15 April 2002


Mixed messages

Old Grumpy wonders what old Aristotle (two contradictory propositions can't both be true) would have made of last week's local papers.
On Wednesday morning he would have seen the headline in the Western Telegraph: "Health centre boosts it GP sessions" above a story about the new opening arrangements for Hakin surgery.
On Thursday, he would have noticed the front page splash in the Mercury which proclaimed: "Anger as Health Centre's hours are slashed" above a story about, um, er, the new opening arrangements for Hakin surgery.


Back to the future

If reports are to be believed, Gordon Brown is all set to lay the ghosts of 1992 by openly raising taxes in Wednesday's budget.
Readers will remember that in 1992 Labour's Shadow Chancellor, John Smith, produced a pre-election shadow budget in which he promised that if his party won the election he would raise taxes to fund public spending.
This was partly motivated by the left's long held belief that public spending is a good thing of itself and partly because the opinion polls showed that the electorate was willing to pay more.
The Tories labelled this "Labour's tax bombshell" and, whatever the voters may have told those nice young women from Mori and Gallup, they had a collective change of mind on polling day and Neil Kinnock had to make do with a £125,000 a year job as a European Commissioner.
That lesson absorbed, the party's 1997 manifesto declared: "The myth that the solution to every problem is increased spending has been comprehensively destroyed under the Conservatives" alongside promises not to increase income tax or Vat.
Ten years on from the debacle of 1992, the Labour party has regained its nerve and buoyed up by those same opinion polls (and the knowledge that the Tories are useless) it is signalling its readiness to return to the true faith.
The catalyst for this sea change is the dreadful state of the public services, health in particular.
But all the evidence is that the sentiments expressed in1997 are true, and piling more taxpayers' money into the NHS will not work the oracle.
For instance, spending, in real terms, is now four times what it was in 1960 and in Scotland, where 20% more, per head, is spent on health than in England, the outcomes are significantly worse.
Of course, the spending commitments are accompanied by promises that the system will be reformed to ensure that the money is efficiently deployed but after five years in power, with little sign of significant improvement, those promises have a hollow ring.


Time flies

Unfortunately, last week's glorious spring weather tempted me out into the garden, leaving no time to produce the 16-page souvenir pull-out edition on David Beckham's broken metatarsus that I had planned for this week.
Tempus fug it, as the Romans used to say.
Never mind, the foot-fetishists among you will no doubt have had your desires sublimated by the extensive coverage in the daily press.
One consequence of the acres of newsprint devoted to Beckham's injury is that everyone now knows that the metatarsal bones are in the foot and, by a process of elimination, the metacarpals in the hand, thus robbing me of one of the few specialist areas of knowledge with which to impress my friends on quiz nights.
It is rather irksome that my expertise in this subject; acquired through two years of diligent study in A level biology, is now common currency among the hoi polloi who read the Sun and Daily Mirror.
For anyone interested, the way to remember the difference - taught to me by Mr Golightly (honest) our biology master - is: tarsal - toes, carpal - claws.
"Solomon" Beaumont (chemistry) also had a neat way of distinguishing stalagmites from stalactites.
"When the mites go up the tights come down", he would say with a chuckle.
Solomon it was who I first heard expound the theory that the atom was divisible
; an idea since borne out by the discovery of quarks and other fundamental particles, though the little rhyme he used to express this idea: "Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em / Little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum", suggests that quarks and the rest aren't the end of the matter.
Solomon was a true eccentric who used to cut his own hair with a razor comb.
When some of us sixth formers were bold enough to draw his attention to the straggly mess on the back of his head, he retorted: "There's only a week's difference between a good haircut and a bad one".
I also remember that he had his own individual way of marking homework with any less than rigorous reasoning attracting a cartoon drawing of a sheep and the comment "Woolly!".
Goodness only knows what affect this had on our self-esteem.


Full bore

I have worked out that I have already spent upwards of 50 hours in my vegetable garden this spring, and I estimate that at least another 100 hours will be expended before the last potato is dug and the onions dried off and stored away in the shed.
So, even paying myself the national minimum wage for this highly skilled labour, the garden will be some £700 in debt by the year's end, not to mention the cost of seeds, string and petrol for the rotavator.
Talking to a friend of mine, who is also into the good life, I expressed the view that, considering the amount of veg you can buy in Tesco for that sort of money, growing your own is not economically viable.
My friend was quick to point out the flaw in my analysis.
"What you've forgotten to take into account", he said, "is that while you're toiling in the garden you are not spending money elsewhere".
I immediately though of my golfing days - annual subs £300: balls disappearing into the gorse bushes at £2 a time; fancy drivers costing the same as a three bedroom semi when I was first married: and, not least, the vast quantities of beer consumed at the nineteenth - and realised he had a point.
And, of course, there is the added bonus that you don't bump into too many golf bores in the garden, the advantage of which was brought forcefully home to me last Saturday afternoon when Old Grumpette and my daughter arrived home from Milford Haven Golf Club having won the curiously named Australian Spoons foursomes, and began to regale me with a shot by shot account of their triumph.
They were just lining up the putt on the third when I decided that a pre-emptive retaliatory strike was called for and launched into a detailed description of how I had landed a brilliant small slam in hearts at Thurday night's duplicate at Haverfordwest Bridge Cub.
They had disappeared indoors before I could explain that this was in a worldwide competition contested by 4,400 pairs and that my (and my partner's) effort on this hand had earned us a score of 98.5% (see www.ecatsbridge.com then click on Sims then club then Haverfordwest).
How they must miss me up the golf club where, on my day, I could bore with the best of them.

Work ethic

The dual nature of work as a money saving, as well as a money making exercise, was not a new concept to me.
Many years ago I employed a bricklayer called Ronnie Morgan, sadly now deceased.
Then, as now, the labour force in the building trade was very mobile with men following the available work.
Naturally, because they had no settled employment, no single employer was liable for their holiday pay.
To overcome this the workers had a card which their current boss stamped each week and which could be taken from firm to firm.
The value of the stamps was calculated on the basis of the union rate.
The problem was that nobody who was any good worked for the union rate, particularly in Pembrokeshire, where, because of the big refinery construction projects, competition for skilled men was intense and good tradesmen like Ronnie could expect to earn a 25-30% bonus.
I remember Ronnie grumbling to me as I handed him his holiday pay that, rather than two-thirds of his usual pay packet, he should have double because of the amount of free time he would have to spend in the pub and on the occasional foray to the bookies.


Stick or twist

This story, I am given to understand, was told from a pulpit in Milford Haven recently.
Jesus was in Port Talbot where he met three men in the street: one blind, one deaf and one hobbling along on a stick.
Going up to the blind man Jesus laid his hands on his head whereupon the man exclaimed: "It's a miracle I can see again".
He repeated the process with the deaf man who immediately proclaimed that his hearing had been restored.
But, as He approached the man with the stick he scuttled off down the road, shouting: "Keep your hands off me, I'm on invalidity benefit".


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