Moans and groans

Decisions, decisions – there’s no way I’d become a politician

by The Codgers' Club Friday, July 25 2014

by Alan Watkins

Politicians are used to being accused of ineptitude and inefficiency. It comes with their popularity on being elected followed by a mood swing among the rest of us.

They are considering two sets of plans that, if approved, will have a massive impact on us and our way of life in Medway.

One is the decision of what shape a major airport expansion should take and where it should go.

The Isle of Grain might disappear if the concept by Lord Foster is pursued.

Another is Boris Island – the gigantic estuarine fantasy dreamed up by Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, for the mouth of the River Thames.

That now appears to have been written off by the politicians, planners and environmentalists.

If so – well done.

The only person who seems to want to support the idea of an airport devastating the landscape and residents, is Clive Lawrence from an organisation called DRINK – Demand Regeneration In North Kent.

Mr Lawrence’s concept is that we need jobs and houses, whatever the cost.

He has failed to convince me it is worth aircraft blasting overhead every few seconds, day and night, non-stop. It’s already bad enough when easyJet pop over every couple of hours to land or take off from Southend airport.

We already have bad pollution.

Imagine four runways accepting and whisking off super jumbos and motorways and railways, car parks and coach fleets, housing estates and wagons running around the Hoo Peninsula like oversized ants.

Call me a sceptic, but Mr Lawrence might have more support if a few of the businesses he claims to represent had bothered to speak out in favour of the opportunities.

And have you noticed how studiously the Prime Minister and his cohorts are avoiding taking any position over the plan.

Our real problem is the plan for a Lower Thames Crossing.

Costing somewhere between £1 and £4 billion, it will be built – the question is where.

My money would be on the costlier crossing at Higham rather than alongside the existing QEII crossing.

It would avoid increased pollution at Dartford. That is already at dangerous levels. Instead, it would bring them to Rochester.

For the politicians it is a massive challenge. If they say yes to either proposal they will be pilloried. If they say no, chaos will ensue.

They have to approve one of the plans.

But not until the elections are out of the way, Scotland may have separated from the disuniting kingdom, and at least two of the main party leaders face replacement. All of that comes in the next 12 months.

Become a politician? – you must be joking.

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The old bike's a bit rusty... and so am I

by The Codgers' Club Monday, July 21 2014

As she released the pressure round my upper arm and consulted the dial, the nurse looked concerned.

I was having one of those health checks your GP offers when you get close to your four-score and 10.

“It’s a bit high,” she said, referring to my blood pressure. Previously she had sucked a finger full of blood out of me for a cholesterol check. That was a bit high too. Not enough to worry about but higher than it should be.

My weight was also up on what the chart said was healthy. But my height seemed to have shrunk. I was only 5ft 7in, instead of the 5ft 8in I had always believed myself to be.

“Well I’m not going on those statins,” I told her.

“Exercise is the best way of dealing with it,” she said. “That and maintaining a healthy diet.”

Well I knew that already, but I thought I was exercising quite a bit already. After all I have allotments to dig, a boat that I am restoring, and until she died recently, a dog to walk.

Then I thought about it a bit. I only do the allotment on two days a week, and it might be a bit of gentle weeding rather than aerobic digging. And working on the boat didn’t always get me puffed out.

So I have dug the old bike out of the garage and pumped up the tyres. I’ve also bought a helmet for the ridiculous price of £30 but I am not going for Lycra. And the yellow jersey can wait.

I hadn’t ridden the old bike for years and both it and I are rusty. It’s a bit scary. Cycle tracks in this country are not worthy of the name and you are not even slightly protected from traffic. I might save myself from a heart attack, only to be knocked into the next world by a passing truck.

Bit by bit though, I am finding the routes where the cars are less likely to go. Sometimes there are pavements that are wide enough for bikes and pedestrians. Occasionally there are even exclusive cycle tracks, though these are few and far between.

When I was a boy I went everywhere on my bike. Everyone did. It never seemed like hard work. Your bike was just an extension of yourself. There were not many cars about in those days of course, so the roads were much safer.

But I have found cycling to be by far the best form of exercise. There is no way you would get me going to a gym, spending huge amounts of dosh to pound a treadmill, heave on a rowing machine or ride a bike that goes nowhere. Besides I hate the smell – all that stale sweat.

Exercise has to be meaningful. I can use my bike to go to the shops or visit people. Even if you just go for a bike ride at least you are seeing the countryside. It’s not just exercise for the sake of exercise.

I also have a rowing boat – a real one that actually floats. It needs a bit of doing up but I can’t wait to get that out on to the water. I know of no better exercise than rowing for tightening the tummy muscles.

The point is, we are constantly being told that increasing numbers of us are getting type-two diabetes caused by obesity from eating too much of the wrong things and not exercising enough.

Other deadly illnesses, such as heart disease, some cancers, and even dementia, are less likely to occur if we eat better and exercise more.

It’s not rocket science. If we eat better and exercise more, we are likely to stay healthier for longer.

No one can make you exercise. You have to do it for yourself. And only you can ensure that there is not too much sugar or fat in your diet.

The government or councils could help by providing more and better cycle tracks and other exercise facilities. But they probably won’t even though there is a good economic case for doing so. Think of all the money that will be saved on healthcare.

So it’s down to us as individuals. All I can say is, that if you want to stay healthy – on yer bike!

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Amid football fever do the war horrors hover

by The Codgers' Club Friday, June 20 2014

by David Jones

In the middle of the World Cup, the photographs of young men being led away to be executed, some wearing T-shirts bearing the names of their Manchester United footballing heroes, was a surreal but horrific sight even by Iraq’s usual yardstick of horrors.

Some observers estimate the number of surrendered Iraqi soldiers murdered by Sunni extremist fighters at around 1,700. It was an appalling massacre of war crime proportions.

The politics of Iraq are too complicated even to begin to explain.

Rival religious factions, tribal loyalties, corruption and poor planning following the US-led 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, are all in the melting pot as Iraq begins to disintegrate.

And so, as we enjoy the summer and contemplate England’s World Cup progress (or lack of it, depending on the result of yesterday’s game), will you be asking yourself: What’s all this got to do with us? Who cares?

The obvious answer is that a total takeover of Iraq by extreme fundamentalists will mean bad news for all Western countries as the horror is exported in our direction.

But there is another question I keep asking myself: How do the parents, wives, girlfriends, sisters of the 136 British soldiers killed in action in Iraq, plus the 315 wounded – some maimed for life – feel about what’s happening over there? Will they be bitter and angry, believing their loved ones died for nothing now that Iraq is falling apart?

Soldiers serving in war zones view things differently from their relatives at home. They have a job to do and they get on with it. The politics of it all don’t concern them.

And, oddly enough, they worry very little, if at all, about the danger. I should know – my son served in Iraq for six months.

Dread

“Dad, don’t worry about it,” he would say. “Statistically, the chances of being killed or injured are very small.”

He might not have worried about it, but we certainly did. It was probably the worst six months of our lives and we lived in dread of a knock at the door by someone in an Army uniform. But he came home in one piece and when he walked through the arrivals lounge at Stansted Airport it was as though a dark cloud hovering over us had been suddenly lifted.

If he had been killed, or maimed, how would we feel today? We would have been proud of him, of course, but the inescapable conclusion is that we would be tortured for the rest of our lives in the certainty that his, and so many other, lives had been wasted.

The British Army is now in the last stages of its withdrawal from that other long-running conflict, Afghanistan.

There, the British death toll – 453 – is much higher. The likelihood is that Afghanistan, too, will fall apart when coalition forces leave and 453 sets of relatives will be asking themselves the same questions.

The one overriding lesson to emerge from all the carnage is that attempts to impose Western-style democracy on countries which have no history of democracy will always be doomed to failure.

We have learned that lesson the hard way – in blood.

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The perfect pint - but only in a proper glass

by The Codgers' Club Monday, June 16 2014

by Alan Watkins

Joy, for most codgers, is supping a pint of ale.

It has to be the real stuff. None of the keggie-flague that killed off a number of breweries because it was so fizzy, tasteless, colourless and riskless. But it also has to be in the right container.

It’s no good having a straight-sided circle of glass, or worse still, a squared pint laden with three dimensional figureheads and multiple logos.

Slurpers of Moon Welcome, Nelson’s Armpit or Virginia Water Pale Ale need to drink from a true pint mug.

That means consuming beer from glasses with dimples. They show us the golden harvest colours, resurrect the image of the earth from which this lifesaver came, and magnify the perfections (or imperfections) of the nectar.

Some years ago, I remember, I had a lively discussion with Jonathan Neame. He’s the chief executive of Shepherd Neame, a Kent brewery that has been around at least since James I introduced whisky to his court.

Jonathan was enthusing about a new drinks container (he called it a glass but it was plastic so how could it be graced with such a title?) he was testing at a number of events.

The bottom of the container was designed to slot on to a tiny hose set in the bar which measured out half a litre of ale and not a drop more – or less.

His concern was the margin of profit that was lost – or the risk of prosecution that followed – the failure of the bar staff to pour precisely 500cc of ale into the glass.

He feared over-measure would lead to financial problems. If it was under-measure, the weights and measures men would materialise from behind the waiting kegs.

I tried a 500cc pint. As pressurised beer goes it was passable, but it was handled like a child’s drink, not a man’s.

These days the chances of being offered a dimpled glass at your local hostelry are rare. This is partly because of the lager glasses that have loutishly consigned the real ale glasses to the recycling bins.

There is also no longer a glassmaker in Britain who produces glasses with dimples and handles that you can grasp.

Personally, I thread my fingers between glass and handle and use my thumb to upend the liquid on a parched summer’s day.

Yet the dimpled pint is making a welcome return. A glassmaker in ... wait for it ... Turkey is producing the traditional British ale glass, complete with grasper, wide brim, aroma-dispensing, solid non-slippability. And all power to him.

Maybe that is why we see so many Turkish lorries on our motorways these days: saving the British pub from perfection-seeking potability.

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How the duchess deals with unwanted callers

by The Codgers' Club Friday, June 6 2014

by Peter Cook

Why does everyone think they should have first dibs into that much depleted pool that is our bank account?

Every day we seem to get calls from people telling us how we can save pots of money by handing large wedges over to them.

We can do this by sticking solar panels on our roof apparently, or by investing in a new boiler, or by taking out life insurance – which turns out to be death insurance – or by investing in some private health scheme, or by switching to a new energy supplier, changing our car insurance, home insurance, pet insurance and so on.

The other day I got a phone call on a crackling satellite link from India asking me to take part in a marketing survey. In a moment of weakness I agreed. I could hardly hear a word of what Jasmine – or whatever her name was – was saying and it seemed to go on forever.

Within minutes of putting the phone down I was being called by all sorts of people offering products and services if only we would hand over our bank account details and sign a direct debit form. Now charities are getting in on it. They all want that all important signature that gives them access to our bank account. We are not ungenerous. When Unicef or the Disasters Emergency Committee need money for Syrian refugees or tsunami victims, we are invariably there with our debit cards. We regularly contribute to other causes.

But I want to decide which charities I support, how much I should give them and how it should be paid. I do not want the emotional blackmail of being told that unless we sign a direct debit, millions will die or suffer a plague of frogs.

Apart from anything else, the amount of time these unsolicited callers take up is immense. If we agreed to talk to them all we would do nothing else. And why do they always call when there’s something vitally important you want to watch on the telly – like Celebrity Are You Being Ripped Off?

So we have now decided on a blanket ban on calls from anyone who might conceivably want to save us money by helping themselves to it via a direct debit.

My carer has a wonderful technique for this. She adopts the voice of a Lady Bracknell and tells these blood suckers: “This is the Dowager Duchess of Davington’s private residence. All calls should be forwarded to her London home. You’ll find the number in Debrett’s.”

What they make of that in call centre land I’ll never know.

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Con fiction of store policy on confectionery

by The Codgers' Club Friday, May 30 2014

by David Jones

As I’ve said before in this blog, it really makes my blood boil when I hear supermarkets trumpet that they’ve done something because “Our customers have told us” or “We’ve listened to their feedback”.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is rubbish. Most customers, unless they’ve got a complaint about the pack of sausages, or some other item they’ve just bought, don’t bother with anything as fruitless as feedback.

Most of the actions taken by supermarkets, except those required by law, are nothing more than a cynical exercise in sucking up to whatever happens to be the moral or politically correct flavour of the month.

This week it emerged that Tesco has decided to remove sweets and chocolates from around the tills at its Metro and Express stores because it wants “to help customers to lead healthier lives”.

The decision results from a fatuous survey in which the supermarket giant’s customers were asked whether removing confectionery from check-outs would help them make healthier choices.

And, surprise, surprise, two thirds said Yes. Loaded questions like this are puerile, a bit like asking customers in an off-licence if they think that drinking three bottles of whisky a day is likely to be harmful to their health.

We are told that larger Tesco stores stopped selling sweets at checkouts 20 years ago. Indeed they have. But this was just another exercise in cynicism.

I had reason to call into my local Tesco superstore over the weekend and while there I checked out the location of the sweets and chocolates. They were in an aisle, in a direct line to the checkouts but far enough away for little Johnny not to pester mum because sweets are at eye level right by the till.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. But just four paces away from the self-service check-outs were two large displays of sweets, chocolates and crisps. If Tesco is really serious about customers making healthier choices it should move sweets and chocolates to the far side of every store, and not just pay lip service to the idea.

I’ve been banging on about Tesco, but they are not the only culprits. Most of the large supermarket chains have sweets in close proximity to the till, but just far enough away for them to be able to claim the moral high ground.

Whatever they tell us, supermarkets are in business for themselves, not their customers. We should never forget that.

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A toll for non-Kentish drivers is good start

by The Codgers' Club Monday, May 26 2014

by Alan Watkins

It’s about time the men of Kent (and also the Kentish men) began campaigning for independence. After all, the hairy ones with the skirts north of Hadrian’s Wall look set to go their own way.

The Welsh (from whom it seems possible your scribe may be descended) are gabbling their own language, sliding steadily into financial instability, and have never accepted that after the defeat of Owen Glyndwr’s rebellion in the early 1400s they are subservient to London.

In the last year the Cornish have been given recognition. So why shouldn’t Kent?

Just think of the powers it would give us.

We could lift the tolls on the boundary gates (aka The QEII Bridge).

Instead, all non-Kentish residents would have to pay a toll to offset our taxes.

We would also have our own navy.

It would be charged with responsibility for collecting money from anywhere else we can screw a bit more cash.

Power would be handed over to the biggest city in the new kingdom, namely Medway.

I would insist that all truckers outside Kent bases should pay for the privilege of travelling across the Garden of .... well, of Kent, of course.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is constantly under siege for considering equality for women, getting too close to Rome, not giving sufficient recognition to African bishops and so forth.

He could now form a breakaway religion. It could be known as the Church of Kent, returning to its rightful place as the place where Christianity in the United Kingdom was first established.

After all, the only part of the United Kingdom (did I say ‘united’?) that seems incapable of seeking independence is England.

Kent was a kingdom in its own right long before England came together as one country, and started taking the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish under its protective wing.

So come on, you politicians, forget all this trivia about Europe.

Let’s have independence for Kent.

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Lost the plot with TV allotment show

by The Codgers' Club Friday, April 25 2014

by Peter Cook

You can’t get castor oil these days. They used to spoon it into you years ago to “get things moving”. I wanted some to dose my voles with – and that’s not a sentence you read every day.

The thing is, pesky little voles have been nibbling at my onion tops. They’ve also dug up and devoured my broad bean and pea seeds.

They are damnably cute these rodents, and I could never bring myself to put down poison or traps.

But my good friend Mr Internet tells me that a mixture of castor oil, washing up liquid, and water, with a dash of Tabasco, makes an excellent deterrent. Well it would deter me.

But could I find castor oil in the shops? Not a hope. Even the chemists no longer stock it. One tried to order some for me specially, but their supplier no longer stocks it.

So I went back to Mr Internet and he – or is it she? – is sending me a big bottle sometime next week.

So watch out Mr Vole. I have a trick or two up my sleeve for you – one that is in extremely bad taste.

Speaking of allotments, I cannot imagine that many true allotmenteers will have much time for The Big Allotment Challenge which has cropped up on BBC Two.

The last thing I would want is camera crews, people with obscure titles like “best boy” and “first grip” and eager beaver presenters crawling all over my plot.

Of course they might scare away the voles and the rabbits which would be some compensation. Most people I know who work allotments do so to escape the world of nonsense television. Down to earth means what it says.

And we’re not very good at being told what to grow, how to grow it or whether we have done a good job or not.

Anyone telling me my produce was woody would likely end up understanding the true meaning of the term “stuffed marrow”.

Those of us who have watched that other BBC offering W1A can imagine all too well the brainstorm meetings that preceded the decision to commission this extravaganza. A programme about that I would definitely watch.

The trouble with telly is that it tends to create celebrities. Can you imagine celebrity allotmenteers trudging up the red carpet in their holey trousers, faded cardigans and wellies?

It’s bad enough having to stomach Alan Titchmarsh.

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Political correctness is no laughing matter

by The Codgers' Club Tuesday, April 22 2014

by David Jones

I despair at the way this country is sliding into a pit of political correctness. Have we lost our national sense of humour? We used to be renowned for it. These days you can’t make a joke about anything, or even fire off a one-liner without being accused of perpetrating something dire by the thought police.

An incident in a supermarket, reported in one of the weekend papers, caught my eye.

It typifies what we are becoming – though thankfully not all of us.

A schoolteacher popped into the store to buy four cans of beer and some groceries. His 12-year-old daughter was with him.

At the check-out, he turned to his daughter and said:” That’s your beer sorted out.”

It’s just the kind of joke I might have made, in fact I think I might have already.

A female store worker demanded ID for the child and the store manager backed up the employee. The teacher left without his beer.

What is the world coming to? It should be obvious to even the most dim-witted store employee or manager that this was simply a harmless, off-the-cuff one-liner and that the cans of beer were not intended for a 12-year-old.

This was more than a simple sense of humour failure on the part of small-minded supermarket staff. They were so hidebound by rules and regulations they were unable to distinguish a joke from a real attempt to buy booze for a child.

Sadly, this wooden, heavy-handed approach can now be seen in many areas of our life.

Freedom of expression, the foundation stone of democracy, is being squeezed on all sides.

You can’t say what you think any more, even if you are stating a fact, without accusations of racism, homophobia or religious discrimination being thrown at you.

And to make a joke in public about any of these three… Well, you’d better watch out: the thought police may come knocking on your door.

My Codger colleague Peter Cook was taken to task by a letter writer for daring to say that the issue of gay marriage received publicity out of all proportion to its relevance to the majority. And so it did.

The BBC, for instance, went bananas with its coverage.

You would think that gay marriage affected every one of us in the land judging by the amount of airtime the Beeb threw at it.

In fact, it applies to a tiny percentage of the population. A classic case of the tale wagging the dog. This is a fact, and we should be free to say so.

It goes without saying that people should not be able to make unlawful or defamatory comments, especially about minority groups, but fair comment is a different matter entirely.

My fear is that the line between the two is becoming blurred and many of us, me included, are reluctant to express honestly held views in case we fall foul of those in authority who are just as small-minded as those supermarket staff.

It’s a dangerous road to go down if we value our freedoms.

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This magnificent folly in the woods has been opened to all at last

by The Codgers' Club Friday, April 11 2014

by Alan Watkins

Deep in the woods between Strood and Cobham stands a magnificent folly which – by all rights – should never have survived.

It annoyed the Dean of Rochester and so angered the bishop it was never used for the purpose for which it was conceived and built.

It was vandalised, gutted and (if the people responsible had had their way) might have been blown up.

Then a number of people said enough was enough – they believed the Darnley Mausoleum deserved to be saved for the community, history and the nation.

Last week their dream came true and it was finally opened to the public.

The floor has been rebuilt. Marble pillars lost when a massive tyre pyre burned the heart out of the two-storey building on Bonfire Night in 1980 have been restored. The original source in Italy could not provide the orange-red stone, so the National Trust got the final quarrying from a source in Spain.

According to rumours – and readers may know the truth – the original marble was removed after the fire and now graces several fireplaces in the Medway Towns. But that may be a part of the legend.

The mausoleum sits high on a hill in Cobham Woods, a short walk from Strood and also from Ranscombe Farm.

You need to know where it is to find it, walking from Medway. It is so easy to get lost in the overgrown woods and end up miles from the mausoleum.

The easiest way to approach it is from the war memorial in Cobham. Lucky drivers park next to the National Trust’s newest office, a converted barn overlooking the golf course and Cobham Hall. The unlucky park two miles away at Shorne Park – and pay.

Not like the second half of last century, when gangs would bring to the mausoleum cars, which, after being raced through the woods, would be set on fire and crashed into the dry moat or allowed to roll down the hillside until they set fire to the woods.

More than 100 wrecks were eventually removed by a charitable trust set up by Gravesham council and chaired by its former chief executive Eddie Anderson.

He was not there on Sunday morning when, without panoply or pomp, your scribe and his wife, by chance, were the first visitors to the restored structure.

We walked up with some of the volunteers who will now man the building each Sunday from noon to 4pm.

They will help visitors to understand the thinking, the expenditure and the value to north Kent of restoring the building.

Meanwhile, for my wife it was a long-dreamed-of visit with a special surprise on reaching the pyramidal-topped turret – she was invited by the chief warden of the park, Jonathan Ireland, to unlock the doors to the funerary chapel and become the first of what could be millions of future visitors.

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