Monthly Archives: August 2015

Corbyn Really

I have never met Jeremy Corbyn, but the better half did, a year or so back. She was representing a development company, which had bought a derelict building in the London Borough of Islington, for which a planning permission had been granted. They wanted to develop it as medium-value flats. The original planning permission ran out and the Council took the opportunity to list the derelict building as of historical value. The company made a new application and were summoned to a meeting with the Council. They were told that Jeremy Corbyn, who is the local MP, wanted to attend the meeting.

The company’s representatives introduced the scheme. There was a shortage, they said, in the Borough of housing for the non-wealthy middle class: teachers, nurses and so on; the scheme would alleviate this. The better half introduced the company. She said that it was English and it would pay its taxes and fulfil all its other social duties; its funders were Russians, one was an Israeli citizen, but they were not oligarchs; they were hard-working businessmen who wanted to do business in England.

Jeremy Corbyn brushed this aside. “No,” he said. “If you are Russians you are oligarchs. And you owe us.”

He made it clear that he considered all developers and all Russians as leeches on society. He airily dismissed any suggestion that the development might improve life in the area. Developers never improved anything, because they were evil.

When a developer applies for planning permission that would otherwise be unacceptable, the Council may grant permission if the developer gives some value back to the community. When Jeremy Corbyn said that the company ‘owed us’, he meant, among other things, cash; in this case the Council wanted an unusually substantial payment of cash per flat. They also wanted two of the nine proposed flats for free. And there were some bits and pieces with the pavement that the Council would like fixed. If this shopping list were committed to – and this is the extraordinary bit – the derelict building’s historical value, currently a bar to any planning permission, would magically evaporate.

The Russian investors were surprised when they were told this. They had wanted to do business in England rather than Russia, because in England, as they understood things, the rule of law prevailed, unlike Russia, where what mattered was the whims of the local political gangsters and of course who provided the fattest brown envelopes.

The meeting ended with a commitment to meet again in three weeks, to give the developer time to consider the new demands. As it turned out, Jeremy Corbyn had a new cause and was much too busy to meet. So, apparently, were the representatives of the Council.

After the meeting the Council called. They said that Jeremy Corbyn wanted to establish that what he had said was off the record. Of course, if you want to put remarks off the record you do so before and not after you make them.

Jeremy Corbyn then wrote a letter (which I haven’t seen). The derelict property had once been a stationmaster’s house, with a booking hall attached. The railway company had sold it because there was no longer a stationmaster who needed housing, and the booking hall had become unnecessary when they invented ticket machines and then Oyster cards. Nevertheless the fruit of his further thought was this: It would be lovely if the house were in single occupancy as it had been when the stationmaster lived there: in other words another two-million-pound house in a borough crying out for affordable housing. And he wanted to see hard-working families once again buying their tickets in a resuscitated booking hall. One can imagine Thomas the Tank Engine mugging cheerily in the corner of this comfy vision.

So far, the derelict building is housing neither the rich, the poor nor the middle class of Islington. It is still empty.

Several things can be deduced from this vignette, which have a bearing on Jeremy Corbyn’s present aspirations.

1 He has scant regard for the law. This was a technical matter for the Council to deal with in accordance with planning law. He might be the local MP, but it was none of his business, and it should not have been made a pretext for grandstanding.
2 He is a racist. Saying that all Russians are oligarchs who ‘owe us’ is racist. It may not be very racist. Indeed, many people consider that Russians, like Americans, are exempt for the normal rules. I mention it because of the persistent stories of his anti-Semitism.
3 His attitude to small business is confrontational.
4 He is a slave to cliché. Presented with a Russian (hiss!) developer (hiss!), all capacity for thought deserted him.
5 He doesn’t listen because he knows best.
6 He is a sentimental old thing.
7 He is not very bright.

Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents in the leadership contest are unappealing. One is not yet up to the job, one is deeply creepy and will say anything to get a vote, and the other is dull. You can see that in comparison he might seem like a human being. A picture has grown up of him as honest, down-to-earth, capable, a bit old-fashioned but in the best way: as the NHS is old-fashioned. There was an amusing piece recently imagining what a pub would be like if he were the landlord.

The Left likes to attack straw villains. You can see it every day in the Guardian online. There might be a story in which people act not particularly well nor particularly badly; that will not have been the point of the story, but the comments underneath will quickly descend into shrill little cries of generalised hate. (You can see the equivalent on the Right in the Telegraph, of course, and here the shrill little cries are often deeply malign.) Here we have the Left building up a straw hero. Jeremy Corbyn may well be a nice man, he may have twinkly eyes, but he does not have the virtues that are being thrust upon him. If he were asked to organise a Shadow Cabinet, let alone a country, the interests of us all would undoubtedly be sacrificed for the sake of a grand gesture, a nice big red cliché.

If Jeremy Corbyn were the landlord of a pub, there would be no beer.

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Jeremy Corbyn and Ways with Sevilles

I was about to post a piece concerning Jeremy Corbyn when the doorbell rang. On the doorstep were three well-built men in trenchcoats. I invited them in and offered them each a cup of green tea. The former offer they accepted but the latter they disdained. Their leader indicated that publication of my piece would be looked on unfavourably. How they’d found it goodness knows: something to do with Google I suppose.

“Looked on unfavourably who by?” I said.

“Us.”

What about free speech, I asked.

“We don’t prioritise free speech.”

I tried a different tack.

“I do say that he has twinkling eyes,” I said.

“Jeremy’s eyes do not twinkle. They are stern but kindly.”

“Just like Uncle Joe.”

“Mr Alablague,” said the leader, “there is an easy way of dealing with this and there is a hard way. Which is it to be?

The other two goons were fingering my soft furnishings in a menacing way. One of them moved to a painting and started to pick at the surface with a grubby finger nail – one of ten. I am no coward, but I do value my soft furnishings, and so does the better half.

“All right.”

The leader grunted and left the house. The others followed him. As they did so one of them said, “Why does he call him ‘Uncle Jer’?”

“Who?”

“The enemy of the people. What does he call him Uncle Jer?”

The leader turned through ninety degrees and hit him on the ear.

We live in perilous times and there is always a risk of causing offence. That is the last thing that I would want to do, even if there were no goon-linked risk to my soft furnishings. I looked through the curtains to make sure that they had gone. Sure enough they all got onto their bicycles and peddled off, no doubt to correct Error wherever else it had arisen. Bicycles: in the Eighties they would have been in a Mondeo. Today’s goons would be healthier as a result. The Blairist Terror had not been without all benefit.

I wondered what I might innocently write about and settled on marmalade.

When I was a child there was a brief time in the year when my mother would buy great quantities of oranges and boil them on the Aga so as to produce our year’s supply of marmalade. There was no Frank Cooper for us. Marmalade was compulsory at breakfast, so a year’s supply was a lot. Mysteriously she referred to them not as oranges but as ‘sevilles’. Inevitably I linked this with my father’s otherwise inexplicable habit of shouting:

Let us bang these dogs of Seville
The children of the Devil!

Sometimes instead of shouting this he would sing it. The words are taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s long poem The Revenge: a Ballad of the Fleet and my father was also familiar with its musical setting by the composer Stanford. This became one of my favourite poems: top five I’d say: beats Keats & Shelly into a cocked hat. Once, years later, I entertained my fellows on a Southern Region train, held outside Waterloo for fifty minutes in the rush hour, to a recitation of the work, assisted by two friends, who handled the oratio recta.

Years more later I encountered Seville itself, accent on the second syllable and one of the most magical places in the World, and a year after that our satnav failed on its by-pass, which was less magical. Indeed, it nearly resulted in a fatality, when the better half decided that it was all my fault.

But marmalade, as I say, was an essential part of my childhood diet.

Recently it has become more, in two respects.

The first was a sort of double whammy. We went to St John’s, my favourite restaurant. It was St John’s Bread & Wine, in Spitalfields, because the main restaurant in Smithfield was fully booked. They had Marmalade Ice-cream. I almost didn’t have it, because of course I was full. Thank goodness I did. It immediately became one of my best-loved dishes: top five I’d say.

I say that it was a double whammy. I went to St John a few times thereafter and it was not on the menu. Maybe it had been a one-off, I thought, to dispose of unwanted sevilles. Then one day it was available in the guise of Marmalade and Brown Bread Ice Cream. Words at this point fail me.

The second was on the occasion of my birthday. My eldest daughter presented me (among other gifts of a more sturdily artistic nature) with a small bottle. It was of Marmalade Gin. This is made by Slamseys of Braintree, in Essex. They infuse their gin with Seville oranges and it is enormously delicious. You wouldn’t dilute it with tonic or even ice:it is best taken neat, in tiny intense sips when no one else is looking. It is like a perfect breakfast without the stress of the day to look forward to.

It’s not available in supermarkets, but you can buy it online.

I sat back daydreaming of marmalade and how it has enriched my life. My inbox pinged officiously. Heavens, it was the Jeremy Corbyn campaign. What had I typed now that was inappropriate? Was it the Seville by-pass? Is that racist? I can take it out if you like.

No, it was more emollient. Reference to Uncle Jer’s twinkly eyes was not after all black-listed, so long as they were also referred to as stern but kindly. And – this was stressed – the sternness and kindliness were to be prioritised.

The email ended with the hope that they had been of assistance, and there was a picture, in colour, of Himself in his cap. There was nothing however about my piece, which I suppose is still embargoed. I am grateful in a way. If he does come to power it would be a shame to have anything incriminating on the record.

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Hail, Sturgeonia!

We are staying in the People’s Republic of Sturgeonia. We meant to enter through Berwick-on-Tweed, with its bridges celebrated in art, but apparently the A1 was shut; the satnav took us through deserted valleys and past uninterested sheep and lonely peaks. It was so deserted that I wondered whether we would spot the Border; there are no machine gun posts yet. In fact there was a cairn, with ‘Scotland’ on it and a boy vomiting against the side. He was vomiting on the Scottish side. I don’t know if it was a gesture – for all I know the other side of the cairn says ‘England’. We did not investigate but drove on towards Edinburgh and arrived at midnight.

Edinburgh strives bravely to please the tourist but its heart is not in it. We had booked a self-catering flat. It was the meanest bit of space that I have encountered since I was in New York and people there would boast of similarly exiguous and cabbage-smelling accommodation. In each case the excuse was location, and indeed we could look out of the barred windows onto at least one murder site from the novels of Ian Rankin. On the table was the book of rules. After perfunctorily welcoming us to the great city in which we were privileged to be resting our heads, it told us at length what we were not permitted to do. ‘PENALTY: £100’, it would say, or, in one case, ‘PENALTY: £500’. That I think that was for spilling Irn Bru on the carpet.

Bella, the dog, needed to relieve herself before retiring. She has a foible about this: she will only do it on grass, unless she is in Portugal. Portugal is an exception as there is very little grass there. It is like Buddhists being allowed to eat meat in Tibet. There is grass in Edinburgh but it is locked up at night. We wandered the streets looking for a blade or two on which she could deposit one of her small and elegant effusions. It was all put away behind iron railings. She became embarrassed. Finally we broke into the National Gallery and found a patch there: in the grounds, obviously, not inside, in front of the Reverend whatever skating, or any of their other masterpieces.

Edinburgh is the subject of an interesting social experiment. The aim is that fifty per cent of the population should be traffic wardens. If you look around you, you will see that they are well on the way to achieving this exciting target. Furthermore, there is a new law to the effect that it is an offence to block the view between a traffic warden and any car in which the warden might reasonably be considered to be taking a professional interest. As a result the roads are occupied by the much-admired new trams and by Americans in kilts trudging glumly up to the Castle, while the pavements are full of traffic wardens, preening themselves and lovely in yellow.

On we drove, past the wonderful Forth rail bridge and the site of yet another road bridge in the process of being built, and onto the A9. This is the road that takes you out of the Central Belt north from Perth and on as far as you want: even as far as John O’Groats. The A9 is a difficult road. It has two lanes for most of its length and you get stuck behind lorries and caravans. The radio signal goes and Radio 4 turns to white noise. There is money for another road bridge for the Central Belt, but not for communications in the Highlands.

The view of the Cairngorms is stupendous – or was. These days it is difficult to see the Cairngorms as the roadside is littered with official signs. These announce enterprising new traffic-calming projects, remind you of the speed limit and inform you that policemen are operating in unmarked cars. (Operating? On whom?) There are endless speed cameras.

And now we are in the Highlands and there is a problem with rubbish. I wish that there was an agreed standard about what could be put into which bin. There are two bins. There is a sign on one of them that tells you that various things are not welcome, and another sign to the effect that if you put the wrong things in the wrong bin they won’t take them away: on a second offence they would throw it all through your bedroom window with a foul cry. We put the bottles (there had been family merriment) in the bin that did not say that bottles were forbidden. Half an hour later the neighbour deposited the bottles back on our doorstep with a note. It was in capitals and underlined, like the anonymous notes that one gets accusing one of sodomising the vicar’s cat. It was to the effect that bottles were not welcome at all. They were to be taken to the supermarket.

I resisted the temptation to shove them, open end dripping, through the neighbour’s bedroom window with a foul cry. This was wise, as half an hour later she set out up the hill with a wheelbarrow containing, I am fairly certain, her murdered lover. Certainly she trudged glumly back with wheelbarrow empty and the lover has not been seen since. What might I have seen if I had looked in!

Instead, we drove with the bottles the twelve-mile trip to the supermarket and back, thus solving climate change at a stroke.

I am sitting with the sun setting over the western mountains. (I am writing but not posting, as there is no broadband.) There is little human between us and Canada. The landscape is immense. It ruminates as it settles into the night. Otherwise it is absolutely silent. I hope that they let us continue to come here. I love it and it feels like home. And I hope that they grow out of their current mood of institutional bossiness.

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