Madazine - Part Nine

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic
Another collection of zany articles on various themes.

Submitted: January 28, 2017

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Submitted: January 28, 2017




Imparting The Spin

As so much has been said about government departments putting their own slants on various matters, it was decided recently that the public should be offered a way of evaluating objectively what is said by politicians. How could this be done? In view of the prevailing high level of mistrust, a feeling emerged that a universally respected observer should be engaged. Perhaps nobody fills that role to perfection, but few would argue against the appointment of Sir Bertram Utterside, sometimes described as Britain’s Logician Laureate. The renowned nit-picker was given the job and his recommendation is given below:

I regret to say that my work on other and more substantial matters was interrupted by the request to deal with this commonplace one. However, I have given it the thought it deserves. There is no point in my going on at length, as the solution is obvious. We are dealing here with the question of political leaders purveying their ideas. Well, they have their axes to grind, but how are we to interpret what we hear?

It is clear that politicians are a necessary evil. An advanced society should not need them, as its members would be aware of their rights and responsibilities. For the time being, our country, like all others, needs people to look after the shop while most citizens go about their business.

We must think of the offices of prime minister, chancellor of the exchequer, foreign secretary and home secretary as the most influential ones, exercising control over lesser lights. Defence, education and health are bottomless pits, into which the whole national budget could be thrown, perhaps without significant improvement to the results produced. Clearly, they must be restrained by more senior departments.

At the highest levels, let us take the job of home secretary. The incumbent is on a hiding to nothing, being no more able to pander to the ‘string ‘em up’ lobby than to the high-minded liberal one. Such sympathy as I have with our leaders goes in no small part to the holder of this office.

With regard to the position of foreign secretary, it has been said that diplomats are people sent abroad to lie for their countries. If this is so, the head of foreign affairs must function as the chief dissimulator. Small wonder that the person concerned often seems to act like a cat on hot bricks, executing a delicate tap-dance around the truth.

The chancellor of the exchequer always has much to answer for. Whoever is in that position often recycles figures in ways that can be made to demonstrate almost anything, for example that we somehow manage to remain a global titan, active everywhere abroad while simultaneously achieving great improvements in our own public services. All this without any increase in taxes as a proportion of our gross domestic product. Some trick!

I will not dwell on the duties of the prime minister, who has to pull everything together and speak about whatever is topical. This is an onerous position, demanding that the holder has a view on each one of a vast range of subjects. And no allowance is made by the public for lack of awareness of anything on the PM’s part. The masses do not permit ignorance in those they believe should be omniscient.

What we need is a department charged with the duty of assessing the pronouncements emanating from other offices of state, in much the same way as I once suggested that auditors should be rated by an independent agency. My proposal is that we set up a Ministry of Credibility, the remit of its chief being to rank other ministers as to the soundness of their statements. The scale would be on the star basis, ranging from five for top performers to one for the duffers. Obviously this new body would be detached from political parties, not changing with their fluctuating fortunes. The credibility minister would have the job for a long period and would need to have unimpeachable credentials with regard to impartiality. It is not for me to suggest who might best fill the role for the first time.

Though the new ministry might well have the information it needed to bestow its ratings on those actually in office at any given time, the awarding of stars would be on a retrospective basis. The idea here is to encourage ministers to be as candid as possible while in parliament. They would then be sure of recognition of their good work, after the event, for example when they treat us to their memoirs – price £16.99 in hardback. A former holder of high office receiving a five-star accolade would be sure of peddling a large number of copies, while a one-star performer could hardly expect anything but a resounding failure.

To anyone who feels that I have been a little harsh on politicians, let me say I am profoundly glad that we have people willing to enter parliament. Some of them get saddled with tasks that most of us wouldn’t take on. Who would like to weigh the merits of, say, selling a vast quantity of arms to a dodgy foreign country against not doing so, the second option putting thousands of people here out of work? And what about the financial mess we are all in? The politicos may have allowed that to happen but they didn’t cause it, and it is small wonder that they have trouble dealing with it. The only people who might know how to get us out of this pickle are the money-jugglers who got us into it, and even if they do know, they won’t tell us, will they? I have no more to say on this subject.

* * *


And now, without further ado, I would like to introduce our main speaker for today, the Reverend Bernard Railing, who I believe is better known to some parishioners as the Railing Reverend. Take it away, Bernie.
Thank you, Canon Fodd . . . er . . . Hodder. I had heard that you can always be relied on for a snappy intro. Good morning everyone. It surprises me to think that although I have long been a resident of our fair community, I have never before addressed you here. I know that you have often heard from within these walls and others like them, speeches laden with words of fire and brimstone. You will not get that from me. Instead, you will hear a message of comfort. My theme is thanksgiving – and not of the kind most often expressed in this place. I am thinking of how much we owe to so many groups who have been instrumental in making our much-admired society what it is today. Let me mention some of them.
We give thanks to the politicians, reckless spendthrifts on the left and frothing misanthropes on the right, for in the fullness of time they shall meet in the middle and all shall be well. We are particularly grateful that their deeds do not match their words, for if  they were ever to succeed in that respect, our leaders would always be doing something and we would never have a moment’s peace. I think it was Will Rogers who said that we should be thankful that we are not getting all the government we are paying for. We are vastly indebted to the foremost statespeople, past and present, who have exalted patriotism and persuaded their populations that foreigners are a devious lot and not to be trusted an inch. Without such cautions, ordinary folk of various countries might have mingled more freely in times gone by, and possibly have become friendly. Perish the thought!
We give thanks to the bankers, for their tireless efforts have satisfied so many of our material requirements. Through the exertions of those in the financial sector, we have, among other things, been able to continue selling our houses to each other at ever-higher prices until recently. That is no small achievement, since it fosters within us a sense of wellbeing. There are those who say that as a result of this phenomenon we are buried under a mountain of debt. But is this not a question of attitude? One might argue that rather than considering our position from under that mountain, we should think of ourselves as seeing the world from its summit, with the magnificent vista such a vantage point offers. Is that not a better way to view the matter? We need only preserve our equanimity to see the merit of this perspective.
We give thanks to the economists, for they remind us that we are negotiating treacherous waters. We are grateful also that every expert in this field is cautious enough to predict all imaginable outcomes, thus ensuring that one or other forecast is likely to be right, whatever happens. I recall hearing somewhere that if all the economists in the world were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion. That is clearly not so, for taken collectively – and sometimes even individually – they reach all possible conclusions. I would rather accept the other well-known remark, to the effect that if all economists were laid end to end, nobody would be in the least surprised.
We give thanks to the rating agencies, whose combination of assiduousness and wizardry  led those in charge of monetary affairs to accept that bundles of sub-prime mortgages were first-class securities, almost as good as gold. Without the assurances given by the agencies, we might have thought of the bonds as well-nigh worthless. How sad that would have been. And how beneficial it is to us that these rating people have long been able to do their work unhampered by a credible supervisory body to rate them. I think of the Romans who two thousand years ago pondered on the question of who should guard the guards.
We give thanks to the lawyers, whose serpentine casuistry enables us to resolve our differences by resorting to convoluted legal procedures, rather than dealing with them by the barbarously primitive method which we used to call common sense, but which, thanks to litigation, is no longer necessary. Were we not foolish to trust each other for so long, when we could have availed ourselves of more sophisticated channels?
We give thanks to those engaged in sport, especially the professionals, for they give us joy in more than one way. We marvel  not only at their prowess but also their peripheral antics, such as shouting, swearing, grunting, spitting, tantrums, biting of opponents and various kinds of cheating. In the last month or so, I have heard of impropriety in association football, cycling, athletics, horse racing and even cricket. I am also appalled by the continuing stories about people who take drugs to enhance their performances. This whole area has reached the position at which I feel it appropriate to make a suggestion. I propose that in each field of sporting endeavour there should be two strands of competition, one for those who play by the traditional rules and one for the dishonest types. I even envisage that when a season ends in whatever field, the champions of the two strands should have decisive encounters to see which method prevails.
We give thanks to the journalists, for whom good news is no news. Without their unflagging efforts to acquaint us with every detail of every mishap and misdeed throughout the world, we might find ourselves dwelling upon the fact that probably ninety-nine percent of us usually go about our daily business quietly and uneventfully. Perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we would be happier not  allowing ourselves to be distracted by the many sensational and salacious occurrences presented to us by the media.
We give thanks to the broadcasters, whose daily quota of syntactical and grammatical gaffes offers us so much entertainment. Without their contribution to our lives, we would be deprived of a great deal laughter. Only yesterday I heard a presenter, speaking of a task on which he had been engaged, say that he had made an effort to attempt to try and do the job. While no lexicologist, I would say that, at least in the case I have cited, the words effort, attempt and try should be regarded as synonymous. Perhaps the fellow had been struggling to swallow a thesaurus. I also wondered why one would  try and do something. Surely one tries to do it.
We give thanks to a large number of those in my own line of work, for verily many representatives of the clergy – I hope I may exclude myself here – have sought and still seek to keep us close to the straight and narrow path by constantly reminding us for centuries of how evil we are.  Were it not for this continual castigation, some of us might well have felt that we were not too bad. That just wouldn’t do, would it?  I am reminded of the observation that puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be having fun.
We in our town give thanks to the tourists, for we live in a seaside resort and are largely dependent upon these worthy people for our wellbeing. However, I am sure that we would appreciate the day-trippers bearing with them coin of the realm for procurement of their sustenance while among us, instead of bringing their own food and drink.
I could go on, my friends, but I begin to suspect that you have heard enough for the moment. I am also aware that we have reached the time of day at which most of our splendid hostelries are beginning to open their doors, and I can offer you no wiser counsel than to follow my example, for I shall proceed to the nearest tavern and take unto myself a sinful skinful. Make haste!

* * *


Below is a copy of a letter received recently in Madazine’s office.

For the attention of Mr W. Rider-Hawes, Editor of Madazine

Dear Sir,

Having tried unsuccessfully to get my views published by any one of the quality newspapers or periodicals, I am reduced to contacting you, more in hope than expectation that my comments will reach at least a few readers. No doubt some of them will share my exasperation at the fact that so much has gone wrong in Britain. I give below some examples:

•We have quangos and regulatory bodies headed by people who avoid responsibility by asserting that they cannot comment on individual cases. The obvious reason is that they were put in place on the ‘jobs for boys’ basis and never had any intention of being taken to task in respect of their supposed duties.

•What is amiss with our education system? Why are we repeatedly found at or near the bottom of the table of broadly comparable countries when it comes to literacy and numeracy? And why are we permitting vast numbers of people to study totally pointless subjects at our universities? No wonder so many of them can’t find work.

•Why are we allowing apparently unlimited net immigration at the same time as our indigenous people are breeding like rabbits, with the result that we are now close to having standing room only in the land? This is intolerable and something should be done about it.

•We are often told by our politicians that we are among the richest countries in the world. This is rubbish. Our national debt is already sky high and is increasing by leaps and bounds, thanks to the government’s failure to get the promised grip on our annual deficit. And why is it that this ‘rich’ country of ours seems to exist in a state of permanent crisis? During the last week I have heard that the National Health Service is on its last legs, that the lights are likely to go out very soon and that virtually every other country in Europe has, in terms of daily consumption, at least twenty times as much gas in stock as we have.

•Clearly the less well informed among us are being misled – and not only by politicos. The media play their part. I will not go into what is heaped upon us by television and newspapers. Radio alone will illustrate my point. The broadcasters concerned tolerate very sloppy standards. In the last couple of weeks I have heard a plethora of grammatical, syntactical and statistical errors while listening to what is widely regarded as a flagship radio station.

•Radio transmissions are also responsible for a great deal of illness in the land. Why? Because they are constantly talking about diseases. If one were to listen to the station I referred to above for a while day, one would hear the most dreaded medical conditions mentioned time and again. I maintain that listening to Radio X can seriously damage one’s health.

•Why, in this supposedly enlightened age, are we choking in traffic? When trying to get around my hometown on foot, I cannot cross the narrowest alley without having to wait for at least one car to drive into or out of it. We should be getting masses of people onto the existing railway system instead of contemplating an absurdly expensive high-speed line which will benefit only a handful of expense-account junketers.

•Still on the subject of walking, I recently decided to take my daily stroll in a small woodland glade near my home. It took me only three weeks to abandon the minor pleasure of that outing. Why? Because I tired of the need to take with me a shopping bag which I filled with litter each day. Incidentally, many of my other walks are ruined by people bawling into mobile phones.

•The last item above brings me to noise in general. Why do so many people seem to revel in it? For example, some of my neighbours have visitors who leave late at night, spend about ten minutes shouting their goodbyes, then add to the cacophony by tooting car horns as they finally depart. And why do people insist on making such a din with their car doors? If one puts any door of almost any vehicle within an inch or two of closing then presses it gently, it shuts with a click. So why the proprietorial slam that seems to state ‘this is my car’, as though the owner has some reason to be proud of possessing what millions of other people have?

The points I have raised here do not cover everything I have in mind with respect to what is amiss in our country, but I am conscious of the need to be brief.

In conclusion let me say that if I were able to take charge of our affairs for a while, I believe they would be conducted in a more orderly and efficient way.

Yours truly,

Abimelech Jones

Editor’s note. Well, Abimelech, or as I have already come to think of you ‘Bimi’, you must have a very large chest because you’re getting a lot off it. I haven’t seen or heard such a barrage of complaints since a day in 1947 when I pinched my sister’s skipping rope to get in some practice for a boxing bout. So nice of you to put us on your list of possible outlets for your bile, though we seem to be quite a way from the top. Well, we are nothing if not eclectic here at Madazine, so as you see, we are airing your social critique.

I note that you addressed your letter to me personally but did not ask for my response. You are going to get it anyway. Look, Bimbo – hope you don’t mind the further familiarity – most of us know what’s wrong with the world in general and our benighted land in particular. However, we are short of people with ideas for putting things right, and you don’t offer many proposals. That’s hardly constructive. Incidentally, your broadside omits some of our institutions. You don’t mention the legal professions or the police service. Looks like sloppy work, Bim.

My wife rates me highly as a moaner, but I consider myself merely a talented amateur, whereas you are clearly a consummate professional. I note that your last paragraph seems to indicate your desire to take control of our country. This suggests to me that your forename is appropriate, as I seem to recall that the original Abimelech was a power-hungry lad.

We have discussed your letter here and have concluded that you need something to lighten your life. With this in mind, we have had a whip-round and are sending you a parcel. It contains a smoked carp, a roast grouse, a packet of whinger biscuits, a roll of whine gums, a bottle of gripe water and a little flask of herbal medicine for your apoplexy. Calm down, Bimmers. Editor

* * *


Monday morning:
Bob: Welcome, Jane and John. You’re the latest recruits to our sales team and I just need to say a few words to you before you start, which you’ll do in about ten minutes. You’ll spend your first four days out in the country. Your two areas are near enough identical in size and numbers of potential customers. Friday is your day for operating in town, where you’re likely to make more calls than on any other day, but your success rate will probably be relatively low because the townies are fairly resistant to salespeople. As you know, we have only one product, the Goodypak, and owing to production problems, we must for the time being limit sales to one per customer.
Each week we give a prize to our most successful newcomer, so on this occasion that will obviously go to one of you. You need to know that the main criterion is not the number of calls you make, but the rate of conversion to sales. The reason is that you get generous travel expenses, so as far as we’re concerned, the less motoring you do, the better. For example, four weeks ago we had two fellows in contention. One made only fifty calls in the week, but he got thirty sales. His rival made ninety calls and thirty-four sales. The first chap got the prize because he’d clocked up barely half the mileage that the second one did. That’s all I have to say. Now, off you go. We’ll meet here again after you finish work on Thursday.
Thursday evening:
Bob. Hello, Jane and John. Nice to see you. Now, we have a most interesting situation here. You’ve each recorded sixty calls and twenty-eight sales. Good work. As you’re running neck and neck I’m really looking forward to what you achieve tomorrow. We’ll get together when you’ve finished your day’s work. Good luck.
Friday evening:
Bob: Here we are again, Jane and John. You’ve got through your first week and both of you have performed well. You’ll remember that you were level-pegging when we met yesterday and I now have to deal with your figures for today. John, you made thirty-six calls and got four sales. Jane, you made twenty-seven calls and got only one sale. So, the prize must go to you, John. Step forward and –
Jane: Hang on a minute, Bob. You said on Monday that the main criterion was the conversion rate from calls to sales. Now, I admit that John and I were level yesterday evening and that he did better than me today. But that’s not the point. If you add his thirty-six calls and four sales today to his earlier score, you get ninety-six calls and thirty-two sales, which amounts to exactly one sale per three calls. If you add my twenty-seven calls and one sale today to my previous score, you get eighty-seven calls and twenty-nine sales, which also works out at precisely one sale per three calls, so there’s nothing in it.
Bob: That can’t be right. Wait a moment . . . Oh, it is right. Well, that’s baffling. Seems ridiculous but there we are. Funny things, statistics. Well, we don’t have anything in the rules about overall sales, so although John’s were slightly higher, I’ll divide the prize equally between you.
Jane: I still think it should go to me.
Bob: Why?
Jane: Well, you said on Monday that you liked us to keep travel to a minimum, on account of the expenses. You also pointed out that John and I had areas of the same size, with the same customer potentials. We compared notes just before this meeting. If you look at our two itineraries, you’ll see that I planned mine quite carefully, whereas John criss-crossed his tracks a number of times, so I drove three hundred and fifteen miles and he did four hundred and eighty-seven. I’ve cost you far less for my travel, made nearly as many sales as John has and equalled his conversion rate. I think I’ve been the more effective worker.
Bob: Good argument, Jane. I have to admit that you’ve floored me on two counts. I’ll give you the prize and I have to say I think you’ll go far in this organisation. Sorry, John. Close but no cigar, as they say.

* * *


Much has been said recently about national and regional identity. This issue is topical in the UK and elsewhere. So concerned have many people become that experts decided to solicit an independent opinion. Few will be surprised that they chose that intellectual giant Sir Bertram Utterside to offer it. Never one to pull his punches, the one-man think-tank tackled this matter in his familiar forthright way. His views are given below:
When this task was handed to me, I was told that it was widely thought of as a Herculean one. Perhaps most people would have found it so but I have not. Indeed, I hardly needed to move from my study to reach an irrefutable conclusion. Still, I picked up a nice little earner here and we all have to eat.
A short while ago some fellow said to me that he was a Londoner, born and bred, and proud of it. I asked him why the pride and he seemed to be puzzled. I pointed out that he is a resident of our capital city as a result of his birth and I saw no reason why he should give himself airs on that ground.
I am a Yorkshireman but am neither proud nor ashamed of this. It is simply a fact. I am also an Englishman, to which the same comment applies, as it does to my being a European. Above all, I am citizen of the world, and I fail to see why I should have any particular emotion about that.
There is no contradiction concerned with being, say, a Glaswegian, who is a Scot, a Briton, a European and a dweller on the Earth, nor is there any reason for pride or shame in that identity. It simply happens to some people. Why should we take upon ourselves any aura attributable to where our forebears lived or what they did or did not do?
It is as well for us to remember that great minds have cropped up at random all over the world for many millennia. Why should I be proud because Isaac Newton was an Englishman? I had nothing to do with his achievements. And why should a friend of mine who is a native of Leipzig be proud because Newton’s contemporary Leibnitz came from that city, or another acquaintance in France rejoice in the fact that, say, Voltaire shared his nationality? Nonsense.
If there had been any human beings on the Earth many millions of years ago, they would at a certain point have been either Laurasians or Gondwanalanders, since there were only two continents and no countries. At another time, had humans been around, they would all have been Pangaeans, as there was just one great land mass.
Further tectonic shifts and continental drifting will make nonsense of the national borders we recognise at present. This comment leads me to an amusing thought. I have a Canadian colleague and am having a vision of him starting to read ‘War and Peace’ in Vancouver and finishing it in Vladivostok, without having moved from his chair. No doubt one could regard that as the ultimate in armchair travel. Just my little joke.
It is increasingly obvious that many people are reaching across the boundaries of nation states because they have more in common with those of like mind in other countries than they have with most of their own compatriots. In that respect, the English language has been as much a blessing to contemporary communicators as Latin once was to the most highly educated people in Europe and some other parts of the world. I am not suggesting that English is superior to other advanced languages. As a polyglot, I believe I may assert confidently that it isn’t. Despite its numerous absurdities, it has prevailed because of a mixture of geographical, economic and general cultural factors. Any other major modern tongue would serve us well enough.
If we are ever to have any peace in human society, nationalism is one of the three things we shall need to discard. Another is organised religion, which I would say has not much to do with genuine faith or belief and never did have, except perhaps in a tangential way at times. I am aware that this remark will upset some people. My response to anyone who finds it offensive is that I am not in the habit of offering anodyne comments when addressing potentially controversial subjects. I do not advocate banning religion because I am no great friend of proscription in general. In saying this, I am mindful of Ronald Reagan’s remark that one cannot roll tanks over an idea. However, I predict that religious indoctrination will wither away as people increasingly take responsibility for conducting their lives, instead of allowing preachers of whatever ilk to tell them how to behave.
The third thing we must abandon is too obvious to need much comment from me. It is the aggressive and confrontational mindset that has dominated virtually all of our recorded history. I will note merely that it is bad enough that we have to contend with what nature throws at us. We surely do not need to augment our troubles by slaughtering each other. I realise that it will take quite a while for the less evolved among us to grasp this point, so my advice is that they should start trying to do so now.
Returning to the main point of this report, national identity, I say do not be either happy or sad that you appeared in a particular part of the world at the time you did. After all, you might have been here in an earlier incarnation and may come again in another. If so, who knows what or where you were, or could be? Take me for example. It is quite possible that in contrast to my current eminence, I was in some previous existence a humble hod-carrier on life’s great building site.
This supposedly problematical issue is in fact very simple and I have no further observations to make about it.

* * *


The item below is another letter received recently:

To the editor of Madazine

Dear Sir,

I feel you might be interested to learn of an astonishing experience I have had. My reason for contacting your organ rather than any other is that I have had much pleasure from reading Madazine. Not only that but my astounding adventure was made possible by my conflating two things I found in your pages, namely certain technical aspects of the work of Professor Jopp and a comment made by the galactonaut, Dweedles. The former inspired me to produce a spaceship able to achieve Earth escape velocity with minimum effort, while the latter steered me towards the concept of tachyons, which until my exploit were regarded as only theoretical particles, moving at exclusively superluminary speeds.

Working with a range of simple everyday materials, I constructed a spaceship which I call the Tachycraft. I launched the vessel in secret and quickly got away from the Earth’s gravitational pull. After adroitly adjusting my controls, I found to my gratification that I was in the tachyonic world, where I discovered that one can travel any speed one likes, so long as it is faster than light. There is no need to resort to the spacewarps so beloved of science-fiction writers.

My objective was to visit a star I had spotted in a galaxy 5 billion* light-years from us. I calculated that this body was about six times as massive as the Sun. I got to my destination in what seemed like no time but was astonished to note that the star I sought wasn’t there, nor was the rest of the galaxy in which I had first seen it. I returned to the Earth very disappointed.

I am not prepared to divulge any technical details, either about the Tachycraft or my navigational methods, but I do feel that the world needs to know that our so-called cosmologists are clearly wrong in telling us where celestial bodies are located. It is high time for these supposed experts to return to their drawing boards and make greater efforts to get their figures right, in order to avoid more pointless journeys like the one I undertook. I feel that publication of this letter in Madazine might be helpful to other pioneers in the field of space travel.

Yours sincerely,

Hanno Magellan

* Please note that in the interests of wide understanding, I am employing this term in its currently most widely used sense, meaning one thousand million. I do not approve of this, but accept that I am now in a minority. I believe the point has been touched on elsewhere in Madazine.

Editorial response from Axel Griess: Oh, dear, what are we to say to you, Hanno? Well, quite a bit. First, your clearly contrived identity gives the game away. I remember that Hanno made an epic trip along the coast of Africa about two thousand four hundred years ago, and most of us know about the great Magellan voyage. Having tried to deceive us with an obviously spurious name, you then give us a tale full of holes.

First, there is no evidence that tachyons exist. They are found only in the fevered imagination of some fantasists. If such particles were real, I’m sure they would not have, as claimed in your letter, a seemingly infinite range of speeds beyond that of light. I think your Tachycraft is inappropriately named and I would rather think of it as the Tacky Craft.

Second, neither I nor anyone else will believe that you picked out a single star so far away. Even with the best equipment, you would have had a hard time trying to observe anything smaller than a whole galaxy at that distance. But let us suppose for argument’s sake that you defied all known technology and did what you claim to have done. You say the star in question was six times as massive as the Sun. Well, didn’t that give you a clue as to the futility of the preposterous journey you had in mind? It should have.

If an object of six times the Sun’s mass emitted light five billion years ago, it would have burned out far in the past, so you wouldn’t have found it. Also, a star of that kind would, in coming to the end of its life, have collapsed and become a black hole. In that case, had you reached its location, it would have gobbled you up – which would have spared the rest of us your load of bunkum.

Finally, you appear to have completely failed to take into account the expansion of the Universe. By the time you got to the spot where you say the star was situated, it would have moved billions of light-years further from us, so you wouldn’t have found it anyway.

Hanno, or whatever your real name is, if you wish to perpetrate the hoax of the century, you will need to pay attention to details. However, I suggest you abandon any ideas you have about exploits in outer space and attempt something relatively unambitious, such as a totally unaided flight from a very tall building. AG

* * *
Harold:  Hello.
Muriel:  Hello. Is that you, Harold?
Harold:  Of course it is.
Muriel:  I just wanted to know.
Harold:  You phone me at this time every day, Muriel. Anyway, what’s new?
Muriel:  I had a visitor this morning and I need your advice about what he said.
Harold:  Fire away.
Muriel:  Well, he offered to do a lot of work on my house at no cost to me.
Harold:  Sounds too good to be true, Muriel. What does he want to do?
Muriel:  He says he’d start with cavity wall double glazing.
Harold:  What? I’ve never heard of anybody putting double glazing into a wall cavity.
Muriel:  He claims it’s a new system that works by injecting glass and PVC into the wall then, as he put it, reconfiguring the mix in situ.
Harold:  Astonishing. What else does he have in mind?
Muriel:  He suggested coating my windows with expanded polystyrene.
Harold: Muriel, if he does that, you won’t be able to see anything outside.
Muriel:  I can’t see much now. I’m almost eighty-four and my eyes have been failing for years.
Harold:  I don’t believe this. Is that all?
Muriel:  No. He wants to insulate my loft.
Harold:  I hardly dare ask this, but how?
Muriel:  He intends to put a six-inch layer of concrete on top of the joists.
Harold:  But that will come . . . oh, never mind. Tell me that’s the lot.
Muriel:  No. There’s one more point. He wants to supply me with solar panels.
Harold:  They won’t do you much good. You live in an inside back-to-back row house and the only bit of roof you have faces north. There’s very little sense in having solar panels up there.
Muriel:  Oh, he doesn’t want to put them on the roof. He says the best place is my cellar.
Harold:  And did he explain how the Sun is going to shine down there?
Muriel:  I’m leaving that to him. He seems quite sure he can do what he has in mind.
Harold:  So, to sum it up, he proposes to inject double glazing into your cavity wall, cover your windows with expanded polystyrene, lay six inches of concrete on top of your wooden loft joists and fit solar panels in your cellar. Have I got everything right?
Muriel:  Yes.
Harold:  And there’s no charge for this work?
Muriel:  No. He says it’s done through government subsidies. All he wants from me is five hundred pounds for the survey, which he’ll do this evening if I want to go ahead. There’s just one small thing. He says he’s in the process of changing his banking affairs, so it would simplify matters for him if I’d pay in cash before he leaves, about ten o’clock tonight.
Harold: Do you have five hundred pounds in the house?
Muriel:  Yes. Now, would you say I should let this man do the work?
Harold:  Muriel, you already have secondary double glazing, which is old but good enough, so reject the idea of having your windows coated. Now, as a retired builder I can tell you that it took many years for the industry to perfect cavity walls, so I don’t see why anyone would want to have them filled. Therefore, say no to that one. As for the proposed loft job, six inches of concrete would fall straight through your bedroom ceiling and probably the living room one as well. You’d most likely be squashed as flat as a pancake, so I’d refuse that too. And I’ve already covered the solar panel thing.
Muriel:  So you’re saying I shouldn’t have any of these things done?
Harold: I am.

Muriel: All right. I’ll take your advice. I suppose he’ll be disappointed, and he seems such a charming young man and so confident.

Harold: When you say charming, I think you mean ingratiating, although I’d rather think of him as smarmy. And as for his being confident, the word itself gives you a clue. He’s a confidence trickster, Muriel. As for the five hundred pounds, I think you should lock it up somewhere safe – before this chap gets back.

Muriel: I’ll do that. Thank you, Harold. I’ll call you again tomorrow.

* * *


A startling new project has begun in the north of England. It is the brainchild of Kevin Spout, who invited Madazine’s occasional science contributor, Axel Griess, to examine progress in the undertaking. “This will change the world for all of us,” says the enthusiastic Mr Spout. The site is the back garden of a small house in a suburb of Sheffield, where Kevin (43) lives with his wife and two children.

So far, the only thing to be seen is a square of freshly turned soil, in the middle of which is a hole, one inch in diameter. “This is my second go,” said Kevin. “I had to abort the first attempt when I hit a water main shortly after I started work. I sealed the puncture with parcel tape, which I think will hold – not that it matters much because the water people lose a lot through leaks anyway.”

Kevin explained that his new hole had reached a depth of eight feet, after a week of drilling. He then revealed the extent of his ambition, saying that he intends to bore down to the Earth’s centre. He expressed surprise that what he has in mind is not obvious to most of us. “I’ve done my research,” he says. “People who’ve studied these things reckon that our planet has a huge core of solid iron, surrounded by an outer layer of the same stuff in molten state. Now, it stands to reason that this is because such a weighty metal has worked its way down by gravity. What I realised is that iron is not the only thing that’s got there. Obviously, even denser elements must have plunged right to the middle.”

Asked to expand, Kevin chuckled. “It’s plain enough,” he said. “I’m going to get right through the iron and locate the really heavy substances. I mean gold, platinum, uranium, osmium and so on.” He went on gleefully: “Talk about the mother lode. My results will make that Klondike affair seem like somebody finding a penny in the street.”

Pressed for further information, Kevin said that when he gets to his goal, he will extract the valuable metals by a process he has devised. He will not publicise the details but says that the method is somewhat like fracking. His timetable is flexible, though he hopes to be producing on a commercial basis in the very near future.
Some interest has been shown by three US entrepreneurs, Hank Wellcap, Bob Gusher and Tom Derrick, all with long experience in the oil exploration business. “I guess you can put me down for a couple of dollars,” says Gusher, by which he doubtless means two million. Wellcap also seems willing to put a toe into the water. “I’ll need to speak with my partner, Jack Rigg,” he says, “but I reckon he’ll go along with me for a buck or two.”

Not everyone is convinced. The Spouts’ next-door neighbour, Alice Neutron (94) hopes to sell her house and move away before, as she puts it: “Kevin blights the area with his silly idea.” She may be too late to up stakes.

Eminent Swiss geologist Heinz Bienz – yes, he gets a lot of ribbing from his anglophone colleagues – is worried. “I fear the worst,” he groans. “This man has no idea what he is facing. He appears to have immense faith in his tungsten drill, but I would remind him of two things. First, this metal melts at about 3,400 degrees Celsius, whereas it is estimated that the temperature at the Earth’s core is between 4,000 and 7,000 degrees, so Mr Spout’s equipment could not reach his target. However, that is irrelevant because the second thing is that the pressure down there is well over three million times the level at the planet’s surface, so even if the apparatus were the most robust ever devised by human ingenuity, it would be crushed long before getting a chance to liquefy.”
London-based engineer Horace Mandrill agrees and adds: “Apart from everything else, I am horrified by the thought that if he were to succeed, Spout might well haul up a less desirable heavy element. I refer to plutonium. Should he somehow release a pound or two of that into the atmosphere, it would be goodbye to Britain? I shudder to think of what other lethal cocktails he might spew over us if by some freak chance he were to succeed. Incidentally, at a rate of eight feet a week, it would take him nearly two years to drill through a mile – and it is 3,963 times that distance to the Earth’s centre. This fellow should be locked up in a very secure place.”

Reaction from leading Australian mineralogist Bruce Spruce was dismissive and scathing. Interviewed at his home, a converted lighthouse near Alice Springs – don’t ask – he vented his bile. “When I heard what this Pom is up to, I could hardly contain my indifference,” he sneered. “Boring is a word thatmakes me think of either holes or yawns. In the case of Spout’s effort it’s the latter. This caper is about as interesting as a koala’s armpit. The poor daffydil hasn’t a chance. I won’t dignify his scheme with a detailed appraisal. Just wake me up after he’s bungled it.”

The ebullient Kevin is undismayed by these observations. He retorts: “Like another man who said recently that he was inspired to a great adventure by reading Madazine’s accounts of the great Professor Jopp’s work, I got my impetus from the exploits of the Green Giant from Norway. I shall be as triumphant as he has been in his enterprises.”

Our reporter advises caution. “Keep your heads down,” he says. “As sure as my name is Axel Griess, something will go wrong here.”

* * *


The topic of subsidiarity has become so hot that the decision was taken to commission an authoritative report on this sometimes controversial subject. Who would be capable of tackling such a difficult theme? None other than Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of the UK’s most prestigious seats of learning, and recently dubbed the country’s Thinker-in-Chief. Fortunately he was available, so he cleared the decks and gave the task his full attention, reporting as follows:

This silly little matter is not worth much of my time, but dealing with it brings in some of the folding stuff, which is always welcome. I am almost tempted to present my conclusions without explaining the reasoning, much in the way that Sherlock Holmes initially offered his solutions. However, I recall that he did divulge his trains of thought, at least to Watson, so it would be remiss of me to deprive readers of similar courtesy.

It has taken a long time for our world to coalesce into the array of nation states we have today. Most of them are fairly stable, so it is interesting to note that there is in some quarters a desire to tamper with the present position. Doing this may have limited justification in a few cases, but there is no convincing argument for widespread upheaval, and I shall now indicate why that is so.

Subsidiarity, most often encountered in its political application, is a fancy way of expressing devolution, i.e. some affairs controlled centrally, others regionally. This has been much discussed, especially in the European Union. It is sometimes invoked by those who see the prospect of being big fish in small ponds. I would advise everyone to exercise caution when listening to these people because it is likely that if they reach positions of leadership, their practice will be in inverse proportion to their earlier preaching. In short, beware of dictatorial ambitions.

Let me go through this matter of ever-greater devolution. It will start with countries being split, the main consequence being that the resulting  components will have, even in total, less influence in the world than the original entity had, i.e., the sum of the subsequent parts will amount to less than the previous whole. This is clearly contrary to common sense and is a very unsatisfactory outcome.

The next step would be splintering of the successor bodies, let us say to about the size of UK counties. Local bigwigs won’t stop there. The process would descend to cities and towns, then to areas no larger than the current British council wards, finally going down to single streets and in some cases large individual properties, such as mine. I will not divulge where that is, as I don’t wish to be besieged by admirers. Finally, every house, street, ward, town, city, county or whatever region would have its own prime minister, finance minister, etc. These people would have impressive titles, but no influence in the wider world. They may well be nominally similar to Pooh-Bah – The Lord High Everything Else in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado – but they might have a hard time matching that gentleman’s power.

Another development of the fragmenting might be that people in certain streets would emerge as more aggressive than those in neighbouring ones. It does not stretch the imagination to envisage the bellicose types preying on gentler folk, motivating the victims to band together to resist unwelcome attention. This idea would spread, leading to areas the size of whole wards making common cause against ruffians. Then it would go further, encompassing towns and cities. There could be only one logical culmination to this process. In the interests of security and of having a voice in the world, the once-devolved mini-states would form unions, taking us back to where we were before the dismantling began.

It has been noted many times throughout history that humankind has a tendency to make the right choices – after trying all the wrong ones. Need we experience this yet again? I think not. My conclusion is that subsidiarity is all very well, provided that it is it properly understood and implemented. By this I mean that decisions should be taken at appropriate levels – big ones by the authorities best placed to deal with them. And what are those bodies? The nation states we now have, of course.

I recommend that we leave things largely as they are, rather than take our administrations to pieces then rebuild them in what would most likely be ‘new improved versions’. We all know what that means. Many years ago, a perspicacious American fellow remarked: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I suggest that our current position is not in need of repair by indiscriminate decentralisation. Though not totally happy about having choices made for me by a government far from my home, I am not foolish enough to think that my own options would invariably be better than those selected on my behalf, and I am glad to be relieved of the necessity to make up my mind about an endless list of issues. That is all.

* * *


Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beeeep.

It’s ten o’clock here on BBC Radio 4. Well, it’s ten o’clock everywhere else in the UK too, so why we inform you several times a day that we’re in line with the rest of the country, I don’t know. Maybe it’s an attempt to boost the popularity of our station. Whatever the reason, this is the news, read by me, Ronald Futterworth. And here’s another thing. It’s a mystery to me why our masters at the Beeb insist that we newsreaders tell you who we are. I mean, you don’t really care, do you? You know that we’re merely announcers, continuity people, humble hod-carriers on the great building site of life. We just do as we’re told and take our pay. Anyway, here we go:

There was violence in the Middle East today. What a surprise. I can hardly remember the last time there wasn’t some mayhem going on in that part of the world. Bombings, shootings, rockets. They don’t learn, do they? However, we Europeans are hardly in a position to look down our noses at anybody, right? In the last century we caused the two greatest wars of all time, so we’d be best advised to refrain from lecturing other people about their shenanigans.

The House of Commons was even more raucous than usual today. Insofar as it was possible to understand anything amid the bawling, the main subject was our economy. The government claims to be steering us into sunlit uplands, while the opposition says we’re so deep in the mire that we’ll never get out of it without a change of administration. If I mayparaphrase a comment made long ago, the more one listens to politicians, the more one feels that each party is worse than all the others. If you want my opinion, we’ll never extricate ourselves from this mess, no matter who holds the reins. The slanging match was largely devoted to how much red ink we’ve accrued. Well, I can tell you that. Think of our national debt as Mount Everest and consider that we’re adding a Matterhorn-sized chunk to it every year. We’re a nation of credit junkies. It makes me sick.  

Now to business news. It seems that another of our most prestigious companies is about to be gobbled up by some slavering foreign predator in another hostile takeover. So, we appear to be selling off a bit more of the family silver, eh? It’s amazing that we have any left. If there’s much more of this, we shan’t own the clothes we stand up in. It’s a tragedy if you ask me – but you won’t, will you? And why should you? After all, I’m a non-entity. I . . . oh, there goes my mobile phone. Back with you in a jiffy. . . Here I am again. Sorry about that. I swear I’ll deposit this wretched instrument in the Thames one of these days. Now, where was I? Ah, yes, I understand that the boss of the firm that’s about to disappear will pocket a barrowful of loot as compensation for his skill in running the concern into the ground before it’s peddled off. He did the same with his previous company. What a character! He’s a self-made man who worships his creator.

The main UK stock market went up quite a bit today. As a casino, it puts anything in Las Vegas into the shade, doesn’t it?  And don’t get me going about the currency exchange thing. That’s even worse. Most of the wheeler-dealing in that field has nothing to do with genuine demand for foreign money. Talk about snouts in the trough – and they’re all as bent as hairpins. But enough of that.

I suppose you’d like to hear something about sport. First, football. What a farce that is. A bunch of overpaid louts kicking and biting each other and spitting all over the pitches. It’s disgusting. Well, there are no UK teams left in any competition of significance, so I won’t dwell on that activity. For the fancypants types among you there’s a big tennis tournament going on. I forget where it’s taking place but here again, all our people have been knocked out, so let’s not detain ourselves with that. There’s also a cricket test match in progress. I’ve mislaid the score, but never mind. I mean, you’d hardly call that a sport, would you? I see it more as a mildly competitive ballet, in which the participants find any excuse they can to waste time and do as little as they can get away with.

Now, since this is what is often called the silly season, we at Broadcasting House usually sign off with some trivial filler. We drop that when there’s anything interesting going on, especially something nasty. It would be exciting to finish by reporting one or two juicy disasters, but having scoured the world for such items, we’ve drawn a blank, so I’ll end with one of those daft things about a fire brigade rescuing a cat from a tree, this time in the Midlands. Sadly, our army of reporters can’t come up with anything better. Ah, well, that’s my lot for today, and a good thing too. To be frank with you, I’ve been reading out all kinds of twaddle here with a sober voice and a straight face for over fifteen years and there’s a limit to what a chap will tolerate. I can’t take any more, do you hear? I’ve had enough, enough –

“This is the producer of Radio 4 news broadcasting. Please accept myapologies for what you have just heard. I’m afraid Mr Futterworth is unwell. The next full, authentic news bulletin will be read at midnight by another member of our staff.”

Off microphone: “Hey, you in the white coats. Get that man out of here.”

* * *

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