Sunday, August 31, 2008

k.d. lang: Fallen

k.d. lang's 2004 Hymns of the 49th Parallel is an album of songs by fellow Canadians. As you would expect, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen are all represented.

But one of the highlights is this song by the lesser-known Ron Sexsmith.

There is no video of lang performing, I am afraid: just this slide show. And I hate to think what New Labour would make of a lyric like:
You opened your arms like a school door to summer days.

Heartbeat borrows from Hell Drivers

This evening's episode of Heartbeat featured an unscrupulous haulage contractor who demanded that his drivers drive dangerously fast.

All of which will be familiar to anyone who has seen the 1957 British thriller Hell Drivers.

Borrowings by modern TV serials from old films are not unknown. I remember an episode of Foyle's War whose urchins collecting salvage came straight out of A Canterbury Tale.

Later. Youtube has the trailer for Hell Drivers.

Tavish Scott reshuffles his team

The Press Association reports:

Newly elected Lib Dem leader Tavish Scott has announced a reshuffle of his backroom team.

Leadership rival Mike Rumbles has been appointed chief whip, having previously been rural affairs and environment spokesman. Ross Finnie, also a contender for the top job, remains party health spokesman.

Glasgow MSP Robert Brown becomes justice spokesman, taking over from Margaret Smith who moves to education. But former leader Nicol Stephen will not have any shadow brief in the new team.

J. Arthur MacNumpty has further details and some reasoned comment.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Waxing lyrical about south-east Leicestershire

© Copyright Mat Fascione

A review of the food at The Bakers Arms, Thorpe Langton, in Metro begins:

Last month, one of the broadsheet newspapers ran an article about the controversial proposals for eco-town Pennbury. It waxed lyrical about the south-east Leicestershire countryside being on a par with the finest scenery in Dorset or Devon. And on a summer's evening drive out to The Bakers Arms in Thorpe Langton, it's easy to see why.

This is the kind of lush, gently rolling countryside that flies the flag for sentimental patriotism. It summons to mind a Vaughan Williams soundtrack, a game of cricket on the village green and a pint of foaming ale.

Actually it was just on the Guardian website, but it is nice to know someone reads my stuff.

Sarah Palin backed Pat Buchanan in 1999

Harry's Place links to a report in The Nation. It shows that Sarah Palin, John McCain's choice as his Vice Presidential running mate, supported the hard-right Republican candidate Pat Buchanan in his attempt to win the party's nomination for the 1992 Presiential election.

While I was writing this Harry's Place posted again, suggesting that Palin may have run Buchanan's campaign in Alaska - at least, I assume that is what "state director" means.

Whatever the truth of this, her selection has delighted Richard Viguerie, an American "Conservative" (he views the Republican establishment as halfway to being socialists) who e-mails me his regular media releases for some reason:

“Congratulations to John McCain for hearing and responding to conservatives. Conservatives, the base of the party, have been listless. But, now, nearly all will work enthusiastically for the McCain-Palin ticket. In fact, this is the most enthusiastic conservatives have been since the era for Ronald Reagan.”

He concluded: “This is a grand-slam home run. Conservatives’ feet haven’t touched the ground since this announcement.”

Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting will give you a taste of Buchanan's views.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Where are they now? Dan Quayle

Heresy Corner's veiled reference to Dan Quayle's spelling problems led me to wonder what he is doing now.

The biography on his website tells us:

Since leaving public office, Dan Quayle has authored three books: Standing Firm, A Vice-Presidential Memoir which was on the New York Times bestseller list for 15 weeks; The American Family: Discovering the Values that Make Us Strong; and Worth Fighting For.

He established and sold an insurance business in Indiana . For two years he was a distinguished visiting professor of international studies at Thunderbird, The American Graduate School of International Management.

Currently, Dan Quayle is Chairman of Cerberus Global Investments, LLC (Cerberus), President of Quayle & Associates, and serves on the boards of directors of IAP Worldewide Services, Inc., K2, Inc and Aozora Bank, Ltd in Tokyo . He makes frequent public appearances and speeches, and writes a nationally syndicated weekly newspaper column.

He must be the first Vice President of the USA to go on to sell insurance.

Wikipedia suggests that Quayle did try a political comeback after George Bush Snr's defeat by Bill Clinton in 1992 meant he was no longer Vice President:

Quayle considered but decided not to run for Governor of Indiana in 1994.

He pulled out of his bid for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination, citing health problems related to phlebitis.

In April 1999, he announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for 2000, attacking George W. Bush by saying "we do not want another candidate who needs on-the-job training".

In the first contest among the Republican candidates, the Ames Straw Poll of August 1999, he finished eighth. Commentators said that while he had the most political experience among prospective candidates (over Bush and Elizabeth Dole) and potential grassroots support among conservatives, his campaign was hampered by the legacy of his vice-presidency.

This video (which includes the potato incident) will show you why Quayle is about the only person who could make George W. Bush look competent. And then you should read Dan Quayle's Skeleton Closet.

You could even visit the Dan Quayle Vice Presidential Museum.

Heresy Corner on Sarah Palin

She certainly looks to me like a woman who can spell "potato".

The whole post is worth reading.

Later. But read this too.

Russell Howard: It doesn't impress me and it won't impress the examiners

After viewing several editions of Mock the Week, I have come to a conclusion. Russell Howard is not funny.

He is like a schoolboy who plays the class clown: briefly endearing, he soon becomes annoying.

So get on with your work, Howard, and stop disturbing the other boys.

When Tony Benn met Saddam Hussein

If you have heard Tony Benn interviewed recently you will know that he is fond of saying there are five questions we should ask of any politician:
"What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?'
Except that, as Oliver Kamm points out, that is not precisely what he said to Saddam.

It was more:
"I have 10 grandchildren and in my family there is English, Scottish, American, French, Irish, Jewish, Indian, Muslim blood, and for me politics is about their future, their survival. And I wonder whether you could say something yourself directly through this interview to the peace movement of the world that might help to advance the cause they have in mind?"

Thursday, August 28, 2008

China and Central Asian nations fail to support Russia over Georgia

An interesting report from Associated Press says China and four Central Asian nations have rebuffed Russia's hopes of international support for its actions in Georgia. The Shanghai Co-operation Organization issued a statement today denouncing the use of force and calling for the respect of every country's territorial integrity.

The report later says:

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had appealed to the Asian alliance, which is made up of China, Russia and four ex-Soviet Central Asian nations, for unanimous support of Moscow's response to Georgia's "aggression."

But the alliance, which was created in 2001 to improve regional co-ordination on terrorism and border security, opted to take a neutral position and urged all sides to resolve the conflict through "peaceful dialogue."

"The participants ... underscore the need for respect of the historical and cultural traditions of each country and each people, and for efforts aimed at preserving the unity of the state and its territorial integrity," the alliance's statement said.

None of the other alliance members joined Russia in recognizing the independence claims of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are Russia, China and four Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Craig Murray recently described it as:
a dictators' club. Despite having several theoretical fields of activity, the main practical focus is entirely on security and, in the words of their declaration, combating "terrorism, separatism and extremism". That is code for repressing any moves to freedom in Central Asia.
Even so, the Central Asian states may have reason to be less keen than some Western left-wingers are on the concept of a "former Soviet space" where Russia may do as it pleases.

Charles Kennedy's advice to Tavish Scott

Courtesy of The Herald:

I once asked Tony Blair how he found being Labour leader while in opposition compared with being in government. He remarked that he would wake up each morning in opposition and ask himself: "What do I have to say today?" In government, he awoke to the thought: "What do I have to do today?"

If you are a LibDem leader you arouse yourself with the frustration of wondering what you have to say, but equally then focusing on how you get anyone to report upon it and communicate it to a wider audience.

Bonkers for President

It seems that my old friend Lord Bonkers has an American cousin who is also involved in poltics.

The Bonkers Institute for Nearly Genuine Research is an antipsychiatry site.

Explore it and you will find that:
Methodius Isaac Bonkers is the pseudonym of Ben Hansen, a mild-mannered writer and storyteller who lives in Traverse City, Michigan. In psychological terms, Dr. Bonkers is Mr. Hansen's alter ego; i.e., the two men are actually the same person, though each posesses a distinct personality and character traits
I know just how he feels.

The No. 5 Lib Dem blog

Thanks to everyone who voted for me in the poll for the Liberal Democrat section of Guide to Political Blogging in the UK 2008-9.

The top five this year are:
  1. Lib Dem Voice
  2. People's Republic of Mortimer
  3. Norfolk Blogger
  4. Quaequam Blog
  5. Liberal England
Congratulations to Lib Dem Voice and everyone else. Iain Dale has the top 50.

In 2006 the Lib Dem list was chosen by Iain himself. I came fourth.

In 2007 it was chosen by a panel of Lib Dem bloggers. (I was not a member.) I came first.

Note that I was careful to add a caveat about this year's voting method in case I did not do so well. I'll have to think of something else to put at the top of this blog now.

Correction of the Day

From the Guardian:

A map of Antarctica identified the point at which Ernest Shackleton's unsuccessful polar expedition of 1908-09 turned back as 97 miles south of the south pole. That should have been north of the south pole,

The Telford penguins: I am not alone

A comment on my latest New Statesman website column sends readers to Telford & Wrekin Council Watch.

It has taken up the case of the Telford penguins.

Support Harry's Place against legal threats

Harry's Place, one of the blogs I link to, is having problems at the moment.

Full details on ModernityBlog.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

In praise of Bradgate Park

Yesterday I visited Bradgate Park, which is a few miles north west of Leicester. It is a part of Charnwood Forest - somewhere to take people who insist that the Midlands are flat - and contains the ruins of Bradgate Park, which was the home of the Grey family - as in Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England for nine days.

The park was privately purchased from the Grey family and given to the people of Leicestershire by Charles Bennion in 1928.

The best account of it is to found on the site of Leicestershire Orienteering Club:
The herds of deer, about 340 in number at the last count, wander at will within the park - one of the finest herds of parkland deer in the country. Deer have been kept at Bradgate, in this fine example of ancient parkland, since the 13th century and to protect them from stress they have areas of the park reserved to them where they can escape from human presence when the park gets to busy.

Bradgate Park contains nationally important geological exposures (some are over 700 million years old and rank as some of the oldest in England). It also contains some of the last important fragments of wet and grass heathland in Leicestershire, wonderful veteran trees and other special habitats, with a diverse range of flora and fauna including rare plant species and is also a valued site for a wide range of birds, vertebrates and invertebrates.

In addition it is home to moles, common shrews, pigmy shrews, bats, voles, mice, rabbits, foxes, adders, stoats, weasels and badgers. Throughout the estate there are 350 veteran trees - some over 500 years old and growing at the time of Lady Jane Grey and many others over 300 years old. Throughout the seasons, it is possible to find up to 106 species of bird, 20 species of mammal, 4 species of amphibians, 8 species of fish, a host of plant species, trees and shrubs as well as lichens, fungi and a host of invertebrate species with many of the flora and fauna regarded as locally rare.
It is the sort of local amenity that you take for granted until you visit it. Then you are reminded what a miracle it is.

Powell and Pressburger week on Channel 4

Channel 4 is showing a Powell and Pressburger film every afternoon next week.

The details are:

Monday 1 September 13:00 - The Spy in Black (1939)

Tuesday 2 September 13:30 - One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942)

Wednesday 3 September 13:30 - A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Thursday 3 September 13:30 - Black Narcissus (1947)

Friday 4 September 13:15 - The Battle of the River Plate (1956)

I have written about A Matter of Life and Death before, but I also have a soft spot for One of Our Aircraft is Missing.

In it a British bomber crew, including Eric Portman, bales out and is aided by the Dutch Resistance, played by Googie Withers. Look too for a young Peter Ustinov.

In April Labour thought the housing crash was a joke

The FT Westminster Blog offers some mild praise for Vince Cable package to rescue people caught up in the current problems in the housing market.

What is really telling, though, is that it quotes those Labour MPs who, as recently as April, thought the whole thing was just a big joke.

There was Angela Eagle:

The Liberal Democrat motion has been much commented on, possibly because it reads like the storyboard for “Apocalypse Now”, or perhaps even “Bleak House”. According to the motion, we are facing an “extreme bubble in the housing market” and the “risk of recession”, and we must “act to prevent mass home repossessions”.

Presumably that is why the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) got through his entire speech without mentioning any of those things until the last minute—they obviously keep him up late at night.

Fortunately for all of us, however, that colourful and lurid fiction has no real bearing on the macro-economic reality. In difficult economic times—here I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban)— [ Interruption. ] —at least in part; I do not want to get him into trouble. In difficult economic times, it generally pays to remain calm and to apply a cool, analytical mind to the situation. Hysterical over-reaction, as this motion demonstrates, might attract a few cheap headlines and some doom-laden Lib Dem press releases, and it might even frighten a few voters ahead of local elections, but it is not mature or responsible, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) took some time to point out.

Now that we have had “Apocalypse Now” and “Bleak House”, I am going to talk about “An Inconvenient Truth”, which is that the economy is strong and stable.”
And Siôn Simon:
It is alarming me to discover that people as esteemed as the Liberals think that we are in the grip of an “extreme bubble”. If we are in an “extreme bubble” now, could she tell us what sort of bubble we were in during the early 1990s when people’s homes really were being repossessed by the hundreds of thousands?
You can find the whole debate in Hansard for 2 April 2008.

Two points should be made in defence of these Labour MPs:
  • Angela Eagle is a junior minister and has to say whatever she is told to say;
  • Siôn Simon is an idiot.

Photo Caption of the Day

From The Times: Andrew Lansley says there is "no excuse" for being fat

Monday, August 25, 2008

Jimmy Page: Epsom to Beijing in 50 years

Jimmy Page's appearance at the Olympic closing ceremony yesterday reminds me of this video clip.

It shows him playing skiffle 50 years ago.

Buddleias and butterflies

The Daily Telegraph reports that last two summers, which have been wet, have been bad for butterflies:

Garden species such as small tortoiseshell, peacock and red admiral seem to have been among the worst hit.

Butterfly Conservation, which conducts an annual survey through volunteer spotters, says an accurate picture won't emerge until early next year when all the data has been analysed.

Chief executive Dr Martin Warren said: "There is no doubt that it has been dire for most species and unfortunately it follows an already bad run of summers.

"We are really concerned about the small tortoiseshell which has been in long-term decline and which seems to have reached a trough and stayed there."

My own observation, based on the buddleia in my garden, is that this year has been bad for butterflies, but better than last year when I saw none at all. This year there are plenty of cabbage whites, but that is about it. A few years ago I was getting exotica like hummingbird hawk-moths.

There is much more on the Butterfly Conservation site.

Talking of buddleias, there was an "In praise of..." piece in the Guardian this morning. It contained the important fact that the shrub is named after a Revd Adam Buddle.

Thanks to Redster for the photograph.

Denis Thatcher on Mark Thatcher

The Times has an extract from Ferdinand Mount's memoirs about his time as head of the No 10 policy unit and Mrs Thatcher's speechwriter. The whole thing is worth reading, but this is particularly fine:
My son Harry had briefly taken up autograph-hunting and he worked the room, clocking up the white-faced Whitelaw and Parkinson for starters. Then Harry moved on to get a signature from Denis Thatcher. Would it be all right to ask Mark Thatcher for an autograph, too?

“I wouldn’t bother if I was you,” said Denis: “the boy can scarcely write his own name” – which Harry thought the funniest thing he had ever heard.
Mark's twin is no more complimentary about him.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

More people died in road accidents in 1934 than 2007

Liberal Democrat Voice records the good news that the statistics for fatalities in road traffic accidents continue to show a steady drop. It quotes the following figures:
1994-8 - 3,578 (average)
1999 - 3,423
2000 - 3,409
2001 - 3,450
2002 - 3,431
2003 - 3,508
2004 - 3,221
2005 - 3,201
2006 - 3,172
2007 - 2,946
Incredibly, there were far more fatalities than this each year back in the 1930s.

A couple of years ago I reviewed Ian Grimshaw's biography of Leslie Hore-Belisha in Liberal Democrat News:
Few now appreciate the carnage that reigned in the early years of motoring. Hore-Belisha himself, as a former journalist with an eye for a headline, referred to it as “mass murder”. In 1934, the year he took office, 7,343 people were killed on the roads.
Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Polly Bolton: Call of the Siren

Much Wenlock is not just the spiritual home of the Olympics. It also the venue for Festival at the Edge, which I attended a couple of times back in the 1990s.

Although it is chiefly a storytelling festival, my chief memories of it are musical. I heard a young Eliza Carthy play (with Nancy Kerr) and, best of all, I heard the Polly Bolton Band.

That year everything was running hopelessly late, and it was after midnight when the band (Polly Bolton, John Shepherd and Steve Dunachie) took the stage in the marquee. Everyone's breath was steaming in the cold air. The band played traditional folk songs and their own settings of poems by Kipling and A. E. Housman. Above all I remember Polly Bolton's wonderful folk voice.

I later found that she had recorded with a lot of people, including Ashley Hutchings. You can read more about Polly Bolton's career on her own website. As well as performing and running singing workshops, she runs a garden centre in the shadow of Brown Clee.

This video features Polly singing with Jennifer Cutting's Ocean Orchestra and is accompanied by footage from the film Ithaca.

Incidentally, the Festival at the Edge was founded by the late Richard Walker, known as "Mogsy" in storytelling circles. He was also the founder of the Malcolm Saville Society, but when I first met him at a storytelling evening at a pub in Leicester, I did not know of this shared enthusiasm.

BritBlog Roundup 184

Take a trip to Amused Cynicism.

Vince Cable admires a bull's testicles

Vince Cable contributes the My Week feature in today's Observer:
As I struggle to get my head round collateralised debt obligations, peak oil theory and the real, effective dollar exchange rate, it is an occasional relief to be summoned from my work to admire the bull's testicles...

Nick Clegg and the silent comedians

I am probably the last person entitled to complain, but I can't help noticing that Nick Clegg is given to drawing badly outdated comic parallels.

On Friday he said:
"Charlie Chaplin could do a better job running the Home Office than this Labour Government."
And on Saturday it was:
"Frankly the Keystone Cops would do a better job running the Home Office and keeping our data safe than this government, and if this government cannot keep the data of thousands of guilty people safe, why on earth should we give them the data of millions of innocent people in an ID card database?"
At least "frankly" is of more recent vintage. It was Paddy Ashdown's catchphrase in the 1990s.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Friday, August 22, 2008

What is the defintion of beach volleyball?

Baywatch with medals.

Not original: I read this somewhere once, but it does not appear to be on the net.

David McKie is like this is a better way of writing reported speech

I'm watching a repeat of Armstrong and Miller and shit. And it has reminded me of brilliant column David McKie wrote a couple of weeks ago:

So, far from being an exercise in the slovenly, "I was, like ...", I am now persuaded, is a demonstration of rigour. What the speaker who uses this formula is essentially saying is: "I cannot vouchsafe beyond peradventure that the information with which I am about to present you is truly authentic; but here at least is the essence of what I believe I averred at the time."

What a shame that it is now too late to acquaint Lord Macaulay with this valuable usage. It might have transformed his historiography. It would certainly have radically altered his epic poetry.

He may have been safe enough in asserting that Lars Porsena of Clusium swore by the nine gods that the great house of Tarquin should suffer wrong no more. But soon he goes on to claim: "Then out spake brave Horatius, / The Captain of the gate: / "To every man upon this earth / Death cometh soon or late. / And how can man die better / Than facing fearful odds, / For the ashes of his father / And the temples of his gods?".

Yet these noble sentiments are unlikely to have been noted down by some passing reporter. "Then brave Horatius was, like ..." would surely have served posterity better.

If Tessa Jowell doesn't like a free press she should stay in China

From the Guardian:
The Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, today criticised the British media for running too many negative stories about China that failed to recognise the progress the country had made.

"You can get big headlines back home for slating the repressive regime - and there are some aspects that that are profoundly repressive - but there is a great risk of going too far," she warned in an interview with the Guardian.
The paper's website has a video of her saying it.

Meanwhile in Tibet:

a picture is emerging from various sources of Tibet as a country in lockdown. The Free Tibet campaign has provided a briefing detailing huge military build-ups in many areas of Tibet, with checkpoints on almost every corner and early evening curfews imposed. Undercover Channel 4 footage has shown snipers positioned on rooftops in Lhasa.

Respected China analyst Willy Lam today suggests the Chinese regime's pre-Olympics security build-up has been planned to enable a major crackdown on dissent after the games are over.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Scots Lib Dem leadership election: It's a three-horse race

Those of us observing this contest from south of the border have got the impression that is is a shoo-in for Tavish Scott over Mike Rumbles and Ross Finnie.

But The Scotsman suggests the situation may not be so simple:

Insiders say it is unlikely any of the candidates will get the 50 per cent of votes needed to win on the first count, which means the person with the fewest votes will drop out and his supporters' second preferences will prove crucial. The Finnie and Rumbles camps say there is still the possibility of a surprise outcome.

One source says: "If it had just been Mike against Tavish, it would have been the same result as last time – but Ross entering the race turned it into a real three-way competition."

In my experience second preferences rarely make such a difference, particularly in elections with so few stages. But let's go on with the gossip:

Sources say Mr Scott was less than pleased when he discovered Mr Finnie was standing against him. Mr Finnie is the Lib Dems' most senior ex-minister, having served in Cabinet for the full eight years of the Labour-Lib Dem coalition, and in the same post, where he won praise for his handling of Scotland's foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Mr Finnie's campaign theme has been the importance of traditional Liberal values of individual freedom and civil liberties.

Oh yes, and Ross Finnie is known as "Captain Mainwaring" because of his resemblance to the Dad's Army character.

Nick Clegg has super powers

As James Graham illustrates.

Who's Who in the Liberal Democrats

Jo Christie-Smith is inviting entries for the new edition of Who's Who in the Liberal Democrats:

Who’s Who in the Lib Dems is not just for Parliamentarians and the great and the good, they are already covered in the Lib Dems website (and even better on the new Lib Dem website that will be coming soon and I’ve had a sneak preview of). No, Who’s Who in the Lib Dems is also for the rest of us, who whilst happy to do our bit and deliver focuses, would like the rest of the party to know that we can do more than that and our experience, skills and knowledge outside the party may be of use, if only somebody would listen!

Well, here at Who’s Who in the Lib Dems online, we’re listening. So please, add an entry, whether you’re a parliamentarian, a member of staff, a councillor, a party office, a blogger, an activist or a member who wants to stand up and be counted.

There is no charge but - not unreasonably - you have to be a Lib Dem member.

It is a great book. I like it so much that I have two entries.


I am sure you are all familiar with I Can Has Cheezburger, but this is a particularly fine example.

Those with a philosophical bent may enjoy the Ontologikewl Proof of Ceiling Cat:
Saentcat Anselm was liek Iz gotsa ideah of dis gr8test catbeing. Mai ideah of Ceiling Cat tis in mai miend. Ceiling Cat can bea realz. Srsly. Buttz ifs Ceiling Catz oenly plaeyin in mah hed and maibemietof existead den Ceiling Cat miet has bean moar pwnzor den he rlly is!! Oh noes!! Cuz den Ceiling Catz bigger in mah head den Ceiling Cat is fer realz! Airgoe, dis Ceiling Cat is moar grater den dat Ceiling Cat. Butz den, Saentcat Anselm was liek: "haha, I pwnzor uz catz wifout daeiteyz wif mah reduktshio add ubserdom!" Ceiling Cat can noe be bigger den anything else! Therefoars Ceiling Cat is in mah head ans in teh reelallities! Srsly!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Andrew Phillips and the Sudbury hum

"If someone had said to me a spacecraft had landed on the meadows last night I would have said 'well I heard it'."
More on the BBC Suffolk pages.

Later. And also in the East Anglian Daily Times.

The Great Snailbeach Railway Mystery

In the past I have reported two stories about the Snailbeach District Railways. The first said that there were plans to reopen the line. The second said that two of the scheme's prime movers had died in a car crash in Switzerland.

Both these reports were from the Shropshire Star, so I reasoned that they must be true.

But people have left comments on both postings suggesting the scheme is a hoax or a fantasy. One of those messages directed readers to a Yahoo group (SnailbeachOversight) devoted to this theory.

Intriguing. Liberal England will investigate further.

In the mean time, read the history of the line at the Colonel Stephens Railway Museum. And thanks to Secret Shropshire for the photograph, which shows the line gently decaying in 1961.

Auditors: Scottish Lib Dems "not a going concern"

An alarming story from The Herald:

Scottish Liberal Democrats have been warned by their auditors that they may be forced out of business if they do not tackle their financial debts.

The party has been told it may be deemed, in accounting terms, to be no longer a going concern, after nearly a tenth of its expenditure last year was not met by income.

The newspaper goes on to say:

In the Scottish LibDem case, expenditure reached £766,000, and the deficit ran to nearly £75,000. Liabilities exceeded assets by £22,131.

The auditor, PFF (UK), concluded that it could sign off last year's accounts as a true and fair view of the Scottish LibDem finances, but warned that the deficit conditions "indicate the existence of a material unceratinty which may cast significant doubt about the party's ability to continue as a going concern".

But, as the Herald points out, other Scottish parties are equally precariously placed but have not received such warnings:

At the end of last year the SNP assets outstripped its liabilities by £585,000, and after raising more than £2.5m to run the party and its election campaigns, its overspend on the year was £241,000.

Scottish Labour's finances are closely tied up with Labour in London, which pays almost all the Scottish salary bill. While the Glasgow office ran a small surplus, London headquarters has debts of £18.9m - down from £25m the previous year.

One is reminded of the work of the poet Ewan McTeagle:

Oh gie me a shillin' for some fags
and I'll pay yer back on Thursday,
but if you wait till Saturday
I'm expecting a divvy from the Harpenden Building Society

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Olympic success is great but it will not change society

I love it when British sports teams do well. We all love it when British teams do well. But it does not change society.

Winning the 2003 rugby union world cup and regaining the Ashes did not change society. In fact they have barely changed rugby or cricket.

So while I have been enjoying our extraordinary success in Beijing, I do not have much time for arguments like this:

The Olympics ... provoke children, and adults, into running, swimming, cycling, jumping and rowing. They give the ordinary heroes, and draw us a little way after them. They remind us what hard work, dedication and skill can do. They provide stories about heartache and bravery - Paula Radcliffe - and giving something back - Kelly Holmes. And by doing that, they change millions of people's lives far away from grand stadiums.

Take, for instance, the ludicrous and offensive suggestion that overweight children should be taken into care because obesity is a form of "child abuse". (If it is, then removing children from their parents is a worse one.) The real way to fight child obesity is through food education, yes, but also sport.

Looking around at all the lean kids in coloured shirts, even I can see that Manchester United or Liverpool do more to stop British boys being too fat than any government programme.

What the glamour of football does for millions of boys needs to be matched for other boys, and for girls.

It comes from an article in the Guardian by Jackie Ashley: "The Olympian feats can inspire our obese nation."

Let's take the author back in a time machine to the mid 1980s. It is a land where Ian Botham and David Gower are bigger names than any footballer. The Premiership is years away and far fewer kids wear football shirts. Yet there are many more lean kids around than in 2008.

Which suggests that whatever regulates how many obese children there are, it is not the popularity of our leading football clubs.

Sport these days is big business - it is hard not to agree with David Mitchell observation (on Mock the Week a few days ago) that we are very good at sports that African men are too poor to enter. If current trends continue, in 10 years' time the Premiership will by played out entirely by African youths for the benefit of obese British crowds.

What used to make British kids lean was not organised team games but unsupervised play. So it is alarming to read that Newark and Sherwood District Council is planning to fine children who play football in the street £100, it is profoundly depressing.

This may be a function of the breakdown of informal policing of children - people no longer feel entitled to tell them to go and play somewhere else, so they phone the police instead - but it is profoundly depressing.

John Major on Neil Kinnock

I have always suspected that John Major will be treated more generously by posterity than he has been by his contemporaries. And I am pleased to see him receiving his share of the credit for Britain's improved performance in the Olympics today.

While we are feeling warm towards him, let me quote an example of his wit (via Danny Finkelstein):
As John Major pricelessly commented, as Kinnock didn't know what he was saying, he never knew when he had finished saying it.
Oh yes.

Steve Winwood on tour

This blog's favourite musician is currently playing in the USA and Canada with his band. He is supporting - and sometimes playing with - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

A member of his crew is writing a blog about the tour.

Universities: Schools for biologically mature children?

In July 2005 Frank Furedi reminisced in the Times Higher Education Supplement:

In 1997, I completed my book The Culture of Fear. Most of the comments my copy editor made about the manuscript were routine questions about grammar, incoherent formulations and inconsistencies. But one of the comments stood out as an explicit challenge to the authenticity of the text. The contentious passage informed the reader of a relatively new development - the arrival of parents on campus. To illustrate the changing character of university life, I pointed to what was then a relatively novel phenomenon: students arriving on campus for their interviews, accompanied by their parents. "This cannot be true," exclaimed my editor.

At first, I was taken aback by her implicit challenge to my integrity. But after we had discussed this issue, I was able to understand where she was coming from. As someone who was an undergraduate in the 1970s, she could not reconcile her experience of a parent-free university with the subsequent changes.

He returned to the same theme today in a BBC report on parents chasing university places through the clearing system on behalf of their children:

Frank Furedi, social commentator and professor of sociology at the University of Kent, says that controlling parents are "destroying the distinction between school and higher education".

"All universities now have to take the parent factor into account. On university open days you can see more parents attending than children," says Professor Furedi.

He says there have been cases of parents who arrive expecting to attend their children's university interviews.

Professor Furedi says that he tells parents that they have to leave, but there are other academics who "accept that this will be a family discussion".

"There is a powerful sense of infantilism, where parents can't let go."

This extends to universities having to handle complaints from parents over grades awarded to students, he says, and a constant over-involvement during term time.

"We have to remind parents that there is a professional relationship between academics and students," he says.

Professor Furedi expects this parental pressure to grow - with the risk of turning universities into "schools for biologically mature children".

It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on just what a change in this. When I went to university in 1978 - and even during the interviews over the year before that - the whole point of the exercise was to strike out on your own and escape the influence of parents and schools. The change that has taken place makes me deeply sceptical when I am informed that young people grow up much faster these days.

James Graham thinks the process happened so long ago that it is hardly worthy of comment. But then he is younger than me.

Incidentally, I am not convinced by James's view that the answer to everything is to change the system so that university applications take place after people know their A level results. This seems to carry the assumption that A level grades are to be the only factor in the offer of a place.

Back in the 1970s I received remarkably generous offers from five good universities despite being armed with no more than a rather ropey set of O level results. That was because they were prepared to interview me and to back their own judgement of my potential. If you leave everything to A level results I am not sure that my equivalent today would be half as well treated.

Government "eco-towns" programme in crisis

From the Public Servant Today site:
The government’s eco-towns plans continue to be blighted by set-backs and protests, according to some reports.
Not only is the promised shortlist of towns now going to be released in 2009 rather than this October – because ministers say they need more time to look at revised applications – but it may be much shorter than originally planned, for a variety of reasons.
The list began with 16 towns but is now said to be down to 10 and could reduce further still. The plans could also be affected by an unexpectedly high level of hostility to the plans from the public and the possibility of legal challenges following accusations that eco-towns bypass traditional planning procedures.
For arguments against development of the Pennbury site in Leicestershire, see my recent article for Comment is Free.

Monday, August 18, 2008

My latest New Statesman column

A new Calder's Comfort Farm can be found on the magazine's website.

It covers Tim Leunig, The Bog Centre, the Telford penguins and Allison Pearson - all subjects that will be familiar to readers of this blog.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Genesis: I Know What I Like in Your Wardrobe

OK so the first minute and a half are silly and pretentious, and the ending is not much better. But in between there is a great song.

And, yes, the long-haired drummer is Phil Collins.

Back in 1974 I was aged 14, and in those days Market Harborough was a town with no branch of W. H. Smith's, let alone a bookshop. Most of my culture came from the charts, but this was the era of glam rock and, though I followed those charts closely, I sensed even then that most of it was crap.

Suddenly there was a single that was different. "I Know What I Like in Your Wardrobe" told me that music could mean more than that.

Over the years, as Peter Gabriel left and Collins became the dominant influence, Genesis degenerated into a middle of the road band. (There is also an interesting social drama in there somewhere: Collins was originally the little man from the village who came to drum for his three Charterhouse-educated bandmates.)

But in their days of playing what Steve Winwood calls "twisted mushroom pixie rock", they really were something special.

BritBlog Roundup 183

The Roundup has a new home this week: Mick Fealty's blog on the Daily Telegraph site.

Charles Kennedy or Paddy Ashdown for Lib Dem President?

Atticus in the Sunday Times leads with the following item this morning:

Lembit Opik, Liberal Democrat MP and official boyfriend to the stars, is campaigning to be party president. Simon Hughes gives up the job later this year and the former lover of one or other of the Cheeky Girls has declared his interest.

He could face stiff competition. There has been talk in Lib Dem circles that Charles Kennedy, former party leader, might run for the job. Now it’s even being whispered that Kennedy’s predecessor, Lord Ashdown, will make a comeback.

Could this be an “Anyone but Lembit” campaign? “I couldn’t possibly comment,” says a senior Lib Dem MP (although not Lembit, obviously).

This blog supports Ros Scott. Goodnight.

Sandy Bruce-Lockhart's Liberal connections

The New Statesman website recently called me "the family historian of British politics". So I would be failing in my duty if I failed to note these connections.

Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, the Conservative politician who died on Thursday, was the great nephew of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart. R. H. Bruce Lockhart (as he is better known) was a British agent in Russia during and after the Revolution and (or so the legend goes) was the lover of Moura Budberg. And she is Nick Clegg's great great aunt.

Better than that, according to R. H. Bruce Lockhart's Wikipedia page he was a friend of the occultist, Aleister Crowley. Crowley was also a friend of Frieda Harris (she painted a set of Tarot cards for him), the wife of Sir Percy Harris. Sir Percy was Liberal MP for Harborough 1916-8 and Bethnal Green South West 1922-45. As was recently revealed, he was also the great grandfather of Matthew Taylor, the current Lib Dem MP for Truro and St Austell.

I wrote about both the Budberg/Clegg and Harris/Taylor connections in a House Points column in March.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Resist the Finlandisation of Georgia

There is a good article on Comment is Free about the situation in Georgia. It is written by Alan Johnson.

It begins:

Finlandisation is back. During the cold war the term described those states which had a formal independence but existed in barely disguised servitude to Moscow. Finland, Jean-Francois Revel noted in his 1983 book. How Democracies Perish, "preserved the inviolability of its territory, what was left of it, and the right to live privately in a non-totalitarian society" but was forbidden to accept Marshall Plan aid, join the EEC or sign trade agreements with Europe. It took its orders from Moscow in foreign policy.

This is the fate Putin (and some in the west) now seek to impose on Georgia. And now, as then, Russia hopes to impose Finlandisation by a mix of hard and soft power.

The hard power comes in the form of tanks and Russia's control of other countries' energy supply.

And the soft power?

That, says Johnson, is supplied these days by the anti-American left. He rightfully takes issue with a shameful article published on Comment is Free on Thursday by Seumas Milne.

Johnson takes fire at Milne here:

The conflict in Georgia "is not a story of Russian aggression, but of US imperial expansion". Georgia is no fledgling democracy to be defended but a "fully-fledged US satellite". Its government came to power in a "western-backed coup" don't you know, and western support for Georgia meant "conflict was only a matter of time". And after all, "'unipolar domination of the world has squeezed the space for genuine self-determination and the return of some counterweight has to be welcome".

Milne here manages something quite extraordinary: he "forgets" the mass escape from the prison house of nations that was only made possible by the collapse of Communism, while supporting the resurgence of an authoritarian Russia as the very means to open up "genuine space for self-determination". Astonishing.

The trouble is that elements of the left in Britain are so consumed with the Bush administration that they will support anyone who opposes it. Even a hard-line Russian government intent on holding its 19th century empire together.

Johnson also links to a valuable article by Ronald D. Asmus in The New Republic which analyses the West's failure to support Georgia.

Next week: Resist the Georgiaisation of Finland.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Russian cyber war on Georgia

From The First Post ("The online daily magazine"):

While Russian tanks rolled into Georgian territory on August 8, a simultaneous 'cyber-attack' was turning Georgia's government web pages into a tangle of broken links.

Malicious technological mischief is something of a feature of Eastern European diplomatic relations. But the scale and, particularly, the timing of this cyber-attack, and the existence of a mysterious 'practice attack' a month earlier, pose important questions about the lead-up to the Russia-Georgian conflict.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A levels: Easier exams and harder-working students

A year ago I wrote about the "annual festival of concern about exam results":

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.

At the time I wrote this I felt rather daring, but I did say:
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.)
It seems I was right. This morning's Guardian has a question and answer piece on the A level results by Polly Curtis which takes just this line. It begins:

Have A-levels got easier?

Research by Durham University suggests that most subjects have got two grades easier over the past two decades - this means an A is the new C grade. The same research revealed marked differences between subjects.

You would not have found that in the Guardian even a year ago.

The article also quotes Alan Smithers, professor of education at the University of Buckingham. He says:
"From the point of view of pupils the exams are harder because they are more competitive. It's not enough to get a pass or a C. You need an A or three As to get into the top university."
Francis Gilbert's piece on his experience of teaching English is also worth reading:

In my quest for good exam grades I encourage pupils to slap down the material that will enable them to meet the assessment objective rather than painstakingly help them craft essays – like I used to.

Since teachers are now judged solely on results by their students, parents and line managers, and their pay is dependent upon this, they would be foolish to teach like they used to.

The net result is that exam grades have risen, but standards have declined.

Liberal England: The Best Bits 2007-8

One of the categories in the Lib Dem Blog Awards is for "The best posting on a Liberal Democrat blog (since 1st September 2007)."

Alex Wilcock has suggested that, to help people make nominations, Lib Dem bloggers choose their favourite posts from their own blogs.

On looking through the last year of this blog, I find it to consist largely of Spencer Davis Group videos, funny stories from the Shropshire Star and posts sending you off to good articles by other people.

Nevertheless, here are half a dozen of my own more political Best Bits:

A message from Prince Charles

"Buy my luxury biscuits or you will all die a horrible death!"

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

That Policy Exchange report: Is Tim Leunig a closet Marxist?

The Tories and the media have missed the big story about Cities Unlimited, the Policy Exchange report on regional development policies. (You can download a PDF copy of it from the think tank's website.)

As James Graham pointed out this morning, the report's lead author Tim Leunig is a Liberal Democrat. Indeed, during my days on the party's federal policy committee he was something of a fixture on that committee's working parties.

Earlier this evening, debating the report with John Prescott on Channel 4 News, Tim said he was not a member of the Conservative or Labour parties - and said no more. He may be an academic, but he is not unworldly.

David Cameron has called Cities Unlimited "insane". My own reaction on reading it is quite different. While I like the idea of selling empty property cheaply to its neighbours and local control of development funds, it seems to me to be based on two quasi-Marxist assumptions. They are:
  • contempt for piecemeal reform;
  • the belief that it is the state's role to forecast how society and the economy will develop and then expedite that development.
Let me explain.

The assumption behind the report seems to be that unless regional development aid can be shown to have reduced regional disparities then it is a waste of time. The argument that it might be worth putting some effort into slowing the increase of those disparities is not even considered. Policy Exchange scorns our bourgeois liberalism: it wants revolution.

And I am puzzled by the idea that Oxford and Cambridge should be vastly expanded. Can government really predict where industry will wish to expand before industry knows itself? If government had made such decisions 25 years ago, just before the implications of information technology began to be realised, they would seem very strange to us now. How can we know that our own decisions will not look equally strange in 25 years' time?

I also wonder if this development might not be self-defeating in that it destroys the quality of life that attracts people to Oxford and Cambridge in the first place. I do not know Oxford well, but Cambridge, which was until recently a small city, has now outgrown its centre. As a result, that centre is now grossly overcrowded and I now rarely visit the place.

Of course, I may be wrong, but my point is that it is not possible for government or anyone else to know such things in advance. Therefore a less ambitious policy, not the Policy Exchange's picking of winners, is indicated.

A market economy is dynamic, and places do rise and fall. Some of the settlements where my Stiperstones lead miners lived have disappeared altogether. And Iflracombe in the late 1980s, a seaside resort abandoned by the railway and by most holidaymakers, is one of the saddest sites I have seen. Every B&B had its price in the window, trying to undercut the establishment next door.

Government cannot prevent such historical movements, but it seems to me it is worth trying to ameliorate their worst effects. And when I see a former mining village like Creswell, I cannot help thinking the fact that the most ambitious and able young people are leaving is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

There is nothing funny about the situation in Georgia

But it was hard not to smile at this item in the Guardian Diary today:

Comprehensive coverage of the crisis developing in the South Ossetia province of Georgia on Sky News - it's just unfortunate that the breaking news service seems to think the war is raging in the US rather than eastern Europe.

"Georgia is a state in the southern United States," reads the ever-so helpful "Background on the Region" section of its "Georgia In Depth" pages. "Georgia was one of the Thirteen Colonies that revolted against British rule in the American Revolution ...

I expect Sky think this is the Georgian national anthem.

Is Statcounter still having problems?

At the end of May, Statcounter - the service I use to tell me who is visiting this blog - went down for a couple of days. But as far as I am concerned it was only for a couple of days and it has worked perfectly since then.

Today a couple of people have left comments on the post I wrote at the time. They say that Statcounter is still not working for them.

Am I lucky or are they unlucky? Someone from Statcounter left a comment on that posting at the time. I think you have some customers who would like to know what is going on, folks.

Telford penguins refuse to be cowed

More news of the climate campaigners who were asked to leave a Telford park after dressing as penguins and handing out leaflets.

That original newspaper report has led to lively exchanges in the comments. My own favourite runs:
How ridiculous! when people have been mugged in Hollinswood and Wellington……… that’s what we need to be monitoring, not innocent people in penguin suits .
Today the Shropshire Star reports:

Environmental campaigners who had dressed as penguins today defied a ban on handing out leaflets without permission in Telford Town Park.

Rachel Whittaker, of Wellington, was thrown out of the park last week after being told she needed permission, a criminal records bureau check and a risk assessment, before she would be allowed to distribute her leaflets on climate change.

But today she risked being ejected again, after deciding to finish giving out the 200 leaflets she has had printed. Joined by campaigner Graham Bunn, of Madeley, the pair vowed to stay until the job was done.

The 34-year-old once again donned a penguin beak and yellow flippers to highlight the plight of penguins and how they are affected by climate change.

Thanks to the Star for the photograph too.

Allison Pearson sued over missing novel

The Guardian reports that Allison Pearson is being sued after accepting an advance for a novel but failing to deliver it:

Miramax Film Corp filed its suit for breach of contract against Pearson on Friday in Manhattan Federal Court, according to Reuters, saying that although Pearson accepted $700,000 in August 2003 under a two-year contract, she has still not delivered the novel.

Miramax also said that Pearson has ignored its requests for information about the book's whereabouts since 2006.

When I was at school with the then Allison Lobbett, she never had any such problems. During mock O levels and then the real thing, if I held up my hand to ask for more paper before she did I knew I was doing really well.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

David Davis's vanity has boosted the enemies of liberty

Dominic Grieve has pledged that the Tories will give the police more unregulated surveillance powers if they win the next election.

After David Davis won his fatuous by-election victory at Haltemprice & Howden, I wrote:

Dominic Grieve, who has taken Davis's job in the Tory shadow cabinet, has an honourable record of fighting for liberty in the Commons. Yet you sense he is a good lawyer who has done the best he can with the brief he has been given. If the balance of power in that shadow cabinet changes or David Cameron changes his mind about where advantage lies, Grieve will argue against liberty just as effectively.

And, of course, Davis's absence from the shadow cabinet makes it more likely that the balance of power will change and that the likes of Liam Fox and Michael Gove, who would feel happier attacking the government for not being Neo Con enough, will be the decisive influences on Cameron.

And I said more pithily on the New Statesman site:

And what has David Davis achieved by his resignation? If you care about liberty, then shadow home secretary looks quite a useful job to have.

His action looks more and more like an outbreak of the male menopause. He should have bought himself a sports car instead.

It is now clear that Davis's political suicide bombing damaged his career and - far more important - has made it easier for the enemies of liberty in the Conservative Party (a club with a large and thriving membership) to prevail.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

David Cameron's reversion to type will help Lib Dems

The article of the day is John Kampfner's piece about the death of the husky-hugging side of David Cameron. It begins:

These were words to gladden the heart. "Wealth is about so much more than pounds or euros or dollars can ever measure. It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money. It's time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB - general well being." This was David Cameron, 2006 vintage. His speech to the Google Zeitgeist conference suggested a new set of political and economic priorities. He spoke of a "passionate desire for capitalism with commitment". He noted that many companies and ordinary people "are expressing a profound dissatisfaction with rootless, rampaging globalisation".

Fast-forward two years, to the verge of a recession and the fears of knife crime, and what do we hear? Society is broken; more prisons should be built; more people should be denied bail. While the Tories are nowhere near the point of Michael Howard's dog-whistle anti-immigrant pitch of 2005, they are slipping back into their political comfort zone. That is a shame for the country, and a lost opportunity for them.
Developments today have shown how right Kampfner's analysis is.

Dominic Grieve, the shadow home secretary, has announced that a Tory government would:

amend the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act so that police no longer need to secure authorisation to conduct surveillance on those suspected of non-terrorist offences.

The changes would mean that the police would automatically be able to:

  • Use covert video or listening devices in premises or vehicles.
  • Watch premises to identify or arrest suspects.
  • Conduct visual surveillance of public locations.
  • Patrol, in uniform or plain clothes.
  • Use thermal imaging and X-ray technology.
  • Conduct surveillance using visible CCTV cameras.
And Simon Milton has defended the actions of councils who use the act to spy on people. He says:
"Generally [the powers] are being used to respond to residents' complaints about fly tippers, rogue traders and those defrauding the council tax or housing benefit system.

"Time and again, these are just the type of crimes that residents tell us that they want to see tackled.

"Without these powers, councils would not be able to provide the level of reassurance and protection local people demand and deserve."
Milton is the person who was put into City Hall by the Tories to act as Boris Johnson's representative on Earth.

All of which confirms the impression that the attractive green, liberal Toryism of David Cameron's first couple of years as leader were no more than an act. The Tories now seem to believe that because Labour is so unpopular they are free to return to what they really believe in.

It may be a tragedy for the country, but it represents an enormous opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. When liberal-minded voters see the Conservatives in their true colours, it will make it far more likely that they will decide to stay with us after all.

In defence of Tom Daley

I feel sorry for Tom Daley. A few months ago we thought it almost miraculous that a 13-year-old could qualify for an Olympic final.

A few months later he is 14, the press has made the mistake of believing its own hype and as a result he is treated as a failure for not having won a medal.

But I did like Sam Wollaston's take on synchronised diving in the Guardian this morning:
It's clear that no one understands the scoring, not even the people doing it. A dive by the German pair gets four and a half out of 10 for execution from one judge, and nine out of 10 from another. And none of the numbers corresponds with what the commentators have just said about the dive. It's basically the Eurovision Song Contest, in Speedos.

Lord Bonkers on the Glorious Twelfth

Or on game shooting at least.

From September 2005:

Nor even does pheasant shooting, where each man arrives with a small army of loaders, valets and cartridge boys, appeal to me.

No, give me the Rutland partridge: shoot at this fellow and he will take cover and fire back. That’s what I call good sport.

Monday, August 11, 2008

In Memoriam: Isaac Hayes

I wasn't going to do this, but I am fed up with people talking about South Park...

Some forgotten recent books for wonks

There is a nice article by James Harkin in The Times today, occasioned by the publicity that Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have been getting for their book Nudge recently.

He writes:

Good for Nudge. But there is a cautionary tale here, and one to which all aspirant salesmen of ideas should pay heed.

Wonkish books occasionally hit the big time but their shelf life is often fitfully brief. How much influence can the authors of Nudge expect to wield in five years' time? Go to any second-hand bookshop and bear humbled witness to the debris of big ideas past, books which merited only a flicker on the attention span of the intelligentsia on their way to the bargain bin.

Take these five examples.

And those examples are:
  • The De-moralization of Society by Gertrude Himmelfarb (1995)
  • Beyond Left and Right by Anthony Giddens (1994)
  • The State We're In by Will Hutton (1995)
  • Connexity by Geoff Mulgan (1997)
  • Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard (2005)

David Aaronovitch trespasses on my manor

Photo by Sabine J Hutchinson

I have written far too much recently about the Stiperstones and its abandoned mines - try the latest Calder's Comfort Farm on the New Statesman site.

It seems I am not the only one who likes them. In Saturday's issue of The Times David Aaronovitch wrote:
I am as captivated by the abandoned cottages and workings of the 18th-century barytes miners beside the Shropshire Stiperstones as I am by the 2,000-year-old white tombs of Turkish Lycia.
I am pleased to hear it, but he is wrong on two counts.

The remains you see today are not from the 18th century but 19th (though you can find the remains of Roman workings a couple of miles away near Shelve).
And they did not mine barytes much here until the 20th century. The remains you see today - notably at Snailbeach - date from the 19th when this part of Shropshire was a great centre of lead mining.
Now read about David Aaronovitch on University Challenge.

BritBlog Roundup 182

Mr Eugenides goes to Beijing.

Of course, it all started in Much Wenlock.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Kinks: Waterloo Sunset

I seem to be stuck in the sixties at the moment, but there are worse places to be. So let's have what in most moods I regard as the best song of the decade. It is timeless yet also, with its references to "Terry and Julie" - usually assumed to be Terence Stamp and Julie Christie - entirely of the period.

The YouTube poster claims this is a live version, but it sounds remarkably like the single to me. But never mind if they are miming - I have always loved the way you think the bass is never quite going to get there in time, but it always does.

And those who say the songs from the shows were better, try listening to "London Pride" after this. It makes the Noel Coward song sound terribly false.

Comment is Free: Vince Cable and local income tax

I have a piece on the Guardian's Comment is Free site about the rumours that Vince Cable is not too keen on replacing the Council Tax with a local income tax:

I was a newly elected Liberal Alliance councillor back in 1986 when the Thatcher government began consulting over the introduction of the poll tax.Conservative members didn't want it phased in over 10 years: they wanted it at once. You could see the pound signs in their eyes as they calculated how much they and their neighbours would save.

As a dutiful Liberal – it was party policy even then – I moved an amendment calling on my council to support a local income tax in its reply to the consultation. After it was voted down, one of the county ladies on the Tory benches came over and asked: "Do you realise why the rates are unpopular? It's because you can't hire a sharp accountant to get you out of them, the way you can with income tax."

She was right, and I have had a soft spot for property taxes ever since.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

A visit to Creswell Crags

Yesterday I visited Creswell Crags on the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border.

As its website says:

Creswell Crags is a limestone gorge honeycombed with caves and smaller fissures. Stone tools and remains of animals found in the caves by archaeologists provide evidence for a fascinating story of life during the last Ice Age between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Further evidence came to light in 2003 with the discovery of Britain's only known Ice Age rock art. Creswell Crags was among the most northerly places on earth to have been visited by our ancient ancestors, a story that is unique on a European and World scale.

Better still, the gorge contains a lake that was constructed for the Dukes of Portland in the 18th century.

A new visitor centre is being constructed at the Crags, but at presently it is a pleasingly underdeveloped attraction despite its archaeological importance. You can go on a guided tour of the caves, but you have to book in advance.

Up until a couple of years ago, a B road ran through the gorge - it must have been one of the more unexpectedly spectacular drives in the country. Now it has been diverted and the authorities have moved a neighbouring sewage farm too.

I travelled there by train. Creswell is on the Robin Hood Line, which runs between Nottingham and Worksop. The train calls at Mansfield, which always used to compete with Corby for the accolade of being the largest town in Britain without a railway station.

The Robin Hood Line was opened after the closure of the area's coal mines in the 1990s. As Wikipedia explains, it is a modern creation made up from the routes of more than one of the Victorian railway companies. It also involved the relaying of track in one place and even the reopening of a tunnel that had been filled with rubble after the line closed.

The way the remains of the mining industry have been planted over is impressive, but this remains a despoiled landscape. Yet, as I wrote after visiting Bolsover Castle, it did not come to the area until late in the 19th century.

Creswell is clearly still suffering from the closure of its mine, which was the site of a disaster in 1950 in which 80 people died (though it was not possible to recover some of the bodies until a year afterwards).
Photo from flickr