Thursday, October 29, 2020

Britain's Big Cat Mystery: A new film

I was watching Countryfile earlier this evening and red kites got a mention. A reintroduction programme began at the start of the century and now they can be seen all across Britain.

So if an ecological niche is vacant, an animal will fill it given the chance.

Which made me think of my favourite Fortean theory - the idea that big cats are living wild in the British countryside.

There is a film coming on Britain's Big Cat Mystery - you can see the trailer above.

Its YouTube page boasts:

This film adds substance to folklore and myth to establish the historic and scientific facts; and now, after years of tireless and extensive research, the story of ‘Britain’s Big Cat Mystery’ can finally be told with more clarity, detail and substantiated fact than has ever been possible before. 

Join the team, as they review newly uncovered and previously lost evidence, including long-forgotten archive footage, as well as exclusive new interviews with key witnesses to the seminal events in the history of the mysterious big cats of Britain, who until now have been unwilling to talk on camera...

Only Fools and Horses star David Jason ‘nearly killed by giant sugar cube’ while filming PG Tips advert

The Independent wins our Headline of the Day
Award for this story of a happy deliverance.

Free school meals: Now the chancellor has his say


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Is Leicestershire right to be proud it has no children's homes?

You can read the opening statement made on behalf of Leicestershire County Council to the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse strand on Lord Janner on the IICSA website.

That is remarkable in itself, as the great majority of the proceedings in this strand have taken place in private.

If you do read it you will find that Alex Verdan QC listed this among the "key points" he asked the inquiry to note:

there are no longer any LCC-run care homes in Leicestershire. The last home closed in April 2018. The small number of residential placements are sourced through external providers after a rigorous commissioning process.

Listening to the live webcast, I was struck by the tone of voice in which he said it - as though it were self-evidently good news.

I wonder. 

Discussing the way the history of psychiatry in America is written, David J. Rothman once said:

It was apparent and unmistakable that the reforms of one generation became the scandals of the next. Historians had explored their materials with a curious myopia. First they applauded the reformers who designed the system, then they applauded the reformers who exposed the system, and then they applauded the reformers who designed a new system – and the circle moved round on itself.

There is a danger that this cycle will also operate in the treatment of children in public care. Whether because of the scandals of recent decades or because they are seen as too expensive, council-run children's homes are disappearing and care is increasingly being provided by the private sector.

Already there are signs that this is where the new scandals will occur. Martin Barrow tweets daily about the worrying things revealed by Ofsted inspections of this mutli-million pound industry whose rise taken place with remarkably little public debate.

I hope Leicestershire does choose its external providers after a "rigorous commissioning process," but I wonder if a better response to its shameful history would be to run good children's homes rather than give up the attempt altogether.

Good news about Little Bowden Junction signal box

'Whatever happened to Little Bowden Junction signal box?" I asked back in July.

The box used to stand on the Midland main line in Market Harborough. It was taken down and then re-erected at the Coventry Steam Railway Centre, which later became the Electric Railway Museum, in 1987.

That museum closed in 2017 and its site was redeveloped. I could fine no mention of what happened to the box.

The good news, which comes from the chairman of the Suburban Electric Railway Association, is that the whole collection from the Coventry museum was preserved.

Little Bowden Junction box was taken to the Battlefield line in the west of Leicestershire. It is there awaiting reassembly at Market Bosworth or Shackerstone.

Six of the Best 970

Chris Dillow explains why the Tories have lost interest in economics: "Evidence for this is of course abundant. We see it in reports that Sunak is worried about government debt despite the fact that the Bank of England is buying it and gilt yields are negative; in the failure to address the fact that job creation has plummeted; in Johnson’s “fuck business” remark; and in the reckless pursuit of Brexit."

"Our experience of mental ill health is not equal - factors like race, economic class, gender identity and disability all affect our likelihood of struggling with mental illness. These factors also affect the way we experience and receive treatment, support, access to services and understanding from our employers." Mental health is not 'a great leveller', say Sofie Jenkinson and Margaret Welsh.

James Alexander Cameron asks what can be done to save England's neglected parish churches.

Dan Jackson on how he fell in love with Northern League football.

"T.H. White was a man to whom animals were very important, perhaps because his human relationships were so tormented. But his sense of connection with nonhuman lives goes far beyond mere compensation; it is a passionate vision of a moral universe, a world of terrible pain and cruelty from which trust and love spring like autumn crocus, vulnerable and unconquerable." Ursula Le Guin writes about her love for T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone.

"Many chess fans will be wondering: what about the chess? Was the board set right? Are they messing up, as they do in so many other movies and commercials? The answer is: absolutely not - the chess is done right." Peter Doggers has good news about the Netflix series The Queen's Gambit.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The earliest-born person to cut a record was the grandfather of a Liberal Party leader

Sir Tollemache Sinclair has featured on this blog before. Writing of his grandson, the Liberal leader Sir Archibald Sinclair, I said:

Sinclair was orphaned at an early age and lived at Thurso Castle, the home of his grandfather Sir Tollemache Sinclair. The castle was a gothic pile which had been reconstructed by Sir Tollemache to his own design and was notable for its orchestrion - a sort of mechanical organ which he loved to play.

Thurso Castle was damaged by a sea mine during the second world war and largely demolished in the 1950s as a result. Some claim that it was never particularly structurally sound in the first place.

Sir Tollemache, who was a Liberal MP himself, has another claim to fame. He is the earliest-born person whose voice is preserved on a disc (as opposed to a wax cylinder).

Born in 1825, he cut a number of records in 1906. You can hear him above giving Byron both barrels.

Sir Archibald Sinclair's grandson is John Thurso, who was Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross between 2001 and 2015. He was a member of the House of Lords before that and is now one again, having won one of those strange by-elections for hereditary peers.

Thanks to a reader on Twitter for putting me on to this.

IICSA Janner hearings cast new light on abuse in Leicestershire children's homes

Abuse was rife in Leicestershire children's homes in the 1970s, but the powers that be have never been keen on public exposure of what went on.

The press had to go to court to be allowed to report the trial of Frank Beck, and the subsequent inquiry was conducted entirely in private.

A copy of the report of that inquiry was to be found on the county council website (as the result of a freedom of information request), but it seems to have disappeared.

But you can find a searchable copy of the report elsewhere on the web.

Because of this record of secrecy, there was a certain degree of cynicism expressed when it emerged that the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse would take most of its evidence on Lord Janner in private.

However, some evidence has been heard in public and something of interest has emerged.

BBC News reports:

On Monday, the inquiry heard that Ratcliffe Road children's home in Leicester burned all its records when a paedophile ex-employee was arrested.

Former senior policeman Mick Creedon, who ran the investigation, said he was "haunted" knowing runaways were sent to the home, described as a "hell-hole" and sexually abused.

That seems to me more significant than the stuff about Tony Blair and the honours system that leads the story.

Creedon also gave evidence about the investigation of possible offences by Lord Janner:

He also described being "disappointed" when refused permission to arrest MP Greville Janner.

The home was "immediately closed down" when they arrested a prime suspect, and a senior worker at the home "immediately burned all the files".

Mr Creedon said several people he spoke to for the investigation had killed themselves, and three former residents eventually said they were also abused by Lord Janner.

Mr Creedon told the inquiry he was refused permission to arrest the politician in the 1990s and instead of arresting the MP he was invited to Leicestershire Police's headquarters to be interviewed.

However, his home was not searched and he answered "no comment" to questions, so the case was dropped.

Mr Creedon denied going too easy on Lord Janner and said one account that questions were sent in advance "categorically didn't happen".

"I still think there was a justifiable case for his arrest," he said.

Tory leader of Leicestershire: Government has given no money to fund free school meals over Christmas

In the tweet above you can see a clip of Nick Rushton, the Conservative leader of Leicestershire County Council, being interviewed by the political editor for BBC East Midlands, Tony Roe.

Rushton says the council "cannot see children going hungry" and will fund free school meals over the Christmas holidays.

Asked if the government has given the council money to pay for measures like this, as Tory MPs are claiming, he replies:
They gave it us in June or July with the instructions that we had to spend it by the end of September, which we did.
That money, says Rushton, was spent on funding food banks and community groups.

Monday, October 26, 2020

England clinch the series against Pakistan in 1971

With the first two tests drawn of this 1971 series, the last day of the third and final one saw Pakistan chasing 230 to win the match and the series. They could not manage it and England bowled them out to win by 25 runs. Some of the umpiring looks trigger happy by modern standards.

It's an unusual England attack as it features three front-line spinners: the captain Ray Illingworth, Norman Gifford (sometimes preferred to his fellow left-armer Derek Underwood in this period) and the wrist spinner Robin Hobbs.

Our opening attack was Peter Lever and Richard Hutton. The latter was the son of the great England batsman Len Hutton, which did his career no harm. He did reasonably well in the five tests he played, but lost out to Tony Greig in the contest to be the team's regular allrounder.

Characteristically, Basil D'Oliveira makes an important contribution here with his seamers.

You can find the full scorecard of this test on Wikipedia.

Apprenticeships minister repeats lies about free school meal vouchers

Gillian Keegan, apprenticeships and skills minister and Conservative MP for the town, has spoken to the Chichester Observer about her vote against extending free school meals into the Christmas holidays.

The newspaper reports her as saying she is

aware of reports in other parts of the country of schools, supermarkets and parents raising concerns that vouchers were not always used to provide food.

She may be aware of such reports, but they will be false. The vouchers can only be used to pay for food and groceries.

I shall be charitable and assume she is ill informed rather than being deliberately deceitful.

Note too her reference to "other part of the country". Is she saying that, while people in the South of England can be trusted, this is not the case further north?

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Nothing I learnt in school mathematics after the age of 12 has been of use to me since

It's fashionable at the moment to pile on to Ben Bradley, the Conservative MP for Mansfield, and I see no reason to discourage this.

So here's one tweet Bradley has not deleted:

Bradley is talking nonsense because this measure of poverty is based upon median income not mean income, and he appears not to understand the difference. 

I do understand it because, before we moved to Leicestershire when I was 13, I went to secondary school in Hertfordshire. There we studied studied mathematics using textbooks produced by the School Mathematics Project.

These made the subject interesting and turned out to be useful. We learnt some basic statistics, notably the concepts of mean, median and mode.

If I had stayed with SMP I would soon have been learning about computer programming, but in Leicestershire maths was very different.

We were offered an old-fashioned diet of arithmetic, trigonometry and algebra. It was dull beyond endurance and nothing I learnt in maths in the next four years has ever been of use to me since. I did get an O level, but was delighted to give the subject up at 16.

You may say I was strictly on the arts side after that, but I turned out to be good at formal logic at university. I found that Venn diagrams could be used to test the validity of syllogisms - and I had learnt about Venn diagrams in primary school.

So when I saw this exchange the other day (and thanks to the reader who helped me find it again) I almost cheered.
No doubt a lot has changed since my schooldays. But, judging by this and Mr Bradley, not enough.

Spencer Davis Group: Sittin' and Thinkin'

As a final tribute to Spencer Davis, here he is taking the lead on the group's own composition Sittin' and Thinkin'.

Before he formed the Spencer Davis Group he performed folk blues with guitar and a harmonica on a harness, like Bob Dylan.

This performance comes from the West German TV show Beat Beat Beat, which was better at preserving its tapes than most of its British equivalents. As a result, there are some great compilations of performances from the show to buy on DVD.

And the best obituary of Spencer Davis is in Rolling Stone - I didn't know he had signed Eddie and the Hot Rods when he was working as an A&R man.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Six of the Best 969

Peter Kellner says Britain is about to discover the dismal reality of Brexit: "On October 16, the prime minister warned that the UK might enter 2021 without a deal on the future relationship with the EU and be forced to trade on World Trade Organization terms. With no hint of doubt or irony, he advised Britons to embrace this prospect “with high hearts and complete confidence. This was the economic equivalent of promising to stop the tides. King Cnut would never have believed such nonsense."

"In the days after the disaster, Lord Robens, chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB), attributed the tragedy to ‘natural unknown springs’ beneath the tip.  This was known by all the local people to be incorrect.  The NCB had been tipping on top of springs that are shown on maps of the neighbourhood and in which village schoolboys had played." Martin Johnes and Iain McLean on the political aftermath of the Aberfan disaster.

"Over four years since its launch in 2015, it’s become one of the biggest film channels in the UK. Today, it attracts an audience of over two million viewers a week (and that was before the current lockdown). And it deserves every single one of them." Sarah Philip goes behind the scenes at Talking Pictures TV. 

Chris French pays tribute to James Randi, who died this week.

"A Dolly Parton concert is like a local census, bringing together peoples across lines of race, gender, sexuality, and, miraculously, political affiliation." Lauren Michele Jackson reviews a biography of a remarkable woman.

Diamond Geezer finds Mr Benn's home in Putney.

Ben Bradley is a rare beneficiary of snobbery

Ben Bradley is solidly middle class. His parents sent him to Derby Grammar School, which despite its name is an expensive private school. Its current fees the sixth-form students are £14,233.

Ben Bradley is as much a career politico as it is possible to be. When he was elected to parliament at the age of 27 he had a degree in politics, was a member of Nottinghamshire County Council and Ashfield District Council, and was working at Westminster as a political researcher.

So why do people regard him as a working-class outsider? How does he get away with being the Chairman of Blue Collar Conservatives?

The answer is snobbery. Because Bradley speaks with an East Midlands accent, people assume he must be working class.

This is absurd and patronising, but our national life is so dominated by people from the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge that people in the political world seldom come across people with an accent different from their own. 

When they do, they generally assume it's because he or she is working class - as if there are no middle-class people north of Watford Gap.

This makes Bradley a rare beneficiary of snobbery. He has so far largely got away with his repellent views because it has been thought his is an authentic working-class voice with no time for the niceties of middle-class debate. Salt of the earth and all that.

I suspect this view of him will not survive his current manic self-exposure.

In the 19th century accents were more diverse. Gladstone is reported to have had a Lancashire accent (though its hard to detect in the only genuine recording of him), while Charles Kingsley spoke with a strong West Country accent.

The only survival of this you hear today is when a Northumbrian aristocrat is interviewed and turns out to speak with the local accent.

Photo of Ben Bradley by Richard Townshend.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Market Harborough cats: a photographic essay

As a result of my researches this week I can conclude that some cats are friendlier than others.

And don't be fooled by the closed eyes in the third photo. Nothing happens in Walcott Road without that cat's knowledge and approval.

Will Ed Davey please stop using his rare media opportunities to attack his own party?

I thought I would be a loyal Liberal Democrat and blog about Ed Davey's appearamce on ITV's Acting Prime Minister podcast, so I started to listen to it.

Literally the first thing Ed tells his interviewer is:

"I've had to give the party some truths, namely that we've had a bit of a bad time in the last five years - three poor election results - and I've said 'Look, we've got to wake up and smell the coffee'."

The idea that Ed is aware we have had a bad time of late and ordinary party members have not noticed it is just silly.

As I blogged back in back in Nick Clegg's day:

Political activists now exist chiefly as a sort of stage army that can be brought on so their own leader can look tough by criticising them. It's no life for a grown up.

It's no wonder that people decide to work through charities and pressure groups instead. If I were Ed, I would take more care to make Lib Dem members feel valued and wanted.

I didn't get much further with the podcast, but you can find it above. For all I know, it may be very good. Give it a try.

Write a guest post for Liberal England

I welcome guest posts on Liberal England.

This list of the 10 most recent is pretty concentrated on the Liberal Democrats, but I am happy to publish posts on subjects far beyond the Lib Dems and politics.

If you would like to write a guest post for this blog, please send me an email so we can discuss your idea.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Leicester's Midland Railway hydraulic power station is listed by Historic England

The Leicester Mercury had some good news earlier this week:

It might not be the most attractive looking building in Leicester, but a former hydraulic power station in the city has now been recognised as a building of historical significance.

The former Hydraulic Power Station on Samuel Street, which dates back to 1874, once supplied hydraulic power to the extensive Midland Railway goods yards and warehouses which once covered the site now occupied by the St George’s Retail Park.

And while it hasn't been used for its original purpose for years, the building has now been granted Grade II listed status by Historic England following an application by the Leicester Group of the Victorian Society.

The building dates from about 1874 and supplied hydraulic power to the extensive Midland Railway goods yards and warehouses that once covered the site now occupied by St George’s Retail Park.

You may also be interested in the Victorian Society's Leicester pages.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Six of the Best 968

"A decade of data shows that giving people cash instead of food or other in-kind aid empowers recipients, is harder to steal, and pumps money into local economies. In some settings, recipients’ assets, nutrition, and even survival outcomes increase." Jina Moore explains why the Nobel-winning World Food Program is one of many agencies increasingly handing out cash rather than goods.

Barry Eichengreen says Scotland needs a new currency if it wants independence

"Those studies led to my questioning the story that our society told about those we call “mad,” and I got a book contract to dig into that question. That project turned into Mad in America, which told of the history of our society’s treatment of the seriously mentally ill, from colonial times until today—a history marked by bad science and societal mistreatment of those so diagnosed." Robert Whitaker is concerned that psychiatric drugs do more harm than good.

Noel Casler spills the beans on what he saw of Donald Trump when working behind the scenes on Celebrity Apprentice.

The 1971 British film Unman, Wittering and conssidered by Kimberly Lindbergs.

Oliver Soden explores the musical of an 18th-century cat "memorably described by [Christopher] Smart as 'surpassing in beauty', a 'mixture of gravity and waggery' who can tread 'to all the measures upon the musick', his tongue 'exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in musick'."

Lord Bonkers 30 years ago: When London Underground ticket barriers were new

If I'd known I'd still be writing Lord Bonkers' Diary 30 years after I dashed off a trial version for Liberator, I'd have given the old brute a better name - Lord Uppingham, for instance.

The name Lord Bonkers was a tribute to Colonel Mad, who used to write about horse racing in Private Eye. I had already written a column as Captain Stark for what turned out to be the last issue of an obscure cricket magazine, though I'm sure it wasn't entirely my fault that it folded.

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting now and then to look back at what Lord Bonkers was saying 30 years ago - I have an almost complete run of Liberator since the early 1980s.

There was not an October 1990 issue, so here he is in September of that year (issue 191) when ticket barriers were new on the London Underground - or at least new to me. 

But then I was busy as chair of Harborough District Council's housing management subcommittee in those days.


Today I journey to London and have much fun with the ticket barriers on the Underground. I skip through nimbly enough myself, but the neighbouring contraption soon assembles an impressive collection: two-and-a-half-couple of American tourists, an Indian holy man, several heavily laden Swedish hikers, a swart saxophonist and an indeterminate number of Carmelite nuns. 

I trust that the transport authorities extort a ransom from those captured thus, but I am forced, given the cost of travel in the city, to the conclusion that they do not charge half enough. Nuns are notoriously bad payers, but the Americans and Swedes could be made to bring in quite a tidy sum.

Leaving aside questions of economics, I can heartily recommend the spectacle to any Englishman at a loose end in his capital city; it is most diverting to observe the victims writing and screaming in their futile efforts to escape.

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South West, 1906-10.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Steve Winwood pays tribute to Spencer Davis

This tribute has been posted on Steve Winwood's Instagram account:
I've known Spencer since I was about 13 - he would have been about 22. I was playing a show at Birmingham University with my brother and his band. Spencer who was a student at Birmingham, was playing with a small group of musicians. We met and the the seeds of The Spencer Davis Group were sown. 

Spencer was an early pioneer of the British folk scene, which, in his case embraced folk blues, and eventually what was then called "Rhythm and Blues". He influenced my tastes in music, he owned the first 12-string guitar I ever saw, and he was taken with the music of Huddie “Lead belly” Ledbetter, and Big Bill Broonzy. I’d already got a big brother who influenced me greatly, and Spencer became like a big brother to me at the time. 

He was definitely a man with a vision, and one of the pioneers of the British invasion of America in the sixties. I never went to the US with Spencer, but he later embraced America, and America embraced him. 

I feel that he was influential in setting me on the road to becoming a professional musician, and I thank him for that. 

Thank you, Spencer
The video above was broadcast as part of the BBC show A Whole Scene Going on 16 March 1966.

The future of politics in Scotland

The latest episode of the Compass podcast It's Bloody Complicated sees Neal Lawson talking to Gerry Hassan about the future of the Labour Party in Scotland and Scottish politics in general.

It's a particularly interesting episode, with Hassan suggesting the SNP is defying political gravity in the way that Scottish Labour long did. That is, it's piling up victories that its record in office does not merit. He suggests that, as Labour found, you can only go on doing this for so long.

He and Lawson share a bemusement at the dwindling of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland.

As far as I can see, we are concentrating on uniting the Unionist vote in half a dozen seats there - a strategy that has little appeal to voters beyond those seats or who support the Liberal call for Home Rule.

Lib Dem social media only discusses good results, but last week our vote almost halved in a council by-election in Aberdeenshire, which was until recently an area of strength for us.

Is there a better way forward for the Lib Dems? For some ideas, see the guest post Mark Stephens wrote for this blog: Unionism is making the Scottish Lib Dems irrelevant.

Spencer Davis died yesterday aged 81

Sad news. Spencer Davis, who led one of the great British groups of the 1960s, died in California yesterday at the age of 81.

Based in Birmingham, he had already played with Bill Wyman, Christine Perfect (the future Christine McVie) and Ian Campbell when he heard the Winwood brothers playing in their jazz band.

"We should get together and form a blues band," he told them. "We could get a booking to play the university every Saturday."

And the rest is history.

The official reason for naming the band after Spencer Davis, when Steve Winwood was inevitably the most prominent member, was that he liked talking to the press and could do all the interviews while the Winwood brothers stayed in bed. 

But it was a great name for a British blues band. They could be black. They could be American.

When the Winwood brothers left in 1967 life became more of a struggle for Davis, but he remained in the business and regularly toured with new versions of his band.

The video here shows the Spencer Davis Group in its prime and has Davis singing the lead for once.

I heard Spencer Davis play and  shook hands with him when he played in Market Harborough in 2009.

The band was having problems with its equipment that evening, which ended with a roadie leaning over a speaker cabinet to hold a cable in place.

"This is just what it was like in the Sixties," said Davis. "We're giving you the genuine experience."