Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Wouldn't it be easier for Jacqui Smith to move to North Korea?

The Guardian reports:
The private sector will be asked to manage and run a communications database that will keep track of everyone's calls, emails, texts and internet use under a key option contained in a consultation paper to be published next month by Jacqui Smith, the home secretary.
If that is the sort of society she wants to live in, the sooner she fucks off to Pyongyang the better.

And that's swearing.

The next Britblog Roundup

It will be hosted here at Liberal England and should go live on Sunday evening.

If you see any British blog postings you think particularly fine this week - including ones on your own blog - just send the links to britblog [at] gmail [dot] com by Sunday lunchtime and I will do the rest.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Escaped beaver menaces Cornwall

Metro reports:

A search is under way to try and recover a beaver which escaped from a farm and is now felling trees, a conservationist said today.

The six-stone animal managed to escape from Upcott Grange Farm in Lifton, Devon, and is now believed to be taking down trees 20 miles away on the banks of the River Tamar near Gunnislake, Cornwall.

Nick Clegg's new year message

Inspired by Peter Black, I am doing my party loyalist thing.

Britblog Roundup 202

Hosted this week by A Very British Dude.

Monday, December 29, 2008

"O Come All Ye Faithful" and Bonnie Prince Charlie

One of the more interesting Christmas-related stories this year was the claim that the hymn "O Come All Ye Faithful" was a coded rallying call for the Jacobites.

The Latin "Adeste Fidelis" was written by John Francis Wade, an English Catholic who fled the country after the failed 1745 rebellion, and it was not translated into English until 1841.

The Daily Telegraph quoted Professor Bennett Zon from Durham as saying:

"There is far more to this beloved song than meets the eye.

"Fideles is Faithful Catholic Jacobites. Bethlehem is a common Jacobite cipher for England, and Regem Angelorum is a well-known pun on Angelorum, angels, and Anglorum, English.

"The meaning of the Christmas carol is clear: 'Come and Behold Him, Born the King of Angels' really means, 'Come and Behold Him, Born the King of the English' - Bonnie Prince Charlie!" ...

The Jacobite meaning of the carol gradually faded with the cause.

"Adeste Fideles seems to have lost its Jacobite meanings not long after Wade's last published book in 1773," said Prof Zon

I mentioned this story to my mother the other day. She said that her own mother, an East Anglian from good Dissenting stock, had always regarded "O Come All Ye Faithful" as a Catholic hymn and disliked it as a result.

So maybe its origins were forgotten more recently than Professor Zon believes.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Traffic: John Barleycorn Must Die

A wonderful folk song which at once points out the futility of Prohibition, explains how beer is made and hints at cult whereby the king must die to promote the fertility of the land:
And little Sir John's in the nut-brown bowl,
And he’s brandy in the glass;
And little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl,
Proved the strongest man at last.

The huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox,
Nor so loudly to blow his horn,
And the tinker he can’t mend kettle nor pots,
Without a little barleycorn.
John Barleycorn Must Die exists in many versions: this one was brought to Traffic by their flautist Chris Wood after he heard it sung by Mike Waterson.

This video was recorded live at Santa Monica in 1972 and the song is also the title track of Traffic's greatest LP.

The Liberal England year - part 2

Yesterday we got as far as June.


Jeremy Thorpe called for the assassination of Robert Mugabe and Nick Clegg proved to be cooler than Gordon Brown or David Cameron.

On holiday in Shropshire I visited The Bog and was reminded of Lady Allen of Hurtwood and the 1948 Children Act.


I was sceptical of reports of Uighur terrorism on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, missing children were all over the newspapers and Lord Bonkers mourned the breaking of Lembit's engagement.


Telford & Wrekin took it into its head to stop and question single people found in its parks - a story this blog did something to bring to the attention of the national media.

I mourned the decline of map-reading and, unlike the Guardian, refused to pass lightly over Alistair Darling's Trotskyite past.


I celebrated the wisdom of J. W. "Paddy" Logan, Liberal MP for Harborough in the good old days, and discovered that a priceless Liberal relic had fallen into enemy hands.

I also questioned the future of the BBC licence fee a few days before Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand did their best to shorten its life.


This month I became a tad irritated, interviewed Nick Clegg and insisted that the death of Baby P (Peter, to give him his proper name) was a political matter.


Mr Speaker Martin was contrasted unfavourably with one of his predecessors.

I mourned Oliver Postgate and Conor Cruise O'Brien, and defended innuendo.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Harold Pinter and Eartha Kitt

Lord Bonkers remembers two outstanding figures who passed this Christmas:

Pinter was, to my mind, the pre-eminent dramatist of his day, even if he was often poorly served by the productions that were mounted of his plays. I remember, in particular, attending an early staging of The Birthday Party: the long and regular pauses between lines made it all too clear that the cast had not troubled to learn their lines.

Eartha Kitt was Tremendous Fun and The Best Sort Of American Girl. One of my great regrets (particularly as I financed the thing) is that her tour in Pinter's The Caretaker - it was cleverly renamed The Carrretakerrr at my insistence - proved a limited success with the theatre-going public.

The Liberal England year - part 1

It's time for a look back at some of the stories that have preoccupied me over the past 12 months.


The year began with the unwelcome news that the old Tory Party was alive and well.

For some reason I became very exercised by the fact that a funeral had been held at a Leicestershire school while lessons were in progress. I also discovered that two prominent 20th-century figures had been in the same class as boys. ("Hitler and Wittgenstein, I might have known.")

And Bobby Fischer reached the eight rank and was promoted to better things.


I attacked plans for a Leicestershire "eco-town" in a House Points column and wrote a posting arguing that Britain in the 1960s was a far more tolerant place that the USA.

I also argued (as an atheist) against the disestablishment of the Church of England.


One of the questions more mainstream journalists should have asked was why there were so many children in care on Jersey.

I remembered two forgotten TV series: Gophers! and 1990.

And we all discovered that Matthew Taylor's great-grandfather was the Liberal MP for Harborough.


Isn't that Enoch Powell on a pogo stick?

The press woke up to the fact that armed foreign police may patrol London during 2012 Olympics.

And one of my New Statesman columns pointed out the perils of taking your fox up the aisle.


Three popular Basils of the 1970s were featured and I told the National Association of Head Teachers to see me afterwards.

Locations visited included Coventry Cathedral and the tomb of John Stuart Mill.


I asked if the Lib Dems should love-bomb David Cameron and certainly thought we should have stood against David Davis in his self-inflicted by-election.

Then you could have joined me on an exploration of the area around St Pancras International.

Part 2 tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

"Ring Solstice Bells" by Jethro Tull.

Back soon.

Why we dream of a white Christmas

Why is snow so firmly established in our ideal Christmas when there have been only seven white Christmases since 1900?

It is all down to Charles Dickens.

The Daily Telegraph quotes a Canadian professor as saying:
"The whole of A Christmas Carol is really an invocation of his childhood Christmases with his family before his father fell into debt and was sent to the debtors' prison.

"A Christmas Carol made Christmas respectable for the English bourgeoisie, who had come to regard it as somewhat antiquated."
And what were those early Christmases like for Dickens?

The Telegraph says:

A decade of unusually cold weather during his childhood may have influenced his description of Britons "scraping the snow from the pavements in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses" on Christmas morning despite the statistical probability of a grey winter day like any other.

Six of Dickens's first nine Christmases were white, including one in the winter of 1813-14 during which the ice on the River Thames was thick enough to bear the weight of an elephant

Whether they tested this with a real elephant is not disclosed.

David Cameron needs a Willie with bottom

At least that is the argument of Geoffrey Wheatcroft in the Guardian today:
The Tories nowadays are very short of decent old buffers of the Willie Whitelaw kind, men with what used to be called bottom, possessed not necessarily of ferocious intellect but at least of a certain judgment, and the commonsense instinct that can spot a wrong 'un.
The concept of "bottom" is the subject of a chapter in T. H. White's The Age of Scandal:
In the eighteenth century, but particularly under the Regency, a gentleman was expected to have "bottom". It was a word of composite meaning, which implied stability, and also what the twentieth century calls "guts". It meant being able to keep one's head in emergencies, and, in a financial sense, that one was backed by capital, instead of being an adventurer.

Bottom, in fact, was synonymous with courage, coolness, and solidity. The metaphor was derived from ships.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

John Howard Davies and Oliver Twist

This morning BBC Radio 4 broadcast the fourth and final programme in its I Was... series: I Was... David Lean's Boy Star. In it John Howard Davies gave his memories of starring as Oliver Twist in Lean's 1948 film of the novel. You can listen to it on the BBC iPlayer for the next week.

Years before I had a blog I wrote an article on Oliver Twist. In it I said that, while the workhouse boys in Oliver! are obviously stage school brats, those in Lean's film look as though they would eat you given half a chance.

Davies confirmed this was pretty much the case. Describing the scene in which the boys peer through the window at the workhouse board enjoying a banquet, he said that in 1948 none of the child actors had ever seen a meal like that in real life.

John Howard Davies
grew up to enjoy a distinguished career as a director of television comedy, including Monty Python, The Good Life and Fawlty Towers.

Happy birthday Southwell Minster

The website of England's least-known cathedral says:
A year of Celebrations for the 900th anniversary of Southwell Minster has helped boost visitor numbers, with some 90,000 people visiting the cathedral over the past 10 months – which is 20,000 up on last year.

Another page on the site explains:
Southwell is a small Nottinghamshire market town. It has many attractive Georgian houses and is dwarfed by the Minster. It also has strong Civil War connections: Charles I spent his last night of freedom at the Saracen’s Head Hotel.

Other distinguished figures such as Edward Cludd, who saved the Minster during the Civil War, Lord Byron and Cardinal Wolsey have lived in the town. It is also the ‘birthplace’ of the famous Bramley Apple.

Lord Spudulike a victim of Bernie Madoff

Anthony Jacobs, who recently left the Liberal Democrats over our taxation policy, has revealed that he was taken in by the America fraudster.

According to the website thisismoney, Jacobs:
declined to put a figure on the amount but said: 'It's not peanuts," reflecting the fact that Madoff demanded at least $1m from his wealthy clients and encouraged them to invest $10m or more.
He also said Madoff:
"was obviously very wealthy but he didn't live high on the hog. I used to see him and we'd chat. he seemed like a very nice guy."
This article gives an insight into Madoff's modus operandi. It also says Lord Jacobs is thought to have given the Liberals and Lib Dems more than £1m over the past 20 years.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Time for another lolcat

Well, it is Christmas.

Thanks to Tim Worstall for the idea.

An end to anti-intellectualism in politics?

Writing on The Daily Beast, Peter Beinart suggests that anti-intellectualism - first deployed by Richard Nixon and perfected by Ronald Reagan - may no longer be a powerful weapon for the Republicans:
But if Reagan burnished the anti-intellectual brand, Bush has now wrecked it. Sometime between the catastrophe in Iraq, the catastrophe in New Orleans and the catastrophe on Wall Street, Americans decided that people who didn’t know much about government weren’t likely to run it very well.

Back in 2000, when Bush stumbled and fumbled his way through interviews and debates, his approval ratings stayed high. When Sarah Palin did the same this year, however, her popularity sunk like a stone. In September and October, when John McCain couldn’t talk fluently about the financial crisis, his campaign crashed and burned.

Britblog Roundup 201

This week with Amused Cynicism.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Alan Price Set: Simon Smith and his Amazing Dancing Bear

Earlier this week I came across a paper by a psychologist called Simon Smith and I have been thinking of this song ever since.

We last saw Alan Price as the keyboard player with The Animals, a band which was formed as The Alan Price Rhythm and Blues Combo. He left them in 1965 (the reasons are discussed on Price's own website) to form The Alan Price Set.

This song reached number 4 in 1967, and I just about remember it from the time. It was written by Randy Newman - Youtube has a video of him performing the song himself.

Looking at the video today you can see why Lindsay Anderson later asked Price to write the music for (and briefly appear in) O Lucky Man! His smile and whole performance - guileless yet somehow knowing - are reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell in that film. Note too the pleasing satirical effect as the applauding musicians become the audience for the bear's performance.

Two other members of the Set are worthy of mention. The trumpet player is the late John Walters, who was for many years John Peel's producer at the BBC. And the tenor saxophonist Steve Gregory went on to play the sax solo on George Michael's "Careless Whisper", which the young people may have heard of.

Price is a public supporter of the Liberal Democrats - or at least he was a few years ago. I once had a phone call from Lib Dem News asking for clarification of some point of parliamentary procedure or electoral law "because Alan Price wants to know".

The general view at Liberator at that time was that the party should ask him to re-record The Animals' We Gotta Get Out of Third Place.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

In defence of innuendo - and against Jonathan Ross

Mark Lawson has a piece in the Guardian today pointing out, no doubt rightly, that the BBC has a far more chequered history than many of its modern critics like to pretend. It wasn't all high Reithian principles until a few years ago.

However, I think he gets it wrong when he argues that there is an equivalence between the excesses of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand and the way that earlier comedians relied upon innuendo "given that previous eras were so much more decorous and sensitive than ours":
The comedian Ronnie Barker, widely eulogised at the time of his death as an innocent family entertainer from whom uncouth youths of today such as Ross and Brand could learn, relied heavily on inventive but relentless sexual innuendo, especially during the spoof news bulletins on The Two Ronnies.
Morecambe and Wise were generally cleaner, with both Eric and Ernie routinely complaining in interviews about peers who resorted to "blue" jokes. But, even their representative sketch about the art world - "My aunt's got a Whistler," boasts Ernie - ends with Eric waggling his glasses and replying, "Now, there's a novelty."
The difference is that Eric and Ernie - or, to be more precise, whoever wrote their script - were showing a wonderful awareness of the possibilities of language. "My aunt's got a Whistler" - an innocent phrase that shows a knowledge of art - is made into something appallingly rude. More than that, it will be rude in a slightly different way to every listener.

By contrast, Jonathan Ross yelling "He fucked your granddaughter!" displays no wit or inventiveness at all. It is worth noting, however, that what is really objectionable here is not the obscenity but Ross's eagerness to let his listeners know that he is friends with the stars and knows all their secrets. Basically, he needs to grow up.

Verbal comedy often involves saying one thing but meaning something else. For that reason, it flourishes when there are things that cannot be said.

Take the wonderful screenplay for Kinds Heats and Coronets. When Louis says to Lionel:
You're a lucky man, Lionel, take my word for it.
he is telling us that he has slept with Sibella (Lionel's bride) the night before the wedding.

And then this exchange:
Louis: How did you enjoy your honeymoon?
Sibella: Not at all.
Louis: Not at all?
Sibella: Not at all.
tells us that Lionel and Sibella's marriage was not consummated on honeymoon.

Even the film's ending contradicts the moral rule of its day: Louis gets away with his crimes if you want him to. Incidentally, Screenonline suggests that this Kind Hearts and Coronets is another British film of the 1940s that was too racy for the America censors. The ending had to be recut to show Louis's memoirs in the hands of the prison governor.

I seem to be arguing myself into an uncomfortable position for a Liberal - than censorship encourages creativity. So let's just attack Jonathan Ross's huge salary from the BBC again and leave it at that.

Conor Cruise O'Brien and Edmund Burke

The newspapers have all carried respectful obituaries Conor Cruise O'Brien - the Daily Telegraph is a good example. The Guardian website, characteristically, has a piece attacking him for not sharing that paper's views. It is written by Roy Greenslade.

My own debt to O'Brien is for Edmund Burke - an abridged version of his book The Great Melody: A Thematic Biography and Commented Anthology of Edmund Burke.

Burke is often claimed by English Conservatives as their intellectual ancestor, but that suggests they do not know much about him. As Christopher Hitchens has said:
Edmund Burke was neither an Englishman nor a Tory. He was an Irishman, probably a Catholic Irishman at that (even if perhaps a secret sympathizer), and for the greater part of his life he upheld the more liberal principles of the Whig faction.
He was an advanced opponent of the slave trade, whose "Sketch of a Negro Code" was written in the early 1780s, and who before that had opposed the seating of American slaveholders at Westminster. His epic parliamentary campaign for the impeachment of Warren Hastings and the arraignment of the East India Company was the finest example in its day of a battle against pelf and perks and privilege.
More than that, Burke supported the American revolutionaries and was for many years the great political ally and intellectual support of the Whig leader Charles James Fox. They fell out after the French Revolution, which Burke condemned while Fox insouciantly looked forward to its spreading to Britain. That falling out took place, very publicly, during a Commons debate, and O'Brien description of the exchanges is memorable.

Burke's defection from the Whig campaign has generally been seen as apostasy, but O'Brien argues that Burke was consistent because of his Catholicism (or at least his Catholic sympathies). He sided with the Whigs because of their support for religious toleration, but joined the Tories because of the Jacobins anti-clericism.

Whatever the truth of this, one important fact stands out. Burke was right and Fox was wrong.

I had always assumed that Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France was written as a response to French Revolutionary terror. In fact it was published in 1790, before the blood began to flow and when much English Whig opinion, like Fox, were broadly sympathetic to the Revolutionaries and their aims.

Burke's foresight - his realisation that terror would come in the wake of revolution - reminds me of the way that anarchist thinkers like Bakunin realised the dictatorship inherent in Marx's call for proletarian revolution.

British Liberals probably feel an instinctive sympathy for the French Revolution, but we should not forget that Karl Popper and Isiah Berlin, perhaps the greatest Liberal philosophers of the 20th century, were both profoundly anti-revolutionary thinkers.

Anyway, read O'Brien and read Burke. Hitchens quotes the unimpeachably radical William Hazlitt as saying:
It has always been with me a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.
Later. And read Lib Dem blogger Iain Sharpe too. He takes a similar line on reclaiming Burke from the Tories.

Cat of the Day

Well done, Mossey.

According to the Leicester Mercury:
The 18-month-old tabby was discovered in a village near Melton, almost 20 miles away from the Braunstone Town home she disappeared from more than a month ago.

Friday, December 19, 2008

House Points: Saving the pub

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. Like Nick Clegg, I would support a minimum price for alcohol.

It's your round

Did you see the match last night?

No, but I did hear Greg Mulholland the other day. He said:

The government needs to wake up to the importance of the pub … Whenever a pub is proposed to go to a different use, be closed or demolished, the local community needs to be consulted.

At the end of the day, who owns the pub? Legally it's the pub operating company or the landlord. But morally, surely, a community, a village owns a pub that's been there for hundreds of years.

This is it.

People talk about introducing a continental cafe culture to Britain where people treat alcohol with respect. But we used to have something close to that in the traditional pub. At the very least, being able to hold your drink was a quality to be admired.

Yeah, but it’s the kids, isn’t it?

The traditional pub was a patriarchal space, it is true. But in their haste to condemn patriarchy, the feminists…

Keep your head down, the landlady is looking at us.

…failed to reflect that patriarchy involved older men controlling younger men. We have lost that.
And why do people worry about underage drinking in pubs? You and I began going into pubs when we were 16. We drank beer and as long as we behaved ourselves no one took much notice. Today’s 16-year-olds are drinking vodka in bus shelters. Is that really better?

Well, it’s the supermarkets, isn’t it?

It is. The state is loading more and more duty on to drinks bought in pubs while the supermarkets are using alcohol as a loss leader. Should government act, say by enforcing a minimum price?

Jacqui Smith was asked about this on Monday. She said that, given the current economic climate in particular, she does not intend to do so at the moment. But she has not ruled it out for the future.

It’s an interesting dilemma for Liberals. Do we stand up for the right to buy and sell freely, or do we take a wider view of human well-being that involves the flourishing of institutions like public houses?

Fancy another?

Don’t mind if… Oh look, we’ve cleared the bar.

An important poll we should all take part in

It is currently to be found in the right-hand column of James Graham's Quaequam Blog!

Which is your favourite Oliver Postgate series?

Chris Davies has a blog

The thoughts of the sometimes, er, outspoken Liberal Democrat MEP can be found here.

Thanks to Irfan Ahmed.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Derek Draper hosts Labour blogging breakfast

Back in September I reported that Labour's Derek Draper was exploring plans for an online rapid rebuttal unit to kill off damaging stories circulating in the blogosphere.

Now, according to Guido Fawkes, he has raised his ambitions:

Tomorrow morning Derek Draper is convening a "New Media Breakfast" meeting with dozens of Labour bloggers and New Media types to hear from Blue State Digital how Labour can use the internet to win the next election. Blue State Digital are the people that did Obama's online stuff - rather well.
Guido also claims to have the list of attenders. Among them is Sunny Hundal - the moving spirit of Liberal Conspiracy and one of the judges of this year's Lib Dem blog awards.


Jo Grimond and Brief Encounter

The Times has an article today to mark the centenary of the birth of the actress Celia Johnson. It is written by her daughter Kate Grimond.


Yes, it turns out that she is married to Johnnie Grimond, the middle child of the Liberal leader. There are more family details - including names like Ian Fleming and Helena Bonham Carter - on the IMDB entry for Kate Grimond.

Two Tory councillors resign from Telford & Wrekin group

Telford & Wrekin councillors Denis Allen and George Ashcroft have today resigned the Conservative whip. Their action follows a "significant deterioration in the working relationship between them and the leader of the Conservative group at Telford & Wrekin".

Telford & Wrekin Council Watch has all the details.

The Conservative-run council became notorious earlier this year for harassing innocent penguins and questioning single people found in the town's parks.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

ASBO chief arrested for violent disorder

The BBC reports:
Nottingham's chief anti-social behaviour officer has been arrested over an incident of "violent disorder".

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Kettering Town shirt sponsor in Hamas row

It's been a bad day for Northamptonshire football clubs.

Yesterday afternoon Desborough Town's ground burnt down. According to the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph, "Police shut off Braybrooke Road and Harborough Road as fire crews worked to put out the blaze." Certainly, it was the only subject of conversation when I bought a coffee on Market Harborough railway station this morning.

Now Mr Eugenides points us to a report from the Daily Telegraph:

Kettering Town chairman Imraan Ladak is to return a business award given to him by Lloyds TSB after the bank terminated the banking facilities of the non-League club's shirt sponsors, Interpal, a charitable organisation who distribute aid in the Palestinian territories.

Interpal have been told they must find alternative banking in January after Lloyds reportedly instructed the Islamic Bank of Britain (IBB) to close the charity's account. Interpal have been given no explanation, although it is believed that their background – they are under investigation by the UK Charity Commission for "indirect" links to the Palestinian militant organisation Hamas – is at the root of the matter.

The Interpal website see things very differently.

Kettering Town have lately been eclipsed by the rise and fall of neighbouring Rushden and Diamonds, but in the 1990s they regularly threatened to gain promotion to the Football League. They had a habit of leading the Conference by several points at Christmas, only to fall apart in the new year.

More recently they have been involved with, er, colourful characters like Paul Gascoigne and Ron Atkinson.

I have to correct Mr Eugenides on one point of Northamptonshire geography, however. He writes:
one may reasonably ask what the hell Interpal ... are doing sponsoring Kettering Town anyway; granted, Kettering town centre may look like the fucking Gaza strip...
No, that's Corby.

Why the Lib Dems should continue to oppose tuition fees

A couple of weeks ago there was a debate on tuition fees. Julian Astle said the Lib Dems should abandon their pledge to do away with tuition fees. Paul Holmes said we should keep it.

I am on Paul Holmes's side and a brilliant article by Jeffrey J. Williams in the American Dissent Magazine has helped crystallise my views. He draws a parallel between the burden of debt that is placed upon students from modest backgrounds and the system of indentured labour that existed in colonial America.

Read him:
One of the goals of the planners of the modern U.S. university system after the Second World War was to displace what they saw as an aristocracy that had become entrenched at elite schools; instead they promoted equal opportunity in order to build America through its best talent. The rising tide of student debt reinforces rather than dissolves the discriminations of class, counteracting the meritocracy.
Although it seems as if it crept up on us, student-loan indebtedness is not an accident but a policy. It is a bad policy, corrupting the goals of higher education. The world we inhabit is a good one if you are in the fortunate third without debt, but not nearly so good if you live under its weight. Student debt produces inequality and overtaxes our talent for short-term, private gain. As a policy, we can and should change it.

Pleasing Trivial Fact of the Day

According to her Times obituary, the late Kathy Staff was born Minnie Higginbottom.

Vince Cable: Gangsters and ballroom dancing

Andy McSmith has written a substantial profile of everyone's favourite Lib Dem for the Independent:

His explanation of his success is simple and humble – what else would you expect from Cable? "I think it's partly luck. I happen to have built up a fairly good reputation in economic matters at a time when this became the big issue of the day. Most of that time, people weren't very interested in economic policy, quite frankly.

"The other thing that has worked is that I did anticipate a lot of the problems we are now facing. I was involved in the campaign against the demutualisation of the building societies. Ten years later, we are seeing the effect.

"And I did, a lot, in Parliament, point out the instability of the banks. In 2003, I raised with Gordon Brown the issue around the very rapid growth of British household debt and the bubble in house prices. He swatted all this away at the time. In retrospect, this was the right thing to have said."

In other words, when other politicians were chasing issues where there were votes to be had, Vince Cable was quietly beavering away on a dull, difficult but vitally important subject, on which he has been proved right. He calls it "luck". Others might say that it was hard work and good judgement. It's a shame that there are not more people in Parliament like him.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Nick Clegg: Why I am a Liberal

Nick Clegg gave a speech to the think tank Demos earlier today.

You can read the whole thing on the party website or enjoy the edited higlights at Lib Dem Voice:

A liberal believes in the raucous, unpredictable capacity of people to take decisions about their own lives. A Socialist believes in the ordered, controlled capacity of the state to take the right decisions about other peoples’ lives.

A liberal believes a progressive society is distinguished by aspiration, creativity and non conformity. A Socialist believes a progressive society is characterised by enlightened top-down Government.

Journeys magazine: The Robin Hood Line

Should you find yourself travelling on East Midlands Trains, why not pick up a copy of their free magazine Journeys? The Winter 2008 issue contains a short article by (hem, hem) me on the Robin Hood Line (that's Nottingham to Worksop).

It mostly looks at Newstead Abbey (where Lord Byron lived) and Creswell Crags.

Camley Street Natural Park

I have a new article on the New Statesman website about Camley Street Natural Park:
Into two acres beside the Regent’s Canal are packed ponds, wetlands, woodland and open grassed areas. Within them you will find kingfishers, reed warblers, reed buntings, rare fungi and a teeming variety of insect life. Geese, mallards, coots and herons make regular visits, while the cutting of the grass is subcontracted to the park’s resident rabbits Coco, Patch and Merlin.

Jo Swinson on the male dominance of the Commons

Saturday saw the 90th anniversary of the first general election at which some women were able to vote. marked the occasion with a feature on women in politics.

In it Jo Swinson made a good point about the effect that the male dominance of Westminster has on debate there:

Swinson cites the response to Nick Clegg's performance during this week's prime minister's questions as an example. Clegg got up to ask about a single mother who came to his surgery as an example of lower-income groups facing criminal penalties for being unable to pay back money given to them mistakenly in tax credits. He probably wasn't thinking about the interview he gave to Piers Morgan nearly a year ago in which he admitted sleeping with about 30 women. MPs were.

He only managed to say: "This week a single mother came to my surgery in Sheffield…" before someone on the other benches shouted: "Thirty-one". MPs laughed for a good long time.

"I was appalled they started laughing and applauding," says Swinson. "I know he made those ill-judged comments a year ago, but you hear the phrase single mother and the first thing you think is sex? And then I thought – if this room wasn't 80 per cent male would it be the same reaction?"

Of course, if Nick Clegg had not boasted about his sexual conquests to Morgan in the first place he would not now be ridiculed in this way.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Video of the Year: Shoes thrown at President Bush

But the journalist should have studied this page first.

Helen Shapiro: You Don't Know

No moving pictures this week, just some photographs and a recording by the most inexplicably unfulfilled talent of British pop music.

"Walking Back to Happiness" was cheesy, "Don't Treat Me Like a Child traded too obviously on her youth, but this is a very good record. And it was made when Shapiro was only 14.

More than that, Shapiro enjoyed phenomenal popularity early in her career. As Wikipedia tells it:

In 1961, at the age of fourteen, she had two number one hits in the UK: "You Don't Know" and "Walkin' Back to Happiness"; and, indeed, her first four single releases all went into the top three of the UK Singles Chart. Her mature voice made her an overnight sensation, as well as the youngest female chart topper in the UK ...

Before she was sixteen years old, Shapiro had been voted Britain's 'Top Female Singer', and when The Beatles had their first national tour in 1963, it was as her supporting act.

She also starred in the film It's Trad, Dad.

After that, though Shaprio is still performing today, it was all downhill. Yet listening to this record Shaprio was a better singer than many British women (Lulu, Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black) who enjoyed successful solo careers in the 1960s. So what went wrong?

The opening of an article on Shapiro's career gives some of the story:

British vocalist Helen Shapiro keenly remembers opening the pages of Melody Maker on a tour bus in February 1963 and being greeted by the headline: "Is Helen Shapiro a 'Has-Been' at 16?"

"I was still getting in the charts, but not necessarily the top five, or even the top ten," she wrote in her 1993 autobiography, Walking Back to Happiness. "I'd been a novelty at fourteen but I suffered from the Shirley Temple syndrome. I'd grown up. Suddenly I was beginning to look a little bit passe in spite of topping the bill."

A member of one of the opening bands leaned over her seat to assure her, "You don't want to be bothered with that rubbish. You're all right. You'll be going on for years."

John Lennon's words were comforting, but that moment was a milestone for her, "the beginning of change; not just for me but for a lot of solo singers."

So Shaprio was seen as a novelty act, which made it all the harder to adjust to the changes that were about to take place in the British music scene. But surely she had the talent to adjust to those changes?

The real problem seems to be that Shapiro's career was very badly managed. Lennon and McCartney wrote a song - "Misery" - for her, but the record company declined to release it as a single. And it also delayed releasing her version of "It's My Party" until Lesley Gore had already had a hit with it.

The truth is probably that Helen Shapiro found fame a couple of years too soon. If she had been a fresh face in 1964 she would surely have been an important part of the sixties scene. As it was, with that semi beehive hairdo, she even looked like a survivor from the 1950s.

And it is worth remembering just how young Shapiro was in the sixties. In an interview she remembers a schoolfriend from the 1950s:

Q - He was nine and the rest of us were ten. We went to the same school. We had this little group. None of us could really play the instruments. I played on a little plastic toy guitar, tuned to a ukulele. Marc had a sort of beaten up guitar and this other guy had a smashing, lovely guitar. In those days, to have a guitar, I'm talking 1956 or there abouts, was like a big deal. Not like now. We used to sing Elvis songs and a little bit of Buddy Holly. Yeah, we just kind of sang songs together.

Q - Did you ever perform anywhere?

A - A couple of times we went to a couple of local cafes and we said "Hey Mister, can we sing in your cafe?" And we did. Then they gave us a cup of tea each and kicked us out. We did play in the school once, during the summer break when some of the kids would still go to the school for meals, because their parents were working. It was a poor area. And we would go and play and sing for them.

Marc, in those days was called Mark Feld. He grew up to be Marc Bolan and did not find fame himself until the sixties were just about played out and psychedelia was descending into glam rock.

Britblog Roundup reaches its double century

And Mr Eugenides writes:

I've had the pleasure of hosting the Roundup on several occasions, and it is no exaggeration to say that never have nominations been so entirely dominated by one story as they are this week.

That story is the sad passing of Oliver Postgate.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bernard Donoughue in the New Statesman

Lord Donoughue, who was senior policy adviser to Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan, writes the diary in this week's New Statesman. He has two nice anecdotes:
When I first joined the House in 1985 I dutifully dressed up and was seated for three hours next to Lord Joe Kagan, the menacing friend of Lady Falkender who was jailed for tax evasion. 
I later explained to a House official that I had spent some of my life trying to avoid jail and jailbirds and did not expect the Lords to bring me into such close contact. I haven't been to the Queen's Speech since.
I am reminded that a senior detective inspector from Maidenhead once explained to me: "You have to understand that the root of this country's law and order problem is that our police are a lot thicker than the villains."

Friday, December 12, 2008

House Points: The Damian Green debate

This week's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. As I was busy with the day job, I thought I would let MPs write it for themselves.

MPs Collared

Michael Jabez Foster said just one constituent had raised the search of Damian Green’s office with him. It was "self-indulgence", he argued, for MPs to debate it.

But the people of Hastings and Rye should be more concerned with the health of parliamentary democracy. So this column is devoted to some of Monday’s more enlightened contributions.

Theresa May: "Constituents do not give information to their Member of Parliament on the basis that one day it might be pored over by police officers. Parliamentary privilege is not our privilege; it is the people’s privilege."

Elfyn Llwyd: "It seems rather strange that we should be discussing the whole idea of prejudicing the inquiry, given that the Government tried to force through the 42-day measure on the premise that we were all going to discuss issues to do with individuals."

Simon Hughes: "If the police knocked on the door of one of my constituents in Southwark or Bermondsey, everybody inside would know … they do not have to let the police in unless they have a warrant."

Dominic Grieve: "Since the passage of the Official Secrets Act 1989, the leaking of material not concerning national security has ceased to be a criminal offence. On what basis, therefore, is a civil servant arrested for that, and on what conceivable basis is my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford [Damian Green] arrested?"

Menzies Campbell: "Our responsibilities involve both the scrutiny of Government and the redress of grievance. If we cannot be confident that our communications with our constituents are confidential, there is necessarily an inhibition in our ability to fulfil those responsibilities."

Andrew Mackinlay: "Leaks are food and drink to me as a backbench Member of Parliament, and I do not want to stop them coming to me."

Kenneth Clarke: "I first met the Leader of the House [Harriet Harman] when she was the legal adviser to the National Council for Civil Liberties. She was a pretty feisty, radical lawyer in those days, and … she would not conceivably have made the speech then that she made an hour or two ago. She would have been leading demonstrations outside about the behaviour of the Government."

I am not sure what Simon’s claim tells us about South London, but it was a good debate.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sir Oliver Franks and my Eight for 2008

The other day, dusting of a favourite anecdote for possible seasonal use, I came across a posting where I repeated it. In that posting, after being tagged by Iain Dale, I gave my eight wishes for 2008. I thought it might be interesting to see how many of them have been fulfilled.

Before I do, I must record my discovery that the Sir Oliver Franks who features in that anecdote is the same person as the Lord Franks who, 34 years later, wrote the report that exonerated Margaret Thatcher and her government from any blame for not anticipating the Argentine invasion of the Falklands.

Anyway, those wishes in full...

1. Nick Clegg to turn out to be half as good as his supporters claimed he was during the election campaign

It has not happened, but I suspect the fault is not wholly Nick's nor even that of his supporters. Nick is wrestling with the same problem that has faced all the party's leaders: what, exactly, do we stand for?

2. Guantanamo Bay to close

It has not happened, but it looks a more realistic hope than it did a year ago.

3. A Lib Dem education policy that goes further than "we agree with the NUT"

We are no longer the voice of the NUT, but it hard now to say what we stand for. As Nick said on the flight to Inverness, David Laws is finding it hard to compete with the Tories in this area.

4. Jonathan Ross to be sacked by the BBC

A three-month suspension is not a bad result.

5. Me to get more paid writing published

Thanks to those nice people at the New Statesman in particular, this has happened.

6. Andrew Flintoff to return to test cricket

He is playing for England today

7. Chelsea to win the Champions League

They fell one penalty kick short

8. Leicester Tigers to win everything in sight

They won nothing, though they did reach the final of the EDF Cup.

Lib Dem MPs do well in Private Members' Bills ballot

The Private Members' Bills ballot for the 2008-9 session took place today, and the Lib Dems did well. Two of our MPs are in the top 5 and four are in the top 20.

David Heath came out of the hat (or how ever they do it) in second place, Evan Harris was fifth, Jeremy Browne 13th and and Charles Kennedy 17th.

Thanks to Jennie Rigg.

The view from my window

Today and tomorrow I am running the press office at a conference held at the Congress Centre - part of the TUC headquarters in London.

The room overlooks the building's central courtyard and this sculpture by Jacob Epstein.

Ornamental Passions will tell you more about it.

Division of Clinical Psychology Blog

I am experimenting with a blog at work. The software is taking a little getting used to, but you may be interested in having a look at the Division of Clinical Psychology Blog.

Your chance to share a curry with Lembit Opik

Last week the Evening Standard published a guide to the favourite restaurants of Westminster politicos:

Another favourite Indian venue is the Top Curry Centre in Pimlico, which is popular with all politicians who live in the vicinity.

But it is more specifically a favourite of the Lib-Dems, including Lembit Opik - who holds an informal weekly curry night there with his party colleagues.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Liberals clinically mad says American psychiatrist

Hello to Dr Lyle Rossiter, who says:
"The roots of liberalism – and its associated madness – can be clearly identified by understanding how children develop from infancy to adulthood and how distorted development produces the irrational beliefs of the liberal mind."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

What good has ever come from Leicestershire?

Inspired by a posting of mine, Stumbling and Mumbling lets rip.

Top blogging.

And top commenting from Nick Cohen.

Remembering Oliver Postgate

I was a little old for Bagpuss, but the Clangers, Pogles' Wood and, above all, Noggin the Nog were central to my childhood.

The Guardian has a nice selection of Youtube clips from Postgate's shows, while Ben Davies pays tribute to him on the New Statesman website. Postgate blogged for the magazine between November 2006 and February 2008.

Stroppyblog is good on Postgate's radical ancestry:

may I be the first 1920s labour history nerd to point out that Oliver was the son of Raymond Postgate and Daisy Lansbury, both lifelong, active socialists, and therefore the grandson of George Lansbury. Which, of course, makes him the cousin of Angela Lansbury; he was born in the same year as her too. And the nephew of my personal hero Minnie Lansbury, although she died before Oliver was born.

And, like all GL's descendants, quite possibly also the descendant of a Tolpuddle Martyr. George's wife, Bessie Brine, was probably - although it has never been proved for sure - the granddaughter of Tolpuddle's James Brine.

To me, Postgate's programmes - and particulary that wise and weary voice - are redolent of a more civilised view of childhood. In 1960s children's television, the presenters were on your side, but they knew lots of interesting things about the world that you didn't and wanted to share them with you.

Today's television is too anxious to ingratiate itself with its young audience. The presenters hardly seem like adults at all. With their perfect eyes and teeth, they are more like monstrous 10-year-olds.

Finally, another memory.

When I worked for Golden Wonder in the 1980s, the company was part of the same group as HP Foods and W. Symington and Co., who made things like gravy powder and instant soups. The staff shop was over at Symington's premises, in the charge of a rather fierce lady.

So, at Golden Wonder, visiting the staff shop was referred to as "going to see the Soup Dragon".

Monday, December 08, 2008

Financial scandal at Bonkers Hall

As most literary scholars now accept that the model for Bonkers Hall is Nevill Holt, the news that its current owner David Ross has resigned as a director of Carphone Warehouse is bound to attract attention.

According to the BBC:

Mr Ross used 136 million of his 177 million shares as security against personal loans without telling anyone in the company.

He has admitted doing the same thing with shares of Big Yellow Group and National Express.

Coincidentally, this is not the first time that allegations of financial impropriety have surrounded the occupant of...

Lord Bonkers hurriedly interrupts: That was all looked into at the time and I was exonerated. Let's have no more talk of it.

Calder's Comfort Farm: Inflammable Brownies and Len Duvall

The latest Calder's Comfort Farm has been posted on the New Statesman website:

I had not heard of Len Duvall before today. He sounds like a ballroom champion whose attempt at Continental sophistication - by adopting “Duvall” - is undercut by his first name. Maybe he is one of the less popular judges on Strictly Come Dancing?

He turns out to be the leader of the Labour group on the Greater London Authority.

Britblog Roundup 199

This week's roundup has the Redemption Blues.

A visit to pork pie country

A correspondent kindly draws my attention to a piece by Ruaridh Nicoll in yesterday's Observer. In it the writer and a friend visits the East Midlands in search of the perfect pork pie:
Pete's was the pie country, the rolling meadows of Middle England where foxes trot along the edges of ancient hedges before disappearing into rooky woods, and hilltops boast the spires of Norman churches, marking villages with names such as Branston and Stilton.
All good stuff, except that Stilton is in Cambridgeshire (and used to be in Huntingdonshire when it was a county).

And the subeditor who wrote the introduction:
Ruaridh Nicoll journeys in search of the perfect pork pie and finds himself seduced by the olde worlde charms of... Leicestershire
with its achingly clever ellipsis has clearly never been north of Tring in his life.

Should the Speaker be popular with ministers?

I think not. A good Speaker will stand up for backbench rights and thus make himself or herself unpopular with the government.

So a Guardian headline like
Ministers rush to defend Speaker after MPs' public rebuke
just confirms the view that Michael Martin was appointed as a Labour Speaker for a Labour house.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Colin Blunstone: What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?

"I demand some Colin Blunstone to follow" says the comment on last week's Argent.

Blunstone, of course, was the lead singer of the Zombies and Rod Argent was also a member. The band's classic single She's Not There featured here a year ago.

Although the Zombies are now revered, they enjoyed only limited success in the sixties. The result was that, while the group's songwriters Argent and Chris White were doing nicely out of their royalties, the rest of them were making little money out of music. So much so that when the Zombies split in 1968 Blunstone took a proper job in insurance for a while.

The following year, months after it was issued, Time of the Season became a huge hit in America, but Rod Argent was busy with his new band and the Zombies did not reform to capitalise on this success.

Blunstone returned with some beautiful but only moderately successful albums - Wonderful is a good example from this period. He also sang Old and Wise for the Alan Parsons Project. (I am afraid that this video is a nonsense - Blunstone's recording coupled with a live performance by someone else - so just close your eyes and listen.)

The Zombies have now reformed to the sort of adulatory reviews they deserved but never received in the sixties. This recent performance of A Rose for Emily from the LP Odessey and Oracle shows that much of the wonderful breathy timbre of Blunstone's voice is still intact. The song is introduced by Rod Argent.

But the song I have chosen comes from 1981. It is Blunstone's hit version of the Motown classic made with Dave Stewart (as in Dave Stewart and Barbara Gaskin, not Eurthymics).

The real question is what became of the class sixties artist in the 1980s? The nice jacket and squirty eighties keyboards are both reminiscent of Steve Winwood's While You See a Chance from the previous year, though the video is not half so weird.

Sadly Blunstone did not achieve the solo success that Winwood enjoyed after that song, but at least he and the Zombies now occupy their rightful place in British pop history.

Lord Spudulike takes a hike

I am sorry to see Anthony Jacobs - head of the British School of Motoring to baked potato business empire - leave the Liberal Democrats, and not just because we shall miss his financial contributions.

He once phoned me to correct the finer points of a piece of gossip in Liberator and seemed amused that Lord Bonkers had recently claimed he was the mother of the broadcaster David Jacobs.

According to Sam Coates, who broke the story for The Times on the Red Box blog:

His beef is that he wants Clegg to go further on tax, taking the lowest paid out of tax altogether but also reducing the rates for higher earners. The party is reluctant to raise employers national insurance by the required amount to pay for it, and relations have clearly broken down.

But then, as James Forsyth says on the Spectator Coffee House blog:
Considering that until Clegg’s leadership, the Lib Dems were to the left of Labour on tax it is puzzling that Jacobs was previously happy to donate money to the party. It seems most odds to leave the party just at the moment that the Lib Dems seem to be inching in his direction.
Forsyth says that Jacobs has met senior figures in both the other parties, but suggests that his policy demands make it unlikely that he will join either of them.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Who is The Stig?

I am not a fan of Top Gear, but those who are may be interested in this snippet from the Guardian earlier this week:

It is widely known that Top Gear parted company with Perry McCarthy, a former minor formula one driver, after he exposed himself, although not in the John Barrowman sense.

Ben Collins, a former NASCAR driver, was later revealed by the Health and Safety Executive as Top Gear's "high-performance driver" in a report into the Richard Hammond crash of 2006.

Now Digger has been reliably informed by F1 sources that Heikki Kovalainen, left, took up the role during a Top Gear testing at Renault's base.

The HSE report is on the internet.

Friday, December 05, 2008

OJ Simpson loses again

Not only as been sent down for 33 years - which seems a bit steep to me - he once ran against Mean Ming Campbell.

As Pandora recalled in the Independent a couple of years ago:

According to Westminster colleagues, Ming's been using the recent furore surrounding OJ Simpson's new book, If I Did It, to wax lyrical about the time he delivered "The Juice" an unceremonious ass-whipping on the running track.

"According to Ming, back in 1967 he raced OJ in both the 100 metres and the 60-yard dash," I'm told. "Apparently, he absolutely destroyed him."

Channel Islands E-mail of the Day

The winner is Senator Stuart Syvret for his reply to the Jersey Police.

Worth scrolling down for.

House Points: Speaker Martin and the Five Members

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News. In the event, Mr Speaker did not surprise us.

Open House

Settle down, class. Open Calder’s History of England and we shall read about Charles I and the Five Members. Tompkins, you start:
Parliament then passed a law that gave members control over the King's ministers. Charles I was furious and decided it was time to take action. On 4 January 1642, he arrived at Westminster with a great company of armed men to arrest Arthur Huggl… Hig...
"Haselrig," you ignorant boy.

Arthur Haselrig, John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles and William Strode who were all MPs whom he regarded as troublemakers. The five men managed to escape before the soldiers arrived.

When the king demanded to know where the Five Members were the Speaker, Michael Martin replied: "Help yourself, laddie. They are hiding in yon stationery cupboard." He then rolled on his back, waved his paws and asked: "Is there any chance of a peerage just now?"

That will do, Tompkins. Sometimes I wonder about the headmaster’s choice of textbooks.

Because, of course, Charles encountered not Speaker Martin but Speaker Lenthall. And Lenthall famously replied: "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here; and humbly beg your Majesty's pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what your Majesty is pleased to demand of me."

If the current Speaker had shown a thousandth of that courage and independence when the police asked to search Damian Green’s office last week he would have redeemed his reputation overnight. He would have gone from being seen as an undignified and faintly partisan figures to being greeted as a hero of British liberty.

Now that reputation may be beyond salvage. By the time you read this he will have made a statement to the Commons explaining his part in the affair. But another leak suggests the line he will take has been thrashed out at a meeting to which only Labour politicians were invited.

Mr Speaker may yet surprise us. I hope he does. But I fear that, for the rest of his time in the chair, he will not be sitting comfortably.

And nor will Tompkins if I see him poke Ellsworth-Beast Minor again.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Philosophy professor neglects to give lecture on duty

From the Richmond & Twickenham Times:

A highly respected literary and academic figure failed to attend a talk he was due to give for a literature festival, after getting confused over the date.

Professor of philosophy Anthony Grayling, of Birkbeck College, University of London, had arranged to speak about his latest book, The Choice of Hercules.

His talk was part of Richmond’s 17th annual literature festival.

The book reflects on the challenges of duty versus pleasure.

Thanks to Crooked Timber.

Jonathan of the Week

Not me, but a 176-year-old tortoise from St Helena.

The Daily Telegraph report also reveals the pleasing fact that the governor of the island in the 1930s was Sir Spencer Davis.

Damian Green in cold water

While Damian Green is enjoying an unexpected period of celebrity, it is time to remind readers of the time that he was thrown into the Cherwell by Dominic Grieve.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Nick Clegg to mark 60th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The Amnesty website reports that speak at an event at the Human Rights Action Centre, 17-25 New Inn Yard, London EC2 on 10 December. His address will be followed by a conversation between Nick Clegg and Krishnan Guru Murthy of Channel 4 News and questions from the floor.

The event starts at 6.30 p.m. and is free of charge. Book via the Amnesty website.

Thanks to Liberal Conspiracy.

Michael Martin blames the Serjeant At Arms

Not a very edifying performance, was it?

Fraser Nelson at the Spectator Coffee House blog asks some searching questions.

Nick Clegg: Talking loudly on public transport

Following Nick's being overheard on the flight to Inverness, Danny Finkelstein reminds us that he has previous.

In May 2006 Kevin Maguire wrote:

That thrusting young Minger Nick Clegg should learn to swivel his head to spy who is sitting within earshot before shouting into a mobile phone about an aged Olympic sprinter off to a poor start.

While waiting on Bournemouth station for the London train, it was impossible for your columnist not to overhear the Lib Dems' home affairs chap itemising, between sips of Red Bull, his leader Sir Ming Campbell's political crimes. Ming the Mediocre, according to Clegg, is hesitant and disorganised, commits avoidable errors and lacks momentum but - this was the loyal bit - is capable of recovering.

At least we are only worrying about our leader's Red Bull habit these days.

A review of Maria Gatland's book

Yesterday I reported the striking news that a Conservative councillor from Croydon had resigned her cabinet post after admitting she had close ties with the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s.

Time reviewed Maria Gatland's book, which was written under her maiden name of Maria McGuire, in 1973:

Dave O'Connell, the Provisional I.R.A.'s political-military swing man, took Maria along as interpreter on an arms-buying trip to Europe. Their mission began as Irish low comedy and ended in fiasco. In Amsterdam their cover was blown, their planeload of Czech bazookas, rocket launchers and hand grenades was impounded, and Maria and Dave lammed out just ahead of the cops.

The Wisbech and Upwell Tramway

Unmitigated England pays a visit:
The tramway closed in 1966, but you can still see the space in front of the houses where it ran, and the odd crumbling shed. There is a dinner table game where you proffer a time in history you would like to visit. After Doctor Feelgood doing Route 66 at the Kursaal in Southend around 1972, I think the hour's journey on this railway amongst the cabbages and sugar beet comes a close second.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

In praise of Brian Matthew

I once wrote that there is something reassuring about public figures who have there for as long as you can remember. Someone who certainly fits that bill is Brian Matthew.

Just about my earliest memory is climbing into my parents' bed on Saturday mornings, and I clearly remember Matthew's Saturday Club being on the radio when I did so. I may well have heard some of the Spencer Davis Group performances from the show that I bought last year (volume 1 of Mojo Rhythms & Midnight Blues) when they were first broadcast.

Fast forward to my university years. In those days there was only one mainstream radio station that broadcast into the small hours (when, of course, many undergraduate essays are written). That was Radio 2 and between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. the programme it broadcast was Brian Matthew's Round Midnight.

Probably because of the power of the musicians' union in those days, Matthew had to broadcast an awful lot of Barry Forgey and the Radio 2 Big Band. But he also included many interviews with artists of all kinds. And he could be acerbic. I remember his replying, when a student theatre group solemnly informed listeners that they were against stereotypes, "that's very controversial of you".

And you can still hear Matthew today, introducing Sounds of the Sixties on Saturday mornings. He will be 80 in September and that dark brown voice sounds good for a few years yet.

Conservative councillor quits cabinet after admitting links with Provisional IRA

From our You Couldn't Make It Up department.

The BBC reports:

A Croydon councillor has quit her cabinet post after admitting she had close ties with the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s.

A council spokesman said Conservative Maria Gatland confirmed that she is the author of To Take Arms: My Year with the Provisional IRA.

Mrs Gatland wrote the book under her maiden name, Maria McGuire.

When confronted with her past by a local schools activist, Mrs Gatland offered her resignation from cabinet.

The council spokesman said in addition to stepping down as cabinet member for children and young people, fellow councillors were urging Mrs Gatland to resign from the council.

This may seem rather unfair when you consider everyone was happy for Martin McGuinness to be in charge of education in Northern Ireland for many years.

Later: I have found a review of her book.

Three thoughts on Nick Clegg's flight to Inverness

As someone pointed out to me, the Sunday Mirror's exclusive about Nick Clegg slagging off his shadown cabinet colleagues whilst on a flight to Inverness is obviously true. No journalist would go to the trouble of making up a story about people most of his readers have never heard of.

Nick's comments display a remarkable degree of ingratitude towards Steve Webb. In such a closely fought leadership election, Steve's support for Nick Clegg may well have been decisive factor as it gave him some credibility with the left wing of the party - in as far as you can identify such a force in a party with so little ideology.

I would have hoped, following the Cleggover episode, that Nick would have learnt to be a little more streetwise about the ways of the media. Clearly, he has not.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Baby P: The incompetence of Haringey Council was always the story

Ed Balls today received the report on children's services in Haringey this morning. You can read the full text of his statement on the Independent website.

As a result of the report's contents, George Meehan, the leader of Haringey Council, and Liz Santry the cabinet member for children and young people, have both resigned. Sharon Shoesmith has been removed from her post as director of children's services and five other members of staff connected with those services in Haringey have been suspended or are under review.

Lynne Featherstone writes:
So - the report finds Haringey Council guilty - and then some. I have never seen such a damning and devastating criticism of an authority as this litany of failure - both systemic and personal, and at every level and more or less in every agency. But particularly singled out for special damnation - Haringey Council.
And this has been the story here all along: the fact that Haringey Council is no good at protecting children. Those bloggers who thought the real villain here were David Cameron or the press, or thought that the whole affair was simply to ghastly to mention, mystify me.

Lynne also says:

As to the resignations of George Meehan and Liz Santry - it's a shame it took until they publicly had nowhere to go in the face of such extreme criticism before they finally acknowledged their responsibility.

And none of this sadly goes to the heart of the rotten culture in Haringey which is secretive, arrogant, rank-closing and abuses power. Lord knows I have been shouting this from rooftops for long enough. Now at least I have Ed Balls and the Government shouting the same thing with me!

It is this culture that is at the heart of the political debate over the death of Peter - to give Baby P his real name.

Over at the dear old Guardian, Patrick Butler does his best to rally the troops by writing of Sharon Shoesmith:

A journalist who met her two years ago, shortly after she had taken up her current role, recalls her as appearing relaxed, confident and competent, with a clear understanding of the wider children's policy agenda ...

Shoesmith, 55, appears widely respected among her peers in Haringey: an open letter signed by 61 primary and secondary school headteachers in the north London borough last month called her an "outstanding public servant" who had in her previous role revitalised Haringey's once embarrassing and demoralised education service. It said: "Should the Child P case result in her loss from the borough, then our children and young people will lose one of their most effective, determined and committed champions."

Surely, all that does is make you worry about the judgement of headteachers in Haringey?

Later. See this Lib Dem Voice story about Haringey's chief executive too.