Friday, August 31, 2007

Summer of British Film: War

So it's on to the penultimate week of the festival, which looks at war films. And there is a lot of pleasure to be had.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is simply magnificent. As ever, Powell and Pressburger managed to lift their wartime films high above the simple pieces of propaganda they might have been in less skilled hands. Here they tackle the moral dilemma implicit in total war. In order to defeat Nazi Germany, did we have to become more like it? Yet an Anglo-German friendship lies at the centre of the film too.

Another Powell and Pressburger film, Ill Met by Moonlight, has Dirk Bogarde at his most dashing as Patrick Leigh-Fermor - later a celebrated travel writer. It tells the true story of the kidnap of the German general in charge of occupied Crete. It is altogether a lesser work than Blimp, but still fun.

King Rat is a powerful tale of survival in a prisoner of war camp. And no film which has a scene with James Fox, Denhom Elliott and Leonard Rossiter sitting in a row eating stewed dog can possibly be bad.

A film I may tape are The Colditz Story, if only because I so enjoyed the Colditz television series as a boy. It went out before Monty Python and made Thursday evenings something to look forward to. And there is also Anthony Asquith's The Way to the Stars - if nothing else it was directed by the son of a Liberal prime minister.

But the film of the week has to be yet another Powell and Pressburger offering: A Canterbury Tale. It tells the story of three wartime pilgrims to the city. Sheila Sim (now Lady Attenborough) has lost her fiance in the war. The American Bob Johnson has lost his girl and Denis Price has lost his vocation as musician. By the end of the film, they have had what they desire restored to them.

Presiding over this is Eric Portman as Mr Colpeper, a patrician Puck who worries that servicemen would rather go out with girls than come to his lectures on local history. He takes extreme measures to put this right.

A Canterbury Tale is that rare thing, a work of English mysticism. Look for the cut from a hawk to a Spitfire, which long predates Kubrick's bone to spaceship cut in 2001. And listen for Colpeper's spine-tingling words:

There is more than one way of getting close to your ancestors.

Follow the Old Road and as you do, think of them; they climbed Chillingbourne Hill just as you did. They sweated and paused for breath just as you did today.

And when you see the bluebells in the spring and the wild thyme, and the broom and the heather, you're seeing what their eyes saw. You ford the same rivers, the same birds singing. And when you lie flat on your back and rest, and watch the clouds sailing as I often do, you're so close to those other people, that you can hear the thrumming of the hoofs of their horses, and the sound of the wheels on the road, and their laughter, and talk, and the music of the instruments they carried.

And they turned the bend in the road, where they too saw the towers of Canterbury. I feel I have only to turn my head to see them on the road behind me.

A Canterbury Tale is on BBC at 11.50 p.m. on Wednesday 5 September.

Keith Vaz tries to dodge the question on Europe

Norfolk Blogger is worried about supporting a referendum on the EU reform treaty because Keith Vaz wants one too.

Only he doesn't.

If you read Vaz's comments it is clear that he doesn't want the referendum to be about the treaty at all. He told the BBC:
"I am absolutely convinced that we will win any test of public opinion as to whether or not the British people want us in Europe, at the heart of Europe, which is what's happened over the last 10 years, or whether they want us to turn our back on Europe."
In other words he wants a question along the lines of "Do you support our beloved leader Gordon Brown's ceaseless efforts to secure a golden age of prosperity by placing Britain at the heart of Europe and resist the blandishments of those who wish to bring about a new dark age of poverty and rampant paedophilia?"

This is an attempt to dodge the question of the reform treaty. It is an attempt to prevent what may well be the dominant view in Britain - that we support European cooperation but are sceptical about the idea of closer integration - even being expressed.

So I am still happy to call for a referendum on the reform treaty.

Diana's legacy

Bagehot in the Economist gets it about right:

During her short, sad life, Diana was seen as a scandalously modern princess; after her sadder death, and as its tenth anniversary approaches next week, she has been enlisted as a posthumous poster girl for various progressive causes. “She wasn't seen as posh. She was one of the people,” argues Time magazine, hailing her as “the princess [who] transformed a nation”.

She wasn't - and she didn't.

Beyond her roles as fairy-tale princess and floundering, suffering divorcee, Diana's appeal rested in part on an ancient archetype: the monarch who walks among the people, working miracles, in her case among the lepers, AIDS patients and maimed children she unsqueamishly embraced. And just as her draw was in part atavistic, the legacy of her death has proved a surprisingly reactionary one.

Thanks to Stephen Tall for the link.

Carnival of the Liberals

You can find a collection of the best in (mainly North American) Liberal blogging from the past fortnight over at Truth in Politics.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Asking too much of preschool education

A couple of years ago I was talking to a normally sensible Liberal Democrat politico about preschool education. I said that while I was sceptical about Labour's grandiose plans, I thought institutions like playgroups were thoroughly good things. He scoffed and said that they sounded like "something out of Lord Bonkers".

Well, the evidence on schemes like Sure Start is coming in, and it is disappointing for those who saw it as the start of massive state intervention in the early years. And there are signs that its advocates are a little chastened by its failure.

Madeleine Bunting has a piece on Comment is Free today. She rightly says that it does not matter if middle-class families are benefiting from Sure Start too. In fact she might have pointed out that they pay taxes too and it must surely be a good thing if children from different social classes mix.

She then goes on to say:
We need this kind of social infrastructure - not to park our children in from dawn to dusk, that's not what I'm defending - but as the kind of institutional mainstay which can moderate how communities can fragment. Playgroups, parent and toddler groups, a few hours of nursery provision: all can give a lifeline to overstretched families. It's much too soon to make the kind of judgements about their future we've seen this week.

I still fear this is expecting too much of preschool education, but if Labour's plans now come down to "playgroups, parent and toddler groups, a few hours of nursery provision" then I shall have no trouble supporting them. I hope this more realistic spirit will be found in the Liberal Democrats too.

There is also an interesting article by Tanya Byron - clinical psychologist and TV parenting guru - in The Times today. She writes:

A variety of parenting theories, books, articles and TV programmes aim to enable parents to find the “right way” to manage their child’s behaviour, but seem in fact to muddle and disempower. Parents are overwhelmed by advice and tips from an industry growing out of the most basic and instinctive aspect of life — child rearing.

I have become part of this industry in writing books and making TV programmes about children and families with behavioural problems. However, as the success of the media-parenting industry grows, I find that the mothers and fathers whom I meet each week in my clinics seem more and more confused.

Again, the view that parenting is an activity needing expert guidance, if not expert practitioners, is not having the benign consequences its adherents hoped for.

Two Liberal Democrat books about to be published

Both of these should be available at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Brighton next month:

Heather Kidd chosen to fight Ludlow

Heather Kidd has been chosen to fight Ludlow for the Liberal Democrats at the next general election. The seat was held for the party by Matthew Green between 2001 and 2005.

Heather is a local councillor and former leader of South Shropshire District Council. She was selected at a constituency meeting last night ahead of Susan Juned and Christine Tinker.

Thanks, as ever, to the Shropshire Star.

David Cameron and the nature of modern politics

The reaction to David Cameron's appearance on Newsnight last night tell us a lot about the nature of modern politics. No one has discussed the content of what he said and argued over whether he presented new solutions to the problems we face.

Instead, his appearance has been discussed in almost theatrical terms as "a performance". Here, for instance, is Iain Dale:
I thought Cameron gave a stormer of a performance - calm, collected, lucid and statesmanlike.
Where there has been discussion of what Cameron said, as opposed to how he looked or sounded, it has concentrated upon how it will be received by his own party. Few have discussed whether he was right on immigration: they have simply talked about how what he said will be received.

Again Iain Dale is interesting on this, and the links he provides in this posting show there has been disagreement over this in the Conservative Party.

Granted, Cameron's manner - like that of his model Tony Blair - rather invites this sort of approach. But the reaction to his appearance does offers some clues as to why British political life is so impoverished.

Later. This is not an appeal for people to consider the ishoos rather than personalities: individual character is of immense importance in politics.

My complaint about the theatrical approach to politics is that it conceals true character. It is impossible to form any clear idea of what David Cameron is really like from his public pronouncements.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Witchfinder General

I was flagging when I wrote about the horror week in the BBC's Summer of British Film. But I have rallied to tape and watch Witchfinder General.

It has long been on my list of films I want to see, though I suspect part of its mystique lies in the fact that its director Michael Reeves died at the age of 25 shortly after making it.

The best summing up of the film came in the documentary about British horror films that preceded it when someone described it as a British Western. The score and the open spaces of Suffolk give this impression, but it has more to do with the film's vision of a society riven by civil war where strange beliefs can flourish. We radicals know that it happened in politics with the Diggers and Levellers, but it happened in religion too and the results could be less benign.

For the film does have some basis in historical fact. In an essay on Witchfinder General Quentin Turnour writes:
although neither Hopkins or Stearne were historically the sort of melodramatic “anti” Don Quixote and Sancho Panza sketched in the script, the film has a sense of responsibility to historical facts and logic rare in low-budget studio films.
And if it is a Western, then it is a dark one. Its hero is played by Ian Ogilvy, who was clean cut enough to play the lead in The Saint in its brief 1970s revival. He is also a minor member of the British acting aristocracy in that his mother was John Mills' first wife.

But as Turnour says:
Ogilvy's Marshall begins as an anguished gentleman-officer, forebear to the earlier fine, politely upset warriors of David Lean and Carol Reed (and Dirk Bogarde's agonised trench-knight in Witchfinder General's near contemporary, Joseph Losey's King and Country, 1964). But by the end he has become the axe-welding avenger of every schlock-Horror quickie. Reeves' achievement is that this hollow moral resonance is the film's crucial affect.
This reminds me of the insight from the philosopher Jacques Ellul that David Boyle is fond of quoting: when you fight someone you become like them.

I have not mentioned it before, but each week one film from the relevant category is being shown at cinemas around the country. The horror film on show this week is The Wicker Man, and Will Howells has been to see it for you.

Will enjoyed the BBC documentary on horror more than I did, grateful as I am to it for helping me to see Witchfinder General as a Western. The documentary made an effort to connect the popularity of horror films with the permissiveness of the 1960s, but it missed the importance of the domestic horror films The Nanny and Our Mother's House, which I have written about before.

In The Nanny, the magnificent Pamela Franklin is a liberated teen, listening to records and blowing cigarette smoke through her fringe. In the flat below William Dix is fighting for his life against his Nanny Bette Davis. And she is scarier even than Vincent Price's Matthew Hopkins.

Iain Dale's Guide to Political Blogging in the UK 2007-8

Iain Dale writes:
It's a much bigger book than planned - 288 pages. It includes 32 articles on various aspects of blogging, 52 self-penned profiles of Britain's leading blogging personalities,* a directory of 1200 political blogs, lists of the best Conservative, Labour, LibDem, Non-Aligned, Media, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Religious and Green blogs as well as a glossary of blogging terms. It's in full colour throughout and the RRP is £12.99 but Politico's have it available for £11.04. It isn't on Amazon yet but should be within a few days.
He hopes to have copies available by 17 September, which means it may be around at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Brighton.

* Hem, hem.

Pressure on Ming to back EU treaty referendum

The Daily Telegraph reports that Menzies Campbell is coming under pressure from some of his own MPs to commit the party to supporting a referendum on the EU reform treaty:
A senior party source later disclosed that younger Lib Dem MPs have privately urged Sir Menzies to abandon the party's traditionally pro-EU stance and stop "taking the flak" for defending Brussels.
Iain Dale names some of those MPs as Jo Swinson, Norman Lamb, Julia Goldsworthy and Nick Harvey

I have written about my own view before. I am a bit of an agnostic on the European project, but if the pro-Europeans in the Lib Dems and beyond believe in their case there is no reason why they should not take on and defeat the anti-European forces in a referendum campaign. An earlier generation of pro-Europeans was able to do just that in 1975.

Comprehensives and academic education

A couple of weeks ago, as the A level results came out, I argued that the common prejudice that those exams are getting easier is right, but that - paradoxically - this is making things harder for the young people who are taking them. It means that they are having to work that much harder to excel and have less time to read outside the curriculum.

This view is supported in a Comment is Free piece today by Professor John Mullan from University College London. He writes:
Like many English departments, mine requires applicants to have an A in English A-level. Most of the undergraduates I teach have achieved three A's at A-level. They are clever and diligent; quite a few seem to have a love of literature. Yet plenty of them have never been stretched intellectually, never been encouraged to venture beyond the little paddock of the A-level syllabus.
Sadly, those who have ventured beyond that paddock tend to come from private or selective schools:
there is such a thing as a good academic education, valuable in itself, and ... the candidate from a comprehensive is less likely to have had it.
He also goes on to make an important point about the supporters of comprehensive education:
Those who "believe in" comprehensive schools (as if it were a religious matter) put a high value on the social mixing found in such schools. This is indeed a good thing, found little in selective schools and not at all in private ones. But it is just one of the good things that a good school should teach. Please stop making this value predominate over all others.
I don't know if a belief in comprehensive education quite has the status of a religious belief, but those who hold it do often talk of being "committed to" comprehensives in a way that suggests the belief goes beyond any available evidence. He is also right to say that while mixing social classes is a good thing, it is not the only good in education.

Mullan's solution is to introduce streaming and setting into comprehensives, but is life that simple?

My experience of the comprehensive system - which was admittedly a long time ago now - was the schools were streamed to such an extent that the comprehensive ideal was already compromised.

Have things changed that much in the interim? Are streaming and setting really such novel ideas today?

Lib Dem Blog of the Year: A reminder

You have until midnight on Friday 31 August to send in your nominations for Lib Dem Blog of the Year 2007 and the five other awards being made this year.

Full details, including information on how to vote, can be found on the party's website.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Your 100 best Lib Dem blog posts

It's anorak heaven over at Lib Dem Voice. Ryan Cullen has compiled a list of the 100 most popular Lib Dem blog posts from the last year, based on the number of click-throughs from his Aggregator.

Introducing it, Stephen Tall writes:

Five blogs are responsible for almost half the postings: Lib Dem Voice accounts for 16 of the top 100 postings (we thank you); James Graham’s Quaequam Blog! for 10; Nich Starling’s Norfolk Blogger for 9; Paul Walter’s Liberal Burblings for 7; and Jonathan Calder’s Liberal England for 6.

It’s interesting, too, to note how many of the most popular postings are from recent months - especially to do with the Ealing and Sedgefield by-elections - suggesting that the audience for Lib Dem blogs is growing significantly.

Comptitive sport for children is still frowned upon

I have been known to argue that competitive sport has a limited party to play in tackling the problem of child obesity. But there is no doubt that it is great fun for the children who are good at it.

Ministers now make speeches in favour of competition, but it is clear that anti-competitive attitudes are still deeply rooted in many parts of the education system. Mike Selvey described his daughter's experience of the Milton Keynes Primary Schools Athletics Championships in today's Guardian:

At the close of her 800m race, Hannah was leading so far in front that the runner in second place had not yet rounded the crest of the bend and she was within 100m or so of lapping the back marker.

This race was a qualifier, one of two to decide the 800m finalists for the Milton Keynes Primary Schools Athletics Championships. At the start of the following week, her sports teacher rather sheepishly took Hannah to one side and told her that, unfortunately, she had not qualified for the final. Hannah was stunned, absolutely flattened. She had won her heat at a puffless canter.

This was not an isolated anomaly. Her friend won a very competitive 200m race, but she too failed to qualify, as did two of the four relay teams entered by the school, despite a clean sweep. Throwers conceded places to those who qualified behind them. Runners saw stragglers' names in the finals list.

More evidence Sure Start does not work

From today's Guardian:

Children starting primary school are yet to show any signs of improved development despite Labour's introduction of measures designed to boost early years education, new research claims today.

A study of 35,000 children in England between 2001 and 2006 suggested they were no further advanced now than they were before Labour's overhaul of education for pre-primary school youngsters. The initiatives, which included the Sure Start programme, free nursery education for all three-year-olds, the early childhood curriculum, the Children's Act 2002, and the Every Child Matters initiative, were introduced to improve life chances for disadvantaged children and educational standards in general.

But should we surprised?

In June of last year the same newspaper reported a study finding that the most deprived families did worse in areas that were covered by the Sure Start scheme that in areas that were not. (I wrote about it here.)

And back in September 2005 I wrote about another study which had found that Sure Start as a whole failed to boost youngsters' development, language and behaviour, and also showed that the children of teenage mothers did worse in Sure Start areas. As I noted at the time, both Polly Toynbee and the Guardian leader writer somehow managed to turn this finding into an argument for spending more on Sure Start.

I wonder how much more evidence will have to be produced before it is concluded that New Labour's nationalisation of parenting has been a failure. This matters to the Liberal Democrats too, because while I was on the party's Federal Policy Committee we voted through a me-too document calling for a children's centre in every community.

Rockingham Castle

A rival to Nevill Holt as the model for Bonkers Hall may have emerged.

I spent the afternoon at Rockingham Castle - a Norman fortification that became a grand country house in the 16th century and has been occupied by the same family ever since. Charles Dickens was a friend of that family and Rockingham was the inspiration for Chesney Wold in Bleak House.

More information on the Rockingham Castle website.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Double standards from Iain Dale

According to Stephen Tall, putting Iain's name in the heading is one of the ways to ensure people read your posting. So there it is.

In his Diary, Iain complains by implication that the supermarkets are using their buying power unfairly to press down on British farmers. There may well be something in that: I think I heard Andrew George (Lib Dem MP for St Ives) arguing just the same case on the radio this morning.

But what really interests me here is the Tories' double standards. For years they have preached the virtues of the free market and told us that subsidies are wicked. Yet as soon as one of the interest groups they represent finds competition uncomfortable, the Tories demand they be given special help. Odd.

Big Branson is watching you

In Brass Eye Chris Morris once persuaded Rhodes Boyson to support his cashback scheme. Under it, rather than spend money imprisoning them, the government would give young criminals the cash directly so they could go off and do something useful.

As this may well be Home Office policy by now, I should point out that it was meant as satire.

In order to persuade Boyson to accept the scheme, Morris (in the guise of interviewer David Compression) suggested the following:
DC: "Do you think perhaps enlisting somebody like Richard Branson to sell the cashback scheme... _might_ just work, might just get through to them."
RB: "I wouldn't say no to that."
DC: "I suppose if there was an element of... stick, you know - Richard Branson up in a balloon, watching the situation and saying, "there's your twenty-six thousand pounds, but I'm watching you from a balloon, and I can see a very long way.""
RB: "I'd go along with that."
Well, it seems that Richard Branson is now doing very much that sort of thing, but using a remotely controlled helicopter rather than a balloon.

The Taking Liberties blog reports that at the Virgin-sponsored V festivals this summer a flying robot that will be hovering over the crowds, filming them without their consent.

It goes on:
The stated aim of this toy is to prevent crime, in this instance drug dealing. Aside from the fact that everyone knows if you try and buy weed at a Festival you will almost certainly end up purchasing bay leaves, it does seem slightly preposterous to assert that this expensive flying camera can actually stop this happening. The drone is several hundred metres in the air, the copper with the magic helmet could be a mile away and the drug deal takes only seconds to conclude.
Nonetheless, the Police have gleefully declared the trial a success and proudly pointed out the sixty two arrests at Weston Park last weekend. However when they were pressed further, the police admitted that the Drones did not lead to any of these arrests. But they are really good fun to play with, so they've just ordered a dozen more...

The gardens at Bonkers Hall

Some literary theorists have tentatively identified Nevill Holt in Leicestershire as the model for Bonkers Hall. Their suggestion appears more securely based when one reads a description of the gardens at Nevill Holt:
The first garden has elaborate iron gates with a stone crest, a medieval font and lead griffins. This leads through to the second area, a 2,500 square metre vegetable garden with peach and apricot houses as well as an extensive potager. Look at gardens

The third, an Italianate garden, has well stocked herbaceous borders and a classical portico overlooking a pool.
You have to admit Meadowcroft is doing a wonderful job.

Lord Bonkers adds: I was showing my potager to a party of schoolgirls only yesterday.

Fresh blood for Transylvania

The Ludlow & Tenbury Wells Advertiser reports that a dozen young workers are being recruited to go out to Transylvania to help restore an ancient building.

I think we all know what is really going on here.

BritBlog Roundup 132

We interrupt your Bank Holiday with news that this week's Roundup has those no-good Redemption Blues.

It is a terrific piece of work by the Chameleon. When I do the Roundup all you get his subheadings and a few off-comments.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Parents setting up their own schools

A report in the Observer suggests the next Tory policy review to report will recommend that parents should be allowed to set up their own schools to rival those of the local authority.
In areas where schools are performing badly, the report adds, councils would have no power to stop them.

Already the Lib Dem blogosphere is voicing its disapproval. Liberal Leslie snorts:

of course it doesn’t mention if the schools will be able to have entrance exams and parents “top up” their schools receiving state money.
But it has always seemed to me that Liberals should be supportive of such moves. We should be the party of diversity and local provision, but too often we sound like the champions of the administrative status quo. Provision by local authorities is not the only conceivable way of running schools.

The problem for the Tories is that they do not really want to see a rich patchwork of diverse local provision. What they really want is a business model where successful schools grow by taking over unsuccessful schools. The danger is that, in the process, they will dilute all the individual factors that have made them the successes.

You see echoes of this business model in the Observer report:

Dorrell's report will also recommend that the Conservatives bring in a policy pledge to greatly expand city academies, increase their freedom and allow them to operate over multiple sites.
One of the reasons that the comprehensive system got off to an uncertain start in many places was that many new comprehensive schools were formed by merging existing establishments and had to operate on split sites. Encouraging city academies to do the same thing will do no one any favours.

500,000 incorrect records on DNA database

I am trying to decide whether we should be worried or pleased about this report from the Independent on Sunday:

Over 500,000 names on the DNA database are false, misspelt or incorrect, the Government has admitted ...

Thousands asked to give their details to police upon arrest have given false names or alternative spellings of their names. In other cases, mistakes have been made in the spelling of names. Some files include names belonging to someone else, or names of people who do not exist. Altogether there are 550,000 "replica" files.
For the Liberal Democrats, Lynne Featherstone is quote as saying:

"If the database is to be of any use, then it has to be accurate. DNA data is open to abuse and this could allow people who mean no good to do no good. The more failsafe the police regard DNA, the easier it is to set someone up,"
All that is true, but do we want the database to be of any use? Lib Dem blogger Jock's Place gets it right when he says:
This database, accurate or not, is open to abuse. The way the data is collected is abhorrent, from children and uncharged adults who have likely done nothing wrong or where the evidence has not been able to show they have done anything wrong. Our message is that it should be scrapped. Not merely tidied up.

Our DNA is part of us as individuals. Holding samples of it is false imprisonment. It should be subject to habeas corpus. There can be no truck with this illiberal nonsense.
And I can't forget a letter that was published in Viz a few months ago. It pointed out that scientists have shown that humans and chimpanzees share 98 per cent of their DNA and asked if chimps were going round committing crimes and getting away with it as a result.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Sunday

And so the week comes to a close:

Seeking respite from the hurly burly of the film festival, I go for a walk beside Rutland Water. I soon find myself in country I do not know well and the shore becomes unusually rocky for this part of the world.

Eventually I come across a fellow wearing one of those hooded tops that are all the rage nowadays; he happens to have a chess set and challenges me to a game. I rather drift in the opening, and he soon obtains a strong attack. However, he rather overreaches himself and I find myself two pawns up. I return one of them to reach a textbook rook and pawn ending, and duly force his resignation. He gathers up his set and stomps off mumbling.

So to the Hall, where there are crumpets for tea.

More from Lord Bonkers on his own website and on this blog.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Classical Music Posting of the Week

From, ineveitably, On An Overgrown Path:

BBC Radio 3 presenter Louise Fryer ... is gaining something of a cult following for her faux pas. In April she famously muddled her Mozart and Haydn quartets. And during tonight's BBC Prom she introduced the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment as the Orchestra of the Age of the Environment.

Just don't let her near the Prom on September 8. One of the composers is Julius Fučík.

A tribute to Sally Hannon

Philip Arnold, the father of Sally Hannon, has set up a website in her memory.

You can find it here.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Saturday

The week continues:


I was sorry to hear of the fate of Shambo the bullock – could not a good sanatorium have been found for him?

Some have questioned the practice of keeping farm animals in religious communities, but here at St Asquith’s it does not seem strange to us. For as it says in the Bible (and I think rightly): “And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the suckling child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’s den.”

We do not go quite that far – we did have a cockatrice once, but it had a foul temper and once bit the Bishop of Oakham on the buttocks – but we do keep pigs in the rearmost pews. When the Revd Hughes first came to us, he asked about the smell, but I was able to reassure him that they soon get used to the incense.

More from Lord Bonkers on his own website and on this blog.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Summer of British Film: Horror

The BBC's Summer of British Film moves on to horror next week - there is a full listing of the films on the season's website. Th0se films chosen display a broad interpretation of that genre. In what sense is Brazil a horror film?

First, a warning. In Dr Who And The Daleks Roy Castle gives what has a strong claim to be the single worst acting performance in the history of British cinema. I know the Lib Dem blogosphere is swarming with Dr Who fans, but this has to be a low point of the whole oeuvre, doesn't it guys?

I grew up being told how wonderful the Quatermass television series was, though I have never seen it. Maybe The Quatermass Xperiment will prove to be a more successful transition to the cinema?

Equally, I know I should have seen Witchfinder General long ago. And Things to Come looks promising: stalwarts like Ralph Richardson, Raymond Massey and Cedric Hardwicke in a 1936 science fiction film.

Maybe I shall tape it and watch it to see if it really qualifies as horror. But, to be frank, I am running out of the energy to watch all these films. You may have to do more work yourself.

I suspect that the highlight will be Brazil. I wrote about George Orwell's 1984 earlier today. A respectful adaptation of the novel was released in, er, 1984 and was soon forgotten. Whether or not it is what he intended, in Brazil (released the following year) Terry Gilliam captured the spirit of Orwell's novel far more successfully.

Is it a horror film? I suppose the final scene is horrific in its implications - Gilliam cast Michael Palin as the torturer because he was the nicest man he knew and thought that would shock the audience far more - but we remember it as an escape or liberation.

When it came out, Brazil's look was a wonderful combination of the contemporary and Austerity Britain. But I suspect today's young viewers may believe that in 1984 computers really did have Imperial Typewriter keyboards.

Lib Dem blogmeet in Brighton

Liberal Democrat Voice announces that there will be an informal meeting of Lib Dem bloggers during the party's Conference next month. It will take place at the Evening Star pub (near Brighton railway station) on the evening of Tuesday 18 September.

We held a similar event there last year, and a good time was had by all.

George Orwell and CCTV in drug addicts' homes

The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound that Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it, moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment.

How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to.

You had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

When I was young I read George Orwell's 1984 almost out of a sense of duty. It was the supreme expression of what we, as a society, were against. It made you realise how lucky you were to live in a free society.

One of the consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union is that we no longer have such a strong sense of what we are not like. The other day the Daily Mail had a front-page story about data from traffic cameras being used for other purposes by the police. The headline YOU CAN'T ESCAPE BIG BROTHER just did not work. Anyone reading it would assume that someone had tried to get out of Channel Four's house and been brought back.

Similarly, it is not so long since a story like this one from the Herald would have made every educated reader think of Orwell's telescreen:

A controversial plan for CCTV to be used to protect children in the homes of chaotic drug-abusing parents has been proposed by one of Scotland's most eminent drugs experts.

Professor Neil McKeganey, head of the centre for Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University, believes radical measures are required to protect the estimated 160,000 children in Scotland living with an alcoholic or drug-addicted parent.

Today, I doubt that there will be any such reaction. And it is a slippery slope. If drug addicts, why not child abusers? If child abusers, why not those with a record of other violence? And if so many people are already covered, why not extend it to everyone? If it saves one child's life...

So if we don't read Orwell any more, where are the cultural resources that will give today's young readers an instinctive feeling for what tyranny is like and why we should oppose it?

Thanks to for the quotation from Orwell. It also has some interesting material on earlier uses of "telescreen".

No Celebrity Big Brother next year

Could this be the first sign of a rebirth of civilisation?

The Guardian reports:

Channel 4 will not screen Celebrity Big Brother next year, as part of a major programming shake-up designed to refresh the network and reaffirm its public service broadcasting credentials.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Friday

The week continues:


To Southall for a day’s campaigning in the by-election. I meet a group of jolly Sikhs who, despite sporting Labour rosettes, are all decent chaps in their own way; I am grateful for the chance to practise my kitchen Punjabi. I know it is the height of bad manners to say that these fellows all look the same, but after luncheon I could have sworn I saw the same group all wearing Conservative rosettes. I return to the nerve centre of the Liberal Democrat campaign to find our people cheered by the publication of a photograph of the Tory candidate kissing Mr Blair at a recent Labour Party fundraising event.

More from Lord Bonkers on his own website and on this blog.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Is Lembit being taken for a ride?

Gabriela has been sharing her wedding plans with icWales:
“I’d like a big fairytale wedding with a white dress, white horses and everything. Lembit would be the perfect groom.”

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Thursday

The week continues in logical order:

A telephone call asks me to hurry to Bonkers Halt, where I find the Station Master in a state of agitation. “It’s Mr Kennedy, you lordship,” he explains. “We’ve tried everything. I’ve blown my whistle and waggled my flag at him, but he just won’t stop smoking.”

English legislation does not pertain in Rutland, of course, so the celebrated Caledonian is at liberty to smoke until we reach the Leicestershire border, but he insists on smoking Golden Virginia Bottomley tobacco, which gives off the most awful acrid fumes – quite unlike my own Havana. I therefore seize the soda siphon from the buffet car and extinguish the former leader without further ado.
More from Lord Bonkers on his own website and on this blog.

Leicestershire health food

Let's hear it for the organic pork pie.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Andrew Phillips makes citizen's arrest - of a 10-year-old

You don't want to get on the wrong side of the Lib Dem peer and former Jimmy Young Show "legal eagle" Andrew Phillips. Even if you are only 10 years old.

The East Anglian Daily Times reports that the incident took place in Sudbury town centre yesterday. In Lord Phillips's own words:

“I first saw the youngsters biking along the narrow path from the Borehamgate Precinct and told them that they couldn't ride there as it could be dangerous for young mums with prams.

“They swore at me but it was nothing more than small change from some silly boys. But when I saw them then throw my bike on the floor, I thought 'I'm not having that'."
Phillips grabbed one of the offenders by the scruff of the neck and asked a passer-by to call the police. The paper reports that the police arrived within 10 minutes and spoke to the youngsters.

As a commenter on the paper's website says, Phillips is lucky that he did not spend a night in the cells himself, but I think he did the right thing.

The sociologist Frank Furedi has written about the decline of what he calls "adult solidarity":
Adult solidarity is one of those used to take for granted. Most of the time, in most places, adult solidarity is practised by people who have never heard of the term. In most communities throughout the world adults assume a modicum of public responsibility for the welfare of children even if they have no ties to them. When the local newsagent or butcher scolds a child for dropping a chewing-gum wrapper on the road, they are actively assisting that boy's parents in the process of socialization. When a pensioner reprimands a young girl for crossing the road when the light is red, he is backing up her parents' attempt to teach, her the ways of the world. These displays of public responsibility teach children that certain behaviour is expected by the entire community, and not just by their mum and dad ...

As every parent knows, in Britain today, fathers and mothers cannot rely on other adults to take responsibility for looking after their children. British adults are hesitant to engage with other people's youngsters. This reluctance to assume responsibility for the welfare of the young is not simply a matter of selfishness or indifference. Many adults fear that their action would be misunderstood and resented, perhaps even misinterpreted as abuse. Adults feel uncomfortable in the presence of children. They don't want to get involved and, even when confronted by a child in distress, are uncertain about how to behave.
So all power to Andrew Phillips for standing up for that solidarity. In an earier age you could just have told the children off, but sadly I don't think that would work today.

I found this story via the Tory blogger Ellee Seymour. Thanks to her, but I was puzzled by her observation that Phillips was awarded the OBE for setting up the Citizenship Foundation and implication that there is some conflict between this work and his actions yesterday.

She writes:
I wonder why Lord Philips doesn’t try and engage these young lads with the ethos of citizenship, let them learn and benefit from his experience with the foundation’s support? ... I wonder whether Lord Philips simply got out of bed the wrong way yesterday.
This "hug a hoodie" stuff really goes deep with today's Tories, doesn't it?

Incidentally, there was something deeply depressing about the statement on the matter by Suffolk Police:
“With the introduction of Safer Neighbourhood Teams right across the county, our aim is to target, in partnership with other agencies, anti-social behaviour and incidents which cause problems for local problem [sic]. We also want to bolster our high-visibility, frontline presence in towns right across Suffolk.”
It's not exactly George Dixon, is it?

Tom McNally's appreciation of Tim Garden

Tom McNally has written an appreciation of Tim Garden for Liberal Democrat Voice:
I have been in politics now for almost fifty years. During that time I have met some good men and women as well as my share of rascals. There are a select few for whom I retain a pride at having known them and from whom I continue to gain inspiration and strength. Tim Garden was one such. We are all the poorer for his passing. We are also the better for having had him with us, all be it for all too short a time.
Jonathan Fryer described Tim Garden's thanksgiving service on his blog yesterday.

Remarkable bird, the Andalusian Blue

Exciting news from the Shropshire Star.

Representatives from Aardman productions, the people behind Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, have visited the Wernlas collection of rare poultry at Onibury on a number of occasions. They have been studying the birds for a new multi-grain Kelloggs cereal advert.

Shaun Hammon, the owner of the collection, says:
“The man got very excited by the Andalusian Blue because of the colours of the bird. He also looked at a Light Sussex and a Welsummer and they all appear in the advert which was aired at the weekend.”

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Wednesday

After Monday and Tuesday our Creator has placed:


What a worry these floods are! Today I visit Witney in Oxfordshire, where I meet the visiting leader of the Rwandan Conservative Party. A charming fellow, he feels it his duty to travel to help unfortunate people in other countries – notably those whose own elected representatives are not on hand to help. He also expresses a wish to meet “Mma Widdecombe” and I promise to put my good offices at his disposal.

Incidentally, I was very worried a few weeks ago when I heard that Hebden Bridge had been affected by flooding. How, I wondered, would it affect the Spring of Immortality? I have since been assured by one of those fellows with beards from the Birchcliffe Centre that all is well on the chalybeate front, but this is a good opportunity for me to put it on record that my longevity and habitual rude health is entirely due to the influence of this spring; there is no truth to the rumours one hears locally to the effect that my great-grandmother used to dally with the elves of Rockingham Forest.

More from Lord Bonkers on his own website and on this blog.

David Howarth up a 65m wind turbine

Focus on King's Hedges reports that David Howarth, the Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, and a local councillor climbed a 65m high wind turbine in Swaffham last weekend. It also says that, as part of the parliamentary committee scrutinising the draft Climate Change Bill ,David has been looking into renewable energy in the UK.

And he was impressed:
“What surprised me the most was how quiet the turbine was. From just 200 yards away the blades could no longer be heard and closer in much of the noise was masked by the rustling of leaves on neighbouring trees.

“I was also impressed by the amount of electricity produced by the turbine. The two turbines at Swaffham produce enough energy over the year to power the entire town."
Are things really that simple? A few turbines can add interest to the landscape, but I wouldn't thank you if you wanted to install them in the South Shropshire hills. And when they represent the wholesale industrialisation of a remote rural landscape, as in the Outer Hebrides, then they can be an environmental outrage.

Others profess to love the things, but is really an aesthetic judgement? Isn't it really because they see turbines as an environmental necessity or as a symbol of the future?

I suspect our reaction to wind turbines will change over time. In the 1930s there was an outcry against electricity pylons in attractive landscapes. Today, we tend to shrug and accept them, if we notice them at all.

And just as some go out of their way to hymn the beauties of wind turbines, so there were those in the 1930s who professed to love pylons. The group of poets around W. H. Auden was even known as the "Pylon Poets".

Stephen Spender writes:
Now over those small hills
they built the concrete
that trails black wire
Pylons those pillars
Bare like nude, giant girls
that have no secret.

But far above and far
as site endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning's danger
There runs the quick
perspective of the future.
Thanks to Friends of the Lake District for those verses. That page also has some information on modern-day efforts to remove high-voltage wires from the landscape.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A guide to Market Harborough

People often ask me what my home town is like. This website will tell you all you need to know:
Market Harborough is located in a rural job of south Leicestershire, upon the River Welland. It is very completion to the Northamptonshire border, and is something like 15 miles (24 km) south of Leicester and 10 miles north of Kettering. The urban is near the A14 core thoroughfare and Market Harborough railway position is served by the Midland Main Line railway. There is also a field of the Grand Union Canal which terminates on the north section of the town. Nearby to the urban are the illustrious Foxton Locks.
Then there's my old school:
One of the town’s most notable skin texture is an odd grammar instruct dating from 1614 located in the urban centre which stands on stiff stilts. The bottom was once used as a butter market. Market Harborough Grammar School was founded in 1607 by Robert Smyth, a lowly native of the urban who became Comptroller of the City of London’s Chamber and appendage of the Merchant Taylors’ Company. The instruct has since motivated sites and now the Robert Smyth School catering for 13-18 year-olds. The instruct badge is the arms of the City of London
And the town museum:
Situated in job of what was once the old Symington’s Corset Factory, the Museum shares the edifice with the Council offices and the Library. Since gap in 1983 the Museum has lasting to accumulate and flaunt bits and pieces of native pastime plus native Roman archaeological finds. It is sweeping to the pubic most years of the time and is without charge to visit.

Camden Lib Dems' cookbook: "Serve a Liberal Helping"

Camden Liberal Democrats' new cookbook, Serve a Liberal Helping, will be published in September. This collection of recipes by Lib Dem luminaries and members, say the publishers, "captures the essence of the party's energy and joie-de-vivre". They suggest it is also the ideal cookbook for those who love to share great food in the midst of busy lives. Within its pages you can:
  • learn from assorted members of parliament and councillors how to cook great food in a hurry;
  • enjoy Charles Kennedy's recipe for a breakfast smoothie;
  • discover the festive secret Lord Navnit Dholakia has not told his friends to this day;
  • read an old family recipe contributed by Lord Bill Rodgers, never before written down;
  • find out what Lembit Opik MP likes to nibble while watching Question Time.
More details, including ordering information, on the Camden Lib Dems' Website.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Tuesday

After Monday, naturally comes...


The antics at Trent Bridge, involving as they did the scattering of jelly beans on a good length spot, cast dark shadows for those of us who remember Douglas Jardine’s notorious “Peanut Brittle Tour” of 1934-5. I spend the morning in my Library writing a stiff letter to the President of the MCC demanding that he put his foot down.

More from Lord Bonkers on his own website and on this blog.

I am receiving your blazer loud and clear, Tompkins

I do hope this is just a silly season story.

The Guardian reports:
A school uniform maker said yesterday it was "seriously considering" adding tracking devices to its clothes after a survey found many parents would be interested in knowing where their offspring were ...

Trutex ... commissioned an online survey for 809 parents and 444 children aged between nine and 16. It said 44% of the adults were worried about the safety of pre-teen children and 59% would be interested in satellite tracking systems being incorporated in schoolwear. While nearly four in 10 pupils aged 12 and under were prepared to go along with the idea, teenagers were more wary of "spying".

Clare Rix, the marketing director, said: "As well as being a safety net for parents, there could be real benefits for schools who could keep a closer track on the whereabouts of their pupils, potentially reducing truancy levels."

Maybe it is just another meaningless survey, but it is also a reminder that the push towards a surveillance society does not come only from government. There are plenty of commercial interests only too happy to play on people's fears too.

Lib Dems to launch attack on "surveillance society''

Good news in the Independent this morning: the Liberal Democrats are going to launch an attack on Britain's "surveillance society'' at our Conference in Brighton next month.

This is good news, firstly, because we are clearly in the right. The newspaper lists some of the areas of concern that the Lib Dems will highlight:
  • The CCTV cameras that have sprouted up in every town and some villages, at a ratio of one for every 16 people, making Britain the most "watched" country on the planet.
  • The DNA database, "the largest in the world", which has data on 140,000 innocent people, with a disproportionate number from ethnic minorities.
  • The Information Commissioner, who has no power to restrict "data mining" and data processing requests by government agencies and reports to ministers rather than Parliament.
  • Requests for communications traffic data by the police and other investigative authorities which topped 439,000 between January 2005 and April 2006.
  • Intercept warrants, which exceeded 2,240 in the 16 months to April 2006 under laws making the UK alone among democratic nations to have warrants granted by ministers.
It is also good news because it will help to differentiate us from the other parties. With Gordon Brown's emphasis on Unionism in Scotland and fighting terrorism at Westminster, we have to be wary of taking up positions from which it is impossible to attack the government.

Finally, it is good news because it may help to put the Conservatives on the spot. There is no doubt that many Tory front-benchers have libertarian instincts. There is little doubt that many Tory members do not share them.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Vibrator robber jailed

From the BBC. An everyday story of life in Leicester (well, Braunstone):

A robber who held up a bookmaker's shop in Leicester with his girlfriend's vibrator has been jailed.

Nicki Jex, 27, of Braunstone, Leicester, hid the sex toy in a carrier bag pretending it was a gun, Leicester Crown Court heard.

The manager at Ladbrokes in Narborough Road handed over more than £600 in cash when he pointed it at her on 27 December 2006, the court heard.

On Monday, Jex, who pleaded guilty to robbery, was jailed for five years.

The Rainbow

If you came fresh to Ken Russell's adaptation of The Rainbow then you would probably think it a great disappointment. But if you have seen some of Russell's more recent films then it probably comes as something of a relief.

There was none of the noisy chaos of those films, though we may have had a narrow escape. If one believes David Hemmings's memoirs (always a big if, it is true) then he was called in at the last minute when Elton John dropped out.

The Rainbow is a novel covering the lives of three generations, but the film is concerned only with the chapters covering the third. It follows the young adulthood of Ursula, who grows up to be one of the heroines of Women in Love.

The problem with this is that it robs the story of much of its appeal. Though it lacks a conventional plot, the novel does show the way that the experiences of earlier generations impact upon their children and grandchildren. Without this richness, the film is rendered purely episodic.

It deals with Ursula's yearnings for a life of her own, her sexual adventures and her teaching career. There is a great deal of nudity (which I felt bound to illustrate for you), much of it filmed in beautiful landscapes. It would be easy to blame Russell for this, but D. H. Lawrence cannot escape his share of the blame.

Perhaps because I studied The Rainbow for A level, Lawrence now seems to me a novelist who appeals to adolescents - even if I now understand him better in some ways. All that sex and talk of finding a wider, fuller life is mighty impressive when you are 17. Certainly his critical reputation is not half as high as it used to be. Do people read him much today?

There is a cameo from Dudley Sutton as a kinky artist and the film is a reminder of what a wonderful actress Glenda Jackson was. A great career was sacrificed and she became no more than a mundane and dissatisfied minister in Blair's government.

One other scene should be mentioned. As a young teacher Ursula has trouble keeping her trouble in order and ends up giving a savage beating to one of the boys. The film makes him behave far worse than in the book, but it is still a nasty scene. There was always was something fascistic about Lawrence and this scene brings it out.

BritBlog Roundup 131

This week's selection is at The Wardman Wire.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Monday

Liberator 320 has arrived in the post. The exciting news is that it is now possible to subscribe online. Full details on the magazine's website.

This time I am going to publish Lord Bonkers' diary one day at a time, just as the old boy writes it. It's Monday today, so let's start with...


This year’s Uppingham International Film Festival opens today, and I am busy in my role as Patron. We have a particularly fine programme this year; notably, a series of lectures on the Liberal revival of the early 1960s and showings of British Realist films of the period, under the title "It’s Grimond Up North". Beyond this, there is strong selection of moving pictures: Beith in Venice, Greg Mulholland Drive, For Huhne the Bell Tolls, The Colin Bulldog Breed, Braveheart with our own William Wallace, of course, some episodes of Mike Hancock’s Half Hour that were long believed lost, Night of Mark Hunter, Danny Alexander the Great, The Killing of Andrew George, Adrian Sanders of the River and many riches beside.

The only fly in this particularly fine ointment is what to do with Michael Moore. I knew him first as a well-scrubbed young fellow who was often to be seen carrying Elspeth Campbell’s shopping, and in due course he was elected to Parliament from a seat in the Scottish Borders. Something unfortunate then happened to him: he took to wearing a baseball cap, making films and, worse, telling all and sundry how wonderful those films are. I fear that he has not been invited. Incidentally, I met a fellow in the Bonkers’ Arms last night who swore that Moore is now the Liberal Democrats’ Shadow Foreign Secretary; but, as I pointed out to him, if this were the case, surely one would see his name in the papers more often?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Alistair Darling's bizarre economics

Following George Osborne, the second in our new series.

The other day I thought I heard Darling say something odd about the economy when he was interviewed on BBC radio about Tory plans for tax cuts.

Freedom and Whisky heard it too:

I just heard my MP on the radio a few minutes ago. He was talking about the Tory noises about tax cuts.

Darling said:

Take £21 billion out of the economy and it's bound to have an effect.

Does the Chancellor really think that the economy consists solely of the state sector?

And he obviously dyes his eyebrows too.

Ludlow Town Council: "I'm not allowed in the chair"

Remember the recent troubles at Ludlow council? The Ludlow & Tenbury Wells Advertiser reports a new development at England's most, er, colourful local authority:
Sarky, the eight-months-old borderline terrier of Ludlow town councillor, Mitch Mitchell, has now won the right to attend meetings with his master.

A council resolution states that no objection be raised to councillors being accompanied by a pet dog.
But I am not sure the borderline terrier is a breed known to the Kennel Club.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Trivial Connection of the Day

This is a good one. Malcolm Redfellow Revivus writes:
There is a bizarre link between "Biggles" and "Just William". The model for "Captain" (in reality, never more than a Flying Officer, with some six weeks of combat experience) W.E. Johns' character derived from Air Commodore Cecil George Wigglesworth. Meanwhile Richmal Crompton was mudding up her brother, John Lamburn. Lamburn was first with the Rhodesian police, worked in China, and did war service with the RAF in Iceland under ... Wigglesworth.
Note too the gratuitous photograph of the genitals of Michelangelo's David.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Summer of British Film: Costume drama

This week's leg of the marathon takes us into costume drama. So a few random notes follow.

I liked Billy Connolly in Mrs Brown, but I have never understood why Judi Dench is rated so highly. I have seen a television programme about Prunella Scales's one-woman show on Queen Victoria and found her take on the old girl far more convincing. And remember: my family knows a thing or two about Queen Victoria and Balmoral.

I have not seen a Ken Russell film from the last 25 years that is not a howling mess. Even so The Rainbow is the film from this week I shall tape. Not so much because I did it for A level as for old times' sake: it is the prequel to Women in Love - a film from Russell's glory days.

And it does have both Dudley Sutton and David Hemmings. The latter said of this period in his career: "People thought I was dead, but I was just directing The A Team."

A Cock and Bull Story is a riotous take on the unfilmable novel Tristram Shandy. As Rob Brydon outshines Steve Coogan you can sense the baton of comedic superstardom being passed on.

The first 20 minutes of Carry On Henry are among the very funniest in the whole series. Sid James was born to play Henry VIII. And don't miss Barbara Windsor's exclamation of "Ooh, your Eminence" as she brushes past Terry Scott as Cardinal Wolsey.

But the film of the week has to be A Night to Remember. Moving, economical, understated, British... it is everything that Titanic was not. Kenneth More become, er, more insufferable every time I see one of his films, but I can tolerate him in this.

Two moments stay in the memory.

As the passengers are being sent off in the lifeboats, a group of telegraph boys go up to a senior office and say something like "What about us, sir? What shall we do?" He finds a pretext to tell one of them off, and you never see them again.

And later on, when the ship is about to go down, and old man finds a young child wandering lost along one of the corridors. "You come with me," he says, and takes the child's hand.

A Night to Remember is on BBC2 at 12.40 p.m. on Tuesday 21 August.

Bill Deedes dead aged 94

Shadly no mishtake.

The grand old man of British journalism, former cabinet minister and inspiration for the character of William Boot in Evelyn Waugh's novel Scoop has died.

It would be fitting to link to the Daily Telegraph's coverage, but the paper's website seems to be disabled by grief.

So here is the BBC tribute instead.

Lib Dem Blog of the Year 2007

Last year, for the first time, a Lib Dem Blog of the Year was made. It was won by Stephen Tall, with me and the Elephant among the runners up.

Lib Dem Voice tells us that it's back. And this time there are six (count 'em) categories:
  • Liberal Democrat blog of the year
  • Best blog from a Liberal Democrat elected to public office
  • Best new Liberal Democrat blog (started since 1st October 2006)
  • Best posting on a Liberal Democrat blog (since 1st October 2006)
  • Most humorous Liberal Democrat blog
  • Best designed Liberal Democrat blog
Further details, including information on how to vote, can be found on the party's website.

Lord Bonkers adds: Remember your rents fall due on Lady Day.

Sally Hannon

Thanks to Paul Walter for pointing out that todays Guardian carries an "Other Lives" obituary of my Liberator editorial collective colleague Sally Hannon:
She was, as a colleague said, a remarkably unstuffy mayor, cycling to some engagements - one of those being unannounced calls at police stations to check on how people under arrest were being treated. In 2004 she was elected chair of Thames Valley Police Authority. She often joined officers on patrol late at night on Christmas or New Year's Eve.
It is written by her father Philip Arnold.

This is also a chance to quote the obituary that Catherine Furlong wrote for the July issue of Liberator:

At the time of the Oaten revelations, e-mails were flying between collective members, particularly following the Sunday Times interview in which Oaten tried to justify his behaviour.

Sally's response was typically wry and witty: "As a result of chemotherapy I found myself suddenly, at the age of 51, middle-aged and bald ... fortunately I have so far been able to resist the urge to have sex with rent boys and stand as leader of the LDs."

Salmond plays down coalition talk

Having reported speculation about the possibility of a Lib Dem/SNP coalition at Holyrood the other day, I had better mention this.

The Herald reports an appearance by Alex Salmond at the Edinburgh Book Festival. It quotes him as saying:

"Initially, I would have preferred a coalition deal. That was my expectation and I fully expected that within a few days we would be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, but that bus has left the station.

"Where we are now is working very effectively. If we co-operate now it will be on a specific proposal."
Circumstances can change, but this appears to pour cold water on the idea pretty effectively.

Thanks to Green Ribbon. And sucks to James Graham.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

George Osborne's bizarre economics

George Osborne was interviewed by ePolitix today. He said:
"Of course we want a very dynamic and successful City of London. But Britain cannot just be the City of London and then 50-odd million people living off the back of those who work in financial services."
This is a strange view of the economy. Perhaps the traditional distrust of the City of London as the candyfloss economy was always misplaced. But to see the rest of us as parasites on the financial sector is bizarre indeed.

As we seem to be learning at the moment, there is more to the economy than moving money around.

Easier exams make it harder for A level students

First, let's get the obligatory photograph out of the way.

Thank you. As is well known, all A level students look like this.

How did the results of A levels - and to a lesser extent SATs and other public examinations - come to be seen as a barometer of national well-being. When I was at school, these exams were essentially a private matter. You were bright or you weren't, you worked hard or you didn't, and you more or less got what you deserved. Now great issues of public policy are assumed to be involved.

The explanation, I suspect, is twofold. First, the results come out at just the right time for a 24/7 media world that is desperate for content in the summer holiday months. Second, the collapse of the idea that politicians' role is to run the economy has led them to seek other areas of national life to colonise, and education has become one of them.

Part of this annual festival of concern about exam results is a ritualised debate. One side says they are examinations are getting easier: the other says that students are working harder than ever before.

I have come to the conclusion that both sides are right.

The evidence that exams are getting easier comes in a report (pdf format) prepared for the Office of National Statistics.

As Burning our Money writes of the report:
Its approach is to compare the A Level performance of pupils with the same pupils' performance in a standardised test of academic ability known as ITDA (International Test of Developed Academic Ability). The data has been collected every year since 1988, and currently covers 1400 schools ...

Thus, for English Lit, pupils with the same ITDA score are now getting an A Level over one grade higher, and for Biology, nearly two grades higher. For Maths, the increase is an astonishing three and a half grades. Overall, the change is about two grades, as reported.

Thus, for English Lit, pupils with the same ITDA score are now getting an A Level over one grade higher, and for Biology, nearly two grades higher. For Maths, the increase is an astonishing three and a half grades. Overall, the change is about two grades, as reported.The authors of the study conclude:

"A level grades achieved in 2006 certainly do correspond to a lower level of general academic ability than the same grades would have done in previous years. Whether or not they are better taught makes no difference to this interpretation; the same grade corresponds to a lower level of general ability."
(Thanks to Tim Worstall for the links.)

My impression is that, while for years liberals and the left have hotly denied that exams have been getting easier, it will soon be widely accepted that they are. (It is remarkably how quickly the unthinkable can become the new conventional wisdom.) Certainly, the Guardian piece, published the other day, which tried to uphold the no-fall-in-standards thesis was so flippant that you sensed the author had really given up the ghost.

So does this mean that today's A level students have it easier than my generation did?

Not a bit of it. My rather guilty impression is that they work a good deal harder at school than my friends and I had to at that age.

It sounds like a paradox, but it isn't.

What will the more sought-after universities do if more and more young people start getting two or three good A levels? Will they reason that with so many talented candidates around it does not much matter whom they chose?

Of course they won't. Instead they will start to ask for four good A levels. Or they will start looking for more evidence of achievements outside school, turning students' leisure time into a competitive field too.

So there you have it. A levels are getting easier and students are having to work harder to distinguish themselves as a result.

And that, incidentally, means a greater volume of work rather than work at a higher, more stimulating level. Which also helps explain my generation's prejudice that, while we did not work so hard, we were more intellectually advanced. For we had more time to read outside the curriculum and follow our own interests.

Traditionally, the Lib Dems have been at the forefront of those denying that exams have been getting easier. So I was cheered by the media release from Stephen Williams today calling for an independent review of standards.

Although the tone is still all about attacking the "carpers", it may a sign that the party is beginning to think for itself on education rather than taking its lead from the teachers' unions, as it has tended to do in recent years.

If the outcome of that review were to be harder and fewer exams for A level students, I would be very pleased. If exams are getting easier, it is the young people taking them who are being shortchanged.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Yazidi

The Times has an article by James Hider on this ancient sect:

Often derided by their Muslim neighbours as peacock-loving, lettuce-dodging devil-worshippers, the Yazidi are one of Iraq’s more ancient and mysterious sects whose beliefs have long been misunderstood and maligned.

From their base in a 1,000-year-old former monastery at Lalish, near the northern city of Mosul, the Yazidi community have traditions that date back at least to the days of Zoroaster some 2,500 years ago.
Back in May, writing for CounterPunch, Patrick Cockburn described the tensions and killings that led to the dreadful bombings near Mosul yesterday.

And there is more on the Yazidi's beliefs in a 1919 book by Isya Joseph.

Britain's Favourite View

Inspired by the ITV series, here is mine.

Magdalene M. Weale, in her seminal Through the Highlands of Shropshire on Horseback (1935), kindly described what you see from Brown Clee:
Westward hills of all shapes and sizes: mighty piers jutting out into the sea; giant fists and breasts; mammoth heads, shoulders and buttocks; monstrous barrows, bivouacs and saddles; cones and pyramids, all in wild jostling profusion, with their crests of forest like the manes of flying steeds or elfin streamers in the wind, and in between the ranges elevated valleys like wave-troughs in the sea, waiting in everlasting suspense for the fall of the black sea-horses into their depths.
Thank you, Magadalene,