A bridge too far?

I learned to play Bridge while at school – which may tell you something about my age and social background (or may not).  I did not live anywhere terribly posh during my school days and my schooling was provided by the State.  Perhaps curiously, I was taught by my chemistry teacher – which I suspect he did in his own time (Bridge certainly wasn’t on the curriculum) – or this may be entirely normal (a web search suggest this link between chemistry and contract bridge may not be entirely uncommon).  I have no idea whether today’s young people are exposed to the delights of Acol and Blackwood whilst in their teens – I fear they may have superficially more exciting things to do than we had in the early 80s.

Bridge is a very cheap hobby (unless you bet on the outcome): all you need is a deck of cards, three friends (or you could use complete strangers, but this may be harder to arrange without an inappropriate degree of coercion) and a pen and paper to keep score.  I played at school, at my grandfather’s and most recently on a holiday in Iceland.  I do find it is becoming harder to find people who are both able and willing to play Bridge, which is a pity – or perhaps I just move in the wrong social circles.

But why is the old fool banging on about Bridge?  Well, you should blame HMRC for I learned in the news today that the Courts have agreed with HMRC that Bridge is a game rather than a sport.  I think I’d always known this: it is clearly a card game (like cribbage, whist or Newmarket), I am not aware of any card sports (though this may be a result of my sheltered upbringing).  Confusingly, when I was forced to play sports at schools, the lessons were described in the timetable as “Games”.

One might wonder why the judiciary and excise should be bothered by this difference – well apparently sports are not subject to VAT while games are.  Yes, it is the whole Jaffa Cake debacle again whereby cakes and biscuits have different VAT treatment and the courts had to decide into which camp the orangey treat should be placed.  I suppose I shouldn’t blame HMRC, they merely enforce the laws of taxation – it is government that creates these laws.  I find it hard to explain why successive UK governments have decided that sport and biscuits are good, but games and cakes are bad.

I suppose sport has supposed health benefits – though does also seem to generate an awful lot of injuries (everyone I know who played football in their twenties had totally wrecked their knees by their early thirties) which is not something which I would expect from playing Bridge.  I suppose sport might also have benefitted from the Victorian vogue for muscular Christianity.  However, I fear it does give the impression that the State is rather keener on brawn than brain and I’m not sure this is going to help us in the “Global Race” (which is apparently so important to the current government), unless this race is a rather more literal one than I had previously understood.  It also seems to reinforce the school stereotype that “jocks” are more lauded than “geeks”.

The preference for biscuits over cake is unfathomable – does the state have some issue with raising agents?  Was this an attempt to support British biscuits against an onslaught of imported cakes (a flood of gateaux and torte)?  I suppose baking powder et al work their magic through the production of carbon dioxide, so perhaps this is an early attempt at green taxation to tackle global warming?  Still, I can’t imagine that the baking of cakes is a major contributor to atmospheric CO2: even given my own consumption.

What other weird incentives is our VAT system giving to the good folk of the UK?  I seem to recall there is some strange difference in treatment between hot and cold food – with cold food favoured (very much not the position taken by generations of mothers – but I suppose for much of history they were not given the vote and even now are rare in government).

Many in this country (and probably others) whinge about the European Union and its supposed legislation on the curvature of bananas and the definition of carrots as fruit (so that the Portuguese can make jam out of them).  I really don’t think we need to look to Europe for such irrationality, perhaps we should focus our efforts on our own taxation system.  That way we could reduce the scope of confusion and expensive court cases and rationalise the incentives we provide to our citizens.   Let’s have a level playing field: whether it be of grass or green baize.  Let’s have fair competition between the cake and the biscuit!

Film club

Not the most popular flavour of Jacob’s once popular chocolate-coated biscuit, but neither mint nor orange would serve my titular needs.

As mentioned in my last post, whilst in Cambridge at the end of September I took in some of the annual Film Festival.  This was great fun, as ever, and allowed my to renew my acquaintance with the Arts Picturehouse, but offered two particular cinematic delights.

Firstly, I saw Othello transmitted live from the National Theatre – the first time I’d been to see the theatre at the cinema.  This was surprisingly effective and does allow you to get extraordinarily close to the action (and the actors!) and I shall definitely use the cinema to catch plays again (it is even cheaper than the original and would normally involve a rather shorter journey).  The performance of Othello itself was staggering powerful and more than worthy of the five start reviews it had garnered.

My second highlight was a British romantic comedy with the rather improbable title of Dead Cat.  This was enormous fun, not the clichéd nonsense that is so often passed off as romantic comedy, and made for a tiny fraction of the budget.  Since I saw it, it has even won prizes (so, it wasn’t just me that liked it).  Sadly, lacking a major studio the film has no distribution deal and so can only be caught at film festivals – today Cambridge, tomorrow Oaxaca.  It can’t find funding from the BFI as it is not appearing at festivals considered “major” enough and can’t appear there due to the lack of funding.  Given the tosh that weekly fills our multiplexes, I can’t help but feel something is very wrong in the way we fund movies.

My local cinema now, the Harbour Lights, is also part of the Picturehouse group, but is somewhat smaller than its Cambridge counterpart.  It does, however, offer the advantage of reclining seats and a balcony with views across the marina which has been a very pleasant place to partake of a little pre-movie cake (though may become less desirable as winter closes in).

At the Harbour Lights, I have enjoyed a rather fine run of films in recent months with my top tip being What Maisie Knew.  My most recent visit was to see Le Weekend which I was amused to see had been given a 15 certificate.  Given its subject matter I cannot imagine it would be of any possible interest to the under 15s, despite the lure of its fruity language and use of soft drugs.  No, the people who should be kept away are the over-50s who might acquire some highly inappropriate ideas if exposed to the movie’s content.  Perhaps the BBFC could use my input for future classification?

All too often when I do go to the cinema, avoiding the over-hyped blockbuster, the place seems far from full – though this may be as a tendency to visit when normal people are at work.  Nonetheless, I worry that my attendance is not going to keep art house cinema going (despite my economically significant consumption of incidental cake and ice cream).  So, can I exhort the readers of GofaDM to give films whose blocks are far from busted a try – there’s a surprising amount of decent stuff out there, and art house cinema doesn’t even have to be depressing (though it certainly can be, if that is your desire).

Definitely not The Economist

Not even an economist – I could never really handle all the hand-waving.  (Mathematicians will recognise this as a deadly insult, the rest of you will have to take my word for it).

There has been a lot of ill-informed discussion about large corporations (mostly hailing from one of our less successful ex-colonies) not contributing their fair share of tax to the UK exchequer in the media of late.  Never one to avoid a band-wagon – even well after it has passed – I figured it was time to jump on.

Much of the previous discussion has focused on the disparity between turnover in the UK and tax paid.  As I’m fairly sure I’ve mentioned before, turnover is no guarantee of profit – just look at Comet or all the banks we’ve been required to bail out: plenty of turnover, but not much sign of an elusive profit.

If we assume a profit has really been made – something of which these tax-shy corporations have presumably managed to convince their shareholders – then there are quite sensible reasons for a foreign domiciled company to try and avoid tax in the UK.  Tax treaties between countries are generally fairly poor (as both tax authorities want the money) and so unless they are careful, companies can end up being taxed on the same profit twice (something they are understandably keen to avoid).  Unfortunately, a company based in country (US)A and operating in country (G)B having discovered how to avoid corporation tax in B can use much the same bunch of tricks to avoid paying tax in A.  Rather a classic prisoners’ dilemma – by both tax authorities trying to keep all the money, both in fact receive almost none.

Still, all is not lost – these companies do buy stuff (some of it might even be sourced in the UK) and will have to pay VAT on some of this, they also pay business rates and employ staff.  These staff will have to pay income tax and NI (well, those well enough paid to owe tax and too poorly paid to avoid it) and, should they be foolish enough to spend any of their salary, will also pay VAT and a range of other duties enriching UK plc.

So, how does this balance out I wondered?  Sadly, numbers are hard to come by without a large team of spies and statisticians – so I shall resort to a qualitative look at a couple of the case studies.

Starbucks saw the early brunt of outrage.  They entered the UK by buying an existing and rapidly-expanding chain of coffee shops: the Seattle Coffee Company.  I will assume that SCC paid normal UK corporation tax as it operated in the UK alone – so UK plc has lost all of this revenue.  SCC also provided all the other revenue advantages of Starbucks to UK plc, albiet in a rather smaller scale,  Such has been the growth of Starbucks that you are now (on average) closer to a purveyor of mediocre, over-priced coffee than you are to a rat.  The big question is: if Starbucks had not come to these shores, would all these coffee shops be empty and their staff unemployed or would other coffee vendors or better still, for the non-coffee drinker (such as myself), something more useful have taken their place?  This is a hard question to answer, but on balance I suspect Starbucks presence on these shores has not been a net benefit to the UK exchequer – so I shall continue my quest to buy hot chocolate and cake from independent coffee shops (the Indigo Cafe is my preferred venue in Cambridge) and leave Starbucks to wither on the vine.  Admittedly, whilst I have had some great chocolate and cake, Starbucks is withering quite slowly despite my endeavours.  I must redouble my efforts – it won’t be easy forcing myself to eat more cake, but George Osborne is depending on me!

Amazon is another whipping boy.  To the best of my knowledge, they did not enter the UK by taking over another business – so no corporation tax lost there.  On the negative side of the ledger, they have been one of the primary reason for the loss of bookshops, record shops and the like from our high streets.  That seems like quite a major loss of corporation tax and I have a nasty feeling that Amazon employ an awful lot fewer people than the businesses they have displaced.  They may well shift a lot more product, but until very recently a lot of this avoided VAT by using a tax loophole relating the the Channel Islands.  I rather fear Amazon has had a very negative effect on revenues for UK plc – and so my use of a Kindle and Lovefilm is looking ethically rather dodgy (I don’t buy anything physical from them, I stopped when they ceased using the Post Office for deliveries).  Sadly, ethical alternatives are hard to find, but at least Lovefilm does give the Post Office some business.

When I was in Edinburgh, I had a few minutes to kill and wandered round Blackwells: I’d forgotten the joy of wandering round a bookshop and the serendipitous finding of interesting new books; whilst Amazon recommends stuff, it is utterly useless in this regard.  I have resolved to spend more time in bookshops and to buy books there.  Yes, I know, I’m almost too selfless…

This has not been a terrifically scientific survey of the tax issue, but I think I shall try and use smaller, UK-based business for my spending needs (or, more honestly, wants) in future wherever I can.  It also leads to a more interesting life away from the corporate uniformity that seems to dominate in so many places.  Feel free to join me!

We’ve been lied to…

As readers will be aware, I am recently returned from Norfolk: one time home of the Iceni (though I don’t think there is any issue with Italian visitors these days).  Prior to my visit, I knew little about the county – and most of that was the line “Very flat, Norfolk” spoken by Amanda to Elyot in Private Lives, but written by Noël Coward.

I took my bike to Norfolk – though, as it transpired, it never left a rather stylish cycle rack at Wymondham station (but it seemed to enjoy its holiday).  However, even without using my velocipede, my keen cyclist’s eye was able to detect that Norfolk is far from flat: compared to South Cambs, the scenery is positively Alpine!  If you can’t trust an interwar comedy of manners for geographical information, where can you turn?  What next? Will I discover that insane canines and those from the south-eastern portion of the UK prefer to remain indoors at noon on sunny days?

Despite its relative abundance of contour lines, Norfolk is much flatter or more rural (or both) than my usual choice of holiday destination (which would either have mountains or be a city).  Nonetheless, it is not without appeal: it is home to some rather fine country houses and many very attractive towns and villages (most with churches of quite excessive size) and some rather fine scenery, often in close proximity to water.

Many places are the proud possessors of quite splendid, if somewhat overblown (and rather unexpectedly pronounced) names: as just a single example, I regularly passed through Swanton Morley which must surely be Sheridan’s younger brother.  However, Watton provided the best place name I saw on my travels – it is twinned with the Rhineland town of Weeze, though sadly the Germans would lose a lot of the fun with their soi-disant “correct” pronunciation of the word.

As I was on holiday, I undertook my self-imposed mission to sample the local cakemakers’ arts: it’s tough work, but someone has to make the sacrifice.  Many decent offerings, but my top venue recommendation would be the Tea House in Norwich (just off the very picturesque Elm Hill).  Not only fine cakes, but an attractive location and lovely staff.  In fact, I rather liked the city of Norwich – though as with so many of our cities, you wouldn’t want to drive there – and could imagine living there quite happily.  The only downside is the fact that it’s a little remote, in fact Norfolk as a whole isn’t really on the way to anywhere: well, not since the North Sea formed some 8000 years back.  Talking of which, Norfolk does seem to be shrinking as a county through the erosive power of the waves: I’m not saying anyone needs to hurry unduly to see Norwich while they still can but you might want to get your skates on if you have an interest in Happisburgh.

Traditions

For those of a certain vintage, tradition becomes increasingly important – if only as a bulwark against the ever-increasing rate of change.  I also find that I start to develop a growing number of traditions of my own – and the last couple of days has scored quite highly in the I-Spy Book of Fish Traditions (a book with a rather limited potential market I’ll admit – but that’s the joy of e-publishing, or so I’m told).

On Thursday I made my annual August pilgrimage to Edinburgh and, as is my wont, spent most of the journey stuffing my face with the nourishing largesse provide by East Coast to its first class passengers.  Unusually, my journey was routed via Kings Cross – as this offered the cheapest Advance fare at the time of booking (I may be first class, but I am still cheap and do manage to consume most of my fare in free food and drink, further boosting its value for money credentials) – so I was able to check out the newly revamped station.  This is a significant improvement on the old rather tatty concourse, and has even gained a platform – though those travelling with an owl will be disappointed to learn that it is numbered 0 (zero) rather than 9.75.  As part of the revamp, there has been a major boost to increase standards of customer care, evidenced by the announcements advising us to take care as we wandered around the terminal because of the “inclement weather”; this on one of this year’s all-too-rare warm, dry and sunny mornings.  If only other sections of our rail network aspired to – and better still delivered – such high standards.

Auld Reekie was bathed in glorious sunshine and in my first 24 hours in the city I managed to cover pretty much all of the traditional activities I have accreted over the last few years.

  • Seriously good classical music: Tick.  The Arcangelo consort and Iestyn Davies doing the honours at Greyfriars Kirk (no relation to James T, so far as I know).
  • Quirky comedy: double Tick.  Both Matthew Crosby and Stuart Goldsmith were huge fun.  I’m always puzzled where Mr G is not better known: I caught him as part of a triple bill of folk trying out their Edinburgh acts in Cambridge a few years ago (3 for £5) and discovered he was brilliant.  Yet another example of why it is important to try things you don;t yet know you like.  Push that envelope!  Lick that stamp!
  • Serious cake: Tick.  The Falko konditorei in Bruntsfield does provide some serious cake (or more accurately torte) action for the true connoisseur – and the hike across the Meadows from the Pleasance does significantly ameliorate any feelings of guilt that might otherwise be involved.
  • Bonsai: Tick.  On my first ever visit to the Fringe, I needed to find a decent eatery near the Pleasance – and the miracle of the interweb brought me to Bonsai.  This could be the best bit of browsing I’ve ever done as it is now my regular haunt whenever I’m in Edinburgh.  Japanese food is genuinely fast and sustaining, and so I can grab a quick “course” between gigs.  I have been known to visit five times in a single day – so often have I been, that the staff recognise me even though I’m only a customer for a single week each year.

The second 24 hours was pretty good too.  I can add Michael Legge and Lloyd Langford to my comedy recommendations – though I’d see the former sooner rather than later, as I’m not sure his heart will hold out much longer.  My plan to try and do a little bit less is working nicely – though doesn’t seem to be generating much in the way of earlier nights yet.  Yesterday, it meant that I escaped from the rather limited (for which read, non-existent) cask ale offerings at the Fringe venues to visit the Regency splendour of the Cafe Royal.  Not a cafe, but a very fine pub which provided your truly with a brace of pints of Deuchars IPA at a significantly lower price than the nitro-kegged horrors on offer at the Assembly Rooms (though still at a price level that shocks those who fondly remember Joey Holt’s at 99p/pint in the Bluebell in Moston).  My visit also scored me another minor celebrity spotting to add to my list: the long-haired TV archeologist Neil Oliver.

Yesterday also yielded another traditional (and for the reader, tedious) trope with news reaching me of the official opinion on my latest OU essay.  It once again yielded 95 of your English marks (somehow I can never quite make it to 96): given the amount of blowing this particular trumpet is receiving at my hands, my embrasure must be coming along nicely.

Today I shall be breaking new ground, with my first visit to the theatre in Scotland – but first, back to tradition: the full Scottish breakfast.  So for the next hour or so, black pudding, bacon and sausages will be deemed to be vegetables (mostly).

National anthem

My new life as a theatre goer is proceeding apace – of which perhaps more in a later post (if the idea ever manages to jump across the band-gap from draft to post) – but I do seem to have fallen in love with the National Theatre.  I’m even starting to develop a fondness for its neo-brutalist exterior architecture – but that may only be a consequence of association or familiarity.

Anyway, once past the concrete exterior the interior is a joy.  Both the Olivier and the Lyttleton (named for some relation of Humph’s I believe) are excellent places to watch a play: comfy seats with plenty of legroom which all have an excellent view of the stage.  I’ll be able to comment on the Cottesloe on the basis of first-hand (and leg) experience in June.

Each time I have been, there has been free, live music on offer to entertain those that arrive early – and there always seems to be a free seat in the extensive foyer space to sit down and take the weight off my ageing limbs (why do my limbs always feel older in London than in South Cambs?).  They always seem to have an exhibition of interesting photographs as well – so stimulation for both the eyes and ears while waiting for the main show to start.

Regular readers will be unsurprised that my first ever visit to the National, in the dying days of 2011, was not to see the followers of Thespis but to eat.  The complex has a decent restaurant and the tapas-style cafe is rather nice too – with views out across the Thames.  Even more importantly, as I have subsequently learned, it has quite the finest interval offerings of any performance space I have yet attended.  Wonderful interval cakes and blackberry frozen yoghurt – and with their efficient service, you can manage to fit the consumption of both into the break in the dramatic action (well, you may struggle but I can do it comfortably).

However, it would seem that food can act as a gateway drug to the theatre – a fact, other arts institutions might like to consider (assuming that I am typical of the potential theatre going public, which might be a challenging assumption to justify in the face of even mild cross-examination).  In 2012, I have been to four NT productions (so far) – 3 at the NT, and one at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London’s glittering west end (may not contain actual glitter).  This has taught me that if you do visit the West End, you may enjoy more classical and roccoco architecture but they do charge you extra for the privilege (or possibly, the maintenance) and the aircon is nothing like as effective.

So far my theatre has been rather skewed towards comedy – albeit classics from yesterday and today: The Comedy of Errors (by one W Shakespeare), She Stoops to Conquer (by Oliver Goldsmith – and nothing to do with the fruit of the horse chestnut) and One Man Two Guvnors (originally by Goldoni, but really the work of Richard Bean as I’m fairly sure Signor Goldoni never visited Brighton in the 1960s), all of which have been a joy and actually funny (not something you can take for granted) – but this is not to last.  To support my OU coursework (well, that’s the excuse I’m using), I will be seeing Antigone by Sophocles in June and my limited classical education suggests that if Sophocles was once famed for his light-hearted comedies then posterity has not preserved them for me to enjoy (but you never know what Tony Robinson may dig up – it can’t all be arrow heads and pottery sherds).  A BBC4 documentary I saw earlier in the week also suggested that Timon of Athens may not have an entirely happy ending – though might be quite topical.

However, last night I saw a new play entitled Travelling Light penned (or, more likely, word processed) by Nicholas Wright.  As with some of my recent cinematic viewing, this covered the early days of movies – but for my money (and it was my money, no-one is yet paying me to visit either the cinema or the theatre, more’s the pity) it was worth ten of the much lauded film, The Artist.  The play was lovely, warm, funny, moving at times and leads you to care about the protagonists.  Better yet, I couldn’t predict the ending (and most of the plot after the first reel (scene?).  In fact, I found myself caring rather too much about the “hero”, and spent much of last night fretting about Motl – a rather pointless (and tiring) exercise as he is a fictional character and even if real would now be more than 130 years old (so unlikely to gain any benefit from my concern).

Mr Collins does suggest that an anthem should be sung, and I do realise that this paean to the NT has been written in prose.  However, readers should not view this as a barrier when the phrase to “sing the ‘phone book” has made it into the language: a feat apparently performed by Celine Dion back in 2002 (and to greater critical acclaim than her work on the Titanic).  I feel this post makes for much more promising material for the sopranos and tenors among you than any of BT’s printed output, so feel free to let rip!

Elevenses

Possibly the finest meal between the 10 o’clock, post-breakfast snack and the cook’s “perks” consumed while lunch is being prepared around noon.

Today is sponsored by the number eleven – well, it is for those of us using the Gregorian calendar and base ten – with many becoming rather over-excited by its prevalence within today’s date.  However, given that the base year for our dating system, the start of the year and the start of each month are all effectively arbitrary choices, it is hard to see how the date can have any real significance.

Curiously, the number eleven seems a popular choice of team size for sports developed (or so we like to claim) in these fair isles.  I am at a loss to explain why this particular prime number has been so favoured – nor why the heirs to William Webb-Ellis found it to provide insufficient players once you were permitted to handle the ball.

M-Theory suggests that eleven is the total number of dimensions required to make a universe – though this remains far from proven today (seven are currently missing, assumed to be folded up very small – or perhaps down the back of a sofa somewhere).  So, it seems unlikely that cosmology can have acted as an inspiration to those who first codified our more popular team sports in the 19th century.

I can only assume that the use of eleven players was another arbitrary choice – maybe the committee writing the rules were feeling a little peckish and were subconsciously influenced by the need for some cake (or biscuits) and a cuppa in the longueur between breakfast and lunch.  I think Freud may have rather under-estimated the influence of cake on human behaviour (he seemed rather obsessed with our baser instincts), or am I over-generalising from my own motivations?

Accounting for taste

The news informs me that Denmark is introducing a fat tax: not, as I understand it, a direct tax on those carrying a few extra pounds (or Kroner) but a method to discourage them from carrying any more.  For a country whose principal exports, if we exclude small plastic bricks, are butter and bacon this seems quite a high risk strategy.  And where does this tax leave the poor Danish pastry?  There is only so much that depressing film or television or, for that matter, Sandi Toksvig can do for the country’s balance of payments.

Talking of ‘balance’ and ‘payments’, I have – for reasons that need not detain us now – been trying to pass myself off as an accountant.  Yes, I hear you – but while I may already be dull enough, a fact to which this blog stands in mute (for the time being – but we are approaching post 200, so perhaps sound will come) testimony, I need to be able to prepare accounts and the like as well.  As a mathematician, I figured (pun fully intended) that this couldn’t be too hard – accountancy only requires addition and subtraction, they barely use multiplication or division let alone complex numbers, group theory or differential calculus.  However, in practice, it isn’t quite so simple due to the range of needlessly complex regulation that seems to surround every addition (or subtraction).  Bending my head round the reams of poorly drafted VAT (rather than fat) regulations is proving a particular challenge; and to think, I used to believe electricity markets were Byzantine in their arrangements (though at least, in part, these have some basis in physical reality and the movement of electrons).  Still, I’m starting to bore myself now – so on with the motley…

As you know, my mind rarely strays far from the subject of cake and patisserie – even when trying to be an accountant.  So, I found myself musing about presentations made by the accountancy arm of Greggs the Bakers (many other obesity outlets are available – though may now be full of Danes buying up our tax-free lard).  Would these include slides on rising apple turnover turnover?  Or ponder the profiterole profit role?  Has their share price suffered as a result of short-crust selling?

Sticking with the theme of cake and money; in a smart restaurant, I have occasionally been offered a financier for desert (I’m afraid, such eateries rarely offer something as substantial as pudding).  According to Wikipedia, a financier is often mistaken for a pastry – perhaps because they are flaky?  – but, in fact, it’s a small cake involving almonds.  In contrast, Mr Collins suggests a financier is one engaged or skilled in large-scale financial operations.  Given the current state of the world economy, I think I’d give my vote to the small, almond cake definition.  I reckon we’d be in far less of a mess if the cakes were running things!  And, if they did make a complete mess of things, we could always eat them – with a few berries and some whipped cream, rather than bailing them out with piles of cash.  This is one of the few occasions where bailing out involves the addition of something, usually it involves chucking stuff out: might this explain why the economy is still sinking?  (Was that almost satire?)

All this talk of cake is making my hungry, so I’m off to eat – tax-free!  (For now)

Trash Talk

Or, for the more British in the audience, perhaps rubbish rant would retain both the theme and alliteration – though it does lack the advantages conferred by use of a pre-existing phrase.

News today suggests that the recession is over.  It would seem that the NHS, schools and the military are now fully funded.  The days of library closures and arts cuts are behind us.  Surely, only a country in a state of such near-utopia would prioritise £250 million to collect rubbish more frequently.

I accept that I live on the outskirts of almost any Normal distribution you would care to name, but would note that my black bin (the one for waste that can be neither recycled nor composted) has not been collected for 12 months.  I should stress that this is not due to any failure on the part of South Cambs District Council and their excellent (if rather loud and early arriving) bin men – but because, even now, it is only 25% full and it hasn’t seemed worth putting it out for collection.  Given the rate of accumulation of rubbish, I am thinking of only putting out on 29 February (a leap bin)- though that only works if it’s a Monday and I think even I might have filled it before 28 years have elapsed.

Or is this an attempt to jump-start the economy by encouraging us all to up the amount we waste from its current high level to something truly gargantuan?

Today’s other big policy initiative seems to be to increase the speed limit to 80 mph – again, a clear priority in these difficult times.  Going faster on our crowded, dis-integrating roads is clearly the right way to go.  I am unsure if the plan is (a) to boost tax revenue from petrol, diesel and brake pad sales (Do cars still have brake pads?  Or is that just my bike?) as a result of the higher fuel consumption and more extreme braking that will be facilitated or (b) to reduce the size of the soi-disant pensions time-bomb by ensuring that more people are killed on our roads before they are in a position to claim.  In the case of (b) I fear their hopes may be somewhat misplaced as I suspect the new deaths will be disproportionately from the already earlier-dying male population – they really need a policy that will take out those of a distaff persuasion while still in their prime.  Then again, recent reports on the lack of midwives and maternity beds may suggest that the Coalition are already working on this.

If I were to be cynical (Heaven forfend), I might think this was a crude attempt to distract the electorate from the terrible state we are in: can we really have the worst quality of life in Europe?  Are the electorate really that stupid?  You may not have a job, any hope of treatment or even a library to shelter in out of the rain, but at least your bins will be empty and you can race at high speed along our hole-ridden trunk roads in the wee small hours of the morning (at other times, I fear the volume of traffic would thwart any attempt to use the new, higher speed limit).  Are empty bins and high speeds the modern version of Marx’ opium of the people or Marie Antoinette’s brioche?  As regular readers will have guessed, I would take the cake every time!

Baking

Whilst the title could be an allusion to some of the temperatures ‘enjoyed’ in the environs of Sawston over the last week (conditions that, according to our friends at the Met Office, will not continue to be enjoyed over the week that is to come), it is, in fact, a reference to the culinary arts.  Indeed, given the all too frequent downpours which were so much a part of the past week’s weather, a more apposite culinary reference to recent climatic events would have been to steaming or use of the bain marie.

Regular readers – as well as needing to get out more – may well be aware of my love of cake and other expressions of the baker’s art.  I refer here, of course, to the individual or artisan baker here – rather than to the mass produced rubbish that passes for cake in so many commercial outlets.  Now, I am more than capable of baking but, perhaps as a consequence of my inner puritan, tend to feel that making cakes for myself is rather louche – so usually only bake when I am entertaining (yes, I know you dear readers are still waiting for this circumstance to occur).

There are a couple of exceptions to my ascetic home life.  I do make a rather fine (and, to me at least, somewhat addictive) bread pudding – indeed, in my youth did so commercially on a very small scale – using store-bought bread made using the Chorleywood process.  I tend to use Hovis as the primary raw material because a) they use British wheat and b) it amuses me to think of a Yorkshire youth pushing his bicycle up a steep cobbled street to the accompaniment of Dvorák’s symphonic homage to the United States (now, there’s juxtaposition for you!).

I also have a bread maker (a machine, rather than a member of my household staff) and so make my own eating (as opposed to cooking) bread.  Recent scientific advances have led to the creation of a wholemeal spelt fruit loaf which is rapidly supplanting bread pudding in my affections.  This recipe was developed from a model provided by the Panasonic corporation but with a number of tweaks – the most significant of which was substantially upping the dried fruit content and adding nuts.  Nevertheless, I am always on the look out for a new cake emporium…

Last night I was in the packed chapel of Corpus Christi college, as part of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival, listening to pianist Libor Novacek play a programme which (uniquely, in my limited experience) combined Brahms and Liszt.  You will be pleased to know that despite this provocation, I limited myself to a glass of elderflower pressé in the interval.  The concert was stunning – especially the closing Liszt piano sonata (in B minor), though I do feel sorry for the poor chap’s abused fingers.  Conversation with the lady sitting to my left during gaps in the programme yielded the secret of a local, and somewhat hidden, tea room which apparently serves a wide range of excellent, home-made cakes and scones.  Any sort of fine weather which may be delivered by the week ahead will definitely call for a ride out to Grantchester to investigate…