When the Chancellor walked over George Hudson’s grave…

THE Chancellor George Osborne was in York yesterday talking once more about his Northern Powerhouse. By some outrageous oversight, Man On Ledge wasn’t invited along to heckle.

Osborne chose the National Railway Museum to launch his National Infrastructure Commission, promising to invest £100 billion over the remainder of this Parliament. He said he could afford this amount “because we are making difficult decisions on day to day public spending”.

Some of the money will be spent on better transport connections between Yorkshire and the North West, according to Osborne. This is a good idea and if it even begins to happen under the chancellor’s watch, he can have a pat on the pinstriped back from me.

That figure of £100 billion was flourished with the confidence of someone waving another man’s chequebook, but did it actually mean anything? Is this new money or old money with a smart bow wrapped round it? Is this proper hard cash or tricky accountancy?

Who knows, but here is the question Man On Ledge would have asked: This Northern Powerhouse of yours, Chancellor, does it contain any steel? Those rails on which the trains will run, do they call on steel? Are the trains perhaps partly made of steel?

You see there is surely a bitter irony here. While Osborne talks up the north – and good on him for that – he is at the same time a key player in a government that has more or less abandoned the British steel industry to a grisly fate. So one northern sector is talked up, while another is left to wither and die.

Yesterday Osborne took account of the locomotives around him, referring to “the engineering wonders of their day”.

“They are all museum pieces now but in their day they were the most sophisticated machines of their age and they came from a time when we planned for the long term and our technology was the latest technology and our infrastructure was the greatest in the world.”

Fair enough, I suppose, but the image that came to my mind was different. In the summer, the railway museum was used as the setting for an ambitious community play called In Fog And Falling Snow.

This production traced the rise and fall of George Hudson, the railway pioneer, fraudster and huckster – a steam-propelled tycoon who helped to establish the British rail network in the 1840s, before his sudden and shaming fall from grace, when he was found to have been swindling shareholders and paying dividends from capital and not profits.

Hudson ended up in prison. He had been Lord Mayor of York three times (so, incidentally, the present incumbent has not been the only embarrassment in that role) and the Tory MP for Sunderland.

Long before In Fog And Falling Snow, my friend Robert Beaumont told this story in his book The Railway King: A Biography of George Hudson. Reading Robert’s book, or watching that fine production this summer, you can’t help but be filled with a mixture of admiration for Hudson – allied to a sense of shock at the damage his behaviour inflicted on those who believed his every dangerously ebullient word.

Now no one could accuse George Osborne of such an approach: dangerous ebullience is not his style. He favours the dry drone, alongside endless repetition of the same dull but devious phrases.

If history is a burnt-out fire, the ashes are what can be raked through. Some might rummage in George Hudson’s ashes and pull out a pioneering capitalist. Others might sift the same ashes for evidence of a crook and a cheat. In a sense both are probably true: sometimes they do go together.

Which brings us back to Mr Osborne. Will all his talk of a Northern Powerhouse be looked back on as a defining moment for the north? Or will his new commission just be another long-winded talking shop that ends up delivering sod all?

My Chinese-borrowed pound is on the latter.

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Spectre is up there with the great Bonds…

PARDON me while I unzip this beautiful woman’s dress, punch that bearded ugly mug, explode that building, resuscitate that helicopter twirling through the sky like a metal seedpod, escape from that Aston Martin heading for a watery grave, and grimace while an insanely cruel dentist’s drill enters the side of my face.

Yes, I went to see the new Bond last night. Spectre is a fantastic Bond outing, ludicrously and operatically ridiculous – yet superbly done. The pace doesn’t let up for a second as the blessedly mad plot veers from extravagant location to extravagant location.

The film starts with an extended sequence in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead, a thrilling backdrop for a spiralling escapade that leaves you gasping.

Daniel Craig has really grown into Bond and is surely now one of the greats, properly tough and properly physical, and able to brush up well in the required manner: he fills a suit as if ready to pop out of it. Which sometimes he does.

The storyline featuring Christoph Waltz as an Austrian psycho-nutcase who runs the evil data-amassing empire Spectre is satisfying in an anti-bureaucratic, anti-modern life sort of way. The world, and indeed the security services as now headed by the slimy C (Andrew Scott), is enslaved by information gathering. Even the misbehaving Bond has a tracking device injected into his bloodstream. But in the end only low-tech punching and shooting Bond can save the world from the malign info-gatherers.

There is much to like about this absurdly enjoyable, cartoonish romp from Sam Mendes: a sexy-sullen partner for Bond in the petulant, butt-kicking shape of Dr Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux); Ranulph Fiennes’ M leaving the office to join the fray (and deliver the film’s wittiest line); and Ben Whishaw having thin-skinned fun as Q, here getting away from the gadget bench and joining Bond in that dangerous outside world.

Do go and see Spectre. You won’t be disappointed. It’s unstoppable, ear-bashing entertainment (hell, it’s loud) with just the right vein of thoughtfulness running through it.

What struck me also was how uplifting it was to sit in a full City Screen cinema, enjoying a new blockbuster with so many other people. There is so much choice nowadays, so many options, that the chance to be united in one great event has diminished. Live sport still does that trick, I guess – but culturally, we suffer from too much choice and too little of value. Years ago Bruce Springsteen sang about 57 Channels (And Nothin’ On), a lyric which surely needs updating. 257 Channels And Still Sod All To Watch.

Choice is always sold to us as a benefit, as the free market providing more and more of everything. But sometimes more is less. As we all splinter off to watch different TV programmes, or waste our hours with too much Nothin’ On, a good Bond film in a full cinema revives the power of mass entertainment. Well it certainly did that for me.

We should worry when police seize a reporter’s laptop

THESE almost daily outpourings are, as has been mentioned, composed on a laptop. Or possibly a passing whim and a laptop.

The portable PC is far from a new invention, but it is a very useful tool for journalists and writers everywhere. So useful that the police can use powers under the Terrorism Act to seize a reporter’s laptop.

The Independent reports today that this has happened to the Newsnight reporter Secunder Kermani, who joined the BBC2 news show last year and specialises in reporting on British-born jihadis. Because of this work, officers obtained an order from a judge to confiscate his laptop.

Newsnight’s editor, the former Guardian journalist Ian Katz, is quoted as saying that while he would not seek to obstruct any police investigation, “we are concerned that the use of the Terrorism Act to obtain communication between journalists and sources will make it very difficult for reporters to cover this issue of critical public interest”.

A BBC spokesman added that the order concerned “communication between a Newsnight journalist and a man in Syria who had publicly identified himself as an IS member. The man had featured in Newsnight reports and was not a confidential source”.

What seems to have upset the security services is that Kermani makes contact with western-born Isis fighters and questions them online about their motivation.

Reporting is partly about understanding – or trying to understand, attempting to dig to the roots of a matter in search for the truth, or a truth or a reason. If we want to understand why people raised in the west are sometimes drawn into the dark corners inhabited by Isis, then we have to understand these people and their motivation. And this applies even if what they are doing seems abhorrent – or it applies especially if what they are doing seems abhorrent.

Sometimes reporters have to navigate difficult waters. And if the security services and police put the frighteners on journalists, if reporters feel cowed and threatened, this will have what the media lawyer Gavin Millar QC describes as a “chilling effect – I know material has not been published or broadcast because of anxiety to protect sources”.

There are accompanying concerns that police may use the same legislation to curb academics who research Islamic extremism. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at Kings College in London is reported to have built a huge data base of western jihadists.

Journalists and academics who work in this area are investigating a deeply troubling aspect of modern life. In doing so they are doing us all a favour. The former security minister Dame Pauline Neville-Jones complained previously about one of Kermani’s Newsnight reports, arguing that it was possible to be informed about the views of western jihadists “without giving them access to mainstream media on a corporation that has a reputation to preserve”.

Is this partly a case of police and the security services protecting their patch? The suggestion seems to be that they feel it is their job to deal with the matters, and journalists should keep away. The difficulty with that lies in the different cultures. The security services, by their nature, want to keep everything secret, while a journalist wants to uncover.

Both have important roles, both have their roles to play. But we should be worried if the police start to get heavy-handed.

On the whole, Man On Ledge suspects that his laptop is safe from the security services. Most of what lies in the innards of this laptop has been put out on public view already.

There’s an art to being a gentlemen, don’ t you know…

AM I a gentleman? Gosh, that’s a tricky one. Thankfully Country Life magazine is on hand with a list.

I seem to have mislaid the latest edition of the rural glossy – mislaid as in never read a copy in my life. Luckily today’s Daily Telegraph has a report on these rules. That newspaper too is somewhere I don’t usually tread, but have laptop will travel.

The magazine has come up with a list of 39 rules for the modern gentleman. Did they run out of steam before they got to 40? I suspect it is because odd numbers stand out, especially online, where the neatness of an even number is less noticeable. This is an old rule too: if John Buchan had called his classic thriller The Forty Steps, it would probably never have been noticed.

So let’s navigate these 39 rules and see how one slightly worn male measures up.

1: Negotiates airports with ease (does negotiating a bicycle with ease count?)

2: Never lets a door slam in someone’s face (does anyone do that?)

3: Can train a dog and a rose (can move an inconveniently placed cat)

4: Is aware that facial hair is temporary, but a tattoo is permanent (yes, but please define ‘temporary’)

5: Knows when not to say anything (um, ah…)

6: Wears his learning lightly (you’d hardly know it was there)

7: Possesses at least one well-made dark suit, one tweed suit, and a dinner jacket (owns two old suits and four old jackets)

8: Avoids lilac socks and polishes his shoes (recently bought a lilac shirt; shoes occasionally attended to)

9: Turns his mobile phone to silent at dinner (leaves it forgotten until battery runs out)

10: Carries house guests’ luggage to their rooms (sometimes helps Airbnb guests with their bags)

11: Tips staff in a private house and a game keeper (you what?)

12: Says his name when being introduced (as opposed to saying someone else’s)

13: Breaks a relationship face to face (long time since one of those got broken)

14: Is unafraid to speak the truth (guess so… please define ‘the truth’)

15: Knows when to clap (not when David Cameron is on the TV news)

16: Arrives at a meeting five minutes before the agreed time (ah, a definite yes to that one)

17: Is good with waiters (is bad with all that stuff, so no)

18: Has two tricks to entertain children (do jokes count?)

19: Can undo a bra with one hand (can take own pants off with one hand too)

20: Sings lustily in church (sings nowhere, lustily or otherwise)

21: Is not vegetarian (no, but married to one)

22: Can sail a boat and ride a horse (what, at the same time?)

23: Knows the difference between Glenfiddich and Glenda Jackson (you can’t beat a glass of Glenda at the weekend)

24: Never kisses and tells (kiss my wife sometimes but keep quiet about it)

25: Cooks an omelette to die for (cooks one that will do)

26: Can prepare a one-match bonfire (never been called on to do that)

27: Seeks out his hostess at a party (what is a hostess and what sort of a party is that?)

28: Knows when to use an emoki (doesn’t even know what one of those is)

29: Would never own a Chihuahua (or any other dog)

30: Has read Pride and Prejudice (does Mansfield Park count?)

31: Can tie his own bow tie (don’t own one of those)

32: Would not go to Puerto Rico (would go there tomorrow if you gave me a ticket)

33: Knows the difference between a rook and a crow (those are both birds, aren’t they?)

34: Sandals? No. Never (always when the sun shines and sometimes when it doesn’t)

35: Wears a rose, not a carnation (never wears either, prefer Levis)

36: Sweats flies and rescues spiders (do you mean swats? If so, yes)

37: Demonstrates that making love is neither a race nor a competition (damn, so now someone tells me)

38: Never blow dries his hair (hot air sometimes leaves my head, but is never directed at it)

39: Knows that there is always an exception to a rule (bloody hell, wish I’d read that one first)

So, no I guess I am not. Well not that sort of gentleman, thank heavens.

No credit to Osborne on this matter…

THE things I do in the name of this blog. Just now George Osborne was filling the screen of my laptop, up close and scary. Well it is nearly Halloween.

I wanted to hear again what the Chancellor had said on the BBC news last night to the BBC’s new political editor, Laura Kuenssberg (who is proving to be a great appointment).

Osborne was being interviewed in the wake of the peers voting to delay tax credit cuts in order to protect those who would lose out.

What the Chancellor said, in precis, was that the people of Britain had voted for the Government in May and expected to see such policies pushed through.

There are a couple of problems with this. Yes, the Conservatives won the election fair and square. But a slim majority does not make you the voice of Britain. I’m fairly confident that voters did not go the ballot boxes in May thinking: ‘If there’s one thing I want to see from this election it is poor working people being clobbered.’

Less than two-thirds of the electorate bothered to vote at all – and shame on those who stayed away. Those who did put a cross next to the Tories did so for different reasons.

Simple reason: they preferred the Tories.

Muddied reason: they didn’t much like the Tories but thought Ed Miliband was a bit too, well, odd to get their vote – and anyway they trusted Labour even less than they trusted the Tories. And vote Lib-Dem? Oh do come off it.

Whatever the motivation, no one voted for cuts in tax credits because that wasn’t on the manifesto. Not only that, but David Cameron and his ally Michael Gove went on record as saying such cuts wouldn’t happen. So for Osborne to claim that he is only doing what the people of Britain want is stretching credibility bubble-gum thin. And that sticky bubble has just popped all over his face.

Cameron and Osborne lead a government with a small majority but a high degree of arrogance. Before that they shared power with the ill-fated Lib-Dems – and still swaggered about with arrogance. Now there is no one within government to tell them to pipe down.

Following this rebuff from the Lords, Cameron is reported to be determined to set limits on the power of the Upper House with a “rapid review” to ensure that the House of Commons always has supremacy on financial matters. The prime minister accused the Lords of breaking a constitutional convention.

As there is an anti-government majority in the Lords, this sort of clash will happen again. And it does need to be resolved, but thoughtfully and carefully – not with a spiteful and intemperate quick fix. Because in parliamentary terms, you can’t get dodgier than a quick-fix fix-up.

As the tax credit cuts will hit the needy but employed, piling the pain on the working poor, it could be argued that the Lords acted compassionately by asking for a delay.

The strange thing is that at heart Cameron and Osborne are right: it is mad to subsidise low-paid workers with a tax credit. In effect this is a government subsidy on low wages and encourages companies to keep pay low. The trouble is, the proposals as they stand take money away from the working poor without wages being raised enough to compensate.

Osborne says he has listened and will consider what to do now. Expect some fleet footwork in next month’s mini-budget – a conjuring flourish and a tattered rabbit from an old hat. Whether or not anything will have truly changed will be hard to say.

The former Tory Minister David Willetts, who now heads the Resolution Foundation, warned in The Observer on Sunday that cuts to tax credits were an example of the government creating a “country for older generations” while hitting the young and their families.

Willetts warns that the protection afforded to pensioners at the expense of young people were unfair and risked breaking what he called the “social contract” between generations.

He is right about this. They didn’t used to call him “Two Brains” for nothing, you know.

The ups and downs of a blogger…

THERE are different ways to consider the title above these words today. The ups and downs can refer to the optimism or otherwise of the writer – and also to the daily graph showing how many people have been reading Man On Ledge.

Sometimes there is a connection between the two.

You see, writing a blog almost every day is great fun if you enjoy batting words and opinions around. To a former newspaper columnist once confined to a weekly outing, this is giddy stuff: you can write as much as you like every day!

And as the ‘owner’ of the blog, you can also see that graph. Each day you learn how many visits to the blog there have been, how many people have read that day’s entry (or searched back to an earlier blog), and the country they were in when they were reading. Most countries I can work out. Old friends in Sweden, Canada or Australia, say. But Kazakhstan? Who the hell was reading me there?

Over a number of days this graph of vertical bars shows the ups and downs of success. More people read when I write about Airbnb guests or about some gloomy new development at my old newspaper, for instance.

Some days I write a piece that seems good to me and yet not so many people read.

This is where the curious mixture of arrogance and insecurity comes into blogging. Let’s pick over those two states of mind. It is arrogant to assume that anyone might wish to read what you have written – but never mind, because nothing anywhere would be written by anyone if writers became sensitive about that. All you’d get would be a humble silence and a blank page/screen.

So you deliver your words in a tap-tapping rush of egotism and then wait. That’s where the insecurity comes in. Will anyone read me today? On a newspaper in the old days you only knew you’d been read when someone sent in a letter, often a rude letter. With a blog it’s instant. You write, the words are out there immediately and people read them within minutes.

Or they don’t. Mostly they do. But there are those ups and downs.

In my laptop life, I sit here reading and writing on this neat PC. I was late to laptops but do love the thing. You can run your life through this small screen. One of our guests did just that. He was a Brit who lived in Luxembourg and ran a property business in Sweden. ‘This is me working,’ he said at breakfast. Shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops and a laptop was all he needed to start his working day.

How cool is that I thought. There are downsides though. Throughout the day I check those statistics far too often, while also logging into two email accounts, Facebook and Twitter, and a newspaper or two. It is easy to become jittery and obsessed about that graph. The other night I found myself checking the blog statistics while watching a news report about migrants. Suddenly I was annoyed with myself. My little bruised ego seemed a pathetic thing when measured against such human misery. So I switched off and concentrated on the news. Turned on again though before bedtime, just to check.

Also with a laptop I do what I used tease our daughter about: sit and watch television while also glancing at the other screen in my life. This is the split role that newspapers used to have, and still do when I grow irritated with myself and switch off.

After all, making unnecessary remarks half-hidden by a two or three feet of printer’s ink is a long and noble Dad tradition in this house.

I paid for this laptop from the redundancy fund. It has since earned back more than it cost – although nowhere near enough to pay for a life. Not even close, and this is a mounting worry.

But on I go. Writing the blog, rewriting the thriller, applying for jobs, Tweeting this or that, and wandering along the friendly, time-wasting corridors of Facebook.

All from this neat PC. There must a phrase for such a life. Laptop dancing, perhaps.

That moaning Mayor…

‘I always read your column – and then I throw it across the room.’

Ah there’s nothing like having a fan. The speaker was the last Lord Mayor of York before the present one. I would advise him against throwing this blog across the room. It might not be good for his computer.

The incumbent in question was that genial Tory Ian Gillies. We differed on politics, which was why he teased me about my column. I didn’t expect to like Ian, a big, florid old-school seeming Conservative, but he turned out to be a charmer. And he was a very dedicated Lord Mayor, who worked hard in the role, winning over everyone he met. At the end of his year, he stepped away from his robes and chain a little more florid perhaps, but roundly admired.

I don’t meet a lot of Lord Mayors of York. We move in different circles. But I did meet the one before that too. Julie Gunnell came into the office where I used to work wearing jeans and seeming remarkably casual. She was friendly, genuine and earnest too. Julie, a Labour councillor, was a good mayor as well, and she also charmed everyone she met.

The role is shared between the political parties and is usually considered an honour. There has been a Lord Mayor of York, on and off, since 1212 when King John granted the city the right to raise its own taxes. Few of them seem to have caused as much rancour and bother as Councillor Sonja Crisp.

Her tenure has been as tarnished as the chains of office she refused to wear back in September, claiming they weren’t in a fit state. This story surfaced in a series of leaked emails which included the line: ‘Just a gentle reminder that I am the Lord Mayor, the first citizen, the rightful resident of the Mansion House and I have rights too.’

As well as disdaining her chains of office, she was reported to have asked council officials to put her up in an apartment while her official residence in York’s Mansion House was affected by building work. She does, of course, have a house but presumably felt she was getting a poor deal as Lord Mayor.

If she stopped to think, she might have concluded that her behaviour was making her look foolish and pompous. But Coun Crisp ploughed on regardless, and now a local row that made national headlines has surfaced again.

In further leaked emails reported by the excellent Mike Laycock on my old newspaper, Coun Crisp is revealed to have called herself the “Pauper Lord Mayor”, to have stormed out of the opening of York’s very fine (but costly to enter) new art gallery, complained about emotional blackmail and compared York to “1800s Dodge City”.

And now she has been suspended by the Labour Party. Even her own side seem to be embarrassed by her behaviour.

Oh, there is more. She is reported to have refused to use the office because of the dirty carpet, and is said to have kicked up a fuss about not being able to have a family Christmas in Mansion House, as usually happens with Lord Mayors.

There is yards of this shaming stuff. With a sigh of reluctance, I direct you to my old newspaper’s website. It’s a good read.

Coun Crisp is said to have had a bit of a reputation before her elevation, and she doesn’t appear to have garnered her honoured role with much grandeur or grace.

Mike Laycock used the Freedom of Information Act to reveal all this information. Tony Blair introduced this Act in 2000 – and later seemed to consider it an inconvenience. This Government wants to weaken the Act. Not all uses of this Act have been worthwhile, and sometimes it produces dull journalism, it seems to me. But the moaning mayor story shows that it can work very well too.

In short, information about governmental and official life should be made public – that is be freely available to the public. So attempts to dilute the Act are a disgrace and should be resisted.

As for the Lord Mayor, well Man On Ledge is still looking for gainful employment. I promise not to complain about anything…

Time to stop being so sweet on sugar…

UNSWEETENED tea for me today as I sit down on my ledge. Half a teaspoon of sugar was added years ago, a habit long since dropped. Strong espresso coffee is different, a dash of sugar rounding out the bitterness.

The amount of sugar you consume is easy enough to control if you spurn canned drinks and mostly make your own food. Not everyone one wishes to do this, which is why the food and drinks industry has just parked that sugar lorry round the corner, laden with tons of the sweet stuff.

What’s not to like about sugar? It’s sweet and people like sweet things. Brown sugar sprinkled on tart natural yoghurt works a two-way treat, Longley Farm for preference, a really good natural yoghurt. Cakes too, who doesn’t like a cake. Even sweets occasionally, although only in the car and out of a tin.

And honey, ah lovely honey is different. Except that it is still sugar. My paternal grandmother loved what the bees make and she lived until her mid-nineties, so there’s a good example for you. Didn’t drink, though – but let’s skate over that.

David Cameron doesn’t believe in a sugar tax. He does believe in sugar though, by the look of him. Such a levy is a “blunt instrument” according to the prime minister. So is taxing tobacco but nobody much seems to mind that nowadays.

Discretionary taxes on items that are bad for us is the traditional way a government tries to influence behaviour, although many on the right dislike this approach. On sugar they prefer to work with the food and drink industry, getting into bed with a nice sticky bun, as it were. The trouble with this stickily collaborative approach is that it lets the industry that causes the problems set the rules and the tone.

Sugar is on the agenda again, and not just because the porridge on the stove will need a dash of honey when it is done. Yesterday details of a long-delayed report by Public Health England – the government’s advisory group – finally dribbled out like sugar from a torn bag. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt had reportedly been sitting on this report for months (and is therefore suffering from sugary bum syndrome).

The report is called Sugar Reduction: The Evidence for Action and it should have been published in July. The excuse for the delay was that the Department of Health wanted to use its findings to inform government strategy on childhood obesity. By the look of it, this strategy could be summed up as: “Let them eat cake and ice cream too, all washed down with lashings of fizzy pop.”

David Cameron did love a midnight feast when he was at Eton, or so it seems.

It is hard not to suspect that Hunt blocked publication because parts of the report went against the government’s preferred option of holding sticky hands with the food and drink industry.

The recommendations in the report only leaked out yesterday after Sarah Wollaston – a GP and a GT (good Tory) – expressed her anger that it had not been published.

A sugar tax is supported by that mouthy buffoon Jamie Oliver and he is surely right. The description is his, by the way, not mine. I rather admire Oliver and his loud-mouth interjections on food, although his different sides are in competition: TV chef versus restaurant owner. But at least he knows about food.

It is very easy to become addicted to sugar. And it is very easy for the food industry to produce food that’s full of sugar. That’s when it’s not full of salt. Mass-produced food depends on cheap ingredients – and, what’s more, ingredients that create a hit consumers then crave. If we are bringing up a generation of overweight children and young people who love and demand sugar in everything they eat, then we have done something wrong.

The PHE report advises that the problem of childhood obesity is too serious “to be solved by approaches that rely only on individuals changing their behaviour in response to health education and marketing, or the better provision of information on our food. The environmental drivers of poor diets we face are just too big”.

Jamie Oliver says he “expects a kicking” over his demands for a sugar tax. It’s not Jamie that deserves a kicking. It’s the government for refusing to do anything that might upset its friends in the sugar-dealing business.

Ah, the porridge is ready. Perhaps I should skip the honey today.

The man who nearly didn’t arrive…

IT’S gone eleven when the phone rings. I drive across the dead leaves and head into town. The wind is getting up and the leaves are restless. At the station our latest guest is sitting on a bench looking tired and frazzled.

Originally he wanted to arrive at five when I was booked to play squash (or swearing and despairing, as this game is also known). So we settled on 6.30pm.

Sometime after that our guest, a visiting doctor, phoned to explain what had happened to him. His simple journey from London to York had turned into a nightmare. And he was still in London, waiting for the next train.

But he is here now, at long last. I take him to the car, drive home and park over the dead leaves.

‘Ah, autumn,’ he says as we go inside.

I don’t usually pick guests up, but this one had had a hell of a day and had sounded flustered on the phone.

Inside the silent house I make him a cup of tea. Sitting at the dining table he tells me his story. Sometimes it is a little difficult to understand what he is saying. But then he doesn’t always catch my words either. Incidentally the guest before this one thought I sounded German, which was odd.

Halfway to York, our guest had realised that he’d lost his money-belt bag containing his passport, visas, all of his money and his credit cards. He made his plight known to the guard. A frantic phone call to the offices at King’s Cross station followed. Our guest realised he must have dropped the bag when he went to the lavatory. The bag had been found and was being kept for him at the station. But it couldn’t be forwarded and he would have to pick it up.

The guard wrote out a special ticket so that our guest could return to London for his bag. When he arrived, the bag wasn’t at the station. Due to reasons of bureaucracy it had been forwarded to the relevant consulate. Our guest chased over but the consulate had closed at 5pm.

Without money or anywhere to stay, he was in a panic. But his misfortune now ran into a good deed. Someone returned to open the consulate and retrieve the bag.

Back at the station, around the time that he phoned me, our visitor encountered another good deed. When he explained what had happened, the ticket office gave him a new hand-written ticket. So his interrupted journey hadn’t cost anything extra.

Over a late-night cup of tea, he tells me about his stressful day. The waves of anxiety are almost visible. Then he tells me about his life, tells me quite a lot about his life, private things that it wouldn’t be fair to repeat here. Nothing shocking, but some people’s lives are very different, and difficult.

Now it is 7.30am and he is sitting at the dining table again with another cup of tea.

‘Let’s hope today is simpler,’ I say.

‘Ah, yes, no, yes!’ he says.

Shortly after that I walk him round to the bus-stop. I haven’t seen him again. So the bus must have arrived. And he must have left on it, with all of his belongings. I return to the house, yawning.

Intersecting lives – that’s one of the pleasures of being an Airbnb host. Well mostly I think that. Sometimes my wife thinks we let guests intersect a little too much. When we stayed at an Airbnb in Bristol, there wasn’t much overlapping or talking. Just a pleasant room for the night and breakfast. On the Sunday morning we got our own breakfast and left without seeing our hosts again.

Maybe we should be more like that. Then again I enjoy meeting people from different places with different stories to tell. Or people from the same place but with different stories to tell. People come wrapped in so many tales.

It’s a big world out there. I may be contained in a semi in York, trying to sort out my life. But sometimes the world comes to your door. And that’s good. Even when they arrive late and in a terrible fluster.

Sadly my invitation seems to have been lost in the post…

NOT much of my life has been spent feeling sorry for the Queen. But the news footage of the state banquet for Chinese president Xi Jinping might just have changed that.

I realise this is just another day at the gilt-edged office for her Majesty. She’s lived through an eternity of these be-glittered occasions, chomping on venison and not-so-humble pie.

Sadly, my invitation seems to have been lost in the post. Either that or it’s down all those years spent grumbling about the royals. Sometimes we people of pointless principle have it coming.

So like the rest of us, I can only go on the television footage. As glimpsed on the news, the banquet looked glittery but empty, magnificent but ridiculous, a fine flourish of crawling dressed up as national pageantry.

Views of this state visit will be determined by perspective. The protestors who attempted to chant their objections in the Mall will have a different view from the mass of official Chinese supporters supplied with matching T-shirts and posters, seemingly orchestrated to drown out any chorus of dissent. China doesn’t leave these things to chance.

If you are a chancellor wanting China to stump up for a nuclear power station or two, you will think that the visit is a very good thing, and worth any amount of white-tie grovelling and turbot munching.

If you are a steel worker in Scunthorpe and Scotland, it might well stick in your gullet that on the day you learn you are to lose your job, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are fawning all over the president of the country said to have caused the collapse in world steel prices.

And if you are the Queen, you might wonder at the disparity in gifts when, in return to a hand-tooled edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, you receive two CDs of music by the Chinese president’s wife. I guess that’s just a cultural thing, and it is fair to point out that Peng Liyuan is a celebrated folk singer – celebrated in her own right, and no doubt as a patriotic duty too.

What this state visit does is confirm the inexorable rise of China. Never mind a wobble or two on the Chinese stock market, never mind what the west sees as human rights abuses, China’s might isn’t about to diminish. Rather the opposite.

The pragmatic response to this if you are George Osborne is to bury any doubt and do everything necessary to sweet talk and appease China. If that sticks in the throat, and surely it should, the Osborne response would be to say that’s the world we live in, so you might as well jump to front of the queue.

This is all down to a word I have never felt comfortable using: geopolitics. Perhaps the definition was a little hazy in my mind. The Cambridge online dictionary offers: “The study of the way a country’s size, position, etc. influence its power and its relationships with other countries.”

Well this state visit is certainly all about size, power and influence. It’s hard not to see Britain as a minnow swimming alongside a giant pike when it comes to China.

So what does China get out of all this (apart from hand-tooled Shakespeare)? Respect and kudos, propaganda beyond price at home and abroad and a chance to put a Chinese perspective on matters. In his 11-minute speech to Parliament, Xi gave a nod to the “mother of parliaments”, while also stressing that “in China, the concept of putting people first and following the rule of law emerged in ancient times”.

The protestors on the streets might have had something to say about that, but they were mostly drowned out by the Chinese state-sponsored cheerleaders.

Maybe cosying up to the second most powerful country in the world is just what has to be done. But it is possible still to worry about just how powerful our new best friend might be.

As to steel, the business secretary Sajid Javid said in an emergency debate called by Labour that: “No government can change the price of steel in the global market.” Except that some people argue that’s just what China did by dumping cheap steel on the market.

Javid wasn’t having any of that, but then he is a diehard Thatcherite. And you don’t win many arguments with them.