Oxford City Council has opened a consultation about the dreadful menace that is “non-compliant busking and street entertainment”. Presumably, this will mean that only council-sanctioned, compliant busking and entertainment will be – at a push – acceptable. In the meantime, there will have to be auditions…
The scene opens on a meeting room in the City Council offices. At a table sit a group of councillors and council officers.
Officer 1: (shouts) “NEXT!”
The door at the far end of the room opens and a musician peers nervously in, clutching a guitar case. He walks to the chair, puts the case down and sits.
Musician: “Hi – busking auditions?”
Councillor 1: Yes. That’s us. But before we listen to your, er, material, we need to make sure that it is properly compliant. Could you tell us what you propose to perform?
Musician: Yeah, no worries. I’m gonna sing some of the stuff I do on a Thursday night down the Bullingdon Arms.
He reaches down and starts taking out his guitar.
Officer 1: Just one moment, candidate. We’ll consider hearing you sing when we know more about your material. What songs do you believe are suitable for an Oxford audience?
Musician: Well, I do a bit of Zep. Thought I’d kick off with “Stairway to Heaven”.
The officers and councillors whisper as they confer.
Councillor 2: Ah. Have you completed an RA65?
Musician: RA65? Hang on – lemme check.
He reaches into his guitar case and pulls out a sheaf of forms.
Musician (mutters): Gender inclusiveness form…racial awareness form…climate change questionnaire…sustainability form…religious neutrality statement…
Nope. Don’t think I’ve got one of those.
Officer 3: (bristling) If you’re about to sing about “Stairway to Heaven” we’ll need to make sure there are no issues around working at heights. So it’s a risk assessment, of course.
Councillor 3: I’m not sure about this “Heaven” business either. Don’t think we can really be seen to be promoting religious themes or upsetting people of different faiths. I really don’t think that one will be suitable.
Councillor 1: (cutting him off) What else have you got?
Musician: Well, how about a bit of Thin Lizzy?
Officer 2: That could be acceptable… it certainly sounds as though it’s advocating healthy eating and weight loss.
Musician: Great! I could play “Whisky in the Jar”!
There’s a collective intake of breath around the table.
Officer 1: Oh no, no, no – that won’t be appropriate at all. If you really must, you should be promoting responsible drinking. Can’t you sing about something non-alcoholic instead?
Councillor 2: Come on, Nigel – I think you’re being a bit hasty here. It might be alright as long as the whisky stays IN the jar?
Officer 1: Well, we’d need to check the lyrics to ensure it’s properly compliant. (To the musician) Would you pass us a copy of the words, please?
The musician hands them over.
Officer 3: This won’t do at all. “I saw Captain Farrell and his money he was countin’.” – that’s obviously promoting the bribery of public officials in breach of Bribery Act of 2010. You’d need a firearms certificate for that next line – I’m assuming you don’t have one?
The musician shakes his head, baffled.
Officer 3: Suspected as much. And as for this: “Whack for my daddy-o” – that’s practically advocating domestic abuse.
Musician: (rather more subdued): How about a bit of Slade? You can’t argue with that – there’s The Slade in Oxford. Practically a local tune.
Councillor 2: That’s a fair point, candidate. What’s it called?
Musician: It’s one of their best – “Come on Feel the Noize”.
Officer 1: No.
Musician: “No”? But they’re an iconic British band!
Officer 1: Surely it’s obvious? Noise at the level where an Oxford resident can feel it would clearly be in contravention of the Noise and Statutory Nuisance Act 1993. Haven’t you got anything a little more compliant?
Musician: Oh. Right. Sorry. I could try a couple of Muse numbers – how about “Psycho“?
Officer 2: Nope. Mental Health Act 1983.
Musician: Deep Purple? You can’t mind “Burn”, surely?
Councillor 1: What? In flagrant disregard of the Climate Change Act 2008 – and Oxford’s a Smokeless Zone. Next.
Musician: ZZ Top? How about ZZ Top? Surely they’re OK?
Officer 3: Maybe… which song?
Musician: Well, one of their best has got to be “Legs”. How about that?
Officer 3: No. Disability Discrimination Act 1995. Next.
Musician: OK. You win. The only other song I’ve got I know you’ll hate. And I’m not a fan of his stuff either. I think he’s a sexist git.
Officer 1: Don’t be so hasty – we’re the judges of what’s sexist here.
The musician rummages in his case and reluctantly hands over a song. The councillors and officers huddle around. Soon there are nods of approval.
Councillor 1: Why didn’t you show us this before?
It’s just what we’re after – First line, “Everybody get up…”, encouraging moderate exercise. “If you can’t hear what I’m trying to say…maybe I’m going blind…” Good, sound, inclusive lyrics, those. “If you can’t read from the same page” – just the thing – after all, we can’t promote elitism in literacy, can we?
Yes, yes, this will do splendidly.
I’m not sure about the songwriter’s name though. “Thicke” seems a little judgemental. Maybe if you changed it to…
The councillor is cut off in mid flow by the audition room door slamming shut.
The camera pans onto the three new presenters of “Middle Lane”, the BBC’s replacement for the disgraced Top Gear.
They are John Prescott, Boris Johnson and Harriet Harman. Each sits on a special chair, crafted from recycled Routemaster seats, complete with tartan upholstery. Prescott gets two to himself. They sit around a (fairtrade) coffee table made from bits of old railway sleeper.
Prescott: Fnarble wibble, where’s my Jag, blurble fnurble?
Harman: Now, now, Johnny. We all know that cars are inappropriate, don’t we?
Boris: (quickly) Oh yes, Harry – errr, absolutely! Would you like a ride on my bicycle instead?
Harman: Boris! How many times to I have to explain? My name is Harriet, not Harry – which is a male name and thus symbolic of masculine oppression. And as for your bicycle, that’s just… ewwwwww! What’s this?!
Harman, disgustedly with her thumb and forefinger, attempts to pull a blob of chewing gum, perviously attached to the bus seat, from her trouser suit. The gum stretches as she does so.
Prescott: Harrrr, harrr, wibble, kids today, bless ‘em, never allowed gum in me youth, shoebox in’t middle o’road, fnurgle…
Boris: Look, Harriet – don’t worry about that. It’s time for this week’s Mediocrity on a Reasonably Priced Bicycle. And this week, we’re going to make sure everything’s fair – and nobody loses – by making sure the bicycle has flat tyres!
Harriet: What a splendid idea, Boris! And let’s make it even fairer by not timing them either!
Prescott: Fnurble, schnurble, well, that won’t be very interesting, will it?!
Harriet: Now, now, John. It’s not about being interesting, is it? It’s about being fair to everyone.
Harriet disappears offstage… the lights dim. Then, a single spotlight picks out a white clad figure in a cycle helmet and anti-pollution mask.
Boris: Some say she can telepathically understand Stagecoach bus timetables. Some say she’s even able to afford a first class rail ticket without dipping into her expenses. All we know is…. she’s called The Prig!
The lycra-clad and anoracked audience erupts into polite clapping. Off stage, the BBC Management Committee smile quietly to themselves.
Starting a watch collection is a dangerous thing. Like most addictions (for it is just that) it sneaks up on you. That first step – from having just one utility watch that tells the time to buying the second – seems simple. “Just one,” you say, “I’ll get one good watch. I only need one. Just one. That’ll do me.”
That’s how everyone starts. Soon, you’ll have Chrono24, Worn & Wound, Hodinkee and several watch dealers on bookmark. You’ll have downloaded the WatchVille app to every device you own. And you’ll be sneaking glances at the wrists of perfect strangers. And, clearly, you’ll have burned a smoking, ragged hole in your chequebook.
This is normal. At least, it is for a watch addict. So, save some time. Don’t kid yourself that ‘one watch is enough’. It’s not. The optimum number of watches is always n+1. To save a little more time, here’s my list of the classics that every watchie should own at least once.
Yes, I know it’s a cliche. I know it’s the most faked watch in the known universe. It’s also the second most splendid piece of form following function in watchworld. Subs are lovely because they weren’t designed to be. Before they ended up on the wrist of almost photocopier rep, they were proper diving tools. So they’re instantly legible, hard to damage, waterproof (clearly) and never need winding up.
Mind you, given the life expectancy of a watch in most collections, perhaps their most endearing feature is their exceptional ease of re-sale.
Yours for anywhere between £2,500 and “HOW MUCH?! I could buy a house for that!”
Rolex Explorer I
If the Sub is the second most splendid piece of form following function, the Exp I is the first. Designed to survive pretty much anything, the Exp is plain, clean and built like a safe. Unlike the Sub, you won’t spend your life saying “Yes, it is real actually…” because no-one will ever spot it on your wrist. Except a fellow watchie. And there are enough variants of the Exp 1, from gilt-dialed to modern, that you’ll never be bored.
Yours for anywhere between £2,400 and £20,000+
More refined but no less robust is the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso (that’s “Jayjay Lecootrer”). So called because the entire body of the watch flips over to present its caseback to the world. Handy to protect your watchface when you’re playing polo, apparently. Again, plenty of variants to choose. There’s the smaller Classique (handy if you don’t have wrists like Herman Munster) right the way through to the socking great Répétition Minutes à Rideau. You’ll see rather fewer of these around than their Rolex brethren.
Yours for anywhere between £1,500 and £150,000+
Another unashamed choice of a watch that had a job to do – keep ‘planes in the air. The Navitimer was intended as a navigational aid for airmen, hence the sliderule on the bezel and dial. They’re not small watches, but they do seem a lot smaller on the wrist than they should. There’s a lot of history to enjoy too; from the 1952 806 right up to the “is that a clock on your wrist?” 48mm GMT Navitimer 01.
Yours for anywhere between £600 (quartz) and £1,800 (mech) to £40,000
If the Navi kept aircraft up there, the Speedmaster kept Apollo 11 on track and helped get Apollo 13 back down again. That’s reason enough to own one. But add in the range of variations from model to model and there’s enough interest to keep you engaged for years. And the Speedie is another reliable, robust, no-babying sort of watch that you can happily put on your wrist every day.
Yours for anywhere between £1,200 and £60,000 (limited editions)
IWC Mk XII
Another aviation watch, the Mk XII holds one of the most beautifully made movements in a watch you don’t need to sell your soul for. It’s IWC’s reworked Jaeger LeCoultre 889/2. And that horological gem alone is worth putting your hand in your pocket for. XII’s are far from common, so if you want to own almost the opposite of the Sub, this one’s for you. A wonderful, classic piece of watchmaking.
Yours for anywhere between £1,800 (stainless steel) to £5,000 (gold)
OK. Calm down. GS are about as far removed from the £40 Seikos you see in H Samuel as a Mitsuoka Viewt is from a MkII Jag. GS are, in fact, the watch world’s inside secret. The quality of Grand Seiko makes a lot of other far, far more expensive makers look a little red and shuffly as they stare at the floor. Take a proper look at a GS and you’ll wonder how some other makers charge so much for poorer quality. And, at the risk of kicking off a controversy match, a GS will have a proper authentic in-house movement.
Yours for anywhere between £700 (eye-wateringly accurate quartz) to £22,000 (platinum)
The main thing with watches is ‘buy what you like and what interests you’. I have a thing for functional things, don’t like bling and don’t buy new (so the prices above are all for secondhand kit). Someone who’s into bling will steer you towards makers like Hublot and some of the more, er, ornamented Breitlings.
Someone with rather deeper pockets will head towards the rarified horological wonders of Patek Philippe. Someone with bottomless ones will snare Richard Mille‘s creations or Roger Smith‘s works of genius. Someone with shallower ones will look at vintage Longines or perhaps some Heuers. But even trawling the charity shops and Fleabay for £5 tickers will turn up something interesting.
The only problem is stopping once you’ve started.
Imagine. You’re driving – or riding – along and suddenly your speedometer breaks. The dial in front of you suddenly reads zero and the needle’s not moving. You have absolutely no idea what speed you’re travelling at.
Can you still drive safely?
The answer’s rather obvious, isn’t it? There are probably not too many people who would stop immediately and put in a panic call to the AA. And if they did, I suspect they’d be more concerned with legality than safety. After all, no-one wants a £100 fine and a brown envelope through the post.
But if you can drive safely and you’re no more likely to crash or hit a pedestrian with no speedo, why do we place such a reliance on speed limits as road safety tools? And why do we now talk about speed limits with an almost talismanic reverence?
This is from the South Yorkshire Safety Camera partnership:
You can help us to achieve our aim – and reduce the number of deaths and collisions on our roads. All you have to do is keep to the speed limit.
The Tayside Safety Camera partnership says:
Check your speedometer as frequently as you check your mirrors.
On many of Britain’s roads, where speed limits change as rapidly as the numbers on a fruit machine, drivers are constantly matching the number on their speedo to the number on the stick. The Slower Speeds Initiative reinforces the case for ‘driving by numbers’ and quotes a TRL study that as little as a 1mph reduction in average speeds can reduce crashes by 5%.
But if a duff speedo is no impediment to safe driving, what is it instead? If you can still drive safely with no speedo, that leaves the whole question of speed limits and their hardline and automated enforcement rather hanging.
Isn’t this a case of making what’s measurable important rather than measuring what’s important? And, as a consequence, of mistaking compliance for safety?
I’d argue that we’ve taken relative speed and attempted to make it absolute, backed it with threats of prosecution, then reduced and reduced limits until they’ve become risible. Leslie Hore-Belisha (who set the 30 limit in 1935) intended limits to reflect the behaviour of the majority. People drove at 30mph – near as dammit – because it felt ‘right’ for urban roads. We already know that people drive closer to 20mph on narrow residential streets without 20mph limits. So it’s not those absolute, nicely round numbers making them safe, it’s the speed relative to their surroundings.
Speed limits are not physical absolutes. By treating them as such, we’ve returned to the situation that led Stanley Buckmaster in 1931 to revoke them altogether and say “…the existing speed limit was so universally disobeyed that its maintenance brought the law into contempt.” Of course, Lord Buckmaster didn’t have fleets of camera vans and digital camera technology to make sure the law was enforced.
So we’re back where we started – being concerned with legality rather than safety. You could drive perfectly safely with no speedometer, but you couldn’t drive legally. That means we’ve simply equated compliance with safety and backed it with ‘big stick’ automated enforcement.
Driving by numbers. The same principle as “paint by numbers” but a great deal more dangerous.
After years of falls, road deaths are rising. In fact, they’re rising fast enough for the Department for Transport to pre-releasing figures and ministers to start getting their defence in early.
UK transport minister Robert Goodwill warned a parliamentary road safety conference last week to prepare for “bad news” ahead of Thursday’s announcement, telling attendees to expect a “rise” in road fatalities.
H.L. Mencken said: “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.” He could have been describing the UK’s road safety policy. This isn’t about a fall in the numbers of traffic police, this is about a road safety policy that has focused on what’s measurable rather than what’s important. And, worse, it has simplified the complexity of safe driving to priggish, dimity little slogans like ‘twenty’s plenty’ and ‘speed kills so kills your speed’.
What’s happened? We have cars and motorcycles with the most advanced passive safety ever. We’ve seen those passive safety features, like ABS and traction control, give us safer and safer roads. When drivers do get it wrong, we’ve got active safety that deploys airbags, pre-tensions seatbelts and stops cars being death traps.
Yet now we’re seeing fatalities and serious injuries rising.
The honest truth is that no-one really knows. And that’s because road safety has become a single issue game and the politicians and road safety groups are sat around with their fingers in their ears singing “la la la can’t hear you”.
Driving a car or riding a motorcycle is the most complex thing you’ll do today. Your level of observation, anticipation, evaluation of environmental and vehicle feedback and psychomotor skills would blindside any computer yet built. And that’s before you factor in your constant interactions with other drivers, evaluating their actions and planning for what they’ll do next.
Get on a motorcycle and it gets even more complex. Keep a machine upright through corners when it’s naturally unstable, plus all the other stuff.
Yet, according to current road safety policy, all we have to do to be safe is match a number on a dial to a number on a stick. And if we don’t, there are cameras of many different varieties to make sure we get slapped and our liberty curtailed. We’ve delegated the complexity of solving the road safety problem to a combination of yellow boxes on poles enforcing frequently changing, arbitrary speed limits on sticks.
It’s drive-by-numbers. And, like paint by numbers, it’s a dreadful, lumpy facsimile of the real thing.
Given the importance of speed limits, you would think, wouldn’t you, that the numbers on those sticks would be scientifically robust, backed up by hard evidence and – ideally – as close to physical absolutes as possible. It would be tragic to think that they’re simply set by your local councillor, terrified of losing votes, against the advice of the local police force.
But that’s what’s happening.
Why, despite millions spent on lower limits, cameras, bumps, humps and hardline speed-enforcement, are deaths not falling? Because we’ve decided that the complexity of real road safety is politically unacceptable. And we’ve replaced it with a sort of no-carrot-and-lots-of-stick donkey policy. Speed cameras are binary. You’re either legal or not. Safety doesn’t come into it. And if you’re illegal, you get a slap. We’ve traded safety for compliance.
Binary solutions don’t – and can’t – work with complex problems. And you can’t get the sort of behaviour we need from drivers if they’re constantly expecting a slap.
Speed is certainly a simple enough issue to address superficially. Put up cameras, paint them whatever colour you like, raise fines, put in new, ultra-low blanket speed limits, change them every half mile and propose stiff new penalties for exceeding them, then watch the accident figures tumble. Sadly, as we have seen today, they are not tumbling.
Speed cameras, traffic calming and lowered speed limits encourage the majority of drivers to think that it’s easy – by sticking to a limit they are safe – when nothing could be further from the truth. Poor drivers driving slowly crash at lower speeds – but they still crash and they still kill people. Do we believe this is acceptable?
We need to refocus the road safety debate away from speed limits and on to the much more complex and politically unpalatable subject of driver standards, education and training. It’s only when we recognise how complex the driving process is and educate all road users accordingly that we’ll stop killing people.
Diplomacy. The art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.
I thought of this when an email from Waitrose arrived today. I am no great advocate of being rude to customers. Neither am I fan of sugar-coating the truth. Customers aren’t as daft as businesses believe.
Which is fortunate, as Waitrose must think its customers are a bit slow on the uptake. They’ve just sent an email to Waitrose loyalty card holders that seems to reveal a little corporate unease about the free tea and coffee they currently enjoy.
This email, headed ‘Enjoying your free tea or coffee’, should carry one of those little red government-sponsored tags that warn about too much sugar in things. It’s so sugar-coated and faux-sweet that hysterically-laughing dentists are jamming the switchboards of every Porsche dealership in the country.
“As you may know, offering a complimentary tea or coffee while you are shopping with us is one of the ways we like to say thank you for your custom.”
OK, a little over-sweet perhaps, but my fillings only hurt a little bit. And that’s just from the “…like to say thank you…” line. I’d not noticed any other ways you like to say ‘thank you’, Mr Lewis. But we’ll let that pass. There is better to come.
Get a bucket handy before you read the next line. Seriously.
“Just in the same way as a friend might offer a hot drink when you visit their home, we think it’s what a caring business should do when a loyal customer shops with us.”
Told you. I’ll wait while you recover.
The case for the prosecution cites adjective overload, the inappropriateness of a domestic analogy to a national retailer and the sheer yuk of ‘loyal’. But this is not the poor whipped Waitrose writer’s fault, I suspect. A paragraph like this is so internally-focused it can only have been written by someone whose seniority outweighed their writing ability by a serious factor. It must have been someone on the board.
“That’s why we’ve come up with this short guide to help all our myWaitrose customers make the most of the scheme and to remind you about scanning your myWaitrose card. We hope that through observing this free tea and coffee etiquette, we can continue to offer a complimentary hot drink each time you shop with us.”
I’ll hold off contacting Amnesty about the blatant torture of grammar, but “observing this free tea and coffee etiquette”? Really? I’m calling you on this one, Mr Lewis. I know a threat with menaces when I see one. I either give you my customer data or you deny me my free coffee? Right? And you thought that the old ‘hot coffee’ close would keep people in the shop for longer. Fair enough.
And Mr Lewis is clearly serious. He makes that clear in the next paragraph:
“…we will be asking myWaitrose members who wish to enjoy their free tea or coffee in one of our Cafés to also purchase a treat – such as a sandwich, cake, biscuit or piece of fruit. This change will enable us to continue to offer our customers the enjoyable service they expect.”
Interesting attempt to take the sting out of it by the use of the future tense – “…we will be asking…” But it still can’t obscure what’s really going on. No more nipping into the cafe, helping yourself to a Daily Fail and a freebie coffee and taking space that could be used by a proper, paying customer. And since when was ‘a piece of fruit’ a treat, Mr Lewis? Or a sandwich? Come off it, old chap.
Once you’ve weeded out the weasel words, taken a geological hammer to the sugar coating and got to the real message, it looks like this:
We’re sorry. It was all a terrible mistake. We didn’t realise that offering freebie tea and coffee would see us haemorrhaging profits like the French aristocracy in 1789. The car parks are cluttered up with trashy old ’62 plate Evoques. There are people in training shoes and tracksuit bottoms calling the Partners “mate”.
It can’t go on.
For pity’s sake, we’re even giving away bean-to-cup to people who can’t pronounce ‘quinoa’ properly. We’ve had to have our Financial Director resuscitated several times this week – and it’s only Wednesday.
This has to stop before we sink under a tsunami of free Columbian.
It’s simple. Swipe your sodding Waitrose card – or get the butler to do it – before you help yourself to your free cuppa. Or we’ll set the bloody dogs on you. OK?
Yours, desperate for a way out of a very, VERY expensive customer perk but hoping no-one notices if we do it bit by bit,
Mr John Lewis”
Sixty four years ago today, George Orwell died from tuberculosis in a London hospital. Not only was he – in my opinion – the finest writer in English, in Politics and the English Language he left scribblers some of the finest advice.
Here it is…
“A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
– What am I trying to say?
– What words will express it?
– What image or idiom will make it clearer?
– Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
– Could I put it more shortly?
– Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
– Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
– Never use a long word where a short one will do.
– If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
– Never use the passive where you can use the active.
– Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
– Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
I shall be waiting at the bar in the Moon Under Water this evening with two pints poured ready.