Hurrah for Comprehensive Education!

There is a furniture company in the UK which advertises relentlessly on Sky Sports, particularly during cricket matches, and earlier this year it looked as though they would be able to supply me with some items I was looking for.  They didn’t deliver abroad, but did offer free delivery in the UK, and so I could get them to deliver the goods to the premises of this outfit which I have used before to bring furniture from the UK to France (I can recommend them).

The cross-channel transport company quite reasonably asked what volume of goods I was shipping to they could give me a proper quote and reserve space in one of their vehicles.  Unfortunately, the furniture company don’t do what most furniture companies do and specify the volume of each item on their website, and so I had to email them and ask.

This turned out to be a difficult question to answer: apparently, they were unable to tell me unless I placed an order.  Alarm bells started ringing: could it be that I’d gotten involved with a company that puts 90% of its effort into sales teams and mass advertising, and 10% into delivering on its core services?  I was advised that I could place an order but not pay for it, and then ring them up (international call, of course) and get the information.  So I duly did just that.  The person who took the call sounded as though he applied for an entry-level position in a vegetable-packing plant and got turned down due to lack of intellect.  If he’d told me he’d suffered major head trauma in the past 24 hours but couldn’t get time off to go to hospital, I’d have believed him.  He told me he could see my order but couldn’t give me the volume because “only the logistics people know that”, and he thought they’d all gone home.  But he’d check.

After a few minutes he came back.  “Two point three centimetres squared”, he told me.  I sighed.  “Firstly,” I said “you have described something the approximate size of a cigarette lighter and I’m sure my furniture is a little larger than that.  Secondly, the unit will be cubed, as we are talking about a volume not an area.”  He replied with a voice that betrayed either a heavy cold, a hangover, or somebody holding his nose, “Well, this is what my computer screen is telling me.”

I finally got the information I wanted by converting his centimetres squared into metres cubed, but I never got the furniture: compared to his colleagues with whom I dealt with later, this chap was Employee of the Year.

Brexit

I’ve a few things to say about Brexit, and here they are.

Firstly, I didn’t vote.  I abstained mainly because I’ve lived outside the UK for 13 years and am not registered to vote on UK matters any more.  When I looked at registering I found the government was asking me for all sorts of information I’d rather not give them, and so I quit the process.  The other reason was that I wasn’t sure how I’d vote.

For strictly personal reasons, I would have been happy enough with a Remain victory.  I am a French resident, I have bought a property in France, and intend to maintain a presence here for the foreseeable future.  Whereas I am quite confident France isn’t about to expel all Brits and a deal will be struck in pretty short order to allow me to remain in France (if for no other reason than France doesn’t have jobs for the 250,000 plus French who would be kicked out of London alone), few people appreciate the different between applying for residency under the terms of French (or any) law and being entitled to residency under European law.  One involves submitting mountains of documents to a bureaucrat who is supposed to operate within the law but is usually a law unto himself, and can delay your application indefinitely, lose it, or reject it without explanation; the other means you don’t need to deal with the bureaucrat in the first place.  Those Brits who can’t see the difference are usually those who haven’t gone through a residency visa application process before.  If Britain does actually leave, it is certain that I will have to jump through a lot more bureaucratic hoops in future.

That said, I was pleased with the Leave victory for one simple reason: I think the EU in its current form is completely unsustainable politically and economically and unless it undergoes major reforms it will plunge the continent into a disaster which might go as far as civil war.  Reforms were never going to happen while the whole project is run by and for Europhile has-been and never-was politicians in the pay of the EU, who as individuals are shielded from the fallout of their own stupid policies.  It would take a cataclysmic event, such as Greece leaving the Euro, defaulting, and taking a few other member states with it, to bring about serious reforms.  Despite all the bluster from third-rate EU shills, Britain walking away from the project might yet be such an event: Germans are going to be keenly aware that it is pretty much they alone who are going to be bankrolling the EU from hereon.  This is the outcome I am most hoping for: Brexit triggers huge reforms within the EU, and Britain either remains or retains the benefits of free trade and movement (with greatly improved immigration policies) while ditching all the regulatory and political crap.  If these reforms don’t happen, I am confident the EU won’t last much longer anyway and Britain will be glad to have jumped ship early.  With the enormous structural economic and social problems in countries like France (particularly), Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece it is only fair to ask why Britain would want to remain locked in a union with countries that are heading straight off a cliff.

I have noticed that a lot of the lefty middle-classes who are wailing on social media about the Leave vote “depriving their children of a future” and Britain “turning its back on the world” are monolingual, lifelong British residents.  As somebody who can hardly be accused of turning my back on the world and has carved out a life for myself overseas, allow me to point out that out of the six countries I have worked in since 2003 – Kuwait, UAE, Russia, Nigeria, Australia, and France – I only had the right to work in the last one.  For  the rest I had to apply for a visa, just as an American, Australian, or Canadian has to do when coming to work in Europe.  The idea that working in Europe will become unreasonably difficult should Britain leave the EU is demonstrable nonsense, given how many non-EU citizens work in London or Paris.  Not that many of those complaining on Facebook have actually taken up their right to work in Europe, though.  No, they are content to be middle aged and living in the Home Counties moaning about being deprived of an opportunity I’m sure they were just about to sieze in Slovenia when the racist mob voted to leave.  For most of them, Europe is a place to go on holiday and not much else.  If any of these people are genuinely concerned about their children having an opportunity to live and work overseas they ought to spend time getting a foreign language dinned into them rather than supporting a political union with people with whom they have no intention of interacting outside a holiday resort.

I think part of the problem is that people think European politics work like British politics.  Had more people actually “interacted” with Europe by living there and seeing how things work on the Continent (particularly the southern and eastern parts) they would realise how appallingly corrupt, nepotistic, and disfunctional much of it is.  I think it is precisely exposure to other European politics and government, rather than ignorance of them, that would drive more people to vote Leave.

This protestor seems particularly dimwitted:

Laura Honickberg, 33, from London, said she was concerned that the vote would lead to a rise in violence and hate crime.

“I’m Jewish and I find the rise of nationalism and hate crime in Europe deeply concerning,” she told the BBC.

She added that she felt the Leave campaign “was based on lies, about money that was going to go to the NHS and now isn’t, about what’s going to happen to the economy. These are things that are going to directly impact me.”

If she really thinks the biggest threat to her wellbeing is European nationalism instead of a rapidly expanding demographic adhering to a culture which isn’t too keen on Jews then she is seriously deluded.

But she might have stumbled inadvertently on a point regarding the NHS.  I understand that the Leave campaign claimed that monies freed up from EU contributions would be redirected towards the NHS.  This is monumentally stupid, for the simple reason that hosing more money at the NHS without it first undergoing major reforms is an exercise in futillity and will benefit nobody except the management classes and armies of administrators.  That people wanting to leave a structurally unsustainable EU incapable of reform were boasting of spending money on a structurally unsustainable NHS incapable of reform doesn’t say much about their capacity for consistent thought.  As an organisation, the NHS is about as close to the ideals of the EU as it’s possible to get.

This is why I never quite bothered listening to the bickering over that £350m figure.  Regardless of the real number, I have no confidence whatsoever that any saving would be spent on something worthwhile, and am quite sure it will just get fed into the gigantic maw of the state or some branch of it (like the NHS) with negligible effect.  Similarly, I am also not convinced Brexit will result in pettyfogging EU regulations being torn up: we were the only country to employ armies of people in hi-viz vests bearing clipboards to ensure they were being followed to the letter, and it’s not like any of the current crop of politicians from any party believe in light regulation and small government.  I can expect a huge lobbying effort being made to recreate all those “essential” EU regulations in a post-EU Britain, to be managed by sprawling government bureaucracies crammed full of civil servants.  “Just think of all the jobs it will create!” will be the cry, once “Think of the children!” has faded.

I was also not persuaded by the immigration argument.  Now I appreciate Poles, Romanians, and Latvians might be pinching jobs from hard-working locals in areas of Britain, but the real immigration issue that I see is one of people from outside the EU arriving in Britain with a mindset more akin to medieval theocracies than liberal democracies and no intention of integrating and every intention of causing as much trouble as possible.  The disgrace that is Rotherham, the 7/7 bombings, the murder of Lee Rigby, and the other dozen or so I’ve forgotten about were not caused by EU citizens exercising their right to free movement, it was brought about by immigration policies (some decades old) that were and are firmly in the hands of the British Home Office.  Nobody in government has even admitted there is an issue, and until they do I’m not going to take fears of additional undesirables arriving via the EU very seriously.  True, Angela Merkel’s astonishingly stupid and irresponsible decision to invite in millions of immigrants willy-nilly would have raised genuine concerns that gangs of jihadists will turn up in Britain after obtaining German or other EU passports, but this would be more of a worry were not hundreds if not thousands of British citizens waging merry jihad with ISIS already.

The problem is the British, as with every other citizenry which is not mentally ill, wants freedom of movement to be based on something other than nationality.  Most Brits have no problem with the EU citizens coming to Britain if they are going to be productive members of society and not try to forment foment unrest.  Similarly, most Brits don’t have a problem with intra-EU migration provided it does not come at the expense of their own livelihood.  Both of these are entirely reasonable opinions to hold, but it speaks volumes about the state of western politics that the only prominent politician willing to promote them is Donald Bloody Trump.  Sooner or later, if civil war is to be averted, freedom of movement is going to have to be guaranteed by holding the right passport and not being a complete fuckwit.  The criteria for the latter should not be hard to set.

So all in all, I’m not sure Brexit will achieve much in terms of smaller government, lighter regulation, and improved immigration policies, and it will likely cause me considerable personal headaches in future.  But what Brexit has surely done is given the EU and British political classes and establishments a severe kick up the arse and shaken them to the very core, something that is long overdue.  I am deriving enormous pleasure from hearing the petulant wailing of lefty middle classes who think it all terribly unfair that their right-on, progressive thinking didn’t mean their votes counted twice.  I am also deriving great pleasure from watching politicians and other mouthpieces twist themselves in knots having realised they are firmly on the wrong side of most of the country.  The result has created some extraordinary bedfellows: you have social-justice warriors relaying the warnings of multinational corporations regarding future profits, and anarchists who are usually in favour of smashing the state marching in support of a superstate.  People who were a few months ago campaigning for minimum alcohol prices are now worried the price of wine might go up, and those who thought curbing the “excesses” of the City was top priority are now fearful the banksters might move to Frankfurt.  It is absolutely bizarre in its intellectual inconsistency.

Finally, I am dismayed by the lack of balls shown by many of my countrymen.  All the talks of “fear” and “panic” and “distress” at the thought of Britain, with a functioning (hah!) parliament and centuries of independent rule under its belt not being able to survive without being hooked to Brussels/Strasbourg is embarassing to say the least.  Being a good European, I am reasonably knowledgeable of the modern history of fellow EU member state Lithuania, which in 1990 decided enough was enough and declared independence from the USSR (the first Soviet state to do so).  Given the size of Lithuania relative to the Soviet Union, the demographics, and their dependency on Moscow, this took real balls.  And here’s what happened next:

The Soviet Union attempted to suppress the secession by imposing an economic blockade. Soviet troops attacked the Vilnius TV Tower, killing 14 Lithuanian civilians and wounding 600 others on the night of 13 January 1991 (January Events). On 31 July 1991 Soviet paramilitaries killed seven Lithuanian border guards on the Belarusian border in what became known as the Medininkai Massacre.

On 4 February 1991, Iceland became the first country to recognise Lithuania’s independence. After the Soviet August Coup, independent Lithuania received wide official recognition and joined the United Nations on 17 September 1991.

Any Lithuanian from that era who read about the protest march in London yesterday must be wondering how the hell Britain ever had an empire.  And any European politician jeering at Britain voting to leave might want to consider what impact Lithuania’s departure had on the future of the Soviet Union.

Brits Abroad

You’ve got to love the British press:

England fan fighting for his life and dozens more injured as English fans and Russian thugs clash at Euro 2016 in Marseille

The English were fans.  The Russians were thugs.  Presumably no Englishman in Marseille last night displayed thuggish behaviour, and no Russian showed the slightest interest in football.

Aye, they look like a bunch out to enjoy the beautiful game.

There’s another word the British press and authorities like to use in such situations:

Sir Julian King, Britain’s ambassador to France tweeted that several Britons were being kept in hospital overnight.

If ever a British citizen is in some sort of strife abroad, the immediate assumption is he is wholly innocent and the hapless victim of overseas thuggery, an incompetent and heavy-handed local police force, or a corrupt foreign justice system, in which case it is necessary for the British press to thereafter refer to him as a “Briton”. (The best example of this is in the reporting and government statements relating to the conviction of Liverpool fan Michael Shields in Bulgaria in 2005.)

This reminds me of the summer of 2010 which I spent in Phuket, Thailand hanging out in expat bars all day (and all night, if I’m being truthful).   One of the regulars who used to come into my favourite bar was a dangerous-looking thug from Manchester, whose reputation for fighting, drug-dealing, treachery, and other unsavoury behaviour preceded him by a good three miles.  Typically he would come into the bar at 11am ready to start the day’s drinking and recount the story of what happened the night before, usually prompted by somebody asking why he was sporting some new injury or other.  His recollections always followed the same format:

“I was walking along the street near the boxing stadium minding my own business when a bunch of Belgians started kicking off…I punched one of them, but the others got behind me and I fell down and one of them kicked me in the head.”

“We were in a bar and some Germans started a fight with us…you know what the Germans are like…and we all ended up being thrown out when the police arrived.”

“I was riding my scooter down the road and I ran into a bunch of guys…Spanish or Greeks, I think…same thing…and one of them threw a bottle at me, so I picked up a brick and threw it at him, and it all kicked off.  The police came and I had to spend the night in the cells.”

I detected a pattern here.  Now he might have been telling the truth.  And I might be the Dalai Lama.  But what I never heard, in all my time in Phuket or indeed ever in my life, was a story told to me by non-Brit complaining of getting into a fight with another non-Brit.  For whatever reason, Frenchmen don’t seem to end up fighting Spaniards in beach resorts and Germans somehow manage to rub along all right with Italians on holiday without kicking the shit out of one another.  The common element in all the fighting in beach resorts across the world, particularly the Mediterranean, is the presence of young Brits.  Little surprise then that the only trouble seen thus far at the Euro 2016 tournament features the same demographic.

Eddie the Embarrassing Eagle

Over at the film blog Mostly Film there is a post on a new film about Eddie the Eagle.  For those unfamiliar with the background story, Eddie the Eagle is the nickname given to Michael “Eddie” Edwards who represented Great Britain in the ski-jumping in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Calgary.  He became famous for being utterly shite – he finished last in both the 70m and 90m events.  As Mostly Film recalls:

Do you remember Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards? The British love an underdog, so the cliche goes, and Eddie was the lowest dog of all: the ski-jumper who was never good enough to compete in the Winter Olympics, let alone win, but who somehow won the heart not just of a nation but of the world when he came last, twice, at Calgary in 1988.

I was 11 years old at the time, but I remember the coverage in the British media.  We seemed almost proud of the fact that he needed to wear six pairs of socks to make his boots fit, and that his glasses (worn under his goggles) steamed up.  There is no doubt that Eddie the Eagle captured the hearts of the British public.  But the world?  I’m not so sure.

There is an annoying habit of Brits whereby they assume others perceive them as they see themselves.  One of the most egregious examples of this is the constant refrain that the NHS is “the envy of the world”.   This claim would carry a lot more weight if it were foreigners expressing it and not Brits, and especially not those Brits who have a personal interest in the continuation of the NHS in its current form.  Alas, if foreigners genuinely do hold the NHS in such high regard they seem reluctant to say so.

Another example can be found in this old BBC article:

With all the attention paid to this year’s Crufts dog show, the UK does not look like losing its unique reputation as a nation of animal lovers.

Despite having lived abroad for almost 13 years, I have never once heard a foreigner refer to Britain as a nation of animal lovers.  Britain’s reputation seems to be one for drinking and fighting insofar as these are the activities most often commented on by foreigners who have visited our fair Isle, or had the misfortune to run into a bunch of us on holiday.

I’m therefore a little skeptical that Eddie the Eagle was seen by the rest of the world through the same feel-good lenses the Brits had on at the time.  Whereas the British might see themselves as the plucky underdog in certain situations, it is probably a lot harder for foreigners to apply this label to a nation which recently had an empire which spanned the globe, influenced so much of the modern world, and remains a wealthy and reasonably powerful country capable of dropping bombs on uppity dark folk.  The story of Eddie the Eagle was recalled by the media when the swimmer Eric Moussambani failed so charmingly in the 2000 summer Olympics, earning him the moniker of Eric the Eel.  But the crucial difference was that Moussambani was from Equatorial Guineau, which few had ever heard of let alone could place on a map, and not a divisive former superpower with the 5th or 6th largest economy and a permanent seat on the UN security council.

I haven’t actually canvassed the opinions of what foreigners think of Eddie the Eagle, but I suspect he invokes ridicule rather than good-natured humour.  But one friend of mine, a Norwegian, did offer his opinion thusly:

“You’re Great Britain! That’s the best you could find? He was a fucking embarrassment!”

I get why the Brits adored Eddie the Eagle, but I can’t help but find myself agreeing, at least partly, with the sentiments above.  Britain cannot and will not ever be viewed as a plucky underdog by the rest of the world, and we should probably be a bit less quick to assume others share our sense of smug self-satisfaction.

Sympathy Level: Zero

I hope HSBC gets fined out of existence:

Britain’s biggest bank helped wealthy clients cheat the UK out of millions of pounds in tax, the BBC has learned.

Panorama has seen thousands of accounts from HSBC’s private bank in Switzerland leaked by a whistleblower in 2007.

They show bankers helped clients evade tax and offered deals to help tax dodgers stay ahead of the law.

HSBC admitted that some individuals took advantage of bank secrecy to hold undeclared accounts. But it said it has now “fundamentally changed”.

Not that I have anything against British citizens opening offshore bank accounts (I have two myself, as the article makes clear they are not illegal and there are genuine reasons for having one), nor do I think the whistleblower was performing any kind of public service (indeed, I think he should be filled in), and nor do I care for HMRC or anyone engaging in illegal tax evasion.

But what pisses me off beyond belief is the pompous, self-righteous posturing of British high street banks who make normal people jump through umpteen petty bureaucratic hoops at their own expense in order to carry out ordinary transactions or to open an account, all in the name of preventing money laundering or tax evasion.  Most of what they ask you to do (e.g. present a notarised copy of your passport) is at their own discretion, and not a legal requirement.  Yet this doesn’t stop some spotty twerp in a flammable suit pompously telling you “it’s the law” when you query whether it’s really necessary to take a day off work and visit a random solicitor just to submit a mortgage application form to a bank with whom you hold an account already.

However, if you’re some dodgy Nigerian with a suitcase full of cash, a Mexican drug cartel, or what is being called “a wealthy client” then it’s “step right this way, sir”.

Lock ’em up and throw away the key, bunch of fuckers.

Fallen Idols

A few nights ago a giant, 328-foot tall windmill came crashing down in a field in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland.  To say that questions need answering is an understatement.  Take a look at the photos.

turbine-2_3153749b The failure mode here is buckling, but with my not being a structural engineer I can’t say much more than that.  However, I can say with some certainty that the root cause is either:

1. A poor design; or

2. Poor fabrication/installation.

(With  it being only 3-4 years old we can probably rule out maintenance issues.)

Let’s start with the design.  I would expect that lateral and other loads exerted on the structure to be more or less known, and design loads calculated (expected/actual loads plus a safety margin).  The whole structure would be modeled using a Finite Element Method, which would give the stresses present in the structure under the design loads.  The engineer would then compare these stresses with those allowed under the applicable industry standard (e.g. ASME, BS, etc.) appropriate to the material and application.  If the calculated stresses were within the allowable values, the design is sound.

Simply put, that’s how every single modern structure is designed and verified these days, and it is certain that this windmill will have been subject to the same process.  So either the design loads were wrong, or the allowable stresses were badly calculated: neither is very likely.

There is a possibility that fatigue is at play here, the phenomenon whereby cyclic loading of a structure (caused by vibrations around its natural frequency, which are commonly caused by wind especially around cylindrical structures in what is called a Kármán vortex street) results in cracking followed by catastrophic collapse.  But such effects have been known for the best part of a century and it comes as no surprise that vibration effects and how to avoid them are taught in the first year of a civil engineering course.

So if it’s not a design issue which caused the main tubular structure to buckle, that leaves fabrication or installation as the root cause.  The first step in the investigation will be to see whether the material was actually that which it was supposed to be.  It wouldn’t be the first time that substandard material has been substituted into a design which called for higher-grade stuff, either deliberately or by mistake.  It might be that the material is fine but the welding is substandard (although it doesn’t look to have failed along a weld).  But it might also be that somebody backed a forklift into the tubular section when it was in the yard waiting to be assembled, and with a bit of heat and a large hammer they knocked the dent back out again, painted over it, and told nobody but left it forever weakened.  Again, it wouldn’t be the first time this has happened.

Somewhere along the line the quality assurance process has fallen down, and I doubt it will be long before the exact cause is found.  What will be more interesting is how the government reacts to it.  So far, from what I can tell, the wind power industry appears to be self-regulating:

Chris Streatfeild, director of health and safety for wind industry body RenewableUK, said: “A thorough investigation is already underway into what happened in this extremely rare incident. The wind industry takes health and safety issues very seriously, and the lessons learned from this will be implemented as swiftly as possible.

“No member of the public has ever been injured by wind turbine operating in the UK. As the trade body representing the wind industry.”

So the industry body which promotes the growth of wind power is also responsible for regulating the health and safety aspects of windfarms.  This used to be the case with the FAA in the US, until the NTSB was formed to take over accident investigations; and it was also the case that the UK’s offshore oil industry was self-regulating with respect to health and safety until Piper Alpha, after which regulatory powers were passed to the HSE.  Quite sensibly in both cases, I might add.

The results of the investigation, and the frequency of similar incidents, will determine for how long this arrangement lasts.  Quality control and safety compliance is expensive, and if the groups promoting wind power take the same approach to safety and quality assurance as they do the economics, we might find that operating under an umbrella of political promotion and protection has generated a culture of complacency.  Maybe.

It is interesting that The Telegraph links to another story of two windmills falling over in February 2013, this time in Devon, with sabotage being cited as a possibility:

An investigation into the collapse of the first turbine in Bradworthy, Devon, during a 50mph gale last weekend has revealed that bolts are missing from its base.

The turbine was initially thought to have been brought down by the wind, despite being designed to withstand winds of up to 116mph, but the new evidence could suggest a case of foul play, councillors said.

Margaret Coles, the chairman of Bradworthy Parish Council, revealed that an examination of the turbine had found that a number of bolts were absent from its base.

She said: “We know the bolts are gone but don’t know what caused it. It was a windy night – we do suffer lots of high winds but you would have thought the structure would cope with that.

“People that end of the parish were woken up by the crash it made when it came down. Some people think the bolts had been removed from the turbine which is why it was brought down.”

I’m a little skeptical of this.

Although the picture above supports the view that the bolts didn’t do their job (with the bottom flange appearing to be intact), I’m not entirely convinced somebody would go and deliberately undo the bolts.  For a start, these bolts are huge, and the nuts done up extremely tightly by a powered torque wrench, two of them per bolt – one on top of the other – then likely plastered in something to keep the rust off.  It isn’t simply a matter of turning up with an adjustable spanner and running off with the nuts in your pocket.  Also they say the bolts are missing, which is odd as I would expect them to be embedded in the concrete foundation and impossible to remove.  So I expect they mean the nuts.

It is possible that somebody decided to commit the necessary tools and manpower to undo the nuts on the foundation of a windmill, but it seems like an odd thing to do.  Were they subject to repeated vandalism already, then perhaps I’d be more ready to believe it.  But before I’d go hunting for saboteurs, I’d be looking at the quality control records of the installation: were the bolts properly installed, were they of the right material, were the nuts tightened to the correct torque.

The Tay Bridge didn’t need sabotage to bring it down.

Two Road Systems Contrasted

For the second of the 4-day weekends in May I decided to go to London to visit a couple of mates who were in town.  Such trips are possible from Paris, but weren’t from Lagos and Sakhalin.  I decided to drive, having checked the Eurostar prices and found it an absolute fleecing (being a bank holiday, and me having left it late in any case), and driving had the added bonus of being able to visit a British supermarket and fill up with tonnes of stuff that you can’t get easily in France (e.g. Shreddies, custard creams, Branston Pickle, Colman’s packet sauces, Jaffa Cakes, Ambrosia rice pudding in a can, etc.).

I also wanted to give my car a proper run-out, as since buying it almost from new (it was an ex-demonstrator) I’d only really bumbled about the outskirts of Paris in it (but enough to cop a speeding fine, which was thankfully only 40 Euros).  For those that are interested, it’s a BMW 330d M-Sport, and goes like shit off a shovel.  In France diesel is cheaper than petrol by around 20 cents per litre; I think this is a consequence of the French having been pioneers in diesel engine development decades ago, and as a result most cars in France are diesels.  I looked at buying an M3 (and becoming a drug dealer in Rusholme), but I’m not a speed junky and a car like that would be wasted on me, plus the fuel consumption would have gotten very expensive.  So I opted for a top-end diesel, and so far I’m very happy with it (except when I spy an M3).

I booked a ticket on the Eurotunnel in advance and left Paris early on the Thursday morning, and got onto the A1 towards Calais.  The road was fantastic, virtually empty of traffic, with a surface like silk and a speed limit of 130kph (81mph), with only a few speed cameras that came with ample warning in advance.  Driving the route was a pleasure, and I made the Eurotunnel terminal with an hour to spare.  I had never taken the Eurotunnel before and was curious to see how it worked.  Very efficiently, is the answer.  I approached the barrier, it read my number plate and the screen welcomed me by name and asked if I wanted to take the earlier train or wait for the one which I’d booked.  I chose the earlier one, the machine printed me out a label to hang from the mirror, and then…we hit the bottleneck of British immigration, as usual (the French just waved everyone through: they don’t care who is leaving).  After that we all queued up in ranks and each rank drove up to the train in turn, drove onto the actual train, all the way along on an upper or lower deck, until you come to a stop as the train fills up from the front, then they close some doors and within 20 minutes you’re on your way.  You can stand in a narrow walkway beside your car or remain inside it, but either way you pop out the other side after 33 minutes and a few minutes after that you drive off the train in the same manner you drove on, almost straight onto the M20 without stopping.  I was impressed.

Which is more than I can say for the state of the M20.  The road was patched tarmac for some stretches, rough concrete for others, and chock-full of lorries.  British (and foreign) lorries successfully turn 3-lane motorways into 1-lane roads by having one of them travelling at 55mph overtake another doing 54mph and thus taking several miles to do it.  They used to do this way back when I lived in the UK and the practice still continues.  Bumping along on a crappy surface, continually braking behind lorries and being squeezed into the outside lane, the comparison with the French autoroutes I’d left behind was not favourable.

There are likely several reasons for this.  Firstly, French autoroutes are toll roads and operated by companies (either state-owned or private) which collect the tolls and are responsible for their maintenance.  For a country which thinks dance lessons and venues for adults to play Scalextric (seriously) are services for which the state should pay and the public enjoy free of charge, it is highly surprising that the major roads should be pay-as-you-go.  But I guess the concept has been there for so long that everyone is used to it.  And they don’t have a vehicle tax.  As a result, the money French road operators collect goes on maintaining the roads.  By contrast, the money collected from vehicle and fuel taxes in the UK gets spent on diversity outreach coordinators in the Ministry of Sport and Culture, and road maintenance is kept at an absolute minimum, if it’s done at all.

Secondly, the French have a different attitude about roads altogether.  If somebody suggested putting a decent road down in the UK, a vocal minority would start protesting that the roads should be kept shit to “discourage driving”.  Such people think everyone should travel by train instead, but they are also shit.  In France, the trains are fantastic (assuming there are no strikes, which admittedly is a big assumption) and so are the roads: they don’t deliberately keep one shit to encourage everyone to use the equally shit other.  There seems to be no taboo about a lot of people driving a long way along the roads in France.

Thirdly, the French seem to keep the lorries off the roads.  I don’t know how, but French roads are not clogged up with lorries.

Fourthly, with toll roads you get rid of all the knobbers who are going nowhere in particular and are just “out for a drive”, sitting in the middle lane on a Sunday afternoon doing 60mph and listening to Gardeners’ Question Time.  Everyone who is on a French autoroute has paid money to be there and is going somewhere for a purpose.  The traffic reflects that.

And thus I discovered that driving around in France is a pleasant experience, and I will write more on that shortly.

It could happen to anybody!

Either I’m woefully uninformed about the workings of police investigations, or somebody is taking the piss here:

The death of MI6 spy Gareth Williams, whose body was found in a padlocked sports bag, was probably an accident, police have said.

Last year, a coroner said it was likely Mr Williams, 31, from Anglesey, had been unlawfully killed in August 2010.

But the Metropolitan Police said an evidence review had found “it was more probable” no other person was present when he died in his London flat.

Mr Williams’s body was found naked at his flat in Pimlico on 23 August 2010 after colleagues raised concerns for his welfare.

Police discovered his body inside a zipped-up red sports holdall, in the empty bath of his bathroom.

During a seven-day inquest in May 2012, the question of whether Mr Williams could have padlocked himself into a bag in a bath was central.

Pathologists said he would have suffocated within three minutes if he had been alive when he got inside it.

None of his DNA was found on the lock attached to the bag and his palm prints were not found on the rim of the bath.

Huh?  Let’s read that again:

[T]he question of whether Mr Williams could have padlocked himself into a bag in a bath was central.

Well yes, I’d imagine it was.  So what was the answer? All we get is this:

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Martin Hewitt said he was satisfied it was “theoretically possible” Mr Williams could have padlocked the bag from the inside…

Unless I’m missing something here (which I might be) this smacks of a desperate attempt to sweep something under the carpet.  A body is found inside a locked bag and the verdict is it was an accident because he padlocked himself in?  Slipped on the soap, did he?  Pull the other one, matey.  Found dead with a noose around the neck and an orange up the arse followed by a verdict of death by misadventure, okay I can get that.  But why the hell would anyone lock themselves in a bag in the bathtub?  I’m not into conspiracy theories, but I don’t trust the police to tell the truth nor the media to ask the awkward questions: I think somebody is bullshitting here.

This reminds me of a story I heard on Sakhalin, which may or may not be true.  Apparently, when they were preparing the ground for the new LNG facility at Prigorodnoye, workers stumbled across various body parts – an arm here, a leg there, the head over yonder – all belonging to the same person, and most likely the victim of the savage mafia wars which took place on the island in the 1990s.  The local police turned up and, not wanting to deal with too much paperwork that morning, put it down as a suicide.

Maybe they’ve been training the Met?

Posted in UK