Saturday, December 29, 2007

Before Rutland Water

Thanks to BLDGBLOG for pointing us to the website Old UK Photos:
This is a brand new non commercial website, launched in July 2006. The idea is to display as many old photographs as we can of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
The picture I have chosen shows the view across the Gwash valley in Rutland. It's not a picture you could take today as that valley was flooded in the 1970s to form Rutland Water.

On letting boys play with guns

These days government ministers think themselves entitled - even compelled - to pronounce on the smallest detail of school life.

On Thursday Kevin Brennan solemnly told us:
"This year, while obviously wanting every child to have a great Christmas break, we would rather that parents ensure their children do not use their gadgets in lessons and ideally don't bring them into school at all. Many Christmas presents in the first weeks of the new term get broken at school or have to be confiscated by teachers because they are misused in class."
This sort of intervention is at once a symptom and a cause of the demoralisation of the teaching profession. In my young day teachers did not need encouragement from Margaret Thatcher or Shirley Williams before they confiscated things.

Yesterday, Beverley Hughes was advocating "a common-sense approach to the fact that many children, and perhaps particularly many boys, like boisterous, physical activity".

Note that "perhaps". We all know that boys tend to be more boisterous than girls, but someone like Hughes has spent her entire political career moving in circles here it is impossible to say so. Hence her uneasiness in voicing this simple truth.

This question of whether boys should be allowed to play with toy guns is important. In an Open Mind article on ADHD I quoted the academic Penny Holland on her experience of banning this sort of play:
We noticed an impact on the half a dozen boys who were persistently interested in weapons and superhero play. We started to notice the effects of our constant negative attention. They became more withdrawn – and set on a behaviour train. They became dispirited.
In the Guardian article from which I must have taken this quote, Holland goes on to say:
"We started working with the play rather than against it which had really positive effects. They became far more socially integrated, they interacted better with the adults, they started to access other areas of the curriculum - their construction skills developed and imaginative play improved and got longer because we weren't interrupting them."
Given that the professional left has been so influential in introducing this harmful anti-play ethos into the classroom, you could say that it is good that Beverley Hughes is trying to undo the damage it has caused. But, judging by the comments from the teaching unions, as quoted by the Guardian, she has a long way to go.

The root of the problem lies in an absurd inversion of the natural order of things between adult and child. Take the opening of the Daily Mirror's report this morning:

Young boys should be encouraged to play with toy guns and other weapons at nursery, says new Government advice.

It tells staff to resist their "natural instinct" to stop boys playing with weapons in games.

So now we expect children to obey all society's most sophisticated moral codes, while teachers are vulnerable creatures who can hardly be blamed for acting on instinct.

Uncle Cleans Up to be republished

The Unbearable Oddness of Stevyn carries the welcome news that the second Uncle book by the Revd J. P. Martin is to be republished.

Liberal England: Moderately popular with Tory readers

Lib Dem Voice, Norfolk Blogger and Lynne Featherstone (the first a little ironically) celebrate their successes in the Liberal Democrat Blog of the Year section of Iain Dale's blog awards.

The full list is as follows:
  1. LibDem Voice 34%
  2. Norfolk Blogger 21%
  3. Lynne Featherstone 12%
  4. Liberal England 8%
  5. Quaequam 8%
  6. Cicero's Songs 6%
  7. Peter Black 6%
Given that Iain's readers are predominantly Conservatives, it is not clear how proud one should be of appearing in this list.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

My old year resolution

Linda Jack asks me to name my "old year resolution" - something I mean to get done before the end of this year.

That's easy.

Looking back on 2007, I have not spent half enough time in Shropshire. So on Sunday I shall be going there to see in the new year.

Nick Clegg, God and the truth

This is bizarre. Truly bizarre.

From The Bolton News:

Bolton Council chief Cllr Cliff Morris says new Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg made "a big mistake" in telling a radio show he did not believe in God.

Mr Clegg answered "no" when asked the question in a rapid-fire BBC Radio 5 Live interview.

But Cllr Morris, a committed evangelical Christian, who is an Elder at the Hebren Christian Church in Mayor Street, said: "I think he has made a big mistake and I don't know why he has said it."

The only interpretation I can put upon Cllr Morris's words is that he believes that Nick should not have answered the question truthfully.

If that is where being a "committed evangelical Christian" gets you, I am glad I am an atheist.

Eight for 2008

On Christmas Eve Iain Dale tagged me with a new meme, asking me to give my eight wishes for 2008.

I am never sure how personal to be on such occasions, remembering a story from Read My Lips by Matthew Parris and Phil Mason:

In 1948, a Washington radio station contacted ambassadors in the capital, asking what each would most like for Christmas. Britain's representative, Sir Oliver Franks, mistook the request.

French Ambassador: Peace throughout the world.

Soviet Ambassador: Freedom for all people enslaved by imperialism.

Sir Oliver: Well, it's very kind of you to ask. I'd quite like a box of crystallized fruit.

Anyway, here is my list:
  1. Nick Clegg to turn out to be half as good as his supporters claimed he was during the election campaign;
  2. Guantanamo Bay to close;
  3. A Lib Dem education policy that goes further than "we agree with the NUT";
  4. Jonathan Ross to be sacked by the BBC;
  5. Me to get more paid writing published;
  6. Andrew Flintoff to return to test cricket;
  7. Chelsea to win the Champions League;
  8. Leicester Tigers to win everything in sight.
Iain also asked me to nominate five blogs to continue the meme. So: Disgruntled Radical, Eaten by Missionaries, Gladstone Bag, Hug a Hoodie and Redemption Blues.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas 2: Bethlehem Down

“When He is King we will give him the Kings' gifts,
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,
Beautiful robes,” said the young girl to Joseph,
Fair with her first-born on Bethlehem Down.

Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight
Winds for the spices, and stars for the gold,
Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

When He is King they will clothe him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.

Here He has peace and a short while for dreaming,
Close huddled oxen to keep him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.
These are beautiful words and the tune (though I can't find a suitable version for you) is just as lovely.

But there is a very human tale behind them, involving the composer Peter Warlock:

By 1927 Warlock was in financial difficulty, due in part to a fall in the demand for his songs. He struck up a friendship with Bruce Blunt, a journalist, poet and “bon viveur”. The first record of their association was a press report about them being arrested “drunk and disorderly” in Chelsea.

Running short of money, the two friends wrote Bethlehem Down to submit to the Daily Telegraph's annual carol contest. They duly won the prize, which was used to finance an “immortal carouse” on Christmas Eve 1927.

Merry Christmas 1: Santa Claus - Polar Czar

From the great Alexei Sayle.

Liberal Democrats in the Sunday papers

Thanks to Pete Roberts for pointing us to Nick Clegg's brief question-and-answer session in The People. Here is Nick's answer to a question about whether he favours a referendum on the EU reform treaty:

I Want the referendum that matters - on whether we stay part of the European Union. Our involvement aids our businesses, boosts jobs and helps keep us safe against new threats like climate change and international crime. Some people disagree, so let's have the real debate, in or out.
I have moaned about this policy before, but the more you think about it, the sillier it gets.

Let's imagine that we have a political earthquake in Britain and that Nick Clegg finds himself at the head of an incoming Liberal Democrat administration. Would he really devote parliamentary time to putting through a referendum on British membership of the EU? And if that referendum were held and the vote went in favour of withdrawal, would he really devote the remainder of his first term to the horribly complicated process of negotiating that withdrawal?

Of course, Nick would do no such thing.

This referendum policy is really about disguising out support from the EU. If we come across voters who are against the Eu then, rather than engage with them, defend our views and try to convert them (which, in my experience as a councillor, was how you won public respect) we shall say that we want a referendum, so they can vote for us even if they detest Europe and all its works.

If there was one clear outcome of the leadership election it was that the party is agreed that we need to stop trying to be all things to all people. This EU referendum policy is a prime example of that, and it should be quietly dropped.

Elsewhere, the most interesting coverage was the Sunday Telegraph's interview with David Laws:

David Laws, the party's new head of public service reform, told The Sunday Telegraph that the new Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was determined to take his party in a radical and daring direction.

He said 2008 would be the "year of living dangerously" for the Liberal Democrats. "For too long the party has not thought radically enough," he said.

Mr Laws said he wanted to extend private provision to allow parents and patients more power and choice where the state sector was failing them.

The examples Laws gives are perhaps a little tame. I have written in favour of sending children in sate care to private schools myself, but it is very much a special case and more to do with the awfulness of the care system than the virtues of private education. And the freedom for NHS patients on long waiting lists to seek treatment elsewhere is coming from Europe in any case.

But Laws's interview is a sign that the party is starting to think again and, I think, moving in the right direction.

How far party activists will like the direction in which we are moving is another matter. There was precious little said about policy during the leadership campaign, and it is hard to resist the feeling the Liberal Democrats have elected a leader about whom they know remarkably little.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

BritBlog Roundup 149

This week with Mr Eugenides.

The Jam: Tales from the Riverbank

A terrific live version.

Not to be confused with the Watch with Mother series of the same name.

Daily Mail journalist wins Idiot of the Year

Good will to all men and that, but there are limits. An anonymous Daily Mail journalist is really very stupid indeed.

The Daily Mail has a report on Andrew Lloyd Webber's search for new talent to act in his revival of Oliver! He is looking for a woman to play Nancy and three boys to play Oliver Twist and will recruit them via a television show run along the lines of Any Dream Will Do.

The Mail then goes to tell us:

Dickens's second novel, Oliver Twist, was published in monthly instalments between 1923 and 1939.

It seems that everything the Mail has been saying about educational standards going to the dogs is true after all.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Nick Clegg's forebears

The Daily Telegraph gently shakes our new leader's family tree.

And don't forget Moura Budberg.

Rogue anorak

From the Shropshire Star:
A man with an obsession for buses, has been jailed for two years after stealing six from depots in Telford and Shifnal over the past two years.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The unknown African buried in Bishop's Castle churchyard

There is always something of interest in the Shropshire Star.

English Heritage has awarded the headstone of an unknown African man at St John the Baptist Church, in Bishop’s Castle, a Grade II listing because of its “historical significance”. The paper goes on to say:

No firm details about the man are known - including his name - and he is listed as “native of Africa”. It is thought the man may have arrived in the town as a servant in a local country house.

But experts believe the elegant decoration and inscription on the headstone indicates he had achieved higher status when he died.

The inscription on the Bishop’s Castle headstone reads: “Here lieth the Body of I.D./A Native of Africa/who died in ths (sic) Town/Sept 9th 1801/God hath made of one Blood, all nations of Men. Act 17 ch. ver. 26″

The House Points Awards

My column from today's Liberal Democrat News.

HP Awards

Welcome to the 2007 House Points Awards, coming to you live from the Mecca Ballroom, Goole. (Our investigations revealed that there is no Goole Ballroom in Mecca.)

The first award is for The Most Absurd Statement by a Labour MP. There was support for Graham Allen’s thoughts on Tory sleaze: "It took a Labour government to end those scandals and introduce legislation to bring greater transparency to party funding." As one judge said, it is not enough to pass new laws: you have to obey them.

But the winner is Kim Howells for his assertion that Britain and Saudi Arabia can unite around our "shared values". Only a couple of weeks after he said it, a Saudi court sentenced a rape victim to be jailed and flogged. Sheer genius from Howells.

Next up is the Greatest Waste of Public Money. There were voices in support of London’s 2012 Olympic bid – current estimated cost £9.325bn and rising, against an original figure of £1.796bn. But again one candidate stands out: let’s hear it for Jonathan Ross and his £4.5m salary from the BBC.

Politician of the Year did not detain the judges long: Vince Cable is our unanimous choice. But the award for Campaign of the Year gave rise to more discussion.

Eventually we chose our winner: John Hemming. Using his blog, John has been waging war on the secrecy and excessive powers of the family courts and child protection services.

Finally, The Most Absurd Economic Statement of the Year. Here it proved impossible to separate two outstanding nominations, so there are joint winners: George Osborne and Alistair Darling.

Osborne set a high standard with his suggestion that "50-odd million people" are currently "living off the back of those who work in financial services".

But Darling was not to be outdone. He replied to some gentle Tory hints about tax cuts with: "Take £21 billion out of the economy and it's bound to have an effect." Whatever you think of tax cuts, it’s bizarre to think that only government spending counts as part of the economy.

So there you have the House Points Awards. And for those of you who couldn’t get through to vote for Rhydian, we promise to have more lines next year.

Cat of the Week

Well done to Sylvester from Pontesbury:
Members of a Shropshire family are all smiles after their beloved cat, which had been missing since last Christmas, turned up just in time for this year’s festivities.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Campaign for Gender Balance blog awards

James Graham's blog is down for maintenance, but I have a vague feeling that he tagged me with a meme about the Campaign for Gender Balance blog awards. I can't remember what else I was supposed to do, but I have at least linked to them.

If I am honest, the idea that women need special awards to encourage them to blog makes me a little uneasy. Doesn't this just position them as the weaker sex?

Besides, the two most influential voices among the group of us who now host the BritBlog Roundup are the female bloggers who write Philobiblon and Redemption Blues.

Nick Clegg names his first Shadow Cabinet

Vince Cable's stellar performance as acting leader - his ability to discomfort Gordon Brown on the economy in particular - meant that Nick Clegg was almost bound to keep him on as shadow chancellor. This has put the kibosh on my own plan (had I won the leadership election) to move Vince to the foreign affairs brief and install Chris Huhne or David Laws in his place.

But there is still much of interest in Nick's first shadow cabinet. Chris Huhne has been given the promotion his two leadership challenges had earned him and there is certainly more Lib Dem work to be done on Home Office issues. While Nick Clegg and Mark Oaten both created a good impression in the post, it is hard to remember much of the detail of what they said.

My own candidate for shadow Home Secretary would have been David Heath, who has been a superb performer in the Commons on Home Office issues. Added to that, as Lord Bonkers has pointed out, he looks like the best sort of village policeman.

I shall be interested to see how Ed Davey gets on as shadow Foreign Secretary. Michael Moore never made much of an impression there, but then the press was also going to go straight to Ming on foreign policy while he was leader.

Many people whose judgement I respect rate Ed extremely highly, even expressing dismay that he did not stand for the leadership himself. I have not seen much from him that leads me to rate him so highly myself - I do not recall him doing much with his short tenure of the education portfolio - but I hope I shall in the near future.

Other highlights include Norman Baker's move to transport, but I do think Nick should note the (strangely punctuated) words of James Forsyth on the Spectator's Coffee House blog:
Lynne Featherstone’s talents seem a little wasted at Youth and Equality. While Julia Goldsworthy would have been better deployed in a wider ranging brief than Communities and Local Government, indeed it is a criticism of both the Tories and the Lib Dems that their female spokesman seem to all too often to just end up shadowing female ministers.

Nick Clegg and Shane McGowan: Old school ties

Nick Clegg's apparent unfamiliarity with "Fairytale of New York" is particularly strange because, as I have pointed out before, he and Shane McGowan went to the same school.

Late news: Young people's disco favourite Mika also went to Westminster.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Oliver Twist: A black Nancy?

The new BBC adaptation of Oliver Twist does not improve with greater acquaintance. But one point of interest is the casting of the black actress Sophie Okonedo as Nancy.

I don't know how credible the idea of a black prostitute in Dickensian London is, though it would be surprising if there were none. But this casting does recall one of the great might have beens of British cinema history - Shirley Bassey almost played in Nancy in the film of Oliver!

As Film Threat tells it:

Columbia Pictures acquired the rights to the hit musical show “Oliver!” and wanted to ensure its investment by casting Peter Sellers in the plum role of Fagin. But director Sir Carol Reed did not want Sellers, preferring to allow British actor Ron Moody to recreate his stage triumph as Fagin. Moody was not a film star and Columbia was not happy to have him in that expensive production.

However, Columbia’s brass was less thrilled at Reed’s insistence on having Welsh singer Shirley Bassey play Nancy. The studio was jittery that the inclusion of the black Bassey in the all-white cast would create problems with audiences uncomfortable with interracial romance, especially since her character is in love with a man who kills her.

A compromise was reached between the studio and director: Moody was cast as Fagin but white actress Shani Wallis was cast as Nancy.

Censoring "Fairytale of New York"

There has been some debate in the Lib Dem blogosphere about BBC Radio 1's decision to censor the word "faggot" from the song "Fairytale of New York" and then not to. My heart is with Antony Hook:

If I remember rightly the words crop up in the song where the male and female vocalists are abusing each other. It’s acting (albeit for a couple of mins and set to a tune). The logic of the banning argument is to purge any book, play, film, or musical that uses language taboo in polite company. It’s an artistic representation (of two people arguing) not an endorsement of their language.
If we censored "Fairytale of New York" on this basis then we would also have to censor Huckleberry Finn because it uses the word "nigger", and we Liberals are against that sort of thing, aren't we?
But I was also interested in Alex Wilcock's posting and his claim that faggot, as an insult for a gay person, is "a word derived from the religious practice of burning gay men alive".
That sounds unlikely to me, and a search of the net suggests that the use of "faggot" in this is sense is far too recent for the story to be true. The most scholarly discussion I can find comes from The Straight Dope:
The first known published use of the word faggot or fag to refer to a male homosexual appeared in 1914 in the U.S. It referred to a homosexual ball where the men were dressed in drag and called them "fagots (sissies)." Ernest Hemingway, in The Sun Also Rises (1926), included the line, "You're a hell of a good guy, and I'm fonder of you than anybody on earth. I couldn't tell you that in New York. It'd mean I was a faggot." A 1921 cite says, "Androgynes [are] known as 'fairies,' 'fags,' or 'brownies.'"
George Chauncey, in his excellent 1994 work Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, says that the terms fairy, faggot, and queen were used by homosexuals to refer to men who were ostentatiously effeminate. Homosexuals who were not as showy referred to themselves as "queer" in the first decades of the 20th century.
Incidentally, it appears that Nick Clegg has never heard of "Fairytale of New York" at all. Odd.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Cranford and Oliver Twist

It took a couple of weeks, but I did become hooked on the BBC's adaptation of Cranford. I even warmed to the Judi Dench - I have long wanted to repeal whichever Act of Parliament it is that makes it compulosry for her to be cast in every British film.

The writers had to combine Cranford with two of Mrs Gaskell's minor works to get some plot into it, and the last episode was simply crammed with happy endings. Long lost relatives and fiances appeared from behind every tree, and little Harry didn't just get an education - he got a fortune too.

All rather overdone, but still immensely enjoyable. And you may also enjoy tonight's posting from Liberal Bureaucracy.

Oliver Twist, which began this evening, was less satisfactory. It is a difficult piece to adapt because it has been done so often before - and done superlatively well by David Lean nearly 60 years ago. But it is possible to do something new and interesting with the book, as Alan Bleasdale proved not so long ago.

Whoever wrote the new Oliver took it upon themselves to gild the early scenes. But they are some of the most extraordinary pages in the English canon. You are not going to outwrite Dickens there.

I also feel that having a more lippy Oliver does not work. It makes you think there must be something to be said for the workhouse (not that we saw much of it) if it turns out such self-confident young men. It also means that there is not enough contrast between Oliver and the Dodger.

You may complain that it was also nonsense for Dickens to make Oliver emerge from the workhouse as a little gentleman, but that does seem to be what the story requires. The moral is that Dickens knows best.

Lib Dem leadership contest: Inquiry into voting process

"I phoned to vote for Chris Huhne 10 times but never got through, isn't it?"
Mrs Snood, Llanwrtyd Wells

Clegg vs Huhne: Why a near tie was the logical result

Congratulations to Nick Clegg on being elected as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

It was a leadership contest between two men from almost identical backgrounds, and one in which ideological or policy differences were rarely allowed to surface. Therefore a near tie was the logical result.

It has been obvious from reading Lib Dem blogs in recent weeks that Nick has the ability to evoke tremendous loyalty among younger activists. (I suspect those of us who favoured Chris Huhne tend to be older and are less starry-eyed about politics and life in general.)

This is an undoubted asset, but if he going to generate similarly warm feelings amongst the electorate Nick is going to have to display the immense ability to communicate that has often been claimed for him, but was too rarely displayed during the campaign.

The irony is that I have always suspected that I am closer to Nick on policy than I am to Chris. However, given the policy-free campaign, it is hard to be sure.

Writing in The Times last week, Peter Riddell said:
Along with close allies such as David Laws and Norman Lamb, he has been keen to open the supply side in schools and health. He wants to encourage new providers, as in Sweden, though with more help for poorer parents in order to reduce inequality.
If he leads the Liberal Democrats in that direction I shall be greatly encouraged. If he had said it during the campaign, I would probably have voted for him.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The state can be the worst parent of all

David Boyle writes:
I’m not denying that child abuse is serious and must be dealt with. What I am saying, is that the child protection industry is, and always has been, part of the abuse. And behind that reasonable sounding mantra “the child’s interests are paramount” is a cruel bureaucratic blindness that can justify absolutely anything.
One problem is that the child's voice is always silenced by that industry (in the child's best interests, naturally) and is not heard until years afterwards. The children caught up in the Orkney "Satanic Ritual Abuse" affair of 1991, for instance, did not get their say publicly until the BBC screened a documentary on the case last year.

At least the blogosphere gives such people an easier and quicker way to make themselves heard. Lawrence Alexander, who as a baby was one of the controversial cases involving David Southall, now writes at The Gay Guinea Pig Diaries. Follow his link to the ITV Wales This Week report on the case, as it is very informative.

And I came across another example the other day. In the 1970s Duncan Sibley's parents fell out with Luton Borough Council over their introduction of comprehensive education and were prosecuted when that authority decided that their attempts at home education were not sufficient.

In true Soviet style, Duncan was first taken into care and then given a psychiatric diagnosis. In an article he describes his introduction to the care system:
Taken directly from the court without any real time to say goodbye to my mum and dad, I was whisked off “to meet my new parents” according to the social worker allocated to me.
Some twenty minutes later I arrived at Runfold House, on the outskirts of Luton. I was taken directly in to see the ‘Housemaster’ and was read the riot act. “You will wash up according to the rota. You will be in bed by 9pm. If you run away, you will be caned. If you are rude, you will be caned. If you do not attend Icknield Comprehensive School, you will be caned. We are your parents now and you will do as you are told. If you are good and obey these rules, you may be allowed to see Mr and Mrs Sibley.”
If you are interested in the failings of what David Boyle calls the "child protection industry", keep up to date with the blog written by the Birmingham Yardley Lib Dem MP, John Hemming.

John Major, Labour and sleaze

John Major has been have a dig at Labour for their attacks on the "sleaze" of his government when they are no better themselves.

The best Labour can do in return is this from Graham Allen:
"During his tenure donations were not all declare and foreign donations were commonplace. It took a Labour government to end those scandals and introduce legislation to bring greater transparency to party funding."
You can hardly claim credit for passing new laws if you then go on to arrange your party's affairs so that you can get round them. It's not enough to make laws: you have to obey them.

Labour and health: Dying for equality

It seems that the Labour Party believes it is better for someone to die in an equal society than to live in an unequal one.

That, at any rate, is the only moral you can draw from the case of Colette Mills:
Colette Mills, a former nurse, has been told that if she attempts to top up her treatment privately, she will have to foot the entire £10,000 bill for her drugs and care. The bizarre threat stems from the refusal by the government to let patients pay for additional drugs that are not prescribed on the NHS.

Ministers say it is unfair on patients who cannot afford such top-up drugs and that it will create a two-tier NHS. It is thought thousands of patients suffer as a result of the policy.
There has always been a side of Labour that loves the NHS because it makes people queue and wait. If the wealthy get away with having a better life for most of the time, socialists can at least take their revenge on them when they are ill.

Lord Paget - who as Reggie Paget was Labour MP for Northampton - used to go out hunting with the Fernie, fall and break something, and then sit in the waiting room at the Market Harborough surgery the following morning, clutching his numbered ticket and waiting his turn with everyone else.

There is something admirable about that as a choice, but it less admirable when Labour forces that choice upon other people.

Of course Colette Mills should be allowed to use her money to pay for extra drugs. What possible better use could there be for it?

Jimmy Page plays skiffle


Inspired by BBC2's Culture Show, which showed a snippet of it yesterday evening, here is this Sunday's video. It features a 14-year-old Jimmy Page playing skiffle. A couple of weeks ago, writing of The Zombies and the 1960s, I asked:

How was it that in the middle of that decade geeky grammar school boys suddenly found themselves able to write and perform music like this?

As Mark Kermode's report for The Culture Show made clear, one of the answers is that the skiffle boom had taken place a few years before. Note too Huw Wheldon's act as a sympathetic but bemused headmaster. YouTube says this clip comes from "The Huw Wheldon Show", but I suspect it is really taken from his BBC arts programme Monitor.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Polly Toynbee and the Continuing SDP

Blood & Treasure writes:
I’ve always been mildly annoyed by Polly’s self-presentation as the reborn conscience of Labour when her active political life was spent in an organization trying to destroy it and replace it, to wit the SDP. She even stuck around for a time when it dwindled to being a kind of cult of David Owen.
Any sensible person who had backed the "Continuing SDP" would have concluded from the episode that they had no particular talent for political punditry. They would have gone off to be a helicopter pilot, write thrillers or farm goats instead.

Not Polly Toynbee. She still gives us the benefit of her wisdom several times a week in the Guardian.

Corndon Hill

Today's Hill of the Day is Corndon Hill, which is just over the Welsh border from Shropshire - though that border appears to be negotiable in its vicinity.

As the BBC's Shropshire pages say:
Travel anywhere around the Stiperstones or the Bishop's Castle to Shrewsbury road and your view will be dominated by Corndon Hill. At 513 metres it's not far off the height of Shropshire's highest hill, Brown Clee.

The border skirts around the edge of this magnificent hill - but 100 or more years ago the view would have been very different.

Corndon looks down over Shropshire's lead-mining heartland, which even today is studded with disused engine houses and mining waste tips. A century ago this view was teeming with chimneys belching smoke from the mines, as well as the odd aerial ropeway or two.
Don't miss the BBC's panoramic view from Corndon Hill either.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Bertrand Russell writes House Points

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

I have been madly busy at work for the last couple of weeks, hence the rather uninspired blogging recently. So this time I decided to subcontract my column to the late philosopher Bertrand Russell - better known in Lib Dem circles as "Conrad's Dad".

Russell's great contribution to philosophy was in mathematical logic. I suppose the idea that someone who knows a lot about that necessarily has profound things to say about politics too is rather a 19th century one. Yet whenever I read Russell on political questions I am surprised at how fresh and relevant he is.

Though I have a memory of reading a more elegant passage involving the story of the French education minister and his watch, I cannot find it on the net. But you can find the whole of Political Ideals.

90 Years Ago

On Tuesday Ed Balls unveiled his 10-year plan for the nation’s children. House Points asked the late Bertrand Russell to comment…

“The first thing to observe is that, in any very large organization, and above all in a great state, officials and legislators are usually very remote from those whom they govern, and not imaginatively acquainted with the conditions of life to which their decisions will be applied. This makes them ignorant of much that they ought to know, even when they are industrious and willing to learn whatever can be taught by statistics and blue-books.

“The one thing they understand intimately is the office routine and the administrative rules. The result is an undue anxiety to secure a uniform system. I have heard of a French minister of education taking out his watch, and remarking, ‘At this moment all the children of such and such an age in France are learning so and so.’

“This is the ideal of the administrator, an idea utterly fatal to free growth, initiative, experiment, or any far reaching innovation.

“The energetic official inevitably dislikes anything that he does not control. His official sanction must be obtained before anything can be done.

“Whatever he finds in existence he wishes to alter in some way, so as to have the satisfaction of feeling his power and making it felt.

“If he is conscientious, he will think out some perfectly uniform and rigid scheme which he believes to be the best possible, and he will then impose this scheme ruthlessly, whatever promising growths he may have to lop down for the sake of symmetry.

“The result inevitably has something of the deadly dullness of a new rectangular town, as compared with the beauty and richness of an ancient city which has lived and grown with the separate lives and individualities of many generations.

What has grown is always more living than what has been decreed; but the energetic official will always prefer the tidiness of what he has decreed to the apparent disorder of spontaneous growth.”

This edited passage is taken from Russell’s 1917 book Political Ideals, but it tells you more about Balls’s well-meaning but doomed approach than anything I have read this week.

It's called an iceberg, Tompkins

You may think that responding to every headline with a public inquiry and changes to the school curriculum is a modern habit.

Not a bit of it.

I was talking the other day to someone whose son attends the London Nautical School. She said - and the school's website confirms it - that the school was founded in 1915, as a consequence of the official report into the loss of the Titanic. It was set up to teach better seamanship to London's youth.

Today it is a foundation school and sports college within the Borough of Lambeth, and displays an individuality that is often lacking in the state system. But truly there is nothing new under the sun.

The joy of blogging

Earlier today I had an e-mail from the communications officer at Oldbury power station. She had come across my posting on Evel Knievel and through it the story of my participation in the 1977 British Monopoly championship, which was held at Oldbury.

The station is soon to close and they are writing its history. It seems that I am a valuable source for this particluar episode.

I am told that other highlights of the station's history include:
  • the filming of a Doctor Who episode, featuring Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen;
  • the filming of an episode of Blake's 7;
  • Pan's People dancing to a Slade record on top of the pile cap for Top of the Pops.

The president's role in Lib Dem elections

The controversy over Simon Hughes's endorsement of Nick Clegg has reached the Independent.

Pandora quotes a sensible response from Ros Scott:

"It is entirely a matter for the president but, personally, I wouldn't have done it," she tells me.

"The job of the president is to act as a mouthpiece for the members. If, for example, there was a problem with the election, the president would not be seen as independent."

Thanks to Lib Dem Voice.

Canoeist to spend Christmas behind bars

Says the Daily Telegraph.

Perhaps someone should send him a kayak with a file in it?

Cat of the Day

Well done, Chloe.

The Leicester Mercury reports:

A Markfield moggie has found a purr-fect place to while away her days - in the village's new library.

Chloe, the 12-year-old black and white cat, has been visiting the library for nine years.

However, her trips were disrupted when the old wooden building closed, to enable a £385,000 replacement to be built.

She would sit in the library grounds and watch work taking place from a safe distance.

Six weeks after the new library opened in May last year, she plucked up the courage to slip in through the sliding doors - and now she's been visiting every day since.

And there's more:
In recognition of her daily visits, the library service is presenting Chloe with her own card, so she can borrow The Lion King and browse the library's cat-a-logue.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Are big cats stupid?

When you can roam anywhere in Shropshire, why choose Telford?

If I were a puma, you'd find me in Ludlow or Bishop's Castle.

There's still time to vote

Alex Wilcock helpfully points out that there is still time to vote in the Lib Dem leadership election:
My own tip to get the vote out is that a first class stamp may now be risky with the Christmas post, but that if you’re in London and really want to make sure, the ERS office in Clarendon Road is only a few minutes’ walk from Turnpike Lane (Piccadilly Line Tube).
If you do vote that way, you may well meet Alex on the doorstep. And, he suggests, Simon Hughes too.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Dan Hardie: Red tape and murder

Dan Hardie has a new post up on his campaign for Iraqi employees of British forces in Iraq to be granted asylum here:

There are a great many methods which our Government, acting in our name, is using to keep out Iraqi ex-employees at risk of being murdered for having trusted this country.

Officials have rejected 125 out of 200 applications for help so far, and one of the grounds that they are citing is absenteeism. One of the skivers, an ex-interpreter named Safa, says that he served UK Forces for two and a half years and was unable to come to work when militiamen began observing the British bases, targeting those working for the Army.

Of course applications cannot be accepted simply at face value: but Safa has no right of appeal. His case could quite easily be verified by ringing round the Army officers with whom he says he served, and checking his story. There is no indication that the Government has done this, and now his case is in the bin.

Liberty Alone on competition in education

Writing about some comments from the admirable Matthew Huntbach, Liberty Alone gets it just right:

He says:

The reality is that school teachers actually feel under intense competitive pressures to do whatever it is to drive their schools up the league tables, and this is having a negative rather than a positive effect on education.

I agree that teachers are under pressure to push the school further up the league table. However, this is pressure to conform to outside imposed targets. In a market, the pressure is to create what people actually want, not what some government department thinks people should want.

The current situation is like trying to meet this month’s quota for tractor production. Its an arbitrary target which has little to do with what is actually desired or needed.

In a market the pressure is to produce something which enough people want to make it worthwhile. So whilst some people want tractors, they will want different things from their tractors. Different companies can specialise in different types of tractor, or they could divert their energy and capital to the production of a different type of farm machinery for which there is a demand.

Thus, competition is driven not by government targets and trying to do best at them, but by the demands of the customer, and the customers are not a homogeneous group with the same desires and expected outcome.

Schools would then be able to specialise. Some people may prefer a school which gets very high grades at GCSE above any other considerations. Others may prefer a school which has a broader focus, or which specialises in a particular subject area. There are any number of considerations.

It is worth adding that the Conservatives, with their business-inspired vision of less successful schools being taken over by more successful ones, share this faulty assumption. In a sensible society schools would not all be trying to do the same thing: they would be trying to do many different things.

Should the Lib Dem president be neutral in leadership elections?

Simon Hughes has again voiced his support for Nick Clegg, this time in an article on Lib Dem Voice.

But shouldn't the party's president be above the fray? It is noticeable that Vince Cable has remained scrupulously neutral.

I suppose it comes down to a question I have asked before: What exactly is the Lib Dem president for? I have never been sure and I am not convinced that those holding the position have been either.

My time on the party's policy committee, where the president is an ex officio member, overlapped with the start of Simon Hughes's presidency. Far from acting as the party's elder statesman, he behaved as the delegate from Bermondsey - speaking on every issue and usually from a constituency point of view. Which only deepened my puzzlement about his role.

One of the reasons I shall be backing Ros Scott in the next presidential election is that she is not an MP and should find it easier to take a wider view.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Little Bowden Society

I live in Little Bowden, a village which has been all but engulfed by Market Harborough. So here is a plug for the Little Bowden Society's website.

One interesting point is that Little Bowden was in Northamptonshire until about a hundred years ago. The county boundary was moved as Market Harborough began to spread south of the River Welland. Which means that my house was in Northamptonshire when it was built.

Parenting and moral relativism

Fascinating stuff from Sinclair's Musings:

Parental will is weak because of relativism. Though they want the best for their children they feel guilty about placing any stricture upon their behaviour. They have spent a lifetime being told that to be judgemental is the worst kind of sin. In the adult sphere they are expected not to tolerate every moral choice but to go way beyond that bar and treat them as equal.

As a result they don't feel at all credible themselves when confronting their children and telling - for example - their nine year-old that dressing like Christina Aguilera isn't remotely appropriate. The language of 'appropriate' and 'inappropriate' feels archaic.

When facing a pestering child parents who have lost the very idea of right and wrong have no answer to their claims that standing out will be inconvenient. They will choose the path of least resistance. As so many have chosen that path of least resistance being the exceptional parent becomes ever more difficult.

I am reminded of my own comment on children, mobile phones and scares over their safety:
the reason that we worry about children having mobile phones is not safety at all. It is because we feel that it is somehow not fitting that they should have them. They are too young. But to say so sounds so hopelessly old-fashioned that we treat it as a question of safety instead.
Thanks to Westminster Wisdom.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The FT's advice to the Lib Dems

And good advice it is too:

the party should emphasise its commitment to localism in one of the most suffocatingly centralised states in the developed world. The two big parties both nod earnestly in support of devolved decision-making – and then promote policies that hoard power in Whitehall.

The government’s decade-long refusal to reform local government finance speaks eloquently to its determination that city, town and parish councils do nothing but what they are told by the Treasury. Mr Cameron’s response is to pretend that the best way to reinvigorate local decision-making is to encourage referendums to cap the council tax.

There is similar space in the clash between civil liberties and an increasingly authoritarian state. This is not just about opposing the extension of pre-charge detention limits for suspected terrorists or dangerously illiberal identity cards. As important is a sustained assault on the ethos that says the state can gather more and more data on every citizen – and use that information as it pleases. The mislaid personal details of 25m taxpayers represents the tip of a very big iceberg.

Finally, the Liberal Democrats should promote the idea that pluralism can be the natural ally of fairness. With Mr Blair gone, Labour is slipping back into its default prejudice in favour of monolithic mediocrity in the provision of public services. The Conservatives still leave the suspicion that their preference for market-based disciplines is careless of the need for equity. There is room here for what Mr Blair would have called a third way: choice and diversity harnessed to the cause of fairness as well as excellence in publicly funded schools and hospitals.

All in all, this adds up to a distinctive, liberal manifesto. For all that the two main parties have been monopolising the headlines, there is still a large pool of uncommitted voters. The Liberal Democrats should keep it simple. They might learn, though, to be more careful with their leaders.

Jose: "No way"

I am a lifelong Chelsea fan (my Mum is from Battersea), so Jose Mourinho ranks high in my pantheon of heroes. I never thought I would live to see them win the league and, thanks to Jose, they did it twice.

So I have mixed feelings about the news that Jose has ruled himself out of the running for the England job.

From England's point of view I think it is a shame, in that he was a superb tactician. I cannot remember another manager who was so ready to change formation during a game if things were not working.

But from Jose's point of view, I think it is probably the right decision. He will not have to deal with the British press and he will not have to face the frustration of only being able to work with his players every few months.

So the Jose legend will stay intact. Personally, I believe he is asleep in a cave under Stamford Bridge and will return at Chelsea's hour of greatest need.

Last night a leadership candidate saved my life

I have found it hard to get too excited about what I have described as "a battle of my personable Westminster-educated former MEP is better than your personable Westminster-educated former MEP".

Other bloggers have not faced this difficulty.

Linda Jack's 10th reason for voting for Nick Clegg is:
I would trust him with my life, so I know can trust him with my party.

I have worked in some hairy by-elections in my time, but it has never come to that.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

BritBlog Roundup 147

This week at Westminster Wisdom.

The Housemartins: Me and the Farmer

This week's video shows the Housemartins playing live in 1986, with Norman Cook (aka Fat Boy Slim) on bass. Surely one of the most likeable bands of the era? [Later. That video disappeared, but I have found another.]

And as a bonus for lovers of agriculture-related pop from the 1980s: XTC with Love on a Farm Boy's Wages.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

A 2007 Nativity scene

Labour got £180,000 of public money to train staff in donations law

The Times reports:
Labour was paid £180,000 from public funds to help party officials to understand new funding rules shortly before it began accepting secret donations from a property developer ...

The party applied for and received a “start-up grant” from the Electoral Commission to meet the costs of abiding by the law on declaring donations that Labour had itself enacted. It was for training staff in the duties imposed by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and was specifically for the party to prepare for its requirements on submitting accounts and declaring donations above £5,000.

The grant could also be used to hire consultants to give advice on the Act, for guidance for party officials and volunteers, and to adapt computerised accounting systems.
Can we have our money back please?

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Men from the Ministry

Peter Black points us to a report on icWales:
Officials at the South Wales-based Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency yesterday admitted sending personal details of more than 1,000 drivers to the wrong people by mistake in another government data security lapse.
This reinforces by impression that the best guide to what is going on in Brown's government is not Yes, Minister or The Thick of It but The Men from the Ministry.

As a site dedicated to this radio comedy series records:
This parody of the British Civil Service was popular with both domestic and international audiences. Thirteen series of radio programs totalling 147 episodes were broadcast in the UK by the BBC from 1962 to 1977. Most episodes were also transmitted internationally by the World Service. A further series of 14 episodes was produced for the the BBC Transcription Service, but not broadcast in the UK.

The stereotypical image of haughty Government officials, complete with pin-stripe suits, bowler hats and umbrellas provides the basis for this comedy series. On the surface, these Establishment figures are all-knowing and confident. However, behind the scenes, they are revealed to be all-too-human. They are selfish and are incompetent almost without limit. Yet the parody is done with a light touch, and the unlikely heroes of the stories are always warm and likeable.
The great thing about the series was that the plot was he same every week. The officials had two letters to send out, got them mixed up and mailed each to the wrong recipient, and there was then a mock news bulletin describing the resultant chaos.

I loved the series as a little boy, and it seems I was not the only one:
The success of The Men From The Ministry extends beyond the BBC programmes. Over 900 episodes were produced and broadcast by Springbok Radio and Radio South Africa from the late 60s to the late 90s. These shows featured the same characters as the BBC episodes, but played by local actors. Some early shows were remakes of BBC episodes, but most were original stories.

A second adaptation of The Men From The Ministry is produced and broadcast by Radio YLE in Finland. Knalli ja sateenvarjo ("Bowler and Brolly") is a popular Finnish language programme with a loyal and appreciative domestic audience. The premise of bowler-hatted twittery within the conservative confines of the British Civil Service is evidently a popular one beyond the English-speaking world. The Finnish version now exceeds the original BBC series both in terms of longevity and number of episodes produced. Most shows are adaptations of the BBC episodes, but the recent episodes are from new scripts written by Edward Taylor.

Could Simon Hoggart save Airfix?

Good luck to Hornby as they attempt to revive the Airfix brand.

If they want someone to help them, I suggest they approach Simon Hoggart. As I recorded back in May 2005:

In his memoirs Give Me Ten Seconds, John Sergeant writes of his time as a reporter in Northern Ireland. As he says, "Belfast proved to be the real training ground for some of the best journalists of our generation." Among them were Simon Winchester, Martin Bell, Max Hastings, Robert Fisk and Hoggart.

They dealt with the inevitable tension in different ways. And Hoggart's method was to "build model aircraft in his room at the Europa Hotel".

David Southall's defenders

Iain Sharpe remarks upon the "quasi-religious zeal" of the 38 paediatricians who had a letter in support of Professor David Southall published in yesterday’s Guardian.

What struck me was the letter's claim that:
There is a determined campaign to deny the existence and reality of child abuse in all its forms, led by a small group, aided and abetted by some journalists and politicians. This group targets prominent professionals in the field, especially paediatricians. Unable to respond publicly, there is no counterbalancing voice for the cause of abused children, so the media presents a completely one-sided picture.
I find this quite bizarre. If you go into W. H. Smith's in Leicester you will find an entire section devoted to memoirs of abused childhoods. If you enjoy books with titles like No, Daddy, No - and there must be lots of people who do - there is an almost unlimited supply of them.

Far from seeking to deny the existence of child abuse as a society, we give every indication that we are obsessed with it.

House Points: An interview with Vince Cable

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

Credible Cable

There’s only one politician to write about this week: Vince Cable, the man who makes prime ministers blench and grown cabinet ministers cry. Fortunately, House Points was among a group of Lib Dem bloggers invited to interview him on Monday evening.

How does Vince explain his success in the Commons? In part it has been luck: issues like Northern Rock have played to his strengths as an economist. But he took a conscious decision to be more forceful than recent Lib Dem leaders, using aggression and humour to win media attention.

The crack about Gordon Brown going "from Stalin to Mr Bean" had been in the press before, but Vince used it to devastating effect on the floor of the House. The best part of the episode, he said, was hearing himself quoted by voters in the pub afterwards.

I was hoping for some insight into the brooding psychology of our new prime minister, but Vince said their closeness in the 1970s has been exaggerated. True, he contributed a chapter to Gordon Brown’s Red Paper on Scotland, but Vince was in Glasgow and Brown was in Edinburgh. And that divide often counts for more even than Hadrian’s Wall.

What Vince did give us was some telling political analysis of Gordon Brown’s difficulties. Brown is in love with the power of the state and blind to its limitations. So schemes like tax credits begin with the best of intentions but founder on the inflexibility of bureaucracy and the complexity of people’s lives.

That time in Glasgow may explain the note of Private Fraser in Vince’s economic views ("We’re all doomed.") He believes banks need more regulation – drop the Cruickshank Report of 2000 into the conversation if you want to sound well informed.

Vince is having the time of his life. When Cowley Street was trying to "put the zing into Ming" last summer, someone made up a story about his loving Strictly Come Dancing to make him seem less austere. For a few more weeks we have a leader who really does watch the programme and would love to appear on it too.

If he did, you sense Vince would do just as good a job as he has done as Lib Dem leader.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The database state threatens us all

The favourite article of those in government and industry who are seeking to build the database state is: "If you've done nothing wrong, you've nothing to fear." Just what nonsense this is can be seen from a report by Andrew Porter in today's Daily Telegraph:
Hundreds of people in police witness protection programmes have been put at risk by the loss of millions of child benefit records, The Daily Telegraph can reveal.

The missing data discs are understood to contain both the real names and the new identities of up to 350 people who have had their identities changed after giving evidence against major criminals ...

The new identities of protected witnesses would be valuable property on the criminal market and, if they fell into the wrong hands, could place their lives and those of their families in jeopardy.

It will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds to provide the witnesses with yet another identity.

Keep "denial" in Egypt

At the start of the year I quoted with approval an article by Frank Furedi:
Disbelief in today’s received wisdom is described as ‘Denial’, which is branded by some as a crime that must be punished. It began with Holocaust denial, before moving on to the denial of other genocides. Then came the condemnation of ‘AIDS denial’, followed by accusations of ‘climate change denial’. This targeting of denial has little to do with the specifics of the highly-charged emotional issues involved in discussions of the Holocaust or AIDS or pollution. Rather, it is driven by a wider mood of intolerance towards free thinking.
This week's Private Eye contains a couple more examples of the way the concept of "denial" being used in an attempt to prevent free discussion.

At the Daily Telegraph, anyone who questions what the Eye calls the "techno-utopianism" of the editor Will Lewis is described as "a digital denier". And Lord Gnome also reports a consultation between home secretary Jacqui Smith and the Tories' David Davis:
Smith's idea of consultation became apparent as soon as David entered the room. "So," she said accusingly, "you are still a 28-day denier, are you?"
You read it here first.

Atonal music is bad for your sex life

On an Overgrown Path passes on this extract from Joan Peyser's biography of Pierre Boulez:
The German psychologist Dr Weisenhutter interviewed the musicians of the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra and found them beset by psychogenic illnesses. The players are impotent. They hate new music. After playing it they cannot engage in sexual activity. This is understandable, for musicians are emotional people and if a musician is not convinced of the validity of what he does, his sexual life is bound to suffer.

Magna Carta: Did she die in vain?

This just in from Reuters:
Four 13th century copies of the Magna Carta, considered to be one of the most important documents in the history of democracy, go on public display next week for the first time in nearly 800 years.

The four, three of which date from 1217 and one from 1225, are held by Oxford University's Bodleian Library and represent nearly one quarter of the surviving 13th century Magna Carta manuscripts in the world.

"These three 1217 charters are a unique historical collection," said librarian Sarah Thomas. "No other institution can boast such a concentration of Magna Cartae."
Well done, incidentally, to Sarah Thomas, who wins our Plural of the Day Award.

Thanks to The Cowley Street Bedouin.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

TV Film of the Week: The Charge of the Light Brigade

I was thrilled to be offered the role of Captain Nolan. Everything about the film gave it the air of a British classic - the subject matter, though viewed from a deeply unglorious perspective; the principal cast: John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, Harry Andrews and Jill Bennett - a roll-call of dramatic excellence; and, above all, the script.

My part as the renegade young captain was one that I loved and soon learned backwards. The screenplay was beautifully, sparely written by Charles Wood, and I read it with glee. It contained, in my view, some of the finest lines in cinema, dialogue that captures the period and attitudes to war with subtlety, grace and style.

Wood had shown us a whole new approach to dialogue in The Knack and for Charge he wrote in a mystical way, with short sharp sentences and what I call "fly-away buttons".

"He would do that. Would"

Or, from Trevor Howard, "I saw you, sir. Saw you. Black bottle. Drinking beer, sir. In this mess. Saw you."

Lines like this look odd on the page and are tricky to deliver - they can come out like gunfire or stumbles - but in the hands of Gielgud or Howard they were like droplets of pure colour on a backdrop of Victoriana.

So wrote David Hemmings in his memoirs. And it is Hemmings's presence in a star role as much as director Tony Richardson's left-wing politics that date this wonderful film to the 1960s. Look too for the Terry Gilliam-like animations.

And, most of all, listen for Gielgud's line:

"It will be a sad day for England when her armies are officered by men who know too well what they are doing. It smacks of murder."

The Charge of the Light Brigade is on Channel 4 on Friday 7 December at 2 a.m.

Ludlow: The search for a town clerk

The Shropshire Star reports:
The cost of appointing a town clerk in Ludlow has soared to about £50,000, it was revealed today. It has been claimed potential applicants are being put off by the town council’s poor reputation.
What can they mean?

Clegg vs Huhne: It's a two-horse race

This makes things more interesting.

The people at Chris Huhne's campaign website claim a late surge of support for their man:
The figures show that the number of undecided voters has fallen dramatically over the past ten days (from 38.4% to 17.5%) and that these members have plumped overwhelmingly for the Eastleigh MP.
What should we make of this?

Mike Smithson from writes:
I have quizzed Huhne’s campaign manager about how this was carried out. The “pollster” was not one of the conventional firms but a market research company which for various reasons they do not want to name publicly though I have been told who it was ...

That there is a move to Huhne seems to chime with other signs but it is hard to measure the scale and to assess the impact on the outcome given that a large number of members have already voted.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Graham Harvey on the veal trade

My favourite agricultural writer is on Comment is Free today:

There's something distasteful about the news that government minister Lord Rooker is heading a working group whose aim is to end the export of live calves ...

It seems churlish to find fault with any attempt to put an end to the odious business of exporting calves that may be just a day or two old. What sticks in the craw is the idea of a government minister being put in charge when it is governments and the livestock industry between them that have created this miserable trade.

Before Britain joined the EU, our dairy cows were principally fed on fresh grass in summer and silage (pickled grass) in winter. The sort of animals that thrived on this pasture-based regime were sturdy breeds such as the British Friesian, the Ayrshire and the Guernsey. These beasts threw strong, beefy calves. The males - plus any females that weren't required as herd replacements - could be economically fattened for beef on a largely forage diet.

But the common agricultural policy, with its disastrous subsidies, put an end to this sustainable practise (sic.). Dairy farmers were paid to squeeze every last drop of milk from their animals. At the same time the EU - along with the United States - used its arable farming handouts to maintain a permanent surplus of cheap cereal grains, making it uneconomic to feed animals on their natural food, grass.

The rational response of dairy farmers was to produce a freak cow, hardwired to produce extraordinary amounts of milk. Enter the high-yielding Holstein, so bony in physique they were known as "hat racks". Programmed to milk at the expense of their own body condition, many are worn out at the end of two or three lactation cycles. A healthy and robust cow would happily go on giving milk for 10 years or more.

It's the male calves of these benighted animals that have failed to find a market. They are of no interest to beef fatteners because they are genetically fit only for pumping out milk, something of a handicap for the male of the species.

So it's a bit rich for dairy farmers to complain that they have no value when it's farmers themselves who have bred them this way. It's equally hypocritical of government ministers to feign distaste at seeing them banged up in trucks heading for the docks. A more humane farm policy over the past three decades would have made such a trade unnecessary.

And he helps write The Archers.

Who first called Gordon Brown "Mr Bean"?

It was, of course, Vince Cable who made the parallel famous on 28 November.

But here is Leo McKinstry writing in the Daily Express on 19 November:
Through his serial incompetence, Brown is fast becoming the political equivalent of Mr Bean. All too many of his appointments have turned out to be mistaken, whether it be the inexperienced Jacqui Smith at the Home Office or the pompous Mark Malloch-Brown at the Foreign Office. 

From the absurdity of employing 10,000 illegal immigrants in the security industry to the ongoing mess of Northern Rock, Brown has allowed Bean-like ineptitude to become the hallmark of his brief reign. As with Mr Bean, Brown is a major social embarrassment to those around him.
Was this the first sighting of the Brown/Bean trope, I wonder?

Karpov tried to visit Kasparov in jail

Garry Kasparov was released from jail last week. USA Today reports:

The authorities' goal in jailing him "was to send a message," Kasparov said after stepping out of the police car that delivered him to his Moscow home.

Kasparov said he would continue his efforts to build opposition to Putin and predicted he would be arrested again on more serious charges.

"The Putin regime is entering a new phase of confronting its own people," he said.

Kasparov said he was treated well in jail and received food parcels.

Fascinatingly, while Kasparov was inside his former great rival Anatoly Karpov tried to visit him:

"He [Karpov] was trying to visit Kasparov but he was not allowed to do so," Marina Litvinovich, a senior member of Kasparov's United Civil Front, told Reuters.

"Karpov is a member of the Public Chamber (collective government oversight body) and has the right to visit those detained. All the same, they would not let him in," she said.

"Karpov must have been seeking to extend moral support or see the conditions in which Kasparov is being held."

Karpov is probably one of the most underestimated world champions in the games history. Some of us never forgave him for taking over from Bobby Fischer without playing a match, thought it was entirely down to Fischer's demands that the match never took place.

After becoming world champion in 1975 Karpov won numerous tournaments, defeating all his closest rivals. And when Kasparov arrived as a challenger in the mid 1980s, Karpov all but matched him over the next decade. If Kasparov is the greatest ever, then Karpov cannot be far behind.

Perhaps it was a matter of style. Fischer's games were so easy to understand that he made you fell 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. Karpov was not like that: he came over as efficient, but a little dull.

Politically, Kasparov and Karpov were a world apart. Garry Kasparov was identified with Gorbachev, glasnost and perestroika, while in the eyes of the previous generation Karpov was a model Soviet citizen. He was not even Jewish.

The young Kasparov was once told by an official: "We already have a world champion. We don't need another one". When, in their first match, Karpov was close to exhaustion it was the Soviet authorities who had the match called off.

So it was remarkable that Karpov should make the gesture of trying to visit Kasparov in jail.

Monday, December 03, 2007

One potato, two potato...

I have in front of me a bag of new potatoes bought in a Leading Supermarket. It it is labelled:

Charlotte Potatoes

all shapes, all sizes

Is this what they think of us? That we are like spoilt children who will makes a fuss if their potatoes are not exactly the same size and shape?

This week I have been mostly reading Big Babies Or: Why Can't We Just Grow Up? by Michael Bywater.

Strictly Come Dancing and the Lib Dem leadership

I have just got back from Westminster after forming part of a panel of Lib Dem bloggers who interviewed Vince Cable earlier this evening.

I shall be writing about Vince in Friday's Liberal Democrat News, and no doubt other bloggers will post there impressions before that. You will not be surprised to know that out conversation touched upon Vince's enthusiasm for ballroom dancing.

There is an irony here. Last summer there was an ill-fated attempt to "put the zing into Ming" under the aegis of the PR guru and former Liberal candidate Gavin Grant. As I wrote on Guardian Unlimited at the time:

When Gavin Grant's appointment was announced, a Lib Dem MP told the press that Grant had gone up to Campbell hotel room where he was preparing for a speech and "found him with a plate of fish and chips on his lap watching Strictly Come Dancing". The unnamed MP added: "That is the side people never see".

Which is hardly surprising, as that side does not exist. While Campbell's redoubtable wife Elspeth has a taste for demotic television - she famously completed a dissertation on the matriarchs of Coronation Street - she does not seem the type to take kindly to fish and chips in her hotel bedroom.

Besides, the Conservative blogger Iain Dale has examined the TV schedules during this year's Lib Dem spring conference, when this incident is supposed to have taken place, and found that Strictly Come Dancing was not being shown - and nor was Strictly Dance Fever or any other such programme.

Now we have a leader who does watch Strictly Come Dancing and would even like to appear on it one day. It's funny how things turn out.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

BritBlog Roundup 146

At Philobiblon.

Not to be confused with Phil O'Biblon, the Irish book collector, I always think.

Shropshire Cat of the Day

Well done to Pussywillow who lives in Ratlinghope and is still "sharp in her mind and her eyes" at the age of 26.

Ratlinghope is pronounced "Ratchup". I assume that Pussywillow is pronounced as it is spelt.

US claims right to kidnap British citizens

Just when you thought it was safe to pop out to the shops...

From today's Sunday Times:

America has told Britain that it can “kidnap” British citizens if they are wanted for crimes in the United States.

A senior lawyer for the American government has told the Court of Appeal in London that kidnapping foreign citizens is permissible under American law because the US Supreme Court has sanctioned it.

Party fundraising, Russian style

If you think Labour have been pushing their luck here in Britain, you've seen nothing.

The illustration shows a letter sent by the United Russia Party in Kemerovo region to the director of a company there.

My Russian is limited to the words and phrases I gleaned from chess magazines, but I am assured that a rough translation is:

I consider your refusal of financial support for our regional party of United Russia for the election campaign for the State Duma of the Russian Federation to be a refusal of support for President Putin and his programme.

I will inform about this to the Presidential Administration and to the Governor of Kemerovo region.

The Zombies: She's Not There

This Sunday's video comes from one of the great British bands of the 1960s, though they are sometimes overlooked in the histories.

How was it that in the middle of that decade geeky grammar school boys suddenly found themselves able to write and perform music like this?

One thing's for sure: it had nothing to do with government rolling out benchmarked plans for popular music across all sectors, or however they put it these days.