Friday, June 30, 2023

John Cleese on At Last the 1948 Show

At Last the 1948 Show is part of the prehistory of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Written and performed by Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Marty Feldman, this sketch show was broadcast nationally by ITV in 1967.

Here talkingto Dick Fiddy about it in front of a British Film Institute audience, John Cleese is agreeably surprised at how good it was. 

Though it's worth pointing out that, well before Python, Round the Horne and The Goon Show were into subverting broadcasting conventions. Both dragged the BBC announcer into the show, for instance.

And a point that's got me into more than one Twitter argument: the Four Yorkshiremen sketch comes from At Last the 1948 Show and not Monty Python.

But you try an' tell the young people of today that, and they won't believe you.

Desford Approved School was once the dominant force in junior chess in Leicestershire

Here's a remarkable story from Richard James on British Chess News:

For a few years in the mid 1930s a remarkable story was playing out in Leicestershire chess. The boys from Desford Approved School, who had been sent there from all over the country having fallen foul of the law, were taking part in the Under 16 section of the county chess championship, dominating the event, winning game after game against their law-abiding contemporaries, and even beating adult teams in the county league.

Desford opened as an industrial school in 1881. These institutions were intended for boys who were found homeless or begging but had not committed any serious crime. The idea was to remove them from bad influences (including their families), give them an education and teach them a trade.

In 1927 a home office committee recommended that industrial schools should be combined with reformatories, which had a more punitive mission, and so the approved schools were born.

Richard looks at the two men who brought chess to Desford Approved School: the Leicester Liberal politician Sydney Gimson and the school's superintendent Cecil Lane. He will look at the future lives of the school's chess players in a second post.

The image above is a capture from a 1966 film about the school, which does not fill the heart with joy. The argument that the visibly overcrowded dormitories don't matter because the boys are used to no better at home is a long way from the more civilised views Cecil Lane was putting forward 30 years earlier.

Desford Approved School became a 'community home with education' in 1973 and closed five years after that.

Its buildings still stand - it was actually not at Desford but just outside the smaller village of Botcheston - and now house a care home. You can see some photographs of it on the Children's Homes site.

On a personal note, I knew Richard James 40 years ago when he was captain of Richmond and Twickenham chess club. I played for him on board five in the top division of the London League, which was a great learning experience.

I don't suppose I won many games for him, but when I got back to Leicestershire the following season I found I had improved no end. In fact I beat just about everyone put in front of me and conceded only one draw in the county league.

So I owe Richard thanks and an apology.

News from Labour: Neal Lawson has been expelled and Thangam Debbonaire won't commit to stopping Rwanda flights

Neal Lawson, the head of the cross-party campaign group Compass, writes in the Guardian:

Last Friday an email from the Labour party – of which I’ve been a member for 44 years – broke my political heart. They wrote coldly to tell me that back in May 2021, I’d committed a crime: retweeting a Lib Dem MP’s call for some voters to back Green candidates in local elections, accompanied by my suggestion that such cross-party cooperation represented “grownup progressive politics”. My punishment? Expulsion.

I'm told that if you're a Labour member who wants a political career you have to be careful who you're seen talking to. Sometimes it seems internal repression is the only relic of socialism the party has preserved.

And if you are minded to vote Labour because at least they're not the Tories, don't get your hopes up too high. 

Here's Thangam Debonnaire declining to say that Labour would cancel flights of asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Thursday, June 29, 2023

Braunston: the centre of England's inland waterways

Its position close to the junction of the Grand Union and Oxford Canals has always given Braunston a strong claim to be the centre of England's inland waterways.

I visited it several times on family canal holidays between 1966 and 1971, but until last week I'd been back only once since.

Here some of the photos I took last Friday. I arrived on the first day of a festival of vintage canal boats, so there was plenty see.

Raymond was one of the last working boats on the Grand Union and I remember the thump-thump of its and engine as it passed through Boxmoor when I was a boy.

One day I shall dig out some family photos of the canal at Braunston more than 50 years ago.

Lib Dems table bill to 'rip up' the water industry

I'm pleased to see the Liberal Democrats have something radical to contribute on reforming the water industry. 

A press release on the party website says Tim Farron, the Lib Dems' environment spokesperson, has tabled a parliamentary bill that would transform the water companies into 'public good companies':

Under the plans, water firms would no longer prioritise profit over the environment. The companies’ boards would be reformed, to include environment experts, and become far more open and transparent to the public. 

Currently, water firms are not obligated under law to provide information to the public, and can refuse to answer Environmental Requests for Information.

The release quotes Tim Farron:

"The potential collapse of Thames Water must be a wake up call for the government. Ministers have sat on their hands whilst the water industry falls apart and destroys our environment. 

"There is no time to waste in ripping up this scandal ridden industry. Thames Water is treating the country like fools, by forking out insulting pay outs to overseas investors and senior executives, all whilst pipes leak and rivers becoming polluted with sewage. 

"It is time for change. The water industry has become like the Wild West. It is a lawless and chaotic industry full of profiteering investors trying to make a quick buck. 

"Water firms must stop putting profit before the environment. These firms need reforming from top to bottom. This law would be an important first step to finally turning around this sinking ship."

A BBC News report explain that the concept of a 'public good company' is based on the public benefit corporations that operate in the US.

That report also says the Lib Dem scheme would rely on the water regulator to force the water companies to run themselves for the good of the environment as well as for profit.

My worry is that the regulator of the water industry - or any other industries - has rarely displayed the assertiveness this new role would require. The Thatcherite model under which industries would live in fear of their regulators has never looked like becoming reality.

So we may find that ownership matters too in the water industry, though there may be models to consider beside simple renationalisation.

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Paul and Rebecca Whitewick investigate the UK's vanishing rivers

The UK has 42,000 miles of rivers, but the public has access to only 1400 miles of them.

Paul and Rebecca Whitwick investiage the twin issues of our pitifully limited access to river banks, at least in England, and the polluted state of many rivers.

There's more from Paul and Rebecca Whitewick and from Right to Roam on their websites.

The report of the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket

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The report from the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket convicts the game in England of racism, sexism, classism, elitism and every other ism you can think of.

Which will come as no surprise to anyone who follows cricket.

There was a good feature and discussion of the report broadcast on Test Match Special during the lunch interval at Lord's today. Jon Agnew pointed out that the number of players from an Afro-Caribbean background who played for England in the 1980s led us to believe we were more inclusive than we really were.

Devon Malcolm, Gladstone Small, Philip Defreitas and the other Black cricketers he played with and against were first-generation immigrants: they had learnt to play the game in the Caribbean, When they retired there were few British-born players with their heritage to replace them.

The most telling comment I saw today was on Twitter.

Somerset County Cricket Club - and all power to them for doing so - sent a tweet saying:

There is no place for discrimination of any kind in cricket.

Then someone replied pointing out that the county's last state-schooled debutant was Jack Leach in 2010.

You can download the ICEC report and its 44 recommendations from the commission's website.

Tuesday, June 27, 2023

William Trevor's wood carving in All Saints' Church, Braunston

In 1956, an award-winning young Irish sculptor and art teacher, William Trevor Cox, living in Braunston was commissioned to produce several pieces in wood for the village church.

These was a lectern and, for a side chapel, two relief panels and a crucifix, candlesticks and vases.

Some years later, after working in advertising, he turned his hand to writing and, under the name William Trevor, became a celebrated novelist and writer of short stories.

In Braunston last week, I called in at All Saints' to see his work.

There was building work going on in the side chapel and the sun streaming in through the windows made photographing the lectern difficult, but this is what I came away with.

I didn't see the vases or relief panels, but then I didn't know the latter were there and so was not looking for them.

I was introduced to William Trevor's work by an edition of Frank Delaney's Radio 4 programme Bookshelf. He was a wonderful writer.

All roads lead to Frome: How to help Sarah Dyke in the by-election

Frome wasn't built in a day. Nevertheless, Somerset Live reports that the Liberal Democrats immediately got stuck in to the Somerton and Frome by-election.

Less than a week into the campaign, the party has set up their main shop in Frome, with satellite hubs across the constituency.

Activists from across the country gathered to hear a rallying speech from Sarah Dyke and Tiverton and Honiton by-election winner Richard Foord MP.

The Liberal Democrats overturned the Conservative’s 24,239 majority with Richard Foord’s win. His victory continued the party’s winning streak in rural blue wall seats, adding to previous by-election success in Chesham & Amersham and North Shropshire.

In Somerset, Sarah Dyke has seen similar success. During last May’s local elections, she beat the man in charge of the Conservative party's 'Lib Dem unit.' Overall, the party won 61 seats and took control of the council from the Conservatives.

But, of course, Sarah needs as much help as possible from Lib Dem supporters and members. So until polling day on 20 July, all roads (and railways) lead to Frome.

The Lib Dems' by-election headquarters is at Unit 3, Station Approach, Frome BA11 1RE.

Helpers coming from west of Frome are asked to go to 1 Parrett Close, Langport TA10 9PD.

The Joy of Six 1141

A report from Chatham House deconstructs 16 myths and misconceptions that shape contemporary Western thinking on Russia: "Crimea has been in Russian hands for only a fraction of its history. If unchallenged, the Kremlin’s fiction that Crimea willingly and legitimately 'rejoined' Russia risks further undermining Ukraine’s territorial integrity and encouraging other expansionist powers."

"This system of control is replicated across the main parties in local government and, increasingly, in the selection procedure for parliamentary candidates: both the Conservatives and Labour are trying to ensure that any new MP will already be whip compliant. A dearth of ideas, diversity, discussion, innovation and local accountability is the inevitable result." Tabitha Troughton on the whipping system in British politics.

Alison Teal says the Sheffield street tree scandal is what happens when a dominant group asserts such absolute power that listening to alternate views is considered weakness

 Jon recalls being subject to electroconvulsive therapy without his consent.

"There are already rumours of the fact that people can only tell Putin what he wants to hear. So, they, the military, presented him with this case in advance that the war would be a very quick thing, that the people in Ukraine would rise up... And that's what happens when you spread fear and terror, which is what The Death of Stalin is about, really." Armando Iannucci talks to Radio Free Europe.

Simon Matthews looks at the life and death of British Lion Films, the UK’s nationalised film company.

Monday, June 26, 2023

Peter Hitchens has been banged up in Shrewsbury jail

There's a good article by Peter Hitchens in the Daily Mail.

Readers (aghast): Peter Hitchens? The Daily Mail?

Liberal England replies: Go on then, if you must.

Where were we?

Peter Hitchens is one of a number of minor celebrities who have been filming a reality television show about life in prison,

He explains:
The programme-makers assembled a large group of genuine ex-prisoners, and also several experienced former prison officers, to recreate as closely as possible the routine and atmosphere of jail. 
This was no stage set. We were literally Banged Up (the working title of the programme) several times a day, as uniformed officers swung shut the heavy blue-grey iron doors and forced us to endure slow hours in the company of cellmates we had absolutely not chosen.

We mopped the floors and peeled potatoes and doled out food to each other in the servery. We worked out in the gym and shared the showers, which switched wildly between freezing cold and searingly hot.

We circled round the exercise yard when the weather allowed and were exposed to various attempts at therapy from yoga (an actual punishment for me) to bricklaying. For days we never saw a tree or a blade of grass. ...
It is a dismal place, oppressive and grubby, haunted by tragedy of one kind or another, and redolent of all kinds of misery. It is especially dismal because the busy sounds of the nearby railway station remind the inmate of the freedom of others, outside the melancholy brick walls.
The experience had not changed his very Daily Mail views on crime, but he does write:
I still think we are all responsible for what we do. I just do not think that physical squalor, dirt and danger help achieve these ends.
And there's some real humanity here:
I must praise the former prisoners, who did their bit without any reward, and who - in many cases - suffered flashbacks to real prison sentences. I will always be grateful to them for the small but vital kindnesses they gave me, a suburban softie with a la-di-da voice, obviously doomed to defeat in any hard physical confrontation.
Reality shows with serious intentions have a habit of not living up to their billing, but this one sounds like an honest attempt at showing us the realities of prison life.

I had intended to use this post as excuse for dropping in a verse of Housman's A Shropshire Lad - there are two that mention 'Shrewsbury jail'. But Hitchens got there before me and quoted both of them.

Still, I shall not be deterred:
There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
    Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
    Than most that sleep outside.

GUEST POST A tour of some top political podcasts

Ruth Bright listens to some of the most popular political podcasts so you don't have to.

Is anyone else addicted to political podcasts? Is help available for this addiction? While I look for a cure, here is an affectionate tribute to a few favourites. Perhaps you will recognize them and love them too.

First we go live to The Rest is Politics:

Nicey: It’s been a super-duper week for us at politics podcast HQ. Yet another sell-out gig for us at the Palladium. Did I ever tell you about the time I walked barefoot through Kazakhstan...?

Gritty: Yes Nicey. I met Princess Di you know.

Nicey: Yes, yes.

Gritty: Fiona thought she fancied me. It’s in me diaries. There are eight volumes.

Nicey: Yes, yes Gritty. But as I was saying. When I was a civil servant I nipped out for a sandwich at Pret on Victoria Street, but did a detour to walk barefoot through Kazakhstan instead. It taught me much about many juxtapositions.

Gritty: You are a nice guy Nicey, but let’s face it: you're a bit posh. As Tony said during the Iraq war... 

Nicey: Yes Gritty you are Greggs to my Pret. We're chalk and cheese; that’s the secret of our success. Anyway… back to my time barefoot in Kazakhstan…

Over at the Lib Dem Podcast
Presenter: I collect nerdy facts about the Lib Dems. Fortunately many others like my nerdy Lib Dem facts so I am a big success. 
Council leader: We win elections decade in, decade out. We win big. Anyone can do it. We Focus till we drop. 
Presenter: I don’t wish to be indelicate, but I've seen better literature. But you certainly win big. 
Council leader: We are wokers and winners. I mean workers and winners. 
Presenter: Hang on I think I have heard that before… 
 And here'sthe Newsnight alumni podcast The News Agents
Ems: I am simply exasperated with Boris Johnson. What a wanker. Trump? He’s is a tosser too. Right? I mean, right? I did a celebrated interview with Prince Andrew you know. 
Other Newsnight escapee: Yes, yes Ems we know. (I thought I was going to be working with Chris Mason). 
And on and on ad infinitum, while I look for that cure...

Ruth Bright has been a Liberal Democrat councillor in Southwark and parliamentary candidate for Hampshire East.

Sunday, June 25, 2023

A walk round the village of Braunston

Braunston is famous as one of the centres of the canal system, but there's much to enjoy in the village itself.

We'll have to look inside All Saints church one day to see some wood carving by an unexpected hand.

The old windmill did teas in its garden last time we passed through on a family canal holiday, but as that was at least 52 years ago, I was prepared for things to have changed.

It was also at least 52 years ago that I suggested to my mother that Nibbit was a famous local rabbit after whom the had been named. 

South Shropshire Lib Dems choose Chris Naylor as their PPC

Chris Naylor will fight the South Shropshire constituency for the Liberal Democrats at the next general election.

He told the Shropshire Star:

"I'm delighted and honoured to be selected as South Shropshire's Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the Lib Dems here. I promise to do all I can for local residents.

"I want to build on the success of our previous Lib Dem MP here, Matthew Green - and win back this seat to give our residents, our rural issues, a stronger voice in Westminster.

"South Shropshire and our particular problems are sadly being taken for granted by this exhausted, infighting government. I want to champion our local needs - and especially our rural communities, our farms, our rivers - in Westminster and press for change.

"I also want faster ambulance response times and to save our community hospitals. I want more affordable housing, better public transport, and good-value shops in towns and in rural villages. And real encouragement for new businesses - including a better deal with Europe."

Chris Naylor, who lives in Church Stretton, was a Lib Dem councillor in Camden for eight years and was the cabinet member for housing for four of them.

South Shropshire has much the same boundaries as Ludlow, which Matthew Green held for the Lib Dems between 2001 and 2005.

When was Sunak kidnapped and replaced by an alien?

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Remember this?

Now, more than any time in our recent history, we will be judged by our capacity for compassion.

Our ability to come through this, won’t just be down to what government or business can do, but by the individual acts of kindness we show one another.

The small business who does everything they can not to lay off their staff.

The student who does a shop for their elderly neighbour.

The retired nurse who volunteers to cover some shifts in their local hospital.

When this is over, and it will be over, we want to look back at this moment and remember the many small acts of kindness done by us and to us.

We want to look back this time and remember how we thought first of others and acted with decency.

We want to look back on this time and remember how, in the face of a generation-defining moment, we undertook a collective national effort - and we stood together.

That was the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on 20 March 2020, ending a speech introducing further measures to support people, jobs and businesses during the Covid pandemic.

Commentators praised his delivery, and remarked that he had found the words we wanted to hear from our leaders at that worrying time. By contrast, it was noted, Boris Johnson, then the prime minister and supposedly a skilled orator, had failed to provide them.

If there ever was Rishi-mania, March 2020 is when you would have found it.

OK, so the words were written for him, but he did deliver them well. And he was a world away from the Sunak of today, who learns a short statement off pat and then repeats it whatever questions the journalists ask him.

He appears to have been media-trained to within an inch of his life. I am reminded of the England cricket team under the previous regime, when interviews with the players about about anything even slightly controversial took much the same form.

Or it may be that Sunak was kidnapped by aliens at some point after March 2020 and replaced with one of their own who has been engineered to look like him.

After his performance with Laura Kuenssberg this morning, I am leaning towards the latter explanation.

Sparks: The Girl is Crying in her Latte

So I thought I would watch some Glastonbury to see what music the young people enjoy. And who should I find there but Sparks, a band I loved when I saw them on Top of the Pops 49 years ago.

Those were the days of This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us and Amateur Hour. Russell Mael pranced about like an overgrown choirboy. while his brother Ron played a keyboard, looked sidelong at the camera and occasionally, terrifyingly, smiled.

Legend has it that John Lennon rang Ringo Starr to say: "You won’t believe what’s on television, Marc Bolan is playing a song with Adolf Hitler."

Forty-nine years on, Sparks still sound great. You can watch their whole Glastonbury set on the BBC website - Balls is a particular highlight.

Cate Blanchett, who is the dancer in this video, joins them on stage for The Girl is Crying in Her Latte.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Conservative councillor takes on people who object to small children's homes

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Hertfordshire County Council wants to cut costs and keep children in care closer to home. So it has plans to open 27 places in residential care by the end of the year. Fourteen of these are already up and running.

But, reports the Herfordshire Mercury, a councillor has:

pointed the finger at the ‘ridiculous objections’ that are made to proposals for new children’s homes in the county - such as fears relating to gangs, drugs and knives. 

That councillor is the Conservative Peter Hebden:

"There’s not a lot gets me angry in local politics, but this does," said Cllr Hebden, who said he had seen "the most ridiculous objections" to children’s care homes. Typically prospective children’s care homes are converted modern-day family style homes with room for just two, three or four residents.

And they go through the planning process, because of the change of planning use required. Cllr Hebden suggests there should be a way that they could be 'fast-tracked' - rather than going through what could be a ‘slow laborious process’.

And at the meeting he highlighted some of the issues that could be put forward by objectors. "They have these visions of feral rogue gangs of inner-city children roaming the streets with knives and selling drugs and breaking into cars and everything else," he said.

"Whereas it couldn’t be further from the truth. We all know these are children who just want to go to school and make friends and lead a normal life – the advantages that the rest of us have."

Cllr Hebden pointed to a response to a planned care home in his own Hatfield East division - suggesting it was not based on planning issues and not backed by evidence. And he said: "I think there is a big duty amongst us and our colleagues in districts and boroughs to put these daft gossiping and rumour-mongering to bed really."

The need to go through the planning process does seem excessive when the units involved are so small. A family with four children could buy one of these houses and we wouldn't expect residents to be invited to object to that.

So well done to Peter Hebden for taking on prejudice against children in care.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Rutland shows how keyworkers were housed in 1951

I've been to the canal centre of Braunston in Northamptonshire today by bus. I tried it last summer at the height of the driver shortage and had to abandon the attempt when one service was cancelled. Earlier this week I looked at the timetables again and found that Braunston now enjoys an hourly service from Northampton, so off I went.

It's a lovely village and, as there is really of historic narrow boats this weekend, there was even more to photograph than usual on the canal. I have good memories of Braunston more than 50 years ago and some family snaps to go with them, so they will probably turn up here too.

And I found a tin tabernacle and connections with two of my favourite writers, so there will be plenty to blog about.

But for today, let's return to Oakham and two pairs of substantial semi-detached houses I came across last Friday. As the badge shows, they were provided to officers in the Rutland force.

You get the feeling that constables were expected to be fat and jolly with lots of children in those days. I met one of the last of that breed when I took part in a (very good humoured) demonstration against opencast coal mining in what is now Andrew Bridgen country at the end of the last century.

He accompanied us on our march (it was more of a ramble, to be honest) and his advice before we set off was: "If you start any trouble, just run. I'll never catch you."

And when a local councillor was invited to say "a few words", he treated us to a loud aside: "If she does say a few words, it'll be the first time."

Now that's what I call community policing, though it was exceeded by the PC (a friend of our victorious candidate) who took it upon himself to ring Tony Greaves with the result of a local by-election because he had decided we were all too drunk from celebrating.

Thursday, June 22, 2023

The Joy of Six 1140

Julian Le Grand makes the case for universal basic capital: a £10k grant for every 18-year-old.

"Seventeen minutes in, after presenting evidence of an 'orchestrated campaign' against Corbyn, the narrator, Alexei Sayle asks: 'But if it was an orchestrated campaign, who was in the orchestra?' There follows a silent montage showing the Jewish Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, Labour Friends of Israel, and the Israel Advocacy Movement. As a professional film-maker I recognise this wordless presentation of a controversial idea not as an accident but as a technique: using captions and pictures to state what, if spoken aloud, could be accused of anti-Semitism." Paul Mason reviews The Big Lie, the controversial film that alleges a conspiracy against Jeremy Corbyn.

Lenore Skenazy on an American mother's bafflement at what to do when her young son made a new friend and brought him home: "Parenting has become such a landmine that instead of doing something hands-on and simple - like calling the other parent or walking the boy home - parents feel dicey about any interactions with kids who are not theirs." 

"The Geese and Fountain in Croxton Kerrial, Leicestershire has everything I love about a pub. A wonderful space with a beautiful beer garden. Delicious homecooked food with many ingredients sourced from right there in the village. Dog-friendly, family-friendly – the team is welcoming to all." Laura Hadland says Britain's pubs been help before it is too late.

Jack Hutchcraft visits Rage and Revolution, a Leicester exhibition on the punk movement, and talks to the people behind it.

"In 2021 four young English spinners - Dom Bess, Matt Parkinson, Mason Crane and Amar Virdi - were brought on the tour of India. Two and a half years later, Bess is the only member of the quartet to regularly command a first-team spot for their respective county sides in first-class cricket." The problems with English spin bowling go deeper than the wound in Moeen's finger, argues Yas Rana.

Clive Myrie and Have I Got News For You: Do BBC executives watch their own programmes?

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From the Independent:

BBC newsreader Clive Myrie was reportedly pulled from last Friday’s episode (16 June) of the News at Ten, after making jokes about Boris Johnson on the broadcaster’s comedy show Have I Got News For You, which aired the same evening.

The pre-recorded satirical comedy show, which sees Ian Hislop, Paul Merton and guests panellists poke fun at current affairs, was screened at 9pm on Friday, just one hour before Myrie was due to present the news.

Myrie, 58, was replaced at the very last minute by presenter Jane Hill, after Charlotte Moore, the corporation’s content chief, became concerned about potential impartiality accusations, according to The Times.

I can quite see that you wouldn't want the same person presenting consecutive programmes on a channel, particularly when those programmes have such different tones.

What I can't begin to see is why this was a last-minute decision, given that the conflict in tone was always there.

And even if BBC executives originally thought Myrie could present HIGNFY, they should have realised in the week running up to its recording that the show was bound to dominated by Boris Johnson's fall.

Which leads me to ask whether the BBC suits watch their own programmes.

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

John Major is not a Nigerian but a Victorian

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Simon Hoggart had a theory about John Major's way of speaking:

It was always my theory that John Major was a Nigerian who had learned English from the battered paperbacks he had borrowed at an up-country British Council library. Hence his curiously dated language, such as "fine words butter no parsnips".

But the latest edition of Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart's Leading podcast makes it clear that this is not the reason Major talks the way he does.

The true explanation is that John Major is a Victorian. or at least learnt many figures of speech from a Victorian. His father was born in 1879 and was 64 when Major was born.

In the presenters' discussion after the interview, Campbell suggests that Major's old-fashioned way of talking was one of the things that made him popular and that he owes it to his unusual background.

Monday, June 19, 2023

The Oakham Canal Green Corridor Project

After I posted about finding the Oakham Canal in the town, someone suggested I look at the Oakham Canal Green Corridor Project.

This aims to establish a two-and-a-half-mile walking route along the canal from Oakham to Oakham Enterprise Park, which occupies the site of what was HMP Ashwell and, before that, a second world war US Army camp.

The project's website tells you about the history and route of the canal as well as its plans. It also has a Facebook page.

As to the project's long-term vision, the website says:
We doubt that we will see canal boats once again making the passage from Melton to Oakham, but a footpath is definitely achievable.
The photo above shows the canal near Langham, still in water 176 years after closure. And below you can see the former canal warehouse at Market Overton wharf. 

Thousands of dead fish found in the River Soar at Leicester

There was a worrying story in the Leicester Mercury on Saturday:

Thousands of dead fish have been found in the River Soar this week, leaving the river's ecosystem in 'crisis', a environmental group has claimed. UOCEAN's Leicester branch has put out a warning over the long-term health of the River Soar, with oxygen levels plummeting as temperatures have risen in the past week.

According to the group, oxygen levels are now in the single digits, going down to seven per cent from the usual 40 per cent. The group, which has been working hard to remove tonnes of plastic waste from the River Soar over the past seven years, is disheartened at their findings, and suggests the long-term health of the river could be at risk.

Chris Desai , Global Project Director of the UOCEAN 2050 project established by The Vayyu Foundation, expressed deep concern over the findings: "The conditions we observed in the River Soar are truly distressing.

"The plummeting oxygen levels have resulted in devastating consequences for the local fish population. Moreover, the significant rise in plastic pollution exacerbates the situation, posing a long-term threat to the ecological health of the river."

The Mercury also quotes a Canal & River Trust statement on the national situation:

In summer, oxygen levels in the water normally reduce due to the increase in temperature, but the heavy storms experienced across the country have made things worse.

The storms have significantly reduced the oxygen levels, and exacerbated things further by causing silt-laden surface water run-off to enter the waterways, as well as overspills from water treatment plants.

But what are the water companies doing to reduce these overspills from 'water treatment plants', as they are now euphemistically called?

First schoolboy-in-a-skirt story of the summer sighted

Just as it's not winter until you 've seen a news story about a crap Christmas shopping park called something like 'Magical Winterland', so it's not summer until you have seen one about a boy going to school in a skirt as a protest against not being allowed to wear shorts.

That story has now appeared and it's in the Shropshire Star too - albeit behind what looks likely to turn into a paywall soon.

So well done to Oliver Heaton, whose mother told the Star:

"Several of his mates were given detention because they turned up on Wednesday in shorts but Oliver said it was unfair as the girls can wear either skirts or trousers.

"So, on Thursday he decided to go into school wearing a skirt he borrowed from a friend ...

"I know he is a bit of a character and very strong-headed but I am very proud of Oliver for making a stand."

And well done to the headteacher for a reasonable response:

"Our uniform policy is always reviewed through the proper channels and we are currently looking to add tailored shorts for secondary boys and girls in the summer term.

"We are doing this following some very eloquent and informed letters from students."

Sunday, June 18, 2023

The Joy of Six 1139

Josh Self praises Keir Starmer's role in the downfall of Boris Johnson. Was Captain Hindsight really Admiral Foresight?

"'It’s one more book - just throw it on the bonfire,' Spiegelman told me ruefully, suggesting the impulse to target books seems to have a built-in tendency to expand, sweeping in even his Pulitzer-winning Maus under absurd pretences." In Missouri, reports Greg Sargent, the American right's appetite for removing books from schools now threatens to consume Art Spiegelman's graphic novel about the Holocaust."

Liane Castle finds Ashford in Kent is mourning its lost links to Europe.

"If we have learned anything from the Johnson saga (and how long until someone offers him a show?) it is that reflecting people’s hopes back at them can make for great entertainment, but less often good politics - and rarely, if ever, effective government." Paul Goodman asks if GB News is helping British Conservatism.

The term 'borderline personality disorder' is misunderstood by almost everyone and needs to go, argues Peter Tyrer.

John Dempsey and Pat Nevin remember John Hollins, the former Chelsea player, coach and manager, who died last week: "People remember him especially for scoring important goals including one of the best I’ve ever seen, against Arsenal when he ran onto a long ball and hit the bar and then he had to turn around and smash it into the net. That was him all over really because he covered every inch of the pitch and he was so enthusiastic because he hated losing."

And, as a bonus, here is that goal.

A by-election in Somerton and Frome: puzzlement in Mid Bedfordshire

David Warburton, the MP for Somerton and Frome, has announced that he is to resign from the Commons.

He lost the Conservative whip over a year ago because of allegations of drug use and sexual harassment. The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards had already found that he received a £150,000 loan from a Russian businessman without declaring it.

In his resignation letter Warburton admits cocaine use - after drinking 'tons of incredibly potent' Japanese whisky - but denies the harassment allegations and paints himself as the victim in the whole affair.

Somerton and Frome was a Liberal Democrat seat, represented by David Heath, between 1997 and 2010, and the party has an impressive prospective candidate already in place in the shape of Sarah Dyke.

It will take lots of work to win here, but the swing needed is significantly less than the ones we have recorded in our three by-election gains in this parliament.

Meanwhile in Mid Bedfordshire, the Lib Dems are selecting their candidate this evening.

But Nadine Dorries may be cooling on the idea of resigning. She has said she won't do so until she finds out why she's not been given a peerage.

This reveals a sense of entitlement that undermines the 'woman of the people' image she promotes. And I can probably help her solve the ministry.

If Boris Johnson promises you something and that promise is not fulfilled, it is usually not necessary to look beyond Boris Johnson to find out why.

Legay: No-one

Who were the coolest band in Leicester in the late Sixties?

The consensus, I think, would be Family, but they had a rival in the shape of Legay, who later renamed themselves Gypsy.

I came across Legay in old newspapers because, like Jethro Tull, they played the Frolickin Kneecap in Market Harborough.

But Bryan Hemmings goes back a long way with the band:

Legay, later to become Gypsy, had that almost undefinable quality that most times makes the crucial difference. In a parallel universe, somewhere, things probably turned out a lot better for them. And I’m probably a successful novelist. In this universe none of us were quite so lucky. Sometimes, there are moments I feel it’s all my fault.

To my mind, they could have been one of the biggest bands in Britain. Looks, style and music, like David Bowie, they had virtually everything. All they lacked was that final, tiny bit of musical polish, and a really good producer.

Guitarist, vocalist, songwriter and founder of the band, Robin Pizer, was in my class at Syston Parochial Juniors. Apart from a small interlude, when I was committed to a school in Leicester, we attended the same schools for most of the rest of our school lives. 

Though we were never what you could call best of friends we communicated at times. We were probably also at the Infants’ school in Syston's High Street by Walker’s woodyard together.

Robin once got shamed in front of morning assembly with Billy Walker, who used to sit at the desk in front of mine. They were caught after throwing stones at a lamp outside St Peter and St Paul Church and breaking it. He was Jack the Lad personified. 

He told me his uncle was teaching him to play guitar when he was about ten. Was I jealous. Robin once dissected a stickleback in front of my eyes with a pen knife under the bridge at Syston brook, when we were nippers. He definitely made an impression, I was horrified.

We were in the same year Longslade Comprehensive School. Most of the rest of Gypsy went there too. The band was called Legay after their first drummer, Legay Rogers. Unfortunately, Legay died young. 

For a virtually unknown band outside Leicestershire, Legay had huge female following. Girls loved them. Even their roadies were sexy.

No-one, the track above, apparently reveals Legay in a more psychedelic mood than was usual for them. But it's easy to imagine it being a hit in 1969.

Robin Pizer is still around in Leicester and recorded a song about Richard III when the old boy was found in the city.

He wrote another about the Princes in the Tower, but that's a topic that merits a post of its own.

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Searching for the canal in Oakham

North of Leicester the River Soar is joined by the River Wreake. The Wreake used to be navigable as far as Melton Mowbray, where there was a basin beside the railway station. From there a canal ran to another basin close to the centre of Oakham.

The Queen Elizabeth Theatre of Oakham School is housed in an old warehouse that stood beside that basin. I managed to get a couple of photographs of it on Saturday, though the theatre is now surrounded by other school buildings.

That was five years ago. Today I was in Oakham again, hunting for the canal elsewhere in the town.

I found it among new housing south of the Burley Park Way bridge and out in the fields beyond it. By the bridge itself you find an explanatory panel and a milepost from further up the canal. There's not much water and what there is looks stagnant, but the canal is still there.

The Oakham Canal ran to Melton Mowbray - there was a large basin in front of the railway stations, which is hard to imagine now. From there, the River Wreake was navigable to to the Soar, which it joined a little to the north of Leicester.

As I said five years ago:

There has been talk of restoring navigation to Melton, which certainly looks possible. Getting all the way back to Oakham would be more of a challenge.

You can read about these two waterways' history and the prospects for restoration n the website of the Melton and Oakham Waterways Society.

Thursday, June 15, 2023

Noel Coward took over Gracie Fields's orphanage

Embed from Getty Images

Lord Bonkers isn't the only politician to have had an orphanage: both Mr Gladstone and my local hero Paddy Logan had one too.

Now I am discovering that showbiz celebrities had them too. I blogged the other day about Noel Coward and The Actors' Children's Orphanage and I've now found that someone has written a book about this:

Here is a 2020 article from the Ham & High:

A little known aspect of the great playwright is illuminated in a new book by Kentish Town actor and author Elliot James.

While researching an article on the Brief Encounter and Hayfever writer he uncovered letters and records for The Actors’ Orphanage, a home for the abandoned children of struggling thespians.

Coward took over as President in 1934 and over 22 years turned it from a harsh institution into a place of love and laughter, drafting famous actors onto the committee and visiting with stars like Marlene Dietrich and Mary Pickford.

"I’ve always been a Noel Coward aficionado but this part of his extraordinary life has been forgotten," says James, who has appeared in several Coward plays.

"Doing some research I came across a picture of Coward walking along with these children and realised no-one knew this story. I got huge boxes of paperwork, letters and discovered many of the orphans are still alive in their 80s and 90s. When I interviewed them they said 'no-one's ever asked us about this'."

And I've also found that in 1962 the trust that ran this orphanage took over a building at Peacehaven in Sussex that had housed the Gracie Fields Orphanage since 1933.

I wonder how many more such establishments there were?

The Joy of Six 1138

"Leicestershire is home to the Lib Dem’s safest and longest-run council Oadby & Wigston (some might say best run too). After widespread gains in May the party achieved a safe hold in O & W, also in Hinckley & Bosworth, flipped the status of Harborough and Rutland (which we now lead), entered into an NOC coalition in NW Leicestershire and left the Tories hanging by a thread in ultra-marginal Blaby." Matthew Pennell celebrates our successes in East Anglia and the Midlands.

Laura Thompson backs the campaign for union recognition at Amazon's Coventry depot.

Nurbek Bekmurzaev says Kazakhstan is still haunted by Soviet-era political repression and famine.

"Today, rather than pay a playworker’s salary (however ludicrously small that is), local councils are probably more likely to use their resources to pay for expensive fixed devices on soft-surfaced ground. These are obviously great risk-free fun for your lively five-year-old, but totally dull for a twelve-year-old." Ben Highmore on the rise and fall of adventure playgrounds.

"Each possessing a cosmopolitan collection of friends and drawing lifelong inspiration from the devastation of the entire continent that they witnessed first-hand during service in the Second World War, Heath and Ustinov shared a passionate commitment to Europe." Tom Chidwick reveals an unexpected friendship.

Bus and Train User manages to catch the West Ealing to West Ruislip 'ghost bus': "I was greeted by a smiling driver who seemed a bit surprised to see me explaining it was her first time driving this route and she wasn’t entirely sure where she was going."