Friday, November 30, 2007

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Meadowcroft joins the Liberal Democrats

Friday
I am surprised this evening to find Meadowcroft at our weekly meeting of the Bonkers Hall Ward Branch of the Liberal Democrats. Ever since the Liberal Party merged with the "SDP Party" he has spent Friday evenings in his potting shed with the Quivering Brethren, amongst whom he is a leading light There his fellow members read from the works of L.T. Hobhouse, sing "The Land" and scourge themselves, before he entertains them with his clarinet.

"I be ajoining the Liberal Democrats," Meadowcroft beams this evening, "and - look! - I’ve brought my sackbut." I give what I believe is known as a wry smile - I may even have attempted a hollow laugh - and turn my ear trumpet down a couple of notches.

You may also enjoy Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Lawrence Bailey and his computer

Laurence Bailey, former Labour Lord Mayor of Swansea, has been banned for two and a half years by something called the Adjudication Panel for Wales. It seems thousands of pornographic pictures were found on the hard drive of his council-issued laptop.

Why don't we make councillors buy their own computers like everyone else does? Then they could look at as much pornography as they wanted.

More seriously, the BBC reports that the police:
also found it contained 253 documents, mostly letters to the Swansea Evening Post.

"Although the police examination showed Mr Bailey as being the author, the documents purported to have originated from various residents of Swansea," stated the report.

"In some cases the addresses did not exist or the postcodes did not match them, or the true residents had no knowledge of the letters."

In his own submission to the panel, Mr Bailey claimed that writing letters to the press under pseudonyms "was widespread practice in political life in Wales".
As Peter Black asks:
Really? I wonder how the South Wales Evening Post will feel about being taken for a ride in this way.

CCTV conference in Market Harborough

The Harborough Mail reports:
Counter-terrorism police were among the guests in Harborough yesterday (Wednesday) as part of a conference on Closed-Circuit Television.

Experts on CCTV including counter-terrorist police, Home Office officials and a fact-finding team from Australia were invited by Harborough District Council to the town’s Angel Hotel.
I was mystified by the comment of the Tory Cllr Paul Dann, the council’s "lead for community safety and CCTV":
We are perceived as a low-crime district, but it is important not to be complacent.
Harborough is not "perceived" as a low-crime district: Harborough is a low-crime district.

Charles Kennedy to be EU Commissioner?

Jon Worth points out that Peter Mandelson's term as Britain's EU Commissioner runs out in 2009 and he has said that he does not wish to be reappointed.

So who will take his place?

Worth names four principal candidates:
  • Patricia Hewitt
  • Charles Clarke
  • Geoff Hoon
  • Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy to Brussels is an intriguing thought, though I am mystified by Jon Worth's claim that his appointment would "divide the Lib Dems".

I am sure we would all be pleased to see Charles get the job. If anything, it would solve the problem of what the party should do with him in the UK - a problem the new leader will soon have to face.

Though perhaps the demand that he return to the front bench comes more from the media than from the Lib Dem membership?

Thanks to Devil's Kitchen (not that I read it, you understand).

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Greg Stone: Our friend in the North

The BBC has an extended, thoughtful piece on the politcal background of David Abrahams and the nature of poltics in the North East. It quotes our own Greg Stone extensively:
Of the North-East's 30 MPs, 28 belong to the Labour Party and many current and former Cabinet ministers - including Tony Blair, David Miliband, Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers and Hilary Armstrong - represent seats in the North East.

In a few former mining areas political opposition has disappeared to the extent that Labour councillors are elected unopposed.

Much of the employment in the region is also in the public sector - or dependent on public subsidies - leading, according to Greg Stone, to "quite a lot of leakage between local authorities and the private sector".

"There is certainly a political oligarchy in the North-East.

"I wouldn't say it is necessarily the same as it was 25 years ago, when it was very much a product of Labour Party domination of the town halls and Parliamentary seats, and the domination of the trade unions.

"There are still remnants of that, but their power is not as great as it used to be. But there is certainly a Labour extended family."

The Economist on the Lib Dem leadership contest

It is a balanced piece, as you would expect, and the conclusion is cheering:
All in all, however, the Lib Dems are lucky in their candidates; and partly as a result, the party is picking up in the polls. They are luckier still in their acting leader. Mr Cable—who coined the single best line of Gordon Brown's premiership this week when he pointed out that the prime minister had metamorphosed from being Stalin to Mr Bean—is having a very good war.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: The run on Rutland Rock

We've had Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. So...

Thursday
Arriving in Oakham to visit the cattle market, I notice a long queue that winds around several street corners before doubling back upon itself. Upon enquiring the reason for such a lengthy crocodile, I am informed that it consists of investors in my own Rutland Rock Building Society.

I take command of the situation by mounting a soapbox and addressing the throng through the collapsible megaphone that I always carry with me. I inform them that their savings are perfectly safe with the Society and that they should go home at once. To emphasise my point, I fire a couple of barrels of buckshot over their heads and inform them that I shall be calling out the local Militia forthwith.

After they have dispersed, I visit the Society myself and insist on entering the vault to satisfy myself that all is well. Whilst down there, I take the opportunity to collect a few valuables before paying an unannounced visit to my accountant to discuss a rebalancing of my finances.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Radio Liberal England



The Wardman Wire has a recording of my interview about BritBlog Roundup 145 on BBC Five Live the other night.

The three postings we discuss are:

Lord Bonkers' Diary: The Cowley Street War Room

Wednesday
That Brown fellow certainly kept us on our toes, didn’t he? All that speculation about an autumn poll had everyone rushing around. The last time I visited Cowley Street I found Rennard ensconced in his War Room, together with a cardboard cut-out of the late Jack Hawkins and a bevy of WAAFS pushing little model canvassers backwards and forwards across a tabletop map of Great Britain.

Brown made work for me here in Rutland too. Every candidate wants to be pictured with a wife and a couple of pretty children, but not all have them to hand. For that reason my own Home for Well-Behaved Orphans does a good trade by hiring the little mites out to be photographed (fair-haired children always command a premium).

I have to record, however, that there were some unfortunate occurrences during the 1974 October election campaign. The same little girl was pictured with the Conservative candidates in three neighbouring Lancashire marginals and one boy appeared on the election address of both the Labour and the Tory standard-bearer in a certain South Walian constituency. Ever since then I have kept a close eye on this side of the business.

Now read Monday and Tuesday.

You know when you've been Blincoed

The Comment is Free profile of Nicholas Blincoe - author the other day of a distasteful attack on Chris Huhne - now reads:
Nicholas Blincoe is an author, critic and screenwriter. He is a former advisor to Nick Clegg MP.
I am pleased to hear it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Labour withdraws funding for Miranda Grell's appeal

You may recall the case of Miranda Grell. As the BBC reported at the time:

A Labour councillor has been found guilty of falsely branding a Liberal Democrat rival a paedophile and telling electors he had sex with teenage boys.

Miranda Grell slurred gay Lib Dem candidate Barry Smith while campaigning for the Leyton ward in Waltham Forest Council, east London, in 2006.

Grell, 29, was convicted by magistrates of two counts of making false statements about another candidate.

She was handed a £1,000 fine and will be forced to vacate her seat.

Grells was subsequently defended by Labour bloggers and it was announced that the Labour Party would fund her appeal.

Today Harry's Place points us to the Independent's Pandora column:

Having taken flak for bankrolling the legal appeal of Miranda Grell, the "rising star" black Labour councillor convicted of making false paedophilia slurs against a gay rival, party chiefs have abruptly washed their hands at the 11th hour.

With the appeal by Grell, 29, due to be heard in court today, Labour told Pandora yesterday that the party was backing her case to the tune of £30,000 – only to perform an embarrassing volte-face 41 minutes later.

"Following legal advice in the last few days, the Labour Party today withdrew its support for Miranda Grell's appeal," said a flustered spokeswoman, admitting that Grell had benefited from party dosh "up until this point".

Nicholas Blincoe

There's been no reliable word from Team Clegg about the status of the article on Comment is Free by Nicholas Blincoe. But Richard Allan did write to James Graham as follows:

A little earlier this afternoon, my attention was drawn to an article by Nicholas Blincoe on the Comment is Free website. I have not met Nicholas before and he is not a part of the Nick Clegg Campaign Team. I understand that he has been one of a number of people to advise Nick on speeches previously, hence his self-description.

The contents of the article are a personal viewpoint and in no way associated with this campaign. I have therefore contacted Nicholas to request that he makes this clear in a posting on the Guardian site. He has agreed to do this and I hope that a clarification will appear in short order.

And Blincoe has added the following comment to his own article:
I should point out that I am wholly detached from his campaign team: pressure of work, finishing a book, has meant that I have been unable to participate in his stirring leadership campaign. I have been wishing him well from the sidelines. And occasionally, firing off acerbic missives as a commentator.
On that basis my occasional contributions to leaders' speeches entitle me to style myself a "former volunteer adviser to Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy". I might find it easier to get commissioned by the Guardian if I did.

As we are all meant to be on the same side, let's play nicely and make no more fuss about this article.

But Blincoe is an interesting figure. As an Independent profile explains, he contributed to All Hail the New Puritans. This was a collection of short stories "written to a series of rules that banned authorial asides, poetic sentences, flashbacks and ornate punctuation".

That is a style he could have adopted with profit in his Guardian piece.

And it is hard to disagree with Blincoe when he says:

novelists are very, very bad at being involved in politics, because they always want to do and say their own thing. I very much admire Edward Said, but he was absolutely useless as a politician because he just wouldn't work with other people.
But it's hard to be too critical of someone who has written for Waking the Dead.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Nick Clegg in the garden

After Monday there generally comes...

Tuesday
The pride and joy of my gardener Meadowcroft is his collection of rare hairy cacti. He gathers them from the arid south of Rutland and tends them in the way that a particularly attentive she wolf looks after her whelps.

I well remember his fury when a young whipper-snapper from Westminster School burnt down the glasshouse where he keeps them. My first reaction was to hand the lad over to the Proper Authorities, but learning that he was some sort of nephew of my (how shall I put it?) old friend Moura Budberg, I relented and dealt with the matter myself. I informed the errant youth that he would work for Meadowcroft until he had made full and proper restitution for the loss of the aforementioned prickly crop.

Over the years Nick Clegg (for it was he) has had himself elected to the European Parliament and the Commons, but he still comes to the Hall regularly to do odd jobs. (What with compound interest and the strength of the Rutland pound, debts can take a long time to pay off.)

This afternoon Meadowcroft and I find Clegg perched on a garden seat writing a speech. “Never mind being a scholard,” says my favourite horticulturalist, belabouring him with a broom, “get out and sweep up they leaves.” “I think Clegg has just left his comfort zone,” I observe as he rushes out to work in the garden.

Rita Tushingham


There is a terrific website dedicated to the career of this iconic British actress.

Hug a Hoodie at the Oxford Union

Jonny Wright has a long and remarkably sensible posting on last night's events. I reproduce his conclusions below, but do read the whole thing:
Firstly, it's ridiculous to claim to be anti-fascist when you're blocking a public right of way, and stopping people from getting to a legal meeting, however much you disagree with that meeting.

Secondly, the argument we heard time and time again about the threat from BNP activists being so great that it trumped the right to free debate. I didn't see any BNP people at all (although I'm willing to admit I wasn't in a position to see everything that happened, and they may well have been there). What I did see was a large group of so-called anti-fascists prepared to use physical force to stop people getting to a debate, use large amounts of amplified noise to try and drown the debate out, shout abuse and intimidation at students going about their lawful business, and call for the death of a 20-year-old young man with pretty mainstream political views.

Thirdly, I felt sickened by Irving's constant references to the Holocaust, coupled with his constant efforts to underplay the scale and meaning of it, and his noxious suggestion that Britain should have done a deal with the Nazis in 1940, and pulled out of the war - it would have meant the subjugation of the entire continent and the eradication of European Jewry, but Irving maintains it would have been in the best interests of Britain. As an internationalist and as a believer in universal human rights, that sickens me.

Fourthly, I'm immensely glad that I was able to hear Irving speak. I don't think it endangered me or put me at risk of corruption. It broadened my horizons and let me find out something about a man who up till now had only ever been a sort of bogeyman - and some of the things that I found out were genuinely surprising. I don't see why I should have been barred from going to this talk because of somebody else's arbitrary judgement. I'm also quite glad that Irving's views were shown up and challenged very strongly by students in the audience.

Fifthly, I'm physically and mentally shattered, it's quarter to two in the morning, I'm not sure I can stomach any more of this whole saga which has dominated Oxford life for the past two months, so I'm going to bed!

David Abrahams and the Labour Party

Three postings to read:

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Stiperstones: 25 years as a national nature reserve

Photo by Sabine J Hutchinson
http://www.virtual-shropshire.co.uk/

Another excuse for printing a picture of the Stiperstones...

The BBC reports:

Locals have been celebrating the 25th anniversary of a park becoming a national nature reserve.

The Stiperstones in Shropshire was officially opened by naturalist, Dr David Bellamy and children from the Stiperstones Primary School in 1982.

Some of the youngsters, now in their 30's, were special guests at the celebrations.

Contactpoint petition

The ARCH Blog points us to this petition:
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to abandon plans to create the Information Sharing Index, a national database of all children aged between birth and eighteen.
The Information Sharing Index is the original name for Contactpoint.

Iraqi employees campaign latest

Dan Hardie has the latest news on his campaign for Iraqi employees of British forces in Iraq to be granted asylum here.

He makes an appeal:

You’ve heard this before, but it’s now more important than ever. The last lot of letters and emails got the Government to announce a change in policy: an inadequate change,badly implemented. The next lot of letters and emails will force the Government to announce another change in policy, one that will be properly implemented and will not be based on leaving people to die.

Your MP’s address is The House of Commons, Westminster, London, SW1A 0AA. His or her email address is probably SURNAMEINITIAL@parliament.uk (e.g. BROWNG@parliament.uk ). Please use the talking points below to send an email and a print letter to your MP, and chase them for an answer. And be courteous: an insulted MP will not raise this matter with Ministers, and that will lead to more avoidable deaths.

When you get an answer, email me at danhardie.blog@gmail.com and let me know what they said. I agree that it seems egocentric for me to ask you to put your MP in touch with me: but what alternatives do we have?

I am in direct contact with Iraqi employees pleading with me to do something to help them. I cannot help them. Members of Parliament- including David Miliband- need to read what these Iraqis are saying.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Ming's Community Canvass Week

Liberator 322 has reached subscribers, so it is time to start printing Lord B's latest Diary.

Monday
It was when poor Ming launched his “Community Canvass Week” that I knew the writing was on the wall for him.

I heard all about in the Bonkers’ Arms one evening over a pint of Smithson & Greaves Northern Bitter. (The regular patrons of this excellent establishment learn to eschew the dreadful gassy Dahrendofr Lager.) “I had that Mingis fellow of yours around this afternoon, “ said one of my fellow topers.

“He was asking me what I thought about the way the world was going and what the Government ought to do about it. It was strange,” he added, after taking a reflective draw upon his pint, “I should have thought that if he wanted to be Prime Minister he would have had a pretty firm idea himself.”

Did Nick Clegg approve Nicholas Blincoe's attack on Chris Huhne?

There is a horrible article on Comment is Free today in which Nicholas Blincoe makes all sorts of accusations against Chris Huhne.

James Graham is suitably rude about it:
Speaking ... in the spirit of collegiality, could Team Clegg please lean on their “advisor” Nicolas Blincoe and get him to shut the fuck up?
The silliest point occurs where Blincoe accuses Huhne of being posh. This is a childish insult at the best of times, but in a contest where both candidates attended the same public school it is simply ludicrous.

The Guardian describes Blincoe as "a volunteer adviser to Nick Clegg’s leadership campaign".

Which naturally leads you to ask: Did Nick Clegg approve this article before it was submitted? After all, as Blincoe says:
Let's just remind ourselves that this is a Liberal Democrat election. The teams involved are so tiny that Huhne would have to know what his guys were doing. He would know what they ate for breakfast ... even what soap they used. If he didn't, what kind of leader would he be?
I look forward to hearing from the Clegg camp. In the mean time, I suggest they follow James Graham's advice on the way to deal with Blincoe.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

I shall vote for Chris Huhne again

Chris Huhne banner

A month ago I wrote:

In the last election campaign I used this blog to declare my support for Chris Huhne. It was not a hard decision to make. To my mind he was by some way the best of the four candidates set before us.

This time I find the candidates - Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne - much more evenly matched. Therefore the sensible thing to do is to see how the campaign develops and decide whom to vote for when the time comes to send my ballot paper in.
I have watched the campaign develop and now have my ballot paper, so it is time to make up my mind.

I shall be voting for Chris Huhne.

In a contest in which there is so little between the candidates in terms of policy and background it is hard to be too partisan. But Chris strikes me as the more forceful character and the better communicator of the two.

BritBlog Roundup 145

Welcome to this week's selection to all that is best in the British blogosphere. Well, some of it anyway.

Football
Best to get it over with. Narey's Toepoker may believe "The future's bright, the future's tartan" but we are less confident south of the Border.

Cruella-Blog thinks we make too much of sport anyway. Into the Ibyss thinks that international football is now a poor relation of the club game, with the result that players are less bothered about it.

Westminster Wisdom suggests an alternative team, composed of characters from Dickens's novels. I am sure that Betsy Trotwood would give the ball away less often than Steven Gerrard did.

Arts
Welcome to a new contributor: Jeffrey Archer. Yes, that Jeffrey Archer. Lord A has been to see Glengarry Glen Ross at the Apollo. At least, he says he has.

This seems a good point to slip in my Liberal England posting on the sad origins of Agatha Christie's record-breaking play The Mousetrap.

My London, Your London is disappointed to find the Midwest just off the Charing Cross Road. And Just 474 Votes to Win marks the last days of the Kilburn State cinema.

Which brings us rather neatly to....

London
The Village Beneath looks at the toll wartime air raids took of St Pancras:
In total there were 1278 air raid incidents in St Pancras ... 957 people had been killed and 1,443 people had been seriously injured. 1,576 houses were demolished, 1,744 uninhabitable and 13,825 had blast damage
English Buildings looks at a former hat factory in Hollen Street in Soho and goes on to reflect:
Back in the early 1980s, I used regularly to take the short train ride from New Cross Gate to London Bridge. On this brief inner-city commute my train passed all kinds of factories churning out products from foods to light engineering goods. Paper bags, biscuits, malt vinegar, and flags were all being made near that busy railway line. Most of these industries have since vanished from the area and many former inner-London factories are now given over to apartments or shops.
And Theo Blackwell wants your support for a community play project in Camden Town.

Sexual Politics
Redemption Blues celebrates the work of Serap Cileli, an "indefatigable campaigner for the rights of Muslim women in Germany, whom I am proud to call a friend".

Mind the Gap warns against evangelical feminism. And Lavengro in Spain points out that the spread of AIDS in Africa cannot be wholly the fault of the Roman Catholic Church.

Environment
Green Girls Global looks at James Lovelock's Gaia theory - the view that the Earth should be treated as a single living organism. (The name "Gaia" was suggested by Lovelock's friend and neighbour. the novelist William Golding, incidentally.)

Bsketti argues that biofuels are "the devil's Ribena".

Politics
Alice in Blogland (a belated nomination, this one) marks Remembrance Day in her own way:
Rather than parading around in uniform and firing cannons (why do they always miss Nicholas bloody Witchell?), remembrance day makes me want to find ways to resist war and support others who resist. Remembrance is hypocritical if we do it while perpetuating the very conditions which cause the loss of life we mourn.
Chris Paul notes the fall of John Howard in Australia, and Ellee Seymour expresses her concern over the loss of Child Benefit data.

Craig Murray reports on the campaign to prevent the deportation of Jahongir Sidikov:
How on Earth can we consider deporting dissidents back to Uzbekistan. Do Ministers not know what happens in that country, or do they just not care? And why can't I get any politician, journalist or official even vaguely interested? Even on the internet, no prominent bloggers have shown any interest. I don't know that I have ever felt so frustrated and alone - but my problems are nothing compared to how Jahongir must be feeling. To sit in a condemned cell awaiting a relatively quick death must be awful. But to await the kind of things the Uzbek security services will do to you - and to be awaiting them in England - is unthinkable.
Finally, let's go to Lib Dem land.

Liberal Burblings reflects on bloggers' role in party election campaigns and their bloodthirstiness: "we do love to see a head drop into the basket, don't we?" he asks.

If we do, then The Whiskey Priest has fitted a nice shiny new blade just for Nick Clegg.

And Suz Blog reports on the find of a box of human ashes in the car park of the building where Islington Lib Dems have their office.

Farwell
Thanks to everyone who made nominations this week.

Next week's Roundup will be at Philobiblon.

Please send your nominations to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

Ciao.

Sparks: This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of us



Back in July I wrote:
Let's face it: the 1970s had few redeeming features. There was Basil Brush, the keyboard player from Sparks and after that you are struggling.
A trifle harsh, perhaps, but thanks to Youtube you can see who I was praising.

Sparks was an American band who grew up listening to the great British groups of the sixties and enjoyed some success over here in 1974-5. They were a beacon of wit and lightness of touch in an ocean of of clumsy glam rock. This week's video shows their song "The Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of us", which reached no. 2 in 1974.

At the heart of the band were the brothers Ron and Russell Mael. And Ron, who also wrote most of the songs, was the keyboard player I mentioned.

His toothbrush moustache and sidelong glances at the camera were famously unnerving. Sometimes he smiled, which was even scarier.

The Mael brothers are still around. Sparks get rediscovered every few years, which is more that you can say for most bands of their era. Read more about them on their website.

Basil Brush fans need not feel left out. Youtube has a clip of Basil from his glory years. It's eight minutes of pure gold, and also features an impossibly youthful Derek Fowlds.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The world's first railway fatality

William Huskisson, who died after falling under a train at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway in September 1830, is generally held to be the world's first rail casualty. Simon Garfield has written a book about the incident.

But a note buried in today's Guardian Corrections and Clarifications column suggests Huskisson may not deserve this sad accolade:
The Egglescliffe parish register records the death, in 1827, of "a female, name unknown", thought to be a blind beggar woman, and notes she was "killed by the steam machine on the railway".

Those 10 worst pop lyrics in full

The BBC website has a list of the 10 worst pop lyrics of all time, as voted for by listeners to BBC6 Music's Marc Riley Show.

I was sorry that space could not be found for the opening couplet from "The Bad Old Days" by Co-Co, which was Britain's Eurovision entry in 1978:
Remember me?
I was tossed and turnin' like a ship without a sea.

Friday, November 23, 2007

BritBlog Roundup: A reminder

Liberal England is hosting the BritBlog Roundup on Sunday.

If you see any blog posts you think particularly fine over the next week, please send the link to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

Any posting from a British-based blog or a British-born blogger made before Sunday lunchtime can be be nominated.

And, yes, you can nominate something from your own blog.

So please send me some nominations.

The death of Dennis O'Neill and The Mousetrap

I have discovered another of those connections that mean so much to me, though possibly not so much to my readers.

In 2004 I gave a paper on the history of child abuse to a meeting at the Tavistock Institute. It provided the basis for my chapter in the book Making and Breaking Children's Lives, which was published the following year.

My argument was that child abuse was not a recent discovery, as theorists often claim. One of the arguments I used in support of my position was to point out that the country had been scandalised by the death of a child in 1945.

I wrote in the original paper:

How then to account for the opening words of the book A Place Called Hope, by Tom O'Neill ... who, when it was published in 1981, had just retired from his career as a residential social worker with Kent County Council?

The book begins:

On 9 January 1945 my brother, Dennis O'Neill was beaten to death by his foster-father in a lonely farmhouse in Shropshire. Twenty-eight years later, on 6 January 1973, Maria Colwell was beaten to death by her step-father in a council house in Brighton, Both deaths resulted in a public outcry about the standards of official supervision of the children.

Studying The Times from 1945 one finds that the trial of Dennis O'Neill's foster-father for manslaughter received prominent coverage – so prominent that it took precedence over reports of the progress of the War. Not only that: on a strangely contemporary note, there was an outcry about lenient sentencing when Dennis O'Neill's foster-father was convicted. And, following the trial there was an inquiry, presided over by Sir Walter Monckton who was a senior figure in official circles and must have been taken away from important war work to conduct it.

In short, there is nothing in these two cases to say that people were any less concerned about child abuse in 1945 than they were in 1973. The evidence for a step-change in awareness some time in the 1960s is simply not there.

One person who was certainly affected by the death of Dennis O'Neill was Agatha Christie. She was invited by the BBC to contribute to an evening of radio programmes to mark the 80th birthday of Queen Mary. In response she produced a play called Three Blind Mice.

Wikipedia reports that, according to Christie's official biographer Janet Morgan, the play was inspired by the O'Neill case. The encyclopedia goes on to say that Christie went on to rework the material from Three Blind Mice into, first, a short story and then a full-length play for the theatre.

There had recently been another play in the West End called Three Blind Mice, so Christie had to choose a new title. It was her son-in-law, Anthony Hicks, who suggested... The Mousetrap.

So the longest running play in the history of theatre had its origins in this sad case.

There is another haunting literary parallel with the O'Neill case.

Dennis O'Neill died at Bank Farm, Minsterley, in the shadow of the Stiperstones - a range of hills in Shropshire that I often write about. It was because of this geographical connection that I first came across the story of his death.

I also write about the children's books of Malcolm Saville from time to time. It was through these that I discovered the Shropshire hills before I ever visited the county.

As Tom O'Neill records, Dennis died on 9 January 1945.

In September 1944, when the boy was already boarded out at the farm where he was to die, Saville had published Seven White Gates, the second of his Lone Pine series.

Its plot?

It tells the story of a girl who goes to stay at a lonely farm in the shadow of the Stiperstones.

House Points: Northern Rock and the missing discs

Today's House Points from Liberal Democrats News.

Darling's disaster

Some people say government is hopelessly inefficient and cannot be trusted with the smallest task. Others believe free enterprise is hopelessly greedy and short-sighted and is not to be trusted at all.

Worryingly, the events of this week suggest both are right.

On Monday Alistair Darling came to the House to announce that he has loaned £24bn to Northern Rock with no immediate prospect of getting it back. That’s £900 for every taxpayer in Britain. And then there’s the £18bn he has given in deposit guarantees. Oh yes, and half the bank’s assets have been made over to an offshore company.

His North Eastern backbenchers saw nothing wrong with this. There are 6500 jobs at stake. But 6500 jobs for £24bn and counting? If you are not a director of Northern Rock, you can do the maths for yourself.

On Tuesday Darling was back. Two computer discs holding the bank details of every family in the UK with a child under 16 have gone missing. Someone stuffed them into a jiffy bag and posted them, but they never turned up at the other end.

That, the government says, is no reason why the national identity card scheme should not go ahead. And what is the problem with the three separate databases this government is planning to compile on the nation’s children?

By the time you read this, Darling will have been back on Wednesday to explain that the Chief Cashier has forgotten the combination to the vaults of the Bank of England. He thinks it is something to do with his wife’s birthday and hopes to remember it soon.

And he will have been back on Thursday too. The good news is the Chief has now remembered the combination. The bad news is he has left Britain’s gold reserves on a no. 73 bus and they have not been handed in yet.

Looking back, it would have saved Darling a lot of grief if he had just handed the bank details over to Northern Rock and let it help itself to what it thinks it needs.

For my own part, I am going to buy a rifle, head for Montana or the Shropshire hills and raise goats. We’re all doomed, I tell you.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Paul Danan in Preston

The BBC reports:
A former soap actor has been sacked from a pantomime after swearing at a 3,000-strong crowd at the switch-on of the Christmas lights.
But what did he say?

At times like this, you can rely on Holy Moly:
Ever wondered what happened to 'Celebrity Love Island' lady-botherer Paul Danan? Well, he's not been bothering the BAFTA judges too much, but has now signed up for the Pinter-esque heights of the Christmas Panto in Preston, the place with the famous sign 'You are now entering Preston, Britain's newest city. Sponsored by Spar.'

This means he was invited to help switch on the Christmas lights in the city, and appeared on the stage in front of hundreds of expectant children, sweating, gurning and appearing to be attempting to suck his own eyeballs out. And what better way to endear yourself to the young, impressionable crowd? Here's how, by shouting:

"Make some motherfucking noise, Preston!"

He won't be back next year. In fact he'd be lucky to be the arse end of a pantomime cow.

Cool Cash game defeats modern punters

This story appears in this week's Private Eye, but it is worth repeating next time a Labour minister claims that educational standards are higher than ever before.

The Manchester Evening News reports:
A lottery scratchcard has been withdrawn from sale by Camelot - because players couldn't understand it.

The Cool Cash game - launched on Monday - was taken out of shops yesterday after some players failed to grasp whether or not they had won.

To qualify for a prize, users had to scratch away a window to reveal a temperature lower than the figure displayed on each card. As the game had a winter theme, the temperature was usually below freezing.

But the concept of comparing negative numbers proved too difficult for some Camelot received dozens of complaints on the first day from players who could not understand how, for example, -5 is higher than -6.
I particularly liked the comment of one disappointed punter:
"On one of my cards it said I had to find temperatures lower than -8. The numbers I uncovered were -6 and -7 so I thought I had won, and so did the woman in the shop. But when she scanned the card the machine said I hadn't.

"I phoned Camelot and they fobbed me off with some story that -6 is higher - not lower - than -8 but I'm not having it.

Is this the end for ID cards?

Will the government's loss of data belonging to 25m people spell the end of their plans for ID cards and a database state?

I think it may.

As Gareth Crossman writes on Comment is Free:
Whenever Liberty is being interviewed about ID cards or other privacy issues, we normally expect the tired old question "surely those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear". Following the jaw-dropping admission yesterday that Revenue and Customs (HMRC) had lost the confidential information of 25 million people, I suspect we've heard it for the last time.
Listening to my fellow workers in the office today, I think this hits the nail on the head.

Already things seem to be moving. The Guardian has just posted this story:

Ministers are to look at scaling back plans for identity cards in response to the catastrophic loss of the personal information of 25 million people, including their bank records and addresses.

The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, urged ministers yesterday to review the amount of data they intend to amass on the national identity register, and Labour backbenchers previously supportive of ID cards backed his view.

Gordon Brown will come under further pressure from the thinktank Demos, which will shortly publish a report on privacy. It is expected to urge the government to reopen the debate on ID cards before pressing ahead.

Odds on the next England manager

OGPaper.com reports the odds on who will succeed poor Steve McClaren:

Jose Mourinho is now 5/1 favorite with William Hill to succeed Steve McClaren as permanent England manager. Hills make Martin O'Neill 11/2 second favorite and also offer 6/1 Scolari; 7/1 Hiddink; 10/1 Pearce; 12/1 Lippi; 12/1 Alan Shearer;16/1 Curbishley, Capello, Allardyce, Redknapp, Wenger; 25/1 Venables.

Which makes it odd that chief sports correspondent of The Times has just filed an article on the subject that does not even mention his name.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Bush or chimp?

A plug for Bill Feldspar's indispensable site:

This is a little project I decided to start once I realized how much George W. Bush looks like a chimpanzee.

I'm not a member of any political party, and I have nothing in particular against the man. I just think he kind of looks like a chimpanzee.

A package of discs arrives in the post





Interesting, I think. Now I can live off other people's Child Benefit for the rest of my life.

It turns out to be the prizes in The Great Liberal England Taking Liberties DVD Quiz.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Save the Stiperstones hollies



The Shropshire Wildlife Trust has a new campaign:
Two hundred or so ancient holly trees can be found scattered on the north-east edge of the Stiperstones. Some are thought to be three or four centuries old; perhaps no great age for an oak, but amazingly long-lived for holly. Cracked and gnarled, each of these trees has developed highly individual characteristics over their long lives.

The Hollies, as this bit of land has been known for centuries, is up for sale and Shropshire Wildlife Trust has the chance to buy it if we can raise sufficient funds in time. We've applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund and other grant making trusts, but it's by no means certain that they will award us funding. With lottery money being siphoned off to pay for the 2012 London Olympics there's a pretty tight lid on funding. So we're asking you to help us as much as you can.

See the video for more details - and some interesting local history.

The holly trees were used to feed livestock by the lead miners, who supplemented their incomes by farming the hillsides. Their smallholdings have long since been reclaimed by nature.

The Edinburgh hustings

A lively account from The Journal ("Edinburgh's student newspaper"):
This must be why Scotland wants Chris Huhne – because when it really hurts, you want your dad to make it better, not your flash favourite uncle.

Should local education authorities be free to select?

In his press release about the Conservatives' new education plans, David Laws says:
"David Cameron is effectively giving the green light to more grammar schools in areas such as Buckinghamshire."
But if a local education authority want to operate a selective system, shouldn't it be free to do so? That was certainly the Liberal position back in the 1970s when the selective vs comprehensive debate was at its height,

And, as a matter of interest, how strongly do modern Liberal Democrats campaign against selection in the areas where it still operates?

Editor's note: David Laws attended the private St George's College in Weybridge.

Come Clean on Northern Rock

The party has launched a petition: Come Clean on Northern Rock.

As usual, Vince Cable is playing a blinder:
Gordon Brown is paying out billion of pounds of taxpayers' money in loans to bail out the Northern Rock bank.

But he is refusing to tell us how much of our money he is spending, and even whether it is ever going to be paid back in full.

When taxpayers' money is being used, we should be told how much.

Media reports suggest as much as £24 billion has been lent, but Gordon Brown is refusing to tell the country just how much – and refusing to give a commitment that all the money will be paid back with the correct amount of interest.

£24 billion is equivalent to twice the amount of public expenditure on primary schools every year, and four times the international aid budget!

Gordon Brown should come clean on Northern Rock - it's our money, not his!

Brighton's West Pier again


Last month I wrote about the decline and fall of Brighton's West Pier.

Now Splendourific has written about it too, linking to my piece and adding some wonderful photographs.

I have [ahem] borrowed one them. It shows the pier in happier days.

It's not just an ID card scheme you can't trust government with

Following the great child benefit debacle, Action on Rights for Children has issued a press release:
Last year Terri Dowty co-authored a report for the Information Commissioner which highlighted the risks to children’s safety of the government’s policy of creating large, centralised databases containing sensitive information about children. The government chose to dismiss the concerns of the reports authors.
See's ARCH's database masterclass for more on the subject.

Monday, November 19, 2007

BritBlog Roundup returns to Liberal England

A note by Clairwil at the end of this week's BritBlog Roundup reminds me that Liberal England is hosting it next week.

If you see any blog posts you think particularly fine over the next week, please send the link to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

Any posting from a British-based blog or a British-born blogger made before Sunday lunchtime can be be nominated.

And, yes, you can nominate something from your own blog.

Thanks.

Clegg and Huhne on Newsnight tomorrow

Thanks to Lib Dem Voice for pointing out that Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne will be slugging it out debating the issues on Newsnight tomorrow (Tuesday, BBC2 10.30 p.m.)

More on the programme's website. Let's hope Paxo is tough enough for this gig.

BritBlog Roundup 144

This week at Clairwil.

World Toilet Day


Today, 19 November, is World Toilet Day.

Enjoy yourself.

Britain demands fingerprints for children's visas





Thanks to Peter Harvey for pointing us to this photograph.

It is taken from the St Petersburg Times and shows a Russian girl being fingerprinted for a British visa.

O tempora, o mores.

That Huhne dossier in full

Guido Fawkes helpfully links to an online copy of Chris Huhne's dossier on Nick Clegg's views.

Shorn of its calamitous headline, it is nothing more than a collection of press cuttings which suggest that Nick has indeed succeeded in giving different people different impressions of his views at various times.

Surely this is the normal cut and thrust of debate? What Nick is making an official complaint about I cannot imagine.

Convincing a wide range of people that you agree with them is one of the political arts. And Nick Clegg is certainly good at it.

The latest illustration of this is an article by John Pugh MP on Lib Dem Voice. Pugh appears to have decided to vote for Nick because he believes he is opposed to increasing consumer choice in the public sector.

For my own part, I would like to be a little clearer about what Nick is inviting me to sign up to before I decide which way to cast my vote.

Clegg in sex and spying scandal

Well, not Nick Clegg so much as his great great aunt Moura Budberg.

I have written an article for the New Statesman website telling the story of Nick's scandalous forebear who was the lover of H. G. Wells, Maxim Gorky and a famous British spy, and quite possibly indulged in some espionage of her own.

Given my nostalgic feelings for the Statesman in the 1970s, I am feeling rather chuffed.

For a photograph of Moura, see an earlier posting of mine.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Great Politics Show Bust Up

By far the best discussion of this lunchtime's events is the one by Stephen Tall on Liberal Democrat Voice. It is notable that many of the bloggers who have expressed outrage at Chris Huhne's behaviour have been expressing outrage at at his campaign on a daily basis for a couple of weeks now.

Clearly, the headline "Calamity Clegg" was a huge misjudgement on someone's part - and adopting the American "flip-flop" charge was silly and vulgar - but surely we are allowed to discuss policy in a leadership campaign?

Nick Clegg began this one by pledging to take the party out of its comfort zone, but has since failed to give us much idea of what that might involve. He can hardly complain if another candidate starts to speculate on his intentions as a result.

And dismissing any attempt to debate policy as creating "synthetic differences ... [which] our opponents will use against us" is just silly.

If I am going to vote for Nick Clegg I need to have a clearer idea of what he stands for than I have at present. It happens that I am interested in school vouchers and feel that Chris sometimes appeals too much to the "councillors know best" attitude you can find in the party. So I am up for leaving our comfort zone on education, at least. But most of all I want some clarity from Nick.

I was struck by how well Chris handled himself after he was ambushed by Jon Sopel. While, as Stephen Tall points out, Nick will have to learn to cope with far more vicious attacks than this one if he becomes leader.

Two other thoughts...

The Politics Show, like the Question Time special earlier in the week, is a programme that wants to make a buzz and break news stories. It is not interested in providing a neutral arena in which Liberal Democrats can debate their differences in a civilised way.

More importantly, it is a great shame that we do not have a wider field of candidates to choose from. I would have liked to see a woman candidate: I would have liked to see David Laws and Steve Webb standing.

Then we would certainly have had some proper debates on the future direction of the party. And we would have shown the voters that there is more to the Liberal Democrats than two Westminster-educated former MEPs falling out.

Jake Thackray: On again



This Sunday's video celebrates the late, great Jake Thackray.

As my readers are so young these days, I had better introduce him with this extract from the biography on a website devoted to him:

Jake Thackray was a singer-songwriter in the French tradition, a "chansonnier" whose songs are nevertheless convincingly and idiosyncratically English. This is scarcely surprising. After graduating from Durham University, Jake spent four years in France as a teacher where the likes of Jaques Brel and his particular hero Georges Brassens made their indelible mark.

The influence of their songs and story telling propelled Jake towards his own writing and singing style. But despite this Gallic background his songs are no mere copies; they are firmly and recognisably rooted in the English countryside, character and language.

They are also painfully funny, sad, tragic, rude, irreverent, incisive and happy, and often enough all these things at the same time. In short, they are unique.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Taking Liberties DVD quiz: Answers and winners

Thank you to everyone who entered my Taking Liberties DVD quiz.

The draw took place at Bonkers Hall this afternoon. Lord B drew the winners from his second-best top hat, superintended by Meadowcroft and the Revd Hughes.

The lucky winners were:
  • H. E. Elsom
  • Paul Evans
  • Will Howells
  • Bill Miller
  • Bernard Salmon
Congratulations to all five. And thanks to Revolver Entertainment for donating the prizes.

And the answers?

  1. Chris Atkins
  2. Henry Porter
  3. Clarence Henry Willcock
  4. Lord Chief Justice Goddard
  5. Brian Haw
  6. Maya Anne Evans
  7. John Reid
  8. "We Don't Need Another Hero" by Tina Turner
  9. Lord Avebury
  10. Keith Chegwin
If there had been a bonus prize it would have gone to Helen Elsom for pointing out that Clement Freud also appeared in Polanski's Macbeth.

The aetiology and treatment of childhood

The other day I posted an old OpenMind article of mine about ADHD. I began it by mentioning a satirical article on the aetiology and treatment of childhood:
a worrying condition, with symptoms like short stature, emotional immaturity and a reluctance to eat vegetables – or ‘legume anorexia’. The good news is that when sufferers are investigated 10 years later they have almost all got better.
I have now found article on the Net. As it is American, the actual title is "The etiology and treatment of childhood".

Boris not good enough?

An interesting snippet from Iain Dale's Diary about Boris Johnson's London Mayoral campaign:
Much has been written about Boris's alleged inactivity in recent weeks. The news section of his website has had one entry since the end of September. There hasn't been a press release posted since his campaign launch in early September. It is not suprising that eyebrows are being raised.

Cat of the Day

Well done Pc Tizer:

Police at a north London railway station have got mice running scared - after recruiting a 13-year-old cat.

Tizer was adopted by British Transport Police (BTP) from the Cats Protection charity in September and inducted into the force as an honorary constable.

In his role as the Chief Mouser Pc Tizer walks around King's Cross rail station to keep it rodent-free.

An "essential member" of the team, he has unfettered access to all areas and shares an office with a senior officer.

Friday, November 16, 2007

House Points: Ed Balls

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News. Congratulations to the editorial staff for the following headline...

What a Balls up

One route to a high reputation in politics is not to be seen in public. In the days when no one knew what Peter Mandelson’s voice sounded like, he was a feared, Mephistophelean figure. Journalists believed he might materialise in their editor’s office and finish their careers at any moment.

Then Mandelson got himself elected, became a minister and went on television. We discovered that he spoke like a 1950s newsreader. He became just another figure for Rory Bremner to mimic and no one was scared any more.

Ed Balls used to be an economic guru - the brains behind Gordon Brown. He was the man who grasped the importance of ‘neo-classical endogenous growth theory’. There were even unconfirmed reports that he could pronounce it.

Now Balls is Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. And he gives every impression of being out of his depth. Answering questions on Monday, he was bumbling and hesitant. He struggled even to read out his briefing notes.

At one point he began an answer "I have to say that I am very confused, Mr Speaker," then left a dangerously long pause. The cries of "hear, hear" were heartfelt.

Part of Balls’s problem is clear from his job title. Liberals have long argued that schools should be locally managed, not run from Whitehall. Now children and families have been added to his brief. When were they nationalised?

So on Monday, partly because of the new initiative allowing MPs to ask topical questions, Balls was quizzed across a dizzying range of subjects.

Would he congratulate GCSE students in Nottingham. Would the government abolish child poverty? What is he doing about truancy? What should the exact content of the school science syllabus be? Would he give more money to youth services in Ellesmere Port. Shouldn’t a "specialist sports college" have changing rooms?

This litany would have tested anyone. It threatened to test Balls to destruction.
Some have likened Balls to Alan B’stard's sidekick Piers Fletcher-Dervish. That is unfair. He reminds you more of Bertie Wooster’s friend the Rev. Harold "Stinker" Pinker, curate of Totleigh-in-the-World.

Stinker was a clumsy, well meaning but not very bright public school boy. Balls has yet to prove to the House that he is anything more.

Saudi gang-rape victim to be jailed and flogged

The BBC reports:
An appeal court in Saudi Arabia has doubled the number of lashes and added a jail sentence as punishment for a woman who was gang-raped.

The victim was initially punished for violating laws on segregation of the sexes - she was in an unrelated man's car at the time of the attack.

When she appealed, the judges said she had been attempting to use the media to influence them.
Time, I think, to remember the words of one Labour minister at the time of King Abdullah's recent visit:

Foreign Office minister Kim Howells has called for Britain and Saudi Arabia to work more closely together, despite their differences.

Mr Howells told a conference ahead of a state visit by Saudi leader King Abdullah that the two states could unite around their "shared values".

Question Time debate: Huhne wins on points

Does it matter?

I think it does, because Nick Clegg's unique selling proposition in this campaign is that he is the "Great Communicator".

On the evidence of this evening's programme, Chris Huhne is at least as good a communicator.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Norman Baker on the death of Dr David Kelly

The Lib Dem MP for Lewes has an article on Lib Dem Voice to mark the publication of his book The Strange Death of Dr David Kelly.

Norman writes:
What is certain is that the conclusions of the Hutton Inquiry are an insult to the intelligence of the British people, and because of this, this is unfinished business. It will remain so until we have a proper inquest into the death of Dr Kelly, and a proper full-scale public inquiry into the disastrous and dishonest decision by the Blair Government to take us into an illegal war in Iraq.

Panorama on ADHD and Ritalin

After posting my article the other evening, I watched the Panorama programme on ADHD that gave me an excuse for resurrecting it.

Two things about the documentary struck me.

The first is the theme park that gives all children diagnosed with ADHD a wristband giving them priority on all rides. It's hardly an incentive to good behaviour, is it?

The second was Craig, one of the youngsters featured in the programme. He clearly has serious problems:
He has no friends, has self-harmed, suffers night terrors, is aggressive and - after assaulting three school teachers - prison looks like a very real prospect if the family don't get the help they're crying out for.
Yet his favourite pastime, of all things, is fishing. If that is the case, then whatever is at the root of his difficulties, it can hardly be an ability to pay attention, can it?

Incidentally, the Panorama page gives links to some recent academic studies on the subject.

World Philosophy Day






It seems that UNESCO has declared 17 November World Philosophy Day. So I'd like you to take a few minutes to Think Very Hard about something.

When you have, why not explore The Bertrand Russell Archives at McMaster University?

Libel tourism and the books you aren't allowed to read

A report by David Pallister on the Guardian website says:
A ferocious attack on the "chilling effect" of the English law of libel and its use by wealthy "foreign tourists" will be mounted in a top US court today, with backing from organisations that represent a majority of the world's media.

The case is being brought in the New York state court of appeals by an American academic, Rachel Ehrenfeld, against one of the richest men in the world, the Saudi investment banker Khalid bin Mahfouz. Her lawyers describe it as the most important first amendment - free speech - case in the past 50 years.
This reminds me of a recent article on Spiked which began:
In recent years, a Saudi billionaire has sued various authors and publishers of books about terrorism in England’s archaic libel courts.

As a consequence, some important books on terror and the ‘war on terror’ are simply no longer available in the UK. Some have been withdrawn by publishers following libel rulings that found in favour of the Saudi billionaire; others have been withdrawn by publishers following threats of libel action by the Saudi’s lawyers. In some instances, the books were thrown into pulping machines so that all evidence of their existence was destroyed.

Books by British, American and French authors have suffered this fate. Both books by left-leaning authors who question the ‘war on terror’, and books by conservative authors who support it, have been removed from Britain’s bookshelves. Such is the censorious nature of English libel law that these books have effectively been wiped off the intellectual map: you won’t find them in any bookshop or library.
Spiked then went on to invite the authors of five of the books that have been suppressed in this way to give a short summary of what we, the people who are not allowed to read them, are missing.

The five books were:
  • Forbidden Truth: U.S.-Taliban Secret Oil Diplomacy, Saudi Arabia and the Failed Search for bin Laden, by Jean-Charles Brisard, Guillaume Dasquié and Lucy Rounds

  • Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World, by J Millard Burr and Robert O Collins

  • Unknown Soldiers: How Terrorism Transformed the Modern World, by Matthew Carr

  • Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop it, by Rachel Ehrenfeld

  • Reaping the Whirlwind: The Taliban Movement in Afghanistan, by Michael Griffin

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

2012 Olympics are destroying East End pubs

Another good reason why we would have been better off without the Games:

Traditional East End pubs are disappearing as property developers around the Olympic Park tempt owners to sell up.

Nine out of 39 pubs in E3, around Bow, have been sold in the past 18 months to make way for flats.

Taking Liberties DVD competition

Entries for the Great Liberal England Win a Taking Liberties DVD Quiz close at midnight on Friday.

To encourage you to take part, here is a review of the film from the BBC site:

Tony Blair will have even fewer fans after the shocking documentary Taking Liberties. British filmmaker Chris Atkins has tracked down a host of victims of the increased security measures introduced by New Labour both pre- and post-9/11. From peaceful protesters to suspected terrorists, many have been detained and had their lives turned upside down for flimsy reasons. Disturbing footage combines with amusing testimonies and commentary in this Bowling For Columbine-style documentary that's as entertaining as it is educational.

Atkins goes a long way to make sure his documentary isn't boring: fast editing, an indie soundtrack, and comments from famous faces including Mark Thomas, Claire Short, Tony Ben, Ken Clarke and Boris Johnson mean this is rarely dull. The commentary by Ashley Jensen cites history to argue that New Labour has restricted our civil liberties more than past dictators. Interviewees are articulate, sympathetic and apparently innocent: two young sisters were locked up after a peaceful demo; an RAF veteran was arrested for wearing an anti-Blair t-shirt, and - much more seriously - Moazzam Begg suffered three years of questionable interrogations at Guantanamo Bay - without charge.

Speaking out against the proposed identity card scheme, Taking Liberties is both a call to action and a warning against a future where the current restrictions escalate into a Big Brother society. It will doubtless cause controversy, but that's the intention: to start a debate. When it calls itself "The Most Important Film Of The Decade," it may not be exaggerating the point as much as you might think.

Is Christ buried at St Pancras?

A couple of years ago I wrote about the fascinating area to the north of St Pancras station and mentioned Aidan Dun's poem Vale Royal, which offers a mystical geography of this landscape.

The writer of BLDG Blog records that he used to be Dun's neighbour and tells us:

I think it's from Dun – but I don't actually know; I just associate this with him – maybe I made it up? – that I heard a legend claiming that St. Pancras Old Church, stranded on its small hill behind the train stations next to the old London Hospital for Tropical Diseases, is actually the secret burial place of Christ.

The church, obviously, was built much later, as a means of marking the site – at the same time keeping silent its little secret.

And thus somewhere in the London soil, we're meant to believe, is the body of Jesus Christ...

Imagine if it is there, though.

Imagine that it's down there, talismanic, demagnetizing harddrives and affecting the moods of certain bus routes. You're always happy whilst riding the 73 – and now you know why.

It could be true. After all, it is widely believed that Boadicea is buried under platform 10 at King's Cross.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Cat of the Day

The winner is Sgt Podge, who claims to be a Norwegian forest cat.

According to the BBC he:
disappears from his owner's home in Talbot Woods, Bournemouth, every night.

The next morning, the 12-year-old cat can always be found in exactly the same place, on a pavement about one and a half miles (2.4km) away.

His owner, Liz Bullard, takes her son to school before collecting Sgt Podge.

Charles Leadbetter on Ivan Illich

Dougald Hine has left a comment on my recent posting on Internet schools. It points us to an article on Ivan Illich by Charles Leadbetter that was published in Prospect in January.

Leadbetter writes:

Ivan Illich's genius was to realise, 30 years ago, that this would be not just desirable but would become a necessity. A tax-funded public sector built around passive consumers cannot hope to keep meeting people's rising expectations for tailored services.

The only way to personalise services to different needs, on a grand scale and at affordable cost, is to motivate and equip the users to become players, not spectators. Imagine an education system built around the participatory principles of Wikipedia, or a social care system that was as simple to take part in as eBay. In future we will need public services produced by the masses, not just for the masses.

Dougald's School of Everything is worth investigating too.

BritBlog Roundup 143

You can find it at Philobiblon.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Reminder: Win a Taking Liberties DVD






Enter the Liberal England quiz and win a Taking Liberties DVD.

A few minutes with Google could bring you hours of pleasure.

Children, ADHD and Ritalin

This evening the BBC1 Panorama programme is showing a documentary on the prescription of Ritalin to children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

This seems an appropriate time to reproduce an article of mine that was published in Open Mind magazine (issue 123, October/September 2003) four years ago.

Always on the Go

A psychologist I know gives her last lecture of each year on a paper entitled ‘The aetiology and treatment of childhood’. It describes a worrying condition, with symptoms like short stature, emotional immaturity and a reluctance to eat vegetables – or ‘legume anorexia’. The good news is that when sufferers are investigated 10 years later they have almost all got better.

Yes, it’s a joke – a clever American satire on the way professionals turn normal human behaviour into a medical problem. But a lot of notes get taken before her students realise this.

Inspired by my friend, we could invent another spoof diagnosis. Let’s imagine a condition which largely affects boys between the ages of 6 and 12, and manifests itself in symptoms like not doing homework, fidgeting and being ‘always on the go’.

Unfortunately, this one is not a joke. It is a shorthand description of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the most commonly diagnosed psychiatric condition in American children today. There is more to diagnosing it, but not a great deal. Children must display these behaviours in more than one setting (say, at home and at school) and they must be evident before the child is seven. It is often diagnosed by teachers or school counsellors with no medical training.

In the USA, at least 10 per cent of children – 5 or 6 million out of 50 million – are taking medication to treat ADHD; 90 per cent of them boys. In some classroom in prosperous New England states, as many as one boy in three can be on drugs.

Not only are the numbers diagnosed enormous, they are rising rapidly. The most commonly prescribed treatment for ADHD is methylphenidate, better known under its brand name Ritalin. Back in 1988, one million American children were taking it: in 1975 the figure was 150,000.

The same trend can be seen this side of the Atlantic. Department of Health figures show that National Health Service prescriptions of Ritalin in England rose from 2,600 in 1992 to 186,000 in 2000.

ADHD is no joke at all when you know more about the medication used to treat it. Besides Ritalin, children can be prescribed dextroamphetamine (Adderall or Dexedrine) or methamphetamine (Desoxyn or Gradumet). These drugs share an ability to calm children down and make them more manageable in classroom settings.

To some, it is paradoxical that drugs known as stimulants make ADHD children calmer. They see it as proof there is something different about their brains. But the American psychiatrist Peter Breggin says this effects has long been known. He describes what happens when ADHD medication is given to laboratory animals:

instead of struggling to escape a cage, the animal will sit relatively still, carrying on rote, useless behaviours, such as grooming, chewing on its paws, or staring into the corner. If the drugged animal does move about, it will pace a restricted area in a purposeless manner.[1]

To Breggin, the therapeutic effect of Ritalin and its rivals is better seen as an adverse reaction. He quotes a study where more than half the children treated displayed obsessive-compulsive behaviour. They played the same game over and over again, or exhausted themselves raking up leaves. It is nice when children want to help in the garden, but when, as in a case I have heard Breggin describe, a boy waits under the tree for a leaf to fall, something is very wrong.

Sometimes the side-effects are more serious: children become ‘zombie-like’ or suffer from hallucinations. Often they will end up taking cocktails of drugs to treat these reactions. And there can also be serious effects on physical health: high blood pressure, palpitations, stomach cramps, blurred vision and much else.

Why are so many children being diagnosed with ADHD and put on drugs? Or, as the Washington writer Mary Eberstadt asks:

How has it come to pass that in fin-de-siècle America, where every child from preschool onward can recite the “anti-drug” catechism by heart, millions of middle- and upper-middle-class children are being legally drugged with a substance so similar to cocaine that, as one journalist accurately summarized the science, “it takes a chemist to tell the difference”?[2]
One explanation is that America has got it right. Perhaps millions of children across the world are suffering from ADHD but going untreated. But if this were the case, as Leonard Sax points out, you would expect American children to be racing ahead in their school work. As it is, ‘France, Germany, and Japan continue to maintain their traditional lead over the United States in tests of math and reading ability’.[3]

It is the same with juvenile crime. ADHD is diagnosed more often in Britain than the rest of Europe. But a recent survey found that ‘the United Kingdom arrests a higher proportion of young people than the average for the countries of the Council of Europe for all categories of crime except rape and murder’.[4]

If we set aside the idea that ADHD is a real condition, there are many other explanations for the rise of the diagnosis. Some say that children’s behaviour really is getting worse and emphasise the role of chemical additives in food. They claim great improvements from a change in diet.

Others point to drug companies’ financial support for groups of parents of ADHD children. These publicise the diagnosis and challenge the media when they question its validity. And it is a good investment: in 2001, American companies made $600 million in profits on ADHD drugs.

But marketing a product is not as easy as that. If it were, we would all be millionaires. So there must be something about modern American and British society that makes it so receptive to the idea of ADHD.

A clue to what it might be lies in the figure we gave earlier: 90 per cent of the children prescribed Ritlalin are boys. What has changed for boys in recent decades?

One development has been the rise of feminism. At one time boys were pretty much expected to fidget and lose things. If you said a boy was ‘always on the go’ in the 1950s, it was praise. The feminist demand was for girls to be treated with the same indulgence as their brothers. They should have the same freedom to play out, tear their clothes and get dirty.

Today, things are different. So entrenched is the belief there are no intrinsic differences between boys and girls that few professionals would dare say ‘boys will be boys’ when discussing a client. Yet the same people, as parents, will say to one another: ‘You know, boys are different.’

And if they are different, perhaps they should be treated differently. Penny Holland has just published a book suggesting that banning play with guns in schools and nurseries does more harm than good. She told the Guardian:

We noticed an impact on the half a dozen boys who were persistently interested in weapons and superhero play. We started to notice the effects of our constant negative attention. They became more withdrawn – and set on a behaviour train. They became dispirited.[5]
And playing in the street has been redefined as ‘anti-social behaviour, with all sorts of police and council powers developed to deal with it. Yet you do not have to be so old to remember your mother asking you as a child, ‘Why are you indoors on a nice day like this?’

If boys’ energy is finding fewer outlets at home, the position in school is worse. Although there is little research to back the idea, it is now agreed between all parties that education is the key to improving Britain’s economic performance. The result has been a grinding emphasis on basic skills and government targets.

Margaret Hodge, now Minister for Children, announced in 1999 that ‘the days of toddlers colouring, cutting and pasting are over’. Meanwhile, league tables of older children’s test results are printed in every newspaper, and GCSE and A-level results are treated as a barometer of the nation’s health.

When you add to this the fact that the government wants half of all children to go to university – and how few children from poor homes get there – it is clear that it is almost impossible for a middle-class child to step off this conveyor belt. A great number of children with no aptitude for it are forced to study until they are 21. No wonder they have behavioural problems.

Over the same period, schools have become less structured, with more onus put on individual pupils to organise themselves. Recent research from the Office for Standards in Education says this does not suit boys. They do better when teachers set clear limits and in schools with good discipline, close monitoring and a sense of community.[6]

Of course, some children’s behaviour is difficult and the parents do need help – although it would be a relief to see some alternative to the chemical cosh of Ritalin. But it is clear that the ADHD diagnosis is hoovering up all sorts of boisterous, bored and unhappy children. It is not their brains that are faulty, but the way we adults treat them.

References
  1. P. Breggin (2001). What people need to know about the drug treatment of children. In C. Newnes, G. Holmes & C. Dunn (Eds.) This is madness too. Ross-on-Wye: PCCS Books.
  2. M. Eberstadt (1999). Why Ritalin rules. Policy Review, 94, April–May, Washington DC: Heritage Foundation.
  3. L. Sax (2000). Ritalin: Better living through chemistry? The World and I, November, pp. 287–299.
  4. G. Buckland & A. Stevens (2001). Review of effective practice with young offenders in mainland Europe. Canterbury: European Institute of Social Sciences.
  5. P. Curtis (2003). Why toy guns are back in the classroom. The Guardian, 12 July. (Penny Holland’s book, We don’t play with guns here, is published by Open University Press).
  6. Office for Standards in Education (2003). Boys’ achievement in secondary schools. London: Ofsted.

Norman Baker: The Strange Death of David Kelly

Yesterday's Sunday Times had a respectful review of Norman Baker's new book The Strange Death of David Kelly. The review was written by Nick Rufford, who says:

At least half the readers of this book will suspect Kelly was murdered; for them, Baker provides plenty of support.

For those who share my scepticism, however, it’s still an important work. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to conclude that something murky was going on behind closed doors in Whitehall. Hutton’s remit was too narrow ever to get to the bottom of it.

As an exploration of what happens when politicians bend the evidence to fit their aims, hoping that the end will justify the means, Baker’s book is hard to beat.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

How Margaret Thatcher ruined British chess

My posting on the leadership election using a chess analogy inspired Paul Walter to write about the Fischer vs Spassky world championship match of 1972. I was just getting into chess before it took place, so it had a huge effect on me too.

It had a huge effect on many people in this country. The financier Jim Slater had put up extra money for the march when Fischer made one of his frequent threats to pull out. At about the same time Slater also offered a £5000 prize to the first British player to qualify as a grandmaster.

In the early 1970s it was scarcely conceivable that there could be a British grandmaster. But Slater's prize, the boom in chess and the arrival of a remarkably talented generation of young players soon changed everything. Tony Miles qualified as the first British grandmaster in 1976.

Soon there were numerous British grandmasters. When I was a keen player in the 1980s we had two of them - Glenn Flear and Mark Hebden - in Leicester alone.

Tony Miles never quite became the strongest player in Western Europe, but Nigel Short, Jon Speelman and Michael Adams all emerged as credible contenders for the world title. In 1993 Short qualified for a match for the championship, defeating the former champion Anatoly Karpov and the Jan Timman, the Dutch player who had always been Tony Miles's nemesis, on the way. Though Short lost the match quite heavily, his attacking play with the white pieces frequently tested Kasparov to the limit.

Not surprisingly, this explosion of talent had a remarkable effect on the national team too. England finished second to the mighty Soviet Union at three consecutive Chess Olympiads - 1984, 1986 and 1988.

All in all, it was a great ea in which to be a British chess enthusiast. I even worked for a chess magazine for a while after I left university.

So it was very sad to read this in Leonard Barden's Guardian chess column on Saturday:

Russia outclassed the field in this week's European team championship in Crete, where its team secured the gold medals with a round to spare and its top pair, Peter Svidler and Alex Morozevich, had the best individual performances.

England were seeded 16th and finished in that position.

Sixteenth in Europe? What has gone wrong?

One thing that has gone wrong is that the decline in chess's popularity in the UK has made it harder to get sponsorship for the national team. The result this time was that many of the best English players decided they could not afford to play for the national side this time.

But the greatest blow to the English national team was the collapse of the Soviet Union. Suddenly there was not one powerful team to contend with but more than a dozen. Armenia, the Baltic states and the Ukraine all emerged at once as powerful sides.

And this was not surprising. Some of the best Soviet players had not been from Russia but from some of the other republics. Among the world champions, Tal was from Latvia, Petrosian was from Armenia and Garry Kasparov was from Azerbaijan (though from an Armenian-Jewish background).

It was worse than that. In the Communist era the Soviet authorities were reluctant to allow their players to come to the West to participate in tournaments. Those who were allowed out tended to be older men with a comfortable stake in the existing Soviet system, because it was thought they would be less likely to defect. Though they were often great players, they could sometimes be more interested in shopping than playing chess. The result was that the best Western players had a good chance of winning tournaments in the West.

Once the Wall came down, Western tournaments were flooded with hungry young grandmasters from the former Easter bloc and almost overnight it became much harder for a Western grandmaster to earn a comfortable living from playing chess.

Worse than that, many former Soviet players settled in Western countries and started to play for their national sides in the Olympiad. Last time I looked the USA team, which England used to beat comfortably in the glory years of the 1980s, was entirely composed of Soviet emigres. But the England side was so strong that few Eastern players settled here. The result was a levelling out of standards in the West and the end of English dominance.

The other phenomenon that hurt English chess was the Big Bang and the finance boom in the City. In the 1960s the sort of people who might have become chess grandmasters tended to become lecturers in the expanding university sector and play as amateurs. When that source of employment dried up around 1970, becoming a professional chess player began to seem a more attractive proposition.

This state of affairs continued until things took off in the City. Then potential grandmasters found they could earn far more from computing or finance than they ever would from chess. Players like Matthew Sadler and Luke McShane, who might have been today's world title contenders, have drifted away from full-time play for this reason.

So there you have it. British chess declined because of the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the City of London. I suppose you have to put it down as an unintended consequence of Mrs Thatcher.