement. No need to mention the money. Happy Christmas.”

It was then that it began to snow. Just small flakes at first, but then bigger ones, floating down magically in the yellow light as though somehow, they had all been blessed, and while everything was certainly not all right, there was some hope of it becoming so.

Jeff’s novel ended with a similar scene. Mrs Pendleton’s autistic son burbling inconsequentially as she held up the head of Mr Coyle, the stricken gang boss, to hear his last penitent words of confession, as his red blood blended with the white of the snow, the red becoming redder in the unblemished snow and the white growing more perfect somehow, moment by moment.

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No. Actually I’m not, mainly because I’d be too worried to put my name forward for anything like that. But I do believe in voting, and I do believe in voting FOR something rather than against. The man on the doorstep says, “You do realise that if you vote that way, then you’ll just be letting in the …. (whoever it is they don’t like).” Well, I take your point, but if I don’t vote for what I believe in, then why am I voting at all?

The sad thing is that after all the rearrangement shenanigans of the past few decades (devolution in all its guises), but without anything happening to the House of Lords, and without any boundary revision, the electoral chickens are coming home to roost – in the shape of the SNP probably. The one area of the UK without representation will now be England. Clever stuff, from you professional politicians there.

But my manifesto, (just in case anyone wants to come to my door with a friendly message) would include:

– clearing up litter
– taxing freesheets to pay for it, and packaging, and chewing gum, and banning plastic containers for takeaway food (like they’ve already done in Oxford, I think)
– adding some graduality to stamp duty and local taxation (whatever they call it these days)
– I’d be scrapping Trident (who else has one? and what’s it supposed to be aimed at?) but beef up the defence budget elsewhere
– oh, and I’d make it much easier to install micro generators in rivers and streams
– get on with HS2 and all the other rail infrastructure that we’ve lost over the past years. Crossrail will be genius. That should too
– lumping more tax on smokers, and probably drinkers too, to pay for the NHS
– if you need to save some money elsewhere, chuck out the benefits for the old, except where they are means-tested, and give anything over to the young; they’re the ones who need the help.

Right.That’s the rant over. Have a good day!

Prompted by a memory, from a long time ago

The wind, or the morning

Sometimes,
Without quite knowing why
My eyes fill with tears
When walking to the station.
It could be the early morning
Or the incisive westerly wind.
But if I had known you would be
Away for the whole summer,
I would have tightened my scarf
And tried to look as though
It was the wind,
Or the morning.

There is something about eccentricity that makes it endlessly attractive to the English.

Canvas opinion for example, on your favourite Dr Who. It has to be Tom Baker with that scarf.

Favourite actors? Brian Blessed perhaps, or for those of a certain generation, Oliver Reed; maybe even David Niven? Sportsmen? George Best, James Hunt?

Say what you will, it can’t be any coincidence that all of these have been touched by a little of the slightly off-centre. (Even David Niven, outwardly sporting the stiffest of upper lips, had a house called ‘Cirrhosis on the River’)

We all love an eccentric, don't we?

We all love an eccentric, don’t we?

 

The masters at the school I was educated at (an old-fashioned Grammar School) were eccentric almost to a man – at least it seemed like it at the time. And I have to say that it seemed an essential component of getting the best results from the motley group of which I was one. A little vulnerability, a demonstration of a side of themselves that was not only outside the framework of ‘rules’ was essential. It created a new and gloriously unpredictable reality – one without fear and if not totally without drudgery, was at least mitigated by something more sublime than ‘results’.

The master who taught me history was one. He never knew anyone’s name and never cared. Pupils were to him ‘large boy’ or ‘small boy’ and on one magnificent occasion in my presence, ‘medium-sized boy.’ His fascination with history led him to appreciate particularly (an appreciation I now share) the delights of ‘CV Wedgwood’ (as she always signed herself). It was racy in the extreme for her to be referred to as ‘Cecilia Veronica’ as my man was known to do.

(CV Wedgwood’s books, The King’s Peace, The King’s War and The Trial of Charles I, are still the most readable and approachable books on the period, Her introduction to Cardinal Richelieu and the French Monarchy is masterful).

But back to the classroom and our history master. He used to play games with us. Not on the sports field, but in class, where he would leave letters from his fiance (rumoured to be a nurse in some distant town) tantalisingly close to the point where they could be read by those in the foremost desks. Of course, they would be snatched away as the occupants of those desks leant forward.

He also had charge of what was known as the ‘General Sixth’ a class generally accepted to be immune to both punishment and learning, condemned to take a set of ‘easy’ O Levels to augment whatever qualifications they had already scraped together.

On one occasion when our eccentric entered their form room, there was no one there. The General Sixth were hiding in the cupboards. This might have caused a showdown with any other master, but our hero showed a perfect understanding of the situation and how it might be mitigated.

Gathering quickly from the rustlings and giggles from the cupboards what was actually happening, the history man said very loudly: “Good heavens. The General Sixth appear to have vanished. I think I shall retrace my steps to the library and then return here in two minutes. I am convinced that then they will all be in their places, and thus escape any punishment, which otherwise would be severe.”

And do you know? that’s exactly what happened.

So, what to read if you at least have some question mark over the case I have set out here? There is only one book for you, English Eccentrics, by Edith Sitwell (the author herself had her moments), will introduce you to travellers, sportsmen, heroes of the hunt, of the table, the stage and the pulpit, who perhaps are not quite of the run of the mill. Curricle Coates, Old Tom Parr, Jemmy Hirst and my favourite, Jack Mytton, the hunting squire who relieved himself of so much money and often led his horse into a nearby cottage to lie in front of the fire after a cold day of the chase.

David Niven’s memories of Hollywood are published in Bring on the Empty Horses, The Moon’s a Balloon and others.

The King’s Peace, The King’s War and The Trial of King Charles I, by CV Wedgwood, are published by Penguin.

English Eccentrics, by Edith Sitwell, is published by Pallas Athene.

Shaving in front of the mirror this morning prompts a memory of schooldays and the continual skirmishing between those in authority and us, who wanted perhaps a slightly more avant garde style of hair than might conveniently be tolerated. Part of this involved rules about sideburns. The headmaster gravely intoned in assembly one morning that we were to be allowed to grow them, but only as far as something called the ‘grotis’. Someone behind me asked my pal Phil what he had just said, having misheard because engaged in negotiation regarding the loan of a Rolling Stones LP. Phil, who was contemplating his incomplete geography homework, said, without looking up, “You can grow your sideburns down to your scrotum, mate.” Phil was often an impromptu genius with words, labelling a certain rugby team ‘Featherlite Rovers’ and a gentlemen’s outfitters, “Aquascrotum.” One can quite easily discern the rails on which our minds ran at that time.

I’d rather go to an average play than a great film, and so much good live performance in London. Really makes the capital come alive.

From 1997, an imaginary incident At Heaven’s Gate…

At Heaven’s Gate

Grappelli fiddled.
Bremner snorted.
‘So who did you play for then?’
Back came the reply.
‘Hot club de France.’
At which, without hesitation,
Bremner took his legs from under him.
In memoriam
Billy Bremner and Stephane Grappelli – died December 1997

When I was at school in the 1960’s, things were a lot different.

I think there was one black kid in the entire school and you were looked on as something vaguely exotic if you happened to be Roman Catholic. It is probably my generation that is voting UKIP (for their sins) and while I couldn’t ever join that particular bandwagon (a one-issue party, and even that one issue I can’t sympathise with) there are a few things that I’d like to air about religion.

The one thing, it seems to me, that unites Judaism and Mohammedism is their unreserved commitment to separateness. Even if you wanted to join their club, they have set themselves up as formidably difficult to add yourself to. And I don’t think you could say the rules were there for any other reason but exclusivity.

Clearly, there are those who believe that the stuff about pork and shellfish is there as a matter of public hygiene, even if only a matter of public hygiene that was live as an issue hundreds of years since in the Middle East. Well, cling to that view if you will, but when bright (and not particularly crusading) individuals like Stephen Pinker (‘How the Mind Works’) hold a contrary opinion, then it might just be time to revisit your position.

There can’t really be too much informed debate about this; the rules of these religions are pretty much a kind of spiritual mercantilism, there to separate Muslim and Jew from the rest of us. (Probably other religions too take the same kind of approach, but I’m less aware of them).

This, it seems to me, is a dangerous position. For the potential Little Englander out there, it could be seen as adding fuel to the flames. For the potential racist, it’s QED; not us, but them.

I don’t want to criticise anyone’s beliefs – go and worship the great fluffy bunny if that’s your thing – but when you set your religion up to be exclusive to you and you don’t allow people out or in, then that is dangerous. Worse if you start to persecute those who have ‘gone over the wire’ into the arms of some other spiritual faith. Worse too, if you don’t allow other religions on your geographic patch.

Personally, (I was at University in the 70’s in Belfast), I’ve had enough of one religion saying that it holds a monopoly on wisdom. I’ve seen enough of the results those ideas bring. And if one thing could happen to save mankind from itself, it might just be that shutting off the religious impulse (a vain gesture to achieve fairness in a demonstrably unfair world – just my view) would be it.

When the gap between rich and poor gets too big, people get angry and often irrational. How else can you explain UKIP?

When the gap between rich and poor gets too big, people get angry and often irrational. How else can you explain UKIP?

A long time ago, when I was at school in Guildford, we were doing an experiment in which we measured the strength of paper.

To do this, we Sellotaped an elastic band to the paper, then one of us pulled, while the other measured how long the elastic got before the paper ripped.

Of course (and at this distance of time, I can’t really remember whether I was holding the ruler or the paper) but somehow we conspired to let the elastic go just as it caught around the end of the ruler. I don’t think we could have done it on purpose if we’d tried, but the ruler arrowed across the room and shattered the glass of the locust tank. The air became thick with insects. The scene, suitably enhanced by one of our number standing on a stool and screaming, resembled a scene of biblical revenge for some ghastly misdemeanour, for which only a plague would do.

Cue a change of scene to 21st century Europe, and elastic of a different kind is being stretched.

This time the elastic runs between rich and poor, and while there mostly always is a certain amount of tension between the two, these days, the elastic is getting taught, and that’s not a good thing, for you, me or anyone, because, sure as locusts are locusts, once that elastic gets near breaking, some kind of mayhem is bound to ensue.

It’s not just a case of bankers’ bonuses, though the fact that they still ‘don’t get it’ is certainly a contributory factor. Fat cats all across business are saying to themselves that, heck, they’ve worked pretty hard recently (a lot of the time resisting pay demands) and that as night follows day, they need that big pay rise.

Once upon a time, someone suggested that anyone in a company couldn’t be worth more than 200 times the lowest paid worker. That sounded like good sense to me, so much so that it resides with many other good ideas, under the corporate carpet.

And while board members award themselves more and the London property market goes from red- to white-hot, has the stock market, which measures directly the amount of value they have been able to generate, kept pace with their salaries?

The answer of course, is that while the stock market has done pretty well recently, it hasn’t kept up with what directors of Britain’s companies have signed off for themselves.

Stoked by the competitive myth (‘If we don’t keep our valuable people – of whom I happen to be one – we’re going to hell in a hand cart’) and fanned by the people who really benefit from all this (corporate head-hunters who have a vested interest in seeing salaries and other payments leap into the stratosphere), what the men at the top get paid starts smoking like an uncooled fuel rod. They can then only lean back on the line of last resort: ”it’s still a lot less than a footballer”.

It might not matter so much if we all feel like we’re doing well, but of course, but we don’t.

We’ve all had to restrain ourselves because, for some reason, we’re all in this together. Except we’re not. MP’s claimed their duck houses and second homes and the really rich headed for schemes like that Icebreaker thing that Gary Barlow used – just one of the many elaborate fiddles that prove once more my own philosophy of life and tax, which is this.

You’ll never soak the rich, because they’ll find a way round almost anything. That’s why this top rate of tax thing hardly matters except to anyone who wants to wave a flag of one colour or another. The poor are virtually untouchable too, because if you don’t have anything, it’s difficult to take it away. No, taxes have always been paid by us, the people in the middle, and it’s when we sense injustice that there is a leaking sense of meltdown.

And injustice is all around. From the mantra that says that judges (for example) have to be paid more, because we need judges and they have to have incentives. So why are nurses paid so badly? Are they irrelevant? No, but there are more of them, so more expensive to appease. No one needs to bribe a nurse, do they? But it might be worth offering a judge something, or a policeman, or an MP, or an (unelected) Lord? See my point?

And it is corruption is the final link in this chain. The lack of it is the only thing that stops us from becoming a banana republic, and even that division has been wearing thin.

Tony Blair and Mr Ecclestone’s Formula One advertising reprieve? The latest cash for questions lark? The policemen who can’t tell right from fraud (like the ones who accused Andrew Mitchell)?

These are admittedly microscopically thin ends of thick wedges that end up in the bloated maw of (for example) Mr Berlusconi, a convicted charlatan who managed to rule Italy for 20 years. In between is the Eurozone and its near criminality – farm subsidies to non-existent farmers, even the Euro-sceptic MEPs who keep taking the money and to show their disgust, don’t turn up to the institution that pays them.

It all reeks of corruption, and what’s more worrying is that it is the people that we are told we should respect who are responsible for it.

No wonder electors want to give politicians a wake-up call. But voting UKIP is a decision that smacks of turkeys voting for bigger meals at Christmas.

And if all of that is allowed to go on, then that locust tank is going to be shattered and all of us will be sitting around with some unpleasant insects.

 

Hey, Ranulph Fiennes! I really do not propose to turn my head at your ridiculous antics. You are a generation too late to be crossing Antarctica, even if you can’t think of another way to earn a living than by thrusting your sad existence on the rest of us. You’re not alone of course. “The Book” has become the last resort of the unemployable, and its adjunct, the breakfast television sofa is today’s equivalent of putting one’s organs in a blender. Please. Go and boil your head if you want to, but don’t dump the awful experience on me.

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