Saturday, October 31, 2020

Ashby Folville Polish Camp in 1953

Ashby Folville is a village in the east of Leicestershire. In 1953 a party of boys from Leicester's Westcotes Secondary Modern School went there and filmed their visit. Click on the still above to watch that film.

You will see the village's remarkable church and some farming scenes, but the most interesting thing in it is the camp for displaced Polish people at Ashby Folville Manor.

The Polish Resettlement Camps in the UK page for Ashby Folville tells its story. It did not close until 1965.

Six of the Best 971

Francesca Borri visits the Hyde Park neighbourhood in Leeds, and finds a community abandoned by government and ravaged by deprivation as much as Covid-19.

A Canadian research project gave homeless people $7,500 each. Bridgette Watson finds the results were "beautifully surprising",

"It’s possible that the first MP from what we might consider an ethnic minority background today was elected as early as 1767. James Townshend, Whig MP for West Looe in Cornwall, had a British grandfather who worked for the Royal African Company, a mercantile trading company that also traded enslaved people. His grandmother, a prominent businesswoman who also owned enslaved people, was of African and Dutch descent." Rebecca Lees discovers the first MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds.

Colin Horgan on a study of 'little men' in 1930s Germany that shows how people allow tyranny to spread.

Michael Seely looks back on Alan Plater’s Beiderbecke trilogy.

As a treat for Halloween, David Castleton selects the London Underground's seven most haunted stations. Expect "tales of 'black nuns' with a fondness for harassing banking establishments, screams that still echo from World-War-II air-raids, crypts converted into ticket offices, prehistoric elephants with axes in their heads and attempts to explain why the Underground has acquired such a reputation for being a haven of spooks."

Children and Shropshire ghosts

This is Raynards Mansion in Much Wenlock, where evacuee children are supposed to have come down for breakfast on their first morning and asked who the children in funny clothes they'd been playing with were.

I heard another ghost story from Shropshire. There is a bed-and-breakfast there I have stayed at many times. It is an old property and its core is medieval.

The owner told me that one morning she found her little boy playing on the landing rather than in his bedroom.

When asked why, he replied quite unperturbed: "The people are being a bit of a nuisance."

When Boris Johnson shook hands with non-existent Covid patients

It's worse than that: Boris Johnson is almost certainly lying here.

I know that's no great surprise - he just says what will get him through the next 10 seconds, whether it's true or not - but it's important we don't lose our capacity to be outraged by this charlatan.

At the time, Johnson was widely assumed to be talking about his visit to Kettering General Hospital on the night of 27/28 February. But the hospital does not appear to have had any Covid patients at the time.

Certainly, the blog post the hospital published at the time made no mention of Covid. It was chiefly concerned with hospital management showing Johnson their need for a new urgent care hub.

Angela Rayner was in no doubt. On 3 March she wrote on Facebook:
Boris Johnson visited Kettering General Hospital and there are NO Coronavirus cases there, but he said he shook hands with patients who had #Coronavirus.
On the next day the Northamptonshire Telegraph did it's best to stand the story up, but fell short:
Where in the county the first coronavirus case is has not yet publicly been made clear, although it is known the patient recently returned from Italy.
Yesterday the Northants Telegraph asked KGH to confirm if it has any cases of coronavirus yet and if so, how many and what action has been taken. 
We also asked if the Prime Minister was talking about KGH when he mentioned shaking hands at a hospital with coronavirus patients.

A hospital spokesman said they won't be commenting.
So there you have it. Johnson told a lie that risked making people lax about taking precautions against the virus because he thought it would make him sound good.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Pontefract Baghill: The least used station in West Yorkshire

When I was a student 40 years ago or more, there were two rail routes from Sheffield to York.

The loco-hauled trains passed through the near-derelict station at Normanton and did not travel via Leeds as they do today.

Or you could take a DMU along the Dearne Valley line and pass through Pontefract Baghill.

Baghill is now the least used station in West Yorkshire, but I remember the line as being well used. 

Like all Dearne Valley stations, it is below the level of the track because of mining subsidence.

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Britain's Big Cat Mystery: A new film

I was watching Countryfile earlier this evening and red kites got a mention. A reintroduction programme began at the start of the century and now they can be seen all across Britain.

So if an ecological niche is vacant, an animal will fill it given the chance.

Which made me think of my favourite Fortean theory - the idea that big cats are living wild in the British countryside.

There is a film coming on Britain's Big Cat Mystery - you can see the trailer above.

Its YouTube page boasts:

This film adds substance to folklore and myth to establish the historic and scientific facts; and now, after years of tireless and extensive research, the story of ‘Britain’s Big Cat Mystery’ can finally be told with more clarity, detail and substantiated fact than has ever been possible before. 

Join the team, as they review newly uncovered and previously lost evidence, including long-forgotten archive footage, as well as exclusive new interviews with key witnesses to the seminal events in the history of the mysterious big cats of Britain, who until now have been unwilling to talk on camera...

Only Fools and Horses star David Jason ‘nearly killed by giant sugar cube’ while filming PG Tips advert

The Independent wins our Headline of the Day
Award for this story of a happy deliverance.

Free school meals: Now the chancellor has his say


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Is Leicestershire right to be proud it has no children's homes?

You can read the opening statement made on behalf of Leicestershire County Council to the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse strand on Lord Janner on the IICSA website.

That is remarkable in itself, as the great majority of the proceedings in this strand have taken place in private.

If you do read it you will find that Alex Verdan QC listed this among the "key points" he asked the inquiry to note:

there are no longer any LCC-run care homes in Leicestershire. The last home closed in April 2018. The small number of residential placements are sourced through external providers after a rigorous commissioning process.

Listening to the live webcast, I was struck by the tone of voice in which he said it - as though it were self-evidently good news.

I wonder. 

Discussing the way the history of psychiatry in America is written, David J. Rothman once said:

It was apparent and unmistakable that the reforms of one generation became the scandals of the next. Historians had explored their materials with a curious myopia. First they applauded the reformers who designed the system, then they applauded the reformers who exposed the system, and then they applauded the reformers who designed a new system – and the circle moved round on itself.

There is a danger that this cycle will also operate in the treatment of children in public care. Whether because of the scandals of recent decades or because they are seen as too expensive, council-run children's homes are disappearing and care is increasingly being provided by the private sector.

Already there are signs that this is where the new scandals will occur. Martin Barrow tweets daily about the worrying things revealed by Ofsted inspections of this mutli-million pound industry whose rise taken place with remarkably little public debate.

I hope Leicestershire does choose its external providers after a "rigorous commissioning process," but I wonder if a better response to its shameful history would be to run good children's homes rather than give up the attempt altogether.

Good news about Little Bowden Junction signal box

'Whatever happened to Little Bowden Junction signal box?" I asked back in July.

The box used to stand on the Midland main line in Market Harborough. It was taken down and then re-erected at the Coventry Steam Railway Centre, which later became the Electric Railway Museum, in 1987.

That museum closed in 2017 and its site was redeveloped. I could fine no mention of what happened to the box.

The good news, which comes from the chairman of the Suburban Electric Railway Association, is that the whole collection from the Coventry museum was preserved.

Little Bowden Junction box was taken to the Battlefield line in the west of Leicestershire. It is there awaiting reassembly at Market Bosworth or Shackerstone.

Six of the Best 970

Chris Dillow explains why the Tories have lost interest in economics: "Evidence for this is of course abundant. We see it in reports that Sunak is worried about government debt despite the fact that the Bank of England is buying it and gilt yields are negative; in the failure to address the fact that job creation has plummeted; in Johnson’s “fuck business” remark; and in the reckless pursuit of Brexit."

"Our experience of mental ill health is not equal - factors like race, economic class, gender identity and disability all affect our likelihood of struggling with mental illness. These factors also affect the way we experience and receive treatment, support, access to services and understanding from our employers." Mental health is not 'a great leveller', say Sofie Jenkinson and Margaret Welsh.

James Alexander Cameron asks what can be done to save England's neglected parish churches.

Dan Jackson on how he fell in love with Northern League football.

"T.H. White was a man to whom animals were very important, perhaps because his human relationships were so tormented. But his sense of connection with nonhuman lives goes far beyond mere compensation; it is a passionate vision of a moral universe, a world of terrible pain and cruelty from which trust and love spring like autumn crocus, vulnerable and unconquerable." Ursula Le Guin writes about her love for T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone.

"Many chess fans will be wondering: what about the chess? Was the board set right? Are they messing up, as they do in so many other movies and commercials? The answer is: absolutely not - the chess is done right." Peter Doggers has good news about the Netflix series The Queen's Gambit.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The earliest-born person to cut a record was the grandfather of a Liberal Party leader

Sir Tollemache Sinclair has featured on this blog before. Writing of his grandson, the Liberal leader Sir Archibald Sinclair, I said:

Sinclair was orphaned at an early age and lived at Thurso Castle, the home of his grandfather Sir Tollemache Sinclair. The castle was a gothic pile which had been reconstructed by Sir Tollemache to his own design and was notable for its orchestrion - a sort of mechanical organ which he loved to play.

Thurso Castle was damaged by a sea mine during the second world war and largely demolished in the 1950s as a result. Some claim that it was never particularly structurally sound in the first place.

Sir Tollemache, who was a Liberal MP himself, has another claim to fame. He is the earliest-born person whose voice is preserved on a disc (as opposed to a wax cylinder).

Born in 1825, he cut a number of records in 1906. You can hear him above giving Byron both barrels.

Sir Archibald Sinclair's grandson is John Thurso, who was Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross between 2001 and 2015. He was a member of the House of Lords before that and is now one again, having won one of those strange by-elections for hereditary peers.

Thanks to a reader on Twitter for putting me on to this.

IICSA Janner hearings cast new light on abuse in Leicestershire children's homes

Abuse was rife in Leicestershire children's homes in the 1970s, but the powers that be have never been keen on public exposure of what went on.

The press had to go to court to be allowed to report the trial of Frank Beck, and the subsequent inquiry was conducted entirely in private.

A copy of the report of that inquiry was to be found on the county council website (as the result of a freedom of information request), but it seems to have disappeared.

But you can find a searchable copy of the report elsewhere on the web.

Because of this record of secrecy, there was a certain degree of cynicism expressed when it emerged that the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse would take most of its evidence on Lord Janner in private.

However, some evidence has been heard in public and something of interest has emerged.

BBC News reports:

On Monday, the inquiry heard that Ratcliffe Road children's home in Leicester burned all its records when a paedophile ex-employee was arrested.

Former senior policeman Mick Creedon, who ran the investigation, said he was "haunted" knowing runaways were sent to the home, described as a "hell-hole" and sexually abused.

That seems to me more significant than the stuff about Tony Blair and the honours system that leads the story.

Creedon also gave evidence about the investigation of possible offences by Lord Janner:

He also described being "disappointed" when refused permission to arrest MP Greville Janner.

The home was "immediately closed down" when they arrested a prime suspect, and a senior worker at the home "immediately burned all the files".

Mr Creedon said several people he spoke to for the investigation had killed themselves, and three former residents eventually said they were also abused by Lord Janner.

Mr Creedon told the inquiry he was refused permission to arrest the politician in the 1990s and instead of arresting the MP he was invited to Leicestershire Police's headquarters to be interviewed.

However, his home was not searched and he answered "no comment" to questions, so the case was dropped.

Mr Creedon denied going too easy on Lord Janner and said one account that questions were sent in advance "categorically didn't happen".

"I still think there was a justifiable case for his arrest," he said.

Tory leader of Leicestershire: Government has given no money to fund free school meals over Christmas

In the tweet above you can see a clip of Nick Rushton, the Conservative leader of Leicestershire County Council, being interviewed by the political editor for BBC East Midlands, Tony Roe.

Rushton says the council "cannot see children going hungry" and will fund free school meals over the Christmas holidays.

Asked if the government has given the council money to pay for measures like this, as Tory MPs are claiming, he replies:
They gave it us in June or July with the instructions that we had to spend it by the end of September, which we did.
That money, says Rushton, was spent on funding food banks and community groups.

Monday, October 26, 2020

England clinch the series against Pakistan in 1971

With the first two tests drawn of this 1971 series, the last day of the third and final one saw Pakistan chasing 230 to win the match and the series. They could not manage it and England bowled them out to win by 25 runs. Some of the umpiring looks trigger happy by modern standards.

It's an unusual England attack as it features three front-line spinners: the captain Ray Illingworth, Norman Gifford (sometimes preferred to his fellow left-armer Derek Underwood in this period) and the wrist spinner Robin Hobbs.

Our opening attack was Peter Lever and Richard Hutton. The latter was the son of the great England batsman Len Hutton, which did his career no harm. He did reasonably well in the five tests he played, but lost out to Tony Greig in the contest to be the team's regular allrounder.

Characteristically, Basil D'Oliveira makes an important contribution here with his seamers.

You can find the full scorecard of this test on Wikipedia.

Apprenticeships minister repeats lies about free school meal vouchers

Gillian Keegan, apprenticeships and skills minister and Conservative MP for the town, has spoken to the Chichester Observer about her vote against extending free school meals into the Christmas holidays.

The newspaper reports her as saying she is

aware of reports in other parts of the country of schools, supermarkets and parents raising concerns that vouchers were not always used to provide food.

She may be aware of such reports, but they will be false. The vouchers can only be used to pay for food and groceries.

I shall be charitable and assume she is ill informed rather than being deliberately deceitful.

Note too her reference to "other part of the country". Is she saying that, while people in the South of England can be trusted, this is not the case further north?

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Nothing I learnt in school mathematics after the age of 12 has been of use to me since

It's fashionable at the moment to pile on to Ben Bradley, the Conservative MP for Mansfield, and I see no reason to discourage this.

So here's one tweet Bradley has not deleted:

Bradley is talking nonsense because this measure of poverty is based upon median income not mean income, and he appears not to understand the difference. 

I do understand it because, before we moved to Leicestershire when I was 13, I went to secondary school in Hertfordshire. There we studied studied mathematics using textbooks produced by the School Mathematics Project.

These made the subject interesting and turned out to be useful. We learnt some basic statistics, notably the concepts of mean, median and mode.

If I had stayed with SMP I would soon have been learning about computer programming, but in Leicestershire maths was very different.

We were offered an old-fashioned diet of arithmetic, trigonometry and algebra. It was dull beyond endurance and nothing I learnt in maths in the next four years has ever been of use to me since. I did get an O level, but was delighted to give the subject up at 16.

You may say I was strictly on the arts side after that, but I turned out to be good at formal logic at university. I found that Venn diagrams could be used to test the validity of syllogisms - and I had learnt about Venn diagrams in primary school.

So when I saw this exchange the other day (and thanks to the reader who helped me find it again) I almost cheered.
No doubt a lot has changed since my schooldays. But, judging by this and Mr Bradley, not enough.

Spencer Davis Group: Sittin' and Thinkin'

As a final tribute to Spencer Davis, here he is taking the lead on the group's own composition Sittin' and Thinkin'.

Before he formed the Spencer Davis Group he performed folk blues with guitar and a harmonica on a harness, like Bob Dylan.

This performance comes from the West German TV show Beat Beat Beat, which was better at preserving its tapes than most of its British equivalents. As a result, there are some great compilations of performances from the show to buy on DVD.

And the best obituary of Spencer Davis is in Rolling Stone - I didn't know he had signed Eddie and the Hot Rods when he was working as an A&R man.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Six of the Best 969

Peter Kellner says Britain is about to discover the dismal reality of Brexit: "On October 16, the prime minister warned that the UK might enter 2021 without a deal on the future relationship with the EU and be forced to trade on World Trade Organization terms. With no hint of doubt or irony, he advised Britons to embrace this prospect 'with high hearts and complete confidence'. This was the economic equivalent of promising to stop the tides. King Cnut would never have believed such nonsense."

"In the days after the disaster, Lord Robens, chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB), attributed the tragedy to ‘natural unknown springs’ beneath the tip.  This was known by all the local people to be incorrect.  The NCB had been tipping on top of springs that are shown on maps of the neighbourhood and in which village schoolboys had played." Martin Johnes and Iain McLean on the political aftermath of the Aberfan disaster.

"Over four years since its launch in 2015, it’s become one of the biggest film channels in the UK. Today, it attracts an audience of over two million viewers a week (and that was before the current lockdown). And it deserves every single one of them." Sarah Philip goes behind the scenes at Talking Pictures TV. 

Chris French pays tribute to James Randi, who died this week.

"A Dolly Parton concert is like a local census, bringing together peoples across lines of race, gender, sexuality, and, miraculously, political affiliation." Lauren Michele Jackson reviews a biography of a remarkable woman.

Diamond Geezer finds Mr Benn's home in Putney.

Ben Bradley is a rare beneficiary of snobbery

Ben Bradley is solidly middle class. His parents sent him to Derby Grammar School, which despite its name is an expensive private school. Its current fees the sixth-form students are £14,233.

Ben Bradley is as much a career politico as it is possible to be. When he was elected to parliament at the age of 27 he had a degree in politics, was a member of Nottinghamshire County Council and Ashfield District Council, and was working at Westminster as a political researcher.

So why do people regard him as a working-class outsider? How does he get away with being the Chairman of Blue Collar Conservatives?

The answer is snobbery. Because Bradley speaks with an East Midlands accent, people assume he must be working class.

This is absurd and patronising, but our national life is so dominated by people from the golden triangle of London, Oxford and Cambridge that people in the political world seldom come across people with an accent different from their own. 

When they do, they generally assume it's because he or she is working class - as if there are no middle-class people north of Watford Gap.

This makes Bradley a rare beneficiary of snobbery. He has so far largely got away with his repellent views because it has been thought his is an authentic working-class voice with no time for the niceties of middle-class debate. Salt of the earth and all that.

I suspect this view of him will not survive his current manic self-exposure.

In the 19th century accents were more diverse. Gladstone is reported to have had a Lancashire accent (though its hard to detect in the only genuine recording of him), while Charles Kingsley spoke with a strong West Country accent.

The only survival of this you hear today is when a Northumbrian aristocrat is interviewed and turns out to speak with the local accent.

Photo of Ben Bradley by Richard Townshend.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Market Harborough cats: a photographic essay

As a result of my researches this week I can conclude that some cats are friendlier than others.

And don't be fooled by the closed eyes in the third photo. Nothing happens in Walcot Road without that cat's knowledge and approval.

Will Ed Davey please stop using his rare media opportunities to attack his own party?

I thought I would be a loyal Liberal Democrat and blog about Ed Davey's appearamce on ITV's Acting Prime Minister podcast, so I started to listen to it.

Literally the first thing Ed tells his interviewer is:

"I've had to give the party some truths, namely that we've had a bit of a bad time in the last five years - three poor election results - and I've said 'Look, we've got to wake up and smell the coffee'."

The idea that Ed is aware we have had a bad time of late and ordinary party members have not noticed it is just silly.

As I blogged back in back in Nick Clegg's day:

Political activists now exist chiefly as a sort of stage army that can be brought on so their own leader can look tough by criticising them. It's no life for a grown up.

It's no wonder that people decide to work through charities and pressure groups instead. If I were Ed, I would take more care to make Lib Dem members feel valued and wanted.

I didn't get much further with the podcast, but you can find it above. For all I know, it may be very good. Give it a try.

Write a guest post for Liberal England

I welcome guest posts on Liberal England.

This list of the 10 most recent is pretty concentrated on the Liberal Democrats, but I am happy to publish posts on subjects far beyond the Lib Dems and politics.

If you would like to write a guest post for this blog, please send me an email so we can discuss your idea.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Leicester's Midland Railway hydraulic power station is listed by Historic England

The Leicester Mercury had some good news earlier this week:

It might not be the most attractive looking building in Leicester, but a former hydraulic power station in the city has now been recognised as a building of historical significance.

The former Hydraulic Power Station on Samuel Street, which dates back to 1874, once supplied hydraulic power to the extensive Midland Railway goods yards and warehouses which once covered the site now occupied by the St George’s Retail Park.

And while it hasn't been used for its original purpose for years, the building has now been granted Grade II listed status by Historic England following an application by the Leicester Group of the Victorian Society.

The building dates from about 1874 and supplied hydraulic power to the extensive Midland Railway goods yards and warehouses that once covered the site now occupied by St George’s Retail Park.

You may also be interested in the Victorian Society's Leicester pages.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Six of the Best 968

"A decade of data shows that giving people cash instead of food or other in-kind aid empowers recipients, is harder to steal, and pumps money into local economies. In some settings, recipients’ assets, nutrition, and even survival outcomes increase." Jina Moore explains why the Nobel-winning World Food Program is one of many agencies increasingly handing out cash rather than goods.

Barry Eichengreen says Scotland needs a new currency if it wants independence

"Those studies led to my questioning the story that our society told about those we call “mad,” and I got a book contract to dig into that question. That project turned into Mad in America, which told of the history of our society’s treatment of the seriously mentally ill, from colonial times until today—a history marked by bad science and societal mistreatment of those so diagnosed." Robert Whitaker is concerned that psychiatric drugs do more harm than good.

Noel Casler spills the beans on what he saw of Donald Trump when working behind the scenes on Celebrity Apprentice.

The 1971 British film Unman, Wittering and conssidered by Kimberly Lindbergs.

Oliver Soden explores the musical of an 18th-century cat "memorably described by [Christopher] Smart as 'surpassing in beauty', a 'mixture of gravity and waggery' who can tread 'to all the measures upon the musick', his tongue 'exceeding pure so that it has in purity what it wants in musick'."

Lord Bonkers 30 years ago: When London Underground ticket barriers were new

If I'd known I'd still be writing Lord Bonkers' Diary 30 years after I dashed off a trial version for Liberator, I'd have given the old brute a better name - Lord Uppingham, for instance.

The name Lord Bonkers was a tribute to Colonel Mad, who used to write about horse racing in Private Eye. I had already written a column as Captain Stark for what turned out to be the last issue of an obscure cricket magazine, though I'm sure it wasn't entirely my fault that it folded.

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting now and then to look back at what Lord Bonkers was saying 30 years ago - I have an almost complete run of Liberator since the early 1980s.

There was not an October 1990 issue, so here he is in September of that year (issue 191) when ticket barriers were new on the London Underground - or at least new to me. 

But then I was busy as chair of Harborough District Council's housing management subcommittee in those days.


Today I journey to London and have much fun with the ticket barriers on the Underground. I skip through nimbly enough myself, but the neighbouring contraption soon assembles an impressive collection: two-and-a-half-couple of American tourists, an Indian holy man, several heavily laden Swedish hikers, a swart saxophonist and an indeterminate number of Carmelite nuns. 

I trust that the transport authorities extort a ransom from those captured thus, but I am forced, given the cost of travel in the city, to the conclusion that they do not charge half enough. Nuns are notoriously bad payers, but the Americans and Swedes could be made to bring in quite a tidy sum.

Leaving aside questions of economics, I can heartily recommend the spectacle to any Englishman at a loose end in his capital city; it is most diverting to observe the victims writing and screaming in their futile efforts to escape.

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

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Steve Winwood pays tribute to Spencer Davis

This tribute has been posted on Steve Winwood's Instagram account:
I've known Spencer since I was about 13 - he would have been about 22. I was playing a show at Birmingham University with my brother and his band. Spencer who was a student at Birmingham, was playing with a small group of musicians. We met and the the seeds of The Spencer Davis Group were sown. 

Spencer was an early pioneer of the British folk scene, which, in his case embraced folk blues, and eventually what was then called "Rhythm and Blues". He influenced my tastes in music, he owned the first 12-string guitar I ever saw, and he was taken with the music of Huddie “Lead belly” Ledbetter, and Big Bill Broonzy. I’d already got a big brother who influenced me greatly, and Spencer became like a big brother to me at the time. 

He was definitely a man with a vision, and one of the pioneers of the British invasion of America in the sixties. I never went to the US with Spencer, but he later embraced America, and America embraced him. 

I feel that he was influential in setting me on the road to becoming a professional musician, and I thank him for that. 

Thank you, Spencer
The video above was broadcast as part of the BBC show A Whole Scene Going on 16 March 1966.

The future of politics in Scotland

The latest episode of the Compass podcast It's Bloody Complicated sees Neal Lawson talking to Gerry Hassan about the future of the Labour Party in Scotland and Scottish politics in general.

It's a particularly interesting episode, with Hassan suggesting the SNP is defying political gravity in the way that Scottish Labour long did. That is, it's piling up victories that its record in office does not merit. He suggests that, as Labour found, you can only go on doing this for so long.

He and Lawson share a bemusement at the dwindling of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland.

As far as I can see, we are concentrating on uniting the Unionist vote in half a dozen seats there - a strategy that has little appeal to voters beyond those seats or who support the Liberal call for Home Rule.

Lib Dem social media only discusses good results, but last week our vote almost halved in a council by-election in Aberdeenshire, which was until recently an area of strength for us.

Is there a better way forward for the Lib Dems? For some ideas, see the guest post Mark Stephens wrote for this blog: Unionism is making the Scottish Lib Dems irrelevant.

Spencer Davis died yesterday aged 81

Sad news. Spencer Davis, who led one of the great British groups of the 1960s, died in California yesterday at the age of 81.

Based in Birmingham, he had already played with Bill Wyman, Christine Perfect (the future Christine McVie) and Ian Campbell when he heard the Winwood brothers playing in their jazz band.

"We should get together and form a blues band," he told them. "We could get a booking to play the university every Saturday."

And the rest is history.

The official reason for naming the band after Spencer Davis, when Steve Winwood was inevitably the most prominent member, was that he liked talking to the press and could do all the interviews while the Winwood brothers stayed in bed. 

But it was a great name for a British blues band. They could be black. They could be American.

When the Winwood brothers left in 1967 life became more of a struggle for Davis, but he remained in the business and regularly toured with new versions of his band.

The video here shows the Spencer Davis Group in its prime and has Davis singing the lead for once.

I heard Spencer Davis play and  shook hands with him when he played in Market Harborough in 2009.

The band was having problems with its equipment that evening, which ended with a roadie leaning over a speaker cabinet to hold a cable in place.

"This is just what it was like in the Sixties," said Davis. "We're giving you the genuine experience."

Monday, October 19, 2020

Make every county boundary a customs border and we'll be minted

Here's Michael Gove in the Commons today:

If customs formalities create jobs, why stop there? 

Let's make every county boundary a customs border. This time next year we'll be millionaires.

Gabriel in Brook Vessons by Whalebone and Jean Atkin

The Romans mined all this land for lead long, long before men came back, in the last century, to this haunted corner of Shropshire. These miners tore up the earth, built engine houeses, sank shafts and buried the golden gorse under piles of rubbish which may still be seen today. 

Those were hard days in a hard country and it must have been about that time that a few shepherds, some perhaps with the courage of despair, made their homes on the lower slopes of the Stiperstones. It is said that those who were able to establish a home here must follow a curious custom. Newcomers must, between sunset and sunrise, build first a hovel with a roof of turf in which must be a hole, or something which would act as a chimney, and then kindle the precious fire which was to give them the right to live there. If by morning smoke was seen above the roof, the neighbours would cry "I see smoke", and the word would go round that strangers had earned the right to live among them.

Malcolm Saville knew the story about squatters cottages on the Stiperstones - this passage comes from Not Scarlet But Gold (1962) - though those dwellings were surely put up by incoming miners.

Brook Vessons, says the Shropshire Wildlife Trust:

lies on the edge of The Paddock - a village that grew up with the local mining industry as people took on smallholdings to supplement their income. It was finally abandoned early in the 20th century, when the industry declined, but the remnants of field and cottage walls remain.

The trust describes it as "extraordinarily atmospheric" and that is certainly true of this video too.

Gabriel in Brook Vessons is taken from Understories. a collaboration between Whalebone and the poet Jean Atkin.

Clive Stafford Smith on cricket and human rights

In April Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast to help us endure what was then a world without cricket.

They are up to episode 25, which talks to the human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith about his work as well as his love for cricket.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Chess, cheating and Covid-19

How has chess been coping with the pandemic?

One development has been online tournaments between the world's top players, who play from home. As their opponents cannot see them, they are much freer in their facial reactions than they are when playing over the board. This makes it fun for the viewing public who can see the feed from both players' webcams.

Keeping a poker face, or at least a chess face, is one of the arts a top player needs to master. The young Boris Spassky decided he was revealing too much and cultivated what he call a "clown's mask" to avoid giving opponents encouragement.

It's said that he was unnerving to play because he never gave you the slightest clue as to how he thought the game was going.

At lower levels this is rarely the case. When I beat Simon Le Blanq, who had played top board in chess Olympiads for two different countries, I was encouraged by overhearing a conversation between him and a teammate while I was considering my next move.

"How are you doing?" asked the friend. "I'm being wiped out," came the reply, helpfully confirming my assessment of the position.

But now that computers are stronger than any human player, playing online raises all sorts of problems with possible cheating .

As a Guardian article yesterday reported:

At the heart of the problem are programs or apps that can rapidly calculate near-perfect moves in any situation. To counter these engines, players in more and more top matches must agree to be recorded by multiple cameras, be available on Zoom or WhatsApp at any time, and grant remote access to their computers. They may not be allowed to leave their screens, even for toilet breaks. In some cases they must have a “proctor” or invigilator search their room and then sit with them throughout a match.

Sutovsky has also suggested eye-tracking programs may be a way to raise a red flag if a player appears to be looking away with suspicious frequency.

And cheating is not a problem only in grandmaster chess:

Such controversies have been replicated even in the lower-stakes world of junior play. Sarah Longson, a former British ladies' champion who runs the Delancey UK Schools’ Chess Challenge, said at least 100 of 2,000 online participants cheated.

The cheating was blatant, she said, with mediocre preteens at the level of the world champion, Magnus Carlsen. "But only three of them admitted it, which is pretty disgusting." After realising the night before the final that the top three qualifiers had all been cheating, she said, "we stayed up till 3am deciding what to do" and nearly cancelled altogether.

As I once wrote a post entitled The public schools' greatest weakness is now the character of their old boys, I was intrigued by what Longson said next:

"It’s the children from the private schools, sadly," she said. "When I ring their parents they just get angry with me. They’re under such pressure to succeed."

Laura Nyro: Stoney End

Laura Nyro, who was born on this day in 1947 and died in 1997, never seems to have enjoyed the fame she deserved. This Guardian article by Laura Barton helps explain why that is:

While Nyro was one of the most important songwriters of the 60s and 70s, one who has exerted a profound influence on artists from Elton John to Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell to Carole King and Tori Amos, she also sidestepped celebrity, turned down offers to increase both sales and fame, and for much of her career put the song before the songwriter - allowing others to record the definitive versions of her own compositions.

Stoney End is better known from the version by Barbra Streisand and Nyro also wrote Wedding Bell Blues, which was a hit for the The 5th Dimension.

But she was a remarkable talent, as Barton goes on to say:

If Nyro’s story feels in some way confounding, all that turn-tailing on talent and success, all those steps to the left when the going looked so good, it’s perhaps consoling to consider that the unexpected twists that ran through her life were in some way an echo of her songwriting – full of rhythmic convolutions, free-form compositions, vocal variations. As Elton John put it: "The soul, the passion, just the out-and-out audacity of the way her rhythmic and melody changes came was like nothing I’d heard before."

More than anything, Nyro’s lyrics always felt lived. "Everything seemed exotic and heightened in her songs," Bette Midler said in the speech she made to posthumously induct Nyro into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012. "She could make a trip to the grocery store seem like a night at the opera."

Saturday, October 17, 2020

"Making the East End into the new West End" in 1970

The redevelopment of London's Docklands was not dreamt up by Margaret Thatcher or by Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday: it was already under way in 1970.

This film looks at the redevelopment of St Katherine Docks and their derelict, bomb-damaged warehouses. The tensions between the needs of existing inhabitants and the gentrifying ambitions of the developers are laid bare.

And where was the derelict tube station with the unfenced shaft that the mother complains about?

Click on the still above to play this film on the British Film Institute site.

Six of the Best 967

"The by-election team included Candy Piercy handling the media, Norman Baker (then a Lewes councillor) doing casework, John Ricketts in charge of direct mail, and Paul Burstow (then a staffer for the association of Lib Dem councillors) in charge of leaflets. One such leaflet gleefully pointed out that a hospital listed by the Conservatives’ media guide had just been demolished." Tides of History looks back at the Eastbourne by-election of 1990, where David Belotti's victory hastened the end of Margaret Thatcher's reign.

"Our national parks could be beacons of hope for natural climate solutions - brimming with native broadleaf woodlands, agroforestry, restored peat bogs and species-rich grassland." Danny Gross writes a briefing for Friends of the Earth.

Adam Kirsch reviews The Murder of Professor Schlick, David Edmonds' new book on the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, who operated in the shadow of the rise of Nazism.

The antics in post-war Nordic children’s books - think the Moomins and Pippi Longstocking - left propaganda and prudery behind. Richard W. Orange says we need this madcap spirit more than ever.

"There’s definitely an undercurrent of class tension throughout the movie, a sense of knowing your place, even in a new town. See how Jamie feels out of place at the upper class gatherings and how uncomfortable he (and his mother) look when doctor’s daughter Mary comes to tea. The sixties was supposed to be the decade when the class system came crashing down. But even in a new town, everyone knew their level." Mod Culture reviews the 1968 film Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, which is being shown on Sony Movies Action (Freeview channel 40) late tomorrow night.

Eric Wark explores Suffolk's Shotley peninsula.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Peartree: The least used station in Derbyshire

Peartree lies a mile or so south of Derby station. Under its original name of Pear Tree and Normanton it was open between 1839 and 1968.

It reappeared with a streamlined new name in 1976 as part of the reopening of the Sinfin branch to serve the Rolls Royce works. This was not a success and the last train ran in 1993, though in theory you could present yourself at Derby station and demand a taxi to Sinfin North or Sinfin South until its official closure in 1998.

Peartree survived, though almost all trains from Derby to Crewe or Birmingham race through it without stopping.

The Sinfin branch gets a mention in this video, but there was another station between Peartree and Derby not so long ago.

Ramsline Halt, previously Baseball Ground Halt, was a single-platform station opened by British Rail in 1990 to serve the Baseball Ground, the former home of Derby County. Only four trains ever stopped there and it closed in 1997 when the club moved to its new Pride Park stadium.

Research shows bigger is not better in local government

Yesterday I wrote:

I believe local government should be local and that the idea that centralisation always leads to greater efficiency and lower costs is no more true today than it was in the 1970s when it was Labour's creed.

And then I discovered an expert report that says much the same thing. I am always happy to cite research when it supports my opinions.

That report is Bigger is not better: the evidenced case for keeping 'local' government. It's written by Colin Copus, Steve Leach, and Alistair Jones from De Monfort University and published by the District Councils' Network.

It assesses more than 300 pieces of research from around the world and is concludes that the size of councils does not make a difference to the quality or efficiency of services.

A second finding is that larger councils lead to falling public trust, falling engagement and a reduced sense of belonging to your local area and council.

Ombudsman finds Sheffield Council misled public over tree scandal

Remember the scandal over Sheffield's Labour-run council and tree-felling? The council had signed a ridiculous PFI contract that saw many healthy street trees felled.

When this caused an outcry the council turned on the protestors. They even tried to have an opposition councillor jailed for demonstrating.

There was a good article on the affair by George Monbiot.

Yesterday the Yorkshire Post covered a report on the affair by the local government and social care ombudsman:

A 25-page report by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has recommended an unreserved public apology is issued by the council to the people of the city within the next three months over its handling of the controversial removal of thousands of street trees. ...

It concluded the council should “provide a public, unreserved apology accepting those findings of this investigation which draw attention to general failings in the implementation of its ‘Streets Ahead’ policy”, as well as providing a private apology to the complainant’s family.

The report added: “We ask it [the council] consider if there are wider implications for how it delivers services and lessons it should learn as a result of how it implemented its Streets Ahead programme. In particular, how it can embed the principles of openness and accountability across all its services.”

You can read the full report on the Ombudsman's website.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The rediscovery of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

In the 1960s the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were desperately unfashionable. A Canterbury Tale - on most days my favourite among them - was known only in a version cut and reshot for the American market and the same was true of the Shropshire-set Gone to Earth.

This BBC Arena documentary was made as their reputation was undergoing a remarkable renaissance.

Controversy over £85,000 grant to 17-year-old opera patron at Bonkers Hall

One of the beneficiaries of money from the Culture Recovery Fund hereabouts was Nevill Holt Opera.

It has its own little opera house in the former stables of Nevill Holt Hall, the stately home that many academics believe to be the model for Bonkers Hall.

So I was interested to see this from Norman Lebrecht on his Slipped Disc blog:

We’re hearing cries of ‘foul!’ over a £100,000 Arts Council handout to Nevill Holt Opera in the Midlands.

Nevill Holt was founded by Tory donor and Boris pal David Ross on his estate in Leicestershire.

Ross, 55, is chairman of the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Opera House in London.

Last month, he handed over the running of Nevill Holt Opera, giving the title ‘patron’ to his son, Carl, perhaps to avoid any suspicion of conflict with his own ROH role.

Carl is 17 and still at school. He has just accepted a lavish Arts Council cheque for £85,000.

Lebrecht concludes that "Something’s not quite kosher here."

I don't know about that - this Twitter thread from Nevill Holt Opera looks like a reply to critics of this grant - but it does sound more Darren Grimes than Peter Grimes.

A warning to libertarians: Abolish local government and your town may be taken over by bears

Conservatives in Leicestershire, as in many other parts of the country, are hell-bent on abolishing district and borough councils.

I believe local government should be local and that the idea that centralisation always leads to greater efficiency and lower costs is no more true today than it was in the 1970s when it was Labour's creed.

Support for my view comes from an article in The New Republic by Patrick Blanchfield. It is a review of the book A libertarian walks into a bear by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, which recounts the experience of the New Hampshire town of Grafton.

Grafton has a history of fierce independence, which I find admirable. The result, says Blanchfield, is that it has become "something of a magnet for seekers and quirky types, from adherents of the Unification Church of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon to hippie burnouts and more".

So far it sounds like any number of towns on the Welsh border.

But then libertarians began to move in - Blanchfield says "the town’s population of a little more than 1,100 swelled with 200 new residents, overwhelmingly men, with very strong opinions and plenty of guns".

They were attracted by the Free Town Project promoted by John and Rosalie Babiarz and soon took power in Grafton:

The Free Towners spent years pursuing an aggressive program of governmental takeover and delegitimation, their appetite for litigation matched only by their enthusiasm for cutting public services. They slashed the town’s already tiny yearly budget of $1 million by 30 percent, obliged the town to fight legal test case after test case, and staged absurd, standoffish encounters with the sheriff to rack up YouTube hits. 

Grafton was a poor town to begin with, but with tax revenue dropping even as its population expanded, things got steadily worse. Potholes multiplied, domestic disputes proliferated, violent crime spiked, and town workers started going without heat.

While all this was going on, bears left their usual activities in the woods to enter the town:

The black bears in Grafton were not like other black bears. Singularly “bold,” they started hanging out in yards and on patios in broad daylight. Most bears avoid loud noises; these casually ignored the efforts of Graftonites to run them off. Chickens and sheep began to disappear at alarming rates. Household pets went missing, too. 
One Graftonite was playing with her kittens on her lawn when a bear bounded out of the woods, grabbed two of them, and scarfed them down. Soon enough, the bears were hanging out on porches and trying to enter homes.

Was there a connection between the assumption of power by the libertarians and the arrival of the bears?

Hongoltz-Hetling investigates the question at length, probing numerous hypotheses for why the creatures have become so uncharacteristically aggressive, indifferent, intelligent, and unafraid. Is it the lack of zoning, the resulting incursion into bear habitats, and the reluctance of Graftonites to pay for, let alone mandate, bear-proof garbage bins? Might the bears be deranged somehow, perhaps even disinhibited and emboldened by toxoplasmosis infections, picked up from eating trash and pet waste from said unsecured bins? 
There can be no definitive answer to these questions, but one thing is clear: The libertarian social experiment underway in Grafton was uniquely incapable of dealing with the problem. 

I offer this case as a warning to Leicestershire's Tories and all who disparage local government.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

At the end of the Central Line: A walk from West Ruislip into Buckinghamshire

John Rogers takes us on a walk from the end of the Central Line at West Ruislip through Ickenham, passing the River Pinn and down across the fields to the Grand Union Canal and Denham. 

We then pass Denham Aerodrome and, following the South Bucks Way, arrive at Chalfont St Peter. From here we cross Goldhill Common to Seer Green and Jordans station on the Marleybone line.

John has a Patreon account to support his videos and blogs at The Lost Byway.

Christine Jardine makes the case for universal basic income

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Christine Jardine, Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West and the party's Treasury spokesperson, took part in a Westminster Hall debate on universal basic income.

The Lib Dems adopted the introduction of a UBI as party policy at their conference last month.

Here is part of what Christine said:

Coronavirus has changed everything. It has changed everything in much the same way—this metaphor has been used a lot—as the second world war changed everything for this society. When Beveridge put together his report in 1942, a lot of people said that it simply could not work, that it was not sensible and that the country could not afford it. What on earth was he thinking about? And yet, immediately post-war, the Labour Government set about putting that Beveridge report into action. 

What I say today is that what this country needs now is that kind of vision, and that kind of willingness to take on a challenge and to change society for the better for the next generation. It is not an opportunity that we asked for; it has come in the form of a challenge—probably the biggest challenge that any of us will face in our lifetimes. But we also have to see it as an opportunity to make progress.

Why UBI? The reason I became a convert, frankly, has been the number of phone calls and the number of people who have come to me since March this year—every day, every phone call, every person who thought they were financially secure, every person who spent decades building up a company, every person who was self-employed but now finds that they are without the support they need for the future: all that has convinced me that the only way to tackle the issue fully and to make sure that everyone gets the support they need is through a universal basic income.

Eoghan Quigg: Alive and kicking after 'the worst album of all time'

You probably won't remember Eoghan Quigg, who finished third behind third behind Alexandra Burk and JLS in the 2008 series of X Factor.

I remember him because I once posted a description of him by Charlie Brooker just because it was so striking:

Weird. Eerie. Like the spectral figure of an infant chimney sweep that suddenly appears in an upstairs window, gazing sadly at your back as you walk the grounds of a remote country mansion on a silent Christmas afternoon; alerted by an indefinable chill, you turn and, for the briefest moment, his wet, sorry eyes meet yours... and then he's gone.

And I remember him too because of a damning Guardian review of his first and only CD. It was not just damning of Quigg's talent but of the cynicism of the music business too and this evening I found it again:

Ironically, in 2009 we are so numb to hyperbole that totally appropriate phrases like "the worst album of all time" effectively divert attention away from how bad this album actually is. But this album really is phenomenally bad. 

On first listen it's tempting to say that no effort went into its creation, but on closer inspection it strikes a very clever balance. It is an album which at once satisfies demand for one Eoghan Quigg album and ensures that there will never ever be demand for a second. It's an important balance for X Factor albums like this. 

If produced cheaply enough (and the karaoke CD backing tracks show that this album has not been an expensive one) there's potential for modest profit on a debut album, but that profit would certainly turn to loss if ploughed into the promotion of a follow-up.

Despite this experience, Quigg has not given up singing - in 2014 he finished second in the contest to choose Ireland's Eurovision entry. But these days he is better known as a sportsman.

He has played soccer for Coagh United and Portstewart FC in the Northern Ireland Football League and now plays Gaelic football for Doire Trasna in the Derry county leagues.

How do I know all this? From Wikipedia and an article in The Irish News.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

The new bridge at Tintagel Castle

Maybe Uther Pendragon never lived at Tintagel Castle, but recent archaeological investigations suggest that it did flourish as a high-status settlement just after the Romans left Britain.

And the Arthurian connection is one of the things that brings visitors to this spectacular site on the North Cornwall coast.

It used to be a difficult one for visitors to access or interpret. Sometime in the 14th or 15th century a natural land bridge collapsed here, taking part of the castle with it. What was left looked like two fortresses facing one another across a chasm.

In 2019 an elegant and spectacular bridge was thrown across that chasm. You can learn all about it in the video above.

I remember Tintagel as a welcome resting point on what is a brutal coast for long-distance walkers. I also recall slogging uphill to the modern village, only to find it dominated by establishments like the Morgan Le Fay Gift Shoppe and the Sir Galahad Fudge Bar.

The smug style in American liberalism

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A while ago a reader pointed me to the article The smug style in American liberalism by Emmett Rensin, suggesting there were lessons for liberals and the left in Britain.

I think he was on to something:

By the 1990s the better part of the working class wanted nothing to do with the word liberal. What remained of the American progressive elite was left to puzzle: 

What happened to our coalition?

Why did they abandon us?

What's the matter with Kansas?

The smug style arose to answer these questions. It provided an answer so simple and so emotionally satisfying that its success was perhaps inevitable: the theory that conservatism, and particularly the kind embraced by those out there in the country, was not a political ideology at all.

The trouble is that stupid hicks don't know what's good for them. They're getting conned by right-wingers and tent revivalists until they believe all the lies that've made them so wrong. They don't know any better. That's why they're voting against their own self-interest.

As anybody who has gone through a particularly nasty breakup knows, disdain cultivated in the aftermath of a divide quickly exceeds the original grievance. You lose somebody. You blame them. Soon, the blame is reason enough to keep them at a distance, the excuse to drive them even further away.

Finding comfort in the notion that their former allies were disdainful, hapless rubes, smug liberals created a culture animated by that contempt. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Financial incentive compounded this tendency — there is money, after all, in reassuring the bitter. Over 20 years, an industry arose to cater to the smug style. It began in humor, and culminated for a time in The Daily Show, a program that more than any other thing advanced the idea that liberal orthodoxy was a kind of educated savvy and that its opponents were, before anything else, stupid.

There has always been a strong tendency in the British left that wnats to reform the working class rather than liberate it, but I used to think there is also a clear liberal tendency that took the opposite view.

We need to rediscover that variety of liberalism if we are to succeed in disentangling ourselves from the attractions of smugness.