Thursday, January 31, 2008

Greg Mulholland calls minister "an arsehole"

The Yorkshire Evening Post reports:
A Leeds MP could be forced to apologise to after he called a government minster an "a***hole" and stormed out of a debate.
Speaker Michael Martin is today investigating Greg Mulholland's outburst, made yesterday during a fiery debate in Westminster Hall - the second Commons debating chamber.

Mr Mulholland was enraged after health minister Ivan Lewis refused to let him intervene into the discussion about the funding of hospices.

The Leeds North West MP, a Lib Dem health spokesman, had earlier spoke passionately about "inequalities" in hospice funding.
You can find a transcript of the debate in Hansard, which is equally coy:
Mr. Lewis: The only partisan contributions made during the debate were made by the hon. Members for Cheadle (Mark Hunter) and for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland). They turned it into a party political issue. They talked about a real-terms cut in the amount of funding for hospices based on those figures. That was absolutely opportunistic and disgraceful.

Greg Mulholland: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lewis: Will the hon. Gentleman be writing a blank cheque to the hospice movement? Is he saying that if the Liberal Democrats ever formed the Government, they would meet all the hospice costs at 100 per cent. recovery? Of course not, but that is the impression that Liberal Democrat Members always give when contributing to debates.

Greg Mulholland: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lewis: We are all fed up with it. I return to the substantive issues.

Greg Mulholland: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Lewis: I will not give way.

On regulation costs, I shall consider the question of the consultation that the Healthcare Commission is undertaking—

Greg Mulholland: He’s an a*******.

Mr. Lewis: —and the nature of regulation costs. That was not very parliamentary language.

Lembit's Leicester lookalike

The Powys County Times reports the existence of "the only official Lembit Opik lookalike in the UK".

His name is Neil May and he lives in Leicester.

The newspaper goes on:
The only problem is Neil's never had a booking, the demand for a Lembit lookalike just doesn't seem to be there – yet.

"To be honest, this is the first phone call I have ever had," he told the County Times.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Jeremy Beadle dies

Jeremy Beadle has died aged 59. There is an obituary on the BBC site and a tribute from the Lib Dem Norfolk Blogger.

For my own part, I have always regarded the first screening of Beadle's series Game for a Laugh as a milestone in the coarsening of British life in the 1980s. The celebration of the SAS's role in ending the Iranian embassy siege (they even interrupted TV coverage of the snooker) was another.

Still, nil nisi bonum and all that. And he really did do a lot for charity.

Vince Cable, Northern Rock and fascism

From The Devil's Kitchen:
I am wondering whether anyone else has noticed the similarity between Vince Cable's comment on Northern Rock, that "(t)he taxpayer is standing behind the taxpayer and we have a private sector solution without private money as well as nationalisation of liabilities and losses and privatisation of profits" and Gaetano Salvemini's description of Italian fascist economic policy, that "the State pays for the blunders of private enterprise... Profit is private and individual. Loss is public and social."

FT blog questions media silence on Lee Jasper

From the Financial Times Westminster blog:

A growing number of pundits are wondering why the mainstream press aren't writing much - if anything - about Lee Jasper. The London mayor's race adviser has been subjected to a stream of allegations made by Andrew Gilligan, the investigative reporter, in the Evening Standard.

Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall, was fuming to me the other day at how the story was being ignored by papers including the FT.

I did write a news story last night but it was spiked at midnight by one of my editors (mainstream media gatekeepers).

The moles of Wellington

Somehow I get the impression that it is a slow news day in Shropshire.

Under the heading "Mole explosion" hits area, the Star reports that a

once neat and tidy patch off Rose Crescent in Wellington, a favourite for dog walkers, is now estimated to have 50 molehills.

The Mayor of Telford & Wrekin, Councillor Miles Hosken, has described it as an “explosion of moles” and wonders if the numbers of the animal should be curbed.

Monica Drinkwater, who has lived in Rose Crescent for 26 years, said she had never seen anything like it before, adding: “There has to be about 50 molehills there. I can see them from the house."

Note too the "Mole factfile" and pro-mole comments from readers, one of whom claims to be a mole himself.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Around the Lib Dem blogs

Duncan Borrowman suggests a way of making life easier for a couple of Tory MPs, in the light of Nigel Waterson's widely publicised difficulties today:

I am surprised to see that he lives in Beckenham - a long way from the Sussex coast. Meanwhile Jacqui Lait, the Tory MP for Beckenham is married to the leader of East Sussex Council, Peter Jones. Their home is in Rye, near to the Sussex coast.

Maybe they could arrange a house swap?

Meanwhile, Norfolk Blogger points out that at least one Conservative MP still believes in student grants:

Student grants, which started their decline before being abolished by Labour, were constantly criticised by the Tories when in power because they saw students being subsidised to earn a higher income at tax payers expense.

So it is perhaps a real throwback that Derek Conway also appears to me to see his parliamentary allowance as a means of subsiding students, even if they are his sons.

And away from what I suppose we have to call Tory sleaze, The Real Blog (prop. David Boyle) asks some hard questions on the NHS:

What is it about the medical profession that it swallows the government's mores and attitudes so completely?

I've been wondering whether it is something to do with the way that New Labour has managed our public services that they have been encouraging this kind of inhumanity among the professionals who work there. Are they so desperate to balance the books that they are prepared to accept this slow withdrawal of care from anyone the state deems unproductive?

Lord Bonkers slams Iain Dale

Iain Dale has defended his silence on Derek Conway's travails in the following terms:
Derek Conway is a friend of mine. Anything I have to say about his conduct, I will say to his face.
Lord Bonkers remarks:
It happens that Haigh the Acid Bath Murderer was an old friend of mine, but that didn't preclude my writing a pretty stiff editorial on the case in the High Leicestershire Radical.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Jeremy Thorpe still has steam in his pipes

Today's Guardian has an interview with Jeremy Thorpe, who led the Liberal Party between 1967 and 1976.

Speaking of the Parkinson's disease that now afflicts him, Thorpe says:
"The saliva and shakes make me seem gaga" the 78-year-old says of his disease. "I'm not. I remember pretty much the lot."
He rates his own contribution to the party highly:
Thorpe sees himself as a guardian of the Liberal vote through difficult times. "It's now a three-party system and I think I built it up. I know it's an arrogant thing to say but, if it weren't for me, the party would have disintegrated."
And, of the affair with which his name is now inevitably associated, he says:

"If it happened now I think ... the public would be kinder. Back then they were very troubled by it," he says. "It offended their set of values."

Harold Wilson thought the allegations a Conservative smear, asking in a memo to one of his ministers, Barbara Castle, why damaging details surfaced later in the 70s at a time when Labour might want to go into coalition with the Liberals, rather than earlier when Heath wanted them.

There are supposed to be new details that will emerge about the Thorpe trial only after his death - all he will say now is that it was more likely to have been his opposition to apartheid that brought about the trouble. "South Africa certainly attempted to smear me. They made life very difficult.

Summerhill and Lord of the Flies

When Nick Clegg announced his new Free Schools policy he inspired Jo Anglezarke to write in praise of the "experimental" school Summerhill.

Yesterday Dare to Know drew attention to a CBBC series on Summerhill and quoted this comment on William Golding's Lord of the Flies:
"That single book did more than anything else to damage people's faith in the essential decency of children," says Jon East, head of drama at CBBC and director of Summerhill. If repressed public schoolboys who are used to being caned are suddenly left unrestricted on a desert island, it's not surprising that these terrible instincts are unleashed.
In fact, Golding makes it clear that he is writing about younger boys than East seems to imagine. But there is something to his argument: see my own discussion of the book and its influence in Reading Lord of the Flies today.

The first Dirty Dozen

My first Dirty Dozen feature for Lib Dem Voice is in place. This looks at Labour and Tory blogging over the past month.

If you see any postings during February that you think particularly interesting or particularly silly, please send me the link.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Rutland in the snow

So ends another week (and year) for Rutland's favourite peer.

Monday (Christmas Eve)
And so Christmas comes again to Rutland. One of the peculiarities of the climate hereabouts is that one can always rely upon snow in the days before the holiday, with the result that it lies deep, crisp and, indeed, even in the village as carol singers with lanterns make their way from door to door. “It could be a Christmas card,” as a fellow traveller remarked to me as we took the stagecoach into Market Harborough for some last-minute shopping.

Beneath the Christian festival, the older pagan traditions still flourish: it is, for instance, customary to feed a tot of brandy to each tree in the orchard to ensure a good crop the following autumn - or so Meadowcroft assures me as he helps himself to my finest Armagnac each year.

Compliments of the season to all my readers and I wish you winnable by-elections in 2008.

BritBlog Roundup 154

Thank you, Philobiblon.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Rearranging the furniture in restaurants

In recent months I have been struck by the way that people now rearrange the furniture in restaurants to suit the size of their party. Chairs will be moved and tables put together without anyone asking the waiting staff if they mind.

I am sure I remember a time when this did not happen. People used to ask the staff if their party could be accommodated and leave it to them to make the necessary moves.

And once upon a time I am sure we would just have put up with things. "Really, I'm quite happy sitting over here by myself."

No doubt there is a happy medium to be found somewhere, but today I saw a middle-class woman lift a small table and carry the length of the room. When someone caught her eye (it may have been me) she gave a comic, aren't I dreadful? shrug and said "Moving the furniture!"

The last time I saw that expression was from a mother (again middle class) whose daughters had just pushed their way on to a train at Leicester as a crowd of us were trying to get off. It says: "I know I am in the wrong, but I am too weak or self-centred to do anything about it."

Divine Comedy: Absent friends



There is plenty of grainy footage of less opulent concerts around, but I think you need this sort of staging to enjoy the Comedy at their best.

Witty and literate lyrics. Good tunes. What's not to enjoy?

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Winning the support of young voters

Sunday
It seems that my fears of yesterday were unfounded: Clegg has turned out to be very well connected in the world of popular music. This morning it is announced that he has asked Mr Brian Eno – stalwart member of “The Roxy Music” and heir to the fruit salts fortune – to advise him on the nation’s youth. Aged only 59, Eno is surely the ideal person to play this important role.

Not only that: it soon becomes clear that he is but one among a veritable galaxy of musical stars from an earlier era who have been recruited to help the Liberal Democrats win the support of the young. There is Clodagh Rodgers, Hurricane Smith, the Sutherland Brothers (though not Quiver), Acker Bilk, The Captain & Tenille, Mary Hopkin, Brian and Michael, Barry Blue, Flintlock, England Dan and John Ford Cooley, the Incredible String Band, Gilbert O’Sullivan, Kathy Kirby and St Winifred’s School Choir.

I just hope that Clegg will be able to find room for Chris Huhne in his Shadow Cabinet.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Vince Cable is descended from Sir Thomas More

Or so the Daily Telegraph claims today.

In their profile Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson write:

The "Cult of Cable" is sweeping the nation. His nine and a half weeks as leader of the Liberal Democrats were a triumph. The sketch writers loved his parliamentary put-downs - he famously made the Prime Minister squirm by noting his "remarkable transformation from Stalin to Mr Bean".

MPs admired his willingness to take risks - he turned down an invitation to a state banquet with the Saudi King. The voters warmed to his unflappable manner.

More on More here.

The Ghost Goes Gear again

It turns out that there are a couple of fragments of this film on Youtube.

The first features the Spencer Davis Group themselves. The second features the St Louis Union and you even get a few seconds of Nicholas Parsons at the start of it.

Later: And there is a third!

Lord Bonkers' Diary: A traditional nativity play

Saturday
Recent reports have suggested that the traditional nativity play is under threat, so it is with some trepidation that I arrive at the village school this evening.

Fortunately, my fears prove unfounded and all the familiar elements are there: the carols, the shepherds wearing tea towels on their heads, the wise men with their gifts wrapped in bright foil and the lecture of the benefits of site value rating when there turns out to be no room at the inn.

Even the Revd Hughes keeps his heckling to a minimum.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Opening Batsman of the Day

Well done, Chattergoon of the West Indies.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Shane McGowan and Nick Clegg

Friday
My dinner guest at the Hall this evening is none other than the noted popular musician Mr Shane McGowan. Do you know him? He is an Old Boy of Westminster and his stage act involves his playing a drunken Irish folk musician. He goes to great lengths to make this impersonation convincing, dressing in a tramp’s clothes and even blacking his teeth. Away from the concert hall he is a very different character: after dinner he eschews my proffered Auld Johnston (that most prized of all Scottish malts) and asks instead for a pot of Orange Pekoe.

In an attempt to widen our new leader’s circle of acquaintance, I also invite Clegg along. Despite the fact that they attended the same school, it soon becomes clear that Clegg has no idea who McGowan is. Does the Old School tie count for nothing these days?

See Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday too.

House Points: Vince Cable and Northern Rock

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Fairy tales

The great nineteenth-century radical journalist William Cobbett wrote that it was typical of Britain to have the National Debt but the Crown Jewels.

As Vince Cable pointed out in his question to the Alistair Darling on Monday, something similar is now the case with Northern Rock. Under the his plans the risk stays with the taxpayer but any profits will go to private investors.

Vince said the BBC’s political correspondent had described Richard Branson as looking like the "cat what got the cream". Which is hardly surprising. He appears to be the government’s preferred bidder and, according to Vince, is proposing to put in £250 million to acquire a bank worth £100 billion.

"He has never run a bank," Vince went on, "and I believe that the profits will be routed through a Caribbean tax haven. So what benefit does the taxpayer derive from his participation?"

All in all, it is hardly surprising Mr Branson is unwilling to let the prime minister out of his sight.

Vince’s Indian summer shows no sign of drawing to a close. He retains his talent for using humour to puncture Gordon Brown. Everyone remembers "Stalin to Mr Bean", but on Monday he was nearly as good.

He recalled the "great Danish economist Hans Christian Andersen" and his story of the two conmen who visited a credulous king to sell him an imaginary suit of gold. "We have a naked King Gordon, desperately trying to cover his embarrassment over the ‘n’ word ‘nationalisation’."

Beyond that, he has Ming Campbell’s ability to come over as being above the political fray. And he has been seen on television dancing with Alesha Dixon.

Craig Revill-Horwood adds: Very good he was too. But where are the Tories in all this?

Good question, Craig. It is hard to know what the Tories believe on Northern Rock. George Osborne’s approach was to sound apocalyptic without advancing any firm proposals at all.

They can hardly favour temporary nationalisation, as Vince consistently has. But do they really want to let the market decide? That would mean shutting down the business and abolishing 6000 jobs in the North East.

The truth is that the Tories agree with the government but lack the courage to say so.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

So farewell then Abdul Latif

Readers of Viz magazine will be familiar with the Newcastle curry house owner Abdul Latif.

I was sorry to read on the Journal website that he has died aged only 52.

It also turns out that he was a Liberal Democrat supporter and had stood as a council candidate several times. The newspaper site quotes tributes to him from Greg Stone and Peter Hardy, and Chris Foote-Wood was writing his biography.

Later. And Lembit Opik has paid tribute to Abdul Latif too.

Australia has anti-Hoon legislation

Wikipedia tells us:

The term "Hoon" was first used in Australia at the turn of the 20th century where it referred to a man living off immoral earnings (i.e. a pimp).

The origin of its current usage is currently unknown but is widely believed to be a shortened form of "hooligan". In more recent times it has been used to describe any young male or female who drives in a manner which is anti-social towards the standards of modern day society.

The Hoon is such a social problem down under that anti-Hoon legislation has been introduced in Western Australia and Victoria and is planned in New South Wales.

All of which puts my own thoughts on the the definition of "hoon" into the shade:
We all know what a hoon is: a subordinate kept so he can resign if his boss runs into trouble. Leon Brittan was Mrs Thatcher’s hoon at the time of the Westland affair. Norman Lamont was John Major’s hoon after the ERM débâcle.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: The Reverend Hughes presides

Thursday
Each year we hold a talent show where the little mites at the village school can do a turn, and each year the Reverend Hughes volunteers to act as Chairman of the judging panel. I have to say that I have some doubts as to his impartiality.

As the children variously sing, tap-dance or recite from the works of T. H. Green, he boos them, attempts to start a slow handclap or throws bottles. One poor girl is led away in tears before she is two verses into “The Ballad of Geraint Howells”.

Only when the Revd Hughes’s favoured candidate mounts the stage does his manner change. “This is the one!” he cries, and “Vote for this boy. Do we have to hear all those others?”

I fear I shall be obliged to take the Chair myself next year to ensure fair dealing as Hughes is almost as bad as the present Commons Speaker

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Geraldine McEwan is no longer Miss Marple

But then, as far as I am concerned, she never was. Joan Hickson will always be Miss Marple.

The Guardian reports the story thus:
The hunt is on for a new Miss Marple after actress Geraldine McEwan announced her retirement from the role today.
McEwan has played Agatha Christie's heroine sleuth Jane Marple since ITV1 brought her back in 2003 and starred in the role in 12 TV films.
ITV and Marple rights owner Chorion will begin the process of finding a new Miss Marple next week.
Candidates for McEwan's replacement are thought to include Victoria Wood, Julie Walters, Prunella Scales, Anna Massey and Eileen Atkins.
My vote would be for Prunella Scales - who made a more convincing Queen Victoria than Judi Dench did - and above all not for Victoria Wood or Julie Walters, much as I admire the former at least.

Returning to the McEwan vs Hickson question, let me quote something I wrote a couple of years ago:
I have been trying to work out why I believe Joan Hickson was a much better Miss Marple than Geraldine McEwan.
In part it is the two performances. McEwan is visibly acting the whole time - all those little smiles and grimaces - whereas Hickson hardly seemed to be acting at all. Outwardly she was all stillness, yet she managed to convey the underlying intelligence and the core of moral steel which brought murderers to justice.
And in part it is the people around them. With some of them now over 20 years old, the Hickson Miss Marples are beginning to look like a late manifestation of the mid-century Britain in which they were set. Such figures as Joan Greenwood and George Baker appear in the cast list; one of the films was even directed by Roy Boulting.
McEwan, by contrast, has to put up with the company of people like Dawn French and Harry Enfield. It's a prejudice of mine, but was there ever a more self-regarding and overrated generation than that which came to prominence in the 1980s? And even if you like these figures, their profile is such that they are always bigger than the characters they play.
That last point explains why I would not like to see Victoria Wood or Julie Walters playing Miss Marple. But they could perhaps play that underexploited Christie character Ariadne Oliver.

Opening Sentence of the Day

Won by a report in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph:
Tories in Pendle look set to drop plans to appoint a man - accused of explosives charges - as their nomination for a school governorship.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Coaching Nick Clegg

First it was Tuesday. Now it's:

Wednesday
I am called to Cowley Street to give our new leader the benefit of my long expression of dealing with the media.

I begin by asking Clegg what he will do if he is challenged in the House on a ticklish policy point – perhaps involving schools. “That’s easy,” he replies brightly. “I shall throw up my hands and then issue a formal complaint.”

And when he is confronted by one of the nation’s leading political interviewers? “I’ve got a soundbite I am rather fond of; it went down very well with Nick Robinson. It goes like this: ‘Yes, er well no, hang on, er, sorry’.”

Clegg is an engaging fellow with much of the wholesome appeal of a Labrador puppy, but he would do well to sign up for the Extended Bonkers Media Course (easy terms available).

The Ghost Goes Gear

Following yesterday's video of the Spencer Davis Group, I have made a discovery.

It wasn't only the Beatles who appeared in pop caper movies in the sixties: the Spencer Davis Group made one too.

It was made in 1966, called The Ghost Goes Gear and you can buy it on DVD.

Later. There are two excerpts from the film on Youtube.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Congratulating the new leader

This time last week I was happily stuffing copies of Liberator into envelopes, which means they should all be safely with subscribers by now. Which means it is time to start posting the old brute's latest diary here.

Tuesday
I hurry to Westminster to offer my heartfelt congratulations to young Nicholas Clegg on his election to the leadership of the Liberal Democrats. How different his victory was to that of his predecessor, poor Menzies Campbell!

In that contest Ming was the favoured candidate of most of our MPs, of the Manchester Guardian’s leader writers and of the party’s Great and Good – notably the charming Dame Shirley Williams. Despite being comprehensively out-campaigned by Chris Huhne, he won the election, but never looked like cutting the mustard as Liberal Democrat Leader.

By contrast, Clegg was the favoured candidate of most of our MPs, of the Manchester Guardian’s leader writers and of the party’s Great and Good – notably the charming Dame Shirley Williams. Despite being comprehensively out-campaigned by Chris Huhne, he won the election, and I feel sure that he will prove a splendid success.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Spencer Davis Group: I'm a Man



Looking for the dog?

This week's Sunday video has turned into a Monday video.

Complete with subtitles, this performance comes from Finnish TV and 1966. Which means that Steve Winwood, the keyboard player and vocalist, was 17 or 18. How is that for talent?

And he started even younger. In an article in Mojo magazine a few years ago, his older brother Muff (later a top A&R man) remembered joining a trad jazz band:

"We needed a piano player so I brought Steve along. He was only 11, but he played everything perfectly. They stood with their mouths open. Because he was under-age, we had to get him long trousers to make him look older, and even then we'd sneak him in through the pub kitchens. He'd play hidden behind the piano so nobody would know."
But it wasn't always easy being a prodigy. The same article records Steve's own memories:

By April, '63, they had become the Spencer Davis Rhythm 'n' Blues Quartet. "We were making about 30 quid a night between us - not bad, especially if we did 2 gigs on Saturday," muses Winwood. "The average wage then was about 20 pounds a week, so this was good money."

Inevitably, though, there were repercussions. "I got kicked out of school. The headmaster stood up in assembly and said, 'Somebody's been burning the candle at both ends and I won't have it.' "

Now read about the Spencer Davis Group's movie.

BritBlog Roundup 153 - At last!

Sorry for the delay: let's get right on with it.

A lot of political postings have been submitted this week, so we begin with them.

Politics

These days it isn't enough just to type. Gavin Whenman offers the latest Realpolitik Podcast and Tim Ireland makes his submission on the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act in the form of a slide show with sound.

Other podcast related posts submitted were a daily roundup on The Wardman Wire and the highlights of 2007 from Wolverhampton Politics,

Writing from a less technological age when a copier breakdown involved a sobbing monk, Archbishop Cranmer is not impressed with the idea of Tony Blair as President of Europe.

And from another planet, some would say, Melanie Phillips thinks the mainstream media have ignored the story of the century: an Al Qaeda plot to assassinate the Queen. Meanwhile Ben Brogan points to Tory Confusion over Northern Rock.

Justin McKeating (who seems to be having problems with his Chicken Yoghurt blog) writes on Chicken Backup about the huge waste of money that was Peter Hain's deputy leadership campaign (he finished fifth):
It would take the vast majority of people decades to earn these sums. Hain threw about more cash in order to polish his ego than a lot of people's houses are worth. He thought two hundred grand was a price worth paying to get people to like him a bit more than they did Hazel Blears. How hard can that be for God's sake? When you look at the breakdown of the deputy leadership vote, you'd bet Gary Glitter could have beaten Blears with no grander inducements offered than a couple of rounds of drinks and a bag of crisps.

Gavin's Gaily Gigest writes on party funding. And, inspired by the news that Helena Bonham-Carter has purchased the former home of her great grandfather H. H. Asquith, Eaten by Missionaries looks at the homes of other Liberal prime ministers.

Sport

Paul Linford would love it if Kevin Keegan brought success to Newcastle United again.

St. Aidan to Abbey Manor points out that we now have a stupid attitude to risk: "It's either obsessive safety, or extreme sports."

English Buildings spots a pleasing architectural detail in Leicester Square, marking the former office of Wisden, the cricketers' bible.

And Amused Cynicism discovers that owners of vintage Ford cars cannot use photos of their own vehicles without being sued by the man.

Sex

I thought that would wake you up.

The Burning Times gives Richard Littlejohn a well-deserved hoofing.

Scorpio Risen call for a new sexual revolution while Stroppy Blog defends an old one.

My London, Your London reviews a play in which the women of the Old Testament finally get their revenge.

And Philobiblon looks at the prostitution laws in New Zealand and Sweden.

Culture

A nice broad category to take in all the other nominations.

Let's begin with Archaeoastronomy, who tells us that a funding freeze could damage what is possibly the most successful heritage project of the past decade - the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Amused Cyncism (again) takes on the deletionists on Wikipedia. Also online, Camden Kiwi offers a thoughtful defence of Facebook against recent criticism:

If all your friends are on Facebook, and your main way of interacting with them is via Facebook then you would have a big problem. But if you use it, as most people seem to, as just another tool, then it is hardly such an issue.

On this note, Diamond Geezer has just welcomed the first visitor of 2008 to his flat.

Back to all too tangible forms of media: Barkingside 21 reports on Project Freesheet, which is an attempt to make the publishers of the things pay for the mess they make.

The Daily (Maybe) discusses "the Third World" and similar labels: "my preference is to avoid terms that are essentially meaningless phrases designed to disguise the inequities of the world".

And Peter Cranie decides that Liverpool is a European city. Maybe, but don't its problems in recent decades stem from the fact that it is an Atlantic port?

Goodbye

Sorry this was a day late. I think it was BT Broadband's fault.

The next Roundup will be at Philobiblon.

Nominations to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

BritBlog Roundup 153

Sorry for the delay: I have been wrestling with a faulty Broadband connection.

Later. It's here.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Nancy Banks-Smith on the death of Vera Duckworth

I lived without a television for several years in the 1990s, but I always knew which programmes I would and would not have liked because I read Nancy Banks-Smith's reviews in the Guardian.

Here she is this morning on the death of Coronation Street's Vera Duckworth:

Jack (Bill Tarbey) is a bit of a bar-room baritone. When I was a child, I would stand on the stairs of my parents' Lancashire pub and listen to those hoarse, sweet, soaring Irish tenors promising to take Eileen home again to where her heart would feel no pain. Last night, with his fingers entwined in Vera's cold hand, Jack sang to her as though he had truly taken her to her land of heart's desire, Blackpool. "Oh, my lass! My lovely lass! You're all right now. That's us. Allus was ... Nothing to mar our joy. There will be such wonderful things to do. I will say such wonderful things to you. If you were the only girl in the world. And I were ..." Then his voice failed him.

He brushed her hair ("Pretty as a picture"); put on her bedroom slippers ("There you go, Cinderella"); laid his coat over her ("I don't like her cold. She hates it cold"); and, holding the world at bay for a few minutes, told no one else.

The first caller was a pigeon. "She always made out she didn't like them," said Jack. "It was the mess. I knew she used to sneak out to talk to them. I used to pretend I didn't know." And he gave the pigeon a message to carry. It was something he had never said directly to Vera: "Oh, you are beautiful! You are a pretty one! I love you."

Darling, I simply howled.

More on Fischer and Spassky

There is a very full obituary of Bobby Fischer by Leonard Barden in today's Guardian.

It is worth saying a world about Boris Spassky's career after the 1972 world title match in too. The following year he won the Soviet championship. This was a remarkable feat, not only because of the strength of the field but also because he was under a certain amount of official disapproval as the man who had lost the Soviet Union the world chess championship. Perhaps he was helped by having a lot of opening preparation left over from the Fischer match that he had not used because the American has switched to using openings he had never employed before.

Mark Taimanov, who was a concert pianist as well as a chess grandmaster, had lost 6-0 to Fischer earlier in the qualifying process for the 1972 title match. On returning to Moscow he had his luggage searched and a Solzhenitsyn novel was found. When he got into an argument about it he was forced to publish a public apology to his "comrade customs official" and later lost his government stipend.

After his courageous victory in the 1973 Soviet championship Spassky rather coasted, trading on his status as the only active chess player most people had heard of. He played in all the big tournaments but sometimes did not seem to be exerting himself.

He did lose a great match to Viktor Korchnoi as the latter qualified to meet Karpov in the 1978 world title match. Korchnoi was a dissident, living abroad by then, and his matches against the representatives of the Soviet regime tended to be grinding, hate-filled affairs. Against the universally liked Spassky, however, Korchnoi relaxed and the two of them produced wonderful chess.

Spassky, without ever becoming a public dissident like Korchnoi, gradually made it known that he had no sympathy for the Soviet regime. He now lives in a Russian emigre community in France.

In Bobby Fischer Goes to War, David Edmonds and John Eidinow record that his mother took the young Fischer to see a child psychiatrist because she was worried he was spending so much time playing and studying chess. The doctor remarked that there are worse obsessions and sent them on their way.

Spassky's boyhood was very different and I include an extract from Edmonds and Eidinow as a little bit of Soviet social history (the photograph above shows Spassky aged 12):
In the summer of 1946, Spassky passed his days watching the players in a chess pavilion "with a black knight on top" on an island in Leningrad's river Neva. "Long queen moves fascinated me," he recalls. "I fell in love with the white queen. I dreamed about caressing her in my pocket, but I did not dare to steal her. Chess is pure for me." He had thirteen kopeks for his fare and a glass of water with syrup to see him through until the last streetcar carried him home. His feet were bare. "Soldiers' boots were my worst enemy."
Now read more on Bobby Fischer.

All is well at the Stiperstones Inn

The Shropshire Star carries an enthusiastic review of the food there:

It is authentic, unfussy and stylish. Customers invariably leave with a desire to return. We’ve now eaten there on four occasions and every time we’ve vowed to go back. It’s at the top of our list of venues to take visiting friends, keen to sample Shropshire’s hills and pubs.

The Stiperstones Inn is, quite simply, one of the county’s treasures.
Skittles the cat gets a mention, but not the free broadband access.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Bobby Fischer 1943-2008


Bobby Fischer, who was world chess champion between 1972 and 1975, has died from kidney failure in a Reykjavík hospital. He was 64.

For a couple of months in 1972 Fischer's match against the Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky, the defending world champion, put chess on to the front page of every newspaper. It was seen by many as an allegory for the Cold War, with the individualist American triumphing over the representative of the Soviet machine (though in truth it was unfair to cast the semi-detached Spassky in this role). It also led to a boom in chess in the West - in Britain in particular.

Fischer had swept all before him on the way to the match, but his victory - or at least the 12.5 - 8.5 margin - was still something of a surprise. He had failed to beat Spassky in any of their previous meetings. Not only that: Fischer lost the first game after a blunder in a level ending and defaulted the second after a dispute over playing conditions.

But then Fischer always been a difficult and demanding competitor, even if his accusations that the leading Soviet players colluded amongst themselves probably had some truth to them. He almost defaulted himself from the qualifying process for the 1972 world championship match, only getting into it because another American player gave up his place. And a less gentlemanly opponent than Spassky might well have encouraged Fischer to walk out of the match. Or perhaps this was a sign of overconfidence on the part of the Soviet authorities?

Once Fischer got going in the match he all but blew Spassky away. In particular, he bypassed the Russian's preparation by employing openings that he had never played before.

After 1972 it was all downhill. Fischer refused to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov in 1975 even though the chess world had gone a long way to meeting his inevitable demands over the match regulations. He lived a vagrant life in several countries, indulged in antisemitic rantings (Fischer was from a Jewish background himself) and did not play a serious game of chess until 1992, when he beat Spassky in a return match.

This match added to Fischer's troubles as it was staged in the former Yugoslavia at a time when their were United Nations sanctions against the country, which included sporting events. The USA issued a warrant for his arrest and he was imprisoned in Japan before Iceland - the scene of his triumph over Spassky in 1972 - offered him asylum. At the end he was a bearded, dishevelled figure, almost unrecognisable as the lean young man who had captured the world title.

Dryden said "Great wits are sure to madness near allied". I am reminded of the comment by the former British champion Bill Hartston to the effect that chess does not drive people mad but keeps mad people sane.

There are parallels to be drawn between the life of Fischer and that of Paul Morphy - "The Pride and Sorrow of Chess". This young American master came over to Europe in 1858, defeated everyone but failed in his ambition to play a match against the Englishman Howard Staunton, who was the unofficial world champion. He returned to America, gave up the game and died aged only 47.

For a recent account of the Fischer-Spassky match see Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. See also my recent posting on Boris Spassky.

Free Schools and the school-leaving age

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

A lot of Balls

Nick Clegg is right, of course. Allowing parents and community groups to set up Free Schools is just what is needed.

For far too long, we have been stuck in a mind-set where there are good schools and bad schools– which class a school falls into being largely determined by the social class of the children who go there – and all we have to offer are complicated schemes for divvying up those places more equitably.

The thought that parents forced to send their children to a bad school might be better off seeking an alternative – or even providing one themselves – seems to have been beyond us. At last that is changing.

So well done, Nick. And as House Points is always loyal, you won't catch this column saying it is a pity you didn't make more of these ideas during the leadership election.

Meanwhile at Westminster, Ed Balls is trying to raise the school leaving age – or at least the education leaving age – to 18. This is a strange ambition in a society where 16 is rapidly becoming the age of majority in the way that 18 and 21 used to be.

As Michael Gove pointed out, at 16 you can marry, pay taxes, volunteer for military service and consent to sexual relations. As David Laws pointed out you can also change your name, pilot an aeroplane, gamble, join a trade union, leave home and apply for a passport. And Harriet Harman talks enthusiastically about giving 16-year-olds the vote.

So why is the government seeking to criminalise young people aged 16 and over who don’t want to continue their education?

In part it is because Labour has always overestimated the role that the education system plays in economic success. It will never be possible for government to know what skills the economy will need in a few years’ time. And in part it is because Labour just enjoys telling other people what to do.

But mostly, research suggests, it is because the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families wants others to experience a little of what he was made to suffer. What can it have been like going through public school with a name like Balls?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

ACPO expert admits CCTV cameras do not deter crime

The Daily Telegraph says that Graeme Gerrard, head of CCTV at the Association of Chief Police Officers, has said Surveillance cameras do little, if anything, to prevent late night alcohol-fuelled crime and violence on Britain's high streets.

The report goes on:
He told a parliamentary committee that while other countries were astonished at the scale to which Britons were snooped on by the authorities, the evidence suggested CCTV had little impact on levels of late-night violence.

He also admitted the public had been "misled" into believing that installing camera systems would have a big impact on anti-social behaviour.
And it quotes Chris Huhne, the new Lib Dem shadow home secretary as saying:
"We need to seriously rethink our gung-ho enthusiasm for the surveillance on every street corner in the country."

BritBlog Roundup: A reminder

On Sunday I shall be hosting the BritBlog Roundup here on Liberal England.

If you see any blog posts you think particularly fine over the next few days, 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.

Welcome to Ros Scott

Writing under the title Because Baronesses Are People Too, Ros Scott has joined the blogosphere.

This is a good chance to remind you that Ros will be standing for president of the Liberal Democrats when Simon Hughes steps down later this year. She launched her campaign at last year's Lib Dem Conference, which was maybe on the early side, but I have been happy to carry her button on this blog ever since.

It is on the strict understanding that Honeysuckle Weeks is not going to stand too.

Sir Archibald Sinclair and Thurso Castle

Inspired by the welcome news that Helena Bonham-Carter has purchased The Wharf at Sutton Courtney, which was once the home of her great grandfather H. H. Asquith, Iain Sharpe offers a survey of the current state of the homes of other Liberal prime ministers.

This brings to mind the extraordinary boyhood home of the Liberal leader Sir Archibald Sinclair (John Thurso's grandfather). My knowledge of it comes from a memory of reading the opening chapter of Gerard J. De Groot's Liberal Crusader: The Life of Sir Archibald Sinclair, though I will admit that it does sound just the sort of thing I would make up.

Indeed Thurso Castle did inspire an entry in Lord Bonkers' diary (see Wednesday). Fortunately, I have just found De Groot's book on Google Books and can be sure that I did not dream it all.

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

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

The photograph of the ruins of Thurso Castle comes from the Fierce Romance blog. You can see a picture of the building as the young Archibald knew it on CastleUK.net.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Messiah at Church Langton

Unmitigated England celebrates the Reverend William Hanbury, Church Langton rectory and the performance of Handel's Messiah he staged in the village in 1759:
The country lanes were jammed for miles with the carriages of the nobility, and once the hotels in Market Harborough were full, accommodation was offered in much humbler abodes. When the trumpets and kettle drums started up the common people became sore afraid, thinking it was the Day of Judgement.

Small earthquake in Shropshire

Exciting news from the Shropshire Star: there was an earthquake in the county on Saturday. It measured a mighty 1.6 on the Richter scale and the epicentre was somewhere near Pennerley and Picklescott, south west of Shrewsbury.

In other words, right underneath the Stiperstones.

The paper quotes Julian Bukits, assistant seismologist at the British Geological Survey, as saying it was unlikely that anybody would have felt anything:
“If somebody did feel it they would have had to be at the right place, at the right time, standing still with no background noise."

Did a pair of twins really marry?

It is a story that made headlines all over the world, often told in a very colourful way. Here, for instance, is a recent example from Canada:
A member of the British House of Lords recalls being told by a judge about an astounding incident in which a man and a woman who were both adopted met each other, felt an instant attraction and decided to get married.

It wasn't until they sought information about their birth parents that they discovered the sickening truth - they were actually brother and sister, twins who had been separated at birth, adopted by different parents and never told of each other's existence. When they met by accident, they didn't realize their attraction was more familial than amorous.
Yet in this morning's Guardian Jon Henley asked the question that has been worrying me for the past few days. Is the story actually true?

As he points out:
it all came from a single remark more than a month ago by the vehemently anti-abortion Roman Catholic peer and father of four, Lord Alton, in favour of all children having the right to know the identity of their biological parents.

He had heard about this particular case, he said, from the judge who handled the annulment. Or perhaps (he later admitted) a judge who was "familiar with the case". Britain's top family judge, Sir Mark Potter, has never heard of the story. And, as the excellent Heresy Corner blog notes, the whole thing is statistically improbable, procedurally implausible (for 40 years, adoption practice has been to keep twins together) and based on the equivalent of a friend in the pub saying, "Hey, I heard the most amazing story the other day."
I still have a soft spot for David Alton. If only because, long ago, as secretary of York Liberal Students I twice invited him to speak to our group. In those days he was one of the party's great radical heroes. So I don't want to impugn his integrity.

And you don't have to be a Roman Catholic to wonder if it is a good thing for somone's commitment to fatherhood to begin and end with masturbating into a testtube. (Why, incidentally, does Henley tell us that Alton is a father of four if not to say "look at these Catholics and all the children they have"?)

But two truths have to be admitted.

The first is that it is not unknown for anti-abortion campaigners to tell horror stories that turn out not to be true upon investigation.

The second is that judges tell all sorts of entertaining anecdotes - particularly after the port has been round a couple of times - but that does not mean they are the gospel truth.

Are Liverpool the new Newcastle United?

It must be more fun supporting some football teams than others. Not so much because of the success they enjoy or the entertainment they provide as because of your expectations.

So if your team is Crewe Alexandra you are probably happy - not just because of your club's charming name or its tradition of good football, but also because you have no pretentions to be being better than you are. If you get promoted it is pleasing: if you get relegated the following year it is not the end of the world.

By contrast, there are a lot of clubs whose supporters think they are entitled to be in the Premiership and feel cheated if they are not there. Wolves are one example and there is even an element of this attitude amongst Leicester City fans.

I remember a fan of Stoke City - one of the better English sides in the 1970s - saying that it took years for the club's team and the crowd to shake off the view that they were bound to get into the top division soon. The result is that no one put in the the required effort, and Stoke never did get promoted again.

Such an attitude can exist even at the top. As an armchair Chelsea fan (though I was there when we drew the FA Cup final in 1970) the advent of Gullit and Vialli and "sexy football" seemed like a restoration of the natural order of things. Chelsea should be a glamour club that wins a cup now and then. The subsequent Premierships under St Jose were something quite outside the expectations or experience of the club's fans.

But Newcastle United fans are different. Despite not having seen their club win anything since Methuselah was in short trousers, they still remain convinced that their is a great club that should be winning trophies. For this reason, their brush with glory under Kevin Keegan in the 1990s left them dissatisfied in a way that it would not have done the fans of most clubs.

The result is that any manager of Newcastle United is bound to fail because the expectations of the club's supporters are so unrealistically high.

I am rambling on like this because I see a danger that Liverpool may become the new Newcastle United. Despite not having won the English title since 1989-90, they still see themselves as the biggest club in the country and, more destructively, somehow deserving of success simply because of who they are.

You will say that they won the Champion's League a couple of years ago, which spoils my theory. But (beside the fact that the ball was never over the line in that semi-final against Chelsea) I suspect Liverpool fans should have regarded that as a wonderful exception to the order of things rather than their natural right.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The next BritBlog Roundup

On Sunday I shall be hosting the BritBlog Roundup here on Liberal England.

If you see any blog posts you think particularly fine over the coming 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.

Adolf Hitler and Ludwig Wittgenstein

Borrowed from Wikipedia, this has to win Photograph of the Day.

It shows the young Adolf Hitler and the young Ludwig Wittgenstein at school together at the Linz Realschule in 1903/4.

You have probably heard of Hitler, but Wittgenstein may need some introduction. When I studied for a Philosophy degree in the late seventies and early seventies, Wittgenstein - particularly the later Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations - was the dominant figure in the discipline (though that dominance was drawing to a close).

Many journal papers tackled philosophical problems through an exegesis of one of his gnomic remarks. As a tutor at Cambridge just after the War he had clearly exerted a crushing effect on an entire generation of British academic philosophers.

Read more about Wittgenstein and his work in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

One further thing: Hitler came from a humble background whereas Wittgenstein's family owned the Austrian steel industry. Is their being at school together a tribute to the egalitarian education system that pertained in fin de siècle Vienna?

How the Lib Dem leadership contest almost turned into a bloodbath

The current issue of the House Magazine has an article on the challenges facing Nick Clegg, written by Greg Hurst.

More striking, however, are Hurst's claims about the tensions behind the scenes during the recent leadership contest. Writing of the tension between Nick and Chris Huhne, Hurst says:

Things could have been still worse. Sir Menzies, who blamed Huhne henchmen for undermining his leadership and hastening his departure, had to be restrained from launching a public attack upon him during the election. We must await the publication of his memoirs to judge Sir Menzies' determination to settle such scores.

Similarly, Charles Kennedy remains aggrieved at the role played by some younger MPs in forcing his resignation and seizing control of the party by backing Sir Menzies and then Nick Clegg. Several close Kennedy allies threw themselves into Chris Huhne's campaign in the hope of wrestling back the leadership from the "Orange Book" upstarts.

There was, briefly, a real prospect of the two ex-leaders turning on the rival candidates; in the event, threatened with the mutually assured destruction of the Lib Dems' remaining credibility. a Cold War-like stand-off was achieved.

I don't know how much truth there is in all this, but I do know that Chris Huhne's attempt to draw Nick Clegg out on his beliefs on public services was entirely legitimate. The fuss over the headline "Calamity Clegg" should not blind us to this.

Given how well Nick's speech at the weekend has gone down with the press and the party (to judge by Lib Dem bloggers, at least), he would have done better to be more forthcoming on what he had in mind as leader.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

BritBlog Roundup 152

Thanks to Clairwil.

Tony Greaves on Labour jargon

Niles's Blog points us to Lord Greaves's contribution to a Lords debate on community engagement:
Having read the report we are debating today, I had a vision of someone saying to their husband or wife, “I’m just off down the neighbourhood hub for a bit of community empowerment. We have been quality assured by the national empowerment partnership, and tonight we are embedding our practitioner learning and capturing and sharing it through the national neighbourhood management network”.
As Niles says:
Language like this is everywhere and sad to say, all too often, it is there to cloud meaning not to illuminate it.

Clive Gregson and Christine Collister: I Specialise



When I was a district councillor back in the 1980s (I was only 14 when I was elected) I served on the IBA committee which oversaw the Leicester commercial radio station Leicester Sound.

One of the programmes I got into the habit of listening to was John Shaw's Here Be Dragons on Sunday evenings. Shaw (who is still around on Smooth FM) played a lot of folk and world music, and this is a record I remember from that time. Collister has a wonderful voice and the song's bleak sentiments appeal to me.

There is more on Gregson and Collister for those who want it. And you get a second song ("It's All Just Talk") with this video too.

Later. Not any more you don't. I have had to change the video after the first one disappeared from Youtube.

Foyle's War disappears again

It seems that we shall have to learn to treat each episode of Foyle's War as a drama in its own right rather than as part of a series.

Anyone tuning into ITV at 9 p.m. this evening was encountered with Dancing On Ice: The Skate Off and Kingdom. The latter did feature some nice shots of Happisburgh lighthouse, but as an evening's television it is hardly in the same class as Foyle.

If you want to see Honeysuckle Weeks you will have to catch her in a touring production of The Turn of the Screw.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

More on Nick Clegg and Free Schools

Further to my posting on Nick Clegg's speech today...

Andy Mayer gives something of the flavour of the Lib Dem manifesto conference:
An auditorium speaker repeated the mantra that people don't want choice they want a good local school and hospital. Half the audience cheered. Tom Papworth highlighted that, while that's right, the point is how you get those good schools and hospitals. Choice helps drive up standards faster than just voting out incumbent Councillors every four years. The other half of the audience cheered.
Meanwhile, Jo Anglezarke is inspired by Nick Clegg's talk of Free Schools:

One school you should read about as truly Liberal, and one I am tempted to send my future children to is Summerhill School. It's a totally free school, where lessons are given, but only to children who have chosen to go to them. I have A.S. Neil's autobiography in my bookcase and have read it with fascination.

It's a model school which gives children both choice and confidence.
I am delighted to see a Liberal Democrat supporting innovation and diversity in education. And there is certainly a role for schools like Summerhill.

But I wonder if this is the kind of establishment that inner-city parents from ethnic minorities, who are the people most likely to benefit from Free Schools, will have in mind.

Nick Clegg's speech on the reform of public services

Nick Clegg made his first big speech today at the Liberal Democrat Manifesto Conference, which was held at the London School of Economics. See Paul Walter for a comprehensive survey of the media coverage it has received.

His proposals on education - allowing parents dissatisfied with existing provision to set up their own schools - are exactly what I have been wanting the party to support for years.

Here is an extract from Clegg's speech (I was not there to "check against delivery" as the drafts they send journalists always say):

There is plenty wrong with the government’s Academies programme - from the selection rules to the absurdity of trying to run schools all over the country at the behest of one Minister in the House of Lords.

But there is nothing wrong at all with allowing schools the freedom to innovate.

Nothing wrong with bringing committed people and organisations into our education system.

And nothing wrong with allowing schools to exist outside direct daily local government management - as long as they are under local government oversight.

And it makes me angry when I hear people attacking new schools which have replaced old, failing, local authority schools many of which consigned generations of children who could have done much better to the educational scrapheap.

So, with these principles in mind, I want us to look at establishing a new liberal model of schools that are non-selective, under local government strategic oversight but not run by the council, and free to innovate to drive up standards for all our children.

They could be established by any suitable sponsor, including parents, educational charities, voluntary and private organisations with the right credentials.

Sponsors should be independently assessed for their expertise, with no ministerial involvement.

This new generation of schools - let us call them Free Schools - will have the funding to help those children who need the most support; the obligation to be accessible to all; and the freedom from unnecessary political and bureaucratic interference to innovate in the best interests of their pupils.

I could hardly have put it better myself.

The devil, as ever, will be in the detail. What exactly will "local government oversight" mean in practice? Will central government have to intervene where - as is overwhelmingly likely - Labour councils prove hostile to the establishment of new schools that are not part of their empire? And will Evangelical businessmen be able to set up Free Schools, just as they have set up Academies?

The BBC and James Graham (a powerful combination) seem to believe that the principles which will govern Free Schools will be extended to all schools. Auntie thinks we are ruling out selection by aptitude at existing specialist schools. James discusses the abolition of faith schools and grammar schools.

I don't read the proposals that way, and would be very surprised if this is what Nick Clegg intends. But we shall learn more soon, no doubt.

Besides there is something odd, in a country whose politics is increasingly dominated by the products of selective fee-paying schools, about the way that selection by academic ability in the public sector is now treated as anathema by almost every mainstream politician.

Avram Grant's family and the Holocaust

The Jewish Chronicle has an interview with the Chelsea manager, who has been rather an anonymous figure until now.

The newspaper begins by describing the fate of Grant's family during the Second World War and says that he:

knew nothing of their fate until one night when he was only 15.

He heard his father screaming in his sleep and rushed into his room to find that he was having a bad dream.

His father explained he had been dreaming he was back in the Russian forest in which he had been forced to dig graves for his parents and five brothers and sisters as each, in turn, died of cold or starvation. Only he and one brother survived.

From Clee to heaven the beacon burns

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

The South Shropshire Hills celebrate their fiftieth anniversary as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) this year.

Beacons are to be lit on the Long Mynd and Brown Clee on Sunday 13 January as the first of several special events.

Which seems like a good reason for reproducing another lovely photograph from Virtual Shropshire.

Friday, January 11, 2008

When Norwich City played at The Nest

On the Guardian Sportblog Scott Murray chooses his six favourite football grounds.

Buried in the comments is a reference to the most extraordinary football ground you could imagine. Norwich City played at The Nest between 1908 and 1935. The ground was situated in a disused chalk pit off Rosary Road in Norwich.

A feature in the Eastern Daily Press (from which I have borrowed the photograph) describes it as follows:

Footballers risked injury by crashing into the massive concrete wall which held up the cliff that dominated the arena and rose sheer, barely a couple of feet from the touchline. And the manner in which up to 20,000 fans regularly crammed into the precarious looking stands built into the old quarry would have had ground safety officers in a real panic had they existed in those days.

“It should never have been a football ground and I was glad to get away from the place – it was a wicked ground,” said 90-year-old former City stalwart Bernard Robinson, who played at The Nest for the first four years of his career.

“At one end of the ground it just went straight up and to stop all the earth coming down on to the pitch they had a huge cement wall. It was five or six feet from the touchline so wingers had to be careful.

“Behind the other goal were the dressing rooms and a small stand and apart from that there was just a row of houses and the gardens were 15 to 20 feet below the level of the pitch. There was a big wire netting fence to stop the ball going in there. It was very dangerous.”

Pakistan and Kenya from a distance

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Telescopic philanthropy

Governing is such an easy business. Not in the UK, you understand, where we have intractable problems like invalidity benefit, the credit crunch and teenage gangs. But governing in far off places like Pakistan and Kenya. In fact, the further you are from a situation, the easier it is to know what should be done.

Take Pakistan. On Monday David Milliband, the Harry Potteresque foreign secretary, praised Benazir Bhutto’s courage. That quality "is now required of others as they take forward the drive for democracy and modernisation".

Yes, courage is a virtue and it was shown, for instance, by politicians from both communities during the Northern Ireland Troubles. Some even gave their lives to keep representative democracy alive.

But if Milliband had looked up he would have seen the floor-to-ceiling glass screen that walled him off from the public gallery. Not much sign of courage there. And when MPs did face a threat - in the shape of a couple of Father 4 Justice activists with a bag of flour - the Tory chief whip drove his troops from the chamber in a way that brought letters of complaint from headless chickens.

Crossing the Indian Ocean, Milliband praised the conduct of the recent election where "millions of Kenyans queued for hours, peacefully and with dignity, to cast their votes for parliamentary and presidential candidates".

Yet dignity is precisely the quality Labour has leeched from elections here. The push to increase turnouts by encouraging postal voting has led to serious doubts about the conduct of British elections for the first time anyone can remember. And a government commission recently suggested that people who vote in local elections should be entered into a draw with cash prizes.

The Tories find politics easier from a distance too. William Hague said "Kenya’s leaders have a clear responsibility to compromise and work together". This from a politician whose reputation rests on his mastery of the Punch and Judy show that is prime minister’s questions.

In Bleak House Charles Dickens created the immortal Mrs Jellyby, who worries about the natives of Borrioboola-Gha while her own children fell into the grate. Dickens described her attitude as "telescopic philanthropy". It is rapidly becoming the hallmark of British politics.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The era of the flying boats

BLDGBLOG has a posting all about a wonderfully eccentric plan for floating runways for flying boats in the middle of the Atlantic that was published in Modern Mechanix in 1936. You will see I have borrowed the illustration that blog reproduces.

It reminds me of an item I heard on Radio 4 before Christmas about the Foynes Flying Boat Museum in County Limerick, Ireland. As the museum website says:

Foynes, Ireland, became the center of the aviation world from 1939 to 1945. On July 9th 1939, Pan Am's luxury Flying Boat, the "Yankee Clipper" landed at Foynes. This was the first commercial passenger flight on a direct route from the USA to Europe. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, this quiet little town on the Shannon became the focal point for air traffic on the North Atlantic.

During this period, many famous politicians, international businessmen, film stars, active-service-men and wartime refugees passed through Foynes. In fact, the site was initially surveyed in 1933 by Colonel Charles Lindbergh and his wife Ann, who landed in Galway Bay flying his Lockheed Sirius. In December 1935, the Irish Times announced that Foynes would be the site for the European Terminal for transatlantic air services. Colonel Lindbergh returned again representing Pan Am in 1936 to inspect the facilities and also in 1937 to view the departure of "Clipper III".

Finally, a word about Loch Lomond Seaplanes, who operate from the centre of Glasgow. One day I would like to arrive on Skye or even the Outer Hebrides that way.

Nick Clegg should have made his education speech during the leadership contest

This morning's Guardian told us breathlessly:

Nick Clegg will unveil plans to end state interference in schools this week as he moves to bury the Liberal Democrats' traditional approach to public services.
In his first keynote speech since becoming party leader, Clegg will challenge many of the party's supporters in teaching and local government by issuing proposals which will "effectively take schools out of state control", according to one official.

David Laws, the Lib Dems' schools spokesman, paved the way for changes to the party's approach at its annual conference in September, pledging to inject more choice into the system by making it easier for parents and community groups to set up new schools. The plans won the backing of the conference, although some activists and MPs are uneasy about the approach - which chimes with many of the policies proposed by the Conservatives.

The more you read this, the more you realise that Clegg may not be intending to do much more than reaffirm existing party policy.

I am all in favour of people being able to set up new schools. The present regulations make it hard to do this in area with vacant places in existing schools. But that can often be a sign that those schools are not very good and that this is just the sort of area where new schools are needed most. New schools can be desirable for other reasons - see this posting about Northern Ireland.

I am all in favour of getting the state out of education. I am not convinced that two decades of league tables, initiatives and the national curriculum have achieved very much at all beyond the demoralisation and infantilisation of the teaching profession.

As David Laws is no fool, I will do him the credit of assuming that he does not intend to end the role of local government in education. I will settle for a recognition that some councils do not do a good job of running their schools and allowing people to do something about their children's education in those areas.

It is a great shame that Nick Clegg did not put forward his ideas during the leadership campaign. When challenged on the Politics Show his reaction was to throw up his hands and then make an official complaint. He will not be able to do that in the Commons or during a general election campaign.

If he had been a bit braver, I might well have voted for him.

Finally, like James Graham, I suspect that the way the Guardian presented this story is that it has been spun to them by the leader's office as "Clegg takes on Lib Dem activists".

Stop it, boys and girls. Now.

Did the greens make a return to nuclear power inevitiable?

What do governments do when faced with a crisis?

Easy. They spend enormous amounts of money.

Which is why the enthusiasm with which the environmental movement has talked up the threat posed by human-induced climate change was always likely to lead to the government deciding to back the nuclear option in a big way.

Despite Windscale and Chernobyl, the chief argument against nuclear power has never been the safety one but its cost. The huge and unquantifiable sums needed to build and run nuclear plants has meant that they cannot been built without being subsidised with public money - if only in terms of guarantees over footing the bill for their eventual decommissioning.

But make the sense of crisis deep enough and the economic argument no longer works. If we're threatened with The End Of The World As We Know It then everyone will say that the government should spend billions.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Nick Clegg and the price of fuel

Nick Clegg got through his first PMQs unscathed and the commentators have been quite complimentary.

For instance, Michael White writes:
How did he do? Quite well, I thought, watching it on TV like most people do, though colleagues actually in the chamber report that his voice is too soft to allow him to overcome the background hubbub with ease.

Plenty of time to sort that out, important though it is. Sharp-eyed students of the weekly drama might also have spotted that he moved three seats along from the traditional leader's corner seat, so he appeared surrounded by colleagues - "doughnutted" as they say - rather than isolated.
That doughnutting was forecast on this blog yesterday, of course.

White also implies that Nick Clegg's decision to ask about fuel costs may have been a good one:

Steve Webb, the Lib Dems' left-leaning social policy expert (who backed Clegg over Huhne) later chipped in with a back-up question. The typical family is paying £300 more a year than four years ago and that sum more than wipes out the winter fuel allowance, he pointed out. The PM reminded him that the allowance used to be just £20.

It left me wondering whether, with higher prices and the growing risk of brown-outs and even blackouts in the colder winter months, the energy giants - many of them foreign-owned - are not set to become the public bad boys they have long been in the United States. When the Daily Mail writes about them treating Britain like "Treasure Island" it's time for them to sit up and concentrate.

Politicians in tears

When I went to bed last night Barack Obama was going to win the New Hampshire primary by 10 per cent. When I woke up he had been beaten by Hilary Clinton.

One factor in her victory, the pundits all say, was her almost appearing to cry when interviewed a couple of days before the contest. But tears do not always help American Presidential hopefuls.

In 1972 Senator Ed Muskie was the early favourite to win the Democratic nomination and he headed the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire. However, his emotional response to newspaper allegations that his wife Jane had a drink problem was widely thought to have damaged his chances.

Muskie claimed that what people thought were tears were really melting snowflakes - the speech was made out of doors. But his campaign lost momentum and the Democratic candidacy went instead to George McGovern, who went on to be trounced by the Republican incumbent Richard Nixon.

The story goes that Harold Macmillan was asked what he would have said if his own wife's drinking had been used against him. He replied that he would have said: "That's nothing. You should have seen her mother."

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Funeral held at Leicestershire school while lessons in progress

There has been a lot of clamour against church schools in Lib Dem circles - see the recent discussion on Lib Dem Voice in particular.

I am not usually one to worry about such schools unduly. The idea that the average Church of England primary school is engaged in a dangerous programme of religious indoctrination seems daft to me. And I am inclined to think that critics of church schools should ask themselves why they are often so much more popular than the council-run alternatives.

All that said, this story from today's Leicester Mercury strikes me as barking mad:

A head teacher today defended a decision to hold a funeral in her school while children were in lessons.

A service at the Samworth Enterprise Academy on Friday is believed to be the first time a funeral in England has been held in a school.

Some parents said it was upsetting for children to see the funeral while others said they believed it was "undignified" for the grieving family.

However, principal Pat Dubas said bosses at the Saffron Lane academy had decided to incorporate a fully-functioning Anglican church in the school building and that meant it could not "pick and choose" which services to offer.

The church and school share the main entrance but a door allows access to St Christopher's without visitors entering the school reception.

Nigel Smith, whose nine-year-old son, Ashley, attends the school, and who is related to the deceased's family, said: "Funerals do not have a place in schools, it's disgusting.

"We knew the church was there when the school was built but we thought it would be for educational purposes ..."

The academy, which is backed by the Church of England and Leicester businessman David Samworth, opened in September and St Christopher's Parish Church relocated to a section of the building. The academy takes pupils from three to 12 years and will eventually include 16-year-olds, with the roll set to reach 1,050 pupils by 2011.

The Samworth Enterprise Academy is not a church school in the conventional. but one of the government's new academies. And these do tend to attract Evangelical Christian businessmen - a breed I always find rather creepy. What the Church of England thinks it is doing getting involved in such a set up, I cannot begin to understand.

But do think carefully before you call for the the disestablishment of the C of E. It is the only thing that keeps the happy clappy brigade in check. America has no established church, but religion is infinitely more influential there than here.