Sunday, 28 December 2008

In Praise of the Strange

Here we are in the hiatus between Christmas and the New Year, work has either stopped or, if still going on, does so in a rather lacklustre manner as everybody waits for the next party to get underway.

This is, of course, a season with as many obligations as delights and it was to fulfil one of these that I and, so it seemed just about everyone else in town, headed for the local cemetery on Christmas day afternoon.

As usual the resulting scene was a somewhat hectic one as cars struggled to pass each other on paths built to be wide enough for a hearse and a horse and crowds of distracted relatives wandered here and there looking for the final resting place of Aunt Mabel with, more often than not, a pack of wailing children in tow. I have long imagined a cartoonist looking at the resulting scene and drawing a latter day Derby and Joan standing poised mid wander as the former says in exasperation ‘well they can’t have moved her.’

For the past decade of so the annual trip up to the cemetery has been cheered, for this visitor at least, by the site of a tree at the edge of the most popular plot decorated, by whom I have no idea, with tinsel and a fine selection of glass baubles, the latter, we have this year been helpfully informed by the industrious Education Minister Ed Balls, present a greater danger to the continuation of human life that the bomb and the cholera bacillus put together.

The survival of this instance of public eccentricity in a world bothered more with each passing year by the battalions of earnest types employed a the public expense to prevent almost any activity you can think of on the grounds of health, safety or its potential to cause offence provided a lift to the spirits and a reminder of just how often the strange intrudes upon the mundane business of everyday life.

Take, for example, the sight that confronted me when, whilst walking down an unremarkable suburban street one evening, I happened to glance into the front window of one of the houses only to see a man wearing a brightly coloured shirt, sombrero and Zapata moustache dancing enthusiastically to some unheard flamenco rhythm. If an Englishman’s home is his castle, that night the court jester was clearly working overtime.

Another instance of the strange intruding upon the ordinary occurred late last summer and this time made the front page of the local press.

One morning in August this year staff at a branch of Wilkinson’s in Newcastle under Lyme found to their surprise a deer, don’t ask where it came from since that is a mystery likely to remain unsolved, perusing the shelves of their store.

The response of the staff and manager, as relayed to a local journalist who must have been no less gobsmacked that I was reading it later, was so wonderfully British it deserves to win a prize. There was no panic, no wild shooing and shrieking as they tried to drive the beast out, they just watched calmly as it trotted up and down the aisled and then back out into the street as if having decided to take its custom elsewhere. Afterwards the only comment passed by the store manager was that the deer seemed to find the floor of the shop a little slippy.

Whatever shocks and scares the year to come has in store for us all I am sure that so long as the great British capacity to remain eternally unfazed by the strangeness of the world we should just about muddle through.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Christmas on the Credit Crunch.

The festive season is upon us again, and, if the newspaper editorials are to be believed, it is going to be a rather grim affair this year. An impression only reinforced by the ‘helpful’, in their view of things, advice on how to celebrate the season on a budget being dished out by the BBC on what feels like an hourly basis.

As the old song put it, there may be trouble ahead, quite serious trouble since unemployment levels and government borrowing have both been on the rise since the autumn.

Anyone wandering the streets of an average British city would be hard pressed though to find any specific signs of impending doom. There are no fewer houses decorated with lights to look like cut price versions of Las Vegas than there were last year, although now homeowners are more likely to switch the lights off when they go to bed rather than leave them burning all night long. Whether that is a consequence of higher electricity prices or year round lecturing on environmental issues changing public behaviour is anybody’s guess.

In the high street the shops are full although their windows are uniformly papered over with large SALE signs this isn’t, perhaps, such a gloomy time at which to be a consumer. For the first time in recorded history the great British customer is being treated like something other than a nuisance by retailers who until recently would have referred to him or her as ‘footfall’, mostly because they are desperate to have the customer’s feet fall through the door of their shop rather than their competitors.

There is a definite feeling that change is imminent, Christmas and with it everyday life from this year onwards may well be less about aggressively aspirational consumption and more about valuing the things you already have, and that may not be such a bad thing.

For all its manifest faults Britain is still a remarkable country. It is blessed with countryside of unparalleled beauty, which since the exchange rate is pricing more and more Britons out of foreign travel we might be persuaded to visit and, more importantly, value far more than we have previously. The British people have a residual stoicism about the slings and arrows thrown at them by outrageous fortune that has been masked, but not entirely erased, by the ‘where there’s blame there’s a claim’ culture that has been to the fore in recent years, as times get tougher expect it to make a comeback.

We have one other and precious thing for which we should be thankful, Britain is and will always, I hope remain, a free country. Journalists and angry men in saloon bars can call the government a pack of fools without fearing arrest, while the jury remains out as to whether Gordon Brown can revive the economy in the same way he revived his political fortunes over the past few months, but if he should prove not to be up to the job the public will be at liberty to vote him out of office, something people in far too many other nations can only dream about doing to their leaders.

The good news, and boy do we need some of that just at the moment, is that bad times like good ones do not last forever. Whatever the coming year may have to offer in the way of shocks and scares one thing remains certain, for all that the credit crunch has knocked it down somewhat Britain is anything but out of the game.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Childhood As It Used To Be.

On the Tuesday of this week as another wave of bad weather swept over the country, causing the usual chaos on the roads and an army of bargain hunters converged on soon to be defunct Woolworths stores the dearth of a quiet, good and never fully appreciated man was announced.

His name was Oliver Postgste and his passing will have saddened every Briton born before about 1980, he it was who gave us the sublime, sometimes surreal and always comforting world of Bagpuss, The Clangers and Ivor the Engine.

Despite the enduring popularity of his creations Postgate spent the past twenty years in a wilderness created by the people who presume to determine fashion and was only rehabilitated when it was time for the same people to deliver eulogies to his passing earlier this week.

The problem was, as they saw it, that the children’s programmes he created were too ‘nice’, meaning they all contained the subversive message that if people behave well and work together the world is a better place, they also, as the best programme making for adults and children alike always does, committed the cardinal sin of treating their audience like intelligent human beings rather than passive consumers.

The message may have been subversive, but it is also very timely, last year UNICEF delivered a damning report on the state of modern British childhood, they didn’t, even in the poorest homes, find evidence of starvation, at least not of the physical kind, what they found was evidence of a sort of starvation of the spirit. Despite the material riches available to them British children came out as being more miserable and pessimistic about the future than most of their European counterparts.

A lot of rose tinted nonsense is talked by adults about the innocence of childhood and yet something does seem to have gone badly wrong with the way this country raised its children. They, through their parents, seem to be stalked by an all pervading paranoia that sees a potential abductor lurking around every corner and a fatal accident hidden within even the most carefully supervised activity.

As a result modern children play outside less than their parent’s generation, have their imagination stunted by an education system bound by ever more prescriptive testing regimes and, all too often see the wider world only through the distorting lens of the television screen. All of which should prompt concern about what sort of adults they will grow into, crabbed, nervous and timid ones would be my guess, the sort of people dictators and charlatans have always seen as their natural constituency because their ignorance about and fear of the big bad world makes them easy to manipulate.

Whether any of this will change is impossible to guess, perhaps one should hope for the best whilst all the time preparing for the worst. It does though make what children watch on the television that may be their only window on the world beyond the confines of home more important than ever.

The need to be shown that humans, or brightly coloured space aliens made from old socks in the case of the Clangers standing in for them, are made civilized first and foremost by their ability to work together and that no authority figure is so grand or terrifying as to be immune to the sort of mockery that cuts them down to more lifelike proportions. They need, in fact, to be exposed to the sort of programming Oliver Postgate produced before people who will be remembered far less fondly at their own passing because they brought less joy into the world decided he was unfashionable. How wrong they were, he was a man ahead of his time and we are all made a little poorer by his passing.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

A New Age of Austerity? Not Quite.

The past week has been one of the coldest of the year and, with the timing that typifies their trade, it was also the week when the engineers arrived at my door to fit a new central heating system. For four days I shivered indoors and shivered whenever I stepped outside; wore several layers of clothes when I ventured out to buy my morning newspaper and went to bed wearing not much less.

At the risk of sounding like someone on the verge of delivering a homily it was an instructive experience. Not least because this week Britain has been told in no uncertain terms that it must take drastic action in order to meet its obligations on carbon emissions, that means coal fired power stations will have to close and energy prices will rise as alternative sources of energy struggle to keep pace with demand, pushing another 1.7million people into fuel poverty.

In short, wearing our overcoats indoors could be the shape of things to come for most Britons.

Certain decades seem to attract a one word description that sticks permanently in the public mind, so the sixties will always be thought of as swinging, the 1890’s as naughty and the current decade, christened the noughties, probably by a sub editor somewhere forced to work on Millennium eve, seem, if the past six months are anything to go by, on their way to wresting ‘austerity’ from the grip of its former owner, the forties.

The gloomy message being put out by press and politicians alike is that hard times aren’t coming; they’re here and they’re here to stay. While, as the word of an old song put it, there may be trouble ahead, I don’t think comparing our situation to that faced by our grandparents makes sense.

The shops may have windows plastered over with SALE signs, but there are things on the shelves to sell, if you can get the credit to pay for them. How very different from the not so roaring forties when the motto for shoppers was whatever you want you can’t have it.

Food prices may have risen alarmingly but there is still more than enough food to go around, whatever else keeps Gordon Brown and his cabinet awake at night it isn’t worrying about shortages turning into a full blown famine and the resulting public anger boiling over into revolution. The Attlee government faced just such challenges in the first couple of hungry years after the war and it is to their credit that they and the country survived more or less intact.

The current economic problems serve to highlight the differences rather than the similarities between our generation and that of out grandparents. The depression and then the war had taught them not to panic at the first sign of trouble because there may be something worse around the corner that would require all their reserves of resilience just to survive.

The world, however brightly we make it glitter with things we’ve bought on credit is and always has been built on sand, from time to time the foundations shift but they have never yet, thankfully, sunk completely. If the past fifteen years was a playground of easy credit and guilt free consumerism then the current economic crisis should perhaps be prefaced by the wording of a sign that that hung by the exit of a bar I used to frequent some years ago, it read: ‘You are now entering harsh reality.’

Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Way We Used To Shop.

Woolworths is no more, the former retail giant has become the latest victim of the credit crunch.

As feature of the British high street it will be much missed, not all that long ago we used to troop through its doors to buy everything from cheap household goods to the latest hit single, at least we did until it stopped providing the things we wanted at a price we were willing to pay.

The fall of Woolworths brings to mind the demise of other retailers the fickle British shopper fell out of love with.

Remember C&A? For years they were the butt of jokes for the pedestrian styling of their clothes, fit for middle managers living in Middle England perhaps but not the sort of thing people with pretensions to style would want to be caught dead wearing. Actually they sold decent clothes at bargain prices, rather like current high street favourite Primark, but fashion spoke and, eventually they walked the plank into oblivion.

A more poignant memory of how we used to shop related to the small independent traders that operated near to my childhood home in Shelton, all of which have gone the way of C&A and Woollies.

There was Stevenson’s, the newsagent, where every Sunday morning a parade of children would present their pocket money with the plaintive cry of ‘what can I get for this?, quite a lot as it turned out.

Bennett’s on the corner of Cauldon Road, the sort of shop that sold only what its owner thought there was a ‘call for’ in the neighbourhood, meaning noting remotely ‘exotic.’ There was, I recall, an antique bacon slicer on the counter that made a reassuring clunk as it went about its business.

The most exotic shop of them all was the splendidly named Shelton Model Home Store, an emporium that sold everything in the hardware line from a single screw to a fully working steam engine.

They are all gone now and, until recently, I would have said the business model under which they operated was consigned to history too. People didn’t want personal service they wanted to visit vast malls on the edge of town where they could be bludgeoned into indecision by endless choice, now I’m not so sure.

If these frightening economic times have taught us anything of value it is that the customer is king, Woolworths and the other once great businesses that will surely follow it into oblivion forgot that simple fact to their ultimate cost.

Perhaps the answer isn’t a change to the levels of VAT designed to get people back into the habit of spending, perhaps the answer is to go back to the sort of practices favoured by yesterday’s small shopkeepers.

They may have been decidedly conservative in their tastes but they never stocked anything they couldn’t sell and they knew, without the benefit of having studied for an MBA, that if you look after your customers they will look after you in return.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Britain’s Week Of Shame.

By now a sea of words has been written about the brutal murder of the child who has become known to the nation as Baby P.

The photograph of this nameless toddler looking into the camera with the innocence of which only the very young are capable has flashed around the world and must, for those with long enough memories have recalled another picture that, in any other context, would have seemed sweetly mundane. It showed two boys leading another child by that hand, taking him off not to play but to meet a brutal death.

The picture related, of course, the murder of James Bulger in the early 1990’s and it, like the picture of Baby P has become a symbol of horror and social decay.

Try as I might I cannot join the chorus of voices heaping blame on the social workers who abandoned Baby P to his lonely death, they are far from innocent and yet, social work is hardly a profession people enter with dreams of earning vast wealth, rather it is one they enter because they have a conscience and a desire to do good, as such the guilt they will feel for the rest of the days over their failure to act is a punishment harsher than any court of law could ever hand down.

Our righteous anger should, instead, be directed at the system within which they were obliged to operate.

A system exemplified in all its callous arrogance by Sharon Shoesmith the head of Haringey Social Services who, seemingly without shame, told the press following the trial and conviction of Baby P’s killers that her department should be absolved of all blame for his death because the correct procedures had been followed.

For decades the British have laughed at pompous and self serving officialdom, its foolish diktats are regularly mocked by the tabloid press and generally ignored by the population at large. Now we know the truth; now we know there is nothing at all to laugh at in the bureaucratic mindset that dominates so much of the public sector. It is cold, self serving and, when applied to the most vulnerable members of society, more dangerous than a loaded pistol in the hands of a toddler.

While we are in the mood for apportioning blame we should be prepared to address our own culpability in the tragic death of Baby P.

The British public has stood by while whole housing estates have been turned into dispiriting reservations for the disadvantaged, blinded by the astronomical rise in the value of our own homes we failed to ask our political masters why they failed to build sustainable communities alongside affordable housing and why they’ve now lost the will to create either.

We ignored the plight of people struggling to get by on benefits while maxing out our own credit cards, watched industries and the towns they shaped die but failed to act to end the curse of long term unemployment that hands misery on from one generation to the next in case it added a few pounds to our tax bill.

None of this excuses the behaviour of Baby P’s parents, their actions were evil and deserve to be met by an ultimate punishment our judicial system no longer has the courage to enforce, but those of us lucky enough not to live chaotic, brutish lives on the bottom rung of the social ladder must accept responsibility for preventing such crimes from happening again.

If we do not then ‘the correct procedures were followed’ may well join ‘I was only following orders’ in the shaming lexicon used by societies that choose to ignore the suffering of their dispossessed underclass.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Typically British.

We live in an age when the opinion poll is king. They help to choose our governments, give the press something to print on a slow news day and keep the whole nation informed about what nine out of ten cats prefer to find in their food bowls.

Opinion polls, if such an exercise carried out by a company going by the name of onepoll.com are to be believed, can also give the rest of the world some useful pointers as to the British character.

We are, according to the poll, fond of a cup of tea and TV soap operas; we’re generally polite but feel awkward about expressing our emotions in public, needless to say we enjoy nothing more than a good moan.

The poll also highlights our national talent for queuing; some wags have said that if the British ever conquer the world they will do so in order to teach everyone else how to form an orderly queue.

Queues in Britain must be the one thing that visitors marvel at more than anything else; they are impeccably orderly and totally spontaneous. This national gift for standing in line has even been mentioned recently in the pages of the rather austere cultural magazine Standpoint, with Jonathan Foreman commenting on the eminent good sense behind out habit of always standing on the right when riding an escalator so that people in a hurry can pass on the left.

Nobody taught us to do this, it just seems to be hardwired into our brains that it is the done thing, and long may that continue to be the case, so long as I can see people waiting patiently in line I will know that despite all predictions to the contrary our culture isn’t yet ready to crash into the rocks.

One aspect of the British character that seems to have eluded the diligent souls at onepoll, or the 5000 Britons they surveyed anyway, is the way we use the word ‘typical.’

In her book ‘Watching The English’, which is probably the standard work on the character traits of the largest nation in the UK, the anthropologist Kate Fox describes the use of ‘typical’ as a despairing exclamation as our national response to the frustrations thrown in our path by life.

It is both a symbol of our deeply pragmatic understanding that this isn’t and never will be a perfect world and a symptom of a resigned apathy that means we are more willing than most peoples to put up with dirty, overcrowded trains, stifling bureaucracy and inept governments.

One last thing the poll manages to catch with perfect clarity is our national obsession with the weather, as a spokesman for onepoll told the press this week, ‘You can’t go anywhere or do anything in Britain without someone talking about the weather. We’re almost proud of our rain.

Quite so, in no other nation could reading the weather forecast on television be a passport to minor celebrity. In fact in no other country would a poll than identified the inhabitants as a group of grumpy tea drinkers obsessed with the weather and standing in line be greeted as an amusing diversion rather than a damning indictment or a heinous insult.

Perhaps, as the spokesman for onepoll said ‘what this poll demonstrates really well is how proud we are to be British.’

Despite all the minor frustrations that go hand in hand with living on this damp island those are sentiments with which I cannot help but agree.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

The Remarkable Mr Hamilton.

I have never given much currency to the idea that sports people can serve as role models for the young or anyone else. The wasted talents and truncated lives of the likes of football legend George Best have always seemed to provide ample evidence that a modicum of talent expressed with a ball at your feet is no guarantee of anything in the way of strength of character.

This week though a unassuming young man made his way the centre stage of our nation’s sporting life who seems to be the exception that proves this sad rule, his name is Lewis Hamilton and last Sunday he won the Formula 1 championship.

His story is as simple as it is inspiring, born of ‘humble’ origins in Stevenage his triumph against all odds has been based on old fashioned values such as family loyalty and hard work. How refreshingly different from the here today, forgotten tomorrow celebrities of the reality television age thrust into the limelight as moral exemplars for the young.

The reaction to his success has though been rather more complex, last Monday the national press and many of the phone in shows that are now a staple of the radio network were filled by hymns of praise to his victory and vicious attacks on his status as a tax exile in Switzerland, often delivered by the same person.

Much of this, of course, is another round in the war staged by the British public against anyone who has the nerve to be successful. In general we prefer our sporting heroes cut from the cloth of one time Wimbledon hopeful Tim Henman, plucky types who know above all else how to lose with dignity.

Encountering someone like Hamilton who manages to win with dignity tends to throw us, not least because it is a reminder that we might not be an island of hopeless amateurs after all, we might actually have the capacity to cut a dash in the world, if only we were a little less complacent and tried a lot harder.

I have not, until now, mentioned Lewis Hamilton’s race, not least because like most Britons I feel it neither helped nor hindered his eventual success.

I say most Britons think like this , but there are, of course, some painful exceptions, take for example Formula 1 Chief Bernie Ecclestone who claimed that the Spanish fans who blacked up to mock Hamilton earlier this year were merely making a joke at his expense and everyone should stop making a politically correct mountain out of a Spanish molehill.

He was wrong, the Spanish fans knew their actions were liable to cause offence and they should have been punished, if only to show that the sensible majority has moved forever out of the caves of crude stereotyping.

In a week when another man of mixed heritage achieved a success that astounded the world we must give consideration to the comments to the effect that while we have a black British F1 champion we may never have a black Prime Minister made by Trevor Phillips head of the Race Equality Council.

While I disagree with his claim that the UK’s main political parties are ‘institutionally racist’, I am willing to concede his wider point.

Both Lewis Hamilton and Barack Obama succeeded due to their innate talent and steely determination, qualities that vault the barriers of race, class and gender set up by human societies.

Too often in this country we accept mediocrity in sport, politics and other areas of our national life because we are hidebound by tradition and fear the uncertainty that must be the companion of change.

In a week when the world’s greatest nation said ‘yes we can,’ we in the UK seem, to our cost, to still be too inclined to say ‘no we can’t.’

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Hear Middle England Roar.

By now enough, probably too much, has been written and said about the prank calls made to the actor Andrew Sachs by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand as part of a Radio 2 programme presented by the latter.

Far more interesting than the chorus of disapproval that has led to Brand’s resignation and Ross’s suspension for three months is the agency that brought about their downfall, the so called moral majority lodged in Middle England.

The term applies more to a state of mind than a specific geographical location and is used as a sort of shorthand for a type of stoic Englishness that is permanently at odds with all things fashionably metropolitan.

Middle England is both a derisive term used to denote small minded, cautious, lower case conservatism and to call up a mythic land of village cricket matches and old maids cycling to evensong through the mist by politicians who find themselves out of favour with the commentating classes.

Although it is mocked and appealed to almost daily middle England is seldom understood. Not least because it troubles the fashionable few by resolutely standing by those unfashionable, but necessary, values that make a society civilised.

Hard work done for the reward of a fair wage, quiet patriotism that is undeceived about Britain’s failings but chooses to emphasise the country’s good points, treating people in the way you would wish to be treated yourself and that most definitively English of all concerns, fair play.

None of this is the least bit ‘edgy’ or ‘post modern’ in fact you could be forgiven for thinking the middle English are worthy but dull; you would be wrong.

They, or should I say we since I include myself amongst the ranks of the middle Englanders by reason of where I was born, Staffordshire, and most of my inclinations, have a sense of humour that is both literate and quietly subversive in ways that would never have occurred to the likes of Brand and Ross. An example of this is the Mac cartoons that have mocked the great and the good from the pages of the Daily Mail for the past four decades.

They are marked more than anything else by the other trait of the Middle English that applies to the matters under discussion here, our instinctive dislike of pretension in all its forms. Both Brand and Ross are guilty of the worst pretension of all, hiding their considerable intelligence behind a fa├žade of boorish stupidity, that sort of thing might be considered frightfully ironic amongst people who patronise the Ivy, but it doesn’t play at all well out in the shire counties.

Despite the fuss generated in the media both Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross will survive this particular scandal pretty much unscathed, history might not be so kind to them in the longer term.


Ross will be remembered, if at all, as a chat show host who more often than not went for a cheap laugh connected to a shocking remark rather than taking the trouble to emphasise with his guests. Brand, like most comedians, will end up bemusing and then boring his audience.

Middle England though will be around long after this scandal and its protagonists have been forgotten, forever out of step with ‘fashionable’ tastes but with its finger firmly on the pulse of what this country thinks and feels away from the glowing metropolitan centres.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Tricks And Treats Of The Season.

This week temperatures, like the stock markets, fell sharply, autumn, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, as the poet would have it, is well and truly upon us.

In compensation for the wet summer just gone and the bitter winter yet to come trees in suburban streets and public parks across the country have been aflame with shades and tones of burn orange that would not be out of place in a sunset painted by Turner.

Visiting Newcastle-under-Lyme, a market town near to where I live late last week the grinning pumpkins, cardboard skeletons and ghosts that owe more to Disney that any latter day apprehensions about the fate of the human soul on display in virtually every shop window reminded me that in a little less than a week it will be Halloween.

The annual festival of commercialised ghoulishness is, as Steve Roud’s The English Year reminds us a mostly modern creation, although it does occupy the eve of two festivals that were important to Medieval Christians, All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day, held, respectively, on the first and second days of November and may have links to older pagan celebrations.

Our interest in it as an opportunity for the young, and the young at heart, to dress up as spooks and sprites is of a rather less ancient vintage.

According to Roud it dates from the last three decades of the last century; that was certainly when the American practice of children going out ‘trick of treating’ on Halloween made is appearance in English life.

The premise is simple; youngsters in fancy dress go from house to house soliciting a treat in return for not playing a practical joke on the hapless householder. All good fun for the most part, although the tradition of children being taught only to call at those houses with their porch light lit as a signal the occupants are willing to play along that operates, so I’m told, in the US, has yet to make it to this side of the Atlantic.

As a result the editorial columns and letters pages of local papers across the country will be filled over the next week or so with angry commentary about the bad behaviour of a witless minority and its implications for the moral health of the nation.

Another concern has raised its head in relation to Halloween over recent years put forward by fundamentalist Christians that dressing up as a vampire and reading Harry Potter books is an accelerated entry scheme for eternal damnation.

Perhaps both parties need to calm down a little, the majority of kids out doing ‘trick or treat’ next Friday night will be well behaved, supervised and no trouble to anyone; let them have their fun.

It would be impossible to say something about an English Halloween without speculating as to just why so many adults want to get in on the fun, the pub a short walk away from my home is holding a Halloween Party complete with tarot readings and a witches brew bubbling in a pot by the bar and expects to do a roaring trade.

Perhaps there is a link between the rise in popularity of Halloween since the eighties and the decline over the same period of the economic and social certainties that were once a feature of everyday life.

If so then its popularity could rise to even greater heights, not least because the events of the past few weeks have taught us that life in the twenty first century is less secure than ever for all but the lucky few. Whatever tricks the local kids play on unsuspecting householders this coming Friday they are as nothing to those played on us all by the markets.