Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Today's witterings...

... on the rather dire and depressing legacy since Princess Diana's death of tatty teddy bears tied to every lamppost in the country can be read on the Daily Mirror website here.

Enjoy your weekend. I'm spending mine in the tower.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Special.

IT IS a universal truth that if you tax people they don't like it.

Poor people get uppity and rich people threaten to just get up and go, which means that whoever's running the country - and some days I honestly couldn't tell you - worries about who to tax.

It's a bit like listening to schoolchildren planning who to pick on next. Cleggy wants to tax the rich. Gideon thinks the rich will run away. Either way, Dishface wants to blame last year's bullies. The way they're carrying on they'll never get round to taxing people at all.

Luckily there is a solution, which is to take money from those who aren't real people and can't threaten to get up and go.


They're sly little sods, the disabled. They use wheelchairs when they're capable of walking for ten or twenty yards. They selfishly force businesses to install ramps and widen doorways, and make buses wait for a few seconds longer so they can get on board.

Some of them don't make it obvious they're disabled but keep their medical conditions hidden away so you wouldn't know to look at them that they're not like you. They need special signs and their own bogs, and they wilfully sit on vast piles of taxpayer cash. If you counted it all up, why, it would pay to bail out the banks all over again.

Luckily you can say what you like about them. You can call them frauds, cheats, liars. You can use names like mong and spaz, and talk about how they could work if they made the effort. Look at all those paralympians - if one spaz can do the high jump, why can't the rest of 'em do a job?

Which is why we're spending £170million a year making the disabled jump through hoops. That's the cost of the contract and appeals process for the assessments given to disabled people to see if they can work.

Around 1,400 doctors and nurses use a points system to decide if you're fit. The system decided a man who can't stand on his own two feet was fine; it said a man with an incurable brain disease was healthy; and it decided someone in a coma could get a job because he hadn't sent the form back. It's even accused 32 people who are terminally ill of malingering.

It's probably ferreting out people who aren't as disabled as they say they are. The Department for Work and Pensions' own estimates show that a whopping 0.5 per cent of disability living allowance is claimed fraudulently - worth £60m.

NOUGHT POINT FIVE PER CENT! Crivens, that's worth spending nearly three times as much to stop. We won't mention the fact official error accounts for another £90m of wasted money, because that's not as important.

Far better to spend £170m to save £60m, and while we're at it scoop in a few thousand disabled people who will have to give up millions more in order to make the government contract not look like a complete waste.

In fact if the 'savings' on the balance sheet don't pass £200m it will have been a failure, so we can rub our hands with glee at the likely prospect of disabled people losing at least £140m they've been hoarding, the lazy gits.

Money which for many is used to help them get to work so they can earn and pay taxes, and without which around 25,000 won't be able to do either. Money which pays for adapted cars, public transport, or to help the one third of disabled people who live in poverty because their conditions produce a higher cost of living.

It's far better that money is spent on paying for a massive government contract awarded to a French firm which is using some of the cash to sponsor the Paralympics. An optimist would say they're trying to give something back, a realist would say they're engaging in PR, and only a real cynic would suggest they're trying to prove everyone without legs can run just fine.

The games organisers say without sponsorship the Paralympics wouldn't happen; personally I'd rather they'd asked almost any other firm on Earth to do it. Presumably there are no banks with money or a need for good publicity.

But you can ignore me, because I'm a spaz. I was born with a brain wired differently to most people's, and while what is wrong with me isn't interfering with my life and probably won't get any worse, other people with the same thing are in wheelchairs and graves.

You wouldn't know it to look at me. I don't hide it because I'm not ashamed, but I don't make a point of mentioning it because people find it hard to grasp I'm fine while also having to occasionally compensate in silly little ways for something no-one else notices.

Disability is a spectrum - and I can get around my very minor one fairly easily. Because I can walk, and talk, and do a job people presume there's nothing different about me.

And because the Paralympians can run, and jump, and win gold medals, because they can overcome a severed spinal chord or a bomb blast or accident of birth and because they seem to be fine, people will think better of them than the hundreds of thousands who are confined to their homes and bedrooms and who cannot fight back when those playground bullies turn up and ask for money they can't afford.

I don't know how many of the athletes hold down a job, but I'll bet it's harder work to prove yourself to an employer than it is to an ATOS assessor.

They say the Paralympics are showing the best of British - and they are.

They're showing not only what disabled people are capable of with the right opportunities and funding, but also that if you want to call them scroungers, cheats, fraudsters, mongs, malingerers or spastics you'd best do it from a safe distance.

Just like all bullies do.

"Ivory tower? Not a problem."

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

There's no such word as can't.

FORTY nine years ago today a visionary man made a speech which still resonates.

Martin Luther King spoke about the promise of the American dream, unity, peace and the inalienable rights of man, which in itself is enough to cause an echo down the years.

He was speaking to one of the biggest crowds of people ever to march in Washington, around 250,000 blacks and whites calmly asking for equal employment rights, and that's enough to make history too.

But what really gave his words rocket fuel - aside from his use of rhetoric, emphasis and cadence, skilfully building the emotions of anyone who hears it to a crescendo - is that it was reported in newspapers, on television and radio, and went around the world.


The 'I Have A Dream' speech was given the same kind of blanket coverage as John F. Kennedy's presidential inauguration. King spoke for just 17 minutes, but his words are still being heard.

Nearly half a century on, America has a black man in charge. Black women can ride the bus, the law does not discriminate by skin colour, and the children of slave-owners - Lord Sebastian Coe, for example - can sit down with the children of slaves - like Usain Bolt, who grew up in the same place Coe's forebears ran plantations.

But King said in 1963 "the Negro is still not free" and there are plenty who'd say not much has changed. In America, Britain, and the world at large poor people are more likely to be black than white. We're more of a global community these days but there are whole nations - predominantly with darker skins - who live "on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity".

The richest country on earth is America. The poorest place within it is Allen, South Dakota, where the population is 96.4% native American. Thirty nine million people live in poverty - the same proportion of the population as Indonesia. Three quarters of impoverished households are headed by women. Ten per cent of whites are poor, compared to 27 per cent of blacks.

King said people of colour had been given a "bad cheque... marked 'insufficient funds'" by those in charge of the money. Today most of the developed world is cutting back on anti-poverty measures, including the USA. It has 50 million people without healthcare, and thousands queue through the night for a handful of free clinics.

America also has the highest infant mortality rate of any industrialised nation, and it must surprise anyone that the world's richest country allows babies to die when it has the money to save them - or at least, has more money than Greece where infant mortality is better.

There is no sense of national or international brotherhood like King imagined, and the introduction of human rights for all has not produced global peace, justice or freedom. But at least there are now laws that say you cannot judge someone by their skin, and generations have since been born for whom such an idea makes so little sense such laws seem ridiculous.

The fact is that the "jangling discords" of humanity are never going to become a harmonious brotherhood, because while we can strive for greater freedoms we're never going to be able to not discriminate.

We all do it. We judge people by their manners, the effort they make with their hair, the job they do. We make assumptions about people we meet and even those we haven't based upon their education, where they're from, their age, name, height, and weight. It's part of the human condition and it's the reason why, in newspaper stories, you will always see a reference to the subject's age, location and an indication of their wealth.

We like to categorise people, which is why we absorb without noticing reports which say the missing girl came from a terraced house with a well-kept front garden, or the celebrity has a 10-bedroom mansion with an open-air jacuzzi, or the murderer drove a Vauxhall. All those little facts help us to make our minds up about other people, which is why it makes a difference to say 'the stripper, aged 17' rather than not mention her age at all.

If you stop to think you'll find you discriminate dozens of times a day. There'll be someone in front of you in the street you smile at because they're attractive, or they're walking with a puppy so they must be nice. There'll be someone you choose not to make eye contact with, on the basis of the clothes they wear. You'll discriminate over which sandwich to have at lunch because you've always thought egg mayonnaise was either for chavs or a special treat, and you'll patronise one coffee shop over another because you prefer their brand, decor or cost.

It's a case of one word being used in two opposite ways, because to be discriminating is seen as a good thing meaning you're choosy or analytical, whereas to discriminate is a bad thing showing you're ignorant and stupid.

But then Martin Luther King, contrary to reports, did not call for an end to discrimination. He asked for skin colour not to matter, and that means black and white alike may be categorised and sorted by us in that normal, human, and mostly harmless way we have.

And he also said: "Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality."

Everyone is in theory subject to being poked fun at, to be praised or criticised, to be subject to ridicule, to worship as they please, to spend their lives in the pursuit of their own personal happiness. In practice, some types of people find those things easier, and there are others - purely on the basis of their colour, faith, weight, or other factors - who are off-limits.

There are some jokes which can't be told, some views which cannot be expressed. They are considered offensive to the majority and so go unspoken even though the best way of changing an offensive point of view is to expose it to as many people as possible. Anders Behring Breivik is allowed to write letters expressing his hateful views to the fans of his Norwegian killing spree, which many think promotes his cause. It might do, but it's also the best way of showing how ridiculous it is.

King called, above all things, for the freedom to be yourself. Whether it's good or bad you'll find out when other people react to it, but there was a time when talking about equal rights for black and white was as offensive to the majority as the opposite view would be now.

What is offensive changes over time, but things get better only if we have the freedom to discriminate for ourselves. To choose our own jobs, our own politics, our own loves, whether we are black, white, fat, thin, rich or not so rich, without someone telling us we can't.

Not being allowed to do something is not the same as being incapable of it.

It might be a dream, but it's good enough for me.

Friday, 24 August 2012

The perks and perils...

... of life in the spotlight are the topic of today's column for the Daily Mirror, which you can read here.

Enjoy the weekend - and keep your ginger nuts out of the newspapers.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

How to fail at PR.

PUBLIC relations is a lot like art. It takes a lot of effort and skill, and if you're not careful you'll end up paying a lot of money for a pile of crap.


Sometimes, as in the picture, the crap is inflatable and capable of being carried great distances by the tiniest puff from a windbag.

Some PRs do an excellent job representing their employers, promoting a cause they feel strongly about, and banging the drum for people or a problem that would otherwise get little or negative attention.

My favourite-ever interaction with a public relations expert was when I called him up and put it to him his client had been caught in fairly minor but nevertheless slightly criminal and embarrassing activity.

The spinmeister launched into a five-minute diatribe about the morality, drive, and motivation of his client, his deep understanding of the problems such behaviour would cause and that he would simply never, ever, under any circumstances, have behaved in the way I suggested.

"We've got it all on camera," I said. "Well, in that case he's very, very sorry," replied the PR man, and you could barely notice the screech of mental wheels as he reversed everything he'd just said.

Then there are those who - as with every trade - get the rest of their number a bad name by employing the one simple rule of "lie, lie, and lie again, and if you are caught out lying the best thing to do is keep on lying".


Such people fixated on twisting the truth over all other concerns can achieve short-term wins but unless their boss has the wit to get rid of them once those gains are established their continued employment eventually causes only trouble.

This type though is rare and it is far more common to find people working in PR who just haven't got a scooby how it's supposed to work. The ones who don't understand they cannot control anything much, and that their task is to influence rather than shout, panic or refuse to answer questions.

The Royals have the same problems as any other family, made a thousand times worse by lottery winner-style wealth, public expectations and constant scrutiny. When their PR machine is running well that's how we see them.

But when it gets a spanner in the works - from any cause, be it staff holidays, a miscommunication, or plain stupidity - the machine does something which makes the Royals look like inbred feudal overlords interested only in shagging, shooting and shushing everyone else.

In 1931 the king-to-be began an affair with an American divorcee. It was reported in foreign newspapers but not British ones, thanks to the Palace machine and a long-departed sense of deference. Silence got them nowhere though because in 1936 after the prince became king Bishop Blunt of Bradford denounced the relationship from his pulpit, the news exploded, and a few months later Edward VIII abdicated.

In the 1970s Prince Charles began a long affair with Lady Kanga Tryon. She went on to develop addictions to painkillers and alcohol, went to rehab, and was confined to a wheelchair after falling from a window. Charles avoided her in public despite saying she was "the only woman who ever understood me", and she died from sepsis at 49. Silence about the fling was necessary when both were married, but the story got out anyway and it hardly makes Charles look good.

Henry VIII married his second wife before he divorced his first. Queen Victoria spread gossip a female courtier was pregnant to see her hounded from court when in fact she had a liver tumour and died a virgin.

Princess Diana threw herself down the stairs at Buckingham Palace while pregnant. Princess Anne's first husband had a lovechild he refuses to publicly acknowledge. In 1909 the Royals locked one of their princes away because he developed epilepsy - a condition which can be minor or severe, but never deserves incarceration. Videos have got out showing Prince Harry describe a fellow soldier as "our little Paki friend" and infamously dressed as a Nazi for a laugh.

All those things are private. They involve medical information, personal photographs, private relationships, and stuff that happened behind closed doors. Some were known about at the time and some leaked later.

Reporting any of them today - despite the fact there are public interest arguments to have for many of them - would breach the Press Complaints Commission Editors' Code of Practice and could lead to injunctions and privacy cases under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.

The point is that, public or private, right or wrong, we do know about all of them because the first and most important rule of PR is that the truth always comes out in the end.

The role of the PR practitioner is to ensure that, when it does become public knowledge, the reputation of their client is not damaged as a result. Anne got divorced, the latest book by Prince Charles' biographer insists Diana was bonkers, and Harry is a war hero with a ripe turn of phrase.

It's worth the expense of deploying expensive lawyers to put pressure on those who wish to discuss such things if whatever they might publish is damaging, untrue, or deeply unreasonable.

But to do it when what they might publish has already been seen around the world, makes your client look a little more human, and is already a topic of national conversation is a bit of a cock-up.

It is not only a case of bolting the stable door after the horse has already won the Grand National, it's guaranteed to make whoever ordered it to seem like an out-of-touch, over-sensitive, power-crazed and pompous pillock whose army of ten spin doctors aren't earning their money.

I wonder who it was?

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Decisions, decisions.

IMAGINE being Prince Harry this morning.

You've been asleep for maybe, what, two hours? One? And the phone is ringing. You keep your eyes closed, throw out an arm, find a warm body. You reach a bit further, trying to ignore the tiny gnomes in jackboots which have just started stamping around the inside of your head.

You find something which feels like a condom wrapper, then a condom - ick - and then your phone. You bring it to your ear. The warm body gets up and goes to the bathroom. "Whu?"

A voice speaks and as the words sink in an eye cracks open. It blinks against the early morning desert sun peeking through the blinds of your $2,500 suite, and then it closes again. "Er, yeah. Yeah I think that was me. They're where?"

A pause. "How's granny?" Another pause. "I'll ring her later." Prince Harry ends the call and sits up. He runs a hand through his hair and sighs. Then he smirks at a memory, and the smile freezes on his face as his bed partner returns.


The gnomes start to tap-dance. Something in the bathroom growls.

AND SO FRIGGIN' WHAT?

An Army pilot expecting to be deployed to Afghanistan by the end of the year - and who has just been on official duty at the London Olympics - has had an awesome holiday in Las Vegas.

A 27-year-old man in peak physical shape has met loads of girls in bikinis. A rich lad born into incredible privilege has done exactly what any of us would had we bumped into Ryan Lochte at a pool party at 3am after a few cocktails, and challenged the man who beat Michael Phelps to a swim-off.

The fact the pool in question was probably 90 per cent urine by that point in the night was either here nor there.

And now he's been photographed bare-ass naked, in his suite, with an equally naked girl, after he and his mates decided to play strip billiards.

He probably doesn't give a flying toss if the pictures are seen or not, and if he does it's a bit late because overnight they've been around the world. There's probably someone in Ougadougou thinking to themselves: "That sounds EPIC. What's billiards?"

It's all harmless fun. He's not the heir to the throne, he's not married, he's not committing any crimes. Frankly I'll be disappointed in him if he escapes Vegas without at least one stripper claiming she's a princess or being subject of a paternity suit.

In normal circumstances the pictures would mean subs sharpening their pencils to come up with some world-class puns about the Crown Jewels. Instead, newspapers don't know what to do with them.

Twenty years ago a picture of Prince Andrew naked in a river was printed on the front of The Sun because it was funny. They put a crown over his janglies but they can be seen on the internet still, if you crave disappointment.

There was no particular reason for using the picture - it had been taken years earlier by a girlfriend, who sold it on after the fourth-in-line to the throne got married. Politicians harrumphed about it and it's never been reprinted.

Since then things have changed. Princess Diana died in a car crash while being pursued by paparazzi, the rich and powerful have exploited a human right to respect privacy into their own secrecy laws, and a newspaper which poked its nose too far has been shut down.

A year-long inquiry into the culture and practices of the Press is on summer holiday - no idea if Lord Leveson's in Vegas, but I'll bet not - but has yet to report back on recommendations for possible new rules we'll have to follow.

It all adds up to newspapers being painted into a corner, with one eye on their budgets which mean they need to avoid unnecessary court costs and another on the line they don't want to cross before that report is written, just in case they make things any worse.

Meanwhile the public mood changes every five minutes, from loathing the paparazzi which hounded Princess Di to slathering over internet pictures of her son naked in his private hotel room and questioning his parenthood.

Billions can see the photos for free with one click, yet because of those secrecy laws to use them in a newspaper for which far fewer people would have to get up off their bums, walk to a shop, and hand over some money in order to see them, is legally quite risky.

Despite the fact most of us think those pictures are funny, that there aren't many who'd seriously criticise Harry especially if told the military do pre-deployment training in Arizona and he's probably off to Afghan quite soon, they can't be published simply to update those puns.

The only justification for publication today would be that it was in the public interest. This is a tricky thing to define, because it starts off with exposing crime and goes down a sliding scale into public morals, which is in every sense a sticky area.

Were Harry taking cocaine in the pictures, they'd be used without question. If he were married, they'd likewise sail on to the front page.

As it is, newspaper picture editors are hopping up and down waiting for Los Angeles to wake up so they can bid for them, because as a Royal, as third-in-line to the throne, and as someone accompanied by publicly-funded protection officers who seem to have taken the night off and left the nation's favourite roustabout to get off his trolley with strangers bearing unnoticed electrical devices there's a sizeable security breach.

Their job is not to stop Prince Harry having fun, or to point out that when playing strip billiards it is best to start with more items of clothing than one pair of swimming trunks. The coppers of my acquaintance would wish him luck and take themselves off to bed. But if these people can get to him, so could terrorists, kidnappers, and blackmailers. We spend hundreds of thousands on his security alone - and if he's not secure, it's in the public interest to show it.

But bidding for the right to use the pictures means nothing. The lawyers and newsdesks will spend most of the day arguing about what they ought to do, how ridiculous it is for photos which everyone can see can't be reproduced in a newspaper, the right to privacy even for Royals, that as he covered himself he was aware the photos were being taken, that Clarence House has asked for them not to be printed and that if it was anyone else in those pictures they probably wouldn't be used at all.

Pics of a now-single Tom Cruise naked in a hotel room wouldn't be printed because there'd be no public interest. Unless he were doing something morally or criminally questionable it wouldn't even warrant a mention never mind a picture, which proves better than any inquiry that the British Press has changed an awful lot in 20 years.

The decision to use the pictures will come down, as it should, to the editors. They will weigh up the legal rights and wrongs, think about what The Reader would want them to do, worry a bit about Leveson, and then earn the enormous salaries they are paid by taking a punt in one direction or another.

Whatever they decide, there are some things which are indisputable.

Firstly, that Harry's accident of birth is not only what gives him great privilege but also great scrutiny. In this case, that scrutiny is probably valid even if it didn't ought to be too critical.

Secondly that everyone who craved a Press which is - depending on your view - quieter, more thoughtful, better-behaved, scared, cowed or censored they've got it. There is zero risk of anyone hacking a phone.

And thirdly that it doesn't matter what Lord Leveson says in his report, or what powers the new Press Complaints Commission will have. It doesn't even matter if a footballer seeks an injunction, or if as happened earlier this month a judge bans mention of Prince Harry's tangential involvement in a crime.

All those things are meaningless to the internet. The more people attempt to control what newspapers do, the more they will shift what they do online.

Therein, perhaps, lies our salvation. Not only will newspapers have more readers, more people will have more news and in return we will have instant access to the greatest control any journalist can have - the opinion of The Reader.

If they don't like it, we don't do it. It was public disgust that closed the News of the World, and it's public prurience which is probably going to drive these Harry pictures into tomorrow's newspapers.

In the end it comes down to you - if you don't want to see Prince Harry naked, don't click.

http://www.tmz.com/

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Value (vb.): To consider with respect.

IT was only a fortnight ago, but the Olympic spirit has been all but crushed.

One day we were full of sporting optimism, proud of our nation and nurturing sideburns, and the next we were slumped back on our sofas bitching about the X Factor and the weather.

It's to be expected, because without an obsessively Olympic commitment to the cause we were always going to let it slip through our fingers like a particularly fat fish too strong for us to hold on to.

In the years to come our brief spurt of happy nationalism, intricate knowledge of taekwondo and love for all things flag-related will be given the mystical proportions of the Loch Ness Monster, and will be seen about as often.

It already seems like a dream, the way we all confidently expected Bradley Wiggins and co to be given honours. A few days ago the government - perhaps keen for us to all go back to being miserable  - announced there would be no "automatic gongs" for our medal winners, because there are so many sportspeople allowed to have any under a quota system no-one thought to tweak when we were hosting the greatest games on Earth.

And now after a number of people rightly pointed out this was a silly rule, the Prime Minister has announced the quota's being abandoned but - seeing as there are 43 gold medal winners alone and we don't want to devalue the system - honours will be given to those who have "given something back".

Devalue's a word that gets used a lot. Apparently if too many of us have a university education it's not because we're cleverer, it's because we're devalued. The same goes for A-levels and GCSEs, and don't forget if you're raped by someone you've previously had sex with to complain about it would "bankrupt the term of all meaning".

There is a belief that too much of something reduces its value, and it's odd we say that about education, rape and sportspeople but not, say, gold or cake. So you can have too much of things that are difficult but you can never have too much of sticking your face in the trough.

Of course the last thing we want is for an entire nation's honours system to be filled with people who reduce its currency.

Failed politicians, for example. People who are so unpopular even George Galloway scores more votes, like Baroness Sayeeda Warsi who was ennobled by the PM in 2010 purely on the basis of her ethnicity and religion.

Or ex-lawmakers who've retired rather than face the electorate, like Lord John Prescott who had lost his department, kept his ministerial salary, claimed the maximum food allowance while suffering from bulimia, and asked the taxpayer to fund mock Tudor beams and two bog seats, and was facing at best a bloody nose from the voter.

Then there's the likes of actress and professional disrober Kate Winslet OBE, singer and pretend-toff Bryan Ferry CBE, and Catherine Zeta-Jones CBE who is devoted to care of the elderly.

George Bush, Ben Kingsley, any number of 'public figures' have all managed to faceplant the honours trough without thinking for a second they might be devaluing the same accolade given to a lollipop lady, charity worker, or someone who's devoted themselves to local newspapers and trained hundreds of journalists not to be like Andy Coulson.

But then, giving an official pat on the back to Laura Trott who got a gold in cycling after being born with a collapsed lung and spent 20 years rising above it is devaluing the system, while elevating an unelected lawyer who campaigned against equality to the House of Lords, and keeping her there when she broke the code of conduct and failed to declare secret income, is absolutely fine.

If I didn't know better I'd say it must be a dream.

Let's be clear: the addition of Laura Trott to anything could not devalue it. If she farted on a pile of pig sick it would be the better for it, and the same goes for the rest of the squad. I'd far rather see any of Team GB getting a gong from Brenda than a single showbiz, stick-thin, rehab-raddled twat or somebody who's spent any amount of time sitting next to George Galloway.

The addition of Bradley Wiggins, Nicola Adams or Jade Jones to it can only improve either the honours list, the Queen's drawing room or the House of Lords.

Systems are a series of things which are meant to work as a whole, and giving honours to people who think it's something they can exploit for their own ends is not a system capable of being devalued any more than it already is.

And if that's the system we've got now then frankly we ought to be smashing the crap out of it.

And the X Factor can kiss his arse too.







Monday, 20 August 2012

How to be a troll.

I HAVE a confession to make.

I'm a troll.

Not the type that lives under bridges - or at least not yet - nor the kind that is inexplicably rammed on children's pencils for amusement. No, it seems that I am an internet troll, dark and anonymous, clawed and ugly, who sets out to ruin days and destroy lives.

Or at least I have been called that on the internet, so of course it must be true. We have come to accept words on the screen as somehow more reliable than words in books or newspapers, despite the fact these forms of publication require lots of people and lawyers, and to publish on the internet requires two fingers and the wish to stick them up at someone.

But then again, I'm not really what a troll is supposed to be. I don't post on the Facebook memorial pages for people who are murdered or missing saying they deserved it; I don't search out people on Twitter to call them a whore; I have not emailed any death threats to anyone's children.

But you do not need to do those things to be a troll any more. You need only to be yourself.

I have said things knowing they're controversial. I have disagreed with others, both celebrity and otherwise. I have waded into rows, picked fights for a laugh, and on occasion I've written something on the internet I realised ten seconds later was stupid and should be deleted.

You've probably done the same, and we've both made the mistake of thinking that's what the internet is for.

We're wrong, because apparently the internet's only purpose is to ensure uniformity of thought. The rules for what you're allowed to think change all the time but today's top ten would probably include:

* Julian Assange is the victim of a CIA and media conspiracy aimed at causing his eventual death
* Throwing a bottle of urine at a 19-year-old girl is funny
* Rupert Murdoch is Satan
* Caroline Flack is a paedophile
* You are compelled to say RIP about the death of strangers
* You are not allowed to offend anyone, ever
* Anything someone else says can be taken as offensive
* Being offensive is illegal
* Cats do the cutest things
* Jeremy Clarkson is a c***

It does not matter that all of the above are opinions, and it is both possible and entirely legal to have a different one. The fact is that if you do, it's best to keep quiet about it. Being different is not allowed.

If you happen to contravene one of the unofficial rules which change all the time, you are a troll. If you criticise someone, you are a troll. If someone wishes to disagree with you, you are a troll. If they do not want to consider the possibility they might be wrong, you are a troll. If you try to suggest a new rule, you are a troll unless lots of people agree with you in which case anyone who doesn't is a troll.

Everyone seems to be a troll in some way or another. It's almost a badge of honour, something which we used to differentiate people with and is now just a tag for vast swathes of humanity. And if no-one's told you that you're a troll then you're probably spam.

In the past 48 hours, for expressing an opinion others disagreed with, I was called a troll, a whore, a fool, a conspirator, a liar, a spy and unemployable by people who don't know me, my pimp or my MI6 handler.

I could call them trolls in return, but they're just people who want to tell off a stranger in as rude a way as possible. They haven't threatened, harmed or seriously upset me - they've just sent the one message in 30 or so which niggles a bit. They're not trolls so much as people who would like to be trolls.

But why would anyone want that? Well, because the rules are so very silly, that's why. The internet was designed to be a free exchange of views and information, and as we are forced through peer pressure and fear of ostracisation into being bland and inoffensive so there will be people who strive to be different.

And in a busy, anonymous world shouting and pointing at someone who is different delivers them celebrity, attention and validity. Therefore people who crave those things try the hardest to be noticed. Like the X Factor some of them are worth it, some are just deranged, and only a few get noticed.

There is someone I won't name - for reasons that will be obvious - who got lots of attention for writing offensive things about Gary Barlow and wife Dawn's stillborn baby. When asked why, he said he wanted to use the notoriety and besides, he could say what he liked.

And as unpleasant an attitude as that is, he's right. He can say (almost) whatever he likes within the law, with the exception of bomb threats and racist abuse. And if we choose to take the offence he gives us and reward him with attention, we're encouraging him to do it again.

Do you think Frankie Boyle would make nicer jokes if you told him often how much you disapprove of him? Do you think the 17-year-old who sent a stupid tweet to Tom Daley is a mentally healthier person having been arrested at 2.45am after trending on Twitter? Do you think someone with a disagreeable opinion about what constitutes rape will change it if you shout loud enough?

No, no, and no. And nor are they really trolls.

They're people. You might not like them, you might not want to share a pint with them, and you might think they have a serious personality disorder. They probably think exactly the same about you. But to call them a troll - even if they promote anorexia, threaten to kill your children, or call you a whore - means we stop noticing everything else about them. The fact they're unwell, for example, or that we'd do better to ignore them.

Any large group of people has its weirdos, and up close there's not a lot of difference between a genius and a whackjob. Neither washes very often, in my experience. The point of the internet was to bring all of us together, not dehumanise us to the point we all forget there is a person with eyes and ears and feelings and flaws at the other side of the keyboard.

We could introduce some proper laws to stop people being trolls, but that would be a lot like introducing a law forcing people to be nice, and the problem with that would be who gets to define 'nice' and whether we don't inadvertently outlaw being 'different'.

Better instead, perhaps, to set our own rules for the internet. You'll have yours - these are mine:

* Avoid the mentally ill unless you're qualified to deal with them
* Remember this is supposed to be fun
* I'm allowed to think Jeremy Clarkson's funny
* If you want the internet to agree with you, switch it off and go outside
* Shouting is not the same as proving your point
* Swearing at things is fine, swearing at people is not
* Insults and compliments should be received with a smile
* The people who don't tell you what they think are the most interesting
* Rules need to be tested
* Do not live under a bridge and shout at schoolchildren about pencils

It's a work in progress and I expect they'll change later today. The good thing about them not being official is you can tweak them as you go. But generally it comes down to the fact the web is only 22 years old, Facebook is eight and Twitter is six, and we are cavemen who have not evolved as fast as they have.

Some people get a kick out of saying something intentionally hurtful to others. This is the only thing that can be called trolling, and it's a bad thing to spend your time doing. It's just plain silly to not bother being polite, to rely on the internet as a form of undeniable truth, or to think an opinion is worth holding if you can't be bothered to argue it coherently.

It is never, ever, bad to be different - and it certainly doesn't make you a troll.

 Caveman or pencil accessory? You decide.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Today...

... I've written about why child-killing rapist Ian Brady doesn't deserve the peace and quiet of the death penalty and you can read it here, if you're so inclined.

Have a nice weekend x

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Fiddle while the money burns.

TAX dodgers. Don't you just hate them?

Of course we do, which is why it's guaranteed good headlines and vote-winning to announce a crackdown and publish a gallery of 'most wanted' tax fraudsters, which is what Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs has done today.


(In fact HMRC published it a month ago, but forgot to tell anyone and has only just put out a press release. Still, better late than never.)

Most of the rum bunch in the photo absconded after being charged with or during a trial for tax dodging, and a lot of them are accused of using the rules to carry out VAT fraud amounting to many millions of pounds.

It works like this: a criminal sets up a company and imports some goods from abroad. There is no VAT on imports, so the criminal pays cost price. The goods are sold on and the criminal charges 20 per cent VAT on top. Businesses are supposed to pass this on to HMRC, but then the criminal will either disappear with the cash or pass the goods on through a number of co-conspirators, all of whom charge VAT on the goods so they increase in value, until they export them to an innocent company which pays the now-inflated price. Then the criminals - who have until this point followed all of the taxman's rules - disappear with the profit.

If you do it enough you make big money very quickly, which is why the worst offender in the HMRC list is thought to be on the run in Dubai with £200million.

Exchequer Secretary David Gauke - the minister who recently said anyone paying a tradesman cash was contributing to tax evasion - said: "These criminals have collectively cost the taxpayer over £765m and HMRC will pursue them relentlessly."

Good stuff. It's a lot of money and we'd like it back.

Except £765m isn't very much compared to the £35billion another group of tax-dodgers have cost us.

That is, for clarity, 45 times more money than the first lot of fraudsters are responsible for. Some people think it might even be £95bn, which would be 124 times as bad.

The gang which has cost us this money has done it in a variety of interesting ways, all of them entirely within the taxman's rules.

It has advised its own senior staff to set up service companies to reduce their tax bills, caused the sacking of 3,300 tax inspectors, and after its boss had 107 lunches with big business enabled those firms to wriggle out of paying the tax they owed us.

In particular, this organisation helped Goldman Sachs to write off £20m in tax interest. It ensured pharmacy firm Boots paid just three per cent tax last year on £475m profit. It allowed Cadbury, Walkers, Tesco, HSBC and a host of other big corporations to avoid hundreds of millions in tax bills.

The ringleader of this group has avoided paying tax himself. He bought a house in London for his family in 1998, and extended his mortgage on it in 2000 to buy a second home for £445,000 cash in Cheshire.


A year later he was elected to Parliament and told officials the family house was his 'second home' and began claiming mortgage interest payments on it. Two years later, he sold the London house for £1.48m - a £748,000 profit.

As his 'second home' he should have paid £54,950 capital gains tax on it, but he didn't. He told his employers it was his 'second home' but he told the taxman it was his 'main home'.

This man bought a new London house, and took out a £450,000 mortgage on the Cheshire home he already owned. He told authorities this was now his 'second home' and carried on claiming expenses for it - a total of around £100,000 in 10 years.

Those expenses included the mortgage and things like £225 to jetwash the outside of the building, £150 to clean carpets, £180 to sweep chimneys, and £47 for two DVDs of himself giving a speech about value for taxpayers' money.

All of those bills will have involved some form of tax, but the man avoided it by getting us to pay it for him instead.

The man was investigated by the Parliamentary authorities, who decided he had been within the rules but asked him to pay back £1,193 for use of a chauffeur and mortgage overpayments. The capital gains tax issue, much more serious, was left to HMRC to investigate.

It's been quiet since then, but seeing as the man in question is Chancellor of the Exchequer and the gang I'm talking about is HMRC, it's sort of unlikely they'd come down hard on him for telling the taxman one thing and his employers something else.


All of the people I've mentioned, just like those VAT fraudsters, were following the rules - up to a point.

So are the rules going to be rewritten? Are MPs going to be told that their financial affairs need to be the same at work as they are at the tax office? Are big corporations going to be told that private equity debt can't be offset against tax bills? Are bankers going to be forced to have their salaries and bonuses paid and taxed in this country?

Well, no.

Instead HMRC has a new boss, a civil servant called Lin Homer. At Birmingham City Council she presided over a city where electoral fraud was so rife it "would have disgraced a banana republic". She ran the Immigration Directorate which accidentally released 1,000 foreign criminals. Then she ran the UK Borders Agency which was forced to have an amnesty for 100,000 illegal immigrants on the basis it had no idea where they were.

And this is described as a "strong track record". Which it is, if you're talking about incompetence.

Under her direction so far HMRC have released pictures of some VAT fraudsters and four weeks later worked out they need to mention this to newspapers if they want anyone to know about it. Oh, and they'd quite like Average Joe to stop paying the window cleaner in cash.

All in all, HMRC make the £765m VAT fraudsters look like amateurs. It takes true dedication and effort to avoid collecting £10bn in criminal tax evasion, blind devotion to let major corporations avoid paying another £25bn, and world class obtuseness to overlook the fact even the man in charge of the economy has avoided it.

We all hate tax dodgers. But wouldn't it be nice if the taxman wasn't one of them?

The executive committee of HMRC - at large and avoiding tax.



Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Hope springs.

IT'S amazing how optimistic people can be.

And not just because of our temporary Olympic frisson - there are so many things about which humans are ridiculously hopeful when the odds are stacked against us a mile or more high.

We love, and argue, and earn, and breed, and don't stop for a moment to think it's all utterly futile because we're going to die. There's no way around it and the only way we can influence the inevitable outcome is to hurry it up or slow it down.

We can choose drugs, hookers, and choking on our own vomit at 27, or we can aim for a garden chair in the sunshine at 104. It doesn't matter a damn either way if you managed to get promotion at work, whether you got a B or a C in your A-levels, or were too thick to wear any kind of shoe but loafers.


You still end up dead, and in the great span of infinity how long you're alive will never be more than the blink of an eye.

But we prefer not to think about things being hopeless, so instead we plan and scheme, moan about whoever's running the country and that guy you sit next to at work who eats grated carrot all day, and if we haven't found them yet we dream about finding the perfect person to settle down with.

There are six billion people on the planet - if you think there's just one that suits, you're unlikely to find them. The people running the country have little to distinguish them from the people who used to run the country or who will run it in the future, and the guy you sit next to at work is the person you talk to most in the whole world and is technically your best mate, so be nice.

We like to dream, though, and hope for things to be different. So when a child goes missing and there are television appeals for her safe return we tell each other she's probably run off with a boyfriend rather than say such appeals rarely end happily.

We didn't like our trains and they cost £1billion a year for us to run, so we sold them off to the private sector and believed it would lead to more investment, despite the fact privatisation of anything never saved the taxpayer in the long run and we now subsidise the system to the tune of £4bn a year.

And we dream of winning the lottery. We're 23 times more likely to be struck by lightning, we're actually just giving someone else good fortune rather than improving our own, but we all like to think how we'd spend the millions if we got them. I don't even play the lottery and I still dream about which newspaper I'd buy.

Which is why, despite the fact it's not a very practical idea and they'll be swamped with kidnap threats, it's nice when lottery winners go public. It helps put some flesh on that dream of ours and despite the fact we know it's an entirely random bit of luck it gives us pleasure when the winners seem deserving.

Yesterday Adrian and Gillian Bayford announced they'd landed £148million on the Euromillions - something they had a 1 in 116.5million chance of winning. They seem like a nice couple, but the best bit of the story by far is the fact they met and fell in love after Adrian dialled a wrong number and they got chatting.

Which, however you look at it, is a very optimistic way of treating a wrong number. Talk about making the best of your mistakes! With an attitude and good luck like that these people should be running the country.

They're going to share their money with family, buy a couple of nice cars, a new house, that sort of thing. It won't make much of a dent in the cash, so for what it's worth here's a list of other stuff they might - and I'm being optimistic here - spend the money on and spread the feel-good factor to the millions of us who didn't win:

* £40million to buy the Olympic stadium and £167,000 for Usain Bolt to run around in it, with another £80,000 to offset his tax bill for doing it. It would cost £7.4m for Bolt to do this every day for a month, by which point I imagine we'd all be bored.

* £14m to prepare a bid to run the West Coast Mainline, the nation's most profitable rail route which has 31m passengers who are charged 10 times as much as on the Continent for worse journeys. In fact, the Bayfords have the money to bid to run the entire rail network if they fancy and seeing as the government and customers will pay them billions, it's a guaranteed return.

* £250,000 for dinner in the Downing Street flat to lobby David Cameron directly over penne and Pinot Grigio. Be nice if they could mention the shoes at some point.

* £12m to pay for John Cleese to get divorced again. Perhaps next time he wouldn't engage on an intercontinental tour to pay his alimony, which wasn't very funny and didn't include parrots.

* £1m would save The Dandy - none of us really want to read it, but it's sort of nice to know it's still there.

That little lot would cost around half the Bayfords' new fortune, and still leave them with more than £70m to spend on houses, cars, rail season tickets or whatever other insanely large purchases they fancy.

And maybe none of those things, were they to happen, would do much to improve the world. But we can still hope that they would, can't we? That our brief, inconsequential existence might be made slightly more enjoyable for more Usain Bolt, better rail journeys, and the Prime Minister having to pay attention to the proles more often than once every four years.

And if you needed any proof that everyone dreams - even those who've already seen them come true - you need look no further than notorious Lotto Lout Mikey Carroll, the Norfolk binman who scooped a £9.7m fortune and blew it all on racing old bangers in his back yard, drugs, gold jewellery and trashing the mansion he bought.

He's the opposite of the Bayfords, a man seen to be undeserving of good fortune and who admits the cash led to death threats, crack overdoses and zero personal happiness. Not a man, you would think, you could do or say anything to make you feel particularly warm or forgiving about human failings.

He's fat and homeless and has run out of money, but is still buying lottery tickets. "You never know," he said.

Which is so charmingly optimistic it makes me hope that he does.

Humans: bless 'em.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

The best revenge is to live well.

LIFE, as has often been said and in defiance of the past fortnight of competitive sport, is not about winning.

You can have millions of pounds, you can have lots of children, you can have a trophy cabinet full of gold medals, but those things mean a lot only to you. To others, more often than not, they are of only passing interest.

As an old song says the race is long, and in the end it's only with yourself. Maybe you'll have a sixty-year marriage and he'll always put the spiders outside for you, but it always ends one way or another and you'll be single at some point.

There's a lot of hot air spouted about how important it is to have a partner, to be one half of a more socially-acceptable unit, which is why news of a famously-unmarried woman is, well, news.

Jennifer Aniston is officially seen as "unlucky in love" and somehow behind on points compared to her ex-husband Brad Pitt and his new life because she has been single, on and off, since 2004.

Hmmm. She's so "unlucky" that she slept with Brad Pitt for seven years - back when he was pretty, before he went all craggy and grew unattractive facial hair.

She's so "unlucky" she went on to have a series of love affairs with some of the world's best-looking male specimens, including Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Paul Sculfor and Gerard Butler.

Brad sleeps with just the one woman, whose leg is on wrong.


Jennifer has no children and can have lie-ins and late nights. Brad has six, one of whom inexplicably had to be born in a remote part of Namibia because Mrs Bonkers insisted on it.

Jennifer is so blighted by misfortune that at the age of 43 she looks like a 20-something. Brad, who is 48, looks like a 48-year-old man who doesn't get a lot of lie-ins.


In the years since their public and painful split Jennifer has built a personal fortune of £70million. Even films she was in which were trashed by critics do very well financially, like The Bounty Hunter, which had a £25m budget and earned a total of £86.6m. She is extremely successful and she usually appears on red carpets by herself, on her own merit.

Brad and Mrs Bonkers are together a lot richer, but according to those who compile lists on these things each has earned less in recent years than Jennifer. They 'support' each other by always appearing as a duo at events, presumably because she cannot stand unaided with that leg.

Jennifer is now getting married to a long-time friend who also happens to be one of the hottest men on earth. Brad is also, maybe, getting married to Mrs Bonkers.

Now, it's nice to have a companion, someone with whom to share your worries and pool your resources. It's good to know there is someone who will support you when you have a wobble. Despite the fact he fell for her while married to Jennifer which is never the best start, Brad has stuck it out with Mrs Bonkers and good luck to them.

No-one ever wins in a divorce but if you want to tot up who's doing best in the long run then by pretty much every single yardstick Jennifer is ahead. She is wealthy, healthy and successful, she has a romantic history most of us can only daydream about, and more importantly than anything else she smiles a hell of a lot more than either Brad or Mrs Bonkers.

She is well shot of an ex who is scraggy and inconsistent with a fetish for women who like knives and blood and have dislocated their own knee. Having a partner that's worth the noun is a nice thing, but it is not the only way to be happy or successful and frankly if you can't have fun by yourself you need to see a doctor.

Being single does not mean you are half a person, or that you will fall over if someone isn't stood next to you. It means you are one whole individual, happy in themselves, who can stand on their own two feet and in extremis can remove the spiders yourself.

It's far better that someone stands next to you because of that, than because you might collapse otherwise.

If she's been unlucky, then I want some of it.

Cow.

Monday, 13 August 2012

It's all over now.

WELL, now what?

This must be how John Lennon felt after he surfaced from his epic 1974 bender on Brandy Alexanders with Harry Nilsson. You wake up, you wonder how all those things happened, and you decide that while it was fun you couldn't do it again.

For the past fortnight, regardless of what economists and politicians might say, Britain stopped doing what it normally does.

We stopped whining, quite a lot of us stopped working, and football became our least favourite sport. We buried ourselves in Clare Balding (which not many can say), we realised we're not always rubbish, and we almost grew to like Sebastian Coe.

We forgot the fact we're in a recession and living in a country run by clueless rich boys with zero idea of how the other 99 per cent live and instead enjoyed the spectacle of them being inept to the tune of 'zig-a-zig-aah'.


We had a national immersion in the moment, a bit like when Princess Diana died. In a day or two we'll probably have the same head-shaking 'did that really happen?' change of mood, the one where you realise it was silly to chuck roses onto the M1 or dress up as an Olympic mascot.

The problem with suspending your scepticism so completely is that you lose the critical eye with which you can notice the more important stuff. The wood among the trees, the prettiest pebble on the beach, the things which make you think.

And that's what journalists are for - or at least, the ones who weren't busy writing reams of colour about the atmosphere in the velodrome and instead wander off and poke about at things.

So you may not have noticed it, but it should be noted nevertheless that:

* We suddenly know a lot more than we used to about fencing. And not the kind you paint green so it blends in, I mean the type with floppy blunt needles and illogical costumes. Can anyone explain the socks?

* The Queen is the only person in human history to skydive and not be glad she survived.


* If Boris cycles everywhere, and Bradley Wiggins cycles everywhere, how come Boris is still a twat?

* It is now socially acceptable to have a Union Jack outside your house, office or car without being seen as a racist (Union Jack flag pedants please read this).

* Union Jack gimp suits are never acceptable.


* The Americans accused the world's best female swimmer of being genetically modified. At the same time the Americans are trying to genetically modify their own soldiers. Sore losers, the Yanks, and hypocritical with it.

* While athletes at their physical peak were grateful for taxpayer-funded rooms and a canteen providing free chicken nuggets, members of the House of Lords on £300 a day just for turning up have moaned their pork escalopes are dry and the subsidised wine's not good enough. Fine. Let's move the politicians to single beds in the Olympic village and wave goodbye to second home expenses while we're at it.

* There's no way West Ham are going to be able to fill that stadium. Let's give it to Leyton Orient for free instead and see what happens.

* Red trousers are no longer just for toffs.

* Troops drafted in to sort out the mess left by a private security firm and idiot organisers and had their leave cancelled are going to get a commemorative coin. Money that's not even legal tender. I reckon they'd be happier with a few days off and a season ticket to the new Leyton Orient ground.

* Two weeks ago immigrants and benefit claimants were regarded as the worst people in the country. Now a Somalian refugee and a black girl from a sink estate in Leeds are national heroes. If we're very lucky the Paralympics might shut Iain Duncan Smith up permanently.

* David Cameron has had a fortnight of duvet days, the lazy, bloated public-sector, state-funded shirker.

* There are females who are famous for something other than sleeping with someone. Isn't that nice?

* The biggest Olympic legacy for most of us is going to be the large dent in the sofa which will lead to a trip to the furniture shop and a mini-boom for chiropractors.

* The opening ceremony was brilliant because it showed what Britain is good at, and the closing ceremony was rubbish because it showcased the stuff that's left over - shallowness, drug-addled celebrities, mainly miserable songs, and noisy dustbin lids.

* Russell Brand is finished.

* And finally, of course, that as a nation we may have a stiff upper lip but the lower one wobbles quite a bit.


But it's over now. Time to go back to work, count what's left of our money and vow to behave more sensibly in the future.

Until next time.

 "Brandy Alexanders? Oh Jesus no..."

Friday, 3 August 2012

Today's words...

... what I have written are about the culture of celebrity and can be read on the Daily Mirror by clicking here.

Have a nice weekend - I'm off on hols for a bit so no blogs next week.

You'll just have to annoy each other.


Thursday, 2 August 2012

A total helmet.

MAKE the most of the next few days.

For now, things will be almost as normal. Middle-aged men will have middle-aged spread, the roads (apart from London) will be as they usually are, and it may or may not rain.

But come the weekend all that will change.

On Monday morning, all over the land, middle-aged spread will be sucked unhappily into skin-tight Lycra as the middle-aged men wheel unsteadily out on bicycles that have cost more than the family car.

They will take to the roads in their thousands for the morning commute, throwing themselves recklessly in front of delivery vans and 12-wheel trucks in the belief that the wraparound glasses they spent £300 on will protect them from grisly, wet, and smeary death.

They will zip through red lights, bunny hop (with some effort) over pavements, and swerve around pushchairs while perspiringly telling themselves that pedalling furiously on razor-thin wheels is not just the only way they can stay upright, but a guaranteed way even the not-so-beautiful can become ruthlessly attractive.


But none of them will be Bradley Wiggins, most of them will be as out of puff as a magic dragon fresh out of rehab, and even if they were Bradley Wiggins they'd still get knocked off their bikes.

He said after his gold medal win yesterday: "London has got a lot busier since I was riding a bike as a kid around here. I was knocked off several times."

If the British athlete with most Olympic medals ever gets knocked off his bike, then the middle-aged Wiggo fan who takes to two wheels after a trip to the cycle shop on Saturday has little hope of being immune from kissing the front end of a bus.

Cyclists who regularly use busy roads in towns and cities can be very chippy about their chosen method of transport, and there are plenty of drivers with an equally scathing attitude about the zippy little sods who don't pay any road tax.

But as Wiggo says - and let's face it, no-one's going to argue with him for the next 10 years or so - "I think we have to help ourselves sometimes... they have to all co-exist on the roads. Cyclist are never going to go away however much drivers moan, and as much as cyclists might moan about certain drivers, they are never going to go away. There has to be a bit of give-and-take... there are some cyclists who don't help themselves".

And after a cyclist was killed in an argument with a bus yesterday, our new king of the road pointed out the bleeding obvious which is that cyclists should not be plugged into phones or listening to music, they should have working lights and - shock! - they ought to wear helmets if they don't want to die.

(He didn't point out, but I will, that if you don't die you might be brain-damaged, and it would be painfully ironic if your fitness regime turned you into a vegetable which needs a nurse to wipe its bum twice a day.)

You'd think cyclists would be glad they had a high-profile representative making public utterances which might embarrass the government into a long-overdue look at cycling and traffic laws, wouldn't you?


But no.

Someone called Chris Peck from the national cycling charity CTC - who ironically, appears to be a total helmet - has said, in all seriousness, that making people wear protective headgear would be unhealthy.

Mr Prick's argument is that making it a legal requirement to wear a helmet would "stifle cycling" and that as a result less people would do it, having an adverse affect on general public health.

He said: "Making cycle helmets compulsory would be likely to have an overall damaging effect on public health, since the health benefits of cycling massively outweigh the risks and we know that where enforced, helmet laws tend to lead to an immediate reduction in cycling."

The scientific basis for Mr Peckerhead's claim is that in countries where people cycle more, they tend not to wear helmets. In countries where they wear helmets more, they cycle less.

He does not appear to have worked out there is a possibility that the reason people cycle less and wear helmets more may in both cases be linked to the fact they're more likely to be squished, rather than that the wearing of helmets may be what's putting them off.

Mr Prat elsewhere suggests that 60 road deaths a year of cyclists is an acceptable risk when compared to the number of deaths caused by his idea of not cycling - 'physical inactivity'.

And he says that to cut that number we should instead reduce the number of cars on the road, speeding, and "the risks that heavy vehicles pose".

Righty-ho. Except you're not going to make most car drivers cycle when it's raining, or cold, or busy, cyclists speed a hell of a lot more than cars in urban areas and I'm not sure how we're going to make heavy vehicles less big and heavy. Or are we supposed to build lorries out of cushions?

I cycle and drive around London, and they're both less than perfect experiences. There are vehicles that get too close, where the drivers don't pay attention, where blind spots mean a bus turns left in front of you and if you're not careful you go head-first into the side.

But cyclists aren't some kind of morally-superior physical being, whatever we might think of Bradley Wiggins. A friend of mine was knocked down on a pedestrian crossing by a twit doing more than 30mph through a set of red lights, and had a near-fatal serious head injury. And several times a cyclist who has ignored lights, signs or other rules has ended up sprawled across my bonnet through no fault of mine.

Each time it happened it was terrifying. I don't want a cyclist to kill themselves on my car any more than I want to intentionally mow one down, but it sometimes seems like I may not have any choice in the matter.

Seeing as cycling is about to have a massive burst in popularity it seems unlikely a few new rules about road safety would put much of a dampener on it. Helmets generally don't kill people as often as not wearing them does, so they're probably a good idea.

And it would likewise not do much harm to reheat the old Cycling Proficiency Test, the 1947-designed parade of wobbly arm-waving around the school playground in a fluorescent jacket which lots of us took as children but which any adult who walks into a cycling shop does not have to prove they can remember.

It's been rebranded but is not compulsory and it can't be unrelated to those twits Wiggo complains of who race over pedestrian crossings while listening to their iPod and doing 35mph without lights, bell, or helmet, and wearing black Lycra because they think looking cool is more important than being spotted by the car in front which they haven't noticed is indicating left.

Perhaps rather than moan about Sir Wiggo's perfectly-sensible opinions the national cycling charity could be as glad as the rest of us are that someone is finally famous for doing something brilliant and knowing his stuff, which is as good a reason as any to pay him some attention.

And if you think 'physical inactivity' might kill you and worry cycling could do exactly the same but can't be bothered to do it safely, then maybe spend the weekend growing some sideburns and setting up a zip wire in the back garden where middle-aged men are apparently in their element.

Wear a helmet, but don't be one.

Zip Me Up Before You Bo Jo.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Just not cricket.

HOORAY! We've won a gold medal!

Cue the jubilation, listen to a verse of the national anthem, and then give it five minutes before someone starts complaining that we haven't won more.

The Olympic Games have been going less than a week and already people have been muttering about a lack of world-crushing sports prowess from a nation which spends most of its time sitting down.

A gymnast fell off the bar, a judologist was disqualified, some swimmers did worse than others and a cyclist was cruelly beaten by foreigners who were unexpectedly competitive.

Then someone lost her specs and a princess' horse kicked a bar and before you know it people are walking around saying £24billion is a lot to spend on mucking around with the TV schedules.

Well, yes it is. It would be a lot to spend on 50 new hospitals and an aircraft carrier, but someone decided to spend it and it's done now. Did anyone seriously expect when they wrote the cheques that as a result we'd win everything?

No. China was always going to win most, because totalitarian states put a lot of effort into making everyone forget the oppression by creating sports prodigies. They don't have rules saying they can't take physically suitable children and push them through bizarre training regimes for 15 years.

And after them would chase the Americans, the Russians, the Germans, while little old Britain was always going to do slightly-better-than-Eurovision-but-not-as-good-as-the-war.

That's fine. It's acceptable. It's what we would expect, if we thought about it calmly. We still have James Bond and a parachuting Queen.

As things stand we're not even at the halfway point yet and it's a little early to start complaining. We're taking the fortnight off from synchronised whingeing, remember?

Think about the things that have gone well. So far, no terror attacks, no stampedes, no doping. The Tubes and buses are largely doing what they should, the Prime Minister is probably going to get on with some work seeing as every time he turns up a Brit athlete flunks, and at time of writing we've been in the top three in the world for seven different things and top one in two of them.

Lots of other things we're good at have yet to start or reach the finals, and we all know that if they allowed cricket as an Olympic sport we'd thrash them. But at the same time we're the host, so that would just not be cricket.

(Translation of above sentence for foreigners can be found here.)

Do we invite people round for Christmas and then smash them at Monopoly? Do we meet pals to play a game of pool only if we can win and then do a lap of the pub? Do we insist on laurel wreaths and an interview with Sharron Davies after bombing in the community pool?

No, we do not. The British way is to let tailgating cyclists go in front with a cheery wave, to give polite rounds of applause and cheer the plucky underdog, to be the only people on the planet pointing out to the Americans that amazing Chinese swimmer has been declared clean by the doping authorities and unless that changes she ought to be given a hearty slap on the back just like Michael Phelps was.

Whatever happens in the rest of the Olympics and however many medals we gain of whatever colour, they will not be the best or worst bit about it. They're nice, but not worth getting aerated about.

That honour will be fought out between, variously: the empty seats, the unending waffle of the BBC, the predicted economic boom which has turned into a slump as spectators are steered away from shops, how warnings of traffic chaos made four million people leave the country, the fact Boris' station announcements were finally turned off after remaining Londoners swore at him twice a day, and that the army facing severe cutbacks saved our arses twice by providing security and half of our first gold medal.

But that is yet to come. For now, we must do just as we would at the cricket.

Which is to clap the other side when they do well, hurrah our side when they do better, and not expect too much.

China is wrong about lots of things, and one of them is that it's not the winning that matters.

 No-one ever got anywhere by getting too excited.