Saturday, October 25, 2008

Moral decay in Britain

My musical career came to an abrupt end when, at the age of 15, I left the school oboe on a bus. The following four days, before the call came through from the London Transport lost property office, were among the most miserable of my life. When I borrowed the instrument, I was given strict instructions that I was to take the greatest possible care of it, since it was worth 110 pounds. That may not sound a huge amount today, but to a 15-year-old schoolboy in 1969 it was an unimaginably vast sum.... If I didn't get it back, I took it for granted that I'd be expelled from school. But that was the least of my worries.

Crippled by the fees, my parents were hard up at the time. There was no way they could have found 110 to reimburse the school for my moment of criminal absent-mindedness. We'd all be utterly ruined - and I'd never be able to look any of my near and dear in the eye again.

I never discovered the identity of the kind passenger who handed it to the bus conductor (we still had them in those days), or indeed the names of the London Transport staff who made sure that it made its way to the lost property office, and then back to me and my school. All I can say is, whoever they were, they earned the undying gratitude of a 15-year-old schoolboy, who has never dared touch an oboe in the 40 years from that day to this.

Chances are I wouldn't be nearly so lucky today. The most depressing article I've read this week - more so even than the grim economic news we've all become used to of late - was yesterday's report on the conduct of railway staff responsible for returning lost property to its owners. An investigation by Which? discovered that, these days, two-thirds of station employees fail to contact owners whose property has been handed in. The consumer watchdog asked undercover agents to hand in coats, each containing a wallet and 22 pounds in cash at 16 stations across the country, saying that they had found them on a train. Every wallet contained the name and address of the owner.

Yet, shockingly, staff at only five of the 16 stations made the effort to contact the coats' owners. Furthermore, in one of those five cases, at Plymouth, the coat and wallet were returned but the 22 was missing (according to First Great Western, it had been put into a bank account for safe keeping - though the Which? researcher who picked up the coat was told that no money had been found).

It's not necessarily true, of course, that staff at the 11 stations which failed to return the lost property simply stole it. But at best, none of them did their job properly and none was prepared to make even the slightest amount of effort to do a kind deed for a fellow human being. Have these railway staff never lost their own wallets - and discovered what huge inconvenience and distress this can cause?

As I write, mine contains 35 in cash, my driving licence, Visa card, NHS European Health Insurance card, photographs of my four sons (taken about ten years ago, when I was still soppy about them), a Blockbuster video card, various friends' and acquaintances' contact numbers, a Nectar card and the electronic pass that lets me into the office and allows me to buy coffee in the canteen.

If I lost it on the train, never to see it again, my life would be in turmoil for weeks, what with all those cards to cancel and renew, no access to the cashpoint machine, no record of those vital contact numbers and no canteen coffee. That's not to mention all those modern worries about identity theft. Yet at railway stations all over the country, from Edinburgh to Brighton, there are staff either so dishonest or so indolent and downright unfeeling about other people's problems that they couldn't be bothered even to lift up a telephone to tell me it had turned up.

You'd think that dealing with lost property would be a richly satisfying job, with all the opportunities it offers for bringing joy to strangers and filling 15-year-old oboists with lifelong gratitude. But no. For many, it's just an opportunity to steal, with hardly any chance of getting caught (unless the lost property happens to have been handed in by an undercover agent for Which?)

What it all comes down to is that we just don't know who we can trust any more. I don't want to romanticise the past. There was always a strong chance, even 40 years ago, that a fellow passenger on that bus to Neasden would have picked up my forgotten oboe and walked off with it into the night. Hence my four days of panic and misery before it turned up. But back in 1968, you could be almost completely sure that once an item had been handed in to an official in charge of lost property, it would be 100 per cent safe. For the huge majority of people in positions of trust, whether they were rich or poor, it was a point of pride to show themselves worthy of the confidence placed in them.

How desperately sad that in 2008, so many more people in all walks of life look upon trust as something to be abused. They seem to think that if they can get away with it, that's all that matters. ...

More here


Comment from Britain

ISN'T life a hoot? After 10 years as Chancellor of the Exchequer and one as Prime Minister, Gordon Brown has discovered "the weaknesses of unbridled free markets". No wonder he didn't see the debt crisis coming. But then he wouldn't have, would he? He had banished boom and bust.

As he is clearly a late developer, he will not have spotted the next two crises on the horizon. It is going to be a close run thing which hits us first - inflation or a power shortage. But you can see them coming as clearly as any approaching rainstorm over the Pennines.

Pensioners would say that inflation has already hit them hard. Theirs is put at more than 13 per cent compared with the official entirely unbelievable figure of 5.2 per cent. But we ain't seen nothing yet. You cannot fling hundreds of billions at the banks, demand that they continue to lend as they did irresponsibly in 2007 and then spend and borrow yourself like a demented fraudster without debauching the currency through humdinging inflation. We are back to where we started before Margaret Thatcher tamed the tiger.

Equally, you cannot have as daft an energy policy as the UK's without running into severe trouble. It doesn't add up and is failing on all counts. It is doing nothing to secure our electricity supply without which no modern nation can call itself civilised. The Government has known for a decade that we shall lose a third of our generating capacity through age and infirmity within the next 10 years.

Yet no replacement power stations are being built, apart from totally useless wind "farms". Ed Miliband, a "green" Doncaster MP who has become head of the new Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), is predictably dithering in the face of the fanatics over whether to sanction more coal-fired power stations.

The Government witters on about fuel poverty while it rushes headlong to give 100 per cent subsidies to wind developers, the fat cats of the energy scene, whose electricity is the dearest form of carbon reduction yet devised by man. Yet the wind revolution is grinding to a halt in the face of public revulsion at the desecration of landscapes and ravaged property values, rising costs and technical problems. And, of course, wind does little to reduce greenhouse gases, the sole justification for its development.

The Government's belated commitment to nuclear power has lost momentum with the formation of the new DECC, with the celebrated Joan Ruddock, of CND fame, as a junior Minister. You couldn't make it up. What is more, while the Prime Minister says "we do not live by markets alone", the Government insists that nuclear, which brings security of supply, cheap power and carbon reduction, is left to that very market while it hugely subsidises wind - a form of power that cannot tick any of those boxes.

The sheer loopiness of UK energy policy is demonstrated by three simple examples. In Scotland, more than 14,000MW of wind capacity is operating, approved, planned or proposed yet the cross-border grid can carry only 2,250MW south to consumers.

Such is the sheer manipulation of the subsidy system that it has reduced our largely carbon-free hydro-electric generating capacity because the owners have engineered down their plants to qualify for hand-outs. And, believe it or not, nuclear, which emits next to no greenhouse gases, still has to pay the climate change levy designed to reduce carbon emissions.

Against this background, you will not be surprised to discover that, to "green" acclaim, the first action of the MP for Doncaster North in his new role as Energy Secretary has been to raise the UK target for eliminating carbon emissions from 60 to 80 per cent of the 1990 level by 2050 without having a clue as to how to do it. So what, you may say, he has 41 years to do it in. Ah, yes, but for the foreseeable future only wind and nuclear can replace carbon-rich coal, oil and gas.

My engineering friends calculate that to hit that 80 per cent target we shall need to build another 233,300 2MW wind turbines (on which we could not rely) or 162 nuclear power stations. Don't ask me where we would put all that little lot, assuming we could build them. Currently. Britain has only 2,500 wind turbines and 10 nuclear power stations.

You now understand why the Great Gordon mucks up your life. He can't run a whelk stall. Have fun brushing your teeth in the dark.


The secret to happiness? Having at least 10 good friends

Very mixed up! They first admit that direction of cause is unknown then speak as if it is known. All that the study tells me is that happy people tend to have a loose definition of what constitutes a friend

In love, two is company and three's a crowd. But in friendship, ten is the magic number. Being able to count at least ten people as friends makes us happy, researchers say. But those with five or fewer are likely to be miserable with their lot, they claim. Their study of hundreds of men and women also found that contented sorts tend to have lots of close friends and regularly make new ones.

While it is not clear whether our friends make us happy or we make friends because we are happy, the researchers say it is clear we should nourish our friendships.

Psychologist Richard Tunney said: 'Whatever the reason, actively working on friendships in the same way as to maintain a marriage is a prerequisite to happiness.' Dr Tunney, of Nottingham University, quizzed more than 1,700 people about their satisfaction with their lives and the state of their friendships. Those with five friends or fewer had just a 40 per cent chance of being happy. In other words, they were more likely to be unhappy than happy.

Ten was the first number at which people were more likely to be happy than unhappy. Happiest of the lot were those with dozens of friends, according to the study, which was carried out for the National Lottery. For women, this meant having 33 friends; for men, the figure was 49.

Dr Tunney said: 'People who were extremely satisfied with their lives had twice the number of friends of people who were extremely dissatisfied.' Women tended to have fewer friends than men but formed tighter bonds.

Interestingly, the study found that childhood friends are no more likely to make us happy than people we become close to later in life. Lottery winners, however, had a different take on life. They tended to be happier than others despite spending their time with a small circle of old friends. This could be because they trust those they've known for longest. Alternatively, financial security may allow them to lavish more time and attention on those who matter the most to them.

The analysis also showed Brummies [inhabitants of Birmingham] to be the happiest people in Britain, with an average 29 friends each and a 75 per cent chance of happiness. Most miserable are the people of Brighton. Despite an average friend total of 42, residents have just a 56 per cent chance of happiness.

Dr Tunney, who describes himself as happy and having a lot of good friends, said factors such as a high cost of living could be behind the city's poor rating. 'Brighton is a very gregarious city, so maybe there is more pressure to have social networks than elsewhere,' he said, adding: 'I spent three happy years in Brighton when I was younger. I would be quite happy to live by the sea.'


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