Thursday, 4 July 2013

Indulgences and the Last of Anthony Trollope’s Legacy


At the Opera that evening Sir Humphrey Appleby had a drink in the Crush Bar with Sir Ian Whitworth, Permanent Secretary of the Department of the Environment. We have found an account of the meeting in Appleby's private diary.

Had a chat with Ian W. over a couple of large G and Ts and those delicious little smoked salmon sandwiches in the Crush Bar.

(Yes Minister, The Middle Class Rip-Off)

A group of 12 people – including the Chief Minister, Ian Gorst, Treasury Minister Philip Ozouf, the Lieutenant-Governor, General Sir John McColl, the Bailiff, Sir Michael Birt, senior States officers and several UK MPs – dined at the Michelin-starred Atlantic Hotel on Sunday 23 June with a final bill, including drinks, of £1084.75. That's around £90 per person.

These figures emerged from a question by Shona Pitman in the States. If she had not asked it, we would be none the wiser, and doubtless the figure would have ended up in "sundry entertainment" somewhere in the States accounts. It might be an interesting supplementary to ask just where it will end up, so that we can identify its progress into the wonderful world of number time.

Deputy Sean Power thinks that this is a fuss about nothing.

"I simply do not understand the fuss over this. Four locals had lunch in a "new" St. Helier restaurant two weeks ago. Two courses and just two glasses of wine. £400.00. Like you Tony, I could not afford this nor would want to pay that kind of money. However, in Jersey, London, Dublin and elsewhere, there are restaurants that charge this as a matter of course. The Atlantic is by all accounts, very good. Besides the UK MP's were staying there. Are we suggesting they have fish and chips at Corbière, or the Goose or that Ian Gorst buys a takeaway and the sit in a TTS minibus on the Five Mile Road ??? Please!"

But of course this is putting two opposite ends together as the only alternatives. That of course is not the case at all. There is a wide range of other places less expensive that do just as good food.

Of course the MPs in question should not have been taken to a pub, let's be real. Although I do remember that John Major, former Prime Minister, had a fondest for pubs, and battered cod and chips and still does; he never forgot his roots. I always found that rather endearing.

But what kind of message does this kind of expense give? It is almost saying to the MPs that "money is no object"; it is a kind of culinary flattery, or to choose terms in "Yes Minister", a "sweetener". Only the best will do, this is how we dine MPs – these are the kinds of messages that this gives forth.

It is ridiculous to say that they should have a choice between a vastly expensive meal and fish and chips. It is like saying that we have two ways of treating warts – a top plastic surgeon, or old Meg, the wise woman with her leeches. This isn't really a good way to argue. There is of course a whole range of options in between.

For example, I'm sure that L'Horizon or St Brelade's Bay Hotel, would provide an excellent meal at a more modest cost.

Deputy Power's second argument focuses on the fact that the visiting dignitaries were staying at the Atlantic Hotel, and it would cost more to move them to another venue:

"So, had they all left the Atlantic in three taxis or hired cars or three of Curwoods cars, then gone to another restaurant like the Boathouse or the Summerville, would it have been any cheaper. They could have hired a 16 seater bus for a couple of hundred pounds, or six taxis. They might even have had a nominated non-drinking driver/s. Who knows? The UK MP's were staying at the Atlantic. It was easier to eat there, I presume. The debate is not needed"

But this surely begs the question of why choose that venue for them to stay? Surely the venue and meal had been arranged beforehand; this was not some off the cuff last minute Sunday soiree. So why not arrange for them to stay at a different venue where the meals would be more modest, such as L'Horizon Hotel or St Brelade's Bay Hotel. That way the transport problem would be resolved, and they would have a chance to see the bay – a good incidental promotion of Jersey as a tourist destination.

I agree James Rondel when he thinks that some wining and dining is called for with visiting dignitaries, but at times of austerity, in particular, this kind of Versailles style extravagance does the States no good:

"I feel that this is not the first, nor will it be the last expensive meal. Indeed this has only been brought to our attention because of some very blatant politicking. My problem is more with the civil service and I feel we need leadership from our Council of Ministers to really get a grip and indoctrinate the notion that it is the tax payers money and not their 'budgets' which allow for expensive meals."

And in the Politics Jersey Group, he makes the same point:

"The amount spent on the meal in the face of austerity is quite wrong. Further to this however is the level of blatant politicking by a certain number of States politicians. Let's remember they were the same number defending Lenny Harper's meals in St Brelade. The cynic in me suggests that this is not the first, nor will it be the last expensive meal. The mindset of the civil service is bizarre and needs a complete overhaul. They need reminding that it is our money, and not their 'budget' which they are entitled to spend. I don't think singling this meal out will solve anything, what we need is a Chief Minister who is going to revolutionise the civil service and get a better deal for the Jersey tax payer."

James is certainly right that this won't be the last expensive meal. But there is growing feeling worldwide that austerity measures meted out should begin at home. An excessively high entertainment account in Canada recently (2012) prompted the following response:

"Why should everyone but the governments tighten their belts.   There are many who cannot have wine with their dinner, in fact are even struggling to put food on the table because of the economy.   Maybe there should be a global meeting with heads of state to discuss how to cut back on the outrageous costs of  wining and dining dignitaries while discussing austerity measures for the middle class and the poor.  Perhaps they could have this meeting over the internet on a conference call.   They won't even have to leave home."

Formerly, indulgences were a means of showing that you were penitential, but the word has changed in meaning, and now it means indulging in luxury. It is perhaps a cliché to speak of politicians getting on the "gravy train", but in the case of expensive meals, that may be literally true.

The Last of Anthony Trollope's Legacy

Pity the poor little Pillar-Box
Standing in the rain all day.
Gazing out in each direction
Hoping for the next collection.
Everyone owes to the Pillar-Box
A debt they can't repay,
So pity the pretty little Pillar-Box ...
Pillar-Box, you're O.K!
Standing in the rain all day.

(Flanders and Swann, Pillar to Post)

Before there were pillar boxes for putting mail into, there were three ways of posting a letter. Giving it to a postman upon collection of mail, or waiting for the Bellman, who wore a uniform and rang a bell to attract attention, and would collect mail – or taking the letter in person to a receiving house (an early form of Post office)

It was Anthony Trollope, working as Surveyor's Clerk for the Post Office, who saw the road side letter boxes in use in France and Belgium. Trollope's report on postal services in the Channel Islands included a recommendation to try pillar boxes out in St Helier, Jersey and this pilot scheme was approved, with pillar boxes appearing in the Channel Islands in 1854. A year later, the introduction to the Channel Islands had been such as success that they were introduced to Britain.

Above all this gave young women privacy. They could send letters freely without a public trip to a post office. I can see why this took away privacy. In the 1970s, there was a post office in St Brelade's Bay, and it was a centre of gossip for the Bay, and of course back in the early 19th century, I can imagine that gossip about people bringing letters, and the names and addresses on those letters.

But now the time of the post box is gone. By the end of September 2013, 25% of them will have gone in Jersey. Apparently this is because of the fall off in use, but the statistics backing this up have not been published. We are told that "some boxes only got five pieces of mail a day", but not which ones.

It is certainly true that some of the more remote locations probably don't get a lot of post, but I find it surprising that Elizabeth Avenue, for example, is on the "hit list", as I've found it so full you cannot post mail. It is in a good location, an easy stop off the main road on the way into town in the morning. Now it is to be replaced by a new box location along the Avenue – will that be as accessible? And how do you post a letter if you live in St Aubin at St Brelade's Parish Hall(the only option)  if it is closed?

It is a shame there has been little or no public consultation by Jersey Post.

Here is the list of those going:

41 - Greve de Lecq; 123 - Val de la Mare; 104 - High Street; 125 - Ouaisne ; 113 - Corbière ; 121 - St Catherine ; 135 - Mont Au Pretre ; 126 - Bonne Nuit; 47 - Bel Royal 38 - Longueville Court ; 111 - Pied de la Rue ;12 - Mont Pinel ; 172 - Albert Quay ; 53 - Mont Cochon ; 77 - Le Rondin  ; 54 - Les Hureaux  ; 120 - Le Marais  ;58 - L'Etacq  ; 117 - Vinchelez ; 74 - Beaumont Village  ; 56 - St Aubin Sub Office  ; 97 - Mont Au Roux  ; 148 - Elizabeth Avenue  ; 49 - Ravencliffe  ; 92 - St Brelade's Bay  ; 165 - La Pulente  ; 146 - Mont Fondan  ; 130 - Airport (Arrivals Hall) ; 23 - Mont Gras D'Eau  ; 95 - St Cyr  ; 19 - Living Legend  ; 43 - Pierson Road  ; 48 - New St John's Road  ; 124 - Rouen ; 69 - Les Landes ; 20 - Greencliffe ; 143 - St Martin's Arsenal ; 110 - La Hougue Avenue ; 112 - Grouville Arsenal ; 83 - Faldouet ; 31 - Gorey Hill ; 150 - Anne Port ; 57 - Gorey Village ; 76 - La Rocque Chapel ; 27 - Le Bourg ; 70 - Pontac ; 138 - Constancia Lodge ; 139 - Havre des Pas ; 37 - Green Street ; 13 - Rouge Bouillon

We are soon going to back to the days when the Post Office was the only reliable place to post letters, as collections from remaining sites are also being reduced. It reminds me of a passage in Anthony Trollope's novel "He Knew He Was Right":

"Miss Stanbury carried her letter all the way to the chief post-office in the city, having no faith whatever in those little subsidiary receiving houses which are established in different parts of the city. As for the iron pillar boxes which had been erected of late years for the receipt of letters, one of which--a most hateful thing to her--stood almost close to her own hall door, she had not the faintest belief that any letter put into one of them would ever reach its destination.  She could not understand why people should not walk with their letters to a respectable post-office instead of chucking them into an iron stump as she called it out in the middle of the street with nobody to look after it. Positive orders had been given that no letter from her house should ever be put into the iron post." 

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