Friday, January 22, 2021

The uselessness of Boris Johnson's cabinet is a feature not a bug

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Ed Davey says Gavin Williamson is the worst education secretary in living memory. He's right, of course.

But then Williamson is not alone in not deserving a place around the cabinet table.

Priti Patel resigned as secretary of state for international development when it emerged she had been holding meetings with Israeli officials without informing anyone in London. Yet somehow today she is home secretary.

Jacob Rees-Mogg is such a liability that he had to be hidden from voters during the last general election, but he is still leader of the House of Commons.

But maybe their presence should not be such a surprise.

Many Conservatives with principles - David Gauke, Rory Stewart, Nicholas Soames - were effectively sacked from the Commons by Boris Johnson in September 2019. 

They were not the sort of people he wanted to surround himself with. Better to have malleable mediocrities who will do whatever they are told.

Better still to have people no other Conservative prime minister would dream of appointing to the cabinet. They will know that they owe their careers to Johnson and that any successful rebellion against him would inevitably lead to the end of those careers.

It's probably all in Machiavelli: surround yourself with people who should never have been put in a position of power and you will be much more secure.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

QAnon's mighty wind fails to blow

Believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory spent the last three years believing that Donald Trump was taking on powerful paedophile networks that had hitherto ruled the world.

Trump's defeat did not discourage them: they were certain Joe Biden's inauguration day would see power cuts, the declaration of martial law and his arrest along with all other leading Democrats.

In the Guardian, Julia Carrie Wong reports on the reaction of some QAnon believers to yesterday's events (or lack of them):

As Biden took the oath of office just before noon on Wednesday, a QAnon channel on Telegram lit up with laments.

"We’ve been lied to," wrote one person.

"I think we have been fooled like no other,” another responded, adding: “Hate to say it. Held on to hope til this very moment."

"I feel like I’m losing my mind,” said a third. “I don’t know what to believe anymore."

"Anyone else feeling beyond let down right now?" read a popular post on a QAnon message board. "It’s like being a kid and seeing the big gift under the tree thinking it is exactly what you want only to open it and realize it was a lump of coal the whole time."

There are religious precedents for such feelings of deflation. The 19th-century American Baptist preacher William Miller forecast that Christ would return to Earth on 22 October 1844.

After He failed to appear, the non-event became known among Miller's followers as "The Great Disappointment".

But, reading about the baffled QAnon adherents, I thought first of the above sketch from Beyond the Fringe.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Terrified by Mr Tapp the undertaker

What is the most frightening television programme you have ever seen?

Back in 2007 I answered that question like this:

For me it is probably the episode of Sexton Blake in which the hypodermic-wielding villain measured Tinker for his coffin while he was still alive. Mind you, I may have been as young as seven when I saw it.

After that, as I went on to say in that post, it was Don Taylor's television play The Exorcism, which I saw when I was 12.

According to an upload on YouTube only one episode of ITV's Sexton Blake series of the 1960s survives - you can see it above. Sadly, it contains no sinister undertakers.

What interested me most was one of the comments below the upload:

Many thanks for the upload. I can remember watching this series as a youngster, and being terrified by one of the villains, a sinister undertaker by the name of, if memory serves, Mr Tapp. Such a pity no more episodes remain.

Mr Tapp must surely be the undertaker who scared me too. 

A little research shows he appeared in a just one two-part Sexton Blake story and that those parts were screened in January and February 1968. So I was indeed just seven when I watched them.

Market Harborough's ghost sign has lost its ghostliness

The ghost sign on what is now the British Heart Foundation shop in Market Harborough has undergone a striking restoration. It now looks magnificent, even if it has been robbed of its ghostliness.

You can see what it used to look like (on a much sunnier day) below. The restoration was carried out by Alex Scott.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Mark Kermode notices The Ghost Goes Gear

Last night BBC2 screened the latest of Mark Kermode's Secrets of Cinema programmes - this one was on pop music films.

I was looking forward to it, but had sadly concluded that he would not find room to mention the Spencer Davis Group film The Ghost Goes Gear.

I was wrong.

Let's be honest though: it's not a good film. As I blogged when paying tribute to Nicholas Parsons a few years ago:

According to Parsons' memoirs, the weather in which they had to film was so bad that he assumed the project had been scrapped. He was surprised there was a film to release.

What made the cinema was basically a collection of largely undistinguished musical performances, apart from those by the Spencer Davis Group themselves.

But the start of the film, with the band performing on a boat, the (Etonian?) swimmers and rowers, and Monkees-style antics, make you think you are  in for something better.

So the clip above is as good as the film gets.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Exploring Kelmarsh railway tunnels

The last train from Northampton to Market Harborough ran in August 1981. Most of the trackbed now forms the Brampton Valley Way, which as a result passes through former railway tunnels at Great Oxendon and Kelmarsh.

This video explores the Kelmarsh tunnels, both the one that carries the Way and the parallel one, which is not officially open to the public.

Six of the Best 990

Jack Haines says that as we see the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic hit our society harder than ever before, it is essential for Liberal Democrats to be pioneering and spearheading the charge towards making basic income a reality.

"The reason the Department hasn’t done the simplest, cheapest thing and just give parents a bit of extra cash is because they don’t trust them to spend it properly. Or rather they are scared of the public perception that, as Tory MP Ben Bradley luridly put it last year, the money would be spent in crack dens and brothels." Sam Freedman says myths about poverty must be refuted so that parents are trusted with £20 and not half a pepper.

Christian Kerr asks if the appointment of Josh MacAlister as chair of the independent review of children’s social care in England means its conclusions are a foregone conclusion.

"This is a story about secrecy, obfuscation and political embarrassment at the heart of government. It revolves around an attempt by the Home Office to withhold vital research evidence about the causes of serious violence - a decision the department clung to, even though it undermined the credibility of its flagship plan to tackle the problem. It ended in a three-year legal battle that cost taxpayers thousands of pounds." Danny Shaw takes on the Home Office.

"James in his letters is a real human being, we see him go from a small boy of seven to a junior schoolboy, to Eton and then Kings College Cambridge and all of his life in between and after it is wonderful and very humbling, to be privy to this." Jane Mainley-Piddock is interviewed about her forthcoming book, Casting the Runes: The Letters of M. R. James.

Mark Shirley introduces us to the Leicester variant of table skittles.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

It's not that we get more right wing as we get older

Spending time with at my mother's house is giving me time for all the books I bought and never read. Among my findings so far is that Isabella Tree's Wilding is inspirational and Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk is overwritten.

Today I tried Wagner and Philosophy by Bryan Magee - that temporary son of Market Harborough - and hit gold before I'd finished the preface.

In it Magee describes Wagner as a classic example of someone who, when young is a passionately committed and active revolutionary, but becomes disillusioned with politics and turns away from it altogether in middle age.

He continues:

Former comrades who retain their left-wing commitment usually see such a person as 'moving to the right', and of course some do, they become conservatives. But in most cases this is an uncomprehending way of seeing what is happening. 

For most such people are not switching from one political allegiance to another, they are becoming disillusioned with politics as such. They are ceasing to believe that the most important of human problems have political solutions. They are acquiring a different sort of outlook on life, one that does not see politico-social issues as primary.

And concludes with the insight:
The unforgiving bitterness of the disappointed left-winger is a quite different phenomenon psychologically from the curmudgeonliness of the reactionary, even if in elderly people the two often show some of the same symptoms. One is bitterness at the loss of a past, the other bitterness at the loss of a future.

Johnny Bristol: Memories Don't Leave Like People Do

Let's see if I can get back to choosing a music video each Sunday.

This one dates from 1974, a year in which I followed the UK singles chart obsessively even though I could sense at the time that it was no golden age.

Memories Don't Leave Like People Do only made no. 53, but it doesn't sound so bad today. Wikipedia says Johnny Bristol was best known as a songwriter and producer for Motown. He died in 2004.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Geeta Sidhu-Robb expelled from the Lib Dems

Jewish Chronicle reports:

The founder of an organic foods company who was shortlisted to stand as a London mayoral candidate for the Liberal Democrats has been expelled from the party following a complaints panel hearing into comments she made about Jews.

Geeta Sidhu-Robb was pitted against councillor Luisa Porrit to land the party's nomination to challenge current Mayor of London Sadiq Khan in elections scheduled to take place in May.

But she was suspended in September after footage of her using a megaphone during the 1997 election campaign in Blackburn emerged in which she urged Muslim voters not to vote for her opponent, former Labour Secretary Jack Straw, because he is "a Jew".

The report quotes Sidhu-Robb, who says she has already publicly apologised for "an act of momentary stupidity" and goes on to refer to an unidentified faction within the Liberal Democrats, who "felt threatened by a fresh, engaging, female-centric approach to politics".

You can see a video of Sidhuy-Robb making her comments in an earlier post on this blog.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Can there be a 70 Up without Michael Apted?

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I remember an English lesson in the lower sixth when we had all watched 21 Up the evening before. The lesson was, for some reason, taken by the head of department rather than our usual teacher, and we spent all of it talking about the programme. Thanks to the wonder of Wikipedia I can date it to 10 May 1977.

Michael Apted, the man behind the Up programmes, died last week. Beginning with 7 Up in 1963, this series followed a series of people through their lives. It may have begun as an exercise in sociology, but it has turned into something extraordinary. What engaged me intellectually when I was 17 can now move me to tears because of the themes of promise, poor health and redemption that have developed.

A New York Times article asks if there can be a 70 Up without Apted. We all hope there can be - "70 and 7 do have a good symmetry," as one of his team says - but the article brings home that if the participants in the Up programmes have grown old then the team that made them has grown even older.

One of them, we are told, remembers:

“Every seven years we’d get a new commissioner and a new executive producer, and they all come into the program thinking they’re going to make some change. Michael saw them all off,” at first politely and then with a colourful two-word phrase.

Lakenheath: The least-used station in Suffolk

Superintendent: It's a country station, rather off the beaten track.

Will Hay: Oh, I don't mind, as long as it's near the railway.

Time for another of these engaging videos. Lakenheath station, Wikipedia tells us, lies some three miles north of the village and is not within convenient walking distance of any sizeable population. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Rudolf Lehmann was Liberal MP for Harborough 1906-10

The opening of Penelope Fitzgerald's review of a 1998 biography of John Lehmann provides a potted biography of his father Rudolf:

The first volume of John Lehmann’s autobiography, published in 1955, starts:

"When I try to remember where my education in poetry began, the first image that comes to mind is that of my father’s library at the old family home of Fieldhead on the Thames. It is an autumn or winter evening after tea, for James the butler has been in to draw the blinds and close the curtains, and my father is reading under a green-shaded lamp."

He has said a good deal already – the little boy who wants to be like his father, the sheltered child who doesn’t need to know the time or even the season because James, the always reliable butler, deals with that, the illusion of a dedication to poetry. Adrian Wright, in this new biography, refers several times to Lehmann’s half-commitment (in spite of his energy) to the professional life he chose. Fieldhead was the magic enclosure to which, as an adult, he looked back, wishing that it might have been possible to sit there, watching and listening, all his life.

He came of a German-Jewish family, musical, hospitable, successful in business. His grandfather ended up in Scotland, by way of Huddersfield. His father, who built Field-head, was called to the Bar, edited the Daily News, and was returned as Liberal MP for Market Harborough. He was a dedicated rowing coach, and wrote quantities of light verse, often about rowing, for Punch. He married Alice Davis, a strong-minded New Englander, twenty years younger than himself. Their family consisted of three girls – Helen, the indulged Rosamond, Beatrix – and, at long last, the boy John.

Lehmann held Harborough for the Liberals in the landslide election of 1906 and remained its MP until he stood down at the second election in 1910.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Six of the Best 989

Campaigners are urging the government to give poor families cash and not food vouchers, reports Vincent Wood.

"Trump disguised what he was doing by operating in plain sight, talking openly about his intent. He normalized his actions so people would accept them. I’ve been studying authoritarian regimes for three decades, and I know the signs of a coup when I see them." Fiona Hill believes in calling Trump's coup a coup.

Simon Wilson argues that it is not worth trying to recycle plastics.

Karen Liebreich on the othering of cyclists: "For some years people on bikes have been perceived as members of a different, lesser species, not deserving of the basic consideration or courtesy one would usually extend to an equal."

"In the early 1970s British television began to spread the idea that accessing and expressing your feelings was a good thing. Most documentaries still just observed people - or used them to make political or social points. But a number of factual programmes became channels for the new psychotherapeutic ideas." Adam Curtis offers a history of television and hugging.

John Lewis-Stempel names Richard Jefferies among five things that inspired his book The Running Hare.