Having fun with goats

When we were young, we used to receive the Radio Times every week. Back then there were only three television channels (four from 1982!) and four main BBC radio stations. One week - I still remember it clearly - there was a listing on Radio 4 for a programme entitled "Having fun with goats". The text beneath it said "We regret that in the interests of public hygiene, this programme has been replaced by an episode of I'm sorry I haven't a clue". It's good to see that programme-makers have a sense of humour.

I'm reminded of goatplay by the debate which crops up at this time of year as to whether charitable giving is really a gift or not. You can walk into a charity store and 'buy' a goat or similar animal for a friend. You then give them a card to let them know what you have bought them on their behalf.

I have to say, this is brilliant advertising on behalf of the charities. Well done to them. Because the idea is in fact the biggest load of cobblers going. If I choose to give to charity, good for me. But I can't both give to charity and give you a gift. Charitable goat-giving is an attempt to have your cake and eat it.

By means of demonstration, I came across this howler this week. It's a competition, where the main prize is... a goat. If you still doubt that I'm right, consider how you would feel if you received an e-mail telling you that you had won the competition. Would you feel any different if you later learned that everyone had received the same e-mail?

In the midst of all the Christmas madness we’d really appreciate it if you’d take five minutes to take our 2007 poll. It’s the time of year when we all look back and think about the last 12 months and we’d like to know how 2007 was for you. Our four favourite answers for the final question ‘What’s your 2008 New Year’s Resolution’ will have a present donated to Oxfam Unwrapped on their behalf. Click here to take our poll and you could win a goat or clean water for someone who really needs it – that’s got to be worth five minutes!

John Inman... no true Scotsman

This week John Inman died. Loved by many as the unambiguously-but-never-explicitly gay Mr Humphries in the long-running TV sitcom Are you being served?, he also made a long career after the series finished as a Pantomime Dame.

Many commentators have looked back at his career and have puzzled why he never openly stated that he was gay until his career was over (he entered into a civil partnership with his partner of 35 years in 2005). But the 70s were a very different time. My Dad's own views are interesting here. Rather absurdly, given his age, physique and otherwise gentle demeanour, he has said several times that he can't stand homosexuals and effeminate men and that, if he ever met one, he might well feel forced to punch them! Yet we all roared with laughter in the 70s as we sat together as a family to watch Are you being served?.

How do you square this inconsistency? I think Dad is guilty of the No true scotsman fallacy here. Clearly he indeed believes that he would punch any homosexual unfortunate enough to cross his path. Yet that can only mean that John Inman (and Kenneth Williams and many others before him) were "not true homosexuals". And those commentators who couldn't understand John Inman's reluctance to 'out' himself should reflect on just how far we have come since our rather intolerant past. His "don't ask, don't tell" stance in the 70s was a necessary stepping stone between the complete intolerance of the mid-twentieth century and our current, more permissive, attitudes.

How not to be Oxbridge

As a teenager studying for A-levels, I was lucky to be given as a present one year a copy of Anton Gill’s How to be Oxbridge. Himself a Cambridge graduate, the book provides a very informal guide on the sort of institutions Oxford and Cambridge universities are, what college life is like, the activities you can get up to while you’re there (the Union, Footlights, music and, er, drinking and sex). It’s now out of print, but copies seem to be readily available second-hand.

The book also contained a guide to the various colleges at both institutions. It even went as far as to grade them all, based on how ‘cool’ they were, as well as indicating whether they were on their way ‘up’ or ‘down’ in the somewhat arbitrary and undisclosed Gill rankings. I was always taken by Clare College, Cambridge, which was so forward-thinking that it had been one of the first Cambridge male-only colleges to admit women (in 1972), had a world-class choir and was neither too large nor too small for my tastes. It also had a reputation for being liberal, which in those days I thought was a good thing. Although I flunked the choir scholarship auditions (a story for another day, perhaps), they made me an offer anyway. I made the grades and went up to Cambridge in the autumn of 1989.

One of the things which strikes me, looking back, is that the college’s liberal reputation wasn’t really matched by the behaviour of the college authorities. In my second year, together with two college friends, I applied for residency in a shared flat operated by the college. Against all odds, we won, so we moved in. The flat was appallingly decorated – orange walls and red swirly patterned carpet – so we set about decorating it somewhat by putting posters up on the walls. Bad move. Our bedder shopped us for using Blu Tack on the walls – heaven forbid that even as much as a shred of that horrid orange enamel might fall off – and we were told to take them all down. Reader, it pains me to say it, we didn’t. Instead we wrote out ‘fuck’ about three hundred times on bits of paper and diligently stuck each one to the wall. Instead of appreciating our blistering wit, we were summoned to see the Master. My two partners in crime took it upon themselves to write back to the Master telling him, in so many words, to get lost. Discretion being my middle name back then, I declined to sign up to this letter, thereby sparing me from the punishment meted out of my friends - being kicked out of college accommodation for the rest of the year.

There’s not much more we can learn from this diversionary story, I suppose, other than young men at university sometimes do really stupid things. However in the scheme of things, it would have been better for Clare to have told us to have grown up instead of being so heavy-handed. So it’s with some interest that I hear of a new scandal at Clare – that of the special religious issue of Clareification magazine. Clareification comes after my time but is, so I understand, somewhat akin to The Onion in the fervour with which it is read by Clare undergrads. The magazine is a weekly satirical rag which mocks university activities and institutions. To cut a long story short, the guest editor ripped into various religions, including Islam, and reprinted one of those cartoons. Oh dear.

The reaction from the Cambridge Mosque was predictable enough.

[It] is clear that incitement to religious and ethnic hatred is at all times immoral, and that its consequences for harmony between communities and nations can be grave. It is particularly important that the boundary between fair comment and hate speech be respected and understood at the present time, when misunderstanding and sometimes hatred directed against ethnic minorities of Muslim faith living in the West is on the rise, a process often exploited by far-right and racist groups whose political and social vision is abhorrent to all decent people.

"All decent people" presumably doesn’t include those who would physically harm the student concerned, who had to go into hiding for fear of his life. Religion of peace, and all that.

In reaction, Clare has totally clammed up. The Senior Tutor, Dr Patricia Fara, has called for all copies of the magazine to be returned to her so they can be destroyed. The College has also called for a Court of Discipline, a rare move to decide what punishment should be given.

I’m afraid, what with my liberal Clare College upbringing and all, that this is where I start to struggle. If people are blathering retards, it’s usually pretty obvious. "Give them enough rope and they’ll hang themselves," as the saying goes. But the problem is, we simply don’t know what was said because no further information has been made available. That hasn't stopped many bloggers, particularly those of the rabid secular variety, from whipping themselves up into a lather. Perhaps the most sensible comment we get is this blog entry, where the writer concludes, after reading the material concerned, that it did go too far. But through suppressing everything, Clare succeeds only in reinforcing the view that it’s the student himself who is the victim here.

Parallels might be drawn with the case of British historian David Irving, who was jailed in Austria for denying the Holocaust. Experts say he is a daft old fool with no leg to stand on. But in making him a martyr, we lend him a credibility he surely doesn’t deserve. Clare, with so many learned and distinguished academics, really should know better. By being so heavy-handed in this case, their actions have served to give this student’s material an unfortunate legitimacy.

Lib Dems wake up on the exploitation of the financially illiterate

I wrote some time ago about the problem of companies exploiting financial illiteracy to tempt consumers into bad deals. It seems now that the Liberal Democrats have jumped on this bandwagon. Good for them. This is a real problem about which the industry should be ashamed.

Unfortunately, the Lib Dems have only addressed one part of the problem - that of high up-front fees. Into the mix they should also add the issue of overhanging commitments and lack of flexible terms.

That said, I'd hate to be in an environment where the Government set a maximum level of fees. Instead the industry should be encouraged to come clean. For mortgage lenders, the Council of Mortgage Lenders could produce a code of best practice for members. Only if the industry consistently fails to clean up its act should the Government consider stepping in to fix it. I reckon that the following should be given equal prominence to any 'headline' rate:

  • the 'effective' monthly rate (i.e. up to the first point at which the customer can move for free to another provider);
  • the 'maximum' monthly rate (i.e. the highest monthly payment the customer will have to pay); and
  • the 'normal' monthly rate (i.e. what the rate will become when all incentives have expired)


That's another Remembrance Day out of the way. And for another year or so I won't be receiving disapproving glances from people who wonder why I'm not wearing a poppy. Jon Snow, Channel 4 news anchorman, hit out recently over what he describes as 'poppy fascism'. I wouldn't go that far, but I also would take issue with the comments of John Humphrys:

"The reason I wear the poppy is because I want to pay tribute, it is a mark of respect for those men who gave their lives so that I can live the way I do today - to protect my freedom.

"And if there is anybody in this country who does not feel that gratitude then I think they should feel vaguely ashamed of themselves."

Humphrys commits a fallacy here - he equates the failure to wear a poppy with a positive statement that that person does not feel gratitude. This is complete nonsense - wearing a poppy is a personal, positive statement. That should not, and thankfully does not, equate to a situation where not wearing a poppy can ever be a negative statement.

I'll wear a poppy when I want to make an external statement to others about how grateful I am for the war-dead. Until that moment comes, you'll just have to accept that I am grateful to them. You're the one that has a problem with me not wearing a poppy, not me, and it has no bearing at all over how grateful I am for the war-dead.

Dealing with the stupid behaviour of stupid people

Nice little story from the BBC here. Apparently Westminster City Council is to ask for the power to stop smokers smoking outside certain buildings. From a date yet to be announced next summer smokers will be banned from smoking inside those buildings and the Council wants to take pre-emptive action to stop them making a nuisance of themselves outside as well. Many councils have already introduced alcohol-free outside zones and we live in hope that we might see a legion of smoke-free outside zones in future.

About time! The Council is worried about the noise nuisance caused by smokers and also wants to stop an increase in litter. Ah yes. The issue which proves, as if it were needed, that smokers are very stupid people that need to be treated like very stupid people - and told precisely what (not) to do.

Since when did a piece of litter become not a piece of litter, just because you set light to it first? Idiots.

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