Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A report from the deep end

Gosh, when it rains here, it really means it.

For the second successive day, my sightseeing has been ended by the onset of a violent electrical storm and an attempt by the Mekong to reclaim these parts from the air. So I've retreated to the hotel for a workout followed by massage (no sniggering at the back, a real spa massage...).

Unfortunately, the Reunification Palace was closed today, due to the APEC (Asia Pacific

Economic Co-operation) meeting taking place here, with the Americans in attendance. I did get to the War Remnants Museum, which is quite dramatic.

Ho Chi Minh City also has an excellent post office (very French influenced) and quite a nice cathedral.

Must dash now though, next report will be from Seoul (probably)!

Monday, May 29, 2006

Who wants to be a millionaire? Looks like I have no choice...

Much to my own personal surprise, I find myself a millionaire today.

There are more than 30,000 Vietnamese Dong to the Pound so, on arrival, I hit the first ATM I found (for those of you planning on visiting Ho Chi Minh City, there are two at the airport and both accept Abbey-issued VISA ATM cards) and withdrew 2,000,000 Dong, in crisp 50,000 Dong notes.

So, what do I think of Vietnam so far? Travelling in the city is like being surrounded by a swarm of bees, with the buzzing of mopeds and 125cc motorcycles everywhere you go. Crossing the street is like crossing the start of a race, with ranks of riders waiting to surge away as soon as the light changes in their favour.

It's very humid here, with humidity at about 80% and when it rains, it takes it very seriously, with torrential downpours and fabulously explosive electrical storms. I sat one out drinking draught stout in the ubiquitous Irish bar, Sheridan's.

One of the quirky features of the city are xe om, which are motorcycle taxis. You don't need to flag them down, as there seem to be thousands across the city, eager to take you wherever you want to go (for a price, naturally!). Having spent four days in Mumbai riding around on the back of my uncle's bike, I wasn't terribly tempted but if the price of a taxi is anything to go by (13,000 Dong pick-up and 7-8,000 Dong per km thereafter), they're probably very cheap. Don't worry, they'll find you long before you start looking for them.

Ho Chi Minh City is a mix of free market vibrance and old-fashioned control economy. I found myself in a coffee bar which would look entirely at home in New York or London, with baristas, iced coffee and wifi access. Young people with laptops and western clothes wandered in and out, presumably discussing the sorts of things that young people discuss everywhere (unfortunately, I don't speak Vietnamese).

There is a stock exchange and you can read the overseas press, watch foreign television and unless you checked your passport for the visa which is headed 'Socialist Republic of Vietnam', you wouldn't really guess that you were in a notionally communist country.

I am certainly intrigued enough to want to come back for a real explore and, if you want to find out what a modern communist state looks like, this would be an excellent place to start. But don't delay too much, I can't imagine that it will stay like this for long...

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Good afternoon, Vietnam

So, here I am and boy, is it sticky? Walking out of the airport terminal was like walking into an outdoor sauna but, thanks to my prescience in arranging for a car to deliver me safely to the hotel, I was able to get to a place of sanctuary quite quickly.

My first impression is that Ho Chi Minh City is quite a lot like Mumbai, lots of people, lots of mopeds and small engined motorcycles. I'm looking forward to an explore this afternoon so, rather than rattle on any further, I'm off for a closer look at the Socialist Republic of Vietnam...

Taking protest to a different level

Curiously, given my thoughts on quotas in the past, the big issue in India in recent days has been the decision of the Government to guarantee 27% of university places to OBC (Other Backward Castes) students.

This attempt at blatant positive discrimination is entirely consistent with existing policy but the fear now is that, once the various quotas are accounted for, there are insufficient places left for children from India's increasingly large, urban middle class.

So the protests have begun and, for any student union politicians who might be reading this, you ought to realise that you are so far behind in terms of commitment that it might make you wonder why you bother.

To start with, protesting students have produced banners written in their own blood (yes, I did say blood, and I've seen the photographs) and then progressed to hunger strikes. One group have even approached the President to seek permission to be allowed to die! Given that I am opposed to quotas, you might not be surprised to hear that I am broadly supportive of their stance, if not their methods.

If a government is truly committed to improving take up rates for currently disadvantaged groups, they have to give them the means to compete. It must be accepted that for a nation like India, this is more than normally difficult, and it does clash with the country's bascially socialist ethos. But I can't help feeling that the knowledge that my doctor had earned his place because of who his parents were rather than because of his scholastic merit might lead me to seek a second opinion...

Oh yes, and for the benefit of one of my readers, Harley Davidson are looking to start sales of their estimable products in India. Should be interesting...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

It ain't 'arf hot, Mum!

It's 93 degrees, humidity is at about 70%, and I'm sheltering in an internet cafe near Eagle's Nest, the family manse here in Mahim, one of Mumbai's now inner suburbs - it's entirely relative, I know.

Having conquered my jetlag, I ventured into the city by bus to do a little shopping and to reacquaint myself with the sort of conditions that will be commonplace on this part of my journey (Vietnam will be very similar). The traffic was surprisingly free-flowing (if England's midfield is equally uncongested, we've got a chance) and I made very good time.

Mumbai is still one of the most vibrant cities I've ever visited, full of life, cattle, noise and street drama, and it is good to be 'home'. The next few days will be a whirl of family, and it's nice to be surrounded by familiar faces for part of this trip.

Tomorrow, I'll be hoping to rediscover the days of the colonial Raj, so more news then...

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I'm on my way from misery to Luxembourg today...

With apologies to the Proclaimers, and a few days too late... but I liked the line, and don't see why I shouldn't use it, just because I'm in Mumbai!

I somehow managed to get virtually everything done before I left for Luxembourg and, despite a few alarms, I reached my hotel safely on Saturday evening whilst my luggage enjoyed Saturday night in Frankfurt. Not a great start...

Luxembourg was surprisingly pleasant though, and quite easy to get around. So I went drinking in Wiltz (an eminently drinkable riesling for the record), castle exploring in Vianden and hiking in the Ardennes south of Clervaux. It's a very pretty place and well worth an explore.

Politics in Luxembourg is normally pretty dull but the latest French financial scandal (Chirac and De Villepin's apparent attempt to smear Sarkozy) has its heart in the Grand Duchy, as Clearstream, the financial institution alleged to have been used as the conduit for passing on slush money, is Luxembourg based. The locals are worried about the implications for banking secrecy, especially given that the country's wealth is closely linked to its ability to attract bank deposits from rich French and German residents - not always with an aim towards evading tax...

And now I'm in Mumbai, visiting my family for a few days before the next stop on the 2006 Valladares world tour, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

More news as it comes in!

Friday, May 19, 2006

An unexpected sense of loss

Today's word is 'weltschmerz'...

Pronunciation: 'velt-"shmerts
Function: noun
Usage: often capitalized
Etymology: German, from Welt world + Schmerz pain
1 : mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state
2 : a mood of sentimental sadness

I've not had a great day. I'm tired, I'm frustrated and, worst of all, I've only just realised it. There's a decided feeling of fin de siecle in the air and I've no desire to deny it anymore. I've been so busy trying to fulfil my obligations that I failed to realise that I wasn't enjoying them, and the very fact that I consider them to have been obligations is, in itself, somehow disconcerting.

So, what to do? Well, I could just write the longest resignation letter in history, and it would have to be to take in all the roles I've taken on over the past eighteen months. Alternatively, I could disappear in search of my sense of joy. Perhaps I might remember where I left it... So, let's see what happens if I use Frederich von Schiller as my inspiration...

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
was die Mode streng geteilt:
alle Menschen werden Brüder,
wo dein snafter Flügel weilt.

And with that, Mark was gone, who knew where, in search of who knew what.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

An apology can be a matter of honour

It has been brought to my attention that what I took to be a mildly amusing reference to one of my Conservative opponents has in fact really upset her. Now given my apparent reputation for being quite a gentleman at heart (I'm kind to animals, try to see the best in people and am loyal to my friends), I am disappointed that my frog-related postings have had such an impact.

Accordingly, it is therefore entirely appropriate that I offer a sincere public apology to Cllr Robin Crookshank Hilton for any offence caused by my reference to what is, to be frank, a bizarre and curiously anonymous attack on her character posted on the Internet. Given that I have no real interest as to what she, or anyone else, does in their spare time as long as it is legal, it would certainly be wrong of me to condemn, or even allude to condemnation of, her extra-curricular activities.

It is no defence to suggest that my series of frog references was merely an expression of a well-developed sense of whimsy (although those of you who know me will acknowledge that it is one of my more eccentric traits) and it is therefore a matter of honour to offer her this apology. A colleague will be conveying something a little more tangible as a peace offering, and I hope that it can be accepted in the spirit in which it is intended.

I would make one small request in return. If I do upset one of our local Conservatives again, and it isn't my current intention to do so, it might be more effective to approach me directly rather than approach our Group Leader. You see, it puts him in a rather awkward position because, whilst I have an ex-officio role within the Group as a Local Party Chair, he has no influence or control over me other than the regard in which I hold him. I actually like Nick a lot and am loyal to him and the Group, but still... just a thought, eh?

Monday, May 15, 2006

What about my human rights?

For liberal civil servants, it's been a pretty ghastly weekend.

First, the Government start to float the idea that the Human Rights Act is causing problems in terms of their crime and community safety goals. If that wasn't bad enough, this morning's newspapers are full of claims that our Prime Minister is proposing to 'rescue' public services.

The Human Rights Act was one of the key things that led me to believe in 1997 that a Labour government would be, on balance, not unbearable (it didn't lead me to vote for them but...). The concept that citizens might have certain inalienable rights was long overdue and it was, after all, Liberal Democrat policy.

Recent events have conspired to create an atmosphere whereby it is possible to link any instance where the criminal justice system has failed to a 'complication brought about by the Human Rights Act'. The fact that in every instance, the problem could more validly be connected to an administrative failure, is not mentioned. Why? Bureaucracy is hated even more than 'liberal lawyers'. If politicians (and I don't spare Liberal Democrats from this charge - are you reading this, Vince Cable?) insist on slagging off the civil service at every opportunity, you hardly encourage the best and the brightest to join, do you? Most errors are committed, quite innocently, by junior members of staff trying to keep the system operating with judicious use of string and sealing wax. Training is poor, procedural changes too frequent, reforms ever ongoing.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Pay your bureaucrats properly, get the best, and you could make real savings by cutting the number of staff needed to fix problems caused by not having the ability to do things properly in the first place. A lot of what we do is process driven and there are usually only limited options. The secret is to know what those options are and, most important of all, why each is relevant and what impact it might have.

And so we are to be rescued... by a man who, quite frankly, appears to hate us and all that we stand for. Earth to Leader, Earth to Leader, you've been in charge for nine years now, so it must be your fault, mustn't it? How long can you blame previous administrations before your credibility runs out? The public sector doesn't need rescuing, it needs some certainty and a little tender loving care. That doesn't mean throwing a shedload of money at it, nor does it mean increasing staffing numbers. What it means is coming up with a clear concept of what government does, what it can do and what it should do?

Here's an outline draft for you to play with...
  • government protects the citizenry from external and internal threats to its safety, defines a framework within which society interacts and provides core public services to enable equality of opportunity
  • government can enable people to take control of their own lives, create a level playing field of opportunity, not of outcome, and protect those less able to protect themselves
  • government should support freedom of the individual within the context of a free society, accept that its actions should be justified and, equally important, accountable and act as a force for good in a multilateral world
The concepts aren't difficult, the practice is, but it comes down to building a partnership with all of the stakeholders (to steal some classic New Labour jargon). I'm a stakeholder too, both as a civil servant and as a taxpayer. So at least look as though you care, can't you?...

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Reorganisation and angst in a corridor of uncertainty

I work for HM Revenue and Customs, as some of my gentle readers will be aware, an organisation which has had a few mishaps in recent years. Given that we raised approximately £380 billion for the Exchequer last year, you would think it self-evident that getting the structure right would probably be a good idea.

For many years, I toiled away, safe in the knowledge that I knew my management chain, could identify it most of the way up to the Board of Inland Revenue, and could be fairly certain that everyone in that chain had a vague idea as to what I did and where it fitted in.

Sadly, as the Department moves towards increasingly specialised roles, and away from the old concept of generalisation, I'm beginning to experience some existential doubts. I understand, and accept, that technology allows us to operate in ways unimaginable when I started but the old skills, whereby experienced officers could spot discrepancies, errors and evasions simply by reviewing a tax return have been replaced by risk analysis done by computer. The human touch seems to be being lost, at a time when the public are becoming increasingly keen on quality customer service.

We've also imported 'management skills' from the private sector, a concept which claims that a manager can manage any type of work as the skills required to do so are the same the world over. If only life were that simple... In a basic clerical situation, it may well be effective, but I work in an environment bound by tax law, and if you've ever seen a library of tax legislation, you'll understand how complex that is.

My current boss has had the dubious pleasure of managing me for more than a year now. He doesn't really understand what I do so ends up asking me for a report whenever an issue relevant to the group comes up for discussion. However, I'm not in those meetings so, if a counter-argument is put, he isn't equipped to fight our corner, a key role for a manager, I might suggest.

Since merging with our friends in Customs and Excise (they can kick down your door at four in the morning and requisition helicopters... am I jealous, you bet I am!), life has been one of permanent revolution, with new structures, new management jargon and the reconstruction of all that was recognisable as a chain of command. The latest rumour is that my team will be managed remotely by an Senior Officer (SEO, in old money) somewhere in London and Anglia Region. I look forward to discussing my promotion potential with someone seventy miles away who meets me once a month, if I'm actually at my desk.

I'm still loyal to, and care deeply about, the concept of HM Revenue and Customs as a core public service, after all, that's the very reason I joined the Department in 1986. However, it would be nice to be reminded in the midst of a maelstrom of reorganisation that someone out there cared about me...

Monday, May 08, 2006

Now that the counting is over...

And so, what happened to me in Village ward?

I suppose that I should be disappointed to finish behind the Greens but, given that they live in the ward and I don't, I can't really complain. I'll have to give some serious thought as to what I do next time, especially given our success in East Dulwich. If I want to be elected, I'm going to have to make a decision as to how committed I can be and if the answer is "not enough", I'll need to decide how else I can serve in the next four years.

In the meantime, there is much to do. I need to get my work as Regional Secretary up to date (fast!), deal with the outstanding paperwork from the election and get the house in order, all in just twelve days (yes, I'm off again...).

I still need some sleep too...

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The day of the two imposters

So, the campaign is over and the voters have spoken. Well, at least, quite a few of them have spoken... and what were the results?

In East Dulwich, our gallant crew swept all before them, especially our Labour opponents. The Conservatives made no impression and the squeeze message seems to have resonated amongst the electorate. Result - a 600+ vote majority for Richard Thomas, Jonathan Mitchell and James Barber...

Unfortunately, we weren't as fortunate in Peckham Rye and, despite their best efforts, Annie Bingham fell short by just 50 votes...

And in Knights Hill, our three candidates fell victim to the Labour surge...

You might be wondering what happened to me and the answer was that I came 10th out of 11, achieving 484 votes which, I believe, is my best ever tally. I'll write more soon...

Monday, May 01, 2006

And to think I had thought they couldn't get worse!

Alright, the lies and the attempts to scare little old ladies were bad, and it is 'unfortunate' that Charles Clarke has released more than a thousand foreign criminals onto our streets as part of his 'tough on crime' strategy, but I never thought that Labour would stoop to personal attacks on one of our candidates.

Banging on about the fact that your candidates are local is one thing (and I'm so pleased that you mentioned it, given the home address of our own dear MP - remember, Tessa Jowell lives in Kentish Town, some considerable distance outside of Dulwich and West Norwood), but attacking one of our candidates for moving ward is quite outrageous, especially given the facts.

Richard Thomas's first ward (Abbey) was abolished in the last round of boundary changes and he moved on to fight, and win, Chaucer in 2002. Since then, he's got married to Julia and has a new daughter, Megan, born last year, so they needed a larger place, so they moved to East Dulwich. As a result, he's given up his safe seat to fight something a bit tougher and, more importantly, close to his home (if his house was on the other side of the street, he'd live in East Dulwich ward).

And so, I have only this to say... Charlie Smith, Les Alden and Helen Morrissey, you are slime, and your agent, Jeremy Frazer, should hang his head in shame (look the word up, Jeremy, there's a good chap...). You have finally debased the political process to the point where you have nothing to offer other than to cast slurs upon someone who wants to serve his community and actually believes in putting something back into it. Are you proud of yourselves? Because if you are, you have disbarred yourselves from any respect from me, now and forever. Oh, and Helen, you should spend more time in church on a Sunday reflecting on whether your campaigning reflects a Catholic ethos. To save you having to think about that though, I'll tell you, it doesn't. Hypocrite!

You have one chance to redeem yourselves in my eyes, and that is to offer a full and public apology, but I suspect that you haven't got the moral or ethical guts to do so. Normally, I make a point of not making personal attacks on my political opponents, a standard which the four of you might well aim to aspire towards. Of course, you probably can't spell ethics, so I'm undoubtedly wasting my time, aren't I?