Saturday, May 30, 2009


My vast international readership will be viewing with growing concern the lack of any update on the dispute raging between me and Royal Mail as first illustrated in the posting 'Satisfaction Guaranteed' of April 26th last.

Royal Mail did indeed reply to my letter and there have been further exchanges since. Here is the correspondence that followed during this month:

Royal Mail Headquarters
5th Floor
148 Old Street

12 May 2009
[punctuation throughout sic]

Dear Mr Gilbert

Thank you for your letter of 26 April addressed to Donald Brydon. I have been asked to investigate your complaint and reply to you on his behalf.

May I begin by saying how sorry I am to hear that you have found our Special Delivery Service so disappointing. I fully appreciate the fact that you used this service specifically for the purpose of being able to confirm the item had been delivered the next working day unfortunately, we were unable to achieve this on this occasion.

I appreciate your definition of the term “guarantee” however, I should point out that we did in fact carry out the action you asked us to, by attempting to deliver the item by 1pm. At this point I should also explain that we offer a guaranteed delivery time, it would be impracticable to offer a guaranteed delivery, as there will always be occasions when we cannot accomplish this. The terms and conditions of the Special Delivery service state that if we fail to deliver your item by the delivery deadline, we will refund the postage in full. However, the guarantee cannot apply if no one is available or willing to sign for the item. On the reverse of the Special Delivery receipt customers are advised to check these terms and conditions. This can be done by means of our Special Delivery leaflet, which is available from any Post Office Counter.

Regarding the “While you were out card”, the postman responsible for the attempted delivery is confident that a card was left. Whilst, I accept that people make mistakes, there is no evidence to suggest that the correct procedure was not followed in this instance.

Turning if I may to the problems you experienced with our Customer Service representatives. All our staff are trained to a very high standard and should be able to deal with a customer enquiry in a polite and professional manner, consequently, it is extremely disappointing to hear that this has not been a customer’s perception. Under the circumstances I can only apologise unreservedly for the inadequacies you identified. Particularly with regard to the failure of a supervisor to leave a message on your answer phone. I fully appreciate the fact that this will have done little to restore your confidence in our services. However, I can assure you that we take such reports of failure very seriously as they may identify a need for further staff training.

Perhaps I should take this opportunity to explain that very few members of our staff have direct telephone lines. Whilst, some people do not like the use of automated telephone systems, they do save both our customers and staff a great deal of time routing the caller to the person best equipped to deal with their enquiry. However, I am sorry to hear that you find the system unsatisfactory.

I have enclosed a cheque for £7.00 to cover the cost of bringing this matter to our attention. Whilst, the Special Delivery Service was performed to a satisfactory standard, it appears that your subsequent enquiries were not dealt with to the very high standard our customers have every right to expect.

I trust you will accept this gesture of our goodwill along with my sincere apologies for any trouble and inconvenience we have caused you. Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention and if I can offer any help or advice in the future please do not hesitate to contact me again.

Yours sincerely

Joan Siddron
Assistant to Board Members

May 16th 2009

Dear Ms Siddron,

Thank you for your very comprehensive response of 12th inst to my letter to the Chairman of 26th ultimo regarding my experience of the Special Delivery service.

I am grateful for the cheque, though it ought not to have been withheld until the matter was escalated to the Chairman’s office. Moreover, you will perhaps understand if I suggest that the sound of it entering my account was reminiscent of a stable door being shut etc. You cannot know the discomfort caused to several individuals by the ramifications of Royal Mail’s failure to deliver the letter in question and no price can be placed upon that.

But the tenor of your argument suggests that this compensation is more in recognition of my treatment at the hands of Customer Services than of any sense that I might have been grievously misled by the claims made for the Special Delivery service. I demur.

Your third paragraph concludes: “On the reverse of the Special Delivery receipt customers are advised to check [the] terms and conditions. This can be done by means of our Special Delivery leaflet, which is available from any Post Office Counter”. On the first point, I was given no Special Delivery receipt. I was merely handed a regular till receipt that bears nothing on its reverse. Examining the till receipt, I see that it says towards the bottom “Please refer to separate terms and conditions”. It also says “Guaranteed Delivery Date: 31/03/2009”.

On the second point, I asked at the local post office yesterday morning for a copy of the Special Delivery leaflet. What I was given was a leaflet called ‘pricing made easy’ (your lower case) and a 44-page booklet, ‘mail made easy: A guide to our UK and International postal services and Code of Practice’. Having been specific in my request, I did not enquire further about the leaflet you mention. Had I asked for such a leaflet on the day I posted the letter, I would not have thought to query being handed such literature as this.

Regarding what is available in practice at branches of the Post Office, it often transpires that what is advocated from – and therefore assumed to happen by – head office does not actually prevail at ground level. Might I suggest (if I may put it this way) that you and your colleagues get out more.

The pricing leaflet that I was given includes prices for Special Delivery. The notes twice use the phrase “guarantees delivery” in regard to this service. It makes no mention of any circumstances in which delivery cannot be guaranteed. Page 5 of the more substantial guide lists features of the various delivery services. The first of these is Special Delivery. Under a heading ‘Product features’, this service is characterised as “Guaranteed next day delivery” against which is an asterisk. The footnote to which one is thus directed states: “Guaranteed definition: delivered by 9.00am or 1.00pm or your money back”. You were perhaps a little irritated by my rehearsal of OED definitions of “guarantee” in my original letter. Now we have Royal Mail’s own definition. In this as in all other references, the guarantee is attached to the concept of delivery, not of attempted delivery, good intentions or wishful thinking.

Pages 6 and 7 provide further details of the Special Delivery service including a repetition of the words “This service guarantees delivery”. Neither here nor elsewhere in the booklet (which I have read thoroughly) is there any mention of any circumstance in which delivery cannot be guaranteed. So the only source for terms and conditions containing the get-out clause concerning attempted delivery that I have so far happened upon is the Royal Mail website. I hardly think that customers who approach a postal counter in good faith for information can acceptably be sent home to go on-line. This is not good Post Office Counters business practice.

The fact remains that the great weight of promotion to the public of Special Delivery obscures any possibility that the vaunted guarantee is no such thing. If you and your colleagues cannot directly spot the discrepancy between the repeated mantra “guarantees/guaranteed delivery” and your own statement that “it would be impracticable to offer a guaranteed delivery”, I certainly do not possess the linguistic or dialectical skills to make you conscious of it. There is a curious parallel between Royal Mail’s after-the-event invocations of a let-out clause that proves elusive – is it on a leaflet that may or may not be available at “any” Post Office Counter? – and those MPs who will not accept any responsibility for dubious practices over their expense claims because of a system of rules that they now discover to be inadequate. In both cases, I am certainly entitled to argue that good faith has not been the first consideration of best practice.

Because Royal Mail appears to be in corporate denial about this matter, it is now my intention to copy the entire correspondence to the Postal Review Panel.

Thank you for your time,

Yours sincerely,

W Stephen Gilbert


20 May 2009
[punctuation throughout sic]

Dear Mr Gilbert

Thank you for your letter of 16 May, from which I was sorry to hear that you found my earlier reply unacceptable.

Having considered the matter most carefully I feel there is very little I can add to what I have said previously except, perhaps to apologise for the fact that the leaflet dedicated to the Special Delivery Service is no longer in print. However, I was concerned to hear from your letter that some Post Office Counters are frequently without certain items of stationary [sic] and simply refer customers to the website. Should you wish me to take this matter further, perhaps you would kindly send me details of the Post Offices in question.

It is of course always disappointing to hear that a customer has cause for complaint and even more so when we have been unable to offer an acceptable solution. I realise you will be disappointed with my reply, however, I feel I have clarified our position on this matter.

Thank you, once again for your letter and may I assure you of our best intentions at all times.

Yours sincerely

Joan Siddron


May 27th 2009

Dear Ms Siddron,

Thank you for your further letter to me of 20th inst concerning the Royal Mail service flagged as “guaranteed delivery”.

Just for the record, when I wrote that “I hardly think that customers who approach a postal counter in good faith for information can acceptably be sent home to go on-line”, I did not intend to suggest that this is in fact the practice in post offices, rather that sending customers on-line would appear to be the only alternative if copies of the terms and conditions are not available in post office outlets. As I reported, I did not find in my local post office the leaflet to which you directed me.

But this is beside the point, which remains the one that you decline to address: that of Royal Mail offering a false guarantee. Depending upon the finding of the Postal Review Panel, I must tell you that my next action will be to explore with my lawyers whether there is a case against Royal Mail under the UCPD.

Yours sincerely*,

W Stephen Gilbert

* Please note: the sincerity of this letter cannot of course be guaranteed; I am only obliged to make an attempt to be sincere. For the small print, see my website.


A couple of notes for my blog readers. The Postal Review Panel is an independent body that reviews complaints when the complainant is unsatisfied with Royal Mail's own investigation. I copied the correspondence (up to the end of the letter that announces my intention of approaching the PRP) and sent it with a brief (really!) covering note. I would not have known of the PRP's existence without mention of it appearing in standing copy at the bottom of each of Ms Siddron's letters. The PRP's acknowledgment informed me that a response would take up to 30 days.

I have also copied the correspondence (up to the same point) to my MP. He has necessarily been preoccupied with explaining a number of sleazy items from his parliamentary expenses but he has properly acknowledged receipt of my material and asked if there is anything specific I want him to do. I have resisted the temptation to tell him to stand down at the next election.

The UCPD is the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive, issued by the European parliament, which subsumes some of the provisions of the old Trades Descriptions Act. In short, I am telling Royal Mail that I believe that describing their Special Delivery Service as one which "guarantees delivery" is an unfair practice because they can, by their own admission, make no such guarantee.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


Mr Cameron calls confidently for a general election. Opposition leaders do that, you may remark, only when they are comfortably ahead in the opinion polls. They also demand that the national leader debate with them on television. If Gordon Brown had the wit, he would offer to debate with Mr Cameron only on condition that Mr Cameron, to whom the extreme right wing parties are the greater threat, undertake to debate on television with the leaders of UKIP and the BNP. You may rest assured that Mr Cameron would not agree to do so. Such an offer would expose the essential emptiness of Mr Cameron’s challenge.

But Mr Cameron should be careful what he wishes for. There is much evidence of the electorate being in a mood of “a plague on both your houses, including your second homes and those you have flipped”. The Sunday Times hazards that more than half of the sitting members will have been replaced (“swept away” is how it is characterised) when we know the results of the next general election: 325 is the curiously precise figure. Labour currently has 349 members taking the whip and there is no suggestion that all of those “swept away” will number among them: far from it.

Long before that election, on June 4th to be precise, there will be elections for the European parliament and for many local councils. The commentariat is increasingly convinced that these elections will hit Labour very hard – though Labour cannot proportionately fall a great deal further – but will also deplete the Conservatives and to a degree the Liberal Democrats (who, remember, were overtaken by UKIP in the popular vote last time round).

This is a dangerous moment. The liberal intentions of the Weimar Republic were swept away on popular sentiment for a break with the past that the National Socialists seemed to represent for Germans in 1933. Thereby, Adolf Hitler came to power and Europe was in the grip of cataclysm from which it would not begin to recover for a quarter of a century. It must be contemplated that UKIP or an unholy alliance of UKIP and the BNP may be in a strong position after the June elections, perhaps holding the balance of power on – or even (unthinkably) running – councils. Stranger things happen.

So Mr Cameron’s summer 2009 election would not necessarily produce the unassailable Tory majority that he fondly imagines. Perhaps the Commons intake of BNP and/or UKIP members would be so great that the Tories could only take a ruling role by going into coalition with either or both of these parties. In such a case, the Tories might need to ditch Cameron in favour of some leader more amenable to the extreme right: Eric Pickles, for instance. There’s your nightmare scenario, then: Pickles as Prime Minister, Nigel Farage as Foreign Secretary, Nick Griffin as Home Secretary and – oh, let’s see – Sir Fred Goodwin as Chancellor. Bring it on, Dave.

If it is because he is mindful of these possibilities that Mr Cameron has re-opened the Conservative candidates list and invited political greenhorns (not his phrase) to offer themselves, he is making a terrible mistake. We have seen how carefully-vetted, long-term members of the Tory party – and the other established parties -– have nonetheless treated the rules with cavalier disregard. How much more unmanageable the Tories would be if their big tent were to embrace a whole new self-chosen band of delegates with nothing undisclosed beyond their outsized egos. That way madness lies.

For an alternative script is being written: Get Me into Office – I'm a Celebrity. In this one, the likes of Esther Rantzen, Richard Branson, Joanna Lumley, Simon Cowell and Susan Boyle sit in a cabinet of National Government and solve all our problems by the application of star-power common sense. Don’t imagine that this is any less horrifying than the prospect of the BNP hosting – rather than merely being invited to – Buckingham Palace garden parties.

Celebrities entertaining political delusions are nothing new. Back in the 1960s, the crimper Raymond (said Raymonde) Bessone, known to one and all as Teazy-Weazy, decided he was going to stand as a Liberal candidate in the general election of 1964. Bernard Levin cordially invited him onto That Was the Week That Was to give a political account of himself and proceeded to destroy him with a ruthless despatch that took the breath away. Teazy withdrew from the candidates list the next day, understanding (as modern celebs may not do) that discretion is always the better part of valour.

In these days, celebrities are actively encouraged on all sides to imagine that they are omnipotent and all-knowing. They are not these things. Politicians – at least in this country – are moderately able to acquit themselves with a certain conviction because they toil long and hard in the foothills of political fame before becoming recognisable politicians. If celebrities don’t understand that, they should be made to do so. Jeremy Paxman should submit them to the Levin treatment: “So, Ms Rantzen, do you favour the structural, the well-specified or the reduced-form model of macroeconomics?”

What’s more, the bona fides of these arrivistes should be scrutinized at least as closely as are those of the parliamentarians to whom they consider themselves so morally superior. I’d like to hear, for instance, Sir Alan Sugar and Carol Vorderman harried into full disclosure of their financial arrangements before they get to put themselves forward as candidates. If the electorate are willing to allow themselves to be bedazzled into elevating people “off the telly”, they should have the opportunity to see all the feet of clay that lurk beneath the red-carpet gowns of celebs just as surely as in the publicly subsidized footbaths of MPs.

Meanwhile, the right wing parties are no whited sepulchres either. Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, has been unguardedly bragging of how he has got through £2million of expenses and allowances while sitting as an MEP in the Union from which he campaigns to withdraw the UK. This money has been spent, he reckons, on “the best of causes”. Meanwhile, members of his party who sit in the European parliament have a juicy record of dipping their hands in the till, including one jailed and another soon to be tried for money laundering. The BNP have had their collective collars felt too. Their elevation would be so constructive for relations with nations where young fanatics go to be trained as suicide bombers, wouldn’t you say?

The two embarrassments caused this last week by the BNP member who sits in the London Assembly ought to give people pause. At a moment when the committee charged with securing England as the venue for the football World Cup was discovering the thinness of its non-white composition, the BNP assemblyman turned up, perfectly legitimately, at the launch. His presence obscured the message that the committee wanted to send to the world. The same tribune of the people was given to understand that an invitation to a Buckingham Palace garden party would shortly follow and he made it known that he would be taking his leader, Nick Griffin, as his guest. More outrage and diplomatic discomfort. But this is the price of democracy. If the people are going to elect undesirables to represent them, those means by which they have traditionally carried out such representation cannot now be denied to them just because the establishment doesn’t find their participation comme il faut. The electorate need to have made clear to them all the implications of the way they vote. It’s no good using your ballot paper to make a protest and then regretting the result of your gesture. If you want to punish Labour or the Tories or the Lib Dems by voting Green or Workers Revolutionary Party, you may well find that your effective abstention from the important question has only succeeded in putting into the Commons a bunch of airheads and fascists.

Monday, May 18, 2009


I’ve always said that autumn is the time of year that I like best, followed by spring, winter and – very much last – summer. I can’t stand heat. (Not that heat has been a summer characteristic lately; we certainly never guessed that we might have log fires burning in successive Augusts). But high summer is horticulturally the dullest time of year, in my view. And slapping on sun cream is a chore that ranks with ironing shirts.

Now I am beginning to feel that May is the most glorious month of all. Of course living surrounded by a satisfyingly unkempt garden and lots of trees and a field that is slowly being turned into a meadow means that May is more noticeable than it used to be when we lived in the city. It’s a dirty job, gracious living, but someone’s got to do it. And rather us than Tory grandees claiming public funds to have the wisteria removed from the garage roof and pipes re-laid under the tennis court.

As I slide into my dotage, it is the transience of May’s delights that tugs at the heartstrings too: the “blossomingest blossom” that the dying Dennis Potter could see from his bedroom window. Blossom doesn’t survive long, especially when it’s wet and windy. Today, like the weekend just past, is blustery between the showers but much holds on with gritted teeth, both flora and fauna. As I write, our lilacs are coming to the end of their brief span of glory. We have all three shades – dark, pale and white – vying with each other and with an ancient laburnum that is also in its full pomp, sharply contrasting with its brilliant yellow flowers (so much more arresting than the common-as-muck forsythia of early spring).

The apple and cherry blossom are done now and the magnolia so long gone it’s almost forgotten. But the late flowerers stand proud against the gale, especially the hawthorn which of course is also known as may. The old rhyme “Here we go gathering nuts in May” is really a rewrite of the notion of the nuts of the may tree – so it should be “nuts of may” – because of course there are no native plants that produce nuts in the spring. Our hedgerows – two sides of the field have full hedges – are full of white hawthorn, while square on to our conservatory is a red hawthorn, its carmine flowers just this side of full vulgarity. Its covering is at its height now. Next to the red hawthorn is an old and doubtless doomed pear tree into which David has allowed a pale pink Clematis Montana to climb. The clematis is in its best fig now. Another one, clean white, climbs along the house under the window of the shower room so that you dry yourself while gazing on the vista of the three lilacs and the laburnum with the white clematis framing the view. Elsewhere the honeysuckle has kicked in so that twilight invites a heady stroll through the garden, reeling from one outrageous perfume to the next.

Also close to the conservatory is an ash. Ashes are the property’s most numerous trees – we have not flinched to have one or two taken down for they seed promiscuously – and they are always the last to come into leaf. So while the fruit bearers and our gorgeous tulip tree – my favourite; we planted it to mark the millennium – are in full leaf, the acers are not far behind and even the tardy oaks are now well covered, the ashes still have the look of winter about them. Nothing undaunted, a pair of nuthatches are raising a brood in the long-established nesting box in the ash, despite having so little cover for their duties. We keep an eye out for magpies, crows, woodpeckers, squirrels and other predators of fledglings but we can’t manage a guard right through the hours of daylight. I feel protective towards them yet when we lived in town I wouldn’t have recognised a nuthatch if it jumped up and pecked me on the leg. Now I can tell one just from its flight, never mind needing to see one still and in repose and relative close-up.

The robins seem to have finished their child-rearing duties for the time being. They build against an outbuilding wall under the aforementioned Clematis Montana. We’ve seen fewer wrens obviously foraging this year. Maybe they nest later. Last spring we installed a so-called sparrow parade near the eaves in a roof gully. Sparrows prefer communal living. But I think we started too late and this year, at the crucial time, we had roofers up there, enough to put off any would-be nester. But sparrows have been as noticeable by their absence here as anywhere else. Does putting up a dedicated nesting box bring them in? Or do they need to be here first before the box is going to be spotted? It’s perhaps instructive that we put up a box specifically designed for nuthatches and tree creepers on the old oak, further away from our busy bird-feeders, yet the nuthatches opted for a generalised box that is on the main strip and not well protected. You can take a horse to water, you might say, but you can’t make it drink.

“What potent blood hath modest May” Emerson wrote. It is indeed a time of energy and promise. Wild deer sometimes venture into our field, despite the menace of our dogs. The fish are at last rising in the pond, having passed half a year in suspended animation near the bottom – and that’s twelve feet down. Already Ron the heron has visited several times, planning where he’ll stand to have the best chance of spearing something. I don’t rate his chances though we shall remain vigilant. But if last year’s kingfisher returns, I shall not begrudge him anything small that he can manage. He’s much too magical to resent.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


Performing the onerous task of owning The Daily Telegraph from their tax haven in Monaco, the multi-millionaire Barclay Brothers must contemplate their organ's continuing revelations of footling expenses-fiddling by parliamentarians with an air of comfortable superiority.

I sent the above paragraph as a letter to The Guardian on Monday but it wasn’t used. I can hardly complain: the paper has given me a good run lately. But it’s interesting that the suggestion that dubious morality about money is not confined to Westminster is unwelcome in the press. Having worked as a journalist for many years, I know well enough that expenses on what used to be known as Fleet Street have always been a source of abuse. Media people will respond that it’s the misuse of public funds that signifies here but misuse is misuse and money is money whatever its source and the media were no less disdainful of the way bankers rewarded themselves before they received support from the government.

The press barons have never been slow to avoid paying their dues. Rupert Murdoch contributes no tax to the British government and employs an army of accountants to minimise doing so elsewhere. Lord Rothermere, owner of The Daily Mail, contrives to live in tax exile even though his main residence is in Wiltshire, a remarkable piece of juggling (his newspapers are registered in Bermuda and the wealth he inherited from his father was not subject to British penalties because Rothermere Sr lived under the rather less draconian tax regime in force in Paris).

Nevertheless, the mother of parliaments has had good reason to cluck over her unruly children lately. And the way that the story has played has been instructive and rather unexpected. Public anger has seemed to grow and spread in response more to the stories about Tory misuse of public funds than to those featuring ministers and Labour backbenchers. As some have noted, it is more the nature of the claims – for swimming pool maintenance, cleaning Douglas Hogg’s moat, garden landscaping and other instances of gracious living in the shires – than the sums involved that has got up the noses of voters.

Worse for the politicians (and especially Tory ones), the party activists are up in arms. There is a suspicion taking root that the minority parties – by which is meant UKIP and even the BNP – will pick up support among the disaffected, perhaps significant support. Lord Tebbit, no less, has all but advised Tory voters to switch to UKIP, specifically urging them to “boycott” the three main parties in the European elections, as a protest against “misbehaving”. Tebbit is being disingenuous. Everyone knows that all three main parties are a good deal more communitaire than is he; he is merely using the present scandal as a pretext for not toeing the party line.

To his credit, David Cameron dealt swiftly and toughly with Tebbit, making it clear that any more overt disloyalty would lose him the party whip. Indeed, faced with a dangerously developing situation at a time when his party’s opinion poll lead was beginning to look unassailable, Cameron has been decisive and clear. In contrast, Gordon Brown has been elusive and ambiguous. Once more he has let Cameron pre-empt him so that any prime ministerial response of equal force and conviction looks what it is: tardy and derivative. At a moment when the Tories seemed suddenly vulnerable, Brown ought to have come on swift and deadly. This may have been his last moment to seize the initiative before the local and European elections. Vincent Cable’s devastating joke from eighteen months ago – “the House has watched transfixed the transformation of the Prime Minister from Stalin to Mr Bean” – produced at the time the blackest scowl ever seen on Gordon Brown’s face in the Commons. As the months have passed, the thrust has only seemed more apt and more earned. This gives no pleasure to someone like me who doesn’t want a Tory government. Why can’t we instead have a rapidly insurgent anti-Capitalist party like the one in France that is threatening to overtake the ineffectual Socialist opposition and destabilise the authority of President Sarkozy?

Sunday, May 10, 2009


We have received our government leaflet Important Information About Swine Flu. So that’s all right, then. I am finding that I can resist the temptation – it might be irresistible were I a few decades younger – to order extra copies (to a permitted maximum of five) in, say, Braille, Welsh, Gujarati, something called “simplified form Chinese” and “Farsi/Dari”.

I am not sure, however, whether I swallow an important part of the premise of this leaflet. That is indeed the word “important”. I have sought the “important” information supposedly contained therein in vain. A rather “important” question – you might surmise – is only posed (rhetorically, for immediate answering like an FAQ) on page 9 of the 10-page leaflet. This is “What Are the Symptoms?”

Given the customary hysteria generated by the media, this question might properly be posed, I would suggest, at the outset of the leaflet. But we toil through until the penultimate page and then read that the symptoms are these: “sudden onset of fever, cough or shortness of breath. Other symptoms can include headache, sore throat, tiredness, aching muscles, chills, sneezing, runny nose or loss of appetite” [the leaflet’s own bold]. It seems to me that people suffering from regular ’flu, asthma, period pain, hay fever, bronchitis, myocardial infarction, post traumatic stress disorder, tonsillitis, ME, the common cold, malaria, HIV, pregnancy or a panic attack could present some or all of these symptoms without having been within sneezing distance of anyone who’d ever been to Mexico. In sum, I wouldn’t feel at all comfortable seeing my doctor in the expectation that he would diagnose swine flu. The declared symptoms are way too symptomatic of fifty other conditions.

So what about pre-emptive action? Here the leaflet betrays evidence of having been penned by an academic or equally remote dweller within an ivory tower. Page 6 asks “What can I do to protect myself and others against flu?” Actually, nothing in the responses beneath directly addresses the first part of that question. Obviously, the most effective method of protecting oneself against swine fever is to give the widest possible berth to anyone who has been to Mexico or consorted with its pig-farming population in the last year or so. But I guess it would be ideologically unsound to print that.

The leaflet has a catch-all remedy for protecting oneself – “follow good hygiene practices” – but the said practices then listed all pertain to “prevent[ing] the spread of germs”; in other words, to protecting others rather than oneself: “Always carry tissues. Use clean tissues to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze. Bin the tissues after one use. Wash your hands with soap and hot water or a sanitiser gel often”.

The author of this advice has a bright and simple picture of each of us as we go about our lives. We are bowling along the street, hands free of impedimenta. We recognise with plenty of warning that a cough or sneeze is imminent. We reach into our pocket or purse to extract a tissue in good time to entrap the trauma’s effluvia. By happy chance, we are just passing a corporation bin into which we cast the now offending tissue, smiling benignly around us the while.

Oh, would it were thus. I have just begun the third week of my second cold in two months, the first having lasted three weeks, this second being worse. Both colds have been the severest I have suffered in forty years. Had I employed a fresh tissue very time I coughed, sneezed or blew my nose, I would have run through two large boxes of them each day. If we all did that, the world’s rain forests would be gone by the middle of October.

If I am out for the day, I am not going to lug two large boxes of tissues everywhere I go. What’s more, I am not going to be in a position to dispose of a soiled tissue every time I use one. If I am in the middle of a meal, a play, a bath, a round of golf, a concert, a shop, a dog walk across fields, a football match, sex, it just ain’t practical to bin a tissue straight after use. What’s more, many places – train and tube stations, shopping malls – long ago disposed of their rubbish bins for security reasons. Because it’s an almost invisible means of saving money, many councils have reduced the number of bins on streets and cut the frequency of garbage collection. It’s easy to advise “bin the tissues” if you don’t appreciate the reality of the scarcity of binning receptacles.

Your country needs you to use a tissue

Then comes the matter of washing one’s hands. Again, this is not a practical proposition if one is out and about. Public conveniences are many fewer in number than they were twenty years ago. Those that are available frequently do not provide the requisite hot water and maintenance is not so diligent that there is always some kind of soap dispenser filled and ready to dispense. The people who compile these leaflets simply have no idea what the real world is like.

The suspicion remains that the authorities are determined to demonstrate regularly that they are on top of this “crisis” because they can. That’s because they know that a pandemic of swine flu is really a very unlikely outcome. By behaving in a manner that seems diligent and comprehensive, they hope to gain credit when the concern blows over. Other crises that have materialised in the past and may do again in the future – floods, prison unrest, knife crime, a run on the banks, leaks about parliamentarians’ expenses – were not and will not be so containable. The government wants to be seen to be in control even though the forces it is pretending to manage are really rather overstated by the media.

I don’t think my friend who refers to the threatened plague as “whine flu” is very far off the mark.

Sunday, May 03, 2009


It was a surprise to learn that Joanna Lumley is not allowed to live in this country. She is, after all, accounted “a good egg” by Dominic Lawson in his column in today’s Sunday Times, than which, to his class of commentator, there is no greater compliment. Miss Lumley has served Britain bravely through countless episodes of The New Avengers and Absolutely Fabulous, not to mention her roles in a great many advertisements and such socially important British films as The Satanic Rites of Dracula and Don't Just Lie There, Say Something!. All this, you would have thought, ought to have prompted the government to welcome her with open arms.

Perhaps the problem has been what appears to be her very large retinue, entirely made up, it would seem, of small gentlemen of a certain age originating from Nepal. These men could occasionally be glimpsed mutely in the background as Miss Lumley, sometimes waving what looked to be a distinctly offensive weapon, celebrated the achievement of embarrassing the Prime Minister, flanked by David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Never let it be said that the leaders of the opposition parties shirk an opportunity to be photographed with a glamorous celebrity.

It has become a truism that nothing is true unless it be spoken by a famous person. By the same token, everything done, said, acted out or imagined by a famous person is significant, powerful and worthy of our rapt attention. As a consequence, Joanna Lumley has not only provided what an otherwise obscure campaign required to capture the limelight, she has also entirely eclipsed the people who are the subject of the campaign.

Other causes will not be slow to learn the lesson. Brendan Barber, the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, is, I learn, to step down, acknowledging that the union movement has lost ground over recent years. He will be replaced by Paris Hilton. There are already moves afoot, apparently, to have the Labour Party’s re-election campaign fronted by somebody off the telly, apparently a favourite of ITV on Saturday nights, called, I think, Anton Dick. For the equivalent role in their own campaign, the Tories have, as I understand, unveiled people known as Katie and Peter. Don’t ask.

The Officer Class (pic from Guardian website)