“Frumpy” is Never a Good Look

There’s a wonderful scene in series 3 of ‘The West Wing’, when Sam Seaborn is meeting with a couple of Russian PR agents, to discuss terms for a meeting between President Bartlet and the Russian President. One of the Russians stipulates that when the two men meet, at a forthcoming event in Helsinki, President Bartlet must wear a coat.  Sam, puzzled at the request, asks why – prompting the following exchange:

Ivanovich: Sam, it is freezing too cold in Reykjavik, it is freezing too cold in Helsinki, it is freezing too cold in Gstaad – why must every American president bound out of an automobile like he’s at a yacht club, while in comparison… our leader looks like… I don’t even know what word is.

Sam: Frumpy?

Ivanovich: I don’t know what “frumpy” is, but onomatopoeically, sounds right.

Sam: It’s hard not to like a guy who doesn’t know “frumpy” but knows “onomatopoeia”. I’ll talk to the President about the coat.

I thought of this scene recently when I saw the picture of Jennifer Lawrence looking fabulous sandwiched between her four horrendously frumpy-looking co-stars at a photo shoot for the film ‘Red Sparrow’.

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And I also remembered numerous conversations with female co-workers, prior to my first office Christmas party, in London, aged 23. We were all disappointed that the invitations did not stipulate “Black tie” and instead simply “Dress to party”. We were all desperate to dress up in one of the many stunning ballgowns and party dresses displayed in all the shop windows ahead of the party season, but it was clear from talking to our male colleagues that many of them intended to go straight to the party in their office suits – some of them even intended to wear chinos – and we were worried about looking overdressed. Not to mention we all secretly wanted to see how the men would scrub up in black tie.

In the end, a group of us girls agreed that regardless of what everyone else was planning to wear, we were all going to make the most of the opportunity to dress up. And dress up we did. Thankfully, some of the men had decided likewise, and turned up in tuxedoes, putting their colleagues in chinos and crumpled office suits to shame.

It didn’t take many years for the joy of dressing up to fade – the sad truth is that no matter how fabulous a dress looks, it never looks good with flat shoes, and I simply can’t get on with high heels, so these days smart trousers, flat shoes and a sparkly top are about the extent of my efforts in the dressing-up department. But when I look back at the photos of that Christmas party, I still recall the exclamations over each other’s dresses, the sheer joy at how well we all scrubbed up, and above all, the excitement that we were going to an event that merited such attire.

We may sometimes forget it, because she’s been on our screens for so long, but Jennifer Lawrence is still only 27. Still young enough to thoroughly enjoy dressing up – and to want to take advantage of every opportunity she gets to do so.   Still young enough to look absolutely fabulous in a plunging, slit-to-the-thigh Versace ballgown.

Her co-stars, meanwhile, look dreadful. Did nobody tell them this was a party and that they might get their picture taken?   Or did they simply shrug and say, “Meh, I’m a star, I can wear what I like and I don’t care how scruffy I look”?

Not for the first time, I find myself completely at odds with the Twitterati feminarkies screeching about how Ms Lawrence’s attire is a depressing symbol of the patriarchy at work. Feminism is not, nor should it ever be, a race to the bottom, a battle to adopt all of the worst habits of men – in this case, a battle for a female star to look just as scruffy as her male co-stars.

In the PR stakes, Ms Lawrence won that photo-shoot hands-down. Feminists, rather than berating her for choosing not to cover up a fabulous dress with a heavy coat, should be celebrating the fact that she put all four of her male co-stars in the shade.  ‘The West Wing’ may have ended in 2006 but the majority of its political and social themes are as relevant today as they were then – none more so than this one: “frumpy” is never a good look.

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OFOC! WATON earth is this new nonsense?

Remember when letters after a person’s name used to be considered a marker of learning and gravitas? Years of hard work, dedication and effort culminating in a doctorate, or a degree, and the right to add the letters ‘MD’, ‘PhD’, ‘LLB’, ‘BA’, ‘BSc’ or other relevant title to one’s name?

And then along came social media, hashtags, and Brexit – and suddenly a whole host of people on Twitter are adding the letters #FBPE, #WATON, #OFOC and #ABTV to their names or Twitter bios.

Sadly, these letters do not indicate learning, or gravitas – in fact, in many cases, they indicate quite the opposite. Above all else, they are an indication of steadfast devotion to maintaining the walls of one’s echo chamber.   And an almost comical belief that as long as that echo chamber remains sound – as long as the only opinions one listens to on a regular basis are those that agree that Brexit must be stopped at all cost – then eventually it will, indeed, be stopped.

It started with #FBPE – which, to the uninitiated, stands for “Follow Back Pro EU”. A very simple hashtag enabling pro-EU Twitter users to easily identify – and, crucially, follow – each other, ensuring that they can all see each other’s tweets and easily engage with like-minded individuals.

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And boy, did it catch on! Pity the fool who tries to engage in polite disagreement with any opinion espoused by a user sporting #FBPE in their name. As I have discovered on a couple of occasions when I just couldn’t help myself – it’s simply impossible to have a conversation with just one individual. Oh no! Like sharks circling in the water, they feverishly monitor each other’s Twitter feeds, constantly on the lookout for anybody foolish enough to question any anti-Brexit tweet – and as soon as you attempt to engage one of them, they all pile in.    Before you know it, an attempt to explain that the word “let’s” on the infamous Brexit bus was interpreted by most Leave voters as a suggestion rather than a promise, sparks a 6-way debate about Nigel Farage, Grimsby fish processing, visas, blue passport covers, trade agreements and Moroccan raspberries (yes, really). Until finally, once you’ve rebuffed all their arguments, they either block you or accuse you of being a Russian bot.   If you’re ever bored and fancy wasting a day arguing with people on Twitter, just fire off a tweet contradicting any one of the more outlandish tweets posted by the #FBPE contingent.

It gets worse, though. Spurred on by the success of the #FBPE rallying-call, now it seems a whole host of further hashtags are being concocted, and commandeered by Twitter users desperate to add as many letters after their names as they possibly can.

And so we now also see #WATON appearing after increasing numbers of Twitter users’ names. Short for “We are the opposition now” it is perhaps not the best choice of acronym, given many of those who choose to use it are also rabid Corbyn supporters and have thus never been anything except the opposition. Maybe a better acronym would be #WWABTO (We will always be the opposition). After all, far better to shout from the sidelines than to actually attempt to move the debate forward.

Next, there is #OFOC (“Our future our choice”) – the latest attempt by certain members of the younger generation to convince the government that they, as the ones who will have to live with Brexit the longest, should have a greater say in the future of the country than the older generation who overwhelmingly voted for Brexit. After all, the argument goes, many of those who voted for Brexit will be dead in two years’ time whereas at that stage a number of 16-17 year-olds will be newly eligible to vote and would likely vote Remain, swinging the overall balance of the vote from Leave to Remain.

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Sadly these young voters are not so bright – ignoring, as they do, two key facts.

Firstly, the age at which the majority swung from Remain to Leave was actually 47, meaning given current average life expectancies, many Leave voters can expect to live with their decision for around 40 years.

And secondly, just as in two years’ time some of the older voters will have died and those currently too young to vote will have newly become eligible, so those in the middle will have matured. It is naïve in the extreme not to consider the fact that many of those who, in their early 40s and still in the flush of youthful optimism at the time of the first referendum, will, in two years’ time, have discovered that crucial combination of experience, optimism and “screw it!” attitude that will convince them to vote Leave.  ‘#OFOC!’ I hear the students exclaim. ‘We didn’t think of that!’

Finally, there’s #ABTV – which stands for Anti-Brexit Tactical Voting.   This is for anybody who still believes Gina Miller holds the answer to stopping Brexit – her “Best for Britain” campaign, launched prior to the 2017 general election, encouraged supporters to vote tactically for candidates committed to stopping Brexit. Bizarrely, despite their best efforts in the general election having made no difference to the overall course of Brexit negotiations, it seems the #ABTV devotees believe that voting exclusively for pro-EU parties in the May 2018 local elections will somehow swing the balance of power in their favour. The fact that they are electing local councilors, who have no more influence in Parliament than any other member of the public, appears not to have penetrated their collective consciousness. Possibly because they’re too busy engaging in Twitter pile-ons against those who don’t share their ideology, while frantically retweeting each other’s posts.

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If you’re a true devotee to the cause of stopping Brexit, you will, of course, add all four hashtags to your name.   The delightfully loony AC Grayling providing the perfect example. After all, why would he want to be known by his academic qualifications when he can be down with the cool kids instead?

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It does get a little complicated after a while, though, what with all those different hashtags after one’s name. Maybe it’s time for them all to be consolidated into one simple hashtag that more accurately sums up the overall position of these anti-Brexit campaigners. I suggest #ADSL – or Anti-Democratic Sore Losers. Just like its broadband namesake, which so rarely lives up to the speeds advertised and is now finding itself outperformed by fibre, #ADSL perfectly encapsulates the ethos of a group of people desperate to cling to an outdated idea of the EU as the ultimate solution to global trade, world peace and social equality, and unable to see it for the protectionist, obstructionist monster that it has become.   Just like those reliant on ADSL broadband, who discover that advertised speeds only apply to those living closest to the exchange, the benefits of EU membership accrue only to those closest to the corridors of power. The sooner the #ADSL devotees realise this, the better.


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On Closet Brexiteer Artists

Roger Daltry

Roger Daltry – photo from thetimes.co.uk

Great news for Brexit voters today, with the announcement that a small number of “Brexiteer artists” have “come out of the closet” and openly voiced their support for Brexit. They have even gone so far as to form a group, Artists 4 Brexit, in the hopes that other closet Brexiteer artists will realise they are not alone among their profession in thinking that the UK would, on balance, be better of outside the EU – and that, should they wish to out themselves and openly voice their support for Brexit, they will have the support of at least a few other artists.

Really, I should be cheering at the news that this small, persecuted minority has finally found its voice. But I couldn’t help feeling really rather sad at the formation of yet another group specifically devoted to dividing people into camps. Whether it’s “the 48%”, “the 52%”, “Scientists for EU”, “Students for Brexit”, “Artists 4 Brexit”, #FBPE or any number of other groups or hashtags set up specifically to allow people to identify those who voted the same way they did, all it does is further entrench the existing divisions between leave and remain voters.

Maybe I’m alone in remembering the outrage when, just a few days into the referendum campaign, the Remain campaign organised for around 200 business leaders to sign a letter publicly backing Remain.   It was pointed out, quite rightly, by some commentators that this felt like undue influence – the whole point of the referendum, after all, was for each individual voter to have the same level of input into the vote; a simple matter of one vote per registered voter.   For senior business leaders to publicly announce which way they intended to vote, so early on in the campaign before any proper arguments had been made by either side, was felt by many to run counter to the spirit of democracy that the referendum was supposed to uphold.

The outrage, of course, was soon swept aside as further public figures jumped on the bandwagon and announced which way they intended to vote – from entrepreneurs to economists, to world leaders, to UK politicians, to actors, adventurers, filmmakers, comedians and sportspeople – suddenly we were inundated with headlines and articles letting us know exactly what each of these people thought.   And the vast majority of those who spoke up publicly were backing Remain.

As far as the Remain team’s social media campaign was concerned, this was a gift. Dozens of different memes started to circulate, all of which essentially carried the same message. “Everybody who’s anybody is backing Remain; only losers and racists are backing Leave”.  A couple of examples are shown below.

Table showing prominent leave and remain supporters

Facebook meme - people supporting Brexit

And so the different camps started to form. And the message became even more entrenched – if you were an actor, or an environmentalist, or a scientist, or an historian, or a banker, or a business owner, of course you were expected to vote Remain, because a number of prominent people from the same background as you had already declared that they would be voting Remain.

The problem, of course, was that there were plenty of bankers, and actors, and environmentalists, and scientists, and business owners, and historians, and farmers and fishermen and students and housewives and men and women from all different walks of life who had their own ideas about which way they wanted to vote. They didn’t necessarily define themselves by their careers – they didn’t look to their managers or their heroes to determine which way to vote. They simply listened to the arguments made by both sides, and voted either Leave or Remain. And they voted the way they did for myriad different reasons.

The notion of people who voted Leave having different reasons for doing so, is, sadly, lost on the more bitter element of the Remain camp. The problem is, that having gone so far down the route of identity politics with the arguments that everybody who is good is voting Remain, and everybody who is evil is voting Brexit, it becomes impossible to entertain the thought that not all Brexiteers think alike (and neither do all Remainers). Hence the arguments that “if you voted for Brexit you were aligning yourself with racists like Farage and the British National Party” or “Not all Brexiteers are racists but all racists voted for Brexit”.

These arguments – as ridiculous as they are – sadly still get trotted out. Ironically, often by people who, in doing so, betray their ignorance of the concept of “one person one vote” and their complete lack of understanding of the arguments for and against the EU. The below tweet, posted just a couple of days ago, being a case in point.

FPBE Tweet

The whole point of democracy – of each person having one vote – is that when it comes to actually voting, the individual groups that may form for campaigning purposes, fall away.  A person who has heard ten arguments in favour of one outcome and ten in favour of the opposite will often make his or her decision based purely on the one or two arguments that most resonated for them personally – the other arguments will simply be ignored.   If two people end up voting for the same outcome, there is no guarantee that they did so based on the same arguments or reasoning.

But the idea of voting against your preferred outcome, simply because a person you despise has made it clear he or she intends to vote for that outcome, is just ridiculous.  Just as it’s ridiculous to change your vote just because somebody you dislike has made it clear they are voting for the same outcome but for a reason of which you disapprove.

Which brings me back to Artists 4 Brexit. As happy as I am to hear a few brave souls speaking out, I hate the fact that the term “coming out of the closet” is being used in this context.

Nobody should feel that they are “in the closet” due to the way they voted in the EU referendum. The notion that every person who voted for Brexit, is either a racist or doesn’t mind aligning themselves with racists, must be challenged whenever it raises its ugly head.

Because Brexit is happening. There is no longer any “for Brexit” or “for EU”. There is only “for the future”. Isn’t it time we all started to focus on that?

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What’s “work”, anyway?

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“Are you working?”

A blunt question from an ex work colleague, in the course of a friendly text message exchange. A surprisingly difficult question to answer.

In the end I took the easy way out, simply answering, “No, not at the moment”. Though, of course, that leaves too many unanswered questions – Have you been looking? Can’t you find anything? Are you just being lazy? What’s the problem? So I hastened to add, “To be honest I haven’t really been looking that hard; been too busy getting stuff done on the house”

Which is the truth. But it’s also only part of the story. And to dig further into that story would reveal that my original answer was, strictly speaking, a lie. The sort of lie we end up telling when we take the relatively easy route of answering the question that we know was intended, rather than giving the more complicated answer to the one that was actually asked.

Because of course I’m working. In some ways I’m working harder than I have done in years. It’s just that none of it is paid work. None of it comes with a handy job title, or a pithy LinkedIn headline.

A few months back, in a momentary act of bravery and frustration, I updated my LinkedIn headline. For years, I had been “Director, White Magnolia Limited” – but having recently shut down the limited company that I’d been using to manage my IT contracting work, I felt compelled to change it. LinkedIn, frustratingly, can cope with a person not having a current job title, but insists on every user providing a headline – a brief summary of who you are and / or what you do.

Fair enough, I thought, as I updated my headline to read “Property developer, news-and-politics junkie, blogger-in-chief at ilikewords.blog”. It was the closest I’ve come in recent months to defining what it is I actually do with my time – and for a moment I was perfectly happy with it.

But then I applied for an IT role with a local retailer, and, worried that they may decide to check my social media profiles before deciding whether to invite me for an interview, hastily changed it to the more business-friendly “Independent IT professional”.   Which is how it remains – though sadly I didn’t get an interview, and I never will know if the retailer had looked at my profile.

I’ve always hated the societal expectation that one should pick a career early on and stick to it for the rest of one’s working life. From asking young children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to secondary school students encouraged to think about what career they wish to follow and to pick subjects that will aid in their pursuit of that career, to jobs that force people into increasingly complex specialities, to the inevitable “What do you do?” at social occasions –  we are constantly forced to define ourselves in increasingly narrow terms.

I left school with no clear idea as to what I wanted to do with my life – in the end deciding to hedge my bets with a generic business degree in finance, IT and economics. In 20 years of working in London I changed jobs constantly, trying desperately to avoid being pigeon-holed into one area – and yet still managed to end up with a CV that is so specialised around interest rate and credit derivatives, and the IT systems and regulations that support them, that I sometimes joke I’m pretty much unemployable anywhere outside the City of London.

All of which means I’m having to be very creative about what I do now that I’m living in the Lake District. Updating my CV to try to focus more on my generic business analysis / project management skills – and updating my job search parameters accordingly – has been a start. But a large part of me doesn’t actually want a regular job.

Throughout twenty years of working for large investment banks, I never became accustomed to the 9-to-5. I hated the daily rush hour commute, hated being sat at a desk for upwards of 8 hours a day, hated the office politics, hated the constant fluctuations in workload which meant that some weeks I would be working 12-hour days and lying awake at night unable to stop thinking about work, while other weeks I would spend the entire day watching the clock and trying to look busy.

I can’t help noting the irony of those days when I literally did nothing productive all day – but got paid regardless – compared to days in recent months where I could work all day on managing the probate for my late uncle’s estate, or clearing out his house, with endless runs back and forth to the recycling centre, or taming the overgrown garden, or painting, or tiling, or getting building quotes, or researching and writing a blog post, or pitching articles to publications in the hopes that someday, someone will pay me for writing – and go to bed exhausted in the evening from what has felt like a full and satisfying day’s work, but for which I have ultimately been paid nothing.

So yes, I’m working. It doesn’t always feel like work – because it’s new, and exciting, and challenging, and frustrating all at once. But if I can only figure out a way to make it pay, it could turn out to be my ideal job.




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A tale as old as time

Kiss and Tell2

The kiss-and-tell used to be the preserve of young women prepared to accept money and notoriety in exchange for a shot at fame and fortune. An illicit affair with a married celebrity, confessed to a tabloid, would bring disgrace to the celebrity and, if she played it right, could even launch a media career for the girl (I’m looking at you, Rebecca Loos).

But to those of us who live in the real world, it was always considered poor form to kiss and tell. In the eighties, when I was a teenager and beginning to navigate the perilous seas of sexual attraction and dating, it was always impressed on us girls that a boy who would brag to his mates about what we’d got up to, wasn’t worth bothering with – and equally, that it wasn’t very ladylike to give chapter-and-verse to our friends.   No matter how much you wanted to know all the details of each other’s sex lives, it simply wasn’t polite to talk about it in any level of detail.

I went to a convent school where sex education was almost non-existent – we learned about reproduction in biology class, while religious education drummed into us the notion that if we couldn’t save ourselves for marriage, we should at least save ourselves for somebody special – if we wished to be treated with respect then under absolutely no circumstances were we to give it up on the first date.

And then along came “Sex and the City” – and not only did we get to hear about what Carrie and her friends got up to, we also got to see it.   At 26 when the show first came out, I was just a few years younger than the girls were supposed to be – and was fascinated and awed by their confidence and, let’s face it, promiscuity.

“Sex and the City” presented the viewer with a world in which young women were strong, confident and just as interested in sex as men – and, in the case of Samantha, as keen to have as much of it as possible, with as many different men as possible.

Fast-forward another twenty years, via changes in police procedure to suggest that all allegations of sexual assault must by default be believed, to laws that protect the anonymity of the accuser but not the accused, to the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo movement, and we now find ourselves at the point where a woman can tell her story of a bad sexual encounter with a male celebrity, in complete anonymity – ruining his career while risking nothing herself.

The account “Grace” tells of her “worst night of my life” date with Aziz Ansari reveals him to be a randy, persistent sex pest who thinks that when a woman says she’s not into something, she’s really just playing hard to get, and that he just has to keep trying until she changes her mind. But it also reveals Grace to be at best naïve, at worst vindictive in her decision to publicly recount the details of their encounter. She tells how, having met Aziz at an awards ceremony (she approached him) they exchanged phone numbers and subsequently exchanged flirtatious text messages before he asked her out on a date, after which she went back to his apartment, where she consented to giving and receiving oral sex, but then decided she didn’t want to go any further, and got upset when he kept pushing her to let him have sex with her, eventually leaving after various efforts to get him to take things more slowly fell on deaf ears (and roving hands).   Ultimately, her account shows that she wanted the date to continue – but only on her terms.

And this is where it seems that nothing has changed in the 30 years since I was at school. No matter what “Sex and the City” would have us believe, and no matter how much women may think they have gained in terms of sexual freedom, a man who pesters you for sex on the first date is not looking for a relationship – and it’s simply poor form to consent to a really rather intimate level of sexual activity and then decide to tell all to the press when it becomes clear that the only reason he wants to be with you is for sex.

Before #MeToo, I suspect this story would never have been told – at least not outside Grace’s private circle of friends. Which is where it should have remained. Sex and relationships are a minefield which only become mildly easier to navigate with experience – experience that, unless one is lucky enough to marry one’s first sexual partner, invariably ends up including at least one or two encounters along the way that leave one feeling at least a little dirty and degraded.

Because here’s the thing that “Sex and the City” doesn’t tell you – sex with strangers, or sex after a first date, is almost always rubbish. Grace may have felt that she knew Aziz because she’d seen him on television, met him at an awards ceremony and spent an evening in his company, but ultimately, he was a stranger.   A fact that presumably became mortifyingly clear to her when she found herself naked in front of him, with his head in her crotch – and hers in his.   She realised, too late, that in order to be enjoyable, oral sex requires a level of emotional intimacy – and trust – that simply were not yet present. At which stage she decided she didn’t want to go any further, but was clearly too embarrassed to make a swift exit, so tried to prolong the evening on her own terms. Only when it became clear that Aziz really wasn’t interested in anything other than sex, did she finally leave.

I do not mean to sound too critical – she was only 22 at the time, and her confession that she’d hoped once she told him she wasn’t into having sex with him, he might “rub her back or play with her hair” betrays not only her immaturity but her clear wish that by agreeing to oral sex, she may convince him to view her as a potential girlfriend. A fallacy as old as time.

Ultimately, I doubt that publicly shaming him and probably ending his career will make Grace feel any better about the experience. Given she’s remained anonymous, unless she learns to chalk it up to experience and ensure she doesn’t make the same mistake again, she invariably will.   Only next time, it will probably be with somebody who isn’t famous – at which stage she’ll find nobody actually cares about how crap her date was.

Because while it may feel, at the moment, as though we are going through a revolution in sexual etiquette, in which women will no longer tolerate men who make clumsy passes, or pester them for sex, or are simply crap in bed – the reality is that outside of Hollywood and Westminster, the rules of dating will never change.

If you want him to respect you, don’t, under any circumstances, give it up on the first date (and yes, girls, that does include oral).

If he’s pestering you to do so, he’s not worth bothering with.

And if you wish to keep your dignity, don’t kiss and tell.



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Rape as destiny. The ultimate apologists’ excuse for child abuse

Remember a few weeks ago, when Matt Damon got himself into all sorts of trouble for being brave / naïve / insensitive enough to suggest that despite the huge response to the #MeToo campaign, and the appalling allegations against Harvey Weinstein, in actual fact, most men are decent and respectful, and would never dream of harassing or abusing women?

And remember how he then went on to say that actually, if it hadn’t been for Harvey Weinstein, most of those actresses would have been raped or abused at some point anyway?

No? You don’t remember that second part? Of course not – because he didn’t say it. If he had done, it would have been front page news on every news site for days – and Damon’s career would be over. He would be ostracized from polite society, consigned to the scrapheap of history, any future movie contracts cancelled outright.

So if it never happened, you ask, why did I suggest that it did?

Well, it turns out Lily Allen, on Twitter, has just said pretty much exactly that, about the teenage victims of grooming gangs in Rochdale.


Lily Allen tweetAnd while those on Twitter who saw the tweet are rightly fuming, it seems the media have chosen not to mention it, instead simply reporting on tweets she posted earlier in the day in which she suggested that football should be banned in order to stop child abuse.

Lily, you see, just loves to throw out hyperbolic suggestions on Twitter in order to make a point about the way some people blame the entire Muslim community for the actions of a small minority. She recently got herself embroiled in a Twitter storm over a series of tweets in which she substituted the word “pensioners” for “Muslims”, tweeting “I don’t hate all pensioners, just the extremist ones. Can’t you see this country is being taken over by hate [sic] extremist pensioners”

So her suggestion that football should be banned to prevent child abuse, was in response to those who suggest that the problem of girls being groomed by (mostly) Pakistani Muslim grooming gangs could be resolved by halting immigration from Muslim-majority countries.

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And while I have a great deal of sympathy for her constant efforts to call out prejudice where she sees it, her tweet, with its suggestion that some girls are just destined to be raped, inadvertently cut to the heart of the reason why grooming gangs were allowed to operate for so long before any prosecutions were brought. Because in the eyes of the police, social services, and the public prosecutors, the problem wasn’t the gangs – it was the girls themselves. Their vulnerability, their often difficult family backgrounds, rather than prompting those in authority to offer them protection, instead caused them to turn their backs. The police and the public prosecutor were reluctant to prosecute the gangs because they felt that the girls would not be seen as credible witnesses.

What’s really unacceptable, though, is that these attitudes still prevail. If you’re an actress, or a musician, or a journalist, or a political activist, and you have a story to tell about Harvey Weinstein, or another Hollywood personality, or a politician, who at any time made an unwanted advance towards you – the media will be clamouring over each other to be the first to tell your story. But if you’re a working-class girl from a relatively poor part of the country, not only does nobody want to know, but you can expect to be lectured to by celebrities such as Lily Allen, who feel that their privileged upbringing makes them perfectly suited to talking about an issue they have no chance of ever understanding.

Rape as destiny. You really couldn’t come up with a more appalling excuse for refusing to discuss child abuse, or allowing it to continue.  Lily, you should be ashamed of yourself.

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A Grease-y New Year

Look at me I'm Sandra Dee

Elvis! Elvis! Let me be! Keep that pelvis far from me!

Some years – well, let’s be honest, most years – I just can’t be bothered with all the fuss of New Year’s Eve.

I can count on one hand the number of truly memorable and enjoyable New Year’s Eve celebrations I have experienced over the years – every one of which has been made special by being in the company of good friends, rather than by being in a cool club or at some fantastic overpriced party.

This year, faced with the choice between spending the evening in a noisy bar in Kendal, with a group of people I’ve only recently met, or at my mum’s place in front of the television with a bottle of champagne, I chose the latter.

And while we waited for the New Year to arrive, and the fireworks to begin, we watched Grease on Sky. With silly grins on our faces the entire way through.

Because let’s face it – right from the opening credits to the closing ones, it’s a sheer joy to watch. And 39 years on from its original release, its themes and characters are as relatable as ever.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched Grease over the years, but last night, as ever, I was struck by how, each time I watch it, my perspective on it changes – either picking up on some small plot nuance that I had previously missed, or finding myself relating differently to the various characters and subplots.

When I first saw the film, aged 6, I had a crush on John Travolta, dreamed of growing up to be as pretty as Olivia Newton-John, and simply loved the songs. Apart from the romance between Danny and Sandy, much of the subplot went right over my head – I used to sing “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee, lousy with aginity” because that’s what it sounded like Rizzo was singing. I didn’t really understand why Rizzo was making fun of Sandy – I just thought she was mean. And I certainly didn’t get all the innuendos in “Summer Nights” – or the obvious discrepancies between Sandy’s and Danny’s versions of events, with Danny painting a story of sexual conquest for his friends’ benefit, while Sandy talks dreamily of how they held hands, and how “sweet” Danny was.

Watching it again last night, though, for the first time I found myself properly listening to the words of “Beauty School Dropout” – the one song in the movie which, for whatever reason, I had never previously liked. As a child, watching the film over and over on video, I would always fast-forward through the entire scene; I found Frankie Avalon’s over-made-up face creepy, the song downbeat and the stark whiteness of the set and costumes incredibly dull in contrast to the bright costumes and upbeat tunes of the rest of the movie.

But in the modern age of TV talent shows which encourage people to pursue unrealistic dreams of stardom, and stories of schools refusing to announce winners and losers in sports events, I found myself cheering on Avalon’s brutally honest angel, who encourages Frenchy to admit that her dream of being a beautician is fruitless.

With lines such as, “you’ve got the dream but not the drive” – and, just to really drive the point home, “no customer would go to you unless she was a hooker”, he certainly doesn’t pull any punches.

“Bravo!” I wanted to shout.   The underlying message of the entire song – “You tried, you failed, move on” – is one that we all occasionally need reminding of. Frenchy’s dream of being a beautician may have come to nothing – but at least she gave it a go, realised it was not for her and is now free to think about alternatives.

But it was Rizzo who really stole my heart this time round.  I’ve always loved her performance of “Look at me I’m Sandra Dee”, even when I was too young to know what she was singing about, but it’s the song “There are worse things I could do” in which we truly see her soul laid bare.

Aged 6, I thought Rizzo was mean – and a little scary. Aged 16, I thought she was a slut – still a bit mean, and still a little scary. By my mid-20s I started to warm to her, and could see how her bravado covered up insecurities, though still didn’t find her particularly relatable.  But last night, for the first time, listening to her sing about how the worst thing she could do would be to cry in front of Kenickie, I found myself genuinely liking her – and wishing I’d had just a tiny bit of her “screw you” attitude when I’d been in high school.

Because the overall magic of Grease is that it so effortlessly captures the highs, lows and insecurities of teenage life – first love, first heartbreak, peer pressure, fears of being a misfit, at times ostracised, made fun of, trying on different personalities, not knowing which direction our lives are going to take, and often too afraid to just go out and grab what we want. And the joy of watching it again as an adult, years after leaving high school, is realising how lucky we are never to have to relive that particular period of our lives. Instead we can simply sit back with a wry smile as we watch Danny, Sandy, Rizzo, Kennickie and the rest of the Pink Ladies and T-Birds relive it for us, while we sing along to the truly splendiferous soundtrack.



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It’s skiing, Jim, but not as we know it

Raise ski tow

When you mention a ski lift, most people imagine one that starts at a roadside, or just above a car park, that whisks skiers up the mountain.   A lift that provides access to a piste – or even two or three – and in most cases, to other lifts, and other pistes.

If you asked any skier to recount the best ski run or ski experience of their life, it would invariably involve either rhythmically linked turns down a perfectly groomed corduroy piste, or bouncing through soft fluffy powder off-piste, or tackling a challenging bump run, or some other variation on those themes.

If you wish to turn the entire skiing experience on its head, however, I invite you to come skiing in the English Lake District, where the air is soft and the skiers are hard mountain men and women who think nothing of strapping skis and boots to their rucksacks to hike uphill for an hour (or longer, for the less fit) to reach the bottom of the single button lift on Raise (part of the Helvellyn range).

What is the reward for this effort? – you may ask. Well, it’s certainly not the skiing. Or at least, not if you’re expecting the sort of skiing you may have become accustomed to in the resorts of Europe, or North America, or Japan, or New Zealand.

Firstly, there are no groomed pistes.   The Lake District Ski Club’s website boasts “up to nine runs available, depending on prevailing conditions” – but whereas the website does show a piste map, with nine marked routes, the reality on the hill is that the “pistes” are simply different suggested routes which span out either side of the lift – there are no markers of any kind, and no grooming whatsoever, so apart from the fence separating the main run, “Presidents” from its neighbor, “Presidents West”, it is only the terrain that provides any kind of boundary between one run and another.   Essentially, if you can see it, you can ski it – providing, of course, that you avoid any rocks, unfilled gullies, or other natural pitfalls.

Secondly, there’s the snow itself. Or at least, the quantity thereof. Skiers accustomed to early-season skiing on piste depths of at least 50cm, will find the experience of skiing on depths of around 20cm, over large tufts of grass, rather disconcerting to say the least.   Heading off from the top of the tow and finding yourself slap bang in the middle of what resembles a mogul field, due to the proliferation of large tufts of snow-covered grass interspersed with rutlines from skiers all having taken the same line down, is not for the fainthearted. If you consider yourself an experienced skier and wish to feel like a complete beginner again, come to the Lake District.   As one other skier commented to me – “It’s alright in a straight line; it’s turning that’s the problem”.

And then there’s the tow itself. It’s a regular button lift exactly like one would find in the Alps – but due to the fact that it only opens on days when the conditions are favourable, and is entirely manned by volunteers, it doesn’t enjoy the type of regular maintenance that those in the Alps do. There’s none of this business of waiting at the bottom for a button to be released from the line of waiting ones, at a lovely low level that is easily placed between one’s legs as it gets moving

button lift

none of this

No, it’s a case of looking over your shoulder to catch the button as it swings round, at shoulder height, and then try to pull it down sufficiently far to get it between your legs, and then try to keep it between your legs the whole way up the steep slope, and not allow yourself to be lifted into the air in the process, nor allow your left ski to slide away downhill as you find yourself being pulled uphill at an uncomfortable angle.  Tall blokes clearly have no trouble – at 5’4” I found it a fairly uncomfortable experience, which may account for why there were no short skiers on the slopes.

My first attempt at catching one of the buttons very nearly ended up with me being dragged up the hill by my arms, before I was brought to my senses by the lift operator shouting “Leave it!” and beckoning me to stand further back to catch the next one.  With no clearly marked point at which to stand to catch the tow, I’d been stood too far forward.

clinging on to poma by arms

this was very nearly me

Oh, and finally, when you get to the top of the lift, there’s no lovely smooth platform on which to dismount, or a sign indicating whether to turn left or right – no, there’s simply a sign saying “Danger – dismount” and you do exactly that – in whichever direction you please.

And then you clock the view. And suddenly you realise – if you hadn’t already – what the reward is for all this effort.

Raise view

Because the reality is that skiing in the Lake District is not really about skiing. It’s about spending a day out in the hills, in spectacular surroundings, with a bit of skiing thrown in for extra entertainment. And if, like me, you’re used to skiing in big, well-run resorts staffed by hundreds, it’s about challenging yourself to get out of your comfort zone and try something completely different.   And spending time with people who just love being in the hills, and making the best of the limited opportunities for skiing that we get in our own incredible country.

This was my first ever experience of skiing in the Lake District. It absolutely will not be my last.





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Due Diligence Lite – a recipe for disaster

Screen Shot 2017-12-14 at 20.55.34

What does it take to get a £120,000 per annum job as a managing director of an engineering company? Not much, it seems – simply submit a fictitious CV claiming to have a number of degrees you don’t have, and the job’s yours.

Or at least, that’s all it seems to have taken in the case of David Scott, who was jailed recently for 12 months for lying on his CV in order to gain the position of managing director of Mech-Tool, an engineering company whose website claims that they are the “leading global supplier” of heat and blast-protective equipment used within the oil and gas, nuclear, renewable energy, chemical and petrochemical industries.

The company has been in existence since 1969, and their most recent financial statements show an annual turnover of around £27.5 million. With around 200 employees, it is still small enough, and operating in a sufficiently specialised sphere, that one would expect any new potential employee to go through fairly rigorous screening to ensure not only that they have the necessary experience for the role, but also that they will fit in well with the existing workforce.

So what went wrong? Lying about one’s academic qualifications is one thing, but for such a senior role in such a specialised industry, surely one would be expected to have held similar roles previously? And be able to talk about those roles at interview stage?

The newspaper reporting makes no mention of Mr Scott having lied about previous work experience – but presumably he did. Which means that in addition to not checking his academic qualifications, nobody bothered to simply pick up the phone to his previous “employers” and verify that he had, in fact, held the positions he claimed to have held.

Furthermore, either he was hired entirely based on his CV, with no interview whatsoever, or he was able to convince the interviewer that he was capable of doing the job. I am unsure which of those possibilities horrifies me more – the idea of hiring a managing director based on neither interview nor recommendation, or the idea that the person conducting the interview had such poor interview skills, or such a poor understanding of the competencies required for the role, that they were unable to detect that he would be utterly incapable of doing the job.

It’s very hard, in the circumstances, to feel any sympathy for the company. Apparently within a few months it became clear that he was completely incapable of overseeing the two new multimillion-pound contracts in Kazakhstan for which he had been hired – it was only then that colleagues started to investigate his background and realised that it was entirely fictitious. He had, in fact, never been to university, never held an executive post and had simply picked up surveying experience while in the army, followed by sundry engineering jobs in the middle east.

Anybody who has ever worked in a large organization, with multiple layers of management, will have observed the Peter Principle in action – the tendency for people within an organization to rise to the level of their incompetence.   It’s an amusing description which allows those at more junior levels to laugh at the perceived incompetence of certain senior managers who appear to have been promoted beyond their abilities – and in most cases, there are sufficient numbers of competent people at the top to ensure that they are not given sole responsibility for anything that is business-critical.   But I think it’s worth examining one of the key underlying reasons that the Peter Principle exists.

It’s easy to test competence at a junior level. In any profession, there are basic skills and knowledge points that can be tested either via interview or through a written or practical exam. But as roles become more senior, the focus shifts from day-to-day hands-on knowledge and ability, to leadership, vision and strategy – not so easy to assess in an interview situation. Add to that the fact that due to the pyramid structure of any hierarchical organization, once somebody reaches the level of managing director, there will be very few other people at the same level who are able to assess whether the person will be capable of performing the role in question. It therefore becomes a case of promoting the person who has performed best within their current role, on the expectation that they may perform well in a more senior role. And praying that if they are not up to the job, those around them will step in and either provide support, or raise the alarm.

Thankfully at Mech-Tool, those working with David Scott did exactly that. But who among us will ever forget the disaster at the Royal Bank of Scotland, where nobody at a senior level had the courage or competence to question Fred Goodwin’s insistence that it was not necessary to do full due diligence on the takeover of ABN Amro, as Barclays, who had also been bidding to take over the Dutch bank, had already done it.  In his words, “due diligence lite” would be sufficient.  The irony, of course, is that Goodwin was not remotely incompetent – especially in the arena of due diligence, which was what had launched his career in banking when he worked as a chartered accountant at Touche Ross, performing due diligence on the National Australia Bank’s takeover of Clydesdale Bank, and again on its later takeover of Yorkshire Bank. He knew all about how to perform due diligence – he simply had become so arrogant and complacent over all his years of working on acquisitions, that he felt it was no longer necessary. And we all know how that turned out.

Mech-Tool, of course, didn’t simply promote David Scott beyond his abilities – they actually hired him specifically for the role. Which suggests a corollary to the Peter Principle, which I think I’ll call the Fred Principle: the tendency of those who have either been promoted beyond their abilities, or who have become arrogant and complacent on reaching the top, to make very poor hiring – and acquiring – decisions.   If Mech-Tool have not yet weeded out the Freds at the top of their organisation who were responsible for hiring David Scott without conducting due diligence, it’s high time they did. As Fred Goodwin proved, no company is too big, or too well-established, to fail. Mech-Tool escaped with mildly burned fingers on this occasion – they may not be so lucky again.


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Yes, the EU referendum was advisory. Parliament still can’t ignore the vote

I’m so tired of people who wish to frustrate the process of Brexit, arguing that “the referendum was only advisory; it was not a binding referendum”.

Let’s put this argument to bed once and for all. Yes, it is true that from a constitutional point of view, referendums in the United Kingdom are seen as advisory. In order for a decision to be binding, it has to be implemented by our Parliament. No special laws were passed in order to make the EU referendum binding – it followed the same rules as all previous referendums in the UK.

So yes, from a legal and constitutional perspective, the referendum was advisory. But this does not change the fact that David Cameron, in his Bloomberg speech that set out the basis for the referendum, said “I say to the British people: this will be your decision”. He went on to say “you, the British people, will decide”.

At no point did he say, “We will ask you to make a decision and then decide for ourselves whether or not to implement your decision”.

Leaving aside David Cameron’s words, the “advisory” nature of the referendum does not change the fact that the government leaflet, sent out to every household in the UK and setting out in no uncertain terms why the government was backing the UK remaining in the EU, stated “This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide”.Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 23.09.31

And the advisory nature of the referendum does not change the fact that on every other occasion on which the British public have been asked to respond to a referendum, the majority decision in that referendum has been implemented.  The only occasion on which the simple majority decision was not implemented, was the referendum on Scottish devolution.  This returned a result of 51.6% for devolution and 48.4% against, but devolution did not proceed because the turnout was only 63.6%, meaning only 32.8% of the electorate had actually voted for devolution.  As a threshold had been set, stipulating that the referendum result would only be valid it it was endorsed by 40% of the electorate, the result was deemed invalid.

I can immediately hear Remainers shouting “but the 40% threshold was not met for the EU referendum!” (Turnout was 72%, and 52% of voters voted to leave, giving a total of 37.4% of the electorate).

And this would be a valid point, had any threshold been set. But the problem was, there was no such threshold. It was made clear that the decision would be taken on a simple majority of those who voted – so the 52% vote for Leave was seen as a valid decision for Leave.

For comparison – while the decision to leave the EU is inarguably much greater than the decision over whether or not to form the Welsh Assembly, I can’t resist pointing out that the referendum on whether or not to form the Welsh Assembly, returned a 50.3% majority Yes vote, on a 50.1% turnout. Despite the fact that this amounted to only 25% of the electorate voting for it, this was considered sufficient for the Welsh Assembly to be formed.

Personally, I think a threshold should have been set for the Brexit referendum – a supermajority of either 50% of the electorate, or a two-thirds majority of those who voted, or some other threshold that would have ensured that we would not be in the situation in which we now find ourselves, where the percentage difference between Leave and Remain is so small that the country finds itself at loggerheads.

Historically, however, the government has always been reluctant to set thresholds for referendums. The referendum on Scottish devolution, mentioned above, was in fact the only referendum in the last 50 years for which any threshold was set. After all, the whole point of a referendum is to gauge popular support for a given issue, generally with the intention of “settling” that issue through public consultation.  Setting thresholds only serves to reduce the likelihood of a final decision being made.

In the case of the EU referendum, the government must have realised it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get a supermajority for Remain. They were hoping that by having a referendum, even if the British people voted narrowly for Remain, it would be sufficient to settle the question of EU membership once and for all. They never considered the fact that the decision would be for Leave – hence their failure to plan for such a decision, and the mess in which we find ourselves now.

Despite all this, thankfully Parliament recognises that the “advisory” nature of UK referendums does not give MPs the right to ignore the wishes of the British public – hence why Parliament voted overwhelmingly (by 498 to 114) to trigger article 50. The referendum itself may have been advisory, but Parliament recognised the fact that the decision could not simply be ignored, and the parliamentary vote was binding. Surely it’s now time we all accepted the result and moved on to trying to find the best way forward for the UK, outside the EU?


Posted in Brexit, politics | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments