Broken windows in that Northern Powerhouse…

I've been shortlisted for the UK Blog Awards 2016 Final.

A newspaper launches today in the shape of the New Day, while another lives out its few remaining old days in print: strange times for newspapers, so let’s give today’s Independent its due.

The newspaper, soon to be digital only, leads with a Northern Powerhouse story linked to a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The Indy has always been good at this sort of concept packaging, good at giving a story the necessary punch and heft.

Many people in the North will be naturally sceptical about this powerhouse, suspecting it is little more than a sturdy-seemed metaphor dreamed up by George Osborne while twirling round in a hi-viz jacket and wearing a hard hat. What the Chancellor gets up to in the privacy of his bedroom in his own business, but this hi-viz obsession for the news cameras really is ridiculous.

Are we meant to look at George, George with his soured expression, George with his silly haircut, George with his random moods of pinched meanness and vanishing pocket-plunging generosity, and think: bless me but that man knows the North what with his hard hat and all?

The Independent story is drawn from the report by a York-based foundation which has long examined poverty, with its roots in Seebohm Rowntree’s pioneering investigation, Poverty: A Study of Town Life, first published in 1901. This new report takes a peep inside Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, perhaps through one of the broken windows, and sees that ten of the UK’s 12 towns and cities in greatest economic decline are in the North.

Rochdale, Burnley, Bolton, Blackburn and Hull lead the list of places affected by low employment and population growth, while not a single town in the South appears among the 24 listed places. Grimsby is ranked sixth, Bradford ninth and Liverpool 19th.

The JRF report is in anticipation of next month’s budget, and calls on the Northern Powerhouse to embrace all parts of the North, and asks “city leaders to harness their new economic powers and resources to create opportunities for the people and places who have previously been left behind”.

The report points out that the Northern Powerhouse and devolution agenda has focused on the biggest cities in the country, with devolution deals already signed for areas such as Greater Manchester and Sheffield City Region – but argues that the effects must be spread wider, with towns and people outside of those core areas sharing in the benefits of investment and devolution.

Well, yes – quite so. What the report seems too polite to ask is whether or not the Northern Powerhouse really exists at all, or if it is only a duplicitous concept dreamed up by George Osborne while admiring himself in the mirror – “My but don’t I look good in a hard hat.”

Now in the name of fairness, it is possible that the Northern Powerhouse is a fantastic idea that will bring great benefits to the upper part of the country; possible that Osborne is entirely genuine in his wish to bridge that north-south divide with a wobbling plank. Yes, that is possible, but not that many people in the North will swallow such an idea, will they?

Josh Stott, policy and research manager at the Foundation, says that the Northern Powerhouse could play a key role in rebalancing the economy – but adds that it must “reach all parts of the North to ensure prosperity is shared. To rebalance the economy and ensure local growth provides opportunity for all households, the Treasury needs to ensure areas outside of Core Cities are not left behind.”

Quite so again. Also, how are we to trust this inconstant Chancellor? Only months ago he found untold billions tucked down the back of the Treasury sofa; and now he is warning of more cuts to come because of a downturn in the economy.

Dear me, George, you do tease us so with your dance of the seven hi-viz veils.


Imagine Donald Trump or David Cameron as a tin of paint

I've been shortlisted for the UK Blog Awards 2016 Final.

NOW I am much taken this morning with the blackest black there has ever been.

According to a report in the Mail on Sunday, the sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor has exclusive use of this darkest pigment, known as Vantablack and originally used to help keep satellites hidden. Artist Christian Furr is challenging Sir Anish’s ownership of this colour, telling the Mail “this black is like dynamite in the art world”.

According to the report, this black absorbs 99.96 per cent of the light that hits it – which happens to be about the same chance of my wife wondering whether you can get this colour yet from Farrow & Ball.

I saw some of Sir Anish’s sculptures at a gallery in Nottingham a few years ago and they were fantastic, but it does seem odd that one artist should be able to claim ownership of a colour.

That is, of course, if black is a colour, something which is always a matter for debate. One common answer to that question is that black isn’t a colour because it absorbs light and is the absence of colour; whereas white is a colour because it is the blending of all colours.

If that doesn’t make sense, find a passing artist, but do be tactful about mentioning Sir Anish making off with all the tins of Vantablack (surely to be called Dynamite Pitch when Farrow & Ball do get round to stocking it).

The handy thing about this paint is that it covers all topics. The Sunday papers are full of Europe this morning, with David Cameron being warned by members of his own party to tone down his anti-European statements, with the Mail talking of a Tory feud ‘Meltdown’. Oh, I do like to see a melting Tory.

Some on the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party believe Cameron has gone too far in painting the ‘leave’ case as black as possible. Incidentally, if David Cameron were a Farrow & Ball colour it would be called something like Hues He Kidding, a tin of indeterminate shade that changes colour every time you look at it.

It happens that I agree with David Cameron over Europe, almost the first time I’ve agreed with that man about anything. But painting the anti-Europe case too black could well end up alienating voters, and push them into the ‘No’ camp. So he should be careful with the blackest of black paint tin.

If we turn to the United States, we can see that the Vantablack might be needed this week after Super Tuesday, so called because 11 states hold their contests to choose a candidate on the same day. This is because it now looks highly likely that Donald Trump could be the Republican candidate – a scenario once seen as impossibly unlikely.

Viewed from this distance, it still seems remarkable, and remarkably alarming, that such a hate-filled, ignorance-propelled fruitcake could be in with a chance of becoming President.

If Donald Trump were a colour, the tin would bear the words – and do pardon me – Bullshit Bluster, recommended for when you want to throw everything at a room, scattering paint in all directions and hitting everything in sight, whether or not it needs painting.

The billionaire property tycoon probably sells that shade of paint already, and proudly too, as he does a line a self-glorying merchandise, selling Trump this and Trump that, along especially with his political philosophy, Trump’s Malignant Bollocks (pardon me again).

Trump absorbs 99.96 of all good sense and humanity and turns it into political Vantablack. He is also wildly inconsistent, changing his mind about everything all the time, preferring to hoof the moment and wing it. And he scares the black stuff out of me.

Back over here, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was among those who attended the anti-Trident march in London yesterday. Now nuclear warfare truly is the blackest black there is, and my heart beats with Corbyn over a what he calls a “nuclear-free Britain and a nuclear-free future” – but I’m not sure it will ever happen, and his support for this desired but improbable future is unlikely to make him electorally popular, I’d say.

But at least Jeremy Corby has stuck by what we’d better not call his guns; stuck by his allotment spade, perhaps.

Things I regret hearing this week…

I've been shortlisted for the UK Blog Awards 2016 Final.

HERE are a few things I regret hearing this week…

The words ‘Jimmy Savile’ being again uttered in the public arena. Dear God how that man poisoned the well of our lives.

That vile name was back again yesterday thanks to the publication of an independent inquiry by former senior judge Dame Janet Smith into the way the BBC had allowed stars such as Savile to abuse women and children. Her inquiry found that deference towards “untouchable” celebrities such as Savile and Stuart Hall was to blame.

This morning most newspapers are having a go at the BBC as they always do. This is not to say that the Corporation is blameless – far from it – but it is to wonder at the way Savile in particular has become the cross the BBC will seemingly have to carry for ever.

The poison from that man spread much further than the BBC, infecting various aspects of public life, up to and including the NHS and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who often consorted with Savile.

A Google search of their names will bring up enough assorted old photographs to put you off breakfast for a week. Savile wormed his way into the complacent heart of the establishment; the BBC played a big part in that, but shouldn’t carry all the blame for ever more.

The editorial in The Times this morning calls on the BBC to learn the lessons of Dame Janet’s review, saying: “It needs to return to its core competencies of news, current affairs and entertainment, and end its unfair dominance of online news publishing and atone for the devastating damages of a decade-long scandal that unfolded while it looked the other way.”

Here you have a typical example of BBC bashing, with Rupert Murdoch’s paper twisting the findings of the inquiry to have a go at the unrelated matter of the BBC’s online services. These by the way are very good indeed and I’m happy to see some of my licence money spent on them.

When will all this end? Probably never (see below).

I also regret Tony Blackburn being sacked by the BBC, even though I can’t stand the man or his dreadful programme on BBC Radio Two.

The veteran DJ was shown the door yesterday because the BBC director general, Tony Hall, said he had failed to fully cooperate with one element of Dame Janet Smith’s report.

Blackburn claims he has been “hung out to dry” and made a scapegoat for historical failings at the BBC. That may or may not turn out to be the case, but really the BBC should have pensioned off Blackburn years ago, instead of letting him rumble on for so very long, still cranking out a creaky old act in a hoary piece of self-parody. Blackburn is 73 and although I don’t wish to be ageist about this, isn’t that just a little too old to be a DJ? For all that, it’s still a shame he should have gone in this manner, and the statement from Tony Hall was pretty grotesque and full of squirm.

On a different and unconnected matter, I very much regret ever having encountered the word ‘genervacation’. Well, I say word but it’s no such thing. It’s just a horrible neologism dreamed up some twerp employed by a travel company; and regurgitated last weekend in the Observer, of all places.

Now ‘staycation’ sort of made sense and was tolerable, but this new one is an ugly coinage. What’s worse its meaning irritated the hell out of me, as it supposedly refers to rising numbers of parents my age who have so much money to spare they take their broke twentysomething adult offspring off on glamorous holidays (an irritating panel trundles out a creative director and his family in Vietnam).

Now I know this isn’t about me and I shouldn’t care. But while I would love to take my three on an exotic break somewhere, the way things are I’ll be lucky to go on any sort of a holiday ever again.

Self-pitying moan over and out.

Making a real crime drama out of Shetland…

I've been shortlisted for the UK Blog Awards 2016 Final.

IT IS easy to praise foreign crime dramas while overlooking our own. So today I shall stop squinting at the subtitles on BBC4 and instead put in a good word for the latest series of Shetland on BBC1.

This has been first rate, pitch perfect I’d say – spoilt only by inconsiderate scheduling. Shetland has already been interrupted once, and the finale should have been on tomorrow, but has been pushed back a week by a rugby match, of all things.

The story took an upsetting turn last week with the rape of one of the main characters. Shetland managed to convey the terrible reality of the sexual assault, without resorting to anything remotely titillating.

This approach was praised by the crime writer Ann Cleeves, whose novels inspired the TV series. In a newspaper article last weekend, Cleeves said she deserved no credit for what appeared on screen, as the character had been created by screenwriters, along with the assault.

The power in this portrayal lay in what was not shown. We did not see the assault; it wasn’t initially even clear what had happened, but once we realised the shock was all the greater.

Cleeves wrote: “I was moved to tears as I watched a bright and confident Detective Sergeant Alison McIntosh, brilliantly played by Alison O’Donnell, shrink into herself, become dimmed and scared of the world around her – a world as safe and friendly as Shetland.”

Ah, the lovely ‘Tosh’ – a side player who has emerged into the light, only now to have something so horrible happen to her. O’Donnell’s performance makes her character real and bright and ordinary in a glorious sense – a proper, rounded woman rather than a prettily confected plot device.

Often in crime dramas rape is little more than a bit of ‘necessary cruelty’ included to push a story along, something that happens to someone anonymous. A character we have come to know and love, that’s far more upsetting.

Not easy viewing, but that’s crime fiction for you. People are hurt in crime stories; people die in crime stories. As Cleeves says, “crime fiction is about violence. Even the most traditional detective stories contain at least one murder. Agatha Christie killed off schoolgirls and wrote about serial killers”.

But she does accept that “there’s a moral ambiguity about turning homicide into entertainment”, adding that a case can be made for graphically showing violence against women in order not to gloss over the matter. Not that she’s keen on this approach.

I confess to being troubled by people I have killed. A number of corpses litter the pages of my two published crime/history novels, although one review of the US edition of The Amateur Historian complained there was not enough crime or enough murders.

In The Baedeker Murders, available only on Amazon for Kindle at present, a German pilot returns to York to apologise for bombing the city during the war. This is based on a true incident, only in my retelling the penitent pilot ends up being murdered; was that a diabolical liberty?

Crime writers should worry about the people they kill, and for my blood-stained money, they shouldn’t dwell on the gory details. But that’s just me, and some writers and readers seem to enjoy dipping into lurid nastiness.

Women are the greatest consumers of a genre that so often concentrates on killing them off in assorted nasty ways. The crime writer Val McDermid believes women are better at imagining the horrible things that might happen to them and they like to scare themselves by living through their nightmares in fiction.

At the moment I am experimenting with a Victorian murder mystery with a Steampunk slant. There are three murders in the opening pages, all the victims are male. Do women remain unscathed? Ah, well – that depends where the flaw in my mind takes me.

As for the delightful Tosh, we will have to wait another week to see what happens to her.

Straight to the point about croissants…

I've been shortlisted for the UK Blog Awards 2016 Final.

Some matters are so weighty they take a day or so to settle in the mind. Having had time to consider this question, I can now ask: how do you like your croissants, straight or curved?

A story in the Guardian on Saturday reported that Tesco is only going to sell straight croissants due to customer demand. Before we go any further into this flakily contentious territory, let’s just stop there for a moment. The mental image this suggests is of queues of customers waving banners demanding no more curved croissants, although in truth some half-baked company research will have been involved.

Years ago I managed to get a whole column out of Tesco introducing cheese that was apparently the perfect size to make cheese on toast. As a man who has made and eaten a lot of cheese on toast, as a man who could eat this glorious snack every day if that weren’t such a dietary suicide note, I was outraged by this.

Surely one of the glories of cheese on toast lies in its melty randomness, in the way that some of the cheese drips from the toast on to the grill, to be eaten later when it has set into delicious discs or salty spillages.

I even managed to unearth someone at Tesco HQ who was prepared to issue a statement defending this travesty against my favourite lunchtime treat. Thankfully, my extensive research – or a quick Google – can find no evidence that such a product still exists.

That’s one of the problems with the way food is produced nowadays, in that a supermarket such as Tesco will put effort into producing something so unnecessary.

Here’s how you make cheese on toast: you cut ill-fitting slices of cheese, nibbling as you go, and arrange these to approximately cover partially toasted bread. Then you place under a hot grill and wait for the heat to transform this into a melted, crispy slice of deliciousness. Easy and no further modification is required, although good bread and decent cheese is needed to do the job properly.

Anyway, croissants. Tesco says its customers want straight croissants to more easily spread their butter and jam. Or to more easily to ensure they have a heart attack before lunchtime; one or the other.

Putting butter on croissants is going too far, according to assorted French bakers quoted in the news story; and according to me, too. Croissants are basically butter-drenched dough in the first place, so adding further butter is unnecessary and on the greasy side of lethal, I’d say. A recipe I was given years ago contains two pounds of white bread flour and two packets of unsalted butter, along with salt, water and yeast, to make 30 croissants.

According to dietary advice found online, a croissant weighing 100g contains 406 calories, and how those six calories got in there, no one knows. I even found some Tesco dietary advice concerning croissants, and surprisingly this didn’t just say “No.”

Now I love croissants but indulge rarely. A good croissant needs to be made by a proper baker, not bought in a supermarket wrapped in film; a good croissant is crispy and falls apart in flakes, instead of being a soggy disappointment.

The best croissant for my money is an almond croissant, filled with sticky nuttiness and topped with toasted flaked almonds. Other than that, I’d say eat your croissant with a decent coffee, and nothing else.

As to their pastry profile, the word croissant originates from the crescent shape of a new moon, so curved ones seem more authentic, although straight croissants can be found in France.

Incidentally, although the French can be precious about these things, croissants in their supermarkets are just as rubbish as our own mass-produced croissants. And, incidentally times two, croissants were first created in Vienna, apparently. So they are not truly French at all.

Boris vs Cameron and why we all like a good scrap

I've been shortlisted for the UK Blog Awards 2016 Final.

‘Don’t let the referendum tear the Tory party apart,’ says William Hague on the front page of today’s Daily Telegraph. Oh, I don’t know. Please do – it’s a good spectator sport. Some of us are rather uplifted by the sight.

Europe, eh – it’s always good for an internecine scrap, and David Cameron and Boris Johnson were grabbing each other by the tie in the Commons yesterday, metaphorically for sure and perhaps literally too if they chanced on each other in the corridor afterwards. Maybe they engaged in a belly-banging contest too as both of them are equipped for such a brotherly bout.

There is something compelling about naked hostility between members of the same tribe, and two posh boys scrapping in the political playground is something the rest of us will crowd round to see.

Now we all have our views on Europe; mine, as explained previously, is a slightly hesitant ‘stay’. But the trouble with deciding one way or the other is the company you end up keeping.

Mark Steel made this point on BBC Radio 4’s The News Quiz last week. Now Steel is a rarity in being a comedian who is both genuinely hilarious and left-wing. What he said in precis was: Farage is anti-Europe so I’m definitely voting ‘yes’; but Blair’s a ‘yes’ so I’m definitely voting no, and so on.

His observation was a good one, and it returned to my mind while watching Channel Four news last night. The problem with this debate, I decided, is that it’s conducted by politicians; can’t they get someone else to explain the arguments? Surely there must be someone sensible out there.

The thought arose because of the unseemly sight of two politicians messily scrapping outside Parliament, with John Snow towering over them in his role as an exasperated moderator.

The pair here were Nigel Farage for Ukip and Tory MP Anna Soubry, the Minister for Small Business; or perhaps it was minds – I forget now. Anyway there they were, Farage with his toady double chin and his saloon-bar belligerence; and Soubry with her brittle arrogance and her, well, aggressive weirdness. He wants us to leave (obviously); she wants us to stay. God what a depressing encounter that was – enough to put anyone off having anything to do with the whole referendum.

Do I really want to say ‘yes’ and keep company with Soubry and the Prime Minister; will I ever be able to look myself in the face again?

The papers this morning are full of David Cameron’s three-hour statement in the Commons yesterday – quite an achievement for a man who, according to reports, had spent long days in Brussels living off takeaway pizza and Haribo sweets.

It was a good speech, based on the bits I heard before switching off the news. Heavens we’ve got four months more of this to come.

Today’s headlines won’t help anyone seeking guidance through the mud-popping ideological quagmire. The Telegraph has Cameron letting rip at Boris, while The Guardian and The Independent say much the same; the Daily Mail goes for “Now Cameron turns nasty” – a surprise to those of us who always thought he was; and the very ‘anti’ Express settles for “Boris boosts fight to quit EU.”

The ‘i’ has “On your Bike, Boris” next to a photograph of the MP and Mayor of London cycling towards controversy (you take a sharp right turn just before the House of Commons); and the Sun loses its sure touch with the over-wrought “NoGo v BoJo” in which Johnson has a speech bubble proclaiming: “Rubbish! Rubbish! Rubbish!” – words he was heard delivering in an incantational mutter in the Commons yesterday afternoon.

Incidentally, Channel Four News managed to find a woman in Liverpool who’d never heard of Boris Johnson. What blissful ignorance! How on this salted earth had she achieved such a remarkable feat?

Anyone looking to the Labour leader for a steer won’t have come away with much yesterday, as Jeremy Corbyn’s performance was sadly lacklustre – and a little beside the point, as all everyone wanted to see was that scrap between Cameron and that tousle-haired blond bloke who remains unknown to one woman from Liverpool.

On backing vocals… and a guitar that leads nowhere

I've been shortlisted for the UK Blog Awards 2016 Final.

I AM talking to my mother, phone cradled to my left ear, as she chats about her month-long trip to Australia. At 84, she does a lot more travelling than I do.

So that’s my left ear fully occupied. A different demand is being made of my right ear. My wife’s in a choir and she had a practise earlier. “You’ll have a peaceful evening,” she croaked to me afterwards.

This is turning out to be a few bars short of the truth. For she is singing loudly in the kitchen, adding soaring soprano scrolls to whatever Craig Charles is playing on the radio. I stand up and push the door shut so I can hear what my mother is saying. All I need now, I think, is for my daughter to ring me on my mobile and complete the female chorus of my life.

The choir has been great for my wife, and watching her perform with her friends is always a pleasure. But let’s just say that quite a lot of singing goes on in the house, and when one ear is filled with your mother and her travels, and the other is ringing to impromptu backing vocals in the kitchen, it can be a challenge.

My reaction here is unfair in a sense as I couldn’t hit a note if you painted a target on its semiquaver-ing heart and hung it in front of my nose. Singing? Sorry, just can’t do that.

If living with a member of a choir can sometimes involve a lot of unscheduled singing, it would be fair to say that living with me can sometimes involve a lot of unscheduled guitar playing.

If put on the spot, my wife could well say in retaliation that listening to someone mess around on a guitar for years can be a little trying. How many times, she might say, does a man have to attempt a Richard Thompson song before producing something even remotely resembling the original? How many times does she have to point out that my playing lacks rhythm in a strict sense? This, by the way, is sadly true. Decades ago I remember my friend Paul telling me the same thing more or less.

Here is my history with the guitar. Classical guitar lessons as a teenager, even played in a school concert or two. Picked up the lessons about ten years ago for a while, then stopped again. Strum while watching television if alone; usually send out a flurry of notes before going to bed; and always, superstitiously, play something before setting off on a long car journey.

That’s me and my guitar, a mistimed love affair. I could always seek the advice of my son the guitarist. I taught him everything I knew when he was seven; and when the 15 minutes was up, I left him to it – and he has flourished ever since without further assistance from his father.

Perhaps I could ask my father, who still plays violin in the Stockport Symphony Orchestra at the age of 83. Or perhaps I am just a lost cause.

My mother is telling me about Sydney now. I chip in a few memories from my time there and then do the calculation; that was more than 30 years ago. I wonder if my chances of returning are stronger than my chances of learning to play the guitar properly.

Our chat about this, that and Australia continues for a while longer, then the call ends. In the kitchen my wife is still singing along to the radio.

EU haggles over the bill… and Trump versus the Pope

I've been shortlisted for the UK Blog Awards 2016 Final.

David Cameron is back from Brussels after what sounds like the longest argument over a restaurant bill in the history of mankind. “Look, I really didn’t have as much wine as France and the Germans drank all the beer – and I only had a mouthful of pudding.”

Has our baggy-eyed prime minister got what he wanted from the EU deal; who knows? If that man stumped up for the whole meal but managed to haggle his way to a free bottle of wine, he’d only tell you about the wine and hope you didn’t notice everything else on the bill.

Seeing as we’ll all have to make up our minds later this year, it’s a ‘yes’ from me for various reasons (leaving would be horrendously complicated for unknowable benefits; going is riskier than staying as we know what’s there; Nigel Farage and his crimson-cheeked cohorts want us to leave…).

Other than that I don’t have anything to say for now. But never mind Europe. I can’t stop thinking about Donald Trump and the Pope.

Now as far as I know, Donald Trump doesn’t have an opinion about Europe. Or if he does it’ll be a psychotically mad one about building walls round Camembert and passing a law saying the only Europeans allowed into the United States will those named Donald.

But the Pope versus Trump: what a story that was this week. Sometimes real life is more ridiculous than anything a seller of satire might knock together in pursuit of hollowed-out laughter.

In case you missed this most unlikely of political spats, the brief details are that Pope Francis suggested the Republican frontrunner was “not a Christian” for wanting to build a wall on the Mexican border. On the plane back to Rome from a papal trip to Mexico, the pontiff said: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

Trump’s response was to bow his head in shame and mutter an apology. Oops, got my wires crossed there. Of course the Mad Mullet showed no such contrition. Instead he said during a campaign event in South Carolina: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.” He then accused the Mexican government of “using the Pope as a pawn”, alongside other nonsense I cannot summon up the enthusiasm to repeat.

Here is something worth passing on. In a bonkers press release, Trump threw down a warning: “If and when the Vatican is attacked by Isis, which as everyone knows is Isis’s ultimate trophy, the Pope can have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president because this would not have happened.”

Trump’s skill lies in passing off utter rubbish as robust sense. Just how is he going to stop Isis possibly attacking the Vatican? I was going to write “God alone knows”, and perhaps that is or isn’t the right phrase.

Trump is forever making these unsupportable proclamations. “When Donald J Trump is President it will never rain on a Sunday.” He didn’t actually say that one, but it’s no less dementedly absolute than most of what he has said.

At least two things are odd to British sensibilities about American politics. One: that a self-mythologising mouth on legs such as Donald J Trump could have a chance of becoming President. Two: the huge part religion plays in the Presidential race.

All candidates of whatever stripe have to proclaim their religion, and never mind what they may truly believe. Sometimes American elections look like a weird reality contest to prove who is the holiest; no atheist would stand a cat in Connecticut’s chance of being elected President.

So that’s why Trump brandishes his old Bible at rallies; and, also, why squaring up to the Pope might not be a smart idea, as there are an awful lot of Catholic voters in the US.

Maybe by putting the tiff into pontiff, Trump will finally have faltered. Well we can only pray, even those of us who don’t.

Shut cakeholes and farming out Maggie’s ghost…

I've been shortlisted for the UK Blog Awards 2016 Final.

THE ghost of Margaret Thatcher walks, Emma Thompson has a wedge of cake in her mouth, and Prince William thinks we should stay not go.

You just can’t keep Europe off the front pages. Do people care as passionately either way as the newspapers would have us believe? Sometimes I wonder.

Mrs T has been resurrected lately by opposing members of her tribe. They haven’t dug the old horror up or anything, but they have brought her into the argument over Europe.

This reminds me a little of a weird musical disinterment, such as when Natalie Cole performed Unforgettable in concert with a hologram of her dead father, Nat King Cole. These exercises always seem creepy to me, but that one won’t be repeated as, sadly, Natalie Cole died on New Year’s Eve.

Unforgettable – that’s what you are, Mrs Thatcher. If you rattle my head she’s still in there somewhere; the trick is not to rattle my head.

Many Tories have stronger reasons for wishing to resuscitate their old heroine, and they tug her ghost this way and that to their own ends.

This all started after Thatcher’s close adviser Charles Powell told the Sunday Times she would have supported David Cameron’s proposed new deal with Brussels – “she would have gone along with what is on offer, indeed negotiated something similar herself”.

Her biographer, Charles Moore, chipped into to say Thatcher eventually believed we should leave the EU – but did not say so for fear of being driven “to the fringes of public life”. This caused John Redwood to express his disappointment that Lord Powell should “presume to be able to communicate with the dead and tell us what they were thinking”.

In stepped Eurosceptic veteran tub-thumper Bill Cash, waving a personal letter Thatcher had written to him in 1993, in which she said she would not have agreed to the Maastricht Treaty. Apparently, Thatcher asked for Cash to only reveal the letter if there were doubts about whether she would have signed up for what he called the “European project”.

I expect we shall hear more of this as Mrs Thatcher is turned out of her grave to support one side or the other as the Europe referendum looms. As for David Cameron, I sometimes wonder if he wakes at night to see the ghost of Mrs Thatcher rattling her chains at him and mouthing cruel taunts. I do hope so.

Emma Thompson’s offence, apart from being a “luvvie” in the eyes of the Daily Mail, was to express her support for Europe during a speech at the Berlin Film Festival. She described living in “a tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe… a cake-filled misery-laden grey old island”.

Asked how she would vote in the referendum, she said: “I feel European even though I live in Great Britain, and in Scotland as well. So of course I’m going to vote to stay in Europe. Are you kidding? Oh my God, of course. It would be madness not to…”

The Sun went one further than the Mail, using disdainful alliteration to dub Thompson a “leftie luvvie” and putting her on the front page with a wedge of cake in her mouth – under the headline: “SHUT YER CAKEHOLE.”

I rather like Emma’s ironically playful description of Britain, especially “cloud-bolted”; but playful irony doesn’t translate in Sun-speak, where only thuggish outrage will do.

As for Prince William, he gave a speech to the Foreign Office’s Diplomatic Academy and – sorry, having trouble staying awake here – said that Britain was an “outward looking nation” whose “ability to unite in common action with other nations is essential”.

Hardly words to set the world on fire – yet assorted poor reporters had to comb through William’s deadly dull speech in search of proof that it was a coded ‘yes’ to Europe.

A reminder, if any were needed, of how often what you read in the newspapers can sometimes be wilful misinterpretation as much as anything else.

Guzzler? It’s called local beer for a reason…

I've been shortlisted for the UK Blog Awards 2016 Final.

Now I like wine very much and you don’t exactly have to force malt whisky down my throat. But if I had to choose one drink, it would be beer. Good beer, properly made is one of the greatest glories on God’s earth.

As the actor Jack Nicholson said: “Beer, it’s the best damn drink in the world.” Jack was a bit of a hell-raiser in his day, and perhaps the beer was to blame, but not all consumption of beer leads to rabble-some behaviour. It would take more than a pint or two to turn this Julian into that Jack.

My beer consumption is moderate (to me, at any rate) and usually amounts to perhaps two bottles and a pint at the weekend, with pretty occasional beery forays in the week. No rabbles are raised by me, although I might wobble on my bike as I return home. Two pints is my personal limit when cycling, and when doing most other things, too, apart from driving.

In a York Brewery pub, I will often choose Guzzler or Minster Ale. My old newspaper reported this week that bottles of both beers are now being produced over the Pennines in Stockport, although the cask versions are still being brewed within the city walls at Toft Green.

Neil Arden, the brand manager for York Brewery, said contract brewing was a “necessary evil” that will help secure the brewery’s future. Now I know less about beer than Mr Arden, but this statement did worry me a little. Perhaps it is my imagination, but the bottles of Guzzler I have bought recently don’t seem as good as they once were.

Does moving the production of a beer 75 miles away affect the taste, or is it just a matter of romanticism – the idea that a real beer belongs to a real place?

In Cornwall, Sharps Brewery makes great play of its local Doom Bar ale, yet this now ubiquitous beer has been brewed at Burton-upon-Trent in Staffordshire for the past two years. A former Cornish publican told the BBC last year: “I assumed it was made from the local waters. I wouldn’t buy it anymore…”

Sharps Brewery is now owned by Molson Coors, a massive North American drinks company. Last time I looked, Cornwall was a long way from the United States.

Local beer is made from local water, so the beer bore – only sometimes, but I’m not ashamed – will tell you that the water matters. Is the water in Stockport different to the water in York?

Now the York beers are being understudied by Robinson’s Brewery. That brewery produced most of the beer I drank when a little underage – you know, a year or two. Along with Boddingtons in the days when it was good, Robinson’s was my beer of youthful choice. I haven’t had a pint of Robinson’s in ages, but the beer used to be fine – although you did have to take care with the Old Tom. Years ago my father bought in a barrel of this draft barley wine, the consumption of which caused a stairs-stumble incident (not me, by the way, but the culprit knows who they are).

I guess what we are talking about here is the crossing of lines, and the blurring of local distinction. Is a Cornish beer still Cornish if it’s brewed in the Midlands and owned by an American company; is a fine York beer still a York beer if it’s brewed in Stockport?

The danger lies in the companies becoming so big that they end up forgetting why they started making local beer in the first place.

Still on local beery matters, I’ll raise a glass to the efforts of villagers in Murton who are reportedly trying to turn their local, The Bay Horse, into a community pub along the lines of the Golden Ball, York’s first community co-operative pub.

The Golden Ball is a lovely pub, by the way, and well worth a look if you are visiting York. Locals know that already, of course, as locals usually do.