Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Andrew Neil makes Grant Shapps squirm on Conservative election expenses


From today's Daily Politics.

The Men from the Ministry, Jimmy Clitheroe and my sense of humour



These days I find something too premeditated about televsion comedy. The idea of sitting down to watch something for 30 minutes because it will be funny, feels odd. I much prefer wit in the pursuit of another goal.

But the comedies we watch when we were young don't just form our sense of humour: they form who we are.

As I have blogged:
When I was in the sixth form ... we conversed using lines from Fawlty Towers and Reginald Perrin in the way Victorian schoolboys are supposed to have swapped Latin tags.
Recently Radio Four Extra, my new favourite station, has stated repeating two comedies that take me back further than that.

When I was 11 my favourite radio comedy was The Men from the Ministry. I suppose its anti-Whitehall ethos has its roots in post-war resentment of socialism by the comfortably off - think of the fuss over the Tanganyika ground nut scheme - but it was immensely good natured.

The comedy was in the hands of pros like Derek Guyler and Richard Murdoch,* and it managed to be funny despite, even because of, its formulaic plot.

Their General Assistance Department would have two projects on the go, get them mixed up (perhaps sending the letter referring to one project to the other and vice versa) and there would be a news bulletin describing the resultant chaos.

They would fear the sack, but then discover that their boss was happy with it for some reason and live to cause chaos another week.

So ingrained is the show's comedy in my own sense of humour that I recently heard a joke that I stole for one of the first couple of Lord Bonkers' Diaries. (It is a sobering thought that those first diaries are nearer in time to my 11-year-old self than they are to me today.)

But I can go back further than that.

Radio Four Extra has started to repeat The Clitheroe Kid, which was my favourite radio comedy when I was 8.

You'll get a good idea of Jimmy Clitheroe's schtick if you watch the video above of him with George Formby. He was the ultimate precocious, cheeky schoolboy.

Except that Much Too Shy was made in 1942 and Jimmy Clitheroe was born in in 1921. Which means that he was already 20.

Because Jimmy Clitheroe - and that was his real name - suffered thyroid gland a birth and never grew after the age of 11, remaining 4ft 3in tall.

So by the time I fell in love with his show in 1968, he was 47. He still turned up for recordings in schoolboy cap and short trousers, but he had the face if a middle-aged man. That is why his television and film career had foundered by then.

Jimmy Clitheroe  died in 1973, at the age of 51, after taking an overdose on the day of his mother's funeral.

And you thought Jimmy Krankie was disturbing.

* Richard Murdoch married into the family of Market Harborough's doctor. When he had his appendix out in the cottage hospital here he was plagued by urchins demanding to see "Stinker". He entertained them by putting his bare feet up on the windowsill and wiggling his toes.

Hedgehog Awareness Week 1-7 May 2016


This is Hedgehog Awareness Week. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society website explains:
Hedgehog Awareness Week is organised by the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and takes place every year. It aims to highlight the problems hedgehogs face and how you can help them. 
This year efforts are focused on strimmers and cutting machines – every year we hear of many terrible injuries and deaths caused by garden machinery. BHPS is asking people to check areas carefully before using any machinery. They have produced a sticker to be placed onto machines and are asking councils and tool hire companies to get in touch and request the free stickers for their machines. 
As well as checking areas before cutting there are other things we can do to help too:
  • Ensure there is hedgehog access in your garden – a 13cm x 13cm gap in boundary fences and walls.
  • Move piles of rubbish to a new site before burning it.
  • Ensure netting is kept at a safe height. 
  • Check compost heaps before digging the fork in. 
  • Stop or reduce the amount of pesticides and poisons used. 
  • Cover drains or deep holes. 
  • Ensure there is an easy route out of ponds and pools.
I was struck by the Society's address. Dhustone is a former quarrying hamlet on the top of Clee Hill that gives the feeling that it was once more extensive than it is today.

I wandered round it years ago and remember spotting an old shop that had obviously been the post office. (In those days there was a phone box in the alley that ran up the side of it, which helped the identification.)

With the help of Google Street View I can confirm that this shop is now Hedgehog House.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Latest Michael Crick report on 2015 Conservative elections expenses


Note that the Conservative police and crime commissioner for Devon and Cornwall was the party's election agent in one of the seats now under scrutiny.

Which could prove embarrassing for all concerned if she wins on Thursday.

Note too her reluctance to answer questions on the matter.

You can find earlier Michael Crick reports on this blog.

"Labour is standing up, not standing by"



That's what Jeremy Corbyn told the Welsh Labour Conference in February.

And that phrase has since been adopted as the party's slogan for this week's local elections.

But is it any good as a slogan?

Standing up for your principles or your friends is admirable. So is standing up to bullies.

Just standing up, however, is a pretty neutral act. (And it can be irritating to stand up if everyone else was sitting down.)

And then there is standing by.

Standing by while others suffer is a bad thing, but for the most part standing by is something positive. It means you are ready for action or there if you are needed.

If disaster threatened, you would be relieved to hear that the emergency services of the Army were standing by. It is what you would expect them to do. And, in the mean time, you wouldn't care if they were standing up or sitting down.

So "Standing up, not standing by" doesn't really work.

I suspect at the back of it there is an attempt to match Tony Blair's "I will not pass by on the other side."

But that a richness and biblical echoes (it came, after all, from Blair's early Son of God period) that Corbyn's slogan lacks.

Back to the drawing board, Christopher Robin.

Thomas Denny's stained glass windows for Richard III


After last night's events I had to go into Leicester today.

I cannot claim there were remarkable scenes, but the commemorative Leicester Mercury was selling out as fast as they could print it. This is the first time I have seen people queuing to buy a local paper.

So I went to the Cathedral to thank Richard III, the man behind it all. Since he was reinterred there, Leicester City have not stopped winning.

I found they were flying the club's flag. More than that, I found a former boss of mine from Golden Wonder in clerical garb. I was impressed that she recognised me from almost 30 years ago.

And I also found the wonderful new stained glass windows by Thomas Denny, which depict the life of Richard.

The Leicester Cathedral website will tell you all about them, but the illustrations in that PDF do not do justice to their wonderful, soft, crayon-like colours.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Hauling ironstone towards Corby in 1968



Apologies for the early-PC style of music, but this is lovely footage of an industrial locomotive in a Northamptonshire ironstone quarry.

Chelsea win the Premiership for Leicester



Congratulations to Leicester City on winning the Premiership.

For weeks I have been terrified that Leicester would go to Stamford Bridge on the last day of the season needing a point to be champions.

If that happened we would have beaten them with a late disputed goal - probably handled in from an offside position by John Terry while racially abusing someone - and everyone would hate us even more.

But tonight's draw with Spurs - we were two goals down at half time - has given Leicester the title.

It is great for the club, great for the city and a great relief to this Chelsea fan.

SNP candidate wrecks one of island's two phone boxes

A phone box yesterday
The Herald brings news of Danus Skene, who is challenging Tavish Scott for the Shetland seat at Holyrood:
Prize for the worst voter outreach effort of the whole election surely goes to the SNP's Danus Skene in Shetland. Canvassing Whalsay recently, the Old Etonian crashed his car into one of only two payphones on the island, wrecking it completely. 
The locals, who don’t have the world's best mobile coverage, are reportedly livid. "I didn’t wish to deprive them of it," sighs Danus. "I don’t have an excuse or an explanation."
And they said Alistair Carmichael was unpopular up there...

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Lost lines: Harrow to Stanmore



Another video from Londonist.

I remember crossing the bridge at Belmont by bus on the way to see my mother's aunt in Wealdstone.

Six of the Best 594

"People who are not very bright have this terrible tendency to pick a side in major intractable geopolitical conflicts, and support it as if it was a football team." Dan Davies offers a fair-minded account of Labour's problem with antisemitism.

John Blake puts Ken Livingstone right on Hitler and Zionism.

"The evidence built into a startling indictment of South Yorkshire police, their chain of command and conduct – a relentlessly detailed evisceration of a British police force." David Conn on the lessons of Hillsborough and the longest inquest in British legal history.

The Shropshire Star collects local residents' memories of the filming of Powell and Pressburger's Gone to Earth in 1949: "I shall never forget Jennifer Jones’ feet. She did all the running up Pontesford Hill and up to the Devil’s Chair in bare feet, and her feet were bleeding. She was absolutely brilliant, a lovely looking girl."

James Curry remembers his grandfather, the Revd J.P. Martin, who wrote the immortal Uncle books.

Adam Gopnik reviews a new biography of Paul McCartney.

Billy Fury: Silly Boy Blue



It's a sign of how quickly music developed in the 1960s that Billy Fury and David Bowie seem to belong to quite different eras.

But here (played by Danny Baker yesterday morning) is an early Bowie song recorded by Fury.
Anorak Thing explains its genesis. Bowie's manager Kenneth Pitt:
managed to convince Billy Fury's manager Larry Parnes that Bowie had something to offer his client. By 1968 Billy Fury's hit days were long gone. Despite a switch from Decca to Parlophone in January 1967 he hadn't scored a hit on EMI's label. Game for a chance at anything Parnes agreed to record a version of "Silly Boy Blue", a track that had already graced Bowie's debut album, as Fury's next single. Sadly it did nothing for either the artist or the composer.
Which is a shame, because it was a good record.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Leicester Oral History Trail 6: Church Gate



The latest of these recordings deals with what is now a slightly disreputable street.

Read about its history in the city council's Church Gate Conservation Area character appraisal.

Zac Goldsmith: "I'm a Bollywood fan"



This must be most awkward exchange since Tony Blair was asked to name one of the Newcastle United players he claimed to have watched as a schoolboy in the 1960s.

Thanks to Tom King on Twitter.

Electoral Commission asks for more time to consider Conservative election expenses

From the Channel 4 News website today:
The elections watchdog has asked for more time to pursue possible criminal prosecutions regarding Tory election spending, as a summit is called to consider the evidence revealed by Channel 4 News. 
Following months of investigations by Channel 4 News, the Electoral Commission has requested an extension to the time limit available to pursue possible criminal prosecutions regarding Conservative Party campaign spending returns. 
Bob Posner, Director of Party and Election Finance & Legal Counsel at the Electoral Commission said, “The police and the CPS both have the power to apply to the Courts to extend the time limit on bringing criminal prosecutions for electoral offences to allow for full investigations to take place. We have requested that they consider doing this.” 
Representatives of the Electoral Commission and the Crown Prosecution Service will hold also hold a summit with a number of police forces to discuss the Conservative Party’s election expenses next week.
Meanwhile the Cornish Guardian reports:
A Devon and Cornwall Police spokesman said that following complaints from "a small number" of members of the public, officers had launched an inquiry into allegations that Mr Mann's declared election expenses did not portray an accurate picture of his spending. 
Mr Mann has vigorously denied any wrong-doing but has conceded that he did not know details of how some of the Conservative Party campaigning in his constituency had been accounted for. 
The national party repeatedly sent campaigners to North Cornwall in a touring "Battle Bus." 
At issue is whether the travel and accommodation expenses for those campaigners should have been declared locally, or as part of a national campaign spend
If the Electoral Commission, as it should, is taking this affair seriously, there is much more chance of it coming to something substantial than there would be if it were left to isolated local campaigners.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Ashdon Halt revisited



When I posted the video of disused stations in Essex, I was rather taken with Ashdon Halt. Its platform building, an old coach, was still in situ years after the last train called.

The video above shows Ashdon Halt in 2011 1997 and whilst open.

The station was on the old Great Eastern line between Audley End and Bartlow, It opened in 1911 and closed when the line was closed in 1964.

You can read more about it on Disused Stations.

Six of the Best 593

"Oakeshottian conservatives prefer the devil they know; idealists, rationalists and managerialists think they can improve upon it." Chris Dillow returns to one of his favourite themes: the trouble with the Conservatives is that they are no longer Conservative.

Anoosh Chakelian meets Piers Corbyn, brother of the Labour leader.

"Our National Parks are dominated by sheep farms and grouse or deer estates, leaving almost all our hills bare. Nature is protected in isolated reserves which provide important refuges for biodiversity. But these refuges are not joined up, and so are very fragile in the long-term." Helen Meech makes the case for rewilding.

St Peter's Seminary, Cardross, is a celebrated modernist ruin on the Firth of Clyde. John Grindrod has photographs of it from the 1960s: "What's immediately apparent is how beautiful the building is. The arches, the windows, the concrete, the strange forms and shadows."

Richly Evocative introduces us to the elusive, slippery territory that is Ashley Vale in, St Werburghs, Bristol.

Taylor Parkes celebrates The Professionals.

The Long Mynd and Stiperstones shuttle bus starts tomorrow


Running every Saturday, Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday until 2 October, this service connects Church Stretton with the remote country around the Long Mynd and Stiperstones - and with some very good pubs too.

A sad paragraph at the bottom of the Shropshire Hills Shuttle Buses page says:
Unfortunately, Castle Connect, which ran between Ludlow, Knighton, Clun and Bishop’s Castle will not be running in 2016. This route was set up three years ago as part of Shropshire’s Sustainable Transport Project. Now that funding has ceased, the cost of running this service for another year was in danger of putting the future of the Long Mynd & Stiperstones Shuttle at risk. Thank you to all who supported this route over the last couple of years. We are looking at other options to better link the towns with the hills, and will be applying for new grants to support this.
My photo shows the shuttle bus near the car park beneath the summit of the Stiperstones, with the Long Mynd in the distance behind it..

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway in 1960


In 2014 I travelled on the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway. After doing so I posted an old video of the lost line from through the streets of Welshpool that once connected the line's Raven Square station with the town's mainline station.

Click on the photo above to go to the BFI site and view film shot in 1960. It shows the whole line, including that abandoned section.

There you will also learn about the man who shot it:
Footage shot by Ion Trant, originally from Dovea Farm, Tipperary, Ireland. He farmed Maesmawr farm, Welshpool (plus the adjoining farm, Cefn Du and a Radnorshire hill farm, Esgairdraenllwyn) with his wife, Janet (nee Lewis). Conscious of a growing gulf between town and country, he welcomed school visits to his farm and created the BBC children’s series "Country Close-Up" (1956-62), featuring his land and children.

The health effects of losing a political career

What happens to MPs who lose their seats?

Yesterday I blogged about a paper by Dr Peter Bull on Jeremy Corbyn and prime minister's questions. A second paper in the symposium looked at the effects of electoral defeat.

Dame Jane Roberts from the Open University, a psychiatrist and former Labour leader of Camden, and the psychologist Dr Ashley Weinberg from the University of Salford, set out to answer this question.

After each of the last three general elections Dr Weinberg has asked MPs from the previous parliament to complete a standard questionnaire about their psychological wellbeing. Out of 88 respondents, 16 of those MPs had chosen to retire, 12 had been defeated and 60 had held their seats.

Analysing the questionnaire results Dr Weinberg found higher levels of psychological strain amongst the MPs who had either won or been defeated and the lowest among those who had chosen to retire. The former MPs expressed mixed responses to leaving the Commons, some finding it very difficult and other acknowledging the benefits for their health.

An in-depth qualitative study by Dame Jane Roberts involved interviews with 30 politicians, including MPs and council leaders who had chosen to stand down, been defeated at an election or continued serving. Where possible, she also spoke to the partners of the former politicians.

The interviews showed council leaders were consistently positive about their experience of the role while MPs held mixed views. Whether the exit was voluntary or involuntary accounted for some difference in the experience of the transition from office, but the picture was more complicated than this distinction alone.

Some MPs reported relief from the chains of office and the media glare, but many acknowledged a deep sense of loss and dislocation, while their partners attested to the impact of the transition on home life.

The researchers said:

"Our findings suggest that the health effects of losing a political career should be taken more seriously. It was striking that the defeated MPs reported that so little advice was available about handling career transition.

"This is about not about politicians having special treatment – quite the reverse. It’s about the political world catching up with the rest of the working world and politicians being afforded similar consideration as others who are made redundant or retire.”

The best case for Remain has been made by... Jeremy Clarkson



Here are some paragraphs from the best case I have seen for Britain's continued membership of the European Union:
In 1973 my parents held a Common Market party. They’d lived through the war, and for them it seemed a good idea to form closer ties with our endlessly troublesome neighbours. For me, however, it was a chance to make flags out of coloured felt and to eat exotic foods such as sausage and pasta. I felt very European that night, and I still do. 
Whether I’m sitting in a railway concourse in Brussels or pottering down the canals of southwestern France or hurtling along a motorway in Croatia, I feel way more at home than I do when I’m trying to get something to eat in Dallas or Sacramento. I love Europe, and to me that’s important.
And:
Isn’t it better to stay in and try to make the damn thing work properly? To create a United States of Europe that functions as well as the United States of America? With one army and one currency and one unifying set of values? 
Britain, on its own, has little influence on the world stage. I think we are all agreed on that. But Europe, if it were well run and had cohesive, well thought-out policies, would be a tremendous force for good
Can you guess who wrote them?

Of course you can. I have pasted a photo of him above.

But this column by Jeremy Clarkson, published in the Sunday Times on 13 March of this year.

It's support for full-blown federalism will scare some off - I am not its greatest admirer itself - but it captures an enjoyment of our European identity that has been wholly absent from the Remain campaign.

That campaign has concentrated on pointing to the disasters that may befall Britain if it leaves the EU and pointing to the contradictions in the Leave case. Its arguments are right, but are unlikely to inspire anyone.

So why hasn't Jeremy Clarkson been up front and centre of the Remain campaign? He would appeal to great swathes of voters likely to have so far remained untouched by it.

Maybe he was asked and said no, but it is hard to resist the conclusion that maybe, just maybe, the leadership of the pro-EU campaign does not consist of the best and brightest who could have been found.

Incidentally, Clarkson's article is lodged safely behind the Sunday Times' paywall, but I found the full text of it on a Top Gear bulletin board.

It was a little like stumbling across a site devoted to a fetish you do not share. I was not so much surprised as puzzled.

No, Clarkson's views are not mine, but I do admire the easy flow of his prose as a columnist. From that point of view, a young writer could do much worse than adopt him as a model.

And what I always objected to was not so much Top Gear itself so much as the BBC's absurd promotion of it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Disused railway stations in Essex


A short but interesting selection. It runs from Blake Hall (once part of the Central Line) to Tollesbury, where my mother's mother's family all came from.

A special word for Ashdon Halt too.

How Jeremy Corbyn has changed prime minister's questions

Dr Peter Bull, a psychologist from the University of York, appeared on Daily Politics today talking about his research into Jeremy Corbyn's approach to prime minister's questions.

As you can see above, he found that Corbyn's tactic of sourcing questions from members of the public has reduced the confrontational nature of PMQs in that David Cameron is less likely to reply to such questions with a personal attack on him.

It happens that the programme picked up this research from a press release I wrote in my day job.

Dr Bull is presenting his research tomorrow at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society in Nottingham.

I had originally wanted to aim the release at last Sunday's papers, but it was not possible to finalise it in time. Then a colleague had the bright idea of giving it a Wednesday embargo to coincide with today's PMQs.

In February I blogged here that Cameron had learnt how to deal with these questions from the public.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Stuart Lee in conversation at Oxford Brookes University



If you enjoyed 55 minutes of Stewart Lee talking about comedy, then you may enjoy this hour and 25 minutes of him doing so even more.