Sunday, 25 March 2012

Mahler Week

On Friday I attended the Past Presidents' Dinner of the Law Society of Scotland. It was an eclectic turnout. Some who still make their living at the coalface of the law; others who now occupy positions of yet greater importance within the legal establishment and many who have retired from any active engagement with legal practice.

No-one less than fifty and some of many greater years.

It is not my kind of event and yet it ought to be. A recognition that, for most, our best year(s) are behind us and that all that lies ahead is a long, slow journey into night. And yet, for one night at least, it might be possible to rage against the dying of that light.

I left early. I, at least, had a working day behind me and a weekend which beckoned.

On the train back I sat across from two young women who, for reasons I do not know, also had occasion to be travelling East to West late on a Friday night. They seemed to me very young to be travelling unaccompanied by an "adult" but they were probably either at the very top of "school" or in the very early years of University. And they were mathematicians. One was clearly very tired but her companion was anything but. The latter insisted on trying to explain to her companion some error that she at least believed they had both encountered in the day that had just passed.

(Here, against the possibility that a real mathematician might read this, I paraphrase) "Obviously that wasn't right! It was obvious that the answer was sin (a) minus the root of cosin (b) over (a) squared! And as she did this, with her finger she traced the equation in thin air on an imaginary blackboard. Rather blearily, her companion nodded in agreement. And, metaphorically, looking on to the intellectual beauty of youth, my hair dye slowly rolled down my cheek, as certainly as had Dirk Bogarde's on the Lido all these years ago.

But it lead me also to more substantial thoughts. I obviously do not know the precise financial circumstance of all of the past Presidents of the Law Society of Scotland but as we moved, in the comfort of the New Club,  from Champagne to Chablis and then on through the Burgundy to the (most excellent) Port, I don't think anybody was duly worried about the potential expense of the wine bill to arrive on their doorstep next month. Even among those who now enjoyed no income other than (their personal) pension.

There are clearly pensioners who struggle to make ends meet. I certainly wouldn't want to try to survive on a guaranteed minimum income of £140 per week. But I wouldn't want to be working earning £6.08 an hour either.

I doubt if George Osborne will ever have cause to quote Marx. "From each according to their ability to each according to their need."

Nonetheless, the principle of taxation must surely be that it is paid by those who can best afford to pay. Without exception.

Very few mathematicians make a fortune. Even the ridiculously enthusiastic ones.

More widely however, young people today are having a terrible time. The choice of jobs enjoyed by those of us born in the Fifties and Sixties has given way to a gratitude to secure any sort of employment at all. Graduate entry no longer guarantees immediate entry to lucrative employment in respect of even the noun let alone the adjective. And even when that happy land is attained, no longer can the cost of having sailed there be left on the boat. Or the guarantee of permanent future residence be taken for granted.

Yet no matter how difficult the journey or the wider responsibilities to be undertaken shortly after arrival, the assumption is that those who have most recently travelled must then meet the cost of passage for those of us who went before in stouter ships on calmer seas. And who, in some cases at least, then trashed the port on their arrival.

So, on reflection. even as someone approaching the status of pensioner myself, I don't simply lack sympathy with the complaint that, as a result of the budget, some pensioners will only be £4 a week better off next year, rather than the £5.60 they expected. I am angry at the mentality that even gives rise to such a sentiment.

I believe in progressive taxation. Without the exception of anyone by virtue of age, any more than the exception of someone earning more than £150,000 per annum.

So should my Party.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Budget Day

I know I should be more outraged than I am by the Budget. Partly that's because the bizarre process of negotiation by leak between the two coalition parties meant that, by the day itself, much of it was already in the public domain. Partly its because I am now of an age that a Tory Government cutting the taxes of the wealthiest in society is no longer something that would ever surprise me. Above all, however, it is because so much of what Labour is "outraged" about is in reality no more than we would have been likely to have done ourselves.

Almost nobody except those, perhaps, with a detailed knowledge of the system (few and far between)  believes their own tax contribution to be fair. Some believe instead that others should pay more; others believe everybody should pay less, most only care to the extent of being unhappy with their personal levy.

So there is a responsibility on opposition not merely to play to that prejudice, not only because that is how they would wish the current Government to behave when the roles are inevitably reversed but also because Parties of the Left believe in taxation as more than a "necessary evil" being rather a means to an essential good.

But, if anything, there is a bigger reason still. Bevan famously said that the language of priorities is the religion of socialism.

Now, how we got to this current economic crisis is a fair matter for argument. I would certainly argue that prior to the collapse of the Banks, Labour's spending plans were entirely sustainable. Indeed, it is too often ignored that, in that pre-crash environment, the Tories had specifically promised to match these plans. On the other hand, even if the banking disaster was in the nature of a natural event for which the Labour Government had no responsibility whatever (I admit a contentious proposition) that doesn't mean that everybody can just carry on as if it didn't happen. The major consequence may not even really be the large amounts of capital that had to be borrowed and ultimately repaid to keep the banks afloat but rather the collapse in tax revenues from the disappearance of the taxable profits of what had been a hugely profitable (and taxable) sector.

So any government would be left trying to balance the books as best they can. Again, I do not think that the Tories have called this right by relying on austerity alone. Growth had to have been an essential element of any strategy for economic recovery but even if, in reverse to Labour's complete innocence of any blame for the banking crisis, the lack of growth since 2010 is entirely due to the incompetence of George Osborne (I admit an equally contentious assertion) none of that wishes away the consequence of that lack of growth. It is commonplace for Oppositions to call on Governments to resign but suppose, for once they did? Suppose George appeared tomorrow and announced, somewhat improbably, I admit, that he was so haunted by his own past errors that he was standing down and that he and his Party would support whatever Ed Balls wanted to do. None of that would magically create the historic growth that (might) have happened if Ed had been in charge all along. There would still be a deficit and a consequent ever growing debt. It would still need to be addressed now. No amount of assertion that it wasn't Labour's fault things were so bad would stop things, actually, being so bad.

So this kind of leads me to why I am not as outraged as I ought to be.

There are things the Tories have done that do outrage me. The cut in the 50% Tax rate is certainly on that list. For them that is however worse than an economic error, it is a political error. If I return to my own example of people's personal taxes, while they might just be prepared to thole these if they genuinely think that all are bearing the burden of the past, they certainly won't do so if they think that people much better off than themselves are being let off in some way. Particularly if the logic is that they wouldn't have paid anyway! It can also be guaranteed that we will now hear special pleading over the years ahead justifying opposition to one or other particular spending cut or tax rise by reference to this particular measure, spending the amount it costs several dozen times over. Osborne, the supposed great political tactician should surely have worked that out.

But most of what they have done to outrage me wasn't done today. The changes to deny Working Families Tax Credits to those working less than 24 hours a week (it is currently 16 hours) is a naked attack on the deserving poor. That is really outrageous.  So is the decision to means test much Employment and Support Allowance after 52 weeks. It should be a priority (Bevan's word) to do something about that. It should not be a priority to suggest that a modest tax rise for well to do pensioners must be immediately abandoned. even if it can be given a catchy title, or enlist the Daily Mail in temporary alliance. Nor should it be a priority to restore Child Benefit in full to higher rate taxpayers; or cut the tax on beer to assist hard pressed pubs; or, strategically, reduce VAT to the level levied by Labour in a wholly different economic environment.

Just to be against everything the Tories are doing might play well with individual interest groups but the support thus garnered too often just adds up to a total level of public endorsement which is a considerable way short of the sum of the parts. Because it lacks all credibility.

So let's just be honest with the electorate. Things are a mess and some taxes are going to have to rise and some areas of public expenditure to be cut. Surely that will give us a more credible hearing when we are moved to genuinely say "Not this Tax" or, more importantly still, "Not this cut".

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Regional Pay

There is nothing worse than hypocrisy.

There are, even the most hardened Unionists would admit, pros and cons to the Union. One of the unconditional pros however is that, thanks to national pay bargaining, civil servants get paid the same wherever they work in the UK.

That has always made the Civil Service an attractive career to those based in the peripheral nations and regions. Salary scales set to ensure willing recruitment in the boom economy of the South east of England are applied elsewhere on the basis of that being the rate for the job. After all, a customer adviser in a Job Centre in Liverpool is doing exactly the same job as a customer adviser in Lambeth, on what possible basis should they be paid any less?

That is still a view to which I subscribe. So, in common with the rest of the left, I was outraged by the Tories proposal, leaked over the weekend, to break that principle.

But I also recognise that this principle does not apply to the atomised private sector. There are huge salary differentials across the private sector. I choose the legal profession as an example only because it is the one with which I am most familiar. Certainly,those of us committed to Legal Aid work accept that we will not earn (even nearly) as much as those of our colleagues engaged in the corporate sector. That however is our choice. The support staff don't have that luxury of choice. The reality is that the secretarial staff in (shall we say) a Legal aid Practice in Cumbernauld are paid considerably less than the secretarial staff working for a blue chip practice in Edinburgh's Charlotte Square.

And yet, in a perfect market model, neither the Legal Aid practice or the blue chip example are paying any more than is required to attract a workforce of appropriate competence. Even if that workforce has entirely interchangeable skills. Why? Because it is cheaper to live in Cumbernauld than it is to live in Edinburgh. Just as it is cheaper to live, even, in Edinburgh than it is to live in London.

So the issue of local pay raises genuine issues of whether your pay should reflect what you do or what you (need to) spend.

As I say, I am for national pay bargaining. and, as a taxpayer, take the view that if national Government Departments based in London can't attract staff at the wages available then that is an argument for moving the Department to a part of the country where they would not anticipate that difficulty, not for paying more to the staff unwilling to either relocate there or to relocate to the apparent abundance of private sector comparators against whom their pay is set.

Even I accept however that this still leaves unresolved issues about how to deal with those: fireman, nurses, policemen and the like for whom geographic location is an essential part of their employment.

The hypocrisy in this is however is in the position of the SNP. It cannot be stated too often that the official position of the SNP is that an Independent Scotland would carry only a very slightly worse public expenditure deficit than the UK. And the official position of the SNP is that this deficit would need to be addressed, just as the UK Government and opposition agree that the UK Government deficit needs addressed, albeit disagreeing about the mechanism.

Now, is it remotely possible in the current financial circumstance, indeed in any conceivable financial circumstance, that Scottish public service wages would be set by reference to the private sector wages enjoyed in the most booming geographic region of a foreign country? Is it remotely possible that, in the context of an Independent Country, that the private sector workforce, who remain the great majority, would be happy to endorse public sector pay significantly higher than their own?

It is an inevitable consequence of Independence that Scottish public service wages would be re-aligned to more accurately reflect Scottish private sector wages. And, in the absence of an economic boom which even Eck isn't shameless enough to predict, that means cut. If not in absolute gross terms, certainly by the operation of inflation, as indeed public sector wages are currently being cut by the coalition. Only more so.

And this is what leads me to the hypocrisy. This morning, Joan McAlpine wrote in the Daily Record suggesting that Independence was necessary to preserve that public/private pay differential. The woman has no shame. She is lying and she knows she is lying. But just as other lies are told: "Independence will allow a massive cut in corporate taxation"; "Independence will preserve free higher education"; later even this same day,"it doesn't matter if Orkney and Shetland come along"...........I could go on almost indefinitely. It would appear that the SNP strategy is just the bigger the lie, the less likely you are to be to be found out.

I don't make comparisons like this lightly, but this is what did for Mussolini. The fiction, for that is what it was, that Italy was, in 1940, was remotely capable of engaging on equal terms with military powers of the first rank might have started with hysterical crowds in the Piazza Venezia but it ended with him and poor Clara Petacci hanging upside down outside a Milan petrol station.

It is perfectly possible to make an intellectually honest argument for Scottish Independence; the pros and the cons.

But if we don't admit the cons we will just end up with a con of a different sort entirely.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Not a bad speech

Eck spoke today to the SNP Conference. The full text is here.

I wrote when commenting on his October Conference Speech about the template for such orations made by leaders, any place, any time and Eck's speech today fits that formula perfectly.

"The norm, has five elements: 1, A topical  introduction of some sort related to the place or time; 2. an attack, ideally involving humour, on the opposition; 3. a list of your achievements in Office; 4. what is, or at least purports to be a new initiative of some sort and inspirational peroration. It is possible to reverse elements 2 and 3 but only at the price of restricting the humour to the introduction. You can also "baroque" it a bit by putting in trills from different bits out of sequence as you go along or even, if your really on the ball, have a recurring leitmotif  but the basic structure might as well have been set out by Isaac Newton."

So, today, Eck didn't make a bad speech; it was just, in the proper sense, mundane. On the page it contains nothing really new although I do not doubt that in the hall it felt to the faithful as if they were listening to Dr King at the Lincoln Memorial.

You don't have to like the SNP to appreciate that, at the moment, they carry an aura of excitement about their affairs. Eck got a genuinely heartfelt standing ovation from his rank and file both before and after his address.There clearly was a feeling in the hall that history was on their side. Closer examination of public opinion however might tend to suggest that this excitement is more appreciated by the SNP's opponents than it is actually impacting on the voting public.

There was an interesting you gov poll this week. Labour continues to trail the SNP by 4% on the Holyrood constituency vote but that is only 4% despite the Party's self-admitted need to yet fully address any number of political and organisational challenges. More significantly still perhaps is that, even now, Labour enjoys a healthy (42/30) lead over the SNP in Westminster voting intentions. And, actually, that's what all public opinion accepts as a background "given"; if there was a UK General Election in the immediate future, Labour would still completely dominate that political environment.

Now, the problem for the SNP is that they are starting to live in a sort of alternative reality which bears no relation to the day to day experience of ordinary people. To believe Newsnet is in some way equivalent to the BBC as a medium of record.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the different perception of where we are on the national question between those within the SECC and the rest of the world.

The same you gov poll confirms what every other reputable poll suggests; that support for independence in a straight choice with the status quo, continues to stand at around 30%. It also confirms, as does every other poll on the subject,  that adding a second question offering enhanced devolution reduces the number who would vote for full independence.

Now it begins to stray into the realms of the incredible that 2000 people appear to have been prepared to sit through, indeed ultimately stand for, a Leader expressing outrage that his political opponents were conspiring to prevent him from securing the best level of support for his own supposed objective.

This is what I mean by the collective suspension of reality. Somewhere in their heads these people appreciate that the need for the second question is to give them something to fall back on given their inevitable rejection in the answer to the first question. Somewhere in their heads they know that it makes no sense to claim the Scottish people are desperate to throw off British Rule while suggesting that it would be inappropriate, at the moment, to put that to the test. Somewhere in their heads they know that all of the policy goodies on offer, lower taxes and higher public spending, would be no more realistic in an independent Scotland than they are in any other Country in the World.

But being among the faithful somehow removes you from reality, at least for the weekend. I say that from experience as a regular attender at Labour Party Conferences during the 1980s.

The problem with this is that even when the realisation dawns that a different face requires to be presented towards the public, success breeds the temptation to slip back into old ways. It was that which fatally damaged Neil Kinnock at the now notorious Sheffield Rally in 1992. No Labour Supporter who attended that event had anything other than one of the best nights of their life. The problem was they were already all going to vote Labour. Those watching on the Telly were however not necessarily in that camp.

Now, of course, Labour did win in 1997 but by then a different product, for good or ill, was on offer. In 2007, the new, "We only want a Referendum", SNP were of course also a new product. Their rank and file just weren't told, and still haven't been told, that the reason the old product was put on a back shelf was because nobody wanted to buy it.

Who knows if they ever will be or whether the lure of Conference idolation will lead Eck ultimately to see his shop go out of business. I still think he's too clever for that and that if he can engineer it in some way, there is not going to be a referendum.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012


I love my work but it can be distressing.

Few arrive at my professional door without some assumed guilt as to their own self-perceived previous fault.  Becoming engaged in a business venture with someone about whom they always had reservations; keeping the wrong company; drinking too much; not looking out for their own safety.

Part of my job is to assure them that does not (necessarily) make them responsible for their misfortune. Indeed. personally, it often reflects to their own favour, as one-time optimists at least. But no group is worse in this, self-blaming, regard than the victims of domestic violence.

There is probably no worse stereotype than the “stereotypical” victim of domestic violence. Working (or at least potentially working) class; female; given to a drink themself and potentially as likely a perpetrator as a victim, if only physical strength allowed.

All wrong.

There is no stereotype. At a first divorce interview it is always a legitimate question as to whether there was ever in the violence in the relationship. And often you are strangely reassured as to human behaviour. The husband who never came straight home from his work, spending the evening in the pub with his mates, and otherwise dismissed as a worthless breadwinner, is nonetheless quizzically excused of any such accusation.

But, regrettably, on other occasion having been assured initially that all that has happened is that  “we have drifted apart” in the most apparently otherwise externally perfect of relationships, you hear accounts of the Police being called but no charges preferred; visits to Accident and Emergency Departments innocently explained at the time; even. at the meeting with the lawyer after it is all over, suggestions that this is not really why the relationship has ended or excuses offered or equal blame, quite wrongly, accepted.

Domestic violence  is not, ever, the fault of the victim. If it involves fault at all, on the part of anyone other than the perpetrator then it is with a society which refuses to accept that all victims are, genuinely, innocent in a way which prevents these victims from asserting that confidently themselves. A society which appears to suggest that having made your bed you should not be entitled to complain about having to lie in it.

This is a wholly inexcusable view of the world.

Domestic violence is a terrible thing, It scars the lives of the victims and it colours, for ever, the lives of the children caught up by it. It is always, unconditionally, unforgiveable.  It is most certainly not the stuff from which cheap political analogies should be drawn.

Now, I don’t like Alex Salmond. He is a charlatan; an opportunist; a right-wing wolf in centre left clothing. 

But, in the midst of his seductive appeal to the less informed among our citizenry I would never, ever, accuse him and his closest associates of being similar to a predatory paedophile ring offering sweets to a simple minded child in the hope of later taking sexual advantage of them. Why not? Because it would be a wholly inappropriate metaphor. Like comparing the Highland Clearances to the Holocaust or, dare  I say it, Alex Salmond himself to Robert Mugabe.

So, equally, do I feel about today’s excrescence by Salmond’s female mini-me. Domestic violence is not the stuff to be given up to commonplace political discourse. Full stop and without qualification. If action is not taken against the commentator who apparently thinks this not to be the case then while that will say little about Joan McAlpine, it will certainly say an awful lot about the SNP.

They have 69 seats in a 129 seat Parliament. They don’t need Joan McAlpine; her vote or her opinion. Unless of course she actually speaks for what they truly believe. 

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Hot foot from Dundee

Work commitments are such that my visit to the Scottish Labour Party Conference has been restricted to a single day.

Even then, I arrived in the City of Discovery with little expectation that I would discover anything new. In that I was not disappointed.

I wrote back at the special Conference in the Autumn about the extent to which the Party had failed to come to terms with the scale of, or the reasons for our defeat last May and five months later little has changed. 

Indeed, with Local Government elections looming and the fear that the annihilation of our MSPs might be in danger of being followed by the annihilastion of our councillors a year later, there were some at least who clearly felt the best tactic was to put on a brave face and hope for the best. Time will tell whether that will work. Anything’s possible, I suppose.

The Party is crying out for leadership. For somebody, anybody, in authority, simply to say “This is what needs to be done and what therefor will be done”. Even if there were then reservations about the course chosen, many would be inclined to follow if only to be travelling in some direction at all.

Instead, we are offered “This is where we should go if that’s alright with you”; or “This is where we might go”; or even “Where do you think we ought to go?”

And even “bold” initiatives turn out, on the briefest of examination, to be no initiatives of any significance at all. So the calibre of our Candidates is to be improved but the current MSP group are immediately and automatically deemed to be more than good enough to continue. Without exception. Is there a single person in Scotland who believes that? More powers are (maybe) to be offered to the Scottish Parliament, but any detail at all is left lacking. We are maybe to talk to people who are outwith the Labour Party about our policy platform but only to people who already support the existing platform. And, in an act of almost obvious vindictiveness, if we must talk about the powers of the Scottish Parliament (sigh) then let’s consider whether powers should  be taken away from the Scottish Parliament and given to local authorities. In the absence of any popular demand for this at all, it is difficult to conclude that it is being said for any reason other than to keep the Parliament in its place.

And even that presumes there is a coherent line. As I set off to Conference I had simply no idea as to what Johann might say. There had certainly been major speeches the day before from Ed, Douglas Alexander, Anas Sarwar and Jim Murphy but there had been no co-ordination between them; no sense that they were preparing the way for what might come today. Instead of being offered the dramatic progression to a finale which comes in a proper opera, we were treated to no more than a series of concert arias. And even then not always in the same language.

But today made things no clearer.

It wasn’t a bad speech and it had a few good lines but it appeared to have no real function other than getting  from its start to its finish. When I critiqued Salmond’s October conference speech I referred to the Party Leader’s Speech playbook. Paul Sinclair has clearly read the same manual.

But whereas Salmond lead up to the big policy announcement and then bottled it, Johann tried to pretend a big policy announcement had been made when it patently hadn’t.

A Commission? Really? Another one? Scotland, even as I write, will no doubt be clearing their collective diaries in anticipation of its recommendations. Not.

Much more honest to just have said that the Scottish Leadership simply does not really regard these matters as very important. Indeed in the better parts of the speech when Johann gave practical examples of redistributive policies that could be pursued under existing powers but weren’t being pursued by the current administration you could (just) see how such a line might be sustained.

There is nothing more insincere than an insincere apology. Johann started by saying we had to stop apologising but, to be honest, we haven’t  started. And that’s  because too many at the top while realising the political reality of the need to be seen to apologise, don’t actually believe we have anything to apologise for at all. In their heart of hearts they think that those in need of apologising are the SNP for their effrontery in defeating us and the Scottish people for their ingratitude in rejecting us.

Soon, on this view of the world, Salmond will be exposed as the “conman” he is and the electorate left embarrassedly having to admit to having been comprehensively taken in by him. And things will return to their proper order.

Here’s hoping that’s right because there is little sign of things changing at Labour’s own initiative.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

A memorable lunch

I’ve been in London on work matters but such is the requirement to book trains in advance, I have actually been left with a large part of the day to myself.

This gave me the opportunity to wander the streets of the great Wen before finding my way to the National Gallery and this, in turn, got me thinking. Not just whether, if Scotland became Independent, we would be entitled to one tenth of the pictures in the National Gallery and if so who would get to choose which ones. but more seriously about the difference between States with a dominant “Imperial” capital (Britain, France, China etc) and those which do not (Germany, Italy, the USA) and how that in turn affects their domestic politics.

It is at least arguable that Nationalism in Scotland is driven as much by the resentment of London Dominance of our polity as it is by any great quarrel with England as a whole. I will, I think, write on this further.

However, I’ve had a long day, I’m on the train home and this is in the end my hobby rather than my obligation so I’m going to write instead about an excellent lunch.

When I finished my professional commitments I enlisted the assistance of twitter for recommendations as to how I might spend the rest of my day. With the exception of one rather presbyterian proposal that I should simply “Come home early”, I received a number of excellent suggestions from acquaintances and beyond.  I am grateful for them all (maybe excepting the “come home early” suggestion).  In the end however the choice was mine.

Journalists have been getting a hard time of late but they have their virtues as well. One of these is that a lunch recommendation by a Scottish journalist based in London is, like the lunch recommendation of a Banca di Roma manager anywhere in Italy, likely to be a recommendation to be followed. The recommendation of a Tory journalist carries with it an additional assurance. Much as modern times have promoted the merits of cucina povera, proper food has always seemed to me to be more the province of the Right. Tournados Rossini are seldom eaten to the accompaniment of Bandiera Rossa.

So when Iain Martin, onetime Editor of the Scotsman, now ensconced at the Daily Telegraph suggested that I sample the duck burgers at Club Gascon, (actually as it turned out Comptoir Gascon at Smithfield Market) all other suggested metropolitan diversions  paled into second place.

But, more miraculously still, Club Gascon proved themselves to be on twitter! Their thanks to Iain for the recommendation was quickly transformed into a reservation for yours truly and, as I say, to a memorable lunch.

But the duck-burger, centrepiece though it was, proved not to be the only delight encountered. A starter of grilled duck hearts on a skewer  with a wee potato cake and some of yon big cress in vinaigrette was every bit as satisfying. And I will come to the sweet.

But a paragraph to itself for the duck burger. I have never previously had a duck burger. It is, as the name suggests, a burger, made of duck. But in the process not just is the taste transformed, so is the texture. Never has a duck joined the choir eternal in a more worthy cause. If you have never eaten a duck burger consider your life to be incomplete. And I only had the standard burger. There is apparently a deluxe version. A further client in trouble with the London based regulatory authorities cannot present at my office too quickly.

And then finally there was the sweet.

Now, many of you will know where I stand on sweets. There is only one proper sweet: Pannacotta.

In my great unpublished novel, the hero reflects on his life in between he courses of a generous lunch  which,  for reasons which become obvious during the narrative but which are revealed only at the very end, is to conclude with his suicide. Eat your heart out Ian McEwan. 

There are however constant changes to the detail. Whether the action will take place in the Province of Siena or Perugia; whether the antipasto will include verdure or be of prosciutto alone; the exact number of Pasta dishes; the precise beans to provide the contorni. And as for the cheese? That is why I am unlikely ever to publish.  Two elements however remain constant: the wine will be Brunello di Montalcino and to the enquiry “Dolce?”, will always come the answer “ Pannacotta”.

So when I reveal  that Comptoir Gascon do not do Pannacotta you would  assume that the lunch was ultimately flawed. Not at all, for they do do crème brulee.  And what Crème Brule. My words simply fail me at this stage.

And all washed down with a most palatable rose from the midi available by the 45cl carafe. A sensible measure for solitary Scotsmen with no other business of the day.

So, God bless Comptoir Gascon for their culinary skills. God bless Iain Martin for his recommendation. God bless, above all, ducks. Long may they head south.