E Jane Dickson: I'm not sure our society is big enough for Cameron

The Saturday Column
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The Independent Online

On a visit to Ireland in 1911, Rudyard Kipling, always greatly exercised in matters of sanitation, made a visit to Belfast. "Nothing short of a deluge," he claimed, "would cleanse the city."

I know how he felt. New year's greetings are gingerly exchanged in Northern Ireland, where I'm spending the festive season with family, and where washing facilities are cruelly restricted. 40,000 homes without water is an awful lot of unflushed effluent (let's just say gardeners are expecting bumper crops of roses ). Surgeons in hospitals have been scrubbing up with soap and snow. With seasonal flu and vomiting bugs in the offing, a full-blown public health crisis can only with immediate action be averted. And immediate action is not something which, to date, has characterised the NI Administration.

It's at times like this you long for the organising zeal of the Edwardians. Kipling, I feel sure, would have fashioned a filtration system out of his hat and led community singing until normal services were resumed. Yet here we are, in the second decade of the third millennium, crossing our legs and waiting for the wind to change.

It doesn't feel a lot like progress, but then there's a "Back to the Future" element about a lot of things in 2011. It was exactly a century ago that the first 12-seater passenger plane, piloted by aviation pioneer Louis Breguet, took to the skies. It didn't fly far – just three miles – but it was three miles farther than the fleet of Jumbos grounded at Heathrow over this year's optimistically named "holiday season".

1911 was, as 2011 promises to be, a year dogged by freak weather and the ever present threat of industrial action. It was also a year focused on reform. At the Old Vic Theatre, the redoubtable theatre manager Lilian Baylis would drag prostitutes from their business and pay them by the hour to watch classical theatre and opera. If the "poor illiterate dears" were insufficiently appreciative, she'd box their ears for them as an aid to concentration. It may have been a heavy-handed way of bringing culture to the masses, but arguably less brutal than the 30 per cent cuts to be visited on the Arts Council or the closure of public libraries and arts outreach programmes expected in 2011.

Philanthropy in 1911 was close-coupled to government. The conscience of the voting classes had been jump-started by Joseph Rowntree's study of poverty in England and Joseph's son, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, was a key influence on the social policy of David Lloyd George and the "Progressive Liberals" (just imagine the graves set spinning by the current debasement of both "progressive" and "liberal"). Irony is heaped on irony when you consider that it was a Liberal government in coalition with Labour which, exactly a century ago, passed the National Insurance Act (1911) introducing sick pay and unemployment benefit for workers.

I'm not sure Nick Clegg "does" shame – at moments when you think he might reasonably blush he does that weird, stony-eyed, swallowing thing instead, like a man who has drunk hemlock and can't understand why he's not dead yet – but he cannot be proud of his party's collusion in dismantling the very benefits championed by his political antecedents. Nor can it be counted as progress, much less "progressive," that as a direct result of coalition cuts, charities predict that the numbers of homeless on the streets of Britain will double in 2011. And this from a government which expressly wishes "to be judged on what we do for the poorest".

So where are the present day philanthropists, those heroes with deep pockets that Cameron and Clegg expect to come galloping over the horizon? The New Year Honours List pointedly recognises the contribution of Lord Weidenfeld whose publishing fortune endowed the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford, but Britain, unlike, say, the US, offers no tax breaks to encourage giving on the scale needed to shore up an education budget sliced to the bone. Nor is it likely that billionaires' tax avoidance will be addressed any time soon by the current administration (it would be a little embarrassing, even by the Coalition's astonishingly brass-necked standards, given the fact that Top Shop boss Sir Philip Green, who last year paid a £1.2bn dividend into his wife's bank account in Monaco, is special advisor to the Government on efficiency in the public sector).

Could the City, perhaps, see its way to paying back some of the country's money? Well, obviously it will do its bit with the Chancellor's trumpeted new financial levy on banks. Just as long as costs to the banks are met with the corporation tax rate cut announced in the Chancellor's next breath.

Philanthropy, 2011- style is not so much about the rich helping the poor as the poor taking a fall for the Big Society. Because in the looking–glass logic of the Coalition, it makes better sense to trip up those who haven't far to fall. The gaping great hole in the public purse will be filled with little people "nudged" to give little amounts, rounding up bills with donations to charities, or giving time to voluntary services. And if nobody – not even the Churches, who have pointed out that, with the best will in the world, they cannot plug the gap where social services used to be – responds to the nudging, then maybe the little people can just be held upside down and shaken hard.

If the Big Society had ever gone beyond sloganeering, we could, perhaps, take heart from Cameron's insistence that 2011 will be the year of "heavy lifting" that will hoist Britain back on track. I wish I could channel the shoulder-to-the wheel energy of the Edwardians. My fear is that society stretched to breaking point just isn't big enough for the job.

The price of love just got more expensive

True love, it seems, will go the extra mile. Focus groups (dear God, they must be bored) have identified a phenomenon known as "lodding" or "long-distance dating" with singletons prepared to travel an average of 23 miles on a first date. In 2011, apparently, more and more of us will be relying on planes, trains and automobiles to conduct our love life.

Turns out I've been lodding for years! But if my regular train journey between London and Cambridge is anything to go by – the one where I pay the price of a pair of shoes to stand, jammed and jolting, in a stranger's armpit for an hour – affections will be strongly tested by the proposed increase in rail fares of up to 46 per cent.

Lovers travelling the star-crossed route between London and Birmingham may be looking forward to the advent of the new high-speed link that will find them in each others' arms 20 minutes earlier than before. The rest of us are still left scratching our heads about the necessity of such a link. The big, green idea, apparently, is to get more commuters off the roads and into the trains. Call me unromantic, but until rail fares in this country are vaguely competitive, it's just not going to happen.

Hefner and his beloved bunny girls

There's a lingering whiff of sour grapes in Hollywood's Playboy Mansion where Hugh Hefner, 84, has announced his engagement to Crystal Harris, a playmate some 60 years his junior. Former playmates have revealed that life in the Mansion was not always a bed of roses.

There was, for example, the "demeaning" practice of queueing up for the weekly allowance of $1,000 (which could make a sensitive girl feel a tiny bit like a prostitute, on top of which unspeakable things were expected of you).

"I got in the bath, then another girl appeared from nowhere and jumped in with me," squeaks the still traumatised Jill Ann Spaulding. " Then Hef stepped around the corner and took a photo of both us naked. It was all very strange!"

Even stranger, Spaulding, who shyly introduced herself to Hefner by means of a full frontal photo, was hassled by the priapic octogenarian for sex!

I hate to tread on anyone's girlish dreams but it seems worth pointing out that when a scaly old pornographer buys you breast implants and invites you on an extended sleepover, it pays to read the small print....