Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Michael Martin

So, he has gone, and not before time.

The seeds of this debacle were sewn back in 2000 when Betty Boothroyd stepped down. She was pretty much unanimously seen as having done a good job as speaker. The convention was that the speaker comes from the opposition, and this is a convention that the Conservatives kept to throughout their reign (even Margaret Thatcher did so - boo, hiss).

Yet when it came to Labour's turn, they overturned convention and voted one of theirs in, and what is worse, someone who was patently incapable of performing the job. This was ignored by much of the media at the time, yet has had large implications.

Over the last few months (probably since the Damian Green affair) it has been obvious that he has lost the confidence of a significant minority of the house. yet the speaker can only be removed by a vote from the members. If he was from and opposition party, then it would have been easy for the Government to allow a vote (as they would have had a majority). However, they could not be seen to do that as it would have been a vote against one of their own. So they kept him in place as his time as speaker slowly descended into farce.

His speech on Monday was cringe worthy. The chamber seemed to be expecting him to make a sensible, honourable speech, perhaps detailing that he would stand down as speaker at the end of the parliamentary term. That may not have been enough to save him, but it would have diverted much of the fire off him. Instead, he totally ignored the members' valid concerns.

So, what has he done wrong? I would suggest the following list:
  1. He seems incapable of looking up from pieces of paper as he talks. The speaker needs to be a good orator. Although he is undoubtedly a better public speaker than me, he is terrible. I am not talking about accents or other such fripperies here, but his presentation.
  2. The speaker needs to be impartial. In my (perhaps also impartial) eyes he has failed this test.
  3. He has had his own problem with seemingly extravagant expenses claims in the past.
  4. He has made personal attacks on other members within the house.
  5. The Damian Green affair. The full truth of this has not yet come out. Michael Martin had the responsibility, yet he passed the blame onto his Serjeant-at-Arms.
  6. The fees office is run directly by the speaker's office. It is the fees office that has allowed many of the spurious expenses claims. This alone was enough reason for him to go.
  7. Finally, he tried to block the freedom of Information request. This was a spectacularly ill-judged move.
From an article on LabourList:
One of the main bits of information that they have all fallen over themselves to identify about him is his past. The fact that he used to be a flat sheet metal worker and a trade union shop steward as though this is in effect the very reason why he is not up to the job! Not one has bothered to find out why he would make the statements he has made to the House.
And my rebuttal:
I care little what his previous job was. Betty Boothroyd performed the role of speaker well, and she was a dancer in her earlier years. People mention it as background information - in the same way people on the left mention Nick Clegg's and David Cameron's previous jobs, or their education. It is rich for a Labour supporter to say 'oh, they dislike him for being a sheet-metal worker', whilst simultaneously deriding Cameron because he went to Eton.

The other claim - that he has been made a scapegoat - is harder to rebut. There is probably some truth in it; however, an MP would have to be very out-of-touch to believe that just changing the speaker would solve all of their woes. Instead, this seems to be used as a mantra by his supporters, allowing them to ignore the absolutely terrible job he has done as speaker.

So: who to replace him?

It is time for a change; not a time for hurried, reactionary legislation (which rarely, if ever, has the intended consequences), but well considered, thoughtful legislation. It needs to be got right first time, and the new speaker will have a significant role in shepherding this through. There will be many candidates, but few will have the required skills. All I ask of the house is that they choose wisely.

Sunday, 17 May 2009


I was lying in bed this morning, the duvet hunched up over my shoulders, crying as I read a book. Suddenly I get a familiar sensation, an urge, a desire that is as primeval as it is elemental. I called out: "Let's have a baby!"

Şencan is playing Alpha Centurai in her study. She says: "Yeah, okay."

This role reversal is typical of our relationship. She is the provider, I am the home keeper. The gender stereotypes have been ripped up and reassigned between us at random. Only when together are we complete. At least, I am only complete when with her. Şencan is like an island, and one on which I am marooned for life.

I love her. I want to marry her; I will be marrying her in three months.

I want to have kid(s). One or multiple, whatever fate and our combined genetics can hand us. I want her parents to have a grandchild sitting on their laps. I want kids who can are multilingual, who feel perfectly at home speaking Turkish or English. Kids who have their mother's looks and their mother's brains. Who I can pun endlessly to, who will fascinate me as they travel through their lives with us.

Yet if it does not happen, if fate prevents us from continuing our lines, then it will not matter. For we will be together. We shall spoil our nephews and nieces rotten. We shall grow old disgracefully. We shall be happy.

Friday, 15 May 2009

A way forward for politics, with an aside about political expenses

I wrote the first version of this post on Mono, a bulletin board, earlier this morning. I thought I'd share my vision for a way out of the the mire that politics is buried in. In doing so, I go quite a way beyond expenses. Parliament is in such a mess that the time may have come for such a root-and-branch overhaul of the system.

Firstly, one thing needs making it clear: MP's pay (for a backbencher) is farcically low. An MP has an unusual job - they have to work in both London and in a constituency that in many cases is hundreds of miles away. We also need good people doing it. Should a BBC presenter be on far more income than an MP? In return for this extra income, the system will be overhauled.

What the media have kept relatively quiet about so far is the role of the House of Commons authorities in all of this, especially the Fees Office. It is clear that the system has been run like an Old Boy's Club (or Working Man's Club), and the gatekeepers - the people who have to check these receipts - have been doing a terrible job. They need to go, now. As does Michael Martin. Hopefully they will all resign. They need to take a significant amount of blame for this mess. They had control of the brake, and have utterly failed to use it.

The last thing I want is for parliament to go back the way it was thirty years ago, dominated by rich people and union-sponsored candidates. I also do not want the current situation to continue, with candidates being parachuted in to safe seats. I want the person who represents me to be local; to represent the people of the area, not the party.

I do not propose a parliament that reflects society. I propose a parliament that reflects the *best* of society. I want men, women, black, white, Asian, gay, straight; I do not really care. All I want is for them to be good. I want engineers, doctors, teachers, nurses, soldiers, housewives. Yes, even lawyers. Being an MP has to be accessible to all of these people, and the rules should not prevent them from becoming MPs.

Note, I am not saying that the current crop of MPs are bad. Some are; many are good. The expenses system is a self-set trap that many have fallen into. However, few can deny the need to make MPs more accountable to both their constituents and the wider public.

So what do I propose?
  1. Increase pay substantially, but only if:
  2. The time each MP spends on parliamentary business (committees, in the house, in constituency etc) is published yearly. Make it a competition to see which ones are working hardest for us. Many people have to work on a timesheet system; so should they. These do not necessarily need to be published for security reasons, but the totals should be, and they should be independently checked.
  3. The Government buys a home suitable for a family in each constituency. MPs can live in it, or in their own house. They pay rent in the former, and get no help for the latter. See 'Housing' below for more information).
  4. Every PPC has to have lived in the constituency (or an adjacent one to take boundary changes into account) for at least five years before being selected. Ensure that MPs are local, and represent the locals. I reckon at least a quarter of current MPs would fail this test.
  5. Expenses are allowed, but only those directly related to work as a constituency MP (not party work). Tighten up the checking process. Make MPs explain what the expenses were used for; make the default answer 'no'. They are made public yearly, annotated by the MP so they can explain them. (See 'expenses' below).
  6. The abysmal House of Lords situation needs resolving one way or the other. It's an incredible that the current mess has been in place for ten years. I don't really care about which system is chosen, just that one is implemented. The current system is far worse than the old system based on inheritance.
  7. MP staff should be paid for by the state, up to a certain amount, yet they should be selected by the MP. Timesheets should be submitted for their work. I have no problem with an MP using their spouse as a secretary; in many ways it makes sense. However we need to see that they are doing the work they are being paid for.

  1. The same goes for MEPs (who make our MPs seem like naive innocents when it comes to making a buck). I don't care if European rules allow something; if the European rules are lax, we should ensure that our MEPs act according to stricter rules.
  2. Local councils and councillors should have their incomes and expenses tightened up and published in a similar manner. It is much simpler as the dual-home problems do not occur.
  3. Publicly-funded and owned media (BBC and Channel 4) should have salaries and expenses published for public-facing staff. They are as much public figures as MPs, and in many ways are more influential than a back-bench MP.
  4. Something needs doing about grace-and-favour homes. I am unsure about what this should be. I can see the need for them, and am also aware that someone might only be a minister for a few months, or ten years.

This requires a little extra thought. Being an MP is an unusual job; you have twin responsibilities in London and in a constituency. Add in other requirements, like stability for young families, and you get a set of dramatically conflicting requirements.

So, as mentioned above, there is a nice family home in each constituency. The MP can choose to live there, in which case they pay rent, or in their own house, in which case the state rents out the unused state-owned property.

The state also buys properties within easy commuting distance of Central London for out-of-London MPs. If an MP uses this, then they pay rent on it. Alternatively, they can rent a flat or house on the open market. Rents will be set by price according to the local rental market on a yearly basis.

If they rent both a constituency and a London home, then they only pay for each when they are in residence. This means that they can decamp to their constituencies for recess at no cost; a reasonable compromise. if the family stays in the constituency home whilst the MP lives in London, they pay rent on both.

MPs will be able to chop-and-change whether they live in the state-owned or private homes, but only if their circumstances change, e.g. marriage, divorce, children attending new school, etc. All such changes should be approved by a committee. The MP should always have a property in the constituency they represent, or a neighbouring one.

This proposed expenses system will have the following advantages:

1) The expenses of every MP would be known. There would be none of the rumour and innuendo that had been going on for years; e.g. the rumours about the Winterton's (who have not featured in the Telegraph yet). MPs will have to make sure that anything that goes on expenses can be reasonably justified, not the free-for-all that has been happening.

An example: I am an MP with a Central London constituency. I break my leg, and it is put into a cast. I usually walk/cycle/use public transport to get into parliament. Instead, I make claims for a taxi. That could be argued as being justified. What would not be is taking a taxi to a party function.

2) The rules behind the system would be known by the public, and the expenses claimed can be checked against them. Again, a 'reasonableness' rule should be in place.

3) Breaking of the rules should have stiff penalties; things that look like genuine mistakes: a suspension from parliament. Purposeful: trial for fraud. The rules will be clear enough to make such a court case less of a lottery.

4) The default answer for all expenses payment will be 'No', as it is in many companies. You will have to justify each and every one.

Media claims and innuendo can be justifiably followed up by: "We're open about our income, expenses, and the work we do for it. Why aren't you?"

I want MPs reflecting the best of society. I want good MPs making sensible, progressive laws. Not a bunch of lawyers, friends and family members parachuted into position. I want MPs who can balance a budget. I demand the truth, not spin.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Momus and wedding songs

When I first met Şencan, she introduced me to the work of a singer called Momus. I immediately fell in love with his music. It could be described as being similar to the Pet Shop Boys in character, yet with lyrics that are both highly intelligent and brilliantly disturbing.

Şencan loaned me his two-CD compilation 'Forbidden Software Timemachine, and pointed me towards the song 'The hairstyle of the devil'. As I listened, I started to wonder if she was trying to send me a message:
She was seeing two at exactly the same time
She never mentioned you when she was round at mine
But when you were round at hers you always made a scene
Cos you only had ears for descriptions of the stranger she was seeing

And what she saw in me was only what attracts
The many girls I see behind their lovers' backs
But what she saw in you, I could never work it out
There was just one thing she found it turned you on to talk about

The inexplicable charisma of the rival
You said 'Describe for me the hairstyle of the devil
Is he passionate? (Don't answer!)
Is he detached (Don't answer that!)
Does he please you in the sack (Shut up, don't answer back!)
Just tell him I'm dying to meet him'
I've been spending a little time thinking about what songs to have at the wedding reception. I'd love there to be a Momus song from 'Forbidden Software Timemachine' in there, but few seem to be applicable.
  • 'A complete history of sexual jealousy parts 17 to 24' doesn't have the right tone.
  • 'Murderers The Hope Of Women'? Probably not right for a wedding.
  • 'The Homosexual' - nope, I doubt our parents would like that.
  • 'Monkey For Sallie'? Ahem.
  • 'Guitar Lesson'? Certainly not suitable for a wedding.
  • 'How Do You Find My Sister'. No chance.
'Bluestocking', perhaps, or 'Bishonen', but only because no-one would understand what they're about from one listening.

We'll probably just end up with Kate Bush's brilliant song 'The Wedding List', her homage to Truffaut's film ''The Bride Wears Black' ... Or perhaps not.

Momus has his first novel out later in the year - 'The book of jokes'. It's available for pre-order on Amazon, and I'm nervously looking forward to read it. At times Momus can over-intellectualise things (some of his utterances would be too highbrow for even the London Review of Books - he puts Will Self to shame), so it'll be interesting to see if he can pull off a novel. The synopsis certainly looks interesting.

Actually, this brings up a question that could have a rich vein of answers: What are the most inappropriate songs to play at a wedding? Here are some off the top of my head:
  • 'D.I.V.O.R.C.E'
  • 'Bring your daughter to the slaughter'
  • I will survive
  • This Woman's Work
There will doubtless be many others.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Book review: "The time traveller's wife", by Audrey Niffenegger

It's unusual for me to fall in love with a book within the first few pages, and "The time traveller's wife" managed that feat. What's more, I cannot remember the last time a book made me cry, yet alone had me in floods of tears. This is an exceptionally powerful book.

The two protagonists, Henry and Clare, are married and deeply in love. Yet they have a small problem. Henry met Clare when he was thirty-six and she was six; they got married when he was twenty-two and she was thirty. Henry is a time-traveller, randomly jumping through time to locations and times that are of deep emotion to him.

The book is dual first-person, written from the perspectives of both Henry and Clare, swapping from one character to another. Yet it remains eminently readable, and the time jumps are deftly handled.

Many people would characterise this as 'speculative fiction' - that hideous genre inhabited by authors who believe themselves to be 'above' science fiction. Yet it is science fiction, and does superbly what many science fiction books fail on - characterisation. Clare and Henry are beautifully written characters; flawed, yet believable.

The time-travel paradox is neatly avoided by simply saying that whatever Henry does in the past cannot effect the future - what will happen has already happened. This leads to some of the more poignant scenes in the book - Henry keeps on jumping back to the moment of his mother's death; he visits an ex-girlfriend at the moment she commits suicide.

There is some magical writing within the book; a paragraph would have me crying, and the next would have me laughing. The descriptions are sparse and well-done, but it is the characters that really makes the book. Henry tries to cope with an ordinary life whilst knowing that he may disappear at any time, to appear naked at a random location and time. Clare, on the other hand, has to cope with the fact that Henry could disappear at any time.

It is apparent from the reviews on that this is a book that splits opinion. People generally either give to five stars or one star, and I can see why. If you find it hard to get into the minds of Henry and Clare - and I managed this in the first few pages - then this book will do little for you. Yet manage that feat, and you will fall in love with them. I give this book five out of five stars.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Book review: "Stranded, by V. L. McDermid

'Stranded' is a collection of short stories by Val McDermid, author of the 'Wire in the blood' series of novels. Rather disingenuously, Amazon has these books as being by, 'Stranded by Ian Rankin and V.L. McDermid (Paperback - 1 May 2005)', when Ian Rankin only provides a glowing foreword.

As can be expected from a collection of short stories, some are strong and others are weak. Unfortunately, in this case the weaker ones far outnumber the stronger ones.

One of the main problems with this book is that there are few, if any, sympathetic male characters. The father in ' The Girl Who Killed Santa Claus' is perhaps the only one. Aside from him, the male characters are all rapists, wife-leavers, philanderers or murders. If this book was written with women detailed in a similar manner, it would rightly be called misogynistic. I am not claiming that the author is guilt of misandry; just that she fails to write sympathetic male characters.

To give a tone of the book, there is this snippet from 'A traditional Christmas':
Unlikely as it is, this Scottish working class lesbian feminist homeopath fell head over heels for the whole English country-house package.
To explain the problems with the stories, it is perhaps best to examine one in more detail:


The worst story by a long shot is 'Four Calling Birds'. Ordinarily I would not go into such detail about a story during a review, but in this case I think it is necessary to show why I think it is such a bad story.

The story starts off with an interior monologue from one of the characters, Noreen. She starts off by blaming Margaret Thatcher for everything that happens in the story. Four women whose husbands lose their jobs during the Miner's Strike get a job as bingo caller at the local hall. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and a new manager arrives. He sacks the ladies as the company wants to replace them with an automated calling system. He also cancels a 'Children in Need' charity gig.

When Noreen's son (a bisexual actor) gets to hear about this, they hatch a place for revenge. They manage to hide a camera inside the manager's house, then doctor the video to make it look as though his family have been kidnapped. The actor goes to the bingo hall with a fake gun, steals the money out of the safe, then forces the manager to perform a sex act on him. The act is videotaped, and the video is used to blackmail the manager into giving the women their jobs back.

It is an incredibly nasty story, with not a single redeeming feature. As a reader I like to see natural justice at the end of a book - not necessarily the hero winning, but if he fails then it has to be a glorious failure. Endings such as this, where there is no justice, leave an exceptionally bad taste in my mouth (pun intended).

The author's attempts to make the manager appear a character deserving of such treatment falls flat - the company tells him to install an automated caller system, and the cancellation of a charity evening hardly constitutes an excuse for rape and blackmail. What it needed was for the manager to be a much worse character - for instance, if he raped one of the callers. Then, and only then, would the ending be excused as a story of bitter revenge.

At the end of the day, none of the characters in this story are sympathetic. And are we meant to believe that Thatcher was really to blame for what happened? Of course not. I suppose it could be indicative of how easy it is to foist personal responsibility onto a hate figure - Noreen and her son did the awful deed in order to get her job back, and she is foisting that blame onto someone else. Yet somehow it seemed out of place. Thatcher-hate is so passée.


A much better and lighter story is
The Girl Who Killed Santa Claus', a bitter-sweet tale about a young girl's mistake at Christmas. This is not really a crime story, and the parent's reaction at the end of the story is heart-warming. Sadly, this is one of the shorter stories, and there are other poor ones as well - the opening story 'Mittel' rambled on, and 'White nights, black magic' is well written, but the crime involved is nasty.

I would give this two out of five stars. It was a deeply disappointing book from an author who definitely can do better.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Review of April 2009

April turned out to be the direct opposite of the previous month; in March, I did not do much writing and instead walked. In April, I did no walking but an awful lot of writing.

The walking is a disappointment. I had a tooth extracted at the beginning of the month that knocked me out for a while (one day I was on the verge of passing out on the M3, and Şencan had to take over driving). It was not a pleasant time, but that is no excuse. The truth is that my heart is not in walking, in the same way that it was not for a great part of last year. I need to fix this.

Writing, on the other hand, went brilliantly. I was hoping to finish the first draft of S&V by the end of the month, and I only just missed that target (I completed it on Sunday, two or three days late). The draft is rough and needs re-working in some areas, but nonetheless I think it is very good. As a reward I went out to the Tank Museum at Bovington yesterday - a great day out.

In May I'm going to be putting S&V to one side and turning my attention back onto The Tin Plot. This needs another read-through and (hopefully) minor edit - I haven't touched it since February, so it feels relatively fresh. As well as this, there are various things that need doing for the wedding - we should be getting the invites back, and so those will need to be sent out. On top of all of this, I need to get a few walks done, for my health if nothing else.

The year is positively flying by...