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."

Monday, October 19, 2020

Make every county boundary a customs border and we'll be minted

Here's Michael Gove in the Commons today:

If customs formalities create jobs, why stop there? 

Let's make every county boundary a customs border. This time next year we'll be millionaires.

Gabriel in Brook Vessons by Whalebone and Jean Atkin

The Romans mined all this land for lead long, long before men came back, in the last century, to this haunted corner of Shropshire. These miners tore up the earth, built engine houeses, sank shafts and buried the golden gorse under piles of rubbish which may still be seen today. 

Those were hard days in a hard country and it must have been about that time that a few shepherds, some perhaps with the courage of despair, made their homes on the lower slopes of the Stiperstones. It is said that those who were able to establish a home here must follow a curious custom. Newcomers must, between sunset and sunrise, build first a hovel with a roof of turf in which must be a hole, or something which would act as a chimney, and then kindle the precious fire which was to give them the right to live there. If by morning smoke was seen above the roof, the neighbours would cry "I see smoke", and the word would go round that strangers had earned the right to live among them.

Malcolm Saville knew the story about squatters cottages on the Stiperstones - this passage comes from Not Scarlet But Gold (1962) - though those dwellings were surely put up by incoming miners.

Brook Vessons, says the Shropshire Wildlife Trust:

lies on the edge of The Paddock - a village that grew up with the local mining industry as people took on smallholdings to supplement their income. It was finally abandoned early in the 20th century, when the industry declined, but the remnants of field and cottage walls remain.

The trust describes it as "extraordinarily atmospheric" and that is certainly true of this video too.

Gabriel in Brook Vessons is taken from Understories. a collaboration between Whalebone and the poet Jean Atkin.

Clive Stafford Smith on cricket and human rights

In April Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast to help us endure what was then a world without cricket.

They are up to episode 25, which talks to the human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith about his work as well as his love for cricket.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Chess, cheating and Covid-19

How has chess been coping with the pandemic?

One development has been online tournaments between the world's top players, who play from home. As their opponents cannot see them, they are much freer in their facial reactions than they are when playing over the board. This makes it fun for the viewing public who can see the feed from both players' webcams.

Keeping a poker face, or at least a chess face, is one of the arts a top player needs to master. The young Boris Spassky decided he was revealing too much and cultivated what he call a "clown's mask" to avoid giving opponents encouragement.

It's that that he was unnerving to play because he never gave you the slightest clue as to how he thought the game was going.

At lower levels this is rarely the case. When I beat Simon Le Blanq, who had played top board in chess Olympiads for two different countries, I was encouraged by overhearing a conversation between him and a teammate while I was considering my next move.

"How are you doing?" asked the friend. "I'm being wiped out," came the reply, helpfully confirming my assessment of the position.

But now that computers are stronger than any human player, playing online raises all sorts of problems with possible cheating .

As a Guardian article yesterday reported:

At the heart of the problem are programs or apps that can rapidly calculate near-perfect moves in any situation. To counter these engines, players in more and more top matches must agree to be recorded by multiple cameras, be available on Zoom or WhatsApp at any time, and grant remote access to their computers. They may not be allowed to leave their screens, even for toilet breaks. In some cases they must have a “proctor” or invigilator search their room and then sit with them throughout a match.

Sutovsky has also suggested eye-tracking programs may be a way to raise a red flag if a player appears to be looking away with suspicious frequency.

And cheating is not a problem only in grandmaster chess:

Such controversies have been replicated even in the lower-stakes world of junior play. Sarah Longson, a former British ladies' champion who runs the Delancey UK Schools’ Chess Challenge, said at least 100 of 2,000 online participants cheated.

The cheating was blatant, she said, with mediocre preteens at the level of the world champion, Magnus Carlsen. "But only three of them admitted it, which is pretty disgusting." After realising the night before the final that the top three qualifiers had all been cheating, she said, "we stayed up till 3am deciding what to do" and nearly cancelled altogether.

As I once wrote a post entitled The public schools' greatest weakness is now the character of their old boys, I was intrigued by what Longson said next:

"It’s the children from the private schools, sadly," she said. "When I ring their parents they just get angry with me. They’re under such pressure to succeed."

Laura Nyro: Stoney End

Laura Nyro, who was born on this day in 1947 and died in 1997, never seems to have enjoyed the fame she deserved. This Guardian article by Laura Barton helps explain why that is:

While Nyro was one of the most important songwriters of the 60s and 70s, one who has exerted a profound influence on artists from Elton John to Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell to Carole King and Tori Amos, she also sidestepped celebrity, turned down offers to increase both sales and fame, and for much of her career put the song before the songwriter - allowing others to record the definitive versions of her own compositions.

Stoney End is better known from the version by Barbra Streisand and Nyro also wrote Wedding Bell Blues, which was a hit for the The 5th Dimension.

But she was a remarkable talent, as Barton goes on to say:

If Nyro’s story feels in some way confounding, all that turn-tailing on talent and success, all those steps to the left when the going looked so good, it’s perhaps consoling to consider that the unexpected twists that ran through her life were in some way an echo of her songwriting – full of rhythmic convolutions, free-form compositions, vocal variations. As Elton John put it: "The soul, the passion, just the out-and-out audacity of the way her rhythmic and melody changes came was like nothing I’d heard before."

More than anything, Nyro’s lyrics always felt lived. "Everything seemed exotic and heightened in her songs," Bette Midler said in the speech she made to posthumously induct Nyro into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. "She could make a trip to the grocery store seem like a night at the opera."

Saturday, October 17, 2020

"Making the East End into the new West End" in 1970

The redevelopment of London's Docklands was not dreamt up by Margaret Thatcher or by Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday: it was already under way in 1970.

This film looks at the redevelopment of St Katherine Docks and their derelict, bomb-damaged warehouses. The tensions between the needs of existing inhabitants and the gentrifying ambitions of the developers are laid bare.

And where was the derelict tube station with the unfenced shaft that the mother complains about?

Click on the still above to play this film on the British Film Institute site.

Six of the Best 967

"The by-election team included Candy Piercy handling the media, Norman Baker (then a Lewes councillor) doing casework, John Ricketts in charge of direct mail, and Paul Burstow (then a staffer for the association of Lib Dem councillors) in charge of leaflets. One such leaflet gleefully pointed out that a hospital listed by the Conservatives’ media guide had just been demolished." Tides of History looks back at the Eastbourne by-election of 1990, where David Belotti's victory hastened the end of Margaret Thatcher's reign.

"Our national parks could be beacons of hope for natural climate solutions - brimming with native broadleaf woodlands, agroforestry, restored peat bogs and species-rich grassland." Danny Gross writes a briefing for Friends of the Earth.

Adam Kirsch reviews The Murder of Professor Schlick, David Edmonds' new book on the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, who operated in the shadow of the rise of Nazism.

The antics in post-war Nordic children’s books - think the Moomins and Pippi Longstocking - left propaganda and prudery behind. Richard W. Orange says we need this madcap spirit more than ever.

"There’s definitely an undercurrent of class tension throughout the movie, a sense of knowing your place, even in a new town. See how Jamie feels out of place at the upper class gatherings and how uncomfortable he (and his mother) look when doctor’s daughter Mary comes to tea. The sixties was supposed to be the decade when the class system came crashing down. But even in a new town, everyone knew their level." Mod Culture reviews the 1968 film Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, which is being shown on Sony Movies Action (Freeview channel 40) late tomorrow night.

Eric Wark explores Suffolk's Shotley peninsula.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Peartree: The least used station in Derbyshire

Peartree lies a mile or so south of Derby station. Under its original name of Pear Tree and Normanton it was open between 1839 and 1968.

It reappeared with a streamlined new name in 1976 as part of the reopening of the Sinfin branch to serve the Rolls Royce works. This was not a success and the last train ran in 1993, though in theory you could present yourself at Derby station and demand a taxi to Sinfin North or Sinfin South until its official closure in 1998.

Peartree survived, though almost all trains from Derby to Crewe or Birmingham race through it without stopping.

The Sinfin branch gets a mention in this video, but there was another station between Peartree and Derby not so long ago.

Ramsline Halt, previously Baseball Ground Halt, was a single-platform station opened by British Rail in 1990 to serve the Baseball Ground, the former home of Derby County. Only four trains ever stopped there and it closed in 1997 when the club moved to its new Pride Park stadium.

Research shows bigger is not better in local government

Yesterday I wrote:

I believe local government should be local and that the idea that centralisation always leads to greater efficiency and lower costs is no more true today than it was in the 1970s when it was Labour's creed.

And then I discovered an expert report that says much the same thing. I am always happy to cite research when it supports my opinions.

That report is Bigger is not better: the evidenced case for keeping 'local' government. It's written by Colin Copus, Steve Leach, and Alistair Jones from De Monfort University and published by the District Councils' Network.

It assesses more than 300 pieces of research from around the world and is concludes that the size of councils does not make a difference to the quality or efficiency of services.

A second finding is that larger councils lead to falling public trust, falling engagement and a reduced sense of belonging to your local area and council.

Ombudsman finds Sheffield Council misled public over tree scandal

Remember the scandal over Sheffield's Labour-run council and tree-felling? The council had signed a ridiculous PFI contract that saw many healthy street trees felled.

When this caused an outcry the council turned on the protestors. They even tried to have an opposition councillor jailed for demonstrating.

There was a good article on the affair by George Monbiot.

Yesterday the Yorkshire Post covered a report on the affair by the local government and social care ombudsman:

A 25-page report by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has recommended an unreserved public apology is issued by the council to the people of the city within the next three months over its handling of the controversial removal of thousands of street trees. ...

It concluded the council should “provide a public, unreserved apology accepting those findings of this investigation which draw attention to general failings in the implementation of its ‘Streets Ahead’ policy”, as well as providing a private apology to the complainant’s family.

The report added: “We ask it [the council] consider if there are wider implications for how it delivers services and lessons it should learn as a result of how it implemented its Streets Ahead programme. In particular, how it can embed the principles of openness and accountability across all its services.”

You can read the full report on the Ombudsman's website.