By Simon Bennett 18 Apr, 2017
Now I don't wish to sound smug but a blog I published three days after the EU referendum seems to have predicted much of what has happened since - including today's announcement of a general election. Sadly MPs didn't take my advice about debating a compromise act of parliament to counter the worst excesses of Brexit but with today's announcement comes hope that common sense might yet prevail. 

Her's another look at may thoughts from last June:


Ironically, the day Britain voted to leave the EU the warm dry sunny weather we have enjoyed in the North West since early May turned damp, cool and rainy. The European weather withdrew and British weather once again prevailed.

Clearly the weather has a plan; cold comfort given that the Leave campaigners, who have driven the country to the brink of a precipice, and what’s left of the Government, have no plan.

That’s right - nobody has made a plan about what happens now (whether this speaks volumes about how preposterous everybody considered the reality of actually withdrawing from the EU is food for further thought). Senior Whitehall officials said as recently as May there were no contingency plans in place to deal with Britain’s exit from the EU.

It is obvious that nobody has spoken to the other European nations about what might happen next and now they don’t want to speak to us - as I predicted some weeks ago - despite the Leave campaign’s assertion that we will be able to negotiate new trading terms because we’re too important a market to the EU for them to lose, international politics differs little from the politics of the school yard; if we take our ball away the others won’t want to play with us anymore.

And notwithstanding that, who is there to negotiate new trade terms anyway? The former top civil servant at the Foreign Office, Sir Simon Fraser said on BBC Radio 4, ‘I doubt there are more than between a dozen and 20 serving British officials who have real experience of trade negotiations.’
That’s because as part of the EU we didn’t need them. Now, says Sir Simon, hundreds will be required.

The Government had to make some tough choices during the last recession to get the economy back on its feet which included swingeing cuts to government departments to make itself leaner and more efficient. Now we risk throwing away all the gains that pain brought us. Sir Andrew Cahn, former head of UK Trade & Investment says the legislative programme required to convert all the EU laws and policies we want to keep into UK law and repeal the rest will take years, ‘it must be a decade’s worth of Queen’s speeches and will fill up the parliamentary legislative agenda for as far as the eye can see.’ He’s not wrong as there are some 80,000 legal pages to be unpicked not to mention the legal, security and diplomatic ramifications of what to do with our borders between to two Irelands, Scotland should it break away and remain part of the EU, Spain and Gibraltar.

The problem certainly isn’t lost on politicians. A leading political figures said in February this year, ‘leaving would cause business uncertainty, while embroiling the Government for years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems that have northing to do with Europe.’ That figure? Boris Johnson.

Of course, since the Government has to run the country and move things forward, in addition to the full time business of disentangling us from Europe, massive expansion of the government machine seems inevitable.

Whether the country can afford this expansion of the civil service is up for debate. The economy is going to be fragile for some time even if nothing happens for months as our now seemingly lame duck PM would like but EU leaders say they want us out sooner rather than later. What does that mean for the economy which is going to have to stump up for this extra administrative burden?

For a start, once we sign article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, our formal notice to quit David Cameron’s recently negotiated special status will be worthless. One of its cornerstones was to safeguard the City of London’s position as Europe’s leading financial centre. Any future trade deals brokered after we’ve left aren’t going to be so generous, essentially meaning the City of London will lose its preferential access to the EU single market - the World’s largest free trade area - and will have to compete without special advantage with other global financial centres including those within the EU. In fact that same loss of preferential trading status will apply to the UK’s entire services industry which accounts for 80% of our GDP.

This can all be ironed out, Leave campaigners tell us as they point to the fact that we won’t be paying any contributions to the EU anymore. Whoopee! We’ll save £8.5bn (but subtract from that the £2.4bn British farmers receive in direct EU payments and the additional direct support for the UK’s poorest areas). Total UK Government spending in 2016 will run to £760bn with £138bn going to the NHS, £90bn to schools and an eye-watering £264bn for pensions and welfare.

It’s pretty small beer to have gambled a generation’s prospects on. And all without a plan.

But don’t despair because I do have a plan which I am happy to share today in the hope that Boris, Michael, David and others (Nigel can just fuck off - it’s all been a terrible mistake anyway) will have time to digest this Sunday afternoon before more fresh hell greets us all on Monday…

The referendum is not legally binding, it is an advisory vote. Moreover, it might be argued that a winning margin of 1.9% on a turnout of 72% is a morally bankrupt result. It should be seen as an indication to Parliament that the people want change but not at any cost.

The Prime Minister should withdraw his resignation, recall Parliament, debate the result of the referendum with a view to formulating the EU Withdrawal Act 2016 with a parliamentary majority - it is for our democratically elected Parliament to act on the will of the people in their name as it sees fit. We have heard much in this debate about sovereignty. That sovereignty rests with Parliament, not with the people.

Only at that point should notice be given to the EU of the country’s intention to leave if EU-wide changes are not made. Remember the EU wants us to stay more than we really want to leave.

This would give the other EU countries an opportunity to start the process of reform to appease the UK and other nations also uneasy about the direction in which the Union is heading without being seen to have a gun to their heads.

There would be no defined timetable and the UK would be fully involved in re-negotiating the constitution of Europe which would leave no stone unturned. Nobody would lose face, a new Europe fit for purpose would emerge, the UK would remain united and we would have a more comfortable relationship with our neighbours without losing, as we will if we withdraw, all the benefits.

If MPs do not agree to a bill and uphold the referendum result as a final ultimatum then a general election should be called immediately giving the electorate the opportunity to decide between a Government offering a renegotiated relationship with Europe (as above) or the outright withdrawal of the UK starting with invoking Article 50. I’d bet my house on which option would win the day. A general election would also give the electorate an appropriate means of exercising their ‘protest vote’ which they have so recklessly been mis-led to use to get us and people around the world (for this does indeed have significant global ramifications) into this mess.

Either way, let’s call it saving face without throwing the baby out with the bath water. There will be some compromise but I guarantee there’d be more winners than losers, not least England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, all the other countries of Europe and the two million UK nationals living and working in EU countries which roughly equals the number of EU nationals working here.

Of course, David ‘I’m not going to be the one to destroy the UK ’ Cameron knows all this and so do Boris ‘ no need to rush into things ’ Johnson and Michael ‘ let’s keep informal negotiations going as long as possible ’ Gove. Nobody wants to invoke Article 50, nobody ever imagined we’d be here and David might just have played a blinder in resigning on Friday because now everyone has got to work together to find a way out of the mess. If that happens, and God help us if it doesn’t, the only one who will be unhappy is Nigel Farage. Anyone shedding a tear? Didn’t think so.
By Simon Bennett 04 Apr, 2017
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Tesco is constantly getting it wrong. By wrong I mean its PR. It only appears to make the news for the wrong reasons.

That it is one of the UK’s largest retailers suggests that, on balance, it must do a half decent job at self promotion but the latest gaffe to fall from the lips of the chief executive will do little to engender new loyalty from the significant ranks of the chattering classes who already boycott the supermarket chain.

White men are becoming an "endangered species" in top business jobs as companies take on more women and ethnic minorities, Tesco's chairman, John Allan is reported to have said a few weeks ago.

Mr Allan, himself a white man, told a retail conference "the pendulum has swung very significantly" and it is an "extremely propitious period" to be "female and from an ethnic background and preferably both”.

Oh dear.

I understand Mr Allan’s own board comprises eleven people, eight of whom are white males. Translate that statistical interpretation of 'endangered' to the Congolese rainforest and Mr Allan and his ilk’s closest primate relatives, the truly endangered mountain gorilla, would be beating their chests joyously.

Mr Allan later said his comments were intended to be “humorous". Really? It begs the question how a man who thinks this is funny got to such heady heights. Unlike his female and ethnic minority counterparts perhaps he got there through who he knew rather than by merit.

Now I’m the first to kick back against political correctness. I can’t stand quotas, targets or any other form of social engineering. I really do believe that everybody deserves the same chances in life but then what they do with those chances is entirely up to them and if people like Mr Allan feel threatened by a new breed of bosses earning their places around the boardroom table then perhaps that's a good thing. Survival of the fittest instead of survival of the whitest.

Power in British society has been in white male hands for millennia so strategies do need to be put in place to redress the balance but the pendulum is hardly swinging too far in another direction. The truth is little by little or, as Tesco itself would say, ´╗┐Every Little Helps.

And remember Mr Allan, when somebody else gets equality or their rights are enhanced it doesn’t mean yours are diminished. Equality and rights aren’t like cake. They are infinitely expandable.

We do need more women and ethnic minorities in all walks of life and the best way of making that happen is for people like Mr Allan to keep his sense of humour to himself or better still, step aside.

White men are in absolutely no danger of being ousted from the boardroom but white bigots should have no place there. Sadly with just such an individual heading up the free world there’s little danger of a corporate cultural coup any time soon and perhaps that’s why Mr Allan felt so emboldened to stick his neck out.

Or maybe he really does just have a very bad sense of humour.

Now, talking of bad humour, another white male has found himself on the wrong side of the media this week. Sunderland football manager David Moyes told a reporter doing a post match interview that they deserved a slap for asking a cheeky question.

The reporter was a woman and Mr Moyes went on to add that the slap might be forthcoming even though she’s a woman.

I have some sympathy for Mr Moyes. I’m sure he knows that had the reporter been male nothing more would have been made of the incident but clearly, having made his first suggestion, he realised what he’d done and tried to correct himself by adding the caveat about the reporter’s gender. Clumsy, yes. But entirely the result of the ridiculous politically correct wrath he knew was about to befall him.

Predictably, people are up in arms. Quite whether it’s because he threatened a light hearted slap in the first place, or because he then pointed out the slap would be forthcoming regardless of the reporter’s gender, I am unsure.

He apologised, the reporter accepted (having made no complaint anyway) but nevertheless ‘slapgate’ was born.

Apparently the Football Association requires answers. Understandably the FA is twitchy about the slightest whiff of sexual impropriety given the recent scandals about child abuse in the game but this really is an over-reaction. 

It would be interesting to know whether the reaction might have been any different from the Football Association board if more than just one of its twelve members were a woman. There, at least, it looks like the clock hasn't even started ticking, let alone the pendulum swinging out of control.
By Simon Bennett 06 Mar, 2017
At every stage of social development we express our fear that the old will be lost in favour of the new. Change and progress need not, and indeed is not, about throwing out the old in favour for the new but rather improving what we already have.

When cinema was invented people said the theatre was dead. Look at the theatre now.

When television was invented the radio was condemned. Look at the radio now.

The television was also credited for being the death knell for cinema. Not so.

Social media is feared by many as the end of meaningful interaction but look at its role in the Arab Spring. Arguably there are more words written every day by more people now that ever before.

Email has been blamed for the death of the letter, the end of the art of letter writing. But emails are letters and we write more of them now than we have ever written. The letter has evolved, throwing off the constraints of time and distance to give rise to a more spontaneous way of communicating.

And all these innovations have been said to be the end of books. But look at books.

I am involved with a literary festival in the Lake District this year. It’s a celebration of books, the written word, the spoken word. It’s called Words by the Water. It’s about, quite simply, words. And thoughts. Not always articulately expressed, sometimes ill-formed or confused, other times polished and rehearsed but always conveyed in words.

Literature, ideas, written or spoken, aren’t dying, they’re evolving.

A book, whether it’s paper or electronic, is as powerful a medium today as it has ever been. It can transport you into the world of another person in a way no other medium can.

We often say that at Augill Castle we are selling an experience, a small slice of our life in a castle served up for others to enjoy. It is, by many markers, a unique experience and one in which guests are transported into our world.

But unlike that experience which relies on guests finding their way to our door, a book brings the experience into their lives to be digested at their own pace in a manner dictated by their own imagining. That is why I wrote the two books I have about life in a castle - Undressed For Dinner and Stop For Breakfast .

The other great power of books is that they can travel anywhere. Once you have published a book you have no control over where it will end up, who will read it, why they will read it for how they will interpret it. A book is a vessel carrying your thoughts on a journey with no end.

In the great libraries of the world reside all the thoughts and ideas that any man or woman has been moved or felt compelled to record. Libraries are the ultimate database of everything we have achieved as a species.

So, no matter the subject of a book, fact or fiction, good or bad, each one adds to human wisdom and our collective consciousness and is a vital part of our continued search for enlightenment.

That is why books will never die.
By Simon Bennett 01 Mar, 2017
Last year I visited Gaza and the West Bank as part of a diplomatic humanitarian mission organised by the Catholic church and met young people grappling with the day-to-day reality of life behind a separation wall which cuts them off from the rest of the world. In response to what I saw and heard I set up a website  to explore how we can build a more inclusive, less segregated global society for a new generation.

In June Britain voted to erect barriers between itself and the rest of Europe, condemning the next generation to a future more isolated than ours. Forty eight per cent of the electorate, including me, disagreed.

In January a president took office in the White House, hell-bent on building a wall along his country's southern border, an idea which has been widely condemned.

Last month Ofsted, the government’s education regulator, inspected the school of which I am chair of the board of governors and told us our site and, by implication, our school culture is too open; too accessible to the outside world.

Its judgements were good for teaching and learning, student outcomes and behaviour. Teachers, middle leaders and the head teacher were praised. Strong school improvement was highlighted and governors were commended for their good understanding of the school.

But still the school was rated overall as inadequate and placed in special measures* . Why? Because the school site, on the edge of a sleepy market town of 1500 people, in the most sparsely populated district in England with the country’s lowest crime rate per head was judged by inspectors to be too accessible to the public and therefore, the students not safe. An additional administrative issue about sixth form registers was raised which, although not to be dismissed, in the words of the lead inspector, could be fixed (and was) within days.

So, in a world where we'd ideally want our young people to be tearing down barriers and building bridges would Ofsted rather see them educated behind locked doors and fences (one can only suppose, since Ofsted says it’s not its place to suggest how to address the risk it hadn't even identified in its last inspection of the school in 2013) to keep out a hitherto non-existent threat judged more important than the teaching that goes on in the classrooms, on the sports pitches, on the stage and in the hearts and minds of the students?

Of more immediate concern is the decision to slap the lowest possible grading on an otherwise successful and improving school which risks undermining all the hard work put in by professionals who have given blood, sweat and tears to make it a good school and demoralise an already over-burdened workforce.

It is, as one parent put it, 'a sledgehammer to crack a nut. How can Ofsted which is self proclaimed as a force for school improvement justify downgrading an otherwise good school because of an issue which at best should be properly assessed before being acted upon, at worst, can be fixed within months?'

Of course safeguarding is important. It is a vital role of any school to ensure that its students are safe and secure and there can be no excuses for ignoring risks to that safety.

But consider this. If a risk is so small that it has not entered the consciousness of those in charge is it a risk at all? And if it never existed - all risk is theoretical and risk assessment subjective - it cannot have been ignored.

Should school leaders be berated for not identifying something that is no more than a subjective theory in an inspector’s head?

In all other areas the school’s statutory safeguarding duties were met. Now that the risk of intrusion has been identified the school will take action. But it is an irony that it will spend £15,000 plus on electronic door locks not because anybody at school or in the community believes they are needed to keep an armed intruder out but because it will keep Ofsted happy.

That can’t be right.

The truth is, in a rural community where access to firearms is arguably easier than in a city and where rural deprivation and its associated mental health issues are such a hidden and unacknowledged problem, the greater risk of harm to students comes not from outside the school but from within.

Ofsted inspectors are guided to judge safeguarding within the local context. Our school leaders believe they have assessed the risks at school within the local context. The inspectors say they used their professional judgement in reaching their decision about the school site security. Our school leaders and the school's heath and safety consultant used theirs in drawing up comprehensive risk assessments that deemed school intrusion an insignificant risk. Who is right? 

Ofsted’s guidance further tells inspectors it is not their place to make recommendations about physical aspects of school site security. In the absence of further dialogue - inspectors come, they judge and then they leave - the school is left to fathom what to do next.

There can be no compromise with safeguarding. But effective safeguarding is a balancing act between the perceived risks and the needs of the individual.

We have never perceived there to be a risk of physical harm to our students by an intruder (in fact, even nationally the risk of such an event is so small as to be statistically insignificant). Perhaps that's naive but it isn't complacent and certainly not negligent. Don’t tell me we don't care for our young people and their welfare. Our school has the needs of its 379 students at its very heart; with those numbers it can, it’s one of the greatest strengths of a small school. We have dedicated staff who work with students and families on a one-to-one basis - they know them personally; many of our students grow up in sheltered and isolated homes and part of their education is to prepare them for a life outside this remote community. Can we do that effectively behind a fence? Should we?

As a parent of a student at the school I know he is safe and feels safe. Another parent expressed it in more fulsome terms in a letter to the local press when he wrote of  'the ridiculous decision to place {the school} into special measures because it doesn’t have a Trump-style fence around the perimeter, placed in special measures despite the fact that the teaching is rated as good in all aspects, the head teacher’s leadership is praised, and despite the fact that it’s A level results last year were the best in the County.
'Our son is in his first year at the school but already feels a great loyalty towards it and enthuses daily about the teachers and the teaching. He feels safe and supported at the school and told an OFSTED inspector so, when asked.  His experience confirms the impression we gained at last year’s open evening of a happy, inclusive, thriving school where teachers and pupils not only respect but like one another.  
'Isn’t this all that any of us want for our children’s education? These are the things that ought to matter.'

Let me be clear; Ofsted has never asked for the erection of a fence. Neither have they insisted on electronic door locks. But their comments, 'the school site is too accessible to the public... and in these troubled times that cannot be acceptable', leave little room for alternative interpretation.

The more I consider what has been said, and having the report in the public domain has helped with this, the more I come to understand that, in its own blunt way, Ofsted is highlighting the fact that we cannot be relaxed about safeguarding in any way, shape or form and we must demonstrate that we understand that. Perhaps one of the most significant phrases, for us in our current situation, in the government's Keeping Children Safe in Education 2016   is:

"Staff members working with children are advised to maintain an attitude of ‘it could happen here’ where safeguarding is concerned."

The idea of a fence has become an imaginary construct around which all those who feel aggrieved by the judgment are rallying. Rightly or wrongly this judgement goes to the very heart of people's assumptions of what life in rural Cumbria stands for. People feel it is a stab at their community, their ability to police and take care of their own which is, of course, at once a strength - community pride and cohesion - and a weakness - lack of agency and external support - of rural life. So when an external agency does come and forces us to hold up a mirror to ourselves it can be difficult and uncomfortable; even painful. It is my job as chair of governors to allow those feelings to come out and then harness them to the best advantage of the school because there is so much more that is good, exceptional, in fact, about this school which needs to be celebrated.

As well as a school, our site is a centre for community activities. How will we balance that with a need for heightened security? What about the security of students when visiting other schools, or going into town for lunch?

Perhaps we have had the luxury of naivety for too long and perhaps the real sadness is that things do have to change and this is just the first step down a road that it is difficult for people to accept we all must travel.

Certainly, having looked at the argument from both sides I can see that our priorities must shift. What we are being asked to do by Ofsted is consider every What if and work backwards from there. Our appropriate response is to examine our own culture around safeguarding and ask ourselves important and perhaps difficult questions. The most effective ‘fence’ will be our own utter conviction that we are doing the best we can to prevent whatever we can.

But special measures* for a school that has the capacity to turn the spotlight on itself like this? No .

A knee jerk reaction (as I see happening at other schools, fearful of a similar inspection outcome) to throw up a fence and lock all the doors? No .

I don't want to go to war with Ofsted. My priority is the future of our young people and to achieve the best for them we need Ofsted with us not against us. But to do that we need to be tearing down barriers and building bridges, ideologically as well as physically.

And if there is a shift in the prioritisation of school security, lets have an open dialogue leading to properly resourced solutions, not a piecemeal, inconsistent targeting of individual schools giving rise to ill-conceived decision making as I fear is beginning to happen.


* A school requires special measures because, according to Ofsted it is failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education and the persons responsible for leading, managing or governing the school are not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement in the school.

By Simon Bennett 26 Feb, 2017

My rock star friend Dayna Steele speaks my language and has once again hit the spot with her latest Daily Success Tip .

Don’t be xenophobic. Talk to strangers.

In a world where it feels as if everyone is turning their backs on everyone else, neighbours are building walls to separate themselves from each other and anyone strange, different or unfamiliar is shunned, it’s worth remembering that the most fruitful and often life changing encounters can stem from an unexpected meeting.

It’s true we raise our children to not speak to strangers but at the castle we encourage just the opposite. We say that Augill is for people who like people, are open to unexpected encounters and are interested in the world around them. That goes for children as well as adults and here we provide a safe, comfortable environment where everyone is equal, already sharing a common experience.

At the heart of the Augill experience in the massive dining table around which everyone eats at breakfast and dinner. It is our unique selling point, our point of difference, and it is what makes a stay here unique.  We encourage guests to find a sense of belonging. It's not about belonging in the castle or in your room, it's about belonging to a wider family of like-minded people who have found their own way to the same place you are by a different route. Your paths may have crossed for a reason.

The British are often credited, or discredited, with being an unsociable nationality but given a chance we can surprise ourselves and, of course, the castle’s guest list is now truly international so those nationalistic stereotypes no longer apply anyway.

With the help of a few gins from our Great British Bar - not xenophobic but very patriotic - conversation flows, friendships are forged. It is an extraordinary magic that takes over when we let it. The magic of shared humanity.

'We are far more united than the things which divide us', said MP Jo Cox. It has become a well-worn phrase since her murder but no less poignant for that, particularly in the face of the ugliness which has infected our society since the referendum.

In a world of increasing suspicion and isolationism we like to think we are doing our bit in our little corner of England to bring people together rather than drive them apart.
By Simon Bennett 27 Jan, 2017
Last week an american friend of mine, Dayna Steele , posted her daily success tip online espousing the virtue of the hand-written note . Quite coincidentally, while in London at the weekend I stocked up on note cards and ‘At Home’ invitation cards as I share her conviction that the pen is mightier than the keyboard.

When you want to make an impression nothing does it better than a letter or card in your own hand. It shows thought and the recipient knows that, however briefly, they were the sole thought in your head for the time it took you to write to them.

We live, and are bringing our children up in a world very different from the one in which I was raised and I can’t help thinking that it isn’t an all-round improvement. More often than not when people receive a hand written invitation from us they don’t know what to do with it or how to respond correctly. It’s very sad but it won’t stop me writing. After lunch with friends on Sunday I pulled out a notebook and pen to make some notes. there were squeals of surprise and fascination at a notebook full of closely packed lines of handwriting, my lunch companions' delight made complete by my use of a fountain pen. What has the world become?

In my latest book, Stop For Breakfast I write about the demise of note writing and the decline of manners and etiquette in general:

I was brung up proper Guv, honest.

Indeed I was. In a time before mobile phones, personal computers or multi-room TV my formative years were shaped by having to wait my turn to use the telephone (which was in the kitchen so was anything but private, meaning any conversations needing a degree of confidentiality were conducted face to face), accepting without question that my parents had first choice of the three TV channels and engaging in family conversation over dinner every night (and all afternoon on a Sunday because there wasn’t anything else to do or anyone to see because my friends were all doing the same with their families).

Of course it wasn’t all perfection but it was a different way of life. And while I grudgingly accept that things change and that our reality is now and not then, what I do mourn as a casualty of the communication revolution is the demise of manners. Etiquette, the code of social niceties by which I was raised, which I learnt by osmosis is on it’s death bed and not just at the hands of young people - everyone, it seems to me - is becoming a lot less polite and when one tries to do things properly one is lambasted for it.

When my father died in 1991 the task of relating the news fell to me. I went through his address book and rang those I knew personally and sent a handwritten note on to those I didn’t. We still have the dozens of letters that we received acknowledging his passing and eulogising about the part he played in other people’s lives. It was an essential part of the mourning process and a decent, respectful way to mark the end of a life. Those letters are a lasting record of my father’s worth.

I wasn’t taught this at school. We didn’t have mourning classes or a dealing-with-grief curriculum and I didn’t know this was the correct etiquette from experience - I hadn’t lost a father previously - I just knew it was the right way to do things.

In 2009 my mother died. As I was preparing to embark on the same process I began receiving condolences. By text! ‘Sorry 2 hear about ur mum’ and ‘sad news hope all ok’. In many instances that was all there was. No letters, no cards, no reminiscences, no closure. Just text messages so fleeting they diminished the life they were marking and many of them from people who should have known better.

When I complained about how sad I thought it was a friend snorted in contempt and asked ‘what did you expect, black edged correspondence cards?’

Well, actually, yes.

We threw a party to celebrate fifteen years of the castle as a hotel. Many friends and some family who have supported us in many ways were  invited for a weekend.

Because it’s nice to receive invitations, because it’s nice to have something to prop up on the mantelpiece or the piano, we designed special formal invitation cards (as much as a keepsake as anything because most close family had already been asked to keep the date - yes, by email, of course). But incredibly this little piece of social etiquette was also greeted with derision in some quarters. It’s as if the decline of manners isn’t enough and any attempt at formality or correct social etiquette is not only seen as out of place but is now regarded as the wrong way of doing things in a modern world.

Well, I can’t change other people’s perceptions but I can stick to my own guns.

Day to day this erosion of social nicety extends into every form of communication. When I call the bank or the phone company, or anywhere for that matter, I am referred to as Simon by complete strangers. Rarely I am asked if I may be addressed as such and my response is dictated by my mood and the reason for my call. If I am complaining then it is Mr Bennett and they shall be Mrs Singh or Mr Patel. But there again I know I am trying in vain to hold back an advancing tide.

So my last stand is email. In the days of letters we would write a reply which would begin something like this:

´╗┐Dear Mr Jones
Thank you for your letter of 5 May, received by email, in which you request a reservation of a room arriving on... etc etc

This gave the correspondence context but more importantly it didn’t make the assumption that yours was the only letter to land on Mr Jones’ desk or, indeed, the most important one of the day.

Nowadays an email exchange has lost all manners. It intrudes into one’s day as someone bursting through your front door without knocking and if there isn’t an instant reply, the sender is often on the telephone demanding to know why. It is the rudest of assumptions that we all have nothing else in our lives but to read your emails Mr Jones.

Furthermore, the laziness and brevity with which communication is now conducted means that its context can be practically indecipherable.

I might write to a customer like this:

Dear Mr Jones
Thank you for your reservation of a room on July 29, received by email. We note that you have booked on a bed & breakfast basis. Would you like to book dinner on the night of your stay? etc etc

It may be days or even weeks later when this reply might come back:


Who? What..? I might be enlightened if it is attached to an email thread . On the other hand it might simply be signed off with sent from my iPhone.  As if I care.

Need I say more? I shall continue to write emails as I was taught to write letters with the courtesy not to assume that I am the most important person in the recipient’s day and therefore with the assumption that they do not have copies of all my previous correspondence instantly to hand. And I shall continue to send handwritten notes when appropriate.

Perhaps you’ll call me pompous for all of this. I prefer to see it as cherishing common courtesy and there is precious little of that left anymore.

Old fashioned? Yes I am. And proud to be too.
By Simon Bennett 28 Nov, 2016
Authors of a study published in The Lancet say that telling children about Santa could lead to "abject disappointment”.

Seriously? The whole charade of Christmas is geared to delivering sack loads of abject disappointment every year. Why should the kids miss out? If they're middle class they'll be disappointed with most of what's under the tree, despite your best efforts, anyway and if they're less fortunate what's wrong with a sprinkling of magic to brighten their lives? 

If anything is to be avoided it should be the extravagant Christmas advertisements from the likes of Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Aldi which build our expectations of what our miserable Christmas reality could be if we were anyone else to such heady heights, that a little snowflake of a white lie is hardly going to matter.

Taking each of those retailer’s ads in turn, Marks & Spencer, stalwart of the British High Street, perpetuates the myth of Santa this year by bringing in Mrs Claus who comes to the rescue of a snotty kid who wants to show his older sister how much he loves her, despite his merciless bullying at her hands) with a pair of sparkly new trainers. What bollocks.

For starters Claus isn’t married. He’s a weird old guy in self imposed exile, for reasons undisclosed, at the North Pole. He may be a paedophile, he may be a jihadist (after all, every second man is one or the other now aren't they?). Whatever, authorities around the World are happy to leave him alone so long as he promises to only come south once a year.

Secondly, get over it kid. Your sister is a bitch and will remain so until you are old enough to fight back at which point, lay a finger on her and all her cruelty will be overlooked and you will get labelled a bully and a mysoginist. She’ll love you for the gift as long as your parents are in the room after which it’s business as usual, you being put on this earth for the sole purpose of being tormented by her. Don't waste your cash or Mrs Claus's time.

Out of town, Sainsbury’s follows the daily struggle of an ordinary guy to juggle his ever-so busy life with the demands of his family, wishing only that he could spend more time with them. His answer is to clone himself so everyone gets a piece of him. Really?

He could have solved all his woes in a trice by doing the shopping online and he’s a manager in a toy factory so is going to busiest in the summer (unless he’s doing a shit job in which case he’s going to get fired and will be able to spend oodles of time with his predictably multi-cultural stop-start animated family).

Anyway, after forty eight hours of quality time with his caribbean mother-in-law he’ll be finding any excuse to get back to the factory.

And finally, over on the retail park next to DFS (from where a hideous sofa can be yours in time for Christmas but won't outlive the repayments you'll saddle yourself with) the star of Aldi’s Christmas fantasy is a carrot; carrots being the most politically correct of vegetables, designed by God to offend nobody and this one genetically modified to be festively, perfectly appealing. Carrot is exploring all the fabulous things that make a Christmas banquet purchased at Aldi so magical. Anyone who shops at Aldi will tell you it is anything but a magical experience as you have your purchases literally hurled at you by the check-out operator.

And as for the carrot? He’s going to get eaten FFS! I heard that he was originally going to be cast with a girlfriend, just to compound the nation’s grief when they both drown in gravy on Christmas Day and are beheaded. That particular storyline was scrapped as Brenda was a sprout from Brussels and post Brexit she claimed she couldn’t be seen to be promoting a german branded supermarket in the UK. She’s currently out of work.

All lies.

The report claims that pedalling the myth of Santa to children undermines trust in their parents. "If parents can lie so convincingly and over such a long time, what else can they lie about?” it asks sanctimoniously.


Grow up kids and get used to it. Life’s one long lie so start playing the game.
By Simon Bennett 19 Nov, 2016
Take heart fellow Remainers, Britain could be rescued from Brexit deadlock by an unlikely ally.

Mrs May has not had a good few weeks of weeks. She got, if not a frosty, then frosted, reception when she visited India last week with her assertion that India could be a great trading partner for Britain being met with just a tinge of rancour by the Indian establishment, perhaps still smarting from the legacy of the Raj. In any case their suggestion that her hopes of a free trade deal might be helped by the easing of visa requirements for Indian nationals to gain entry to the UK didn’t go down well with the Tin Lady. She may have stopped short of telling them the whole point of Brexit was to stop them coming at all, rather that they should stay at home and buy our cars and warplanes online, but nevertheless it seems she hasn’t quite grasped the mechanics of negotiation.

Maybe, like much of the rest of the world India already has a perfectly workable free trade agreement with the EU, so why waste time thrashing out another? After all, a Range Rover with a bit of extra tax added is still a much better buy than a Porsche Cayenne where even the steering wheel costs extra and let’s face it, lots of countries make cars but nobody else grows Assam so who needs who?

Meanwhile, Japan and China are proving tough nuts to crack with the Japanese government issuing a stark 15 page warning of the dire consequences of its relationship with Britain post-Brexit if we don't get it right and China just being China - you know, we’ll strike a trade deal with you if you’ll let us have a large chunk of your future power industry sort of thing (that’s what negotiating looks like Mrs May).

The Australians, too are getting less than excitable. Hardly surprising since a sizeable portion of the population plus the majority of the political class down under have wanted to sever ties with the motherland for a generation, their attitude perhaps being, ‘if we can make a go of it, so can you, you pommy bastards’. Canada is more open to trade but since it’s taken them seven years to hammer out a deal with the EU, no-one’s holding their breath.

Then last week Mrs May’s pride took a further battering when it was Nigel Farage rather than she who was first in the golden elevator speeding its was to the Penthouse at the top of Trump Tower, leaving her to put a brave face on things as she asserted her continued belief, through gritted teeth, in the US-UK special relationship.

She may have felt like taking a leaf out of Hugh Grant’s PM in the film Love Actually when he said of the relationship with the US, ‘I fear that this has become a bad relationship. A relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to Britain… A friend who bullies us is no longer a friend’, that is until she remembered that is exactly how she is treating the EU.

Fear not, salvation is in sight. On 1 November Juan Manuel Santos visited the UK. It was the Columbian president’s first state visit to the UK and being a small South American country, he would have been forgiven for assuming it would be his last.

But such hope has he given the beleaguered Mrs May that more visits are almost assured. While here he signalled his country’s unbridled enthusiasm for doing business with the UK; Mrs May nearly bit his hand off and The Queen moved him to the best guest bedroom.

At the time of his visit he can have had no idea of the outcome of the US election and since last Tuesday, as Trump promises to shut down everywhere south of New Mexico, is no doubt even more prone to wetting his pants about the prospect of some free trade with the UK.

He has reason to be optimistic. While in office Santos has dramatically improved Columbia’s relations with its neighbours, so he has much to teach Mrs May about how to get along with others on the world stage (where we already risk being demoted to the chorus line) and she would do well to show some humility and learn from our new global best friend.

So it is that, as we prepare to turn our backs on free trade with almost the whole of the European continent we can rejoice in the fact that we will still be able to enjoy tariff-free coffee, cocaine and heroin.

What a trip that would be and may be just what we all need, especially Mrs May.
By Simon Bennett 14 Nov, 2016
Last Friday saw the launch of the much anticipated John Lewis Christmas advertisement . It has become as much a harbinger of Christmas as the first robin or berries reddening on the holly tree.

It has also met with some controversy. This will no doubt delight the marketing bods at John Lewis as the only thing in advertising worse than being talked about is being ignored. The marketing department will be even more thrilled at the speed with which the parodies have done the rounds - my particular favourite featuring the Obamas, Trump and Clinton.

The original ad has been lambasted in some quarters (notably Twitter from which a frenzy has been whipped up, unsurprisingly by the neo-nazi Daily Mail) for glamorising foxes as adorable woodland creatures. It is true that in some parts of Britain they have become an urban menace and one did apparently get into a baby's bedroom but their role in this advert, bouncing on the trampoline in the early hours of Christmas morning is surely hardly going to elevate their status from crazy baby killers to national treasure.

Critics have gone further. Two foxes are then joined by a badger. 'Does nobody know that badgers carry tuberculosis? When the little girl climbs on the same trampoline in the morning she might contract TB as a result,' cry the anguished parents in their online posts. 

But it doesn't stop there. The badger is joined by a squirrel (rats with tails) and a hedgehog (full of fleas). That trampoline is now a death trap before the little girl for whom it is intended has even woken up and that's before the family dog, Buster the Boxer has careered down the garden, nearly knocking the kid out and has his shitty paws all over the thing.

'Calm down dear,' as Michael Winner famously used to say in his starring role in those TV ads for car insurance, 'it's only a commercial.' No doubt the mum was out there with her bottle of Dettol (kills 99.9% of household germs) wiping away the faeces but that wouldn't have been very festive to watch, would it?

Even that knowledge, however, is not sufficient to appease the now almost hysterical parents. 'Has John Lewis not considered the impact on children of seeing the little girl's dad assembling the trampoline - what about Santa?' they cry, 'how will we explain to our cherished ones the lie we've been peddling since they were born?' 

'An already stressful time of year has been made worse by John Lewis's insensitive handling of such a delicate subject,' wails one self-righteous not-so-yummy-mummy.  Stressful? Crimbo's supposed to be fun. Get real. Just tell them Santa isn't an effing handy man and needs help from parents to assemble things otherwise he'd still be delivering in August for God's sake! You've been using your imagination to dupe your little darlings for long enough, use some imagination to explain the reality.

So while we're at it, perhaps we could explore some other Christmas realities. Foxes, badgers, squirrels and hedgehogs might not be your ideal trampolining buddies but have you ever considered that omni-present Christmas icon, the humble robin? Viciously territorial to the point of death. Those holly leaves on top of the Christmas pud can give you the shits and just ten berries could kill a child. Mistletoe? Don't even go there. Santa, jolly nice chap he may be but being a male public figure of a certain age is almost certainly a paedophile, Rudolph was ostracised by his peers just for the colour of his nose, Cinderella's ugly sisters turned sibling rivalry in to an evil art form and Jesus, nice enough fellow and son of God, was a bastard.

On balance John Lewis has put quite a nice gloss on the whole thing after all.

By Simon Bennett 09 Nov, 2016
In politics elections - or referenda - are rarely won. They are lost. Lost by the opposition failing to make their case, lost by the incumbent government on their record of failure or broken promises. There is perhaps an inevitability to that - if you don't make big promises, you can't win and then you lose because you couldn't deliver and so pass the same old baton on. So it will continue unless there is new kind of politics but I fear we're not there yet with a PM here who has no idea how to deliver Brexit and an incoming US president claiming to make America great again.

In our own EU referendum, even the Leave campaigners were taken by surprise at the result. It wasn’t so much their victory as Remain’s defeat - a failure to make the case for staying in the EU.

In the US what propelled Trump to victory last night was not his universal popularity, not his coherent policies or carefully costed economic plan, for he possesses none of these, but the failure of Mrs Clinton to capture the hearts and minds of a nation and her failure to rise, statesmanlike, above the mire of the most divisive and spiteful election campaign in US history.

That is what we can all see but the roots of Trumps victory extend much further. His rise to power began on a cold, bleak Tuesday in January 2009. The inauguration of President Barack Obama on 20 January heralded a new dawn for America. A resurgence of confidence for a nation which, under his predecessor George W Bush had become an international pariah. There would be healthcare for all, lifting millions of Americans out of poverty. There would be racial equality, after all if a black man was president how couldn’t there be? There would be a new, conciliatory foreign affairs policy, opening the hand of friendship to the world, an end to American global paranoia.

But he didn’t deliver. In hindsight, his rhetoric was hollow. He had charisma, he had charm, he was a great orator. He spoke well but he said little that could make a real difference.

And he couldn’t deliver for two main reasons:

  • He had no control of the Senate - he was loathed by Republicans as much as democrats loathe Trump. He failed to win, as Clinton has, the hearts and minds of his opponents, or all least enough of them to get the job done.

  • Time was not on his side (and wont be on Trump’s). Eight years is not long enough to enact transformative social or economic change and in effect a US president only has six of those eight years since the last two are spent in waiting for his inevitable departure.

Obamacare, when eventually it was fudged together, embodied the worst of a system designed by the state and not enough that was good. What benefitted the poor was regarded by many as disproportionately hurting the wallets of middle America - and like any democracy, it is the middle where the power lies.

Obama did not have luck on his side. His presidency coincided with the worst financial downturn since the 1930s. His was a presidency against a backdrop of home re-possessions, bankruptcies, job losses, In short, for too many the final death throes of the American Dream. In America today there are swathes of poverty, urban decay and deprivation which we in Britain can not even imagine. He may have avoided a second Great Depression but he will be given no credit for that by ordinary Americans who compare only what they still don’t have against what they hoped for.

There is arguably more racial tension in America today than ever, certainly no less than the day the black president took office, and the daily struggles of making ends meet for millions of black, latin and hispanic families have not improved. They feel disenfranchised, theirs the dreams most cruelly shattered.

Obama wanted to extend the hand of friendship and peace to the rest of the world in the wake of his predecessor’s global warmongering. He failed to understand that global conflicts do not turn on a dime. A decade of foreign policy couldn’t be reversed with a handshake. What America had started around the world couldn’t just be stopped, it had to be finished. His indecisiveness saw increased tension across the Middle East - the rise of ISIS, the Arab Spring, the Syrian War. His was a presidency that saw the resurgence of aggression from Russia. His softening of relations with Iran was seen at home and to America’s foes as weakness.

Of course he isn’t solely responsible for the precarious state of the world today but the absence of clear leadership from him, and his Secretary of State, one Hillary Clinton, bordering at times on naivety, hasn’t helped. Ultimately though, he wanted to teach the world to sing without any idea of the tune or an orchestra to play it.

His has been a presidency of wise but hollow words, grand gestures and unfulfilled - undeliverable - promises. There’s no doubt he is an honourable man with the best of intentions but he didn’t have the skill-set to follow through. He might be described as clever but unconsciously incompetent.

That he raised such hope, or that such expectations were heaped upon him by the American people was a potent mix of his own charisma and the legacy of his predecessor’s defeat that raised him high on a pedestal from which there was only going to be one, dramatic and shattering way down.

Obama could never deliver what middle America hoped for and since the higher the hope, the deeper the disappointment when it goes unfulfilled, the nation felt let down. And when a nation feels let down, they lash out, grasping for change and a new hope wherever they find it.

It happened here on June 23. It’s happened in America. Ironically what won Donald J Trump the keys to the White House is exactly the same sense of hope and expectation of change that got Obama there. Unlike Obama, Trump has the advantage of a Republican majority in parliament. That may give him the edge in getting things done (though many of his own party have vowed not to support him that may just serve to curb his more extreme leanings).

On both sides of the Atlantic people have enacted a quiet revolution, desperate for a new order, a change to the no-change politics of a generation. - perhaps the American people were emboldened by Brexit. Only history will tell how the next chapter plays out and in the meantime we can ponder that well-worn phrase, ‘be careful what you wish for’.

And as a footnote, to anyone who says, well it’s not our country, remember now we’ve turned our backs on our continental neighbours America is our closest ally and it is a lot bigger then we are.

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