Theresa’s ‘bold’ plan, Nigel’s dodgy party funding and, ah, trees…

For sanity’s sake, let us not sit upon this ledge too long and tell sad stories of the death of politics – or, indeed, ancient memories of having studied Richard II for A-level English.

As Theresa May brings forward her bold new Brexit plan (same old plan with a new Post-it Note stuck on it); and as former PM Gordon Brown sensibly urges an investigation into the funding of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party (same old ranting UKIP prejudices with a new Post-it note logo); let us instead think about trees, but only in a moment.

Any sentence that contains the words “Theresa” and “May” cannot by law of commonsense also contain the words “bold” and “new”. Rebranding something that essentially remains the same is one of the oldest tricks in politics and advertising, so we shall hurry on and leave Mrs Maybe to rummage in the political dressing-up box.

It has for too long been my habit to obsess about the evil ways of Nigel Farage, so we shall rush on from him too in a moment.

But not quite yet. The political landscape is ripe for Nigel Farage to make a success of being Nigel Farage: troublemaker, loud-mouth irritant and spluttering fount of toxic half-truths (at best). And part of his stale yet sadly sellable schtick is to foment trouble without providing any answers, or indeed any policies.

With that in mind, Gordon Brown is quite right to worry about the possibility of “dirty money” being washed into the Brexit Party coffers. We need complete transparency over all party funding, we need to know where all the money comes from, but especially with the suspiciously opaque funding of Farage’s Brexit Party, as Brown will warn today in a speech.

But just to be clear: it’s not a party, Nigel, but an opportunistic exercise in causing trouble for trouble’s sake.

Anyway, deep breath. Let’s instead sit upon the ground and tell happy stories about trees. Any sentence that contains the words “Michael” and “Gove” and “good idea” should usually be poked with a sharp stick. But in this case, the stick is not required.

The environment secretary is party to the Urban Tree Challenge Fund – an idea that deserves our praise as it involves planting 130,000 trees over the next two years in English towns and cities.

Gove was rightly horrified by the massacre of trees in Sheffield, and this idea comes in part as a reaction to that wanton destruction of mostly healthy trees.

As some who lives in a tree-lined street (next to a busy road, so don’t ramp up the envy too much), I can’t help but agree with this statement from Gove: “We need trees lining our streets, not only to green and shade them but to ensure we remain connected to the wonders of the natural world, which is why we must go further and faster to increase planting rates.”

This scheme will be run by the Forestry Commission and is part of the country’s fight against what we are now encouraged to call global heating – encouraged by the Guardian, at least, and it certainly sounds more urgently precise than our cosy old pal global warming.

So long as this scheme comes off, it’s a fantastic idea. Trees are a wonder of the world, and they will be around to sustain us long after we’ve all stopped our Brexit fretting.

But if any slightly poorly tree would like to drop a branch on the Brexit Party bus, I’m sure we will all understand.


j j j

How can anyone in full possession of their marbles think Boris Johnson should be prime minister?

Mrs Maybe has finally agreed to let go of the doorframe at Number 10 and tearfully promises to be gone by the end of June. That leaves Boris Johnson mugging the headlines this morning, not an encouraging start to the day.

“Boris shows his hand,” is the Daily Mail’s take on this ineluctable turn of events.

The thing is, Johnson has never stopped showing his hand. Up it goes at all opportunities in a “me! me! me!” display of entitled egotism, another posh boy wanting to sit at the head of the table. There has long been an “anyone-but-Boris” movement in the Tory Party – second only, for some of us, to the “anyone-but-any-of-that-shower” movement.

The best quote about Johnson you will ever need came from his fellow London Tory Steve Norris – “Everybody likes him except the people who know him.”

I came across those wise words in in the Observer, where columnist Nick Cohen praised such a succinct verdict. Interestingly, the original quote is less pithy. It comes from a tweet last month by Norris, a former transport minister. Below is the full version…

“OK, cards on the table. Johnson is the only MP who if elected PM would cause me to leave the Tory party. Everybody likes him except the people who know him. Total chancer who doesn’t read his papers. Cynical & self-indulgent.”

While the shorter version has the merit of brevity, the full quote gets closer to the man. We are, as Cohen argued in his column, far too indulgent towards politicians who are ‘characters’ – Johnson, Farage, Rees-Mogg and – over the water – Trump.

And those characters are too often allowed to hide behind their self-crafted public personas: Boris the charming bumbler, Nigel the ordinary man down the pub, Jacob the – what exactly? (Lord Snooty crossed with a rural solicitor crossed with a fancy-dress fascist???).

The broadcaster Eddie Mair, in his days at the PM on BBC Radio 4, once did a splendid filleting of Johnson, during which he repeatedly said what should become a mantra of the moment – “You’re a nasty piece of work.”

It was a gratifying moment, as too has been the sight recently of journalists flinging awkward questions at Nigel Farage – another chancer who hides behind self-made myths (such as the one about coming “out of semi-retirement”  to save Brexit – oh, pull the other one, it’s got bollocks on: you’ve never been away).

Channel 4 News has investigated Farage’s funding (always a mystery, aside from his Euro-stipend) and alleges that the millionaire insurance tycoon Aaron Banks spent nearly half a million pounds shoring up Farage’s lavish lifestyle in 2016 after he stood down as UKIP leader.

Good work, Channel 4 – and we need more of that.

All the Tory candidates need proper scrutiny, but especially Boris Johnson, with his faux-matiness, his character flaws and, worst of all, that dreaded charisma – a quality much praised by his fans.

Oh, get away with you: charisma in a politician is a dangerous thing, although come to think of it, so too is a complete lack of it, as shown by the havoc wreaked by the charisma vacuum that is Theresa May.

Incidentally, Labour play a gentler version of the character game, with Jeremy Corbyn wheeled before us as “Jeremy”, a friendly, vaguely avuncular character you might like to have a chat with down the allotment.

Thanks to the way matters are rolled out in this country, the decision on who will be the next prime minister lies partly with a tiny clutch of crusty Tory members – or what Kevin Maguire in the New Statesman neatly calls a “120,000-weak sect”.

Can any person still in full possession of their marbles think that allowing Boris Johnson to be prime minister is a sensible notion? I do hope those 120,000 Tory crusts have their wits about them.


j j j

Kyle show axed and about time say people who never watched (me too)

Photo: courtesy of Shutterstock

THERESA May joined the tutting chorus over the Jeremy Kyle Show. Perhaps she was genuinely alarmed at the programme. Or maybe it just reminded her of something: all those people cruelly mocking one friendless person, the shouting, the insults – and a man called Jeremy leading the catcalls.

This morning the show was axed by ITV after the death of a guest, Steven Dymond, 63, who is thought to have killed himself a week after failing a lie detector test on an unseen episode.

Criticising TV programmes you don’t watch is a bad habit, but everyone is at it this morning. So, having glimpsed a few gory minutes once or twice, I’ll join the braying crowd and peer at the headlines, written before the show was cancelled.

The Sun has “Kyle on trial” and that line about May being “deeply concerned”. The i-newspaper has “Jeremy Kyle show faces ITV axe over mental health concerns”, while the Daily Mirror goes for “Theatre of cruelty.”

The Daily Mail and the Star draw strikingly different conclusions after speaking to Steven Dymond’s relatives. His son complains to the Mail that the Kyle show “ripped into” his father, while his stepdaughter tells the Star that he was a “selfish serial liar” who had made many previous suicide attempts.

All this is to peer through a smudged lens, it is true, but that last line makes a point the stepdaughter might not have intended. If Dymond had indeed made earlier suicide threats, it suggests he should never have been allowed anywhere near a TV camera on such an exploitative show.

Going along to a public hanging once counted as entertainment. As you can no longer join the queue at an execution or a flogging, instead you switch on the television and bray at the gruesome mess a stranger has made of their life.

The Spectator website, not a naturally stopping off point for me, gets to the grubby heard of the matter, decrying all that shouting and screaming and fractious arguments, and saying that “our desire for reality TV has led us down a dark and twisted path” to a “programme on which contestants are mocked by viewers based on their class, background and appearance”.

ITV maintained it had a duty of care to all Kyle’s guests – a corporate statement that unties itself before your eyes: if it had a real duty of care, it would never have placed such potentially vulnerable people before the cameras in the name of mass entertainment.

In other news, yesterday I walked out of the local Sainsbury’s. Three young men were standing around, each with tough-looking bull terrier-type dogs. One of the dogs started off crying or panicking or something. Soon there was a fury of barking and snapping, as the men clung on to the leads, straining to hold the dogs apart.

And there, quite by chance, was a perfect metaphor for the Jeremy Kyle Show.


j j j

Oh, a curse on you and your Brexit leaflet and on Widdecombe too…

We’ve had a Brexit Party leaflet through our door. It was addressed to my wife, leaving me unsullied. Our eldest son has had one at his flat – so that’s two pieces of propaganda fallen on stony doormats.

If you must hand one thing to Nigel Farage – and the wearing of gloves is advisable – that man sure knows how to stir up a shitstorm and then stand back to shout about the very same shitstorm.

Back in the days when he ran UKIP, in between walking out and skulking back, he used to turn irritable if people said UKIP were a single-issued party. Everybody knew they were a single-issue party; Farage knew they were a single-issue party, having drawn breath into its nicotine lungs only to cough out the Eurosceptic phlegm. But he kept up the lie in the pretence of being like other politicians – you know, the ones he hated because they wouldn’t let him into their gang.

Single-issue politics have pulled us into this swampy mess. Shouting about one issue makes everything sound so simple yet ignores the complications that will follow.

I don’t think that even Farage now pretends that his Brexit Party is anything other than a single-issue party – the Party of Nigel, set up because the Original Party of Nigel turned too nasty even for him (and isn’t that something).

One of many odd aspects of Farage is that his brand of snake-oil popularism is drawn from dissatisfaction with politicians. He uses his anti-politician populism as a lure for votes – he hates politicians, yet he is one, and has been for 20 years, earning a comfortable living by being an irritant in the European Parliament (while also raking in the expenses).

The leaflet Farage sent to my wife has two repetitive slogans: “Politics is broken. Let’s change it for good” and – in case that’s too wordy for you – “Change politics for good.”

Change politics for good; make America great again – potent yet meaningless slogans from the same drawer of lies. It’s depressing that we live in an age where shouty bigots are heard above everyone else; and an age where too many people nod along to the shouty bigots, thinking they might have a point.

Farage has dedicated his disputatious life to getting us in this mess. As one of the right-wing architects of Brexit, he has no answers – just aggressive slogans; he doesn’t do solutions, he just shoves his fingers in the wound and gives them a waggle. He is the ultimate disruptor, a man who smashes everything up without any intention of putting any of it back together again.

And yet two of today’s newspapers have polls giving buoyancy to the Brexit Party. The Observer poll puts the Brexit Party on 34% of the vote in the Euro election, while the Sunday Telegraph poll suggest his party would do serious damage to the Tories in a general election, leaving a Labour majority.

Why anyone would vote for Farage’s ragbag collection of mouldy malcontents is a mystery. Did you hear Ann Widdecombe the other day? Dear me, she went off on one, saying that a no-deal Brexit would be as nothing compared to the sacrifices of the Second World War.

Well, that’s great, isn’t it? Brexit has gone from a brave new (mostly) right-wing wet dream to something that won’t be as bad as the war.

“My granny was bombed out in Plymouth. People lost sons and husbands and fathers and they did this because they wanted freedom,” she ranted and raved. Ann is 72, which means that she was two when the war ended, so perhaps she should calm down a bit.

An old woman ranting to other old people about the past is a depressing sight – and I write those words as someone who’s getting on a bit too. I am sure there are young people who support Brexit, but most supporters seem to be drawn from that grumbling congregation of oldies.

Sadly, the remain side seem intent on making Farage’s life easy by splitting into spot-the-difference factions.


j j j

A few thoughts on Danny Baker…

Photo: Daily Express website

I’d been wondering what, if anything, to say about the latest royal baby but lacked the enthusiasm to raise a typing finger.

The broadcaster Danny Baker was less reticent, rushing to Twitter to send out a deeply unfortunate ‘joke’ that drew parallels between the new arrival and a baby chimp. The barbed ins and outs of this aside don’t interest me so much as what follows. Let’s just say that trying to maintain this wasn’t racist, as Baker later did, just doesn’t add up. Equating a mixed-race royal with a chimp is a racist joke, end of, as they say (not that I usually do).

Two trains of thought follow from this. The first is that social media can be an instant executioner: a ‘joke’ is made, a furore follows, the guillotine falls, in this case Baker’s sacking today from his BBC Radio 5 show. All in the blink of a stupid tweet.

Those of us who have no interest in royal babies, or their parents, should probably keep quiet at such times. It was mildly diverting to hear that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex were calling their son Archie. Spencer was touted as an early possibility, and for personal reasons that strikes me as a finer name; but Archie it is.

Royal arrivals are always tricky for those who couldn’t care less, as a birth is a happy occasion, and moaning on about privilege and so on seems ungracious. Best to sigh and stay shtum.

The next train of thought wonders if some racist ‘jokes’ and some racists are more acceptable than others. Whatever Danny Baker intended, he was sacked, while Lord Alan Sugar was left in place after an equally dubious tweet about black footballers.

And, as pointed out in the hall of moaning mirrors that is Twitter, the BBC sacks Baker in an instant but endlessly invites Nigel Farage onto the shout-fest that is Question Time (he’s back there again tonight). If Farage, with his vile posters about immigration and his appearances on right-wing US talk shows isn’t a racist, then I don’t know who is.

It’s long been my habit to defend the BBC against the disparaging chorus. That job becomes harder in the face of the BBC’s endless promotion of Farage. His undue prominence on the airwaves must surely at least in part explain how we ended up with this Brexit shitstorm. And mumbling that he’s good “opinion box office” isn’t good enough.

Anyway, here’s a closing thought. Baker is sacked, Sugar tolerated, Farage positively encouraged – and next month, Harry’s grandmother is going to have to put on a royal show for possibly the world’s most prominent racist, US president Donald Trump. And perhaps we should strike out that ‘possibly’.


 

j j j

Oh, do lay off Emma Thompson

Emma Thompson had what could technically be called a right kicking from Harry Cole, deputy political editor of the Mail on Sunday, last weekend. As a less elevated owner of that surname, I’d say that Harry let down Coles everywhere with his shoddy behaviour.

Thompson’s sin was to be photographed on a plane flying to New York. In saner times, “actress catches plane” would not be much of a story. But in these over-heated, spittle-flecked days, Thompson found herself in the stocks for flying first class to New York after supporting the Extinction Rebellion protesters.

Cole’s intro gets the boot in without hesitation, as is the way with a tabloid kicking… “Left-wing actress Dame Emma Thompson was branded a ‘first-class hypocrite’ last night after jetting to New York just days after backing climate protests that brought chaos to London…”

After that, Thompson is sneered at for being a Jeremy Corbyn supporter and for having said: “We should all fly less.”

Let’s stop to analyse this kicking. Who branded Thompson a hypocrite? Ahem, our old friend unnamed sources and anonymous onlookers, as far as I could see from skimming the story online while holding my nose.

As for being a “life-long Labour supporter”, well, it’s not a crime – and, anyway, in an interview on the BBC Today programme, Thompson indicated that she was leaning green more these days.

Thompson’s main crime, in seems, is to be rich and successful – a “multi-millionaire” according to another sneer here – and to have opinions.

The easy route for successful people such as Emma would be to pipe down, drink the champagne in first class and keep her opinions to herself. She prefers not to do that and is happy to exclaim out loud in long and joined up sentences – which are later used to lasso her.

In that interview on the Today programme, Thompson said that it was hard to do her job without flying. She said she tried to offset her carbon footprint, adding that she was in a fortunate position – “most people can’t”.

Here is the loop that was pulled round her neck – “We should all fly less. We’re going to have to fly less…”

Thompson accepted the difficulties and hypocrisies involved in trying to sort all this out. Perhaps her mistake was to have allied herself to those climate extremists of Extinction Rebellion protesters who brought chaos to London. Yet environmental chaos is brought to London and everywhere else by all of us, thanks to our need to drive and fly, and apparently too by our liking for climate-harming meat. And that was another of Thompson’s sins, according to the Mail on Sunday – she once supported “meat-free Mondays”. Gosh, in these vegan-obsessed days, that seems a small sin.

In the same Today interview, Thompson also said child poverty in Britain was “Dickensian” – and so it is, but the other Cole left that one alone. Instead he stuck to the old tabloid stitch-up template.

As the end of that interview, Thompson was asked if she was tempted to enter politics. “Oh God, no,” she said. And who could blame her.

Incidentally, computers and laptops and televisions are said to be bad for global warming, too. Just about everything is, and we all carry on doing it.

Is the Mail on Sunday bad for global warming? Oh, it’s bad for locally warming my temper, but that’s a different matter.


ELECTION FOOTNOTE: Can we all stop over-interpreting the local elections now, please?

Short story: the results were terrible for the Conservatives – and dire for Labour, too. Yes, the Tories got more of a thrashing, but Labour did poorly against an unpopular government that’s been in power for nine tattered years. And the LibDems and Greens got a booster.

Still, I can’t help thinking of that shop in The League of Gentlemen – “These were local elections for local people.” Not an opinion poll to thrash out whatever belief you want to see thrashed.


j j j

Letter to that crazy young kid of 58…

IT’S nearly four years since I was made redundant. Here is a letter to my (slightly) younger self.

Back then, to misquote Leonard Cohen, you were just a crazy young kid of 58 with a headful of dreams. You had a headful of panic too, but that’s what you get for staying on one newspaper for 27 years. That’s what you get for thinking you’d dribble out the years doing a job you loved until they messed it up.

You will be afraid as you hide behind those dreams. You’ll be a freelance journalist and a published novelist again, you will tell yourself, doubting the words even as you say them. But you will keep saying them anyway.

You will try to follow those paths. You will spend a year as a freelance feature writer and it will be a great year, but the living will not be easy. You will write good features, see them published and feel pleased with yourself. But in the distance, you will hear the low hum of panic about that pitiful pile of money. You will keep writing those features but cancel that holiday in the Caribbean (ho-hum).

As for being a novelist again, you will write one thriller, and you will throw it away. You will write a second and fail to stir up the necessary interest. You will start another. You will live in hope because that’s what you’ve always done. And you will live in doubt because that’s what you’ve always done.

During the early months you will not sign on because you are too proud, even though everyone says you should. Then you will sign on briefly, only to find that because you’ve registered as self-employed the benefit is cut to something insulting. You will go to the job centre or whatever it is called for perhaps a month. You will attend depressing meetings. You will trawl through the job sites looking for jobs that aren’t there. You will feel briefly as low as you have ever felt.

From the job centre you can see York Minster over the city walls. One sunny day you will rush from one of those dire meetings to interview the actor playing Jesus in the York Mystery Plays. You will conclude that interviewing actors is more rewarding than feeling like a reject. You will go on a short holiday to France and you will not sign on again.

Your redundancy will last more than a year with the small freelance fees, then vanish to a puddle. You will hear that low-level hum of panic again. You will find two part-time jobs connected to your old world, one in journalism and the other as a visiting journalism lecturer.

You will start both roles at the same time. The journalism job will be in a large office full of other journalists made redundant by their newspapers, a congregation of misplaced scribes, scribblers and sub-editors.

The lecturing job will be offered on a Thursday and you will be asked if you can start on the Monday. You will grab the opportunity and then you will panic.

You will turn up on that Monday. You will survive that first year and you will find that lecturing is enjoyable. You will feel more secure. Then you will find that universities hire staff year by year. Each year the university will wait to let you know if you have anything next year.

After three years, you will also be offered part-time work at another university. That work will go well. You will be asked to apply for a full-time job but will miss out. More part-time work will be offered.

One day in May you will sit down to write about the life you used to have and the one that came along instead. You will think of all the new people you’ve met and all the old friends you still have.

You will think of what your wife has been through, as in a sense two of us were made redundant that day. You will remember that you have three children grown to lovely adulthood, with their own joys and problems.

You will learn that there is life outside of a job you should have left years earlier. Some days though you will still miss that job and those friends.

You will write too many blogs to mention. Some will be quite widely read, some hardly at all. You will teach a wise young student from Bradford who will say that she doesn’t care if only one person reads her blog. When she says that, you will smile.

On that day in May, you will write another blog instead of exploring the new novel. This will be a delaying tactic because you are simultaneously excited by the new idea and overcome with feelings of doubt and uselessness.

Friends will tell you that your new life sounds interesting. And you will agree. You will still worry but will remember that crazy young kid of 58 with a headful of dreams. That will make you smile. And you will keep on dreaming. Because that’s what you do.

j j j

She Said/He Said (Westminster edition)…

Here’s a thought: what if Gavin Williamson is telling the truth about the reasons for his expulsion from Theresa May’s collapsing cabinet of quarrelling dunces?

The former defence secretary was sacked by Mrs Maybe because she believes her internal inquiry fingered Williamson.

Now don’t run away with the idea that Williamson deserves our sympathy, for that’s a ridiculous notion. But his sacking yesterday does lead us to a game of She Said/He Said (Westminster edition).

She said her internal inquiry points to Williamson being the one who leaked information from the National Security Council about the decision to go ahead with allowing Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei to build parts of the UK’s new 5G network.

He said it wasn’t him and, being a strange sort, he swore on “his children’s lives” that it wasn’t him. What an odd thing to say, but then he’s an odd man, puddled in ambition and a sense of his own wonderfulness.

She said the evidence against him was “compelling”. He said he was the victim of a “kangaroo court” and “a summary execution” – suggesting that his defence brief has coloured his use of language. He also said the leak inquiry, as overseen by cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, had been “a witch hunt from the start”.

She said he had to resign; he said he wouldn’t. OK, she said, “you’re sacked”. He said, via sources, that “the prime minister had made a serious mistake”.

She said: “Serves you right – you try doing this job when everyone hates you. And this gets you back for telling a reporter that you made me and could break me. Who’s broken now, baby?”

Or something like that.

Williamson always seems too pleased with himself, too reliant on being a plain-speaking Yorkshireman (even though he often speaks nonsense), and too swaggeringly full of his brief, too much like a small boy who’s been given the keys to the gun cabinet.

He reportedly admits to talking to the Daily Telegraph reporter Steven Swinford on the phone for 11 minutes on the day of the leak, but denies he spilled any top-secret beans.

That sounds suspicious, but Theresa May could be wrong as that’s happened before, and her judgement is a thing much battered. What if he’s right and she’s wrong? The only way to answer that question would be for the police to launch an official inquiry into whether Williamson broke the Official Secrets Act.

Also, May promoted and backed Williamson, and that should stain her judgement, although they are said to have fallen out. Is this also a flailing prime minister trying to exert her authority? Theresa May always gives the impression of being a control freak – although one who isn’t much cop at the controlling part.

She is said to have run a stern ship at the Home Office, where her blind obsession with immigration figures created, among other disgraces, the Windrush scandal.

He Said/She Said. Who you gonna believe? Oh, frankly it’s not much of a choice.


j j j

Labour’s Brexit torch runs out of batteries…

Ah, is this at last a shining shaft from the Labour torch to illuminate its Brexit policy? Nope – someone clearly forgot to buy any new batteries. That torch is casting the same meagre light as before.

Jeremy Corbyn got his way at yesterday’s meeting of the national executive council (NEC). Labour policy on a second referendum is the same as before and can be summed up as, er, erm, it depends. Meet the new policy, same as the old one.

Sitting on that Brexit fence suits Jeremy Corbyn and he has no intention of shifting. His team said party policy for the forthcoming European election campaign was “fully in line” with its longstanding policy.

At which point a bleary-eyed cynic might feel moved to interject: your mealy-mouthed same-old policy is fully aligned to staying on that fence, muttering about a general election every now and then, conjuring a Labour Brexit spell that magics away the Evil Tory Brexit, and refusing to say what you really think – or taking any notice of what many Labour supporters/voters want. Oh, and trying to pretend that Brexit doesn’t really matter anyway.

Does Labour now still favour a soft Brexit – or is it just planning on making life easier for that opportunistic slime-ball Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party? A hopelessly divided Tory Party and a bumbling-in-the-dark Labour Party seem intent between them on making life easier for Farage and his curious crew, including that unfunny old pantomime dame of British politics, Ann Widdicombe.

For reasons which escape my comprehension – and should escape the comprehension of every equally vaguely sane person – Nigel Farage is box office, and people still flock to be sold the same old right-wing tat from his free-market stall of crowd-stirring rotten bargains.

Let’s step away from this depressing farrago and hear from a man who does seem to keep batteries in his torch.

That man is Philip Alston, the United Nations global poverty expert. Today he warns that Britain’s preoccupation with Brexit will leave the country severely diminished whatever happens, as too little is being done to help people who are being pushed deeper into poverty.

Alston is a human-rights lawyer from New York who is in his final year as the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty. He said yesterday: “You are really screwing yourselves royally for the future by producing a substandard workforce and children that are malnourished.”

It’s easy to forget the power of a plain-talking American, especially when we are bombarded daily and nightly by the increasingly insane inanities of a Twitter-mad president. Alston is one such plain-speaking American and he has delivered an 11,000-word report to the government about poverty in Britain, following his investigations last November.

His gloomy thoughts should be listened to, if anyone can stop arguing about Brexit. Although, to be honest, that seemingly undying squabble seems to have run out of steam, with all participants too exhausted or disillusioned to continue shouting at each other.

Leave or remain, Britain has blown it – that seems to be Alston’s take on the mess we are in. Hard not to agree. As for Labour, perhaps Alston can pass on some inside information about where torch batteries are sold.

j j j

We’re a nation of super-fit marathon runners and obese waddlers…

Scales: Getty image

A juxtaposition of newspaper images – overweight people versus marathon runners – makes me stand on the scales for the first time in ages (not a good idea, by the way or weigh).

Don’t picture the scene, for God’s sake, as one man stops typing, goes upstairs, undresses shortly after dressing, stands on the scales – and looks down, with a sigh and a swear.

Reverse the process and here I am, typing again. With a heavier, ahem, heart.

A photograph used by many newspapers this morning shows a runner in the London marathon crawling over the finishing line. A caption in the Daily Telegraph names the exhausted runner as Hayley Carruthers, a 26-year-old NHS worker and athlete.

It’s a winning image. She supports herself with one arm, while the other reaches out, nearly there. Hayley is slight and slim, as good marathon runners often are.

Now back to that juxtaposition. Alongside photographs of marathon runners, many of today’s newspaper contain the latest warnings about being overweight. We’re a nation of super-fit marathon runners and obese waddlers.

The Daily Mirror headline says 18.5m Brits are in the “fat danger zone”, while a sub-heading adds: “‘Slightly overweight’ at risk”.

On the BBC website, the headline gets to the point – “Obesity: study of 2.8 million shows increased disease and death risks.”

This study is to be presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow. It suggests, alarmingly for a man freshly off the scales, that “even slightly overweight people were twice as likely to get Type 2 diabetes”.

If you are feeling brave, the BBC website has a calculator for your body mass index (BMI). Calling on optimistic memory, I put in my weight, add height and age. This places me in the healthy category, but only just. After weighing myself, the calculator is corrected by quite a few pounds, a nudge into the overweight category. The only encouragement is to be found in the following message:

Your BMI is lower than the average of 28.8 for a man in your age group (55-64) in England.

Depressing how we often weigh more than we think. My lazy off-the-cuff body calculator always tells me that losing half a stone might not be a bad idea. The scales heckle back: make that a whole stone.

Listening to the obesity story on the radio, I mentioned in passing to my wife that I was about the same weight as badminton playing Friend A and lighter than badminton playing Friend B. She raised an eyebrow over Friend A, observing that you don’t necessarily see your own stomach when looking down, and she’d been watching us run around last week.

That’s one of the unkind aspects of ageing: you put weight on even if you stay reasonably active. I still run once a week, play squash twice a week, badminton once or twice a week, and cycle a bit – yet the weight creeps on.

Back for a final time to that juxtaposition. I’ve never run a marathon but did run six or seven half-marathons about ten years ago. And at the height of all that running, I weighed around a stone less than now.

That’s where beer, bread and cheese get you with less activity and a few more years.

Something will have to be done about that. But what? The last time the dieting Coles tried the fasting diet, we gave up, hungry and grumpy.

What’s an ageing squash-playing, shuttlecock-bashing, running and cycling man to do?


j j j