Election fever

With a bare 10 days to go until the General Election here in the UK, politicians are becoming increasingly febrile – while the populace are engulfed in a thick fog of ennui.  I am finding it rather hard to get excited about the vote, though I’m finding feelings of horror and depression much easier to generate.  It seems that no news bulletin can pass without a political bigwig taking a further swing with a sledgehammer at the very fragile foundations of my respect for their party and the political process – perhaps this is a deliberate process to get the masses to disenfranchise themselves?

Over the last couple of days, those hot-beds of revolutionary fervour – the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph – have done sterling work to identify those people who will be first up against the wall come the glorious revolution.  Share and enjoy!  But otherwise, the more reactionary elements of the press (i.e. most of it) seem determined (like Chicken Licken) to convince us that the sky will fall-in should the next government by formed by the Labour party with assistance from the SNP – and this collapse of the heavens will find the poor English suffering a forced diet of haggis and Irn-Bru while wearing a kilt.  Of course, a coalition government dominated by its junior partner is a real risk in this country, as the last five years of rule by the Liberal Democrats with barely a whimper heard from the poor Tories has ably demonstrated.  Given the probable experience of the LibDems, if I was in control of the SNP (unlikely I’ll admit) I’d be very reluctant to be the junior partner in a coalition – it does seem to be electoral suicide (though Nick Clegg may yet surprise us – and himself).  And what about the poor Unionists in Northern Ireland – where are the scare stories about them being the junior partner in a Coalition?  I, for one, am not keen on the forced daily marches past my flat (which has the misfortune to lie near a Catholic church) and I really don’t look good in orange, though who does?  Still, I suppose it would be good for the mural industry.

Curiously given the very consistent predictions made by those paid to forecast such things, both major parties seem to be in denial about having to work with a hung parliament (sadly, this involves neither rope nor gibbet – though this might be a way to increase voter turnout!).  Given that a majority government seems rather less likely than Glen Miller winning the National Lottery and investing his winnings in a unicorn farm, it does make me wonder just how well considered the promises about the future contained in their manifestos might be – wishful thinking is all very well, but I’m not sure it’s any way to run a country.

However, despite my disillusionment (which does rather suggest that I once had illusions) I do feel that it is my civic duty to vote – people did die etc, though I’m not sure when laying down their lives the conduct of this current election was quite what they had in mind (though lacking access to a necromancer, I shall never know).  Oddly, when seeking advice as to how to exercise my very limited power, it all seems to assume that I will vote entirely to improve my financial position.  Now, as this blog makes clear, I am at least as self-centred as the next man (unless he happens to be Kanye West) but I feel it would be terribly inappropriate (downright rude in fact) to assume that a vague hope of my slight enrichment is the biggest issue facing this country at the moment.  I feel that my vote should be used to improve the lot of the population at large, to the extent that is feasible.  As a result, I fear I will be seen as a dangerous aberration by many economists (and a source of horror to the late Ayn Rand).

By chance, I have been reading The Price of Inequality by George Stiglitz in the run-up to the election and he has something to say of some relevance to this process.  Initially, I found this work rather irritating as he kept repeating the blindingly obvious but after a while I found whilst he was still saying the obvious, it was stuff I’d never previously realised or thought about.  Whilst I am not necessarily convinced by all his conclusions – he is a much better economist than me and so may well be able to cover my eyes with wool – he has made me doubt (and largely abandon) some previously quite firmly held beliefs.  As I hurtle towards the grave, I have come to realise that conventional wisdom is much stronger on the “conventional” than it is on the “wisdom”.

The book is mostly based around the US-experience – though he does take time out to lambast the ECB and the Euro – but many of the conclusions seem to apply very directly to dear old Blighty.  In particular, in a world in which political parties gain the vast majority of their funding from a few very rich individuals and major corporations it is perhaps no surprise that their priorities do not align with those of the typical voter.  With most of the media also controlled by much the same interests (though The Guardian is, I believe, controlled (or at least bank-rolled) by Autotrader – and so in the hands of the second-hand car business and sheepskin coat) we can begin to see why the public may be disengaged from politics and grabbing at the lifebelt which the fringe parties seem to offer.  It also struck me that whilst we – the great unwashed – get to influence the political process once every five years and have to pick a whole raft of (probably fictional) policies, if you have enough money to pay for a lobbyist you can influence politics every day of the week and on very specific policies.  Money may not buy you happiness, but I suspect it does buy you quite a lot of influence over the world of Westminster, if you chose to use it in that way.

However, I think it may well be the sterling work of Tim Harford and Ruth Alexander on More-or-Less which may have the greatest impact on my voting choice in 7 May.  For now, I remain a floating voter – or perhaps a sinking one.


I am a regular user of the railways, though not – at the moment – a commuter.  Rare is the week that I do not make at least one, roughly-matched pair of journeys.  I do this rather than drive (or fly) largely (I fondly imagine) as a matter of personal preference.  However, having recently read Michael Sandel’s Justice, I have come to realise that it is also a political act – by using the train (or even the bus), I rub shoulders (and sometimes more) with my fellow members of society and so interact with the full breadth of UK social class (all the way from standard to first) – an experience which is largely avoided by those who drive everywhere, (in)secure in their own private “bubble”.  Emboldened by my unintended political engagement and the recent news, I thought I’d be more overtly political about the railways.

In recent weeks, the government has produced a new “initiative” (one of depressingly many) that what is holding the north back is the transit time by rail between its major cities.  Now, I will admit that Trans-Pennine Express is a good description of the train’s route, but is rather optimistic about its pace (unless one is a geologist).  Nevertheless, I am somewhat sceptical that knocking 10 minutes off the transit time between Manchester and Leeds will create a new tiger economy in the lee of the M62.  However, the output from this government “tank” (which I presume is what remains once we has extracted any thought from a think tank) is that faster trains in the distant future is what is needed to revitalise the north.

I travel around the north by rail quite rarely, but I follow several people on Twitter who are regular users.  Now, I will readily admit that this sample has not been selected with the sort of rigour expected of a regular listener to More-or-Less – but remains interesting anecdotally.  I have yet to see any users of TPE complaining about the speed of service – but many complaints about the lack of seating and excess of unreliability.  The same story applies to Northern Rail – which, from what I read, must have taken its mission statement from one (or more) of Dante’s nine circles of hell (or perhaps the franchise is being operated by agoraphobic sardines?).  I would be willing to go out on a limb (statistically) and suggest that for the majority of northern rail users, some extra rolling stock and some decent maintenance tomorrow would be far more appreciated than standing for a slightly shorter period of time in a decade or two.  It would also be much quicker and cheaper to deliver.  One is left to ponder for whose benefit is the government intervening in the operation of the railway?  It would seem not to be either the passenger or tax payer – so who?

This question was brought into sharper focus today with the news about East Coast.  I have been a very regular user of the East Coast Main Line, and still use it in preference to flying to Edinburgh (which would be both cheaper and faster).  East Coast – the current state-owned operators – seem have made a decent fist of running it.  Not quite a return to the glory days of GNER, but a far better job than almost any other rail franchise.  I have seen much Twitter traffic praising East Cost and looking with horror on its replacement – which is not something you saw with the end of the First Capital Connect franchise (to take but a single example).  On the whole East Coast seems to be viewed somewhat favourably by its users – but this holds little sway with our political masters.  Once again, the government makes clear by its actions (rather than its empty rhetoric) that the railway is clearly not there to serve its customers.  It would seem to be there to deliver a hefty “bribe” to the Treasury (£3.3 billion – or 3.5 years of work from East Coast) and to enrich the shareholders of Virgin and Stagecoach.  I found myself wondering how many passengers East Coast carries per year and how this compares to the number of UK-voting and tax-paying shareholders of Stagecoach and Virgin (combined).  I suspect the balance would lie heavily in the East Coast passengers favour.  I have limited experience of Virgin’s rail performance, though news from a while back suggests that it is at least better than First Group, but Stagecoach have little in the way of laurels to rest upon.  Indeed, so toxic is Stagecoach’s name considered that despite owning 90% of the company which has “won” the franchise, it will be the Virgin “brand” that will appear on the trains.  Leaving the appearance that all rail routes to Scotland are controlled by Virgin – so much for competition!  (Well, in the private sector anyway – it still seems to be full-steam ahead in the public sector.  Perhaps the NHS should start dropping sizeable “bungs” to the Treasury?).   Or is this a punishment for the Scots for having the temerity to almost leave the union?

It is perhaps ironic that in many cases the UK government is keen to dispose of our “loss-making” railways to companies owned by foreign governments, who then make substantial profits from them.  We seem to be keen to give our money away to the French, Dutch and Germans – swapping subsidising our own railways with subsidising those of our neighbours.  This is very European minded of us, and quite at odds with most of the rhetoric produced by the government in recent weeks.

Political parties seem to be casting around randomly for policies that might appeal to voters in the run up to next year’s General Election.  Might I suggest that with the exception of East Coast (and perhaps a couple of others), promising to replace the current rail franchise holders would be a major vote winner.  It would also be one which avoids overly strong parallels with the rise of National Socialism in 1930s Germany – which would make for a nice change.

In the meantime, I shall be reviewing my travel arrangements to Scotland – a slow boat, perhaps?

Hard working families

I believe this phrase is used by at least one of the two main political parties to identify its key demographic.  Frankly, there is no easy way to guess which one it might be (and I’m certainly not going to look it up) as they are virtually indistinguishable and I’m sure their main competitor is targeting exactly the same group, albeit using a slightly different buzz phrase.

I have a number of problems with the phrase, not least my own disenfranchisement.  There can certainly be a discussion about whether I am hard-working or not, but as a single chap I definitely fail to qualify as a family (either nuclear or conventionally-fired).  My belief is that, as a “single”, I am surfing the current demographic zeitgeist – with an ever growing number of single-person households.  We, the lone wolves of society, have been discriminated against for years with more expensive holidays and passed over for 2-for-1 offers (to give but two examples – grrr!) – but now it seems we are being deliberately ignored by the world of politics too.  Perhaps it is time we banded together – though I suppose we may find this difficult, which might explain why politicians believe we can be easily marginalised.

I feel the phrase “hard working” might also be a mistake.  Going back to demographics, an every growing proportion of the population is retired – and these people tend to vote – and so are no longer hard working in the traditional sense.

In its entirety, the whole phrase does make me wonder if Lord Shaftesbury worked in vain.  Somehow “hard working families” makes me think of small children up chimneys or down mines – otherwise, the little nippers are just loafing around in full-time education (which may not be their first choice activity, but is hardly economically productive).  Perhaps the need to get children back into work is one of the motivations behind the current opposition to human rights within the government.  It is perhaps worth warning our political masters – many of whom seem to be resident in some fictional past – that chimney sweeping is not quite the industry it once was.  Fun as Mary Poppins was, it should not be considered a documentary.

Anyway, let us assume (for the sake of what I will call “this argument”) that hard working families are indeed a good thing.  I would imagine that such mythical folk would like a decently paid job (at which to work hard), affordable housing (in which to live), decent public services (to make life liveable, educate their offspring and in case of illness), decent public transport (to get to and from work) etc.  Oddly, none of these areas seem to appear anywhere on the agenda of either of the political parties which claim to be focused on helping the hard working family.  Not even a promise to abolish central heating and get Britain’s neglected chimneys back into use.

No, instead there seem to be two big policy initiatives this week:

1.  An oath for teachers: where does one begin?  I am rather fond of Tristam Hunt, he writes a very good history book, but really – is this the best he and his colleagues could come up with?  I suppose at least it should (but probably won’t) be cheap – and I’m sure has already generated many an oath from the teaching profession.

2. Reducing Inheritance Tax: so, ignore hard work altogether and just inherit money from your relatives (which ticks the family box, I suppose).  I realise this approach has worked very well for much of the cabinet, but not everyone is descended from millionaires.  I, at least, have spent several years trying to encourage my parents to spend their money rather than passing it on to undeserving-me in the (hopefully) distant future.

Senior figures in all political parties seem very keen to bang-on about any incident where they meet a “real” person – I seem to recall Gareth from IT completely trumped the economy in a recent speech – but really seem to have only a very vague idea about what we are actually like.  After the excitement surrounding possible Scottish secession, there seem a vocal group of parliamentary numbskulls who feel that only English MPs should be allowed to vote on issues affecting England.  Obviously, this idea could be extended further, so only female MPs can vote on women’s issues and only disabled MPs on issues affecting the disabled (which should lead to some very small votes indeed).  Perhaps (idiotic though the original idea is) we should go further, and most MPs will only be allowed to vote on issues affecting PR, PPE at Oxbridge and a few other areas of special interest – with only the very few “real” people in parliament (the splendid Alan Johnson is the only example that springs to mind, though surely he cannot be alone) able to vote on issues which affect real people.  It would certainly be a novelty with people voting on things for which they have some relevant experience.

Failing such a major shake-up in the political landscape, it is time for the indolent loners in society (I know you must be out there) to start fighting for our political rights.  It’s going to be tough for us – involving as it will both work and meeting other people – but our voice needs to be heard!

Conference time

In days of yore, Autumn was poetically associated with mist and mellow fruitfulness.  More recently, for those of us using the trains, it has also become associated with the menace of “leaves on the line” – the curious ability of a little vegetation discarded by some (careless – or perhaps, malicious) deciduous plants to bring the 21st century rail network to its knees (and, yes, I do realise that a network probably doesn’t have actual knees).  However, it also seems to have become associated with the conference – and not just the pear!

I found myself speaking at two such conferences last week, have another couple next week and yet another towards the end of the month.  You readers may mock (or merely ignore) my output but there is a greater call for my services than you might have imagined!  It’s not just a local audience – my victims have been drawn from across the whole of Europe, and even given positive feedback after being exposed to my “content” (proof – if proof were needed – of the reality of Stockholm Syndrome).

Actually, one of my recent gigs was held in the French Salon at Claridge’s – so a brief opportunity to discover how the other half live (I did feel dreadfully common).  It was nice – but if I needed somewhere to stay for the night, give me a student room at a Cambridge College or a budget hotel chain every time and I’ll spend the money I’ve saved on something which would give me more enjoyment.

However, it is not just me attending conferences – our political masters (and would-be masters) are at it as well.  In the past, these conferences tended to be held in remote seaside locations (presumably using similar logic to the siting of nuclear power stations), but now they infest our inland conurbations without a second thought.

Of late, some of our politicians have taken to speaking without notes – and being lauded for this as though the achievement were comparable to that of a talking dog.  In all my years of public speaking, I have only once used notes – and that was only because the conference organiser insisted on it – and even then I ad-libbed extensively.  It would seem that poor old Ed Miliband came a little unstuck with this approach and forgot one of the key strands of his speech.  I know how easy it is when talking off the top of your head to lose track of your key messages, though I’ve found this can (usually) be fixed by introducing a strong narrative element to your talk.  Still, missing possibly the most important element of your talk does indicate very poor short-term memory, a tendency to get carried away by the sound of your own voice or too many messages for a single speech (to all of which I would have to plead guilty in my own less than illustrious past).  Loath as I am to admit it, less can often by more when haranguing a crowd.

Both Labour and now the Tories seem keen to convince us that, if elected, they will spend more money on the NHS.  Now, I know I dropped biology in the 3rd form and so am no expert – but I’m pretty sure that the primary objective of the NHS is to heal the sick, not to spend money.  Money may enable it to achieve its objectives, but I think I’d rather see some promises couched in terms of health-based outcomes rather than spending ones.  One could easily increase NHS spending by purchasing a Ferrari for every senior NHS manager, but whilst this may offer a lifeline to the Italian economy (and please at least some of the NHS management) I would be sceptical that it would do much for waiting lists, antibiotic resistance or the nation’s health.  I suspect spending more money is just easier than actually tackling any of the real issues which affect the NHS which I am quite certain (as it is a large organisation established by and involving human beings) wastes vast quantities of money (if, by chance, it doesn’t then it truly is unique and should be extended to cover a far wider range of activities – it would certainly be able to teach “the man” a thing or two!).

In the last couple of days, the Tories have continued to live by the dictum that if you thought the previous Home Secretary was reactionary then just wait.  It would seem that in the pursuit of soi-disant extremists my rights and liberties as a citizen are to be still further eroded.  I did wonder if this was, in fact, nothing to do with fears about the more frothingly insane members of Islam (and the young and impressionable that they have influenced) and is in fact a package of measures targeted at UKIP.  Then again, given some of the views coming from her own party, Ms May may find she has scored something of an own goal.

Still, at least someone has finally had the courage to take a stand against the evils of human rights: as a non-human myself, I feel that far too much is being done to molly-coddle the fleshy pink and/or brown bipeds that infest this planet.  Time they realised that they are allowed to exist (if at all) at the sufferance of their political masters (and the small number of wealthy individuals and corporations that are their masters, in turn).  Rights should only exist where they can be taken and held by force – whether that be physical or fiscal in nature – which has surely been the message that the world’s religions and philosophers have been banging on about for millennia.  I’m sure none of us want to live in a world where the rich and powerful might be brought to account should they chance to murder a citizen (or several) on a whim.

Free Oor Wullie?

When I was in Edinburgh, today’s referendum was definitely a popular topic of conversation and angst – then again, I was staying in quite a political household.  Upon my return to the deep South, you would barely have known anything was happening – or you wouldn’t until just over a week ago when it suddenly started to saturate the media (in a manner normally only possible if it involves Nigel Farage).

That’s the amazing power of one poll result.  As always, last week’s More or Less was fascinating, showing just how worried the pollsters were about the accuracy of their numbers.  They are not hoping for either YES or NO, but just that they won’t look too stupid when the results are announced.  Nevertheless, this one – decidedly uncertain – number was enough to move markets and PMQ.

As a neutral – or if not an actual neutral, then at least one of the un-consulted (a group which seems to include Scots living abroad, so Mr Connery will not be able to vote Yesh), there has been much else of interest in this whole process.

For a start, the degree of public engagement in the democratic process has been extraordinary – well, on the basis of registrations at least, the actual turnout still lies in the future.  It would seem that the public can be interested in something other than a mediocre singer with a mildly tragic past: who’d have guessed?  I suppose that unlike the vast majority of opportunities to exercise our franchise, the result is not a foregone conclusion and your vote might actually make a difference (a situation normally reserved for a lucky – or unlucky – few who happen to live in the right marginal constituency and which focus groups suggest could be swayed with the application of appropriate spin).  Could there be lessons for the future here?

It is also interesting that, at best, a tiny proportion of the electorate can possibly understand the implications of their vote.  I have tried to an extent (as you will see below) but would have no rational basis on which to decide, so I am in many ways grateful for my disenfranchisement.  Would I go with my deep-seated risk aversion or be tempted by devilment and the desire to see if something new and better could come?  So, I assume most voters are making a largely emotional (or party political) choice.

It has been fascinating to see how bad at politics all the main political parties are.  The SNP seems to rely on a combination of nationalism, the idea that change is good and we should ditch the Westminster elite (who are certainly well worth ditching, but do seem awfully similar to their brethren at Holyrood) and vague promises about the future being better (but also the same) backed up by some dodgy numbers.  The combined might of the remaining political elite seems to have worked on the basis that “we can change” whilst strongly demonstrating that we haven’t (and probably won’t) and attempting to terrify the Scots with the prospect of life without us, backed up by some dodgy numbers.  The UK does seem to have chosen to act as though they were the abusive spouse in a violent relationship (which I’m not convinced we are) – perhaps, Jerry Springer should have chaired the televised debates?

More recently, the Yes campaign has moved up a gear – with senior politicos molesting the Scots in the flesh, presumably to leave the bitter taste of the Westminster elite fresh in their mouths as they go to the polls today.  They have even tried to tempt the Scots to stay by offering Holyrood increased tax raising powers!  Now, I’m no political strategist – but promising the potential for higher taxes for all doesn’t strike me as an obvious vote winner.

One of the main bones of contention had been the admin that will have to take place as you turn one country, with one set of institutions et al, into two.  Mr Salmond would have us believe this will be a cinch, whilst his opponents suggest it will be virtually impossible and Scotland will be left as a smoking wasteland if you so much as try.  I’ve tried to think of any recent example of countries decomposing voluntarily, and the only one which came to mind was Czechoslovakia – however, in this case both sides voted to leave.  I don’t recall any major issues in this case, but then again it is hard to remember the last time the Czech Republic (let alone Slovakia) had any coverage at all in the main UK media – so it may have been a mess for years for all I know.  Czechoslovakia had also only been a country for a rather shorter period of time – only since 1945, rather than 1707  – and was probably only part way through moving from Communism to Democracy, so the process may have been a little easier.

My best guess is that there will be an awful lot of admin to do if we bifurcate, and bureaucrats and politicians will be very busy and lawyers will be buying third or fourth homes in the sun.  There will also be an extended period of uncertainty while all this back-room work goes on.  This is supposed to be complete by 2016, but re-organising the UK electricity market has already taken rather more than two years – and that is only one element of the work needed to set up a new, independent state (as but one example, it is not just relations with the UK that will need redefining, but those with the rest of the world which currently arise by dint of being a part of the UK) – so I suspect the timetable is a tad optimistic.  While the admin is underway, there will be a fair bit of uncertainty in the air – with people unsure just what the new Scottish State will be like – and this is likely to put the brakes on investment. Investors are strange folk, willing to gamble huge sums in some areas as we’ve all seen, but oddly shy of a little uncertainty in others.  So my best guess is that a newly independent Scotland will have a few tricky years to endure before the sunlit uplands of independence yield their potential benefits.

This brings me on to another pet theory of mine.  I suspect that independence (if achieved) will do for the SNP what being part of the coalition has done for the Liberals – basically finish them politically.  First they will have the difficult “admin years” as I am calling them, followed by full responsibility for everything that happens thereafter – but with no-one else to share the blame – and with even less control over monetary policy (if they keep the pound).  In particular, they will be responsible for raising taxes for Scotland, rather than just spending those raised by the perfidious English.  As a result, the SNP’s support for independence does seem oddly selfless – if they win, they just become another centre-left party in the new State, but one without its USP.  I also wonder if independence will create a larger space for a centre-right party north of the border?

So, I must admit a part of me does hope for a YES vote – largely to see what happens and whether I’m right about the future (forecasting is, after all, my day job).  However, any Scots reading this in time to have an impact, please don’t feel any obligation to vote just to provide me with interest and/or amusement in the years ahead: I do have Netflix and access to cinemas, theatres and bookshops so I’ll probably be alright even without your (indirect) support.

Another disappointment

Life is, of course, full of disappointments – well unless you are seriously committed to your pessimism (and perhaps even then).  To try and keep the length of this post somewhat manageable, I shall restrict myself to those occasions where I have been overlooked and where so many others have not.

For example, despite the huge turnover in personnel over the years, I have yet to be offered a position in the Sugababes.  I even have quite a decent singing voice and some training in how to use it to advantage.  As a bass, I feel my voice would chime nicely with the apparent desire for low frequency music among today’s youth.  Perhaps the other “babes” were worried I would show up the paucity of their own vocal delivery?  Or is this yet another example of the sex discrimination which remains rife in the UK?

Similarly, my name has yet to be linked with the position of England manager – an increasingly unusual boast on a planet of a mere 7 billion souls.  I’ll admit my footballing skills are a little rusty and even in my pomp these skills could at best be described as poor.  I will also admit to a shaky grasp of the rules of the game – but this seems pretty key for management today.  I can say that I have represented my school in the white heat of competition as a cornerstone of the defence – though, if pushed, will admit this was against a village primary school team so poor they would struggle to get past England on penalties and so team selection was drawn from a rather wider pool than would have been considered for more formidable opposition.  Talking of the soi-disant beautiful game, whilst at primary school I attended football practise every Tuesday for many years.  I think this goes to prove that while “practise” may make many things, it did not in my case make “perfect” (or even mediocre).

But, enough of reminiscence.  This morning I wandered out to exercise my franchise (and get my hair cut).  This gave me the opportunity to pick both a local councillor and an MEP (and so covering the full range of political representation).  For the council, I had a choice of five hopefuls – all representing political parties I had at least encountered in my life to date.  For the European option, I was given a telephone directory’s worth of names from a truly enormous range of political entities, many completely new to science (and, indeed, me).  Some of these were clearly aiming to split the xenophobic/racist vote – others were a complete mystery with their names and slogans giving no clue at all as to their political aims.  Clearly, at least one party (I think one of the more xenophobic) had taken its political strategy from the Yellow Pages and had appended the prefix “An” to the party name so that it would appear first and appeal to those too lazy (or tired) to scroll through the several pages of parties which appeared on the voting slip.  I was disappointed to discover that my own name was nowhere to be seen on this great roll of candidates – did I miss the memo?  I must be almost the only resident of Southampton not standing for a chance to enjoy a share of the monetary gravy doled out to MEPs.  Perhaps, the 60 or so followers of this blog mean that I am too well known to be an MEP – a role for which total anonymity appears de rigeur with one, very dishonourable exception who has had so much of the oxygen of publicity that he must surely soon be taken from us in the highest temperature example of spontaneous human combustion ever recorded.

Still, after a couple of hours of speed-reading I had made my way through my options and picked a poor unfortunate to represent my interests on the European stage (actually, I rather like Brussels – a city easily reached by rail and which offers good food and beer on arrival, what more could one ask for?).  My civic responsibilities cleared for another day, I returned home exhausted for lunch.