Saturday, December 31, 2005

Deep in the heart of the family

I'm taking advantage of a rare quiet moment to make this entry. The past few days have been a blur of parties, with members of my family appearing and disappearing in a flurry of hugs and kind words.

Having recovered from my hangover, I was functional by the time of the wedding, where I was honoured by a request from the groom (Sean, my second cousin) to give one of the readings, an excerpt from Genesis concerning the creation of woman as a helpmate for man. I was deeply touched that Sean should think of me on such a big day for him and, despite some nerves (speaking to a Party Conference will never seem as terrifying again), I'm told that I did quite well.

Michelle (the bride, and a wonderful addition to our family) looked lovely and her dress was simply gorgeous - stop me if this is sounding like a Brides magazine write-up, won't you? - ornate but not fussy, in what looked like ivory rather than white. Sean wore a smart suit and the two of them looked incredibly happy and relaxed. Father Reuben, an old school friend of Sean's, officiated and gave a simple, if heartfelt, sermon.

The reception that followed was another fun affair, and I had a good time, talking to family and friends, occasionally visiting the dance floor (look, if I can jump off of a bridge in front of an audience who are staring at me, an occasional sashay onto the dancefloor can't hurt...).

Yesterday, I took our guest (Laurie, a friend of Clint and Kalina) into town to do some shopping. She had been given a couple of stores to look at, and I was able to find both of them (eventually). We rode the bus into town, as I thought that she should have a real Indian experience. The shopping itself went well, and I bought some useful things in the paper goods store, including some pretty but simple thank you cards (I want to make a greater effort towards the old-fashioned courtesies I value so highly) and two lovely books for use as private diaries. We managed to get a train back to Santacruz before hopping into an auto-rickshaw for the short journey to the hotel.

A quick shower and a change of clothes before crossing over to Juhu for another party, hosted by Richie and Vanessa. Richie is my father's cousin, and their children, Dylan and Arlene, have been one of the surprises of this trip. Dyles (as Kim encourages me to call him) stayed at my parent's place on the way home for the wedding - he's studying in Newcastle for a year - and it was nice to catch up with him after so many years. Arlene is the youngest of the cousins and so we take the phrase "she's the baby, you gotta love her" to heart. It was a somewhat more intimate affair, and there was time to talk politics, crack jokes and generally chill out. And that's something else I'll have to try and do more of in 2006...

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Does anyone have an aspirin?

It's Wednesday afternoon, and I feel like death...

"And why is that?", I hear you ask. Perhaps the hangover induced by drinking too much and not getting back to my lovely safe, dark (key word, that one) hotel room until 4.30 in the morning is the clue. It all started with the seemingly harmless sentence, "You're coming back to Santacruz with us, Mark.". No explanation as to why, but then, with my family, you learn not to ask too many questions.

In Santacruz, I am informed that I'm off for a night out with Sean (my cousin, who's getting married tomorrow), the rest of the cousins, as well as friends and family. Needless to say, given that most of them are ten years younger than me, there was drinking and clubbing involved, although eight hours of it was a little more than my delicate constitution can handle. It was a lot of fun though, even if I'm paying for it now...

Sunday, December 25, 2005

A little contemplation on this Christmas morning

It is said that Christmas is a chance to count your blessings, sheltered as most of us are in the bosom of our families. And yet, it is only when things go awry that most of us realise just how lucky we are.

2005 has not, on the face of it, been a stellar year for this particular faceless bureaucrat. My divorce came through two days before the General Election, although it would have had more impact had it not taken me more than six weeks to find out. On the other hand, I have been fortunate enough to have family and friends who have indulged me and put up with my occasional mood swings and eccentricities.

There have been triumphs too. I have tried my best to fulfil a clutch of political roles and those who I have worked with appear to think that I have some credibility, which comes as a pleasant surprise. Their support and understanding has been another of the year's highlights.

I even jumped off a bridge (with a bungy cord attached, I hasten to add) and began to rediscover the true Mark - not such a bad person to know, I flatter myself to believe - someone who had been in self-imposed exile for ten years.

And so I realise how lucky I am. Given the unpleasant and/or unfortunate things that have happened to others this year, as well as those who are without the supporting scaffolding of friends, families and workmates, life could be so much worse. The realisation of such good fortune inspires me to continue working for a better, more inclusive, more open society, which is surely what liberalism is all about.

And so I will aim to work as hard, or harder, than I did this year, and continue to count my blessings, even when life proves to be more than unusually trying. The fortunate amongst us owe it to those less fortunate, don't we?

Friday, December 23, 2005

Faceless bureaucrats: a faceless bureaucrat salutes you!

It's been an odd day.

I started by setting off for the Indian High Commission to get my visa for the forthcoming family wedding in Mumbai. Just as I was leaving Peckham, I realised that I had left my passport at home (duh...). So I went home, collected the passport and headed for India House, at Aldwych. I get to the window, form completed, money and photographs ready, only to be told that my passport, good for another five years, cannot be used as there are no blank pages left (that'll teach me to travel, won't it...).

What to do? No choice but to head to the Passport Agency at Victoria, with dread in my heart. It's three days before Christmas, millions of people are leaving the country, I'm bound to be there all day, aren't I? To my immense surprise, I turn up, am given a form to complete, which takes about two minutes, given an appointment within five minutes, hand over the forms and am told that my passport will be ready in four hours. Oh and yes, I don't have to hang around, just pay for it and come and collect it any time between 4.30 and 8.45. I hand over my credit card to give them £104.50 and off to my office. At 8.30 I return. The passport is ready, there's no queue and I'm on my way.

Haven't these people heard of making life difficult for the public? Why is the building well-maintained, efficient and comfortable? Why are the staff pleasant and helpful? I bet that there hasn't been a prominent article to say how good they are, yet there were plenty when the new computer systems went sour a few years back. But I forget, the public sector is horribly inefficient (as the Daily Mail keeps reminding us) and the whole thing should be contracted out to an Turks and Caicos Islands registered company owned by former Tory Ministers and 'employing' young children in a sweat shop somewhere in Burma...

Anyway, many thanks from a faceless bureaucrat to my fellow inmates in the UK Passport Agency...

A token ethnic minority male writes...

I found this picture the other day and thought that my family might like to see me in best faceless bureaucrat mode. Notice how I am cunningly part-hidden by the microphone. On the far left is Baroness Sarah Ludford, a member of the European Parliament, next to her Susan Kramer, MP for Richmond Park and on my right, Lynne Featherstone, MP for Hornsey and Wood Green. In the middle is Mandy Wells, our former Regional Conference Chair. So what am I doing there?

Well, Mandy said that she needed an aide and, given the others on the platform, she wanted a token male. Having been married, I knew exactly what to do...

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Everywhere I look there are young people

An evening out with Dylan and Kim last night for a few beers and a chance to catch up. Until the weekend, I hadn't seen Dylan for fifteen years and my, has he grown up? He's in England studying for his Master's exams (he's in the merchant marine) and was spending a few days in London on his way back to Mumbai for the wedding of the year (I can say that because Leon gets married in 2006 and Clyne in 2007). Given that he was about twelve last time I saw him, it was good that he was so easily recognisable (he looks very much like his father, Richie).

He and Kim are particularly close - they're about the same age - and they chatted away whilst I occasionally got a word in edgeways and revelled in my 'old man' status. However, you know you're getting old when your ability to keep up with the beers begins to fade.

Luckily, I'll see Dyles in Mumbai in less than a week, as well as hordes of the other strands of the family. There'll be a string of parties (bad for the waistline, great for the spirit), and I'll have a chance to stretch my imagination a bit, in anticipation of a pretty tough year ahead. And it will be warm...

Friday, December 16, 2005

So much to do, so little time...

To be honest, I'm bored with the ongoing Liberal Democrat "leadership crisis". So, until someone declares against our glorious leader, I'm not going to comment any further - unless I feel like it, or there's a 'y' in the day, or something...

I'm busy enough anyway, letters to write, meetings to arrange, a house to tidy, ironing and laundry to catch up with, leaflets to deliver, you name it, it needs doing. The problem with a hobby like politics is that you need someone to help you with the rest of your life, and I'm not even an elected official. Lynne Featherstone was right, if truth be told, when she said (if I recall correctly) that you need someone to help carry the load, whether they're paid or otherwise. Alternatively, you need a ruthless degree of focus, which I don't have, or at least can't maintain for more than about fifteen minutes!

Of course, having a deadline helps, and mine is next Sunday evening, just nine days away. If it's not done by then, it'll wait until 2006, as I'm away, attending a family wedding. It has got to be more fun than the day to day torture of "responsibility".

Time for bed though, I think...

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Just in case you hadn't noticed...

All of this talk about Charles Kennedy's leadership is truly fascinating. No, I really mean it. I'm intrigued that discussions are apparently going on all over the place, suggesting that he should either get better or get out.

And yet, there are a few minor problems here that perhaps need to be dwelt upon. Ming and Simon have publicly sworn fealty, I've not yet been in a room where any group can agree on who should run if a contest were to take place and, perhaps most important of all, the electorate (oh yes, them...) haven't seen sight nor sound of any bandwagon.

Now given that my vote is as valuable as that of any of the MPs and, as a constituency Chair and Regional Executive member, I might have some very minor influence on the votes of others, it might not be unreasonable to expect my opinion to be of interest. It clearly isn't... yet.

I must admit that I've never voted for a winning candidate for the leadership (I voted for Alan Beith against Ashdown, and David Rendel last time) so my support might not be seen to be a terribly good omen, but I have to admit that Charles has come as a pleasant surprise. When it really matters, his gut instincts have been sound, liberal and easy to support. Yes, he does appear lazy by comparison to his predecessor, a man whom, if memory serves, is able to kill with his bare hands... but is David Cameron any better? Who knows? So why rush to ditch a leader who, even when not performing at his best, is seen as much more likeable than Blair, much more human than Brown and much more honest than any Tory you could mention?

I conclude with a message for any plotters out there. Please don't. Off the record briefings aren't big, they aren't clever, and when you're exposed, most Party members will vote for someone more transparently decent. I know that I will...

Confused of South London writes...

I've spent an evening watching a politician talk about liberty, responsibility and fairness. All things that a Liberal Democrat would applaud, you might think, and you would indeed be right. The only catch is, the politician in question is the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and kind of my boss), the Right Honourable Gordon Brown MP, PC.

He made all of the right noises in terms of principles, and you can see how many Liberal Democrats tend towards a preference towards Labour as opposed to the Conservatives. Unfortunately, and I do mean that, I find myself wondering how a desire for liberty can be squared with support for the abolition of jury trials, ID cards, holding possible terror suspects for ninety days without charge, greater centralization of power and more besides. And how do you encourage people to take more responsibility for themselves in an increasingly coercive, nanny state? And as for fairness, what a remarkably woolly word that is. Does anyone expect a politician to call for less fairness? Fairness for who? Fairness how?

To give Gordon credit, his references covered most of the great political theoreticians of the past three hundred years, poets, writers, economists and the effect was marvelous. Yet look more closely, and it was a blur of concepts without substance. I still find myself wondering what he actually stands for, apart from not being Tony Blair.

An opportunity lost, Gordon, an opportunity lost...

Sunday, December 11, 2005

When friends and reality intervene...

It is with some surprise that I concluded yesterday that I have a job to do, and that there is a debt to be repaid. And so, gentle reader, it is with some puzzlement that I announce that I am a candidate to be Regional Secretary of the London Liberal Democrats for 2006.

A number of people far wiser than I have counselled reflection and been far nicer about my actions than I perhaps deserved. Their support and advice has been very welcome and, in the midst of an approval interview yesterday, it dawned on me that if I have the skills attributed to me, I should use them for a wider good (heavens, that sounds pompous but what the hell...). This is of course presuming that a better candidate doesn't emerge... I have advised my friends, including the Regional Chair, that I am to throw my hat (it's from Ecuador and is black with a black and white band) into the ring.

It has come as something of a relief, if truth be told. I've always believed that whilst you shouldn't dwell on regret, a degree of honest doubt cannot be a bad thing. Yet when honest doubt becomes a distraction, then it is time to revert to principle. My principles are founded on the liberal concept of an informed, participatory democracy and so I must, in my slightly eccentric and perplexed manner, fight for them with my weapons of choice - a set of coloured pens, a notepad and a hunger for knowledge.

And so we await the verdict of the London jury...

Friday, December 09, 2005

A penguin is a bureaucrat's best friend

I have to admit that I'm rather looking forward to "March of the Penguins". Having been to visit penguins in New Zealand (fairy and yellow-eyed), and being the sort of person who loves to watch them in zoos, the idea that a movie about them could become a hit is perfectly understandable.

Of course, the idea that they all look the same is obviously attractive to a bureaucrat (it's difficult to assign blame when you can't tell which is which!) but I would really enjoy spending quality time with them.

Troublingly, it appears that some people can't even watch a documentary without assigning their rather narrow-minded philosophy to it. The film apparently "promotes monogamy" and is "an affirmation of Christian values". Funnily enough, penguins aren't Christian and I've never seen any at the Catholic masses that I've attended (of course, they could all be Protestant... and, now I think about it, some of the nuns that I've met...). And as for monogamy, how could anyone tell? There are thousands of them, and they all look the same. How could anyone tell if one or two of them sneak off for some illicit non-monogamous sex?

It's just a movie! They're just penguins! They don't have a moral code, or at least, if they do, they aren't about to tell us what it is. At least they don't make reality programmes like "I'm a penguin, get me out of here!". I take it back, they clearly do have a superior moral code...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Where Valladares rules the Earth...

For some obscure reason, my beloved Local Party elected me as Chair for 2005, and this remarkably coincided with our best General Election result in living memory (and our Honorary President has a very long memory...). This encouraged them to re-elect me for 2006 and, as a result, I found myself in a very trendy bar in East Dulwich this evening, meeting some of our members for our regular monthly get-together.

I actually enjoy these events because we talk politics, not necessarily strategy, and I have a chance to meet people who don't spend their entire time doing nothing else, i.e real people. This evening, one of our newest members came along, and I hope that we managed to make him feel welcome.

Our campaigning appears to be going well, and more and more people are getting involved but I'm conscious that we have to keep people motivated in the face of a remarkably unsubtle Labour campaign. They clearly have very few activists, little in the way of a positive message and absolutely no scruples, so we're going to have to stay focused on what the purpose of local politics actually is, i.e. making life better. I've got a great campaign team and my job seems to be to keep out of their way, whilst making sure that they have everything they need to fight and win. The next five months are going to be very interesting!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Did anybody see that tax rise?

My specialist field is corporation tax and I was, to put it mildly, somewhat surprised, to see the Chancellor announce that he was;

(a) abolishing the non-corporate distribution rate (introduced in 2004), and:

(b) abolishing the starting company rate of 0%,

both effective from 1 April 2006.

From an administrative perspective, it will make the tax affairs of a large number of small and medium-sized companies much simpler. On the downside, companies with profits below £50,000 will be paying more corporation tax.

For example, a company making £8,000 in profits would pay no tax at all in the year ending 31 March 2006, but in the year ending 31 March 2007, the same company will pay £1,520 in corporation tax. A company making £25,000 would expect to pay £3,562.50 in the year ending 31 March 2006, but £4,750 in the year ending 31 March 2007.

I have a nasty feeling that this isn't going to be popular and, whilst there has been some compensation in the increase in first year capital allowances (50% instead of 40%), I sense that we won't have heard the last of this...

A mystery sketch

Gentle reader, I have a mystery for someone out there to solve. I know that it's a bit of a long shot, but my younger brother suggested that I put it on the blog on the basis that "you never know". So, does anyone recall who wrote this...

(Mark and Rachelle sit at the breakfast table. Mark is reading the paper. There is a knock at the door. Rachelle goes to answer. Returns with armful of post.)

Mark: (from behind paper) Who was that dear?

Rachelle: Just the postman.

Mark: (in a bored tone) Much post then?

Rachelle: No, much less than usual. (she starts looking through pile of post) Look, here's a letter from Jacques Delors. The Environmental Commission have rejected our plans for a new living room carpet.

Mark: Oh, really?

Rachelle: Yes. They consider it environmentally harmful. It doesn't match the curtains.

Mark: (bored) Oh dear. I warned you not to employ Dan Press as an interior decorator.

Rachelle: And here's another one. Let me see... "Under the terms of Commission Directive 34.2 (iv) of 1990, it has been held that your wallpaper exceeds the guidelines laid down by the Council of Ministers for bad taste, and must be replaced within thirty days."

Mark: Well, we'd better do something about it then. Who do you suggest we call for assistance?

Rachelle: Well, there was that nice architect we met in the wine bar the other evening.

Mark: Oh yes, I remember. But didn't he design Lelystad? Might that not still be a little too adventurous?

Rachelle: Maybe you're right. Still, there's always Madeleine Sjostedt.

Mark: Yes, no one could ever accuse her of having bad taste.

Well I think that it's funny, although there are a number of in-jokes and dated cultural references. Would the author(s) please come forward?

An afternoon north of the river

To Hornsey, for an afternoon at Baroness Northover's lovely home, drinking mulled wine and eating the occasional mince pie, plus a little plotting and scheming. It was good to see a few other "out-of-towners" amongst the assembled members and activists, and I was able to discuss the prospects for Lambeth with Darren Sanders, who fought Streatham in the General Election (Streatham won, but it was a close run thing...).

Lindsay was a lot of fun, telling me about her adventures as Returning Officer for the Parliamentary Candidates Association, which sounded like a lot of fun, albeit the sort that you laugh about afterwards. Jonathan Fryer was in good form too, as was Lynne Featherstone, who continues to resemble a normal human being despite having been an MP for six months.

Then off to Barnet, to visit my younger brother, Kirk (the tall, dark, handsome one), his wife Mandy and their three children (Natasha, Imogen and Lucas). It's Natasha's birthday today and I wanted to drop off her present in person. They live in High Barnet ward, where the by-election campaign is reaching fever pitch. I'm assured that despite this, they'll be voting Liberal Democrat...

Friday, December 02, 2005

My pension or my life?

Will this government please make up its mind about my pension?

Naturally, I work in government (where else did you expect to find a liberal bureaucrat?) and I've been watching the public debate about my financial future with some interest. First the government proposes that I work until I'm 65, which I have no problem with, if truth be told. Then I'm told that nice Mr Johnson has agreed that, after all, I can collect my pension at 60. All hell breaks loose, led by those nice caring people from the Daily Mail (who, were they to be found burning in hell, would be lowering the tone of the neighbourhood...).

So the government gets wobbly (and that's a surprise, isn't it?), and our next Prime Minister, sorry, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announces that he isn't so sure. The Minister for Work and Pensions announces that the government has no plans to revisit the position (shorthand for, if we can break our word and get away with it, you bet we will). Pressure builds, as the CBI attack the government for backing down from a fight with the big, bad civil service unions (you are joking, Digby, aren't you?).

Alright then, I'll cut you a deal... I'll stay on until 65, longer if I'm fit and still enjoying it, you amend my pension to compensate me for the extra years. You'll probably still make money on the deal, I won't be roaming the streets mugging young people in hoodies and stealing their sweets money, and by spending my time in a nice, heated government office, I won't be using valuable fossil fuels heating my home. Just treat me with a little respect, as without me, you wouldn't be able to raise the funds for those nice little nuclear submarines you'd set your heart on...