Saturday, September 30, 2023

The Shropshire Star has a new owner

This blog's favourite newspaper, the Shropshire Star, has a new owner:

The Shropshire Star and Express and Star have been sold to a new publisher, it has been announced.

The two titles, which have a combined physical circulation of 23,000 and previously run by the family-owned Claverley Group, have been acquired by National World.

The purchase will increase National World's daily sales by about 40%.

Phil Inman, CEO of Claverley Group, said selling was an "extremely difficult decision".

National World currently owns the Yorkshire Post and The Scotsman, and in the West Midlands owns titles including the Rugby Advertiser and Leamington Courier.

There's little enough good news for local and regional newspapers these days, but the Yorkshire Post is notable for its independence and its willingness to criticise the Conservative government.

Much as I love the Shropshire Star, if it starts to reflect a similar spirit, that will be a change for the better.

Ready Teddy Go! The intrepid bears of Market Harborough

There was exciting news on Harborough FM yesterday:

Teddy bears will be taking the plunge from the top of Market Harborough’s St Dionysius Church tomorrow!

The teddy zip-line challenge is on from midday until 4pm, as part of an event to raise money for the Market Harborough C of E Primary Academy.

Youngsters are invited to take their teddies along to give them the dare-devil experience.

So that's what I saw going on in town earlier this afternoon - in an earlier life, I was a governor at that school.

I should emphasise that every bear I saw risk the wire landed safely.

Friday, September 29, 2023

Michael Gambon, Janet Suzman. Kenneth Trodd and others on The Singing Detective

The death of Michael Gambon sent me off searching for clips from The Singing Detective. There aren't many around, but I did find this British Film Institute discussion on the series.

As the YouTube blurb explains:
The Singing Detective (1986) is Dennis Potter’s best-known and most highly regarded work. The show’s stars Michael Gambon and Janet Suzman join producer Kenith Trodd, director Jon Amiel and writer Peter Bowker to remember making the series and working with Potter.

Panel chaired by broadcaster Samira Ahmed.

The former Black Boy pub in Leicester is to be redeveloped with a touch of facadism

Over the years this blog has followed the fate of The Black Boy in Leicester, a closed pub in Leicester where I was once known to drink.

Today a BBC News report suggests that all the campaign to 'save' the striking building from the 1920s has managed is that a bit of facadism will be thrown in when the site is redeveloped to built a five-storey block of flats:

Plans to tear down a 1920s pub so flats can be built on the site have been recommended for approval.

The Black Boy pub in Albion Street, Leicester, has been closed since 2012.

An application has been submitted to build 26 studio flats and 12 one-bed apartments on the site, retaining just the facades of the former public house.

Despite the officers' recommendation for acceptance, the report quotes them as finding it 'disappointing' that the scheme did not preserve more of the building:

They described facadism as a 'superficial approach to building conservation that does not conserve the building as a three-dimensional piece of architecture and involves the loss of the integrity of the heritage asset and substantial harm to its significance'.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Matthew Sweet on conspiracy theorists and the media

This new edition of Michael Goldfarb's FRDH ('The First Rough Draft of History') podcast is well worth listening to.

Matthew Sweet explains how knowledge is intentionally corrupted by conspiracy friendly media and why people embrace these ideas.

Talking of Dr Sweet, this is a chance for me to recommend his book Inventing the Victorians, which shares my view that the Victorians were a lot less Victorian than we imagine.

The Joy of Six 1165

"For at least a generation, the Aliyev regime in Baku has lied to its citizens, claiming that Armenian Christians, who have lived in Karabakh for centuries, are invaders - alien, subhuman, a cancer. Wherever it has had a chance, the Baku regime has destroyed Armenian churches and gravesites to erase evidence of Armenians’ indigeneity to the territory." Mark Movsesian explains the background to current events in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Prem Sikka says the collapse of Wilko shows why we need to reform insolvency laws: "In the previous decade, around £77m in dividends was paid out. Directors extracted dividends and chose not to repair the pension scheme. The stark reality for employees is that after years of making full contributions to the pension scheme, they will lose some of their pension rights because as unsecured creditors they will receive little from the sale of Wilko’s assets."

Kate Summers et al. find that anti-welfare attitudes among the public have fallen sharply since 2010.

"Big Bill Broonzy was the person who made me want to play the guitar in the first place. Play it, as I thought, properly. I could never get my tonsils around the singing but I could do a pretty good Big Bill Broonzy imitation on the guitar." Tradfolk interviews Martin Carthy with the help of celebrity folk fans and former collaborators.

Nearly Knowledgeable on the 'Nine Men of Madeley' - nine men and boys who died in a Shropshire coal-mining accident in 1864.

"One important detail to remember is that 'Allo 'Allo! was originally conceived as a parody of the BBC wartime drama Secret Army (1977-79). Written by Colditz creator Gerald Glaister, Secret Army, which ran for three series, was a ruthlessly serious drama centred around a stronghold of the Resistance operating out of a Belgian café. As much as it derived its humour from the war itself, 'Allo 'Allo! was also lampooning the tropes of serious BBC drama. In fact, many of 'Allo 'Allo!’s archetypes - the covert beret-sporting female Resistance member, the kind Nazi, the bosomy waitress - are based on Glaister’s original characters" Andrew Male speaks up for 'Allo 'Allo (though he says it only once).

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

The wonderful Lynton & Barnstaple Railway

This is a tremendous video by Rediscovering Lost Railways that blends archive and contemporary footage. It shows us the 19-mile Lynton & Barnstaple Railway under operation and what remains of the route today, including a short restored stretch.

I dream that the whole line will be restored one day by the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway Trust. It was closed by the Southern Railway in 1935.

A few points:

  • I once posted my photo of Barnstaple Town station standing derelict in 1962.
  • The prime mover in the building of the line was Sir George Newnes, who was Liberal MP for Newmarket between 1885 and 1895, and for Swansea between 1900 and the first election of 1910.
  • The publishing company that Newnes founded brought out most of Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine stories.
  • Bratton Fleming, which also had a station on the line, was the scene of the service of thanksgiving for the acquittal of Jeremy Thorpe.

How the Lib Dems are choosing their targets for the next election

Embed from Getty Images

Peter Walker in the Guardian has more details of the Liberal Democrats' plans to 'use the by-election playbook across the Blue Wall' - see my Liberator article on For a Fair Deal.

He writes:

The Lib Dems’ approach is, at its heart, to worry much less about winning votes and focus entirely on winning seats. If you are a Lib Dem candidate and your constituency is not on the target list? Basically, you’re on your own.

Walker presents this as a reaction to the disappointment of the 2019 election, though that had its roots in Jo Swinson's team believing some wildly optimistic opinion polling that suggested some unlikely seats were within the Lib Dems' grasp. It wasn't caused by a lack of central control.

This time we shall be ruthlessly targeting of a limited number of seats. These are not new tactics, but it has always been a strain to stick to them in the heat of a general election, when deep down every candidate thinks they are in with a chance.

Anyway, this is Walker's account of how the party is preparing for the next election - McCobb is the Hull councillor Dave McCobb, our election co-ordinator:

Every three months, the 50 Lib Dem activists members who have recorded the most voter interactions over that period join a call with McCobb, Lib Dem president, Mark Pack, and others to update them on how the messages are landing.

While the Lib Dems are targeting a handful of Labour-held seats, the preponderance of contests with Tory candidates means policies and priorities are heavily based on tempting over former Conservative voters who have grown weary of the party’s dramas.

This means a relentless national focus on issues such as sewage, the NHS and the cost of living, with more traditional Lib Dem fare such as electoral reform still in the draft manifesto but relegated to a lower 'tier' and barely discussed.

All of this is then directed at identifying seats where enough disillusioned Tories and tactically-voting Labour supporters can be tempted to the Lib Dem side. ...

The list is not fixed. It is determined by a mix of polling and a metric based largely on legwork. The overall aim is, as one official put it, to give voters the impression of “winning momentum”.

If we are targeting a handful of Labour seats, I suspect it's a very small handful, but I like the idea that you can canvass your way into the party's higher counsels.

Walker ends by asking how well the party can expect to do come the election. I suspect he gets it about right:

There is, however, one thing no one will talk about, even privately: how many seats it could secure. The broad view seems to be that fewer than 30 would be regarded as a huge disappointment; more than 40 a triumph.

Thirty would double the party’s current tally. More than 40 would be approaching the glory days of 2005 and 2010. Will it happen? No one really knows. But if it does not, it will not be for want of effort.

Bake Off: Shropshire's Nicky into next round even after her chocolate beaver fails to impress

UNIMPRESSED: Prue Leith    

    As it does so often, the Shropshire Star wins our Headline of the Day Award.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Demolition work at Naseby Square, Market Harborough

Thirteen bungalows are being demolished at Naseby Square in Market Harborough so that new 'affordable' homes can be built on the site.

I happened past this afternoon and took these photos.

Harborough FM reports:

The occupants were first informed of the plan when they received a letter out-of-the-blue and have since been re-housed by housing association Platform Housing Group, which is carrying out the £7.5m re-development.

A major campaign against the plan followed, with hundreds signing petitions against it.

Marion Duffy, Chief Operations officer at Platform Housing Group confirmed residents rehoused will be given the opportunity to return and says relations with other residents in the area are now good.


Write a guest post for Liberal England

The new political season is here. If there's something you want to say, remember that I enjoy publishing guest posts here on Liberal England. So if you've got an idea for a post you could write for this blog, drop me a line

As you can see from the list below, I accept posts on subjects far beyond the Liberal Democrats and British politics.

I'm happy to entertain a wide variety of views, but I'd hate you to spend your time writing something I really wouldn't want to publish. So do please get in touch first.

These are the last 10 guest posts on Liberal England:

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Waddling across the Oakham road and pulling faces at the motorists

I'm pleased to see that Ruttie remains in rude health, and it wouldn't be a visit it to Bonkers Hall without the Well-Behaved Orphans. And so another week with Rutland's most celebrated fictional peer draws to a close.


Who should I spy on the lawn at breakfast but my old friend Ruttie, the Rutland Water Monster? Between you and me, I think she is getting jealous of all the attention being paid to Loch Ness. The next thing we know, she’ll be waddling across the Oakham road and pulling faces at the motorists to get in the papers herself. 

Later I call at my Home for Well-Behaved Orphans as they are having a film show. The little inmates have voted amongst themselves to decide the main feature and chosen The Colditz Story.

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

Earlier this week....

Monday, September 25, 2023

Night of the Lepus and Any Questions? in the Seventies

These days I can't stand such programmes, but when I first became interested in politics as a young teenager I listened avidly to Any Questions? on BBC Radio 4.

So a few random memories of some of the more regular panellists in those days.

Richard Marsh had been a trade union official and a youthful member of Harold Wilson's cabinet in the Sixties, but by the time I heard him he was gratingly pro-business - full of talk of "UK Ltd" and the like. It was no surprise when he endorsed Margaret Thatcher in 1978 and received a peerage in return,

Ann Mallalieu was a young Labour-supporting barrister with a lovely deep voice. She received a peerage in 1991 and returned to prominence in the media as a supporter of fox hunting when Blair's government set about banning it.

Russell Braddon was an Australian writer who had made his name with The Naked Island, an account of the war in the Pacific and his years as a prisoner of the Japanese. I remember him as purveying right-wing views in an overly emotional voice.

Arianna Stassinopoulos - billed as a former president of the Cambridge Union - was never off the programme, though some wags claimed she was so dull that you fell asleep halfway through her name.

Michael Clayton, "editor of Horse and Hound", was another permanent fixture. He was on the panel when they broadcast the programme from my school and he later moved to the area. It turns out that, until the early Seventies, Clayton had been a BBC foreign correspondent and had also reported on the Fischer vs Spassky match in Reykjavik.

Fast forward a few years (which seemed like a couple of lifetimes while I had to live through them) and I'm a student at York. In fact, I'm at the Derwent Horrors - a long evening of horror films put on from time to time by Derwent College.

On the bill that night was Rabid, an early David Cronenberg film. But I remember another offering from the evening because it was so bad. In Night of the Lepus, an American family is menaced by giant killer rabbits that have escaped from a secure facility after an experiment gone wrong.

Because the film's premise was so ludicrous, and because the family had a particularly annoying child, we took to cheering the rabbits whenever they appeared.

And what ties all these memories together? It's that Night of the Lepus was based on a novel called The Year of the Angry Rabbit, which had been written by Any Questions? stalwart Russell Braddon.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: "Call them Orkney and Shetland"

When I tweeted a picture of a couple of my Liberal Party membership cards from the 1980s, something about the map on them attracted the attention of the President of the Liberal Democrats. 

He commented in reply: 

I'm not sure @amcarmichaelMP  would approve of his constituency being left off :)

Which got me thinking...


I first met Jo Grimond during the 1950 general election campaign. He proved a charming companion, and as we made inroads into a bottle of Auld Johnston, that most prized of Highland malts, he laid out his plans to me. 

“Britain needs a strong Liberal Party, yet it’s practically impossible to get elected in our colours these days. So I’ve decided to invent a constituency and just turn up at Westminster after the election with all the new MPs. I’ve dreamt up two groups of islands off the North coast of Scotland - call them Orkney and Shetland - as I don’t suppose anyone at Westminster will have been sea bathing at Thurso. Besides, my father fagged for the Serjeant at Arms, so there won’t be any awkward questions.” 

And his plan worked better than I had imagined possible. Over the years he got rather carried away with inventing new features in his constituency – ancient stone circles, a Viking cathedral, a Nissan hut turned into a gem of a chapel by an Italian prisoner of war – but no one smelled a rat. 

When the time came for Grimond to stand down, we agreed that the scheme was too clever to be allowed to die, so first Jim Wallace and then Alistair Carmichael were let into the secret. 

From time to time, I come across maps in our party’s policy documents or on membership cards that leave off Shetland or even Orkney, and have to make urgent phone calls to get them made consistent with our story. 

I say, it’s a good thing there’s a lock on this diary!

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

Earlier this week....

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Sighcology: Davids Garnett, Lloyd George, Lawrence, Copperfield, Rook and Bronstein

Here's my column ('Sighcology') from the Summer issue of the Journal of Critical Psychology, Counselling and Psychotherapy.

The theme of the issue was 'David', and these are the thoughts I came up with.

Davids Garnett, Lloyd George, Lawrence, Copperfield, Rook and Bronstein

There’s a law that whenever you submit a piece of academic writing you immediately come across something you wish you had known about and been able to include. I recently published a chapter on Dickens and antisemitism that drew parallels between Oliver Twist and the local cults of unofficial boy saints, supposedly the victims of ritual killings by Jews, that flourished in the Middle Ages. Just after sending it off, I learnt that – shockingly – a textbook used in British schools until the 1980s stated that the blood libel was true in the case of the most famous of these ‘saints’, Little St Hugh of Lincoln.

Many years before, I completed a Masters dissertation on the romances of the 19th-century writer Richard Jefferies. One of these, Bevis: The Story of a Boy, was published in 1882 as a three-volume novel for adults but was gradually supplied with the apparatus that allowed it to be sold as a children’s classic. In the 1930s it acquired illustrations by E.H. Shepard:  the map on the endpapers had been drawn back in 1904 by an 11-year-old David Garnett.

I was reading Bevis as the adult novel it had once been, noting how Jefferies was aware that the freedom to play and wander it celebrated existed only because his young heroes were the sons of farmers rather than agricultural labourers. So I wish I had happened upon Lucy Masterman’s biography of her husband Charles Masterman. He was the minister who piloted David Lloyd George’s Health Insurance Act through the Commons in the teeth of opposition from the Conservatives and the medical profession.

Lucy Masterman remembers a stay with Lloyd George and his family:

"If we kept the law about trespassing when we were children … we should have nowhere to play but a dusty strip of grass by the high road." I never remember during all our visit passing a 'trespassers will be prosecuted' notice without him remarking “I hate that sort of thing.”

Yes, children’s freedom is an intensely political subject. The best summation of the debate is in Victor Watson’s Reading Series Fiction, where he discusses the children’s ‘camping and tramping’ fiction Bevis helped to inspire:

The rural background to all those friendly and welcoming fictional farmers was, in reality, one of economic and social stagnation in which farmers had to supplement their incomes in any way they could. When farmers began to prosper and agriculture became intensive, an entire genre of children’s fiction was effectively wiped out by Common Market farming subsidies. And at about the same time the Beeching cuts closed down the branch lines that had taken so many fictional children by steam to their favourite holiday destinations.


Is D.H. Lawrence – that’s David Herbert Richards Lawrence – much read these days? Back in the Seventies, when we were taught by teachers who had been trained by people who had studied under F.R. Leavis, he was a fixture in the curriculum.

Not only did I study The Rainbow for A level, I kept a second-hand selection of his literary criticism by me as a charm or for inspiration. I don’t know if it included anything from Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, but there you will find his most famous critical principle:

Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.

And Lawrence is right. The idea that the artist’s intention inhabits a work like a thin ghost is mistaken, as is the belief that it is this intention that gives the work its meaning. But then the idea that any work of art has just one meaning is wrong too. That’s a belief you see reflected in everyday criticism of popular music, where if a song can be seen to be about drugs or about sex then that becomes its real meaning and all other mere disguise

The truth is that works of art that remain of interest to us are the ones that reveal new meanings as the world changes around them. If you have just one thing to say, you don’t write a poem or produce a sculpture, you write a memo or put it on a coffee mug.


The adult David Copperfield can be a bit of a cold fish, so let’s quote George Orwell’s praise for Dickens’s depiction of him as a child:

No one, at any rate no English writer, has written better about childhood than Dickens. In spite of all the knowledge that has accumulated since, in spite of the fact that children are now comparatively sanely treated, no novelist has shown the same power of entering into the child's point of view. I must have been about nine years old when I first read David Copperfield. The mental atmosphere of the opening chapters was so immediately intelligible to me that I vaguely imagined they had been written by a child.


The novelist and illustrator David Rook has disappeared from view. There is no Wikipedia entry for him and the website of a dealer who sometimes has his artwork suggests that Rook is still alive. In fact, he died in a car crash 1970 at the age of 35.

Rook’s eclipse is surprising, because he specialised in the sort of nature stories that find a loyal following. Not only that: one of his Exmoor novels was filmed as Run Wild, Run Free in 1967 and a second as The Belstone Fox after his death. And the Disney film The Hound and the Fox sounds as though it owes more to that second novel (The Ballad of the Belstone Fox) than to the one it was officially adapting.

Rook gets a mention here because Run Wild, Run Free, which was based on his novel The White Colt, is about a boy whom we would now probably place somewhere on the autism spectrum. And the film is a firm believer in the ‘iceberg mother’ theory of the condition’s genesis.

That’s the thing about the Sixities: if there was a child with difficulties, it was always Sylvia Syms’s fault.


David Bronstein drew a match for the world chess championship in 1951, but under the rules the reigning champion, his fellow Soviet Mikhail Botvinnik, kept the title. Bronstein remained one of the greats of the game for another three decades.

The story is told that Bronstein once spent more than 30 minutes over his opening move in a tournament game. The audience thought: “This is wonderful. The maestro is working out a whole new opening scheme at the board.” But when one of his fellow grandmasters asked what he’d been thinking about all that time, he replied: “I was trying to remember where I’d left my hotel keys.”

The Ukranian-born Bronstein fell foul of the authorities when he declined to sign a round robin condemning the defection of the leading Soviet player Viktor Korchnoi. His own father had been sent to the Gulag because of an official belief, right or wrong, that he was related to Trotsky. There were also rumours that Bronstein had been put under pressure not to win his match against the model Soviet citizen Botvinnik.

But maybe he had already had his revenge. There is a story I have always believed, but am struggling to prove, that he named his son Lev. This made his full name Lev Davidovich Bronstein.

The Guy Hamper Trio featuring James Taylor: Cowboys are Square

Billy Childish (born Steven John Hamper) is a British  painter, author, poet, photographer, film maker, singer and guitarist. He co-founder the art movement Stuckism, a rebellion against the dominance of conceptual art and postmodernism, and was in a relationship with Tracey Emin for much of the Eighties. Presumably he made the bed.

The Guy Hamper Trio is one of a long line of groups to feature Childish. It's an instrumental trio that features guest musicians, and on Cowboys are Square it is the Hammond organ player James Taylor (not that James Taylor).

I love the Hammond sound here. You can imagine you're listening to a young Stevie Winwood at the Twisted Wheel.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: "You didn't argue with Violent"

One of the many things that surprises me about Lord Bonkers is the friendship he once enjoyed with the notorious London gang boss Violent Bonham Carter. I suspect their relationship was rather like the wary respect he has today for the Elves of Rockingham Forest: "One doesn't want to be turned into a frog, what?"


A researcher arrives at the Hall to quiz me about Violent Bonham Carter and the days when criminal gangs ran London. We cover the familiar ground of the murder of Jack 'The Hat' McVitie (heir to the biscuit fortune), the many jewel robberies 'up the Garden' and the kidnapping of Dame Anna Neagle. 

Taking a shine to the young fellow, I let slip something that is not, I believe, generally known: those explosions in the Fifties that the authorities blamed on Isle of Wight Separatists were really the work of Violent's gang, concerned that other firms were "getting lairy". 

The researcher concludes by asking me a thoroughly modern question: what gender was Violent? I picture Violent in twin-set and pearls with three days' stubble hiding the razor scars and say firmly: "You didn’t argue with Violent. Violent Bonham Carter was whatever gender Violent Bonham Carter said Violent Bonham Carter was."

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

Earlier this week....

Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Joy of Six 1164

"Neil Oliver and his pals see themselves as radical, romantic revolutionaries, but they are really nothing more than a dismal combination of David Icke and Liz Truss. They have nothing useful to say. Please don’t indulge them." Chris Deerin on the online stars of the conspirasphere.

Andrew Rawnsley says Theresa May's memoirs leave no stone unturned, except when it comes to her own failings.

"Our national record on infrastructure and amenities since 2010 has been consistently awful. After getting back onto a growth path from 2011 onwards we could’ve taken advantage of rock bottom interest rates to borrow and invest in public sector infrastructure but we chose not to. Treasury officials would’ve known there was a window of opportunity, but decided to sit on their hands." It's not just our schools that are crumbling, reveals Matthew Pennell.

Sam Freedman offers lessons from the slow-motion collapse of our criminal justice system.

James B. Meigs argues that government underestimates the sense and resilience of the general public when faced with a disaster: "Disaster literature bulges with examples - from Hurricane Katrina, to the 2011 Japan tsunami, to the current coronavirus pandemic - in which officials suppressed information, or passed along misinformation, out of concern over an unruly populace."

"For my money, the best thing about the movie is the women. They’re memorable, multifaceted, and utterly mesmerising." Shadows and Satin celebrates the Ealing Studios drama It Always Rains on Sunday.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: A Norman Lamb dhansak with naan bread

At least Freddie and Fiona don't have a new job this time, so they're a little less like Julian and Sandy.


Dinner with Freddie and Fiona. I arrive at their top-floor flat to find they have no cook, nor even a kitchen. Instead, I am handed a bundle of menus that encompasses every cuisine you can imagine (though I note there is no Rutland takeaway in this fashionable quarter of London – do I sniff a business opportunity?)

I make my choice – a Norman Lamb dhansak with naan bread – and then my hosts telephone the restaurant to arrange its delivery by fast bicycle. “A lot of older people are bringing orders these days,” says Freddie, and it does indeed take a little longer for my meal to arrive than I would wish. “There’s no way we can give you more than three stars,” Fiona tells the courier, who is grey haired and, it has to be said, rather grey in the face. 

Something about him seems familiar, and then I remember: he was a Liberal Democrat MP in Cornwall before the debacle of 2015. As he leaves, I slip him the number of the Home for Distressed Canvassers in Herne Bay, where a number of his former colleagues are seeing out their days in comfort.

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

Earlier this week....

Friday, September 22, 2023

Tunes of Glory (1960): What happens when a victorious regiment comes home?

This post was written for Terence Towles Canote's 10th Annual Rule, Britannia Blogathon, where you will find plenty more articles on British cinema.

What is the most successful piece of casting against type in a British film? 

There’s Richard Attenborough’s turn as a bull of a Sergeant Major in Guns at Batasi. There’s James Fox as Chas in Performance, whose hooded eyes and half-smile haunt British gangster films to this day.

And there’s another candidate. How about Alec Guinness playing a hard-drinking officer in a Scottish regiment - red hair and all - who has been promoted from the ranks?

It may sound ridiculous, but you need only watch the trailer above to see that it’s not. In fact, Guinness’s performance as Major Jock Sinclair in Tunes of Glory reminds us what a peerless actor he was.

This post contains spoilers, but there's good news. You can watch the film on YouTube first if you wish (just don’t tell them I sent you).

Directed by Ronald Neame, Tunes of Glory is set in the barracks of a Scottish regiment just after the end of the second world war.

Though Jock Sinclair, in his own words, has led the regiment "from Dover to Berlin", he is still just a Major. He holds a brevet rank as Lieutenant Colonel, but as Wikipedia explains, brevet ranks are given as a reward but do not necessarily confer the authority and privileges of that higher rank.

We first see Sinclair holding court at the end of a regimental dinner - there are pipers and oceans of whisky. He has news: the regiment is getting a new colonel and it’s not him. It is to be Lieutenant Colonel Basil Barrow, who is played by John Mills.

The Wikipedia entry on Tunes of Glory has an admirable plot summary, so I’ll let it take up the tale for a little:

Colonel Barrow arrives a day early and finds the officers dancing rowdily. He declines sharing a whisky with Sinclair, taking a soft drink instead. They exchange histories. Sinclair enlisted as bandsman in Glasgow and rose through the ranks, Barrow came from Oxford University. He served with the battalion in 1933. Assigned to "special duties", he has lectured at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Sinclair humorously notes that he was in Barlinnie Prison's cooler for being drunk and disorderly one night in 1933. 

When Sinclair presses Barrow about his war years, he replies that he, too, was "in jail". Sinclair recalls that Barrow was a prisoner of the Japanese and belittles the experience - "officers' privileges and amateur dramatics". Barrow simply replies that Barlinnie would have been preferable.

At 3 am Sinclair is drinking with Major Scott, played by Dennis Price, and we hear his outburst to him: "I've acted Colonel, I should be Colonel, and by God... I bloody well will be Colonel!"

Barrow proves to be a martinet and is not prepared to cut the battle-weary regiment any slack. He takes particular exception to the rowdy style of Highland dancing they favour, and orders all the officers to take lessons so they dance they way he wants them to when he holds a cocktail party for the local gentry.

This reminds me that, in a recent episode of The Rest of Politics, Alastair Campbell was surprised to learn that Rory Stewart had dancing lessons when he held a gap-year commission in the Black Watch at the start of the 1990s.

Anyway, the dancing after the party gets rowdy despite Barrow’s efforts and, red faced and furious, he breaks up proceedings before fleeing in shame at his own behaviour. He knows that the bulk of his officers feel a loyalty to Sinclair that they do not feel to him, and the evening can only have made things worse. To the modern viewer, it seems obvious from this and from the collection of tics and twitches Mills deploys, that he is suffering post-traumatic stress from his wartime experiences.

I sometimes struggle to understand the esteem in which John Mills was held as an actor in Britain - he had an unfortunate habit of being cast in roles for which he was visibly too old - but he is good in Tunes of Glory. Particularly so, as his character is less immediately appealing than Alec Guinness’s and does not allow for the same bravura acting.

The clash between these two flawed characters has an almost Shakespearian heft. As the retired US Marine Corps infantry officer and historian Reed Bonadonna observes, it’s tempting to say that each has the qualities the other lacks – “Sinclair is a warrior and leader of men, but he’s hopeless as an organiser and disciplinarian.”

He goes on:

Despite their obvious differences, the two leads are similar in the sense that both are essentially lonely and unfulfilled. Both have been married but are now on their own. Sinclair has a grown daughter with whom he has a loving but somewhat distant relationship. Both are burdened by their memories of the war.

Barrow spent years in harsh and unproductive captivity. Sinclair suspects that his best days are over, and even that his wartime success was a fluke. They also share a keen sense of the burden and isolation of command. There is the hint of Othello in Tunes of Glory, with Barrow as the Moor and Sinclair as his Iago.

And it is Sinclair’s relationship with his daughter that brings things to a head. Unknown to Sinclair, but known to many others in the barracks, she has been going out with one of the regiment’s pipers. When he finally comes across them together, he strikes the corporal.

This is a clear court-martial offence and Barrow is first minded to bring charges against him. But he is put under pressure by almost everyone to deal with the matter himself. He goes to see Sinclair, who promises that he will be supportive in future if Barrow shows him leniency.

Against his better judgement, he decides against a court martial, only to find that Sinclair does not change at all. He still gives him no support and continues to drink with his 'babies', as he calls the  officers loyal to him. Humiliated, Barrow leaves them, goes upstairs and shoots himself.

Ironically, it is in his reaction to Barrow’s suicide that we see the best of Sinclair. His command of the situation and concern for the young soldier who found the body make us see why he was a good leader in battle and inspired respect and even affection in the men under him.

To assuage his guilt - "it’s not his body I fear, it’s his ghost," he says to himself at one point - he plans a grandiose funeral for Barrow. As he describes it to the other officers we hear the pipe band playing the 'tunes of glory', but it becomes clear to them that he has lost his reason and the room empties.

"Oh my babies, take me home," Sinclair pleads to Scott and another officer, and as he is driven away, the film ends. With one protagonist dead and the other driven mad, Tunes of Glory, it occurs to me, has unexpected parallels with Performance.

The supporting cast here is uniformly excellent. Dennis Price’s Major Scott is a typically disengaged Price character. We wonder if he is just a sardonic observer of the tragedy, or if he is the real Iago, encouraging Sinclair and Barrow to destroy one another so he can become Colonel amid the wreckage?

Gordon Jackson plays Captain Jimmy Cairns, the other officer who is there with Sinclair at the end. Yet he has also been Barrow’s right-hand man as he struggles to reform the regiment. Jackson always did have the knack of playing good men who were not dull, which is a rare gift. Certainly, the villains in British films of the Fifties are often surprising dark and alluring, whereas the heroes are just wet - compare Dirk Bogarde and Jimmy Hanley in The Blue Lamp.

Many of the other officers are played - and well played - by familiar faces: Gerald Harper, Paul Whitsun-Jones, Allan Cuthbertson (who you will recognise him from gourmet night at Fawlty Towers, if nowhere else). The Pipe Major is Duncan Macrae, who appeared in every film about Scotland made after the war and was always a welcome presence.

Sinclair’s daughter Morag is played by Susannah York in her first film role. Liberal Democrat readers may be interested to know that York was at RADA with our own Flick Rea. Trivia fans will be interested that Flick told me that a young man from Liverpool shared their classes for two terms but did not make the grade. So he returned North to the family business, to re-emerge a few years later as the manager of the Beatles.

Tunes of Glory is an exceptionally good film. As another American military writer, Jim Shufelt, says:

This is not a 'war movie', but Tunes of Glory features an intense portrayal of leadership, discipline and reintegration issues common to soldiers and units of any conflict, army, or time period.

He goes on to suggest that watching it could form part of current-day officers’ professional development.

This is not a surprise: the screenplay is by James Kennaway, adapted from his own novel of the same name. Kennaway himself held a commission in a Scottish regiment while doing his National Service. He was invited by the Colonel to apply for a permanent commission, but declined, in part because of the tensions between his fellow officers.

Tunes of Glory was on a list of 10 British films that should be better known I posted recently. Maybe you’ll find another there to enjoy?

Shropshire Council: We've voted to borrow £95m by mistake

The saga of the Conservatives' proposed North West relief road for Shrewsbury has taken a farcical turn:

From BBC News:

Councillors voted to back £95m of extra borrowing, after the figure was accidentally included by mistake in a report over a planned bypass.

The figure featured in a report on the North West Relief Road linking northern and western Shrewsbury.

A finance director said he had been "confused" when the figure was mentioned in the council debate.

Shropshire Council said the £95m figure that made its way into the report was not a true estimate.

It had raised concern over whether the true cost of the scheme had more than doubled from £87m to £182m.

The report later says:

Liberal Democrat councillor and transport campaigner Rob Wilson said he had been asking in vain for an updated cost estimate since he was elected in 2021.

He said: "Today at council the Conservatives proposed taking out a £95m loan to make up an unspecified funding gap.

"I asked why they would need £95m for an £87m road and was not given an answer."

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Have a Go with Thérèse Coffey

Have a Go was a radio quiz hosted by Wilfred Pickles that attracted 20 million listeners a week. I don't remember it, but I was surprised to find that I might have done, as it ran from 1946 to 1967. What I do remember is Round the Horne making fun of it - or at least I read that sketch in a book of scripts I was given for Christmas round about 1973. As I have said before, the problem with this column is not that Lord Bonkers is getting too old but that I am getting too old.

Gove Island, I understand, is a television programme enjoyed by the young people.


It's time someone did something about the Gibb brothers. First there was Robbie Gibb, a bigwig at the BBC who has been using his role there to further Conservative interests at every turn. It is he who is responsible for the replacement of Gary Lineker as host of Match of the Day by Jacob Rees-Mogg and for such programmes as Have a Go with Thérèse Coffey and Gove Island. 

Now another Gibb has surfaced: Nick Gibb, who it appears has been building schools out of an inferior sort of concrete. It won’t affect us here, as I had the village school built with best Hornsey featherstone, but it’s causing no end of a problem up and down the country, with taller pupils having to take it in turns to hold up the roof. 

The only thing I will say in defence of the Gibb brothers is that their music for Saturday Night Fever was very good. Perhaps you know it? ‘Night fever rumtpy-tum Night fever’ – that’s how it goes.

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

Earlier this week....

Thursday, September 21, 2023

GUEST POST Many liberal Conservatives are becoming conservative Liberals

Buddy Anderson
 traces his path from Conservative voter to Liberal Democrat councillor - and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Market Harborough at that.

       One flew east, one flew west,
       One flew over the Conservatives nest.

Like many who perhaps now find themselves more like conservative Liberals, I once was a liberal Conservative - a title that David Cameron had imposed upon himself even before his bromance with Nick Clegg. 

Something resonated with me back then at that idea. Labour had supposedly spent all our money, and everybody was jolly fed up. 

Along came the new 21st-century Tories who apparently didn’t hate poor people and were going to balance the books for us. What joy!

Fast forward 13 years and my friends on the left will cry "same old Tories!" at every opportunity they get. I don’t agree with that, because it wasn’t always this bad. There used to be Tories you could work with, as the Coalition proved for better or for worse. 

Boris Johnson and the Brexit civil war purged almost every Tory with a shred of decency out of the party. Liz Truss tortured the survivors. 

So where are the liberal Conservatives now? Well, many, like me, have found a new home in the Liberal Democrats.

When I joined the Lib Dems I was sheepish about my previous voting record. I was never a Conservative Party member, but I was worried about how my new friends would react. 

To my surprise they barely battered an eyelid. The Lib Dems are truly a broad church, a middle-ground for the politically homeless, and not just for disillusioned blue voters. 

Some of my colleagues used to be Red - too sensible to vote for Corbyn, too progressive to vote for Starmer. We don’t care where you came from, what matters is why you are here. I have never felt more at home.

To those of you who voted for a party you no longer recognise, you were not wrong to follow your heart at the time, but you are very much welcome in the Lib Dems. 

We do not agree on everything, but we are compassionate and pragmatic, with a shared disgust for selfish career politicians. 

Liberty, freedom and equality are at the forefront of our social policy. But we also understand responsible fiscal policy, as the only party to have a full-costed manifesto in 2019.

Take it from me, there is a home to be made in the house of yellow.

Buddy Anderson is a Liberal Democrat councillor in Market Harborough. Follow him on Twitter.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: The outside risk of drowning

As I have been writing this column since before most of my readers were born, it seems allowable to repeat an old joke from time to time. Besides, the Rutland partridge is an important part of the county's upland fauna. Its numbers are believed to be kept in check by the descendants of escapees from the safari park that Lord Bonkers ran for many years until its sudden closure. ("I still maintain that those nuns were the authors of their own misfortune.")


The Glorious Twelfth? I don’t find it glorious at all. Shooting grouse is like shooting fish in a barrel, only without the outside risk of drowning. Give me instead the open moors of my native county and our own Rutland partridge. Fire on that doughty bird and it will take cover and fire back. Now that’s what I call good sport!

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

Earlier this week....

Poo of endangered species ‘could help fight against diabetic ulcers’

Let's face it: the Independent isn't what it was. But it's still managed to win our Headline of the Day Award.

The judges add that they have long been reading about the potential of phages in fighting infections, so they are pleased to see a practical application of them.

Me? I think we used to write 'pooh' rather than 'poo'.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Norman Bowler as Wooly the rabbit in Wizbit

Time for a dive down one of this blog's rabbit holes: Norman Bowler, man about Soho in the 1950s and later a star of Softly Softly: Task Force and Emmerdale.

Wizbit was children's programme, screened in 1985, that starred and was partly devised by Paul Daniels. I don't remember it, but Nostalgia Central does:

This BBC children’s television show featured an alien magician called Wizbit and a large rabbit called Wooly, and followed their adventures in Puzzleopolis – a town inhabited by walking, talking (and often singing) sponge-balls, dice, magic wands, playing cards and 8-foot-tall rabbits (all magician’s props).

Wizbit’s year-and-a-day mission was to find out all about Earth, and the show made an attempt to be semi-educational.

The puzzles which Wizbit had to solve were also presented to the viewing audience at home, with the solutions revealed towards the end of the episode.

And in the very first episode - and only in the very first episode - says IMDb, Wooly the rabbit was played by Norman Bowler.

You can see Wooly the rabbit in the clip above. I let it run on because it's so weird. It must have given some children nightmares.

Wooly doesn't sound much like Norman Bowler - he doesn't have a Wiltshire accent, for instance - but it's quite possible for one actor to be inside a giant costume and and another to provide its voice.

That what happened in Gophers!, which is a programme I remember, but no one else seems to.

Thanks to Laura Sparling on Twitter.

Policing minister is member of anti-ULEZ Facebook group that celebrates vandalism

Embed from Getty Images

An extraordinary story from Inside Croydon:

The Tory Government’s policing minister, Chris Philp, the MP for Croydon South, is a member of a social media group in which criminal acts, damage and vandalism to public property are celebrated on a near-daily basis.

Philp, a member of the King’s Privy Council for the past year, has confirmed that he has failed to post anything on the private Facebook page to condemn the criminality and, when 'he was contacted about his membership of 'Croydon say no to ULEZ expansion”, he could only offer as an excuse: "I cannot be held responsible for what other people post on Facebook groups which I do not administer."

Which is a bit awkward for Philp’s colleagues in Croydon Conservatives. The group admin for 'Croydon say no to ULEZ expansion; is Croydon’s Tory Mayor, Jason Perry.

Read the full report on Inside Croydon, which says the group publicises the criminal damage inflicted on cameras and other infrastructure installed for the Ultra Low Emission Zone.

Lord Bonkers' Diary: Their eyes hollow from think-tank reports and self-abuse

No sooner does Lord Bonkers divine a social problem than be proposes a solution. Here, that solution is characteristically robust. So welcome to another week with the old boy.

'Scrobbled', it turns out, was coined by John Masefield in his The Midnight Folk. It's well known from his later book The Box of Delights, but I had wondered if it was older than that. The word has a Scandinavian flavour.


I find myself increasingly worried about right-wing comment journalists, who can only be described as unhappy, unskilled and unmoored. Flabby chested public-school types to a man, their eyes hollow from think-tank reports and self-abuse, what they need is fresh air, exercise and some good, old fashioned hard work. 

As we can supply all three of these here on my estate, I have determined to act. With the help of Freddie and Fiona, I have drawn up a list of recruits for my ‘Great Rutland National Service’. 

The next step is to have them scrobbled as they leave their favourite fashionable restaurants and brought here in an unmarked charabanc. I have no doubt that a regime of farm work, unarmed combat and cold showers will make them happy and skilled in no time. 

As to being moored, I shall ensure that they are securely tied up at night.

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

A new edition of Nikolaus Pevsner's The Leaves of Southwell

The excellent Five Leaves Books of Nottingham - you'll find their shop in an alley near the Council House - have brought out a new edition of Nikolaus Pevsner's The Leaves of Southwell.

Gillian Darley, who contributed an introduction, writes in the London Review of Books:

Pevsner, whose name is inescapably attached to the Buildings of England, seems to have begun work on this little volume very soon after he was released from internment and had begun to pick up the pieces of academic life in Britain. Although published in 1945, it was probably written in 1942.

The text is a celebration of the naturalistic carvings of Southwell Minster, the work of itinerant craftsmen, whose subtle stylistic differences Pevsner happily puzzles over: ‘The individual craftsman,’ he writes, ‘must have had a considerable amount of personal liberty.’

Read the whole piece to learn how David Attenborough was involved with the original 1945 edition.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

My article on For a Fair Deal in the Conference issue of Liberator

The new issue of Liberator has been posted on the magazine's website in time for the Liberal Democrat Conference. It's issue 419 (September 2023) and you can download it for free.

I'll start posting Lord Bonkers' Diary here tomorrow, but first here's my article from this Liberator on For a Fair Deal, the policy document being presented to conference.

No Place Like Home Counties

“We want to use the by-election playbook across the Blue Wall,’ says one Lib Dem insider, encouraged by the party’s victories in Chesham, North Shropshire, Tiverton and Somerton.”

I don’t know how many ‘Lib Dem insiders’ there are, but they seem to spend most of their time in conversation with journalists. This one was talking to James Heale, who wrote about our plans for the general election in the Spectator:

The Lib Dems’ focus has been on early selections of respected community figures, raising their profile and finding a local twist on national issues: the NHS, cost of living and sewage. They are targeting the 34 seats in the south-east where they finished second to the Conservatives in 2019. Seats with a Tory majority of 2,000 or less were asked to find a candidate at the earliest opportunity to enable ‘an 18-month by-election’. There have been savvy selections in places such as Wimbledon and Winchester, where the local vet was chosen. New seats offer new opportunities too. In the freshly created constituency of Harpenden and Berkhamsted, the Lib Dem candidate has been bombarded by invitations to events by constituents who mistakenly believe she is the sitting MP.

And when you are fighting a by-election what you want in the policy field is a few appealing bullet points for your leaflets and nothing that will upset the voters you are targeting if they happen to find out about it. It’s best to keep this background in mind when reading For a Fair Deal, the overall policy paper being presented to the autumn conference of the Liberal Democrats in Bournemouth. 

Turn to the early chapters on the economy and on business and jobs, and you will find commitments to invest in infrastructure, innovation and skills. It also promises a ‘proper, one-off windfall tax on the super-profits of oil and gas producers and traders’ and action on the various loopholes that allow the very wealthy to pay tax at a lower rate than the rest of us.

Perks of the rich

All this is good in that it recognises that it is not wicked for governments to tax and spend – and the need for more capital spending on school and hospitals has become more apparent even since For a Fair Deal was published. In taking aim at the perks of the rich, it chooses the right target and one that will chime with the widespread anger at the approach of the current government, but you will search in vain for mention of a wealth tax or an attempt to square the circle of advocating economic growth at a time of environmental.

You will find a mention of Europe in these chapters in a pledge to:

Unlock British businesses’ global potential by bringing down trade barriers and building stronger future relationships with our closest trading partners, including by starting to fix the Conservatives’ botched deal with Europe following the four-step roadmap as set out in chapter 21.

This is a little like Private Eye’s ‘continued on page 94’ as chapter 21 or ‘International’ is For a Fair Deal’s final chapter and the one where you feel a commitment to give children an hour’s teaching a week in Esperanto would be hidden if conference voted it through. Yet it’s where we find what should be at the heart of those early chapters:

We are determined to repair the damage that the Conservatives’ deal with Europe has done to the economy, especially farmers, fishers and small businesses. … Finally, once the ties of trust have been restored, we would aim to place the UK-EU relationship on a more formal and stable footing by seeking to join the Single Market.

Because there is no sensible policy on economic growth that does not involve lifting the sanctions we imposed on ourselves by leaving the Single Market, and that is true whatever position you took on Brexit. This is why Labour should be talking about rejoining it and why even intelligent Leavers – those who really do want to ‘make Brexit work’ – should support this policy too. (The unintelligent Leavers want Brexit to fail so they can announce that have been betrayed and wallow in self-pity.)

Interviewed on Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart’s second podcast Leading at the start of the month, Ed Davey declined to say that the Liberal Democrats wanted to see Britain back in the European Union. He was happy to talk about our instinctive internationalism, but that was as far as he would go. He dwelt on the need to develop a language that would take people with us, which is something, it is true, the official Leave campaign spectacularly failed to do in the EU referendum campaign. Above all, he did not want to return to the divisive politics of those days.

Yet it’s hard to see how an issue like Brexit can ever stop being divisive. The 1975 referendum on whether Britain should remain a member of the European Economic Community was won by more than two votes to one, but it did not reconcile the losers to Britain’s increasing involvement with European institutions. No one would argue that the 2016 referendum campaign was good for British politics – Labour activists going to by-elections now have to be told not to insult any Conservative voters they came across – but the case for rejoining the Single Market has to be made and the debate has to be won. As sensible Conservatives has learnt to their cost, if you try to buy off the Brexit ultras they simply bank your concessions and come back for more.

This determination to avoid being ‘divisive’ may well have one eye on the general good of British politics, but the other is firmly on those 34 seats in the South East of England. Because I’ve heard that word ‘divisive’ somewhere else recently – when Munira Wilson, the party’s education spokesperson, talked to the education magazine Schools Week:

These days, Wilson … is sceptical that grammar schools help with social mobility, believing entry is “a case of who can afford to coach their children to go”.

While it would be “divisive” to close existing grammar schools, she “wouldn’t necessarily” create new ones.

Evading the Leopard

I will admit to nostalgia for the days when the products of council grammar schools outshone academically the products of expensive private schools, but that was in an era when those private school had not yet noticed there was no longer an Empire to man and so continued to prize an ability to evade the school leopard above book learning. Once they caught up with the modern world – and it took only two or three decades – money began to tell and we soon learnt that what was really divisive was selection at 11 and the private/public divide.

Munira Wilson did talk about making private schools work harder to justify their charitable status, but none of that has made its way into For a Fair Deal. So instead let me quote the former Conservative education minister George Walden on why that divide damages us all:

In no other European country do the moneyed and professional classes  – lawyers, surgeons, businessmen, accountants, diplomats, newspaper and TV editors, judges, directors, archbishops, air chief marshals, senior academics, Tory ministers, artists, authors, top civil servants  – in addition to the statistically insignificant but eye-catching cohort of aristocracy and royalty, reject the system of education used by the overwhelming majority pretty well out of hand, as an inferior product.

In no modern democracy except Britain is tribalism in education so entrenched that the two main political parties send their children to different schools.

There are some sensible reforms suggested in this chapter, though no sign of our previous view that schools were too dominated by testing and Ofsted inspections. You can see why Schools Week got the impression that we have rather lost interest in education.

Reflecting Ed Davey’s interests, the chapters on climate change and energy, and those on health and care, are among the most convincing. Climate change is ‘the biggest threat to human existence’ and we ‘urgently need to limit temperature rises to 1.5°C or we will face irreversible change’ – no worries about being divisive there. And these statements are accompanied by a series of strong policies, including:

  • Cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2045.
  • Invest significantly in renewable power so that 80% of the UK’s electricity is generated from renewables by 2030.
  • Provide free retrofits for low-income homes and generous tax incentives for other households to reduce energy consumption, emissions, fuel bills and reliance on gas, and help to end fuel poverty
  • Plant at least 60 million trees a year to help reach net zero and restore woodland habitats, and increase the use of sustainable wood in construction.

The chapter on care emphasises the importance of social care and the crisis in which it currently finds itself. Strikingly, it calls for free personal care to be introduced, ‘based on the model introduced by the Liberal Democrats in government in Scotland in 2002’. In the health chapter, we call for patients to have the right to see their GP within seven days or within 24 hours if it is urgent and recognise that to make this a reality we will have to recruit and train more doctors. The seven-day wait would not so long ago have been seen as unacceptable, but this is where this Conservative government has left us.

It doesn’t do to be churlish. If the policies laid out in For A Fair Deal were enacted, Britain would be a better place, but reading it has left me with two unanswered questions. Are the Liberal Democrats in any sense a radical party? And if they are, is it possible to build such a party on the votes of comfortably off residents of the Home Counties?

Jonathan Calder is a member of the Liberator Collective.