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18 june 2010, liquid lunch

I gave an after dinner speech today at what would once be called a gentlemen's club in manchester, the last one apparently. A week ago I was on the beach at the tail end of an outrageous gay pride event, and today I listened reverently to grace, toasts and a vote of thanks. Strange that both can be spiritual experiences. One sensation was a sort of "from the street to the boardroom" elation. Another was a desire to climb the ramparts and throw things, but I fought that, as on thinking about it, my problem was not so much with the club as an institution but rather its make up, which was almost entirely elderly, white, male and middle class. I'm not sure you can get away from the last criteria if you appeal to that section of society that habitually lunches in a wealthy city centre and wants the familiar around it. To survive though, you certainly need to change the first three. Because you need institutions to bring people together, I wish them well.

16 june 2010, health is wealth

Excellent seminar over the last couple of days, getting to grips with the uk's national health service. I learnt, amongst many other things, that the nhs is not so much interested in health (which consumes about 1-4% of its budget) as in illness, which is very lucrative. My hospitals, in common with others, get paid for the more people we get through the doors, which is a stark contrast to chinese doctors, who get paid by all their patients until they get ill. The nhs, which has done marvels over the last few years, but on a rapidly increasing budget, is now entering a phase of contraction, which is not going to be easy to manage, but nor, I think, is it impossible. General practioners, the friendly family doctors, are to be the agents of change and innovation, which is a smart move, as convincing them that the move away from expensive hospital care is the right one is probably the hardest task, and the bit that unlocks a very different way of doing things. The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

9 june 2010, beduin

Trekking across the desert from mitzpe ramon, overlooking israel's largest crater, and introducing the family to this outpost of the sahara. Last night we took a jeep out to see scorpions, porcupine, a fox, a hare and a gerbo, which our eldest held in his hand as it was transfixed by our headlights. Today we drove across the crater, saw fascinating rock formations, made tea from herbs, rode camels and spent a few hours at a beduin village. Israel's attitude to beduin is indulgent, as many used to serve in the army, though less today, "we are losing the beduin" our israeli guide told us. A few weeks ago, in an interesting contrast to the flotilla, a group of hundreds broke across the egyptian border, fleeing a blood feud. In the end they stayed months, as negotiation slowly proceeded. Seeing western lives through a satellite and nearby towns saps tradition, as does access to cheap goods and the ban on their nomadic lifestyle, the negev now being virtually all nature reserve or military zone, and the children must go to school. The roof of the tent we had lunch in was once matted goat's hair, but today cheap black tarpaulin. There was no romance in a grindingly poor community without power in daylight and which lives largely off benefits, tourism and smuggling. Kids get on though, and ours couldn't stop playing with the one-day old goats we were given the run of. Tonight, we sleep at an old council block of flats, now a luxury hotel.

7 june 2010, hot, hot, hot

A sweltering 38c today (way over 100f), in the shade, in the evening. Too hot to stay in the pool, certainly for the kids, so stayed in the shade, visiting masada in the afternoon, and bumping into various from the kids' school - it's that sort of holiday. Reading "the master and margharita" a rather heavy russian tome, bequeathed from my last trip here, and enjoying it, with a cocktail or 4, when the kids are in bed, when the hot wind is not blowing the eyelids to sleep. Staying on what was once a kibbutz (ein gedi), and off tommorow to the heart of the desert to meet camels and beduin and for a nightime walk. Drinking a litre of water an hour and the most unpretentious but delicious food. And lots of it - the dining room is air-conditioned. High - or low - light was the dead sea. Did the mud-thing at the lowest point ON EARTH, and getting lower, by about a metre a year, as tragically the dead sea slowly disappears before our eyes due to excessive use of the jordan river upstream. They can't build the jettys fast enough.

5 june 2010, bauhaus

Having a lovely time in tel aviv, hanging out by the sea and eating and drinking all manner of good things. Highlight was a guided tour of the world's bauhaus capital. The school was german (1919 to 33) but although there are examples the world over, no other city centre is built in the style, as this was just when tel aviv was being built: the population in 1920 was just 2000 people and lots of sand dunes. Bauhaus was deeply egalitarian and utopian, all about building things that are not decorative but purely functional and so cheap to produce for the masses. The square, simple style is evident everywhere here, and the story of its decay, being ignored and then slow restoration and resuscitation is the story of a modern city and people still being built. One favoured solution is to sell off the roof of a typically 3-storey block, with another layer being built and the money used to restore the whole thing. "But that's not preservation !" say the purists. It's wonderful form following function though, and I think those bauhaus pioneers would have approved.

3 june 2010, off on holiday

With immaculate timing, we are off on holiday to israel. We were going to go to the lake district in cumbria, but decided it is just too dangerous. Instead we're off to cyprus and then will take a boat towards the holy land. No, actually we're spending several days in tel aviv with my brother (who's there for 6 months), a few days by the dead sea and a couple of days in the middle of the desert, with camels and beduin. I bristle with contradictions on trips to israel, as I have the strongest of views about policies such as the blockade - see here. This is not a mad right-wing government, as the old "centrist" administration also followed an exclusionary "treat them like terrorists" policy, as israel did with the plo for several decades. It's mainstream. It's also wrong and self-defeating, creating a self-fulfilling phrophecy. At the end of the day, you need to make peace with your enemies not your allies, and so the sooner israel's own friends and allies convince or force them into that realisation, the sooner we'll be back on a path to peace. No signs of any of that at the moment.

30 may 2010, too soon, too harsh, too detrimental

Just when the firmest of hands on the tiller was needed as the uk finance ministry (treasury as we quaintly call it) heads into the roughest of seas, the lieutenant had to be thrown overboard. David laws was, by all accounts, a firm and very able hand, whose meteoric rise to levels of the highest responsibility in the financial world had prepared him well for the vital task thrust on his shoulders. However, in this trustless world where lawyers' belt and braces rules must define everything, including a precise definition for the evolving and shifting thing that is a "partner", fear of the wrath of the baying 24-hour news cycle did it for him. I heard the "scandal" on the early morning news, and knew it was inevitable. Every hourly bulletin I heard during the day began, "david laws..." and I was waiting for the word "resignation". Too bad. Many similarly talented people will look away from politics. The pendulum has swung too far - justifiably, but in a way that is wrong and counter-productive. Politicians are not blameless, and we must not expect them to be. They have real lives, and are the better for it. We are not fallen angels, but risen apes.

27 may 2010, worth a second look

Iain duncan smith was the butt of many jokes whilst an active politian, but matured in obscurity, with his centre for social justice now putting him at the heart of reform. There's good work on early years, highlighting in an unusual setting both that deprivation is intergenerational and that it is all but carved in stone by the time a child reaches school. By helping prevent at source expensive social ills such as crime, poor health and low attainment, investing in deprived children and their families in the earliest years is the gift that keeps on giving. Another point well made is that children should only start school when they are ready. Both one of mine and all my hungarian nieces started at six or even seven - and they are doing extremely well. The english have a mania with a tidy system, and are seemingly blind in this respect to their obsession, of evidence-based policymaking. My favourite dictionary definition is "Boy, n.: a noise with dirt on it".

23 may 2010, blackpool

I'm not sure the name will resonate to many outside the uk, but the place is as much a part of my childhood as the lettering that runs through the rock whose distinctive but teeth-rotting characteristics are those of this once-thriving seaside playground. We used to drive up every single year in september to see "the lights", back when it was the only place that strung flashing colours along its "golden mile". It was somehow a highlight of the year to sit for hours in traffic watching humpty dumpty repeatedly fall off a wall. My parents had a wonderful trick: knowing the time the lights were turned on, they hurried me and my sister down a side street and we took it in annual turns to push a button in a wall, and then rush back, with unbridled joy to see the illuminated result. Quick to imitate the eiffel tower and to somehow always have the biggest funfair in the world, blackpool had a niche - but "breezy and bracing beaches" were never going to compete with spanish sun and sand once the northern classes got their hands on them, and so for decades now blackpool has given itself up to marauding hen and stag parties. Our one recent visit as a family was a "never again" day. Now though, the town has received some state money, some inspired leadership and, yesterday, an invaluable ticket to hundreds of thousands of visitors who would never go without the town's small team amazingly breaking into the football big time. Like when manchester first hosted the major party conferences, bringing glitterati hordes who had their eyes opened anew when forced to visit the place for the first time in 20 years, so the premiership presents a massive opportunity for piscine noire sur mer. Let's hope they grab it with both hands as probably their last chance to be bold, tear down the old edifices and build something much better and more sustainable.

19 may 2010, back, for a moment

Just back from two days in brussels, the first time in two years work has taken me off the island, which, given I have a somewhat key strategic role in a supposedly major european city, already tells a tale. It was an excellent trip, making new colleagues in new areas of interest, and meeting old colleagues-turned-friends. I spoke some french, wore my eu badge with pride, talked about the eurogroup and learned tremendous amounts about how what I was doing some years ago analysing the drafting of the lisbon agenda, translates on the ground to programmes that cities like mine are trying to draw funding from to realise the goals of lisbon, now renamed europe 2020. On balance, I love my new role, but there are certainly aspects of my old one I sorely miss, not least the international element and the idealism of working for a common goal. I did rather feel amongst my own kind and found myself leaving in a rather reflective mood. Fired up though, and eager to spread the knowledge and reap the rewards - for manchester and for europe !

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