A Bunch of Useless Loonies

That’s us, that is.

Being a bunch of useless loonies was the reason given in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” for why the hapless crew and cargo of the Golgafrincham B Ark had been sent to colonise a new planet in a spaceship which was designed to crash rather than rely on its crew to land it safely. If you’re not aware of the story, and if so, shame on you, what had happened was that the advanced Golgafrinchan society had realised that there was a large and completely useless third of society, its management consultants, estate agents, advertising executives, marketing assistants, celebrity hairdressers and telephone sanitisers, and that it would be best if they shipped them off so that the productive ordinary people and talented elite could get on without having to bother with them. The B Ark was so called because its inhabitants had been told that the elite would be going with them in the A Ark and the workers along in the C Ark. After a long journey, the B Ark crashes into prehistoric Earth, providing us with our ancestors.

At the time it was written it was probably intended to be a humorous skit on the inhabitants of gradually gentrifying Islington and its burgeoning ranks of estate agencies. Unfortunately, only a little over 30 years later, it is a very good description of Britain generally.

What other explanation can there be for the absurd spectacles this week of government ministers apparently encouraging panic buying of petrol due to a tanker drivers’ strike which might not happen. Or the mad scramble by politicians to cram pasties and sausage rolls into their fat mouths to demonstrate how down to earth they were and how evil a change to the VAT rules to make hot pasties be subject to VAT like any other hot takeaway food.

An ordinary British person drinking a cup of petrol and eating stamp-covered pasties for breakfast

I’m not sure whether the government is being cynically clever in manipulating a populace, media and Opposition to jump at every lunacy or merely fortuitously inept. I tend towards the latter as the thought of the former, even if we deserve it, is too depressing. Moving towards competence should at least theoretically be possible, but the moral corruption needed to rely on popular idiocy is unlikely to be curable.

Either way, we’re in a dangerous and depressing place where the satirical hyperbole of Brass Eye from barely 10 years ago looks restrained and considered compared to current events. If only more people actually read rather than merely bought those insufferable “Keep Calm and Carry On” nicknacks.

Meanwhile, the government is able to be as mad or bad as it likes or can’t help being (take your pick) and it is hard to tell if even the things it is doing well are on purpose. The continuous screams of anguish and opposition to everything it does have now joined together so that there’s difficulty in working out which things are really bad and which things really ought to be left alone for being trivial. Or even which things ought to be seen as improvements (there are some!).

We probably aren’t going to hell in a handcart, but we risk going on the B Ark. At least in the book the B Ark, unknowingly, got the last laugh as the remaining Golgafrinchan population was wiped out by a virus spread from an inadequately sanitised telephone. I’m not sure we’re that significant.



Making a Mantrap out of a Molehill

A lot has been written about George Osborne’s 2012 Budget. Was it a tax giveaway to Osborne, Cameron, their millionaire Cabinet colleagues and their plutocratic pals? That was certainly the initial line of attack taken by Ed Miliband (ignoring the large number of low earners who were having their taxes cut by raising the personal allowance). Or was it an assault on pensioners by means of a Grannytax reducing the age-related personal allowance ahead of abolishing it entirely for future pensioners (ignoring that the State Pension had been raised by more than the cost of the extra tax payable for most affected pensioners)?

I suspect that the most significant aspect of the Budget is one which has not really been remarked upon. So, here follows a little guesswork and crystal ball gazing. As Peter Snow used to say during Election Night computer simulations, just a bit of fun. I have form in giving Osborne too much credit in terms of the thinking he has put into his announcements by assuming that the original decision to remove Child Benefits from all families with a single higher rate tax payer had been thought through. So I could be completely wrong.

The mantrap in question in my title is in the form of the reduction of the supplementary rate of income tax for earners of over £150k from 50p to 45p. This attracted scorn from pretty much all corners. Many Conservatives thought that the rate should have been abolished entirely and would have been but for the inconvenience of the LibDem coalition partners. Labour, despite having spent only 37 days out of the 13 years they were in power with a 50p top rate, immediately used it to attack the government for pandering to the very richest in society. Even the LibDems could only say that they had managed to secure some concessions by retaining a rate above 40p for the richest and increased property taxes for the most expensive properties (and some strengthening of anti-avoidance measures).

So, why did Osborne do this? Continue reading

Room – Emma Donoghue

Room is a short novel about the experience of a nameless young woman and her five year old son Jack living in a single room held captive by a man only referred to as Old Nick. Old Nick had abducted the woman on her way to college seven years previously.

The story is inspired by the spate of news reports of young women abducted and held as sexual hostages over the past few years like the case of Joseph Fritzl.

The twist to the novel is that it is narrated largely from the perspective of Jack. This was rather disconcerting for me as the author has created a very believable voice for him which at times sounded too much like my own five year old son, OMB. Jack has a mixture of the precocity and verbal dexterity that might come from having had such intense and consistent contact and constant communication with his bright mother, along with the skewed perspective of the world and reality that comes from having a world defined by the dimensions of a large shed.

The only glimpses of the outside world that the two of them get during their captivity are through a skylight and a small portable tv. However, as the physical world which Jack has direct experience of is so much more limited he is sceptical about the factual existence of anything beyond Room and the two adults. Without providing too much of a spoiler, the plot of the book involves the way in which the two manage to escape from Old Nick’s clutches and the second half of the book deals with their experiences outside Room. Interestingly for a book which is itself a fiction inspired by real life events, Jack wrestles with the idea of things which he had believed to be “TV” and hence unreal being actual things in the world outside Room.

However, the plot is not really the important thing in a book like this. The escape is written to be possible rather than particularly likely or plausible, albeit that it is difficult to think what would be the “normal” response of someone as abnormal as Old Nick to the set up for the escape. The more important and interesting aspects are the portrayal of Jack and his nameless mother’s navigation of the world outside Room, for one an alien world being experienced for the first time, for the other the real world that she had spent 7 years longing for. For both this results in the sort of mutual sensory overload and response played so well by Drew Barrymore in the scene in ET where she first meets ET.

It is a thought provoking book yet despite its harrowing subject-matter also often light and an easy read (I got through it in a couple of evenings after work). The book’s official promotional website is worth visiting for some more background to the writing of the book and the various inspirations for it. It carries on my trend of enjoying Booker Nominees more than winners as it lost out to The Finkler Question in 2010.

However, this is not a hard rule as I have also recently and very belatedly, finished Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America which was also shortlisted in 2010. Although Carey is one of my favourite authors and one of the few who has written more than one book that I have re-read, I have to admit that I found Parrot and Olivier to be an almost interminably long read. I suppose I only have myself to blame for not fully appreciating a fiction inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America when I had not read the book that inspired it. I’d like to have reviewed it, but sadly I don’t have enough more to say than that.