Paxman’s back: Cameron and Miliband grilled

Jeremy Paxman grills David Cameron

Jeremy Paxman grills David Cameron

The day after the BBC fired Jeremy Clarkson for assaulting his producer, it was good to see the other famous Jeremy back in action. Former Newsnight presenter Paxman grilled David Cameron and Ed Miliband live in a pre-election debate.

Paxman's presses Miliband

Paxman’s presses Miliband

Cameron came off worst – in a repeat of the first 2010 TV debate, he was nervous and under-perfomed, at least against Paxman. By contrast, Ed Miliband did rather well. He was  impassioned, confident and humorous. Many neutrals will have been impressed. He came up with the best line of the night: “You’re good, Jeremy, but not that good!” in rebutting the idea that he’d be a puppet in the hands of a resurgent SNP.  Continue reading

London remembers Britain’s latest Afghan war

It was a shock to see armed police at Marylebone station yesterday. It was so out of the ordinary. But then I saw this:

Shades of Life on Mars: London 2015

Shades of Life on Mars: London 2015

This Austin 1973 police car was parked on Horse Guards Road, opposite HM Treasury. It was one of a series of police vehicles along the road, with soldiers also present. Shortly afterward a police lorry went by. What on earth was going on?

Police in force in Horse Guards

Police in force in Horse Guards

Later, I found out that the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and political leaders were taking part in a commemoration at St Paul’s marking the end of Britain’s participation in the Afghanistan war. I saw the end of the flypast marking the event:

Flypast marking end of Britain's latest Afghan war. 13 March 2015

Flypast marking end of Britain’s latest Afghan war. 13 March 2015

Britain’s latest entanglement in Afghanistan was an extraordinary development. In 1978, I learned about our disastrous 19th century Afghan wars during O level history. A year later, the Soviet Union invaded that country, with equally ill-fated results. I never imagined I’d see Britain repeating these disasters. George W Bush and Tony Blair were mad to embark on another Afghan adventure. How sad that 453 British troops (not to mention countless Afghans and Americans) lost their lives as a result.

Cameron’s clanger: the great election debate fiasco

2010 leaders debate: Cameron cannot veto the people's right to 2015 rerun. Photo: BBC website

2010 leaders debate. David Cameron cannot veto the people’s right to a 2015 rerun. Photo: BBC website

There are weeks when I despair of Britain’s politicians. And there are weeks when I really, really despair of them. This was one of these weeks.

David Cameron’s attempt to torpedo the 2015 general election leaders’ television debates is beneath contempt. It shows the Old Etonian at his very worst: arrogant, tactical, self-serving, inconsistent and above all wrong. What was he thinking? Three cheers for Britain’s broadcasters for insisting the debates will go ahead. They must ‘empty chair’ the prime minister if he is so foolish to refuse to take part.

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Europe: a dangerous obsession

Introduction

I wrote the article below in 1995. It’s eerie how little has changed in 20 years – the only conclusion I’d change is the assertion that few people would have voted in a referendum about whether Britain should join the euro.

Europe – a dangerous obsession

Rob Skinner, March 1995

British democracy is at crisis point. Not just because fifteen years without a change of government has left the nation restless for change. Not even as a result of former ministers making sleazy, easy money in a privatised quangocracy.

No, this crisis is a case of obsession. The subject of this obsessions is Europe, the perpetrators politicians and the media alike. This single topic dominates news bulletins, current affairs programmes and the leader columns of the national press. Yet it utterly fails to stimulate the nation.

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Cadbury’s and the supersonic Seventies

Three years ago, I blogged about Dominic Sandbrook’s BBC series The 70s. I reminisced about Cadbury’s Supersonic Seventies TV advert and lamented that it was sadly missing from YouTube.

Happily, it’s now there. It was pure nostalgia watching this over 40 years later. Curious how I remembered the ending so accurately: ‘One of today’s great tastes, ooh ooh!”

Magna Carta revisited

Where Magna Carta was signed

Charting the dawn of democracy: Magna Carta memorial, Runnymede

You expect revolutions to take place in crowded cities. Yet the event that marked the dawn of modern democracy took place in a peaceful meadow next to the River Thames at Runnymede, Surrey. This is where King John sealed Magna Carta, the agreement that forced rulers – in those days kings – to obey the rule of law.

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Solving my O2 overseas mobile data problem

No surfing today: could not activate mobile data network

No surfing today: could not activate mobile data network

It was so frustrating. As soon as I reached an international destination, I’d get a text from O2 telling me that I was on O2 Travel so paid just £1.99 a day for using the internet while abroad. Yet when I tried to surf the net I got this error message: “Could not activate mobile data network: you are not subscribed to a mobile data service”.

I complained several times to O2 (after trips to Dublin and Luxembourg) but each time they told me I was signed up for O2 Travel, so it wasn’t their fault.

When this happened yet again when I arrived in Madrid on Thursday I resigned myself to another fruitless call to customer service. I checked the iPhone settings – and yes, all was set up for overseas mobile data roaming. What was going on?

It's fault of the EU (Internet)

It’s fault of the EU (Internet)

Then I had a brainwave: try changing some of the less obvious setting and see if that made any difference. I spotted a setting (Settings/Mobile) called EU Internet (above). It was on. I turned it off, then tried to load a webpage. It worked! Problem solved.

So if you’re blocked from getting online overseas on your mobile, check whether this option is turned on. I’m assuming that this doesn’t affect the £1.99 O2 Travel deal. After all, I’m using an EU smartphone in the EU on an O2 EU contract.

The only remaining mystery? What on earth is the point of this iOS EU Internet option in settings? And is this new to iOS 8?

Sorry O2 for blaming you…

This post comprises a pedant and me

Bryan Henderson is famous – as a pedant. The world’s media put him under the spotlight last week for correcting the same error 47,000 times in Wikipedia. He hates the phrase ‘comprised of’ – arguing the ‘of’ is unnecessary. The story took me back to my days reading Ernest Gowers’ The Complete Plain Words in university in 1984: it was one of the phrases Gowers singled out as a howler.

I’ve never edited a single Wikipedia entry. But I felt a tremble of recognition when I read of Henderson’s obsession. As I get older, I get more irritated by language (and number) howlers. Here are some of my pet hates.

Language inflation. Build out; test out; off of. Just a few phrases that have suffered parasitic appendages.

Doppelgängers: words that have been replaced by identical sounding cousins: it’s/its; your/you’re; there/their/they’re. Years ago, it’s/its was the most common error, but your/you’re seems just as common now:  ‘Your welcome’…

Talking telephone numbers: companies that spend money on beautiful shop fronts and signs, but don’t know that the area phone code for London is 020 and Cardiff is 029. I’ve lost count of signs giving numbers starting 0207, 0208 and 02920.

No such code as 0207

Don’t try dialling 724 0055 

This Marylebone shop can’t get its own number right. Anyone dialling 724 0055 will get an unobtainable tone. The 7 in 0207 is actually part of the number, not the area code.

Does it matter? No, not compared with life’s real horrors. But accuracy does matter. Hats off to Bryan Henderson. Or hat’s off as some would say….

How a 13 year old taught me about Rosa Parks

We never stop learning. And it’s a special feeling when a child teaches you things you never knew.

I’ve had two examples of this in the past week. My six year old son Owen started teaching me the piano, passing on what he’d learned in his first piano lessons. Then the older brother of one of his friends opened my eyes to the extraordinary story of Rosa Parks. Continue reading

The end of the Victorian era, 114 years on

Ethel Land, Britain's last Victorian

Ethel Land, Britain’s last Victorian

Queen Victoria died 114 years ago this month. Her last subject in Britain died last week. Ethel Lang was born in 1900 as the Victorian era drew to a close.

Me and my Victorian grandmother

Me and my Victorian grandmother on her 100th birthday, 1991

It was a poignant moment for me as I was always rather proud that all four of my grandparents were Victorians, born between 1890 and 1893. Amongst my six great aunts and uncles, only Auntie Mabel was born after Victoria died – in 1903.

At a time when stress is defined as having to produce a PowerPoint presentation in hours, my Victorian relatives knew what a tough life was. Imagine living through the Great War, and losing friends and relatives to war, only to be faced with the Great Depression and another world war.

We are very lucky.