Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Hope you enjoy our new direction

Blogger has updated my template for me without being asked. I have changed the colour scheme and rather like the clean new design, but elements like my blogroll will have to be recreated.

It could be a busy weekend, particularly as I have been asked to write a piece for Comment is Free on the row over the accreditation of representatives at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Birmingham.

Traditional End of the Month Lolcat makes veiled reference to Birmingham Lib Dem Conference

nawt shure

It is John Cridland who is barking mad

When the director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) says it would be "barking mad" at present to implement the reforms likely to be recommended by the Independent Commission on Banking, that's impressive, isn't it? The head of British manufacturing making common cause with the bankers.

Except it is nothing of the sort. As Evan Davis emphasised when interviewing him on Today this morning, John Cridland is employed to speak on behalf of the banks, because the major banks are all members of the CBI.

And well done to Davis: I cannot remember the last time I heard something this instructive on Today.

In fact the membership of the CBI is composed of some very unlikely groups, as a briefing from Friends of the Earth makes clear:
The CBI membership also includes a range of professional associations, universities and other public bodies – not obvious candidates to be embraced by the organisation’s boast of being “The Voice of British Business”. These include several tourist boards, the British Racing Drivers Club, the Professional Cricketers Association, the Warwickshire Cricket Club, the British Library and the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
To return to the banks, Cridland was making the error that led to the credit crunch and the subsequent economic collapse: the idea that regulation of banks is undesirable and that such regulations as exist are to be got around if at all possible.

John Lanchester's Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay is worth reading on this point - and many others.

Remember who was in the Wombles


Remembering the 1970s on the New Statesman website, I once wrote:
One of the most popular bands of the era was The Wombles, who always appeared on stage in large furry costumes.

The advantage of this was that anyone could be a Womble, and a shifting cast of session musicians used to share the gigs between them. But, thanks to the good offices of Michael Levy, on occasion a Womble costume would be worn by a hungry young Labour politico.

Levy’s recent memoirs are disappointingly sketchy on the subject, but it is known that Jack Straw, Patricia Hewitt and Dr John Reid all appeared as Wombles at one time or another.

Fascinatingly, a young lawyer named Anthony Blair would also pull on a costume when the briefs were slow coming in.

Alastair Campbell has ruthlessly expunged this episode from the Blair CV - I feel a little nervous telling you about it even now - but was he right to do so?

The Roman Emperors used to keep a slave to whisper “remember thou art mortal” when they got above themselves. Tony Blair would have done well to have an aide close at hand to say “remember you’re a Womble” now and then.

And if he was being particularly messianic, that aide could have added: “Re-member-member-member what a Womble Womble Womble you are.”
A nice conceit, but who was really inside those Womble costumes?

Orinoco was usually Mike Batt, who wrote the band's songs. And very successful he was. According to Wikipedia, The Wombles were the most successful act of 1974, with albums in the UK charts for more weeks than any other act. (If you can remember some of the other bands in the charts in 1974 this does not seem so strange.)

Wikipedia goes on to say that on one occasion the costumes were filled by members of Steeleye Span, and on other occasions such respected musicians as Chris Spedding and Clem Cattini could be found inside them.

But the most interesting Womble was the guitarist Robin Le Mesurier, the son of John Le Mesurier from Dad's Army and Hattie Jacques.

As a profile in the Daily Express recalls:
He first hit the big-time as a member of The Wombles, Mike Batt’s chart-topping band bedecked in furry outfits inspired by Elisabeth Beresford’s children’s books. But he lost that job when a joint owned by his brother was discovered in a police raid on the family home.

Robin recalls: “I came home after shooting a TV show to find six police officers tearing the place apart. They dug up the garden, took carpets up, emptied drawers out and even searched my mother. All they found was one joint that my brother had. They said to me ‘You’re coming too.’ The solicitor told us to plead guilty. Mike Batt called to say Elisabeth Beresford had said what I’d done was politically incorrect so I had to go.”
I think Le Mesurier should have said that he found the joint in the street and had tidied it up.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Swindon in 1960

Vimeo has a fascinating film of Swindon, made in the year this blogger was born. I can't embed it, so you will have to watch Home Town 1960 on that site.

There is plenty about Richard Jefferies, starting at 10:15 or so.

The Liberal joins the infantile left

Liberal Democrats have come to know The Liberal as a magazine that appears at Autumn Conference each year with an  issue that calls for the party's leader to be deposed. The only other place I have seen it on sale is at Borders in Leicester, and that shop closed some time ago. When I saw The Liberal there it often had some impressive names among the contributors, but it could he hard to see what was Liberal about their views.

The magazine's antics at Conference are irritating, but the amount of publicity that what is essentially a trustafarian arts magazine gets for itself this way is in part the fault of the party's officials and membership. We ought to give the media more to write about.

But it seems that The Liberal does have a life outside Conference. Because Solution Focused Politics points us to an article in its February 2011 issue. There Simon Kovar writes:
The coalition government is engaged in nothing less than a war on children, on young people and on education itself.
It makes you wonder if they will be calling for revolution next month, rather than simply wanting to see Nick Clegg deposed.

For what it is worth, I share the view Solution Focused Politics that, come the next election, simply saying we are opposed to free schools will not do.

If we are against them, then we will have to find alternative ways of encouraging innovation and choice within the maintained system. Simply talking about "a two-tier system" will not cut it. And copying the teaching unions by giving the impression that we are against any change in schools certainly won't.

Charlotte Barnes to fight Bishop's Castle by-election for the Liberal Democrats


Last week I reported that Peter Phillips, the long-serving Lib Dem councillor for the Bishop's Castle ward in Shropshire, has resigned his seat.

The by-election has now been called and will take place on 29 September. And the Liberal Democrat candidate will be Charlotte Barnes:
Charlotte lives in Norbury where she runs an electrical business with her husband, Paul. They have two children, Edward (8) who attends Bishop's Castle Primary School, and Dominic (2) who is due to start at Crowgate Child Centre.

Charlotte is parent governer at Bishop's Castle Primary School. She is also a Parish Councillor for Myndtown Combined Parish Council.
That biography comes from the website for the Lib Dem group on Shropshire Council.

For more on Bishop's Castle politics - in particular on the days when it was one of the country's more notorious rotten boroughs - see an old House Points column of mine.

Later. More on Charlotte Barnes here.

Even later. She won!

Monday, August 29, 2011

How to get into next month's Liberal Democrat Conference

Gordon Jackson demonstrates the wrong approach.

The Framing of al-Megrahi

Today's reports that Abdelbaset al-Megrahi is close to death and the row over whether he could or should be returned to prison Scotland all skirt around the most fundamental question.

Was he guilty of causing the Lockerbie bombing in the first place?

An article by Gareth Pierce, published in the London Review of Books two years ago, makes a powerful case that he was not guilty.

Leicester Mercury claims Lord Mayor has had five parking tickets cancelled

From today's Leicester Mercury:
The two most senior officers at Leicester City Council were involved in the cancellation of parking tickets for a senior councillor, a whistle-blower claims.

Earlier this month, Lord Mayor Rob Wann, a former cabinet member, was reported to the council's standards board over claims he had several parking tickets cancelled or written off in questionable circumstances.

Documents handed to the Mercury by former council parking employee Chris Hughes, 63, appear to show that both former chief executive Sheila Lock and her deputy Andy Keeling were involved in getting a parking ticket cancelled for Coun Wann.
In all, alleges the Mercury, Robert Wann received six parking tickets, or which five were either cancelled or written off.

For some background to this story, read my recent post Leicester: When mayors fall out.

If nothing else, today's story suggests that Leicester City Council needs to find new bailiffs:
Documents show that on two occasions tickets were cancelled due to bailiffs being unable to trace Coun Wann – despite him being a sitting councillor who regularly attends the Town Hall on council business.

Six arrested after explosion at Leicester kebab shop

The Leicester Mercury picks up our prestigious Headline of the Day Award.

Later. This story has since got more serious, with reports on the local television news that a body has been found in the wreckage of the shop.

Even later. See report here.

Bank Holiday Lolcat

take a letter...

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Joan Armatrading: Willow



A woman singer-songwriter who has enjoyed a 40-year career? That's unusual.

A Black British woman singer-songwriter who has enjoyed a 40-year career? That must be unique.

Joan Armatrading is one of those artists who has been there for as long as I have been interested in music. And for that reason it is easy to forget what an unusual career she has had.

Her Wikipedia entry says that she was around in the early 1970s, without enjoying much chart success, and then "in January 1974 she appeared on the BBC Radio 1 John Peel Show". But I can remember her being championed on Radio 1 a year or two before that. And it was by Noel Edmonds, in the days when he was one of the station's cooler DJs.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

Anyway, this song comes from her gentler, 1970s days, before she invented herself as a more up tempo performer in the 1980s and enjoyed some chart success.

White boy, Black hero

Yesterday afternoon I went to the pleasant little cafe in Abington Park, Northampton. It was crowded because of the showers, and among the throng was a young boy in a Chelsea shirt.

I looked to see which player's name he had on the back of it. It was Sturridge.

Not so long ago, it would have been remarkable to see a white boy declare that his hero was a black sportsman. Today it is so commonplace that we do not remark upon it.

My impression is that this change happened over a very few years in the 1990s and was greatly helped by the influx of overseas stars into the Premiership.

But whatever the cause, it is a reminder that we do make progress.

Later. You can always be fogeyish if you want to be. The shirt was black with orange trim and all the right logos. It must be change strip.

The days when your Mum bought a plain blue shirt, sewed a 7 on the back and you were Charlie Cooke are long past.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Neville Cardus on the nature of Socialism

From the Autobiography that Neville Cardus, the great cricket writer, published in 1947:
Like any human being, I loathe the social injustice that winks at starvation in a world of plenty. Something may be done about it some day. But I lost sympathy with Socialists the more I met them. Their creed or system was obviously not to be a means to an end but an end in itself; I could not discover what manner of rich, imaginative life they were planning for the world after poverty had been abolished. More and more Socialism, apparently.

Six of the Best 183

Disgruntled Radical writes to the Liberal Democrat conference team at Cowley Street (as it then was): "Thanks for your message. I attend conference because Yeovil Liberal Democrats elected me, not because the police allow me to. That’s according to our party constitution."
He may not enjoy the conference that much when he gets there.

Gareth Epps points out that there will be a record number of set-piece speeches and fewer debates this year.

Predicatable Paradox is worried that, judging by then answers he gave during his visit to Glagow, Nick Clegg has not grasped the immensity of the challenge now facing the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

"'Secure Beneath the Watchful Eyes' - the 2002 Transport for London posters that resemble the front cover of a Philip K. Dick paperback - has a distinctly Juche ring to it, resonant of Bradley K Martin's authoritative title on North Korea: Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader. Which should come as no surprise, given that Britain has more CCTV cameras per capita than North Korea does." Sophie FitzMaurice has written a powerful post for The Staggers (the New Statesman's rolling blog) on the powerful and questionable imagery used in today's security posters.

Liberal Burblings thinks it is time Eggheads was scrambled - or something like that. You may care to insert your own egg-related pun here.

Rare plants found at Dungeness have been providing inspiration to a local artist, reports the RSPB Community site. "Just one more reason why we must protect this special place from developments such as the proposed expansion of neighborouing Lydd Airport."

"Bradlaugh for Northampton"



This statue of Charles Bradlaugh stands in the unlovely location of Abington Square, Northampton.

The inscription on the panel beneath it reads:

“THOROUGH.”

CHARLES BRADLAUGH
Born Sept, 26, 1833
Died Jany. 30, 1891

M.P. for Northampton 1880-1891

Four times elected to one
Parliament in vindication of
the rights of constituencies.
India, too, chose him as her
representative.
A sincere friend of the people,
his life was devoted to
progress, liberty, and justice.

Bradlaugh was an extraordinary figure - a freethinker and radical, as well as a Liberal. There is a brief note about him on the National Secular Society website, and a longer entry on Wikipedia:
In 1880 Bradlaugh was elected Member of Parliament for Northampton, and claimed the right to affirm (instead of taking the religious Oath of Allegiance), but this was denied. Lord Randolph Churchill roused the Conservatives by leading resistance to Bradlaugh. 
Bradlaugh subsequently offered to take the oath "as a matter of form". This offer, too, was rejected by the House. Because Members must take the oath before being allowed to take their seats, he effectively forfeited his seat in Parliament. He attempted to take his seat regardless and was arrested and briefly imprisoned in the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament. His seat fell vacant and a by-election was declared. Bradlaugh was re-elected by Northampton four times in succession as the dispute continued. Supporting Bradlaugh were William Ewart Gladstone, T. P. O'Connor and George Bernard Shaw as well as hundreds of thousands of people who signed a public petition. Opposing his right to sit were the Conservative Party, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other leading figures in the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church. 
On at least one occasion, Bradlaugh was escorted from the House by police officers. In 1883 he took his seat and voted three times before being fined £1,500 for voting illegally. A bill allowing him to affirm was defeated in Parliament. 
In 1886 Bradlaugh was finally allowed to take the oath, and did so at the risk of prosecution under the Parliamentary Oaths Act. Two years later, in 1888, he secured passage of a new Oaths Act, which enshrined into law the right of affirmation for members of both Houses
Around the other three faces of the plinth runs the words of the song "Bradlaugh for Northampton" - words by James Wilson, music by John Lowry.

I can find plenty of references to it on the web, but nowhere can I find the words. So, as my contribution to Bradlaugh scholarship, I have transcribed them from the photographs I took this morning.

As I did with the inscription, I have turned the block capitals of the original into more readable text. I hope I have got the puncuation right and - more importantly - I hope I have got the verses in the correct order.

Bradlaugh for Northampton

Electors of Northampton, work! The day will soon be here
When you will have to give your votes and give them without fear:
For freedom’s battle ne’er was won by coward in the past,
Nor can it ever be sustained by men who fear the blast.

Then toil, men toil in freedom’s cause
Rest not content with vain applause
Humanity needs better laws –
To win these we’ll send Bradlaugh!

‘Tis not to tread your churches down, nor chapels built by men.
Not hinder earnest worshippers on mountain or in glen;
But to give freedom to each thought that swells the brain of man.
Religious liberty for all, no state church is our plan.

‘Tis not to rob rich lords of land –oppress as they would you,
Nor property make insecure, to feed a lawless few;
But to make way for those to rise, who hard yet humbly toil,
And give to all some interest in nature’s gift, the soil.

Some cowards cry out “Heresy!” Beware! My fellow men. -
That cry’s been raised, so hist’ry says, ‘Gainst Britain’s noblest men.
Say, is he manly, is he true? Is he for justice strong?
And will he labour good to do? Then echo in your song –

We’ll toil. We’ll toil in freedom’s cause,
Nor rest content with vain applause,
But fight determined for just laws,
And make our member, Bradlaugh!

Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams in Vanity Fair

In his introduction to the 1998 Oxford World Classics edition of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, John Sutherland writes of Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp:
As we first meet them, Regency girls, together in a coach, so we leave them, now two early-Victorian ladies, either side of the charity stall which declares their mutual respectability in the eyes of the world.
One character is good but dull: the other naughty but appealing. Their careers have had numerous ups and down, but they end in an uneasy equilibrium. Who could we offer as a modern parallel?

Easy. Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams.

Thanks to Gerald Ajam and The Victorian Web for Thackeray's original illustration of Amelia and Becky at the charity stall.

Leicester City Council finance chief is rehired four months after £47k pay-off

Faction-fighting in Leicester's ruling Labour group is starting to cost the taxpayer dear.

The Leicester Mercury reports that the city Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby is to rehire the city's former finance chief four months after the was paid off by the City Council

I particularly like the quote from the former Labour leader of the council Veejay Patel:
"I considered various factors before the redundancy was signed off, on the recommendation of officers.

"In my opinion, he's the best local authority finance expert in the country and he's the right man to help put together the council's budget."
In other words: "I got rid of the best local authority finance expert in the country because the officers told me to."

It does not give you much confidence in him or in Leicester City Council as a whole.

Accreditation for Birmingham Lib Dem conference descends into farce

From Stephen's Liberal Journal:
Apparently there are a growing number of people whose submitted picture to Liberal Democrat Conference has been turned down by Greater Manchester Police (GMP). Over the last 24 hours I have heard of a number of them. Either the pale background wasn't to their liking, ie not white, off-white or grey, or the picture was in black and white or some other reason.

Most of those I have heard of are not first time attendees. One is a former councillor, one is a prominent Liberal Youth member. But with just three weeks to go to conference people who will have paid for travel and accommodation are being turned down because their pictures aren't up to spec ...

On Tuesday when the conference team are settling into their new surroundings in Great George Street they will be inundated with angry conference delegates if this sample of my friends is anything to go by.
As Stephen goes on to remind us, there is a motion against the police accreditation of representatives being debated at Birmingham - at 9.00 on the morning of Sunday 18 September. Family commitments mean I shall not be able to attend this year's Conference, but I hope that any readers who are going will support this motion.

If Greater Manchester Police let you in, that is.

Later. Caron's Musings has a good post on this too.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Mark Taimanov: Concert pianist and chess grandmaster



In my recent post on the film Bobby Fischer Against the World I mentioned the Soviet grandmaster Mark Taimanov, whom Fischer demolished 6-0 in a match on his way for qualifying for the right to challenge Spassky for the world title.

Taimanov is a remarkable figure who deserves a post in his own right. Not only was he one of the world's top grandmasters throughout the 1950s and 1960s, but he was also a concert pianist. The recordings of duets he made with his first wife Lyubov Bruk are included in several collections of the greatest piano recordings, including the Philips Greatest Pianists of the 20th Century.

Before he was a pianist or chess player, Taimanov was a child film star, and he recently became the father of twins with his second wife - 57 years after his first son was born.

You can read all about his remarkable life and careers in an interview on Chess in Translation from earlier this year.

And Mark Taimanov is still playing chess. He has just taken part in a tournament for veteran grandmasters held near Moscow to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great Soviet World Champion Mikhail Botvinnik.

Book review: Them and Us by Will Hutton

From today's Liberal Democrat News.

Them and Us. Changing Britain – Why We Need a Fair Society
Will Hutton
Abacus, 2011, £10.99

Fifteen years ago it was impossible to escape Will Hutton. His book The State We’re In, with its call for a less short-term, less short-sighted capitalism, was everywhere – so much so that the New Statesman was later to claim that it had sold 200,000 copies. This, the magazine said, was by far the most for a book of its kind “since J M Keynes's The Economic Consequences of the Peace shortly after the First World War”.

And New Labour, which was clearly on its way to power by the time The State We’re In appeared, showed considerable interest in Hutton’s concept of ‘stakeholding’ – the idea that those with a stake in a company's fortunes should include not only those who own its shares, but also its customers, employees and suppliers, and the wider community.

Time moves on, and Hutton’s ideas turned out to be too radical for Blair’s government, which was determined above all to do nothing to frighten the horses in the City. Meanwhile, the suspicion grew that The State We’re In was a bit of a hawking – a book more purchased than red – and more recently Private Eye has taken to poking fun at Hutton’s stewardship of the Industrial Society (now called the Work Foundation), claiming that it has been as short-termist as any of the business leaders he criticised.

But Hutton was not daunted. He continued to turn out books on political economy, even if their titles rather obviously harked back to his earlier success. There was The State to Come in 1997 and The World We’re In from 2002. Last year saw Them and Us, the paperback edition of which has just appeared.

This time round Hutton is even more ambitious. Them and Us calls not just for a reconstruction of corporate governance, but for something close to the reconstruction of society as a whole. And he wants to see this reconstruction based upon the value of fairness.

The concept of ‘fairness’ is fashionable – all parties laid claim to it at the last general election – but that may be because it is popular because of its vagueness. Yes, we all believe in fairness, but that may just be because we have very different ideas of what the concept means. And isn’t there something of the playground about it? (“It’s not fair!”). Ideas like ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ are much more grown-up – and more challenging.

But Hutton promotes his understanding of fairness by engaging with meaty thinkers like Marx, Rousseau and John Rawls. There is nothing of the playground about the debate here, and his determination to win Adam Smith back from the Conservatives is particularly welcome.

And this impression of seriousness is reinforced by Hutton’s interest in the fashionable discipline of behavioural economics, as he uses its insights to argue that a sense of fairness is ‘hard-wired’ into us.

Well, maybe. But the claim that “you can’t change human nature” is more commonly heard from advocates of laissez-faire economics. And, even if you buy the idea of a fixed human nature, don’t we have education and all the other institutions of a civilised society precisely because we recognise the need to transcend out natures?

Still, many of Hutton’s prescriptions on constitutional reform, media ownership and corporate governance will be welcome to Liberal Democrats – he even spoke at the Social Liberal Forum’s first conference. There are more entertaining writers on the economy these days – John Lanchester and Larry Elliott are good examples – but Hutton’s unashamed seriousness in Them and Us is to be welcomed.

Jonathan Calder

New Liberal Democrat headquarters, 8-10 Great George Street

The Liberal Democrats bid goodbye to Cowley Street today. From Monday the party's national HQ will be at 8-10 Great George Street, still in Westminster.

Simon Cooper has some pictures of the new offices.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Nick Clegg defends the Human Rights Act

From tomorrow morning's Guardian:
Court judgments themselves tend to tell a very different story about our rights culture than tabloid papers. The Human Rights Act and the European convention on human rights have been instrumental in preventing local authorities from snooping on law-abiding families, in removing innocent people from the national DNA database, in preventing rapists from cross-examining their victims in court, in defending the rights of parents to have a say in the medical treatment of their children, in holding local authorities to account where they have failed to protect children from abuse, in protecting the anonymity of journalists' sources, and in upholding the rights of elderly married couples to be cared for together in care homes.

Postman's Park, London EC1


Having linked to an item about Postman's Park in a recent Six of the Best, I thought I would visit it myself. I found in on Aldersgate Street, close to St Paul's Cathedral.

It is a trim little park, formed from the churchyard of St Botolph's Aldersgate. As the post I linked to on Historical Trinkets explains, it is most notable for its Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, the brainchild of artist George Frederic Watts and his wife Mary:
The Memorial consists of a covered walkway with memorial tablets commemorating ordinary people who had given their lives whilst attempting to save the lives of others. The wall was unveiled in 1900, although by this point only four memorial tablets had been installed on the wall.

The memorial tablets are made of ceramic tiles, which were cheaper to produce than engraved stone. The design and styling of the tiles is not completely uniform - although they all follow the same basic principle of green or blue writing on a white background - as the memorials were not all produced and installed at the same time. The wall has space for 120 of these memorials but a lack of funds meant that the project was halted in 1931 with just 53 memorials in place - and only a few of these had been sporadiacally added since Watts' widow withdrew funding from the project in 1910.
The individual memorials are made from tiles, something I have been more aware of since visiting Jackfield, but these are Royal Doulton rather than Shropshire tiles.

Individually, the plaques are moving, but en masse the effect is dangerously close to being comic. Still, I recommend Postman's Park as an oasis in the City and the Memorial has an intriguing historical oddity.

And I was pleased to see that a plaque to a modern-day hero was added in 2009 - the first for 78 years.

If you to know more Wikipedia has a good entry on Postman's Park.

Cricket latest: England beat Ireland, Ireland beat England


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

An interview with Alexander Alekhine



Alekhine was world chess champion from 1927 to 1935 and from 1937 until his death in 1946 (although the war prevented any matches for the title being held during this second part of his reign).

I apologise if this is a bit of a minority interest, but before this evening I had no idea that this recording existed.

Discussing the greatest chess players' styles back in 2007, I wrote:
Fischer's games were so easy to understand that he made you feel you could play that well yourself. Kasparov's play was so extraordinary that you had to play over his games twice before you could begin to understand what was going on.
Alekhine's play was very much in the Kasparov style. You have to play over his games twice too.

Finally, a linguistic point. The modern-day speaker at the start pronounces Alekhine's name correctly. The contemporary BBC announcer gets it wrong in a way that many British chess players do to this day.

The reason is that "Alekhine" is a French transliteration of a Russian name. It works perfectly well in French, but when English speakers pronounce this French name phonetically they end up with something that sounds very different from the original Russian.

Further proof of the awesomeness of Paddy Ashdown

Allegra Stratton has an article in tomorrow's Guardian about Ed Llewellyn, David Cameron's chief of staff. She argues that, tempered by his time working for Paddy Ashdown in Bosnia, he had been the prime minister's rock over Libya.

One anecdote of his Bosnian days is telling:
For three years, almost Ashdown's entire tenure, he did the job he is doing for Cameron now, working cheek by jowl with the boss to help a country back to its feet. It was a high octane period and not just figuratively.

One story has Llewellyn in his office with colleagues and the viceroy of the Bosnian Raj – Ashdown – when they received intelligence that a truck loaded with explosives was driving towards the petrol station next door. All heads turned to look out the window at the roof of the petrol station.

As Llewellyn and others reached for their briefcases Ashdown roared that nobody was going anywhere. You don't leave the deck of your possibly sinking ship. The truck was diverted but the memories of impending death were not.
Yes, that is the spirit that won Yeovil from the Tories.

By-election in Bishop's Castle as Peter Phillips stands down

Peter Phillips, the long-serving councillor for Bishop's Castle is to resign after more than three decades in Shropshire politics, reports the Shropshire Star. You can hear him giving his reasons in a podcast accessible via that page.

Peter gives his reasons and reflections on the website of the Liberal Democrat Group on Shropshire Council:
"After such a long time – I first stood in 1973! – when local politics has been my consuming interest and ambition – it’s a really tough decision, but I’m conscious in recent years of not having quite that youthful vigour! Perhaps there’s never a perfect moment to go: actually, I thought very hard at election time in 2009. But really important issues for my residents compelled me to continue. There has been a sustained assault by Shropshire Council against local opinion. So I stayed to fight our corner. The schools campaign being the most recent."
And:
"It took me 3 shots to get elected to the Council; but once in and doing things, local people have rewarded me with astonishing loyalty. It has been a real privilege.
And:
Any reflections?  "Well, Opposition – we lost power to the Tories in 2005 – is a real eye-opener. You realise then that the most powerful “group” in the Shirehall is not the Lib Dem or Tory Group: it’s the senior office corps. They and the current Tories are wrecking the organisation. They have destroyed staff morale, trampled over public opinion and muzzled backbenchers and the opposition. It’s difficult to believe the unjustified assault of the last 12 months. And the losers are the Shropshire Public. I can tell you this: the by-election will jolly well demonstrate what my residents think of Shropshire Council!"
The by-election is expected to take place in late September.

Incidentally, Peter is the only Liberal Democrat councillor whose poems I have bought.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Jo Grimond speaking in the 1966 general election campaign

John Howard Davies RIP

I was sorry to hear of the death of John Howard Davies today. As a couple of paragraphs of his Daily Telegraph obituary make clear, we owe him a debt for his work on some of the very finest television comedies:
He was made a producer in 1968 and worked first on Misleading Cases, a legal satire starring Alastair Sim, moving on to The World of Beachcomber, starring Spike Milligan; and All Gas and Gaiters . Then came Monty Python; The Goodies; Steptoe and Son and Frankie Howerd’s Whoops Baghdad.

In 1973 Davies left to become managing director of EMI television productions, but was back at the BBC within a year, where he became Head of Comedy in 1978, launching yet more famous series, including Yes Minister , Not the Nine O’Clock News, and Only Fools and Horses.
All this, and he was the young star of David Lean's Oliver Twist too.

Jonathan Meades praises Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life

Yesterday I published a guest post about Nikolaus Pevsner and Leicestershire by Susie Harries. She is the author of the newly published Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life.

Her biography has been favourably reviewed by one of this blog's heroes, Jonathan Meades, in Country Life. He writes:
From this tangle of contradictions, Susie Harries has fashioned an outstandingly good biography. It is thorough, detached, humane and exceptionally skillful in its depiction (or creation) of a protagonist who is constantly mutating. The antipathetic Saxon prig of the early chapters gradually evolves into husband, father, expatriate, internee, rubble-shoveller, journalist, wit, editor, polemicist, historian, broadcaster and much else besides. By the end, he has turned into an often amused and often amusing titan of architectural taxonomy: success, as John Mortimer once pointed out, makes people nicer.
Another post of mine will guide you to a television film that Meades made about Pevsner, as well as to some more links.

Six of the Best 182

"As the cuts hit, unemployment rises, and inflation goes up, the expected 30% increase in rail fares over the next three years will see increasing numbers of people priced off the railways, with those at the bottom of the income scale being affected the greatest." Turnip Rail points out that 19th-century governments were careful to protect poorer passengers.

Gaping Void is giving up Facebook and Twitter to concentrate on blogging.

Writing on British Politics and Policy at LSE, Sally Broughton-Micova argues that the government’s plans for local TV puts too much of an onus on stations to provide content for the national networks. Local TV should concentrate on local issues.

"Few senior staff, preoccupied with their research grants, now teach first-year students. Tutorial numbers are unmanageably doubled and trebled from a generation ago. The essays are halved in length and number. Meanwhile, overpaid administrators, pumping out the newspeak propaganda of "centres of teaching and learning", have the effrontery to claim that undergraduate education is getting better all the time - yeah. By my reckoning, in contrast, universities do less nowadays than they once did to help translate young minds from suburbia to the stars." Richard Bosworth, writing for Times Higher Education, looks back over a long career in academia.

James Russell looks at the Cerne Abbas Giant, with help from Paul Nash and Eric Ravilious.

Finally, you will need your hanky as A Life in the Day... contemplates saying goodbye to a dog called Thomas.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Bog Visitor Centre, Shropshire


A final photograph from my trip last week. When in the Shropshire hills be sure to take in The Bog Visitor Centre for tea, cake, books and crafts.

My Twitter use just grew up

As I write this my personal Twitter account @lordbonkers has 2050 followers and my principal work Twitter account @BPSOfficial has 2056.

So this evening my work account overtook my personal account. This makes me feel a little sad, but also grown up and rather professional.

If you are interested in psychology you may want to follow @BPSInfo too.

Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw

Yesterday I wrote about the way listening to new music can broaden and educate your taste. Then I had Jethro Tull in mind, but it is just as true in classical music.

I can remember listening to Benjamin Britten's opera The Turn of the Screw on Radio 3 because I had read the Henry James short story on which it is based. I found the music almost impossibly difficult, but interesting enough that I wanted to hear it again.

So I persevered with Britten and he soon became one of my very favourite composers - up there with Bach and Schubert. And I saw The Turn of the Screw at the London Coliseum in the early 1980s, with Philip Langridge singing Peter Quint.

My reason for writing about this opera is that the Glyndebourne performance of The Turn of the Screw which the Guardian streamed live yesterday evening will be available on the newspaper's site until 12 September. The site also has plenty of background material about the opera and this production too.

Leicester: When mayors fall out

The establishment of a one-party state in Leicester has not meant there has been less argument in the city's politics. Labour is quite capable of having rows all on its own.

A couple of weeks ago there was a story in the Leicester Mercury about claims that the new elected Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, was purposely overshadowing the ceremonial Lord Mayor Robert Wann. Though the story originated with the city's only Conservative councillor, the Mercury was able to obtain the following quote from "an unnamed source close to Lord Mayor Robert Wann":
"The cream is being skimmed from the top of the Lord Mayor's engagements and it won't be long until it comes to a head in the Labour group."
Today it does seem to be coming to a head, but perhaps in the way that Wann hoped.

This evening's Mercury carries a report that Soulsby has reported Wann to the city council's standards board over claims he has had several parking tickets cancelled by a senior executive. The report goes on to quote Soulsby:
"Just before May's election a member of the public came to me with their concerns about a number of issues relating to a councillor. They also provided documents to back up these concerns.

"I promised to investigate the issues following the election and I fulfilled that promise. After gathering evidence internally I wrote to the councillor concerned.

"When I didn't get a response I spoke to the councillor, but the explanation I received was inadequate and I passed on the issue to the council's standards board."

He added: "Clearly as mayor I've got a responsibility to make sure that the very highest standards are being met within the council."
Actually, it is not at all clear that it is the Mayor's role to oversee ethical councillors among councilors. The executive mayor model is a bit of a mess, but it surely meant to be the councillors who hold the elected mayor to account.

And, while the allegations again Wann should be investigated, why is the Mayor getting involved? Surely he has enough to do without devoting his energies to doing down his enemies within the Leicester Labour Party?

GUEST POST "A modest county": Pevsner in Leicestershire

Susie Harries published her Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life last week. In this guest post for Liberal England she looks at Pevsner's treatment of Leicestershire and Rutland.

Pevsner's mood as he set off to tour the buildings of Leicestershire was subdued. By the mid-1950s Penguin Books were losing money on every volume of the Buildings of England and Pevsner had been pressed into service as a fundraiser - a role in which he did not shine. His letter to Sir Hugh Beaver, Managing Director of Guinness, was hardly brash: "The sum involved is not large per annum and the use within the field of English art and architecture is quite big."

With the threat that the series might be abandoned hanging over him, it was perhaps not surprising that when he came to write the introduction to Leicestershire he lacked zest. As Reyner Banham pointed out, he wrote at his best when dealing with extremists - Mannerists, High Victorians, Brutalists. Pevsner himself identified a love of the extreme as a typically German characteristic - and he found few extremes in Leicestershire. He preferred mountains to plains, and listed his favourite recreation as the 12-mile walk: Charnwood Forest, he noted glumly, was no more than seven miles by four across.

"A modest county", Pevsner called Leicestershire, with few outstanding buildings. Specifically, it seemed to be short on the types he particularly liked. Its medieval churches were often ruined by over-restoration: 'Much of the aesthetic pleasure in, it may well be true to say, half her ancient churches ... is obliterated by the zeal of the restorers.’

Its contemporary buildings, too, were few and far between: "Clearly Leicestershire, Leicester, and the clients of the architects in Leicestershire have not yet understood what the new style in architecture is about." When Pevsner visited Leicester University the Engineering Faculty Building by James Stirling was still on the drawing-board - perhaps fortunately, given his resistance to overbearing self-expression in architecture. (Inconsistent as ever, though, Pevsner could appreciate the boldness of some garish gestures.

"In HUMBERSTONE GATE, [Leicester]," he wrote, "is LEWIS’S STORE (by G. De C. Fraser, 1935-6) with a tall modernistic tower, definitely not in a good taste [sic], but by its very queerness and uncouthness an established landmark. The rest of the frontage is tamer.")

Nor was Leicestershire, having had no Industrial Revolution to speak of, rich in the kind of Victorian buildings he found interesting, . With no steep increases in urban populations, there had been less need for new churches. For Catholic churchgoers there was Augustus Welby Pugin. But while Pugin's drawings were brilliant - "rapid, unfettered, impulsive"  the completed buildings were not: "They are at best correct in forms and mood (Mount St Bernard), at worst of an unprecedented gloom which makes one yearn for the fantastical Gothic of the C18 or the richer forms and styles of the Victorian proper."

And then there were the Nonconformists - rarely for Pevsner a source of joy. "1866 by Thomas Carter," he wrote of the Baptist Church in Friar Lane, Leicester, "and, as far as architecture is concerned, thoroughly horrible. It would take up too much space to describe the discrepant motifs and demonstrate the unfeeling way in which they are assembled."

So he had to find his pleasures in unexpected places. Always cramped for space in the BoE volumes, nevertheless he usually made  room for inscriptions that took his fancy. In Barrow on Soar it was the epitaph for Theophilus Cave (d.1656):
Here in this Grave there lyes a Cave,
We call a Cave a Grave.
If Cave be Grave and Grave be Cave,
Then reader judge I Crave
Whether doth Cave lye in Grave
Or Grave here lye in Cave?
If Grave in Cave here buried lye
Then Grave where is thy victorie?
Goe reader and report here lyes a Cave
Who conquers death and buries his own Grave.
Monuments, too, were an unfailing source of interest. He was moved in Prestwold by the tomb of Charles Hussey Packe, who had died in 1862 at the age of 15: "Recumbent figure of a youth in Eton clothes on a mattress, very pathetic."

In St Michael, Brooksby, he noted that Sir William Villiers and his young wife had both died in the same year, 1711: "Standing figures side by side in the dress of their time but draped with big cloaks of a vaguely Roman kind. Sir William looks somewhat pompous with his big wig, his wife has a round attractive face, the shape and features that Renoir liked."

Pevsner may have complained of Leicestershire's architectural diffidence, but when it came to individual buildings it was, in fact, often precisely their modesty that appealed to a man who had been known to use 'introvert' as a term of praise. Just as he disliked aggression and irrationality in architecture, so he valued manners and equanimity. Admiring of the early Tudor detached chapel at Withcote - "a perfect example of this rarely surviving type of building" - it was Withcote Hall to which he warmed: "A plain, reasonable, cream-coloured and extremely lovable house of the early C18." (Withcote Hall is on English Heritage's Heritage at Risk register.)

Withcote Hall (photo by Stephen Pointer)

Lack of pretension again attracted him in Holy Trinity, Staunton Harold. As a historian, he noted that the church was one of very few to be built during the time of the Commonwealth. He relished the originality of its exterior: "Perhaps as a demonstration in favour of old times, a completely new church was built entirely in Gothic forms" - and the miraculous preservation of its contrasting interior - "as consistently 'Jacobean' in style – that is, at that moment and in Leicestershire 'modern' - as the exterior is Gothic.’ But it was the church's "engaging humility" that won his affection: "Altogether Staunton Harold church was not intended to be a showpiece, and that makes it all the more lovable."

Given Pevsner's enduring fascination with national character in buildings and landscape, Staunton Harold was special: "For position, Staunton Harold, the house and the chapel, are unsurpassed in the country... as far as Englishness is concerned. One must see the group with the lakes from due E – from the main road or from the drive nearer by."

In contrast, a carving in the church of St Michael, Stoney Stanton was totally alien:
Norman tympanum now over the N doorway of the chancel. A very odd representation. On the l. an ox (lamb?) and behind it a bishop with crozier and blessing raised hand. The ox attacks a dragon (is attacked by a dragon?). On the dragon perches an eagle, and from the r. a second dragon attacks the first. What is the meaning of this Germanic barbarity?

Tympanum, St Michael, Stoney Stanton (photo by John Salmon)

Pevsner had a rather English sympathy for the aspirations of the humble. 'COALVILLE', he wrote, "A pathetic and unpromising name for a town. But the CLOCK TOWER by Henry Collings, of 1926 makes up for such misgivings. Quite a proud thing to build for a small town."

On the same principle, he rejoiced in Rutland, which he would have given its own volume if he could. Echoing the words of W.G. Hoskins, he declared: "They say the best things come in the smallest parcels: Rutland is both very small and very good."  He revelled in the chancel arch at St Peter, Tickencote, Voysey's The Pastures at North Luffenham, the Norman carvings in the church of St Andrew, Stoke Dry, and, perhaps most particularly, the church of Holy Trinity, Teigh. Built in 1782 by George Richardson for the Earl of Harborough, it had retained a 13th-century tower, but the interior was entirely 18th-century. Pews were ranged along the walls as in a university college, and the pulpit was pure Strawberry Hill Gothic:
The W and E walls are articulated by slender shafts into three blank arches. On the E side the window is in the middle space, the boards with the Ten Commandments are in the lateral ones. The W wall is more surprisingly and entertainingly organized. The lateral spaces have boards with the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed. In the middle space the doorway, a little higher up l. and r. of it two reading desks in boxes accessible from behind, and, above the doorway, the pulpit also accessible from the tower. The wall l. and r of the pulpit is painted with mock glazing bars and trees appearing behind them. The three boxes give one an irresistible hope that at any moment preacher and readers might pop out like the little figures in a weather-house.

Holy Trinity, Teigh (photo by Philip Wilkinson)

Pevsner had, after all, enjoyed himself. And it seems likely that Sir Hugh Beaver responded well to the modest approach. When Leicestershire appeared in 1960, Beaver was the dedicatee and Guinness the first sponsor to step in and keep the Buildings of England on the road.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch goes to war: The movie

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about the armoured train used on the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch, a narrow gauge line in Kent that still runs today, during World War II.

What I did not know then is that footage of that train exists...

Booming Business: British Banks and Cluster Bombs

Jethro Tull: Cross-Eyed Mary


On the sleeve of Jethro Tull's Songs from the Wood (1977), Ian Anderson sat, a Robin Hood brewing a cauldron at his forest hearth; their follow-up, Heavy Horses, pictured shire horses harnessed for farm labour.The romance of time travel had tipped over into outright Luddism.
Rob Young's Electric Eden does not have a lot of time for Jethro Tull's folk-rock period, but when I was in the sixth form I thought these were just about the best albums ever.

Then a strange thing happened. I bought another Tull LP - Repeat: The Best of Jethro Tull, Vol. 2 - and it was completely different. Loud, bluesy... it was nothing like folk rock.

Yet, though I found this music more difficult, I very much wanted to like it. And after listening to it several times I did like it, and eventually came to like it more than Songs from the Wood or Heavy Horses. In fact that there was a sense in which I knew the bluesy songs were better even when I did not like them.

So you can educate and extend your taste by listening to new kinds of music. It is rather like the time, at the age of 13 or so, when you don't like the taste of beer but very much want to.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Bobby Fischer Against the World



Three weeks ago I decided to spend a day at the British Chess Championships rather than watch the film Bobby Fischer Against the World. But it won't be in cinemas much longer, so today I went down to London to see it. It was on at the Prince Charles Cinema, just off Leicester Square.

Bobby Fischer Against the World  is centred on the Fischer vs Spassky World Championship from 1972, but also tells the story of Fischer's boyhood and later descent into mania. The video above, part of which is used in the film, shows a 15-year-old Fischer appearing on I've Got a Secret. By coincidence, I posted another clip from this show recently - and it seems to have become the favourite programme of Moonlight Over Essex since then too.

The Fischer vs Spassky match was an extraordinary global news story: a lone Westerner taking on and defeating the mighty Soviet chess machine. There was great uncertainty over whether Fischer would turn up in Reykjavik to play the match - it took, amongst other things, an intervention from Henry Kissinger to persuade him to get on the plane - and once he had got there his success kept even news of Watergate off the top spot in television new bulletins.

Looking back on the games today, it has to be admitted that Spassky's play was uncharacteristically weak at first. He seemed to relax and play better once he had fallen decisively behind in the match. Some of Fischer's play was marvellous, but it ultimately what mattered was not the quality of the chess. The match had become a far bigger event than that.

Aimed at an American audience, the film emphasises how the Fischer vs Spassky match led to a boom in chess in the USA. But in Britain its effect was even more startling. In 1972 the Americans had other grandmaster besides Fischer: Britain had none, but 15 years later had surpassed the USA and every other chess-playing nation except the Soviet Union. (I have written a post on this British chess boom.)

Fischer comes across as a deeply wounded figure. His childhood was toxic and by the age of 16 he was living on his own among squalor and chess books. He seems to have internalised some of his mothers left-wing conspiracy politics - or even some of the right-wing conspiracy politics of 1950s America.

After he gave up chess, refusing to defend his title against the Soviet challenger Anatoly Karpov in 1975 even though the chess authorities had gone a long way to meet his demands for the match, he descended into madness. After trying and rejecting a Christian sect he became a raving anti-Semite and gloried in the blow struck against the US on 9/11.

In 1992 he and Spassky staged a rematch, and Fischer won it despite having not played competitive chess for 20 years. However, both players were long past their best and the match was held in Yugoslavia during the civil war in defiance of international sanctions. Fischer was threatened with prosecution and imprisonment if he ever returned to the US.

He was detained over immigration irregularities in Japan, but was offered sanctuary in Iceland, the scene of his greatest triumph, where he died in 2008.

The relation between chess genius and madness has long been discussed. The film retails stories of other great players who have shown symptoms, but I suspect most of these have grown in the telling. The wisest words on this question are those of Bill Hartston, journalist and former British champion.

Hartston said: "Chess does not drive people mad - it keeps mad people sane." Certainly, Fischer had far fewer problems during his active playing career and many remember him as personable, if a little odd. He was nothing like the bearded, shambling figure of his last years. He took part in a BBC consultation game in the 1960s because he had worked out that it would give him just enough time and money to get himself a Saville Row suit.

Besides, not all great chess players are strange, as the sane voice of Garry Kasparov in this film demonstrates.  I was fascinated by his comment that Fischer and Spassky were not just getting old in 1992 but that they were playing "seventies chess". So much so that I bought his book about Fischer. Looking through it on the train home, he means that things only Fischer knew in his prime are now known by every good player and the game has moved on.

There is another story that the film does not tell: that of Boris Spassky. He went back to Moscow as the man  who had lost the Soviet Union the world chess title - and proceeded to win the next Soviet Championship. This must have taken great courage. One of the Soviets who had lost to Fischer as he won the right to challenge Spassky, Mark Taimanov, had been turned over by customs on his return, got into a row and been forced to issue a public apology to "comrade customs official". The Solzhenitsyn novel found in his luggage didn't help either.

After winning the Soviet title, Spassky traded on his fame. He played in all the big tournaments (the organisers wanted him - he was one of the two chess players that everyone had heard of) but tended to settle for a quiet life and agreed a lot of draws. He also managed to become something of a dissident from the Soviet system without facing persecution. Perhaps his fame helped him in this too?

And Spassky was a gentleman. He probably disadvantaged himself by going too far to meet Fischer's demands. He could easily have claimed his rights, which would have led Fischer to default the match and allowed Spassky to keep his title for another three years.

Finally, a slight quibble. Interviewed after winning the world title, Fischer is asked what he would like to do next. He replies that he has not played enough chess. People in the cinema around me laughed, and I assume the makers meant this clip to display his monomania.

Yet the answer made perfect sense. Fischer, because of his unwillingness to play if the conditions did not meet his exacting demands, had not played that many games in his career. Having him as an active world champion through the 1970s and playing epic matches with Kasparov in the 1980s would have been wonderful for chess - and much better for Fischer. As it turned out, he hardly played again and we were robbed of his talent.

The road from Bridges to the Stiperstones


After ten minutes the trees thinned out and they found themselves on the side of the mountain. The twins, who were in front, turned and looked down on the "Hope Anchor" lying below them like a little model from a toy shop.

"She's still there," said Mary. "Look, David, I think she's waving."

They waved in return, but David would not let them linger. He was not enjoying this journey very much for he was tired already and not very used to Sally. Also it was horribly hot and the path, winding steeply now between the heather, was treacherous with loose stones. And the flies were a torment to the three travellers as well as to Sally, who was fidgety and unhappy. Twice she tried to get rid of her burden by rolling and once she tried to turn in the track and go back. For a time it seemed as if the path was leading them away from the Chair and Mary complained that it was a magic mountain.

"Anyway," her twin said, "it's a beastly mountain, and I don't like it, and I wish we hadn't come. I hate it.... An' it's hot and I want three more ginger pops."

"Silly we were about Alpine guides," Mary added. "David, we're going to stop! We're tired.... An' it's no use you lookin' grumpy like that."

"Stranger!" said Dickie unexpectedly, recalling his recent experience of the cinema. "Say, stranger, we're quittin'! We're through," and they sat down in the heather."

Malcolm Saville, Seven White Gates, 1944
I don't agree with David Morton. The road up from Bridges to the Stiperstones ridge has long been one of my favourite walks. Yes, it is a hard climb at first, but after that you feel yourself being lifted up amongst the hills with little effort on your part.

But then I have never had to attempt it with a recalcitrant Welsh mountain pony and a pair or irritating nine-year-old twins.

I walked this road again on Saturday after leaving Bridges. The "Hope Anchor" of Seven White Gates, incidentally, is clearly the pub that is today called The Bridges.

It is easy to believe that the road, which today is metalled but largely unfenced, was in 1944 a stony track. And perhaps the grazing for sheep on either side of the road today was given over to heather in those days.

Except that when I heard Malcolm Saville's younger son, the late Revd Jeremy Saville, speak some years ago, he said that he was pretty sure that his father had never visited the Stiperstones when he wrote Seven White Gates and that its landscapes and character owed most to the novels of Mary Webb.

More about the great man at the Malcolm Saville Society website.

Private Eye's view of the London 2012 opening ceremony may be near the truth

The current Private Eye has a great cover. But the odd thing is that this satire is not so far from the truth of the one ceremony for London 2012 which has so far taken place.

That was the eight-minute handover section of the 2008 Games. Here is how it was previewed in the Guardian:
The moment one Olympic host city hands over to the next has veered from exuberant celebration of national identity to plain international embarrassment.

Now after 12 months of secret planning, London's strategy for the handover of the Olympic flag at this summer's closing ceremony can be revealed by the Guardian - and there's not a red London bus or Pearly Queen in sight.

Instead, the unruly spirit of Britain's "hoodie" culture will take centre stage in Beijing's Olympic Stadium in front of a TV audience of more than 100 million.

An eight-minute performance led by Zoo Nation, an urban dance squad famous for a West End show which features a drug-dealing pimp and a gangster rap soundtrack, will mark the beginning of the London 2012 Olympiad.
Well, much to the Guardian's chagrin no doubt, a red bus did make an appearance. But if I recall rightly the hoodies daubed it with graffiti (so that was all right) before it opened like a lotus flower to reveal, amongst others, Jimmy Page, David Beckham and Leona Lewis.

The moral is that the 2012 Games may prove hard to satirise.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Six of the Best 181

"Surprise, surprise: Lib Dems on the receiving end of hammering in Edinburgh," says A Scottish Liberal. You know, I think he is being sarcastic.

OXfr33 encounters geeks on the bleeding edge of freedom: "For all the state apparatus can throw at security, it appears that hacker groups like LulzSec and Anonymous are running rings round both government and corporate systems and networks."

The Liberal Democrats' Eastern Region is holding an action day in Norwich South on 3 September. "Why not ask new members or deliverers if they would like to come with you? This will be a great chance for some to try out door-knocking for the very first time, and for others to try their hand at recruiting," says George Kendall on Lib Dem Voice.

Writing on LaboutList, Cat Smith reveals the shocking truth about Tasers.

The Irish Times meets Gerald Dickens and Nicky Dickens Flynn, two of the great great grandchildren of Charles Dickens: "The Dickens family is a very large clan,” explains Flynn. “Charles had 11 children and we come down from the eighth. Some of them died young and some died without offspring. Many of the surnames have changed and we are down to the last few."

We end with good news: Wartime Housewife is back in the land of the bloggers, coming to you live from her bunker in Desborough.

David Cameron: Is that all there is?


It's not that David Cameron is a Conservative. You can tell he is one just by looking at him.

It's not that he sometimes expresses right-wing sentiments. As Tory leader he has to keep his troops happy even if he really is the more liberal Conservative that he affected to be when he first became leader.

What worries about David Cameron is that, with rare exceptions like his apology over Bloody Sunday, he has failed to give the impression that he is a statesman or even much of a leader.

Some examples.

We have been on credit, both individually and as a country, for years and that could not go on for ever. So we would have been in for a period of austerity whoever won the last election. We Liberal Democrats would have like the spending cuts to be brought in more gradually, but any idea that Britain could have borrowed even more to "invest" its way out of trouble is a nonsense.

What clearly is needed is a restructuring of global economic governance, but we have heard nothing from Cameron on this. For all Gordon Brown's faults, he was a considerable and reassuring presence on the international stage and would have been in his element in the current crisis. When it comes to international finance, our current prime minister has been the invisible man.

But then, as I have argued before, Cameron was made for good times and Brown for bad time - one of the fundamental divisions in politics.

If the economy always threatened to be an area of comparative weakness for Cameron, he has hardly been more convincing on what was meant to be his area of strength: civil society. Again and again he has failed to give his concept of "the Big Society" and meaningful content - and I speak as someone who found the idea attractive and shares his analysis that the state is in danger of becoming too large and too far-reaching.

Perhaps the idea has been fatally holed because he has been forced to attempt to bring it in at a time of spending cuts, but he has shown no sign that he recognises that local government can be part of the solution to an over-mighty central state and not part of the problem. (I have written on this point in an earlier post.)

You could also complain that David Cameron has had little to say on foreign affairs - Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya. But the reality is that Britain will stay involved in these arenas for as long as the Americans do and not a moment longer. Any British prime minister would find it difficult to sound authoritative here. Certainly, all Tony Blair had to offer was a spanielesque devotion to George W. Bush.

A fairer test has been the recent riots where Cameron has failed both to voice the revulsion of the wider public or to point a way forward for the country that goes beyond a demand for revenge and does not tear up some of the principles of a civilised legal system.

I accept the argument that healthy cabinet government means that the prime minister's voice will not be the only voice heard on every question or that it will be the one heard most often on many of them. But is not as if David Cameron is presiding over an administration of all the talents. On the economy, for instance, you don't have to be a Lib Dem loyalist to find Chris Huhne and Vince Cable more authoritative figures than anyone the Conservatives have to offer.

But as things stand, the poster above - which first appeared on this blog in January of last year - is coming to have an almost painful resonance.

Julian and Sandy go into politics

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bridges Youth Hostel and Lady Mahlah Addyes Scott


Just around the corner from The Bridges pub stands the youth hostel. According to a leaflet I collected there it was built as a school for the children of her employees by Lady Mahlah Addyes Scott, Lady of the Manor of Wentnor and Ratlinghope, in 1866.

The leaflet suggests that she wanted to encourage her workers to stay with her rather than "join the drift to the factories of Industrial England".

It goes on to say that there turned out not enough children in the area to support a school. This is hardly surprising. Bridges is barely a hamlet and Ratlinghope is barely a village. After being left largely unused for some years, it became on of the country' first youth hostels in 1931.

You can read more about the remarkable Mahlah Addyes Scott on the Cradley Links website. She built another remarkably ornate school in the nearby village of Norbury - it is pictured on the Cradley website - which is still open today as Norbury Primary School. It must be the primary that any children who live in the empty country between the Long Mynd and the Stiperstones now attend.

Lady Scott died at the Royal Bath Hotel in Bournemouth, which will be familiar to Liberal Democrat Conference representatives, in 1907 after a carriage accident in the street outside. She is buried at Ratlinghope Church, which will be familiar to readers of this blog.

How the media works. Or Professor Alexander Gordon, the psychologist who never was

Which psychologist has been most widely quoted in the world's newspapers over the past few days?

It may well be one Professor Alexander Gordon - "a chartered psychologist and member of the British Psychological Society,” as most sources describe him.

Which is odd, given that there is no such person.

What happened was that someone from the Daily Mail called the Society's press centre (where I happen to work) and asked for the names of psychologists who might comment on a survey they were reporting. This said that men make up their minds about a potential partner much more quickly then women do.

One of the names that journalist given was Professor Alexander Gardner, and he duly gave him a quote that was included in the story.

Sadly, Professor Gardner's name was misspelt in the Mail and he became Professor Alexander Gordon instead. That is not the problem. We all make mistakes now and then - as readers of this blog will be well aware.

What does worry me is that this story has since gone around the world, and every single instance of it calls the psychologist Alexander Gordon. In other words, all these many journalists have done is cut and past the original Daily Mail article.

This incident is a pretty accurate picture of how journalists work these days - as readers of Nick Davies' excellent Flat Earth News will already know. I shall remember it next time I hear someone in the mainstream media complaining about bloggers.

I only discovered what had happened when the BBC phoned up asking to speak to Professor Gordon and I had to tell them that I had never heard of him. A little research revealed what had happened, and I was able to get Professor Gardner on the radio under his correct name.

Voting in the Total Politics Blog Awards 2011 closes tomorrow

Click here to vote in the Total Politics Blog Awards 2011


Was there something you meant to do today?

Voting in the Total Politics Blog Awards 2011 closes at midnight tomorrow (Friday). Click on the button to go to the magazine's site and cast your votes.

If you did feel moved to cast a vote for Liberal England, I would be very grateful.

Leicester after the riots


Martin Brookes has taken some photographs of boarded up shops in Leicester following last week's riots. Seeing that a pound shop and shoe repair board shop were attacked does not encourage one to seek a sophisticated political explanation of those events.

The problem with Centre Forum's "five-a-day" parenting campaign

A few days ago I was down in London for a social media training day on the Robin Hood Tax, which I have never got around to writing about.

It took place near King’s Cross and I had to walk past the front of the station to get there. Among the busy crowds I saw a mother and father with two small children. The children each had a scooter and a safety helmet.

I took it as a perfect picture of modern parenting.

On the one hand, the parents do not feel confident enough to say no to their children. It is obviously a very bad idea for a child to try to ride a scooter among such a throng, but the parents did not feel they could say so.

Similarly, I am amazed by the number of mothers I see carrying scooters away from the local primary school in the morning. Whatever happened to mothers who said things like “I’m not carrying that all the way home, just so you can ride it to school”?

On the other hand, the parents feel a sense that their children are at dreadful risk. Yet on any objective view the idea that children on scooters need helmets, particularly when they can hardly move for the crowds, is simply ridiculous.

I thought of this vignette when Centre Forum published its call for a “five-a-day” parenting campaign – prophetically, if you see a parenting deficit as playing some parts in the genesis of last week’s riots. (There is a short news report about it on Children & Young People Now and you can download the full report from the Centre Forum website.)

You may recall that the five elements were for parents, every day, to:

  • read to their child for 15 minutes
  • play with their child on the floor for 10 minutes
  • talk with their child for 20 minutes with the TV off
  • praise them frequently
  • give them a nutritious diet.

There is nothing any sensible person could object to there, but the challenge we face goes deeper than this. It is how we encourage good parenting without leaving parents feeling even more disempowered than they do today.

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Bridges, Ratlinghope


After Stiperstones I got back on the bus to go round to Bridges. The pub here used to be called The Horseshoes and when I first went there it was, rather improbably, an Adnams pub. It is a long way from the Stiperstones to the Suffolk coast.

Now it has been renamed The Bridges and taken over by the people who run the Three Tuns Brewery in Bishop's Castle.

The pub has been thoroughly refurbished - the bar is now in its third different position since I first visited it some 15 years ago - and every table inside had been booked for Sunday lunch. But this did not matter as it was a sunny day (though look at that sky) and you can sit outside. In fact the best place to sit is the other side of the lane by the stream.

I am not an expert on the pub trade, but if you have bikers and pony trekkers drinking at the same time, you are probably doing all right.

And you will find a better selection of Three Tuns beers at The Bridges than you will even at the Three Tuns itself.