Hobble Christmas and we starve

Mid-October and the Christmas displays are already going up, in the hope that there will be Christmas. Shops are relying on it: the Christmas trade can be the difference between survival and bankruptcy.

Retail has taken a hammering this year because of the lockdown and several large High Street names have folded – we are not seeing the full effect until the economy wakes up and we see who is not there. Some are nominally hanging on to see if their normality returns, but they are insolvent, and will go to the wall unless the turn-round is dramatic. Christmas sales are a key to this. It is not looking good.

Retail is not linear, but many of its expenses are. A shop will be paying the same rent, the same rates and the same wages and National Insurance throughout the year; insurance, hire charges and licences will be annual sums reckoned evenly across the year; however income is not the same. In most businesses there is a Christmas rush, and that earns is the money which pays for those expenses.

It is not considered odd that hotels and B&Bs will pay the same rent and rates in the winter as in the summer but do all their trade in the summer: they make a loss in the winter by paying out with no income because they will make it all up in the deluge of custom in the summer. This may seem less apparent in the retail trade, but that is how the economics works here too: the shop can tick by over the whole year, feeling the market, building goodwill, training the staff, but waiting for the Christmas rush.

Many a business makes no net profit all through the year month by month until the nights grow short: the profit is to be made in the run-up to Christmas, which pays for all the year’s expenses. I have seen shopkeepers, ready to take a new shop on, begging to get it done in October because if they do not get the Christmas trade, they will pull out rather than sit on a loss-maker.

It is not just obvious businesses which have a Christmas rush either – it reaches all sorts of enterprises; even builders’ merchants and pharmacies see it. Consequently all the suppliers feel the rush, and all the professions which serve those businesses. They all rely on it.

Now though, the streets are quiet and the shops have fewer customers. They are in fear as Christmas approaches and customers are still being driven away, and there is no assurance that they will have their one profitable time of the year. To cancel the Commercial Christmas or even to hobble it will delete the year’s profit from the ledger, for the majority of businesses and their employees.

Essentially, it is necessary either to end the lockdown or face mass shutdown. It will not be pretty.

Local politics is back

Those letterboxes are waiting, ready to be filled with our leaflets. Local politics is back. I cannot see the rising enthusiasm, the volunteers hammering at the door. We have been giving it a rest, and when the elections were cancelled in May, well, it seemed we could give up on the intensive work we put in each year. It was very pleasant, actually.

We are not allowed to canvass (which takes forever and you cannot persuade most members to do it as they think they will be embarrassed. We can however stuff letterboxes with leaflets. We have the routes planned out, age-old routes we can do in our sleep ,and frequently do. Those letterboxes in all their deadly variety, and the dogs behind them, are waiting for our tender hands.

Is the thrill of the chase returning, the heart beating faster? Those strategically written letters to the local paper fed in over the last few months, and photo-ops set up (to which the reporter never appeared in the end) to familiarise the neighbours with your hard work – some have been doing that.

It has been too tempting though to roll into a ball and hide away from local happenings and the petty politicking of the town hall, which the voters care nothing about, until someone starts painting a yellow line outside their house, to ignore that local involvement and instead to find other things to do, like DIY, watching old films, or writing a political blog. There are things so much more interesting happening nationally.

It is time to rouse to remember where I live, and look about me, see what the past year has done to it, and work out why the council spends so much money for so little done, and what the local party says we can do about it (short of abolishing the council, but maybe that threat is a political point to play with). Did I see what they did down at the other end of the village? How is the local plan going and will there be any farm fields left this time five years hence?

The leaflets them and the press releases. There I stop: after all that has passed nationally and the complete change in focus, what on earth is there I could possibly write?

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I’ve got a little list: do you?

Writing the unspoken voice of the audience, Gilbert and Sullivan, wrote in frustration at the politicians of their day, who were exactly like those of our day. When Ko-Ko produces his ‘Little List’ it satirised the politician having a malicious crack-down, but it is a list of those the audience-member would persecute were they in charge, which would be sobering if it were not so funny, and liberating to say.

As some day it may happen that a victim must be found
I’ve got a little list — I’ve got a little list
Of society offenders who might well be underground
And who never would be missed — who never would be missed!

Every performer playing Ko-Ko changes the list to include his own pet gripes or the politics of the day, with nods and winks to the audience, which is exactly what G&S expected. Gilbert’s original stil holds up though:

There’s the pestilential nuisances who write for autographs —

Yes – they get the writers’ frustration in first. Apparently some people still bother celebs in that way.

And all third persons who on spoiling tête-à-têtes insist —
They’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!

Come now: in any of those endless tedious receptions the lone visitor is sent out into a room knowing no one and has to stand around like a lemon, with a compulsory glass in his hand, until he can contrive to interrupt some else’s conversation on the limpest of excuses. (A great blessing of lockdown has been avoiding those functions.) Have some sympathy, gentlemen

There’s the banjo serenader, and the others of his race
And the piano-organist — I’ve got him on the list!

Quite right too. Banjos are mercifully rare today but ukuleles are everywhere, encouraged even in some outwardly respectable schools. At least the ukulele is to be preferred to a banjo, as it burns better.

Then comes the piano accordion. I read that after the 1745 Rebellion, a youth was convicted of bearing arms against the King when he had but carried a bagpipe. Well, if a bagpipe is an offensive weapon (which few dispute), how much more the piano-accordion! If they were not punished hitherto, it is only because even the rough Highlanders would not have stooped to bearing such an instrument.

Then the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone
All centuries but this, and every country but his own;

Isn’t that just the curse of our times? Many an outwardly educated man will regale you unbidden about how our nation has fallen into decadency unlike some other age he may name, or to assure you that another country of his acquaintance is far superior in every turn of life, be it France, China or Darkest Peru, based on his long observations over a weekend break or a book he once read. I can barely imagine the Edwardians, for example, tolerating such impudence – that was a far more confident age where patriotism was expected of all and a natural thing, unlike these degraded generations, and even today you would not find this self-hating attitude in patriotic America, or France – the French indeed for all their bizarre philosophy are solidly patriotic, which is as we should be.

And the lady from the provinces, who dresses like a guy
And who “doesn’t think she dances, but would rather like to try”;
And that singular anomaly, the lady novelist —
I don’t think she’d be missed — I’m sure she’d not he missed!

Now wait; that “dresses like a guy” means “like a Guy Fawkes effigy”, not, well, you know. Country ladies in my experience are more elegant, though you take your context into account. Long, scarlet silk dresses, heels and jewellery do work in a London restaurant (or one of those tedious receptions) but are ridiculous the moment she is out of that room. Such apparel is not for real life hauling soggy dogs out of the back of a Volvo or being hauled by them through bushes. No; a country lass beats them all, and if she wants to write a book, good for her, as long as I’m not expected to read it.

And that Nisi Prius nuisance, who just now is rather rife
The Judicial humourist — I’ve got him on the list!

I sympathise with the judges. All day long, five days a week, and into the evenings, they are heads-down over papers that delve deep into the worst of profundities of humanity, or in the court itself, which is a piece of theatre (except that on a theatrical performance hang the livelihoods of the actors and all those who work at the theatre, while in a court hangs the livelihood only of the one man in the dock). The sordid underbelly of human life exposed, the future of the defendant in the balance, the reputation of order and justice themselves at risk; but it has to be played according to rules, with utter politeness and respect on all sides, strained sometimes, but it is not personal. It is an inherently ludicrous situation, so surely a judge cannot help but show it sometimes. He has to wade through the relentless awfulness of criminality, so a sense of humour is vital. On the other hand, if you are the defendant in the dock you expect your future to decided in a sombre, precise manner, not by what might as well be stand-up night at the Duke of York.

And apologetic statesmen of a compromising kind

And such apologies for statesmen we have today. What is it about apologising for everything? That is theatre in itself. I will at some point get round to writing about political apologies, but it would go on for longer than I wish to spend on a line of G&S. Suffice to say that a politician who apologises or kneels (or worse) makes himself despicable. I could name several but –

The task of filling up the blanks I’d rather leave to you
But it really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list
For they’d none of ’em be missed — they’d none of ’em be missed!

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The beggars: fake charities

There was a longstanding rule in charity law that political purposes cannot be charitable. Political purposes includes any purpose to change the law or government practice, here or abroad. For centuries judges would take a dim view of attempts to get around the rule. A political purpose cannot be for the good of the public because there is no way to judge it.

This was strictly enforced. A society for encouraging friendship with Sweden, which seems benevolent enough, was struck down because, as the judge observed, the court could not take the view that it is always for the public benefit to be friendly with Sweden – for all the court knew, it might benefit the public to have a war with Sweden.

That is not to say that charitable uses were very circumscribed. There have been some strange charities, and to go through the conditions placed upon village charities for educating boys or feeding the worthy is to realise how the past can indeed be a foreign country. Then there is the Baconian Society, which seeks to prove that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays and which is a charity because the course of its ridiculous quest involves scholarly research that might be of public benefit and might turn up genuine insights (if not the one they are looking for).

There may still be funds founded in the seventeenth century for buying Christians out of slavery on the Barbary Coast of Africa. That used to be seen as a quaint leftover, but these days the number of slaves held in the world makes such funds as relevant as when they were created.

The turbulent politics of the twentieth century pushed at the boundaries. Occasionally there would pop up an educational charity ‘to educate the public in the benefits of socialism’ – not charitable. (The socialists instead just took the mainstream educational institutions over and still use them to promote socialism anyway.) Wealthy charities started to play politics, because political individuals infiltrated their governing structures to do so, and all that cash donated by starry-eyed elderly ladies is a big draw for someone who wants to spend it on their personal campaign.

Spending charity funds outside the charitable purposes for which it was given, which includes spending on any political purpose, is a breach of trust and in effect is theft.

There is subtlety in the abuse: it is not called lobbying but advising government from a position of expertise. The line between advice and naked political advocacy is a fine one and the Charity Commission used to issue guidance on what is acceptable and what is naughty. One rule was that a charity may not get its supporters to lobby their MPs and may not send them pro forma letters to use. Well, I posed as an RSPCA supporter once and collected some lobbying packs which blatantly broke all those rules: the Charity Commission made excuses for them. I had seen the Commission falling like wolves on innocent, small charities for minor infractions, but here was a huge abuse of charity funds being winked at. It might not have been the wholesale corruption of the Commission, just a single junior clerk afraid to make a fuss about a powerful charity, but when a national body presented the same material higher up, the commission when into self-defence mode and it was again brushed off. Here it became clear that a very wealthy charity like the RSPCA could ignore the rules against politics with impunity, as if somehow close coworking had turned into regulatory capture.

All the rules changed under Tony Blair. The old rule against political purposes was nominally kept in place, but charitable purposes were now to include ‘the protection of human rights’. That can be anything.

Even the most virulently socio-political organisation can claim charitable status, their objects being to protect the human rights of their client group. Charitable status shuts the mouth of doubters – it is a state-sanctioned approbation of moral goodness and to condemn a charity it therefore a secular blasphemy.

While it shuts the mouth of critics, charitable status open the public purse. Grants are made to large, political charities for ‘research’, and it all goes to fill the swollen coffers, so that the government is using taxpayers’ money to pay for lobbying against itself. Our money is being used to fund damaging social and political campaigns.

You may look at the extremist campaigns run by political advocacy groups like Stonewall and Mermaids and wonder how on Earth they have the money to campaign – you and I are paying for them. We are paying for the circulation in schools, of mendacious propaganda, aimed to shape tender minds to political goals and out-and-out lies. If a fantasy writer had penned a tale of a small committee who hate maleness so much they deem it toxic and set about lopping the goolies off as many small boys as they can, it would be classified as a disgusting dystopian fantasy, and the idea that the state would fund it – that would be beyond Kafka at his most lurid. However that is happening, and the same group is using taxpayers’ money to take over the school curriculum and silence dissent. That group is a charity under Blair’s dispensation.

These are fake charities: not charitable under any logical definition but that which Blair’s law attributed, running not from the benevolence of donors to a public benefit, but from an abuse of taxpayers’ money. Further, any charity whose trustees or officials join with the motive of using donated money to run a political campaign, that is corruption.

The immediate thing must be to turn off the tap of taxpayers’ money to these fake charities. Find out how they get the grants; find which civil servants approved them, and show them the door.

Then try to bar propaganda from schools. It would help if there were sources of information to replace those from the lobbyists – I can moan, but those of us who just do that are complicit in not providing an alternative.

Next, reverse Blair’s deformation of charity rules and at a stroke revoke the charitable status of political bodies. Let charity mean what it means to most people.

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Quite enjoying the Cancel Culture, actually

An empty diary. Everything is cancelled – cultural, sporting and social events, even those due after the lockdown must have finished: no village revels, no funfair, and also no Tolethorpe, no Edinburgh Festival, no Party Conference: I don’t need to make an excuse to avoid any of them.

No canvassing over the spring was a relief. No meetings for any of the bodies whose committees I seem to have been strong-armed into, no AGMs. Many were not cancelled but just sort of wandered off.

You might have come to this article thinking I was talking about the ‘Cancel Culture’ about which other commentators fume: the cowardice in the great institutions finding any petty excuse or none to cancel appearances by people they dislike politically, and yes, that is the usual meaning of ‘cancel culture’. I am not sure that it is much different, as the months go on. Organising a big event is wearying, sapping at the soul and always with the risk of disaster and the criticism that comes with it. They must welcome an opportunity to cancel the event and get it out of their hair. I would. The Wuhan coronavirus is a wonderful opportunity.

You wondered why there was little resistance from the clergy to the closure of churches? It must be a relief to have the time off, and a videoed sermon does the job.

So we are back home. No church children’s summer club to organise this year, even after the lockdown ends? Oh, such a disappointment! No garden parties to run, no quizzes to set, no lengthy financial reports to deliver to critical members. Wuhan? Woo-hoo! And no bookings to take and organise (so now I find that I have evenings, with the family).

I still work of course, and frequent the plague pits of London – I quite miss the early lockdown when there was nothing to fill the day but gardening, DIY, country walks and terror about the future.

Now the lockdown is ending. There have been enquiries about bookings. Meetings and functions though are still all off for the foreseeable future, until we are all really, really sure. With such an excuse to shun those endless social responsibilities, I am in no hurry.

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