Monday, June 30, 2014

Grand Union Canal, Northampton Arm

The River Nene is navigable for 88 miles from the Wash near Sutton Bridge (I once visited the ornamental lighthouses there) to its junction with the Northampton.Arm of the Grand Union Canal.

The photograph above shows the canal coming in from the left and the river continuing upstream to the right. Although the main channel is not navigable above this point, a backwater can be followed for half a mile or so towards Northampton railway station.

And below you can see the first lock on the Northampton Arm, which is just out of site in the first photo. Below that you can see some scenes from along the first mile or so of the canal, including the bridge that carried the old line from Northampton Castle to Northampton Bridge Street and some local wildlife.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Nick Clegg and Vince Cable at the Bonkers' Arms


Who should telephone but Freddie and Fiona? “We’ve been told to organise a press event in a pub this morning so that Mr Clegg and Vince Cable can have a drink together and show they are really best friends despite what everyone says,” they explain. “But the trouble is, we don’t know how to do it.” “Why ever not?” I ask. “Because we are too young to go into pubs.”

Cometh the hour and all that, so I step in and organise things for them. “There’s a pint of Smithson & Greaves Northern Bitter each for Clegg and Cable,” I tell them when they arrive at the Bonkers’ Arms, “and that dreadful, gassy Dahrendorf lager for the journalists.” “Oh no,” they say quickly, “we can’t have journalists at a press event. What happens if they write something nasty about Mr Clegg?”

I talk some sense into them, thought I must admit the press pack does get rather frisky when the lager starts to flow. I show Clegg a loose window in the Gents that he can climb through, before leading Vince Cable along the secret passage that leads from the cellar of the pub to the Hall, where we enjoy a hearty luncheon.

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10.

Earlier this week...

Steve Bassam in Bishop's Castle

It seems I am not the only politico with a love for Bishop's Castle.

Steve Bassam, Labour’s chief whip in the Lords, has reminisced about his childhood visits to the town for the independent website Castle News:
Bishop's Castle in the 50s and 60s seemed very self-sufficient. It had useful shops like grocery stores, a hardware shop, a haberdashery, a bakery or perhaps even two, an outfitters, a chemist, two or three banks. At one point it even boasted a small cinema. When I visit the town now it still has a few of these useful shops left – along with the fanciful and basically tourist outlets. 
But if you look at post cards and pictures from the period, you can see Bishop’s Castle always prided itself on being more than just a place to live. It is the embodiment of a thriving community – and a place with a certain pride about itself. 
I suspect that when in the early 1970s local government was reorganised, Bishop’s Castle was rather cross about it, because the small town lost a big chunk of its independence and the ability to run things for itself.

Six of the Best 446

"You just need to look at Twitter when Question Time is on, and compare the comments that are made about the male panellists and the female panellists – and that is whether or not they are politicians." Jo Swinson, returning to her ministerial responsibilities after maternity leave and interviewed in the Independent on Sunday, says women in the public eye endure the bottom of the internet.

The Real Blog - that's David Boyle - says political parties must overcome the curse of positioning.

In the US 10,000 two -and three-year-old toddlers are on medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorders, reports Allen Frances on Psychology Today.

David Peace talks to ArtsBeat about "Red or Dead", his new novel about the great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly.

Spitalfields Life reveals an astonishing photographic discovery: "These wonderful photographs have the power to revolutionise how we think about East Enders at the end of the nineteenth century since, in spite of their poverty, these are undeniably proud people who claim a right to existence which transcends their economic status."

Jon Ratcliffe's blog takes us to one of Swindon's best kept secrets - the Health Hydro, better known as the Victorian Milton Road Baths.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Charles Rennie Mackintosh House, Northampton

It came on to rain when I was walking down Derngate in Northampton so I took refuge in the gift shop of number 78, which is famous as the only house in England designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

One day I shall go back and visit the house properly. In the mean time, here is a link to the 78 Derngate website as a thank you.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: No time to worry about Japanese food


Back to the roof of St Asquith’s. As we look out across the great expanse of the Water, my companion asks if I think we might have a tsunami.

“Good grief, woman!” I reply. “This is no time to worry about Japanese food. There could be a tidal wave at any moment!”

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10.

Earlier this week...

Simon Hughes: Government must stop inventing new crimes

From the Independent website:
Cabinet members have received an "urgent plea" to stop clogging up the statute book with unnecessary new criminal offences. ... 
Mr Hughes sent every Secretary of State a letter last week calling for prudence over introducing new criminal offences. At the end of this year Mr Hughes will publish figures on the number of new criminal offences that have been introduced in this Parliament, as well as those that have been removed or amended. 
Mr Hughes said: "I wouldn't be surprised in the first year of using this comprehensive methodology if there is a net increase in offences across the UK since 2010." 
A Whitehall source added: "This letter could be described as an 'urgent plea': let's try and keep the statute book as simple as possible.
This issue is a good test of the Coalition's intellectual and moral coherence. The Agreement that formed it seemed to promise a break from Labour's unrelenting invention of new crimes:
We will be strong in defence of freedom. The Government believes that the British state has become too authoritarian, and that over the past decade it has abused and eroded fundamental human freedoms and historic civil liberties. We need to restore the rights of individuals in the face of encroaching state power, in keeping with Britain’s tradition of freedom and fairness.
But in power the temptation to follow Labour's example has proved harder to resist.

It may just be the shortage of money or administrative convenience that have led Simon to issue this plea, but I am glad he has done so.

Carl Orff: Music for Children - Trees and Flowers

I first heard this recording on BBC Radio 3's wonderfully eclectic Late Junction one night and was spooked by it.

It dates from 1958, when the children of The Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts were not trained for parts in EastEnders. As a result, the pagan notes here sound much scarier. I wouldn't put it past these sweet little children to burn us all in a wicker man.

On Sinfini Music Jonny Trunk tells how he rediscovered and republished Orff's music for children. He then says:
To me this music is very beautiful and also evocative of a fascinating time in British education; one of sour milk, ink-wells and joined-up handwriting for six-year-olds. The sound is simple but powerful, charming and strangely evil especially when the children from the Italia Conte School start chanting the names of trees and flowers like characters from The Midwich Cuckoos. 
So I decide to reissue the recordings, on CD with an edited LP version. I see this as not just a way of sparking more interest in this strange and forgotten corner of Orff’s work, I also hope that one or two of the recordings find their way into modern classrooms where teachers and children alike may be intrigued once more.
Trees and Flowers is billed as a speech exercise, but most of Music for Children consists of instrumental pieces - you can listen to much more of it on the Trunk Records site. As well as the Midwich Cuckoos factor, it has a lot in common with Benjamin Britten's music for children from the same era.

The picture that accompanies the video shows the composer and, er, somebody's belly button.

Later. The belly button video has disappeared, but I have found another one.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Introducing Freddie and Fiona


Do you know Freddie and Fiona? They are two bright young special advisers who work for the party at Westminster.

I first met them at the Eastleigh by-election when we were canvassing together. Having naturally taken possession of our canvass card, I said to them: “You two go to number 27. Mr and Mrs Snowjuice. You should do well: they’ve been voting Liberal Democrat for years.”

“Oh no,” they replied, “they don’t sound the sort of people Mr Clegg is trying to appeal to at all.”

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10.

Earlier this week...

Armed Forces Day in Northampton

I went there to look for ghost signs, ruined chapels and lost underground railways known only to the Masons, but first I saw soldiers marching in the streets of Northampton.

It turned out to be Armed Forces Day - we didn't use to have that - but I wondered if there had been a coup in the county.

Tim Farron wants to keep Lib Dem options open in a hung parliament

George Eaton has a short interview with Tim Farron on the New Statesman website (and possibly in the magazine too).

He offers a shrewd summary of Tim's approach while the Liberal Democrats have been in coalition:
In the four years since the formation of the coalition government, the 44-year-old Lib Dem president has steered a shrewd course between loyalty and dissent. As a non-minister, he has been free to rebel on defining issues such as tuition fees, NHS reform and secret courts while remaining untainted by accusations of plotting.
The most interesting thing Tim himself has to say concerns the Lib Dem approach if there is a hung parliament after the next election:
While Clegg has ruled out support for anything short of full coalition, Farron argues otherwise. 
“When you go into negotiations with another party you have to believe – and let the other party believe – that there is a point at which you would walk away and when the outcome could be something less than a coalition, a minority administration of some kind. That is something we all have to consider.”

Sidmouth New Look shop calls in medium after fears store is haunted by ghost of Victorian granny who disapproves of skimpy outfits

The Exeter Express & Echo walks away with our Headline of the Day Award.

Thanks to the reader on Twitter who nominated it.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Tony Ray-Jones at Hallaton in 1967

You have two more days to visit the photographic exhibition Only in England at the National Media Museum in Bradford, though it will tour the country after it closes there. It has already been staged at the Science Museum in London.

The write up on the Bradford museum's website explains its appeal:
'Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr' examines the close relationship between the work of these two important photographers and their fascination with the English. 
Intrigued by the eccentricities of English social customs, Tony Ray-Jones spent the latter half of the 1960s travelling across England, photographing what he saw as a disappearing way of life. 
Humorous yet melancholy, these images had a profound influence on photographer Martin Parr, who has made a selection from our Tony Ray-Jones archive for this exhibition including over 50 previously unseen photographs. 
Parr's selection will be shown alongside his rarely seen work, The Non-Conformists, which documents a declining traditional way of life in 1970s Hebden Bridge.
If you are looking for eccentric social customs then you can't do better than the bottle kicking and hare pie scrambling that takes place at Hallaton in Leicestershire each Easter Monday. Sure enough, as the photograph above shows, Ray-Jones visited this event in 1967. (Later. But why does the shopfront say 'Hungerford?' Hmm.)

The video below will tell you more about the exhibition and the two photographers.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: On the roof of St Asquith’s

The latest issue of Liberator is with subscribers, so let's spend another week with Rutland's most celebrated parliamentarian.


I write these lines on the roof of St Asquith’s, where I have set up my command post. As you have no doubt read, in recent days Rutland has suffered a succession of earthquakes and someone had to restore calm and public order. People have taken to referring to me as “Gold Leader,” which has a certain ring to it, don’t you think?

The Revd Hughes has reacted badly to the quakes: he now reads the Book of Revelation obsessively and has made more than one unkind remark about my old friend Ruttie, the Rutland Water Monster – or “The Beast”, as he has taken to calling her.

Lord Bonkers was Liberal MP for Rutland South-West 1906-10.

Shropshire farmer shell-shocked over giant egg

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a Headline of the Day. Well done to the Shropshire Star.

And, come to think of it, to the hen.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

1960s steam: Paddington to Banbury via Bicester

If you like this then you may also enjoy Birmingham Snow Hill to Shrewsbury in the 1960s.

Jonathan Meades discusses An Encyclopaedia of Myself

I read Jonathan Meades' An Encyclopaedia of Myself and holiday and blogged about it (Burton-on-Trent and John Arlott) a couple of times.

Little Atoms has interviewed Meades about the book, and if you explore that site you will find several other interviews with him.

Jimmy Savile at Woodhouse Eaves

One of the many institutions that have been linked with Jimmy Savile is the former Roecliffe Manor Children’s Convalescent Home at Woodhouse Eaves in Leicestershire.

An investigation into these allegations was mounted by the University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust:
We employed the services of an independent external investigator, Sue Walters, to look into claims dating back to the late 1950’s/early 1960’s. During that investigation, Ms Walters identified that it was not us, but local charity ARC Leicester who are the legacy organisation, so we collaborated with them throughout the remainder of the investigation. We have thoroughly investigated all of the evidence we were given, and the final report was recently submitted to the Department of Health. 
The investigation has concluded that sexual abuse of children residing at Roecliffe Manor is likely to have taken place, although the extent of such abuse is unknown. Despite this finding, it has not been possible to corroborate evidence to conclude that Jimmy Savile was responsible for carrying out any sexual abuse on children at Roecliffe Manor, or that he ever visited Roecliffe Manor. We have passed all of our relevant investigation materials over to Leicestershire Police.
You can download Sue Waters' full report from that page.

Today there have even been suggestions that Savile was involved with the death of a child at Roecliffe Manor - the fullest account seems to be that in the Daily Mail.

After visiting Woodhouse Eaves last month I quoted a Charnwood Borough Council document that says Woodhouse Eaves once contained "a remarkable number of recovery and convalescent homes".

Roecliffe Manor was one of them and until recently was, like the Zachary Merton Convalescence Home, derelict. You can find pictures of it in a state of decay on

Vince Cable tightens regulation of zero-hours contracts

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Stokesay Castle and its gatehouse

The medieval castle is in the foreground and the 17th-century gatehouse is in the background.

Rebekah Brooks, David Cameron and the Chipping Norton set

In view of the events of the past two days, I think it worth repeating this observation made by Dominic Sandbrook on high50 three years ago:
The truth is that Chipping Norton could hardly be a less appropriate headquarters for a Dan Brown-style international conspiracy. In a wildly overwrought column, the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne laid into the “louche, affluent, power-hungry and amoral” conspirators, but none of those words really apply to poor old Chippy. Of all the popular Cotswold towns, it is easily the most unpretentious. 
You want louche? Try Stow on the Wold. Amoral? Bourton-on-the-Water. Power-hungry? You don’t know power-hungry until you’ve been to Moreton-in-Marsh.
Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

All the people who told us that phone-hacking investigations would come to nothing

Let me see. There's:

Alastair Cook and Nick Clegg

This tweet was discussed on the Geek & Wilde podcast on the evening of the fourth day of the Headingley test. They argue that the great captains have all three qualities and that quite good ones can survive on only one. Coming to the conclusion that Alastair Cook at present offers none of these three qualities, they call on him to resign.

I have been interested in the parallels between cricket captaincy and political leadership ever since I reviewed Mike Brearley's The Art of Cricket Captaincy at the time of the election for the election of the first Liberal Democrat leader in 1988.

Drawing parallels between politicians and cricket captains in that review - David Steel was Colin Cowdrey, Paddy Ashdown was Brian Close and I forget who Alan Beith was - helped me develop the idea of Lord Bonkers a couple of years later.

But what I am worrying about this evening are the parallels between Nick Clegg and Alastair Cook.

Six of the Best 445

Mark Pack looks at the lessons of Lord Ashcroft's poll of Conservative-Liberal Democrat marginals.

"The Labour party's capitulation on social security for the young is not an appropriate response to the modern world, but a dangerous step into the past," says Stuart Weir on Open Democracy.

Jennie Rigg enjoyed her day at the Headingley test match.

While Stumbling and Mumbling ponders the use of nightwatchmen in cricket and much else in "Liam Plunkett and the tragedy of social science".

"Charlie Chaplin was famous in a way that no one had been before; arguably, no one has been as famous since. At the peak of his popularity, his mustachioed screen persona, the Tramp, was said to be the most recognized image in the world." On A.V. Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky asks why Charlie Chaplin still matters a century on.

Graham Dukes, on The Grey Hares blog, writes about his part in the early years of the railway preservation movement. "As soon as my academic duties allowed I hastened to Towyn and found myself stepping into the office of Wharf Station, unchanged for the better part of a century. Tom Rolt himself was there, struggling patiently with a Victorian ticket stamping machine."

More on Charles Lawson and the Kettering robot

On Monday I posted a 1939 photograph of a group of Kettering schoolchildren and, according to Getty Images describes as "a walking talking robot" built by local electrical engineer Charles Lawson. has a couple of posts on Lawson and his robot. The one shown in Monday's photo was the 1938 model. Later in 1939 he built an improved model that, it was claimed, could control traffic, sing, light and smoke a cigarette and sit or stand.

Was it for real? I don't know, but Kettering has a history of being at the cutting edge of technology. They used to track early space missions at the town's grammar school.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The blast furnaces of Wellingborough

This 1950 photograph shows the road from Wellingborough to Finedon and the former's long-vanished blast furnaces.

The political class agrees on disciplining parents

When there is a big story, I turn to the Shropshire Star for the latest developments.

This evening it tells me that Clare Whitelegg, 30, will not be penalised for taking her nine-year-old son out of school to attend her wedding.

Quite right too.

Because I sense a growing restiveness among parents. They are threatened with prosecution if their child misses school, yet see the authorities treating themselves more leniently.

I am not thinking of the extreme cases, such as the Leicester headteacher who appears to have been granted leave to attend the World Cup, so much as the way some schools close at the first hint of severe weather.

What has happened is that the parties have agreed that missing even a small amount of schooling is fatal to a child's later chances. (Think back to your own schooldays: it doesn't sound very plausible, does it?)

That has been followed by an arms race, where more and more severe penalties are suggested for lesser and lesser offences.

And so the idea of headteachers being able to impose fines, which sounds like some Labourite fantasty, has been warmly embraced by the Conservatives.

We no longer much approve of the idea of disciplining children, but all agree that disciplining parents is just fine.

Ministry of Justice consultation on extra help for male rape victims

From the Ministry of Justice website:
For the first time ever, the Government has set aside a dedicated pot of money specifically to support men who have suffered sexual abuse including rape. We'd like your views and ideas on how we can spend this £500,000 fund in the best possible way to meet the needs of as many men as we can.
Submit your ideas via that website. The extra money was announced by Damian Green in February.

My review of The Orange Book from 2004

Today CentreForum organised an event to mark the 10th anniversary of the publication of The Orange Book. Thinking Liberal was there, and I gather there will soon be videos from the event on Youtube.

I am so old that I reviewed The Orange Book for Liberator when it came out - you can find the whole issue, which also includes articles on it by David Laws and Simon Titley, on the magazine's website.

You will see that I had more time for the ideas in the book than many in Liberator circles, but remember that this review was written after seven years of Labour government with many more in prospect.

Following today's event on Twitter, I saw a hedge-fund manager calling for strikes by people working in public services to be banned from striking. As so often when listening to economic liberal theorists, I wondered who precisely they thought would vote for their ideas.

Anyway, here is my review from 2004.

Orange blossom

Smelling faintly of brimstone, The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism has arrived. If you get past the ugly front cover, you will find that The Orange Book consists of ten essays by prominent Liberal Democrats and a carefully worded foreword by Charles Kennedy: “Not all of the ideas … are existing party policy, but all are compatible with our Liberal heritage.”

That heritage is the concern of the first contribution as David Laws looks at the various strands of liberalism: personal, political, economic and social. He is particularly interested in economic liberalism and the way that  modern liberals seem embarrassed by it. The reason, I would argue, is that for most of the twentieth century liberalism was in decline and socialism was seen as the ideology of the future. It was not surprising that some liberals concluded that the way to prove that liberalism was still relevant was to show that it had anticipated socialism or was really a form of socialism too. So it was that we never mentioned free trade but missed no opportunity to refer to Keynes and Beveridge. The Conservatives' discovery of free-market economics in the 1970s only encouraged this trend.

Laws looks at the party's economic thinking, concluding that “economic liberalism has waxed and waned within the party over the past fifty years, reflecting on the whole the state of contemporary political debate, rather than long-held and cherished Liberal convictions". He is particularly good on the Alliance years: "Liberals and Social Democrats were merely left arguing lamely that the boundary between the public and private sectors should be left undisturbed, wherever it happened to be at the time."

Laws applies his enthusiasm for economic liberalism in a later essay on health, calling for the replacement of the National Health Service by a national health insurance scheme. He envisages a combination of public, private and voluntary providers, with people either choosing to use a state insurance scheme funded by a health tax on their income or joining an independent scheme. Such is the status of the NHS that any criticism of it is seen as near blasphemous, yet the ideas Laws puts forward operate in many Western European states which are every bit as civilised as Britain and which enjoy better health than we do. Nor is it ridiculous to ask whether the NHS can continue indefinitely as it is presently constituted if scientific innovation continues but people remain no keener to pay higher taxes to fund the resulting increased costs.

Other essays in The Orange Book will not raise the reader's temperature so much. Among them,  Paul Marshall writes on pensions, Susan Kramer on using market mechanisms to achieve environmental goals and Chris Huhne on global governance. In what is in many ways the most impressive piece in the book, Huhne concludes that globalisation promises great benefits but that international institutions must be reformed to allow them to operate effectively in a changed political and economic landscape.

Nick Clegg will alarm some readers by calling for powers over social and agricultural policy to be taken from European institutions and restored to national governments, but in reality his essay marks an advance in the party's thinking on Europe. Throughout those long years when people made unkind jokes about telephone boxes and bar stools, the argument that Liberal  members deployed to show that their party was still relevant was that it had been the first to advocate British membership of the Common Market. And in many ways we are still refighting the 1975 referendum campaign. We are happier defending that membership than we are recognising that we have been "in Europe" for more than 30 years (and are going to remain there) and then moving on to examine our views about how the European project should be developing.

Clegg argues that EU powers have developed in a lopsided way. He asks why the EU possesses detailed legislation on the design of a buses, the use of seatbelts in cars and noise levels in the workplace yet "remains invisible as an entity in the UN, ineffective in promoting peace in the Middle East, toothless in tackling international crime and terrorism". Being in favour of Europe is no longer enough: we have to decide what sort of Europe we want. Clegg's formulation is compelling: "the EU must only act if there is a clear cross-border issue at stake, or when collective EU action brings obvious benefits to all member states that they would not be able to secure on their own".

Vince Cable also has things to say about Europe, notably that "the CAP is an economic, environmental and moral disaster". In arguing this he is, of course, quite correct. It is, though, worth pointing out that British farmers were being subsidised 30 years before we signed up to the Common Agricultural Policy. Advocating free trade in agriculture would mean taking on this powerful interest group whether we were in the EU or not. In any case, Cable's contribution is not an anti-Europe rant but an appealing exploration of the tensions between free trade and social justice. He comes to the conclusion that government intervention often does more harm than good, making trade barriers seem something akin to the old nuclear arms race – they impoverish us all nations but they do not trust one another sufficiently to do away with them.

Which brings us to Mark Oaten. His almost tangible ambition gives him an unrivalled ability to get up the noses of  people in the party, but successful political parties are full of ambitious young men, so we had better get used to the breed. In any case, though he is a little too eager to be thought "tough" his essay here is sensible, calling for a stronger emphasis on education in prison and revealing that 95 per cent of prisoners need help with basic literacy. This surely suggests there is something seriously wrong with out schools if young people can emerge unable to read or write after 11 years of compulsory schooling, and also emphasises the missing chapter in The Orange Book – one on education.

Ed Davey's essay is easier to disagree with. He calls for liberals to embrace localism, yet his vision of local government is not attractive. He puts much emphasis on people's lack of respect for councils, yet where this exists it is can be put down to badly run bodies or ones run by the left of the Labour Party, and in both cases people are showing an increasing willingness to vote those responsible out. Davey wants to see fewer local councillors and to have them paid a salary, yet he does not consider the danger that this will distance local politicians from the people they represent and worsen the problem he sets out to solve.

Though there is little about it here, Davey is an enthusiast for regional government, even to the extent of backing John Prescott's version of it. This has little to do with local accountability – members of the new London authority have larger constituencies than MPs do – and much more to do with forcing through large-scale public projects like housing schemes and  motorways. Local government should be more diverse, more spiky and more local than that.

And then there is Steve Webb. Webb argues that liberals should not take a laissez-faire approach to the family, yet his views are not as ground-breaking as he seems to think. With the exception of a pamphlet I published last year, I cannot recall any Liberal Democrat questioning the move, rapidly accelerated under this government, towards more state intervention in family life. Certainly, none of the 64 references in his essay point the reader towards a dissident view.

Webb offers an apocalyptic view: our children are suffering more mental health problems than ever before,  they are starting school unable to talk or listen, they are turning to drink. What is strange is that this view is supported only by references to surveys and magazine articles. As an MP Webb must regularly meet all sorts of people who work for children, yet nowhere does he mention them. Basing his arguments on their testimony would have made for a more interesting essay – and quite possibly a very different one too. As it is, his work reads like a collection of press cuttings; it may be no coincidence, that Webb is the only person in the book to make his research assistant the joint author of his paper.

The answer to our predicament, Webb argues, lies in massive state intervention, delivered through the voluntary sector. He lists a number of schemes with approval, but it is hard to judge them because we have no direct knowledge of them. What is more worrying is that there is no sign that Webb has direct knowledge of them either. Again, he relies upon published references and gives no sign that he has met the people whose work he is praising. And,  while liberals will favour government support for the voluntary sector, its essence lies in the personal qualities of those who work in it and its local nature. Any attempt to roll out a scheme nationally will inevitably tend to reduce it to a trite formula that fails to reproduce the unique characteristics that made the original model work.

Somewhere in Webb's essay is the ghost of a more interesting, more personal contribution. One senses that he really sees our salvation as lying in a revival of marriage – he spends a couple of pages convincing himself that welfare benefits do not encourage young women to have babies out of marriage – and a greater role for religion. It is a shame that Webb did not write that other essay, because it might have offered the beginnings of an interesting critique of free-market economics. The traditional criticism of it is the Marxist one that capitalism will impoverish the workers, but we know by now that this is not true. A more subtle critique is the conservative, communitarian one which sees the free market as hollowing out important social institutions and acting as more of a destructive than a creative force.

Webb's essay as it stands, however, turns our idea of what constitutes virtue on its head. A healthy society sees it as residing locally – in the family and friendship and in strong local communities – and is distrustful of national government because it is distant and anonymous. To Webb, however, virtue resides in the state and in the professionals and volunteers whom it licenses, while families and individuals are weak and morally suspect.

The best thing about liberal economics is that is trusts the individual citizens. Socialists see them  as dupes of advertisers and victims of rapacious bosses, but liberals take a more confident view. Webb risks sneaking this patronising view back into the picture under the label of "social liberalism". He lends The Orange Book an authoritarian tone that may remind the reader of Larry Elliott's observation that the Thatcher years set capital free but left people more constrained than before.

So there you have The Orange Book or The Orange Part. Criticise it by all means, but if you do so from a "radical" position do please use arguments that go beyond warmed up labourism.

Monday, June 23, 2014

A walking, talking robot in Kettering

On 15 January 1939 the children of Kettering in Northamptonshire stare in amazement at a walking talking robot, the invention of local electrical engineer Charles Lawson.

As well they might.

A good analysis of the roots of Ukip

Stephen Bush writes on the Telegraph website:
All parties are uneasy coalitions; Ukip is no different. Theirs is an alliance of the defeated: between fringe libertarians and ex-Conservatives who have been beaten by the political establishment, and dispossessed and low-skilled people who have been beaten by the economy.

US student is rescued from giant vagina sculpture in Germany

An obvious choice, perhaps, but who am I to criticise the judges?

The Guardian wins Headline of the Day.

Jonathan Meades and platform 1 at Market Harborough

BBC Newsnight Feature: Maglev from Amirani Media on Vimeo.

Jonathan Meades made this film on the case for ultra high-speed railway for Newsnight in 2005.

Take a close look at the still before you play the video. It shows platform 1 at Market Harborough station, but sadly I do not think it is the great man standing there as a train speeds past. That scene can be found at 1:04 in the video.

Showing trains in Midland Mainline livery running into a pre-Eurostar St Pancras, it already has period charm.

Thanks to @PrimedMover on Twitter.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Montgomery Castle

The castle ruins stand above this neat little town and command views east towards Bromlow Callow, the Stiperstones and Corndon Hill.

Six of the Best 444

"I didn’t argue against centralisation at Westminster to replace it with centralisation in Edinburgh. That is the legacy of the SNP in power. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with the idea that everything is London’s fault." Caron's Musings reports on a lecture Charles Kennedy gave in Liverpool last week.

Zelo Street reveals the Conservatives' plans to redevelop the World's End estate in Chelsea.

Richard Hallam and Michael Bender on Discursive of Tunbridge Wells look at the way schizophrenia was viewed and treated in te 1960s.

Padraig Reidy, on the Index on Censorship site, looks at a long ago controversy over the radio broadcast of Patrick Hamilton's play Rope: "Over 80 years later, in the age of the iPhone and the Twitter mob, how little we have changed."

Municipal Dreams celebrates Hornsey Town Hall, Crouch End, "the quintessential English modern public building of the decade". That decade is the 1930s.

 Mark Nicholas writes for Cricinfo on the priceless voice of Geoffrey Boycott: "Yes, he can still polarise opinion but in the main, he is much loved and were he suddenly not here, would be much missed."

Governing as Liberal Democrats: Social Liberal Form conference, 19 July

I shall be attending this year's Social Liberal Forum conference, which  takes place at the Human Rights Action Centre, 25 New Inn Yard, London EC2A 3EA on 19 July.

Tim Farron will deliver the William Beveridge Memorial Lecture and Vince Cable will give a keynote speech on the Economy.

The confirmed speakers so far include Tim Farron, Vince Cable, Ed Davey, Claire Tyler, Sarah Ludford, Kate Parminter, Julian Huppert, Lousewies van der Laan, Merel Hussein-Ece, David Howarth, Ibrahim Taguri, Kelly-Marie Blundell, Prateek Buch, David Boyle, Naomi Smith, Mike Tuffrey, Simon Radford and Duncan Brack.

The programme will include sessions on:
  • Welfare and food poverty
  • Choice, diversity and competition
  • Immigration policy
  • Green liberalism
  • Energy policy and poverty
  • Surveillance
  • The manifesto – where are we?
  • Prospects for social liberalism
We bloggers and tweeters are promised wifi throughout the building. The conference hashtag is #slfconf.

Book your place via the conference website.

Diana Ross: Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)

When Gerry Goffin died last week most of the tributes concentrated on the teenage-pop hits that he and his then wife, Carole King, wrote in the early 1960s.

That was understandable, as those songs defined their era, but Goffin enjoyed success as a lyricist for years after that.

The film Mahogany was released in 1975. As well as starring in it, Diana Ross sang the theme song. It was one of a string of great singles she recorded in the early 1970s: Touch me in the Morning, I'm Still Waiting, Sorry Doesn't Always Make it Right, All of My Life.

Do You Know Where Your Going To, which Goffin wrote with Michael Masser, was nominated for the Best Original Song Oscar.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Leicestershire Police raid Greville Janner's House of Lords office

From the Sunday People:
A Labour peer’s office in the House of Lords has been raided as part of a probe into historic child sex abuse allegations ....
Up to eight officers from Leicestershire Police searched Greville Janner’s space and are understood to have removed computer equipment. 
The force refused to confirm whether anything was seized but said the March raid was part of an ongoing enquiry.
The report, by Ben Endley, goes on to say:
In December, Leicestershire officers searched Lord Janner’s home in Barnet, North London. His legal team has confirmed he is helping with inquiries. 
Two men from Corby, Northamptonshire, aged 69 and 63 have also been quizzed in connection with the allegations but have not been arrested.
Later. The Evening Standard has the text of a statement from Leicestershire Police:
"Leicestershire Police can confirm that in March 2014 its officers carried out a search of part of the House of Lords in connection with an ongoing inquiry into non-recent child sexual abuse," she said. 
"A search warrant was obtained in advance from a Crown Court judge and the search was conducted in accordance with established House of Lords' procedures, and monitored by senior officials from the House of Lords. 
"No arrests or charges have been made, and inquiries continue."

A mud wall in Saddington

It's been a while since we had a mud wall, so here is a photo of one taken in Saddington this afternoon.

The decline of play and the rise of mental disorders

From the TEDxNavesink website:
In this talk, Dr. Peter Gray compelling brings attention to the reality that over the past 60 years in the United States there has been a gradual but, overall dramatic decline in children’s freedom to play with other children, without adult direction. 
Over this same period, there has been a gradual but, overall, dramatic increase in anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness, suicide, and narcissism in children and adolescents. 
Based on his own and others’ research, Dr. Gray documents why free play is essential for children’s healthy social and emotional development and outlines steps through which we can bring free play back to children’s lives.

Bob Marley, Shropshire and a craft village that nearly was

Bob Marley's father was a white Englishman and when I was in Shropshire a couple of weeks ago, the BBC West Midlands television news screened a report about him.

It seems that, after being conscipted during the First World War, Norval Marley underwent basic training at Park Hall Army Camp outside Oswestry. He did not prove to be much of a soldier and reported sick with incontinence. You can hear all about that in a BBC Radio Shropshire feature.

When I tweeted about the news report, Gillian Darley (who has just been elected president of The Twentieth Century Society) replied that the name Park Hall rang a bell and she thought there had been a scheme to found some sort of craft village there.

A little research proved she was right. The Communes Britannica site says:
In 1976 serious proposal were put forward in 1976 by a group called the ‘The Association for the Development of a Craft Village and Centre for Charities’ to transform over 200 large wooden barrack buildings at the Park Hall Army Camp outside Oswestry in Shropshire into a village sized community. 
A planning application was submitted to turn the 260 acre army base in to a craft village with workshops and accommodation for craft workers, “… each having his own living accommodation, workshop and (share of) a retail shop.” 
While the idea was given support by council meetings at both District and County levels it was turned down at a County planning committee meeting by 13 votes to 11.

Ex-Shrewsbury School tuck shop worker arrested after cricket pitch damage

Once again the Shropshire Star wins Headline of the Day.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Montgomery Canal at Welshpool

The Montgomery seems to have been undergoing restoration for ever. This stretch at Welshpool is navigable, but it is not connected to the rest of the canal system.

Top Ed Miliband adviser joins the Liberal Democrats

From yesterday's Mirror:
A key adviser who helped Ed Miliband become Labour leader has quit the party and switched to the Liberal Democrats. 
Phil Taylor was among the handful of trusted lieutenants who masterminded Mr Miliband’s victory over his brother David in their battle for the top job. 
But Mr Taylor has poured scorn on his old boss since defecting to Nick Clegg’s party.
The story was also in the Daily Mail, which said of Phil Taylor:
He attacked Labour’s addiction to spending, saying: 'Labour’s view still that absolutely anything with label "capital" slapped on must be so economically beneficial it justifies more borrowing.' 
Mr Taylor also lashed out at Labour's decision to support Tory plans to automatically jail people caught carrying a knife for a second time. 
He said: 'No chance Ed M actually believes this nonsense in private, but terrified of ‘soft on crime’ label - really weak.'
Thanks to Les Bonner.
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Six of the Best 443

Caron's Musings introduces us to an unsavoury blog being promoted by supporters of Scottish independence.

The education debate tends to underplay the importance of resources and overplay the role of management, argues Stumbling and Mumbling.

"It is possible to see a way forward to slay the CAP beast, bringing together an unlikely alliance of Eurosceptics, free marketeers, libertarians, agrarians and environmentalists." A New Nature Blog on the case for reform of the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy.

Freethinking Economist considers the strange phenomenon that is economic confidence - "We've won the long jump, so let's buy a fridge."

"If you went through everyone's phone and computer, a significant proportion of people would be ripe for similar charges." Bristling Badger looks at the prosecution of a police officer.

David Hepworth says "We're not a great football country. We're a great football market."

Thursday, June 19, 2014

St Nicholas, Marston Trussell

This is St Nicholas, Marston Trussell. Royalist troops fleeing Naseby were massacred here, cut off (sources vary) because the Welland was in flood or because the road up to the church was in those days a dead end.

The unusual porch is said to include the timbers from a Danish ship.

Jeanette Winterson ate my brother. I am eating Jeanette Winterson

Read more about that classic of the cinema The Night of the Lepus.

Incidentally, at dinner this evening Lord Bonkers suggested to me that Winterson may have been jealous of the rabbit's prose style.

GUEST POST A few thoughts on walking

Phil Smith, author of On Walking... and Stalking Sebald, offers a guide to going beyond wandering around looking at stuff.

In that time called ‘leisure’ where a walk is chosen, a phantom of work soon arrives. Many folk consult a manual. Under the guise of ‘not getting lost’ others take instructions from a map, follow signs and stick to footpaths.

This is, for most people, the default of free walking. It penetrates even resistant walking. The ambulatory Sideways Festival (with its reference to the subtitle of my Mythogeography book and the idea of taking off at tangents) in Belgium was partly funded from the budgets of footpath organisations and was mostly restricted to these official ways surrounded by VERBODEN JACHT signs.

Even within complex footpath systems there is an informal centralisation. My subjective experience of walking footpaths in England and Wales is that the smaller paths, except for those that serve as short cuts in towns and villages, are walked just about enough to keep them trodden down. Well known ones are periodically thickly crowded; on sunny weekends short sections of some of the famous paths like the Pennine Way in the North of England become pedestrian motorways, yet I have often walked a day along the footpaths of the UK and met no one.

Given how much UK government money has been poured into healthy walking initiatives, it is heartening to see how ineffective the state has been.

The chosen walking that I evangelise is not especially different from such work-like leisure walking (indeed it builds upon its contradictions); but it is explicit about the work that it involves. It is a performance; its ‘work’ is similar to the craft and labour involved in making artworks. Its ‘great work’ is one of ideas that can change the person walking them. Performance here does not mean theatrical, nor that it requires an audience (though it might), but that it can tap into a huge resource of live art and performance art practices; into the substrata of thinking that such artists and anti-artists often keep hidden. It means that it is part of body art, conceptual art, site-specific art. It means that it is part of phenomenology, esoterica, hypocritical theory and geopoetics.

All that good stuff that artists tend to keep for themselves, walkers can help themselves to. Once your walk becomes a performance, part of a ‘theatre of life’, a theatrum mundi, it becomes changeable, unplannable and improvisational, it becomes about something (maybe about the walk itself) rather than (or as well as) to somewhere.

Every long walk is a dialogue with your own death; particularly given the accelerating ambiguity of a long walk, endless yet finite and without known destination. It becomes about a dance of chosen change against a rhythm of changes you do not choose. Chosen walking is thinking with your feet. Playing, fondling, voting with them. Nudging things as you go, turning things over with your toes, rolling them with your heel. It is occasionally necessary to go barefoot in order to rebalance a little the dominance of the hand over the foot, to remove a boot and sock and place your naked foot to the path; even on a shopping trip or on your way to work, you can find a moment to do this and feel what heat or chill, what graze or caress you get back from the road. It can be a moment to mark any walk as a dialogue with the surface of the planet. Check your sole for fragments of the 40,000 tons of rock that fall to the Earth each year; wreckage from the birth of the Solar System.

Thinking with your feet is about rediscovering legs as feelers, tentacles, complementary instruments to the meshwork of senses that bathe and caress the surfaces around us; all the time swinging the whole body of instruments around the axes of the spine and through the hips and the various joints; conduct your orchestra of senses. Reconnect the two parts of your body. Use your hips to disperse desires and longings to the landscape.

On Walking... and Stalking Sebald is published by Triarchy Press.

The benefits of liberal adult education

We hear a lot about evidence-based policy in education, but somehow it always seems to involve the same narrow agenda. So let's look at evidence in support of a very different view of education.

The Benefits of Lifelong Learning (BeLL) study, which was funded by the European Commission, investigated the individual and social benefits perceived by adult learners who participated in liberal adult education courses.

The study's website reports its findings:
The data showed that adult learners experience numerous benefits from liberal adult education. They feel healthier and seem to lead healthier lifestyles; they build new social networks and experience improved wellbeing. Moreover, adults who participate in liberal adult education appear to feel more motivated to engage in lifelong learning and view it as an opportunity to improve their lives. These benefits were reported by learners across all course areas, ranging from languages and the arts to sport and civic education.
It goes on to point out that the study provides evidence the perceptions of the benefits of learning by learners themselves and not evidence about benefits observed by others or measured in changed behaviour.

Still, I suppose that even in the world evidence-based policy people can be allowed some insight into their own feelings.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

David Davies' institutes in Llanfair Caereinion and Montgomery

David Davies - the 1st Baron Davies - was Liberal MP for Montgomeryshire between 1906 and 1929. As an article in the Journal of Liberal History (Issue 29, Winter 2000–01) by J. Graham Jones showed, he was a trusted lieutenant of Lloyd George and an influential adviser on foreign affairs.

As well as being a politician, Davies was a public benefactor. And among his good works were institutes, built to spread learning and keep men out of the pub, in several of the small towns in his constituency. I came across a couple of them during my recent holiday.

The one above is in Llanfair Caereinion and was opened in 1913 - it is an interesting building to find in such a remote location and the tower is reminiscent of Lutyens.

The one below was opened in Montgomery after the end of the First World War. It is striking how much more backward-looking its architecture is - as well as how much better the weather was on the day I visited it.

The style of this later building may have been an attempt to fit in with the more picturesque setting Montgomery provides, but it may also tell us something important about the effect of that war on British life.

Simon Titley

Liberator and its friends and relations had some terrible news yesterday.

As you may already have read on Liberator's blog, Simon Titley is extremely ill and probably does not have long to live.

I would urge you to read the tribute to him (or "living obituary") there by Roger Hayes.

I'd just like to say a couple of things of my own.

The first is that Simon is the only person from whom I have ever accepted ideas for Lord Bonkers' Diary.

The second is that I am now so glad that I had lunch with him on three Saturdays last year. We lunched in Kibworth (after he had characteristically introduced me to a Chinese supermarket in Leicester that I did not know), Lincoln and, finally and most appropriately, in Melton Mowbray after a visit to the food fair.

Later. Stephen Yolland has also written about his friendship with Simon.
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School milk can turn sour for politicians

The last time school milk was a live political issue I blogged:
One of the factors behind Mrs Thatcher's election victory was her act of abolishing free milk in schools. 
Some people hated her for it and dubbed her the "milk snatcher". But they didn't have to drink the stuff. The crates were not kept in a refrigerator, so on a hot day it was already halfway to going sour by the time mid-morning break came. The trick then was to avoid drinking the stuff. 
Yes, Mrs Thatcher was swept to power by a generation of grateful first-time voters who wanted to thank her for delivering them from the horrors of school milk.
I went on to quote some more arguments against the idea of subsidising milk for schoolchildren - the most powerful of which was that you could buy the stuff more cheaply from a supermarket even after it had been subsidised.

Milk is in the news again because the new standards announced this week oblige schools to make semi-skimmed milk available to all pupils at least once a day. They will still have to pay for it though.

For some reason best known to Michael Gove, the standards have been drawn up by Henry bloody Dimbleby and his business partner.

I suppose we just have to be grateful that he did not ask Gregg Wallace.

Tea at the Richard Jefferies Museum, Swindon

The Richard Jefferies Museum  at Coate Water, Swindon, now has a tearoom.

According to the museum website, it is open on Sundays from 2 to 5pm and on Mondays from 10am to 5pm. It also advertises musical Mondays for toddlers and after-school play.

One of the museum trustees, Mike Pringle, told This is Wiltshire:
“Those people who know about Jefferies, know how inspiring his love of nature is and that is what the place is all about. What we want is for more people to discover this well-hidden Swindon treasure and enjoy it for themselves. We hope that more events and facilities like a tearoom will make a big difference.”
You can read more about Richard Jefferies and Coate in a guest post on this blog by Rebecca Welshman.

59 MPs back call for inquiry into sexual abuse of children

As of yesterday evening, 59 MPs had backed the call for an inquiry into the organised sexual abuse of children - even though this story has so far been ignored by the national media.

The story has been covered by the Press Gazette:
Investigative news website Exaro has used a Twitter campaign to get the support of more than 50 MPs in a call for Home Secretary Theresa May to hold an inquiry into the organised sexual abuse of children. After breaking a story about a cross-party group of MPs sending a letter to May two weeks ago, the campaign has built up a “head of steam... driven by social media", Exaro claims. 
And now the two original signatories are writing to every MP asking whether they will back the campaign. 
Exaro editor-in-chief Mark Watts said: “What is remarkable about it is how the campaign for the inquiry has built up on Twitter.”
Read more on the Exaro website.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway in the 1950s

I travelled on and blogged about the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway a couple of weeks ago. Then, I wrote:
Originally the line ran all the way to Welshpool's mainline station, crossing the town by threading its way between buildings and crossing roads on the level. That route is now lost.
This video from the 1950s, when the line was still operated by British Rail for freight, shows an enthusiasts' special using that lost route through the town and much of the rest of the line too.

Did Magna Carta die in vain?

The other day I posted Tony Hancock's take on Magna Carta (as written for him by Galton and Simpson, of course).

Since then I have seen an awful lot of people rubbishing any thought of commemorating the 800th anniversary of its signing next year. Nothing of Magna Carta remains part of our law and the whole thing was irredeemably sexist and all sorts of other ists too.

There is something deeply silly about someone who is shocked to find that the social attitudes of the 13th century were different from those of our own. And even if nothing of Magna Carta remains in law, it remains a symbol somewhere deep in the public mind of the idea that the powers of government can be curbed.

Those who resist this seem to feel that if only they could strip all symbols away the votes would sweep them and their radical ideas to power. I wish them luck with that project.

And their rubbishing of Magna Carta reminds me of one of the sillier speeches given in the House of Lords in recent years.

On 13 October 2008 Lord Carlile decided it was part of brief as the government's independent reviewer of terrorism legislation to speak in favour of Labour's Counter-Terrorism Bill and join the payroll vote (and no one else) in voting for it.

Then he said:
I have heard it said that this is a breach of Magna Carta. I disqualify that on the grounds of misrepresentation and over-reliance on a document that, although of its time, by today's values is sexist and racist. I would expect Liberty to be marching in the streets against it.
Perhaps the best summation of Magna Carta's place in modern life was that given by Marriott Edgar, who was once famous for his monologues - including The Lion and Albert.

His The Magna Charter concludes:
And it's through that there Magna Charter,
As were made by the Barons of old,
That in England today we can do what we like,
So long as we do what we're told.

George Monbiot, the environment and me

Back in 2008 I wrote a House Points column for a Liberal Democrat News special issue on the environment. Part of it ran:
Years ago environmentalists decided their only hope was to scare us half to death. Peak oil and global warming are just the latest in a list of dooms. The result has been to make many people terrified of the natural world. The environment is all around us (you cannot argue with that) and it is out to get us. 
This fear combines easily with parental concerns about traffic and strangers, so their children’s encounters with nature are increasingly limited. Yet the best of 20th-century education and children’s literature saw such experiences as central to a wholesome childhood.
Liberal Democrats should have a more generous view of the importance of the environment. There is abundant evidence that experiencing the natural world is good for everyone from behaviourally disturbed children to recovering surgery patients. 
And the claim that a vengeful Nature is going to sweep away our economic system is a cop out. We are going to have to use our intelligence to reform it if we want more people to live happy lives.
In fact I was banging on about the green movement making people scared of the natural world years before that column. I remember writing something on the same theme (and with some of the same lines) back in the 1990s.

And you can see that the House Points column shared some of the concern with children's freedom and children's books that I expressed on Comment is Free the other day.

My reason for return to these themes in this post is that George Monbiot's column in the Guardian today seems to be saying much the same as I said in 2008. He writes:
If threats promote extrinsic values and if (as the research strongly suggests) extrinsic values are linked to a lack of interest in the state of the living planet, I've been engaged in contradiction and futility. For about 30 years. The threats, of course, are of a different nature: climate breakdown, mass extinction, pollution and the rest. And they are real. But there's no obvious reason why the results should be different. Terrify the living daylights out of people, and they will protect themselves at the expense of others and of the living world. 
It's an issue taken up in a report by several green groups called Common Cause for Nature. "Provoking feelings of threat, fear or loss may successfully raise the profile of an issue," but "these feelings may leave people feeling helpless and increasingly demotivated, or even inclined to actively avoid the issue". People respond to feelings of insecurity "by attempting to exert control elsewhere, or retreating into materialistic comforts".
And later says:
None of this is to suggest that we should not discuss the threats or pretend that the crises faced by this magnificent planet are not happening. Or that we should cease to employ rigorous research and statistics. What it means is that we should embed both the awareness of these threats and their scientific description in a different framework: one that emphasises the joy and awe to be found in the marvels at risk; one that proposes a better world, rather than (if we work really hard for it), just a slightly-less-shitty-one-than-there-would-otherwise-have-been.
Or, to return to my 2008 column, as Richard Jefferies put it:
Let us get out of these indoor narrow modern days, whose twelve hours have somehow become shortened, into the sunlight and the pure wind. A something that the ancients called divine can be found and felt there still.