Monday, February 28, 2011

Why village schools are threatened in Shropshire



Keith Barrow, leader of Conservative-run Shropshire, has spoken:
“There will be no council tax increases in Shropshire over the next two years and, in 2013, council tax will go down to the lowest level in Shropshire."
I'm not sure I understand the second half of that sentence, but then Mr Barrow seems to have problems with expressing himself. "I cannot understate the size of the journey we have in front of us, nor the hurdles that we will encounter along the way," he says later in the same press release.

What is clear is that Shropshire Tories' macho determination to freeze Council Tax is having serious effects on the quality of life in the county over and above the pressures caused by the cut in its grant from central government.

One example of this are the plans to close nine schools in the county - mainly village primary schools. The video above is the latest move in the campaign to save one of them: Stiperstones Primary School.

Peter Phillips is the Liberal Democrat councillor for Bishop's Castle  - I bought a book of his poems last time I was in his ward. He told the Shropshire Star:
Shropshire’s primary numbers bottom out this year and will then gently rise. It is difficult to understand why the myth of falling primary numbers has persisted — it is untrue.

“The savings are purely and demonstrably speculative. They remain unknown until a school has actually been closed, and there is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate that ‘collateral damage’ generates much additional cost not only to the council but to other public bodies and the community.”
The same newspaper story reports that  children from the threatened primary school at Onibury, which has been deemed to be satisfactory, are being offered places at Stokesay, which has been served with a notice to improve.

If all the Conservative talk of the Big Society and empowering local communities means anything, then the council will overturn this decision or the government will grant parents the powers to force them to overturn it. In many ways Shropshire is a litmus test of the sincerity of Cameroon Conservatism.

No Child Born to Die: Vaccination in the developing world

When I was at Save the Children's blogging conference on Saturday there were two campaigns the charity was keen to promote. One was its campaign on child poverty in Britain, which I wrote about on the day, and the other was its vaccination campaign.

The Save the Children website explains:
Pneumonia and diarrhoea are the biggest killers of under-fives globally, accounting for three times more deaths than malaria and AIDS combined.

This year, for the first time, babies and children in Kenya, Sierra Leone, Yemen and Guyana will be immunised against pneumonia through their public health service. Tens of thousands of young lives could potentially be saved.

But now there's a real danger that the global immunisation drive could stall because of a looming funding crisis.
Read more in the charity's report No Child Born to Die: Closing the Gaps.

My Meet the Bloggers interview on Lib Dem Voice

I am the subject of the latest Meet the Bloggers profile on Liberal Democrat Voice:
I realised that I was not a Socialist ... when Boxmoor County Primary School demanded a letter from your parents before you were allowed not to have custard with your pudding.

Traditional end of month Lolcat arrives on time

Iz not weerd  mommy sez I has flair

Let Lord Bonkers solve your problems

Lord Bonkers writes exclusively for Liberal England.

In shall me devoting my next Diary in Liberator to answering my readers' problems. You will be aware that I have unparalleled political experience, so whether you want to know the best way to write a Focus, to know what our policy should be on the Levant or to know what the dickens T.H.Green was on about, then I am your man.

Remember too that I have many friends and employees upon whom I may call. Meadowcroft can advise you on gardening, Nanny on health problems, the Reverend Hughes on spiritual matters and so forth.

I am afraid that I cannot enter into individual correspondence, but all your emails will be read - especially if they include a 5/- postal order. Please write to me at Bonkers Hall.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Georges Delerue: Theme from Our Mother's House



Back in 2005 I wrote about Georges Delerue's soundtrack for the 1967 film Our Mother's House:
Away from the film Delerue's music is pleasant, but in context I know of no score which so alters the mood of its film. Our Mother's House is a dark story of a family of children who conceal the death of their mother to avoid being taken into care. Just as the deception is about to be discovered there absentee father turns up and we discover things are not quite as they seemed.

This could have been a distasteful film, yet the music - innocent, lilting, compassionate - lifts it into a different sphere altogether. In doing so it gives Our Mother's House a claim to be one of the most important British films of the 1960s.
Anyway, here is the main theme from the film. If you have not seen Our Mother's House but still find the music oddly familiar, it may be because you have seen The Color Purple.

Six of the Best 136

Birkdale Focus reveals that the young Matthew Oakeshott received the approval of Jo Grimond for his research into worker co-operatives - and hopes that the mature version will lead a revival of interest in the idea among Liberal Democrats.

What did Peter Mandelson think of Ed Miliband's victory in the Labour leadership election? LabourList will tell you: "It was a photo finish [and] I felt terrible for David. I felt even more worried for the party."

Peter Black AM keeps us up to date with Larry's progress at 10 Downing Street: "Cats do like to present their latest kill to their human hosts as presents. Do not be surprised at reports of dismembered rats being left in the Prime Minister's study or under the Cabinet Table."

Secularism is vital to building a stable world, argues Edmund Standing at Harry's Place.

The newly published complete works of Gerrard Winstanley, leader of the 17th century Diggers, is reviewed by Ariel Hessayon on Reviews in History: "At last Winstanley, the ‘foremost radical of the English Revolution’, who stands shoulder to shoulder with John Donne, Francis Bacon, John Milton, Andrew Marvell and John Bunyan as one of the ‘finest writers’ of a ‘glorious age of English non-fictional prose’ ... has an indispensable scholarly edition of his writings befitting both his undoubted literary talents and profound insights."

Chameleon at Redemption Blues pays tribute to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart - "one of the icons of childhood Saturday evenings" - and reflects on her relations with make authority figures in general.

Is this the most expensive public convenience in Britain?


The other day I blogged about the Leicester Mercury report revealing that Harborough District Council is paying contractors £53,000 a year (not including Labour costs) to clean the public conveniences on the Commons car park in Market Harborough.

The Harborough Mail also has the story:
in just 20 minutes the Mail was able to obtain estimates for the same job from three separate cleaning firms, all of which came in at under £25,000, based on a full-time cleaner working seven days-a-week.

A director of one of the firms, who asked to remain anonymous, described the £53,000 figure as ‘horrendous’ while another said it would be a ‘dream contract’.
What would be a fair figure? Judge for yourself. The Commons loos are shows in the photograph above.

When, in an earlier life, I was a member of Harborough District Council myself, it seemed to be generally well regarded. If I met someone socially who had had business dealings with the council, I was usually told that is was efficient and good to work with.

So it pains me to see the council turning into a bit of a joke. The words of "a council spokesman", as quoted in the Harborough Mail, say it all - "The cleansing cost of £53,000 for the Commons Car Park toilets/baby changing facilities is straight from the contract as the tendered figure. This is the amount that the contractor put in the tender to provide the specified service."

Or does this accurately reflect the powerlessness of a small district council when faced with a large private contractor?

The Harborough Mail also quotes someone from the Taxpayers' Alliance. This is not a group I have a lot of time for - I am a taxpayer and they have never consulted me.

Still, it is amusing to see Harborough Tories fall foul of another of its natural supporters. They were attacked by Conservative Home and the Daily Mail when they cancelled an appearance in town by Father Christmas and his reindeer because it had snowed.

Please add your own elf and safety joke here.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Save the Children's Born to Write blogging conference

I am at Save the Children's Born to Write blogging conference. I don't know if it is the Wifi here or a more general problem, but I cannot use Twitter. So here is a short post with some links. I shall write more about the day later.

Save the Children got a lot of press coverage this week for its new report on child poverty in the UK. You can read an article about it by Gareth Jenkins on the charity's website and also download the whole report from there.

You can read about the charity's redoubtable founder Eglantyne Jebb (winner of our Name of the Day award) or watch a video...

Joyce Wainwright remembered

Yesterday's Liberal Democrat News carried an obituary of Joyce Wainwright by her son Martin, the Guardian journalist.

There was also a report of her death in the Yorkshire Evening Post:
Joyce Wainwright was married to the late Liberal MP Richard Wainwright, who represented the West Yorkshire seat of Colne Valley from 1974 to 1987, and for an earlier period from 1966 ...

Despite being an MP’s wife at a time when the role was mainly a supportive one, Mrs Wainwright was an outspoken activist and campaigner in her own right ...

Mrs Wainwright shared her husband’s enthusiasm and commitment to Liberal politics. She was an active member of Yorkshire Women’s Liberal Federation, and chairwoman of Colne Valley Women’s Liberal Council.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Judy Steel: Tales from the Tap End

This review appears in today's edition of Liberal Democrat News. You can buy Tales from the Tap End on Amazon UK.

Tales from the Tap End: The Memoirs of Judy Steel
Judy Steel
Birlinn, 2010, £16.99

The best book about the last years of the Liberal Party is the tribute to David Penhaligon that his wife Annette published a couple of years after his death. If Judy Steel’s memoirs do not reach those heights, they still offer valuable insights into a little-documented era.

She was moved to write by the parliamentary expenses scandal, and in many ways her book is a defence of the idea that a political career is a form of public service. Like Annette Penhaligon, she reveals the extent to which such a career is a partnership. At the risk of giving too much information, Judy tells us her title comes from the Steels’ habit of sharing a bath and David’s conviction that “a woman’s place is at the tap end”.

Judy met the young David Steel while they were students at Edinburgh. By the time they married he was already PPC for the city’s Pentlands constituency and he showed his sharpness shortly afterwards by transferring to the more promising Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles.

David’s strong showing at the 1964 general election was crucial to his winning the by-election the following year, though he had to fend off the ambitions of one A.J.F. MacDonald. A.J.F. had held the old Roxburgh & Selkirk seat for the Liberals between 1950 and 1951 and judged the time ripe for a return to public life – he suggested young Steel might act as his agent.

As David Steel rose to prominence through his Abortion Act, presidency of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and leadership of the Liberal Party, Judy’s work did much to secure his constituency base. She is at her strongest in painting the characters and customs of the Borders, and in describing her own fostering of teenagers and work in founding Scotland system of Children’s Hearings.

But she still casts light on the high politics of the Alliance years. More light, it has to be said, than her husband’s Against Goliath, which tends to tell us what journalists said about important events rather than how they felt from the inside.

It is no surprise to learn that David Steel got on better with Roy Jenkins than with David Owen, but Judy tells it like it was in describing Owen as "divisive" and "disdainful of the Liberals right from the start". And though we all know David believes he was wounded by the ridicule of Spitting Image, which showed him perched in Owen’s pocket (not altogether unfairly – he got the tap end in that relationship), it is a shock to learn that he made himself watch the programme each week.

Judy’s own puppet, which she rather liked, spent its time knitting and soothing. They wouldn’t depict her like that now.

Since David left Westminster she has visibly blossomed and made a new career in arts and the theatre. She is an authority on the James Hogg, “the Ettrick Shepherd” – a dark, visionary writer of the Romantic era – and once staged a substantial festival in his honour. A Scottish parliament was the cause that won Judy to politics as a little girl, but her husband’s role as that parliament’s first presiding officer forms only the background to the later part of her story. The Steels’ new bath has taps at the side.

Ultimately, though, a political biography stands or falls by the quality of its anecdotes. My favourite in Tales from the Tap End concerns an old lady to whom Judy Steel was introduced during the 1965 by-election. “I’m so glad to meet you,” she said. “We’ve always been a great Liberal family. My brother Sandy won the Border Burghs for Mr Gladstone in 1886.”

Jonathan Calder

Calder on Air: What Queston Time tells us about British politics

My Calder on Air column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

Against my principles

I have not gained much wisdom, but there are two principles I try to live by. The first is to enjoy things while you have them, because these are the times you will look back on with nostalgia one day. The second is never to watch Question Time (BBC1).

You know what it’s like at Liberal Democrat Conference: if you wander into the hall and sit down at random, you always find yourself directly in front of someone who applauds, very loudly, all the points made from the platform that you most disagree with. Well, the entire audience for Question Time is made up of people like that.

Actually, it is worse. There are times when an edition of the programme convinces you that Britain is ripe for a Fascist takeover - probably by next Tuesday. But watching the show last week convinced me that it is not the audience that is the problem but the panel.

And that despite the fact that, though this edition of Question Time came from Barking, it was actually less barking than usual. The panel was almost distinguished. Michael Heseltine is an elderly, toothless lion who needs 14 days’ written notice before he can roar, but a lion none the less. Vince Cable was his usual professorial self: able to appear above the fray while putting the boot in when it is required. Yvette Cooper has a high reputation... but more of her later.

Outside the three main parties, there was Nigel Farage. You can imagine him being fun to have a drink with if you found a new local. The first time. By the end of the week you would be giving his saloon bar and his saloon bar prejudices a wide berth. About five miles, to be safe.

The fifth member of the panel – the obligatory non-politician – was Victoria Barnsley, the chief executive of HarperCollins. It is a sign that something is wrong with British politics when one of Rupert Murdoch’s cohorts emerges as the voice of liberalism.

Take the first question, which was on the British Supreme Court’s decision that those placed on the sex offenders register should be able to have the decision reviewed by the courts. Without being melodramatic, the principle that it should be possible to challenge what the state does is pretty much the one that people have been dying for in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

It is not like that on Question Time. There was agreement between most panellists and most audience members that it was an outrage that this sanction should ever be open to review, but that if it really, really had to be reviewed then it should be by the police and not by the courts. It was taken as axiomatic that all sex offenders are paedophiles and the whole exchange suggested that wider society has adopted the morality of the prison system where, however wicked you are, you can cheer yourself by looking down on nonces.

Nigel Farage, of course, blamed it all on the European Union. Vince Cable and Michael Heseltine had the grace to remain largely above this debate. Yvette Cooper had no such scruples. Though she was careful not to commit herself to any coherent position, she sounded fierce.

And boy did she talk. She talked and talked and talked. Verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, old boots, gerunds. It was just the same on the economy. She did not explain how Labour could possibly borrow more, but she talked and talked. Look out, it’s the kitchen sink!

Living with Ed Balls can’t help. If the milkman called at their house about the bill he would get a lecture on the iniquities of Tory farming policy and another on the need to invest in new floats, but he wouldn’t get his money.

So you learn a lot from Question Time. It’s just that you don’t learn it in the way the producers intend.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lord Bonkers' Diary: I have a nuclear option too

Another week with Rutland's most celebrated fictional peer draws to a close.

You are no doubt wondering how I am getting on as Minister for Outer Space in the Coalition Government. I flatter myself that I am doing Rather Well. For instance, I found that if you give them a free hand those civil servant wallahs will simply weigh you down with reports, memoranda and other beastly paperwork. I have put a stop to that by giving the firm instruction that my Red Boxes are to be closed at 10 a.m. sharp. One has to show who is that master, that is all – it is rather like training a fox terrier.

Some of my Liberal friends worry that we are losing our radical edge by aligning ourselves with our traditional enemies the Conservatives (or “the spawn of Beelzebub,” as I described them in a trenchant High Leicestershire Radical editorial just before the general election). Two such Liberals – jolly girls by the name of Holly and Heidi, as it happens – came along to a recent surgery of mine (as well as being a minister, I am councillor for the Bonkers Hall Ward) and to express their fears.

I put their minds at rest by telling them how I and my fellow Liberal Democrat minsters are fighting our corner. On reflection, my observations fell on the fruity side of candour (“Can I be very frank with you? I have a nuclear option ... and if that little squit Osborne doesn’t mend his ways I shall launch Rutland’s independent deterrent towards 11 Downing Street.”) As, however, I can be confident that these remarks will go no further, that hardly matters.

Previously in Lord Bonkers' Diary...

More Whitehall cats - and churnalism

I wish The National Archives had put this page up before I wrote my article on Larry for Comment is Free, because it seems there is quite a history of cats in Whitehall:
The original Peter the Home Office cat was 'Chief Mouser' in residence until 1946 when he passed away. There are letters from Austria, Italy and the USA mourning the death of Peter, including one letter from the 'Peter Remembrance Society' ...
Cats appointed to other government offices as 'Chief Mouser' include 'Jumbo' at the Cabinet War Rooms and 'Smokey' at the Treasury.
There was also a story in the Daily Mail the other day saying that someone had recognised Larry and was claiming he was her own lost cat.

It turns out that this story was planted to show how often the media pass stories on without checking them. Strangely, all reference to it has now disappered from the Mail's website.

Those Barnsley Central by-election candidates in full

The BBC News site has mini-manifestos from eight of the nine candidates standing in the Barnsley Central by-election on 3 March.

The full nine are:
  • Dominic Carman (Lib Dem)
  • Jane Collins (UKIP)
  • Enis Dalton (BNP)
  • Michael Davies (Independent)
  • Tony Devoy (Independent)
  • James Hockney (Conservative)
  • Alan "Howling Laud" Hope (Monster Raving Loony)
  • Dan Jarvis (Labour)
  • Kevin Riddiough (English Democrats)
More about Dominic Carman on the Guardian site.

Shropshire Star wins Headline of the Day again

I am sorry about this, but the judges were adamant. So the Shropshire Star wins Headline of the Day for the second day in a row with:

Whitchurch dentist was ‘begged to stop breaking wind’

Yesterday's winner is here.

Manchester City 1 Chelsea 4 (10 October 1966)



I am posting this not just because it is a victory for Chelsea but also because of the formations.

Much to Kenneth Wolstenholme's bemusement, both teams employ a sweeper - Tony Book for Man City and Marvin Hinton for Chelsea. Not what you expect to see in an English game from this era.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Harborough Tories flush away £1000 a week cleaning one public convenience

Last summer, despite a public outcry, the Conservative-run Harborough District Council closed the public lavatories in St Mary's Place, Market Harborough to save £15,000.

Today the Leicester Mercury reports that the council is paying contractors £53,000 a year to clean the town's other public conveniences on the Commons car park. That does not include the cost of labour.

This was discovered by Lib Dem councillor Barbara Johnson, who told the Mercury she was "staggered" by the amount:
"The Focsa charge for the Commons toilets is an eye-watering amount which does not include routine maintenance.

"I would clean the lavatories myself for a lot less than a £1,000 a week. I cannot understand how they could possibly cost so much to clean."
Long-standing readers will be familiar with Focsa and the company's rather eventful relationship with Harborough District Council in recent years.

Barbara Johnson wrote to the council seeking an explanation for these extraordinary costs. She was told in a reply from its deputy chief executive that:
The cleansing cost of £53,000 for the Commons car park toilets is straight from the contract as the tendered figure.

There is no breakdown of the figure. This is the amount the contractor put in the tender to provide the specified service.
A council spokesman also told the Mercury that he could not give a breakdown of the cost or say how often the toilets are cleaned. The newspaper quotes him as saying:
This figure includes costings for an attendant to oversee cleanliness, materials and all chemicals, supplies and equipment for cleaning.
To which Barbara Johnson replies:
"It can't include employment costs because they are accounted elsewhere at just £100 a week.

"They must be using some pretty expensive cleaning materials."
Whether the council is stonewalling or has simply been taken for a ride remains to be seen. Liberal England is on the case.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Opposing the Big Society

Another day with Rutland's most celebrated fictional peer.

The telephone is brought to me and at the other end of the line I find one of my friends from Liberals Against Choice. “It’s this Big Society thing,” he says. “We don’t like it at all.” “What you should do then,” I reply, “is all join together to oppose it."

He goes away happy, but calls again later in the day: “We’ve talked about it and we’ve decided that we want someone to oppose the Big Society for us.”

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10.

Previously in Lord Bonkers' Diary...

Six of the Best 135

Virtually Naked hails an improbable liberal hero. Eric Pickles today said: "“Many councils are internet-savvy and stream meetings online, but some don’t seem to have caught up with the times and are refusing to let bloggers or hyper-local news sites in. With local authorities in the process of setting next year’s budget this is more important than ever."

When I began writing, the four-volume Penguin edition of George Orwell's journalism was my bible. The Worcester Libertarian reviews a new selection of his articles for the Observer.

"The collapse of the Gadhaffi regime is a blow to Putin’s influence strategy, a massive loss to Russian exports,  and a personal setback for Putin himself," argues The Slog.

The problem is not that young people do not want to join the Scouts, says the Gyronny Herald, it is that there are not enough adults involved to enable them to do so.

Are group blogs the future or will individual blogs turn increasingly niche? Doctor Huw ponders the future of blogging.

From the North remembers Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart) whose death was announced today. Its writer "had the great good fortune to meet Nick, socially, on several occasions and found him to be one of the nicest, gentlest and funniest actors I've ever crossed paths with".

Meerkat Harborough: Good news and bad news


The good news is Market Harborough has won the internet poll to decide which town will be twinned with Aleksandr Orlov's home village of Meerkovo for a day.

The result was announced earlier today in The Meerkovian:
Whilst competition was fierce, Market Harborough emerged as the clear winner, receiving over 60% of the thousands of votes cast.
The bad news is that, incredibly, that day will be tomorrow, Thursday 24 February.

Meerkovo is part of the most popular advertising campaign in the country, and associating Market Harborough with that campaign would surely be a good way of promoting the town.

But what chance does anyone in Harborough have to respond with only one day's notice? We should have T-shirts, balloons, fireworks, champagne, a special issue of the local paper... I can't see much of that happening now. This has to count as a major lost opportunity.

We were told that the date of the twinning day would be "agreed with the winner". Who, exactly, in Market Harborough agreed that it should be tomorrow and how do we get rid of them? And what is going to happen to the "donation of £5000 to be used for community purposes"? I think we should be told.

I had intended to take the twinning day off to report the bunting and frolics for this blog. But now I shall have to be at work and will miss whatever fun it is possible to arrange at such short notice.

John Thurso remembers his grandfather Sir Archibald Sinclair

The BBC News website has an interview with John Thurso, the Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness and Sutherland. In it he recalls his grandfather, Sir Archibald Sinclair, who led the Liberal Party between 1935 and 1945 and served in Churchill's wartime cabinet:
Sir Archibald suffered a stroke in 1952, the year before Mr Thurso was born.

"I remember him getting me to stand on a chair and make a speech after a lunch when I was six or seven. He would sit there in his big armchair and shout 'hear, hear'.

"Then, in '59, he had his second stroke and was largely bedridden after that.

"The tragedy is that, when I left his house he would lean across and hold my arm and try to say something. I remember him listening to the news and quite clearly wanting to say things."

Sir Archibald died in 1970.
An earlier post on Liberal England discussed Sir Archibald's grandfather.

Headline of the Day comes from Shropshire

From the Shropshire Star:

Shropshire dentist ‘broke wind’ in front of patients

Dee Doocey to raise Metropolitan Police contacts with the News of the World

This morning's Independent reports that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police dined privately with senior executives from the News of the World seven times over a four-year period during which the force turned down calls for its investigation into phone hacking to be reopened.

The paper also quotes Dee Doocey, a Lib Dem member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, as saying:
"Imagine the outcry there would be if the Commissioner was seen dining with a member of the public who was the subject of a police investigation."
Dee says she will raise the matter at today's meeting of the Authority.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lord Bonkers' Diary: A vision of Nancy Seear

Lord Bonkers moves on.

One cannot spend all one’s time reminiscing about the golden years of television: every day there are affairs of state and on the Estate that demand my attention. This afternoon I ride over to Uppingham where last year three children gathering kindling in King’s Wood had a vision of Nancy Seear. They maintained their story stoutly even under close questioning from Cardinals sent from Hebden Bridge, and when news came of Nancy’s face being seen in the seeds of an aubergine sold on Leicester Market it was clear they were telling the truth.

The purpose of today’s meeting is to choose the design of the chapel that is to be built on the spot where the Blessed Nancy appeared to the children. As the debate threatens to drag on rather, I produce some drawings I happen to have brought with me and proceedings are soon concluded.

Previously in Lord Bonkers' Diary...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Six of the Best 134

"The first thing to understand about the NUS is that it does not meaningfully represent students," says Free Radical, discussing Aaron Porter's announcement today that he will not be seeking re-election as the union's president.

Blunt and Disorderly is back with a post accusing politicians of treating the public as a rabid, xenophobic and vengeful mob: "We are not. We believe that human beings have inalienable rights that are not the gentle concession of Parliament, but inherent part of being human. We have duties towards each other and the community at large, and if we breach them, we should make amends. We should be punished, we should give back to the community, but never stop being part of it. We, the people, have some moral decency."

In a thoughtful post, phase.org signs up the late Douglas Adams to the pro-AV cause.

"The recent popular democratic movements in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa would have delighted the late Edward Said," says Bazzfazz.

What If: Projects reports an encouraging development from London: "The basic need for food and outside space for socialising and recreation was developed into a proposal to transform formerly fenced off and neglected pieces of land into allotment gardens. The first Vacant Lot allotment garden was established in Shoreditch ... and has been published and exhibited internationally. Vacant Lot has inspired various similar allotment projects."

Clive Dunn's career, and his 1970 LP Grandad Requests "Permission to Sing Sir" in particular, are reviewed by The Downstairs Lounge. Do listen to Simone.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: How I anticipated The King's Speech by 50 years

Lord Bonkers offers us his further recollections of the early days of commercial television.

Not every moving television programme meets with the success it deserves. In the early days of the Rutland ITV franchise we screened an hilarious comedy series ("On the Throne") based upon the Abdication crisis.

Sid James made a fine George V, with lovely Peggy Mount playing Queen Mary; there were also roles for such sterling actors as Julian Orchard and Hugh Lloyd. The outstanding figure, however, was a newcomer by the name of Ronnie Barker, who captured the stutter of the Duke of York (who became George VI in the course of the series) down to a T.

Yet it proved impossible to commission a second series when the Queen Mother let it be known that she did not care for the programme one bit. Yet I remember thinking at the time that Pat Coombs’ portrayal of her was distinctly charitable.

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10.

Previously in Lord Bonkers' Diary...

GUEST POST Can hyperlocal news sites be the future of journalism?

Niall Sullivan is the editor of Market Harborough People.

For many years I have wanted to be a journalist one way or the other. I imagined working on a top newspaper or magazine reporting on world events or, as I had planned for many years, reporting on football matches.

However, after three years of university my eyes were opened to the changing world of the media industry. Stories of newspapers cutting staff numbers were starting to become a regular occurrence. Sub-editors were some of the first to go, leaving journalists less time to leave the office and find stories, as they now had to edit their own work.

With this squeeze on the number of journalists working at newspapers and magazines it was becoming obvious that it would be a lot tougher than I thought to break into this very competitive industry.

It is not all doom and gloom though. A new form of news website has been growing in popularity over the past few years. Hyperlocal news sites have been popping up all over the country, concentrating on the news that matters in their local community.

Journalist Mark Glaser says that “Hyperlocal news is the information relevant to small communities or neighbourhoods that has been overlooked by traditional news outlets.” Many people have taken this concept and created their own news sites, with original content being displayed.

I saw this at first hand while at university. My friend Josh Halliday set up SR2 Blog, which is an outstanding piece of work in terms of content produced and the way that it is set up. He splits the news between different neighbourhoods and reports on such matters as community meetings and sports matches. He focuses on the areas that people want to read and discuss, and that is key to what these websites are about.

Another site that has impressed me is thelinconite.co.uk. Set up by three students who struggled to find work after leaving university, it has a readership of 15,000 and has even launched an Iphone application. It was started only in May last year and is already providing strong competition for the local newspaper, the Lincolnshire Echo.

The final example I am going to give is one that is very close to my heart. Northcliffe Media have launched over 150 Local People sites across the UK, and are due to launch more in the very near future. The main selling point of these sites are that they aren’t just a platform for the journalist running them, but also give the opportunity for members to upload news, discussions and events themselves. These sites give the means for people to become ‘citizen’ journalists, providing news content that matters most to them and discussing issues which surround the main stories in a town.

I run Market Harborough People and after a month I feel that is coming along nicely. After just one month the site has had just under 1300 unique visitors and over time I think this number will go up significantly as the locals find out the potential of what the site can do to promote issues and news in Market Harborough.

With a media giant such as Northcliffe beginning to invest large amounts of money in hyperlocal sites, then we could all be looking at a different landscape for the places we read the news in future years. They certainly have potential to be a significant part of local news coverage.

The Liberal Democrat scandal that never was

On Wednesday Andrew Neil used his Twitter account to tell the world of a scandal involving a "senior Lib Dem" that was due to break at the weekend. Then Guido Fawkes then joined in, adding some juicy details.

I rushed out to by all the Sunday papers, leafed through them eagerly, but found nothing. You can imagine how disappointed I was.

False rumours are what you read Guido for, but it was Neil who forecast the downfall of Charles Kennedy when no one else saw it coming. I expected better of him than this.

How did this nonsense come about?

Andy McSmith explains in today's Independent:
Those who closely watched the ensuing Twitter flurry will have noticed the name of the Lib Dem president Tim Farron cropping up, for no apparent reason ... The fuss was set off by a court case in Cumbria in which a man was given a jail sentence for trying to blackmail a prominent member of the local community. 
Tim Farron's seat, Westmorland and Lonsdale, covers a chunk of Cumbria. Hence, certain people leapt to the conclusion it was Farron who harboured a compromising secret that was about to burst into the public domain.
Still, I hope Guido will carry on with this sort of thing. As McSmith points out, it is illegal to "out" the intended victim in a blackmail case, and those who were bandying Farron's name around could have got into serious trouble.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Defeating the Black and White Minstrels

Rutland's most popular fictional peer continues his reminiscences of the early days of television.

The Black and White Minstrels get a bad press these days. As they launched Mr Lenny Henry upon an unsuspecting and, in large part, innocent world, I suppose they rather deserve it. (Mind you, Henry went on to marry the comedy duo French & Saunders, so deserves our sympathy more than our condemnation.) However, I must record that the Minstrels were mustard keen cricketers and that my XI’s fixture against them was the highlight of many a summer. The details of those games have rather faded into the mist, but I do recall one of the TV Toppers taking a good running catch to dismiss Wallace Lawler when he seemed well set.

I am sorry to report that our relations soured in 1969 when, let down at the last minute by the touring West Indians, I prevailed upon the Minstrels to play in their stead. The crowd saw through this ruse distressingly quickly and I was obliged to return all of the gate money to placate them. Had the Minstrels not still insisted upon receiving their match fee, I should probably not have written my ground-breaking and influential article on racism in popular entertainment for the Manchester Guardian that autumn.

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10.

Previously in Lord Bonkers' Diary...

The Zombies: Care of Cell 44



Three years ago I quoted Chris White, the bass player with the Zombies, on the way the band's LP Odessey and Oracle has come to be seen as a classic:
Even till the late 70s we were seen as a curiosity - a band who never quite made it - and then slowly in the 80s and 90s you found young bands quoting it as an inspiration. It's quite surprising to me to find that this album nobody wanted 40 years ago has become an icon. Some people have said it's their idea of the perfect album. It's all quite strange for us to be honest.
This is the first track from the LP. The harmonies are beautiful and the subject matter - a girlfriend in prison - was seen as being a little on the daring side.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Meerkovo's twin will be announced on Wednesday

The Harborough Mail tells us that the winner to find a British twin for Aleksandr Orlov's home village will be announced at 3 p.m. on Wednesday 23 February.

The good news is that
As the poll closed, [Meerkat] Harborough was still being recorded in first place with 59 per cent of the total votes cast for the five contenders.
I don't want the air to be thick with prematurely counted chickens coming home to roost, but it looks as though there will not be dancing in the streets of Windemeer, Meerkat Drayton, Weston-Super-Meer or Downham Meerkat on Wednesday night.

John Freeman is 96 today

John Freeman, the last surviving member of the House of Commons elected at the 1945 general election, celebrated his 96th birthday today.

Ephraim Hardcastle in the Daily Mail provides a summary of his remarkable career:
He was elected to Parliament as a Labour MP in 1945 after wartime service as a Rifle Brigade major.

Edited the New Statesman when it was an influential political magazine.

Conducted the BBC’s famous, 1959 ‘Face to Face’ TV interviews, now available on DVD.

Became British High Commissioner to India and later HM’s ambassador to Washington.

Then in 1971 chairman of London Weekend TV until his retirement in 1984. After which he spent five years as Visiting Professor on International Relations at the University of California, Davis.
By coincidence, extracts from his Face to Face interview with Tony Hancock were shown in BBC Two's biography of the comedian this evening. I cannot find it on the BBC site yet, but there is a radio programme all about those interviews.

Six of the Best 133

Writing for the Oxford Student, Ed Watson stands up for the Liberal Democrats: "So, by all means call me and my party incompetent. Call us misguided. Tell us that we’re failing to live up to our principles. Tell us that we’re just plain wrong. But tell us that we lack principles, or impugn our integrity in some other way, and I’ll see you on the meadows with pistols at dawn."

On the OurKingdom site Malcolm Stevens discusses the detention of young offenders and calls on the Coalition to match the liberal achievements of... Margaret Thatcher: "Under her command from the early 1980s, the UK witnessed an unprecedented decline in the numbers of children and young people sentenced to custody: from almost 15000 in 1980 to 1500 in 1991."

Toby Young slaughters Labour MP Andrew Slaughter and his criticisms of free schools on the Daily Telegraph site.

Steve Joseph, on the BME National site, writes about his efforts to do something about "the increasing number of young black men drawn to crime, drugs and, in many cases, guns".

Peter Black AM finds that, entirely predictably, Larry the Downing Street cat is already looking to develop role beyond rodent control.

Wartime Housewife, that fount of robust good sense and member of the increasingly influential Harborough school of blogging, selects six favourite cultural links for The Dabbler.

Polly Toynbee: Quick, everyone agree with me


I know I plugged my article about Larry, but I didn't go this far.

Yesterday evening Polly Toynbee sent this tweet, which rather smacks of desperation. Still, her assumption that the world can be divided into trolls and people who agree with P. Toynbee is rather sweet.

At the time of writing her article has 1200 comments. Unfortunately, I do not have time to read through them to see how successful her tweet was.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Richard Grayson says "Shut that door!"

Few now will remember him, but for a time there was no performer more popular than Richard Grayson. From Shut That Door! through Liberals, International Relations and Appeasement to The Generation Game he was appeared in an interrupted stream of hit shows.

His catchphrases were on everyone’s lips: “Look at the muck on ’ere,” “Seems like a nice boy “and (an acid comment on the quality of some Focus leaflets) “The things I’ve had through my letterbox.” Best of all were the hilarious characters he invented: Slack Alice, Apricot Lil, L.T. Hobhouse, Everard Farquharson, T.H. Green. How we laughed!

Today Grayson is Professor of Twentieth Century History at Goldsmiths, University of London. It is funny how things turn out.

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10.

Previously in Lord Bonkers' Diary...

Friday, February 18, 2011

Stiperstones sings while Philip Dunne flounders

Stiperstones C of E Primary is a good school. The very positive ethos rests on deeply held Christian principles about the value of every child. As a consequence, school staff show great warmth towards pupils, and take good care of them.
The school focuses as much on pupils' personal as on their academic development. It is not surprising therefore that the pupils are happy, and greatly enjoy being at school. There is a good partnership with parents, who readily endorse the school's values. One satisfied parent wrote that her children were very positive about Stiperstones C of E Primary School because 'the staff are dedicated and give more than is expected of their time to improve the school and ensure the children have a well-rounded education.'


The school's inclusive ethos and the good quality of pastoral care lead to pupils' good personal development, including their good spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. One school council member said that he would recommend the school because 'the teachers actually care for you like your parents.'
In lessons, pupils behave well and are attentive and responsive to their teachers and other adults, with whom they have very good relationships. In the playground and around the school, pupils are friendly and considerate towards others.
It's no wonder that people are fighting to keep Stiperstones Primary School open: this is an extract from the school's last Ofsted report.

As today's Shropshire Star reports, there have been two developments today. The school's 29 children have recorded a song, Don't Go Stiperstones, written by a former pupil.

And the area's Tory MP Philip Dunne has put his foot in it, chirrupng on local television about schools that are too small.

Another Star story says:
In the interview on the regional news programme, Mr Dunne said: “There comes a point when a school becomes too small to provide the quality of education that we all want for our children.”
Not surprisingly these remarks went down very badly with the parents of children at Stiperstones School and the same Shropshire Star report shows him desperately trying to undo the damage:
Mr Dunne today said: “They seem to have misinterpreted what I said as I have made no specific reference to Stiperstones School.”

The MP said he believed the school provided a good education and should not be closed.
But this is too weak. If Conservatism means anything beyond making sure the rich stay rich, then Dunne should be championing this school's virtues.

One final point of interest is that Stiperstones is a C of E school. This part of Shropshire was always a enclave of Nonconformity, in part because of the influx from Cornwall when the lead mines were developed in the nineteenth century.

The parents of children at Stiperstones School have now set up a Facebook page.

The Lake Windermere Monster

The Daily Telegraph has what purports to be a photograph of a mysterious creature surfacing from Lake Windermere.

No doubt it will turn out to be a crude fabrication - an attempt to cash in on the fame of the better known monsters of Loch Ness and Rutland Water.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: The Great Rutland Inflation of 1752

The new Liberator is landing on subscribers' doormats even as we speak, so it is time to spend another week with Rutland's most celebrated fictional peer.

One of my proudest boasts is that I was among the first people to grasp that the moving television was here to stay. The investments I made in those early days proved gratifyingly profitable – whoever it was who described commercial television as “a licence to print money” was not so far off the mark.

It happens that we Bonkers know all about licences to print money, for we were granted just such a one by George II after an engraving of him in circumstances that might be open to unfortunate misinterpretation happened to come into our possession; the Great Rutland Inflation of 1752 taught us that such privileges must be handled responsibly.

My experience of those early years of television was altogether happier...

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10.

Liberal Democrats gain seat in Shrewsbury

Last night the Liberal Democrats gained the Quarry and Coton Hill division of Shropshire Council from the Conservatives in a by-election.

Liberal Democrat Voice has the full result:
LD Andrew Bannerman 356 (41.8; +5.7)
Con 268 (31.5; -12.1)
Lab 197 (23.1; +23.1)
Ind 30 (3.5; -2.3)
[Green (0.0; -14.4)]
Majority 88
Turnout 30.47%
LD gain from Con
Percentage change is since June 2009.
And Shrewsbury Liberal Democrats will tell you all about our winning candidate:
Welcoming the Result Dr Charles West said:
“Andrew Bannerman has lived and worked in Shrewsbury and for Shrewsbury for many years. He cares passionately for the town and has campaigned on traffic issues, tourism and for better facilities for young people. He is just the sort of councillor we need to see working for the local community and we are delighted to see that his contribution has been recognised.”
Heather Kidd added:
“This election was hard fought but most importantly we had a great candidate. Andrew Bannerman will make an excellent councillor for this town centre Division. The people have chosen the best man for the job. I am delighted that they recognised that fact above the party politics which began to raise its head in the last few days.”
Best of all, the ALDC site tells us that Andrew is a relation of the Liberal prime minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman.

Yes to AV turns Trafalgar Square purple



I have never been enthused by the Alternative Vote system, but the arguments from the No people have been so weak that I am rapidly warming to the idea.

And this video is rather stylish.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Nick Clegg blocks mean-spirited cut in housing benefit

When the government announced its plans to reform housing benefit last year there were two strands to that policy.

The first was a cap on benefit of about £400 a week for a house rented in the private sector. There was outrage at this. There were wholly false stories about London councils block-booking bed and breakfast accommodation and Polly Toynbee described it as "social cleansing on an epic scale".

This opposition always struck me as nonsense. Everyone knows that housing benefit is a bit of a racket, with private landlords being the major beneficiaries. With the economy in a depressed state it is perfectly reasonable to put a bit of a squeeze on those landlords by capping benefits in this way.

There was a second strand, which was to cut housing benefit by 10 per cent for anyone unemployed for more than a year. This seemed to me mean-spirited - a classic example of the Tory instinct to make life harder for the poor.

So I was delighted to hear that Nick Clegg has insisted on this policy being dropped. Another example of the way that the presence of the Liberal Democrats is making this a better government. I do hope David Cameron appreciates this.

The London Olympics will not make people more physically active

An article in the New York Times by Jeré Longman echoes an argument that I have long made on this blog: there is no reason to expect that the London Olympics next year will persuade more people to become physically active.

Longman writes:
Research on the Olympic Games stimulating mass participation in sports has not produced encouraging results. In 2007, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee of the British House of Commons concluded that “no host country has yet been able to demonstrate a direct benefit from the Olympic Games in the form of a lasting increase in participation.”

A study of the 2000 Sydney Games showed that while seven Olympic sports experienced a slight increase afterward in Australia, nine showed a decline.

After the 2002 Commonwealth Games, held in Manchester, England, “there appears to have been no recorded impact on sports participation levels” in the country’s northwest, Fred Coalter, a professor of sports studies at the University of Stirling in Scotland, wrote before London won the 2012 Olympic bid.
It is even possible that hosting the Games will be counterproductive. Longman goes on to say:
The average person may feel a disconnect from elite athletes, he said, while the most sedentary might be put off by perceived pressure to lose weight and become more active. This seemed to be borne out in recent interviews conducted with weekend warriors in Manchester.

“The Olympics are up here and we’re down here,” said Asha Solanki, 30, who works in marketing and participates in martial arts. “It seems unachievable. How many people do you know who do the 400-metre hurdles?”
This obsession with elite sport and organised games is very Labour. You see it in Leicester where at Aylestone Meadows the council is trying to build sports pitches and accompanying facilities, which will be used by a minority of young people, on a wild area currently enjoyed by people of all ages.

I am also worried by the decision to keep an athletics track at London's Olympic Stadium. As the Guardian reported the other day:
UK Athletics has admitted it will be almost impossible to fill the Olympic Stadium when it stages meetings following the Olympics. The main event, the two-day London Diamond League Grand Prix, attracts a 17,000 capacity crowd to Crystal Palace where it is currently held and some of the lesser meetings are likely to struggle to attract spectators.
You can see what will happen. The Grand Prix will move to the Olympic Stadium putting the future of Crystal Palace under question. Then there will be pressure on other athletics venues around the country - Gateshead, the Alexandra Stadium in Birmingham and the Don Valley Stadium in South Yorkshire - to surrender their events too.

So one long-term effect of the Olympics could be to make it harder for most people to see top-class athletics.

Swadlincote is sinking



"The ground may be subsiding under part of the town, but the citizens of Swadlincote have unshaken faith in the future," says the rather Soviet commentary on this newsreel from 1954 (Click on the picture to view it on the British Pathe site.)

Unfortunately, that faith may not have been well founded. A report from BBC East Midlands this week showed that subsidence caused by the coal industry remains a huge problem in Swadlincote.

Swadlincote was the birthplace of the British heavyweight Jack Bodell - follow that link for a favourite anecdote.

Oxford University Labour Club disaffiliates from national Labour Students organisation

LabourList carries news that one of the biggest groups of Labour students, Oxford University Labour Club, has voted to disaffiliate from the party's national student organisation Labour Students.

In an open letter to Labour Students, the Oxford group criticises its lack of internal democracy and appeals for reform, while suggesting that under current structures such reform is "near-impossible".

The whole of that letter can be found on LabourList:
This year’s elections ... which saw every single position on the Labour Students Exec elected unopposed, showed that the problems that had initially concerned us had become worse not better.

One of Labour Students’ worst kept secrets is the prominent role of the outgoing Exec in choosing and encouraging a chosen group of candidates to run for positions, with little to no attention focused on encouraging others to enter the race. This practice is clearly in itself wrong, but also serves to stifle debate and discussion about how Labour Students can be reformed to serve the clubs who need it most.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Greg Mulholland calls for six-month moratorium on sale of pubs


From The Publican site:
Communities should be given a six-month window to decide if they want to buy a threatened local pub, an MP has argued.

During a Westminster Hall debate today, Lib Dem Greg Mulholland said the current government “right to buy” proposals would have no “substantial effect”.

A government consultation on what is now being called a community "right to challenge" was launched earlier this month - and ends on May 3.

Mulholland said: “It’s not actually a community right to buy, it’s a community right to try."

“It’s a right to put a bid together. The question I have to ask is how many communities will try to raise hundreds of thousands of pounds if at the end of that period an owner can sell to Tesco for slightly more.”

He added: “It will not stop profitable pubs being closed against the wishes of the community.”
Good stuff. Liberalism must be about more than economic theory. It must be concerned with the texture of life as it is lived and with the flourishing of human institutions. And the pub is a valuable and threatened institution in British life.

154 comments on Larry the Downing Street cat

My Comment is Free article on yesterday's most important political story now has 154 comments. This is far more than I have received on that site before.

And most of them are more sensible and more amiable than you usually get there too.

Six of the Best 132

Jock Coats, writing on his OXfr33 blog, find he is in danger of being convinced by the Big Society narrative.

With the BBC trailing its new adaptation of the novel, Cambridge Ward Liberal Democrats from Southport offer a timely look at Winifred Holtby's South Riding. And they quote a killer passage from the novel: "But when I came to consider local government, I began to see how it was in essence the first line defence thrown up by the community against our common enemies - poverty, sickness, ignorance, isolation, and social maladjustment. The battle is not faultlessly conducted, nor are the motives of those who take part in it all righteousness or disinterested. But the war, is, I believe worth fighting...we are not only single individuals, each face to face with eternity and our separate spirits; we are members one of another."

Living on Words Alone is not impressed by Linda Jack's decision to work with Liam Byrne.

"In the months ahead I suspect that there is going to be a clash between the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank of England over interest rates," writes Peter Bingle on Bell Pottinger Public Affairs' blog The Dispatch Box.

Labour blogger A419 has some sensible ideas on lifelong learning.

Edwardian Promenade writes about the first great Black American heavyweight Jack Johnson and includes video of his victory over the "Great White Hope" James L. Jeffries in 1909.

Oxford and Cambridge MAs

This morning's Guardian Diary trills:
Campus envy likely in the Commons today when MP Chris Leslie unveils his 10-minute rule bill calling for an end to the practice of Oxford and Cambridge Universities giving graduates a free master's degree.
"Converting an Oxbridge bachelor's degree into an MA regardless of academic merit is unfair," says Leslie. "Two hundred thousand postgraduate students in the other 100 UK universities have to study, sit exams and earn their MAs."
This will do nothing to reassure those of us who think this column used to be far, far better than it is now. Because the debate took place yesterday.

Reading it in Hansard, there is no doubt that Leslie is right. The crucial points are the ones he makes here:
That is not only unfair to the 200,000 students who get their MA the hard way, but fundamentally undermines the integrity of the MA marque.

Worse, apparently 62% of employers when surveyed reported that they thought that the MA(Oxon) or MA (Cantab) were genuinely earned postgraduate qualifications.
And, of course, sending in a cheque for £10 does not make you better educated. Further study does.

Certainly, the blustering speech against Leslie's bill by Mark Field did not convince. Half of it was an appeal to history that declined into snobbery:
My college, St Edmund Hall, has a history dating back to 1278. At that juncture, the requirement was to surpass 21 terms after matriculation before qualifying for a master's degree, having taken a bachelor's degree prior to that.
That topping-up arrangement applied happily - dare I say it - for more than six centuries, before Leeds university was even founded let alone started handing out degrees of its own to deserving, and perhaps some slightly less deserving, candidates.
In fact, the history of the Oxbridge MA is more complicated than this allows - Wikipedia is your friend.

The other half of Leslie's contribution was a muddled defence of educational "excellence and elitism" - how do awarding further degrees without further study further those? - and warning about the perils of government interference.

Hugh Muir ended by giggling that Ed Miliband (Oxford), David Cameron (Oxford), George Osborne (Oxford), Oliver Letwin (Cambridge), Ed Balls (Oxford), Vince Cable (Cambridge) and Theresa May (Oxford) might not be keen on the bill.

But, of course, not every Oxbridge graduate bothers to send in a cheque for a cosmetic MA. How many of these politicians did so? That would be interesting to know, but the Diary has declined a long way from the days when it used to break significant stories and it did not think it worth finding out.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My Comment is Free article on Larry the Downing Street cat

Hurry over to Comment is Free to read my take on the story of the day:
Tories are natural dog owners. They are drawn to a pack animal that can be trained to do exactly what you tell it.

Thinking about it, it might be more accurate to say that dogs are natural Tories.

It would be too tame to call cats Liberals. They are naturally individualists or anarchists – a dog would probably accuse them of being nihilists. But one thing is certain: they are not Conservatives.

Count Arthur Strong in Leicester

This evening I have been to see Count Arthur Strong at the Little Theatre - the rather superior amateur theatre in Leicester where both Sir Richard Harrison and Joe Orton began their careers. The show was part of the Leicester Comedy Festival.

Count Arthur Strong is a character played by Steve Delaney . He resembles dreadful old comedians like Ted Ray and Tommy Trinder who were still around in my childhood. There is a strong Liverpudlian flavour to the humour, with many punch lines delivered in a style that reminds you of Alexei Sayle or even Bobby Chariot.

Anyway, here is a glimpse of Count Arthur's schtick, though he looked rather more decrepit tonight...

Downing Street takes my advice and gets a new cat

Downing Street needs a cat again
said this blog last month.

This morning, reports BBC News, comes news that:
A new resident is to move into No 10 with David Cameron set to welcome a cat into his official residence.

The four-year old tabby cat, believed to be called Larry, is to join the prime minister and his family from the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

The arrival, due on Tuesday, follows weeks of speculation about potential pest control measures after a rat was seen outside No 10.
I flatter myself that this blog is not without influence.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Six of the Best 131

The opportunities offered by internships should not be auctioned off at black-tie balls, says David Skelton on the "modern liberal Conservative" blog Platform 10. And he is right.

Liberal Conspiracy, in the person of John Band, takes the Observer to task for supporting punishment without trial because of "generic paedo-hysteria under which won’t somebody think of the children? trumps all other concerns". He is right too.

Daniel Furr at Too lib·er·al [adj.] catches Brendan Barber saying something particularly silly: "The most worrying thing about the Big Society is that Prime Minister truly believes that polices of slash, burn and sack will make all our lives better, and not just for those for whom he is planning tax cuts.The logic of this is that his ideal society is Somalia where the state barely exists."

Cry for Freedom in Rwanda stands up against forced sterilisation.

Lib Dem blogger Nick Radford has been on his first barefoot run: "You feel like a bit of a rebel, like you are doing something against the rules, something slightly mad. Couple that with a profound sense of history and it is an exhilarating experience. The same thought kept repeating in my head as I ran: "this is how our ancestors ran", that "this is what human beings are designed for."

The Leicester blog Western Park Gazette writes about Western Park Open Air School: "The only way to secure long term protection for Western Park Open Air School is through the listing of this charming collection of buildings which are not only attractive and of architectural interest but also of social and medical historical interest, demonstrating the application of medical theories of the late Victorian and early twentieth centuries."

Green candidate leaves party over opposition to cuts

Another Green World quotes what is apparently a statement by Vaughan Brean, the Green Party candidate for South West Devon:
With some regret, I am leaving the Green Party. I support the parties core environmental views, but can not concur with the widely shared view in the party that all cut to spending should be resisted no matter how wasteful.
The general populace of this country enjoy a standard of living way beyond that to which we are entitled, and the Greens seem to be committed to encouraging people to expect and demand these ridiculous levels of consumption, whilst I agree that equality is a major issue, I consider very few to be in real poverty as opposed to relative poverty (which does exist), if the Greens adopt a more realistic stance on public expenditure, I may rejoin at some future date.
The blog goes on to insist that the Coalition's spending cuts "are about making the richer richer and the rest of us poorer".

That's a point of view, but it dodges the real question for the Greens. If the party believes that current levels of consumption are unsustainable, then that must include consumption by the public sector too, mustn't it?

Interestingly, the blog also remarks:
Apparently a (very very small) number of Party members unhappy with our position of opposing the cuts are being drawn to the Liberal Democrats.
Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Leicester City Council has already spent £150,000 on the Aylestone Meadows site

This blog has been covering the opposition to Leicester City Council's plans to build build build all-weather sports pitches and an accompanying car park and pavilion on the Aylestone Meadows nature reserve.

Friday's Leicester Mercury carried the news that, though a decision on the development has yet to be taken, the council has already spent £150,000 on the site:
More than £68,000 was paid to a private firm to carry out investigative works, looking at the ground which would house the development.

The design of the site and architectural expertise cost more than £55,000 and about £25,700 was spent on two ecology surveys. The rest is made up of planning application fees and internal costs.
The Mercury quotes an unnamed independent Leicester consultant as saying that the figures seem above industry standard.

Meanwhile, the Labour cabinet member for culture and leisure, displaying the charmlessness that has characterised his handling of the affair says: "The costs have come from the alleged ecological issue at the proposed site."

Does this expenditure show that the decision is a foregone conclusion?

Maybe. But it is also a reminder of the silly money thrown at public projects under the last government. The Mercury explains that the Aylestone development is:
part of an £11 million city-wide sports development at 12 locations ... About £5.25 million of the funding for the project came from the Football Foundation and Sport England, but the rest came from local clubs and other sponsors – with £3.5 million coming from the city taxpayer and £2 million from NHS Leicester.

There's still time to vote for Meerkat Harborough

The poll to decide which town will be twinned with Meerkovo remains open until Friday 18 February.

Please hurry over to Facebook to vote for Meerkat Harborough.

The winner will be announced the following week in The Meerkovian, the meerkat newspaper to be found on the Meerkovo website.

According to a media release reproduced by Benzinga, the winning town will receive official Meerkovo twin status by changing its name for the day and will also receive a donation of £5000 to be used for community purposes. The date of the twin town day will be agreed with the winner.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mississippi Sheiks: I've Got Blood in My Eyes for You



One of my favourite music programmes is Radio Three's Late Junction - "A laid-back, eclectic mix of music, ranging from the ancient to the contemporary." I first heard Vampire Weekend and posted Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa here without realising how popular they were.

But I am confident that this song, which also comes from Late Junction, is more obscure.

The Mississippi Sheiks, according to Wikipedia, were "a popular and influential guitar and fiddle group of the 1930s. They were notable mostly for playing country blues but were adept at many styles of United States popular music of the time, and their records were bought by both black and white audiences."

And as we saw a year ago with Move It On Over by Hank Williams, it was the fusion of country and blues that gave birth to rock. The Sheiks have their place in American social history too.

The band's guitarist, Sam Chatmon, was born in 1897, the son of a man born into slavery. After the band's heyday in the 1930s, he worked as a farmer and nightwatchman before being rediscovered around 1960.

Introducing an engrossing interview with Sam Chatmon from October 1980, the Jas Obrecht Music Archive writes:
Unlike some of his “rediscovered” contemporaries, Sam did more than recapitulate the past. He bravely sang of racial inequality in songs such as “I Have to Paint My Face,” with its ironic images of a “stomp-down, baby-chicken-killin’ nigger” and a black man’s desire to paint his face a lighter shade ... 
Sam Chatmon made his final professional appearance at the 1982 Mississippi Delta Blues Festival and passed away on February 2, 1983.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Barnacle Bill: A late Ealing comedy

Charles Barr, in his great book on Ealing Studios, pulls no punches:
Barnacle Bill marks an unmistakable end of the line for Ealing Comedy. Made when the company had already left the physical environment of Ealing Studios, it is like watching the last twitching of the nervous system after death.
And in his memoirs This is Where I Came In, the Ealing screenwriter T.E.B. Clarke does not remember it happily:
the film was not a success. We should doubtless have reflected that running a pier is not an activity that many people wish to enjoy vicariously.
Barnacle Bill tells the story of a retired naval officer, played by Alec Guinness, who buys a run down seaside pier. Thwarted in his attempts to revive it by the town's authorities, he registers it as a ship and offers stationary cruises. When his enemies attempt to demolish the pier, he inadvertently sails the remaining fragment across the Channel and becomes a national hero.

Barr writes:
the central image of this community of innocents and eccentrics sustaining a life which is doubly unreal: first it's all holiday (recalling the unreality of Titfield as a working community), and, second, it pretends to move while remaining stationary.
There couldn't be a better image for the static and unrealistic nature of the Clarke/Ealing community. It's as if the tide of inevitable change  - made the more inevitable by the soft, innocent philosophy of those resisting change - surrounded Pimlico, which had decided change wouldn't happen, and floated off into the sea.
All this is true - you have to be familiar with the other Ealing comedies Passport to Pimlico and The Titfield Thunderbolt to understand Barr's arguments fully, but then I assume all my regular readers will be - yet I rather enjoyed Barnacle Bill when I saw it again on DVD the other day and I can offer the following points in its defence.

The first is Alec Guinness. His genius as an actor means that you believe from his first appearance that he has been a naval officer. Or perhaps it is something about that generation of British actors. One reason for the success of The League of Gentlemen is that it is so easy to believe that Jack Hawkins has commanded men in battle.

Then there are the purely nostalgic reasons. Barnacle Bill was filmed on Hunstanton pier, which was already in decline and, after fire and storm, was finally demolished in 1978. A report in the Lynn News suggests its history is not so far from the controversial one depicted in the film. Those interested in North Norfolk in that era should watch the John Betjeman film I posted a few weeks ago.

And do not forget the pleasure to be found from the sheer quality of the cast in this era. In Barnacle Bill you will find Maurice Denham. Lionel Jefferies, Richard Wattis, Alan  Cuthbertson, William Mervyn, Donald Pleasance, Joan Hickson and Warren Mitchell in minor roles.

But most important is the possibility of a more radical reading of the film. The authorities in Sandcastle-on-Sea, the town where the pier is located, is depicted as both corrupt and pleasure hating. Guinness is a more modern figure. He sets free the fist in the pier's dismal aquarium, so that he can put a bar in its place, and dismisses the awful variety artists from the end-of-pier show, humiliating the escapologist by tying him up with insoluble Naval knots.

The young people may be shown as calling everyone "Daddio", but Guinness is on their side. When they start tearing out the seats of the old theatre, he joins in, much to their bafflement, because he realises that a dance hall is the way forward and will be profitable.

Guinness is ultimately defeated in Sandcastle-on-Sea, but the film suggests that had he found himself in Titfield he would, at the very least, have been running the youth club. (Rather like another former naval officer, Paddy Ashdown, come to think of it.)