Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Chancellor is Still In The Thick Of It

The news that Britain has avoided a disastrous triple-dip recession in the first quarter, with growth of 0.3%, brought welcome relief for the government.

The figures coming only a week after the coalition faced calls from the International Monetary Fund to relax its austerity programme, gave the chancellor breathing space to show his strategy for the economy was beginning to work.

On the plus side, there are signs that business confidence is gradually picking up; companies say export orders are improving as a result of a weaker pound and consumers appear to have more available money to spare after the large increase in their personal tax allowance this month.

The government can also draw some comfort from surveys suggesting the return to growth is no flash in the pan. The business confidence monitor jointly produced by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) and Grant Thornton, which went against the 0.1% consensus to predict growth of 0.4% in the first quarter, indicates that optimism for the April to June quarter is at its highest since late 2010.

Despite this unexpected lull in the doom and gloom of the current economic outlook, the chancellor will come under renewed attack over his growth strategy in the coming week, with one leading economist describing the Treasury’s investment plans as ‘chaotic’.

The highly influential London School of Economic Growth Commission will advocate a new approach to investment in Britain’s energy and transport networks. Government plans, it claims, are beset by ‘procrastination and instability’.

The criticism is badly timed for the government as it comes ahead of what is likely to be a damning report from the Commons Public Accounts Committee into the Government’s national infrastructure plan, which was launched in 2010 to oversee projects worth more than £300 billion.

A recent National Audit Report found ‘real risks to value for money’ under the plan because of policy uncertainty and failure to assess the costs to consumers.

The Growth Commission, a powerful body whose influential members include Sir Richard Lambeth, former director-general of the CBI, and Rachel Lomax, former deputy-governor of the Bank of England, releases its report this week in the National Institute Economic Review. It will say investment is being hampered by a ‘damaging cycle of institutional churn, political procrastination and policy instability’.

The report will clearly call for a national infrastructure body, independent of ministers, to oversee investment in roads and energy.

The chancellor is not out of the woods yet. The next few months will determine his fate. Meanwhile he is hanging on by his eyelashes. With an incubus of problems on the horizon, he desperately needs the luck of the devil which has so far eluded him.

Perhaps adversity will bring in its wake the wisdom and inspiration he is lacking at the moment; if you believe in miracles then there is still hope.

My Weekend Review: Amanda Knox in Focus

Amanda is back in the news.

Now aged twenty-five, she was first convicted of the killing of her friend, British student Meredith Kercher, in 2007. She spent four years in jail and then was acquitted on appeal, but Italy’s highest court has now ordered a retrial.

Amanda and her Italian former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and another man are accused of killing Meredith who was from Coulsdon, South London, in an alleged drug-fuelled sex game gone wrong. The third suspect, Rudy Guede, an Ivorian immigrant, is serving a sixteen-year prison term for the murder.

Now studying creative writing at the University of Washington in Seattle, Amanda is due to publish her memoir, Waiting to be Heard, in the US on 30th April; it will not, however, be released in Britain because of libel fears.

According to an advance copy obtained by the New York Times, Amanda wrote that ‘marijuana was as common as pasta’ in her flat in Italy.

She denied killing Meredith, writing that on the night of the murder she was smoking marijuana, reading a Harry Potter book aloud in German and watching the film Amélie at Mr Sollecito’s flat.

barbie latza nadeau photo 1 of amanda knox_edited

In an interview with ABC news to be shown on 30th April to coincide with the publication of her book in the US, Amanda said that she considered killing herself while in jail, and that she was still haunted by the death of Meredith, her housemate in Perugia, Italy. Amanda thought of many ways of committing suicide, including poisoning with bleach, swallowing shards of glass, hanging, and hitting her head against a wall. ‘Less effective but more dignified was bleeding yourself to death,’ Amanda wrote. ‘I imagined it would be possible to get away with enough time in the shower.’

In an interview with People magazine, the first since her release, Amanda said: ‘When Meredith was murdered and I was arrested, it was shocking. It was paralysing. Everything toppled. Things creep up on me and all of a sudden I am overwhelmed by the feeling of helplessness and desperation and fear to even hope. Just that can make my heart race and makes me paralysed until I can breathe it away.’

During the lengthy trial in Italy, I followed the proceedings as diligently as my time allowed and heard the public prosecutor lambast Amanda with a litany of exaggerated accusations – as if he were on a relentless crusade to find her guilty no matter what. To me he appeared and sounded to be a nasty piece of work and it transpired later he was a notorious prosecutor accused of abusing his position in a previous criminal case.

My instinct led me to believe that on the evidence presented Amanda was wrongly jailed and as a result suffered draconian hardships. It was a clear-cut case of miscarriage of justice.

Throughout her ordeal Amanda was admirably composed and betrayed no loss of dignity. The more I saw of her on my television screen the more sympathetic and bewitched I became. Her immaculate behaviour under unbearable pressure – given her young age and her inexperience as to the cruelties life can heap upon such a defenceless creature caught in such dire circumstances – was a master class in itself.

She is without doubt a star in the making. I wish her better days and less hazardous journeys in the years to come.

As for poor Meredith the tragedy of her death can at no time be forgotten, nor should it be. The real culprit should never be allowed to escape retribution.

If Bees Die Out We Are the Losers

Simon Barnes writing in The Times believes that if bees die out, we’ll all feel the sting in the tail.

How right and sensible he is, for bees contribute greatly to our well-being, without which we will all feel the worse for it.

He begins his article: ‘The first bee of the year. In April – what a ridiculous spring this has been, she was flying from flower to flower, doing what bees do, feeding up on nectar and as she did so, transferring pollen from one flower to the next. Soon she will find a nesting site and start to rear the first generation of the year and will become a full-time egg-producer and carer as the colony grows. The colony will eventually produce males and new queens in the end; that will bring gravid over-wintering queens and the colonies of 2014.’

He maintains that two-thirds of the species of pollinating insects in this country are in decline; two hundred and fifty of them are in danger of UK extinction. We have fewer bees, fewer pollinators all round, because we keep killing them.

The environmental audit committee, which is made up of MPs formed from all parties, have just completed a four-month enquiry into the Neonicotinoid group of insecticides. Their conclusions are forthright and unduckable. They recommend a ban on three of the main poisons in the UK. They also recommend that this country supports a ban in Europe.

Conservation organisations such as Buglife, an NGO that supports invertebrates, have been lobbying for such a ban for years. This could be a breakthrough unless it gets buried under a mountain of entrenched values and vested interests.

Scientific studies have shown that Neonicotinoids harm honey bees, beetles, earthworms and birds, though the producers of these insecticides dispute these findings.

To summarise, I earnestly believe that we must look after the wild world in our midst before it is destroyed by chemicals used by man. Wild products are essential for our survival and for the pleasure and beauty it gives the countryside.

‘If we kill the pollinators we simply impoverish ourselves.’ These are the concluding words of Simon Barnes in his article, which makes a great deal of sense. On my part I raise my hat to him in total compliance.

The Divaricating Chancellor

George Osborne has got his hands full with one setback after another.

He seems to attract criticism for his austerity policy, not only from Labour, which is expected, but from well established international financial agencies who are now openly questioning his stewardship of the British economy.

The latest blow to hit him hard is the downgrading of Britain’s credit rating by Fitch from AAA to AA. It follows a similar downgrade from Moody’s two months ago and leaves Standard and Poor’s as the only major rating agency not to have downgraded Britain’s creditworthiness.

The timing will be seen by observers as acutely embarrassing since it came a day after the International Monetary Fund publicly rebuked the chancellor and urged him  to rethink his austerity policy.

Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, told him in no uncertain terms that he should be considering a way of adjusting the pace of fiscal consolidation, as growth is showing signs of abatement.

Earlier in the week, the IMF’s chief economist Olivier Blanchard warned that Mr Osborne would be ‘playing with fire’ if he continued with his present policies.

However, the Treasury as we have seen in the past two years is again playing down the latest downgrade, arguing that it was simply a reminder that Britain needed to tackle its debts. A spokesman said: ‘This is a stark reminder that the UK cannot simply run away from its problems or refuse to deal with the legacy of debt built up over a decade.’

Fitch themselves say the government’s continued policy commitment to reducing the underlying budget deficit is one of the main reasons the UK has now ‘a stable debt outlook’.

What a load of dross we are being accustomed to hear in response to any criticism levelled against the economic policy of this government, whose arrogance appears to gain momentum as their failures multiply.

Now that we have seen the chancellor cry at the funeral of his idol Margaret Thatcher, perhaps he can shed a tear or two on the way his management of the economy is heading. Some commentators who back him are saying that the chancellor is ‘not for turning’ referring to the well-known phrase describing the Iron Lady at the height of her power.

Well he should be so lucky for the comparison. Nothing he has touched so far has blossomed to give us a whit of hope that recovery is on the horizon. On the contrary, gloom and doom are knocking at our door with an added intensity so as to rob us of a good night’s sleep.

The chancellor has become the fly in the ointment. The sooner the PM comes to his senses and puts him to grass, the better his chances of saving his premiership.

Renaissance Emir

Quartet, in its diversity, is publishing a book that in essence is historical, yet it captures the attention of the reader as if it were an absorbing novel, hard to put down and enjoyably gripping.

Renaissance-Emir_front

The year is 1613: the Ottoman Empire is at its height, sprawling from Hungary to Iraq, Morocco to Yemen. One man dares to challenge it: the Prince of the mysterious Druze sect in Mount Lebanon, Fakhr ad-Din.

Yielding before a mighty army sent to conquer him, he – astonishingly – takes refuge with the Medici in Florence at the height of the Renaissance.

During his five-year stay in Italy, he fights to persuade Popes, Grand-Dukes and Viceroys to support a grand plan: a new Crusade to wrest the Holy Land from the Ottomans, giving Jerusalem back to Christendom and himself a crown.

This groundbreaking biography of Fakhr ad-Din, Prince of the Druze, is based on the author’s vivid new translations of contemporary sources in Arabic and other languages. It brings to life one remarkable man’s beliefs and ambitions, uniquely illuminating the elusive interface between Eastern and Western culture.

Since the world has become a much smaller place due to the technological advances that have changed our lives and made us more aware of what happens in every corner of the globe, the cultural aspect of every nation has equally spread to other far regions at such a pace that it has become necessary to link historical events with what is happening today.

As the world is embroiled in all sorts of ethical and cultural ambiguities, particularly due to the large divide between East and West, a better understanding of the political and spiritual enigmas that cause a rift will at least lead to a better understanding of the issues involved.

History is by far the most effective mentor one can have, but alas, people in power invariably disregard it to their own detriment and those they rule.

We wage wars we know we cannot win. We refuse to stamp out poverty for fear of equality. We enact laws that go contrary to our spiritual beliefs and encourage greed in a capitalist system bereft of any human consideration, and we call all that progress. Let history be our bible so we can at least see the foolishness of our actions.

Renaissance Emir is a book which will shed some light on the possible enaction of a dialogue between East and West, pave the way for a more comprehensive concord between different cultures to enhance our knowledge and make us richer in wisdom and tolerance.

Order your copy now before the rush. You will be intrigued, entertained and historically more aware. Don’t miss this golden opportunity.

A Woman a Week: Cara Delevingne

She’s everywhere: the toast of the fashion world; the impish darling of the press, who monitor every move she makes; a grimace here and there, a pulling of the tongue, a wink, a body movement, a gesture that speaks volumes – all this is embodied within the framework of Cara Delevingne, the supermodel who has become the undisputed queen of the catwalk.

Every fashion house is enthralled of this cupid, whose sudden emergence has electrified everything around her. She works hard during the day and plays equally hard during the night. She needs very little sleep, and despite burning the candle at both ends she somehow defies the rule of gravity and looks fresh whenever she appears.

Her energy seems unmeasurable and her love of life is hard to equate with the norm.

She’s obviously sharp-witted and talented, and despite being a bundle of fun she knows where she’s going.

According to the latest reports, Cara is now set to fulfil her musical aspirations. Rita Ora, her close friend and patron saint, has agreed to take Cara under her wing, guide her in the studio in the coming months, and have her as a guest on a track with the woman she affectionately calls ‘my wifey’.

An insider claims that Cara’s singing voice is a lot better than anyone has imagined. She has already started sessions in LA, and played Rita a few songs she’s come up with. A first single will soon be released online.

Rita has promised to head into the recording studio with Cara to create a fun pop track together as an overture to Cara’s singing ambitions.

That’s not the whole story. Cara has already secured the services of an acting agent in Hollywood with a view to hitting the big screen. There is nothing within sight that escapes her attention and eventual clutches.

She’s a young lady whose destiny is mapped out by none other than herself. Her rise to stardom is self-assured, for the gods have smiled upon her in a myriad of ways.

That’s my reason for choosing her as my woman of the week.

Thought for the Day

Public money is like holy water; everyone helps himself to it. That’s perhaps the attitude of most people even those who claim to respect it.

Those in politics know how best to utilise it, the upper classes find ways of pocketing some of it, tycoons cleverly manipulate it to their advantage and the working classes nibble at it from time to time.

There’s nothing sacrosanct in devising ingenious structures to participate in the bonanza of joining the club of takers. Are we all by any chance morally wanting?

Your views are much appreciated.

My Weekend Review

The world of fantasy…

According to a report in the Daily Mail last Friday, Britons are not, as outsiders perceive them to be, a stuffy and staid bunch.

The truth is that beneath that calm, there lies a mischievousness which to some degree is at odds with a projected conservative image that seems to initiate out of character behaviour.

The research found one in five women indulge in a daily bout of ‘naughtiness’ to help pepper up their day.

Regular bad behaviour is pulling a sickie, and secretly lusting after a partner’s father. Other ‘naughty’ acts include women keeping a picture of a heartthrob rather than a boyfriend or a husband as their mobile or computer screensaver.

Some fifteen per cent of two thousand women surveyed also admit they touch up pictures of themselves before posting them online, to hide any imperfection and glamourise their looks. One in six will lie about how much they spend on a new outfit, handbag or other purchase – even pretending it was a gift.

The survey of Cadbury’s comes as adverts to launch its Crispello include one in which a girl reveals she fancies her boyfriend’s dad – something ten per cent of women now admit to.

Almost one in four women confess they flirt to get a freebie or a discount, from suggestive banter with a coffee shop barista to fluttering eyelashes at a car salesman.

Studies have found indulging in the odd mischievous treat reduces stress and leaves us feeling healthier, happier and younger – especially in order to cope with the present economic doom and gloom.

It is an acknowledged fact that a woman who lives her life to the full, discarding convention and, from time to time, dabbles in the forbidden fruit, is more interesting than one staid to the point of boredom. Such a woman has men crawling at her feet and normally makes a desirable and exciting companion.

Feminism rarely brings comfort and happiness to a woman. It is the interaction with men or other women on an equal and absorbing level that generates the sexual frisson that keeps the flame of their relationship alive and glowing.

Men and women today have the same pressures. The gap in our biological differences is shortening. We both struggle in our diverse ways to achieve the same things. So what applies to women applies to men, though perhaps in a varied form.

What we forget is that the world of fantasy can often be a tonic to keep us sane in the competitive environment we live. We fantasise about being rich when we are poor, we seduce women in our dreams to keep us from becoming stale, we unwind through our imagination and engage in all kinds of optimistic games that our brain conjures up when we feel low.

In other words, fantasy plays an important and integral part of our daily life – without which we become miserable old sods, who suffer the indignity of being passed over and forgotten.

The Correlation Between Sex and Music

Scientists are saying that music is as pleasurable as sex.

In my view, it has two functions. It can induce an amorous mood and in some circumstances can give a special treat bordering on an orgasmic sensation.

Research suggests that good music activates the same part of the brain that responds to other positive stimuli, such as a delicious meal or sexual congress. Scans found that areas in the brain’s ‘pleasure’ centre became active when people heard a song for the first time.

The more the listener enjoyed what they were hearing the stronger the activity of dopamine – which promotes desire – in the reward regio,n known as the nucleus accumbens.

The study by scientists at McGill University in Montreal also pinpoints the specific brain activity that controls the decision to purchase music.

Participants listened to sixty previously unheard excerpts of music while undergoing brain scans, and were asked to provide bids of how much they would be prepared to pay for each item.

Dr Valorie Salimpoor said, ‘When people listen to a piece of music they have never heard before, activity in one brain region can reliably and consistently predict whether they will like or buy it – this is the nucleus accumbens. What makes music so emotionally powerful is the creation of expectations. Activity in the nucleus accumbens is an indicator that expectations were met or surpassed, and in our study we found the more activity we see in this brain area while people are listening to music, the more money they are willing to spend.’

She added, ‘The nucleus accumbens also interacted with the auditory cortex, an area that stores information about previous sounds and music we have been exposed to. The more a given piece was rewarding, the greater the activity between these regions,’ according to the findings published in Science.

A researcher, Dr Robert Zatorre, said: ‘This is interesting because music consists of a series of sounds that when considered alone have no interest value, but when arranged together through patterns over time can act as a reward. The integrated activity of brain circuits allow us to experience music as an aesthetic reward.’

Dr Salimpoor went on to say that ‘the brain activity in each participant was the same when they were listening to music they ended up purchasing, despite the chosen music being very different’. She concluded: ‘Each person has their own uniquely shaped auditory cortex, which is formed based on all the sounds and music heard throughout our lives.’

All this might sound too technical to ordinary people. But the reality is that music and sex have a distinct correlation that gives rise to sexual gratification, often hard to define in simple words.

Richard Wagner’s music in his great opera Tristan und Isolde is the best known example of the link between music and sex as the score is considered by critics worldwide to be the most sensual ever written and stands uniquely in a class of its own.

A testimony hard to beat.

A Labour Glamour Boy Who’s Boobed

Politicians have always been vulnerable to public scrutiny about things they’ve done or said before maturing in politics. It comes to torment them and sometimes seriously damages their reputation.

A case in point is Labour MP Chuka Umunna, tipped as a future leader, who finds himself deeply embarrassed by something he wrote in 2006 under an account registered with his middle name, Harrison.

Mr Umunna wrote, ‘Is it just me or is there a serious lack of cool places to go in central London at the weekend. Most of the west-end haunts seem to be full of trash and C-list wannabes, while other places that should know better opt for the cheesy vibe.’

Two years later he asked members for advice on ‘what’s hot right now in Miami’. He said he was spending ten days in the city and he listed his previous haunts.

The website, called a SmallWorld whose members are said to include the now disgraced Tiger Woods and Naomi Campbell, describes itself as an ‘international travel and lifestyle club for “jetrosexuals”’.

A spokesman for the Labour MP admitted that Mr Umunna was still a member of the site, but said that he had not posted anything for ‘many years’.

In a statement Mr Umunna said, ‘We’ve all said and done something stupid in our younger days which we regret – I’ve never claimed to be a saint and am no different. The choice of language I used in that post seven years ago was inappropriate and stupid, which is why I wholeheartedly apologise.’

Mr Umunna must be used to controversy by now. Last year he admitted smoking marijuana as a teenager and has been the subject of criticism for running a ‘presidential-style’ commons office with eleven people working for him.

The upshot of it all is that the good-looking, rather suave MP is perhaps much too grand for Labour. His turn of phrase when posting the offending words lead us to believe that he is a bon viveur whose usage of the word ‘hot’ might also indicate an active and healthy attitude towards the opposite sex, which I’m sure our mayor will find most refreshing.

I simply hope that his earlier pomposity is only a passing phase and that politics has taught him since then to be more discreet and less transparent. For he must remember he inhabits a jungle where hypocrisy is the norm and double standards are concealed behind a façade of puritanical zeal.

On the face of it I like the man. He’s articulate, always well turned-up and has a good measure of political acumen – although, he has a ruthless streak in him to get what he wants. We need more like him around to remind us that glamour is a good visiting card, especially to those who seek high public office.

Sock it to them, Umunna, and carry on where you left off – but choose your words more carefully the next time you write something outrageous, and stop trying to be too clever by half.