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Archive for November, 2010

The prince of darkness

November 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Over two evenings, I’ve just watched a BBC4 film on ‘the real’ Peter Mandelson. Now I find myself wondering whether we’ve seen the last of him in Labour politics. After all, he was born to them; Herbert Morrison, his grandfather was Attlee’s deputy PM for the six years of his government, so his party is in his genes. It seems that Ed Milipede doesn’t seem to like him, and he may suffer for it. I don’t see anyone in his team who has the faintest idea of policy development, presentation and campaigning. Sooner or later, as Brown did, young Ed is going to realise that he needs him on board.

That’s if he’s still inclined to join. It’s early in the game, I know, but I have a sense of Labour people starting to think, ‘Oh shit, what have we done?’ Eighteen months down the road, might we have another IDS situation, another leader who wasn’t around long enough to fight an election? If that happens, if they realise that they need a leader with real gravitas, like him or loath him, (I used to be firmly in the latter camp, even though we have the same literary agent, but I’m not sure where I stand any more) there is nobody in Mandy’s league. Of course, he’s a Lord now, and unable to stand for the Commons, but Jack Straw, as Justice Sec and Lord Chancellor, sat on the woolsack as an MP, so is it inconceivable that in this era a peer could be PM and turn up in the House once a week for questions?

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The Hogwarts Express

November 25, 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve just read that the coalition is planning to invest £8 billion in the rail network. the money will be spent on, among other things, about 2,000 new carriages, which will then be given to the franchises that run the train services. When that happens they’ll be looking for more money from the government to run them.

We’re bailing out Ireland, now we’re bailing out the railways. Fine, there are good trade reasons for the former, and good economic reasons for the latter. Our economy benefits from a prosperous Ireland, and from our own people being able to travel efficiently from place to place. But I am only a simple crime writer, so I’m struggling to understand why we need these damn franchises. There are twenty-nine of them, (or is it thirty-five?) nearly every one owned by a private company. These players include the likes of First Group, National Express, Virgin, Stagecoach and Arriva (if you’re lucky). BAA even own a couple of services. Take a look at the list and the only service you won’t find there is the line that picks up Harry Potter and his mates from platform eight and a half in King’s Cross. This corporate jumble is difficult to untangle, and there appears to be no meaningful integration between any of the operators. Their only common interest is profit.

At a time of national re-evaluation, maybe we should be asking whether we need these characters at all, and whether one penny of the ever-increasing burden of fares on passengers should be going into private pockets, most particularly since none of these operators have incurred any significant capital risk, or carry that responsibility.  The infrastructure is provided and maintained by Network Rail; it’s also a private company, officially, but in practice it’s public sector, since it doesn’t pay dividends and is £20 billion debt is underwritten by government.

I do not believe in State ownership of the means of production and distribution, but . . . If the state is paying the tab for the tracks on which our trains run, and funding the rolling stock, as recent experience has told us it must, then what is the point of paying private concerns to make an arse, as all too often they do, of the delivery of services to passengers? By and large, the NHS has worked for over 60 years. Couldn’t we have a National Rail Service, constituted along similar lines?

 

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Marg O’Neill

November 25, 2010 Leave a comment

Glad to help. I hope everything’s in place soon; there’s a very good guy making sure it is. is your old man still as worried about the Ashes?

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Lennoxlove

November 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Thanks and congratulations to those involved in the organisation of Lennoxlove Book Festival, and to their sponsors. Gracias also to those who came along to my gig last Friday, and to my able chair Colin Will. It was good also to catch up with Jim Naughtie, whose meteoric path crossed mine back in the Eighties. If I ever get round to compiling a list of top ten dinner guests, Jim will be on it.

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Revolting youth

November 24, 2010 Leave a comment

As I write this, British students have taken to the streets to protest against increases in tuition fees. In principle I’m on their side; I take the view that a wise nation will invest in its own future. A foolish one will risk the damage that could be inflicted through unfulfilled potential by putting a steep price on tertiary education; the higher the price, the greater the folly.

But that doesn’t mean I believe that anyone who turns up at university should be given a free ride. When I was a kid there were four full-fledged universities in Scotland. places were limited, and prized. Today there are fourteen, and a degree is much more attainable. Good, great, I have nothing against that. But is it reasonable to ask whether higher qualifications have become just too attainable? The most recent published figure shows that 8.9% of those who graduated from British universities in 2009 were out of work on January 1, 2010. And that’s an average; it’s much worse in some specific areas. Media students were least likely to find work, lawyers (God help us) the most likely.

With a contracting public sector, these figures are unlikely to get any better soon, so, isn’t it time for government, in Westminster and Edinburgh, to consider whether it might not be more honest to take some capacity out of the system? And to be a little more heretical, might it not  take a look at where graduate supply is most needed and ensure that those subjects are incentivised, i. e. subsidised, with a system of selection that ensures that the best and the brightest get first option.

At the moment, as a nation, we’re spending too much money training too many people for not enough, then compounding the crime by expecting the victims of this policy to carry the cost through much of their working lives . . . that’s if they’re lucky enough to have working lives at all.

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Marg O’Neill

November 24, 2010 1 comment

I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to respond to your enquiry, but I’ve been checking it out. The good news is that Headline have an agreement in place for ebooks to be available in Australia on the Kobo platform. If my titles aren’t there yet, they will be soon, so hang in there. For other readers with an interest, they’re now up on the WH Smith  site, and will be on Waterstone (again) soon, once a technical issue is resolved.

Hope that helps. Good luck in the Ashes.

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James Brown

November 17, 2010 Leave a comment

Good question James.Who would I chose for the movie version of Blood Red, as Primavera and Justine? For once, an easy answer; the first has to be Ashley Jensen, and the second, Dervla Kirwan.

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Farewell

November 17, 2010 Comments off

A pall of sadness fell over our village this morning, when Wendy Howey passed away. She became ill a decade ago, and for much of that time was beyond communication, but still she spent her last years surrounded by the constant love and support of my dear friend Ken, their children and grandchildren. I thank him for bringing her to live among us more than 30 years ago, and I thank Wendy for touching my life in her unique and special way.

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The chariot of the gods

November 17, 2010 1 comment

This is a special word for the guy in the Audi TT who insisted on parking his silver surfer motor this afternoon in a clearly designated private area outside my house, and refused to move when I proved to him that it isn’t public space. An earlier operating system of QJ might have reacted differently to the situation; the current version wished him a happy day and walked off, content in the knowledge that I was right and reasonable, while he was wrong, rude and a complete dick-head.

I’m a BMW driver. A few years ago there was a joke which went as follows:

Q ‘What’s the difference between God and a BMW driver?’

A ‘God doesn’t think he’s a BMW driver.’

I am pleased that for BMW we may now substitute Audi TT. As witness I offer the unnamed officer of Lothian and Borders Police to whom I spoke for guidance on the legal situation. When I mentioned the vehicle in question, he muttered something that sounded very like ‘That says it all.’

 

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Gift ideas

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Even as I write this, my dear wife is ‘up the shops’, picking her way through the tinsel and the trees. It’s on the way, make no mistake about it. If there is still anyone out there of a mind to give a book for Christmas, bear in mind that the only source that will  guarantee delivery of a signed QJ volume in time for the big day is http://www.campbellreadbooks.com. Click on the link to the right of  this post and you’ll be taken straight there.

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More from Talk Talk/AOL

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment

A couple of days ago I posted a note about the unspeakable Talk Talk/AOL and their refusal to provide me with the means of transferring my business to another internet service provider. This morning I found a further message from them, arguing that a recent unauthorised increase on my monthly charge wasn’t really an increase, just some more money that they were taking from my account as a result of them deciding, without my consent, to change a payment system that’s been in place for years.

However . . . they have promised to send me a MAC code within five days; five working days that is. Since ‘within five working days’ can be a cute way of saying ‘a full week from now’, if it goes to that extreme, at least a fortnight will have elapsed since my original request, despite the regulatory requirement for action within those five working days.

In case anyone should think I’m being hard on the Talk Talk group, I am not alone. As witness, click or copy and paste this link which refers to another part of its business;

http://consumers.ofcom.org.uk/2010/11/talktalk-and-tiscali-uk-breached-rules-to-protect-consumers/

For all their cute, populist advertising, these are not nice people.

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Thank you, Nellie

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment

When I was a lad, there was a popular saying in our house: ‘He/she’s made more comebacks than Nellie Melba.’

As anyone who knows me knows, for the last 30+ years I have amused myself, and abused others, every Thursday evening as part of a band of brothers engaging in the fruitless pursuit of a football around North Berwick Sports centre. A few years ago this group was immortalised in the title of a Skinner novel, Thursday Legends, and that’s how it’s traded ever since.  When I returned from Spain ten days ago, I found that I had become the most senior of the crew, by an even greater margin, thanks to the withdrawal of my buddy Hugh, who had been at it for even longer than me. Having myself reached a certain age, I mused upon this and as a result, advised my much younger colleagues that last Thursday would be my last official game. I would, I declared, no longer put my name forward for selection, and would only turn out in extremis, in the event of a last minute withdrawal by one of the ten selected.

So guess what? Yesterday evening, I was settled into my armchair at home, eating the winnings from the St Aidan’s Church quiz, having been to the gym earlier (since I wasn’t playing football) and run 5km on the treadmill in a decent time for a **-year-old, when an email popped up on my Blackberry. That crisis had arisen; the group was down to nine. Being a man of my word, I turned out. My team won. Comfortably. Despite the handicap of my advancing years. So? No question, I have to plan my Thursdays better than that; if Dave Cameron is raising the retirement age, then so am I.

Now, this is where it gets surreal. The player who dropped out is named Neil, but is universally known as Nellie, and, in common with the great Australian operatic Dame, he has a variety of toast named after him. (You have heard of Brown Toast, yes?)

Unlike the old diva, I plan to make only one come-back, but this is it, boys, this is it.

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Things you never knew . . .

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

. . . about Greenland. According to the CIA World Factbook, a much better source than Wikipedia, there are 57,637 Greenlanders, or whom just under 50% are  women. Nonetheless it is the 13th largest country in the world, and its largest island. It encompasses four time zones, which must make it very difficult for Greenlanders to set their watches with any certainty. The median age is 33.5 and, 84% are urban dwellers; I cannot imagine how they counted the other 16%, but one does not ask too many searching questions of the CIA, unless one has an unnatural desire to experience water-boarding for oneself. It is the 207th most populous country in the world, but ranks 140 in birth rate, which offers some clue as to its favourite sport. It also boasts 100% adult literacy, which means that its people cannot claim to be unable to read the instructions on condoms. Its economy is based around the export of shrimp and fish, but it is believed to have the potential for oil and gas extraction, and since it has already secured self-governing status from its parent, Denmark, when that does start to flow it will reap the benefit. (Take note, fellow Scots.) Roadbuilding is not an issue, since there are none outside the towns. However it does have 15 airports, (Ryanair?) and one passenger ferry.

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Know what?

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

I am not a regular church-goer. Indeed, I rarely discuss my religious beliefs, which are not exactly conformist. However I was persuaded (it wasn’t a hard sell) by my friend Eric to be on his team at a quiz night in aid of the local episcopalian church. I also volunteered my wife, for which I will be doing penance for some time. There were four of us, and since two were called Eileen we didn’t have to scratch around too long for a team name. The questions were fairly difficult, but our areas of knowledge seemed to mesh fairly well, for when the points were tallied, we won. And now a confession. I don’t know the winning margin, but if it was one point, my thanks to British Airways. If it hadn’t been for the moving map on my recent flight to Vancouver, I wouldn’t have had a clue about the capital of Greenland. (Godthab)

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Cheers

November 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Major gracias for all the helpful comments and suggestions for an alternative ISP to the unspeakable Talk Talk/AOL people. My first inclination was to go to BT, and I may still do so, but I’m going to have a serious look at PlusNet. (Thanks, Robert.) I’ve already established that Sky Broadband is a bummer, on two grounds; I’m an existing customer, and I don’t live in a  high-speed zone.

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AOL UK: internet service for the brain-dead

November 10, 2010 Leave a comment

For several years I’ve used AOL as my internet service provider. I was happy with it, until one day a terrible thing happened. The client book of AOL UK was bought by the disastrous Talk Talk, an organisation whose customer service makes Hell look like a holiday camp. It took a while for the worst to happen, but it did. UK mainstream broadcasting has been accused of dumbing down in recent years, but it’s still pretty highbrow compared with the shit that greets me whenever I sign on to my ISP. You see, they have this ‘Welcome page’. Welcome to the underclass, welcome to the underworld. It might be ideal for certain groups, for example an infinite number of monkeys, or people who add comments to stories on the Daily Mail Online, but to those with a few brain cells left working it’s an insult.

Thing is, not only do I have no interest in what Katie Price had for breakfast, I find the whole cult of the modern meeja celebrity offensive. I don’t care who Katie’s slagging this week; if some singer gets out of a car clumsily, with no knickers on, (would that be the **** of the celebrity?) that’s her  problem; I’d pass Draconian privacy laws that would fill our prisons with Paparazzi and the people who publish their output. Who killed Princess Diana? Our bloody media did, by creating a climate in which she felt compelled to run from these hyenas.

But as far as AOL UK is concerned, such objections have no weight. They’re on a mission; they began by catering for the lowest common denominator, and now they’re trying to drag it down. In the process, whenever I go to check my email their drivel is forced on me, like it or not.

Well, in the fictional but immortal words of  the doubly late Howard Beale, (those who are entertained by AOL will assume that he was an EastEnders character) I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more. Five days ago, I told them as much, and asked them to send me a MAC code, the thing you need when you’re changing your ISP. This morning I received an email from some prat in ‘customer services’, (‘Tea-break’s over, back on your heads’) refusing to do so. That’s actually illegal, as he’s going to find out. A few months ago they gave me three months’ service for half-price (still way too much) and they seem to think that makes me their slave for another year. Wrong. Cogito, ergo sum, and Talk Talk/AOL UK whose business seems to be trying to disprove that fundamental principle, are about to find out what it means.

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The big debate

November 10, 2010 1 comment

Had a call from a BBC researcher a couple of days ago. An invitation was extended and accepted, and as a result I’m going to be a panellist on Radio Scotland’s weekly discussion programme, Brian Taylor’s Big Debate, broadcast live from 12:15pm on Friday, November 26. I’m looking forward to it, even without knowing who the other participants will be. Brian’s an old chum, who’s chaired me a couple of times at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It’ll be a break from the norm for me, in that most of what I do is book-based, and this is a current affairs discussion, so I guess I’ll have to read more newspapers than is my habit.

Dunno about you, but as someone who grew up in an era when the Daily Express was a broadsheet, and Britain’s biggest selling newspaper, when the front page of the Courier was all ads, when the Herald was proud to admit that it was published in Glasgow, and when The Times lived up to its nickname, ‘The Thunderer,’ I’m both saddened and angered by the decline of British journalism, the drop in quality and the abandonment of the basic principle that news reporting and comment should be kept separate.

 

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Marilyn Gang

November 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Thanks, M; I certainly wanna be in yours. You think so? To be honest, it’s just something I do, and I don’t find it particularly difficult. That character may have resembled someone initially, and yes, I have a face in mind as I describe her exploits, but she’s evolved over the years, and now I step into her shoes pretty much automatically. The thong? No, absolutely not!

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Alan Sheard

November 10, 2010 Leave a comment

Thanks, Alan. Readers like you are good for the ego. (Note to QJ: must keep it in check.)

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How lucky is Al?

November 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Ever heard of a Kobo? I hadn’t either until I saw a stall on Granville Island with that name above it. My son and I had a look, and found that it was a wireless e-reader backed by Indigo, the biggest Canadian retailer, (clue: Kobo is an anagram) Kindle style, but not Kindle. We both have those, so we weren’t potential customers, but they were having a draw, so we filled in forms and gave them our email addresses which was all it took. Ten minutes later one of the ladies came across to the festival office to tell him that he’d won it.

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