Friday, 25 May 2007


The Oxford English Dictionary defines a McJob as 'an unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, especially one created by the expansion of the service sector'.

In April 2006 McDonald's UK Press Office issued a press release announcing 'a bold, disruptive new campaign' to 'redefine the phrase 'McJob'. The campaign featured the slogan, 'Not bad for a McJob'. David Fairhurst, Vice President, People, McDonald's, was quoted as saying: "The existing definition of McJob is outdated.. ...this campaign tackles the McJob perception head on." If you visit McDonald's UK corporate web site you'll find the same McJob slogan, amongst the references to McProspects, McCompany Car, McPackage, McDiscounts, McValued, etc.

One might conclude.....(leaving aside that McDonald's press office is so illiterate that it doesn't know the difference between a word and a phrase; ignoring the association of a fine Scottish clan with a sinister clown and diarrhoeaic abuse of the gaelic 'Mc' prefix; briefly upchucking at the concept of a 'Vice President, People') might conclude that McDonald's had itself helped to promote the term 'McJob'.

However, having failed to change public perceptions, this week McDonald's has re-launched the attempt to have the definition of the word 'McJob' in the Oxford English Dictionary expunged or replaced. There is to be a public petition (puhlease!), and the company has enlisted various 'names' to support its manipulative campaign. These reportedly include former CBI supremo Sir Digby Jones, David Frost (not the David Frost, a David Frost), and several MPs.

Labour MP Clive Betts has sponsored an Early Day Motion deploring the use of derogatory terms for service sector jobs (yes, the same Mr Betts who was suspended from the House of Commons by the Committee on Standards and Privileges, which observed that his conduct had fallen 'well below the standard expected of a Member, in terms of maintaining and strengthening the public's trust and confidence in the integrity of Parliament and never undertaking any action which would bring the House of Commons, or its Members generally, into disrepute').

This time round McDonald's is saying that, 'It's time the dictionary definition of McJob was changed to reflect a job that is stimulating, rewarding and offers opportunities for career progression and skills that last a lifetime'. Yeah. Stimulating. Skills. Right.

I cannot say whether McDonald's are right in disagreeing with the OED definition. The only friend I have who worked there was Bob. He spoke well of the McDonald's career structure, having progressed to supervisor in about five minutes. However, he retired from the company after a few months and opened a pottery in Souillac in southern France. I'm not sure whether the skills he gained behind the counter contributed greatly in later life. His pots don't resemble Happy Meals, but I suppose preparation and moulding of clay may have something in common with McDonald's meat processing.

However, accuracy isn't the point. Dictionaries should reflect usage, not corporate, service sector or governmental aspirations. Attempts by McDonald's and its toadies to control the meaning of our language should be viewed with disdain and maybe sound alarm bells. Given that McDonald's failed to have a similarly unfavourable entry removed from the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2003, perhaps it simply sees the campaign as an opportunity for some cheap, high profile recruitment and brand promotion. However, the MPs should know better. Think of Newspeak in Orwell's 1984:

'The...vocabulary consisted of words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes: words...intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them'

They should watch out. It may not be long before the OED acknowledges public perception and changes its definition of a politician from 'one skilled in politics, statesman', to 'one practised in misleading the people, untrustworthy, manipulative, grasping.'

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Loving Your Fellow Man

We've just been to Lidls. I'm not sure what was going on, but it feels as if we've just escaped from an interplanetary convention on Omega Four. There was a man in a suit shop-shadowing us as he blethered loudly into a mobile about breach of contract, and everyone seemed to have brought their entire families, with several generations blocking each aisle arguing about which brand of burger was best and whether to buy stick-on safety corners for their furniture.

But the star turn was a family of chavs. There seemed to be about 19 of them, although it may have been as few as six. There was a squat mother in a tracksuit, children from the mid teens down (none of them resembling each other) and a screaming infant. They looked misshapen, smelt appalling and shouted at each other at the tops of their voices, launching a multi-pronged attack on one's sensory system. In fact they were so environmentally unfriendly they should have required planning permission. They were also very hard to escape, doubling back on their tracks with sudden forays into cheese and yoghourt from nuts and crisps, or dividing to surge down two lanes at once. At one point we got caught in an unexpected pincer movement between frozen foods and toiletries. It was no accident that at the end one of only two available check-outs was occupied by them, and the other by a queue stretching halfway down the shop.

The children should have been at school anyway, but I suppose that would have been a waste of time.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Englnd xpx :)

Everyone knows of Admiral Nelson's signal before Trafalgar, 'England expects that every man will do his duty'. Less well known is the reaction of Admiral Collingwood, who was a more experienced sailor and would also prove to be a hero of the day. On seeing the signal, he remarked, 'I do wish Nelson would stop signalling. We all know perfectly well what is required of us.'

Sympathy for Collingwood increases when one learns that Nelson's signal required thirty-one flags in twelve three-flag hoists. To display it in one go, it would have had to be hoisted sequentially from the tops of the main, fore and mizzen masts and the gaff, and then down the starboard and port sides of each of the three masts.

In the event Nelson's signal was displayed in a rapid succession of eleven separate hoists to the mizzen masthead (in order to be most visible to the fleet astern). Each hoist had to be kept flying until all the ships had hoisted acknowledgements. Frigates were stationed along the line to windward to relay signals to ships further away, and then relay back their acknowledgements.

When one further learns that the the Fleet's code books had been revised just before the battle as it was believed the ciphers had been compromised, the potential for confusion was considerable. It is remarkable that the signal was read and acknowledged by the fleet within four minutes. I doubt it could be texted quicker.

Brevity makes Royal Naval signals something of an art form. Amongst my favourites is an exchange between the carriers HMS Formidable and HMS Indomitable. After being attacked by a Japanese kamikaze aircraft, Formidable signalled, 'Little yellow bastard'. Indomitable, carrying the flag of Admiral Vian, replied, 'Are you referring to me?'

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Brown Job

I can scarcely bring myself to think about Bruin's plot to relax planning controls, and what that will mean for further emasculation of local democracy, for undermining sustainability and for generally screwing up the environment at every level - from what happens to the countryside in general to what happens in your neighbour's garden. 'Let's be like the French', the government cries. 'They get things done without any inconvenient public debate.' How very New Labour.

Holding up France as an exemplar for planning policy is like citing Attila the Hun as a trauma counsellor. France has a population density of around 110 persons per square kilometre. They have more land to lay waste, and fewer people to object to it. In England population density is three times greater, at around 377 per sq km in 2001 (and rising by about 7% per decade). The South East is nearly four times more crowded, with 420 persons per sq km. Kent, Essex and Hampshire are the most populated non-metropolitan counties in the country. Whatever the faults of our planning system, it has helped to manage relentless growth whilst maintaining the distinction between town and country, and it has struck a balance between the often conflicting interests of economic growth and the environment.

Now, it seems, the soon-to-be-former chancellor (who is about as English as cloutie dumpling) plans to shift the balance in favour of fiscal growth and centralised decision-making. This is the environmental equivalent of stop-start economic policy without a clutch, and I predict that an awful lot of damage is going to be done in a very short space of time. And that, by the time we wake up to it, the irreversible harm that has been done to the environment which we hold in trust for future generations will be a cause for everlasting regret.

Monday, 21 May 2007

With Apologies to A A Milne

Don't tell my father I breakfast on gin,
He'd really go over the top.
But it's perfect for dipping my soldiers in,
And it don't half make rice crispies go pop.

I think he suspects someone's been at his scotch;
He's marking the bottle, you see.
But it gives sago pudding that 'Je ne sais quoi',
So I top up the bottle with tea.

Daddy's ever so proud, every night before seven,
When I meekly retire with a book.
He thinks I think Christopher Robin is heaven (he's not),
But I have this 'arrangement' with Cook...

Mummy and Nanny think that I'm frail,
And at breakfast I usually am.
But by bedtime I'm rip-roaring hearty and hale
...And at 50 I'm nearly a man.

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Freedom of Information

I mentioned a few days ago that MPs were going to vote on exempting themselves from the Freedom of Information Act. Now they've done it. Labour's 1997 manifesto said;

'Unnecessary secrecy in government leads to arrogance in government and defective policy decisions....We are pledged to a Freedom of Information Act, leading to more open government...'

The private member's bill to exempt MPs has only progressed with the tacit support of the government. In the third reading the bill was backed by 78 labour MPs, 18 Tories (including that voice of tolerance, Ann Widdecombe, naturally), and no Lib Dems. Bliar declined to comment; Bruin declined to block it.

Those who have supported the bill should hang their heads in shame. So should the many who did not vote against.

Saturday, 19 May 2007


Some people say there is no such thing as a platonic friend - at least of the appropriate age and sex. My first platonic girl friend was probably only platonic because she was (a) going out with a friend of mine, and (b) out of my league by a country mile. From her point of view I was presumably an easy companion, free of tiresome complications. It was a rôle I was all too happy to take on - I effortlessly got to spend time with an exceptionally graceful and beautiful girl, without having to posture, puff out my chest or worry about any of the other things post adolescent males might worry about in such circumstances.

One lazy, June day we went sunbathing together on the beach at Alnmouth, in Northumberland. She had her eyes closed and I was chastely admiring her body, when it hit me that she had no trace of a navel. The effect was rather magical; no scar, no dimple, just a smooth, flat belly with a golden tan. Like Heva in Ulysses; "Heva, naked Eve. She had no navel. Gaze. Belly without blemish."

When I asked her she explained that, when her mother was in labour, the hospital staff had been having some sort of party (it must have been Christmas, although I forget that bit). No one heard her ring the bell, and when the staff finally came running the birth was already under way. In the ensuing mêlée the umbilical cord got torn, and her absent navel was the result.

That's what she told me, anyway. But I think maybe she was truly wafted here from Paradise....

Friday, 18 May 2007

Ghost Story

On 4 August 1982 my mother and father sailed out of Loch Eynort in South Uist, and set a course south for North Bay, Barra. By late morning they were off the south-eastern tip of South Uist, with Hartamul Isle, Eriskay, coming up abeam.

My father went below to do some navigating at the chart table (this was before the days of sat nav), leaving my mother alone at the wheel. It was misty seawards, so she was keeping an eye open for fishing boats.

Suddenly, she saw the loom of something to the east. For a moment she thought it might be a glimpse of a hill on Rhum - but Rhum was over 30 miles away, and visibility was less than six miles. She reached for the binoculars, focussed, and saw a ship bearing down on them fast, with foam creaming from the bows.

Panicking a bit, she called down to my father that there was a boat steaming straight at them. He came scrambling up from below, and they looked....and saw nothing. Nothing but the misty Sea of the Hebrides. They stared, unable to understand how, with visibility at five to six miles, a ship so close could have disappeared completely.

Later my father thought of the SS Politician - the 8,000 ton 'Whisky Galore' ship that had run at speed onto the rocks of Hartamul Isle off Eriskay on 5 February 1941. When my mother saw the ship, they must have just about been crossing the fatal track she came in on forty-one years before.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Kook Met 'n Aksent

Once, when we were preparing a meal, our South African friend asked if we had any paper. 'What sort of paper?' we enquired.

'Black paper', she replied.

It seemed an odd request at an odd moment, but she was a creative type. After an exhaustive search, my sister unearthed a sheet of black cartridge paper in an attic and triumphantly presented it.

'No', she said, looking at us as if we were disturbed. 'Black paper. You know - paper and salt. For seasoning.'

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Widdecombe Fair?

I don't think so.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007


Last November Greensburg, Kansas, best known until this month for the size of its well, held its annual clean-up day. High school students cleared rubbish, washed windows and raked leaves. 83 year old Lois Coberly had asked for help with a 'big lot of leaves' that had fallen in her yard She rewarded the students who helped pile them up, and the city staff who took them away, with cups of hot chocolate. After they had finished they moved across the street to a neighbour's yard and cleared her leaves away too.

On 4 May 2007 Greensburg was destroyed by a tornado nearly two miles wide. The buildings worth saving can be counted on your fingers.

Poor Greensburg. Anyone who still questions the reality of global warming must have their head in a Bush.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Oban Times

The Oban of my youth seemed uncomplicated. It was plastic boats from Woolworths. Lovat lambswool jumpers from Chalmers. 'Born Free' in the Phoenix on George Street. Tea in The Station Hotel, watching MacBrayne's King George V steaming away from the North Pier (about to disappoint another batch of tourists by not delivering the scheduled - but always weather contingent - landing on Staffa).

Then I read Morvern Callar, and found it hard to shake off its gothic miasma. Corpses in attics and buried body parts had no place in my Oban.

I thought I was getting there until Mike told me about his only visit to the town. Taking advantage of a cheap excursion offer, he and a mate travelled up to Oban by train. They had half an hour or so before the return train left, and the tide was out, so they took a stroll on the beach. The view across the bay to Kererra was beautiful, the gulls wheeled and cried overhead, the scent of the sea mingled with pine and heather, and Mike found a wellington boot with part of a leg in it.

This was in the early 80's, and Mike had a red mohican. He says that attracting attention was easy, but persuading anyone to believe him was not.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Kissing Your Ex

Speaking of X's, there are various theories about how they came to represent kisses. I like the suggestion that an X looks like a stylized picture of pouting lips meeting. Cute.

More plausibly, X was used in place of a signature by people who couldn't write their names. Sometimes they kissed their signature, perhaps to lend veracity to a contract, like kissing a bible. Hence an X became a kiss by association.

Isn't that interesting.

Friday, 11 May 2007


Maybe Malcolm X didn't intend to call himself Malcolm X. Maybe he just signed his name 'Malcolm' and put a kiss after it.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

Brown Knows

I also have Gordon as a forename, although I've never been mad about it. As it wasn't my first name I've been able to play it down. I was only given the name as a last minute add-on, because I was born in Khartoum on Gordon Sunday. I'm not sure what Mr Brown's excuse is. It's not his first name either (what was wrong with James?). I suspect he was named after Gordon the Big Express Engine. Or perhaps it was after the dance...

No Gordon, gay or not, has been quite as comfortable since Jilted John said, 'Gordon is a moron'. But then, allegedly Bliar's nickname at school was Emily, so we all have our crosses to bear.

If you enter 'Gordon Brown, moron' in a Google search, result number eight is HM Treasury's Ministerial Profile for Gordon Brown. I can't work out why that happens. Unpredictable, that Google algorithm.

Vale Blair

To paraphrase Horace:

Sic vale Blair; maiorque veritae munum colebat.

Corrections to my grammar welcome - it's been a long time...