Because once I’ve popped, I can’t stop…

I am amused, as well as sicky-sick with disgust, to discover that Tory GLA member Brian Coleman has run up an £8,000 taxi bill over the year to March 2008. For why, because it was precisely halfway through that period that he penned this rather telling objectionable-old-Tory-plonker diatribe against my former home, the good old LB of Haringey:

The pre-1965 Borough of Hornsey, once a centre of suburban middle class respectability which was subsumed into ghastly Haringey is an area where decent folk lock their car doors as they drive through and has returned no Conservative Councillors whatsoever since 1998.

So that’s why he takes taxis everywhere. He’s scared. He continues to dissect his reasoning thus:

The combination of allowing huge Edwardian family houses to be converted into bed sits and the ‘white flight’ in the face of rising crime has meant that areas such as Streatham, Wembley and Willesden have changed beyond all recognition.

Yes, how very dare young professionals rent rat-holes at stratospheric rates from semi-legal landlords in order to keep their daily commute into their chosen slave-pit below the two-hour mark. It shouldn’t be allowed, I tell you. And how dare people be black, a demographic categorisation which is known to be associated with higher crime rates. Have they no shame?

When Sir John Betjeman made his famous documentary on ‘Metro-land’ no self-respecting Suburb was without a flourishing Rotary Club, Townswomen’s Guild, Cricket, Bowls and sundry other Sports Club.

They boasted a selection of Churches, a Tory MP and an active Local Amenity Society. Now with most women working, intense career pressures on the whole workforce, vast mortgages to pay and the changes in family life, most of the voluntary sector in Suburban London is in meltdown with endless organisations unable to get anyone to serve on their Committees.

This is a man with his finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary London, as all concerned whist-drive-goers will agree. I’d go so far as to say that this is the kind of big picture overview one could only derive from travelling everywhere in a taxi for a year.

An interesting postscript to the debate we’ve been having on my last exposition of Elementary Logic. I’ve no particularly bitter axe to grind here because I didn’t vote for Boris, but I am nonetheless enraged by the almost instantaneous discovery that he’s a rubbish liberal.

It appears Bojo and David Cameron are of one mind* on the link between petty crime and serious crime. Bojo has made his first policy announcement, and yes, it’s “Ban More Fun”. We’re no longer allowed to drink on the tube, or we’ll get it confiscated from our little mits by the fun police.

I firmly believe that if we drive out so-called minor crime then we will be able to get a firm grip on more serious crime. That’s why from 1 June the drinking of alcohol will be banned from the tube, tram, bus, and Docklands Light Railway.

You may well be thinking, haaaang on. Drinking in public isn’t actually itself a crime, is it? Well, you’d be wrong. Traditionally, public order legislation has only given police the power to make arrests for actual drunkenness, and/or disturbance of public order. That was before NuLab. As of 2001 it became possible, under the Criminal Justice and Police Act of that year, for local authorities to designate public places as alcohol free zones, and after that the police can issue on-the-spot fines to those who infringe the zone.

Thus, drinking becomes a crime. Cripes! Just as well NuLab passed that particular intrusive mumsyish measure, eh, Boris? Will these cretins ever realise that they’re helter-skeltering together down a tight little blue-and-red spiral of ever-decreasing policy difference? Remember the wisdom of The Thick Of It:

She doesn’t just think inside the box, she’s built another box inside it and she’s doing all her thinking in there…

* Dave Monday to Wednesday, Boris Thursday and Friday, and the brain gets the weekend off.

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I see that Jo A has womanfully collated a list of fretful blogging reactions to our London results thus saving me a lot of gloomy scrolling. I hope opposition bloggers are watching this. The London results are dire for the Lib Dems, and we are all saying so – is it at all possible that you might give us an incy-wincy break and believe us when we also say the the country-wide results were really rather good?

Fairly bloody, ain’t it – 11% of the assembly vote, less than 10% of the mayoral vote. No spinning that one. But I fall somewhere between the two positions being demonstrated on the LDV thread - self-critical despair on the one hand and ultra-philosophical acceptance of the roundabout of political life on the other.

It is pretty dire, but there is an explanation, and it’s not simply that Brian got squeezed by two media giants, although that’s part of it. Paul Walter points out that as a liberal party we can hardly start questioning the electorate for turning out in high numbers – up to 50% in some boroughs – with the “wrong” kind of votes. That’s what Labour does when voters don’t show due appreciation of its Glorious Wisdom. As far as that goes I agree. But I do have an inkling about which bits of the electorate constituted that very high turnout across London, and how that might have affected our vote share.

On Thursday I directed someone to the polling station and asked them how they were going to vote (keeping my clipboard well out of sight, of course). “Oh Ken, I think,” she said. Well, that was a waste of time, wasn’t it. But it wasn’t until several hours afterwards that I realised what she meant by this – she didn’t really have much notion that any other elections were happening at all. Once she got in there, on being presented with not one bit of paper, but three, she probably filled in the others as well (and, I like to think, gave us a shout on the Assembly in thanks for the terribly nice and helpful woman who directed her to the polling station).

Normally, London Assembly elections are associated with the mayoral election – they don’t take place in its media-mighty shadow, like they did this time. Most people reading the London Metro of a morning could be forgiven for thinking that a mayoral election was the only thing happening on 1 May in the whole country, let alone London. So as far as they were concerned, they were voting for a London mayor only. And Brian was so obviously on the squeeze that many of the 12-14% or so of polled Londoners who said they would give him first preference stayed at home on 1st May. With the result that our Assembly vote share went down as well, because many of the people who wanted to give Brian first preference would probably have voted Lib Dem on the Assembly ballot papers too.

Anecdotal, yes, but it accounts for our low figures without excusing them (we didn’t work hard enough to get people out to vote, presumably), and also explains why the Green vote share remained contrastingly buoyant, and in the mayoral results crept up one point from the steady 2% held throughout the contest. The Green voters never expected their candidate to be a mayoral front-runner. They voted on 1 May to (continue to) prove a point, not in the hope of challenging the top two.

It strikes me that we’re in a sort of puberty stage of political parties (no, really, stay with me). We’re too big and successful now to be regarded as the plucky little underdog, and attract the grumpy protest vote. That role now belongs to the Greens. People don’t see us as anti-establishment any more, purely by dint of our size and vote share, and the fact that they’ve decided to see our leader as an establishment leader who doesn’t “live up” to establishment standards, rather than the oddball anti-establishment leader he actually is, good teeth and an enthusiasm for hiking and tennis notwithstanding. Our size and popularity attracts the other parties’ fear, hence all the ludicrous unfairness and name-calling on the Beeb and throughout the media.

But, while we’re now definitely in the secondary school playground, we’re not strong enough to challenge the big boys, who bully us in the apparent hope that we’ll dwindle and lose heart. We’re in a peculiarly hellish sort of limbo, neither one thing or the other. Presumably the only thing to do when confronted with a set of results like this is to stick with it, not let the bastards grind us down and keep applying the clearasil. No, I have no idea how that translates into an actual strategy, wot am I, Lawd Rennard?

It seems that the Tories have been sitting on this one until election morning, and little damn wonder. Boris Johnson has changed his mind, and announced that if he wins in London tomorrow, he is going to keep his seat as MP for Henley for up to a year. A cunning stunt, indeed.

This settles it. He definitely thinks he has been running for the position of Lord Mayor (the one wot wears all the chains and that palava and goes to big dinners) all along.

Leaving aside how monstrously unfair this is on everyone who voted for him on the way to work this morning before the story was allowed to break (Well, fancy that! Jolly lucky timing, eh?), this has the makings of an extremely disturbing situation for London.

We all knew that Boris was never really going to run London all by his little self. My main fear attaching to him throughout this campaign has not been that’s he’s a racist (I doubt he really is) or that he’s not liberal (I think he probably is) but that he wasn’t actually going to be the Mayor. The “Mayor of London”, should he win, was going to be the label for a collective of faceless advisers who might very well be the kind of barking paternalistic illiberal Tories I cross the road to avoid. There was always the risk, and Simon Heffer picked up on it again in his anti-Boris blast yesterday, that voting Boris didn’t actually mean you’d get Boris.

And this seems to, well, unashamedly confirm it. No sane person can want to run London and be a home counties MP at the same time. It’s ludicrous. It’s a fairly outrageous thing to ask of Londoners and an absolutely atrocious thing to ask of the people of Henley. So which of us is going to draw the short straw and get fake cardboard cut-out Boris?

And what on earth prompted the Tories to make this terrible, craven, cheating decision anyway? If Nick Clegg had pulled a weaselly trick like this they’d have been in full cry. Let’s suppose (oh do go on!) that they’re not all cackling vessels of ultimate evil for a moment – what can their motivation possibly be? What in the name of arse is going on at Shouty Plonker HQ?

Well, the only thought I have is that they’re worried about losing the Henley by-election. But they can’t be! It’s the Tory heartland of Tory heartlands. Is Dave so concerned about compromising his somewhat static 40% poll share that he’d compromise the future of London and Henley instead to avoid it? I thought the Tories were meant to be romping away from the Lib Dems in the south (that’s what I keep reading in the newspapers anyway)?

Whatever the cause, those faceless silhouettes of the big man on the Back Boris campaign literature suddenly look extremely sinister. [FX: Thunder rumbles ominously in the distance...No really, it just did!] Who did we really back? Who exactly is going to be running London after tomorrow?

Yesterday I fell off my chair. Or, not so much “off” as “through”. The chair broke, you collect. With hindsight this was not terribly surprising, not so much because I was sitting on it (don’t be so damn rude) as because the chair is about seventy years old and has seated several generations of skimbly pre-and post-war Mortimer forebears before playing host to my much better-nourished posterior.

In the People’s Republic we have always been peasantishly bad at throwing things away (as you might gather from the provenance of the chair) if there is any chance that sufficient duct tape and a funny little wiggling motion every time you pick it up/switch it on/put weight on it in future will rectify the problem. Accordingly, since the basic joinery of the chair is perfectly sound, I have temporarily knocked its warring components back together with a hammer, and am now sitting on it again, taking great care to ensure I don’t work too hard nor get too exercised on Comment is Free. But it is still going to need some sort of metal bracket nailing across the bottom of the frame, to brace the seat against the assault it will suffer tomorrow night when seven other drunken women come over for dinner.

Simple, I think, I’ll nip up the road to, er… Following the closure of Bond & White, the local DIY store, to make way for Planet-fricking-Organic, where the hell do you go in Muswell Hill to buy a hap’orth of nails, or whatever it is, and funny shaped bits of metal? Woolworths? Not for long, it seems. I miss Bond & White. Going in there was like stepping into a seventies sitcom and playing the part of Woman Customer. It was the only shop anywhere on the broadway or for quite some distance around that sold anything remotely hardware-related, and it seemed, to my inexpert eye, to stock everything. The nearest comparable range must have been in one of the giant chain stores on the north circular, which is useless if you haven’t got a car.

This isn’t a precious selfish rant about the death of the small shop – those are alive and well in most of London – nope, it’s a precious selfish rant about the death of the shop that sells, well, useful stuff that ordinary people need to make way for yet more luxury wankfestery. It’s a perfect illustration of the fact that markets are blind. They’ll correct, but they’ll correct to the advantage of those with most input into the market. So in a rich area, you get rich people’s shops, in a poor area you get poor people’s shops, and in mixed areas… you get rich people’s shops.

In other words, there’s no problem with being a small shop on Muswell Hill Broadway, but there is a problem with being a small shop that sells a packet of nails every six months to a girl with a broken chair on Muswell Hill Broadway. All the people who form your main customer base, because they own their own homes and are allowed to do shit to them, are the kind of people who will also have cars and are able to make the trip out to the cheaper chain stores on the north circ. No one, except people like me, comes to the Broadway to buy nails any more.

No, most people come to the Broadway to pick up a few bits at M&S, grab the Guardian from WHSmiths, buy a chicken brick from The Scullery for Lottie to take back to university, take a fancy to an adorable little £150 dress from Leila (and that’s just the men), moon over the cheese counter in Feast and pretend they are some sort of Chaucerian goodwife throwback and now, presumably, feel up the pre-packed mixed seeds and nuts (so knobbly!) at Planet Organic. When they want a nail knocked in, they call up an Eastern European migrant in Tottenham and ask him to come over and bring a nail with him.

London, darling, it’s been wonderful, but I’m leaving you.

The Guardian is looking but can’t find him. Our Brian, on the other hand, is about to answer some pretty rabid commenters’ questions for the Torygraph.

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The Very Orange (and currently, it seems, Amusingly Pink) Julian H was first off the blocks this morning with That Letter from the Greens, to the which alarming turn of events – wot, a Lib Dem can’t even trust their fellow eco-weirdies not to dump on their head any more? - I can now add my own snippet.

The fact that Siân Berry is now in alliance with a Labour party that has just used green tax revenue to concrete over its deficit problems and wants the whole of the South East to be made into a sustainable network of jumbo jet runways is bad enough. In fact it makes a change because the London mayoral contest has so far proved disappointing for seekers of dramatic political narrative. Notwithstanding the bendy bus bollocks, and allowing for the vagaries of different agencies, the poll figures show a fair degree of cohesion if you overlook the initial jump in Brian Paddick’s ratings. It’s newspaper columnists’ adam’s apples (invariably) that have been bobbing up and down.

The only relief has come from Martin Kettle, who is under the weather with Batshit Crazy Talk Syndrome at the moment, as evidenced by his bizarre contention that in order to be “taken seriously” in the London mayoral race, what the Liberal Democrats really need to do is, er, replace their candidate a month before polling day. His reasoning here is that Vince Cable is an indispensible asset to the party and needs to be put into a position of prominence. What, you mean like, make him deputy leader and shadow chancellor? Hey, interesting thought, Martin! We’ll have lunch.

One trend only is discernible - over the last two polls alone, Ken’s support has dipped slightly and Boris has picked up the slack. No wonder Labour is worried. So worried that we learn from the People’s Republican Intelligence Service that they have been on the phone to the Cleggster twice in recent weeks, asking if Our Brian could possibly see his way maybe to recommending that his supporters give Ken second preference pretty please?

Now, I’ve seen it suggested in public forums that Brian Paddick has some sort of obligation to side with Ken on the grounds that we must keep Boris out at all costs, and I don’t know whether any peddlars of this horrid noisome fallacy are reading, but if you are I have implanted an intelligent virus into my blog which will strike you down with a slightly unpleasant cold. Why the hell should Brian back Ken? I mean, apart from the fact that Labour policy in London on, er, housing, crime and the environment is largely repellant to Lib Dem principles? Brian is backing Brian, for goodness’ sake.

“No,” said the Cleggster, and put the phone down. The rest is public record - Labour went for the second best option and hooked up with the pathetically eager Greens instead, for whom Labour’s dismal record on pretty much everything they hold dear was apparently just so much organic sunflower seed.

But it gets worse because Ken is having his revenge on the Lib Dems for spurning his generous offer to allow us to support his continuing bid for amphibious world domination. The Greens have suddenly unaccountably learned how to be nasty and proactive, and today are delivering their open letter to Nick Clegg suggesting that Lib Dems should be voting for Berry. You can tell they’re being nasty because their main charge appears to be that Brian Paddick, a serving police officer of thirty years’ standing, is a “celebrity candidate”, as opposed presumably to Berry who has long been slogging away in the public interest by dint of appearing on Richard & Judy.

Much of their reasoning, such as it is, is easily dealt with:

Mr Paddick has pledged to scrap the Low Emissions Zone… He would cancel the higher-rate Congestion Charge for gas-guzzling Band G vehicles

The current congestion charge policy is holding the number of cars in London steady, not decreasing it. And small wonder, because £25 is fairly traded Brazil nuts to a Chelsea Tractor driver, and some categories of vehicle currently escape the charge altogether. Why should exceptions or allowances be made for ANY kind of vehicle? Is this a Congestion Charge or not? The aim should be to get cars OUT of Central London, not give away little treats to those who drive slightly less polluting cars. And the whole place should be a Low Emissions Zone, for god’s sake! The logical thing to do if you’re serious about getting cars out of London is to replace the current staggered and time-limited system with a uniform 24/7 charge, whether you’ve got a Chelsea tractor or a biscuit tin on wheels. 

The Greens naturally make no mention of the Lib Dem suggestion of a £10 charge on the whole of Greater London for people coming in from outside, which would have a fundamental effect on commuting patterns. And in response to the insinuation that Paddick is chasing Conservative votes, I can personally assure you, Greeny-Browny people, that this one ain’t playing well in the affluent Tory suburbs at all. Transport habits in London need to be changed, not validated with the odd bit of belt-tightening. Pissing about with this or that exception just isn’t getting us anywhere and that’s clear in the figures.

And he plans to privatise the Tube network to place management entirely in the hands of a single firm.

Yeah, because PPP has really worked out. Three-quarters of the Tube network is currently in administration or hadn’t you noticed? The London taxpayer is about to pick up the bill for the failings and inefficiencies of a private company – I’d say that’s pretty much a done deal on privatisation, wouldn’t you? Public-private partnership was a Labour decision made in 1999, Labour being – oh! – the party you’ve just got into bed with. The Lib Dem plan is simply to apply the same concessionary model that works much more successfully on the DLR to the tube network. Whether newspaper headline-writers like it or not, the issue is no longer private v. public, it’s shit private v. decent private. So let’s go with the model that has been proved to work, non? It’s sheer insanity to have one company managing the trains on a given line, another company doing the track maintenance, a third company staffing the stations, a fourth doing the signals and a fifth employed to generally sweep up and occasionally scrape depressed Green voters off the tracks.

So much for the arguments. It’s the soul-revolting back story I object to. Not only have the Greens sold out their principles to a pretty lowly sort of bidder, they’re now doing his “public relations” work in an attempt to split the anti-Labour vote, and target Number One is the man who refused to countenance any such deal.

I daresay if such a letter had been sent prior to the Green-Labour hook-up things would look different. They’d still have been wrong, and oddly personal in their choice of terms. But honour would have been intact. This just stinks. Going Brown really doesn’t suit you people.

The 26 October 1914 was not a good day for the 2nd battalion of the Cameronians’ rifle regiment. Two months’ bivouacking backwards and forwards in a state of chronic under-equipment around the Ypres hinterland had already caused them to sustain heavy losses, and it can never be easy to have a good day while wearing tartan trousers in any case. On that day they were bedding in around a little hamlet called Le Cateau, and in so doing, had they but known it, they were sowing the nightmarish seeds of four years’ entrenchment. One officer and thirteen men were picked off by snipers in the course of the day, and one of the men was a private soldier called Percy Mortimer.

It is just my hunch, but I think he was a bit peeved by this. He was by birth an Australian of Anglo-Irish descent so it was hardly his war in the first place. He had already done his bit for the Empire - joined up as a young colonial adventurer in the last years of the nineteenth century, fought in the Boer Wars, dived from the tops of masts into the sea, survived Mafeking with the aid of a tea towel and scouted along the North-West frontier on horseback with a turban wound tightly round his head to stop his red hair flaming like a beacon all the way to Lahore (you have to bear in mind a lot of this is family legend). When his tour of duty was over, Percy didn’t go back to Melbourne. He did what we all have to do from time to time and dossed down on a friend’s floor in Finsbury Park, about a mile from where I’m writing now.

When war was declared in August 1914 Percy was within a few days of coming off the reserve list. He had a brushmaking business in Finsbury Park and he had married his friend’s sister. He had a four-year-old son, and he was thirty two. Of course, even if he hadn’t been called up into that funny little ill-starred British Expeditionary Force he would have gone to France sooner or later anyway, and maybe he wouldn’t have survived the war whatever happened. Still, that was how it happened. And it was a bit of a pisser all round.

And it was with these thoughts very much in her mind that, ninety-three years later to the very day, his great-granddaughter, being your current correspondent, alighted from the tube in the very same Finsbury Park dressed as a dead vampire bride, having been viciously mocked all the way from Bounds Green by the Filthy Hun.

My coy plan was to wait for the the kind darkness of Woodstock Road N4 before posying up in the full shebang of bridal-veil-with-dead-crumbling-roses-circlet, so there was no real indication between the black coat, white dress and black boots that I was actually dressed up. I had however done most of the make-up at home, and so it was with ashy countenance and bloodied lips that I plonked myself onto the Piccadilly line opposite two very blonde, very sleek, very nicely dressed young Hildebrunnas who were agen-flagen-eine-kleine-baden-badening away at each other like a pair of diplomat’s daughters.

I get oddly put out when tourists are confident and relaxed on the tube. Is it not crowded and hot and confusing enough down here for you? I’ll have you know this is the most god-awful transport system of any city this important anywhere in the world! The maps are enigmatic hieroglyphs, the platform names perverse and meaningless (having people choose between “Northbound” and “Westbound”. I ask you), the announcements inaudible and the scrolling electronic updates totally redundant unless you are going all the way to Rayner’s Lane and have a short-term memory problem that requires a reminder of this fact to be displayed to you every ten seconds. And there they sit gabbing away in total unconcern as if they were on holiday or something.

But I digress. The kling-mit-schlagklang-klugenfartening stopped abruptly as Mortimer the Great-Granddaughter enters the carriage. I get a couple of odd looks from people who notice the vampire bite on my neck (red nail varnish actually; worked a treat, especially when it started flaking off and looking like a dark clot) but this is nothing to the mocking, balefully flaxen stares of the Hildebrunnas.

They commence to giggle in German at what they clearly believe is my awful make-up. After a while, as an experiment, I take out my mirror and survey my dead bridal face with immense satisfaction. More giggles. I can sort of see what they mean. If you come from a country where there’s no such thing as (a) a Halloween dressing-up tradition or (b) a joke, you might not tumble to what I am about. I am just using ordinary powders and highlighters and whatnot, not actual facepaint, so I probably just look dramatically overdone to the casual, and humourless, and stupid, onlooker.

I start to play little mind-games with them, carefully adding a dab of Sparkling Ice White Eyeglide here, a top-up of dark-Goth-red Lipfinity there, holding the mirror at arm’s length and pouting at myself. It is not difficult to keep their attention. They are actually trying to catch my eye, the better to laugh at me, and I stare unpleasantly at one of them for an eye-wateringly long term before she looks away. Ha, one-up to the People’s Republic! But this is only the beginning.

By the time we pull into Finsbury Park I am almost chalk-white and my mouth and eyes are as red and black as a roulette wheel, and the Hildabrunnas are almost beside themselves with sniggery rudeness.

It is Time! The Mortimers will have their Revenge!

So I glide from my seat and, ignoring their screams of horror, puncture their jugulars and suck all the blood from their veins before alighting to the platform and moving smoothly towards the Wells Terrace exit with a beatific smile playing across my ghastly features. Take that, jerry.

I am reading over the results of the Cross River Tram Consultation published by TfL in September (just don’t ask). The first question requires respondents to give their views on the proposed route from Euston to Waterloo.  77% gave positive views about this route and 11% gave negative views. This much I understand.

But 12% of respondents apparently went further and “expressed spontaneous support for a tram on this route”. Which presumably means they approached the questioner, unable to contain themselves, and started talking about it.

You, sir! You look like a sensible chap, I’ll wager you’ll agree with me, sir, when I say that what this country needs, dammit, is a tram that goes from Euston to Waterloo, what what? Else we’ll all go to the dogs. Haaaaaaaaaaaaarrgh [bursts into flames]

Perhaps these people are always hanging around railway concourses waiting to buttonhole the incautiously still. What serendipity that in this case they happened upon the person taking the Cross River Tram consultation survey.

T’other night I traced the usual twenty-two step route home from the pub after a hard evening’s grass roots research (findings: not even very drunk men will listen to me talking about income tax for very long, a number of people plan to vote for Greenpeace, and far more people plan not to vote at all because It’s All A Conspiracy Against the Working Man) and hied me in a slightly deflated mood to the chippy. Therein I proceeded, for reasons best known to myself at the time, to order a battered sausage and chips in French.

My long-established kebab procurers at this hallowed spot are three Turkish Cypriot brothers and they absorbed my latest eccentricity with their usual aplomb. On further – and slightly halting – enquiry, it turned out they spoke English, Turkish, Greek, French and German. Not all of them necessarily well enough to confide their suspicions about the Conspiracy Afoot Against the Working Man, but more than well enough to cope with a request for battered sausage and make light-hearted chitchat the while. We didn’t get into the specifics of how they had acquired their languages (the issue of coleslaw being more pressing) but I imagine we’re talking a mixture of picking things up on the job when you have lived in more than one country, and a schooling system taking its cue from the fact that you might well want to work in or move to western Europe.

Which got me thinking, as I go about my daily business in modern Lundun, that it is getting more and more incongruous that French is still taught in UK schools as a matter of course, and then after that basic priority has been satisfied, the other European languages are addressed in an ever-widening geographic circle. Surely we no longer need to be fashioning fledgeling diplomats to deal with that bounder Napoleon. Yes, it comes in handy on the Calais fag-run and when going to the Loire with your parents because you can’t afford a holiday for yourself, but those things are not so far as I know a priority at the Department for Children, Schools and Families (unless my People’s infiltration of focus groups has been working exceptionally well of late). France is not the sole default holiday destination choice any more. And, as is now acknowledged in select circles, the French abandoned Calais in disgust years ago and English people have unbeknownst to themselves been running it and forming its entire (purely diurnal) population ever since.

The justification always put forward at school was that French was in common use as a business language all over the world, which I accepted without question, envisaging the many shiny corporate situations in which I and my schoolfellows would chicly strike deals in French in glass-sided buildings before laughing coquettishly and going out for a cafe creme and a cognac-flavoured eclair (though, oddly, never once needing to ask how to get to the beach). But it strikes me now as a feeble piece of reasoning in the context of polyglot Britain – why are we preparing people for putative ill-defined business transactions in French-speaking nations when I can’t even say hello to my kebab man in his mother tongue? It is actually bloody odd that we know how to say “thank you” in French, Italian, Spanish and German but not in Somalian. How many times in your life are you going to be called upon to thank an Italian who will literally never have heard the words “thank you” before?

This is, admittedly, more an urban thing at the moment, but the marked absurdity can only spread across the country with time. The language I hear most often hereabouts is Polish – or at least I think it is because it sounds a bit like I reckon Polish should sound based on my extensive internal reference library of terrible old war films, but frankly it might just as easily be Lithuanian, Moldavian, Romanian or Martian. The Polish population of Haringey went up by 3000 in 2005/06 alone – that’s 3000 people who are basically stuck with talking to each other until they’ve watched enough Saturday night tv to pick up workable English (and how frightening is that?) The other major first languages abroad in the magic borough are Turkish, Greek, Arabic and Somalian. In not a single one of those do I know any of the words for “Hello”, “can”, “I”, “have”, “a”, “battered”, “sausage” or “please”. I don’t even know whether you could frame such a sentence. Maybe it is not possible to form questions in Arabic, and requests have to be made as a statement with a very polite expression. Maybe there is no first person pronoun in Somalian, and a battered sausage has to be ordered “for one’s stomach”. I really don’t have the least idea.

The focus on linguistic exchange is, of course, all the other way round. I have no reason to doubt the generally accepted proposition that integration is only successful where a real attempt is made on the part of the immigrant to learn the host language. But I don’t know why some reverse flow shouldn’t be a good thing – it would assist in breaking down prejudices, make people feel welcome, surely increase the speed at which the incomers pick up English. The Bishop of London went so far as to call for (why is it always “call for”? As if people go to the top of a very tall tower, blow a trumpet and begin “I DEMAND…”) a GCSE in Somali a few weeks ago, which I think is maybe pushing it in a curriculum where language teaching hours are shrinking - but why is that anyway, if not because the benefits are no longer as obvious as they used to be? By treating language as a practical tool for daily life rather than a potential corridor to a shadowy future career you don’t remember signing up for, one might even bolster the quality and vitality of linguistic schooling. Which, as anyone else who is young enough to remember Tricolore text books will know, is not in good nick in blighty. The only reason I can speak French well enough to order a battered sausage is because I chattered in a bastardised version of it every day with someone I lived with for a year. I don’t know quite how the decision was made to adopt a sort of whimsical pidgeon French as our private language, but it was certainly a policy which came dramatically unstuck when we went on holiday to Bruges, and a smattering of Somalian wouldn’t have gone amiss at all.


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