Tulips and hamster jam  

Thursday, 31 January 2008

I have just returned from a hectic few days in Amsterdam, working at a large trade show at the Rai Conference Centre. This isn't the first time I've visited Amsterdam - I've been there loads of times before - however it was the first time I felt myself warming to the place a bit.

Perhaps it's because I have never been to the city as a tourist, only as a worker, that I've never really understood the attraction. To me, Amsterdam is like London - a place of faded glory; a once attractive city that has allowed itself to become mired in sleaze and grime. Sleazy and grimy it most certainly is: from the sex trade to its famous dope-puffing coffee shops, there really isn't another city like it for full-on, in-yer-face hedonism. The Amsterdam phenomenon is something I have always attributed to the Dutch character. An extention of their famous liberal nature to its logical conclusion. However now I'm not so sure.

There's one thing that a lot of the seedier places in Amsterdam have in common, and that is the fact that everything seems to be geared towards the English. From premier league football on Sky Sports, to pubs called "London Tavern" and cafes with the ubiquitous "Full English" on the menu, it would appear that catering to libatious needs of the British is big business in Amsterdam.

This realisation has led me to the conclusion that perhaps it's not the Dutch that have buggered-up a beautiful city, but the British. All the Dutch are doing is providing a means of relieving the sex-drugs-rock'n'roll craving visitors from the UK from their Euros. In turn this has made me realise that perhaps they're not so daft after all: By creating a sleaze-honeypot in the centre of town, the good people of Amsterdam benefit from the money coming into the region, while keeping all the louts in a relatively confined area, thereby limiting their impact on the more genteel areas. There's got to be a lesson the town planners of England can learn from that.

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Initiative is the new fascism, apparently  

Friday, 25 January 2008

This week I had cause to visit The Event Show in London. This is a trade exhibition for companies involved in every aspect of the events business, from portable toilets to lighting systems. The events business is an exciting game in many ways. I myself have been involved with some pretty big events in my time - Glastonbury, Reading etc - so I can claim a modest amount of experience in the field (excuse the pun). Safety has always been the top concern for people involved in putting on events, and rightly so. However these days, it seems safety has become less of a concern and more of a pathalogical obsession. Not with the people who are actually designing and putting on events; people who, for the most part, are hugely responsible and capable experts in their respective disciplines. No. The obsession lies with the incompetant buffoons at the Town Hall, who spend their time thinking up ever-more ingenious methods of curtailing people's enjoyment. Not to mention their education.

On the tube heading back from the show, I ended up standing next to a couple of these individuals as they were discussing their latest battles with the forces of anarchy, attempting to overwhelm their administrative regions with fetes, bouncy castles and bring-and-buy sales. With predictable efficiency, the District line train broke down at Earls Court, however this did provide ample opportunity for some serious ear-wigging into the daily goings-on with the Risk Assessment brigade.

The main thrust of the conversation concerned the misguided attempts of an individual member of the public to run a community project with local children. The basic idea appeared straightforward enough: Get some wood and paint and let the children build things. Ah, but there was a problem. "He wasn't a qualified carpenter," shrilled the first official to her shocked colleague. This then necessatated this community project having to find a qualified carpenter, willing to donate their time for free. Which, apparently, they did. "Ah but we couldn't allow the children near tools, of course", continued the official, "Far too dangerous." So now the act of actually making things now had to take place in a workshop, presumably surrounded by 20 foot high fences with sirens and flashing lights warning everyone within an 8 mile radius that someone was about to pick up a screwdriver. The role of the children in all this was now subsumed to that of assembly worker - taking things that somebody else had made and sticking them together, thereby removing the entire point of the exercise, which was surely the act of creating something from nothing.

Nevertheless, with qualified carpenters beavering away in fortified workshops, creating risk-assessed, non-toxic components, from sustainable wood using low-carbon production techniques, and transported to the children's non-judgemental activity space by bio-fuelled, recycled, ethically-sourced bicycle-powered tuk-tuks, you'd think we'd be home and dry. But no. "So what was he planning to do with the things the children made?" asked the second official. With barely contained incredulity, the first answered "I think he intended the children to take them home!"

"Oh dear", smirked the second, tutting into her ethnically-woven, bio-degradable cardigan, "He just hasn't thought this through,has he?"

The net result was, of course, the community project was cancelled, thereby freeing the children to continue engaging their time in less edifying pursuits, such as mugging and graffiti. Thanks to the attentions of these patronising and arrogant individuals, the good-hearted efforts of people who just wanted to do something constructve for their communities were strangled at birth. In Town Halls up and down the land, arseholes such as these are stiffling innovation, suppressing initiative and attemting to turn the world into brainless regurgitators of doctine, just like themselves. Rather than accusing the well-meaning individuals trying to make a difference of "not having thought things through", I wonder if they themselves have ever taken the time to consider the consequences of a generation of children raised with every original thought regulated out of their heads. Or maybe that's the plan.

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The world's favourite airline huh?  

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

This article written by Nick Denbow, Editor of Processing Talk

How many times have you flown into Heathrow after a long-haul business trip, with, if you are lucky, your car keys in your trouser pocket but no English money - that was long ago thrown into the suitcase - you have just a credit card, plus maybe some left-over dollars/euros/yen? Imagine then what happened to the people on the BA Boeing777 that delivered 95% of them to Heathrow from Beijing this week. In the words of Anne Robinson: "They left with nothing." In all cases no luggage, handbags, coats, just their shirtsleeves or what they were sitting in, but probably with no shoes. The ones with keys and wallets in their trouser pockets were lucky. The other 5% were given an ambulance ride to hospital, but this was not provided by BA.

The luggage for these passengers was used to cushion the Boeing777 impact onto the grass, and is now soaked in fuel and foam. Their passports are still in the lockers and the BA customer service did not even stretch to a cup of tea: just a ration of water but no food during a three-hour detention for a grilling as to why they had the audacity to be on that aeroplane. After this they were apparently told to walk
away: in stockinged feet with nothing to carry and in many cases no money, no transport and no help to get home from BA. And if your car keys are still in the locker? BA says: 'Hard luck, it could be a long walk home.' If you do have any money, and are not driving, maybe you could buy yourself a stiff drink after one of the most amazing crash landings ever: no help from BA there either.

So, not content with nearly wiping out a plane load of innocents, BA simply washes its hands of resposibility and walks away. From my experience, BA is the most incompetant and overpriced of any airline I know. To treat its customers like this is unforgivable. I just hope somebody has the guts to sue BA into oblivion for their shambolic performance.

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Back to school  

Friday, 18 January 2008

It's been a while since I posted on the subject of martial arts. But my fast-approaching nidan exam has bought my iaido back into focus. It's actually been quite useful to have had a little break over the last couple of months. Coming back to it now, I feel my technique has benefited from the rest, principally by becoming more relaxed and open. Seems strange, but I have had somewhat similar experiences many times in my musical career, so it seems to be something inherent in the learning process. Perhaps we need to step back from our studies from time to time, just to take stock, assimilate what we've learned and make it our own.

Getting back into the training is an enjoyable experience. The pleasure that comes from a well executed technique is really hard to explain, but satisfying none the less. But more so perhaps is the journey - the challenges, the frustrations, the first flickers of hope and finally the first "good one". The more I practive, the more I discover that it's really the journey that's important.

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Survival of the shiftless  

Saturday, 12 January 2008

There is talk at the moment about the spread of the dreaded winter vomiting disease and how it spells the end of the economy as nobody can get off the khazi long enough to do anything constructive. Having had an unexpected and rather unpleasent brush with the norovirus during a business trip to Brussels a couple of years ago, I can fully attest to the power of this particular nasty to seriously rearrange your diary: Cancel my meetings Miss Jones, I've got an all-day with Ralph and Huey. And it's not an experience I'd wish to re-visit.

This is, of course, a feeling shared by anyone with half a brain. We are all being told to wash our hands regularly, and if we are unlucky enough to catch the bug, don't struggle in to work with a cork up your bum because you'll more than likely infect everyone else. Sound advice, and one that most people can see the sense of. Yet, in spite of all these laudable precautions, statistics show this bug has spread extremely quickly - even for a bug that seems to have evolved running shoes. There's got to be a reason for this rapid spread of contagion, and I think I have stumbled upon the answer. Or slid upon it, to be more precise.

I refer of course to the modern craze for spitting. It seems that a large percentage of today's youth are incapable of walking even a few feet without feeling the urge to expel their bodily fluids for the enjoyment of passing pedestrians. Somedays, it's like it's been raining oysters on the parts of the High Street frequented by said sallow-faced, sportswear clad youths. It's little wonder that bugs of all descriptions get to visit a whole lot more places now - carried on the soles of passing people into homes, hospitals and workplaces. Nobody seems to have connected the idea of spitting and the spread of disease, yet I would of thought it was bloody obvious. If I dropped my Y-Fronts in the street and allowed the norovirus free reign to demonstrate its more "southerly" symptoms, I'm sure people would have something to say. Not a pleasant sight, I agree - but in terms of spreading disease, what's the difference? Yet nobody says a word when Wayne decides to share the fecund contents of his upper respiratory tract with the world.

Yet, nature is a clever thing and I have a theory that what we are witnessing is not in fact another example of anti-social behaviour, but actually the miracle of evolution happening right before our eyes on the highways and byways of England. Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum; for example, the kind of vacuum that might exist between your average lout's ears. My belief is that the reason why the winter vomiting bug has been so successful is that it has moved into the vacuum left by a combination of junk food, mindless TV and alcopops and is actually now running the show - driving around in Wayne's gormless carcass, gobbing out its youngsters as it goes. That would explain a lot. Apart from why it's called "evolution"

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Does the stiff upper lip still exist?  

Sunday, 6 January 2008

The subject of starting life in Japan continues to occupy my thoughts a lot of late. It is an exciting prospect, but also a little daunting. The idea of living in Japan has always been on my agenda, even before we got married, so I have quite naturally done a lot of research on the subject. During that research, I've naturally uncovered a lot of plusses and a lot of minuses. But interestingly, most the stories and comments you find on the 'Net are from Americans. Not surprising I guess - I'm sure there are a lot more Americans in Japan than English. Yet I've often wondered why it is so rare to find a negative comment from an English person about living in Japan. This led me to wonder whether there might be a reason for that - other than sheer laziness, of course.

While in Japan recently, I had a good conversation on the subject of iaido with my friend and sempai Kuni Sumida - a very talented iaidoka. We were talking about the meaning of iaido in a modern context; what motivates individuals to embark upon that path and what keeps them driving forward on their long and sometimes frustrating pursuit of perfection. Kuni-san pointed out the deeps links between iaido and classical Bushido - the traditional "Way of the Warrior". In modern Japan, of course, there are no more feudal lords or battles to be fought. But perhaps in many ways, the place of the Daimyo has been taken by "The Company". Modern-day "Bushi" are expected to give total commitment to the Company, much like their Samurai forebears. It is as a means of developing this mind-set of loyalty and commitment that iaido practice still has immense value in the modern age. And not just iaido - calligraphy and tea ceremony are other examples of traditional Japanese arts where proficiency can only be achieved through patient and dilligent practice over a number of years.

I was reminded very much of my own experience as an apprentice engineer - way back in the mists of time when you still saw labels that said "Made in England" and it meant something. I will never forget the first day: Clad in poorly fitting overalls, 80 of us stood nervously by our benches wondering what we'd let ourselves in for. I remember my gaze alighting upon a sign that had been hung on the wall of the cavernous workshop where we stood: I mused upon the meaning of the words "Smile as you file". We found out shortly afterwards: Each one of us was issued with a file and rusty lump of steel plate, with instructions that we should make both sides of that plate flat and parallel. When they said flat, they meant within thousanths of an inch. So began several weeks of filing - at first clumsy, but slowly more accurate and skilful. With this growing skill came a growing pride in this new-found ability that our patient efforts had uncovered within ourselves. Nobody who did that course ever forgot that lesson, and no matter what path each of us took in life after that, the pursuit of excellence became a matter of personal pride.

This combination of skill and pride, instilled at an early age, was so important to the success of British industry. Likewise, I would argue, to Japanese industry. Without it, nothing could ever move forward or improve. But this skill can only be forged in many hours of hard effort. And here is where modern UK and Japan differ: Japan still has people with this kind of personal grit - the UK, it seems, rarely so. My personal feeling is that this softening of our resolve is a natural consequence of today's something-for-nothing, buy-one-get-one-free culture where people seem to expect great things to fall out of the sky into their laps with minimal effort of their part. I would argue that this is perhaps something we have picked up from too long gazing across the Atlantic to the home of consumerism, the US.

That's not to say that the US to blame for UK's modern malaise - simply that as Western societies, we have chosen to go down this route. The US is just a little further down the road, that's all. So maybe the real reason behind the lack of comment from the English about Japanese life is really more to do with changing attitudes of the younger generations. Perhaps the backward English of my generation are still clinging to the last vestiges of the "stiff upper lip", making them far more likely to just get on with the challenges of living in Japan. Maybe we are just not used to the same standard of living as our American cousins, and so find less to complain about. But on a personal level, whatever it is, I'm really hoping that my personal life experiences will have prepared me well. I don't want to let the side down. That would never do.

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The late, great Brittania  

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Following my return to the UK, I have been pondering the state of affairs in this country even more deeply than usual, trying to get to the bottom of what's gone wrong with our society. It's a complex problem, and - tempting though it is - not one that can be laid solely on the shoulders of messrs Blair and Brown. While they have undoubtedly banged the final nail in the coffin, I think that the rot set in long before their appearance on the scene.

Ironically, I think it was the wife that got closest to understanding why this country has gone down the tubes to such an extent, and why there is such a yawning chasm between the image the UK likes to project of itself and the reality. And make no mistake about it, the world is fully aware of the truth behind the lies, even if we in this country are desperately clinging to a rose-tinted, self-deluding image of a nation which simply doesn't exist anymore. Take, for example, the NHS. Once the ideal on which health services around the world were modelled, the NHS now has the reputation amongst the international medical community of being one of the worst anywhere in the developed world. Anyone who has had the misfortune to get sick in this country recently, will attest to that.

One of the big reasons behind the decline of our health services, and indeed many professions, has been the gradual leeching away of talent - drawn overseas by the prospect of a better life and pushed out by bureaucracy, political correctness and general sloppy standards. The vacuum left is filled by non-British workers, who bring with them their own values and standards. Therein lies the essence of the problem.

In a nutshell, we as British people have forgotten what it is to be be British. As a nation, we have lost our self-respect; as a society we have forgotten the customs, traditions and values that define us as a people. What has replaced them has been a mixture of imported US-style PC nonsense and a mish-mash of cultural fragments from all over the place, mixed blindly into a muddy mess. As a result, this culturally rudderless country now drifts aimlessly into the future with no vision, no direction and no point to its existence. Britain - the country that spawned the largest empire in human history - has gone forever.

The wife's observation was very simple: She says British people have simply given away their country. She cannot fathom why we would want to do that; why we are so concerned with the rights of Muslims and asylum seekers, with Polish plumbers, with the lazy, the useless, the dishonest. Why we lack the courage to uphold our traditional values, indeed, why nobody now seems to know what those traditional values are anymore. She is right.

When you go to Japan, you see Japanese people; When you go to America, you see American people. When you arrive at Heathrow, you see hordes of Indians, Bangladeshis, East Europeans and Pakistanis. You hear very little English being spoken, and you see little sign that those people have the slightest desire to adopt any aspect of their host country's culture. It is very difficult to see how anyone could have a clear sense of national identity in these circumstances. Of course, this has been recognised (although addressed with characteristic incompetance) by the government with their Life in the UK test. Of course, this doesn't go nearly far enough to address the underlying problems. What's needed is a simple set of values and rules that apply to everyone, regardless of their ethnic roots.

To be welcomed in America, for example, you need to swear allegience to the flag and embrace the Constitution. Anyone can do it, regardless of ethnic origin, so long as they embrace the common vision and core values of the USA. This is the only way in which a nation can forge and maintain a national identity from a culturally diverse population. The fact that we have no such written constitution to allow us to adopt this course is a catastrophic error, and perhaps an example of the misplaced arrogance with which this country is now synonimous. Having paid the price for such arrogance, it's difficult to see how Britain can survive as a nation and as a society. Although tinged with sadness, this revelation does indeed make it very easy to think about leaving and not coming back: Simply put, my country doesn't exist anymore.

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