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If this is nimbyism, there should be a medal for it

The new Prime Minister, still in a blissed-out state of honeymoon-period euphoria, must have thought his brave support for "Britain's ordinary heroes" was a smart vote-winner. Community is good. Everybody loves local. In a big and brutal world, we hanker increasingly for what Mr Brown calls "the good society". Recognising that an ordinary hero deserves as much social approbation as, say, a Whitehall jobsworth, Brown has floated the idea of gongs for little folk. There will be a Good Neighbour MBE campaign, seeking nominations for everyday heroes. As a sound-bite, it is as shiny and cynic-proof as anything the great marketing team of Blair and Campbell ever produced, but ideas of what makes a good society can be complicated. If, the day after the Prime Minister had announced that 24 July would be the day when we would remember the round-the-clock work of ordinary heroes (24/7, geddit?), he had paid...

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Keep on truckin’ to the end of the road

Where have the Zimmers gone? Not so long ago, the group of pensioners who had recorded a reedy-voiced version of the Who's rock anthem "My Generation" were everywhere. Their single rode high in the charts. They flew to Hollywood and met George Clooney. Since then, it has all gone a bit quiet. Could they have been corrupted by Tinseltown? Perhaps old Herbert has been out clubbing with Paris Hilton while Doris and Frieda have been up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire with their fellow pensioner Warren Beatty. But even if the Zimmers' "My Generation" goes the way of "The Birdy Song", "Y Viva Espana" and other mercifully forgotten novelty hits, their moment of celebrity this year has pointed up a new attitude towards old age. There was a time when a rare public appearance by some old dear - George Burns, maybe, or the Queen Mother - would reduce audiences...

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Town or country? Vive la différence

It is difficult to know what Stuart Burgess, chairman of the Commission for Rural Communities, would make of the events of Wednesday afternoon in my local village. A young man wearing a balaclava drew up in a silver car outside the village shop, which is also the local post office. He jumped out and, wielding a handgun, demanded the post office takings. Unfortunately, Wednesday is the post office's half-day closing. The robber retreated with a few notes from the confectionery till and drove off. On the one hand, this little tableau of village life might offer some reassurance to Mr Burgess, whose The State of the Countryside 2007 has just been published. Young people are leaving our villages because of lack of professional opportunities, he concluded - and yet here was one, working as a freelance, in the heart of the countryside. On the other hand, the robber's lack of...

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J K Rowling, a good author in a bad industry

So, with the perfect symmetry of a well-told fairy tale, the great Harry Potter saga reaches its final chapter. Even for the few of us who are not fully up to speed on what has happened at Hogwarts, the story behind the stories - how they were written, were discovered, published and became a mighty international industry - is magical. The J K Rowling fairy tale has it all: rags to riches, temptations for our heroine, endless and various assaults from the forces of darkness and a satisfying conclusion. Many stories start briskly and fizzle out; this one has gone from strength to strength. Its moral is rather more complicated, combining as it does personal triumph with corporate idiocy. J K Rowling's extraordinary personal achievement has been to follow her imagination over the years, to keep faith, as the world went mad around her, with the idea which had emerged...

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We need to wage war on teenage boredom

The sounds of the British summer holidays will soon be heard on our city streets and on the squares of our market towns. There will be laughter, raised voices, the occasional sound of breaking glass, a squeal of tyres and, later, that now-familiar type of informal community singing which is leery with booze and boredom. Some of this al-fresco misbehaviour will come from disappointed men who are startled to discover they are middle-aged, but much will involve people under 20. Summer hits the bored teenager hard. The grown-ups have their holidays or their careers. Smaller children rest after the summer term and perhaps re-acquaint themselves with their parents. It is those in between, beyond childhood but yet to be granted full entry to the adult world, who are often left adrift. They have no work and nothing to do. Youth, hormones and boredom mix dangerously. So the statistics just published...

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So our rulers are just like us: foul-mouthed and silly

The soundtrack of modern British government has been given another slightly depressing spin on the media turntable this week. How, according to Alastair Campbell, does it sound? Well, apparently members of Her Majesty's government were frequently in fuck-it mode. A former Labour leader expressed his concern that stockbrokers now had the party by the fucking balls. There were worries about the media, in particular lobby correspondents who were wankers, although the Prime Minister found time to see Rupert fucking Murdoch. In conversation with President Bush, Mr Blair had revealed that his press secretary was to run in the London Marathon and had had to apply a lot of Vaseline to his testicles. On the whole, a bit of light vulgarity adds to the rhythm of life, but it is difficult not to be mildly dismayed by the tone of Campbell's diaries. As carefully as they have been edited, selected and...

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Music is more than a business, it’s the beat of life

It is not often that a pop musician, doing a bit of high-profile moonlighting in public life, comes out with remarks which resound with sober good sense, but Feargal Sharkey, former lead singer of the Undertones, managed it this week. As chairman of the Live Music Forum (LMF), a committee set up by the department of Culture, Media and Sport to look into the effects of the 2003 Licensing Act, Sharkey was reporting on their findings. The law, which required a venue putting on any kind of live music to be licensed, has been subject to "overzealous or incorrect interpretation" by local councils, the LMF reported. These days an acoustic folk duo playing in the corner of a country pub would risk a fine as would a male voice choir singing in a town square for charity, a folk society or a school brass band. Musicians and their audiences have...

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Forget university if you want to coin it

Hurrah, hurrah. A new rich list - the millionaire register which now seems to be released with the regularity of pop charts, suggests that Brownite hard work is back in fashion. Communication is for wimps. The media years of Blairism, with its soundbites and charm offensives, have given way to a new, no-nonsense firmness of purpose, a dogged, grinding determination to get on. Whereas the soft south gave us a world of spin, the Scots and northerners believe in an old-fashioned grafting approach to work, and the Rich List reflects the trend. Of the 25 wealthiest self-made millionaires, almost a quarter were Scottish and 11 were from the north. Southern millionaires tended to have grown rich in the City or through property, but the northerners and Scots mostly came from industrial backgrounds. They had left school early to serve apprenticeships. In fact, only two out of the 25 had started...

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A bizarre custom redolent of a dark, vanished era

A significant footnote in the history of Britain in the 20th and 21st centuries concerns the mass inhalation of tobacco, writes our historian from the future. Today, in the healthy, well-ordered 22nd century, we can look back with wonderment to the momentous date of 1 July 2007, when "smoking", as it was called, definitively went into retreat. It had been popular, fashionable, even, as they used to say, "cool", but from now on it was increasingly unacceptable in a clean, modern society. But what was smoking? Who were these smokers? The habit of puffing on dried tobacco leaves in cigarettes, cigars and pipes had acquired widespread, totemic appeal during that tempestuous time of change, the 20th century. A cigarette denoted independence of spirit, individuality. A pipe suggested a capacity for thoughtful contentment. A cigar denoted status, wealth. In those hedonistic, self-obsessed days, to smoke was for many people to be...

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If May be fine, stick up an estate agent’s sign

There are changes in the English countryside. The air is different. Sometimes it smells of café latté - then the wind will change and it is as if one has walked into a hairdressing salon. The sounds are changing too, with the drowsy hum of bees and the chatter of housemartins being replaced the dull roar of sit-on mowers. Dogs are tidier and are kept on leads. Fields that were once enclosed by scruffy hedges or wire have become trim post-and-rail paddocks for ponies constructed with the tidy design sense of a modern kitchen. The urban-country crowd are moving in. Like an army dressed in new Barbour coats and green Hunter gumboots, they are everywhere in their large 4x4s. Some of what they do is good - if an area suddenly decides to put on a festival, a concert or charity event, you can be sure the new urban-country influence...

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