Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A preview of Tony Blair's memoirs

Extracts from Tony Blair: A Journey will be posted on the book's website at 11.30 this evening.

Later. Nick Robinson says that the Daily Telegraph says that Tony Blair says that Gordon Brown drove him to drink in his latter days as PM.

Street clutter reaches Clun

The other day Eric Pickles and Philip Hammond wrote to council leaders calling on them to reduce the number of signs, railings, bollards and advertising hoardings.

They should go to Clun, where this magnificent collection of signs can be found next to the bridge. Note that the corners of some of them have been curled round by passing lorries.

The Shropshire Star recently photographed the same scene.

End of the Month Lolcat

I has a happy!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Six of the Best 88

Caron's Musings (kind of) disagrees with Nick Clegg on paternity leave.

In a powerful post, Anna Raccoon spares a thought for the plight of Crispin Blunt's wife: "There is no self determination for her. No expression of a hard won freedom to be the person she always thought she should be. There are no ‘Rejection Pride’ marches snaking through city centres in celebration of her new lifestyle, no Fireman will be threatened with the sack for not handing out leaflets admiring her ‘choice’ in life – for she did not make a choice."

PogoWasRight.org says that US schools are grooming children for a surveillance state.

A fascinating New York Times article looks at the debate over whether the language we speak governs the way that we see the world.

Diamond Geezer mourns another of London's lost rivers - Pudding Mill River, sacrificed to the construction of the Olympic stadium.

"Hundreds of ancient sites have been discovered by aerial surveys, thanks to a dry start to the summer," reports BBC News.

Launde Abbey

Today I went to a fun day Launde Abbey in High Leicestershire. Launde is a residential retreat house and conference centre serving the dioceses of Leicester and Peterborough. As explained in this BBC News video, it is currently undergoing a major restoration following a major fund raising-drive.

Launde was originally the site of a priory, founded early in the 12th century. Thomas Cromwell was so taken with the setting that he took it for himself when the monasteries were dissolved. However, he lost Henry VIII's favour over the king's unsuccessful marriage to Anne of Cleeves - a case of backing the wrong horse? - and was executed.

So it was Thomas's son Gregory who built the house and appears to have lived the quieter and more secure life of a country gentleman. He married Elizabeth Seymour, the sister of another of Henry's wives.

Pevsner says that it is not clear how much of Gregory's house is left at Launde and suggests that what stands there today appears early to date from the early 17th century.

There is one survival from priory: Launde's chapel, which contains Gregory's monument. This is described by Pevsner as "one of the purest monuments of the early Renaissance in England".

Mike Hancock's assistant in Russian spy probe shock

According to the Portsmouth newspaper The News, Lib Dem MP Mike Hancock has:
leapt to the defence of his parliamentary assistant following reports she is under investigation by MI5 over possible links with Russian intelligence.
Verily, you could not make it up.

Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music by Rob Young

When I saw that "Winwood, Steve" came between "Winstanley, Gerrard" and "Witchfinder General" in the index, I knew that I was going to love this book. I am currently halfway through its 650 pages.

As the blurb puts it:

In this groundbreaking survey of more than a century of music making in the British Isles, Rob Young investigates how the idea of folk has been handed down and transformed by successive generations - song collectors, composers, Marxist revivalists, folk-rockers, psychedelic voyagers, free festival-goers, experimental pop stars and electronic innovators.

In a sweeping panorama of Albion’s soundscape that takes in the pioneer spirit of Cecil Sharp; the pastoral classicism of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Warlock; the industrial folk revival of Ewan MacColl and A. L. Lloyd; the folk-rock of Fairport Convention, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, Shirley Collins, John Martyn and Pentangle; the bucolic psychedelia of The Incredible String Band, The Beatles and Pink Floyd; the acid folk of Comus, Forest, Mr Fox and Trees; The Wicker Man and occult folklore; the early Glastonbury and Stonehenge festivals; and the visionary pop of Kate Bush, Julian Cope and Talk Talk, Electric Eden maps out a native British musical voice that reflects the complex relationships between town and country, progress and nostalgia, radicalism and conservatism.

An attempt to isolate the ‘Britishness’ of British music - a wild combination of pagan echoes, spiritual quest, imaginative time-travel, pastoral innocence and electrified creativity - Electric Eden will be treasured by anyone interested in the tangled story of Britain’s folk music and Arcadian dreams.

Anyone with the slightest interest in this sort of music will enjoy this Electric Eden. I bought my copy in Browers Bookshop in Porthmadog while on holiday and it will no doubt inspire some of my Sunday music videos in weeks to come.

There is also an Electric Eden blog.

Bank Holiday Lolcat

funny pictures-When the dog looks cute, it's time to stop drinking.
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

Sandy Walkington supports free school in St Albans

Yesterday I wrote about Liberal Democrats and free schools, suggesting that the Conference motion which wants us all to "urge people not to take up this option" is misconceived.

After writing that post I came across this news story from The Herts Advertiser:

Support has flooded in for a couple trying to establish a new state-funded primary school in St Albans.

More than 70 people have already signed a petition backing Fawzia Topan and Tim Hodgson’s plans to open a school for four to 11-year-olds under the Montessori ethos, which they already use to run a popular private nursery in Hatfield Road.

Local councillors, St Albans MP Anne Main and 2010 Lib Dem parliamentary candidate Sandy Walkington have also got behind the idea after meetings with the husband and wife team, who are using new coalition government legislation which allows individuals to open schools if there is a proven need.

I shall be surprised is the only Liberal Democrat who supports the establishment of a local free school.

Tax rates: Is Danny Alexander being too optimistic?

Yesterday Danny Alexander told the Observer:
"I think the tax burden is necessary as a significant contribution to getting the country's finances in order ... So it will have to stay at that level for quite some time."
But is that too optimistic?

For some time Michael Portillo has been saying on This Week that he believes if will be difficult politically for the Coalition to make spending cuts on the scale it is planning.

If that is right, and cutting the deficit remains the priority, then not only will there be no tax cuts, tax rates will have to increase.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Trinity Hospital, Clun

On holiday last summer I visited and photographed Trinity Hospital in Castle Rising, Norfolk. This time I visited and photographed Trinity Hospital in Clun, Shropshire.

Both these groups of almshouses were established by Henry Howard, First Earl of Northampton, and there is a third at Greenwich.

This time I was not seized by the warden and given a guided tour, and the Trinity Hospital in Clun has some 19th century additions. But the gardens are lovely.

John Pugh, public debt and the nature of the state

At the start of the month I asked why political radicalism has become synonymous with a desire to see a permanent and massive public debt. Stumbling and Mumbling went further, pointing out that there are several reasons why the left should be suspicious of a large public debt.*

So I was pleased to see John Pugh, the Liberal Democrat MP for Southport, writing an article for Liberal Democrat Voice in which he argues that "Liberal Democrats can act to reduce the deficit and be positive about the role of the democratic state".

That is quite right and I am pleased to see John saying it. However, I am less happy about something else he says:
The trouble starts when those on the right start to regard the democratic state itself as some sort of alien monster that has sprung into existence on its own, independently of its citizens. Then ‘rolling back the state’ is identified as freeing and empowering citizens – as though we can always achieve the same individually as we can collectively.
It is precisely because of poor accountability – a distorted voting system, limited devolution and huge swathes of public services run by quangos – that people disassociate their aspirations from those of their state.
I do not regard that state as an "alien monster" and our Liberal Democrat concern with democratic reform - the thing that unites all shades of opinion within the party - suggests that we all accept that it is not about to wither away.
However, even in some future Lib Dem utopia with PR and proper local control of public services, I would be wary of talking about the state having aspirations. People have aspirations - often widely differing aspirations - and it is the role of the modern state to allow them to live in harmony while seeking to fulfill those aspirations.
To attribute aspirations to the state or to argue that it can meet all human ambitions strikes me a sort of Hegelian state worship. Rather than encourage reform, it tends to mystify the nature of government, which is a tendency that will appeal to traditional Conservatives but should not appeal to us.
The debate on the state that Liberal Democrats should be having is that outlined by Ronald Dworkin:
The practical problem is this: there are certain things we all want government to do. We want government, for instance, to select methods of education, to sponsor culture, and to do much else that looks, on the surface, like endorsing one set of personal values against another and therefore contradicting liberalism.
It is very important for liberals to develop a theory that would make a distinction here between enriching the choices available to people and enforcing a choice upon people.
The crucial idea, it seems to me, is the idea of imagination. The liberal is concerned to expand imagination without imposing any particular choice upon imagination.
But I've simply named a problem. I haven't met it. It does seem to me that liberalism is rather weak at this point and needs a theory of education and a theory of culture-support that it does not have.
* It was William Cobbett who pointed out that we have the Crown Jewels but a National Debt.

Lene Lovich: The Angels

Born in America to an English mother and a Serbian father, and coming to England at the age of 13, Lene Lovich enjoyed a varied career before becoming a New Wave icon. According to Wikipedia:
attended several art schools, busked around the London Underground and appeared in cabaret clubs as an "Oriental" dancer. She also travelled to Spain, where she visited Salvador Dalí in his home.
She played acoustic rock music around London, sang in the mass choir of a show called Quintessence at the Royal Albert Hall, played a soldier in Arthur Brown's show, worked as a "go-go" dancer with the Radio One Roadshow, toured Italy with a West Indian soul band, and played saxophone for Bob Flag's Balloon and Banana Band and for an all-girl cabaret trio, The Sensations. 
She recorded screams for horror films, wrote lyrics for French disco star Cerrone (including the sci-fi dance smash "Supernature", later recorded by Lovich herself) and worked with various fringe theatre groups. 
She was also one of thousands of audience members invited to sing along at the 1972 Lanchester Arts Festival at the Locarno Ballroom in Coventry when Chuck Berry recorded "My Ding-a-Ling" for Chess Records.
She is best remembered today for "Lucky Number", which was halfway between punk and a novelty hit. This later single was not so successful.

Liberal Democrats and free schools

Niklas Smith has an article on Liberal Democrat Voice arguing that the party should support the government’s new generation of free schools. This is a view I have a great deal of sympathy with, as I showed in a House Points column a couple of months ago.

As I found when thinking out my views for that column, this is a complex question. And I have not been an elected councillor for nearly 20 years, which might affect my views too.

But I joined the Liberal Party, and later transferred to the Liberal Democrats, because I believed that Labour’s philosophy was too centralised, too top-down and took little account of the diversity of human needs and character. As I once said in a Guardian piece, we must have an education policy that helps people understand how our view of the world differs from Labour’s.

Certainly, passing the motion on “Free Schools and Academies” that is on the agenda (see p.30) for the Liberal Democrat Conference in Liverpool next month will not inspire anybody beyond the readership of the Guardian’s Education supplement.

Its complaint that setting up new schools would be “prejudicial to the efficient use of resources in an age of austerity” has a flavour of the debate over tractor production in Bulgaria circa 1962.

Its complaint that these new schools would depress educational outcomes for pupils in general is tendentious.

And its demand that academies should have only observer status on the Schools Forum “as they have placed themselves outside the democratic system for the funding of education” is mean-spirited and self-contradictory.

If the movers believe that cohesive administration of the education system is so important, then they should be doing all they can to bring different kinds of school together.

Finally, I am sceptical of the idea of conference calling on “all Liberal Democrats to urge people not to take up this option”. If parents are living in an area with poor schools and no immediate prospect of change, I think they should investigate the possibility of setting up new schools.

I also suspect that some local Liberal Democrats will support them. We are not used to being ordered about by Conference in this way and we should not allow ourselves to become used to it.

Incidentally, I commend Niklas for the grace he is displaying when replying to some unpleasant comments on his Lib Dem Voice piece.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Jeremy Thorpe's first wedding

Another newsreel from British Pathe, showing the Liberal Party leader's marriage to Caroline Allpass in May 1968.

Caroline Allpass was to die in a car crash two years later. Jeremy Thorpe later married Marion Stein, the former Countess of Harewood.

Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham

Many thanks to Unmann-Wittering Blog for introducing me to this, er, remarkable film.

The Old Grammar School in King's Norton won the BBC's Restoration competition a few years ago and I bought my first SLR camera in the Great Western Arcade a year or two after this footage was shot. But for the most part, Telly Savalas Looks at Birmingham is calculated to put anyone off visiting the city.

Certainly, Savalas did not go to Birmingham. As Unmann-Wittering explains, he got no nearer than the de Wolfe studios in London:
This wonderful short film was produced as a 'quota quickie', i.e. the mandatory UK produced element of a cinema programme in the days when audiences expected a package of entertainment, not just one mega long, mega loud film and a massive drink that costs a tenner.
The exciting news is that there are two more Telly Savalas travelogues to come.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Nick Clegg "faces more hostility from Lib Dem members than the public"

Nick Clegg is quoted in a short piece on the Guardian website this evening:
The reception he had received was "quite different in different parts of the country," he told the Times. "There is a particularly acute anxiety about the future at the moment in some of the big northern cities. I think it's principally because people remember the 1980s as a particularly vicious recession for them and their families."
The article also quotes Mike Hancock as saying that Nick faces a "sticky" party conference.

Speak for yourself, Mr Hancock.

Waiting by Clun Bridge

I was waiting in Clun for the Secret Hills Shuttle to take me back to take me back to Bishop's Castle. Every time the light changed I felt compelled to take another photograph of the bridge.

There was a man sitting on a bench nearby smoking a cigarette. "Everyone takes lots of pictures here," he said. "There must be something about it."

He also confirmed my conclusion that the only place in Clun that a T-Mobile customer can get a signal is the top of the castle mound. He climbs up there several times a day to make calls.

Usually, when you get home after having taken lots of shots of the same scene, you find that the first one you took is the best. But I like the one above, which has an authentic Shropshire flavour.

Six of the Best 87

Barry Stocker on Liberal Vision looks at the ideas of the American liberal philosopher John Rawls. He is a blind spot as far as I am concerned: I am more of a Mill, Popper and Rorty man.

Lynne Featherstone writes about the Coalition government's decision to outlaw wheelclamping on private land: "As soon as I became a Home Office minister with wheel clamping as part of my portfolio, I was deluged by letters from other MPs (representing their constituents) asking when we would do something about rogue clampers."

"The Russians call it Kompromat - the use by the state of sexual accusations to destroy a public figure. When I was attacked in this way by the government I worked for, Uzbek dissidents smiled at me, shook their heads and said "Kompromat". They were used to it from the Soviet and Uzbek governments. They found it rather amusing to find that Western governments did it too." Craig Murray thinks he knows what is behind the accusations against Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.

Blood and Treasure harvests the insights of Listening to Britain, a compilation of reports on domestic morale produced by the Ministry of Information in 1940: "Mr Attlee’s cap is depressing picturegoers." "Amongst all classes, dislike of Belgians is growing." "Glasgow is generally bewildered."

England's batting collapse this morning has little consequence for the Ashes this winter, argues The Corridor. Phew!

Liberal Burblings marks the passing to two veteran television series from Yorkshire: Last of the Summer Wine and Heartbeat. I never found the former very funny, but grew to like the latter if only for the chance of hearing a Spencer Davis Group rarity. Heartbeat was also interesting when it started as in those days the legacy of the 1960s was a subject of contentious debate.

Arts Fresco, Market Harborough, 12 September 2010

See my photographs from last year's event.

Eric Portman and Leonard Rossiter

A couple of years ago I wrote about the 1967 British film The Whisperers:

Besides Edith Evans there is a late performance by Eric Portman. He even shares the screen in one scene with Leonard Rossiter - two of my very favourite actors together ...

Rossiter steals any scene he appear in, and how ever good he is there is always a note of Rigsby in there somewhere too.

That seen has now turned up on Youtube...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Asil Nadir in Rutland

A reader kindly reminds me that Asil Nadir, like all the best people, one owned an estate in Rutland.

This Independent article from 1993 gives the details:
He bought the spectacular mansion of Burley-on-the Hill in Rutland for about pounds 7m - without its 2,000-acre estate. He intended to turn the house into a hotel. He subsequently paid pounds 2m for extra land for golf courses, but his business collapsed before these could be developed. For him, as for many others, the 'estate' followed the private helicopter as the ultimate symbol of success.

Press Release of the Day

A press release reaches me from America.

It is headed:

Coast Guard Auxiliary Leaders Meet in Arizona Desert

Which recalls this exchange from Casablanca:

Captain Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.

Rick: I was misinformed.

Name of the Day visits Ludlow

The Ludlow & Tenbury Wells Advertiser reports that a Ludlow cat lover is warning owners to take care when treating their animals for fleas after almost losing two Bengal cats after a routine treatment for wrong.

Her name?

Jennifer Leyton-Purrier

In which I find Jonathan Meades's Severn Heaven

The first programme on The Jonathan Meades Collection DVD is Severn Heaven, which looks at the plotlands beside the Severn near Bewdley. (I can find no trace of it on Youtube, even at the MeadesShrine.)

Plotlands? The London Grid for Learning Redbridge page explains:
During the 1890's, agriculture declined because of a series of poor harvests and cheap grain imports from America. Fields were sold off to land agents, who auctioned them off as small plots.
After the First World War, the British Government promised 'a land fit for heroes' and building one's own home in the countryside was encouraged. Later, the Depression of the 1930s drove people to settle in the Plotlands and build themselves a place to live.
As the Bewdley plotlands have their own halt on the Severn Valley Railway, I decided to find them for myself.

They turned out to be extensive, occupying one side of a wooded valley. The buildings were not quite as ramshackle and anarchic as Meades made them seem. I did not find any former railway carriages, for instance.
Perhaps the most decrepit have been replaced in the 20 years since the programme was made, or perhaps he chose the ones he filmed with great care.

Anyway, the setting is idyllic and this settlement is a reminder that planning laws curb individual creativity as well as protect us from big business. Today the lands appears to be owned by something called the Alfred Halford Trust.

Nearby, an aqueduct crosses the river. It carries the 73-mile pipeline from the Elan Valley reservoir in Wales to Birmingham. This remarkable piece of engineering opened in 1906 and any pre-war book about the Welsh Border will have it marked on its maps.

You can also find these aqueducts in the woods above Ludlow and crossing the lanes beneath Cleehill.

Later. The film has at last appeared on Youtube.

Even later. And then disappeared again.

Later still. A short excerpt has reappeared.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Ruttie on the potting shed

And so another visit to Lord Bonkers draws to a close.

This evening I walk by the shore, trying to ignore the entwining tones of clarinet and vuvuzela.

Suddenly Ruttie rears from the water with what can only be described as a spoony look on her face: goo-goo eyes isn’t the half of it. She lollops across the field, making a beeline for the Hall and it is all I can do to keep up with her. Skirting the cricket pitch in front of the old place (she is nothing if not a lady) Ruttie bursts into the my walled garden and then into the kitchen garden.

With a beatific smile upon her face she leaps into the air and lands smack upon the potting shed amid an appalling sound of splintering wood. I do hope Meadowcroft and the Paramount Chief are all right.

Earlier this week

Is Vince Cable The Stig?

PistonHeads writes:

imagine our surprise to hear from both Aston Martin and Jaguar that one of the nation's most admired liberals spent much of yesterday getting his kicks from a range of Britain's finest supercars

John Harris: The Liberal Democrats are not about to split

There was a very good article in the Guardian this morning by John Harris, questioning overexcited Labour claims that the Lib Dems are variously in crisis, about to split or about to become extinct:

Yes, this year's Lib Dem conference will have its moments. The comprehensive spending review and January's VAT rise will jangle nerves, and there remain two big mysteries: what happens if the AV referendum is lost, and how – or whether – the coalition will decouple before a 2015 election.

But here is what far too many people are missing: that even if the most malign accounts are true and the party has been hijacked by a free market clique, the fact that it has delivered power will probably be more than enough to keep a lid on any trouble. Before Labour people get far too carried away, they ought to remember that until very recently, that was their story too.

Despite having been a Labour hack in his teenage days, John Harris shows every sign of understanding Liberal Democrats and of rather liking us.

Roberta Blackman-Woods and the abolition of slavery

One of the strongest of the many reasons for celebrating the defeat of the Labour government earlier this year was its determination to being in national identity cards. Do not forget, incidentally, that one of their chief advocates was Andy Burnham in his days as a junior home office minister.

The arguments in favour of the cards were varied and weak, but the most absurd of all must have been that used by the Labour MP Roberta Blackman-Woods. We must have identity cards, she has consistently argued, because administering them will make jobs in her Durham constituency.

And she did not give up after the general election. Here she is, as quoted by the Durham Times from 12 June 2010, writing to her Liberal Democrat opponent in that contest, Carol Woods:

“During the election campaign, you accused me, amongst many other things, of scaremongering about your party’s plans to scrap the voluntary ID cards scheme and the impact this would have on jobs in Durham.

“Unfortunately, my fears have proved to be entirely justified as the Tory/Lib Dem Government, in one of its first policy announcements, have said that more than 60 jobs at the Durham Passport Office will be axed.

“Indeed, given that the Government seems intent on also abolishing the next phase of biometric passports, the job losses could end up being even worse.”

She concluded by calling on Carol to apologise to her and the people of Durham.

Blackman-Woods resembles the Liverpool MP General Tarleton who, on 15 February 1805, told the House:
There are in Liverpool alone above 10,000 persons completely engaged in the slave trade, besides countless numbers affected and benefited by it. I have received instructions from my constituents to oppose Mr Wilberforce's intentions with all my power.
The General Tarleton is now in name of an inn near Knaresborough. I doubt anyone will ever go for a pint at The Old Roberta Blackman-Woods.

The Severn Valley Railway

Another good thing about Bridgnorth is the Severn Valley Railway, which runs for 16 miles from the town to Kidderminster.

This is one of my favourite preserved lines, not least because it forms a useful link between two towns.

Mind you, the Shropshire Star was recently speculating about the route being extended northwards from Bridgnorth to Ironbridge.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Nick Clegg and the Rutland Water Monster

A letter arrives from a cove I know at the Natural History Museum – he spends his holidays in the village and gets excited and waves his arms about when Ruttie puts in an appearance. This morning’s screed is full of speculation about a “high-pitched, warbling mating call” and gives the old girl a rather grand Latin name.

I think this rather farfetched: if I had had any reason to think that Ruttie knows Latin I should have sought her assistance when I was a schoolboy. Believe me: a chap needed all the help he could get with the dratted language in those days. Anyway, I acknowledge his letter with a postcard and forward the whole thing to the Professor of Cryptozoology at the University of Rutland.

Then Meadowcroft appears, muttering and cursing. It transpires, as best I can make out, that something has been “a-trampling his botanicals” around the potting shed and snapped his hollyhocks clean off.

In the midst of all this, the telephone is brought to me and I find the Deputy Prime Minister on the other end – he often calls when in want of advice. Today he is worried that he is in a bit of a fix: committed to five years of coalition with a Conservative Party committed to taking bread from the mouths of widows and orphans and all that.

I am able to reassure him that it is often possible to get out of what appear to be a quite impossible predicament. Why, I tell him, I once saw the great Houdini! The fellow had himself bound hand and foot and then sewn into a mailbag which was wreathed in chains and hung upside down in a tank of water.

Just as I am telling him how the illusionist got out of it, I drop the receiver. By the time I retrieve it from under the sideboard, Clegg has gone.

Earlier this week

Six of the Best 86

What happened to Lib Dem use of social media? asks Simon McGrath on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Simon Goldie considers the similarities and tensions between liberalism and mutualism.

"I have resolved to take every opportunity to promote, purchase and indeed consume Moldovan wine, whenever and wherever possible. It is a tough job but someone has to do it," says Gauge Opinion. He is doing it because Moldova is being bullied by Russia because of its determination to tell the truth about the Soviet regime.

The Cat's Meat Shop shows us a remarkable Victorian anticipation of the internet - and its disadvantages: "Solitude would become impossible. The bliss of ignorance would be at an end. We should come near that most miserable of all conceivable conditions, of being able to oversee and overhear all that is being done or said concerning us all over London! Every bore's finger would be always on one's button; every intruder's hand on one's knocker; every good-natured friend's lips in one's ear."

The burden of being an ageing customer in record shops is considered by Crying All the Way to the Chip Shop.

The Boston Globe has some stunning colour photographs of the Russian Empire before the Revolution. The one I have, er, borrowed shows a group of Jewish children and their teacher in Samarkand (which is in modern Uzbekistan).

Weekend World opening titles

Reading Iain Dale's Total Politics interview with Matthew Parris...

You mention Weekend World there. You’re quite critical of yourself in your autobiography on that. Was it something that you felt instantly uncomfortable with?

Yeah. I felt instantly uncomfortable with it when I started. I thought, and I suppose everyone does, that after a while you’d get better at it but I found after two years I still wasn’t getting better at it and our ratings were dropping. I don’t think I was a flop. What I failed to be was the new Brian Walden. The programme itself was probably out of date. The concept was arthritic and old-fashioned. I think a really sensational presenter could have given it a new life and I just wasn’t doing that. I just wasn’t sensational.

Don’t you think nowadays there ought to be something like that on television? There is no longer any inquisitive interview that lasts longer than 10 minutes.

But would anybody watch it? If you want a presentation about something that develops an argument carefully and thoughtfully, is television the best medium in which to do it? No, I think people watch things like Weekend World because there wasn’t anything else to watch. They learned to appreciate its strengths and they developed the patience you need, but modern viewers don’t have that patience and why should they?

...puts me in mind of this.

Take Back Parliament Leicester meeting

There will be a Take Back Parliament at the Lansdowne pub, 123 London Road, Leicester on Saturday 28 August (7.30 - 8.30 p.m.) Full details on the campaign's website.

Take Back Parliament:

brings together a coalition of different groups and organisations in the call for fair votes. They include Unlock Democracy. Electoral Reform Society, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, NUS, Ekkelsia and others.

In praise of Bridgnorth

The town trail leafleft said:

The influence of the past is all around the visitor to an historic town such as Bridgnorth. The medieval castle, Victorian shop fronts, steam railway, elegant promenade, river-port and timber-framed house and inns are all encountered in this study "on the ground" of the rich and varied history of the town.

The Trail starts from the library but can be joined at any point on the route. It can be completed in about an hour, but more time will be needed if every feature is explored in full.

It took me more like four and a half hours, but that did include stopping for a haircut in the Low Town which not every visitor will do.

The town has two significant churches, both in remarkable settings. The wide St Leonard's (medieval but practically rebuilt in the 19th century) is placed in something close to a cathedral close. Thomas Telford's St Mary Magdalene closes off a fine Georgian street - and was aligned North-South to achieve this.

The best restaurant I found during my stay in Bridgnorth was Bambers; the best pubs were the Black Boy on the Cartway and the Railwayman's Arms at the Severn Valley Railway station.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Lord Bonkers' Diary: An evening at the Bonkers' Arms

In the bar the talk is all of Ruttie, the Rutland Water Monster – everyone claims to have seen her recently. I would put this down to an excess of Smithson & Greaves Northern Bitter if it were not for the fact that I saw her myself the other day when I fled Meadowcrof and the Chief’s first “jam session”. She was close to the shore – rather closer than usual – and I remember idly wondering if she might scare the lions off.

Eventually conversation turns to other subjects – England’s failure in the World Cup, the fortunes of this new coalition government and whether it might be possible to farm psychic octopi on Rutland Water (“Why not ask them?” I suggest) – and then it is time for the quiz. I have set a particularly sporting set of questions on Liberal by-election candidates of the 1970s and a good time is had by all. By the time the contest is over, the lovely Hazel Grove had called “last orders” and, after a chorus of “The Land”, it is time to have myself driven home.

Earlier this week

Richard Dimbleby's penis gourd

Perspectives on the Obama Presidency

The journal Perspectives on Politics has published a special issue on the Obama Presidency:
According to Editor in Chief Jeffrey C. Isaac: “The November 2010 midterm elections will be widely considered a gauge of President Obama’s political standing, and it seems appropriate for a flagship journal of the American Political Science Association to focus attention on the controversies surrounding the Obama Presidency, which occupy the attention of the US, as well as a world whose fate is bound up with that of the US.”
Jennifer Hochschild’s and Vesla Weaver‘s “There’s No One as Irish as Barack O’Bama: The Policy and Politics of American Multiculturalism,” analyzes the relationships between identity classifications and civic status in the US, linking the symbolism of Obama’s election to changes in Americans’ self-understanding of race.
Peter Dreier and Christopher R. Martin’s “How ACORN Was Framed: Political Controversy and Media Agenda-Setting,” looks at the ways in which conservative media outlets represented the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now [ACORN] as a symbol of left-wing corruption and “socialist” power-grabbing, destroying the organization and tarnishing the reputation of activist community organizing (and, indirectly, of the President, who had himself worked for ACORN).
A series of essays also address the Obama Administration’s handling of the financial crisis. Lawrence R. Jacobs and Desmond S. King write on “Varieties of Obamism”; Suzanne Mettler and Daniel Carpenter each write on bureaucratic politics and obstacles to policy reform; Dorian T. Warren analyzes the American labor movement in the age of Obama; and Jacob S. Hacker, a participant in health policy debates, discusses “The Road to Somewhere: Why Health Reform Happened, Or Why Political Scientists Who Write about Public Policy Shouldn’t Assume They Know How to Shape It.”
You can read the whole issue for free on the Cambridge Journals website.

Meet Rumi Verjee, the Lib Dems' major donor

The Financial Times Westminster blog reports that the Lib Dems have received a gift of £250,000 from Brompton Capital, a firm owned by the entrepreneur Rumi Verjee:

Verjee owns Thomas Goode, the Mayfair store, and is apparently friends with the likes of Elton John and Lord Snowdon. He qualified as a barrister before launching the first UK franchise of Domino’s Pizza in the 1980s.

He has a CBE for charitable work and is the son of Jimmy Verjee, well-known as a philanthropist in Uganda. Verjee has also been a shareholder in Watford football club although it is not clear whether that is still the case.

There is a little more about him on The Rumi Foundation website.

Why Undercover Boss can be had for the workers

The news that some of the performers on The X Factor have had their voices enhanced (i.e. made in tune) reinforces my long-held belief that nothing on television is what it seems.

Another example is the show Undercover Boss, where a highly paid manager is shown in a good light. Because the programme can be less beneficial for the less well-paid workers involved, as the Watford Observer shows:

When hotel handyman Michael Doherty was asked if he wanted to star in a TV documentary he jumped at the chance, believing it would be “a bit of a laugh” – a chance to get his face on the telly and raise a few laughs with his mates.

What he never imagined, however, was that his brief brush with fame would get him the sack.

As he lived at the hotel, he has lost his home too.

Six of the Best 85

Writing on Liberal Democrat Voice, Norman Lamb tells us about Facing the Future. This is the party's new policy review that will "build on our existing and widely respected statement of Liberal Democrat philosophy, It’s About Freedom, and like the similar exercise that we carried out at the start of the 2005-10 Parliament, Meeting the Challenge ... set out the areas where the FPC will commission further work through this Parliament, and the approach it will take to developing policy in those areas". One point about the article: I do hope Norman will stop talking about the "balance" between liberty and security. He is a better Liberal than that.

Carl Minns - Thoughts from Hull finds proof of Labour's "reckless behaviour" in its last year of office.

The contrast between Leicester's "trophy" regeneration successes and the more shabby parts of the city has struck me - and Only in Leicester. His solution is a "sustained city-wide effort to reduce the levels of grime, graffiti, dereliction, litter, street clutter, etc - the things that everyone rightly moans about and which harm civic pride. I don't just mean city council controlled spaces either. A sharper stick needs to be used to prod private land owners to tidy up derelict areas, maintain heritage buildings, prevent fly tipping and remove rubbish. There are legal instruments such as Urgent Works Notices, Amenity Notices and even ASBOs at the council's disposal if they have the nerve to use them. There are also more gentle approaches such as community litter-picks and community reporting of issues."

And three links on blogging. Social Media Today has some tips for writing compelling blog posts. They are a little cheesy, but you may find some useful ideas here.

Blogging can be a hotbed of litigation, warns the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog.

And the city of Philadelphia is trying to sting bloggers $300 for a "business privilege license", says the Washington Examiner.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Richard Dimbleby's penis gourd

I returned home from holiday to find the latest Liberator waiting for me. So it is again time to catch up with Rutland's most celebrated fictional peer.

This time his lordship has eschewed a strict daily account of his affairs and employed a looser format in its place.


Lions pad across the parched grassland as a Paramount Chief of the Zulus hefts his assegai.

Yes, summer has come to Rutland. The days flow into one another – hence the rather freehand nature of this Diary. I am modelling my literary technique upon the “stream of consciousness” pioneered by Virginia Woolf (or was it Ruel Fox?)

It has not rained for quite some time; hence the dry grass. I shall certainly be selecting a second spinner in home fixtures until further notice.

The lions? I always suspected that we had not crated up all of them when the Bonkers Safari Park was obliged to close so suddenly. (I still maintain that those nuns were the authors of their own misfortune.) For years there has been a tendency for fielders at deep fine leg to disappear when the bowling is from the Pavilion End, but this summer they have grown tired of lurking in the undergrowth and they now wander about the old demesne as though they own the place. (They don’t of course – I have consulted my solicitor.) Still, their very visible presence does serve to discourage Health and Safety inspectors and Conservative canvassers.

And the Zulu chief? He turns out to be quite a big cheese: as far as I can make out his role in Africa is something like their equivalent of being Lord Lieutenant of Lincolnshire (without, one hopes, the cannibalism). He is here to make a documentary about the Dimbleby family, and when he first arrived at the Hall I had to explain that in primitive societies – and the BBC is a good example – positions are awarded not on merit but on a strictly hereditary basis. Because Richard Dimbleby commentated upon every occasion of state from the launch of the Queen Mary to the conception of Princess Anne, today it is impossible to turn on the moving television without seeing one of his many sons. (They do, however, wear lounge suits, rather than the penis gourd their father favoured.)

I have ever been one to rejoice in giving hospitality, but there is a particularly fat bluebottle in the ointment. My Zulu friend is a little overfond of blowing his vuvuzela. Normally, I would simply adopt a smaller calibre of ear trumpet, but when Meadowcroft heard him playing he took the Chief by the shoulders, hurried him to the potting shed, took out his clarinet and staged a “jam session” that went on all night. Its plangent tones could be heard for miles around.

They are planning another one for this evening. I shall set up my base camp in the Bonkers Arms.

Christ Church Meadow, Oxford

There I was sitting on the banks of the Cherwell in Christ Church Meadow.

Near me were a couple who appeared to be living out of carrier bags. She was feeding the wildfowl on the river - ducks, geese and a lone swan that tried hard to imply it was above such things - and he had the inevitable dog on a length of string. Impressively, when it threatened to become too interested in the crowd of birds that had gathered, he spoke to it firmly and it settled down again.

And she was impressive too for her confidence and for making sure that the bread was fairly shared. When one of the geese sneaked up behind her to take a piece from her hand, I swear that she smacked its bottom.

Joe Jones: You Talk Too Much

I heard this playing on a tape in the bar of an otherwise undistinguished hotel in Wales. Maybe you had to be there, because it is less impressive now I have got home. Still, I have decided to go with it and there was another good song on that tape that I shall choose another Sunday.

Wikipedia says the song was written by Reginald Hall, who was Fats Domino's brother-in-law, but that Fats turned it down.

There is more about Joe Jones at allmusic.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Home again

Look out for lots of What I Did On My Holidays posts - and maybe even the odd one on Liberal Democrat politics.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Six of the Best 84

Quaequam Blog! wakes up and points out the ridiculous position Labour has got itself into on public services: "Labour pledged at the last election to halve the deficit within four years; the coalition plan to half the deficit within three years. Labour planned a 70:30 cuts:tax rises package and conspicuously didn’t rule out raising VAT; the Coalition plan a 77:23 cut:tax rises package which includes raising VAT. While the Coalition’s cuts are undeniable steeper than what Labour intended, Labour has made it clear that they oppose number of cuts to non-frontline services that the Coalition is introducing – specifically by scrapping the National Identity Register, ContactPoint and prison places. These ringfenced spending plans would have to be paid for out of increased cuts to frontline services."

A scandal here in Wales: Peter Black reports on the interim chief executive of S4C's apparently inaccurate claim to have been the editor of Panorama. Still, the channel does have a very good animated show featuring elephants speaking Welsh. I think it could catch on more widely.

Caron's Musings reminds us about the Liberal Democrat Blog of the Year Awards.

An interesting new campaigning technique has emerged. Writing on Lib Dem Voice, Sara Bedford reveals that Nick Norman has won a seat on Seaford Town Council while on honeymoon.

Kevin Feltham writes about the campaign that resisted the Co-op's plans to build an "eco-town" in the Leicestershire countryside near Stoughton.

Alexei Sayle tells us: "There will be a big extract from my memoir in the Sunday Times Magazine this Sunday the 22nd. Apart from extracts from the book there are also family photos of me as a child which even I find perplexing as to how that sweet looking infant grew up into me."

Remembering John Ballard

The funeral of John Ballard takes place at the Congregational Chapel in Market Harborough today. John was a lifelong Liberal and one of my helpers in my district council by-election in 1986. I am sorry I cannot be there and shall remember John for his great good humour and for the pleasure he got from seeing the Liberals do well in local elections.

Before his retirement John had been a carpet layer. In fact he had laid most of the carpets in the old people's bungalows in the ward. Our canvassing there consisted of his introducing me to the residents and telling them to vote for me.

As far as we could tell, most of them did. Sometimes local politics is very simple.

Before the war John had been a stable lad at Melton Mowbray. The Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, used to hunt there, knew him by name and always asked after him.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Liberal England in Wales

I have reached Conwy in North Wales on the final leg of my holiday.

My hotel room has a print depicting vignettes of "Life on Board HM Training Ship Exmouth". I take it as a reminder that, however bad the service may be, life could be a lot worse.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bridgnorth Castle

Retracing my steps by several days, here is Bridgnorth Castle.

What little of it remains has been at this crazy angle ever since the Civil War. The green cupola belongs to Thomas Telford's church St Mary Magdalene.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Death to the Tsar

I have no problem with Alan Milburn acting as an adviser on social mobility to the Coalition government.

What I do have a problem with is the continued use of the term "tsar" or "czar" for this sort of role.

It is redolent of the worst of Blairism. Discussion and honest disagreement are seen as weakeness or expensive luxuries: solutions must be forced through from the centre. Critics must be trodden under the hooves of Cossack cavalry, sent for the knout... or at least not listened to.

If there is a justification for this sort of role it is that modern government is now so byzantine, so complex that it is impossible for anyone to get anything done.

But the answer is good old-fashioned reform, not giving people overpowerful roles with silly titles.

Six of the Best 83

James Barber is delighted by the demise of the Audit Commission.

Peter Black
highlights a report in the Western Mail: "The NHS in England faces a total bill of £65bn for new hospitals built under the private finance initiative (PFI). It seems that some NHS trusts have been left with annual 'mortgage' repayments accounting for more than 10% of their turnover."

The Italian MEP Mario Borghezio has called on the EU to fund and establish a "European UFO centre" and demanded the backing of the European Parliament for the plan, according to the Aberavon & Neath Liberal Democrats blog.

Why was there so much fuss about Naomi Campbell and her diamond? asks Blognor Regis.

English Buildings visits Abingdon Town Hall: "Although it is made of traditional ingredients, combining the old market-hall concept with Classical details and the familiar hipped roof, it still manages to surprise and impress: there is nothing quite like it."

And Down at Third Man drinks in The Inn at Whitewell - a pub kept by the former Oxford University and Lancashire cricketer Dick Bowman until his death a few years ago: "The Inn is exactly as Third Man imagines Squire Weston’s pile to have been. It sits on a sweep kink of the Hodder and there is a terrace on which the intrepid can eat outside. Inside are a myriad of rooms each with their own personality and each with their own open wood fires. The floors are stone and dogs are welcome. In fact a dog can be provided for those who forgot to bring their own – you know the type of place."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Live from The Stiperstones Inn

You join me in one of my favourite watering holes - The Stiperstones Inn. A photograph of it will appear in a day or two. Later: It has!

This morning I got off the Shrewsbury bus at White Grit and walked here via Squilver and The Bog. You don't get place names like that anywhere else.

Skittles still thrives* and the pub still has its free internet scheme. It's not just a hotspot: they will hand you a laptop over the bar.

The beer is good and they serve food all day, every day. In fact the place is so good and so remote that I am afraid I may have imagined it.

In just the same way, Bishop's Castle - two pubs that brew their own beer, the best second-hand classical record shop I know - is surely too good to be true. One day I shall turn up there and find just a bare, green hillside.

* I am told that Skittles turned up at the kitchen door one day, was fed duck and decided to stay and serve as pub cat. Well, you would.

The Stone Poneys: Different Drum

Written by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees and sung by Linda Rondstadt, this was a US hit in 1967.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Meanwhile in Leicestershire

Honestly, I am out of the classroom for five minutes and look what happens:
  • Leicester's Phoenix Square needs a £250,000 council bail-out, less than a year after the film and digital media centre opened.
  • Vandals cause chaos for thousands of passengers after starting a fire that destroyed signal cabling between Market Harborough and Leicester.
  • A Conservative county councillor and cabinet member has been charged with assault.
On a more positive note, Leicester is considering a bicycle hire scheme along the lines of the one just introduced in London.

Children's play and overcentralised Britain

It is hard to keep up with the news and with blogging while on holiday, but I should record that I was sorry to see that plans to build hundreds of playgrounds have been shelved as part of government spending cuts.

But more than that, I was astounded to see that playgrounds are funded by national government. What exactly do local councils do nowadays? A new playground should be within the competency and funding ability of a parish council, let alone a district or county. It is a mark of what a centralised society Britain has become.

I should not have overlooked the last Labour government's Playbuilder scheme. It was announced on that rather queasy occasion when Ed Balls and Andy Burnham shared a rotating swing at an adventure playground.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Lily's Tea Garden, Shrewsbury

You know the feeling. You are at Shrewsbury bus station and there is the best part of an hour to wait until the next service to Bridgnorth or Bishop's Castle.

The good news is that you can get an excellent cup of tea across the road. From the red brick house at the front you would never guess that, down the rather precipitous steps, is a garden with views of the Severn.

Map and reviews here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Shelley Memorial, University College, Oxford

Percy Bysshe Shelley is remembered by this rather fine monument, installed in 1893, at University College, Oxford. The college was not officially open to visitors when I passed it the other day, but the porters kindly let me in to see the Memorial.

As Wikipedia says, the white marble sculpture by Edward Onslow Ford shows a "reclining nude and dead Shelley washed up on the shore at Viareggio in Italy after his drowning".

The irorny is that Shelley was expelled from University College for publishing his pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism.

Public debt and the left

Stumbling and Mumbling picks up and runs with a question I asked recently: Why has political radicalism become synonymous with wanting to see a permanent and massive public debt?

Squatters' cottages on the Stiperstones

From the BBC Shropshire pages:
In the late 1800s small settlements began to spread up the hills and across the common land on the Stiperstones above Snailbeach ...

Mr Cooter said they were called Squatters' cottages: "The idea was that if you could build a house on the common land overnight and have smoke coming out of the chimney then you could live in it ...

Many of the houses have disintegrated since they were abandoned when the lead mines closed.
All this will be familiar to readers of Malcolm Saville's Not Scartlet But Gold, but as you will see from the BBC pages, there is now a scheme to restore a couple of these cottages.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ron "Chopper" Harris has a blog

The computer here isn't keen on Twitter either, but I have had an email saying that I am being followed by my boyhood here Chopper Harris.

He is not someone you would want to upset, so here is a link to the new Ron "Chopper" Harris blog.

The Wrexham & Shropshire

You find me in Shrewsbury Reference Library en route to Bridgnorth.

This morning I caught a bus to Banbury and then fulfilled a long-held ambition by catching a Wrexham & Shropshire train to Shrewsbury. (I will add a picture to this posting one day, but the machine here is not keen on my uploading photographs to my Photobucket account.)

The Wrexham & Shropshire is the Titfield Thunderbolt of the privatised railway system. Their trains are only four carriages long (though there is a locomotive at each end) and the refreshments have a home-made feel to them as though they were made the night before by the driver's mother.

Even the route the service takes is eccentric. It has to use a curve behind the Birmingham City ground to get off the former Great Western lines and into New Street, and then it travels to Wolverhampton via the outskirts of Walsall rather than the direct route.

It is English in a slightly mediocre way. Captain Mainwaring, county cricket, John Major... you know the sort of thing. I feel very at home with it.

But travelling this way involves a treat that every passenger should experience at least once in a lifetime: trundling through Birmingham New Street without stopping.

Later. Photograph duly added. Diamond Geezer also travelled this way recently, but I have to record that the Wrexham & Shropshire's managing director is issuing ominous "use it or lose it" warnings in the Shropshire Star.

J.R.R. Tolkien's Oxford home

As promised the other day, here is the house where Tolkien wrote much of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

In all honesty, this photograph makes it look more attractive than it really is. The house, 20 Northmoor Road, may look back to the Arts and Crafts movement, but it also looks forward to 1930s council housing.

The Tolkien family lived here between 1930 and 1947. Before that they lived for a few years at no. 22, which is just visible among the foliage.

More on the subject can be found at Tolkien's Oxford.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Why new nuclear power stations have become inevitable

Liberal Democrat Voice is running a poll on whether nuclear power should be part of the UK's energy mix. This is in the light of Chris Huhne's recent declaration that the government is fully behind the opening of a new nuclear power station in eight years’ time.

I used to cycle the lanes of Leicestershire in a "Nuclear Power? No Thanks" T-shirt, but I think such an announcement has been inevitable for some time now. Ever since, in fact, the environmental movement embraced the concept of man-made global warming with such enthusiasm. Whatever the science says, you have to admit this has been a remarkably convenient truth for them.

If you rule out new coal-fired power stations - whatever happened to the fluidised-bed technology we were all so keen on in the 1980s, incidentally? - then it is inevitable that the looming energy gap will be filled in part by new nuclear stations.

Chris's decision to lift the ban on local authorities selling energy generated from green sources to the National Grid is to be welcomed unreservedly, but it is hard to see these technologies filling this gap on their own.

In truth, the economic arguments against nuclear power were always stronger than the safety ones. So I am reassured that Chris appears still to be ruling out any public subsidy for the industry.

It is remarkable that the two industries that can be most sure of high and constant demand - agriculture and energy - are also the industries most heavily subsidised by government. Surely they are the ones that should need subsidy least?

Vince Cable interviewed in the Guardian

This morning's Guardian has an interview with his Vinceness by Decca Aitkenhead.

As she reminds us, Vince Cable is "widely tipped as the minister most likely to resign from the coalition". Vince's own words suggest this is unlikely:
"According to the papers," as he says himself, "I'm miserable, alienated, and on the brink of resignation." For many Labour voters – and a lot of disillusioned Lib Dems too – Cable's resignation would represent some sort of moral triumph, or at the very least, a return to politics as normal. "But that's simply not where I am," he says.
In fact what we have now is politics as normal - or at least politics as it was before Tony Blair became prime minister. A Cabinet of strong personalities with sometimes differing views is just what we should expect.

I also suspect that the differences within the two Coalition parties, Conservatives as well as Liberal Democrats, will ultimately prove more significant than the differences between the parties.

So my own tip for the first resignation would be a Tory right-winger like Liam Fox.