Thursday, January 31, 2013

Race equality: a new Liberal Democrat approach, Saturday 16 February

Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and the Social Liberal Forum (SLF) have organised a one-day conference on race equality.

'Race equality: a new Liberal Democrat approach' will take place on Saturday 16 February at Hughes-Parry Hall, 19-26 Cartwright Gardens, London WC1H 9EF from 10 a.m.

The headline speakers will be
  • Simon Hughes MP
  • Tom Brake MP
  • Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece
Other people taking part include Kavya Kaushik, Kelly‐Marie Blundell, Gareth Epps, Naomi Smith, Issan  Ghazni, Rob Berkely, Professor Gus John and Wilf Sullivan.

The conference will launch the first report of the Lib Dem Task Force on Race Equality. Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, chair of the Task Force, who will be introducing the report at the conference, says:
"This conference could not have come at a more important time. Inequalities in our society are widening particularly for ethnic minorities and especially for young black men. The current assault on the Equalities Act disguised as cutting red tape will weaken the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. It will also make it harder for ethnic minorities to obtain justice when they are discriminated against. This conference aims to put race equality back on the party's agenda."
Gareth Epps, co-chair of the SLF and a member of the party’s Federal Policy Committee, says:
"It is very timely that the Task Force has looked at what needs to be done to back up the Government's commitment to increasing social mobility.  That cannot happen without action to tackle inequality, as Liberal Democrats acknowledge.  This conference is a very important step in progressing the Liberal Democrat debate."
Send an email to the organisers for further information.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

In praise of Dora Bryan

One of my more recherché favourite blogs is The Downstairs Lounge, which celebrates British comedy records. A new post there looks at Dora Bryan and her 1964 album Dora.

On the one hand:
Dora Bryan has a singing voice that is far from subtle. It is hard to know how precisely to describe it for the uninitiated. It’s sort of… part someone trying to grind diamonds in a domestic food blender, part someone else attempting to cut through Italian marble with an blunt electric kitchen knife.
But on the other:
Dora is a record of a star of stage, screen, cinema and TV at the very height of her powers. An acquired taste her voice may be, but the sheer variety of musical styles and sketches on the record are a reward worth exploring.
I have always had a soft spot for Dora Bryan because of her film appearances - both as Rita Tushingham's mother in A Taste of Honey and this cameo as Rose, the tart with a heart of gold, in Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol from 1948.

Dora Bryan is on screen for just over four minutes but you do not forget her.

A couple of stories about this scene...

Dora Bryan turned up for the audition in her best coat and Carol Reed's reaction was: "Very good. That is just right for the part."

And when Reed had to defend the film against cuts the American censors, he said Rose's "I know your Daddy, dear" was explained by the fact that this was a small, villagey part of London and all the inhabitants would know one another.

Six of the Best 318

Keynesian Liberal thinks he knows what Leeds needs - and it is not HS2.

Professor Louis Appleby, the National Director of Mental Health and Criminal Justice, has written a guest post for the excellent MentalHealthCop blog: "any police officers I have met are clear that dealing with mental illness is a natural part of their modern role.  Others believe the opposite, that it gets in the way of “real” policing.  But that cannot be right.  Mental illness is common, as is substance misuse and personality disorder.  Society is finally facing up to how common mental ill-health is.  People whose work is with the public – teachers, housing staff, prison officers, politicians – need to see mental illness as within their remit.  Anything else is discrimination."

Robert Reich explains how Obama is unravelling the Reagan Republicanism: "Republican libertarians have never got along with social conservatives, who want to impose their own morality on everyone else. Shrink-the-government fanatics in the GOP have never seen eye-to-eye with deficit hawks, who don’t mind raising taxes as long as the extra revenues help reduce the size of the deficit. The GOP’s big business and Wall Street wing has never been comfortable with the nativists and racists in the Party who want to exclude immigrants and prevent minorities from getting ahead. And right-wing populists have never got along with big business and Wall Street, which love government as long as it gives them subsidies, tax benefits, and bailouts."

Did the Chernobyl disaster cause the downfall of the Soviet Union? Mark Joseph Stern investigates on Slate.

M.J. Wayland writes on the Horseman's Word - a secret society once said to operate among farmers and ploughmen in Aberdeenshire, Banff, Elgin "and certain parts of Angus".

Winston Churchill's lack of interest in cricket is dissected by Go Litel Blog, Go... (aka the blogger across the road).

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

GUEST POST The uncertain politics of railway preservation

A week before Christmas I blogged about the BBC programme The Golden Age of Railways. Joseph Boughey, who appeared in that programme, left a comment on that post.

Now Joseph has written a guest post on the uncertain politics of railway preservation and the relation of the 'small is beautiful' theme to wider political aspirations and economic arrangements.

During the film The Golden Age of Steam: Small is Beautiful I explained some of my impressions of those who, in 1950, founded the Talyllyn Railway Preservation Society (not its present members, or members of similar societies).

Of course, much was said that did not appear in the film. The outlook of the Talyllyn founders was conservative rather than Conservative, and indeed only one founder – William Trinder – had a clear party identification, and he was a Liberal. This facilitated his dealings with the line’s owner, Sir Henry Haydn Jones, who was Liberal MP for Merioneth.

On the whole, support for small railway preservation has never been linked to direct party advantage. It could appeal to figures on the Left like Bob Cryer MP, supporter of the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway Company, who saw it as a form of common ownership under workers control; or Sir Gerald Nabarro, maverick Conservative MP, who sought to take over the Severn Valley Railway and demonstrate the virtues of private enterprise. As Raphael Samuel asserted in Theatres of Memory, 'heritage' (itself a much-contested concept) has proved unusually capable of attracting wide-ranging support quite separately from party interest.

Quite apart from party involvement, many who are involved in railway preservation would see this as quite separate from politics, and would repudiate any political connections. There are, however, distinct political dimensions to preservation, conservation and heritage, albeit ones that cannot be reduced to conventional party stances. Preserved railways correspond to a stress on the small-scale, the personal and intimate, in contrast to the large-scale impersonal bureaucracies represented by corporate capital.

By a modest leap, the 'small is beautiful' approach to organisation can be extended to forms of politics, notably a Green emphasis on local control and the small-scale, and some aspects of 'community politics' fostered by the 1970s Liberal revival. The Green movement has also encouraged many to eschew formal party involvement for attempts to develop small-scale alternatives, experiments that might spread to counter and replace the mainstream. The Centre for Alternative Technology, founded in 1975 to foster and generalise ecological alternatives, represents one such smaller-scale institution.

In the 1970s, community politics, seen as “a system of ideas for social transformation”, seemed to offer an alternative to unfettered corporate capitalism or bureaucratic monocultural social democracy. I recall a Radical Bulletin activist asserting that “participation is an end in itself” in 1975 (Guardian, 20 September), spreading the idea of popular involvement well beyond parties into the wider economy. Somehow, given wide participation, better decisions, better policies, indeed a better world, would emerge. If this now seems a bizarre idea for the party of Nick Clegg and David Laws, this remains an ideal that seems to lie behind some initiatives and some organisations of economic or political purpose.

It is tempting to view the Talyllyn and other enthusiast-run railways in this light, as a more appropriate way to proceed than the large-scale nationalised railway or the corporate state-regulated system represented by the privatised railway. And yet, organisationally, while small-scale may be good for a local leisure attraction supported by enthusiasts, it is hardly the way to run a railroad, let alone to develop new infrastructure.

Those who founded the Talyllyn seemed to hark back to an era before the Big Four companies produced by Grouping, which, apparently, featured a more human scale. The hierarchical nature of such companies, often run by autocrats, was not stressed. Trinder had initially hoped that a former railway director, expropriated through nationalisation, could be persuaded to take over the line, and the model of small-scale local management, which would be followed later by many preserved lines, only emerged when such railway 'enthusiasts' proved uninterested.

If the Talyllyn founders regarded nationalisation as a threat to the human-scale, there was also an attempt to turn back the clock to a somewhat romanticised vision of a countryside that was yet to be marred by industrialisation, in a post-war world in which the modernisation associated with social democracy seemed to threaten landscapes and “traditional” ways of life.

L.T.C Rolt’s writings, in particular, were later claimed by parts of the Green movement, although his views were closer to the interwar organic movement (of “blood and soil”) than the politics of Caroline Lucas. He saw the Talyllyn as somehow accessing surviving remnants of a pre-industrial natural order, in which contradictions between people and environment were not manifest; he had earlier made a similar case for Britain’s smaller canals. Rolt made the leap of imagination to praise both a settled mediaeval order and the apparent esprit de corps of pre-Grouping railway companies.

This comes close to the derided 'hobbit socialism', advocating a settled order that had eschewed industrialism, something that The Shire was threatened by in Tolkien’s book, until his heroes returned and restored an agrarian society. This romanticised vision had resonances with the right-wing nationalism espoused by Saunders Lewis, the co-founder of Plaid Cymru, who wanted to deindustrialise the South Wales valleys (something with which Plaid’s current leader, who is decidedly left wing and comes from the Rhondda, might take issue!). Some movements that seek to promote the local in opposition to the global or large-scale can be distinctly ultra-reactionary – orcs rather than hobbits.

The appeal of the small scale can be seductive. I fully agree with the assertion that “The ultimate obscenity is to reduce people to the status of objects: to be led, manipulated, directed, discarded.” (ALC Campaign Booklet, The Theory and Practice of Community Politics, 1980). However, the problem is how to secure a political environment in which all people count.

What is crucial is the broader polity and economic system, in which the small-scale are embedded. Small organisations, whether self-managed enterprises, consumer co-operatives, social enterprises or co-owned organisations or property might well prove to feature in the good society. However, on their own they do not provide more than a miniature bulwark against the impersonal forces of capitalist economies and corresponding states; and without challenges to established ownership of capital, community involvement, participation and (frankly) control must remain marginal or utopian.

The Conservatives' defeat on constituency boundaries is entirely their own fault

Today the Liberal Democrats voted with Labour to scupper Conservative hopes of a redrawing of constituency boundaries before the next election. This is widely thought to have greatly reduced the likelihood of a Conservative majority at that election.

This Lib Dem move was a response to the Conservatives' refusal to support progress towards reform of the House of Lords.

When you recall that Lords reform was in the Conservative manifesto at the last election, you realise just how foolish they have been.

Stephen Tall helpfully pulled out the relevant quotes in a Lib Dem Voice post from April of last year:
We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current house of Lords, recognising that an efficient and effective second chamber should play an important role in our democracy and requires both legitimacy and public confidence.
And as Stephen points out, reform of the Lords was also in the Coalition Agreement.

I blogged as follows at the time Lords reform was blocked:
The Conservatives' willingness to throw away the redrawing of constituency boundaries, and thus greatly diminish their chances of a majority at the next election, is odd to say the least. 
It strengthens my belief that their backbenches are simply ungovernable. As I have argued before, One of the Coalition parties is not up to government - and it's not the Lib Dems and David Cameron is the new John Major. 
Some Conservatives have principled objections to reform of the Lords - or at least the reforms currently proposed. (They are, after all, Conservatives.) Others have no wish to lose the probability of an agreeable retirement job if things go wrong at the next election. 
But the argument I heard most often was that the Tory backbenches were furious that the Liberal Democrats had not supported Jeremy Hunt in the Commons vote of no confidence over his conduct during News Corporation's takeover of BSkyB. 
It is not so long since a man who let a young subordinate take the rap for his own misconduct would have aroused the ire of the knights of the shires. Now the Tory backbenches hero is a silly man with a silly haircut. And they are prepared to sacrifice their chances at the next election to support him.
I would add now that David Cameron showed an abysmal lack of leadership over Lords reform, obliging Nick Clegg to make all the running on the issue. So the proposals that came forward were Lib Dem proposals - I remember approving them, or something very like them, when I was on the party's Federal Policy Committee a decade ago.

No doubt the Conservatives had rather different Lords reforms in mind. So David Cameron should have negotiated with the Lib Dems over them, arrived at proposals that both parties could support and then led on them himself.

But he lacked the courage to take on his own party, hid behind the Liberal Democrats and as a result now finds it much less likely that he will win (or survive as Conservative leader) the next election.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Monday, January 28, 2013

Snowdrift at Bleath Gill

During the freeze I posted a short film about the railways in the winter of 1963.

As that was popular, here - even though the thaw has come - is another on the same theme from 1955.

Why aren't the Greens doing better?

The Democratic Audit report The Bradford Earthquake is now online.

Reading that report - or at least its executive summary - I am struck by how the themes of Labour complacency and its inability to fight when put to the test in its heartlands recall those that emerged during Liberal local government successes in earlier decades - this Liverpool in the 1970s and Tower Hamlets in the 1980s.

Now that we are in coalition with the Conservatives we Liberal Democrats will find it harder to present ourselves as the tribunes of the dispossessed in inner-city Britain. And George Galloway cannot stand for Respect everywhere, which suggests (as Mark Thompson argues) that Bradford West may be a one off.

But there is a party, untainted by government or coalition with the Conservatives, that could hope to take on Labour in the inner cities: the Greens. Yet they are nowhere to be seen?

Why not? It is not as if the Greens have tried fighting Labour in the cities: they do not appear to have tried it at all.

Maybe Green politics were a luxury of the years before the current depression. Maybe people like Green policies less the more they are exposed to them. Maybe, in the shape of Caroline Lucas, they share Respect's problem of having only one electable parliamentarian.

Whatever the reason, I am surprised the Greens are not doing better and even more surprised that they do not appear to be trying very hard.

Jerry Hayes on the Conservative backbenches

Not any more he isn't, you may say. But here is Jerry Hayes, the former Conservative MP, writing on his blog yesterday:
The Tory backbenches have become infested with a small coven of Cameron haters who will stop at nothing to orchestrate his downfall. They are the no hopers, the dispossessed, those who have been sacked and those who are desperate for promotion but have given up under the Cameron regime. Finally, most lethal of them all, those who feel that they are not listened to and are being condescended to by the posh boys.
Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

David Boyle's 'Barriers to Choice' report

I included a link to an article by David Boyle in my recent Six of the Best. In it David wrote about his review of choice in public services.

You can read the whole report for yourself as Barriers to Choice can be downloaded from the Cabinet Office website.

The report was the subject of a favourable editorial in this morning's Guardian:
The first thing to say about the Barriers to Choice study is that it doesn't feel like a government review at all. As an independent author, David Boyle is evidently not all steamed up about bringing in more private-sector players. He is also refreshingly level-headed about the benefits of providing patients and parents with ever more information: none of those Google-your-way-to-a-heart-transplant enthusiasms indulged in by Mr Cameron and Steve Hilton at their most tiggerish. But this very lack of Conservatism is what makes Mr Boyle's survey so interesting, because here may be the makings of a Lib Dem view of public-service reform.
Mark Pack is less enthusiastic:
The ideas in The Barriers To Choice Review are good. They are also – for want of a better wording – boring. Worthy but not the sort of stuff out of which you can fashion many leaflet headlines or news conference soundbites. 
In other words, it’s a great report for ideas about how to govern successfully. It’s far less useful at providing a guide to what the Liberal Democrats could say at future elections is its approach to improving public services. Electorally successful messages need to be found elsewhere.
This seems an odd reaction to me for two reasons.

First, though the Guardian says Barriers to Choice does not feel like a government review and surely means that as a compliment, it is a government report and it seems unreasonable to expect that a publication emerging from the Cabinet Office will read like an ALDC campaign guide.

Second, if even Dr Pack believes any document not written in text speak, Focus speak or platitudes about being fair to hard-working families is "boring", the fogeyish comments this blog sometimes ventures about the infantilisation of society are more justified than I realised.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Harrington: From nuclear missiles to gin

We Liberals are meant to believe in Progress. So I am pleased to be able to report that the Northamptonshire village of Harrington, previously the home to nuclear missiles, now has a gin distillery.

Molly Drake: How Wild the Wind Blows

Back in 2009 I chose Nick Drake's River Man as a Sunday music video. Since then his popularity, ironic for an artist who was so obscure in his short lifetime, has shown no sign of abating. His music is almost a cliche as backing for BBC factual programmes these days.

One result of Drake's continued prominence has been the discovery and issuing of the songs that his mother wrote and performed.

TwentyFourBit discusses their importance to her son's work:
As Nick Drake collaborator Joe Boyd has said, the music of his mother, Molly Drake, could provide a key to understanding the origins of the late folk legend’s influential work. 
After all, it was with her piano and encouragement that he first composed and recorded early demos to reel-to-reel tape. But more than that, Molly’s tunes share an uncanny resemblance to the tone within her son’s own catalog — a 3-LP run that haunts us to this day.
And Willis Music is enthusiastic about them too:
Her songs, rich in their emotion, profound and joyful in equal measure, were never meant for public consumption. Though Mrs. Drake was a wordsmith and pianist of some incredible talent, not to mention a sophisticated and accomplished poet (there is an additional booklet of some 45 poems included here), she was a private and humble woman, a family audience for her writings were enough for her and she showed no inclination to make her talent available on any public platform.
Certainly, it is obvious that Nick owed not only his looks but also his shy lyricism to his mother.

It appears these songs were written in the 1930s and 1940s, some in Burma and India where Molly's husband was working, and recorded by him in the 1950s. You can find them and some of her poetry on a 'CD portfolio package' called Molly Drake.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Six of the Best 317

"What I have found talking to a large number of service users around the country, and polling them more widely, is that a large majority of people are positive about choice in theory ... but are sometimes confused about it in practice ... They certainly want to choose – there was really no desire to go back to a deferential system where you got the service you were given – but they want to choose in a whole range of other areas where, at the moment, they can’t." David Boyle writes on Liberal Democrat Voice about his experiences heading a government review of choice in public services.

Carl Minns argues that we should support Michael Gove's education reforms and challenge the idea that children from deprived backgrounds cannot achieve: "This attitude seems prevalent in certain sections of the left who seem either ignorant of, or disagree with the driving ambition of most working class parents – they want their kids to go up that social ladder. They want them to get on and succeed and practically the only avenue for people on many of our estates to do this is through a good quality academic education. There was a time when the progressive tradition recognised this and it set up a myriad of institutions to ensure this was achieved."

What's next for the for the German Pirate Party?  asks Jon Worth on Tech President.

"Both the late nineteenth century and the present day are characterized by an economic volatility that seems to go hand in hand with the ossification of social inequality. There is the dazzling inventiveness of the markets, the gripping drama of the upswing and the plunge. Yet at the same time there is stasis: the wild ride never seems to unsettle the static divisions of wealth and power." Kim Phillips-Fein considers the alchemy of finance on Public Books.

On Sunday morning 500 Royalist soldiers will march along the Mall to muster in Horseguards. IanVisits explains.

aliwalks takes a snowy walk from Rothwell to Desborough and back.

Headline of the Day

From the Daily Mail:
Protestors demand Oprah pull her endorsement of 'fountain of youth' face cream because it is made from baby foreskins

Channel 4's Richard III documentary to be broadcast on 4 February

A couple of days ago I blogged that the University of Leicester will be announcing the results of the scientific tests on the skeleton found at Greyfriars at a press conference on Monday 4 February.

Now comes news that Channel 4 will be broadcasting Richard III: The King in the Car Park, their documentary on this dig and investigation at 9 p.m. that evening.

Which may be significant.

Later. And while you are waiting, why not read my earlier posts about the search for Richard III in Leicester?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Sexual politics and the sinking of the Titanic

There is a fascinating essay by Thomas Laqueur covering a number of recent books on the sinking of the Titanic in the current issue of the London Review of Books.

He argues that the class analysis of the disaster, as popularised by the James Cameron film, is not well founded. Facilities for steerage class passengers were far better on the Titanic than on most ships and the casualty list defies crude analysis:
The highest mortality rate was not in steerage but among the men in Second Class, who died at twice the rate of men in steerage and five times the rate of women there.
Besides, as Laqueur says, this class analysis misses the big story of the Titanic: gender. He writes:
First-class passengers were indeed 37 per cent more likely to survive than third-class. But men in all classes were 58 per cent more likely to die than women. Since there were three times as many women as men in Third Class and more or less even numbers in First, sexual selection took its greatest toll there. Put differently, women in steerage survived at a higher rate than men in first.
He goes on:
On board the ship Edwardian codes of masculinity were on occasion enforced with insane zealotry. Second Officer Charles Lightoller, the most senior survivor of the crew, interpreted the captain’s orders, ‘women and children first’, to mean women and children first and only. No men. He forced boys as young as 11 out of boats.
And this zealotry was self-defeating:
Men on the starboard side fared better because First Officer William Murdoch interpreted the order to mean that men could board if no women and children were waiting for a place. And some men – most important, some lowly crew members and strong labourers among the passengers – sneaked onto boats on the port side when Lightoller was turned away. This was a good thing, because they were able to row the boats away from the sinking ship.
And this chivalry, in many ways admirable, was explicitly used as a way of arguing against women's rights:
Davenport-Hines quotes Churchill’s letter to his wife: ‘The strict observance of the great traditions of the sea towards women and children reflects nothing but honour upon our civilisation.’ And he hoped it would set right ‘some of the young unmarried lady teachers’ – aka suffragettes – ‘who are so bitter in their sex antagonism and think men so base and vile’. 
That view was widespread. ‘When a woman talks women’s rights, she should be answered with the word Titanic, nothing more – just Titanic,’ a correspondent in the St Louis Post-Dispatch observed.
Lightoller, let us remember, was the character played by Kenneth More in the 1958 film. As Matthew Sweet once said, "You almost get the feeling watching A Night To Remember that the ship goes down simply to wipe the smug grin off of Kenneth More's face."

Anyway, does this analysis mean  the price of women having the vote was their being more likely to drown the next time a liner runs into an iceberg?

It is a really good article and well worth reading. After more than a century the Titanic story has lost none of its grip on our imaginations.

What would the Tory right do after it left Europe?

There was a good article in the Daily Telegraph by Peter Oborne yesterday. He pointed out that David Cameron's speech on Europe had won him short-term acclaim but risks long-term disaster:
Mr Cameron, by committing the Tories to an in-out referendum, has greatly increased the likelihood that Britain will eventually leave the European Union, while a formal split within the Conservative Party over Europe now looks almost certain.
In other words, the Conservative backwoods are supporting Cameron now because he has made it possible for him to oppose him in any referendum campaign.

Oborne also draws instructive parallels between Cameron's position now and Harold Wilson's in his last years as prime minister.

Another thing that strikes me about the Tory right is that withdrawing from Europe has become an end in itself. They are never able to spell out all the exciting things a British Conservative government would be able to do if only it were not hamstrung by Brussels.

It reminds me of the way that, after the Revolution, comrades are told of the new Jerusalem that will arise once the saboteurs and traitors have been liquidated, but eventually the Terror becomes an end in itself.

The most substantial essay there has been in this direction was Britannia Unchained put together by a group of young backbenchers.

But it didn't sound the sort of stuff to win over centrist voters. In the words of a Daily Telegraph report:
Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, who are all seen as rising stars on the right of the party, describe British workers as among the "worst idlers" in the world, and urge David Cameron to reform work places along the lines of the Asian, rather than the European model.
Britain's future as the Singapore or South Korea of the West? Suddenly the European Union seems remarkably attractive.

Welcoming a law change that will increase freedom of speech

Ask Liberal Democrat activists what they believe in and they will tell you that it is, above all, individual liberty.

Yet it can be difficult to discover just what it is that we would be free to do under a Liberal Democrat government that we cannot do now. We are often to be found on the side of the argument that favours restrictions on liberty for the sake of desirable outcomes like better public health.

So I was pleased to see Jeremy Browne's article on Lib Dem Voice celebrating the fact that the government is to remove the words “insulting words or behaviour” from Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986.

However, we shall have to see more gains like this if we are to justify his words:
Civil liberties are not often cause célèbre. It has been too easy, for too long, for governments to eat away at our freedom without most people noticing. Now, in government, Liberal Democrats are steadily reversing that tide.
In particular, our ministers are going to have to resist the new Communications Data Bill which Theresa May and other Conservatives are determined to bring in.

And the commenter on Lib Dem Voice, though he grievously overstates his case, has a point when he says this may feel less like a government that is increasing individual freedom if you are a benefit claimant - especially a disabled claimant.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Jonathan Meades: The Joy of Essex

A heads up for fellow Meades fans: his The Joy of Essex is to be broadcast on BBC4 at 9 p.m.on Tuesday 29 January with a repeat in the small hours of the following morning.

While you are impatiently waiting, you could read my post In which I find Jonathan Meades's Severn Heaven.

Results of Richard III tests to be announced on 4 February

From the Leicester Mercury:
The results of scientific tests performed on the Greyfriars remains, thought to be those of King Richard III, will be revealed to the world early next month. 
The University of Leicester has today set a date for a press conference which will brief the world on the identity of the skeleton found buried beneath a city council car park in August, last year. 
On Monday, February 4, the media will gather at the university to find out whether archaeologists have made one of the biggest discoveries of recent times.
The University of Leicester has a good page detailing the numerous tests that have been carried out on the skeleton.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rectory Woods, Church Stretton - "the least stressful location in England"

Rectory Woods take the countryside right into the centre of Church Stretton. The Shropshire Council leaflet describes it as follows:
Rectory Wood once formed part of the grounds of the Rectory in Church Stretton. In around 1775 the owner, James Mainwaring, made great changes to create a designed woodland landscape garden. 
It is believed that Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, a friend of Mainwaring and arguably the greatest British landscape gardener of the Georgian era, influenced the design here at Rectory Wood. Capability Brown used the natural form of the landscape to create his gardens. He planted trees to break up the landscape and to create views across sweeping open spaces that would lead right up to the houses. Perhaps his most notable feature was his use of water, creating many 'natural' lakes, which were then connected by bridges. 
A ‘Capability’ landscape creation was usually on a grand scale. He was responsible for landscaping some of the finest country houses and estate gardens in Britain. At Rectory Wood, his influence can be seen on a smaller scale. 
Today, the history, wildlife and pleasures of Rectory Wood can be enjoyed by everyone. The well-preserved remains of this designed landscape can still be discovered; there are formal walks, a stream and yew-ringed pool and sites of buildings, which include an ice house and pump house.
According to another Shropshire Council site, in May 2009 someone wrote as follows in the Independent:
By a series of twisty byways and capricious diagonals, I'd discovered the least stressful location in England: its name is Rectory Wood, Church Stretton.
So this is a good place to end my posts about last summer's holiday in Yorkshire and Shropshire. The photograph shows the remains of the pump house beside the pool, deep in the woods.

Tom McNally says Rutland County Council's legal action against its own members is doomed

From the Leicester Mercury:
A debate in the House of Lords has disputed the advice that Rutland County Council has received from Bevan Brittan in connection with the actions of the Rutland Anti-Corruption Group. 
At the Grand Committee Meeting of the House of Lords on Thursday, 17 January 2013, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally) said: 
"My officials have explored the issue with officials at the Department for Communities and Local Government, which is responsible for the 2011 Act. The Government are in no doubt that if a case were brought, the courts would still find that local authorities cannot bring action in defamation."
Read more in Hansard.

Lib Dems believe there's life on Mars

Liberal Democrats are the party members most likely to believe in aliens, according to a poll reported by This is Gloucestershire:
A survey carried out by research company Ipsos MORI showed that, of all the political parties, 25 per cent of Lib Dems quizzed over whether they believed life would be found on Mars this year said yes. 
It compared to 18 per cent of Labour voters and 16 per cent of Conservatives.
And the report turns up a couple of local Lib Dems to exemplify these findings:
Cheltenham Mayor Colin Hay (LD, Oakley) said the results of the survey showed backers of his party were possibly more open-minded than their counterparts. 
"I'm not sure what the survey proves really, but I suppose you could say that perhaps Lib Dem voters are a bit more open-minded than your average voter," he said. 
"I don't think it shows they are gullible – perhaps just that they are prepared to believe there is something out there." 
However, Mr Hay said he did not believe Cheltenham was under threat of an alien invasion any time soon.
Fellow Lib Dem councillor Charles Stewart (All Saints) said was a firm believer in extra-terrestrial life. 
He urged the people of Cheltenham to keep an open mind over whether there was something out there. 
"I believe in aliens," he said. 
"There is so much we don't know about I'm of the view that you can't rule anything out until the proof is there in front of you. 
"Perhaps this shows we Lib Dems are more likely to reserve judgement until we have the full facts." 
Asked whether he thought an alien landing was more likely than the Liberal Democrats winning a majority in Government, Mr Stewart remained diplomatic. 
"I'd better not say," he added. "They are both probably some way off."

Bertrand Russell goes to Bollywood

Open Culture explains the existence of this unlikely film clip:
The year was 1967. Russell was by then a very frail 95-year-old man. Besides finishing work on his three-volume autobiography, Russell was devoting much of his remaining time to the struggle for peace and nuclear disarmament. To that end, he sometimes made himself available to people he thought could help the cause ... So when he was asked to appear in a movie called Aman, about a young Indian man who has just received his medical degree in London and wants to go to Japan to help victims of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Russell said yes.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Why do so many schools close when it snows?

A couple of inches of snow and schools across the country close. My memory, which I admit may be faulty, is that my schools never closed because of snow. We just pulled on our wellies and trudged to school.

Why this change?

opobs (from whom I have borrowed my illustration, which comes originally from Friends Reunited), discussing his own youth in the 1950s, offers one explanation:
Back in my school days we knew where all the teachers lived, they were all local and part of our community, they all walked to school, indeed, only the headmaster had a car and there was a special place in the playground for him to park; one or two of the teachers lived out of town and they came in by bus or train, but they were an exception, so in the snow nearly all the teachers could get into work.
I suspect, too, that more children travel long distances to school nowadays because of our emphasis on choice. Add to that the expansion of car ownership and parents' unwillingness to allow children to walk to school and you see why there is more pressure to close schools.

Maybe this is sensible and it is silly to complain about the modern mania for elf 'n safety. But one thing worries me.

In the Tony Blair years the airwaves were full of politicians and headteachers telling us how dreadful truancy is and how parents must be prosecuted because children never recover from missing even a single day of school.

I suspect that much the same people are telling us this week that it is perfectly reasonable for schools to close for the day at the first sign of appreciable snowfall. They have a duty of care to the teachers who work in them, after all.

Why, it's almost as if public services are run for the benefit of those working in them rather than for that of the wider public!

Six of the Best 316

The government should stop dismantling historical gains made in equalities legislation, argues Issan Ghazni.

On Liberator's blog Simon Titley discusses reports that the Liberal Democrats' most generous donor, Rumi Verjee, is to be nominated for a peerage.

Community Land Trusts have helped local people take control of land and develop housing solutions in rural areas across the UK. Now for the first time this model is being used to help tackle London’s dysfunctional housing market, as Kate MacTiernan explains on New Start.

"In the past three years there has been a rapid growth of interest in community shares - a form of finance that allows many small investors to club together to buy community assets. They have been used to buy shops, pubs and other community buildings, to fund green energy projects and even to help supporters buy a football club." David Ainsworth examines an encouraging development for Third Sector.

"The Wolves of Willoughby Chase can be mistaken for a parody Victorian—country houses with secret passages, orphans, evil governesses, railroad-train compartments—but it is a rarer thing than that. It’s never coy or arch (which Aiken said books for children should never be), but it is heard differently by an adult reader, who greets the arrival of common plot turns, descriptive tropes, and matched good-evil characters with pleasure, like old friends showing up suddenly at the door, even as the young reader wants to know only what happens next." John Crowley in the Boston Review says grown ups should read Joan Aiken, not J.K. Bleeding Rowling.

Adrift hunts for the remains of tide mills on the Sussex coast.

Edgar Granville, champion defector

Winston Churchill once said: "Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat."

But Churchill does not hold the record as Britain's most prolific defector, according to a new post by Dr Alun Wyburn-Powell:
This title goes to Edgar Granville, who had five changes of party label to his name. He was first elected to the House of Commons for Eye in Suffolk as a Liberal in 1929. In 1931 he became a Liberal National, but left to sit as an independent during the war, before returning to the Liberals just before the 1945 election. 
After losing his seat in the Liberals’ worst general election performance in 1951, he joined the Labour Party. Granville was never re-elected as an MP, but he was created a Labour peer. However, his allegiance to the Labour Party did not last and he ended his days as a cross-bencher.

Wrangling over Edward Heath's house

In June 2010 I reported that Edward Heath's home ("one of Britain's more unlikely tourist attractions") was to be sold at the end of the year.

It turns out that things were not that straightforward. A report on the Third Sector website today reports that the former Conservative Robert Key has resigned as a trustee of the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation. He says that a new proposal to raise money for its restoration has "thwarted" the board's intentions:
"The house should be sold and the money spent on young people, not on old buildings," he told Third Sector. "We have consulted everyone, including English Heritage, and all the advice is that Arundells will never be financially viable. The commission told us it would have to consider the new plan and that will mean a delay of about two years so I think the will of the trustees has been thwarted."
Third Sector also reports the views of the remaining trustees and of The Friends of Arundells, "a grass-roots campaign group that wants the building to stay open to the public".

Meanwhile, a mystery remains. How did someone from a humble background, who made his career in an era when MPs were less generously paid than they are today, end up owning a large house in the Cathedral Close at Salisbury?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Julian Critchley's grave at Wistanstow

The churchyard at Wistanstow is probably not the site of the martyrdom of St Wystan, but it does contain the grave of one of my favourite MPs.

Julian Critichley sat for Rochester and Chatham between 1959 and 1964, and for Aldershot between 1970 and 1997. As his Guardian obituary by John Biffen suggested:
The broken Westminster service between 1964 and 1970 was crucial to Critchley's political career. He was a liberal Tory, supporting one-nation social policies, membership of the European Community, and a defence policy based on Nato and a nuclear strategy. He would have been a natural and able young ally for Edward Heath, campaigning for him against the Conservative right, which was increasingly hostile to the Rome Treaty and current levels of public spending. No one can say how Critchley would have handled his opportunities had he remained in Westminster between 1964 and 1970 ... 
He was always vulnerable because of his irreverent humour, which could lead to incautious and overt disrespect. If he had been able to reign back this, and with application surely he could, then opposition service during the parliaments of the 1960s could have ensured office in the 1970-74 Heath administration. This was not to be. Soon, he was politically marginalised by the triumph of Margaret Thatcher. He doubted her policies and even more the self-righteous way in which they were promoted.
His political ambitions thwarted, Critchley became increasingly popular as a journalist and broadcaster on politics.

Critchley's biography A Bag of Boiled Sweets is one of the most human political memoirs I know and also expresses his love of Shropshire.

He also gave a revealing interview to Naim Attallah:
I had two heroes in politics: Macmillan and Roy Jenkins. Macmillan, because he controlled to a very great extent Britain’s decline in power and was responsible for our adjustment in straitened circumstances – something he managed despite a party of fools. My admiration for Roy Jenkins was based on the fact that as a young Labour MP he would advocate the cause of Europe in cross-party meetings, and he advocated brilliantly.

Darts: The Boy from New York City

In June of last year I wrote about the odd experience of hearing a record on a rerun of Top of the Pops from 1977 when I had no memory of it from the time - step forward Contempt.

But those reruns have also led me to reappraise a band I do remember from the time: Darts.

I have taken to describing them as "Showaddywaddy with irony", but they had a more interesting history than that.

The Independent obituary of the band's pianist Hammy Howell describes its genesis:
Darts had evolved from the break-up of Rocky Sharpe and the Razors, a rock 'n' roll revue-style act who had caused a sensation on London's pub-rock scene.
That obituary also says that Stiff Records, the great punk and new wave label of the day, wanted to sign them.

The Darts Story vouches for their credentials in that direction:
By way of a testament to their musical prowess, here's what Cliff White of the NME wrote in August 1977. "Halfway through the (Darts) set, it was pointed out to me that a well-known gent about town who rejoices in the pseudonym of Johnny Rotten was standing within spitting distance of the back of my head and seemed to be enjoying the show. Good for him and good for Darts."
Vintagerock's Weblog describes them in their prime:
This band were a whole lot of fun with great harmonies, and a very intricate and well choreographed stage show. Records such as Daddy Cool were OK as were their TV appearances, but they just didn’t come close to how good this band was live. Put Darts in front of a packed crowd of students late on a Friday night, with beer flowing, and a good time was definitely had by all.
There do seem to be an awful lot of people on stage here, but if you look at some more Youtube clips you will find that all four singers could sing lead and all were good.

The lead singer here, Rita Ray, is now an influential DJ with a deep interest in African music. The bass Dan Hegarty, by contrast, went on to present Tiswas.

Market Harborough in the snow

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The railways in the winter of 1963

Earlier this evening the BBC showed a fascinating documentary from 1963 about that year's exceptionally hard winter. Both Ridley Scott and Anthony Jay were credited part of the production team at the end.

The programme made me realise what a very different world I was born into - I was a toddler when all this was taking place. I also wonder if today, with our dependence on supermarkets and just-in-time distribution, we would cope better or worse with such a winter.

This short film shows how the railways coped in January and February 1963. According to the BFI it was nominated for an Oscar, and as for its director:
Since the 1950s, Geoffrey R Llewellyn Jones has been making multi-award-winning short films that look, sound and feel like nothing else. With his extraordinary marriage of images, music and rhythm, he ranks alongside such luminaries as Norman McLaren and Len Lye, and remains one of Britain’s true film artists.

Correction of the Day

From the Guardian:
An interview with the actor Laura Linney referred to her latest film role as Daisy, the real-life distant cousin of Franklin D Roosevelt, and quoted her as saying that Daisy used to store the knick-knacks FDR brought back from around the world in a latrine. Not quite. That was a mishearing on the part of the interviewer. Daisy stored the knick-knacks in a vitrine – a glass display case.

Ice hockey in 19th-century England

The winter remained mild till early in January when the first green leaves had appeared on the woodbine. One evening Polly announced that it was going to freeze, for the cat as he sat on the hearthrug had put his paw over his ear. If he sat with his back to the fire, that was a sign of rain. If he put his paw over his ear that indicated frost. 
It did freeze and hard. The wind being still, the New Sea was soon frozen over except in two places. There was a breathing-hole in Fir-Tree Gulf about fifty or sixty yards from the mouth of the Nile. The channel between New Formosa and Serendib did not “catch,” perhaps the current from Sweet River Falls was the cause, and though they could skate up within twenty yards, they could not land on the islands. Jack and Frances came to skate day after day; Bevis and Mark with Ted, Cecil, and the rest fought hockey battles for hours together.
Richard Jefferies Bevis: The Story of a Boy (1882) As I have said before, one of the reasons I like Richard Jefferies (about whom I wrote my Masters dissertation) so much are his unexpected insights into social history. Who knew that village lads in 19th-century England played ice hockey?

The 'New Sea' is Jefferies' and his characters' improved or mythologised version of Coate Water near Swindon.

Haile Selassie in Craven Arms

A couple of days ago, while looking at Wistanstow Village Hall, I quoted from 'Reminiscences of Wistanstow' by Michael Coles. Here is another extract from that book:
In 1936 the Italians invaded Abyssinia and the Emperor Haile Selassie had to flee, He was given refuge by this country and one day whilst I was at Craven Arms railway station he arrived with his entourage to stay at Walcot Hall on the way to Lydbury North, which was a mansion owned by the Stephenson Ink people.
In stature, he was a small man, very swarthy and black-bearded, with striking features. His helmet had big white feathers on top and his military uniform was well-decorated with a sash and medals. How long he stayed locally I have no idea, but that is my memory of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Abyssinia, also known as the 'Lion Man'.
When I first visited Shropshire I imagined that Craven Arms would be a medieval town like Much Wenlock or Church Stretton. Not a bit of it. It is a Victorian town, named after a pre-existing hotel and built around a cattle market and railway junction, which has somehow always failed to thrive. My picture shows Craven Arms' derelict Temperance Hall.

At least when Haile Selassie saw it the railway station had refreshment rooms and was not the wasteland of bus shelters you see today. And maybe the Shropshire tourism people can use this story to bring Rastafarian tourists to the area.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Play of the Day

From Whats on the Fringe:
"Impotent" is a pitch-black comedy drama set in the murky world of a Market Harborough Genito-Urinary Medicine Department.
Enjoy it at the Lion and Unicorn, Kentish Town, until 26 January.

Six of the Best 315

Heresy Corner writes on the extraordinarily poor judgement of Judge Tugendhat: "Part of the problem with Mark Kennedy was that he came to believe that he was the hero of his own thriller, doing things of vital national significance. But then this sort of self-aggrandisement is common enough in the culture of the organisations for which he worked, as typified by the use of terms like "domestic extremism": give something a scary-sounding name, and it is instantly metamorphosed into a serious threat. The last thing we need is High Court judges "lending credence" to their Fleming-style fantasies."

A growing appetite to limit the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights has emerged among British MPs. Their criticism is mistaken, and undermines the very important work the Court does in areas like Chechnya, says Philip Leach on Open Democracy.

On the 50th anniversary of his sudden death, Ballots & Bullets considers the legacy of the Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell.

Adam Vaughan on plans for a city of green roofs to revitalise London.

Amusement arcades have declined because of our changing view of childhood as much as technological advance, argues Laura June on The Verge.

Metro blogger Ross McG nominates the best chess scenes in film history.

Bunga bunga gender split

On 5 December 2009 some 250,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Rome to protest against the politics of the then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Both men and women joined the demonstration, but they joined for different reasons. That is according to a study published today in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

This study, led by Dr Maria Paladino of the University of Trento, involved an online questionnaire which included a short video about Mr Berlusconi’s behaviour during 2009. From December 2009 to April 2010, 632 Italian people (424 women and 208 men) completed a questionnaire about their views and emotions on this issue. The study also asked about the respondent’s involvement in protests or demonstrations.

Dr Paladino explained: "We investigated the role of beliefs and group-based emotional reactions in women's and men's mobilisation against public forms of sexism.

"The findings of this study suggest that women and men engaged in this protest for different reasons. Women mobilised to express their anger at Berlusconi's sexist behaviour, an emotion related to the condemnation of hostile sexist views and benevolent sexist beliefs about heterosexual intimacy.

"In contrast, the strength of men's participation in the protest was affected by humiliation, an emotion related to the condemnation of hostile sexist beliefs and support for complementary gender differentiation. This emotional path suggests that men likely protested to restore their reputations."

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wistanstow Village Hall - a palace built on chamber pots

Wistanstow, says the Shropshire Tourism website, has probably the best village hall in the world:
Mrs Harriett Greene completed the black and white mock medieval hall in 1926 from the Grove estate as a memorial to her husband who died 11 years previously. It was built by estate workers using local timber, stones and bricks. Not a nail was used, only wooden pegs. When first built it included a projection room for silent films, slipper baths costing 1d a go, library and billiards room. The bungalows in the corners were for the caretaker and the district nurse.
Harriet's husband, Henry David Greene, was Conservative MP for Shrewsbury between 1892 and 1906.

As to where the Greene family's money came from, 'Reminiscences of Wistanstow' by Michael Coles enlightens us:
The Greenes of the Grove made their money, I believe, in pottery: they had a factory in the Midlands, which made mainly "under-the-bed" pots (also known as "goesunders"). However, flush toilets soon began to put "potties" out of fashion, and the Greenes did not diversify so closed up, but their fortune had already been made.

Paul Burstow introduces bill on adult social care

Today Paul Burstow, who seems to have gained a new lease of life since being sacked as a health minister, introduced his Corporate Accountability and Safeguarding of Adults from Abuse and Neglect in the Commons.

As he described it in his speech:
My Bill has two elements: to improve adult safeguarding and to close a loophole in the criminal law. It would amend the Health and Social Care Act 2008 to include a new offence of corporate neglect. This new law would act as a deterrent. It would force weak boards of directors to pull their socks up, visiting their services, talking to and, vitally, listening to the people who use those services and listening to and including the families of those whom they are caring for—and, yes, engaging with the staff, being interested in them and in their professional development.
Paul also published a report on the subject today - you can download it from his website.

And a report on the Community Care website gives more background to Paul's bill:
In a contribution to Burstow's report, the authors of the Winterbourne View SCR, Margaret Flynn and Vic Citarella, explained how they received "a lack of financial transparency and co-operation" from Castlebeck, the provider that ran the learning disability hospital. 
"This was by no means the first instance of non-cooperation in an [adult serious case reviews]," said Burstow's report. "In some instances, even public bodies and health officials have been reticent in ensuring full and unwavering cooperation. This poses a threat to the legitimacy and effectiveness of [reviews] and undermines the important role they play within the field of adult safeguarding."

Lib Dem wriggling on Europe comes back to bite Clegg on the bum

Yesterday Nick Clegg took part in a notably scratchy interview on the Radio's Today programme. In part this was due to that programme's philosophy that its own presenters are far more interesting and important than those they interview. Justin Webb once looked as though he might be an exception to this, but he now fits in very well.

Another example of the programme's failings, incidentally, was its coverage of this morning's helicopter crash. It took half an hour for it to be mentioned, and the show ended with John Humphrys informing us that the helicopter was still dangling from the crane. It was like watching a carthorse trying to do dressage.

But much of the blame for that unsatisfactory interview has to go to the Liberal Democrats themselves. Because our record on Europe and referendums was very difficult for Nick to defend.

Let me quote from an article I wrote in Liberal Democrat News - a rare example of my writing for that paper "because I had something to say, not because I had a deadline to meet":
The Liberal Democrats voted for a referendum on Maastricht. We called for one on the Lisbon treaty until we had the chance to vote for it in the Commons in February 2008. Then we walked out, demanding an in-or-out referendum instead. That has been our policy ever since, until we had a chance to vote for an in-or-out referendum on Monday, whereupon we voted against it. 
It may be possible to find a thread of principle running through this history – at the last general election we called for an in-or-out referendum only when "a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU" – but I have a simpler idea. Let’s stop calling for referendums on Europe altogether ... 
For years the main parties have engaged in something close to a conspiracy. The issue of Europe has been taken out of general elections, with the promise that it will be decided through a referendum. Those referendums never take place. The result has been an infantilisation of debate on Europe, as politicians are allowed to take up self-indulgent, extreme positions they know they will never have to defend to the electorate. 
This process has been bad for us Liberal Democrats, encouraging the idea that all we need do to prosper is not offend anybody and deliver lots and lots of leaflets. And it has been bad for democracy as a whole. Why should voters feel enthusiastic about Westminster when their representatives avoid talking about one of the most important issues facing the country?
I ended by saying that the way to thwart the Tory right  is not to shunt Europe off to referendum campaigns that never happen but to return the issue to the centre of our general election campaigns.

This is still what I believe today, and we cannot complain if our wriggling in an attempt to avoid talking about Europe appears less than impressive to journalists and voters.

Incidentally, the Tory enthusiasm for a referendum on Europe is yet another example of the modern Conservative Party's divorce from its own philosophy.

British Conservatives used to insist on the inherent superiority of our constitution on other models. Now they are happy to junk it because of their obsession with the European Union.

Unsuccessful Simile of the Day

The Labour MP for Walthamstow needs to work on this a bit:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Joyce Hatto and The Great Piano Scam

In Six of the Best 312 I linked to a blog post about the curious case of Joyce Hatto. This documentary tells more of the story.

Six of the Best 314

"Terminally ill patients who are mentally competent ought surely to be able to get medical help to end their lives. Unless they are absolutely desperate, refusing medication or ceasing to eat or drink are not to be contemplated. A relative of mine who died in a care home not long ago used to say every time I visited her that she wished she could die, but it never occurred to her to do either." Eric Avebury makes the case for assisted dying on Liberal Democrat Voice.

"The Occupy movements dramatised questions about public space — who owns it? who can use it? — and provided some surprising answers." Richard Sennett writes on British Politics and Policy at LSE

Times Higher Education has an interview with Albie Sachs.

Ten ideas for social change in East London are presented on New Start by Claire Golf. And they may have far wider application.

adambaseyfood from Melton Mowbray calls on us to shop local.

"I guess that’s why cats seem the more popular companion for writers. They’re happy to sit on the desk beside you and be stroked now and again; they’re rarely in a hurry, whereas a dog wants you to take it on a walk and throw things for it." Lesism - by Les Floyd examines our curious relationship with cats.

Monday, January 14, 2013

When I came last to Ludlow

I once had a conversation with the Canon Jeremy Saville - the younger son of Malcolm Saville - who sadly died in 2009.

We were discussing the places in which his father had set his children's books. I said that while I liked the perfect towns like Ludlow and Rye which he had written about, I could find them a little too pleased with themselves - I once was once told off at the information centre in Ludlow for not booking accommodation in advance.

I said that in some ways - or in some moods -  I preferred the scruffier, even desolate settings of Snailbeach and Dungeness. Jeremy agreed with me.

I tried Ludlow again this summer and again did not quite get on with it. The answer, I suspect, is to visit such places out of season. Certainly, Ludlow is at its best in the autumn when the crowds have gone and the woods on the other side of the Teme are turning.

At least one Conservative MP may oppose boundary changes

Liberal Democrat and Labour peers have combined this evening to defeat the Conservatives' plans to redraw constituency boundaries. Much to the annoyance of the Conservatives.

David Cameron, it is said, will have a stage a final attempt to get the measure passed by the Commons later this month. But the prospect of the Tories persuading all the minor parties to vote with them and thus defeating the combined vote of the Lib Dems and Labour now seems remote.

And at it is possible that at least one Conservative will vote against the plans in the Commons. Here is Glyn Davies, the MP for Montgomeryshire, writing on his blog just before Christmas:
If passed, the Montgomeryshire I have known man and boy would be no more. The new constituencies that touch on mid Wales will have population centres elsewhere. My local party association is so horrified by the implications of the proposals that it has told me in no uncertain terms that they want me to oppose the new boundaries. 
And at a personal level, I would hate to see all the work we have done to build our Association in Montgomeryshire disappear in a cloud of angry blue smoke - because I believe those who have done this transformational work will not carry on. The outcome would be so horrific that I simply couldn't carry on either. The principles which underpin an MP's work are country first, party second and self third - and this change will end Parliamentary democracy in mid Wales as we know it. 
I face some choice. If I vote for the new boundaries, I will be turning my back on all I've worked for in public life and all those I've worked with in Montgomeryshire.
Davies does not commit himself to voting against the measure in this post, but his views do seem to me to be just what a Conservative should believe on this question.

As I wrote on this blog in August of last year:
the argument that all local quirks and traditional loyalties must be sacrificed to abstract notions of fairness is an odd one in the mouth of a Conservative
I could add that Conservatives should also be keen to ensure that rural interests are not crowded out by urban ones. And if that means smaller constituencies in areas like the Welsh border, so be it.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Do conspiracy theories reduce political engagement?

I came across an interesting paper in the British Journal of Psychology at work today: 'The social consequences of conspiracism' by Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas from the University of Kent. (That link will take you to a PDF of the whole paper.)

In it the researchers explore the potential consequences of exposure to governmental conspiracy theories on intentions to engage in politics.

Their conclusion:
Research exploring the consequences of conspiracy theories is timely because despite claims that they are harmful, especially in raising suspicion concerning scientific claims, ... there is little evidence supporting this claim. 
The current studies demonstrate that some wariness about conspiracy theories may indeed be warranted. Specifically, the current research provides evidence that exposure to conspiracy theories may potentially have important social consequences. 
People who were exposed to conspiracy theories about both shady and suspicious government operations and that climate change is a hoax, reported less intention to engage in the political system – an effect that occurred because conspiracy theories led to feelings of political powerlessness. 
Furthermore, people who were exposed to conspiracy theories about climate change reported less intention to reduce their carbon footprint – an effect that occurred because conspiracy theories led to feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty towards climate change, and also feelings of disappointment in climate scientists. 
The current research therefore opens up a new line of research investigating the social consequences of an ever-growing climate of conspiracism.
There is a danger that anyone who questions mainstream explanations of events will be dismissed as a 'conspiracy theorist'. As Hillsborough has shown, sometimes those explanations are plain wrong and do involve actions that it is reasonable to describe as a conspiracy.

However, the reasearchers have adopted a reasonably tight definition of 'conspiracism' - "Conspiracy theories can be described as attempts to explain the ultimate causes of events as secret plots by powerful forces rather than as overt activities or accidents" - for this study.

Opening Sentence of the Day

Well done BBC News:
A German student "mooned" a group of Hell's Angels and hurled a puppy at them before escaping on a stolen bulldozer, police have said.
The puppy, in case you are worried, is now being cared for in an animal shelter.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Who: Substitute

Even when I was most interested in the charts in the 1970s, I sensed that the music of the 1960s had been better.

When this was re-released in 1976 I went out and bought it with my Saturday job money.When you were 16 you had to really like a single to buy it. Which is why that neglected box of old singles may be a better clue to your real musical tastes than your CD collection or electric iPod thing.

As a bonus, the 1976 single had "Pictures of Lily" and "I'm a Boy" on the flip side. It made number seven in the charts.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Past Beneath Your Feet at the University of Leicester

I spent the afternoon at the University of Leicester attending The Past Beneath Your Feet. This was a public event held alongside the annual conference of The Society for Historical Archaeology.

The programme featured three public lectures and a busy exhibition area with stalls run by local and national organisations and historical re-enactors.

Francis Pryor, well known from the time team, gave the first lecture on 'The prehistory of the present' and took us through some of the discoveries made by Time Team. He has been a regular on the series for many years.

He began by saying that his specialism of prehistoric archaeology is in some ways easier. If you don't understand something you call it a ritual and invent an anthropological explanation for it. (I paraphrase, but that is pretty close to what he said. It was nice to have my prejudices about prehistory confirmed.)

By contrast, he said, every archaeological investigation of a medieval or later site takes place against a rich background of written history. So your conclusions are inevitably seen as an attempt to confirm or refute was has been argued before.

The Time Team investigation he seemed most proud of was the dig at a temporary village where navvies building the Settle & Carlisle railway had lived. The excavations there painted a very different, more civilised, picture of the life of the navvy to the one we are familiar with.

The second speaker was Carenza Lewis, also well known from Time Team, who spoke about the work of Access Cambridge Archaeology. This is an outreach project aimed in particular at involving young people in archaeology and raising their educational aspirations.

She described their work of digging test pits in villages across East Anglia, and her analysis of the results. This suggested that many villages had contracted after the Black Death, with outlying settlements being abandoned for centuries.

This sort of investigation, she said, is a great way of bringing a village together. She even suggested that her work with Michael Wood on The Story of England had brought Kibworth Harcourt and Kibworth Beauchamp together.

The third speaker was Kevin Leahy from the Portable Antiquities Scheme. He spoke about the extraordinary Staffordshire Hoard, whose discovery and conservation he has been closely involved with.

He showed us slides of the finds and explained that the hoard is almost certainly booty won in battle by Mercia from the other Saxon kingdoms in the seventh century.

It was a free, enjoyable and well-attended afternoon. Like the crowds who went to see the Richard III excavation in Leicester even before it was announced that a skeleton had been found, it suggests that there is a considerable public enthusiasm for archaeology.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Kibworth Harcourt and Kibworth Beauchamp

Yesterday a poll of the residents of the parishes of Kibworth Beauchamp and Kibworth Harcourt was held to gauge views on a proposal to group the two parishes under a single council.

Harborough District Council has the results:

Kibworth Beauchamp
Yes - 549 votes (87%)
No - 84 votes (13%)
Total votes - 633
Turnout - 19.4%

Kibworth Harcourt
Yes - 91 votes (31%)
No - 211 votes (69%)
Total votes - 302
Turnout - 25.5%

So it was a yes from Beauchamp and a no from Harcourt. This poll is not binding, but I suspect that means the merger will not go ahead.

Anyone who watched Michael Wood's The Story of England will not be surprised that the two villages failed to agree. Take this passage from his book of the series:
In 1885 when the new vicar, the ebullient Bangalore-born Merton man Edmund Knox, took on the parish of Kibworth, the rivalry between the two Kibworths was one of the most striking, and challenging, aspects of his new living. 
Beauchamp, he noted, the home of 'stockeners' and predominantly 'radical', was in stark contrast to Harcourt, 'the home of the sporting squirearchy and retired businessmen of Leicester'. 
Between the two 'was kept up a half-playful antagonism', with even the most minor disagreement eliciting 'fiery eloquence' poured forth with 'passion such I had never heard in Oxford'. 
On one occasion, he recorded: 
The vestry debated warmly the plan of a sewer which was to run down a road that divided the two villages. It was even suggested, with a fine disregard of costs, that two parallel sewers should be constructed, that the sewage of one village should not be 'contaminated' by the waste of the other.
I am not taking sides, but my photograph above shows the Old House in Kibworth Harcourt.