Monday, February 28, 2005

Fathers 4 Justice

I was in the Press Gallery at Westminster today to see the shambles over house arrest legislation for myself.

On the way I passed the Fathers 4 Justice demonstrators (Batman, Robin and Captain America) who had found a perch on the Foreign Office building in Whitehall.

My taxidriver said he supported their cause but not their tactics. He said that if everyone just ignored them they would have to stop this sort of stunt.

He also pointed out that Robin was wearing a coat over his costume, so he was not as heroic as all that.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Where do you go to my lovely?

One of the more entertaining news stories of last week was Labour's removal of Christine Wheatley from the short-list in Copeland.

If you read the Guardian or the Independent you will have come away with the idea that this was purely because she had admitted working as a prostitute in Paris in the 1960s. The Daily Ablution has read more widely, and tells a very different tale.

Liverpool lose more than the final

I have just been listening to the Radio Five Live phone-in after the Carling Cup Final. Thanks to some of the Liverpool fans, it was one of the most depressing programmes I have ever heard.

It was not that they were moaning about the referee - that was the England coach Andy Robinson's reaction today, accelerating the rate at which rugby union is coming to resemble soccer.

No, their target was their club's best target Steven Gerrard. He wasn't trying. He scored an own goal on purpose because he has already agreed to join Chelsea. He should never be picked for Liverpool again. It was ridiculous.

One of the laws of football phone-ins is that Manchester United fans are always young, sharp and arrogant, and that Liverpool fans are funny, generous and philosophical. Not any more.

Their performance reminded me of this article in the Guardian from their football writer Will Buckley:

There was a time when I loved football - when I was six. I was introduced to the game by my father, and we spent many happy years watching Chelsea together. I took a childish delight in my team. Ossie, Hutch and Charlie Cooke were my heroes. Their performances affected my weekend. For my father the results were unimportant. He went to the game to have a laugh with his friends and enjoy his son's innocent pleasure.

Now I am the age that my father was when he first took me to a football match, I am perplexed that so many of my contemparies (sic.) react to the game as I did as a six-year-old, rather than as my father did as a 40-year-old.

On today's evidence, that is fair comment.

Martin Scorsese defends British cinema

Yesterday on Serendib I quoted Gilbert Adair's review of Shepperton Babylon from the Spectator. What I did not quote was the part where he upheld the critical orthodoxy that British films are no good.

In today's Sunday Times Martin Scorsese does not share this view. The interviewer Jasper Gerard reports (you may need to register) that Scorsese is planning a documentary on British cinema:
His documentary will focus more on earlier British films that influenced him: "Everything from The Shape of Things to Come, to Green for Danger to The Happiest Days of Your Life to The Carol Reed films, particularly The Third Man." He reels off an impressive list - from film noir to Ealing comedies - with such enthusiasm you almost find yourself agreeing when he says he can't understand why so many British directors seek to ape big-is-best Hollywood style.

Pot Noodles may not be good for you shock

Today's Observer leads with this story:
Food giants told: clean up or face prosecution
Britain's food safety chief issued a stark warning last night to the country's multi-billion-pound food industry to put its house in order or face plunging public trust and prosecutions for failing to protect the nation's health.
Two things are worth saying here. The first is that the Sudan-I scare is being blown out of all proportion. The Spiked website's Don't Panic section makes two important points:
Sudan-I is not, as frequently stated, a 'known carcinogen' in humans. In large quantities, it does increase the frequency of liver tumours in rats, but not in mice. It is classified as a 'category 3' carcinogen - that is, something for which not enough information in relation to humans is available to make a firm judgement but which has carcinogenic potential.
And
The quantities contained in these ready meals must have been tiny. The chilli powder must only have contained a small fraction of Sudan-I. In turn this was added to the sauce, which therefore only contained a small fraction of the chilli powder. Finally, the finished products will have contained only a small fraction of worcester sauce. The quantities of Sudan-I in the end products must be measured in micrograms.
In other words, we are panicking about nothing.

The second thing worth saying is that most of the dishes which are believed to contain these microscopic traces of Sudan-I are, in the words of Liberal Dissenter, "overpriced muck".

Over in Shropshire, the Star reports that:

Telford business owners caught selling food contaminated with the cancer-linked Sudan 1 dye could face £20,000 fines or two years in prison ...

The warning comes after a Shropshire Star investigation revealed contaminated products, namely beef and tomato Pot Noodles with best before dates up to November 2005, were still on sale in stores in Dawley, Hadley and Trench.

I speak with all the authority of a former member of the Pot Noodle tasting panel (I worked for Golden Wonder when the company owned the brand) when I say this. If people are buying Pot Noodles because they think they are good for them, it will be a thoroughly good thing if the Sudan-I scare disabuses them of this ridiculous idea.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Rank Organisation has lost its charm

Sad news in the Guardian: the Rank Organisation has severed the last of its links with film industry by selling "its Deluxe unit, dedicated to DVD distribution and technical support".

As the report emphasises, Rank's involvement in the movie business was once huge:

By 1946, the Rank Organisation was as big as any Hollywood studio. It had a staff of 31,000. (By comparison, the National Health Service employed 34,000 people on its inception.) Rank invested in every aspect of the film business, from labs to distribution, from meteorologists (to predict when it would be sunny enough to shoot) to its eccentric Highbury-based "charm school", where various good-looking women and statuesque men were taught diction and deportment in the hope they would turn into stars.
This scale of the Rank Organisation's film business will not be a surprise to anyone who has read Shepperton Hollywood, the book I have been enthusing about recently.

Matthew Sweet writes so well that I wanted to quote great chunks of it on my anthology blog Serendib. Conveniently, Gilbert Adair's review in the Spectator puts together some of Sweet's most striking facts into one paragraph, so I have posted it there under the title "You Tickle Me Spitless, Baby". You'll have to read it to see why.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Teach yourself DCMS

Here is today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Art for all

As John Prescott’s career shows, you can survive as a minister without being fluent in English. But to last long at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport you have to master its unique language.

For, once there, you will be called upon to praise “the excellent work done by the north-east regional museums hub” or asked what discussions you have had “with regional cultural consortiums on policies to promote social inclusion”.

Fortunately, on Monday the Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay was on hand to translate. Social inclusion in the arts, he explained, refers to the fact that some of the poorest and most deprived children do not have access to quality classical music, the ballet or the opera.

Mackinlay wanted a manifesto pledge that every child will have access each year to a performance of classical music and other arts, including opera. Opera for all? That is the sort of socialism House Points is happy to support.

But it is far too committal for New Labour, and Estelle Morris, the arts minister, placed the problem squarely in the psyches of the poor. “We are determined … to give them the confidence to ensure that they access the arts.”

If MPs ever had the time (they tend not to be short on confidence) to look around them, they would find that they have more access to the arts than most. For as well as resembling a Victorian railway terminus and a public school (the buildings are magnificent but parents worry increasingly about the academic standards), the Palace of Westminster is a splendid art gallery.

There are murals depicting the sort of scenes from British history that every schoolboy used to know: “The English People Reading Wycliffe’s Bible,” “Sir Thomas More Refusing to Grant Wolsey a Subsidy”. There are busts and statues of great parliamentarians, cartoons by Hogarth and Gillray, and paintings and drawings by Van Dyck, Sir Thomas Lawrence and many other artists. And much of it is freely on show to anyone with business in the place.

The ethos of Westminster still betrays its origins as a royal palace. But its advisory committee on works of art has done as much as any regional hub or cultural consortium to bring the art to the people.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Christian Voice

Nick Barlow gives this nasty organisation a good hoofing on his What You Can Get Away With blog.

It is not clear that the group extends far beyond the imagination of its self-publicist organiser Stephen Green. But the combination of happy-clappy religion and far-right politics which it embodies is particularly toxic.

For the health of British society and politics we must stand up to Christian Voice, not cave in to it as a number of people who should know better have done in recent days - see here and here.

The Power of Nightmares

In the autumn of the last year the BBC showed Adam Curtis's documentary series The Power of Nightmares. It examined the extent to which the threat of terrorism to the West is a politically driven fantasy and whether al-Qaeda really is an organised network. It was far better than anything Michael Moore has come up with.

I have just discovered (via www.perfect.co.uk) a page on the BBC site where Curtis answers viewers' questions. It is well worth a look.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

How to bring down Blair

A new political blog The Returning Officers points out that, were one of the candidates in the Sedgefield constituency to die during the campaign, then the poll in that constituency would have to be postponed "possibly until as late as Thursday June 23 (assuming polling day was originally 5 May)".

Not only that, as the first comment on the posting says:

The Queen could still appoint Blair PM but it would be such a drastic change to the current constitutional position that I can't imagine her doing so.

And while Blair would be out of office for just a few weeks if re-elected, a by-election in Sedgefield with him as a candidate would be a seriously different matter from a regular parliamentary election there, or indeed any by-election in the past.

It makes you think.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Hunter S Thompson

So farewell to the great gonzo

journalist

Liberal blocks identity cards

Simon Titley at Liberal Dissenter praises a forgotten Liberal hero - Clarence Willcock. In 1950 he refused to show his identity card to the police when asked. He won the resultant court case, which led to the abolition of the cards.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Shepperton Babylon

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an enthusiastic post about Matthew Sweet's new book Shepperton Babylon. I have now read it and am just as enthusiastic.

Sweet offers a history of British cinema in ten chapters, arguing that the conventional critical wisdom that home-grown films are irredeemably second rate is based on simple ignorance. He sees that history as far more interesting than is generally realised - hence the subtitle of his introduction "Strange England".

The first chapter - in many ways the most interesting - looks at the lost history of British silent films. Not only are the stars, who in their day were as big here as anyone from Hollywood, forgotten but their films are lost too. As the recent television series on the films of Mitchell and Kenyon showed, the early cinema was run by travelling showmen and local entrepreneurs. Only with the advent of sound did the theatrical profession move in.

Mention should also be made of the eponymous hero of Rescued by Rover who, in a later film

pounds off in hot pursuit, jumps into the driving seat of the abductor's car and, paws on the steering wheel, chugs his charge back to safety along the road from Shepperton to Walton.
No wonder Sweet calls The Dog Outwits the Kidnapper "a minor masterpiece of British surrealism".

After that he pursues a zig-zag course himself, avoiding the most critically respectable British films (Powell & Pressburger, Carol Reed) in order to recover lost films and long-buried scandals.

Chapter 2 looks at the career of Ivor Novello and chapter 3 at that of Nerina Shute, the teenage, bisexual film gossip columnist from the 1920s who died last year. Chapter 4 makes a case for revisiting the "quota quickies" of the 1930s.

Chapter 5 looks at Basil Dean's stewardship of Ealing before the War and his Kane-like attempt to make a star of his second wife Victoria Hopper. Sweet found her as an old lady, living in a cottage on Romney Marsh. He has less time for the two stars Dean did make. Gracie Fields is described as "a rugby forward in a dress" and George Formby has the face of "a human being reflected in a tap".

Trivia fans may like to note that Formby's morbidly jealous wife had Betty Driver (who is still serving her hotpots in the Rover's Return) thrown of his first picture and that Formby's mother died in 1981 at the age of 102.

Chapter 7 celebrates the female stars of the Gainsborough films: Patricia Roc, Phyllis Calvert and Jean Kent. Chapter 8 looks at J. Arthur Rank, emphasising how many of the greatest British films he financed in the 1940s.

Rank's films from the 1950s have a poor reputation, but Sweet challenges this critical orthodoxy. Dirk Bogarde, for instance, was often seen (not least by himself) as having broken out of Rank's bonds and moved from being a matinee idol to being an internationally recognised ac-tor. Sweet points out that some of Bogarde's later films were not distinguished and that he made many interesting films at home in the 1950s (such as Hunted and The Spanish Gardener).

And who needs Scum when, in The Boys in Brown, Bogarde can "suggest barrack-room bullying and buggery just by the way he leans on his mop"?

Sweet has great fun with The Singer not the Song, the impossibly British camp Western in which Bogarde starred. And he pins down the failings of Bogarde's British contemporaries. There is John Mills: "Watch his pre-war films, and you'll be struck by a salient aspect of his performances: he can't act". And there is Kenneth More:

He was heroic in a cocky, big-brotherly way - like a public-school prefect who might have saved a new boy from a beating, but expected three terms of shoe-polishing and crumpet-toasting in return.

The book ends with chapters on cheap horror films of the 1960s and the sexploitation films of the 1970s. These are in many ways the least interesting in the book, but you forgive Sweet everything when he tells you that Valerie Singleton narrated Nudes of the World in 1961.

In short, a book that anyone with an interest in British films or 20th century British history should read.

Peter Hain on civil liberty

This book review by Peter Hain, published in the Guardian last year, is full of ironies that he is obviously blind to himself. He is writing about the memoirs of the anti-Apartheid activist Hilda Bernstein:

We met Hilda for the first time in the 1960s when she called at our Pretoria home seeking help for locally held black detainees. This was the time of the state of emergency declared after the Sharpeville shootings, and by then my parents were regular visitors to black townships, as they were increasingly drawn into the same struggle, being jailed in 1961, followed wherever they went by the special branch, and then both subject to banning orders blocking them from political activity and even social contact. However, the Bernsteins had it much tougher.

At the time of the Rivonia arrests in July 1963, Rusty had already spent nine months under house arrest: only able to leave his house between 6.30am and 6.30pm (except on Sundays and public holidays, when he couldn't leave at all), obliged to report to police HQ between noon and 2pm each day and confined to the Johannesburg magisterial district.

He had been carrying out his architectural work from their bedroom since his release from jail in 1960 and Hilda's description of the family waiting for him to get home before the 6.30pm deadline on the day that he was arrested at Rivonia makes riveting reading.

Though acquitted at Rivonia, Rusty was immediately rearrested, charged with breaches of the catch-all Suppression of Communism Act (you were a communist if the minister said so).

Charles Darwin explained

The Shropshire Star reports:
A blundering badger sparked a major rescue operation in Shrewsbury after falling more than 20ft into a 200-year-old ice house on land once owned by Charles Darwin.
As every schoolboy used to know, Darwin came up with his theory of evolution after being hit on the head by a falling badger.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

BritBlog Roundup

Many thanks to Tim Worstall for putting together a Best of British blogging selection - and particular thanks to him for starting his first one with my posting Listen to Gladstone.

The least I can do is add his blog to my list of links.

Ambridge riots

Sometimes it is hard to escape the conclusion that some people working in the public sector would be happiest living in a totalitarian state.

Take this report in today's Observer about reactions to Brian Aldridge outburst at Alice's intention to leave her fee-paying school and do her A levels at a further education College. (We're talking about the BBC Radio 4 soap opera The Archers, stoopid.)

The paper quotes him as follows:
"Borchester College?" exploded Brian. "Has she been on the horse pills? It's sheer madness. The college is full of Neanderthals ... Have you driven past it lately? Half of the students don't appear to have opposable thumbs." He then claimed the only facilities it had was to teach 'advanced hairdressing and media studies'.
Well, I imagine that is pretty much what a bone-headed Tory farmer like Aldridge would say in such circumstances. But good drama has no place if you are a certain kind of public sector professional.

Listen to Anne Piercy, vice-principal of Stafford College:
his ill-informed criticism is hurtful to those who study and work at further education colleges and could have a very serious impact by dissuading people from choosing a learning environment which may be enormously beneficial to them.
Leaving aside the apparent implication that any view anyone might find hurtful should be left out of drama, look at what nonsense this is. For "a very serious impact" to be felt, hordes of young people would have to tune to Radio 4 rather than any of the music stations, catch The Archers and then sympathise with a right-wing, middle-aged character. It hardly sounds likely.

Then there is Claire Boxall, "communications manager" at Mid-Kent College in Chatham. She is quoted as saying that "this sort of coverage is not helpful". A splendidly pompous phrase that. Since when has the BBC existed to provide programmes that are helpful to Mid-Kent College?

And there is a head of faculty at Stoke College:
I am horrified: we all know that Brian is both opinionated and frequently wrong, but for the casual listener, it puts further education in a bad light.

If she finds The Archers horrifying she must have led a pretty sheltered life. Note also the implication that while she is quite clever enough to understand drama, other listeners are not up to it.

She goes on:

It comes exactly at the moment young people and their parents are choosing between the options of sixth forms and further education and the negative exchange could easily be used as evidence to base their decision.

A soap opera covering an issue just at the time when people are in the real world are considering it too? Clearly, the government must act, particularly as the public are obviously so impressionable.

The Observer reports that:

John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, has attempted to calm the situation by offering his services to The Archers' producers as a consultant on future plotlines concerning Alice's education.

I do hope the BBC tells him what he can do with his offer.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Sayeed saved

Conservative MP Jonathan Sayeed has survived an attempt to deselect him in a row over allegations he had profited from private tours of Parliament ...

On Thursday night he won a vote of confidence by 173 to 126 votes at a constituency party meeting in Mid-Bedfordshire.

Constituency president Sir Stanley Odell resigned in protest.

reports the BBC.

Meanwhile the authoritative voice of Biggleswade Today makes it clear that the of disquiet in the local party goes well beyond Sir Stanley.

Does anyone have Martin Bell's phone number?

Listen with Gladstone

Here is today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Voices over

Labour is fighting the general election with verbless slogans like “Forward not backwards” and “Your children with the best start." Soon people will not be able to speak at all – quite possibly in my lifetime.

How different from the nineteenth century! Then thousands of working men would stand in the rain for two or three hours to listen to Mr Gladstone. Lately I have been taking solace from listening to him myself.

It is possible. The other day I went to the bookshop at the British Library. That’s the new building in Euston Road that looks rather like a railway station. It is next-door to St Pancras, which looks very like a national library. There I bought a double CD (Voices of History) of recordings of the great and the good.

The quality of the Gladstone recording is poor. It was made on a cylinder in 1888 and he sounds as though he is broadcasting from somewhere far away. No doubt it could be cleaned up, but it is somehow right that it has not been. With the help of a transcript, you can hear his Victorian optimism: “wonders upon wonders are opening before us”.

Florence Nightingale is also hard to make out, but the rest are clear as day. There are the dictators Lenin, Stalin and Hitler, as well as Trotsky speaking in English. There are the royals, going back as far as George V. There are Lloyd George, Asquith, and two other Liberals: Herbert Samuel and Margaret Wintringham, who was MP for Louth between 1921 and 1924.

Winston Churchill dominates the discs, particularly when set against his Conservative contemporaries Baldwin and Chamberlain – you can almost smell the fusty overcoats as they speak. The odd thing was that for many years Churchill was not seen as a particularly good speaker in the Commons. There was so much preparation that he was unable to deal with interventions.

He also struggled with a tendency to lisp. When Churchill was home secretary and presiding over the Siege of Sidney Street, his deputy Charles Masterman was on holiday in France and becoming increasingly alarmed at the accounts in the newspapers. When he got back he burst Churchill's room at the Home Office with the query "What the hell have you been doing now, Winston?" The reply was: "Now Charlie. Don't be croth. It was such fun."

And then there is Attlee, telling us that we must show the same sense of purpose in peace that we did to win the war. This is the dream that haunted Labour for decades. The idea that socialism involved giving up our liberties for the common good. You still see its effect today, with Charles Clarke’s enthusiasm for identity cards and house arrest.

Which brings us back to the death of civilisation as we know it.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

More on Ken Livingstone

There is an article by Jennie Bristow on the Spiked website which takes a similar line to the New Statesman editorial I discussed earlier. She makes another point that is worth quoting:

Ken 'Ban It' Livingstone has spent so much of his seasoned life campaigning to censure people whose remarks could be construed as racist and offensive, this seems like a just punishment: he has fallen foul of the intolerant climate that he helped to create.

Unfortunately, this is not simply a story about a po-faced politician getting his come-uppance. It reveals the petulant and censorious spirit of our times, in which references to the Holocaust are bandied about like common swear words and the response to anybody feeling offended is to call for official censure.

Cleobury Mortimer

Last month we had to report that the little Shropshire town of Cleobury Mortimer was "strife torn" and had been "plunged into chaos".

The latest news is that it is "crisis hit". I am not sure if that it is an improvement

Ken Livingstone

There is a very good editorial in this week's New Statesman which makes the important points about the story that has been filling the papers this week:
Ken Livingstone is a fool and a hypocrite. Leaving a party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Chris Smith "coming out" as the first openly gay MP, he asks a London Evening Standard reporter (who happens to be Jewish) if he is "a German war criminal", suggests that he should seek treatment and describes the reporter's employers as "a load of scumbags and reactionary bigots". This is foolish because doorstepping a London party is hardly on a par with running an extermination camp, and to equate the two is to trivialise the latter; it is hypocritical because, a few years ago, Mr Livingstone himself acted as the Standard's restaurant critic. It would be good manners for Mr Livingstone to say sorry to Oliver Finegold, the reporter. But it is also absolutely no business of anyone else's whether he does so or not.
and
The demand for ritual recantation and punishment whenever someone expresses themselves "inappropriately" (itself a prissy, nannyish sort of word) has become an inhibition on free speech. A football manager loses his job when he "insults" disabled people; an editor's career is endangered when his magazine "insults" Liverpudlians; a commentator is thrown off the airwaves when he "insults" tsunami victims with a feeble pun. The worst sin of all (and rightly so) is anti-Semitism; but to place Mr Livingstone's remarks in that category is another example of trivialising the genuine article.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Frank Furedi on academic freedom

There is a new article by Furedi on the Spiked website. In it he argues that academic freedom is a deeply unfashionable concept and that the threat to it comes from within the university as much as without. He points to ethics committees, learning outcomes and the fear of giving offence through one's language.

This last point interests me as it chimes with my concerns about the Standards Board for England, originally posted here.

Anyway, here is Furedi:

That academics are expected to work within such a code, which explicitly demands that the pursuit of knowledge and expression of ideas should be restrained by the need to spare the feelings of others, is a symptom of our times. Such censorious speech codes have been institutionalised through the UK, without any serious opposition from staff or students. Once upon a time, instructions on the use of language were for schoolkids; today they are aimed at restraining the speech of the academic.

Of course words can offend. But one of the roles of a university is to challenge conventional truths - and that means academics questioning the sacred and mentioning the unmentionable. A proper university teaches its members how not to take hateful views personally, and how not to be offended by uncomfortable ideas.

The Orange Book

Remember The Orange Book? I thought not, but I have posted my Liberator review of it from last autumn to Lord Bonkers' website anyway.

Liberal Democrats look away

There is absolutely nothing funny about the photograph accompanying this story from the Shropshire Star.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Rum in Brum

Labour has admitted that the behaviour of some of its supporters "may have fallen short of the high standards that the electors have the right to expect," reports the Birmingham Post. Such talent for understatement should be encouraged.

For more on the murkier side of Birmingham politics, see John Hemmings' blog.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Standards Board: latest developments

Double Standards has the latest news on the Paul Dimoldenberg case, which I discussed in my a recent House Points column:
A local politician who faces disqualification after blowing the whistle on Westminster council broke new ground after winning the right to mount a public interest defence.

Goodbyeed Sayeed?

Trust Biggleswade Today to have the latest news:

"Humiliated" MP Jonathan Sayeed is fighting for his political life after being suspended from Parliament.

Mid Beds Conservative Association is holding an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the MP's future.

A glimpse of the future

SUTTER, California (AP) -- The only grade school in this rural town is requiring students to wear radio frequency identification badges that can track their every move. Some parents are outraged, fearing it will rob their children of privacy.
More details on the CNN site here. The impressive thing about the full report is the level of oppostion from parents. In Britain, you fear, they would be all in favour.

Anorak heaven

Visit Vote 2005 for all the predictions, argument and gossip about the forthcoming general election.

Thanks to Paswonky's Blog for the tip.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Right to roam in Shropshire

The Shropshire Star reports that there is to be an appeal hearing on Tuesday over the designation of Bromlow Callow as moorland. (Moorland is covered by the new right to roam legislation.)

To see why it is important that the appeal fails and that people are free to enjoy the area, see this picture.

Miss Marple meets Taxi Driver

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

Tory Blues

Imagine an English village. Cricket on the green. Blue skies. Red telephone box. The sun shining upon the ancient stones of the church, the mellow bricks of the rectory and the thatch of the cottages.

A bobby cycles into view. He stops at one of those cottages and makes his way through the hollyhocks to the front door. When it opens, he can’t help noticing the corpse stretched out in the hall

“What’s all this then, madam?” he asks. “It’s a burglar, Constable McNally,” she replies. “He broke in during the night and my husband shot him.” “In that case I won’t take up any more of your time,” replies the officer, and rides off.

It’s a curious world – Miss Marple meets Taxi Driver – but it seems to be the one the Tories want to live in. On Friday they turned out in force to support Patrick Mercer’s private members bill allowing householders to use anything short of “grossly disproportionate force” to tackle intruders.

Mercer was addressing a real problem: the fear of crime in rural areas where police are far away. But rather than proposing a practical solution, such as more special constables, he went off with the fairies.

People do worry they will end up in court after defending themselves against burglars, though the figures suggest they have little cause. But even under Mercer’s law they would face investigation if a burglar was killed or injured. No real officer would behave like our PC McNally. And what constitutes “grossly disproportionate force” would ultimately be decided by juries, so some cases would still go to court.

This episode illustrates the decline of the Conservatives. To be a Tory you have to rather like life the way it is. Newspapers still reflect this. Spend an hour with the Guardian and become depressed. Read the Daily Telegraph and you come away convinced the world is full of things to enjoy.

Tory politicians no longer feel that way. Some demand the impossible, always clamouring to “bring back” something – usually matron or the birch. Others stoke fears over crime or immigration and offer solutions as bizarre as Mercer’s.

Of the old Conservative Party – that collection of contented people with a fat stake in the status quo – there in now little sign.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The boyhood of Blair

Do you remember Tony Blair's extraordinary lies about his own childhood? How he once stowed away on a flight to the Bahamas and how he used to watch Jackie Milburn play for Newcastle?

I have come across an article by Francis Wheen which gives the details and posted a couple of paragraphs to my other blog Serendib.

Wedding of the year to take place at castle

Not Charles and Camilla, you booby.

The Shropshire Star has details of Lembit and Sian's plans. They will marry at Powis Castle in October.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Sayeed suspended from the Commons

Yesterday's Hansard carries a full report of the Commons' decision to suspend Jonathan Sayeed for two weeks.

Sayeed himself made a distinctly Vicky Pollard apology, and this was followed by a headmasterly contribution from Sir George Young, the chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, which set out the facts of the case.

Note particularly his comment that:
The Committee on Standards and Privileges will need to reflect on whether he has responded fully to our recommendations that he apologise fully to the House in the light of some of his qualifications.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Manners maketh man

As widely predicted, Conservative MP Jonathan Sayeed has been suspended from the House of Commons for two weeks.

This gives us the opportunity to have another snigger at the website of The English Manner Ltd, the company that got him in trouble with the Commons authorities. Here is part of the blurb for their "Seminars on Social Graces":

Etiquette is a word rarely used today. The idea of social niceties and proper protocol can seem prim and old-fashioned for the fast-paced world where we live and do business.

But many otherwise intelligent and educated individuals are lost when making a formal toast, hosting a dinner party—or even when choosing which fork to use. These people lack an important element for success in both their work and personal lives.

By coincidence, Manners is the family name of the Dukes of Rutland. Their seat Belvoir Castle hosts some of the company's events and resembles a less ambitious version of Bonkers Hall.

Democrat nomination 2008

The campaigning has already begun, reports Taegan Goddard's Political Wire (drawing upon a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer):
Former Sen. John Edwards "is already stumping for 2008 - a mere 1,365 days away - because, apparently, a minute wasted is a minute lost. His ex-partner, John Kerry, is in the final stages of setting up a money-raising machine; Hillary Clinton is talking more about religious values; a red-state senator, Evan Bayh of Indiana, is staffing up, having hired an Ohio turnout expert; and a governor with independent wealth, Mark R. Warner of Virginia, will soon headline a political dinner in Georgia.
You read it here first.

Bye bye Big Blunkett

I have removed Big Blunkett from my list of links as it is no longer being updated. I suppose the site saw its purpose as being fulfilled when the bearded authoritarian resigned.

In the last post on the blog the author urges readers to support the No2ID campaign.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Lord Bonkers' website

I have begun the process of updating Lord B's site. I had serious spyware problems last summer and then got interested in this blog. (Don't tell him, for Gladstone's sake.)

Now Lord Bonkers' Latest Diary is just what it says, even though it comes from 1906.

Only in Shropshire...

Oswestry, to be precise. From the Shropshire Star:
An old toilet block, earmarked for possible demolition, might have to stay put - because it could be holding up the remains of a Shropshire castle.
For more on Oswestry Castle in happier days, click here.

The cup that cheers

Today's Guardian carries a long extract from the new book by Peter Hyman, the former New Labour apparachik who has gone into teaching. Oddly, what strikes the reader most is not the radical break Hyman has made but how similar his new career must be to his time working for Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street.

Let me explain.

My new boss is Trevor Averre-Beeson, headteacher of Islington Green school. The first time I meet him, he is standing like a new father next to his pride and joy - his Fender Stratocaster guitar. On the wall of his office there is a Beatles calendar.
Working for someone who made his love of rock and roll a little too public to be true? That must have seemed strangely familiar.
He is over six feet tall and broad-shouldered; mid-40s, in a blue suit, a pale blue shirt and a purple tie. He is middle-class...
I think we had gathered that from his job and his name.
...yet has a classless feel to him.
That's all right then.
He radiates dynamism.
Grrr, tiger.

"Welcome," he says. "Water or coffee?" I later discover that anyone who asks for tea annoys Trevor intensely. He has coffee brewing permanently and water is easy. He doesn't want to waste time making tea.
What greater condemnation...

Let's go back into black ink.

What greater condemnation could there be of a man than that he is not prepared to spare the time to make tea? We see here, all at once, what is wrong with the modern world, the state of education and New Labour.

Up the wooden hill

A story in the Yorkshire Post neatly ties together two recent concerns of this blog.

The paper suggests that Sue Catling, recently deselected as the Tory candidate in Calder Valley, is being talked as a possible replacement for Jonathan Sayeed in Mid Bedfordshire following his recent embarrassment.

Politicians and comedians

A sign of the times.

This morning the BBC Radio 4 Today programme interviewed Rowan Atkinson about his opposition to the government's plans to make incitement to racial hatred a criminal offence.

At the end of the item the interviewer said "Thank you for your time".

This from a programme that routinely treats cabinet minister with contempt.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Harborough woman gives birth to cat

Details here.

Nice Belvoir

The Tory MP Jonathan Sayeed is facing suspension from parliament for two weeks, has had the Tory whip withdrawn for a month and is now threatened with deselection in his Mid Bedfordshire constituency. Full details from the BBC.

But if you want a really good laugh, visit the website of The English Manner Ltd, the company run by Sayeed's parliamentary aide Alexandra Messervy.

In the words of the Guardian:

The English Manner's website promised unique travel experiences, courses in etiquette and seminars in social graces. The organiser, Mrs Messervy, promised "once in a lifetime trips to recreate a classic English country house party by enabling guests to stay with members of the aristocracy in castles and stately homes throughout Britain". She also promised "tutorials led by the British political, cultural and artistic elite".

The tours included staying at Belvoir Castle, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland, and private tours round Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace.

How much does this combination of snobbery and wishful thinking cost? A four-day visit to Britain, staying as guests of the Duke of Rutland, will set Americans back an eye-watering $4440 per person.

If gullible people want to stay in an aristocratic home in Rutland, I suggest that they contact my old friend Lord Bonkers instead. I can guarantee them a holiday they will never forget - and at a fraction of the price.

Friday, February 04, 2005

The Standards Board for England

Here is today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. It owes something to an earlier posting on this blog. Simon Titley has also taken up the cause, but I did not feel Lib Dem News was ready for a phrase like "a large festering vat of rancid goat semen".

Fighting talk

Labour came to power pledged to wage war on sleaze. In part because the last days of John Major’s government made Sodom and Gomorrah looks like genteel Cotswold villages. But more because there was little to differentiate them from the Tories on policy and they needed something else to talk about.

One of the fruits of this war is the Standards Board for England. Set up in March 2001, it describes its role as ensuring that “members of local authorities are seen to live up to the high standards the public has a right to expect from them”.

But there are increasing concerns that the Board is being used by local politicians and activists as a weapon against their opponents. Three or four thousand complaints are made about councillors every year.

More worrying is the suggestion that councils use the Board to discourage scrutiny. On Tuesday in Westminster Hall Peter Bradley raised the case of Paul Dimoldenberg, the leader of the Labour opposition group on Westminster. Dimoldenberg was reported to the Board after leaking an e-mail which countered claims that Dame Shirley Porter was unable to pay a £42m surcharge because she was down to her last £300,000. He also exposed the council’s unenthusiastic approach to recouping the lower settlement it finally reached with Dame Shirley.

Instead of being awarded the freedom of the borough, Dimoldenberg was reported by his own officers and has already run up more than £6000 in legal costs.

Most cases the Board handles are not this dramatic, but there are many where councillors are facing investigation or sanctions for what sounds remarkably like doing their job.

What is happening stems partly from our exaggerated modern concerns for others’ feelings. Politics, local politics included, thrives on conflict and strong argument. If something is worth saying, it is likely to offend someone.

And partly it arises from the centralisation of government. Local politics in Britain is now a form of community management where councils deliver the initiatives and crackdowns decreed from above. Councillors who insist on acting as representatives of the people are viewed with suspicion.

The Board clearly needs reform. In the mean time, anyone reported to it for fighting on behalf of the electors should wear the distinction with pride.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Parents and the Guardian

There was an article in the Guardian yesterday which epitomises the agonies its readers go through as parents.

What should you do if your child uses bad language? The thought that you might tell them not to seems hardly to occur to the author, Pete May. Instead he reserves his approval for Jan Parker and Jan Stimpson who in their book Raising Happy Children, he reports, suggest having a rule that certain rude words can't be used in the house by either children or adults. At all costs, we must refrain from treating children differently from adults.

You will also find in May's article two other tactics used by those who defend such views.

There is the claim that concern with good manners and the like is middle class - always a pejorative term in the Guardian, which is odd when you consider who reads it:
"It's also a class thing," says Julie Targett. "Swearing is accepted more in upper- and working-class families. But my family is Daily Mail-reading middle-class."
And there is the assumption that the only alternative to a lax approach is something absurdly repressive:
Do any of us want grown-up kids who are terrified to swear in front of us?
I was also struck by May's conclusion:
Maybe all we can do is try to keep swearing out of the house until our children become adolescents - when parents and children will probably swear at each other as much as they effing well like.
Someone should write a history of are concept of adolescence. When did it become accepted that teenagers will be impossible to live with? I suspect it was surprisingly recently. Those who defend this view will do so in terms of raging hormones, yet they are people who would reject biological determinism in every other sphere of life.

I suspect that it has more to do with the abdication of adult authority that we see in May's article. I am reminded of some lines of W. H. Auden (full poem here), which apply equally well to modern parents and children:
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

Erewash: Where's that?

Readers who have the misfortune not to live in the East Midlands may not be too clear on the whereabouts of the constituency Robert Kilroy-Silk is to fight. This profile from the BBC will help you:

Erewash is in south east Derbyshire, and lies inbetween Nottingham and Derby, and is named after the river which flows from north to south through the seat and enters the Trent near Long Eaton.

The seat’s main towns are Long Eaton and Ilkeston, and there also several small villages and open countryside in the area. The M1 also cuts down the middle of the constituency.

The Erewash seat is home to many East Midlands commuters, but has a good deal of industry also. Long Eaton is still a lace-making centre, and though coal mining is no more, engineering, textile, and furniture-making industries remain. Most of the workforce is employed in manual trades, but a relatively low unemployment rate, high level of owner-occupancy and a near all-white population.


Wednesday, February 02, 2005

British films: not so cosy

On 17 February Matthew Sweet will publish his Shepperton Babylon. It's a great title, promising a British equivalent of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. The Faber website describes it as:

a history of home-grown movies that includes the scandals, the suicides, the immolations and the contract killings - the product of thousands of conversations with veteran film-makers.

It's not just that this is a fascinating subject in itself, but Sweet is the author of one of the most remarkable history books I know: Inventing the Victorians.

In it he argues that we have got the Victorians all wrong. They were not as, well, Victorian as we imagine. They did not cover the legs of pianos because they thought them indelicate - that was a joke they told at the expense of the prudish Americans. (See this column of mine, which acknowledges its debt to Sweet, for more details.) John Ruskin was not dumbfounded by the sight of his bride's pubic hair on their wedding night. And Prince Albert did not have a Prince Albert.

Sweet is talking on British films at the University of Warwick on 26 February. Full details here.


More on the Liberal Democrats' escape from house arrest

The Guardian reports:
The Liberal Democrats will today strike out against the government's plans for the house arrest of suspected terrorists by saying they will oppose the measure in the Lords, arguing that it requires derogation from the European convention on human rights.

Veritas to change name?

Europhobia suggests that Robert Kilroy-Silk's new party may have made a poor choice of name.

Not because everyone is calling them Vanitas, but because Veritas is a trademark of the Veritas software company.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Two new links

I have added a couple more links to the list on the right - or the "blogroll", as young people call it.
  1. Edis Bevan's MKNE Political Information, which has awoken after a dormant period;
  2. The surprisingly palatable Chicken Yoghurt.

Lib Dems see sense on house arrests

"Plans for keeping terrorist suspects under house arrest are to be opposed by the Liberal Democrats," says the BBC News website.

I should think so too.

Referees, authority and David Mellor

I am writing this listening to Arsenal vs Manchester United. Like all good Chelsea fans, I am hoping for a draw.

The commentators are saying that the players and both benches are yelling at the referee every time he makes a decision. This typifies our modern inability to submit to any authority at all.

I am reminded of David Mellor and his successful attempt to reinvent himself as a populist football pundit on BBC Radio Five Live. He did two things. The first was to do affect an estuary accent - rather like Tony Blair on Richard and Judy. If you had heard Mellor broadcasting on classical music in his normal voice Radio 3, and then doing his football show on Five, you would not have realised it was the same person.

The other thing Mellor did was to acquire some attitudes that he thought would appeal to the masses. Chief among these was contempt for referees. The most one-eyed fan ringing in to complain his team had been robbed was sure of a sympathetic hearing.

If former Tory cabinet ministers have no respect for figures of authority like referees, what chance is there that anyone else will? This supports the claim I made the other day that Conservatism no longer exists as a political philosophy in this country.

Richard Sennett's Authority is supposed to be a good discussion of the subject from a left-wing point of view. I borrowed it recently from Leicester University's library, but some bastard recalled the book before I could read it.