Five old rings

I am hoping this title will allow me to stay free of the clutches of the LOCOG brand police, but this will be a post about the orgy of sport (and pseudo-sport) about to engulf London.

This evening we will have the Opening Ceremony, though this seems slightly tardy as the sporting events started a couple of days ago.  Oddly, these events, which form part of the London Olympics, have been held in places as far afield as Cardiff and Glasgow – the latter being almost 350 miles from London.  I think that even Ryanair would be a little embarrassed to land in Glasgow and claim it was a London airport – or perhaps not, “Welcome to London Prestwick”, anybody?  Forget building new airport capacity in the Thames estuary or expanding Heathrow, let’s build the new London airport in South Ayrshire!

I had thought that hiding out in South Cambs, I would be relatively unaffected by the “games”, but it seems not.  Strange foreign and retired buses have been sighted around Cambridge this week – visitors from Lincoln, Northampton and the scrap-yard – and I had vaguely wondered why: there had been no obvious increase in service frequency that would require extra vehicles.  My local free paper explained the reason: our nice new buses have been taken to ferry athletes around “London” – though if they were real athletes they’d make their own way (though I will accept it is quite a long walk/bike ride/swim to Glasgow).  Surely, athletes (and officials) cycling (or walking) along the special Olympic Lanes around London would be a much more inspiring sight than seeing them imprisoned within buses or limos?  Would this not provide a stronger message leading to a long-term boost to the nation’s fitness and cleaner air through reduced car usage?  Let’s keep the Olympic lanes, but allocate them to human-powered modes of transport!

However, the final straw came earlier in the week when I bought my copy of the Mortician’s Gazette (aka The Radio Times) – still the only listings magazine which gives any degree of coverage of he radio.  The price had increased by more than 40% – not because it was listing any more television or radio, in fact, in many ways rather less as several channels are showing nothing but the extended sportsday – but presumably to fund the unwanted Olympic supplement.  Surely, as little more than extra advertising, this should have reduced the cost of the publication rather than increasing it?

My own protest is limited to refusing to buy anything from any company sponsoring the games – not much of an imposition as I would be avoiding the vast majority of the corporations involved regardless of their sport-bothering commercial activities due to more quotidian issues with the products or ethics.  However, in conjunction with a refusal to buy bottled water (we have perfectly good di-hydrogen monoxide available from the tap) or any liquid which claims to provide some health benefit, this did make it rather tricky to acquire a cold (non-alcoholic) drink on Tuesday night to refresh me after a rather warm ride into Cambridge to see an excellent concert structured around Paganini’s time in the UK.  Some days, I do wonder if I suffer from a form of OCD…

Still, I wouldn’t like to leave you with the impression that the Olympics have brought nothing positive to the country.  As an all too regular visitor to Woking, I had almost grown inured to the quality of the roads in that Surrey town: roads that most developing nations would be embarrassed to host, roads so poor that the speed bumps provide the smoothest portion of any driven or cycled journey.  Well, some sort of sporting endeavour is taking place in the environs of Woking, and the good burghers of that town were concerned that the world-at-large would seem their secret shame were there to be any helicopter coverage – and so, by the last time I visited many of the worst offenders had been miraculously re-surfaced.  £15 billion well spent.  (OK, perhaps they could have re-surfaced the roads slightly more cheaply – but it’s the thought that counts!).

Purchasing

The current G4S Olympics debacle (can I use the word debacle, or have LOCOG been granted all the rights to it?) did make me wonder if at any time in the last 20 years (say), any UK government contract has been delivered on time, for the cost originally agreed and representing the entire scope of work specified in the contract?  I have a nasty feeling that the answer will be firmly in the negative.

I will admit that I am no expert in the field on purchasing – I still like to work within the Corinthian spirit of the amateur game – but I feel it is high time the government made the commitment to turn professional.

If my very cursory view of the story is even roughly correct, it would seem that G4S provided the lowest bid for security at the Olympics.  However, the actual cost charged by G4S will be many times higher than this (even with penalty payments).  This combination of events is not at all uncommon with poorly drafted contracts, the contractor is able to add significant charges for variations and changes in scope (charges that are now entirely free from the pressure of competition).  Even given this huge increase in the value of the contract, it seems that G4S are still unable to meet their contractual requirements and we have had to call in the public sector to bail them out (why do I find myself remembering about the Banks?  Who will bail out the private sector when the public one has been cut and privatised away?).  To be honest, I’m surprised we still have 3,500 people in the army and police combined, given the aggressive pruning of numbers that has been occurring: let alone that many with free time on their hands.  Presumably, as long as you steer clear of Stratford, now is very much the time to either (a) invade or (b) launch a crime spree – it all smacks of 1066 to me, I think we should keep an eye out for any boats leaving Normandy for the environs of Hastings.

I think I may have the solution to our current economic woes.  Rather than cutting people and services left, (mostly) right and centre, perhaps the government should invest some of the vast quantity of money we give it each year into recruiting some people who can draft and enforce a decent purchasing contract.  When I was younger, purchasing departments were staffed with hard-bitten (often Scottish) men (well, this was the 80s) who would have no truck with the idea that people or companies were essential good or honest.  All purchases were made on the basis of cast-iron contracts, with no wiggle-room for the vendor and swingeing penalties for non-delivery.  Whatever has happened to these fine folk?  Can none be tempted into a life of public service?  Given the amount of money being lost through the current appalling attempts at contracting, we can afford to pay these people the sort of salaries of which bankers and Premiership footballers can only dream – and still be quids in!  This G4S mess alone, if properly contracted, could have freed enough money to support tens of libraries for years to come.

A cynic might wonder if the fact that most of the government have never had a real job, or in the case of the cabinet much in the way of money worries, might be contributory factor? I also worry that the government thinks that the money it disburses (much of it very wastefully) is its own – rather than that hard earned by its less tax-savvy citizens and corporations.  Perhaps if ministers had to personally fund the extra cost caused by their contracting errors, they might take a little more care in drafting the contracts in the first place: if we are to be ruled by the fabulously wealthy, at least we would see some benefit from it!  Over time, my approach might see a switch from government by the rich to government by the competent: though sadly I can’t see this change coming about any time soon as the current incumbents seem unlikely to support its passage into law.

The Art of Recovery

My weekend was something of a cultural binge: taking in two (and a bit) art exhibitions and some 12 hours of theatrical extravaganza (though, so far as I know, there are no suggested government limits on the maximum safe volume of culture to be consumed in 24 hours).  You might ask why I chose to subject myself to quite so much culture over one weekend: go on, you know you want to!

Well, as you asked so nicely, I can tell you in a single word (or perhaps a single word with a definite article): the Olympics.  Shortly, travelling into, and to an even greater extent around, London is going to become a significantly more challenging and unpleasant experience as it will be full of folk hoping to take part in an orgy of corporate branding with the odd sporting event thrown-in.  Since I suffer from claustrophobia in crowds (and even more so in small spaces filled with a crowd: yes London Underground, I’m talking to you), I am trying to squeeze in as much London-based culture before the hordes descend.  There is also the need to catch plays and exhibitions that will be over by the time it is safe to return.  So, I had my own little cultural Olympiad over the weekend.

Talking of the Olympics, I wonder if the current flourishing of Shakespeare on the television and in theatres across the land is relying on a probable misunderstanding: that the Stratford of the games and of the Bard are the same place?  I do wonder how many disappointed visitors will be unable to find Anne Hathaway’s cottage in E15?

Art-wise, on Saturday I took in the Master Drawings at the Courtauld and on Sunday “A taste of Impressionism” from Paris via the US to the Royal Academy.  I would thoroughly recommend both – some truly beautiful works.  The tragedy, as always, is that they are already fading from my useless visual memory – I shall have to return.  Luckily, I will be able to go back to both for nowt – thanks to my (paid) friendships with the National Art Fund and Royal Academy (so not entirely free, but sunk cost at least).  While at the RA, I was also able to see the contents of the John Madejski Fine Rooms.  I’ve known of the existence of these rooms for some time, but they had never been open on all my many previous visits – and I assumed they were like Brigadoon and only accessible once a century (so elusive are they, that I couldn’t even access the relevant part of the RA website when researching this post to check the spelling).  The rooms contained works by Academicians – and all held at least some interest, and a couple were real stunners (for me at least).

Theatrically, I saw Last of the Hausmanns at the National and Diplomacy at the Old Vic on Saturday – both plays well worth two-and-a-half hours of anyone’s time (I even managed to learn some relatively recent European history).  But, on Sunday I went to see Gatz which starts at 14:30 and doesn’t finish until 22:45.  They do offer you three intervals – two of 15 minutes and one of over an hour to have dinner – but it’s still a very long time to be folded up in a theatre seat.  The “play” is quite extraordinary and well-worth seeing:  The concept is an amazing idea for anyone to have come up with, and perhaps even more incredible that they managed to convince enough others to enable it to actually happen.  However, by the end I did wonder if my lower body would ever work again and most of my upper body was none too pleased with me either.  It also seemed that all that concentrated culture had turned my brain to mush: perhaps HMG should have a suggested limit for culture after all.  Miraculously, given my age, I do seem to have recovered pretty rapidly – or so I thought until I went to the cinema this afternoon.  After a couple of hours in the usually comfortable embrace of the Arts Cinema’s seating, I was having flashbacks to Sunday night.  I think I will have to start rationing my culture in future: perhaps limit myself to no more than 6 hours per weekend.  Either that or find a personal trainer who can prepare my body for the ordeal of sustaining the arts in this country: oddly, most seem more obsessed with helping me lose weight (and here’s me struggling to retain what little weight I have) than preparing me for the theatre or gallery.  This seems to be a rather serious gap in the market, if you ask me…

May be disappointed

Recent news shows that June joins April in being the wettest month of its name since records began back in 1910 (before that, weather information was stored on wax cylinders).  This morning saw precipitation and flood-warnings galore – with much of the country promised more than one month of rain in a single day.  If the Met Office know their onions (which they may, though I’m less convinced by their powers of weather-related divination), today will be looking positively arid by the middle of next week.  So, July too would have been looking forward to meeting Roy Castle had it been around in days of yore.

All of which must be pretty humiliating for poor May.  In many years, it might have expected at least a decent place (and perhaps a medal) with its compelling combination of cold and damp – but it let itself down badly in the final week and in the context of such a strong field in 2012, it already looks like an also-ran.  I guess it has to look to stay injury-free, train hard and hope for better things in Rio in 2016.

Apropos of which, I find myself thinking about a giant, anthropomorphic letter “O” from an educational cartoon for children.  Like a person, it has a pair each of arms and legs projecting out from its ring-shaped body.  Someone (perhaps “R”) has taken a series of photographs, each capturing an arm or a leg with just a glimpse of the body.  Oh yes, I am thinking about “O” limb pics.  A ‘gag’ that I feel would have worked so much better if I were a cartoonist (or that is the excuse I’m using for its anticipated poor reception by the reading few).

Secession?

It is well known that some of the Scots (well, Alex Salmond at least) would like to leave the UK for the supposedly greener grass of independence.  I think he’s hoping to fund his new dominion from North Sea oil; I fear no-one’s plucked up the courage to tell him that most of it’s gone.

I also recall a famous recent incident where some part of the EU bureaucracy managed to publish a map of Europe which lacked the land of my fathers: Wales.  However, this was later revealed to be a mistake.

The forthcoming Olympics appears to reveal another coming schism in the realm.  Whenever talking about the sportsmen and women who will represent these Isles, they are described as “Team GB”: in which I presume the “GB” is a contraction of Great Britain.  Now, the country of which I am a citizen is called “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, to give its full title.  Odd then that our Olympic team seem to have dispensed with Northern Ireland altogether: perhaps this is intended as an indictment of the lack of sporting prowess to be found in Ulster?  No, I rather think that Mr Osborne has sold it to some foreign power in order to reduce the deficit.  When were they planning to inform the nation?  Presumably they are still plucking up the courage or maybe they are awaiting a suitable day to inter the bad news?

I’ve only been there once, and that rather briefly, but I’ll be sad to see Northern Ireland go.  It also seems unfortunate that we have sold it at a time when Eire is in such dire financial straits and seems unlikely to be able to afford it, thus thwarting once again their dreams of unification.  I wonder who bought it?  My money is on the Chinese, a middle-eastern investment vehicle or a Russian oligarch.

Watery whimsy

Not a discussion of small china ornaments with an aquatic theme, nor even a further tilt at the current severe drought – though I am thinking of moving my valuables to higher ground (better safe than soggy!).  For readers who can remember my last take on the drought, I am pleased to report that the pond that Gaia made has proved fruitful, and now boosts a clutch of mallard ducklings.  The pond that man made has not done anything to bring joy to the heart – and still seems to struggle to hold water.

Over the weekend, I saw some televisual marketing by a muti-national purveyor of cleaning products which played on the current interest in the London Olympics.  This used a famous (I assume) swimmer to plug the benefits of one of their dandruff dispelling hair preparations.  The chap seemed to suggest that worrying about dandruff impeded his progress through the water – but with the product in question, a weight was lifted from his mind.

I am no expert on swimming – in the world of strokes, I am very much a breast man and my mastery of even that is pretty poor (I can either do it properly or breathe – but not both) – but I am pretty sure that at the Olympic level, chaps wear a cap which completely conceals their barnet (and thus any evidence of scalp-based afflictions).  He must be a sensitive chap indeed to be so concerned about an invisible affliction.

Given the plethora of sporting activities and participants at the Olympics, surely this multinational could have found someone whose flowing locks would be proudly on show as they demonstrate their sporting prowess to the viewing public?  I don’t work in marketing and have little interest in sport, but I think even I could have done better to match sport to product.  (For the avoidance of doubt, I should make clear that I am not angling for a new job here.)

Whilst cycling home today, I passed a plumber’s van which was adorned with the marketing slogan “Bathrooms by design!”.  Presumably, this was to contrast with all those bathrooms that one sees which have arisen through pure chance.  I like to think I’m a fan of the theory of evolution – by far the best explanation to date of the complexity of the living world – but do try and resist the current tendency to apply it to absolutely everything.  In particular, I had never thought to apply it to the layout of the home.  I somehow doubt that a spare bedroom could ever evolve into a bathroom: how ever long you waited.  This is one instance where some sort of conscious design is needed – though, given some of the bathrooms I’ve seen over the years, it would seem that intelligent design is not a requirement.  Even my own bathroom, while admirable in many ways – does have a rather eccentrically placed window.  Perhaps a better slogan for the plumber would be “Well designed bathrooms!”?

Music Nation

Apparently, the last couple of days have been the Music Nation weekend: a whole series of musical events which form part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.  Regular watchers of QI will remember that culture was once a part of the main Olympics: with competitors vying for medals in architecture, sculpture, literature, painting and music.  Apparently, the arts were finally dropped in the 1950s as artists were thought to be professionals, whereas athletes were required to be amateurs: o, the irony!  Perhaps, in the 21st century where a ticket to see a Premiership match makes a decent seat at the opera look cheap, it is time to revisit this decision?

Anyway, despite my ignorance of this key component of this Olympic year, I did manage to take in a couple of contrasting musical events yesterday – well, someone has to support the arts in these parlous times!

The first was a matinée performance of The Mikado by the Cambridge University Gilbert and Sullivan Society – my first chance to see inside Cambridge’s other university.  This (i.e. the production, I’m not part of OFSTED) was pleasingly amateur (very much in the Olympic spirit) but was nonetheless enormous fun – and uniquely in my experience of the work, the three little maids were, only very recently, from school!  As part of my singing training, I have been tackling some of the lower pitched works of Messers G and S with some success (in my mind, if nowhere else) – and sitting in the audience could think “I could do that!” (not a thought that used to arise much when I was a regular visitor to the London Coliseum: then again, given a gladius I’d probably be a danger to myself).  As a result, I am now starting to feel the lure of the stage (not the first one out of town): the roar of the greasepaint, the smell of the crowd!  GofaDM is all very well, but you can’t actually see the audience suffer…

The second musical event was an altogether more serious (and Russian) affair with the CUMS Symphony Orchestra (the new name for CUMS I).  This paired Prokofiev’s 1st Violin Concerto with Shostakovich 7th Symphony, aka ‘Leningrad’.  I am a big fan of Dmitri’s seventh: very much the acceptable face of propaganda for my money.  It is, at times, quite a loud piece using a large orchestra with plenty of brass and percussion, but I had only previously heard it at the Proms in the caverous surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall: audience capacity c.5000.  Last night made use of the largest university orchestra I have yet seen, so large that some 10% of the 500 seats at the West Road Concert Hall had to be removed to make room for it.  The performance may not have been as technically perfect as those I’ve seen in London, but it made for an incredible experience.  O boy, did it pack an emotional, and physical, punch!  Brought a manly tear to my eye – though, as we have already established I do cry at the drop of a hat (figuratively speaking, I have never blubbed at an example of the milliner’s art experiencing a sudden, unwanted drop in gravitational potential energy, nor for that matter, at the work of Flanders and Swann), it has only happened once before at a concert.

But, I know the question on everyone’s lips – what about the ice cream?  Well, I can exclusively reveal, that the newer university provides a larger tub of artisanal ice cream at a lower cost than its older sibling.