Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saddam Is Dead

So what changes? Toppled more than ten years too late and quickly made irrelevant by sectarian civil war, Saddam was history long before the noose tightened. I shed no tears for the brutal tyrant or make any of those facile, meaningless comparisons with Bush and Blair, but government executioners in Zarqawi masks and seventy more dead before sundown beg the question asked by Thomas Friedman three years ago: Is Iraq the way it is because of Saddam or was Saddam the way he is because of Iraq?

If this is a milestone, then the only thing it tells us is that we're on the wrong road.

Friday, December 29, 2006

North Korea

For the duration of the Sunshine Policy, but particularly since Roh Moo-hyun came to power in late 2002, the South Koreans have scrupulously avoided antagonising the North, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Even allowing for a certain amount of posturing while they negotiate the transfer of military command with Washington, Seoul's latest Defence Ministry report, which describes Pyongyang as "a serious threat," is therefore doubly disturbing.

With Abe still riding the nationalist wave in Tokyo, and the six way talks involving Russia and the Chinese stalled like a second hand Lada, the question isn't so much whether Kim Jong-il will listen, but how he can be manoeuvered into concessions without the whole thing toppling down, taking much of East Asia and the rest of the dollar with it.

Thursday, December 28, 2006


Three days of monotonous, leaden skies. Like unwanted snow, the rain started falling the moment I stepped on to the street. It was a listless evening: we'd arranged to meet at half seven, but nobody arrived until eight, and even then few of us were really in the mood to stay out for long. We talked about football and women; I was home by half past eleven.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Boxing Day

Don't be fooled by that benign bourgeois guff about toffs handing out trinkets to their servants, Boxing Day was only ever made a holiday so that people could finish scoffing all the food they needlessly cooked the morning before, and then panic buy exactly the same amount of rubbish next year. I breakfasted on Christmas cake - why does the marzipan always fall off as soon as you pick the damn thing up? - cut-price cherry scones and an orange, then went for a slow run to work it all off before getting stuck into the rest of my chocolates.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Just Like the Ones We Used to Know

In the end it was a thoroughly grey Christmas, with skies the colour of plastic drainpipes and air like the inside of a wine chiller. Woken up at ten past eight by my mother's voice shouting 'He's been' through the darkness, I rolled out of bed some time later and methodically set to work on this year's batch of presents - five paperback books, four bottles of alcohol, three pairs of socks, two framed pictures and a partridge in a pair of sunglasses.

We ticked off the traditions one by one: a fried breakfast followed by half an hour trying, and failing, to get one of those new interactive DVD quizzes to work, then start reading or fall asleep on the coach. Just after noon I got my bike out and pedalled to Marsden Bay, returning just in time for dinner, hurriedly punctual as ever at the stroke of two.

Whatever happened to Christmas tele? Did it really use to be that much better, or did I just have nothing more interesting to do when I was ten years old? I ended up watching a whole hour's worth - Doctor Who - over the last two days, and even that felt like slightly too much. Instead we knocked back a couple of bottles of wine and played a board game in the back room, giving up drunk, lethargic and stuffed full of food just as it was beginning to get interesting.

And that, to me, is what Christmas is all about, not the money swindle consumer mentality, Santa Claus or the religious add-ons. In what used to be the dead of winter it's still magical to have a few days with friends and family where all you have to do is eat, drink and be artificially merry.

Happy Christmas.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Do They Know It's Christmas?

Lots of seasonal cheer from the bicycle banning clowns at Nexus. On Christmas Eve, at just the time of year when people wanting to emulate the Bishop of Southwark should be encouraged to use public transport, they decide to stop the ferries at teatime and run hourly services on the Metro from seven.

It's Christian political correctness gone mad!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Richard Littlejohn

Meanwhile, runaway winner of the most odious news story of the week is Richard Littlejohn and his compassionate take on the Suffolk prostitute murders: "in the scheme of things the death of these five women is of no great loss."

As comforting as his words of sympathy will be to the children facing Christmas without their mothers, I can't quite shake the feeling that Richard is a loathsome, repugnant, braying, talentless hack moron racist long overdue a bit of electronically aided psychiatric help.

ID Cards

This week's least surprising news is the government's announcement that, instead of putting the National Identity Register on the new computer system that was apparently needed to avoid security problems, duplications and mistakes, our personal details will now be shuffled between three databases that were there all along. John Reid, Minister of Fear, popped up again to reassure us all that the about turn is "sensible" and not one of those U-turns that governments always make after they've rushed into a senseless policy without thinking through the consequences.

Here's another sensible idea: stop bombing innocent people and supporting the use of torture, scrap ID cards and use the money you save on IT consultants to improve intelligence and border security, identifying the people who pose a danger to national security and leaving the rest of us to go about our normal everyday business free of molestation from inept, illiberal idiots.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Winter's finally here with Christmas dinners and two frosty mornings in a row. Yesterday's sunrise was a pink as icing sugar and the day before a thick, mildewy fog came down in the afternoon smelling like laundry left overnight in a washing machine. Last night after work I had another date - this time with an ex-nurse from Esh Winning, County Durham. Who knows what'll happen?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Weekend in December

A wasted weekend. Following Friday night's dull Christmas party, yesterday was idled away shopping and drinking. My imagination always fails me at this time of year: I had absolutely no idea what to do with today and only the sun dragged me out of the house. After a late morning run, I walked the couple of miles to Lidl to do some solo shopping - frozen spinach pizza and two packs of brie, a dozen wholegrain pitta breads, a tub of multi-vitamin tablets and a sliced German rye loaf to go with the cupboardful of coucous, pasta and chicken soup I have at home.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Global Warming

It's less than two weeks until Christmas, we have double-digit temperatures and the last of the summer flowers dying in the garden. As much as I'm enjoying the unseasonably mild weather, it's really just another reminder that our current way of life is completely unsustainable. My own miniscule contribution to fighting global warming - cutting down on flights, composting waste, recycling plastic bottles and unplugging the TV when it's not in use - doesn't amount to very much, but it's pointless complaining about government inaction unless you're prepared to take responsibility for yourself.

Especially when all we get from the people in power is precisely the last thing we need: more hot air.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Cost of Translation

While I'm all for this new more teaching, less translation mantra, the BBC's scoop about £100 million of taxpayers' money being spent on translations for non-English speakers is essentially a non-story. Contrary to the unspoken assumption that foreigners and their funny languages are bleeding us all dry, the study should really be taking into account the cash that they've already paid into the economy by way of taxes. And, just to be fair, how about deducting the amount that foreign countries spend on translating documents for mono-lingual Brits?

I don't suppose that one would have made many headlines, but it would have been a lot closer to the truth.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

One Year Later

Yesterday was a year to the day since I got back from India. In many ways it seems even longer, though conversely my memories of the place remain incredibly vivid. As befitting random anniversaries, the day itself whizzed by - eight hours of packing course brochures for a mail shot followed by a couple more in a classroom at the ESOL centre. Throw in the long walk back to the metro station and it was almost time for bed by the time I'd finished my dinner.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Weekend Over

This hasn't been an especially productive weekend. I saw a snowdome exhibition, half-heartedly tried to do some more Christmas shopping and browsed for cheap books in the company of a tramp.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Christmas Decorations

The start of December: time to put the Christmas decorations up again. I'm not going to pretend that I helped in any way.

Dangerous Driving

Bridie Stead and Danica Green were hit by a car on their school. Bridie's mother was killed trying to shield her daughter, who was left with a shattered elbow and right foot. Danica had one of her legs amputated. Alan Steel, a disqualified driver high on heroin, scarpered after the crash and has shown no remorse since his arrest. Yesterday he admitted causing death by dangerous driving.

If he'd intentionally left home with a loaded gun that morning, and had fired off a few rounds while waving it in the air, would he have been charged with dangerous shooting?

The effect is the same. Why not the crime?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Another Fine Mess

The Iraq Study Group report does a very good job of stating the obvious, but manages rather less well when it comes to apportioning blame. The idea that the Iraqi government be punished economically unless it achieves national reconciliation - we got you into this, now you get yourselves out of it or else - is a greater exercise in wishful thinking than even Donald Rumsfeld ever managed.

We caused the mess. The very least we can do is help clean it up.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Stocking Up

I made it out just once more this afternoon. My parents had got hold of some 40% off Thresher vouchers so we drove over to the nearest wine shop to stock up on Christmas booze. Not surprisingly, the shelves had been cleared of all the cheap stuff and what was left was about as adventurous as an accountant's record collection: Echo Falls, Jacob's Creek and Ernest Gallo. I got two bottles of Hardy's Cabernet Sauvignon for £3 each, then ran back to the car head down against the wind and rain.

In The Crowd

With perfect timing, I left home at quarter to eleven in a gap between rain fronts, prolonged my run by a few hundred metres around the back of the fire station, and finished just as the first new drops began spitting out of the ever strengthening wind.

I knew today was going to be a wash-out so, with nothing better to do, I had a long walk around Sunderland city centre yesterday afternoon. In keeping with the season, lights had been slung across the bare branches and an ice rink set up by the bandstand in Mowbray Park. In the paved oblong between the glass front of the Bridges Shopping Centre and the bombshelter of a station, little wooden huts sold mulled wine and crepes and pipe-cleaner toys wrung from metal.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

A Meeting

I went out last night with a jaw-droppingly intelligent and attractive Swedish girl called Frida. She has straw-coloured hair, is studying for a PHD at Durham, talks lucidly about books and politics, speaks four languages, and has travelled around Europe and both continents of America.

You know, I think I wouldn't mind seeing her again.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Into December

The first day of December. The warm sun strobed through the metal rainings as I ran along the main road. Without the fallen leaves it would have been impossible to tell whether it was the start of winter or the beginning of spring.

It looks increasingly like the government will try to tackle traffic congestion - and raise lots of money - by forcing motorists to pay to use roads. The idea works in principle, but I still don't see why taxpayers' cash should pay for improvements to a privately owned rail network, particularly when the train operators keep raising ticket prices by way above inflation. Will even more public funding lead to cheaper fares or higher share dividends? If you price drivers off the roads on to expensive, overcrowded trains isn't that just another form of taxation? And why is renationalisation still a dirty word?